HC Deb 03 May 1946 vol 422 cc542-52

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Michael Stewart.]

3.59 P.m.

Mr. Cobb (Elland):

The subject that I raise this afternoon concerns a very large part of the operations of the Post Office. It relates to telephones and telegraphs and all the communications side of the Post Office. The British telecommunications system is a Government monopoly, and has been for many years. It is operated by the Post Office, and it is vital to the industrial— It being Four o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed. without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Michael Stewart.]

Mr. Cobb:

It is vital to the industrial and social life of the nation, both in peace and in war. The Post Office employs an engineering staff of some 45,000 people, responsible for the installation and maintenance of millions of pounds' worth of plant, varying, as it does, on the one hand, from land lines, telegraphs and exchange equipment, to, on the other hand, all forms of radio reception and transmission equipment. The Post Office does not manufacture its own apparatus to any considerable extent. The job is carried out by the contractors, of whom there are several hundreds, but these contractors are dominated by about 10 very large contractors, and the question that I raise here is one of principle. It is that public corporations such as the Post Office should be examples of efficiency, and, in order to do this, they need a virile, adequate research organisation, because research is the mainspring of future progress and efficiency. The Government, and the Labour Party, I must admit, have long exhorted industries, in their own and the national interest, to increase research and to bring their research into line, both as to quantity and quality, with other countries. The questions I ask are these: To what extent has the Post Office and its satellite contractors heeded this exhortation? Does the Post Office do sufficient research? Does the telecommunications industry do sufficient research? Is this great Government undertaking an example to industry? How do we compare with other countries, and what is the future research policy of the Post Office and the telecommunications industry?

Those are five most pertinent questions. First, as to the Post Office and its research activities, these are conducted at the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill, where they carry out applied research and development engineering. Dollis Hill comprises radio experimental laboratories and research laboratories, but the significant thing is that they carry out no fundamental research at all. The staff at Dollis Hill comprises approximately 750 people, of whom about 150 are fully qualified. The rest are skilled and semi-skilled, although one must admit that some of them are approaching degree standard. Donis Hill is a most efficient research unit, and has a world-wide reputation. Indeed, the Post Office was responsible for the first trans-Atlantic radio-telephone service, and has to its credit many other great and notable achievements. For its size, Dollis Hill has achieved some very notable results. Struggling forward as they did between two wars, under a vaguely antagonistic regime, they represented, one could say, an oasis of technical achievement.

The Government also carried out telecommunications research; the Ministry of Aircraft Production, the Ministry of Supply, the Admiralty, and the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research have all carried out research work and engineering development. But, with the exception of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, which currently employs about 30 physicists and engineers, one must assume that the work carried out by other Ministries was of a specialised nature for the Fighting Forces. So much for the research work carried out by the Post Office.

Now a word about the contractors. This is a business amounting to some £50 million. How much research is done by these contractors? What proportion of the plant manufactured by them, and in use by the Post Office, is the result of British research and development? How many research and development engineers did these contractors employ in 1937? How many qualified people of this nature do they employ today? The cost of this work is included in the price of the plant supplied to the Post Office. I would like to ask—and I think the House should know—how much of the price represents research and, what is far more important, how much of that research was done in Great Britain. I would also like to know how much of that research which went into the building of this apparatus was imported, and what part of the Post Office purchase price went abroad, either directly or indirectly, to pay for this imported element of research.

I would also like to inquire whether previous Governments troubled to get these facts. Is there any reason why they did not? Ought the House to have these facts? Is it not in the public interest that we should have them? Why have we not got this information? Is it that the telecommunications industry is of international significance, increasingly dominated by non-British interests? At least two of the largest firms of contractors are foreign owned, and others have particular access to foreign research. We cannot complain if private enterprise, in the past, has sought to run its international business as efficiently as possible. I do not complain of that at all—

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South):

Hear, hear.

Mr. Cobb:

But wait a minute. It may be efficient to centre research in some other country, but we can only deplore that private enterprise did not choose, in their wisdom, to centre that research in this country. Such concentration probably gives the best result for the amount expended, and probably the best return to the shareholders, but are these shareholders the only people who are interested? Is this kind of thing in the national interest? Is it to the common good that this kind of thing should continue?

That is a brief outline of the situation in Great Britain. You have, on the one hand, the Post Office and, on the other, the contractors who supply the apparatus to them, and an outline of the research activities of the two. Let us compare that situation with the situation in other countries, notably the United States. Compare the United States' telecommunications system. It is a private company, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. Its subsidiary, the Bell Telephone Company, employs about 6,000 people, of whom approximately 3,000 are qualified physicists and engineers engaged on fundamental, applied research and development engineering. Compare this with Dollis Hill, with 750 men, of whom only 150 are qualified. Is it surprising that most of the great advances and discoveries in the field of telecommunications originated in the United States of America? The automatic telephone and the co-axial cable are two notable examples. It is what one would expect when comparing the research efforts of the two countries.

