HL Deb 01 February 1961 vol 228 cc206-30

3.47 pm.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, the comments which I propose to make in this debate (I shall be very brief) will be based entirely on the Paper which I hold in my hand, which is called Post Office Capital Expenditure, 1960–61, Cmnd. 973. One thing which I am pleased to see in this Paper is that there has been some slight increase in the amount of capital expenditure incurred by the Post Office. But when I say that the increase has been slight, I should like to emphasise that that is what I really mean, because it has risen from £94 million in 1956–57 to £97 million in 1960–61, and there has been a good deal of wobbling about in between those two figures. I do not call that a very big increase, and it does not seem to me to bear any kind of relation (as, indeed, other noble Lords have said) to the profits which the service has made during that time.

Then, when I read further down this document, there was one comment that shocked me profoundly. That was where it speaks of the fact that repairs and changes could be done more quickly than they were, and says: Orders will be completed more quickly but this may stimulate fresh demands for service. That is said as if it were a thing to be rather frightened of and rather deplored. Surely, that is a thing to be really pleased about. If your service is so good that you have more demands upon it, so long as you have a paying service you should be delighted. That is what any normal business firm wants, but that is not what the Treasury, who still, apparently, control the Post Office, want.

Then one can have no ground for much complacency, because, although orders are being cleared more quickly than they were, there are still some 48,000 people who want telephones. I admit that last year there were 68,000, and that a 20,000 reduction is something to be quite satisfied with: yet it is nothing to be very pleased and gratified about if there are still 48,000 waiting for a telephone. And supposing that the demands go up, I take it that we shall be back again to 68,000. At least, there is nothing, to make me think that that will not be the case.

Further, one wonders sometimes, although one must be extremely pleased with the way that all this modernisation of the service is going on—the extension of the dialling system and the other advances mentioned by both the noble Lord, Lord Crook, and the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr—whether the customer, the person wanting the telephone, is not being left rather behind in all these modernisation achievements to-day. Because, after all, the telephone service is for people who want a telephone. It seems to me no great consolation to the people who have not got a telephone to be told that there is a dialling system to-day where you can dial trunk calls direct. I wonder whether the emphasis is not a little on the wrong thing.

Another point which struck me in the statement was this: that apparently some 40,000 people are waiting for telephones because the lines are not available. I take it that that means there are not enough cables available. I would ask, why is that? Is it because of a lack of staff, or of the engineers making the cables, or a lack of raw materials, or what? It seems to me a serious state of affairs; that we have 40,000 willing customers for a telephone yet cannot get it because there is a lack of cable. That is the situation which one finds to-day.

Perhaps I may be permitted here just to give an illustration of one of my own personal experiences. In the part of London where I live, my telephone goes wrong about a couple of times a year. I would not say any more than that, but certainly twice a year it goes out of order. I must say that the Post Office repair it quite quickly: they are very nice about it. But they tell me that the cables are worn out; that they are no longer properly insulated. So these breakdowns occur. There again, if the Post Office is going to get a Trunk Dialling System going, is it not better to have proper and efficient cables instead of cables which go wrong all the time?

There is one case in point which occurred, I think, last summer. One Sunday there was a very heavy thunderstorm about lunchtime which lasted for about a couple of hours. When we "came round" from it, the entire neighbourhood where I live found themselves without telephones. That extended over to the Monday, the Tuesday, and the Wednesday. Then suddenly I remembered—due to some of my experiences as an old-time civil servant—that the only thing to do was to telephone the Minister's private secretary. I did that and I got my telephone back that evening. My next-door neighbour is a busy general practitioner: he did the same thing and got his telephone back in the same way; but the rest of our neighbours waited a day or two longer. I should think that if they can get one or two telephones restored, surely they can get them all restored. Otherwise, something is very wrong with the system generally.

There is another occasion I remember, about some two years ago. I wished to have one of my telephones moved from one end of the room to the other, which meant that a new length of telephone wire—not cable but telephone wire—had to be put in. The Post Office told me that it would take at least four months. I may say that perhaps that was a good thing, because by the time the four months came round I had forgotten why I wanted it moved, and it was not moved. It seems to me absurd that one should have to wait four months to get a telephone moved from one end of a room to the other.

Here is another example of a peculiar practice which I found existing in the Autumn of 1958. I have inherited, in Kent, a house where the telephone was in the name of a deceased relative. I had a considerable amount of correspondence with the Post Office with a new contract. I thought that there was nothing to do, and that they would put my name in the telephone book in due course, because I had signed a contract. But not at all. When the new book came out last year, my aunt's name was still in the book. I rang up and told them about it, and they said that they were not told to change the name; that another new book would not be coming out until 1962, so that had no chance of getting my name into the book until then. That makes it quite uncomfortable for me now, when the name of somebody who died five years ago is still in the telephone book, after I have had correspondence with the Post Office and signed contracts for a new telephone. Yet no one seems to trouble about that. It is that kind of thing which I find very trying indeed about the telephone service. I have no complaint to make about the men who carry out the work; they are first-class and work quickly and efficiently. The service is a good service in all sorts of ways, but it could be better, and I trust that this debate which the noble Lord, Lord Crook, has instigated will do something to relieve the position.

