§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 4.34 p.m.
§ The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. David Gammans)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
As the House knows, this is a Bill which is laid before Parliament from time to time to provide the Post Office with the money it requires for capital development. The last similar Measure received the Royal Assent in July, 1952, and it was for the sum of £75 million.
This Bill differs from the previous one only in two respects. The first is in the sum of money involved. This time it is £125 million, or £50 million more. This is explained partly by the fact that the capital investment programme for the Post Office for 1954–55 and 1955–56 is expected to be higher than in recent years, 1164 which in turn is accounted for partly by the fact that we hope that it will last for a slightly longer period, and also of course there has been a general increase in price levels.
The House will be pleased to hear that if this Bill is passed we hope in the next two years to be able to make a very considerable reduction in the number of people waiting for telephones, because, of the £125 million for which we are asking, £116 million is to be spent on the telephone service.
This sum also includes what we are spending on defence, but that is only a little over one-quarter of the total, which is a smaller percentage than in the last Bill. The annual capital expenditure of the Post Office has risen from £30 million in 1950–51 to an estimate of £55 million in 1953–54, so although naturally the Post Office, like every other Government Department, would like to be able to spend more money on capital equipment, I feel that I cannot complain that we have not had our fair share of the money which the country can afford to spend at this juncture.
The only other respect in which this Bill differs from the last one is that there are some additional provisions which enable the Treasury to have more flexibility in the way in which the money should be borrowed. Provision is made for borrowing by means of terminable annuities with a life of up to 20 years. That is the method that we have employed so far, but also this Bill provides for any other way by which money can be raised under the National Loans Act of 1939 for general Exchequer purposes. The Government have every intention of continuing the present method of borrowing by 20-year annuities, but in view of the increased rate at which Post Office capital development is taking place, it seems desirable that provision for raising money in other ways as well should be made if the need should arise.
The only effect of all this would be to bring the Post Office into line with other public and local authorities whose capital requirements are met by borrowing from the Exchequer. Those are the only two points in which the Bill differs from the previous one—
§ Mr. Gammans
Yes. This Bill has been an occasion, by tradition, not only to consider capital development but also to discuss Post Office operations as a whole and to give some indication of the way in which the money for which we ask today will be spent. I have read all the debates and I find that in the past there has been a tendency for many Members to concentrate on what is called the Post Office surplus, which is the amount by which our income exceeds our expenditure in the commercial accounts.
It always seems very difficult for the Post Office to be right in what they do. If the surplus is too large, then the Post Office is apt to be criticised for acting as a tax collector for the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I have never seen very much validity in this argument. In so far as the Chancellor receives a surplus from the Post Office, or for that matter from any other trading Department, to that extent he is helping to balance the nation's accounts. After all, we are not dealing with reparations to a foreign Power. We are dealing with our own internal economy.
At the present time, however, no hon. Member need have any misgivings that the surplus is likely to be too large. In fact the surplus for last year is likely to be less than £5 million, which will be the smallest for 30 years, and in the current year we do not expect it to be any larger. In the last debate the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards) in a most picturesque manner referred to me as the meek messenger of the Treasury. Then he recalled the days of his youth and reminded us of what he called the story of the classical deceit of the Old Testament when he said that the voice was the voice of the Post Office, but the hand was the hand of the Treasury. I am sorry to deprive the right hon. Gentleman of the chance for such eloquence, but I think he will agree today that this surplus is so small that it cannot be regarded as a surplus in the normal sense of the word, but only as a reasonable working balance for a Government Department which has an annual income of over £250 million.
During the last few years the Post Office, like every other part of our national life, has had to face the problem of increased costs, due to higher salaries and wages and higher costs of transport 1166 and material. So it is with some considerable satisfaction I can say that, in spite of this, we have managed to keep the 2½d. stamp for internal postage and, although our telephone charges have risen, we can claim that by and large this country has the cheapest postage and the cheapest telephone service in the world.
In the last debate the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Hobson) raised the question of Post Office buildings. When the Government came into power two years ago the building industry was overloaded, and it was necessary to impose a temporary ban on the starting of new buildings other than houses. This naturally affected the Post Office. The ban was removed in 1952, but I must inform the House that there is a vast amount of arrears in building work to be done for the Post Office, both on the postal and the telephone side. I have tried to make an estimate of what it is likely to amount to and it is probably of the order of £60 million.
I am glad to say that this year we are spending £500,000 more on buildings than we did last year, and next year we shall be spending rather more than £1 million extra, and the year after we are hoping to increase it beyond that. In fact I can give the hon. Member for Keighley the exact figures in case he would like to have them. For the current year it is £6.1 million, next year it will be £7.7 million and the year after that we hope it will be £9.4 million.
This money is being used not only to meet the needs of telephone development but also to build some of the new buildings which are very much required on the postal side. I know that this is a question in which the hon. Member for Droylsden (Mr. W. R. Williams) takes a special interest. The position as regards postal buildings is specially acute, here in London in particular. As I said in reply to a question yesterday, in the West Central district of London, Wimpole Street, and in the South-West district, to which trade has come from the City of London in vast quantities, we are badly overcrowded. As I told the House yesterday, the only solution in Wimpole Street is a new office with access to the Post Office railway, and plans are being pushed ahead as fast as we can push them. 1167 Incidentally, before we can build that office, a hybrid Bill will probably be needed.
It is appropriate that I should start reviewing the services provided by the Post Office by talking about the postal side. The G.P.O. is called upon to perform many and diverse functions, from providing telephones to paying old age pensions and from detecting people who evade their radio and television licences to providing beam radio-telephone services to the ends of the earth. Sometimes I think we forget that the prime responsibility of the Post Office is to deliver the mail. In fact, in many countries of the world this is about the only function performed by the Post Office, the rest either being farmed out to other Government Departments or done by private enterprise.
I hope the House will share the satisfaction I have that in spite of rising costs we have managed to keep the letter rate at 2½d. Few things in the world have risen less in price since the beginning of the war than the cost of sending a letter. In 1939 it was l½d., not 1d. as many people imagine. The penny post disappeared in 1918. In fact the only service I can think of which still costs the same today as it did in 1918 is the £5 fine for pulling the communication cord in a railway train. Almost everything else has gone up.
Here in the United Kingdom our internal postage rate is one of the cheapest in the world, and I hope we shall be able to keep it so. For example, in France the rate is not 2½ d. but 3½d., in Switzerland it is 4d., and in Sweden rather more than 4d. This is equally true of our external rates. For example, it costs 4d. to send a letter to France or to Switzerland and 7d. to send one back again. If one posts a letter to the United States by sea it costs 2½d. and 7d. to send one back to this country.
One word about the air services. As the House knows, we have what is called the all-up service to most countries in Europe. This means that letters go by air without any extra charge. During the past year we have been able to extend that service to two countries which before were left out of it—one is Iceland and the other is Poland.
1168 While I am talking about our external services, the House might like to be reminded that the Post Office has been carrying on for some time a special campaign to try to deal with under-stamped letters, that is, with people who send letters with stamps of insufficient value on them, especially to Europe. It presents quite a serious problem. This year we have had a postmark slogan "Postage on letters for Europe—4d." Although the position is a little better, I cannot pretend that it is really satisfactory. We have pointed out to business firms and to chambers of commerce that if they really want to do business with customers on the Continent, the worst thing to do is to start by making the prospective customer pay a surcharge on an under-stamped letter. And they have to pay not merely our surcharge, but the local surcharge, which may be even heavier.
About 18 months ago we tried an experiment. We said, "We will put on the stamps ourselves and run the risk of not getting the money back." That has been done and I am glad to say that, by and large, people have turned out to be honest and we have got the money back. We can only do this, however, if business firms and private individuals will put their names and addresses on the backs of the envelopes. As the House knows, that is a common practice in America and in many other parts of the world, and I wish people would do it here.
In spite of all we have done, the number of under-stamped letters that go abroad to Europe alone is of the order of 15,000 a week. I have been looking at the statistics of the postal traffic and I find that since the end of the war, in 1945, the number of letters and parcels posted has increased by over 33⅓ per cent., and has now reached the astounding total of 9,000 million a year or, to put it in easier numbers, 25 million letters a day.
§ Mr. Gammans
Yes. I should now like to say a word about the safeguarding of letters and mails, especially as this subject was raised in the House yesterday and there has been quite considerable Press comment on it. I have been reading correspondence in the newspapers. Correspondents write something 1169 like this, "I was on such a platform the other night and I nearly fell over five bags of mail. What can you expect when these conditions prevail?" I should not like it to be thought for a moment that we are not deeply concerned about this matter. Of course we are, and we ought to be. But I ask the House to remember that the loss of a bag of mail makes news, as it should, whereas the number of mail-bags travelling round this country on any one day, as I told the House yesterday, is about one million. We must therefore keep this matter in some sort of perspective.
A very large percentage of mails go by rail for part of the journey. As I told the House yesterday, it has been long the practice that when mail goes by train it is the railway authorities who, under contract, are responsible for it, though naturally there is the closest possible cooperation between ourselves and the railways to see that the mails are properly safeguarded. As I told the House yesterday, our whole system of safeguarding mails has always been based on the assumption that this country, by and large, is a law-abiding country. If we have to envisage, as we did some time ago, armed gang robberies in the streets of London, these arrangements are not sufficient. If we have to envisage wilful destruction or pilfering the whole standard will have to be looked at. This, of course, raises something much larger than the subject of our debate today—that is the standard of morality of this country.
It is not merely the Post Office which is affected. Every side of our life is affected. I saw only this morning a report by the railway authorities that pilfering on the railways is eight times what it was before the war. This state of affairs prevails also in the docks and, incidentally, is indicated by the number of people who are in gaol. Perhaps rather more people ought to be there.
I do not want the House to assume that we have been complacent. There has been a pretty drastic overhaul of our arrangements in railway trains, on platforms and in every other way, but if we have to raise our standards of safeguard fundamentally we shall not be able to keep the 2½d. post. It will mean a vast increase in staff and expenditure. I hope that that will not happen. I am glad to say that our losses from mail bags are 1170 tending to fall and the loss of registered letters and parcels has been practically halved since the end of the war.
I think that the postage stamps of the new reign have given very general satisfaction. We have certainly received many congratulations and almost no complaints, not only from philatelists and others in this country but from people all over the world.
This year the six millionth telephone was installed. This was a radio telephone linking the island of Stroma in the Pentland Firth, and it is an illustration of the vast advances which have been made in telephones over recent years. I was very grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland when he went to this remote area and carried out the first conversation on this historic link.
It is an achievement of which the Post Office has some reason to be proud that the number of telephones now installed is double what it was before the war. As the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Caerphilly knows only too well, that has happened at a time when he certainly did not succeed in obtaining from his Chancellor of the Exchequer all the money that he would have liked to spend. It was a great achievement to have done that and also to have repaired the ravages of war when there was hardly a telephone exchange in London that was not damaged or shaken and its delicate apparatus covered with dust. We are now installing telephones at a 50 per cent. faster rate than that at which they were installed in 1939.
The improvement in the telephone trunk and toll service is considerable; we have checked that mechanically. The average time that it takes to get an answer is 65 seconds, which is one-third better than the average time two years ago and even slightly better than it was before the war.
§ Mr. Godfrey Nicholson (Farnham)
That means from the time one rings up until one hears the ringing tone? Surely it does not mean until the moment somebody replies.
§ Mr. Gammans
No, that is something beyond the powers of the Post Office. That depends on the subscriber. He might be having a bath.
Extraordinary technical improvements have taken place in telephone development in recent years. They interested me 1171 when I first came to this Department and perhaps the House would like me to mention some of them. Before the First World War there were very few long distance circuits in this country. In fact there were only two between London and Glasgow. They were carried on overhead wires, one conversation at a time, and if one was having a conversation with a friend in Glasgow one had the exclusive use of about 300 tons of copper.
Since that time we have had the telephone repeater, circuits underground, and the use of coaxial cables. The result is that today a pair of coaxial tubes can transmit no less than 600 telephone conversations at the same time. We hope to increase that number to 960 in the near future. There is also the possibility we shall be able to accommodate a television channel on that same link.
I believe that I mentioned in my speech last year, and so did the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Caerphilly in his, the repeaters under the sea. Some very valuable work on an improved type of deep sea repeater is now going on at Dollis Hill. While all this has been taking place there have been considerable economies in staff. In 1923, when we had only one million instead of six million telephones, we had 18,000 men in our engineering department. Today, when the number of telephones has risen by six times, the number of men has risen only by three times.
I should like to say a few words about the work that is going on at Dollis Hill research station to develop the electronic exchange. Many hon. Members have no doubt seen in automatic exchanges great banks of machinery which give clicks and clacks and are the means by which telephone connections are made. The newest development which is likely to take place is that all these electro-mechanical switches will be replaced by electronic valves with no moving parts at all. These developments have come from the striking advances made in electronics during the war. They will mean great simplification in exchange equipment and, of course, in exchange buildings, and will mean much speedier connection for subscribers with less possibility of getting a wrong number or being cut off. I understand that even this is only a transitional stage and that the ultimate 1172 development may be by means of a piece of equipment called a transistor which is hardly bigger than the stub of a pencil.
The House will expect me to say something about the shared service and the waiting list. In fact, I think that about half the letters which hon. Gentlemen write to me are about some constituent who wants a telephone, but cannot get one. Certainly half the Questions asked me in this House are about waiting lists, or about someone who does not want shared service.
Today, as the House knows, new subscribers and removing subscribers have to give an undertaking that they will share their lines if they are required to. As I told the House yesterday, that is not a satisfactory arrangement, and I do not pretend that it is. Our policy is, at the earliest possible opportunity, to give subscribers a free choice. I believe that shared service has come to stay for those who want it because it is cheaper, but I cannot introduce freedom of choice until we have drastically reduced the waiting list. Shared service has stood the country in very good stead. Because of it, some 300,000 people have gone on the telephone who otherwise would not have been able to do so. Hon. Members know that normally the subscriber on shared service gets his own number and that only his bell rings when he is rung up.
This idea of shared service—which in this country is an innovation arising out of our post-war difficulties—is common to most other countries in the world. I made inquiries regarding the position in the United States, for example, and I was staggered to learn that in that country 70 per cent. of the residential subscribers have a shared service of two, and 30 per cent. a shared service of four or more people. I know that the conditions in America are different and that that country has vast rural areas and longer distances, but these figures show that a large percentage of urban subscribers must be getting this service.
The waiting list now stands at the figure of 383,000. That is 60,000 down in the past year, and I hope that with the additional money which I am asking for today this rate of reduction will go on.
§ Mr. C. R. Hobson (Keighley)
While the hon. Gentleman is on the question of shared service, can he say what steps 1173 have been taken with regard to separate accounting because that has been one of the difficulties in getting people to take advantage of it.
§ Mr. Gammans
That is perfectly true. There was a time when people had to agree among themselves as to who should pay what for local calls on the dialling system. That, of course, did not apply to trunk calls, but today the higher percentage of shared service subscribers have their own metering facilities and their own separate accounts. I hope that the old arrangement will quickly disappear.
§ Mr. A. J. Champion (Derbyshire, South-East)
Did the hon. Gentleman say that the waiting list had been reduced by 60,000 or 16,000?
§ Mr. Gammans
When we talk about reducing the waiting list, we should remember that it is not merely a question of the people now on the waiting list. We must also think of the new applicants, who in the last quarter amounted to 102,000, on top of the back-log, whereas before the war the average number of new subscribers was only 60,000 a quarter.
§ Mr. Harry Wallace (Walthamstow, East)
Can the Minister say how long, on average, people have to wait for telephones?
§ Mr. Gammans
I was about to come to that. The trouble is that there is not an average. I want to make a technical point which I think will answer the hon. Gentleman's question. Very often people write and complain that they have been waiting in a particular district for years, and that they have heard of a case in the next district, or sometimes very near to them, where someone who applied quite recently got a telephone within a few months.
The explanation is quite simple. In order to connect a subscriber two things are necessary. The first is that there must be a spare place on the telephone exchange to which to connect him, and the other is a spare pair of wires in a cable which serves his particular district. In some cases both these things are there, and in others only one is there, but very often, by a simple cable scheme costing not too much money, an applicant can be connected up.
