HC Deb 01 May 1958 vol 587 cc711-8

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

10.9 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

I wish to raise tonight the situation of the telephone service in one part of my constituency, namely, that part which is served by the telephone exchanges of Gerrards Cross and Chalfont St. Giles. I quite appreciate the magnitude of the task which was taken over by the Post Office and certainly by the present Government as a result of the backlogs of work which accrued during the war and the years immediately after.

I know that considerable progress has been made in the last few years in catching up on those arrears and reducing the waiting list for telephones. Nevertheless, I have a very serious telephone problem in my constituency of South Buckinghamshire, more especially in the Gerrards Cross and Chalfont St. Peter area. This area is served by two telephone exchanges, one in Gerrards Cross and one in Chalfont St. Giles. I hope that my hon. Friend, when he replies this evening, will, as I have asked him to do, address himself to the problem of all the subscribers on those two exchanges, whether they actually live in Gerrards Cross or Chalfont St. Peter or not.

The situation in the area has been difficult for a very long time. I have been raising the matter in correspondence with the Post Office and by Adjournment debates in the House ever since 1950. Especially since 1954, however, this area has caused me more anxiety than the rest of my constituency. In 1954, I began to receive letters from constituents enclosing communications from the Post Office to the effect that they would have to wait from two to five years for telephone connections.

I had an interview in 1955 with the Postmaster-General, then my right hon. Friend the present Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and, as a result, I received from him, in September, 1955, a letter from which I inferred and, I think, my constituents also inferred, that the situation in this area would be cleared up by about September, 1957.

It was, therefore, with considerable sorrow that, in 1957, I found myself still receiving from constituents in the Gerrards Cross and Chalfont St. Peter areas letters from the Post Office in which they were told that they would have to wait from two to three years for telephone connection. It seemed that all the progress that had been made in the two years from 1955, when I saw my right hon. Friend the Member for Luton (Dr. Hill), and last year, was that, whereas in 1955 the Post Office was giving itself rather a wide spread of wait, from two to five years, in 1957, it had begun to call it "from two to three years". In both cases, my constituents felt immensely dissatisfied.

I saw my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary about it, and he was kind enough to recognise that the position in this area was extremely bad. He wrote me a letter on 5th June last year, in which he said: Chalfont St. Peter, though not so bad as some places in the country, is among the worst, and I agree that something must be done about it. Then, in language which was extremely cautious, but cast in an optimistic mood, my hon. Friend described his plans for the future of the area, in which, although he was wise enough not to commit himself to any date, he certainly encouraged me to believe that telephone connections would begin fairly soon and that one might expect the position to be wholly cleared, certainly, within three years.

Naturally, after receiving that assurance, which I am sure my hon. Friend is doing his best to implement, I was not so worried when, in succeeding months, I still received letters from constituents. I told them that better things were on the way. It is right that I should say that a good many of my constituents in these two villages have been connected since then. But, unfortunately, I am still receiving letters from constituents enclosing communications from the Post Office telling them that they must wait two years for a telephone connection.

In those circumstances, I tabled Questions for the Postmaster-General which were answered on 12th March last, and he told me that 226 people were waiting for telephones in Gerrards Cross and that he hoped, during the present year, to supply 110 telephones in that area. So it appears to me that, in about a year's time, of the 226 people now waiting for telephones in Gerrards Cross about 115 will still be waiting, together with the extra ones who have accumulated in that period. I foresee that in another year's time I shall still be receiving letters from constituents in Gerrards Cross and Chalfont St. Peter, enclosing communications from the Post Office saying that they will have to wait two years for a telephone.

I was a bit concerned when, on 12th March, the Postmaster-General said: On the whole, the position is very satisfactory. That is very different from the language that my hon. Friend used only a few months earlier when he said that Chalfont St. Peter was among the worst areas and I agree that something must be done about it. Of course, if a great deal of work had been done in the intervening period, one could understand the change of attitude, but the Postmaster-General told me, in answer to my Question when the work was to start: The duct work is due to start in a few days. Cabling work will follow, and the new cables will be brought into use progressively."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th March, 1958; Vol. 584, c. 414.] and I have reason to believe that no important engineering developments have taken place since my hon. Friend wrote to me, saying this is one of the worst areas in the country, and something must be done about it. Therefore, when I was told, on 12th March, that the position was satisfactory, I felt that I must raise this matter on the Adjournment to point out that, in fact, no substantial improvement has occurred in this area and that, so far from being satisfactory, the position is still one of the worst in the country.

