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Telephone Service

Volume 481: debated on Wednesday 22 November 1950

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5.32 p.m.

I wish to draw the attention of the House this evening to the state of a most important public service, namely, the telephone service. It is a matter of common knowledge to hon. Members who have received a constant and appreciable flow of letters from their constituents upon this subject over many years, that at present it takes a very long time to get a telephone installed, either in a private house or in business premises. We all know from our experience of correspondence addressed to us how great is the inconvenience, and sometimes the real loss and hardship, suffered by people to whom this essential public service is long denied.

At present it is quite usual to wait a period of years to get a telephone put in. The delay varies from one part of the country to another and according to the degree of priority which the applicant can attract. But I do not think I shall be exaggerating if I say that the average wait which non-priority applicants—that is to say the ordinary residential or business applicant as distinct from doctors and midwives and such people—have already experienced is something like three years.

I myself know of cases where people have been waiting six years and I should imagine a fair average figure is about three years. I do not know whether the Assistant Postmaster-General can give us the actual figure; but at least he can give us a well-informed guess, and I should think it is more likely to be more than less than three years. I know at least of one part of the country where business applicants are waiting for more than three years.

I suggest to the Assistant Postmaster-General that in at least some parts, and it may be throughout the country, applicants enjoying the highest priority, such as doctors, midwives and farmers, are having to wait two months for the installation of telephones, whereas before the war they had to wait only a fortnight. Two months was the figure given by the Minister in reply to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Major Hicks-Beach) in answer to a Parliamentary Question this week. I hope he will agree, as I am sure the House will agree, that a delay of two months in the installa- tion of top priority telephones is entirely unacceptable.

There are about half a million people waiting for telephones in this country. The last figure was 547,000, in July this year. I hope the Minister will tell us whether that figure has gone up or down, but I am sure it must still be more than half a million, which is a quite fantastic number in relation to the population. To put it graphically, I estimate that if they formed a queue they would stretch four deep from the door of this House to Brighton. Perhaps it is a pity they do not do so as they might then get earlier redress of their grievance.

I suggested that the average rate up to the present has been three years; but what is more important is, what is the average wait to be from now on? We have 500,000 on the waiting list. That is the ordinary waiting list, not doctors and midwives. How long has the 250,000th person to wait for a telephone? I assume he has already waited three years. I know that people on that waiting list have different degrees of priority, but take the average person in the middle of the list. He has waited three years already. How much longer has he to wait? According to the present rate of connections—and assuming there is no change—I estimate, although I hope I am wrong, that it will be another three or four years and, in some parts of the country, very much longer. A state of affairs in which, five-and-a-half years after the war, the ordinary applicant for a telephone has to wait five, six, or seven years is something we simply ought not to accept.

The hon. Member will appreciate that if a person has been waiting for six or seven years for a telephone he was waiting for a telephone before the war ended.

The hon. Gentleman must have misunderstood me. I am referring to people who at present have waited three years, which I think is about the average period, but I am quite ready to be corrected on that as it is a matter of estimation. I assume that the average non-priority applicant has been waiting about three years, and I suggest that he would probably have to wait another three years at the present rate of progress, which would mean six years altogether. That is a state of affairs which, at this period after the war, we should not quietly accept, and I hope that some sense of urgency will be introduced into consideration of this subject.

I want the Assistant Postmaster-General to give an estimate of how long it is to take from now for the average residential applicant who has been on the waiting list three years and for the average business applicant who has been on the waiting list for three years, to get a telephone. I assume the hon. Gentleman can give some kind of estimate. I realise there are all kinds of imponderables and uncertain factors in the situation, such as the allocation of capital expenditure, defence requirements and so on, and I know that every person on the waiting list has a different priority, but there must be an average and there must be something in the mind of the Minister about the probable shape of things in the future. [Interruption.]

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman's mind is not a complete blank on the subject. If it is, it becomes even more the job of the Assistant Postmaster-General to conceal that fact from the House and give us some information of what his right hon. Friend ought to do. It is a matter of the greatest importance that the public should have some idea of what the outlook is; and that the House should have an idea, because this matter of priority and the importance of the telephone service is one we should not only keep under review, but into which we should import some sense of urgency in the minds of hon. Members opposite.

I suppose we shall hear about the difficulties the Minister is experiencing in the provision of telephones and I quite agree that they exist. One knows there is a six years' back log from the war and that the population has gone up, and I am sure the demand for telephones has gone up. [An HON. MEMBER: "Full employment."] I am certain we shall hear about full employment. It would be astonishing if we did not, and I do not want to break the continuity which exists on the other side of the House by suggesting that the hon. Gentleman should not mention it.

