HL Deb 23 June 1969 vol 303 cc8-72

2.50 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

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

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The EARL OF LISTOWEL in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Abolition of office of master of the Post Office]:

On Question, Whether Clause 1 shall stand part of the Bill?


I have a question that I should like to put to the noble Lord on Clause 1. The clause abolishes the ancient position of Her Majesty's Postmaster General, which has been in existence for, I think, upwards of 300 years. I think it is by virtue of that position that Post Office vehicles carry the Royal cypher, and it is known as the Royal Mail. From experience in the Post Office during the war, I know that this had quite a bearing on prestige, and so on. The words used to be, "Whatever happens the Royal Mail must get through." It was one of the things that contributed to the very high morale of Post Office staff which exists to-day. The question I should like to ask is: when the office of Postmaster General ceases and the head of the Post Office is no longer one of Her Majesty's Ministers, will the appellation "Royal Mail" still be used by the new Corporation? If it is not used, I think much will be lost.


First, may I say that I sympathise with what the noble Lord said at the beginning of his remarks. This decision to call the Minister in the future something other than the Postmaster General was something which quite a number of us regretted, and had it been possible to retain the name I think we should have agreed to retain it. Nevertheless, for various legal reasons it was found most efficient and expedient to move on to the new title. The answer to the second part of the noble Lord's question is: Yes, the appellation will be maintained.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clauses 2 to 6 agreed to.

Clause 7 [Powers of the Post Office]:

LORD NEWTON moved Amendment No. 1: Page 6, line 30, leave out from ("that") to second ("to") in line 31 and insert ("appears to the Post Office to be requisite, advantageous or convenient for it")

The noble Lord said: This is a fairly simple and straightforward Amendment. It is not far-reaching. It is not concerned, as my next Amendment will be, with the possible abuse of monopolistic power, but simply with the actual abuse of the English language in the Bill itself. I hoped that, if he were here, I should have had the support of my noble friend Lord Conesford. May I read out to your Lord- ships subsection (2) of Clause 7 as it stands at the moment? It says: The Post Office shall have power, for the purpose of securing the effective exercise of any of the powers conferred on it by the foregoing subsection, or in connection with or in consequence of an exercise thereof, to do anything that it appears to it requisite, advantageous or convenient to do, …

I should have thought that that was rather inelegant language, even by some of the standards of Parliamentary drafting. Some of my honourable friends in another place did their best to get it changed, but they did not succeed. This is an attempt to do so. I do not believe it changes the sense of the subsection in any way. I would suggest to your Lordships that the language suggested in the Amendment is a little more elegant, and I therefore hope it may be acceptable to Her Majesty's Government. I beg to move.


I am always in favour of preserving the purity of the English language in the Statutes, and I hope that this Amendment will be accepted.


I was going to say that I was moved by the eloquence of the noble Lord, Lord Newton; but, of course, I am swept off my feet by what has just been said by the noble Lord, Lord Airedale. I agree that this is much more sensible terminology. As the noble Lord, Lord Newton, has said, the wording here was criticised in another place. We have looked at it in the light of the criticisms, and I am very happy to accept the Amendment. I should like to think that this is a happy augury to the way in which we shall go on.

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

Clause 7, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 8 agreed to.

Clause 9 [General duty of the Post Office]:

2.57 p.m.

LORD NEWTON moved Amendment No. 2: Page 9, line 30, leave out ("provision thereof is, in its opinion,") and insert ("Post Office, after consultation with the Minister, considers the provision thereof")

The noble Lord said: Perhaps I may now thank the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, for accepting my first Amendment, and say how much I concur with him in the hope that the fact that the Government were able to accept it will be a happy augury for the future stages of this Bill. There could be no better indication of that than if the Government were able to accept this Amendment, which I now move. This is a much more important Amendment than my last one. I tried to indicate in my speech on the Second Reading of the Bill that we on this side of the Committee support those parts of the Bill which aim at creating a modern, commercial enterprise, and we agree that when the Post Office is free from the apron strings of a Minister—which it is not, of course, at the moment—it should be better able to achieve its financial targets and to provide up-to-date services for the public. We are concerned—and I tried to make this clear—about the lack of adequate protection in the Bill for the consumer. I suggest the word "adequate", which is of course a matter of opinion, but in our opinion at the moment it is not adequate.

