Section eight of the Post Office Act, 1953 (which relates to the conditions of transit of postal packets and the matters in respect of which Post Office regulations may make provision), shall have effect as if the following subsection were inserted after subsection (1) of that section:—
"(1A) Post Office regulations may also provide:
- (a) that a certificate of delivery given in accordance with Post Office regulations in respect of any postal packet shall be prima facie evidence of the delivery of that postal packet at the address shown in the certificate of posting for recorded delivery; and
- (b) that in any Act specified in the regulations any provision authorising or requiring the service of a notice by sending it in a prepaid registered letter shall have effect as if the expression prepaid registered letter ' included a recorded delivery packet within the meaning in The Inland Post Warrant, 1961, in respect of which a certificate of delivery is subsequently given in accordance with Post Office regulations ".—[Mr. W. R. Williams
§ Brought up, and read the First time.
§ 3.51 p.m.
§ Mr. W. R. Williams (Manchester, Openshaw)
I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.
The issues which we seek to raise were first brought to my notice and to the notice of my hon. Friends by the County Council's Association while the Bill was going through Committee. As soon as we read the letter from this body, my hon. Friends and myself realised that an important point of principle was involved. By the proposed new Clause we seek to amend the Bill to ensure that this principle should be embodied in legislation. Since we received this communication we have had a large number of similar representations from local authorities all over the country. I think it is right to say that hon. Members on both sides of the House have received similar communications from their own local authorities. It therefore seems that the matter is of universal importance and is well worthy of consideration on the Report stage of the Bill.
1599 So that hon. Members who have not received representations from their local authorities may understand what the problem is, I should deal briefly with the service which is involved. Under the Inland Post Warrant, 1961, the Post Office introduced a new service called the recorded delivery service. According to a pamphlet issued by the Postmaster-General, and to advertisements inserted in the national Press on behalf of the Post Office, the new service is intended to provide proof of posting and a record of delivery of letters and other mail with the exception of parcels at the very low cost, in my opinion, of 6d., which is additional to the normal postage charge.
This is what the Postmaster-General says in the Press advertisement to persons who are thinking of using the recorded delivery service:The service will help you particularly if you want to be able to prove delivery of documents.You can send anything except money and jewellery "—that is, if one has any—so long as the total value is not above £2.Compensation up to £2 is payable for loss or damage.
The right hon. Gentleman goes on:You will receive proof of posting. When your packet is delivered, the postman will obtain a signature for it and this record will be held by the local post office in case it is needed. If you want proof of delivery fill in a special form available at any post office, attach a 6d. stamp, and hand it in either at the time of posting or up to a year later. A certificate of delivery will then be sent to you.I hope that that brief explanation of the service will help hon. Members to appreciate the significance and need for the new Clause.
So far as I can see, the new service has been universally welcomed, especially by local authorities and public bodies. Under the service, the transit of letters is as safe as it is by registered letter post, and it is a good deal cheaper. In the view of certain authorities, including those which have been in communication with me, the words "proof of delivery" in the advertisement and pamphlets can be misleading and may have irreparable consequences if they are accepted at their face value. It is frequently necessary for the courts to be satisfied that notices 1600 required to be given under various statutes have been delivered at a certain address.
The people who have been in touch with me, and I, contend that the new recorded delivery service can be most useful and less expensive than some of the other methods used for serving statutory notices. But—and this is the point I want to emphasise—it will be useful only if the certificate of delivery given by the Post Office is accepted by the courts as proof of delivery. It is, therefore, vitally necessary that it shall be provided by Statute that the certificate of delivery shall be accepted by the courts as proof of delivery.
The first part of the new Clause gives statutory recognition to the certificate of delivery given by the Post Office as prima facie evidence of delivery.
I now turn to the second part of the new Clause. The various Statutes requiring or authorising notices to be served prescribe various methods for so doing, and usually alternative methods by which the service may be effected. One method of service commonly prescribed in statutes is that a document shall be sent in a prepared registered letter. The main object of that is to provide a record of posting and delivery. The second part of the Clause seeks to avoid the unnecessary expense of sending by registered letter post by authorising the service of notices by recorded delivery as an alternative to that service.
Since we have been considering this matter, I have received certain evidence. I am given to understand that the Home Office has already anticipated some of the legal disabilities of the present system and in its Circular No. 30, 1961, relating to the Evidence by Certificate Rules, 1961, says:Any certificate or other document required to be served by subsection (3) of the said section two hundred and forty-two or by subsection (5) of the said section forty-one "—hon. Members can look those up for themselves afterwards—shall be served in the following manner, that is to say:
in order to make this new provision, which includes the recorded delivery service.
- (a) where the person to be served is a corporation, by addressing it to the corporation and leaving it at. or sending it by registered post or by the recorded delivery service to, the registered office of the corporation or, if there be no such office, its
1601 principal office or place at which it conducts its business;
- (b) it any other case, by delivering it personally to the person to be served or by addressing it to him and leaving it at, or sending it by registered post or by the recorded delivery service to, his last or usual place of abode or place of business. The Evidence by Certificate Rules…are hereby revoked "—These Rules may be cited as the Evidence by Certificate Rules. 1961, and shall come into operation on the first day of March, 1961.It seems that the Home Office has anticipated the need for legislation in this respect and that it is only reasonable to ask the Postmaster-General to introduce similar legislation to ensure that this new service, which will be popular and remunerative, will not have any legal flaws about it which will deny it to the people most likely to use it.
§ Sir Barnett Janner (Leicester, North-West)
I support the new Clause and I hope that the Postmaster-General will not hesitate to accept it. It is reasonable and very important. The Association of Municipal Corporations is lending its considerable support and I am sure that you, Mr. Speaker, will agree that something has to be done to make procedure in our courts, and in other legal matters where the proving of service of documents is necessary, as easy and effective as possible, without incurring the heavy expense now involved.
The position has now been altered. but some years ago, under the Army Act, it was necessary to prove only that a letter calling up a man had been posted to place him in peril of action against him if he failed to comply with his call-up notice. I have myself been engaged in cases in which the person concerned had not received the letter and had been charged with the serious offence of desertion in consequence. That provision was later amended, but the importance of proving that a document has, in fact, been delivered arises in many cases in the courts.
In many instances, evidence of posting or actual delivery has to be given before the courts can dispose of a case. Those of us who practise law know how difficult it often is to find the person who actually posted a letter, because proving a post book is often difficult as one has to pro 1602 duce the actual individual who made the entry or someone who was present at the time. It will be readily understood how difficult that is if there has been a considerable lapse of time.
If the Clause is accepted, as I hope it will be, many of the difficulties will be eliminated. I can illustrate the sort of thing that happens by referring to the substituted service of a document when there is a debt or something of the kind and the individual concerned evades service. The court frequently orders that service should be effected by registered post. It would be much more satisfactory if this reasonable and cheap method of giving proof that a document had been delivered were used.
The courts would be glad to have a provision of this kind. Even with the serving of a notice of summons to appear before the magistrates' court, this method would avoid much delay and trouble which is now involved in proving the service of letters or documents. The ultimate result would 'be a considerable saving of 'expense and the time of the courts and witnesses who would otherwise have to be called.
This 'provision will also help commercial undertakings for whom it is often difficult to prove that a letter [has, in fact, been delivered with the present cumbersome machinery of getting proof under the rules for registered letters. The registered letter is not a very practical way of dealing with matters, particularly if a person has to send out many letters or postal packets which he wants to feel satisfied have, in fact, been delivered. Moreover, there is the question of delivery to the person concerned.
I think that commercial houses would use this to a very large extent for their own purposes, as well as legal offices. There are many transactions which occur with regard to property matters, notices to quit, notices on behalf of a wife who has to obtain maintenance from her husband and whose husband is avoiding orders—I could quote a thousand and one instances—where this could be put into practical effect.
All that one would have to produce to the court is the certificate that the Post Office had certified that a document had 'been delivered to a person at the address given. The onus of proof that it had not been delivered would then be 1603 shifted on to the person who denied having received it. It is self-evident that this is an important matter, which can bring nothing but good and no evil of any kind.
This is a matter which ought to appeal to the Postmaster-General. I hope that he will not put us to so much trouble about this as he has done about some other matters, and that he will accept this Clause in a good spirit.
§ Mr. John Arbuthnot (Dover)
I do not want to take up time talking about this new Clause, except to express the hope that my right hon. Friend will be able either to accept it or something of a similar nature. The Clause has been explained with considerable clarity by the hon. Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. W. R. Williams), who moved it, and, therefore, no further explanation or discussion about it is required. All that I wish to do is to bring additional evidence that there is a real demand for something of this kind.
The recorded delivery service is taking the place, to a very considerable extent, or will be once this Bill has been passed, of the registered letter, and it is appropriate, where local authorities, for example, now have to send documents by registered letter because they are forced to do so by Statute, that this recorded delivery service should serve the same purpose. I hope, therefore, that my right hon. Friend will be able to accept this or a similar Clause.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Mr. R. E. Winterbottom (Sheffield. Brightside)
When my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. W. R. Williams) opened the debate he said that municipalities in general were accepting this new recorded delivery service. I have a letter in my possession telling me emphatically that in the City of Sheffield the town clerk has had to tell, the whole of his departments that he cannot advise them to change from a registered system of postage to a recorded system of postage.
§ Mr. W. R. Williams
I did not say that municipalities were accepting the service without the important qualification to which I referred. I think that it is true to say that the service has been welcomed in all quarters as very necessary, pro- 1604 vided that the disabilities, with which the new Clause deals, are removed.
§ Mr. Winterbottom
My hon. Friend has interjected at the point where I was going to argue the case for the acceptance of either the new Clause or something which gives effect to his argument.
I want, first, to relate this matter To the registered post as we have it at present. In February of this year, the registration charge was increased from 1s. to 1s. 6d. and many towns and cities have, therefore, had this added postal charge when they are compelled to send out documents by registered letter. The. nature of the new recorded delivery service does not allow them, in many cases, to change their system of using the registered post to that of the recorded post. Many Acts of Parliament, for example, Section 105 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947; Section 37 of the Public Utility Street Works Act, 1950; Section 169 of the Housing Act, 1957; and Section 282 of the Highways Act, 1959, specifically declare that the registered post must be used when certain documents are sent out.
§ Sir B. Janner
I think that my hon. Friend rather emphasises the point that we are trying to put right. Registration is essential, but this is an alternative to registration.
