§ Mr. CRAWFURD
I desire to draw attention to certain matters connected with the administration of the Post Office. When we were debating this subject last year the Postmaster-General made a complaint that when Post Office affairs are under discussion, there is a tendency always to criticise and to withhold praise where praise is due. I want to assure him that, so far as I am able, I will deal with these questions in no petty spirit of fault finding, but from a larger and broader point of view. But may I first draw his attention to two matters of comparative detail, which have aroused a certain amount of public interest and on which he may, possibly, be glad to have the opportunity of saying a word or two? The first deals with the safety of the post and the second with the privacy of the post. There has been rather a large number of robberies from His Majesty's mails in the last few months. I do not complain of that—
§ Mr. CRAWFURD
Rather, I should say, I do not impute blame to the right hon. Gentleman on that account. I would add, for the benefit of the hon. and gallant Member for Central Hull (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy), who is perturbed by my method of stating these 55 things, that I realise that ever since the days of Dick Turpin His Majesty's mails have been an obvious object of interest to those who hold what I may call views about nationalisation in their more extreme form. The complaint, if complaint there be, is not that the right hon. Gentleman has permitted the mails to be robbed, but there is a suggestion that in the efforts made to detect the offenders there has been a great deal of official delay which has, perhaps, helped them to make good their escape. It is obvious that where, in the theft of mail bags, motor vehicles are employed, speed is of the essence of the thing in the work of tracing the thieves, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be able to assure us, or reassure us, that the suggestions which have been made in the Press have no foundation in fact.
The second matter to which I wish to refer is the seizure of a number of poems in the post on the ground of indecency or that it was against the public interest that they should be carried through the post. The liberty to communicate one with another is one of the primary liberties of the subject, and in view of the recent utterances of the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues I think we shall be glad to know that that liberty is not going to be traversed more than is necessary for the carrying out of the law. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman can go so far as to tell us the methods adopted in the opening of packages passing through the post. I understand that an answer was given in the House the other day, though I was not here to hear it, pointing out that the discovery in this particular case was made during the ordinary routine procedure of opening certain packages going by a particular class of post in order to see if other packages which had no right to go in that particular class were being sent. That was an accidental discovery. I wish to ask the right hon. Gentleman that the practice of opening private communications passing through the post should be resorted to as seldom as possible compatible with the carrying out of the law. If the practice becomes widespread very grave abuses may creep in.
Having said this, I pass to one or two other matters of wider import. I would 56 remind the right hon. Gentleman that last Friday afternoon, in another place, some speeches were made after lunch which have created a certain amount of interest. Those speeches were all directed to the restoration of the economic position of this country. When we were discussing the affairs of the Post Office last year, the right hon. Gentleman will remember that his own speech was largely concerned with the rise or fall of the returns from the telephone and the telegraph services, and that then there was some academic discussion as to the advantages of a State-owned Post Office as compared with the possible advantages of a privately-owned Post Office. We know the views of the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues on these matters, and may I take the opportunity of regretting the cause of his absence from this Debate? I am not sure that the right hon. Gentleman himself was not betrayed last year into saying that he had no great love for State trading. May I suggest that we ought to approach the subject of the Post Office from a very much wider point of view than that? For good or for ill, the Post Office is a State service, and I do not think anyone is proposing that is should become anything else. I suggest that the test which we ought to apply in these discussions on the Post Office Vote is whether the Post Office is being used to serve the people in the way in which they wish to be served.
May I, without, of course, committing my colleagues, though I hope that their view is the same—[Laughter]. Having given hon. Members their opportunity to laugh, let me say what I was going to say. In the last few months, indeed, in the last few years, there has been too great a tendency for Government Departments to adopt the attitude that they are there to instruct the people as to what they ought to want. In our conception of the position of Government Departments they are there to serve the people, and to serve them as they wish to be served. If we are to have bureaucracy, it must be a controlled bureaucracy. I want to apply that test this afternoon in examining matters concerned with the Post Office. I said a few minutes ago that the speeches made in another place last Friday were concerned with the restoration of the economic prosperity of this country. May I further suggest that 57 by their own declarations and promises the main business of the Government during its existence was to do what it could towards restoring prosperity. For my part I believe that such measures as the Government can take to help forward the economic interests of the country can be almost as well taken by administration characterised by efficiency and tinged with imagination as can be done by any legislative enactment. I ask the Postmaster-General to put to himself this question and try to give us an answer: What has the Post Office done towards helping forward industrial revival both in the urban districts and the countryside? There is the question of the penny post, which is a matter of very wide interest. May I recall that the Postmaster-General himself in 1925 expressed the hope that he would be able to effect something in this direction. He said:As and when the Chancellor of the Exchequer and myself can afford it, we shall revert to the system of penny postage.He further stated:It remains one of the objectives of our policy, and we hope to be able to achieve it within the lifetime of the present Parliament."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th July, 1925; col. 1864, Vol. 186.]That is a perfectly definite declaration. In last year's Debate the Postmaster-General gave some figures in regard to the postal revenue. I think he said that the surplus was £8,650,000. He pointed out that the increase in postal revenue was £2,900,000 in the previous year, and the increase in the incidental expenditure was roughtly £900,000. Therefore, there was an increase approximately of £2,000,000 in the surplus of 1927. He pointed out at the same time that the surplus on the postal side of the account was the largest there had been. It was indeed a record surplus, and I believe it was a record revenue. The right hon. Gentleman then said that he did not think it would go on increasing at the same rate, but there would always be a normal increase in the revenue and the expenditure. He also pointed out that the revenue would increase at a faster rate than the expenditure, and that we were to anticipate that the surplus of nearly £9,000,000 would be exceeded in the coming year. The Postmaster-General has not given us the figures for this year, which I understand are not available, but he has already told us that he anticipates an excess of over 58 £9,000,000. The question I want to put to the right hon. Gentleman is this: The Postmaster-General has between £8,000,000 and £9,000,000 in excess on the postal side of the account, and why should that not be applied to a reduction in the rate of postage from 1½d. to 1d. There are approximately 6,000,000,000 letters carried every year.
§ The POSTMASTER-GENERAL (Sir William Mitchell-Thomson)
Slightly more letters and letter packets.
§ Mr. CRAWFURD
In 1927, the figure was 5,800,000, and now the right hon. Gentleman says it is slightly more than 6,000,000,000. I understand that the cost of a reduction from 1½d. to 1d. postage for letters would be about £12,500,000. It is obvious that the reduction from ½d. to 1d. would mean a large extension in the postal trade. [An HON. MEMBER: "Why?"] If letters cost less to send, it is obvious that more letters will be sent. The effect of cheapening any commodity is nearly always to increase the use of that commodity. The commercial policy of this country for 60 years was based on the principle that if you decrease the cost of an article you increase the consumption and sale of that particular article. I believe that at the time the letter postage was raised from 1d. to 1½d., the amount of printed matter that could be sent for a ½d. was reduced in weight.
I do not know if that has any necessary connection, but I know that if you reduce the postage from 1½d. to 1d. there are a large number of business people, industrial and commercial, who would use the penny postage more than they do now for circulating printed matter. [An HON. MEMBER: "Why? "] What is the use of the hon. Member repeating that parrot cry of why? Not only would that increase the postal revenue, but it would give added employment to the printing and allied trades. The result of reducing the postage from 1½d. to 1d. would obviously have two effects. First of all, it would relieve a large number of businesses of a very substantial amount of their overhead charges. It would lead to an increase of the business of the Post Office, and would help the business of the country generally. I am reminded at this stage of a remark made during the Debate last year by the right hon. Gentleman 59 the Member for Norwich (Sir Hilton Young), who said:The Post Office telegraph and telephone services are, after all, run by the Government as a business, and they are run in order to make a profit."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th July, 1928; col. 2512, Vol. 219.]That is a view of the Post Office which I desire to challenge. I think the last thing in the world that we should permit would be to allow the impression to get fixed in the minds of hon. Members that the Post Office, like transport, was to be used as a milch, cow for the Treasury. The view that we would like the Government to take of this question is not that the Post Office should not be used to make profit out of people and the money devoted to other services, but it should be used to develop and stimulate the trade and industries of this country in the towns and the countryside.
Turning to the rural side of this question, which I shall deal with very briefly, because others of my colleagues are more competent to deal with it, I would like to ask has there been any improvement in the telephone position? Although I know that the statement has been challenged, I still believe that it is true that we are the tenth on the list of the great nations of the world in the percentage of telephones to the population. The countries which are in front of us are the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Germany and Switzerland. I believe that the percentage of the inhabitants of this country using the telephone is 4 per cent., while in the United States it is well over 15 per cent. It does not need much to prove the enormous importance and value of the telephone service to the rural areas of the country. It is not only that it improves the amenities of rural life, although that is important. My right hon. Friend on Friday afternoon used a phrase about the land and its cultivation. I forget the exact words, but I remember he said that we have got to do something to keep the cultivators on the land and he indicated the development of facilities as one of the most important things. Then I would like to ask the right hon. Gentleman if he can tell us whether we have yet got back to the standard of postal facilities that existed 60 before the War? For instance, a little while ago I happened to be in Somerset, and I found there quite considerable towns where there was no lost between 12 o'clock on Saturday morning and 1 o'clock on Monday morning, and the particular place at which I was staying is within a few miles of a very large centre of population. Why is that? Has the Post Office considered as a whole the question of developing a service which can give to the rural parts of this country better facilities of postage both in and out?
I would like to draw attention in this connection to something we very often see in the newspapers. Since the days when the daily Press began to instruct and amuse us by having a page of illustrations, there have been two types of illustration that I have always resented. One, which comes up periodically, deals with young school children—a little Milly Higgins who receives a silver medal because she has attended school every day for eight years. I do not want to dwell on that, because it is irrelevant to this subject, but the impression always on my mind is that, instead of the little girl getting a medal, the little girl's mother ought to be in gaol for sending her to school every day for eight years. The other illustration is that of a postman who reaches a certain age and retires, and then you are given some arithmetical figures of the distance he has covered in his lifetime either on foot or on bicycle. I always feel it is a monstrous thing that a man of that type should be compelled year in and year out, in all weather, under all conditions, to travel these distances. Has the right hon. Gentleman ever considered the possibility of a motor service which would cover quickly a large part of the countryside, and which could do more than deliver postal packets? It could not only deliver, but collect. There is no reason why that should not be made, to some extent at any rate, the means of collecting rural produce. We hear a great deal about marking eggs. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could turn his attention to marketing them as well as marking them. I believe a postal service of this kind was tried for a time in Scotland. I do not know whether it still exists there, but I believe that with a rapid, cheap and frequent motor service to rural parts, you could do a great deal towards 61 increasing rural facilities and towards helping rural life.
Let me turn for a moment to another matter which was brought to my personal knowledge. The right hon. Gentleman is concerned not only with the inland post but with the foreign post as well, and here, I believe, we could do a great deal towards helping British trade. It was my experience some 18 months ago to find myself in one of the principal cities of South America, the City of Sao Paulo. It is a growing, prosperous, enterprising city of nearly 1,000,000 people, and is rapidly becoming the centre of one of the greatest wealth-producing areas in the world. Quite by chance I was talking to an Englishman there whose business it was to run a daily, or it may be a weekly, newspaper printed in England, and, to my astonishment, he told me that, apart from personal letters, private correspondence, every postal package that came into the port of Santos—and I believe it applies to the whole of Brazil—came in from Germany at exactly half the rate of a similar postal packet from England. I would ask the House to think what that means. Every price list, every trade catalogue, every piece of advertising material that comes from one of our keenest competitors comes in at half the rate that it comes in from England. When I came back I put a question—I do not want to do the right hon. Gentleman any injustice, but I believe his Department did not know of the matter. I would like to ask whether anything has been done about that? I find that the reason was that the Germans had been enterprising enough to secure a postal treaty with Brazil, and under that postal treaty all their commercial matter and business matter came in at half-rate. Why should we not have a similar postal treaty, or, if it is not going too far, are there other places in the world where markets are to be sought where the right hon. Gentleman's Department might do great public service if similar conditions exist?
I come to another question. There is, I believe, a General Election approaching. Has the right hon. Gentleman or have his colleagues considered that? Last year, when this Vote was under discussion, there was a certain amount of reference to the position of the Broadcasting 62 Corporation, and I think the right hon. Gentleman said then that he was not prepared to take responsibility for matters of details. He was not going to answer criticisms about the programmes, but that if he received any complaints about the broadcasting programme he was prepared to forward them to the Broadcasting Corporation, though he himself would not take the responsibility. I would ask him to look into this. It is a small matter, but a matter of principle. I am told—and I give this with reserve—that the British Broadcasting Corporation does not pay the band which is used to produce the music, but that it is left to the various publishers to offer, what is, in fact, a bribe to that band in order to get the better of their competitors. If that be so, it seems a very unsatisfactory basis on which to run a national service, and I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to look into that. But I raise the matter of broadcasting from the point of view of the possible service which broadcasting may be to the nation in the approaching General Election. I have had the advantage of seeing a report which has been written upon the conditions of the late Presidential election in America, and there the radio system was used to a very large extent. Of course, it is perfectly true that one of the differences between the United States of America and this country is that over there the broadcasting is in the hands of private companies, who can be paid a fee, and who will supply a service just as any other commercial company will. There are, I believe, nearly 50 of them. Here, of course, we have a State service, or, rather, a service which is controlled by the State, and, as the right hon. Gentleman said last year, in matters of principle he is prepared to take the responsibility of either advising or determining what shall be done. It is not a question of a client coming, as he does to a doctor for his service, and paying a fee, but it is very much a question for the right hon. Gentleman and this House to consider whether that system cannot be used in the public interest.
What is the American experience? I do not think it will be right for me to give figures of the amount paid by the two political parties in America for the purpose of using broadcasting for their 63 electioneering purposes, but I can say that the sum is very substantial, and forms a very substantial proportion of the total cost of their whole campaign. They say that in America, as in England, one of the problems which they have to consider is the increasing lack of attendance on the part of the public at political meetings, and I think we can all say that in this country we experience the same thing. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] I expected that, and also the obvious retort that it was a Liberal phenomenon. I happen to know, however, that the party above the Gangway, certainly in London, and the party opposite are finding it very difficult to attract audiences.
§ Mr. CRAWFURD
Of course a striking personality will of itself always secure an audience. That is not the point. The hon. Member is—he will forgive me for saying—what I may call a "good turn." It is not that. It is the lack of interest not so much in the speaker as in the matter. An interesting, attractive speaker will draw an audience, whatever he is talking about. The hon. Member can comfort himself with that. But I have heard from all quarters evidence of what I say. The reason is obvious—that in these days there are so many amusements of all sorts, which make a very strong counter-attraction to the political meeting, which, wherever it was held, used to be an event of considerable interest in the lives of the people. While that has been going on we have largely increased the electorate, and, at any rate, there will be agreement that one of the problems of modern electioneering—I do not use it in any offensive sense—is to be able to reach the whole of your electorate, and to reach it effectively. There is more in it even than that. The right hon. Gentleman last year gave the figures of licences as something over 2,500,000. I do not know whether he has got the later figure, but we can take that as a minimum. There are 2,500,000 wireless licences in this country. If broadcasting were used as a means of putting the views of political parties before the people in one way or another, those 2,500,000 licences could be used to reach an audience of between, let us say, 10,000,000 64 and 12,000,000 people at least and that is a very substantial part of the electorate. It is well worth considering whether it is not the business of the State, through the organisation of the. Post Office, to do what it can to enable broadcasting to be made use of in political contests, in order that as many as possible of the electorate shall be reached.
May I put another point of view? I admit at once that what I am going to say now will obviously advantage the party which I have the honour to represent, but the American experience is that, if broadcasting is used, and if people can sit quietly and in comfort at home with their friends and listen to political messages broadcast over the wireless, they can get a much more sane and rational view of what is being said than if they are present in the excitement of a public meeting. Quite obviously, this party has most to gain if reason is enthroned—[Interruption]—there is no question about it—at the expense of emotion. Let me add this, that, if political messages are to be carried by the force of the personality of the speaker alone, we do not fear comparison with any party. [An HON. MEMBER: "Limehouse!"]
§ Mr. CRAWFURD
There is not the slightest need to descend to personalities. That is the experience, and, if you want to get over what is called personality, that can be done in the case of the wireless. For the comfort of hon. Members opposite, I may say I am told on very good authority that there is nothing to prevent even an alarm bell being rung in the studio, as near to the microphone as may be necessary. The American experience is that by the Use of this new weapon, this new means of conveying political messages—[Interruption]—of course it is a weapon; everything that is used in political controversy is a weapon. And not only is it a weapon, but it is a channel, and I say definitely that the fact cannot be controverted that by the use of the wireless it is possible to reach a much larger number of the electorate than can be reached through the medium of public meetings. Moreover, if their interest can be stimulated through the wireless, there is a very much greater chance of 65 the written message being read by the elector after he has received the preliminary warning over the wireless. [An HON. MEMBER: "And there is no interruption!"] Many of us have experienced the difficulties of conducting noisy election meetings. No one objects to that; it is the greatest fun in the world; but it is not good politics, while it is good politics if as many messages as possible from various party leaders can be—
§ Mr. CRAWFURD
It is no use the hon. Member suggesting that you can stop interruption, but, if these things are broadcast, you can certainly listen without interruption, because interruption will not be allowed in the studio. I say that this affords the right hon. Gentleman the opportunity of serving the people of this country. Quite clearly, they want to hear about the various political parties. I know that there has been a discussion already as to the possibility of one or two messages being transmitted by the various party leaders during the forthcoming election, and I believe that the "usual channels" were employed for the purpose of discussing these matters. There were certain discussions, and then the "usual channels" dried up, because, apparently, the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues wanted the lion's share of the entertainment. It is, however, a much bigger question than that. Here is a new means of transmitting news, and, surely, nothing is more important than that people should have the right to listen, as I have said, in quiet and comfort and without excitement, to political views. There are plenty of ways of doing it. It would be possible every evening to include with the ordinary programme a certain amount of politics from the political leaders—
§ Lieut.-Colonel ACLAND-TROYTE
Has the hon. Member no sympathy for the listeners? They pay to be entertained.
§ Mr. CRAWFURD
There is no more need for a subscriber to listen to any part of the wireless programme than there is for an hon. Member to stay in this House and listen to a speech.
§ Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY
Has the hon. and gallant Gentleman no more respect for his Leader than that?
§ Mr. CRAWFURD
There are many parts of the day which are at present slack as far as broadcasting is concerned, and which could be used for this purpose. At any rate, I hope the right hon. Gentleman will give this matter his very careful consideration and come to some decision, as I think it will be useful in the forthcoming election. These are the points upon which I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to be good enough to reply: I should like to hear more reasons than we have heard yet why there should not be a return to penny postage. I want to know if the right hon. Gentleman is doing all that he can, through the Post Office and through postal treaties, to help those of our countrymen who are engaged in industry and commerce in foreign lands. I want to know to what extent there has been an improvement in the telephone and telegram facilities in rural areas, and whether there has been any discussion or any thought about a better and more comprehensive system of communications in those parts; and, finally, I want to know whether the right hon. Gentleman will give his best consideration to the matters I have raised in connection with broadcasting.
