§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 11.8 a. m.
§ The Postmaster-General (Mr. Reginald Bevins)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
During the last few years I have taken a small part in the passage of several Bills through this House and as I studied them my hair almost stood on end, because they were unbelievably complicated and burning with the fires of political controversy. For me, this Bill is quite a change. To begin with, I can understand it—it is as simple as that. It is also a very dull Bill. But what lies behind it is what we make of it.
When I say, "we," I mean not only my hon. Friend and myself, not only the Post Office and its staffs, but also this House and the public in general. The Post Office, with its long traditions, is really a national industry, a national service if hon. Members care to put it that way, and what we make of it can be dull, dreary and mundane, or lively, efficient, modern, venturesome and in tune with our times. That is certainly what I want it to be and I think what the whole House would desire it to be.
Whatever the merits or otherwise of nationalisation—I am not a highly doctrinaire person—the truth is that the Post Office is firmly established as one of our oldest nationalised services. It will remain so. My ambition and hope is to show, during the next few years, that 689 this nationalised concern can justify Itself in public esteem in even greater measure than before. In that task I shall welcome help, advice and suggestion from any quarter.
Before I come to the Bill, on which I shall, naturally, concentrate, I wish to say a few words on my general approach to my new office. I hope that no one will think that the Post Office is about to enter a phase of slow marching. It is not. It is not in my nature to let the grass grow under my feet and I say with all the emphasis I can that I mean to maintain, and perhaps to increase, the momentum that we have had in postwar years. I believe that we have a duty to do that. The Guardian said the other day that I wasapparently in awe of the Marples legend.I think that The Guardian will live and learn.
There are three related aims for the Post Office that I shall always bear in mind. The first is that we exist to give the customer the service that he wants. I shall always try to remember that the customer judges the Post Office not by speeches and statements of policy, but by the time it takes to buy a postal order or get through to the operator. To give the best service, we must have our human relations right and we must also be technically efficient. I am the first to realise that we shall succeed in these aims only if we have a happy staff which is fully consulted, fairly treated and working in decent conditions.
I apologise for those introductory observations and I come, I am sure with your approval, Mr. Speaker, to the Bill. The purpose of the Bill is to obtain authority for raising the money which are needed for the expansion, development and renewal of the Post Office system over and above the sums which will be met from our own internal resources by ploughing back depreciation provisions. When the previous Bill came into force in, I think, the spring of 1957, an important change was made in the financing of our capital expenditure. Several hon. Members are familiar with the new practice and will know that nowadays the Post Office meets a good deal more than half its capital needs by ploughing back depreciation moneys assessed on the current replacement costs of assets. The balance of about 690 45 per cent. has to be borrowed from the Exchequer. That is why we have the Bill.
The Bill provides for £120 million, whereas the previous Act was for the lower figure of £75 million. This is not because there is to be a rapid acceleration in Post Office development. The annual level of expenditure covered by the 1957 Act and by this Bill is very much the same. It is largely because the two Measures cover different spans of time. We started to use the £75 million authorised by the 1958 Act in April of that year and it will be exhausted by January, 1960. Under the Bill we are asking for a sum which should satisfy our needs throughout 1960 and 1961 and until about the middle of 1962. For obvious reasons, I cannot be precise about the date.
I expect the total amount of capital expenditure during the period to be about £270 million all told, as defined in our Post Office accounts. Of this, about £150 million will be met out of depreciation provisions, leaving about £120 million to be borrowed through the Bill. Naturally, the money asked for in the Bill reflects the amount which the Government are likely to give us during the next two or three years as our share of capital investment in the public sector.
I do not know whether hon. Members find our figures for capital investment and capital expenditure a little confusing. I confess that I did when I first looked at them. As the right hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards) knows, at one time capital investment control in the Post Office covered a good deal of expenditure which was not capital expenditure at all. For example, it covered expenditure on shifting office plant from one place to another. We have recently reviewed with the Treasury the scope of what Should properly fall within the definition of "investment". In consequence, some items of expenditure have now been taken away from investment control, for example, the cost of moving Post Office cables when that is made necessary by new road works. All Post Office expenditure in Northern Ireland is now outside investment control. The effect of this and certain other changes has been to free about £7 million worth of working capital annually from investment control.
691 I said before that the money asked for in the Bill reflects the limitation on our capitol investment. No Postmaster-General worth his salt is ever satisfied with his ration from the Treasury. I am certainly not, and no doubt that goes for several of my right hon. Friends as well. Nevertheless, it is the starting point.
Shortly before the previous Bill was introduced in 1957, the Post Office, along with other bodies in the public sector—electricity, housing, and so on—had to face a fairly severe cut in its capital investment as its contribution to meeting the economic difficulties at that time. Since then the reduction has been progressively restored and the investment which has now been approved for the next two years is almost back to the level of the financial year 1956–57. The capital investment figures, in terms of the redefinition of what constitutes capital investment, are £91.5 million for 1959–60 and £92.9 for 1960–61. A provisional planning figure of £92 million has been agreed for 1961–62.
I agree entirely that we have a responsibility to employ such capital as we have wisely, allowing both for commercial and other considerations. Of all our services it is the telephone that needs the greatest capital expenditure. Between £240 and £250 million will go on telephone development. About £20 million will be spent on the postal service and about £7 million on the telegraph service.
The Daily Telegraph has gently reproved us, or me—I am not quite sure—for not announcing, during the present Session, a Bill to give the Post Office financial independence and so enable us to function as a commercial undertaking. It is true that my party undertook to do this in its election Manifesto, and I think that as recently as last week my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary reaffirmed this in the House. I wish to make it clear that I am certainly not dragging my feet here, for this reform will be a very great spur indeed to the Post Office and, I know, will be welcomed by both sides of the House. What I hope to do—this is important—is to issue a White Paper setting out what the Government propose to do, so that it may be studied and discussed in advance of the Bill. I 692 am sure that that is the right thing to do. I am most anxious not only to have it right, but to have it right down to the smallest detail.
Before I leave the purely financial side of this business, I wish to say something about the commercial health of the organisation. The Report and Accounts for the last financial year have just been presented to the House, and they show a total surplus for the year of nearly £9 million, after paying a fixed contribution of £5 million to the Exchequer. This surplus is carried to the general reserve which, for the first time since its creation, two or three years ago, shows a credit of just over £8 million. I think that this is a necessary and, indeed, a very modest cushion for a business with an annual expenditure of at least £400 million. I myself wish that it were higher.
The postal and telephone accounts both show surpluses for last year. The telegraph account is still "in the red." However, the overall result is fairly good, though it is no better than my predecessor expected at the time when he made the tariff changes in 1957. Here, I should like to pause to acknowledge the courage of my right hon. Friend the present Minister of Transport in making those increases. All increases in prices are painful, especially to those who have to pay them. But these particular increases have served to keep our finances healthy in spite of increased costs. What is more, the margin of profit has enabled us to give more value for money on local telephone calls and to make some cuts in our trunk telephone charges.
As I have already made clear, the lion's share of our capital investment goes into telephones. If I had more capital—I wish I had—we could develop this system even more rapidly than we are at present doing. But, on the whole, I do not think that we have done too badly during the last two years, since the last money Bill was brought in. For example, we have connected nearly 750,000 new telephones, and we are now putting in more than 1,000 a day. During the last two years, we have cut down the numbers waiting for new exchanges or more cables from 110,000 to 50,000. I hope that this progress will continue; but, of course, a great deal will depend on the rate of demand as it develops.
693 Today, this demand for the telephone, of course, is much higher than it has been for many years. I should like very much to go beyond simply holding the position. I should dearly like to be in a position where very few applicants had to await the building of an exchange, the laying of a new cable, or the taking of a shared line. This is something of the greatest importance. It is a source of irritation. It causes, probably, more criticism of the Post Office than any other single factor. I shall certainly do all that lies within my power to tackle it.
A quite significant part of the capital expenditure on telephones will go on mechanisation—about £25 million. This involves completing the mechanisation of local exchanges. At present, 5,000 out of the 6,000 exchanges are automatic, and we plan to complete the conversion by 1970. I do not wish to weary the House with all the technicalities or details of our mechanisation programme, but, at the end of the day, subscribers throughout the country will be able to dial not only their own local calls, but also their own trunk calls.
As the House knows, the systems of subscriber trunk dialling was brought in at Bristol last December, when Her Majesty the Queen honoured us by inaugurating the service. It has been a great success. From the start, subscribers connected to the Bristol Central Exchange have dialled about 97 per cent. of their calls to those telephone numbers which are connected to the automatic system, that is to say, about half the telephones in the country. By March, 1961, that is, in about eighteen months, I expect to give the same facilities to subscribers connected to about 90 other exchanges throughout the country. Conversion to this system, known as S.T.D., will then gather momentum and, between 1961 and 1965—or, rather, I should say, by 1965—about 60 per cent. of all longdistance calls will be dialled by the caller. By 1970, as I said—it may be sooner; I hope that it can be—S.T.D. should be available to about 90 per cent. of all the telephones then in use throughout the land.
One of the blessings of S.T.D., which, of course, is directly related to the financial provisions of the Bill—there are many blessings which flow from 694 S.T.D.—is that it will simplify accounting procedure and the preparation of telephone accounts. It will enable us to go back to the good old system of quarterly accounts. This is something that I should like to see as soon as we can do it. I am convinced that the half-yearly account is, psychologically, a bad thing.
Mechanisation, of course, will be an immense boon to the telephone user himself. After all, he is the person we are concerned with primarily. It will give him a quicker and cheaper service. With the introduction of S.T.D., the charge for the local call is being reduced from 3d. to 2d. Charges for trunk calls, also, will be reduced, and we shall be in the era of short trunk calls for coppers.
I am sure that the whole House will agree that mechanisation has to come. But it can be effective—I stress this—only with the co-operation of the staffs. All our plans have been discussed and all our programmes have been drawn up after the fullest discussion and, indeed, with the greatest help, from the Post Office trade unions. I am confident that, provided the system continues to grow as we hope and the programme of mechanisation continues at the tempo which we now expect, there is unlikely to be any serious problem of redundancy among our telephone staff.
Hon. Members will like to know, also, that we are now receiving the first supplies of a new telephone which, in addition to being more attractive—we have it in six colours—has better transmission qualities and will allow us to make savings in the cost of new cable. I entirely agree, of course, that the real value of the telephone is not in what it looks like, but in what it is really like. I am glad to say that, since 1957, the number of calls has increased substantially. The number of trunk calls is growing at the rate of about 10 per cent. per annum. I am most anxious that the telephone should be used more often, particularly for local calls and for trunk calls during the cheap period. For this reason, we must constantly ask whether we have our concession rates right and whether we have our cheap period rates right. This is, I think, very important and it is something which I shall continually be doing.
695 There is one minor point, though it is something which annoys quite a number of people. We lose a fair amount of money on public kiosks. Do we need to have them all, and why? Why are some of them not used more frequently? Candidly, I do not know the answers to these questions. They are questions to which we ought to apply our minds. I shall certainly do so. Meanwhile, I must ask my predecessor in office, busy though he now is, to find time now to invite British Railways to clean up the telephone kiosks at our main railway terminals in London and elsewhere.
I come now to the telegraph service. The Report of the Committee headed by Sir Lionel Sinclair, appointed by my right hon. Friend some time ago to advise him on the future of the inland telegram service, was printed for the information of the House in August last year. As a result, we are now studying with the trade unions how we can best run the service with a view to keeping the loss within bounds.
We have also adopted a proposal of the Sinclair Committee that a wider range of greetings telegram should be considered. We have introduced four new designs of greeting telegrams, and these seem to be fairly popular with the public.
The telex service—that is, the system by which subscribers can exchange printed messages—is flourishing. I have seen it at work in Liverpool and it is an excellent service. At present, we have more than 5,000 customers. Not only can they communicate with one another, but also with subscribers in nearly 40 other countries. Telex is expanding rapidly and by 1970 we expect to have about 20,000 subscribers. In 1961, we hope to be able to introduce subscriber dialling facilities to the Continent of Europe.
I should like to say a word about mechanisation on the postal side. Here, as the House knows, labour costs are a big item. Much of the work on the postal side does not lend itself to mechanisation, but there is a lot of scope in sorting offices and possibly, too, at public counters. I am very proud indeed that the British Post Office is leading 696 the world in the development of postal mechanisation, and we shall strive to retain that lead.
It was my right hon. Friend's practice to keep the House abreast of developments here, so all I need do now is to spell out the last chapter. Shortly, it is this. Segregating machines, which separate the packets and then stack the letters into large and small items, have already passed their initial trials. These were prototype machines, developed mainly by our own Post Office engineers, who do a very good job indeed, as I have already discovered. A contract has just been placed with a well-known British manufacturer for the supply of production machines for full-scale field trials at Leeds, Liverpool and the South-East District Office of London.
Then there are the new British electronic letter sorting machines. We shall have 16 of these in use by the end of this year—nine of which will be at Norwich. It may be of interest to hon. Members on both sides of the House to know that the manufacturers of these letter sorting machines have already had firm orders from, abroad—from Egypt, Switzerland and one other country which escapes my memory at the moment.
Another important step in postal automation is to get people to use simple codes in their postal addresses to help us use our machines to better advantage. We are now experimenting at Norwich to find out how far the public will help us in this. At the same time, our research staff are working on the development of machines designed to use these codes.
We have other developments in postal mechanisation under way. Push button parcel sorting machines are ready at a new sorting office in Leeds and this is the first installation of its kind in Europe. In the public offices, self-service machines both for stamps and postal orders are being developed and are in use in certain parts of the country. Before I leave the postal side, I want to add one short sentence. It is this. I loathe queuing in post offices or anywhere else, and I certainly intend to do the best I can to get rid of it.
I should like to say a word about Post Office building. About £33 697 million of our capital expenditure during the period covered by the Bill refers to the provision of new buildings and the improvement of existing buildings. Since the war, we have been restricted very much, and we still have substantial arrears to overtake. Over the years, postal buildings have had to take a second place to telephone buildings, but I am glad to tell the House that we expect to start 50 major Post Office buildings in this financial year, 59 next year, and 70 in 1961–62.
What about the cost of these new buildings? Two years ago, my predecessor announced the setting up of a joint development group, consisting partly of Post Office representatives and partly of representatives from the Ministry of Works, to go into the possibilities of making economies in Post Office building, without sacrifice of efficiency. I take some personal pride in this, because I had a hand in it when I was a very junior Minister, about five years ago, at the Ministry of Works.
What has happened here? To begin with, the group concentrated on designing a new telephone exchange for Altrincham and a new Post Office for Hitchin. By taking advantage of these new engineering techniques, by reducing, in particular, the amount of ineffective space in the buildings, and by changes in the methods of construction, very big economies were achieved. I have spoken of these two buildings for Altrincham and Hitchin. Both these buildings will cost only about half the cost of a building designed to previous conventional standards. I shall certainly aim to get our building costs down all round. In fact, an upper cost limit has already been set for telephone exchanges, and we intend to introduce others as quickly as we can.
