§ Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Alan Howarth.]
§ Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)
The lifeline of 999 has served Britain well for 50 years. In the past few months in Wales public confidence in the service has been badly shaken.
Early-day motion 954 provides details of some of the life-threatening mistakes that have followed the centralising of south Wales 999 calls in Cardiff last September. Today I accuse British Telecom of undermining public trust, of downgrading the quality of the service, of putting profit before safety and of neglect and incompetence. British Telecom's bizarre defence is that the service is no worse in south Wales than in the rest of Britain, so the problem is probably a national one.
As a cost-cutting exercise, Newport and Swansea manual exchange boards were closed from 10 o'clock at night. That could not have happened without centralising 999 calls in Cardiff. Centralisation has meant deterioration. At least 300 misroutings have resulted—some comic, some nightmarish and some tragic.
An emergency message from the coastguard was twice connected to the speaking clock, then connected to Bournemouth when the coastguard wanted Barmouth. Two days ago in Gwent a caller listening to a woman being attacked and hearing her screams was told by a British Telecom operator that he was not calling from his village of Undy, but from Caerphilly, a town some 20 miles away in another county. After a two-minute delay he was connected to the wrong police station 40 miles away in Bridgend. Just 10 days' monitoring last month by Gwent ambulance service recorded five major misroutes, some of them life-threatening.
Last Friday, when I heard that I had the good fortune to have secured today's debate, I wrote to all those in professional daily contact with the new service. They all replied and I shall give a fair summary of their judgments. The Union of Communication Workers said:BT management is obsessed not only with cutting costs but in driving down their staff-in-post figuresIts diagnosis is thatthe fundamental problems are brought about by defective equipment and second-rate management.The south Wales constabulary write of initial difficulties, but it and Gwent police have had fewer problems than other services. The south Glamorgan fire and rescue service reported 100 misrouted calls in an eight-month period following the closures of Bridgend and Merthyr exchanges and 19 misrouted calls in the first five months of this year. It looks forward to the introduction of the modern digital system to deal with calls.
The mid-Glamorgan fire service concludes that itsoverall impression of the service remains that there is a lack of training and supervision of BT staff who operate the 999 service in Cardiff.The chief fire officer of Dyfed, Mr. R. King, reports 54 calls in which misunderstandings or delays have occurred since centralisation. He writes:The further away the recipient of the call is from the area of origin the greater the possibility of confusion, mis-understanding and delay.There have been occasions when the BT operator taking the emergency calls has not understood"—this is a peculiarly Welsh problem— 658the Welsh pronunciation of a Welsh place name and passed the call through to the wrong control centre; Cwmafon has been mistaken for Carmarthen; Llanddarog exchange mistaken for Llanganog or Llangadog.There must be an optimum level at which cost effectiveness, efficiency and safety are comprised. The fire service places a high value on safety.Does British Telecom place the same value on safety?
Mr. T. Glossop, chief of the Gwent fire brigade writes:Obviously the centralisation has not been successful to date as it has failed to provide a level of service commensurate with public safety. In my view, the difficulties centre around the technology involved … if the centralisation had been delayed until the digital system was operational these problems would not have arisen.It is ironic that at the same time as the 999 system is having these problems, British Telecom is advertising home security systems linked to their emergency centre aimed at a profitable area of the market. The old issue of public interest or private profit.The west Glamorgan county fire service chief, Mr. Jim Windsor, reports 55 misroutings. He writes:I feel the service has been degraded to a level that is unacceptable. Prior to the move to Cardiff, British Telecom gave an assurance that misrouting of calls could not occur but this has proven to be a major problem. As a result of the misrouting of calls, the officers and staff of West Glamorgan Fire Service Control centre no longer have confidence in the service provided by British Telecom.Mr. Porter, the chief ambulance officer of Gwent, carried out a brief period of monitoring. More than a year ago he, too, asked BT to delay centralisation until the digital system was ready. For a brief period of 11 days last month, he logged misdirected calls. Within that period he recorded the following confusions, none of which could have happened under the previous system, and would have been extremely unlikely under the future system using digital methods. On 11 June there was a call concerning a sick child at Saundersfoot in Dyfed. The call was directed to Crosskeys in Gwent, more than 100 miles away.
On 14 June a woman suffering from 60 per cent. burns after a fire had her emergency call misrouted from Cwmbran, Gwent to Mid-Glamorgan. There was a delay of 25 minutes. Perhaps I can engage the Minister's attention. That delay was attributed to the changes in the system. On 16 June after a road accident a Gwent town was confused with Ystradgynlais which is several valleys away from Gwent. On 21 June two calls were misdirected from Gwent to Powys.
Those sorry tales received great publicity in Wales, but British Telecom's public relations response has been sensationally inept. Five times British Telecom refused to defend itself in broadcast interviews. Finally, the district general manager, Mr. Roy Cull, emerged from his bunker and gave a now celebrated television interview. When asked a mildly challenging but perfectly fair question, he lost his temper, made a dismissive gesture and walked off the set hissing the memorable and inelegant expletive, "Stuff it". British Telecom then published an untrue excuse for Mr. Cull's startling walkout. The BBC described its explanation as a "distortion". That was a kind judgment.