§ Mr. Winterbottom
That is what I am trying to say and I am glad that my hon Friend has realised it, but before I can argue the case I have to put certain points of view which have not yet been expressed in the House.
I have referred to certain existing Acts of Parliament as proof of the need for accepting this new recorded system on terms of equality with the registered post. In particular, I am arguing that this is essential for municipal work, if additional expense is not to be incurred owing to the increase in the new registration charges.
It would be possible, if the Postmaster-General is prepared to accept the new Clause, or one like it, to reduce some of the municipal expenditure on the posting of important documents. In Sheffield we are at present on the horns of a dilemma. We do not know what we shall do if this Clause is not accepted 1605 Its rejection will mean considerably more expenditure on registered letters.
Hon. Members have received from the Association of Municipal Corporations and, I should think, from almost every town clerk in the country, letters urging the acceptance of the proposal made in this Clause. I hope that the Postmaster-General will accept the principle. The wording may not be quite acceptable to him in its present form, but I am not asking that he should accept the letter of the Clause. I urge only that he accepts the principle enshrined in it and that he meets the genuine difficulties now being experienced by many municipalities.
§ Mr. Frederic Harris (Croydon, North-West)
There is plenty of work to he done by the House today and I do not wish to prolong the debate, but as everyone on both sides appears to be in agreement, I should like to add my voice in favour of what has been said.
I feel that the recorded delivery service will be invaluable to business houses. I do not want to take any profit away from the Post Office, but the present rate of postage is rather expensive. It certainly is a large item of expenditure to any commercial house. I am sure that once these commercial houses become well acquainted with this new service it will be very fully used. On the other hand, it should be a supplement to the normal registered post. I think that it will take only a limited amount from the income derived from the registration of letters and that, if fully used, will increase the total income of the Post Office.
I sincerely trust that my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General will find the answer to the difficulty raised about proof of delivery. Those who are not lawyers, but who find themselves, regrettably, in courts of law for one reason or another, know how difficult and expensive it is to produce proof of these things. If that requirement can be simplified in the form suggested in the new Clause a first-class job will have been done. I hope that my right hon. Friend will find a way of meeting this request.
§ Dr. Horace King (Southampton, Itchen)
I am sure that local authorities will be crateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. W. R. Williams) for moving the new Clause and for the clear and cogent way 1606 in which he put the arguments in favour of it. I hope that the Postmaster-General will also express his gratitude to my hon. Friend and will accept either the Clause or the principle embodied in it. I have been asked by my own local authority to support it, and I know that what I am saying represents the view not only of my own borough council but of all local authorities.
There is no doubt that the new recorded delivery service will be of great value. It is an excellent reform. This service will be both useful and economical to those who do not wish to send money or jewellery by registered post. I congratulate the Postmaster-General on having introduced it. It is a kind of half-way house between ordinary delivery and the registered post.
The Clause -embodies a plea to the Postmaster-General to give local authorities the advantage of this new service. At present, many local authority notices must by law be sent out in such a way that the authority can prove that they have been sent out. This means that local authorities must send a great deal of their correspondence by registered post, and much of that correspondence includes bulky documents which are expensive to post when registration, under the new rates. now costs from Is. 6d. upwards.
My own town clerk also points out that when documents are sent by registered post there is delay in some cases. because registered letters are sometimes not delivered until the second delivery of the day. At a time when ratepayers are making out their annual budgets with universal feelings of distress, a Clause like this which will make a little contribution from the central authority towards the great expenditure borne by the ratepayers will be a useful douceur. I invite the Postmaster-General to accept the Clause or its principle and thereby make this concession to the local authorities.
§ Mr. Arthur Tiley (Bradford. West)
I think that the town clerk of Bradford was very early in the field in seeing that some action by my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General was necessary either on the lines of the new Clause, or by some other method, to deal with this difficulty, and some time ago I sent my right hon. Friend representations made from Bradford. We are anxious in Bradford that we should keep our costs 1607 down, because for the first time for 20 years the Conservatives are in charge of the local authority there and for the first time for 20 years the rates are being decreased. We are therefore watching all these costs.
Apart from the advantages afforded to local authorities, the new Clause, as explained so well by the hon. Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. W. R. Williams), who is obviously the shadow Minister, will be of tremendous advantage in the ordinary activities of commerce. Thousands of insurance documents, for example, pass to and fro throughout the country day by day. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to follow the lead given from both sides of the House and will make some solid suggestion which will resolve this difficulty.
§ Mr. Harry Randall (Gateshead, West)
There is so much unanimity on both sides of the House that I, too, do not want to prolong the debate. In the Post Office service there are occasions when members of the staff commit misdemeanours, and when they do so they are furnished with a form and asked to explain why. The form is known as "P.18". I think that the Postmaster-General is called upon to explain why it has been left to the Opposition to put a new Clause before the House to deal with something which should have been foreseen. This is obvious from the number of communications on the subject that hon. Members have received.
When I was a postman I was strictly taught that at no time must I receive a letter from the public unless it had been put through the aperture of the pillar box, because it was very necessary to have proof of delivery. If any postman dared to accept from a member of the public a letter that was not put through the aperture of a pillar box I am quite sure that he would receive a P.18.
This recorded delivery service is an excellent service and I congratulate the Postmaster-General on introducing it. I am sorry that he did not round it off, because in the communication on the subject which he published widely throughout the country he made it clear that he was providing the service as an alternative to the registered letter. The 1608 Post Office document also refers to proof of delivery and proof of acceptance, but the matter is not completely clear at present, and there could be a great deal of legal argument on whether the necessary proof had been establishmed.
Therefore, even if the Postmaster-General cannot accept this Clause as it stands, I hope that he will take an early opportunity to introduce the principle. Even if that were not appropriate in this Bill, amending legislation should be introduced soon to put the matter right. Many people and organisations are most anxious to use this excellent service, so I suggest that in the circumstances I have mentioned amending legislation should be introduced to give the customer what he wants.
§ 4.30 p.m.
§ The Assistant Postmaster-General (Miss Mervyn Pike)
I should like to thank the hon. Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. W. R. Williams) for bringing in this new Clause, and to tell the House at once that we wholeheartedly accept the principle and the objectives behind it. I am also very gratified by the complimentary things that have been said about this new recorded delivery service. It has got off to a very good start, and, although only a month old, is already proving popular with the general public. We are anxious that the maximum use should be made of it, and we are at present engaged in preparing legislation which will permit people to take full advantage of this cheaper alternative to registration.
The necessary legislation, however—as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Bright-side (Mr. Winterbottom) said—is very complex. Our consultations with other Government Departments are by no means complete, yet they have already produced a list of over 50 Acts that may require amendment. The wording of these statutes varies widely, and what constitutes evidence of service of a document is defined in different ways in different statutes.
We have not, therefore, yet reached comprehensive conclusions and been able to settle the precise form which an amending enactment should take. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Statutory Instruments. These can, of course, 1609 be amended by Statutory Instruments, and we hope that, wherever possible, Departments will take that line and so enable them to make full use of the service.
The complexity of the problem can perhaps be best illustrated by reference to this new Clause. Leaving on one side the drafting weaknesses, which are inevitable, there are matters of substance that we could not accept. It may well be that paragraph (b) of the Clause would be unduly restrictive. For instance, it is not clear that the use of recorded delivery ought to be restricted to cases where an advice of delivery is subsequently obtained; the statutory provisions about registered post do not usually make this essential. This is the sort of point that will have to be clarified in relation to each Statute with the Department which administers the Statute before we can decide what is needed.
Secondly, the use of regulation-making power in this connection is questionable. What will be needed will, in all probability, be a series of substantive amendments of existing statutory provisions differing from each other. As at present advised, we do not think that it would be proper for this to be done by regulations subject—as would be those under the proposed Clause—to the negative Resolution procedure. The proper course will almost certainly be found to be that of substantive legislation. It may even be that the nature of the changes will be such that legislation should be presented by some Minister other than the Postmaster-General.
Therefore, while we are fully in sympathy with the intentions of this new clause, and are grateful to the hon. Member for bringing it forward, we are convinced that it does not carry out its objects. On the other hand, we are not yet in a position to propose an alternative. We are, however, vigorously pursuing the matter, and I can assure hon. Members that whatever measures are found necessary will be promoted at the earliest opportunity.
I hope that the hon. Member for Gates head, West (Mr. Randall) will agree that I have filled in my P.18 to the best of my ability; we were anxious to get this service going. Like everyone else, we regret any delays. We are determined 1610 to press ahead as quickly as possible with the necessary legislation, and this afternoon's discussion has disclosed that that legislation will have the support of all hon. Members. With that assurance, I hope that the hon. Member will be prepared to withdraw his Motion.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Gordon Touche)
I must remind the hon. Gentleman that we are on the Report stage. He cannot speak again. Does the hon. Gentleman want to ask a question?
§ Sir B. Janner
I want to ask the Assistant Postmaster-General—indeed, to urge her—to do something between now and the later stages of the Bill. If she waits until legislation can be introduced for this purpose, we may be told that the business of the House is such as to preclude us from dealing with the Measure for the time being.
I do not appreciate the difficulty that the hon. Lady adumbrates. I know that quite a large number of Acts contain provisions about registration, but why not take the first step of saying that this service can be utilised for registration purposes? if there are any other conditions in the other Acts in relation to registration they can be dealt with by legislation later. Meantime, a vast number of communications not affected by the Acts that the hon. Lady has in mind could be sent at once by this new service. I hope that the Assistant Postmaster-General—and her right hon. Friend—will consider this matter between now and the further stages of this Measure, as it is very important that something should be done without delay.
§ Mr. Ede (South Shields)
It has been said that hon. Members have been inundated with correspondence on this subject. I am free from the flood, but, as President of the County Councils' Association, it is evident from what my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. W. R. Williams) said that I was the originator of the flood, but took good care to remain on dry ground myself.
We have had the usual reply to such a Motion, given in such a charming way by the hon. Lady that it completely assuages the anger that we usually feel 1611 on getting such a reply; but I hope that when considering this matter the Postmaster-General will use his influence with all the Ministers concerned to see that we get, at as early a date as possible—and, if possible, not later than the end of the present Session—legislation that will enable this necessary, important and useful reform to be brought about.
I understood the hon. Lady to say that already 60 Acts have been discovered—
§ Mr. Ede
I am sorry that I exaggerated —over 50 other Acts—that need some amendment to enable this service to be fully operative. I have no doubt that as further dusty archives are rummaged it will not be long before 60 will be an understatement. If we want Parliament to gain in public esteem, this is just the sort of issue on which speedy action would be very effective.
