§ 3.31 p.m.
§ The Postmaster-General (Mr. Edward Short)
With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement.
During recent years the Post Office has developed into a complex of vast business enterprises. It now faces considerable problems of expansion, modernisation and reorganisation if it is to meet the growing demands of the economy.
In considering whether or not the Civil Service context in which the Post Office functions is appropriate in present circumstances, the Government have recently carried out a fundamental survey of its management, structure and functions. After the most careful consideration it has been decided that the time has come to make a change, and that, instead of being a Department of State, with a Minister at its head, the Post Office should become a public corporation, the members of which would be appointed by and responsible to a Minister.
Within this corporation the management of the various services would have an opportunity to develop on more independent lines, but always with a primary responsibility for the maintenance of comprehensive national services available to all citizens in all parts of the country.
A final decision on the exact form of the reorganisation and of the internal management structure must await publication of the report of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, which is now examining the Post Office, and the fullest consultations with the representatives of the staff. These consultations will now be put in hand, and a White Paper will be presented to the House in due course setting out the Government's final proposals.
The Government believe that this decision to modernise the status and 468 management of the Post Office will make a considerable contribution to its efficiency, and the efficiency of Britain, in the years ahead.
§ Mr. Bryan
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we on this side of the House welcome this statement, which seems to us a development of the policies which we started, and, in particular, the ideas of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples)?
May I ask four friendly questions? First, on the question of accountability, does the right hon. Gentleman expect to have any control over charges in the future?
Secondly, will he still be in a position to answer Questions which hon. Members may wish to put in the House about postal services?
Thirdly, what will be the position and the status of employees who are now classed as civil servants?
Fourthly, on the question of management, is the right hon. Gentleman considering bringing in management from outside, as Lord Robens was brought into the Coal Board, or will the promotion be made from inside the Post Office?
§ Mr. Short
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the first part of his question. I agree that this is a logical third step from the two steps which the Conservative Administrative took in 1956 and 1961, I think.
On the question of charges, I imagine that the position of the Minister responsible for the Post Office will be the same as it is with prices charged by the nationalised industries. Certainly, the present regulation system will not obtain. This is one of the difficulties from which the Post Office suffers.
The matter of Questions in the House must await the White Paper and the Bill, but, clearly, Parliament must face the fact that it cannot keep the Post Office tied to its apron strings forever, and expect it, at the same time, to be a forward-looking, go-ahead, bustling, and developing industry. This cannot be done if it suffers from this inhibition, which no other industry in the country does.
Employees will cease to be civil servants. The whole question of status and change-over is a matter which I shall 469 be discussing at great length with staff associations throughout the next three years.
With regard to management, I hope that there will be cross-fertilisation with outside industry.
§ Mr. Dobson
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, but can he give me some further details in connection with Post Office Savings Bank facilities and the new giro service which is shortly to be started? I accept that my right hon. Friend starts from a position of being favourably inclined towards negotiations, but will he bear in mind the long history of rights and privileges which Post Office employees have as civil servants?
§ Mr. Short
With regard to the latter part of my hon. Friend's question, I agree that this will not be an easy matter. We are not doing this quickly. De are taking altogether three years over it before vesting day, and we will have the fullest discussions with the staff associations.
Whether the Savings Bank is managed by the new corporation or not, banking policy will remain in the hands of the Treasury.
On the question of the giro, it rather depends on how one looks at this—whether one regards it as part of the Post Office remittance services, or as part of the banking side. Clearly, what happens to the giro will depend on what decision the Government take about the banking services.
§ Sir H. Legge-Bourke
Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether it is proposed to have a consumer consultative council for the Post Office, similar to that applying to other nationalised industries? Secondly, can he say what this decision will mean from the point of view of the responsibility of the Minister of Technology for telecommunications?
§ Mr. Short
The hon. Gentleman will know that my predecessor set up a Post Office Users' Council last year, and I am certain that there will be consultative machinery in the new set-up. The hon. Gentleman must put his question about telecommunications to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Technology.
§ Mr. Gwilym Roberts
Does my right hon. Fr end's statement mean that at long last we are to get a divorce in the unholy 470 alliance between the telecommunications side of this industry and the postal services, to the mutual benefit of both parties?
§ Mr. Marten
Will the right hon. Gentleman take this opportunity of considering whether he can get the question of communication satellites out of the Post Office arena and into a Ministry which is more space-minded than the Post Office?
§ Mr. Short
I do not know why the hon. Gentleman should say that. If he has not visited Goonhilly, I would be pleased to arrange a visit for him. I am sure that the Post Office is making the fullest use of the present Early Bird satellite, and we intend to go on doing so as part of the consortium of nations.
§ Mr. Short
We believe that this is one of the benefits which will flow from this reorganisation. As I said in an earlier reply, we think that beneath the corporation level the two major services, post and telecommunications, should be separated. This will allow the management to expand.
The other great inhibition is the insistence by the House on scrutinising the minutiæ of day-to-day Post Office business. This has resulted in unhealthy centralisation. It has prevented devolvement down to lower levels, and it inhibits decision-taking. If the Post Office is given its independence we believe that it will enable the management to spread its wings and develop in a way which it has never been able to do before.
§ Dr. Winstanley
Despite his reassurances, would the right hon. Gentleman agree that his statement says very little about the extent to which the new body will be accountable to the House and the community? Does he agree that 471 anxiety has been expressed in the House about the degree of accountability of some of these services under the existing arrangements? Would he assure us that it will be no less accountable under the new arrangements?
§ Mr. Short
The extent of its accountability will be changed, of course. I understand the feelings of the House: they are the feelings of any parent who sees a child going off into the world. We are loath to part with this child.
But the hon. Gentleman will bear in mind that only last year the Government changed the terms of reference of the Select Committee on the Nationalised Industries and that Committee is now carrying out one of the most thorough and, I think, most worth-while investigations of the Post Office ever carried out.
In addition, there will, of course, be the same degree of accountability as now obtains over the other nationalised industries. For example, their accounts will be presented to Parliament and they will be, at any rate in theory, liable to be scrutinised by the Public Accounts Committee.
§ Mr. Shinwell
Does my right hon. Friend not realise that, at a time when many hon. Members on both sides of the House are pressing for the right to 472 ask Questions on day-to-day administration of the nationalised industries, there is now contemplated the setting up of a public corporation which would prevent hon. Members from asking him Questions of that kind, a privilege which has operated ever since the formation of the Post Office?
§ Mr. Short
As I have said, the House cannot have it both ways. Either we agree to accept the degree of Parliamentary accountability which the other nationalised industries have, or we allow the Post Office to go on tied firmly to Parliamentary apron strings, with all the inhibitions which that entails.
§ Mr. Bryan
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this is rather a particular case, in that, at the moment, there is, for one reason or another, a good deal of concern about the state of the postal services? Constituents will feel frustrated if their Members of Parliament are not able to investigate and air their grievances.
§ Several Hon. Members rose——