§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 1.26 p.m.
§ The Postmaster-General (Mr. Ness Edwards)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
In moving the Second Reading of this Bill, with that modesty which is natural to the Welsh race I should crave the indulgence of the House, since it is my maiden speech as Postmaster-General. The Bill now before us is a two-Clause Bill. The Financial and Explanatory Memorandum sets out the purposes fairly clearly, but I will briefly run over them.
Clause 1 enables the Post Office to undertake £75 million of capital development, and unfortunately that has to meet our requirements until October, 1952. I was afraid that this request to the House might raise a vision in the minds of some hon. Members that we were spending too much. I hope, however, that our modesty in this connection will not earn for us a Vote of Censure over too high a rate of Government expenditure.
Clause 2 tidies up the accounting and audit arrangements in the Post Office and brings the accounting arrangements into conformity with the recommendations of the Public Accounts Committee. In 1939 that Committee examined the position, and this is the first opportunity we have had of bringing those recommendations before the House and asking for approval of them.
In preparing for this Debate today, I naturally looked up examples of my illustrious predecessors in this office. I have been in the office only a few weeks and have not had time to familiarise myself with all the technicalities of this vast undertaking. In those circumstances I think it would be right to indicate shortly some of the outstanding achievements of this office, and afterwards indicate to the House the type of approach I shall make to the problems of the Department.
This is a massive industry. It was nationalised by the parties opposite and not by the party on this side of the House—
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
That might have been true of the post, but it is certainly not true either of the telegraphs or telephones. That occurred in 1912.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was in the Liberal Party then or in the Conservative Party.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
There have not been two minds about its continuation and, on the whole, this Department has been a credit to the nation and has done a great job. It is interesting to note that it is one of the socialised industries which makes a commercial profit, and makes it regularly, and I hope that will be acknowledged by hon. Gentlemen opposite to the credit of the Post Office. This is a vast enterprise. It employs more than 354,000 persons in this country, handles eight million letters a year, nearly 250 million parcels per annum and, in that connection—
§ Sir H. Williams
I take it that, as the right hon. Gentleman is describing the general activities of the Post Office and the postal services as well as the telegraph and telephone services, the Debate will be wide open?
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
I am endeavouring to indicate the continuing processes on which the capital for which we are asking will be spent.
§ Sir H. Williams
This has nothing to do with letters; it only deals with the telegraphs and telephones. As the right hon. Gentleman has brought in the number of letters they deliver, I take it that I shall be in order if I deal with the question of how slowly they deliver them?
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Colonel Sir Charles MacAndrew)
I imagine that the letters have to be linked up with the same service.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
What I wanted to do was to give the statistics, before coming in detail to the two matters with which this request for capital deals.
§ Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)
My right hon. Friend must have made a mistake in the statistics in any case, because I get about eight million letters a year myself. I think it should be 8,000 million.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
I apologise to my hon. Friend: it is 8,000 million letters per annum and nearly 250 million parcels. These are all handled in the buildings which are concerned in this matter. The amount of parcels is 30 per cent. more than it was pre-war. The Post Office has five million telephone stations, more than 3,000 million local telephone calls per annum and 240 million trunk telephone calls, and there are 425 million postal orders issued every year. Half of this money will be spent upon buildings in which other functions are being carried out. One of those functions is concerned with the Post Office Savings Bank and more than half the people in the nation are depositing money in that bank. There are nearly 100 million deposit or withdrawal transactions taking place each year. We issue something like 12 million broadcast receiving licences and issue more than 285,000 television licences.
Those are a few of the important statistics in this vast picture of social service which is undertaken by a loyal and devoted band of employees on behalf of the whole nation. In this way this great Department does touch every single member of the community and renders a service to every member of the community.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
I do not know whether we are to make this a provocative Debate, but when one talks about "touching" I am quite prepared to yield the palm to hon. Members opposite. I know that sometimes, all too frequently, it is not the service that is rendered by the Department which is appreciated but its failings which are noted. Reference has been made to failure to deliver a letter. I wonder if hon. Members really realise the number of times they get their letters "on the dot." People are working under all sorts of conditions and weather and travelling on all sorts of roads to remote parts of the country, yet there is this regular delivery of letters.
1457 even to the most remote household. While there may be some criticism—and I agree there is room for it in a number of cases—the value of this service to the community has never been as fully appreciated as it ought to be. It has always been taken for granted that the postman and the Post Office are there, always available, but any small shortcoming, which happens very occasionally, becomes a matter of contention and obliterates all the regular good service given to the community.
I do not want to deal with the general ramifications of the work of the Post Office, on which the money is to be spent, but two things in relation to the Post Office are uppermost in the minds of the general public today. The first is the provision of telephones and the telephone service. The second, to which I shall make reference, is television. I propose to confine what I have to say to those two activities of the Post Office, for which this money is being provided by this Bill. The greater past of the capital that is requested is destined for telecommunications, particularly the telephone. Perhaps it would not be unwise, or uncharitable, on my part to refer to the fact that the propaganda of one of my predecessors, Sir Kingsley Wood, has continued to have effect in this country. He has been regarded as one of our most successful Postmasters-General. He conducted a great campaign to make the country telephone-conscious. I am afraid his propaganda has continued and we are feeling its effects today.
My predecessors in this House have explained the phenomenal way in which the public demand for telephones has grown and was stimulated by the war. Prevailing economic circumstances and financial stringency have made it impossible for us to keep pace with the demand and the telephone appetite is far greater than our capacity to satisfy it. I suppose that is innate in the financial circumstances we are facing. The more we take for telephones and telephone buildings, the less capital, the less materials and the less skilled labour will be made available for housing. In spreading this capital expenditure we have to choose what we are going to spend on the Post Office. The Post Office, unfortunately, has to take its place in the queue and in the order of priority.
1458 I wish we were able to ask the House for a greater sum of money than that contained in this Bill, a sum of money which we must have if we are ever to overtake and satisfy the demand of potential subscribers for telephones. There is a very substantial waiting list for the telephone service. I must be frank with the House because I think this is one of the greatest problems before me in the post I now hold. Within present limitations I am afraid I cannot make any great impact on this problem. Capital investment, buildings, scarce raw materials and skilled labour are all involved and hon. Members on both sides of the House know how difficult it is to spread what is available over so wide an area.
§ Sir H. Williams
Can the right hon. Gentleman mention the scarce raw materials to which he made reference?
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
We want them, not for consumption in this country, but, as the hon. Member knows, to go into articles to be exported in order to help close the dollar gap. I thought that was elementary and that the hon. Member would have known that without unnecessary interruption, but the natural modesty of a Welshman always comes to the top in this House.
There was a waiting list of 480,000 people at the end of 1949. Of that number 64,164 could not be supplied because of the lack of exchange equipment, 217,000 could not be supplied because of the lack of underground cables and 126,000 could not be supplied because both exchange equipment and underground plant are not available.
I turn to the question of external construction, the building of exchanges. There are 7,423 applicants, mainly farmers, for whom we cannot provide service until we can afford to be far more lavish with wires and telegraph poles.
§ Mr. R. V. Grimston (Westbury)
Do take it that the present waiting list is 480,000? I did not quite follow the right hon. Gentleman's figures.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
The figures I gave were those of the waiting list at the end 1459 of 1949. Others have since been added to it and I think I should be right in saying that the list is growing, but I have no later figures. Of the numbers I have mentioned, 309,000 are applications for residential telephones and 173,900 are for business telephones. In this demand for private residential telephones we see expressed the economic prosperity of our country. The capacity to pay for a telephone appears to be associated with this developing telephone consciousness. I think it is a tribute generally to the way in which the country is building up its economy that we have this demand for so many residential telephones.
To solve this problem would involve a capital expenditure of at least £300 million. In view of the Debates that have taken place in this House this week, I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will recognise that the Post Office cannot undertake capital expenditure to that extent, and therefore within the normal methods of solving this problem, there is no hope of satisfying the demands of the people on the waiting list for some considerable time ahead.
§ Mr. Leslie Hale
Does not the figure which my right hon. Friend has given mean a capital expenditure of £650 per telephone? Is that figure really put forward?
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
I am sorry to have to digress on the technical side. In the short time I have been in the Department I have been trying to familiarise myself with the technical side of it. In the time of one of my predecessors, the late Sir Kingsley Wood, all the spare lines of the main cable system were used and it then became necessary to lay more lines. Until there were more main cables small branches could not be built. The position in this country is that we have used practically all our cable line capacity. During the war there was a period when we laid scarcely any main cables, indeed scarcely any cables except for war purposes. We now have to start with a completely new system, to start from the bottom, to build new exchanges and lay new cables. It is then that we shall be able to start bringing on to the telephone system all those who desire to be subscribers.
§ Mr. Hale
I understand my right hon. Friend's difficulties and I do not wish to 1460 embarrass him, but I understand that there is now a waiting list of 465,000, and that to meet the requirements of that waiting list the capital expenditure involved would be £300 million. If that is correct, it is perfectly clear that any revenue that can come from the waiting would-be subscribers can never conceivably pay even the interest on the capital expenditure involved. I ask my hon. Friend to look at his figures again because I feel there must be an error.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
I see no difficulty in the matter and I hope that when hon. Members hear my further explanation they, too, will see no difficulty. Any cable is laid not in relation to the present demand but to the potential demand. It is useless laying a cable today to meet present demands and then in two years' time having to lay another cable to meet new demands. Normal planning must have regard to potential as well as to present demand; it would be utter folly to plan only on the basis of present demand. It will be necessary to spend a sum of the order I have mentioned to meet the present demand and the potential demand.
§ Sir H. Williams
What total plant would the £300 million cover? If we can be told that, we can do the arithmetic ourselves.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
If the hon. Member will restrain himself, he will get more answers much more quickly than he will by belligerent questions. When we reach a later stage, I undertake to give the details on which that calculation has been made. I asked specially for an assessment from our engineers of the amount of capital we should require to solve this problem in a proper way. I hope to be able some day to go to the Chancellor and say "There is a grave and pressing problem in this country, and to solve it in reasonable time I must have so much capital allocated to the Post Office." It was along those lines that I 1461 asked the Department to work in connection with the assessment of the amount of capital expenditure which would be required.
Let me carry the matter one stage further. Telephones connected in this country numbered 832,000 in 1946, 711,000 in 1947, 674,000 in 1948 and 720,000 in 1949. Despite this growing waiting list, the installation of telephones in the last four years has been larger in number that in the eight years preceding the war. That in itself is an indication that the Post Office has been working with great energy and making great efforts in order to provide a telephone service for the people of this country. This has been achieved in part, as I explained previously, by taking up every available link of the cable. Now cables are overloaded and automatic exchanges have no room for any further connections. That is the reason why the capital development in the future must, if we are to meet this demand, be greater per telephone for the next few years than it has been in the past. Cost of materials and wages have increased and there are general increases which are associated with any project of this kind.
