HL Deb 26 June 1952 vol 177 cc486-507

4.41 p.m.

LORD TEYNHAM rose to call attention to the Telephone Service; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have set down this Motion, first, in the interests of economy, and secondly, to press Her Majesty's Government through the Treasury to give more facilities to the Post Office, so that the telephone service can be improved. I should like to take, first of all, the point of economy. I understand that during the war years the Treasury agreed that Government offices need not pay cash for their telephone and telegraph services, as was previously done, and that merely book entries should be made. I cannot help feeling that this system must lead to grave extravagance, and I rise to suggest a return to a cash basis as soon as possible. I understand it to be the fact that up to 1922 the practice of book settlement was in being, but it was then changed to a cash basis, and striking results occurred almost at once. I believe that in 1922, when a cash basis was established, there was an immediate saving of about 50 per cent. in the number of telegrams sent out by Government offices, and, what is more, the average length of telegrams became very much less. A year later, when a cash basis was instituted for the telephone service, there was a decrease of 11.5 per cent. in Government office use of the telephone service. These are striking figures, and I cannot help feeling that they might well be repeated if the cash settlement basis were re-established.

It may well be argued, what does it matter whether one Department or another pays the Bill? Surely, there is nothing like having to account for a precise and actual bill. That is bound to induce a sense of reality. I think this view was certainly held by the Select Committee on Estimates and was set out in their Report which was issued in 1950. Again, what about prospective telephone subscribers? I think it is true to say that something like 500,000 people are waiting for telephones and there seems little prospect of many of them getting such a service for a considerable time. What is holding up these necessary installations? The real reason is to be found in the fact that the necessary material for the buildings for telephone exchange installations cannot be secured by the Post Office. I suggest to Her Majesty's Government that a certain degree of priority should be given to the Post Office for these essential materials. I would go so far as to say that I believe that if new telephone buildings for switch gear, and so on, cannot be erected, in two or three years' time we shall find that any extension of the telephone service will come to a dead stop. There is no doubt that this would be a serious matter, not only to the business community but also to the general public.

From time to time complaints have been made about the telephone service, but I think that on the whole it is not too bad, when taking into account the difficulties of material supply at the present time, the necessity of working on defence measures and the shortage of manpower and of womanpower—I am sure many noble Lords appreciate the golden voices we hear when we pick up the telephone for a trunk or a toll call, and I am certain these women do their job well. On the other hand, charges for the telephone service are going up. It is true that costs have gone up perhaps in greater proportion but the Post Office is making a substantial profit. I think it is essential that telephone charges should be kept down to a minimum. I wonder how many noble Lords realise that the Corporation of Hull have a telephone service which extends a radius of some ten miles and that this service was not amalgamated with the Post Office service when that was set up. Their charges are certainly cheaper than those of the Post Office. It is true that in July the Hull Corporation charges are to rise, but even then a local call will cost only 2d., as against the Post Office charge of 3d. up to 5 miles and 4d. up to 7½ miles for calls from a local call-box. With the Hull Corporation the private subscriber pays £7 10s. per annum, which includes 500 free calls, and any excess calls up to 100 are charged 10s. These charges are certainly more favourable than those of the Post Office, and the Corporation make a profit after paying royalties to the Post Office and income tax. I cannot help feeling that the Post Office should be able to do just as well as Hull Corporation and perhaps even better, with all the facilities they have at hand.

I think it is true to say that what is really happening is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is putting a tax on telephones for purposes of revenue. I suggest that it would be far better if this tax were shown clearly as a flat rate percentage on the bill, rather than worked into a wide number of charges and rentals. The charge could then be varied up and down, just like purchase tax or petrol tax, and everyone would know how much he was contributing to the Exchequer for the use of the telephone. There is no doubt that the increases in charges are arbitrary and in some cases severe. What is more, so far as I know, there was no consultation with representatives of users about the way in which the charges should be levied. In fact, I go so far as to say, although I may be wrong, that even the Post Office Advisory Council were not consulted.

I believe that in other countries the telephone service is considerably cheaper, but, on the other hand, it is not always so good. Perhaps the Postmaster General would try to give your Lordships some indication of the comparative charges. The telephone service has a direct bearing on the whole life of the community, and our vital export trade might be interfered with seriously if a good telephone service were not available at reasonable cost. We must provide additional telephone lines as soon as we possibly can. It is interesting to compare the figures of telephone users in other countries. For instance, in the United States, 28 per cent. of the population have a telephone, whereas in the United Kingdom it is only about 11 per cent. In Canada it is nearly 21 per cent. and in Sweden nearly 24 per cent. I think it is true to say that in some countries having a generally lower average standard of living than ourselves the percentage of telephone users is still higher than that of the United Kingdom—in Norway and Iceland, for example.

