§ 8.52 p.m.
§ Mr. Viant
I rise to make an attempt which I fear is not an easy one, to endeavour to switch the attention of the House from Dominion affairs to matters concerned with the Post Office, matters of domestic importance. I think it will be generally agreed that it is a matter for regret that the Post Office and matters concerned, with that Department have been deferred to such a late hour. Nevertheless, those of us who have any knowledge of the Post Office are very appreciative of the work that is done by that Department and of the exceptional services rendered to the community as a whole. I would ask the House and the Postmaster-General to give attention to a few points arising from the Report of the Bridgeman Committee of five years ago. Those members of the House who have read that report will be aware that the recommendations of that Committee when adopted by the Government introduced very large reforms into the Post Office administration. The whole organis- 3437 ation underwent a complete change. As far as I am aware, up to now the House has not had a report as to how far those recommendations have been put into operation. It is, of course, known that a number of regions have been set up and that regional organisations have been established, but the House would appreciate further information on that matter.
We should like to know what effect the new organisation has had, whether in the view of the Postmaster-General it has been advantageous or the reverse. Judging from the little information at my disposal, I should say that it has been advantageous. I should like to know how many regional organisations have been established, and where they are operative. It would also be valuable if we could be told how much remains of the report to be adopted. There was one important recommendation—in paragraph 120—in which they suggested that the aim of the Department should be so to adapt itself as to enable the provincial staffs at any time to be able to take the place of the staff at headquarters, and vice versa. They went further and suggested that there should be at times an interchange of members of the staffs so that, to use ordinary parlance, those in charge would not have the mentality of the parish pump, but would gain sufficient knowledge by this interchange to appreciate what was taking place and the requirements of the country as a whole. Prior to this report there was a concentration upon provincial establishments as against the secretariat at headquarters.
Another important recommendation was that which dealt with the financial relations of the Post Office and the Treasury. The Committee recommended that all revenue derived by the Post Office over £11,500,000 should be at the disposal of the Postmaster-General for improvements. If this money was not required at the moment a separate fund was to be set up and the money used as required to effect improvements. I should like to know what has been done in this matter. It was also suggested that after this proposal had been in progress for three years revision should take place between the Treasury and the Postmaster-General. I think this is important, inasmuch as it permits the Postmaster-General to stake out certain claims. He should know the requirements of his Department and be 3438 able to anticipate reasonable improvements in emoluments and wages of his staff, and if he is not prepared to stake out his claim I fear that the Treasury will continue to make demands which are not quite reasonable. I speak here from experience in having to beard the lion in his den in support of certain small improvements which were desirable. I had to go to the Treasury and state the case. That ought not to be.
I feel that the Postmaster-General, as the head of a Department of this kind, ought to have sufficient financial latitude to make improvements even in respect of wages and hours when he is convinced that it is reasonable. That has not been the case in the past, and I am hoping that as a result of the adoption of these recommendations, the Postmaster-General will have a greater measure of freedom than I and my chief had when we were at the Post Office. Let me pass on to the question of auxiliary postmen. I spent some 12 to 18 months devising a scheme whereby it was hoped ultimately to eliminate auxiliary postmen. We were confronted with this position. Auxiliary postmen were in receipt of wages so low that we had to admit ourselves that it was an inducement to them to be dishonest. They were dependent on shoemaking and other similar jobs, and came into the Post Office to deliver letters on certain days. Even in London auxiliary postmen were in many ways on part-time duty. A scheme was worked out by which auxiliary postmen would be eliminated and I should like to know how far the scheme has progressed and whether auxiliary postmen still exist to any degree.
Then there is to what is to all intents and purposes a new invention, the automatic telephone system. I do not know whether my information is correct, but I understand that recruiting for the telephone service is none too easy just now. I have observed quite a number of advertisements in the newspapers for young women as telephone operators. I have made inquiries and I find that a large number of young women are quite disposed to take service with the Department if they could see a reasonable possibility of advancement. I understand that the inauguration of the automatic telephone service has made their chance of advancement very small. I am told that 3439 it is not uncommon now in London and other large cities for women to have been in the service for 29 and 30 years before they have received any promotion. If that be the case, one can understand and appreciate that there is reluctance on the part of young women to enter such a service. It occurs to me that there might be a way out of the difficulty. It would be worth considering, at any rate, whether the women who are advancing in years could be transferred from the telephone service to duties in other parts of the establishment. That would at least have the advantage of showing young women who are desirous of entering the service that, in spite of the machine making advancement less possible, the Department is prepared to make ways and means for them to get a reasonable advance.
The Post Office is very fortunate in that a large number of its employés, possessing fertile minds, introduce inventions or make suggestions that ultimately lead to vast improvements in the Department. A committee considers the inventions and suggestions, and is empowered to award compenation for them. Hon. Members have recently had circulated to them correspondence outlining a grievance of two Post Office employés, one of them a clerical officer, against the Department and also against the Treasury, and they claim jointly to have been responsible for an invention which brought about the party-line service. I appeal to the Postmaster-General to investigate that case. I will not mention any names in the House, but I am prepared to supply the right hon. and gallant Gentleman with the names of the people concerned. If this is true, and if this sort of thing is likely to continue, it will stultify the attempts of those who might introduce inventions or make suggestions which would be advantageous to the Department. Up to the present the Department has benefited considerably from the suggestions and inventions of its employés. I will give the right hon. and gallant Gentleman a reference number which will give him a clue to what I am referring to—the reference is 52051/34.
A short time ago there was a discussion in the House on the subject of nutrition, and the British Broadcasting Corporation, in its report, gave an analysis 3440 of the discussion. Evidently, the wife of a postman who had recently entered the service of the Department had been listening in to the broadcast, and I have received from her a letter in which she refers to the wages of her husband, which are £2 14s. a week. The man is an ex-service man, and his wife says that he had to pass a Civil Service examination in order to enter the service and had to pay 2s. 6d. for the certificate resulting from the examination. She says that he is on split duty, which means that he has to make the journey from his home to the post office twice a day, and she explains that the result is that from his wages, after expenses have been deducted, 12s. 6d. remains to feed both of them. The woman adds that fortunately they have no children.
I mentioned a few minutes ago that I was pleased that the Postmaster-General is to be given a surplus over and above that which is taken by the Treasury. I am pleased for this reason. I know that an outside committee determines the wages, but I appeal to the right hon. and gallant Gentleman to appreciate what this means to these people. Considering the reports of the police courts and the comments made by magistrates concerning wages paid by the Department, and considering that when magistrates go as far as to say that the Department is not paying wages sufficient to enable men to be honest, I appeal to the right hon. and gallant Gentleman to use his good offices to see that there is an improvement at least in the wages of the lower-paid workers.
§ Mr. Viant
Rent was part of the expenses. I pass now to another very important matter. I understand that the Prime Minister and the Postmaster-General have been supplied with the facts which I am about to relate. I have in my possession a letter from a man stating 3441 the case for his son who was dismissed from the service for suspected dishonesty. The Postmaster-General might have done the right thing, but the House ought to know about this matter. We are responsible for these things equally as much as the right hon. and gallant Gentleman. I am speaking as one who has had to do these things, so that I can appreciate the position in which the Postmaster-General finds himself. It often happens that an employé is suspected of dishonesty. The Department is convinced that he or she alone was responsible, but the person has not been caught red-handed, and all the evidence available is circumstantial. The Postmaster-General, in the public interest, feels that he has no alternative but to dismiss the employé.
The case to which I am referring happened in a neighbouring constituency to mine. The editor of the newspaper which circulates in that district has been approached by the aggrieved man, and the man's case has been published in the newspaper. He was dismissed six years ago, and ever since he and his family have been living on public assistance. The editor of the newspaper wrote a leading article on the subject, explaining how unfair it was for any man or woman to be dismissed from the public service without having a fair trial. A civil servant when he enters the service sacrifices some of the rights which the ordinary citizen enjoys, and that is inevitable. This man has no redress unless he can get permission from the Privy Council to appeal to the King. It is His Majesty's Post Office and this man is an employé of the King.
I wish to offer a suggestion which if it could be adopted, would considerably allay feeling among the general public and remove a large amount of the anxiety existing at present among the employés of the Post Office. Would it not be possible, in a case of this kind, to appoint a committee consisting of a trade union representative, a person with judicial experience and another independent person, to consider the facts and give an impartial judgment upon them. That would relieve the Postmaster-General and the Assistant Postmaster-General of a great deal of anxiety. It would give a measure of confidence to the employés and, what is more important, a man or woman who was removed from the post of duty in such circumstances would have the assurance that three impartial persons had sifted the 3442 matter thoroughly. I think that is a constructive suggestion and is worthy of consideration, and I hope it will receive the consideration which it deserves. I have here the Press cuttings to which I have referred, and I shall be pleased to hand them over to the Postmaster-General in order that he may know the exact case to which I refer.