3.55 p.m.


My Lords, I think your Lordships will agree that we have had so far a most interesting debate on the telephone service. Indeed, to my recollection it is the most interesting debate I have listened to since the war. We are all grateful to my noble friend Lord Crook for making this debate possible, and for his extremely balanced and well-informed speech on a very complicated and difficult subject, as anyone who has had anything to do with the Post Office would agree.

I think this debate has shown one thing quite clearly. This question of the telephone service, which is of very considerable public importance, is not the sort of matter that catches the headlines of the Press, but it is a subject with which your Lordships' House is peculiarly suited to deal. We have more time and leisure than the other place, and we are exceptionally well placed to deal with a subject of this kind. But I should like to ask the Government one question in this connection. It is the policy of the Government—indeed, legislative effect has been given to this policy—to have more junior Ministers and fewer Lords in Waiting. It is no reflection on the noble Lord, Lord St. Oswald: I am certainly looking forward to hearing from him a well-informed and extremely skilful speech. But he will agree with me that he cannot speak with the same authority as a Minister in the Department for which he is gallantly acting as spokesman on the Front Bench opposite. What I hope the Government will consider when they implement this policy, which seems to be finding favour amongst ex-Lords in Waiting, is that consideration may be given to allowing us to have the Assistant Postmaster General in this House when the Postmaster General is a Member of another place. We have had no direct representative of the Post Office—no Minister—in this House since the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr; and that was some time ago, because it was before I went abroad. I hope that that is a matter to which the Government will give consideration, because I am sure that it would give us the opportunity and the stimulus for further debates of this kind.

I am sure that all speakers in this debate were anxious to acknowledge the qualities of the people who work in the telephone service itself—the Post Office engineers, the research scientists, and the very large personnel engaged in its work. Whatever criticisms may have been made of the telephone service, they were not criticisms of the people who operate it. I think, if I may say so, that the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, rather misunderstood what my noble friend Lord Crook said on this subject. I was so struck by one sentence in his speech that I made a note of it; perhaps I may quote it to your Lordships, in order to show that what I think my noble friend was saying was that the blame for the defects in the telephone service should be laid at the door of the Treasury, not at the door of the Post Office. The sentence in his speech which I noted down was this: The only trouble with the telephone service is top control coming from the Treasury. I hope that I have quoted my noble friend correctly.

Now, my Lords, I think this is a point which is worth emphasising. My noble friend said that the telephone service in this country is backward—and this is a statement of fact with which I think everyone will agree—as compared with the telephone service in a number of other industrial countries; or, indeed, as compared with the telephone service in some of the smaller European countries, such as Denmark, Norway, or Switzerland. He said—and again I agree with him, though this is not a question of fact but of opinion—that the main reason for our backwardness is not any technical failure, because we have an admirable telephone equipment, an excellent manufacturing industry, and certainly no lack of demand (because everyone who has no telephone and can afford one is clamouring for one, and everyone who shares a line wants one of his own), but the fact that we have failed to put sufficient capital into the manufacture of telephone equipment.

What is the reason for this? Surely it is that we have been unable to ensure for the Post Office the normal programme of capital development that any big business enterprise would have. And, after all, the Post Office is a business enterprise rather than a Government Department, and should be looked at in that way. When the Government want to damp down capital investment as a matter of public policy, the first victims for cuts are always those who are under Treasury control; and it is really most unfair (I thought that my noble friend Lord Attlee made this point with great force) that capital should be allocated in this way and that the capital development of the telephone service should depend on the vagaries of the national balance of payments. It is impossible to develop any business in this way; but, in fact, this is exactly what happens. And we should not forget, in talking of capital development in the Post Office, that 90 per cent. of this is on the telephone service, so that in speaking of capital development we are really thinking of the telephone service.

As my noble friend Lord Crook pointed out, there has been this extraordinary fluctuation over the past five years in the number of new telephones, reflecting the changes in capital investment, ranging from 135,000 to 396,000 new telephones per annum. What is needed is a plan for sufficient capital expenditure for steady expansion over a definite period of years. My noble friend Lord Crook is thinking of three years and perhaps that is as far as we can aim.

For myself I should have thought that a longer period would be even more desirable, but it may not be practicable. The Post Office Engineering Union, which of course has a very good knowledge of this problem, has proposed that there should be a five-year plan to increase the number of new telephones from 8 million to 10 million, at a rate of expansion of 5 per cent. per annum, which happens to be about double the present rate, which is only 2½ per cent. I must say that even that, in relation to demand, seems to me a not unworkable and not unattainable target; but whether that is a practicable target is not a matter about which I am able to form an opinion. I give this merely as the view of a responsible body which knows a good deal about this problem.