I do not complain of the quality of the Post Office research. It is of the highest order. But I do complain of the quantity. As to the contractors, I suggest that their research effort has been small compared with the total number of people employed in the industry. If we take the industry, which sells, in a year about £50 million worth of apparatus, they should expend about 2 per cent, of their net sales on research, that is, £1 million. I sug- gest that they spent, in the past, a fraction of this amount. Is it not a fact that many of the great advances in telecommunications originated in the United States, were worked out there, were Anglicised by British contractors, and sold to the Post Office by their commercial engineers? This may not be wholly correct, but it is sufficiently true to be alarming. The lack of British research in this field may perhaps be no worse than it is in some other major industries, but the British telecommunications industry has tended too much to cull its ideas from abroad, and to confine itself to manufacturing and selling. Is this in the national interest? Is this in the interests of the Empire?

New developments and discoveries are on the horizon. Is it likely that they would originate, in these circumstances, in Great Britain? Are we content to continue largely to rely on foreign research, and to pay tribute accordingly? Are we content that others should always be a step ahead? Can we afford the foreign currency to pay for this? Is it a good thing nationally, especially in times of emergency, to have too few research people in relation to a vital industry? We know that we were handicapped during the last war because of this. Why not train and employ British scientists for this great work? The Post Office is the greatest British undertaking under public control, and it may well be that the Party opposite, and their industrial associates, were not in favour of building up adequate research, either in the Post Office, or in the manufacturing industry in the past. Perhaps it was not in their interests to do it; they made greater profits by centring research elsewhere. It may be that, as a manufacturing industry's main job is to maximise profits they were right, but I ask my hon. Friend whether he thinks this is, or was, in the national interest. Unless we create, in Great Britain, adequate research facilities for specialising in this field on a scale commensurate with our 'population and its needs, that is, the amount of plant in use and that required for the future, then the Party opposite may well rise in two or three years' time and, forgetting their own sins of omission or commission, criticise the efficiency of the largest unit under public control.

Will the Minister examine carefully whether the Post Office should not now prepare plans for Post Office research double or treble its present size? If the United States can employ 3,000 qualified research workers in one concern, and a private concern at that, ought we not to have a minimum of 1,000 qualified men on this job? I ask my hon. Friend if he will consult with the contractors to see whether the large units will increase their research, and with the telecommunications industry as a whole to see if they will form a telecommunications research association commensurate with the size and importance of this great and vital industry. What does a refusal to consider this mean? It means keeping research in this vital field far below the level of foreign competition; it means that we shall be content to buy our telecommunications research from foreign countries, notably the United States. It also means that we shall follow at their heels, and have what they think we can pay for.

It means that in this field, a most vital one to the country and the Empire, we shall never be in the forefront. That was the Tory policy, either conscious or subconscious. Do we condemn that policy? If so, let us say so. If we do say that, I suggest there is one alternative open to us, namely, to treble research at Dollis Hill, and see that the contractors conform to public policy. In fact, the contractors may be only too willing to do that. Let us do this now, and show vision, imagination and enthusiasm so that in a few years we may stand on our own feet in this very vital and important industry.

4.16 p.m.

Mr. Erroll (Altrincham and Sale):

Despite what the hon. Member for Elland (Mr. Cobb) has said, I do not think we on this side of the House feel we have been guilty of any sins of omission or commission in this very important matter of research into Post Office telecommunications. I do not yield to anyone on the opposite side of the House regarding my view of the importance of research in all aspects. On the other hand, I think we are in danger of assuming that just because we increase the amount of research we will necessarily get very much more from it. After all, it is not the magnitude of research that counts, but its quality. The hon. Member for Elland rightly pointed out that the research carried out at Dollis Hill before the war, under the Conserva- tive Government, was of supreme quality. I hope it will continue to be of supreme quality, and not merely trebled in size and thereby seriously diluted in quality. Second-rate research is of no use to anybody. The only research of any value is that which is of supreme quality.

I am sorry to see the hon. Member for Elland pursuing a policy of narrow nationalism in regard to a sphere in which we ought to have a policy of broad internationalism. Surely research should be shared, exported as well as imported. We may have imported telecommunications research, if we can regard it as an importation. It was shared before and during the war, and I hope that now the war is over we will continue to export the many items of research in which we have always been preeminent. In concluding this brief intervention, I would point out that some of the very early fundamental research into nuclear energy was carried out in the relatively small Cavendish and Mond laboratories at Cambridge. Although the Americans had many thousands of qualified physicists on the job, we got there because we concentrated on the right things, and were not diverted by too much research. Even now some people would say we are not giving enough money for atomic research, although we are giving all that the scientists have called for. Do not let us be hustled into a policy of voting large sums of money to research which might thereby become of very inferior quality. Let us ensure that what we do have is of the very best.

4.19 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Burke):

We have had a very interesting Debate, and we are indebted to the hon. Member for Elland (Mr. Cobb) for having raised this question of research. One of the hon. Members who have spoken wants more quality and the other wants greater quantity.