Of course, I agree at once that we have many Post Offices housed in old buildings which are well sited and probably capable of doing their job for quite a long time to come. But some of our Post Office buildings rather look as though they belong to the age of aspidistras. That is no reflection at all on the Post Office. But we intend to see what we can do to make our customers and our staff feel that this really is 1959. In all these things, the great thing is modernity. I do not want my 698 boys to come out of the local Post Office and say of me, "Dad is an old fogey," because he is not. In fact, we have asked four well-known design consultants to plan modernisation schemes for six Post Offices—three in London and three in the provinces. When we have taken stock of these experiments, we should be able to see how to improve our older buildings.
I should like to say a word or two, quite shortly, about international communications. As hon. Members know, the first trans-Atlantic telephone cable was provided in partnership between the Post Office, the Canadian overseas Telecommunication Corporation, and the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. It was opened for service in 1956, and the volume of traffic is now more than three times what it was before the cable was available. Technical developments have enabled the conversation capacity of the cable system to be increased, and by the use of these new equipments—some designed in the Post Office research laboratories and some in America—we expect that by next year the conversation capacity will be two and a half times more than it was.
The Americans, in partnership with France and Germany, finished a trans-Atlantic telephone cable between America and France this summer. That breaks no new ground in technical design. Indeed, much of the cable was manufactured in this country and most of it was laid by the Post Office Cable ship "Monarch". She completed the work after the unfortunate loss by fire of the Submarine Cables, Ltd., ship "Ocean Layer".
In association with Cable and Wireless, Limited, we are taking a big part in the further and rapid development of international communications. In 1961, a submarine telephone cable is to be laid between Canada and the United Kingdom. This will be of larger capacity than the present trans-Atlantic cable. It will be single cable of new design carrying traffic in both directions. Two-way repeaters which will be used throughout are the result of Post Office development. This cable will be the first part of a wider plan for a Commonwealth round-the-world telephone cable system linking the Commonwealth countries.
699 The House will remember that following the Commonwealth Telecommunications Conference in London, in 1958, the construction of a comprehensive Commonwealth network was considered by the Commonwealth Trade and Economic Conference in Montreal in October last year. Although detailed or binding commitments could not be entered into at that conference, it was agreed in principle at least that a Commonwealth round-the-world system should be constructed. On the understanding that other Commonwealth countries would be willing to shoulder similar obligations, the United Kingdom has agreed to play a full part by capital contribution and otherwise in the progressive development of the wider plan.
Representatives of the Post Office and of Cable and Wireless have only recently taken part in a conference in Australia, where plans were drawn up for the construction of a cable between Australia and Canada via New Zealand. These plans will now be considered by the Commonwealth Governments concerned. This link will be four times as long as the trans-Atlantic link. No part of the scheme is included in today's Bill and the United Kingdom's share will be financed by Cable and Wireless. A contract has recently been placed with Fairfield's, on the Clyde, for a new Post Office cable ship of 4,000 tons. This ship is being designed primarily for maintenance of the ever-growing numbers of submarine telephone cables in the North Atlantic. It will replace the cable ship "Alert," which is due to come out of service quite soon.
I apologise for having spoken at such length. It is unlike me. I have tried however, to steer a middle course between an insufferably long speech and what might be taken to be too perfunctory a review of the work of the Post Office. At least, I hope I have said enough to indicate where we are and where we hope to go. I know that my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General will fill in the gaps admirably and deal with hon. Members' questions when she winds up the debate.
I should be most ungracious if I were to sit down without giving voice to my personal gratitude, not only to my several predecessors in office, all of whose work I greatly admire and all of 700 whom, I know, left the Post Office with regret, but also to the many thousands of men and women who work so loyally in this public service. I have made it my business to meet as many of them as I could during the last two or three weeks and from top to bottom, if I may use so unfortunate a phrase, I have found that the staffs of the Post Office are a grand lot. I hope that they will feel that I am fit to be one of that family.
§ 11.45 a.m.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards (Caerphilly)
It falls to my lot to congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on occupying the office which he now holds. He has given us a speech this morning which has been sober, solid and competent. It may be some consolation to him to know that whilst he may have felt that he was talking for a long time, he did this Cook's tour in just about half the time that was taken on the occasion of the previous money Bill. That should be some consolation to the right hon. Gentleman.
I say without any sense of patronage that, in so far as the right hon. Gentleman approaches the problems of the Post Office in the spirit which he has shown today at the Dispatch Box, I am sure that he will get the fullest support from this side of the House and, I am sure, from his own colleagues. We have had a very sensible, balanced account of what has been done.
Many of the right hon. Gentleman's predecessors in office have reached the top to become Prime Ministers, Chancellors of the Exchequer and Speakers of the House. We wish the right hon. Gentleman every luck. If, however, it means that his party has to remain in power, perhaps we cannot hope that that result will be obtained.
The right hon. Gentleman will find that the longer he stays in the Post Office, the greater will be his affection for it. We all get affected by it. I remember a luncheon and meeting downstairs on the Terrace with all the ex-Postmasters-General, going back to the famous Lord Samuel. Every one of us felt that we were joined together by a common experience and by a common affection for a great institution. The longer the right hon. Gentleman stays there, the more he will find his practice coming into 701 conflict with the political philosophy of many of his colleagues on the benches behind him. Indeed, he will become one of the greatest devotees of public ownership.
The right hon. Gentleman is to be assisted in his work by the hon. Lady the Assistant Postmaster-General. I suppose we can congratulate her on being the first female general since the days of Boadicea. I trust, however, that she will keep in mind what her right hon. Friend has just said when talking about the six colours of the telephones. It is not how the thing looks that matters—it is how it works. The hon. Lady certainly looks very well and we trust that she will work equally effectively.
It is customary on the money Bill which we have before us today to take this sort of Cook's tour over this vast public business enterprise. In addition to the Bill, we have the Financial Memorandum and, on this occasion, the Report and the Accounts. These three documents together enable one to assess what is being done in this great undertaking and to see generally the drift of things and how our money and our business are being handled.
In the first place, the Post Office and the Postmaster-General are to be very much complimented on the new form which the Accounts have taken. They are not only an example which private firms might copy, but some of our other nationalised undertakings might get hints from them. If hon. Members, on both sides, want to know what the Post Office is up to, they have a first-class chance to find out from the Report and Commercial Accounts which have been issued.
In all these documents, we get the story of a highly successful nationalised industry. Here, indeed, is nothing which hon. Members opposite could use to help them in their campaign to make "nationalisation" a dirty word. Indeed, if it is to be judged by the ordinary commercial test, one has only to look at page 30 of the Report, where hon. Members will see that on the general account, if presented in the way in which the Inland Revenue permits private companies to present their reports, or as we did in the Post Office prior to 1955, the Post Office made a profit last year of over £25½ million.
702 This vast organisation stretches into the remotest corner of our islands, and touches every citizen in one way or another, either in the telephone service, the counter services, the postal services, the services for other Ministries, family allowances, pensions. Almost every citizen in the country is affected in one way or another by the operations of this public undertaking. For all of it the right hon. Gentleman is accountable to this House.
One of the chief reasons why the Post Office holds the place it does in the minds of the people of this country, may be that for anything that happens within its ambit the Postmaster-General can be questioned in this House. My own view is that this is a great national property; it belongs to the nation; and the nation has not only the right to know how its property is being conducted, it has equally the right to approve or disapprove of what is being done. This principle is secured by the Postmaster-General's accountability to this House.
Whenever he wants some money he has to come to us, and he has to explain what he is doing. Every year he has to provide his Annual Report, and every week he has to submit himself to Questions by Members on both sides of the House about the operations of the undertaking for which he is responsible. This accountability serves a double purpose. It enables the Post Office to have the best platform in the country to tell its story—some Postmasters-General can tell it better than others—and it has also here the means of defending itself against unjust attack. In that sense, it has an advantage which other nationalised industries do not have—that the Postmaster-General can come to this House and make his defence or justification and get the best platform in the country.
Equally, no single Minister can know what goes on from day to day throughout such a vast organisation as this over the length and breadth of the country. He, like his predecessors, can lay down codes of conduct; he can issue his rules and he can issue his instructions to all his officers, but he has to depend on them. I think the officers and the people generally inside the Post Office are an exceptionally grand bunch doing a great job of work, very often in very difficult 703 circumstances. Although he does all that, Members of Parliament in the constituencies can always have the opportunity to see how this organisation works. Not only will they be able to keep the Postmaster-General informed as to how things are going, they will also be able to perform the function of ombudsmen in relation to the problems which arise between citizens and the Post Office service.
I think that is all to the good. I never found that the accountability of the Postmaster-General to this House ever inhibited me in carrying out my task as Postmaster-General. I found that what was done in this House, the Questions from both sides, did informally enable one to maintain the efficient working of the system, and without the House and the help of Members it would be difficult to get that degree of supervision and satisfaction which is necessary in such a vast organisation.
Having delivered myself of those remarks I would say that the Bill before us provides, as the right hon. Gentleman said, for £120 million to be loaned by the Treasury to the Post Office for capital development. The rest of the amount of money to be used by the Post Office, the £150 million, is to be taken from the Post Office's own depreciation account. In order to find how that depreciation account has been obtained one has to go back to the Report and Commercial Accounts to find out the manner in which it has been provided.
The Report and Commercial Accounts show, in my view, that, more and more freed from the leading strings of the Treasury, the Posit Office is capable of surging forward. I was not long at the Post Office, but long enough to realise that the old function of the Post Office as a revenue instrument for the Treasury militated against its function as a great public business enterprise. I have hammered away at this ever since 1951. In fact, I started to have some discussions with the trade union people in the Post Office in 1951 to see how far it was possible for the Post Office servants to maintain their status as civil servants and how on the other hand it was possible for the Post Office to become a really independent public 704 business undertaking rather than an instrument for collecting taxation for the Treasury.
I was surprised to see in the manifesto of the party opposite the undertaking thatTo further the development of the Post Office as a modern business, we propose to separate its current finances from the Exchequer. Direct Ministerial responsibility to Parliament and the status of Post Office employees as civil servants will be retained.As to the second sentence of that paragraph relating to this proposal let me say that if there is any attempt at all to decrease Ministerial responsibility and accountability to this House there will be the greatest opposition from this side. As to the status of those who are engaged in the Post Office, we shall want a great deal of convincing that their status should be changed, and we shall look forward with very great interest to the White Paper.
I am quite satisfied that we must do something about the Post Office. We must give it greater freedom to get on with its main job of being a great public business undertaking and cut it off completely from the very old conception that the Post Office exists for the purpose of indirectly collecting taxation for the Treasury, and I am pleased we have got that far. We shall watch with very great interest and look with very great care at the White Paper, but I must make it quite clear that we shall strongly object to any attempt to weaken the power of Parliament over the Post Office. We shall still want that complete Ministerial accountability to the highest authority representing the people of this country, namely, this House of Commons.
I should like to make some comments now on the Accounts. I have referred first of all to this fabulous surplus of £25½ million Which one finds in the General Account on page 30. It is made up of two figures, the supplementary depreciation of £16,800,000 plus the surplus lower down the line of £8,704,612.
In an ordinary company balance sheet that supplementary provision for depreciation would be regarded as part of the operating profit, but because of the financial adjustments which we made in 1955 we now, as it were, stick it above 705 the line as an ordinary expense whereas in the old days it was below the line as part of the profit.
Then, in this case, that in itself is broken down as between postal, telegraph and telephone accounts. I shall leave the telegraph and postal accounts to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. W. R. Williams), who probably has a greater knowledge of Post Office operations than anyone in the House, having been so long employed in a post office and in one of the Post Office trade unions. I should like to refer to what the Postmaster-General has said about justification for the swingeing increases in charges imposed in the latter part of 1957. Page 36 of the Report gives an account of the first year's operation of the 1957 increased charges. Here we have a profit of £8,254,000 plus a supplementary provision for depreciation of £15,960,000, in other words an operating profit of over £24 million on the telephones for one year.
This is a story entirely different from the one we were told when the charges were increased. We were then told that the charges were being put up wholly to meet the increase in wages. Without the increases, the telephones would be in the red, and with all this ballyhoo that went on about these swingeing increases we now find that what they were being provided for was not to meet increased wages but also to provide the largest profit in the history of the telephone undertaking since it was taken over by the Government.
§ Mr. William Shepherd (Cheadle)
Surely the right hon. Gentleman is not saying that depreciation must be discounted before one arrives at the net profit? Surely he cannot expect Post Office capital to be written off without replacement?
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
We have argued this point repeatedly since 1955. I did not want to bore the House with a further explanation of it.
The fact is that the ordinary business company is allowed to put into depreciation the historical cost and if it puts in an amount for replacement cost it has to be out of profits. That is the standard Inland Revenue practice. Until 1955, it was our practice in the Post Office. The point I am making is 706 whether or not a profit or surplus of this size can really be justified. I am also trying to bring out the point that the exercise of increasing charges on the telephones was justified not on the grounds of getting enough money to provide for a replacement depreciation cost charge but was done for the purpose of meeting increases in wages, and for that alone.
Now we see the result of it all. I would ask the Postmaster-General, when he looks at the effect of that exercise and realises that nearly 300,000 telephone subscribers withdrew their custom because the charges had been put so high, with consequent capital left unused as a result of the withdrawal, whether he thinks this exercise can be justified in the light of events. The right hon. Gentleman has the largest surplus the telephone account has ever had.
A fortnight ago the Chancellor of the Exchequer asked employers throughout the country, "Please lower your charges. Lower your prices. The time has now come to do it." I ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider whether or not the time has arrived—when his telephone subscribers are now providing him with the greatest surplus that the telephone system has ever known—for him to begin to reduce the charges for the telephones in order to do a bit of justice to the subscribers in return for the injustice that was done in 1957.
I urge the right hon. Gentleman to forget the publicity that has been associated with the Post Office and to concentrate on the humdrum job of giving telephones to the very large waiting list. As he knows, about 60,000 people may yet have to wait three or four years before they have their telephones. That is a very serious business. Before spending his money on a lot of gimmicks, let the right hon. Gentleman get down to that basic job.
The right hon. Gentleman must also attempt to get back those hundreds of thousands who have deserted him, those who asked for their telephones to be taken away because the charges have become too high. His predecessor priced the telephone out of the lower-income group market. If the right hon. Gentleman is to get the best use out of all the capital involved in cables and exchanges, 707 he must increase the use of the cables. He can do that only by extending his market. He can extend his market only by cutting into that lower-income group of 300,000 who have deserted him. I ask him to have this as an objective and to endeavour to make the telephone as much a piece of standard equipment in the modern home as television. That is the only way in which he will get the maximum return on the vast capital outlay involved.
