HC Deb 24 July 1925 vol 186 cc2604-13

Considered in Commix tee under Standing Order No. 71A.

[Mr. JAMES HOPE in the Chair.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That it is expedient to authorise the issue out of the Consolidated Fund of such sums, not exceeding in the whole thirty million pounds, as are required for the further development of the telephonic system, and to authorise the Treasury to borrow money, by means of terminable annuities or by the issue of Exchequer Bonds, for the issue of such sums or the repayment thereof to the Consolidated Fund; and to provide for the payment of the terminable annuities or of the principal of and interest on any such Exchequer Bonds out of moneys provided by Parliament for Post Office services or, if those moneys are insufficient, out of the Consolidated Fund.—(King's recommendation signified.]


I beg to draw attention to the question of the extension of the telephone system, particularly in rural areas. The telephone system is of great value to those people who live in rural areas and who want to get as wide an extension as possible of the system. I refer more particularly to the difficulty in an agricultural division like mine, where, in the first place, there is difficulty in obtaining telephone communication for the parish and, in the second place, the guarantees demanded by the Post Office are in many cases so high as to be prohibitive. I have in mind one case where the guarantee demanded was £50 and the actual transactions for the year only amounted to £14, but it has been a great convenience to the farmers in that area although the guarantee was a great deal in excess. I would press on the right hon. Gentleman that he would bear especially in mind the extension of facilities in the rural areas.


I do not wish in any way to stop the development of telephones. I fully apreciate that any development which takes place will help to lessen unemployment in the country. But perhaps the Postmaster-General will forgive me if I criticise the large amount-over three years. Cannot he reduce the amount to annual demands? Thirty million pounds, whether in Exchequer Bonds or issued as annuities, or if there is no issue at all, must affect the money market of this country. All these large amounts really come out of the savings of the people, whether the amount be an issue, or whether just an annuity to the Post Office. I cannot help feeling that we have got into the habit of thinking in nothing but millions and millions. What was the amount in pre-War days for the issue of which the Postmaster-General used to receive authority from Parliament? The right hon. Gentleman, as a business man, must know that the asking for millions, not only by his Department, but by every Department of the State, must eventually affect the credit of the country.

The POSTMASTER-GENERAL (Sir William Mitchell-Thomson)

I do not propose at this stage of the Bill to do more than offer a few remarks on what has been said by the two hon. Members who have just spoken, because I understand that it was thought more convenient to have any general discussion on the Second Reading, where hon. Members will have the Bill before them, rather than on the Committee stage of the Money Resolution, where they have only the White Paper. I mentioned in Committee of Supply the other day that the question of the development of rural telephones has my constant and careful attention, but I do beg the hon. Member for Cardigan. (Mr. Morris) to remember, as I pointed out to him, that rural telephone development is not only not a remunerative proposition, but is a very unremunerative proposition, and while I entirely agree that in a Service like that of the Post Office there ought to be an unremunerative section, there is a limit to the size of that section in justice to the rest of the community. Subject to that, I will do everything in my power to speed up the development of the rural telephone service, and if the hon. Member desires further details I will be glad to give them later on.

With regard to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford (Sir F. Wise), I agree with the general proposition that any form of expenditure of this order at this time ultimately reacts on the money market in general, but I do not agree with his criticism as to the time for which the House of Commons is asked to make provision by giving authority for pledging credit. This is not a Bill affecting any Vote money. The taxpayer, except in an indirect way, does not come into this at all. It is entirely a capital expenditure; it is entirely a. credit, and not Vote money. But I do not agree with my hon. Friend that the Post Office ought to budget for one year, and not for a period of years. On the contrary, at a later stage I shall Be prepared to defend the proposition that it is very much better to extend the programme over a period of years. I have deliberately adopted that policy. I believe that it is in the interests of the efficiency of the Post Office and of the industry concerned.

The Bill will contain a request for authority to borrow up to the extent of £30,000,000. I have in hand from the previous Money Bill £9,400,000. That amount, plus the £30,000,000 in the new Bill, gives a total of £39,400,000. The intention of the programme which I am submitting is during the next three years to spend £35,000,000. This will leave a balance on the 1st April, 1928, of £4,400,000 which, at the rate of £1,000,000 a month—which is roughly the expenditure I am proposing —will mean about four and a-half months' supply. So that in the middle of August three years from now, either I or my successor in office will be standing here presenting another Money Bill and asking to have another Resolution passed. But as a mater of convenience, and from the point of view of the efficiency of the industry, it is very much better to have a programme over a period of years than to have a series of annual Budgets, which may vary from year to year, and cause great uncertainty in the industry.


I quite approve of the programme, but I was referring to the very large amount which I feel must affect the credit of the country.


I note that it is the form rather than the merits with which my hon. Friend was dealing. I will reserve the question of the merits to a later stage. I was dealing merely with the question of form.