I do not want to cover too much of the ground that I covered on Second Reading, but I pointed out in my speech then, I think correctly, that when the Corporation is established under the Bill and is working it will in fact be the largest and most carefully entrenched monopoly that this country has ever known. One would therefore hope, if not expect, that protection for the public would be adequate in the eyes of everybody. Yet it seems to us that such safeguards as there are now in the Bill are quite inadequate to protect the public against abuse by this gigantic monopoly of its vast powers, or to ensure that the Corporation will in fact carry out the duties laid upon it in this Bill. The general duty of the Post Office is defined in subsection (1) of Clause 9. It is required … in particular, to provide (save in so far as the provision thereof is, in its opinion, impracticable or not reasonably practicable) such services for the conveyance of letters and such telephone services as satisfy all reasonable demands for them.

May I invite the Committee, as I invited the House on Second Reading, to note particularly these saving words in the subsection? It is phrased as "in its opinion "—not the opinion of the Govern- ment, not the opinion of Parliament, not even the opinion of the users' council. To us on this side of the Committee it seems very dangerous to allow a monopoly to be the sole arbiter of what is practicable or impracticable in the provision of vital services, monopolistic services, which affect the lives of all of us as soon as we are literate. May I repeat the illustration of this argument which I gave on Second Reading? I recognise that it is an extreme argument, but for the moment I make it deliberately extreme for the purpose of better illustrating what I am trying to say. Let us suppose that the Post Office, as I said on Second Reading out of the blue were to say that in its opinion it was impracticable to deliver second-class mail except on Tuesdays and Thursdays and that the minimum rate for first-class mail would go up to 9d. If it did that—and you may say that it is absurd to imagine the noble Viscount, Lord Hall, and his colleagues on the Board being quite so ridiculous; but it could happen under the Bill—there could be a considerable row in the country. Yet the Minister would be virtually powerless, so far as the language of the Bill is concerned, to do anything about it. He certainly could not give a direction to the Post Office under Clause 11 (and this is clear from what Lord Beswick told us, or implied, on Second Reading) because this would be a matter of day-to-day administration.

That is an extreme example of the use of monopolistic powers. But there could be other far less extreme examples of decisions which seem unreasonable to everybody except the Post Office. I want to submit to the Committee that the Post Office is not necessarily the best judge of what is unreasonable in the provision of the services required of it by Parliament. It would be possible to amend this Bill in such a way as to make the Minister the arbiter of these decisions; in other words, to write into the subsection, "in the Minister's opinion" and not "in its opinion"—the opinion of the Post Office. Obviously, that would be going too far; it would be leaving apron strings which we all want to remove.

My Amendment is much milder. It merely says that before the Post Office decides that something is impracticable about the general duty laid on it in Clause 9, it should first consult the Minister.

This seems to me to be a modest Amendment. It is not provocative; it is not extreme. But I hope it might be a steadying influence if the Post Office were tempted to go slightly off the rails. In the event of the Post Office making an unreasonable decision, it would enable the Minister to explain to Parliament what views he had expressed during the consultations. Therefore this Amendment is a mild attempt, not an extreme one, to associate the Minister with the decisions that the Post Office makes on its own duties and responsibilities. It enables the Minister to be concerned with Post Office discussions on how to balance commercial and social duties. It does not require him (nor enable him) to make the decisions himself or to interfere in the day-to-day administration of the Post Office Corporation. When on Second Reading the noble Lord. Lord Beswick, referred to our point of view on safeguards and protection for the public, I felt that he had some sympathy with our general attitude. I very much hope therefore that this Amendment provides a formula that will be acceptable to the Government. I beg to move.