1174 In some areas, however, the exchange is completely full, and the only thing we can do to put that matter right is to build a new one. When we get to that stage—and this is true of some of our industrial areas—the only solution is to build a new exchange. That means the acquisition of the land, the erection of the building and the designing of equipment, and I am afraid that takes some little time.
There is one other matter I wish to deal with, and that is the density of telephones. We are still lagging behind the United States. In fact, we only come sixth on the list. The United States has 29 telephones per 100 people, whereas we have only 11.4 per 100, with Sweden, Canada, Switzerland, New Zealand and Denmark coming in between.
Hon. Members often ask me questions about rural telephones, and, of course, there has been a very great development in these areas in recent years. But I must tell hon. Members, in case they do not know it, that this is a branch of the service on which we lose an awful lot of money. For example, on every rural kiosk there is an average loss of £40 a year. But we recognise the needs of the rural areas—telephones are all the more needed in those areas because they are rural—and in the last two years, 2,000 additional kiosks have been put up. In the last five years, 6,000 additional kiosks have been erected, and now there are 20,000 altogether.
Before I finish with telephones, perhaps I may deal with a point raised in the last debate with regard to Government Department telephones. This is a hardy annual, and I am always being asked questions about it. Let me make it quite clear that there is not the slightest difference to the commercial accounts of the Post Office when the user is a Government Department, because in its commercial accounts the Post Office has always taken credit for the service it renders to Government Departments. Therefore, there is no question of the Post Office charging a private user a higher rate in order to pay for the service it renders to a Government Department.
However, it was agreed last June that, in order to encourage economy on the telephone, as from 1st April this year the Service Departments, the Ministry of Supply and the Treasury, who between 1175 them make the greatest use of the telephone and telegraph services—in fact, 70 per cent.—should pay cash, and that the cost of these services should be borne on their Estimates.
As I have said, it makes no difference at all to our commercial accounts, and, in addition, very stringent instructions have been given to all Government Departments to be more economical in the use of the telephone, especially on trunk lines. I was hoping today to be able to give the House the effect of some of these economies, but it is too early to say. However, I have no doubt that the effect of it will be that the telephone will be used less.
§ Mr. Douglas Houghton (Sowerby)
Can the Minister say whether the amount credited to the commercial accounts is related in any way to the actual use made of these services by the Government Departments?
§ Mr. Gammans
In the cases I have just mentioned, the actual accounting will be call by call, in exactly the same way as the hon. Member and I have to pay for our calls. In the other Departments, it will be based on a test sample.
I now come to a rather less pleasant story. It is the story of the Inland Telegraph Service, and that, at the moment, is our most difficult and perplexing problem. In 1953–54 this service is estimated to run at a deficit of £4.8 million out of a total expenditure of £8.5 million. To put it another way, the average telegram produces 2s., but it costs the Post Office 5s. to send and deliver it, and so we are losing 3s. on every telegram we accept.
Unfortunately there is nothing new about this. It has been going on for years. What is serious is that it is growing. In 1938 the loss was £1 million, or about 5d. a telegram. By 1947 it had risen to £3 million, or 1s. 3d. a telegram, and it has gone on rising ever since. From a purely financial point of view this is a service which the Post Office would like to drop altogether, but obviously that cannot happen. The inland telegraph service is needed on strategic grounds and also because it is the only rapid method of communication with people who are not on the telephone.
1176 In the last debate an hon. Member referred to it as "the poor man's telephone." Whether that is true I do not know, but it is to me a curious fact, that 50 per cent. of all the telegrams sent are of a business character. This goes to show, that quite apart from private needs, the business community of this country needs an efficient telegraph service. The trouble is that year by year we are seeing a steady decline in the traffic. In 1952–53 it was 5.7 per cent. down as compared with the previous year, and this year the decline is 4 per cent.
§ Mr. W. R. Williams (Droylsden)
The Minister might wish to explain that this drop in the traffic is in no way due to a lack of efficiency. In fact the telegraph service has increased in efficiency at the same time as receipts have gone down.
§ Mr. Gammans
The hon. Member has forestalled what I was about to say. The main reason is that more and more people are going on the telephone, and the other reason is because of the increase in the private telegraph service which handles such a large part of our commercial and industrial traffic. It is certainly not due to any lack of efficiency on the part of the staff or equipment.
With this loss of traffic have come gradually increased costs, especially the cost of telegram deliveries. There has been a general increase in wages and salaries, partly due to the abolition of the apprentice grades of boy messengers and girl probationers. In 1951 the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Caerphilly as Postmaster-General attempted to reduce this deficit by increasing telegraph rates, but unfortunately, owing to a further rise in costs, the deficit continues to grow.
The Select Committee on Estimates in its 11th Report in the last Session, when it sat under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Farnham (Mr. Nicholson), referred at great length to this difficult problem, and recommended that the Post Office and the Treasury should try to produce a plan for bringing about some significant reduction in the deficit. It is not an easy problem, it is very difficult. The choice lies between making, or trying to make, this service pay on its own or regarding telecommunications as a whole and covering the loss by some other branch; as we do on the postal side where the cost of letters delivered to houses in the country, which is probably 1177 something like 1s., is borne by the cheaper cost of delivering letters in the towns. I am not today in a position—I wish I were—to make any definite statement on the matter but I hope to be able to do so before long.
I do not propose to deal with broadcasting in the general sense, because it would be out of order for me to do so, since the B.B.C. is financed by a special Parliamentary Vote. Nor do I propose to talk about the policy in broadcasting. Hon. Gentlemen must contain themselves until 3 p.m. tomorrow afternoon. However I should like to mention two aspects for which the Post Office is directly responsible. We provide links for the B.B.C. for both their sound and television services and we are responsible for collecting licences, and detecting the evasions.
It is a wonderful tribute to the popularity of television, and also to the prosperity of this country, that in the past year the number of new television sets which have been licensed has increased by nearly one million and now numbers 2½ million. The average cost of a set is about £80 and I am glad to feel that so many of our countrymen are in the happy position of being able to spend this sum of money.
There will always be a certain number of people who try to avoid paying their wireless licence, but I have no reason to suppose that the number is very large. The licence is a small sum of money for which good value is received. In fact it is really a microscopic amount which people have to pay to get a radio and television service. On the television side we have recently developed a new type of detector van. This was done as an experiment, but it has been so successful that we are having a good few more constructed. I might describe it as a "robot eye," or "Scotland Yard on wheels." It can track down any television set which is operating.
We are sometimes asked why we do not have a system whereby a set could not be sold unless the buyer produced a licence, or that the cost of the licence be added to the cost of the set. This looks very attractive at first sight, but it would be a difficult system to work and it would certainly make the revenue of the B.B.C. subject to very violent fluctuations. Some people would get out of 1178 paying altogether, because some sets are made from second-hand parts or from bits bought separately. We should certainly have to register all radio dealers and compel them to operate this system, a prospect which I do not view with favour.
I come now to interference. There are two sorts which we experience. One is from foreign stations, some of which are working quite illegally on wavelengths not permitted to them or at a strength not allowed by any international convention. Some of these stations are in Eastern Europe, and although we have made many protests, our protests have the habit of bouncing off the Iron Curtain.
The other sort of interference, especially to television, is from machinery here at home. My noble Friend the Postmaster-General was under an obligation under the Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1949, to appoint technical committees. Three of them have been at work. One, dealing with motor cars, reported last year, and from 1st July of this year all new motor cars have to be fitted with suppressors. I am frequently asked why we do not make it compulsory to fit suppressors on old cars. I can only give the answer which I gave in the House yesterday, that it is no use making Regulations unless we have the machinery to enforce them. Such a Regulation would mean an army of inspectors poking their noses under the bonnets of old cars to see if suppressors had been fitted. The other two technical committees are dealing with refrigerators and small motors. They have not yet reported, and we cannot hurry them too much, because this is a very difficult question. I should be misleading the House if I gave the impression that this problem is likely to be solved very quickly or easily.
I would mention briefly one side of Post Office work about which very little is known, and that is the radio service we provide for ships at sea. Round our coasts there are 10 radio stations which provide ships at sea with bearings, weather reports and give telephonic and telegraphic communication with the shore. Also, they are able to pick up distress signals. During the present year up to now we have dealt with no less than 223 distress signals from ships at sea. One spectacular side is the medical service provided for the ships, especially trawlers, 1179 which do not carry a doctor. There have been 138 medical cases this year where men at sea have got in touch with the shore through the Post Office to get advice from a doctor. Only last year I opened one of these stations at Wick, and I was impressed with the work that they are doing.
I should like to give one example. The other day the Land's End station received a message from the master of a foreign tanker saying that the wife of one of the crew was about to give birth to a baby and what should he do about it. He was put in touch through the Post Office with a local doctor, who gave instructions on the telephone. The last we heard was that mother and child were doing well.
§ Mr. Gammans
We were not asked to diagnose for the father. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) suggested the other day that I should talk about delivery masters instead of (postmasters. He was not so far wrong.
There is not enough time to refer to all the activities of the Post Office. In addition to the branches I have mentioned today, there are the savings bank, and what might be called the agency services that we perform on behalf of other Government Departments, like the payment of old age pensions, children's allowances and tobacco coupons, which have been put on to the Post Office by successive Governments because they could not think of any other Government Department to do them. Last year, for example, we paid no less than £378 million in pensions and £172 million in family allowances. The total turn-over of all these transactions amounts to the astonishing figure of £3,700 million a year.
I should not like to conclude without saying a word about the staff. Nearly half the Civil Service is employed in the Post Office in a vast diversity of activities and in every city, in every town, in every village, and in many hamlets. My own personal experience in the Post Office coincides with that of any Member of the House who has ever served in the Post Office, including Mr. Speaker, the present Leader of the Opposition and the Leader 1180 of the House. They all will bear out what I am about to say, that we have enjoyed the experience of working with a body of men and women who have such a wonderful spirit of public service.
The Post Office has the advantage that it is one of the oldest Departments of State, and it can draw upon a tradition of service to the community which only a continuous history such as this can give. Perhaps the best proof of all this is the Post Office comes more into the daily lives of our people than all the other Government Departments put together.
Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Hopkin Morris)
I do not wish to interrupt the Minister, but this Bill appears to ask for an additional sum of money, and a review of the general activities of the Post Office does not come into that.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
On that Ruling, I should like to say that we have had a very long description of the activities of the Post Office arising out of the spending of this money, and it is—
I was not interrupting about that, but about this historical review which we are being given at the moment. That does not seem to come within this Bill.
§ Mr. Gammans
I was finishing what I was about to say. It has been the tradition, when presenting a Post Office and Telegraph (Money) Bill in this House, for some attempt to be made to describe what the money was going to be spent on, and to give a sort of general review of the Post Office.
I was not objecting to that. To debate what the money is wanted for is certainly in order. I may have misunderstood the Minister, but I thought he was giving an historical review of the history of the Post Office.
§ Mr. Gammans
I am sorry if I gave you that impression, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, but what I was saying was—
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
The Minister has been concerned with describing the general activities of the Post Office which will be continued with the assistance of this money. Having done that, surely the House is not going to be precluded from questioning the Minister on what he has said, or in dealing with certain matters 1181 of current happenings in the Post Office because you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, have given the Ruling that only new matters may be considered.
I did not say anything about that. I was talking about the general history of the Post Office.
§ Mr. Gammans
May I leave the history alone and come to the present? The point I want to make is that the Post Office comes more into contact with the public than any other Government Department or, I suppose, all the other Government Departments put together. If, therefore, we are inefficient in our duties or our servants do not serve the public as they ought, I should certainly hear about it, especially as we are the one nationalised industry which is subject to Parliamentary questions on day-to-day operations.
I think we can claim to have maintained the high standards which all of us associate automatically with the Post Office. In asking the House to vote this money I do so with the assurance that it will be convinced that the money will be well spent.
§ 5.27 p.m.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards (Caerphilly)
I must congratulate the Assistant Postmaster-General on having made a speech which did not contain a single party point. This is the first time that I have ever heard him do so. It shows that he has absorbed the atmosphere which seems to get everyone engrossed in the Post Office. Indeed, he discharged his duty like the chairman of a big business concern, and he did it with pride and confidence. I think this is one of the best recommendations of monopoly with public accountability that we have heard from the Government side of the House during the last two years.
What I am pleased about is that, in discharging his duty, the hon. Gentleman looked at the Post Office with a much greater sense of our responsibility for it. I hope we will take the Post Office out of party conflict, and look at it as a big business undertaking whose job it is to serve the community. The hon. Gentleman said, quite rightly, that this is the one nationalised undertaking where there is public accountability. In my view, a public monoply is tolerable only when we 1182 get that public and Parliamentary accountability. As this may be a matter for consideration with some of the other public undertakings, I should like to give my own experience and then ask the hon. Gentleman whether he agrees or not.
It does not matter what happens in the Post Office and on what this money is to be spent, any citizen can through his Member, raise a complaint in this House about the spending of the money. It is true that many Questions on the subject of the Post Office are addressed to the Assistant Postmaster-General who has to deal with them in this House, but personally I never found that an embarrassment in getting an efficient organisation inside the Post Office. In fact, I know of nothing that will keep public servants more on their toes than the knowledge that they are liable to have their conduct questioned in this House. Having made that remark, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that public accountability in this House tends to greater efficiency and does not embarrass him in his duty to Parliament or to the undertaking over which he presides.
The Postmaster-General and the Assistant Postmaster-General have now been in office for a little over two years. I wonder whether they have yet been able to sit back and look at the great business empire of the Post Office. As the hon. Gentleman said, the Post Office employs nearly half the civil servants in the country. It invades every section of our lives, and has multifarious duties and activities. Have the hon. Gentleman and his noble Friend been able to look at the whole Department to determine whether the time has come to recast the organisation and relate its activities in a different way to the House and the Treasury, and generally to examine it to see whether the organisation is keeping pace with modern ideas and requirements?
§ Mr. William Shepherd (Cheadle)
Is the right hon. Gentleman arguing that we should cease to have the Post Office as a Department and make it a trading organisation like the other corporations? If that is so, it seems contrary to what he was saying earlier.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
I should first make the general premise that, whatever form the organisation takes, there should be Parliamentary and public accountability, 1183 but whether it should be an instrument of taxation, a business undertaking, or a corporation in a different form, or whether Post Office activities should be divided between a number of corporations, is a matter which requires investigation. Prior to the war, the matter was investigated by the famous Bridgeman Committee. I am suggesting that in the spending of this money—but I must be careful here. I must say, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that after we have had a long historical account of the activities of the Post Office, it is a little limiting at this stage of the proceedings to have a Ruling that subsequent speakers in the debate must confine themselves to the future rather than the past.
I have not made any such Ruling. Clearly the Bill provides for an additional sum of money to be spent. The objects in respect of which that money is asked for are clearly in order. What I considered not to be in order was the historical survey, and that was the point to which I drew attention. I was about to draw attention to the fact that the constitution of the Post Office might be a very appropriate subject at other times, but it does not arise under the Bill.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
With all respect to you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, surely the subject of the form of organisation which is to be responsible for the spending of the money is in order on the Second Reading, for it has always been so in the past. It would be astonishing now, after so many years of this form of discussion, if we suddenly had a new Ruling which limited us in this respect. However, I accept your Ruling, and I recognise that this is a Second Reading debate, and I will keep as closely as I can to the rules of order.
With regard to the expenditure of the new capital sum, are we satisfied that the form of organisation is the right one, or ought we to have a new Bridgeman Committee to look at the organisation and make recommendations as to the liability of the Post Office towards the Treasury? During the war all this was altered, and we have not yet got on to a permanent basis. When the matter was raised in a similar debate two years ago it was ruled in order, and I again put to the hon. Gentleman the question whether the 1184 time has arrived for a new Bridgeman Committee to look into the whole business.
