HC Deb 23 June 1939 vol 348 cc2653-65

Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

1.8 p.m.

Mr. Viant

May we have a word from the Minister with respect to this Clause?

Mr. Burgin

As hon. Members know, His Majesty The King is being entertained at the Guildhall by the City of London, and the Minister who should have been here has, unfortuntely been delayed in consequence of the transport difficulties caused by the Royal progress. Perhaps

the Committee will accept apologies for his absence. If the hon. Member will put his point I might in the interval serve the Committee in such way as I can, being myself familiar with the matter, to allow the Minister time to reach here.

Mr. Viant

My point is that owing to the lateness of the hour we have so far permitted this Bill to go through. We have had no Debate. We have not had a detailed explanation from the Minister. If the Postmaster-General is attending a function, the Assistant Postmaster-General could deputise in his place. Some statement ought to be made in connection with this matter. I ask that we might have some enlightenment on the proposals embodied in the Bill. I understand that the money is required for development purposes, but it is due to the Committee that we should be informed what are the measures contemplated and which are the districts in which this expenditure will be used. If the Assistant Postmaster-General were present and he could give us some enlightenment in this regard, I am sure that it would be appreciated by the Committee.

1.11 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Mabane)

I am very glad to have an opportunity of explaining in a little closer detail the services for which we require the money which the first part of Clause 1 authorises to be issued. As the Postmaster-General said the other night, the greater part of the money is required for the development of the telephone system: Some £36,200,000 are required for that purpose, and smaller amounts are required for developments in connection with the postal service, mainly for expenditure on new buildings. In connection with the telegraph service, a smaller amount of £400,000 is required also substantially for new buildings.

It may interest the hon. Member if I indicate some of the major items for which the money is needed in connection with the telephone service. As he knows, the development of the telephone service has been remarkable in recent years, and the rate of development has involved the Post Office in a very considerable programme of capital expenditure mainly for the provision of new main circuits. For example, in the present year the sum of £4,000,000 is required for the provision of main underground lines, and a further sum of £5,420,000 is required for the provision of new local lines. The figures are not dissimilar for 1940. Another major item is in connection with new exchanges and exchange extensions. As the hon. Member knows, new methods of providing telephone service are being developed and that is a very costly business. There is another item in connection with subscribers' and renters' circuits amounting to £3,322,000 and for next year the figure amounts to approximately to the same total—£3,325,000. These are the major items, which total up to £24,417,000 in the present year and to £23,216,000 next year.

I hope that the somewhat more precise figures I have given with regard to the expenditure covered by the Bill, and the further information, will satisfy the hon. Member that the needs are real, that they are occasioned by developments, particularly of the telephone service, and that if this money were not available the telephone service would not be able to expand at the rate it has done in the past. That would be particularly unfortunate at the present time, when the Defence services and the services in connection with air-raid precautions are making such heavy calls upon the Post Office. The hon. Member and the Committee will agree that that would be to the disadvantage of the Post Office and to the defensive position of the nation.

1.14 p.m.

Mr. Muff

I should have liked that statement of the hon. Member to have been available last Friday, when his immediate chief was speaking on another matter. I have not had the pleasure of congratulating the Assistant Postmaster-General on his appointment, and I take the opportunity of doing so. I hope he will see the irony of this Bill and the voting of this money, when a week ago the Postmaster-General if he was not singing the De Profundis was, at any rate, singing the Nunc Dimittis so far as the operations of the Post Office were concerned. The Assistant Postmaster-General has earmarked a sum of £4,000,000 for underground cables and has emphasised the necessity that we should spend this money. This is the business side of the Chamber, and we hope that this £4,000,000 is going to be spent. A week

ago we were giving things away, but to-day, when this sum of money is going to be spent, I want to express a desire that if it is to be expended on under ground cables these will extend beyond London, perhaps to Birmingham, and will even find their way to a city which is adjacent to the constituency of the Assistant Postmaster-General. We think that these underground cables can be used, and should be used, for the most populous part of Britain, Yorkshire, and in a minor degree Lancashire. We are aware that if the cable is adequate it can be used for the purpose of bringing an additional service to the teeming population of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Durham and the southern part ofNorthumberland, by the provision of television. Experts tell us that there is no necessity to reproduce an Alexandra Palace at Slaithwaite or even on Moor- side Edge. I sincerely hope that the Assistant Postmaster-General will bring to his duties vision and television, and will not allow his vision to be blurred by any —

Mr. Messer


Mr. Muff

I am obliged to the hon. Member for giving me a most excellent word. I hope that the Assistant Postmaster-General will live up to the proud traditions of the Post Office and that he will bring this boon to which I have referred to the teeming millions of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Durham. If we do not put up a monument to him we shall remember him in our hearts and in our households when we have this very necessary boon which is only our due. I hope that the hon. Member will not forget the needs of the North of England in the spending of these huge sums of money.