All these things are perfectly true, but I would remind hon. Members that in 1939 we also had considerable industrial activity. As a matter of fact, in the 1930's I believe that real wages were rising very much more quickly than they are now and, in spite of that situation, the Post Office of the day kept up with the demand. I think I am right in saying that the last advertising postmark used before the war was:
"The telephone saves time and money."
The Post Office was advertising for more customers, and very properly, because the telephone is an extremely important piece of modern productive machinery. I hope the Minister is going to present the case for the telephone more emphatically to his Treasury colleagues in the future than I believe he has done in the past. I think there is a disposition in the Government to regard the telephone as a bit of a luxury. I hope the Minister and his right hon. Friends are not putting the telephone in the same place as fun fairs; or perhaps I should do better to say that I hope he will raise it to the same priority as fun fairs.

The fact is that for an industrial country, and still more for a country which draws a large part of its revenue from agency and middleman's transactions and the sort of services a highly civilised country gives to the rest of the world, the telephone is no luxury, even in the home. It is an essential part of the equipment of a highly industrialised and productive country. We in Great Britain are grossly under-telephoned at present by any proper standard of comparison. I do not accept rural countries of the Continent of Europe as a proper standard of comparison.

We are the most under-telephoned country of the English-speaking world. I see that the hon. Gentleman is looking slightly incredulous, but I think the figures for which he has sent will be the same as I have. I find that in the United States of America there are 23 telephones per 100 of the population and in the United Kingdom nine per 100 of the population. The figures for the British Dominions come between those two. The nearest English-speaking country to us is Australia with 12 telephones per 100 of the population, which is one-third more than we have.

I take it that the figures the hon. Member is using are for today. Would he give the same comparisons for 1939?

I have come equipped with considerable figures, but I am afraid I have not comparative telephone figures for the whole world for any year the hon. Member chooses to mention. However, I can say with confidence that in 1939 the position would have been the same in relation to the United States and our-selves. I do not want the hon. Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Daines) to think that I am suggesting that the telephone position before the war was the reverse of that and that we had more telephones then than anyone else. I quite agree that was not the case.

I am simply saying that telephones for us in Britain are not a luxury but a necessity, a vital part of our equipment to achieve high productivity. High productivity is not only a matter of coal mines and factories. We earn a substantial part of our revenue from other kinds of activity and the telephone is essential for us. When we compare our figures with those of the United States or those of any other English-speaking country we realise we are badly under-telephoned. I put that forward as an argument so that when the allocation of capital expenditure is considered the claims of telephone equipment should be generously approached. That is the line of argument on which I am seeking to approach the matter. I do not think it is a party line at all and I certainly did not conceive of it in that way.

One, of course, realises that the Postmaster-General is limited in what he can do by what the Treasury allows him to do and I am asking him to put up a better battle with the Treasury. But I go a step farther than that and say that within the limits of what the Treasury allow him to do, which. I think, this year is £44 million—

£44 million is the figure the Economic Survey gave for the Post Office and I think that most of that is for the telephone service. Within that limit, with every respect to the hon. Gentleman I think his Department could do better.

I wish to refer to the state of affairs in the area with which I am most conversant, the Oxford Telephone Area, which covers the northern half of my constituency. I have had a good many complaints from people there that they cannot get on the telephone and the replies I have been receiving from the Postmaster-General have been to the effect that he says he is short of labour. There are 5,000 people waiting in that area and he does not know when they will be served. They cannot get any date out of him. He says, "I am very sorry, I have got telephone lines in the main, I have lines from the mains to the house, I have equipment to put in the house and I have equipment at the exchange all ready for that would-be subscriber, but I cannot connect him because I have not the skilled engineers to connect him."

I do not wish to dilate on these examples, but I think the hon. Gentleman would like to hear some of the letters of his right hon. Friend because he might pay more attention to them than he would pay to me. One, written in September in which the Postmaster-General refused to transfer a telephone, says:
"we are very short of skilled workmen in the Oxford telephone area … and can only provide service for doctors, farmers and public services. …"
This is a very serious state of affairs, because the Minister says that he can only provide telephones for doctors, farmers and public services. In other words, the Oxford area non-priority list is at a dead stop. He goes on:
"Much as I regret it, these conditions will persist until a larger slice of the national income can justifiably be spent on the provision of telephones."
The letter went on to say that, although the need for service in isolated districts was appreciated, it would be a considerable time before a service could be offered. I would not quarrel with that, but the next letter says:
"Although we have reserved a pair of wires in the cable serving her neighbourhood and have equipment available at the exchange, I am sorry that we are unable, at present, to instal a telephone for Mrs. Warren. The trouble is that we are very short of skilled workmen in the Oxford telephone area, and we have on hand so much urgent work that we can only provide service for doctors, farmers and public services, where telephones are essential in the national interest. Consequently, we are compelled to keep over 5,000 people in the Oxford area waiting for telephone service, and it will be some considerable time before"—
and so on. The letter goes on:
"Much as I regret it, these conditions will continue until a larger share of the national income and manpower can justifiably be devoted to the development of the telephone service."
[An HON. MEMBER: "Admirable consistency."] Yes, admirable consistency, not only in the sense but in the wording. The letters are actually typewritten, and not duplicated.