The Post Office is conscious that under present conditions it will take a long time to satisfy all these telephone applicants and we have therefore attempted some palliatives. If we cannot provide a telephone for the private subscriber, then we try to provide a communal telephone. If we cannot provide one for the squire, at least we want to see that the village gets a telephone. The policy has been to take telephones out of the village post offices and put them in kiosks, where they will be available to the whole of the community all the time. Despite the fact that we should like to give the squire a telephone, we must give it to the community first, because the community must take first place. In the last two years 5,491 kiosks have been provided of which number 2,354 are in the rural areas. In this way we have provided kiosks which do give telephone service day and night to the inhabitants of those areas.
The other palliative method which we have adopted is that of asking private subscribers to share their lines. I know there are disadvantages about this, but I am not satisfied that all those disadvantages cannot be eliminated. I am 1462 taking up this matter with the engineers in the Post Office to see whether it is possible to devise some means of giving to the sharing subscriber the same communication privacy as is enjoyed by the individual subscriber. I would ask present subscribers who have private lines to consider that they can help others by sharing their lines. So far, over 200,000 people are sharing. The more subscribers we can get to adopt the shared service the greater help and the more facilities can be made available to the community.
I shall not talk about the long-distance telephones this afternoon, but in that matter there is a very good record to the credit of the Post Office and their engineers. Neither shall I deal today with the question of telegraphs, which is a diminishing and an unprofitable service, but which is an essential social service, especially for poor people. We shall therefore continue to carry this service, whilst looking at ways and means to increase its revenue and efficiency; and not allowing it, as it were, to take some of the fat from the telephone service in order to maintain it.
I wish to say a word or two about television, which is a matter of very great concern to a very great number of people in this country. I have always looked upon it as one of the most vital contributions to our social life of the future. I must keep closely to my brief in this matter, because so much capital expenditure is involved, and I hope that hon. Members will bear with me in that connection. As is known, we have two stations functioning and the station at Holme Moss in Yorkshire is in the course of construction. The number of licensed viewers is over 285,000, and I hope that those who have not yet taken out a licence will hurry up and do so. On this last aspect of capital development, the Post Office, as hon. Members are aware, is responsible for providing the links between television transmitting stations; and some part of the money concerned in this Bill is for this purpose.
I am fully aware of the potential value of television, both in the life of our own people, in our national prestige and, what is equally vital in these days, in the markets of the world. Our reputation as an exporting country can be enhanced by every hit of progress we can make in 1463 this very important and intensely modern development. In this field, as in so many others, we must endeavour to keep abreast of the world. I think we are doing very well, and our native genius shows itself to excellent purpose in the development of this industry. It is an appropriate occasion, therefore, for me to announce that its provision should enable us to ensure that in little more than two years' time television should be made available to about 70 per cent. of the population of Britain.
As has been already announced, we hope to open the Holme Moss station by the middle of 1951. The site has been approved for the Scottish station, and we hope that this will be open by about the end of 1951. The search of the B.B.C. for a site for a station in Wales goes on, and it is planned to open that station in 1952. That should please the hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams).
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
I thought, after reading the biography of the hon. Member, that he still had an affection for the place from which he came. The B.B.C. intend that building should proceed on all three stations during this year and next year.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
On questions of detail perhaps I had better keep closely to my brief. After all, I do not wish to invite the House to move a Vote of Censure on the Post Office for too high a rate of capital expenditure.
I think the House will agree that this is very satisfactory progress towards the target of 80 per cent. of the population of this island to be reached by the end of 1954, as announced by my right hon. Friend the Lord President at Radiolympia last year. We have looked carefully at our television programme in the face of all the restrictions. The Government attach considerable importance to this development and are most anxious to give to the B.B.C., to the Post Office, and, what is vital for planning, to the electronics industry, a firm basis for playing their respective parts in these plans. We have therefore decided to go ahead with 1464 the programme I have mentioned. Naturally, I cannot prophesy what will happen in the economic situation in the future, but I can assure the House that the Government are firmly resolved to do everything they can to carry this programme through. That, I hope, will be of interest to the House and will give satisfaction to the country, and to the industry which is making such rapid progress in the development of our television export trade.
I regret that I have detained the House so long, but I am afraid that as a new Postmaster-General I may have developed over-enthusiasm for the Department to which I have gone. I must say that I have been stimulated by those around me in that Department and by their high sense of social service and social responsibility. If I may use the phrase, they are a fine bunch of persons, anxious to do well by this country; anxious to maintain the national prestige; anxious to make the biggest and best service they can make available for the people of this country. I think it is due to the organised employees in the Post Office to pay a tribute to their co-operation and to their loyalty in this great service.
We have now established throughout the service a system of joint production committees and these committees at all levels are helping us—and this is where the matter is in order—in the application of our plans and in our spending in such a way as to obtain the most efficient results. It is very difficult for some trade union leaders in the present wage-freeze situation to advocate joint production, and one ought to pay a tribute to the trade union leaders among the Post Office workers for the remarkable contribution they are making at some great inconvenience to themselves in this connection. I approach this job with this attitude of mind. I want to see a service in the Post Office of which the whole nation can be proud. I want us to take a greater pride in the Post Office and I want more smiles on both sides of the counter.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
After what happened in Belfast last Saturday, I should have thought that an Irishman would have kept quiet when a Welshman was talking.
§ 2.0 p.m.
§ Mr. R. V. Grimston (Westbury)
At the outset of his remarks the Minister claimed the indulgence of the House for his maiden speech as Postmaster-General. I am sure that we were glad to give him that indulgence, but I must utter the warning that, as with a new Member, it is the last time he will get it. I should add that if he claims indulgence for shortcomings, he will hardly expect to receive any praise for what has been done.
The right hon. Gentleman started by referring to the Post Office as a nationalised industry which had not been nationalised by his political party. He also commented that it made a profit. Of course, we have always taken the view on these benches that the Post Office must be a State-run institution for very special reasons which apply to nothing else. We were reminded that the Post Office was first nationalised by Charles II. I hope that the original Charter which used to hang in the room of the Assistant Postmaster-General, and which was given by Charles II for quieting the Postmaster-General in the execution of his office, is still there.
The Minister said that the Post Office made a profit. This is a case where it is perfectly easy to make a profit by adjusting the rates. Many of us take the view that many Post Office rates might be reconsidered. I am not at all sure that we should rest content with the 2½d. postage rate or with the present telephone charges. Indeed, in these days when the cry is for lower costs, it seems to me that the oldest nationalised institution might well consider whether it can give a lead to the country in that respect.
This Bill is a necessary Measure to provide for capital developments for the Post Office. That being the case, we on this side of the House do not oppose it. However, I have been looking at the Debates which we had two years ago when the last of these Bills was before the House. The general feature then, as now, was the question of the shortage of telephones. For that reason, as many of us in all parts of the House are still getting complaints about the shortage of telephones, I was most interested in the figures which the right hon. Gentleman quoted. Two years ago the waiting list was roughly 450,000, and I am sorry to 1466 hear that, two years later, the list is up to about 480,000 in spite of the fact that in the intervening period some £60 million must have been spent upon the development of the telephone service. One had hoped that an impression would have been made.
I suppose that what has happened is that a large number of extra applications have been received. The figure that I should like to have, if we can get it, is that of the number of applications dealt with in the last two years. This touches upon a point raised by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Leslie Hale) about the capital cost per application. The right hon. Gentleman has promised to get out some figures on that point. It would be most interesting to see those figures, if not today then upon the following stages of the Bill.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
I said that in 1948 674,000 people were given telephones and in 1949 the figure was 720,000.
§ Sir H. Williams
Can the right hon. Gentleman say why the number of those who have got telephones has increased by far less than that, according to the accounts?
§ Mr. Grimston
When we have had some time to study the figures, we can get some line on the cost per application over the past two years and relate it to the figure which the Minister gave to cover the whole demand in future.
I should like to make special reference to the position of farmers. Two years ago we were told that the number of farmers on the waiting list was 11,000. Of course, that is a very small proportion of the outstanding applications but theirs is very much a priority requirement in these days. We were told two years ago that it was hoped that practically all the farmer applicants would have been provided for by the end of last year. I think the Minister said that the present waiting list of farmers amounted to about 7,000. I should like to know the number of farmers who have been given the service during the last two years so that I can see how the list has grown. What does the right hon. Gentleman think he can do to dispose of the 7,000 farmer applicants who remain?—because we regard those applications as being of particular importance in the light of our food situation.
1467 It is true that the right hon. Gentleman's Department is circumscribed by the limitations on capital expenditure. It is also true to say that much of the expenditure which is required on buildings, duct laying and that sort of thing, is of a similar type to that required in house building. We certainly do not ask that house building should be prejudiced in favour of telephones. Although some of the expenditure on plant is not of the same nature, we agree that a great deal of it is. We do not want telephones to take priority over pressing housing needs. Having said that, I must say that it is essential to see that the maximum return of telephone service is given for present expenditure. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will consider that matter.
I should like to give an illustration. It is highly desirable that trunk lines should be laid underground. I have had many cases of telephone refusals in my constituency where service cannot be provided because another underground cable must be laid. I wonder whether it is possible to use an overhead line temporarily and to provide a service in that way instead of waiting until the cable is laid. It seems worth considering whether any shortening of the waiting period can be achieved by installing a temporary overhead service. That might have been done—I do not know—but I put the illustration to the Minister. I suggest that in view of the terrific length of time which will elapse before the demands can be satisfied, every step should be taken to provide a service by temporary means.
I have three other questions on technical detail. Has any progress been made with the system whereby a subscriber will be able to dial straight through on trunk calls—the trunk demand service. On the question of telegraphs, can we be told what progress has been made with the switching method which was introduced some time ago. It was said that that would save a great deal of time in the transmission of telegrams. The Postmaster-General mentioned the fact that telegraphs were still losing money. I would like to know what are the prospects of reintroducing the greeting service, because that is a money getter. It is another of the late Sir Kingsley Wood's efforts, and it seems to 1468 me that the time must now be approaching when that service, very much liked by the public and which we hesitated to remove until the very last moment even during the war years, could not be reintroduced. It would certainly help the financial aspect of the telegraph service.
I also want to deal for one moment with the postal side. We should like to hear—we were told about helicopters and the restoration of the postal service two years ago—how that experiment has proceeded, whether it has given the results hoped for, and how it is getting on. Of course, it is true that very little of this money is to be spent on postal services as indicated by the Financial Memorandum. Any information we could have about the development of that side of the postal service we should be very glad to have.
