§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 3.30 p.m.
§ The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. David Gammans)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
As the House knows, this is a Bill which has to be laid before the House from time to time to provide the Post Office with the money which it requires for capital development. The last time that a similar Bill was presented was in March, 1950, when £75 million was asked for. We are asking for the same amount this time, and so far as we can judge in the present fluid circumstances of capital development, it is expected that the unspent balance of the previous Bill, amounting to £23 million, and the money which we are now asking the House to provide, will last the Post Office until the end of the financial year 1953–54.
Normally, the Second Reading of the Post Office and Telegraph (Money) Bill is an occasion in the House not only to consider capital development, but also to discuss the operations of the Post Office as a whole. Before I come to the details of the proposed developments there are one or two general remarks which I should like to make.
Before I had any special responsibility for the Post Office I suppose that, like most hon. Members in this House, I largely took its operations for granted. I had a sense of national pride in the Post Office as being a very typically British institution. I had the feeling that our postal services were not as good as they were before the war, but there was not really very much wrong with the telegraph service except that occasionally one got rather annoyed waiting for a reply from "trunks" or "toll." I regarded the average postman as being rather a good chap, and thought that by and large the standard of service in the average Post Office was nothing much to grumble about.
Since I have had some responsibility for the Post Office, three things have struck me very forcibly. The first is the extraordinary and quite illogical ramifications for which the Post Office is responsible. 1183 It is quite reasonable that the Post Office should be responsible for Her Majesty's mails, but there is no overwhelming reason why the Post Office should be responsible for running telephones and telegraphs. In fact, in some countries of the world they are run by private enterprise.
In addition, the Post Office runs a very extensive banking system in the Post Office Savings Bank, issues every conceivable form of licence from dog licences to private brewers' licences, pays widows' and old age pensions and family allowances, is responsible for preventing the evasion of wireless and television licences, and generally takes on every job that no other Government Department seems to want.
On reading the Post Office Guide, I was very interested and somewhat surprised to find that until recently a gentleman who was unable to find his way home could go to the nearest Post Office and ask to be taken there by special messenger. In fact, he could post himself home. That service, unfortunately, had to be discontinued, but I am glad to know, as I am sure hon. Members will, that even now bees, leeches and silkworms can be sent by post, also in theory can dogs and cows provided that they are of a docile disposition and have a rope around their neck. No Government Department comes into such intimate and constant contact with the general public. We employ nearly half the Civil Service, and when all these facts are taken into consideration I feel that the whole Post Office does not do too bad a job.
May I take this opportunity of inviting hon. Members on all sides of the House who wish to see something of Post Office work to do so not only in their own constituencies but here in London. Every head postmaster and telephone manager in the constituencies will only be too glad to see the Member representing that constituency, and here in London we have a few things to show. We have one of the largest and most valuable stamp collections in the world, the unique Post Office railway, which runs 6½ miles underground in London, the largest sorting office in the world at Mount Pleasant, which handles three million letters a day, the travelling Post Office vans and also the largest cable ship in the world, the 1184 "Monarch," which has just been lent on charter to the Americans and is earning us valuable dollars, and which, in the summer, is to renew part of the Atlantic cable.
The second thing which struck me very forcibly about the Post Office is the great pride which the average Post Office worker has in his job. It is something which has been acquired slowly over the centuries. The letters "O.H.M.S." means something more than an envelope containing a demand for Income Tax. The emblem "Royal Mail," which appears on various mail vans all over the country, and which I have seen flying as pennants from ships all over the world, is, to Post Office workers, what the colours are to a regiment.
What has struck me is that almost all the men and women whom I have had the chance to interview on retirement from the Post Office always said the same thing, that if they had their time over again they would join the Post Office once more. It is very refreshing to find, in negotiations with the Post Office trade unions, that we can start negotiations from the common ground that the Post Office exists for the public and not the public for the Post Office. There is no syndicalism in the Post Office.
I had a somewhat amusing experience when I had been Assistant Postmaster-General for a very few weeks. I met one old lady in South Wales who was nearly 80 years of age and who has been delivering letters in a Welsh valley for nearly 50 years. She told me that very often she had to walk four or five miles through the snow to deliver a solitary letter, which might be a circular, to a lonely farm. I said to her, "It must be a very great temptation to leave it over until the next day." She rounded on me and said, "Young man"—with that I was flattered—"you have not been very long in the Post Office, or you would not say a thing like that even as a joke."
The third thing which struck me is that the Post Office has been very fortunate in divorcing itself from party politics. I suppose an experienced politician could bring party politics even to the reading of a bill of lading, but it would not be easy to do it in a discussion on the Post Office. The truth is that this great organisation has been built up over 1185 many years by a series of Postmaster-Generals, who have added to the responsibility in many directions. My immediate predecessors must have every satisfaction in the recovery which the Post Office made after the war under their administration.
It was Elizabeth I who created the monopoly in the delivery of letters overseas, very largely, I think, for the reason that she wanted to read what her subjects were writing about. James I extended it to the delivery of letters at home, and it was Mr. Gladstone who created the Post Office Savings Bank in 1861 and started the Government annuities which are, in fact, a form of State life insurance. Both Disraeli and Gladstone had a share in the nationalisation of the telegraph, and it was left to a Liberal Government, in 1912, to nationalise the telephones.
The decision to alter the status of Cable and Wireless arose out of action taken by the war Coalition. In other words, with that delightful lack of logic which is so characteristic of British politics, the only people who have not done any nationalisation in this field are the Socialist Party.
§ Mr. W. R. Williams (Droylsden)
When were Cable and Wireless actually transferred to the Post Office?
§ Mr. Gammans
They were transferred under the last Government but one.
I would not like the House to think from these remarks that I view the future of the Post Office with any complacency. We have very serious problems facing us, and perhaps the chief of them arises out of the Bill which is before us.
Before I come to that matter, there is one other which is causing us very great concern and which I mentioned very briefly in the House a few weeks ago. It is the dramatic rise in the sick rate among Post Office workers. Let me give the House some figures; these are for the non-disabled staff and not for men who were taken on after the war and suffering real disablement. In 1938, the sickness rate was 8.1 days per year for men and 9.3 for women. By 1948, those rates had risen, the 8.1 to 10.9 and the 9.3 to 13.4. In 1950, the figure had gone up even more, to 13.4 and 17.3, respectively. As far as I can gather, the figures are still rising.
1186 Immediately after the war, the average age of the Post Office worker went up. One could expect that, but for the last three years the average age has gone down. The figures of increased sick rate have not reflected themselves in the number of retirements due to ill-health or in the number of deaths. Whatever allowances can be made, the fact remains that we ought to be extremely disturbed by this dramatic rise. I have no doubt that we shall have the full co-operation of the Post Office unions in trying to find some solution to it. Let me try to give some idea of what it means. If we could get the sick rate back to pre-war figures, it would be possible to make a saving of 5,000 men and women on the staff.
§ Mr. Harry Wallace (Walthamstow, East)
Is there not some relationship between the sick rate and the difficulty of recruiting for the Post Office in some parts of the country? I understand that excessive hours worked by members of the staff influence the sick rate. The Minister says he could save 5,000 men and women if the sick rate were back to pre-war figures, but I would point out that there has been very great difficulty in many parts of the country in securing recruits for the Post Office, partly because of low wages. Failure to be able to recruit, and excessive overtime, may have a bearing upon the sickness rate.
§ Mr. A. Edward Davies (Stoke-on-Trent, North)
It would assist us in considering this matter if the Assistant Postmaster-General were able to break down the figures a little more and tell us where the incidence is greatest. Is it on the outside staff on special duties, or on the inside staff?
§ Mr. Gammans
Answering the point raised by the hon. Member for Walthamstow, East (Mr. Wallace), I am not quite sure what was the relevance of his question. There is no great difficulty now over the recruitment of staff, and I cannot see why that should effect the high sick rate. On the point raised by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mr. Edward Davies), I would say that the incidence is fairly general. If he would like the figures broken down into grades and would care to put down a Question, I should be delighted to give him the information.
1187 I would now say a word about the general finances of the Post Office. As the House is aware, the Post Office is financed in quite a different way from any of the ordinary nationalised industries. We pay to the Exchequer all the revenue we collect, and the Post Office draws from the Exchequer the cash required, up to the limit voted by Parliament. Parallel with these ordinary cash transactions, the Post Office keeps commercial accounts where credit is taken for all work and services rendered to other Government Departments. As the House knows, letters are carried at cost price, but public rates are charged for the telephone and telegraph services.
The House ought to know what all that adds up to. In 1950–51 the Post Office took a credit from other Government Departments for no fewer than £24 million, of which £13 million was for telephone services. Up to 1943, the telephone and telegraph services were settled by inter-Departmental payments, but the amounts had to appear in the Estimates of the Departments concerned. From the Post Office point of view we would like to revert to that system. In my opinion, if the head of each Government Department had to account in his Estimates for the amount that was spent on telephones I am not sure whether the bill would come to £13 million a year, as it does now. I must point out that that is a decision which does not rest entirely with the Post Office.
The only other comment I would make on the day-to-day accounts of the Post Office is to point out the effect of the recent wage awards. They were made during the last two years, and they have added no fewer than £28 million to the annual cost of the Post Office. For the year ending 31st March this year, the commercial account surplus of £15 million, for which the right hon. Gentleman opposite budgeted a year ago, will be reduced to £3 million, largely on account of these wage awards. Even with the increased charges which will be levied as a result of the Budget, the estimated surplus on the commercial accounts for the year ending 31st March, 1953, will only be about £7½ million, which, apart from the current year, is as low as it has been for the past 25 years.
§ Mr. C. R. Hobson (Keighley)
I take it that the reason for the reduction in the surplus is that the pay awards are backdated?
§ Mr. Gammans
In part, yes, but they have been the chief factor in making it impossible for the Post Office to realise the commercial surplus which the late Government expected a year ago.
Now I will say a word about capital development. It is, I hope, unnecessary for me to explain the Bill in detail. The Bill is very similar to previous Post Office Money Bills, with one small exception. Under Clause 2, the Post Office will be able to finance the capital cost of Savings Bank building in the same way as it finances other capital expenditure of the Post Office. This point has already been brought to the notice of the Public Accounts Committee, which have accepted the expansion recommended in the scope of the Post Office Money Bill.
Of the £75 million provided for in the Bill, it is estimated that £69 million, or 92 per cent., will be devoted to the telephone service, 5 per cent. to the postal service and 3 per cent. to the telegraphs. None of the money can be spent without the express permission of the Treasury. The Post Office is subject to control of capital investment as is every other Government Department. It is estimated that for the next three years one-third of the total Post Office capital expenditure will come on the defence programme. Some of this plant will be useful later for civilian purposes, but for the time being the money spent on defence purposes will be of very little use to the Post Office for ordinary civilian needs.
The chief point I want to make in this debate, compared with which everything else is secondary, is that the sum we are providing today, and are likely to be able to spend in the foreseeable future, is quite inadequate for the new developments which the Post Office would like to undertake, or even for us to be able to guarantee that we can maintain the service at present standards.
I am not suggesting that the Post Office is unique in that respect. Almost every Government Department which serves the public, and most private concerns, would today say the same thing. It is due to the defence position and the need to 1189 restrict capital development because of our economic situation. But, like a large part of British industry, we are living on our reserves, and it is only right that on an occasion like this the House should understand all the implications of that policy.
For one thing, our building programme for the next few years will be drastically cut. As I told the House only last Wednesday, during the next financial year no new buildings scheduled to start in that year will be started except those for defence purposes. On the postal side, many of our buildings are out of date and grossly overcrowded.
The hon. Member for Walthamstow, East, is always raising the question of better accommodation for postal workers and I entirely agree with him, because in many parts of the country conditions are not satisfactory. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to come here today and be able to assure the House that a new building programme was about to be started. To give the House some idea of what the overcrowding is like, I suggest that any hon. Member need only go to the Western District Sorting Office, in Wimpole Street, here in London, during the rush hour to see how hopelessly overcrowded we are on the postal side.
However, it is on the telephone side that the restriction on capital development may have a devastating effect, because what is done or not done now will affect the standard of service we can give the public over the next four or five years. I am glad to say that this country has now become telephone-minded. There are almost twice as many people on the telephone today as there were in 1938. Local calls have gone up by 50 per cent. and trunk calls by 120 per cent. But even if we did not put another person on the phone, we are already reaching a critical situation. Eighty important exchanges are already full and so are over 300 smaller exchanges.
There are about 487,000 people waiting for telephones. Luckily, this is 56,000 better than a year ago but, even so, we can only hope to cater for one-fifth of the people on the waiting list during the next 12 months. I am glad to say that we have been able to do better for the rural areas than was done before the war.
§ Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)
Does that one-fifth apply only to England and Wales, or does the same proportion apply to Scotland?
§ Mr. Gammans
I am taking the country as a whole, but if the hon. and learned Gentleman would like the figures for Scotland, I shall be delighted to give them to him. Unfortunately, I have every reason to believe that they are no better there than for England.
So far as rural telephones are concerned, 11,000 farmers came on the telephone last year and 1,200 new kiosks were put up. I cannot say that we shall go on at that rate, because those farmers who are now on the telephone are, on the whole, living in remote areas. To provide the telephone for a farmer who is perhaps a mile or a mile and a half away would require a tremendous capital expenditure.
I want to stress this financial problem, because I notice from the letters which hon. Gentlemen send me on behalf of their constituents that they do not always recognise what is entailed in putting someone on the telephone. I often get letters to this effect. "I noticed in an office opposite my house that there were 100 telephones. Why cannot 50 of them be taken out and given to 50 other people who are waiting for the phone?" Unfortunately, it is not as easy as that. Before a new subscriber can go on the telephone his house must be wired and the instrument provided. That is comparatively easy, but four other things are required. First, there has to be a pair of wires between the subscriber's house and the exchange. Then there is the switching apparatus at the exchange itself leading between the exchange, and then the junction circuits. Finally, there has to be a share of the trunk and toll lines.
It is no use providing one of those unless it is possible to provide all. I want to make this quite clear because we shall only be able to do a token amount of new building this year, and without new building it is not possible to extend the telephone service.
§ Mr. Percy Shurmer (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)
I was in the telephone service for a number of years although, unfortunately, I had to come out of it for certain reasons. I agree with some of the points made by the hon. Gentleman about 1191 the difficulty of putting in a telephone, but is he suggesting that a subscriber could not have a telephone if it were not possible to connect him with both trunk and toll?
It is no good giving a man a telephone unless, as part of the service with which he is supplied, he can get trunk and toll. If we increase the number of subscribers, for the sake of argument, by 1,000, we must increase the number of trunk and toll lines in the same proportion. Otherwise, the subscriber will not get the service he should have.
It is disturbing that we are not doing Any new building this year; or, to put it another way, even supposing that at the moment we were given the green light to go ahead, which we are not, it would be four or five years before that would reflect itself in an improved telephone service for the whole country. The truth is that since the war, so far as the telephone service is concerned, we have only been able to spend about half what should have been spent on that service to cater for the extensions which are in sight. For that reason, I hope that right hon. Gentlemen opposite will agree that there is every credit to the Post Office for having nearly doubled the number of people on the telephone considering the years of war and the difficulties through which we have since passed.
On the telephone side we have been helped out by the success of the shared service. I find that even now hon. Members do not realise what the shared service is. Every subscriber gets his own number, and only the bell on the instrument of the subscriber who is rung up rings. The only way in which a subscriber knows whether he is on a shared service or not is if the other half is listening or using the phone, and he picks up the instrument and hears them talking.
