HC Deb 17 February 1969 vol 778 cc169-78

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

10.22 p.m.

Mr. W. H. Loveys (Chichester)

In drawing this matter to the attention of the House, I realise that in two respects it might rot at first be considered a suitable or propitious moment at which to discuss the monopoly of the Post Office with regard to the use of equipment.

I had intended to thank the Postmaster-General for coming to the House to reply to the debate. He gave me a definite assurance that he would be here, and I have had a conversation with him in the Lobby. It is treating the House—[Interruption.] I see that he is now in his place. I am glad now to take the opportunity of thanking him for coming to listen and reply to the debate.

As I was saying, it may not be considered a suitable or propitious moment at which to raise this matter, on two counts. The first is that the Post Office Bill, with the aim of transferring the G.P.O. to a public corporation, is at the present time going through its Committee stage, in the course of which the use of private apparatus is being discussed at some length. The second count is that, in reply to a Question of mine on 23rd January, the Postmaster-General indicated that he was having discussions with interested parties on the use of private equipment.

However, I felt it right to apply for this Adjournment debate because the Postmaster-General did not seem aware, when he replied to my Question, of the type of telephone to which I was referring. He referred to it as antique and substandard. In fact it is neither. It is the tradition of this House that if a Minister gets his facts wrong at Question Time, a backbencher has the opportunity of raising the matter on the Adjournment, which I am now doing.

I hope that this debate may be of help to the Postmaster-General concerning the difficulties being experienced by ordinary citizens who purchase equipment freely on sale in the shops, but which the G.P.O. refuses to connect. On this point I query the apparent lack of liaison between the Postmaster-General and his right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade in that the latter allows this equipment to be imported, though the public, able to buy it in the shops, is not able to use it on the public system. It seems the classic example of the right hand of the Government not knowing what the left hand is doing.

I do not intend to mention very much about the more sophisticated equipment involved, but I have had a letter from the Confederation of British Industry which has expressed grave concern about the matter, particularly with the desire of industry about the connecting up of PABX equipment. I have also had letters from computer firms about competition from other countries which is putting them in an adverse position, because other countries allow to be done what the companies in this country are asking for. However, time will not allow me to cover a very wide sphere, and I admit that I am not qualified to talk on this sophisticated equipment. I leave that to my more qualified hon. Friends in the Standing Committee.

I will restrict myself to the use on the public system of private telephones which are on sale but which G.P.O. engineers are instructed not to connect. I assure the House that many stores and shops sell these telephones. I recently spoke to the man in charge of the department that sells these telephones at Fortnum and Mason in Piccadilly. He told me that they have sold hundreds of these telephones. Selfridges had them in their Christmas catalogue. Chinacraft in Oxford Street and, I am sure, many other stores sell this equipment.

I must declare my personal interest in the matter. It is a very small personal interest. I had a present from my wife of a mock antique telephone of this type. I telephoned the G.P.O. and asked whether engineers could kindly come and install my telephone. The G.P.O. engineers came along. They were very polite. They admired my telephone immensely, but they said, with great regret, that the regulations did not allow them to fit it.

This telephone and others on sale are, in every respect, up to the standard of the G.P.O. It was wrong for the Postmaster-General to refer to this equipment as substandard. It is fitted with G.P.O. specification dials, the Type 4000 trigger dial, it has a G.P.O. standard type ringer, and a C.5N line capacitor, as per G.P.O. specification. I am not sure what all that means, but I am told by an ex-G.P.O. engineer that it means that the equipment is absolutely up to the standard of G.P.O. telephones.

I have used one of these telephones and I found it very satisfactory. I have certainly had better sound reproduction through one of these machines. I should add that three ex-G.P.O. engineers, telephoned me as soon as they heard about this story. They said that they were ex-G.P.O. engineers, but they had left the Post Office because they did not like working for a monopoly of that sort, and they offered to come to fit my machine. Although I did not suggest that they should come to fit it, I said that one of them could come and look at it, and this is the man who took the machine to pieces to look at it to make sure that it was completely up to the specification of the G.P.O.