I understand that considerable technical developments have occurred recently in a telephone service. I believe it is now possible to have some 600 lines in one cable of quite a small size. No doubt the Postmaster General will be able to tell us something about this to-day. What I would say, however, is this: that it is no use having these technical developments unless the Government give facilities for materials to enable the necessary installations to be made. That, of course, is absolutely vital. I also feel that the telephone inspection service might be greatly improved. How often is it that one endeavours to use a telephone on a railway station, only to find that the telephone is out of order, and on going to a further telephone box finds that that is out of order, too? There is no doubt that that sort of thing brings the telephone service into disrepute with the public generally. I hope that the Government will make energetic efforts to reduce the telephone and telegraph bills of the various Government Departments. I believe that something like 20,000,000 trunk calls are now made every year and nearly 100,000,000 local calls, which I think involves the large sum of approximately £13,500,000. I believe that this might well be halved if care were taken to see to it. The telephone service should have a high priority, because it is vital to the country both in peace and in war. If we let it slide back, it will be most difficult to catch up again and have a really efficient service. I beg to move for Papers.

4.52 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, for raising this subject. The Post Office is something that is always with us. Many of us are not entirely conscious of the great services rendered by the Post Office. While on that subject, I would suggest to the Postmaster General that his public relations, good as they are in many ways, might still be improved in order to educate the public in the great achievements that his Department have carried out in the difficult years since the war. Most of us probably do not know that one in every five of all the telephones now in use have been installed since the war; that in five years after the war the Post Office installed as many telephones as they did in the ten years before the war; that nearly 5,500,000 telephones are in use now; and, lastly, that the service is one of the most modern in the world. For the last two years the Post Office have issued reviews of Post Office activities. These are most admirable books, giving a very good picture of the whole activities of the Post Office, but they are rather bulky, and I think there should be means of making the information contained in them more widely known.

I believe that it is only too well known to everyone that what holds up the expansion of the telephone service, which everyone wants, is the restriction on capital investment. That is the obstacle which the Post Office have encountered at every step since the war when trying to meet the immense demand for telephones. I do not know whether your Lordships appreciate that the average annual demand since the war has been 60 per cent. higher than it was in the three years before the war: something like 250,000 telephones are asked for every year. The capital allotted to the Post Office, as the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, said, is severely restricted. We have heard from the Assistant Postmaster General in another place that something like one-third of the capital allotted to the Post Office is required for the defence programme; and he also said that 92 per cent. of the capital required by the Post Office is needed for the telephones. That works out that over the next couple of years £25,000,000 or more is going to be spent purely on the needs of the defence programme. What I should like to ask the Postmaster General is whether any of that expenditure will ultimately be of benefit to the service for civilians. It is no doubt difficult to arrive at a figure of that sort, and we know that there are security reasons for his not being too explicit. But can we hope that any of that expenditure will, in the course of time, make a contribution to the improvement of the service to civilians which is so badly wanted?

The noble Lord, Lord Teynham, recommended that Government Departments should be required to pay for their calls as they make them, and that there should be direct accounting for all the services that the Post Office renders to the Departments. That sounds admirable in theory, but I wonder whether there is not a snag to it, in that the staff required for this additional accounting might counterbalance the saving made in the use of the telephone. I throw out that suggestion for consideration.

The most serious news that has been given lately on the question of telephones was that contained in the recent speech of the Assistant Postmaster General, when he said that no new telephone buildings were to be started in the next financial year—I think that is the substance of what he said. I should like to endorse most heartily what Lord Teynham said—namely that this decision is likely to have the most disastrous consequences. Your Lordships will realise that the number of new subscribers that can be put on to the telephone is limited by the capacity of the exchanges. We are told that one-fifth of all the exchanges are filled up and have no more spare lines and that another one-tenth is so nearly full up that it can take only priority subscribers. From that it seems to follow unanswerably that fresh subscribers cannot be accepted until new exchanges are built; and the building and equipping of new exchanges is going to take a long time. Is this not a shortsighted measure of economy which will have the most serious consequences lasting over a number of years to come? We know that in 1950–51 the waiting list for telephones was reduced by some 56,000, representing about 10 per cent., but the Assistant Postmaster General said that he hoped to reduce it by 100,000 during the coming year. I should like the Postmaster-General to reconcile those statements, because to me they seem to be difficult to reconcile.

