HC Deb 21 July 1965 vol 716 cc1795-804

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

1.42 a.m.

Mr. Peter Kirk (Saffron Walden)

I apologise for detaining the House further at this hour of the morning, but the matter which I wish to raise is one which affects quite a large number of my constituents, and it is a fairly classic example of the bureaucratic mind at its best. It affects also constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. Brian Harrison), and he has asked me to say that, had he not now left for the remotest parts of the world on a mission for the Colonial Secretary, he would have wished to be here to support me in the protests which I make tonight.

Halstead is a small industrial town in the northern part of Essex, very much associated with my distinguished predecessor, Lord Butler, as Member for Saffron Walden. It lies about 45 miles from London, and has five miles to the south-west another small industrial town, Braintree, and about eight miles to the north-east the purely agricultural and marketing town of Sudbury. These geographical details are of importance in the case I wish to put to the House and to the Assistant Postmaster-General, who I am glad to see here and to whom I apologise for keeping him up late. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we cannot all be masters of our time in this place.

Halstead is a small but a growing town. It was built round the great textile firm of Courtaulds, but in recent years further firms have opened up there, and, during this century, the whole of this part of the Colne Valley has been developed. In the neighbouring villages of Sible Hedingham and Great Yeldham, both of which are affected by the Post Office's action, small plants have been opened and have grown into quite big industries, notably the Rippers wood works at Sible Hedingham and the Whitlock engineering works at Great Yeldham. Also, in Halstead itself further industrial plants have been set down, and there are plans for further industrial expansion.

The problem which I wish to raise tonight springs directly from the 1957 White Paper entitled "Full Automation of the Telephone System". The date is significant, because it will show that I am not making any party political attack. The arrangements were made by a Government which I supported and of which, for a short time, I was a member. But I still think that they were wrong.

The effect of the proposals put forward in the White Paper were eventually to arrange for S.T.D. services throughout the whole of the British Isles. Pending that, as I understand it—although the Assistant Postmaster-General will put me right if I am wrong—the idea was to group the telephone exchanges of the country into some 600 groups. Until S.T.D., anyone could telephone for an unlimited length of time for a small charge within the group in which his exchange was and within the neighbouring groups, but telephone services outside his group and groups adjoining would be charged at a higher rate than had been previously charged for telephone services done on a normal time rate.

For some reason, which, I must admit, neither I nor my constituents can understand, the Halstead area, which included not only the Halstead exchange but also the Earls Colne and Great Yeldham exchanges, was allotted to the Sudbury group rather than to the Braintree group.

As I have said, the town of Halstead has a great deal in common with Braintree and virtually nothing in common with Sudbury, which is in another county. None of the services upon which Halstead relies relates to Sudbury in any way, but a very large number relates to Braintree. Braintree is the nearest railhead and another industrial town, and its connection with Halstead is very close. Braintree is not in my constituency, but in that of my hon. Friend for Maldon, but the interlocking between the two is very close indeed.

The effect of allotting Halstead to Sudbury rather than to Braintree has been to raise charges for telephone calls from that area to London by no less than 50 per cent. If Halstead were allotted to the Braintree area, it would come within the zone which is 35 to 50 miles from the centre of London. By allotting it to Sudbury, which is 52 miles, it automatically comes within the 50 to 75 miles limit.

It might have seemed a logical thing to do in 1958, when these proposals were put forward, but I think that there was a certain tactlessness in going outside the county. At that time, curiously enough, the pattern of telephone calls from Halstead was roughly equal; 50 per cent. went south and west towards London, and roughly 50 per cent. went towards the north and to other places. However, all that has changed now. The position today is that 70 per cent. of all long-distance calls made out of the Halstead area go to the London area—in other words, they go to the area in which they are forced to pay a 50 per cent. increase on the charges they have met up till now—whereas only 30 per cent. go to areas to the north.

The postal authorities in the area have been handling a very large amount of correspondence from infuriated constituents of mine. Their claim is that though subscribers lose on telephone calls to London, they gain on calls to such places as York and Glasgow. However, the plain fact is that they do not want to telephone to York or Glasgow, but to London. The reason is very simple. As I have said, it is a growing industrial area, and we all know that in industrial areas it is necessary to be in touch with the capital and agencies in the capital, particularly Government agencies.

I can give two examples of the situation which has arisen. Messrs. Whit-locks, the engineers, whose works at Great Yeldham are a flourishing and expanding industrial concern, have had their charges for telephone calls to London raised from 2s. to 3s. Only 3 per cent. of the outside telephone calls which they make go anywhere else.

In other words, 97 per cent. of their telephone calls go to London. It is, therefore, fair to say that at one stroke the Post Office has raised their telephone bill, which is very considerable, by 50 per cent., a matter of several hundred pounds for a firm a very large amount of whose produce goes for export. One can see that this is not just a matter of people complaining because they have to pay more; it affects, in a small way, I agree, but, nevertheless, to some extent, the general economic well-being of the country when firms which are trying to do their best in the export drive, when they have been asked to do so by the present Government and by the previous Administration, are hampered by this decision.