I come to another point upon which I want to ask a question, and that is how the development of the submarine repeater is progressing. Hon. Members may know that if this can be developed it will open up a field of trans-oceanic telephony of very great importance, having, I think, a strategic bearing as well. Two years ago, two repeaters were being tested, one to Northern Ireland and one to Germany. It would be of interest to know how that experiment has succeeded, and how far it is now possible to extend it.
I should certainly have a great deal more to say if the Postmaster-General had unlimited funds at his disposal, but we are bound to recognise the limitations imposed upon him, and it would not be in order on this Bill to discuss why they are imposed and to give our views on them. I will admit that in the Post Office it is a difficult problem to know how to allocate the funds available to the Postmaster-General, both from the point of view of manufacturing capacity and how that is to be used, and so on. But I would urge the right hon. Gentleman to do all he can to bring the maximum amount of service, particularly telephone service, into use on the lines I have previously indicated in my speech. I also hope that some of this money will continue to be devoted to research and development, because that is going to have a great bearing on the service which can be given in the future. I should like to know whether research and develop- 1469 meat at Dollis Hill is being seriously affected by the cuts in capital expenditure.
Finally, I should certainly like to associate myself with the remarks which the right hon. Gentleman made about the Post Office staff, whose work, of course, I saw during war-time. But when all is said and done, the right hon. Gentleman is going to spend about £70 million over the next two years, or at least that is his intention, and we shall expect to see some results, even though the sum may be short of what he could spend had he the money. My hon. Friends will have various points to raise, and I myself have no more to say at the moment except that I hope that the Assistant Postmaster-General, who I believe is to wind up this Debate, will give us as much information as possible, and anything which he cannot give us today we shall be glad to have during the latter stages of the Bill.
§ 2.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Rossendale)
The hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. R. V. Grimston), who spoke as reasonably as he always does, dealt almost entirely with the telephone and telegraph side of the Post Office. As I want to confine myself chiefly to the postal side, I hope he will forgive me if I do not follow him in his remarks except those which he directed to my right hon. Friend congratulating him on his accession to the office of the Postmaster-General. My right hon. Friend has certainly left us in no doubt this afternoon that he is going to apply to his new job the same vigour and enthusiasm that we came to like so much in the last House of Commons in his old job. I know that he will be as helpful to hon. Members in this Parliament as he was in the last, and as was his right hon. Friend the previous Postmaster-General during the same period.
My right hon. Friend has told us that under this Bill his Department is to receive £75 million to be spent between now and October, 1952. Of that amount, £69,500,000 is to be spent on telephones and £5,500,000 on the postal and telegraph services. I am not sure in my own mind whether that is really a fair apportionment of the expenditure which is going to be involved because my feeling is that there is an enormous amount of 1470 capital investment required on the postal side of the Post Office. I hope that my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General will be able to reassure those of us who may have some fear that the postal side is in danger of becoming the poor relation of the Department.
My right hon. Friend has talked about looking forward to October, 1952, and. in certain respects, he has looked forward a good deal beyond that point. What I should like to ask him is how far ahead is the Post Office planning. I am a little disturbed. This Bill, unlike the earlier Bill which we discussed in this House today, has a Financial and Explanatory Memorandum, and it is that Memorandum which disturbs me, because we are told in it that:The detailed programme of expenditure and the works to be carried out in each year are subject to the approval of the Treasury.I can understand, and it is obviously right, that general Treasury approval for expenditure of this kind should be required, but I am a little alarmed at the prospect of detailed Treasury examination from year to year of the funds which my right hon. Friend has at his disposal.
I thought that the hon. Member for Westbury was perfectly right when he said that the allocation of these sums should be a matter for the Postmaster-General. I should have thought that the right thing for this House to do would be to approve in principle the amount asked for by the Postmaster-General, after consultation with the Treasury, and to leave the actual use of that money to the discretion of my right hon. Friend and his colleague, subject, of course, to the general overriding financial controls and restraints which this House imposes on expenditure through the ordinary Parliamentary channels.
I cannot believe that any Department can work efficiently, or can plan adequately ahead, if from day to day it is subject to interference from another Department which has all the force behind it because it controls the purse strings. My right hon. Friend spoke of the need for planning ahead in respect of the laying of cables. He was perfectly right to do so of sourse. We see in the working of the Post Office today that quite a number of the difficulties under which it is labouring are a result of the fact that before the war, and earlier, 1471 there was no adequate long-term planning on the part of the Post Office.
Whether that was due to the overriding control of the Treasury, I do not know, but hon. Members have only to look at the post offices in many of our provincial cities to see what I have in mind. There we find post offices, as indestructible as the Rock of Gibraltar, put up many years ago without any real preparation for an expansion of the postal service and with no real conception of how that service was going to develop. The result is twofold. In the first place, in many provincial post offices we get a rather unfortunate lack of adequate welfare facilities for the staff. I know that the Postmaster-General and his predecessors have done a very great deal towards improving those facilities, and the fact that they have not been able to do more is not their responsibility. The trouble is that the buildings were planned and erected without taking into account the need for proper welfare facilities for the men and women working in them. The result is that the welfare facilities and rest rooms and so on are often tucked away in the top of the building in very small rooms wholly unsuited to the purpose to which they are put.
The second result of lack of planning in the past is that you often find valuable land in the middle of towns being sterilised because it is used as sorting offices whereas it would be much more efficient for sorting offices to be sited next to the railway where it would be easier to get mail to the offices and probably easier for vans to assemble. Obviously post offices in provincial towns should be central, but there is no need for the sorting offices to be sited next door to the post offices themselves. I hope the Postmaster-General or the Assistant Postmaster-General will be able to assure the House that we are going ahead with real long-term planning and that the Post Office is consulting not only with the Treasury but also with the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, the planning authorities, and the New Towns Corporation and, not least important, with the Railway Executive.
I know the House will forgive me if I turn briefly to a more local matter and that is the position of the post office in the Rossendale Valley, with particular 1472 reference to the need for more vans in order to provide a more efficient service, and to help the postmen responsible for the delivery of letters. I raise it for the reason that although the climate of Rossendale Valley is invigorating, warm and dry spells in the middle of winter are few and far between. I am told by the Meteorological Office that the average rainfall in Bacup is twice that in London. where the headquarters of the General Post Office is situated. The average rainfall is a third higher than the average for the whole country, and last year it was half as high again. The result is that postmen go out constantly in the most inclement weather.
The geographical situation too is difficult. In some cases postmen have to walk three or four miles to a height of more than 1,000 feet above sea level to deliver letters to hill farmers living a mile or two apart. There is an alarming incidence of sickness in the postal staff. I have not the official figures and I do not want to give figures which I would not be able to substantiate, but I hope the Postmaster-General will look into the matter and see whether the provision of more vans or the more effective use of existing vans could help. On a strictly commercial standpoint it would not be justifiable to spend money on another van but from the point of view of the health and wellbeing of men working in the post office that expenditure might be justifiable. It may well be that some co-ordination of Bacup's work with that of Rawtenstall—as is done in the case of Haslingdon—might justify the provision of more vans or might facilitate the more effective use of the present ones.
In conclusion may I say that all of us would like to associate ourselves with the tribute the Postmaster-General has paid to the staffs of the post office. We must ensure that the loyalty of these men is rewarded in the way we treat them as employees of the State, and we should see that where expenditure is under consideration they should get a fair share of what is available.
§ 2.25 p.m.
§ Sir Herbert Williams (Croydon, East)
I listened with great interest to the speech of the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) because once I was a candidate for that constituency and I know that the weather is very inclement 1473 there. If the hon. Member wants some vans he can come with me. Near where I live there are far too many vans outside the South-Western District Post Office, and very often I find it difficult to get to my front door. The hon. Member is welcome to some of them.
The Postmaster-General said one of the difficulties was the shortage of raw materials. I challenge him on that. He mentioned tin and copper. One really cannot talk of a shortage of tin and copper any more. I was assured by an outstanding authority that the world demand for tin is 140,000 tons. The present output is 180,000 tons and it is likely to rise to 210,000 tons. The result is that there would be a surplus with grave economic consequences. There is no shortage of tin, copper or rubber. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned tin and copper—those are his words, not mine. If people use the wrong words they must not be disappointed at adverse criticism. There is a glut of primary commodities in the world today and the only thing in short supply is the intelligence to mobilise them.
The Postmaster-General gave us statistics showing what an immense amount of work the Post Office are doing in providing people with new telephones. He mentioned three-quarters of a million in one year and 600,000 in another. I have an interesting document in my possession—the Post Office Commercial Accounts, 1948–1949. Page 11 gives the number of stations at the end of the year. For 1947–48—I presume ending 31st March—the number was 4,653,000. A year later it was 4,919,000, an increase of 266,000. That has no relation to the three-quarter of a million the Postmaster-General mentioned.
Somebody said that what the Postmaster-General meant was not the number of new telephones but the change in the number of subscribers, which is a quite different thing. If the right hon. Gentleman leaves his house and I go in there is no need to shift the telephone. I know they ask one to sign a fresh document, and I know that the Post Office authorities try to make one pay afresh. This has been the practice for years under Governments of different parties. I have often beaten them on the argument. It is no good telling me that the Post Office have provided three-quarters of a 1474 million, when the increase is only 266,000 for a year. I do not blame the right hon. Gentleman. He is a new boy, and the backroom boys have had no time to tell him all this. In due course he will know and will make a better speech next year.
Then there is another matter, the fantastic inefficiency of the dialling system. On the average one has to dial twice. Sometimes one gets no reply at all.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards indicated dissent
§ Sir H. Williams
It is no good for the right hon. Gentleman to shake his head. The big people in business never get their own telephone numbers. If the Postmaster-General would make it compulsory on all Cabinet Ministers and chairmen and managing directors of companies to get their own numbers, instead of handing the job to some poor clerk, they would learn more about the Post Office than they would by being Postmaster-General. There is something wrong technically with the system. I was told that probably the bombing had a very serious effect on these delicate instruments, not least by causing a vast amount of dust. Anyone who has been at the back of a telephone switchboard will realise how easily it can go wrong. The moving parts of the apparatus, which are rather delicate, are working much worse now than they were 10 years ago. I hope something will be done to improve them.
I agree that there has been some improvement in the toll service, which used to be fantastic. On one occasion I was ringing up my cousin who lives at South-sea. I dialled the number first for 20 minutes with no result and then I dialled "O" for the Operator for ten minutes with no result. I thought I would go higher up, and dialled the number with which the right hon. Gentleman is familiar—HEA 1234—and I got through to his predecessor's secretary on duty at St. Martin's-le-Grand and explained the difficulty. He said, "I can do nothing." As I could not do anything with the general manager, I thought I would contact the chairman; I dialled Whitehall 1234 and asked for 10, Downing Street. The present Prime Minister's secretary telephoned the Victoria exchange and I was through to Southsea in three minutes. That is rather a burdensome way of getting a toll number.
