HC Deb 12 May 1967 vol 746 cc1927-42

1.45 p.m.

Mr. Henry Clark (Antrim, North)

I welcome the opportunity of the Whitsun Adjournment debates to raise the subject of all-figure telephone numbers. This is a major change in a national institution which will affect millions of telephone users all over the country, a considerably larger number than the number of telephones in the country. I have chosen this occasion because the subject of all-figure telephone numbers has barely had a mention on the Floor of the House. The first announcement was made in a Written Answer in July, 1965, when we had other things to think of, and any other discussion has been largely in the form of Written Answers. The only other reference I can find is one Question in another place, and that did not seem to produce any very valuable discussion or conclusion.

I am not a person who opposes change. Generally speaking, I do not like changes, but I am very keen on improvements. I do not think there is anyone who doubts that the British telephone system needs improvement and needs to keep up with modern trends if the industry which supplies it is to be in the forefront of the world's electronic industries.

The introduction of S.T.D. was a major improvement in our telephone system, but I am very far from convinced that the all-figure telephone numbers are a similar improvement. In fact, the virtually unanimous view of everyone with whom I have discussed the matter—and I have spoken to many in the last few weeks—is that the introduction of all-figure telephone numbers is a retrograde step which will make our telephone system less easy to use and less useful.

In a speech like this, it is very tempting to suggest that the Postmaster-General is introducing all-figure telephone numbering—I have never quite understood why it has not been called A.F.N.—purely for the sake of change, because numbers are rather trendy, it all looks like a computer, and they are "with it", and because all-figure numbers fit in with the idea of technology which was sold to us so hard in various elections—although nothing much else does. But that would not be a sound way to approach the problem. Computers can work as well with letters as with numbers, and anyway this is not a political matter. It is concerned with the efficiency of an all-pervading national service and the whole House must take an interest in such a matter.

The theme of my criticism of the Post Office is that in this matter it has failed to adjust technical requirements to human needs. Technical requirements have been made all-important while the human element has been forgotten. Technology without humanity can be disastrous, and if it is not disastrous in this instance I believe that it will lead to a considerable deterioration in cost efficiency, perhaps not in the telephone service, but for those people who use telephones.

Automatic telephone exchanges work on a series of electrical impulses or signals which are passed down the line when we dial. Telephone numbers are merely a conventional way of writing down or speaking that electrical signal. Anyone who has had to use an Arabic telephone directory will have clearly seen that the way in which those numbers is written down is purely conventional. We happen to write it in one script and the Arabs in another. A telephone number may be spoken in French, or in German, or in Japanese, I presume, but whichever way it is said or read it is difficult to remember, and we can remember only a certain number of telephone numbers.

It is important for the House to realise that whether one has letters or figures, a telephone number is only a conventional name for a component part of an electrical signal which is transmitted when we dial. To put it more simply, numbers or letters are merely names for the holes in the dial and they have little or nothing to do with the electronic workings of the telephone. Accepting that, I find it difficult to see why there is any overpowering technical reason requiring us to give up our current system of figures and letters. If the reasons are so overpowering, why did we go halfway through the change-over to S.T.D. using this system and only change it once we were beginning to get used to the S.T.D. codes?

When the Postmaster-General made his statement in 1965 a pamphlet was issued. Three reasons were given for going over to figure codes. The first one was that it would aid international dialling. This might be a sound reason, but it is not an imperative one if one looks at this more carefully. In the first place, there is no difficulty whatever for people in this country in dialling numbers in America or on the Continent, because we have numbers on our telephone dials, as they have. The difficulty arises when someone in America or Germany tries to dial back to us, because with their unlettered dials they will have no way of knowing the number equivalent of our letter codes and numbers.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

The hon. Gentleman has obviously given careful study to this. Can he say why it is that so many other countries have numbered telephone systems and why he wants us to be different to all the other countries?

