HL Deb 12 February 1948 vol 153 cc1047-51

4.43 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the Bill to which I ask your Lordships to give a Second Reading is a Money Bill. Its object is to give authority to raise capital to the extent of £75,000,000, of which £71,000,000 will be devoted to developing the telephone service. That amounts to about £24,000,000 a year, and a few years ago would have represented about £12,000,000 or £13,000,000. The prewar capital expenditure on the telephone service amounted annually to £18,000,000. When this Bill was introduced in another place Mr. Grimston—who, I believe I am right in saying, was at one time an Assistant Postmaster-General in a former Government—while deploring, as we all do, the general gloom overhanging industry, said: In all the circumstances, the Post Office and all those in it are to be congratulated on what they have done in spite of the difficulties. I would like for a moment or two to draw your Lordships' attention to some of those difficulties, and the great efforts that have been made by the Post Office to overcome them. As your Lordships will readily understand, it is quite natural that when war is declared the Post Office Engineers, particularly those in the telephone Service, are one of the first services to be called upon. Immediately the call came, no fewer than 16,000 skilled engineers left to join up. This meant a considerable depletion of the service, and while many recruits were brought in later—many of them were women—they were barely enough to maintain the service with reasonable efficiency during the war. At the end of the war there were no fewer than 300,000 applications for the telephone service, and six years leeway had to be made up. That number has increased at the present time to about 450,000.

Having said that, I think that your Lordships should know what the Post Office have done to make up that deficiency. Prior to the war, the peak years were 1936 and 1937, when no fewer than 791,000 installations were made. But in 1946 and 1947 no fewer than 1,322,000 instruments were installed which represents an increase of 67 per cent. over the peak years before the war. When we are all complaining about the Post Office it is just as well sometimes to take notice of the efforts which they are making, and of what they have done in this particular respect. I think they have a right to feel proud of the fact that one in three of the telephones now in use has been installed since the war. That means a good deal more than just what those figures represent, because tremendous difficulties have had to be overcome, including shortage of staff, the necessity to take on a great many unskilled assistants, and so forth. As your Lordships will appreciate, that rapid development has eaten deeply into the resources and reserves of cables and the various implements which are necessary. We are all inclined to think at times that the telephone consists only of what we see on our desk, or in our hall, as the case may be, forgetting all the work that has had to go to bring it into operation. The fact is, the installation of the telephone itself is the last stage of a rather complicated affair.

Since the war the efforts of the Post Office to keep pace with the demand by installing new capital equipment have been hampered by shortage of man-power and supplies. In that connexion I would like to draw your Lordships' attention to the measures which have been adopted to overcome those difficulties. The Postmaster-General has decided that essential subscribers, such as businesses on export trade, public utilities and health services, will have first claim to a telephone. He will do his best, too, to see that farmers also get a telephone. He will see that the trunk network, the nervous system of industry and commerce, receives the equipment and the service it wants.

If your Lordships will bear with me for a moment or two longer, I would point out one particularly notable development that has taken place since the war, apart from those I have already indicated. It is the installation of the Anglo-Dutch cable, opened a few weeks ago by the Postmaster-General. That is able to carry no fewer than eighty-four simultaneous conversations and, in addition, it can be developed to carry more than twice that number. It is now giving a first-class service to Holland, Scandinavia and to Central Europe. With regard to the trunk services, these are being provided as speedily as possible. Here again tribute should be paid to the Post Office for the efforts which they have made in that connexion. In September, 1939, there were 6,700 circuits, and to-day there are 14,000. I have no hesitation whatever in submitting this Bill for your Lordships' approval. Before I sit down, as one who served for many years in this service, I think I should be lacking in my duty—and I am sure your Lordships will agree with me—if I did not pay tribute to the men and women who, under very difficult circumstances, have carried on this service. We have sympathy for all people who, due to frustration, are unable to carry out their services as efficiently as they would like. I think the Post Office staff will appreciate our expression of appreciation for all they have endeavoured to do under very trying circumstances.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a. —(Lord Ammon.)

4.50 p.m.


My Lords, once again noble Lords on these Benches desire to welcome the Bill, and, if I may say so, to endorse the tributes which the noble Lord, Lord Ammon, has just paid to the Post Office staff, whose interests we all know he has so much at heart. I believe that it is common knowledge that a tremendous amount of work was carried on in the Post Office and by its staff in the last war. I am not quite sure whether it is equally well known how much the efficiency of organizations such as the air raid warning system and Anti-Aircraft Command depended upon the skill and devotion of the Post Office engineering department. I should like to emphasize that now. Whatever tributes we pass, it does not alter the fact that because of the war there is a big back-log in the maintenance of the postal services. If this £75,000,000 is designed to help to overcome that back-log, and if it means that the material and the labour are there we welcome this Bill with all our heart. It occurred to me that the provision of this £75,000,000 might not have been necessary if in the past the Post Office surplus had not been—to use modern language—clawed back into the Treasury each year. If the Post Office had been allowed to retain those surpluses and they had been, so to speak, credited in the profit and loss account, there would be no need for this Bill. As it is, the Treasury have taken all this money which they are now to give back—and a very good thing too.

There is only one other point I would like to mention, arising out of this list of priorities, and that is with regard to our friends, the farmers. There was one slight difference in the wording which the noble Lord used about the farmers and the other people, and I cannot help wondering whether there will be difficulty in providing telephone poles for the farmers, a difficulty which would not arise in the case of the other people the noble Lord mentioned. If I am right, and there is a difficulty in supplying these telephone poles, I hope the difficulty may be overcome. With those words I will say once again how much we agree with this Bill.

4.52 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to say one or two words in approval of what has fallen from my friend on the Front Bench in tribute to the efficiency of the Post Office staff. We in London have a wonderful service. If one rings up the telephone office to find where a mistake has been made one always receives courtesy; they do their very best to help the users of the service. With regard to what has been said about the air raid warning system, everybody who was in London during that time knows how extremely efficient that was and how the Post Office staff stuck to their job. As a Londoner, I believe that we have a far greater number of consumers of this service, in proportion to population, than any other part of the country; and we are indeed most indebted to the Post Office for their work. There is some delay sometimes in getting toll calls—and I am glad my noble friend is with me there. I do not live in the country and, therefore, I do not experience that difficulty, but I think that that might be surmounted. On the whole I think the public are given very good service. We all recognize what a job it has been for the officials of the Post Office to get that service going, and especially what has been done since the war in providing accommodation for new subscribers. I am sure that this debate, like so many other debates in this House, has been of use in showing what has been done in this country, and also to show how much we appreciate the services rendered to us by the Post Office.

4.54 p.m.


My Lords, it only remains for me to thank your Lordships for the kindly sentiments which you have expressed with regard to the service and, of course, for your forbearance. Like everybody else, I have said things about the telephone at times, and may yet do so again. I am confident that in the Post Office they are exercising every effort they can to catch up with their arrears. I know that they have recruited staff, and the matter of material, of course, depends on efforts from outside. With regard to the manufacturers of the material, they have to consider the export trade which we have no wish to lose. With regard to the point raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, I am empowered to say that the hope is that within two years every farmer who needs it will have a telephone, and that every effort is being made to supply them. That is placed high on the priority list.

On Question, Bill read 2a; Committee negatived.