I see that the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Dudley Williams) is here. I heard him the other Friday complaining—I am sorry that he feels it necessary to go—
§ Mr. Ede
The hon. Gentleman was then complaining, I think rightly, in relation to a certain Bill that I support, introduced by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Aitken), that people ought to be informed of action contemplated with regard to their land. As a rule, it is very difficult to find the owner of a bit of land who does not mean to incur any expenditure on it if he can avoid doing so. This service would be exceedingly helpful to local authorities when they have to serve notices on people whose only address, sometimes, is that of a bank, while they themselves are in some remote part of the world. There are all sorts of things in local government and ordinary business circles where the formality of proof of posting, first, and of delivery afterwards becomes an essential part of an important transaction.
We cannot say that we are satisfied with the answer we have received. That is not the fault of the hon. Lady. Everybody who has been a Minister has had to say, in the first place, "The draftsman 1612 assures us that this Clause will not achieve the mover's object". There then follow about half a dozen other things that are common form, and she, I am glad to say, stated them this afternoon better than I have ever heard them stated, and left the least resentment in our minds. We hope that so propitious an approach will be followed up by her right hon. Friend and his companions in the Government to ensure that this matter is fully dealt with—I hope, this Session.
§ Mr. Edwin Wainwright (Dearne Valley)
I feel sure that all hon. Members will very much appreciate the fact that the Assistant Postmaster-General has accepted the principle of this new Clause, but what perturbs us is that the hon. Lady did not say definitely how long it will take to put it into operation. A number of local authorities and business houses will be glad to make use of this service, but are waiting to make sure that proof of posting and delivery is guaranteed.
I hope that both the hon. Lady and the Postmaster-General realise that, quite apart from business houses, there are probably hundreds of thousands of people posting letters that might have important contents, but who are taking a risk because they do not want to pay the extra money. If this service can be extended in the way suggested, the Post Office's income will obviously be increased.
I hope that either the hon. Lady or the right hon. Gentleman will give the House more definite information about the date when the necessary Amendment to the Bill or amending legislation will be introduced.
§ Mr. Winterbottom
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. You ruled earlier that we were entitled to ask a question arising out of what the Assistant Postmaster-General said, and my only purpose is to ask a question.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
The hon. Lady has resumed her seat, but, in the circumstances, I think that the hon. Gentleman might ask a question.
§ Mr. Winterbottom
In view of the great number of Statutes providing for the use of the registered post, and as this is not the first time that the problem has been examined by the Post Office, will the hon. Lady ask her right hon. Friend to consider the possibility of introducing a single amending Bill to cover the appropriate Sections in what I believe to be about 80 or 90 Acts of Parliament in which the necessity of postal registration of documents is clearly defined?
§ 4.45 p.m.
§ The Postmaster-General (Mr. Reginald Bevins)
I think that it might help the House if I were to say a word or two about this proposed new Clause. I say at once that we are entirely in sympathy with the motive behind it. I have every intention to promote the necessary legislation at the earliest possible date. I want there to be no misunderstanding about that. I say that partly, of course, because we have an eye to the interests of our customers, the local authorities, the legal profession, and so on, but also we are not oblivious to the interests of the Post Office itself. We ourselves have an axe to grind.
There are several complications which I think I should elaborate so that right hon. and hon. Members may better appreciate the detailed nature of this question. As my hon. Friend said, we have already asked all other Government Departments for details of the statutory provisions for which they are responsible in which the use of registered post is specified for the service of documents, papers and so forth. Also, we have asked Government Departments in which categories they think recorded delivery would be acceptable as an alternative to registration. I am betraying no secret at all when I say that I am perfectly certain that Government Departments will presently say in considerable numbers that recorded delivery will be acceptable as an alternative in the great majority of cases.
As my hon. Friend rightly said, there are at least 50 Statutes which specify the use of the registered post. To be perfectly candid, one of the difficulties here is that there are differences between the old system—and, for that matter, the present system of registration—and recorded delivery, in that registration involves the transfer of packages against 1614 signature at every stage of their passage through the post, whereas recorded delivery goes through the ordinary post and there is not the same degree of security as in registered mail. There is the further difference that registered post requires a receipt which gives the name and address of the addressee whereas recorded delivery involves only a signature by the recipient in a receipt book held by the postman who delivers the mail.
Therefore, I do not think that we can say quite dogmatically—I put it like that deliberately—that recorded delivery would always be an appropriate substitute for registration. Nor can we assume with safety that the various provisions in existing Acts of Parliament for despatch by registered post have been written into those Acts solely to make sure that there is proof of delivery. At the end of the day, whether recorded delivery is acceptable or not is primarily a matter not for me or for the Post Office, but for the Department responsible for a particular enactment, and, of course, ultimately for the customer himself.
However, I will polish all that off by saying plainly to the House that we are forging ahead with our examination of all these matters with all the speed we can, and we shall proceed either to have the Statutory Instruments amended by Statutory Instrument or, in the case of statutes, introduce a Bill at the earliest possible moment. I should very much like to meet the wish of the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Sir B. Janner), who suggested that we might be able to do it at a later stage of the Bill in another place. I am only sorry that it is not practicable to do so on account of time.
§ Mr. Douglas Houghton (Sowerby)
I am interested to know whether the Bill will be a Post Office Bill, or someone else's Bill. This seems to be the amendment of a collection of Statutes to enable certain authorities to take advantage of a new service introduced by the Post Office. Where does the responsibility lie, with the other Departments or with the Postmaster-General?
§ Mr. Bevins
That is precisely one matter which has to be hammered out between one of my right hon. Friends 1615 and myself. I assure the House that there will be no avoidable delay in the matter at all. We want to make the service as widely used by the public as possible. That is our aim. In the circumstances, I hope that the hon. Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. W. R. Williams), who moved the Second Reading of the new Clause, will see fit to take it back for the present.
§ Mr. W. R. Williams
By leave of the House, I should like to say a few words before I accept the suggestion made by the Postmaster-General.
I am sorry that I did not know that my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) was the villain of the piece as far as we were concerned. I will tell my right hon. Friend that we have gone right through the hierarchy to the Parish Councils' Association, so that we have. I think, very well covered the local authorities.
I have been reading the Press advertisement again. If some of the things which the Postmaster-General said in his speech just now are correct, then, in fairness to the people who will use the service, I think that it would be as well to examine whether our advertisement is foolproof in so far as the degree of security and proof of delivery are concerned. I say that with the best possible intention. I know quite well that these things can easily become misleading, as has happened in this particular case, not because of anyone's fault, but because everybody assumes that we are dealing with the matter on the merits of a particular service and not something allied to it.
In those categories where Statutory Instrument would be sufficient for the time being, would it be possible for the change to be introduced by the Departments in that way?
§ Mr. Williams
If that is so, I sincerely hope that Government Departments will conform and so limit the area of difficulty. I can quite imagine that there are legal complications involved here. It is a pity that someone did not have foreknowledge of what would happen. I am sorry that my hon. Friends and I have not the ingenuity and skill to produce a new Clause which would be 1616 accepted and approved by the House today. As an old Post Office clerk, I have not sufficient legal knowledge either to argue with the hon. Lady, or to confirm or deny what she said.
In the circumstances, I think that the best course would be for me to ask leave to withdraw the new Clause, on the understanding that every possible haste will be used by the Department and by other Government Departments so that a good service will not be put out of its stride and handicapped at the beginning as a result of certain misleading factors. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion
§ Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
Third Reading. Sir B. Janner: Before we pass to Third Reading, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, may I ask you about the Amendments standing in the names of myself and some of my hon. Friends?
§ Sir B. Janner
But is it not the custom of the House, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and has it not long been the practice here. that those who put Amendments down should at least be entitled to plead—
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
No, that has not been the practice of the House. We should never get through some Bills if it were the practice.
§ Sir B. Janner
Perhaps I have used the wrong word. I see the Clerk of the House looking carefully at me and noting every word I say. I think that it is within the recollection of the House—
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
No. I am sorry, but it is not in order to debate Mr. Speaker's decisions on this matter.
§ Sir B. Janner
I just want to ask a question. In the circumstances, may I seek your advice and not plead—
§ 4.55 p.m.
§ The Assistant Postmaster-General (Miss Mervyn Pike)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
We have had a great deal of discussion on the Bill and a great deal has been said about our new Post Office status. There were two White Papers before the Bill was introduced which, I think, set out very clearly the purposes and principles behind the Bill. We had very full debates on Second Reading and in Committee. At this stage, it is almost inevitable that one should feel that there is very little more to be said, but, of course, today is an extremely important day in Post Office history and to many people attending to this debate, both inside the House and outside, it is the culmination of many long years of thought, development and planning in Post Office affairs.
The hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton), the hon. Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. W. R. Williams) and the hon. Member for Gateshead, West (Mr. Randall). who started their careers in the Post Office, will know how long this development has been going on and they will recognise that this is not a sudden revolution, but is the culmination of years of thought and planning. It is as much for that that we recognise the importance of today and we welcome the opportunity to speak in the Third Reading debate.
The development, of course, started in 1932, with the Bridgeman proposals. In 1955, we had the White Paper the principles of which were passed by the House. Today, in 1961, on St. David's Day—I do not know quite what the significance of that is. but perhaps it will augur well for a new measure of independence in our affairs—we have the Third Reading of our status Bill.
Some may ask why we need the Bill at all. What does it do? We in the Post Office feel that we need this new charter finally to end the concept of the Post Office as a Revenue Department and to confirm the principles already implicit in Post Office policy, that we should meet the demands of the public, at the same time paying our way, giving a good public service, and keeping the balance between social obligation and financial responsibility—the dual responsibility of 1618 social obligation and financial and commercial efficiency.
Some hon. Members do not seem to have liked the word "commercial". In this context, the word "commercial" is a very honest and a very good word. What we are trying to do is to give the best possible service to the public. We are trying to honour our social obligations. We know that we can best do that if we have the most efficient standards possible, whether those standards be judged by the yardstick of public service, by the yardstick of good accountancy or by the yardstick of the best possible financial and industrial and business practice. This new charter for the Post Office will enable us to go forward with fresh enthusiasm, energy, initiative and enterprise to fulfil the obligations of which we are so very proud. It is important, also, in that in this new concept we are enabled to safeguard the position of our staff.