Mr. Cobb:

Quantity and quality.

Mr. Burke:

I agree. What we in the Post Office want is an increase in the quality and the quantity. As far as the Government are concerned, the hon. Member for Elland can rest assured that they are very much concerned with this problem of research throughout the whole field of industry. The hon. Member can rest assured that what he is anxious to see in private industry outside, the Government will be very anxious to see in the field of the British Post Office. A great many of the things the hon. Member has said are perfectly true, and I agree with him in many of the points he has made. As far at the Post Office is concerned, research began, in a rather haphazard way, as far back as 1904

It was not until after the end of the first world war that there was any real basis for it in a permanent establishment. Only then, in 1921, was Dollis Hill started. I think it is true to say that telephone contractors did get their ideas from abroad to a very large extent. In 1933 permanent buildings were set up at Dollis Hill, and a very highly qualified engineering and scientific staff has been gathered together there. It is right that the hon. Member should pay tribute to their efficiency and value. Much very valuable telecommunications development has been done by that staff; to mention just a few: ultra short wave radio communication, co-axial cables—I am talking about development work, not fundamental research, because the hon. Member knows that it is the day-to-day problems with which this station has been concerned rather than fundamental research—very great improvements have been made in subscribers' telephones, due very largely to the work carried on there, and one of the most recent pioneer jobs is the submerged repeater, which will very likely revolutionise the whole of the world's communications.

That is on the telecommunications side. On the postal side, the station is at present engaged on a scheme for the electro-mechanical facing of letters. Hon. Members who have been in a sorting office know how millions or hundreds of thousands of letters are tumbled out of bags and each one of them has to be placed by hand facing the right way so that it goes through the cancelling machine. A device has been brought into being—it is not yet completed, but it has been working—which by using electro-mechanical means gets the stamp on the envelope or postcard into exactly the right place for cancelling. It will do away with a good deal of labour as a consequence. That particular device could have been in operation before the war, but the war meant that Dollis Hill had to go on to research in connection with the various military operations. I will mention one or two: the design for air raid warning apparatus, specially designed telephone and telegraph circuits for military purposes, improvements to Army Signals equipment, and the development of equipment connected with defence against air attack. Those are the two sides to the work: on the one hand, they were doing peace time work, and then they switched over to war work. Now they are coming back to their normal peace time functions.

The authorities have reviewed the situation and have agreed—and this is the answer to the specific point made by my hon. Friend—that there must be a considerable increase, and it is proposed to use the Dollis Hill premises to the full for the business of research. At present a large part of the premises is taken up with the training of engineers. A new place is to be found for this in the Midlands, and the whole of Dollis Hill will be given up to the business of scientific research. With more accommodation there is a possibility of an increase in staff, and we hope that the staff which will be brought in will be of the best possible kind. Here again, I think, we have got to expect both the educational system and the universities to make a contribution. It is the quality of the students who come into the research teams that will determine the value of the research that is to be done. With this expansion of staff, and with more accommodation, it will be possible to do much more fundamental research than has been possible in the past.

The hon. Gentleman asked what programme we have got. I understand that a full programme of work, both long term and short term, has been drawn up; and with the increased accommodation and the increase in staff there is quite a number of items upon which the Department wish to work immediately. I have not the time to mention them now, but the hon. Member may be assured that the head of Dollis Hill, and the chief engineer, are very anxious that the utmost use should be made of that particular station, and they are anxious to improve the services as much as possible.

There is, by the way, a British telephone technical development committee, and also a similar committee, the cable manufacturers technical committee, which for some time has been working in conjunction with the Post Office, and a very considerable amount of research has been done—or, if not exactly research, development of ideas—by those bodies in conjunction with the Post Office. I have no figures as to the amount of money they have spent, but I understand that manufacturers have in the past spent very considerable amounts of money in research, in conjunction and cooperation with the Post Office. The hon. Member may know that the Government also have set up a Committee, of which the chairman is the chief engineer of the Post Office, Colonel Sir Stanley Angwin. That Committee set up by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research has "to formulate in detail the basic and fundamental research problems in telecommunications which require investigation." It is hoped that that Committee, in conjunction with the contractors, will lead to still closer coordination of research and development; and that a common research policy will ensure that this country will play a leading part in the communications of the world.

Mr. Harry Wallace (Walthamstow, East):

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, may I ask if he will consider making known to the public many of the points he has mentioned today? I refer to the practice of the Post Office to publish what are known as "Green Books." They are most excellent publications, and I think that the new one, brought up to date, will be of great interest to Members of this House and to the public.

Mr. Burke:

I think we could consider that. It is true to say that the Post Office in the past has been far too modest. It has just been successful, in working in association with the Medical Council, in bringing out an ear aid, which, I hope, will not fall into the hands of private people to be exploited. I am sure it will be of benefit to thousands of deaf people in this country. It is one of the little things the Post Office does, as it were, in its stride, and which many people do not get to know about.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Four o'Clock.