If these telephones were in any way inferior I should be the first to agree that they should not be allowed to be connected to the public system, but I feel that provided they meet certain set standard requirements they should be allowed to be used, as is the case in the United States of America, in many continental countries, and in other free countries throughout the world. As I am talking about the efficiency of telephones, perhaps I might ask the right hon. Gentleman why, if he is so keen, as he should be, to have only efficient machines on the public network, he allows telephones which are 40 years old, and not working well, to be kept in use. I feel that there should be a time limit for these telephones, after which the G.P.O. should be prepared to replace them, free of charge, with more modern machines.

The only other matter that I propose to raise is that of enforcing the present regulations. Regulations which I dislike most are those which are so difficult to enforce, and these regulations cannot be enforced without unwarrantable intrusion into a person's home. The G.P.O. has a system called Plan 4, which is a series of sockets which can be placed round a house or office so that there is nothing to prevent the telephones being unplugged and put in a cupboard when one wants to do that.

To illustrate the difficulty of enforcement I must draw attention to a personal experience. I gave the Minister notice of this so that he could make inquiries and have the opportunity of giving me an assurance on this matter. The day after my Question in the House I was phoning from my home when suddenly there were some weird noises on the phone. I said to the chap I was talking to, "It sounds as though my phone is about to pack up", but I was allowed to finish my call. I put the receiver down, then picked it up again, and my line was cut off. I went to my brother, who lives a mile away, and borrowed his phone to report my breakdown. Following that, two engineers came round to my house very quickly indeed.

I am not sure whether I mentioned that during my telephone call, when I said to the friend to whom I was speaking that it sounded as though my phone was breaking down, a voice in the distance said, "This line is jolly well going to break down soon", or words to that effect. I heard that clearly, so there can be no mistake about it.

When the engineers came to my house, I was out. I should have liked to have met them. The only person in the house was the person who was doing some dusting, and she told me that the engineers asked "Where is this so-called antique telephone that we have heard so much about?". She did not know about it, and she told them so. Before they left they said to her, "Tell Mr. Loveys that there was a loose wire in his telephone, which we have mended".

I am not making any allegations against the right hon. Gentleman, but I must ask for a definite assurance that my phone fault and my Question in the House were in no way connected. Even if I get that assurance, I consider that the method of enforcement of the regulations is bound to be undesirable and also ineffective if a Plan 4 system is installed. Regulations which cannot be enforced should not be in existence.

This Adjournment debate is aimed at expressing disapproval, in a small way, at the G.P.O. monopoly in this matter, and also to express my hope that this country will eventually follow most other free countries of the world and allow privately purchased equipment to be connected to the G.P.O. system, provided it is fully up to a specified standard of efficiency.

10.35 p.m.

The Postmaster-General (Mr. John Stonehouse)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Loveys) for raising this matter and for giving me this opportunity to explain Post Office policy with regard to the attachment of equipment to the G.P.O. system. At the outset I want to say a few words about the hon. Member's personal experiences. When I read in the weekend Press that the hon. Member had had certain experiences that he thought were due to the G.P.O. I was very concerned. I appreciate his courtesy in advising me before the debate of the points that he wished to raise. This has given me an opportunity of conducting a full investigation into the events in question. I have this evening interviewed two Post Office engineers who were connected with some of the events, although there is no question that two engineers responded to the hon. Member's appeal for assistance.

As I understand it, the circumstances were as follows: at about half-past twelve on a certain day the hon. Member telephoned the G.P.O. with the information that his telephone was experiencing some fault. An instruction was given to one of the repair men to go to the hon. Member's address to do the repairs, along with a number of other repair jobs that were on his card—I have the card here—for that day. I believe that the engineer arrived at the house at about two o'clock. On the way he inquired the direction from another engineer who was conducting repairs in the road nearby. The engineer who was deputed to investigate the reported fault found only loose connections in the house and put these right, and there was no question of his conducting an inquiry into the whereabouts of the reproduction antique telephone.