But what I am quite certain about is that any steady capital development, on which the telephone service of this country depends, is impossible unless the Post Office is given a greater measure of commercial freedom and is not bound tightly, as it is at present, to Treasury policy expressing the economic policy of the Government. Therefore, what I think we may legitimately ask the noble Lord who is to reply for the Government to say is how much more commercial freedom the Post Office will be given. I am glad that it is the policy of the Government to give the Post Office more commercial freedom, and that this policy has already been put into a Bill. But how far will this freedom go? Will it be limited to recurrent expenditure and revenue, or will it apply in some measure to capital investment as well?

The crux of the matter is whether the Post Office will be free to make firm plans for capital development over a period of years. It must be able to plan this capital development without fear of drastic cuts. I know that it is undesirable to cut the telephone service away from other services of the Post Office and hand it over to private enterprise. Private enterprise has done well in certain countries, but I do not think that it would be suitable here. But I would ask the noble Lord how far the Government are prepared to go to give the Post Office at least as much freedom as other nationalised industries, because this is the most important thing from the point of view of business efficiency and of a better and more efficient telephone service.

4.6 p.m.


My Lords, I can say with confidence and sincerity not only that your Lordships' House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Crook, for launching this debate, but also that although this may not be the easiest time for a Government spokesman to answer a debate on the telephone service, the moment is apposite from almost every other point of view and therefore we can welcome it. There is scope at this moment for a progress report on the telephone service; there is material for such a report, and I hope to show your Lordships that most of that material is encouraging. The noble Lord, Lord Crook, was good enough, as he said, to warn me that he would be critical, and even informed me of the lines along which he would advance his criticisms. Other noble Lords have added theirs, including the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. I will attempt to answer or reassure as many critics as possible and will certainly write to noble Lords regarding any other criticisms that I may omit, either from lack of time or of immediate information.

At the same time, I am grateful for the fact that not all has been criticism; and on behalf of the Post Office I would thank particularly my noble friends Lord De La Warr and Lord Amulree and, of course, the noble Lord, Lord Crook, for some of the kindly remarks made. I shall try not to base my answer on only the best examples. Indeed, I hope that my method of selection will meet with the noble Lord's full approval. There is little or no difference between us as to the touchstones of an efficient telephone service. Fourteen months ago in another place, in opening his maiden speech for the Post Office, my right honourable friend said that the customer judges the Post Office not by speeches and statements of policy but by the time it takes to buy a postal order or to get through to the operator. Or one might add, by the time it takes to acquire a telephone with which to get through to the operator and the time it takes to get through to another subscriber. People who require telephones and are ready to pay for them are people who want to communicate with others without delay, and speed is of the essence. Delay is the principal target of criticism and the most general. Complete failure and frustration due to breakdowns is a great deal rarer.

Possibly I should announce in opening that what I shall not try to do is to persuade noble Lords that all their criticisms are imagined and that the telephone service to-day (I emphasise to-day) is exactly what we should wish it to be. That would be a great injustice to the directors and to the whole staff of the Post Office, who set themselves a higher standard than anyone else outside when it comes to the service they wish to give to the public. I shall try to persuade your Lordships that grievances come mainly from the aggrieved and that in large parts of the country telephone subscribers are perfectly satisfied with the service that they are getting.

I shall try to convince you that improvements are on their way and that it is better, as the Government believe, to aim at an entirely new and satisfactory service in ten years' time than to put off that day by temporary, costly and already out-of-date adjustments to the old model. I shall also seek to persuade the noble Lord and the House that in many respects, in comparison to other countries, we are not so unfavourably served as the noble Lord supposes and would have us suppose. Finally, and far more daringly, I shall submit that some of the admitted shortcomings of the telephone service to-day are owed partly to the character inherent in, or at least endemic to, the average British telephone subscriber.

First of all, since the Motion for this debate is based on the White Paper on Post Office Capital Expenditure, I should give as a background the general financial considerations which govern the service as it is and our future plans for it. No one is more anxious to develop the telephone service quickly than the Postmaster General and the directors of the Post Office, but the pace of that development is largely a matter of the capital investment which can be made available. Forming, as it does, part of the total investment for the public sector, this has to be, in our view, subject to Government control, together with many other important services, such as roads, hospitals and electricity. It will continue to be subject to this control, and policy on public investment must take into account both the aim of expansion and the balance between demand and reserves. For this reason, much as a guaranteed level of investment for, say, three or five years ahead would help the Post Office planning, there are definite difficulties in this for any Government, when so many factors can affect the economic situation over such a term.

We are well aware of the difficulties which uncertainty in investment imposes on the Post Office, and we seek to minimise them. Each summer proposals for Post Office capital investment, as well as those for other parts of the public sector, are considered and a figure proposed for the following year. If the national finances permit, at a later date the approved figure may be increased. This happened in the summer of last year, when the capital investment ceiling for 1960–61 was raised from £92 million to £94 million. Apart from this, the Post Office ploughs back a considerable proportion of its income into the business. Recent performance suggests that in future about two-thirds of the requirements of capital can be provided in this way, leaving only about one-third to be borrowed.