On the question of telephone rentals, which, as your Lordships know, are to be raised on July 1 all over the country, I should like to support the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, when he says that the charges on the telephone should be kept to a minimum. After all, every rise in the cost of a service of this sort is a contribution to the general rise in the cost of living, and the Government should do what they can to damp down this rise. I hope there is no idea in the mind of the Government that raising the cost of a telephone will, in fact, reduce the waiting list. I hope this is not a form of rationing by price, but that the increases are being made because they are unavoid- able. The problem of demand exceeding supply in telephones has been with us, as we know, for a number of years. When the last Government were in power two measures were taken to cope with this situation. One was the institution of a system of priorities, whereby only limited classes of people were allowed telephones, the remainder having to go on the waiting list. The priority classes were the defence services, the health and life-saving services and public utilities. I should like to know whether Her Majesty's Government still adhere to a priority system of this nature.

The other measure which helped to solve the shortage was the shared service system. That has been in force now for four years. We know that it has been increasing to the extent that over 300,000 subscribers are now sharing telephones. We hear also that the early suspicions and dislike of the system have largely been overcome, and that increased public experience of the system has made it more popular. We hope that the Government are extending that system and making the utmost use of it wherever possible, thereby making a contribution to the problem of the shortage of telephones.

There are two other small points that I should like to throw out for the consideration of the Postmaster General. Although the great majority of telephone lines are now carried underground, there are still a large number of overhead lines carried on poles. Those poles have to be imported from overseas, and I wonder whether consideration has been given to replacing them with concrete poles, of the type which are so commonly seen on the Continent and elsewhere. One other point is the question of the radio links for television. Do they compete in the use of the Post Office resources with the provision of telephones? I think it will be agreed that nowadays the telephone is a necessity. Television is, after all, an amenity—I will not say a luxury—but the telephone as a means of communication at the present time is a necessity. If there is any competition between these two resources, I hope that the telephones will not suffer by reason of the need for radio links for television. We all want to hear what the Postmaster General has to tell us about the service. I close by saying that I think all your Lordships will agree that the service rendered by the personnel of the telephone service, numbering some 50,000, is quite admiraable. We should like our congratulations and our thanks to go out to them.

5.6 p.m.


My Lords, when I saw this Motion on the Order Paper, I certainly admired the enterprise of my noble friend Lord Teynham, because I felt sure it would serve a good purpose in ventilating a question which was very much in the minds of many. I must say that I expected there would be a large attendance of noble Lords bursting with a desire to express comments on the telephone service. The fact that there is such a thin attendance here to-day must be a great encouragement to the Postmaster General, because he must feel that, so far as members of your Lordships' House are concerned, there is not that widespread impatience with regard to matters connected with the telephone service which I think exists in many commercial circles at the moment.

I was interested to see what line my noble friend would take, because there are so many possible angles to a debate of this character. There is the administrative, the financial—which includes capital development—the commercial and the service angle. In making the observations I intend to make, it is an encouraging thought that anything we may say in criticism will be dealt with in that gracious and considerate manner with which the noble Earl the Postmaster General always meets his task in this House, and I have no doubt that he will be considerate, as well as helpful, in anything which is put forward. This is a service which seems to me to involve salesmanship. Therefore, any user of the telephone who is paying for the service is a customer who should be treated by the operator as a valued customer. In a large service like this it is inevitable that there will be a wide difference in the personal manner in which members of that big family behave. I have no doubt that traditionally, under the guidance of many former eminent predecessors of the noble Earl, and the succession of eminent engineers and administrators who have been at the head of the Post Office, the inspiration for courtesy is something which has been drilled into the staff.

Before I make any further comment, may I say that long residence in North America—I am going back now as a telephone user there over the past forty years—has habituated me to regarding the North American telephone service as the ideal and the standard which the world as a whole ought to aim to emulate. The majority of those who make that comparison are inescapably compelled to admit—though, if they be Englishmen, they may dislike doing so—that the standard attained in this country is appreciably below the conventional standard in North America.