1.19 p.m.

Mr. Alexander

On Friday last we put forward certain grievances we had in regard to the Post Office administration and I do not propose to go into those matters again to-day. However, before we pass this Motion, may I say that we welcome the expenditure on underground cables in an extension of the telephone system, but that some of us are not quite satisfied with the way in which the service is being extended. If the Assistant Postmaster-General will make inquiries he will find a letter from me in his Department about four weeks old—it was there before he arrived—which points out that in a place called Taunton a whole range of applications for a telephone service has been held up not for four weeks but for 15 months, simply because there is a dispute between the local town council and the Postmaster-General as to whether the service to be provided in what is a new district of the town should be by underground wires or by overhead wires. It is really preposterous that the modern and essential service of the telephone should be withheld from a whole block of people, residential and business, because the Postmaster-General cannot get an agreement to put in underground wires. May I express the hope that some of the expenditure which we are authorising today for new cables will mean the speedy clearing up of grievances of this kind, especially where the local authority is also the town-planning authority, and in the laying out of housing estate wants to do away as far as possible with anything that is unsightly.

While I have put that particular point in my correspondence to the Postmaster-General because of the requests from that particular area, it, nevertheless, applies to the inhabitants of the whole country. I have been approached in the last few weeks in regard to the question of television. There is a widespread grievance throughout the counties to which the hon. Member for East Hull (Mr.Muff) has referred because of the impossibility of getting a modern and efficient television service, and that impossibility will continue in the view of many experts until an underground cable service has been provided and is also applied to television work. It may be that the Postmaster-General has expert advice that it is more essential to have a central provincial broadcasting centre. If that be so, let us have a central broadcasting provincial centre and get on with the job, but if it is the expert view that an underground cable can be made capable of conveying an efficient television service to the Northern counties, then I am sure that hon. Members who represent Yorkshire and Lancashire, who are being pressed by private residents and business men, would desire to see that service made available as soon as possible. At present there is great stagnation in the wireless industry because of the halt in public purchases. In the provinces, people are not buying television instruments because they cannot get the television service, but as they hope that there will be such a service the other part of the wireless industry is being injured because people are not buying new wireless instruments as they were three or four years ago. If we are gradually to get away from the non-television set, we ought surely to facilitate the work of the industry in providing the new type of set by making the television service available. I hope that the Assistant Postmaster-General will be able to give us some reassurance as to the Government's activities and intentions in this matter.

1.26 p.m.

Mr. Gurney Braithwaite

1 hope the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough (Mr. Alexander) will pardon me if I make reference to his speech although I heard only a part of it. I immediately pricked up my ears when I heard the right hon. Gentleman refer to Taunton, because, although neither he nor I represent a constituency in that part of the country, we have this in common, that we both happen to be natives of the County of Somerset.

Mr. Alexander

The best one in the country.

Mr. Braithwaite

Certainly, I endorse that remark, with a reservation which I shall make in a moment or two. I should like to add a word about what I happen to know about the case of Taunton. I welcome my hon. Friend to the office of Assistant Postmaster-General and I hope he will signalise his promotion by making a very careful examination of the situation in Taunton, a town with which I am very well acquainted, although my connection with it in these days is more for the purpose of watching cricket matches than taking part in political activities. I endorse what the right hon. Member for Hillsborough said on the subject of television and its development in the Yorkshire area, in particular. This brings me to the reservation to which I referred— and I think I shall have the support of the right hon. Gentleman—that, whereas Somerset is an excellent county in which to be born, Yorkshire is a very excellent county of which to be the representative in the House. It is important that the television machinery should be pushed forward with the least possible delay. I see opposite the hon. Member for East Hull (Mr. Muff). Hull was a pioneer of the automatic telephone exchange, and it was a very excellent experiment in municipal service. Hull has had its triumphs and disasters in this respect, but this is one of its triumphs. I hope that my hon. Friend will also signalise his promotion to this important office by doing everything possible to speed up the transfer to the automatic system of those exchanges that are still operated by hand. I think he will realise that the automatic system has this advantage, if it has no other, that it enables bad-tempered subscribers to obtain their own wrong numbers.

1.29 p.m.