Let me put the matter as simply as possible. It costs over £100 on an average to connect a lone farmhouse with the exchange. Perhaps all one gets on that telephone is about three calls a week. It never pays for itself. That is one of the great problems. Here we are laying down this vast amount of capital in cables and all these exchanges and they are not used to one-tenth of their possible capacity. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will consider that problem.
Now that he has this tremendous surplus, will he also consider extending the old idea of one of the great Postmasters-General, Sir Kingsley Wood, who said, "We must encourage the use of the telephone. We will tell the private subscribers that they can have 100 free calls"? Why not consider that the charge for the telephone should include not only its rental but completely free calls within the local area, so that people will not be inhibited from using the telephone, as they are now?
I should like that suggestion to be examined. It may be one of the ways in which we can popularise the telephone system and develop the telephone habit. Once that habit has been developed, people will use the trunk calls which, as the Postmaster-General knows, are the most lucrative part of the whole system. I make that suggestion for his consideration.
In connection with that point, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the cost of accounting local calls, at £41 million a year, must be phenomenal. If there were a flat quarterly or six-monthly charge, which would eliminate such accounting, on balance he might make a profit since it is the accounting side which is the costly part of the operation of the telephone system.
708 I am trying to be helpful because the Post Office belongs as much to us on this side of the House as to right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite and we all want to make it the most successful nationalised industry in the country. By and large I think we are doing it and applying the right approach. I have covered a considerable amount of ground and perhaps have spoken a little too long, but I must mention something else which should be considered and which does not appear in the Report.
The Postmaster-General borrows money from the Treasury at 5¼ per cent. and gives the poor bank depositor 2½ per cent. interest. I remember that when I was young I was given a Post Office deposit account and my first deposit was the stamp on the card. I was saving 4d. a week and the interest on that money was 2½ per cent. The interest is at the same rate today when millions of £s are held on behalf of small depositors. Is there any justification for that? This is a not unimportant side of Post Office work. Will the right hon. Gentleman consider the point and see what can be done?
The Evening Standard started a campaign about this; why it dropped it, I do not know, because it was worth while. Do let us try to give the small depositor some of the benefits to which he is entitled. This rate was laid down in 1891—
§ Mr. Speaker
I do not want to interrupt the right hon. Member but I am in difficulty. I was wondering whether the Evening Standard dropped that campaign because it found it difficult to relate it to the Bill.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
I can relieve you of that anxiety, Sir. Many of the buildings used by the savings side of the Post Office are provided for out of the capital account of the Post Office, and the provision for this is in the Commercial Accounts. Therefore some of the money for which the Bill provides will be spent on this work. However, I will leave that point with the Evening Standard and with the Assistant Postmaster-General.
I wish the right hon. Gentleman well in his new office and assure him that we shall give him all the support we can, so long as he gets on with the real job and lets the gimmicks take second place 709 The right hon. Gentleman has the privilege of presiding over a wonderful institution. We trust that it will surge forward into the electronic age. After all, no industry is more capable of surging forward into that age than the telephone system.
I was going to say something about the abolition of the mechanical switch which we are still using in the Post Office instead of an electronic device, but I will leave that point and pay another tribute to the man whose dream baby the great automatic telephone system was. I am referring to the late General Engineer of the Post Office, Sir Archibald Gill. We now see his dream coming to fruition. I must pay a tribute also to the boffins of Dollis Hill, to the successful Directors-General of the Post Office, and also to the trade unions for the way in which they have co-operated in getting increased productivity.
The right hon. Gentleman might consider whether the time has now been reached where the representatives of the trade unions might sit on the Post Office Council. Within the Post Office we can make experiments in the organisation and structure of a public undertaking which cannot be made elsewhere. The right atmosphere is there, and since the right hon. Gentleman has said that he is not doctrinaire, like the Prime Minister who believes that there should be some nationalised undertakings, here is the place to start the experiment of perfecting this organisation, as a result of which nationalised undertakings can be a credit to the country.
§ 12.16 p.m.
§ Mr. William Shepherd (Cheadle)
This has been an agreeable occasion and I am particularly pleased to be able to say that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards) has made what I thought was the best speech he has ever made on the Post Office.
May I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General and my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General on their new appointments? And while I am on these personal matters may I say how much we miss Charles Hobson? He was a devoted servant of this House and gave his best in almost every capacity in it and on 710 its Committees, and we wish him well in the future.
§ Mr. Ness Edwards
May I too, for the record, be permitted to say how grateful we are to the hon. Gentleman for his comment about our former colleague, Charles Hobson?
§ Mr. Shepherd
I am much obliged.
The office of Postmaster-General is not regarded as a very high one in the Government hierarchy, yet it gives a satisfaction which I am sure no other office can give. It does so because the Postmaster-General is the leader of a body of fine men. I know of no other service in this country or elsewhere in the world where the staff can be so relied upon as those of the British Post Office.
Once I ran a mail order business in four different countries and from that experience I gained some appreciation of the relative merits of the postal service here and abroad. My right hon. Friend now has a great opportunity to lead those men and to improve the service. I am sure that he will do his best to be worthy of the great office and will give true leadership to the members of the Post Office staff.
In the more contentious parts of the right hon. Gentleman's speech he twitted us on our support of the Post Office. We have never been concerned about our support of certain nationalised industries. Nationalisation is like alcohol—it is good in moderate quantities, devastating in large ones.
§ Mr. Shepherd
One might say that 15 per cent. of the national activities might suitably be covered by nationalised control whereas the country feels that the rest should remain under private auspices. Therefore, I think that we on this side of the House have no difficulty in regarding the postal service in that capacity of being a natural monopoly, and, it having a certain amount of relation to the State itself, as being a fit and proper service to be run by nationalised control. So we do not make any apologies for our support for it.
I am very pleased indeed that the present Postmaster-General has begun to move towards financial freedom for the Post Office. The right hon. Gentleman 711 opposite said that he was tackling this matter in 1951. I can tell him that I was tackling it in 1948, when I tried to persuade his then leader, now Lord Attlee, that it would be highly desirable in the interests of the Post Office to give it some form of financial freedom. I must say that Lord Attlee was not as far-sighted as the right hon. Gentleman opposite, because he turned me down very coldly, and the Post Office has remained to this very day under the same restrictive influences of the Treasury.
I am profoundly glad that we are now in sight of some relief from these restrictions. There can be no case for trying to apply to a revenue-producing and trading department the same sort of Treasury control as one applies to a non-revenue-producing department. We must get away from this outmoded and foolish practice. If we do, I am perfectly satisfied that the Post Office can go on to much bigger and better business than it does even today.
The right hon. Gentleman opposite made some cutting comments about telephone charges. I am rather sorry, in a way, that he tried to make so much of them. The British people have believed for many years that there are certain things which they ought to be supplied with at lower than cost. These have included rent, Post Office services and transport, and there are one or two others. To my mind, this has been most damaging to the whole British economy. When the Government do what is, in my view, right—that is, say that people must pay the economic cost for the telephone—they should be not discouraged, but encouraged, because there can be no case for saying to the provincial subscriber, as we did not very long ago, that, although the average cost of maintaining a telephone is about £12 a year, he can have it for £9. That is not a sound basis on which to conduct a great industry.
I am very sorry that the right hon. Gentleman was unwise enough to try to put forward the view that one could discount depreciation in arriving at one's profit. The net profit of the telephone service cannot be shown without including depreciation. It is unfair to try to give to people outside the House a wrong impression of the profit which the Post Office makes on the telephone service.
712 I wish to say a word about the organisation of the Post Office as it affects the House. The right hon. Gentleman said that he believed that we should retain in the House control of the Post Office. I believe that to be very true indeed, and I should regret any relaxation of the arrangements for the responsibility of the Postmaster-General to the House. One of the reasons why the Post Office service is more successful than other nationalised industries is this responsibility, not only because hon. Members can tackle the Postmaster-General but because the Postmaster-General represents a focal point, a leadership point, for the service.
We find that there is no focal point and no leadership point for other nationalised industries. We must not destroy this tremendous advantage which the Post Office enjoys. If I were asked to say why the Post Office, as a service, is relatively so successful, I should say that the fact that men are working for Her Majesty's Post Office has a tremendous influence. Postmen speak not of going to work, but of going to duty.
§ Mr. Shepherd
The focal point of a Minister in this House has immense value to the Post Office service. I would say—I have said this publicly on more than one occasion—that in the attempts that we have made to nationalise industries we have tried to ape the advantages of private enterprise and we have not succeeded in doing it, and we have lost the advantage that we might have gained from some form of centralised control and responsibility to the House.
§ Mr. A. E. Hunter (Feltham)
Will the hon. Gentleman bear in mind that the Post Office has been established for a hundred years and that the staff serve it almost from boyhood?
§ Mr. Shepherd
I am bearing that fully in mind. It is one of the reasons why I say that I should deprecate any change in the Post Office arrangements which took away from the House and the Postmaster-General the leadership which is given to the whole service. Consequently, I hope that my right hon. Friend will be very mindful of these considerations when the changes which he anticipates come about.
713 There is one other aspect of the Post Office which we ought to mention, because it has a relevance to the conduct of other industries under nationalised control. The Post Office has very able men in its higher ranks, and one of the most satisfactory aspects of that is that we do not know anything at all about them—they are completely anonymous. Comparable men in the nationalised industries are the subject of criticism, dispute and altercation. Inside the Post Office, men of exceptional ability, as directors of the service, go about their jobs from day to day without the slightest concern as to what the public is saying about the Post Office, because, to use a vulgar expression, my right hon. Friend "carries the can" here.
When one looks at the nationalised industries and appreciates the tremendous advantage which is conferred if directors of organisations can go unconcerned about their job while a Minister takes responsibility for questions of policy, there seems to be considerable room for support, and possibly even for action, in this direction.
I wish to say a word, in conclusion, about the development of the Post Office. The right hon. Gentleman rightly said that we want electronic switching instead of the now almost out-of-date electromechanical mechanism, and I hope that we shall get it as quickly as possible. Also I hope that we shall not neglect the improvement of post offices and postmen's offices. The conditions under which men have been working in some postmen's offices have been too bad. I imagine that some hon. Members will have seen some of the canteens which existed a few years ago in postmen's offices. There is a real need to improve postmen's offices and post offices.
I do not share the view of the right hon. Gentleman that we must not have a "gimmick." After all, a service must present a face to the public, and there is a lot to be said for making the public feel, even through small things, such as a "gimmick," that one is alive to one's job and making progress. It is not enough that all the progress should be made behind the scenes. We want brighter and better post offices and better postmen's offices.
714 They are "gimmicks" to some extent, admittedly—we shall not necessarily sell any more postage stamps by having a bright post office—but it is essential to give the impression that the Post Office is not a dead sort of service, but is live and progressive. I urge my right hon. Friend not to be too concerned with the criticisms of hon. Gentlemen opposite, but to proceed with improving the buildings of the Post Office as well as the development of electronic switching.
In this respect, I am somewhat concerned about the provision of new post offices. I hope that new or improved post offices will remain in the ownership of the State, as far as that is possible. In recent years, there has been a tendency for the Post Office and other large organisations to lease buildings from development councils on a long-term rental basis. I am in that business myself and, therefore, speaking against my own interests in what I am about to say.
This sort of business is extremely good for a development company, because the Post Office covenant is excellent. It is obviously much sought after business, but, except in very special circumstances, the Posit Office ought not to enter into arrangements to lease buildings from private companies. If the Post Office does not have the capital immediately available, it should make arrangements to buy the buildings on what are virtually hire-purchase arrangements.
On the payment of about 7½ per cent. per annum of the capital cost, it would be possible for the Post Office to acquire these buildings. In the interests of the State and safeguarding the taxpayers' money, it should be the duty of the Post Office, as far as possible, to avoid lease rental arrangements and. instead, to go in for outright purchase of the freehold if possible. I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider that matter during the next few weeks.
I conclude by saying how pleased I am to see the extent to which both sides of the House are able to co-operate on this issue and how both sides are proud of the service and of the men who operate it. I am convinced that, with the plans in hand and under the energetic direction of my right hon. Friend, the Post Office, in the next decade or so, will be able to maintain its lead among the countries of the world.
§ 12.33 p.m.
§ Mr. Barnett Janner (Leicester, Northwest)
None of us will disagree with much of what has been said this morning. On the contrary, the tributes which have been paid to the men and women of the Post Office will be echoed by everybody in the country, with very few exceptions, if any. Postmen and post-women, in and outside the post offices, are men and women who largely sacrifice much of their leisure time, and the privileges obtainable in other industries. They are devoted and praiseworthy members of our community.
I endorse much of what the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mr. Shepherd) said. I, too, hope that Mr. Hobson, whom we have unhappily lost from our midst, will be back with us in the very near future. He rendered considerable service. However, I disagree with what the hon. Member said about sufficiency of knowledge and concern in connection with the nationalised industries. Perhaps during the weekend the hon. Member will pick up the words of a poet who said:A little learning is a dangerous thing;Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,And drinking largely sobers us again.That might help him to form a different opinion about the nationalised industries, particularly when he remembers the manner in which the Post Office shows how a nationalised industry can be successfully operated.
We are not only dealing with technical matters today. I ask the House to consider the deeper sense of what we are discussing. To maintain stability and lead a warm and happy life, men and women need to have communication with each other. The Post Office provides the opportunity for people to have contacts and conversations with fellow men and women, which makes for contacts between them within their own small communities with those in other parts of the country and also in overseas communities. That serves the purpose of making people community-minded and provides the opportunity for family talks and family correspondence and also eventually affects relationships between one nation and another.
I therefore appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to study the matters with 716 which he has to deal not purely in a technical sense, but in the context of what I am now saying. My right hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards) asked why the Government should not consider giving people an opportunity to have a telephone service on which they could talk to their hearts' content. I know that that may sometimes be a nuisance, but I would like it to be considered from an ordinary practical point of view. People sometimes want to talk to relatives and friends who do not live nearby and whom they cannot easily meet or see in local shops and streets.
Of course, such a service would pay. When the higher telephone charges were inaugurated, within one month 300,000 people discontinued using the service. That means that 300,000 people who had earlier considered that the telephone was useful and ought to be in their homes—as it ought to be in every home—changed their minds about having one there.
If sufficient vision were brought to bear it might be possible for telephones to be supplied to every house where they were wanted. People do not use telephones in their homes as a kind of toy. Never before in the history of the postal service have 300,000 people discontinued using the telephone service. Why has this happened? To say that it is because they do not want a telephone is nonsensical. With all the boasts that are made in the House of everything being wonderful for us, those 300,000 people have not asked for their telephones to be reinstalled. The reason is that they cannot afford a telephone. They cannot afford the means of communication between themselves and their fellow men because of the high cost.
