§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 11.46 a.m.
§ The Postmaster-General (Mr. Wilfred Paling)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
The object of the Bill is to provide the Post Office with the capital necessary for the development of the telephone, telegraph and postal systems. The broad picture of the requirements is set out in the Financial Memorandum attached to the Bill. It will be seen that, of the total of £75 million asked for, £71 million is for the telephone service. The Bill is similar in form to those which have been presented in the past. Two Bills, just before the war, were for £35 million, in 1937, and £40 million in 1939. There was a Bill in 1942, the only one during the war, for .35 million. The last Bill, presented in April, 1946, was for £50 million. That amount will take us up till February of this year, after providing for new capital works and for taking over useful telephone plant provided for war purposes out of Votes of Credit.
Hon. Members may feel some surprise, at a time when the policy of the Government is to reduce capital investment programmes, that the Bill should provide for a larger sum than has been authorised previously. There are two reasons for this. First, the Bill is intended to provide for capital expenditure up to December, 1950, that is to say, for a period of nearly three years. Secondly, it takes account of the considerable rise in the level of prices for telecommunications equipment. In fact, we have made every effort to conform with the Government's plans for bringing capital investment into proper relationship with available resources. The actual programme for which the Post Office needs this capital represents a drastically re- 1359 duced version of our original hopes, as I will explain later.
When he presented the previous Money Bill, the then Assistant Postmaster-General mentioned the enormous mass of arrears of telephone plant provision. He explained that this was due to the number of engineering personnel serving with the Forces, to shortages of supplies and materials during the war years, and to the concentration of the whole resources of the Post Office on the war effort. There was a waiting list of 300,000 applications for the telephone service. He hoped then to step up the rate of installation of new telephones and to effect a big reduction of that number. The years 1946 and 1947 have, indeed, seen an unprecedented development in the telephone service. The total number of new telephones which the Post Office provided in those two years was 1,322,000. I should like hon. Members to compare that figure with 791,000 in the peak years before the war, which were 1936 and 1937. It represents an increase of 67 per cent. Indeed, there have been times when the monthly rate of installation of new telephones has been double that achieved before the war. We have now reached the point when about one in every three of the telephones now in service has been provided since the end of the war. This is an achievement in which the Post Office takes considerable pride, but in spite of it the number of outstanding applications has continued to grow until there are now more than 450,000. This has been due to the phenomenal rate of new demand for telephone service during the war years.
This rapid development of the last few years has eaten deeply into our resources of spare underground cable and telephone exchange equipment. It has been a grand battle, but we have had to pay the price. There are now 136,000 cable distribution points at which all the wires are in use, and no spares are available for connecting new lines. There are more than 300,000 applications which cannot be met until new ducts or cables have been provided. At 1,500 of the 5,800 exchanges in this country, the equipment is fully in use and new subscribers cannot be accepted until it has been extended or a new exchange built.
This position is not the result of bad planning. We have been providing additional plant as rapidly as we could get 1360 supplies of stores and equipment, but we had the tremendous leeway of the war years to make up and we have been hampered all along by shortages of manpower, raw materials and buildings. In addition to all this, the demand for service remains high. To meet current applications and to clear the waiting list would need a capital expenditure of at least £36 million a year for the next five years; but under present conditions we are restricted to a figure of £24 million a year. That is the figure which, on balance, I feel justified in asking for the telephone service, after weighing carefully the needs for exports, the prospects of obtaining the necessary materials and the manpower position. It means, to my infinite regret, that, so far from diminishing, the waiting list is bound for a while to go on growing.
Let me explain what this restriction amounts to. In accordance with the White Paper on "Capital Investment in 1948", the Post Office is to reduce its ceiling of building and civil engineering labour from 6,000 to 4,000 men by June, 1948. This labour is employed for Post Office building work, for the laying of underground ducts to carry telephone cables, for the drawing in of cables and for maintenance work, such as painting kiosks and pillar boxes. The cut will force us drastically to reduce the rate of provision of the wide range of new plant which depends on such works, particularly ducts and cables for new subscribers. Before the war we spent £5 million a year on local ducts and cables; during the next few years the level will be equivalent to about £2 million per year at pre-war prices.
It is also proposed to restrict the amount of new equipment which the Post Office takes from our national telecommunications industry to a value of £5 million in 1948. This will release even more of the productive capacity which the industry is building up for export. This type of equipment, which is mainly for telephone exchanges and telegraph work, is of very great value for export. The value of the equipment which we had already ordered for delivery in 1948 amounts to £8,500,000. Thus an additional £3,500,000 worth of equipment should be available for export this year, some of which has already been diverted to foreign orders. The £5 million to which we are restricted is equivalent to 1361 about £2,500,000 at pre-war prices. In 1939 we spent £4 million. This means that we shall be receiving in the next few years less than 70 per cent. of the equipment we got before the war.
Hon. Members will understand that we need to keep a balance between the various parts of the programme, and as a result of these cuts, we have had to review the whole of our plans for developing the telephone system. The final result is an engineering works programme of capital expenditure, mainly on the telephone service, of about £24 million. It is a yearly programme of this magnitude, together with about £2 million for sites and buildings, which the Money Bill now before the House is intended to meet. This £24 million is equivalent to some £12 million to £13 million before the war. It will be apparent to the House that the cuts which I have described will reduce the capacity of the Post Office to meet the many demands being made on it. We have, therefore, had to consider very carefully the directions in which it would be best to spend our available resources. I indicated the policy which we intended to adopt in reply to the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Grimston) on 18th December last, but I may perhaps be permitted to make the following points.
It will be our first aim to make a positive contribution to the national recovery, in spite of our disabilities, and I have for this reason decided that certain features of the telephone service should have first call on our resources. We shall continue to provide telephone service as fully and as speedily as possible to those subscribers to whom it is really essential in the public interest. This will include businesses engaged in production for export or for saving imports, public utilities, health services, doctors and the like. We shall also allot a larger share of our resources to the provision of telephone service for farmers. We have about 11,000 applications from farmers on hand, and I hope that we shall clear the bulk of these by the end of next year.
We shall provide as fully as possible for the needs of the trunk telephone system. We realise fully the importance to industry in general of a speedy and reliable trunk service, and we shall strive to improve the quality of the service at the same time as we cater for the growth of traffic. This growth is extremely rapid, 1362 and has now reached a level more than double what it was before the war. The number of trunk circuits has also more than doubled, from 6,700 in September, 1939, to over 14,000 today. I am glad to say that at the same time the heavy wastage in telephone operators, hitherto one of our greatest troubles, especially in the London area, has fallen in recent months with the result that we have more experienced operators and greater efficiency. The average time to answer trunk calls for the country as a whole has improved from 14.2 seconds in September last to slightly over eight seconds now. In London the figures are from 24 seconds to 14.2 seconds. We also aim to improve the quality of the local telephone service. Here we hope to provide additional equipment to cater for increased traffic, and complete a thorough overhaul of the plant. We incurred heavy arrears of maintenance during the war, and these we want to make good, particularly as many manual exchanges which we had hoped soon to replace with automatic exchanges will now have to remain in service for some years.