Mr. Clark

I have never thought that it was a good reason for this country to do something because everyone else did it. There have been a number of occasions, and this Parliament is one of them, when we were out of step with every other country, particularly in the shape of the Chamber. I do not think that the hon. Member would want to change the shape of the Chamber because of that. That is not a very valid argument, for one can get round the problem. It is merely a matter of letting the Germans, Americans and others who want to dial us know the figure equivalents of the letters on our telephone dials. This is a matter to do with the printing of directories, it is not a technical or electrical problem. I will demonstrate later how we can adjust our directories to suit.

The second reason given in the pamphlet was that we were running out of those convenient little three-letter combinations which give us our telephone numbers in major cities. This is a matter of arithmetic. If we are running out of them, then they have to go. But one does not necessarily have to make meaningful letters, and there can be just the same number of combinations with three letters as with three numbers.

We would all be sorry to see the traditional numbers go, and I accept what the noble Lady said in another place that it was not for egalitarian reasons that the Government tried to do people out of their Hyde Park and Mayfair numbers, so that they would be the equal of people who had numbers beginning with Hop, or were on the Tulse Hill Exchange. There is not a single person to whom I have ever talked who does not think that the London system is an extremely good one. It gives one an indication of where the telephone is situated, and the numbers are easy to remember, to express and to comprehend. They fit well into the short-term memory, from directory to dial, and into the long-term memory. I can, I believe, remember more telephone numbers in London than in any other area.

The system of letters and numbers could be carried on for a very long time indeed. Why cannot we have a fifth number after the exchange? We have been told that at some time in future we will have what are known as sector exchanges. Let us say that London was to be divided into five or ten sector exchanges. Why not put one digit in front of the present telephone exchanges letters? In the central area it might be A or 1. In the surrounding areas there could be other digits to identify the other sector exchanges.

There is an argument of which I get very tired which says that we are going to change sooner or later, why not now? That is rather like a husband and wife talking together the day after their marriage. One says to the other: "Darling, let us face it, we may, sooner or later, come round to divorce." The other says: "If that is the case, why should we not get divorced at once?" Let us stick to the good system for as long as it works. We may have another set of changes forced on us in ten years time, why go out to meet trouble?

I am not only interested in London exchanges and those of large cities. There is a very real problem in telephone directories everywhere. If exchange names are replaced by figures everyone knows that if one is looking for a Smith, and there are two pages of Smiths, the quickest way to find the man is to run one's finger down to look for the particular exchange. It is diabolical already in Wales, with only four surnames, but imagine what it would be like when there are no exchanges to check! Perhaps it is always diabolical in Wales—they seem to get the thick end of the stick very often.

The real people who will suffer are those who make long distance calls, with codes, throughout the country, particularly business men. Not only does this apply to long distance calls, because we have codes for local exchange areas. We have had about 20 number codes in my local area for about five years. I can remember just one of those codes, a three figure one, but the Post Office has just changed it, so now I do not know a single one. Some of the codes run up to six and eight figures. It is possible that they may be rationalised as the system is developed, but those numbers are very difficult to remember, and in one case, dialling from two villages three miles apart, which are in separate telephone areas, there is a nine-figure code followed by the three figures of the telephone number. If we are to have complications of that sort, we will need some easier way of remembering, and there is no doubt that the use of letters in codes of that sort would make them easier to remember.

The classic and simple case is that quoted in the pamphlet I have been shown. This gives the codes for the six major cities in the country:—021, 031, 041, 051, 061. It would take ten minutes to learn those off, but on almost one reading one could remember that OBI is Birmingham, OE1 is Edinburgh, OG1 Glasgow, OLI Liverpool, and OM1 Manchester. That is the system that we started with STD. Why are we not continuing it? The Belfast code is OBE2. Ballymena, the capital of my consituency, is OBM6. To dial my own exchange of Maghera, which always seems to defeat the pronunciation of English telephone operators, I have only to dial OMG 882. This is easy to remember, but I have not the faintest idea of what the all-figure equivalent would be. We regularly hear on the news the number equivalent to Whitehall 1212. Any 50 people stopped in the street will know Scotland Yard's number, but how many will remember it in all-figure form?

This is an important question, much more serious than some people think. In the pamphlet which I have quoted there is one of those "gee-whiz" statistics. We are told that there are 6,000 million telephone calls a year. I can supply another "gee-whiz" statistic. If each of those telephone calls is delayed by precisely one second, we shall lose 2 million man hours per year. If we have to look at twice the number of numbers in the directory or trouble directory inquiries and thus put up the expense of the service, the bill for this change could be considerably in excess of 2 million man hours a year.

I am convinced that the change to all-figure telephone numbers is a retrograde step. They are no quicker to dial. They are certainly no easier to comprehend, and they are very much more difficult to remember. The House and the country is entitled to know why the Post Office made this decision. Why have all-figure numbers been introduced? What research did the Post Office do into psychology of memory and into mnemonics before it introduced this scheme? How many telephone numbers can the average person remember if they are in the present form of figures and letters? Does the number go up or down with an all-figure system? Has the Post Office discovered the answers to these questions? If not, it should not have carried out a major change of this sort which may well cause a great deal of inefficiency in British industry.

I have done what research I could. I have some information from America. In the 1950s, the Bell Telephone Company concluded that the all-figure system, or all numeral dialling—A.N.D., as the Americans call it—"would cause little strong feeling". If that test was a good one—and it may not have been—may I point out that the Americans are a very different people from the British. The all-figure system is causing a great deal of strong feeling in this country. One has only to touch on the subject and one gets an immediate reaction from almost any person one meets.

John Jung of Long Beach College produced a completely different verdict in 1963. He said: … coded names can be a tremendous aid in learning telephone numbers". That was his conclusion after he had carried out a great deal of patient research. Has the Post Office conducted similar research into the basis of the British manner of thinking? Every nation has different manners of thinking. The Americans, during and since the war, have always numbered their aircraft, while we have given them names. It is clear that the British do not like numbers, and we do not want to be pushed into a bogus computer age until we have to be.

Has the Post Office done research into phasing long numbers? What is the best way for the British mind of phasing numbers? Is it two and two, as is done in France—45–35 instead of 4535—or is four and two the best way of expressing a six-figure number?

The introduction of this system is open to criticism. We have had a host of pamphlets, mostly contradictory. We have been sent little discs to stick on our telephones. Some people have discovered that their telephone number has been changed and they cannot remember it. Cithers have discovered that their number has not been changed and they have thrown the discs away. I am prepared to bet that at least half the discs sent out by the Post Office have been lost. When the change is finalised in a year's time, there will be complete chaos. There has been the minimum of informative articles in newspapers about why the change is necessary, which makes me wonder whether the reasons for it are as good as were first suggested.

In London we are told, "Dial only the last seven figures. Do not dial 01". Every London telephone number has "01" at the beginning of it. Are we to split each page of the telephone directory into two with a column of 01s? This is a bad system, and it has not been put over to the public particularly well. It will cause a great deal of chaos.

I was talking to a personnel officer in a major office block the other day. His concern has religiously followed the instructions of the Post Office. He assured me that the change in telephone numbering has caused one of the biggest headaches he has had for many years and a great deal of delay and frustration in an important British export industry.

There is an alternative solution to the problems. One problem is how people on the Continent will know the figure equivalent of our letters. Take, for instance, my own telephone number. It seems possible to alter BELgravia 6329 for a combination, without taking more room in the telephone directory, which includes the "Bel" as an alternative to the figure code 235. If this were done, there is no reason why we should not stick to the present system. Let the Germans and French, and any other people who are computer-minded, use the all-figure system if they wish.

The Assistant Postmaster-General told me a month ago that the Post Office hoped to do away with letters on telephones in the next few years. I ask him to reconsider that decision. If the Post Office is determined to work in numbers, why cannot it let people work out their own letter codes as an aid to memory? This is a very small piece of freedom and many people will want to use it. I ask the hon. Gentleman not to give a snap answer to either of these two problems. I want the Post Office to consider this matter carefully.

The new system is meant to be an improvement. I do not believe that it is. We are told that there are overwhelming technical reasons for making the change. I am not convinced. I want the Assistant Postmaster-General to tell us clearly why we should have the new system. It will cause a great deal of time wasting for probably two or three years. The loss in efficiency will have to be measured in millions of man hours. Will we be better off at the end? I do not believe that we will.

It has been an important part of the British Constitution for many years that we appoint non-expert Ministers, who are elected Members of the House, to head Ministries. This is open to criticism. But if we have lay Ministers at the top of administrative Departments, they are in a position to bring a little humanity to bureaucracy and to protect the individual from over-efficient administration. I believe that that is one of the most important parts of the British constitution. This is perhaps more important in the case of technical Ministers; and the Post Office is becoming a technical Department. It is essential that the lay Ministers at the head of technical Departments should protect the public from too much technology and temper the wind of technology with a little humanity.

Unless we have a clear and precise explanation from the Post Office on the desirability of this change, I will believe that the Postmaster-General has bowed down before the bogus golden calf of technology too quickly and has not remembered that his job in the Post Office is to ensure that ordinary people in the street can use with ease and without frustration the various Post Office systems, particularly the telephone system. This is an important question to which I hope we shall have a satisfactory reply from the Assistant Postmaster-General.

2.9 p.m.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

The House will be grateful to the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Mr. Henry Clark) for raising this subject. Listening to his speech, I felt that his was the voice of true reactionary Conservatism if ever there was one. If he had his way, we should still be communicating with each other by means of torn toms or by lighting beacons on mountain tops. There were people about when the telephone system was introduced who thought that it would have a debasing and demoralising effect upon civilisation.

We must move with the times. The hon. Gentleman's case is based upon the assumption that the British are more stupid than the people of almost every other country where the all-number telephone system operates. We are no longer an isolated, small island. We may be entering the Common Market. In the measurable future, we may be able to telephone directly to China. Millions of people do not know the British alphabet. If I want to communicate in years to come with someone in the Far East, I do not want to have to learn Chinese letters or Urdu or Hindustani.

Mr. Henry Clark

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has made this a party issue, but this was inevitable. Even if the hon. Gentleman does not know the Chinese alphabet, can he count in Chinese?

Mr. Lipton

It would be much easier to secure an agreement on numbers on an international basis than to play about with or maintain what is rapidly becoming the out-of-date system of having letters as part of telephone numbers.

It is sad, but this is the way of progress. Almost every other civilised country operates an all-figure telephone system. We have got to fit in. The proposition that, just because we are different, we must go on being different until kingdom come is not a tenable argument. One of these days we may have to abolish the rule of the road and drive on the right-hand side of the road. That will cause a certain amount of dislocation and will have industrial and technical consequences, but we must realise that we are part of a larger world. We are not just a small island all to ourselves. Communications are developing. It is just because in the end communications will be made easier by all-figure telephone numbers that I think that the Post Office is wise to follow the international practice.

2.12 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Joseph Slater)

I thank the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Mr. Henry Clark) for introducing this subject and for his presentation of it. I hope to answer later on some of the important questions he asked.

At the beginning of his speech the hon. Gentleman said that the only Parliamentary references to this subject had been by way of Written Answers. This may be so. It often happens in Parliament that hon. Members table Questions for Written Answer when they are not prepared to make their Question a starred one which would give them the opportunity and privilege, if Mr. Speaker so willed it, of asking supplementary questions.

The hon. Gentleman emphasised more than once that, in his view, this was a retrograde step and that no one to whom he had spoken liked the system. He said that it was such an important issue that the general public ought to know more about it. The hon. Gentleman takes exception to the pamphlets and circulars which we have issued dealing with this changeover. However, we are not unmindful of the fact that the general public should have all possible information about changes such as this. The hon. Gentleman will know that research goes on all the time in our laboratories at Dollis Hill and elsewhere into the advancement of the telecommunications side of the Post Office and its operations.

In July, 1965, as the House will remember, my right hon. Friend's predecessor announced this change. Its main effect was to alter the form of telephone numbers in the six large cities of London, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester, where for nearly 40 years telephone numbers had been a mixture of letters and numbers.

My right hon. Friend was reluctant to abolish the traditional system which used exchange names. He knew this had become part of our way of life and that many people had developed considerable affection for their own exchange names. Nevertheless, as he pointed out at the time, not only was a change to all-figure numbers inevitable, but it would bring positive benefits. Further, the House accepted that, if it were to be done, it was best done quickly because this would not only minimise the difficulties but also speed the benefits.

Why was this change inevitable? As hon. Members well know, the telephone system is doubling in size every seven or eight years. To provide for this growth in London we had to plan for many new exchange codes. But by 1970 we would have run out of usable codes derived from pronounceable names. We took advice and concluded that people would have been confused by a mixture of the present system and meaningless three-letter codes. We also found that people remembered numbers just as well as meaningless letter codes.

The hon. Gentleman sought to stress the difficulty of an individual mastering an all-figure number and retaining it in his memory for all time. However, we settled on an all-figure numbering system——

Mr. Henry Clark

I am very interested in the Post Office's research into this question. Will the hon. Gentleman tell us something of the experiments which were carried out into the memory retention of all-figure numbers as compared with numbers comprising letters and figures?

Mr. Slater

The hon. Gentleman can take it from me that the change-over has been the subject of intensive study and research in this respect. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has had the opportunity of going to Dollis Hill and seeing the amount of work that goes on there into matters such as this. Wherever it is necessary for consultation to take place with outside bodies, such consultation takes place.

I was saying that we settled on an all-figure numbering system, not because we thought it was easier to use than the present system in present circumstances. We did it because we foresaw that it would be better suited to the needs of the greatly enlarged network of the future. Moreover, with all-figure numbers we shall have enough exchange codes to last us at least up to the end of this century.

What benefits will the change bring? First, it will enable the Post Office to improve its service and keep down its costs, which is most important. This is because it enables us to introduce a system of sector switching centres. Although this sounds a rather technical point—the hon. Gentleman stressed that lay Ministers are not technically-minded—as it will help our customers as well as ourselves, hon. Members may be interested to hear its broad outlines.

At present dialled trunk calls to and from telephones in the six big cities I have mentioned have to go through large automatic trunk exchanges located in the city centres. As trunk traffic increases these buildings have to be enlarged and, as hon. Members well know, site values are highest in city centres.

Our aim is to decentralise and build new trunk exchanges on less expensive sites away from the centres. Each exchange will then handle the trunk traffic for only the sector of the city surrounding it. Unfortunately, for technical reasons this can be done only if the codes of all exchanges in a sector start with the same first digit or first two digits. If we had tried to do this with the present system it would have meant changing about two-thirds of the existing exchange names and many of them would have had to be given meaningless letter codes.

As I said before, we have established that people will find an all-figure numbering system easier to deal with than a mixture of meaningless and meaningful letter codes. Hon. Members will be pleased to hear that we are taking account of the demands of sector switching in allocating the new all-figure numbers. This means that as this development takes place a further reorganisa- tion of codes will not be necessary in the big cities.

The other main benefit in changing to an all-figure numbering system is, of course, that it facilitates international subscriber dialling. The hon. Member has taken, I think, some of his argument from business people, that this is not going to help them in any way. We take the other view and we believe that many business people will readily appreciate the value of this. Few countries in the world now have letters on their dials. Both the United States and France are changing to an all-figure system, and I feel sure that the House will welcome any move which improves our communications, as mentioned by my hon. Friend, both with the Common Market countries and North America. Its importance, particularly for the future, is clear from the fact that the volume of international telephone calls to and from this country is doubling every three years or so—doubling.

I should now like to turn to those points which have been raised and which have not been covered so far. The hon. Member complained about the very long codes—I do not object to his criticism in regard to this—which are at present necessary in some country areas. I am pleased to be able to tell him that this is only a halfway house. Under STD in its ultimate form the code part of the subscriber's number—in other words, the part before the hyphen—will be reduced everywhere to not more than four digits. This will take a good deal of expensive engineering work to complete everywhere, and it will take some time, but I can assure the House that we are getting on with the job.

The hon. Gentleman raised a question regarding labels on dials with all-figure numbers. These were sent out to our customers before the change had taken place. He complained about this. I accept his complaint, but these labels were sent out to enable the customers to put them on their dials, and if some have not stuck them on the dials that is their fault. The aim was to enable people to get used to all-figure numbers and give them a chance to change their stationery and warn their friends before it was too late. Some people's codes are being changed under all-figure numbering, and it was particularly for those people that we gave this transitional period.