The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, asked principally about commercial freedom and mentioned the White Paper on the Post Office status. As we are slightly inhibited in a discussion of that subject, as the noble Lord, Lord Crook, agreed, because it is at present passing through another place and will one day reach us. I think the most I can say on this occasion is to quote from the described purpose of the Bill in this respect: Treasury responsibility for the Post Office would cease, except in so far as its activities affect the national economy generally, or where Post Office staff as part of the whole Civil Service are concerned. In practice this would mean that Treasury control over the Post Office would be restricted to three things—

  1. (a) Pay, grading and conditions of service of staff;
  2. (b) Investment control, including control of borrowing for the purpose of financing it (as for the public sector generally);
  3. (c) Foreign exchange control.
Some months ago, the Treasury made a study of the extent to which public investment could be varied without serious distortion in the interest of employment policy. The conclusion was that it is not sensible to try to vary public sector investment more than marginally in any one year; that is to say, by from 2 to 3 per cent. In the case of the Post Office there is some scope for varying, at fairly short notice, our capital expenditure on the provision of local cables and installing subscribers' telephones. Much of the expenditure arises, however, from long-term projects already in hand as a result of decisions in previous years and cannot be varied appreciably at short notice. I can give noble Lords details of capital investment in recent years and that proposed in 1960–61 and 1961–62, but I would suppose that only the total figures are desired at the moment.

The approved level of total Post Office investment in 1960–61 was fixed in July, 1959, at £90.6 million (at 1958 prices—equivalent to £92.1 million at March, 1960, prices), but in September, 1960, in view of the buoyant demand for telephone service, the ceiling was raised to £94 million (at March, 1960, prices) and expenditure of £96 million for 1961–62 and a minimum expenditure of £100 million for 1962–63 has now been approved. These are, it seems to me, substantial figures, but a massive effort is required.

Already the telephone service is expanding at a record rate, and the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, is, I can assure him, quite mistaken in supposing that we take a sad view of this. I assure him that he misread the tone of that public statement to which he referred. There has been an upsurge of orders for new telephones, and more calls, especially trunk calls, are being made than ever before; and this gives us great delight. This expanding demand must be met at the same time as a huge modernisation programme, and the problems of carrying out both tasks at the same time will be clear to all noble Lords. All the same, achievements in meeting this demand have been rather more impressive than Lord Crook suggested. Lord Crook's figure of 135,272 for telephones connected in 1958 is accurate; but 1958 was, in all fairness, a freak year, the year of the "squeeze", and last year's figure of over 450,000, an increase of 13 per cent. over the previous year, is a notable improvement on the 2.3 per cent. given by the noble Lord, and is far more indicative of current aims and, I am confident, of coming achievements and trends.

Every effort is being made to prevent the number of those waiting for new exchanges or more cables (at present about 50,000) from rising, and to limit the waiting period to twelve months. The aim is to complete straightforward cases in a few weeks. Fewer and fewer people are now being obliged to share their telephones. Some 75 per cent. of the telephones supplied to residential subscribers in the past year were exclusive lines. It may be of some interest to your Lordships to know that out of the approximately 1 million telephone sharers in the country 700,000 are perfectly content with their condition, 20 per cent, or 200,000, are actively unhappy, and the remaining 10 per cent. do not mind particularly, but if given the choice would presumably choose an exclusive line.

What is equally important, as noble Lords have pointed out, is that improvement in service should accompany this, and there are many who are dissatisfied with the service as it stands. I should be doing small service to the Post Office if I pretended that all complaints were groundless, but I have proved in my own circle of friends and in my own personal experience that they can be exaggerated. That is almost inevitable. Men who use telephones frequently are busy men to whom minutes and seconds are important. For them, in fact I may say for us, the irritation caused by delay in getting through on a telephone is equalled only, perhaps, by that occasioned by a lackadaisical or indifferent taxi-driver, rara avis, happily, in this city.

Some weeks before this debate, I sat at lunch with three friends, one the head of a leading public relations firm, another the city editor of a national newspaper, and the other the London director of a development corporation in the Commonwealth. With almost embarrassing gusto they were ready to relate their own telephone experiences. All declared with great positiveness, that more than half the local calls they dialled failed to get through, due to a technical fault in the system; that they were rather surprised when they got through at the first attempt. I took note and investi- gated the three London telephone exchanges concerned. I discovered that unless the three particular connections complained of were uniquely and catastrophically bad, compared to the recorded behaviour of their respective exchanges, then the Munchhausen who lurks in all of us had joined us at that convivial lunch.

No doubt every noble Lord in the House to-day can relate frustrating incidents of his own and, indeed, one or two have done so. The noble Earl, Lord Gainsborough, mentioned waiting five minutes in order to get through to an operator. But your Lordships, being unselfish by nature and by definition, will be chiefly interested to know what your average compatriot suffers from the present state of affairs. In the year ended September, 1960, the average subscriber had to wait 8.6 seconds for the operator to answer an average call. His failure to connect at all varied, according to the type of exchange he was on; but, taking the worst type—that is, the director exchange—his failures attributable to the Post Office would have been less than three in every hundred calls he made. We aim to cut the waiting time down to five seconds.

