§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Fitch.]
§ 2.5 p.m.
§ Mr. Robert Howarth (Bolton, East)
I had initially thought that I ought to apologise for bringing what is obviously a very parochial matter on to the Floor of the House, but this is a case which, while it only concerns a small company in my constituency, ought to receive some publicity, because I am most dissatisfied with the reaction of the Post Office telephone authorities to the very reasonable and established complaints that have been made by my constituents over a long period of time. Briefly, it concerns the lack of service by the failure to list correctly in the alphabetical and classified directories the correct numbers of a small company.
What happened was that late in 1964 the small company, Woods (Pianos and Organs) Limited, changed premises within my constituency and, because it wanted two lines, had to take a new telephone number. It was given a number by the telephone service but unfortunately this was incorrect. By the time the firm was informed about this it had printed new stationery, with the new address and new telephone number. My constituents claim that this cost them over £100.
Unfortunately, that is not the end or the story but only the beginning. I am talking about the latter part of 1964. Both directories, alphabetical and classified, for use in 1965, were in course of preparation, if not already printed, late in 1964. What happened was that the old telephone number was given in the alphabetical directory, which came into use throughout 1965. This I think is understandable in view of the date of the move of the company. Also it meant that the classified directory number was the old one.
The errors in the directories were brought to the attention of the Post 1169 Office authorities by my constituents, and I have copies of correspondence going back several years. One would have assumed that every effort would have been made to ensure that, at least in the directories prepared at the end of 1965, for use during 1966, the correct entries would he shown. I am sorry to have to inform the House that in both the alphabetical directory and the classified directory, once again the correct numbers were not shown. There was a wrong number in the alphabetical directory, and my constituents claim that the number was omitted altogether from the classified directory.
That was another year gone. We now come to the directory prepared at the end of 1966, now in current use. I am pleased to say that, finally, the alphabetical directory was put right—two years later. The classified directory, and this is quite remarkable, is still wrong, in 1967. The current year's classified directory still does not show my constituent's correct telephone number.
As people running an expanding business, and as the sole agents for a particular type of organ, my constituents claim that they must have lost—and this is very difficult to ascertain—a great deal of business. Although the Post Office claims that it had informed other exchanges of the errors, so that if people inquired about the firm they would be given the right number, my constituents claim that on many occasions potential customers have complained about the great difficulty that they had in trying to make contact with the firm.
Early this year, in desperation, realising that even the classified directory for the current year was not correct, they came to see me. I began a correspondence with my right hon. Friend which culminated in an offer of £20 compensation being made as a result of the errors admitted by the Post Office. I do not think that basically these mistakes are in dispute. From conversations I have had with my constituents, I think that this offer is derisory.
The purpose of the debate is to draw attention to what I believe has been quite unforgivable incompetence by the Post Office telephone service, which, after all, is a monopoly. If we are dissatisfied with the telephone service, we cannot take our business elsewhere; we have no 1170 choice. Therefore, it is incumbent on a monopoly supplier to make the strongest efforts to ensure that people do not experience this type of service.
I appeal to my right hon. Friend to reconsider the offer of compensation and to instruct the telephone service to enter into serious negotiations with the company to see whether they can arrive at an agreed figure for compensation for the loss of business which the firm claims it has suffered. It could well be that the matter would be better settled by referring it to an independent arbitrator who could suggest a figure acceptable to both parties. In any case, I hope that my right hon. Friend will be more accommodating than has been the case up to now.
§ 2.8 p.m.
§ The Postmaster-General (Mr. Edward Short)
I should like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, East (Mr. Robert Howarth) for the extremely reasonable manner in which he has presented his case today and the way in which he has pursued this matter throughout. I make no attempt to conceal from the House that we are concerned here with a rather unfortunate story of human errors. I have rarely seen such a chain of human errors. But the House should be fully aware, not only of the mistakes, but of the circumstances in which they were made and the efforts made by my Department to limit their consequences. That is necessary to get the matter into perspective.
In November, 1964, Messrs. Woods informed the local telephone manager that they were moving to new premises, and they made a request for two telephone lines with consecutive numbers. This request was the beginning of the whole sorry story. Since the number consecutive with their existing number was not available, the Post Office decided to allocate two different numbers in order to oblige the firm. Unfortunately, before Messrs. Woods were notified, a figure "7" in this pair was misread by somebody in the chain of events as a "2" and Messrs. Woods were mistakenly allocated a pair of numbers which already belonged to somebody else.
When this duplication was discovered, Messrs. Woods were allocated a third pair of numbers, the original pair which they should have had being overlooked.
1171 But Messrs. Woods then complained that about 300 of their calendars had been printed bearing the second number. At this stage, my staff, because of the mistakes, gave Messrs. Woods the first pair of numbers which they should have had in the first place. Up to this time, January, 1965, Messrs. Woods had not actually moved, and the mistakes affected them only through the advance publicity which they gave to the wrong telephone numbers on calendars and in other literature. Therefore, in order to help them, we supplied them with an adequate supply of cards to tell all their customers the correct number; and we gave them labels for their stationery. We thought that this would greatly reduce their difficulties.
