HL Deb 04 June 1924 vol 57 cc872-82

Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee read.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Arnold.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly:

[The EARL OF DONOUGHMORE in the Chair.]

Clause 1.

Extension of powers of Pacific Cable Board.

1.—(1) The Pacific Cable Board may, subject to the approval of each of the Govern- ments represented on the Board, undertake as agents for and at the expense of the Governments of any parts of His Majesty's Dominions any work in connection with telegraphic communication, whether by means of cables or by means of wireless telegraphy, without any restriction as to the geographical limit of their operations:

Provided that the accounts of any work so undertaken shall be kept separate and distinct, from all other accounts of the Board.

(2) Any work undertaken by the Board as agents for His Majesty's Government before the commencement of this Act in connection with any trans-atlantic cable worked by that Government shall be deemed to have been within the powers of the Board.

(3) The Board, in the event of its undertaking work in connection with telegraphic communication in the West Indies, shall have power to provide and supply to the West Indies a news service similar to the news service supplied by telegraph companies at the commencement of this Act.

LORD BANBURY OF SOUTHAM had an. Amendment on the Paper to omit from subsection (1) the words "without any restriction as to the geographical limit of their operations" and to insert "in the West Indian Islands and British Guiana". The noble Lord said: The Bill as it stands confers great powers upon the Government. It enables them to make cables or wireless communications all over the world, and I think I shall be able to show your Lordships later on that that is an unnecessary and dangerous power to grant to the Government. On the Second Reading of the Bill Lord Arnold said: It is not at present contemplated, however, that the Board should be asked to undertake any other work than cable and wireless communications in the West Indies. The Amendment that I have put down is designed to carry into effect the wishes of the Government, but since I put that Amendment down Lord Arnold has been good enough to see me upon the matter, and he has suggested that my Amendment does not go quite far enough. I asked Lord Arnold if he could tell me what Amendment would go far enough, and he gave me these words instead of those in my Amendment: within their existing sphere of operations in the Pacific and Caribbean areas. With the leave of the House I would alter my Amendment, in order to bring it into conformity with the wishes of the Government on that particular point.

I am very much obliged, if he will allow me to say so, to Lord Arnold for the courtesy which he has shown in discussing the matter with me. I do not wish to convey to your Lordships the impression that the Government intend to accept my Amendment even though it is drafted in their own words. I am not quite certain what it is they are going to do, because Lord Arnold has told me that if he accepts my Amendment it will be necessary that this Bill should be returned to another place and he is afraid there might be some difficulty and delay in consequence. He has very kindly offered to give me an assurance that the Government do not intend to go beyond the Amendment which I have just outlined to your Lordships. However, I venture to say that an assurance in this House, given by the Government in perfect good faith, though it might bind the present Government, could not be held to bind any succeeding Governments. We do not know how long the present Government is going to last, and I dare say our views as to the desirability of its length of life are somewhat different, but I think it is quite certain that any pledge given by this Government, or by any Government which is in power for the moment, could not bind a succeeding Government. Therefore, if we desire to ensure what I hope I shall be able to prove is necessary, we must have this Amendment in the Bill.

For myself I do not think that there is likely to be any delay in another place. I do not suppose that supporters of the Conservative Party in another place would oppose an Amendment coming from this side of the House, and as the Amendment carries out what the Government desires I feel certain that the supporters of the Government in another place would not oppose it. I am almost inclined to say that if I was in another place I could get this through in a very few moments. But even if there is likely to be a little delay, I might call your Lordships' attention to subsection (2) of Clause 1 in the Bill which says— Any work undertaken by the Board as agents for His Majesty's Government before the commencement of this Act in connection with any trans-atlantic cable worked by that Government shall be deemed to have been within the powers of the Board. I do not think that is a good provision; whitewashing of that sort is not good. But if the clause is passed in the form in which it appears in the Bill the Government need not be afraid of any little delay that might occur.