I hope the right hon. and gallant Gentleman will forgive me for raising again the vexed question of overtime. I do not think the Postmaster-General can have been aware that overtime was being worked to such an extent in the Post Office. I feel sure that if it were his own business he would not allow such conditions to obtain. When he realises that in a period when there are still so many unemployed one department of the Post Office alone, the engineering department, has worked 4,000,000 odd hours of overtime, I feel sure that the Postmaster-General will take care that such a thing does not happen in the future. But what I took exception to even more than the actual working of the overtime was this: I asked whether it was the custom of the Department when employés were seeking improvements in their conditions, to reply to the effect that overtime, in addition to other conditions, ought to be taken into consideration in the assessment of wages. I thought that was a deplorable statement, and when I put a question in the House the Postmaster-General replied that he was fully aware of and endorsed the statement made by the chief of the department. When I put another question as to whether the right hon. and gallant Gentleman agreed that overtime should be taken into consideration as an advantage in relation to wages, he endorsed that view.
We feel that overtime ought never to be worked except in circumstances of exceptional stress, and that at no time should the reward of overtime be taken into consideration when employés are asking for improvements in their conditions. Instead of encouraging overtime it should be the policy of the department to wipe out overtime and share the work over as large a number as possible. In order that the Postmaster-General may appreciate my point as to the inconsistency of his replies I have preserved the questions and answers on both occasions. I do not wish to be unfair, but I feel that those replies were prepared for the 3443 right hon. and gallant Gentleman and that he did not compare the one with the other. If he had done so I am sure the inconsistency would at once have revealed itself to him. I hope we shall have a statement this evening showing that overtime if not done away with has been considerably reduced, and I hope we shall be told the number of extra people who have received employment as a result of that reduction in overtime.
I found that this method of working overtime was not confined to the engineering department. I found that in the money order department and at Kensington overtime was being worked and that in fact it was general throughout all departments. I then inquired as to the number of days lost through sickness aggravated by overtime. The health statistics speak for themselves. I know something about the effect of overtime on the health of working people and it was because of my personal experience that, having ascertained the prevalence of overtime, I immediately raised the question of the health statistics. One has only to study the figures produced by the committee of research into industrial fatigue to realise the effect of long hours on the health of workpeople. There is no gainsaying the fact that to allow overtime, except under exceptional stress, is a bad policy.
I now come to the question of the 40-hour week. I understand from the Press that the Postmaster-General has received a deputation of Post Office employés on this question. I think it just as well that the House should make up its mind that we can no longer defer this question. The reduction of hours of labour has to be faced now. A reduction of hours is inevitable and it should be welcome, if only as a palliative of unemployment. It may be said that at the moment the number of unemployed is going down. But as sure as to-morrow's sun will rise they will go up again, and if we are going to palliate that problem at all it will be by a reduction in the hours of labour. If any Department of State should be giving a lead it is the Post Office. The Post Office can take pride in the fact that wherever it has been possible to introduce machinery to ease the physical exertion of the employés the Department has always availed itself of that opportunity. No one can walk 3444 through Mount Pleasant or any of the sorting offices to-day without being astounded at the enormous amount of machinery in use. It has meant that in spite of there being an increased amount of business done by the Department the number of employés has not gone up to the extent it would have done had the machinery not been brought in.
I have taken the trouble to obtain a few figures which will enlighten the House on this point. Take the deliveries of letters and printed papers. The figures I give are in millions. In 1922–23 the total was 5,455. In 1928–29 it was 6,230. In 1935–36 it was 7,345. Telegrams show a reduction, but not to the degree they were falling. In 1922–23 the figure was 79,572; In 1928–29, 72,491; and in 1935–36, 65,214. Telephone calls numbered in 1922–23, 730,156; in 1928–29, 1,265,504; and in 1935–36, 1,820,664. There you have an increase in letters and papers of 34.6 per cent.; a decrease in telegrams of 18 per cent.; and an increase of telephone calls of 149 per cent. The increase in the staff has been 17.1 per cent. The percentage of increase as a whole, if the three percentage changes be combined in the same proportion as the wages cost of the three branches—75 per cent., 8⅓ per cent.; and 16⅔ per cent.—the resulting percentage increase of traffic as a whole since 1922–23 is 49.3 per cent. The staff has increased by 17.1 per cent. The volume of traffic per head of the staff increased in 13 years by 27.5 per cent.
This is the important point here. If the staff had increased by the same percentage as the traffic it would have totalled in 1936 about 313,000. These facts are undeniable. No one can deny the advantages which have accrued to the Department as the result of the introduction of all this machinery, and when we look round in the industrial world in general we see the same thing operating there. Instead of the right hon. Gentleman waiting for private employers to give a lead in this direction his Department should show the way. The Government should be giving a lead, and if we were in office we should do this now. It is the only way in which we are going to help the unemployment problem. I am not saying this because we are in opposition. I am firmly convinced that sooner or later We shall be 3445 in office and we shall be called on to do it. But employers in general have got to adopt this policy and the wisest employers are adopting it. I am not asking the Postmaster-General for what has not already been done in some other countries. In New Zealand there is a 40-hour week of five days. That does not mean that they have letters delivered on only five days. The employés work a 40-hour week of five days, but it is so organised that the service is continuous. Australia has a 44-hour week of five days, which is to become 40 within a reasonable time. In many parts of the United States the 40–hour week is operating in the postal service. In South Africa 39 hours are worked in many of the large towns.
Quite a number of private employers are showing the Government how to do this. The Leverhulme people are giving a lead. They have a five-day week. The Colman's Mustard people are hot enough to give the 40-hour week and without wage reductions. Boots are giving a five-day week of 42½ hours. Here perhaps the Postmaster-General will try to score a point. He will try to show that Post Office employés generally are doing but a 42-hour week. The Postmaster-General will say: "What about the cost? "Surely, a Department with a revenue of at least £12,000,000 can find ways and means of spending a few thousands for the purpose of initiating the 40-hour week. It has its repercussions, in that you will give greater opportunities for more young men and young women to come into the service in that you will spread the work over a larger number of people. I feel sure that if there was anyone from this side sitting on that side and responsible at the moment, he would take a measure of pride in having the opportunity to initiate the 40-hour week and to show private employers that the Government realise the importance of the problem and are prepared to show the way.
In case the Postmaster-General should make the point that, generally speaking, they are doing a 42-hour week at present, I want to reply at once that if the hours are only 42 when the reliefs are taken into consideration, why quibble about giving another two hours? It is not going to cost us very much more to give two hours all the way round, for that is 3446 what it reduces itself to, and, what is more important, if the Government are far-sighted, they will see that this will take quite a number of people off the labour market who would otherwise be unemployed. It is grossly unfair for any employer, whether it be the State or a private employer, to enjoy the whole of the results of improved machinery. A Government Department may very well show that where improvements are effected by the introduction of machinery, those improvements and the results accruing therefrom should be enjoyed by the whole of the persons concerned. I hope the Postmaster-General will let us know where he stands in this regard and that he will not put up a stone-wall attitude and say that it cannot be done, for I am persuaded that, if he is not prepared to do it, we shall have to speed up the day when we shall go over there and show how it is to be done.
§ 9.38 p.m.
The Postmaster-General (Major, Tryon)
I should like to begin by saying that I think it is a pity that, through no fault of mine, this great service, with enormous sums, both in revenue and expenditure, at stake, with the employment of over a quarter of a million people, and with a service touching every human being in this country, should be discussed only towards the end of the next to the last day of a very long Session. I cannot help feeling' that if there was all that keenness behind some of the references which the hon. Member for West Willesden (Mr. Viant) has made, the Labour party might have raised the question earlier in the Session and not left it to a time when the House is not very well attended on either side and when unfortunately we have not the opportunity of presenting the whole case for the Post Office. At the same time, I should like to thank the hon. Member personally for the service which, if I may say so, he has rendered by bringing up the work of this Department, with which he was associated for many years. I feel that all who have ever been associated with the Post Office always continue to take an interest and a pride in its working, and I am glad to see opposite me three ex-Ministers who have been associated with it. Therefore, I would begin by thanking the hon. Member sincerely for bringing up this question.
3447 I propose to deal in turn with all the points which he has raised, and perhaps he will allow me, in my desire to present a general statement on the position of the Post Office, to take his points as they come in the course of a general statement. The hon. Member asked us about the results of the Bridgeman Committee, and I should like to say how very much I think the country owes to the late Lord Bridgeman, to Lord Plender, and to Lord Cadman who sat on that Committee. The results of that Committee have worked wonders at the Post Office, and I am glad to be able to assure hon. Members that, point by point, its recommendations have been adopted. There were two very big matters in their recommendations. The first, of course, was with reference to finance. At present we pay to the Treasury a fixed sum of £10,750,000, which sum has again been fixed for a further three years, and as a result we are left more free than in the old days when the hon. Member was at the Post Office, so that if we have a surplus, we are able to use it for improvements, whether for the staff, or for the public. If some of the concessions which we may make are wisely made, in the long run the money comes back to us and we are able to move forward again with further concessions. That is just what has been happening in the last few years.