Another firm in Halstead, Evans Electroselenium Instruments Ltd., makes the vast majority of its calls to London because half its entire production goes for exports and, therefore, it is very much concerned with telephone calls about shipping. It is unable to calculate exactly how much of its telephone business is with London, but it is a fair amount because the amount which goes anywhere else is negligible.

The House will readily appreciate that the decision of the Post Office to place this area in an exchange area with which it has never had any connection, which is in a different county and which is eight miles in the wrong direction for nearly all the London calls made from it, has caused the greatest distress, and I should not like the Assistant-Postmaster-General to be under any illusions about the strength of feeling which exists on the subject.

But it is not just companies which are engaged in telephoning to London which are suffering from this decision. Even telephoning within the County of Essex has become a much more expensive business. Because the Halstead area has been allotted to Sudbury rather than to Braintree, it means that the county town of Essex, towards which a large number of telephone calls are directed, has been cut off to a certain extent by this move. As I explained earlier, whereas calls within the same area or an adjacent area are virtually unlimited, calls outside an adjacent area are toll calls and are charged on a minute-by-minute basis.

Chelmsford, the county town of Essex, is 16 miles from Halstead, and yet because all the calls have to go through Sudbury and because between the Sudbury area and the Chelmsford area the Braintree area intervenes, these calls are charged at 4d. a minute. But if anyone there wants to telephone Ipswich or Bury St. Edmunds or Stowmarket—and the nearest of those places is 25 miles from Halstead—he can natter for as long as he likes for 2½d. the whole time—without any limit at all. Surely that is a ridiculous situation.

People are much more likely to want to telephone their own country town—

particularly industrialists, but also other people—than they are to want to telephone to towns in a different county with which they have absolutely no connection at all. I do not understand, and my constituents cannot understand, why this decision has been taken by the Post Office. When there is another exchange area right next door of a similar kind and a similar nature, why are they allotted to an exchange area with which they have no connection, which is further away and which puts up their telephone charges?

I have corresponded with the Assistant Postmaster-General and, with the courtesy which I expect of him—for I have known him many years and respect him greatly—he has written back a very full letter. I have read a very large number of ministerial letters in my time, and I have signed a few, but I reckon that this is one of the most outstanding examples of ministerial temporising that I have ever come across. It contains a sentence which, I think, is worth putting on the record. This is supposed to give consolation to my constituents in this situation. The Minister writes: Many concessions which must have been of very considerable benefit to customers as a whole have been given by the adoption of the group charges, but no doubt there are exchanges like Halstead where customers feel that they have not benefited to the same extent as those in other exchanges nearby". That is the understatement of the year. They not only feel that they have not benefited to the same extent; they not only feel that they have not benefited at all; but they feel that they have lost very considerably by it.

I hope very much that the Post Office will reconsider this decision. Surely it is not impossible for the Post Office to realign its telephone services in such a way that the natural order of things, which is all I am asking for, should prevail, instead of this totally artificial zoning arrangement. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will tell me tonight that he will have second thoughts about this matter and look at it again.

1.55 a.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Joseph Slater)

I should, first, like to congratulate the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Kirk) on the clarity with which he has presented his problem tonight—this morning, I should say. It is a problem over which, as he said, he and I have had detailed correspondence, and I have had to tell him that my right hon. Friend can make no change in the charge for calls from Halstead Telephone Exchange.

I think that it will be helpful to the House if I explained first how telephone calls are charged and then how this system relates to Halstead in particular, because I hope that I shall be able to clear up some misunderstandings which appear to have arisen in connection with these telephone calls from Halstead. I should like, first, to go back into history and explain the basis on which calls are charged. Before 1958 each exchange in the country—and, as has already been said by the hon. Member, there are about 6,000 of them—had its own list of charges based on crow flight distances to the others.

In preparation for the introduction of Subscriber Trunk Dialling it was decided to simplify charging arrangements by grouping exchanges together into charging groups, and the reason for this was that the apparatus designed for S.T.D. makes use of routing numbers to control the automatic circulation of calls and to determine the appropriate charges.

It became evident that if the total of such routing numbers could be kept below a certain limit the switching equipment could be simplified and its cost reduced. Under the old system, charges for calls set up by operators were debited by means of tickets, and those for calls dialled by customers were metered automatically. While it would have been possible to design automatic apparatus to carry out about 6,000 routing and charging functions, great savings were available if this number could be kept to about 600. The 6,000 different charge lists were, therefore, as has already been indicated, reduced to 600.

