HC Deb 11 March 1959 vol 601 cc1260-3
The Postmaster-General (Mr. Ernest Marples)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I would like to announce a further step towards a better telephone service.

In this age of mechanisation we must never forget the importance of the human personal service. We have studied how other countries are tackling this problem. A Report has been made to me by a joint team of Post Office officials and trade union representatives after a visit to the United States. They were unanimous in their conclusions and they made important and far-reaching recommendations. Some will require further study; others are being acted on from today. All are set out in a foreword to the Report. I have placed a copy of the Report in the Library. In addition, I have written every Member explaining our proposals and enclosing a copy of the Report.

For the first time the aim and purpose of the telephone service has been defined in writing. The essence of it is that we are determined to please as well as serve the customer. We are tackling three things immediately: First, to find out what the customer really wishes, we have set in train a series of methodical and regular surveys of public opinion. Then we shall try to meet those wishes. Secondly, our rules for the telephonist have been rigid and the words we have told them to use have been stilted. The rules will be altered and among the alterations will be one that gives the telephonist greater freedom to help the customer and to be more friendly. Thirdly, we are going to make special efforts to develop facilities desired by the customer and an organisation will be set up for that purpose.

This is only the first instalment. Other action will follow later. All this constitutes a radical change in the attitude of the Post Office to the telephone service. I hope that when Members have studied my letter and the unanimous Report they will approve of what we are doing.

Mr. Ness Edwards

May I express the hope that the letter to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred will tell us much more than the right hon. Gentleman's statement? We are very pleased to see that the Joint Productivity Council, set up by my immediate predecessor, has been used for the purpose of seeing what has happened in other countries, and we are very gratified that the right hon. Gentleman has decided to put its Report in the Library.

We welcome the right hon. Gentleman's idea of having regular surveys, but I hope that he will have more respect for the result of those surveys than he has had for the one recently referred to at Question Time. I cannot quite see how operators are to be more helpful in an automatised system, because they will not be there. The system will be completely automatic.

If the right hon. Gentleman wants to improve relations between telephone subscribers and the Post Office, the easiest and quickest way of doing so, if it is possible, is to reduce the size of the bill they get at the end of each six months.

Sir T. Moore

Sour grapes.

Mr. Ness Edwards

It is not sour grapes. I was sorry to see that this statement is supposed to represent a radical change in the Post Office. I thought that the general intention in the statement had been the general intention of the right hon. Gentleman and all his predecessors. May I ask that when we get the next statement the right hon. Gentleman will give us something much more substantial than is contained in this one?

Mr. Marples

Time will show whether it will be substantial. I am quite certain that with the co-operation and enthusiasm that the unions have shown in co-operation with the management on this occasion this will be a really radical change; and that is the view of the unions in this respect. The Joint Productivity Council was not used on this occasion. It was a special four-man team that I appointed.

The operators will always be there in the telephone service because as automation increases they will be important not for dealing with the ordinary calls, b it with difficult and frustrated callers, the people who want assistance, and to that we are giving attention. I think that the right hon. Member and the public will be surprised by what will happen in the next few months.

Mr. W. R. Williams

Is the Postmaster-General aware that I and some of my hon. Friends are very pleased to know that there has been this joint effort on the part of the official and staff sides, that the Post Office has encouraged one or two prominent members of the trade union concerned to join the team which went to the United States of America, and that we on this side of the House will always welcome a joint effort to improve the services of the Post Office, as we would any other service?

Secondly, may I ask whether the Postmaster-General is aware that telephonists, as well as members of all other Post Office grades, will be glad to be released from the bondage of those stilted operational phrases? I am quite sure they will enthusiastically respond to this new approach. If they used some of the language which is used towards them by members of the public, there would be many complaints made in this House.

Mr. Marples

I am grateful to the hon. Member, who is very knowledgeable in these matters. We have had three trial exchanges. I can assure him that the telephonists are delighted at the new freedom and are co-operating wholeheartedly. This has really been a model of combined operations, because the management and unions have combined together, first, to make the policy and, secondly, to carry it out. We are doing this as a combined operation and I believe that it will be very successful because of that. I am extremely grateful to the unions which not only have co-operated, but have shown very great enthusiasm.

Mr. Mawby

Will my right hon. Friend say whether this new approach will be applied to all Post Office staff in time?

Mr. Marples

This, quite frankly, is just a start. Afterwards, we shall turn our attention to other matters in the Post Office, because it is a vast organisation with a great team spirit. I have already discussed the question of Post Office counters with the trade unions concerned and I have no reason to think that they will not be just as co-operative and helpful on that as an this matter.

Mr. John Edwards

While welcoming the statement made by the right hon. Gentleman as an example of that joint co-operation to which I, in my time, devoted a great deal of attention, may I ask whether, as about 60,000 people are deprived of the service because cable or equipment is not available and I believe that over 1 million subscribers are sharing lines, the greatest step forward would not be to have a very much bigger capital programme so as to speed up the service to those people?

Mr. Marples

That is a very important question, but it is not relevant to this exercise because what we are doing here is to make improvements for those who have got telephones. I agree that it would be very nice to have unlimited capital investment, but during the past year the waiting list has been reduced from ¼ million to 68,000.