Here is what the Postmaster-General says:
"It is true that it would take only a few hours to instal a telephone for this gentleman, but this same condition applies in over a thousand cases in the Oxford area."
These are the 1,000 cases where everything is ready; the 5,000 cases constitute the total waiting list. In 1,000 cases, everything is ready and waiting and only needs to be connected up. The letter from the Postmaster-General goes on:
"Our financial resources are so limited, and there is so much urgent work, including defence work, to he done, that we can only complete the cases on this long waiting list at a very slow rate."
Again, in October:
"We are forced to keep over 1,000 people waiting in similar circumstances for their telephones to be installed, many of whom have previously had service at other addresses and need their telephones to conduct their businesses."
That seems to me to be a very serious state of affairs. Here, in this one area, there are 1,000 people who are, in substance, connected to the telephone, and all that they want is an engineer to connect up the wires. When an applicant suggested that the job would take 10 minutes, the Minister described it as one requiring appreciably more than 10 minutes. I do not know how many minutes it will take, but it seems to me to be remarkable if that sort of thing is going on throughout the country.

Here, we have. I suppose, something like 95 per cent. of the capital expenditure involved in putting in a telephone which has alrady been incurred—because the wires and cables are in and the equipment is there in the exchange. Nine-tenths of the expenditure, at the very least, has already been incurred, and, for the sake of the last little bit, all the rest is lying idle and going to waste. That is something which we could understand if it were due to a temporary local dislocation of labour, and, if that were the position, I would not complain very much about it, but the Minister says that this state of affairs is going to continue until a larger part of the national effort can be devoted to telephones.

I have told the House that there are 1,000 people in the Oxford area who are in this situation, but I do not know if this state of affairs is peculiar to the Oxford area or to how many other areas it would also apply. The proportion in the Oxford area is one in five; that is to say, there are 5,000 people altogether waiting for telephones, and 1,000 with the equipment already installed and waiting for the lines to be joined up. If that is the state of things which applies generally throughout the country, there must be 100,000 people in this country who are just waiting for an engineer to connect up their lines.

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that an additional 5,000 people could be supplied with telephones? What effect would that have on the actual equipment of the telephone exchange? Is the exchange equipment ready to cope with those extra lines?

The point raised by the hon. Member is dealt with by the Postmaster-General when he says, in the letters which I have quoted, that the equipment is available at the exchange. He says that everything is in. The hon. Gentleman nods his head in a way that indicates assent. We may take it that everything is there, but that the wires will have to be connected up outside the actual house. My argument is that we ought to spend that extra 5 per cent., or whatever it is, which is required to bring all the rest of those telephones into use. I do not know how widespread is the position which I have described in relation to the Oxford area; I am asking the hon. Gentleman to tell the House. If it is widespread, it is a very serious matter, and people are being kept waiting for telephones when they should not be kept waiting.

If the Postmaster-General needs all his £44 million for telephone services for doctors, midwives and farmers, then, in my submission, he ought to go to the Cabinet or the Treasury and say, "We must have an extra allowance of capital expenditure for the telephone service, because we are in a ridiculous and uneconomic position in wasting a vast quantity of resources which could be brought into use with the expenditure of a little more money." I think the right hon. Gentleman ought to do that, and that he ought to have done it quite a long time ago.

It is no good the right hon. Gentleman, in the letters which I have quoted, resting upon the defence argument. I hope that the situation I have described in the Oxford area is not going to persist until rearmament is completed. That would, indeed, be an extraordinary state of affairs, and I put it to the hon. Gentleman that, even apart from the arguments about equipment and shortage of labour, a situation in one area—even if it is peculiar to that area—in which the non-priority list has stopped altogether, is a situation which ought not to be accepted by the House five and a half years after the end of the war. I ask him to pass on to his right hon. Friend, who is not here tonight, the message I have given him. [Interruption.] Well, I do not know where he is, but I am sure it is at some useful place.

This matter ought to be treated as one of prime urgency, and the right hon. Gentleman ought to make the necessary representations in the proper quarter. It really is not good enough to treat this matter as one on which to keep a large and efficient staff writing letters of excuse, for that is what is happening now. One is almost tempted to say that the staff engaged upon writing these stalling letters could, with a little training, themselves become capable of connecting up all these telephones. Maybe the Postmaster-General will do something about it. I hope he will embark upon that process, and do something to relieve the shocking state of hardship and financial loss which is suffered by something like half a million people in this country at the present time.

