HC Deb 09 July 1957 vol 573 cc323-48

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

9.15 p.m.

Mr. F. P. Crowder (Ruislip-Northwood)

I am glad to have an opportunity this evening of raising the question of shared telephone lines and postal services, in particular in my constituency of Ruislip and Northwood, and in general throughout the country.

So far as my constituency is concerned, I should like to emphasise the fact that during the seven and a half years that I have represented it I have had an inordinately large number of complaints about lack of telephone facilities, and the inefficiency of telephone and postal facilities in that district. I have devoted considerable time, effort and industry to ameliorating this position and I am happy to say that things are very much better today—I hope partially as the result of my efforts—than they were five, six or seven years ago.

Here I desire to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend and his predecessors. They have always treated my continual, and what must have been wearisome, inquiries with the greatest courtesy. They have gone into every single case, and, as a result of our co-operation, the interest which the Minister has shown and the conscientious manner in which he has dealt with every single one of my inquiries, things are very much better today than they were some years ago. But much still remains to be done, not only in Ruislip and Northwood, but throughout the country.

It seems to me not altogether inappropriate that we should have the Assistant Postmaster-General replying to this debate on a day when we see in the Daily Express that there is a possibility that charges for postal services, telephones and the like, may be increased before we go away for the Recess. It is very seldom that Her Majesty's Government give back benchers such as I notice of such intentions, but, happily, the Press can be useful on such occasions, and this may, therefore, be an occasion on which to offer the Minister a salutary word of warning.

Whatever may be said from the political angle, let it be remembered that this Government was returned on two occasions, the last time and in 1951, principally with one object. That was to reduce the cost of living; and in reducing the cost of living one does not expect them to proceed by raising telephone charges. I say that for this reason, in the main, because in the public eye the Post Office is nothing more nor less than a monopoly—a monopoly which has been used for many years as a tax-collecting instrument by the Government. That was certainly so before the war, and I think that I am right in saying—my hon. Friend will correct me if I am not—that in a different sense it is the same today, because the Post Office makes a very large profit, as indeed do other firms, and that profit is handed over to the ever-grasping fingers of the Revenue and the Treasury.

When one compares the position with that before the war and considers some of the prices the Post Office is charging and some of the services it is giving, one begins to wonder how it can ever be contemplated for one moment that there should be an increase. I had expected that after six years of Conservative Government we should be beginning to see a decrease in postal and telephone charges and an increase in efficiency.

Let me give an example. I remember how very pleased we all were before the war, in 1937 or 1938—and I was particularly pleased at the time because, being an undergraduate, I was necessarily very hard up—when we were able to send a telegram for 6d. The late Sir Kingsley Wood was responsible for that. What does a telegram cost today? The minimum charge is 3s. 6d. One is only too ready to acknowledge the fact which, as hon. Members, we have acknowledged personally in respect of ourselves today, that costs have gone up and that we can more or less multiply prices by three compared with before the war. Nevertheless, one would think that if the Post Office were running its affairs in accordance with inflation, be it under a Socialist Government or under a Tory Government, 1s. 6d. would be the minimum charge. In fact, it is 3s. 6d. and we are told by the Daily Express that the charge may rise even higher.

How much does a greetings telegram cost? What is the minimum charge? It is 4s.—an extra 6d. Here is a fraud on the public, because it is an extra 6d. for a piece of paper with a few coloured pre-Raphaelite drawings on it. I understand that it costs the Post Office between¼d. and ½d. Hon. Members opposite in the past have talked about profits, but if ever there were a matter which should go before the Monopolies Commission to be dealt with by the severest penalties and fines, surely it is the case of the greetings telegram.

I understand quite well the difficulties with which my right hon. Friend has to cope in respect of telegrams. Obviously, with the increased costs of fuel, petrol and motor cars, in deep country districts it can cost a great deal to send one telegram up into the hills. The fact is, however, that if one person in London wishes to send a telegram to another person in London, on his birthday, he can decide to economise and not to pay the profit of 5d. on 6d. on the greetings telegram. He can send a rather ordinary and rather dirty-looking piece of paper, with the words often arriving incorrectly, for 3s. 6d.; and if the person to whom the telegram is sent has the good fortune to own a telephone and it is not a shared line, there is a good chance that within an hour someone will ring him up and dictate the telegram over the telephone. Of course, had they both possessed a telephone it would have been easiest to have spent 4d. by making a telephone call. The person who sent the telegram of friendship and greetings on a birthday or anniversary could then have been 3s. 2d. better off.

Why cannot we have a system under which, if the recipient of a telegram possesses a telephone or a telephone number, a reduced rate of 4d. or 6d. is charged if it is agreed that the telegram shall be telephoned to the person to whom it is addressed? After all, very little labour is involved—no motor cars, no boys on bicycles, nothing of that sort. I think that I am right in saying that in the cheap call time between six and ten o'clock at night, it costs less than 3s. 6d. to telephone the North of Scotland, and in three minutes one can speak many more than twelve words. The charge is outrageous, and something which I do not think that the people will tolerate, particularly if this Department which is, as it were, annoying them in this way is shortly to ask them to pay even more for such a service.