Mr. Ellis Smith

Having asked several Questions in the House arising out of the fact that there is a growing public opinion in the district 50 miles radius of Manchester that a television service should be provided in that part of the country, I wish to associate myself with the request that has been made by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee that the provision of this service to the population of that area should be speeded up. I am becoming more and more concerned by the fact that great developments are taking place within Greater London and that the services provided in Greater London are not provided in the industrial Midlands and the North until many years after they have been perfected. Considering the excellent service that is provided in London for people living within the radius of that service, and the great appreciation that is expressed of the way in which people can see the different functions that take place, I think that in the Manchester district, where the density of population is greater than in any other part of the world, it would be a good business proposition, apart from any other considerations, to provide this service in that area. Quite apart from our own personal views, there is no doubt that there is a growing demand for such a service which we should not be reflecting if we did not take advantage of this opportunity to raise the matter and to impress upon the Post Office the need for providing such a service.

1.31 p.m.

Sir Gifford Fox

I hope that some of the money to be provided by this Bill will be used for bringing up-to-date the postal vans of this country from the point of view of rear lights. Most postal vans have their rear lights high up on top of the van, and in certain conditions it is very difficult for motorists driving at night to see the postal vans. It is true that in the place where the rear light is usually placed on other vehicles, there is a red reflector on the postal vans, but this does not show up easily, and I think it would be possible to put these lights on the postal vans in the ordinary place. It is argued by the Department that the Post Office vans have to do a great deal of backing in order that the mails may be put into them, but other delivery vans also have to do that in order that goods can be put into them. I hope that the Assistant Postmaster-General will look into this matter and see whether he cannot do something to reduce this cause of accidents on the roads.

1.33 p.m.

Mr. Sorensen

I should like to ask whether this Bill covers a matter which I raised in the House some months ago. I asked a Question which some people, including the Postmaster-General, treated with undue facetiousness. I asked whether there could not be some other kind of indicators for telephones than the ordinary tyrannical noise which we hear all too frequently in our homes. The-Postmaster-General indicated that something might be done, but he was very vague on the matter, and I was not at all impressed by his suggestion that one should stick a piece of blotting paper in the bell. That method is effective, as are other amateur methods, such as rubber bands. However I should like to ask whether the Post Office cannot do something in the matter in the interests of a large number of people—invalids, students and even ordinary people like myself—who are frequently annoyed and troubled by unnecessary noise. Is this Bill likely to cover the supply of other kinds of indicators than the telephone bell? This is not the small and foolish matter which some people think it is. All of us, from time to time, are visited all too frequently by the imperative noise of the telephone bell, when we are in bed, when we are trying to write some article, when we are down at the bottom of the garden, or when we are trying to go to sleep or attending some invalid.

It seems to me that we ought to try to minimise the already too great volume of noise with which we are afflicted to-day by trying to secure from the Post Office some indication that they are experimenting on the lines of other indicators than telephone bells. If development along those lines has not yet been considered I urge the Minister and the Department to give attention to the application of other methods. A variety of suggestions has been made in this connection. When I first called attention to this matter, the Minister and other hon. Members of the House were inclined to treat the matter rather lightly, but afterwards I had 30 or 40 letters from all over the country from elderly ladies, invalids and others who were annoyed by the excessive ringing of telephone bells, either in their own homes or in adjoining houses. All these people, while they were glad to have the telephone as a means of communicating with their friends, nevertheless felt that some other kind of signal, say a light or a buzzing noise might be substituted for the ringing of the bell. I hope that some part of this money will be utilised for the provision of an alternative method of calling subscribers which will help to lessen the nervous strain from which many people suffer to-day. I put forward this proposal in all earnestness, and in the hope that the Minister will consider it sympathetically and constructively.

1.37 p.m.

Mr. Viant

I am glad that it has been possible to raise certain points in connection with this Bill, if only to give the Assistant Postmater-General an opportunity of making his maiden speech on behalf of the Department, and I feel sure that he will appreciate that opportunity. I feel that it is hardly fair to put further questions to him because he has not been at the Department long enough to get the hang of all these matters. There is, however, one point which I wish to raise on this occasion. If the hon. Member is unable to answer me to-day, I shall not be surprised, but I hope he will arrange to have it answered on some other occasion. We passed a Bill last year dealing with the reconstruction of the international exchange close to St. Paul's Churchyard. I would like to know whether he can give us any idea of whether that building is being proceeded with, and what proportion of the money included in this Bill is being applied to that purpose. This will be a very important building situated in the heart of the City. It will be a centre of international activity and I should be obliged for a little enlightenment on the progress of the work. I appreciate the point which has been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Leyton (Mr. Sorensen) about the telephone bell. On the other hand, I know that the Post Office is everlastingly plagued with complaints that telephone bells do not make sufficient noise. It is a very difficult point.

