HL Deb 11 May 1988 vol 496 cc1157-68

5.4 p.m.

Lord Ferrier rose to call attention to the situation whereby telemessages, which can be sent by those who have a telephone number, cannot be sent by those who are not so privileged; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, your Lordships will have seen this Motion for many moons because I first put it on the Order Paper in July last year. In case some noble Lords do not know about Telemessages, they are messages which can be sent by telephone through British Telecom where they are converted into a note or a message delivered to the addressee by the Post Office by the first post on the next working day. This is a convenient method of communication, but the cost is beyond the pocket of most ordinary people. The cost is £4 for 50 words. Is 50 words a reasonable number of words for a message of this kind?

As I have mentioned, this Motion has been on the Order Paper since July and has come up through seven ballots. I had begun to fear that I might drop off the perch before it ever came to the House. I am delighted that it has now appeared, although I am suffering from the malaise which I think the doctors describe as "There-is-a-lot-of-it-about". I am not being flippant, but I am criticial of a system whereby a Life Peer of 30 year's standing—I see I have written in the margin "an ancient and aboriginal Life Peer"—has to wait for 10 months to have a Motion debated which he believes to be important. The fact is that it is "just the luck of the draw," but it has its disadvantages and they are manifest.

However, whereas my Motion was of some importance at the beginning of last year, as time has gone past circumstances have changed and more information has come my way quite recently. I am glad to see that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, will be following me. He has more information than I have. It is not that the issue I have in mind is no longer important, but in the interim a good deal of water has flowed under the bridge and the question proposed then, after a series of Starred Questions and Answers, has been further examined by the authorities concerned.

I must confess to the House that I have been greatly aided by Professor Carsberg, who is the Director General of Oftel. Only this last Sunday I received a letter from him, some of which I feel is important. He said: I have been in touch with British Telecom, as I said I would, to find out where it has got in its discussions with the Post Office about Telemessages". I am amazed to note that in the Post Office's Inland Compendium, which consists of 15 pages and lists the wonderful range of services, there is no mention of Telemessages. I have always wondered whether it wished to conceal from itself and others that it is an essential element in the delivery of a Telemessage because it is delivered by the postman in the morning.

Your Lordships may remember the roar of laughter that went up in this House when I read a letter from the Post Office stating, "This is no affair of ours; write to British Telecom". When I wrote to British Telecom I received a reply stating, "This is no affair of ours; write to the Post Office". The problem has been, who pays? In that respect we are touching on a social and political problem. Who will pay for an essential service to the people? It is difficult to know how to charge but it is a social service.

During the weekend I looked through some papers. To my surprise, I found my mother's notebook written at the time of my birth. Out fell a telegram, and this is the form dated 1900. That will prove to your Lordships how aged I am. It was then sixpence for 12 words, every additional word costing a halfpenny. That has confirmed my belief about Telemessages, because in a letter I suggested that the cost should be £1 for 20 words and 10p for every additional word.

I have been asked, "Why do you worry about it? Why don't you use a telephone kiosk?". They are largely vandalised, though that situation is improving. However, the cost of £4 is probably best made up of four golden coins. The kiosks contain a slot which will take pound coins but one of the difficulties is that the golden coin is not in use in Scotland; there we have pound notes. If three or four people send a Telemessage at £4 for 50 words—which is unlikely—they will fill the telephone kiosk cashbox to overflowing.

As a result, I believe that there should be a complete reappraisal of the approach to the simple social messages, as described by the noble Lord, Lord Glenamara, in an exchange in your Lordships' House. Fifty words will be difficult to find when all one wants to say is, "Auntie died today. Funeral Wednesday"; or, "Many happy returns"; or, "Congratulations". I believe that they are the social messages which Granny up the Glen wants to be able to send, but she does not have a telephone and does not know how to do so.