To come to some more detailed matters, I notice that defence works are again provided for in the capital sum. I should like to know how much is really for defence and where we can find it. Is it under the heading of telephones or telegraphs or posts? The money is required to continue the job which was commenced under the last Money Act. We are entitled to know whether all the money previously voted has been spent, how much more will be required for defence works, and whether or not the repayment of the capital sums for those defence works will be met by the commercial accounts of the Post Office. This is a serious matter. Out of the last sum of money that we voted, £25 million was devoted to defence. I do not know the precise amount devoted to defence in this instance. Perhaps the Assistant Postmaster-General can tell us that.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
A quarter of £125 million? That is very much more than it was two years ago. I am concerned about how the money is to be repaid and whether the cost will fall on the commercial accounts. If it falls on the commercial accounts, we are doing the Post Office a great injustice.
§ Mr. Gammans
Perhaps I might answer that now. The Service Departments have to pay ordinary commercial rates for any services which the Post Office render them, in exactly the same way as other customers do.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
But we are talking about capital sums, structures and new cables. Surely it is not suggested that the Services are going to be charged for new cables. In the commercial accounts one sees no repayment of capital to the Post Office. The matter requires to be looked into very carefully. I do not want to be awkward about these matters, because I handled some of them when I was Postmaster-General, but we have now reached a stage when about £60 million in toto is carried on the Post Office Vote for which there has been no capital repayment, and this has to be repaid by the Post Office. Perhaps we can iron this out at the Committee stage.
1185 I now turn to the division of the capital as between telephones and telegraphs. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman upon getting the Chancellor to loosen the purse strings. The Post Office has been starved far too long. Since 1939 it has been living on a shoe-string, and every Postmaster-General since that time has had to "carry the can" because he has been unable to develop the services as they ought to have been developed. One point which the hon. Gentleman did not bring out was how much of the capital is required for the inter-connecting links for the B.B.C. How many special co-axial cables are to be laid down to link the various television transmitters and sound transmitters? How much is to be spent upon the radio network, which I understand is a Post Office liability?
It is unfortunate that we have not before us the proposals for the extension of both the television and the sound services. As the hon. Gentleman said, the White Paper will come out tomorrow, and we do not yet know what is the degree of extension of this service. The hon. Gentleman has not told us what is the degree of additional responsibility to be carried by the Post Office in connection with the new construction works, the new cables and the new radio links required to make the White Paper proposals realistic. I wish we knew a little more about that, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman will be able to tell us.
There is one other point, to which he also referred, concerning co-axial cables, which represent an extremely expensive operation. How much are we charging the B.B.C. for the hire of these cables? Is the amount adequate? Are they paying what they ought to pay for their use? Are they paying an adequate amount for the radio links? We ought to know, because the Post Office ought not to be subsidising the B.B.C, and the B.B.C. ought not to be subsidising the Post Office. These are important matters on which we ought to have information, and I am sure that, when we see the White Paper, we shall certainly want to know what amount of this new capital is required to carry out the programme to be envisaged in the White Paper which we are to have tomorrow.
Now let me come to one or two small points. With regard to the public telephone service, I was extremely pleased 1186 to hear the hon. Gentleman say that he would be able to start on the building of new telephone exchanges. As he well knows, the telephone exchanges have been the limiting factor, especially in the Development Areas. In the past, in dealing with what were called the Distressed Areas, both parties agreed to take work to the people in order to revive these areas. They were to be given new factories, and a considerable amount of capital was to be spent on them. The unfortunate thing was that we did not build telephone exchanges at the time, because the cables, the copper and other materials, and the labour were not available, and now it appears to me that these areas are lagging behind much more than any other part of the country, except, perhaps, the bombed cities, to which the hon. Gentleman also referred.
I should like to know how far this particular programme is going forward in the Development Areas, because of the extremely pressing need for telephones as a part of the business necessities in those areas. I ask the hon. Gentleman whether the capital made available is adequate for the purpose which he has in mind. It is no use having more capital than one can use with the forces at one's disposal, and the uplifting of the technical side of the Post Office is quite a difficult matter for the technical personnel. I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman whether he is satisfied that there is no limitation as far as capital is concerned with regard to the expected improvement of the telephone service of this country.
I come now to a matter to which every Postmaster-General or Assistant Postmaster-General has had to refer for the last 20 or 30 years—the telegraph service. In this connection, I have the deepest sympathy with the hon. Gentleman. I read with very great interest the examination of this problem that took place elsewhere by a committee under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Farnham (Mr. Nicholson). This is a matter of policy; it is not a matter to be decided by civil servants, and I think it ought to be decided, not from the point of view of party advantage, but on grounds of social interest.
If the telegraph service is to be maintained as a social necessity, then the losses ought not to be carried by the Post 1187 Office, because the more the telephone service grows, the greater will be the loss on the telegraphs. It may be said, in regard to the telegrams on which there is a loss, that the Press telegrams ought to carry a greater charge. I know that the answer will be immediately that we should then drive them on to the private wires and the traffic would go right down. It is a problem of very great complexity. This is the only means whereby a man without a telephone can communicate in an emergency, in times of crisis and domestic tragedy, with someone else who is without a telephone. Of course, in war-time or apprehended war-time, there is also the defence consideration.
I do not think that this ought to be a matter of party division. I do not think any single party should accept responsibility for deciding what is to be done about this, and I would throw out the suggestion that it might be as well if what was to happen to the telegraph service were decided by an outside committee, an all-party committee, or at any rate in that sort of way, because it is not a matter over which there should be party political controversy. [An HON. MEMBER: "A Bridgeman Committee?"] I have no objection to a Bridgeman Committee, but I think the social—
§ Mr. W. R. Williams
I take it that my right hon. Friend is expressing merely personal opinions in regard to these special committees and the need for them? I am very doubtful whether I could go all the way with him in suggesting a general review and re-organisation of the Post Office, because I do not think it is necessary.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
I am afraid my hon. Friend is not quite alive to the point I am putting forward in regard to the telegraph service, which has a growing deficit that is bound to get bigger and bigger, with the traffic getting smaller and smaller. Whether or not this service should be preserved, how it should be preserved and who should bear the cost if it is to be preserved, whether it should be borne on the rest of the services, thus reducing the funds available for the payment of wages in other parts of the service, or whether it should be covered by means of general taxation—all these are matters that require consideration on their merits. My own view is that this 1188 matter should be examined objectively by a committee without bringing it into party conflict, whatever decision arises from that examination.
With regard to Dollis Hill, there is magnificent equipment there which is part of a very expensive organisation. I know that the Assistant Postmaster-General could not hope to cover all the activities of the Post Office in a short period of time, but can he tell us whether the Dollis Hill organisation is really close enough to the ground and whether its activities are related to the immediate problems of the Post Office rather than the distant ones. I merely ask the question.
I have not seen Dollis Hill for a very long time, but I know that it is capable of producing very great results in addition to the submarine repeater about which we have heard a great deal. There is the development of the transistor, which is capable of completely revolutionising telecommunications. The transistor will very much change the way in which this money would normally be spent, because the exchanges themselves could be smaller and the circuits much simpler. This device would almost produce a revolution in the electronics industry.
I now turn to the security of the mails. I noticed today a very balanced short editorial in the "News Chronicle" which is couched in responsible language. This is a worry which every head of the Post Office has had. I was worried very much by the reports which used to reach me about the losses which occurred from day to day from all sorts of causes. It is quite true that mail bags lie unattended at railway stations. It is quite true that mail bags are left in unlocked railway vans to which anyone can have access.
Having regard to the slight increase which has taken place in the number of robberies, I should have thought that a strengthening of the investigation branch was necessary. I quite agree with the hon. Member's general proposition that if we have to operate on the basis that we are living in a gangster-ridden country, then the 2½d. stamp will become a 1s. stamp, but surely the things which have taken place in the last 12 months require a strengthening of the security organisation. That is all I say about it. I know 1189 it is a difficult proposition. We have to decide whether or not it is better to put up with these losses than to have an organisation which will cost more than the saving.
On the other hand, we have to assume that by and large in this service and in this country people are disposed to be honest—and by and large they are. The amount of thieving is extremely small. I see that the "News Chronicle" talks about two bags a day out of a million. But it is the two bags which get the advertisement; the million are never mentioned. We should not allow any single thing to upset the faith of the people of this country in the honesty and integrity of this great Post Office of ours. While I am not pressing the point, I think there is some apprehension about this matter. I am sure the hon. Gentleman and his noble Friend are aware of it and are trying to see what is the best thing to do in the circumstances.
We are very glad to assist the hon. Gentleman to get this money. We only wish that the Treasury would let him have a bit more. We only wish he could make greater progress in providing more telephones, more rural kiosks, and more telephone lines for farmers. In all those things we shall try to assist him, and he will not do better than we wish him to do in the application of the money which is paid to him by this Bill.
§ 5.52 p.m.
§ Mr. Godfrey Nicholson (Farnham)
I join in the tributes which my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General and the right hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards) have paid to the postal services generally. I do not think any Department maintains a higher standard or stands in higher reputation with the general public.
I venture to address the House because I had the honour to be chairman of a sub-committee of the Estimates Committee which investigated certain aspects of Post Office activities last summer, notably the telegraph service, to which both my hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Caerphilly have referred. I could not help feeling that my hon. Friend skated over the subject very lightly. Quite clearly it causes him a great deal of worry and anxiety, but I still feel that he might have gone into it in more depth. I shall not go into the causes 1190 beyond saying, in the words of the Bridgeman Committee, that the service isbetween the upper and nether millstones of an expanding Telephone Serviceand an efficient postal organisation.
The main reason for the losses is staff costs per telegram, which were 11.4d. in 1938–39 and in this current year are 42.2d. That accounts for practically the whole loss. Incidentally, this reflects well on the technical ability in the Post Office in that transmission costs have hardly gone up at all.
My hon. Friend did not refer to possible remedies. We asked the Post Office to give us a list of suggestions as to how this deficit could be reduced. It is quite hopeless to expect to abolish the deficit altogether, but it can be reduced, and perhaps it may interest the House if I hastily summarise these suggestions. The first suggestion was to raise the minimum charge for a 10-word telegram from 1s. 6d. to 2s. 6d.
§ Mr. Hobson
On a point of order. I should like to ask for your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. Will it be in order for the House to discuss various alternatives by which to reduce the deficit on the telegraph services?
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Charles MacAndrew)
This Bill is only to raise further money, and I suppose that if the deficit is reduced it will not be necessary to raise so much money. It could be linked with the Bill in that way, provided the hon. Member does not go into it in too much detail.
§ Mr. Nicholson
I will hastily add that by raising the charge from 1s. 6d. to 2s. 6d. the deficit could be reduced from £4.6 million, which was the figure given to us—although my hon. Friend's figure was a little higher—to £2.7 million.
§ Mr. Hobson
On a point of order. I do not wish to get into controversy with the Chair, but I should like to point out respectfully that the Bill deals precisely with an application for capital for investment and not for purposes of revenue.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
Of course the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Hobson) has far more knowledge of the Post Office book-keeping than I have, but in Government Departments is not revenue and capital pretty often lumped together in the accounts?
§ Mr. Nicholson
I do not want to transgress the Rules. Another suggestion entails deferred traffic at a cheaper rate, which would also reduce the deficit but not by so much. Further, if we were to double the rates the traffic would fall by 30 per cent. and would reduce the deficit to £1.9 million. Finally, if we were to combine the deferred service at 1s. 6d. with various other alterations, the deficit could be reduced to £2.5 million. I merely mention those as examples showing that suggestions have been made as to how this deficit could be reduced.
§ Mr. Champion
Will the hon. Member tell us if, in these figures which he is giving us from his experience as chairman of the sub-committee, the aim is a loss of revenue, following a fall in receipts as a result of the increased charges?
§ Mr. Nicholson
In view of what the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Hobson) said, I did not want to go into detail, but that is one of the major factors. It is the sad fact that increasing traffic in the telegraph services would only increase the deficit. That may appear rather ridiculous, but it is a fact that if we increase the traffic we increase the deficit. The aim should be to decrease the traffic, and one of the best ways of doing that is by increasing the rates, which also operates in the other direction by increasing the proportion of receipts.
I want to speak of the view which the country and the Government take of this deficit. It cannot be treated lightly. It cannot be put off from year to year, because it really matters. Somebody has to pay for it, and, in my view, the answer to the question, "Who pays?" is this: first, the Exchequer pays in that the Post Office contribution to the Exchequer is by that much diminished. Alternatively, or perhaps in conjunction with the former, the general public pays in that postal charges tend to be raised as the deficit increases, or, at any rate, the deficit militates against any reduction in postal charges. Thirdly, it cannot be healthy for the national economy. It must contribute towards inflationary pressure if money is wasted and men and materials are occupied in an unremunerative way.
I find the situation exceedingly disquieting. Intrinsically, in hard cash, I find it disquieting; I find it disquieting 1192 that several million pounds—perhaps, one, two or three million pounds—are being lost on Government account every year without anything being done about it, and I also find it disquieting in that it shows how the Post Office and the Treasury approach the problem.
So far as the Post Office is concerned, I find it disquieting for the following reasons: This matter has drifted on year after year with a steadily increasing deficit, and neither party in the State has done anything about it. It reflects very badly on the present and past administrations of the Post Office. It is disquieting, secondly, because in the course of the evidence it was given out that the Post Office were afraid of making too big a surplus—my hon. Friend indicated that he shared that view, if I did not misunderstand him—because it means that the Post Office would then be shot at for making a profit in what is really a social service and there would be demands for reductions in charges. That came out in the evidence, and I can give my hon. Friend the references if he wishes to intervene. It reflects very badly upon him and on his noble Friend that there should be a feeling that it is not healthy for the Post Office to show too big a surplus.
§ Mr. Gammans
It is not a question whether it is healthy for the Post Office to make a surplus. I was only referring in a somewhat indirect way to the fact that any Postmaster-General who shows a large surplus is called a "stooge" of the Treasury while if he does not show any surplus at all he is called a bad administrator. We are now in the position of being neither one nor the other, but I would not like my hon. Friend to think that because of what I said it is my ambition to run the Post Office so inefficiently that it comes out with a loss.
§ Mr. Nicholson
My hon. Friend has given the case away. He said that he was in the happy state of being here without a very big surplus, but I should like him to come here and say to the public, "I have made a big surplus. Therefore, I am able to make a reduction in charges." I do not like this feeling that it does not matter so much there being a loss on one commercial account because the balance is made up on another.
1193 Fourthly—and this is the major cause of my disquiet—we could not get any answer from the Post Office whether they had any idea as to the level that the deficit would have to reach before it was imperative to deal with it. They have given much thought to it and have produced suggestions, but there was no idea on the part of the Post Office as to when—
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
On a point of order. Is it right for the hon. Gentleman to attack civil servants, who have no right of reply at all, especially on questions of policy which are a matter for the Minister? Is it not the custom for hon. Members not to do that sort of thing?
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
It is quite simple. The Minister is here to answer and the civil servants are not blamed. It is the Minister's fault. He is the one that we blame here.
§ Mr. Nicholson
I am summarising evidence that was printed and given to this House for all of us to read. I am not attacking the civil servants. They have given the official viewpoint and I am attacking the official viewpoint for which my hon. Friend is responsible in this House. I am not attacking them but the answers that they were ordered by the Minister to give.
§ Mr. Wallace
I agree that the hon. Member is referring to what is in the Report but he is not quoting that Report, and by implication that is a criticism of what he now describes as "the official view" from the civil servants.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
The point is that the civil servants are presumed to take orders from the Minister. We can say anything we like to the Minister because the civil servants obey his orders.
§ Mr. W. R. Williams
It would be to the advantage of the House to allow the hon. Gentleman to continue his speech. He has already shown so much inconsistency that he will argue himself to a standstill before he is finished.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
No, it cannot be fully discussed. The hon. Member is trying to make a point which is at issue in the evidence.
§ Mr. Nicholson
I should be the last person to attack civil servants as individuals, because they have no chance to reply, but I thought I was right in putting to the House my conclusions on the evidence given to the House in the Select Committee's Report which has been given to us and is available to every hon. Member. I am not attacking civil servants but am attacking my hon. Friend, and I am very surprised that any hon. Member on the other side should think anything different. If I have been guilty of any inconsistency it will no doubt be shown. I am attacking the official viewpoint which is represented in this House by my hon. Friend on behalf of the Post Office. Does any hon. Member disagree with that?
