HC Deb 17 February 1956 vol 548 cc2757-68

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

4.5 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Skeffington (Hayes and Harlington)

In this week of rather sensational events, I am glad to have the opportunity of raising a subject of more local interest, which nevertheless is of some consequence to those who live and work in the area of the Urban District Council of Hayes and Harlington. I refer to the shortages of telephones and the very long delays which occur in their installation. It may be that there is some convincing explanation, and I hope that this short Adjournment debate will provide an opportunity for the Assistant Postmaster-General to state the facts and for the public to judge.

I want immediately to make it clear that I am not one of those who continually indulge in criticism of the Post Office. I very much resent a good many of the sneers made from time to time, usually by people who are ignorant of the facts about the tremendous job which the Post Office is able to do on so many fronts so satisfactorily. Indeed, considering the time factor against which the Post Office is always fighting, there is no organisation in the world of equal general efficiency and I want to make that clear.

I wish that I could be as hopeful and confident about the telecommunications section of the Post Office, at any rate in the West London area. My first personal difficulty is to understand how it is that this considerable back log of delays in; telephone installations in Hayes and Harlington should exist and continue ten years after the war. One can understand the difficulties that arose in the immediate post-war years, but it is difficult to understand how these particular delays have arisen, and I wonder whether it is due to the fact that the needs of the area have not been sufficiently estimated and foreseen.

Those in charge of the development of the telecommunication service of the Post Office must have known that the whole of West London, and certainly the area of Hayes and Harlington, were rapidly expanding. Hayes itself now has a population of about 64,000. About two-thirds of the houses in the district have been built since 1930, and more than 2,500 have been built by the local council since 1945. Even more important is the industrial nature of the district and that expansion. London Airport is in-the locality and eleven new factories have been built since the war, making altogether about 160 factories in the constituency. It must be one of the most heavily industrialised areas, certainly in the whole of the Home Counties, if not in the entire country. Indeed, I believe that Acton is the only district with a heavier incidence of industry.

With an energetic council carrying on residential expansion, with industry being attracted to the district, industry very largely comprised of light engineering and food processing, I would have-thought it would be pretty obvious to anyone studying the district that there was bound to have a high level of activity, industrial, commercial and business, quite apart from the development of communications which would be required for private and social purposes. I should point out in the case I am making this afternoon, I am almost entirely concerned with telephone communication for business and commercial not for social purposes, much as that is highly desirable and extremely convenient, particularly in personal emergencies. One wonders if those who were in charge of the telephone development in this part of Greater London have failed to appreciate the type and rapidity of the development there. It almost looks as if that may have been the case.

What is the size of the problem? On 16th November I asked a Question of the Postmaster-General about the number of applications for telephones outstanding, and I was informed that at that date there were 1,309 applications for telephones in Hayes and Harlington. Apparently I could not be given the average waiting time. I understand that that number has increased to something like 1,400 today, and my own estimate, judged by letters which I have had from the Department and from individual cases, is that the average waiting time may be as much as a year.

It is very difficult for me to estimate an average, because I do not know all the cases, but I have a considerable number of examples in which at least 12 months' delay is forecast, and I have several letters from the Department which say that they can offer no hope until the middle of 1957. It needs a great deal of explanation to firms and others who sometimes have already been waiting six months or longer, to be told that it will be another 18 months before they can have either a telephone of their own or even a shared line.

I would like to mention one or two cases because they reveal the nature of the problem and perhaps the atmosphere in this division of the Department's activities. I want to refer first of all to an optician whose business premises are situated in Gloucester Parade, Bourne Avenue. Since I raised this matter the telephone has been installed. I do not claim any credit for that, because I do not think it was anything to do with me. Indeed, it would perhaps be a bad thing if it was thought that because a Member of Parliament took the matter up someone had jumped the queue. Nevertheless I am grateful, at any rate, that the telephone has been installed in this case.