5.59 p.m.

I should like to reinforce part of the argument put forward by the hon. Member for Bucks, South (Mr. Bell) and stress the urgency of this matter. If there is any complacency about it, it is a very much misplaced complacency indeed. Those of us who represent industrial areas know how often applications are made from people holding key positions in industry who are unable to get telephones, some of them being consultants of considerable standing.

I had a case the other day of a gentleman who was able to prove that he was a consultant to a large number of industries and branches in connection with a nationalised industry. I want to complain strongly of the way in which these cases are handled. It is not sufficient, I submit, for my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General to send these people one of those badly duplicated notices which start off, "Dear Sir or Madam," which sometimes are not in accordance with the requirements of the recipient, and which then go on to say in a blurred manner, that special attention has been given to the particular circumstances of the case. Nobody who receives one of these badly duplicated letters taken from the pile and pushed into an envelope is going to believe that.

As the Post Office so often have to refuse people, they should at least arrange to have a proper letter sent out so that when people are outraged at the refusal of their request, they are not further outraged by feeling that it has not been properly considered. It is psychologically sound, I think, to send a proper letter. It could be said, I suppose, that if these cases were looked at and answered individually it would require additional expenditure upon secretaries. The answer to that is very easy and very plain; it is that these cases invariably come on to hon. Members who then take up the matter with the Department which, in the long run, means that more correspondence and much more work is involved. Many constituents approach us because they have a feeling that their cases have not been considered.

I ought to say in fairness to the Postmaster-General, in regard to the case I have just mentioned, that he said at once when I took the matter up with him that he realised it was an exceptional case. He did not give the telephone, and I was sorry about that, but it did make a considerable difference to know that there was some evidence of personal attention. Those of us who have been used to the telephone for a long time are apt to forget how important telephones can be. If we were suddenly deprived of our own telephones, we should then know the great increase in the work we should have to do, the larger expenditure of time and the general sense of frustration we should experience. I know we get it in other ways too. Telephones are by no means an unmixed blessing, but they are almost indispensable. I use the telephone as little as possible except when I am here, and then every night I spend 6d. a minute to make love to the same little lady, and I wish that everybody else—[Interruption.] My hon. Friends are giving me information for which I am not asking. I must be protected because there are enough dangers in this place. They are opening up fresh avenues, and putting further temptation in my way.

Does my hon. Friend want the Post Office to make love for him?

Good gracious, no. The The Post Office are the last people in the world to do that with their badly smudged, duplicated letters.

People in industrial areas are not able to conduct their business adequately without telephones. I should like to know exactly what the difficulty is because sometimes it is said to be due to the lack of material and sometimes to the lack of labour, and, on more candid occasions, it is said to be due to the lack of capital. If one knew exactly to what it is due, one could deal effectively with one's own people.

Finally, I should like my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General to persuade his right hon. Friend to make a strong appeal to the Treasury for a little more money. It is not for me, of course, to discuss priorities or to say what money might be spent in this direction, but if we are to continue the appeal, as we must in present circumstances, for increased production, then we must help with increased efficiency. The rearmament programme may be a perfectly honest reason why we cannot spend money in other directions, but it is also a very important reason why we must increase production still more. In such increased production, efficiency must play a vital part, and the telephone can play a part in that efficiency in no small number of cases.

6.6 p.m.

The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Lang) indicated a diversity of uses to which the telephone can be put, and I think he properly indicated that many of us who use the telephone, and who have no difficulty in using it, are apt to forget the people who cannot get telephones, and who, perhaps, need them as badly as we do ourselves. For this reason I think the House is indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Bucks, South (Mr. Bell) for raising this issue and for doing so in such an excellent manner.

The inadequate provision of telephones for the people of this country has been excused on many grounds, and, of course, the Assistant Postmaster-General is going to tell us that a lot of equipment must be exported. I quite agree. No one denies that if we have a long-term prospect in a foreign market, we must, even when there is a strong home demand, make some sacrifices in order to keep that market going. We should be foolish if we said that we wanted these things ourselves and that therefore our customers abroad would have to wait. It would mean that in 10 years' time or less we should have lost the market.

However, I think there is a case for devoting more telephone equipment to home use. My hon. Friend said that a wait of three years was a long time, but I would point out that some people in this country have already waited 10 years for the telephone. We have now reached the position that unless one happens to be a Government official or somebody connected with a nationalised industry, or a priority exporter, or a first-class wangler, there is absolutely no chance of getting a telephone at all. It is a most distressing state of affairs, and the country really does not save as much by this restriction as is sometimes made out. If people are denied communication by telephone, they must obviously seek some other form of communication. That means extra strain upon the Post Office letter service, upon transport and upon individuals. Therefore, the country is saving nothing like so much as is sometimes made out, by keeping down expenditure on telephones to the present minimum.