§ Sir H. BRITTAIN
Whether or not we agree with all the points that have been raised by the hon. Member for West Walthamstow (Mr. Crawfurd), I think we can all agree that we have listened to a very interesting address from him on a series of amazingly important subjects. I am going to take up the time of the House for a very few minutes to endorse, to the best of my ability, one of his suggestions, and for a reason which I will give. That is the suggestion as to the possible, and, I hope probable, re-introduction of penny postage. Like a good many other Members of this House, I have been raising this question in Parliament during the years since the War, but it was only comparatively recently that 67 I and those who thought with me came to the conclusion that we could do so now with a probability of success.
The last time that I put forward this suggestion was at the end of the Autumn Session, and I received from my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General the usual stereotyped reply. I had to be in London during the Christmas Recess, and it was suggested that it might be a good thing to get into touch with the great trade organisations and so on throughout the country, and see if it was possible to sound opinion throughout England, Scotland and Wales as to what were the views of the public in regard to the re-introduction of penny postage. Accordingly, I set to work during the Recess, and succeeded in getting together a series of opinions covering practically the whole of the great trading interests of the community, the Press, and the leading Empire societies. I then asked the representatives of those bodies whether they would go in a deputation to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Postmaster-General, to place their case before them. They agreed to do that, and I had the privilege of introducing the deputation at the Treasury some few weeks ago.
I do not want to go seriatim through the points, which have been very ably put forward, if I may say so, by my hon. Friend the Member for West Walthamstow. I agree with every word that he has said in this regard. The full report of the deputation as received by the Chancellor of the Exchequer was published at the time, and was given in various papers verbatim, so that it is not necessary for me to take up the time of the House by going through the points. I would only emphasise the point made by the hon. Member for West Walthamstow, that the profits for next year on the postal service are estimated at some £8,500,000 or £8,750,000, and I believe I am not wrong in suggesting that the probable profits in the following year will almost reach £10,000,000. Therefore, we really have something to go upon in asking for this, and I do feel that we should do something to give the clientele the first pull on the profits, and should do something, if possible, to reduce 68 the present 1½d. rate to 1d., even if it be necessary to reduce the weight at the same time.
§ Sir H. BRITTAIN
I will take up that question on another occasion with the greatest possible pleasure. This is a monopoly, and is quite another point of view from that of State enterprise in general. We were assured by the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the Postmaster-General was whole-heartedly with us. He is now in front of me, and I think I may say that in making these speeches we are, so far as the re-introduction of penny postage is concerned, preaching to the converted I hope he will do all that he can to urge his colleagues in the Ministry, and in particular the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to see if he cannot give us buck this boon when the next Budget is introduced. After the inquiries, spread over several weeks, which I have made among trade interests, manufacturing concerns, and wholesale and retail traders in this country, I whole-heartedly believe that such a concession would give a very great impetus to the trade of this land, and would be intensely appreciated throughout the British Empire.
§ Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY
I suppose that the hon. Gentleman who has just spoken would be one of those who would cheer the proposal that the Post Office should be handed over to private enterprise—
§ Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY
He would not mind, but a good many of his colleagues feel much more strongly about it than that. I would only ask him, does he know of any other commodity the price of which has only increased by 50 per cent. over its pre-War price, and which yet shows a tremendous profit? I believe that the last gross profit was £9,000,000—
§ Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY
Messrs. Morris were not manufacturing before the War, so that the comparison does not quite fit; I asked for something before the War. I believe the hon. Member is interested in newspapers. How 69 many newspapers sell for only 50 per cent. more than before the War? And yet I suppose that, the next time the hon. Gentleman is addressing a political meeting, or, what is more important still, the next time his Prime Minister is addressing a political meeting, he will tell us that State enterprise never succeeds, never makes a profit, and is a failure everywhere. I agree with the hon. Member's plea for the restoration of penny postage, but I hope he will remember the implied praise that he gives to the Post Office the next time he goes out to make a speech against nationalisation.
Nevertheless, I believe that the Post Office can be made far more efficient, and I would make one or two constructive suggestions, because this, apparently, is going to be a non-party Debate. We have begun by an exchange of compliments between the first two speakers, and I am not addressing myself to the subject in any party spirit. I believe that there is room for improvement in the Post Office, and should like to make one or two constructive suggestions. In the first place, what progress has been made in providing rural postmen with motor bicycles? [Interruption.] The hon. and gallant Member for North Portsmouth (Sir B. Falle) is good enough to be amused. He may not know that the country postman to-day, with the cash-on-delivery system, has to carry very heavy weights, and apparently the Post Office authorities have only very recently awakened to the fact that motor bicycles are now very efficient and very cheap. I want to know what progress is being made in that direction. Every rural postman ought to have an opportunity of taking his mail parcels round on a motor bicycle. Now we come to the other side of the question. How many horse mail vans are still running with His Majesty's mails? They may be cheaper, but they are far slower and the Government should be setting an example in adopting the more efficient and more humane motor transport. I have seen a mail horse struggling on its side, having fallen down a slope, and I am sorry to say I cursed the Postmaster-General, though, of course, meaning nothing personal.
With regard to the British Broadcasting Corporation, it is a great pity that more money is not spent on the programmes. 70 The fault does not lie with the British Broadcasting Corporation, though it does to a certain extent lie with the Postmaster-General. The Corporation is starved for money. It is anticipated that there will be some 3,000,000 licences, and the revenue should be £1,500,000, of which the Post Office takes £187,500 and the Treasury £415,625. Why should the Treasury take that tremendous sum, and why should the Post Office take 2s. 6d. for the service of issuing licences? [Interruption]. The figures I am quoting are from the Royal Commission. They are an estimate of the sum that will be taken in 1929. At any rate, a very substantial sum is taken by the Post Office.
§ Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY
The Treasury has no business to take the money. The money should go for the improvement of the programmes, not only for the benefit of the listener, but because the programmes are listened to over a great part of Europe, and presently, with the improvement in technique, will be listened to in America, in our own Dominions, and in most parts of the world. The prestige of this country can be enhanced by good music, good talks, and programmes of real artistic merit. This matter is of great importance, and it is false economy to snatch a penny or two by taking this weight off for the Treasury or the Post Office from the licence fees. The time has come when the whole basis of licensing should be re-examined. It is not fair to have a flat rate of 10s., though it may have been at the beginning. I do not see why a person who has a 50-guinea valve receiver should get off with 10s., while you levy a 10s. licence on the owner of a home-made crystal set. My son makes his own little crystal set and pays 10s.; I can buy a 50-guinea valve receiver and still pay 10s. I do not think it is quite fair, and the right hon. Gentleman might examine the question of a graduated fee, as for a motor car. If he will not do that, he might consider giving a rebate to the neutrodyne sets, which do not interfere with the pleasure and instruction of other listeners. I am sorry to see that there have been attacks made on the education programmes that the Broadcasting Corporation has initiated. They take place at hours when ordinary busy people would not be listening; they 71 have enabled very valuable circles of students to be formed, and I believe the educational work done is admirable. I hope it will be encouraged and extended, and I hope the Postmaster-General will not be put off by ill-informed criticism of the educational programmes.
The hon. Member who opened the Debate referred to political broadcasting. I am entirely with him. The case for making the utmost use of wireless at the forthcoming election is overwhelming. People have a right, if they wish, to listen over the ether to political speeches. I was engaged in a very interesting by-election a couple of years ago. It was in the winter, and I had a request from a number of old invalid people who wanted to know whether each of the three candidates at our local station at Hull could not broadcast a speech. A question was put to the Postmaster-General, but it could not be permitted, though it was the universal desire in Hull. My two opponents were almost unknown and, from the narrow party point of view, it would have been to my advantage not to broadcast; yet I was anxious to have it done. I do not see why it could not be done at by-elections if there are no technical difficulties. Each candidate should be allowed one broadcast speech. Of course, at the forthcoming General Election the idea that each party leader is to make one, through the whole campaign, is absurd, and I hope it will not be adhered to. The greatest possible use should be made of the ether. As to the hon. and gallant Member for Tiverton (Lieut.-Colonel Acland-Troyte) when he craves sympathy for the poor listener having to listen to his leader, is that all the respect he has for his leader? Does he not know that his leader has a very good broadcasting voice, knows how to put tears into it, and that he used it with great effect in the General Strike to bamboozle the people? He underrates his leader's ability. His leader can do the simple, honest man on the wireless with the best of them. It is a great democracy that we have to appeal to. You cannot get all the people to meetings, and we ought to take every possible step to reach the people in their homes, and, if we have summer weather in the forthcoming election, I hope on their lawns and in their gardens.
72 The ban on controversial broadcasting has been removed, and we had the first political debate in a three-cornered duel that took place between the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health, the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Greenwood), and an hon. Gentleman who is not in the House and who was a colleague of mine in a previous Parliament. That was a great success, and it would have been far greater if it had not been a three-cornered duel. There were conversations recently about a great debate between two protagonists on the question of safeguarding, and it was held up because they said "We must have three points of view." Surely to goodness this matter could be arranged. I should like to hear a debate between two people only, speaking for ten minutes each, and perhaps five minutes to finish, between-the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Snowden) and the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) and the Minister of Health. A three-cornered debate is of no use at all. You must have a two-sided debate, and it should be short. It would be dangerous to have a Foreign Office debate, but on every other subject of domestic interest you could well have a very useful debate on the wireless, and it would be very popular indeed, provided you chose your speakers carefuly and only had two on one night, and provided the speeches were not too long. If the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Colne Valley would have a debate with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, it would be a most popular feature and most instructive, and, incidentally, it would do my party a good deal of good. I am unrepentant in believing that the experiment of broadcasting the proceedings of the House should be tried. There was a day when newspapers were not allowed to report our Debates, and one of your-predecessors, Sir, once called an editor to the Bar and admonished him for trying to report the proceedings of Parliament. We are still in that state of mind with regard to broadcasting. Certainly, the Budget could be broadcast.
With regard to broadcasting generally, leaving politics aside, I am chairman of one of the wireless societies, and I have 73 some means of gauging the opinion of ordinary listeners up and down the country. The programmes are very good on the whole, the talks are appreciated, and you can never go wrong with plenty of music. The criticism is with regard to what is called the "Children's Hour." I believe this is the place where these matters should be referred to. We have a responsibility to the Broadcasting Corporation, and it is only when a Debate takes place that we can make these facts known. I believe the Children's Hour is in great need of improvement. There are too many uncles and aunts, and there is too much talking down to the children. Children do not like that sort of thing. The most popular sort of grown-up person a child can meet is one who talks to it just as if he were talking to any grown-up person. What a boy wants is to be treated as a man and given lots of stories about adventure, and girls treated as women and given stories about fairies, and especially fairy princes. This is very important. They are the rising generation, and wireless can have an immense effect on their mentality. The effect on the mind of the rising generation at a malleable age is of tremendous importance, and the House cannot afford not to exercise some power of supervision and criticism. It is far too important a matter to neglect. Wireless is becoming a fifth estate of the Realm and is going to have a greater effect than any other single invention on the mentality of the people, and especially of the rising generation.
I make no apology for offering these few observations on this very fascinating subject. As I have said, I believe that on the whole our programmes are very good indeed, and I know from what foreigners have told me that they will bear comparison with any programmes in Europe. I do not know whether the speech of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Acton (Sir H. Brittain) foreshadowed an attempt to hand over the British Broadcasting Corporation to private enterprise, but, as America was mentioned, I would like to say that I looked into this matter when I was in America and found that there is terrible confusion and chaos there. We have a wireless monopoly in this country, and, being a monopoly, it has to be under Government control, and, that being the 74 case, it is the duty of this House especially in these early experimental years, to keep a very careful watch over it. I will repeat what I said at the beginning. I do not approach this matter from a party point of view, but only as a private Member of this House who speaks for a great many people.
§ Mr. LLOYD GEORGE
I should like to add a few words to what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for West Walthamstow (Mr. Crawfurd) and by the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Central Hull (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy) on the question of political broadcasting. I think that the stage has been reached when the right hon. Gentleman the Postmaster-General must intervene. There are decisions that the Board, or whatever it is that is in charge of broadcasting, cannot take. It is not fair to ask them to do so, because there may be differences between the parties. There is no difference as far as I know between the hon. Gentleman who is in charge of the matter in the Labour party and ourselves, but there is a certain measure of difference between the governing organisation and the opposition organisations. This is a case where, I think, the right hon. Gentleman must come in. It is vital that broadcasting should be used for the purpose of enabling the vast mass of this new electorate to know what are the issues on which they are to vote at the coming election. I do not know of any other means by which we can get at them. In the United States of America at the last Presidential Election, taking every ordinary means of electioneering-public meetings, pamphlets, films—the radio played far and away the biggest part. By that means not merely political leaders, but others who spoke on behalf of the various organisations were able to present their case to an electorate of 40,000,000 or 50,000,000. But for that the majority would never have known what the issues were between the parties.
It was a very serious step which was taken both by the Government of 1917 and the present Government to extend the electorate from something like 7,000,000 to very nearly 30,000,000, but they will have a graver responsibility if, having done all this, they deny these electors the opportunity of becoming 75 acquainted with the issues and the reasons for coming to decisions which may affect the whole life of this country and of the British Empire. It is vital, and I trust that we shall discuss this in a spirit entirely free from any kind of party bias. The matter is very important. As far as the leaders of the parties are concerned, I do not believe that we have any reason to complain. I believe every facility would be given to us to make such speeches as we want to make and probably oftener than we care to make them. But that is not the point.
Something has been said about public meetings. Let us assume that public meetings are as well attended now as they used to be. I do not quite know. I think that those who occupy a prominent position in the various parties have no reason to complain. But that is not the point. We used to have an electorate of 7,000,000, and, if there was an exciting election, the halls were full. Out of 7,000,000, that meant something. I had about 4,000 electors in my constituency when I stood first of all and for several elections, and I have no doubt that practically everybody who voted for me also heard me. Now I have in my electorate something like 40,000. We have not the halls in which we can accommodate the people. There may be two or three places; there are two or three big halls in my constituency that have been erected for musical purposes, but, taking the vast majority of places to which one goes, it is very difficult to get a hall that will hold more than 2,000. Most of them hold between 500 and 800, and then they are crowded. The numbers that they are said to hold are always exaggerated. They say 1,500 or 2,000, and, when one really comes to look at them, they only hold about seven or 800. You cannot get the electorate into the halls at the present moment, even if they desired to come. I remember saying to a friend of mine who was standing as a candidate, on the night before the last election, that he would not get in. He said: "I am quite certain." I said: "Why?" and he replied, "My meetings have been packed." I said: "Would you mind telling me how many of the electors have listened to you?" and he gave me the figure which was exactly one-eighth of the 76 electorate. That is the case everywhere. It is a very serious matter indeed when you have a gigantic electorate of this kind who will be giving their decision, whether in May or June, without ever having heard the case stated by competent advocates on the various sides. I think it is serious.
I am not going to discuss the question whether it would be better to leave the matter to private enterprise or to the public, but this system has the disadvantages of both. If it were under the control of the Government, we could go to the right hon. Gentleman and discuss the question with him. If it were private enterprise, we should have the advantage of competition. But it is a monopoly run by a more or less independent body, and the right hon. Gentleman says: "I am not responsible." That is neither State control nor private enterprise. I think that when we come to a great public issue of this kind, which, believe me, is not a party issue at all—it is a great patriotic issue as to whether you are going to afford the electorate of this country the only opportunity they can have of being instructed by the chosen men of the three parties of the State as to the principles of their various parties and as to the Measures which are brought forward by the chosen advocates of the three parties—it is a matter of vital moment. If something is not done, we shall find that they will go to the polls without having heard what is the case. The Press does not appeal to all the people.
There are two methods by which you can reach them outside public meetings. I doubt whether you will get more than 20 per cent. of the electorate to attend public meetings of all parties together. You have another 60 or 70 per cent., which is as much as one can expect to vote, and therefore you will have 60 per cent. of the electorate who will not have heard anybody put the case, and they will decide. We circulate leaflets. Some of us have been electioneering and some of us have been canvassing. I canvassed a good deal in the old days, and I noticed then piles of electioneering leaflets which had never been looked at. I should like to know from the experience of hon. Friends on all sides of the House how many of these leaflets they imagine the electors go 77 through, especially when they usually crowd the material into the last fortnight of the issue. It is practically impossible to read the stuff that comes from one's own party, but when we have three parties sending out pamphlets, the whole of these are certainly not being read.
Can hon. Members think of any other means of getting at the electors? My hon. Friend said something about one broadcasting station, but there are a dozen stations, I believe. Why on earth should not there be, certainly during the last three weeks of the election, every facility given, not merely to the party leaders, but to whoever is chosen by a party to present its case, either other Ministers, or, as they did in the United States of America, chosen men who were not party leaders. We should leave it to the party to choose its own advocates for that purpose. I am not putting this merely in the interests of the party which I represent, although, naturally, everybody believes that he has the best case and that therefore the best case always wins. It does not. There are all sorts of things that come into a General Election. At any rate, you should give an opportunity to hear the case presented not merely by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister and myself, but by a number of men who present the case from a different point of view, mostly perhaps, politicians, but not necessarily all politicians, men who are chosen by the party because they are authorities upon the particular topic upon which they wish to address the electorate. It is really a condemnation of the State system when you find what has been done in the United States of America in spite of all that is said about chaos. I do not know anything about that, but I do know about the way it worked in the Presidential Election. There was no chaos there. The parties played the game. Each was allowed the facility, and I never heard of a complaint coming from the Democratic party that the Republicans played any tricks to prevent them from getting their fair opportunity nor of any com-paint from the Republicans that the Democrats had retorted in other ways. There was a full and a free opportunity given under the system which is denounced as chaotic.
§ Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY
I was not referring to the American broadcasting during the Presidential Election. I was referring to the ordinary private enterprise commercial programmes that are in a hopeless state.
§ Mr. LLOYD GEORGE
I apologise. I am not competent to give an opinion on that, because I really do not know, but I have made inquiries about broadcasting during the election there, and I have found out that during that time every opportunity was given to both parties to utilise the radio, and that by that means both parties were afforded an opportunity to present their case to that vast electorate. Ours is a smaller electorate, but only comparatively. We have 30,000,000 where they have, perhaps, 50,000,000 or 60,000,000 electors. Here you have this gigantic electorate who will not come to your meetings, who will not read your speeches, who will not read your leaflets—[Interruption.] I mean ours. I am trying my very best to present a non-controversial case. If I said yours, I did not mean yours. I meant ours, or any party. They cannot do it. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will realise the responsibility of seeing that the electorate, not merely in this election but in coming elections, shall have an opportunity of thoroughly understanding what are the proposals and the counter-proposals, what are the criticisms, and what is the defence; in fact, what judgment they have to deliver, because the fate of the country depends upon it.
§ 5.0 p.m.
