HC Deb 15 November 1985 vol 86 cc849-54

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

2.30 pm
Mr. John Heddle (Mid-Staffordshire)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a subject which affects the constituencies of all hon. Members. The Order Paper gives the title of the debate as "public call box services", but really I wish to discuss the condition and unworkability of public phone boxes.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry for attending to hear what I have to say. He serves his west midlands constituency of Coventry, South-West as hard and effectively as I try to serve mine.

Incidents of vandalism and unworkability of telephone boxes, even in rural Mid-Staffordshire, which encompasses a cathedral city and two small residential towns, are horrifyingly high. Between one in two and two in three public phone boxes on housing estates, in town centres and in villages do not work. The main causes are sheer, wanton vandalism and mindless, senseless hooliganism.

Throughout the nation, there are 76,500 red telephone boxes. They are part of our national scene, yet, despite the fact that British Telecom provides a magnificant service to its customers and makes a welcome and healthy profit for its subscribers and shareholders, the public telephone service makes a loss of £77.4 million. Part of that loss must be attributable to the fact that the service is not adequately monitored.

There are 10,600 public phone boxes in London. Last year, there were on average 5,000 acts of vandalism to public phone boxes each month and the cost of repairing phone boxes in London was £1 million. A survey carried out for the Daily Mail earlier this year showed that only 37 of 100 London phone boxes worked. In Newcastle, nine of 25 boxes worked, in Glasgow and Liverpool 10 of 25 boxes were in operation and even in Birmingham only 14 of the 25 phone boxes inspected—56 per cent.—were in operation.

My anxiety is for people who live on housing estates and cannot afford private telephones. I think particularly of elderly people to whom the public phone box down the road may be a lifeline.

When television came into our lives a few years ago, we used to see a picture of the mast at Sutton Coldfield round which we saw the sign: Nation shall speak … unto nation. For my elderly constituents, the public phone box enables family to speak unto family.

How will an elderly person who wants to contact a doctor late at night be persuaded to go out and make an urgent call, perhaps even a 999 call? The chances are that such a person would not find a phone box that worked. Even if he or she did, the light would probably be smashed, the glass would probably be broken and the door would probably be off its hinges. If, by chance, the prospective caller does not know the number that he wants to dial, the chance of finding a directory in the phone box will be about one in a thousand.

I know that British Telecom has done its best to encourage the public to take a responsible attitude. I shall quote from a magazine which Sir George Jefferson's own office sent me today. It sets out the initiative which British Telecom has introduced, which is known as "Watch a box". One passage reads:

The Chairman, Sir George Jefferson, took the initiative when he decided to check out a payphone on his way to work each day—now everyone wants to join in. The entire management board in BTL North West has elected to watch a box, while in BTL South West staff at all levels are taking part in a scheme run in conjunction with their area newspaper Connection. Whether they are walking the dog or travelling to and from work, staff have been asked, through the newspaper, to drop in and check out a payphone. If the payphone is not working, has been damaged or the notices or lighting are defective, then they can ring in on a special number to report the problem. I do not think that that goes to the heart of the problem. There must be a partnership between local offices of British Telecom, local councils and local police forces. The telephone boxes should be inspected regularly and monitored at irregular times of the day and night with a view to trying to catch the vandals red-handed in the red telephone boxes. When caught, they should be brought to account in the courts. The fines meted out to them by the justices should be realistic and should dissuade them from ever embarking on a career of vandalism which might lead to worse crime in future.

I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to use his influence with his ministerial colleagues. I suggest that he urges his ministerial colleagues in the Home Office to issue a directive to magistrates to ensure that when the vandals are caught the fines meted out to them by the magistrate bear a direct relationship to the cost of making good the wanton damage. The fine should be two, four or five times the cost of making good the damage. That will go some way to reducing the horrendous deficit of £77.4 million which the public part of British Telecom has to bear.

It is no good British Telecom saying, "We have the problem under control." I shall quote from an article which appeared in British Business on 2 August. Part of it read: British Telecom claim that their new telephone kiosks will improve the situation. They point out that during 1984 there were more than 5,000 cases of damage to payphones every month in London alone, affecting almost half of London's 10,650 payphone boxes, costing £1 million a year to repair. The new payphones are apparently much less vulnerable to vandalism. The extra degree of lighting will be a deterrent to vandals who are discouraged by high visibility. I do not believe that to be so. A vandal will vandalise light or dark, day or night. The article continues: The open-plan design and robust materials—stainless steel or anodised aluminium—will be difficult to damage. If he is so minded, a vandal will damage. Even if he does not damage the telephone system itself, he will inflict damage on the casing or the red boxes.

There is the idea that we should do away with the red boxes, which are so much part of our national life. Instead, we shall see installed a sort of Cape Canaveral cone into which my elderly constituents, for example, can make their calls after struggling down the street at the dead of night or in the heart of winter. The cones will not provide the shelter that the red boxes afford.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for being in his place to answer the debate. I hope that he will take on board some of my comments, which I hope also will be considered to be constructive. If he does, I believe that his constituents and mine will be eternally grateful.