We know that more production means less cost to the consumer, and here we have 300,000 people most of whom would ask for their telephones to be reinstalled if the price of the service were reduced, and certainly if these people had an opportunity to use their telephones in the manner suggested by my hon. Friend. I ask the Postmaster-General and his colleagues to consider this very carefully to see whether something can be done in that direction.
It is bad from the point of view of morale to deprive people of the use of a 717 telephone. It is also bad for the economy of the country. When both those items come together I find it hard to believe that even a hard-bitten economist would be prepared to argue that it was not worth taking the risk of reducing the cost and seeing what the result would be.
My experience of telephones leads me to the conclusion that our system is better than that, say, of the United States of America where vast sums of capital are available for the development of the telephone service. The American system is regarded by Some as better than ours but t do not agree. Certainly our postal service is better.
We have a very nice surplus. It is not as large as my right hon. Friend indicated, but we should look after our surplus. What does that mean? It means that taking a correct view of policy—whether it be this Government or any other Government—we must consider where the Post Office stands and what its duties are. In my view, its first duty is to supply the means of fostering community interest, good will and business between men and women in this country in particular, and abroad in general.
I cannot for the life of me understand why the Post Office digs its toes in on the points that I have raised in this House on many occasions. I do not want to be unduly pressing about this, but it is something which strikes at the very root of what I have been talking about. The population of this country is spreading from our cities to areas where new estates are being built to give men and women an opportunity of leading a healthier and more reasonable existence. These people are moving into good houses. We say that the houses provided by our Government are better than the ones provided by the present Government; but, be that as it may, they are all better than the slums that were permitted to remain before.
The Assistant Postmaster-General (Miss Mervyn Pike) indicated assent.
§ Mr. Janner
I see that I am getting the help of the hon. Lady, so I will leave it at that. For years we have been and are taking our people from slum areas and putting them into decent houses. That is a very good thing. We took and are taking aged people and putting them into bungalows so that they may lead 718 a community life with younger people, and so that these elderly people can go out together, shop together, meet each other, and live within a self-contained area in a warm family manner.
Many years ago I described houses that were then being put up as long rows of soulless houses. I called them soulless districts with soulless houses. But not because the houses were bad. On the contrary, the houses were quite good and were provided with baths, which was something that some people had never had in their own houses. They were soulless houses because they did not have the amenities that existed in the slum areas from which the people were moved. At that time I represented Whitechapel and St. George's where, although men and women had been brought up under terrible conditions so far as housing was concerned, in spite of those conditions, they had formed associations with each other and had their own kind of meeting places—it may have been a little pub, or club, or whatever it was, or perhaps they met each other in the fish and chip shop.
§ Mr. Janner
Even in the post office, where they scratched pens together. The post office was within the community area.
If we create new estates without amenities and ask people from slum areas to live on these new estates, on the rule of the mile for postal amenities as I now call it, we will be doing a silly thing. We will break the community life of an area and put on people impositions which ought not to be imposed on them when they are given the opportunity to move.
A few days ago the Assistant Postmaster-General had a very fine opportunity to show that she had a little vision, by doing something which her predecessors, in their own stupid way, had refused to do. They kept saying, "A mile must be a mile, whether it is a mile that the crow flies or one that the aged person has to walk and whether it is on flat ground or up the side of Snowdon". That contention is sheer nonsense. We cannot expect a man or woman of 70 to go up and down a steep hill, even if it is only three-quarters of a mile. I cannot understand why the hon.
719 Lady does not appreciate that. When she last spoke she was making her maiden speech from the dispatch Box, but on this occasion I can be more free with what I say and get some things off my chest.
§ Mr. Janner
Of course, Mr. Speaker. I hope they are. What has happened in my district can easily happen in other districts. I shall not allow it to continue if I can help it. The hon. Lady must make up her mind, sooner or later, that she will have to accede to this reasonable request. She said she walked up the hill herself, and that it was a jolly little walk. I can imagine that it might well be all right for her. She might find it a nice, healthy walk, but an old person of 70 will not find it so nice.
She said that these old people who have to get up and down the hill to collect their pensions could take a bus. I would point out that on some occasions even the bus cannot get up the hill. I suppose that the old-age pensioners will be all right going down the hill by means of the bus, but when the bus is going uphill is it the suggestion that they should get out and push it? Another suggestion she made was that the pensioners should send young people to collect the pension. She spoke as if a woman drawing a family allowance is eager for the chance to go three-quarters of a mile down and then up a steep hill to collect it.
She also said that people would like to go to this post office, three-quarters of a mile away, to have a little chat while they were doing their shopping.
§ Miss Pike
I know this place very well. I took the walk up and down the hill. If the hon. Member reads the report of the Adjournment debate he will see that I admitted that it was a difficult walk. The point is that it is not necessary to go up and down the hill. There is a sub-post office 1,000 yards away on the level. It is not necessary to go up and down the hill, or to get a bus.
§ Mr. Janner
I advise the hon. Lady not to jump in when I am speaking. She has made another mistake, and a bad one. The way to that sub-post office is 720 not on the level. She is talking now about Stocking Farm—but it is not possible to get there in the way she suggests.
§ Mr. Janner
Very well. I am prepared to offer her my companionship. If she walks there with me she will see how difficult it is. Under such circumstances it may take longer, although it might be much more interesting. It will certainly be more happy a journey for us than for the old pensioners.
If this journey were so easy we would not have had 500 people signing a petition for the Mowmacre Hill sub-post office already. I warn the hon. Lady that practically every person on the estate, whether he is an old-age pensioner or not, would probably sign a petition to the effect that what she said in her last speech is wrong. People are not anxious to go down the hill in order to have a little chat.
It is argued that my suggestion would cost a little more. That would not matter, because the Post Office has a surplus. But even if it had not, to put forward such an argument is the wrong attitude to adopt. It was adopted by her predecessor, and unhappily it has been put into her brief. I am not sure that her heart and head would have persuaded her to take a different line of action. Her brief did an injustice to all the humane considerations.
We were told that the sub-postmaster at the bottom of the hill would not go up to the top of the hill, but even that is wrong. He was prepared to send somebody up. Indeed, I have a letter here sent to me to that effect. It says:Now I think this problem… with regard to the payment of the above pensions can now be solved quite easily, as I understand the sub-postmaster on the Belgrave Boulevarde is willing to come to Mr. Newbold's shop"—that is the gentleman Who is prepared to have a post office in his shop—on Tuesday morning and also on Thursday morning to pay these old folk's pensions, and there will be no need for an extra post office and it will benefit the present sub-postmaster…Every facility has been given for implementing the plan I have suggested.
Country places which were referred to by the hon. Lady should be properly provided with sub-post offices. Our 721 postal service is in many respects an admirable one. I see some businessmen on the benches opposite, and I am sure they would all agree that the Post Office is one of the instruments which keep alive business, family and human inter-rests. Any reasonable sacrifice, or as in this case, so-called sacrifice, is worth making if it benefits the people. Even if it costs a little more than it brings in it ought to be carried out. Every opportunity should be given to all of our people to enjoy a postal service of a very high standard, because it helps to make the nation a happy one, and it helps to make every person feel that he is a member of the British family.
§ 12.58 p.m.
§ Mr. Charles Doughty (Surrey, East)
I do not propose to detain the House for very long, because I do not want to stand between the Post Office and its borrowing of £120 million. The Post Office must continue.
I join with other hon. Members in congratulating my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend on succeeding to the positions of difficulty and responsibility which they now occupy, and which I am sure they will continue to occupy with very great skill.
I also join other hon. Members in congratulating the very large body of servants of the Post Office who carry out their work in nearly every case with the greatest efficiency and skill. We are dealing with probably the largest body of all those people for whose welfare and efficiency the House is directly responsible. They are mainly people who started to learn their jobs at a young age, and who are continuing with them all through their working lives. We are dealing with craftsmen and tradesmen, and not people who take up various kinds of work of short duration and of an unskilled nature.
I am sorry if I digress for a moment, as hon. Members opposite have caused hon. Members on this side of the House to digress, lest the debate should be used for a discussion on nationalised industries. We cannot ask anyone who worked in the Post Office before it was nationalised how it compares with post-nationalisation days, because people do not normally live to be more than 100, but we can ask those in Cable and 722 Wireless whether it is better or worse after nationalisation; and there is only one answer to that.
I do not propose to go into the details, but if my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend would like to take the trouble they will find a large file of correspondence from me in the files of the Post Office. The Post Office is an excellent service, well run by devoted people. But do not let us persuade ourselves that it is in any way an example for nationalising any other industry. The position is that it has a complete monopoly, and it is right that it should. Having a complete monopoly, it can charge what it likes, carry on as it likes, and expand or contract its business as it thinks fit.
That places, and rightly places, upon the Post Office very great responsibilities indeed for the care of the money that comes to it. I advisedly use the words "money that comes to it", and not public money, because I think that it is right that it should be completely divorced from Treasury control.
In dealing with that matter, I wish to deal with one or two points that have been raised. I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Shepherd) that post offices should only occupy freehold properties belonging to them. It may well be that they are in a better position to get a better bargain if they take a lease in a new building put up by a large property company or any other firm of landlords. It gives them the advantage, when the lease comes to an end, that if business changes from one district to another they can leave with that change of business.
§ Mr. Shepherd
I did not wish for a moment to suggest that there should be an inflexible rule, because I can conceive many circumstances in which it is impossible for the Post Office to do other than rent premises. What I say is that where it can purchase the premises it should do so because, even if it moves its post offices, with the trend of property values in twenty years' time it can not only recover its money, but possibly twice its money.
§ Mr. Doughty
I am glad to say that my hon. Friend and I are almost in complete agreement. The Post Office must 723 take the best advantage it can, whether by leasehold or freehold, to obtain the most suitable premises for its purpose.
I agree with the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Mr. Janner) that the Post Office has, of course, an enormous public service to perform and that it cannot perform that service by saying, "You must come to us. "It. must say, "We will come to you."
§ Notice taken that 40 Members were not present;
§ House counted, and, 40 Members being present—
§ Mr. Doughty
I am glad that, thanks to the support from the Government side of the House, the Post Office will be able to obtain its money. As I was saying, the Post Office must take its services to the people over any reasonable distance and not make the people come to it.
I do not propose to deal with a particular constituency point, but in my constituency a post office was closed—the hon. Lady knows the case I am speaking about—although it had been in existence for more than forty years. The district around it, instead of being green fields, has now become completely built up and many thousands of people have been very greatly inconvenienced by its closure. I am sure that when my hon. Friend considers that matter she will see the justice and force of what has been said and that the services of that post office will be restored.
It is not only on the general service of collecting letters that I wish to comment. I wish to make one small criticism and I hope that my right hon. Friend will look into the point. I have received, and have reason to believe that they are well-founded, many complaints about the forwarding of letters which are incorrectly addressed. Once one puts S.W.3 on a letter when it should be S.W.I, one is lucky if the letter gets delivered at all. There is obviously something wrong in the department which deals with incorrectly addressed letters. I have had many examples of letters addressed to me from Australia which have gone back to Australia because the wrong local number has been put on them. Someone wants to be shaken up in that direction.
§ Mr. W. R. Williams (Manchester, Openshaw)
I am rather surprised that the hon. and learned Gentleman should say that the letters were not delivered. I could understand if he had said that they had been delayed because of the method of sorting used, which is on a postal number basis. However, I should be very surprised if such letters were not delivered, because there are return letter branches which see to that sort of thing.
§ Mr. Doughty
If the hon. Gentleman is surprised, I will send him a letter which has recently been returned to Australia and has been sent back. It is not the only case. It happens, I regret to say, only too frequently. Because we praise an industry it does not mean that we cannot occasionally criticise it.
The telephone is the growing infant of the postal service. The Post Office has to carry certain financial liabilities, such as the telegraph, since we must have that service in this country, for reasons into which we need not go. Reference has been made to the new form of greetings telegram. I should like my right hon. Friend to be good enough to put samples of these greetings telegrams in the Library, so that we can see them, because one cannot praise or criticise them without having seen them.
Of course, in that area of the Post Office technical advances are going ahead at a tremendous rate, and I am glad to say that, as far as one can tell, the Post Office is keeping up with those technical advances. Unfortunately, the Post Office has not sufficient capital to keep up with the number of people who want to have the telephone installed and who want to be connected without necessarily being obliged to share a party line.
I hope that in the case of exchanges which are not yet automatic and which still have a large number of subscribers, the rate of change-over to automatic will be accelerated. Perhaps we are becoming slightly spoilt these days, but so many people are used to the automatic exchange that they do not like, at any rate for local calls, dealing with non-automatic exchanges. That is a matter which should be accelerated and, if necessary, the House should vote the capital required for the purpose.
Having said that, I hope that automatic dialling throughout the country 725 —I have forgotten the exact initials which have to be used—will be accelerated, because the better the service the more it will be used; and the more it is used the bigger the revenue will be. That is what all of us in the House desire, and, of course, what people in the rest of the country desire.
Having raised these few small matters—and, certainly, with great praise for the untiring services given by the highest technicians in the Post Office and the youngest postmen delivering their letters—I resume my seat in the hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ 1.10 p.m.
§ Mr. A. E. Hunter (Feltham)
I intervene for only a few minutes because, unfortunately, I am suffering from a heavy cold. I feel, however, that when the House of Commons has the opportunity to discuss a publicly-owned service, Members should, if possible, try to take part in the debate.
The Post Office is a hundred years old, and the hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty) said he did not want to use that fact as a means of praising nationalisation. I am quite certain that during the last century, when that great Postmaster-General Rowland Hill founded the penny post, it was only by means of a publicly-owned concern that a penny post could be operated. After all, if we had had dozens of firms competing for the business, it would have been impossible to send a letter from London to Scotland for 1d., just the same as one could be sent from Westminster to Lambeth for 1d.
Therefore, one can look with satisfaction on the fact that the Post Office is established and is well esteemed by the people. I am very pleased indeed that the Postmaster-General praised the Post Office and its staff. Earlier, I mentioned Rowland Hill. I think this is the first time that we have had a lady as Assistant Postmaster-General. I am quite certain that hon. Members on both sides of the House will wish her well, and they also wish the right hon. Gentleman himself well in his new post.
Having praised the Post Office, I now propose to make one or two criticisms. I think every one recognises that the Post Office provides a good service, but 726 there are some criticisms to be made, just as private concerns in this country have been criticised for their failures. It is only by drawing the attention of the authorities to these matters that we can get them put right.