The position today is that we try to give all the business applicants their own exclusive line, but no fewer than 96,000 business subscribers have volunteered to share as an alternative to getting no line at all. On the residential side, the only people who get exclusive service are 1192 judges of the High Court or of higher rank and Members of Parliament, but only while they remain Members. Everyone else is liable for shared service, including lawyers, editors of newspapers and senior civil servants.
§ Mr. Gammans
Yes, and doctors. There are over 200,000 people today on shared service who would not be on the service at all unless we had been able to bring in this device. Until the introduction of the new rentals, there was only a difference of 11s. 6d. between the rentals of a shared and an exclusive line, but, as the House will be aware, this will be increased as from 1st July.
As regards shared service, I ought to make it clear that nobody who was on exclusive service or who had a telephone before 1st January, 1948, will be expected to share unless he moves from one house to another. So much for the telephone service—a story of great expansion, which is now held up for reasons beyond our control.
That was the date when the shared service came in; it had to start some time.
There are one or two things I should like to say about the postal service. Over the past four or five years, the traffic has increased by about 4 or 5 per cent. per year, and now the numbers of letters and packages posted in Great Britain amount to about 25 million a day. Many hon. Members wonder whether we shall ever get back to the penny post and the prewar midnight collection of letters in London. The answer to both of these is, "No." It is best that the House should realise that. The penny post has gone with the pre-war purchasing power of the £, and the midnight collection of letters in London, and the very late collections in other districts, were based upon standards of working on the part of the postal officers which I do not believe either side of the House would accept today.
That late collection meant that many postmen in London, for example, had to come on duty for two periods for an overall period of 16 hours a day. In the interval, the man could go home if 1193 he was able or wanted to, but I do not believe that the House would accept those standards today. To restore deliveries and collections to the pre-war scale, and still maintain the present-day standards of working, would require an additional 10,000 men. It is quite clear that the country could not afford that today.
§ Mr. Albert Evans (Islington, South-West)
Did the hon. Gentleman say that the penny post would never come back?
§ Mr. Gammans
"Never" is a very strong thing to say. It would give me great pleasure if I could stand at this Box and say that the penny post was coming hack, but I rather think that the chances are negligible.
Even if we do not get back to pre-war standards, it is as well to remember what the present ones are. Any letter posted before 6.0 p.m. in London is normally delivered by the first post next morning in any part of England and Wales, and any letter posted before 4.15 p.m. should be delivered by the same post next morning in any part of Southern Scotland also.
I know that comparisons are odious, and often misleading, but it is as well to remember that our postal charges compare very favourably with other countries. For example, we charge 4d. for a letter to go from the United Kingdom to the Continent, but the letter coming back from France costs 7.3 pence and 7.8 pence from Switzerland—nearly double. Take our 2½d. letter to the United States. The return postage is 4.3d. Quite apart from this, all our first-class mail to Europe, except to Poland and Iceland, now goes by air, and over a million items are conveyed each week under this scheme.
Now a word about the telegraph service. I wish that I had a brighter story to tell, but the deficit for the year ending 31st March, 1952, will be about £4,200,000. Rather curiously, that is almost the exact sum that it was last year. The truth is, and we must face it, that the public are using the telegraph less and less. The traffic has fallen by approximately 20 per cent. as compared with before the war, partly due, I think, to the fact that there are more people on the telephone and also because of the speed of delivery of our letters. If it is any consolation to the House, almost every other country is losing money on its telegraphs.
1194 There are only two bright things I can say. One is the increase in the greetings telegrams, which counteracts to some extent the fall in other types of telegrams. The other is that the Post Office have been able to switch gradually to a new type of connection, through switching in the offices, which should lead to considerable economies and to greater speed. This, we reckon, will save us about £500,000 a year.
There are many other sides of the Post Office with which I could deal, but I do not propose to say anything today about radio or television, because shortly the House will be getting a White Paper on the subject and there will be a special opportunity for discussion.
§ Mr. Gammans
I cannot say. The Government have promised that a White Paper will be laid. If the matter were discussed today, I could not give the House very much information.
On the Savings Bank side, all that there is to be said is that for the past three years small savings, as represented by the Savings Bank, National Savings Certificates and Defence Bonds, have been having a rather bad time. Withdrawals have equalled, and sometimes surpassed, the amount of new money invested. Of course, the Post Office is only the agent in this matter, but perhaps I might stress the obvious and point out that the first condition of restoring health to the small savings of the country is to restore faith in the purchasing power of the £.
I should like to deal very briefly with one or two of the points raised by hon. Members in the last debate, on the Post Office Money Bill in 1950. My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Sir R. Grimston) raised the question of helicopters. As he knows, experiments were carried out between 1947 and 1950 in Dorset and also in East Anglia, but they have been abandoned. It was found that the cost of sending mail by this way was virtually prohibitive and that it was impossible to maintain a sufficiently reliable rate of regularity during the hours of darkness. I cannot hold out very much hope of any early developments in this direction until there is a more reliable 1195 machine and, above all, until the ban on the use of a single-engined helicopter over towns and also over water is removed.
§ Mr. Gammans
My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury also raised the question of submarine repeaters, about which I have something more hopeful to report. These repeaters have proved very successful in the cables between this country and Ireland, and epecially between here and the Continent, and we hope at a later stage to improve the performance of the Atlantic cables in this way, especially the Atlantic cable which we are starting to relay this summer.
The only other matter to which I might refer is the new postage stamps. Quite a number of Questions have been asked about them. There will be a special Coronation stamp next year, as there was for the Coronation of King George VI. This, of course, will be the ordinary 2½d. denomination and, like other commemorative stamps, will be of a larger size. Some of the permanent stamps for the new reign should be ready before the end of this year.
Many hon. Members have suggested a variety of pictorial designs, but I must remind them that so long as we keep to the ordinary standard size stamp, there is not very much room for variation. We are, of course, the only country that has the privilege of not having the name of the country on its stamp. That is accorded to us partly by tradition, and because we were the first country to use postage stamps, and also because the Sovereign's head forms the prinicipal feature of the design. I assure the House, as I have done in answer to Questions, that the Council of Industrial Design are being fully consulted before the final submissions are made to Her Majesty.
In presenting the Bill to the House, I have tried to give some idea of the purposes for which the money will be spent, but I have also tried to sketch the background against which the provision of this money must be viewed. If there are any points which I have not made particularly clearly, perhaps, with the permission of the House, I may do so before the debate is over.
§ 4.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards (Caerphilly)
The hon. Gentleman has covered quite a considerable amount of ground and my hon. Friends and I are grateful to him for the occasional complimentary remark which fell from his lips. What has struck me most has been the affection that the hon. Gentleman has so rapidly acquired for the Post Office. When he was on this side of the House he could roar like a lion about the Post Office, but now that he is there he coos like a dove.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
Yes, a poacher turned gamekeeper, and I must say that he has trimmed himself out with all the paraphernalia of the gamekeeper.
One must not forget that yesterday the hon. Gentleman was referred to by that amalgam of characters "Cross Bencher" as the man of hope. I think that the hon. Gentleman indicated that so far as essential telephone subscribers are concerned, he is the man without hope, for very little hope can be gathered from what he has said. I cannot forget that when he was on this side of the House the hon. Gentleman used to attack the Post Office with a great deal of venom and nothing has pleased me more than to see that at last he has acquired respect for what, after all, is one of our greatest institutions and one of the finest bodies of men working in this country. A Daniel has come to judgment and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has delivered himself in such an able way.
I want to come to some of the things which the hon. Gentleman did not touch upon and on which we could not expect him to touch. First, while he will get an extremely easy passage for this Bill—he is bound to, as we certainly want him to be given the money for the job—we are alarmed that one-third of the money, apparently, is to be spent on the defence programme. We hope that this one-third to be spent on the defence programme will be carried on the Votes of other Departments. Is the Post Office to pay the interest on what is spent not for their purposes? This is a serious matter and requires to be looked at again.
I would remind the hon. Gentleman that he has vet to discuss his Telephone 1197 Regulations and yet to discuss the increased charges he proposes to levy under the new Regulations which are to be laid and one of which, I understand, has already been paid. He will recollect that when I provided for increased charges of £8 million in the Post Office the House was in a furore. The hon. Gentleman, apparently, has agreed with the Chancellor to raise at least another £13 million, very much of which is not required for Post Office purposes.
Apparently he has allowed the Post Office to become a department of the Inland Revenue. [An HON. MEMBER: "You did."] No, I did not because I made the announcement of Post Office increases, not the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and I explained why I did it. I explained that it was required for Post Office purposes alone. Now when £13 million more is to be imposed, the announcement is made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Chancellor was quite frank about it; he said "It is to assist me." That is what he said in his Budget speech. It only shows what the Treasury is able to do with a weak Postmaster-General.
These matters will have to be discussed again, and they will arise. I think the Estimates should be discussed and the Commercial Account. While the hon. Gentleman will get a pleasant, easy, passage this afternoon, I wish to warn him that when we discuss these other matters we shall be as unkind to him as he was to us, though we shall have greater justification than he had. This Bill provides another example of Treasury control of this great business undertaking. This is what it says:The detailed programme of expenditure and the works to be carried out in each year are subject to the approval of the Treasury.This is really shocking. Would this House for one moment say that the programme of development work by the Coal Board, the Electricity Authority, the Gas Board or the Transport Commission should be under the control of the Treasury?
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
It should be under the control of the House, but I do not see that any quality of being a good arithmetician is necessary for running a 1198 big business undertaking. The Treasury is only concerned about the books at the end of the year. This is like putting the cashier to run John Lewis's.
§ Mr. Orr-Ewing
What about the right hon. Gentleman's Economic Planning Board? If that is really the view the right hon. Gentleman has of the Treasury, I wonder how it ties in with the fact that his Government had an Economic Planning Board with the Treasury. They are surely not the people who simply add up something?
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
The hon. Member should distinguish between capital investment controlled by the Planning Board and detailed control by the Treasury. If the hon. Member will read the Explanatory Memorandum he will see that consent must be obtained from the Capital Investment Board and that, in addition, a detailed programme must be submitted to the Treasury each year. As the Assistant Postmaster-General has said, this is an undertaking in which what we do today will affect us for the next four or five years, and if we do not build telephone exchanges today it means that for the next four or five years we cannot have telephones. Here is something which requires planning—planning ahead—but under this arrangement all that can be done is to plan to the time of the next Budget. This is not the way to run a great business undertaking of this kind.
§ Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)
Who controls the expenditure of the Post Office? Is it the experience of the right hon. Gentleman that the Treasury just count up to 10 and multiply by five? Is that what he wants?
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
The hon. Member should not have put that question. If he had known the Post Office at all he would have known that the Postmaster-General is responsible for all the business which takes place inside the Post Office and is responsible to and gives to the House a full and detailed account of everything that happens inside the Post Office. In this sense it is the only nationalised undertaking which has such close Parliamentary accountability and because there is this complete Parliamentary accountability I say that the arithmeticians of the Treasury ought not to poke their fingers in and interfere in the operations of this great undertaking.
1199 That is my point of view and I will deal with it further when we come to one or two other points.
The Treasury have always sought to dominate the Post Office and use it as a tax gatherer. That has always been the view taken by the Treasury. We have had it in the new charges which are to be imposed. The Post Office ought to be a business concern and in the charges it makes for the services it gives there ought not to be an element of easy taxation. That, apparently, is the principle which is being given away by the Postmaster-General.
§ Mr. Gammans
I cannot quite see how the right hon. Gentleman can suggest that the Post Office is becoming a vehicle for easy taxation when the estimated surplus on the Commercial Account for the coming year will be less, with one exception, than for 25 years.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
I could understand the hon. Gentleman saying that if he were outside this House, in another place. But he heard the Chancellor of the Exchequer make his Budget speech. He heard the Chancellor say that these increases were to assist him, and not to assist the Post Office. That is the element I am attacking. I am saying that the Treasury have far too great a say in this undertaking; that by the very nature of things they are not competent to interfere in this undertaking which has at its head men—as the hon. Gentleman himself said this afternoon—who have very great business experience and who are doing a remarkably good job in very difficult circumstances. Yet they have to account to people who know nothing at all about running the Post Office.
I am astonished that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury has his name on this Bill. Perhaps it is he whom I ought to be attacking and not the Assistant Postmaster-General. He, apparently, is the nigger in the woodpile. He, too, roared like any lion when on this side of the House about this very thing. Now he is guilty of the very thing he used to condemn. I would suggest to the hon. Gentleman that the time has come to have a new Bridgeman Committee to look at the Post Office structure again and its relation to the Treasury. Ought it to be tied in the way it is? Ought not it to 1200 run its own business with proper accountability to this House, and without interference from the Treasury. Ought not it to be able to plan ahead, beyond the date of the next Budget?
When I was in office I started these discussions, both inside the Post Office and with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, who was then Prime Minister, with a view to getting a new Bridgeman Committee established to examine the whole structure of the Post Office; in particular, its relation to the Treasury. I invite the hon. Gentleman to consult his noble Friend to see if we can have this examination. It is highly necessary because, as he has himself indicated, very few people in the House understand the mystery of the Post Office accounts. It is possible to have a cash loss and a commercial profit. That is the position.
Ought not we to assimilate the two things? Why should there be these two sets of figures which only serve to mystify everybody? The hon. Gentleman has referred to the free services given to other Departments, amounting this year to £24 million. Ought not this to be paid for in cash so that the Post Office could have in its cash account a proper reflection of the services which it renders? It might well be, as the hon. Gentleman has said, that those other Departments who get these services without payment might be a little more careful in the way they use them if they had to pay; and some of these resources might be available to the private citizen.
§ Mr. C. I. Orr-Ewing
I made exactly this very point to the right hon. Gentleman the year before last when he was on this side of the House, and he parried with a perfect argument. Has he completely changed his view, or not? Is he trying to make a little political capital, just because he has changed sides?
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
No, I am not trying to make any political capital. I am trying to help the Post Office in this matter.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
That is the question I was waiting for from the hon. Member whose mental processes are so obvious that one can see the wheels 1201 going round. It was agreed before the Election, between the Treasury and the Post Office, that a cash payment should be made. What has happened to it? I invite the hon. Gentleman to tell us. I have accepted that view. It had been my view for some time. I had been working—
§ Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)
This was the view first put by the Estimates Committee of the House in 1950.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
I agree that when the Report of the Estimates Committee was put to the Treasury, the Treasury turned it down. The explanation was made to the Estimates Committee. [HON. MEMBERS: "Manpower."] Manpower was the excuse. But we went into the matter and got this agreement prior to the Election. I want to know what has happened to it. This would make a difference of £24 million in the cash accounts of the Post Office. I do not want to make political capital out of it at all—
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
I agree, why not? I have a perfect right to make political capital out of it. But one occasion when we ought to try to keep politics out is when we are discussing the Post Office. After all, as was suggested by hon. Gentlemen opposite, it is a national undertaking, a public undertaking, and we ought to remember to give to the Post Office that degree of national loyalty which perhaps we may not show on other occasions and in connection with other subjects.
I hope, therefore, that the Assistant Postmaster-General will press his noble Friend on this matter again. Let us see if we can get this mystery of the Post Office accounts cleared up, so that the House may have a statement of the financial affairs of the Post Office which is easily understood; and, at the same time, make all those other Departments pay for their services, so there is no undue waste and, if possible, make available for private citizens some of the resources which are being given—rather lavishly—to all the defence services.
