HC Deb 02 April 1897 vol 48 cc458-66
MR. G. C T. BARTLEY (Islington, N.)

rose to call attention to the unsatisfactory and imperfect condition of the telephone service in the metropolis. He asserted that, as compared with other places London was badly served, the cost of telephonic connection was great, the delays in the transmission of messages serious, and the whole system not very creditable to the greatest commercial city in the world. The answer to the statement of the Post Office that they did not receive such complaints was that the people of London hardly knew that the Post Office was the place to complain to. The complaints were sent to the National Telephone Company, and if they could only produce these documents the House would be very much surprised both at the number of complaints and the correspondence which took place on the subject. However satisfied the Telephone Company might be with their service, that satisfaction was not generally shared, and complaints were sent in from time to time of the wretched service that was accorded the subscribers. The hon. Member proceeded to quote from letters sent by numerous merchants and others in different parts of London, supporting this statement. He was aware the National Telephone Company would say that the real difficulty was to get way-leaves for the wires. There was no doubt a difficulty there, but he was not concerned with the Telephone Company, his contention being that by some means or other there should be an efficient, rapid, and economical telephone service in London. Whilst saying nothing against the present company, he did not see why the whole of London should be subservient to one company, believing there was ample room for two. Whether that was so or not, he submitted that the Post Office, as responsible in these matters ought at once to insure a more efficient and more economical service, and not wait until 1911 when this contract expired. He believed the only real solution of the problem would be found to be in providing that the wires should practically pass underground rather than overhead. He felt, however, that every delay only made the matter more difficult of settlement. Every year the telephone was coming more and more into general use, and they saw overhead perfect masses of wires in all directions. He himself thought many of these were extremely dangerous, that they would some day come down in a storm and lead to serious results. It was not his place to suggest how the better service was to be effected, but he asserted that even in some of the provincial towns the telephonic communication was carried out much better than in London. It did not seem to him at all creditable to the Post Office, who were really responsible, that the present unsatisfactory system should be allowed to continue indefinitely. He believed the Secretary to the Treasury was fully alive to the importance of this matter, and, for his own part, he was certain that the mere drawing attention to the subject in the House would tend to bring about some change which all commercial men desired. There was no doubt whatever that the system of ringing up communications was very complicated and tedious, many men found the telephone was not nearly of the use to them that it ought to be, and there was a growing opinion that something should speedily be done to make the communication both more efficient and cheaper. What was far more important than cheapness was that telephone communication should be obtained at once when required, that when a person wanted a telephone on his premises he should be able to get it in a short time, in a few days or weeks, and should not have as now to wait for months. This was not a convenient time to enter upon a long discussion of the subject, but he had taken advantage of this us the only opportunity he was likely to find to mention the matter shortly, and he hoped some statement would be made by the Secretary to the Treasury to show that the Post Office was alive to the importance of the subject, and would not allow this company to grow into a huge monopoly, so that in a few years it would be impossible to touch it, but by competition of other companies or of the Post Office itself the commercial part of London and, if possible, the residential part of London also might have an efficient system of telephone communication, such as small town in America enjoy. ["Hear, hear!"]


