HC Deb 23 March 1904 vol 132 cc525-31

Resolution reported. That it is expedient to authorise the issue, out of the Consolidated Fund, of any sums not exceeding in the whole £3,000,000 for the purpose of the Telegraph Acts, 1863 to 1899, and to apply the provisions of the Telegraph Act, 1892, to the raising of such sums.

MR. O'MARA (Kilkenny, S.)

took objection not to this particular proposal in itself, but to the general principle embodied in these Bills. The system of repaying money by annuities was altogether defective. Funds supplied for telephone purposes ought to be repaid out of the revenue of the year. It would doubtless be said that this was for capital expenditure from which the country would receive benefits for many years to come, but he contended that to pledge the credit of the country and incur future liabilities to so large an extent was not sound finance, and he would protest against the practice on every possible occasion. A great objection to the system was that once the Government were authorised to spend the money, there was no further opportunity of discussing the matter. He did not consider that past expenditure on the telephone service had yielded the advantages to the public that might have been expected from it; the Post Office had not afforded all the facilities they might have done, but if the noble Lord would give an assurance that the money would be spent economically and for the public benefit, he would not further oppose the present proposal.


asked whether, if this money were voted, a considerable development of the telephone service in Ireland might be expected. There was a considerable demand for increased telephonic facilities amongst business people in various parts of the country, and it was only fair that that demand should be considered. If the noble Lord undertook to give his attention to Ireland's requirements in the matter, he would raise no objection to the money being voted. Unless they got some undertaking that Ireland would get a fair share of this money he did not think they ought to consent to it. The House had been shovelling about money for wars and other purposes which were perfectly useless, but this was a proposition to vote a certain amount of money for something that would be a benefit to the commercial community and business people generally, and he hoped the noble Lord would be able to say that Ireland would share to some extent in the development of this system.

MR. J. P. FARRELL (Longford, N.)

thought it was very desirable to have an extension of the telephone system in Ireland, but if they were going to charge London prices it would be very little use indeed. In extending the service from Dublin to Sligo there should be facilities given in all the towns en route so as to place business premises in direct telephonic communication with the city of Dublin.

MR. LOUGH (Islington, W.)

said that yesterday the noble Lord was asked certain Questions which at that time he was obviously unable to deal with. Those Questions were very important, and any further information he was able to give them now in regard to them would be welcomed by the country. He understood that this was only a preliminary stage of this Bill, and that there would be a further opportunity of considering this matter. There were, however, two points upon which the noble Lord might give them information, first with regard to the finance of the Post Office telephones at the present time. The noble Lord had already given them some interesting figures about the number of telephone messages in the London service but he had not referred to the capital sunk in London. He mentioned the whole capital as being £4,250,000 for the whole country, but he did not say how the revenues were coming in from the rest of the country. They were now being asked for £3,000,000 more and it had been hinted that even a larger sum would be required for the purchase of the National Telephone Company's undertaking. The amount was getting very large indeed. If some more information could be given as to the revenue which the Post Office was deriving generally from the great expenditure which had been incurred, it would be very satisfactory to the House. There was another point mentioned yesterday, and it was that a promise should be given by the Government that this expenditure should be separated from the telegraph and that separate accounts should be presented. This appeared on the Paper as a Telegraph Money Bill, but it was not for the telegraph system at all but for the telephone system. There was a continual loss with regard to the investments of the country in telegraphs, but it was said to be a different story in regard to telephones. He hoped the noble Lord would be able to promise that the Post Office, after consideration, would see its way to separate the two accounts and give them information as to how the development of the telephone system was likely to repay this House for the great expenditure incurred. The next point he wished to raise was in reference to the facilities which would he given to the House to consider any arrangement with the National Telephone Company. This was a point which was spoken about yesterday. He knew it was not an easy matter to arrange satisfactorily because negotiations with the company must be carried on between the Post Office authorities and the company, and an agreement must be put forward. They did not want the question finally settled without the House having an opportunity of considering it fully and adequately. He was in favour of the development of telephones, especially in rural areas.

MR. MALCOLM (Suffolk, Stowmarket)

congratulated the noble Lord upon the immediate development of the telephone system which he hoped was going to take place under his ægis and authority, and he associated himself with the hope that it would be extended to the rural districts. He wished to ask how the telephone system was developing in the outskirts of London. He wished to know what facilities the noble Lord was taking to insist upon the opening of extension offices in the immediate neighbourhood of London so that they would not have to pay £17 or £18 for the telephone, which was a very high price compared with any of the capitals of Europe or even with rural areas.