I am not sure that the happy augury suggested by our very happy beginning is going to last all that long; because although I have listened to the noble Lord with great sympathy and much interest (and I read his speech on Second Reading very carefully) I am afraid that we cannot respond in quite the way he wants. As the noble Lord said, this clause is a statement of the authority's basic statutory duties, and this part of subsection (1) relates to particular duties for letters and telephones. The example which the noble Lord gave was perhaps a little extreme, but his solution to the problems involved in these particular duties laid on the Post Office really would go much further than he would want it to go. I know that he says that he does not want the Amendment to interefere with the day-to-clay working of the Post Office—and we very much agree with his view that it is important for the authority to be a properly-run commercial interest—but the effect of the Amendment would be precisely that. It would mean that instead of having one authority to go to there would be two: the Minister and the Post Office. I can- not feel that this would be a good way to reduce red tape and generally to quicken things all round.

Further, I think that the noble Lord has forgotten the extremely adequate safeguards provided by the Post Office users' councils. This is a very important safeguard. As he will know, if the Post Office is thought to be interpreting its duties unreasonably then, under Clause 14(8)(a), the users' council can bring such cases to the Minister's attention. It will therefore be possible for the Minister to be involved in the kind of way that the Amendment proposes. I must also quarrel with the noble Lord's interpretation of Clause 11. In fact under the provisions of Clause 11, the Minister could override Clause 9. In Clause 11(2) the noble Lord will see the words: … he may, after consultation with it, give it directions of a general character for remedying the defect. I am afraid, therefore, that as the Post Office has a job to do and only certain resources with which to do it, we must stick to the actual ruling which we have already given. We have great sympathy with the principle of the accountability of the Corporation to Parliament. I understand exactly the spirit in which the noble Lord moved his Amendment, but we very much hope, in the light of what I have said, that he will see fit to withdraw it.


I am much obliged to the noble Baroness for the spirit in which she responded to my Amendment, but I must respectfully go on to say that, in my opinion anyway, my Amendment does not go further than I want it to go. If I had thought it did I should not have moved it. The point is—and I made this point on Second Reading—that the Post Office, unlike the other nationalised corporations, is a complete monopoly. The others are monopolies; but if you do not like the price and quality of coal then you can burn gas, oil or electricity. You do not have to travel by British Rail; you can go by road. You do not have to fly abroad by B.E.A. or B.O.A.C.; if you do not go by charter company, you can go by boat. That is why, in my submission, it is more than ever important that the public should be protected; because if they want to communicate with people by letter or by telephone they must use the services of the Post Office; they cannot use anybody else's.

I know about the users' councils. I hope that they will protect the public; but, with great respect, I do not think they are going to be an adequate protection, because at the end of the day they are absolutely toothless; they can do nothing. They can complain to the Minister about what the Post Office tells them that the Post Office is proposing to do. So what? The Minister may say, "I agree; but if this is a matter of day-to-day administration there is nothing that I can do about it. Nor can you". Again with great respect, I think that the sort of action which I illustrated, in what was admittedly an extreme example, would be an act of day-to-day administration—




The noble Lord, Lord Bowles, says, "No", but I am as much entitled to my opinion as is the noble Lord to his. Again I am not convinced that Clause 11 would enable the Minister to issue a direction to cope with the sort of situation which I envisaged. That is all I have to say about this matter. Fundamentally, it is a fairly simple issue which I am putting before the Committee. I am not going to withdraw my Amendment and I suppose that your Lordships will have to decide whether to support me or not.


Before we come to the vote I should like to try to make peace between the noble Lord, Lord Newton, and his own Amendment. So far as I can see, it would oblige the Post Office to consult the Minister on any complaint made by the public and I should have thought that it was very doubtful wisdom indeed to increase the number of civil servants for that purpose. I should also have thought that Clause 11, which is intended to regulate the arrangement between the Ministry and the Post Office in the matter of defects and things

of that sort, did it sufficiently. So far as I can see there is no Amendment down to Clause 11, and I am a little surprised to find the noble Lord persisting in an Amendment which, I should have thought, was against the general views of the Tory Party, and pressing for matters to be referred to the Minister, however trivial they might be and however much they might be covered by Clause 11 as an alternative.


