HC Deb 04 March 1966 vol 725 cc1676-86

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now Adjourn.—[Mr. Ifor Davies.]

12.25 p.m.

Mr. Humphrey Atkins (Merton and Morden)

I do not think it is generally known that the Post Office is in the process of withdrawing the free telephones at taxi ranks throughout the Metropolitan area and proposes within a measureable time to withdraw them all. I learned about this only at the end of last year, although, as I now know, it has been the policy of the Post Office for some considerable time.

It was brought to my notice by several of my constituents who had heard that the Post Office was proposing to withdraw one particular telephone, that at the taxi rank at Aberconway Road, Morden, whose telephone number is Cherrywood 5013. They wrote to me in some distress and asked whether I could do anything to persuade the Post Office to change its mind.

Since then, I have made a number of inquiries. I have asked the Postmaster-General several Questions, I have been in touch with the London Motor Cab Proprietors' Association, the Motor Cab Owner-Drivers' Association, and with the Cab Section of the Transport and General Workers Union, and I have also discussed the matter with the hon. Member for Ilkeston (Mr. Raymond Fletcher), who has been pursuing some inquiries on much the same lines.

As a result of these inquiries, I understand that the position now is that there are still remaining in the Metropolitan area 73 telephones at cab ranks, that eight of them, including no doubt the one at Aberconway Road, Morden, which is my principal concern, are in the process of being withdrawn and that it is Post Office policy to withdraw them all.

I understand that these telephones have two things in common. First, they were installed originally at the request of the Post Office. This was not something for which the cab trade asked. The trade was approached originally many years ago by the Post Office and offered this service free of charge, no doubt in order to help the Post Office to attract custom for its other telephones. Secondly, all of them are of a type which will accept incoming calls only and outgoing calls cannot be made from them.

I am told that the Post Office approached the cab trade in 1959 with the proposition that all these telephones should be withdrawn unless somebody could be found to pay a rent. When I say that it approached the cab trade, I mean that it approached the London Cab Trade Joint Committee, which is the body which speaks for the cab trade in London. Discussions ensued and at the end of them it was agreed that the telephones would not all immediately be withdrawn, but would be progressively withdrawn if the Post Office found that they were being little used.

Since that time, seven years ago, the Post Office has been regularly in contact with the trade about the removal of these telephones, with the result that over the seven years some 40 have been withdrawn leaving, as I said only 73.

There are four questions which I want to ask the Postmaster-General. The first question is, will they please reconsider this policy? In answer to two Parliamentary Questions which I have asked he said that there is no reason why the Post Office should subsidise the cab trade. It is nonsense to suggest that this service is simply a subsidy to the cab trade. It helps it to obtain business, but it benefits a great many other people as well. For example, the telephone with which I am principally concerned at Aberconway Road, Morden, is used by many of my constituents who have written to me to say that the ability to call up a cab is a tremendous advantage.

It does not require much elaboration from me to point out how useful a service this is for elderly or infirm people, or for anyone in an emergency. Another group of users who find these telephones very valuable are the hospitals. I have a letter from the Secretary of the St. Helier Hospital, just outside my constituency, who tells me that both the hospital and its patients find this telephone invaluable. I also have a letter from the Secretary of the Nelson Hospital, which is in my constituency. He says that an appreciable number of patients would suffer if this telephone were to disappear.

The Post Office goes on to say that it is a public service required by Parliament to pay its way and that it cannot be expected to provide services, however beneficial, to the public at a loss. This is precisely what it does. The most obvious example is the public call box. This is a public service available to all, and just before Christmas the Postmaster-General said in a Written Answer that the total loss on public call boxes last year was £4.2 million. He also said that local calls from private telephones are unprofitable and lost £11½ million in the year ending 31st March, 1965. There are other telephone services which are running at a loss. There is the speaking clock, the weather reports and the Test Match report service. No one pays rent for such services, and since the Postmaster-General says that local calls are unprofitable, he must be providing this public service at a loss.

What I want to know is why the Post Office are picking upon this particular service? The loss involved cannot be very great. There are 73 telephones with an average maintenance cost of £18 a year, about £1,400 overall. I do not know what the loss on the other services I have mentioned is, apart from call boxes and the ordinary local calls, but I do suggest that to pick on this particular service is wrong. It may be nice to ring up and get the Test Match score, but it is a great deal more helpful to many more people to be able to ring up and get a taxi. I do urge the Postmaster-General to reconsider this policy.

The second question relates to the undertaking which I understand the Post Office have given to the trade, that it will only withdraw those telephones which are little used. On the 22nd December I ask the Postmaster-General whether he kept records of the calls made on these telephones and how much income would be lost from their withdrawal. He did not answer the first part of the Question, but he did say: We do not know the income which might be lost."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd December, 1965; Vol. 722, c. 455.] He clearly implied that he does not keep any records. I do not understand this, because I have reason to believe that he does keep some kind of record, and I can only suppose that that record is very incomplete; in other words it may be observation of calls made to a particular telephone for two or three days only.