I had a case in my own constituency last Saturday, about which I spoke to the Assistant Postmaster-General. A man came to me concerning the installation of a telephone. He was the manager of a mill in the textile industry which was doing a substantial trade in the export market. He lived two miles away from the mill and had to control the two shifts working in the mill. But he could not get a telephone although he had been trying for the last two years to do so. That means that when anything goes wrong in the mill, instead of his advice being available over the telephone, somebody has to go on a bicycle and tell him what is wrong and ask him to come over. Such a position is really not saving the country's resources, and it is certainly not improving our technical efficiency. I think we ought to look at it more in that light.

A lot of figures have been put before us at Question time by the Postmaster-General. I think the permanent officials of the Post Office feed the Ministers well with figures to show how wonderfully this service is getting on. However, I do not think that the figures offered really give the true picture. I want the Assistant Postmaster-General to tell me something about those figures. When we are told that some astronomical number of new telephones has been installed in a given area, does that mean that they are additional telephones or that the figure has been arrived at before the ones taken out have been deducted?

I hope I am putting the question fairly. Will the hon. Gentleman let us know whether these figures of new installations do in fact relate to new installations, or whether they are installations that comprise new equipment, and also telephones taken out from places in the vicinity, for various reasons? Obviously, we have to concern ourselves not only with the volume of equipment but its efficiency. I think that, since the end of the war, the Post Office telephone service has sometimes come in for a good deal of ill-considered criticism by the people of this country. I think the telephone service has never been as bad as some people have made out, and has never been as good as the Postmaster-General thinks it is.

I believe it is true that our country is the best country in the world from the point of view of the telephone service. If any country ought to have a first-class service it is Great Britain, because the physical conditions are better than elsewhere. The other day, the Postmaster-General said that the automatic switchboards in London were more efficient than, or as efficient as, they had ever been. Frankly, I do not believe it. I understand that the Post Office has a system of checking the number of lost calls during peak hours, and I understand that they are working today on a much lower standard than they were in 1939. I ask the Assistant Postmaster-General whether there is a higher or a lower efficiency as regards lost calls on the automatic switchboards in London.

I do not want to criticise the Post Office engineers in any way, because I think the British public ought to be proud of the engineers it has in the Post Office. I sometimes think what a wonderful service we would have if only those engineers could work under a different system, if only the skill and ingenuity and devotion to duty which our Post Office engineers displayed could be placed under private enterprise, where there was not a grabbing Chancellor in the background, taking away the fruits of their work all the time. In those circumstances, we should have a very fine telephone service indeed; certainly the best in the world.

I should like to say a few words about capital expenditure. First of all, the amount allocated to the Post Office today is, obviously, inadequate. I want to make a point within the limitation of the existing allocation. It is a point I raised with the Postmaster-General the other day. It is that I am by no means convinced that the allocation of capital expenditure down below the regional level is on a proper basis. I think those who have contacted Post Office engineers and managers will agree. Although there has been some improvement recently, I understand that in the past the Post Office authorities have largely allocated capital expenditure on the basis of pre-war standards.

What has happened as a result of that? In some instances, pre-war, telephone managers ran their areas on very economical lines indeed. Others had rather more grand ideas and probably started the war with a good deal of reserve equipment. Those who have been economical have been told, "This is what you have spent before, and you cannot have more in the existing financial state of the country." Those who have been lavish in expenditure in the past have received a correspondingly higher amount. So we have got into a position in the Post Office, below the regional level, where there is no allocation of capital expenditure which is really consistent with the conditions of the day.

I hope the right hon. Gentleman will get hold of this point and make certain.that the allocation of capital expenditure below the regional level is made on the basis of real need, and takes into account the changing conditions of the day and the changed conditions since the end of the war. I am convinced that this datum period idea, which does so much damage to industry, both private and State controlled, in all kinds of directions, is something from which we have to get away, if we are going to do the best with the resources available. I appeal to the Assistant Postmaster-General to get his right hon. Friend to deal with the Chancellor of the Exchequer in a serious way. The Postmaster-General knocks the staff about occasionally, and I want to see him knock the Chancellor of the Exchequer about in the same. way.

I am not convinced that the present limitation of expenditure on capital equipment and maintenance is really in the national interest. Indeed, I am very worried, and I hope the hon. Gentleman is worried, about what is happening to our telephone exchanges. There is so little real renewal taking place, and such high-pressure working of equipment, that, unless something is done very quickly to put these renewals on a proper basis, we are going to have very serious trouble with our telephone system. That is what every telephone engineer fears today. The matter depends upon the strength with which the Postmaster-General approaches the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It is no real economy to allow this equipment, which is expensive to install and expensive to maintain, to get into this state. I hope the Postmaster-General does his job as well as his engineers do, and sees that he gets money from the Chancellor to maintain and develop a proper telephone service.

