House Of Commons
Monday, 15th February, 1971
The House met at half-past Two o'clock
[Mr. SPEAKER in the Chair]
Oral Answers To Questions
Posts And Telecommunications
Post Office Dispute
asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications what is the loss of revenue suffered by the Post Office as the result of the strike by Post Office staffs.
asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications what is the estimated loss of revenue to the Post Office resulting from the postal workers' strike.
asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications if he will make a statement on the estimated cost to Post Office revenues of the dispute involving Post Office workers.
I would refer to the reply I gave on 1st February to the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis).—[Vol. 810, c. 257–8.]
Will my right hon. Friend explain how an answer given on that date can give the up-to-date figure?
The figure given by the Post Office was £500,000 a day. That is still the Post Office's estimate. From to-day, in view of the increase in the postal tariff, the loss will probably amount to something of the order of £700,000.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Post Office has already lost enough money to have afforded an extra 3 per cent. on the existing claim? Is he further aware that one of the biggest stumbling blocks to a settlement may be the employers' refusal to concede a major change in the incremental scales?
I do not think that the House will wish me to be drawn into a discussion of the details of the dispute, since talks are going on at the moment between the Union of Post Office Workers and the Post Office Board, and I have no wish to say anything to prejudice those discussions.
In general terms, can my right hon. Friend say what has been the cost of the Post Office strike to the balance of payments?
No, Sir, not without notice of the question.
Can the right hon. Gentleman say what the additional level of dialled telephone calls is as a result of the strike, and can he make any estimate of the additional revenue that that might be producing?
There has been a substantial increase and, in consequence, there will be an increased revenue. With that, there will also have been increased costs. But there is no doubt that, on balance, the Post Office has benefited.
Mail (Concessionary Traffic)
asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications if he has received the report from the Post Office Users' National Council on the operational problems involved in dealing with concessionary traffic.
No, Sir. Any such report would in any case be a matter for the Post Office in the first instance.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the increased postal charges weigh heavily on charities which rely on the sale of Christmas cards, for example, and which, until recently, enjoyed a concessionary rate? Is he also aware that the Post Office Users' National Council was carrying out an experimental survey during the Christmas period to see whether concessionary traffic was possible? Will the right hon. Gentleman contact the Council to see what steps can be taken to provide some relief next year?
I am aware that the Post Office and the Post Office Users' National Council are studying the problem, but it is a matter for the Post Office Board.
asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications what recent consultations have taken place between his Department and the British Broadcasting Corporation regarding the extension of stereophonic broadcasting.
The B.B.C. tells me that by March, 1974, it hopes to extend the area covered by the existing transmissions of stereophonic broadcasting to include Central Scotland and both sides of the Bristol Channel. During the same period it expects to install additional equipment to make possible stereo broadcasting on Radio-2 and 4 as well as on Radio-3.
Is it not a fact that, even with that addition, our output of stereophonic programmes still compares very unfavourably with that of most other countries, notably West Germany and Japan? Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that there is an adverse effect upon our export trade when manufacturers of high fidelity equipment have so few opportunities to demonstrate their products to foreign buyers in this country?
Obviously, the B.B.C. has difficult questions of priorities to determine. I gather than the stereo service covers about 60 per cent. of the country's population at the moment. But I am sure that the Corporation will bear in mind my hon. Friend's observations
asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications what representations he has received from programme companies regarding the independent television levy; and what replies he has sent.
asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunica- tions what recent representations he has received from the British Broadcasting Corporation about the Corporation's need for further finance; and when he expects to complete his study of the matter.
asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications whether he is now able to make a statement on the Government's decision concerning the television levy; and when this is likely to take place.
asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications if he will now make a statement on the revision of the television levy.
I will be making a statement on broadcasting finance immediately after Question Time today.
Will the Minister adopt the excellent practice followed by his predecessor when he is to make a statement in answer to Questions and notify the hon. Members concerned of his intention?
I must apologise to the hon. Gentleman if he did not receive a letter from me. I thought that I had sent a note to all who asked these Questions.
The right hon. Gentleman has not sent a letter to me; at least, I have not received it.
This may be due to temporary difficulties; I have signed a letter to the hon. Gentleman.
Public Telephone Kiosks
asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications if he will give a general direction to the Post Office that it ensures that all public telephone kiosks are adapted to take incoming calls.
This should remain a matter for the Post Office, and I understand that this facility is generally available.
Will the right hon. Gentleman accept from me that it is not generally available and that its lack often causes great inconvenience, particularly in country areas, when people run out of coins in a call-box and do not have credit cards? If he is not prepared to make a general direction of this nature, will he ask the Post Office at least to indicate inside a call-box whether it is one which will accept in-coming calls?
I am sure that the Board will take note of the hon. Gentleman's comment.
Will my right hon. Friend consider this suggestion, because it is not only people in country areas who are concerned but people who are on the waiting lists for telephones, for many of whom this is the only means of communication? Is it not clearly a deliberate act of policy by the Post Office to make call-boxes inoperative for in-coming calls? These calls can still be received by picking up the telephone, although the bell does not ring because the ringing tone has been removed.
I am told by the Post Office that the facility is generally available, but it is barred where, for instance, a nuisance has been caused by an individual monopolising the kiosk to the exclusion of people waiting outside. It is only in particular circumstances that the facility has been denied, but I am sure that the Board will take note of what has been said this afternoon.
asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications if he is yet in a position to make a statement on the introduction of further increases in postal charges.
I have nothing at present to add to the reply I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) on 30th October last year.—[Vol. 805, c. 227–8.]
Can the right hon. Gentleman explain why some tariffs have already been published indicating a 9d. charge for the first-class letter post? Will he consult the Prime Minister about interfering in this matter "at a stroke" to limit the price increases, as the Prime Minister promised in the General Election?
