I beg to move,
That the Agreement, dated the 29th day of November, 1922, between His Majesty's Government, the Government of the Dominion of Canada, the Crown Agents for the Colonies, and the West India and Panama Telegraph Company, Limited, supplemental to an Agreement between the said parties dated the 10th day of August, 1914 (Parliamentary Paper, No. 447, of Session 1914), and to two Agreements, dated the 16th day of March, 1921 (Parliamentary Paper, No. 58, of Session 1921), and the 24th day of August, 1921, respectively, between His Majesty's Government and the said company, and between the Government of the Dominion of Canada and the said company, be approved.
For only a few minutes I wish to explain the purpose of the Agreement which has been made on behalf of the Treasury and the various parties concerned, and to which I propose to ask the House to give its assent. The company named is the owner of certain cables which connect the various islands, and also makes a connection with this country viâ Halifax in Nova Scotia. These cables form the sole means of telegraphic communication between the West Indies and Great
Britain and between the various islands in the West Indies. In 1914 an Agreement was made with the company under which certain subsidies were given by the Imperial Government and by the Government of the Dominion of Canada, and under which the company agreed very materially to reduce its rates. That Agreement was for a period of 10 years, and expires on 30th September, 1924. There was a Clause in the Agreement which provided that if the revenue exceeded a certain sum the subsidies were to be reduced. During the War the revenue of the company did exceed that sum, but as at the same time the expenses increased out of proportion to the revenue, two supplementary Agreements were made, one by this Government and one by the Government of Canada, under which the reduction of the subsidy was waived. Unhappily even this has not been sufficient, and the company has for some time been in financial difficulties, and its situation has now become critical. The company have informed the Government that unless they receive some further financial assistance they will be unable to pay their debenture interest, and they will have to go into liquidation, and very probably there will be a total cessation of the telegraphic service to the West Indies. In these circumstances the Governments concerned have considered the matter and have come to the conclusion that the best way to meet the difficulty is to provide that during a temporary period the company shall be allowed to increase its rates. This Agreement is a four-party Agreement between His Majesty's Government, the Government of Canada, the Crown Agents of the Colonies and the company, and it provides that the company may increase their rates by 6d. a word on the through rate and by one-third of the present charges on the inter-island rates, up to 31st March next. After that the rates may be reviewed and prescribed by the Postmaster-General with the concurrence of the other Governments concerned. Two of the Governments, the Dominion of Canada and the West Indies, have already signified their concurrence in the Agreement, and I have now to ask the House to approve the Agreement and to allow these rates to come into force.
I beg to move, "That the Debate be now adjourned."
Until we have had placed before Members of this House a list of the shareholders of the company and the operations of the company within recent years, I think the matter should be deferred. When I was elected to this House, and came to take my seat, I supposed that most of my time would be devoted to an endeavour to improve the condition of the British people. I am amazed to find that, day after day, almost hour after hour, I am discussing the failures of private enterprise and its accruing disasters. We, as representatives of the nation, are repeatedly asked to bolster up these private enterprise failures at the expense of the people. We have been discussing unemployment for many, many years, and unemployment which is due entirely and unquestionably to the complete collapse of the capitalist system as a means of carrying on the necessary services of this country.
We might pass along the whole range of our discussions to the one which is before us now, and more particularly in view of the suspicion aroused by the discussion to which we have just listened [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"]—I refer to the suspicion in the minds of a considerable section in this House that we are now in the hands of big capitalists, and that this House is being used by capitalists for exploiting big schemes whereby a starving British population is being used for the maintenance in luxury and wealth of the class that dominates this House. I think, in view of the suspicion that we have of the class that dominates this House, it is not unreasonable, when the Government come to us with a proposal to allow this company to increase its rates, or allow their friends to increase them in order that by so doing they may make a business pay which, when conducted on legitimate lines, has proved to be a failure, I think it is reasonable that we should request that this proposal should be postponed until we have fuller information about it to enable us to form a proper judgment.
I beg to second the Motion.
I think with my hon. Friend that in view of what has taken place today we are quite justified in taking this course. My impression since I came into this House is that, right through, this House is ever so much more concerned about the furtherance of the interests of capitalistic enterprises than in trying to evolve schemes which will be helpful to the great mass of our people. There is, in connection with the proposed agreement with this company, an opportunity for those of us on this side of the House to make a protest against this state of matters.