There are, here, however, one or two points which are a little puzzling. First of all, this was only a question of moving a telephone 50 yards. The address at which the optician had been living was only 50 yards from where his new office was to be situated. His old business had been served by overhead telephone wires, and I understand that overhead telephone wires have now been used to connect him. Before he came to me he had written twice, I gather, to the Sales Superintendent of the West Telephone Area, and on 29th December, 1955, he received this letter: Further special enquiries have been made…"— thus I gather there had been a second check— …but I am sorry to say that it is not possible to meet your requirements because new underground cables will have to be laid in the locality. A considerable amount of work is involved and no date can be forecast when the work will be undertaken. I repeat, this was a question of moving a telephone only 50 yards. In fact, by 26th January this optician's telephone problem had been solved, but it is strange that after a check he should get a letter saying that it is impossible to provide him with a telephone, that no date can be given and that the work can only be done after the installation of underground cables, when in fact none of those factors applies a month later. Possibly there are circumstances which explain it, but I think that the very letter may be an indication that those dealing with the problem for Hayes regard it almost as hopeless, and so I thought it right to refer to the case, though I am delighted that this gentleman's difficulty is solved. He is doing National Health Service work, and so a telephone is of importance to him.

The second case concerns a firm in North Hyde Road. After I secured this Adjournment debate, the telephone difficulties of this firm were also solved. I mentioned it to the Assistant Postmaster-General but he assured me that the decision was taken before he knew that the matter was being raised by me in the House. Again, I am grateful. I merely quote this case because before the firm approached me in January of this year they had been waiting for fifteen months, which is quite a long period. The only indication they had was—again apparently because of the same difficulty of shortage of equipment and the need for underground cable— they might have to wait until 1957. By a lucky chance some spare wires became available or they might have had to wait two-and-a-half years before being connected with the telephone. In this age and generation, ten years after the war, that is a long time indeed, and it needs some explanation.

I would emphasise again that these are all cases connected with commercial needs. I wish to refer to the case of a food producing firm whose factory is in Springfield Road, Hayes. They have a factory of some 15,000 square feet where they are canning food and turning out something like 10 million tins a year. They employ between 50 and 100 workers. Since going to the premises the firm has only had a shared telephone line and naturally they need their own line. Their business has expanded and recently the firm wrote to me stating: In view of the volume of business, we are finding it utterly impossible to carry on and we have in fact had to reduce our administrative staff at Hayes, and in order to carry on our business at all we are being forced to retain offices and staff in the West End in addition to a car and driver permanently employed in carrying messages to and fro. It is a shocking state of affairs when a firm engaged in a vitally useful job of this kind is forced to these sort of measures. Again, I am led to believe that the average waiting time is something like twelve months because in this case, according to a letter written to me by the Postmaster-General on 22nd December the firm cannot be connected up until 1957. The letter stated: …there are no spare wires in the local cable and we are very short of spare equipment at the Hayes Exchange…I am afraid we may not be able to help this firm until about the middle of 1957. Eighteen months is a very long time, and as I said in conversation with the Assistant Postmaster-General, I can well imagine what the Postmaster-General would have said had he been on this side of the House and received an answer of that kind from the Department. I do not wish to adopt that attitude, because I am sure that both of us wish to get something done, but I think that is a very long period for a firm doing a vital job in food production to have to wait for a telephone. The letter states that there is a shortage of spare equipment. Why is that? How soon can that be put right? Were not these things foreseen? It is on such fundamental problems that I hope that we shall receive some enlightenment today.

I wish to give one more specific case, that of the highways superintendent of the local council. The superintendent, or rather the council on his behalf, made an application for him to be connected to the telephone last October. I heard of this case only yesterday and so I have not been able to notify the Assistant Postmaster-General of it. It is desirable that a highways superintendent should be connected with the telephone because he is often required in an emergency either by the surveyor or by the police. There may be an accident, or flooding, or a subsidence or something of that kind. Again, no action has resulted. The application was made last October, and the most optimistic forecast is that the important officer will not be able to be connected with the telephone until at least next June or July. This is another case which I consider most unfortunate.

