HL Deb 22 February 1968 vol 289 cc685-92

8.56 p.m.


My Lords, I wish that I could have mercy on noble Lords who still remain, but unfortunately I have my duty to do. They will understand that this speech has to be made for the benefit of those noble Lords who no doubt will spend part of their day tomorrow reading my speech in the House of Lords Hansard, and also for a large number of people in other parts of the Commonwealth. I understand that my words will be read by many of our fellow citizens of the Commonwealth in all parts of the world, which is a rather flattering thought. I am sorry that I shall take a little longer than I might perhaps wish. In order to assist noble Lords, I will accelerate my speech as much as possible, which may make it difficult for the poor reporters and noble Lords to follow me, but it will play its part in other ways.

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time. The prime purpose of the Bill is to give legislative effect in the United Kingdom to a Commonwealth commitment concerning changes in the present Commonwealth Telecommunications partnership. Some of these changes have taken place already, some are due to take place. I anticipate the noble Lord opposite asking me exactly why there should be this change. I can supply him with the answer forthwith, and this no doubt will help him to abbreviate even more the speech he will make later on. The reasons are as follows. Members of the existing Board, being in London and away from their own Administrations through no fault of their own, often have to refer back to their Governments before they give advice. The great increase in partner Governments resulted in some Governments of newly independent countries being unable to find representatives with telecommunications experience to reside permanently in London. While recognising the valuable work performed by the Board, the Commonwealth Governments consider that it will be better to have a dispersed body consisting of senior telecommunications officials actually serving in the telecommunications administration of the countries whose Governments they represent. By this means it was hoped that they would be in closer touch with their Governments and in a better position to give them advice. Indeed, this Bill, which I shall briefly explain, arises out of a conference which has been held on this matter.

Noble Lords who are unfamiliar with the administrative mechanism of the Commonwealth telecommunications system, may be interested to hear something of its history. The first submarine telegraph cables were laid a century ago, and some continue to give good set vice. Outside Europe, the beginning of the century saw the agreement of the Governments of the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and certain of the Australian States to lay and operate a cable spanning the Pacific. From this comparatively small partnership, using a single medium of communication, has sprung a network of telegraph and radio links enveloping all save two Commonwealth countries. Those two countries operate their external telecommunications outside the common-user system. I should perhaps explain that the partnership is not concerned solely with the transmission of messages between one Commonwealth country and another Commonwealth country, but is also concerned with messages between a Commonwealth country and a non-Commonwealth country. Indeed, it is of financial advantage to the partnership that such traffic should pass over as much of the Commonwealth network as may be operationally reasonable and convenient. It is also open to partners to exclude from the partnership arrangements, by mutual consent, certain of their services; and some services have been so excluded. Generally the excluded services are those to contiguous countries.

The expansion of telecommunications services and a continuing community of interest, which found expression first in Imperial and later in Commonwealth conferences on communications over the years, came at last to fruition in the Commonwealth Telegraphs Agreements of 1948 and 1963.

In those countries which have acceded to the Agreements, the installations which are used for external telecommunications are owned by individual Governments or their operating agencies. These installations are used co-operatively and the mutual indebtedness of the partners is settled by means of a wayleave accounting scheme. This is a departure from the normal international method of accounting, which is called a "parcours" system. May I say that I was not quite sure what that meant, and on looking in the dictionary I found that it really means one of three things: distance covered; route, course, path; or golf course. The last is quite remote from the significance of the word as now used, except that I notice that golf courses and telecommunications have tees. Be that as it may, the revenue on each call or message between two countries is divided between the administrations which handle it.

The wayleave method is quite different and extremely complicated. I hope your Lordships will exempt me from the need to explain all the details, and I am sure you will give your hearty assent to that. Briefly, the basic principle is that the Commonwealth partners keep all the revenue from traffic they put on to the common-user network and then share the total costs. From the gross revenue certain terminal charges are deducted. What is left is declared as wayleave revenue. The aggregate expenses of the partnership are then divided between them in proportion to their wayleave revenues. Thus, if a country's wayleave revenue is, say, 6 per cent. of the total wayleave revenues, it bears 6 per cent. of the total expenses.

These financial arrangements are administered by the Commonwealth Telecommunications Board, which was set up in London in accordance with the Commonwealth Telegraphs Agreement, 1948. But this is not the Board's sole function. It is also expected to make recommendations to the partners on such telecommunication matters as may be remitted to it. The Chairman of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Board is appointed jointly by partner Governments, each of which may also appoint its own member. In addition, the British Government appoints a member to represent those territories not directly represented by other members.

Since 1949 the Board has met at least once a fortnight under a number of distinguished Chairmen, of whom the first was the noble Lord, Lord Reith. I am sure that noble Lords will join me in paying tribute to past and present Chairmen and members of the Board and thanking them for their efforts over the years. I have no doubt that all other Commonwealth Governments will wish to be associated with the British Government in these sentiments. The present Chairman is Sir Dawson Donaldson, and I feel sure that we are all grateful to him for agreeing to extend his service with the Board until next year when he returns to his native New Zealand. All of that could obviously not have been omitted from my speech.

