Motion made, and Question proposed,
That a sum, not exceeding £33,600,000, be granted to His Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1927, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Post Office, including Telegraphs and Telephones."—[NOTE: £21,000,000 has been Toted on account.]
§ The POSTMASTER-GENERAL (Sir William Mitchell-Thomson)
I think it will be for the convenience of the Committee that I should, as is customary, say something by way of introduction to this Vote. I always feel on these occasions—and the position is not wholly unfamiliar to me—rather like the chairman of a company presenting the report and accounts at the annual meeting of the shareholders; and the comparison is not, perhaps, inapt, because the Post Office is certainly the largest commercial undertaking in the country, and probably is one of the largest commercial undertakings in the world. In these circumstances, we ought to have a comprehensive report of its work, but that is almost impossible within a reasonable compass of time, and it is more difficult, because I entirely agree with what the Leader of the Opposition said yesterday as to the constitutional position in regard to these Supply Days. The maxim. "Redress before Supply," is a good and sound one. These Supply Days ought to be given up mainly to hon. Members, and, therefore, in what I am going to say, I will try to be as concise as possible. In the first place, I propose to talk about the finance of the Post Office; then to deal, in some little detail, with the more salient points affecting the postal, the telephone and the telegraph services; then to say something about broadcasting; and lastly, to offer some observations upon the subject of Imperial Wireless.
432 With regard to finance. If hon. Members will look at these Votes they will see a summary upon page 43; and I would say, in parenthesis, that this Vote has a very convenient index at the end of the volume, which is sufficiently compendious to make reference to the various subjects in the Vote comparatively easy. On page 43, the salient point which first reaches the eye is the comparison between the net estimated expenditure of this year and the net expenditure for last year. The figures are £54,600,000 this year and £53,805,000 last year, a net increase of £795,000. The gross increase of £2,000,000 is set off by a corresponding reduction of £1,000,000, a net increase, without taking into account Appropriations-in-Aid, of £1,000,000. That increase is due, in the main, to two causes: in the first place to the growth in the development of the telephonic system, and in the second place to the normal growth of Post Office work. The increase in the telephone system accounts for about £1,200,000, and that is divided, broadly speaking, between increases in the engineering staff and increases in the operating staff, and a considerable increase in the amount which has to be set aside in order to meet annuities chargeable arising from the fresh debt incurred during the year. The postal growth is chiefly to be found under Subhead A, "Salaries and Wages." Apart from the ordinary incremental increases, which account for a certain part of the increase, the increase is due, as I said, to the normal growth and development of the postal service. I am not going to pretend, no one in this position could pretend, personally to have investigated all the details of the staff increases. No single human being could do it. All one can do is to apply certain broad tests, and so far as one can be satisfied by applying these broad tests, I am satisfied that the increase in the cost of this staff is fairly commensurate with the growth in Post Office business.
It is unnecessary for me to give a certificate of character to the staff of the Post Office, quite unnecessary. But although it would be invidious to select any one section for special mention, I would like to say one word about the work done by the girls in the telephone service during the general strike. In the general strike a great deal depended, in fact, everything depended, on the main- 433 tenance of communication by telephone. We knew that it was going to be difficult to secure the attendance of operators at the exchanges in the great cities, and particularly in London, because many of them live and have their homes on the fringe of London; and it was necessary to make the most elaborate arrangements beforehand for their conveyance to the offices. Even with those arrangements, it was not a pleasant business for the girls to have to come up to the centre of London to undertake their work; but, so well did they turn up, that the percentage of absentees the very first morning of the strike was comparatively trifling, and during the remainder of the strike the percentage of absentees was less than the normal percentage of sickness. That is a most creditable fact, and I think I ought to give it special mention.
While I am satisfied as to the efficiency of the Post Office staff, I sometimes wonder whether the staff are equally satisfied as to the efficiency of the Postmaster-General. I had some words last year with my hon. Friend the Member for North Camberwell (Mr. Ammon) on the subject of the claims for certain wage increases which were put forward by some sections of the staff, and I had to say then, as representing the taxpayer, that I could not admit the justice of those claims and that, if it was desired to pursue them, they must be taken to arbitration before the Industrial Court. In the case of two of the organisations in the Post Office, that course has been followed. Those claims are now ripening for hearing before the Industrial Court, and I do not propose to say a word about them, because they are in a sense sub judice. I have thought it my duty, again as representing the taxpayer, to present counterclaims for reductions in certain grades, and all I wish to say about the counterclaims, in view of any possible misconception in regard to them, is that they are not designed to affect any present members of the various classes of Post Office servants. Any reductions that are accepted by the Arbitration Board will be applicable only to new entrants into the various classes, whether those new entrants come from outside or from different classes in the Post Office service.
The balance of the £2,000,000 gross increase which the Committee will see in the Vote is due to a number of various 434 causes. As to £150,000, it is due to wage concessions awarded by the Industrial Court to non-clerical supervising grades and sub-postmasters; as to £115,000, it is due to employers' contributions under the Widows', Orphans' and Old Age Contributory Pensions Act; and as to £175,000, it is due to the automatic growth in pensions payments.
§ Mr. HARTSHORN
I was rather encouraged to hear the right hon. Gentleman's remarks about the counter-claims for reduction, and that any reductions would apply to the starting pay of new entrants. I wonder whether he would give us a little more information on that subject before he goes on.
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
I hope, in the course of a very few days now—very soon, indeed—to be in a position to communicate the details of the counter-claims to the other parties to the arbitration. I am not yet in a position to do so, because they are not adjusted, and I think it would be more courteous if they were first communicated to the other parties rather than that they should be made public in any other way. I hope, however, in a very few days—perhaps by the end of the week—to have the counter-claims sufficiently adjusted to give them to the other parties; and they will then, I suppose, come on to be heard by the Industrial Court some time in the autumn. I said that £150,000 of that increase was due to wage concessions awarded by the Industrial Court, £115,000 to employers' contributions under the Widows', Orphans' and Old Age Contributory Pensions Act, and £175,000 to the automatic growth in pensions payments. I might perhaps just say, with regard to that last item, that it reflects the consequences of the enormous growth in the Post Office which took place in the 'eighties and 'nineties of the last century. The people who came in then are just beginning to go out, and, in consequence, the number of pensions has increased and will, for the next few years, go on increasing. On the other side of the account, there is a reduction of about £1,000,000, and that is due in the main to two facts. In the first place, this year you have no charges falling on the Vote in respect of what are known as the Sutton judgment payments, the arrears of war bonus payments; and in the second place, there is 435 a considerable decrease in the amount of engineering material which it has been necessary to purchase.
I said that I felt rather like the chairman of a company presenting the report and accounts for the year, but I am bound to add that, if any chairman or directors put their names to accounts like these and presented them to a company as giving a true picture of the commercial conduct of a business during the past year, they would be very lucky if they got off with five years' penal servitude. That arises, not from any fault in those who keep the accounts, but from the very character of the accounts themselves. It arises from the fact that we persist, no doubt for good reasons, in keeping all our national accounts upon a strictly cash basis. These accounts, these Vote accounts, therefore, solely concern themselves with cash transactions and take no account of liabilities incurred and not paid and no account of revenue earned but not received. They take no account of work done for any other Departments of the Government; they contain no provision for depreciation; and they contain no allowance for pension liabilities which are accruing. When those facts, which are only a small selection of the deficiencies which mark accounts kept strictly on a cash basis, are considered, the Committee will readily see that to regard this as a true commercial picture of the work of a body or institution is really to imagine a completely vain thing. It is only when you are able to get the commercial accounts of the Post Office that you can really arrive at a true idea of the picture, and those commercial accounts, in the ordinary way, are not available until the end of the year, because it is not until the end of the year that they are passed and audited by the Comptroller and Auditor-General. I have sometimes thought—and I think I have said this before—that it would be better if we had the annual review of the Post Office finance at the end of the year in some way or other rather than in the ordinary way among the Supply Votes.
The commercial accounts are correct, and they do give a true picture of Post Office finance. I would not mind in the slightest signing my name to a document saying they are a true and accurate account, with this reservation, that they 436 contain no provision for taxation. That is not necessary, because all the profits, if there are profits, go into the Exchequer in the ordinary way. I ought, however, to mention that fact when dealing with figures, because, in comparing the Post Office with ordinary business concerns, it has always to be remembered that all the profits go into the Exchequer and that no figure is set aside in reserve for taxation. Apart from that fact, however, the commercial accounts are prepared on a true basis and do show proper commercial results. It is from the advance figures of the commercial accounts that I propose to give some examples, though I will not trouble the Committee to-day with many figures. I would like to make only these two reservations. In the first place, any figures that I give are subject to ultimate audit by the Comptroller and Auditor-General; and, in the second place, in making a comparison, I have thought it right, when taking the figures of previous years, to exclude payments under the Sutton Judgment, because they do give a distorted picture, being a signal instance of a non-recurring item, and to include them would certainly distort the figures. Apart from that, I propose to give a comparison upon a commercial basis.
Taking the postal side first, the year 1924–25 closed with a surplus, on the commercial accounts excluding the Sutton payments, of nearly £7,600,000. The next year the surplus, excluding Sutton payments, was about the same. For the current year it was estimated at the start of the year that it would be about £8,300,000 or a cost-of-living basis of 75. I will say something more about the details of postal development in a moment. The telegraph business is as unsatisfactory as ever. In 1924–25 and 1925–26, the deficiency ran round about £1,330,000, and in the current year it is estimated at about the same figure. There is, therefore, no evidence of progressive improvement in the telegraph service. The inland telegraph service continues to show a marked decline. The foreign telegraph service shows a certain amount of increase—a fairly satisfactory amount. The wireless services are, of course, growing. The reduction in the inland telegraph service is, I think, almost certainly very largely attributable to the competition of the telephone services. To illustrate the truth of that, just let me 437 give the Committee one set of figures with regard to the exchange of inland messages up and down the country. I have taken the figures for the year before the War, 1913–14, and the figures for last year. The inland telegraph messages and trunk calls over the telephone in 1913–14 together numbered 103,500,000. Of those messages, 65,900,000, or 63.7 per cent., were telegrams, and 37,600,000, or 36·3 per cent., were telephone trunk calls. Last year, the figures were almost exactly reversed. The total number of messages was 133,300;000, of which 48,800,000, or 36·6 per cent., were telegrams, and 84,500,000, or 63·4 per cent., were telephone trunk calls. I think, therefore, that the Committee will see that what I said is true and that the inland telegraph service is being cut into, particularly on the shorter distances, by the competition of the telephone service. I shall have a little more to say about the telegraph service in a moment.
The telephone service, as one would expect, continues to make steady progress. The surpluses on the telephone account are falling. In 1924–25 there was a surplus of £850,000; in 1925–26, which felt the full burden of the reduction in the rates, there was a surplus of £540,000; and in the current yeas I anticipate a surplus of about £250,000. This is not due to any fall in revenue. On the contrary, the revenue is increasing. It is partly due to the policy, where possible. of reducing rates, and, even more, it is due to a development of the Service which entails the carrying of what I have before in this House called a large and growing uneconomic fringe of business. If you want to develop the Service, it entails laying down plant which cannot immediately begin to be profit-bearing. I do not think that our undeveloped fringe is too large at the present time. bat I admit that I have at times some anxiety about it. I should like to see a part of the uneconomic fringe begin to become a little more economic than it is, but when hon. Members press me, as they very often do, to extend the area of our rural operations, I hope they will remember this anxiety which I always have on my mind as to how long and how far the urban areas, the paying centres, can afford to go on carrying the uneconomic fringe.
As I have said, the revenue in this respect has not fallen off. The 438 telephone revenue for 1923–1924 was £14,500,000 and the telephone revenue for the current year is estimated at £17,500,000. Taking the figures together, postal, telephone, and telegraph, and summarising them, excluding the Sutton payments and taking the figures on the commercial account, the surplus last year for 1925–1926 was £6,783,000, and I anticipate a surplus for this year of £7,230,000. Of course, these are pre-strike figures and the ultimate effect of the strike on Post Office finance cannot yet be determined. These figures relate to the period before the general strike and before the full effect of the general stoppage became known. I have done my best to make out as far as I can what the effect of the stoppage will be so far as it affects the postal revenues for the year. On the postal side one can fairly accurately anticipate the loss which amounts to not less than £730,000 up to the end of June. I think when you add telegraphs and telephones you will be fortunate if the reductions made do not amount to about £1,000,000 for the three services. Of course, I cannot possibly say what the full effect will be because that depends upon the duration of the stoppage and upon the revival of trade which I hope and believe will ensue as soon as a settlement is arrived at. I am not going to weary the Committee any more with figures, but what I have stated represents as far as the general services are concerned, a fairly distinct and, I hope, clear account of the prospects of the coming year.
Now let me say a word or two about the details of the different services. There are so many points of interest, but I want to pick out those in which the Members of the Committee are likely to be interested. Let me say first of all a word with regard to the growth of the postal business. I doubt very much sometimes whether even here in this Committee we recognise the full extent of Post Office operations and how varying those operations are. The business of the Post Office is much more than merely carrying letters because it has a very large variety of other activities added on to that. I will give the figures for 1923–24, 1924–25 and 1925–26. In 1923–24 the total number of postal packets carried was 5,585,000,000; in 1924–25., 5,840,000,000: and in 1925–26 the stupendous total of 6,000,000,000.
439 It is very difficult to visualise that figure, and I do so myself by taking the biggest distance I can, which is the distance of the earth from the sun. If you take that distance and drop a packet every 30 yards over the whole of that distance you would have some packets left over out of the total which the British Post Office handled during last year. The number of parcels delivered in 1924–25 was 137,200,000 and 143,800,000 in 1925–26. The postal orders were 114,400,000 in 1923–24, 121,800,000 in 1924–25 and 129,900,000 in 1925–26. The figures for the other activities during the past year were as follows. Savings Bank Deposits, £24,760,000; Government's Stock and Bond Accounts, 2,530,000; Licences issued other than Wireless, 3,820,000; Old Age Pensions paid, £27,000,000; Health Insurance Stamps sold, £29,780,000; Unemployment Insurance Stamps sold, £34,020,000; War Pensions paid, £55,700,000; Postal Drafts paid, £9,070,000; Savings Certificates issued, £35,500,000; and Wireless Licences issued nearly 2,000,000 or, to be strictly correct, 1,960,000 during the last financial year. The Committee will see from those figures the activities of the Post Office are something much wider than the delivery and transmission of letters and parcels, vast as is that business.
Perhaps this is an appropriate moment to say something about Christmas. We had certain difficulties and troubles during the Christmas time of 1924, and with a view to preventing a repetition of those delays, which were not entirely the fault of the Post Office, we did take steps to complete as far as possible in advance the organisation for Christmas traffic. Notice was given to the public that letters and parcels intended for delivery at Christmas ought to be posted by a certain time or otherwise we could not undertake prompt delivery. The public responded extremely well, and it was possible for us not only to keep to our times, but even improve on them, and in some cases correspondence posted later was in fact delivered by Christmas Day. Next Christmas we hope to be able to give an equally satisfactory service providing the public will co-operate to the same extent as they did last year. I have already spoken of the Widows', Orphans' and Old Age Contributory Pensions Act, 1925, and the larger number of pensions paid there- 440 under. It may interest the Committee to know a little more in detail what is happening. We made preparations before that Act came into force. We exhibited the usual explanatory notices about the working of the Act, we had the usual forms ready, and the payment of widows' and orphans' pensions began on the 5th January, 1926, and old age contributory pensions began on the 2nd July. The system of paying contributory pensions follows very closely the system adopted in regard to old age pensions, and it is working extremely well. Approximately 150,000 widows' and orphans' pensions are being paid weekly, amounting to £120,000. I cannot give the figures for the contributory old age pensions because that system was only started on the 2nd July, and I have not the figures available.
I now come to another subject, the extension of a new service for the foreign heavy parcels post. The number of Foreign and Colonial services in which the limit of weight for parcels has now been raised to 22 lbs. is about 100, that is 60 per cent. of the total number of services. The limit of the weight for Canada is 15 lbs. and the limit for India, and I think for Iraq, is 20 lbs. The limit is still 11 lbs. for Australia, Brazil, Chile, Egypt, Japan, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, and the United States, and I ought to add Russia, in regard to which country, after having started a 22-lbs. service, we had a request to revert back to the 11-lbs. limit. We have arranged a semi-official service for the exchange of heavy parcels with Holland, which is working quite satisfactorily through a firm of Dutch carriers, and negotiations are in progress with the United States for an extension of the weight to 22 lbs. These heavy parcels are accepted at all the chief offices of the Post Office in the provinces and in London, and at about 100 branch and sub-offices in London and the provinces.