One of the singular things about it is this. I readily recognise that, as a general rule, the standard of courtesy in North America is far below the standard of courtesy and consideration observed by all those who serve the community in such spheres as railroads, hotels, public offices, and so on, outside North America. It does not approach the high standard of courtesy and humane consideration which exists in this country. In North America in contradistinction to the deplorable lack of courtesy on the railroads and elsewhere, more particularly in the East than in the West and certainly the Middle West, there is a telephone service which stands out as a shining example of consideration for other people, based or the principle that the company is selling a service to the community. Every member of that staff is trained to remember that he or she is a member of a team which is selling service to the community, and that any insufficiency at any time on his or her part is going to modify and lower in the minds of the clients the ideal of the high standard which has traditionally been observed. If I may be forgiven for explaining that at some length, it is because I have for so long been mystified by this apparent enigma: that a standard which is achieved, contrary to the prevailing current, as it were, in the United States cannot be achieved in this country. In other words, why cannot we have a still higher standard of efficiency in the post office telephone service? I have no doubt that when the noble Earl has had a longer period of office he will have brought about considerable progress in that direction.

Of course, if one looks at the matter of construction from all angles one must recognise that over the past decade there has been much greater difficulty in this country in the obtaining of up-to-date equipment than there has been in North America; and this must have made a substantial contribution towards the difficulties which the service has had to encounter. I would add, from my observations during a recent visit to Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, that it is fairly clear that other parts of the Commonwealth have had even greater difficulties than this country has had in obtaining up-to-date equipment. Anyone going to a Commonwealth country other than Canada would probably return to this country with the satisfying reflection that a brilliantly high standard has been achieved in the telephone service here.

I should like to make an appeal to the Postmaster-General in regard to a small matter. It often happens that a harried caller has sat dialling "Trunks" for a long time. Eventually he gets the operator, gives his desired number, and is told to hold on—and does so, very often for a prodigious number of minutes, at the end of which period a voice says: "Are you there?" There are, I am sure, many who are inclined to say: "Where the 'something' do you think I have been but here? I am waiting for that call." In North America and elsewhere there is a considerable saving of breath by the use of the one word "Hullo." I wonder if that system could be adopted here. If so, I am sure it would soothe the nerves of many telephone users. Perhaps the Postmaster General will not object to my introducing that minor point.

And this gives me an opportunity to raise one other matter which I have particularly in mind, and of which I have given notice to the noble Earl. I hope he may find it possible to give me some reply. I refer to the question of long-distance calls—and incidentally I hope it may soon be possible to introduce the expression "Long-distance" instead of "Trunks," which is out of date. I should like to see the system adopted in this country whereby, as in North America, a caller making a long-distance call involving perhaps considerable charges may hang up the receiver and expect to be called back. Again, in the case of a personal call when a particular person is wanted. I should like to see the system whereby the person desired can be brought to the telephone and the person who has made the call need not be sitting by the telephone but may be brought back to the instrument—and, of course, charged only from the moment when the two are actually connected. After all it was only after agitation by industrialists some time ago that the system of reversed charges for calls was instituted. The principle of reversed charges is often not understood by operatives when they are called upon to operate it.

Another point of which I gave the noble Earl notice was with regard to the Sunday service. Is it not possible that we should have, as in North America, reduced rates for the whole of Sunday instead of only for the afternoon? The view taken in North America on this matter is that the equipment is there and that the best use should be made of it from the revenue-earning point of view. Therefore, it seems probable that reduced rates here, as in North America, would bring in a large amount of revenue if the system operated all through Sunday when the lines are not burdened with the usual commercial traffic. As regards personal calls, in North America the personal call is incorporated in the charge if the person is obtainable. Here the charge is made even if the person sought is not obtainable. That seems to be a matter for consideration. I conclude with a repetition of the hope that nothing said in this House which may reach the ears of any operators of the telephone service, who doubtless intend as servants of the State to do the best they can, will discourage them. But it is often felt by users that some more enlivened direction from the top is needed to make every member of the staff recognise that he or she is selling something which brings revenue to the undertaking, and that every client should be given proper consideration. That is the dominant hope which inspired me to intervene.

5.21 p.m.


My Lords, visitors have long memories and generally come back to those countries in which charm with efficiency is the key-note of the telephone system. A first-class system, therefore, is at once a great national advertisement and a vital public service, as has been said by noble Lords to-day. As my noble friend Lord Teynham has pointed out, there is not only room but a loud demand for more telephones and for a greater rapidity of service. If I may, I should like to make a few observations on the technical aspects, embracing research and development and the translation into practice of the fruits thereof.