I am much obliged to the noble Lord, Lord Mitchison, for trying to make peace between myself and my Amendment. The noble Lord is a very eminent lawyer, I am not a lawyer at all, not even an "uneminent" one—if there is such a word. But, with respect to him, I would ask the noble Lord to construe my Amendment in the terms of Clause 9(1), and I suggest that the Amendment, which is concerned merely with the general duties as laid down in Clause 9, would not require the Post Office to consult the Minister about every complaint, or even any complaint, from a member of the public.


I much regret that I was unable to satisfy the noble Lord. I can assure him, with all the sincerity at my command and with all the eminent advice at my disposal, that his Amendment would bring more trouble even to his own wishes than he suggests. If the noble Lord is determined to press his Amendment to a Division and wishes to express himself in that way, we entirely accept that; but I believe that, were he to think again, he might see that we have put forward our views with great sincerity and with the best advice.

3.18 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said Amendment (No. 2) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided—Contents, 76; Not-Contents, 42.

Aberdare, L. Balfour of Inchrye, L. Denham, L.
Aberdeen and Temair, M. Belstead, L. Dement, L.
Ailwyn, L. Bessborough, E. Drumalbyn, L.
Airedale, L. Brentford, V. Dudley, L.
Albemarle, E. Brooke of Cumnor, L. Dundonald, E.
Allerton, L. Caccia, L. Ebbisham, L.
Alport, L. Carrington, L. Effingham, E.
Ashbourne, L. Conesford, L. Emmet of Amberley, Bs.
Auckland, L. Craigavon, V. Falkland, V.
Audley, Bs. Daventry, V. Falmouth, V.
Goschen, V. [Teller.] Loudoun, C. Sackville, L.
Grenfell, L. MacAndrew, L. St. Aldwyn, E.
Grimston of Westbury, L. McNair, L. St. Helens, L.
Haddington, E. Mansfield, E. Savile, L.
Hawke, L. Mersey, V. Strang, L.
Helsby, L. Milverton, L. Strange of Knokin, Bs.
Horsbrugh, Bs. Mountevans, L. Strathcarron, L.
Howard of Glossop, L. Mowbray and Stourton, L. [Teller Swinton, E.
Ilford, L. Tangley, L.
Inglewood, L. Moyne, L. Teviot, L.
Jellicoe, E. Newton, L. Teynham, L.
Jessel, L. Nugent of Guildford, L. Thurlow, L.
Kings Norton, L. Nunburnholme, L. Vivian, L.
Kirkwood, L. Ogmore, L. Windlesham, L.
Latymer, L. Rankeillour. L. Wrottesley, L.
Lauderdale, E. Rothes, E.
Addison, V. Henderson, L. Popplewell, L.
Archibald, L. Hilton of Upton, L. [Teller.] Royle, L.
Beswick, L. Hughes, L. St. Davids, V.
Boothby, L. Jackson of Burnley, L. Samuel, V.
Bowles. L. [Teller.] Kennet, L. Serota, Bs.
Brockway, L. Leatherland. L. Shackleton, L. (L. Privy Seal.)
Buckinghamshire, E. Lindgren, L. Shannon, E.
Burden, L. Listowel, E. Sorensen, L.
Burton of Coventry, Bs. Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, Bs. Stokes, Bs.
Champion, L. MacLeod of Fuinary, L. Stow Hill, L.
Crook, L. Mitchison, L. Strabolgi, L.
Donaldson of Kingsbridge, L. Moyle, L. Taylor of Mansfield, L.
Gardiner, L. (L. Chancellor.) Peddie, L. Uvedale of North End. L.
Granville-West, L. Plummer, Bs. Wells-Pestell, L.

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

Resolved in the affirmative, and Amendment agreed to accordingly.

3.24 p.m.

LORD DENHAM moved Amendment No. 3: Page 10, line 4, leave out subsection (4).