We have very few opportunities for hearing the Postmaster-General, and it is a great pleasure to all of us to hear him on the few occasions when he does come here. I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Commander Eyres Monsell) will not regard my remarks as a breach of any agreement, because he has been doing well with his programme to-day. But I would like to refer to the question of the rural telephone system to which the hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Morris) has referred. Is the right hon. Gentleman doing anything, apart from giving special terms to farmers, to bring before them what expenses will be involved on them annually if they have the telephone? Because it seems to me that in the rural districts of Scotland at least, where practically all the farmers who are of a conservative turn of mind, where you find them adopting the motor car very generally as an adjunct to their work, and where you find them using electrical power about their farms, and innovations like gas engines, there is no reason why they should not also be making general use of the telephone.

I was in a fairly remote part of Scotland last week, in Wigtonshire, about a dozen miles from Stranraer, in a good farming and dairying country. I found practically every farmer possessed a motor car, I regret to say generally of the "Ford" or "Overland" variety, which I understand are of American rather than British make. Presumably they got these cars because some representatives interested in the sale of these cars had gone round among the farmers, or had gone to the markets where farmers congregate, and had proved to them that these cars were absolutely necessary to the efficient carrying out of their work and that they were the best possible cars that could be put on the market. That is what American private enterprise has done. I certainly think that the Postmaster-General could quite legitimately adopt the canvassing methods of American private enterprise in this country. I know also that in the agricultural area where I live, where the electrical supply is in the hands of a private company, that company definitely has its agents going round conducting a house to house visitation, in order to impress upon the people the desirability of lighting their houses by electricity, rather than by gas.

We on this side of the House who hold Socialist views think there is no reason why a State Department, with powers greater than those of any private enterprise, should not be as efficient and as capable in distributing its commodity as any private enterprise. I suggest that the Postmaster-General might consider the desirability of sending canvassers, agents, or advertisers, or whatever he cares to call them, to the farms or to the markets where farmers meet, to get into conversation with them. Farmers on market days, particularly in the late afternoon are very ready for conversation and very open to argument and reason. I am sure that there are available innumerable suitable men who would be ready to give their services for reasonable remuneration in a venture of that kind.

Captain SHAW

I wish to say a few words about rural telephones. I tried to get an opportunity of speaking the last time this subject was discussed, but was unsuccessful. I am glad to see that the Postmaster-General is asking for this fair-sized sum of money for the develop- ment of the telephone system. In this country we are very backward in the development of telephones. In comparing our system with the use of the telephone in America we realise that fact. That is specially so in the ease of those who have been to America. I think I am right in saying that the Post-master-General realises how far behindhand we are in the matter. The last speaker has said that the Postmaster-General should proceed to excite the appetite of the people in order that they should make more use of the telephone. But what is the use of that when the Postmaster-General is not able to supply the demand? That is the whole trouble It is not a bit of good trying to develop something which the Postmaster-General is unable, to supply. There are to some extent difficulties about skilled labour, but more particularly there is a lack of funds. I am delighted, therefore, that the Government has made this move.


I wish that the hon. and gallant Member would explain to me that statement about the Postmaster-General. He says that it is no good asking the Postmaster-General to do something when he cannot do it. Why cannot he do it? If a farmer asked him for a telephone next week, and was prepared to pay the charges, be would get it. Is that not so?

Captain SHAW

I rather disagree with my hon. Friend, because I know of applications that have been made and have not been satisfied, and I understood that the Postmaster-General is not able to do all the work, I presume on account of the lack of funds and on account of the lack of skilled workers to some extent. I hope the Postmaster-General will develop more and more the automatic system which is now being used so much in America. Any hon. Member who has been to America, and has used the automatic telephone, must have realised what a tremendous advantage it is in comparison with the use of the operator. We all know the difficulty that we experience when dealing with operators.


The hon. and gallant Member is 6traying rather far. He cannot go into details as to the merits or demerits of operators, but must confine himself to the question of the amount of money.

Captain SHAW

I am sorry that I strayed, but this is a very interesting subject and I would like to develop it. The present condition of things shows more than anything else how much better off we would have been to-day if the telephone system had been in the hands of a private company. It would have been in the interests of a company to develop the system in a way that the Government cannot do.


You might explain that too.


We must not now go into the question of private enterprise.

