HC Deb 10 November 1971 vol 825 cc1188-98

11.30 p.m.

Mr. Gilbert Longden (Hertfordshire, South-West)

We have been debating a great issue the result of which will affect many millions of Her Majesty's subjects in a far-off land, and the House of Commons has wished Godspeed to the Foreign Secretary on his voyage to Southern Rhodesia.

I now ask the House to turn to a very much smaller issue but one which affects one of Her Majesty's subjects very deeply indeed. This is a sorry tale of a general practitioner who lived in my constituency and who woke up one morning to discover that he owed the Post Office £4,000 for telephone calls which had been made during the previous six months on the instrument of which he was the subscriber.

It came about in the following way. In April, 1967, the wife of my constituent was in an advanced stage of alcoholism, from which disease—for it is a disease—she has now happily recovered. She was under the impression that an American was trying to persuade her to join him in the United States. Between April and November of that year, while her husband was attending to his patients, she would telephone this man in America often several times a day. The bill for calls made during the months of May, June and July was submitted by the London North-West Telephone Area in September and it amounted to £2,827. The account was intercepted and destroyed by the wife, and my constituent was first seized of his horrifying indebtedness in November, 1967, when the account had reached £3,925 and when his telephone was at last cut off for all outgoing calls.

There then began negotiations between my constituent's solicitors and the Post Office regarding the amount to be paid and the manner of payment, and it is only fair to say that the London Telecommunications Region, which has, of course, an obligation to recover the amount due, made genuine efforts to meet my constituent and to settle the matter even at a loss to itself, or rather to the public. Two offers of settlement were made by the Post Office. The first was to settle for £2,500, which was incidentally no more than the sum which the Post Office had had to pay to the American Telephone Administration, of which £400 was to be paid at once and the balance by monthly instalments of £25. But this was more than my constituent could afford and he submitted copies of his P.60 for 1966-67 which set out his total income from all sources—I have the figures here—amounting to £1,300 net per annum.

The second offer from the Post Office was to settle for a total of £3,000 to be paid as to £1,000 down and the balance by quarterly instalments of £25. This the Post Office considered reasonable because my constituent had told them that a friend of his wife's had offered to put up £1,000 on condition that the Post Office would accept that sum in full and final settlement; but that the Post Office would not do, and accordingly my constituent had no £1,000 to put down.

So it came about that in July, 1970, as a result of a judgment summons, my constituent was ordered to pay off the debt at the rate of £5 a week, the Post Office to be at liberty to apply to vary the order if my constituent's circumstances should change. Since then, in May of this year, the Post Office has applied to vary the order, but the court has refused to increase the weekly payments, and there the matter rests, with the doctor's telephone still not available to him for outgoing calls.

I say at once that it may well be that my constituent is legally liable and that the Post Office has acted throughout in a responsible and sympathetic manner. But, somewhere, there is something wrong. The matter cannot be allowed to rest there.

When this case was first brought to my notice in July last year, I at once wrote to my right hon. Friend to ask that some settlement acceptable to my constituent should be agreed, and I added: Whether steps can be taken to prevent this kind of thing happening to other people is another question, though one which, I am sure, you would like to consider". My right hon. Friend quite properly replied that the matter was entirely one for the Post Office Corporation and that he could not intervene, but he had passed my letter to Lord Hall, then Chairman of the Post Office Board, who would


arrange for the question to be investigated.

Considerable correspondence ensued, but, in the end, I had to put down a Question to my right hon. Friend on 21st July last. I asked whether he would give a general direction to the Post Office that it should warn private individual sub- scribers when outstanding telephone bills have passed a sum of £100 arising from overseas calls. My right hon. Friend replied: No, Sir. A general direction would not be appropriate ". I asked in my supplementary question whether my right hon. Friend was aware that one of my constituents, whose telephone had been used without his knowledge for overseas calls over a period of only six months, had found himself liable for a bill of £4,000, and I added: Considering that telephones are cut off right, left and centre for only a few pounds of debt, is it not disgraceful that this subscriber was allowed to amass that bill?". My right hon. Friend replied that he was aware of the very tragic case to which I referred, and the Post Office, he was sure, would take note of what I had said. He added: There is always the possibility for users who expect to run up large bills to be billed monthly rather than on the present arrangement."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st July, 1971; Vol. 821, c. 1437.] I then said that, although my right hon. Friend's reply was not wholly unsatisfactory, I might seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment. That is what I am now doing.