One other difficulty is in connection with some of the new housing estates. Many of these estates have no private telephones, because, obviously, unless there happen to be spare wires private individuals are not likely to be on top of the installation list. On one new housing estate, about which I wrote to the Postmaster-General six months ago, there are 34 bungalows let to old people. A call box in the vicinity is essential for fire or ambulance purposes. There is one telephone box, but it must be a good ten-minutes walk away. It takes me that time to walk it, but it would take an old person very much longer. Another is 300 yards away, but too far—in an emergency for old folk. Again, I am told that every effort will be made to instal a call box in that area, but no hope of doing so far many months is held out. I would hope that special provisions might be made in cases of that sort. The installation of call boxes on new housing estates is of some importance, especially from the point of view of fire and ambulance service.

There are two other cases which I wish to mention. One is in connection with the Charville Estate which has six shops. This estate is really considerably cut off from the rest of the community. In fact, there are fields in between. I gather that only one of the six shops has a telephone, and, again, it would be much appreciated if something could be done for this isolated community. Both commercially and socially it would be highly desirable to have a telephone there.

Similar considerations arise in respect to the Bourne Farm Estate. I gather that up to a short time ago not one of the four shops on that estate was connected with the telephone. I am only dealing with commercial businesses or with cases where the needs of society should be met. I have not dealt with the desirability of providing telephones for private use.

This is the age of inventions, of man's mastery of the elements. We can now send messages thousands of miles without wires. Therefore, it is a little unfortunate that in an expanding locality of the kind I have described many months of delay occur before a telephone is installed. I very much hope that the Assistant Postmaster-General will be able to say that he will get his specialists and others engaged on the problem and that, in spite of the shortage of equipment, and so on, some progress can be made at any rate in the more serious cases which I have outlined.

4.23 p.m.

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

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Hayes and Harling-ton (Mr. Skeffington) for the tribute which he paid to the Post Office and, particularly, to the telecommunications side, for the work which it has accomplished during the last ten years or more. I should like to emphasise that that tribute is more than justified.

It is sometimes not realised that despite the virtual standstill during the war years, the overall size of our telephone system has doubled since 1939. In fact, we have installed almost as many telephones since 1945 as in the whole of the sixty years between the start of the telephone system in 1879 and the outbreak of war in 1939. I am sure, therefore, that when we are considering the problems of a particular district, as we are at present, those problems must be seen in relation to the overall achievement of the Post Office in the development and expansion of the telephone system of the country since 1945. As I say, I am grateful to the hon. Member for his remarks.

Before I come to the background of the problem, Mr. Speaker, perhaps you will allow me to reply to some of the points made particularly by the hon. Gentleman. The gist of his criticism—and it was put very fairly, for which I am grateful to him—was that there was some pessimism, so far as the sales representatives of the Post Office were concerned, when estimating the time at which the applicant was likely to get his telephone.

The hon. Member mentioned the case of a subscriber who had his telephone installed much more quickly than the sales representative had said was probable. If we err on the side of pessimism in these matters we err on the right side. It would be thoroughly unfortunate and imprudent if we gave over-optimistic estimates to applicants as to when they would have their telephones installed, if we subsequently had to disappoint them —in many cases, probably, after they had made special provisions which would depend upon a telephone being available.

The hon. Gentleman raised some special points about call offices in housing estates. He can be assured that we are fully aware of the importance of providing—as and when possible, and as soon as possible—the facilities of a public telephone in the area of a new building estate, realising that not only the old people will be depending upon it but also many parents, who, in cases of sickness in the family, urgently require the use of a telephone.

The Post Office gives full consideration to these matters in dealing with these problems. At the same time, we are up against an increased demand for telephones both for residential and business purposes, which, despite the very remarkable progress made by the Post Office in this respect since 1945, cannot at present be fully met, for technical and other reasons.

The hon. Member referred in all cases to business telephones, and we recognise that the lack of a telephone is a very considerable handicap to any business. One of the businesses to which he referred— an important and expanding business— already has a telephone. In that case the request was for additional telephone facilities, so that the problem, although causing difficulties, no doubt, is not so desperate as those cases where no telephone has been installed.