1475 The postal deliveries are fantastically bad today. If I write a letter to my constituency which is 11 miles from here and post it after 6 o'clock the chances are that it will not reach my constituency until the next afternoon. It is 11 miles from here as the crow flies, although I realise there are not many crows in these departments. I think that a letter posted in those circumstances ought to get there before the next afternoon. The same thing applies to letters posted to me. This is deplorable.
When I was a boy I lived in Cheshire, roughly 200 miles from here. From my bedroom window I could see the horse-drawn postal van coming along the side of the Dee. It used to go to Chester which was eight miles away. Our pillar box was cleared at 8.30 p.m., and our letters were delivered in London by the first post next morning. Today with all the mechanised traffic the time taken is 50 per cent. longer. There is something wrong. There is not the same zeal, vigour and energy among the people doing the job as there was 50 years ago. We have to restore that sense of obligation. It is no good talking of social service if the people do not do their jobs efficiently. Therefore, I ask the Postmaster-General to do something about that.
We are told that the Post Office makes a profit. I am not sure what is meant by "profit." In the commercial accounts £4 million a year is allowed for stamps used for receipts, and that sum is credited to the Inland Revenue and deducted from the Post Office. They charge the Postmaster-General for the buildings provided by the Office of Works, and for the stamps printed by the Stationery Office; for all the work done free of charge for Government Departments they are credited as if every letter earned 2½d. This is a notional profit. The right hon. Gentleman has never read these accounts; his predecessor prepared them. I have been studying the accounts for 25 years and I find them very useful.
When we try to see what happens about the telephone service we find that the subscribers paid in 1948–49 £22,320,000 in rentals. Government Departments notionally pay £6,789,000. The interesting thing is that notionally the rentals charged to Government 1476 Departments are nearly a quarter of the rentals charged to the rest of the community. Is it necessary for Government Departments to have these vast numbers of telephones? I think the public ought to have the telephones. There are far too many telephones spread out in Government Departments. I do not know how many people have access to these telephones. Are they 1/10th of the population, or 1/20th? I do not know. Whatever they are, their telephone usage is two or three times as great as the man in the street who cannot get a telephone but wants one. When a Government Department wants telephones a whole army is turned loose. If someone in my constituency wants a telephone it is no use; the Post Office say "We have no cables." That excuse might have been valid five years ago, but not today. It is a measure of the incompetence with which the Post Office has been governed in the past three or four years. It is no use pretending they make a profit.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman who, according to the hon. Member for Rossendale, should not control it—the Chancellor of the Exchequer—presents us with a little book called a Financial Statement. It used to be presented by the right hon. Gentleman who is no longer the Financial Secretary, for reasons which I do not understand. It is obtainable from the Vote Office; it costs 6d. at the Stationery Office. One item is: "Post Office Vote, excess over revenue £7,361,000." The profit which everybody talks about is the notional profit, on the assumption that every letter carried free of charge by the Post Office from a Government Department has really earned 2½d. That is how the notional profit is arrived at. But in days gone by the Post Office used to show a cash surplus sometimes as much as £10 million a year in relief of taxation. In this year of grace, if the Estimates turn out to be right there will be a deficit of £7,361,000. It is no good the right hon. Gentleman shaking his head.
§ Sir H. Williams
I beg the right hon. Gentleman's pardon; I thought he was shaking his head and that he had been taking notice.
1477 I should like to speak at greater length, but I shall not do so for two reasons. The first reason is that other hon. Friends of mine want to speak, and the other reason is that long before the next election I have engaged myself for a public appointment at 3 o'clock today, and I hope nobody will think me discourteous if I leave within two or three minutes. I have tried to give to the Postmaster-General a few ideas, on some of which I hope he will act.
§ 2.36 p.m.
§ Mr. John Lewis (Bolton, West)
The Postmaster-General in his opening remarks made it abundantly clear that he is vitally interested in and concerned with the question of television and broadcasting facilities. In these circumstances, it is very appropriate that the hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams), should have addressed the House a few moments ago because there is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that his speech can be brought within the category of entertainment, particularly in view of the arguments he advanced in regard to the abundance of telephones in Government Departments. If everyone were to adopt the methods employed by the hon. Member for Croydon, East, who, in order to get through to Southend, made five telephone calls and eventually got through to 10, Downing Street, he could not at any time claim that Government Departments should have any less telephones than they have at present. It is he and people like him who are probably responsible for the existence of more instruments than are really necessary in Government Departments.
§ Sir H. Williams
I should like to point out that I wanted to get through to South-sea and not Southend, and that I rang up two Government Departments because the first one was incompetent.
§ Mr. Lewis
I accept the hon. Gentleman's explanation. The next argument he advanced concerning the availability of materials was remarkable in the sense that the hon. Gentleman himself is recognised as being, to some extent, an industrial expert. He is also actively connected with many companies. I think there has never been such a crushing indictment of private enterprise as that which has been delivered by the hon. Gentleman, who pointed out that all the necessary raw materials are freely available and that, 1478 in fact, we only need intelligent mobilisation of the necessary resources to provide all the cables and instruments and equipment which are required, knowing, as he did when he made the statement, that the manufacture of these articles is in the hands of the cable combine and private enterprise in their entirety. That, I repeat, is a crushing indictment of private enterprise.
§ Sir H. Williams
I do not wish to be misquoted. I did not choose this subject. It was the Postmaster-General who said we were short of raw materials. I asked "What raw materials?" and he said "Tin and copper." I dealt with that point only.
§ Mr. Lewis
The hon. Gentleman does not know enough about this side of the industry. When he talks of tin and copper, he should realise that it is not just a question of tin and copper. One has to draw wire and prepare cables. If the hon. Gentleman knew anything at all about the cable industry and the requirements of those other industries which make demands upon the cable manufacturers, he would know that a long time elapses before delivery is effected. There is a tremendeous demand for certain specialised types of cables.
§ Mr. Erroll (Altrincham and Sale)
If I may correct the hon. Gentleman, I wish to point out that there is no shortage of telephone cables in this country at the moment. In fact, some of the telephone companies are having to work short time and dismiss staff.
§ Mr. Lewis
This argument about the dismissal of staff and working short time is precisely the same argument advanced by another hon. and gallant Gentleman who, in a Debate a few days ago, said that in the boot and shoe industry in Northampton short time is being worked. It is within my own knowledge that buses are being sent to bring people in to work in that area precisely because there is a shortage of labour. I do not accept the argument that all cable is in plentiful supply. Knowing a little bit about the industry, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there are still priorities and that it is necessary to wait some time for deliveries, particularly for some of the more specialised requirements of the cable industry, and if there are still priorities then it is quite obvious that 1479 there are shortages which cause delay, apart from delivery problems caused by the demands of the export market.
I was very pleased to hear my right hon. Friend refer to the television services, because I think I can say, with all humility, that in the last Parliament I raised the question of the development of the television services on more occasions than did any other hon. Member. I was always anxious to see some wide general scheme initiated, covering the whole country, which would enable people in parts of the British Isles, outside the London area to enjoy this essential service—a service which my right hon. Friend described as a vital contribution to our social life. I have always regarded television in precisely the same light, and to me it is perhaps the greatest entertainment and educative medium of the 20th century.
It is true that there are difficulties and I think we must face up to them. They do not lie in the initial development of these services because although we know that a certain amount of extension and the pace of the extension is hampered by shortage of the necessary finance, on the the other hand here is a scheme which will eventually in a few years' time cover the larger part of the country. The difficulties to which I refer are the difficulties of programme and the resistance which is being offered today by those people responsible for the promotion of sporting and entertainment activities to the television service as such. This is the difficult matter with which I think my right hon. Friend will find himself face to face before long.
As this service develops all over the country I feel that we shall have a greater demand for better and more popular programmes—programmes which are limited today not because those responsible for the television services do not want to provide them but because of resistance to television on the part of the entertainment industry as a whole. This resistance arises from the fear on their part that it will effect their gates and returns and I think it is reasonable to say at this stage that it would be unreasonable to regard their attitude as anti-social. After all, a man or a promoter runs a risk if he depends upon a "gate," whether he is running a variety show, a theatrical performance or 1480 a boxing match. If he is asked whether he will agree to the television of the show then, he is reluctant to concur because he feels that if he agrees he will run the risk of people not attending the actual live show but staying at home in congenial circumstances round the fireplace and watching the spectacle on the television screen.
I think these people are wrong and that, in fact, it is a very short-sighted point of view, because it is precisely the same narrow point of view as that which was expressed by those responsible for this entertainment industry in the early days of sound broadcasting. I believe that through the medium of television they will be giving popularity to various kinds of sports and entertainments which previously the majority of people in the country were not interested because they had never bothered to see them until they were brought into their own homes by the television set.
The Postmaster-General said we had a great reputation as a sporting country. Perhaps I can give him an example of what I mean in so far as one sporting activity—boxing—is concerned. There we have a resistance on the part of the promoters to the televising of their large shows. I should make it quite clear that I am not speaking at the moment as a steward of the British Boxing Board of Control but giving my own personal point of view. I believe the promoters are wrong and I believe they are rendering boxing a great dis-service by not doing something now to ensure that a greater number of the people in the country have the opportunity of looking in at boxing. If they do give this opportunity now, I think in the long term it will improve their "gates."
There is a proposal which I will put to my right hon. Friend by which I think we can overcome the present difficulties, not necessarily by adopting a system which could in any way be regarded as commercial broadcasting but is I believe, a practical suggestion which might solve the problem. We have heard a lot about rediffusion and we know that the Postmaster-General is empowered to grant licences to people outside the B.B.C. for television purposes. If anyone else wants to televise or use any system of television, however, the B.B.C. is no longer concerned—and the person can only be 1481 granted licence from my right hon. Friend, outside the charter of the B.B.C. I can foresee the possibility of large cinema or theatrical circuits coming to some arrangement with promoters to re-diffuse a particular spectacle into their theatres. They would enter into a commercial agreement with promoters and pay them for the right to rediffuse the show. The point which will immediately arise in the minds of hon. Members is: what is the Post Office to get out of it? For what consideration should my right hon. Friend agree to grant a licence in the circumstances I have outlined, to permit what is, after all, nothing else but a commercial agreement between a willing buyer and a willing seller, if I may put it that way?
§ Mr. Charles Orr-Ewing (Hendon, North)
Could the hon. Gentleman say why the Post Office should get anything out of granting a licence? The Post Office has frequencies through the W.T.A. but surely if anyone wants to carry on a commercial link, such as the hon. Member suggests, there is no reason why the Post Office should expect to get something out of it.