§ Rear-Admiral BEAMISH
The hon. and gallant Member for Central Hull (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy) made a good deal of play on the subject of what could be done on the wireless, and he said that fairy tales were very essential for certain sections of the community. I submit that the party to which he belongs would be likely to provide that sort of thing. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) has said something in favour of the extension of wireless, with a good deal of which I agree. But it must not be forgotten that, however many people are provided with loud speakers and microphones and listeners, there is nothing that even the wizardry of the right hon. Gentleman could do to prevent 79 them switching off when political speeches are on. At the present time, only one out of four of the right hon. Gentleman's party are here. The rest of them have the advantage, no doubt, of seeing his name on the boards in the various parts of this House, but even that has not attracted them to come and hear what he has to say. I think that is a fair example of what would happen with the wireless. I personally do not advocate it for one moment in the way that is suggested by the right hon. Gentleman. The Liberal party are suffering very considerably from lack of audiences, in consequence of the taste of the people having been altered by reason of the activities or inactivities of the Liberal party, and I do not see that they have any right to expect the Post Office to provide them with audiences.
The Post Office suffers from the terrible handicap of State control. At the present time, it is archaic in its methods and dilatory and unenterprising in the various activities that it might so well carry into effect. No private enterprise for the conduct of such a, gigantic business as the Post Office could exist for more than a year or two if it followed the example of the Post Office at the present time. The right hon. Gentleman the Postmaster-General quite properly and rightly, and as I would do if I were in his position—which is very unlikely—will defend his Department with the greatest possible energy. But private enterprise would conduct the Department on much better and more enterprising lines. It is not a question of enterprise in the Post Office at the present time; it is a question of lack of enterprise.
§ Rear-Admiral BEAMISH
The whole question is whether a Department is oils not run for the making of profit. I submit that the General Post Office is, or should be run with the object of making a profit on commercial lines. In 80 the system of Cash-on-Delivery we are years behind other countries who have brought in this system and have done extremely well with it. At the present time the total value of the Cash-on-Delivery system in Germany is no less than £60,000,000 a year, and I should be interested to know what the right hon. Gentleman the Postmaster-General can tell us in regard to the value of the system here. There are certain aspects of the system which cannot be passed over in silence. At the present time, 4d. is the lowest charge that is made for Cash-on-Delivery work. Very often the article which is carried is worth only 6d. or a shilling, and to have to pay 4d. for it is intolerable. I would strongly advocate that the charge should be reduced from 4d. to 3d. At the present time, this system only extends to parcels and to registered letters, and I think it certainly ought to be extended to the letter post and the bag post. We have had quite sufficient experience, in my opinion, to merit this extension, and I strongly urge the Postmaster-General to see what can be done to further it. There are other ways in which the system can certainly be improved. It has done a very great deal of good, it is very popular; it is growing in the country, and it should be encouraged in every possible way.
I said that the Post Office was unenterprising. We walk about the country—at least I do—and see nothing in the nature of a poster, no encouragement to utilise the postal or other facilities provided by the Post Office. The result is that a great many of the things which we have in the Post Office are not known to the general public. We are, among the greater civilised nations, many years behind in regard to the numbers of telephones in use. This is a matter in which an active postmaster-general might pursue a more advanced policy. The telegraph poles in this country are, generally speaking, placed upon the very margin of the road, and constitute a grave danger to all users of the roads. Accident after accident occurs by reason of the fact that motor cars run into these poles, and that ought not to be allowed to continue. I could show the Postmaster-General a number of poles, the edges of which are on the margin of the macadamised surface of the road, and where, if a car should swerve or skid so much as a few inches, there is certain to be a serious or fatal accident.
81 I have raised a certain question with the Postmaster-General, and I have received from him what, if I may be allowed to say so, is a very nice reply in regard to certain activities connected with the growing of flowers and the sending out of parcels of flowers at Christmas time. There is a growing activity in this country in this connection, but I can only say that a very well-known firm with whom I am acquainted have decided, in consequence of the inactivities and lack of enterprise on the part of the Post Office, that they cannot pursue that particular line of sending flowers all over the country. That is not right, nor is it right that any firm should have to apply to or appeal to the Post Office. It should be the business of the Post Office, as in private enterprise, to find out what these people want and to provide it, and not to wait until firms have lost large sums, and then say: "If you tell us what you want, we will see what we can do about it."
I am of opinion that the Post Office should be run on commercial lines much more than it is at present, and I personally shall never rest satisfied until the Estimates and figures connected with the Post Office Vote are presented to this House in exactly the same way as are the figures of large commercial enterprises. We shall hear presently, and, in fact, we already know, that a profit has been made, but I submit that that has been made by a monopoly. If that profit was given to us in terms of the percentage of the capital sunk in the Post Office, we should find that there is no profit but a serious loss. I submit that until we get the Post Office run more on commercial lines we are not likely to get good results, and we are not likely to get an entirely contented community in this country.
§ Mr. SNOWDEN
I had no intention of taking part in this Debate, but I have been so much interested in the observations made by hon. and right hon. Gentlemen on the broadcasting of political speeches that I would like to express in a few words something of my own views on this matter. The hon. and gallant Member for Central Hull (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy) and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) seemed to me at times to express views or to offer 82 illustrations which appear to suggest that they had not definitely thought out all the implications that would follow. For example, I gather that the hon. and gallant Member for Central Hull thought that every political candidate should have an opportunity of broadcasting to the whole body of the electorate in his constituency. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs seemed, by an illustration that he gave as to the inability of reaching all the electors in a large constituency, to hope that something of the same sort might be adopted in regard to every constituency. I admit that, later in his speech, he gave a more narrow and more practical expression to the methods that might be followed. It would be altogether impossible to devise facilities that would enable every candidate to speak through the wireless station. I am very anxious not to import any party feeling into this question, and it was regrettable that the last speaker, the hon. and gallant Member for East Sussex (Rear-Admiral Beamish) made certain observations which would prevent us discussing this Vote in a non-party manner. The Conservative party and the Liberal party are overcoming the difficulty of transmitting speeches, to some extent, by the laying down of land lines and transmitting a speech which is delivered in one hall to other halls over a fairly considerable area. The right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs and the hon. and gallant Member for Central Hull referred to what is being done in America in the matter of broadcasting political propaganda. The two cases are not comparable. The right hon. Gentleman, apparently, did not know, or he gave no indication that he knew, that in America the various broadcasting stations subsist on the revenue derived from payments for services which they give.
§ Mr. SNOWDEN
Yes, they sell time. Does the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs suggest that political parties should buy "time" from the British Broadcasting Corporation? The position in America in regard to broadcasting political propaganda is not in any way comparable with the position in this country. If the British Broadcasting Corporation were an ordinary 83 business profit-making institution then, of course, it might sell its time to those who were able to pay the largest fees, and we all know that at election times the price of everything a candidate has to buy goes up. It would be a rich harvest time for the British Broadcasting Corporation in broadcasting political speeches and political propaganda. I am in favour of the broadcasting of a certain amount of political matter, not only during election time, but at other times, and I understand that the concession which the Postmaster-General has already given to the British Broadcasting Corporation permits them to do that. It is now within the discretion of the Governors of the British Broadcasting Corporation to permit the broadcasting of political and other controversial matter. They can do so at election times, and at other times; and only the other week they arranged for a triangular debate on the de-rating proposals of the Government. But I think it would be a grave mistake to overdo political propaganda through the wireless.
May I say this. I agree with every word the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs said about the difficulty of reaching even a fairly considerable proportion of the electors by the ordinary methods of public meetings. He said that probably a candidate does not reach during an election campaign more than 20 per cent. of the electors. That may be so, but what percentage of electors would he, as the leader of the Liberal Opposition, or the Prime Minister reach if both of them were permitted to broadcast a political speech before the election? Has the right hon. Gentleman calculated the number? I do not think they will reach more than 20 per cent. There are 2,500,000 wireless sets in this country, and that is only 20 per cent. of the electorate.
§ Mr. LLOYD GEORGE
The right hon. Gentleman is assuming that it is the same 20 per cent. He must remember that in using the wireless he is extending the area. In each household, there may be three or four votes, and, if you get 2,500,000 to 3,000,000 wireless-sets, you may reach 10,000,000 voters. But they would be different voters from those whom you would reach by means of public meetings.
§ Mr. SNOWDEN
There is a little in what the right hon. Gentleman says, but he must remember that you cannot broadcast at a time when all those who have wireless sets would be able to listen. I do not think at any particular time that you would get more than 20 per cent. of those who are able to listen listening; and taking these two facts into consideration I doubt whether even such an attraction as the right hon. Gentleman or the Prime Minister would be, that they would reach more than 20 per cent. of the electors. I have doubts, too, about the effectiveness and efficacy of short political speeches. The right hon. Gentleman talked about putting the policy and programme of the different political parties before the electors. Is it possible to do that in 20 minutes? Is it possible to do it in half an hour? Is it possible to do it in an hour? No, it is not. And what would happen? The right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs leads off, and speaks for an hour. I am quite sure that he would make a great impression, and at the end of his speech he would probably have converted half a million voters to his-point of view. Next week my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition comes along. The memory of the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs a week ago has become somewhat dim. The leader of the Labour party makes a great impression, and he effaces the impression made by the right hon. Member the week before. Then the right hon. Member the leader of the Conservative party speaks the next week; and the same thing happens. Therefore, I doubt very much whether it would do more than provide a temporary entertainment for the listener; I doubt whether any of the political parties would he the gainer by it.
In offering that criticism, I do not want it to be understood that I am opposing it. I think it would be a good thing, and if I had my way I would have speeches immediately before the General Election. Let me tell the House what I would like done; the only obstacle is the opposition of the officials of the party opposite. I would begin now. You cannot put forward a policy in one speech. If I could have my way I would begin now and allocate half an hour each week to each of the leaders 85 of the political parties or persons nominated by them. If they wish to deal with a particular topic they could select those best qualified to deal with it. I do not think it would be putting too great a strain on the patience of the listeners if we gave half an hour each week between now and the General Election to debates about the issues of the General Election.
§ Mr. SNOWDEN
If it came through Daventry or London it could be transmitted to every part of Great Britain. We are all familiar with the announcement, "This is London calling the British Isles." The announcement then would be—if I may be permitted to use it—"Mr. Lloyd George calling the British Isles." I did not intend to take part in this Debate, but I was so much interested in this topic that I thought I would offer these few observations. May I just say one word about one or two matters raised by the hon. Member who opened the Debate, in a very interesting speech.
A word about the penny post. The hon. Member said that some time ago he sought the views of a number of commercial organisations in regard to the desirability of re-introducing the penny post, and he told us that they had all expressed themselves in favour of that reform. I wonder whether the hon. Member expected any other reply. Of course everybody wants this reform. But our postal rates to-day, roughly speaking, are only 50 per cent. over pre-War rates, while the costs of living is 70 per cent. or 75 per cent. greater than it was before the War. Therefore, our postal rates are actually cheaper to-day than they were before the War. I used to say that the cheapness of the postal rates was to my mind a scandal. In days before the War you could send a letter to any part of the United Kingdom for 1d. The question is this. Suppose we had a penny post—this is a matter on which only the Postmaster-General or the Chancellor of the Exchequer can give accurate information—if it could be introduced without involving a loss then I think no objection could be raised to it, and I think it ought to be done. But if the adoption of a penny post now would mean a loss 86 to the Exchequer of £3,000,000 a year I can imagine some hon. Members opposite advocating the re-introduction of the penny post for that very reason.
Suppose the Post Office, instead of making a gross profit of £8,000,000 or £10,000,000 a year, made a loss of £3,000,000. What should we hear? We should be told that this was another illustration of the incapacity of the State to manage any business undertaking. The hon. and gallant Member for East Sussex complains of the profit which the Post Office is making. He said it was not run on business lines. The Post Office would certainly not be run on business lines if it sold below cost price, and then called upon the taxpayer to make up the deficiency. My attitude in regard to the return to the penny post is this; that if it can be done without involving a Joss on the Exchequer, well and good, it ought to be done, but I am not in favour of subsidising the Post Office out of public taxes. I wonder if those who are so strongly advocating a return to the penny post are prepared to face increased taxation in order to make up a deficiency if it involves any loss. If it cannot be done without a loss it would have to be subsidised cut of other taxation. I do not attach the least importance to some of the arguments put forward by the hon. Member for West Walthamstow (Mr. Crawfurd) in regard to the increased postal traffic which would follow a reduction in price. He told us that the circulars which now come to us in shoals every day, unsealed, would then come in sealed letters.
§ Mr. CRAWFURD
What I said was that I had been informed that if they could send a sealed packet for 1d. instead of 1½d. they would send a great deal more printed matter by that means.
§ Mr. SNOWDEN
Perhaps the hon. Member did not make himself quite clear, because that was the impression which he gave to me. Of course there would be an increase in postal traffic as a result of a reduction of postal rates. The increase is always going on. The Post Office by carrying a letter for 1½d. is giving us a 50 per cent. increase only over pre-War rates. But we are paying 100 per cent. increase in the price of newspapers. Let private enterprise here set an example, and let us have a reduction 87 in the price of our newspapers. The hon. Member told us that he had been somewhere down in Somerset and had found a place where there was no delivery of letters from 12 noon on Saturday till Monday morning. My right hon. Friend the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs and myself are in a worse position than that. I get no delivery of letters between 11 o'clock on Saturday morning and 8 o'clock on Monday morning. It means that a letter posted on Friday is often not delivered till Monday; nearly half a week is required to deliver that letter. While we are waiting for the re-introduction of the penny post, there are a good many small matters of that sort to which the Postmaster-General might give his attention. To deal with them would not cost very much, and they are reforms which would not only be greatly appreciated by the public, but would add very considerably to their convenience.
§ Captain CAZALET
I have no intention of following the two right hon. Gentleman in the discussion of broadcasting, but I would like to say this: I regard broadcasting as having come at a very apposite moment in our history as a rival power to the newspapers in spreading information. I do not think anyone will deny that certain newspapers have not been very favourable towards some actions of the Government during the past few months. I think that the suggestion made by the right hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Snowden) that half-an-hour should be given to a speaker from each party once a week, would afford an opportunity for each political party to put a fairer and juster point of view in regard to any specific matter upon which a party believed that it had been unjustly treated by any section of the Press.
I rose, however, to ask the Postmaster-General about another matter. It is one which produces so many anomalies that it is almost impossible to believe that it continues in modern conditions, and I am certain that it is only necessary to put the facts before the Postmaster-General to ensure a remedy. It deals with the question of advertising postage stamps. I happen to be a philatelist. I do not know how many other Members there are who indulge in what is an interesting, and what is usually regarded as a some-what 88 childish hobby. The situation in regard to advertising postage stamps is as follows: Under the Post Office Act of 1908, it is prohibited to publish or print or make any reproduction whatever of a postage stamp. The idea it to prevent forgery and fraud. But I ask hon. Members is it possible that any ordinary citizen is likely to think that he can deceive the Post Office officials by putting upon his letter a photograph or a print of a 1½d. stamp, or that anyone who indulges in the hobby of philately will purchase as a genuine article a reproduction by lithography or printing of a postage stamp? Nevertheless the fact remains that it is illegal to-day to make any reproduction whatever of a postage stamp.
If the law was really carried into effect there would be no such things as philatelic catalogues or magazines to-day. But the Post Office take up this attitude: They say, "If you will ask our permission first, we will overlook the felony; we will not prosecute; but you must send us the blocks of every stamp that you intend to reproduce." The consequence is that there are to-day in Somerset House, I am told, at least half-a-dozen people engaged in collecting and cataloguing reproductions of these various stamps. The illogical attitude of the Post Office does not stop there. They say, "We will give you permission to reproduce stamps in catalogues and in certain stamp albums, and to illustrate a particular article in a philatelic magazine, but we will never give you permission to print a stamp if it is to advertise the sale of that stamp." Therefore to what position is the seller of stamps in this country reduced if he wishes to advertise his stamps for sale in this country in an English publication? He has to write an article on one side of the page illustrating the stamps, and on the other side, seemingly totally disconnected with the article, he puts his advertisement and the price of the stamp.
It is almost inconceivable that a situation so illogical can be continued. I had a very careful collection made of the philatelic publications produced by almost every country in the world that produces magazines of that description, and in no single one of them is there any restriction of a similar nature. I admit that in the United States there are certain 89 restrictions; either the corner of the stamp has to be cut off or a hair line drawn through it. But what is the result—and this, I think, is the point that should appeal to hon. Members—what is the result of the present system? Any stamp dealer in this country who desires to advertise his wares is reduced to this condition: First of all, he has to refuse, if he publishes, as most of them do, some small magazine connected with his business—he has to refuse all foreign offers of publishing and offering for sale any stamps from abroad, and if he wants to advertise his own stamps he has to advertise them in a paper or magazine produced abroad, and to arrange for the circulation of that foreign magazine among his clients in this country. I cannot believe that when the facts are known there can be any two opinions as to the necessity of rectifying these anomalies.
One other matter to which I would refer relates to telephones, as to which I would ask the Postmaster-General two questions. I think everyone will admit that the postal service in this country is better, prompter, more efficient and more reliable than that of any other country in the world. I do not think the same can be said of the telephone system. The truth of that statement can be borne out by anyone who has been to America. Looking at the matter from the business point of view, I do not think that the Post Office authorities use the telephone in as enterprising a manner as it would be used if it were under private management. In the United States to-day you can hold a conference by telephone. Is that possible in this country? I have been present in New York when a well known lawyer in Boston, and others in Philadelphia and I believe in Albany, were all conferring with their representatives in New York by telephone. They could have the use of the telephone for a quarter of an hour or half an hour as they liked. They made arrangements accordingly, and instead of those three individuals having to come, at considerable expense of time and money, to New York from distant parts of the United States, to confer together, all that they had to do was to make an arrangement to be at their telephones at a particular hour, and they could carry on the conference and decide matters from the offices in which they worked. I do not know 90 whether that is possible here. I have never heard of such a thing here. In Germany I was on a train travelling from Hamburg to Berlin. In their expresses the Germans have installed telephones, so that if the train is late or you have forgotten something or you want to make an appointment, you can at a reasonable charge telephone from the train to any number in the whole of Germany. I do not know whether any such arrangements or experiments have been made in this country.
Finally, a word about rural telephones. I understand that the attitude of the Post Office is this: "We will not put up a kiosk or put down a telephone in any rural district to-day where we are not assured that it will pay us to do so either through the natural number of calls or through a subsidy," and the subsidy may be made by even so small an authority as the parish council. Is that the attitude that would be adopted by a business firm that desired to increase its turnover? I consider that the Post Office must, like private enterprises, be prepared to take a risk. At present it makes a profit. Supposing that it puts up a telephone in some rural parish and it makes a profit. It does not return that profit to the parish, and it is very unlikely that it would return it in decreased charges. I do not want to refer to my own constituency, but it is similar to many other parts of the country where it is quite possible that a telephone would not pay of its own accord, but where, because of the distance which one section of the village is from another, and because of the way in which the village has spread out over a large area, it is essential for the health of the inhabitants, in case of sickness, or in case of fire or an emergency of that description, that there should be a telephone, even though at the end of the year the Postmaster-General might find that it has cost him £2 more than his own expenditure.
In regard to the advertising of postage stamps, I have asked a question which I can hardly ask the Postmaster-General to answer immediately, but I do ask him most sincerely to study what I have said. For years this anomaly has been a stumbling block in the way of increasing the trade of stamp dealers, who form quite a large section of the community, as any philatelist will know. But I would like 91 an answer to the other specific points which I have raised in regard to the telephones.