I leave the Post Office viewpoint and turn to the Treasury, which is intimately connected with this problem. We also examined the Treasury. They said they had also discussed the matter and that it was obviously a very worrying situation. They displayed the same fear of too big a Post Office surplus, but said it was mainly a matter for the Post Office and they were reluctant to intervene in commercial accounts.
§ Mr. Wallace
On a point of order. Is the Assistant Postmaster-General to be made responsible for answering for the evidence of the Treasury?
§ The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. John Boyd-Carpenter)
I have no doubt that the Assistant Postmaster-General will seek to deal with the whole debate. I would stress that Ministers speak for the Government as a whole, and that any attempt to separate them in this way is not consistent with our normal practice. While I am on my feet, might I say, so far as the Treasury witnesses before the Select Committee were concerned, that Ministers accept full responsibility? I hope my hon. Friend will not express a contrary view.
§ Mr. Nicholson
Perhaps I might be allowed to continue my speech. I was endeavouring to make a serious contribution on a serious matter. The fact that only a few million pounds are involved, compared with the astronomical budgets that we have, may make them seem not to 1195 be worth bothering about, but £2 million is worth considering not only for their own sake, but because the way in which an avoidable loss of £2 million is treated by the Treasury throws a significant light on many other aspects of Administration. I am criticising the Treasury for the view they took on the deficit of the telegraph service. The Treasury have not a policy—
§ Mr. Hobson
On a point of order. I am sorry to have to get up again, but am I to understand that it will now be perfectly in order for any of us to discuss the Post Office accounts apart from the Bill?
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
If they are linked with the requirements for raising more money, they will be in order, because that is where the money is raised.
§ Mr. Hobson
This is capital expenditure, and the Bill is for the specific purpose of raising money for capital expenditure. I submit further that the only way in which these remarks could be in order would be if they could be related to the recommendations of the Select Committee on Estimates that less capital equipment is needed.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
Are revenues and capital separated right through the accounts in the Post Office?
§ Mr. Gammans
I think it is a fair point to suggest that any economies that might be made in any part of the administration means that less money would be required on capital account.
§ Mr. Nicholson
Clause 1 (1) contains the words "other business of the Post Office," and I should have thought that covered it. I apologise to the House for a lack of continuity, but it is indeed difficult to have continuity when one has about 20 points of order made.
I criticise the Treasury, as the governing Department in matters of finance, for not having any clear idea, or any rudimentary idea, of a policy as to when, or how, this telegraph deficit should be dealt with. I criticise the Treasury for appearing to be disinterested in this serious loss. It is serious if the country thinks that the 1196 Treasury do not occupy themselves with matters of a few minion pounds in an important Department. I think it is serious when the Treasury's view is that a loss on one commercial account does not matter very much because it is met by a profit on another commercial account. It makes one doubt the validity of the theory of Treasury control when this is referred to as merely a matter for the Post Office.
It is still more serious when one finds that the Treasury, while accepting full responsibility for every aspect of the national economic life, do not safeguard the citizens—whether as taxpayers or as users of the postal services—from having to pay higher taxes, through a continuance of this loss, or higher postal charges than would be necessary were the loss reduced or done away with.
For those reasons I am unhappy, disquieted and anxious about the way this telegraph deficit is being treated by the present administration, and as it has been treated by past administrations. It really does matter. It is not a thing to be brushed off in a few hours, once a year, in a House of Commons debate. I very much hope the present administration will deal with it as soon as possible.
§ 6.12 p.m.
§ Mr. Harry Wallace (Walthamstow, East)
I realise that the House has been in some difficulty in discussing this Bill, because it really desired not only to discuss its purpose, but to discuss the activities of the Post Office generally.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards) made an appeal for publicity and public accountability, I will repeat what I have said previously. Is it not time that the Post Office adopted what the other nationalised services have done for some years, and let the House, and the public, have an annual report, and a discussion on it? I think that is a sensible suggestion. It is obvious that the public outside desires to see what the public industries do, and that they should give in this House an account of their stewardship.
The Post Office used to present an annual report. They stopped doing so in 1917. This is 1953, and they have now many other good examples showing why they should restore the publication of this 1197 annual report. I hope that the Assistant Postmaster-General, before he leaves office, will again seriously consider this suggestion, and adopt it. I am sure it will be a service to the whole House.
The hon. Gentleman the Member for Farnham (Mr. Nicholson) is concerned, quite rightly, about the deficit on the telegraph service. He, and others, are in the difficulty that we cannot really discuss that adequately, because we are really limited by the purposes of this Bill and have had a Ruling on it from the Chair. I should not like him to feel or think that it is because there is no desire on this side to discuss these matters.
I was glad that the Assistant Postmaster-General was able to refer to an increase in traffic, on the postal side, of about 33⅓ per cent. My recollection is that the staff have not increased to anything like that extent, so I suppose they are working harder and giving a very much better service.
I was sorry that he was not able to give some idea of the average time an applicant has to wait for a telephone. I realise that there are some difficulties about it, but for my area of Walthamstow I think I could give an average, and I rather think that other hon. Members could do the same. At the same time, let me pay my tribute to the Assistant Postmaster-General for the help he has given to my constituents who want telephones. We always get a quick and useful reply and a desire to help, and that is very much appreciated both by myself and by my constituents. But I should have thought that something could be done to indicate an average; I am not thinking so much in terms of a national average as of locality with locality.
The discussion about the security of mails has rather gone to the point of indicating that the loss takes place after the mail bags have gone outside the control of the Post Office. I am not going to suggest that it is all the railwaymen's fault, or that it is all the Post Office's fault, but I wonder how far the staff have been consulted, and what suggestions the men who work in the railway stations have made for dealing with these difficulties? It is very easy to criticise on the basis that mail bags are to be seen on a railway platform, but where can they be? If 1198 one stands on Paddington Station for a few hours thousands and thousands of mail bags will be seen there, but it would be very wrong to suggest that those mail bags are not under supervision. From my own experience, I think that there could be very useful discussion, not only with the Post Office workers, but with the railway workers, as to how the mails could be taken charge of and handled in safety. Nevertheless, it may be found necessary to face the question of spending more money in certain areas to make sure of security for the mails.
I do not feel that the Post Office surplus should be given to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. If the service has produced the surplus, it should go back to the industry itself, to the worker and to the public—the consumer. There was some criticism on the ground that the Post Office must make a surplus, but I do not know that I would accept that as the criterion for an efficient public service. There may be occasions when the service may be efficient but there may be a deficit.
I think the telegraph service is efficient, but there is a deficit. It is not due to negligence; that service is the victim, so to speak, of technical development. If the test that has been applied to telegrams were to be applied to every parcel and every letter, then one could say that all letters are carried for 2½d. each, but it costs far more than 2½d. to take a letter from London to the Western Islands. Some of us have taken the view that with this service which is responsible for communications, one should consider its revenue as a whole; if it is down on one particular branch but up on another, I think we should look at the revenue as a whole.
§ Mr. Nicholson
If I may interrupt surely if people are using the telegraph service at a price that is well below the cost, and there are other methods of Post Office communication at their disposal at a proper price, it is ordinary wisdom to try to divert them into the channels where they pay a proper price for the service they get, rather than to let them use a service which is subsidised. That applies to most of the 53 per cent. of the business users but, to take the betting telegram as an example, does anyone suggest it is a social service to subsidise that?
§ Mr. Wallace
I was just coming to that point. I very much doubt whether people waste the telegraph service. It is not cheap. I should have thought that the proper line of development was the shared telephone service which should be made cheaper so that the ordinary householder could have a chance to use it.
I now want to ask a question in relation to the 2½d. letter. What proportion of that 2½d. represents the cost of handling a letter, from collection to delivery? My recollection is that before the war, when we paid l½d., the cost was about 1d. Assuming that the present-day cost is 2d., how many millions of items are being carried by the Post Office at less than 2d., including football pool coupons? It might well be worth examining that matter. Of course, I am not suggesting that the Post Office should be a kind of Father Christmas.
I support this Bill. I do not like the inclusion of this money for defence purposes. However, I have expressed my views on this subject on a previous occasion, and I am not going to repeat myself tonight.
Let it not be assumed that the Bridge-man Committee was a highly popular body. I am not suggesting that there is no need for investigation, inquiry and improvement, but I should like to debate whether, in the long run, the adoption of the recommendations of the Bridge-man Committee, with its regions, its reports and returns, have given the Post Office an organisation really superior to the old organisation. One of the most useful units of the Post Office service was the old surveyor. If that surveyor's powers had been enlarged, as well as those of the head postmaster, I doubt whether we would have needed all this elaborate regionalisation.
I am not at all convinced of the wisdom of the Bridgeman Committee's recommendations, although I am in entire agreement about public accountability. If the Assistant Postmaster-General feels that he would like to embark on such a voyage, I hope that, before he makes such a decision, he will take into account the opinion of the staff side of the Post Office Whitley Council, who have given much service to the development of the Post Office organisation.
1200 My last request tonight to the Assistant Postmaster-General is this. Please publish an annual report and give the House a chance of knowing what the Post Office is doing. The hon. Gentleman has been limited this evening in his description of the activities of the Post Office and its development. He should give the House and the public a chance to know, and he should give the Post Office a chance of making known the good work that it does for the public.
§ 6.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Frederic Harris (Croydon, North)
I want first to touch on two points to which the Assistant Postmaster-General referred. One is the question of waiting lists for telephones. As he said, it is true that hon. Members get more correspondence on telephone matters than on almost any other subject connected with the Post Office, and I feel sure that now, as he has told us, that we can expect a faster rate of telephone installations, this will be a great boon to all concerned.
One does not wish to decry what has been done in the last few years, because one recognises that the Post Office has done an excellent job in this respect; but nevertheless, there are many persons in every constituency who are waiting anxiously to get a telephone, whether on the party-line system or otherwise, and I feel sure that anything the Post Office can do to hasten the installation of telephones for these people will be greatly welcomed by them.
Reference has been made to the considerable loss on the telegraph service. I am one of those who feel that the telegraph service is absolutely essential, and therefore I cannot imagine that there can be any serious curtailment in the service which is offered. But when one gets into these arguments of costings, it is difficult to know how one can say exactly what a particular service costs. As the hon. Member for Walthamstow, East (Mr. Wallace) has said, if a person posts a letter to his neighbouring district he pays the same price as someone who sends a letter up to Scotland. There must be a basic element in those costs where the staff of the Post Office are concerned right the way through, and I should think it would be very difficult to be absolutely certain how to separate the entire cost.
1201 We ought to look on the Post Office as an organisation giving a general service instead of thinking that we can take away one part of the service which is essential to the public, merely because it is a little more expensive than another part of the service.
I want to raise a local point. I was in some difficulty to know whether I would be in order in speaking on this matter, and therefore I have gone to some length to ascertain that I would be reasonably in order. Although this is a local point, it is an important matter to me, to the people I represent and to the great County Borough of Croydon. In addition, it is a very topical matter because discussions are shortly to take place in which there will be reference to it.
I appreciate that the purpose of this Bill is to authoriseraising further money for the development of the postal, telegraphic and telephonic systemsand it particularly stressesany other business of the Post Office.I therefore hoped that one could roam fairly widely in this debate, and indeed I think the Assistant Postmaster-General will agree that he covered a great deal of the general ground. His remarks were very helpful, and I am sure that we were all deeply interested in everything he told us.
I wish to refer particularly to the question of capital expenditure in so far as it might effect alterations in sorting offices in the district which I represent. I represent the County Borough of Croydon, with my two colleagues the hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams), who is often in the news, and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, West (Mr. R. Thompson). This great county borough which we three represent is a very large place. It is thirteenth in importance and size in the country; and it has a population of over a quarter of a million, and some 250 miles of roads, so that it is a very large place indeed. Some 20 years ago a request was put to the Post Office for the revision of the postal districts in the Croydon area. At that time, one of the main reasons it was turned down by the Post Office was the expense involved in altering and enlarging the sorting offices.
§ Mr. Hobson
In fairness to the Post Office, we ought to say that it was proved that the alterations which the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. F. Harris) is asking for would have resulted in a slowing up of the deliveries.
§ Mr. Harris
I am sure that the hon. Member will understand that that is not the view of our authorities at the present time. That is why we are continuing to advance the case which will be coming under further discussion. I am only mentioning the fact that one of the main points made at that time—as I am given to understand; I was not a Member 20 years ago—was the expense involved.
Other towns which, although extremely important, in many cases are not so large as Croydon, use the name of their town, followed by numbered postal districts. Such an alteration to the Croydon postal districts would simplify the address problems of many residents and business people there. I do not deny the fact—I am grateful for it—that it will also quite naturally add to the status and reputation of our great county borough.
In the six years during which I have represented my constituency, I have been constantly approached by constituents about this matter, and the borough authorities are energetically pressing once again for the adjustments to be made. Discussions are due to take place in a week or two between representatives of the postal authorities and our own Croydon borough authorities. A meeting is to take place with the Regional Director of the London Postal Region, which will have to be followed, if necessary, by requests for deputations to the Postmaster-General or Assistant Postmaster-General. I hope that these discussions will produce the satisfactory results which all those in Croydon want. I am frankly assuming that the expenditure of enlarging and changing these sorting offices is the type of expenditure which must be included in the request for money which is being asked of the House at this moment.
Croydon has seven postal districts, and the major part of the borough is covered by three—Croydon, South Croydon and Thornton Heath. There are four smaller portions in the northern part of the area, which come under London postal districts—S.E.16, S.E.19, S.E.20, and S.E.25. 1203 Croydon people feel that the Croydon postal districts should be called "Croydon" with numerical suffixes, as in the case of other large towns. The confusion which now arises will be understood by the Assistant Postmaster-General when I tell the House that mail for Norbury, which is a part of Croydon, is sorted in Streatham.
The Assistant Postmaster-General is well aware of the problem to which I am referring. As I said at the beginning, I thought that this Bill afforded an appropriate opportunity for me to raise this question on the Floor of the House. I sincerely hope that the discussions which are now to take place between the Post Office and the Croydon borough authorities will receive the blessing of the Minister, and I hope that they will culminate in Croydon having its own postal districts at an early date, which is what all those in our great county borough are anxious to achieve.
§ 6.35 p.m.
§ Mr. W. R. Williams (Droylsden)
I am rather glad that the debate has broadened out. I do not take the view that we should limit or restrict it. If I were a member of the postal administration, I should be very pleased if every hon. Member brought the spotlight of criticism on to the reputation of the service, because I think it would be enhanced by the open, free criticism of hon. Members, provided that the criticism was well-informed, fairly accurate and well intentioned. Some of it has been well intentioned but inaccurate, and some fairly accurate but not too well intentioned.
The debate has taken quite a useful turn. I agree with the first part of the speech of the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Mr. F. Harris) with regard to his assessment and summary of the over-all responsibility of the Post Office and his view that it should not be too departmentalised and sectionalised from the point of view of facilities and service.
With regard to his point about Croydon—whether Croydon is a very big town, whether it is thirteenth or fourteenth in succession and should have its own postal numbers—the Post Office is not primarily intended to enhance municipal reputations. Its main purpose is to try to effect deliveries as rapidly as possible, for the convenience of everybody.
§ Mr. Harris
I think the hon. Member would also agree that it was not intended that the Post Office should cause unnecessary confusion in the great County Borough of Croydon.
§ Mr. Williams
I have a great deal of sympathy with the hon. Member, because when I was central secretary of the Union of Post Office Workers in Liverpool I had exactly the same argument with the Post Office administration in regard to the fact that Birkenhead, Wallasey and Bootle were disappearing altogether from the scene, and were becoming part of Liverpool. They did not like it, although Liverpool could have swallowed them all and not known anything about it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Farnham (Mr. Nicholson) on his great interest in the telegraph service. It is well worth while, now and again to promote people to committees in order to widen the scope of their interests and give them something new to think and talk about. Today the hon. Member has shown his great interest in the telegraph service. At the same time, he has shown a great deal of natural ignorance. I should not expect him to know a tremendous lot about the telegraph service from his casual acquaintance with a few representatives of the postal service who came before his Committee. While I should be very glad to testify to his enthusiasm, I doubt whether it would be wise to rely too much on his judgment, especially with regard to this technical service and all the questions which devolve from it.