So we come to the waiting list. We shall provide additional exchange equipment and line plant—so far as we have them to provide—but we shall give preference to predominantly business areas. There is, I am afraid, not likely to be much margin of new plant available to meet the needs of residential subscribers, but where spare plant is available we shall continue to provide service. We shall also make more use of party line working, as this makes it possible for us to serve the maximum number of applicants with the available plant. For this reason we shall be requiring all new and transferring residential subscribers to accept a liability to share their line. This and other devices which we are adopting to get the most out of existing plant should, in spite of the limitations imposed upon us by the shortage of materials and by the need for giving priority to exports, enable us to provide telephones each year for a larger number of new subscribers than we did before the war. However, the new telephones may not be spread as evenly as we could desire. In areas where we cannot provide the normal plant required to give individual service, we hope to give additional public telephone facilities. Here 1363 again, however, we are up against delays in supplies of telephone kiosks, and shortages of components; but we shall do all we can.
What I have said so far has been confined mainly to the inland telephone service. I would like to add a few words about some other services. In the inland telegraph system we are introducing switching methods which will accelerate the service by cutting down the handling of telegrams at intermediate offices. A scheme using manual switching is almost finished—it is already partly in use—and we have reduced the time for transmitting a telegram from the sending to the receiving office from 55 to 30 minutes since the beginning of 1946. Next year we hope to start fitting an automatic switching system. This will make it possible to transmit telegrams direct from one office to another on a far wider scale than at present without an intermediate operator, and this should give a further acceleration of service. Inland telegraph traffic received a new lease of life in the war, but it has been falling for some time and is now pretty well back to the pre-war level. With the telephone service growing as it is, this is, I regret to say, only to be expected. I am afraid there is little prospect of turning the tide again in telegraphs until we are once more in a position to restore greetings telegrams. I should like to do this very much, but we must wait until the paper position has improved.
In the overseas telegraph and telephone field we have now restored almost all the services, both by line and by wireless, which were in operation before the war. We have, in fact, extended and improved many of them. Telegraph traffic between this country and the Continent has been rising rapidly, and by 1947 had got back to about the 1938 level. A notable development on the telephone side is the new Anglo-Dutch cable which I formally opened for service a few weeks ago. This cable is a new type and is, indeed, the first of its kind to be used for commercial purposes. It can carry 84 simultaneous telephone conversations, and can be developed to carry more than twice that number. It will enable us to provide a first-class service for many years to come with Holland, Central Europe and Scandinavia.
1364 Before I conclude, I should like again to refer to the very large number of new telephones which the Post Office, in defiance of many difficulties and setbacks, has succeeded in providing since the war. I think it is a fine achievement, and one that is a tribute to the strenuous exertions of the whole of the staff. I wish here to express my appreciation of the great efforts they have made. Finally, I must make it clear to the House how much I regret that the restrictions which this great public service has had to accept in the wider national interest will so limit its ability to meet the needs of the public. I am sure that this regret is shared by all hon. Members.
§ Sir Ronald Ross (Londonderry)
Before the Minister finishes his account of the projected work of the Post Office, could he say something about a service which has been promised for so very long—a night air letter service to Northern Ireland?
§ Mr. Paling
I could not put all these things into my speech, but that is one of the matters we have discussed, and if it is raised in the Debate, a reply will be given.
In conclusion, I know that the regret I have expressed is shared by thousands of Post Office employees whose desire it is to serve the public and to satisfy its demands. I make an appeal for the sympathetic understanding of the public in the difficult period which lies ahead, and I hope that those applicants for telephone service whose requirements cannot be met at the present time will realise that we in the Post Office are doing our best and trying our hardest, and that they will not take it as a personal matter when a Post Office worker has to turn down their request for a telephone. It is, I know, easier to offer comfort than to receive it gracefully. People who have to forego for a while the help and convenience of a telephone are contributing towards the expansion of our export trade and aiding the economic recovery of the country. It cannot fail to be of some consolation to them to know this.
§ 12.5 p.m.
§ Mr. Grimston (Westbury)
The right hon. Gentleman has given us an interesting survey of developments which have taken place, but it really is a gloomy thought that over two years after the end 1365 of the war the waiting list for the telephone service is still growing larger. One cannot blame the Post Office entirely for that; indeed, I would say that the figures the right hon. Gentleman has given us of the installation of new telephones are impressive and, in all the circumstances, the Post Office and all those in it are to be congratulated on what they have done in that direction in spite of the difficulties. However, as I say, it is a gloomy thought that the waiting list is still lengthening, and also that the projected development of the Post Office has had to be further cut down owing to the Government decision on capital expenditure.
Here I question whether the Postmaster-General has not accepted too much of a cut in this direction. As he said, there is a tremendous leeway to make up, but I believe that this is one of the matters which can vitally affect production in this country, particularly in these days of controls and bottlenecks, and the necessity in many cases for several Government Departments to be consulted, and for permits, and so on. It is of the utmost importance that industrialists should have the free and unfettered use and quick service of the telephone. Inasmuch as they are not getting it—and they cannot be getting it entirely—it is a definite hindrance to production and the export drive. I hope that in the Cabinet the Postmaster-General will put up a good fight, not only to get nearer to the expansion programme originally envisaged, but to get the present cut reduced, in the interests of the overall production drive.
One thing which affects it, and which I and some of my hon. Friends as Members of the public have noticed lately, is that maintenance has been falling off, particularly in the case of telephone kiosks. They are even more necessary in these days when private subscribers cannot get installations. One very often goes to a telephone kiosk and finds that the telephone is out of order. The right hon. Gentleman should turn his attention to the maintenance of these kiosks. I was going to ask how much the programme had had to be curtailed and adjusted to conform with the Government plan, but the right hon. Gentleman gave us that figure, which I gathered was about one-third. I hope he will press to have that gap reduced. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that the 1366 delay is due partly to shortage of equipment and buildings. Has he attempted to get over the building difficulty by using temporary buildings to house equipment? I believe that can be done, and he might be able to obviate some delay if he were prepared to do that. As I hope that in the future the trend will be for smaller exchanges, it might be easier to use some temporary buildings for this purpose.
During the Debate on a similar Bill nearly two years ago, the then Postmaster-General said that he expected that wartime plant from the Vote of Credit would be taken in to the amount of between £10 million and £15 million. If hon. Members will look at the Financial Memorandum, they will see that the figure now proposed to be taken in is £21 million. I want to know the basis of that calculation. Is the £21 million the cost of the wartime plant, less depreciation, which is being taken in, or is it the valuation of that plant at present-day prices? From the comparative figures, it looks as if the Post Office have been able to take rather more wartime plant into the peace-time service than was originally thought possible, and, if so, I think it is a very good thing; but until one knows on what basis the figure are calculated, it is difficult to tell. When the Assistant Postmaster-General replies, I would like to know whether the Post Office have found it possible to use more of this plant than was expected, or whether this is because of valuation at present-day prices. I wish also to know what proportion of the war-time plant has been adapted to the peace-time service. A great deal of plant had to be put down in remote areas, at aerodromes and so on, which could not possibly be brought into the peace-time service.