As the hon. Gentleman will recall, last summer the Government reduced by some £30 million the price increases which were proposed by the Post Office and which the Labour Administration had delayed through the period of the General Election. I am not aware of any tariff proposals for a 9d. post which have been published as fact.
National Data Processing Service
asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications whether he will make a statement on the future of the National Data Processing Service.
I have received from the Post Office its proposals for future investment in the service and I am considering them.
No doubt the Minister is aware of the profit-making potential of the N.D.P.S. In view of that, will he tell the House something about possible hiving-off? Can he also say something about the future of modems and discreet data lines and something about the means by which he intends to preserve the confidentiality of the matter handled?
The hon. Member has raised a number of matters clearly outside the scope of the original Question. However, I can tell him that the service made a small loss last year, but that the Post Office believes that that is simply because of the time it takes for new projects to become profitable.
Would not my right hon. Friend agree that this is a service into which the Post Office ought not to have entered in the first place and that, although data transmission is a service which the Post Office could obviously do very well, it ought never to have under-taken data processing?
As my hon. Friend will know, there are a number of considerations here. At the moment, I am looking at the investment proposals which have been put to me by the Post Office Board and I will bear in mind the view of my hon. Friend.
asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications whether he will now make a statement on the future of Giro.
I have nothing to add to the reply I gave on 25th January to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding).—[Vol. 810, c. 23–24.]
Is the Minister aware that his own indecision in this matter is seriously undermining the growth potential of Giro? is he further aware that two very big national accounts are teetering on the brink, but will not sign until he makes his statement?
I am aware of the desirability of making as early a decision as possible, but the House will appreciate that it is not an easy decision to take. This is a service which is losing a substantial amount of money and, naturally, it has to be reviewed carefully. It must also be said that the present strike has added some new factors which must be assessed.
Is not the hon. Gentleman aware that on Merseyside it is felt that there must be a quick decision, precisely because of the high level of unemployment on Merseyside and because part of the Lucas factory is to close because of the Rolls-Royce debacle? It is important for the people on Merseyside, particularly the workers in Giro, that there should be a quick decision.
I am aware of the importance of a quick decision for the employment situation in the area, but, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, I cannot sanction the continuance of the service until I am satisfied that it may be run at a profit.
My right hon. Friend said that it was losing a substantial amount of money. Can he say exactly how much Giro is losing?
At the moment it is losing at the rate of £6 million a year.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Opposition would regard any decision to drop this exceedingly useful service as very serious, the more so as at some stage we should like to hear that he will persuade his right hon. Friends and their Departments to use what we have always regarded as an exceedingly useful service?
A Government Department, like any other organisation, must choose the service which it thinks best fitted to its own needs. I do not deny that it is a useful service to many people, but one has to be concerned with whether it can ever be run profitably.
Mail (Postage Overseas)
asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications whether he is satisfied with the regulations which prohibit British firms from posting material overseas for delivery in Great Britain at a cost lower than the rates payable on the same material posted in the United Kingdom; and if he will make a statement.
I am satisfied that these regulations, which are now the responsibility of the Post Office, are compatible with the obligations assumed by Her Majesty's Government under the Universal Postal Convention.
Is there any distinction in the use of these regulations between countries like the Netherlands and others outside the Commonwealth and countries in the Commonwealth, such as Gibraltar, where it is cheaper to send post from this country and back?
In this matter we are governed by the convention of the U.P.U. which applies to all Member States whether inside or outside the Commonwealth.
Telephone Installation Charges
asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications when he proposes to make an announcement about increased installation charges for domestic telephones.
This would be a matter for the Post Office in the first instance.
Would the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the Post Office is aware that there would be an adverse public reaction if these charges were to be raised beyond the cost of providing the service? Is he further aware that raising them to the extent of subsidising uneconomic parts of the Post Office service would be taken very badly amiss?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right.
Chronically Sick And Disabled Persons Act, 1970
asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications if he will give a general direction to the Post Office Board to assist in the implementation of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act, 1970, by making available copies in all post offices and sub-post offices, and accepting payment direct from local authorities in respect of subscribers eligible for assistance under the Act.
No, Sir. A general direction would not be appropriate.
Will the right hon. Gentleman understand that there are hon. Members on both sides of the House who are desperately concerned that the provisions of this Act should be known? Will he not reconsider his reply and consult some of his right hon. Friends whose Departments seem to be having great difficulty in making local authorities and others aware of the provisions of the Act? Will he further see that the Post Office Board and its officials are aware that under the Act it is a responsibility of the local authorities to assist in the provision of telephones in this instance, not the Supplementary Benefits Commission? Perhaps he would like to look at correspondence which I have received which indicates that the Post Office is totally ignorant of the provisions of this Act.
I am sure that the Post Office will take note of what the hon. Gentleman says but, as he will appreciate, it is particularly a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services.
Business Letters (Charges)
asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications whether he is aware that many business houses in London are willingly paying 2s. 6d. for the cost of delivery of a letter to a restricted Central London area; and whether he will give a general direction to enable the Post Office Board to charge 2s. 6d. for each business letter delivered within the centres of large cities.
I am aware of the Press reports. It would be a recipe for decimating the postal service.
I cannot understand this. If business houses are voluntarily paying as much as 2s. 3d. or 2s. 6d. a letter for a restricted area surely they will be pleased to pay 2s. when the Post Office gets back to normal?
If the hon. Member has any evidence that businesses are sending the same volume of traffic through the private services as they would through the Post Office it would surprise me.
asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications if he will make a further statement on local radio.
asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications if he will make a further statement regarding his proposals for local radio.
asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications whether he will make a further statement about the future of the British Broadcasting Corporation local radio service.
asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications if he will now make a statement on his proposals for commercial radio.
asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications whether he will now make a statement about the future of local radio stations.
asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications if he will make a further statement concerning his policy for local radio.
