HC Deb 01 February 1977 vol 925 cc233-42

3.40 p.m.

Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

I beg to move, That leave he given to bring in a Bill to end the statutory monopoly of the Post Office in the provision of telephone equipment; and for connected purposes. This Bill is a very small measure and its aim is very simple. It is simply designed to amend the Post Office Act so that the monopoly of the Post Office extends only as far as the subscriber's premises and not to the provision of equipment which lies in his home.

This is a matter of considerable importance because lately we have been talking a lot about industrial strategy. I believe that the industrial strategy which we should follow is to do things exactly like the proposal in this Bill. It is this sort of monopolistic provision in industry which lies in the way of technological progress, better customer satisfaction, more exports and more jobs. There was a time when the Trades Union Congress used to rail against monopolies, and in so far as there were monopolies I thought that this was one of the best things the TUC ever said. Here is an example of a monopoly which is not necessary, which is harmful and which could well be done without.

I would like to give a number of technical reasons for this statement. The development of the telephone and exchange equipment in the subscriber's home has gone far beyond what Alexander Graham Bell could ever have envisaged. I begin with the most absurd of all the possibilities. It may be that there are some subscribers who want telephones of different colours from those provided by the Post Office, and they cannot get them. The Post Office monopoly prevents it. A more important example is the push-button telephone device. We have these in this House, and I can well understand why they have not been allowed outside. If they were unleashed upon the unsuspecting public, dissatisfaction with the Post Office would increase apace. But there is no reason why a really effective push-button telephone should not be offered to subscribers.

If there were no monopoly one could have repertory diallers which remember telephone numbers and dial a number when it is wanted. These are not available. Then there are loud-speaking telephones which broadcast a message to all those in a room. These are still not available. There are all sorts of types of answer-phones which can be provided only under restricted conditions by the private sector and which are not allowed to flourish because of the operation of the monopoly.

Telephone engineers believe that eventually it will be possible for the telephone connected to one's house to operate as a mini-computer and to give access to one's bank, department store or supermarket direct, and to allow one's meters to be read direct by telephone. There are all sorts of imaginative, labour-saving and exciting devices all within the realms of possibility. But there is one small difficulty—the Post Office is sitting on them, and its monopoly is preventing the proper development of these technical devices.

This does not apply only to telephone equipment. It applies also to subscribers' exchanges. The potential which could be offered in the provision of subscribers' exchanges is very great, and there is no technical reason why it should not be done. All the Post Office has to do is to make sure that the equipment is compatible with its own network system.

I propose in this Bill that there should be a committee of independent persons appointed to check that any equipment developed for the home is compatible with the Post Office network. At the moment this function is carried out by the Post Office in a most partial and self-interested way, not with a view to promoting competition in equipment but with a view to reserving unto itself the types of equipment it orders, thereby denying any technical improvement and the freedom of choice to the consumer. Freedom of choice is yet another reason why this small amendment should be made to the Post Office Act.

The value of all telephones installed in this country is about £500 million. That is £500 million which could have been provided by the private sector. This is one way in which the public sector could be relieved of putting up capital. Not only that, but it is estimated by the manufacturers that this would enable them to export to world markets much more effectively and this would lead to more jobs, more exports, more profits and more prosperity.

Here in a microcosm is a small example of what the Government, by sitting there and letting this Bill through without opening their mouths, could achieve in increasing the prosperity of industry. If they mean business when they talk about industrial strategy they should support this sort of thing, instead of airy-fairy schemes and "little Neddies" and so on. The Government should allow the private sector to throw off its shackles and restrictions and allow the nationalized industries to revert to their true functions of providing a public service network. The Government should support this Bill, instead of stifling innovation, enterprise and initiative wherever they are found. For these reasons I seek leave to bring in the Bill.

3.47 p.m.

Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth (Thornaby)

I wish to oppose the introduction of this Bill because I refute the suggestion of the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) that it will bring about the sort of changes in the Post Office and the country which he has outlined.

My interest in Post Office affairs is well known to the House. But in all the debates in which I have taken part on Post Office affairs I have not heard the hon. Member make any reference to the sort of proposal he is putting forward now. I am pleased that he has intervened this afternoon, however, because we have heard from him a statement which I, personally, was very glad to hear. The hon. Member is well known for his views about freeing public enterprises and putting them into private hands. Yet it seems now that he believes that the Post Office should have a monopoly in the provision of the communications network. He also wrote this view in this week's House magazine where he said that it would be silly to have competing telephone networks and exchanges. This is an advance in his thinking. I was surprised that he was prepared to accept that much. I would have thought that he wanted to denationalise the whole lot and to put it into the hands of private enterprise.