During the post-war period the chief complaint which has concerned Members of Parliament has been about the waiting period for telephones. This has been a source of worry, not only to residents, but also to business people. I know that in my own district, in Feltham, Hounslow and around London Airport, there has been a long waiting period for people who want telephones. I was very pleased indeed to learn from a reply which the right hon. Gentleman gave me on Wednesday in answer to a Question, that there has been a big improvement. I believe that now the waiting period is only two or three months, and that during the last twelve months over 1,300 telephones have been supplied to people on the waiting list in this area.
I urge the right hon. Gentleman to press on with the improvement of the telephone service, and I deplore the fact that a well-established concern like the Post Office has been starved of capital investment since 1945 which has definitely deprived it of the opportunity to extend its services. People should not have to wait two or three months for a telephone. The wait should be at most a week, and I therefore ask the right hon. Gentleman to give his attention to the complaints which I am certain all Members of Parliament have received.
The Post Office engineers deserve great praise for their work in telephone research. They have made great progress in technical and automatic equipment, and I am very pleased that the Postmaster-General praised their work. At the same time, I should like to see some research carried out into the possibility of a cheaper service. I know that we have recently had a period of inflation, which brought about the loss of the free calls, and it was a big disappointment to people when the number of free calls which they had been allowed in their rental charge were cancelled and the charges for service were also increased. If it were possible to restore the free calls fairly soon, I am certain that it would be much appreciated, and that 727 it would assist people with small incomes to have the telephone service, which is so useful in emergencies.
The Post Office also does a great deal in regard to the social services. When we think that old-age pensions, retirement pensions, children's allowances, widows' pensions and other services are dealt with in the post offices, not only in the big cities and towns but also in the villages, we realise that that must be a great asset to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance and other Government Departments, which have this splendid system of administration throughout Great Britain.
Therefore, I feel that those of us who are keen on extending the social services should pay tribute to the Post Office for the administrative services which it provides in this direction. I am certain that in the towns and small villages in the country, when the old-age pensioner calls on a Thursday, he looks upon the postmaster or postmistress more or less as a friend. If one of these people did not turn up one day, especially in a small village, he would be missed and probably some inquiries would be made about him. Thus, in quite a number of ways, the Post Office is a friend of the old-age pensioner and others who use the Post Office in connection with our social services.
The Post Office Savings Bank is an established institution. When people invest small savings each week, month or year, in that bank, they realise that their money is safe. It is gilt-edged, because the country stands behind the Post Office Savings Bank, and therefore these people's savings are completely safe. I do not know whether the Postmaster-General has given any attention to the question of improving this service.
I know that depositors can now obtain larger amounts on withdrawals on demand, but I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman has gone into the question of people with Post Office Savings Bank accounts being able to pay accounts by cheque. Is it possible to institute a cheque book system? It would be a convenience if such people could use cheques for the payment of small accounts to the grocer or for the settlement of gas or electricity bills. I should be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman could consider a service along these lines.
728 Another point concerns the modernisation of Post Offices. We have today the development of the supermarket and the self-service store, and one would think that a development on similar lines in the post offices, by the provision of more automatic machines, would avoid the queues. Instead of having only one machine providing either penny or halfpenny stamps—there may be others, but the only ones I have seen were either for penny or half-penny stamps—could we not have more machines selling stamps of other denominations?
In Underground stations or outside shops, one sees automatic machines which contain probably eight lines of cigarettes, or others with eight different types of bars of chocolate. Surely it should be possible for the Post Office to provide machines that contain also 2d., 3d. and even 6d. stamps. If they were installed in great numbers in the post offices they would help to avoid the queues, because those who were buying postal orders, drawing their pensions or registering letters would not have to wait so long. Therefore, I should be very pleased if the Postmaster-General would go into the possibility of a development of automatic machines of that type, which I feel would render a great service.
I do not think that the Post Office has had its share of new building. When one looks around London, one sees large blocks of offices going up. While housing is and must be for very many years No. 1 priority, much of this new office building is of a speculative character, with advertising for tenants after the buildings are finished. This is going on while the Post Office has been starved of capital investment, which should have enabled it to provide many new buildings.
We are proud of the Post Office, though we do not like some of these old Victorian buildings. In 1959, we should have more modern buildings for our Post Offices, not only to provide better facilities for the people, but to include proper canteen facilities, welfare rooms and so on for the postal staff, since many modern firms already provide them today.
Most hon. Members would agree that capital investment in the Post Office in the shape of the provision of new buildings and facilities for the staff has not 729 been adequate since 1945. Now that we have a new Postmaster-General who, I am sure, is keen on these things, I hope that the next time we debate the Post Office we shall find that some of my suggestions for modernising the service, with new buildings, the provision of automatic stamp machines and a cheaper telephone service, may have been adopted, or work on all these services for the people commenced.
§ 1.21 p. m.
§ Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)
The hon. Member for Feltham (Mr. Hunter) made a useful suggestion about automatic stamp machines in post offices. When wishing to purchase a large number of stamps one often finds oneself in a queue when the people in front are buying only one 3d. stamp each, which they might have obtained from a machine.
I do not feel that we need shed so many tears, as did the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Mr. Janner), about the number of people who are no longer telephone subscribers. A few years ago I was impressed by an Answer given by the then Postmaster-General which showed the very small number of calls made by many subscribers in the provinces. It averaged out at about one a day. I remember asking several of my constituents, who had complained about having to give up their telephones, how many times they initiated calls. The number was very small. Some people use the telephone about once a week. There are occasions when people must decide how they shall spend their money. They can afford to purchase a washing machine, a refrigerator, or a bicycle only if they give up their telephone subscription.
§ Mr. Marcos Lipton (Brixton)
Surely the point is not the number of calls initiated by a telephone subscribed, but the convenience of being able to receive calls. Some people do not initiate many calls, but receive a large number.
§ Mr. Gresham Cooke
That is possible, but some of the people I spoke to used the telephone only once or twice a week. It was a convenient standby for them. But I could not help feeling that while telephones are in short supply it would be better if such people gave up their telephones so that people who needed 730 them more urgently, and had been on the waiting list for a long time, might be connected.
I was glad to hear the Postmaster-General say that a lot of attention was given to staff relations in the Post Office, because only if we have happy Post Office staffs shall we get satisfied customers and the whole object of the Post Office service is to keep customers happy and satisfied. We may be proud of the fact that our postal services are a great deal better than those in America, for example, where, in the big cities, there is one daily delivery of letters and, in the provinces, perhaps only a delivery every other day.
Today, we are discussing the provision of capital for the Post Office. It is right that the bulk of its capital expenditure should be devoted to the telephone service. I suppose that there is no Member of Parliament who does not receive, once a week or once a fortnight, a complaint from a constituent about having been on the waiting list for a telephone for months and being unable to obtain one. When these complaints are investigated one finds that the reason is often the necessity to provide more cables, or even, on some occasions, another telephone exchange, and all that requires capital expenditure.
At the same time, I wish to add my plea to those made to the Postmaster-General today for the provision of more post offices. I should like to know whether my right hon. Friend has an up-to-date survey of the situation and knows where post offices are required. Post offices are really only shops, and while I would not suggest that they should be as numerous as grocers' shops, I think that there should at least be a post office in nearly every shopping parade. I am not aware how many post offices there are between Victoria Station and the Palace of Westminster. It may be one or two, but, with the great growth in post office business, it might be worth while looking into this matter. In the old days the policy was to have a post office every half-mile and it may be that today we need a post office every 400 yards.
There are two minor matters which I should like to be examined. The first is the provision of local telephone directories. I happen to spend my summer 731 holidays on the North Norfolk coast. That remote area is fortunate in having a small local telephone directory, comprising about 12 pages and containing the names of subscribers to about half a dozen telephone exchanges. In the usual way the residential subscribers make 95 per cent. of their calls in a small locality. On the other hand, in a county like Berkshire—this may be confirmed by the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton)—one must consult a vast telephone directory for the Reading area, which contains 300 pages, covering five counties, and an area from Virginia Water, to Lambourne, at the other end of the county about 60 or 70 miles away.
Berkshire might be divided up into several small areas, one covering the Virginia Water-Ascot area, one the Newbury area and another for Reading, and so on. It might be possible to make the provision of such directories pay for themselves by selling advertising space in them to local traders. I know that this has been considered on a previous occasion, because I raised the matter two or three years ago with the then Postmaster-General. There is a case for considering whether it is right that we should continue to have large telephone directories covering enormous areas in which, if one wishes to find a particular "Mr. Smith" one must look through about three pages of Smiths.
The time has come when we should look at the division of the London postal areas. Let us consider S.W.I, in which the House is situated. I happen to have an office in the S.W.I postal area and where I live in London is also in that area. It is obvious to me that the business conducted in that postal area has grown enormously in the last twenty years. A great many firms have moved east from the City into the S.W.I area and I can well imagine that this postal area is overloaded with work. Certainly, it is difficult to get letters to and from the provinces from London, S.W.I. Quite often, there are delays.
I ask my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General to see whether the London postal areas are too big and overloaded with work and whether it is time to divide them up again. I think that I am right in saying that the present postal districts were designed at the time 732 of the First World War, and if so it may be that, forty years later, the question should looked at again.
I am fully in favour of the provisions contained in the Bill. The Post Office needs all the capital which it can get, and if the Postmaster-General can obtain a few more millions of pounds out of the Treasury we shall be very happy.
§ 1.29 p.m.
§ Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)
I listened with great interest to what the Postmaster-General had to say in opening the debate. I thought that he was proposing to deal more fully than he did with the loss incurred by the telegram service. I did not hear the right hon. Gentleman suggest any ways in which to reduce this loss. It appears to me that telegrams are on the way out, and at the moment I cannot suggest a way in which to make that service pay. With the growing use of telephones we shall have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that the telegram is on the way out and will probably eventually disappear altogether.
More can be done to improve the telephone service. The telephone is becoming even more essential than it was years ago. A case was brought to my notice of a constituent who occupied one room in a very large old-fashioned house. For a variety of reasons, there was not a very strong neighbourly feeling among the people living in the house. She became ill, and it was impossible for her to get any communication through to the doctor whom she wanted to call. There was no telephone in the house. She was not well enough to go out to the post office to buy a stamp. She was not on sufficiently good terms with her neighbours to persuade anyone living in the house to go out to make the necessary call or post the necessary letter. There must be many such cases, human nature being what it is. There should be a telephone in every house in the country.
A vast amount of labour and effort must be expended in the preparation of telephone accounts. Subscribers receive them once every six months. By the time we receive them we have forgotten about all the trunk calls that we have made. It is impossible for us to check whether the accounts are accurate. We 733 do not know how many local calls have been made, or whether the figure on the account is right. If one wants to have a more frequent check on outgoing calls—for example, a monthly account—one has to pay at least Is. a month. As my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham (Mr. Hunter) pointed out, there was a time when subscribers were entitled to 50 free calls. That has been abolished.
How much extra would a telephone subscriber have to be charged if all local calls were free? That would represent a tremendous saving in labour, checking and clerical work. If all local calls were free, the additional quarterly charge necessary on each telephone subscriber to make up for the loss of revenue by not charging for local calls would not be very considerable. The average telephone subscriber would be willing to pay a few shillings more on his quarterly charge and not have a bill every six months for his local calls. The idea might even be extended to trunk calls.
I do not believe that when a subscriber has a telephone installed in his house he uses that telephone foolishly. After the first excitement has worn off, the desire to make telephone calls reaches a kind of stabilised level. I do not think that the number of calls would be vastly increased if the charge for all local calls were abolished. If, with the expansion of the telephone service, there was no charge for trunk calls either, there could be a flat rate quarterly charge on every telephone instrument, which would be sufficient to cover the cost of the telephone service.
§ Mr. Gresham Cooke
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the residential subscriber would be heavily subsidising the business house that has hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of calls a day?
§ Mr. Lipton
That problem could be easily surmounted by having a differential rate, one for residential subscribers and one for business subscribers. That has been the practice in the Post Office for a long time, and there should be no difficulty about it. There should be two flat rates, one for business subscribers and one for residential subscribers, so that there would not be the wretched business of having an account 734 sent in every six months, the accuracy of which is sometimes open to question.
It is, in any case, a source of irritation to the subscriber who is prepared to swear on oath that he has never made all the calls, but is never able to substantiate the allegations because of the technical machinery available to the Post Office, which it says is accurate and which probably is accurate, but I am sure that it sometimes unfairly charges a subscriber with a call which he has not made. It is a proposition which is capable of being arithmetically considered. It would be interesting to know how much more would have to be added to the quarterly rental charge if the extra charge for local calls, and perhaps trunk calls, were abolished.
Without village sub-postmasters the facilities of the Post Office would not be available to a very large section of the community. Many people do not live in towns or places large enough to justify the creation of a Crown post office. Village sub-postmasters have not always received, and do not now receive, the full financial recognition to which they are entitled. Even the Postmaster-General will agree that village sub-postmasters are rendering a very useful social service and helping the Post Office on a very modest rate of remuneration. If and when it becomes possible for the Post Office to pay a little more for this very valuable public service, I hope that it will not hesitate to do so.
The hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) raised an interesting point about telephone directories in rural areas. It is right that the telephone directory for the Reading area covers a vast expanse of territory. As I live in one part of the area, I am not particularly anxious to have the telephone numbers of all the subscribers living in Newbury, in whom I have no especial interest. It should be possible, perhaps with the aid of local chambers of commerce, to issue local directories covering two or three telephone exchanges.
In a place like Bracknell, where there is a new town, it should be possible for the benefit and convenience of subscribers on the Bracknell exchange to produce a small telephone directory which could be paid for by the advertisements of business people and factories in that 735 area. I hope that this suggestion will be examined.
There has been talk of altering and widening the areas in which local calls will be permitted. I hope that we shall hear something about that in the not too distant future. It is very annoying, when one lives within, say, 20 or 30 miles of the London Telecommunications Area, to find that one can telephone one exchange quite a distance away for 3d., but a call to an exchange which may be geographically nearer is subject to the usual toll call charge. I hope that the Postmaster-General will look at the map and consider whether he can do anything to ensure more equality of treatment. If he looks at the Ascot area, for example, and sees what exchanges in the London area can be telephoned for 3d. and what can not, he will find some very curious results.
Everyone realises that the Post Office is doing a job which can be done only by a nationalised undertaking of this kind. It is not necessary to become involved in ideologies on this matter. There are certain things which must be done by some form of nationalised service, although there are other things—on which there are differences of opinion—which can best be done by non-nationalised forms of effort. It is not necessary or desirable, I think, to attempt to score ideological points in discussing the Post Office.
The Post Office, by and large, is doing a wonderful job. Let us remember the postmen who go out in all weathers to deliver our mail and the many thousands of people who are devoting their working lives to ensuring the success of a great and valuable organisation.
§ 1.42 p. m.