I think that those are the only facts to which I need draw attention, and I can say compendiously that the position of the Chalfont St. Giles exchange may be aptly described, as I think the telephone authorities have described it in a letter to one of my constituents, as very bad; although I agree that from the Postmaster-General's Answer, on 12th March, the prospect for the coming year looks a little more hopeful. But the present position is very bad.

While I appreciate the progress that has been made in the telephone service generally, I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will tell me that there will be some acceleration in this part of my constituency. I think that it is not good enough, thirteen years after the end of the war, that people should be asked to wait for years for an important public utility like a telephone.

I know that the comparison that I and others have made between the telephone service and other public utilities, like water and electricity, has been rather swept aside by arguments from the Post Office about the different nature of these services. I am not satisfied that the analogy is not a reasonable one. The capital cost involved in connecting a house to the water supply is by no means negligible. It often runs into hundreds of pounds, and frequently exceeds the capital cost of connecting a house to the telephone service even if an exclusive service is given and the lines have to go right back to the exchange.

If the difficulty is the amount of capital expenditure and its effect in a time of inflation, could not the Post Office consider charging people the cost of installation in a lump sum instead of spreading it over the rental for many years? Other public utilities do that, certainly the water companies do. If the subscribers are immediately charged the cost of installation, and the money represented by the work is immediately taken from them, the argument from the capital expenditure and its effect upon inflation does not seem to me to arise, certainly not with the same force.

It seems to me, and, I think, to many others, that when the State takes over a vital public service such as telephones, and establishes a statutory monopoly in them, it is not good enough that people should be put on waiting lists which stretch literally through the years. Constituents of mine have been waiting over two years for a telephone and some of them, presumably, will have to wait a great deal longer. Today, a telephone is a necessary amenity of ordinary life, and I hope that my hon. Friend will tell me that, at least in respect of this part of my constituency, he will be able to do something which will reduce the waiting period experienced hitherto by so many people living in the villages of Gerrards Cross and Chalfont St. Peter.

10.22 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Kenneth Thompson)

When I die the names of Gerrards Cross and Chalfont St. Peter will be engraved on my heart. No one could have been more diligent and persistent than my hon. Friend has been in pursuing the interests of his constituents in these parts and, as I have said to him in the letter to which he has referred, we recognise that here is a situation of great difficulty for us and inconvenience for those who live there.

I think the House should have a clearer picture of why this is so difficult an area, for the record of the Post Office in the installation of telephones all over the country is really not a bad one, particularly in the last five years, as I shall show. Here is an area which has been, and continues to be, rapidly expanding. It has a type of development which we would call a heavy telephone density; that is to say, nearly everyone who builds a house in this area wants a telephone in it, and the houses are of a type which mean that a good deal of cable work is required to get the facility to them.

In parenthesis, I hope I can dispose of the suggestion that hooking up a telephone is a nice, neat job, easy compared with the fitting of water, gas and electricity supplies. There is a vital, important and frustrating difference, in that apart from the telephone installation itself within the house, there must be a separate pair of wires for each telephone, or in the case of a shared service, each two telephones, all the way back from the house or houses to the telephone exchange. If somebody else comes along, it is no use cutting a hole in a pipe and hoping that a supply will come through, as happens with gas and water. We have to find another spare pair of wires for the new subscriber and run them for him from his house to the nearest telephone exchange.

It is because of this vital difference in the supply of these services that we have found it difficult to keep pace with the development of these areas and one or two other areas of a like kind in various other parts of the country. Our problem basically of satisfying my hon. Friend's constituents, with their very just complaints and their very great patience, is that we have been unable to keep pace with the rate at which the area has grown.