On 1st January, 1958, the new group charging system was introduced and the old system of point to point measurement was abandoned. Each charging group reflected the local community of interest as far as this was possible. The groups are of different shapes and sizes, but the average radius is about seven miles. All exchanges in the group have the same list of charges and distances are measured from and to a central point in the group. A call from an exchange to another in the same group or to an exchange in any adjacent group became a local call and the cost in many cases was reduced from 6d., 9d. or 1s. to 3d.

Since then local calls from residence lines have been reduced to 2½d. The charges for trunk calls were also affected; many were reduced, some remained the same, and a few were increased. The overall effect was to reduce the cost of local calls very considerably, since the local call area was on average increased from about 80 square miles to an average of 900 square miles. The change in the charges for trunk calls was less high, but many subscribers found that they could call more cheaply than before.

The change was publicised, and this I want to emphasise. A letter of explanation—I have a copy of it here—was sent in advance to every subscriber, and also to the Press and to the Members of Parliament for these areas. I understand that the new system was generally accepted and welcomed at that time. When the group charging system was introduced, Halstead was formed in the Sudbury group of exchanges, together with Great Yeldham, Lavenham, Boxford, Earls Colne, and several others. Naturally, there are also communities of interest with other neighbouring exchanges not in the Sudbury charging group, and this was looked after because the local unit-fee area of the Sudbury group was extended to take in the adjacent groups of Haverhill, Bury St. Edmunds, Stowmarket, Colchester, Ipswich, Braintree and Great Dunmow. In fact, the local call area of Halstead is nearly 1,100 square miles, which is well above the average.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the cost of calls from Halstead to London. Prior to the introduction of the group charging system, which I have just described, the cost of a call from Halstead to London was 1s. 10d. for three minutes in the full rate period. After 1st January, 1958, the charge became 2s. 3d. for three minutes, and in 1963 my right hon. Friend's predecessor found it necessary to increase the charge to 3s. for three minutes.

Mr. Kirk

What will be the cost of a call from Braintree to London now?

Mr. Slater

I do not know whether I come to that later. If I have not already got the information, I shall seek to get it.

When S.T.D. is provided at an exchange, there are a number of advantages relevant to this question. All dialled calls, whether they are to an exchange near at hand, or to one at the other end of the country, are charged in units of 2d. A caller pays only for the time that he actually uses, and the time that he has for his 2d. varies with the distance between the charging point in his home group of exchanges and the charging point in the distant group.

When S.T.D. facilities are provided at Sudbury Telephone Exchange—which, I hope, will be early in 1967—this will have no effect on the cost of a call from Halstead, but when S.T.D. is provided at Halstead—which should be later in the same year—Halstead subscribers will be able to dial many of their calls to London, and the minimum charge will be as little as 2d. For their 2d. they will get 10 seconds' conversation, 15 seconds during the cheap rate. If their call lasts as long as three minutes, they will pay 3s. in the full rate period—that is the minimum charge which they now pay for a call to London connected by an operator.

The suggestion has been made that Halstead has a much greater community of interest with Braintree than with Sudbury, and that the Halstead Telephone Exchange should be transferred from the Sudbury charging group and included in the Braintree charging group. I can see the attractions in this idea from the point of view of telephone users in the Halstead area who make many calls in the London direction—and I fully realise that there are businesses in Halstead which frequently need to contact London—since this change would have the effect of reducing the cost of calls connected by the operator from 3s. for three minutes to 2s. for three minutes, and with S.T.D. the time obtained for 2d. would be increased from 10 seconds to 15 seconds at the full rate. But there are disadvantages. Halstead subscribers would no longer be able to have local calls to places as far afield as Bury St. Edmunds, Stow-market and Ipswich, and the cost of trunk calls to the North would be increased.

It may be that some Halstead subscribers would be prepared to tolerate these disadvantages, but, as I have said earlier, boundaries must be drawn somewhere. There are many exchanges with a community of interest with London, and if my right hon. Friend adjusted one boundary, to make the cost of calls to London cheaper for Halstead subscribers—and we do get these applications from Members of Parliament and even from local authorities—he would have to adjust others. This, in turn, would bring complaints from subscribers who found the cost of calls they wished to make had been increased by the change, and it would be impossible to draw the line.

There are many places in the country where subscribers could obtain reductions in the cost of calls to places in which they have a particular interest if the boundaries of charging groups were altered, but any alteration inevitably causes an increase in charges in the opposite direction. If we started to alter our boundaries to meet individual wishes we should forever have to be changing them. The hon. Member will appreciate that point. Apart from this, there are many towns with a community of interest with London, and if we rearranged our boundaries so that all calls to London were reduced it would cause a loss in revenue which we could not afford.

The group charging system was applied uniformly throughout the country, equally in the Halstead area as elsewhere, and there are no grounds for claiming that Halstead subscribers are unfairly treated in this respect. I regret to have to inform the hon. Member—who has put the case so clearly on behalf of his constituents tonight—that my right hon. Friend can make no change in the charge for calls from the Halstead Telephone Exchange.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes past Two o'clock.