Perhaps I had better say a word about the cash-on-delivery system. This system did not have a very auspicious start because it was interfered with by the general strike, but the total number of parcels dealt with from the inception of the service to the 1st of July is 195,792, or about 850,000 parcels a year. The rate seems to be growing because in the last five weeks the average is 3,000 per day, and as the service is running very 441 smoothly I think the total will increase. Of course, it is not the business of the Post Office to create a demand because our job is to supply the demand, and as far as we can, we differentiate between this and our other services because we are not, out to make any money at all, and all we want is to cover our bare costs. Of course, a large factor in the cost of this service is the carriage. The service is running with extraordinary smoothness, and I think it is already working better and more quickly than the Cash on Delivery service anywhere else. The trader is getting his money back within two or three days, and that is more than can be said in regard to any other Cash on Delivery service. One or two cases have occurred where people have sent parcels to householders and others who did not order them, and I think the public would be well advised to refuse unordered parcels.
I would like to say a word or two about the Post Office tube. I had hoped that the Post Office tube would be finished next month. That, also, has been some- what delayed owing to the coal stoppage, and the time of completion has had to be put off for, I am afraid, several months. The permanent way is completed, and the hulk of the electrical plant manufactured The installation is going on now, but there is, as I have said, a good deal of material which has been hung up and has not yet come to hand. I hope, however, that it will be completed in the autumn, and that it will be practicable to bring it into service early next year.
§ Mr. HARRIS
Will it bring about economies?
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
I am not able to say that now, because it has been hanging on for so long owing to the War. The total cost is estimated at £1,680,000, and, frankly, I do not see how it is possible to produce such economies as to be able to pay the interest charges on that; but that is not the fault either of those who originally designed the tube or of those who have been carrying out the work; it is the fault of circumstances.
I was going to say a word about the use of motor vehicles in the Post Office, but time is getting on, and I will just summarise by saying that we are extend- 442 ing the number of motor services carried on by the Post Office, and we are embarking this year on a new experiment altogether, namely, the provision of a number of solo motor cycles for country postmen. We are only starting in a small way with, I think, about 20 of these cycles, but I hope and believe that it will develop, and will make the work of the country postmen easier and improve the services in the country districts.
The air mail network in Europe continues to expand. If hon. Members will look at the new air mail leaflet which is now to be found in post offices, I think they will be surprised at the number of extended facilities which are now available for the postage of letters by air. I should like to call particular attention to the latest of the new services, which is that to Marseilles, by the use, of which it is now passible to post by air mail for the Indian mail very early on Friday morning, instead of at six o'clock on Thursday evening—a clear saving of about 12 hours. A letter posted in London before, I think, six o'clock on Friday morning—the particulars are obtainable at the post offices—for the air mail, will get to Marseilles in time to catch the Indian mail on the Saturday.
§ Captain WEDGWOOD BENN
Has the right hon. Gentleman come to any agreement with the German Government about flying over their territory?
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
I think I would rather say nothing about that at the moment. Negotiations, however, are, I think, proceeding.
I have now exhausted most of the subjects, but perhaps I may say a word or two about telephones. The expenditure of capital on the telephone service has been proceeding at about the rate that I told the Committee it would. The Committee may remember that I came to the House last summer for borrowing powers to refresh my telephone capital, and I then said that I hoped to be able to use this money usefully at the rate of about £1,000,000 a month. That is just about the rate at which telephone capital expenditure has been proceeding during the past year. The actual expenditure last year was £11,892,000, as compared with £9,720,000 the year before, and this year I estimate that the expendi- 443 ture will be £11,720,000, divided, broadly speaking, as follows:
There has been during the past year an unprecedented growth in the number of new telephone stations. The total number of telephones connected during the year 1925–26 was 222,494, or 5,618 more than were joined up during the previous year, which up till then was the record year; and the net increase for the year, allowing for cessations, was 116,353 stations, representing a growth of 9.1 per cent. As I have said before now, I am very far from satisfied with the position that this country occupies among the telephone-using nations of the world; but I will say this, that we are improving, and improving at a fairly rapid rate. We are progressing, I think it, is true to say, at a faster rate than other people, so far as the number of telephones is concerned. We come actually third in the list of the world countries. The highest, of course, is the United States, then comes Germany, and then ourselves. That is so far as the number of telephones is concerned, but it is when one comes to take the figures for population per telephone that our comparatively lowly position appears. In that respect we stand ninth among the great countries. The United States heads the list with 7.5, though in the last year for which I have the figures it falls below that, namely, 7.05, as against 34.6 for ourselves. I will, however, say this, that our figure has been improving, and is going on improving. In 1922 it was 42.2 per telephone; in 1023, 38.5; and in 1924, 34.6, while at the end of June this year it was 30.4. Therefore, we have made a very marked and rapid improvement, and our rate of improvement will compare extremely favourably with any other country.
£ Trunk lines and submarine cables … 2,412,000 Local exchange system … 8,308,000 Sites and buildings … 1,000,000
§ Mr. TINKER
Has there been a corresponding improvement in the United States?
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
The figures in the United States have changed very little. I do not say they are at saturation point, but they are beginning to approach it. I have not the figures 444 for last year, but for 1922, 1923 and 1924 the figures were, respectively, 7.7, 7.5 and 7.05.
§ Mr. G. HARVEY
And private enterprise at that!
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
I think it is what might be called cooperative enterprise. A most remarkable thing is the number of subscribers who are shareholders in the company—but perhaps I had better not be led away too far from the Vote. I may, perhaps, just complete the telephone figures by saying that the total number of effective calls passed during the year 1925–26 was 1,016,000,000, showing an increase over the previous year of 9.4 per cent. I think it is fair to say, while I am on the subject of telephones, that I do not think the telephone plant has ever been in better condition than it is in to-day. Its condition will challenge comparison with that of any other country; and, in spite of what people say about the quality of the service, the quality of the service also will challenge comparison. The trunk line system is being, as I have said, rapidly developed, ands, further, during the last year, 55 schemes were completed and brought into use, about 30 are still in hand, and 10 new schemes are to be put in hand this year.
I should just like to say one word about the Anglo-Continental traffic, because I think the Anglo-Continental branch of the telephone service is one which has stood in great need of development in the past. It is now, thanks to the co-operation of the countries concerned, being developed very rapidly. At the present moment we have 21 circuits to France, eight to Belgium, 11 to Holland, and one to Germany. A new cable, containing eight physical circuits and four phantom circuits superimposed, was laid at the beginning of May between England and Holland, and this will be employed for the purpose of a direct service between London and various cities in Germany. It is ex-expected that a full Anglo-German telephone service will be opened during the present year, and meantime a restricted service is being provided via the existing Anglo-Dutch circuits and the Dutch-German land lines. A new cable between England and France, with 21 circuits, is expected to be laid during 445 the current month, and the French Administration are now laying a land cable from Boulogne to Paris to connect with our cable. A. new cable between England and Belgium is also being laid, and should be available early next year.
I should now like to say a word about automatic telephones. The progress and development of automatic telephones is going on continuously and steadily. So far as London is concerned, it is, of course, an enormous problem, and it will be many years before the complete automatisation of London takes place, but we shall begin, by next year, to have automatic exchanges in operation in London. Actually, the first one, I think, will probably be what is known as a mechanical tandem exchange, which is necessary when both manual and automatic exchanges are in operation at the same time. It will be situated in the Holborn building, and I think it will probably be ready to start operating in April of next year. Probably by about June of next year the Holborn exchange will be operating, and, in the autumn of next year, Bishopsgate, Sloane and Western. Thereafter, the process of completing the development of the automatic telephone service in London will be a steady and continuous process over a considerable period of time, and it will probably be 15 or 20 years before the whole of the London telephone area is completely automatised. A large number of schemes are, of course, going on all the time in the provinces, and it may perhaps interest some members of the Committee if I say that the places in which it is hoped to complete automatic exchanges this year are Bedford, Cheltenham, Chesterfield, Coventry, Edinburgh, Gloucester, Nottingham, Oxford, Sheffield and West Hartlepool.
Now one word about the rural telephone services. The number of rural telephone, exchanges, which at the end of June, 1925, was 721, is now 909, serving nearly 14,000 subscribers, and 70 more rural exchanges are in course of construction. The number of subscribers connected to each exchange averages about 15, and the older exchanges opened under the scheme are showing a steady and satisfactory growth of subscribers, but all of these exchanges entail at the present moment, and will, until they grow, entail a substantial loss, averaging something 446 like £56 per exchange. I would, therefore, appeal to hon. Members who represent rural constituencies to this extent, that, while I sympathise to the full—and I think I am showing my practical sympathy by opening these exchanges—with their desire to facilitate telephone communication in rural areas, that they will not press me too hard in this matter, because there is a limit to the extent of the remunerative part of the business, and one gets a little apprehensive when one's margin of telephone revenue begins to run down.
§ Mr. HURD
Is the right hon. Gentleman taking measures to make the facilities better known in the rural areas?
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
If my hon. Friend, or any Member of the Committee, will make any suggestions to me as to how the facilities can be better developed in rural areas, I shall be glad to co-operate in every way that I can. With regard to the existing exchanges, it is, of course, greatly to my interest to increase the existing number of subscribers.
§ Lieut. - Commander KENWORTHY
May I ask whether, in the development of automatic telephones, the original programme is being worked to? I ask because in many cases we have had our numbers altered because of the coming of the automatic system, and now we are told that it will be many years before it is completed.
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
There has been no deviation from the plan that I am aware of. All this has been, of course, a matter of long development, but the development is proceeding perfectly steadily, arid without a hitch so far. I do not think there is any place in the country that has an automatic exchange where the subscribers would like to go back to the manual system.
With regard to the telegraph service, I have only a few further words to say. I have already given the figures regarding the cost. The numbers of telegrams dealt with during the years 1923–24, 1924–25 and 1925–26 were, respectively, 68,800,000, 66,900,000 and 65,000,000, the fall this year being accounted for by the reasons T have stated already. What we can do we are doing. We are trying to introduce the latest devices in the way of apparatus wherever we can, in 447 order to save time, to save labour, and to minimise the cost. There is one way in which the public can help the telegraph service, to their advantage and to ours, by making greater use of the telephone for telephoning telegrams and by making greater use of telephone numbers as the addresses for telegrams. I do not think it is sufficiently known, though I try to call attention to it by every means in my power—members of the public will see in large letters in the front of the telephone book that you can use the telephone for the purpose of sending telegrams and you can use telephone numbers for the purpose of addresses.
As regards the use of the telephone, it has been the practice to allow the public to send telegrams from any call office where an attendant has been on duty. We are now trying to extend that as far as possible to every telephone call office, and the number of unattended telephone call offices has grown very largely within the past year. Telephone kiosks are springing up on all hands. There has been an increase of 75 per cent. in the past year. We are trying to arrange to make it possible to despatch telegrams by telephone from those offices, but the difficulty is that the majority of the offices can only be fitted so far with machines that are capable of taking pennies, and before you can send a telegram you must equip yourself with 14 pennies, which presents rather a difficulty. The only way to get over that is by introducing multi-coin boxes, a complicated looking apparatus with a number of handles and buttons which enables you to make payment in silver. With the extension of that it will be a great deal easier for the public to make use of telephone facilities for telephoning telegrams and in so far as they can do that, they will save time and very probably save money, and they will certainly save the time and money of the Post Office.
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
The telegram is sent by the next post. The telegram is telephoned, and a confirmatory copy follows by the next post.
448 May I say a word now on the question of broadcasting First of all, as regards the position of the existing broadcasting service, the number of licences in force is round about 2,000,000. 1,960,000 were taken out last year, and the number of licences actually in force at present is 2,076,000, as compared with 1,387,000 a year ago. I mention those figures because there is an idea abroad that the rate of growth of wireless licences has fallen off. The figures I have do not corroborate that idea in the slightest. This is always a comparatively slack time of the year for taking out wireless licences, but the number issued during June this year was 57,512, as compared with 31,311 in June, 1925. So far as licences are concerned, I hope no one will imagine that the Post Office proposes to relax its efforts to detect and prosecute any people who fail in their duty as citizens and as honest people in taking out the necessary licence. It is the cheapest form of entertainment that has ever been offered to anyone anywhere. May I add a word or two with regard to the future of broadcasting? As I have stated in answer to questions, the Government have accepted in general the recommendations that were made by the Committee, under the chairmanship of Lord Crawford. Those recommendations, briefly, were, that the broadcasting service should be conducted by a public corporation acting as trustee for the national interest. The corporation should either be set up by Act of Parliament or be incorporated under the Companies Act, should be licensed by the Postmaster-General for not less than 10 years, and should consist of not more than seven or less than five commissioners; that the undertaking of the Broadcasting Company should be transferred as a going concern to the Commissioners on 1st January, 1927, and the fee for a receiving licence should be maintained at 10s. In general, the Government have decided to accept those recommendations. I should like it to be known that there will be no interruption whatever in the continuity of the service. The intention is that on 31st December the service at present conducted by the British Broadcasting Company shall pass over as a going concern, plant, assets, and in a large part, staff and all, under the control of the new authority. With regard to that 449 new authority, I should like to read just what the Committee had to say as to the status of the new body:We feel that the prestige and status of the Commission should be freely acknowledged and their sense of responsibility emphasised. We have framed our Report with this object constantly in our minds, and we have done so with the knowledge that the State, through Parliament, must retain the right of ultimate control. We assume that the Postmaster-General would be the Parliamentary spokesman on broad questions of policy, though we think it essential that the Commission should not be subject to the continuing Ministerial guidance and direction which apply to Government offices.They go on:Within well-defined limits the Commission should enjoy the fullest liberty, wide enough to mark the serious duties laid upon it and elastic enough to permit variation according to technical developments and changes in public taste.The gist of it all is summed up in the last sentence:The Commissioners should therefore be invested with the maximum of freedom which Parliament is prepared to concede.That in general is the position the Government are prepared to accept and take up.
The only question we have had to consider is how the body should be actually called into existence. The Committee recommended that it should be done either by Statute or by incorporation under the Companies Act. We have considered both. The idea of setting up such a body by Statute presented considerable attractions, but the difficulty about a body operating under purely statutory authority is that it is apt—and a long series of history in the Law Courts has shown it is true—to be regarded, when its powers come to be scrutinised, if they ever have to be scrutinised in law, as being strictly confined within the limits of the words of the Statute itself, and if any alteration is necessary in its powers it is necessary to have an amending Statute. That, on the practical side, is certainly a difficulty. But there is a greater difficulty than that. My chief objection to a, body set up by Statute is that it really tends to prejudice the position of the new body from the start by investing it in the mind of the public with the idea that in some way it is a creature of Parliament and connected with political activity. If broadcasting is to live in this country, I am certain its 450 vitality will be increased directly as you can succeed in divorcing it from political activities. With that in our minds we have decided that we should not proceed to set up the new body by Statute. Then we considered the other alternative of setting it up by incorporation under the Companies Acts, and again we came to the conclusion that it presented insuperable difficulties. In the first place, the Government would probably have to acquire or hold shares if a company was registered with capital at all, and if it were not registered with capital, it would always, I think, lack a certain amount of status and dignity.
We therefore came to the conclusion—and this is what we propose to do—that we would apply to the Privy Council to move the Crown to be pleased to grant a Royal Charter for the incorporated body to hold a licence from the Postmaster-General and to conduct this service. The actual regulation of the finance of the body will have to be clone by this House, either by legislation in the autumn or by way of Supplementary Estimate, and whichever it is, whether by legislation or by Supplementary Estimate, that would afford a proper opportunity for a discussion upon the broad question of the powers and constitution of the body. I cannot say anything more as regards its constitution, numbers or membership today, and I think it will be the autumn before I can say anything definite with regard to that. When the Parliamentary discussion comes, I will undertake that in good time before that, the draft of the petition and other relevant papers will be laid as Parliamentary Papers so that everyone interested will have an opportunity in good time of seeing all the details of the proposed constitution and everything else. I cannot say anything more about it to-day, because the details are as yet under scrutiny but, broadly speaking, we propose to accept the recommendations of the Committee and to set up this new body which I think will probably be called the British Broadcasting Corporation, and not Commission, rather to emphasise the fact that it does not exist as a mere statutory entity. It will take over the present business of the British Broadcasting Company as a going concern with all the assets, and I have financial arrangements in hand under which I hope it will be 451 possible for the new body to start with an absolutely clean sheet, clear of all liability.