I cannot anticipate the White Paper, which the Government will be publishing as soon as possible.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that a number of promises have emanated from the Government Front Bench but none have so far been honoured? Does he appreciate that only last Thursday the Leader of the House promised my hon. Friend the Member for Barons Court (Mr. Richard) that a statement on local radio would be made in the very near future? Can the Minister at least give us a glimmer of comfort and, if he cannot say the month in which it will be made, perhaps he will tell us which year?
I am almost overcome by the enthusiasm shown by hon. Gentlemen for an alternative service. I share their eagerness to introduce competition into radio and I can assure them it will not be delayed a moment longer than is necessary. I said that the White Paper would be published early this year, and it will be.
Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware of the damaging effect that the delay has and the very great concern that is felt particularly about the development of welfare and other services, which can be held up? Does he appreciate that we do not want more commercialism?
I am not quite sure to what welfare services the hon. Member is referring.
Would my right hon. Friend not agree that the introduction of commercial radio could considerably increase the opportunities of work for journalists and that this might be a factor of some importance? Would he bear in mind the need to introduce some kind of commercial radio news programme on the lines of I.T.N.?
I agree with my hon. Friend. That would be an extremely desirable feature of the new service. I agree with him, too, that the new service is bound to employ a large number of journalists.
The Minister will be aware that this is a subject creating a great deal of discussion and interest not only on both sides of the House but in many areas outside of it. Would he give an assurance that the Government will take no firm decisions on this matter until after the House has had an opportunity of discussing the White Paper?
Yes. The White Paper will contain the Government's proposals. If in the light of the discussion which takes place thereafter it seems that some of those proposals can be improved upon, they will be so improved before legislation is introduced.
asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications what representation he has received from the Wiltshire Branch County Executive Committee of the National Farmers' Union concerning the future of the British Broadcasting Corporation's local radio; and what was the nature of his reply.
The Committee has written to me to express its concern for the future of B.B.C. local radio. I will be replying when the postal services are returned to normal and I will send the hon. Member a copy of my reply.
I thank the Minister for that reply. I hope that when he sends his answer he will bear in mind the very strong views put to him by the National Farmers' Union that the B.B.C. local radio supplies excellent services to the rural community, particularly those in agriculture, which, in its view, commercial radio cannot supply.
I will bear those views in mind, together with the many other representations made to me.
When the right hon. Gentleman writes to the N.F.U. branch in Swindon, will he take the opportunity of going a little further than he went in answer to my supplementary question earlier today? He indicated—and we were very thankful for it—that the proposals in the White Paper were not necessarily the Government's last word on this issue. Would the right hon. Gentleman therefore consider publishing not a White Paper but a Green Paper so that a general discussion can take place and can be seen to take place?
I do not attach quite as much significance to colours as perhaps the hon. Gentleman does, but the proposals which the Government put forward will be proposals and I have no doubt that they will lead to a lively debate and, I hope, general approbation.
In considering the future of local radio in Wiltshire or elsewhere, will the right hon. Gentleman take into account that allegations of corruption against the B.B.C., which I trust he is taking seriously, will be as nothing to the scope for corruption which there will be if he introduces commercial radio?
I see no reason to expect that commercial radio will be more corrupt than commercial television or organs of the commercial Press such as the New Statesman for which the hon. Gentleman writes.
Inter-City Trains (Telephone Service)
asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications if he will give a general direction to the Post Office that it makes an investigation of the costs and revenues likely to arise from installing a telephone service on inter-city trains, and that it publishes the results of that investigation.
No, Sir. This is a commercial matter for the Post Office and British Rail.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this is the second disappointing answer that we have had on this subject? Will he accept that this is not just a case of a frivolous luxury but something that would make a great deal of difference in the industrial efficiency of the country?
I agree that in principle it would seem to be a desirable feature. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it is a question for the two bodies I mentioned as to whether it is introduced. I believe that American experience as to whether it can be made commercially viable is very gloomy.
Would my right hon. Friend agree that he often has to say on a matter like this that it is a Board matter, and that many of the unhappinesses on this side or the other side of the House spring from the belief that the Post Office Board is never as quick in taking up new and imaginative ideas as it might be?
I know that the Post Office is interested in this idea and has been for some years. Some technical trials were carried out in 1965.
Broadcasting Receiving Licence Fees
asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications if he will seek to amend the Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1949, to ensure that in areas of poor or non-existent television reception where a satisfactory service can only be had by means of a television relay system the rent payable for such a system is deductible from the broadcast receiving licence fee.
No, Sir; licence revenue finances the B.B.C. A standard licence fee is a fair way of spreading the cost among all viewers, leaving individual viewers free to use the services of relay companies if they wish.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the cost of these relay services, without which many of my constituents cannot receive anything but a large snowstorm, is often more expensive than the cost of the licence? Does he not think that the Government should start offering something for the money that they are taking? Is he aware that in private hands this would be tantamount to fraud?
It would be very difficult to depart from standard licence fees. If we were to do so there could be as good a case for arguing that the fee ought to be related to the cost of getting the signal to the viewer as there is for relating it to the number of services that the viewer could get or the standard of reception.
asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications if he will seek to amend the Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1949, to ensure that the fee for a broadcast receiving licence is payable only for actual reception and not only for the installation of broadcast receiving apparatus.
I assume that the hon. Member's purpose is to relate the licence fee to the quality or quantity of services received. I could not agree to that; nor would the hon. Member's proposal in fact achieve that end.
While hoping the right hon. Gentleman's reply to my last Question will not be extended to cover his postal services in future, may I remind him that for almost as long as television has existed many hundreds of people on the North Cornish coast have been unable to receive any kind of reception at all? Does he not think that, far from charging just for the quality of reception, he should remove the licence for those who cannot receive anything?