I fully appreciate that people who live in outlying districts and who probably need to send only one or two telegrams a year will probably have to pay a little more, but I really think that there should be some differentiation. At the moment, those telegram charges are grossly high in one particular case, and in others a little low compared with the service asked for and given.

I come now to the question of shared telephone lines. In this respect, what my constituents, in particular—and, I think, most other people—have in mind is an announcement made in this House just about ten years ago, in December, 1947, by the then Postmaster-General. We were then given to understand that because the war had been over for just over a year people would temporarily—temporarily and for the time being—he asked occasionally to share a telephone line. The reason given was that the Post Office had been hindered in many directions by the war effort, that it lacked capital expenditure and so on, and wanted to get on its feet again.

I do not think that anybody liked that, but in such circumstances the British people are sensible. Not for one moment did they think it was the thin end of the wedge. Accordingly, they accepted that proposition. It now comes as a surprise, and a hitter surprise, to many people to learn that that statement has, in fact, turned out to be the thin end of the wedge. How often has it happened in this House that a Minister has produced some form of policy which is said to be only a temporary expedient to meet a time of crisis, yet we find within a very few years that the temporary expedient, which was unpleasant but necessary, has become Government policy. I shall never forget, and again I refer to the late Sir Kingsley Wood, the "temporary expedient" of Purchase Tax. One knows very well that that Purchase Tax is, in the main, responsible for all our present inflationary and economic troubles. I say that in passing, Mr. Speaker, for the simple reason that I know as well as you do that I am out of order in mentioning it.

I have in my hand a letter written to the Eastcote Residents' Association in my constituency—and we were at particular pains to find out what the Government's policy really was. The letter reads:

"Dear Sir,

Party telephone lines.

It is agreed that the principle of sharing telephone lines was adopted as an expedient by the Post Office in order to assist with the very serious problem of meeting the heavy demand in the post-war years. The system, however, proved so successful "—

rather like Purchase Tax: that a great deal of development work has been done on it, and it has now come to be regarded as a permanent part of the telephone system. You will accordingly expect that the future Post Office policy on this subject will be to continue shared service as a permanent feature.

The gentleman who signed that letter is a person named Hudson who is apparently the head of the North-West Telephone Area, London, of Telephone House, Shoot Up Hill—I do not know whether that refers to prices shooting up —N.W.2.

The Government should realise that they cannot continue to get away with this sort of thing. People do not like shared telephone lines, or very few people like them. Occasionally, people can be persuaded to like them temporarily if that is the only possible method by which they can save a small business and have a service of that sort for the time being.

There is also this side to the question. What is the difference between a tapped telephone and a shared telephone? One is listened to by Home Office officials, while the other is listened to—is it not?—by anyone who happens to be in a house or establishment on the other part of the shared line. I would ask this question. If the Government are really serious in their decision to continue with this system of shared service as a permanent feature, would not it be possible—and here I confess I do not know the technicalities involved—to ensure that when two persons are speaking on a shared line, it will be quite impossible for a third party to listen in?

As my right hon. Friend knows very well indeed, there are large numbers of people, professional and otherwise, who have very good reason for not wishing their conversations to be overheard. I do not say that these conversations are in any way ones of which for one moment they would be ashamed, but they are often conversations of a confidential character.

Take an ordinary private citizen, a person who is in no way privileged. Let us suppose that he decides to ring up his bank manager to discuss what quite a number of people have to discuss today —the matter of his overdraft and so forth. It is not very desirable for him that other people should have the opportunity to listen to that conversation. There is nothing wrong in it at all, but the effect of this system is that if the individual concerned is on a shared line he is debarred from having such a conversation.

Equally, there are people who are in competition in business. They do not necessarily wish information spread around about their latest ideas and ventures, but under the shared line system they can all very easily be jeopardised in that respect. There are people whose business is necessarily of a confidential nature, such as doctors. Here again, it is undesirable for their conversations to be overheard and reported, particularly in small communities where gossip can rage like a tornado.

Then there are members of my own profession, that is, members of the Bar, which has been under some scrutiny in the past few weeks. There again, it is undesirable that the conversations one may have from time to time with solicitors should necessarily be open, as it were, to the public ear.

Will my hon. Friend tell us who are the people who are safe from the visiting Post Office representatives, who go round to people, as happened to my constituent, telling them, "You are going to share a line, whether you like it or not, and if you raise any objection, you shall have no telephone service at all." I have evidence of that here, and I shall refer to it later. In other words, what I am asking is who is safe from the visits of the telephone representative making that demand? It is not, under the present regime, made as a request; unfortunately, it is made as a demand. I take it that Her Majesty's judges and people in like positions are exempt from that kind of visitation, but the time has come, in my opinion, when people generally should know who is protected from the enforced imposition of the shared line.