6.17 p.m.

Although the telephone system is one of the greatest boons of modern life, it is also, of course, often one of the greatest irritants. It would be extremely difficult to estimate, with any degree of certainty, how much discord and ill feeling and what a flow of doubtful language the task of establishing a connection or obtaining a correct number has caused. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bucks, South (Mr. Bell) for raising this matter, because it enables me to bring forward a particular problem in my constituency.

In my constituency a not inconsiderable area is served by what is called the Clissold Exchange. If one asked the inhabitants, I think the majority would say that, without doubt, it is the worst exchange in London. I have put down Questions, and I have transmitted the repeated complaints from subscribers. There are doctors who find it difficult to obtain an answer in urgent cases. There are business people who are unable or are delayed in completing business deals; there are men and women who find it difficult to make ordinary social calls. All unite in condemning the long period which often elapses before they hear the welcome voice of the operator—and, of course, by that time, it is no longer welcome.

I hope something can be done with that special problem. It happens to be a manual exchange, and I suppose that, as usual, I shall be told that the fault is that it is a manual exchange. I know that it will be said that the question of changing over is a question of capital expenditure and, therefore, the suffering subscribers of Clissold Exchange must wait patiently. I do not know how long they will be expected to wait. I urge that something should be done in this case. It is not fair that this part of London should suffer for years while the greater part of London enjoys—and has enjoyed for a long time—the benefits of automatic connections.

I want to say a few words on the general problem. I know that the demand for the installation of telephones has increased enormously and, no doubt, that can be said to be a result of the benefits conferred by this Government; but surely something more can be done to meet the urgent demands which have been put forward. Again and again I have written to my right hon. Friend about constituents who require telephones. I have been told by the Postmaster-General that he is very sorry but they must wait. I have heard from other hon. Members tonight vague references to priorities. I want some information on the order of priority. Is there such an order of priority and, if so, what is it?

What is the position of the doctor or the business man, or of other people who make urgent demands for the installation of a telephone? Quite frankly, when I write letters on the subject I receive no satisfaction. Sometimes the answer is that something can be done if the applicant will agree to share a telephone. And the applicant agrees and looks round for someone with whom to share, but there is no one ready and willing to do so. What happens to such person then?

I know that the question of the telephone is a very small one compared with the peace of the world and with the urgent national problems with which the Government have to deal—but it can be so irritating and so upsetting to the good temper of people. After all, a lot depends upon the temper of people. In this brief speech I urge, therefore, that something should be done to tackle the problem and improve the situation.

6.22 p.m.

Like other hon. Members who have spoken this evening, I feel we are indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Bell), for raising this subject tonight. From time to time many of us have correspondence from constituents, the volume of which seems to become even greater as the months go by, complaining about either an inefficient telephone service or the absence of a telephone service altogether.

I want to turn the attention of the House and of the Assistant Postmaster-General to another aspect of the problem which, so far, has not been fully discussed. The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Lang) spoke of the needs of the industrial communities. The hon. Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman), referred to the difficulties of one London area. I want for a moment to talk about the difficulties of rural areas. My constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South, march together for several miles. The Oxford telephone area, to which he has made reference, covers a great part of my constituency and the other part is covered by the Reading telephone area. My hon. Friend has given the House particulars of the difficulties as to new connections which we experience in the Oxford telephone area. From what I have seen, I would say that the difficulties in the Reading area are very similar. The position is certainly no better.

We have a particular problem in the rural areas, one which is very acute in my constituency. There are many houses and small, isolated hamlets, far from main centres of population, and in these modern days a telephone is something of a necessity to them. From time to time I have had occasion to write to the Postmaster-General on behalf of constituents asking for him to intervene personally in some of the cases, and the right hon. Gentleman has always been courteous and, I am certain, has done what he could but, if there is to be some system of priorities, as appears to be the case, I submit that the needs of those who live in isolated places ought to come somewhere upon that list.

But that, of course, only begs the general question. The need is for a greater output of telephone equipment of all kinds, a greater output of exchange equipment and, obviously, a greater amount of skilled labour to do the job of installation. Leaving aside for a moment the question of finance, I suggest that this nation, engaged as it is not only in winning the way back to economic prosperity but also in carrying the burden of rearmament, needs as up-to-date and extensive a telephone system as we can possibly obtain. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South gave some particulars of the way in which other countries have developed their telephone systems. I do not think any hon. Member, least of all the Assistant Postmaster-General, would deny the figures which my hon. Friend gave. Our needs today are such that, in my opinion, we should do all we can to expedite the completion, delivery and installation of proper telephone equipment in this country.