It has been suggested that one should use Datapost, and I have any amount of glossy literature here. There is also a service called Royal Mail Special Delivery. In that case, one must write a letter, address the envelope, stamp it with the requisite postage and add £1.50. I decided to send a letter so I went to my local post office and said, "I want to send a letter by Datapost or Royal Mail Special Delivery". I was told that they were sorry but that I would have to go to a head office; so granny would have to go five miles to the neighbouring town. Such difficulties are hard to appreciate when one has been used to having a telephone at one's elbow. A large number of people dearly wish to communicate with their families and friends but have been wondering how to do so.

The authorities concerned are the Post Office and British Telecom. Professor Carsberg has written to me stating: I have been in touch with British Telecom, as I said I would. …. It tells me that its discussions have not yet reached a conclusion though it had promised previously to let me know the outcome as soon as possible and it will certainly do that. I know that BT has entered its discussions with the Post Office in a positive spirit". That is good news because I have always considered that, whereas British Telecom has been ready to cooperate, the Post Office simply cannot be bothered.

Professor Carsberg continues: I know that BT has entered its discussions with the Post Office in a positive spirit—and you may remember that similar discussions recently led to a satisfactory agreement for the inclusion of post codes in telephone directories. I am continuing to consider very carefully all the representations that are made with regard to Telemessages. However, at present, I doubt whether there is any basis for intervening to attempt to impose a formal requirement on BT to provide Telemessages through the Post Office". I believe that this debate may be of use if my expression and that of other noble Lords makes clear the fact that there is a demand for this kind of service to the ordinary people.

Professor Carsberg states: I am giving further thought to the questions you have raised about the pricing of Telemessages". The price of £4 is out of the question for short, social messages. He continues: I am willing to consider conducting a more formal investigation of BT's pricing of Telemessages to satisfy myself that the price is reasonable overall and that the service is not being run inefficiently". In other words, since I put down this Motion ten months ago a great deal of water has flowed under the bridge. Some of it bubbled through only on Sunday when I received the letter from Professor Carsberg.

A solution may be in sight. I have many glossy publications from one pundit or another trying to analyse how a profitable system of Telemessages can be devised. I find it such compulsive reading that I described it to myself as a "Boffin's bean feast". There is page after page, trying to discover how the service can be arranged to justify itself in terms of money.

We come back to the social problem. What about it? Must we or must we not limit the social services rendered by the postal services? It is necessary to establish at what point the public are to be served, irrespective of whether or not the operation is profitable. For that reason, in some of my correspondence I suggested that an equivalent charge to a telegram of 1900, which I showed to your Lordships, should be made in terms of today's currency. I suggested that we should pay £1 for 20 words and 10p for each additional word. The minimum charge for a Telemessage is £4. However, it is only available to those with a telephone. There needs to be a reversal of policy. My papers show that there is a demand for the Telemessage service, which is mainly commercial, but my concern is for the ordinary man or woman in the street.

In a debate some years ago on the cost of telephones to be established at long distances I coined a phrase, "Granny up the Glen". In a curious way I found that that stuck and I now substitute the phrase, "Granny up the high rise". How can she send a social message unless she has a telephone or some means of contacting a post office? I believe that the post offices should revert to the situation in which we were when telegrams existed. One could go into the post office, put down a bob and send a telegram. That is all very well. However, I have tried to think of what is needed. What happens if somebody has missed a train? In the old days one could go to the post office and send a telegram. If one was a yachtsman who had put into port because of the weather or breakage or something, one could send a telegram to say where one was and where one expected to be by going to the local post office. I believe that one should be able to do something of that nature. There are many different instances of that kind. It is not only people missing trains and yachtsmen and the like. There are car accidents and other occasions when people who do not have access to a telephone can use the service.

It seems to me that what is needed is some sort of ombudsman who will knock the heads of the Post Office and British Telecom together. I believe that Professor Carsberg looks like the right man to do that. He is extremely efficient and I urge him and the Government generally to consider these matters.