§ Mr. Lewis
I was speaking on the assumption that the hon. Member was aware, as well as I am, that we have set our minds in this country against commercial broadcasting. I think it is a good thing that we have done so. No one would like to see us adopt the system which they have in America where a great opera singer is followed by an announcement that she appears by the courtesy of vile beans.
§ Mr. Orr-Ewing
We were talking about television and the hon. Member has taken us back to broadcasting. The point I make is: why should the right hon. Gentleman get anything out of this?
§ Mr. Lewis
We are limited in this discussion. The B.B.C. operates under a charter and if my right hon. Friend is to grant a licence, quite obviously if there is advantage to be gained for the people as a whole as a result of granting that licence that should be considered. I was giving consideration to it when the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Charles On-Ewing) intervened. I believe that, as a consideration for agreeing to permit this commercial arrange- 1482 ment as between the exhibitor and the producer, the Postmaster-General should insist on the national television service having the spectacle made available to it quite free of charge.
There is, of course, a difficulty about funds. If the Post Office could afford to pay the people who run the variety shows and could afford to pay the big boxing promoters, the Epsom grandstand people, those people responsible for the Grand National, or the Football Association, those large sums which they would regard as adequate to cover the risk they think they run, then this problem would not arise, but I think it is generally recognised on both sides of the House. that those large sums are not available in the coffers of the Post Office or the. B.B.C. I am simply throwing out this suggestion with a view to my right hon. Friend giving it consideration, and if my proposal were ever to be implemented, then many difficulties would have been overcome.
It might be possible, as a result of a commercial arrangement between one of the large film circuits and a big boxing promoter, that the circuit would agree to pay this promoter for the right to rediffuse in their cinemas. They would, of course, charge people for entering the cinemas. At the same time, in consideration of the licence being granted, the television service would have this spectacle brought into over a quarter of a million houses quite free of charge. I believe that if investigations were made on those lines they would not necessarily lead to a dead end. There is a possibility that something could be done with both sides, but I believe that this question of the programmes will become more and more important as time goes on and as it becomes increasingly important, so the shortage of funds will have a greater impact upon the content of the transmission as distinct from the technical factors.
My right hon. Friend has gone to the Post Office at a stage when television matters are likely to appear every day on his table. He is responsible in the main for its development and it presents a first-class opportunity for a Minister with imagination and some real conception of the potentialities of this great service—an opportunity to be able to do something practical to enable Britain 1483 once again to lead the world in television. We did lead the world once, but we fell behind. I am not sure we have yet caught up. But knowing my right hon. Friend as I do, with all his knowledge of administration, and his Departmental experience, I am quite satisfied that if something is to be done, then he will be the man to do it, and I am sure he will have the support of every Member of the House in carrying out the important tasks with which he is confronted.
§ 2.51 p.m.
§ Sir David Robertson (Caithness and Sutherland)
The hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. J. Lewis) who has just addressed us referred to remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) in regard to supplies of raw materials such as copper and tin, to which the Postmaster-General referred in his interesting speech. I think there is some misunderstanding in the hon. Member's mind. The basic point as I see it is that these raw materials go into the manufacture of a very great quantity of equipment which is exported abroad—
§ Sir D. Robertson
—and that is really:the reason why those raw materials are in short supply for the production of telephones in this country.
§ Mr. J. Lewis
I think the hon. Gentleman is mistaken, because I took down the words the hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) used. He said that what was required was "intelligent mobilisation of our resources" to give us what we require. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland for proving conclusively that the difficulty arises out of the necessity to export.
§ Sir D. Robertson
I thank the hon. Gentleman. However, the question is: Is the Postmaster-General satisfied that there is no excessive quantity of telephone equipment going overseas? I was told by one of the area managers recently 75 per cent. of vital telephone equipment for the expansion of exchanges which the Postmaster-General referred to as holding up so many telephones, is due to such a heavy proportion of telephone equipment going overseas.
1484 I should like the Assistant Postmaster-General to tell the House frankly what proportion of vital telephone exchange equipment is being exported, because if it is 75 per cent. or anything like it we cannot afford to export on such a scale while our people are waiting years for telephones. I submit that this is not going to hard dollar countries at all. America is entirely capable, and so is Canada, of producing all the telephone equipment they require. It would be quite tragic if this material was sent to soft currency countries or as unrequited exports, when the lack of it here is stopping so much essential business. Farmers are crying out for telephones. They come before anyone else in Great Britain in regard to solving Britain's greatest problem, the feeding of 50 million people in these Islands. In my constituency, Caithness and Sutherland, we have farmers who are eminent agriculturists, some of whom are running three farms and who are making great contributions to the supply of the nation's food, several of them have been waiting three, four and five years for telephones, and that waiting will just not do.
Then those figures which the Postmaster-General gave of the number that are still awaiting telephones I submit include thousands of people in remote areas—I see that the Assistant Postmaster-General is shaking his head. I may be able to submit evidence to him that he is wrong because the Highland area—or rather the North of Scotland area which I think is called by the Post Office the Aberdeen Area—comprises almost half of all Scotland.
It is a wholly ridiculous situation. There are 44 telephone areas in England; there are five in Scotland; and there is one in Northern Ireland. Five in Scotland, and one area for almost half the country. We have the telephone office and the manager and nearly all the constructional staff tucked away in the south-east extremity of the city of Aberdeen. It is amazing how these Government Departments love to congregate in the great cities. We brought in a National Health Service because in the words of the right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Arthur Greenwood) we were spending £300 million on preventable disease. Yet we huddle in the big cities where overcrowding is worse and is the main cause of disease.
1485 I submit to the Postmaster-General that he should get out of Aberdeen as soon as he can and move nearer to the people his Department are supposed to serve. Has the House realised what this position means? Aberdeen is the fourth or fifth great city of Scotland and from that office there they have to cover the city and county of Aberdeen—a very large county, Banffshire, Cromarty, Nairnshire, Inverness-shire, Ross and Cromarty, Sutherland, Caithness, the County of Orkney, the County of Shetland, and the Hebredian Island Lewes which is more than half of the Hebrides, and the Isle of Skye. It is a pitiful record, this waiting list of farmers, and manufacturers, traders and others—a waiting list in that area for telephones, waiting on a service that is concentrated in one place.
§ Mr. J. Lewis
The hon. Gentleman has referred to the conditions of those farmers, but surely the first requirement on those farms is electrification as such. Surely, if electricity has to come from the same source whether for telephones or anything else, the first requirement is electrification because the farmers can manage without telephones, although electricity would be a help to their production.
§ Sir D. Robertson
Well, the hon. Gentleman has had his say. I am having mine. We are discussing telephones today, and that is what I am going to concentrate on. But these farmers need telephones, and it needs no great imagination to understand that they do. I do ask the Postmaster-General to pay attention to this problem. The great historic counties of Sutherland and Ross and Cromarty have no telephone department office or staff. There are little pockets of a few men under a foreman at Wick, Elgin and Inverness.
There is a 99 per cent. concentration of staff at Aberdeen. Consider the wastage it causes. Staff have to be sent all over the place from Aberdeen to serve a huge area. I know what has happened. It has been done by some planner on paper in a back room. The population has been added up and divided into 50 equal parts with a total disregard to area, whereas area must be taken into account. The constituency I have the honour to represent is the smallest in numbers in Britain, but it is one of the largest in area—a fact I shall never forget after 1486 recent experiences. It should be divided into four. I do beg of the right hon. Gentleman to bear in mind what I say. He and I are old colleagues, and I wish him well in his appointment as Postmaster-General, but in all friendliness I shall make his life a complete misery if he does not attend to the neglected and forgotten counties of Caithness and Sutherland.
§ 2.58 p.m.
§ Mr. Harry Wallace (Walthamstow, East)
The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir D. Robertson) will not, I am sure, expect me to comment on what he has said. He has asked a number of questions, which no doubt the Assistant Postmaster-General will answer. Nor can I join with him in saying that I intend to make my right hon. Friend's life a misery. There may be occasions when I can join him in criticising my right hon. Friend, but not on the points he has raised. I think a little more information about the organisation of the Post Office would remove many of the fears which trouble the hon. Gentleman.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Croydon, East, (Sir H. Williams) had to leave the Chamber shortly after making his speech. My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) referred to difficulties in the Rossendale Valley, and suggested that more motor vehicles might be supplied. The answer of the hon. Member for Croydon, East was, "I see motor vehicles outside the South-Western District Office in London. Why not move some of those vehicles to Lancashire?" If the hon. Gentleman would take the trouble to inquire about the volume of work handled at the South-Western District Office and the demand there for motor vehicles, he would not make such flippant remarks in a serious Debate in this House.
The hon. Member for Croydon, East, also cast some reflections on the present-day staff. He seemed to think that they lacked the zeal, energy and vigour of the staff of years ago. In referring to the men who work in the rural areas he again showed his complete ignorance of what he was talking about. If he knew anything about the standard of work of these men in the rural areas he would know that the same standard exists today as existed 40 years ago, if the man travels on his feet, or on bicycle, although the 1487 introduction of the motor vehicle has meant a change.
The hon. Member for Croydon, East, referred to copper, and although I am no expert and know nothing about the supply of raw materials, I should like the Assistant Postmaster-General to indicate whether the difficulty in obtaining all the supplies we want might be due to the high prices demanded by the suppliers. After the 1914–18 War there was difficulty because of the high prices demanded at home, when the same materials could be secured from Germany at a very much lower price. Whether or not that was due to the manipulation of a price ring I do not know. I should be glad if the Assistant Postmaster-General could throw any light on prices. The hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. R. V. Grimston) asked a number of questions which I do not propose to go over again, and I should like to hear the answers to them.
We are today debating a request for £75 million, and I agree with the request. However, as has been pointed out, about £69½ million is to go to the telephone service. I do not know how much is to be spent on the provision of television, a development which I welcome, but I should like to have some idea of what is to be spent on Post Office buildings. I mention this because I remember that after the 1914–18 War the Post Office had excellent plans for providing new buildings, with excellent opportunities for securing sites but by the time the Treasury and the Office of Works—now I suppose the Ministry of Works—had gone over the proposals the opportunity was lost, and the sites were not secured; and I venture to say that subsequently the Post Office had to pay over £1 million to £2 million more for sites which they might have acquired earlier if the Postmaster-General had had more freedom.
I do not say take away Treasury control altogether. What I ask for is greater freedom for the Postmaster-General so that he may be able to take the initiative. As a result of that post-war delay there were demands for new exchanges, and new headquarter buildings, but they were not met. Then came the depression of 1930, and instead of the Government of the day encouraging the investment of money in the provision of new telephone exchanges, new buildings and new equip- 1488 ment for the Post Office, the demand was for cuts: "Cut wages; cut expenditure; add to the unemployment." I am not so sure that the party opposite would not repeat that demand again if we had a similar depression coming upon us.