We would like to see exactly who are the people interested in this company, and we would like to know much more precisely than was indicated by the Postmaster-General what we are being committed to in this Agreement. There is no doubt about it that amongst the great mass of people outside this House, and also in the minds of many hon. Members on this side of the House, there is a real suspicion with regard to the operations of big capitalists and the influence they have in directing the policy of this House. Sometimes it is said that we of the Labour party are people engaged in a class war trying to stir up discontent. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] Hon. Members opposite say, "Hear, hear!" and I have been very interested on many occasions in the strange sounds which sometimes rumble across to this side of the House from hon. Members opposite. I should be ready to congratulate my hon. Friends on this side of the House if they could only put half of this class war idea into our point of view which the lion. Members opposite put into their policy and the schemes for which they seek to win the approval of this House. Right through when agreements with companies such as this are before them, if is manifest that hon. Members opposite are having particular regard for their own interests. They are having regard to the interests of their own class, and I am glad that the day has come when our class, who have had to suffer because of such agreements being allowed to go through when Liberals and Tories were playing the game of Tweedledum and Tweedledee—I am glad that we are here to see, with regard to these agreements with these companies, that we are satisfied that they are in the best interests of all the people. Accordingly, because of our sense of suspicion of transactions such as this, I have pleasure in seconding the Motion of my hon. Friend.
Almost the last episode in my Parliamentary life before I came back to this Assembly, was on a Friday afternoon, when the Marconi business was being discussed, and when an almost identical scene was witnessed against myself. I was chastised the next morning in every newspaper in the land as the one person who thought evil, but within a few months I was proved to have been the only person who was right on that afternoon. I am not thinking of the right hon. Member for Paisley (Mr. Asquith) at all, and I have not anybody individually in my mind this afternoon. This is the point. I am confident that if any members of a local authority were placed in the position in which certain people are placed on occasion after occasion when matters similar to this come up, they would be hounded out of public life.
Yes, they have been sent to prison for these things, not for having done anything except having been interested in contracts that their body was giving out on behalf of the public. I believe there used to be a rule applicable to all Members that we could not speak nor vote on any matter in which we were personally interested. I believe that it was got round by means of the joint stock companies, and we shall never get this matter on a proper footing until that rule applies to joint stock companies as well as to private individuals. We ought not to allow any of these things to go through without we have put before us a list of the shareholders and directors in order that the House may know when a Member is speaking whether he is financially or otherwise interested in the particular question. Nowhere, except in the House of Commons, is it supposed to be right that you should come and fight and work in order to occupy a paid position on the Front Bench, and I feel that the time has come—I said this ten years ago—when we ought so to reform the work of this House that there should be no plums of office or of any sort, but that every man should give his services for the good of the common weal. I suggest that those who believe in honour, and most hon. Members opposite do, ought to support us in this first step along a road that will at least give the public a knowledge of how it is and why it is certain of these contracts and arrangements have to be made. Therefore, I hope the Motion for Adjournment will be carried.
I think hon. Members who have spoken are in a rather peculiar position. Most people in business are opposed to this, because it means the imposition of increased cabling charges for the West Indies. Most of the commercial community naturally would not view that with favour. As to the question of who are the members of the company, it would take some time to secure that information, and I do not think the Postmaster-General could agree to the postponement of the Motion for that purpose. I would only like to add that I am opposed to this, not for the reasons put forward by hon. Members opposite, but because I feel that the cheaper the communications are throughout the world, the better it is for business and for the community generally. I do not like the imposition of this additional sixpence per word for these cables.