Major W. Hicks Beach (Cheltenham)
I apologise to the House for not being able to be present during the whole of the debate. It has proved an extremely useful debate, in my view, particularly because—I do not want to be controversial on a happy Friday afternoon like this—I imagine that it is an accepted fact that the Post Office is the only nationalised industry which is reasonably efficient.
Major Hicks Beach
The price of electricity has continually gone up.
736 It is very useful, therefore, to have a discussion on the Post Office and to examine how it has reached this state of reasonable efficiency. I believe this to be the reason. Since the creation of the Post Office, there has always been a Minister in charge responsible to Parliament.
Major Hicks Beach
There has always been a Minister in charge. I believe that the example given by the reasonable efficiency of the Post Office is one which should be followed in all nationalised industries, and I am very glad to have an opportunity of saying so. Therefore, I hope that, when the report of this debate is read, the observations made will be studied in that light.
I congratulate those who work in the Post Office on the way in which they run their show. In Cheltenham, we have the utmost courtesy from all the officials of the Post Office. They have had, and they have to meet, grave difficulties, as we all appreciate. There are one or two grumbles locally, and one in particular I think I should mention. As hon. Members have said, we want more actual Post Office buildings. There is then the problem of the party line. I appreciate that it has been difficult, since 1945, not to have to force people to take a party line, but it is not something which should be done, particularly for professional people. I have had a number of complaints from my constituents, from professional people, who say that they have to have extremely confidential talks over party lines on matters which certainly should not be public.
I do not suggest that the people sharing the lines have had the time or inclination to listen, but it remains true that lawyers—I happen to be one, as the House knows—doctors and other professional men should be assured that their telephone service is strictly private. Therefore, in working out the priorities, I hope very much that my right hon. Friend will, if possible, give full priority to abolishing the system of party lines Which, I think, is universally regarded as undesirable in the interests of ordinary subscribers generally.
The hon. Member for Feltham (Mr. Hunter), if I may say so, made one 737 extremely good point when he suggested that there should be further investigation into the possibility of increased mechanisation and use of machinery in tine Post Office. As one Who has taken some interest in the use of machinery and mechanisation in business, I believe that there is scope for improvement in the Post Office, and I hope very much that note will be taken of what has been said.
On the whole, I think that the Post Office is extremely efficiently run, and I will conclude by saying this. Because it is an efficient nationalised industry, those concerned must not be complacent. Whether one is in private enterprise or nationalised industry, there is always room for improvement, and I hope very much that, during the next happy—if they be so—four or five years, we shall see great improvements in service to the public. If one is concerned with a nationalised industry, one must not forget that the client is always right. It is the client who deserves really good service in the future as he has had it from the Post Office in the past.
§ 1.46 p.m.
§ Mr. W. R. Williams (Manchester, Openshaw)
I feel almost as though I ought to claim the indulgence of the House in making a maiden speech from the exalted position of the Dispatch Box for the first time—and, very likely, for the last time. I can think of only two reasons why I have been invited to do so. In one way or another, I have been connected with this great public service for a long time. Next week, I think, it will be forty-seven years since I joined the Post Office in a little 'town in North Wales. I am as proud of the Post Office today—perhaps more so—as I was forty-seven years ago. The second reason is that, on this side of the House, there is. I believe, a realisation that I have a strong desire to see what is already a good service made into a still better one. a strong desire that it should still expand its scope and increase its efficiency in the service it gives to the people of our own land and in its contribution to modern world communications.
I apologise to the hon. Lady the Assistant Postmaster-General for the absence of my right hon. Friend the 738 Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards). He has had to leave earlier than he expected in order to fulfil a very important engagement. He means no disrespect to the House, to the hon. Lady or to the right hon. Gentleman the Postmaster-General. Before I leave that point, I should like to say that I thoroughly enjoyed my right hon. Friend's speech this morning, which I thought was excellent, although, of course, being human, I am bound to say that I would not like to share the parenthood of every idea that emerged from the speech of my right hon. Friend or from the speeches of other hon. Members who have taken part in the debate.
I associate myself with my right hon. Friend's good wishes to the right hon. Gentleman the Postmaster-General on being promoted to his high office. So far as I can ascertain, he is the twenty-third Member of the House to occupy that high office since the day I entered the service—a very important date by the way. Looking back, in retrospect, I think a quotation from the Apocrypha is very apt:There be of them, those that have left a name behind, that their praises might be reported. And some there be, which have no memorial, who are perished as though they had never been.My best hope for the right hon. Gentleman is that, at the end of his tenure of office, he will fall naturally into the first category of those whose praises might be reported.
While I am in this benevolent mood, I should like to add my congratulations to the hon. Lady on her promotion. I believe that she has made history, although I have a dim recollection of some other fair lady who jumped into the breach, in a case of an emergency in the Post Office, in the very dark ages—and I do not mean Boadicea. My recollection does not go quite as far back at that. All I can say to the hon. Lady is that she will find the service attractive, not only in its structure, organisation and administration, but in its personnel, and that there are atractive men as well as attractive women in the Post Office, although, perhaps, I should not put any dangerous thoughts into her mind. I wish her well in her post.
739 I should, however, like to remind the hon. Lady that as Assistant Postmaster-General she will be dealing with some very human problems. There are thousands of people working in the Post Office, and I should like her to remember, when some of them fall by the wayside, that she is dealing with individuals. I hope that she will deal with these people not only with efficiency but with compassion and that she will mix justice with mercy. I wish her well in her work.
The Report, I think, is an exceedingly good one. It is a little longer than usual but nothing like the Reports that were issued from 1845 to 1915—the most dull and heavy documents that anyone has ever seen. I think that those of us who have read this document will agree that it is put in good, simple terms, and covers, briefly but adequately, the whole ground of progress in the Post Office and its various services during the period since the previous Report. It has been a period of good, steady progress in many fields, especially in regard to mechanisation and modernisation both of the postal service and the telephone service.
I think that the Post Office has extracted excellent results from the financial resources made available to it. It is not the fault of the Post Office that the resources have not been greater. I share the right hon. Gentleman's wish that the resources might have been greater, and I think that I shall be able to show him, in the course of my speech, in what respects that additional money would have been very useful.
Many of these schemes which involve mechanisation require a good deal of preparatory work and intense testing in actual conditions. I submit to the House that it is very remarkable how the staff, loyally and faithfully, help to perfect these experiments, especially in view of the possibilities of redundancy which accrue in the very services to which they are giving this loyal work.
A former hon. Friend, Mr. C. R. Hobson, who I also regret is no longer in the House, once said in a debate that there was no spirit of Ludditism in these people. I am very glad indeed that there has been co-operation between the administration and the staff. It has 740 taken many years to bring the two sides of this great service into the relationship which exists at present. It may seem strange to some hon. Members that one of the first points in the programme of the Union of Post Office Workers, to which I was at one time attached, was the efficiency of the Post Office services. Hon. Members can see, therefore, that this is something which has developed, because both sides have realised that unless there is close co-operation between them some of the services which the Post Office is trying to render will be inefficient and not in the best interest of the community.
I should like to say a word about the relationship with customers, about which we have had a good deal of publicity in recent months. I have never thought that this relationship was a bad one. In every industry and service there are black sheep, but I have never thought that the relationship between telephone subscribers and the telephonists was a poor one. In fact, I think that it was excellent—one of the best relationships in the whole of the Post Office grades. Nevertheless, I welcome any propaganda or publicity which results in a better understanding between the two sides.
The more the Post Office knows about the requirements of the public, the better it will be for the Post Office and the more likely that it will be able to serve the public in the best possible way. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will try to stress upon the public the converse of that, which is that it is equally important that customers should realise that they are dealing with human beings on the other side of the counter.
I have been on both sides of the counter and I have never been able to take very kindly—perhaps that is my Welsh blood—to the slogan that the customer is always right. It is not a statement of fact to say that the customer is always right. I and many other people have felt a sense of grievance and injustice when people in the Post Office have been punished simply because they could not accept that slogan.
I should like the Post Office to try to bring the two sides together and thus make it easier for the relationship to be good. An example of what I have in mind is a public counter which is 741 officially "closed". A member of the staff should not be behind the counter. He should be balancing his accounts, but because he has not a room in which to do so, he has to do it at the public counter behind the notice which says "closed". Often, a member of the public thinks: "There is a fellow idling his time behind the counter when he should be attending to me", whereas the contrary is the case. We ought to be thinking about some of these things and we should not make it possible for complaints and grievances to arise when there is no necessity for them.
I am one of those who believe that the better the relationship, the more efficient service we shall get. It is forty 3'ears this year since Whitleyism began. There has been a tremendous improvement in the joint examination of common problems in the Post Office at all levels—national, Departmental and office level—since that early start in 1919–20. For ten years, the productivity councils have been in operation in the Post Office, where all sides of the industry have had a common purpose of finding ways and means of increasing the productivity of the service and giving the most beneficial results to the public. I share the views of hon. Members who today have said that other public and private bodies could do well by studying some of the methods which have been in use in the Post Office over many years to see whether they cannot benefit from a study of what has been done.
I say this, however, to the new Postmaster-General, because it is important. This co-operation imposes a peculiar strain of responsibility on some of the trade union leaders who deal with the right hon. Gentleman. In negotiations, after union leaders have seen some of the secret reasons for various things, they have to make concessions here and there. When they go back to the workers, it is not easy to explain the reasons why concessions have been made in one direction and another. They are not fully understood and they are not fully appreciated.
Therefore, I would like the House, and the right hon. Gentleman in particular, to realise that there is a responsibility upon him to do something that these people can take back with them 742 now and again, instead of their always having to say that they have given concessions on this, that and the other and promising the sky in the future. The right hon. Gentleman should make it easy for them to take back some kind of benefits to the workers. Otherwise, the strain of having to act remotely from the people in the offices becomes unbearable for trade union leaders.
I should like the right hon. Gentleman to look at the question of working hours in the Post Office. From a recruiting viewpoint, irregular attendances and working six or, as often happens, seven days a week makes the service rather unattractive. Hon. Members will know that the five-day week is becoming more prevalent and workers generally attach great importance to having a free weekend. These are considerations which the right hon. Gentleman and the Post Office might well keep in mind when the Postmaster-General is dealing with trade union leaders, who do a fine job in the negotiations between his officials and the organised people whom they represent.
I promised my right hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly that I would deal with what he called the practical aspect and he said during his speech that he wanted me to deal with some of the finances. After listening to a number of the speeches today, however, I do not intend to do so. We have not had many expert economists this morning and I do not want to join the happy band who have been contradicting one another as they have spoken.
I note with satisfaction that the postal service is not now "in the red". According to my right hon. Friend, it has never been "in the red", but according to the official documents it has been "in the red" to the tune of about £500,000—for the first time, in my recollection at least. I am glad, however, to note that there is now a surplus of £3 million and this despite an increase in staff for special reasons. Hon Members might remember that every time a slum clearance scheme is put into effect, every time there is housing rehabilitation or whenever masses of population are moved from one place to another, a problem is immediately created for the Post Office on the delivery side. On this occasion, the Post Office has had to increase the number of its postmen by 400 to deal, not 743 with more work as such, but, possibly, with the same amount of work; and it has cost more to do it. When we analyse financial statements of accounts lake this, these things should sometimes be borne in mind.
I am glad to note from the White Paper that the mechanisation schemes are developing smoothly. It has given me great personal pride to think that we are now being regarded as pioneers and leaders. According to the White Paper, we now lead in postal mechanisation and appreciation of our pioneering work has come from such places as the United States of America, Canada, the U.S.S.R. and Germany, all first-class scientific nations. I am very proud, as, no doubt, the Post Office will be, that in postal mechanisation we are leading the field.
When I was in the United States, I had an interesting talk on this matter and after speaking to the "General", as he is called over there, on the question of mechanisation experiments, I, too, have come to the same conclusion. I am very pleased. It strikes me that our engineers and research officers—excellent people—have profited from the fact that the Post Office is an all-embracing service. That is to say, they have been able to experiment on a wide basis and when a scientific suggestion arises concerning, say, telegraphs, their knowledge enables it to be applied to the postal or telephone side. That is a sound argument for maintaining the identity of the Post Office. I believe that the United States Government has now realised this and has set up a branch of its own to try to recover some of the lost ground in this respect.
I was interested in what was said this morning about what will come before the House at a future date. I will not digress except to refer to it. I shall want a detailed statement of what the right hon. Gentleman and the Government propose to do. I am other old-fashioned in my ideas in this regard. I do not agree that the Treasury has always been the big bad wolf in all these things. It certainly has had a bad record in some respects, but I am not sure that it is quite as bad as some people have been trying to make out. Therefore, we want to go rather 744 carefully concerning any changes of a substantial character that may be contemplated.
There is another point on mechanisation. In my opinion, the Postmaster-General should now be stressing the need for the public to enter into the spirit, indeed the romance, of some of these experiments which are taking place, for it is no use our going fully into these mechanisation experiments, getting prototypes, carrying on with pilot schemes, and then introducing schemes, if we find that the public are not sufficiently interested to co-operate with us. My own view is that the public will do this if they are given the reasons.
Quite a lot of people used to jib at having to put county names on letters when we introduced county sortation, but when it was explained that the new method of sorting would accelerate the sorting of letters we had a response. We did very well. The hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty) referred to postal numbers. In the early days we had some difficulties in getting members of the public to insert on their letters postal numbers. Some people in the higher grades, for instance, in Wimbledon, in Surrey, and places like that used to insist that they had to put "Surrey" or "Hertfordshire" as the case may be. Thereby they were pulling their noses to spite their faces, because all that happened was that their letters were outside the normal sortation of letters and they had to put up with some delay.
I hope that the Postmaster-General will give a little publicity to the need for very close co-operation. It is not a very big thing to ask, and when people have done it with half a dozen letters they will have got used to it and there should be no difficulty whatsoever about it.
There is yet another matter relating to mechanisation. I do not know whether hon. Members have seen the growing tendency for public bodies, local authorities and private enterprises to start delivering their own circulars, their invoices, their rate demands and so on. It is all very well for these firms. They may be doing it by cheap labour. It may be economical from their point of view, but if the Post Office is to work on a balanced costing 745 this stuff ought to be going through the Post Office services between the high peak and the low peak periods. While bundles of these invoices, and so on, whatever they may be, are being taken out of Post Office delivery circulation the Post Office may have seriously to consider one of two things, either reducing its staffing and so making the public stand up to the consequential delay, or putting up the prices of letters, parcels and so on.
I think that the right hon. Gentleman may do well to have a word about it with those concerned. I do not know why local authorities and public bodies, nationalised industries and the rest of them, should put a spoke into the wheels of the mechanical development of the Post Office, and so prejudice their own interest and the interest of the country at large. We cannot go on with mechanisation unless we have the full support of all sections of the community.