As a result of those experiences—the 1914–18 War, the depression of 1930 and the coming of war in 1939—today there are buildings which are completely out-of-date. New buildings ought to have been erected in their place long ago, and I ask whether the Assistant Postmaster-General can, when replying to the Debate, give an indication of the programme for erecting new buildings or extending existing buildings, and above all for providing telephone exchanges which would not be out-of-date before the development to which the Postmaster-General has referred takes place.
I want to add to those of other hon. Members my good wishes to the Postmaster-General. He comes from an industry which has recently been nationalised and I am sure that he will take with him something of value to the Post Office, as did one of his predecessors, the late Mr. Vernon Hartshorn. My right hon. Friend will also gain from the Post Office experience which will be valuable in his own industry, that of coal. I am glad to learn of his happy experience with the work of the Joint Production Committee, which is a tribute, not only to the staff, but also to nationalisation which has developed a spirit of service.
In the rank and file and in all concerned there has developed so deep a sense of responsibility and loyalty to the service that the staff seek opportunities to give of their experience and ideas. Under the Whitley Committee, which was introduced after the 1914–18 war, I saw a great development in that sense of responsibility and loyalty. I hope that my right hon. Friend will make full use of these qualities of those in the service. He has an opportunity of showing how the goodwill of labour can be secured, and if he achieves that he will have made one of the greatest contributions to the efficiency of nationalised industries that any one man can make.
The question of profit has been referred to. I do not ask that the Post Office makes a profit, but that it gives a good service. It is all very well for people 1489 to jibe at the 2½d. letter post. That was introduced to obtain revenue; it is not the fault of the Post Office. I have never yet heard the party opposite challenge a Chancellor of the Exchequer, who raised the price for Revenue purposes. I shall be interested to see if hon. Gentlemen opposite do so in the present situation. Since the introduction of the 2½d. post, however, other prices and wages have risen and this rate is not out of tune with the present-day level of prices.
In this as in a good many other industries, there are loyal workers who still are not getting what is necessary today for a reasonable minimum standard of life—for example, in this city of London. This is pressing hard, and if my right hon. Friend can show the same regard for development in connection with the wages structure as for the development of telephone exchanges and so forth, I shall be very happy. I know from my long experience that had the wages structure been dealt with in this way 20 years ago, some of the great grievances would have been remedied. Amongst these, for example, are the questions of equal pay, of long scales and of asking men and women to wait until they are nearly 30 years of age before they get their maximum.
I do not ask my right hon. Friend to introduce all these reforms immediately. I know his difficulties; there are many inherent in the Post Office and in the Civil Service, and other difficulties we all experience. I hope that in the development of the service my right hon. Friend will not forget the long-term development of a rational wages structure, the need for which he knows from bitter experience.
§ 3.10 p.m.
§ Lieut.-Commander Gurney Braithwaite (Bristol, North-West)
Hon. Members who have had the opportunity of sitting throughout the Debate must have been impressed by the many unexpected and interesting courses which it has taken. We have ranged from climatic conditions in the Rossendale Valley to equal pay for equal work; we have spent a moment or two in the boxing ring, and the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. J. Lewis), doubtless realising that flat racing has recommenced, ended in the grandstand 1490 on Epsom Downs. But this is a money Bill, and I hope I shall not be thought discourteous if I offer the House a few observations upon the Measure now before us.
I begin by offering my felicitations to the right hon. Gentleman the Postmaster-General on succeeding to the command of our senior and most venerable nationalised industry. If I may say so, the right hon. Gentleman displayed in his speech a remarkable grasp of his Department when, as he reminded us, he has only been there for some 14 days. That shows commendable assiduity and a wise application to his duties. Energy will be required from him, his hold is precarious and his time is short. He will have to work quickly to achieve the results he outlined to the House.
This Bill exemplifies in a graphic manner the system of Treasury accountancy about which this House, and certainly the public, have too little intelligence. I found myself in agreement with the observations of the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood), who expressed the view that there should be a greater control by the Postmaster-General over his own finances. There is a moral in this. After all, there are more industries coming into the sphere of nationalisation. If all their finances are to be engulfed by the Treasury and allocated on broad lines which do not pay attention to certain detailed requirements, that is something of which the House should take notice. Indeed, it would be valuable if one day in this Parliament we were able to debate on the widest front the Treasury system of accountancy as regards nationalised industries.
The fate of the right hon. Gentleman may well be the fate of others, and before long. He has produced what many of us regard as a fictitious surplus in the last financial year of £17 million. Of course, it is simple, by selling penny stamps for 2½d. to achieve a profit, which is the transaction that takes place over the post office counters. The hon. Member for Walthamstow, East (Mr. H. Wallace) told us that this was imposed by a Chancellor of the Exchequer in the war-time Budget of 1940. It is quite true. The present Lord Simon, when Chancellor of the Exchequer, increased 1491 postage from 1½d. to 2½d., making it clear, at that time, as do all Chancellors of all parties, that it was a merely temporary measure.
§ Mr. Leslie Hale
Penny stamps are still sold for a penny and can be bought in the post office today.
§ Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Leslie Hale) was unable to follow the irony of my argument. As a matter of fact, the stamps which the hon. Member purchases for a penny are ½d. stamps—but let us leave these mathematical niceties for another time.
I ask the right hon. Gentleman what arrangements are envisaged for interest and sinking fund arrangements on these very large sums which we are asked to approve today. They amount to a very considerable figure, spread over a period of time as far as expenditure is concerned, and we would like to know more about the service of these capital sums. The right hon. Gentleman told us that of this amount £69,500,000 is required for the telephone service, and he was at pains to explain what is going on in that direction and the problems which confront him. He told us of the waiting list which bears so heavily on him and which he ascribed to Sir Kingsley Wood who could hardly have foreseen what would be happening in 1950. The right hon. Gentleman even prided himself on the fact that he had a long waiting list and pointed out that because of the economic prosperity of the country so many people were applying for telephones with which the nationalised industry is unable to supply them. If he reads the OFFICIAL REPORT he will see that that is the effect of what he said.
There is a reason for that waiting list which has nothing to do with the economic prosperity of the country. Before leaving the question of telephones, may I point out that in the City of Bristol there is a grievous waiting list, not only for residential purposes, but also for business purposes. I sent the right hon. Gentleman a case only last week and I have no doubt it is being attended to. It shows the sort of problem with which we are faced. The right hon. Gentleman put it very well in a written reply to a 1492 Question a week ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Charles Orr-Ewing). He said:In view of the severe restriction of capital investment it is necessary, when providing new plant, to give preference to industrial and business areas, and I much regret the resultant delay in meeting the needs of some residential areas."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th March, 1950; Vol. 472, c. 15.]But the problem is also acute in the business and industrial sphere and I hope the right hon. Gentleman will not seek to impress the House that it is not so.
I am glad to hear from him that he is investigating the possibility of easing the position caused by the use of party lines. He said that the position is being examined in order to ensure greater privacy for those speaking on the telephone, but that is only being done now, in the year 1950. What were his two predecessors, two Socialist Postmasters-General, in the last Parliament doing about it? Party lines have been a problem ever since the Government took office. They are now stimulated by the narrowness of their majority and urged on by the Chief Patronage Secretary, who has an interest in party lines, to tackle the problem.
The right hon. Gentleman is entirely mistaken, in my view, if he believes that the long waiting list for telephones is in any way an indication of the prosperity of the country. It is due to something else. I notice that £5,500,000, and only £5,500,000, of this capital sum is required for posts and telegraphs. We have heard something about the postal service today. In my opinion the increased demand for telephones is directly due to the curtailment of the postal services of this country. People in London receive their last delivery of the day at 3.30 in the afternoon. I live in Hampstead, a residential area, and I am very lucky if I get my morning delivery by 10 o'clock. Very often it is half-past 10 before it comes, although I am well aware that all the walks are supposed to be completed by 10 o'clock. In my view this curtailment has increased the demand for telephones to enable people to communicate with one another.
May I remind the right hon. Gentleman, because he was not in his present office then—he was in another—that the reduction in collection and delivery facilities was announced as being directly due to 1493 the incidence of the fuel crisis of 1947? Later deliveries and collections had been restored by Lord Listowel, who I think holds no office today, when he was Postmaster-General. As I say, they were struck off at the time of the fuel crisis. That has now passed. It was three years ago. Would not the right hon. Gentleman look into this matter again? If only the late collections could be restored, it would have a most valuable effect.
It would be a great advantage, as I said at the outset of my remarks, if we could have a simplified picture presented to the House and the public of this problem of Post Office accountancy. It is astonishingly difficult to follow either in the Bill or in this publication of the commercial accounts. It requires to be put over to the public in simple language. Here I offer my congratulations to the Assistant Postmaster-General, with whom I have at least this in common: at the recent election both of us were transplanted from one part of the country to another and have survived and appear to be taking root. He and I had a controversy in the last House, and I am delighted to find that my repeated representations in the last Parliament have at last borne fruit. There is now a new public relations officer appointed from the established service. We now have the right boy for the job instead of the job for the wrong boy.
§ 3.27 p.m.
§ Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)
I do not think it would serve any useful purpose if I were to attempt to reply to what has been said, or to make a debating speech. But I do disagree altogether with the comments about the postal service, which I regard as exceedingly good. I get my post at 8 a.m. and I really do not agree that it is necessary for people to work very late in order that letters posted after 6 p.m. should reach Croydon the next day. If they are of the type which the hon. Member sent to me when he was out of a job before he returned to this House, it would not matter if they took a week or a fortnight.
I wish to raise one or two matters of importance, the first in regard to broadcasting. We all welcome the new Postmaster-General, and we are all grateful for the wide terms in which he made his speech, which has permitted us to raise matters which many of us have been 1494 wishing to raise. I wish the Postmaster-General seriously to consider and to discuss with the broadcasting authorities the question of broadcasting the proceedings of this House—[An HON. MEMBER.: "No."] I do not know but it may be that the hon. Member who greets that observation with some surprise would not speak so often if his speeches were always radiated on the broadcast. When I was in Australia such a programme was exceedingly popular there.
No one would suggest that an existing programme should be replaced but that there should be a station available to broadcast at set times the proceedings of this House. At this moment it would be exceedingly popular. Indeed, I cart imagine nothing more popular among listeners than to hear the speeches of the Liberal Party and then have bets on the way that they will vote. It is an important question and I ask the Postmaster-General seriously to discuss it. I appreciate that I am raising matters which are not only matters for the Postmaster-General and the B.B.C. but matters for this House and the authorities of this House. I apologise if I have put my point briefly because there is only a brief time available to me.