May I now say a few words on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Shepherd)? My hon. Friend spoke of finance and, as I see it, the position is that out of the overall capital expenditure which the Government have available at any given time, a certain proportion is set aside for the telephone service. I supplement the demands which have been made by my hon. Friends and, indeed, by hon. Mem bers opposite urging the Assistant Postmaster-General and his right hon. Friend to keep pegging away at the Treasury in order to obtain a little more for the telephone service. It is essential that, as soon as possible we should have a good telephone service, and I doubt very much whether, if a real attack were made, the Treasury could resist an onslaught by the Postmaster-General for more money for that purpose. Without going too far into the question, I believe that I and some of my hon. Friends could indicate a lot of departments of Government capital expenditure which could be whittled away a little in order to provide the extra money which the Post Office so urgently needs for the provision of a better telephone service.

This Debate will have been of value it the Assistant Postmaster-General and his right hon. Friends realise that hon. Members and the country as a whole, while appreciating that the Post Office is working under difficulties as to equipment, labour and money and is doing its best, nevertheless feel that perhaps the Government should put their backs into it just a little more. We cannot be blamed for hoping that they will try to do a little more to improve what is already a very good system and which, with very little more effort, could, I am certain, become the finest telephone service in the world.

6.28 p.m.

I want to emphasise the point made by the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mr. Shepherd) who spoke of the need to retain, as far as possible, our overseas markets for telephones and telephone equipment in this time of pressure for raw materials. In and around the City of Nottingham many thousands of people are employed in manufacturing telephones and telephone equipment. We have not always been able to provide a full week's work for those operators and, as a consequence, we view seriously the position of our overseas markets. I want to impress upon the Minister, in the way in which the hon. Member for Cheadle impressed it upon him, the need for keeping one eye at any rate on the importance of preserving those markets abroad while, at the same time, bearing in mind our needs at home. I know that, with the acute shortage of telephones in this country, I may be striking a rather unpopular note, but, with due deference to the needs of my constituents, I feel I ought to stress that aspect.

The second point I want to make is that, from time to time, most hon. Members receive letters from their constituencies requesting them to use their influence to persuade the Post Office officials to install a telephone. In the cases which have come to my attention the most important feature is that I have been able, on most occasions, to persuade a person requesting a telephone that there is a genuine, fairly operated, system of priorities. I want to impress upon the Minister the urgent necessity to keep before the public eye the fact that these priorities are worked fairly and squarely and that, when people apply for a telephone, they can be sure that the local officers of the Post Office will keep to that list fairly and will provide them with a telephone at the earliest opportunity. The principal point I wanted to make, however, was that I hope the Minister will keep his eye on the need to preserve foreign markets for our manufacturers of telephone equipment.

6.31 p.m.

I want to ask the Postmaster-General a number of questions so that we may have a fuller understanding of the difficulties lying behind the problems which have troubled so many hon. Members in their own constituencies and in the country as a whole. First, would he try to explain in more detail than either he or his right hon. Friend has given previously the reason for this big back-log of over half-a-million people who are awaiting telephones? Is it due to the fact that there was no possibility of expansion during the war or is it due to a sudden demand since the war?

I am interested in that reply, because the Assistant Postmaster-General said, in the Adjournment Debate of 6th July that in the last two years—presumably 1948 and 1949—the number of trunk calls had increased by 7 or 8 per cent. I suspect that they were increasing at the same rate before the war. That agrees statistically with an annual rate of compound interest which would be necessary in order to achieve the 100 per cent. increase between 1938 and 1950.

The next question I would ask is about the sum of money required to clear off this back-log. The hon. Gentleman mentioned, in the same Adjournment Debate, that somewhere about £300 million would be necessary. If we divide that by the half-million-odd people who are still awaiting telephones, we get the astonishing result that it will cost £600 to instal each telephone. That may be correct but it sound grotesquely high. It means, either, that in spending £44½ million a year, mostly on telephones, we should see barely 100,000 telephones a year installed or—and I am afraid this is correct—that we shall wait for six or seven years before the back-log is cleared.

What are the reasons for the delay? First of all, there is apparently great difficulty about the buildings to house the exchanges and additional equipment needed. I think that in replying to my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Shepherd) the Assistant Postmaster-General recently referred to this. We should like to hear from the hon. Gentleman tonight what is the break-down of the £44½ million capital expenditure a year, or approximately that sum, between buildings, line laying, equipment and installation.