I talked of Scotland and gold coins and the question of the Post Office in Scotland. It has come to my attention that there has been some discussion about making an additional charge applicable to letters being delivered to distant destinations. I hope that my information is wrong and that that day will never come. British postal services go all over the British Isles and I believe at present there is a surcharge only in respect of the Channel Islands.

There are many schemes for Telemessages which are very convenient. I hope that the noble Lord who is to reply can give some assurances about the postal service in Scotland, not only in regard to Telemessages but generally, because there is a good deal of dissatisfaction in Scotland with the service, though it is greatly improving. The service of sending passengers by postal vans is very welcome. I look forward to hearing any other views which may be expressed on this subject. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

5.25 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, the House is grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, for moving his Motion and, indeed, for the tenacity which he has shown in pursuing this particular point over a period of two years. I am happy to speak in support of the Motion of the noble Lord. I am also happy on a personal basis because the noble Lord was a friend of my wife's father in Bombay a long time ago when my wife's father was ADC to the governor of the central provinces and the noble Lord was in Bombay. I hope that the fact that my wife's father was given the nickname of Buz has not imprinted itself on the noble Lord's mind to the point where he is obsessed by telephones and other related subjects.

On a serious note, the noble Lord has raised a number of extremely important issues. There is the question of life and death messages in rural and deprived urban areas as well as ordinary social messages from the same sources. There is the question of the duties of the Post Office which, after all, is a government-owned institution; duties in relation to their social obligations and obligations to those who live in areas where postal facilities are sometimes difficult to come by. There is the question of the cost of telemessages to which the noble Lord referred. Finally, there is the question of the efficiency of the telemessage service in replacing the old telegram system that we used to know.

I should like to comment on those four areas and then widen the debate to consider what can be done to ensure that communications in rural areas are not left behind as technology advances, as it surely will. I believe that that follows the thrust of what the noble Lord said.

Perhaps I may turn to the issue of life and death messages in rural areas and those areas of social deprivation. If my figures are right, I believe that some 84 per cent. of the population—and I apologise to noble Lords if any of my figures are wrong because much of the information is anecdotal—are on the telephone. That implies that some 16 per cent. are not on the telephone. It is that 16 per cent. with which the noble Lord has rightly decided to deal. I speak from my own experience in mid-Wales: there are substantial problems due to the inability of people living in rural areas to reach a point where they can send life and death messages such as, to quote the noble Lord's phrase, "Auntie has died. Funeral on Wednesday". It is a problem with which I believe the new British Telecom—I say "new" in its private capacity—is not prepared to deal other than on a commercial basis. I can understand exactly why it prefers to do so only on a commercial basis—it is because that is its job.

As I have mentioned, there is the second problem of the duties of the Post Office. There has been a great deal of discussion about the closing of sub-post offices in rural areas. We have felt this very much in mid-Wales. A number of sub-post offices have been closed, which has meant that people who wish to avail themselves of what we regard as a normal facility offered by her Majesty's Government—the Royal Mail—are having great difficulty in so doing.

The third problem raised by the noble Lord is the cost of telemessages. I have no evidence concerning telegrams in the year 1900, but I certainly agree that, at least at the outset, the cost of telemessages is high. It is particularly high if, as the noble Lord said, one has to send a message from a telephone box. One has to go along with a mass of coins not knowing how much one is to be asked to pay.

The last question raised by the noble Lord related to the efficiency of the telemessage service. My informal evidence—I stress that it is informal and there may be other evidence—is that the use of telemessages is very small and that it does not measure up to the use that was made of telegrams. Because it is relatively small and probably confined to a small section of the population, the cost has gone up. Obviously British Telecom is a commercial venture and will charge the marginal cost for a telemessage as it will charge the marginal cost for any other service.

