HC Deb 23 February 1948 vol 447 cc1731-40

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Hannan.]

10.1 p.m.

Mr. Sidney Shephard (Newark)

I wish to deal in this Adjournment Debate tonight with two aspects of the Post Office telephone service. The first is the provision of telephone kiosks in rural areas, and the second is, the charge of £4 per annum, paid for five years, where a kiosk is required in rural areas where no public telephone exists. I propose to deal with the two points in that order. The details I am going to give refer, of course, to my own constituency, although I may say that there is general dissatisfaction throughout the country, both at the inadequacy of the telephone service in rural areas, and, particularly, with regard to what I would term this iniquitous charge.

In my constituency, there are 124 parishes, 43 of which are without a public telephone service. It is true that eight of the 43 have a post office where there is a telephone, or that there is a telephone at the railway station. With regard to those villages where there is a telephone at the post office, I would point out that, when the post office is closed, there are no telephonic facilities available whatsoever. It is usual in villages for the post office to close at 6 o'clock in the evening, which means that, from then until the next morning, it is quite impossible to telephone.

Mr. Baldwin (Leominster)

And over the week-end.

Mr. Shephard

And, as my hon. Friend says, over the week-end. I appreciate, of course, that the demand for telephone kiosks far exceeds the supply of materials and manpower, and that it will take a long time to satisfy all the requirements. But I want to point out to the Minister the importance of the telephone service being made available to every centre of population, however small it may be. The greater emphasis which is laid today on agriculture very often necessitates the farmer having to get into touch quickly with the machine repairer. Then there is the summoning of police, the ambulance, or the fire brigade, quite apart from the ordinary considerations of public convenience, which make it imperative that the whole country should be served as quickly as possible by this very essential service. When the Minister replies, I hope he will be able to satisfy me that everything is being done to overcome the shortage as rapidly as possible.

I now come to the contentious part of my case, which is the charge of £20—£4 for five years—demanded from villages where there is no post office equipped with a telephone. When I first took up this matter, the Minister referred me to a Question asked by the hon. Member for Thornbury (Mr. Alpass) and to the reply given by the Minister, in which he said that he could not abolish the system of payment because it had the merit of distinguishing cases of the greatest need on the basis of local support. That seems to me to be an extraordinary argument. Apparently, if the community is not prepared to pay £20, in the Minister's view there is no need of the service. When one of the rural district councils took up this matter with the sales superintendent of the Post Office Telephones, they were told that the general policy of the Post Office was to establish kiosks to a sufficient extent to meet public needs, wherever enough suitable sites on which they would pay their way could be found, and that where kiosks were likely to be unremunerative, a guarantee would be necessary in the urban areas. So far as the rural areas were concerned, in those villages where there was a post office, a kiosk would be provided free, but if there were no post office then the local authority concerned would have to give a written undertaking to pay £4 a year for five years.

The last paragraph of the letter I hold in my hand reads: The Post Office feels that it is not unreasonable for a local council to contribute a small part of the expense of providing a facility they consider necessary for residents of their parish. Is it really the Minister's case that a local authority is responsible for subsidising a national service?—because that is the argument in this letter. When we have discussed in this House the question of nationalising electricity undertakings, the argument put forward from the opposite benches has always been that private undertakings work for profit, that they put profit before service. That is what the Minister is doing in this case. I maintain that a village without a post office has more need of a telephone than a village with a post office. Therefore, I can see no justification whatsoever for the Minister to adopt this attitude. As he knows, the profits of the Post Office are not inconsiderable. I have been told that they are something in the region of 30 million a year. Surely, it is the first duty of a nationalised service to provide a service to the community without penalising any one section. While a kiosk may not be a paying proposition in an area, it is indefensible that the local authority should be asked to subsidise it. The information I have had is that local authorities have no power to levy rates in order to pay for a national service. My local authority have informed me that they cannot guarantee a payment of this nature, and so have the county council of Nottinghamshire.