I have not been able quite accurately to discover the whole amount of capital invested in cable and wireless communications by private companies, but I shall be under-stating the amount if I say that it is about £30,000,000. Is it advisable to put a clause like this in a Bill which would enable a Government to start in competition all over the world with existing private companies? Suppose that an undertaking is given that they will not do it without coming again to Parliament, is not the fact that a clause of that sort is in a Bill which has been sanctioned by Parliament likely to stop private enterprise and to discourage the further development of cable and wireless communications in the world by private enterprise?

Lord Arnold was good enough to say that he would give me the undertaking that no Government should extend their operations beyond what I am prepared to give them without coming to Parliament. But may I point out to your Lordships what would happen if this Bill, without my Amendment, became law? The Bill gives sanction to the Government to make cable or wireless communications anywhere all over the world, and all that would be necessary would be to get the money. As Lord Arnold pointed out to me, nothing could be done unless money was obtained. Money would have to be obtained by Parliament. Yes, but by one House of Parliament only. All that would be necessary if this Bill became an Act would be, not for this Government, of course, if they give the undertaking, but another Government to put down a Vote in Supply authorising the expenditure of a certain sum on a cable—in competition with private enterprise very likely—and your Lordships would have nothing to say to it. It is a Vote in Supply, and this House would be debarred from expressing its opinion on what, I think, is an important matter. If your Lordships pass the Amendment that I suggest, you do not debar the Government from doing what they are desirous of doing at the present moment, but you do reserve in your own hands the power of saying, should they desire to do anything further later on, that they must bring in a Bill. That Bill would come before this House as well as the other House. I shall be glad to answer any questions if I have not put the matter clearly. In the meantime I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 1, line 12, leave out from ("telegraphy") to the end of line 13, and insert ("within their existing sphere of operations in the Pacific and Caribbean areas").—(Lord Banbury of Southam.)


The noble Lord, on the Second Reading of this Bill last week, raised this point, and I ventured respectfully to point out to him that he had read into the Bill a good deal more than was there. As a matter of fact, he has done precisely the same thing this afternoon. On the Second Reading he told your Lordships that the Bill gave power to lay cables against private companies, to instal wireless stations against private companies, and so forth, and he has told you the same thing to-day. But that is not so. The Bill does not empower the Government to lay a single yard of cable or to put up a single mast for wireless stations. All that the Bill does is to allow the Pacific Cable Board to work any cable or system at the request of any Government of His Majesty's Dominions. In view of the conversations I have had with the noble Lord, who was good enough to give me time to put the position before him, I have great hopes that he will not press this Amendment, particularly having regard to the pledge which I am prepared to give, and which, I think, is sufficient to allay any reasonable, or I might add any unreasonable, apprehension on this matter. I am prepared to go a long way in order to meet the noble Lord.

At the same time, I am most strongly opposed to the insertion of an actual Amendment, owing to the fact that the passage of this Bill is urgently needed. Any Amendment whatever, however harmless or innocent, does involve considerable delay. The Bill would have to go back to another place and, having regard to the position of business, delay is inevitable. I have said that it is desirable that the Bill should be passed at the earliest possible moment, and I will tell your Lordships why. There are many essential preliminaries to be got through before the cable can be open for the traffic in the autumn. A staff must be engaged, agreements as to traffic must be made with other cable authorities, rates must be settled in the agreement with the Government or with the other cable authorities concerned. All these things take a long time to arrange and negotiate, as your Lordships will appreciate, and the Board cannot deal with them until Parliament gives it power to do so by passing this Bill. The present arrangement comes to an end in September, so that time is pressing. I submit that in the circumstances it is only reasonable to ask the noble Lord to be satisfied with a pledge instead of an Amendment. I was so hopeful of his doing so—unfortunately, this is a world in which human expectations are frequently falsified—that I did not to-day, owing to great pressure of work, see him with regard to a slight change in the words of the Amendment, not a change which will alter the sense but which would be better in an Act of Parliament.