Another matter about which I would like to have information is the development of the trunk demand service, by which one may get trunk calls on demand. There is a technical development whereby it may be possible for subscribers themselves to dial trunk calls directly, and research was going on in that direction. Obviously, if that system could be introduced it would lead to enormous efficiency and speed in the telephone service. I think the more we can make the subscriber do for himself the better. Another rather technical matter is the development of the submarine repeater, which was produced by the engineering department of the 1367 Post Office. If it succeeds, it will revolutionise telecommunications. I was very interested to hear what the Postmaster-General said about the switching system for telegraphs and I am glad that the Post Office are going ahead with that.
The other day I noticed that there has been laid before the House the Inland Post Warrant, 1947. I do not know whether hon. Members have seen it. It announces increases in the parcel rates, and I very much hope that is not the only development which we are to see on the postal side. I should be out of Order in discussing this at great length, but I hope there will be some other opportunity to discuss it. I saw with dismay that the parcel post rates have been increased. I would like to know the position with regard to the development of the postal service. Last time we discussed the matter, we agreed that we ought to work up to a service whereby one could post about 6 o'clock in the evening, and the letter would be delivered anywhere in the country next morning. I also want to know about the introduction of new types of services, including the helicopter, about which we saw something in the newspapers the other day. How far is the development of the Post Office being held up by the cut in capital expenditure, and how far is the recent increase in the parcel postage due to the holding up of that development?
Reverting to the telephone service, I take it that all business requirements will be met fairly quickly, although I am not sure about that. However, I Was very pleased to hear that the right hon. Gentleman intended to adopt the more widespread use of the party line in order to bring the service to private subscribers who otherwise might not get it for same considerable time. That system was introduced during the war, particularly in the countryside, in order to give the people a service, although it was not an exclusive service. If the Postmaster-General is going to make it a condition of getting a new telephone that a subscriber has to accept liability to share a line with someone, I think it very unfair, unless he reduces the subscription rate. Perhaps the Assistant Postmaster-General will tell us about that, particularly in view of the fact that subscription rates and telephone charges which we pay at the moment were 1368 imposed as deterrent charges during the war. If new subscribers have to accept the liability, they should receive the service at a reduced rate compared with those who have a private line.
§ Mr. Skinnard (Harrow, East)
Is it not a fact that the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Grimston), when he was at the Post Office, made some kind of reduction in the rates for former exclusive users when they admitted party line subscribers?
§ Mr. Grimston
I cannot quite recollect that at the moment; I cannot charge my memory with the exact details.
We on this side of the House, of course, are not going to oppose this Bill. I should be very grateful if the Assistant Postmaster-General would give some information on the questions I have asked. The staff of the Post Office deserve a tribute for all the work they have done in spite of handicaps. I very much hope that within his own Government the Postmaster-General will put up a good fight to see whether he cannot get rather more capital development in the Post Office, in the interests of the production drive.
§ 12.18 p.m.
§ Mr. Viant (Willesden, West)
I wish to congratulate the Department on their achievements, despite the difficulties they have met. One can appreciate that the difficulties have been almost insurmountable in many ways, particularly through lack of materials; but it has been exceedingly difficult to get people who were asking for the service exactly to appreciate the difficulties with which the Department have been confronted. I am afraid too many people imagine that it is as easy to obtain a telephone service as it is to obtain an electricity supply. They are unable to see that, while one may quite readily obtain an electric cable to supply electric current, the supply of a telephone installation is limited to the number of lines available in the area, and two lines are necessary for a subscriber. Some applicants have been quite indignant because they have been refused the service, and I have endeavoured to make them understand the difficulty and the difference between having the installation of a telephone service and a supply of electric current. It is not so easy for them to appreciate that fact, but the difficulty is nevertheless there.
1369 I think my right hon. Friend will have an easy passage for his Bill today. Of course, if it were possible for us to oppose it, we should do so, not for what is being done, but because of the limitations being imposed by necessity in regard to future developments. We have had to cut down the potential capital expenditure by one-third, and that is a considerable sum. I rather doubt the wisdom of such a severe cut. I think it needs reconsideration, more especially as concerns the industrial areas, because it is not only the business establishments which need installations, but many of the people who are employed in these industrial or commercial establishments also need the telephone because they need to be kept in immediate touch with their establishments. This severe pruning of expenditure may be a deterrent to our export trade, and I think the Minister ought to ask the Cabinet to reconsider this severe cut.
I think the Department might do some useful propaganda in respect of the development of the party line. I suppose it would be reasonable to assume that, if one approached a dozen persons and asked them if they knew what a party line was, they would think that one was talking about party politics. Even if one approached a person who was having an installation of the telephone service, and mentioned to him the possibilities of having a party line, he would probably say, "What do you mean?" I think some educational work must be done in regard to that, more particularly in view of the cutting down of immediate capital expenditure. All of us, if we are already using the telephone, are desirous of seeing that everything is done to provide the service for others, but immediately we speak of a party line, people say, "No, I do not want anyone else to know anything about the business which I am conducting over the telephone." Therefore, some educational work must be done to persuade such people that, even though they are given a party line, they can have strict privacy as well.
The second point to which I want to refer has already been raised by the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Grimston). There should be some inducement given to people who accept a party line, and that can only be done by giving them a reduced charge. This is a point worth looking into, because I think that most 1370 people would be prepared to accept it, if it were given to them at a more reasonable charge. I think that, in the main, the Department are to be congratulated on the work which they have achieved, but it is deplorable that they have to reduce the number of employees engaged on this work, though this appears to be inevitable, unless the Postmaster-General can ask the Cabinet to reconsider this cut and take into consideration the possible adverse effect which it might have on the increase in our export trade.
§ 12.25 p.m.
§ Major Haughton (Antrim)
In the course of his survey, the Postmaster-General quoted some big figures in money and equipment, but he devoted almost his entire speech to the development of the telephone and telegraph services.
Clause 1 of this Bill makes a grant for the development of postal services, as, well as telephonic and telegraphic services, and they are all interlocked. Obviously, if the postal services are badly delayed, it follows as a natural course that the trunk telephone services must be in greater demand, and I would like to ask the Postmaster-General, who has analysed this £24 million of expenditure, what part of it will be devoted to the development of the night air services from London to provincial centres. I do not know whether the charges for the development of these air services will fall entirely on the Post Office Vote or on the Vote for civil aviation, but I would like to inquire whether considerable sums will be spent in that direction during the coming year. I think we are justified in making that inquiry because the requirements of the postal service are really quite simply stated.
In the main, they are that a letter posted in London shall be delivered in any provincial centre—Edinburgh, Glasgow or Belfast—the following morning to enable business firms to deal adequately with their mail and send a reply to be received in London the next morning. Although we all hoped that the development of air services would bring that about, and would counteract the explanations given to us that trains are slower because of deferred repairs, and prevailing difficulties about cross-Channel services, I am getting a greater number of complaints than ever about these unaccountable delays. The only way in 1371 which they can now be effectively counteracted is by the development of air services. To attain an object which was commonplace in the late Victorian era, it seems to me that the only possibility is, as I say, the development of the air services.
While welcoming the news that progress is to be made in the telegraphic and telephone services to business firms and farmers—and this is very welcome news—I should like the Postmaster-General to give some indication of what part of the capital to be spent next year and the year afterwards will be devoted to air services.
§ 12.28 p.m.