May I say a word on the subject of Imperial wireless. We have opened this year, quietly, without any fuss, the biggest thing in wireless stations that exists anywhere in the world—the station at Rugby. It stands alone among the world's largest radio-telegraph stations because it uses the valve system of transmission, it is equipped for communication both on long and short waves, and it has a novel installation which enables it to be used not only for telegraphic but for telephonic purposes. At present, on the telegraph side it is being used for broadcasting thrice daily British official wireless messages, and also for transmitting private and Press telegrams to ships equipped with suitable apparatus on any sea anywhere in the world. I should like hon. Members and the public to know that by going to any telegraph office and paying ls. 6d. a word they can now send a telegram to any ship which has suitable apparatus, no matter where the ship may be, on whatever sea it may be. We are getting daily reports from all over the world of the working of the Rugby telegraph. All these reports are collated, and we are beginning gradually to get a map of the world showing the strength of the Rugby signals in different parts of the world. It is interesting to observe that there appear to be—no one can say why—certain parts of the world which are more difficult to get at than others. There are certain, not quite blind, spots but difficult spots which occur for no apparent reason. Broadly speaking, and in general, barring any exceptional disturbance, it is pretty certain that any message sent from Rugby will reach any ship almost anywhere in the world. Equally gratifying results have been reached on the telephone side. Wireless telephonic communication across th Atlantic was first established on 7th February last. Four weeks later a demonstration was arranged at which representatives of the Press were present, and talked across the Atlantic to their confreres in New York. Since then the feasibility of inter-communication, in the absence of any abnormal atmospheric disturbances, almost throughout the 24 452 hours has been established, and this problem of linking the radio-telephonic service to the land trunk telephone service appears to have been successfully solved. We are getting appreciably nearer the time when the trans-Atlantic telephonic service will be a practical commercial proposition. The telephonic tests have hitherto been confined to communication with the United States of America, which is the only country now equipped with suitable corresponding stations for two-way communication; but we have invited, cordially, the Dominions, the Colonies and India to co-operate, and it is hoped that many of them will be able to hear Rugby speaking, even though they are unable through want of modern means of communication to reply themselves.
The completion of the Beam stations by the Marconi Company, under the contract of 1924 has, unfortunately, been delayed through causes beyond the control of the contractors, of which the most important was the illness at one and the same time of Senatore Marconi and his chief assistant, but the stations at Bodmin and Bridgwater for communication with Canada and South Africa are now practically finished. Some time will be occupied in completing the final adjustments, but the Marconi Company tell me that they hope to begin at Bodmin their preliminary tests with the Canadian station at the end of this week, and to be ready for us to make our official tests towards the end of the present month, and the station for the South African service a little later, about mid-August. The stations at Grimsby and Skegness for communication with Australia and India will probably be ready in October. When due allowance is made for the difficulties which must inevitably arise in connection with the development of a new system of wireless communication, which is being tried under practical commercial conditions for the first time, I think it is a reasonable expectation that the four Beam stations will be in full operation before the end of the present year.
The rates and the contract conditions for working have been settled in all cases except in the case of Australia, by a Committee sitting under the chairmanship of my Noble Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General (Viscount Wolmer). Roughly speaking, the rates will be, except in the case of Canada, two-thirds 453 of the cable rates existing in July, 1924. In the case of the Canadian service the rates will be identical with the corresponding cable rates. The effect will be that in the case of South Africa there will be a reduction in respect of cable rates of 8d. a word, in the case of India 7d. a word, and proportionate reduction for cheaper classes of traffic. I have done my best in the time at my disposal to make myself clear. If there is any point on which I have not been clear or on which the Committee wishes further information, either I or my Noble Friend will be glad to answer any detailed questions, to the best of our ability.
§ Mr. AMMON
The Postmaster-General in opening his speech said that he felt very much like the chairman of a public company making his annual statement. I think the Committee must congratulate itself on the fact that they have a Postmaster-General who has presented the accounts of a big commercial concern in concise, businesslike terms, which have been very interesting and appreciated by all of us. The fact that he said he would not be prepared like the chairman of a company to put his signature to the balance sheet in no way detracts from the fact that he is at the head of one of the most successful business concerns in the world. I imagine that there will he no difficulty on this side of the House in co-operating with him in endeavouring to get his annual statement at the end of the year arranged by a different kind of accounting, instead of what is now a strictly cash account. The businesslike and interesting statement which the Postmaster-General has presented embodies within it a story of wireless romance more fascinating than any that has ever been talked about within the knowledge of man. The statement which he has just given to us in matter-of-fact terms of the possibility of our being able by wireless telephony to communicate with the utmost ends of the earth, coincident with the development of wireless telegraphy, opens up visions which the imagination fails to comprehend.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his tribute to the staff, and particularly that section of the staff which he mentioned in connection with the general strike, especially as it does something to counter the mischievous and false 454 innuendoes and suggestion made by certain hon. Members in this House with regard to the work of the staff and the cooperation of the large union mostly concerned with them, which did co-operate very closely with the right hon. Gentleman's Department and the officials during that particular period. Whilst paying that tribute, the right hon. Gentleman went on to express a doubt as to what the staff might think of him. Up to now the report is quite a good one. There is no objection, and there can be no objection, to the fact that when the wage claim was lodged with the Arbitration Court, the right hon. Gentleman, on behalf of the Government, took the unusual step of lodging a counter-claim. If the case presented has to fear any counter-claim, then, of course, we cannot feel on very sure ground with regard to the case. Although there may have been some demur, it was only on account of the unusual course that was taken by the right hon. Gentleman, and not from any feeling of animus against him for taking that step.
My task will be a great deal easier this year, because many of the grievances that are usually raised on this annual occasion are sub judice. I shall not therefore trouble the Committee with them. I would hasten to say that through the spread of the co-operative spirit which has taken place between the Union of Post Office Workers and the Post Office administration during past years the need for venting grievances in this House has been progressively less. We have not had to trouble the House with purely domestic affairs, because we have been able to settle them through the machinery which has been devised between the Union itself and the Post Office. I demur from one remark which the Postmaster-General made, that he did not think it was his business to do anything to stimulate a demand with regard to the cash-on-delivery system. Surely, he has to look at the matter on business lines, just in the same way as the development of the telephone. It is as much his duty to endeavour to increase the usefulness and work of his Department on that side as it is to look after the rapidly developing telephone side. The right hon. Gentleman is entitled to much credit for the businesslike way in which he has developed the telephone side and 455 brought it increasingly before the notice of the public. He has taken a long, businesslike view in spending money well ahead, and if for the time being it may seem unremunerative it is bound to be remunerative later, because he will be in a better position to meet increase of traffic along that particular line.
I was interested to notice that the Postmaster-General has joined the ranks of those statisticians who delight in telling us how many pennies it would take, placed side by side, to reach to the end of the earth. The right hon. Gentleman did not illustrate his point by pennies, but he spoke of the number of packets which would be required to reach from the earth to the sun, and how many would be likely to be left over after the long line of packets had made the journey. Although he has taken this fresh method of illustrating his point, the wonderful figures which he has given us have left us to some extent unable to grasp all that was meant in that respect. I shall not trouble the Committee with matters of detail so far as staff grievances are concerned. As far as the Post Office is concerned, I would appeal to the right hon. Gentleman for a wider development of the Post Office service. It always gives me great delight when someone of the political persuasion of the Postmaster-General stands up, and has to give us such a very fine report of a purely Socialistic experiment in business which is being carried on so efficiently under a confirmed individualist such as the Postmaster-General.
I suggest that a line of development, which might he adopted without involving any fresh legislation, would be to explore the possibilities of the Post Office Savings Bank. I called the attention of the right hon. Gentleman to that matter in a question a few days ago. The Government and the country need as much money as they can get at a cheap rate, and it would be well to encourage among the bulk of the population the habit of thrift. The Post Office Savings Bank is one of the best avenues for promoting thrift. Quite recently there were proposals before the London County Council for the establishment of a municipal savings bank. The County Council considered the very excellent example of Birmingham in regard to the 456 establishment of a municipal savings bank. They considered other experiments which have been made in this and other countries, but the County Council and the Finance Committee came to the conclusion, after examining the question in all its details, that the need would be met in the Post Office Savings Bank if the Post Office Savings Bank would relax one or two of the regulations now operating.
They suggested that the National Savings Committee could do a good deal in the way of publicity in regard to the opportunities offered by the Post Office Savings Bank for the development of thrift among people of small means. They went on to suggest that the Post Office should give further facilities by abolishing the limitations, to which I called attention some years ago, which are imposed by insisting that people can only pay in a complete shilling. To people of small means that is a difficulty, although it may not seem so to hon. Members who are not accustomed to dealing with 'these small matters. It is a considerable difficulty from the point of view of poor people who may not have a shilling, but who would be prepared to put a few coppers into the Post Office. In the aggregate, that would turn out to be a considerable amount of money, as has been shown by the experience of the Penny Savings Bank, which collapsed with disastrous results to many poor people, and similar organisations. These institutions meet a need which the Post Office has not yet met. I suggest that the Postmaster-General might very well explore the suggestion made by the London County Council in their resolution:That the Council is of opinion that with a view to providing additional facilities for encouraging thrift it is desirable that the scheme of the Post Office Savings Bank should be improved so as to provide as regards deposits and withdrawals facilities similar to those provided by the Birmingham Municipal Bank, and that greater publicity should be given to the facilities offered.There are two points to be made in that connection. One is, that people should be allowed to put in deposits of less than 1s., and that they should be able to withdraw without notice a larger sum than they are able to do at the present time. I know some of the difficulties from the inside. One of the difficulties will be 457 the amount of book-keeping which will be involved and greater expense, and there will be, possibly, the danger of mistakes in paying out. Those are difficulties which every bank has to face, but they could be got over by administration. I hope the Postmaster-General will take the lead which has been given to him by our largest municipality, and explore the matter not only with a view to offering better facilities for depositors in the Post Office Savings Bank, but of getting the use of money at a comparatively low rate of interest. After all, the poor people are not so much concerned with the actual amount of interest as they are with the security which is afforded and have some little return for the money placed on deposit.
I want to refer again to the question of what is known as the postal cheque system. I have already brought it to the attention of the Postmaster-General in discussions in this House and in correspondence have put it before the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The postal cheque system, in a word, provides that people of small means shall be able to use a cheque book, appropriately devised, in the same way as people who have large deposits in joint stock banks. It is not a new proposal because it has been adopted by almost every Continental country. Having regard to some of the criticisms and objections by the Postmaster-General, and also by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I sent a questionnaire to all the European countries asking for information with regard to the business carried on in this direction. If the Committee will pardon me I will give hon. Members the reply which the Chancellor of the Exchequer sent to me in September of last year. It is to this effect:As I promised, I have now looked into the question of postal cheques. I find that the Post Office have investigated this system on several occasions from 1908 onwards, but have never felt able to recommend its adoption. It is true that certain Continental countries have made a success of it. This is partly due to the fact that they run their post offices on cheaper lines than we do and can afford to fix fees for such business on a scale which in our case would result in a heavy loss. But the main reason is that their banking systems are relatively undeveloped and the postal cheque system has the field more or less to itself. In this country where banking facilities are so widely spread and highly developed it is only the smaller and less remunerative 458 accounts which would come to the Post Office. I am advised, therefore, that it would be impossible for us to adopt the system without serious financial loss.I feel sure that the real objection comes from the joint stock banks, who are opposed to any development of State banking as represented by the Post Office. The fact remains, however, that the Postmaster-General is the largest banker in this country and does a business which is much larger than that of any joint stock bank. In spite of it having been turned down in former years—that is always the fate of a new proposal—I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman, with his independence and business capacity, should jump at this sort of proposal and adopt it. It affords great opportunities for much business. It has been adopted by most of the other countries in Europe. When asking them for a return in connection with this postal cheque system, I put this question to them: " Is the banking system as highly developed in your country as in England?" That is the real objection of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In their reply several countries say that it is not, but one or two, which are commercially more nearly akin to Great Britain, particularly France, claim that their banking system is superior to ours. I am not in a position to contradict them; I do not profess to be an expert on this matter. Belgium and Germany consider that their banking system is on an equality with the banking system in this country, and from the replies I have received it is clear that the amount of business done is simply stupendous. The figures beat even the figures which the Postmaster-General has put before the Committee this afternoon. They, of course, refer to marks and francs, not to pounds sterling. In the case of Germany, the whole of the business they dealt with in connection with the postal cheque system amounted in the aggregate to the extraordinary figure of 78,501,341,000 marks in the year 1925, and in Belgium it amounted in the aggregate to 36,320,244,000 francs. Those are figures which we can quote but cannot fully grasp. They indicate a tremendous amount of business which, if it is found to be profitable in other countries, the Postmaster-General might explore in order to see whether it is not worth while adopting in this country.
459 Let me turn to another subject, namely, the sale of the Abu Zabal Wireless Station in Egypt. This station has been run by the British Post Office, but it has not paid. It has been run at a loss. Latterly it has been re-equipped and a certain amount of money, about £10,000, has been spent on technical equipment and additional accommodation for the staff. Altogether a considerable amount of money has been added to the capital expenditure originally involved. I am informed that a sum of £120,000 has been paid by the Marconi Wireless Company for this station, at a moment when it seems that there might be a revival of business and the station made a business proposition. Having regard to the fact that the Post Office is able to conduct its work with so much success it is curious that it is unable to make a success of this wireless station, which it is proposed to hand over to the Marconi Wireless Company who are prepared to run it. There must be a little more behind this. The reputation of the Marconi Company in regard to Imperial wireless is not altogether above suspicion. They have more than once queered the pitch with regard to the development of Imperial wireless, and when the Imperial Economic Conference have approved the development of Imperial wrieless, the Marconi Company have put sand in the machine and delayed it. Now they appear in this transaction, and it would be interesting if the Postmaster-General can inform the Committee of the real reasons why the Government arc selling this wireless station to a private British concern. It has been technically improved and new buildings for the staff and plant erected, and I should like to know whether this was done preparatory to disposing of it to another company.
The Marconi Wireless Company are, I understand, our competitors in other fields. We work Italy from London. Is there any proposal to make concessions to the Marconi Company to work route traffic for this country through Abu Kabal? This is an important matter. This particular station transmits to Rhodesia, Iraq, Hong Kong and Singapore, and it shows possibilities of great commercial development. If a concern like the Marconi Company buy this station, it shows that they must have some knowledge of the potentialities of 460 the station and that there is a possibility of producing a revenue. The Donald Committee, I know, recommended that the station should be disposed of when the Admiralty requirements had been satisfied. Have those requirements been satisfied? I hope the noble Lord, the Assistant Postmaster-General will be able to give us full information with regard to this case when he replies, because it is a matter of public importance. It is the disposal of public property and services to a private concern without Parliament knowing all the facts in reference to the case.
I want now to deal with a purely personal matter concerning an officer who was lately chief engineer on His Majesty's cable ship " Monarch." In 1915 the " Monarch " was torpedoed and sank- off Dover, and as a result this officer suffered considerably in health and from a nervous breakdown. He was placed off duty, and received a pension under the Injuries in War Act. He received certificates. from the Post Office medical officers, four in number, and in addition certificates from private practitioners, including one of the most eminent nerve specialists of Harley Street, Dr. Schofield, to the effect that he was suffering from shock due to the torpedoeing of the " Monarch." This officer has been retired earlier than his full service life on a reduced pension and without any allowance whatever for the injuries received by the torpedoeing of the " Monarch." The reply of the Post Office has been that the Department does not recognise the complaint which has brought about his retirement as in any way due to the injury received while he was on the " Monarch." That, curiously enough, is in direct conflict with the highest medical opinion. and Dr. Schofield, the physician of Harley Street, wrote and objected to the Post Office sending this man back to work on the " Monarch " on the ground that it was quite contrary to his own orders. He said:I saw and carefully examined Mr. R. Allen at 10, Harley Street, on 22nd March, 1919, and gave him a certificate (Copy sent), and now learn with intense surprise. that it was utterly ignored. I have been constantly consulted by all grades in both Services, and this is the only instance of such action. The consequences have been disastrous, and I have certificates from Drs. Hunter and Davis proving this, and find 461 that my patient at 47 is now an invalid from service causes only.
§ Notice taken that 40 Members were not present; Committee counted, and 40 Members being present—
§ Mr. AMMON
When I was unfortunately interrupted, I was saying that this gentleman had a certificate from an eminent specialist and five other doctors, four of whom are Post Office doctors, all of them bearing out the statement that the complaint from which this gentleman was suffering resulted from the torpedoing of the vessel. It is not playing fair with this man, who did his duty in very difficult circumstances during the War and was engaged in service that made him particularly open to injury such as he received, that advantage should be taken and an endeavour be made to get away on some technicality so as to deprive him of his proper pension. I want to press on the Postmaster-General that in view of this somewhat indignant letter from an eminent specialist, who feels that, he has been treated by the Post Office in a way that no other Department of State had dealt with him, some reconsideration of the case is called for, with a view of seeing whether this gentleman is not entitled to some increase in pension.