My constituent did not expect to run up large bills. In the last quarterly bill of which he had been aware, the one up to May, 1967, the trunk calls had amounted to £48. Also, so far as I am aware, the Post Office had not taken note of what I had to say. I am raising this matter tonight, therefore, because, whatever the legal rights and wrongs of this particular case may be, I think it disgraceful that such a debt should have been allowed to accumulate.

Here is a subscriber whose normal quarterly account is £50 or thereabouts yet who, within six months, was allowed to amass a debt of £4,000. Could this happen to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or to me? Yes, it could, if someone non compos mentis—which, as her doctor will testify, was the condition of my constituent's wife at the time the debt was accumulated—gained access to our telephone when we were elsewhere.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles (Winchester)

Or even to someone who had a number of daughters.

Mr. Longden

As a bachelor, I would not know anything about that.

If it did happen to us, would such credit have been extended—a bill of £2,800 after one quarter, with nothing said, and allowed to increase by another £1,000 in the next few weeks? If that is normal, it is no wonder the Post Office is in the red. Would any private venture be so amenable?

My constituent may have been negligent, but surely it can fairly be claimed that there was contributory negligence? I asked the Managing Director of the Post Office what was its practice in dealing with outstanding accounts, and he replied: We cannot undertake to keep a constant watch on the use made of every telephone line. To do so, assuming some formula could be devised to define an unusual level of use, would mean imposing an additional charge on all customers for a facility that would be quite meaningless for the vast majority. Surely no formula is required to make the Post Office understand when someone whose normal quarterly bill is £50 suddenly has one that becomes £2,000 odd?

The Managing Director continued: Legally, each subscriber is responsible for the use made of his telephone and this is the only practicable basis on which we can operate the service. That, of course, we understand. He went on: On your last point, if a subscriber does not pay his bill within approximately five weeks, a notice is sent asking for payment within seven days, and saying that, if it is not paid, service will be withdrawn and legal proceedings to recover the debt will follow. When the present case began in 1967 the procedure was different and a reminder was then sent after four weeks, followed by a letter a week later giving warning of withdrawal of service and subsequent legal proceedings. I cannot see why that period should have been extended to five weeks.

I cannot be satisfied with that reply, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will not be satisfied with it either. A new and more effective procedure must be devised. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for being present tonight. I regret that I should have made it necessary for him to be here. I hope that he will be able to tell me what can be done to settle the case and to ensure that no similar case can happen in future.

11.42 p.m.

The Minister of Posts and Telecommunications (Mr. Christopher Chataway)

I compliment by hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Longden) on the tenacity of purpose and the concern for his constituent's troubles that he has demonstrated not only tonight but in the course of a long correspondence with the Post Office. I should first like to deal with that case before moving on to some of the wider aspects on which my hon. Friend has touched.

The matter lies squarely within the responsibility of the Post Office, but I have had a full report from the Post Office about it. I should not wish, any more than my hon. Friend, to identify the subscriber about whom he has been talking. I have every sympathy with my hon. Friend's constituent in the situation in which he finds himself. But it would be virtually impossible for the Post Office to distinguish between the merits of this case and those of other cases so as to assess the degree of relief that should be given on compassionate grounds. We require of the Post Office that it should behave as a commercial concern, the same requirement that we impose on other nationalised industries. It would be absolutely impossible to ask of the Post Office or any other nationalised industry that it should distinguish between one case and another upon compassionate grounds.