§ Mr. Randall (Clitheroe)
The hon. Gentleman who made the opening contribution from the Front Opposition Bench began his speech by saying that it was a gloomy thought that the telephone waiting lists were likely to become longer. Indeed, it is a gloomy thought, but I think the hon. Gentleman and hon. Members sitting behind him, if they will listen to the argument which I desire to put before the House, ought to recognise that they have some responsibility in this matter. I speak with a rather long knowledge of Post Office work and conditions.
The essence of the problem of telephone subscribers at the moment is buildings. In fact, it is the main problem as regards all traffic services in the Post Office, and the hon. Gentleman opposite ought not to slip into the error, into which so many members of the public slip, of thinking that we only require a telephone instrument and a line and everything will be all right. It is not so. In the Post Office, buildings were neglected before the war, when men were unemployed and labour was available. The organisation with which I have been associated for a number of years constantly pressed hon. Members opposite to see that these buildings were erected. Today we are paying the penalty. If this is a gloomy thought, then it is due, to a large extent, to the inaction of previous Governments.
The Bill provides for the authorisation of an issue of £75 million—£71 million for telephones and for postal traffic, and £4 million for telegraphic traffic. I think it is also associated with the development 1372 programme set out in Command Paper 7268. There we find that the major part of the money is to be used for the development of telephones and telephone buildings. I am entirely in agreement with my right hon. Friend in this. The only mild criticism that I would make is that I think it ought to have been done before. There should have been the development of four walls and a roof in which to put the equipment during the two and a half years which have gone by.
As my right hon. Friend has already mentioned, the carrying out of this work must reduce the duct work for local subscribers. It means that we must restrict the possibility of connecting up local subscribers, and that there will be longer waiting lists. My right hon. Friend said this morning that there are now 450,000 people on the waiting lists. I am confident that, as a result of the programme which is to be developed, there will be still longer waiting lists. I am not unhappy about that, because I believe that the long-term programme adumbrated in this Bill will in the end give us a speedier reduction of those waiting lists.
I also welcome this Bill because it links up with the export programme, in that equipment which might have gone into our exchanges will be exported abroad, and will, therefore, make its contribution to the export drive. It will also assist in seeing that materials are utilised in the right way, and will enable the Post Office to concentrate on efficiency. There has been a good deal of criticism in this House of the efficiency of the telephone service. Very often that lack of efficiency was due to pressure—apart from that to reduce the waiting lists—and not putting the workmen on the maintenance of our telephone system. Had there not been this pressure, we should not have had the number of complaints which we have had, and would have had a far more effective planned maintenance which would have prepared the way for accommodating the new subscribers. So far, we have not been able to do this.
I also welcome what is in the Bill with regard to capital investment, although I feel that its blessings are not unmixed. Here I come to what I regard as the real problem which has existed in the Post Office, and which has not, perhaps, received the attention it deserved. All the time we have had this battle of the 1373 waiting lists and the dissatisfied subscriber who had to be pacified. But very little thought has been given to the staff working at the exchange, who have had to put up with the criticism and impatience of the subscriber. Very often, it was a quite understandable impatience, but it was the staff who had to put up with it, and who had to remain silent when often they would like to have said something about the facts of which they were well aware.
The automatic equipment is very sensitive indeed. The bombing in London upset a good deal of it, and it required a good deal of skilful engineering work on the maintenance side to put it right. The staff knew what was wrong, and would like to have told the irritated subscriber the reason why he could not get his number. The pressure has been in the direction of more and more lines, and more and more new connections, which has not improved the service. It is regrettable that, immediately after the war, we did not pause for a while to enable the telephone service to recover. The result is that the service has deteriorated, and is the subject of much criticism.
I believe that the Post Office strive to do too much; in fact, they strive to do the impossible. There has been this attempt to extend the service, but in these two and a half years it has not been possible to do so. If a real extension is to be undertaken, it necessitates having the necessary equipment, buildings and staff. Those things ought to come first, and I regret that they did not. Instead, we had the battle of the waiting lists. Had attention been paid to plant, buildings and staff, I am satisfied that we should have had a better service today. I hope that the lesson has been learned, and that something will be done very quickly with regard to buildings. The staff have a very real grievance in this, connection.
I have some knowledge of the matter and have visited a few exchanges. The equipment is worn out and years out of date, and there are over-crowded conditions. During the Recess, I went to the Whitehaven office. I hope my right hon. Friend will make a note of this office because it is one that requires attention. Every member of the staff is cramped for space, and cannot work properly because of these conditions. Another example is the Wantage tele- 1374 phone exchange, where the switch room was originally designed, 21 years ago, for one operator and Gone switchboard. The exchange has now grown to three positions with a staff of five day and three night telephonists. During the day, four female officers are constantly on duty and, at night, there are two male operators. The size of the room is 12 ft. by 9 ft. by 8 ft. That is evidence of the need for dealing with the situation so far as it is set out in this Bill.
Therefore, I ask my right hon. Friend to get on with the job as speedily as he can. We shall still get criticism because of the waiting lists, but, in the end, I believe we shall produce a service which is much better than this country has ever known. It will grow out of all recognition. In the ultimate, the seat of the trouble is buildings, staff and equipment. I hope that this Bill, which I welcome, will help us to achieve the things we want.
§ 12.39 p.m.
§ Mr. Edgar Granville (Eye)
The hon. Member for Clitheroe (Mr. Randall) speaks with a good deal of knowledge of the matter, and I listened to him with great interest. I am sure we all join with him in paying tribute to the work of the telephone staffs under very difficult conditions. I hope, however, that what the hon. Gentleman has said is not the "party line," because it is extremely cold comfort to hear that there may be still longer waiting lists. I agree with the hon. and gallant Gentleman the junior Member for Antrim (Major Haughton) that it is a very serious proposal to reduce the capital grant of the right hon. Gentleman's Department.
I should have thought the telephone service would be used very much more in the future than it has been in the past. There are all kinds of difficulties with which one has to contend in business. One hon. Member has referred to the export trade. I imagine there will be serious industrial and commercial difficulties on the sales side in the battle to bridge the gap between our exports and imports, and there will be an increasing tendency on the part of business men and sales men to use the telephone instead of making long journeys by train or motor car. I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman has his difficulties, but I hope he will rally his forces behind him and fight again, because he should not accept 1375 this reduction in capital. I appreciate that there are all kinds of difficulties involved in taking over the equipment to which reference is made in the Bill, but the right hon. Gentleman must aim at a brave new world and ask for more. If he puts his case to the people who have to handle these matters, I believe they will give him all the co-operation he needs.
I have had complaints from my own constituency in East Suffolk. There have been complaints of the shortage of equipment, such as poles, crossbars, copper wire and so on. I do not pretend to understand the complicated system of supply to the right hon. Gentleman's Department, and I do not know whether it is a matter for public or private contractors; but, despite all this war equipment which he will receive, I am told there are serious bottlenecks in the supply of certain important equipment. What can be done about that? Doubtless, the right hon. Gentleman has given a great deal of time and thought to the problem, but I suggest that if contractors are unable to supply specific items of equipment because there are too many orders, the problem should be tackled as an emergency measure. There must be a system of grouping and sub-contracting. Firms with the capacity, the floor space and the productive equipment must be brought into a grouping system with the main contractors to overcome bottlenecks. Possibly there are many manufacturers who are producing all they can; their manpower and floor space are fully occupied, and yet there is a bottleneck which is delaying a particular type of development. This is a Labour Government; surely this Government will not accept all the deficiencies of the past and say, "It has never been done before."