We are appealing to the House to think over what has happened to-day and the protests which we have made. In this case an agreement has been come to in which the Post Office is mixed up with the Canadian Government and some private companies. It -s just as well that no suspicion should be attached to a job of this kind. We on these benches are disappointed that since the opening of the House, instead of being able to do something for the benefit of the people, scheme after scheme has been brought before us in regard to which we are asked to vote away the nation's money to support one company or another. The hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite has said he is opposed to this proposal. We welcome that statement. But I have noticed that nearly all hon. Members opposite who speak against the Government in Debate generally follow it into the Lobby, and that is one reason why protests are never paid heed to. The only way of impressing the Government is to vote against it, and, if necessary, to cross the Floor of the House in order to make the protest real. I am going to suggest to hon. Members that jobs of this kind cannot be defended in the country. It may be all right here. It may be that, thanks to the control over the Press, these matters do not go any further than the House. But in schemes of this kind, by means of which we are buttressing up companies that have either made fabulous profits, or it may be, as in this case, no profits at all, the information is not enough to justify us giving our vote. I would like to know not only the personnel of the company, but what capital is sunk in the concern, and how long it has been going on, and unless we can get that information, we hope we shall be supported in this Motion for Adjournment.
I think the object aimed at by the Mover and Seconder of this Motion is a very legitimate one. The right hon. Gentleman and the House must remember that of recent years there has been a great growth in public opinion, and that public opinion has been manifested in an extraordinary manner at the polls during the last General Election. We on this side of the House now represent over 4,000,000 of the people of this country, who do not accept in so easy a manner the way in which the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues from time to time bring before the House agreements of this character. All that we are asking is that some light should be thrown on this Agreement—light which would enable us to pass judgment, to express an opinion which, at any rate would satisfy not merely our conscience, but our intelligence. [A laugh.] I do not know what that interruption suggests. I do not know whether or not it means that I have no intelligence, but at any rate I have the satisfaction of having reached this Chamber by the votes of my fellow-citizens, and that is a sufficient testimony to my intelligence and ability. We are asking for some information. All we have is what is told us in some eight or ten lines on the Order Paper. It may very well be that there are some hon. Members, learned in business, on the other side of the House and below the Gangway, who know all about the ramifications of these Agreements, who know exactly the terms of this Agreement, and who can speak with some authority and information on this matter. So far, however, as the statement on the Order Paper goes, there is nothing to indicate the conditions of this Agreement. All that we know is that an Agreement—and I call the right hon. Gentleman's attention to this, because it is a point of substance, and I am expecting him to give me some information on the matter—
The right hon. Gentleman asks me if I have seen the White Paper. All I can find is this:
That the Agreement, dated the 29th day of November, 1922, …supplemental to an Agreement between the said parties, dated the 10th day of August, 1914….
There is not, as far as I am aware, anything to indicate that a White Paper has been issued in connection with this new Agreement, which is supplemental to the two Agreements referred to in the latter part of this statement on the Order Paper. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman suggests that there is such a White Paper?
If my right hon. Friend had got up and said, in reply to my Friends here—and this is the whole point of my speech—that there was in the Vote Office such a White Paper, which is not indicated here and of which I did not know the existence, indicating the terms of the Agreement, which we could compare with the terms of the Agreements of 1914 and 1921 to which it is supplemental, we should have been able to make such a comparison, and to see what departures had taken place in the new Agreement as compared with the old; and we should have been able to see to what extent the interests of the country were involved, or to what extent they were to benefit as the result of this new Agreement. I hope hon. Members opposite will not think that in raising these matters we are seeking to throw suspicion. We desire a greater measure of information and knowledge, and right hon. Gentlemen who from time to time bring forward these matters will have to be more ready and willing to give us that information. We are not going to sit down silently and pass these extraordinary Measures and Agreements unless we feel that our hopes and our activities are based upon knowledge and upon a complete understanding. I appeal to them in all sincerity not to think that we have some ulterior motive in asking for these particulars. We are as anxious as they are, and I have no doubt they are as anxious as we are, to see that the business of the country is run upon sound business lines, and I hope they will give us credit for appealing for this information upon grounds of business exigencies and with the desire to promote the best interests of our country.