The second point which the hon. Member raised was with reference to the regions. The position is that two regions have been set up under the scheme, the Scottish Region, with headquarters at Edinburgh, and the North-Eastern Region, with headquarters at Leeds. I have, of course, visited those headquarters and inquired on the spot to see how they are getting on, and I know from personal knowledge that there have been staff exchanges between headquarters and the different regions and outlying portions of the Post Office, both inward and outward, so that headquarters do keep in touch with the outlying portions and vice versa. One of the most useful portions of this scheme of regions is the great advantage which it gives in what is perhaps the most urgent of our problems, namely, telephone development. At the present moment we are carrying the principle of regionalisation in the form of telephone areas beyond the two regions which I have mentioned, 3448 so that the principle of dealing with matters on the spot between the different people concerned is extending already beyond the two regions to which I have referred. Then, of course, the Post Office Fund, to which the hon. Member referred, has been set up. As a matter of fact last year we took £100,000 out of it. It is a reserve.
I should like, first and foremost, to say—and I am sure that hon. Members opposite will be glad that I can say it—that this has been definitely a record year for the Post Office, and particularly in connection with telephones. But I should like to state that the biggest part of the Post Office, in volume of work, in financial importance, and in size of staff, is the postal service. There, in the last year—I am giving it in figures instead of in percentages—letters and parcels were up by 250,000,000, which is an increase about double the usual increase from year to year. That, I think, is satisfactory. The actual number of letters and parcels—and the hon. Member gave figures which as far as I know were the same—at the present moment is 7,750,000,000 a year. A very important part of the postal service is the air service. In these islands, of course, there is not the same scope as elsewhere, because the distances are not great. Between some of the large towns there is not very much gain, but when it comes to the use of the air across the water, as, for instance, to Orkney, or to Belfast, then there is a great gain.
I am glad to be able to say that for what one may call the internal air service, that is to say, within these islands, 375 tons were sent last year, which is an increase of 24 per cent. It is when we come to the Empire and to the more distant places that we begin to realise the full advantages of the air service, more particularly now that greater distances can be traversed in safety and now also that the flying boats are coming to the assistance of this service in such a remarkable way. It was only last month that I had the privilege of taking part in the inauguration of a great Empire air mail scheme. It is one under which what is called the all-up service is involved, "All-up" means that to the particular district concerned all the first-class mail goes by air as a matter of course, without any surcharge and without any special labels. It is simply posted in the ordinary red 3449 letter-box and goes as a matter of course by air. That principle was started to South Africa about a month ago. On that occasion the particular flying boat got there in six days, and it is hoped before long to extend the service to India and Malaya and sometime next year to Australia as well. That, I think, is a remarkable development.
To East Africa by these flying boats there are at present three services a week, and to South Africa two services a week. The charge is 1½d. per half-ounce, and I once more appeal—and I hope hon. Members will help me—to the public to make every day a mail day and not to keep their letters for South Africa until the end of the week but to keep on posting them throughout the week and so avail themselves of these additional facilities and avoid overloading the boat which starts at the end of the week. At present the service reaches Kisumu in three or four days and Cape Town in six to seven days. Later on it is hoped, with increased night-flying facilities and when they are more fully developed, to accelerate up to the point where Cape Town can be reached in 100 hours and Sydney in seven days. That may be some way off, as this remarkable acceleration will depend on the development of night flying. I should like, before I leave the subject of all-up air mails, to say that some months ago we started this form of service to Scandinavia, and I am happy to announce to the House—and this is an announcement made for the first time—that we are hoping shortly to extend the all-up service to Germany and Switzerland.
I come to telegraphs, to which the hon. Member made allusion. The position is this. The charge was 1s. and it has been reduced to 6d. Before the reduction the number of telegrams was going down at the rate of 5 per cent. per annum. Since the reduction to 6d. the number of telegrams has in two years gone up by 43 per cent. At the same time it would not be right to accept the contention of some people who say that if you charge only low enough sums for what you are doing you can make an enormous profit. As a matter of fact that is not what happened when we made this reduction. The loss was increased, but not very much, and we are now in a position that the loss is only slightly greater under the 6d. than it was under 3450 the shilling telegram. We have, however, the advantage of reviving a service which is after all necessary to the country and has supplied a much cheaper telegraph service, which is sometimes badly needed by people who are not well off and have not telephones to use in cases of emergency.
I should like to pay a tribute briefly but sincerely to the wonderful work which has been done by our research department at Dollis Hill. They are applying all the latest products of scientific research for the improvement of our services and they deserve thanks from us all. I come to the question of telephones. There has been the most remarkable development of telephones within the last few years. The most important of the recent changes are two. There is the half-crown maximum for a call between any two points on the mainland, however remote, by day. It is the daytime equivalent of the well-known shilling call at night. The other important concession was one which I made last October and that is the exceedingly popular concession of 50 free calls per quarter. That, I think, has undoubtedly been responsible for a large part of the year's increase, as I can show from the figures.
The increase in telephones last year—and it is a remarkable figure in itself—was 248,000. In the last six months, that is to say after the concession of the free calls was made, there was an increase of no fewer than 147,000, which shows how much of that great increase is due to this particular concession. To meet this greatly increased traffic we are spending in the present year no less than £17,750,000 on telephone developments in these islands. That is an unprecedented sum and it is 2½ times as much as we were spending in 1934. This has undoubtedly thrown a severe strain on the engineering staff, and in order to meet it we have added in the last two years no fewer than 11,000 people to our engineering staff. That is a huge addition.
The hon. Member spoke about overtime and wanted it removed. We want to cut it down very much, but the point is that we have to get this work through because telephone development is a contribution to the general recovery of the country. Large numbers of the 11,000 people are young men whom I have seen being trained. They are not trained engineers 3451 when they join and it must be some time before this enormous addition to our staff becomes effective, so that we can reduce overtime which we shall be very glad to do as soon as we can.
There are some minor points which the hon. Member made. With reference to ex-service postmen I am always a little doubtful about individual cases where the people concerned make their own calculations about their incomes. At all events I am prepared to say that as a result of discussions with the staff the position of these ex-service men on entering the Post Office at an age rather older than that at which we usually take people has been improved by 5s. a week in the last three years. With reference to inventions, again I am not prepared to be guided entirely by statements in the Press from those who feel that they have grievances, because people are as a rule not unprejudiced in the consideration of their own cases. I cannot help thinking that the present arrangement under which a committee with an independent chairman considers inventions and whether they should have some reward, and is available for appeals by inventors, is probably the best arrangement.
With reference to the automatic exchanges and promotion, the hon. Member is right to the extent that about two years ago there was a considerable discouragement and set-back of promotion, but in the last two years, with the great extension of which I have given the House some figures, telephone supervisors have increased by 250, whereas at one time the number was doing down. The position is now very much better and I am glad to be able to reassure the hon. Member on that point. I will not discuss the individual case of dismissal, which the hon. Member did not want discussed here, but I think all who have ever held this position will support the contention that if the Postmaster-General is to be responsible to the House and to the country for his Department, he must have the right to dismiss individual members of the staff who, he considers, ought not to remain in the public service. Otherwise, it is impossible to see how he can be held responsible for the efficiency of the Department. This has been the general practice for many years and it will go on.
3452 The hon. Member, in a burst of enthusiasm for the 40-hour week, told us of the splendid results which would follow if his party were returned to office. He said definitely that his party would introduce the 40-hour week. As he has said that, I wish to read a quotation, first to show that the Labour Government did not do it last time they were in office, and, secondly, to show that they did attach very great importance to the difference between gross time and net time in the hours worked. The quotation I am reading is a reply of the Labour Government in 1929 to a demand, which amounted to a claim, for a 42-hour week, not a 40-hour week. The official answer sent by the Labour Government was thatWhile the nominal hours of attendance of the manipulative postal, telegraph and telephone staffs are 48 a week, they are reduced in practice to an average net working week of not more than 43 hours for the indoor staff and 45 for the outdoor staff.Then, when the hon. Member tells us that a Labour Government will establish the 40-hour week next time, I must remind him that in reply to a request for the 42-hour week it was stated:Under these circumstances the Postmaster-General regrets that there would not be justification for a general reduction of hours.
§ Major Tryon
It is quite true that the country is much more prosperous now than it was then, but the point on which the hon. Member hinged his argument was the relief of unemployment, and if a shortening of hours would relieve unemployment, there was an ever greater demand for some solution of the unemployment problem when his party were in office.
§ Major Tryon
The point of the hon. Member was that a shortening of hours would give employment. The point I am making is that when they were asked to create employment by shortening hours the Labour Government did not do it. I would not have said this if the hon. Member had not ventured, I think rather rashly, to give that assurance to the 3453 postal workers, because I feel that some of them have rather long memories. I turn now to the problem of the 40-hour week. The engineering staff of the Post Office are at the present moment actually working a 48-hour week. Their conditions of employment are very closely related to those of similar employés in other Government Departments and in outside industry. The question of the hours of the engineering staff is therefore a national one, and must be considered in the light of the general policy of the Government. Much as I should like to be able to do something which would bring their hours more into line with those of their postal colleagues, I regret that I cannot at present do so. But I hope to be able to discuss with them shortly certain other improvements in their conditions of employment.