During our deliberations, we have had the greatest possible measure of agreement. Certainly, we have had long discussions, but those discussions have, if anything, pinpointed how much we all agree with the principles and objects of the Bill. Perhaps the only complaint that has been made has been the question, "Why does the Bill not give more freedom and why does it not go far enough?" We appreciate the spirit behind the suggestions that have been made by hon. Members, but we accept again a dual responsibility—a responsibility to measure up to the demands of the public and, at the same time, to measure up to the national interest and have regard to the broad economic considerations of capital investment in this country. Within that dual responsibility I think that our freedom should be judged.
The Bill maintains and strengthens Parliamentary control. It clears a way through the financial confusion which has often made it difficult for hon. Members to understand and be constructive about Post Office affairs. It will, I believe, stimulate a greater interest in Post Office affairs and perhaps the better informed debates that we may have in the future in the House will help to stimulate us in the Post Office and stimulate the general acceptance by the public at large of the problems and the opportunities that lie within the Post Office 1619 itself. We believe that it will give us extra stimulus and will free us from outdated conventions that make it difficult for us to measure up to present-day needs. The Bill will enable and encourage us Ito greater effort and imagination.
Our main objective in everything that we do will be to strive to give the highest quality of public service. We must be enterprising, imaginative and efficient. We must be a progressive organisation capable of measuring up to the complex needs of the times. We cannot be fully efficient if we are handicapped by procedures and controls which are inappropriate to present-day needs. It is because I believe that the Bill aims to remove these handicaps, and will help us to shape the Post Office into a business organisation and help to bring to the public an ever higher standard of service, that I commend it with confidence to the House.
§ 5.2 p.m.
§ Mr. Houghton
The Assistant Postmaster-General has moved the Third Reading of the Bill with zest and enthusiasm for her Department which I am sure is shared on both sides of the House.
As a mere Englishman, I do not know whether there is any connection between St. David's Day and a greater measure of independence. There is, however, some association between St. David's Day, this Bill and my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester. Openshaw (Mr. W. R. Williams), because it happens to be his birthday, and I am sure that the House will congratulate him on that.
Since the hon. Lady has been kind enough to refer to the fact that my hon. Friends the Members for Openshaw, for Gateshead, West (Mr. Randall) and I all started our working lives in the Post Office, may I say that it is a proud moment for me and for my hon. Friends that the Post Office is about to enter into a new period of emancipation from the shackles of Treasury bureaucracy, though only in part, and will be given greater scope for initiative and enterprise.
The right hon. Gentleman the Postmaster-General is about to be transformed from a politician into a business 1620 tycoon. He will bear his new responsibilities and powers with his customary modesty. He will have the lowest salary of them all. He will have no expense account, nor will his permanent officials have inflated salaries or expense accounts. They are to show the country how a business enterprise not afflicted by the evils of commercialism can vie with private enterprise and show what public service can do. We look forward to that with great interest.
It is, as the hon. Lady has said, a very important Bill. It is a turning point in the history of the Post Office. I think that we are all glad that the head of the Post Office will retain the title which goes back to the time of Cromwell, and will still be known as the Postmaster-General and not as the managing director or chairman of British Post Offices Limited. Also, he will, of course, continue to be responsible to this House.
If the Bill is passed we have already seen the last of the Post Office Estimates in their traditional detailed form. The Post Office will cease to be a Government Department in many ways. It will become a new kind of State enterprise. It will be different from all the nationalised industries. It will be different from the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Bank of England. It will stand alone, quite distinctive. I am sure that we all wish it well in its new life.
All the staff of the Post Office will remain civil servants, whose pay and conditions will be settled in exactly the same way as hitherto. In that sense, the commercial freedom which the Bill gives to the Post Office will be qualified. I know that the hon. Lady has referred to the distaste, which has been expressed in earlier debates, at the too frequent use of the term "commercial". I myself criticised somewhat the fact that there were thirteen references to the commercial or business nature of Post Office activities in the White Paper entitled "The Status of the Post Office." It seems to me that that was rather overdoing it. However, it is undeniable that under the Bill the Post Office will have much greater freedom to indulge in commercial activities and enterprises than it has had before.
1621 What I want to say about the staff, however, is this. I hope that the safeguard which is given to the staff, of remaining civil servants, will not stand in the way of looking at incentives and rewards for productivity in the Post Office as is done in other commercial enterprises. I hope that the Postmaster-General and the staff associations will not be too hide-bound by Civil Service practice, which may be very suitable for administration but perhaps less suitable to commercial work, or even to the supply of services which the Post Office will be giving under the Bill. I say no more than that I think the Postmaster-General and the unions should be free to consider all aspects of staffing, pay and working conditions which will promote the efficency and advance of the Post Office.
The hon. Lady has referred to the fact that the Postmaster-General's freedom of action is limited in certain ways. That is so. We have had discussions in Committee and during the Second Reading on the limitations placed upon the borrowing powers of the Postmaster-General for both short-term and long-term borrowing. We have considered the limitation in the Bill on the total indebtedness which the Postmaster-General may incur on behalf of the Post Office. Then there are restrictions on the investment policy and foreign exchange. The Postmaster-General will not be able to do just as he likes.
I doubt whether the chaiman of I.C.I., or Unilever, or Associated Electrical Industries would regard the Bill as commercial freedom. I think that the respects in which the Postmaster-General is limited in his actions would be the very ones upon which they would want complete freedom. Nevertheless, I think that it was generally agreed in the early debates on the Bill that, as a State enterprise, there would have to be control by the Government and by this House of some of its economic activities which might have a bearing on taxation or the balance of payments or in other respects on economic and financial policy.
I suppose that one respect in which businesses outside would recognise the new Post Office is that, for the first time, the Postmaster-General is to become a kind of pseudo-taxpayer. He has been rescued from Dick Turpin and has been 1622 cast into the hands of the tax gatherer. Of course, Dick Turpin robbed him of a great deal more than ever the tax gatherer will lay his hands on. Dick Turpin has been at it for a matter of years, and the total of his robberies from the Post Office comes to a very large sum.
There is one respect in which I think it is desirable for the House to take note of the exercise of Parliamentary control. That is in Clause 5, which was subjected to some criticism in the Committee, though it was very difficult to find any alternative to it. I think that it should go on the record, for the benefit of the Leader of the House of Commons, whoever he may he, and for the benefit of those who may delay or obstruct Government business, that there are perils in Clause 5 which the public would soon suffer if the House failed to pass by 31st March each year the necessary Resolution which would enable the business of the Post Office to be carried on.
I know that it is possible to draw too dramatic a picture of all the post offices in the country being closed down one fine morning, all the postmen hanging around with nothing to do, all the telephones silent, and everything having come to a complete standstill, not because there was a strike, not because there was any breakdown in the machinery of the Post Office, but because the House had failed to pass the necessary Resolution of authority giving the Postmaster-General power to draw on the Post Office Fund. Unless that authority is given by the end of the financial year, the Postmaster-General will not be able to draw on the Post Office Fund next day.
I have said that none of us could find an alternative way of imposing this discipline on the House of Commons, and I think that it is as well that we should take note of the fact that to pass the necessary Resolution of authority to the Postmaster-General to draw on the Post Office Fund will be an imperative of Parliamentary business and procedure towards the close of the financial year.
Also worth noting is the discipline which is being imposed on the Post Office in Clause 12, with regard to the production of its accounts. As I see it, under Clause 12, for the year 1961–62, it will be necessary for the accounts to be ready by September, 1962, to be audited by 1623 November in the same year, laid before the House in December of that year and the necessary Resolution passed by the House by the end of March, 1963. That seems to me to be a very tight timetable indeed.
For the accounts to be ready by September, when they will have been closed in the previous March, to be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General by November and presented to the House by December, someone will have to work quickly during that period to get through the enormous amount of work which the accountancy and auditing of the Post Office accounts will entail.
I am still tempted to taunt the Postmaster-General with his readiness to accept the provision of subsection (1) of Clause 12 that these accounts shall conform to the best commercial standards, as if there were any. If we had not been so anxious to facilitate the Bill during the Committee stage, we would have moved an Amendment to substitute for that phraseaccounts which will conform to the requirements of the Comptroller and Auditor Generalwhich, we think, would have been a much safer guide than this rather vague reference to the best standards of commercial accountancy, However, we let it pass then, and we must let it pass now.
One of our difficulties in Committee was that the Postmaster-General was so satisfied with the Bill that we could not stir him into any action or desire to improve it. We had never met so complacent a Postmaster-General. When he had the opportunity of gaining the support of the Opposition for a further bold dash for freedom, he held back and said that it was all right, that he had gone into it and was perfectly satisfied. We still did not think so. We would have preferred to see, for example, the Post Office have a much wider margin of. borrowing power than is provided in Clause 10.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
The hon. Member will appreciate that he cannot talk about what is not in the Bill. On Third Reading, we can talk about only what is in the Bill.
§ Mr. Houghton
Yes, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, but I hope that I am in order 1624 in saying that I am dissatisfied with what is in the Bill.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
The hon. Member is entitled to say that he is dissatisfied; he is not entitled to say what will satisfy him.
§ Mr. Houghton
I can see that this is a kind of tightrope exercise, and I will go on repeating as often as I can remember that I am dissatisfied with what is in the Bill, and, then, perhaps, keep in order.
I do not wish to detain the House overlong, but it is worth while pointing out the respects in which we are still dissatisfied with the Bill. Clause 12 provides for a limit on the indebtedness of the Post Office of £880 million without further authority from the House, and a total of £960 million on the condition that the Postmaster-General obtains the authority of the House. We feel that these amounts give the right hon. Gentleman just a little less room for manœuvre than he ought to have.
I think, also, that we are not entirely satisfied about Clause 19, but we hope that in exercising his rights under that Clause the Postmaster-General will see that he reaches reasonably satisfactory business arrangements with Departments which now come to him for service. Now that the Post Office is a separate entity. the commercial nature of which is underlined, the Post Office must put itself on a somewhat different relationship with some of its customers than it has, perhaps, had before.
Another matter which met with expressions of dissatisfaction in the Committee concerns the number of respects in which the Postmaster-General has to do as he is told by the Treasury. We hoped that there would be a less peremptory provision in the Bill about his associations with the Treasury on particular matters. Of course, we realise that when a person may go to only one moneylender it is obvious that he must submit to his terms, but there are ways of expressing it even then, and it would have met with our approval if the Bill had provided for the Postmaster-General to reach an agreement with the Treasury on these things, instead of being directed by the Treasury, as is so frequently provided in the Bill. I think that that sketches in one or two of the points in the Bill upon which we on this side of the House are still not entirely satisfied.