I was proposing to ask the hon. Gentleman some questions about radio links, but as he has said, we are due to have a White Paper on the subject in the near 1202 future, so I will not trouble him any more about that now. I was proposing to ask him about some of the factories. Some of this money will be required for them. I had in mind the Cwmcarn factory, which is waiting for new machinery. What has happened to the tyre re-treading factory? Where does Dollis Hill come into this? I take it they are working on the submarine repeater. Those are some of the things I expected the hon. Member would tell us about rather than giving us the usual figures about a great increase in work in the Post Office.
What the Assistant Postmaster-General has had to say about the telephone position is exceedingly tragic. The year before last I was able to do a substantial amount. I agree that I used up every spare bit of plant available to get the maximum number of telephones installed. The hon. Gentleman apparently has more capital available to him than I had, except that he is giving one-third to defence. I knew we were coming up against this position, but even despite all we were able to do in those circumstances the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends, when they were on this side of the House, were thoroughly dissatisfied, thoroughly scornful about what they regarded as meagre progress.
But today he has said that there will be no new buildings. The building schedules will not start this year. Of the applicants for telephones who are still waiting, who number over 400,000, only one-fifth will be satisfied in the coming year. And I presume that that is a generous estimate, because if one-third of this capital is to be devoted to defence purposes, I cannot see how even that is to be achieved. In the Development Areas we are very short of telephone equipment, as the hon. Gentleman knows. All these new factories have gone up and the Development Areas were neglected for a good many years. I agree that it was because the demand was not there, and it was expected that the demand would go down, but new factories were built.
We have this new development, therefore, and unless we can get new telephone exchanges in those areas I cannot see how many of these factories will be able to carry on their business as effectively and efficiently as they ought. I hope the hon. Gentleman will give much more consideration to this matter and see whether he cannot bring a little pressure to bear 1203 to secure for these Development Areas, where the need for progress with telephones is greater than in any other part of the country, dispensation from the rule of no new buildings.
I agree that the question of sickness rates is serious. I am not going to draw any conclusions from the figures which the hon. Gentleman gave, but I agree that this is a matter which requires very much closer examination. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, or his noble Friend, will take the three trade unions into his confidence. It is up to them, as well as to the Post Office administration, to find the solution. The matter was brought to my attention in the last months of my stay at the Post Office. I had some discussion with the medical officer to see whether we could find some explanation for this rather phenomenal rise in sickness rates which was costing a considerable amount of money. I regret to hear that the position has grown worse and I hope that the unions will play their full part in an investigation to see whether the problem can be overcome.
I do not think that there are any other points I want to raise from the hon. Gentleman's speech. I was glad to hear him—and I hope he speaks on behalf of his right hon. and hon. Friends—express his admiration for the splendid and loyal body of employees who work inside the Post Office. If he is allowed to stay there, then I hope the longer he stays the more will he find not only that his opinion is confirmed but that his affection for the Post Office grows. I hope he will try to give to the Post Office that freedom to plan its own affairs, and to plan ahead, to which it is entitled, and I hope he will bear in mind two or three points I have made today with a view to relieving the Post Office from undue interference from the Treasury.
§ 4.33 p.m.
§ Mr. F. J. Erroll (Altrincham and Sale)
I was interested to hear from the speech of the Assistant Postmaster-General that he is anxious to encourage visits by Members of Parliament to Post Office sorting offices and telephone exchanges, because I think that might help us all to achieve a fuller understanding of the work of the Post Office. I suggest to my hon. Friend that he send the invitations to bodies outside the House as well—to local 1204 authorities and to any other local groups who may be interested. It has seemed to me that, while Post Office officials are keen to show off their work when given a chance to do so, they have all too few opportunities of explaining to the public what are the complications in Post Office sorting offices, for example, and what are the complexities of telephone exchanges.
It would be a great help if there could be more contact between local postmasters and local authorities. The Post Office Advisory Committee may be all right in its way, but it is much too remote a body to be really effective at what I might call the town level. If criticims boil up in a district about slow or late deliveries, there is no local organisation for dealing with such complaints readily. Usually the matter festers in the local newspapers and there is a good deal of discontent before there is any attempt to deal with the problem.
I believe that many Government departments have a much better local public relations system in that respect than have the Post Office. I do not suggest that it is anybody's fault, but it is something to which attention might be given in order to produce a letter carrying and postal delivery service which meets the needs of the individual citizen.
§ Mr. W. R. Williams
If the hon. Gentleman makes inquiries of his local head postmaster, he will find that facilities are always freely given to any public body or any association or, indeed, to any individual or to school children to visit the Post Office and see the telephone exchanges and telegraph offices whenever they like. I should not like it to go out from the House that the Post Office are second to any Government Department in trying to get the public to understand how they work and the amount of work they do and the method of their working. I thought I ought to make that clear.
§ Mr. Erroll
I am not suggesting that there is any unwillingness on the part of the Post Office. I am suggesting that there might be a little more initiative from the senior Post Office officials so that, instead of waiting for applications from public bodies, they might perhaps write and invite them. I should like to see local postmasters taking a part in Rotary Club activities—
§ Mr. Erroll
I am glad to hear that. In some cases they do, but in many other cases they do not. An extension of such activities would be of value.
When I spoke on a similar Bill two years ago, I made some criticism of Post Office delivery services—of late deliveries and early collections—and I am glad to be able to say how much I think these services have improved in the last two years. The late final collection has been of very great benefit—and I believe I wrote to the then Postmaster-General at the time to say how much it would be appreciated. As I was so critical two years ago, I should like to place on record today how much I think that that extension of the service has improved conditions generally.
One thing which has been brought very much to my notice is the amount of trouble caused when a letter is incorrectly addressed. In going round the Manchester sorting office, I saw examples of how quite small slips in writing the address could lead to difficulties. Many complaints which I sent to the right hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards) were about delivery delays. Often the explanation was that the cover was incorrectly addressed and had had to go to another office in the course of transmission.
I wonder whether some machinery could be devised for persuading people to use the correct address on their headed notepaper? One so often comes across cases where the address is incorrect on the cover because the printed address on the top of the notepaper is wrong—and it may be wrong for a variety of reasons. In my constituency, for example, Sale is in Cheshire, but the correct postal address is "Sale, Manchester." Again, at the other end of the division, there is a suburb called Bowdon. Some people prefer to use the address, "Bowdon, Cheshire," whereas I understand that the correct address is "Bowdon, Altrincham."
I suggest that a check could be made at the time the notepaper was being printed—or applications could be invited—to ensure that the correct postal address was shown. Perhaps more publicity could be given in that direction, or perhaps the Post Office could take note where an incorrect address was being used on letters going to one particular place.
1206 They could, again, take the initiative, instead of merely waiting, and could point out to the householder that the wrong address was being used. It would all help to improve the efficiency and speed with which letters are delivered.
I think the former criticisms of counter service have largely disappeared, for there has been a marked improvement in the efficiency and courtesy which one receives at the Post Office, and that is all the more remarkable when one realises the amount of additional work which Post Offices are now called upon to do.
Here again, I should like to see a more progressive attitude in enabling people who do not wish to visit a post office to be able to order their requirements through the post. When one thinks how popular the mail order business is, and that it is only possible by virtue of the Post Office, one would have thought that the Post Office would encourage mail order business for its own sales. It is very rarely necessary to pay a personal visit to, say, the bank; nearly all transactions can be done through the post. One can order books, and many other personal requirements through the post, but to obtain a book of stamps or a registered envelope, or a simple article of that sort, one has to pay a personal visit, often at considerable inconvenience.
§ Mr. Erroll
Because it delays the postman still further. What is wanted is a delivery service which does not involve the postman waiting on the doorstep while the transaction is completed; in other words, to be able to buy postal articles through the post in the same way as one buys many other articles through the post.
I feel that the harmful effects of the restrictions on the telephone service just announced will induce a real sense of frustration in the Post Office engineering staffs. I know that in this matter the Assistant Postmaster-General is not really master of his own organisation; his rate of expansion is determined by the 1207 Government as a whole. I suggest that the Post Office is being held down far more than other organisations.
§ Mr. Erroll
That is hardly correct, because I noticed that there seems to be little difficulty in building all the generating stations the country wants, and they are all nationalised. I wish we could see new exchange construction at even the rate of one-tenth of new power station building. I know that electricity is an essential service, but so, nowadays, is a proper telephone service. I wish that we could see a proportionate amount of capital expenditure on improving the telephone service that we see in the field of electricity supply, and in many other industries. If the oil companies can build home refineries, surely the Post Office could build a few new telephone exchanges. I am sorry that what must be a keen staff should be so held back by this policy of restriction, which is undoubtedly greatly in excess of that applying to other concerns, whether publicly or privately owned.
At the installation end there is undoubtedly a policy of rigidity to be overcome. For example, there is the unnecessary restriction on the length of cable between the fixing point and the hand microphone instrument. I am often told that there is not enough cable. But there is; there is plenty. One can have as long a flex as one likes for a bedside lamp. Why cannot we have as long a flex as we like for the hand microphone set? And why must these hand microphone sets always be black? Before the war they could be in different colours. It would be quite easy to have them in colours again, and it would produce more revenue, too, which ought to be attractive to the Postmaster-General.
Again, why not have a higher standard of workmanship in some of the wiring installations themselves. I am referring particularly to inside wiring; many cases I have seen recently are of a lower standard than would be expected of an ordinary firm of reputable electrical contractors. There have been such things as the flex badly taped off with insulating tape in a very clumsy fashion, or the use of black-headed staples on a white 1208 painted surface. Those are points of detail, but points which ought to be eradicated from a service which is proud of its abilities.
I very much deplore the decision about the telephone directories. It cannot be worth while to stop issuing any more telephone directories except on application. It is bad enough as it is, with only one new issue per annum, but if we are to get a new telephone directory only on application, many householders, who either do not know or do not bother, will be working with out-of-date directories. That can only cause further confusion, and, of course, overloading of directory inquiries throughout the country.
I am sorry, too, to hear that telephone exchange construction is to be stopped for a year. I hope that those which are under construction will be built much more quickly, because I cannot believe that there is any value in going very slowly in the building of telephone exchanges. I am particularly concerned about the one in Sale, which has been building for a year now at a very slow rate of progress. If it is to be built, as I believe it should be, do build it quickly; let us get the equipment there and the exchange into use. A great deal of loss is occasioned by a slow rate of construction, and I believe that quite valuable work can be achieved by doing the job quickly.
I do not want to say any more, except that I have been critical of the Post Office in the past, and I shall not hesitate to be critical again in the future; but I have detected a considerable measure of improvement in the service in the last two years, since I last spoke on this subject, and it is on that note that I wish to conclude my remarks today.
§ 4.46 p.m.
§ Mr. Charles Grey (Durham)
The debate so far has been very limited in character. Before I decided to take part in it, I took the opportunity of looking at the report of the debate in 1950, in which the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Erroll) spoke, and made a very much more critical speech then than he has done today. Whether or not he was playing politics, I do not know.
In my speech I wish to mention two points, which I do not think will be raised by any other hon. Member. First, let me 1209 say this about the speech of the Assistant Postmaster-General. It was very good as far as it went; I enjoyed his detailed account of the ramifications of the Post Office and the work that is done. But I was very disturbed when he skipped over television by saying that a White Paper is to be issued, and when I interjected he could not tell when it would be issued. I therefore take this opportunity of dealing with two points which form a bone of contention between the Postmaster-General and the North-East—and, incidentally, the B.B.C.
Before doing that, I should like to pay my tribute to the B.B.C. and the trade for the part they have played in bringing the television service to its present state. I believe that we were the first country in the world to have a public television service. I think that we would have been leading the world and would have had a tremendous export trade had it not been for the war. However, we must do our best to overcome the difficulty imposed upon us by that disastrous conflict.
I wish to deal with the Government's determination not to reconsider their decision to stop work on the erection of a small power station at Pontop Pike. I think that the money to be voted under this Bill could be used for the purpose. Of course, the reason given has always been—and I have no doubt that when the Assistant Postmaster-General replies he will give it as the reason, as did my right hon. Friend before him—that rearmament must come first. In case I am misunderstood, let me say that I entirely agree with that principle. I entirely agree. We must see to our defences. If I thought for one moment that what I am now advocating would impede our defence effort in any way, I would not advocate that the work should be restarted.
I believe that the expenditure on work at Pontop Pike would be so small when compared with the expenditure on rearmament that it would not hurt our defence effort in the slightest degree, and I want to put two points of proof to the Assistant Postmaster-General. I think he knows that the co-axial cable is already at Durham and, therefore, the largest part of the cost has already been borne. If more than three-parts of the cost has already been met, it seems silly nonsense to have the main essential for the station lying idle and the job not completed.
1210 My second point of proof is the effect the erection of this small power station would have on the electronics industry. I readily admit that the Government are facing a difficulty and I believe this was a realistic point which had to be considered. The erection of this small power station would, naturally, mean that more people would want to buy more television sets. But the Government have met that difficulty in another way. Whether that way is right or wrong I am not prepared to argue. If we argued about the principle we should be ruled out of order probably, but what has been done is an established fact. The Government's new policy on hire purchase has had a tremendous effect on the demand for and sale of television sets. One can go anywhere and see a colossal number of television sets on sale. The demand for them has considerably lessened.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Colonel Sir Charles MacAndrew)
I have allowed a good deal of latitude, but there is nothing about television in the Bill—only postal, telegraph and telephone systems.
§ Mr. Edward Davies
Further to that point. Are we to understand that, according to your Ruling, no discussion of television is permissible under this Bill? Would it not be possible out of money raised by the Department for some expenditure to be made on television apparatus, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Durham (Mr. Grey) mentioned?
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
That might be so and I therefore allowed a good deal of latitude, but the hon. Member will see that the capital is… for the development of postal, telegraph and telephone systems …and I think that television goes well beyond that.
§ Mr. Davies
Some of us expected the Assistant Postmaster-General to say something on that subject but he said that he was restraining himself today because there was to be a further debate, 1211 not because of technicalities or lack of competence in the Bill. With respect, some of us who have considered the Bill, and, I think, the Minister too, take a rather different view from that which you have expressed.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
The capital provided for in the Bill enables the Post Office to provide any radio and cable links for the provision of television as well as certain buildings. It seems to me that up to that point, anyhow, it is in order to discuss television in so far as it is related to the provision of facilities by the Post Office.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
That seems to me a little indirect and I was quite generous in what I allowed, but the Bill really only provides for postal, telegraph and telephone systems.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
I think that the difference comes when one looks at the Clauses of the Bill. In any case, I will not rule very strictly, though I do not think the subject is really in order.
§ Mr. Grey
I was referring to the hire purchase system. There is no doubt that it will be the poorer people who will be hit by an alteration to the system, because of their inability to carry out the new terms. I ask the Assistant Postmaster-General to take note of the points I have made because I believe the work could be carried out without throwing any additional weight on the electronics industry and would give existing owners of television sets much fairer value for their money and a much better picture.
If my efforts fail now—and I have been trying to have something done since 1948—will the hon. Gentleman give an assurance that we stand high on the priority list and that when the position becomes easier we will not receive the same treatment in the case of television as we have had over the shared wavelength with Northern Ireland? To say that we have 1212 not had good treatment in that connection is only to put it mildly.
The history of the matter goes back to 1945 when the B.B.C. started to operate on a new frequency transmitter for Northern Ireland. The B.B.C. were fair enough to admit that they deplored the necessity for it and they explained that the wavelength would only be shared until a new wavelength could be secured. They further admitted that the service would be less satisfactory and that the volume would be reduced and also that it would be necessary for the Northern Ireland transmitter and the Stagshawe transmitter always to transmit the same programme. It was firmly stated at the time that the B.B.C. would see that the programme content would be shared.