I come now to the grades represented by the Union of Post Office Workers, who have a 48-hour gross week. A recent comprehensive survey shows that the nominal working hours of these grades are on the average only about 44 hours a week. Included in this total are the occasional reliefs and other attendance concessions made possible by the ebb and flow of the traffic and the time allowance credited to the staff in compensation for night work, long covering duties and other disabilities incidental to Post Office work. If those were disregarded the total number of hours worked generally would be only about 42, but I am taking the number as 44, because I do not wish to take advantage of the point about night work.
The Union of Post Office Workers, when asking for a 40-hour week, mean a 40-hour gross week, or an actual working week of anything from 34 to 36 hours. The hon. Member quoted what is done overseas. In the United States they have introduced the 40-hour week, but it is a 40-hour net week, which is very much longer than the 40-hour gross week would prove in practice. He also quoted the introduction of the 40-hour week in France. I do not wish to make any allusion to a foreign country, but it would be difficult at the moment to base any favourable conclusions, in the light of subsequent events, on the introduction of the 40-hour week in France. I do not claim that there is no room for advance as far as conditions of employment of the staff are concerned. It has been my 3454 constant endeavour to ensure that such advance as is reasonably justified is effected, and that will continue to be my endeavour.
While, then, I cannot see my way to agree to a reduction in the gross hours of duty of the Post Office staff, I recognise that the conditions of service in the Post Office in the matter of hours of attendance and arrangements of duties are, to some extent, exceptional. I have, therefore, told the Union of Post Office Workers that I am prepared to discuss with them modifications of the regulations relating to meal reliefs, rest reliefs and allowances for exceptional attendances, together with other similar questions. I am glad to be able to tell the House that the Union have intimated their acceptance of this offer, which may well result in some further reduction in the net hours of duty of the persons concerned. It seems to me that it is in this direction that the best hope of progress lies, and it is along these lines that I propose to pursue the matter.
The Post Office service is a Government monopoly, and it is reasonable that the profit on it should accrue to the benefit of the public generally, either by way of relief from taxation or in the shape of reduced charges. Any increase in the cost of Post Office administration which seriously affects its surplus would have to be made good by some form of taxation. The hon. Member spoke of the scheme costing "some thousands," but the Union of Post Office Workers itself estimates that the cost of the 40-hour week would be from £2,000,000 to £3,000,000. Moreover, the Union has intimated its intention to claim substantial wage increases in addition, so there would be other costs. Further, the fact that the Post Office is a monopoly, and is backed by all the resources of the State, makes it impossible to apply to the claim for a 40-hour week the usual commercial criterion of the ability of the Post Office surplus to bear the cost of conceding the claim.
The only criterion which the Post Office can safely apply to proposals for improving its pay and conditions of service must be a comparison with the standard of good employers in outside industry generally. I may say that the Post Office need fear no comparison with employers in outside industry generally in respect of wages, conditions of service, hours, holidays, sick 3455 leave, pensions, and so on. Until substantially more progress has been made in the reduction of hours in industry generally the Government cannot contemplate such independent action in the case of their employés, whether in the Post Office or elsewhere. The suggestion has been made, quite legitimately, by the hon. Member that shortened hours would relieve unemployment. Our policy of reducing charges to the public, while at the same time making concessions to meet the legitimate claims of the staff, has made a valuable contribution to the reduction of unemployment. The result of this policy has been an increase in the staff last year of 16,000 people. I think that the fact that we have been able not only to make concessions to the public and the staff but to add 16,000 to the numbers of the staff, shows that we are doing something for unemployment. I think it is very largely due to the concessions that have been made to the public that we have been able to give extra employment, because they have brought us more work to do. In addition, an enormous amount of employment has been provided in industries outside the Post Office, in the manufacture of telephone and telegraph instruments, and the like.
While I am making this statement, which I need hardly say I have spent a great deal of time in condensing, because it is of great importance, I do not want to give the impression that nothing has been done for the staff, because such an impression would be entirely wrong. In the last four years wage increases have been granted which will ultimately cost £2,500,000 a year. Eliminating the restoration of the cuts, the amount of the concessions will ultimately mean an additional expenditure of £1,300,000. A matter which I know will interest the hon. Member is that there has been a great reduction in part-time labour. This question relates to auxiliary postmen. Their number was reduced last year by 1,500, mostly by conversion to full-time posts. That has been a considerable contribution to the problem to which the hon. Member naturally and rightly directed an important part of his speech. On the telephone side, we hope to replace 1,500 part-time posts by full-time posts in the near future. I will not go into the extremely difficult problems involved, over which I have spent a good deal of 3456 time, but there are certain times of the day when the mails are particularly heavy, and it is then that the part-time labour comes in. We are making arrangements to improve that position very much. Our general policy is to reduce part-time labour in all grades. I entirely agree with the hon. Member on that point.
We are giving special attention to better welfare accommodation, and to such things as staff refreshment rooms, dining room equipment and amenities. The hon. Member spoke about the influence of overtime and said there was a great deal of sickness in the Post Office. The facts are that in 1936 the rate of sickness among men was the lowest since 1914, and that sickness among women was the lowest since 1906. While we agree as to the importance of reducing overtime, there does not seem to be a good foundation for suggesting that overtime has led to sickness, in view of the fact that the sickness has not been so low for a very long time past.
I am hoping, after the House has risen, to visit a number of great Post Office centres in some of our large towns. It enables one to get into touch with the work on the spot and into touch with the staff. Wherever I have been I have been struck with the extraordinarily friendly attitude of the staff. I think there is better feeling among the staff than perhaps there has ever been before, and I am very proud to be associated with them and with the leaders of the staff whom I am happy to meet at headquarters. I cannot find better words for the attitude of the staff than those of the present Prime Minister who said that the staff—I am quoting—wereanimated by a sympathetic interest in the needs of the public and a determination to show them that the Post Office is a friendly and a human place, and not a mere machine.I think a good deal of the improved relations with the public is due to our Public Relations Department, which is doing most valuable work. It gets into touch with important bodies, municipalities, chambers of commence and chambers of trade, and generally endeavours to find out how we can serve and help the public. It also tells the public what concessions we are making. If we make concessions, we want the public to take them up and use them, and make them of advantage to 3457 the State, so that we can launch out again into further improvements. I may mention such things—although they are fairly small when you think of the enormous scale of our operations—as the talking clock, the golden telegram and the mobile post office, which have made a contribution towards increased good will between the public and ourselves. I do not know whether hon. Members have seen the mobile post office. It is something like a tramcar, only much more beautiful. You can go into it and pick up a telephone, invest your savings or the money which you may have won at an agricultural show, send telegrams or buy stamps. It is a real, mobile post office. This thing drives round to large agricultural shows, adds to the brightness of the scene and is of very great convenience to the public. Then, off it goes. It has been touring Scotland. All those things do not mean much in themselves, but the public like them, and feel that the Post Office is striking out a new line and trying to do something which the public likes. It helps the public to have friendly feelings towards the Post Office.
In conclusion, I would like to say only one or two further things. I have already mentioned the staff; I should like to add how greatly I am indebted to the Assistant Postmaster-General. Ours is an extraordinarily busy office. Only those who have been there know how busy the Department is, and they will not blame me for expressing my gratitude to him. I should like to say also how much the Department is indebted to the Advisory Council and the Advisory Committees, and to the Press, who have also given us invaluable help with such things as the "Post Early" campaign. I am also grateful for the kindly interest taken in the Post Office by hon. Members of this House, and I thank them very much.
§ 10.14 p.m.
§ Mr. Wakefield
The Postmaster-General has given us a comprehensive survey of the work of his Department, but that undertaking is of such magnitude that there must, of necessity, be a number of its operations with which he has omitted to deal or has hardly touched upon. I was glad, however, to hear him refer to the innovation which has taken place this year in connection with the new Empire air mail service. That must have a far-reaching effect, and I think that anything 3458 that can be done to shorten the distance between the homeland and the Colonies and Dominions at this period of our civilisation is of immense importance and value.
I should like to make a brief reference to the method of overtime to which the hon. Member for West Willesden (Mr. Viant) referred. He said that some 4,000,000 hours of overtime were worked, and he blamed the Post Office for working overtime. I do not, however, see how an organisation like the Post Office, which has to maintain a great public service, can avoid overtime on certain occasions. During the year there are such occurrences as heavy falls of snow, gales, and so on, which interrupt communication. It is clear that in such emergencies the normal staff will be, and must be, called upon to work overtime, and I am sure that they carry out their overtime work in a public-spirited way.
