HL Deb 08 May 1986 vol 474 cc824-7

3.29 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 make representations to the Post Office about the importance of keeping sets of telephone directories available for consultation in principal post offices.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, no. The provision of telephone directories is a commercial matter between the Post Office and British Telecommunications plc, and I understand that neither organisation is under any obligation to make them available in this particular way.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord for that revelation about the indifference of the Post Office to the convenience of the general public? Is he aware that for many years, for as long as I can remember—and that goes back a long way—principal post offices have supplied, among other things, national sets of telephone directories which enabled people not only to verify telephone numbers but, if they were uncertain about addresses, initials or names of firms, to check these before they posted their letters, thus assisting the Post Office in its primary duty of correctly delivering correspondence? It seems very peculiar that this duty has somehow vanished.

May I ask my noble friend in addition whether, if it is impossible to persuade that extraordinary monster, British Telecom, to supply telephone directories, the Government will ask post offices to supply sets of Kelly's Post Office Directories, which used not to be necessary but in the new circumstance is?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, my noble friend asks me a number of questions. Although I accept that perhaps his memory goes back a little further than does my own, he will recall that since British Telecom was split off from the Post Office under the Act different responsibilities accrue to each of those two entities. While the telephone directory is provided by British Telecom and it is obliged under its licence conditions to make it available to anyone who requests a directory, it can, of course, make a charge. The telephone directory is primarily for those seeking to use the telephone services rather than for use as an address service. If the Post Office wished to provide additional services to its customers, it would, of course, have to pay British Telecom for the books, though the charge is nominal. There are some 1,500 principal offices, most of which have telephone directories. The Post Office is, of course, under an obligation to ensure that it is cost-effective and meets its customers' needs rather than the needs of other services' customers.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, if the customers are not supposed to use the addresses in the telephone directories, why on earth are they put in?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, that is really not worthy of the noble Baroness, since I said that the primary role of the telephone directory is for the users of telephones and not the general public, who can go to the public libraries if they wish to use other services contained in the directory. There is no contractual obligation upon the Post Office to provide that service.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, will the noble Lord take this opportunity to remind his noble friend, and also perhaps the House, that British Telecom has, in fact, been privatised and, as he said, is under no commercial obligation to provide the Post Office with telephone directories, except upon the payment of cash by the Post Office? Will the noble Lord therefore admit to the House that there are disadvantages in the system of private monopoly which did not exist when two public enterprises co-operated successfully together?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, there is no disadvantage whatsoever in the privatisation of British Telecom, which is bringing a wider number of products to the benefit of both commercial and private consumers. So far as the Post Office is concerned, it is serving a wider number of customers and delivering larger amounts of mail at very good rates commensurate with anything that can be found in Europe. The benefits are plain for all to see.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, will the Minister agree that his Answer shows an extraordinary dog in the manger attitude by both British Telecom and the Post Office? Is it the Government's view that all element of public service has now been removed from British Telecom and the Post Office, even though they have been privatised? If so, this appears to me a very strong argument for renationalising.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, there is no dog in the manger attitude on the port of either of those two organisations. In response to an earlier Question this afternoon, and again on 14th April and 23rd April, I reminded your Lordships of the statutory duties of the Post Office, one of which is to take care of social needs. So far as British Telecom is concerned, there is the Director-General of Oftel. There are also the consumer advisory committees to safeguard exactly the things of which the noble Lord is speaking. These matters are dealt with through those channels and have not given rise to undue difficulty.

Lord Parry

My Lords, are the addresses of those organisations in the book?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, the addresses of the organisations to which I have referred are available very widely through a number of agencies, including Citizens' Advice Bureaux, public libraries, post offices, telephone offices and, indeed, my own department.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, is the noble Lord the Minister aware that one of the things most constantly said in criticism of the Soviet Union and its appalling secrecy is that it is the only country in which telephone directories are not publicly available? Are we to understand that Her Majesty's Ministers and British Telecom are now in a conspiracy to set up a totalitarian regime in this country?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, the noble Lord's last question, following his statement of how he sees various things across the world, is not really correct. Telephone directories are provided. Were some of the public less inclined to vandalism, more copies of telephone directories would still be in the places where the Post Office provides them at moderate cost to itself, with the help of British Telecom.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, does the noble Lord not appreciate that his last reply is the one that we should have had at the outset? It is a question of vandalism. One cannot find telephone directories in vandalised telephone boxes when one wants to make a call. Therefore, is not a post office the only sensible place to which to go and is it not an obligation on the Post Office to pay for this service? The noble Lord surely ought to get in touch with the Director-General of Oftel and ensure that he makes arrangements to pay the Post Office to have a supply of telephone directories.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, if one[...] asking who is to pay, then who, indeed, is to pay?—certainly not the Director-General of Oftel. It is the consumer who, in the end, pays and both British Telecom and the Post Office, through local management arrangements, seek to provide the services that the public want at a proper and reasonable cost. I believe they do exactly that.

Lord Ferrier

My Lords, will my noble friend be relentless in his pursuit of these monstrous organisations, in persuading them that, whether they are privatised or not, they are there to serve the public?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I believe, and I think that most of your Lordships believe, if you look into your heart of hearts, that both the Post Office with its 180,000 staff and all the staff of British Telecom seek to do exactly that and to satisfy their customers.