If there are those who cannot receive anything, they probably would not be tempted to take out a licence in the first place. The broadcasting authorities place a pretty big priority upon the extension of their services.
Can my right hon. Friend give us any firm guidance as to when the Post Office will be able to install the low-voltage boosters for 625-line transmission in areas such as North Cornwall and West Derbyshire?
I could not say offhand but I will certainly inform my hon. Friend by letter.
Welfare Broadcasts (Hire Line Charges)
asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications if he will give a general direction to the Post Office to reduce its hire line charges to voluntary bodies and charitable organisations which broadcast to local hospitals, old people's home and blind persons' institutions.
While thanking the Minister for that forthright reply, may I ask him whether he is aware that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find the sort of money necessary to finance these lines when, for example, it costs £160 a year in the Pontefract area, and, I understand, £300 in Wakefield and £600 in Huddersfield? Would he not agree that these people, who work for nothing, deserve better support than his reply suggests? Would he not further agree that if some of these lines were withdrawn from the hospitals and old people's institutions because of a lack of finance, it would be a tragedy, particularly for those who depend upon such broadcasts?
I do not under-rate the importance of these broadcasts and I have great sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says, but it would not, in my view, be right to impose welfare obligations on a business organisation like the Post Office.
Would the right hon. Gentleman recognise that this is a growing service welcomed by many people? Perhaps he would think about his answer once again. It was rather curt. Will he give a little more thought to it?
No, Sir. The question asked me to give a general direction, and I replied that I will not. I do not think it would be proper for me to do so. It is a matter for the Post Office.
Would my right hon. Friend look at this again? It is an important point. Will he consult his right hon. Friend to see whether some arrangement can be made whereby these voluntary organisations in hospitals, helping blind people and so on, are not charged in this way?
I will certainly draw the attention of the Post Office to what has been said on both sides of the House.
Post Offices (Anti-Bandit Screens)
asked the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications whether he will give a general direction to the Post Office to increase the number of anti-bandit screens at public counters in Crown Post Offices.
No, Sir. This is a matter for the Post Office.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware how concerned post office counter clerks are about the continuing hazard which they face from bandits? Presumably he is aware that they feel so concerned that they have threatened possible further industrial action on this issue. Will the right hon. Gentleman give his immediate attention to the acceleration of the programme for anti-bandit screens?
I am informed by the Post Office that its current installation programme should be completed by August this year.
Foreign And Commonwealth Affairs
South Africa (Detained British Subjects)
asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what representations he has made to the Government of South Africa concerning the detention of British subjects without trial.
The South African authorities have been told, most recently on 23rd January, that whenever a United Kingdom citizen is arrested and detained we expect that charges should be preferred against him and that he should be brought to trial, or that he should otherwise be speedily released.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Has he had his attention drawn to the fact that when the South African Government recently arrested the Dean of Johannesberg, the Dean was not allowed to have a priest for the whole period up to the point at which charges were at long last preferred against him?
I am told that the Dean of Johannesburg was arrested on 20th January and, after representations had been made, was released on bail on 28th January. He will reappear in court on 26th February. I have no details about the precise arrangements made during his detention. Her Majesty's Government made representations as soon as they were aware of the situation.
West German Foreign Minister (Meeting)
asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on his meeting with the West German Foreign Minister on Thursday, 4th February.
I would refer the hon. Member to my reply to the Question by the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) on 11th February.—[Vol. 811, c. 283-4.]
In view of the statements which we have read in the Press about off-set costs and the change in the arrangements for paying them in respect of B.A.O.R., will the hon. Gentleman make a further statement on this issue?
My right hon. Friend discussed with Herr Scheel future arrangements for meeting the foreign exchange costs of maintaining British Forces in Germany. We also discussed Britain's part in the proposed N.A.T.O. infrastructure scheme. A broad measure of agreement has reached, and the questions will now be pursued by officials.
Will my hon. Friend tell the House a little bit about what may have happened at the meeting with Herr Scheel concerning our position in West Berlin?
Of course, the matter of West Berlin was discussed, but the details of the discussions are confidential.
The Minister said that a broad measure of agreement was reached. Can he give us some more details and say to what extent the Germans have agreed to increase their financial contribution?
It is not possible for me to go further at this stage. The matter is now being discussed by officials in Western Germany and in this country.
Can the hon. Gentleman say whether any progress was made in the discussions about Britain's entry into the Common Market and whether the West Germans are likely to change their tack and give support to his right hon. Friend who is trying so hard to drag us in at such expense?
I think that the hon. Lady will wish to know that my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster had a broad discussison with Herr Scheel on matters of common interest involving the negotiations, but I do not think that it would be helpful for me to go into detail on them now.
Northern Ireland (Ira Arms And Ammunition)
asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what recent representations he has made to the Government of the Republic of Ireland concerning the supply of arms and ammunition to the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland from the funds of the Republic's Government.
Is the Minister aware of the grave concern in Northern Ireland about the recent happenings in the South of Ireland where, before a committee of the Parliament of the Republic, revelations were made concerning sums of many thousands of pounds, and also ammunition and guns, which were alleged to be handed over to the I.R.A.? Does not the hon. Gentleman feel that representations should be made to the Parliament and Government of the Republic of Ireland?
As I stated in a Written Answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry (Mr. Chichester-Clark) on 10th November, 1970, the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic, Mr. Lynch, has ordered that investigations into the alleged misuse of funds be carried out. The results of those investigations have not yet been made known.
Trade And Industry
British Steel Corporation
asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what is the latest estimate of the current rate of return on capital employed by the British Steel Corporation; and if he will lay down a new and improved target rate of return for the Corporation to aim at.
The return on capital employed by the British Steel Corporation, including its subsidiaries, in its last financial year—28th September, 1969, to 28th March, 1970—was at an annual rate of about 4 per cent. As regards the current financial year, I cannot reveal the details of forecasts made in confidence. On the question of the financial objective, I would refer my hon. Friend to the answer my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry gave to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) on 27th October.