THE POSTMASTER-GENERAL (Lord STANLEY,) Lancashire, Westhoughton

said that with regard to the Question put by the hon. Member for Stowmarket, he should like to have the particulars of the case he had mentioned, and he would enquire into it. They were endeavouring, as far as possible, to push the extension of the telephone system in London, and he did not understand why any difficulties had arisen in the hon. Member's case. With regard to the question raised by the hon. Member for East Clare, he could not give the list of places in Ireland where the extensions had been made, but he might say that no single application from Ireland which he had seen had been refused. His idea was to make a complete network throughout the whole of the United Kingdom, and then extend the wires of the exchanges to all the small places. The hon. Member for Islington had asked him three Questions. The first one was in regard to the capital expenditure in London, He might say that the amount expended on exchanges in London was £1,495,602. With regard to the accounts, it was rather quick to be asked to give any decision at the present moment, but he thought that there would be a great advantage in having the two accounts kept separate. There were many difficulties in the way, and it would hardly be possible to give a strictly accurate account, but he thought he might be able to arrange matters so as to enable the House to see fairly accurately what the expenditure was on telephones as compared with telegraphs. With regard to any arrangement which the Post Office might come to with the National Telephone Company, he wished to withdraw a word which he used yesterday, which did not accurately describe the position. He spoke of "negotiations," but the question had not got to negotiations yet. There were pourparlers going on, but they had not yet come to negotiations, although he hoped they would be able to come to some arrangement. If they did arrive at some arrangement the Question he had been asked was what opportunity of considering that agreement would be afforded the House. The exact form which that consideration must take was very difficult to state off-hand. Before the House was called upon to deal with the question and decide upon it, it should be considered by a Select Committee of the House, who should report upon it. If the Committee were of opinion that the agreement was a good one, it would certainly be to his benefit to have the support of a Select Committee in giving hon. Members all the assistance possible in dealing with the subject.

MR. DALZIEL (Kirkcaldy Burghs)

said the House had heard with satisfaction the line taken by the Postmaster General. Ho wished to point out, in view of the statement made last night, how extremely important it was to the public in general to know exactly what the attitude of the Government would be, and what might be the nature of the future negotiations. In view of the fact, now public property, that the Government were going to endeavour to buy the National Telephone Company's undertaking, people would hesitate at present before they went to the expense of putting up wires. He thought the Postmaster-General would consult the wishes of the community at large if he would, as soon as possible, bring the matter to a point. Let him hasten the negotiations. He had indicated that he intended to use the powers he possessed. Nothing would make him more popular as Postmaster-General than the bringing about of a settlement of the telephone question on a permanent basis. A strong man was wanted to stand up to the National Telephone Company, He hoped the noble Lord would answer that description. The announcement by the noble Lord as to a Select Committee was very satisfactory.


I think that will probably be the form.


said that was as far as they could reasonably expect the Postmaster-General to go at the present time. He hoped that in any action the noble Lord took he would feel strengthened and supported by the Report of the Select Committee. Supposing the negotiations to fail, the Select Committee should be instructed to consider whether Parliament should be asked for compulsory powers to acquire the undertaking. There were delays in providing a telephonic service, which were much greater than they ought to be. He thought the supervision of the Post Office system might be materially strengthened, and the service made more effective. Foreign countries were ahead of us in the matter of telephones.


They have very different powers from those we have in regard to wayleaves.


said that might be, but he was sure Parliament would give the Postmaster-General whatever powers he wanted in regard to that matter. [An HON. MEMBER: No.] Any Member of the House who would take the responsibility of opposing such a demand would have to reckon with his constituents when the time came. It was notorious that our telephone system was the worst in the world. It was a scandal and disgrace to this country that we should have such a system as we had at present. He hoped the right hon. Gentleman would not hesitate to ask any money which, within reasonable limits, he might require in order to deal satisfactorily with this question.

MR. ALEXANDER CROSS (Glasgow, Camlachie)

said the Post Office had not yet commenced to make a distinction between the telegraph and the telephone accounts. He urged that a distinction should be made in order that the outlays in respect of each of the services might be known. He reminded the Postmaster-General that although they had been at great expense in creating trunk lines the National Telephone Company had the cream of the business. He would like to know what return the country was obtaining for the capital which the Post Office had expended on the telephone service. He understood that the trunk telephones were by no means a profitable investment. When the Government acquired the telegraphs a great deal of money had to be spent which might have been saved if the matter had been managed in a more business-like way. The noble Lord had now to deal with gentlemen of great astuteness in the Telephone Company, and they would no doubt do their best to obtain good terms in disposing of plant which in many cases was antiquated.


said he served for many months on a Committee two or three years ago which inquired into the question of the telephone service. He should like to know whether the recommendations of that Committee were carried out. He was somewhat surprised that it was found to be necessary to have another inquiry after the recommendations made by the Committee presided over by the late Mr. Hanbury.


said that the suggestion was that the terms of the arrangement would be submitted to a Select Committee before they were presented to the House. There was no intention of inquiring into the telephone service.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Lord Stanley, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Mr. Victor Cavendish.