My hon. Friend has very fairly described the circumstances of the case and the steps he and the Post Office have taken. There is only one very small correction I would make of his account of the affair, and that is that I believe that a full telephone service was restored to his constituent in September, 1970.

The Post Office, I think, went as far as it felt it could go to deal with the situation. At no time did it cut off the telephone service, because it recognised that it was essential to my hon. Friend's constituent as a doctor, and although outstanding charges incurred in 1967 amounted to almost £4,000 it offered to accept £2,500 in full settlement. That lesser sum was, as my hon. Friend said, very little more than the Post Office itself had to pay out to the American Telecommunications Administration. Unfortunately, this offer was rejected and the Post Office was obliged to sue in the High Court. There, judgment was given for it, plus costs. Subsequent negotiations between the two parties on arrangements for repayment of the debt broke down, and the Post Office applied to the county court for an order for repayment. That was sei by that court at £5 a week, although if can be varied on application to the court.

Even so, the Post Office would be prepared to review the situation sympathetically when it has been able to recover a sum equivalent to that which it has paid to the American administration. I do not have powers in this matter, but I have no doubt that the Post Office will take careful note of what my hon. Friend has said.

This, I think, is a very unusual case. While I sympathise with my hon. Friend's constituent in his personal troubles, I know that it will be recognised that the Post Office, which has a duty to telephone users everywhere, has dealt with the individual patiently, fairly and sympathetically. The accuracy of the bill is not in question. But my hon. Friend has raised several other points and I should like to deal with some more general aspects.

In this case, the calls were obtained through an operator, but increasing automation of the telephone service in recent years has led to an extension of subscriber dialling, not only on inland trunk calls but also on international calls. With a fully automatic system, these are, of course, indistinguishable.

If a call is made through an operator, the subscriber can find out immediately the cost of a particular call and can also identify an operator-assisted call on his bill in due course, so that he can dispute the matter if he thinks that he has been overcharged. But that advantage is small compared with the greater number of calls which a fully automatic system can carry, because there are inevitably delays in a manual or semi-automatic system.

More importantly, a subscriber-dialled call is considerably cheaper than an operator-assisted call. The modern fully automatic telephone service sells larger or


smaller units of time according to a tariff based on whether those units are concerned with local or other calls, and whether calls are made during the busy or off-peak hours.

In those circumstances, to ask the Post Office to set all sorts of restraints on an increasingly sophisticated and flexible service would be ill-advised and incompatible with the demands which are made by a modern society for the fullest use of communications services.

It is, of course, possible for users who expect to run up heavy bills to be billed monthly. The Post Office encourages customers to accept monthly call bills if the usage of the telephone is sufficient to justify the additional cost. That arrangement can reduce the impact of what would otherwise be a heavy quarterly bill and enables subscribers to keep a closer check.

One kindred problem which has been aired recently in the Press is the case in which an operator is given an incorrect telephone number, which is subsequently charged for a trunk call that it has not made. Since that is an operator-assisted call, it will appear on the bill of the subscriber whose number has been incorrectly given. He should then be able to satisfy the Post Office, without too much difficulty, that the call should not be charged to him. There are checks which the Post Office applies to prevent this sort of abuse, and it does not hesitate to prosecute those who perpetrate this kind of fraud.

My hon. Friend suggested that subscribers should be warned by the Post Office when their outstanding bill has passed a certain sum. He suggested at Question Time that this might be set at £100. The Post Office does not believe that a warning system like that would be feasible. Notification would need to be coupled with some restriction of service applied by some "cut-out" procedure. The relative needs of subscribers would have to be taken into account. There would be nothing unusual in a bill of £4,000 being run up in a quarter by a number of businesses, so what would be required by the Post Office in any such system as my hon. Friend suggested would be a different cut-out level for different subscribers. This would result in a variety of scales of usage or a variety of limits on billing. With present technology, such a scheme would be operationally difficult to achieve and could be done only at heavy additional cost, which would have ultimately to be borne by users.