I want to ask the Assistant Postmaster-General when he replies to say something in regard to a matter that concerns large numbers of the manipulative workers, particularly the postmen up and down the country, with regard to what is known as the Saturday half-holiday. Normally speaking, the agreement is that the Post Office should endeavour to see that the eight-hours day of post office servants is covered within the 12-hour period. I am not making any complaint with regard to the general way in which that arrangement is carried out; but there was an agreement between the Post Office and the staff representatives on the Departmental Whitley Council. The covering period, it is alleged, applies only to the larger offices. That is accepted in the Report. But it comes down to the question, What constitute the larger offices? The Post Office claim that it involves only Class I offices—Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester and so forth; but the staff contend that it should and does involve Class II and Class III offices. We under- 462 stand that later deliveries are contemplated in some places, and that will involve an extension of the 12-hours covering period.
Before administrative action is taken with regard to this, I hope that the Post Office will not stand too much on the punctilio of determining what it shall do, but will meet and discuss the matter with representatives of the staff nationally, in order to see whether it is possible to arrive at a national agreement. It is somewhat late in the day, particularly in regard to what has happened in industries in other quarters, for any Government Department to take steps which will have the net effect of increasing the hours of work and the covering period. I hope that the Post Office, at least, are not going to add anything to the volume of criticism that has been again and again poured out on this Government with regard to attacks on the hours and conditions of working-class life, and that before they decide on any administrative action and increase the late deliveries and the covering period of hours which the men are to work, they will meet the representatives of the staff and see whether something can be (lone to arrange an agreement on national lines. Hitherto the relations between the Postmaster-General and the staff representatives have been excellent, and I am hoping that nothing will be done to impair those relations.
I would conclude, as I began, by congratulating the right hon. Gentleman on the record of a Department which has served the State in a very excellent way, and at the same time I would express the hope that the House will recognise, when inclined to criticise the Civil Service and its work, that the Post Office includes more than two-thirds of the whole Civil Service in its ranks. The Postmaster-General has already given a very wide review of the duties that are thrown on the Post Office staff. Those duties multiply every year and are increased by every piece of fresh social legislation, because the Post Office is the most admirable machine that we have for such work. I ask the Noble Lord when he replies to give some attention to the points which I have raised with regard to the future development of the service and the special cases which I have brought to his notice.
§ Captain FRASER
It is maintained by the Postmaster-General that the British telephone service is equal to any in the world, and from the point of view of quality I daresay that there will be few who will challenge that statement. But, if that is so, it does not alter the fact that there are other respects in which the telephone service compares very unfavourably. I do not propose to take up the time of the Committe in going over that ground, because it is well known to Members of the Committee and to the public that our telephone service is not as universal as are the services of other countries, or as universal as some of us think it should be. The Postmaster-General has shown that very great efforts have been made by his Department to extend the service, and the figures which he gave to the Committee will undoubtedly have impressed us with the fact that there is a genuine desire, and a very strong effort being made, to catch up in that respect. It is curious, however, to record that in the Report of the Telephone Select Committee of this House in 1922, there are the words:There is a marked practical divergence between the official view and the views of the general public and the business community.I think that that is still the case. It would appear that the official view is, firstly, that there is no latent demand which the present machinery of the Post Office is not stimulating; and, secondly, that such demand as there is, is being met as quickly as possible. With regard to the first point, in answer to a question which I asked recently, the Postmaster-General said that he had canvassers all over the country actively engaged in bringing to the notice of members of the public the advantages of the telephone, and seeking to persuade them to install telephones. He claimed that they covered the ground; at least one had to infer from his answer that he believed that they covered the ground, because the question asked was whether or not he would advertise so as to cover the ground properly, and I understood that he satisfied the House that he was already covering the ground by means of his canvassers. I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether it is not a fact that in the Provinces, out of some 375 exchanges which have more that 300 subscribers, no less than 13 per cent. are in 464 a category in which no canvassing is allowed or only very restricted canvassing, and whether in London the conditions are not very much worse, namely, that something like 67 per cent. of the exchanges are in such a category?
One is tempted to ask why are there such restrictions, and whether in those circumstances it can be claimed that the latent demand, which some of us believe to exist, is being properly exploited? The divergence of opinion between the Post Office and the general public and the trade and business community, is exemplified in a way that must carry conviction with practically the whole of the trade which is engaged in making the apparatus used in telephone development, for they have thought fit to establish an Association—as hon. Members will probably have gathered from advertisements which have recently appeared—and they have thought fit liberally to finance the Association in order to stir up this latent demand for more telephones. These are business men, scattered all over the land, able in a very useful way to judge what is the public demand or the latent demand, and they not merely find themselves in conflice with the official view that there is not a latent demand, but they are prepared to back their conviction with very handsome financial arrangements. I suggest that that indicates that there is grave doubt whether or not we might not have many more people using the telephone, did they know of its advantages and were those advantages properly brought to their notice.
It may be said that the British people have not cultivated the telephone habit. Possibly the Post Office may take steps to cultivate that habit when our people are young or in other ways. Probably our people did not use typewriters adequately until someone advertised them and cultivated the habit. The Post Office, like most Government Departments, is shy about advertising, I suppose, and finds difficulty in embarking upon such a venture. I do not feel that it should present difficulties. This is primarily a commercial enterprise, an3 the Postmaster-General himself has emphasised that, by mentioning that he would like to see the accounts of his Department kept and presented in another way. May I, in passing, ask him, if he thinks it wise, to devote some time to that ques- 465 tion and to make a suggestion to the House at a convenient time. If the telephone accounts particularly were presented and dealt with in a way which conforms with usual business practice, and if the profits of the Department were retained by the Department, there might be a greater chance of quick development than there is under the present arrangement.
Probably it will be said that the delays and the restrictions in regard to canvassing, which I have mentioned, are due in large part to the pending change from manual operation to automatic operation. No doubt, that is so, and the Postmaster-General has told us the change is being proceeded with as fast as possible. I suggest, however, that it will be deplorable if, as he tells us, it is going to take 15 to 20 years before we get the automatic system,, and if during the transition in those areas, where there are now restrictions, those restrictions are to continue for that length of time. The capital expenditure which he is asking the Committee to sanction and in which he is involved is large. I note that, in answer to a question which I put recently upon that subject, he said he was spending £12,000,000 a year or £1,000,000 a month. I take it, as that was an answer to a Supplementary Question, that the phraseology was the phraseology of the moment. It is obviously not expenditure in the ordinary sense, but a very profitable investment, which returns to the taxpayer—as do very few other nationalised or municipalised services—a revenue which is, or could be made, well worth having.
It seems to me a case can be made out for a reconsideration of what appears to be the slow development which is being made. I realise that a development of 10 per cent, is considerable, and it may be greater than that which is taking place in the United States, but there is so much room for development that we would expect much greater development here. I want to see the time when we shall no longer stand ninth on the list so far as telephone density is concerned, but shall be nearer the top, and I hope that in a few years, and not in 15 or 20 years, it will be possible for the poor man to have the telephone. I think it should be possible for the small trader, to whom this instrument would be a great 466 boon, to have it at a price which he can afford, and the larger the number of persons who use the telephone the cheaper it can be made. That statement is sometimes contradicted and much argument took place on it before the Select Committee, but my view is that there is no doubt that if there were, say, twice as many telephones in this land, the price could be vary much reduced. I would ask the Noble Lord to tell us why there are restrictions and if it is contemplated that these restrictions will last for 15 or 20 years until we are all converted to. the automatic system.
In regard to broadcasting, I welcome the announcement which the Postmaster-General has made that the Government propose to follow the Report of the Committee recently set up. I regret that the details will not be before us until the Autumn Session, because that Session will presumably be brief and full of business, and there will not be a great deal of time to deal with this important matter. The right hon. Gentleman has, however, promised to lay these papers on the Table and to give us adequate time. I congratulate the Government upon their action in this matter. I realise this is not the time to debate it, but there is just one point in relation to finance and one in relation to the general question which I should like to mention. There is some fear, and there is evidence to support the fear, that the Government are not giving the broadcasting service enough money. The programmes have not maintained that progress in interest and variety during the last year which characterised the first two or three years. I do not say they are worse, but they have not become better at the same rate as listeners were entitled to expect. Listeners have paid very large sums for these programmes, and they are entitled —to quote, roughly, the words of the Government Committee—to know that the Postmaster-General or the Treasury will not retain any of the funds which they have contributed, until adequate provision has been made for the development, of better programmes.
The Committee also used words to the effect that expenditure on experiment and research ought not to be meagre. There is very little surplus left in the British Broadcasting Company at the present time to make such experiments 467 as they must make, in order to establish a better system of distribution and higher-power-stations throughout the country. I hope before the end of the year and during this interim period the Postmaster-General will make financial arrangements with the British Broadcasting Commission which will enable them to improve the programmes this winter, and make a large and bold experiment in the use of higher power, so that better distribution, and, possibly, alternative programmes may be attained. Will he also grant, because this is a necessary corollary, a wide discretion in the matter of the use of the higher power which they will need for these experiments? I am sure it will be said, and I am convinced it is the case, that the present Postmaster-General is keenly alive to this matter, and is personally interested in the development of broadcasting and appreciates its potentialities. One is not, however, always impressed with the fact that the departmental mind in the aggregate—I do not refer to the officials themselves because I have the highest regard for the services which they render —is capable of appreciating the potentialities of such a new thing as this, to the same extent as, I know, the present Postmaster-General does. Can he assure the Committee that some delays which have taken place in the past, in the matter of giving the company powers to use a greater number of kilowatts on their aerials, will not continue in the future, so that we may look forward, even this winter, to a development in their new distribution scheme?
On the questions of interference with broadcasting programmes the Committee know there are two kinds of interference. One arises from the carelessness of listeners, who make their receiving sets behave in a way which interrupts and interferes with their neighbours. It is true that can be dealt with by education and the British Broadcasting Company has done much to educate people not to cause this interference, but at present there is only one way to impress this matter upon people and that is to prosecute a few offenders vigorously. May I ask him if he will do everything he can to prosecute a few people in different areas in the country. I think he need prosecute very few. I know the 468 Committee will not consider me vindictive because I am thinking of the common good, which can only be attained by prosecuting one or two careless individuals so as to " encourage the others." I think the Postmaster-General has the machinery for doing it. Will he assure us he will use that machinery soon so that we may have in the newspapers a few reports of prosecutions. The other form of interference comes from marine stations and ships and from foreign coast stations. We cannot expect shipping to make alterations in plant now, because shipping is very depressed, but will the right hon. Gentleman consider whether he might not, make Regulations forbidding the inclusion in new ships or altered ships, of apparatus which emits a wave capable of interfering with broadcasting. Will he also do what he can to see that ships keep to the wave lengths which are laid down for them. He will say that he has little control over foreign ships, and I am aware that they are the worst offenders, and the French shore stations, in regard to London and the South Coast, are perhaps worse still. That leads one to ask what steps he is taking internationally to deal with this question? Listeners are entitled to know that the Government are taking steps internationally to secure agreement that broadcasting shall be given a free hand.
In relation to the free band, if it can be secured internationally, will the Postmaster-General revise his ideas as to the amount of power which may be used on that free band. If broadcasting is limited to a certain band of wave lengths, there seems little reason for limiting the amount of power which might be used on that band and many advantages to listeners throughout the land will arise, if higher power can be used. I feel there ought not to be a house in the land in which programmes, both for entertainment and education, cannot be received on the simplest apparatus. It rests largely with the Post Office to provide the facilities.
May I conclude by saying in spite of the criticisms, if they can be so called, which I have made, and the questions which I have asked, I am very happy to think that, through the energy and foresight of the British Post Office and our manufacturers, and through the great ability which has been shown in 469 the conduct of the British Broadcasting Company, we in this country have an unparalleled service. It can be maintained as the best service in the world, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman can assure the Committee, through his noble Friend, that some of the points which I have raised and which I believe have a material bearing on the future success of the service, are being attended to.
§ Lieut.- Commander KENWORTHY
On behalf of my hon. Friends who sit on these benches and who heard the Postmaster-General's statement, I wish to congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on a very able expose of the government of the great Department over which he presides. I think he is to be congratulated, though, needless to say, there are certain things he said with which 1 totally disagree. The hon. and gallant Member for North St. Pancras (Captain Fraser) who has just spoken, made certain remarks about the telephone with which I thoroughly agree, just as I disagree with his premises about broadcasting am not going over the ground which he covered, but I wish to say something on the question of telephones. I put it to the Postmaster-General that there is a good deal of uncertainty arising out of his statement with regard to the action of the Treasury in limiting expenditure, and when I say expenditure, I mean capital expenditure. Does the Treasury look upon this as an annual outgoing or as capital expenditure which will produce revenue? If they are hampering expenditure on the telephones because they are short of cash in the national Exchequer, it is a foolish and un-businesslike policy. From the Post Office commercial accounts I see that between 31st March, 1924, and 31st March, 1925, on the whole telephone service, after paying everything, the right hon. Gentleman was able to present the Exchequer with £463,000. That is a very handsome profit which we are making out of the telephone service, and, if we can extend the service, we shall make more money, and, as the hon. and gallant Member who spoke last pointed out, the more telephone users, the cheaper the service.
I have asked questions on this matter, and it is admitted that in many districts subscribers are experiencing delay in receiving their 470 instruments. I find in connection with the central exchanges that telephones are fitted up in an efficient and expeditious manner and the technical staff of the Department is admirable. But there are many districts in which people have to wait for an indefinite period. What is the reason for that? The Noble Lord said, in reply to a question earlier in the week, that it would cost unlimited money to fit them up more quickly. I submit, however, that it is false economy to limit the extension of the service now, because you do not get a return till the year after next, and every business man knows that. The right hon. Gentleman is himself a business man, and he knows in his heart that what I am saying is absolutely true. The same applies to the automatic telephones, which are being installed very slowly. I do not like mentioning the constituency which I have the honour to represent in this House, but in Hull we were wise enough to keep our own municipal telephones, and we are making a very handsome profit. We are paying £10,000 a year royalty to the Post Office, and making a profit of about £11,000 in relief of rates. We have a much more efficient telephone service there than we have anywhere else, especially in London, and it is cheaper, and now we have just opened au automatic telephone exchange. If a municipality can do that with its small resources, and yet have to pay a royalty to the Post Office, what is the reason for not having the automatic telephone exchanges operating over many times the area in which they operate now? I am afraid that the reason is that there is a short-sighted shortage of money, brought about by the Treasury, and L am reinforced in that belief by the remarks of the Earl of Lucan in another place, in answer to a Noble Friend of mine who raised this matter recently. The Noble Earl said that the Department was rationed, like other Departments. That shows a complete misapprehension of what the Post Office ought to be doing, and I make the charge that the Treasury is either hampering the Postmaster-General in revenue-producing development, or else the Postmaster-General is-not sufficiently pressing upon the Treasury the need for more money.
I must make here the suggestion I have made outside as to the need for the use 471 of the telephone being made part of the education of the child. We teach a child to speak in school, or we try to teach him to speak, and it is equally important to teach him to understand the spoken voice on the telephone and to speak into the telephone. This is an important matter. We are a great commercial nation, and the amount of time lost and of trouble caused by inefficient clerks and typists in offices, with no knowledge of how to use a telephone, must in the course of a year be colossal, and must cost us hundreds of thousands of pounds. Why does not the Postmaster-General make a present to every State-aided school of a couple of telephone receivers, with a battery and a length of wire, so that the children could speak from one room to another? They would love it. Let them do it for half-an-hour each, once a fortnight, in their last term in a council school. They would, in the first place, learn how to use the telephone, and later they would insist on having telephones in their own homes, and, secondly, they would be of some use when they went out into ordinary life. The use of the telephone is a necessity to-day. You may say that a manual labourer does not use the telephone, but he might do, and should do. There may be some accident, or there are dozens of cases in which the telephone would be useful to him. The use of the telephone should be taught in the schools. I do not see how even the present Minister of Education could object to that.
I must also repeat the suggestion that I have seen outside with reference to people who lose their tempers over the telephone and smash the instrument I must repeat to the Committee what has been suggested, because I think it is a most admirable idea. Somebody using a telephone became exasperated, probably because of the under-paid telephone operators, who do not trouble to hold on to their jobs. If they were better paid and better treated they would be much more careful not to lose their jobs and occasionally to cause outraged subscribers to smash the instruments. The suggestion I have seen is that a plaster image of the Postmaster-General, cheaply produced, ought to be placed in every telephone box, with a hammer attached by a piece of wire, so that the outraged 472 subscriber could wreck his vengeance on the plaster image of the right hon. Gentleman. He would not mind it, if his own instruments were not destroyed. I think there is really a case for further explanation with regard to the development of the service.