§ Sir ROBERT HAMILTON
It seems to me that many of the criticisms directed against the Post Office to-day arise from the same cause, and that cause cannot be too widely known to the public. I allude, of course, to the fact that the Post Office is, to-day, looked upon as a revenue-raising concern. In pre-War days, I imagine that any Postmaster-General to whom a Chancellor of the Exchequer made advances, with the object of taking away the Post Office surplus, would have resigned rather than have allowed the surplus to go. To-day, however, we are in the position that, year after year, millions of surplus, instead of going back into the business for the improvement of services and the reduction of charges, are taken by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and poured into the national chest. It is the same sort of finance as that which has raided the Road Fund. It is the same nigger in the wood-pile. We cannot bring home too strongly to the people that the time has come when this system should end and it should be the whole object of the Post Office to-day, as it was in the past, to improve the services and reduce the charges.
Figures have been quoted to-night of the last surplus, showing that it amounted to nearly £9,000,000. I believe I am correct in saying that that sum would be more than sufficient to pay for the reintroduction of the penny post. I think it has been estimated that it would cost between £6,000,000 and £7,000,000 to reintroduce the penny post. The ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer said it would be a monstrous state of affairs if we were to reduce the 1½d. postage to 1d. and then subsidise the Post Office. That, I agree, would be unbusinesslike, but, as a matter of fact, we have the money which would pay for this reduction. Again, I would point out that while we often hear about the "cost" of such a reduction, it is not a cost to the country. We have the money. The money which ought to be applied to the reduction is now going to the wrong quarters—to the building of cruisers or something else. All the profit which the Post Office makes ought to go back to the Post Office business, and, if there is one thing which 92 would tend, more than another, to help the revival of business in this country it is the reintroduction of the penny post. I go a step further. Why should we not have an Imperial penny post? Canada has given us a lead there. I have not yet seen an estimate of the cost of introducing an Imperial penny post, but I am sure that, after reducing the 1½d. post to 1d. within these islands, there would still be ample to enable a similar reduction to be made on postage throughout the Empire. Any Postmaster-General should make that the first object of his policy.
I pass to another matter which hinges on the same question. That is the re-instatement of daily rural deliveries. In my part of the country we have something like three deliveries in the week in the bigger islands—and I have heard hon. Members, who live in country towns or in London, complain of getting only three deliveries a day instead of four or five. How would they regard three deliveries a week? When I have asked for the restoration of the daily delivery, which we used to have, I have been told that it would cost about £2,000. We cannot get that £2,000 for this purpose because, along with the rest of the surplus, it goes to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In that same area I have had the experience of posting a letter to a place about six miles distant. It is hardly credible, but that letter took five days in delivery. I have heard hon. Members complain of letters lying over from Saturday to Monday, but in this case I posted the letter on a Saturday. It did not go out until Monday when it was taken to the county town. On Tuesday it came out from the county town office but too late for that day's delivery. Wednesday was not a delivery day, and so it was delivered on the Thursday. How can we expect the post to be used in such circumstances? People will not use the post when this is the kind of service they get. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to look into the whole question of rural deliveries. It is a matter of increasing facilities very largely at a small cost.
As regards rural telephones, I must admit that the Post Office has done a good deal in the past 18 months, but nothing comparable to what I think it ought to do. For some reason, which I cannot understand, it insists upon 93 demanding guarantees in certain places before it will open call offices, while, in other places, it does not. Thus we have on the same circuit several places which have to pay guarantees, and others from which no guarantees are required. I can understand the view that the Post Office ought not to enter on any rash experiment such as opening telephone call boxes on hillsides where nobody is likely to use them, but I do not suppose they would do anything of the sort. That is a very different thing from saying to a populous village centre: "We will not give you facilities without a guarantee." I think if they were trying to push their business, they would offer facilities to such a village, without any charge at the beginning on the principle that those facilities would be found so useful that people would take advantage of them afterwards and the telephones would be made to pay. The guarantee is a great hindrance to the extension of telephones in rural areas. In that connection there is another point of considerable importance. Where the telephone call box is placed over the counter of the village post office or country shop, everybody can hear what the user of the telephone is saying, and people will not use the telephone under such conditions. Who is going, for instance, to bargain over the price of a cow, with all the people in the shop listening? It is "spoiling the ship for a ha'porth of tar" to put in call stations without a box which deadens the sound and enables callers to conduct their conversations without half the village—and all the village very shortly afterwards—knowing what they have been taking about.
I have directed the attention of the present Postmaster-General and of previous Postmasters-General to the question of wireless communication with the outlying islands. The present Postmaster-General has told me that he is delaying matters in the hope of getting a wireless telephony system. I believe we have wireless telephony operating at the present time to Australia or America. I believe it has been operated over a distance of 3,500 miles. I am only asking for distances of 15 or 30 miles. For six or eight years I have been pressing this matter on the Post Office and we are still waiting. Every winter the cables break down and the islands are cut off. The cables break about December and 94 the repair ship does not get there until July. Sometimes I have known it later than July, and sometimes earlier, but on the average there is a period of about five or six months before the cables are repaired. That happens year after year. There is the capital expenditure on cables and cable ships, and yet the Post-master-General says it would cost so much to put in wireless communication, that the Post Office will do nothing until they get the wireless telephony system perfect. I agree that, if we had wireless telephony it would be the ideal system but while we are waiting for it cannot some improvement be made on the present system?
I do not know if the right hon. Gentleman has ever been on an island, cut off from all communications, except the chance of a ship calling once a week. The ship may be unable to call owing to bad weather and the right hon. Gentleman can at any rate, imagine the state of affairs of such an island, if sickness breaks out and there is no doctor and no means of getting one. The hardship to the people in such circumstances is real and very serious. It is too much to ask us to wait year after year while nothing is being done. I may remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Northern Lights Commissioners have put wireless into the lighthouses on the outlying islands and the lighthouse-keepers can call up each other and can speak to the head station. But the unfortunate people living on the islands are left to the mercy of the winds and the waves year after year. The Postmaster-General ought to give some practical attention to this matter instead of merely hoping for an eventual improvement in wireless telephony.
I have previously drawn attention to the opportunities which the Post Office has for advertising and of the small advantage which it seems to take of them. I refer to advertising in two respects. There is not only the failure to make use of its opportunities for earning revenue by advertising, but there is also the failure to advertise the good services which it offers to the public. I do not know if many hon. Members have tried to read the "Post Office Guide." It is most repellent, and I am certain that any business concern trying to push its business would get out something handier simpler and more attractive. We should 95 have a more readable book showing people how they can use the telephone service in connection with telegrams, how they can send letter-telegrams, the advantages of the cash-on-delivery system, and all the other very useful services which the Post Office offers. The Post Office need not hide its light under a bushel. It has its faults, but it has great virtues as well, and I think the present Postmaster-General ought to make known to the public in far more attractive form the advantages which it offers to them. In conclusion, I come back to the point with which I opened—the serious importance of getting away from the vicious principle which has been allowed to grow up, of considering the Post Office as a revenue-raising concern instead of a concern the duty of which is to provide the public with good and cheap services.
§ 6.0 p.m.
§ Sir FRANK MEYER
If this Debate had no other value—and it has many other values—it would have been striking for one statement made by the right hon. Gentleman who was Chancellor of the Exchequer in the late Labour Government. In the course of his very interesting speech, while referring to the proposal to return to penny postage, he made the very serious and important statement that, in his opinion, no service taken over by the State should ever be subsidised by the taxpayers of the country.
§ Sir F. MEYER
I shall abide by the report of his speech which will appear in the OFFICIAL REPORT to-morrow, but I understood the right hon. Gentleman to say that if the Post Office, by reducing the rate for posting should be involved in a loss to fall upon the taxpayers, he would object; and from that I must adduce that if one important service is not to be borne upon the shoulders of the taxpayers, the same argument would apply pari passu to other services.
§ Sir F. MEYER
That is not a commercial service, and that, therefore, is an irrelevant argument. It is, to my mind, a sign of lack of reasoning power on the part of hon. Members above the Gangway 96 if they can compare the Army and Navy with the Post Office or other commercial services. A short time ago I asked the right hon. Gentleman the Postmaster-General why it was that when a subscriber to the telephones sent a telegram over the telephone, he was obliged to pay not only the cost of the telegram itself, but also the cost of the telephone call, and he gave me an answer which may have been satisfactory to himself and to some hon. Members of the House, but which certainly was not satisfactory to me. It seems to me to be out of all accord with commercial practice that, when you are using or purchasing a service, as you do when you send a telegram over the telephone, you should be charged extra for the privilege of so doing. When I send telegrams by the ordinary method, but instead of using the full postal address I use the telephonic address, so that the telegram is delivered at the other end by telephone instead of by hand, is there any charge made for the telephone in that case? I gather not, yet in that case the telephonic service is brought in to the assistance of the telegraphic service. Why, then, when at the delivery end there is no charge for using the telephone service, should there be a charge when you send a telegram over the telephone? We have been told that it is desirable to encourage the sending of telegrams, that the telegraphic service does not pay, and that the telephonic service does, and it seems to me an absolute deterrent to people sending telegrams, either using their own private telephone or using one of the new public telephones, to be told that they have to pay 1½d. or 2d extra for the privilege of so doing.
To turn to the subject of the general efficiency of the telephone service, personally I should be the very last to criticise its working if I could be brought to think that it is as efficient as it should be. I had the experience in the War of being for a considerable time in the signal service, and I know from personal experience, therefore, the great difficulties which an operator in an exchange encounters; and if those difficulties in the comparatively email exchange the operation of which I supervised during the War were great, I realise the tenfold greater difficulties which must arise in the large London exchanges, but in spite of that I 97 cannot help doubting if the working of these telephone exchanges is as efficient as we ought to expect after the many years during which the service has been in operation. It is extremely trying to the patience of subscribers and those using the telephone when they find that they are so constantly getting the wrong number, and perhaps the most irritating of all experiences is when they are told, "If you will please repeat the number, I will change the line." Of all the things that you could be told over the telephone by an operator, that is the most irritating.
It is a curious fact that a short time before addressing these few remarks to the House it should have happened to me to have had to call up two numbers, both of which had been transferred to one of the new exchanges which have been opened only within the last 48 hours or so, and in both cases I was told, first of all, that there was no reply, then that the line was out of order, and then, being determined to get them, as I felt that the transference to new exchanges had something to do with it, I had them specially rung up, and in both cases got through at once and was told that they had not had a ring for some time. I know there are hard cases and that you must not make a general statement on a few hard cases, but that is only an example of what frequently happens; and I wonder if the right hon. Gentleman and his expert officials are satisfied that our telephone service is being gradually raised in its everyday working to the efficiency which it ought to attain. One of the reasons why we do not increase our telephones sufficiently and why we are so far behind the telephones, per head of population, in many other countries is the irritation which is caused to many subscribers by some of these faults in the working.
There is another point I wish to raise. I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether a paragraph which I saw in the paper, I think it was on Saturday, stating that an agreement had been come to between the Postmaster-General and the sub-postmasters of the country, as to the new rates to be charged for the work they have to do in connection with the payment of War pensions and with payments under the contributory pensions scheme, is true and authorised, and whether it is a settlement that is satisfactory 98 to both sides. If the right hon. Gentleman can tell me that later on, I shall be much obliged.
In conclusion, there is one other matter to which I should like to refer, though I am not quite sure whether it is one on which the right hon. Gentleman can inform me. We have seen a good deal in the papers lately, in a certain section of the Press, of a restraint on the liberty of the subject to give his services or to sell commodities at any time of the day. Am I right in saying that those same newspapers have an agreement with the British Broadcasting Corporation that no news received after five o'clock in the evening shall be utilised either by the evening newspapers or by the British Broadcasting Corporation, because such a use might be disadvantageous to the morning papers? If such an agreement in restraint of the sale of news which would be of interest and value to the public is in existence, I must say that it comes very strangely that those same papers which are parties to such restraint should be making a violent attack on the leisure hours of a certain section of the community who prefer, after they have had a long day's work, to take a little leisure without in any way causing serious inconvenience to the public. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman can inform me on that matter, but if he can, it will be of considerable interest, I am sure, to all Members of the House.
§ Miss BONDFIELD
I wish to ask the Postmaster-General to give his attention to a fresh point. I have been very much concerned about what appears to be the abnormally high rate of sickness among the women members of the Post Office staff, and I would like this matter to receive the serious personal attention of the right hon. Gentleman. I see, from replies to questions that I have been putting, that sick leave among the women staff in the Post Office exceeds that of their men colleagues by five days per annum as against three days' excess of sickness among women as compared with men in other Departments, and that the women in the Post Office have from three to five more days' sick leave on the average than women in other Departments. The majority of these cases are cases of nervous prostration, and it 99 is feared that that is due to two or three causes. There is the question of pressure, the question of the drive of the Department and of the amount of work that has to be got through in a limited period of time. Then there is the question of over-supervision, which is a very important point. It seems that some of them are in a perpetual state of nervous tension on account of over-supervision, and that they feel that someone is on their track every minute of the day. Then there is the feeling of disappointment among the more highly qualified women because the promises of promotion to executive rank which were given in 1920 have not been fulfilled in a large number of cases in respect of women, many of whom have service dating from pre-War days.
These three factors, striking from different angles, have the effect that apparently there is a larger percentage of sickness among the women and that the cause is to a very great extent to be found in the organisation of the Department. I would speak particularly of the case of writing assistants in regard to this matter of promotion. The writing assistants in the Savings Bank Department are faced with the peculiar difficulty that the Department itself is undergoing a very rigid system of rationalisation and mechanisation, under which it is possible to do twice the volume of work that was previously done by the same individuals. I understand that the savings in this particular section are something like £40,000 a year as a result of the new form of working, particularly in regard to such matters as the work done by ledger clerks, but this saving as a result of rationalisation is not resulting, as it should do, in increased security for the workers concerned, but rather in decreases in wages. The salary of a writing assistant, which previously, I believe, went up to £4 a week, is now only £3 as a maximum; and there are other cases which could be cited, but that is merely an illustration. These are small points in relation to the whole subject, but they are of extreme importance to the individuals concerned, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman will give them his serious consideration.
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
I think, perhaps, it would be convenient if I spoke now, as briefly as possible, although I am afraid I must make a fairly big demand on the time of the House in order to reply to some of the questions addressed to me and some of the points that have been raised. I feel that I ought to begin by making an apology in this respect, that I am afraid I shall not be able to give the House any particularly new figures, because, as the hon. Gentleman who opened the Debate correctly pointed out, this happens to be, from the point of view of producing new figures, perhaps the most inappropriate moment of the year at which we could discuss the Vote for the Post Office. We are just at the eleventh hour, at the ending of the financial year, and in the ordinary way a period of something like six weeks or two months is necessary to elapse before the accounts can be fully made out. Therefore, any figures that I give now in so far as they refer to the future must be taken as being in the nature of estimates.
The Debate has been exceedingly interesting. I am very much obliged to the hon. Member for Walthamstow, West (Mr. Crawfurd) who initiated the Debate. Perhaps I had better take the central point first, the question of the relation of broadcasting to political work and to election work in the forthcoming General Election. The hon. Member for Walthamstow, West, and the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) both said: "Look at what they did in the United States during the recent Presidential election. Look at the great use which was made there of broadcasting. Why do not you do something of that kind here" It must be remembered that the system of broadcasting in the United States is upon quite a different basis from the system that we have in this country. The system of broadcasting in the United States is a form of what we might call almost unlimited competition. A; the start, it was completely unlimited competition. At the present time it is competition which only entails the necessity of getting a licence from the Federal Radio Commission, and the result is that something upwards of 50 stations are emitting broadcasts at the same time. The result of that is that in the United 101 States there is practically no such thing as crystal set reception. The crystal set is of no use in the United States. I have made inquiries as to the lowest price at which one could have a set in the United States, and expect to hear anything. I am told—I do not know whether the statement is correct or not—on excellent authority that in order to hear anything at all by head-phones there, you have to spend £10, and in order to get any loud speaker reproduction you have to spend not less than £20. I do not believe there is anyone in any quarter of this House who would wish to see those conditions of unlimited competition reproduced over here.
Therefore, when we came to consider the question how we could settle broadcasting in this country on a permanent basis, we were quite definitely driven to the conclusion that, in some form or other, it must be a monopoly, and that there could not be unlimited competition. We were further driven to that conclusion, and it is being forced upon us every day, by the shortage in the wave-lengths. The congestion in the air does not affect America to quite the same extent as it affects ourselves, because America is not subject to interruption in the same way that we are from broadcasting by the activities of our neighbours. The real truth of the matter is, that our wavebands are being very seriously congested, and that we are able to have only 10 exclusive wave-lengths for our own use. The problem which faces us is how to make the best use of those wave-lengths. In a matter of this sort, a question of high policy, I consult and discuss the position with the Broadcasting Corporation, and it is a matter of very anxious consideration between us as to the way in which we can best make use of the 10 exclusive wave-lengths of this country.
That reinforces the argument that some form of monopoly was forced upon us by the circumstances, but not monopoly under private enterprise. We started with a monopoly under private enterprise, but, for reasons which I need not repeat, but which hon. Members will find discussed at length in the Report of the Crawford Committee, and in the Debates which have taken place in this House, it was decided to abandon the system of private monopoly. We were driven to one of two systems, either a monopoly in 102 the hands of the State or a monopoly in the hands of a public corporation. I was a little astonished to hear the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs, apparently, proposing some leaning towards a monopoly in the hands of the State, instead of a monopoly in the hands of a public corporation. I know the right hon. Gentleman is a bit of an optimist, and that with his new programme he has hopes that the party which he represents may be in a position to become the governors of the State, but I should have thought that he would not have favoured the idea of a State monopoly. I should have thought that that was a very serious proposition. Personally, I should be very sorry to think that in this country broadcasting and the control of broadcasting should fall entirely into the hands of the Government of the day, to be used for their own purposes of propaganda. I think it would be a most serious proposition. I have said that before in this House, and I say it again.
The position in which we find ourselves to-day is that this work is being conducted in the public interests by a public corporation, and not being run by the State itself. Under these circumstances, I have much more sympathy with the position of the right hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Snowden) in regard to this question of election broadcasting than I have with the position of the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs. I agree with the right hon. Member for Colne Valley that it is obviously impossible to have, at the best, anything more than a comparatively small number of speeches by leaders of the political parties. The idea of the hon. and gallant Member for Central Hull (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy), that every candidate in the 650 constituencies, apparently, is to be given some chance of placing his views on the air, seems to me to be a vision of horrors.
§ Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY
The right hon Gentleman has misunderstood me, as the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) misunderstood me. I was referring to by-elections. I think that at by-elections what I suggested would be possible and desirable.
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
At the General Election only a comparatively small number of leaders, or the three 103 leader of the parties, could reasonably be expected to have an opportunity of making themselves audible through broadcasting. That is where we get into difficulty. The right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs, and the hon. Member who initiated the Debate, kept on saying: "Look at the United States. Look how well they managed it:" The real cardinal difficulty between the case of the United States and the case of this country is in the first place, that their system of broadcasting is different from ours and, secondly, their system of politics on the occasion in question consisted of having two main candidates, and two only, whereas we are informed by the right hon. Gentleman and his party that we are to have three sets of candidates in a large number of constituencies at the coming General Election. The right hon. Gentleman glossed very lightly over the real cardinal difficulty of the situation. That real cardinal difficulty is that the "usual channels" through which the views of parties in this House are made known, are unable to agree as to what is a proper and fair allocation as between the respective parties.