2.38 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. John Butcher)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Heddle), as I know the House will be, for raising this important topic on the Adjournment of the House. I am sure that everything he said reflects the opinion of many paeople who are bewildered by this apparently mindless phenomenon which goes on in our midst. He has raised a subject of considerable interest. I am aware that he has taken a great interest in public call box services for a long time. I congratulate him on his pursuit of his campaign and his single-minded and highly-motivated approach.

My hon. Friend will be aware that British Telecom operates under a licence issued by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. Under the terms of the Telecommunications Act 1984, the licence obliges BT, among many other things, to provide public call box services throughout the country. I should emphasise that monitoring and enforcement of BT's compliance with the terms of its licence is a matter for the Director-General of Telecommunications. The 1984 Act gives him substantial independent powers in that regard. Enforcement of the licence is not a matter for Ministers, and any remarks that I make in this debate must be said with that clearly in mind.

I know that the Director-General of Telecommunications is keenly interested in the question of public call box services and maintains a close watch on the level and adequacy of the service provided by BT. I shall ensure that what my hon. Friend has had to say in this debate is brought to the Director-General's attention.

There are about 76,000 public payphones in the country. Those telephones provide a vital public service. That service is not only for the 23 per cent. of households which do not have the use of a telephone of their own, but for all of us when out and about. We all depend on public payphones. When they are out of order, it is always a matter of inconvenience, but sometimes it can be a matter of life and death. That is why the issue is of great public interest.

I know that British Telecom takes its obligations to provide public call box services seriously. The company faces two major problems. One will soon, I hope, be overcome; the other is being tackled vigorously, but is much more deep-seated. I shall return to my hon. Friend's remarks about that later. The problems are first, old equipment, and secondly, vandalism; or, to put it more bluntly, crime. That, I regret to say, is the fundamental issue. For example, last year in London alone there were 5,000 cases a month of damage to public payphones, affecting almost half the capital's 10,650 payphones.

Those two problems are being tackled as part of a major investment programme by British Telecom to modernise its telephone services. That will, when complete, make British Telecom's public payphone service the most modern of its kind in the world. I understand that by March 1987 all existing equipment will have been replaced by new, push-button electronic equipment. Such installations are already a familiar sight in many places. The new telephones are more reliable and much more versatile. For example, they will all have automatic fault reporting so that if there is any trouble, repairs can be done swiftly. They also take a wider range of coins. There will be no more frustration if we cannot find a 10p piece. That will have a considerable impact on the quality of the service provided.

A key feature of the modernisation programme is the aim to "design out" all those features in the old style boxes which are prone to criminal damage or which make attack by vandals easier. Considerable research has gone into that. As hon. Members will surely have noticed, as well as new telephone equipment, new booths are beginning to be installed. Gradually they will replace the old ones, except where conservation for environmental reasons is necessary. They have many new features designed to minimise their vulnerability to crime and make it harder to put them out of service.

My hon. Friend dealt with some of those features and expressed understandable cynicism. No matter how robust the new installations may be, someone will find some way of attacking and damaging them. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that it is legitimate for British Telecom to seek to design out some of the more vulnerable features of the installations. However, if a vandal is prepared to apply a manic level of strength with the object of destroying something, of course damage can be done.

The real deterrent to such acts is part and parcel of the wider issues to which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has recently drawn attention so eloquently—the reaffirmation of the traditional values of family, school and church, which teach young people to behave in a civilised manner. We must get the message across that criminal damage to public payphones is thoughtless, stupid behaviour which, at the very least, causes inconvenience to others, and at the worst, real danger. I am sure that my hon. Friend and, indeed, all hon. Members will endorse that.

My hon. Friend has been pursuing his campaign in the northern part of the west midlands, and he mentioned another campaign being pursued by BT. He will agree that the campaign must be for every individual, if we are to get to the root of the problem.

In response to my hon. Friend's remarks, I wish to make observations, which in part must be questions. Why is this particular form of vandalism apparently unique to Britain? To the best of my knowledge it does not happen on anything like the same scale in the rest of the Western world. Why are British vandals so mindless that they will attack a public facility which they themselves may need one day? Even the most woolly-minded behavioural scientist would not attempt to depict a phone box as a symbol of authority or as an affront to those who suffer from deprivation. This form of behaviour is beyond comprehension. It is as incomprehensible as the physical attacks on St. John Ambulance nurses while they attended injured fans during a soccer riot at Birmingham. City football ground at the end of last Session. People who wish to destroy a public facility, through no other motive than a wish to wreck something, are beneath contempt.

BT and the Director-General of Telecommunications unfortunately have to deal with another symptom of the growth of the propensity for mindless destruction among a small proportion of the population. My hon. Friend and I are agreed that it is up to each individual member of society to accept his or her responsibilities in changing the attitudes and levels of behaviour. In the long run, that is the only way in which to deal with this symptom of a broader and worrying phenomenon.

My hon. Friend has done the House a great service. He has articulated a problem which arouses great anxiety throughout the country. I have noted what he said about the efforts to liaise between post offices, BT, the police force and local authorities, and the advice that he would seek to have handed to magistrates to ensure that fines are levied in a way which reflects the cost of making good the damage inflicted. I assure him that the record will be distributed to the appropriate opinion formers. I have pleasure in congratulating him again on the timeliness of his intervention today.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twelve minutes to Three o'clock pm.