The Commonwealth Telecommunications Board is obliged to make an annual report to the partner Governments, and noble Lords may wish to know that a copy of the Report for 1966–67 was placed in the Library of the House at the beginning of this week. For all the good work that the Commonwealth Telecommunications Board has achieved, however, it has become clear in recent years that the present administrative arrangements will no longer serve. The nature of telecommunications has changed, and the Commonwealth itself has changed. Some partners, particularly the newer members of the Commonwealth, have experienced difficulty in providing members with the requisite telecommunications background, and in keeping them permanently in London.

For these and other reasons, the Commonwealth Telecommunications Conference held in London in 1966 recommended that the present arrangements associated with the partnership should be changed. These detailed recommendations have been accepted by all Commonwealth Governments, and I should like now to outline the changes which have already been made or which are imminent.

There is now a Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation, with an agreed constitution and made up of three organs. The most important of these is the Commonwealth Telecommunications Conference, which is to meet every three years. Attendance at the Conference is not confined to partner Governments. The second body in status is the Commonwealth Telecommunications Council, which is to meet not less frequently than once a year and comprises the representatives of the partner Governments. Between meetings of the Council, representatives are expected to conduct its affairs by correspondence. Thirdly, there is to be established in London a Commonwealth Telecommunications Bureau, or Secretariat, which will operate under the control of the Council.

The Council has an executive function and also the advisory function which is to be relinquished by the Commonwealth Telecommunications Board. The secretariat activities of the Board will be assumed by the new Commonwealth Telecommunications Bureau, together with the administration of the existing financial arrangements of the partnership. The Council has already met twice, but the Bureau is not yet in existence. It is hoped to have a nucleus of the Bureau in being by October this year, to work in harness, as it were, with the Board until the latter body is wound up at the end of March next year.

So far as the Commonwealth Telegraphs Agreements are concerned, their purposes will then either be spent or superseded, and it is expected that they will be terminated by agreement. Also at the end of March, 1969, another agreement will come into force to perpetuate the existing financial arrangements. If I may recapitulate in order to dispel any possible confusion there will therefore be two agreements, the one to terminate the Commonwealth Telegraphs Agreements of 1948 and 1963; the other to carry on the present financial arrangements.

I turn now to the human side of these changes. Your Lordships may feel some concern for the future of the members and staff of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Board. The members of the Board are, of course, the responsibility of their own Governments. Some of the staff are on secondment from the Post Office and will return there, and there is reasonable confidence that other staff will be absorbed info the Bureau. I am sure that noble Lords will be gratified to learn that the Council has agreed not only to assume responsibility for the payment of pensions to pensioners of the Board, but also to safeguard the pension rights of those now serving with the Board.

Finally, I come to the Bill itself. Clause 1 of the Bill provides that the Commonwealth Telecommunications Bureau shall have the legal capacity of a body corporate. This is to enable the Bureau, through the General Secretary as its head, to have the legal capacity to buy or rent property, engage staff and in other ways to go about its business in a legally responsible fashion.

Clause 2 of the Bill provides for the repeal of those sections of the Commonwealth Telegraphs Act 1949, and the First Schedule to that Act, under which the Commonwealth Telecommunications Board was established. Clause 2 also provides for the removal of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Board from the First Schedule to the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1957. This is obviously consequential on the dissolution of the Board, but there is no need for the Commonwealth Telecommunications Bureau to be mentioned in substitution for the Board for the Bureau is not, unlike the Board, a body with members. It is proposed that Clause 2 shall come into force on the day on which it is intended the Board shall be dissolved, for the legal capacity of the Board will have to be preserved to the end of its life.

This Bill provides a small yet vital element in the administrative arrangements of a changing, and increasingly important, Commonwealth telecommunications system, which is a unique and valuable instrument of Commonwealth co-operation. My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Sorensen.)

9.9 p.m.


My Lords, your Lordships will, I am sure, join me in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Sorensen, for the clarity of the detail of his description of this Bill, and also in congratulating him on the speed with which he carried it through. It is not a very easy matter to say at speed "Commonwealth Telecommunications Conference" as many times as he managed to do it with as few mistakes.

Whenever one hears the Commonwealth mentioned in the news nowadays it always seems to be because of some disagreement between its members; but the great value of the Commonwealth is in the many ties, some relatively minor, some hidden, which exist and flourish. They receive little publicity, but they contribute in a very real sense to bridging the economic, racial and ideological differences which plague the world. The Commonwealth Telecommunications Board (or the Council and Bureau, as it will become) is perhaps one of the most valuable of these organisations, dealing as it does with facilitating the flow of information between every continent.

We on these Benches welcome Her Majesty's Government's intention to implement the recommendations made by the Commonwealth Telecommunications Conference in March, 1966. We are very pleased to know that Commonwealth conferences on telecommunications will be held every three years and we hope that the new Bureau and Council will continue the valuable work of the Board and that the structure will add to the effectiveness of its work.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord very much for the brevity and the eloquence of his speech.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.