I put it to the House that it is not an unreasonable thing for the Government to say that for every single attack delivered against the Government there ought to be an opportunity of reply. I am merely stating the proposition over which, I understand, the negotiations have broken down. The view which the Government have taken is very reasonable, that for every one attack that is delivered against them there ought to be one opportunity of reply. Anything short of that means less fair treatment for the majority than the minority are getting. Is it unreasonable that when the right hon. Gentleman and his friends on the one hand and hon. and right hon. Gentlemen below the Gangway on the other are continually, day in and day out, engaged in attacking the Government, that we should take up the position which we have taken up, that for every attack made upon us we ought to have an equal opportunity of reply? We are told that the "usual channels" have failed to agree over this, and then the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs comes to this House and says to me: "You, the Postmaster-General, must intervene." On what basis must I intervene? If the 104 "usual channels" have not agreed, am I to settle the matter? If I settle it, would the right hon. Gentleman be content to accept the settlement that I made?
That is why I say, and I think the House must say, that the position which the British Broadcasting Corporation are bound to take up, and the position which they do take up, is this: "You of the political parties must agree amongst yourselves, and when you have agreed between yourselves, we will put facilities at your disposal for broadcasting; but we are not going to act as arbiters." I have strong views on this matter, and I claim that equity and fairness demand that the Government should have an equal opportunity with each of the other parties. If we are attacked by one party, there should be one reply by the Government, and then if there is one attack by another party, there should be one reply by the Government. [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] That interruption only shows the difficulty which we have with hon. Members opposite. That being so, it is quite clear that if I adopted the suggestion made to me by the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs, and I intervened, nothing that I could do would settle the matter, or please him.
I turn to another subject of general interest which was dealt with by the right hon. Member for Colne Valley, and also formed portion of the speech of the hon. Member for Walthamstow, West. I refer to the question of the penny post. When I look from my window at the statue of Rowland Hill, opposite the Post Office, I am led to reflect upon the enormous development in the enterprise which he conducted, and which I now conduct, since 1840. In 1840, the number of postal packets carried was under 170,000,000 a year; in 1928 the number was something well over 6,000,000,000. It must be remembered that in Rowland Hill's days, and for generations afterwards, the Post Office was run at a loss. It was a burden upon the taxpayer, and it is only in comparatively recent years that the Post Office has been in a position as a large revenue earning and a growing revenue earning department. It is open to contention that it would be a reasonable thing to have the Post Office, so to speak, on its own, keeping its own profits, paying its own losses, 105 and—this is a very important thing—contributing to the national revenue that amount in lieu of taxes which a business of that magnitude would be asked to pay in the ordinary way. You cannot expect to run the accounts of a nationalised business on the basis that it is to be entirely free from taxation and then compare it with an ordinary commercial enterprise. We have to have some equivalent for the taxes which a business of that kind would pay on its ascertained profits. That is quite a feasible contention, and it opens a very interesting avenue of discussion. As I have said before, I think that at some time or other, when time and opportunity allow, that certainly merits investigation, but it is a very big question, which would effect a revolution in the whole of that part of our system of national accounts and national finance, and at the minute what I have to deal with is the Post Office under the existing system.
This is about the most difficult moment of the year at which I could be asked to say anything about a penny post, because it is quite clear that the subject has to be considered in relation to its bearing on the Budget as a whole. Here we are, at the beginning of the month of March, with the Budget to be opened in something like six weeks' time, and it is perfectly clear that a considerable amount of reticence must, in any event, be practised by the Postmaster-General.
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
No, there is no responsibility on the House; it is on the Postmaster-General. But I will go as far as to say this, that the somewhat light-hearted optimism which has been displayed by some hon. Gentlemen as to the increase which is likely to follow in postal business if, and supposing, penny postage were to be resumed, is not entirely justified, indeed is not at all justified, by the facts. While in this matter we have to live partly, or largely, in the realms of conjecture, we have at any rate as a basis for our conjectures what happened when in 1922 postage was last reduced. In 1922 the postage upon 1 oz. letters was reduced from 2d. to 1½d., it was reduced for printed papers from 1d. to ½d., subject to the right to defer halfpenny matter, and the post card was reduced from 1½d. to 1d. At that time 106 an attempt had to be made to conjecture what the results of those reductions was likely to be. It was expected then that the increase in traffic would be 10 per cent. in the case of letters and 20 per cent. in the case of post cards. The actual realised increase in the case of letters was 5½ per cent. instead of 10 per cent., and the increase in post cards was 4½ per cent.
It must further be remembered that from this increase we have to deduct the normal yearly growth which one would expect to take plaice in any case in postal traffic, and that would be something like 2 per cent. Therefore, the net growth induced by the reduction made in 1922 was about 3½ per cent. in the case of letters and 2½ per cent. in the case of post cards, [Interruption.] I have given the House all I can reasonably be expected to say upon the subject. I will apply the same method to the figures for this year. As I think the House already knows, because of the deputation to which my hon. Friend referred, it is conjectured that the cost in the first year of reversion to penny postage would be something between £6,000,000 and £6,250,000. That estimate allows for, in the first place, a transfer of 7½ per cent. of printed paper matter from the printed paper post to the now penny post. Further, it allows for an induced growth in letter traffic, over and above the normal growth, of 3½ per cent. Those are the best estimates we can make as to the safe figure at which to put the effect on postal traffic of a reversion to the penny post, and it is really all I can tell the House at the moment.
It is no use arguing about the benefit to trade, and it is no use arguing on the other hand, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Colne Valley said, and said with truth, that the cost of postage has been increased by a figure which is a great deal less than the cost of many other things, including newspapers; but I would say this in conclusion on the subject of penny postage. Those who advocate a return to penny postage must remember that the cost has to be met somehow. If there is not a sufficient Budget surplus to meet the cost, then the whole figures of the Budget are challenged. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has to balance this remission 107 against that remission, and finally to make up his mind as to what he will recommend to the Committee. If, on the other hand, there is no surplus, then some other form of taxation has to be found, for there must be some other means of raising the revenue to set against the cost of giving the penny post. Hon. Gentlemen who make these suggestions and are sometimes inclined to criticise us for what they call our reaction must remember that it is necessary that these conditions shall be fulfilled before we can reasonably hope to have a return to penny postage.
Perhaps at this point I might deal with one or two other specific matters which were raised in the course of the Debate, and then I will say a word on the question of rural telephones and telephones in general. The hon. Member for Walthamstow West asked me a question about the safety of the mails, and also about the privacy of letters in the post. As regards the safety of mails, I would like to reassure him at the outset that there is absolutely no truth whatever in the statements which have appeared in some parts of the Press that there has been an unreasonable or undue delay in co-operation between the different authorities throughout the country. When I saw those suggestions I was quite satisfied in my own mind, from what I knew of the work of the Post Office detective branch, that there was no truth in them, but in order to make myself quite sure I consulted my right hon. Friend and colleague the Home Secretary, and the Home Secretary consulted Lord Byng, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. I have the authority both of my colleague and the Commissioner to say that there is no truth whatever in the suggestions which have appeared in the Press that any unreasonable delay has taken place, or that there is any unreasonable lack of co-operation. There are, however, certain problems which have caused a great deal of anxiety. There are some new problems in connection with the system of bank remittances which is gradually growing up in this country which have been causing us at the Post Office a certain measure of anxiety. At this moment there is sitting in the Post Office a committee which has under consideration the question not only of certain steps 108 for further safeguarding their transit, but the question of whether some extension of the system of insurance ought not to be effected. I would rather not say anything more about that at the moment, but I do assure hon. Members that these matters are under consideration.
As regards the privacy of mails, that, of course, is absolute—that is to say, the privacy of sealed letters—subject to this proviso, that now, as has been the case for years past, they can always be opened by the Postmaster-General, but only under a Home Office warrant. Subject to that the privacy of the mails is absolute. In the particular case to which the hon. Member referred, the communication was sent by book post, and it was a pure accident, as he very rightly said, that that matter was ever detected at all. It was detected in the course of the ordinary examination which is made of all book packets. A proportion of book packets are always undone and looked at in order to make quite sure that the regulations are not being contravened by the sending of letters at book packet rate. I regret to say that every now and then, indeed quite frequently, we find cases where persons are misguided enough to take advantage of book packet rates for their letters, and for that reason a proportion of book packets are always opened. A certain number of packets from abroad are also opened by the Customs. This particular book packet came from abroad and it was opened as an ordinary book packet, but when the nature of the contents was seen it was perfectly clear that the action which was taken had to be taken, that is to say, the matter had to be referred to the Home Office. My duty under the Post Office Acts is quite mandatory in that respect.
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
The ordinary sealed letter is only opened on a warrant. Of course, if for any reason a letter cannot be delivered it is opened in order that it may he returned to the sender, that has to be done, and a sealed package coming from abroad is opened by the Customs if they have any reason to suspect that it may contain dutiable goods. Then they have a right of action, 109 but otherwise it is only on a Home Office warrant that a sealed letter can be opened during its passage through the mails. I was also asked by the hon. Member for West Walthamstow a question about rural postage—a question as to a delay which occurred in one place where he said no letters were delivered between mid-day on Saturday and mid-day on Monday. It is quite possible for that to happen, and it arises in this way. The weekly half holiday which Post Office servants get is fixed as far as possible in consultation with the local authorities. As far as we can, we leave it to the local authorities of the district to choose which is the most convenient day for the half holiday. In the case referred to it would appear that the weekly half-holiday has been fixed for Saturday. There is no Sunday delivery in the country: there has been no Sunday delivery since the War; and I very much doubt whether there is a real, genuine desire in the country for a restoration of Sunday delivery. I find very little evidence of it. Some years ago I made some very careful inquiries and I was satisfied that there was no great demand. If, therefore, Saturday happens to be the day chosen for the half-holiday and there is no Sunday delivery, then it does follow that there would be no delivery until Monday morning. The answer to that point must lie, I think, in the further development of the rural telephone service. I think that is the direct answer, rather than an attempt to restore or partially restore country posts on Sunday. The hon. Member also asked about postal rates to Brazil. I am afraid I cannot give him an answer now, but I will confer with the Department of Overseas Trade on the matter.
He also asked what was being done as regards the further use of motors for deliveries in country districts. In this respect there has been a considerable development in town and country villages. The number of motor cycles, and in some cases motor cycles with sidecars, has more than quadrupled during the last four years, and has doubled even in the last two years. The same applies to motor vans.
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
Yes, all the vans are made in this country. A 110 certain number of the older vans were Fords made in Manchester, but all the new vans are British Morrises. Here, again, the numbers have been quadrupled in the last four years and doubled in the last two years. The present number of vans is 1,910. A question has been put to me about horse mail-vans. The number is very small, but there are a certain number retained, and, as far as I can see, it is quite probable that there will always be a small number of horse vans retained. Our experience in this respect coincides with that of some carriers, because it is well known that in some cases the use of horse vans in very heavy traffic is cheaper than motors. We have a service from the East Central Office to Liverpool Street, and for that sort of traffic the horse compares favourably with the motor. I cannot see that horse mail-vans are likely to be excluded from the postal service for some time.
On the subject of broadcasting, the suggestion has been made that the licences should be granted according to the value of the sets used. That may sound very well in theory, but let hon. Members just think what it means in regard to inspection. Hon. Members will recollect that I was met with a howl of indignation because it was stated that I proposed to send an inspector into everybody's home to see if licences had been taken out where wireless sets were in use, but on reflection I am sure hon. Members must realise what a huge army of inspectors would be required to carry out the suggested issue of licences according to the value of the sets.
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
We do enforce the law but I am not going to tell hon. Members all the means by which we do it. With regard to the charge we make for the cost of issuing licences and their enforcement, the actual cost is 12½ per cent., or 2s. 6d. in the £. That was the estimated cost, and it has actually worked out in practice almost down to the decimal of a penny as a correct charge. That is the charge for the issue of licences and the enforcement of the same, and I think it is very satisfactory. For that satisfactory result we have to thank, not only our own efforts, but the fact that there has grown up a feeling that a man who takes out a 10s. licence is getting a 111 cheap form of entertainment, but the man who does not take out the licence is defrauding his neighbours and is something in the nature of a dirty dog. I think that is a very laudable position, and that is the reason why we have been able to enforce the collection of licences so successfully.
I have been asked a question about certain telegraph poles which are said to be in dangerous proximity to the edges of main roads. If the hon. Member who raised this question will give me cases I shall be glad to inquire into the matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Sir F. Meyer) told us many interesting things, and he spoke of the difficulty which he experienced in telephoning the other day to a friend, and said that after he had got through he received the "Engaged" signal, and his friend afterwards told him that he had never been called at all. That is something which frequently happens but that does not mean that the telephone system is at fault. When you get the signal which we call the busy back signal or "Number engaged," that does not necessarily mean that the subscriber's number is engaged, but it means that the subscriber's number cannot be got at the moment, not because he is actually engaged but because of a junction line being engaged. All the great exchanges have to be connected by junction lines, and between two very busy exchanges there may be 100 or 200 junction lines. It may well happen that in a moment of sudden pressure in the busy period all junction lines may be engaged; and probably when my hon. Friend called his subscriber all the junction lines may have been engaged and then he would get the "engaged" signal. The real truth of the matter is that this might not have been a case of "Number engaged," but of "Junction engaged."
I have been asked a question about sub-postmasters' allowances. I have not seen the paragraph referred to, but it must refer to an award of the industrial court. The hon. Member for Wallsend (Miss Bondfield) asked a question about the rate of female sickness. Perhaps the hon. Lady will allow me to postpone my reply. I will take the earliest opportunity of going into the matter which she has raised, and I will communicate with her.
§ Mr. E. BROWN
In addition to the points put by the hon. Member for Walls-end, will the Postmaster-General state the effect upon the health of the female staff of certain reductions of the hours allowed for meals which have been made in recent months?
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
If the hon. Member will bring any of those cases to my notice, I will look into them. I believe the hon. Member for Leith (Mr. E. Brown) did bring a particular case before my notice some time ago, but I will make further inquiries.
I would now like to say one or two words as to the necessity for further developing the telephone system to meet the general economic position in the country. I may say at once that I am not satisfied with the position we occupy in this respect, although we, really, have been making very satisfactory progress in this respect during the past few years. We are in a position in which we can say that we are a great deal better off than we were a short time ago. The number of telephones in the country in the last four years has increased by very nearly 40 per cent., and that is an enormous increase when you reflect upon the difficulties with which we have to deal.
At the present moment we are the third largest telephone-using people in the world. The number of telephones in use, according to the latest figures, is 1,722,500. The sum of £44,000,000 has been spent on the development of our telephone system during the last four years, and the interest on this sum and also depreciation has to be paid for out of the telephone revenue, unless you are going to carry out such development by means of a separate loan, and then the cost would have to be borne by the taxpayer. I have not starved the amount of money which I have put aside for telephone development by one penny during the last four years.
We have spent £44,000,000 on telephone development, and we still have a programme of expenditure in this respect at practically the same rate for the next two years. I do not see how you can spend more capital on the telephone service usefully. I agree you could spend it, but you would spend it wastefully. Hon. 113 Members sometimes ask why we do not put more wires underground. That shows how difficult it is to argue unless one has the knowledge to start with. Do hon. Members, who take that view, realise that at this moment five-sixths of the total telephone mileage is underground? It has been buried already in the last few years, and we now have a larger percentage of our lines underground than any other country in the world. There remains the balance, of which a lot would never pay to put underground. You can do it, but it would be an extremely uneconomic way of providing work. It would not pay to put underground small local lines in the country carrying two or three subscribers and never likely to carry any more. It would not pay to put main lines underground where you have at present perfectly good overhead wires with new poles, and still with many years of life. It is possible to pull them all down and put the line underground, but it is not a practicable commercial proposition. No business man would do that as a means of saving money. He would wait until the expected life of that particular section came much nearer its expiry, and then it would be a question of taking it down some time before its life expired in order that the cables might be put underground. To pull down perfectly good lines in order to put them underground, except as a means of making work, is not a commercial proposition, and as a means of making work it is uneconomic.
As to the rural aspect of the telephone question, that divides itself into three heads—ordinary exchange lines, party lines and call offices. I shall give the figures as to what we have done in regard to each of these. As regards exchange lines, the ordinary exclusive line, we have a scheme now in operation under which we have a standing offer to set up, unless there are peculiar local conditions which make it impossible, a new local exchange wherever eight subscribers can be got together to pay £8 a year each. We lose on these exchanges at the outset—and on some of them permanently—but it is a very remarkable thing that you should be able, in some cases in the most rural and most isolated parts of the country, to ring up to-day Cuba on the one hand and Austria on the other. The rural exchange system is being very largely taken advantage of and developed. As far as 114 numbers are concerned, the increase in new rural exchanges during the past four years has really been remarkable. I will give the figures later. As to party lines, the figure remains comparatively steady at about 10,000, but that does not mean the same 10,000. Party lines gradually merge into the exchange system and fresh party lines are pushed out.
As regards call offices, it is perfectly true that we open them in the rural areas wherever we think they are at all likely to pay their way. Where we do not think they will pay their way, we ask for a guarantee. In most cases the guarantee will be satisfied and the guarantors will never be called upon if something like four, or in some cases six, calls are made from the box daily. That is not a very large amount to ask. If we get that we are prepared to put up call offices. As a matter of fact, we are putting up call offices in very large numbers. Something like half the rural post offices in the country and five-sixths of the rural telegraph offices have now got call offices. The figures for the last four years show that in 1924 there were 5,809 rural call offices and in 1928 7,989. In this connection I would add that call offices in rural stations have also been developing at a very rapid rate. In 1924 the number of telephones in rural stations was 480. In 1928 they had risen to 1,036, or an increase of 115 per cent. Rural exchanges, to which I referred just now, numbered 2,306 in 1924 and 2,950 in 1928. While the average increase in the number of telephones over the whole country during the past four years has been 38 per cent., or just under 40 per cent., the increase in the number of rural telephones in that period has been 75 per cent., or almost exactly double. That is the answer to those who ask what we have been doing for rural telephone development. We have been increasing rural telephones during the last four years at double the rate of development in the country as a whole. We have only been able to do it by running out the balance on telephone account or, in other words, we have been applying the profits to extending the business.
§ Major PRICE
What is the objection to the public using the telephone in a rural post office where the telephone is installed and used to send telegrams? Why is it impossible to use it?
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
That must apply to some special case. On the face of it, it is to me frankly incomprehensible. I have no doubt that there is some special reason and, if the hon. Member will communicate with me, I will make inquiries. With an apology to the House for having detained them at unconscionable length, I would again say that I appreciate very much the manner in which the Debate has been so far conducted.
Mr. HUGH EDWARDS
We have listened with a good deal of interest to the speech of the right hon. Gentleman. I am glad to see that he has appreciated the truth of the criticisms directed against him to-night. I understand his feelings of complacency whenever he looks out of his window at the statue of Rowland Hill, which I take it he does daily, and I have no doubt that, when he contrasts the present position of the Post Office with that in the time of Rowland Hill, he feels entitled to special commendation. After to-night's Debate, I hope that next time he glances through his window at the statue of Rowland Hill he will realise there is a good deal yet to be done.