I hope, therefore, that we shall get some new proposals. We must have a grouping system, as we did when we had a bottleneck in aircraft production during the war. Surely, the Minister will not say, "We cannot do this because the industry cannot supply the equipment." It does not matter whether the industry is State owned or privately owned. The question is whether we have the maximum efficient system which will give the optimum production. Are we using new ideas? Are there people in the Department who are showing some sort of initiative and trying to solve the problems, 1376 or is the Department taking it lying down and saying that nothing more can be done? The right hon. Gentleman has the confidence of both sides of the House; we all agree that he is trying to do a good job. Let him make a bold proposal and bring it to the House for our support.
There have been considerable experiments in the United States of America with the use of helicopter services betwen the airport and the post office. I believe the right hon. Gentleman has already met representatives from America who have been engaged in these experiments. Perhaps the Assistant Postmaster-General will tell us what experiments have been made. It is one thing to get a passenger or a piece of paper or an envelope across the Atlantic or from India in 16 hours, but it is a bad thing if that piece of paper is delayed between its arrival at the airport and its delivery. It is worth while trying this experiment, and I would like to know what the Post Office propose to do. If the right hon. Gentleman is able to say that efforts are being made to overcome any bottleneck which may exist—particularly in East Suffolk, so far as I am concerned—I do not think anyone in this House will oppose the Bill. I hope also that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to say that the air mail service will be accelerated, because if we are to have an export drive there will be a tremendous demand on the air mail service.
§ 12.46 p.m.
§ Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham)
My right hon. Friend has already had more encomiums than are really good for him, but I am bound to join in the general praise and say that in my experience the telephone and postal services have improved enormously over the last few months.
No one in this Debate has mentioned the village postmistress. Many years ago I used to assist in working one of these local exchanges—an experience which had many forms of interest. The conditions under which the village postmistress has to work—and I know this is one of my right hon. Friend's nightmares from one point of view—are deplorable. Their salaries have been disgraceful, and although I know my right hon. Friend has made some improvements 1377 there is still room for improving the conditions of these people who are employed in distant and remote telephone exchanges and who are liable to be fetched out of bed at any hour of the day or night to listen to a conversation in which someone says, "Good night dear; I hope you got home safely," at three o'clock in the morning.
Reference has been made to the question of the party line; I am using that term in the technical Post Office sense and not in the political sense. Although this party line system may be necessary, it Obviously raises problems. For one thing, there should not be the same charge. I do not know how one would apportion the charge for a line which was used collectively by the local consulting physician and the local reporter. There might be some case for saying that the local reporter should pay a higher share of the charge for the news value of the service than the physician should pay for having consultations with his patients.
The Assistant Postmaster-General knows that I have a small personal grievance about the allocation of new telephones. I wish to raise a question not merely affecting the matter about which I wrote to him recently, but also affecting my constituents. I have had very courteous service from the Department and, generally speaking, my constituents' needs have been met within a reasonable period, but as this demand for telephone services grows there arises a problem because of the prosperity of the country. The large waiting list is due to the prosperity of the country—many more people can now afford the telephone service—but as the demand grows, there will be a problem of deciding how to allocate this service. In "The Times" every day houses are advertised for sale with vacant possession, and one of the inducements offered is a telephone. One can go to the auction and buy the house, but two days later men arrive from the Post Office, disconnect the telephone and remove it, saying that it is going to somebody else. I make no complaint, but I suggest it would be a proper step for the Government to write to the various auctioneers' institutes and call their attention to the fact that to advertise a house with a telephone is, in the circumstances, slightly dishonest. They should be told that they should not advertise houses in this way, 1378 because the telephone is not saleable property and it is liable to be removed in accordance with the present policy of the Government.
The second thing is this. As I understand it, the Post Office have a scheme in this matter of "First come, first served," so that the man who ordered the telephone in 1944 gets it before the man who ordered it in 1945; and there is rough justice in that. Obviously, however, there must be exceptions. For instance, a doctor who has now to move his practice—say, because of the health of his wife—from the North to the South Coast, may need a telephone much more than a local bookmaker opening a new branch of his business, even though the latter contemplated doing so 12 months before.
There is another aspect of the matter. If the priority rule is given and rigidly adhered to, then the men who were in prison camps in Germany, and the men who were serving abroad, and who are now embarking upon their careers, are completely deprived of the right to facilities for developing their careers by fulfilling their urgent need of having telephones in their houses.
I suggest that there must be some reconsideration of the priorities in this matter, that there must be some method of assessing and assisting the real need of the individual, and that there must be some method of giving to the people who were serving abroad while these orders were accummulating the right to have some priority, assessed in accordance with the length of their service and the urgency of their needs and their demands. Subject to that, I desire to join in the general congratulations to the right hon. Gentleman on the very great improvements generally in the service in the last few months. I hope they will continue.
§ 12.51 p.m.
§ Mr. Peter Roberts (Sheffield, Ecclesall)
I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Member for Oldham (Mr. Hale) has said, and I think that some account should be taken of specific cases of applications for telephones which come before the Department. However, that is rather secondary to the main consideration, which is getting the telephones to the people who require them as quickly as possible. I understood from what the Postmaster-General said that that depends 1379 mainly upon the question of money. I should like to draw his attention to the fact of the £21 million being paid for Government stock. I am not now talking about the materials themselves, but the prices the Post Office are paying. I should like the Assistant Postmaster-General, in his reply to the Debate, to say whether there is any extravagance in the cost of the materials, because in so far as the £21 million can be reduced, by that amount will there be more money available for capital expenditure on telephones.
Therefore, we ought to have an assurance that this increased figure of £21 million does not represent money being paid over by the Post Office to Service Departments—which, in point of fact, is taking that available money away from the development of telegraphic services in this country. We want an assurance that this costing has been gone through extremely carefully. My experience of Government surplus stock of this kind is that much of it is not really suitable for civil needs, and that a lot of money has to be spent on adapting it. I am not satisfied that the Post Office should accept this charge of £21 million on its books at the expense of the person waiting for his telephone.
It seems that in the past the money which has been spent on maintenance and on the putting in of telephones has run at about something over £34 million a year. Of the £71 million we are now voting, if we divide it by three to cover three years, that brings it down to about £25 million a year. We are reducing the sum from something over £30 million to something about £25 million. That is the picture on the one hand. On the other hand, we have been told—and it is a creditable performance—that 1,300,000 telephones have been installed in two years. That is at the rate of about 650,000 telephones a year. If 650,000 telephones could be provided at a proportional cost of something over £30 million, one would have thought it would have been possible proportionately to provide something like 500,000, or 450,000, in the coming year with the money which is available.
I understood the Postmaster-General to say that the number of telephones required and outstanding is 450,000. I appreciate that where telephones are being 1380 put back on lines which have been disused, not much money will require to be spent; but I understood the Postmaster-General to say that out of three telephones one is an entirely new installation. Therefore, he has not been referring merely to putting back telephones on lines which have been discontinued in houses where they were before.