I notice from page 6 of the Annual Report thatThe Post Office keeps in close touch with British Railways on their modernisation plans so far as they may affect the mails.I hope it does. I am not too sure how close the relationship is. I hope it is effective. My own view is that it can be more effective than it is at present.
The House and the country must remember that the speedy and safe transmission of mails is the joint responsibility of British Railways and the Post Office. It could not be done without the one or the other. If one of the parties fails then delay—and sometimes chaos—ensues.
The point has been put to me from a number of sources about the reorganisation which is going on now on the railways, especially the substitution for steam trains of diesel trains on many branch lines and indeed on some secondary main lines. It is said that the diesel trains have not the load capacity of the old vans. The right hon. Gentleman remembers the steam train vans? The result has been dislocation of Post Office mails. I should like the right hon. Gentleman to have a look at that point, because we want to try to get down to these matters at their very early stages.
746 Not only does speedy transmission depend upon the railways and the Post Office, but so does the security of the mail, too, and I am not too happy at all about this question of the security of the mail. I am sorry to have to say it in this House, but all hon. Members who travel about now cannot be very satisfied to see the number of Post Office bags which are crowding the platforms at our railway termini at present with nobody in view ostensibly to ensure their security. I do not like this air of casualness which exists. I am not trying to apportion blame in any way at all, but stating a fact. I think that the reputation of British Railways and the Post Office demands that between the railways and the Post Office we should try to get complete security.
I am not too happy about the parcels post service either. Here again the railways are coming into the picture. In my young days in the Post Office we did not have to wait for trains late in the day. If we had a certain number of parcels they went into what we called combined mails, and the railways used to take them on by the first available train. Therefore, we had almost as good a parcels service in those days as we had a letter service. I do not think anybody can pretend that the parcels service is as good today as it was many years ago, and I do not see any reason why it should not be.
Therefore, I should be very glad if the right hon. Gentleman would look first of all into our own buildings. I do not think London, for instance, has the right buildings of sufficient capacity to deal with the parcels post in many of the areas. I should like him to try, in consultation with the railways, to see what can be done about this.
There is a major reorganisation going on at a Manchester station. I wonder how much the regional director in Manchester knows about it. In my opinion, he ought to be in on the ground floor in consultation, because in the re-creation of that station there ought to be the first-class facilities which are required for bringing mails in and out, including what conveyors are necessary to take them away from public view and to expedite their treatment in the office which is dealing with them.
747 I had been invited by the Director-General to go to see the scheme in Norwich. The Prime Minister intervened, by having the General Election, and I have not had that pleasure, but I sincerely hope that before very long I shall have that invitation again because I am very interested. Against some very good, faithful members of the Post Office I fought for years in favour of the Post Office mechanising to its utmost capacity. I used to argue, "You cannot hold back scientific development and achievement. You have to conform with it and make the best use you can of it." That is how we ought to be approaching mechanisation on the postal side.
I am sorry if I have delayed the House longer than I expected, but this is a pet subject of mine and perhaps I shall be forgiven if I carry on for a little longer.
It is a matter of great personal regret to me, as an old telephonist in Liverpool, to know of the persistent decline in inland telegrams. We have been fighting this decline for the best part of twenty-five to thirty years. It was quite obvious to many of us that, with the expansion of the telephone service and its increasing automation and consequent greater efficiency, the old telegram service would go downhill. I remember the old telegraphists coming to the offices in frock coats and tall hats. They were the doyens of the service, but today they do not count. It is a matter of great regret to me that the old service in which I had so much pleasure in working for so many years is gradually going down hill.
In my humble opinion, however, the country cannot afford to do without a telegraph service. It cannot afford it, first, from the point of view of the ordinary person who has no telephone. And even with the expansion and development proposed in the White Paper, generous as that may seem, it will be many years before we can say that the bulk of ordinary people will have had telephones installed in their houses. Therefore, on that consideration alone, I claim that it is impossible to do away with the telegram service, but there is the further consideration of the country's defence. We cannot afford to so weaken the telegraph service 748 that in a period of emergency it would be unsafe to rely on it. In two world wars the Army thought that it could do without the Post Office telegraph service and in both wars it found that it could not.
It is most vital that the service should be maintained, even though money is lost on it. In a service of the size of the Post Office, it is almost impossible, when there are contradictory things like telephones and telegrams, to make every little section pay. Overall, the sections should pay, although I am one of those who believe that the country is entitled to a good Post Office service and a good telecommunications service even though they do not pay. The country is entitled to the best that can be obtained.
I had intended to deal with the telephone service. My right hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly, with his usual generosity, told me that I was to deal with that aspect, but I do not think that I can improve on what he said. He has covered the ground fairly well except, perhaps, for one or two points which I should like to mention. Are we not rather lagging behind comparable countries, and even countries like the Scandinavian countries, in capital investment as represented by the number of people who are provided with telephones? It seems to me rather odd. We are always saying that this country is the hub of industry. It is highly developed industrially, yet in the provision of telephones we seem to be well down the league table. I believe that the only reason is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is imposing his will illegitimately, or perhaps the right word is unfairly, on the development and expansion of the telephone service.
I cannot see that we are making all that much advance. There is a suggestion in the White Paper that investment will be running at a rather higher level over the period up to the middle of 1952. The rate of expansion of the telephone service in the last two years has been rather slower than was desirable and, as far as I can see, slower than in any other comparable country. If my arithmetic is correct, from 31st March, 1959, just over 7½ million telephones were in service in the United Kingdom. The number had grown in the preceding year by only 206,000. In 749 other words, the growth over the two years had been at an annual rate of 2.3 per cent.
It would be unfair to ask the Assistant Postmaster-General to reply to that point when she speaks today, but she might be good enough to let me know later how that compares with the growth in the corresponding period in other countries, including Scandinavia, which I would not place among the leading industrial countries.
The Telecom Engineering and Manufacturing Association in its Annual Report for 1959 states:In comparison with the rest of the world for growth in the telephone system we in Great Britain suffered a severe setback, our rate of growth being less than that of any other sizeable country.I trust that this matter will be seen to, first for the general reason that we want our people to become telephonically-minded and everyone to have a telephone as soon as possible.
The second reason is the interest of the people who work in the service, the Post Office engineers. I have no official connection with them and I can speak quite freely, but there are problems in the Post Office Engineering Union because, as a result of the restriction of investment, the union was not recruiting for a long period and even now is only inadequately recruiting. Some people are doing work for which they have not been trained. I do not know Whether they are getting the appropriate money. Many have been forced to leave their homes to undertake work a long distance away. That can be done for a short period but if it continues for many years it becomes a burden not only on the worker but also on his family.
I am sorry to see in the Annual Report that a great deal of difficulty is being experienced in obtaining graduate entrants into the Post Office service. That seems to me a fatal omission. Surely, the one thing that stands out a mile in this new age is that we must have the skilled technicians and the people with the know-how. It is of little use having mechanisation and the development of electronics when there are not the people to look after and maintain these new developments. My information is that if we are not careful we shall find ourselves in that situation.
750 I am grateful to hon. Members who have referred to Post Office building. There seems to be a backlog represented by between £60 million and £70 million expenditure on buildings. That is the cost of putting things right, including the provision of the new offices and exchanges that are required. It seems to me that at our present rate of progress it would take between ten and fifteen years to try to come into line with building requirements.
In an age which attaches so much importance to hygienic, smart, well-designed and spacious buildings, which we see going up one after the other all round us in London and in the large conurbations, is it fair that people in the Post Office should have been working in old buildings since long before the war and in some cases before the First World War? Is it fair to ask them to carry on, just because the Exchequer is too mean to give the Postmaster-General the money that is required? In my view, the amount in this financial statement should be doubled. The Joint Committee to which the Postmaster-General referred is doing good liaison work between the Post Office and Ministry of Works, but it cannot get results without any cash. If it does not get the resources it will not pull up any trees and in my opinion it is high time the trees were pulled up.
I am not opposed to the new types of buildings. I do not want buildings to last for one thousand years. Indeed, that is one of the mistakes made in the conurbation I have the privilege of representing. It will suit me if the buildings last as long as I live, which will probably be another forty or fifty years. The Post Office has had to use for its work buildings which have become completely unsuitable owing to the passing of time. I hope that the new ones will be hygienic and will be built for Post Office purposes, not for the purposes of Income Tax or the work of other Government Departments. I hope, too, that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to get on with the job with much greater rapidity than has been the case previously.
I have one suggestion to make which will shock the Postmaster-General. When will he consider the question of the staff having Christmas day, or part of it, off? If there is one grievance in the Post Office 751 it is that the staff cannot have their Christmas dinners with their families. My hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, West (Mr. Randall), unfortunately, has an important engagement elsewhere today, like many other hon. Members. I regret that he is not here, otherwise I am sure he would have contributed to the debate. My hon. Friend told me the other day that one of his constituents said that he and his "old girl"—those were the words and I do not know what they meant—did not have a quarrel throughout the year until they came to Christmas day. On that day, however, he came home late—I hope legitimately. Anyway he was supposed to be on scheduled work in the Post Office, and he added "Then the row starts".
These days there is a tendency for most people to try to get as much relaxation as they can during the festive season. I know that everybody in the Post Office cannot be off, but as much effort as possible should be made to ensure that they get home for their Christmas dinner. I hope that the Postmaster-General and the hon. Lady will consider this point.
I have been critical of the Post Office on some points and I believe that my substantial criticisms are worth looking at from the point of view of efficiency. Having criticised the Post Office in that small way, I repeat that I am as proud of it today as I was when I entered it in 1912.
§ 2.35 p.m.
§ The Assistant Postmaster-General (Miss Mervyn Pike)
Like the hon. Gentleman the Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. W. R. Williams), who is new to the Opposition Dispatch Box, I am a newcomer to this Box I only hope that I can acquit myself as well as he did in his admirable speech. The hon. Gentleman has an advantage over me in that he has had many years of service in the Post Office and I am a newcomer to it. Again, he has given many years of service to this House, to Which I am also a comparative newcomer.
We have had an exitremely useful, instructive, constructive and lively debate on the Post Office today. I am only just beginning to appreciate the great scope of its work. In fact, I am 752 realising that the name "Post Office" is almost a misnomer, because the postal side is now about half of the work done there. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards) said that the Post Office has been in existence for 100 years. It has, in fact, been in existence for 300 years. It was the 1d. post which was introduced about 100 years ago.
Many useful points have been raised in the debate and I hope that I shall be able to cover all of them. As a newcomer, perhaps it will be useful if I try to give the House an idea of my views on the relationship between the Post Office and the customer and between the Post Office and its staff. As a great national undertaking, our prime responsibility must always be to serve and to please the public. We must serve the economic interests of the nation by ensuring that we are financially healthy, commercially efficient and in the forefront of technical advance and expansion. At the same time, the type of service we provide should make a positive contribution to the expansion of the commercial and business life of the country.
Our ideal is to furnish a service of high quality and widening scope at low cost, and the Post Office is now at a stage when technical developments, particularly on the telephone side, are opening up all sorts of possibilities for improving the ease and speed with which communications can be established. If full advantage is to be taken of those technical developments, certain demands have to be made on the customer. They may take the form of asking him to dial his own long-distance calls or to add an alphabetical code to his letters. We want to know whether he is prepared to do this.
I have found that in the Post Office a great deal of attention is being devoted to finding out what the customer wants, and whether he is prepared to cooperate with us in all these great advances. We believe that the desire to please the customer should guide all our developments and influence all our contacts between the Post Office staff and the public.
My right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General has outlined our commercial and financial progress and our technical 753 developments, so I will not weary the House by giving again a catalogue of the things we have achieved, and hope to achieve in the years that lie ahead. Yet these things are the fundamentals of our ability to provide an expanding and an efficient service and so, within that framework, I will describe one or two aspects of the way in which the Post Office can fulfil its obligation to provide, as far as possible, facilities which will ease the progress of both our economic and social life. Rising living standards and changing social habits, widening export markets and the growing complexity of industrial expansion, all bring greater demands for increased facilities for basic services. We, for our part, are endeavouring to meet these conditions by our emphasis on personal service within the expanding framework of mechanisation.
The hon. Member for Openshaw said a lot about the Post Office and the postal services. We recognise that nowhere is personal service more important than at the post office counter. I think it is true to say that possibly the greatest feeling of dissatisfaction on the part of the general public can come from their having Co queue in the post office and having the sort of service which they do not consider to be adequate, from not having enough sub-post offices—all the sort of things where the post office comes into personal contact all the time with the public across the counter. We are very conscious of this problem, and we have taken what steps we can to ensure that we are facing up to the realities of the problem itself.
A joint committee to study service at Crown office counters was set up in May of this year. The committee has been authorised to employ industrial consultants to make investigations of customer and staff attitudes and at the same time to study the various ways in which business can be grouped at the counter to facilitate the convenience of the customer, and, of course, to facilitate the efficiency of the clerk behind the counter. The committee is also studying other questions which have some bearing, such as the standard of service at the counter, and questions relating to the recruitment and training of staff, the environment in which the staff work, and 754 the detailed procedures which are required.
I do not know whether hon. Members realise how many different procedures a counter clerk has to learn and provide at the counter in the course of his duties. All these things are being studied. The firm conclusions are not before us yet. We have got some reports coming in, and we trust that the reports will be in by the end of the year, and we hope to be able to go forward with our policies in the light of the investigations which have been going on in this field.
We have, in the meantime, also been doing what we can to see how far we can go to meet this particular problem. For example, in Remnant Street, in Kingsway, we have set up a model post office which is decorated and designed to see how we can give the best sort of service to the customer, at the same time giving the best sort of facilities to our clerks as well. We have got in that post office self-service machines—which hon. Members have mentioned—selling stamped letter cards, stamped envelopes, stamps, postal orders and things of that sort. We have also got at the counter machines to facilitate the work of the counter clerks. We are using this model post office as an experiment not only to see how we can group the work, but also to see what effect the actual environment and the brightening-up of the post office has on customer relations.
As a customer, I am inclined to agree that we very often demand too much from the people behind the counter. It may well be lunch time, and we may have got an hour for our lunch, and we want service as quickly as we can possibly get it. We go to the post office and are impatient, wanting service quickly. We do not believe that the counter clerk is dealing with us quickly enough. We are inclined to feel indignant that the post office staff have gone to lunch. The fact that we are having our lunch hour does not enter into our calculations. I would point out that people in the post office in the London area start lunch at 11.30 and that it continues until 230. to give a spread-over on the counters.
As customers, we go into the post offices inclined to be impatient, and I believe that very often the drab interior 755 of the post office itself and the rather inefficient look of the whole place have some sort of effect upon us. We believe that brightening up the post office will have a psychological effect both on the staff and on the customer. I am sure that it is in that way, and by trying to bring about a psychological change, that we can get the best results in our customer relations in the Post Office as a whole.