I confess that I am disappointed with the right hon. Gentleman's attitude with regard to broadcasting. I gather that he has not much admiration for the American system, although he gave us proof to-night of his admiration for American things by relapsing into a real American style which was very refreshing to hear. His position is that he looks at the three parties and says that he is quite prepared to agree to broadcasting political speeches provided the Government have a reply to a statement made on behalf of each of the parties. I do not quarrel with him on that ground, because I think he is under a misapprehension. He is assuming that, if the speeches are made by the Leader of the Labour party and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George), those right hon. Gentlemen will direct their speeches against the Government, and that, consequently, the Government would be entitled to reply. If the broadcasting policy he suggests were in existence, he would find that the right hon. Member for Aberavon (Mr. R. MacDonald) would devote his speech to an attack upon the right hon. Member for Carnarvon 116 Boroughs. It would be very refreshing if the Postmaster-General, alter hearing that attack, had to get up and defend my right hon. Friend. Personally, I should be quite agreeable that they should have two replies, but the second reply would take the form of a defence from the Government Benches to the speech made by the right hon. Member for Aberavon attacking the Liberal party. The Postmaster-General has raised a bogy to-night which does not really exist.
I am disappointed also with the right hon. Gentleman's attitude as to penny postage. He has let the cat out of the bag, or rather he has revealed to us the fact that there will be no cat in the bag. The speech made by him to-night may be taken as the prelude to the wail of lamentation which will be made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer when he introduces the Budget. I was very interested in his defence of the telephone administration. Though he rejoinces to find that telephones have increased by 40 per cent. in the last four years, he must know in his heart of hearts that the administration of the telephone system in this country is far from what it should be. The hon. and gallant Member for West Walthamstow (Mr. Crawfurd), in initiating the discussion to-night, indulged in a very trenchant attack on the deficiencies of the Post Office, and in the course of his speech he quoted a remark made by the right hon. Member for Norwich (Sir H. Young) in the discussion last July that the Post Office and telephone service were run by the Government as a business. I take exception to that and challenge the statement made by the right hon. Member for Norwich that the telephone service is run as a business.
Let me put it to the House in this way. Suppose that any Member here received a bill from his grocer: "1st March, To Groceries, so much: 2nd March, To Groceries, so much: 3rd March, To Groceries, so much": surely, the first thing that anyone would do would be to write to the grocer and ask for particulars, and the grocer at once would reply, "On the 1st March I supplied you with sugar, on the 2nd March with tea, on the 3rd March with something else," and so on. [An HON. MEMBER: "The 3rd March was a Sunday!"] Yes, but even on Sundays we eat. What is the system followed by the Telephone Department? 117 One receives an account: "1st March, trunk call, 2s. 6d.; 2nd March, trunk call, 3s. 6d." It is not specified, but, if the subscriber writes to the Controller and says, "I find that I am debited with 2s. 6d. on the 1st March; will you kindly send me particulars of that 2s. 6d," the only reply that he gets from the Controller is, "We will give you particulars of the 2s. 6d. if you will send us the sum of 5s." The thing is preposterous. Talk about running it as a business! What business firm in the country would, when asked to specify particulars of an item of 2s. 6d., say, "Send us 5s. and we will give you the particulars?" I regard the Postmaster-General as a very efficient head of his Department, and I am really surprised that he has put up with this sort of thing for so long.
I want to put another case to the right hon. Gentleman. Since the claim is made that the Post Office, and especially the telephone service, is run on a business basis, I would ask what would happen if a man received from a business man an account running back for seven or eight months, and he said, "I have your account; would you give me particulars, as I have been away from home." The very first thing that the business man would do would be to look up his books and send the particulars. But what does the celebrated Telephone Service do? I know of one case in which a subscriber was away from this country for several months, and, when he came back, received an application from the London Telephone Service for the account that was unpaid. He naturally wrote explaining that he had been away and asking for particulars, and the reply that he received was amazing. It was, "This account is over six months old, and no records are kept." It is simply preposterous that, in a State Department of this kind, which claims to be a great business, you cannot have particulars of a claim that is more than six months old. I challenge the statement which has been made by the Postmaster-General and by others that the telephone service of this country is run on a business basis. Speaking as a resident in London, I find great fault with the London Telephone Service. I remember making the statement some time ago that the telephone service in this country under Government 118 control is not nearly as efficient as it was under private enterprise, and I think that that is unchallenged—
The hon. Member was not a subscriber in the days of the National Telephone Company. If he had had that experience, he would know that it was much better. I made that statement in public in my constituency, and I found that I was black-listed for making it, with the result that the next time an application was made to me for my telephone account, it was couched in very offensive terms. I was required to pay within three days, or, I suppose, the service would be disconnected; and the remarkable thing is that that curt and discourteous request was sent to me in Christmas week, when anyone would have known that a Member of Parliament would be out of London. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Well, because some of us are worked harder than some of you are. I took exception to that, and wrote to the Controller of the London Telephone Service telling him that I presumed it was because I had been rash enough to say that the service was not as efficient and courteous as it had been in the days of the National Telephone Company. The Controller replied that I had just cause for complaint, and he repudiated the language used in the communication in question. I am glad that he did that, but it only shows that, if you dare to criticise this telephone service, you suffer for it, and I fully expect that after to-night my calls will go up much more than they have done for some time.
The right hon. Gentleman is proud of his Department and extols the telephone service, but it is no use telling the House that it is conducted on a business basis when you cannot get particulars of an item of 2s. 6d. without paying 5s.—the right hon. Gentleman does not deny that—and when you cannot get a record of an account that is over six months old. I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to take these anomalies in hand. I am not complaining of the provincial service, because I think it is better than that of London, but I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to speak to the Controller as the Controller has spoken to some of us. Let him take the matter in hand, 119 and show the absurdity of charging 5s. for particulars of an item of 2s. 6d., and let him see that records are kept such as every business firm keeps. Surely, we have the right to expect the Department to do that. I hope that the appeal which has been made to the right hon. Gentleman to-night will not be made in vain, and then, but not till then, some of us will be in a position to say, as he desires us to say, "God bless the Postmaster-General."
§ Mr. AMMON
There are one or two fresh points to which I should like to draw the attention of the Postmaster-General, in the hope that he may be able to answer them later. With regard to the speech of the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Edwards), I would only say that, if all his alleged grievances are as well based as his comparison with the telephone service under the old National Telephone Company, there cannot be much in them. That comparison is sheer nonsense—there is no other word for it. As a matter of historical accuracy, apart altogether from the rival claims of State as against private enterprise, the only reason why the telephone service came over to the State was because it had become a crying scandal, and had to be taken over in response to the public agitation and protest that were raised.
I should like to ask the Postmaster-General, rather as a matter of information, whether the comparisons between the development in this and in other countries—as, for instance, the United States, which has been mentioned again and again—are not altogether beside the point when we have regard to the very much larger land area, the larger population, and, of course, the very much higher standard of living enjoyed by the majority of people in the United States. I think that those factors may have something to do with the difference in development, and that our comparison must not be so much with the United States as with, perhaps, other European countries.
I was a little disturbed by one point which was raised by the hon. Member for West Walthamstow (Mr. Crawfurd), and which was not touched upon by the Postmaster-General. The hon. Member referred to certain postal treaties between 120 Brazil and other countries, and said, by way of extenuation of the Postmaster-General's reply on a former occasion, that the Postmaster-General knew nothing of the matter. That would seem to me to be a real cause of complaint against the Post Office. If any two nations entered into a postal agreement, and the British Post Office knew nothing about it, it would seem to me that something was very seriously lacking, and I can only imagine that the statement was not quite accurate. If that be so, perhaps the Postmaster-General will take the opportunity of contradicting it.
There were three points which came up when the Vote was before the House last year, indicating the development of the Post Office service and shoving how the Department is being called upon more and more to serve the public needs, and I should be glad if the Postmaster-General would, if he can, give us some information upon them. I think it was last year that he indicated to us that some initial steps were to be taken with regard to the postal cheque system, and I am wondering if he could give the House any information as to whether it has been started, and, if so, exactly in what way it is going to function and how far it has developed. Then the right hon. Gentleman will remember that we discussed the matter of television and the experiments that were being made in that connection in the Department, more particularly with regard to the transmission of facsimile writing and so on. Can the right hon. Gentleman say what further experiments have been made, how far they have developed, and whether we are any nearer to being able to use that system for practical purposes?
Then I want to return to the old question of cash-on-delivery. While the Postmaster-General is to be congratulated on the fact that this new service has achieved a measure of success, I would venture to say that it has not achieved anything like the success that was anticipated, or that it ought to achieve. In the first place, it seems to me that it has failed—I shall be glad to be told that I am wrong in this—to achieve the particular purpose for which it was really initiated, namely, to afford some help to our agriculturists and smallholders. So far as I know, it is almost unknown even yet in the agricultural and small holding districts. I would point out, as I have done before, 121 and as other Members of the House have done, that the Postmaster-General does not advertise this service sufficiently, and the country is not aware of the facilities that it affords. He has admirable opportunities of advertising it, as, for instance, by means of an invitation like "Shop by Cash-on-Delivery" on the cancelling stamps used for letters.
He may say, as I believe he did on one occasion, that it is not his business to advertise one system of shopping as against another, but it is his business. He is running a particular system, and it is his duty to see that information in regard to it gets home to the public as much as it possibly can, and to see that it renders as much service as it can. I believe that a good deal more can be done to bring the towns into contact with the producers of dairy produce, small agricultural produce, fruit, flowers, and so on, than is done at the present time, and I would also say that, if the Postmaster-General would take the plunge and reduce the charges somewhat, the added business that would result would, I am sure, more than compensate for any apparent loss at the outset. I should also like to ask the right hon. Gentleman if he can now give any information as to how far the cable merger has proceeded for which the Bill was carried when we rose in August. Has the Communications Company been formed, and have the cables been transferred to the new Company?
The question of the examining of correspondence that goes through the post has been raised, but has not been dealt with as fully as it deserves. It was brought to a head quite recently by the examining of the poems sent by Mr. Lawrence. When the Home Secretary was being cross-examined last week, I indicated, by way of a supplementary question, that the only authority, as he has himself mentioned, is that of a Secretary of State. One has a right to know how far this is being used. It takes us back to the old time practice which aroused considerable furore in the country and in the House many years ago when Mazzini's correspondence was opened in the post, and when people were very much more concerned with individual liberty and individual rights than they are at present. It is interesting to note that in the Standard History of the Post Office by Mr. Joyce, he mentioned 122 that as early as 1735 Members of Parliament had begun to complain that their letters bore evident signs of having been opened at the Post Office. Considerable agitation sprang up and it was then revealed that there had been since 1718 established in the Post Office an office, the cost running into £4,700 a year to the Department which was just for that purpose, the opening of the correspondence of certain people to examine it in the interests of the then Walpole Government. Coming down to the present situation, in the life of Sir Rowland Hill, attention is called to the fact that:Incredible as it may appear, it is nevertheless true that as late as 1844 a system dating from some far distant time was in full operation under which clerks from the Foreign Office used to attend on the arrival of mails from abroad to open letters addressed to certain Ministers resident in England, and make from them such extracts as they deemed useful for the service of Government.In view of the recent happenings, and the concern that has arisen in the mind of the public, we have a right to know whether that is now being carried out, whether there is any opening of the correspondence of the public, whether the Home Secretary is using it with regard, say to political opponents. I think there is a good deal of disquietude of mind as to whether there is a lot of unnecessary prying, both with regard to the matter raised in the publication of the recent book and the poems, and also the danger that might operate to any party or to any Government to abuse the possibilities that arise under these regulations. Perhaps it would help the House considerably if the Postmaster-General could assure us that that is not being exercised in any way whatever.
§ Sir HUGH LUCAS-TOOTH
I want to raise a particular case which has some general bearing. It is the case of a constituent of mine who was up till last year an overseer in the Post Office. He was dismissed for misconduct with a female clerk in the Post Office, and at the time of his dismissal he was receiving £8 weekly. He was 56 years of age and, therefore, due to retire in a very few years, when he would have been eligible for a gratuity of £400 or thereabout and a pension of £4 a week. As it is, he is facing destitution. If I were raising this as a particular case I could point out 123 that his wife is entirely destitute and that their only son on whom they might have relied for support was killed during the war. I remember a year or two ago attention being drawn to the dismissal of a postman who was about to retire because he was discovered to have been pilfering. Pilfering is definitely a crime, and further than that, when a man is found pilfering, there is good reason to believe that he may have been indulging in it for some time. In this case no crime whatever was committed, in fact if it had been any other woman but one in the employment of the Post Office, the man would not have been dismissed. There is no ground to believe that this overseer abused his position and, in fact, the woman in question was 38 years of age.
Apparently there is only one punishment meted out for every offence of this character, and that is dismissal. If this man had been aged about 30 or 40 he would have had exactly the same punishment, but it would not have been nearly so severe, because he would have had some prospect of getting another job. I do not know whether it is possible for the Postmaster-General to mitigate the penalty, but it seems to me that the present system of dismissal, when a man has no future prospects, is a bad one. In the old days there was only one penalty of hanging, for both murder and sheep stealing, and it seems to me this is very much on a par with that, and is likely to have the same vicious result. After all, here is a man who has committed, comparatively speaking, a small offence. He is aware that if he is discovered he is faced with dismissal and complete destitution. He is handling perhaps large sums of money, sometimes £1,000 or more at a time. Surely the knowledge of this penalty is one of the greatest incentives you could possibly place upon him to commit some further act, and is, in fact, a direct temptation to him to commit a felony. I have had correspondence and conversations with the Postmaster-General, but I do not want to plead this particular case. I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman how many men are dismissed without gratuity and without pension, and I should like to know for what sort of offences they get dismissed in this way. 124 I would plead with him, for the sake not only of this individual but of the service, that something should be done to mitigate the penalty when the offence is not so great.
§ Mr. MORRIS
The Postmaster-General rightly congratulated himself upon the success of the Post Office as a business proposition. I think the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Snowden) has said that he would not see the Post Office run as anything except as a business concern, but he was not prepared to see it subsidised by the taxpayers in any way. The Post Office returns for the four or five years in which this Government has been in office show an annual profit of something like £6,000,000. During that period they have made a profit of something like £30,000,000. The right hon. Gentleman may congratulate himself upon a substantial profit. The only trouble about it is that, far from being allowed to use it even for the development of the services, the Chancellor of the Exchequer takes the whole lot, and, says the Postmaster-General: "If I did not permit the Chancellor of the Exchequer to come and raid my surplus profit, there would only be an additional tax imposed upon the taxpayers." That is not entirely regarding the Post Office as a business proposition.
There is no reason why the customers of the Post Office should be called upon to subsidise the Treasury. First and foremost, they should have their own services provided for them to a much higher degree of efficiency than at present before any additional taxation is taken into consideration. I take, first, the three services singled out by the Postmaster-General. It is true that he has improved the position with regard to rural telephones since last year, but still guarantees are being demanded with regard to the call offices. Six calls a day are still being demanded before a kiosk can be put up, or else a guarantee varying in amount is asked. That is scarcely a position that can be justified. The rural telephone is a service that is much more needed in paces where the population can scarcely afford the guarantee, and, indeed, where the calls will not come to six a day. Considering the difficulty of summoning a doctor, 125 clearly, from the point of view of the health services, the telephone is much needed.
In some places, the daily delivery of letters has not been restored after the War. There are areas where delivery takes place as rarely as twice a week. A man living in a rural area has exactly the same need for his postal service as a man in a town area, and there is no reason why he should be penalised. Instead of the Chancellor of the Exchequer relieving the taxpayer, the money should be used to put the customers of the Post Office, whether rural or urban, upon the same basis. It is a very unfair position. Then there is the question of sub-offices that are now being closed down. The closing down of a sub-office in a rural area is not exactly the same as closing down a sub-office in an urban area. One can regard a sub-office in an urban area on an economic basis, but there has been a closing down of some offices in the rural areas which are in a totally different position. A sub-office in a rural area may not be an economic office. Some of these offices have been removed a distance of a mile-and-a-half or two miles away from the old sub-office, with the result that not only the customers of the Post Office but those who want to post their letters have to travel a mile-and-a-half or two miles to what is regarded as a more convenient centre from the Post Office point of view. But the Post Office, apart from selling stamps, is also the place Where the old age pension is paid out, and therefore old age pensioners have to travel this extra distance in order to get their pensions. I would point out to the right hon. Gentleman that before he attempts to give his surplus to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to obviate an additional burden of taxation some of that surplus should be used to equalise the conditions and facilities as between the rural and the urban postal areas and as between the urban and the rural old age pensioners. These are services which the Post Office as a business proposition must perform in the interests of its customers, whether they be rural or urban customers. The purely taxation point of view should be a secondary and subsidiary consideration to the postal needs, particularly in the rural areas.
§ Sir GERALD HOHLER
I have only risen in order to make an inquiry of the Postmaster-General. We have heard about the request for a reduction of letter postage to one penny. Personally, I do not agree with it at all. We were told some years ago when the stamp duty on cheques was increased from 1d. to 2d. that it would hit trade and that the use of cheques would steadily be diminished. Trade has not been hindered in any way while the number of cheques has increased enormously. I believe that the Post Office would not benefit in any way by a reduction of postage nor would the country. I cannot believe that such a course would help trade. The numbers of circulars and advertisements and prospectuses and the like one can send for a halfpenny are something extraordinary.
I cannot find that the Post Office accounts are kept with that accuracy which enables one to determine whether or not there is a profit on the delivery of letters. A great number of branches of work are brought into the accounts. I am not going to enumerate them, but there is one to which I want to draw attention, and for which I have searched and cannot find. Is the amount received in respect of receipt stamps merged into the general profits? This sum must be very large indeed—twopence on every receipt over two sovereigns. There is another point. Under the Stamp Act, 1891, adhesive stamps are allowed to be used, and in this connection the Post Office render no service whatever except sell the stamps. The sixpenny contract stamps and other stamps of that kind are allowed, and bill stamps, and the revenue in regard to these must be very large indeed. Are the accounts in respect of these all merged into the Post Office accounts?
When we are asked to reduce the postage, I want to know what profit is really made out of postage. I think that before we think of giving up the revenue which is received from 1½d. postage, it ought to be made clear whether we make a genuine profit on postal delivery. People seem to have forgotten that the Post Office was carried on for years at a loss. Who found the money? The country! There is no capital account kept. If this were a private business, there would be a 127 capital account, and interest would be charged on the capital account. On the principle on which we have been proceeding, we do not know in the least whether our business has been carried on at a profit or not. Therefore, I say, particularly in regard to the cost to the country at the present time, that it would be most foolish to reduce our postage. I have already pointed out that when the charge on cheques was increased we were told that it would hit trade, and now we are told that if postage is reduced by a halfpenny it will increase trade. I wonder how many letters are really business letters. Probably the bulk consist of private correspondence. Facilities are already given and reductions made enabling people to send things for a halfpenny which the general correspondent who writes letters cannot think of sending. I am glad to think that it is probable that no reduction will be made.