In looking at the four problems raised by the noble Lord in his Motion, I certainly agree that it is for the Government, and through them the Post Office, to correct the situation that he described. After all, the Government still have powers to direct the Post Office and until it is privatised and becomes a private company, or until in some way the telemessage system is made independent of government, the Secretary of State still has power to make directions to the Post Office. I believe that that should be done and that the Post Office should be directed by the Government to negotiate with British Telecom.

Having said that, I wish to take two or three minutes to widen the debate to include the general issue of communications in rural areas. Again, I base what I have to say on my experience on the Welsh Borders where I live. Those of us who live in hilly areas will know—taking a very simple and straightforward example—of the difficulty of television reception. That has caused, and is causing, a great number of technological problems and has been overcome only by a great deal of expenditure at the margin: that is to say, the BBC and the independent companies have had to spend a great deal more money servicing homes in mid-Wales than they have in servicing homes in, say, London.

Technology moves on and there will be other services which those in urban areas are going to enjoy but which those living in rural areas may well not enjoy unless special efforts are made. It is no secret that cable television is not available in rural areas. I must declare an interest here because I speak as a director of a company owning a company which is involved in cable television. I can see no real economic justification for a cable network in a rural area such as Radnorshire, where I live. After all, my nearest neighbour lives three-quarters of a mile away and it would be very difficult to have a cable which served both his house and mine on an economic basis without being charged an enormous amount for the service.

As regards hooking up to the telephone network in the future, there are still many people in rural areas—I suspect what is true for Wales is also true of Scotland—who do not enjoy the benefit of a telephone. This is anecdotal evidence and I place no particular reliance on this figure, but I am told that for a hookup to the BT main network the charge in the Welsh Borders today is £1,000 per pole. That is to say, when someone wants a telephone installed who has not been on the telephone before, British Telecom will measure the distance between the nearest pole and the house—every pole has to be a certain distance apart—and for each pole installed there will be a charge of £1,000. That figure may be an exaggeration—I know not. I simply say that I have heard that that is the charge which has been made.

The cellular network is not available in mid-Wales and I am sure that it is not available in many areas of Scotland. It may well be unavailable in many areas of the North of England. All this means that the technological advances of communication which are so important in rural areas will fail. They will become simple urban advances rather than servicing the people who really need to have the service.

Perhaps I may give an example. In rural areas the isolation of old people and farmers is a very serious problem. If we could construct a system whereby, for instance, an inter-active television system made sure that a farmer, isolated during bad weather, could get in touch with the various services that he required, that would be of enormous benefit to people living in rural areas. Undoubtedly it would meet the problem that we have where in bad weather it takes a very long time for rural communities to be brought back into the main stream of economic and social activity.

That problem is linked to the question of access to the health services, hospitals and education; which brings me back to the main point raised by the noble Lord—namely, the social role of utilities in the rural areas of Scotland, Wales, the South-West and some areas of the North. We used to have a tradition of neighbourly help and I believe we still do have such a tradition. Nevertheless, as developments move forward, as technology advances and we move into the satellite and cable-broadcasting systems and the cellular network, I believe that extra efforts have to be made to ensure that rural areas are not by-passed by these developments.

The noble Lord has quite rightly concentrated upon the matter of telemessages. I have tried to widen the debate to cover the question of communication within rural areas. I have mentioned a number of examples from mid-Wales from my own personal experience. However, I am sure that what happens in mid-Wales in the rural areas is, in a sense, a microcosm of what happens in rural areas throughout the country. I shall be very grateful if the Secretary of State, in replying to the noble Lord, could spend a little time concentrating upon the points that I have raised.

5.40 p.m.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, I apologise to your Lordships for intervening when my name is not on the list. I shall not take more than a few minutes. I cannot claim any connection with the British Raj but the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, and I have discussed this matter on many occasions since the days when I had the privilege of serving as Postmaster General in the 1960s. In those days telecommunications and the postal service were under the same organisation and they were run a great deal more efficiently than now when they are separated and one of them privatised.