The noble Lord said: We on this side of the House are particularly worried about the plethora of legal immunities that this vast new Corporation is to be given by many parts of this Bill. The Corporation is to be in an extremely privileged position. I will just pick out a few of the immunities. Clause 29 largely exempts the Post Office from liability and tort. One result of this exemption is that the Corporation cannot be sued for libel for anything in, say, its telephone directories. This is a privilege that even Her Majesty's Stationery Office does not have. Clause 69 gives an unwarranted authority to the Post Office accounts. We have all suffered from the eccentricities of computers. If the Post Office computer says you owe them money, its Bill will stand up in a court of law. A Government Amendment in another place specifically continued Post Office exemption from liability as a common carrier.

Many exemptions given in this Bill may be justified by the particular nature of the responsibilities and activities of the Post Office, but this blanket exemption is very worrying. The Post Office will be very powerful indeed. It will affect the day-to-day lives of everyone in the country. Your Lordships have accepted an Amendment which will ensure that Ministerial responsibility will be continued. This will provide a certain safeguard, unless perhaps Her Majesty's Government see fit to try to change it at a later stage. But whether that last Amendment stands or not, the individual must be protected. This Amendment which I have put down may not provide exactly the right way to do it. Her Majety's Government may say that we are going too far the other way. It is a probing Amendment, to ask Her Majesty's Government to explain how the individual is to be safeguarded and to ask them to try to find some way of including further legal safeguards in the Bill. I beg to move.


The noble Lord, Lord Denham, says that he is worried because of the blanket exemption (as he called it) provided by this clause so far as legal liability is concerned, but one must be equally disturbed at the idea of the blanket liability which would rest upon the new Post Office Board if this Amendment were carried. From what the noble Lord himself said, it would be hopeless to have a situation under which, if the Post Office did not deliver a letter by 9 o'clock in the morning and instead the letter arrived with the second post at 11.30 and the recipient was inconvenienced, he would be able to go to court. It would be an absurd and impossible situation. I think that the noble Lord, on reflection, will see that it would be unwise to leave out subsection (4), as his Amendment suggests.

In our discussions, we always seem to come back to the same problem that we discussed on Second Reading: how are we going to give this new body increased opportunities to provide a more efficient service by giving them increased independence, but at the same time fastening on to them the kind of customer and Ministerial checks and balances to which, I think mistakenly, the House has just agreed. We are going to lose the advantages of independence and of the benefits of the exemptions which we are giving to the new Board, if we get cold feet and insist on making it liable to go into the courts or to the Minister for consultation.

I was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Denham, what would be the way to meet a proper complaint on the part of a consumer—the recipient of a letter or the user of a telephone. In the first place, he can make a complaint to the local office. I find that the divisional office or the local office are always extremely ready to listen to complaints. They really ought to be used much more than they are used. They want to help. If a customer goes along to the local post office and says that he gets his letters too late, or that he cannot get service from his telephone, they will try to put things right.

If a consumer does not get satisfaction in that way he can go to the users' council. If he does not get satisfaction there, it is still possible for him to write to his Member of Parliament, and it will still be possible for that Member to take up with the chairman of the Board complaints that are made to him through Parliamentary channels. That again, I think, will be a useful check on the Board's activities. But to open them up to the liability of court action for anything that goes wrong just would not enable them to operate with the kind of efficiency which I am sure noble Lords opposite want to see. I hope, therefore, that it will be possible for the noble Lord to withdraw his Amendment.


I should like to ask the noble Lord whether there is any other nationalised industry which is entirely exempt from having an action brought against it. I speak subject to correction, but I do not believe there is. It is possible to bring an action against the Coal Board and against the Electricity Commissioners. If I am right about this, is it not wholly unreasonable that this Corporation, which has a larger and more arbitrary power than any of these other great nationalised undertakings, should be entirely exempt from any legal proceedings?


I cannot answer with certainty the question which the noble Earl has put to me: I do not know whether there is any other body that is exempt from proceedings. There are certainly limitations upon the liabilities of other bodies. But I think the noble Earl will agree with me that the Post Office have quite exceptional responsibilities; the nature of their service is such that they require protection from legal action if they are to provide the sort of service which we expect from them.