§ Mr. Nicholson
The hon. Member has referred to my serving on a Select Committee. I shall be grateful if he can tell me whether any of my statements were inaccurate.
§ Mr. Williams
I have already charged the hon. Member with being inaccurate, and I shall come to that point in a minute, if he can wait for a few moments for me to make an interjectory remark on the subject.
I entered the telegraph service in Caernarvon in 1912. At that time there were two things which were being talked about as being imminent. First, it was said that the Welsh language was going to disappear, and secondly, that the telegraph service would soon be no more.
§ Mr. Williams
Here is another man who thinks he knows a tremendous lot about these things and who, by a simple observation like that, shows he is completely ignorant. If he knew anything about the Welsh language, the hon. Member would know that more people today are speaking it than ever. It would do him good to study it.
For all these years the telegraph has been supposed to be going out of existence. I venture to say that the telegraph service will never die because the people of this country, if it came to a question of having a funeral service over it, would not let us. It is too useful a service. I do not know why I should defend the Post Office people. I have been attacking them all my life. I do not see why I should change to defending them, but in fairness to them I must come to the underlying criticism of the hon. Member for Farnham, that the Post Office has since then gradually been going down year after year and that the Post Office people have done nothing at all to try to prevent it, or at least very little, and have said, "It is going down; let it go." That is not true.
There is no Government Department that has spent more energy, thought and consideration on trying to save a service than the Post Office administration has spent in trying to save the telegraph service, and in trying to do it in the only way it could, having regard to scientific developments, namely, by trying all the time to make it more efficient.
§ Mr. Williams
If that is not what the hon. Gentleman said, all I can say is that that is what it struck me that he said.
§ Mr. Nicholson
I was not attacking them for their technical advances but for not taking steps to reduce the deficit. The hon. Gentleman was so filled with his own deep thoughts that he did not listen to what I was saying. I spoke of the increase in delivery charges, which I think are very great, but the transmission charges have not gone up, which is a very great compliment to the telegraph service.
§ Mr. Williams
The hon. Member has charged me with profound thought, but I am afraid I cannot reciprocate. In the telegraph service in all these years they have switched from one scientific invention to another to do two things, first to expedite the delivery of telegraphs—there is nobody in this House who can challenge that—and secondly, to try to reduce the charges on telegraphs.
I must not speak at too great length on this particular matter, but the problem is quite a simple one in essence. We can have a telegraph service at a loss or at a profit. There is no half-way house. The only way to have it at a profit is to deny to the rural areas the service we give to the urban areas and the big towns. I ask the hon. Member, is that what he wants? Is he prepared to go to the outskirts of Farnham or any other big town and say, "We are going to charge you extra for the delivery of your telegraphs "?
§ Mr. Nicholson
I can answer the question perfectly well. I have never suggested in this House or anywhere else that the service should be restricted in that manner. I have not suggested preferential treatment for certain areas as against others. What I am suggesting is that business users of the telegraph service should be discouraged by increased charges—others, of course, would have to pay more—to reduce the deficit. I have not said that we can make the telegraph services make a profit. What I said was that the Post Office and the Treasury should take pretty urgent steps to stop this deficit going on, and preferably to reduce it.
§ Mr. Williams
I am glad I am giving the hon. Member the opportunity to make an entirely new speech and to correct the impression he gave to the House with regard to the telegraph service. I say again—I have said it ever since I have been in this House—that in my opinion the telegraph service is an essential service not only to the business community but to the people in the countryside, and we must not think of trying to do away with it. I am perfectly satisfied that it is impossible to make a profit on the Post Office unless we take the steps I have outlined already. However, I must leave it there, or I shall be too long.
1207 I should like to say a word about the proposed committee on re-organisation. I am always quite prepared to say that there is a great deal of wisdom on our Front Bench. A good deal of the wisdom in this House is placed there, but I am not too sure that I follow them voluntarily in this respect. The Post Office is run pretty well, and in any case I prefer this system, unlike the other systems introduced in connection with other nationalised services, whereby the Assistant Postmaster-General and his noble Friend in another place have to face the criticism of the representatives of the country. I believe that is one of the fundamental bases of democracy, and I would say to the Assistant Postmaster-General that, whatever else he does, he ought not to change the relationship between this House and the Post Office, because if he did it would be to the detriment of the Post Office and a serious loss to this House.
I turn to the amount of money the Assistant Postmaster-General says he is going to spend. The bulk of it is on the telephones, as I should naturally expect. I ask him to spend a bit more at Audenshaw in my constituency. I have been in correspondence with him a long time now about this. He goes on saying, "We are reducing the application lists. We are making very rapid progress in many parts of the country." I want him to apply that same rate in Audenshaw, where for many years our people have been trying to get telephones installed. I should like to have special attention given to that.
I am very glad that the Assistant Postmaster-General is going to allocate a bit more to the buildings. I hope he does not think that by doing so in London he will have disposed of the problem of buildings, because there are hundreds of sorting offices and other buildings throughout the country which are badly in need of repair. They are inefficient, and they are certainly not conducive to the good health of the staff or to their good working. With all due respect to the late Sir Kingsley Wood, who did a good deal for the Post Office—I should not have minded if some of his successors had done as much—he trimmed only the plans that the public could see. He was a great fellow for publicity, and he certainly saw that the windows were clean and that the places and things the public saw, the 1208 counters and so on, were all right, but he left the hovels of the sorting offices, where the bulk of the staff work, untouched and uncared for. I hope that the Assistant Postmaster-General will see that this problem, which has existed for many years, is tackled.
As to security, I agree that it is not always easy to give 100 per cent. security to everything without an inordinate overall cost. The Assistant Postmaster-General says that in the old days we could leave mailbags on the railway platforms and nobody took them. Of course, that is so. I remember the days in North Wales when people used not to lock or bar their doors on going to bed; but they have learned that they have got to do it, and they do it.
The Assistant Postmaster-General has got to learn that members of the public can see millions of these mailbags in positions from which they can be taken without anybody knowing. That has a psychological effect. If there is one thing that the Post Office has been noted for throughout the years I have been connected with it, it is that people can with confidence deposit things in the Post Office and know that they will be safely delivered. I think that the Assistant Postmaster-General and his noble Friend will have to give serious consideration to those external security measures which I mentioned in supplementary questions yesterday.
There is also the question of internal security. I shall not say too much about that, although I could speak on it at some length. A good deal of responsibility is imposed on members of the staff. They have not the buildings, the installations and the cages which make for the security which is demanded in their treatment of packets of high-value and registered letters. I ask the Assistant Postmaster-General to look into that matter.
Finally, I wish again to refer to the telephone service. I maintain that it is no use saying to industry that it must develop, extend and become more efficient if industry is to be deprived of the telephone, telegraph and Post Office facilities which make that possible. I ask the hon. Gentleman again to go to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and say that money spent on these things will not be wasted. It is not just throwing the 1209 money into a pool for the postal workers' convenience; it is another effort to improve and make more efficient the overall industry and industrial effort of this country.
I am sorry that I have spoken longer than I intended, but I was provoked by the hon. Member for Farnham. I congratulate the Assistant Postmaster-General once again on his great enthusiasm. I hope that he will, when using that enthusiasm, try to bring to it also the balanced judgment of which he is capable.
§ 6.52 p.m.
§ Captain L. P. S. Orr (Down, South)
I enjoyed the story of my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General about the birth of the baby, and I am delighted to know that mother and child are doing well. It is also delightful to know that he really is now Her Majesty's Delivery-master General and is responsible for the security not only of the males but of the females. May I inquire whether the child is to be known as David or Ness?
I wonder if I might, before introducing the subject which I should like the House to consider, ask my hon. Friend a few questions about telephones in Northern Ireland. In March of this year, he told me that there were 10,404 applications outstanding and 29 per cent. of the demand was being met in Northern Ireland as against 38 per cent. of the demand in the rest of the United Kingdom, and he was, at that time, considering whether or not a higher proportion of capital resources could be allocated to Northern Ireland.
Subsequently, in August, after inquiry had confirmed that there was considerable leeway to be made up in Northern Ireland, he told me that he proposed to increase the Northern Ireland share of capital resources from 1.9 per cent. to 29 per cent. in order to make up the leeway, but at that time he was not able to tell me how rapidly that leeway would be made up until he knew what the total capital resources would be. Now that he is in a position to know, perhaps he would be good enough to tell us how things are getting on there, and whether the leeway caused by the storm in 1951 has now begun to be eliminated, and when we are likely to be on a par with the rest of the United Kingdom.
1210 I want to raise a slightly new subject in this debate. It is one for which the Postmaster-General is to a certain degree responsible, and I am emboldened in thinking that I may be in order because of the fact that Clause 1 of this Bill says that the Postmaster-General may use the moneys we are proposing to give him, not only for the postal, telegraph and telephone systems, but "for any other business of the Post Office." Because of that, and because the Postmaster-General is, by the Wireless Telegraphy Act, 1949, responsible for this matter or has powers in this matter I venture to hope that my remarks may be in order.
The subject is that of frequency allocations, and it is one of first rate importance to the radio industry and, indeed, to employment in this country and to our export trade. I must, in accordance with tradition, declare an interest. I might say, in mitigation of the awful and frightful fact that I have some financial interest in the radio and electronic industry, that my interest in this matter began in this House before I had a financial interest outside it. The subject is one of very great importance. All wireless, all television, radar and such like are dependent upon the sending out of electro-magnetic waves into what we know as the ether. In order that the signals sent out on these waves may be received, it is necessary to have receiving instruments of some sort tuned to receive waves of a certain length or waves alternating at a certain frequency.
Unless there is some sort of arrangement, whereby there is some control over the frequencies upon which the transmissions are made, there is likely to be the utmost chaos, catcalls, screams and everything else at these receivers. Therefore, there must be an arrangement made by which these transmissions do not interfere with each other. There are international agreements and there are internal arrangements inside every country. So far as the international agreements are concerned they are made at international conventions, such as that which took place at Atlantic City in 1947, but very often the decisions of these international conventions are the result of the deliberations of a body known as C.C.I.R., which is an international consultative committee of users.
1211 The manufacturers of electronic equipment are not represented on the C.C.I.R. and can only be represented at the international conventions through the representatives of the Post Office. I should like to ask my hon. Friend whether or not the Post Office consult the manufacturers before their delegates go on to the C.C.I.R. or before they go to the international conferences—
§ Captain Orr
I suspect the answer. I think that in some cases the fullest possible consultation is not necessarily made with the manufacturers, and I believe that it ought to be made.
So far as the internal decision of allocation of frequencies is concerned, the situation is sombre, confused and in an awful muddle. First of all, who allocates the frequencies inside the United Kingdom? So far as the civil users of frequencies are concerned, it would appear that the Postmaster-General has acquired the powers to allocate the frequencies almost by accident, by virtue of the fact that he has the power to licence the transmission of electro-magnetic waves. He is given under the Wireless Telegraphy Act very wide powers of making conditions, and he uses that power in order to control frequencies.
There is no guarantee at all that the power to control frequencies will be fairly used. There is no guarantee that there will be any form of redress for any user of a radio frequency who may feel aggrieved. There is no guarantee that justice will be done between one user and another in the use of radio frequencies, which are an exceedingly valuable form of raw material for the radio and electronics industry, and there is no appeal at all. There is no guarantee that the Post Office, being a commercial concern which is itself running radio links and the like, may not be subject to pressure from the other interested bodies with whom it has to deal. In fact, the whole industry seems to be dependent upon the whim of the Postmaster-General and may be affected by lack of foresight or any other evils in the Post Office.
There is a striking topical example of this about which some hon. Members may have heard from their constituents, 1212 and that relates to the position of mobile radio users. Radio taxis, ambulance authorities, industrial users and others who employ radio to increase the efficiency of their business are at the moment in some doubt and uncertainty because the Television Advisory Committee has recommended that Band III—which, so far as Region 1 is concerned, was allocated internationally for television broadcasting—should be cleared, and, therefore, a number of mobile radio users, including the London taxi-cabs and all the ambulance authorities in the country who use radio, are threatened with having to make a change.
§ Mr. Hobson
Is it not because of the policy with regard to sponsored television which the hon. and gallant Gentleman supports that these alterations and this expense have been made necessary?
§ Captain Orr
No, I should not admit that for a moment. Surely the people of this country are entitled to an expansion of the television service, whether it is by a sponsored service or by giving more facilities to the B.B.C. to provide more and more services, but that is not to say that there ought not to be some long-term frequency planning to prevent this sort of muddle occurring.
Here we have these users in a band allocated in 1947 for the use of television—and many of them have been licensed in that Band since 1947—and now they are in the position that they may have to change. Having to change a frequency for an ambulance service may seem somewhat academic, but we have to remember the cost of changing the frequency. Each set has to be altered and this entails more capital expenditure on the part of the user. Changes may have to be made in equipment which may entail capital expenditure amounting to £10, £20 or £30 per set, and for a user with 300 mobile sets that is a considerable expense. Also, there is no guarantee that any other frequency allocated will provide equal facilities or that the user will have security of tenure on any other frequency which is allocated.
This form of radio communication is growing, and behind it is a growing industry, and it cannot thrive in a state of uncertainty such as exists at the moment. Uncertainty is liable to damage a new and growing export trade, and unemployment is likely to occur in the industry 1213 unless some radical change is made. I have given only one example but I could produce countless others, and there are also some which cannot be given for reasons of national security.
I will supplement my argument by means of a few examples from the United States of America in comparison with what obtains here. In the important very high frequency band which runs from 27.5–300 megacycles, in the United States 102 megacycles are set apart for Government use. In the United Kingdom no fewer than 136 are set apart for Government use, 33 more of these valuable megacycles than in the United States, and we do not know what they are used for. I am by no means satisfied, nor is the radio industry, that proper use is being made of them or that the defence authorities are fully aware of the value of frequency space and are making every possible effort to limit their use of it. Has my hon. Friend any say in that matter, or is it decided in some dim conclave below in the Post Office or even outside the Post Office, an inter-departmental committee for instance?
No fewer than 72 megacycles are allocated for television in the United States, whereas in the United Kingdom only 27 are allocated. That partly explains why anyone in New York who wishes to watch television has no fewer than five programmes to which he can tune in, and there are also 27 sound programmes. Why is it that in London we have only one television service and three sound services?
§ Captain Orr
That may be a contributory cause, but one of the reasons is the lack of frequency planning. From a frequency point of view, there is no earthly reason why we should not have the same number as New York or even more. Is it due to shortage of frequency space, or is the frequency shortage largely artificial and largely created by the policies of the Post Office? One reason appears to be that the Defence Services get too much space. Another is that the allocation of frequencies is in the hands of two interested monopolies, the G.P.O. and the B.B.C., neither of which is keen upon having facilities made available for its potential competitors.
§ Mr. Gammans
I do not see in what way any commercial interest could be a competitor of the Post Office in this sphere.
§ Captain Orr
I am not suggesting that it is possible in this particular sphere, although it might be, but it certainly could be in the marine sphere. My hon. Friend has already referred to the marine rescue service. I can think of many instances in which that might be the case in future.
This matter affects the exports of the radio industry and employment in the industry. As regards the future development of local v.h.f. sound broadcasting, mobile radio, and television, the question of frequency allocation is of the utmost importance, and the situation is extremely unsatisfactory. One way to remedy this would be to remove altogether from the Post Office the power to allocate frequencies. While the Postmaster-General should still have authority to issue licences, the actual allocation of frequencies should be done by means of a completely independent advisory body.
§ Mr. Hobson
Is the hon. and gallant Gentleman seriously suggesting to the House that such secret matters as the allocation of defence frequencies should be put into the hands of people who are not servants of the State or Ministers of Her Majesty? It really is a monstrous suggestion.