1625 The provisions for the pensions of the staff are satisfactory and the general arrangements which are made for the Postmaster-General to deploy his resources to the best of his judgment instead of being hidebound by the traditional procedure of the Estimates are generally ones of which we approve. No doubt we shall now see the Post Office embark upon a new spurt of initiative. Indeed, in the new Clause which we were discussing until a few moments ago we have a foretaste of the new commercialism of the Post Office's methods of presenting itself to the public. We see thatIt is an indication of the progressive spirit that now inspires the modern Post Office in which mechanisation and new ideas are contributing to the development of the most advanced postal system in the world.I am sure we all feel greatly moved by words of that kind. Looking at the code number at the bottom, I rather expect that this was written by C. F. Higham, Limited, the advertising agents. If that is so. I want to know what has happened to Colman, Prentis and Varley, which concern carried the Government through a General Election. What has gone wrong that the right hon. Gentleman should not be relying on that firm for his new publicity? It may be that he is to share his advertising contracts between a number of enterprising firms and that they will vie with each other in presenting the Post Office in these most glowing terms.
When speaking some years ago to a retired senior official of the Post Office, I asked him to tell me the truth about the Postmaster-Generalship of Sir Kingsley Wood, because it was then that the Post Office really emerged from a very long period of traditional submissiveness and lack of initiative. I was told that all Sir Kingsley Wood did was to take the lid off and allow freedom to the pent up initiative, imagination and inventiveness of the staff of the Post Office. I am sure that the Postmaster-General will wish to draw very fully on those qualities now. Indeed, I am sure that he is doing so already.
We all, on both sides of the House, hope that the Post Office will have a fruitful history before it under the provisions of the Bill. If the Postmaster-General finds, or if his successors find, that some of the limitations in the Bill 1626 are curbing his freedom unnecessarily, and that he could do still better if the Bill were amended in some respect, we hope that he will not hesitate to come back to the House for its amendment, because we on this side, as well as hon. Members opposite, wish the Post Office to have, in the words of the blurb of the advertisement:…the most advanced postal system in the world.
§ 5.24 p.m.
§ Sir B. Janner
I am not altogether happy about the Bill, not because it does not contain some things that are very good but because it contains some provisions which, I believe, do not quite come up to what we had hoped were the intentions of the Postmaster-General.
We have just come from a Committee which reminded me, in so far as the Government are concerned, of a gathering observing something in the nature of a Yogi party. Its hon. Members sat dumb to the world, absolutely steeped in contemplation. I do not really know whether it was contemplation or just relaxation. I do not know what it was. The manner in which supporters of the Government accepted the suggestions of the Postmaster-General was as though they were saying, "Bravo. God's in his Heaven. All's right with the world." They just sat there and sat to such an extent that at one time I was moved to inquire whether, as in the case of the rule about tedious repetition, there should not be a rule dealing with tedious silence.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
I would remind the hon. Member that there is a rule about the Third Reading of a Bill. It should be about its contents.
§ Sir B. Janner
I am merely saying, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, why I am dissatisfied.
Nothing was said in the Committee which in any way helped us to understand where the Postmaster-General was going. Does the right hon. Gentleman mean that under the Bill he is to free himself from the shackles of the Treasury? If so, perhaps he would explain to us before we give the Bill its Third Reading how far he will be able to do that.
In my view, the right hon. Gentleman fancies himself as a Houdini, but he does 1627 not bargain with the Treasury which has some holds from which no escapologist, no Houdini, would be able to extricate himself. We are not happy at the fact that the Postmaster-General is still leaving himself in the position where he is almost under the complete and direct control of the Treasury. That is one of the big complaints which some of us have about the Bill as it now stands. We do not think that the Bill in its present form will give the right hon. Gentleman the opportunity of expanding the service —in most respects an excellent service—in such a way as to prevent the Treasury from doing what it wants to do with regard to financing it.
I commend to the Postmaster-General a few thoughts which are contained in a book by Durell on Parliamentary grants. I hope that when the Bill becomes an Act and is put into operation the right hon. Gentleman will realise that there are some opportunities, even though the Measure does not give him the full amount of power that we wanted him to have, which will enable him to do something about the matter. Talking about the Treasury, Durell said:Nor again must it intervene too much in administration.I give this gratis, chapter and verse, so that the Postmaster-General will know, when the Measure is put into effect, that he may have some method of saving the Post Office when it comes to a question of undue intervention by the Treasury.
The quotation continues:Though the Treasury is a department having control over other departments, the word "control" implies, not that it is its duty to watch them and act the part of a detective towards them, but that, whenever changes are made and difficulties occur and scandals are detected, it is the duty of the Treasury to devise regulations for meeting, correcting, or remedying them. In this sense only does it exercise control.When we tried to introduce something that would put that kind of policy into words, why did not the Postmaster-General welcome it? He says that there are still many difficulties in his way with which the dead hand of the Treasury has prevented him from dealing, but the dead hand of the Treasury has been a dead hand for a considerable time, and it is highly important that when the Post Office wants to do things it should not be limited by that dead hand.
1628 The Post Office describes itself as a great commercial undertaking, but also as a great social undertaking—something which we have tried to impress on the Government on many occasions. I hope that, under the interpretation of the Bill, the Post Office will be able to say to the Treasury that it has no right to interfere when the Post Office requires something reasonable to be done. That is the caution I want to hand out—if I may use that term—and I hope that it will be accepted in good spirit by the Postmaster-General.
Is everything so wonderful in the garden? The hon. Lady the Assistant Postmaster-General will not have the temerity to say that everything is all right. I want to give a few illustrations of the way in which the moneys now being provided may have to be used. I ask that some items which have disturbed me of late might be looked into now that the Bill has reached this stage. A few weeks ago I received my telephone account for the previous six months. Included in the trunk calls was one for £6. I had my wife query that, because, at the date we were supposed to have made that call, we were in the United States and our home was closed.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
Order. I am having difficulty in connecting that with the Third Reading of the Bill.
§ Sir B. Janner
I am giving an example of what I hope the Bill, when it is passed, will remedy. If it cannot remedy these things, I want to know why, Mr. Deputy-Speaker.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could refer me to the Clause of the Bill to which he is referring.
§ Mr. Houghton
My hon. Friend may find in Clause 12 the power of the Postmaster-General to borrow money out of which he will probably repay my hon. Friend that £6.
§ Sir B. Janner
With great respect, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I suggest that we are still entitled to deal with examples of cases where the Post Office is not, at present, as perfect as we would like to see it, and to ask the Postmaster-General whether he can satisfy us that what is in 1629 the Bill will remedy those difficulties, in view of the fact that he has limited himself to certain borrowing powers. I know that I cannot ask for greater borrowing powers, but I want to know whether the powers contained in the Bill, and the money to be available, either from borrowing outside or from the Treasury. will enable him to remedy some of these difficulties.
When my wife queried the £6, she was informed that it was a typing error and should not have been in our account. As there were two other items charged for the time during which we were away, I sent the account back so that it could be checked. We were told that the present system was not foolproof and that we must, therefore, put up with it. more or less.
Will the money to be borrowed under the Bill enable the Postmaster-General to introduce a system which will remedy a position like that, and also to think again about the question of making charges for calls by time? He is to have some scope and is to go off on his own, according to the intentions of the Bill. He is to be freed from the shackles of the Treasury. I ask him to think again about doing something with the money to be made available by the Bill to remove difficulties. Otherwise, I may not be prepared to support it. Will he consider the question of charging people for calls by time?
It will be extremely serious for a person if, after two minutes, he has to stop a conversation because he has not the money available in the call box.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
This is going far beyond the Third Reading of the Bill. We cannot go into all these details.
§ Sir B. Janner
Are we not entitled to say that we want to know what powers the Bill gives to the right hon. Gentleman? I do not want to start reading all the Clauses, but they provide for sums of money to be borrowed or to be granted. The right hon. Gentleman says that he wants so many hundreds of millions of pounds. We wanted more to be available. I shall not go into that now, but I do want to know whether the money he will have available will enable him to put right those matters which are now wrong. I am surely en- 1630 titled to know that before allowing him to borrow £800 million.
§ Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)
Clause 16 (2) reads:The consent, concurrence or authority of the Treasury shall cease to be requisite to the exercise or discharge by the Postmaster General of any power or duty conferred or imposed on him by or by virtue of any of the following enactments…Included in those enactments is Section 1 of the Telephone Act, 1951.
§ Sir B. Janner
I am obliged to my hon. Friend, because, obviously, that covers what I want to say. I am not entitled to say what I would like to put into the Bill, but I am entitled to ask whether what is in the Bill enables the Postmaster-General to do his duty in putting right certain anomalies. Millions of people in this country are concerned about these anomalies.
Will the right hon. Gentleman abolish these cumbersome and unhappy restrictions he places upon people who want to make telephone calls? It is the same sort of thing as the wretched parking meter system where one has to rush out, move the car to another place and put more money in. Is that the sort of thing that is to happen in our telephone boxes? Will a caller have to come rushing out and look for another 2d. in order to continue his call? If the Bill does not give the right hon. Gentleman sufficient power to remedy such anomalies, then it is a bad Bill in some respects.
I have another illustration from my personal experience, which I give so that he may know the kind of thing which is troubling people. A young American who was staying at my home booked a call to New York for his birthday early in January. Meanwhile, he received a note that his parents would telephone him. Accordingly, he cancelled his call. Instead of the call being cancelled, however, the two calls came through—
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Member, but I cannot relate that to the Third Reading of the Bill.
§ Sir B. Janner
What arrangements will the Postmaster-General make with the money that is provided under the Bill? What will he do about remedying 1631 a situation of that kind? There are other difficulties which I could quote.
If it is out of order to talk of examples of that nature now, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, it must have been out of order on Second Reading. Then we were discussing the purpose of the provisions of the Bill. I know that I am not entitled to ask for additional provisions, but I am entitled to know what the Postmaster-General will do with the hundreds of millions of pounds which he borrows. When I raised the same points in Committee, I was given no answer. The House is entitled to be told these things and whether the right hon. Gentleman will do what is essential to put right the things which are still wrong.
