Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Although they have not yet been printed in Hansard, I wonder whether your attention has been drawn to remarks made last night by the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) about our late colleague Mr. Airey Neave. In the course of his speech, the hon. Gentleman asserted that Mr. Neave had been involved in treason. You will know, Mr. Speaker, that Mr. Neave was more than a personal friend to those of us who were old enough to serve in the second world war and then together in this House. You will also know that outside this place he was one of the most admired and courageous of all our war heroes. The hon. Member's remarks, which are now widely current, have deeply wounded not only Conservative Members, but many Opposition Members who knew Mr. Neave's qualities.
My question to you, Sir, is twofold. First, was it in order for the hon. Gentleman to make such an infamous charge, and, if not, what action can you take? Secondly, if by some strange quirk it was in order for the hon. Gentleman to use the privilege of this place to make such an assertion, in the light of the hurt that it will cause not merely to hon. Members but to the family of our late colleague--whose arms are here to remind us of his significance to our country in its hour of danger--have you received any indication from the Leader of the Opposition, or from anyone speaking on his behalf, that his attention has been drawn to the matter and that he has reprimanded the hon. Gentleman and repudiates what he has said?
Mr. Speaker : The matter has been drawn to my attention. Of course, I have not had an opportunity, nor has the House, of reading it in Hansard. What was said was in order in terms of free speech in this place, but I must say to the whole House that successive Committees of Privileges and Procedure have drawn attention to the obligation on hon. Members to use their freedom of speech with responsibility. The Chair makes no comment on individual speeches that are in breach of no rule of the House, but I trust that there will be general support throughout the House for the proposition that hon. Members should avoid expressing themselves in ways that are bound to cause deep offence.
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East) : Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I was one of six hon. Members who were in the House when the statement was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone). I am bound to wonder whether my hon. Friend was informed that this point of order would be raised so that he could have been in the Chamber on this occasion.
Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne) : Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. The late Mr. Airey Neave had been mentioned in dispatches for gallantry and had been awarded the military OBE, the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order, yet last evening it was alleged in the House that he was involved in treason.
There are few people of whom it can be said that he could never do anything dishonourable, but one of those few of whom it could be said is Airey Neave. He served his
Column 974country in war with exemplary courage, and this House in peace with exemplary fidelity. Airey Neave is not able to be here to defend himself, but his friends wish to defend him.
Is it in order, Mr. Speaker, to attack a former Member of the House who cannot defend himself, and would it be in order for you to give a ruling that assaults on the dead involving a charge of treason should in future be out of order?
Several Hon. Members rose --
Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to be associated with the remarks of my hon. Friends who have spoken on behalf of Airey Neave. I have read, as I am sure many other hon. Members have, the reports in the Library of last night's Adjournment debate, and I confirm that the wording of what was said was disgraceful. On no fewer than three occasions was Airey Neave accused of treason.
I do not believe that we can leave matters as they are and simply say that what was said was in order and that nothing more can be done about it. I suggest that we must call on the shadow Leader of the House or the Leader of the Opposition to come to the House and apologise on behalf of the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), who behaved in a quite disgraceful way. Such lack of courtesy should not be accepted by the House.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. If what the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) has said were to be the case, you might decide that it would be a good idea for an inquiry to be held into the facts surrounding the allegations that were made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) last night.
While you are about it, Mr. Speaker, it might be a good idea for that inquiry to call on the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office to substantiate the allegations that he made against all Labour Members recently about their connections with the KGB. If it is good enough for an issue such as that to be raised, let us have a wholesale inquiry into all the allegations that are made by the Tories.
Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I support what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro). Surely it cannot be proper for the holder of two of the greatest awards for gallantry in the field, who was murdered within the precincts of the House by the INLA and who was a much loved and respected Member of the House to be slandered in such a grotesque and contemptible manner. If there is no provision for you to make a ruling, Mr. Speaker, let the House decide that such allegations should never be made about an hon. Member ever again.
Mr. Ron Brown (Edinburgh, Leith) : Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I did not know Airey Neave--perhaps it is better that way--so I will not speak ill of the dead. Whether or not he was involved with the security forces I cannot tell. However, if we talk about the living and about this House, it is interesting to note that at no time, or certainly rarely, does it rise to the occasion and
Column 975protect Socialist Members who are on the Left and who speak about certain issues, when repeatedly we are libelled and slandered. That has been going on for some time.
As my good comrade, if I may call him that, the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has said, a certain individual in the south of England has made allegations that have been used by the Foreign Office against myself and others. If anyone ought to be investigated, that person ought to be investigated. The Foreign Office and the Government should be investigated, too, because they are totally corrupt.
Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East) : I am not in favour of attacks on the dead, but I wish to make my position perfectly clear. It was a great pity that the Father of the House did not stop his point of order before he reached the stage where he turned it into a political issue. The key point is whether it was an insult to the late Airey Neave to say what my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) said about him during the Adjournment debate last night. Adjournment debates are the responsibility of the individual Member who is allocated half an hour at the end of the day's proceedings. It had nothing whatever to do with any political party in the House. [Interruption.] It is all right for Conservative Members to snigger and laugh. The hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth) is standing there sniggering.
However, I say to them, particularly to the Father of the House and the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), that if they intend to turn this into the kind of political issue that they are in danger of turning it into they are just as guilty-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Ewing : I want this point to be heard, Mr. Speaker. They are just as guilty of besmirching the memory of Airey Neave as any other hon. Member who attacks him, now that he is no longer with us. Several Hon. Members rose --
Mr. Speaker : Order. I do not think that we can pursue the matter any further. We have freedom of speech in this place, as all hon. Members know. Every right hon. and hon. Member must take responsibility for what he says here. What was said last night I personally deprecate, naturally, since I also knew Airey Neave. I think that the whole House accepts that he was a patriot in the true sense of the word. However, what was said by the hon. Member concerned was his responsibility and it was in breach of no rule of the House.
Mr. Walker : I am sorry if you feel, Mr. Speaker, that in some way I am taking advantage of the House, but those of us who have service backgrounds are conscious of the fact that some individuals who served their country during the second world war did so under appalling conditions, particularly those in prison camps. There are generations living today who do not understand the emotions and the feelings of those who were involved in those circumstances and situations. That is why it is important that hon. Members who make speeches about
Column 976individuals who lived through those circumstances should bear in mind the record of the individual, as against the allegations.
Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, of which I have already given you notice. You will recall that during yesterday's debate on the Football Spectators Bills the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) tried to besmirch the good name of racing by saying that there were 600 arrests at Ascot. Subsequently, I ascertained from the assistant chief constable of Thames Valley that in fact there were only 32 arrests. The hon. Gentleman, who is here to defend him-self--
Mr. Holt : The hon. Gentleman, who is here to defend himself, then said that he did not say last week ; he said last year. I then checked on the number of arrests last year. The figure was not 600 then, either ; it was a similar figure to that for last week. I did not wish to raise the matter today, because I should have liked to have the opportunity to ascertain exactly what the hon. Member for Copeland said in the debate late last night. I am told by Hansard that I am not allowed to look at the speech of any other hon. Member until it has been printed, in the same way as you, Mr. Speaker, said that you cannot see what the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) said until it has been printed. However, the hon. Member for Copeland is able to check what he said before it is printed. Last night I was told by Hansard that if the hon. Gentleman had wanted to check what he had said and correct the false information that he, as a Front-Bench spokesman in a major debate had given to the House, he could have cleared his name and that of horse racing.
Mr. John Cunningham (Copeland) rose--
The hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) did me the courtesy of informing me that he would raise this matter. Page 264 of "Erskine May" states :
"It is not in order for a Member to obtain or to quote during a current sitting the record made for the Official Report of the remarks of any other Member."
That is a long-standing rule. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to have it changed, he must draw it to the attention of the Procedure Committee.
Dr. Cunningham : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. If the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) were not so unpleasant, boorish and graceless in his approach to debates, the matter could have been settled quite simply yesterday evening and we need not have detained the House today. The hon. Gentleman could have had the text of my speech, which was lying on the Table of the House.
I used figures that were used in the Second Reading debate in the House of Lords on 2 February 1989. Those figures were obtained by my noble Friend Lord Graham of Edmonton. He obtained them for Ascot week last year. They relate to all arrests in and around the vicinity of Ascot and the racecourse, including public transport to and from the course. The figures were provided by the local police.
That the draft Solicitors (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. That the draft Limitation (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Mr. Chapman.]
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to empower organisations other than the Royal Mail to provide a postal service ; and for connected purposes.
The Bill seeks to abolish the Post Office's exclusive privileges to carry letters around the United Kingdom under section 66 of the British Telecommunications Act 1981, to promote competition, encouraging incentive and new services to improve efficiency and thus to improve standards of services to customers of the Royal Mail and existing costs.