This is not the way to determine how much a particular telephone is used, because it could easily be misleading. If no record is kept, how does the Postmaster-General do it? By guess-work? I would like him to explain this, because of the contradictory nature of the information I have, and the Answer given.

The third question has to do with his discussions about the withdrawal of the telephones. I do not know why, in these discussions he deals only with the taxi drivers. The original discussions in 1959 were with the London Cab Trade Joint Committee. So far as anyone represents the cab trade in London, then it is this body, because it has on it representatives of the London Motor Cab Proprietors' Association, the Motor Cab Owner-Drivers' Association, and the Cab Section of the Transport and General Workers Union—in other words the proprietors and drivers.

It is with this body that the Home Office negotiates when it is discussing matters affecting the cab trade. Since 1959 I understand that the Postmaster-General, when discussing withdrawals, has only been in touch with a body called the Joint Ranks Committee, and that the letters proposing the withdrawal of any telephone are addressed to the Secretary of that Committee: I understand that this Committee represents the drivers of cabs, the owner drivers and the journeymen drivers, and that the police discuss matters affecting siting of ranks, how big they should be and so on with it. I can understand that it might be appropriate to discuss whether a rank or telephone is used to any great extent with the drivers because they will know the answers, whereas the proprietors might not. When it is suggested that the telephones might be rented instead of withdrawn, I do not understand why the Postmaster-General suggests that it should be the drivers who pay the rent.

This brings me to my fourth point, which is in connection with the rental demanded by the Post Office if this telephone service is to be continued. The Post Office says that it is prepared to let these telephones remain if someone will pay a rent of £4 a quarter, that is the normal business rate. This seems to be too high. For the normal business rental of £4 per quarter one gets a telephone which works both ways so that one can ring people up as well as being rung up oneself. This telephone service which we are discussing is a one-way service, and it seems unreasonable to demand the same rental for only half as much use. I should like the Postmaster-General to clear this point up when he answers. I cannot understand why the Post Office should insist that the driver or drivers should rent the telephone. In correspondence relating to the telephone at Aberconway Road, I understand that the Post Office want to know whether the drivers concerned will pay the rental.

This is where the Postmaster-General seems to miss the point. All drivers are concerned. Taxi ranks are not restricted to certain drivers only. All drivers may use all ranks, and it is totally unrealistic to expect one or two drivers to bear the burden of the rental which will benefit all of their colleagues, particularly when they have no means open to them of recouping this cost. If the Post Office puts up the rent of a telephone to a business, that business could recoup the cost by charging more for whatever it was selling.

But the cab trade is so closely regulated by the Home Office that the drivers have no means whatever of recouping this extra cost, unless they are forced to demand higher tips or something of that sort, which none of them wants to do. It is not only the drivers concerned. They are not the only people who make a profit out of the cab trade and, therefore, share in the benefit of these telephones. It is the whole trade. I admit that it is difficult for the Post Office to be absolutely fair about this, because there are certainly cab proprietors who are not members of the Proprietors' Association, some owner-drivers are not members of the Owner-Drivers' Association and some journeyman drivers are not members of the Transport and General Workers' Union.

Nevertheless, I am sure that it is up to the Post Office, this great Government Department, to make arrangements which are clearly seen to be fair to everybody. I suggest that their present approach to the problem of demanding rent from individuals in the trade is not fair. I ask the Postmaster-General first of all to reconsider his policy and allow the original policy of his Department, which was to provide this service free of charge for the benefit of the community, to stand. If he declines to do that, I want to urge him to reconsider the way in which he is applying this policy, which is at present arbitrary and unfair.

12.41 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Joseph Slater)

The hon. Member for Merton and Morden (Mr. Atkins) has been most clear in his exposition of the case about cab rank telephones. I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss this question and to try to give clear and direct answers to his questions about my Department's policy. As the hon. Member is aware, it has been the subject of many letters between hon. Members, my right hon. Friend and myself, and I would like to make quite clear what our intentions are and the reasons for them.

There are three points that I think need emphasising straight away. The first is that the withdrawal of telephones from taxi ranks refers specifically to free telephones: there is no question of withdrawing telephones which are rented, and the telephones will not be withdrawn if they are paid for.

My second point is that the withdrawal of free facilities is not confined to cab ranks in the Metropolitan area alone. It is our intention that all free cab rank telephones in the country will eventually be withdrawn. Thirdly, I must mention that there is nothing new in our withdrawal of these free facilities: it has been a gradual process over a number of years in respect of a completely indefensible anachronism.

This history of cab rank telephones goes back to the year 1905—the days of the horse-drawn cab—when two telephones were provided at cab ranks in London. The object in those early days was to encourage the use of the telephone. From this beginning the practice grew and spread to other parts of the country until in 1958 there were approximately 120 in Greater London and about 40 in the provinces.

There was never any formal agreement, as the hon. Member knows, about the provision of free telephones, and, from an up-to-date look at it in 1958, it was decided that no more free telephones could justifiably be supplied. The reason then was basically the same as it is today: free telephones cannot be provided unless they are subsidised in some way, and there is no justification for asking ordinary subscribers—who might or might not be taxi users—to bear the extra cost. The cab trade was told of the decision and the reason for it.