These matters may be a little uncomfortable for the Postmaster-General, because he thinks that everything in the Post Office is good. If that is what he thought, however, he would not have brought the Bill forward. Its purpose is to provide machinery to enable him to improve matters. In my view, the right hon. Gentleman will have a tough time, because, unless he is sufficiently astute, the one thing that he has not provided for himself is protection against the Treasury. I am not so sure that the right hon. Gentleman is sufficiently astute to be able to overcome the wiles of the Treasury. Whether he will be able to do it under the Bill, I do not know.
At an earlier stage, we had a long discussion about the extent to which the Post Office is to be used for commercial purposes and how far for improving social amenities. The pattern of living accommodation is changing. Most areas have a new appearance. People are moving to new towns. In some places, conditions are being improved, although not as fast as we on this side could improve them. Areas are becoming detached from others. Some areas consist practically of soulless houses where the people have lost the warmth of the neighbourhood in which they live.
The Post Office comes into all this. The local post office was one of the social centres in which the people used to meet to discuss their family affairs and the general affairs of the district. 1632 That tradition is being interrupted. It is a duty of the Post Office to provide reasonable amenities for those people, wherever they may move. Does the Postmaster-General consider that the Bill will enable him to borrow sufficient money to provide those amenities?
On numerous occasions, I have cited the case of the post office required at the top of a hill, to which old-age pensioners cannot climb to draw their pensions. I have spoken, also, of the provision of telephone kiosks. Is the Postmaster-General satisfied that in a town like Leicester. for example, where the people have perforce been compelled to move from the centre of the town, the money provided by the Bill will be sufficient to enable him to take a more liberal and more human view of the needs of the people?
If a kiosk has been provided in, say, New Parks, Leicester, will the Post Office now want to remove it elsewhere because it cannot afford to provide another new one? I may be wrong, but I cannot help thinking that the Treasury has told the right hon. Gentleman to keep his expenditure within hard limits. I see from his smile that the trouble is not himself, but the Treasury. I want him to tell us that he will not remove the telephone kiosks from places where they do not pay their way. Does everything that is provided for the community pay its way?
§ Mr. J. A. Stodart (Edinburgh, West)
In the tremendous expansion and new housing schemes in my constituency to the west of Edinburgh and elsewhere, which sounds rather like what the hon. Member has said about Leicester, the Post Office could not have been more liberal and humane in outlook in providing new facilities.
§ Sir B. Janner
The persistence of the Scotsman has succeeded where I have failed. Now I understand what is happening. My Leicester constituents will not be overjoyed to hear that Edinburgh has something which they do not possess. My job is to see that they get it. I may be a quiet kind of fellow, but the Postmaster-General should have consideration for my constituents, who may not have as persistent and eloquent an advocate as the hon. Member for Edinburgh. West (Mr. Stodart).
1633 Those things cannot be measured mathematically. I have done a little "maths" myself, but one cannot work out human needs by saying, "So much here, so many there". I admire the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West for his success. By pushing for all he is worth, he is able to get what he wants. I hope that, in time, I shall be able to persuade the Postmaster-General to give us in Leicester what the hon. Member has managed to get in Edinburgh. He is a charming Member, but if he were to ask a few of the Edinburgh people whether they are fully satisfied he might find that even they do not have everything they need.
I have done my best to keep within the rules of order. I said in Committee that the Postmaster-General reminded me of the words of a famous poet:We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon.I am beginning to think that to some extent he has given away the powers of the Post Office. We are trying our best to help him, although he may not appreciate the fact. Let him impress upon his right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer that he must use the money provided under the Bill in the ways which have been suggested to him, and that it will not be long before he returns to ask for more.
§ 5.53 p.m.
§ Mr. Randall
Nobody, on either side, will deny that my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, North-West (Sir B. Janner), who has skilfully kept within order, has pleaded the cause of his constituents very well indeed. I am not so sure, however, that I can accept some of his criticisms against the Post Office. I do not suggest that it is free from criticism and is faultless, but if the services of the Post Office—
§ Sir B. Janner
It was because of lack of time that I was not able to give the due praise which I should like to have done. I had to concentrate on the critical side because time was running against me.
§ Mr. Randall
I am glad to have that assurance from my hon. Friend. At least, his constituents can be satisfied that he has raised his voice in Parliament on their behalf and that the difficulties confronting his constituents will be looked at by the Postmaster-General.
1634 In moving the Third Reading, the Assistant Postmaster-General said that there had been a great deal of discussion of the Bill. Certainly, there was considerable discussion in Committee. My only question is: who generated that discussion? I have a feeling that those discussions could have been shortened had there been better understanding of the arrangements in Committee. For the Committee to be confronted with the statement that, unless it completed its labours within a certain time, a Motion would be moved to continue the sitting of the Committee until it finished its work, was not helpful to the course of the discussion. However, I do not make a serious point of that. I believe that the general discussions which we have had have been of benefit to both sides of the House and of advantage to the Post Office.
One of my difficulties in the past has been that there has been inadequate discussion in the House of Post Office affairs, and I welcome the opportunity of discussing the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) referred to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. W. R. Williams), himself and myself—as did the Assistant Postmaster-General—as having served in the Post Office for a very long time, and he said that this must be a proud moment for us. It is a proud moment.
For many years I have wanted to see the Post Office develop along the lines indicated in the Bill. For many years I laboured and argued. The Bill catches up with the recommendations of the Bridgeman Committee of 1912, which is a long time ago. I know that there are a number of reasons why those recommendations could not be implemented earlier. Up till 1939 there was an emasculated Post Office Fund, but this went nowhere near as far as I wanted it to go, nor as far as the Postmaster-General of today thinks it should go, according to a speech which he made in Nottingham, and which I mentioned on Second Reading. As a result of this delay, hundreds of millions of pounds have been lost to the Postmaster-General in the development of this industry. He will not deny that. In Committee, he spoke about re-writing the history of the Post Office. This debate brings the 1635 recommendations of the Bridgeman Committee into statutory form.
Many people believe that a new era is opening for the Post Office after 300 years of the administration which we have known. I believe that the Bill will be a challenge to the Postmaster-General, because he will no longer be inhibited to the same extent by Treasury control as so many of his predecessors have been. He will have freedoms which no other Postmaster-General ever had over the last 300 years.
I was interested in a statement which the right hon. Gentleman made in Committee in which he said that hon. Members on this side of the House had not been as much trouble to him as he would have liked, simply because we had the service so much at heart. His phrase was that "we loved it so much". That was a little less than generous, and I hope that he will think about it. The test whether an organisation is good is not whether we hate it or love it. The approach of hon. Members opposite to nationalisation or of my hon. Friends to denationalisation should not be one of love or hate. The fact that my hon. Friends and I have not been giving the right hon. Gentleman too much trouble is not necessarily because we love the service so much, but because we are satisfied that the administration and the staff generally have been doing an excellent job. It is up to those who do not believe in State enterprise to be critical.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will take warning that in this Bill is clearly indicated a different approach to Post Office operations in the future. There is an emphasis on commercialism. If the emphasis upon commercialism in the new venture is too great, my hon. Friends and I will be very vigilant. We shall constantly remind the Government of the Post Office's social responsibilities, if that profit motive becomes the dominating and deciding factor in the Post Office's approach to its problems.
Much was said in Committee about Clause 6, and a fact emerged from the discussion which I have suspected. Clause 6 lays it down that, taking one year with another, the Post Office should break even and make a proper allocation to general reserve, but during the 1636 discussion it was seen that for the first time the Post Office is expected to make a profit of about 8 per cent. I am suspicious about this, because if it is achieved, it may be that charges to the public will rise, or that the services and the facilities of the Post Office will be reduced or that modernisation will suffer.
I listened carefully to the right hon. Gentleman's explanations, but I was not entirely satisfied with his statement that this was to be the broad aim of Post Office financial policy. If under the Act, the profit motive becomes the dominant factor in Post Office working for the future, then I assure the right hon. Gentleman that he will hear from us, despite the fact that we love the Post Office and despite the service which some of us have rendered to it.
On Second Reading, the right hon. Gentleman said that he would not like the House to think that because of the shift in his thinkingthe Post Office will degenerate into a soulless, hard-faced organisation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th January. 1961; Vol. 633, c. 184.]He said that with efficient and businesslike methods the Post Office would still want to be warm and human in its relations with customers and staff. In view of that statement, it may well be that my suspicions of what will happen are not well founded, but I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Post Office's great traditions have been built on efficiency and businesslike methods and that it would be a mistake if the new methods placed an over-emphasis on profits.
May I next refer to Parliamentary control and discussion? In the discussions there were a number of references to the nationalised industries. I am particularly pleased that in the Bill Parliamentary control will remain with the Postmaster-General. It was one of the recommendations of the Bridgeman Committee that the public have a right to influence, which Parliamentary discussion and control can give. I am glad that that recommendation of the Bridge-man Committee is reflected in the Bill.
Without wishing to criticise the makeup of other nationalisation Acts and the boards of nationalised industries, I think that it is a good thing to have Parliamentary control. We shall have a Minister in charge, and this will give hon. 1637 Members the fullest opportunity to question him and to discuss the various reports which he introduces. There are also various accountabilities, and this is an advance on any previous arrangement which we have had. I hope that with these new arrangements, and under this new venture, hon. Members will take the opportunity when reports are before us of looking a little more closely into Post Office affairs and discussing the affairs of this great industry.
I very much hope that the accounts which are presented to the House will be in the simplest form so that hon. Members may grasp the facts and the information in them. That will contribute considerably to a good discussion in the House. I note the undertakings given by the Postmaster-General and the Assistant Postmaster-General on this subject. Lack of simplicity has been one of the failings of the past. Now that we are to have a report from the Postmaster-General, let us have it in a form which we can understand in order that we may intelligently discuss Post Office affairs.
The Bill also mentions telecommunications. There has been much discussion outside the House whether telecommunications should be separated from the postal services. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman has taken note that, although there is reference to it in the Bill, no hon. Member on either side of the House has argued for upsetting the present system whereby telecommunications and postal services will continue to run together. Suggestions have been made outside the House that there should be a separation of the two communications services, but in the House no one has advanced an argument in favour of separation. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman has taken note of that.
As I said earlier, the Bill offers a challenge to the Postmaster-General. I refer to a few remarks which he made in Committee when we were dealing with an Amendment to Clause 13 to ensure that he would not be too burdened on the take-over bids. The right hon. Gentleman said—and I agree with him—All I would say on that is that I dearly wish that I could rewrite history in the Bill. Unfortunately, I cannot.—IOFFIctAL REPORT. Standing Committee F, 22nd February, 1961 t c. 280.]I agree with him, because the implication of those words is an acknowledg- 1638 ment and recognition of the outstanding success story of a State enterprise. I believe that they implied a longing and a desire, almost of envious eyes on the luscious surpluses of the past. But, as the right hon. Gentleman said, history cannot be rewritten.