I come now to another matter, the shortage of telephones in my constituency. There is no doubt at all that the atmosphere created by the representatives of the Post Office in relation to the granting of telephones to people has been, to put it at its kindest, a most unhappy one. We have had instance after instance of the right hand obviously not knowing what the left hand was doing. There is a very strong feeling that, when a telephone is granted, it is, as it were, granted half as a favour, rather like a chop used to be handed under the counter in 1943. That feeling is a very genuine one. I know that it is difficult to point to any particular instance, but I can say with absolute certainty, having been through the whsle of my correspondence, after writing to the council and the various associations in estates where we have had trouble, that there is always that feeling that, if a telephone is granted, it is granted, as it were, as a personal favour from the civil servant, bureaucrat or official concerned.

There is today throughout the country, a very real lack of confidence in the Post Office and I believe that we can get over that lack of confidence merely by having a list of applicants for telephones in each local Post Office. All that needs to happen is that, as each applicant gets a telephone, the name is crossed out. I know that there may be certain difficulties because priorities will be involved. For that reason, we should be told what the priorities are. For instance, does a doctor come within the same category of priority as a High Court judge? If a doctor and a High Court judge both apply on the same day, who is the first to get it? The public wants to know where it is in this matter. Who is privileged, and exactly what is the degree of privilege? I am absolutely certain that there would have been far less trouble in my constituency —which has been a difficult problem for my hon. Friend, I fully acknowledge—if some such system had been adopted.

There really have been some most extraordinary performances. I have been worrying my hon. Friend's Department about the situation in a place called the Copse Wood Estate for about two and a half years now. Many very responsible people live in that estate. To take a typical example, a bank manager living there needed a telephone. He had to wait for just under two years. He was the first to acknowledge the difficulties which confronted my hon. Friend and his Department.

What really upset him, and all his friends on the estate also, was the number of promises and half promises which were handed out to them month after month. First, they were not going to have a telephone at all. Then, they might possibly have one within two months. Getting a cheap motor car in the first two months after the war in dealing with the motor trade—a most highly undesirable body of people in that respect—is nothing compared with what my constituents have gone through with the Post Office.

I can give a specific instance. There was a lady living on the Copse Wood Estate named Mrs. Turrell. She, poor dear, went along and said that she did not mind having even a shared line. She was told by the Post Office representative that no shared lines were being allowed on the estate. As she knew that there were two opposite her, one can understand that there is a certain lack of confidence in the way that the Post Office is carrying out its duties in the area. As I say, however, in fairness to my hon. Friend, although it has taken about two and a half years, the situation in the Copse Wood Estate is very much improved.

I said earlier that the attitude which is adopted is sometimes a little undesirable. There is a gentleman called Mr. Vagyon who lives in my constituency. He has had considerable correspondence in this matter. Unfortunately, he was at one time a foreigner. He felt that that was perhaps being held against him—which, of course, it was not; but he was, and still is, extremely ill. He has to have injections literally within a matter of half an hour or so if he is to survive.

He was told that he had to share a telephone line. Quite properly, it may be thought, he raised objection and his problem. He received a letter headed Lt.-Col. J. C. Rowe, T.D., Telephone Manager. What "Lt.-Col." has to do with it, unless it is to add a little authority, I do not know. The letter ended by saying: I trust you will consider the matter, as I am afraid your continued refusal to share your line may result in the termination and withdrawal of your service. That may be the language of Colonel Rowe when in the Army, but to a man who is seriously ill, who is a good and loyal citizen of this country, I do not think that is quite the correct attitude for a Department which is a tax-gathering monopoly—and which is about to raise its charges—to adopt towards the British public. On my constituent's behalf, I feel entitled to make complaint this evening.

I can well understand equally the difficulties with which Colonel Rowe has to contend and we all receive letters from our constituents which in our minds must at times prompt similar replies, but this sort of thing has a nasty smell of Crichel Down and the heavy bureaucrat about it who is wielding the absolute power of monopoly. That, of course, is the sort of thing which my right hon. Friend, myself and, I know, hon. Members opposite would wish to prevent.

Perhaps I might refer briefly to the Raisins Hill Estate, a new estate in my constituency, with 144 flats and houses, sometimes, I believe, referred to as dwelling units—possibly by the Post Office. The estate is having difficulty in securing any telephones, even to the extent of finding it difficult to have a telephone kiosk placed anywhere near the estate. It is a curious thing, however, that within a matter of yards adjoining that estate there is a Government office building in Tollcarne Drive and another in Chamberlain Way adjoining the Estate, and there are Government premises, not inappropriately, at a place called Cuckoo Hill. Odd though it may seem, although those premises adjoin the estate, and although the difficulties are such that the estate can have no telephones, the people in those Government offices quite properly are equipped with telephones. I ask, therefore, that that matter be looked into.

I will give two quick examples of the sort of things which happen to the wretched taxpayer and telephone subscriber. I take the experience of Mr. Gallant of my constituency on 12th January. Mr. Gallant, who, it may be thought, is well named, awakes in the morning, and possibly decides to telephone, and looks out, on a cold, wintry day, to find the whole of his telephone wire neatly coiled in the garden and trees being felled all around it. One can understand that if trees are felled it may be necessary to disconnect the telephone lines, but one would not have thought that there could have been very much harm in notifying the subscriber.