These prophecies were right in only two aspects. We certainly did have a less satisfactory service, and Northern Ireland and Stagshawe always transmit the same programme; but the B.B.C.'s idea of a shared programme was simply shocking. For 12 months, day after day and month after month, we had nothing but Northern Ireland programmes transmitted to us. In view of the comments at that time, the B.B.C. ought to have seen that something was done about it, though how it was thought about in the first place I fail to understand.
Our area has ten times more licensed listeners than Northern Ireland has, but despite that we were always subject to the B.B.C. Northern Ireland headquarters. They alone decided what should be transmitted. Even when the Newcastle studio produced a local programme, they had no authority for seeing that it went on the air in Tyneside. One could also only expect poor quality transmission. Sometimes the arrangements meant that a programme from this country was sent by line and cable to Belfast and then back again to Stagshawe.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
I really think that this is going beyond the Bill. The B.B.C. works on a charter; it does not work under the Post Office.
§ Mr. Grey
Well, I am just finishing that point, Mr. Deputy-Speaker.
I should like to conclude on this point. Time and time again the Assistant Postmaster-General has stated that the only way in which this problem can be overcome is by the introduction of very 1213 high frequency. But this cannot be done so long as capital expenditure is to be restricted. That can be a long way ahead; and I should like to ask the Assistant Postmaster-General whether there could not be a re-allocation of wavelengths in this country, or, better still, whether Stagshawe could not operate from 434 metres, thus giving us a wavelength which would give a measure of satisfaction to those of us in the North-East and also to the people in Northern Ireland who are just as disgusted with the present arrangement as we are.
§ 5.1 p.m.
§ Mr. Kenneth Thompson (Liverpool, Walton)
Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I shall try to raise two or three points, at least two of which I can guarantee will be within the very tolerant rules of order that you have allowed so far, and as to the other one I must just hope for the best.
I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General on the rare skill with which he has gathered together the reins of the Department, which he now plays so large a part in conducting. I was as interested as my hon. Friends were, I believe, to hear of some of the things for which the Department takes responsibility. I can imagine the great delight which my hon. Friend must have experienced when he opened whatever document it was which keeps these things properly docketed and discovered that he could send a cow by post. I wondered for a time whether his researches had carried him far enough to enable him to tell the House when the last cow was sent in this manner and whether it arrived safely at its destination. I am sure it must have done, otherwise there would have been many complaints from the public before now.
I should like to congratulate those Members of the Post Office and telephone staffs in my constituency, and generally in the City of Liverpool, for the work that they are doing and the way in which they are doing it. It is not always the lot of a public representative, either local or national, to come into contact with public officials occupying difficult and complicated jobs and to find that they are able to do those jobs very largely to the satisfaction of the public and at the same time to deal with public representatives in a sympathetic and interested manner as if they really cared about the problems 1214 that they have to deal with. It has been my happy experience to discover that Post Office officials in the Merseyside area invariably discharge their duties in this way, and I am sure in other areas, too.
May I raise one point which is a very real difficulty in the part of the City of Liverpool that I represent, and that is the very old complaint respecting the telephone service? I have in my constituency a number of constituents who are waiting for telephones—a very common experience in all parts of the country. Some of them have been waiting for four or five years.
The complaints which reach me are that those who have been waiting this long time are far from satisfied that newcomers to the telephone service are the people who should properly be provided with the service before they are. In other words, they are not quite satisfied that the system of priorities of the order of satisfaction of demand is being rigidly adhered to. While my hon. Friend clearly cannot give the names and dates in respect of applications for the telephone service, I hope that he will be able to give the House an assurance that proper regard is paid to the dates on which people apply when connecting them up with the telephone service.
In my constituency, as in the constituency of one of my hon. Friends who spoke a moment ago, a telephone exchange is being built and has been in course of erection for a very long time. As far as I can see, it will be building for a very long time yet. I very much hope that something will be done as a result of the provisions of this Bill to enable that telephone exchange to be completed in a reasonably short time, satisfying both those who already have the telephone service and hope for it to improve, and those who are on the waiting list.
In my constituency, not only is there a telephone exchange under construction, but we have every year another very significant event. A horse race is run, which is known throughout the civilised world as the Grand National Steeplechase. Customarily a commentary on this Grand National Steeplechase has been broadcast to the world by means of the use of Post Office lines which are used by the B.B.C. I hope with your tolerance, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to explain how near I am coming 1215 to the point of order and, in fact, how nearly I am escaping your disapproval. A commentary on this race is normally broadcast every year. This year the arrangement by which the broadcast reaches the public has broken down, because it has not been possible to satisfy the promoters of the race that such copyright as may properly be theirs can be preserved.
§ Mr. Thompson
I am hoping to avoid that. I am trying to draw your attention to the conditions which the Postmaster-General prints on the licence which he issues in return for a fee paid. I hope you do not think it presumptuous of me, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I really am trying to show where the responsibility for this failure lies.
The Postmaster-General provides to sound listeners and television viewers a licence which contains these words:The licensee shall not without the consent in writing of the Postmaster-General connect the apparatus with any house, flat or other premises occupied by any person other than himself or a member of his family and/or domestic servants, or allow the same to be so connected.My point is this. Because the Postmaster-General does not insist on the observation of that regulation, there have been abuses of the broadcast. The commentary has been rediffused by means of instruments improperly connected in contravention of this regulation, as a result of which the promoters of any given sporting event—in this particular case the promoters of the Grand National—have felt themselves compelled to say "If the Postmaster-General allows these rediffusions to go on in this way to our detriment, we must insist that the commentary shall not be; broadcast at all."
It seems to me that it is a very great pity if 20 million or 30 million people who want to listen to this broadcast are denied the pleasure and privilege of doing so because of the failure of the Postmaster-General to put into operation his own regulations. I very much hope that when he is exercising what he himself described as his duty in being responsible for preventing evasions of the wireless licence, he will bear in mind that, without being repressive in any way, he can benefit the general public at large to a considerable 1216 extent by putting his own regulations in order.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
The hon. Gentleman is going beyond the responsibilty of the Postmaster-General. It is not the Postmaster-General who stops the broadcast of the Grand National.
§ Mr. Thompson
No, Sir. I will pursue the point no further, having made my protest. I am deeply indebted to the House for the courtesy with which I have been heard, and I should like to say to my hon. Friend that whether or not the responsibility can be properly attributed to him, neither I nor the general public bear him any ill will whatever.
§ 5.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Charles Royle (Salford, West)
I wish to follow the hon. Member for Walton (Mr. K. Thompson) to the extent that I, too, wish to raise a constituency point. I apologise to the Assistant Postmaster-General for doing so without giving him any notice. If he is not able to give me any reply later in the debate, I hope that he will be able to assure me that he will send me a reply, if only by post. If he does reply by post, I hope that the delivery of the letter will be very much quicker than in the cases which I wish to draw to his attention.
I refer to the terrible case of the City of Salford. Salford, in close proximity to Manchester, has become rather swallowed up by that city as far as its postal and telephone services are concerned. For a period of probably 20 years, predecessors of mine in this House have raised this question with the Post Office to see if some better arrangements could be made. It is a fact that we have no real general post office in a city of 178,000 inhabitants. In that city we have the postal districts, Manchester 5, Manchester 6, Manchester 7 and Manchester 8. It is a bad thing for the pride of a city of that size and standing, which is rendering tremendous service to the community and the country by its industries, that it has no postal district of its own but is swallowed up by a larger city on the other side of the River Erwell.
As far as the telephone service is concerned, there is no Salford exchange. There are five exchanges serving the City of Salford, and three of those exchanges have names of localities outside the city. For example, there is Eccles; there is Blackfriars and Trafford Park, all of 1217 which are districts not actually inside the City of Salford. The result is that there is constantly a general mix-up of subscribers trying to get through to Salford industrial firms. Trafford Park has a huge industrial area of its own, and people are inclined to be completely confused when they find they have to ring up a Trafford Park number in order to get through to a Salford firm.
I should like to tell the Assistant Postmaster-General about postal trouble and delay in delivery. By virtue of the fact that we have no general post office of our own, we are finding—
§ Mr. W. R. Williams
What possible difficulties can arise from the simple fact that Salford is a postal district without a head office of its own? From my knowledge of the postal arrangements, I cannot see what possible difficulty with regard to circulation can arise from that fact.
§ Mr. Royle
I have in my hand a letter from a firm in my constituency, complaining that a parcel of samples posted on Tuesday afternoon was not actually delivered until Friday morning to an address half a mile away, in another postal district of Manchester.
We in this great city have some civic pride, and we deplore the fact that we are dependent upon the postal work of a city which, though in close proximity to us, has nothing like our historical standing in the county. I apologise to the House for keeping it even for five minutes on a purely constituency question; but this matter is of vital importance to the city I have the honour to represent, and I hope my complaint will be taken seriously and the whole thing looked at fully. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will let me have a reply, if not today, at some future date.
§ 5.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Beverley Baxter (Southgate)
I should first like to apologise to the Assistant Postmaster-General for not having been here for his speech. I was presiding over a public luncheon where two men were speaking on the answer to Russia. I sometimes think that getting the answer to Russia is about as easy as an answer to a toll call on our telephone system.
I was particularly anxious to hear the Assistant Postmaster-General speak because he represents the constituency 1218 next to mine—Hornsey. In other words, to reverse the call, his constituency adjoins the most delightful and intelligent constituency in the whole of London—Southgate.
§ Mr. Baxter
London boasts of having Southgate. I quite agree that it is technically in Middlesex, but it is in the London Telephone Directory, I had hoped to see my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General in the Colonial Office instead of the Post Office; but it is the custom in politics to put men into ministerial posts not because of their experience but because they are thought to be the right men. But having listened for 16 or 17 years to one Postmaster-General after another, it does not seem to matter very much from which side they speak.
It rather reminds me of the time when, during the war, Sir Archibald Sinclair was appointed Secretary of State for Air. When he made his first speech as a Minister he said, "When I took over this office I found that what was going on was too many people trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. I am glad to see that since I took charge we are doing the very opposite." I feel that these two Ministerial representatives are doing very much the same thing.
Even if the Post Office is State-controlled, there must be some relation between revenue and expenditure. Ours is the only system in the world where one can take half an hour or ten seconds over a telephone call for the same cost. Would it not be possible to conduct a publicity campaign to make women end their conversations on the telephone when they have said all that they have to say? The wastage of time on the telephone by women is a disgrace to the State and it should be curbed.
Another thing is the official attitude towards the telephone. I have constituents who have to earn their livings as businessmen who cannot get private telephones. I know of one man who controls three businesses and who cannot get a telephone in his house or, if he does, can only get a party line. I was born in Canada and I am old enough to remember the arrival of the telephone, when 1219 there were four or five subscribers on a party line, and listening to the neighbours was part of Canadian life. Years have passed, progress assails the world, and once more we have party lines in this country. It is disgraceful.
The telephone is an instrument of necessity and efficiency. I think my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General should look into the matter and compare it with what happens in America. The Americans, of course, are rather backward people. They have not learned the blessings of State control. The telephone has to pay, the telegrams have to pay, and so they say, "How is it going to pay? We must get more people to telephone and telegraph more often."
§ Mr. Wallace
Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House that the price for a local telephone call in the United States has been increased to 8½d.?
§ Mr. Baxter
Personally, if I am in a hurry for a telephone call I do not care what it costs. The other night at 11.30 I wanted to send a telegram. It was impossible to get any reply. There may, of course, have been pressure on the line. Eventually, I asked for assistance, and even then I could not get a reply. After half an hour I gave it up.
I will tell the House again how I finished "Paradise Lost." I never could finish it until I put it beside my telephone. By dialling TOL and listening to that lovely drowsy, droning sound, I finished it in two weeks. Hardly ever was I interrupted after picking up the book.
The whole thing is that telegrams, cables, and telephones are part of the modern efficiency of life. The Americans say that an Englishman picks up the telephone as if he expects it to explode. It could not do anything so dynamic as that.
I think I have said everything I want to say except about television. This is going very close to being out of order, but the matter has been raised. I want to pay a tribute to television in this country. I have seen American television with all its heavy commercialisation and with all the big money that is spent on it. In my opinion the television covering of the funeral of King George VI was beyond praise, especially when compared with the unfortunate 1220 B.B.C. whose tribute consisted of going off the air after the announcement of the King's death. Television in this country is not sufficiently acknowledged. Its programmes today, though starved of money, are better on average than American programmes.
I am grateful, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that you have not discovered me to be out of order on this occasion, which is unusual, but if I leave in my hon. Friend's mind the idea that the expenditure on and the efficiency of the telephone and telegraph are part of the necessities of modern life, I shall be content.
§ 5.24 p.m.
§ Mr. J. Hall (Gateshead)
I wish to support what has been said by the hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Grey) regarding the strong grievance which the people of the North-East Coast have against the Post Office for the lack of television service in that part of the country. There is a genuine feeling that the people of this thickly populated area are not receiving the same treatment in the provision of television as that accorded to those in the rest of the United Kingdom.
In order to prove that there is an acute feeling on this matter, may I say that quite recently a strong deputation met the Postmaster-General in order to ask him to give favourable consideration to the question of proceeding with the construction of the low-power television transmitter at Pontop Pike. That deputation consisted of no less than 34 representatives from local authorities. Great county boroughs like Newcastle, Sunderland, Gateshead, South Shields, Darlington and the Hartlepools, along with urban and rural district councils of the counties of Durham and Northumberland had first of all a conference to ventilate this grievance, and the deputation was the outcome of that conference.
When I say that the deputation was an important one, I am suggesting that it is really important when voicing the needs of an area with a population of more than 2½ million. There are nearly 300,000 inhabitants in the City of Newcastle, approximately 180,000 in Sunderland, 125,000 in Gateshead, 110,000 in South Shields. 80,000 in Darlington and 70,000 in the Hartlepools, without counting the miners, the transport workers, and other important classes of workpeople and their wives and children in the counties of 1221 Durham and Northumberland. They all live in this extremely busy industrial area, and they are deprived from seeing a television programme.
The people of Durham and Northumberland played an important part in the two world wars. They then worked without stint, and they have done so since in the great production drive towards prosperity. We have seen comparatively few industrial disputes in that area both during the war and in the post-war period of strain and difficulty. It seems strange that when it comes to providing an amenity which is enjoyed by the vast majority of the people of this country, the North-East which has done so much for our survival should be despised and neglected by both the past and present Postmasters-General. This sense of grievance is all the more bitter because of the feeling that the people of Northumberland and Durham are always the last to be considered when it is a question of providing any service for the North-East Coast.
We have to share a wavelength with Northern Ireland. Whilst we have the highest respect for the people of Northern Ireland, we do not like playing second fiddle to a region which has less than half the number of subscribers of the North-East Coast. While Northern Ireland has 75 per cent. of the programme with 204,000 subscribers, we get only 25 per cent. with 480,000 subscribers. It is the same in the big sporting events; in football, boxing and tennis championships, the North-East is out of the picture.
The cost of constructing the Pontop Pike transmitter is only a matter of £150,000, which is a very small proportion of the amount mentioned in the estimate of expenditure under the Bill. The site of the station is on the direct line of the G.P.O. radio link with the Kirk O'Shotts. The booster station which passes on the programmes to Scotland is constructed on Pontop Pike, itself within 200 yards of the proposed transmitter to serve the two counties. There is only the additional cost of the construction of the transmitter and a short cable length in order to put this service into effect for the people of the North-East.