British Telecom then called a further press conference to apologise and to change tack by trying to do what is done at Sellafield. It has now invited the public to visit the 999 centre. This pantomime is a classic lesson in how not to run a public relations operation. I urge the public to take up the invitation to visit the 999 centre as I did. If they do, they will see primitive technology in action. Operators push cable plugs into holes, leaf through a card index and scribble notes on a paper pad. There is more high-tech in 659 the average family games computer or in a domestic washing machine than in the Cardiff 999 operation. However, in a darkened room next to that antique-tech set-up is the high-tech digital system unused and waiting. It is not yet fully operational but it was unattended and no one was working on it although I called on a working day.
The most worrying question that will face visitors when they come away from their visit is whether the equipment is up to the demands of today, remembering the great increase in the number of telephones. They will see the four emergency lines—just four—that were involved in the terrible tragedy at Pembroke dock when two young boys died in a fire. That morning 28 callers tried to ring through on those four lines. The calls were made simultaneously within a half hour period. Very impressive witnesses claim that no call was recorded for 16 minutes. Visitors will also see that, in addition to those four lines, there is one overflow line. It is so ancient and the technology is so ineffective that anyone diverted to that overflow line, as dozens were that morning, will have an eight second delay—eight seconds of silence. Anyone dialling 999 and hearing eight seconds of silence would decide that they had a defective line. That is the technology being offered to us now. One wonders what the delay would have been in that large area covering Pembroke dock and a huge rural area if there had been another emergency that day, and others had called to report that emergency.
Action is now essential if the service is to regain public confidence and trust. British Telecom in Wales stands exposed as an organisation that is only reluctantly accountable, untruthful in its public statements, coarse and boorish in its public relations, and amateurish and incompetent in fulfilling its task. Is that an organisation that the public can trust to manage our 999 service? Is the bungling, offensive arrogance of Mr. Cull acceptable in a company that has been hailed as a flagship of privatisation? The public and Parliament need reassurance that when we call for help in the life-or-death emergencies that can crop up in our daily lives at any moment, we have a Rolls-Royce, top-class service to answer and not the cut-price, accident-prone, over-stretched 999 service offered by BT.
We need an inquiry into the deterioration of the 999 service throughout Britain, because I understand that the deterioration affects more than just South Wales. We need an end to the centralisation of the service until the digital system is operational. Nearly all the incidents that I have described would have been impossible under the digital system. I have seen it demonstrated, and I know that as soon as the call is received the caller's number appears on the screen. This would eliminate many of the hoax calls and the calls that are not serious. It would also mean that there would be a virtually fool-proof way to direct calls because as the call comes through, it is linked to the appropriate emergency services in the area, and ensuring that the call goes to the appropriate area is a simple matter of pressing one button on the display.
Sadly, BT has fallen between two stools. The system that worked reasonably when there were 11 exchanges manned by people with local knowledge was centralised before the digital system was ready and in place, and the result has been the problems that we now have. The conduct of the general manager of BT in Wales, Mr. Ray Cull, is such that if we are to restore confidence in the system BT should dispense with his services. The Government have to find out what happened to the safety 660 standards and make sure that, through Oftel and the Minister's Department, a framework is devised to ensure that safety takes its proper role as the top priority and over profits in BT's operation.
We have here a classic example of a fine service that has been corrupted by a single-minded drive for profits. The 999 service does not make a penny profit for BT, so it has been neglected. BT's energies and its top technology are devoted to its profit-rich sidelines—home security, screening of calls or intensive use of fax machines. That is where the huge profits and the burgeoning balance sheet of BT can be improved.
Condition 6 of BT's licence says that it must provide a service capable of transmitting and receiving unrestricted two-way voice telephony services and of communicating as swiftly as is practicable with any of the emergency organisations. We should examine the history of the past nine months with that condition in mind. BT in Wales, in the view of the professionals who deal with it, and in the view of the emergency services and of many who have given evidence, is no longer providing that service as swiftly and efficiently as practicable. It is far less reliable than it was before centralisation and far less efficient than it will be when the digital system is proved and operational. In its relentless pursuit of profits, BT is putting lives at risk.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs (Mr. Francis Maude)
This is an important matter and I regret that the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn), who has properly raised it, somewhat spoilt his presentation of the case by larding his speech so freely with partisan slogans. As he said, this is an important public service, designed to improve the safety of families and individuals. He does his cause no service by approaching it in a highly partisan way.
It might be helpful if I set out the background. Last year British Telecom handled 19 million 999 calls. Of those, 950—0.005 per cent.—went astray due to operator mistakes. Except in exceptional circumstances, such as following major disasters, the level of complaints about the 999 service has been remarkably low.
In south Wales, BT's Cardiff exchange last year handled 815,000 emergency calls. Of those, only one third—fewer than 300,000—actually required connection to the emergency services. The fact is that as well as those who simply do not require the emergency services or those who simply misdial, there are large numbers of hoax calls. That is deplorable, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman shares that view. It places an enormous strain on the service and greatly increases the chances of genuine cases not being dealt with properly. I was horrified when I heard about the high numbers of hoax calls. All hon. Members should call on the public to use this important public service responsibly—as, indeed, most people do.