After all, the subscriber pays a lot of money to have a telephone. I hope we shall be told tonight how much less money a year he pays if a shared service or tapped service is imposed upon him, because in my view the reduction should be drastic in the extreme. Indeed, as a lawyer I should have thought that the imposition would have incurred the heaviest possible damages because of the original contract with the Post Office—but, of course, as we know, that has been altered by Statute. However, this is the sort of thing which upsets people and worries them, and which worries Mr. Gallant.

I take secondly the experience of Mr. Eppy, who had a nice view at one time, but who arose one morning to find that immediately in front of his drawing-room window an enormous telephone pole had been placed by the Post Office. He, of course, was not consulted about it, or anything like that. Why should he have been? He had the temerity to complain, and was told that for technical reasons the pole had to be in that position.

I do not know what the technical reasons are. It is a very easy answer for the Post Office to get away with. All I can say, from my experience as a humble signals officer of a battalion in the war, is that it did not make any difference where the pole was put provided the wire did not drag on the ground. This unfortunate man objected to the pole being put where it was because is completely ruined the view from his house. From a high level he received a quite polite answer, that it was necessary to put the pole where it was for technical reasons.

I mention that only because I want my hon. Friend to consider the feeling that is going on about his Department in my constituency and, it may be, that is going on throughout the whole country. I know that as a supporter of the Government I have never had a very high regard for the efficiency of the Post Office, in particular the telephone service. I certainly have not had, if I have wanted to put a call through in a hurry.

I give this warning here tonight as one humble back bencher, that if my hon. Friend goes to Dispatch Box and tells this House that in present circumstances, with efficiency as it is at the moment—and we look for better things—telephone charges and the charges for postal services are to be increased, thereby creating further inflation, there will not only be a very strong protest in the House, but it will reverberate throughout the country. Thank goodness one has this opportunity here tonight, in view of what one saw in the Press this morning. However, I give that warning, and although I may be only a solitary back bencher, I know that I shall be supported to a man by every member of my association, and I would ask my hon. Friend to take heed of it.

In the matter of inflation and increased expenditure on the nationalised industries and Government services, the people of this country, quite frankly, have had about enough. They will not stand for much more. I hope accordingly that the Government and the Front Bench will take note.

I end with a few words about the postal services in my division. They are just about as bad as the telephone service, I am sorry to say, but on this occasion it is not lack of equipment. Not at all. This is real lack of organisation and here, of course, "technical difficulties" again intervene. Time and again it is taking three or four days for a postal packet posted in one half of my constituency, which is only about six or seven miles across, to reach the other half. The reason is the difficulty of dividing up the various postal districts.

I can give a personal example. Exactly a month ago I had occasion to post a very important letter indeed to my agent. It so happened that I was going near Watford, which adjoins my constituency, not on a political mission but on a purely social venture. I kept that letter in my pocket until I was within a mile of the place, because I was hopeful that if I posted that letter as near as that on the morning of Sunday it might get there by Monday evening. It has not arrived yet.

A letter was posted at Northwood Hill sub-post office on a Saturday. I raised in the House two and a half years ago the need for a Crown post office at Northwood and that post office has not been provided yet. The letter posted at Northwood Hill reached Eastcote the following Tuesday, yet one could almost throw a cricket ball from the one place to the other. That kind of delay happens over and over again, for the reason that there is an unfortunate division of the Eastcote ward into two areas for delivery purposes.

There has been agitation again and again that Eastcote, which lies between two delivery areas should have a separate postal address, namely Eastcote, because in all there are 47,000 to 50,000 dwellings in Eastcote itself. It is about time that in a district which is only sixteen or seventeen miles from London it should be possible by now to post a letter with a feeling of optimism that it may arrive two or three miles away within a matter of forty-eight hours.

I stress that, because my hon. Friend will see that if postal charges are to be increased, my constituents, who are faced with these difficulties, somewhat naturally will not only begin to wonder why but will ask me why, and I do not wish within the next week or so to have about 500 letters, which I know I shall have if my hon. Friend says that charges are to be increased.

Mr. Raymond Gower (Barry)

The letters will not reach my hon. Friend.

Mr. Crowder

Not until after the Recess.

I have been critical, not only because I have good reason to say how things could be improved but because that generally is the feeling of my constituents. I have constantly brought these matters, in correspondence and once previously on the Adjournment, to the notice of my hon. Friend. I emphasise that he has always looked most conscientiously into every problem that I have brought to him and always has been most prompt and courteous in his replies. We thank him for all he has done to improve the position hut, unfortunately, much still remains to be done, and I wish all strength to his arm in his efforts to improve conditions in the future.

9.55 p.m.