If the Postmaster-General would reconsider the matter and allow this project to go forward, I believe he would 1222 be rewarded by knowing that he would be giving enormous satisfaction to a large number of people. He would also be providing wider facilities for leisure and recreation. In that way we should save more of the national income than is used at present in other leisure-time activities. I hope that he will reconsider the project.
§ 5.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Gerald Williams (Tonbridge)
I listened with great interest to the speech of the Assistant Postmaster-General. When he sat down I was full of dismay and disappointment. I know quite well that we have to cut down on building not only in the Post Office but in many other Departments, but my hon. Friend told us that he just could not do anything to help improve the supply of telephones or their quicker installation. It seems almost defeatist that he should give such a gloomy picture.
We are in an extremely difficulty economic period at present. If a farmer is doing badly and he is told that he cannot have any more tractors, the result is that he does even worse. The Government are asking us, all day and every day, to be more efficient and to produce more. To do this we must have good staff, up to date offices, efficient transport and, above all, plenty of telephones. In the United States, where telephones are abundant, it is no exaggeration to say that when one lifts up the receiver there is never a delay before an answer is given. From New York one can get straight through to Detroit, Chicago or San Francisco. That is the ideal at which we should aim.
If we could get to that standard, the time saved would represent millions of pounds. Not only should we save time, but we should preserve tempers and morale as well. In my constituency we are lucky. At Tonbridge Wells we have a new telephone exchange which is working extremely well. I note that the former Postmaster-General is taking credit for that. If it is due to him I will certainly acknowledge it.
When I am in London I sometimes have to dial "TOL."I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Southgate (Mr. Baxter) say that he sometimes dialled TOL, and had to give up after half an hour. I do not think that he is given to exaggeration. Other people have had 1223 the same experience. The result is that they stop trying and probably the business is not done. Then there is not only a loss to them but to the country and to production as a whole. Also the Post Office loses revenue which it would have got if it did not take so long to answer these calls.
I wish to say a few words in praise of the courtesy of our operators. We find that in difficult circumstances they are extremely good; but our own tempers when we have been dialling for two or three minutes are not always good. We tax the courtesy of the operators when we are rude to them and we make it difficult for them to maintain their good manners. This unnecessary wait causes great inconvenience to an enormous number of subscribers.
When we are hard pressed to produce more, as we are now, we must use more modern inventions. In the mines we must have modern machinery to produce more coal. If we are to produce plastics or motorcars for export we must have up to date machinery. That is why I believe that under this Bill we are not spending enough money. It is estimated that £40 million will be spent in 1952–53. I know that this is a difficult time at which to suggest more expenditure, but I believe that if we spent another £10 million we could save £50 million in a short time. It is for that reason only that I say that we are not spending nearly enough to make our telephone system efficient.
If we could bring it even into close proximity to the American service, the Assistant Postmaster-General and his noble Friend would earn our everlasting gratitude. I suggest that it would be an economic proposition to increase the supply of telephones. If we are short of telephones, business has to be done in roundabout ways under difficult circumstances, and time and money are wasted. Therefore, for the same reason of economy, I urge the Assistant Postmaster-General to spend more money on supplies as well as on the service.
My last point is on the question of those most unpopular party lines. Those who have had no experience of party lines have no idea how frustrating they are. My hon. Friend the Member for Southgate told us of his experience in Canada. If the Postmaster-General had 1224 to share a line with the Minister of Education he would find it impossible. If the Patronage Secretary had to share a line with the Chief Opposition Whip, that really would be a party line. I know that would not happen, but many hon. Members do not realise how impossible it is to carry on business on a party line. In the circumstances I have described, those concerned could not carry on business.
§ Mr. Gammans
No one is asked to carry on business on party lines. Only residential subscribers are asked to share party lines.
§ Mr. Williams
Yes, but in private enterprise many people do business out of hours. Many hon. Members of this House do a large amount of their business at home at night. I urge the hon. Gentleman, for economic reasons, not only to improve the service and the supply of telephones, but to get rid of the party lines. In that way, we should save money and time and we should increase our exports. Not only would the Post Office receive more revenue but the production of the country would be materially increased.
§ 5.38 p.m.
§ Mr. Harry Wallace (Walthamstow, East)
I should like to thank the Assistant Postmaster-General for his statement this afternoon. I could not go so far as to give a welcome to this Bill but for the fact that it provides money for development. I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman's speech, and I could not help but feel that we faced the position that we raise money and then one-third goes to defence and two-thirds, spread over two years, goes to the Post Office. I think that the total is about £98 million, and I suggest that this is an unfair way of meeting the bill for defence.
I do not agree that Postmaster-Generals come and go and that there is really no difference between them. I well remember one Postmaster-General, who was a distinguished Member of the party opposite, who had something to say about the Post Office staff. I think that he was a bad controller of staff—
§ Mr. Wallace
I have a very long memory. I remember the days when the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Sir W. Darling) and I were in the same movement. 1225 I remember another Postmaster-General who at last recognised the existence of trade unions—and he did not come from the party opposite. It does make a difference, and I think that if my right hon. Friend who was Postmaster-General had remained in office we should have got something done about these commercial accounts. I say that not out of discourtesy to the Assistant Postmaster-General or the present Postmaster-General. We shall try again on that matter later.
I must express my great appreciation of the words used by the Assistant Postmaster-General in regard to the loyalty of the men and women who serve in the Post Office—an industry which has been nationalised for many years. I suggest to hon. Members opposite that in the other nationalised industries we shall in the end have the same personal loyalty to those industries that we have in the Post Office to that industry; and in that connection I think the Post Office has much to offer to those who are willing to learn. I was glad to hear the hon. Gentleman's tribute to the Post Office trade unions and their loyalty to the public service—which, indeed, is a fact.
I think the Assistant Postmaster-General will agree that the trade unions have faced difficult questions with his administration, have accepted decisions which implied great responsibility, and have loyally stood by their word. I do hope, when we deal with the recognition of the Post Office trade unions, that that loyalty, and that sense of responsibility to the public and to the administration, will not be forgotten. It really is too bad that those who break away from agreements should be rewarded by recognition of their desertion. I hope that during the hon. Gentleman's term of office we shall see that system ended. I know that consultations are going on. I also know the hon. Gentleman has a difficult problem. I wish him well, but I do hope that we shall have a more rational system in the Post Office.
There was a reference to wages. Of course, it is true that the wages of Post Office servants have gone up—though not, in their opinion, as much as they should have. I think it true to say that wages have gone up only after prices have gone up. I wish I could feel sure, after listening to the statement of the 1226 Chancellor of the Exchequer, that prices are not going up still further. Anyhow, I am quite convinced that we may yet have to face even further wage claims. Personally, as the production of the country increases, I welcome wage claims, because I wish to see that greater production reflected in the standard of living of those who produce it. I do not think that there is any likelihood of lower costs of labour.
My right hon. Friend referred to Post Office charges containing an element of taxation—of tribute to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. That is true. I am not quite sure that I heard the Assistant Postmaster-General correctly, but I rather gathered that he said today that the cost of handling a letter was the price charged to the public—2½d. I think I am correct in saying that when the charge was increased from 1½d. to 2½d. in the early days of the war it definitely contained an element of taxation—of revenue for the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I may be wrong, but I still feel that that element of taxation is still there.
Quite frankly, I do not like the Chancellor of the Exchequer's coming to this House to tell us Post Office charges are to be increased. I want to see more freedom for the Postmaster-General within the Post Office. I really think it would better if the Postmaster-General were a Member of this House. I say so without wishing to be discourteous to the Postmaster-General or to the Assistant Postmaster-General; but I do not like the Postmaster-General's being in another place.
I repeat again what I have asked for before—a restoration of the Postmaster-General's annual report, which ceased in 1917. My right hon. Friend once misled me by stating that if I went to the Vote Office I could get it. He knocked me for six by telling me that, but I inquired and I found that I was, after all, quite right—that it had not appeared since 1917. I should be glad to show the Assistant Postmaster-General a copy of the last report, for I have possession of one. I hope that he will consider the question of giving the House comprehensive annual reports so that we shall not have to turn to several documents to see exactly what is happening in the Post Office.
1227 With regard to the commercial accounts, and as I do not want to take up too much time, I shall not say anything more than that I share the view expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House that the other Departments which receive service from the Post Office should pay for it. They receive £24 million worth of service without payment, if I read the commercial accounts correctly.
What is the basis of the calculation of the £24 million, and how does it compare with the value of the residential telephone services? I have a residential telephone. I do not know whether I should be described as in private enterprise or public enterprise on the basis of my business hours, but I know that that telephone is always working at any time of the day. I should like to know the basis of that calculation. The Service Departments, for example, receive services to the value of millions.
I really think that had my right hon. Friend been at the Post Office, and if that had been the attitude of the Treasury then, something would have been accomplished by now, though I am not suggesting for one moment that the Assistant Postmaster-General does not share our view. If my memory serves me aright, I rather think he does. If he is going to take up this matter with the Treasury, I wish him success. I believe he will receive support from all quarters of the House on such an issue.
In the comprehensive statement which the hon. Gentleman made he made no reference to Dollis Hill. I mention this because I regard Dollis Hill as an important branch of the service. I think there was a suggestion made that, in connection with the shared telephone service, experiments were being carried out at Dollis Hill to see that when one subscriber was using the telephone the other was completely cut off. It would be quite possible, I think, for some people to have an entertaining afternoon by picking up their receivers listening to what goes on on their neighbours' lines. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will say whether those experiments are being carried out at Dollis Hill. I think my right hon. Friend once indicated that they were being made there.
1228 With regard to the telephone service, I think 200,000 lines were connected to the public service over the year. If I understood the statement correctly, we are not going to get anything like that, and, according to the commercial accounts, there are over half a million applicants waiting to be connected to the service. On that basis, the outlook is pretty desperate. I may be wrong here, but I fear that these increased charges for the telephone service will force people to drop their demands or to give up the telephone and that would be very unkind, because I agree with those hon. Members who have suggested that the telephone is really a necessity.
I have in my constituency a number of ex-Service men, some of them disabled, who really can only earn their livelihood by the use of the telephone, and who are now worried about the effect of these charges on their small businesses. For others who are still waiting, the situation will be desperate, and I express the hope that hon. Members will not accept this position that we are to have stagnation in the development of the telephone service. I hope we shall find some ways and means of indicating to the Government that we do not subscribe to this policy.
My next point is in reference to buildings. I think it is deplorable that the Assistant Postmaster-General finds himself in the position in which he is to have no money for buildings. Hon. Members have spoken about efficiency, and about the goodwill and co-operation of labour, but bad buildings, bad ventilation, bad lighting and bad lay-out of offices are all factors affecting the health and happiness of the staff. I hope that the Assistant Postmaster-General is not going to accept this standstill in connection with these buildings, and I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will be ready to support him in any effort to get the Government to review this policy. My right hon. Friend said that this decision, in the end, would mean lost opportunities and heavy costs in the future, and we had the experience after the First World War when millions of pounds were lost because head postmasters were deprived of using their initiative to get sites and develop new buildings. This decision should be reviewed.
I feel that I ought, perhaps, to say a word about this question of sickness. 1229 Apparently, I did not make myself quite clear. In the Post Office, they have long scales of pay, and those who come into the service, it may be at 30 years of age and even more, married men with families, have to begin at the bottom of the scale. These are difficult days for people on low incomes, and I should like to see the medical officers of the Post Office go into this question of sickness with the unions and the administration in order to see how far these low wages paid at the beginning and in the early days of service are making a contribution to this increased average sickness.
The point I want to bring out is this. When I spoke some 18 months ago, I instanced several offices where the labour turnover and resignations of staff employed in the Post Office were very high. In other words, when I served in Manchester one resignation a year was enough to startle the whole service, but, from the figures which I have, the rate of resignation appears to be very high, while there are difficulties in recruiting.
It is obvious that, if the staff is short by 50 people, and the services have to be maintained and are, in fact, maintained, extra hours have to be worked, and, on the question of extra hours, there is a limit to what one can do by way of overtime. I do not say that that may be the factor today, but I think it has been one of the factors in the past. Anyhow, I hope that the medical officers, the administration and the unions will get together, as they often do, in their Whitley Committee, Working Committee or study groups, and, if they do, I am sure the unions will give every assistance in finding out the real causes of this increased sickness rate.
I am glad to see that the Assistant Postmaster-General made it clear that we are not going back to some of the old conditions and old services. In my time, I did a midnight collection, and it was not a very happy experience. I was therefore glad to hear the hon. Gentleman say that there is no hope of that being restored.
The Minister also said, in opening his speech, that it was now possible for the Post Office to deliver a cow. I know that, when I was in Manchester, I had to take a lady around the shops in Manchester while she did her shopping, and that was not a very pleasant experience, and somewhat out of my line, although I have 1230 had more experience of it since then. My hon. Friend behind me reminds me that, when I was in the service of the union, there was a bull in Scotland called "Lock of Lockerbie," on account of which we could neither collect nor deliver letters, because it chased the postman, the postmaster and the police. What happened to that bull I do not know, but I am glad to have the Minister's tribute to the loyalty of the staff and the efficiency of the administration and the services generally.
While the Minister holds his present office, I am sure he will find the experience useful, and I hope it will be a happy one. I also hope that he will see a further development of the good relations between the staff and the administration, as well as a further improvement in the services to the public. I wish the hon. Gentleman well, but, when he comes to deal with this question of the recognition of trade unions, I hope he will accept responsibility for the administration, just as those outside shoulder their joint responsibilities.
I would finish with this word, though not all hon. Members will agree with me. I think that the late Sir Kingsley Wood was a great Postmaster-General, and that the hon. Gentleman has an excellent example there, if he will but follow it.
§ 5.58 p.m.
§ Sir William Darling (Edinburgh, South)
I am afraid that I cannot emulate the air of dignity and paternalism towards the Post Office of which the hon. Member for Walthamstow, East (Mr. Wallace), has just given us such an excellent example. The Post Office is the favourite child of those who believe in the collectivist system, but this is a debate on a Bill to provide for further money for the development of the Post Office, and I do not think that we can content ourselves with merely repeating agreeable platitudes about the admirable character of this long-established and traditional institution.
I have made myself familiar with the accounts, and it is not apparent in this debate so far that this institution, over the last 25 years, at any rate in one of its most important departments, has been suffering losses for successive years. I refer to the telegraph accounts, in which, in 1947, there was a loss of £1,900,000. Down the years to the present day, it has 1231 continued to make losses and the latest figure is £4,193,000.
During these years these losses have reached the most majestic proportions, and have never fallen below £1,500,000. During the period of the Labour Government, in 1949–50, the loss on this department was £4,405,000. We ought to bear in mind in this debate that for 25 years this particular department has shown these losses, which have sometimes been round about £1 million and sometimes a very great deal more.
What is the Post Office but a series of multiple shops—a monopoly if ever there was one—handling certain selected services in its own way? They are the only shopkeepers in the United Kingdom whose staff have to be protected from the public by a wire screen. In any other shops, the staff apparently can control the public if they desire to do so, but the Postmaster-General has quite properly to protect the staff from the abuse or opposition which the public may offer.
This opposition is apparently lesser known in the banks. There, there is usually a glazed glass screen and a very wide counter over which persons cannot hope to vault. In a nationalised railway booking office there is a small pigeon hole through which the beak of the clerk barely emerges. This, to me, has some very considerable significance.
