HL Deb 09 June 1986 vol 476 cc4-8

2.45 p.m.

Lord Annan

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make representations to British Telecom to print in telephone directories the full post code of subscribers.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Lucas of Chilworth)

My Lords, it is for British Telecom to assess the case for including post codes in the light, inter alia, of views expressed to it by the Post Office and by telephone and postal users.

Lord Annan

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer, which is very much in line with the answer which he gave to the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, when he asked about the provision of telephone directories in post offices. May I ask him this? Is he saying that the cost to British Telecom of performing this service would be excessive? If so, is that not rather odd in view of the very handsome profits which British Telecom is making from the sale of its services to a captive public? If he is saying that, does he not think that this disregard of the needs of the public and the apparent inability of the Post Office and British Telecom to co-operate, when once they were in the same organisation, justifies some of the criticisms made from the Opposition Benches of the privatisation of public monopolies?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, my Answer was very much in line with that which I gave to my noble friend Lord Gainford also on 6th March. These are matters for the commercial judgment of the company, and the cost to which the noble Lord, Lord Annan, refers is something like £5 million. It would also mean books some 25 per cent. to 30 per cent. bigger and thicker than they are now. These are not considered by British Telecom as being necessary for it to discharge its obligations to telephone users.

As to whether the Post Office should buy from British Telecom, that is in itself a matter for the Post Office, which also provides post code directories in the post offices and on demand. We must remember that the telephone directory is provided by British Telecom under the terms of its licence for the benefit of telephone users.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, when the noble Lord received the figure of £5 million as being the cost from British Telecom, did he take any steps to query it? Also, does he know how the figure of £5 million, which appears on the face of it to be rather large, is made up?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

Yes, my Lords; that would be for production costs alone. A similar sum would be spent on completing and correcting post codes on the computer files; so we are talking in terms of something like £10 million, all of which of course would have to be borne by the users of the telephone service.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that this is a question I raised three or four years ago before British Telecom was privatised and when this was part of the general complex of the Post Office? Is he aware that I was then given a non-answer such as the noble Lord has given us today? There seems to be a strange lack of interest on the part of the Government in a measure which would have great benefit for the Post Office, because nothing would create greater efficiency and greater economy in the handling of letters. Is it not time that Ministers began to take a little initiative in getting the post code generally understood and used in this country?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am surprised that my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford should consider this to be a non-answer. It is a practical and commercial answer which I feel quite sure he will understand very well indeed. There are two separate businesses. Both of them have to fulfil, under statute, different roles. Both of them have to provide profit. It is for their commercial decision as to where they spend their money in the provision of those services.

I have indicated this afternoon and on other occasions in your Lordships' House that the telephone directory is for the use of telephone users; that the Post Office provides directories of post codes at over 80 Crown offices and in a number of urban and rural areas, and that there is adequate provision for people to find out about post codes. Although I do not wish to move the Question into the area of the Post Office, an average of 69 per cent. of all mail carries a post code and in business terms the figure is 80 per cent. The service is improving enormously in terms of both delivery and the use of codes.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, will the noble Lord accept that many of us who have the good fortune to be British Telecom shareholders would be very grateful if he would keep his representations to the absolute minimum, other than possibly pointing out the fact that we would all agree with any attempt it may make to keep a sharp eye on the odd £5 million that may be around?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, for that very pragmatic and helpful suggestion.

Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran

My Lords, the noble Lord the Minister has used the phrase "commercial advantage" on two occasions in his reply. I may have misunderstood him, but is not the general tenor of his reply to the effect that there is little commercial advantage at the present time for the efficiency of the Post Office in a more general use of these codes?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, has misunderstood me. I did refer to commercial advantages, and I think that if he looks at Hansard tomorrow he will see that I described some of the other benefits that are accruing.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a number of Members of your Lordships' House were guests of the Post Office a fortnight or three weeks ago? We visited one of the major post offices in the country and we were shown the difference between what happens when a post code appears on a letter and when one does not. Therefore, the Post Office always recommends: please put in the post code. Can it not slowly but surely see that the post code is put into telephone directories? It cannot do it in one fell swoop, but it ought to be its policy ultimately to achieve that.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, this is absolutely a matter between the Post Office and British Telecom, and, as I have explained, both are discharging their relative duties as required by statute. Whether they mutually find it to be of benefit is entirely up to them. The sum of £5 million is a lot of money. The Post Office believes that it can spend its money better on giving better service to its customers than on currently inserting post codes in the telephone directory.

Lord Teviot

My Lords, my noble friend says that people can go to a local post office to get their information. Is the information in the post office of a local nature or do all post offices have post codes for the whole country?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I explained that post code directories are available at the 80 Crown offices, some urban offices and some rural offices.

Lord Teviot

My Lords, my noble friend has not answered my question. Are the post codes in the 80 Crown offices for the local area or are they for everywhere in the British Isles?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, the information is available for the whole of the country, across the country, through 80 Crown offices and some other offices.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, the majority of people in this country were not interested in the post code when it first came out. The majority of people could not care less about it. It was therefore the responsibility of the Post Office to make a deal with British Telecom. May I ask the Minister—and this is what we are trying to get at—whether the Government will please use their good offices to get both parties together, so that it will be of benefit to everyone in the country?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am quite sure that the exchange of views expressed by your Lordships this afternoon will, by virtue of Hansard, be conveyed to both the Post Office and British Telecom.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, does the Minister have time to go and queue at a busy Crown office every time he needs to find a post code which he does not know?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, like the noble Lady, I have very little time, spending most of it in the service of your Lordships. However, I satisfy myself that those people with whom I wish to communicate advise me of their post code. There are a number of ways in which they can do that.

Lord Diamond

My Lords, can the noble Lord say what he regards as the Government's responsibility in relation to the policy of British Telecom in printing telephone directories?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, the Government do not have a responsibility, in so far as British Telecom is concerned, as regards the printing of telephone directories. However, we are obliged, through the Director of Oftel, to ensure that BT undertakes the provisions in its licence issued under the Telecommunications Act 1984 to operate a universal telephone service, which includes directory services which help customers to find the numbers they want.