HC Deb 20 April 1956 vol 551 cc1407-18

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

4.2 p.m.

Mr. T. L. Iremonger (Ilford, North)

I am very glad to have this opportunity of raising certain questions in connection with the administration of the Post Office, especially at this time. My hon. Friend's Department is very much in the public eye in connection with the raising of the charges for the postal and telephone services. Therefore, I think that we could not have a better moment for bringing certain aspects of the administration under close scrutiny.

First, I want to say a word about the increased charges. I heartily welcome them, and welcome still more heartily the principle behind them. I would say to certain people who criticise the increased charges and who, at the same time, call for a reduction in public expenditure that they really cannot have it both ways. If they want Government expenditure to be kept to the minimum, then they must recognise that the Post Office is saving public money by passing the higher charges on to the public. They must recognise the logic of the position.

In criticising some aspects of my hon. Friend's Department, I say straight away that I recognise that he is in a certain difficulty. I also recognise, and am very glad to pay tribute to, the very high standard of public duty which has inspired the Post Office for many years, but I recognise, too—and I think that my hon. Friend must recognise it only too acutely—that under the labour conditions of today, with so many competing attractions, a young man is no longer able to look to the Post Office as offering a comparatively well paid and secure job.

It is going to be very difficult to maintain in the Post Office the splendid tradition of public duty which has existed in the past. I recognise that difficulty, but, none the less, I think that the public has the right to demand nothing less than the best, and in that spirit I propose to draw attention to certain improvements which I think are called for in Post Office services.

First, I want to make some observations arising generally out of the lamentable amount of thieving that goes on in the Post Office. On average, more than one theft occurs on every working day in the year, and, as we see from the Press, many prosecutions show a long career of crime on the part of responsible and trusted servants of the Post Office.

I propose to make one small constructive suggestion. It came to my notice the other day that in one respect there is a dangerous loophole. I received the other day a cheque for £150, which was crossed and which I endorsed and sent to my bank by ordinary post. It was lost. When I made inquiries it was pointed out to me that there is absolutely nothing to stop a postman from taking a letter addressed to my bank—and what better letter could he choose to take?—opening a Post Office Savings Account, paying into it the crossed cheque in my name, drawing out the balance straight away, closing the account, and getting clean away with it. My hon. Friend should close this loophole, which the practice of ordinary banks does not provide.

My second question concerns telephone services. I will make only the briefest passing reference to my constituents within the areas of the Valentine and Seven Kings Exchanges who are showing the very greatest patience in waiting for so long to have telephones installed, and say to my hon. Friend that now that we are making the public pay a more economic rate for this service, I hope he will make a serious attempt to clear up the bottle-necks existing in those two exchanges.

There is a more general matter, which I want to put with greater force, namely, the present difficulty in settling disputes about charges for trunk calls on private subscribers' accounts. In answer to a Parliamentary Question, my hon. Friend explained that if a subscriber "proves" that he did not make the call which has been put on to his account he is not charged. But the Post Office has the last word, and it is always one man's word against another. The subscriber never wins. He can say that he did not make the call and could not have made it, and the Post Office will say, "We think that you did. If you do not agree and do not pay, we will cut your telephone off." If only a small amount is involved one pays up.

But this is not justice. My hon. Friend should set up some system of arbitration by which a subscriber could pay his bill minus any disputed amount and have the matter settled by proper legal procedure. At the moment he can have recourse to the courts of law, but in the meantime he suffers by having his telephone cut off.

Another matter to which I have previously drawn attention is my belief that in a certain telephone exchange there was collusion during the recent cold weather between coal merchants and the telephone exchanges. I believe that they came to an arrangement whereby when persons rang up the coal merchants the telephone operators told them that the number was out of order. I am told that it should not have happened and that it could not have happened, but without going into details—which might not be fair—I would point out that a first-hand conversation I had with the operator at one of these telephone exchanges led to something being blurted out which made me absolutely convinced that this was a racket. I want an assurance that such things cannot happen, or I want it made absolutely clear to telephone operators that it must not happen.