When I look at the revenue accounts—if, in these purist days one may look at them—I see that Her Majesty's Government drew £750,000 from pool revenue alone. While casting a Calvanistic eye on these evildoers, we must recognise the advantages which the pools apparently produce for our purposes. I notice the astonishing figure of .02 per cent. is all that the General Post Office raises out of advertising. It is not for me to put forward claims for advertising, but if any other businessman possessed these thousands of branches and tens of thousands of employees and the resources they have for presenting their wares to the public, surely the advertising revenue would be very much greater than .02 per cent. of the total revenue. It is a little better this year than it was.
I have tried to find in the accounts what were the sales of small books of assorted stamps, but I cannot find the information. It seems to me that there 1232 is a considerable field there for increasing revenue. The Postmaster-General is placing a restriction on the issue of telephone directories. They were a useful medium of advertising and their restriction must limit the amount of advertising revenue he collects. I do not know any reason why he cannot explore these possibilities of getting additional revenue.
I would like to refer to the speech of the right hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards), who announced a new theory about Treasury control. This seems to me to be the beginning of a new school of economics domiciled in Wales. In these Ebbw Vale economics there is no control over any of the Government's spending Departments or, indeed, of the Government earning Departments. There is a new attack developing against Treasury control and against Treasury officials. I have seen Treasury officials. They have noses and some are baldheaded, like the right hon. Gentleman. They are, however, all too human and this talk about Treasury officials seems to be almost as ignorant as it is unkind. These are the men and women to whom the taxpayer looks to look after his interests.
Those who are opposed to the withdrawing of all controls but want to remove the control of the Treasury seem to be in a unique position, in which I do not envy them. We on this side of the House are anxious to remove controls, but Her Majesty's Opposition apparently have only one control which they want to remove and it is a desire shared by burglars and other sorts of depredators. The control which they want to remove is the control of the purse.
I think that this is a new form of economics which inspired the eloquent advocacy of the right hon. Member for Caerphilly is one which we should watch with care. To suggest that the Treasury is the enemy of the people is fallacious. Such poor saving as there is in this overtaxed and overburdened community is due to the efforts of the Treasury in preventing Departments from spending unwisely.
I am happy to find myself in agreement with my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, East, who has for so many years given his services to the Post Office and still does. I am in agreement with 1233 him over £24 million. It is fantastic that the Post Office should not render an account to each Department for its service. The suggestion was that it would take a great deal of manpower. After all, how many Government Departments are there? There are too many, I agree, but not more than 10 or 12, and 10 or 12 annual accounts should not be beyond the present resources of the Post Office, without adding largely to the staff. If the charge was put through as it should be, Ministries of the Crown would doubtless get into the habit of saying to their staff, "Do not phone; a letter costs less," and in that way a very considerable amount of public saving would result.
I support the right hon. Member for Caerphilly in his suggestion that the time has come—it comes every now and then—to look again at the constitution and management of this remarkable institution. Another Bridgeman Committee may not he out of place. The right hon. Gentleman may not be as happy as I am in agreeing with him. Has this monopoly been justified? Has not the considerable success of the Hull telephone service, or the great Bell service in the United States, thrown a lurid light on the competence or otherwise of Her Majesty's Post Office monopoly to deal with letters, telephones and telegrams? Is this a static society in which we live? Have the Labour Party done right in putting this forward as the ideal method of social and economic organisation? I am not inclined to think so.
I do not believe that this is an adequate public service. The public expect a great deal from it, and it falls short in many directions. The suggestion that we should abandon Treasury control and allow the present managers of the Post Office to act, no matter whether their business pays or does not pay, is one to which I cannot subscribe. I hope that the Postmaster-General and the Assistant Postmaster-General will take a commercial view of the General Post Office, because nothing would give more pride to those who carry out this great service than to know that they were not dependent on the State and that they paid their way.
§ 6.7 p.m.
§ Mr. W. R. Williams (Droylsden)
I am sorry that the few points which I want to put forward do not follow quite the same direction as those suggested by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Sir W. Darling). I only wish that I had the time to follow up the three or four arguments which he has adduced, but I am happy enough that he has cancelled himself out and that there is not much need for anyone else to do it for him. However, it is interesting to hear him, and perhaps at some time he will take it into his head to go into the post offices so that he may be accurately informed.
I must wish the Assistant Postmaster-General well. As one who has been connected with the Post Office in one form and another for 40 years, I wish him well, but that does not mean that I wish him to be in office very long. I want him to be as happy with the postal staff and the administration as some of his predecessors have been, Mr. Speaker, not excluding yourself.
I am very glad to know that the hon. Gentleman has been converted since I was in this House previously. I have very vivid recollections of the part which the hon. Gentleman took as a critic of the Post Office in the 1945–50 Parliament, and I am glad to find that he has now been converted from some of the ideas which, in my opinion, he then wrongly held. In other words, he came to scoff and has remained to praise, and to praise very fulsomely.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has noticed the remarkably high standard of negotiations in the Post Office. I am sure that in the brief period that he has been at the Post Office he must have been impressed very much by the skill on both sides in negotiations in the Post Office. As an aside, if the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South—
§ Mr. Williams
The trouble is that we cannot deal with all the hon. Member's idiosyncrasies at the same time. I do not believe I can be challenged when I say that it would not do private industry or even nationalised industries any harm to study carefully the methods of negotiation and discussion of problems of the Post Office through Whitley 1235 committees and direct negotiations between the Post Office and the trade unions concerned. I am glad that one of the first impressions of the hon. Gentleman in the Post Office has been of the high standard of negotiation.
I am also glad that he has noticed the tremendous and remarkable recovery which has taken place in the Post Office during the last five or six years. There is no need for the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South, to frown; this is a statement of fact. I am now referring to the recovery since the war. Some of us remember the difficulties which existed in the Post Office, not least the major re-organisation, which had to be undertaken at a time when a large number of established and experienced staff were serving with the Colours overseas.
§ Sir W. Darling
I am sure that the hon. Member does not wish to mislead the House. The Post Office's surplus in 1945 was £39,850,000 whereas the surplus in 1950–51, after six years of Labour administration, was £12,574,000.
§ Mr. Williams
The hon. Member is typically Scottish, in that he has no soul above money. I was not talking about surpluses. I thought I was dealing with something which was of great interest to the House, the recovery of the services and possibilities of development in the Post Office in the years after the war. The Post Office had been largely disorganised in the interests of the war effort.
§ Sir W. Darling
Since the Post Office's surplus at the end of the war was £39 million and in 1950–51 only £12 million, it does not look as if the Post Office was so completely disorganised.
§ Mr. Williams
I must leave this subject for the hon. Member to study a little more. He might then be more intelligent in his criticisms.
I am glad that the Assistant Postmaster-General has recognised the tremendous recovery which has taken place. The recovery and the re-organisation would not have taken place effectively had it not been for the very close co-operation of many of the trade unions with which some of us have been associated. I hope 1236 that neither the Assistant Postmaster-General nor the Administration will forget the services of some of these unions when they consider the Terrington Report. The unions accepted tremendous responsibilities and went to successive conferences with the aim of carrying their members with them in the interests of the efficiency of the Department, whereas other organisations snapped at their heels and criticised.
The hon. Gentleman did not say very much about Cable and Wireless, apart from the transfer. I shall not for obvious reasons—the hon. Member knows them as well as I do—say anything more than that I sincerely hope that the integration which has taken place under the transfer of 1st April, 1950, will proceed smoothly, because I believe there are great possibilities in the newly integrated service from the points of view of both the public and the Department. I sincerely hope that some of the small difficulties which have been encountered in recent months will disappear.
I wish to deal with sick leave. No one desires to see excessive sick leave anywhere. When the Assistant Postmaster-General replied to a Question not long ago, I asked how sick leave in the Post Office compared with sick leave in other Government Departments and in private industry, and he was unable at the time to give me an answer. I should have thought that he would have been making inquiries since then so that we might know how it compares. I shall not develop the matter any further, but I am sure that the trade unions concerned with the Department will look very carefully into the matter.
I could advance a number of reasons for the present situation. There is no doubt that the standard of post-war recruitment, owing to the money which was being paid in many of the grades, had to be sub-standard, and obviously the physical standards have been lower than those before the war. We are now reaping the result of the recruitment to sub-normal physical standards.
A number of difficulties have arisen in connection with extra time and overtime, and with the complete re-organisation of the major grades in the Post Office. However, I leave that point, believing that, if there is excessive sick leave and 1237 it can be remedied, the two sides, as usual, will find a way of overcoming the difficulty.
I believe that the Assistant Postmaster-General is taking the right decision about the settlement of inter-Departmental services in reverting to the 1943 method, which was a very good one. Unlike some of my hon. Friends, I believe that the Post Office can extend still further its services to other Government Departments, and I do not believe that we should be contracting these services. I know of no better agency than the Post Office to carry out these many functions effectively, efficiently and economically.
§ Mr. Williams
It should charge the actual cost of the services. I agree that, if the Post Office was charging the actual cost, many Government Departments would not be over-using telegrams, telephones and postal to the extent which they are now doing. There is no doubt that the fact that they are getting so much for so little encourages them to take advantage of the situation, possibly to the detriment of other people who wish to make use of the services.
I have very mixed feelings about Treasury control. Some of my hon. Friends are very keen to do away with a great deal of Treasury control. I go some way with them. I believe that sometimes many useful projects are held back and unduly deferred because of the time involved in consulting the Treasury, and there is room for a good deal of improvement in that direction.
However, I am not one to say that we should altogether do away with Treasury control or a major part of Treasury control, this ought to give some satisfaction to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South. But I do believe that the Postmaster-General and the Administration ought to have more liberty to deal with matters which are specifically calculated to improve the service without there being a dead hand deferring the action which they might be taking.
I am sorry that the Assistant Postmaster-General has come here today with such a gloomy picture of capital development. It is all very well to say that the Post Office is not going to build any more sorting offices or telephone 1238 exchanges in the course of the next financial year, but that is harmful not only to the Post Office but industry generally.
The emphasis today is on national recovery and on increased and improved efficiency in industry generally. How is that to be achieved if we are to delay the transmission of communications that are inherent in, and an integral part of, the contribution of industry? I do not understand how the Postmaster-General and the Assistant Postmaster-General accepted this Treasury dictum without a tremendous fight.
The hon. Gentleman ought to go back to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and say, "You are really working against the best interests of the nation when you refuse to allow the Post Office to expand and extend in order to meet the natural, rational and essential requirements of industry." This House ought to put that suggestion to the hon. Member, because in productivity and prosperity the Post Office has to play a still greater part, and I am one of those who know just how much it has done in the past few years.
I have listened to a number of hon. Members decrying what has been done in the way of installations for new telephone subscribers. I know that never in the history of the Post Office have so many people been supplied with telephone installations in such a short time as is the case in recent years.
I am sorry that I have taken up more time than I intended. I will leave my remaining points for another time, and I will finish as I began. I sincerely hope that next year will be a year of great achievement in the Post Office. I know that the staff have a great deal of pride in their work, and I am proud that the oldest nationalised industry in this country can stand the test so successfully in efficiency and overall effectiveness in comparison with other industries in this land, and that it is playing such an important and essential part in the industrial, economic and social life of this country.
§ 6.23 p.m.
§ Mr. Anthony Marlowe (Hove)
The hon. Member for Droylsden (Mr. W. R. Williams) speaks with great knowledge and authority on many of these matters, particularly on staff problems. He has referred to the Terrington Report, about which I want to say a few words this 1239 evening. I do not propose to develop my arguments very far in view of the fact that the Report is still under consideration by the Postmaster-General and by the Assistant Postmaster-General; but I think it needs to be said from this side of the House that there are many of us sitting behind the Assistant Postmaster-General who view the recommendations of that Report with great disfavour.
I remember that in the last Parliament and in the Parliament before that my hon. Friend who is now the Assistant Postmaster-General was one of those who was extremely active in the attacks made upon the then Postmaster-General to ensure that proper recognition should be given to the telecommunications officers' union. There was a well understood rule in the Post Office that a 40 per cent. basis of membership of a union should earn recognition.
The previous Postmaster-General changed the rules in the middle of the game. When he found that he met with further difficulties, he resorted to the device of referring the matter to the Terrington Committee in the hope that the Committee would make a report favourable to his point of view and get him out of the dilemma in which he found himself.
§ Mr. Wallace
Does not the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the Report makes it perfectly clear that, in the granting of recognition to Post Office workers, the only consideration shall not be a percentage or an arithmetical basis but other considerations?
§ Mr. Marlowe
But that is exactly my objection to it. I said that there have been a well-understood rule about a percentage basis, and now a new device—
§ Mr. Marlowe
No, I cannot give way. I had promised to give way to the hon. Member for Walthamstow, East (Mr. Wallace), who knows so much about these matters. The point is that a new device is being tried out to try to avoid what was a well-understood rule.
I only want to make one further observation about the Report. Surely the true test of whether people ought to join together in an association, whether a trade 1240 union or any other body which wished to be dealt with as representing a particular section of the community, is that of their own choice; and they should be allowed to join in a free association if they so desire.
What is happening in this matter is that administrative convenience for the Post Office is the basis of the new arrangement. They find it more convenient to deal with a fewer number of trade unions. The result must be to get people conglomerated together more and more into larger and larger unions, resulting in further and further limitations on human liberty. I hold firmly to the belief that if people wish to join together in a trade union and make their own point of view felt, then they ought to be free to do so.
I wish to refer to one other matter to which I have called attention on a number of occasions, the question of a shared telephone service. The Postmaster-General referred to the actual physical problems which arise and which cause the necessity for shared lines. Of course, all those difficulties do not arise on the provision of the party line.
I would ask my hon. Friend to reconsider the matter of allocating party lines. He gave us a short list today of those who are exempted from the rule requiring acceptance of a shared line at a residential address. I would ask him to overhaul that list to see whether he ought not to give an unshared line to a larger body of persons. Doctors, for instance, ought to be included in the list of those exempted, as should clergymen. In my own constituency there is a clergyman who is not included, and that is one of the reasons why I raise this matter.
Some professional people ought to be allowed to have private lines to their homes, particularly when they carry on their business after office hours. My hon. Friend will remember a case which I submitted to him of a clerk to a local authority who had to use his telephone frequently to speak to one councillor of a local authority, perhaps about another councillor of the same local authority. Yet he was not allowed a private line, and that made his business extremely difficult. It ought to be possible to arrive at a suitable list of exceptions to the rule which was made in January, 1948; and where experience shows that there are 1241 justifiable exceptions then those exceptions ought to be allowed.
It is wrong for my hon. Friend to suppose that there is no objection to the use of the shared line. Whenever any of us take up any of these cases with the Post Office—and this is common to the present Administration and to the last—we get back a soothing letter that they are quite sure that if one of the parties to a shared line is engaged in conversation and the other party happens to lift the receiver at that time, that person will immediately replace the receiver and not listen in to the conversation. That is absolute rubbish.
I thought my hon. Friend had a better understanding of human nature than that. Surely he ought to know that inquisitiveness about one's neighbour's business is a characteristic of the British people.
§ Mr. Marlowe
I refer to Hove and other parts of the country as well. What I am saying is applicable to Hove as well as to every other part of the country. If the hon. Gentleman says that in his part of the country it does not exist, I say that that is humbug and hypocrisy, and he knows it.
This debate has been confined almost entirely to the telephone and telegraph services, but the Bill affects broadcasting to some extent. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General will once again look at the difficult problems of sound and television reception on the South Coast. It is very difficult, and nobody seems to know the causes of the difficulty. The matter certainly requires attention and I hope that my hon. Friend will see that the very worthy people who live along the South Coast are provided with efficient services of both kinds.
§ 6.33 p.m.
