HL Deb 15 October 1946 vol 143 cc204-15

2.35 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Third Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(Lord Pakenham.)


My Lords, I hope that before the Bill is completed in this House we may have some further light from the Leader of the House, or from His Majesty's Government, as to what is proposed for the future organization. There are really two sides to the question. The first is that of our own domestic organization in this country. What is to take the place of the present Cable and Wireless Company? I need not trouble your Lordships by going through the arguments which more than one noble Lord put forward on the Second Reading against the handing over of this Company to the Post Office. We on these Benches are very strongly opposed to that. I hope that His Majesty's Government have been impressed by these arguments, and that we may have some assurance to-day that the course to be followed will be to set up a corporation similar to the corporations which are being set up in all the Dominions except New Zealand (which, I believe, is different in that respect), and that it will not be handed over to the Post Office. I think that to hand it over to the Post Office would make difficulties not only with the Commonwealth organization, but in regard to cable ends and various other rights in foreign countries. There are many arguments. As I said, I will not repeat them, but I hope that before this stage is concluded we may have some information on that point and some assurance that a corporation will be set up. That is, indeed, what we very strongly urge from this side.

The other point is the Commonwealth organization which is to be set up. We are now to have a Commonwealth Communications Council with, I am glad to see, my noble friend Lord Reith as its Chairman. That has been announced and I am sure there can be no more suitable appointment. The service he has already rendered in this matter is very great indeed, and nothing could have given us greater pleasure than to see him selected by all the Dominions and by this country for that purpose. We shall be glad to know what will be the powers, the duties, and the whole set-up of this Commonwealth Council. I understand that unanimous recommendations were made at the Commonwealth Conference last year. Is there any reason, even if the whole of the Report cannot be published, why the recommendations of the Commonwealth Conference cannot be made public? I do not think there would be any objection to that in the Dominions, and it would help us very much in making up our minds as to whether the proposed organization is satisfactory or not. I hope, therefore, that on both the domestic side and on the Commonwealth side, before this Bill passes this stage, we may have a statement from His Majesty's Government.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for the great assistance which he and his colleagues have given to the passage of the Bill, and we are extremely appreciative of it. As your Lordships are well aware, this Bill marks only the first necessary steps in the setting up of the new scheme of arrangements. I may say that the agreement which was appended to the Report of the Commonwealth Communications Council will be published quite shortly—I think, as a matter of fact, as soon as this Bill has received the Royal Assent; at all events, quite shortly. As the noble Lord is aware, the Dominions, whilst completely unanimous in the report for which the noble Lord, Lord Reith, was largely responsible, differed regarding their internal arrangements. Canada and South Africa have one set-up, New Zealand have a different set-up, and Australia will have another not quite the same. So, in that respect, they are not of the same pattern, but that fact in no way derogates from the necessity of giving, in good faith, complete effect to the recommendations of the Committee over which the noble Lord presided.

I would join with the noble Lord opposite in his appreciation of our debt to Lord Reith for his services, and in welcoming the fact that everybody wanted him to be Chairman. That is a great tribute to his diplomacy quite apart from his personal ability. As to the future set-up, I note what the noble Lord says and I know that his view is shared by others. At the same time, I am afraid I am not in a position to-day to make any definite statement. There are all manner of considerations to be taken into account, but we are actively considering the new set-up. I am afraid I cannot make any announcement as to its character, which is not yet fully determined. Therefore I must disappoint the noble Lord, otherwise I thank him for his intervention.


My Lords, if with the permission of the House I may say another word, I would like to thank the noble Viscount opposite for the statement he made regarding the publication of the recommendations of the Commonwealth Conference. That is most satisfactory. With regard to the other point, on which he is unable to give any satisfaction, I am afraid I can only express my disappointment and repeat that we are anxious that these questions should not become an issue between the parties. I hope very much that the future of the corporation will be determined more or less in understanding of the view which we hold upon this side of the House.

2.42 p.m.