I want to say a sentence about rural telephones. I represent a city, but it affects us just as much at Hull, because we cannot talk to our customers in the country unless they have telephones. The right hon. Gentleman says that in many of these districts there are not enough subscribers to make the service pay, but that is a very narrow way of looking at it. Does not the right hon. Gentleman see that it is not only the subscribers in the country districts who use the telephone, but the people who speak to them from the cities, the people who do business with them, and the greater the number of subscribers there are in the country to whom a business man in the city can speak, the more lines there will be to put up? I hope I have made the point clear. It seems to have been overlooked, because I do not see it in any of the Government's apologies for not fitting the country districts with more telephones. Speaking for a business community that has to communicate with its country customers in the East Riding of Yorkshire, I must say that we feel the need of these country telephones very much. We are all right for the 20 miles round Hull that we are allowed to cover with our municipal service, but outside that radius we are not very well served.
Wtih reference to advertising, I agree with what the hon. and gallant Member for North St. Pancras said, that the Government ought to advertise the telephone much more than they do. It seems rather absurd that we should have this association, which has been referred to, for spending money on advertisements, when the Government should he doing it themselves. If they can allow liquor merchants to advertise in telephone kiosks, which I resent very much, on moral grounds, they ought to put on the backs of postal orders and telegraph forms, and on telegraph posts and letter boxes, advertisements showing what the cost of the telephone is, how cheap it is, and what advantages it offers. People do not know these things. In this country they still think that only the 473 rich people can have telephones, whereas, as a matter of fact, every house ought to have a telephone, just as it is fitted with a scullery sink. I hope the Post Office will do what a business concern would do and go after the business, otherwise, they will always be open to the old criticism: " Oh, here you are; this is a Government industry, and it cannot compete with a private enterprise concern, because it will not go out after business." They can quite easily remove that objection, just as they have already removed the objection that it does not pay. It does pay, and all that they have to do—and the right hon. Gentleman can well do it before the time comes for him to lay down his office—is to employ more canvassers and more advertising means for the telephone.
With-regard to broadcasting, I am very sad to hear that the Government are going to adopt the Report of this Committee which they set up, apparently bolus bolus, and I am astonished that the hon. and gallant Member for North St. Pancras, to whom I have had the pleasure of listening over the wireless, and who knows a good deal about it, should have endorsed that policy. You have to-day a wireless monopoly, and you are going to rivet it on the country for another 10 years. You are going to appoint Commissioners for 10 years with absolute security of office, and we know from past experience the sort of people whom they will appoint. In any case, even if they are archangels, they will be there for 10 years, and there will be the atmosphere of the Civil Service gradually developing in the broadcasting service. However well the Civil Service can run the Post Office, and however well the Civil Service could, I believe, run the mines of this country, and many other great monopolies, the last thing they ought to have anything to do with is art, or the entertainment- industry, or giving news, or an educational service. Those are the last things that a Government can run. The service is going to be controlled by the Government.
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
I thought I pointed out in my speech that the very reverse is the aim and object of our whole endeavour.
§ Lieut. - Commander KENWORTHY
The right hon. Gentleman left out a very 474 pregnant sentence in the long paragraph which he quoted. I quite agree that his time was limited, but he said that the progress of science would be hampered by too rigid rules, and by too constant supervision by the State. Why not, therefore, if he is not going to take it over, as he says he is not, leave things as they are and renew the present licence for three years, perhaps breaking the monopoly and making them into two or three companies? This science is making enormously rapid progress, and 10 years is too long to give a licence to this corporation. Let him keep Government interference as much as possible out of it. There will be Government interference, if they are going to appoint commissioners or officials, and the Post Office will control this great service much more than they are doing at present. I believe they will do immense harm to broadcasting in this country by stereotyping this monopoly for 10 years.
Again, it is a most iniquitous suggestion that the surplus revenue should go to the Government, and I hope that that policy is not really going to be pursued. The surplus revenue ought to go towards the development and improvement of the service. This is a service that will help young artists, singers, and musicians as nothing else can, if properly used. The hon. and gallant Member for North Saint Pancras referred to certain developments. I believe that programmes have been arranged for six high-power stations, every one simultaneously broadcasting two programmes on different wavelengths. That, I believe, ought to be the future development of the service, but if the Government are going to take the surplus revenue, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will look upon it simply as a means of getting money. Now that the capital expenditure for the existing stations has been made, there can be a very great service developed, but I am afraid that now we shall have the old example followed once again, with even worse results, because broadcasting is not only of immense importance to our own people, an importance as great as that of the Press and the drama in its effects on the minds of the people, but, by sending out good broadcasting programmes, we help our national prestige abroad, because we are listened to at present by every listener-in in the West of Europe who 475 cares for good music and has good apparatus with which to take our programmes. I have met gentlemen from all the different countries in Europe, who listen-in daily to our British programmes, and that, I think, is a very great tribute indeed to those programmes. I am, therefore, very sad that we are going to take what I call this retrograde step, and I think it would be very much better to renew the licence for, say, three years. and then, at the end of the three years, reconsider the position.
I was asked by the hon. Member for Edge Hill (Mr. Hayes) to refer to a case that came up at Question time yesterday —and I cannot refrain from mentioning it—of a man called George Hudson, a married man, with several children, who was, after many years service in the Post Office, suspected of theft. I would ask hon. Members to look upon this matter as a question of principle. He was dismissed, but he was not put on trial or prosecuted. He was simply dismissed. He has spent the greater part of his life in the Service, and he stoutly maintains his innocence, about which, of course, I express no opinion. The Postmaster-General says the man is guilty, and he practically labels him as a felon. The Post Office authorities decline to prosecute him, and they give the man no chance of clearing his name. He then goes to the Poor Persons' Legal Aid Department and tries to bring a civil action for wrongful dismissal, so as to have a chance of clearing his character, and then the Post Office plead Crown privilege. They will not go to the expense or trouble of defending their action, but this poor fellow's life is ruined, because they plead Crown privilege, which, I think, is very unfair. He applies for work, and the firm ask the Post Office about his character. The Post Office say they are satisfied he was guilty of theft, and the result is he cannot get work.
This is an interference with the liberty of the subject which the House of Commons should resent. Either the man should be prosecuted, and have a chance of clearing his name, or the Post Office should not ride off on the plea of Crown Privilege when he wishes to bring a civil action. The poor man's whole career 476 rests on the judgment of certain officials employed in the Post Office, and the Postmaster-General has satisfied himself. But that is not what has been the right of the Englishman ever since Magna Charta. A man has had a right of trial when accused of crime, and it is putting far too much power in the hands of the officials of the Post Office that they should have the power, practically, to ruin a man in this way, and then to continue to give this evidence against him whenever he tries to get employment. It is most unfair treatment, and, although I have nothing to do with this man, who belongs to the constituency represented by the hon. Member for Edge Hill (Mr. Hayes), I was so astonished at the Postmaster-General's replies this week, that I felt compelled to mention it in to-day's Debate.
§ Sir CHARLES OMAN
I have only one point to raise. It is a point which I have urged against successive Postmasters-General from the days of the Coalition till now. It is a complaint of my constituents that the Post Office is the only Department of the public service which is making no serious endeavour to get back to pre-War conditions in the case of postal delivery. I live in a town of 60,000 or 70,000 inhabitants, and in this matter I speak on behalf of representatives of other towns of about the same size. Before the War, we used to have evening posts. Since the War, we have had nothing but 4 o'clock deliveries. It is intolerable that a large town with a great deal of correspondence should be absolutely cut off from communications with the outer world at an early hour in the day. I know a town in the South of England where the last, post of the day is 2 o'clock! I ask the right hon. Gentleman in charge of the Department whether he is proud of the fact that 2 o'clock should be the hour of the last postal delivery in a Cathedral city in the South of England? In mid-Victorian days, we at Oxford had a r o'clock post, and a 9 o'clock post, and we used them largely. They were of vital importance to us. At the present moment, we have no post after 4 o'clock. This not only applies to Oxford, but to scores of other towns of the same size.
Is no effort to be made to restore the evening delivery in such places? There seems to be a lot of money going in the Post Office. It deals with figures running 477 into tens of millions, but the small sum which would be required to recruit an evening staff for the delivery of letters, say, at 7 or 8 o'clock, seems to be the one thing which cannot be provided. I can only suppose, from what was said from the Front Bench opposite, that a certain dislike among postal servants to evening service is allowed to prevail over the wish of the whole population of this kingdom to have an evening service. That is what I gathered from the views expressed by the hon. Gentleman opposite. He said he trusted that no arrangements would be made for extending evening services, because it was extremely inconvenient to some postal servants. If it be inconvenient to certain railway servants to run midnight trains, then on this principle we should have to scrap the night service on railways, and if it is inconvenient to Members of the House of Commons to sit late, we must scrap the night sitting of the House of Commons! It is an absurd argument to say, that, because it is inconvenient to certain people, the public service of the Post Office should not be exercised for the benefit of the nation.
§ Mr. AMMON
The hon. Member has entirely misrepresented what I said. What I said was that it increased their working day by spreading it over a longer number of hours, which was not fair.
§ Sir C. OMAN
I apologise if I said anything inaccurate, but I think the hon. Member said it was not that their hours were going to be increased, but that the hours of their duty would be evening ones.
§ Mr. AMMON
What I said was " their covering period," and I pointed out that if they spread their eight hours over 16, it gave them a shorter time for themselves.
§ Sir C. OMAN
That bears out what I said. But if for the convenience of certain postal servants, the whole of our postal arrangements are to go back to pre-Victorian times, I pity the nation. What I want to urge on the Postmaster-General is simply that it is undesirable, that where very other branch of the State makes an attempt to get back to pre-War principles, the Post Office, alone of all public Departments, stands out on behalf of a time-table that is worthy of 478 the 'forties and 'fifties of the last century. It was long gone by 1890. Of course the right hon. Gentleman can say you have instead of postal deliveries, telephones, and all that sort of thing. As a matter of fact, that does not appeal to me at all. The things with which I have to deal are documents, reports, proofs from the Press, examination papers and all sorts of things you cannot send by telephone. You cannot telephone their details. I dislike the telephone, because it puts me at the mercy of my enemies Anyone who wishes to ask me the date of the Battle of Hastings, or press me to attend some small meeting, can come to the telephone at the moment when I am in the middle of putting through an important document, or writing something which has to be done by 12 o'clock. So I have scrapped my telephone, and never want to have it back again. The telephone in no way makes up for a regular and punctual delivery of letters. The Postmaster-General is above all things, the arch-postman for our kingdom, and our deliveries now arc worse than they were during the Postmastership of his remote predecessor in 1880. The Department, instead of deserving the aureole or halo which has been placed round it by certain speakers to-night, is acting like some belated institution of mid-Victorian times. I am sorry if my language seems somewhat rhetorical, but 1 and my constituents really feel very deeply on the subject of late deliveries, and surely it is the duty of the Post Office to get back to pre-War conditions.
§ Mr. WILLIAM GRAHAM
I desire to refer, very briefly, to one part of the Postmaster-General's speech this afternoon dealing with the declaration of policy with regard to the Report of the recent Committee on Broadcasting. It is perfectly true that in the autumn of this year, the Government will require to embark upon legislation, and to that extent discussion would be out of order this afternoon. But, quite clearly, we are well within the rules of order in a Debate of this kind, when we refer to the administrative steps which the Postmaster-General is intending to take now regarding this great service. In substance, the Committee reported in favour of a Broadcasting Commission of the nature of a public corporation, which was to undertake this service from the British Broadcasting Company at the end of the present 479 year when the existing licence expired, and probably it would have been well if it had been made abundantly plain to the Committee that, under the terms of the licence, the transfer is effected without cost to the taxpayer, or compensation of any kind. The existing shareholders consist very largely of manufacturers of wireless apparatus, and merely receive the repayment of their subscribed capital at par. The whole undertaking will then pass, if effect be given to the Report, to the new British Broadcasting Commission.
I dare say the great majority of Members of the House will cordially welcome the statement which the Postmaster-General has made. May I observe, in passing, in reply to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Central Hull (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy), that the suggestion he put forward for continuation of this licence is an altogether impossible suggestion, which was very fully investigated by the Committee, of which some of us were members. We went into this matter in very great detail, and I should have thought the whole experience of broadcasting in America was absolutely against the suggestion put forward on behalf of a perishing individualism by the hon. and gallant Member. That proposal does not require more debate at our hands.
If the scheme indicated by the Postmaster-General become law, this will pass to the British Broadcasting Commission, and our duty this afternoon is to try to indicate our point of view of the administrative steps now being taken. There will, of course, be very great freedom in regulation, and, on that point, may I call attention to the representations which have so far been made by educational and other authorities that the programmes in education are somewhat restricted under existing conditions? There is the natural desire to eliminate everything of a controversial character, but it is impossible to have any true education in this country unless the leading elements in controversy are outlined, whatever deductions, individually or collectively, are drawn from them. There is a very strong plea that the practice should be amended, at least to that extent, and also a plea that all possible facilities in finance should be placed at 480 the disposal of the educational side of this work. No hon. Member will dispute that in broadcasting there are abundant opportunities for education, more particularly as you extend it to rural districts, which can probably never be adequately covered by the existing educational machine. To that extent, and for that reason, it is our duty to see that the service is not in any way restricted because of the too severe attitude in the matter of controversy from day to day.
Important as that matter is, far greater importance attaches to the finance of the scheme as it is run now, and to the possibility which the right hon. Gentleman opposite has in mind. He suggested, first of all, that there was doubt in his Department as to whether they should proceed by Statute to set up the new British Broadcasting Commission, which was the central idea in many of our minds during our investigations on the Committee, but the Postmaster-General apparently is inclined, in theory, to believe that there would be greater elasticity if he proceeded by ordinary process under the Companies Acts, and merely took this step in terms of that legislation as we have it now. He indicated, however, that he proposed to appeal to the Privy Council for some kind of charter of incorporation—a very difficult issue on which we, perhaps, need not enlarge to-day. The central point is, that when some of us inclined to the idea of the British Broadcasting Commission, we did say that the passing of this great service to the State could only he done properly under an Act of Parliament, which was reviewed by this House, the exact nature of which was known, and which, so it appeared to us, would afford far more opportunity for public discussion than a similar step under the Companies Acts themselves. I do not imagine for a moment that any Member of this House would seriously dispute the validity of that objection, because there is a great deal of public money directly and indirectly bound up with the matter.
The Postmaster-General to-day said that there is something undesirable in considering a Statute when you are able to get the same effect otherwise, and that it will not be very difficult to secure or alter on the Companies Acts basis, as 481 against an Act of Parliament, if, in fact, you desire to extend or develop the service in any direction which is not specifically covered by the Statute itself. May I say in reply to that, the whole object of a good deal of our suggestion as regards the basis of this matter and of our proceedings in the Committee was to preserve that very elasticity that the Postmaster-General implies. It is true that the choice was indicated in the Report of the Committee itself. I am bearing that in mind; but of course I want to make it quite clear that the theory dominating that part of our recommendations, in respect of the basis of the new scheme, was to make that Statute of quite a general character, and in a schedule give the Commission very wide powers and that elasticity that the service undoubtedly requires.
If I develop very briefly, in conclusion, the financial side, this argument will be plainer to hon. Members. The House knows that under existing conditions there is a great deal of freedom left to the British Broadcastng Company, though, of course, it is subject to a certain amount of regulation at the hands of the Postmaster-General, and to Rules that this House has laid down, in terms of the licence of the great monopoly which it works. The right hon. Gentleman himself indicated, to a certain extent, what was in his mind in this matter. Our idea was that if freedom were entrusted to this new Corporation we should lay it down first of all that the licence fee should remain at l0s., though as the right hon. Gentleman said, this is one of the cheapest services in the State; and that whatever view we take of private or public enterprise it is not desirable to make a good service too cheap; we do not want to throw it away and no one can complain of the 10s. basis. We have, under recent legislation, begun to take proceedings against those who have perhaps availed themselves of this joy without paying the necessary 10s. year by year. The Postmaster-General told us that there are more than 2,000,000 subscribers. There will be, therefore, that very broad basis in the financial contributions to the new British Broadcasting Commission. We are proceeding from that to say that there should be, of course, complete provision for all the developments of this service to which 482 the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for St. Pancras referred, and that only after all duties had been covered which fall to the Commission, that is, after everything has been done to provide the service on the most efficient and on the most attractive basis, should anything that remains revert to the Treasury or to public funds. That is the broad theory of the members of that Committee. The public interest is perfectly safeguarded if the House decides that, after these conditions have been fulfilled, any balance should go to the public.