said it was always an invidious thing for a Member to address the House on a question in which he was personally interested, and he desired in the first place to say he was a director of the National Telephone Company, and, as such, desired to offer some explanation to the House upon the case put forward by his hon. Friend. He was himself largely responsible for the difficulties, and they were many, which prevented the Company making the service what it ought to be, and what they desired it should be, for it was his business when Postmaster General to devise a system by which the telegraph revenue of the country should not be injured by the competition of the telephone, while at the same time better facilities should be given to the several companies, licensees of the Post Office, to develop the telephone system. At that time virtually there was only one company to deal with, and negotiations extended pretty well over the whole time of his term of office. Arrangements were made for safeguarding the telegraphs, and, on the other hand, concessions were made to the company for providing an efficient telephone service. The whole of the proceedings were made known to the House, the arrangements were embodied in a Treasury Minute, and referred to a Select Committee. While on the one hand the trunk wires were by agreement, to be purchased by the Government, on the other hand, obstacles in the way of the company securing sufficient wayleaves were partly removed. But to safeguard the interests of the public he refused to sanction the creation of anything like a monopoly, and the Post Office had the right to issue new licences for the establishment of telephonic exchanges if the service were not satisfactory. It was also thought absolutely necessary that the company should not have the power to take its wires wherever it thought proper without the consent of local authorities or individuals in respect to private property. This latter condition had been found the chief difficulty in the way of the National Telephone Company giving the best service possible, because in many cases local authorities had been slow to give the necessary facilities for laying the wires underground, which was the only efficient system, and individual owners had often been very exacting in the terms upon which they would allow wires to cross their premises. Such was the cause of much of the delay intending subscribers had found in getting telephonic communication with their premises to which his hon. Friend had referred. In one particular case, where subscribers in a set of mansions desired and had not yet obtained connection, he knew the circumstances. It was a set of mansions in Victoria Street, and the difficulty was that wayleaves could not be secured to bring the wires into the mansions, and successive difficulties occurred in this respect. Moreover, the owner of the mansions was very exacting, and required as a condition a telephone free of charge. With the number of places through which wires had to be brought, to undertake to allow the free use of an instrument was a method upon which not even the Post Office could afford to do business. There was a great difference in the position of the Post Office as compared with that of a private company, for under the Act which he introduced the Post Office could exercise power over local authorities who declined to give due facilities by an appeal to the Railway Commission, thus overruling the local authority, bur a company had no such power. This led to delay in providing intending subscribers with connections. But he was glad to say this difficulty would be in time removed, for, after long negotiation, the County Council had entered into an agreement with the company, by which the wires would be laid underground everywhere, and there would ultimately be a disappearance of that network of wires crossing the streets which his hon. Friend regarded with apprehension, with much greater facilities for giving subscribers the wires they desired. When his hon. Friend talked of the inefficiency of the London service it was only right to mention that there were a very large number of subscribers in London, and especially in the City, where they numbered nearly 4,000, and he was informed that upon an average each subscriber used the telephone twelve times a day, which seemed to indicate that the service was found to be very convenient. The fact was that in every town except London arrangements had been made for placing wires underground, and thus a more efficient service could be given. He hoped that before long London would be as well off. The company was not very popular just now because of the impression that it held a monopoly, but it was really not a monopoly and the company could only hold its position on condition that the service was well done, and it could only be justified by there being a ready means of redress if the service were not efficient. He was careful when he was responsible for the public interest to see that no monopoly was established that could not immediately be interfered with either by the Post Office granting new licences or setting up their own exchanges where the service supplied by the company was inefficient. The company was not at all dissatisfied with that arrangement, and was doing its very best to give a liberal service. His hon. Friend talked about the parsimony of the company—


said he was quoting a letter from one of the persons complaining.


said it was only fair to say that within the last three years the company had expended in London £300,000 in converting the original single wire system into a duplicate wire system, and within the same period complaints had been reduced by 80 per cent. The many complaints formerly were due to the want of facilities on the part of the company, and to the faulty system established in early days. There was now every probability of a proper and efficient system, but if the company failed in this the Post Office had reserved the power of providing a remedy.

* MR. EDWIN LAWRENCE (Cornwall, Truro)

said the Post Office would not be justified at the present time in undertaking any very large expenditure in the direction indicated, because there was or would be soon before the public a new system of telegraphy quite different from the contact system, and without any connecting wires whatever. This new, or RÖntgeu ray, form of telegraph, he believed, was quite practicable, and he understood application had been made for permission to place two instruments within the precincts of the House, so that Members might have an opportunity of testing the invention for themselves. Without connecting wires it had been found possible to convey messages through London. The inventor was quite young, under 25 years of age, and invented the system six months ago, since which he had brought it into such it form as to convince nearly every man of intelligence who had examined it of the practicability of the system by which a message could be conveyed for a distance of ten or twenty miles. Should it ultimately prove successful this would entirely revolutionise the whole system of telegraphy and telephony, and, meanwhile, it would not be wise for the Post Office to undertake large expenditure on the existing system.