My Lords, it is with some diffidence that I rise to join this happy family which seems to have been built up round this Bill, but in view of the fact that I did raise this question of cable and wireless in the debate which I initiated in this House last May on the general question of nationalization, I feel that I cannot let the Bill pass without saying a word or two to express my anxiety and the anxieties of other people as to what is likely to take place. I would like to ask the Government—I do not propose to be controversial at all; I only want information—one or two rather pertinent questions. As a result of taking over what is admitted by the Government and by all concerned to be a very efficient business, which has built up an organization that has been of immense importance not only to our country but to the world generally, particularly during the war, I would like to ask whether the Government are satisfied that the efficiency side of it all is not likely to be detrimentally interfered with. I ask for this reason. In a great organization like this, which it has taken many years to build up, and on the directorate of which there are many men of great eminence and knowledge of this subject who are going to be dispensed with, is it likely that a new organization such as is suggested by this Bill will be so efficient; and will not the result of it be certain further expense on the taxpayer of this country, which is already very grave?

I do not know whether I am likely to get an answer to this question, but I would like to ask the Government whether the Army, the Navy and the Air Force are satisfied that under this new arrangement the same secrecy and confidential arrangements between the Services and this Company will be maintained, because it seems to me that, while various countries in different parts of the world were satisfied in dealing with a corporation such as Cable and Wireless, they will have quite different ideas when dealing with a Government organization. I can hardly think that those countries which have been giving their confidence and their territory within their own borders to this organization will continue to do so if such business is run by the Government. This will undoubtedly mean putting their nationals into the offices and the conduct of this business. I am wondering whether that is the sort of arrangement which can possibly preserve the confidential and familiar attitude and atmosphere that you want in relation to this very intricate business. There is another feature that touches the taxpayer's pocket. Where now there are certain currencies, dollar and other foreign currencies, which come to the benefit of this country through the services rendered by this organization—a benefit which we so sadly need just now—that advantage will cease. I do not know what amount is involved, but I imagine that it must be something fairly substantial.

I have looked into the question of whether the Dominions were really so keen on this business being transferred from the Cable and Wireless Company to the Government. Although in some cases they say they are quite willing that this should be done, I am rather perturbed that in one case words were used to the effect that they would do it but rather halfheartedly. I do not find that there is that agreement to this transaction on the part of the Dominions which some people suppose to exist. And there is another point. This business, so far as I can see, is definitely an international business. How on earth you are going to nationalize a business which is an international business to the advantage of those concerned, I fail to see. No doubt the Government have looked into all these matters, but in view of the opinions of many people, including my humble self, I do feel that they should be ventilated on the Third Reading of this Bill. If, as some anticipate, this great organization is broken up into parts which belong here and there, to different countries, that will not be to the interests of our own country or to the interest of our own nationals.

I make these few remarks because I do not want it to be felt, if, as we anticipate, these things should happen, that voices were not raised on the subject. I would suggest to the Government that these are questions which are really material and of great importance with regard to the future success of this new and very technical undertaking which is being embarked upon by the Government. I would like also to say one further word with regard to the staff and certain members of this organization who have spent what one might call a lifetime in bringing it to its present great position. So far as I can make out, they are not considered to be worthy of any consideration on being turned out of their jobs. I know of no other organization which has had servants, whether as directors or others, who have given all their past to building up a great business and have quite suddenly found themselves without jobs. I beg the Government to look again into this question of compensating those directors and others who may, through these altered circumstances, lose the positions which they have occupied for so long and with such great efficiency. I hope the Government will forgive me for intervening in what seemed to be, until I got up, a happy family discussion, and I assure them it is only my anxiety with regard to the future which causes me to do so.

2.51 p.m.


My Lords, as I had so much to do with this matter in its early stages perhaps your Lordships will permit me to make some brief comments now, I was delighted to hear from the the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, that something was shortly to be published. I take it that will be the draft Overall Agreement, which was an appendix to the Commonwealth Communications Conference Report.


indicated assent.


That will provide what the noble Lord, Lord Altrincham, wants, a clear indication of the duties and responsibilities of the new Central Board. That, I think, will meet him and others of your Lordships who want to know what the new Board will have to do. Might I ask the noble Lord who will reply for the Government whether he can give us any idea when the next stage of legislation in this country will be entered upon. As has been said several times, this is only the first stage. When will the next stage come—the one which will implement, I should imagine, that draft Overall Agreement and permit the establishment of the new Central Board? I think your Lordships would be glad to hear when that is to come.