Let me tell your Lordships about my experience with inland telegrams. From the day I entered St. Martin's-le-Grand, the headquarters of the Post Office, I was under constant pressure from the Post Office board to abolish inland telegrams. It hated the telegram service. It pressurised me the whole time to agree to its abolition, which I never did. The Post Office kept putting up the cost—outrageously I thought—hoping that demand would wither away because of the very high cost. However, under another government, the board succeeded. It was agreed that the inland telegram service should be replaced by telemessages.

As the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, said, there are two problems. First, people who do not have a telephone cannot send a telemessage unless they go out and find a telephone box, which is not all that easy. That is so not only in the rural areas; everyone is affected. The second problem is the outrageous cost—a minimum of £4. Those who have to send telemessages are on the whole poor. They do not have telephones. So it is the poorest section of the community that has to pay his minimum charge of £4 for a telemessage. It seems to me that British Telecom is doing exactly as the Post Office board did to me when I was Postmaster General. It is putting up the cost all the time, hoping that the thing will go away.

I have always suspected these costs. On a number of occasions I asked for costings of the inland telegram service. I suspected the costings I was given because they included many items that were covered elsewhere. I do not believe that the inland telegram service lost nearly as much money as the Post Office said it did. Nor do I believe that telemessages are losing as much money as British Telecom says they are losing. When the Bill to separate the two services and to make two corporations instead of one was passing through the House, and when British Telecom was being privatised, we received countless assurances from the Government Front Bench that British Telecom and the Post Office would retain the public service aspect of their service. We were given that assurance over and over again.

Those utilities must recognise that although they are businesses—they are important and very large businesses—they are also rendering a public service, they are not, and never will be, like ordinary private enterprise firms. They have a much more important public service aspect to them.

The Post Office has to deliver letters to remote villages in the Borders and in the north of Scotland. A letter may have on it a 13p stamp, but it may cost 75p or £1.75 to deliver. However, the Post Office delivers it because it provides a public service. It has to recognise that it is rendering a public service as well as making a profit. There will always be life and death occasions when people, especially poor people, want to send a message from one end of the country to a relative living in a distant town. Life and death messages are with us and will always be with us. We all have to die some day. Everyone dies and everyone has to be born. These messages will always be necessary. As I have said before, it is the poorest people with no telephone who have difficulty in sending them.

I do not know what the answer is; but it is the Government's duty as the custodian of the public interest to see that there is a service by which poor people—not only people who have telephones—can send life and death messages at a cost very much lower than the present minimum of £4.

5.45 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Lord Young of Graffham)

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Ferrier for bringing this matter before the House. I am conscious as I stand here that I have the serried ranks of Scotland behind me and of Wales in front of me. I have only the noble Lord, Lord Glenamara, for company in defence of we Englishmen.

I should like to assure the House that on the question of services to rural areas the position is not quite as bad as it may appear. Condition 2 of the licence under which British Telecom provides telecommunications services specifically covers services to rural areas—both voice telephony and other telecommunications services. British Telecom must provide services to every person who requests the provision of these services. The only exception is where the Director-General of Telecommunications is satisfied that any reasonable demand is best met by other means.

There is a clear obligation on British Telecom to provide a telephone to those who want one. The director-general, as one of his specific duties, has to exercise his functions in a way best calculated to secure services in rural areas. There is a clear obligation on the director-general to do that and an obligation on British Telecom to provide those services unless the director-general is satisfied that there is another way of dealing with the matter. The same protection is built into licences relating to public callboxes, directory inquiry services and maritime services.