I rise at once to respond to the hon. Member's appeal, and I would ask him to be at least a little fairer to us on this side of the House and not accuse us, without reason, of trying to rush through a proposal of this kind without giving due information. I entirely agree that hon. Members are perfectly entitled to have full information about this Agreement, and we have done our best to give them that information, first of all by circulating the White Paper. Of course, if hon. Members do not read these Papers and do not ask for them they cannot blame us, but there was an opportunity to get the White Paper, which gives general information about the Agreement, and I endeavoured to supplement that information in my opening remarks, which I am afraid were not clearly heard by hon. Members opposite, who seemed to be engaged in private conversation among themselves. I will endeavour once more to make clear what is really the nature of this Agreement. It is not a proposal to vote away the nation's money at all. It is a proposal, the best we can think of, to enable the telegraphic service with the West Indies to be maintained until we can make some more permanent and better arrangement. This West Indies and Panama Company is in a critical financial condition. I doubt very much whether it will be possible for the company to remain in existence for very much longer, but before we could substitute any other arrangement for the cable which is now owned by the company which Carries on this service a considerable time would have to elapse. There would have to be another cable, tenders would have to be invited, the cable would have to be manufactured and laid, and if the company had gone into liquidation, telegraphic communication between this company and the West Indies would have come to an end. This Agreement is not for the purpose of putting profits into the pockets of the company. It is for the purpose of preserving that communication between the West Indies and this country which is very necessary if business is to be carried on. It is only for a very short time. It only lasts till 31st March next, after which we have to carry on as best we can until we put the whole thing on a permanent and more satisfactory basis. In the interest of the people who are employed in this country in carrying on trade with the West Indies, as well as in the interests of the West Indies themselves, I hope the House will not raise any objection to this Agreement founded on suspicions for which there is really no reason. I hope they will allow me to get this Resolution, which is essential.
There is no such Clause in the Agreement, which is merely to enable the company to raise its rates for a limited time. The Government have under consideration proposals for putting this matter on a permanent basis, which will be more satisfactory. Whether or not that will involve Government ownership of the cable, I am not prepared to say. That is one of the possible alternatives which we are contemplating.
The right hon. Gentleman must not assume that we on this side have any desire to be unfair to hon. Members opposite. On the contrary, we have every desire to be fair, but in being fair to hon. Members opposite and to the Government, we must be fair to our own people and we must be fair to the commercial interests of the country who are concerned in this proposal. The right hon. Gentleman has taken exception to remarks of hon. Members on these benches with regard to the question of private enterprise. What he has said himself proves up to the hilt the truth of the contention made frequently from these benches, namely, that private enterprise is continually failing. In this particular instance, the right hon. Gentleman has admitted that the position of the company is critical and that its financial position is unsound, and because it is unsound the Government have to come to the rescue. That is our contention all the time. My right hon. Friend, and hon. Members opposite, who take exception to our remarks in regard to the position of private enterprises, fail to understand. There is more than ample justification for the Motion which has been submitted by the hon. Member for Shettleston (Mr. Wheatley).
A few days ago, a question was asked in the House by the hon. and gallant Member for Leith Burghs (Captain Wedgwood Benn) with regard to the position of the ex-Postmaster-General, and it was pointed out in answer to the question that the ex-Postmaster-General was not implicated in any sense which could be construed as inimical to the interests of the people of this country. I accept that completely, but when questions of that kind are asked, and when questions of that kind have been raised from time to time as has been indicated by the hon. Member for Bow- and Bromley (Mr. Lans-bury) in connection with the Marconi incident, we are entitled to press for information which, apparently, right hon. Gentlemen on the Treasury Bench are anxious to conceal. It is all very well for the right hon. Gentleman to say to the hon. Member for Wednesbury (Mr. Short) that by going to the Vote Office and obtaining the White Paper the information can be provided; but the information which we ask for has not been provided, and a visit to the Vote Office will not help us materially in that direction. We ask, first of al), for particulars regarding the shareholders in this particular company. Who are they? Are there any on the Treasury Bench? Are there any among hon. Members opposite? If not, tell is. If there are, then furnish us with the information. At all events, give us the information for which we are justly entitled to ask. Who are the shareholders?
It is not unfair and it is not injudicious for me, or for any of my hon. Friends, to ask for information of that kind from the right hon. Gentleman, who is responsible to the particular Department which can provide such information. Why I should be asked to go to some other quarter for information of that kind when the right hon. Gentleman is here and is capable of answering, or ought to be capable of answering, I cannot understand.