I hope that my hon. Friend will also do his best to see that the standard of courtesy of London telephone exchange operators is improved. I know that on many occasions when we ring up we are spoken to in an agreeable and pleasant manner, but there are times when the standard is not kept up. One of the easier things to do in this life is to appear to be agreeable. I know that few of us are, but the art of appearing so can be mastered, and that is the first art which an operator, paid out of public funds and dealing with the public, must master.

I would like to know from my right hon. Friend what training is given to telephone operators in the simple Dale Carnegie technique of making anybody who rings up feel that he is the customer, who cannot be wrong, and for whom nothing is too much trouble. That is the standard to be found in any little drug store in the Middle West of America, and I do not see why we should not have it in our public services.

Now to turn to postal services, and, in connection with the recent increases in postal charges I want to put it to my hon. Friend that really some consideration should be given to the question of special rates for certain classes of users of these services. I know that whenever the rates are put up there are always objectors, but, at the same time, we should consider whether the time has not come to make a concession to certain classes of user.

I want to put in a plea that the postage on books should not be raised and that the postage on newspapers published by cultural organisations should be excused the extra charge. The Post Office should consider that, otherwise it will be putting a tax on the cultural life of the country, not only now but for future generations. I do not believe our cultural life can be maintained by "Can-Can" and strip tease. To maintain it we have to rely upon the written word. Many people in remote districts have to rely entirely for their cultural life upon books. I ask the Minister seriously whether he is not putting too heavy a tax on books by the new rates.

Next, I want to make a criticism of the registered postal service. Its failings were brought to my attention when a 25,000-word manuscript, of which there was no copy, was sent through the registered post by my wife and lost forever. Such a loss cannot be measured in terms of money. It is difficult for anyone who has not experienced that kind of loss to understand what it means. My hon. Friend, who has had some experience of literature as a writer himself, may be able to sympathise. I say frankly that I was shocked at the evasive, prevaricating, mean, chiselling, attitude of the Post Office in recognising the loss and finally paying a measley compensation.

I wrote to the right hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards) about this, but I did not receive a reply. I do not know whether to account for that by the inefficiency of the Post Office in failing to deliver the letter, or by the inherent discourtesy of the right hon. Member. I naturally take the more charitable interpretation; but I was quite unable to get any direct dealing with the Post Office other than at administrative level. I had no expression of regret whatsoever. Eventually, I was asked to accept £5 and was informed that I should have insured the packet if I wanted to get more. I did not know—perhaps I should have known, but I think many other people do not know—about insurance.

I suggest that when anyone goes to register a packet at the Post Office counter he should be given a verbal warning by the counter clerk that the chances of the registered packet not reaching its destination are not by any means inconsiderable. They have increased threefold numerically and sixfold financially, in my opinion, since pre-war days. We have been discussing lotteries; in many lotteries one would have a very much better chance of gaining than of not losing in the registered postal service. If anyone was dishonest enough to post packages regularly weekly in the registered post and insure them heavily he would have a better chance of winning a lot of money than if he invested a similar amount weekly in the pools.

That is not good enough. A warning should be given to everyone who posts a packet that he is by no means getting certainty of delivery, and furthermore that he cannot get value for the packet if lost and had better insure it. Otherwise all he will get out of the Post Office is the uninsured amount. The only answer, I think, is to scrap the whole system of registered post. A 15,000-to-one chance would be bad enough in the ordinary post; it is intolerable in the registered post. I advise my hon. Friend to scrap the whole meaningless, cumbrous and misleading charade, and to substitute a straightforward insurance scheme on the inland post which would be more honest, more simple and more efficient.

I thank my hon. Friend for listening so patiently to these criticisms. I know that he will not receive them with defensive complacency, and that he will recognise that my intention is to be constructive and helpful. I trust that we shall get from him genuine and constructive proposals in reply.

4.16 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. C. J. M. Alport)

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Iremonger) realises that if I am complacent in this matter, it is because I am associated with one of the best postal services in the world, and the oldest postal service in the world, with colleagues of high intelligence and integrity who maintain a standard of administration which is unequalled in the public service of this country.