Is it not clear that there has been a fairly staggering decline in the profitability of the Corporation over the past two years? Has my hon. Friend had any indication of the amount which the Corporation has been spending out of its sharply dwindling profits on advertising and public relations activities designed to oppose the policies which the Government were elected to pursue?
On the first point, my hon. Friend must await publication of the accounts, which I cannot anticipate. On the second point, I suggest that he writes to the Chairman of the Corporation because that is a matter entirely within his province.
Is not this a rather unfortunate time in our affairs for hon. Members opposite to table hostile Questions about nationalised industries? Does not the hon. Gentleman realise that many of us on this side of the House, because we think that there are occasions when national interests are greater than party interests, restrain our tendency to indulge in recriminations about this sort of thing? If we are doing our best to be restrained over the Rolls-Royce case, it does not help the country when hon. Members opposite put down hostile Questions about the nationalised Steel Corporation.
So far as I am aware, I have not indulged in any recriminations. But I would draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the need to obtain a proper return on capital from public as well as private investments.
As the return on the steel industry's capital is so low and the capital expenditure so high, would my hon. Friend agree that the difference comes from the profits made by private industry?
My right hon. Friend is having a careful review of the whole of the finances of the B.S.C. and I cannot anticipate what the result of that will be, but there can be no contradicting what my hon. and gallant Friend says, that if one concern whether in the public or the private sector makes a poor return on capital, the others, which make a better return, subsidise it.
Can the Minister give us an up-to-date account of the fresh burdens the Government have been placing notably through the abolition of investment grants on the British Steel Corporation, and their proposals for dealing with the scrap, which may together be adding an extra burden on to the Corporation? Moreover, before he accepts the suggestions of his hon. Friends, will he tell us what are the latest estimates of the Government of the rate of return on capital in the Japanese steel industry, with which we have to compete? Will the hon. Gentleman try to find out the facts there before he takes any further action to injure the position of the British Steel Corporation?
I think the question of scrap and of investment grants would arise in relation to future financial years and not to the present one, which is what this Question refers to. I am afraid I must tell the hon. Gentleman that I am not responsible for the Japanese steel industry.
Paper And Board Making Industry
asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if he has completed his investigations into the difficulties being experienced by the paper and board making industry; and if he will make a statement on his proposals to deal with the problem.
The paper and board industry has not asked me to investigate its problems but I am ready to discuss the situation if the industry thinks this would be helpful.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, even if the industry has not directly asked him to investigate, many of my hon. Friends on this side of the House have been asking him to do so since last July, and that the serious situation in Scotland, where a couple of mills have been closed and others are having difficulties through the decision of the Government to remove investment grants, is having an adverse effect on the development of the industry in Scotland? Would he take some more positive action in relation to this industry?
I do not see how the decision to remove investment grants in future could have any possible connection with the present difficulties of certain concerns in Scotland. It is true that the paper industry is facing very heavy competition from Scandinavia, but that, of course, is part of the bargain of entering the European Free Trade Association, and it would be quite improper to attempt to protect it from competition of this sort. Nevertheless, if there are any problems which representatives from the industry would like to bring to me I should be only too delighted to discuss them.
Can my hon. Friend say whether informal discussions between his Department and the Scandinavian producers can be accelerated and is there not evidence that Scandinavian producers are in breach of the E.F.T.A. agreement not to abuse their position as dominant producers?
Negotiations are going on about that matter and I should not like to anticipate their outcome or prejudice them by saying anything at this stage, but I can assure my hon. Friend that these discussions are being carried on as urgently as possible.
asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if he will publish estimates of the regional breakdown of payment of investment grants in the years 1970–71, 1971–72, 1972–73, 1973–74, and 1974–75.
I regret that information is not available on a regional basis.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there will be extreme disappointment because of that answer, because a regional breakdown is extremely valuable, particularly for the Scottish position? Would he accept that the way the Government have gone about terminating the investment grants has caused considerable dissatisfaction and inconvenience, particularly in Scotland?
I am sorry the information is not available. It never has been. It would cost a disproportionately large amount to collect it. However, I would not accept at all the hon. Gentleman's assertion that a change from grants to allowances is going to cause considerable inconvenience in Scotland or anywhere else. It is in the long run, we believe, going greatly to improve the economy of Scotland.
If my hon. Friend were able to publish corresponding figures for the past four years, would they not show that in most of the regions the expenditure on grants has been disproportionately high in relation to the number of new jobs created?
Although that is a hypothetical question, there has been some evidence, supported even by hon. Gentlemen opposite who formed part of the Government of that time, that this was the case. One of the reasons why the Government have wished to move from grants to allowances has been to make sure that highly capital-intensive projects do not necessarily attract large grants from public money without the certainty that they are profit making as well.
On the question of the availability of figures, is the hon. Gentleman aware that figures were given for Scotland by his Department to the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs?
I should like to look into that.
Will my hon. Friend bear in mind, when considering the effect of investment grants in areas like Scotland, that the number of recent company closures which have occurred has been related to the consequences of the huge increase in things like road tax introduced by the previous Government, in addition to the evidence about the payment of investment grants?
I think it is impossible to emphasise too much that the present closures and present difficulties in the regions and in the country as a whole cannot be ascribed to the Government's change from grants to allowances because the changes have not yet had time to have any effect at all. They can only be ascribed to the policy of the previous Government in having a massive money squeeze at a time when wages were rising very highly indeed.
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the change in the system would not have had effect on the numbers of industrialists now applying? How does he account for the drop which has occurred, certainly in Wales and, I understand, in Scotland as well?
If I were to admit that it would have that effect, would the hon. Gentleman be prepared to admit that it was the previous Government's policies which have had the effect of the redun- dancies and closures taking place at present?
asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if he will give estimates of the proportion of the total assistance offered to attract new industry and expand existing industry accruing to Scotland in the years 1970 to 1975.