was not surprised at the demand for n telephone service for London equal to the services to be found in much smaller towns on the Continent and in America. The London area dealt with by the National Telephone Company was, he thought, something like 600 square miles, and, of course, the service of the company within that area was at present practically a monopoly—for the present at any rate. A good telephone service, as his hon. Friend had said, was one of the necessities of business at the present day, and he was afraid it was a fact that at present England, in regard to telephone service, was not up to the level of some foreign countries. ["Hear, hear!"] He could assure his hon. Friend that the Government were fully alive to the considerations he had mentioned, and fully determined that the country should have an adequate telephonic service. One of the earliest steps, one of the most useful steps to be taken, was that he mentioned the other day in answer to a question when he stated that whenever there was a strong primâ facie. case of a grievance, the Government were perfectly prepared to institute an independent inquiry by a barrister or expert wholly unconnected with the Government or the Post Office, the inquiry to be conducted in public, and if in the result it should be shown that the existing service was too costly or was inefficient, then they would feel called upon to exercise their right to institute a rival service; whether that should be under the Corporation or a local body, or of the Post Office, would of course depend on the circumstances of the case. There would be inconvenience in having two systems in the same town, although there was something of the kind at Newcastle and at Cardiff, and it must necessarily be convenient for all subscribers to have one communication. One conclusion, at any rate, the Government had arrived at, and that was that they would not buy out the existing National Telephone Company. They had such a lesson with regard to the purchase of the telegraphs that they were certainly not likely to repeat the error. ["Hear, hear!"] But that in itself was not a sufficient way of meeting the case, for undoubtedly the National Telephone Company would go on extending their system in many directions, and unless the Post Office, either through exchanges of its own or through those of corporations, put itself in a position to take over and work the telephonic communication of the country when the concession to the National Telephone Company ceased in 1911, they would be in a very considerable dilemma, and might have to buy the company out at their own price. But that, again, was a danger which they certainly did not intend to incur. At any rate, in regard to London, the complaints with regard to the telephone service that had reached the Post Office had been very few, but it must be remembered that the Post Office had no means of ascertaining officially what the company was doing, and he did not think the public yet realised that in the last resort the appeal was to the Post Office. He was bound to say that the decrease in the number of complaints was a considerable tribute to the way in which the company was doing its work. Up to 1893 there were numerous complaints of the cost of the service and the difficulty of communication, but in that year the company began to extend the twin-wire system, which, except in a few outlying districts, was now in use throughout the metropolis!. At the same time, the cost to private houses was reduced from £20 to £10, and, although the charge to places of business was maintained, facilities were given for contracting for five years, and in that case the charge was reduced from £20 to £17. No considerable complaint had been made of these charges, and he did not think they could be said to be excessive. In 1895, when the Select Committee was sitting, complaints were made by the Corporation of London and the London County Council, chiefly as to the difficulty of hearing the messages and of getting into communication. These difficulties had been so far got over that he understood the London County Council was now anxious to co-operate with the company. If the County Council gave the company facilities for carrying its wires underground a great advance would have been made. He did not think his right hon. Friend was right in saying that the County Council had the absolute right to give permission to take up the streets. It rested, in the first instance, with the vestries, and in the City with the Commissioners of Sewers: but, if they refused, the County Conned could fake them before a magistrate, and then before the Railway Commissioners, and the onus of proof lay upon them to show that their conduct in refusing was reasonable. At present any complaints of the telephone service arose from the difficulty the company had in procuring wayleaves. So far as the overhead wires were concerned, they were entirely dependent upon the written permission of private owners. This difficulty had very largely impeded their work, and he hoped, with the co-operation of the County Conned, it might he removed by the adoption of a system of underground wires, which, after all, was a much better system than any system of overhead wires. As to the question how far the company had endeavoured to meet the requirements of London, he found that it had about 16,000 subscribers, of whom 7,000 were in the City. It was a fair proof of the satisfaction the company was giving in the City that of 29,000 occupiers 25 per cent, were subscribers.

There were in London 150 call offices, where persons who were not subscribers could use the wires for a small charge. The number of these offices, he thought, was rather small. The company had not yet carried out the conditions imposed upon them two or three years ago, but he was informed that they were taking long strides towards getting over that part of the ground. It was the determination of the Government that they should have effective telephonic communication, not only in London, but throughout the length and breadth of the land. ["Hear, hear!"] They could not afford, as a great business nation, to fall behind other nations. He could go further, and say it was not the intention of the Post Office to sacrifice the telephones to the telegraphs—["hear, hear!"]—and wherever, on complaint, it was found that there was a primâ facie case that (he service of the National Telephone Company was inefficient or too costly, they would institute a public and independent inquiry, and, if the case was proved, they would set up another service in its place. ["Hear, hear!"]

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