Mr. L'ESTRANGE MALONE
There are one or two points which I want to raise with the Postmaster-General before this Vote is passed. The first point is concerned with the telephone service. We have had a certain amount of discussion about that, and the point I want to raise is quite a minor matter. On 1st March a number of telephone exchanges changed their names, and the subscribers are being invited to purchase postcards from the Postmaster-General and to send them to business houses and others accustomed to use their telephone numbers notifying the change. I would suggest to the Postmaster-General that it would be better if he could supply these postcards franked, because it is a great trouble and cost for subscribers to have to send them to all the business firms with whom they have dealings in order to notify them of their new telephone number. This is a great waste of money, because the operators themselves have not been notified of the new exchanges. I rang up a few of the new exchanges to-day, and I found in regard to some that the operators had not heard of the new names. Either the matter in regard to the change ought to be left to the telephone operators or the Postmaster-General should allow the postcards to pass through the post free of charge. It is a small matter, but I 128 think it would be a great convenience to shops and business houses.
I want to raise a matter concerning the employment of a supervising officer at the Tavistock Post Office. It is a matter which dates back to 1920 at the time of the General Strike. This man was employed as a supervising clerk or supervisor in the Tavistock Post Office. Hon. Members know that those were times of great feeling and great excitement. I believe the man left the office and went into the Tavistock Market Square, when, rightly or wrongly, he entered into a discussion with somebody who was in control of a motor car. That may or may not have been an offence, but it was dealt with and the question concluded. Then, what happened? A certain period elapsed, and, in going through his annual returns, some mistake was found, and cause was taken to deprive him of his position. I have seen the correspondence regarding this case, and in the period that elapsed between the General Strike and the disrating of this man—the loss of pension and certain allowances—the headquarters of the Conservative party in Tavistock wrote to the Postmaster-General pointing out that the man happened to be the Chairman of the Tavistock Labour party. I am not going to suggest for one moment that the Postmaster-General would be influenced by a letter of that sort; of course not. Probably the opposite would be the effect; he might be more generous. But it does show this, that the people in the neighbourhood, probably his superior officer or the people who were employed in a temporary civilian capacity during this period, were biased against this man because he happened to be the Chairman of the Tavistock Labour party. I am only bringing up this case in order to appeal to the Postmaster-General and to ask him to remember the words of the Royal Proclamation after the General Strike and to put the "past behind." I want to appeal to the Postmaster-General to reconsider this man's case and to see whether, after the lapse of this period he cannot put him back into the position of which he was, in my opinion, most unjustly deprived. My hon. Friend the Member for North Camberwell (Mr. Ammon) raised the question of the merger and the Communications Company. I want to emphasise and to press 129 his demand for further particulars of the negotiations that are going on for the formation of this company, particularly in regard to two points. Naturally, we should like to have a general review of the situation and the difficulties which, we understand, have arisen in regard to negotiations with certain of the interests. We ought to know whether the proposals passed by the House in the Imperial Telegraph Act are actually going to mature, or whether they are going to be considerably modified. I should like to ask whether the Postmaster-General has been able to arrange for any considerable lowering of the rates of telegrams and cablegrams under the new system. I well remember during the three days that this Bill was going through the House that we pressed this point. It is a matter which interests the newspapers in this country very deeply. We made the point, and I believe it is the fact, that under the beam system it is possible to adopt a flat rate service not only to all parts of the Empire, tout to any part where there is a beam service to receive it, and also a rate very much reduced on that at present charged for sending cablegrams to the Far East and to various part of the Empire. It costs exactly the same to send a message by beam to the other side of the world as it does to the Continent of Europe or anywhere else. We shall not be in order in discussing this matter now, but I think that we ought to know, in connection with the negotiations, whether the Postmaster-General can give us any prospect that the rates are going to be very materially reduced. The other point in connection with these negotiations that interests me particularly is in regard to the conditions of the employés of the beam stations and the other Post Office works. I should like to know whether the Postmaster-General has been able to arrive at any satisfactory agreement with the union representing certain of these men, and whether he can assure us that all the employés, skilled and unskilled, engineering, radio and telephone, who are now employed by the Post Office, will receive as good conditions in future as they receive now under the Post Office. I have received a number of letters from men employed in some of the beam stations, and they are getting very anxious as to the conditions 130 of their transfer, and they would like to know that their future interests and rights will be safeguarded.
Then I want to raise a matter which has been dealt with on these benches this afternoon. I do not want to follow hon. Members into the general administration of broadcasting, although I am in some doubts as to whether the technical side of broadcasting is sufficiently supervised by the Postmaster-General, having regard to the interests of the people who pay licences. The Postmaster-General has some responsibility in this matter, and I think the policy pursued during the last three or four years has not been very satisfactory from the point of view of the listener. First of all, there was the erection of a few high-power stations, and, when the market in that connection was exhausted, the policy was changed, and we had the erection of a number of low-power stations, and the high-power stations were allowed to be put in the background. In the last few months, there have been constant changes of wave lengths, which have created a tremendous amount of inconvenience to the people who benefit from these new contrivances. All this shows that the engineering side of the British Broadcasting Corporation does not look far enough ahead.
I think that is true of the attitude taken up by the British Broadcasting Corporation, with the approval of the Postmaster-General, in regard to the question of television. That is a very important question. We are now only in the elementary stage of being able not merely to broadcast sounds, but also to broadcast sight. I was at an experiment the other day with my hon. Friend the Member for North Camberwell (Mr. Ammon). I cannot say that he was quite as good looking through the televisor as he is in this House, but he was quite recognisable. I believe that many hon. Members have seen the results of television, and I think that the Postmaster-General has, too. Anybody who goes there with an open mind must admit that, however elementary the present development is, a beginning has been made, and it is only a question of the evolution of the present apparatus. As I understand it, the people who are experimenting with this device approached the Postmaster-General and the British 131 Broadcasting Corporation for permission to allow the broadcasting service to assist in the development of this new science. The Postmaster-General was quite satisfied with the advance made and referred the experimenters to the British Broadcasting Corporation.
The British Broadcasting Corporation, before replying to the Company, made an examination of the apparatus, and then at once issued a statement to the Press in words to the effect that it was no good. Just at the same time, they issued a statement which enabled another apparatus, the Fultograph, to raise considerable capital to develop the system of broadcasting still pictures. Having induced the Postmaster-General to visa their project and having subsequently got the British Broadcasting Corporation to endorse their broadcasting, they went on the market and were successful. But I do not believe that the broadcasting of still pictures which, I think, has been done by newspapers over land lines for some years—I believe the "Daily Mirror" broadcast a still picture 20 years ago—is of very much interest. I am concerned to know why the broadcasting of living pictures is still being opposed. I read a report of the Chief Engineer of the British Broadcasting Corporation on whose advice presumably, the Postmaster-General relied when he accepted the recommendations of the British Broadcasting Corporation. I will only quote two paragraphs from an article which appeared in a wireless paper known as "Popular Wireless." The article said:The experts' view is this: There is nothing wrong with television in principle. There appears, however, little hope of a practical issue, except in a limited sense.That was on 22nd September, 1928, but as recently as 8th December, 1928, the same person writing about television said:My own view is that along the lines of mechanical scanning as used by Baird it cannot improve; quantities beat it. Even if that problem is insurmountable, it requires such a large number of (effective) wave-lengths that by wireless it is hopelessly unwieldy.I cannot help thinking that when a person holding a responsible position in the British Broadcasting Corporation made such a completely condemnatory statement 132 on the prospects of this new science he was adopting the same attitude as that taken up towards all new sciences in the last 100 years. When the first steamships were built, the Sea Lords at the Admiralty declared that iron ships could never carry sufficient coal to cross the Atlantic, and, if they did, they would be too heavy and could only get half-way across. While they were proving this, the Great Eastern did, in fact, make the first crossing of the Atlantic by a power-driven ship. There has hardly been a new invention or a new development which has not met with the same opposition. There was an attempt made to prohibit the use of locomotive engines with trains—
I was only trying to draw the analogy that all new inventions had been opposed by reaction. I will conclude by drawing the attention of the Postmaster-General to this opposition, because I think there must be some reason for it beyond the reason of mere stupidity and reaction. I think the opposition is due to the fact that certain interests fear the competition with cablegrams if television is carried into effect. It is perfectly clear, if you hold up a sheet of newspaper and read it in America, Australia, or New Zealand, that, by mechanical means and radio means, you can transmit whole messages many of scores of times quicker than you can by broadcasting a cablegram by beam wireless. The beam wireless, which is a wonderful invention, will be put into the past. When you have got television, you will be able to cut down cable rates much more than you can now. I fear that this obstruction on the part of certain interests to the development of television may be due to the fact that these big monopoly combines now control wireless and fear these new developments. I appeal to the Postmaster-General not to be led aside. I hold no brief for the developments of the last two months, but, however bad or good they may be, they are not all the Postmaster-General's own fault. If he could take control of all the broadcasting service, the matter would be very much easier, but, even with his limited powers of selection, he could do a great deal to help in the 133 development of what I feel sure will one day be a very wonderful means of communicating sight and sound all over the world.
§ Sir DOUGLAS NEWTON
I would like to take this opportunity of asking the Postmaster-General one or two questions and of offering one or two suggestions. Before I do so, however, I would like to congratulate him on the progressive development which has taken place in the use of the automatic telephone. There are many who believe that the telephone system in this country is the finest telephone system in the world, and that impression is always strengthened by visits abroad and attempts to carry on telephonic conversations in other countries. But I feel that the development of the automatic telephone system is a still greater advance and I would urge the Postmaster-General, with all respect, to take every reasonable step to extend the system as rapidly as possible, because the more the exchanges that come under the automatic system the greater will be the benefit to the users of the telephone in general.
I should like also to ask him a question in regard to the development of telephones in rural areas. Owing to the cost, it is impossible to provide the same system of telephones in rural areas as is given to urban districts. Therefore rural party telephone lines have to be installed. The objection, however, to the rural party telephone line system is that it lacks secrecy. Some time ago questions were asked in this House as to the steps being taken experimentally to devise a system to give secrecy on rural party lines, and we were then told that progress was being made. Since that time we have had no further news and I should like to ask the Postmaster-General if there is any reasonable prospect of secrecy being obtained on rural party lines and whether he is devoting any funds to research in that respect.
There is one other aspect of the telephone service to which I would like to draw attention, and that is in regard to Calls originated overseas. It so happened that I had to put through a call from a rather remote district in Germany not long ago, and it was a call made by arrangement. On making the call, I was informed that the English subscriber could not be obtained, so I asked to be 134 put through to the Post Office in London. I was told that the Post Office in London refused to accept any calls from private individuals abroad. It seems to me, however, that it should be open to anyone to make a call from anywhere to the Post Office in London so that he can make inquiries in his own language from the postal officials, and ascertain whether it is possible to get the subscriber he seeks. I hope that the Postmaster-General will be able to see his way to institute a service of that kind so as to ensure that calls made from abroad can be made to the postal officials in London.
There is one other small point to which I would like to refer in respect to the accounts rendered to telephone subscribers. We are asked to make deposits in advance. Why that deposit should be so large it is difficult to understand, but once it has been made it does not again appear in the subscribers' account. It seems, however, only fair that he should know what money is in hand and what the amount of his deposit is, and that this information should be shown on his accounts. In closing, I would like again to congratulate the Postmaster-General on the telephone service we receive, which is of the greatest benefit to trade and industry in this country.
§ Major OWEN
There are one or two points which I want to take up with the Postmaster-General. During his speech, he asked for instances of roads where the telephone and telegraph poles were a serious danger to traffic. I can give him one instance; a very clear case. Anyone who has travelled by road from Carnarvon to Bangor will know that it is a very narrow road indeed, yet all along it you will find that the telephone poles, instead of being alongside the hedge, stand out some distance in the road. Then there is the difficulty which a large number of wireless subscribers experience in obtaining connection with various wireless stations in the country. I have already drawn the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the difficulty which subscribers in the town of Carnarvon are experiencing. What the exact cause is I cannot say, but, apparently, it is a combination of two things. First, the vicinity of the Marconi station and, secondly, the interference of the telephone wires.
135 The question to which I want to draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention more particularly is the provision of rural telephones. In this matter the Post Office does not act like a business concern. Instead of helping and encouraging people in rural areas to establish and make use of telephones, they ask for guarantees and rentals which make it practically impossible to start this service in some places. The real importance of rural telephones is this. During last month we experienced in my own county very heavy snowstorms and for a week or more the roads were impassable. Medical service could only be obtained through the medium of the telephone. There was a great deal of sickness in the county, and only yesterday I was talking to one of our chief medical men who told me that without the use of the telephone at the local call office it would have been impossible to give any sort of medical relief in this area. There are certain areas in which there is still no call office, and it is extremely important that the Postmaster-General should make provision for call offices to be established in all post offices in rural areas including sub-post offices. I am not criticising the work of the Post Office, but I rather put this forward as an appeal to the right hon. Gentleman. If medical service in the rural areas is to be of value, it must be supported by a good telephone service.
There is one other matter in which the Post Office rather fails to carry out its work as a business concern. I have drawn the attention of the Postmaster-General to a petition signed by a whole district in Carnarvonshire asking for special facilities to be given in the way of money orders, but, although that petition has been sent to the right hon. Gentlemen, they are still without these facilities. Surely it is part of the work of the Post Office to provide such facilities, particularly when there is a demand for them. The excuse is often made that the Post Office do not establish a telephone exchange in a certain area because they are not asked to do so. I blame them for that. If an exchange was established in an area it would create the demand. But here is the case where a demand is made, the facilities are required, yet the right hon. Gentleman does not supply them.
136 Last July the Postmaster-General claimed that when an application is made for a telephone service to be installed in a private or business house he had attained a position in which he was able to supply it within three or four weeks' time. That is not my experience. I moved into a new house during last summer, and before I moved in I communicated with the Assistant Postmaster-General and asked him to be good enough to arrange for a telephone service to be installed. That was in June. I did not get that telephone installed until well on in September, or it may have been October, I am not certain as to the exact date. But it was not two or three weeks, it was practically three months before the telephone came in. I live about three miles outside Carnarvon and I have to pay £18 a year for the installation. I was offered a service on another exchange which would only give me a 12 hours service, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. What I would like to know is whether any calculation had been made by the Post Office as to the cost of establishing telephone exchanges in rural areas to cover the whole of that area and giving a 24 hours service? If the right hon. Gentleman could supply that information it would enable us to arrive at some definite conclusion as to whether the Post Office could enter into that expenditure, which would not only assist the community generally but the agricultural industry in particular.
§ Mr. PILCHER
When this Debate began my chief interest in it was the hope that the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) in the course of his speech would elaborate a little the proposal he made in a certain post-prandia, speech, for giving 60,000 more men permanent employment for a couple of years on telephone construction. The point I wanted to make has, in effect, been already made by the Postmaster-General. I was going to quote from the accounts the fact that the capital expenditure on the telephone system last year amounted to more than £10,000,000 sterling. As far as I can gather the idea of the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs is to spend £12,000,000 sterling annually, and to give employment to 60,000 men. He seems to calculate that the expenditure of £1,000,000 will give employment 137 to 5,000 men. He gave us no details at all of the financial side of his scheme, although he said he would do so, but I calculate that the average expenditure of the Post Office for the last four years, according to the Postmaster-General, is just about the figure which I imagined the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs proposes to spend. That point has been dealt with to that extent.
There is another point which I want to make. It was suggested in the course of the speech of the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs outside the House, that extra work could be given to 60,000 men, and that the sum of money mentioned could be invested without any cost either to the ratepayers or taxpayers. I want to quote from the Post Office commercial accounts to show how completely illusory that promise of the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs must be unless he has some system of operation very different from that which already obtains in the Post Office. At the present moment the debt owed by this country on account of telephone services, that is, capital investments, exceeds £108,000,000 sterling. That cost the country last year, in respect of interest and amortisation expenditure, £6,898,000. In other words, we paid nearly £7,000,000 in respect of the interest, etc., on this investment of £108,000,000 on telephones.
What was the net profit that this country made on this telephone investment? I have here the net profits for the last four or five years. On that vast investment of £108,000,000 our net profit in 1925 was less than £500,000; in 1926 it was £550,000; in 1927 £283,000, and in 1928 £107,000. £100,000 on an investment of £108,000,000 is not the sort of rate of profit which would attract investers in the City. Unless there is to be a very great improvement made in the return obtainable from expenditure on telephone account, if the kind outlined by the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs, it is absolutely impossible for him to keep that pledge by giving work to 60,000 men and charging nothing whatever to the ratepayer or taxpayer.
Let me refer to what seems to me to be the completely illusory character of the analogies or comparisons which have been made between other peoples and ourselves. The fact that we have only 138 36 telephones per 1,000 of the population was called in evidence against us as a sign of our backwardness in telephone development compared with the United States, where there are 160 telephones per 1,000 persons. Anyone who knows New York or Chicago and who understands the way the life of the people there is organised, knows that the telephone in their colossal buildings, some of which are 700 and 800 feet high and house populations of 10,000 and 15,000, are the only means of communication. It is useless to compare the conditions in New York and the great cities of America with the conditions that exist in London, and still less with those in the more retired parts of the country. But there is one point to which it is well worth while to call attention, though by way of comparison rather than analogy. I have shown that on our investment of £108,000,000 we made a profit last year of roughly £100,000, and that was in a State-managed enterprise. The American Telephone and Telegraph Company, which is responsible for telephone development in the States, made a return of 6.6 per cent. on its total investment last year, and in the next five years it is to spend no less than £400,000,000 of new capital on new telephone construction, or nearly four times the total capital investment in telephones in this country. If there is one valid conclusion to be drawn from a comparison between the two countries, it is surely to the disadvantage of the national management of public utilities which has been praised so highly from the Labour benches to-day.
I would make a very small suggestion in respect of the ultimate placing of our telephone investment account on a more favourable basis. I am sure that everyone in the House is anxious to see the day when we shall get a reasonable return of 4 or 5 per cent. at least on our huge national investment in telephones, and indeed on the whole Post Office service. A contrast with the telephone account, which does at least pay its way, is the telegraph service, on which there has been a serious loss each year for many years. I would recall the fact that the loss really began to operate in 1885, the year in which the suggestion of a private Member was accepted for the reduction of the telegram charge to the quite uneconomic 139 level of 6d. But that is merely in passing. My suggestion is the possibility of utilising the telegraph system and the telephone system together. I believe that a very large part of the loss on the telegraph system—it is confirmed by the Hardman Lever Report—is due to the cost of delivery in these days of expensive labour. Has anyone ever worked out the possibility of telegram deliveries over the telephone at a less cost than the normal delivery? Why should it not be possible in the case of villages or of people who cannot get on the telephone for some reason and who must telegraph, to send, say, 12 words for 9d. or less, to be telegraphed to the post office adjacent to the recipient's address, and to be there telephoned to him and not delivered by the messenger, who costs 3d. or 6d. or 9d. a mile? It is a small suggestion which may help us to get into the position of complete financial stability in the Post Office.
One other small point. In the satisfactory development of rural telephones which is taking place, are we to understand that work is being carried out on the basis of the new automatic telephones? I see that three or four months ago the first automatic telephone system was established in a parish in Bedfordshire. The fact that the automatic system can be used in the villages is likely to revolutionise the whole basis on which these estimates of rural expansion are made. It is certainly going to cut out the labour cost. Anyone who examines the Post Office accounts will be amazed to find how large a proportion of the total expenditure is referable to labour. I will not attempt to give the details, but I have ascertained that out of a total expenditure, under all heads, of about £60,000,000, nearly £40,000,000 is due to labour. Quite obviously, if it were possible to reduce labour costs by the adoption of automatic telephones in the rural areas, it would hasten the day of better telephonic communication in the rural areas, and help to secure a much better return on the capital investment in telephones than is being made at the present time.