Mr. Sorensen

May I interrupt my hon. Friend to suggest that there might be a system by which one could switch over from one method to another at a given time? He knows there is nothing more conducive to bad language than telephoning at the wrong time.

Mr. Viant

I fully appreciate that, and I mention the matter just to show the difficulty with which the Post Office is confronted. I know that the research department is doing its best to devise other ways and means and possibly the Assistant Postmaster-General will be able to give my hon. Friend more information about it.

1.39 p.m.

Mr. Mabane

I may be permitted to reply to some of the pertinent observations which have been made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hills-borough (Mr. Alexander) and the hon. Member for East Hull (Mr. Muff), whose remarks covered, in two directions, the same ground. This ground was also to some extent covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Holderness (Mr. G. Braithwaite) and the hon. Member for Stoke (Mr. E. Smith). Reference was made to the provision of underground cables in general terms by the hon. Member for East Hull, and in particular terms by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough. In general, it is the considered policy of the Post Office to adopt the underground cable in preference to the overhead cable, and at present the proportion of cable that is underground in this country is 90 per cent., a higher proportion, I think, than there is in any other country in the world.

With reference to the particular matter raised by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough with regard to Taunton, all I can say is that I have no doubt that when my right hon. and gallant Friend the Postmaster-General reads the right hon. Gentleman's speech, he will give very careful attention to that point.

With regard to television, to which several hon. Members have referred, it will be remembered that the Postmaster-General has an advisory committee, appointed by himself, dealing with that subject, and I am glad to say that that committee is at the present time in process of reporting. Indeed the report may be expected within the next two or three days. The purpose of that committee was to advise the Postmaster-General on the best method of progress in connection with this important matter. I feel certain that my right hon. and gallant Friend is well aware of the demand, shall I say the insistent demand, which is being made for television in many parts of the country. With regard to one point made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough, I should like to say that there is now, I think, no technical difficulty in relaying television programmes over the cable, and that there is really no necessity to establish, as the hon. Member for East Hull suggested, fresh studios and stations in all parts of the country.

Mr. Muff

I realise the possibility of the underground cable and the fact that, by that means, instead of building expensive stations, it would be possible simply to relay these programmes from places where there are already broadcasting stations.

Mr. Mabane

That was the point with which I intended to deal. As regards the position of the radio retailers which was also mentioned, particularly by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillsborough, I may say that on Wednesday morning last, my right hon. and gallant Friend the Postmaster-General received a deputation from the radio retailers, and I think he is well aware of their views on this matter. There are many difficulties in connection with the extension of television, not only financial but technical difficulties. All I would say is that my right hon. and gallant Friend the Postmaster-General, himself, is extremely interested in this matter and that the remarks which have been made by hon. Members to-day will receive his very careful and close attention.

My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Sir G. Fox) referred to a point which he has, I think, raised on previous occasions, with regard to the position of rear lights on Post Office vans. I can only on this occasion give him the same reply as he has received before, namely, that in certain cases the fact that the rear light on a Post Office van is in a different position from that which it normally occupies on vehicles of other classes is due to difficulties connected with loading and unloading. I am sure, however, that my hon. Friend's further remarks on the subject will receive the careful attention of the officials of the Post Office. The hon. Member for West Leyton (Mr. Sorensen) referred to the noise of the telephone bell. I was not clear whether he objected to it on the ground that it was too loud, or on the ground that it was sometimes almost inaudible. I suggest that if he or any of his consituents who have been offended in this matter were to approach the officials of the Post Office, they would find that there is considerable latitude and considerable possibilities in regard to the adjustment of the bell.

Mr. Sorensen

Do I understand the hon. Gentleman to say that there is now an arrangement by which an alternative method can be secured by subscribers?

Mr. Mabane

I merely suggested that if the hon. Member were to get in touch with officials of the Post Office, he would find them extremely obliging in their endeavours to adjust the sound of the bell to suit his requirements, and that applies to any of his constituents who do not like the sound of the bell at present. The hon. Member for West Willesden (Mr. Viant) raised an important point in connection with the international exchange, and he kindly suggested that I might not be able to answer to-day this rather detailed and technical question. He was entirely correct in his surmise, but I am certain that his question will be answered in a very short time. 1 think I have now dealt with all the points raised during the Debate, and I hope that the Committee will now give us the Bill.

Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill," put, and agreed to.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill reported, without Amendment; read the Third time, and passed.

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.

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