Hon. Members opposite ask, and I excuse them for the question, why should the right hon. Gentleman know who are the shareholders. (HON. MEMBERS: "Why should he?"] To which I reply that the right hon. Gentleman is negotiating an Agreement between his Department and this particular company, and he ought to know. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] For the same reason that hon. Members opposite, when they negotiate commercial and other agreements, are always anxious to ascertain who are the people with whim they are negotiating. It will be interesting to ascertain whether the ex-Postmaster-General had anything to do with this Agreement, arid whether in his present capacity he has anything to do with this company which, we are told, is financially unsound. If I am asked to SO elsewhere for information of this kind, I reply that that information ought to be at the disposal of the Postmaster-General, and if he cannot furnish information of this kind, I suggest very respectfully that he ought not to occupy such a prominent position in the Government. Hon* Members opposite appear to be very much annoyed at the attitude adopted by Members on these benches. [Laughter.] I an anxious to afford hon. Members amusement, but I can assure them that it will riot continue very long. I invite hon. Members to extract all the amusement they can at the moment as they are not likely to occupy a position of that kind very long.
It is my exceeding modesty in replying to observations from the other side. I submit, with great respect and scrupulous fairness, that we on these benches, perhaps because of our lack of knowledge of Parliamentary procedure, perhaps because we have not yet been directed to those Departments where information can be obtained expeditiously, are entitled to ask the Postmaster-General for information which we can furnish to our constituents in the event of questions being submitted to ourselves. The right hon. Gentleman has given no information to justify us in withdrawing our Motion, and we will divide the House on it.
The Postmaster-General has said that these Agreements have been published as a White Paper, which we can get in the Vote Office. I have been there, and I have got the Agreement of the 16th March, but I cannot get the Agreement of the 24th August, 1921, and there is no reference number in the Resolution placed before the House to indicate that such Agreement has been published as a White Paper.
This is an Agreement with the Government of the Dominion of Canada. The effect of the Agreement is to waive the power which they had under the original Agreement to reduce the subsidy when the revenue of the company had reached a certain amount.
Personally, I think it would have been better if the Postmaster-General had included amongst the papers issued to Members that which is referred to specifically in this Resolution, and thereby had suggested to Members that they might familiarise themselves with the Agreement. The Motion for the Adjournment of the Debate ought to be considered. Some hon. Members opposite were inclined to smile at the suggestion that in business circles business men would at least endeavour to ascertain what Was the financial stability—[HON. MEMBERS: "NO; you said the list of shareholders!"]—of any firm with which they proposed to do business, and that on the result of such inquiry would depend the extent to which they did business with that firm. It is suggested that we are asking for something abnormal in inviting a statement as to the shareholders in this company. Why is there something abnormal? Questions are being asked in various parts of the country about a member of the previous Government taking a position in a particular company that is interested in things connected with the Government Department of which he was formerly the head. If such questions are to be asked on the one side, surely we are equally entitled to ask for a list of the shareholders of any company that is to draw a subsidy?
That is not a Government guarantee. This company has a binding Agreement which goes on until September, 1924. All that this Agreement does is to give them leave to increase their rates.
We understand that, and that is one of the reasons why we object to it. We want to know who is behind this company and who are the individuals who will reap the benefit if any profits are made. The Postmaster-General appealed to the House to allow this Resolution to go through on the ground that this company is in financial difficulties. It is another monument to the failure of private enterprise. You have to come to the State to ask for Agreements to make security for these people.
If I might be permitted to answer the question put to me, I would say that the facts stated do not in any way prove the failure of State enterprise, but show simply that those at the head who claimed to be business men could not conduct the business. I hope the House on this occasion will demand the publication of the list of shareholders in this particular company. We are entitled to have this information in order to allay suspicion in the minds, not of people inside the House, but of people outside the House. There have been too many deals of this kind in the past, which have led to suspicion, and while it may not be true—and I am quite, willing to accept any statement that it is not true—that any Member of the House is going to have any financial gain out of these transactions, yet in order that the public mind may be absolutely clear that matters are being conducted in a fair and square and above-board manner, and that no financial or personal interests are involved, it would be well to withdraw this Motion meantime and publish a list of the shareholders. I suggest to the Postmaster-General, in the interests of the Members of the House and in the interests of the general public, and in order that there may be absolutely no feeling of distrust, that the Amendment should be accepted by the Government.