§ Major Sir ARCHIBALD SINCLAIR
The hon. Member who has just sat down made two interesting and constructive 140 suggestions which will, I have no doubt, receive the careful and respectful consideration of the Postmaster-General. After all, these are occasions upon which it is customary for the House to devote itself to a criticism of the administration of the Department whose Estimates are under discussion, and to making constructive proposals for its improvement. But the hon. Member for Penrhyn and Falmouth (Mr. Pilcher) devoted about five-sixths of his speech not to a criticism of the Postmaster-General for his administration or for any speeches which he has delivered in this House, but to a criticism of my right hon. Friend the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) for a speech which he delivered in another part of this city. I do not propose to follow the hon. Member in that criticism.
§ Mr. PILCHER
May I remind my hon. and gallant Friend that the Postmaster-General referred to that particular postprandial oration, and it has been referred to in several other speeches in the course of this Debate.
§ Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Mr. James Hope)
I think if any hon. Member of this House criticises the Post Office outside this House, then another hon. Member of this House can criticise him on an occasion of this kind.
§ Sir A. SINCLAIR
I did not for a moment suggest that the hon. Member's speech was out of order. Had I thought so, I should have risen in my place on a point of Order. All I wish to say is that the speech which the hon. Member criticised was a speech devoted to the solution of the unemployment problem and in considering that problem we must remember that although a particular policy may cost money in one direction, large sums of money may be saved by it in other directions. For example, if men are employed to put up telephone equipment on a large scale, the work itself may cost a great deal of money, but, as against that, there may be a great saving on unemployment benefit. All these other questions which are directly concerned with the solution of the unemployment problem would be out of order in this Debate. The grave question of unemployment and great constructive 141 proposals made for the solution of the problem cannot possibly be discussed on an Estimate which relates to one Government Department only. But my hon. Friend will only have to exercise a small amount of patience. He will soon be able to purchase for a moderate sum a pamphlet in which the whole of these proposals, including that which he has criticised, are worked out with the utmost clarity by men of the highest eminence in the business life of this country.
I wish to refer to the question of broadcasting, and its importance in connection with the General Election which is approaching. The Postmaster-General said the difficulty in giving effect to the proposals which my right hon. Friend made for the greater use of broadcasting at the General Election was that the Liberal party had objected to the view that the Government should be able to reply to any attack made upon them either by the Labour party or the Liberal party—the view, in short, that they should have the right to one speech in reply to every Liberal speech and one in reply to every Labour speech. That, of course, for reasons already given in this Debate is not a demand to which we—or, I think any party except the Government party—could accede. It would mean that each of the two Opposition parties would fee open to attacks from the other Opposition party and from the Government party, and would only be able to make one reply. We must have it fair all round, and each party must have its turn at the microphone. I think the right hon. Gentleman the Postmaster-General was under the misapprehension that this difficulty applied to the General Election. This difficulty however has arisen as regards political broadcasting at times other than the General Election. As far as the General Election is concerned, I understand it has now been agreed that each party should have its turn. Therefore the difficulty does not arise as regards the General Election. My right hon. Friend was pleading, not as the Postmaster-General seemed to think, that the right hon. Gentleman should resolve a disagreement which had arisen among the three parties over this question of pre-General Election propaganda, but that while the Election 142 was going on and in the period immediately preceding the Election, he should obtain from the Broadcasting Corporation greater facilities in accordance with the arrangements which have been made for each party to speak.
There are certain other aspects of broadcasting to which I wish to refer. New that we have so many stations in this country, would it not be possible to arrange for a larger number of alternative services? There are two reasons for that request. The first is that of entertainment. The point of view of the mass of listeners in this country who pay their fees for their wireless licences is one which should be taken into account in this respect. Although we have two main stations broadcasting, it often happens that they are broadcasting exactly the same kind of stuff at the same time. Surely there could be some arrangement whereby you could have two or three different stations broadcasting different programmes, so that the man who wants music can get it, and the man who wants those comic turns, which are the most dreary and depressing turns to which I think it is possible to listen at any time, can get them, and the man who wants a play can have it; but at present it often happens that a number of stations are broadcasting the same thing at the same time, and I think some effort might be made to put that right.
There is another great service which the broadcasting people are doing, and that is education. It sounds a dull subject, but it is not really dull. They get the very finest lecturers, taking up very interesting topics, and not only do they manage to do this, but there have been built up little study circles, little clubs of people up and down the country, who collect in village halls and other places, turn on the loud speaker, and there listen to lectures on subjects of the greatest interest, delivered by some of the greatest experts in the country. That is a very great opportunity which the people of this country have got, and of which they are at present making an increasing use. But the educational side of broadcasting finds great difficulty, I understand, in getting facilities at the right time for the mass of people to take advantage of. If greater provision were made for alternative programmes, then, although you might have one station broadcasting 143 music and another plays, or whatever it might be, you would have a third where educational lectures and so forth could be delivered, at times that would be convenient for the mass of the people to listen.
There is one other aspect of broadcasting to which I wish to refer. The facilities which we have in Scotland are very inadequate. We have no high-powered station at all in Scotland, and lately we have been experiencing very great difficulty in getting English stations at all. It is very largely Berlin and the other German stations and the Danish stations that we rely on up there, and we find very great difficulty—I am talking now of the far north, the Highlands—in getting the Scottish or English stations. I suggest that we should have in Scotland a couple of high-powered stations or an increase in the number of transmitting stations, so that we could get proper Scottish programmes that would be immensely appreciated by the wireless listeners. I should like to say how very much we regret the absence of the Assistant Postmaster-General through illness and how much we have appreciated his efforts in regard to the Wick commercial wireless station. I should like to thank the Postmaster-General for the steps which he has caused to be made in replacing the equipment in that station, but for reasons connected with the weather and its unsuitability for building operations, I understand that they have not been started, and I should like an assurance that they will be undertaken in the near future.
I should like now to say a word on the question of telephones in rural areas. We have a very strong claim for saying that the telephone system should be regarded as a great national service. Hon. Members have talked from different sides of the House about the telephones being run on a commercial basis, and they have asked if they make a profit and if they should not pay Income Tax and Super-tax, and all that kind of thing, but we say that fundamentally the telephones should be regarded as a great national service. The scattered communities in the country districts are just as much entitled as are the big towns to enjoy the blessings of the telephone. Its two principal blessings are, first, in cases of serious illness or other emergency, 144 to be able to get quickly into touch with the doctor and the ambulance, which we now have in our country districts, and, secondly, in connection with agriculture and the business of the country districts.
We say that, although we are scattered communities in the countryside, still we have just as much right to have a share in this great national service as have the people in the great cities; and I therefore urge upon the right hon. Gentleman that he should expend it even in places where it may not be possible to get a standard of six or eight calls a day. It may be that for a very long period of time you may not get that average of calls, and then you may get an occasion upon which a human life might be saved, and it seems to me to be well worth a small loss of money. It could not be a very large loss in the case of a call office established in a country post office, for ex hypothesi you would not require the services of an additional clerk or extra labour to look after the telephone, as so few people would be using it. I feel that this great profit which is being made should not be made for the benefit of the Exchequer or to enable the Chancellor of the Exchequer to balance his Budget, but should be put back into the service, for the improvement of the service and for the benefit of the people in the countryside.
Then there are some deficiencies in the postal service to which, from time to time, I have drawn the attention of the Postmaster-General. The postal service which we enjoy in some parts of the Highlands is not as good as it was before the War. There are cases in which quite populous glens and straths are only receiving their post three tines a week, instead of getting a daily delivery, as they did before the War and the only time when they do get a daily delivery is in the shooting season when a few extra people come up for the shooting. That seems very unfair. I have in my mind Strathnaver, which is a glen in which there is a very large number of small holdings. There are two or three shooting lodges in the strath, and when visitors come to these shooting lodges they get a daily delivery down the strath, yet there are scores of families living in the glen, and they do not see why the addition of these three or four 145 families coming up for three or four months in the shooting season should enable them to get a daily delivery while they have to go without for nine months in the year. I would ask the Postmaster-General whether, in circumstances like that, where obviously the Department must make a profits-it would not give this daily service when the shooting tenants are there if it did not make a profit, so that the loss must be very small when these three lodges are empty—he could not see his way to give these people the benefit of a daily delivery all the year round.
§ Mr. E. BROWN
I have had some correspondence with the Postmaster-General in regard to the cutting down of the meal hour of the post office at Leith. I intended taking up the matter further with the right hon. Gentleman privately; if I do so now, it will save a letter. The time throughout the post office in Edinburgh is on an equal basis, but the condition in Leith is not the same. The post office in Leith, being in the middle of a very long street, is a long way from a place where a wholesome mid-day meal can be obtained, and this makes it much more difficult for the servants of the Post Office in Leith to get to the meal place outside than is the case in Edinburgh, where the post office is in the main street, Princes Street. It is felt by some of those who work in the Leith office that if it could be arranged that the extra 10 minutes could be restored, it would be a great convenience. They have a small kitchen and they can cook over a gas stove, but while that may be very well for an occasional snack it is not good for the health of those who have to do it continuously during an eight hours' shift.
I have corresponded with the right hon. Gentleman with respect to a man in my constituency who has been discharged from the engineering department at Edinburgh. I understand from a letter which I have received that there have been other discharges. When there may be an increase of business in the engineering department, I hope that I may have an assurance that this constituent of mine, about whom I wrote to the right hon. Gentleman, will not be penalised because his case has been taken up by me. I hope that he will have an equal 146 chance with others for restoration. Does the right hon. Gentleman wish to answer now?
§ Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER
I understand that the Postmaster-General does wish to answer, but he can only do so by leave of the House.
§ 9.0 p.m.
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
I will answer as briefly as I can some of the questions which have been addressed to me. I have to apologise for the necessarily rambling character of the speeches which I make on these occasions. In answer to the hon. Member for Leith (Mr. E. Brown), I may say, as to his first question, that I will re-investigate the local conditions, in the light of what he has said. With respect to the man of whom he has spoken, I have no hesitation in giving him an unqualified assurance that the man shall certainly not be penalised as regards any prospect of future employment because he has communicated his case to the hon. Member. The hon. and gallant Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir A. Sinclair) referred again to the question of broadcasting at the General Election. I have said all that I had to say on that subject earlier in the evening, and I will add nothing further beyond saying that I am rather sceptical about the value of these attempts at forcible feeding in politics. I am not sure that these attempts may not have an effect opposite to that which is desired, and that we may not end by sickening a certain number of people. I gathered that he desired me, by some means which he did not exactly disclose, to ensure that greater facilities are given for political broadcasting. I have already said that I think the attitude which the British Broadcasting Corporation have adopted, is entirely reasonable. They say: "If you, the political parties, can agree upon what you want, we will give facilities, but, if you cannot agree, we are not going to act as arbiters." In regard to the suggestion that I should act as arbiter, it is clear from the overtures that I have made to the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George), that no decision which I might make would be likely to find favour in his eyes. In regard to the question of the programmes, the hon. and gallant Member probably knows that I have stated that I will take 147 no responsibility whatever for the items that appear in any programme, but I will bring his suggestion to the notice of the Broadcasting Corporation. With respect to the Wick Wireless Station, the work cannot be taken in hand until the weather improves, but I can give him an assurance that, barring accidents, it will be done next year.
The hon. Member for Penryn and Falmouth (Mr. Pilcher) made, I understand, some observations in regard to the small amount of the balance of profit made by the telephone service in this country compared with the telephone service in America, and pointed out that our profit last year was only £107,000. Let me remind the hon. Member that that was not quite a fair comparison to make. I could quite easily show much greater balances, but what I have done is to put a large part of the balance back into the business in the form of development, and in various concessions. My hon. Friend must not forget that, if he is going to compare, he must compare like with like. If he refers to what is called "profit" in the case of a private company, he must take the comparable figure of profit in the case of the Post Office, and the comparable figure in the case of the Post Office is not a balance of £107,000, but the profit before interest is paid. The paying of interest by the Post Office is equivalent to the paying of dividend by a commercial company. If the hon. Member takes comparable figures, the comparable figure in the case of the Post Office telephone department is not £107,000 but £4,071,000.
The hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Edwards) had a very sad face. He said he was charged a fee of 5s. because he had asked for an itemised account involving 2s. 63. If he asks once for an itemised account of 2s. 6d., he will be given an itemised account, and he will not be charged anything for it. If he asks a second time, he will be given an itemised account, and if he asks two, three, or four times he will be given an itemised account and will not be charged extra; but, if he makes a habit of always asking for an itemised account, then we shall have to say: "We are very sorry, but we shall have to charge you for it."
Mr. H. EDWARDS
I have said to the Controller of the London Telephone 148 Service that I have a right to an itemised account when I am sent a bill which does not specify the details. I have asked every time for it, and I shall continue to ask.
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
My hon. Friend must realise that, if everybody insisted upon that, very large extra costs would be incurred by the Post Office, and, obviously, the cost of the telephone service would have to be raised. We are not at all unreasonable in the attitude which we have pursued. I am sorry to differ from the hon. Member, who seems to be unconvinced. The hon. Member for North Camberwell (Mr. Ammon) asked me one or two questions which open rather wide issues, upon which I hesitate to embark at too great length. As regards postal cheques, he knows, of course, that that matter is still under discussion. Regarding facsimile transmission of telegrams, the experiments which we conducted with Berlin were, on the whole, very successful and, as a matter of fact, both this system and another system are now working under private enterprise, I believe, at the present moment. We are watching developments, and it may be a time will come, and I think it probably will come, when this method of facsimile transmission will be called in to aid the ordinary telegraphic transmission of telegrams both in this country and places abroad. The hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Malone) made allusion to this possibility, and it may be the day will come when you will be able, so to speak, to hold up a page of a newspaper before a machine—to show it to the machine—and that another machine at the other end will reproduce it textually and without possibility of error. When that day comes a whole lot of new questions will be raised, as regards newspapers and everything else. Every man's home will become his own newspaper printing office, and the question of the distributor of news will certainly have to be considered from a new angle. Meantime, we are watching with great interest the developments which are taking place, and are doing a certain amount of experimenting on our own.
The hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Lucas-Tooth) asked me a question about an individual and rather painful 149 case. I can only say that the general principle which was applied in that case is the general principle which has been applied by every Postmaster-General for many years. It is necessary in a service of the character of the Post Office, where large mixed staffs are employed, that the rules which have been framed should be rigidly applied. I am very sorry about the facts of the particular case which he raised, and I have the greatest sympathy with him in regard to the tremendous penalty which is involved, but even the infliction of hardship in a particular case is better, I think, than the abrogation of a general rule which, I believe, acts in the interest of the whole service. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Gillingham (Sir G. Hohler) asked me a question about stamps. This is, really, rather a Treasury matter. In point of fact, all revenue stamps sold by the Post Office are put to the credit of the Inland Revenue Account, and there is a small credit passed over to that account in respect of other stamps which the Post Office is assumed to have sold on revenue account. The hon. Member for Northampton also asked a specific question about a post office in Tavistock being disrated. I am afraid I cannot carry the facts of that particular case in my mind, but I will look them up.
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
Disrated, not derated. As regards the position of the Merger negotiations, that, of course, is more a Treasury question than one directly for the Post Office, but as I was asked specifically what was being done by the Post Office I think I am correct in saying that the contracts are now with the associations concerned and are being considered by them, and in due course we shall get their observations. I do not think, so far as I know, that the actual Merger Company has yet been formed. The last time, I made inquiry I was told that its formation had not yet taken place, but I speak with a certain amount of reserve; I do not know, but I do not think it is so.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Sir D. Newton) asked about telephones in rural areas. He inquired whether experiments were being made to provide greater secrecy on rural party lines. The answer is that experiments are still continuing. So far, unhappily, 150 the experiments have not been fraught with a large measure of success, but we still live in hopes, and are trying to do our best to see if we can achieve a satisfactory method of ensuring secrecy. As regards his complaint about not being put through on a foreign call, I have to apologise to him that that should have happened, but the fault was not on the part of the British Post Office, but was the fault of the German operators. Referring to what he said on the subject of village telephones, perhaps I may tell the House one thing which we are doing. I made a very long speech at an earlier hour of the evening, and I did not intend to mention this, because it has not yet reached a sufficient stage of development, but I think things have gone so far that I may tell the House that I hope we now are on the eve of beginning to make a really great advance in the development of rural telephones. We have been experimenting for some considerable time to see whether anything could be done to provide an automatic exchange on a really small scale, what I might call a village automatic exchange. The importance of that lies in this consideration. The cost of telephone operation in rural areas is, to a certain extent, of course, power cost, but the salaries of the operators bulk quite largely in many cases, and, also, there is the question of operating during night hours, where this cost bulks even more largely. Therefore, the problem has been to see whether we could devise a small scale automatic exchange, so to speak, a pocket automatic exchange, which would require comparatively little in the way of building expenditure or for upkeep, and which would be easy to work. Though I do not want to be absolutely certain on the point, I think this problem is in a fair way to being solved.
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
Yes. I was going to say we have actually made a start in two areas. The exchange of which the hon. Member was speaking is an exchange at Haynes, in Bedfordshire, and the other exchange at which the experiment is being tried is in Harbury, near Leamington. Those two exchanges are actually in service now, and so far appear to be operating satisfactorily. In consequence, we are now in course of 151 erecting 20 more of these little rural automatic exchanges, and I hope to extend that number considerably further in the near future. I was not anxious to say much about that now, because the experiment is not thoroughly tried out, and I hope the House will not be too hard on me if the trials take rather longer than I think they are going to do. One feature of that system is that it is possible to instal a kiosk giving a day and night service.
While I am on the subject perhaps I might tell the House of another thing upon which we have been working for some three years, and which also looks like coming to fruition now, and that is the construction of a combined handset for telephone purposes. Hon. Members will remember the old hand-sets where the mouthpiece and the earpiece were combined on the one piece. You picked that up and put it to your ears and you could hear and speak, and were employing only one hand at the time. That old from of telephone set was useless under modern telephonic conditions. I know that it is still in use in some parts of the country, but those instruments are being replaced, because you cannot get the same quality of speech with them that you can with the ordinary pedestal telephones. We have tried to devise a combined set which would give a satisfactory quality of speech. The American Telephone and Telegraph Company have been most courteous. I should like to acknowledge their courtesy in providing us with the very latest type of apparatus which they have been introducing, and we have been working in conjunction with them. I think it is safe to say that we have devised a set which will be an improvement upon the latest American type. At the present moment, I am engaged in making arrangements for the manufacture of a small quantity which I hope we shall be able to use before very long. I think those two statements will assure hon. Members that the Post Office is anxious and desirous of trying to develop, as far as possible, those things for which we recognise there is a genuine public need. I wish to impress upon hon. Members that it is not always as easy to do a thing as it seems. It seems easy to devise this kind of apparatus, but I can assure hon. Members that it has been an 152 extremely difficult problem to deal with, and I hope the problem will be solved satisfactorily.
§ Question "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution" put, and agreed to.