So far as the staff is concerned, we maintain in the Post Office an esprit de corps that transcends that of any other civilian service of the Crown. In so far as I believe that implicitly, I am complacent. If, on the other hand, my hon. Friend means that we in the Post Office are satisfied that everything is perfect in the best of all possible worlds, then of course we are not complacent. We realise that there are many matters which require improvement, and it is the constant striving, not only of those Ministers who happen to be for the time being associated with the Post Office, but of all ranks of the Post Office, that those improvements should be brought about.

I should like to deal with one or two of the points which my hon. Friend has raised. He used a number of expressions, which, if I may say so with respect to him, seemed to me to be exaggerated. He referred to the "lamentable amount" of thieving in the Post Office. It is quite untrue that there is extensive thieving in the Post Office. That statement casts a slur upon the Post Office service which is entirely unwarranted. That there is a very small number indeed of people who do not maintain the standards of integrity and honesty which we expect is perfectly true. It is inevitable in every public service. That we must take every step we can to reduce the number is obvious, and it is something that we are trying to do. But to use an expression of that sort about the Post Office seems to me, as I say, to be entirely unwarranted.

So far as registration is concerned, my hon. Friend's calculations are incorrect. The proportion of lost registered letters is one in 27,000. That may seem a lot, but my hon. Friend can send off a registered letter once a week for the next 500 years and lose only one.

Mr. Iremonger


Mr. Alport

I cannot give way now.

Mr. Iremonger

I have already lost one.

Mr. Alport

Very well; my hon. Friend can do it for the next 499 years and 51 weeks, and on the average be assured that the letter will reach its destination. It is possible, by exaggerated descriptions such as my hon. Friend has indulged in, to make out a picture of blackness which in no way represents the facts.

My hon. Friend raised a question about telephones. We are here to serve our subscribers, and our subscribers in some cases are coal merchants. Sometimes during the winter weather those coal merchants find their telephones ringing an inordinate number of times with demands by agitated clients for supplies of coal which they need but which, for reasons outside the control of the coal merchants, cannot immediately be fulfilled.

I do not say it happens, because it is not for the Post Office to inquire what subscribers do with their telephones, but it may be that the local coal merchant decides to take his telephone receiver off, which provides the operator with a sound indicating that the telephone is engaged or out of order. Does my hon. Friend really expect that we should send round to the coal merchants and tell them that they have got to replace their receivers in order that he may get into touch with them for his own convenience?

Our obligation in this matter is to the subscriber, who pays a certain sum of money each year to rent a telephone. If he wishes to be disconnected, temporarily or otherwise, it is his business, in our view, and not one in which we can or should interfere.

Mr. Iremonger

Will my hon. Friend allow me to intervene, because he has misquoted what I said? It was not a question of the subscriber being "disconnected", which is an entirely different matter. It could not have been that the telephone was "disconnected", because the subscriber was using it—I emphasise that—for outgoing calls, but only for outgoing calls, while getting the Post Office to say that the number was "out of order" for incoming calls. The subscriber was having it both ways.

Mr. Alport

My hon. Friend must realise that we are just as much the servants of a subscriber who is a coal merchant as we are of a private subscriber like himself. If a subscriber wishes to use a telephone for outgoing calls only and does not wish to accept calls from my hon. Friend, it is his business, and we cannot and should not interfere.

As for courtesy, it is the wish of my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General, and indeed of all ranks in the Post Office, to endeavour to ensure amongst all those who serve in the Post Office that a high standard of courtesy be maintained. After all, we are all public servants, and I can assure my hon. Friend that we realise that all too clearly. In regard to the operators of telephones, we have formulas for answering telephone calls from subscribers, and one of our main objects in having these formulas, which may achieve brevity—and we hope they do—is to handle calls and put them through as quickly as possible and allow the operators to operate expeditiously without our being able to allow operators to indulge in what I understand is a practice in America of some courteous and pleasant conversation between operators and subscribers.

It may be that my hon. Friend thinks it would be better for us to incur the additional overheads which would be involved by allowing a longer time to be taken for each call and giving some authority to the operator to indulge in conversation or courtesies of some other nature. On the whole, we have come to the conclusion that, in the interests of speed and public service in the telephone service, it is important that the intrusion of the operator during the process of taking up a call should be as little as possible.