Before we pass the Bill, however—it will get a Third Reading, because there is no opposition to it—it must be understood that if we pass it and have a new venture, it will have been introduced not because of any lack of industry, zeal and endeavour on the part of the Post Office in the past. Whether we consider success, or enterprise, or initiative, or surpluses, or staff relations, we find that this industry has been in the forefront.
There have been many Postmasters-General. In one of the rooms in St. Martin-le-Grand there are displayed photographs of almost all the Postmasters-General. They have made their contributions, and I think that it would be equally accepted that the administrative staff have made theirs. The staff have been, and still are, devoted to the industry, and I believe that the nation owes a good deal not only to previous Postmasters-General, but to the administrative staffs.
In recent years the administration has become more enlightened, and those of us who have been in close touch with the Post Office have not failed to notice the quality of service given by the administrative staff. One must remember both the staff and the staff associations. The right hon. Gentleman will agree, I think, that they contribute enormously to the well-being of the Post Office. In no other industry is the quality of consultation so high, and it is to the credit of the staff that they have never contracted out of their obligations. I believe that when the Bill becomes law they will continue to make their contribution to the new venture. The challenge which faces the Postmaster-General is not only that of living up to the traditions of the past, but of ensuring that in this new deal he takes the customers and the staff along with him.
This is a good Bill, and I wish it well in its remaining stages. The unfolding of the provisions contained in it will 1639 to a large extent depend on the Postmaster-General and on the manner in which he holds the balance between efficiency and social obligations. To abandon these social obligations would be a retrograde step, and if I thought that the Bill would lead to the Postmaster-General doing that, I would oppose the Bill. There is no reason why he should abandon the fundamental links of the past. I want efficiency and enterprise in the Post Office, but not at the price of it retreating one step from its social obligations.
§ 6.14 p.m.
§ Mr. Wainwright
I do not expect to be able to make my short speech without you calling me to order Mr. Deputy-Speaker, even though I have had a good lesson from my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, West (Mr. Randall). I am more inclined to be like my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, North-West (Sir B. Janner). However, if I do get out of order I hope that you will not deal with me too harshly.
The hon. Lady mentioned that this was St. David's Day. I hope that the enthusiasm shown by the followers of St. David will be reflected in the running of the Post Office. The hon. Lady also said that we needed this new charter. I agree. I trust that when it is placed in her hands and in those of her right hon. Friend they will prove worthy of the responsibility. The hon. Lady also said that we must meet the demands of the public. I hope that the Post Office will do that, but that it will not at any time forget its social responsibilities and obligations.
It was also said that we were afraid of the word "commercialism". Such an accusation is unwarranted. It depends on what one means by commercialism, and how one intends to carry on the business, and the methods to be adopted to give satisfaction to the customer.
The Bill gives practical recognition to the Post Office for it to have a cornmercialised standing. The finances of the Post Office are to be separated from the Exchequer by the establishment of a Post Office statutory trading fund. But that does not mean that the Post Office will be a totally free commercial enter- 1640 prise. The Treasury will still have a few strings with which it can have some control over the Post Office, especially over its investment policy.
Such control, if exercised imprudently or in too restricted a manner, could easily prove to be deleterious. The right hon. Gentleman assured us in Committee upstairs that he had never had the cold hand of the Treasury on his shoulder, but I am afraid that the Treasury may sometimes be inclined to restrain the right hon. Gentleman from putting into effect a scheme which it thinks is a little too ambitious. In this era of tremendous scientific progress what may be termed ambitious by the Treasury may be considered by others to be purely business acumen. If one thinks ahead one realises that to carry out its obligations the Post Office will have to be progressive and will require a considerable amount of money to carry out its work.
Mr. Speaker, if I go outside the subject of the debate and quote a few things which I expect the Post Office to be required to do, I ask you, just as I asked Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to be lenient with me.
Clause 8 deals with the borrowing powers of the Post Office, and we find there the figure of £30 million. I am wondering whether this will result in some restriction upon the PostmasterGeneral—especially when one takes into account that Clause 9 restricts his borrowing powers to £960 million—and that, as a result, the Post Office may be in danger of losing the position it has occupied as one of the leading businesses. If the cold hand of the Treasury is placed on the shoulder of the right hon. Gentleman too heavily I hope that he will have the initiative to remove it and make certain that his Department remains efficient and progressive.
One can foresee that in the not too distant future satellite communication will be something which is not only the concern of America, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not be backward in ensuring that this country plays its proper part in this connection. I understand that soon there will be a number of European countries associated in this matter and that for this country there may be a financial advantage of £25 million should we join in that scheme. I hope that the Postmaster-General will 1641 tell us about his attitude to the scheme and what are his intentions.
The rate at which a business progresses usually depends on the amount of capital investment, and I should like to know whether it is the belief of the Minister that the provisions of Clauses 8 and 9 of this Bill will provide him with sufficient money to cover the capital investment projects necessary to ensure that the Post Office business will be extended. I believe that this may be restricted by the Treasury. During the Committee stage discussions we did our utmost to persuade the Minister to accept certain Amendments which would have eased the grip of the Treasury—
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I do not wish to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but he cannot now discuss Amendments which were not accepted during the Committee stage.
§ Mr. Wainwright
I am very sorry if I overstepped the mark, Mr. Speaker, and I thank you for your guidance.
On many occasions the Postmaster-General has said that he is not as complacent as is the Post Office Engineering Union about the lack of telephones. This surprises me, because the union has played an active part in this matter and I have heard that the right hon. Gentleman has praised that activity on other occasions. I note that he is looking doubtful about that statement, but I am willing to provide him with details of what he has said.
§ Mr. Wainwright
I have not the time.
There are still about a thousand telephone exchanges which are manually operated and the Minister has promised to convert them to automatic exchanges by 1970. Despite his assurances during the Committee stage discussions that he would have sufficient money to fulfil the obligations placed on the Post Office, I am doubtful whether he will be able to do that by 1970. If it is essential, why could not the right hon. Gentleman have made certain when the Bill was drafted that sufficient money would be provided to allow the alterations to be completed by 1967 or 1968?
We feel, as does the Minister, that the Post Office must be one of the best of 1642 the nationalised undertakings, not only in this country but in any country in the world. During the Committee stage discussions I took particular note of what was said by the Minister about future relations between the Post Office and the Post Office Engineering Union. I should like an assurance that there will be contact with the union and with the Post Office staffs in order that the existing understanding and good will may be retained, and the efficient running of the Post Office continued.
It is my hope that the provisions in the Bill will ensure a bright future for the Post Office and that the so-called freedom which the Measure provides will enable the Minister to reveal the business enterprise and vitality which are such so necessary attributes of any —I was about to say business tycoon——businessman, and enable the Post Office to fulfil its obligations to the public as well as to preserve a position in the forefront of activities in connection with satellite communications. In this way the Post Office will render to the public the service which it rightly deserves.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Dr. A. D. D. Broughton (Batley and Morley)
This Bill, with its thirty Clauses and its lengthy Schedule, amounts to a new charter for the Post Office. Before I give my approval to this important Measure, I want to ask one or two questions of the Postmaster-General.
In examining the Bill, it appears to me that the Postmaster-General is to handle a great deal of money. In Clause 1 we are told:There shall be established a fund. to be called the Post Office Fund (hereafter in this Act referred to as the 'Fund ') which shall be under the management and control of the Postmaster-General.The Clause goes on to say:Subject to the provisions of this section. all sums received by the Postmaster-General shall. notwithstanding anything in any enactment. be paid by him into the Fund.So a great deal of money is to go into that Fund. Clause 8 permits the Postmaster-General to—borrow temporarily from the Bank of England such sums as he may require for meeting his obligations or performing his functions;1643 The amount of money he may borrow from that source may—not at any time exceed the sum of thirty million pounds.After examining Clause 9, I see that:The Treasury may make to the Postmaster General out of the Consolidated Fund advances…The total amount which may be borrowed by the Postmaster-General from those two sources, the Bank of England and the Treasury, may be, I understand from Clause 10, some hundreds of millions of pounds.
If the Postmaster-General is to handle these vast sums of money, I hope that when he winds up the debate he will tell us why he wishes to have these powers and on what the expenditure is to be. The telephone service might well be improved. In many parts of the country telephone exchanges are out-of-date. I hope that some of the money will be spent on modernising or building entirely new telephone exchanges.
In Morley, a part of my constituency, the telephone exchange is very much out-of-date, but we are fortunate in that the Postmaster-General has agreed already to spend some money to provide a new one for that borough. I passed the building site a few days ago, and I was pleased to see that building was going ahead satisfactorily. In the other part of my constituency, Batley, the telephone exchange is very antiquated. I wish the Postmaster-General would look into that and consider the provision of a new telephone exchange there.
I have had the pleasure of visiting the post office in Batley on a number of occasions. I have been into that part of the building in which the telephone exchange is situated. The conditions there are far from satisfactory.
§ Mr. Speaker
I have allowed the hon. Member to go as far as possible on Third Reading, but he cannot do a constituency tour suggesting improvements on this occasion.
§ Dr. Broughton
Very good, Mr. Speaker; I was not going to pursue that line further, but I wished merely to draw the attention of the Postmaster-General to that need. I hope that when he winds up he will tell us that some of this 1644 money will be spent on improving and modernising telephone exchanges and building new ones in many parts of the country.
I hope that measures will be taken for the country to have such an excellent telephone service that people will use it much more than they do now. I had the opportunity and privilege of visiting the United States of America recently. I found that people there use the telephone more than people do in this country. It seemed to be regarded by Americans as an essential, whereas here it is regarded as a business requirement and a luxury. I hope the Postmaster-General will invest some of this money wisely to provide a telephone service at cheap rates which many more people will be pleased to use. I hope he can tell us he has ideas of that kind in mind.
§ 6.36 p.m.
§ Mr. W. R. Williams
We have now reached the stage on this Bill when we cannot give any more advice or guidance to the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady. We have spent many hours upstairs in Committee giving what we regarded as excellent advice. We feel that if that advice had been followed the Bill would have been a better one.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, West (Mr. Randall) thought this a very good Bill. I am inclined to agree with him, but I am satisfied that had some of the suggestions we put forward been accepted—not all in the form of Amendments—they would have made it very much better. I must express personal dissatisfaction with some of the Clauses as they remain in the Bill. We did our best in Committee to put those ideas forward, and we have now reached the stage when we cannot do anything more of that kind.