There is one difficulty which I should, even at this stage, ask the House to note. Whether the Commission is set up by order of the Privy Council or in terms of an Act of Parliament one ought to know, the House ought to know, quite clearly, what is the nature of the financial control over the new Corporation or Commission the Government intend. At this point I do not desire to describe fully what was done, but it was the intention of the Committee, if I remember rightly, that these accounts should be audited in due course by the Comptroller and Auditor-General, which is merely another way of saying that they should come before the Public Accounts Committee of this House, which for all practical purposes is the only body in existing conditions which will financially review the situation. If that proposal is disregarded, the position will be this: to a certain extent under the Government plan the House will be interested in the finance of the broadcasting Commission because they would, at any rate, have the review of the Department of the right hon. Gentleman the Postmaster-General. There is a certain regulation of the finance; and in due course the returns will presumably be included in the usual way in the Appropriation Accounts. If that were not the position I fear that the financial programme very briefly described by the Postmaster-General would be the one weak part of his case this afternoon. More than that I do not desire to add, but merely as a member of the Committee to express my gratitude to the Postmaster-General for having adopted our Report, and to express to the House the firm conviction that, if we pass from the present position of broadcasting to the new public corporation, or to the efficient form of 483 public ownership and control, which is suggested, there is a great future for this service in British political, social and economic progress.
§ Mr. BARCLAY-HARVEY
There are many people in the country who must feel very grateful to the Postmaster-General for the very full details he has given to the Committee this afternoon. I am very glad that he should have devoted so large a portion of his speech to the great part the telephone system now plays in our national life. It is as well, perhaps, that that should be generally recognised, even in this House of Commons. There is one point I should like to stress, and that is that I believe the telephone now is an absolute national necessity up and down the country, and, if that is so, it is only right that we should have the most efficient service possible. I am not now suggesting that great progress has not been made. I am not dealing with the personal side of the matter, nor am I trying to make cheap gibes at the expense of the telephone girls, but I am referring to the main lines and their increased efficiency. In the North-East of Scotland we are still relying upon overhead wires. I understand that shortly a subterranean cable is to be laid down as far as Dundee. I am merely now putting in a plea for extension. I trust that the Noble Lord the Assistant Postmaster-General, when he comes to reply, will be able to say that consideration will be given to the question of carrying this line as far north as Aberdeen. Thereabouts it is a very wild country where there are a great many storms, and snow, and strong gales throughout the winter, with the result that the telephone communication is frequently interrupted by the considerable disorganisation which they cause. I think it is high time that this matter was taken in hand. I am quite sure, -at all events, that we will be very grateful to the Postmaster-General if we can be given to understand that he is taking steps in the direction indicated.
I should like to endorse all the remarks that have been made on the subject of telephones by the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for North St. Pancras (Captain Fraser). I am quite certain that one of the things needed in the country is a wider extension of the tele- 484 phones. Then references have been made to a campaign of advertising. No doubt the Postmaster-General will succeed in this, as he deserves to succeed in his efforts to increase the number of subscribers to the telephone system, and I myself have tried, and will continue to try to do what I can to help. I think the hon. Member for Oxford University (Sir C. Oman) is unique in this House in his dislike of this modern improvement. But, however much the Postmaster-General may increase the number of exchanges and subscribers, it will only be from a certain class of people, those who can already afford to pay for them. The right hon. Gentleman must endeavour to attract the people who cannot at present afford to subscribe—the hard-working farmers spread about in the country districts at far distant intervals, in wild and inaccessible parts of the country, as in the North-East of Scotland, who fully realise the importance of the telephones, but at its present cost cannot afford to instal it. When I was engaged in the advertising campaign, in that small part that I played, I was told by people, " Of course, we appreciate the use of the telephone, but we cannot afford it." I would ask the Committee to consider these people working under very difficult circumstances, fighting against a hard climate, an unfriendly soil, and with everything against them, competing not only against those in this country, but suffering from the competition of other countries as well—
§ Mr. BARCLAY-HARVEY
I did not quite catch what the hon. and gallant Gentleman said.
§ Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY
I said they had the further disadvantage of a Tory Government.
§ Mr. BARCLAY-HARVEY
I am not often in agreement with the hon. and gallant Gentleman, and I am against him on this occasion. We have these people suffering under the disadvantages to which I have referred. If there is one advantage they have, it is, I say, the present Government, and they will be glad of whatever help this or any other Government can give them. The Report of the Scottish Agricultural Committee 485 of last year dealt with the matter. I quote, briefly, from it:For the reasons indicated.… the telephone is of the greatest utility, both social and commercial, to those engaged in agriculture.I should like the Postmaster-General to look at this matter from a slightly different angle to what he may have done. He has told us of the number of rural exchanges, and he has given us the average number of private subscribers. I know that when you have very small exchanges and a very small number of subscribers you cannot expect the exchange to pay very well. The obvious thing there is to try and get more subscribers to the exchange. How are you going to get other subscribers in the districts to which I am referring? There is only one possible way, and that is by lessening your charge. I ventured to put forward a suggestion last year. That one of the ways in which we might proceed was by putting up a less perfect system. I suggested that we might go in for lighter and less expensive equipment. I still think that something might be done on these lines. I regret the Postmaster-General has not been able to give us information that, so far, he has been unable to carry this idea out. I was very interested in reading that most illuminating book entitled " The Secret of High Wages," which has been referred to in the Press. The authors make a suggestion on the subject of a telephone directory. It is a very small point, hut these are all small points. Small economies may be effected by them. If one see some small points one cannot help wondering if there are not other points that one has not seen, and which might indeed be substantial, and enable the Post Office to give us the telephone at a less exorbitant figure. In these days of financial stringency I quite understand the desire of the Postmaster-General to keep the telephone system an a paying basis, and I would not urge him to do anything else, but I do ask him to look into its organisation from the paint of view of reducing his costs. Let him get down to the most rigorous economy, so that he may be able to give us cheaper telephones and at the same time keep his system on a paying basis.
About 30 years ago, in the year of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, it was 486 decided that every house in the country had a right to a daily, or at any rate a periodical, postal service. To. my mind the telephone now takes very much the same place in the national life as the postman took 30 years ago, and I hope the Postmaster-General will see to it that before he comes to the end of his term of office he has put the telephone within the means of every householder in the country—especially those in the country districts where they most need it—and he can do that only by cheapening the service.
§ Mr. BROAD
I would like to support the hon. Member who has just spoken in his appeal to the Minister to reduce the basic charges for telephones. I believe he would find it to be a paying proposition. The Minister might consider the possibility of lowering the basic charge and putting such subscribers on a message rate of 2d. a call instead of ld. In many streets in our suburbs one finds only two or three houses out of a hundred equipped with the telephone, because the basic charge is too high. If the basic charge were brought down to a half of what it is at present, we might have 20 or 40 or even 50 subscribers in a road of a hundred houses. The telephone is not greatly used in private houses, but it is a great convenience to have it when it is wanted. Perhaps, also, the Minister could see his way to abolishing the unsightly poles which are being put up all round our residential areas, putting the wires underground. The potential demand for telephones has hardly been touched as yet, and if the Post Office would adopt the policy of the more enterprising gas companies, and make the rental charges and the initial charges very low, they would find that instead of just one house here and there having a telephone practically every house would instal one, even some of the very small ones.
As regards the collection of the mails—one of the hon. Members representing the University of Oxford (Sir C. Oman) wants to get back to mid-Victorian times, or even pre-War times. I am not anxious that we should get back to pre-War times as far as Sunday collections are concerned. In London we did very well without them, and I do not see why the provinces should have a Sunday collection. It meant a seven days' week for many of the postal workers in scattered areas. I hope we shall never return to 487 the Sunday delivery. But I do want to see later collections in suburban areas. Many workers in London leave work rather late in the evening, have an hour's journey home, and then like to have a wash and a meal and a few moments with the youngsters. Many of them are active workers in connection with sports associations and other societies, and have secretarial work to do, but they find, as we find in my district, that the last post goes out at five minutes past 10. That is not a reasonable hour for the last collection. If the records were turned up, it would be found that in pre-War days the heaviest collection in suburban areas was that which was made about 12 o'clock midnight. This is not a plea for extending the hours of the regular men in the service. This later collection was usually taken up by auxiliary men—those. who had some other way of getting their living but found this work a valuable addition to their income.
A late collection is often a matter of great importance. I know of one case where a man seeking employment received by the last post two letters making appointments for him to see certain firms next morning. There was not sufficient time for him to get into the post a reply to one of the firms putting off the appointment. Next day he called on one of the firms but did not get the job. Then he went to the other, and was told that as he had not attended at the time appointed the vacancy had been filled with somebody else. This may make some Members smile, but it was a matter of vital importance to that man. Before I came to this House I worked at the bench, but I have always done a good deal of voluntary secretarial work, and I used to find it very convenient, after the youngsters had gone to bed, to do an hour's writing and get my letters into the post the same night, but it is impossible to do that now. The inconvenience is not worth the saving of a few shillings a week on auxiliary postmen. I hope their work will be restored to them, and that we shall have restored to us that part of our pre-War postal service which was very much appreciated by those who live in the suburbs and daily travel to work.
In pre-War days we used to be told about the tube the Post Office was building. Something was said about it by the 488 Postmaster-General to-day, but I did not regard his statement as very satisfactory. That tube apeared to be on the point of completion, as far as construction was concerned, before the War. Ever since the War they have been pottering about with the equipment of it, and I think there must be something wrong. Time after time we have been told the Post Office hoped to have it in working order shortly. It is not the Post Office alone that is losing. At certain hours of the day mail carts rushing about London add considerably to the congestion of the traffic and to the congestion at our terminal stations. In connection with this interminable delay, it must be remembered that something like £8,000,000 is standing idle. We are paying 5 per cent. for money to-day, and at 5 per cent. money doubles itself in about 13 years, I believe, and the delay in getting this tube into operation means a loss of many millions to the country. We want to know who is responsible for this tremendous loss.
I believe a great deal of economy could be effected, and the efficiency of the service be improved, if the mails for places within a 100 miles of London were taken on by road from the ends of that tube. At present there is a good deal of cross handling. The mails have to be taken to the railway stations, put into the train, then dropped at various places and there collected by carts; whereas if they were taken direct by road from the tube they could be dropped at the doors of the various distributing offices in the country. We should get greater efficiency in the service, and get more value from the roads which we have been developing as a great national asset.
I would like to say a word on behalf of the auxiliary postmen. There are many poor fellows who are not able to get a full-time job. They take up work as auxiliary postmen or auxiliary sorters, and I think that, other things being equal—I refer to their physique, their ability and their conduct—they should be given preference when it comes to making permanent appointments. Particularly am I speaking for the sorters. There are vicissitudes in all trades and industries, and the means of earning a livelihood are curtailed. Our industry is in a very dis- 489 turbed position. We have to re-balance all our industries. Some of them will never be of the magnitude they used to be. Except where work requires the careful training of men from youth, I think the Post Office and other Departments of the Government ought to give an opportunity to men who may be 25, 30 or 35 years old to qualify—first of all by means of auxiliary service, if that is necessary, though I do not like auxiliary service at any time. Any decent ordinary firm who have had men engaged temporarily, or for part-time service, give them the first consideration when appointing men to full-time jobs, and I hope the Post Office will follow that example. I would say the same of the mechanical department. At present men are engaged by the hour and put off by the hour. It is the rule in Government Departments that no man should be started at work who is over 40, or sometimes 45, no matter how skilful he may be, though the Government take no responsibility for these men. If they are not efficient they are put off, and the only claim they have is that after seven years' service, if they leave through no fault of their own, they may have a bonus of one week's wages for each year's service. If big engineering employers laid it down as a rule that no man should be engaged, or re-engaged, who was over 45, we should say it was an intolerable state of things; and I thing men in the mechanical departments of the Post Office should be given the same opportunity as in the case of ordinary firms.
§ Mr. GERALD HURST
I wish to raise a question which as yet has not been discussed this afternoon, but which, in my submission, raises as important an issue as any which has been before this Committee. It is a very important thing in the Post Office, as in any other Department of the Civil Service, to give recognition to various anions or societies of civil servants in that Department, because it is by recognition that the societies can have a word as to remuneration, the system of promotion, the accommodation, and other questions concerning the interior economy of the Department which arise from day to day. The question I wish to raise, and the complaint I wish to make against the Post Office authorities, is two-fold: First of all, that with a full knowledge -of the facts they insist upon continuing to recognise, and 490 to recognise exclusively, as the mouthpiece of the Civil Service in the Post Office a trade union which describes itself as the Union of Post Office Workers, which union, I hope to satisfy the Committee, took an actively illegal part during the late general strike, and is unfitted to represent any body of civil servants.
The second part of the charge I want to make against the Post Office is that, while, on the one hand, it continues to recognise this illegal society, on the other hand it fails to give any recognition to the other societies within the Post Office, which are, it is true, somewhat smaller in numbers, but which are absolutely loyal in their constitution and have a far greater claim to recognition by the State. The hon. Member for North Camberwell (Mr. Amnion) referred to certain insinuations and innuendoes made against a union which, I understood, was the Union of Post Office Workers. I have no intention of making any insinuations or innuendoes. I make charges, and I can substantiate them by reading from documents in my possession with regard to the actual conduct of this recognised union of civil servants during the late general strike. On the 1st May they issued a manifesto to their members, a copy of which has passed into my hands from a loyalist who seceded from the union, and I want to read one paragraph from this letter. It is as follows:A state of emergency has now been proclaimed, and the General Council of the Trade Union Congress are acting on behalf of the trade union movement, and pledges to be loyal to the decision of the General Council have been given by the great majority of unions, including not only those represented by the Union of Post Office Workers but also by black coat organisations, including those of the Civil Service. Your own Executive Council "—that is the Council of the civil servants—have taken a full part in all the proceedings which culminated in the acceptance of the Government's challenge to the trade unions and to the standard of life of the whole of the wage-earning community. In common with other organisations, a pledge of loyalty has been given by the Executive Council on behalf of the Union of Post Office Workers.That is not an innuendo or insinuation. It is a definite statement of fact, not made by me, but by the executive of the Union of Post Office Workers. It simply 491 means that on the day that that challenge to society was issued, and when the Trades Union Congress engaged in what has been held to be an illegal conspiracy against the State, the executive members of this officially recognised body of civil servants pledged the assent of their society to this illegal conspiracy against the State.
I do not want to trouble the Committee with any number of quotations, but I am fortunate enough to possess a copy of the " Post," dated 22nd May, which contains what is called the General Secretary's letter, and which gives a survey, from his own point of view, of the action of this association of Civil Servants during the General Strike. It first of all cites a letter which, to my amazement—and I should like to have the Postmaster-General's view about this—was apparently written by the General Post Office on the 1st May, in which the Postmaster-General says he has issued instructions that Post Office workers should not perform acts on behalf of the State which it was not their practice previously to perform. In other words, the Postmaster-General seems cravenly to have complied with the demand of the society by undertaking not to call upon Post Office workers to perform, as a condition of their service, work which they were not accustomed to do. It goes very much further than this, because these civil servants, after having exacted that pledge from the Postmaster-General, say that, they set up in their headquarters an organisation to assist the General Strike. They go on to say:Since the strike commenced the headquarters of the union were inundated with telegrams, telephone messages and personal calls, which received prompt attention, and every effort was made to help and advise the branches, thereby rendering really valuable services, not only to the union, but to the entire movement.That means to say that this association of civil servants during the strike, while dissuading their members from undertaking any voluntary services, did duplicate messages and work for the strikers, for, in addition to the work done for the General Council, they say:We sent out daily bulletins to our branches of reports on the position, and several members were loaned to the General Council.492 That means to say that these Post Office workers, employed by the State and privileged in regard to their status, their permanency of employment and pensions, were actually loaned by the Association to the Trades Union Council during the strike. Then they say:Remarkably few members volunteered for Post Office work for which they were not normally liable.So that they take credit to themselves for having successfully dissuaded or cajoled, or intimidated their members from undertaking any voluntary work whatever. That, of course, is absolutely inconsistent with the traditions and principles on which any Civil Service in any civilised country can be run. It has always been the boast of our Constitution that the Civil Service is kept out of politics. It ought even more to be the boast of all civil servants to keep out of an illegal conspiracy against the State.