I ought to add two further points. One is that this is not something new. We are not providing that there shall be this exemption in the case of the new Post Office Board when exemption has not been provided in the case of the Postmaster General in the present set-up. It is not a new provision. It is a provision which existed throughout the years in which the noble Earl had some responsibility for Government, and I should have thought that it was one which he would agree with me was necessary in this case.

I think I should add that even if the subsection were omitted it would not necessarily give the right to aggrieved customers to find a remedy in the courts. There would still be some doubt. The reason for this subsection is simply to reaffirm the position and, I suppose, to give some protection to customers who might otherwise seek to open an action in the courts which could not stand.


Surely the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, has not answered satisfactorily the question put by my noble friend Lord Swinton. The noble Lord is quite right in saying that certain immunities are now enjoyed by the Postmaster General, but, the Postmaster General can at least be called to account in Parliament. What is wholly new here is that we are setting up a body outside Parliament and stripping it of legal accountability. That surely cannot be satisfactory. Not having studied the Bill sufficiently, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, that this particular Amendment may not be satisfactory; but he has given no sort of reply to my noble friend Lord Swinton by calling in aid the immunities enjoyed by the present Postmaster General. Giving immunity in the courts to a body or person who can be called to account in Parliament is a totally different thing from giving legal immunity to a body that cannot be called to account in Parliament.


I cannot help feeling that there is a certain amount of misunderstanding about this subsection, probably due to the ambiguity of its wording, and I would ask the Government whether, after they have heard what I have to say and before Report stage, they will reconsider its wording. As I read it, this subsection does not—or certainly is not intended to—give complete legal immunity to the new Post Office. The earlier part of the clause says that the Post Office has a duty to do certain things and to perform certain services; then, as I see it, this subsection says simply that that shall not impose a legal liability if the Post Office enters into a contract, as it often does for a telephone or for other purposes. I can see nothing in this clause which is intended to take away the right of the citizen to sue the Post Office on that. In the same way, if the Post Office were so unwise as to defame some subject of the Crown, I can see nothing which would take away the right of action. I believe that to be the intention of the subsection. But I sympathise with the mover of the Amendment, because I think the wording of the clause is rather wide. If on Report stage something could be put in to make it absolutely plain that the clause means what I believe it to mean, then I think this misunderstanding may be resolved.


I am obliged to the noble Lord. I think there is a misunderstanding. I am, of course, concerned only with the immunity which is granted by subsection (4) of this clause to the obligations placed upon the Post Office by the clause. There is no general immunity provided here, and when we get later into the Bill (I think it is Clause 29) noble Lords will see that there is an obligation on the Post Office to fulfil its contracts, if it enters into contracts. No immunity is granted to the Post Office for any negligence of its servants—if, for example, they are involved in an accident on the roads. I feel that it is not the fault of the Government that those who seek to express doubts here are taking too wide a view of these words. I think it is that they have not yet seen the later clauses to which we shall come.


I must confess that I am a little disappointed with the noble Lord's reply, and the fact that he has not offered to look into this again and possibly try to meet our worries in a different way. As I said, this is a probing Amendment to try to clear un the whole situation. We feel that although the Post Office has a special Position, and special difficulties that possibly do not apply to private businesses, even so, it should be in the same position legally as a private business, except when there is any good reason otherwise.

The noble Lord, Lord Beswick, praised the post offices and the divisional offices, and I must say that I have always found those with which I have been in contact very helpful. I have also found several private businesses very helpful. But I am, of course, safeguarded by law when I have dealings with a private business if they should not be helpful, and unless there is good reason why in a particular case I should not be safeguarded by law (and there are a number of such cases in the Post Office), I feel that immunity can go too far. I think we shall have to look at this matter and consider whether we might wish to put down a slightly less sweeping Amendment at a later stage. In the meantime, I ask your Lordships' permission to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


My Lords, I think if it would be convenient now for the House to resume, for the purpose of hearing the Statement to which I referred earlier.

House resumed.

  2. cc28-72
  3. POST OFFICE BILL 15,818 words, 1 division