Mr. Edward Short (Newcastle-upon- Tyne, Central)

I apologise for inter- vening in this debate, and I shall do so for only one or two minutes. The hon. Member for Ruislip—Northwood (Mr. F. T. Crowder) has been talking about shared telephones. I want to talk about shared wavelengths. I apologise for coming into this debate, but I warned the hon. Gentleman the Assistant Post- master-General that I would use every constitutional means open to me to bring this matter before the House of Commons whenever I could.

As the House is aware by now, the north-east of England shares a regional wavelength with Northern Ireland. These two areas are hundreds of miles apart and have an entirely different local culture. I suggest, therefore, that the regional programme should be a vehicle for putting across the local culture.

I am sorry that the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) is not here, because I want it put on the record for her benefit that this arrangement was decided by the Care- taker Government in 1945 and put into operation by them and not by the Labour Government. For the past twelve years, therefore, only the north-east of England and Northern Ireland have had to share a wavelength. No other region in the whole of the British Isles has had to do so. My colleagues and I have raised this matter in the House over and over and over again. We shall continue to raise it over and over and over again until something is done about it.

As I said to you, Mr. Speaker, some time ago when I asked your advice on this matter, one of the ancient functions of Parliament is to redress grievances, and the north-east of England, where there are 500,000 wireless licences, has a tremendous sense of grievance about this. The hon. Member for Ruislip- Northwood, who spoke so eloquently, referred to the bad feeling in his area about the Post Office. Let me assure him that it is nothing compared with the bad feeling about the B.B.C. in the north-east of England. We invited the Postmaster-General to come up and sample public opinion about this, but so far he has not come.

We believe, and we have watched this carefully, that no real attempt has been made by the Postmaster-General or by the B.B.C. to solve this problem. When I spoke last time in an Adjournment debate I described to the House in detail a great insult which had been meted out to the North-East by the B.B.C. The hon. Gentleman will remember the incident, where we were having a memorial programme for a very beloved local conductor of the Felling Male Voice Choir and it was cut off in the middle to make way for a Northern Ireland short story.

The only result of my protest has been that we have had another insult meted out to us by the B.B.C. Three or four weeks' ago a new bishop was enthroned in Newcastle, the Rev. Hugh Ashdown. Naturally we expected that the enthroning service, a very ancient, lovely service, would be broadcast so that all the Anglicans in the north-east of England could listen. Imagine our dismay when we discovered that it was only to be broadcast on V.H.F. and not on the regional wavelength.

I can assure the Assistant Postmaster-General that this has intensified the feeling in the North-East about the poor deal we get from the B.B.C. I assure him also that we shall not regard V.H.F. as a solution of our problem. When people buy a wireless set they expect it to last for 12, 15 or 20 years, and it is unreasonable to expect half a million people in the north-east of England to throw away their wireless sets and buy V.H.F. or to pay £20 to £25 to get them converted. That is unreasonable, and therefore we do not accept the V.H.F. station as a solution.

We believe that the man directly responsible is the Director-General of the B.B.C. We have asked questions of him and, unless he does something to bestir himself, we shall be forced in the near future to put down a Motion on the Order Paper. But the Minister also has a Ministerial responsibility in this matter, and we expect him to do something about it. We know all about the technical difficulties. We have had them described to us over and over again. We do not agree that these difficulties are insuperable. Surely it is not beyond the wit and ingenuity of a nation which can make the hydrogen bomb and develop radar to overcome this minor technical difficulty—

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Short

I am sorry to have had to intervene, and I apologise to the hon. Member whose Adjournment Motion this was—but I warned the House that I would do so, and I warned the Assistant Postmaster-General. We shall go on raising the matter until he does something about it.

10.1 p.m.

Mr. Raymond Gower (Barry)

I am grateful for the opportunity to add a few words to the general complaints made by my hon. Friend. He has uttered to my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General some salutary warnings about the monopoly services administered by my hon. Friend's Department. If the Post Office continues to put up its charges for what we consider to be deteriorating services, it may be that it will encounter the sort of consumer resistance which the London Transport Executive has encountered in regard to some of its services.

At present, there is little doubt that the country as a whole is obtaining from the Post Office a poorer service at a greater cost. We all recognise that to be true of most parts of the country. In South Wales, where I live and where my constituency is situated, we have fewer postal deliveries than we used to have. We do not say that the Post Office should not study every possible way of simplifying its services, but that is one example of the reduced service now provided. I can underline what my hon. Friend has said about the poorness of the deliveries. If I wish to be sure that a letter posted in London will arrive in Cardiff on a certain day I now have to post it very much earlier than I did a few years ago.

We are a very long way from the time when Sir Rowland Hill introduced the penny postage but we may well find a repetition of the story of the young woman who communicated with her fiancé by putting a message, consisting of some symbol, on the outside of the envelope addressed to him, which he then rejected after having noted the symbol. That subterfuge may again have to be practised by the poorer persons who receive letters if postal charges continue to be increased.