§ Captain Orr
The hon. Gentleman is misrepresenting me. I am suggesting that in the allocation of frequencies between civil users the Postmaster-General should have an independent advisory body on the lines of the Federal Communication Commission in America. The defence Services would be entitled to say that they needed certain frequencies, but they might have to show that they had exercised all reasonable economy in the use of frequencies. That does not seem to be an unreasonable suggestion. With such an independent body, there ought also to be provided some machinery for appeal to the judiciary in the event of dispute so that justice is not only done between one user of frequencies for mobile radio purposes and another but is also openly seen to be done, which is desirable.
1215 I would suggest to my hon. Friend that, if in his deliberations upon this matter he would like some assistance, then he should submit the question to the Television Advisory Committee and expand its terms of reference. I see no reason at all why that should not be done—why he should not ask the Television Advisory Committee for their opinion upon the methods of allocating frequencies in this country. I commend this to my hon. Friend for very serious consideration, because it is a matter of considerable importance to the future of the radio industry.
§ 7.10 p.m.
§ Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)
I do not wish to go too far in commenting on the speech of the hon. and gallant Member for Down, South (Captain Orr), but I do not think the question he raised is quite so simple as he seems to imagine. Had he seen some of the correspondence which I have had he would find his arguments apply also to the fire service and other institutions in this country, which are, to my mind, just as much in need of frequencies as the interests which he supports. I am not going into the technicalities of it, but I think the hon. and gallant Member will find that in this matter a little knowledge is probably a very dangerous thing. That is merely his trouble.
The Post Office has come fairly well through this debate. There have been very few complaints about its efficiency and everyone seems reasonably satisfied. The people in the Post Office have every reason to be proud of the past year and proud of being able to show a surplus of £5 million. The Assistant Postmaster-General told us that this was the lowest surplus for quite a long time. I am wondering whether he was being fair to the House when he seemed to suggest that the Treasury did not come into this at all. Is the Treasury going to be satisfied next year with a surplus of £5 million or be prepared even to let the amount sink lower?
Let us face it. In present circumstances the Treasury want a contribution from the Post Office, and if they are not satisfied with £5 million as a surplus or even a smaller sum, then we may be faced with the prospect of losing that 2½d. 1216 stamp of which we are so proud, or facing increased charges for telephones or something like that.
We want clarified the question of this surplus and the Treasury's position in regard to it. If the Assistant Postmaster-General wants any support in any battle with the Treasury on the subject, then he can depend on this side of the House for it, because we are not quite so concerned as the hon. Member for Farnham (Mr. Nicholson) about surpluses or deficits and deciding everything on that. We are concerned with the question of service and the people who will be affected by any change in that service.
It is all very well to say that there should be an increase in cost from 1s. 6d. to 2s. 6d. in the telegraph service, thereby reducing the traffic by 20 per cent. and so reducing the deficit. But what about that 30 per cent. of the traffic? Where is it to be accommodated? It may consist of people who are dependent on the telegraph service and for whom no alternative service is suitable. It has to be recognised that for many people the only alternative to the telegraph is the telephone. But those people cannot get the Post Office to install a telephone in their homes. They are mainly in rural areas where installation costs are much greater than in the city of Glasgow, or even in the less important city of London.
Taking that into account, it must be appreciated that we cannot ignore the social consequences of any change of policy. I think it is most unfair for the Chairman of one of the Sub-committees on Estimates, who is not in his place at the moment, to come along and say things about the attitude of civil servants who answer questions. I do not know where he got the impression that they were not greatly concerned about it all. I am perfectly sure that it was the civil servants who supplied the Sub-committee with the alternatives, but it is not for any civil servant to decide about the telegraph service or what is to be the price or whether there should be a drop in the number of people using it.
I think in actual fact it does not matter how much we increase the traffic. The more we increase it or the telegraph service the more the deficit is increased because it is not a question of the cost of transmission. Indeed, I believe that at the 1217 present time the Post Office is in a position to put a better transmission service into operation because of recent developments, but that will not help at all. It is all a question of the cost of delivery. In other words the days when the Post Office could employ a boy of 14 just leaving school for 5s. a week and provide him with a bicycle to deliver the telegrams are gone for ever. Delivery costs are now much greater, and that is one of the modern trends which we have to take into account.
I am not altogether satisfied with some of the changes that have been made. The Post Office has been doing something about the question of delivery. My own constituency is the large burgh of Kilmarnock, and it is surrounded by quite a number of villages in the valley going towards the very border of Lanarkshire. There are to be found the small but important burghs of Hurlford, Galston, Newmilns and Dalry, which is the centre of the lace industry of Scotland.
§ Mr. Ross
Yes, far more important than Glasgow, which did not produce Alexander Fleming, who invented penicillin. Dairy did.
The position is that the local offices for delivery in these small burghs have been closed, and the delivery point is being centralised in Kilmarnock. So every telegram for the area—and a telegram may be for a place 15 miles away—has got to go through Kilmarnock. When it comes to the winter-time—if the winters are anything like those of the past year or two—there may be considerable delay for roads become impassable. So in this case there has been a definite loss of service, and in the winter there might even be a failure of service to this important rural area.
I am not altogether satisfied that that effort to cut the deficit balances out, considering the sacrifice of service to that part of the community. It is not simply a question of looking at the deficit and then doing everything possible to reduce it irrespective of the consequences. The choice before the Government is one of various evils, and it is unfair—I said this in the absence of the hon. Member for Farnham and, as he is now present, I will say it in his hearing—to suggest that 1218 the failure of the civil servants who came before his committee to give him certain answers showed a lack of interest on their part.
§ Mr. Nicholson
What I thought I said, and what I meant to say, was that we were surprised that neither the Treasury nor the Post Office seemed to have in their minds the level beyond which the deficit should not be allowed to go, or clear ideas of how it should be dealt with. I did not imply that they had not given exceedingly serious thought to it or were not competent at their job.
§ Mr. Ross
I took down the words of the hon. Gentleman and I, too, am a member of the Estimates Committee and know the attitude there. We must differentiate between a memorandum coming from a Department and on-the-spot answers. Often a member of the Estimates Committee asks a person if it is his opinion. The answer cannot be anything else but his personal opinion, and to have it put on record that every opinion expressed there is the opinion of the Government is most unfair.
§ Mr. Nicholson
Will the hon. Gentleman accept that the last thing I want to do is to be unfair to the Department or to its members? I have the greatest respect for the Post Office and its officials, and, if he will read HANSARD, he will see that I have not been unfair.
§ Mr. Ross
I hope the hon. Gentleman is right, but what it amounts to is not so much a matter of policy but a question of decision. Decisions are bound to be unpopular, and I have every sympathy with the Postmaster-General in this longstanding dilemma of the telegraph service.
I am not altogether happy about the question of development. Under this Bill we are to find a further £125 million. We are told that capital expenditure in the next two years will be £120 million and most of it will be for the telephone service. I am not sure that we have a clear distinction of how much is to be for the civilian telephone service and how much is to be for defence. If I recollect, we were told last year that it was to be over £50 million for defence development.
§ Mr. Ross
Then it is a little better than last year. Here is the point. The big hold-up hitherto in the telephone service has been the question of buildings. We were told today that we shall get £500,000 more next year, bringing that up to £6.1 million. As far as I can see, mat half-million pounds will just about cover the increased cost of building, so it is no great advance on last year.
Taking the estimates given by the hon. Gentleman today, in the two years it was £6.1 million and £7.7 million, just over £13.8 million together. The hon. Gentleman prefaced that with the remark that the outstanding arrears in building were over £60 million. We shall be a long time before we catch up on our building arrears. The Post Offices certainly need improvement. It does not matter where one goes into a Post Office, they are always busy, and many of them were built and laid out long before the increased duties that have been laid on them in the past few years came into being.
My hon. Friend the Member for Droylsden (Mr. W. R. Williams) referred to what is behind the counter—the sorting office—the place where the main work is done; that, too, is wanting attention. In face of arrears of £60 million, £13 million in two years will not take us far. In addition, there is the question of new buildings, apart from the ones that are unsafe and groaning under the weight of the equipment which constitutes a modern Post Office or telephone exchange. In view of the fact that this bottleneck of building has held up telephone development in many places, we should not be entirely satisfied with the rate of new building that we are getting. It would be interesting to know how much of that £6.1 million which we are to spend next year is divided between Post Office buildings and new telephone exchanges, and how much of it is for purely repair work that has also been held back.
Every hon. Member here has had a letter from the Standard Telephone Shop Stewards Committee of New Southgate, the people who manufacture telephone equipment and telephone exchange equipment. If what they say is true, over 500 telephone workers are in danger of being made redundant owing to lack of orders. I wonder if the Assistant Postmaster-General can tell us whether that is a lack 1220 of orders from him and his Department or a falling off of export orders? Both are equally serious. If it is from the Post Office, how is that affected by past hold-ups in building new telephone exchanges and how much by a slow-down contemplated for the future?
Once again we must batter at the Treasury doors to try to get a little more for the Post Office, more particularly if it affects the livelihood of 500 workers, who are not just individuals, but men working in teams, making specialised equipment, whose services are of considerable importance to the nation on the export side. The hon. Member for Farnham said what I thought were dangerous things about the Treasury. He seemed to imply that the Treasury should have full right to go into the Post Office and decide Post Office policy as it affected deficits and surpluses.
§ Mr. Nicholsonindicated dissent.
§ Mr. Ross
Well, once we get them in, we shall never get them out until they have ruined the Post Office, and the Post Office is something we want to retain. We have considerable problems of Treasury control and, in regard to the surplus, I shall not develop the question of how much we ought to leave with the Post Office. I have spoken on that matter before and also on the question of deliveries in the telegraph service. I want the Assistant Postmaster-General to gang warily on cutting the telegraph service to the rural areas in order to satisfy the demand for economy presented by the hon. Member for Farnborough—
§ Mr. Ross
The hon. Gentleman cannot say that he never suggested it when he spoke all the time about the deficit and wanted something to be done to reduce it. We cannot say that the 30 per cent. will be only the business community unless we start to discriminate within the service itself, which is not so easy. Therefore it is bound to affect the rural areas, and I ask the Assistant Postmaster-General to be wary of such a policy.
§ 7.29 p.m.
§ Brigadier F. Medlicott (Norfolk, Central)
I hope that the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) will not mind if I do not follow him over the ground 1221 he has covered. I had much sympathy with the plea put forward by the hon. Member for Walthamstow, East (Mr. Wallace), a plea which I believe he puts forward regularly, namely, that the annual report of the Postmaster-General should be revived. In the absence of that report, however, these debates give us the opportunity of making a review of much of the work of the Post Office.
I am glad that special reference has been made tonight to the telephone service because, representing as I do a rural area, I know how vitally important the telephone is to people who live far away from the main centres of population. In the countryside the public call box is hardly ever used just for social purposes or for gossip. These boxes are often used for vital purposes, as in the case of accident or illness, or some other human problem. I appeal to the Assistant Postmaster-General to make sure that all these boxes are always illuminated. It may well be that they are supposed to be lit up and that when they are not lit it is because the electric lamps have been taken away by people who are lacking in public spirit. Whatever the explanation, these boxes are often in complete darkness. I assure the Assistant Postmaster-General that it is very inconvenient if one has to use an unlighted public call box in a rural area. First one has to find the box and then, by the aid of a flickering match or petrol lighter, find the number one wishes to speak to and then strike another light to find the number one is speaking from.
These public telephone boxes are rural beacons of communication, and I was not at all depressed when I heard that the Post Office lose only £40 a year on each box. I know that we are all quite ready to be generous in expenditure which is of benefit to our own constituents, but having regard to the vital service that these boxes perform, I think that £40 a year is cheap at the price, and I hope that in Norfolk at least we shall see many more of them.
I was glad that the hon. Member for Kilmarnock referred to the communication which most of us received today. It is very helpful for people who write to us to realise that we do try to read all such communications and to make representations in the proper quarter. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will be able to say 1222 something about the question of possible unemployment among those engaged on the manufacture of telephone equipment.
Suggestions have been made that we should discourage Government Departments from using the telephone. We really ought to be more fair to the Civil Service. If it is almost a music-hall joke to complain of delays inseparable from Government service and the administration of public departments, surely we must not take away from them one of the means by which they can expedite the doing of their business. I well remember that during the war Field-Marshal Lord Montgomery used to urge his staff not to think that they were doing business quickly just by writing letters. He said that there was a tendency to think that because one had written a letter one had done something useful, whereas in many cases all that one had done was merely to transfer a problem from one's own desk to someone else's—and that after a delay of 24 hours. The real thing to do was to make personal contact by seeing the other person or by telephoning to him. I think, therefore, that we should encourage Government Departments to use the telephone or whatever else is necessary to enable them to expedite still further the conduct of public business.
I pass now to a question on which the Assistant Postmaster-General somewhat rashly permitted comment when he said that one of the items of expenditure which would come under the present Bill would be the provision of links whereby the B.B.C. could provide further television and broadcasting services to various parts of the country. I hope that amongst those links to be provided in the not-too-distant future will be those which will enable the people of East Anglia to have better radio reception than they are having now and to receive television, which they are now not receiving at all.
I make no apology for introducing this subject, because on the last occasion when I raised the matter at Question time the Assistant Postmaster-General was good enough to tell me that priority had to be given to places like the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands over the County of Norfolk for constitutional reasons. I felt that I was being very kind to him in not pressing him to explain and expound further that somewhat unexpected doctrine. Perhaps the answer is that those areas were more persistent than some, 1223 and that they have received the reward of their persistence; but I hope that my appeal will not be lost on the Minister and that he will recognise that we are being persistent too.
One subject which, curiously enough, has not been mentioned at all in this debate is the position and work of scale payment offices—popularly known as sub-post offices. Perhaps it is not fully realised how much of the postal work of the country is done by them. It may not be out of place if I remind the House that nearly 70 per cent. of all the counter work of the post offices in Great Britain is done in the sub-post offices. Altogether there are 24,000 post offices in Great Britain of which no fewer than 22,500 are sub-post offices. These figures underline and emphasise the tremendous importance of the sub-post offices in the general Post Office service.
I must say a word by way of criticism of the general attitude of the Minister and his predecessors towards the sub-postmasters. I hope that he will be able to assure me that the sub-post office will not be regarded merely as something which holds the fort until such time as large and imposing Crown offices can be built. There is a complete case for maintaining the sub-post office—even in many large urban and suburban areas—as a permanent organisation working side by side with the Crown office.
I am not suggesting that there is any antagonism between the established Post Office worker on the one hand and the sub-postmaster and his assistants on the other. The analogy perhaps is with the relation between the Regular Army and the Territorial Army. There are points on which they do not always see eye to eye. Sometimes there are cases where there is only one vacancy to be filled and the Regular soldier feels that he ought to have it. That kind of thing happens in the Post Office in relation to the upgrading of sub-postmasters, but, apart from that, it is true to say that the two types of postal workers work together admirably. I am sure that the various head postmasters under whom the sub-postmasters work would support me in saying that sub-post offices are a very valuable and efficient part of the Post Office structure as a whole.
1224 I speak on this subject with special emphasis because I represent a rural area and I know what sub-post offices mean to the life of the community in such districts. The case for the sub-post office in the country is overwhelming, but the case does not rest entirely upon that argument. Here I reiterate what I have already said to the Minister—that sub-postmasters in general would like to feel that their own future is more secure. The particular relevance of this point to the Bill that is now before us is that from time to time a decision is made to convert a sub-post office into a Crown office and that involves a good deal of expenditure.
I have in mind two cases in the London area alone. In one case the cost of the existing sub-post office was £942 per annum, but it was replaced by a Crown office which costs £3,500 per annum, an increase of over £2,500 per annum. I entirely agree that there are many cases in which this change must be made, but nevertheless it is an expensive change, and I do not think it ought to be made automatically. I know of another case in the London area in which there were two sub-offices operating at a cost of just over £1,000 and £1,200 per annum respectively, and they were replaced by a single Crown office involving an annual expenditure of over £5,000. That was a situation in which two sub-offices were replaced by one Crown office at a net increased cost to the community of over £3,000 a year.