No realistic estimate is possible, since expenditure in future years in particular areas will depend on detailed location decisions yet to be taken by industry.
Would the hon. Gentleman agree that it is really beyond comprehension that when we ask for detailed information from his Department it is never available? Estimates of this nature were given to the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs. Would the hon. Gentleman not agree that the reason why these estimates are not forthcoming is that the total amount for assistance given to Scotland by his Department in the new estimates has been tragically reduced?
The hon. Gentleman must accept that it would be impossible to predict how many firms would set up, how much their investment would be, and what would be the cost of the Government's regional policies in a highly hypothetical situation which will arise in the next five years. He must accept that we cannot quantify guesses of this sort in the future.
Apart from guesses into the future, will the hon. Gentleman deny that businessmen are finding it extremely difficult to move to development areas? Does he say that Government policies have improved the confidence of businessmen to invest in Scotland or any other of the development areas?
The hon. Gentleman will, I am sure, agree that there has been a downturn in general business activity as a result of the policies pursued by the last Government. Surely it is not beyond his wit to realise that nothing this Government have done has altered the economic and industrial climate as yet. If hon. Gentlemen opposite are not satisfied with the position, they have only themselves to blame.
If the hon. Gentleman says he cannot provide the figures in reply to this Question, how did the Government arrive at the figures of Government assistance to industry as given in the White Paper on Public Expenditure up to 1974–75?
The figures in the White Paper are merely estimates. It is quite impossible to be certain what the figures will be.
Will the hon. Gentleman, who has refused to answer all the other questions on this subject, now tell us whether the applications by industrialists wanting to go new to these regions is going up or going down?
That does not arise on this Question. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] If the hon. Gentleman would like to put down a Question about that I will consider it.
asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if, due to the increased price of fuel oil over the past few years, and the danger of it being in short supply, he will make a statement on the present Government's fuel policy on the lines of the Fuel Policy White Paper published in November, 1967, Command Paper No. 3438.
The first paragraph of the Report states that the terms of reference were published in the OFFICIAL REPORT of 20th May, 1968, cols. 32–39.
Would the hon. Gentleman realise that the forecasts made then are very much out of date now? Does he also not realise that there is a wind of change blowing through the Middle East, where they are supplying oil to the consumer countries, including this one? Would he give consideration to the coal mining industry and treat it more favourably? Has he ever had consultations with the National Coal Board about sinking a new pit in the new virgin coalfield in the Thorne area?
I must apologise to the hon. Member, Mr. Speaker. I think he asked Question No. 63; I gave him the answer to Question No. 62. Would it be in order for me to give the right answer to the Question, so that he may base his supplementary on the answer I gave?
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should answer Question 63.
I would refer the hon. Member to my right hon. Friend's speech to the House on 29th October last and to that of my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry to the House on 3rd December last.
Now will the Minister answer the supplementary?
Does the hon. Gentleman realise that those forecasts are now very much out of date? Would he not consider that a wind of change is blowing through the Middle East which will affect the supplies of oil to this country? Has he considered or discussed with the N.C.B. the matter of whether or not to sink a new shaft in the virgin coalfield in the Thorne district?
The hon. Gentleman will know that the question of whether or not to sink a new shaft or to increase production is a matter entirely for the National Coal Board. If, in view of the change in economic circumstances and the relative prices of different fuels, the Board finds it appropriate to make application to do so, my Department will certainly consider the application sympathetically.
Would the hon. Gentleman not agree that it is now self-evident that the pits are being closed too hurriedly? In view of the situation in the Middle East and the other oil producing countries, would he not consider publishing a further White Paper which will take into account all the relevant facts and give us an up-to-date picture of what we might expect to see in this industry?
I do not think that there is much profit in publishing a further White Paper, without firm forecasts, at a time when estimates of future demand are moving so rapidly in relation to very quickly changing economic circumstances. I would not accent that the National Coal Board had been precipitate in closing pits. All the production which the Board plans for in future is entirely a matter for the Board in relation to its estimates of demand.
Wylfa Nuclear Power Station
asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry when he expects the Wylfa nuclear power station to come into operation; what is likely to be the final capital cost and the latest estimate of the cost per unit sent out; and how these compare with the original estimates.
The provision of detailed information about individual power stations is a matter of day-to-day management which, under the Electricity Acts, is the responsibility of the C.E.G.B. I am therefore asking the Chairman of the Board to write to the hon. Member.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that he should know the facts and figures and should make some comparison of what has actually happened? Is he not aware that, for a long time now, the N.C.B. has been questioning the figures from the nuclear power stations? Some of us might agree that nuclear power is the future power not only for this country but for the world, but would he not also consider that it can have a great effect on the Coal Board and the future of the mining industry if the correct figures are not given?
The trouble at Wylfa has been the delay caused by corrosion of some components in the reactor core. This is a technical hitch, which will be overcome. The result has been to delay the coming into operation of the station. It does not affect the economics of the station, apart from the small cost of the extra delay, and does not affect the calculations upon which the decision to build the stationed was based.
Chronically Sick And Disabled Persons Act, 1970
asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer how many copies of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act, 1970, have been printed.
May I first express my gratitude at having been able to get in Question No. 71, which I did not hope to do? I think that the Minister said 27,800. Can he explain what has happened to them all? Is it possible to get any account, perhaps in a Written Answer, of the way in which copies are distributed? Might it not be helpful, in view of the ignorance of so many local authorities about the passage of the Act, and even of officials of some Government Departments, if enough further copies could be printed so that every local councillor of a county council, county borough and London borough could be made aware of the provisions of the Act, to make up what appears to be the negligence of so many of the hon. Gentleman's right hon. Friends in publicising the provisions of the Act?