The quality of service at present varies about the country, and the bad figures are confined to definite areas. In London, the Home Counties, the Midlands and North East England, we are far from satisfied with the service given at present. This is a passing state of affairs with rational causes—causes which are paradoxically encouraging in themselves. The rate of growth in telephone traffic in these areas over the past two or three years has been generally double the normal rate of growth, and most marked of all in South East England. This has overloaded the system generally, and in many places has produced staff shortages. In London we are about 10 per cent. under strength, and while we have endeavoured to spread the shortfall, some exchanges, mainly those in the centre of London are seriously affected by the inexperience of the staff. An intensive advertising campaign has been in progress for some time, but even so, it is proving extremely difficult to recruit sufficient people to balance wastage, let alone to provide for additional work. Some relief has been achieved by borrowing staff from provincial exchanges and by recruiting in some cases as far afield as Yorkshire for work in London. I shall return again to the question of staff raised by the noble Lord, Lord Crook.

By way of securing more intimate statistics, I looked up case histories of three private subscribers' numbers: Wallington 2620, Knightsbridge 7716 and Crofton 394. For my purposes they differed conveniently in their facilities. Wallington has a large and up-to-date manual exchange, Knightsbridge a large automatic exchange, and Crofton a small and old-fashioned automatic exchange. I looked at their experience of local calls, of short-distance trunk calls, and other trunk calls, and of faults requiring engineer's attention. The reports I received were as follows: against the national average time to answer of 8 seconds by day and 10 in the evening, Wallington's report said: Service slightly better than in other London exchanges but not entirely satisfactory. Time to answer 9 seconds by day and evening. Last reported fault was on the 25th of February 1960". The Knightsbridge report said: Time to answer 15 to 20 seconds. The Crofton report said: Time to answer has been over 12 seconds, but has improved a little recently. Four to 5 per cent. of calls fail due to plant faults. Equipment is old and of an obsolescent type. Several faults reported in last year. Installation is to be overhauled". The noble Lord, Lord Crook, will have recognised the first of these numbers as his own, and will no doubt have guessed that the other two are mine. I was somewhat relieved to find that his service compares favourably to mine, and so do his prospects. Wallington exchange is likely to be changed to automatic by 1966 with the introduction of S.T.D.; Knightsbridge will have S.T.D. in 1962; but Crofton 394, although it will benefit by the replacement of plant in Wakefield in 1966, will have to wait until 1970 for S.T.D.

The telephone instrument, with its bell, dial and cord, is made up from some 200 pieces. It has almost the complexity of a radio set, but in most houses is liable to considerably rougher treatment. The open wire, where it is in use, is subject to the elements. Poles, pillars and cabinets are liable to be damaged in traffic accidents. Underground cables can suffer from excavations of other contractors, and by entry of water through corroded cable sheaths. The equipment in the exchange is precision equipment. The large exchanges, such as those which I have tramped over during the last few weeks, contains several miles of internal cable and millions of soldered connections. The thousand switches, which are the heart of such an exchange, have about 250 pieces each. Failure of any element in all this can cause a call to fail. None the less, to-day it is extremely rare for an exchange to become completely out of order. During the war we lost some exchanges through bombing, but in peace time only the small automatic exchanges in isolated parts of the country are likely to be affected, and this only exceptionally.

Our telephone service has been compared unfavourably to that of other countries. In certain respects, that is true. In other respects, it is the envy of other countries. My noble friend Lord De La Warr has already made the point of the cheapness of the service. Local call areas are, for instance, larger than in any country, and, of course, with the introduction of S.T.D. the whole country, including Northern Ireland, will become a local call area. I shall have, naturally, a little more to say on Subscriber Trunk Dialling. Also we have a far more generous provision of telephone kiosks than in any other country. The position of the lack of telephone kiosks in particular areas, drawn attention to by the noble Earl, Lord Gainsborough, is something that has not been brought to my attention before. So far as I know, telephone kiosks are being provided at the same rate as formerly, but I will definitely look into any given case.

The two countries most usually cited as being better served than ourselves are Switzerland and Western Germany. It might be fairer to compare London and Switzerland, rather than Britain and Switzerland. There are 1½ million telephones in Switzerland compared to 1¼ million in the City and County of London. The Swiss telephone service is completely automatic, and so is London's, where most of the subscribers were able to dial each other even before the war, a state of affairs which the Swiss have reached only in very recent years. In Switzerland, there are 30 telephones per 100 of the population: in London. there are 39.

Our system is more closely comparable to that of Western Germany, the areas and population served being almost the same. There are 8 million telephones here, compared with 5½ million in Western Germany; 15 per cent. of the population compared with 10 per cent. possessing telephones. In Germany, it is true that 99 per cent. of the telephones are automatic, compared with 82 per cent. here, and the Germans are also better provided with S.T.D. There is a factor here which affects the whole of our industrial comparisons with Western Germany. The Western Germany telephone system was almost completely destroyed by war-time bombing, and when reconstruction was started the most modern equipment was naturally installed. Before the war, our intention was to have 100 per cent. automatic exchanges by 1945, but due to the war many manual exchanges have had to be retained far longer than was intended. There is another respect in which we have a certain advantage. A telephone call from London to Switzerland or Western Germany costs 10s. for three minutes. A similar call from Western Germany to London costs 11s. 5d., and from Switzerland 12s. 7d. The same discrepancy in telephoning between London and Rome is 13s. 7d., and between London and Moscow 12s. 11d.