There was another point, which the Postmaster - General answered very adequately, namely, that of the reduction of hours of work, but I would like to add something to what the Postmaster-General said on that matter. The hon. Member for West Willesden said that the only palliative for unemployment was a reduction of the hours of work. I have discussed this matter with many workers in my constitutency and in other constituencies, and I think the general feeling is, where the hours of work are reasonable and adequate leisure is available, that, rather than reduced hours of work, the workers would prefer to have more pay. The introduction of machinery enables one of three things to happen—a reduction of the price charged to the public, the advantages of which have already been described by the Post-master-General; shorter hours; or increased pay for the worker; and, where the hours of work are reasonable, I think it is better that there should be increased pay. With increased pay there is a better standard of living, we hope greater happiness, and improved conditions. Moreover, if the pay of the workers is increased, they have more money both to spend and to save, and that in turn creates further employment. Therefore the hon. Member is under a misapprehension if he thinks that the only way to reduce unemployment is to reduce the hours of work. It is far more likely that 3459 increased employment will result from increased wages than from a reduction of the hours of work where these are reasonable.
To return to the new Empire air mail services, apart from the advantages to those who live in, or have to correspond with, people in far distant parts of the Empire, it is a great advantage to have a cheap service quickened in the way that it has been; but there is also a far greater advantage, namely, that by this policy of sending first-class mail by air the Post Office has rendered a very real service to the Defence programme, since there will be an increased number of pilots, mechanics, and ground staff available in the event of an emergency. Without this help from the Post Office, such a reserve of highly trained pilots and mechanics would not be possible, and, therefore, I think that in this way the Post Office has rendered a very real service to the Defence position of this country. I would like to congratulate the Postmaster-General on the smooth introduction of the new service. It is no mean task to carry by air to the great African Continent that first-class mail which was formerly taken by sea. It is obvious that, however well prepared the ground may be beforehand, everything cannot work quite as smoothly in such a transition as would be hoped.
I have had experience of considerable delay of a number of letters sent by air. Before this service was introduced the normal time taken to get to Rhodesia, for example, was about eight days. During the last month quite a number of letters have been taking 10, 12 and 14 days, owing doubtless to the excessive mail to be carried. There is no room on one flying boat, and a letter has to wait for the second or third. I hope within the next few weeks the difficulty will be overcome. If it is not, I suggest that there be introduced a system of a late fee payment or some extra payment for express delivery, so that any letter which it is desired shall reach its destination at the earliest moment shall be sent off by the earliest possible mail. It does not matter for ordinary correspondence whether a letter reaches its destination in five or ten days, but I had experience the other day of a very important business mail which took 12 days instead of eight. Cables passed as to what had happened to it, and a considerable loss 3460 was incurred because the letter was late. It is vitally important for business and commercial reasons that there should be regularity in delivery. I see the difficulty of always maintaining an exact schedule when so much mail is being taken in the early stages, but I hope my right hon. Friend will see the advisability of instituting some such preferential service.
Another point with which I should like to deal is the great part that the Post Office plays in the broadcasting system of the country. When we think of broadcasting we do not realise the responsibilities that belong to the Post Office in ensuring that a good reception service is made available to the public and maintained in the highest possible degree of efficiency. Much praise was rightly given to the British Broadcasting Corporation for the very wonderful broadcasting of the Coronation service, but how many people realise that the clarity of that broadcast was due in no small measure to the complicated and difficult technical work done by the Post Office? The direct lines from the Abbey to the broadcasting studios, whence they are transmitted to different parts of the country and Continental stations—all that is done by the Post Office. It is a very complicated job. They are not ordinary telephone or speaking lines. Music lines must be used, and for temporary work of that kind very great care and skill are required to ensure that everything goes smoothly. I think that enough praise and credit has not been given to the Post Office for the work that they have done in this direction for the last two or three years. There are some 10,000 miles, so I have discovered in the last day or two, of permanent music lines laid in this country which are used by the B.B.C., and some 273 Anglo-Continental telephone circuits have been used between this country and the Continent during the past 12 months. It is not generally realised to what extent the Post Office gives assistance to the British Broadcasting Corporation in the discharge of its duties to the public.
The hon. Member for Blackburn (Sir W. Smiles) the other day asked a question of the Postmaster-General which rather intrigued me because it did not appear to be answered, and so I made a few inquiries about the position. The question asked whether the Postmaster. General was aware that people in Switzerland 3461enjoy direct-line broadcasting programmes from British Broadcasting House, London, and when he expects to permit similar facilities to the taxpayers of this country."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd July, 1937; col. 2448, Vol. 326.]The answer given was that there was an exchange of programmes between Switzerland and this country, but no reply was given as to direct line facilities being given to taxpayers in this country. The position to-day is that many foreign countries enjoy direct land line facilities from the studios of the broadcasting stations in their own country direct into the homes of the people. That is to say, the programmes never go into the air at all; they go direct by land line from studios into the homes of the people. Obviously, there is considerable advantage in the use of land line transmission; electrical interference, fading, trolley-bus interference and other disturbances, about which questions have been asked in this House during the last few weeks are thus avoided. Such facilities are not available to the taxpayers in this country. The Post Office, I believe, are able to give facilities, and are naturally anxious to extend their business, but I am informed that it is the British Broadcasting Corporation which refuses to give the necessary facilities at the studio end, and I find it difficult to realise why.
Quite clearly, if these landline facilities were made available by the B.B.C. its own programmes could be heard far better in many parts of the country. It is a well-known fact that on the North-East coast, for example, and on parts of the South Coast the reception of British broadcast programmes is at certain times of the year and at certain times of the day extremely bad, due to fading and to other difficulties. But if these B.B.C. programmes were made available by direct line, there would be considerable advantage both to the general public and to the British Broadcasting Corporation itself. At the present time many listeners in such parts of the country are compelled to listen in to foreign programmes in order to get their entertainment. I think that this is undesirable. The reason given by the British Broadcasting Corporation is that it cannot permit such facilities unless its programmes only are given. The Committee which sat in 1935 to go into this question considered it incumbent upon the B.B.C. to take into consideration any desire of subscribers 3462 and taxpayers to have a selection of foreign programmes. I suggest that the British Broadcasting Corporation, in denying to the taxpayers of this country the right to have these facilities, is not carrying out the duties which it should discharge under the terms of its Charter. The whole essence of the Charter of the B.B.C. is that the broadcasting should be conducted by a public corporation acting as trustee for the national interest. When foreign countries are able to permit their listeners to have these facilities, whereas the B.B.C. refuses to grant them, it is not discharging its duties properly.
There is another point which was raised by the right hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Lees-Smith) during the passage of the Physical Training and Recreation Bill a few weeks ago. He suggested that perhaps in the early morning the B.B.C. might with advantage assist physical training and recreation by giving some form of special broadcast. I noticed two or three days ago that a foreign station does this. It says:Laugh and grow fat in the early morning. Physical jerks with a laugh, led by Joe Murgatroyd, the lad from Yorkshire.I pass that on to the B.B.C. and hope that they will take advantage of that hint. I hope that the Postmaster-General will look into this question and see whether it is not possible to give facilities to the British public similar to those enjoyed in foreign countries.
In conclusion, I should like to congratulate the Postmaster-General on the statement that he has given to the House of the record progress made by his Department during the past year, and the development work now being undertaken. This increase in business reflects a happy and gradual return of prosperity throughout the country, and I am sure that we wish him during the coming year an even greater success than has been achieved by his Department during the past year.
§ 10.33 p.m.
§ Mr. Garro Jones
The hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Wakefield) has made another cogent claim for the radio relay service, of which he is a distinguished pioneer. While I have no brief for that branch of private industry, I do think that it would be well for the Post Office not to overlook the necessity of keeping 3463 pace with that branch of radio development, and not to allow themselves to fall behind development in foreign countries in that direction. I should also like to add my meed of praise to the Postmaster-General and to echo what was said by the hon. Member about the enterprise shown by the Post Office in the development of its air postal services.
Nothing impresses me more in this House than to hear Conservative Postmasters-General recounting in all their splendour the Socialistic achievements of the State-run Post Office. I am unable to see the logic of their position when they try to maintain that the Post Office is in some special degree different from any other kind of enterprise. We often hear it said that the Post Office is a monopoly, but to the same extent that the Post Office is a monopoly so are a large number of other enterprises or firms in this country monopolies, if not in name then in fact, and I contend, and I hope it is not yet too late for the Postmaster-General to learn, that the undeniable success achieved by the State-controlled Post Office is just as likely to be achieved by State-controlled branches of industry in other spheres.
Impressive as the Postmaster-General is when recounting the achievements of the Post Office, he is not so impressive when he finds himself unable to resist an attempt to score debating points over his predecessors in the Post Office on the Front Opposition Bench. He told us that the Labour Government in 1929 abstained from putting into force the 40-hour week which it now recommends and pledges itself to introduce in the future. Surely times and circumstances have moved forward with enormous rapidity since that date? The Postmaster-General himself claimed that the times are more prosperous now, and, as usual, he earned cheers from his supporters with the fallacy that the whole of the prosperity which has come to the country since 1931 has been due to the deliberate policy of the National Government, completely overlooking the fact that the greatest factor in the restoration of prosperity is that we went off the Gold Standard contrary to the most strenuous efforts made by the National Government of that day. An event which they foretold would be followed by disaster has proved to be the 3464 most potent factor in the restoration of the prosperity of this country.
The Post Office has, indeed, had a record year; £10,750,000 paid to the Treasury and another sum which it is able to dispose of itself. The Postmaster-General was not able to convince the House that adequate concessions have been made to the vast service over which he presides. He endeavoured to make out that ex-service postmen had received an extra 5s. per week in wages, bringing them up to a total wage of £2 14s. per week—not a very magnificent boast. He told us that the total increase in wages amounted to £1,750,000 out of a total of £40,000,000 paid in wages by the Post Office. The amount which has accrued to the 300,000 Post Office workers in this year of great prosperity has been an increase of 2½ per cent. on their total wage. I do not wish to accuse the Postmaster-General with meanness of outlook, but I contend that in many of the smaller cases which come under the administration of the Post Office there is evidence of a lack of magnaminity which ill becomes the magnicent State service over which he presides. A few years ago I remember a proposal that ex-service men under 5 feet 4 inches should be appointed as Post Office sorters, but not all the pleading of hon. Members in all parts of the House could induce the Post Office to allow men who had been good enough to stand on the parapet to stand on a block of wood and sort letters in the Post Office.
A case was brought to my attention the other day which I feel I must bring to the notice of the House. A man in my constituency was deprived of the benefits of established service because he happened to fall ill with a complaint known as duodenal ulcer, with the characteristics of which, of course, every hon. Member is familiar. I do not wish it to be thought that I raise this purely as a constituency point; I raise it as a further illustration of lack of breadth of outlook and magnanimity in treating these cases. The man was made a temporary postman. For 18 months he carried out his duties with complete efficiency and there was no sign of a return of his disease. All his fellows in his trade union and a considerable number of local people made appeals, to which I added my small voice in correspondence with the Assistant Postmaster-General, stating the case as 3465 clearly as I could and begging him not to allow the fact that the Post Office had hitherto refused to reinstate this man to prejudice them against a fresh and an open consideration of the case.
What was I told? I was told that duodenal ulcer is a complaint which is very liable to recur. I said, "Let us have a fresh medical examination; let the man be referred to the medical examination of a medical officer appointed by the Civil Service Commissioners; and let them report to the Post Office as to whether or not his complaint is likely to recur." What was the response? "The Post Office is unable to reconsider its decision." Things of that sort excite discontent among the people at a post office where there are hundreds of employés, at a time when the Post Office has a surplus of millions of pounds. In such cases there is no great principle involved which might result in bringing in an enormous class of employés who might threaten the financial stability of the revenue account. In individual cases of that nature, surely the Post Office is leaning rather heavily on one or two Individuals who are serving them to the best of their ability. It is not a case of the man being unable to carry out his task, for he has been doing that for 18 months; it is simply that if he is put on the established branch, he may come in for a claim for pension or sickness benefit which he would not get if he remained unestablished
That is really an unworthy attitude for a large employer of labour to take up. I hope that it is not yet too late for something to be done, if there is anything in the system under which Ministers are prepared to consider sincere representations made by Members of this House on behalf of their constituents, backed up by the colleagues of these men in their own post offices. There is more to be gained by giving in in such cases than in holding out against them. I appeal to the Assistant Postmaster-General, who has been giving his attention to this case, to look into it again. As I see it, the job of a Minister, if I may say so with great respect, is to form some sort of bridge between these matters of public opinion and general policy and the strict rules by which the Civil Service has to be governed. If he fails on occasion to exercise the discretion which 3466 has been vested in him, my submission is that he is not showing the highest characteristics of a good Minister of the Crown. I will not detain the House any longer. As I have already said, I am an admirer of the Post Office, and I have put forward these views in the hope that the Post Office will readjust, on these small matters, their views towards their relations with their staff.
§ 10.44 p.m.
§ Sir Edward Campbell
The Postmaster-General has already referred to most of the things said by the hon. Member for West Willesden (Mr. Viant), but I would like to take up the case mentioned by the hon. Member, and also the one referred to by the hon. Member who has just spoken. I happen to have spent three years at the Post Office alongside two Assistant Postmasters-General. From time to time, they would bring along large bundles of cases which had been sent to them by the officials with regard to the dismissal or otherwise of various employés. They said to me, "Would you mind going through this list. You have been head of a very big concern which was not a Government Department. How would you have handled these cases in your office?" They asked for my opinion. I went into these cases and in not one single case was any injustice done to accused persons. If I may be allowed to give myself a pat on the back I would say that when I was in the East I was always looked upon as a reasonable employer. I have always been and I hope I still am a sportsman, and I assure the hon. Member for West Willesden from my own experience of those three years in the Post Office that these cases were given every consideration. Very often, when it was decided that a person was to be dismissed and I was asked my opinion, I said that I should have done so long before had it been left to me. There was always the plea that a man should be given another chance. Possibly that was right and I did not object to it, but I sometimes thought that if those people had been in the employment of a private firm, they would have gone much earlier. Naturally, of course, when a man is dismissed, whether rightly or wrongly, he feels hurt about it, and who is better able to take up his case than his Member of Parliament just as I myself take up the cases of constituents of my own.
3467 I wish particularly to-night to speak of the air mail services. I had the great honour and pleasure 2½ years ago of going on a delegation with my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Guinness) and two civil servants on behalf of the Post Office, in connection with speeding up air services throughout the Empire. I am anxious to know what has been done since and what has been the result, not necessarily of what that delegation did but of the proposals that were discussed when we visited various parts of the Empire. I find in the Air Debates in this House much criticism of Imperial Airways. Not being an airman myself I have never dared to intervene in Debates on the Air Estimates, but I can say that although I had never flown until I went all the way to Australia in Imperial Airways machines, I felt perfectly safe from beginning to end of that journey. That is one of the most important things in connection with an air service. The traveller should feel that the pilot is a first-class pilot and that the machine is a good machine. We also found on that journey that we were extraordinarily comfortable. If we are to increase these air services, the first essential is safety, the second reasonable speed, and the third, comfort. It may be necessary at times for a person going on a long journey to take the first machine available in order to get there quickly, but if that person has not felt safe and comfortable, he will return by boat and that is not the idea.
During the fortnight that we were in India on the occasion to which I refer, I found that the officials there had tackled the problem of air services with great ability and keenness. We also went to Singapore, and here I wish to make a reference to the wonderful new aerodrome there. From time to time I have criticised the late Governor of Singapore, Sir Cecil Clementi, for various things which he has done or has not done, but I wish to say now that if he had done nothing good in his life except to select this aerodrome, I heartily congratulate him upon it. It is a first-class aerodrome, probably the best in the Empire and therefore I take this opportunity of paying my tribute to it, and if the late Governor of Singapore should happen to read my speech he will know that I have given him the fair measure of praise which is his due.
3468 We visited India, Singapore and Java, where I had the honour of welcoming Keith Smith and Ross Smith when they came out in 1919, and had the privilege of arranging for the landing grounds there. I little thought then that later I should fly there on Government business. In New Zealand we were heartily welcomed. I sincerely hope that those who are going to travel to Australia will be able to travel in flying boats between the Dutch East Indies and Australia rather than, as we had to travel, in a land plane over 500 miles of a shark-infested sea. When I looked down and saw nothing but sea and sharks, I can assure the House that even a so-called brave man like myself was exceedingly glad to see the land, even though, with all deference to Australia, it was only Darwin. No sooner had I landed at Darwin than I was glad to get out of it again. I hope that the Postmaster-General will try to get Australia to agree that that journey should be done by flying boats and not by land planes.
Will the Postmaster-General tell us when the new scheme of air services to India, Singapore and Australia is going to start, how many mails a week there will be, and whether New Zealand is to be included, because the New Zealanders were extraordinarily keen? They showed more enthusiasm for this scheme than any of the other countries to which we went. Will he tell us how long it will take to reach each of these places? It took us 11 days to get to Australia. It took people who went there by steamer 32 days. But there is still more improvement to be obtained. Finally, will the journeys be completed by seaplanes or land planes? I think that practically the whole of the journey can be done by flying boats, but I understand that there may be some difficulty in getting the Australians to agree to have flying boats.
I congratulate the Postmaster-General on the excellent report he has given and on the hard work which he and his colleagues are putting in. I agree with him entirely about the staff. I do not think that I ever spent three happier years than those I spent in the Post Office. The staff were first-class and when I hear the Civil Service being criticised I think that very often the men who criticise them do not know them and have 3469 not worked with them. They are helpful, they know their places, and they give the Ministers a jolly good brief from which to make their speeches. If a speech is not as good as it should be it is not the fault of the Civil Service.
§ 10.55 p.m.