Equally, as hon. Members have said, we want to have as much consultation as possible with the general public, because we are here to serve the public. We are here to give the public the best service possible within the limits of the service itself. We have got advisory councils up and down the country. Hon. Members must excuse me if I am not too certain about the figures, because I have been in my present post only two or three weeks, but I believe that at the moment we have 189 advisory councils in operation. We are hoping to have more of them.
We want head postmasters and telephone managers to persuade business people in their localities to set up these post office advisory councils. They are a very useful and active channel of communication from the point of view of enabling us to get Post Office policy down to the general public and of bringing about the sort of co-operation to which the hon. Gentleman referred so that people may see that by co-operating with the post office they can themselves get better service. Also, we want to get the views of the general public so that we ourselves can go forward with those policies which will have the best effect on the efficiency of the service as a whole.
We are also trying other experiments. We are trying to see Whether the experiment of a drive-in post office will be any good. In my part of the country, at Leicester, we have drive-in banks, as the hon. Member for Leicester, Northwest (Mr. Janner) knows, and we are proposing to start an experiment in Leicester to see whether a drive-in post office will be of any use to us at all. It is an experiment, but we want to make certain that in planning and designing our new post office buildings we are looking to the future and getting the sort of amenities which will not only 756 make us more efficient, but enable us to give the sort of personal service to the public which we believe is more than ever essential in an age which is becoming mechanical in almost every aspect of our industrial and commercial life.
Those are some of the ways which we are trying to meet the requirements of the public and to meet some of the criticisms and suggestions which have been put forward by hon. Members today.
I think that what hon. Members will want—not only hon. Members, but the community as a whole—is not only just to be able to go into the post office and buy stamps and postal orders and get licences as quickly and as easily as possible. We also want to make certain that we can have our letters delivered through our letter boxes as quickly and efficiently as possible. We have in this country, I believe, the finest postal service in the world. That does not mean to say that we are complacent. It means that we have all the time to be seeing how we can go on bringing greater efficiency to the service.
The greatest financial drain on the service, of course, is the cost of the manpower employed in the service itself. My right hon. Friend has talked about the mechanisation of sorting in the post office. Although it is difficult to mechanise sorting we are going ahead. We are leading with all our different machines for the mechanical sorting of parcels and letters. We are putting these machines in, as hon. Gentlemen have seen or have heard.
While it is difficult to mechanise sorting, it is almost impossible to mechanise delivery, except in so far as one can have motor vehicles, electric trucks and other things which can cut down walking. The hon. Member for Openshaw, who knows so much about these things, has spoken about the new housing estates and the new addresses. There were 250,000 new addresses last year which led to our employing 400 extra postmen. We have at present 110,000 postmen delivering 27 million items of mail every day. They are having, as we know, to walk up garden paths, paths which always seem to get longer.
We do not want, if we can help it, to cut down on that service, but hon. Members must realise that, although we made 757 a profit of £3 million in the postal service last year, it was on a turnover of £200 million, and that it is a very narrow margin in conditions of this sort. We have tried to bring about some economies by cutting down deliveries, particularly on Bank holidays and at holiday times. We do not like having to curtail our services, but we believe that we have to try as far as possible to keep within our present limits. We are making ourselves far more efficient than we ever were.
As proof of that, I can give some figures which, I think, as an amateur in the Post Office, show how much more efficient we are becoming in the sorting and delivery of our mail. Taking the three-week period of Christmas and New Year, last year deliveries were 864 million items, which was 46 per cent. higher than in the same period of the previous year. Although we were dealing with an increased delivery, that was done with an increase of staff-hours to handle them—the hon. Member for Openshaw will appreciate what that means more than I do—of only 1.3 per cent. To some extent, that justifies our claim that we are not only the foremost postal service in the world, but that we are all the time proving our ability to become more and more efficient and, as far as possible, to give the best sort of service to the public as a whole.
Not only do we want our letters delivered, not only do we want our post offices to be places where we can happily collect our mail, but we have also to ensure that we have our post offices in the right places. The hon. Member for Leicester, North-West will forgive me if I do not again go fully into the details of the reasons why we cannot find it possible to accede to his request to put another post office on the Mowmacre Hill Estate. What has been said in the debate today only serves to illustrate our great difficulties in this respect. Almost every hon. Member who has spoken has said that what we need, first and foremost, is more capital expenditure on our telephone services. Each hon. Member has then gone on to give us convincing arguments—and they are convincing arguments—as to why we should go on giving more of our capital resources to that side.
§ Mr. Janner
Is that as far as the hon. Lady is going with the problem of the sub-post office which I raised? Will she not say something about sending someone from another sub-post office to do the job?
§ Miss Pike
The hon. Member has stopped me half way through my argument. If he listens to the end, he may well see what my views are. I was saying that hon. Members have said that we must have more expenditure on our telephones. I was about to say that each hon. Member had ended his speech by saying that we must also have more expenditure on our post office buildings.
Our great difficulty within our ceiling—and every Department, every business and every individual in the country has to keep within a certain ceiling of expenditure and have certain priorities—is that we have to marshal our priorities to see how much money we have to spend on one section of the service or another.
§ Mr. W. R. Williams
But in fairness to all hon. Members, the hon. Lady should say that we all asked her to go back to the Treasury to get the ceiling raised to make all this expenditure possible.
§ Miss Pike
I am very glad that the hon. Member has said that. In opening the debate, my right hon. Friend said that he was not satisfied, that no Postmaster-General ever had been satisfied and that no good Postmaster-General every would be satisfied, with the amount of money which could be got from the Treasury. We are glad that hon. Members on both sides of the House are supporting us in our desire to get as much money as possible for the Post Office.
If I may continue to deploy my argument about the expenditure of our money, one of the great overall difficulties is getting the priorities in the right order. I believe that in giving the lion's share to telephone development we are doing the right thing. There are tremendous developments with telephones and we all want to see more people with telephones and using the telephone more often. We want to go ahead with electronic developments, about which hon. Members have spoken. But those things are very costly, and even housing 759 developments are making our job more costly, because with new housing estates we have to lay new cables and so on. Nevertheless, I believe that we are right to give the lion's share to the telephone side of the Post Office.
At the same time, we are spending a great deal of our money on post offices. Hon. Members have also said that we must make certain that post office workers have the right sort of conditions, that our post offices are good post offices. I have spoken about the model post office which we have set up in Remnant Street, in Kingsway, My right hon. Friend mentioned the schemes which have been got out by leading designers to brighten our post offices and make them better places.
Those are all expensive things to do. If we have too many post offices scattered too thinly over the country as a whole, we will undermine our ability to give the right sort of facilities, first, to our post office workers in the Crown post offices, and also to our customers at large. Our present standard—and it is not a standard to which we rigidly adhere—with the 23,000 sub-post offices that we have already is that we do not put a new sub-post office within a mile of another. That is for the very good reason that if we increase the number of sub-post offices, we increase overhead charges and also decrease the incomes of the sub-postmasters in question. We need the best sort of sub-postmasters and we shall not get them if we go on whittling away the sort of income which they can expect.
We have a very big problem on our hands with new housing developments, with the building which is going on all around us. On most of the new housing estates there are bungalows for old people. Now, thank goodness, they are not put in one block on the housing estate, but are scattered within the community, so that the old people feel, not that they are segregated, but that they are part of the community. In addition to the natural desire of everybody to have a post office near his own block of shops, we have constant pressure for people to be able to pick up their pensions without having to make too long a walk. As a woman, I am extremely 760 sympathetic towards those arguments. As a woman, I would like to see us giving way to those arguments as far as possible.
However, as the right hon. Member for Caerphilly said, in effect, when he hoped that I would use my head as well as my heart, in looking at this problem one has to look at the national picture to see what one is trying to do with Post Office building as a whole. I believe that our present policy is the right sort of policy—to have a standard, but to look at each case in the light of the particular situation and the particular arguments in that case. However, we have always to look carefully at the whole national picture.
If I cannot give way to the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West, who is asking for a post office on the boundary of my own constituency, where my whole instinct is to give way, equally, if I cannot give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty), who has difficult problems as well, it is not because we do not want to use our hearts, but because we believe that we have a great responsibility to use our heads in this section of our responsibility.
Not only do we want good post offices, but, as everybody has said, we want a good telephone service. Not only do we want a telephone connected to an efficient exchange so that we can get through quickly, but the sort of facilities that will suit our individual needs, whether we are at home or at work. Because of the great advances in mechanisation and in our standard of living we expect a higher degree of service from all the apparatus around us than ever before. We are determined that we will get telephones to people as quickly as possible. We are going ahead with that fairly rapidly. Over 1,000 new telephones are being connected every day, which means 400,000 new telephones a year.
The number of telephone subscribers is going up all the time. It is not true to say that if we put in more telephones we necessarily get more telephone calls. One of our difficulties is that some of the people who have telephones use them only two or three times a week, and possibly only two or three times a month. Many hon. Members have said that if 761 more telephones were installed the cables would be used to better advantage. I do not pretend to understand much about the workings of the telephone, but one thing that I have learned is that each telephone has two wires going back to the exchange. Therefore, the way that I look at it, we need more cables if we have more telephones.
We want to make certain that as many people as possible get telephones. Also, as my right hon. Friend said, we want to cut down waiting time. We shall never be satisfied until we have satisfied our customers in this respect. We want to make certain that more people use their telephones. As my right hon. Friend said, we shall go on looking at ways of encouraging telephone traffic by looking at the different ways of charging and all the rest of it.
At the same time, within that particular need we must also make certain that we have a personal service within our telephone service as a whole. The telephone service is becoming more and more mechanised. We now have subscriber trunk dialling which, by 1970, will be common throughout the country. I do not know how many hon. Members here are efficient at dialling, but I sometimes find it very diffcult to get my own code right. Subscriber trunk dialling will be a wonderful advance in our telephone system. But it will mean that the customer has more work to do. Many people will be in difficulties. It is because many of these people will be in difficulties that we are putting such tremendous emphasis on what we call the "friendly telephone service".
When a person is in difficulty he will be able to contact the operator, and it is at this point that the operator must be as co-operative, kind and sympathetic as possible. The person dialling is already fussed, because he cannot dial. He must not be more fussed because he cannot get any response from the telephone operator. We are, there for, making certain that side by side with our great mechanisation we shall give the sort of service that will make this mechanisation a boon to every person using the service. In our homes we not only want a telephone, but also perhaps a hearing-aid telephone for those who are hard of hearing. These things are not "gimmicks". These are the realities of 762 making mechanisation a real boon to every man and woman.
We also want facilities while we are at work which will mean that our telephone and postal services are aids to efficiency. That is why, in addition to trying to press ahead with technical developments of one sort and another, we are bringing in such things as the car telephone and the telephone answering machine, which is such a boon to doctors and people in professions such as that. Also, there is the loudspeaker telephone, which means that one does not have to use one's hands but can continue a conference round the table.
We are pressing ahead with things like an advisory service, which will advise small firms and businesses how best they can solve their telephone problems. In my factory we had a few extensions to a switchboard at which a person sat all the time to connect our calls. I now find that I could have had an automatic exchange which would have done away with the need for that service.
These are things within the telephone service that we have to make certain that we provide for the public as a whole so that we discharge our responsibility of giving not only the best mechanical service, but also, within that mechanical service, the best possible facilities for men and women whether they be at home or at work.
The hon. Member for Feltham (Mr. Hunter), with whom I sympathise for having such a heavy cold—luckily, I have got rid of mine—said, during the course of a very attractive speech, that the Post Office Savings Bank was probably one of the aspects of the Post Office that we should look at again. We must look at the fact that interest rates are going down. Banking and savings habits are changing, as well as other habits of society. There is a greater use of cheques and of Post Office savings accounts as current accounts. These are aspects of personal service at which we must look in the future.
Hon. Members mentioned the question of the status of the Post Office. I am sure that they will realise that I cannot say anything about that, but what has pleased us in listening to the debate is the great interest that everybody has taken in the recommendations which will be coming out very shortly. We want 763 to go on improving the status of the Post Office, and of its workers, and I am sure that we shall do so.
I have not touched on the rather difficult and contradictory financial questions which have been brought up, but the one thing in that respect which is comforting to me is the fact that under the new conditions our finances will be easier to understand, and I think that in future debates we shall not have the difficulties which we have experienced in trying to decide questions relating to our depreciation allowances and trading accounts and profit and loss accounts.
We have every intention of giving the best possible service to the customer. I have tried to show that our attitude to the public is to seek to serve it and give it every facility it desires. But we also have a special duty as a large employer of highly skilled labour.
The hon. Member for Openshaw mentioned the difficulty about graduates coming into the service. In this connection, it has been decided to set up an engineering student apprenticeship scheme, which will be launched next year. It will be open to boys between the ages of 17 and 20 and to serving Post Office staff who satisfy the educational qualifications. The first year of the four-and-a-half year course will be spent training in the Post Office, after which there will be three years at a university or college of advanced technology, on the sandwich principle. The final six months will be spent again in the Posit Office, before the student enters the executive engineer grade through the Civil Service Commission open competition. Student apprentices will be paid a salary, and all college examination fees will be met by the Post Office, as well as half of the cost of the necessary textbooks. I hope that that will help us to recruit the sort of people we need.
The question of our relations with our staff brings me to the part of my work which I am sure I shall find most satisfying and satisfactory. The hon. Member for Openshaw said that not only was the Post Office an attractive department by reason of its ramifications, but also from the point of view of its personnel, and I am glad that in the Post Office we have the happiest relations and the best forms of consultation which can 764 be built up. I think that we can claim not only to be leading in postal services, but also in our attitude to the difficult matter of bringing together a large number of people, all doing different jobs, and building up a spirit of service, which, in the Post Office, is self-evident. Wherever one goes in the Post Office one finds that pride in service which enables us to go forward as a very efficient and far-seeing commercial enterprise.
Mechanisation brings me to the human problems of staff redundancies and the changing of jobs. The conversion of a telephone exchange from manual to automatic working may mean a change in the place of work for many telephone operators. In the Post Office this and similar problems are being squarely and fairly faced by management and trade unions working together. This is the only way in which we can solve problems of this sort. In the future we shall have to face many problems concerned with enterprises throughout the country and I believe that we are setting an example of good and happy relations with our staffs in this way.
I hope that I have covered the main points which have been raised in the debate. I have tried to demonstrate that the Post Office is conscious of the fact that it still has many problems to tackle. We do not claim to be perfect, but we hope that we are a lively organisation, facing our problems and endeavouring to go forward, while expanding our services in the best interests of the nation. The capital sums that we are seeking authority to obtain will enable us to carry forward our policy of expansion and service.
I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed to a Committee of the whole House.
§ Committee upon Monday next.