With regard to charges for trunk calls, I have considerable sympathy with all those who feel that the accounts rendered to them by the Post Office half-yearly in some cases include calls which they cannot remember or feel that they did not themselves put through. It is a difficult problem, and I realise that in many cases the feeling that the Post Office has included calls that are not warranted is very genuinely held indeed.

I would say that, on the whole, although mistakes may occur, I think that those mistakes are much rarer than my hon. Friend imagines, but I feel that the eventual solution to this problem must await the introduction in this country, which will take place in due course, of automatic trunk dialling. That will enable us not only to meter the trunk call at the exchange end, but may—though this is a matter still for research and decision—provide a means whereby the subscriber will be able to check the duration of his or her call at his or her own end of the line. It may be a little time before it is possible to introduce that system, and I have very great sympathy with my hon. Friend on that point. We do our best, when there is controversy between the Post Office and a subscriber regarding a call, to give the benefit of the doubt where we feel it is justified to the subscriber.

So far as the suggestion for arbitration is concerned, I think that that would prove to be a cumbersome way of dealing with controversy which is generally concerned with very small amounts of money. I can assure my hon. Friend that if he or any of his constituents have any feelings on any particular occasion or if they wish to draw the attention of my right hon. Friend or myself to any grievances in this matter, we shall naturally do our best to help in any way we can.

I think it important on such an occasion as this to draw attention to the size of the problem with which the Post Office is faced. Last year we handled 9,500 million letters and packets and, in addition, 243 million parcels. The number of letters and packets was 400 million more than in the previous year. I remind hon. Members that each time a letter is sent it is handled perhaps half-a-dozen times between the writer and the recipient, which gives half-a-dozen opportunities to anybody ill-willed enough to consider tampering with it. I therefore feel that, on the whole, considering the immense volume of the post handled by the Post Office in these modern days, the amount of loss is very small indeed, and is a great credit to the integrity of those who serve in the postal services.

I fully recognise that since 1945 we have been unable to spend as much on the postal services as we should have liked, as a great deal of our capital expenditure has had to be devoted to the development of the telephone service in order to meet increasing demands there. I hope that it may be possible to rectify that in some degree over the next few years, as clearly there are new methods which will help us to overcome some of our difficulties and to bring about a higher standard of efficiency generally in dealing with postal traffic.

Another problem is that we have been unable to indulge in selective recruitment since 1945, except in one area, which means that the tradition whereby families, over several generations, serve the Post Office has to some extent broken down. We shall rebuild that tradition, I am sure, both amongst the new staff and amongst the older staff who have served the Post Office so faithfully.

I must, however, say this to my hon. Friend: it does not help us in any way for him to indulge in unfair criticism. I am still new enough to the office which I hold to look upon this matter with reasonable objectivity and I repeat that it does not help us in any way if he indulges in what I thought was unfair criticism, which only makes it more difficult for us to rebuild the strong traditions for which the Post Office has always been noted in the past.

The immense increase in the volume of mail—parcels and letter packets—has meant a great expansion of our machine, and immense complexity and problems of administration, which have necessarily brought in their train certain difficulties which may take some time to overcome.

On the whole, however, I reiterate what I said at the beginning: anyone who has had the privilege, as I have, of serving with the Post Office is convinced that, apart from a small number of individuals, the vast majority of those who serve in a great public service do so proudly, and have every intention of giving the best service that they possibly can to their country and to the customers throughout the country who depend on the Post Office for communications both of a business and a private nature.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having raised these points. It has enabled me perhaps to clear up some of those criticisms which are made of us from time to time. I have not dealt with all the points which he wished me to cover, but I have done my best to deal with some of them. If there are others, I am sure that he will not hesitate to take the opportunity of approaching us and discussing these matters with us so that we may take advantage of his experience and views and so that in the end we can restore those standards to the Post Office which were traditional in those years before the war, and which it is the wish of all ranks to restore as quickly as possible.

Mr. Iremonger

That is a most disappointing and touchy reply.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member is not entitled to make a second speech on the Motion.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock.