HC Deb 11 December 1968 vol 775 cc540-50

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

8.52 p.m.

Mr. Douglas Dodds-Parker (Cheltenham)

I am delighted that we have reached my moment for putting a point to the House at a time much earlier than I expected. I had felt a certain fear that we should not be on the Adjournment till three or four in the morning, in which case if I did not take the Adjournment I would be in the bad books of a large number of my constituents, and if I did take it I would be in the bad books of a large number of servants of the House who do so much to keep this place working—and all through the winter as well as the summer. It occurred to me that, in considering business of the House, one might suggest that we should take the Adjournment at the beginning of business instead of at the end, because, after all, then not many hon. Members would be inconvenienced, and it would enable others to get home half an hour earlier at the end of the day. After all, it is rather like a private House now; there are not many here.

However, despite the chance afforded to me of the Adjournment coming slightly earlier than usual I propose to keep my remarks brief in going from the sublimity of gerrymandering in the Bill we had before us just now to the practical question of the shortage of telephones for my constituents in Cheltenham.

Like other hon. Members, I have had correspondence from a number of constituents who have been unable to get telephones installed because exchange facilities are not available. I had the usual replies from the Postmaster-General, but at last one of my constituents, who is versed in the ways of Whitehall, and who, frustrated beyond the normal degree one's constituents are, sent me a list of queries to which I could not get adequate replies. Eventually, some facts emerged after further inquiry. I hope I may be permitted to interpose that both the present Postmaster-General and his predecessor have always been most courteous in their personal replies. However, the replies I had seemed to reveal centrally at headquarters weakness in forecasting needs, and a certain dilatoriness in action in getting on with the job.

My ccnstituent asked for a telephone in February, 1968. He was told that he would get it by the end of the year. Later, he was told that he would get it in 12 months' time. The latest in formation is that he will get it by April, 1969, 14 months after he originally asked for it. I submit that that is an unreasonably long time to have to wait.

From the investigations that I have made, and from the facts which the Post master-General has been good enough to send to me, I find that an estimate was made locally in 1963 that extra capacity would be needed by 1967 and that it takes two years and one month after such a decision is taken to order and install such equipment. No order was placed until February, 1966. This capacity should have been ready, according to this arithmetic, in March, 1968, but the news now is that it will be ready by April, 1969.

In mid-summer 1968 there were about 600 names on the waiting list, and the growth of demand for telephones in the Cheltenham area which had been fore cast at 670 a year was running at about 900 a year. In the meantime, a mobile exchange, taking care of about 350 ex tensions, had been brought in to help to fill the gap. Further provision in the new exchange is for about 3,800 lines. Over 600 of these had been pre-empted by July, and others no doubt have been taken up since. If the growth rate is now running at about 1,000 a year, I estimate that half the 3,800 will be taken by the end of 1969 and the whole lot will be taken by the end of 1971 at the latest, especially as the Postmaster-General goes out to sell the telephone service, which he is not yet in a position to do.

A point which arose in the correspondence is that there was a local rumour, which, I am glad to say, turned out to be untrue, that the capital cost of the telephone service had been cut by £72 million. I am informed that only £15 million was cut, as the Prime Minister announced in the House in July, 1966, just after that General Election which cost us also the Landsdowne station in Cheltenham and which we hope, one day, will again be staffed. Despite the cut of £15 million, I understand that in the South-West Telecommunications Region the amount set aside for telephones has been increased from £2. 2 million in 1964–65 to £6.9 million in 1967–68.

The conclusion which I draw from all this, and which I ask the Assistant Post master-General either to acknowledge or to refute, is that, in the first place, no blame lies on the local telephone managers. They clearly want to get North Gloucestershire on a bigger and better central exchange. A new exchange was built at Cheltenham not long ago, but it has proved to be too small to take the increased growth of the past two or three years to which I have referred. There is no brake on the contractors, either for the buildings or for the equipment. I believe that they would have been ready to provide extra capacity had the orders been placed in time.

It seems to me that the miscalculation has been made essentially on the growth which was likely to take place, and also in taking action in making available the necessary capital and ordering in good time. Whether this growth has been due to the success of S.T.D., which I think we all recognise has taken the telephone service forward faster than expected, whether it is due to the success of Telex, which is a wholly admirable service which has not yet been brought sufficiently to the notice of the public, or whether it is due to the increased costs and difficulties of the telegraph and postal service of the past two or three years, it is not for me to say. All I can say is that the growth has been greater than expected.

I maintain that, first, there would have been no difficulty in the manufacturers putting in extra capacity to take care of domestic as well as export demands if they had been alerted in time. With some knowledge of the American Tele graph and Telephone Company, which is a public utility, which many of us feel is the right way of handling these facilities these days, I believe that the forecasting under such a system would have been more accurate, and the pro vision of facilities more rapid and more effective within an economy which en courages capital formation and savings in the private sector to provide such public utilities.

Secondly, I maintain that there was no difficulty in building a relatively small extension such as this. Two years and one month is enough to provide both the building and the equipment. In the meantime, the mobile exchange for 350 was not big enough. I believe, again, that some organisation like the A.T. and T.C. would have had more units available to put in for these areas which had expanded more than the estimate. I ask the Assistant Postmaster-General to tell me why, when the capital was available, and was greater than in previous years, he chose to pick on Cheltenham for this discrimination.

There is a suggestion in the Press from time to time that Cheltenham is full of retired people. There are a number of them there, and I wish that there were many more, because they are very good supporters of mine. I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that Cheltenham is a light industrial town, having some of the finest aircraft and other craft industries in Britain, and one of the biggest insurance companies has just made its headquarters there. All this, with the development of the motor ways and other facilities in the last few years, has led to the expansion of demand.

The promenade, with its Christmas lights, is unbeatable as a spectacle, as well as a shopping centre. Why should more and more of my constituents be prevented from ringing up Father Christmas? I ask the hon. Gentleman to tell me why there is such a shortage in Cheltenham, when it will be resolved, why it had to be Cheltenham, and whether he will give an assurance that it will not happen again.

9.3 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Joseph Slater)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Dodds-Parker) for giving me this opportunity to speak about the telephone service in his constituency. The hon. Gentleman has presented his case on behalf of his constituents with great regard for the people who have been affected by the lack of telephone facilities, and I shall endeavour to give the hon. Gentleman the full picture as it relates to Cheltenham.

The hon. Gentleman has drawn our attention to one weakness, which is that at the moment we are not able to meet all the demands for a telephone service by those who want it. But there is little to be ashamed about the service in general, which in many respects is very good.

Perhaps I might deal straight away with the question of the waiting list. I accept that there is at the moment a shortage of telephone exchange equipment at Cheltenham. This will be rectified by a large extension of the equipment which should be installed and working by the spring of next year. The exhaustion of the present equipment was brought about by an unprecedented increase in the demand for the telephone service, which began in 1965 and 1966. The increase was not, as it were, assigned only to Cheltenham; it came throughout the country, but it was particularly high in Cheltenham. The average annual growth in Cheltenham during those two years was nearly 9 per cent., compared with about 8 per cent. elsewhere.

As soon as we realised that this rapid growth was taking place, we ordered additional equipment for Cheltenham. The amount required was such that it would take more than two years to make and install it. The size of the undertaking will be appreciated if I mention that the contract was valued at no less than £200,000. The lead time meant that we could only hope to have this extra equipment working about mid-1968, whereas the existing equipment would run out early in 1967.

To make matters worse, at the same time our equipment contractors suddenly found themselves inundated with orders because of the rapid general growth in demand for telephone service that was taking place throughout the United Kingdom. Inevitably, manufacturing delays began to occur, and, despite every possible effort to overcome them both by the contractors and by the Post Office, these delays, I admit, are still with us. The effect of the delays on Cheltenham was to hold back the new equipment until next spring.

To help meet this problem, we put in a mobile exchange at Cheltenham in November, 1967, and this enabled us to serve another 350 people who were waiting. The main exchange and this mobile relief unit are now serving nearly 14,000 customers, leaving about 900 still waiting for service. I agree that that is a very high figure. These are all householders; there are no businesses waiting for tele phones in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, according to my information. The average waiting period so far is about 6½ months, and the longest period that anyone on the list has waited—I accept what the hon. Gentleman said about it—is 20 months.

All these people will be given service either at the time the exchange extension is completed in April, 1969, or within a short period after that. The only exceptions will be a few cases where the houses concerned are on new estates and we may not be able to put in cables until roads and buildings are ready.

I am very sorry—I say this most sincerely—that this situation has arisen, but it is largely a reflection of an unprecedented demand and under-capitalisation in the past. But I am not seeking to make political points tonight; that would not do. There have been critics who have maintained that we ought to have fore cast the great increase in demand which commenced in 1965 and 1966. No one, of course, can see clearly what the future holds, but I am glad to be able to tell the House that, since those years, we have considerably improved our fore casting techniques.

At the time when our original fore casts were made for telephone demand in Cheltenham, we made these only every few years. Since the big national upsurge in telephone demand in 1965–66, we have considerably increased the frequency of these reviews, and we now make rolling forecasts which are revised every quarter.

When we are preparing a forecast for any particular exchange, we get as much information as we can from local authorities and planning authorities on the expansion of trade, commerce and industry, and changes in population. To these we apply the existing known trends in the area. These then are looked at in the light of the national forecasts we make in Post Office headquarters, and this is where the biggest improvement has come in recent years.

We have increased the staff who work on our statistics and economic forecasts for the whole of the Post Office, and we have also increased the staff on actual forecasting itself. We are developing new techniques based on econometric models and the use of computers. This enables us to study and analyse trends more closely and apply many more variables to our forecasts for the future.

We have even gone so far as to have an "on line" computer terminal in our fore casting department. All this has meant that, over the last three years, our fore casts have been very much more accurate, and the effort that we are still putting into researching and developing these new techniques will mean that they will become increasingly accurate in the future.

I now turn to the standard of service which we are giving today to our customers in Cheltenham. First of all, S.T.D. In 1963 Cheltenham became one of the first towns to be given S.T.D., and I am glad to report that in Cheltenham the S.T.D. service is well up to the national average. The equipment is working well and we have sufficient trunk lines between Cheltenham and other towns and cities. When it is difficult to get through on S.T.D. this is most probably due to congestion at the other end.

Trunk traffic nationally has been growing at the very high rate of 13 to 14 per cent. per annum, and this has inevitably put pressure on our main trunk network at certain places. We are, therefore, adding 10,000 circuits to the national system this year, which is an increase of 15 per cent. This should go far to improve the trunk service generally.

Now I turn to the local service. This is good. The figures for the month of October show that the local equipment operated correctly, and was adequate on 98. 5 per cent. of local automatic calls. We obtain these good results only by giving a great deal of attention to pre ventive maintenance. The equipment in the exchange is tested by special electronic machines during the night when the exchange is not very busy. Automatic printing devices type out details of what is going wrong, so that, when our engineers come on duty next morning, they can deal with the defects straightaway.

This helps to ensure that calls do not fail, either because they come across a faulty piece of equipment, or because they cannot get through owing to the shortage of equipment which would arise if some had to be taken out of service at peak times because it became faulty. Automatic devices—which check that the traffic passing through the exchange is being connected satisfactorily—should also be installed in the near future.

We give similarly close attention to the plant—largely underground—lying out side the exchange, and reaching out to customers' premises or other exchanges. An automatic device—operating during the night—tests the insulation of customers' local lines. In addition, most of the underground cable system that is suitable for cable pressurisation has been protected in this way. We are bringing in a new type of polythene-sheathed, plastic-insulated and jelly-filled cable to protect this part of the underground system.

By measures such as these, interruptions to customers' service have been kept at a particularly low level at Cheltenham. On average, service on an ordinary telephone is lost only once in every four years. Moreover, interruptions to service in Cheltenham are dealt with expeditiously when they do occur. Normally, 85 per cent. of service interruptions are cleared within the first working day, and nearly 100 per cent. of faults are dealt with by the end of the second working day.

Reports of faults at kiosks are much fewer than the average throughout the country as a whole—less than one half in fact, which, I am sure, is in some measure a reflection of the public spirit shown by the hon. Gentleman's constituents.

I come to the service given by the operating staff on the Cheltenham exchange switchboard, which serves 17 exchanges in the district. The quality of service is, according to the information I have, generally good because we have no staffing or equipment problems. Recent figures showed that the average time taken by operators to answer calls was 5. 5 seconds. During the evening the time was 9. 3 seconds. I think that this can be improved and more staff have already been recruited and are being trained. I have visited many exchanges which have not been able to reach this figure. Cheltenham is, therefore, high on the list of ability for the way in which it is able to handle calls.

Directory inquiries, too, are answered promptly at Cheltenham. The latest figures showed that the time taken to answer customers was better than eight seconds. Our existing customers seem to find the operator service in Cheltenham generally satisfactory, and this is borne out by the absence of serious complaints to the local manager.

All in all, this picture, although it has its black spots—the hon. Gentleman has rightly drawn attention to them on behalf of his constituents; I appreciate his feelings about the long time it has taken us to reach the position of being able to give a really good service—is an encouraging one. I appreciate that there is a long waiting list and that this concerns the hon. Gentleman. That is understandable and I assure him that we have noted his remarks.

When the new exchange equipment is working next spring, I am sure that Cheltenham will have a service which will be fully adequate to meet the needs of this developing area, and of the sort which the Post Office is determined to bring to all its customers.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me this opportunity of replying to the points which he has raised about his constituency and the people he represents. It is only right that he should put forward a case on their behalf.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes past Nine o'clock.