There was, perhaps, a time when our system could claim to be nearer to the front line in the technical application of the art as then known. In recent years, technological advance has been made of which we have not taken advantage. The electro-mechanical system in use to-day, provided, as your Lordships know, jointly by concerns in America and in our own country, is, like the piston engine in the aircraft world, on the way out: it is obsolescent. I would appeal to my noble friend the Postmaster-General to speed its departure. Your Lordship will naturally ask, Why? What will replace the electro-mechanical exchanges now existing? The answer is the electronic exchange, which is scientifically related to the electronic brain or computer, of which your Lordships know. The electronic exchange, in which very few moving parts will be found, in comparison with the largo number of moving parts demanded by the present system, will be cheaper in labour to erect and maintain, and will also require fewer materials for its construction, especially those in short supply. This new type of exchange is one especially suited to Britain, since it demands the full use of the printed circuit technique, one of the most interesting of British developments in the last decade. The printed circuit development, like most British inventions, is making great strides in many directions in the United States of America. It is also making some strides on the Continent. But I am sorry to say that it is making few here, despite what the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, said the other day about our being a nation which appreciates new developments in science and is anxious to see them taken up—a statement with which I find myself in complete disagreement.

I want to say something about the scientific and technical staff in the General Post Office. As a technician, I am glad and proud of this opportunity of paying them a sincere tribute. The noble Earl the Postmaster-General is fortunate in having so many keen scientific and technological people under his hand. They have faced up to these many intricate problems. Not long ago, one of the noble Earl's leading technicians, a Mr. Flowers, of the Dollis Hill Research Station, delivered before the Institution of Electrical Engineers a most interesting paper, in which he forecast the coming of the new type of electronic exchange and pointed out that such an exchange would demand the full use of printed circuitry. The printed circuit technique, to which I have referred, is not just a technique that embraces one or two clever inventions. It is a fundamental contribution in the electrical field which touches every aspect, whether it be the new exchanges which the noble Earl visualises, guided missiles or the excellent deaf-aid device that the noble Earl the Postmaster-General is developing, presumably for the Ministry of Health, at Dollis Hill, which employs the printed circuit technique. This is a great British development and one of which we can justly he proud. It would be very fitting indeed if more use could be made of this new development in the Department controlled by the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr.

As I have said, the scientific and technological staff in the G.P.O. are worthy of, and, if I may respectfully say so, will receive in my words, very high praise. Why is it, therefore, that these able men controlled by the Postmaster-General cannot translate their own views into practice more rapidly? I would beg the noble Earl to look very carefully into this question of the new type of telephone exchange, the electronic exchange. And if this system under which he has to place orders in industry is such that he cannot persuade industry to get busy and accept those orders, and to translate them into practice, surely, under the Experimental Vote, the noble Earl could arrange to have an electronic exchange set up. Then the advantages, which I submit to your Lordships are real advantages, not only in the saving of labour but also in the saving of materials and maintenance charges, will be made apparent, and we shall see the value of the new electronic exchange. At present, telephone exchanges are being made in this country for different countries. They are being made in accordance with the old technique, which means that an obsolescent article is being exported for installation in countries abroad. That should not happen. I am sure that in this matter the Postmaster-General can give a great lead by translating into practice, through the Experimental Vote, the recommendation of his own able scientific and technological staff that the electronic exchange, and not the electromechanical exchange, is the exchange of the future.

In conclusion, may I just touch on one other small and simple matter with which the noble Earl the Postmaster General can perhaps deal? I appealed to him about it once before. On that occasion, from those Olympian heights from which Ministers speak, he looked down on me and, whilst he was very nice, said, in short terms, "Nothing doing." It used to be possible, not long ago, when we Scots rang up the Southern parts or rang North to our own folk, to persuade the operator to ask the number, that is generally engaged, whether a call from, say, Aberdeen will be accepted. It is extremely difficult to have that done. One is told that it is not allowed, but that possibly the supervisor, in the generosity of her spirit, might do something about it. But a great deal of quite unnecessary delay takes place. Quite obviously, it will be some years before the telephone system will be adequate to meet the demand, and whilst thanking the noble Earl for the very courteous letter that he sent to me saying that nothing could be done, I do beg him to think again, to consider whether a simple expedient of that kind would not ease the tension on the telephone exchanges particularly in relation to trunk calls.