Mr. Loveys

The Minister will be aware that I am in a difficulty, because I was not in the house at the time, but I can assure him that the information I have—which is from the lady who was dusting—is that two chaps came in and were quite definitely inquiring for this antique telephone of which they had heard so much. She denied knowledge of it, because she did not know anything about it. It was in the cupboard. I cannot imagine that she could have made up this story. I do not want to make a fuss about this; I merely want the Minister's assurance that this had nothing to do with my Question.

Mr. Stonehouse

A serious complaint has been made in the public Press against the G.P.O. engineers and the way in which we conduct our business, and I wanted to assure myself that there was absolutely no substance in the point put forward. There is none. The engineer—and there was only one—who went to the house was responding to an ordinary complaint about a fault on the line which had been reported to him at half-past twelve.

Mr. Keith Stainton (Sudbury and Woodbridge)

This ignores the fact that my hon. Friend heard certain words in the background when he was telephoning. It also puts in great doubt the validity of what the housekeeper had to say.

Mr. Stonehouse

If the hon. Member will contain himself I shall do my best to explain the story as it has been explained to me. The engineer in question in the house asked where the antique telephone was. There is no doubt about that.

Mr. Stainton


Mr. Stonehouse

Because he had read about it in the Press. There had been a great deal of publicity about this telephone. But in his mind this had absolutely no connection with the job in question, which was to repair the fault which had been reported. That small fault was corrected and the telephone was back in order by 3 p.m.

There was no question of any conversation on the hon. Gentleman's line involving the G.P.O. I cannot for the life of me understand what it was that was overheard during the call to which reference has been made. I can only imagine that it was a crossed line. Certainly my investigations indicate that the G.P.O. was in no way responsible, that no engineer was responsible, for any such words being used.

I should like to turn to the main substance of the debate, which concerns the attachment of equipment supplied from outside the Post Office to the system which we run. The House is well aware that we have been operating a policy of permitting connection to the system only of equipment supplied by the Post Office or, if privately owned, equipment specifically approved by the G.P.O. There is no secret about that. It is set out in the Regulations of 1968 of which the House is well aware.

The Post Office has to impose these controls because it is necessary to ensure that the telephone system as a whole works successfully and efficiently. In some quarters comparison has been made with the electricity supply industry, suggesting that as the electricity authority allow electrical equipment to be attached without themselves supplying it, the telephone system could adopt the same practice. This ignores the basic point that the electricity business is a supplying business. The telephone business is a communications business, and it is vitally important that the equipment which is attached to the system is wholly as efficient as, and consistent with, the system itself. It is therefore important that the Post Office should maintain very strict control over the type of equipment which is attached to the system.

If inadequate equipment were attached, it would be embarrassing not only to the subscriber whose equipment it was, but also to callers on that line, and it would upset the delicate working of the transmission lines and the system as a whole. There is a risk of this inadequate equipment emitting sounds which may harm the system elsewhere, and there is also a risk of putting on the line voltages which might injure Post Office staff or, indeed, do some irretrievable harm to the system.

This is perhaps an occasion on which I can refer to the importance of maintaining the standard of the equipment which is attached. The hon. Member has acquired a reproduction antique telephone. It is not very easy to design a telephone which will work on the Post Office system. It is easy to design a telephone which will work on a private internal system, and many of the telephones to which the hon. Member refers are designed for that purpose. We have certainly no objection—indeed, we have no standing in the matter—if firms or individuals acquire such telephones as they like for installation on their own systems. But we have an interest, indeed we have a duty, to ensure that the telephones which are attached to the public system are up to standard. They must be up to standard and they must be fully consistent with the system.

