HL Deb 24 November 1953 vol 184 cc437-40

2.38 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows]

To ask Her Majesty's Government since when has it been the practice to insist that a subscriber who has rented a telephone in the London area for a number of years should surrender his individual service and share a party line.]


My Lords, since January, 1948, we have had to ask new and removing residential subscribers to accept the liability to share their telephone lines when necessary, and a great many residential subscribers given service since 1948 have, in fact, shared their lines from the outset. This policy was introduced following a statement in another place by the then Postmaster General. Successive Governments have had to continue this policy because of the shortage of telephone cables, and it has made it possible for us to give telephones to over 300,000 people who would otherwise still be on the waiting list. I dislike this compulsory undertaking, and I can certainly assure the noble Lord that as soon as we are in a position to do so we shall offer subscribers a free choice between exclusive and shared service telephones.


Arising out of that Answer, may I ask the noble Earl whether there is any voluntary consent by the subscribers to sharing? For instance, if somebody has had a telephone (as in a particular case I have in mind), for upwards of five years, and is faced with the alternative of either losing it or going on a party line, that seems rather arbitrary.


Any residential subscriber who has been given a telephone since January, 1948, has signed an agreement expressing his willingness to accept shared service, if it is necessary. There are, in addition, a number of subscribers who have voluntarily accepted shared service. This applies, of course, to those who had a telephone before January, 1948.


Will the noble Earl explain how the charges for calls that are not individually registered are divided between the two sharers of the line?


My Lords, for the last two years we have been working on an individual metering basis by which the local calls are metered separately. At a few of the older exchanges the equipment that was put in before 1948–49 still remains, and in such a case there has to be an agreement between the sharers; but we are rapidly putting in new equipment and eliminating that situation.


The Postmaster General is no doubt aware that, especially in the country, the division of charges does present a difficulty. In the event of default of payment, which tenant does he sue?


Arising out of the Question, is it not the case that buyers of premises equipped with Post Office telephones do not notify the Post Office, and that very often where the seller does not notify the Post Office the new occupier continues to enjoy the service for a long period; whereas when the Post Office are notified, they immediately have the telephone removed? Is there not a lurking injustice in this situation, and would it not be as well to remedy it as soon as possible?


In reply to the question of the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, I will answer him in the words of his old House: "I should like notice of that question." With regard to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, I have been looking into the whole situation and the noble Lord will find, in fact, that it is very seldom now that a telephone is removed from existing premises.


May I ask the noble Earl whether this system is operated in any other country?


Yes. I think that the shared system in this country affects about 24 per cent. of the residential subscribers, or 18 per cent. of the total number of subscribers. In America, under the Bell system, it affects about 70 per cent. of the subscribers, of which nearly 30 per cent. are actually on a four-party line basis.


My Lords, is it not a fact—as I think the Postmaster General will find when he comes to look up the matter—that either subscriber is responsible for the whole of the claim?


My Lords, I repeat that I must look into that matter. The noble and learned Earl is a very good lawyer. I am sure that is probably so, if he says so.


My Lords, it is the intention, I take it, that ultimately each subscriber shall have a telephone of his own. Can the noble Earl say when the waiting list will be exhausted?


We are making some headway now in the reduction of the waiting list. When this Government came into office, the waiting list numbered about 480,000; it is now down to just under 380,000. I am glad to say that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has undertaken to treat my Department very well from now onwards, and I hope that we shall now be able progressively to reduce the waiting list. No doubt there will be certain areas where, due to shortage of underground cable, it will take some time to put in new cable. In such places we have either to say to a considerable number of people, "We cannot give you a telephone at all," or "You must share this cable." I am afraid that it may be a number of years before we can overtake that backlog of work, so that we can do away completely with the shared service. However, I can assure noble Lords that my statement at the end of my original Answer, that I thoroughly dislike this system, as we all must, is genuine, and as soon as we can we shall certainly get rid of it. In the meantime, I have tried to help the situation a little by giving some greater financial benefit to those who are compelled to have a shared line. We have increased the margin between the rental for the exclusive line and that for the shared line.


May I ask the noble Earl whether it is possible for a single subscriber to be on a two-party line without his knowledge?


No; it is quite impossible.