The definite pledge which I am prepared to give is this: That the Pacific Cable Board will not use the powers under this Bill to operate any cable or wireless telegraph system outside the present area of the Board's operations and outside the Caribbean area without coming to Parliament on the subject. I maintain that that pledge is sufficient to meet any apprehensions which may be entertained. It would mean that the Pacific Cable Board would not, without coming to Parliament, go outside its present area of operations in the Pacific and outside the Caribbean area. As the noble Lord has been good enough to say that if this were inserted in the form of an Amendment he would accept it, I do not think I need take up your time in order to explain why these precise words have been adopted. At the present time there is a project for putting up a wireless station at Montserrat, which is within the area of the West Indies. It, would link up with that system and would be worked by the Pacific Cable Board. I am sure your Lordships will not think it necessary in the case of a small change of that kind to come to Parliament for a new Bill, Unless the undertaking is worded in this way—or the Amendment if it came to an Amendment—strictly speaking, it would be necessary to come to Parliament again.

I want to deal with the extremely interesting point referred to by the noble Lord as to what might happen in Supply. As your Lordships are aware, before any new cable of any size could be constructed or any new wireless telegraph system put up by the Government, it would he necessary to proceed by way of a Money Resolution in another place as precedent to a Bill. The noble Lord's apprehension appears to be that a small Estimate of this kind might be slipped through in Supply. I do not think that is so, except in regard to a very small sum. Any operation of any magnitude would necessitate a Money Resolution followed by a Bill. But if that is not so, if the noble Lord is right, I submit that there is no conflict as between that procedure and this Bill. I do not think there is any substance in the point. I do not think it could be done except in connection with some very small amount. It might be done under the Post Office Estimate, but you could not put an amount of any real magnitude. For any considerable scheme you would have to proceed in the ordinary way by a Money Resolution and a Bill, which means coming to Parliament again. In any case, if it was done in an Estimate for Supply it means that the subject is open for debate in another place. I submit that the noble Lord has ample protection there.

The present arrangement comes to an end in September, and there is a great deal of work to be done before then—work which will take a long time. If there is delay, if this Bill has to go back because of a perfectly innocent Amendment, which in normal circumstances we should have no objection to accepting, there may be considerable delay. Then there is a grave risk of the failure of telegraphic communication with the West Indies, with all the resulting dislocation of business, and of administration, quite apart from private matters. Therefore, I ask the noble Lord not to press his Amendment. If he does I ask the House to support the Government in resisting it.

Let me put this point. I think the Government, and the officials who have all these various matters to arrange, are entitled to some consideration because of circumstances for which they are not responsible. This Bill ought to have been introduced last autumn. It is the Bill of the late Government, and no time has been lost by the present Government in connection with it. It has been pressed forward as fast as possible. In these circumstances I think the Government is entitled to support. The pledge, as I have given it, is specific and ample. It will not only bind the present Government, but it will bind future Governments. Even if it did not bind future Governments there are other safeguards in the procedure which would have to be followed. In all the circumstances, I feel compelled to resist this Amendment as strongly as I can. I would ask the noble Lord to accept the pledge as an alternative, but, if he will not do so, and presses the Amendment to a Division, we shall feel compelled to resist it, for the reasons which I have put before your Lordships' House.


May I point out that I think the noble Lord is wrong in his description of that which will take place in Supply? A Vote in Supply has to be confirmed by an Act of Parliament. But here is the Act. Under this Bill you have power to do certain things, and all you want is the money. Consequently, if this Bill becomes an Act, all that will be required is a Vote in Supply which has already been confirmed by the Bill which you are considering to-day and which will become an Act. The noble Lord has quite frankly said that this is an innocent Amendment, and that he would be prepared to accept it if it were not that he thought that a little time would be lost. This is, in some ways, perhaps, a minor question, but it is too big a thing to reject merely because you might lose a little time in sending the Bill back to another place. In those circumstances, if I can get any one to tell with me, I am afraid that I must press the Amendment to a Division.