I am satisfied that, with the money which Parliament is now granting, if the materials which the Postmaster-General said were available, there is a possibility of doing away with this waiting list within a year, and I should like an assurance at least on that and secondly on what is the target—and we hear a lot about targets nowadays—of the Post Office in this matter. I am myself not satisfied that party lines are really what we require in the Sheffield area. I asked a specific question on this matter, and if I cannot be given an answer today, I should be obliged if I can be given one later—whether the position in the Sheffield area with regard to the waiting list for telephones is better or worse than most.
While welcoming the general intent behind the Bill to get on with the job, I am not satisfied that sufficient attention is being paid to all the possibilities of getting rid of this waiting list. I do not think this House should be satisfied with any service which is not the best. We ought to expect the best service which we can get.
§ 12.57 p.m.
§ Mr. Dumpleton (St. Albans)
I do not propose to follow the hon. Member for Ecclesall (Mr. P. Roberts) in his maze of arithmetical calculations, because there is a relatively small matter I wish to raise. My right hon. Friend gave us a great deal of interesting and valuable information, and I certainly should like to join with other hon. Members on all sides of the House who have congratulated the Department on the way it has carried out its very difficult task during the last two and a half years since the war. We all agree it is very disappointing that the limitations in our physical resources do not make it possible to allow that expansion in the development of the use of the telephone which the demand shows to be desirable.
The Post Office itself, some years before the war, carried out a very good educational campaign to encourage the 1381 use of the telephone, and I think that the increasing telephone consciousness on the part of the public is partly due to that. It is probably also due, not only to the advertising carried out by the Post Office a few years ago, but to the increasing standard of living and the increasing prosperity of the people. A great many more people are able to afford to be on the telephone, who could not afford it before. However, there are still a great many who cannot afford to have a telephone, even if one were available, but who would like to have that facility very much indeed.
I want to make a plea on behalf of those people, and to refer to the question of telephone kiosks. The hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Grimston) rightly said that the inability to fulfil the demand at the present moment, coupled with the number of people who cannot afford to have the telephone installed, makes the telephone kiosk very much more important. My right hon. Friend spoke of his aims in regard to the installation of telephones in rural areas; and I was very glad to hear him say there was a possibility of meeting all the demands from the farmers by the end of the year. That is very good. But what about the farm workers living in the villages?
The Post Office have a method of determining whether a village which needs a telephone kiosk should be put on a priority list and given that kiosk as soon as the equipment is available. What happens is that the rural district council generally passes the responsibility on to the parish council, and there is a demand from the Post Office that they shall be willing to pay a sum of £4 per year for five years. I should like the Postmaster-General to reconsider that. It is paltry and petty that parish councils, when they are convinced of an urgent need for a kiosk, to be shared by the residents in a small village community, should be required to undertake such a payment. It is very important that this facility should be available in these rather remote rural areas, where there are emergency demands for the district nurse, or a doctor in cases of sudden illness. This facility is required for those who cannot have a telephone, either because there is such a long installation waiting list, or because they cannot afford a private telephone in their house, and it should be put at their disposal as quickly as possible.
1382 If, because of the shortage of resources, my right hon. Friend has to work a system of priorities for the time being, he ought to devise some other means of determining the relative urgency and need in various rural areas, rather than demand that payment from the local authorities, even though, as he said in reply to a Question on 12th November, it is not an onerous one. I urge upon my right hon. Friend to give more attention than he has indicated in the development programme, which he mentioned this morning, to the needs of rural communities and the provision of kiosks or public telephones which they can share; and I certainly ask him to abolish this system of demanding payment from local authorities.
§ 1.4 p.m.
§ Mr. W. R. Williams (Heston and Isleworth)
I have some sympathy with the last remarks of the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Dumpleton). I have never been able to understand this Post Office insistence on a form of guarantee in regard to telephone kiosks and services in rural areas, because I consider it an essential requirement of rural areas to have reasonable telephone facilities. As a matter of fact, I have a selfish motive here, too, because nearly two years ago I raised the question of the installation of a telephone kiosk in the village in which I was brought up. I know that the inhabitants have to suffer the disability for 12 months of the year but when I go there on my holidays every year it necessitates a walk of a mile or a mile and a half every time I want to telephone. So, from a purely selfish point of view, I sincerely hope my right hon. Friend will have some regard to this problem, and even should he be unable to satisfy the country as a whole, if he could provide a telephone for that village in North Wales it would well satisfy me.
First, I wish to express my approval of the Bill itself, and my appreciation of the very able manner in which my right hon. Friend has presented it. After the work he had with the Bill last year, he seems to be becoming very competent, and I think we can guarantee his increment very shortly if he carries on in that way. I also wish to express my personal appreciation of the tremendous amount of work that has been going on behind the scenes in the Post Office since we last 1383 discussed this some time in 1946. I thought I knew a good deal about the developments there, but it simply staggered me to know that there were 1,322,000 new installations, at a time when we have so many difficulties in connection with manpower, maintenance and raw materials, to say nothing of money. I could not follow the hon. Member for Ecclesall (Mr. P. Roberts) in his mathematics, and I will not attempt to deal with that aspect especially on a Friday. It is more abstruse than I could possibly hope to understand.
I am very appreciative, too, of the work done, not only on the postal and telephone sides, but also on the international telephone side in connection with the development and restoration of international telephone services, the experiments that have taken place, and the helicopter. I sincerely hope hon. Members will not think that if even half-a-dozen helicopters are put in the air a substantial improvement will be effected in the postal services, for that would be to misunderstand the facts, and might lead us to make ridiculous suggestions from time to time. However, I am pleased with the development that has taken place, which I hope will continue.
Tribute must also be paid to the Post Office administration. It has been second to none in its vision of the future, the potentialities of scientific developments, and the way it adapts itself to trying to face developments in the scientific field. Our research department in the Post Office is a department par excellence, and if given more money and more staff, tremendous improvements will be achieved in the fields we have been discussing today.
I am rather surprised that a Socialist Government should want to reduce by one-third its commitments for telecommunications, which is such an essential public service. I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Grimston) that such a cut is tremendous in these days. For many years I have held the view that whatever export drive or industrial output we attempt to achieve, if a bottleneck is created in the telecommunications services, a great deal of waste will accrue. An analogy would be asking the miners to produce a certain quantity of coal while our transport system was not equal to 1384 the consequent demands made upon it. I hope my right hon. Friend will go to the Cabinet and tell them the view of hon. Members on both sides of this House, that if the Cabinet want the service which is essential to national recovery and prosperity in industry and the export trade, then the telecommunications services must have as much of the available resources of the country as is possible. I know that raw materials, and so on, are very limited, and that we must try to maintain a sense of proportion in these matters; but I aver that in peace, as in war, telecommunications services are an essential feature of our national requirements.
Having regard to the disabilities and difficulties which we may experience during the next year or two, I sincerely hope that my right hon. Friend will not try to carry a load which is too big for him. If there is to be a limitation of manpower, equipment, and plant, too big a load must not be carried lest, as in the case of the proverbial camel, the little extra makes the load too heavy. It is always wrong to overload a service, because the chaos and inefficiency that result are always worse than the disappointment which may arise from the limited nature of that service. It is no use putting in new installations to private renters and subscribers unless the exchange conditions are such that the installations will be reasonably efficient from an administrative and staff point of view.