The second matter is the question of telephones. I did not understand my right hon. Friend's figures, and I still do not; I ask him to look at them, as I feel there is some mistake somewhere. The profit shown in the figures for the telephone service is not £17 million but £8 million because over £8 million is allocated to paying off loan and interest charges. And so there is £8 million. I really cannot see how we can spend £300 million on telephones with a revenue of only £8 million, with outstanding applications amounting to 465,000, of which nearly 300,000 are residential subscribers with a probable potential income of £12 to £15 a year each, and have a hope of justifying those figures. The total depreciated capital value of the telephone service is only about £215 million gross. I think there must be something wrong with those figures.
May I make one humble plea to the Postmaster-General and make one little suggestion to him? We all have certain business activities which we have to run. and somehow or other they have to be dealt with. I should have thought that 1495 if he receives an application for a telephone from a constituent of mine in Oldham it is placed on a file, and that somebody should know the answer. Therefore, I suggest that if I write to the right hon. Gentleman on Monday and he gets the letter on Tuesday, he should have written to Oldham that day and a reply should be sent to him by Wednesday, and I should have received a reply on Friday and my constituent should know on Saturday all about the trouble in the first instance before I start on the second line of attack. That would speed up the matter a little. I do not see why it should not be done in the Post Office service, which ought to have the necessary efficiency available.
My right hon. Friend's predecessor was a little coy about a matter of some importance. What is the priority for allocating telephones? As I understand it, and I have never got it clearly, a bookmaker who stopped at home during the war and applied in 1942 is well at the top of the list, while a man commanding a unit in Burma in 1942 who was demobilised in 1946 and who wants a single telephone for his business is right at the bottom.
§ The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Hobson)
I can assure my hon. Friend that the ex-Service man does get preference.
§ Mr. Hale
The case I put up to my right hon. Friend was the case of my own partner, who was a colonel in India during the war and who came back here and could not get a telephone. He bought a house by public auction with a telephone in it, and had the thing pulled out within a week. He bought another house by auction with a telephone in and had to barricade himself inside the house and refuse to allow the Post Office engineers in to remove the telephone. That is the case I have in mind and I do not consider it an unreasonable case to put.
When the hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) was talking about the difficulties of getting through on the automatic telephone, an hon. Member on this side of the House interjected, "Rubbish." If the hon. Member had made that interjection at any other moment of his speech I would not have disagreed at all, but that was the moment 1496 when I was in complete agreement with the hon. Member for Croydon, East. I have the greatest difficulty in getting through on the automatic telephone. All I want to know is what happens when I dial Cunningham 6100 and get Holborn 3516 and somebody answers—do I pay for the call?—[HON. MEMBERS: "Yes"]—I gather that I do. I would like to know also when I dial from a manual exchange and ask for a number on an automatic exchange and am put through and I get a steady series of buzzes which I ultimately adduce as, "No reply," do I pay for that call, too?
I wish to associate myself with what has been said by the hon. Member for Walthamstow, East (Mr. H. Wallace) and the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) about the question of Post Office wages. I have a hunch that one of the really hardest cases which still survives—I know the right hon. Gentleman is giving it attention and doing very well—is the case of the mixed business where the postmistress also runs a grocer's shop, and where there is nobody to sit up all night; and where she is often fetched out of bed at three o'clock in the morning because somebody wishes to ring up and say that, rather to his surprise, he has got the car in the garage and is now going to bed. From what I remember of the old terms they were pretty niggardly terms. Really, the Post Office is a good employer and it has some good servants, but the wages of some need early attention. I am grateful for having been allowed to take part in this Debate, and in view of the late hour I will not put the other point which I wished to put.
§ 3.30 p.m.
§ Sir Ronald Ross (Londonderry)
I shall try to confine myself to those matters with which we are most strictly concerned. I shall not even deal at length with the abominable delays in the parcel post to Northern Ireland, which are becoming worse and worse. I will deal with the telephone service first. I wish to repeat a point which has already been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir D. Robertson).
I know the difficulties which face the right hon. Gentleman about supplying extra telephones to people who have applied. I understand the greatest difficulty he has 1497 is in the supply of exchange equipment. That equipment is one of our earners of dollar currency. Whether it earns quite as many dollars as it is said to earn, I am not sure. I think that the right hon. Gentleman should consider whether he is not really doing more harm by this long delay in the supply of telephones to business firms and farmers than the good which is done by selling the equipment for dollars. I know that the provision of telephone poles presents difficulty, but the supply of telephones to farmers and business firms would perhaps outweigh the advantage which we get from the comparatively small amount of foreign exchange which we secure from the export of telephone exchange equipment.
I thought that the Postmaster-General spoke rather disparagingly of the non-business telephone user. The housewife is one of the hardest worked people in the country. She can get practically no domestic help and the telephone lightens her burden to some extent. The need of the housewife for a telephone is urgent.
Now I am able to say something rather nice and friendly. That is something I always try to do, but with this Government it is difficult to get an opening. The courtesy of the telephone operators with whom one speaks is a marked feature of the British telephone service. It is far better than it was shortly after the war. There has been a marked increase in the courtesy and zeal with which the operator tries to help the subscriber. The time during which one has to hear the bell tolling before one gets an answer from tolls or trunks is sometimes considerable, but the courtesy is remarkable.
I was pleased that the Postmaster-General did not entirely condemn the telegram, because I know how unpopular the telegram is at the Post Office. It is not a highly remunerative service. It might be made more remunerative if the greetings telegram were reintroduced. The Post Office charged an unconscionable sum for a gold envelope—far more that it cost. However, the telegram is a vital necessity for those who cannot afford a telephone. I do not refer to the men who cannot get telephones, who are numerous, but those who cannot in any circumstances afford one. I am glad that that service is not entirely despised.
On the question of the installation of more exchange equipment, I ask the right 1498 hon. Gentleman to consider the needs of my own constituency, Londonderry, and also of Belfast. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Lieut.-Colonel Hyde) raised that matter during Question time this week. We have a lower telephone density in both those cities than in many comparable cities. The difficulty is presented by the installation of telephone equipment. In Belfast they have the added difficulty in the curious antics of the telephones generally, which refuse to give the ringing tone. I may say that if the Assistant Postmaster-General does not give the ringing tone to my Questions when he comes to reply, I shall press button B.
From this comparatively peaceful opening I want now to pass to television. The right hon. Gentleman's predecessor mentioned that eventually we should have in Northern Ireland a television installation. As far as I could understand, it will be a most inefficient installation which will deal only with Belfast and the suburbs and will not reach the further portions of Northern Ireland, and particularly not my constituency. I think it would be perfectly futile to instal such a contrivance; we want to cover the whole country.
There was a certain air of satisfaction about the Minister's announcement that 70 per cent. of the people of Great Britain were going to have television, but apparently nobody whatsoever outside Great Britain and in the other portion of the United Kingdom is to have it. That, I think, is a most unfortunate announcement. Why should we come last, because, if we consider who needs-television most, is it the man who lives, in a thickly-populated district and who, can go down the street to the picture palace, or is it the man in the more scattered areas where there is no chance of entertainment and where, if he had a television set, he would be likely to bring in the neighbours to see the show? I suggest that it is in the latter areas that we want most to have television.
I am not making any point as regards priority in capital expenditure on television generally. I would hesitate to say, charming, useful and pleasant amenity as it is, that we could put it very high among the things essential to us in a time of stress, but I do say that in the case of priority as between differ- 1499 ent areas, to concentrate entirely, as is being done at present, upon the thickly-populated areas, in which there is more choice of amusement and diversion than anywhere else in the country, is a mistake. When I am at home and want to go to the "pictures," to use the phrase, I have to go 14 miles to get there, and there is no public transport, except, I think, once a day.
I submit that it is most unfair that the concentration should be so much on areas where there is almost a superfluity of possibilities of entertainment. I should like everyone to have television if it can be afforded, but I think that in Northern Ireland in particular, where we earn two dollars per head for every one earned per head in Great Britain, where we provide enormous quantities of food, all the eggs that used to be used in London for the egg ration—and we have a rationing system imposed upon us although we produce enough food to feed ourselves—it is wrong that we should come last in the priorities of the Labour Government. It is a thing which I, for one, will protest against as long as I have the honour to represent my constituency in this House.
§ 3.39 p.m.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon-Thames)
I so often agree with the observations on non-partisan lines of the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Leslie Hale) that I must confess I was a little horrified at the suggestion he made of urging upon the Government the desirability of broadcasting the proceedings of this House. I feel that such a proposal would do infinite harm to this House. It would subject it to a process for which it is not intended, it would do serious damage to the intimacies of 'Debate, and it would, I believe, be thoroughly harmful in its effect. I am only consoled by the reflection that even if the Government were persuaded by the hon. Member for Oldham, West, there are, as always in matters affecting this House, many other authorities to be consulted. Undoubtedly there would be yourself, Sir. No doubt the Serjeant at Arms would come in, and I am perfectly certain that the Lord Great Chamberlain would be involved, and the Minister of Works. I am certain there are many substantial barriers to such a proposal.
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
In the case of the Minister of Town and Country Planning, I feel that the maxim de minimis non curat lex applies. What the hon. Gentleman has failed to appreciate in putting that forward is this consideration. You, Sir, must have come to the conclusion, sitting in that Chair for long hours as you do, that certain speeches in this House are delivered perhaps more with a view to reproduction in the local newspaper than to persuade the Government to take some action. Obviously the temptation to deliver speeches of that sort would be very much greater, at any rate during the hours when the microphone was turned on, and I hope, with great respect to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Oldham, West, he will not press the matter.
§ Mr. Leslie Hale
Does not the hon. Gentleman think that the argument he puts forward merely indicates a complete lack of belief in democracy and in the judgment of his fellow citizens outside this House?
§ Mr. Boyd-Carpenter
I do not. The hon. Gentleman is sufficient of a historian to know that it is only within the last 200 years that this House permitted even the reporting of its Debates. I think that was because it was considered that the effect of excessive publicity must be harmful to our proceedings. Far from reflecting upon the judgment of our fellow citizens, it must surely strike the hon. Gentleman that if certain hours of this House are broadcast and certain hours are not, our fellow citizens will not get a fair picture of our proceedings. The hon. Gentleman is in complete error if he thinks there are any of our fellow citizens who would listen to all our proceedings. If there were, they would set an example to every Member of this House.