There are a number of specific reasons why I ask the House to reject his proposal this afternoon. The first is that the Government, in the autumn of 1975, established the Carter Committee to look into the whole future of the Post Office, and that of course includes the Post Office monopoly enshrined in the Act which the hon. Member seeks to amend. It has been carrying out a long and detailed investigation and it will almost certainly be commenting on the monopoly factor. It would seem wrong for this House to pre-empt that Committee's findings by accepting the introduction of the Bill.

In addition to that Committee there is the Annan Committee which is looking at the future of broadcasting. It will no doubt comment on the future of cablevision and on the whole question of common carrier cables. That is a matter that the House should wait to hear before making decisions of the sort we are now asked to take.

The second reason is that it would be impossible to permit subscribers to attach any sort of equipment to the system without the most intensive technical evaluation. That of course would have to be done in the most careful and detailed way by the Post Office or someone else. The telecommunications network is not simply a distribution system like gas or electricity. If my gas cooker goes wrong it does not affect my neighbour up the street. By contrast, in telecommunications an appliance or equipment that is attached to the system could affect the whole integrity of the telecommunications network and could affect other customers' services if it is wrongly designed, installed or maintained.

That means that the Post Office would have to engage in the most extensive testing of every piece of equipment which it might be sought to attach to the system. If the Post Office or some other body was given the job of vetting every piece of equipment it would be a cumbersome, expensive and ineffective process, and the consumer would have to bear the cost.

My third reason for opposing the Bill goes to the core of the argument. The proposal would lead to a creaming off of some of the most profitable areas of the Post Office service. That is what the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury is really after. He wants to cream off the most profitable parts and give them to private enterprise just as his party has done on other occasions. If that was done and if the unremunerative services were left to the Post Office—for example, the call boxes which are heavily expensive to maintain—that would be to the detriment of the whole system.

There is already considerable competition for public exchange systems and for large private automatic branch exchanges. A range of small private automatic branch exchanges, special telephones, data transmission, and tele-printer equipment are already among the services provided by the Post Office. The vast majority of this equipment is manufactured by British firms. I agree that the range of equipment should be widened and that the Post Office needs to be much less cautious and more aggressive in its marketing and in the number of pieces of equipment that it provides.

There should also be joint efforts with manufacturing industry to provide exportable equipment for sale abroad, but I

think that that could be done by putting pressure on the Post Office. It would do untold damage, technically and financially, to introduce this Bill this afternoon, and therefore I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will join me in opposing it.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at the commencement of Public Business):—

The House proceeded to a Division

Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham) (seated and covered)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. If the Bill were to become law it might result in an advantage to certain private firms, possibly to the detriment of the general public. Would it therefore be proper for any hon. Member who is connected with a firm that might so benefit to vote for the Bill unless he has previously declared his interest?

Mr. Speaker

On a matter of public policy every hon. Member has the right to vote as he thinks best.

The House having divided: Ayes 175, Noes 236.