As to the organization here, I should like to endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Altrincham, said. I will not repeat what I said on July 25 as to its being taken over by the Post Office. The arguments from him and from me are on record and both he and I stand by them. Might I suggest to the Government that they should examine a proposal I made on return from the tour round the world. I think the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, will possibly find an answer to part of his doubts there. The proposal referred to what I called, for want of a better term, Oceanic Assets. The present Company does much work in this country and, as your Lordships know, it does much work in other parts of the world—in the Colonies and in foreign countries. I do not think the Government will have any objection to my referring to this Oceanic Assets idea. I wonder whether it might not be possible to deal separately with the work that the Company does in this country, and have it conducted by one organization, and have the work which the Company does overseas conducted by another organization. The Oceanic Assets proposal was presented to and discussed by the Commonwealth Communications Conference last year, with a particular orientation which need not be referred to now. Personally, I hope the Government will not put anything under the Post Office at all, but they might consider, if they are determined to put something under the Post Office, confining that something to what the Company actually does in this country, and having the rest of the Company's activities—namely, the Oceanic Assets activities in the Colonies and in foreign countries—conducted by some other body; a corporation, I would hope. Those members of the Government and of the Opposition who were in office and who were aware of this proposal in 1945, will understand what I am referring to.

It is not my business to reply on behalf of the Government to the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, but I might possibly help a little, because of my early and intimate connexion with this matter, if I mention one or two points he has brought up. As to efficiency, had I thought that the efficiency of the conduct of the telecommunication services, which are obviously of vital importance to Empire and Commonwealth, would in any way be lessened by the scheme which was submitted, after discussion with Commonwealth Governments, to the United Kingdom Government, and which was approved by the Commonwealth Conference last year, I should never have been party to it. I am no less fallible than the next noble Lord, but I would not have been party to a scheme which I did not think would work.

As to the Services being satisfied, the noble Lord may be relieved to know that throughout the proceedings of the Commonwealth Communications Conference last year, there was present a senior representative of the Services, watching what was happening and being given full opportunity to comment at the meetings of the Conference and otherwise. It seemed to me—and I would imagine this still to apply—that the Services were satisfied with what was proposed and what was in fact passed for the consideration of all the Governments by that Conference.

As to the attitude of the Dominions and India, would the noble Lord remember that this business began in 1944, when the Commonwealth Communications Council decided to recommend the nationalization of all the telecommunications interests in their countries. It is true that there was a variation in enthusiasm between the Dominion Governments on that issue, but we cannot get away from the fact that a 1944 meeting of the Council recommended unanimously that the local companies should be nationalized in each country. I was presented with that when I was invited to go around the world in January, 1945, but the United Kingdom Government thought—and I entirely agreed with them—that the arrangements for the central co-ordination of all these separately nationalized bodies were not adequate; and I was asked whether I could devise something in consultation with the Dominions and India which would give a greater measure of central co-ordination with a view to greater efficiency. That is what I felt I brought back as a result of my conversations. I did not bring back nationalization; I was presented with nationalization before I went; but wherever I went I did my best to ascertain what measure of enthusiasm there was locally. Some of the Dominions insisted on it and would have nothing other than that. In one Dominion—the noble Lord is right—they said in effect: "We were content to let the existing system continue, but as the issue had been raised we fell in with the wishes of the majority." You may say, therefore, that they agreed, not enthusiastically but nevertheless fully, to the general scheme of nationalization.

I do not understand the noble Lord's references to a break-up. Reverting to this Oceanic Assets idea, the present Company has of course activities in various foreign countries, but they are not going to be nationalized into the nationalities of those foreign countries; the staff there will be as now. That leads to one of my points about the Post Office: instead of having the United Kingdom Post Office take over the offices and organizations in the Colonies and in foreign countries, it would be much better to put all that under some separate body here—a corporation I would hope—but there is no question of breakup. Does the noble Lord wish to speak?


My Lords, I am most interested in what my noble friend has said, but does he really think it likely that foreign countries which now have working arrangements with the Cable and Wireless Company are going to continue those very intimate and familiar arrangements with a foreign Governmental organization? I cannot conceive that that is likely at all. If it did happen that there was some arrangement it seems to me that they would insist upon having their own nationals running the show in their own countries and not what I understand it to be now.