Captain SHAW

Capitalised at 5 per cent. I believe the money in telephones is something like £90,000,000 to £100,000,000. In America there is over £800,000,000 sterling put into the telephone system, and there is one telephone for every 10 inhabitants. Let me come back to the question of the rural telephones, in which I am greatly interested. One or two villages in my own constituency have requested me to ask for the Postmaster-General's help in the matter. He has promised to go further into the question, but it has lain in abeyance for several weeks, and whether he is able to help I do not know. Let me quote one instance to show how generous the Government is in America. A short time ago I was in New Mexico. I was told of a man living in the mountains at 10,000 feet elevation. I made a trip specially to see him because he was an Englishman. I found there, hundreds of miles away from any centre, that the Government had installed a telephone free of expense. I wish to impress on the Postmaster-General how far we are behindhand in these matters. I find myself in disagreement with the hon. Member for Ilford (Sir F. Wise) in regard to this amount of money. I am glad to see the Postmaster-General asking for it, and I hope in his programme he will give my division a little consideration in connection with rural telephones, and that he will not ask for guarantees which the farmers are unable to give.

Captain BENN

As we are voting a large sum of money for telephone development, it seems a suitable occasion on which to raise a small point affecting telephone subscribers, namely, the regu- larisation of accounts. It frequently happens that, although commercial or private subscribers take the greatest care to record the calls which they have made, they receive accounts from the Post Office which do not in the least correspond with their own records. The divergencies between the subscribers' records and the Post Office accounts are in some cases very wide. Disputes of this kind occur in business constantly, and are capable of settlement, but in dealing with the Postmaster-General one is not dealing with an equal. In his official capacity the the Postmaster-General is an autocrat, and is never willing to go over an account for purposes of discussion and adjustment. The subscriber is informed of the payment demanded, and if he disputes it, he is threatened with the cut-ting-off of his telephone. It is suspected that many calls are recorded which are not effective, and I understand there is a dispute in which an hon. Member of this House is concerned in which it is suggested that such calls represent 30 per cent. of the account. It would tend to allay the anxiety felt by many people if the right hon. Gentleman were to tell us how he makes sure that the payments which he demands by his autocratic powers, correctly represent the. services rendered by his Department.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

I desire to raise a matter particularly affecting my constituency. Every year during the winter gales the telephone lines are broken down in various parts of the country. We have our own local telephone system in Hull which is better than the system to be found in any other part of the country, but we are affected in connection with long-distance trunk calls by these breakages. To a business community these interruptions are very serious. As a great manufacturing and shipping area, Hull requires a long-distance telephone service, but every winter lengths of wire are broken down in one part of the country or another, seriously affecting this service. Every time a breakdown occurs the Postmaster-General gets busy, and repairs the damage, and he always says that he is going to place these long-distance lines underground. A certain amount has been done in that direction, but I should like to know what progress is now being made. My suspicion is that when all goes well, the trouble is forgotten, and this work goes on rather slackly. All the long-distance lines should be placed underground at the earliest possible moment. This matter has been brought to the notice of the Postmaster-General by the Chamber of Commerce and the Chamber of Trade of Hull. We have always had very polite answers from the right hon. Gentleman, and I hope he will now give us a satisfactory assurance.


I cannot resist the manner in which the two hon. and gallant Gentlemen have couched their appeals, and I respond at once in so far as I can. As regards the checking of accounts, the hon. and gallant Member for Leith (Captain Benn) is incorrect in supposing that the Post Office are not prepared, where reasonable cause is shown, to discuss the question of the amount charged. That is certainly contrary to the fact. It is done in many instances, and where it is clearly demonstrated by the subscriber that the amount charged is incorrect, the necessary adjustment is made. That is a matter of constant occurrence. But the hon. and gallant Member has indicated a very serious difficulty. The cleverest technical minds all over the world have been trying for years to discover a means by which, with the manual system of exchange, we could incorporate some form of automatic recorder. Nobody has been able to do it. Telephone calls are recorded by the operator pushing a button, and nobody has been able to invent, in connection with the manual exchange, any better system. If any hon. Members are at all interested in this matter, I give them now an invitation to attend at a telephone exchange and see the process. There is another part of the apparatus, called the cancelling key, which enables the operator to cancel a call. She does not press the button until the call is effective, but in case for any reason a wrong number has been called, she uses the cancelling key, and the call is cancelled from the record against the subscriber.

It will be seen that there is a difficulty inherent in the system of working, but in no country has a substitute method of recording been found. But there is a better state of things at hand. It is coming. The automatic telephone en- ables us to dispense with that part of the system altogether, because the automatic telephone provides an automatic record which is necessarily and absolutely correct. If you get a wrong number on the automatic telephone, it is your own fault. You will not get a wrong number if you work the apparatus properly Therefore every call is an effective call and is automatically recorded. As regards the question raised by the hoc and gallant Gentleman the Member for Central Hull (Lieut.-Commander Ken-worthy), progress in underground construction during the last few years has been very considerable, and it will continue. I do not say so with great confidence, but I think I am accurate in saying that, in comparison with the total length of our system, we have now as high a proportion of underground line as the United States, if not a higher proportion. During the next year, of the £12,000,000 which I am proposing to spend, not less than £2,500,000 is allocated to this purpose.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolution to be reported upon Monday next.