I am certain that the Minister is not happy about this charge. If he wishes, he can deal with this matter on the basis of the size of the village. If he feels that unless he makes a charge he cannot get a proper priority for a community below a certain number, he can easily decide to instal kiosks free of charge in villages with a certain number of inhabitants. That would eliminate the small hamlets and similar small communities. I do impress upon him the fact that a good deal of feeling has been created over this matter, and I ask him to look into the question again, to see whether he can give some satisfaction to those rural areas who have to pay this sum of £20.

10.10 p.m.

Mr. Mitchison (Kettering)

I think that this charge, or this guarantee, for telephone kiosks in remote districts is a heritage of long standing, and it is a matter which a Labour Government ought to consider on this footing—that even if a single telephone kiosk does not pay in some particular instance, yet the telephone service, and certainly the Post Office as a whole, does pay. Surely, it is good Socialism that telephone facilities should be provided according to need, and there is a real need in these remote rural areas. I would not have expected any previous Government to reconsider this matter and, indeed, they have never done so. It is, I believe, a charge and a practice of long standing. I ask the Minister not to shut the door to some future consideration of this comparatively small matter, because it may have very serious consequences to the people who live in these remote villages.

I agree that the telephone kiosk, when it is provided, may not be used often, but when it is used it may be for such things as accidents to people working on the land or on some remote road, or the summoning, as has been suggested, of the fire brigade or the doctor, or something like that. It seems all wrong to me that the provision of a kiosk should be measured merely by the number of times it is likely to be used.

If I may give the Minister one instance—a rather remote one—his colleague in the Ministry of Civil Aviation will tell him that aeroplanes have been used in the remote parts of Scotland to bring back cases of sickness and have saved many lives. The fact that they have been used has been justified on the ground of saving life and providing facilities of that sort which would not otherwise be available; it has not been estimated as a matter of cost for that particular aeroplane service, but as a matter of real need in a public service. I suggest to him that in this instance there is a similar need, and it really is not fair to expect a local authority—I think it is the rural district council in these cases—to foot this particular bill. After all, if the matter is to be measured by point of view of need why should telephone kiosks be provided free of charge where there is already a post office? I should have thought, as the hon. Member the Member for Newark (Mr. S. Shephard) has said, the need was less, and not more, in these cases, and, if there has to be a choice in the matter, the greater need was in those villages which had not a post office and which, throughout the day, were deprived of post office facilities.

I do not think this ought to be a party question in any sense. It seems to me a matter of plain common sense and a matter which ought to be determined on the footing of need—need not only in every day affairs, but in emergency—and I can see no logical reason for calling on local authorities to provide a guarantee, or a contribution, when the telephone service as a whole, and the Post Office as a whole, is able to afford these things. Any large enterprise is accustomed—as in the case of the aeroplane—to footing the bill for something which is un- remunerative in order to provide a service to the public. I cannot see why the Post Office should not do the same thing, or what obstacle there is to its doing so, unless this has gone on for so long that the Post Office cannot make up its mind to make the necessary change.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. William Shepherd (Bucklow)

I hope the Assistant Postmaster-General is not going to make a feeble defence of this out-of-date provision. I hope he will tell the House he realises that justice lies in abolishing this guaranteed payment of £20. My hon. Friend and namesake the Member for Newark (Mr. S. Shephard) has put the case very fairly. It cannot be refuted that a Government service—or any public service—stands first of all to serve the whole of the people. A nationalised service, above all, ought to put social obligation to the people before the seeking of profits. Yet here, in this instance, the Post Office are following the latter course. This organisation last year made a profit of £36 million. Yet it demands £20 from rural district councils in certain circumstances for installing telephone kiosks. This is quite indefensible.

