HL Deb 23 June 1986 vol 477 cc4-7

2.48 p.m.

Lord Beloff

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 arrange a meeting between the chairman of the Post Office and the chairman of British Telecom so that they can discuss together how best to collaborate for the public good.

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

My Lords, no. The Government are satisfied that a good relationship exists between the two organisations. It is the Director General of Oftel's duty to consider all matters relating to British Telecom so far as public interest is concerned, and the British Telecommunications Act 1981 requires the Post Office, among other things, to have due regard to the social needs of the United Kingdom as well as to its efficiency and effectiveness.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, may I thank my noble friend the Minister for that reply? Has he noted in the press—or perhaps he knows from other sources—that in the autumn both the Post Office and British Telecom plan to raise charges to the consumer on the grounds of increased costs? I should like to ask whether a meeting of the kind that I have suggested—perhaps with the addition of the Director General of Oftel, if the Minister can afford another drink—might come to the conclusion that these costs could be lowered if, for instance, telephone directories were available in the post office and post codes were available in telephone directories?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I have noticed—and, indeed, my noble friend draws the attention of the House to this—the consideration that the Post Office is giving to the question of cost, but that is very much a commercial matter for the Post Office, as indeed are charges by British Telecommunications a commercial matter for that company. The Director General of Oftel has an input into that area. So far as the Government's role is concerned, perhaps I may assure my noble friend that I shall be happy to talk with the Director General of Oftel about matters which concern your Lordships, as I would take an early opportunity to discuss with the Post Office, also, matters which concern your Lordships.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, will the Minister accept that there is some sympathy for this Question? If the meeting is to take place, might it take place in public so that we can hear what importance the Director General of Oftel and the chairman of British Telecom attach to reducing their charges? This is one of the things which would benefit the public good a great deal, but so far it does not seem that British Telecom are keen to reduce their charges.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, meetings in public are fine, and if the noble Lord wishes to have a meeting in public with either of those two bodies that is entirely up to him. I have to remind your Lordships that the Government have no locus in so far as British Telecom is concerned since Parliament decided that that responsibility should reside with the Director General of Oftel, who I have little doubt is making a determined effort to meet his obligations. I have said that I shall talk with the Post Office about the other matters as soon as an opportunity arises.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is not the problem that neither of these organisations is under parliamentary scrutiny since they were removed from parliamentary control? In these circumstances, is not the right solution for the Government to institute a measure of de-privatisation, thereby enabling us to ask questions of the persons in charge of either organisation?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, so far as British Telecommunications is concerned, the privatisation of that service has been of great benefit to the telephone user, the public at large, and indeed industry at large, and is a singular success in privatisation. So far as the Post Office is concerned, in 1981 it was removed as a separate corporation and is making strenuous efforts, particularly by virtue of its recent agreements, to improve its services both to its employees and to its consumers.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, what does the noble Lord mean when he says that it has been an obvious advantage to the consumer? Is there a single consumer in this House who has found the denationalisation of the telephone system of great advantage?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

Yes, my Lords, many.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, would the noble Lord ask such noble Lords to hold up their hands?

Lord Ferrier

My Lords, I apologise for speaking again, but I do not often weary your Lordships. May I suggest to my noble friend that when he meets with these people he might begin on the question of the Telemessage? I wonder how many noble Lords are aware that there is a service called the Telemessage? Anyway, it does not appear in the inland compendium, even on the last page, which is "Other Services". It is a most useful service. I have written to the Post Office, and is my noble friend aware that they replied, "It is nothing to do with us; it is Telecom's business"? I have written to Telecom, and they have said, "It is nothing to do with us; it is the Post Office". May I appeal to my noble friend to tackle the question of this useful service (which is trying to replace the telegrams that we used to like) as soon as he is able?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am glad to find that, notwithstanding a certain lack of advertising, there is one of your Lordships who finds the collaborative service between the Post Office and British Telecommunications of some great benefit, and I shall be delighted to pass on that message to both those bodies.

Lord Glanusk

My Lords, would my noble friend agree that it is more important that British Telecom should talk to the cable companies and give us a co-ordinated telecommunications system which could also do away with the delivery of letters by hand?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am sure that that is an area in which British Telecommunications are engaged, and I am sure that the advancing technologies will be reflected in the kind of service British Telecommunications offer to their subscribers.

Lord Annan

My Lords, surely the lack of co-operation just mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, between these two bodies is evidence that the noble Lord ought, with respect, to pay greater attention to the point made in the Question by the noble Lord, Lord Beloff? Does the noble Lord agree that there is a distinction between a private enterprise company, which obviously has duties to its shareholders and its employees, and a public monopoly or private monopoly, which not only has duties in those directions but also has duties to the public at large?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I feel that my answer to my noble friend Lord Beloff's supplementary question expressed the interest of Her Majesty's Government. I repeat that I shall discuss with the Director General of Oftel, in whom Parliament has placed the responsibility for meeting the public interest, and I shall take an opportunity of discussing separately with the Post Office those matters which your Lordships have drawn to the attention of both, and indeed the House, in the four Questions in the last three months that I have had the privilege of answering.