In one respect only does it seem to me that the Post Office is turning on the heat, and that is in respect of its shared telephone service, to which my hon. Friend has referred. I have had one example of this just outside the City of Cardiff, concerning two villages which fall within the area of my constituency—St. Nicholas and Peterston-super-Ely. I was told that it was necessary for my constituent, a Mr. Davies, in St. Nicholas, to accept for the first time a shared service instead of his own service, which he had previously enjoyed, in order to enable another constituent of mine—a Mrs. Davis, at Peterston-super-Ely—to enjoy a telephone service.

That request seemed reasonable if, as seemed probable, there were long waiting lists in both villages. I then took the precaution of putting down a Question in order to ascertain how many people there were on the waiting lists of Peterston-super-Ely and St. Nicholas respectively. To my astonishment I found that there was a very short waiting list in each village. In the light of what my hon. Friend said it means that rather than this being a matter of necessity, owing to long waiting lists, it was due to the strange policy outlined by the official —who had been named to my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. F. P. Crowder)—who explained how successful it had been.

As to charges my hon. Friend has had his warning tonight. Therefore, he and his right hon. Friend are in a better position than the Chairman of the National Coal Board, who has already arrived at his decision. They have the opportunity to study what can be done to improve the efficiency of the organisation whose' destinies they supervise. They have a monopoly service. They have no rivals. It is therefore incumbent upon them to look at all these problems again, in connection both with the need for more efficiency and the charges which they make for the services they render. I hope that my hon. Friend and his right hon. Friend will take to heart what has been said so forcibly by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood and supported, albeit inadequately, by myself and others.

10.6 p.m.

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, West)

I am grateful to the Minister for not rising just for the moment. I am surprised that neither Government supporter who spoke found it possible to say a word for those who make the Post Office services. We have the best Post Office service in the world, and I have always been proud of it. The hon. Member for Ruislip—Northwood (Mr. F. P. Crowder) seems to be surrounded with incompetents. He has not found it possible to discover anyone in the Post Office service in his constituency to whom he can say, "Well done." It is only due to those who earn their living in the postal service that we should say a good word on their behalf.

Mr. F. P. Crowder


Mr. Thomas

No, I will not give way.

Mr. Crowder

On a point of order. I did not refer to the workers who are actually trying to work the Post Office within my constituency. They do it most—

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is not a point of order. The only point of order is that unless the hon. Gentleman who has the Floor gives way another hon. Gentleman is not entitled to interrupt him.

Mr. Thomas

I am sorry, Mr. Speaker. I usually give way—but I realise that the Minister wants to reply. I want to take only two minutes. I have listened to a most devastating attack upon the Post Office. The hon. Member for Ruislip—Northwood surely does not want to whittle down the very serious charges he made of utter incompetence.

Mr. Crowder

Those who are trying to administer the Post Office in my constituency do so to the best of their ability and most efficiently. I am complaining about the direction by bureaucrats in Whitehall.

Mr. Thomas

It is possible for me to post a letter in 'this House at 8 o'clock at night and for the letter to be delivered by the first post in Cardiff tomorrow morning. I do it regularly, and so do my hon. Friends. I am grateful for that service.

I find myself at one with the hon. Member for Barry (Mr. Gower) in warning the Minister that shared telephones are not here to stay with any comfort on his part. The British people do not like this tapping-telephone system, especially when their neighbours can hear their business. They would rather the police heard their business than the neighbours. At least the police are sworn to secrecy. It is awful for neighbours to find out the state of our bank balance, or if there is going to be an increase in the family, and other private and confidential things spoken over the line, which can be whispered through the streets in a way which causes a lot of trouble. The Minister is doing no favour if he says that that is the Britain of the future.

I hope to goodness that the Daily Express is wrong once again—it will not be the first time—when it says that the Minister is about to increase telephone charges. That will be a direct inflationary step which is bound to cause the greatest havoc in our commerce and industry.

10.10 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Kenneth Thompson)

I am sure the House will agree that the debate so far has not passed without every opportunity being taken either to criticise and condemn the Post Office, or to warn it of the dread fate which awaits it in certain eventualities. I propose as I go along to deal with one or two of the observations which have been made.

Let me first say to my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. F. P. Crowder), who initiated this debate, that the difficulties of his constituents have been a matter of concern to the Post Office for a long time. My right hon. Friend has gone into this matter repeatedly and, in the knowledge that this debate was to take place this evening, he has examined the whole matter again. I should like to assure the House that he will keep the whole subject under review to make quite sure that so far as is possible no failure on our part shall add to the difficulties of those who are now awaiting telephones. I should like to add in support of what my hon. Friend has said that no hon. Member could possibly be more diligent in pursuing the claims and interests of his constituents than my hon. Friend. A very large, voluminous and, I must say, interesting, correspondence has gone on between him and the various branches of the Post Office for a long time.