5.32 p.m.


My Lords, I am not competent to follow the noble Lord, Lord Sempill, into the realms of science, about which he knows so much; but it is indeed refreshing to think that here is yet another industry with great export potentialities, where British invention and development point a path to something that might be extremely fruitful in half a dozen or ten years' time. I am going to make only one simple point in this debate, and that is on the question of economy. We all know how extremely difficult it is to attain Government economy as a matter of principle, and as a result of five years of war and of the last six years government has spread very much more widely than ever before; therefore the field over which it is difficult to practise economy is so much larger than ever before. It is difficult enough, as we know, in the case of cash and stores. All these meticulous Treasury regulations, and so on, which we are apt to ridicule, have been created by long years of precedent, because the Treasury really knows how extremely difficult it is to curb the spendthrift habits of Departments. But when we get on to services, by which I mean light and heat, telephones and telegrams, and so on, it becomes doubly difficult to control because no cash passes.

The present system of accounting in the Post Office is a simple cash account, accompanied by what are termed the commercial accounts. The commercial accounts are not accounts in the true sense of the word because a great deal of that income is merely recorded; it is an estimate of the services they have performed for some Department or other. It may be a fairly accurate estimate of the services, but the Departments themselves do not have to show in their Estimates the precise amount of expenditure that they propose to embark upon in regard to telephones and telegrams. The measure of the importance of this, in very rough figures, is that something like one-ninth of the Post Office services of the country is carried on for Government Departments—that is, Government Departments proper, and not, of course, nationalised industries—and of this one-ninth, approximately one-half represents telephone services. In the figures of millions of pounds, as we know them to-day, £11,750,000 or £12,000,000, that is not an immense sum of money. But, viewed in the light of the fact that we have half a million customers waiting for telephones, and viewed in the light that one telephone in every five is now sitting on a civil servant's desk, those figures do begin to assume some significance. Anything we can do to lessen Government use of telephone apparatus is almost bound to have some corresponding effect in releasing the use of that apparatus to the civil consumer, who is in sore need of it.

Once upon a time the Post Office used to send bills to the Departments for their charges. This was suspended during the 1914–18 war, but was reinstituted in 1922 in the case of telegrams and in 1923 in the case of telephones, with, I believe, some appreciably beneficial economies. During the last war, the system was suspended again in order to save manpower, and I understand that it would not be entirely unwelcome to the Post Office were the system to be reintroduced. In that they certainly have the support of the Select Committee on Estimates, for in 1950 that Committee reported: Whatever internal control may achieve, there remains the fact that, if Departments are presented with telephone accounts, a more realistic attitude towards the use of the telephone is created. A sudden rise in the charges made to them would certainly demand explanation. To present the accounts half-yearly would entail an increase of staff of 60 to 70 in the Post Office and a small increase in the Departments. The work is unproductive and the Post Office hesitate to press for this additional staff at the present moment"— that is, of course, at that time.

There are two ways of regarding the statement that that staff are unproductive. It may be that they are not producing anything very definite, but neither are Treasury officials. If they achieved some substantial economy, thus freeing apparatus for commercial use, I would maintain that that staff were being used in a most productive capacity. It is only a matter of which way one looks at it. It stands to reason that if a Department has to estimate for its telephone calls and those are broken down through the various subsections, so that ultimately, the man in charge of a section or a subsection becomes personally and managerially responsible for the telephone charges of his own assistants, then there is bound to be a greater economy exercised in the use of the telephone. To what degree that would actually spare apparatus for sale to or use by the general public, I personally am not aware, because that is a matter of considerable technical difficulty. So much for that point.

I suggest that the reason why we have got into the present state of affairs, with enormous waiting lists, and so oil, is not only what I believe to be over-use of telephones by Government Departments, but also the fact that a Government service never tends to plan ahead in a large enough manner. The influence of the Treasury is all-pervading, and though it is easy enough, perhaps, to get authority for carrying out a programme which can be realistically based on scientific estimates, when one has to base a programme on a "hunch" for the future—which is what one often has to do—that is never good enough for the Treasury. For that reason I feel that in the matter of the services, the capacity of the trunk lines, the exchanges and so on, this country has lagged behind. Whether it is possible ever to produce a different attitude towards these things I do not know. But that is a much wider point. I appeal to the Postmaster General to give most earnest consideration to this question, and once again to submit bills to the Departments for their telephone calls.