The Postmaster-General began a very agreeable speech with a reference to natural Welsh modesty, a quality which, I suppose, comes to its finest flowering in the person of the Minister of Health. That quality did not prevent the Postmaster-General from becoming lyrical in his enthusiasm for the Department over which he has presided for only a few days. Possibly, as the months pass, that 1501 enthusiasm may subside. In any event, any right hon. Gentleman who played a part for three years in defending the Control of Engagement Order must be capable of rousing enthusiasm very easily. In parenthesis I may remark that that Order only survived the departure of the right hon. Gentleman from the Ministry of Labour by one week. The right hon. Gentleman showed enthusiastic support of his Department as a socialised industry. The adjective is one which one finds more often used by the Lord President of the Council.
The basis of his enthusiasm was that this socialised industry had made a profit. The hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) has cast a little doubt upon that profit. Even accepting that the Postmaster-General is right and my hon. Friend is wrong—a most unlikely state of affairs—let us follow up what it is the right hon. Gentleman is trying to say. He is telling this House of Commons that this socialised industry which makes a profit is the one about which Questions can be asked across the Floor of the House. If he really thinks there is any weight in his enthusiasm for this socialised industry above all others, he will persuade some of his colleagues that it might be salutary for them to answer a few questions occasionally.
Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that if there is a monopoly in an essential service, if prices are raised and the service is diminished to an almost unlimited extent, it is not really difficult to make a profit. Some people would describe that process as exploitation, and others might well take the view that the Post Office is being used—in my view quite improperly—as an instrument of taxation. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will not rouse too much enthusiasm in his own breast for the profit-making capacity of the Post Office, but will apply a little of that enthusiasm to the much more important task of rendering good service to the public. The right hon. Gentleman must know perfectly well that the Post Office is not rendering anything like the service which for lesser charges it rendered to the public before the war.
Let me refer to the question which was raised by one of my Friends about times of collection and delivery. My hon. 1502 Friend the Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) said that if he posted a letter in London after six o'clock it would be unlikely to reach his constituency until late the following day. My hon. Friend should be thankful for small mercies. There is a part of my constituency, which I have already drawn to the attention of the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor, the Kingston Hill district, in which there are only two deliveries which, for some ingenious reason, are timed for half-past nine in the morning and eleven o'clock. If I write a letter in London, in this building, to a constituent in that part of my division at any time after six o'clock, it does not reach that person until the morning of the second day after I wrote it. That is to say, to cover a distance of 101 miles, approximately 38 hours are involved. The right hon. Gentleman can work out the velocity with which the missive proceeds.
I want to join with my hon. Friends in pressing the right hon. Gentleman much further, particularly on this issue of the later collections. I think I am right in saying that this city is the only great capital city in the world which does not have a system of late collections of mail. In a great capital city there are many people whose work, often of importance to the public, inevitably takes place in the later hours of the day. It was to cope with that need that before the war there was a very fine system of late collections. As one of my hon. Friends reminded the House, they were restored during the term of office of one of the right hon. Gentleman's predecessors. They were dropped during what I believe is now colloquially known as the "Shinwell blackout," and have never been restored. Why have they not been restored?
I should be grateful if, when the Assistant Postmaster-General replies to this Debate, on whatever occasion that may be, he will tell us quite clearly why that service—in my view essential, at least in a great capital city—has not been restored. I would ask him to deal bluntly with this question. Is the failure to restore it due to the attitude of the Union of Post Office Workers? We are entitled to be told that. I am not necessarily criticising the Union if the answer to that question is Yes. What I do say is this. If that decision is due to the 1503 representations of that union this House should at least know that. These representations, if they are made, should be made openly so that they can either be attacked or defended.
It calls for some explanation when an important service is restored 2½ years after the end of the war and then suddenly brought to a standstill and never restarted again. It is our duty to our constituents—particularly those of us who represent constituencies in the London Area—to know the reasons why this service has not been restored. In any event, I would ask the right hon. Gentleman, when he prides himself on the profits which he has made, to recall that in that respect, apart from any others, a much inferior service is being given to the public, although more is being charged for it.
I hope this Bill indicates that something is to be done to improve the lamentable telephone situation. The Postmaster-General used a very ingenious argument. It was, no doubt by mere coincidence that it is the same argument which the Minister of Health used in another context—the interesting argument that the length of the waiting list for telephones was an indication of national prosperity. The Minister of Health said that the size of the waiting list for houses was due to the same cause. I must ask the Postmaster-General to think that out a little further because what he is really saying is this: that there has been created a large amount of purchasing power which cannot be satisfied, that real wealth such as telephones or houses is not available, and that all that is available is a large amount of paper money. The name for that kind of prosperity is inflation and I think the right hon. Gentleman is very ill-advised, in his capacity as a member of the Government, to seek to excuse the long waiting list of his Department by an argument of that sort.
It is not only the length of the waiting list, however; it is also the question of the length of time some people on it have been waiting. I have written to the right hon. Gentleman in the course of this week about two constituents of mine who have been waiting for the installation of a telephone for slightly more than nine years. Their applications were submitted in the early part of the year 1941. They have 1504 not yet received either a telephone or even an undertaking from the right hon. Gentleman that any telephone will ever be installed in their premises. Their addresses have been furnished to the right hon. Gentleman.
I see the right hon. Gentleman consulting my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. R. V. Grimston), but even though he seeks the assistance of one with more experience of the Post Office than he has himself—and I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman wants every help he can obtain in this matter—it is not good enough that anybody should have to wait for nine years for the installation of the telephone. It is no use the right hon. Gentleman pointing to my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury, for nobody suggests that during the four years of war, from 1941 to 1945, the installation of civilian telephones could have a very high priority. But five years have passed since the war ended and, surely when a start was made with the installation of telephones the very fact that these two individuals had been waiting for four years should have meant that they got a telephone fairly soon after the resumption of civilian installations.
The right hon. Gentleman does not seem to appreciate the full wrongness of a delay of this sort. He is in charge of a great monopoly. If he fails to supply these people with a telephone they cannot go to somebody else, and the fact that he has a monopoly of the installation of telephones imposes upon him, it seems to me, a responsibility for meeting public demand. If he had not a monoply, if he were simply an ordinary trading concern, a possible consumer could go to somebody else. In this instance they can go only to the right hon. Gentleman. I hope the right hon. Gentleman does not even pretend that it is satisfactory that people in this country should be compelled to wait nine years for the installation of a telephone. I understand that in this case, in the borough of Surbiton, technical difficulties have been raised because the houses in question happen to be on the boundary of some exchange area. But while that may be an argument for a delay of nine months, it is not even like the beginning of an argument for a delay of nine years.
As the head of a great monopoly, the Minister has a duty to apply his mind 1505 and efforts to dealing with this sort of case and dealing with it extremely quickly. He knows perfectly well that the telephone service generally is far from giving satisfaction. I will not adopt as part of my argument, but I will recall to the House, the comments to a close relative of mine by a telephone supervisor of one of the West London exchanges to whom she had applied for assistance after an otherwise fruitless attempt to get a number. The supervisor was courteous—in my experience they always are—and finally informed my informant that no doubt the trouble was due to the machinery, adding the comment, "It ought to be blown up." I would not adopt that as part of my argument, but I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that there is a great deal of machinery which, five years after the war, is in an inexcusably bad condition. His predecessor a few years ago could be forgiven much but the amount of forgiveness to which the right hon. Gentleman is entitled must inevitably diminish as the years pass.
I want to make two comments on what the right hon. Gentleman said about the shared service. There are several important aspects of that matter. The right hon. Gentleman, very properly, appealed to ordinary individuals to co-operate by agreeing to share their lines with those who otherwise would not get one, but I think I am right in saying—if I am not I shall, no doubt, be corrected in due course—that very little financial inducement is given to subscribers to share a line. I believe the charge to a subscriber is reduced by a very small amount indeed if he consents to share a line. Therefore, while the Post Office gets the profit of having two subscribers, the person who suffers the inconvenience of having only half a telephone gets very little compensation. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to have a greater number of people prepared to share telephone lines he must be prepared to offer them a greater degree of inducement.
Finally on that point let me put this to the right hon. Gentleman. It arises to some extent out of what the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Leslie Hale) said. I found it very difficult to understand on what system the right hon. Gentleman's Department proceeds both in the priorities as to actual installation, 1506 and in deciding whether people can have a private line or must be compelled to share. For example, it has come to my attention that two ministers of religion in my constituency have been told that they must take a shared line or do without. Now, it is obviously inappropriate that a minister of religion, who will obviously have to discuss the most intimate and private matters with people in his parish, should be put in the position of sharing a line. It so happens that these two reverend gentlemen belong to different aspects of our Christian community, but they are unanimous in the view that it would be inappropriate and quite wrong for them to be called upon to discuss these matters over shared telephone lines. If the right hon. Gentleman can get his device which will ensure privacy, all well and good, but in the present circumstances to which the right hon. Gentleman referred he should give much greater attention to the needs of people such as ministers of religion.
The right hon. Gentleman, I think, will be satisfied after all that has been said in the Debate that the Post Office, which he is taking over, while it may or may not be the excellent profit making concern to which he refers, is one which is not giving yet to the public the service which it should be giving. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will take up his heavy responsibilities with that consideration fully in mind. The need is much more to give the ordinary public the ordinary basic postal services—proper deliveries and collections with sufficient frequency, particularly in areas where a great deal of business is done—and the installation of the ordinary telephone services that the ordinary subscribers require. It is a little tempting to a Department which seems to like publicity to introduce some new stunt service and yet not deal with the basic needs of ordinary people.
It is in that connection that there is a story told in London of a London business man who, desiring to communicate with his home in outer London to say that he would be delayed at his office and would not be able to get home for dinner at the normal time, and having failed to get through in half an hour, put through a call to the "Queen Elizabeth" in mid-Atlantic, with which he was connected in a few minutes, to ask the captain, who was a friend of his, to ring up his wife at his home in Surrey 1507 to give her the message that he would not be home for dinner.
Although that is, no doubt, something of a parody of what is occurring, there is a little truth behind it in that there is a tendency to emphasise the wonders of science, to emphasise what can be done, and a tendency to pay less attention to the hard, important work of providing the ordinary postal services to the people of this country. If the right hon. Gentleman will apply his undoubted energies to meeting that need, then many of us in this House, though we may continue to dislike his politics, will regard him as a great administrator.
§ 3.59 p.m.
§ Mr. Erroll (Altrincham and Sale)
I was interested to see the enthusiasm that the new Postmaster-General displayed for his august office, and I hope that that enthusiasm will persist during the months ahead, and that we shall see a rapid improvement in the transmission of letters. I feel that if only we could get more rapid transmission of letters we should indeed reduce the demand for telephone facilities. It is altogether wrong to suggest, as the right hon. Gentleman did, that the increased demand for telephones is just a symptom of better economy—
§ It being Four o'Clock the Debate stood adjourned.
§ Debate to be resumed upon Monday next.