Mr. Loveys

I agree that that is the duty the right hon. Gentleman has to insist on, but does he not agree that there are many telephones which are completely up to the standard of G.P.O. specifications?

Mr. Stonehouse

I have looked into the question of reproduction antique telephones. No reproduction antique telephone has been submitted to us for examination. One which came into the possession of the G.P.O. some time ago was found to be remarkably below standard and it would have been most unwise for it to be attached to the system.

For a phone to work satisfactorily it must be capable of sending the right type of dialling and other signals to work the automatic exchanges over a wide range of types of line. When the call is established, it has to send speech signals of such volume and frequency characteristics that when matched to the characteristics of the public telephone network, they produce satisfactory speech in the distant phone whether it be next door or hundreds of miles away at the end of a highly complex transmission system.

I am sorry to import so much technicality but it is important that the House should understand how complex a problem it is to ensure that a public system works. Some countries use low powered telephones and highly amplified transmission systems. Some, and we are one of these, find it efficient and economic to use a higher powered telephone and less amplication in other parts of the network. A phone designed for use in another country may not be appropriate for use here. Reproduction antique phones that are being sold would not be suitable for attachment to the system because so many are below standard. Expensive reproduction antique phones which retailers are selling may be useful for internal systems, but if it is brought to our notice that these phones are being attached to the system, we shall have to make representations to the individuals concerned because it certainly would be against the Regulations if they were so attached.

When it is brought to our attention that individual retailers have been telling their customers that these phones would be suitable for connection to the public system, we have advised the retailer of the true position and asked him to ensure that the customers are also aware of it. We hope very much that those customers who have acquired these phones will resist the temptation to have them attached to the system because, although they may appear to be working satisfactorily and it is possible that the telephone can work satisfactorily on some calls, it may be embarrassing to the rest of the system to have such a sub-standard phone attached to it.

The House should be made aware that the Post Office does allow a lot of other equipment to be attached to the system. We have a whole range—I think as many as 400 separate pieces of equipment—which can be attached. These range from PABX equipment to recording devices. We have a great and useful contact with many suppliers of this type of equipment. It would be quite wrong for the Post Office to prevent this type of equipment to be attached, but if that equipment goes wrong, particularly recording equipment, it is usually clear that this is an isolated bit of equipment and does not affect the system as such. If a telephone instrument goes wrong or is not working efficiently it could for a very long time be an embarrassment to the system as a whole and it certainly would be something which would be a brake on the efficient running of the system.

I am sorry to have to give a disappointing reply to the hon. Gentleman, but I regret that it will not be possible for us to allow his reproduction antique phone to be attached to the system, and a large number of other customers for such phones will be disappointed, because these phones do not come up to the very stringent requirements that we lay down for the attachment of equipment to the system.

Mr. Hector Monro (Dumfries)

If the Postmaster-General has not had the telephone belonging to my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Loveys) examined by his engineers, how does he know that it is not up to standard?

Mr. Storehouse

If the owner of any of these reproduction phones wishes to have them examined, we will examine them; but we would be most reluctant to attach them to the system until we were fully satisfied that they were up to standard. My advice is that they are not up to the standard that would be required.

Mr. Loveys

Just to satisfy us all, would the right hon. Gentleman undertake to have these telephones examined. We should know for certain. This ex-G.P.O. fellow came along and took my telephone to pieces. He saw these stamps on it. He said that it was entirely and absolutely up to G.P.O. standard. I have had this information from an ex-G.P.O. engineer. I am sure that the information would not be any different from a serving G.P.O. engineer. If after examination the right hon. Gentleman says that these phones are not up to standard, we will all accept it and will agree that they should not be used. The argument is that, if they are up to standard, they should be allowed to be sold in the shops. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro) that, unless they are properly examined, it is unfair for the Minister to say that they are not up to standard.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Sydney Irving)

Order. The hon. Gentleman is making a long intervention.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eight minutes to Eleven o'clock.