5.41 p.m.


My Lords, in the very few moments for which I propose to address your Lordships, I should like, in common with other noble Lords who have spoken, to thank Lord Teynham for putting down this Motion to-day. I think it is a matter of extreme importance that we should have a very efficient telephone service in this country. To begin with, however, I should like to say that I think there has been great improvement in the service in the last few years. One can now get trunk calls much more quickly than one used to be able to do, and local calls, too, are much better. But there is still a long way to go. The Post Office, as we know, has been much hampered by this question of capital allocation. I have recently been privileged to attend the opening of both a new telephone exchange and a new post office in my home town of Newmarket—the old establishments were bombed during the war. I was able to study closely this new telephone exchange and the repeater station they are now building, and also the new post office. The modern improvements which have been made, especially in the matter of through lines for telegraphic purposes on a code basis, are tremendous.

But the postal authorities are always up against this question of capital allocation, and the main reason why I have risen is to speak on this question in its relation to building work. We cannot get many more telephones in many more areas unless we can have more buildings. Now the buildings used for telephone exchanges are very heavy, and a tremendous amount of steel is used in their construction. But there have been many improvements made lately in the building of such places—notably on the Continent—especially in regard to the use of pre-stressed concrete and reinforced concrete. Exchanges in this country, as I have said, are built with a very large amount of steel in the framework, and I suggest that further consideration should be given to these new methods of building with a view to saving steel. Perhaps, if this could be done, a few more exchanges could be allocated. It is vital that we should have more exchanges, because many people coming to this country—and we want to do all that we possibly can to encourage visitors from overseas—make considerable use of the telephone service, and it is essential that the service should make a good impression on them. Moreover, if we are to have increased productivity from our industries, those industries must get the telephones which they need. We must not say that we cannot do these things. We must try to see whether we cannot do better than we are already doing with the material which we have available; we must use it to the best possible advantage in order to get built in the next few years these exchanges which are going to be of such vital importance to this country.

5.44 p.m.


My Lords, really this is a most extraordinary House. There seems to be a fund of information in the possession of noble Lords on all sides. I myself was staggered at some of the facts and figures which some of your Lordships have adduced, and which I thought were confined if not to the cellars at any rate within the portals of the G.P.O. May I, at the outset of my speech, join in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, for bringing this subject before us? I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if in showing my appreciation of the value of this Motion I reward you by speaking at some length. I apologise in advance for that.

If I may, I should like first of all to refer to something which the noble Earl, Lord Lucan, said. He said that it was our duty to educate the people, and I agree with him entirely; there are certainly things which need saying on behalf of the Post Office and the telephone service, and I should like to say them to your Lordships this afternoon. It is always much more fun to attack an "Aunt Sally" than to speak about things we are really doing well. I cannot help feeling that in this country we have cultivated far too much, in a great many spheres, the habit of self-criticism. All of us, I am sure, enjoyed Lord Barnby's speech, although I could not help being a little sorry that much of it was devoted to comparing what is done in other countries with what is done here—to the disadvantage of this country. I particularly regretted that in one passage the noble Lord should have thought it necessary to say certain things that he did about the staff. I cannot help feeling that the noble Lord is very much out of date. Perhaps he has been away, and so does not know very much about the changes which have taken place. I feel strongly that he is out of date in suggesting that our telephone girls are lacking in courtesy. I am not going to contend that you will not find a certain percentage of black sheep in any walk of life, but I do say that if we approach our telephone girls in a courteous manner we get an extremely courteous reply. In saying that, I do not mean to suggest that they are justified in returning discourteous replies even if the public are discourteous to them. If reports were made to the authorities in such cases the girls concerned would certainly be rebuked. I telephone a good deal myself—indeed, I suppose we all do—and I think we shall all agree that the standard of courtesy among our telephone girls at the present time is extremely high.


May I interrupt the noble Earl to say that I coupled lack of efficiency with my reference to discourtesy? What we may expect with regard to courtesy is quite a different matter from the question of efficiency.


It is true that the noble Lord said they were inefficient as well as discourteous. I will deal with that matter in a moment, and I shall be happy to do so.