No Minister who has regard to social obligations can stand at that Box, as I am quite convinced the Assistant Postmaster-General is about to do, to say that there is really a good and sound reason for this charge. There is no good and sound reason why this demand on rural district councils should be maintained. There is very grave doubt whether a rural district council is empowered to levy a rate to subsidise the Post Office. Indeed, I think that probably a case in law could be taken against a council that tried to do that kind of thing. There is every reason in the world why the Post Office should abandon this ruthless pursuit of profit and have regard to other things. A village in the country, an isolated community, stands in greater need of telephone communication than does an urban district. Why should it be the case that because the Post Office cannot make a profit for a village—or add to the enormous profits that the Post Office does make—that village should be denied these reasonable facilities?

My hon. Friend has made what I consider to be the reasonable suggestion: that if there is a shortage of equipment—and I think it is quite evident that there is a shortage of equipment—and if there is a shortage of manpower—and I am quite prepared to believe there is—the Post Office should determine the size of the locality which justifies the installing in it of a kiosk; that they should then decide to instal kiosks in villages of that size of population, and that they should undertake, as soon as conditions are normal again to provide telephone kiosks in smaller hamlets, when there are more facilities and materials available. The maintenance of this iniquitous charge is quite improper. It is quite contrary to the idea of a nationalized service. I feel certain the Assistant Postmaster-General will be doing a benefit to the whole of the country and, indeed, to the conception of nationalisation for which he has the misfortune to stand, if he announces tonight that this iniquitous charge is to be withdrawn.

10.14 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Hobson)

I have listened with very great interest and sympathy to what has been said tonight, but I cannot find that any practical alternative has been suggested. I want to make clear at once that the Post Office has never failed in its obligations to the rural areas. The whole country is served by exchanges and telephonic communication. There are 14,000 public telephones in rural areas. What the Post Office has done is to instal a telephone call office wherever there is a post office. To meet the argument that the telephones should be available day and night, we are removing them from inside the post offices and installing kiosks outside the post offices. Very shortly that work will be completed. We are being asked tonight not to stop at those 14,000 telephones, but to put a telephone kiosk in every village and hamlet. Our problem is how to choose the hamlets and the small villages into which to put the telephones. Here we are in very great difficulty, and I say, with all due respect, that no alternative has been suggested tonight.

Mr. S. Shephard

I think I suggested that the hon. Member should use the population method of determining the high priorities.

Mr. Hobson

That is precisely what we are doing. Where a village is large enough to have a post office it has a telephone. The contribution of £4 for five years is a very small sum, and is only equal to the sum which has to be paid for a residential telephone. It cannot be said to be a heavy cost.

Mr. S. Shephard

But what is the principle?

Mr. Hobson

It has this advantage: Asking the parish council to provide this sum acts as a sieve in sorting out the most urgent cases. That is precisely why we are using this method, which is the only practicable one. It would be impossible for the Post Office to look into all these cases. This method has the further advantage of leaving the choice to the local authority, which seems to be highly commendable, for we hear such a lot about over-centralisation and interference from headquarters. Surely, leaving the choice to the parish councils is the most desirable method, and is infinitely preferable to leaving it to the Post Office.

Mr. Mitchison

I had a case of this sort in my constituency, and I think I am right in saying that the local authority for the purpose is the rural district council, not the parish council. Is there any reason why the rural district council, or any other appropriate authority, should not be asked to make the choice without being compelled to pay for the telephone?

Mr. Hobson

It is our intention to increase the number of telephone kiosks in rural areas, but at the present time, owing to the limitation of supply, we can provide only 800 telephone kiosks in rural areas each year. There must be some method of assessing the most urgent cases, and if a local authority considers a telephone to be necessary and urgent it will be prepared to make this small contribution.

Mr. S. Shephard

But what is the principle?

Mr. Hobson

The local authority is the parish council, and it is parish councils who are making representations. There are isolated villages in which we deem it essential that there should be telephones, and we are making provision. In the last year telephones have been installed in many such cases. Turning to the general principle of installing telephone kiosks in other small hamlets —and many of them have very small populations—it would be quite impossible for us to undertake that at the moment. That is our position, and that is why the charge is made. Also, the making of this charge under the present method is a means of avoiding the allegation of favouritism. If any hon. Member can suggest a practicable alternative my right hon. Friend is prepared to consider it.