§ Mr. R. E. Winterbottom (Sheffield, Brightside)
Having regard to the hour, and knowing that the debate ought to finish at 7 o'Clock, I shall be very brief indeed. I would refer only to what was said about the Terrington Committee, because it needs some reply. I hope that the hon. and learned Member for Hove (Mr. Marlowe) will excuse me if I do not go at great length into the matter.
1242 The Listowel formula, as it was in the original conception, was the subject of controversy which caused my right hon. Friend the then Postmaster-General to set up the Terrington Committee. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would question the integrity of that Committee, its impartial nature or the impartial nature of its findings. If he does not like the findings, he will have an opportunity to say so when the debate takes place. The Committee was approved almost unanimously on all sides of this House, so the remarks which have been made have been out of place.
My speech has gone to the wall, but there are one or two questions that I want to put to the Assistant Postmaster-General. I would have raised them in my speech, and I hope that he will find time for a reply to them. If he is unable to reply by reason of time, I hope that he will write to me and let me know the answers. Here are the questions: What is he going to do with the Motor Repair Department, at Yeading, near Slough? Is the Organisation and Methods Department still to function? If not, what is to take its place?
Will the hon. Gentleman tell us why he omitted to mention the Clothing Supply Depot and will he tell us whether or not the Post Office will get the profit from it in future; or whether the benefits will automatically go to the Treasury? How will they be shown, either in the cash accounts or the commercial accounts?
Those are the problems on which a reply is called for. Having regard to the fact that my hon. Friend the ex-Assistant Postmaster-General wants to take part in the debate, and knows much more about the Post Office than I do. I am prepared to give way to him.
§ 6.35 p.m.
§ Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)
There has been a unanimous description of the opening speech of the Assistant Postmaster-General, namely, its gloom. I am beginning to wonder, having heard it and the comments, whether "gloom" is the right word. I would suggest "dangerous darkness." If anything is clear from the speech of the hon. Gentleman and from this Bill, as well as from the statement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer about increased charges for telephone and postal services, it is that those services are to cost us more. It is also clear that 1243 those services are to be less efficient, dangerously less efficient.
The capital expenditure suggested for next year is £48 million. The hon. Gentleman said that one-third of that was to be for defence purposes. That brings us right down to the capital expenditure for the past year. There is a long-term building and extension programme going on, but everyone knows that the cost of building is increasing.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that no new building could be started. The projects already started will presumably be completed, but at an increased price. The capital investment programme and the civilian side of the postal and telephone services will be very much less than they have been. It is obvious that the development is being cut down and that the hon. Gentleman will be very lucky if he is able to maintain the telephone service at its present standard of efficiency.
References have been made by hon. Gentlemen opposite to the kind of telephone services in America and elsewhere, but I think that the Assistant Postmaster-General has been long enough in his post to know—although he showed very little sign of knowing it when he was on this side of the House—that British postal research workers and experts could provide Britain with a far better telephone service than exists in America if it were not for the limitation on capital expenditure.
The picture we have had of the future capital expenditure does not mean a slowing up of expansion, but the cutting down of the existing system. We were held back by the war and by post-war difficulties, and we shall be held back now by defence; but we have gone too far. The hon. Gentleman and his noble Friend should be much more aggressive in their attitude to the Treasury on this cutting down of capital expenditure for the Post Office, which is not getting a fair deal in this matter. We are risking the efficiency of the postal and telephone system.
Some people have made complaints about them already, although the demand for telephones has been rising every year. The hon. Gentleman said that the telephone waiting-list was something like 487,000 at present, and that it was 57,000 1244 fewer than last year. How did we achieve that reduction? Was it because the annual demand for telephones, which has been running at about 200,000 since the end of the war, has suddenly slowed down, or that last year we did very well in the provision of new installations?
If this is the case, next year will be a bad one. The suggestion has been made that we are to have only one-fifth of the waiting list satisfied next year, or about 97,000. Place that against the cutting down of which the hon. Gentleman told us, and it means that he will achieve one record of which he should not be very proud, that he will have the highest waiting list for telephones next year that we have ever had. I can count on my two hands the number of Conservative Members who are in the House today, but two years ago, when a storm was raised from this side of the House, there was not enough time for them all to push home the propaganda point. Then they did not consider the difficulties of defence or anything else; it was just a case of hitting at the Government.
We are a little more considerate this time. I am only pressing the point today which I pressed on my right hon. Friend on that occasion, namely, that the Post Office is entitled to get a greater share of the capital expenditure that is permissible in the present year. I do not want to see the waiting list rising as high as that, and to have the hon. Gentleman coming to the House and telling us that any new telephones we are to get will be on the party system.
The hon. Member who spoke in praise of the American system obviously did not listen to his neighbour, the hon. Member for Southgate (Mr. Baxter), who knows the meaning of the party line, which is such a feature of the American and Canadian systems. We do not want the party line system introduced into this country to any extent. I think the hon. Member said there were over 300,000 subscribers on the shared line. It may be that we shall have to suffer it for a year or two.
I want to look at the question of priorities and also the question of accepting a shared line. I think that first on the list which the hon. Gentleman gave us was the businessman, and then came judges and Members of Parliament. They were the only people entitled to be considered as having other than party lines. 1245 Does the businessman include the farmer? I can say that the farmers of Ayrshire do not want to share their lines. We are a very insular people as a nation, and as individuals and localities we are equally insular. We like to have the privacy of our own telephone system with no possibility of anyone listening in.
I want to put a case to the hon. Gentleman which came to my notice the other day. It shocked me. It was the case of a man in Ayr who has been a subscriber since 1938. In September last he moved his home to another house 100 yards away, in a side road. He was immediately informed that his telephone could not be transferred there because it was in another distribution area and a line could not be taken across the road. It was suggested to him that he ought to ask his friends to share their line with him. He probably did that in a half-hearted way because it is not an easy thing to ask, and it has to be put in such a way that someone else will volunteer to do it. However, they were prepared to do that. Not long afterwards someone moved out who had a telephone between his house and the house where it was suggested he should get a shared line, and left a telephone, but there seemed to be nothing to prevent them from transferring that telephone.
The man is not a businessman but this is what he does as part of his public duties. He is a member of the South Ayrshire Hospital Board, a member of the St. Andrew's Ambulance Association, a member of the Co-ordinating Committee for Ayrshire, a justice of the peace for Ayrshire, a member of the juvenile court for Ayrshire, a member of the local tribunal of the Ayr area under the National Insurance Act. He was also national President of the C.I.S., agents of U.S.D.A.W., with 7,000 members and 200 branches.
§ Mr. Ross
He is a typical person who spends as much time as he can in helping his fellow men. He also happened to be, at the Election before last, Labour candidate for Ayr. Maybe that is why I got the letter and not the hon. Member for Ayr (Sir T. Moore). It is obvious from the facts I have given that this man should have his telephone transferred. That is not an impracticable proposition.
1246 What I have described is the kind of thing which starts people wondering exactly what is happening within the Post Office.
§ Sir W. Darling
I suggest that he becomes a Member for Parliament and then, in due course, he will get a telephone.
§ Mr. Ross
I can only suggest that if he transfers his attack to South Edinburgh, he will probably have a chance of becoming a Member of Parliament.
I support the Bill, but I regret the implications and explanations which the hon. Gentleman has given us. Unless we get increased capital expenditure there will be the great disadvantage that within the next few years we shall have a considerably less efficient postal and telephone service, and one liable to a considerable amount of breakdown.
§ 6.46 p.m.
§ Mr. C. R. Hobson (Keighley)
We are discussing the bi-annual Post Office and Telegraph (Money) Bill which makes provision for the capital investment of the Post Office for the next two years. The Bill informs us that the total capital investment, that is the money required by loan, is to be £75 million, £69 million of which is to be for the telephone service and £6 million for the postal and telegraph services. The quandary in which my right hon. Friend and hon. Friends behind me find themselves is how we can agree to this sum or, indeed, consider an amendment to the Bill, if we do not know what the capital allocation is to be.
As late as last Wednesday I tabled a Question to the hon. Gentleman asking him in precise terms what was to be the capital allocation for the Post Office during the ensuing year. To say the least of it the reply was disingenuous. The hon. Gentleman was unable to give the figure and he referred me to the reply given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro). That reply was in the following terms:The Government have laid down ceilings for investment by the nationalised industries. In doing so they have had regard to the basic character of these industries."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th March, 1952; Vol. 498, c. 30.]If the Chancellor of the Exchequer could give that reply, surely we could be informed what the capital investment expenditure will be for the Post Office in 1247 the ensuing year? What has gone wrong in the co-ordination between the two Departments? What does the Bill say? That for 1952–53 capital expenditure is likely to be about £48 million and for 1953–54 about £50 million. So the reply that ought to have been given to that Question, and the reply that ought to have been made by the Chancellor, was that the estimated capital investment for the Post Office for this year is to be at the rate of £48 million.
Here again my hon. Friends are in a quandary because the Bill was published and read the First time before my Question was tabled or the reply I have quoted was given to the hon. Member for Kidderminster. The hon. Gentleman and his noble Friend must make up their minds as to how much money will be spent by the Post Office. They are in duty bound to inform the House what that sum will be, and I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would tell us the answer truthfully when he replies.
Is it that the figure is not known, according to his own statement of last Wednesday? Or is it known, as implied in the nebulous reply given by the Chancellor? Or are my hon. Friends to believe the Financial Memorandum to the Bill? We want to know what that sum is to be.
Of course, it may be that the amount is not yet decided and that it is to be left to one of the co-ordinating Ministers in the other place, of whom the hon. Gentleman's noble Friend is not one. We feel, as was stressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross), that even the sum which is asked for is too small. It is utterly inadequate to deal with the waiting list of applicants for telephone service and the growth of the trunk network, which, I believe, is increasing at the rate of 7 or 8 per cent. annually and which has doubled since 1939, and the provision of any new telephone exchanges. We are now told that no new exchanges whatever are to be provided. This means that the position will become progressively worse.
Then there is the urgent need for new post offices. What is to happen at Plymouth, where the post office was totally 1248 destroyed by enemy action and the project for the replacement of which my right hon. Friend agreed, when he was in office, after conferring with the local authorities, should go ahead? My hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West (Mr. Royle), raised the question of Salford, and one could go on asking these questions. The fact remains that there is an urgent necessity for new post office buildings and for going ahead with telephone exchanges.
We have always had objections, particularly from hon. Members opposite, that the Post Office was used as an instrument of taxation. I suggest that it is today being used for that purpose as a result of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's Budget statement. The last published commercial accounts showed a surplus of £12½ million. The hon. Gentleman tells us that that figure has been reduced because of the recent wage awards. That may be so, but after my five years at the Post Office I suggest that the increased charges now to be made will provide a considerably greater surplus next year than the £7 million of which the hon. Gentleman has told us this afternoon.
What about the Post Office Fund? Is it to be resuscitated? It would be a very good thing, when there is a considerable surplus from the operations of the Post Office, for money to be placed into the Fund and used for capital development. In other words, there would be an appropriation of profit as we went along, with a corresponding saving in interest which would be to the general benefit, not only of the Post Office, but of everyone who uses the Post Office facilities. I should like to know whether the hon. Gentleman has given consideration to this aspect of Post Office finance.
Now, I come to the vexed question of telephones. The hon. Gentleman is aware of the size of the waiting list—roughly 500,000—and will now realise what are the real difficulties which prevented my right hon. Friend from wiping it out. It may also have dawned upon the Assistant Postmaster-General what are the difficulties at the Tudor and Clissold Exchanges, about which he was very vociferous in his Questions when on this side of the House, and very intolerant also.
We appreciate, of course, the cause of the shortages. They are due to lack of 1249 cable, equipment and buildings—any one of those items or a combination of all three. The reason why we are short of cable, equipment and buildings is that since the end of the war, it has been necessary to plan our capital investment. It is very interesting to hear hon. Gentlemen opposite defending that action, particularly when we remember what they had to say about planning and how they scoffed at it when there were on this side of the House.
The hon. Gentleman knows that he cannot get very far in the Post Office, particularly in the provision of telephones, without planning. Has the plan gone by the board, in view of the fact that we do not know how much the hon. Gentleman is going to spend? The future is, indeed, grim.
When I was at the Post Office and inquiring about the amount of capital that would be required to wipe out the waiting list and to maintain the growth of trunk developments, I was told that the figure would be in the region of £300 million, spread over four years. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock has said, the waiting lists will now go up by leaps and bounds.
I must remind the Assistant Postmaster-General of what was accomplished by my right hon. Friends the Members for Dearne Valley (Mr. Wilfred Paling) and Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards) when they were at the Post Office. One in three of the telephones were installed during the period of a Socialist Administration. In 1938, there were 65 telephones to 1,000 of the population. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly gave up his office, there were 103 telephones per 1,000 of the population. Something like 5,000 telephone kiosks were provided in two years, 2,000 of them in rural areas, and service was provided for over 12,000 farms. That was a very fine record.
I join with the hon. Gentlemen in paying my tribute to the way in which the Post Office engineers planned ahead before the war. The results are a tribute to their foresight, and are proof that they were not clamped down by the terrible bureaucracy which is alleged to exist in nationalised undertakings.
The shared service is, undoubtedly, the reason why the waiting list is less than it was a year ago. That service was 1250 introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Dearne Valley. I should like to know from the hon. Gentleman what progress is being made towards separate accounting for local calls, because this is a matter which leads to difficulties between people who are sharing the service.
I come now to the question of the speed of answering. During the whole time my right hon. Friend was at the Post Office there was an improvement, even at the Tudor Exchange, although I believe there was something of a shock when it was known that the hon. Gentleman had become Assistant Postmaster-General. We should like to know what progress has been made with automatic switching for trunk services to avoid the intermediate operator. Has this yet been completed in London? These are the things about which the hon. Gentleman ought to have told us, instead of telling us about helicopters and submarine repeaters and then giving precisely the same reply as I gave in 1950 when I was replying to the debate.
It is not good enough for the hon. Gentleman to come to the House and to build up a pack of cards, and then proceed verbally to knock them down by dialectics. It would have been far better had he addressed himself to some of these technical developments which are taking place in the Post Office.
Now, I come to the deficit of £4,393,000 on telegrams. The telegraph service cannot be run without a deficit. We have to maintain the service for two reasons: first, for strategic requirements, and second, because it is the poor man's telephone. The hon. Gentleman will, I think, agree that one of the reasons why there has been a reduction in the deficit is the introduction of the greetings telegrams, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly introduced when he was Postmaster-General.
There has been considerable saving through the mechanisation of the delivery of telegrams due to the introduction of the motor cycle delivery service, and also because of the development of the switching service whereby, using the teleprinter, one can get through direct to another office. I ask the hon. Gentleman to insist on separate accounting for the telegraph system. I know that at headquarters there is an opinion that it would 1251 be a good idea if the telegraph accounts were merged with the telephone accounts, but I do not think it would be a good idea. We ought to know precisely the position in regard to the telegraph service and I hope that the present system will be continued.
There have been difficulties in regard to the phonogram service and delays have been rather extensive. I would like to know what is the present position because the phonogram is used largely by the business community. I would like to know if there has been an improvement in the speed of answer.
One thing which the hon. Gentleman did not touch upon, although he might have done and it would have helped his case, is the urgent need to maintain exports of telecommunications equipment. About 50 per cent. of the telecommunications equipment is exported. A lot goes to dollar areas, and that which goes to the sterling area saves dollars by proxy and prevents competition from dollar sources.