One of the difficulties of this tendency to convert the larger and more remunerative sub-offices into Crown offices is the feeling of insecurity which it gives to the sub-postmasters and the difficulty which it places in the way of recruitment for this valuable service. If I may make a further comment about the general position of sub-post offices, I would point out that they are not all modest little offices being conducted in a part of the village store. At least one I know of has a turnover of half-a-million pounds a year and they often do very substantial as well as very useful business.
§ Mr. W. R. Williams
Would the hon. and gallant Gentleman give me the name of the office which has transactions of over half-a-million pounds a year?
§ Brigadier Medlicott
I will gladly give the name to the hon. Member, but I prefer not to give it publicly, because I do not think that would be fair to the office concerned. To show that the figures are not just a figment of the imagination, I can give further figures of some detail indicating the kind of transactions conducted in that particular office. In one year there were no fewer than 20,000 savings bank transactions conducted, 95,000 postal orders handled, 45,000 family allowances and 88,000 pensions allowances issued, and 12,000 registered packets and 11,000 parcels posted.
§ Brigadier Medlicott
I am glad the hon. Member has raised that point, because I wanted to underline the fact that not all sub-post offices are small offices conducted as a part-time occupation. There are many being handled by men who, by their experience, are capable of being promoted to Crown offices and who certainly should be considered for such promotion.
I know that the established staff of the Post Office rightly consider that when a sub-post office is upgraded they ought to receive first consideration for promotion into the new office, and, generally speaking, that is a very reasonable stand for them to take; but I feel that it should not always be a one-way traffic but that on occasions when, by the turn-over and by his long experience and integrity, a sub-postmaster is shown to have the necessary capacity, he should be considered for any new appointment. I stress that it would be a new appointment because in that case he would not be trespassing on the ground of the established staff. He should nevertheless be considered for any such new appointment which becomes available.
I feel that I have said enough on this subject to indicate the importance of the sub-post office in the general scheme of things, and I conclude by urging one point in particular upon the Assistant Postmaster-General—that whenever it becomes appropriate or timely to consider the upgrading of a sub-post office into a Crown office, there should be consultation with those who represent the interests of sub postmasters generally. These men can contribute very usefully 1226 to the consideration of this problem and they may well be able to show that, not only can a sub-office continue to provide the public with the service which it needs, but can do it at a much lower cost than is involved in the creation of a large Crown office.
§ 7.45 p.m.
§ Mr. C. R. Hobson (Keighley)
I think that we have had a very interesting debate There have been very few major criticisms, and just a few animadversions. The debate has ranged over all the services performed by the Post Office; indeed, I think we can say that we have had a Supply Day debate.
The proceedings have been marred only by the intervention at some length of the hon. and gallant Member for Down, South (Captain Orr). I have been in this House for eight years, and in the whole of that time I have never heard such a case of special pleading. If I may say so, it was a perfect example of what has come to be known as American log-rolling. The hon. and gallant Member declared his interest and then proceeded, with complete aplomb, to develop the reasons why those interests should be looked after. Quite frankly, I do not think that is good enough.
As for the hon. and gallant Member's suggestion that civil servants, representatives of the Post Office, the defence services and of private interests should be a tribunal for the allocation of frequencies, that seems to me a most monstrous suggestion. What would happen would be that those private interests, who are responsible to nobody except themselves, would know precisely what are the frequency allocations of the defence forces.
§ Mr. Hobson
I am surprised that anyone, particularly an hon. and gallant Member coming from Belfast, which claims to be such a patriotic city, and, moreover, an hon. and gallant Member who was educated at Campbell College, should put forward such a suggestion.
§ Captain Orr
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that I have in my hand an American publication which tells me precisely what frequency bands are allotted to the Government in the United States? If 1227 they can freely make this available in the United States, why should we be so hush-hush?
§ Mr. Hobson
I always thought, and the hon. and gallant Member has confirmed, that our secrecy arrangements were better than those of the United States. Now I am sure of it. I hope we shall not follow the practice of the United States, for which the hon. and gallant Member has pleaded this afternoon.
§ Mr. Hobson
I am afraid I cannot give way. The hon. Member has only just this minute entered the Chamber as reinforcement for his hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South.
§ Captain Orr
The hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Hobson) has castigated me very severely on account of what he described as my special pleading. He will recall that I emphasised that I was interested not only in the radio industry but in every user of mobile radio in this country—all the London taxis, all the ambulance authorities and the fire services. I do not call that special pleading.
§ Mr. Hobson
I am sufficiently aware of the procedure adopted in the Post Office to know that these people would not be put to much inconvenience in the initial stage. I want to pass to the Bill.
The Assistant Postmaster-General gave a splendid review of the work of the Department. His speech was most interesting and informative and served the purpose of bringing me up to date with my facts and figures of the Post Office, but I discerned a certain amount of trepidation at the beginning of his speech which I can only put down to the fact that there is a difference between this Bill and that which was presented to us two years ago.
I have before me the Act which was passed in 1952, and there was in it provision for repaying the Post Office Fund. There is no such provision in this Bill, and I should like to know what is the significance of that omission. There is no reference in the 1952 Act to the fact that repayments will be made under the National Loans Act, 1939. That appears to be an addition in this year's Bill, and I should like to know the reason for it.
1228 The third point which I raise in connection with the Bill is this: there was a Section in the 1952 Act dealing with capital expenditure for purposes of Post Office savings banks and stating that it was not to be paid out of savings bank funds. That seemed to me an excellent safeguard. But I wish to know if it means that there is to be no capital investment in the Post Office Savings Bank this year. I should like to know why that is not in the Bill.
In the last Bill, £75 million was asked for. Now the figure is £125 million, an increase of 75 per cent. or, in terms of cash, an increase of £50 million. That is an indication of a considerable increase of capital investment, and I would ask the Assistant Postmaster-General what is to be the capital investment this year in the Post Office. That figure has not been given. I think it would be of assistance if it were made known to the House.
I would also ask what rate of interest will be paid on this sum. The repayment is obviously included in the £125 million asked for. The position is that the money is borrowed from the Consolidated Fund which is repaid by the National Debt Commissioners. In the first quarter of 1952 the interest charged was 3⅜ per cent. At the end of 1952 I got an answer, following remarks I made during the debate on the Money Resolution, that the interest would be 4 per cent. We should like to know what interest will be paid this year because, if the general tendencies are an indication, there will be an increase, which means that the Post Office user, particularly the telephone subscriber, is having to find considerably more money.
What about the Post Office Fund? I asked that question two years ago. Is it to be resuscitated or wound up? I always thought that the Post Office Fund was a useful means of providing capital out of the appropriation of profit. It has the merit of avoiding interest payment. I know it was discontinued during the war and there were certain reasons why we were not able to put back capital into the fund. But it would be a bad thing now, eight years after the war, if the Post Office Fund were not to be continued, because it is one means of providing cheap capital and, after all, many of our municipal trading undertakings were financed in that way.
1229 I was pleased to hear that there has been a considerable reduction in the waiting list for telephones, but I should like to know to what extent that has been due to a falling off of demand, if that figure be known, because of the increase of rentals. That may have been a contributory factor. I do not think the Assistant Postmaster-General was playing with figures, but he did give a figure of 100,000 new applicants, and it would be interesting to know the number of people who withdrew their names from the list of would-be subscribers when the rentals and charges were increased.
The £116 million to be provided should go a long way to meet the shortage of line plant equipment and buildings. I would reiterate the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards) and express my pleasure at the fact that the Postmaster-General has succeeded in getting the Chancellor of the Exchequer to remove the ban on the building of new telephone exchanges. There is no doubt that that militated against a reduction of the waiting list, particularly in industrial areas. When I left the Post Office, one in five of the telephone exchanges were completely full and it was impossible for them to be enlarged.
I welcome the increase in trunk call traffic, although there is obviously a slowing up. The average was 7 per cent. to 8 per cent. during the period when we were in power, and I see the figure is now 4 per cent. That is important, as it means one of two things. It means there were less trunk calls or the capital investment was sufficient to deal with the demand. It is of great importance also, because, as hon. Gentlemen know, the trunk traffic is the most profitable to the Post Office and we cannot have too much of it. I am not one who deplores profit. All I am concerned with is what use is made of the profit. I am not against a socialised service making a profit.
I wish to ask the Assistant Postmaster-General if he can tell us whether the automatic trunk switching cutting out the interim operator has been completed in the large cities, because it increases efficiency and leads to many economies in staff.
The hon. Gentleman dealt at length with the achievements of the Post Office regarding the supply of telephones, and 1230 it is a fine record. When we left Office one in three of the telephones in this country had been installed from 1945 to 1950, and I am pleased to see that, under the present Government, even that rate has been accelerated. After all, it is in the interest of the Post Office to get as many telephone users as possible and to supply their needs, because that brings in Revenue. I wish to know if the hon. Gentleman can tell us—perhaps not this evening—how much it will cost to wipe out the waiting list. Some years ago the figure of £300 million was mentioned as being the capital investment figure necessary to wipe out the waiting list, and I should like to know what are the present assessments.
Reference was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) to the unfortunate redundancy in the telephone industry with reference to Standard Telephones at New Southgate. The hon. Gentleman has almost a constituency interest in this matter, and I was pleased to see how forthright he was in answering the Question put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Sir F. Messer) a fortnight ago; but the fact remains that 500 men will be made redundant.
The reason given by the company was because there have been cancellations—that was their first statement—of Post Office contracts. We had a denial of that by the hon. Gentleman, which of course we accept, and the company now have changed their ground. It is now stated that the Post Office have deferred their contracts. We should like to have an assurance, if it is true, that the Post Office have deferred their contracts with Standard Telephones. If they have, that is a contributory cause of the redundancy. On the other hand, if the answer be "No" to that question, I think it unfortunate that a firm of such standing, who owe so much to the Post Office, should seek to "pass the buck." We therefore should be glad of any information the hon. Gentleman may be able to give on that matter.
I wish to deal with the question of the speed of answer. There has been an improvement, largely due to increased efficiency, but also to the fact that the staff position is considerably easier than it was. But there are still certain exchanges which we must look at and 1231 particularly the speed of answer at manual exchanges about which I am not satisfied. Nor am I satisfied with the speed of answer to directory inquiries. That should be speeded up. People dialling directory inquiries often do so in cases of emergency and require a speedy answer, but it sometimes takes an unreasonable time to get a reply.
The length of time for getting phonograms at some exchanges is far longer than it should be, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will look into the matter. Another rather important matter on which I speak from knowledge is that it is no good the Department making checks on telephone exchanges with regard to the speed of answer if it is known beforehand that they are coming. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will look into that matter also.
I had a lot of remarks to make about the telegraph service, but my hon. Friend the Member for Droylsden (Mr. W. R. Williams) knows far more about the matter from his own long personal experience, and therefore I do not propose to say much. I was rather staggered to see that greetings telegrams now account for 15 per cent. of the total traffic. It shows that re-instituting these greetings telegrams in the face of a certain amount of opposition has resulted in an important contribution to the improvement of the position of the telegraph service.
The Assistant Postmaster - General hardly did himself justice on the telegraph service. The deficit this year is considerably less than it was last year. That is largely due to the more efficient methods that have been used. The teleprinter automatic switch has speeded up the service and has made for economy. I should like to know whether there was difficulty in getting the apparatus and whether the programme of installing it has now been speeded up.
§ Mr. Nicholson
The hon. Member has said that the deficiency on the telegraph service is less this year than last year. What is the source of his figures?
§ Mr. Hobson
The Commercial Accounts, which say that the loss for 1951 was £4,193,497, and for 1952 £3,337,894.
§ Mr. Nicholson
The figures relating to the Post Office in the Report of the Committee on Estimates do not show that result. I will gladly pass these figures over to the hon. Gentleman. He will see them on page 5.
§ Mr. Hobson
I have taken the figures from the accounts which have been produced to the House, and I have them before me.
§ Mr. Hobson
I am making my case on the figures available to me in the Post Office Commercial Accounts. I hope that the Assistant Postmaster-General will resist pressure put on him Departmentally and by the Treasury for amalgamation of the telephone and telegraph accounts. Amalgamation would be entirely wrong. It is essential in a large undertaking, whether nationally or privately owned, that such accounts should be kept separately in order to show precisely what is happening. Otherwise, the limelight is taken away and people do not know the true position.
In regard to increases in the Post Office telegraph rates, I hardly think it is for me to comment on the suggestions which have been made. We have to face the fact that as we have a telegraph service we have to run it efficiently, and secondly that we require the service for strategical reasons. There have been many Departmental inquiries into the service; they were an almost annual occasion. Every Postmaster-General was concerned about the loss incurred on the telegraph service. Bearing in mind the decision of the Postmaster-General that there had to be a national telegraph service, the Department, and particularly the engineers, have done everything possible to reduce the loss.
References to rate increases are hardly a matter for the Select Committee on Estimates. It is for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in conjunction with the Postmaster-General. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly has said, it does not follow that by increasing the cost of the telegram we can make the telegraph service pay. It has not done so up to the moment. If, on the other hand, we were to put the service out of 1233 the reach of the poor people who are using telegrams these days, it would not be a desirable step.
We have continually to be looking at this matter. There might be something to be said for having a high-powered Departmental committee to consider the matter with one or two representatives of both sides of the House and representatives of the workers. I have spoken to the General Secretary of the U.P.W. on this matter. He is very much concerned about the loss on the telegraph service. He has been very willing to co-operate in order to reduce that loss. The cost of delivery is the real nigger in the woodpile, and it is due to reasons which are outside the control of the Assistant Postmaster-General.
When I spoke two years ago on a similar Bill I said that we would try to find time to raise the question of regionalisation of the hon. Gentleman's Department. Unfortunately, the sins of Her Majesty's Government have been such major matters that we have not been able to find time through the usual channels for this very interesting and illuminating report to be discussed. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Waltham-stow, East (Mr. Wallace) that I was dubious of the regional set up when I was in the Post Office. Hon. Members may say, "What did you do about it?" But the fact is that it had only just got going in 1945, and there was hardly time to look at it.
I have grave doubts now about regionalisation, as to whether it is economical. There is a tremendous amount of overlapping at headquarters and an awful tendency for regions not to take the responsibility which is rightly theirs. Paragraph 14 of the report is thoroughly disingenuous in dealing with the staff position. It said that in the London area there were 1,250 people engaged in clerical duties at headquarters. It gave figures of the people employed in the other regions, but it did not say the number of people who were employed on clerical work in those regions. I should very much like to have those figures and to find them in the report. We shall have to look at that report on regionalisation, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will pay attention to it.
Many of the conclusions that were arrived at could have been achieved by 1234 the Organisation and Methods Division of the Treasury. However, it is something for future consideration. In a Department such as the Post Office, I know the difficulty there is for a Minister who wants to get round to matters of this sort. It is superimposed on the administrative structure. Much of the work could have been done by the head postmasters and telephone managers who have already got their own administrative organisations.
Reference has been made to Dollis Hill. We do not know what has happened there. There has to be a research department in the Post Office, but is there duplication between Dollis Hill and the Wireless Research Station of the Ministry of Supply? I hope that the hon. Gentleman, and the Members of the Government, will look at that, because I am convinced that a lot of the wireless and radar research which is being done somewhere in the Midlands by the Minister of Supply could be more effectively done at Dollis Hill, where the engineers and technicians are second to none. And one has always to beware, when dealing with Government Departments, that there is no form of "empire building."
I know this debate has ranged very widely. I do not want to raise the matter of Cable and Wireless, but we do give the hon. Gentleman warning that we shall want time to discuss the last published accounts of Cable and Wireless. It was a matter of great regret to me that the hon. Gentleman announced the increases in cable and wireless charges by a sponsored, "stooge" question, but we shall have further to say on cable and wireless at a later stage.