Mr. W. Shepherd


Mr. Hobson

I cannot give way at this stage. We have given serious consideration to this matter. It is not a question of desiring to be adamant about it, but we have come to the conclusion that this method is the most practicable way of allocating the small available supply of telephone kiosks.

Reference has been made to the farmers. I should like to point out that as a result of Government policy we are rapidly providing all farmers with telephones, and where there is a recommendation from the local agricultural committee we are installing telephones which need up to 15 poles. That is a considerable step. Therefore, I think it cannot be claimed that there has been any neglect with regard to rural areas. Far from the local authorities subsidising the Post Office, the contrary is the case, because the cost of the maintenance and upkeep of a rural telephone is in the region of £60 a year. In most cases we do not get back a quarter of that. In fact, the whole of the network of rural telephone call offices is not profit-making, but is subsidised from urban areas, and rightly so. We are concerned to provide a fair and equitable method by which we can allocate the supply of telephone kiosks.

Having regard to the size of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, we have more public telephone kiosks than any other country in the world. We are proud of that achievement, but we are not going to rest on our laurels. With the present supplies and materials, there is no alternative but to assess the needs of the population. I would point out, however, that a telephone is available where there is a village post office. The hon. Member for Newark said that 43 villages in his area were without a telephone. He was very reluctant to tell us the size of these villages and hamlets, or the number of people involved. I suggest that the number of people concerned is very small indeed. As I have said, no alternative has been put forward by hon. Members tonight. In the case of special areas, where it is necessary to have a telephone kiosk, it is being installed, but we cannot at the moment, within our present limitation of supplies, provide a telephone kiosk for some of these hamlets which consist in most cases of only a "pub" and a couple of houses. That would be entirely impracticable. Therefore, we consider the present method is the fairest, because it throws the responsibility, not on the Post Office, but on to the local authorities.

10.27 p.m.

Mr. Baldwin (Leominster)

I want to reinforce the argument which has been put from both sides. I think it is unanswerable. It is entirely wrong to say that we have not put forward any alternative suggestions. Those villages which have a post office should be considered last, because it is the remote areas which want these telephone kiosks. It is wrong that they should be expected to give this guarantee of £20. It might be said that the village postman should refuse to take a letter to a remote farm house because there was only a 2½d. stamp involved, and because it was entirely uneconomic to make the delivery. The postman makes the delivery because it is part of the Post Office service.

Mr. Hobson

That is not a fair comparison, because special equipment is required in the case of a telephone.

Mr. Baldwin

We are not expecting the Post Office to equip all the villages at the present time, but as supplies become available, facilities should be given to these remote districts. The Minister has said that farm houses in some of these remote districts are equipped with telephones. Believe me, it is no joy to be the only person with a telephone in a remote district. Calls are received at all hours of the day and night to do some service for a neighbour, which cannot and would not be refused. It is these districts which most need an extension of the telephone service. It is quite out of date to insist that poor districts should have to contribute this £20.

10.29 p.m.

Mr. Willis (Edinburgh, North)

It has been rather interesting tonight to hear hon. Members opposite asking the Government to apply a little bit of socialism in the case of the Post Office. That is what this demand really comes to. It is a demand which I can see no reason to refuse, namely, the demand that the Post Office should supply a service where it is needed, irrespective of the ability of the area to pay. I should have thought that that was a perfectly good principle to apply to the telephone service. This matter particularly concerns us in Scotland, because we have very large sparsely populated areas. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) has pointed out that we have frequently in the past been indebted to the air services for meeting the needs of these sparsely populated areas, and we should like to see the same principle applied in the case of the Post Office. A telephone is urgently required in case of serious illness or matters of that kind, and there should be no question of whether or not an area is able to pay this charge of £20.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock, and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-nine Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.