Existing telephones were allowed to remain, subject to periodic review of the use being made of them, and the practice has been to remove those free telephones which are least used. Since 1958 the number has been gradually reduced from 120 to 73 in London, and from 40 to 15 in the provinces.

I fully appreciate the disappointment of the cab trade at the removal of a concession so long enjoyed, and I am aware of the advantages of having a telephone at a cab rank. As the hon. Member for Merton and Morden has argued there is a social advantage in having telephones at cab ranks. People can ring for a cab, and there is an advantage for the cab trade in that cabs can station themselves at cab ranks instead of cruising around, although they can and do do this without a telephone anyway. In other words, the benefits of cab rank telephones do not accrue solely to the cab drivers but to the general public as well.

This may be true but the argument applies with equal force to many others who give a service. For example, chiropodists, hairdressers, and the like can be said to be meeting a social need, but that does not mean that the Post Office must pay for their communications, which are also likely to be mostly incoming calls.

The telephone service recognises its social function and provides, as the hon. Gentleman has rightly said, public telephones and call offices at a loss of some £4¼ million a year. My right hon. Friend and I have repeatedly told the House the amount of money which is being lost, even on telephone kiosks. The inland telegraph service is maintained, despite its loss. It cannot be said that the Post Office is unmindful of social obligations.

But there is a difference in the cases quoted. They benefit the community as a whole and anybody in any part of the country can make use of the services provided. These are not cases of privileged sections of the community being subsidised by the general user of the service.

The hon. Member stressed that cab rank telephones are used for incoming calls only and cannot be used to make calls, but this is not an argument for their being free, nor even for their being provided at a rental lower than the standard business rental of £4 per quarter. In the first place, as I have said, many other people require telephones only to receive incoming calls and these telephones have to be paid for. I think the hon. Member would agree that we could not run a service otherwise.

Second, it is more costly to provide cab rank telephone service than the normal service, because cab-rank telephones are heavy-duty out-door instruments which are more expensive than ordinary telephones.

Third, although the hon. Member has argued that the profit made on the calls to these telephones should pay for their upkeep, this is not the case. The calls in question are of course local calls only. Local calls do not make a profit, and all these telephones are unprofitable. We must face this. The cost of these telephones is, therefore, carried by other telephone subscribers, with the result that a particular section of the community—the cab trade—is being subsidised. Many people would like free or subsidised telephones and, as the hon. Member is aware, hon Members have tried, by Questions, to get my right hon. Friend to give way to requests from the elderly, the housebound, and the incapacitated for concessions in telephone rentals. These requests have had to be refused; concessions create anomalies. Free cab rank telephones are an anomaly, and they cannot continue indefinitely.

We have no wish to remove these telephones willy-nilly, and would be willing to retain them on a rented basis, as has been done in cases where free facilities have ceased. The sum of money to be found, if spread over the number of cabs and drivers, would not be large.

The rental for these telephones is, as I have said, the normal business rate of £4 per quarter. All the free cab rank telephones in London could be rented for less than £1,200 a year. This works out at about 3s. 6d. per year per cab, or since there are more drivers than cabs, about 2s. 6d. per driver per year. The hon. Member said that the organisation of the cab trade makes collection and apportioning of moneys difficult, but I cannot believe that with the sums involved, a satisfactory solution could not be found within the trade. It is not necessary for one single driver to pay all the rental charge. The cost can be shared. But surely this is a matter for the drivers concerned and not for the Post Office. My right hon. Friend has no desire to make difficulties for the cab trade but, as the hon. Member for Merton and Morden is aware, we have a duty to other users of our services and, in common with other nationalised industries, we have an obligation to run our business economically and to make a proper return on capital.

Finally, the hon. Member argued that the Post Office had not discussed this issue with all the parties concerned. Let me say at once that there has been no formal agreement or obligation in this matter. The removal of the free concession is not confined to London. We have made our intentions clear and have had discussions with various representatives of the cab trade. Their case has certainly not gone by default. We have had, as the hon. Member said, representations from the London Cab Trade Joint Ranks Committee. If others wish to discuss the renting of the telephones in London, then we shall be glad to do so, but we must hear from them quickly.

The hon. Member put his case clearly and concisely, and explained his reasons for raising it. But in conclusion, I hope that, from all that I have said, the hon. Member will agree that we cannot allow some sections of the community to have service for nothing, and that therefore we must maintain the policy which we have already announced in the House. Recently I met a deputation who argued more or less along the same lines as those used by the hon. Member in putting his case this afternoon. I told that deputation that neither my right hon. Friend nor I could make an announcement to the House that something would take place and then, after hearing the deputation, automatically go back on the undertaking which we had given to Parliament. When I met these people they were very disturbed, as the hon. Member is disturbed.

But we must keep to the policy which was laid down by the previous Adminis- tration, because we think it right in this respect. Other subscribers ought not to be placed in the position of subsidising this section of the community who have the advantage of facilities which have been afforded to them for so long.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to One o'clock.