On the postal side the work is growing, and I think the hon. Gentleman might have paid tribute to my right hon. Friend for the fact that later collections were introduced, because there is no doubt that that gave great help to the business community. Will it be possible to improve the postal service, particularly in the Midlands area? It might be possible now, unfortunately because of growing unemployment, to get staff to improve the service in Birmingham and Coventry, which have operated under great difficulty owing to shortage of staff and inability to recruit labour.
Reference has been made to Dollis Hill. I have a particular interest in Dollis Hill; I happened to be present, as a youthful councillor, when it was opened in 1931. I probably got on my house the bomb which was intended for the research station, but I forgive the Post Office for that. What is being done at Dollis Hill now?
I want a straight answer because I notice that the Ministry of Supply have entered the field of telecommunications research. In my trade union journal they are advertising for fitters, millers and various other skilled men. Why do they want to carry out this work? It could be done at Dollis Hill and has been done 1252 at Dollis Hill, and I say they are preeminent in telecommunications research. Why should the Ministry of Supply start work in that field? I hope that the hon. Gentleman will look into that question.
The hon. Gentleman referred to a submarine repeater being put into the Dutch cable, but there was one placed in the South Atlantic cable, the first ever to be placed at considerable depth. It was developed at Dollis Hill and I should like to know how that submarine repeater is working, because it certainly was the pioneer one in under-sea communications.
I now come to the question of Cable and Wireless. Here the hon. Gentleman is in a little of a dilemma because no one attacked Cable and Wireless more than he. I have an article which he wrote, on 26th February, 1951, in the "South China Morning Post." I am not going to weary the House by reading it, but I think it was doctrinaire, ill-informed and spiteful, and he would do well to take an early opportunity of repudiating the sentiments contained in that article, particularly if he wishes to have good staff relationships in Cable and Wireless.
It is rather unfortunate for the hon. Gentleman that the wheel has turned full circle and he is faced with the fact that he knows Cable and Wireless is now a highly efficient service and that its integration into the Post Office went through very smoothly. He is also aware that there is little he can do about it because when he wrote the article he was probably unaware that it was due to the Australian Government objecting to the set-up of the existing telecommunications; and that they insisted on the amalgamation of the shore ends and the operation of the independent company for the foreign service.
The hon. Member referred to the relaying of the Atlantic cable. Am I to understand that £3 million is to be made available out of capital expenditure this year, or is it merely to be repaired, because a new cable would cost £3 million? I should like to know the facts about that.
I wish to ask what are the intentions of the Government in regard to bulk purchase. In his position as Assistant Postmaster-General, the hon. Gentleman is Chairman of the Contracts Committee and, therefore, he knows that many of the Post Office supplies are bought in 1253 bulk and that that has worked very satisfactorily in the past. The officers of the Post Office were subject to cross-examination by the Public Accounts Committee on this subject.
Am I to take it that bulk purchase is to continue, or is to be done away with? Here again, the hon. Gentleman is in a difficult position as the party opposite made it on of their Election promises that bulk purchase would be immediately stopped when they came into power. We should like to know his intentions.
My right hon. Friend referred to the fact that we shall desire to have something to say on the Postal and Telegraphic Regulations. I can also tell the hon. Gentleman that we shall have something to say on the report on regionalisation. I do not want to deal with that matter this evening, but we intend to find an opportunity to have a discussion on that report.
Finally, I pay tribute to the staff of the Post Office. They are a fine body of men. There are one or two things which stand out in the last year. One was the splendid way in which they dealt with the hurricane damage in the Orkneys and Shetlands and in the North of Scotland. The communications were entirely disrupted but very quickly indeed communications were resumed and brought back to normal.
Whoever was in charge of that operation showed initiative and the men showed that they were willing and swift to work in a way which we have come to associate with the Post Office. Another thing which was well done was the alteration of all the weights in the telephone call boxes for the purpose of acting under the weight of three coins instead of two. That too went smoothly and very expeditiously.
As has been said, they are a fine body of men in the Post Office, and at headquarters the hon. Gentleman has a fine body of advisers. I hope he will always listen to their advice, because they have the welfare of this great national service at heart. We shall watch the Assistant Postmaster-General very carefully and when he ceases to fill that office we shall expect the British Post Office to be preeminent in the world, as it is now.
§ 7.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Gammans
I trust I may have the leave of the House to reply briefly to some of the questions which have been raised in this debate. I would first deal 1254 with the points raised by the right hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards). He objected because defence works which the Post Office has to carry out are not carried on the Votes of the Defence Departments. I wish they were. But there is this point about it. Although I said that these defence works would not be of very much use for the civilian population in the near future, that does not mean that they will not be ultimately in fact, I am glad to say that a lot of them will be useful later on for civilian purposes. That is one reason why it is difficult to draw a clear line between the two.
The right hon. Gentleman also objected to the words in the Bill which dealt with control by the Treasury. I think that there his memory has slipped a bit, because they are almost exactly the words with which he introduced his Bill two years ago. I assure him that the Treasury control is no better and no worse than when he introduced his Bill. He also suggested that the time might come when the whole basis of the Post Office constitution might be looked at again. He considers that we might have another Bridgeman Committee. I think there is something in that. I do not want to go any further and suggest that that is going to happen, but I agree that a great organisation such as the Post Office should, from time to time, have the sort of close and expert examination that it had before.
The right hon. Gentleman and several other hon. Members raised the question of the charges which might be made to other Departments for services rendered. I would point out that, so far as the postal services are concerned, that is done at cost and telephones and telegraphs at ordinary rates. As I said, I wish that could happen. It would be a good thing from the point of view of the Post Office accounts, and it might not be a bad thing from the point of view of the Departments concerned. But I would correct him in that I do not think very much progress was made in getting agreement on that point before he went out of office. He also raised the question—
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
I am speaking from memory; but I am certain that agreement had been reached with regard to certain elements of these charges, that they should be treated on a cash basis. 1255 I agree that agreement was made politically, but I understood that it had been passed to the officers of the hon. Gentleman's Department.
§ Mr. Gammans
I do not think that is true, but we will not quibble about it. I should certainly like it to be done. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the tyre re-treading factory. I do not know the answer to his question now, but I will write to him on the subject.
My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Erroll), who informed me that unfortunately he would have to leave the Chamber before I could reply, asked whether people other than Members of Parliament could see something of the work of the Post Office. The answer is, "Yes." We have local advisory committees, and any Chamber of Commerce, or Rotary Club, or anyone else who is prepared to take an interest in the work of the Post Office, is welcome to visit us, and we shall be delighted to see them. My hon. Friend also asked if more propaganda could be carried out to induce people to address their letters more clearly. On the whole I do not think the position is too bad. But I can assure him, or I would were he present, that anything we can do we shall do, if only for our own sake, because there is nothing which causes more trouble than a badly addressed letter.
The hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Grey) and the hon. Member for Gateshead, West (Mr. Hall) asked about television and radio on the North-east Coast. I would dispose of the point made by the hon. Member for Gateshead, West, who said that both my noble Friend and the right hon. Member for Caerphilly, when he was in office, despised the North-east Coast. That is absolute nonsense. Nothing would give us greater pleasure than to be able to overcome their difficulties.
Regarding television, as he knows, the decision was made by the last Government to postpone the television station at Pontop Pike. I am sure they were right then, and the Defence programme since has made it inevitable that we should follow the same policy. Then the hon. Member raised the question of shared radio wavelengths. That is a thing which concerns both the North-east Coast and Northern Ireland. Here again 1256 nothing would give us greater pleasure than to be able to do something about it.
The truth is that we have 13 medium wavelengths. Every one of those wavelengths has been allocated and there is no chance of getting another medium wavelength. I see no hope whatever of a better sound service and radio service on the North-east Coast until we get a very-high frequency station.
§ Mr. Gammans
That is not true. There is no wavelength available for the North-east Coast. May I repeat the assurance, which I hope will cheer up the hon. Member, made by my noble Friend when he met a delegation the other day from the local authorities from the North-east Coast? He said he was prepared to give a definite pledge that when conditions improved the North-east would be the first on the list for television, and, combined with that statement, that there would be a very high-frequency station in sound broadcasting, which would remove the difficulty arising from a shared wavelength.
§ Mr. Ernest Popplewell (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West)
Do I understand that this is the same pledge as was given by the hon. Gentleman's predecessor when he was in office? Do I now understand that the present Postmaster-General repudiates the pledge given by his predecessor on that particular point?
§ Mr. Gammans
I cannot say from memory in what words the pledge was given by the right hon. Gentleman, but I suggest that this pledge is perfectly clear. We do recognise that it is a bad situation when two areas have to share the same wavelength. I can understand the point of view of anyone on the Northeast Coast who wanted a television and who thought they were going to get one but now find that they are not getting one. But I do not think I can do more than give the pledge which has already been given.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
I appreciate that the circumstances in the North Country are difficult, but I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that, with his noble Friend, he considers transferring the low-power 1257 transmitter from Wenvoe to Pontop Pike as soon as a high-power transmitter has been installed.
§ Mr. Gammans
That suggestion has been made, but it is not so easy as that. We are making this decision only because of cuts in capital expenditure required for defence. If a high-frequency station is set up on the North-east Coast, and if a television link is set up there, no one could get very high-frequency without serious alterations to their present set. That is one of the factors we have to consider, because that would demand the use of rare raw materials and highly skilled labour which is required for the defence programme. I do not want to elaborate the point. I have given the assurance that the North-east Coast shall have priority both for very high frequency and also for television when the time comes.
§ Miss Irene Ward (Tynemouth)
May I ask whether my hon. Friend is aware that his noble Friend gave an additional pledge at the time when the local authorities and the Members of Parliament met him? The pledge given before was regarding television. But when we met him on 18th March he added the pledge of very high frequency. That was well received by the deputation. Also, would my hon. Friend take this opportunity of informing hon. Members of the northern group of Labour M.P.s that they were invited to attend that deputation but, for some unknown reason—
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. We cannot have any talk about a deputation now. If the hon. Lady wishes to finish her remarks, she may.
§ Mr. Popplewell
Further to that point of order. In view of the allegation made by the hon. Member, might it not be as well to place on record that the northern group of Labour M.P.s already had a meeting arranged with the Postmaster-General, and that he postponed it and then refused to meet those Members. Later he agreed to meet Conservative Members and representatives of the local authorities. Much more will be heard 1258 about this as time goes on, but I should like it to go on record to that effect.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The hon. Lady is now making a speech in the middle of the speech by the Minister.
§ Mr. W. R. Williams
On a point of order. I should like to know whether it is in order for an hon. Member to refer to some other meeting and ostensibly to some agreed statement. An agreed statement has been issued about that deputation. It is not before this House. Therefore, how can hon. Members discuss something which is not before them?
§ Mr. Speaker
I cannot say that anything is out of order until it has been said. I cannot express any opinion about it. I have no knowledge of the facts about this deputation, so I cannot say that it is out of order to mention it; but it is generally wise for hon. Members to distinguish between private conversations and those which are held in public.
§ Mr. Speaker
That is not a point of order. All this talk about a deputation seems to introduce a matter which is extraneous to the Bill. It might be possible and proper to allude to it in a casual, passing way, but we are now getting the attention of the House diverted from the Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," to the question of a deputation.
§ Mr. Gammans
I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me to intervene. The statement I read about the pledge made about the North-east Coast was the latest one given by the Postmaster-General. I refuse to be dragged into a party squabble at this hour as to who arranged a deputation and who would or would not go.
§ Mr. Gammans
No. I have given way enough already.
The hon. Member for Walton (Mr. K. Thompson) raised the question of priorities for telephones. He said that often people who had newly applied for telephones appeared to get them before people who had been on the list for some time. That could easily happen. It simply means that these people who had applied at a later date happened to be in a road or an area where there was a fre line, and they could get on to the telephone before people who had been longer on the list in an area which was not so fortunate.
I will not refer to the Grand National—that has nothing to do with me—except to say that I hope, from a personal point of view, that it will still be possible for the race to be broadcast. The hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Royle), tried to drag me into a civil war in Lancashire. I gathered with regard to Salford that it was not so much that they were getting a bad service but that it was a matter of prestige. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is satisfied with the service. I should be only too glad to ask the regional director for that area to discuss postal, telephone and telegraph problems with him to see whether they can be improved.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southgate (Mr. Baxter) asked if we had any remedy in the Post Officet for stopping women from talking. We have none. He himself is a great publicist. I am prepared to take him on on a cost-plus basis if he can guarantee results. He also made comments about the party lines. I do not want to keep on saying this, but it is clear from one or two remarks in this debate that even now there are hon. Members who do not understand the position. Every subscriber gets his own number and he also gets his own bell. I 1260 assure the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Hobson) that he also gets his own bill.
§ Mr. Hobson
I think that the hon. Gentleman is mistaken. Surely, the fact is that, with people sharing a party line on an automatic exchange, the bill goes to one subscriber and the two people have to arrange the matter between them. I was asking the hon. Gentleman to get some form of equipment which would guarantee separate accounting for each subscriber to a party line.
§ Mr. Gammans
The hon. Gentleman knows that separate accounting is already done in respect of trunk and toll calls. It is hoped to do something about dialled local calls before long. I do not think that hon. Gentlemen realise that, although we should prefer that everybody had an exclusive line, so long as there is a limitation on capital expenditure we have to say to the private subscriber, "You can have a shared line or none." The fact that many subscribers prefer that, and that we get very few complaints, is proof that in these difficult times we are fulfilling a need.
I discovered the other day that of every five people with a telephone, one of them does not use it more than four times a week. That means that there is not this press on the telephones by private subscribers that many people imagine.
The hon. Member for Droylsden (Mr. W. R. Williams) raised the question of charging Government Departments. I think that I have dealt with that point already. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Marlowe) discussed the Terrington Report. As the House knows, I do not propose to make any statement about that for the time being.
My hon. and learned Friend also said that we should change the basis of the unshared service and give it to other people as well. The more exclusive lines we give, the fewer people can be put on the telephone. I think that the formula started by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Caerphilly is a fair formula which has stood the test of time. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hove also mentioned radio reception on the South Coast. I agree with him. There has been a good bit of deliberate 1261 interference from overseas in the past year or so. It has been especially bad in the winter, and there is not an awful lot that we can do about it.
The hon. Member for Brightside (Mr. R. E. Winterbottom) discussed two technical matters and asked me if I would send him a reply. I shall be delighted to do so. He also asked whether the Organisation and Methods Branch was still functioning. The answer is "Yes." The hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) raised a personal case. If he will send the details to me, I shall do my best to have it investigated.
Lastly, the hon. Member for Keighley asked what percentage of the money that we are asking the House to vote today will in fact be spent during the next year. I wish that I could tell him. I cannot tell him. There are so many uncertain factors of which the chief is the uncertainty about steel. He also asked about a specific account for telegraphs, and, of course, we have got that and do not propose to do away with this. The hon. Gentleman also asked a question about the Contracts Department and about the Plymouth General Post Office. These are matters which I cannot answer now, but which I will look into.
I think all hon. Members who have addressed the House have agreed on one thing—that it is deplorable that these cuts in capital expenditure in the Post Office have to be made. I can assure the House that nobody deplores that more than I do, and that nothing would give me greater pleasure than if I were able to say that we have enough money to begin all the necessary extensions to provide a better service, but here in the Post Office, as well as in many other Ministeries, we are faced with the dilemma that defence expenditure has to come before telephone extensions.
I hope that the time will not be far distant when it will be possible for whoever represents the Post Office to stand at this Box and announce, in presenting this Bill, that they have the green light to go ahead. I hope I have satisfied most hon. Members who have spoken, and I now ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Committed to a Committee of the whole House—[Mr. Oakshott.]—for Tomorrow.