§ Mr. Tinker
The hon. Member for Bromley (Sir E. Campbell) has done very well for the Post Office, but when he spoke about all the cases being examined thoroughly, we do not doubt that, but we do make the appeal that the Post Office in these matters will be a bit more generous than it has been in the past. In special cases, such as that which was pointed out by my hon. Friend, close attention should be given to see whether anything more can be done. I have only one main point that I want to bring forward, and it is in regard to the balance-sheet of the Post Office. The Postmaster-General told us that they paid £10,750,000 to the Treasury, and that all above that is used for any particular purpose for which they may want to use it. The point that I have in mind is in reference to Departments which have to do work for other Departments. Tomorrow I have a question down to the Minister of Health asking whether he will adopt some method to make known what we term the new voluntary pension scheme. I believe he will do that, and to do it he will have to get the cooperation of the Post Office. When the Post Office takes over work for other Departments in that way, it should be made quite clear what is being done. If such work was done for a private firm or for myself, we should have to pay for it. Is there some understanding in this matter between one Department and another, by which, if the one does work valued at, say, £1,000, it is credited by that amount, so as to show what work has actually been carried out by that Department? If the work balanced all round equally, it would be merely a book-keeping matter, but it does not, because one Department does a far greater amount of work of this nature than do other Departments.
I want to see the balance-sheet of the Post Office made a true reflection of the returns of that Department. When we are attempting to get better conditions for Post Office employés, such as a reduction in hours or higher wages, we want to see that the returns are there to meet 3470 the cost, and unless we get a fair return of all the work done, it is not answering itself as it ought to. I do not think very many people know whether it is done or not. I was asked the question the other week, when talking about Post Office matters, and I had to confess that I could not answer it and that I could not say definitely whether or not this work done for other Departments is shown in the balance-sheet. I want the Assistant Postmaster-General to-night to clear up that point so that it will go out to the public how the Post Office work is going on and clear away all doubt on the point in question.
§ 10.59 p.m.
§ Major Procter
Much as I would like to answer the illustration mentioned by the hon. Member for North Aberdeen (Mr. Garro Jones) as to the Post Office being in effect an example of applied Socialism, I have not the time to do it. I desire to call the attention of the Post-master-General to the position of he parcel post. Those who are trying to establish smallholdings feel that if there was a better and cheaper system of parcel post, it would enable the buyers of various things, such as tomatoes, poultry, and vegetables, to get a direct sale to the homes of the people. If the Postmaster-General will look into the comparative rates of his nationalised system of distributing goods he will find that the freight rates of parcels of one pound weight amount to £54 per ton. A 1–lb. parcel costs 6d. and a 3-lb. parcel also costs 6d., so that the rate averages from £54 to £18 per ton.
Comparing the rates of parcels charged by the nationalised Post Office and by the railways, we find that a 4-lb. parcel carried by the Post Office costs 8d. and on the railways up to 30 miles 7d.; 5 to 6-lb. parcels by post, 9d., on the railways 7d. and 8d.; 6 lbs. by post 10d., and on the railways 7d. and 9d.; 8 lbs. by post 11d., and on the railways 8d. and 9d.; 8 to 12 lbs. by post 1s., and on the railways 8d. and 11d.; 15 lbs. by post 1s., and on the railways 9d. and 1s. The railways have a two-way rate according to whether the parcel travels up to or beyond 30 miles radius. There we have two monopolies at work, the Post Office and the railways, but manufacturers in Accrington can send parcels to London by road under individual enterprise much cheaper than either the Post Office or the railways. 3471 Smallholdings are increasing and many pensioners are working on the land where they produce poultry. We have kippers in Aberdeen, and it costs less to get kippers out of the sea than to send them through the nationalised Post Office to the people who require them. I hope that the Postmaster-General will look into this matter to see how he can help the smallholders and the small producers and curers so that they can send their parcels more cheaply through the Post Office.
§ 11.3 p.m.
§ Mr. Markham
I should like to add my congratulations to those which have been freely expressed to the Postmaster-General on the year's work. There are one or two small points to which attention should be directed. One is that the telephone boxes are so flimsily made that any one can hear a conversation that is going on therein. It has been the common experience of Members of the House in the telephone room while waiting for a trunk call to hear several telephone conversations which undoubtedly should be kept quiet. That is true not only of this House but of every country Post Office. The call boxes in the Post Offices are so flimsily made that anyone going in to make a chance purchase of stamps may very often hear the most intimate conversations, without in any way wishing to eavesdrop. I suggest that attention should be given to the double-facing of the doors, and the introduction of air cells with double layers of plywood. I think that has been found, in the experiments conducted by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, to produce what is practically speaking a noise-proof box. Not long ago, at an exhibition at the Science Museum in connection with noise abatement some fine models of sound-deadening apparatus were shown, and the Post Office should bring its telephone boxes up to date.
My second point also concerns the telephone service, but it is of so delicate a character that I do not wish to give particular instances. It refers to the eavesdropping which goes on among post office officials and the way in which news is disseminated in country districts. We know that in olden days the postmistress in the village post office used to read every post card which came through, and that the contents of post cards were village gossip for the next few hours or even 3472 for days. That was understandable in the olden days, but what is not understandable is that telephone operators should pass on conversations which are overheard. I certainly should not give instances in this House, and I should be very chary of giving instances privately, because naturally one does not wish to put people in front of the possibility of dismissal; but I suggest that a most stringent circular should be issued by the Postmaster-General pledging every member of his staff, particularly those in the telephone service, to the utmost secrecy, and that in case of complaints a secret test should be made so that they can be investigated not by questions through the local postmaster but by methods of another kind. I have had a melancholy experience in this direction, and, unfortunately, telephone leakages which have occurred have often been in connection with the unfortunate things of life.
Another complaint concerns the comfort of the public in village post offices. Only too often the post office is housed in the local sweet shop, and the facilities for postal customers are skimpy in the extreme. It is often difficult to find space to write a telegram or to get served when a conversation is going on in another corner of the shop. A great amount of money is being spent by the Post Office on the development of city post offices, and I suggest that there should be a great programme for bringing village post offices up to date with, if need be, modern buildings allowing ample space for the customers. These are minor points which I have raised, and in general I join with other Members in congratulating the Postmaster-General on a very successful year's work.
§ 11.8 p.m.
§ The Assistant Postmaster-General (Sir Walter Womersley)
I have not very much time in which to reply to the various questions which have been put to me, and if I do not reply to certain questions let me assure hon. Members that they will receive earnest consideration at the Post Office. It has been a very pleasing Debate. We have had bouquets handed to us from all sides. It is true that one or two Members included a thistle or two in their bouquets, but on the whole neither my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General nor I can complain at the reception we have had to-night. What 3473 we are concerned about is the short time we have had in which to deal with this important Department. We owe a debt of gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for West Willesden (Mr. Viant) for introducing the Debate, and to him and to his colleagues for agreeing that we should have a half-day if we could not have a whole day. The Postmaster-General replied at considerable length to the important points raised by the hon. Member for West Willesden, but one or two smaller points were omitted, and I propose to deal with them.
There was the question of the interchange of staff recommended by the Bridgeman Committee. There has been considerable interchange of staff, between headquarters, the Provinces and the regions. This has proved so successful that we are going to continue it, develop it and make the best use of it. The hon. Gentleman also referred to the question of dealing with the staff. He knows from experience that it must be the special duty of the Assistant Postmaster-General to deal with such matters. If the system is considered, it will be found to compare most favourably with any other system adopted in any other form of employment. Every member of the staff has the right of appeal to the Postmaster-General if he is dissatisfied with his promotion chances or is threatened with dismissal. If dishonesty or breaches of regulation have to be dealt with, the process is as follows: The case is first considered locally. The head postmaster—if it is a postal servant, or the head of the engineering department, if it is a case in that department—carefully considers the evidence produced. Then, in the case of regions, the matter is passed to the regional head, who again gives most careful attention to the facts that are presented to him. It goes to headquarters, where it is dealt with by a competent staff whose duty covers cases of discipline and where dismissal is threatened.
After that, it goes to the Assistant Director-General, a very experienced official who, I can assure hon. Members, gives the closest attention to cases that come before him. Then it comes to myself, and I say, on my own behalf, that I regard it as a very serious duty and obligation to give it the closest attention and consideration, and to the representations made by the man or by the Union on his behalf. I realise that once a servant 3474 of the Post Office is dismissed from the service, it is practically signing his death warrant against getting employment of a respectable kind. I take the greatest care to see that justice is done, and cases are often sent back for further investigation. It is only when I am absolutely convinced that dismissal is the right verdict that I pass it on to my right hon. and gallant Friend the Postmaster-General, who has to sign it as the responsible official.
In this connection I would deal with the point raised by the hon. Member for North Aberdeen (Mr. Garro Jones) and then I shall clear away two points together. The hon. Member mentioned a case; he has fought it well on behalf of his constituent and I admire him for it. I did the same for constituents of mine before I came into the Postal service and have done so since. But I have had to realise that however much I was prejudiced in favour of the person, I have had to deal with the case on its merits alone. I have to take into account the position of all other members of the staff, when asked to make concessions such as the hon. Member asked in this or that case. In reviewing, because of health reasons, the case of a temporary postman and the question of bringing him on to the permanent staff, or where a man is superannuated out of the service for health reasons, we are bound to take into consideration the conditions of the service.