The Post Office participates, of course, in the work of the International Telecommunication Union and its consultative committees. There are also progress visits of technical and administrative personnel to and from other countries. In recent years, visits of Post Office teams from the United Kingdom have been made to Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Holland and France to examine the operation of their telephone systems with a view to improving the efficiency of our own and to reducing our costs. A visit was made to America in 1958 to study operating methods, and this has produced valuable results, particularly in regard to training and supervision.

Many forms of development have been mentioned by noble Lords. Perhaps the most interesting and immediate is Subscriber Trunk Dialling, for which there is a very important reason for our being somewhat behind other countries. As my noble friend Lord De La Warr has explained, in the first ten years after the war the Post Office had to devote its main efforts to overtaking arrears of basic plant and to catching up with the backlog and meeting the rising new demand for telephones. All Governments since the war have considered that that was the right way to set about it, and I am quite certain of that myself.

None the less, ever since the war the Post Office has been looking to the future, undertaking an ambitious programme of expanding the network of long-distance trunk cables and installing automatic trunk exchanges in the largest towns. All this prepared the way for more extensive mechanisation, and the first Subscriber Trunk Dialling exchange was opened by Her Majesty the Queen at Bristol in September, 1958. The noble Lord, Lord Crook, has referred to the results. I have slightly different but corroborative figures. The immediate result for the people of Bristol was that trunk calls to places they could dial went up by 40 per cent., and have since increased to more than 60 per cent., above the number before the introduction of Subscriber Trunk Dialling.

Since the Royal opening at Bristol, work at other centres has been pushed ahead. All the places mentioned in the 1957 and 1958 White Papers which outlined the new plan now have Subscriber Trunk Dialling, or will have it very soon. Other important centres not mentioned at the time, like Rugby and Bolton, already have the new service. But this is only a start. Subscriber Trunk Dialling equipment is now being installed or manufactured for no fewer than 600 exchanges. By March, 1962, just over a year hence, about 300 of these installations, serving 1¼ million subscribers, or one quarter of the total in the country, should have been brought into service. This also confirms the noble Lord's hopeful figure. In another year the proportion of subscribers with Subscriber Trunk Dialling will have risen to 40 per cent., and by 1966 to 70 per cent.

By 1970 the Post Office confidently expects over 90 per cent. of all lines in the country to have Subscriber Trunk Dialling. The centres that will have Subscriber Trunk Dialling this year include many of the principal cities, such as London, Edinburgh, Belfast, Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester. In London and five of the largest centres a new type of electronic equipment, using magnetic drums, will be installed—the first of its kind in the world. Last Wednesday, Peterborough joined the centres on Subscriber Trunk Dialling and next Tuesday Skipton will be added to the list. It seems clear from these facts, my Lords, that although the Post Office may not have been able to start its plans for mechanising the trunk service as soon as it would have liked, it is now taking great strides.

There is another aspect to this matter. While it is satisfying to be first in the field, I think that most noble Lords would agree that it is most important to have the best system. And from what I know of the British Subscriber Telephone Dialling system it is second to none in the world. For example, in many countries, including America, dialled trunk calls are no cheaper than calls made through the operator, and they are subject to a three-minute minimum charge. In the British system all dialled calls are charged in 2d. units, according to their duration, and short-duration calls can therefore be made very cheaply indeed. Even if you speak for three minutes, most calls are cheaper. The system of dialling codes used for trunk calls is simple and easy for subscribers to remember. In addition, the plans include a new coin box which is designed to give the benefits of a quicker and cheaper trunk-dialling service to the general public, as well as to telephone subscribers, and eventually these will be installed in all public telephone boxes in Subscriber Trunk Dialling areas.

Noble Lords have mentioned a number of specific matters in connection with the service, and I will try to deal with some of them very briefly, in view of the hour. The noble Lord, Lord Crook, mentioned staffing policy. The size of the engineering force—that is to say, workmen engaged on laying and jointing cables, fitting subscribers' telephones, installing equipment in telephone exchanges and on maintenance—required to maintain the telephone service to subscribers, is largely dependent upon the amount of capital investment made available. Ideally, many of the Post Office's problems—for example recruiting and training, associated with keeping this force up to strength—would undoubtedly be eased, as the noble Lord suggested, if a guaranteed level of investment several years ahead were possible. A certain amount of flexibility in the deployment of the force can, however, be achieved by switching people from one job to another.

In short, because of the size of the system, and because not all the engineering staff are employed on capital works—many of them are on maintenance duties—the effect of variations can be softened. Recently a thousand additional engineers have been engaged in the London area. One problem is the unusual wastage. Many girls having been trained by the Post Office almost immediately leave for jobs in hotels or large office buildings where the hours are less onerous. A shorter working week and new conditions of service which should help to make the Post Office telephonist's job more attractive are under discussion with the staff associations, and it may be possible to introduce them soon. There has been, as noble Lords remember, a "go-slow" move at the Mayfair exchange last year, but, I think, there has been no repetition of that at any exchange since then.

