HC Deb 02 June 1942 vol 380 cc628-31

Order for Second Reading read.

The Postmaster-General (Mr. W. S. Morrison)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

This Measure is identical with previous Bills of the same character which have appeared from time to time, generally with a lapse or two or three years between them. In this case we are asking for £35,000,000 for development work. The only point I should like to make clear to the House is that owing to the circumstances in which we now are, the Post Office has to undertake a great deal of capital expenditure which is directly connected with the Fighting Services and with repairs to plant which has been damaged by enemy action. That strictly war expenditure is borne on the Vote of Credit and not on the Post Office Vote. The money for which this Bill asks is for development, mainly of the telephone system. Of the £35,000,000 asked for, £34,000,000 is for the telephone and the remaining £1,000,000 is split up between the postal side and the telegraph side.

Mr. Ammon (Camberwell, North)

The civilian service?

Mr. Morrison

Yes, Sir. I should make it clear that the Post Office development programme for which the money will be applied is all directly connected with the prosecution of the war, that is to say, it will provide increased telephone facilities for the vast industrial activity which supports our war effort and for various purposes connected with the Services which are conducting the war—the Civil Defence Service and some of the fighting Services. When the Post Office provides communications for the Fighting Services as it does nowadays, which are not part of the Post Office network, that is borne on the Vote of Credit and not on this Capital Account at all. The Bill does not -differ in any way from its predecessors.

Mr. Buchanan (Glasgow, Gorbals)

Has a civilian no rights to a telephone as a new subscriber?

Mr. Morrison

Yes, Sir. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for referring to that matter, and I will tell him what the position is. This money also provides for normal civilian services for non-essential subscribers, when we can do it—for ordinary civilian subscribers. Owing to the demands on labour and materials at the present moment, we have been forced to restrict to some extent the provision of services in respect of ordinary non-essential subscribers and we have made a rule, a rough rule, that we cannot, in the meantime, put in a new telephone if it means erecting more than one pole or new wire on existing poles over a furlong; but if the subscriber can show that it is necessary for him, and for the war effort, the appropriate Department that covers his activity, be it the Home Office or whatever Department it may be, will certify that fact, and then we do the work. When it is a case of a new telephone being asked for which does not involve labour or material exceeding what I mentioned, we do the work as quickly as we can, and whenever men and materials are available we put in the telephone at once.

Mr. Buchanan

Some people doing essential work find the position nearly impossible to-day. I am thinking of the case of a funeral undertaker. I do not know what Department of Government would have to certify that he was essential. Perhaps the Ministry of Supply. I think nobody would deny that, in existing circumstances, he is doing work which the community considers essential.

Mr. Morrison

The hon. Member puts me in a difficulty when he asks me into what category the activity of the professional undertaker falls. I cannot answer the question off-hand. If he has a case in mind of that kind, the best thing I can suggest is that I should look into it and we will see what we can do to help. We still have a certain amount of discretion in these matters. Our work is devoted, like that of other Departments, to the war effort. We are trying to do the best we can with the means at our disposal for the civilian user of the telephone. I hope that the House will consent to the Second Reading of the Bill, although my explanation of it has necessarily been short and, I fear, inadequate.

Mr. McKinlay (Dumbartonshire)

I should like to ask the Postmaster-General two questions. The first is, does his Department come under the Ministry of Works and Buildings when it is a question of the supply of materials, and the second is, may I have an assurance that when a person has a telephone installed his conversations are not overheard by others? There is a great suspicion among subscribers to the telephone that they have at the moment no protection against eavesdroppers and "snoopers." In some parts of Glasgow, at least, people have been "butting in" on telephone conversations, and not too politely, and there is a growing feeling that telephone conversations are listened into all over the system. Subscribers are entitled to an assurance that "snooping" will not take place. Also, as I said, I want an assurance that the Postmaster-General does not require a licence from the Ministry of Works and Buildings if he wants a bag of cement or a couple of" dozen bricks to build an extension.

Mr. Morrison

I can answer those questions very briefly. In the first place, the Ministry of Works and Buildings does construct all ordinary Post Office premises, and works in harmony with us. There is no trouble whatsoever. As regards the second point, it is against the rules of the Post Office for people to listen to telephone conversations. A certain amount of overhearing is inevitable. You cannot avoid it.

Mr. McKinley

I am not talking about those employed in the exchanges as operators, or about employees of the Post Office. There is a growing suspicion that other persons listen in with the connivance of the Post Office.

Mr. R. J. Taylor (Morpeth)

My hon. Friend says he is not concerned about operators listening in. I suppose the right hon. Gentleman would take drastic action if an operator listened in, perhaps in the course of his duty, and repeated some of the conversation outside?

Mr. Morrison

That is so. I was going on to say that there is one exception to what I have said. As the hon. Member knows, there is a system of priorities for telephone conversations. When communications were difficult, we had, for operational purposes, to give a certain A1 priority. It was abused, and in order to check the abuse I had to institute a monitoring system, to ensure that this priority system was not used improperly to the detriment of the ordinary public. That is the only exception to which I would refer at this time.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for the next Sitting Day.— [Mr. J. P. L. Thomas.]