Division No. 51.] AYES [3.55 p.m.
Adley, Robert Costain, A. P. Hutchison, Michael Clark
Amery, Rt Hon Julian Crouch, David Irving, Charles (Cheltenham)
Atkins, Rt Hon H. (Spelthorne) Davies, Rt Hon J. (Knutsford) James, David
Awdry, Daniel Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Jenkin, Rt Hon P. (Wanst'd & W'df'd)
Baker, Kenneth Drayson, Burnaby Jessel, Toby
Banks, Robert Eden, Rt Hon Sir John Johnson Smith, G. (E Grinstead)
Beith, A. J. Elliott, Sir William Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine
Bell, Ronald Emery, Peter Kershaw, Anthony
Bennett, Sir Frederic (Torbay) Eyre, Reginald King, Evelyn (South Dorset)
Bennett, Dr Reginald (Fareham) Fairgrieve, Russell King, Tom (Bridgwater)
Benyon, W. Finsberg, Geoffrey Knight, Mrs Jill
Berry, Hon Anthony Fisher, Sir Nigel Lamont, Norman
Biffen, John Fletcher, Alex (Edinburgh N) Langford-Holt, Sir John
Biggs-Davison, John Fletcher-Cooke, Charles Latham, Michael (Melton)
Blaker, Peter Fookes, Miss Janet Lawson, Nigel
Body, Richard Forman, Nigel Le Merchant, Spencer
Boscawen, Hon Robert Fraser, Rt Hon H. (Stafford & St) Lester, Jim (Beeston)
Bottomley, Peter Freud, Clement Loveridge, John
Boyson, Dr Rhodes (Brent) Gardiner, George (Reigate) Luce, Richard
Braine, Sir Bernard Gilmour, Rt Hon Ian (Chesham) McAdden, Sir Stephen
Brittan, Leon Glyn, Dr Alan McCrindle, Robert
Brown, Sir Edward (Bath) Goodhew, Victor Macfarlane, Neil
Buchanan-Smith, Alick Gower, Sir Raymond (Barry) MacGregor, John
Buck, Antony Grimond, Rt Hon J. Macmillan, Rt Hon M. (Farnham)
Budgen, Nick Grist, Ian Marshall, Michael (Arundel)
Bulmer, Esmond Grylls, Michael Marten, Neil
Burden, F. A. Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury) Mather, Carol
Butler, Adam (Bosworth) Hannam, John Maude, Angus
Carlisle, Mark Harrison, Col Sir Harwood (Eye) Maudling, Rt Hon Reginald
Chalker, Mrs Lynda Harvie Anderson, Rt Hon Miss Mawby, Ray
Channon, Paul Hastings, Stephen Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Churchill, W. S. Hawkins, Paul Mayhew, Patrick
Clark, Alan (Plymouth, Sutton) Hayhoe, Barney Meyer, Sir Anthony
Clegg, Walter Hicks, Robert Miller, Hal (Bromsgrove)
Cooke, Robert (Bristol W) Howell, David (Guildford) Mills, Peter
Cope, John Howells, Geraint (Cardigan) Miscampbell, Norman
Cormack, Patrick Hunt, David (Wirral) Molyneaux, James
Monro, Hector Rhodes James, R. Tebbit, Norman
Montgomery, Fergus Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon Thatcher, Rt Hon Margaret
Moore, John (Croydon C) Ridsdale, Julian Thompson, George
More, Jasper (Ludlow) Roberts, Michael (Cardiff NW) Trotter, Neville
Morgan-Giles, Rear-Admiral Roberts, Wyn (Conway) Vaughan, Dr Gerard
Morrison, Charles (Devizes) Rodgers, Sir John (Sevenoaks) Wainwright, Richard (Colne V)
Morrison, Hon Peter (Chester) Ross, Stephen (lsle of Wight) Wakeham, John
Mudd, David Ross, William (Londonderry) Walker-Smith, Rt Hon Sir Derek
Neave, Airey Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey) Wall, Patrick
Neubert, Michael Rost, Peter (SE Derbyshire) Walters, Dennis
Newton, Tony Shaw, Giles (Pudsey) Warren, Kenneth
Nott, John Shaw, Michael (Scarborough) Weatherill, Bernard.
Onslow, Cranley Shepherd, Colin Wells, John
Page, John (Harrow West) Silvester, Fred Whitelaw, Rt Hon William
Page, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby) Sims, Roger Wiggin, Jerry
Pardoe, John Skeet, T. H. H. Winterton, Nicholas
Pattie, Geoffrey Smith, Dudley (Warwick) Young, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)
Penhaligon, David Spence, John Younger, Hon George
Powell, Rt Hon J. Enoch Stanley, John
Pym, Rt Hon Francis Steel, Rt Hon David TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Raison, Timothy Steen, Anthony (Wavertree) Mr. Nicholas Ridley and
Rathbone, Tim Stradling Thomas, J. Mr. Ian Gow.
Renton, Rt Hon Sir D. (Hunts) Tapsell, Peter
Abse, Leo Eadie, Alex Lambie, David
Archer, Peter Edge, Geoff Lamond, James
Armstrong, Ernest Edwards, Robert (Wolv SE) Latham, Arthur (Paddington)
Ashley, Jack Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun) Lewis, Arthur (Newham N)
Ashton, Joe Ellis, Tom (Wrexham) Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)
Atkins, Ronald (Preston N) English, Michael Lipton, Marcus
Atkinson, Norman Ennals, David Litterick, Tom
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Evans, Fred (Caerphilly) Loyden, Eddie
Bain, Mrs Margaret Evans, Gwynfor (Carmarthen) Luard, Evan
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich) Evans, loan (Aberdare) Mabon, Rt Hon Dr J. Dickson
Barnett, Rt Hon Joel (Heywood) Ewing, Harry (Stirling) McCartney, Hugh
Bates, Alf Faulds, Andrew McDonald, Dr Oonagh
Benn, Rt Hon Anthony Wedgwood Fernyhough, Rt Hon E. McElhone, Frank
Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N) Flannery, Martin MacFarquhar, Roderick
Bishop, E. S. Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) McGuire, Michael (Ince)
Blenkinsop, Arthur Foot, Rt Hon Michael MacKenzie, Gregor
Boardman, H. Ford, Ben Maclennan, Robert
Booth, Rt Hon Albert Forrester, John McMillan, Tom (Glasgow C)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Arthur Fraser, John (Lambeth, N'w'd) McNamara, Kevin
Boyden, James (Bish Auck) Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend) Madden, Max
Bray, Dr Jeremy George, Bruce Mallalieu, J. P. W.
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Gilbert, Dr John Marks, Kenneth
Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W) Ginsburg, David Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole)
Buchan, Norman Golding, John Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Buchanan, Richard Gould, Bryan Maynard, Miss Joan
Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P) Gourlay, Harry Meacher, Michael
Canavan, Dennis Graham, Ted Mellish, Rt Hon Robert
Cant, R. B. Grant, George (Morpeth) Mikardo, Ian
Carmichael, Neil Grant, John (Islington C) Millan, Rt Hon Bruce
Carter, Ray Grocott, Bruce Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)
Carter-Jones, Lewis Hamilton, James (Bothwell) Miller, Mrs Millie (Ilford N)
Cartwright John Hardy, Peter Molloy, William
Castle, Rt Hon Barbara Harper, Joseph Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe)
Clemitson, Ivor Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw)
Cocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol) Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Cohen, Stanley Heffer, Eric S. Mulley, Rt Hon Frederick
Coleman, Donald Hooley, Frank Murray, Rt Hon Ronald King
Colquhoun, Ms Maureen Horam, John Newens, Stanley
Conlan, Bernard Howell, Rt Hon Denis (B'ham, Sm H) Noble, Mike
Corbett, Robin Hoyle, Doug (Nelson) O'Halloran, Michael
Cowans, Harry Huckfield, Les Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Cox, Thomas (Tooting) Hughes, Rt Hon C. (Anglesey) Padley, Walter
Craigen, Jim (Maryhill) Hughes, Mark (Durham) Palmer, Arthur
Crowther, Stan (Rotherham) Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Park, George
Cryer, Bob Hughes, Roy (Newport) Parker, John
Dalyell, Tam Hunter, Adam Parry, Robert
Davies, Bryan (Enfield N) Irvine, Rt Hon Sir A. (Edge Hill) Pavitt, Laurie
Davies, Denzil (Llanelli) Jackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln) Perry, Ernest
Davies, Ifor (Gower) Jay, Rt Hon Douglas Phipps, Dr Colin
Davis, Clinton (Hackney C) Jenkins, Hugh (Putney) Price, C. (Lewisham W)
Deakins, Eric John, Brynmor Price, William (Rugby)
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West) Johnson, Walter (Derby S) Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn (Leeds S)
Dell, Rt Hon Edmund Jones, Alec (Rhondda) Reid, George
Dempsey, James Jones, Barry (East Flint) Roberts, Albert (Normanton)
Doig, Peter Jones, Dan (Burnley) Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock)
Dormand, J. D. Kaufman, Gerald Robertson, John (Paisley)
Douglas-Mann, Bruce Kelley, Richard Robinson, Geoffrey
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Kilroy-Silk, Robert Roderick, Caerwyn
Duffy A. E. P. Kinnock, Neil Rodgers, George (Chorley)
Rodgers, Rt Hon William (Stockton) Strang, Gavin Welsh, Andrew
Rooker, J. W. Strauss, Rt Hon G. R. White, Frank R. (Bury)
Ross, Rt Hon W. (Kilmarnock) Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley Whitehead, Phillip
Rowlands, Ted Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W) Whitlock, William
Sedgemore, Brian Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW) Wigley, Dafydd
Selby, Harry Tierney, Sydney Willey, Rt Hon Frederick
Shaw, Arnold (Ilford South) Tinn, James Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert Tomney, Frank Williams, Alan Lee (Hornch'ch)
Shore, Rt Hon Peter Torney, Tom Williams, Rt Hon Shirley (Hertford)
Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich) Tuck, Raphael Williams, Sir Thomas
Silverman, Julius Urwin, T. W. Wilson, Alexander (Hamilton)
Skinner, Dennis Varley, Rt Hon Erie G. Wilson, Gordon (Dundee E)
Small, William Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V) Wilson, William (Coventry SE)
Smith, John (N Lanarkshire) Walker, Harold (Doncaster) Wise, Mrs Audrey
Snape, Peter Walker, Terry (Kingswood) Woodall, Alec
Spearing, Nigel Ward, Michael Woof, Robert
Spriggs, Leslie Watkins, David Young, David (Bolton E)
Stallard, A. W. Watkinson, John
Stewart, Rt Hon M. (Fulham) Weetch, Ken TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Stoddart, David Weitzman, David Mr. John Ovenden and
Stott, Roger Wellbeloved, James Mr. Ian Wigglesworth.

Question accordingly negatived.