We also place great emphasis upon the provision, where possible, of residential telephones. We realise that more and more families regard a telephone as an essential amenity in the normal intercourse of social life and, from the housewife's point of view, in dealing with the problems of her home and family. It is because of this that, over the past few years, we have allocated a high percentage of the capital resources available to us to the expansion of our telephone system. But, apart from the fact that, during previous Governments as well as this, these resources have been necessarily limited in relation to the high demand, the work of constructing new telephone equipment and putting up new exchanges is inevitably very considerable and expensive.

If I give the hon. Gentleman some figures it may help him to understand some of our difficulties. After a site has been acquired for a new telephone exchange it takes about 18 months to erect the building, and a further 18 months to install the highly complex automatic equipment which that building has to contain. We have reached a point in the development of our telephone system when it has become increasingly necessary to replace the old exchanges by new and larger ones rather than by merely adding to the capacity of the exchanges already in existence.

This is the problem which we face in the hon. Member's constituency. It is against this background that I ask him and the House to consider the problems of Hayes and Harlington. We calculate that between 1951 and 1953, the population of that area has increased from 65,000 to 90,000, which is a tremendous increase, and the demand for telephones has increased from 400 in 1952 to 1,055 last year. That is an increase of 150 per cent. compared with the average increase in demand of 45 per cent. for the country as a whole.

There is one point which the hon. Gentleman made which, I think, would cause him to be interested in my next figure. It is that of the 1,347 applicants on the order list at present there are 160 requiring telephones for business purposes. The remainder, that is, the vast majority, require them for residential use, although I am not decrying the telephone for residential use, because I know how important it is.

The hon. Gentleman questioned whether we had been sufficiently far-sighted in dealing with telephone problems. Between 1951 and 1955, we have supplied 3,000 additional telephones in this particular area, and we estimate—and this is the final figure I shall give-that the demand for the present year will reach about 1,150. We propose to tackle the problem raised by Hayes and Harlington in two phases.

Equipment extensions at the exchange will enable us to gain capacity for an additional 200 connections in March, and a further 1,200 in July. During the next 16 months, we hope to provide local cable extensions—that is, not additional capacity at the exchanges, but additional cable capacity, and the two things present quite different problems—we hope to increase cable extensions in order to connect up about half of the 700 applicants who are now waiting for local cable facilities. That will account for 350, and of the remaining 350 we hope that a large proportion will be accommodated on a shared line basis. Therefore, as I think the hon. Gentleman will agree, the immediate prospects are not too bad, though I think that there will be different problems affecting different applicants.

After March we will be depending to some degree, though not entirely, upon the opening of the new Viking Exchange, the construction of which is due to start in September of this year. This new exchange will serve part of the area represented by the hon. Member and part of adjoining areas. Dependent upon the rate and volume of the demand there may be a period between now and 1960 when we will face new problems in the area, but—and I want to be quite frank with the hon. Member on this—that is not a problem special to his area, but one which will affect other areas.

I hope I have been able to give the hon. Member a general idea of the prospects ahead and of the steps we are taking to meet the problems which his constituents face. I do not think that he can accuse the Post Office either now or in earlier years of a lack of foresight. After all, the new Hayes Exchange was completed only in 1950 and, therefore, the Post Office realised some time ago that the expansion of demand in this area would be considerable.

We fully realise the difficulties in which the present situation involves both the businessmen and the residents in the hon. Gentleman's area. We are doing our best to maintain a correct approach to their problems, along with those of telephone applicants in all parts of the country. To the best of our ability we have to base our approach on fair shares of the resources available while, at the same time, keeping a close watch upon the special developments which may take place in various parts of the country.

I very much appreciate the way in which the hon. Gentleman has put his case, and I am sure that his constituents will also appreciate it. If he has any particular case that he would like me to look into I hope he will not hesitate to let me know. We shall certainly do our best, as we have done in the past.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes to Five o'clock.