Nor does it end there, because I have evidence of direct pre sure against a loyal man who helped the State in the emergency. I have here a print of the Union of Post Office Workers' Circular in which the members of the branch are asked this question:What part are you going to play in this crisis?They go on to say this—and I ask the House to draw the inevitable implication from the language used—Your Committee want to hear one reply and one reply only; but, whatever your opinion, it is your duty to attend the branch meeting and record it.So that those who were going to be loyal and wished to help the State had to attend the meetings of the branch and become marked men in the ranks of the society. Moreover, there is another passage which I do not want to read, in which they say that 5 per cent. of the remuneration of Post Office servants has got to he taken for the purpose of furthering this illegal conspiracy. What is the basis of that? We get it from the " British Worker," the official strike news bulletin, published by the Trades Union Congress, of the 10th May, which on page 4 says—Levy yourselves if at work. The General Council requires that all workers who are still in service or employment shall contribute 5 per cent. of their wages to strike funds.493 That is the case against this Union of Post Office Workers, and on those facts, stated without any passion or heat, you can only draw two conclusions: first, that this Union of Post Office Workers gave their fullest possible support to the illegal conspiracy against the State; and, secondly, that pressure was exercised directly and indirectly, morally and practically, on loyal members of the Union to dissuade them from undertaking services which they as loyal citizens would otherwise have undertaken in support of the State. That is the charge against this Union. Unlike other Unions whose public conduct is only the concern of their members, it is not an ordinary Union; it is an association of civil servants. My complaint is that with these facts well within the knowledge of the Postmaster-General this Union should still receive the exclusive right of audience on behalf of members of the Post Office in connection with negotiations with the State.
To show the extent to which this is carried, let me read a letter written from the General Post Office on the 23rd April, 1926, to a loyal federation, not a party one, but the society called the National Federation of Postal and Telegraph Clerks. This federation has a partial recognition, a local recognition, and being a non-party body it is of course always the target of abuse by the Union of Post Office Workers. This federation, on claiming full recognition, received a letter, the full terms of which I will not read, but which included a threat to withdraw the local recognition from certain branches of this loyal federation. It said:It is proposed, therefore, subject (to any observations which your Federation or the Union of Post Office Workers may make, to instruct surveyors to arrange for a check of membership figures.What right has the Union of Post Office Workers to be consulted before the General Post Office replies to the Federation of Postal and Telegraph Clerks?
§ Mr. HURST
That is the answer; because it is the recognised union, and I say it is a scandal and a disgrace. No association of Post Office workers or civil servants can have their affairs discussed with the Postmaster-General 494 or enter into negotiations with him as to recognition or non-recognition or withdrawal of recognition from their association without the interposition of a third and alien body, the Union of Post Office Workers, who are proved up to the hilt to have embarked heart and soul in the conspiracy against the State. I have set out the bald facts—
§ Mr. HURST
If the Union of Post Office Workers say they were not in favour of the strike, and did not press their members not to volunteer for service for the State, I will accept it from, the right hon. Member opposite, but he will not say it, and the facts speak for themselves. I say it is high time that the Civil Service should be purged from the predominance of associations which are antagonistic to all conceptions of decent government and to all sound tradition within the Civil Service, and I do ask the Postmaster-General, without any heat, passion or rancour, to explain why it is that this trade union should be singled out for sole recognition, and the unions which are run on decent lines by decent men should be excluded.
§ Mr. BUCHANAN
I do not intend to deal at length with the matter raised by the last speaker. I know nothing at all about the position of the Post Office Workers' Union, or any other such unions, and I only want to make this one remark, that while the hon. Member was speaking he said he was only setting out his facts without passion. That may be true from his point of view, but it certainly conveyed to us a totally different impression. I only want to say that whatever may be said about the general strike and the Union of Post Office Workers, this much is true, that neither the Union of Post Office Workers, or any Post Office servants came out on strike. Whether they subscribed money to other people or not is another matter, because they are just as much entitled as anybody else to do so. If they wish to subscribe money and help the Government they are entitled to do so, and if they wish to subscribe to help the miners they are equally entitled to 495 do so, and I appreciate very much what they have done. I am not called upon to go into the question of the other unions not having received recognition. I only say that the Post Office workers or any other workers are entitled to subscribe for the miners or any other class from their own private means.
I want to raise one or two questions of minor importance, one of which I raised last year and which I shall now endeavour to raise again. There are in all the towns, and particularly our big towns outside the suburban areas, steadily going on building operations by local authorities and by private enterprise. Last year I raised the question of providing post offices in the new areas now being developed. One difficulty we find in Glasgow is that post offices were erected in various parts. We have a new city actually being built, and yet we have only the small post offices which were built before the needs of Glasgow were anything like so great as they are now. I would like to ask what is being done to provide post office accommodation in connection with this matter in the suburban areas. It is not sufficient that the old post offices should go on as they are in Glasgow, because it does not give us a decent chance, and they are much too small to meet the requirements of growing neighbourhoods. I ask the Postmaster-General or the Assistant Postmaster-General what steps, if any, are being taken to meet this growing demand.
Another question I wish to refer to is the development of the telephone service. Almost all the previous speakers have devoted their remarks to the development of the private telephone inside the office or inside the home of the private individual. I want to know whether it is not possible for the Postmaster-General to still further develop the public telephone call boxes which are open day and night in working-class areas. It seems to me that one thing which might be done is that a red lamp could be added to those telephone call boxes denoting where they are. They would be extremely useful during the night especially in cases of childbirth, when you require to get a doctor at short notice. I think there ought to be a red lamp placed in order to denote from some distance that there 496 is a telephone box of this character at a certain place. I am sure this would be a very great advantage in our poor districts.
I fully appreciate the opening statement of the Postmaster-General in regard to the whole ramifications of the Post Office, and I think that the present Postmaster-General has been less standoffish in regard to these questions. I hope he will further develop the telephone system. As far as I am concerned I do not agree with the argument regarding later deliveries of letters. I have represented Glasgow for four years, and I have had a considerable experience in Glasgow in local government before that period, and when changes of this kind are made they are generally asked for by the local authorities. During all the years I have been connected with local government and with the House of Commons I have not had any requests for later deliveries of letters, and I am speaking now in regard to a population of over 1,000,000. The reason is that most of the people are engaged in offices which close by 5 o'clock. There is a delivery of letters just before that time, and from ordinary private residents I have never had any demand for a later delivery. We cannot alter the whole postal service for the convenience of one or two people. I hope the Post Office is not going to take a reactionary step in the direction of employing its servants during hours when it is not necessary for the common need.
With regard to the supplying of stamp machines, I have seen the new machine which has been placed in the Library for demonstration purposes, and I want to ask if it is not possible in working class districts to have a larger supply of these automatic machines for stamps. I am only speaking for Glasgow, and there not a single sub-post office has- a stamp machine. Some time ago it was agreed to extend the hours of certain post offices from 7 to 8 o'clock, and I find that in my district although the working class avail themselves of this extension, they are much more concerned about the stamp machine because most of their correspondence is done last thing at night, and they buy stamps one or two at a time, consequently these automatic stamp machines are the most useful things I know of for providing stamps. I would like to see provided in every 497 post office and in every sub-post office one of these automatic stamp machines for the use of the general public. This system does not employ more labour, and it is a very handy way of obtaining stamps. I understand one of the reasons for the delay in providing them is that there is a great demand for these machines, but I hope the Postmaster-General will push on with providing these machines in the poorer districts.
One of the difficulties in great towns is that the town is often growing more rapidly than the post office develops. I want to see a new post office in those areas because at the present time post office servants are being worked too much under conditions which are not the best from a health point of view. There is one post office in Glasgow where I am sure the postal staff has not got the accommodation which the Postmaster-General would desire them to have or anybody else. I want the right hon. Gentleman to see if he cannot carry out a scheme of providing new post offices in the new areas for the convenience of the public and see that proper accommodation is provided for post office servants.
§ Major RUGGLES-BRISE
I would like to invite the attention of the Committee to the needs of the countryside, and put in a plea for the institution of an agricultural parcels post. In the spring we welcomed the institution of the cash-on-delivery system, but I am bound to say that, although that system is a step in the right direction, its benefit to agriculture is very limited indeed. Much was made of the contention that the farmer would be able to get his spare parts of his machinery by post, but that service can only be of use to those farmers in a large way of business and to owners and users of machinery. The system is of no value to the smallholder, who is the very man whom the cash-on-delivery system ought to benefit if it is to benefit anybody in the countryside.
There are two classes of people to be considered in connection with a cash on delivery system—those who receive and those who send. It is as senders that we agriculturists press our claim upon the Postmaster-General. At this moment as senders the particular system we have is of no value, as I will endeavour to show by giving a few instances. If a farmer or 498 smallholder desires to dispose of his fruit by making it into jam and he sends two 1-lb. jars of jam by post the postal charge will be 9d., and the cash-on-delivery charge 4d., making a total of 1s. Id. The value of the goods would be about 3s. 2d.. and consequently the charges would come to 24 per cent. of the whole value of the article. Take butter. If you send a pound of butter the postal charge is 5d. and the cash-on-delivery charge 4d., making a total of 9d., when the value of the article is not more than 2s., and at the present time it is considerably less. These charges on a pound of butter are equal to 40 per cent. of the value of the article. Supposing you want to send one dozen eggs. The postage is 9d. and the cash-on-delivery charge 4d., making a total of 1s. 1d., or over 50 per cent. of the value of the article. If you should be so rash as actually to send fruit and send, say, half-a-stone of apples, the charge would be 1s. 7d. or more than the total value of the goods. It is quite clear that in regard to all these cases where a smallholder might want to send his produce, the cost of the postal charge plus the cash-on-delivery charge comes to more than his profit, and in some cases to more than the whole cost of the article itself. If you compare this position with any tradesman who may desire to send fancy goods through the post up to the value of l0s. he pays 3d. postage and 4d. cash-on-delivery charge on that 10s. article and for that 7d. the money is collected.
Under these circumstances I do not think it is necessary for me to state the advantages which an agricultural parcels post would confer upon the agricultural community. The smallholder or any farmer would be able if there was an agricultural parcels post attached to the cash-on-delivery system to build up a new type of business which we are not accustomed to see at the present time in this country, and we should be able to send produce directly from the producer to the consumer. The farmer could eliminate the risk of bad debts by the use of the cash-on-delivery system which is a very important matter, more especially in the case of the small man. Thirdly, and I think perhaps the most important of all, it would enable the farmer or the smallholder to recapture the home market for home products in this country.
499 We have now been accustomed to consider our agriculture in this country, but let us see whether we cannot take some other countries as an example to see what they do in regard to these matters. It will, perhaps, be interesting to the Committee to know that in the United States of America the parcel post system was at first instituted entirely for the purpose of sending agricultural produce. through the post, and rules were laid dawn by which all articles, whether agricultural produce or otherwise, were transmitted at a reduced charge because they came from the country or were to be transmitted to the country. Then, again, the rates are zone rates, that is to say, the postal charge varies according to the distance the parcel is to be sent, and they are in every case kept as low as possible. In addition, there is a cash-on-delivery system which is run on very simple lines. Further, there is a special handling system, under which, on payment of a small extra fee, perishable agricultural produce can be sent as though it were first-class mail letter stuff, by the fastest trains; and, if that be not sufficient, there is on payment of another small extra fee, a system of special delivery whereby the parcel is taken by a special messenger from the nearest post office -direct to the consignee. The limit of weight, up to 150 miles, is 70 lb., as against 11 lb. in this country, and the limit of size is 84 inches, including both length and girth. It is obvious that in the United States infinite pains have been taken by the postal authorities really to do something to encourage the sending of agricultural produce by post.
That is not the only country where that is done. The Union of South Africa has had an agricultural parcel post in operation for some years, and I will, if the Committee will allow me, just read a few words from the Union of South Africa official Post Office Guide:Agricultural Parcel Post.Articles transmissible and Rates of Postage.Parcels containing primary produce of the soil, horticultural produce, dairy produce and foodstuffs produced within the Union of South Africa, and addressed to 500 any place within the same, will be accepted at the following reduced rates:
which is the same rate as in this country. There are some 50 different classes of goods which come within the agricultural parcel post in the Union of South Africa, and of each of these classes there are a great many sub-divisions, so that it is possible to send, as stated in the first words I have quoted, practically all parcels containing primary products of the soil. If that can be done in South Africa, why on earth cannot it be done here? It would be an immense advantage to a very large number of agriculturists.
Up to 1¼ lb. 3d. the English equivalent is 6d.— Over 1¼ lb. 6d. the English equivalent is 9d.— Over 3 lb. 8d. the English equivalent is 1s.— Over 9 lb. 1s.
I know that there are a certain number of objections which have been raised against this proposal. I know it may be said that the cash on delivery system is a service that is paid for by value and not by weight, and this is, of course, perfectly true. I am not suggesting that the rates for cash on delivery should be so much reduced, but that the postal rates might be reduced, so that, by a combined service of cash on delivery plus reduced postal rates, the agriculturist could be given postal facilities that would be really worth having. It may be said that there are administrative difficulties. It may be contended that it is difficult to discriminate between what is agricultural produce and what is not, but I say that, if it can be done in South Africa, it can, surely, be done equally well here. Then it may be said that the cost would be too great, but, surely, a larger volume of business should lessen the average cost. If that is the experience of business when it is conducted by private enterprise, it should equally be the experience when it is conducted by State enterprise. Therefore, I think that on that bead there is no real objection that holds water.
It may be said—and possibly this may be considered to be the real objection to the whole proposal—that the institution of an agricultural parcel post in this country would be a subvention or a subsidy to a particular industry. If that be so, what of the subvention or subsidy 501 that is now given in the matter of Press telegrams? The Press telegrams of this country cost the State and the taxpayer no less than £330,000 a year. The receipts from Press telegrams are only £84,00-0 a year. Therefore, the taxpayer to-day is giving a subvention. to the industry of the Press, on its telegrams alone, of roughly £250,000. If you compare the claims of the industry of agriculture with the claims of the Press as an industry, surely it is pretty obvious which is the more in need. Generally speaking, 1 think one may say that the great industry of the Press in this country is healthy, is wealthy, and very often wise. On the other hand, the industry of agriculture is neither healthy nor wealthy, but, indeed, is very much otherwise.
There may be differences of opinion upon that, but I think there will be no difference of opinion on this, that the Press of this country is an extremely generous body, and I do not think that, if this matter were put to the Press of this country, it would ever cavil at the transference of a part of this subvention from itself to its more needy neighbour, agriculture. I would submit that, if I may do so with respect, to the great Press of this country. I believe that it has a full appreciation of the important part which agriculture should play in the life of the nation, as its chief and oldest industry even now, and I would commend this suggestion to the Postmaster-General, in the hope that he will agree that, in granting to any industry assistance such as I have described, if there is an industry in this country that is in justice worthy of that consideration and assistance, it is the industry of agriculture.
§ Mr. AMMON
In inflicting myself once more upon the Committee, I crave their indulgence, but I think they will agree that something should be said in reply to the remarks of the hon. and learned Member for Moss Side (Mr. G. Hurst), who is not, I regret, now in his place. I merely want to say that it is quite easy for Members of the House to adduce facts in such a manner as to give an utter distortion of what is really the truth, and that is what happened in regard to the statement of the hon. and learned Member. I would remind the Committee that only a day or two 502 ago he made an attack on another trade union, which has a representative in this House, and, when pressed, he was unable to sustain it; and precisely the same thing has occurred in this case. It is true that certain documents were issued by the Union of Post Office Workers to its members. Those documents were sent out in order to endeavour to maintain the peace and to ensure the smooth working of the Service, and so successful were we, that we were able to co-operate with the Department, and the service was run during that difficult time in a manner that has earned the eulogium of all sections of society, while the very body to whom the Postmaster-General has paid tribute to-day, namely, the telephonists, are almost entirely members of the Union of Post Office Workers.
I want to point out that the hon. and learned Member for Moss Side has persistently pursued a campaign in this House on behalf of a small, disgruntled sect-ion, numbering not more than 5,000 throughout the whole of England, against the Union of Post Office Workers, which numbers nearly 100,000, and I think one has only to state the facts to show exactly what the position is. These few disgruntled people tried to get Executive positions in the bigger union, and failed, and latterly they have founded this union and have carried on a campaign of calumny and misrepresentation such as has been voiced by the hon. and learned Member here. After all, when we make appeals, as we do, to our members to support the miners' fund, and are accused of disloyalty, I think you will have to go very high in the Government of this country and also indict persons there, if that is going to be a charge made against us. We have had an example set by persons very high in this country, who have -expressed the opinion that they do not want this dispute settled by the starvation of women and children. That is the view that our society took, hut they have been as loyal as any other section.
§ Captain BENN
I do not think it is necessary for an observer to make any comment on the attack made by the hon. and learned Member for Moss Side (Mr. G. Hurst) on the Postmaster-General because his attack was as much directed against the Postmaster-General as against the union concerned, and it was heartily 503 cheered by most of the Members behind the Postmaster-General. To an observer —to an ordinary member of the public—however, the Postmaster-General seems to have kept his head and acted with remarkably good sense, very much to the benefit of those who use the postal services of this country.
I only rose to make two remarks. First of all, is the Postmaster-General aware that the early delivery of letters is far more important to the business community than the late one? I have the honour to represent a very important industrial district, and, although I do not say I have had any complaints of late, I know that the merchants of Leith attach, as it is obvious they must attach, the most urgent importance to getting an early delivery of letters, so that they may deal with them the moment their offices open, and so carry on their business with profit to themselves and to the wages and employment of other people. My second point is with regard to broadcasting. We are embarking now upon the largest scheme of news distribution that we have ever seen in this country. Two million listeners are licensed, and, taking, say, three listeners to each machine, that would represent a public of 6,000,000, which is a far bigger public than is appealed to even by the newspapers. There is going to be some sort of Commission, which is going to be represented in this House, and I would like to ask the Postmaster-General seriously to consider what precautions he intends to take for the purpose of preventing this great weapon of news distribution from being used for propaganda purposes. I think it is in the interest of all parties that this should never occur. I do not want to say anything unpleasant about the " British Gazette " at this juncture, but it is quite obvious that if the Government are going in, directly or indirectly, for the distribution of news, it is the duty of all parties in this House to unite at once, at the beginning, to see that this great and powerful weapon may not in the hands of any Government be used for party purposes.
§ The ASSISTANT POSTMASTER-GENERAL (Viscount Wolmer
It is now my duty to endeavour, so far as I am able, to gather up the very interesting 504 but somewhat disconnected criticisms and suggestions with which the Postmaster-General has been favoured during the last few hours, and in doing so I would like to thank the Committee for the kind reception they have given on this and on other occasions to the Post Office Estimates, and for the appreciation, as well as the criticisms, from various quarters of the Committee, of what has been accomplished by the Post Office during the past year.
I think I ought to deal first with some of the suggestions which were made by the hon. Member far North Camberwell (Mr. Ammon) in regard to the Savings Bank. He drew attention to the very important report of a committee of the London 'County Council, which was published this spring, and which has been engaging the earnest attention of the Postmaster-General. I do not think, however, if I may say so, that the necessarily summarised account which the hon. Member gave of that report conveyed an entirely fair impression of the facilities that the Savings Bank offers to the small investor. In quoting the report, he compared the facilities which the Post Office offers somewhat unfavourably with the facilities that are given by the Birmingham Municipal Bank, and I think he also mentioned some of the penny banks. It is not quite fair to say the Post Office will not take anything under a shilling, because the hon. Member knows, or ought to know, that we issue stamp cards especially for investors, mainly children, who wish to save small amounts, such as a penny or twopence at a time. They stick their stamps on, and when the card has 12 stamps on it it can be paid into a Savings Bank account. Similarly we issue 'home safes in which depositors can put their savings. Only the Post Office has the key. There are over 200,000 of these in use, so that by means of those safes alone a great deal of saving takes place in very small sums indeed. I entirely agree with what the hon. Member said in regard to publicity. I think we—when I say we I mean not only the Government but all Members of the House—might give more publicity to the work of the Savings Bank. I think it would pay the Chancellor of the Exchequer very much better if there was more money invested in the Savings Bank rather than in National Savings Certificates, because he has to pay a very much 505 lower rate of interest for the Savings Bank than for the certificates. I think the really great advantages and facilities that the Savings Bank gives should be quite as prominently drawn to the attention of the public by Members of Parliament and others when they are addressing meetings in connection with the National Savings Association as the facilities offered by National Savings Certificates.
Then the hon. Gentleman tried to draw me on the question of postal cheques. That is not a new question, but it is a very big one, and I could not possibly deal with it exhaustively to-night. But when he claims that it is a system that is used in other countries, I think the Postmaster-General is entitled to reply that he has already shown, by his action in the matter of cash-on-delivery, that where he thought the experience of other countries was pertinent he was not afraid to follow their example in this country. If there is an objection to the system of postal cheques being introduced into England, it only arises, so far as I am aware, from the fact that the banking conditions, whatever the hon. Gentleman may say, are totally different in this country from what they are on the Continent, and that our banking facilities are immeasurably superior to those of any other country in the world. But still the Postmaster-General is carefully watching the success of this system abroad, and has from time to time most interesting reports made to him by members of his own staff on the detailed working of the postal cheque system abroad, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the matter will not he lost sight of.
Then he wanted to know why we were selling the Abu Zabal wireless station near Cairo. He seemed to think that we had sold it because we disliked anything that was State owned, and that it was a little individualistic " ramp " and that the Marconi Company had some ulterior purpose to serve. I can assure him that there is nothing of the sort. The only reason why the Government have no use for the Abu Zabal station is that the circumstances have entirely changed since it was opened. The Abu Zabal wireless station in Egypt was intended to be one link in the Empire wireless chain. When that policy held the field it was erected and there were to be other stations in 506 India, in South Africa and in other parts of the Empire to make the wireless chain. Very soon after that policy had been started the progress of wireless telegraphy made it obsolete and to-day we are talking to Australia direct without the intervention of Abu Zabal and without any need for it as far as the Empire chain is concerned. In these circumstances, coupled with the fact that the station had always been run at a heavy loss, the Postmaster-General has decided to sell it. In doing so he will not create any competitor to the Post Office in his Continental wireless services. Those are all carefully marked out and any purchaser of the Abu Zabal wireless station will not be a competitor of the wireless preserve of the Post Office. I should like to dissociate myself from the somewhat disparaging and, I think, unfair remarks the hon. Gentleman made in regard to the Marconi Company. After all if it had not been for Senatore Marconi and the Marconi Company there would not be much wireless in the world, and the Post Office has absolutely no reason to complain of their attitude at the present moment. On the contrary we are collaborating with the Marconi Company in many fields.
Now I come to a question which I think concerns the House more generally. I come to the eternal telephone question. I think my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for St. Pancras (Captain Fraser) and the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Central Hull (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy) are really labouring under a complete misapprehension in regard to this question of shortage of telephone plant in certain districts and the amount of capital that is being employed on telephone work. The hon. and gallant Gentleman seemed to think that when the Postmaster-General mentioned that it would be 15 years before London was completely under the automatic system there would be parts of London which would be left in a state of shortage of telephone facilities for a period of 15 years. That is not what my right hon. Friend said or meant in the least. Our telephone service is expanding more rapidly, I think, than that of any other country in the world. That, no doubt, is mainly because we occupy such a relatively low place in the order of telephone density, but the fact remains that we are ex- 507 panding more rapidly than anyone else. We are expanding because the demand is growing more rapidly here than elsewhere. That carries with it certain difficulties which you cannot possibly get out of. When you build a new telephone exchange it may take a year or 18 months, and you have to forecast the date at which the capacity of that exchange will become exhausted. The Post Office is doing that every day. It has a special department for forecasting, and in the majority of districts its forecasts, on the whole, have been successful. But if the forecast of the Post Office be an underestimate, in any case, before the new telephone exchange will be completed or a new main cable can be laid there will be in that district for a few months or a few weeks a shortage of telephone plant. It will be remedied within a few weeks and, of course, by the time we have remedied it, another shortage will be appearing in some other district.
We are in a chronic state of coming to the end, or near the end, of our telephone plant in every district of the country one after the other, and it is the duty of the Post Office to try to keep ahead of the demand in exactly the right proportion. We must not keep too far ahead of the demand, because otherwise plant would be lying idle, and that is one of the most extravagant and unbusinesslike things you can do. Therefore, what the Postmaster-General has to do is to allow just enough capital expenditure to keep ahead of the demand in every part of the country. But, as a general rule, you cannot prevent little local temporary shortages occurring here and there. They occur in every country in the world, but they are bound to occur most at times when the telephone service is rapidly expanding. That is the sole cause of any shortage of telephone facilities that may exist. I do not think I have ever known a case where the want has not been made good in less than four or five months, but generally the stringency has lasted for a very much shorter period, and the Department is actively engaged in trying to keep ahead of the demand just to the right and economic extent. We may make mistakes in some districts. Then we try to remedy them. But the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Central Hull is quite mistaken if he thinks we 508 are suffering from a lack of capital for the work. The Postmaster-General has, as he announced last year, made an arrangement with the Treasury, and he is satisfied that that arrangement gives him adequate capital to meet the extension of the telephone service and to meet the present demand and it is enabling us to expand the service more rapidly than it is growing in any other country. We cannot expand beyond the limit of the demand without losing our profit. I would remind the hon. Member for Hull, who is always a stickler for economy, that the telephone profit has fallen for the last three years—£830,000, £538,000 and now £260,000. It is falling not because receipts have gone down, but because our capital expenditure has gone up so much and the charges upon the Post Office for debt are growing every year. That, I think, will assure the hon. and gallant Gentleman that the Postmaster-General is developing the system up to the very hilt of what the growth of the demand allows. With respect to automatic telephones in London, I can assure the hon. and gallant Member for North St- Pancras that there will be a start made next year. There will be four or five telephone exchanges working on the automatic system next year. The year following, there will be more, and in the following year there will be still more. There will be an increasing number of telephone exchanges beginning next year, which will be put under the automatic system. When we convert a vast city like London, with its scores of exchanges into the automatic system, it necessarily takes a long time. The newer exchanges, of course, will all become automatic exchanges, and the work of converting the old exchanges must proceed pari passu and necessarily must take some time.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen (Mr. Barclay-Harvey) tackled us on the question of rural telephones. He asked, (1) when we should have an underground cable to Aberdeen, and (2) why could not we reduce toe price of the rural telephones? I should like, respectfully, to suggest to him that these two requests are a little bit inconsistent. The underground cable work, which we are pushing all through the country, is of a most expensive nature. I believe 509 we have far more underground cable work, in proportion to the size of our system, than any other country in the world, including America. It is a wise policy, because it renders the service extraordinarily immune from the vicissitudes of the weather, and that is a factor which we cannot leave out of account in these islands; but it does mean very heavy expenditure. My hon. Friend went on to argue that telephones might be constructed on a cheaper, lighter, inferior, and, if I may say so, more gimcrack scale. If we constructed our telephones in that way, we could, perhaps, produce a very much cheaper service for rural districts. That is what has happened in some countries. I can assure my hon. Friend that if that is to be the policy, there will be no underground cable to Aberdeen or to other remote parts. Hitherto, the British Post Office have always gone on the principle of doing very solid work, and although that has its disadvantages, it has very sterling advantages. My hon. Friend most decide which policy he prefers.
In regard to broadcasting, we have heard some very interesting, remarks, especially from the hon. and gallant Member for St. Pancras North, and the right hon. Member for Central Edinburgh (Mr. W. Graham): I should like to take this opportunity of congratulating them, together with the other members of Lord Crawford's Committee, on the very able, interesting and instructive Report which they presented to the Government last spring, and which we have been able to follow on practically every point. The right hon. Member for Central Edinburgh asked several questions, and also raised a Constitutional question as to whether the new authority was to be set up by Statute or Charter. I could not gather from his speech that there was really any great advantage in setting up the authority by Statute. It will possess all the powers that it requires by virtue of its Charter and by virtue of the licence of the Postmaster-General, and certainly it will posses those powers in a far more elastic form than it could possibly do by Act of Parliament.
The right hon. Gentleman asked various questions about finance, the control of finance, and the like. I am afraid that I 510 must decline the invitation to answer. The Postmaster-General has promised that he will lay full particulars, and that he will lay the draft petition to the Privy Council before this House in ample time for every hon. and right hon. Member to study every detail and to discuss it in every way. Whether it is presented in the form of a Supplementary Estimate or by any other Parliamentary form, it will enable all hon. Members to debate the question with full knowledge of the facts. The Government are not in a position at the present time to announce details of their policy, but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that when they are in a position to do so, he will be given every opportunity for discussing the matter. The hon. and gallant Member for St. Pancras North asked various questions about our treatment of the British Broadcasting Company. Perhaps he will be interested to know that the British Broadcasting Company have been given authority to construct an experimental station at Daventry, to work on a 300 to 500 wave length, and using the power of 20 kilowatts. We cannot say what terms will he given to the company in regard to the future until these experiments have been carried out.
I can assure my hon. and gallant Friend that we are on the very keenest look-out for oscillators. The Postmaster-General has means for finding the oscillator, and if it were necessary he would not hesitate to take every step in his power to prevent the oscillator from continuing to oscillate; but I am bound to say that in all the cases to which our attention has been drawn up to now, a visit from a Post Office official has invariably remedied the evil, and the gentleman or lady concerned has taken the necessary steps to bring the nuisance to an end and has thereby obviated the necessity of the Postmaster-General taking the more drastic step suggested by my hon. and gallant Friend.
§ Captain FRASER
Does the Noble Lord not think that while the action which he has described would cure the evil so far as the particular lady or gentleman was concerned, that course suffers from the disadvantage that nobody knows about it, whereas if the offenders were prosecuted all and sundry would know?
I hope the Press will give as much publicity to the point 511 which my hon. and gallant Friend has mentioned as possible, and that in that way we shall get the facts better known. With regard to ships causing disturbance through obsolete machinery, that question is to be discussed at an International Conference which meets at Washington next year. As my hon. and gallant Friend knows, it is no use imposing heavy expenditure on British ships unless foreign ships will also agree to stand the same burden. It is a matter which requires international agreement. I agree that the reform is urgently needed, but it cannot be done except in concert with every other country.
I must allude to the pleas put in by the hon. Member for Oxford University (Sir C. Oman), the hon. and gallant Member for Maldon (Major Ruggles-Brise), the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Broad), and the hon. and gallant Member for Leith (Captain Benn), one. pleading for later posts, another for earlier posts, another for later collections, and the hon. and gallant Member for Maldon pleading for agricultural parcels post. These are all competing claims. All these hon. Members, friends of mine, desire to have a slice off the Postmaster-General's surplus, but the unfortunate thing is that by the time they get to the Postmaster-General they find that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been there first, and the cupboard is bare. Until the Postmaster-General is in a position to consider these reforms, which he would like to carry out, even more than anyone else, it is no use asking for them. When the national finances allow, I think my right hon. Friend will be able to consider all these reforms, and get back to the good old days when we had the penny postage, late deliveries, cheap parcels post and the like, but at the present time the financial position of the country is such that I cannot hold out hope that we are in a position to promise that at the present time.
Viscount WOLM ER
I apologise to my hon. Friend. I thought he had left the House. I do not deny the importance or the gravity of the matter which my hop. Friend raised. It is under the 512 examination of the Government at the present time, and I am afraid that I cannot make any useful answer now.
§ Captain GARRO-JONES
Last year, I asked the Postmaster-General whether he was aware that in certain appointments in the Post Office, such as those of postmen and letter sorters, a restriction was placed upon competent ex-service men below a certain height—I believe the height was 5 feet 3 inches—and it was also said that they were not physically strong enough for certain duties. I consider that to be a real grievance to these men. These ex-service men were strong enough during the War to carry a rifle, 80 rounds of ammunition, and a pack. They were strong enough to carry these heavy loads under very difficult circumstances, even for such distances as 20 or 25 miles, but when they apply for a job in the Post Office, they are told that they are not strong enough to carry a bag of letters from door to door. It is not simply a ease of ex-service men who fought in the trenches not being strong enough to carry letters, but ex-service men are refused jobs as letter sorters, because they are told they cannot reach the top pigeon hole into which letters are sorted. These men are of a very fine type. We saw hundreds of thousands of them during the War. They were tall enough to fire over the top of a trench, and served the country well enough in that way, but when they go to the Post Office they are told by the right hon. Gentleman, " You were tall enough to fire over the top of a trench, but you are not tall enough to reach a top pigeon hole here. You were strong enough to carry a rifle, a pack and ammunition for 20 or 25 miles, but you are not strong enough to carry a bag of letter 10 miles in one day." I consider that to be an intolerable state of affairs, and I am sure the Noble Lord would not dare to go down to his constituency at Aldershot and defend this practice. I know there is a definite rule in the Post Office, but I hope he will cut that red tape and add a proviso to the effect that nothing shall prevent an ex-service officer or man from being appointed to these jobs merely on the ground that he is not tall enough or strong enough, when he was tall enough and strong enough to carry out the duties of a combatant soldier.
§ Mr. JOHNSTON
I sent the Postmaster-General the facts of a case similar to that which has been raised by the hon. and gallant Member, and I hope he win not discharge ex-service men in his employment on the ground of physical infirmity, and that once a man has been employed in the Post Office he will not be dismissed because of any physical infirmity due to his war service.
§ Mr. MONTAGUE
I just want to put one point to the Postmaster-General. The last time this Vote was before the Committee, the Postmaster - General promised to look into the case of the auxiliary sorters in the inland section, who are earning from 25s. to 30s. a week. At the same time, there are overtime rates paid to the amount of £300,000 or £400,000, and I should like to know what has been done in this matter.
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
I am considering the matter very carefully, but, as the hon. Member knows, it is a very difficult one indeed.