I am glad to have the opportunity of speaking about the sharing of telephones. It is a long while since the House had a discussion about it. I hope in the course of what I have to say to be able to put at rest some of the anxieties which toment my hon. Friend's constituents and apparently give no pleasure to the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas). Shared service is not something that the Post Office authorities have entered into with wild and joyous abandon, It is a device, a neighbourly device, to enable us to give telephone service of some kind to the greatest possible number of people who want telephone service. It was introduced in 1948, as is well within the recollection of most hon. Members in the House, in order to serve that specific purpose at a time when there was a very heavy demand for telephones and only limited resources of materials, manpower and technical and scientific skill available, to make the telephone service available widely to everyone. It is not something we have done because we liked doing it in preference to any other way of providing telephone service.

At present, I am bound to say I can see little prospect of its being abandoned in the immediate future. But I want the House to know that my right hon. Friend wants to get rid of compulsory telephone sharing as soon as it is possible to do so without limiting our capacity to extend telephone service as widely as possible to those who want to have it. Let me remind the House that every telephone, unlike the tapping on to a main water pipe, a gas pipe or electricity main, requires its own single pair of wires running all the way from the telephone within the house or office back to the exchange. That means an enormous and intricate network of wires and cables in each exchange area and involves the Post Office in enormous capital investment. If we can get two subscribers to share one of these pairs of wires from their respective homes to the telephone exchange, we are limiting the amount of capital and resources of all kinds that are called into use to give service to two people.

Since this service was introduced, in 1948, we have managed to arrange sharing between no fewer than 1,200,000 telephone users. I does not require the exercise either of much ingenuity or, may I say, magnanimity, to see that this means 600,000 people are today in touch by telephone with the rest of the country who would not have been had it not been possible to use this device in the way we have used it. It has meant that we have been able to reduce the waiting list for telephones by just about that number. Half those people would still have been waiting today had they not been able to share in this way.

I should tell the House that, far from what my hon. Friend would have had the House believe, we get a very surprisingly small number of complaints or criticism of any kind from those who have once experienced how the shared telephone service works. It is true that many people do not like being called upon to share. Many people do not like the first approach made to them to ask them to give away the exclusiveness of their lines in order to let someone else use the same pair of lines. But so slight is the effect upon the ordinary domestic residential telephone subscriber of another user on the pair of lines that we very rarely indeed get any serious complaints about the use of telephones combined in that way.

So I say to those who may be called upon to share that their worse terrors are over when they have got over the shock of being asked to share. A telephone user's experience of a shared line is, in fact, usually a very happy and agreeable one. But we do not go about, as my hon. Friend would have had us believe, damnifying and villifying and outraging people to compel them to share their telephones.

The approach that is made to the subscriber who is asked to share, whether by someone with a military title to his name or not, is not quite as my hon. Friend would have the House believe. It does not suddenly happen that one day a lieutenant-colonel or a general writes a letter which finishes in the terms of the letter which my hon. Friend read to the House. It is true that the letter was sent and that it contained precisely those terms, but let us do justice, as the hon. Gentleman the Member for Cardiff, West attempted very gallantly to do, to the officers of the Post Office who come to the point at which they have to send such letters.

This letter came at the end of a very long series of gentle, polite and courteous efforts to get this gentleman to honour an agreement that he had voluntarily entered into. It is not the case that a letter suddenly pings through his letterbox in those terms. An officer will call and ask the subscriber if he is willing to share. The subscriber quite often says, "No, of course not; I want my exclusive line and I hope that you will allow me to retain it." That is not unusual. He is reminded of the fact that others want telephone service and can only get it if subscribers are willing to share.

Again, he may not be willing to accept that position or that appeal and he must then be reminded that he got his telephone on the understanding that if the time came when someone else wanted a telephone and could have it only by sharing, he would be willing to share. All this process was gone through in the case to which my hon. Friend referred.

At what stage does either a Government Department or a private individual look to another private individual to stand by the terms of the agreement he has entered into? At what stage does somebody, in whatever terms one may care to use, make clear to the other party that he must do his duty, and that we have a duty to discharge which we cannot discharge while he avoids doing this?

The sentence that my hon. Friend read out is the ultimate sentence of what is, in fact, a very long and extremely well-worded letter describing in courteous and considerate terms the nature of the agreement involved and the purpose which the Post Office sought to serve in asking him to share a line. I fully endorse the terms of the letter sent by this officer of the Post Office and I would support him, if I were called upon to do so, if he had to send such a letter to another subscriber to the telephone service.

My hon. Friend asked how we worked out this system of priorities, and I agree that it may well be that there is in the minds of our friends, the would-be subscribers, some idea that they are not getting fair play and that some under-the-counter butcher's fiddle is going on. We do not like this job of having to keep rationed, under a system of priorities for a lot of people, all of whom we should be very pleased and proud to number among our customers, a commodity which is in sort supply, but where a commodity is in short supply clearly we must do something on those lines.

Our telephone managers have a system of priorities which has been discussed and negotiated over a very long period and which, as far as we are able to judge, operates with a good deal of fairness, in so far as fairness is possible in an operation of this kind. There are exemptions from the requirement to share telephone lines, but these are only for judges of the High Court and Members of the two Houses of Parliament and are for reasons which it will not be difficult for hon. Members to follow.