It seems to me that one point has been entirely overlooked. I think there is a prevalent feeling that we take a keener interest in political affairs in Scotland than exists among the people in the southern portion of the country. One of the reasons why that feeling has grown up is because of recent trials revelations made in the Courts of this country. If you take only two or three cases which have been heard recently you find that the financial under takings concerned went down, and the men involved found themselves in the dock, because the directors of these firms implicitly trusted their honesty and integrity. The directors never inquired—and this applies to one case in particular—as to how far the managing director or the secretary—
I was just going to point out that we are entitled to the information demanded, in order to meet any charge that we may be called upon to meet from our constituents in the event of certain things arising in the future. To do so, we ought to know the personnel of this particular company, and I ask the Postmaster-General one direct question. Is it the case that Mr. Bevan is a member or a director of this company that is going to get a guarantee from the Government?
I do not know whether the appeal I am about to make will do any good, but I hope hon. Gentlemen will not go to a Division on this question, otherwise they will stultify a great deal of their own influence and the influence of the House. Already this afternoon, they have voted for guarantees to the amount of £50,000,000 to a great number of firms up and down the country, and even abroad, in order to provide work and assist the solution of the unemployment problem. No one asked for the names of the shareholders of any one of these companies. [An HON. MEMBER: "We told you who they were, and that is what kicked up all the row!"] An hon. Gentleman says they told us, but it was not he who told us, and the only Gentleman who did intervene in the discussion in that way was wrong. I have made my appeal, and I do not mind whether it is accepted or not. I am only submitting that it seems foolish to vote £50,000,000 of public money for distribution among firms while not a single Member of the Labour party asked that there should be a disclosure of the shareholders in any of these cases and then to fix upon this particular case. The hon. Member for Shettlestone (Mr. Wheatley) knows perfectly well that he is only going to do things in the House of Commons by making mistakes. I do not think anyone in the House will feel aggrieved if my hon. Friends do not go to a Division on account of the anomaly which it involves. I understand the Postmaster-General says he must get his Agreement to-night. If that were not necessary, I should agree with the Labour party that we should put this off, but for a separate reason. If there is a Division, I hope every hon. Member opposite will vote for the Labour party, for this reason, that if we do not give the Labour part what they want in this case, although it will be of no use to them, they will say that we refuse to disclose facts which are of no use to anybody. I am certainly going to vote with the Labour party, not because I think there is any substance in what they are asking, but because they will misuse absolutely the refusal of the Members of this House to agree to their demand in this case. However, I hope my hon. Friends of the Labour party will be satisfied with the discussion which we have had.
I would like to point out that if we have made the mistake of permitting £50,000,000 to pass through without asking a question, we are trying to rectify that mistake now, and we will take good care that in future in these matters such a mistake is not repeated. In regard to what the Postmaster-General has said, he has pointed out when we have been confusing, as we have perhaps at times, the question of guarantees, that all that is being given to this company, and all that is being asked for it, is the power to increase the charges it is entitled to make against users, but this is precisely the charge which we make against that company and the Government, that when people in a smaller way of life make mistakes or find themselves up against difficulties they have to swallow their difficulties. This company made an Agreement with the Government expecting to make profits out of it. Now that the profits have not materialised, instead of being compelled to carry out their bargain, as other people would be compelled to do, they come calmly before us, as they have done—that type of people—for generation after generation, and they take shelter behind the British people and say, "We are in difficulties. Either give us a guarantee, or let us scrap the Agreement and make a new one under which we can make profits." By and bye, we of the Labour party will learn to object to every one of these things and to expose them all, till the system is brought to an end and something like honest and fair dealing between the nation and the exploiters of the nation is put in its place.
This Agreement of 1914 was made just before the War, and the reason why it has not turned out as it was expected to turn out is because of war conditions, which increased the expenses of the company out of all possible anticipation. I only want to say now that even if they get this increased rate the rates will to-day, after the increase, be very much less than they were before the original Agreement was made.
That the Agreement, dated the 29th day of November, 1922, between His Majesty's Government, the Government of the Dominion of Canada, the Crown Agents for the Colonies, and the West India and Panama Telegraph Company, Limited, supplemental to an Agreement between the said
parties dated the 10th day of August, 1914r (ParliamentaryPaper,No.447,of Session 1914), and to two Agreements, dated the 16th day of March, 1921 (Parliamentary Paper No.58, ofSession1921) and the! 24thday of August, 1921, respectively, between His Majesty's Government and the said company, and between the Government of the Dominion of Canada and the said Company, be approved.