However, we have not been idle, either in the country generally, as my hon. Friend concedes or in these parts of his constituency. In the last twelve months we have installed no fewer than 227 new telephones for his constituents in an effort to make good the undertakings which I gave him when he saw me a little less than twelve months ago. A total of 361 applications over the two exchanges has still to be met, but, of course, new applications continually come along and as fast as we chop the list down at one end it grows at the other.

My hon. Friend rightly wants to know what it is that we are doing for the 361 people now waiting and what we shall do for others who come along afterwards. He quoted my letter. I know that he had no intention whatever to mislead the House, but I think it might help to clarify the minds of all if I read the whole of the three relevant sentences rather than leave the matter somewhat in mid-air. After I had said what we hoped to do, I went on: This will mean that some people in Chalfont St. Peter will be getting telephones in the second part of next year. The letter was written in 1957. We shall not, of course, be able to serve everyone in this time, and we shall not necessarily be able to connect people in the order in which they applied, but it will be a start. Some people may be lucky even earlier if some of those with telephones give them up What are we doing? Duct work and cable laying in the Gerrards Cross exchange area began some weeks ago, and we hope that it will be completed by December, 1959. It is a long, difficult and complicated job. As the duct work and cables are laid, telephones will be fitted into the houses served by whatever part of the cable is completed as it is completed, so that some people will be getting their telephones within a reasonable time.

The exchange itself has to be enlarged in order to provide the exchange equipment for the additional telephone users who are coming along in this growing area, and by next March we hope to have the telephone exchange enlarged by 1,000 numbers in order to meet the demand. My hon. Friend may be interested to know that while we are doing that we hope to be able to provide dialling facilities into London from Gerrards Cross, which are not available at the moment. In the Chalfont St. Giles telephone exchange area duct work and cable laying has just begun, and I hope that some of my hon. Friend's constituents will be able to see visible evidence of the enthusiasm with which the Post Office undertakes this work. There again, we hope to connect many of the applicants in the course of the coming months. In both cases it is the rate of house building which is eating up our resources as fast as we are able to lay them on; but we shall do all we can to ensure that the work is expedited as much as possible and that those who are waiting for telephones get them as quickly as we can put them in.

The House may be interested to know just how the problem which concerns my hon. Friend, because of his constituents, fits into the national pattern of what the Post Office is doing in the provision of telephone services. Since 1950, exchange lines have increased by more than a quarter, from 3½ million to 4½ million. That has necessitated our installing far more than the 1 million extra, since we have cessations and cancellations going on all the time that we are putting in new telephones. The waiting list, of which my hon. Friend rightly complains, has been reduced from 425,000 to 170,000. My hon. Friend may consider that he has a disproportionately large part of that waiting list in this constituency, and I am sorry if he feels that that is so.

The local cable network, which is the web around which the whole system works, has been increased by nearly a quarter. In the last five years, the country has invested no less than £408 million in its telephone service, a not inconsiderable sum, a sum devoted to a service described, very accurately, by my hon. Friend as one which people expect to be available these days, and one which we have sought to make available. The rate of demand for telephones continues to be very high all over the country. It was to be expected that when the tariffs were increased in October last there would be some falling away of demand, and, of course, there was. There was an increase in the rate of cancellations. But demand has recovered remarkably well, and we have now got an anticipated annual demand, on present figures, of about 350,000 new telephones a year. This compares with about 400,000 at our peak.

The rate of cessations has fallen in the last few months, coming very nearly back to where we were before the tariff increase put a damper on our work, and I have every reason to hope that as we continue to provide more and better services over the telephone network as a whole, we will find these figures growing and the Post Office being called on to devote more and more time and energy to the provision of telephones.

I would like my hon. Friend to believe that the problems that he has highlighted in his remarks this evening about his constituents in the telephone areas of Chalfont St. Giles and Gerrards Cross are very much in our minds, and we will do all we can to satisfy their demands and relieve him of the onerous duty of constantly getting on to the Postmaster-General and his Assistant with complaints about our service.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes to Eleven o'clock.