HC Deb 16 July 1912 vol 41 cc240-4W

asked the Postmaster-General whether his attention has been directed to the daily complaints in the telephone service as to subscribers being told that numbers are engaged when this is not the case, and when, in answer to calls, the local exchange has stated that the number was not wanted; to delays in getting lines cleared and in attracting the operator's attention after getting a wrong number; to delays in getting the operator's attention when desiring a fresh number; to delay in getting lines cleared after ringing off trunks; and to interruptions of conversations by questions from operators and by disconnections in the course of conversations; whether his attention has been called to delays in the installation of telephone instruments contracted for; to complaints as to indistinct and faint lines and as to intermittent and incessant ringing during heavy rains; to complaints by message-rate subscribers of being asked to make deposits far in excess of likely calls, and, on remonstrating, receiving a demand for a much larger sum, in some cases as much as £5 after having asked for £2; and complaints as to the manner of conducting correspondence from exchange managers' departments and as to excess call charges; whether these complaints emanate from shortage of lines, inadequate or overworked staff, or are due to organisation on different lines to that of the National Telephone Company; and what steps he proposes taking to make the service at least as effective as it was before the transfer of the telephone took place in January last?


I assume that the hon. Member's question refers principally to the service in the London area. Although there has been of late a considerable improvement in the service, and calls as a rule are expeditiously and correctly dealt with, I am aware that in connection with certain exchanges in this area a number of complaints are still being made by telephone subscribers with regard to the various kinds of difficulties of service which are described by the hon. Member. A large number of these complaints are undoubtedly due either to mistakes made by the operators or to electrical faults on the lines and instruments. With respect to the faults arising in operating work, the operators are to some extent responsible, but it must be remembered that many of the exchanges acquired from the National Telephone Company had more lines connected with them than could be properly worked by means of the equipment in those exchanges without imposing strain upon the operators, and that the necessary work of extension creates further difficulties in working the equipment.

I do not regard the present situation as satisfactory or as representing the conditions which may reasonably be expected when the difficulties arising out of the transfer have been overcome. I endeavoured to arrange some time ago with the National Telephone Company for the extension of their exchanges, but their staff were so fully occupied on the company's work in preparing for the transfer that they could not undertake either the extensions or the preparation of plans. In these circumstances it has been necessary for the Post Office to prepare plans and to make contracts for this work since the transfer on the 1st January last. There has not yet been time for much of this work to be completed, and, as I have pointed out, the work itself adds to the difficulties. The provision of extensions and the construction of new exchanges to make good these deficiencies and to meet the rapid growth of business are being pushed on with the utmost speed, and a full supply of trained operators will be held in readiness to work the new equipment as soon as it is ready.

The hon. Member also refers to the time occupied in providing subscribers' lines, and this matter is also engaging my serious attention. But the speed of this work necessarily depends on the staff available, and at the present time several causes combine to restrict its numbers. The National Telephone Company, for the purposes of the arbitration which is proceeding, still retain the services, as they are entitled to do, of a considerable number of their former staff, and many of the Post Office engineers are needed for similar work on behalf of the Post Office which cannot be postponed. At the same time the amount of work in the extension of exchanges and in the transfer of overhead wires to underground lines is abnormal. We have also had to transfer many subscribers from overloaded exchanges to exchanges where they can be better served. As far as possible the pressure which thus arises has been met by the employment of additional and temporary staff, but it is not practicable to obtain much skilled assistance of this kind outside the staffs of the Post Office and the National Telephone Company, and the employment of partially skilled assistance in the endeavour to secure an adequate number of men, has, I am afraid to some extent, increased the difficulties. I am, however, as rapidly as possible increasing the trained staff available for providing subscribers' lines.

Probably the complaints mentioned by the hon. Member as to requests for apparently excessive amounts in prepayment of calls have arisen from the application to the former Post Office subscribers of the system of prepayment which was in. force in the National Telephone Company's system. Post Office subscribers were formerly asked at the end of each month to pay for calls made during the month. This practice was inconvenient to subscribers owing to the numerous accounts rendered for very small sums, and the cost of account-keeping in proportion to the revenue was very high. The Company's practice was to ask subscribers to pay in advance for the number of calls likely to be made during the ensuing three months. This system is better, I think, both for the subscriber and for the service, but the reasons for its application to the old Post Office subscribers have not been generally understood and a certain number of complaints have been made on this subject. These are likely to cease when the object of the arrangement is better known and its working has become customary. The demands have in all cases been based on the use made by subscribers of their lines during the preceding three months, and reductions have been made whenever this use was shown to be abnormally large. No complaints as to the manner of conducting correspondence from exchange managers' offices can be traced, and exchange managers do not undertake written correspondence with subscribers.

I append some statistical facts bearing on some of the points in the question with respect to which figures are available.

1. Percentage of complaints due to the giving of "engaged signals."

The total originated traffic and incoming trunk traffic for the month of June last was approximately equal to 8,295.030 calls. The total number of verbal complaints of engaged calls during this period was approximately 18,352, of which 14,204 were due to subscribers being actually engaged. The balance (4,148) was due to certain indeterminate causes, such as maintenance trouble and operators' irregularities. In other words, engagement advices (on verbal complaints) not necessarily incorrect but about which there is some uncertainty and which may be incorrect equal only 05 per cent., or five calls in every 10,000 handled.

2. Complaints that in answer to calls the local exchange has stated that the number was not wanted.

The complaints of false rings and "called-in-error" cases on 8,295,030 calls in June last are approximately 2,857, or about seven such complaints for every 20,000 calls dealt with.

3. Delays in getting lines cleared.

The observation results at ex-National Exchanges are as follows:—

Average Time taken by Operator to Disconnect Clearing.
When Signal Given. Not Given.
Outward. Inward. Average.
Secs. Secs. Secs. Secs.
6 months ended December, 1911 5 15.2 10.1 45.4
6 months ended June, 1912 5 15.1 10.l 38.0

4. Delay in attracting operator's attention after getting a wrong number.

The observation results at ex-National Exchanges are as follows:—

Average Time taken by Operator to Answer Supervisory Signal.
6 months to December, 1911 7.1 secs.
6 months to June, 1912 6.9 secs.

The figures in the case of Post Office ante-transfer exchanges for June, 1911 and 1912, are 7.1 seconds and 4.5 seconds respectively, but a larger percentage of such signals passed unanswered in June, 1912, than in June, 1911.

5. Delays in calling exchanges.

Ex-National Exchanges. Percentage of Calls Answered in
5 secs. 10 secs. 20 secs.
6 months to December, 1911 65.7 86.3. 96.3
6 months to June, 1912 68.4 88 97.2
Post Office ante-Transfer Exchanges. Percentage of Calls Answered in
5 secs. 10 secs. 15 secs.
June, 1911 59.8 84.9 92.8
June, 1912 70.3 88.6 94.3

6. Disconnections in course of conversation.

The ex-National Exchange observations show the percentage of irregular "cutoffs" to total calls observed was for—

6 months to December, 1911 .75
6 months to June, 1912 .62

The total number of complaints of "cutoff" trouble on all exchanges for June, 1912, was about 3,305, being equal to 04 per cent, of the calls handled, or four in every 10,000 calls. Since December last seventeen exchanges have been closed, involving the transfer of 8,142 subscribers to other exchanges, and six new exchanges have been opened. Five entirely new exchanges are in course of erection; while seven new exchanges are being built to replace existing boards. Eight extensions of exchanges have been completed since the beginning of the year, while twenty extensions are in course of provision. Eight further extensions required through growth are about to be applied for.