Of the genuine calls in south Wales, a small number—about 10 a year, in contrast with the large numbers mentioned by the hon. Gentleman—are misdirected through operator error. I am not suggesting that that is satisfactory, but nevertheless it is a small number. Indeed, the figure is little different from that experienced either historically in south Wales or nationally. The allegations 661 that errors have been caused by centralisation or cost-cutting are simply nonsense. No adverse developments can be attributed to the system.
British Telecom attaches the highest priority to ensuring that in the modernisation of its network—of which we all approve—the emergency services should not be disrupted, but, indeed, should be improved. During the last financial year BT undertook to invest £2.9 billion in its network. It replaced two outdated exchanges every working day and has laid more than 500,000 km of optic fibre since 1984. A quarter of its network is already digitalised, and all will be within a few years.
In Cardiff the majority of calls are handled by a modern exchange that was recently opened by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales. The equipment that will handle 999 calls is currently being tried on standard 100 operator calls. It is right and responsible that BT should test the system in that way and not extend it to 999 calls until it is entirely robust and BT is satisfied that it will improve the service, not jeopardise it. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should take issue with that responsible approach.
I find it difficult to understand why the hon. Gentleman and some of his Friends want to carry out a campaign that has done nothing but make the job of the emergency call service more difficult.
§ Mr. Maude
I shall not give way because the hon. Gentleman used up quite a lot of time and I have points that I wish to make before the debate ends.
The hon. Gentleman's campaign has increased the number of unnecessary calls from the public to the 999 service. People are phoning to find out whether the service is as bad as the hon. Gentleman has made it out to be. That has made the job of running this important service considerably more difficult. Hon. Members should support the service, not make its task more difficult. Hon. Members could take one practical step if they seek further reassurance—they should direct their concerns to Sir Bryan Carsberg, the Director General of Telecommunications. His office has the duty of monitoring and enforcing the conditions of licences issued to public telecommunications operators. I know that he is concerned to ensure that the full range of public responsibilities are met by such operators. I do not know whether he would see fit to take action in this instance, but, rather than mounting what has in some cases turned into a vicious campaign against British Telecom, the hon. Gentleman should address his complaints to Sir Bryan so that they can be properly investigated. That is his proper recourse.
I know that most hon. Members share my admiration for those who provide these vital emergency services, and I find it wholly regrettable that some people should denigrate others who work so hard to ensure the safety of the public. The whole issue has put considerable personal pressure on the operators who man the service in south Wales, and I do not believe that that is likely to enhance their performance. I assure them that Conservative Members, at any rate, support them fully, and I very much regret that they will not be able to rely on support from both sides of the House.
662 The hon. Gentleman should desist from his campaign, which has, in itself, done much to undermine public confidence in the service and to sap the morale of those who provide it. This campaign of denigration has done nothing but harm, and it should cease.
§ Mr. Flynn
That was a disgraceful reply. I am very disappointed that the Minister has not taken my remarks on board. My personal involvement in the campaign is due purely to my being a Member of Parliament for Newport. There are two Newports in Wales, and on three occasions when calls have been made from one of them the emergency services have been sent to the other, 140 miles away.
I could show the Minister a good many letters of support for what he called a campaign, but what in fact is evidence provided by the emergency service and its victims. I refused to comment in the press on the first case involving the two Newports, because I naively believed what British Telecom said—that it had been a one-off. Today we have heard the fatuous claim that there have been only 10 such cases. If the Minister reads Hansard, he will discover how many people he is contradicting. According to correspondence that I have received in the past week, one ambulance service found five cases of misdirection within 10 days, one involving 25 minutes' delay in attending to a women with terrible injuries.
The evidence presented by all the ambulance services in Wales, and by the other groups, is overwhelming. British Telecom has a fine service for the future, but, driven by the desire for cuts, it cut services in the areas and sacked staff before the centralised service was technologically capable of handling the new calls.
This is not just my evidence; it is the evidence of the professionals. It is wrong to try to escape from that by turning the accusation on those who were genuinely disturbed. Like many other people, I have had the terrible experience of making a 999 call when a member of my family was dying, and I know the agony involved. I know that every second feels like a minute while the ambulance does not arrive. For many people that anguish has been doubled, because their faith in the service has gone.
The Government should have responded positively today. They should have told us that the technology at the end of a 999 call is the best possible: there can be no delay. The technology of the Cardiff exchange is out of date. I have seen that, and others will see the same if they go there. Expenditure on high technology is being confined to the high-profit services; we are seeing the effects of privatisation.
This is not a partisan point. We are talking about services that are dedicated to the public good, and the 999 service is very precious to us. We want to know that the service is there and that it is the best. It has been downgraded in south Wales, and the result is—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)
Order. Perhaps I am in error, but I thought that the hon. Gentleman wanted to intervene in the Minister's speech. If so, it is an overlengthy intervention.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past Three o'clock.