Direct inward dialling has been referred to, and this facility, which as the noble Lord, Lord Crook, said, enables calls from outside to be dialled to a firm's number and then straight through to the extension telephone without any help from a private switchboard operator, is an attractive one, but it involves complex technical problems. A number of schemes of this kind are in use on Post Office-owned installations, and the experience gained there has helped in planning the first non-Post Office project of this kind, at London Airport, which should be working in two years time. Meanwhile, the Post Office is actively studying the possibilities of its wider application.

Telephone service to trains was referred to. Trials of a telephone service to trains have been carried out in South Lancashire using the car radiophone stations. The results were in general good, at least equal to the quality of service from cars, but certain difficulties were experienced when trains were passing through tunnels. The provisions of public radio-telephones in trains is technically feasible, but the establishment of a satisfactory service would be very costly. There is not enough evidence of public demand at present to justify expenditure on such a service.

The ship-to-shore services have been mentioned. The facilities provided in the Post Office ship-to-shore telephone service are being extended. The V.H.F. ship-to-shore radio-telephone service is being introduced in two stages. The first stage, the equipping of Humber, North Foreland, Niton and Land's End radio stations, has already been completed. The provision, timing and scope of the second stage will depend on the demand for service. However, because it is known that many ships sailing from the Mersey are extensively fitted with V.H.F. radio equipment, the Post Office is considering equipping Anglesey in advance of the second stage. Until last year, passengers on deep-sea ships could obtain radio-telephone service only over the long-distance high-frequency circuits. They can now obtain medium-frequency service via coast stations at Anglesey, Land's End, Niton and North Foreland when they are within 250 miles of the United Kingdom. Further expansion will also depend on the demand for this type of service.

The noble Lord, Lord Crook, and others were interested in electronic exchanges, and I am happy to tell them that no limitation has been placed on research for electronic exchanges because of shortage of capital investment. The Post Office and the five principal manufacturers referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Crook—who because of their vast experience in research are able to make a unique contribution to this—have together made substantial progress. High-gate Wood was always regarded as an experimental exchange and was not expected to be economic. The number of possible electronic techniques that can be used to perform various functions required is large, and it was deliberately decided to employ different techniques in different functional sections of the exchange in order that their merits could be compared from all points of view—for example, economy, reliability and ease of maintenance. The ultimate aim is an economic standard electronic exchange.

The noble Lord has asked: where do we stand now? From the lessons already learnt from the model, and from the production of equipment, this sort of work is proceeding at high pressure to produce improved designs, so that British industry will retain its position in the forefront of telecommunication development and be able to offer in the world markets electronic exchanges which will be fully competitive with those of any other manufacturers. Your Lordships will not overlook the fact of the leading part that the Post Office has played in the use of electronic techniques to perform some of the more complex operations in association with traditional automatic equipment. For example, electronic "directors" to steer calls through the complex London network have been working at Richmond Exchange since 1952. The equipment for S.T.D. at Bristol, installed in 1958, is controlled exclusively by cold cathode electronic equipment, and more than 40 units of electronic equipment, embodying magnetic drums, for controlling the S.T.D. service from London and the largest provincial cities are now in production.

It is clear that those who have spoken in this debate insist upon such development, not simply for export, and will make the fullest use of it when it is perfected. But one of the problems besetting development generally is the comparative lack of enthusiasm among the normal telephone subscribers in this country for anything new. It may come as something of a surprise to your Lordships to learn that the average residential telephone user makes less than one call a day on his telephone, though the average for business and residential subscribers together is 530 a year. That is still less than one and a half calls a day. The comparative number in Japan is 2,000; in Sweden, Canada and the United States it is between 1,000 and 2,000. We have to stimulate the calling rate. The recent lowering of cheap trunk rate at night time and its extension to all day on Sunday, and the lowering of the cost of local calls from 3d. to 2.d. have all had this objective. Until that objective is achieved, it is rather as if every railway traveller in the country insisted upon having, a permanent seat reserved for him and used it only a few days in the year.

The Post Office, in conjunction with London University, has recently started a joint research programme into the sociology of telephone usage. But the march of progress is not urged on by all subscribers. At Hemsworth, three miles away from my own home, the manual exchange is about to become automatic, and the newspapers have recorded dismay rather than self-congratulation in the village. Under the headline "Hemsworth will miss its Hullo girls" one paper claims: Hemsworth's switchboard is Hemsworth. Few telephone users in the area do not automatically regard the girl at the other end of the line as a sort of institutional friend and helper. People will have to fend for themselves instead of asking the girl to put them through to the butcher. One man in the neighbourhood has already asked whether, since he will have to work the dial himself, he will get a rebate on his rental. Another paper, under the headline "Goodbye to a jolly Hello", records the opinion of the deputy clerk to the urban district council: I have been using the exchange for 26 years and for my money it is the best in the country. In order to impress your Lordships with the innate conservatism of our countrymen I might mention that Hemsworth has the largest Labour majority in the entire country. It was maintained by my good friend Mr. Horace Holmes for many years, reaching the point of 38,000.