We then come to the system of priorities, which I will describe very briefly. If any hon. Member is in any doubt about it, his area telephone manager will, I know, be very pleased to discuss it with him. The first priority goes, as the House would expect, to defence matters and to what we might call life-and-death interests, such as doctors, coastguards, midwives and fire services. The next priority is to export industries and industries of that kind with some degree of priority in their own right. The third priority is to farmers, who are often in remote areas and are themselves concerned, in their own way, with agricultural matters of life and death.

The fourth priority is to motoring associations, banks, Borstal institutions and similar institutions. Political parties would come within this priority. I do not know whether all hon. Members agree that priority number four is the right place for political parties, but whether they should be higher or lower is a matter which we can debate on another occasion. It probably depends which political party.

Priority number five is for public kiosks, which can often serve the need of a lot of people who may all individually want telephones but who may be waiting for a main cable to be laid. Next come ordinary business applications, and after that ordinary residential applications.

It would not be wise, as I am sure my hon. Friend will agree on reflection, to publish the names in a public place either of those who are waiting—it is nobody else's business but their own that they want a telephone—or of those who are getting telephones, for the degree of priority which may have entitled an individual to his telephone at the time at which he got it may itself be a matter of confidence for that individual, and it would not be right to reveal to the whole world what is in that sense the private personal business of the applicant.

I would add, however, that I have had the opportunity of examining a good many of these cases, many of them brought to our notice by hon. Members, and I have not yet found one in which I have any reason to be other than perfectly satisfied with the allocation of priority which was given by the telephone manager when he made the final allocation.

My hon. Friend referred to a good many matters in his most interesting speech, and clearly in the time at my disposal it is impossible for me to deal with them all. Let me invite him, when he has the leisure, to read the Post Office Commercial Accounts. They will remove from his mind the misapprehension about the way in which the Post Office acts as a tax-gathering Department on behalf of some other branch of the Government. We do, in fact, operate our organisation as a commercial undertaking of a very large size and of a very complex nature with what, I believe, to be a very high degree of efficiency, offering what is a very economical service to those who place their business in our hands. We have our [...]ortcomings and make our mistakes, but it would not be a human organisation if that were not the case, and we do try to keep them down to a minimum.

I have dealt, I hope to my hon. Friend's satisfaction, with the particular case to which he has drawn attention. He referred to an estate where there was a good deal of feeling about the way in which the telephones had been supplied to the houses. The Post Office is not quite so foolish as the account of events which he gave to the House might lead the unbiased observer to believe. It so happens that the estate to which he refers is a crescent of houses. The Post Office was advised that these would he nice houses and that most people would want telephones.

We were glad to have the information in advance, and on the advice given to us we took the appropriate advance action. We began to prepare for the building of houses at one end of the are and expected that the people taking the houses there would want telephones. Instead of that, the builder began at the other end. We followed him, but before long we found that development was going on at both ends at the same time and in odd patches. It is because of that circumstance, as well as because of a purely Post Office hold up, that we had to give people varying times at which they would have their telephones.

I am sorry about the mail that did not arrive. We do not like to hear of failures on our own part, and we take very good care to track them down. If this letter, which has, apparently, been on its voyage for a month or more, has not yet arrived, I wonder if my hon. Friend would let me have a note about it, when I promise that we will investigate the matter to the best of our ability and give him an account of what happened. I only hope that he will not find that it is still lying in one of his pockets on the way to the Post Office.

Mr. F. P. Crowder

I can give my hon. Friend an absolute undertaking about that.

Mr. Thompson

We are willing to call together the head postmaster and the chamber of commerce in my hon. Friend's constituency in order to discuss the Ruislip postal problems, and to find a solution if we possibly can. The final solution, as I think he knows, will depend upon the building of a new sorting office which will be big enough and efficient enough to deal with all the items coming that way. As soon as we are able to find a suitable site—which is one of the present difficulties—and can make 'the allocation of capital for that purpose, we shall be only too pleased to provide this office, in order to simplify our own operations, and to satisfy the needs of our customers.

Attention has been drawn to the somewhat remarkable article which appeared in the Daily Express—I believe this morning. I am quite sure that, in spite of threats of what may be likely to happen in this House if such a thing as was forecast did happen, hon. Members will not expect me either to follow the Daily Express or to anticipate anything that may be said by my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Short

Before the Minister sits down, does he not intend to say a word about the North-East? After all, he has still two minutes left.

Mr. Thompson

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I would be very pleased indeed to follow up the point raised by the hon. Gentleman, by telling him that I have nothing to add to what I said when he raised it in an earlier debate.

Mr. Short

Will the Minister at least give some assurance that he will look into the lamentable incident of the failure to broadcast the enthronement of our own bishop on a wavelength on which our people could listen?

Mr. Thompson

If the hon. Member, or any of those who share his feelings—which I well understand—will draw my attention to it, I will willingly look into it, but I must remind him that, as far as I know, this is the first time that this subject has been brought to the attention of a Post Office Minister. It will have most careful investigation once we have an opportunity to look into it, but obviously I cannot say anything about it this evening.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.