I appreciate the noble Lord's point, and my answer is this. I hope that the United Kingdom Government will not, either through the Post Office or in any other way, directly take over the present Company' activities in these foreign countries. I admit, and always have admitted, the possibility that, owing to nationalization, something might happen that would not otherwise have happened, but I think the danger will be very considerably lessened if, instead of the United Kingdom Post Office endeavouring to conduct this part of the business, the United Kingdom Government should establish a corporation for the purpose; the only obvious difference in a foreign country would then be the heading of the notepaper—if that. Nobody would need to see any difference between what had been and what was. I do not feel that there is any real danger of any break-up or of foreign Governments insisting on putting their own nationals into an office at present run by Cable and Wireless Ltd. but in future to be run by' a United Kingdom Corporation.

I have only one further point to make, and that is to endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, said about the Company and to repeat briefly what I said on the Second Reading. I was a director of that concern, and, if I had thought that the efficiency of the Company was impugned, I could not, out of loyalty to them, have undertaken the mission I did. As I have already said, if I thought that what emerged from the tour and subsequent Conference would have lessened efficiency, I should not have been party to it. I believed that the new arrangements would have been acceptable to the Company, and it was to my great surprise and disappointment that those hopes were not realized. But as to the Company's record through the long years—and that of the Chairman, Sir Edward Wilshaw in particular—there is no one in this House, either Lord Teviot or any other noble Lord, who would pay to them and to him a greater tribute than I would be willing to do.

3.3 p.m.


My Lords, I think the noble Lord, Lord Reith, has really answered the misgivings of the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, more efficiently than I could, because he has been right through this business from the very beginning. So far as the objective is concerned, and the machinery of operations, there has been continuity all through. This Bill represents no alteration at all. It is only one stage of the procedure to be carried out. That is all it amounts to, and I can assure the noble Lord that in common with the noble Lord below the gangway we should not be parties to this if we felt there was any likelihood of its diminishing the efficiency of the service or endangering any of the things to which he has very properly called attention. I am quite sure he will be satisfied that it will be the anxiety of the Government that, whatever new company or corporation manage this concern, they will treat with complete fairness and consideration all the staff who have rendered services, as happens in any other case where organizations are changed through legislative action.


I hate to interrupt the noble Lord, but in view of what has been said, and the undoubted opinion of the efficiency of this organization and its value, I wonder if he could give me some good reason, other than the political reason of nationalization, why you should disturb this very efficient service. There may be some other reason which I do not know.


I should have said myself that it is fair to say that the initiation of this scheme could not be rightly described as political. Decisions were arrived at in order to get an organization in being which would work with the Dominions in common with ourselves and, political considerations entirely apart, this was the business-like way of doing it. I can assure the noble Lord that there is no other thought in our minds at all. I believe it will involve some enlargement of the functions of the Council to which the noble Lord referred a few minutes ago, when it comes into being, with regard to the consolidation of operations and the harmonious working of the different parts of the machine throughout the world.

I will say with regard to the future set-up that I have been greatly impressed by what the noble Lord has said, and particularly with what the noble Lord, Lord Reith, has said. I am well acquainted with their views of what they would like to have, but I regret that I cannot go any further to-day than to say that we have not yet come to a conclusion as to what the final set-up will be. It will, however, be reported as soon as possible; we shall waste no time.


My Lords, perhaps I might say one word with regard to the last point made by the noble Lord, Lord Teviot. The noble Lord said with regard to this Bill that he could see no conceivable reason for it except the Government passion for nationalization. That is, I know, an impression which has been gained in various parts of the country. I think it only fair to say that this scheme was accepted by the late National Government. I have had no knowledge of the later proceedings, but I had some knowledge of the matter when I was in the Dominions Office before the Leader of the House went there. I must confess that I myself came to the conclusion that it would be impossible for the existing system to go on. I am sure your Lordships will not regard me as an enthusiastic supporter of nationalization; I do not like it. The impression I got was undoubtedly that they would have been unwilling to continue co-operating with us on the old basis. This is to me not a problem of nationalization at all. It is entirely an Imperial problem, and I believe, whether we like it or not, that this new set-up was inevitable and for that reason I have been ready to accept it. I do not pretend that I like it on principle, but I do believe it is the only basis on which we can get an international network of communications. I felt it fair to say that to the noble Lord.

because I think he was still under a misapprehension on certain aspects of this Bill.

On Question, Bill read 3a, with the Amendment, and passed, and returned to the Commons.