Noble Lords considered the licence, which was debated at great length at the time, to be sufficient, and I have great confidence that Professor Carsberg will continue to bear in mind the interests of rural areas. The Government have stated on many occasions their commitment to the maintenance of a post office network adequate to enable the Post Office to fulfil its statutory duty to provide services, having regard to efficiency and economy and the social needs of the United Kingdom. We bear those matters in mind, and that is why the Royal Mail is described as something different and special. I hope that it will long continue to be so.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, said that I should issue a direction to the Post Office. The role of the Government is confined to broad matters of policy and settling the financial framework of the Post Office. It is for the Post Office board to manage the business from day to day. The relationship between the Post Office and British Telecom is very much a matter for the Post Office.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, is the Secretary of State implying that he has no power to issue such a direction to the Post Office, or is it that he just does not want to?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, without looking to see whether there is a power—perhaps many powers are left over from a former age—it is the policy of this Government not to interfere. But I may not have the power. That is a matter I shall have to check. I suspect it is a residue from prehistoric times.

I should like to congratulate my noble friend on the persistence he has shown in pursuing this matter over a considerable time. Even more, I am filled with admiration. He referred to the fact that he received a letter from Professor Carsberg on a Sunday. I do not know whether that is peculiar to Scotland but it is certainly not possible for those of us who live in England.

As the noble Lord has indicated, telemessage is a service operated by British Telecom. It was introduced in 1981 and took over in 1982 from the inland telegram service, which was becoming increasingly loss-making and less popular. The noble Lord, Lord Glenamara, referred to the history of the matter, and I hope to come back to that in a moment. The telemessage service provides a means for people to send urgent messages and social congratulatory messages in a most convenient way by telephone.

For noble Lords who need reminding, one can contact the telemessage service from one's own telephone, from a public callbox, by telex or, in today's world, by fax. If you live in London, Birmingham or Glasgow you dial 190 and in other parts of the country you just dial 100 and ask the operator for the connection. Such calls are free, but once connected to the telemessage operator, of course, the charges commence. The message is read back by British Telecom to avoid errors and then sent electronically to one of 28 Royal Mail sorting offices nationwide where it is printed and delivered in time for the next working day.

I hate to correct the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, and indeed other noble Lords, but I fear that the minimum charge is £5, plus VAT, for 50 words and not £4 as suggested. For every further 50 words there is another charge.

The Post Office offers two types of service for those people wanting messages delivered the following day. There is of course first class mail by which 90 per cent. of all items are delivered next day. There is also the Royal Mail Special Delivery which guarantees delivery the next day or your money back. That service is available all over the country from all sub-post offices; the charge is £1.50. Datapost is available at some 3,000 post offices in the land. That service, mainly for commercial matters, costs £13 per item for guaranteed next-day delivery. I would not have thought that such a service is suitable for congratulatory messages.

Before I move on to discuss the main subject of the debate, it may be helpful if I set out the framework within which British Telecom operates. When BT was privatised, the Government made clear that they did not intend to intervene in the commercial decisions of the company. Indeed, I have already referred to the licence which is granted and how that protects the rural areas. I have also referred to the role of Professor Bryan Carsberg, the Director-General of Telecommunications. He has specific duties set out for him which include looking after the interests of the consumer and the assurance of telecommunications services to all those who reasonably demand them. For example, there are specific requirements relating to 999 services and directory enquiries which are the minimum framework. However, the introduction of other services is a matter for British Telecom's judgment.

Given that framework, it will be principally for British Telecom and the Director-General of Oftel to consider the points made by my noble friend about telemessage. Indeed, we know that he is considering such matters at the moment and we look forward to hearing Professor Carsberg's conclusions.

My noble friend focused especially on whether the telemessage service should be made available at post offices. As I have already said, the Post Office already offers some services which guarantee delivery the next day. Once an individual has gone to a post office, other services are generally available there and possibly at a lower price. Therefore it is not clear that the availability of telemessage at post offices would bring any substantial benefits. After all, the main selling point of telemessage is the convenience for the telephone user. And, of course, the telephone user includes users of public call boxes.

I am sure all noble Lords will join with me in congratulating the chairman and the management of British Telecom on the recent figures regarding call boxes which show that more than 90 per cent. of them are in working order. I hope that that situation will long continue.