I have some difficulty in reconciling the hon. Gentleman's supplementary Question with the facts. Sales have, in fact, been very brisk. About 16,100 copies were issued to Government Departments or sold to the public in the first three months following publication, and even now copies are still going at the rate of about 1,500 a month.
Would the hon. Gentleman be prepared now to send a circular to all local authorities pointing out their responsibilities under the Act, and also asking for a return so as to find out how many are avading their responsibilities, so that he, as the Minister, can then take appropriate action?
This is a matter for my hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. No doubt if a Question is put down, he will seek to answer it.
Is it not a fact that the Department of Health and Social Security has drawn the attention of many local authorities to several of the provisions of this Act, and that it is steadily getting better known in the different areas?
I would hope that that was clear—I am grateful to my hon. Friend—from the original answer which I gave, which is that there has been a very large issue indeed and a reprint was authorised back in October.
Will the hon. Gentleman accept that it is largely due to the financial restraints imposed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on local authorities that they are not expanding the services as required by the Act? Will he take action to ensure that this is done as speedily as possible, and not simply rest content on 27,000-odd copies of the Bill having been circulated? Well over I million people are waiting to be helped here.
As I said, the substance of this issue is one for the Department of Health and Social Security, for which the Secretary of State has responsibility. As for the sales of these documents, I should have thought that it was clear from my original answers that we had had a very widespread circulation indeed.
Is my hon. Friend aware that I put a Question last week to the Secretary of State for Social Services asking whether he would issue a White Paper saying what local authorities which have already started to operate the Bill have done, what money is being made available and what is the amount on the rate support grant? Is my hon. Friend aware that hon. Gentlemen opposite are out of date, because I have already asked for the information?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the numbers of copies distributed to Government Departments and sold to the public. How many have gone to local authorities?
I am afraid that I cannot give that answer without notice.
Do this Government and the present Chancellor accept the same financial responsibility for the implementation of this Act as did the previous Government?
That really does not arise on this Question.
Could I press the hon. Gentleman to treat this matter more seriously? Local authorities at present are not only fully aware of what should be done but very doubtful about being able to find the necessary money. Will he ensure that information goes to local authorities, explaining their duties, so that these unfortunate people can get all the help and care they need?
I am aware of all these very interesting questions. If hon. Gentlemen would like to put them down, they will receive answers. I have sought to give answers, which I think are entirely satisfactory, to the Question which was put down.
We are, of course, all agreed that my hon. Friend has only limited responsibilities and has answered this Question correctly. Is he seized of the point, which hon. Members on both sides are trying to make, that there has been a slowness on the part of local authorities in this matter? Therefore, will he, when conveying the sense of the House this afternoon to his hon. Friends, make this point?
I am sure that the point which my hon. Friend and others have made will be noted by the Secretary of State, particularly in view of all the numerous supplementary questions which happen to have arisen on this Question.
In congratulating you, Mr. Speaker, and the Leader of the House on having got through all the Questions appearing on the Order Paper for today, may I ask the Minister if he will urge the various Government Departments involved with this matter in White-hall to follow this wonderful example which the Leader of the House and Mr. Speaker have set, remembering that none of those Departments in Whitehall has done anything to get these facilities, such as invalid carriages, to those who need them? Will the Minister get cracking and ask the Leader of the House to show him the way?
That is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I look forward to debating several issues at greater speed later tonight, when I understand the hon. Gentleman will be raising a matter on the Consolidated Fund Bill which I shall have the pleasure of answering.
Post Office (Dispute)
I will, with permission, make a statement.The House will be aware that the acting Chairman of the Post Office Corporation wrote on Saturday to Mr. Jackson of the Union of Post Office Workers to invite the union to discuss with the Post Office the possibility of finding measures to improve efficiency which would enable the Post Office's offer to be increased without adding to costs. The union responded immediately to this suggestion. After a preliminary discussion on Saturday, talks between the Post Office and the union took place yesterday. They have resumed this afternoon. The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition asked me on Thursday to report today on the up-to-date position in the electricity supply workers' dispute. I understand that informal discussions have taken place between the two sides, who have agreed that a formal meeting of the National Joint Industrial Council should be held on Thursday. In the circumstances, I am sure that the House will agree that further comment on these two issues would be undesirable at this stage.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that my hon. Friends and I are delighted that the Union of Post Office Workers and the Post Office are negotiating again, even if it had to be on their own initiative? [Interruption.]Would the right hon. Gentleman answer two questions? First, will he make another statement to the House tomorrow about the postal workers' dispute? Secondly, in connection with the electricity supply dispute, does he now wish in any way to modify the statement he made to the House last Wednesday on the Wilberforce Report, in the course of which he said that he had the authority of the Court to quote the figure of 10·9 per cent. as the effect on average earnings, of the Wilberforce recommendations?
The answer to the second part of that supplementary question is "No, Sir". The answer to the first part is that I will certainly make another state- ment about the postal dispute. Perhaps it would be unwise of me to give a definite promise to make a statement tomorrow; the House will agree that it must depend on the way things develop. However, I certainly undertake to make another statement at the earliest possible suitable moment.
I must press the right hon. Gentleman on my second supplementary question.
Is he now repeating what he said on Wednesday; namely, that he had the authority of the Court as a whole to quote the figure of 10·9 per cent., as he claimed he had? Is he now reaffirming that?
While everyone will welcome the fact that the two sides are now talking and while nobody would wish to prejudice the outcome of these talks, is it not an extraordinary commentary on our industrial relations situation that it should have taken one month before anybody should have put up the idea of a productivity deal which might produce a formula which could give satisfaction to both sides? Will the right hon. Gentleman address his mind to the fact that it has taken so long for the obvious to be put forward?
