Abolition of Office of Master of the Post Office

Part of Orders of the Day — Post Office Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 5th May 1969.

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Photo of Mr Eldon Griffiths Mr Eldon Griffiths , Bury St Edmunds 12:00 am, 5th May 1969

I simply would record that my hon. Friend's Amendment would allow hon. Members, at such future time as the Order came to be discussed on an affirmative Resolution, to contest the suggestion that sentiment has no place in this matter. I welcome the Amendment which would allow us in that particular debate, which would otherwise be denied to us, to deploy the case which I am not now, alas, able to deploy.

Secondly, and well within the terms of order, the right hon. Gentleman the Postmaster-General said that it would be unusual to require that an Order in Council should be subject to affirmative Resolution. That was his case. I cannot think that that is right. It ought to be subject to affirmative Resolution in this House when a post of the undoubted public standing of the Master of Posts is abolished and when the accountability to Parliament of this great office is removed from us.

The right hon. Gentleman said that he was the 101st Postmaster-General. I wish that there could be many more Postmasters-General. But I am sure that if he is indeed to be the last, there ought to be opportunity for this House on affirmative Resolution to discuss his final obsequies, as one of my hon. Friends described them. I am quite sure that it was wrong for the Postmaster-General to urge the argument that it is unusual to have an affirmative Resolution. It is very unusual to abolish the post of Postmaster-General. Therefore, the argument that it is unusual simply will not stand.

There was then his further argument, again I understood within the terms of order, that it would upset the timetable if there were to be an affirmative Resolution occasioning a debate in the House. I cannot accept that the upsetting of the timetable of the Post Office is good enough reason to snatch away from the House of Commons any further opportunity to debate the matter at all. There have been many vesting dates set by Government Departments—under all Governments—which were very convenient to them. But what matters is what is convenient to the House, and whether the Measure being brought into effect is seen to have been thoroughly ventilated in the House of Commons. What is important is that something is not taken away from the British people, the customers of the Post Office, without there having been for every Member of the House, so far as possible, opportunity to express the views of his constituents.

I fear that the House will go into the Summer Recess and that we shall return to find that, for all practical purposes, the Postmaster-General has disappeared. But I suspect that during the months that lie ahead many of our constituents, who are not able to pay as much attention to the details of the Bill as we pay in this House, will begin to rise up and appreciate what they are about to lose. As a result they will bring pressure to bear upon us in the summer months in the hope that, when we come back after the Recess, we shall be able to have a debate on an affirmative Resolution in which once again we can express to the Government the feelings and desires of our constituents, the customers of the Post Office, that this office be not removed from their midst and above all from their access by way of this House.

7.30 p.m.

Those are the reasons which the Postmaster-General advanced against my hon. Friend's arguments. But it seems to me that there are some positive arguments which can be adduced from this side of the House to support his Amendment. The first is that an affirmative Resolution places the burden of proof where it belongs, upon the Government. The Government would have to come to the House with their affirmative Resolution and the Minister would have to explain in some detail what he proposed to do. There is a great deal of difference between an Order in Council, which most hon. Members probably do not even see, and the opportunity which we should be afforded by the Minister having to accept the burden of proof for what he proposes to do. Under the affirmative procedure, we should have that opportunity. As it is, we are to be denied it.

Another argument in favour of the affirmative procedure is that it gives exposure by way of the Press and by way of such programmes as "Today in Parliament", so that it is made known to the people what the House of Commons is doing. If we are to be confronted with an Order in Council, some hole-in-the-wall, unseen little creature, in all likelihood the people who ought to be made aware of it will not know until it is too late. I submit that the affirmative procedure placing the burden upon the Government and giving full exposure to what they are doing is a far more sensible and just proceedure and more in keeping with the traditions and good sense of this House.

Thirdly, the affirmative procedure, above all, establishes the principle of accountability to Parliament. The Order in Council that is proposed would not be subject to debate, in all probability would never be noticed, or noticed only if someone outside this House happened to raise the matter, whereas the affirmative procedure places accountability clearly upon the Government and allows all hon. Members to consider the case that they make.

Lastly, perhaps I might put this point to the right hon. Gentleman. His Government have brought in many policies which, in the event, will be a near run thing. He has put it to us that he hopes that vesting day will be in October and that it would be extremely inconvenient if anything happened between now and October to get in his way. Many things could happen. We could have another financial crisis. We could have a change of Government. The important fact remains that we have too many dates lying ahead of us. The date of withdrawal from the Persian Gulf and the date for getting out of Singapore are only—