My noble friend asked about people who do not have telephones. I must tell the House that 81 per cent. of the population had telephones in 1986—a figure that may well have increased by now—and that the penetration rate of telephones has risen year after year. In addition there are some 80,000 public call boxes nationwide. Further, I hope that we will see some good quality service figures announced later this week. One of the reasons for the decline of the inland telegram was the increase in pentetration of the telephone. I can sympathise with my noble friend; I too retain a certain nostalgia for that service. I can understand that many people regret its passing. Nevertheless, when the service was discontinued in 1982 the telegram service as a whole was losing some £50 million a year of which £20 million was on the inland side. Indeed, the demand for telegrams fell by some 30 per cent. in the three years before closure.

An interesting factor is that on average each and every member of the population sent one telegram every 16 years. That is how the figures worked out. As I stand here now I am trying to recall the last time I sent a telegram. I suspect that I exceeded that particular average. Even six years ago, when telephone penetration was 76 per cent. of households, less than 10 per cent. of telegrams were handed over the post office counter. In other words, even at that time, 90 per cent. of the telegrams sent actually started their journey by telephone. Therefore, as the percentage of households without telephones declines, there is less need for the service.

There remains the important issue of urgent life and death messages. My noble friend and indeed the noble Lords, Lord Williams of Elvel and Lord Glenamara, referred to the need for a service to send urgent messages on the same day. That requirement raises different issues from the social messages. The sending of a telemessage for next-day delivery is most suitable for a social message, but I do appreciate that there is a real need, occasionally, for life and death messages. I do not wish to be unsympathetic to that problem. Of course the simplest answer lies in the telephone itself with its instantaneous communication. That applies to over eight out of 10 households.

Many people without a telephone do nevertheless have access to one through neighbours and friends, or at their place of work, in the event of an emergency. Indeed, many local authorities give grants to people to have telephones installed in cases of real need. Should there be a real emergency of this nature the police, certainly in the metropolitan area, will deliver a message. I believe that such measures taken together go a long way towards ensuring that urgent messages get through. However, I am glad to say that the Post Office and British Telecom are considering the problem, to see whether there is any other solution.

Finally, I turn to the cost of the service and the big question as to whether British Telecom could provide a lower minimum number of words at a cheaper price. I have no doubt that the company will carefully note what has been said today. However, it is possible that a large part of British Telecom's cost for such a service will be fixed and remain the same regardless of the length of the message. That being so, it could mean that a price reduction would be uneconomic and indeed could well jeopardise the viability of the service that my noble friend is so keen to see extended. However, that is a matter for Professor Carsberg. He will have to consider whether the price is reasonable; whether the service is being run inefficiently; and, ultimately, if or when it should be extended.

However, we must be very careful before we seek to require the provision of this service at a loss which could mean higher charges for consumers elsewhere, involving people who might not wish to have the service. Clearly it is a matter for the Director-General of Oftel; it is one which British Telecom is considering and one that the Post Office is also considering. I hope that in due course all Members of your Lordships' House will hear the result of such considerations, and I hope that everyone will be satisfied with the decision reached.

6 p.m.

Lord Ferrier

My Lords, there are only one or two words that I should like to say in conclusion. First, I wish to thank all those noble Lords who have taken part in the debate, especially the noble Lord, Lord Young. The explanation behind my receiving a letter on Sunday was that I returned from London on Friday and by Saturday I was horizontal as a result of—well, you know what! Therefore it was only when I was able to stagger to my desk on Sunday that I noticed Professor Carsberg's letter.

I could have made many more important points but there is not enough time. It must be remembered that high-rise flats have replaced the loneliness of the glen. We have not discussed the fact that if we could give the district post offices more work, that might be economical by increasing employment. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, mentioned the cost of £1,000 per pole. I am told that the technicians will overcome that problem by substituting some form of radio contact for a telephone line. I thank your Lordships for assisting me in this debate. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.