My hon. Friend suggested that the kind of experience he described must influence the Post Office a good deal, but my advice is that to institute any such universal warning procedure of the kind he has been describing would be infinitely more costly.

A subscriber, if he so chooses, can control the use of a telephone in his house to fairly extreme limits. For example, he could have a portable telephone which he could unplug from its socket. I would recommend this particular technique to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles) if he has troubles with his daughter in this respect. He could even lock up the telephone so that it could not be used during his absence, or he could have a coin box in his house. Where there is a special problem over curtailing access, I am sure the Post Office would be very happy to discuss it with a subscriber in the hope of finding a solution.

To refer briefly to one other matter closely related to the issue raised by my hon. Friend tonight, my hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East (Mr. Braine) and other have expressed anxiety as to the accuracy of meters used in recording telephone use. Doubts on this score are more often than not prompted by the arrival of a bill for a larger sum than expected; and there are many reasons for this unconnected with the accuracy of the meters. As telephone users, we tend to forget the occasion when we made an unusually long call over the trunk lines outside the period when the cheaper off-peak charges are operative and the sizeable addition to our bill which this can give rise to comes as something of a shock.

Although telephone bills are queried from time to time, the Post Office tells me that these queries affect only a very small percentage of the several million bills issued in the course of a year; and very few of these queries relate to the metering of calls. All queries are investigated, and it is very rare that on investigation the accuracy of the meters is found to be questionable.

One reason the meter may be suspected by telephone users is that, unlike their gas and electricity meters, it is not in their own home and they cannot keep their eyes on it. The meter is in fact housed at the telephone exchange for the very good reason that its operation is closely governed by exchange equipment which regulates the pulses fed to the meter according to the appropriate tariff for the distance over which the call is made and the time of day. All of the charging and recording apparatus is tested thoroughly and regularly, some of the checks being a daily routine.

It is extremely rare for any of the 6 million meters of subscribers able to make STD calls to be found faulty, and I understand that when faults do occur the meter is more prone to record less than it should; in other words, it tends to favour the subscriber. Nevertheless, I recognise that there is anxiety on the part of some of the Post Office's 9 million telephone subscribers, and I am discussing this problem with the Post Office.

I fear I am not this evening able to give my hon. Friend the assurances he wants. I am afraid I cannot, in the particular case he has raised, point to a solution. We cannot expect the Post Office to arbitrate in cases of hardship of this kind.

Mr. Longden

But no private firm would allow a country practitioner to amass a bill of £4,000 in six months. Why cannot the nationalised industry use the same system?

Mr. Chataway

For the Post Office to institute the kind of checking procedure which my hon. Friend envisages, it would be an extremely costly affair. A commercial concern institutes such controls as it thinks necessary to protect it against bad debts. The Post Office is following a similar commercial practice. It believes that to institute a cut-off procedure with varying levels of cut-off for telephone subscribers would involve it in enormous additional cost and would not be a commercial operation. If my hon. Friend will try to envisage what would be involved in the Post Office saying that it would have a cut off procedure at several different figures, then instituting a system enabling it to check when, during a given quarter, the different levels were exceeded, and setting up a procedure whereby the subscribers concerned were notified, he will see that substantial costs would be involved.

If the very rare case of hardship to which my hon. Friend has alluded were to be avoided, the Post Office would not need merely a system which set a check for those who had reason to suspect that their telephone bills might he large. It would need a universal system to protect those who had no idea that they were running up large bills.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

It seems that this sort of problem is tailor-made for a computer, and it could, following a request from the subscriber, provide him with, say, a weekly bill.

Mr. Chataway

I am sure that the Post Office will take note of what has been said in this debate. It may be that what is not possible at the present stage of technology might be possible in the future.

I hope that this debate has done some good in highlighting a number of general problems. I know that the Post Office takes them very seriously, both in its customers' interest and for its own better management and customer relations.

Question put and agreed to. Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Twelve o'clock.