I express my appreciation to hon. Friends who have helped me considerably in a responsibility which was placed upon me in conjunction with my hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton). I assure the House that the Shadow Cabinet took this Bill very seriously and thought it a major Bill. As such, the Shadow Cabinet thought that I should have the assistance of my very good and knowledgeable Friend the Member for Sowerby. I pay 1645 my tribute to the work he has put in on this Bill. I am sure that tribute will be shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I do not want to make any invidious comparisons with other hon. Friends who have done good work on the Bill. I am sure they will accept my appreciation, as a sort of apprentice at this sort of job, of the assistance they have given me.
Hon. Members opposite in Committee gave me tremendous sympathy There is no doubt about that. I heard it in their voices and detected it in their glances and conversation, but, as often happens in this House, it was the sympathy of the dumb, almost the sympathy of the dead. Yet I am very glad that we had it. I felt quite sure that if the vow of silence had not been imposed on them and if they had not had the discipline of the Patronage Secretary, about which we know so much, they would have been solidly behind us in trying to make this Bill better.
I had a feeling that the right hon. Gentleman had had his riding instructions from his trainer—the Treasury. He seemed to ride the race in that way. He was under strict instructions from the Treasury and never deviated from the straight, precise course all through. Actually, he was guilty on occasions, if I may say so, of bumping and boring. He was guilty of bumping more than boring, because he tried to stifle our constructive criticism of the Bill by moving that we should meet twice in a day, after just one sitting. We regarded that as being rather unfair to Members who wanted to try to help him in this onerous task. Of course, he was also bumped now and again, with the result that on that score we can, perhaps, say that we are about evenly matched.
This Bill, as many hon. Members have already said—such as my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, North-East (Sir B. Janner), the hon. Member for Gateshead, and, indeed, the hon. Lady herself—marks a new era in the history of the Post Office. The Post Office has 300 years of history, and for a large number of years it has continued its even ways very much the same as I have experienced it in the course of my forty-five or forty-eight years association with it. However, for the first time in that 300 years, so far as I can ascertain, it must now share its traditional functions 1646 of providing an efficient, speedy and sound public service with another obligation—that of making a profit, a fixed return on assets. In future, the Postmaster-General will not only be called upon to fulfil the normal social obligation—making quite sure that the pensions of old people are paid in the correct way and that the welfare services which successive Governments have legislated through enactments in this House are maintained —but he will also become responsible to the House under the Bill to determine that there shall be a predetermined return on assets employed. This is a hybrid arrangement. There are two conflicting obligations enforced upon the Post Office, and time alone will prove whether this hybrid set-up will be successful and as ideal a set-up as the old traditional one. Will social obligations and profit motive be compatible? That is a question I leave with the House with regard to the general approach of this side of the House to the Bill.
Throughout its history the Post Office has fought to break even with regard to its income and expenditure. It has always tried to do that and put something into reserve. If I were in a position to do so on Third Reading, I could say that possibly over £500 million have been transferred to the Exchequer through services that have come from the Post Office. There is no doubt at all that in its organisation, administration and working it has never been a spendthrift Department; it has never run itself into debt or difficulties of a financial character. It has done its best to try to break even and put something into reserve.
We are here up against a profit motive for the first time, and I suggest very seriously to hon. Members that it may not be so easy for them in the future to challenge the Postmaster-General when he has not put up a telephone kiosk in a small village, when he has not opened a new post office in Leicester or somewhere else, or cannot bring in a new service which a new housing estate or something of that sort would have justified. It seems to us that with these conflicting obligations and duties it would he very difficult for the Postmaster-General to draw a straight course.
§ Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)
This is very interesting and affects all 1647 Members of the House. but is my hon. Friend suggesting that if we give this Bill a Third Reading there will be any diminution in the existing opportunities to put questions to the Postmaster General about his failure to carry out his duties with regard to providing telephone facilities?
§ Mr. Williams
I hope I have not given that impression to any of my hon. Friends or Members of the House. That is not the point I am making. If the Postmaster-General has to show a profit over and above what I have been referring to as the "breaking even" arrangement, it will not be quite so easy for him to concede to hon. Members the provision of services in rural areas which are uneconomical and unprofitable.
I deal now with part of the hon. Lady's speech and join with all my hon. Friends who have referred to her charm, which has never left her, even in the Committee. The hon. Lady said that what we have to do is to try to strike a balance between social responsibility and commercial obligations. I suggest to the Postmaster-General and his assistant that that will not be a very easy matter. I am afraid that he will find it is a pretty delicate task, as the hon. Lady has said. I admit straight away that the right hon. Gentleman did make quite a clear statement which I will quote:The Post Office certainly has to consider its social obligations to the public. There is nothing in the Bill which derogates from that, or which weakens our sense of social responsibility. I want to say categorically that we should continue to honour these obligations."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th January. 1961; Vol. 633, c. 180.]I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be good enough to reiterate that assurance tonight, because he can take it from me that on this side of the House we have been most concerned as to how he is going to keep this sense of balance as between his social obligations and the profit motive. We all know that when the bug gets hold of us it is very easy to say, "We made 5 per cent. this year and that should encourage us to make 6 per cent. next year." We are afraid that the Postmaster-General will find himself up against one of two alternatives if he does that. He may find himself, in order to reach a predetermined fixation of profit. saying, "I am going to 1648 stick to my objective of profit, but I may have to reduce the services or increase the charges for services; I may have to delay and slow down the expansion of essential services, and I am prepared to do so in order that I may maintain my fixed, predetermined profit return on net assets." I should like him once again categorically to reassert that that will not be so.
There was something in Reynolds News last Sunday which seriously disturbed me. I feel that the right hon. Gentleman must have seen this article. In case he has not, I think that I should read it, because it concerns the point with which I am dealing, namely, the danger of the right hon. Gentleman taking the profit motive as the prime consideration in his approach to the future of the Post Office and then coming to the House and asking for authority to impose higher charges or to reduce services. Under the headingPostal charges up, then school meals "—I have nothing to do with school meals tonight—this is what the article said:Evidence of plans for a new three-pronged attack by the Government on the family purse will cause a fresh storm in the Commons. It will push up the charges of public services, ranging from the Post Office to electricity….That is the general charge. I now come to the specific charges contained in the article. This is what it says about public services:A Government plan is being drawn up to force nationalised industries to raise money for expansion by charging the public more for services. They will be expected to earn larger surpluses and to rely less on Government loans for modernisation schemes.This is what we discussed in Committee at great length. It continues:The Post Office charge for printed material will go up from the basic 2d. for two ounces to 2½. The Post Office is now losing about £4 million a year on this service, which covers Christmas, birthday and greetings cards. newspapers, catalogues.and so on. Hon. Members interested in football pools will be glad to know that football pool firms are exempted from the terms of this prophecy.
We are afraid that if there is too much emphasis on the profit motive the bias will be in favour of the profit motive rather than in favour of the traditional obligation of the Post Office to provide efficient, speedy and economic services. I sincerely hope that the House will keep 1649 in mind some of the things to which I have referred.
I wish to say something about the Post Office fund. On Second Reading, the right hon. Gentleman said that the heart of the Bill lies in Clause 1, with which I agree. It is therefore essential that the old "ticker" should be sound and in good shape from the start. We are uncertain whether the Post Office fund is in such a healthy state as we would wish. We welcome the establishment of the fund. We are pleased that it will be at the sole disposal of the Postmaster-General. We trust that the right hon. Gentleman will use whatever resources he may have in the fund with imagination, courage and enthusiasm. Those were the words with which the Assistant Postmaster-General introduced the Third Reading, and I subscribe to them.
I assure the right hon. Gentleman that there is ample scope for him to use whatever money is available in the fund or elsewhere. We do not think that there is enough in the fund. We do not think that he has taken to himself sufficient borrowing powers, but at this stage I aim not concerned with that. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Transport has just come in because I propose to mention him "in dispatches". There is ample scope for the Postmaster-General to consolidate and improve the existing services. There is also scope for an imaginative and invigorating approach to the future requirements of a fast-moving technical and electronic age. I am sure that the Minister of Transport will agree with that. Things are moving very fast on our roads and I am sure that he will agree that we cannot afford to laze about. We must be on the alert. We must be vigilant, enthusiastic and determined to take advantage of every opportunity which presents itself.
We should have been more satisfied had there been more money in the fund at its inauguration. Be that as it may, from now on the right hon. Gentleman is solely responsible for the spending of that money, and that is a fact which I want to impress on the Minister and on the House. In the past, successive Postmaster-Generals have been able to shelter behind the Treasury. Sometimes 1650 they have been justified in doing so, sometimes they have not. It has been very handy on occasions to have that sort of iron curtain of the Treasury behind which to retreat when the attack became hot, determined and lasting. From now on the right hon. Gentleman will have sole responsibility for administering the fund. His will be the responsibility and his will be the opportunity.
I want to say a few words about the limitation on indebtedness in Clause 10. I realise that on Third Reading I cannot comment at great length on this matter, although my hon. Friends and I believe that it is the basis of the new conception—whether it will succeed or fail. Despite all the right hon. Gentleman's assurances, we on this side still consider that shackles have been unreasonably fixed on him by the Treasury. He gave one assurance Ito which we attach the utmost importance. He claims that there is nothing in Clause 10 to prevent him coming to the House at any time to secure the lifting of the ceiling on the limitation of borrowing. He can seek to obtain greater borrowing powers from the House. We regret very much that he should have allowed himself to be so fettered and handicapped at the start, but we accept at its face value, and with the integrity which we ascribe to others and which we hope others ascribe to us, that if he feels that he wants more money he will not wait three or four years before coming to ask for the authority of the House to get it.
I say that because my hon. Friends and I believe that there should be a five-year plan at least in the Post Office. Here I wish to refer to the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Transport. I have quotations here—I have not time to refer to them—in which the right hon. Gentleman said in effect, "You cannot run a business of the magnitude of the Post Office on a year-to-year budget, or a sort of"—
It being Seven o'clock, and there being Private Business set down by direction of The CHAIRMAN OF WAYS AND MEANS under Standing Order No. 7 (Time for taking Private Business), further Proceeding stood postponed.