But then, unfortunately—it is almost unbelievable—there was another series of misunderstandings by Post Office staff which caused incorrect numbers—the second pair—to be printed in the next edition of the alphabetical directory. When this happened we told all directory inquiry centres of their correct number so that anybody anywhere in the country who had been unable to get through to them could obtain the right number from his local directory inquiry centre without delay. This shows the steps which we took to help the firm when these errors were discovered. The entry in the latest issue of the directory issued in January this year is, I am glad to say, correct.
Meanwhile, further difficulties arose by the omission of Messrs. Woods' entry from the December, 1965, and December, 1966, classified telephone directories for their area. Although as Minister I naturally take full responsibility for these directories as publisher, the House will recall that their compilation is entrusted to contractors. J. Weiner Ltd. was the contractor for the 1965 directory, and Thomson Directories Ltd. for the 1966 directory. As Weiner is no longer our contractor, I have not been able to find out why the entry did not appear in the 1965 directory. The transfer of records from Weiner to Thomson was a very complex operation, and, although I have made the fullest inquiries, I do not know why Messrs. Woods' entry was omitted from the 1966 directory. The next issue of the directory will be a new combined one and I have made sure that the entry in the classified part will be correct.
1172 It has been asked, rightly, whether there is any reasonable excuse for this series of mistakes made by the telephone service stretching back over two years. The answer must be, none. I do not seek to excuse it or to shirk my Ministerial responsibility for it. But we must remember that, even in the best conducted business, human errors will occur; and the handling of telephone numbers in the mass is not as easy as it sounds. This makes it doubly necessary to do all we can to avoid clerical errors in the first place.
Why, then, in the light of the difficulties which can flow from a directory error, does the Post Office not take specially comprehensive steps to check all the work so closely that there is no possibility whatever of a mistake being made? The answer, plainly, is that we must, like any other business, weigh the extent to which we fall short of perfection against the cost of achieving perfection. To be 100 per cent. effective we should have to perform all our clerical operations at least twice over. Therein lies the real difficulties. Not only would this be very expensive, but it would hinder the efforts we are constantly making, with a great deal of success, to speed up the installation of telephones.
In so large an organisation as the Post Office, one objective frequently conflicts with another in this way, leaving us to achieve what seems to be the best managerial balance, taking all things into consideration. But I agree that there is a difficulty here, and we are certainly not complacent. We will have another look at the matter to see what we can do to get the balance right.
I come now to the question of compensation, which has rightly loomed large in Messrs. Wood's complaints. I should like to make one thing clear to the House, to my hon. Friend and to the country. Their telephone service, like nearly everyone else's, is provided under the Telephone Regulations and not, as many people think, on the basis of a contract between the Post Office and the customer. This is very often not understood. Most Post Office services are not provided on the basis of contract.
I should like to give an extreme example. Suppose that somebody posts a letter to a football pool firm containing a 1173 winning coupon. It arrives late through some mischance in the Post Office. If it had arrived on time, the sender of the letter would have won £100,000. As it is, he wins nothing. There is no liability on the Post Office, because the purchase of the stamp and the acceptance of the letter do not create a contract.
Similarly, if we install a telephone and provide a service and the subscriber loses business because the telephone is out of order for a time—perhaps something has gone wrong with the cable—there is no liability on the Post Office to make good the loss because a service is not provided on the basis of contract. Clearly, a moment's reflection will show that it could not possibly be so in an organisation of this magnitude. I would hope that some day—it will not be for a long time yet—the telephone service may be provided on a basis of contract, but we are a long way from this at the present time.
Regulation 56 of the Telephone Regulations absolves us from any liability in respect of errors and omissions in telephone directories. The purpose of this regulation is not to give the Post Office cast-iron protection against the consequences of any error or omission which it may make or to serve as a convenient shelter for inefficiency.
Like any other business, the Post Office accepts that its first duty to its customers is to take all reasonable and practicable steps to pro- 1174 mote and safeguard the quality of its product and to ensure that the product will fulfil expectations and that the customer will get value for money. But given the nature of our product in the Post Office—10,000 million telephone calls a year, 13 million directories and 10 million telephones—it would be quite impossible for the Post Office to accept full liability for damages for all the consequences of any error which it might inadvertently commit. We could not possibly accept an open-ended commitment of this nature and keep the charges at a reasonable level.
Messrs. Woods have estimated that they have lost £1,000 worth of business because of Post Office mistakes. I do not for one moment doubt the sincerity of the firm but, with the best will in the world, I do not see how anybody can quantify the business which he has lost owing to telephone number changes and errors and omissions in telephone directories. I share their sense of annoyance and frustration at all that has gone wrong. I am very sorry about it. What has happened, however, cannot now be undone. I have offered the firm a rebate of six months rental. That offer still stands, but I do not see any way of increasing it without increasing the liability of the Post Office to an extent which we could not possibly sustain.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes past Two o'clock.