Being a little selfish, I would like my right hon. Friend to look in the direction of Heston and Isleworth, a constituency which is important in the big drive now going on for exports. According to the number of letters which I have received, there is a great deal of dissatisfaction in my constituency about telephone installations, and I think there is considerable merit in the suggestion that much discretion and common sense will be required in the allocation of telephones during the next 12 months. I have had plenty of complaints from people who have bought houses on the assumption that a telephone would be there, and I, too, believe that the Postmaster-General should make the position plain.
There is another point about publicity. The Postmaster-General, realising the difficulties he is up against, would be well advised to tell the people of the country 1385 exactly what can be done and what cannot be done, not only in his interests, but in their interests as well. Let him give them some idea of the difficulties and possibilities—
§ Major Haughton
On a point of Order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. Does expenditure on publicity come under the heading of capital investment?
§ Mr. Williams
If the hon. and gallant Member had been listening he would have realised the association between the point I am making now, and some of the difficulties and inconveniences from which people are suffering. I am sure that no Ruling from the Chair was necessary. On the question of the interesting developments which are taking place in the telegraph service—and the hon. Member for Westbury referred to the manual through-switch, which, I am glad to say, has been so successful—a great deal of the success of this system has been due to the close co-operation between the administrative and working staffs. Without that it would have been impossible to have developed the rudiments of a system which, in its automatic form, will eventually revolutionise the telegraph service as we have known it, and will, I hope, expedite the transmission and delivery of telegrams.
Finally, I would like to point out that for many years many Post Office buildings have not been suitable or adequate. I wish Members could see some of the offices in which Post Office employees have to work; they would be astonished that such a state of affairs could have been allowed to continue, at a time when this country was in a much more prosperous condition than it is in today. I know my right hon. Friend cannot deal with all the cases that are brought to his notice, but I hope he will give his attention to one case I have particularly in mind—in Glasgow—where it has been necessary to have a medical opinion about the state of the building. In the interests of administration, and of my right hon. Friend himself, he should see whether it is adequate and suitable from the point of view of health and working conditions. I hope the Post Office and its staff will, in the years 1386 ahead, continue to co-operate with the same friendliness as hitherto, so that as a result of some of the developments foreshadowed in this Bill the Post Office will not only live up to its present high standard of efficiency, but will continue to do even better.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
With reference to the point raised a few minutes ago by the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Antrim (Major Haughton), it would appear that the Bill is restricted to capital expenditure, so that detailed reference to current expenditure, including, I imagine, publicity, would be out of Order. I am obliged to the hon. and gallant Member.
§ 1.16 p.m.
§ Mr. Braddock (Mitcham)
The fact that in this Debate some Members have contemplated continued development of Post Office services is, to me, a rather terrifying prospect. For instance, it is almost impossible nowadays to work in an office in peace. The telephone bell is ringing nearly all the time. We and the public generally should, therefore, give some thought to where development of these ingenious contrivances of the Post Office will eventually lead. We must deliberately consider whether we should not put a limit to development, which is taking up a great deal of building, engineering equipment, and staff.
As I say, it is almost impossible to settle down to work in an office without somebody ringing to say something which, in nine cases out of 10, could have been just as well said by letter, or which is of no consequence whatever. It is obvious that there will be great deficiencies in the telephone service for a long time. Many people want a telephone; equipment and labour are short, and although no one is blaming the Post Office, great frustrations and difficulties are being experienced. The Post Office, by its propaganda, should impress upon the public that the telephone service should be regarded, at present, as an emergency service; people should be persuaded that brief telephone conversations are essential. I know of people who have installed themselves in telephone kiosks for conversations of five, to, 15, 20, or even 30 minutes. I have known people deliberately take sandwiches and a book into a kiosk, get their number, and hang on to the 'phone. If that continues, no improvements in the service will 1387 make it efficient. Would it be possible to institute a limitation of time—say a two minutes' call—so that people would know that they have to limit their conversation to two minutes, after which there would be an automatic cut-off? I am certain that if that could be made a practical proposition, the present equipment could be used to greater efficiency for the whole community. There are great difficulties and frustrations at the present time, but the blame, if any, is not on the service but on the general public. It is the duty of the Post Office to let the general public know the limitations of the service under present conditions, and to try to persuade them to use it for emergency purposes only, and not for general conversations—inquiring after someone's health and what they think of the Government.
§ 1.22 p.m.
§ The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Hobson)
I think that it will be generally agreed that we have had a very interesting Debate. It is apparent from the tone and moderation of the speeches of hon. Members that the Bill has been well received. I assure hon. Members that suggestions which they have made will be examined, but I do not think that any speaker has proved that, allowing for the cuts which arise through the limitation of capital investment, we could have done any better under current difficulties.
The hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Grimston) mentioned that the list of people waiting for telephones was growing larger. I think that my right hon. Friend, in the figures which he gave, proved that the Post Office has done a splendid job in installing many new telephones. One reason why the list is continuing to grow is that people have become more telephone-conscious. There is no doubt that many who have returned from the Services desire the telephone, and, consequently, the demand is far greater than it was before the war.
A question has been raised about the shortage of telephones for business purposes. I do not think that criticism is fully justified. The Post Office are giving priority to business people, as was made clear by my right hon. Friend in his speech this morning and by the statement which he gave to the House some weeks ago. Business houses will be 1388 helped by the fact that a considerable amount of this expenditure will be for the purpose of developing trunk services, which will aid manufacturers to communicate with their branches. As to maintenance, we agree that there is a considerable back-log of maintenance work because many Post Office engineers went into the Forces, and because of the tremendous amount of latent bomb damage which, from time to time, reveals itself. The engineering side are fully conscious of the importance of concentrating on maintenance.
It has been suggested that lack of buildings was the principal cause of the shortage of telephones, and that we have not availed ourselves of temporary buildings. That is not the whole case. The main reason for the shortage of telephones is the lack of equipment and of cables. I have also been asked about the £21 million of war service goods and stores absorbed into the Post Office system. The sum is now a little more than £21 million, and it represents the prime cost of plant, less accrued depreciation up to 1st April, 1946, provided by the Post Office for war purposes, which could be absorbed into the system for the development of the service.
§ Mr. Grimston
I take it that it has been found possible to absorb a lot more plant than was thought possible a few years ago.
§ Mr. Hobson
That is so, after a most careful examination of the plant. There is no question of the Post Office taking plant which is of no value to it. I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that that matter has been carefully examined. I was also asked about submarine repeaters, and whether we were utilising that invention. At the moment, we have two submarine repeaters actually in position, one on the cable to Northern Ireland, and one on the cable to Germany. We are fully aware of the need for developing the use of submarine repeaters, and the research station at Dolls Hill is carrying on work to see whether it can get valves for submarine repeaters which will last for a long time.