I was also asked why it was not possible for people to keep a mixed letter and number system for internal use and be given an all-figure numbering system for international use. I have already pointed out the serious difficulties which keeping the present system would result in at home, and I can assure the House that if a double numbering system of this kind were introduced it could create still greater confusion. That is the advice we have received.

Then I was asked why we did not foresee the need to change to all-figure numbers earlier, and why we did not take account of it when we introduced STD. It is true that STD has gone ahead in this country and has been showing good results, and I would point out that when STD was introduced in 1958 the Post Office was not expecting the explosion of telephone demand which occurred in the mid-1960s. We did not expect that at all. It is this dramatic growth which has accelerated the need for all-figure numbering.

Then I was asked about research done by the Post Office before we decided upon an all-figure numbering system. I will be honest with the House—we did not do any research ourselves; but we sought advice from experts in this country and from telephone administrations overseas, particularly in America, which were also considering a change to all-figure numbering, and the tenor of the advice we were given was that pronounceable codes were easier to remember than figures, but that there was little to choose between meaningless letter codes and figures.

We were asked about the possibility of solving the shortage of available codes in London by adding a fifth digit to the numerical part of the number. This, of course, appears at first sight to be a happy solution for the internal if not the international problem. I can assure the House that we examined this, and many other theoretically possible solutions, before coming to our decision. We rejected this one because we believed that it would have involved extensive and expensive alterations of equipment at all exchanges in London and at all trunk switching centres elsewhere in the country. With the tremendous demands on our capital caused by the telephone explosion we just could not afford this.

In conclusion, I would point out that we are making good progress with the change to all-figure numbers. Since March, 1966, we have been allocating all-figure numbers in the six large cities to all new subscribers, to any subscriber whose directory entry was changed, and to any subscriber who wished to change his number—because, for example, he was having his notepaper heading reprinted. By January this year we had got on well enough with these preliminaries to be able to start changing the remaining telephone numbers in London to the all-figure form. I think we have done remarkably well to be able to do so. We aim to complete this change by September, and the new Greater London business telephone directory to be issued in September will be the first directory with all London telephone numbers in all-figure form. The remaining London telephone directories will have been reprinted in all-figure form by September, 1968. We plan to start changing the remaining numbers in Edinburgh later this year; in Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool during 1968; and in Glasgow in early 1969. The directories for these cities will be recast in all-figure form at the netx edition following the change in each place.

Mr. Lipton

My hon. Friend has said that there will be a new London telephone directory based on the all-figure system in September this year. Will that new directory be based, as the present is, on the London postal region, or will it be enlarged so as to include the outer part of the Greater London Council area which is not in the London postal region?

Mr. Slater

What I said was that this would be the first directory with all London telephone numbers in all-figure form. I think that is the answer to my hon. Friend.

We have been able to introduce all-figure numbering gradually and to make it possible to use both the old system and the new side by side till records have been amended and people become accustomed to the all-figure system. We shall in due course, however, have to withdraw some of the old letter codes so that they can be reallocated in figure form for new exchanges. Our aim throughout has been to make the change with as little inconvenience to users as possible, and I am pleased that they are becoming accustomed to the new system. Approximately 1¼ million subscribers now have all-figure numbers, and when the changes in London are completed later this year 25 per cent. of the telephone subscribers in this country will have all-figure numbers.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Antrim, North for raising this subject today, and to the House for giving me the opportunity of explaining again the very positive purposes for which all-figure numbers were introduced. Our telephone system—I must say this—is expanding at an unprecedented rate. We confidently expect this expansion to continue till, towards the 1980s and 1990s, nearly every household has a telephone. All-figure numbering means that we are bringing in now a national numbering system which will take this huge growth comfortably in its stride.

I know and I appreciate that change is never convenient to those whom it affects, but I believe, and I am confident that the majority of the House and the telephone-using public believe, that it was right to make this change in good time, and that we have chosen the best possible system on behalf of the people who are our customers.