I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I have addressed my mind to this point many times over the last few weeks, and, indeed, before the strike arose. However, as I have explained to the House, and as it sometimes happens, alas, in industrial situations, the positions of the two sides were very firm on this, among other aspects of the dispute. I am delighted that the talks are now taking place.
While endorsing the encouragement that has been expressed on both sides to the fact that negotiations are proceeding again, may I ask the Secretary of State to acknowledge that one of the real difficulties in the current Post Office dispute is the fact that Post Office Workers have been denied access to the Civil Service Pay Research Unit, which they previously enjoyed as civil servants? Would he urge the Post Office to establish alternative pay research machinery to avoid such difficulties in future?
Now that the Post Office is a nationalised industry, I feel that it really must decide these matters for itself, as other nationalised industries do. The House must also bear in mind the nature of the agreement on this matter which both sides signed last August.
Returning to the question which was posed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle), may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to say exactly how he got authority for making that statement? Was it in the form of a telephone conversation with Lord Wilberforce? Was it by way of a letter written by him? Exactly how did the right hon. Gentleman receive this authority? So that the whole House may be fully informed of the precise position, would the right hon. Gentleman give this information?
I inquired of the Secretary to the Court and he inquired of the Chairman. The Chairman gave the Secretary his authority to say to me that 10·9 per cent. was the figure which the Court—I emphasise "the Court" and not just "the Chairman"—had before it and accepted, as a Court, as being the figure implied in its recommendations.
I must put this to the right hon. Gentleman because he now seems to be correcting what he said in reply to me earlier. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Yes, indeed. I think the right hon. Gentleman was perfectly aware that what I was asking him was whether all the members of the Court had been consulted about this figure and whether, sitting as a court, they had approved it. [Interruption.] This is most important. Hon. Gentlemen opposite may not mind the House being misled, but we do. I then made it clear that I was asking whether that figure had been given to him as covering all the items in the Report and not merely some of them.
I made it clear to the House that the figure of 10·9 per cent. was on exactly a comparable basis, as indeed it is. I also made it clear in my statement last week that as the employers' offer had been labelled "10 per cent." when, to be precise, it was 9·7 per cent., so it was right to label the Wilberforce proposal 10·9 per cent. This figure was before the Court, but the Court decided not to quote it. Nevertheless, the figure was before the whole Court and the Chairman gave his authority to me to state that that was the figure which the Court accepted as being the cost of its proposals on a truly comparable basis with the employers' offer.
How could that be on a truly comparable basis with the Electricity Council's offer, considering that the Wilberforce recommendations contained two items, holiday pay and lead-in payments, which were never offered by the Electricity Council? Is not the right hon. Gentleman therefore deliberately misleading the House—[HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear."]—when he quotes the figure of 10·79 per cent., knowing that that figure did not include two important items in the recommendations, holiday pay and lead-in payments? That is why we say the Court never authorised him to quote that figure.
I must repeat that I had the authority to quote the figure I gave—
Not by the full Court but by the Chairman.
I was authorised by the Court to quote the figure I gave. The holiday payment question was considered by the Court and—speaking from memory, but I am almost sure speaking rightly from memory—was mentioned in its Report, and it was indicated that three odd days to be taken by the staff, not collectively all at once but individually as was convenient within the year, would not add to the costs of the industry—[Interruption.]—because the time off would be absorbed without any overtime payment. Here again I am quoting —[Interruption.] Hon. Members opposite may or may not agree with it, but I am quoting the view of the Court on the effect of its holiday pay proposals on the labour costs of the industry.As for the second question, had I included an estimate—which I think would be impossible—of the cost of the lead-in payment, the figure I would have given would not have been 10·9 per cent. but something considerably lower—I would probably have guessed it at something like 6 per cent.
The right hon. Lady cannot have understood the employers' offer. The employers' offer was quite clearly expressed as being an estimate of 10 per cent. on the wages bill, the earnings—[Interruption.] Oh, yes, on the earnings bill of the industry assuming a stable labour force during the 12 months. The incentive bonus payments were on offer already. They would have gone on being implemented even if there had been no claim and no offer this year. What the Wilberforce Court of Inquiry did was to offer an incentive payment to get the introduction quicker, and the faster these incentive bonus schemes are introduced the faster the earnings of individuals will go up, but the smaller the addition to the labour costs of the industry will become.
But when the right hon. Gentleman informed the House on these matters last week, did he not say that 9·7 per cent. was on the average earnings? He was not talking about the wages bill of the industry but about average earnings. Is he now saying that with the so-far undefined wages policy of the Government he is perfectly happy about any wage settlement provided that it is expressed in holidays? [Interruption.] For example, when Ministers go on television to say that no settlement in a particular industry must be more than 10 per cent., does one take it that he would be quite happy if there were a fortnight's holiday with pay added on?Furthermore, he has just told the House now that the figure of 10·9 was before the Court—presumably a lot of figures were before the Court—but is he now saying that the Court as a whole, even if it did not publish the figure in its Report, accepted 10·9 per cent. as the increase in average earnings which the award proposed?
I am saying, and I repeat, that 10·9 per cent. was the cost accepted by the Court on a comparable basis with the employers' offer—
I made it absolutely clear that I was comparing 10·9 per cent. with 9·7 per cent.—[Interruption.] The right hon. Lady and the right hon. Gentleman can nit-pick as much as they like—[Interruption.]—the meaning was absolutely clear. The incentive bonus schemes were on offer, were being implemented, would have gone on being implemented if there had been no pay claim, no offer, no Court of Inquiry and, of course, these would have had an effect on the individual earnings in the industry quite regardless of this year's settlement. The lead-in payment was entirely concentrated on trying to speed up implementation of this process which was already going on, and the 10 per cent.—or, to be exact, the 9–7 per cent.—was quite clearly regardless of the effect of the incentive bonus payments—[Interruption.] One might presume. I should have thought, that the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition and the right hon. Lady would have learned the basic facts of life in this industry.