I am pleased to see that, apparently, the staff problems, which were very real when the integration between Cable and Wireless and the British Post Office took place, have now been ironed out. But what about the cable ships, of which we have four? One of them, the "Alert," is one taken from the Germans, and we want a replacement for it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not flirting with the idea of taking the Post Office cable ships and handing them to Cable and Wireless, because I should not like to see the Blue Duster no longer sailing the seven seas. It is a highly efficient department. One of the vessels, the "Monarch ", has done very well in earning foreign currency. It 1235 is more often than not on charter to other countries rather than working for its own department, and it is the finest and largest ship of its kind in the world. But we have to make provision for the replacement of the "Alert." It is often forgotten that this cable service, of Her Majesty's Government, had the greatest percentage of casualties in the last war—I believe 25 per cent. I should like to know if it is the intention to carry on the marine department, and to take the necessary steps to replace this vessel whose renewal is long overdue.
We do know that, during the year, the staff have done their job well. Their response to the many breakdowns that occurred through tempest has been traditional, and I am convinced that the hon. Gentleman is very well served, not only by the top officials and engineers, but also by the rank and file. As he rightly said, it is a Department that one cannot be in, or associated with, over a period of years without having a sense of pride.
§ 8.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Gammans
I trust I may have your leave, Sir, and that of the House, to speak again.
We have had a very interesting debate. It has been very gratifying, to me at any rate, because almost everyone who has spoken, on both sides of the House, has tried to be helpful. There have been, I think, very few criticisms of the record of the Post Office. Most of the speeches have been from hon. Members who understood what they were talking about, and who really tried to put forward positive suggestions.
I should like first to deal with the speech made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards) who, I see, is not now here. He started on a high line by suggesting that I should sit down and look round. That is always a pleasant way of living, if we have the time. The right hon. Gentleman wondered whether or not the Post Office should be split into a number of corporations. I do not want to deal with that tonight—we are getting on a very high level—but I should certainly say the Post Office is quite big enough, and I would hope that no subsequent Government will try to load on to it any more 1236 functions. We have enough as it is. He speculated also whether we should have another Bridgeman Committee, but I do not know that the time has yet come for us to take that course.
The right hon. Gentleman also tried to draw me on the very interesting point whether I thought that other nationalised undertakings should be subject to Parliamentary Questions as is the Post Office. I am afraid it is perfectly true that the Post Office can be asked Questions about anything—I can be asked about the number of inkpots in Victoria Street—but I confess that the Post Office is none the worse for being subject to that minute Parliamentary control.
He also asked about the amount which is allocated to defence. I think I have given the figure. It is roughly one-quarter. He asked how it was to be paid for, but he has forgotten what is happening. The Defence Departments rent the services provided by the Post Office, in exactly the same way as a private subscriber rents the telephone, and they pay ordinary standard rates for all they rent from us. We are not, therefore, any worse or any better off—it is simply an ordinary transaction. It certainly does not affect what I might call the civil income of the Post Office, which all of us pay as individuals.
He then raised the question of the B.B.C. links and how much they cost. We expect to spend £650,000 on the television links, and the amount we have spent up to now is £2½ million. For those, the B.B.C., again, pays an economic rent, exactly like an ordinary subscriber.
Both the right hon. Gentlemen, the Member for Caerphilly, and the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Hobson) raised the question of Dollis Hill, and the right hon. Gentleman wondered whether the work done there was related to the present needs of the Post Office, or whether they were peering too much into the far future. I have no reason to suppose that Dollis Hill is not fulfilling the function for which it was set up. After all, with a research department, whether in medicine or in engineering or anything else, it is quite impossible to relate the results of what it is doing to an annual budget. The results of research, certainly in medicine, do not bear fruit for many 1237 years, sometimes not in one's own lifetime, and that principle is true of what is being done at Dollis Hill.
The hon. Member for Keighley raised a matter which I will look at and about which I will let him have information. He wondered to what extent the work done at Dollis Hill could be done equally by the Ministry of Supply.
§ Mr. Hobson
Or vice versa. What I am convinced of is that the work done by the Ministry of Supply could be done at Dollis Hill.
§ Mr. Gammans
I will look at the point. But I do not want any impression to be given that either my noble Friend or myself have the slightest misgivings about Dollis Hill, or think that it is better or worse than it has ever been. It has a wonderful record, and is highly respected throughout the world.
I now come to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Farnham (Mr. Nicholson) on the telegraph deficit. There has been quite a lot of argument on that on both sides during the debate. I would say I have read that document very carefully, and I know my hon. Friend has given this matter very much thought. I think that perhaps the way in which the officials of the Post Office who were asked to give evidence in front of that Committee was a little unfortunate. They were expected to deal with matters which were not their concern. They are not concerned with policy. That is the responsibility of the Minister; I am the person responsible. I do not like the impression to be gained that the officials of the Post Office or of the Treasury were reluctant to give information. If that impression has been created, I think it simply arises from the fact that questions were asked which should never have been asked.
§ Mr. Nicholson
I do not wish to create the impression that any question was refused an answer. When the witnesses said that any question raised a matter of policy, we accepted it and let the matter drop. But it is very difficult to distinguish between what is policy and what is not, and I should have thought that how a Department's deficit should be dealt with was not strictly a matter of policy. I do not wish the impression to be created that the Select Committee tried 1238 to force witnesses to deal with questions of policy. When witnesses said that a question of policy was involved, we accepted it.
§ Mr. Gammans
I accept what my hon. Friend says. I only want to remove any impression that the officials of the Treasury or of the Post Office who gave evidence before the Committee did not give answers which they should have given. The point is that some of the questions which were asked really verged on policy, which can only really be decided by the Minister concerned.
The important thing is what we are going to do. I agree with what almost every hon. Member has said—namely, that the telegraph service must develop in the national interest, and that we cannot allow this matter to drift on year by year. I would assure the House, and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Farnham, who has taken great trouble to investigate this matter, that there is not the slightest complacency about it, and I hope that before long I shall be able to make a statement to the House.
The hon. Member for Walthamstow, East (Mr. Wallace), who takes a great interest in all Post Office matters, raised two points. First, he wanted to know whether I can give him the average time that people have to wait before getting a telephone. Of course, I could give him the average time by adding up all the waiting periods and dividing the answer by the number of applicants, but it would not mean the slightest thing. In one locality where there is enough line and exchange equipment, the average time might be a matter of weeks. In a hopelessly overcrowded area it might be a matter of years, and certainly months. I am sorry the hon. Gentleman is not here at the moment, but I should like to assure him—and I am not trying to be dodgy—that if I gave him a figure it would be a meaningless figure which would not be the slightest help to him or to his constituents.
The hon. Member for Walthamstow, East also raised the question of security on the railways and the security of mails generally, and he asked whether the staff have been consulted. The answer is, yes. There have been special consultations with the staff and also with the local 1239 Whitley Councils. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North (Mr. F. Harris) asked—
§ Mr. Gammans
The annual report has not been published since 1917. I have not really seen any convincing argument in favour of publishing it. So far as I know, the hon. Member for Walthamstow, East is the only Member who really wants it, and although we have the greatest respect for him personally, if I thought there was a widespread desire for the publication of an annual report I should reconsider the position. It disappeared before any of us here tonight came into this House, and somehow or other we have managed to legislate quite effectively without it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North wanted to know what we were going to do about numbering the postal districts in the county borough of which he is a representative. He gave the answer himself when he told us—and it is perfectly true—that we are now in consultation with the Croydon County Borough Council on this matter. He is quite right to raise the point, but I would ask him to note this. He must be quite sure, and so must we, before doing what he asks, that the result will be a better service. He said that it was a matter of prestige, but prestige does not count if it means that the letters arrive half an hour later in the morning, and I think he will agree that that must be the dominating factor—that it will result in a better service for his constituents.
§ Mr. F. Harris
I should like to make it perfectly clear that prestige is only one of the points among those which I listed. I do not want to make that the basis of my whole case.
§ Mr. Gammans
The hon. Member for Droylsden (Mr. W. R. Williams), who always makes such a happy contribution to Post Office debates, made a very valiant plea for Audenshaw. I can assure his constituents that not only has he made a valiant plea but that I hope we shall be able to do something about it soon. He also raised the building question and said that he hoped building was not going to be restricted to London. I 1240 can give a full assurance on that. The hon. Member also spoke about staff working in hovels. I do not think it is as bad as all that, although there certainly are some post offices which we should like to rebuild.
§ Mr. Gammans
I forgot the hon. Gentleman was a Welshman. It was just Gaelic eloquence, and we will leave it at that. The programme is not to be restricted to London.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) asked about telephones in Northern Ireland and he pointed out, quite rightly, that Northern Ireland had fallen behind in this respect. I told him a few months ago that an additional allocation was to be made to Northern Ireland, and I hope that that will begin to show some results before too long.
My hon. and gallant Friend then raised the interesting matter of the allocation of frequencies, about which I have been asked questions in the last few weeks. I think he knows the answer. There is a Departmental committee, representing all those Departments which use the radio, which allocates these frequencies. I must confess that we have had no complaint in this matter. It seems to work very well. As regards industry generally, I think my hon. and gallant Friend will agree that there is a very pleasant relationship, and there is also thorough-going machinery by which industry can represent to the Postmaster-General any views it may have and make any suggestions which it thinks would help.
My hon. and gallant Friend also asked whether mobile radio users were going to be moved off their present wavebands. They may be. That was the recommendation of the Television Advisory Committee. There is no question of doing it at once, or doing it in a hurry, but if it is technically desirable to clear that particular waveband, it is in the interests of the country to do it. There can be no real grievance on the part of present licence holders, because when they were given licences to use that waveband it was made perfectly clear to them that they might have to move. I can give 1241 the assurance that there will not be any widespread pushing of people out of any particular waveband in the near future.
§ Captain Orr
Would my hon. Friend agree that it would be desirable to have at least some minimum length of time for the duration of licences in future?
§ Mr. Gammans
That may be a point, as well as the other point which the hon. and gallant Member made, that this question might be looked at by the Television Advisory Committee. I do not know the answer to that, but I am grateful to him for the suggestion.
The hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) offered, very generously, if there were any question of doing battle with the Treasury, to do battle with me. I had hoped that we were not going to raise once more this question of the depredations of the Treasury. In my capacity as a taxpayer I do not mind if the Treasury gets some money from the Post Office, because if they get it as a result of sound administration and good trading by the Post Office, they will require less money from me as a taxpayer. That does not worry me.
I know what the hon. Member means. He asks whether there is any limit to what the Treasury may want of us. At the moment, that is a wholly academic question, because there is only £5 million this year, and in the following year it is likely to be less. I cannot see that I shall need the hon. Member's gallant assistance to prevent the Treasury from taking too much off us in any foreseeable period of time.
§ Mr. Gammans
I have never known the Treasury to be content with anything, but it is not a foreseeable contingency.
The hon. Member for Kilmarnock, together with the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Hobson), also raised the question of the Standard Telephone Company. I believe that all hon. Members have had a letter today from the Company's staff pointing out what is happening. I would point out that no contracts with the Standard Telephone Company have been cancelled by the 1242 Post Office. I was asked if they had been deferred. They have not been deferred in the sense that we normally use the word. What has happened is that this company like other firms which supply this special equipment, are told, some years ahead, our general programme of development. We say that in the next few years we are hoping to be able to re-equip so many exchanges with automatic equipment, and so on. But it is only at the beginning of each year that they are actually told what we can afford out of our Estimates.
That is what has happened in this case. This year the Standard Telephone Company had hoped to be able to put in hand certain telephone developments. I do not blame them. They had hoped to do so, but they did not raise the slightest complaint—nor could they—because, at the beginning of the year, we said to them, "This is our allocation for this year, which has not been cut at all." The Company had hoped, quite naturally, that we should be in a position to increase our orders this year.
Their difficulties have arisen not because of anything that we have done, but largely because of the drying up of their foreign markets. I deplore the fact—as every hon. Member deplores it—that very highly-skilled men face the fear of redundancy. I do not think it has taken place yet, and I hope that it will not. The problem is that customers abroad, whom the Standard Telephone Company have supplied in past years, have, for reasons best known to themselves, cut off or drastically reduced their orders. The matter has been made clear to the staff. They have been to see me, and I have explained the whole thing to them. All we can hope is that this redundancy which they fear now will not take place.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Norfolk, Central (Brigadier Medlicott) pleaded very earnestly on behalf of the rural telephone customer. I hope he feels that there has been a great improvement in the last few years in the service to the rural community, and especially that is true of the telephone kiosks. He made, I thought, a rather curious speech about Government Departments. He seemed to think that the strictures given to Government Departments would mean that people in them would not use the telephone at all. There 1243 is not much danger of that. We are not suggesting cutting the Departments off. All we are suggesting is that they should be as economical in the use of the telephone as we individuals have to be because we pay our own telephone bills. I do not think that that means any loss of efficiency or loss of speed.
My hon. and gallant Friend paid tribute to the sub-postmasters, and in that I should like to support him. He asked whether they were about to disappear. I can be quite categorical on that. There is no question of it. The Post Office throughout the country depends, as he himself said, to an enormous degree on the sub-postmasters. He gave the figures himself. Out of 24,000 post offices, 22,000 are managed by sub-postmasters, people who combine some other business with the business of the Post Office. In my experience, they are a fine body of people, and this country certainly could not do without them. If we attempted to put Crown offices where all the sub-post offices are, I do not know whither our accounts would soar. Therefore, I hope that any misgiving on that score has now been removed.
I should like now to come to the points raised by the hon. Member for Keighley. He asked about certain differences in the Bill and the Post Office Fund in particular. The Post Office Fund, as he may remember, ran out some years ago, and is at this moment in suspense, and that is why no reference is made to it here. Will it be revived? That rather fits in with what the hon. Member for Kilmarnock had to say. If we get those fantastically large surpluses that perhaps he envisages—I am not sure whether he hopes for them or fears them—we can start talking once more about the Post Office Fund. However, that is the only reason it is left out here.
The hon. Gentleman also said there was no reference in the Bill to the Post Office Savings Bank. There is nothing in that.
§ Mr. Gammans
There is no change of procedure. That is dealt with under the words in Clause 1 (1)… any other business of the Post Office.He went on to talk about the rate of interest. The rate, on the latest computation in June, was 4 per cent.
1244 He asked whether the demand for telephones had fallen off when the increased rentals came in. There was a falling off. It did not last very long. It lasted about one quarter. Then the demand went up again. As I mentioned earlier, the demand for telephones now is the highest it has been for three years or more. The hon. Gentleman asked what progress there had been with automatic trunks. Good progress has been made. The whole country is not yet covered, but what I would call the steady progress he envisaged when he was in the Post Office has been maintained. He asked how much it would cost to wipe out the waiting lists. I cannot tell him, because a waiting list does not remain a waiting list. All the time there are new applications coming on, and therefore any figure one might give at this stage would be fallacious in trying to assess the situation. I agree with him about the speed of answers on manual exchanges. The obvious answer is to turn them into automatic exchanges as quickly as we can.
The hon. Gentleman also raised the question of regionalisation. I think he rather wondered whether regionalisation was proving as successful as many people had hoped. It is a very big subject and I should not like to go into it now, but I do not think we have got to any stage of thinking that regionalisation has not worked, or that we can justify at this stage tearing up a system which had not much chance during the war to prove itself and is now to a certain extent not in its infancy but in its early days. The right hon. Member for Caerphilly, when he was Postmaster-General, appointed a working party to go into that, consisting of representatives of the Ministry of Labour, the Treasury, the Staff Side of the Whitley Council and people from outside as well. Their report was an extremely favourable one; at all events they recommended no drastic variations.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned cable ships and reminded us of the extraordinary record of the Post Office cable ships in the war and what they are doing today, and what a wonderful dollar earner the Post Office cable ships have turned out to be. I have suddenly realised—I did not know this before and I am sure many other hon. Members have not realised it—that the British are apparently the best cable layers in the world. No one can touch them. It is 1245 nice to know that there is one field in which we are absolutely supreme.
I think I have dealt with all the points which have been raised by Members on both sides of the House in this debate. Once more I should like to thank them for their most helpful criticisms and for what they have said.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Wills.]
§ Committee Tomorrow.