The Bill follows two Bills proposed by my hon. Friends the Members for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) and for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) in January and February this year and an Adjournment debate on the subject last month. The hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing) called the matter a "hardy annual". It is now becoming a triannual and reflects the urgency felt in the House and by the public at large about the declining standards of service in the Post Office and the urgent action required to remedy it.
The Royal Mail service will soon be a 21st-century service with a 17th- century pedigree. In 1657, Cromwell put the existing monopoly on a statutory basis, not for reasons of efficiency or economies of scale, but because of the use of the post for
"many and wicked designs which have been and are daily contrived against the peace and welfare of the Commonwealth."
That paranoia about security and absence of objective thinking seems to have been extended down the ages to many who unthinkingly oppose the abolition of the monopoly to this day.
However, it does not take much objectivity to identify the present concern about standards. The Post Office itself does so in its annual reports and accounts. In 1979, it identified "unsatisfactory postal services". In 1986, it said :
"Quality of services falls short of target."
In 1987, it said :
"Continuing traffic growth and considerable industrial unrest made it difficult to meet the quality of service targets."
In 1988 it talked of 213 unofficial disputes, 63,500 working days lost and no fewer than 126 million letters being delayed. In its report this year, the Post Office will no doubt reveal that last year's postal strike caused the loss of 1.2 million working days and that delivery standards declined.
Further afield, evidence comes from the London School of Economics, which said :
"The quality of services is probably no better, and may be worse, than in 1971".
In May this year, the Post Office Users National Council talked about its dismay about the delay in introducing improvements designed as part of last year's tariff package and it declared itself far from satisfied with the quality of service figures resulting from the new basis of measurement, which was a realistic door-to-door basis of measurement. Colleagues no doubt have anecdotal evidence from their constituencies which would amplify the problems many times over. The Post Office argues that its volumes increased by 30 per cent. over five years, that it has created 18,000 jobs and that it will invest about £620 million over the next three years. However, one might ask why, if volumes are increasing so much and if economies of scale are so
Column 979important, there are no improvements in service. Equally, the Post Office might argue that a monopoly guarantees through a national service a quality of service that is expected by the general public. In the past five years, there have been many interruptions. Last year, one sixth of all days lost through strikes and stoppages were in the Post Office. That contradicts the Post Office assertions. The Post Office might argue that a monopoly is necessary to protect services in rural areas, although it agrees that there is no reason why those costs could not be made explicit and the Post Office compensated by potential competitors for the diseconomies of scale that might be revealed.
Irrespective of those arguments, the Post Office monopoly is not delivering a sufficient standard of service. As The Times said last September :
"In return for accepting the monopoly, the customer does require that the service should be reliable".
Sadly, it is not and delivery standards appear to be declining. The Post Office Users National Council carried out a door-to-door survey in February and found that only 79 per cent. of first-class mail reached the doorstep by the following working day. The target is 100 per cent. By May, that proportion had declined to 72 per cent. In some districts, such as Peterborough, only half the first-class service reached districts regarded as distant the next day and only 61 per cent. reached districts next door to the home district the next day.
The results of a survey by the Mail Users Association are even worse. Over a period of 18 months, from June 1987 to March 1989, fewer than two thirds of first-class letters reached their destinations the following day. The second-class service has become a fairly unfunny joke. The so-called standards maintained by the Post Office are maintained at 90 per cent. only by continually moving the goalposts. In 1975, the target was moved from delivery on the second day after posting to the third day after posting. In 1978, that became the third day after the letters were collected, as opposed to after they were posted.
The present position is totally unsatisfactory. My argument is that, as in every other area of human economic endeavour, be it clothing, foods or utilities, competition forces the economy to respond to the needs of the consumer. That will apply in the case of this monopoly also.
It is significant that, in 1987, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), then the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, pointing to a bad year for industrial relations in the Post Office, said :
"We must consider whether it is secure as a monopoly carrier." In 1988, the situation was considerably worse, and he was still considering. The present Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster voted in 1976 and 1979 for the abolition of the monopoly. Even Alan Tuffin has said :
"We accept that we may have to live with competition. We will take it on and beat it."
The Post Office Board and the Mail Users Association are both in favour of competition. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister recently stated :
"I agree that greater competition would be good, and we may have to consider ending the monopoly on the postal letter service, which would bring welcome competition."--[ Official Report, 6 June 1989 ; Vol. 154, c. 15.]
If any further evidence were needed, I offer the fact that, since the parcel service was opened to competition, its
Column 980turnover has increased dramatically, as have its profits, to £32.2 million this year. It has extended its services and it is providing a better quality of service for the public.