There is no service in this country that is more generous in its treatment of men who are ill. Full wages are paid, medical attention is given, and all that can be done is done to help to make the person well again. It is only when it is shown beyond a shadow of doubt that the person is not likely to render useful service to the Department that the question of superannuating him out of the Service arises. But when it comes to the question of taking people into the Service, I submit that we must be careful. When a person goes into temporary service, it is pointed out to him definitely and clearly that it carries with it no obligation on the part of the Postmaster-General to find him permanent employment, and I think the hon. Member will agree that, if we had been able to do what he desires, it would only have meant that another man from North Aberdeen would not have had the job.
§ Mr. Garro Jones
This man is already in Post Office employment, and for 18 months he has been immune from any symptoms of the disease which is held to be a disqualification for established employment. My suggestion is that, if he is able to carry out the duties for 18 months, without any suggestion that he suffers from this disqualifying disease, the least that the Post Office might do is to allow him to be medically examined, and take the verdict of the medical officer on the medical question.
§ Sir W. Womersley
This question of medical examination has given me some concern since I went to the Post Office. I have discussed the matter with our medical staff on more than one occasion, and have not finished my researches. Established servants have a right of appeal to the Treasury medical referee, who is an independent medical officer; but in the case of an unestablished servant my argument is that, no pledge of permanent employment having been given to that person when he entered the service, when the question arises whether that man or another man with a clean bill of health shall be employed, I am sure we are not doing any injustice when we take the man with a clean bill of health. I know that I shall not be able to convince the hon. Member, and I do not blame him, because he is fighting for a constituent.
My hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. Wakefield) asked a question about our air mail services, and also wanted to know something about land lines in connection with the B.B.C. I shall be happy to make inquiries into the latter matter. We are very desirous of giving the public of this country a better service if that is at all possible, and we shall take this matter into consideration along with other matters connected with relay services. At the moment our experts are inquiring into the question of relay services and what shall be the future of those services.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley (Sir E. Campbell), who has had a long experience at the Post Office, and who gave us some very interesting details of the trip he made by air on behalf of the Post Office, put one or two questions to me. He wanted to know when we expected to extend the service 3476 beyond South Africa. We hope to extend it to India and Malaya towards [...]he end of 1937, and to Australia in 1938 Flying boats will be used, and an extension to New Zealand is under consideration. We hope that the result of his visit and the conversations that he has with officials in the serivce in those countries, and the efforts that are being made to forward things, will result in a very satisfactory service. An important question has been raised about credit being given for work done by the Post Office We have a clearing-house system. We take care that we are paid for the services that we render. Other Departments owe us something like £250,000 and we will see that we get it or some service in return. They render service to us and we to them.
The hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Accrington (Major Procter) wanted a reduction in the parcel post rates. We all want reductions in everything except what we sell. We did reduce parcel post rates two years ago and the service has only just begun to pay. There are other considerations than merely providing a cheap service, because in this we come into competition with railway companies and we have to work in conjunction with the railway companies. Our parcel post service is one of the cheapest services in the world and I am certain we give full value for money.
The hon. Member for Nottingham (Mr. Markham) mentioned a matter that gives concern to the Postmaster-General and myself, the question of secrecy within the service. Every member of the Post Office, on coming into our employment, signs a strict declaration of secrecy, and the penalties for breach of this declaration are very severe. We are very concerned that there should be no question of secrets being conveyed from one person to another and, if we hear of any case—I know the hon. Member did not want to mention any names or get any one into trouble or difficulties, but it will have to come to that. There are times when you have to run the risk of doing an injury to someone, if you like to call it injury when it is a question of breach of discipline. There is no desire on our part that anything should be conveyed in the way of overheard conversations on the telephone outside or even to members of the staff inside. We 3477 make that a definite stipulation and we shall emphasise it in future.
We are not responsible for the telephone boxes in the House. That is the responsibility of the First Commissioner of Works. But we are responsible for the boxes outside. I was not aware that they were so flimsy that conversations could be heard outside, though I have known cases where people have left the door open and conversations have been heard. I will have inquiries made and see what is the real position. Possibly they are the old-fashioned boxes which have been in use for some time, and not those introduced in the last few months.
The hon. Member for North Aberdeen tried to draw the old red herring across the track about the Post Office being a fine example of what nationalism means. He said, "Do not trot out the old argument that this is a monopoly." I am going to trot out that argument because this has been a monopoly since the reign of King Charles I, and, therefore, is deeply rooted in the heart and mind of the people of this country. I would have reminded him, if he had been present, that at any rate we have not to face foreign competition or competition of any kind. It was not a successful Department until really sound business men came into the Post Office and helped to make it what it is to-day, a sound business concern. If the wrong people were the political heads it might easily recede into the position that men would never claim it as an example of nationalisation. The advancement that has been made since the National Government undertook the great work of reorganising the Post Office as well as putting the finances of the country into a sound condition, and the improvements that have taken place in the last few years, justify me in saying that, after all, you must have business men at the head of this concern.
Mr. J. J. Davidson
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that on this side of the House, we consider his last statement a very funny statement indeed?
§ Sir W. Womersley
I am not at all surprised at that. I know the hon. Gentleman. I have listened to him in this House and have had to sit silent and not answer him. If I told him what I think about him and his statements, we should both laugh.
§ 11.27 p.m.
§ Mr. Sexton
I do not apologise for intervening in this Debate, because I have sat here during the whole of the time. I represent the smallest electorate in England, but at the same time I must voice what these people have asked me to say on the Floor of the House of Commons. I represent an agricultural area in the main. Although we are all pleased at the prosperity of the Post Office, there are some people engaged by the Post Office who are not sharing in the prosperity to the extent that they ought to be. We who receive letters, telegrams, and telephone calls perhaps do not realise the work that is going on behind the scenes. The Postmaster-General talked about visiting the large centres during the Recess. As he is the Archbishop of the Post Office, I would ask him to leave the cathedrals and visit some of the parish churches. He should go to the country districts and see the skimpy premises about which the hon. Member for South Nottingham (Mr. Markham) spoke, and he should find out whether there is any truth in the statement about the violation of secrecy.
There are two sections of workers in connection with the Post Office on whose behalf I want to make a claim. The first section is that of the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses of this country. They are a deserving and almost indispensable section of the community. What are the obligations of sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses? They have to provide premises, render services of a confidential and responsible nature, and superintend their staffs, some of whom are more highly paid than they are themselves. I have lived in a country district for many years and I think the secrecy of and confidence in the Post Office in the rural districts is amazing. My experience is different from that of the hon. Member for Nottingham, South. All the years I have lived in the country I have never heard one breath of anything having escaped from the post office of the district.
These people not only find premises and have to superintend the post office and undertake enormous responsibility, financial and confidential, but they have to keep their premises open 10 hours a day. Think of the sorting they have to do. These sub-postmasters and postmistresses work 60 hours a week or more. 3479 When they go on their holidays I understand that they have to provide a substitute and pay the substitute themselves. I asked a question on the 10th December, 1936, about the remuneration of these people. I asked how many scale payment sub-offices there were where the remuneration did not exceed £52 a year, and the Assistant Postmaster-General replied that the number was approximately 6,500. It is for some of those 6,500 that I am pleading to-night. He also said that scale payment sub-offices were usually run in conjunction with private businesses and that the Post Office emoluments were not intended to constitute the sole means of subsistence. I should think they are not. One pound a week for providing premises and doing all the onerous work to which I have referred. Does the Postmaster-General, do Members of this House think that £1 a week, or less in some cases—I asked about those that did not exceed £52 a year; so there are some with less—is enough to pay for these premises and these services?
We have heard some staggering figures and we have read some staggering figures of Post Office profits, but when one compares those staggering profits with the measly £52 a year, or less, one wonders what sort of prosperity have come to these unfortunate people in the country areas.
Another section for whom I want to make a claim are the auxiliary postmen, especially in the rural districts. They have work of a responsible and confidential character. Their job is an arduous one. Many times I have seen them setting out with a bag that I should not have liked to carry. They have to walk 10 or 12 miles. True, the bag becomes lighter as they proceed on their journey, but it is arduous to go these long distances. In the rural areas these men are not walking on good main roads and paved footpaths. They are walking over fields and fells, with no roads. In the winter fogs and snow are encountered. The wages that some of these men get are a disgrace not only to the Post Office but to the nation. Twenty-five shillings a week, and some of them put in 30 to 40 hours. I know what the answer will be. I shall be told that they are only part-time men. But I would point out that in winter some of them are engaged 3480 six hours on their rounds, and they arrive home wet through and exhausted. You expect them to do that work at such pay.
That is why I said that I should like the Postmaster-General to pay a visit to the agricultural districts not in summer but in the depth of winter, when in the fells we have from 5 to 6 feet of snow. Then let the right hon. and gallant Gentleman consider the miserable wage paid to these auxiliary postmen. Many of these postmen are ex-service men. I hope that their ex-Service pensions are not being exploited to pay them small wages. There has been a record year. I want us to celebrate this record year by taking these two classes of servants into consideration. They are inarticulate and retiring, and I hope that I have been able to say something in their behalf.