It is a very familiar difficulty with which the noble Lord has presented us. He is requesting your Lordships' House to legislate under duress. Of the merits of this Bill I have, of course, no doubt whatever. The noble Lord, the Under-Secretary, has said with truth that this is a Bill of the late Government, and I have no doubt of its general merits. Of the specific necessity of having better arrangements in respect of the West Indies I have personal knowledge, for I have been there and know what complaints are made, and I am sure that the noble Lord, the Under-Secretary, will not think that I wish in any way to depreciate the importance and value of this Bill.

The point is a very small one. It is whether your Lordships are to put in an Amendment which is admittedly a good Amendment—not only my noble friend who moved it but the Government also have said that they think it a good Amendment—or whether we should be content with a Parliamentary understanding, given with all proper solemnity by the representative of the Government. I confess that I should be very reluctant indeed to advise your Lordships to take any course which would really imperil this Bill, because I know its importance, but I do think that it is taking very strong measures to say to a House of Parliament: "This is a good Amendment, but we ask you not to put it in because the result would be that the Bill would go back to another place." If that contention were put forward, let us say, towards the end of July, then I am very familiar with the observations that would be made. Your Lordships are generally very generous in abandoning your rights towards the end of July in the interests of the country. But surely it is rather a strong proceeding to use that argument at the beginning of June. It really is a strong measure to come to your Lordships and say: "This is a good Amendment, but at the beginning of June there is a risk that the Bill will not pass into law if you insert it."

I cannot advise your Lordships to withhold your judgment in this matter when there is an enormous amount of time before the Session comes to an end. The Government have told us that the actual moment when the existing system lapses is in September. No doubt there is a great deal to be done before September, but there is a very large margin of time. I cannot say that I think it would be proper for your Lordships not to pass an Amendment (which is admittedly a good one) on the plea put forward by the Government. I hope that the noble Lord will not think that I doubt for a moment his good faith in the assurance that he gives to the House that the Government would act upon the Amendment even if it were not inserted. But the remarks of my noble friend behind me are perfectly true. This Government cannot bind a future Government, and understandings are awkward things which often lead to recriminations later. All sorts of misunderstandings arise as to the exact meaning of pledges given. Although they may be given in perfect good faith, yet difficulties arise afterwards. It is better, if you possibly can, to have your arrangements in the form of an Act of Parliament. I am afraid that I cannot take any other view than that which I have ventured to put to your Lordships.


May I ask the noble Lord opposite whether there is to be a Royal Commission to-morrow, and, if not, what possible harm there can be in this matter being left over Whitsuntide? I have not heard that there will be a Royal Commission to-morrow. In that case there will be none until June 24 or afterwards, and there will be plenty of time for the House of Commons to deal with this Amendment.


To reply, first, to the noble Lord, Lord Emmott, who has just spoken, I think it is only fair to point out that, even if this Bill went back to another place as soon as it could, there is no guarantee whatever that the business which has to be done and all the matters which have to be considered there would allow it to pass speedily. The Amendment might be the subject of debate and an opportunity might have to be found for it. The noble Lord is well aware of what that means, and what difficulties it often causes the Government. I certainly could not give any pledge that this Bill would come back here speedily. It might not return for weeks if it went down to another place.

I endeavoured to prove that this Amendment is not really required even without the pledge. If I may say so with respect, there is really very little substance in the noble Lord's contention, because I still maintain that practically every other project would have to come before Parliament one way or another, and. could then be discussed on its merits before there was any question of the Pacific Cable Board coming in to perform work other than that which I have outlined or outside the sphere of their existing operations. The noble Marquess has indicated that he does not see his way to support the Government. He suggests that there is ample time—a large margin of time. I can assure him that that is not the case. There is a very great deal to be done. The matter is most urgent, and if this Bill is to go back to another place it is possible that the most serious dislocation to the telegraphic system in that part of the world may be occasioned. There is only one other remark which I think I need add, and that is that, if it should be the case that this Amendment is carried against the Government, the noble Lord will, I know, understand that it is subject to the actual wording being amended on Report, that being a matter which it was not necessary to determine precisely to-day.

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

Clause 1, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 2 agreed to.