Reference has been made to the increased cost of the parcel post. I gather, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that that was not entirely in Order, but perhaps, as the matter has been raised, I may be allowed 1389 to answer. The increase in the parcel post rates was solely due to the increased railway charges. The Post Office increase has not been commensurate with the increase in railway rates. Railway rates have increased 55 per cent, but the Post Office parcel rate has increased by only 47 per cent. We cannot consider a situation in which the parcel post would be subsidised by another section of the Post Office revenue; otherwise we should not be in the healthy position financially that we are in at the moment.
It has been argued that we should have diverted some of the traffic to the road, but we would be up against a shortage of vehicles, of accommodation and of manpower. I have also been asked what we are doing with regard to the helicopter. We are continually watching experiments made with helicopters. It has one great disadvantage and that is its slowness. Nevertheless, we are seeing how it may help the efficiency of the service. At present we are experimenting with dummy mails in the West of England.
§ Mr. W. R. Williams
Can the hon. Gentleman give some indication of the weight that helicopters can carry?
§ Mr. Hobson
The lifting power of the helicopter is very small, but I could not give the exact figures without notice. I was talking about the general principle, and the fact that it is very much in the experimental stage.
I now come to the more thorny question of shared service. I was rather surprised that the hon. Member for Westbury' stressed the need for reducing the cost, because that was already being done during the time that he was at the Post Office. The position is that there is a rebate on the basic rental of 10s. a year, which with the war time surcharge, brings the rebate to 11s. 6d. a year. It is absolutely essential to expand the service by this means because the cut in our capital expenditure has precluded new lines in residential areas. Many exchanges are full. Indeed out of 5,800, 1,500 are already full.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Willesden (Mr. Viant) again raised the question of the secrecy of the service. We do not claim the service is secret, but no indication is given that the other person is telephoning. Another disadvantage is that at the moment the account 1390 for calls obtained by dialling at automatic exchanges has to be rendered to one of the subscribers. That in some circumstances can give rise to complication. We are hopeful that we shall be able to devise ways and means whereby completely separate accounts can be rendered for those sharing a party line.
§ Mr. Skinnard
Is it possible for the Post Office to find out the method used in America for rendering separate accounts, because there, it is a recognised feature of the telephone service and each individual subscriber, even on a party line, is treated as we treat exclusive subscribers here and receives his bills in the ordinary way.
§ Mr. Hobson
We shall probably get that information, but in America there are up to 36 people on one single shared service and we are not suggesting anything of the sort here.
The hon. and gallant Member for Antrim (Major Haughton) raised the issue of the Northern Ireland air service. We should like to institute a night service to Northern Ireland, but there are one or two factors which at the moment preclude our doing so. First it would use 200,000 gallons of petrol a year, and further, the regularity of the service could not be fully ensured because night navigational aids are not available at some of the aerodromes. The matter is continuously before us. Indeed, the hon. Member for Londonderry (Sir R. Ross) is a Member of the Post Office Advisory Council and he is always raising this matter—and quite rightly so—in order to ensure that that part of the United Kingdom is not overlooked. We shall do what we can to expedite a solution to this problem when things are more normal.
I want now to turn to the point with regard to kiosks raised by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Dumpleton). He complained about the onerous charge of £4 a year for five years which the local councils have to pay for the provision, of telephone kiosks. One might assume from the hon. Gentleman's remarks that there were no telephone kiosks other than those provided by the local authority or the parish council. In point of fact, in all our villages where there are Post Offices, except possibly a few of the remote ones, there are telephone call offices available, and at the 1391 present moment we are engaged in seeing that the call office is taken from within the Post Office and placed in an outside kiosk in order to make it available throughout the whole of the 24 hours. Why do we do this? It is because it has proved to be one of the ways and means by which we can meet the demand. Otherwise, we leave it to local authorities to apply for kiosks in the villages. The fact that there is a nominal charge, however, encourages them to exercise due care in the selection of where a kiosk will be placed. As far as the charge of £20 is concerned, it costs more than this to maintain the kiosk during any given year. In all the circumstances, I do not think the rural areas are doing badly.
§ Mr. Randall
Are we to understand from the statement that where there is not a village Post Office there, we shall not have a kiosk?
§ Mr. Hobson
No, that does not follow at all. The fact is that this system will be maintained in order to ensure that these kiosks are really placed where there is a demand, and one way of ensuring that there is a real demand is by asking for the small payment of £20 spread over five years. One hon. Member raised the question of remote districts. Where there is an exceptional case it always receives the most sympathetic consideration of the Department. The hon. Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. W. R. Williams) also mentioned this point. I did not think Heston and Isleworth was a particularly rural area, but I rather gathered that he was referring to his native village. If it comes into the category of being remote it will receive the consideration that it deserves.
The hon. Member for Ecclesall (Mr. P. Roberts) raised the question of the £21 million. I have already explained in answer to the hon. Member for Westbury what are the circumstances. We have not bought a pig in a poke. One point on which I could not follow the hon. Member was when he started by a process of mathematical calculation to assume that we should be able to clear up all the arrears on outstanding telephones in one year.
§ Mr. P. Roberts
This calculation was based upon the assumption of a progressive proportion in the capital amount of 1392 expenditure on the one side or on the other. If there is any difference in the proportions of our expenditure, it would be interesting to know.
§ Mr. Hobson
My position is I could not follow the algebraical equation and I gather the unknown factor x was the number of applications for new telephones continually being made by the general public. However, I hope the explanation I have already given is of a satisfactory nature. I now turn to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Clitheroe (Mr. Randall) who has an intimate knowledge of staff conditions. He was concerned with the accommodation at telephone exchanges. We agree that it is not always perfect, but there are many new buildings where the conditions are exceedingly good. Let me assure him that those exchanges of which he has told us will be subject to a most careful examination. He must appreciate that as a result of the cut in capital expenditure we are precluded from carrying out the modernisation and rebuilding which we all desire. In order to make the work of the telephonists less onerous we are experimenting with new methods to ensure more flexibility and to bring less fatigue.
Questions of welfare are continually being considered by the Department. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Heston and Isleworth that I will take note of the instance he gave of the post office upon which he commented so unfavourably. We are anxious to improve the conditions of the staff. My hon. Friend has given ample examples of that fact. We shall continue to do our best in the circumstances in which we are placed. My hon. Friend the Member for Oldham (Mr. Hale) seemed to take umbrage because persons who take over a house with an existing telephone, find that they are not allowed to retain the installation. We think it would be unfair to allow the telephone to remain for the incoming tenant if there were earlier applicants waiting for a telephone.
§ Mr. Hobson
We are considering with our legal department the question of 1393 people advertising the sale of property with use of telephone. As that is a legal question, we must await the legal answer.
On the question of priorities, the broad principle was indicated in the reply of my right hon. Friend to a question by the hon. Member for Westbury some time ago. The priorities are to business people, public utilities, doctors, midwives and farmers. For residential people priority is according to the length of time since the application was made. We also give priority to disabled ex-Service people and to ex-Service men who are entering into business. In the circumstances, I think that that arrangement is equitable.
I believe I have covered the main points put to us. I hasten to assure the House that we shall continue to give the best service we can, having regard to the amount of capital available. The Post Office seeks to give Britain the best services it can. Undoubtedly, we should have made further considerable improvements had it not been for the situation in which the country is placed.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Committee of the whole House for Monday next.—[Mr. R. Adams.]