Despite this sentimental and in some ways endearing attachment for the obsolescent. I am sure that automation will be welcomed, as we have proved, when it becomes familiar. Already the telephone service is expanding at a record rate, both in the demand for telephones and in the number of calls, particularly trunk calls. This demand, however, has come before the current programme of mechanisation has hit its stride, and before it has given effective relief to telephone operators. The short-term result has been, inevitably, delay in providing telephones and, in some places, delay in answering calls, this being due to people becoming more telephone-minded. That, to us, is entirely encouraging.

It is a very different situation from that which confronted the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, during his period of office at St. Martin's. He has already recorded that he found it necessary at that time to appoint a firm of consultants, Messrs. Whitehead & Staff, to investigate and make recommendations in the matter of popularising the telephone. Most of these recommendations were, as he said, accepted and introduced. It may be the long-term result of the noble Earl's action which is posing us part of our problem to-day—a problem which has to be met by generous and discriminating expenditure.

My Lords, we are setting ourselves to provide a sufficient investment capital for the following achievements: To complete the conversion to automatic working of the remaining manual exchanges by 1970; to extend Subscriber Trunk Dialling to nearly all telephones, also by 1970; to provide for the rapidly increasing level of trunk traffic, and to expand the system to the extent necessary to provide services on demand and to eliminate entirely the waiting list. Your Lordships will appreciate that this is something like waging a war on four simultaneous fronts. There is no doubt that the voice of the country, as heard in your Lordships' House to-day, demands victory on all four fronts. So long as the continuing prosperity of the country can provide the capital equipment, I am confident that all those victories will be won.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, can he tell us how he obtained the figure of 70 per cent. as the proportion of party-line users satisfied? I was never asked, nor, I think, was the district nurse.

4.47 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate—the noble Earls, Lord De La Warr, Lord Attlee, Lord Gainsborough and Lord Listowel, and the noble Lord, Lord Amulree—for their contributions. I also thank the noble Lord who has just sat down for the nature of his reply and the way in which he has given it. I think he selected the way of replying that I should have done: he failed completely to answer one of the criticisms that I have put forward and he told us all of the wonderful world that we are going to have. It will be for me to come back in a year or two when we have not got that world, and to remind him of what he has said; or alternatively, if we have got it, to say how good it is that we have managed to get the things that we have been wanting to get.

Some of the information that he has been given in his brief was a little forgetful. There was a paragraph where we were told to think about cities in a completely different context from the open country. A little later we were told that it was right to compare London and Switzerland. I must take the noble Lord to Switzerland and show him the open country, the mountains and the snow, and the cables, and where they have to be taken. Perhaps he will then know that there is a little difference.


My Lords, I do not know whether the noble Lord has considered the difficulty of taking lines across open country or underneath the London streets.


I have. I have absolutely no doubt that I shall have to take the noble Lord to Switzerland, just as I have considered that he ought to come and spend a day with me with a stop watch, because he would need to do this in order to convince me of the accuracy of his figures with regard to the Wallington Exchange. He needs only to dial, where they have the dial— it is "WAL"—to find out how frequently he is unable to get Wallington and, in order to get through, has to bother the Exchange by dialling "100".

I deplore using personal material too much on an occasion like this, but, although I did not say so, I believe that one of the important things about delays is that when one has no dial one has no "999" service. In districts like my own, and those of many other noble Lords, ordinary fire alarms have been completely taken away and we have no alarm to pull. We are told that we have to rely on the telephone. If we were asked to rely on the eight-seconds' service I should be happy; but when a burglar is bashing someone over the head next door and I cannot get a number I am not happy about returns such as the noble Lord offers to-day from people using stop-watches with times given somewhere else.

The noble Lord has agreed with me on many other points. Clearly our S.T.D. system will be the best in the world when we get it. But in wanting a dial I am rather like the little boy in the Pears' advertisement—holding out my hand for the soap but never getting it. The noble Lord mentioned that the staff difficulty was closely related to capital investment, as it is in many other fields. As to the conservative nature of people in his own area not taking to new dials, I think they must have been influenced by the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, in passing on some of his nostalgic reluctance to be rid of the girls.

As to new services, if the Post Office would be a little less conservative and embark on new services, I believe that it would get a return. Where it has done so it has gained. "TIM" was the first: it was a tremendous experiment, and a great success. And the Test Match score service, limited as it has been in the amount of service offered, has been a tremendous financial success. I believe that the Post Office has already picked up 7 million telephone calls on the limited Test Match score service offered. If the example of other countries in such services were followed, I think the Post Office would benefit. I understand the Post Office already has a Committee looking into that aspect. It is surprising what the public will respond to.

In Hull, the only place in the country whose telephone service does not come under Her Majesty's Post Office, I was surprised to find that the municipal service there instituted a "Call Santa Claus" service and last December made a lot of money with it. It is not for me to keep your Lordships further on an occasion such as this. Having thanked those who have subscribed to this debate, may I ask permission to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave withdrawn.