There are a number of suggestions about the form that such competition should take. I do not believe that there should be a free-for-all, achieved by reducing the minimum charge from the present £1 to a nominal amount, because there would be problems of supervision and other complex problems and no significant competition except in specialist areas. Equally, trying to duplicate what has happened with British Telecom and having a Mercury-type competitor on a national basis would unnecessarily restrict entry to the market, involve huge infrastructure costs and mean that competition was unrealistic in the short term.
Two scenarios have the informal agreement of the Post Office as pragmatic and viable. They would give uniform pricing for a nominal service and guarantee deliveries in any particular area. They would also be co- operative and would use the existing Post Office infrastructure. One scenario involved companies being given licences on a regional and district basis for collection, sorting and local delivery. The other, which is supported by many people in the Post Office and by the Mail Users Association--
Mr. Coombs : The last word should be left to Roland Hill, who was born in my constituency and who was the father of the penny post. When advocating the abolition of the Post Office monopoly, which he called an offence to our statute book, he said that abolition would allow the
"probable rise of a wholesome competition wherever the service is performed with less than the greatest efficiency and cheapness". The British public deserve greater efficiency and cheapness. I commend my Bill to the House.
Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East) : Fortunately, Roland Hill was born before the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) became the Member for Parliament for that constituency, which is something for which we must be thankful.
Speeches on this issue never change. I should declare my interest right at the beginning of my opposition to this ten-minute Bill. I am sponsored by the Union of Communication Workers.
When the hon. Gentleman said that the public wanted urgency in the privatisation or liberalisation of the Post Office, call it what one will, he was failing to take account of recent surveys and public opinion polls. The morning after the Prime Minister gave her broad hint that she was in favour of breaching the monopoly, Derek Jameson had a phone-in on his BBC radio programme. It went on until the Friday morning and showed that 68 per cent. of people in this country are in favour of maintaining the monopoly and that only 32 per cent. are in favour of breaching it. In anybody's language that is a substantial majority in favour of retaining the status quo, and there are, of course, good reasons for that, especially for people living in rural areas.
I shall repeat what I said in January and again in February. For the time being--I emphasise "for the time being"--rural areas are represented by Conservative Members of Parliament. It therefore always astonishes me
Column 981that Conservative Members are prepared to come to the House and present ten-minute Bills that would put their constituents at a most serious disadvantage in terms of the postal services. I am convinced that most constituents do not know what their Members of Parliament are up to when they come to the House. It is well known that all the surveys and costings have shown that in the rural areas the cost of sending a letter would be at least £1. The great advantage of the monopoly and the universal postal system is that there is a universal postal rate. Whether a letter is posted in Orkney or in Shetland and sent down to St. Ives in Cornwall, or vice versa, it costs the same as a letter posted in London to another address in London. The Post Office workers accept that the monopoly places upon them a responsibility to deliver a service. I agree with the hon. Member for Wyre Forest that there is always room for improvement. Those who work in the service are just as keen as--if not keener--than the hon. Gentleman to improve the service. To bring about the improvements that my colleagues in the Post Office want would be more difficult than the difficulty the hon. Gentleman has had in presenting his rather silly Bill.
I say to the hon. Member for Wyre Forest as kindly as I can that he does not understand some of the problems that the Post Office has to put up with. One major problem is the concentration of postings at 5 o'clock at night. Big businesses do not post twice or three times a day ; they post only once a day. If big businesses could discipline themselves to post two or three times a day, many of the Post Office's problems would be removed.
Another major problem is envelopes that are put through meters to be franked. I advise Conservative Members to do as I do and to check the date on the letter against the date on the envelope. I receive letters repeatedly, especially from Government Departments, on which the date is five days previous to that on the envelope. That has nothing to do with the Post Office, but is the fault of those who process the meters.
As kindly and as gently as I can, I point out to Conservative Members that, after the tragic incident at Lockerbie, the Secretary of State for Transport protested that he had posted a letter and he blamed the Post Office for the fact that it had not been received. It was disgraceful that it was said that the letter was posted on 19 December and was lost in the Christmas mail, although it was later discovered that it was not posted until 20 January. That is is how easy it is for people to blame the Post Office.
The Abbey National building society, when it was changing its status, did exactly the same. It blamed the Post Office when its shareholders had not received their letters, but it had not even put the letters in the mail.
When Conservative Members begin to understand the Post Office's problems, especially those that I have highlighted, they can talk about inefficiency. Until that time, we should continue to throw out such Bills.
Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business) :--
The House divided : Ayes 77, Noes 161.
Division No. 265] [4.03 pm
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)