I do not mind saying that it has been to me a very great experience, joining the Post Office and going round—as I have endeavoured to do—the various Regions. In so doing I have discovered convincing evidence of the amazing keenness of the staff, of their unfailing devotion to the Post Office and of their pride in it. They are really a grand team. Whatever criticisms may be made—and, after all, criticism can be immensely useful to a service—I am sure that your Lordships will wish to join me in paying a tribute to all (the number is well over the 50,000 mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Lucan; in fact it is well over 300,000) the men and women, boys and girls concerned.


I was referring to the staffs of the telephone service.


As I was saying, I am sure your Lordships will wish to join with me in paying a tribute to the men and women, boys and girls, who are serving us in our daily life by helping us to communicate with one another, and on whose behalf I feel that, in some part, I am speaking to-day. I thank the noble Earl, Lord Lucan, particularly for what he said on that subject.

A large number of points have been raised in the debate. First I would refer to this question of charging Government Departments for their telephone calls. The position is that the Post Office does, in fact, give about £24,000,000 worth of free service to Government Departments, of which about £13,000,000 relates to telephone and telegraph service. Never in the history of our organisation has there been any question of our charging Government Departments for postal services, any more than we are charged for the services that other Departments now give to us free. But, as the noble Lord has said, from about 1922 to 1943 Government Departments were charged for their telephone calls. I think your Lordships will be glad to hear that I have been able to persuade the Treasury to undertake to apply a system of charging the Government Departments who are in fact the major users of the service. These will be the Ministry of Defence, the three Service Departments (they are fairly bad "criminals" in this respect), the Ministry of Supply and the Treasury. These Departments account for almost three-quarters of the problem, and by confining this new system for the moment on an experimental basis to these few Departments who are the major users, I think we shall get the best value for the inevitable increase in staff, and we shall be able to see how the system works. I am confident that it will cut down considerably the use of the telephone in Government Departments.

In addition to that, an important and drastic circular has gone round all Departments. I need not worry your Lordships with the details of it, but I assure you that if you saw it you would agree that it is likely to have its effect also. I am convinced that this is the right thing to do, but do not let us delude ourselves into believing that it is going to produce a vast effect. It has been said that one in five telephones belongs to a Government Department. But as these are frequently mere extensions from a Private Branch Exchange, generally carrying twenty or thirty lines, this does not give a really accurate picture. The new arrangement is not going to help us tremendously with the waiting list, because the majority of Government Departments are in the central area of London and use such exchanges as Whitehall, and Abbey, where there are hardly any waiting lists. We are not so badly off for cable and exchange equipment in these areas. Where we should get some relief is in the trunk service. There is no doubt that the Government Departments average longer in their conversations than any other user of the telephone service, and I think the measures we are taking will free some of the busiest trunk lines and help us to improve the service. That in itself is well worth doing.

I come to another point raised by my noble friend Lord Teynham. I noted the words he used: "a substantial profit." Alas! there is no substantial profit. Over the last twenty or thirty years, the tradition has grown up that a Post Office surplus of £10,000,000 is not an excessive contribution from the Post Office to the Treasury. After all, the Post Office do not pay taxes like traders and the general public for services which we receive like all others. I hope your Lordships will not mind if I talk of the Post Office in general terms for the moment, rather than of the telephone service, because we look on our finances as a single whole.

There is a good deal of confusion between commercial and cash accounts in the Post Office, and I propose to deal only with our commercial accounts. On assuming office, what I was faced with was not the question of what to do with a £10,000,000 surplus but the question of how to make good a £2,000,000 deficit which would have arisen had there not been some increase in charges. That compares with the average surplus over the ten years before the war of £11,000,000 and since the war of about £15,000,000. I budgeted for a surplus of between £7,500,000 and £8,000,000, but by April (here I must emphasise that I am dealing with estimates which at the end of the year may be slightly wrong, one way or the other) that surplus had already gone down to £6,250,000. I cannot say what has happened during the last two months, but considerably increased costs have been imposed on us and they are likely to bring that figure down yet further. I venture to say that that is a full answer to the complaints that we are imposing higher charges in spite of the fact that we are making an immense profit. That profit is not there to-day. I give your Lordships the assurance that so long as I am at the Post Office, there is not going to be any excessive surplus. I should be just as critical as anybody else if there were, because I think that if the Post Office was being used as an instrument of taxation, for which it was not designed, it would be most improper.


My Lords, may I interrupt to suggest that the House now adjourn during pleasure for the Royal Commission?

House adjourned during pleasure.

House resumed.