The next problem is that of equipment. Several hon. Members have referred to shortages of equipment. Apparently stocks of telephones and exchange calling appliances are, at the present time, in one case somewhere about sufficient to provide telephones for nearly a year at the present rate of installation and, in the other case, sufficient for rather over six months. Is there really any delay being caused by a shortage of instruments, or is it a shortage of exchange equipment?

Perhaps most important point of all is the question of the men. I should like to echo from my own personal experience the remarks which my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle made about Post Office engineers and staff with whom I have had many dealings. I should like to take this opportunity of saying how very helpful I have found them when I have dealt with them in the Blackburn area. They have saved me having to bother the right hon. Gentleman or the hon. Gentleman by sending on to them many of my constituents' letters. However, are we at the present time so short of skilled labour that we have not enough people required to instal the equipment for which capital has been provided in recent Budgets for the telephone service?

I noticed that my hon. Friend the Member for Bucks, South (Mr. Bell) was talking about the Oxford telephone area in much the same way as we certainly feel in the North of England—in the Blackburn telephone area—about ours. I should like to have some figures from the hon. Gentleman about the numbers in the Blackburn area who have been waiting not longer than two years and who have been waiting for as long as five years or longer for their telephones to be installed; and I should like if possible to get a comparison of the figures for North-East Lancashire with those of other parts of England.

Lastly, I should like to turn to this question of priorities. The hon. Gentleman said, I think, in the Adjournment Debate of 6th July, that the priorities were doctors, those working in public utilities, ex-Service men, people who had been connected pre-war, and, lastly, private residences. Like other hon. Gentlemen who have spoken, I must say that the complaints which have come my way do not fit into that list of priorities we have been given. For example, in Padiham, one of the townships in my constituency, I have tried to get a telephone for an electrical engineer who does a great deal of re-wiring work, which is connected with the job of bringing electricity into the homes in the area, that is with a public utility, and keeping the equipment worked by electricity in operation. Another gentleman in the same town, who is the head manager of a textile mill, has been turned down absolutely flat from getting a telephone. In the first case it was said that there was a shortage of equipment in the exchange, and in the second that there was a shortage of skilled labour.

In another township in my constituency, Great Harwood, two directors of one of the leading firms of merchants supplying feedingstuffs for the farmers have had difficulty. One of them has been turned down on the ground of shortage of labour for installing a telephone in her house, although she was a subscriber before the war. Her son moved from a house where he had a telephone into one where there was already a telephone, but the telephone there was removed on the ground that it could only be kept for purposes in the national interest. Certainly in East Lancashire supplying feedingstuffs is essential to agriculture.

So I should like to ask the hon. Gentleman to give us some answers on the overall position of capital expenditure and on the points which I have mentioned, and I should also like him to give us some picture of how one postal areas compares with another, because I think all of us are suffering from the feeling that we are right at the bottom of the list.

6.40 p.m.

I think the House is grateful to the hon. Member for Bucks, South (Mr. Bell), for giving us an opportunity of airing the subject of the telephone service, but it seems to me that this is like most other subjects of the kind raised by the Opposition, in wanting more of everything. It is natural to them. I do not want to be too controversial or partisan—not that I object to that because I think it is quite healthy, and one may as well be realistic—but, nevertheless, whether it is in matters of economics, the deployment of labour, or the social services or what have you, the Opposition want more of everything except, of course, of taxation, when it is rather different.

I do not know whether my hon. Friend wants any help from anyone on this side, but all the speeches have seemed critical, and I expect that when my hon. Friend replies to the Debate he will be forced to say that, after all, it is a question of "Hobson's" choice: if we want more technicians to be employed on telephones, then we shall have to employ fewer on radar lines, on radio equipment for the Forces, and so on. We shall listen with great interest to the figures I am certain he is going to give us to show how vast is the number of telephones that have been installed in recent years by comparison with the number installed in pre-war years. I think it is bound to be the case that in some sections of our economy, with the best will in the world, we have to work on a shoe string.

I feel a little bit abashed tonight in finding myself in substantial agreement with the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mr. Shepherd). I do not know that I want this to go on, but it is a remarkable fact to me that in the previous Parliament, I found myself in profound, instinctive and automatic disagreement with him on every issue, and yet now on two occasions in one week I find myself in agreement with him. Whether there is something wrong with me or something wrong with him him, I really do not know.

I hope he will forgive me if I say to the hon. Member for Bucks, South— and I say this as kindly as I can—that he would help his case much better if he avoided unnecessary personal remarks. On one occasion he spoke about the "blank mind" of the Minister, and when I made a perfectly reasonable intervention, he had to reply by saying to me, "Think, if the hon. Member does think." I do not blame him for thinking that only his party thinks, but I can assure him that thinking is not a monopoly to him or to his party.

I was not aware of making a play with the word. I should think, like the hon. Gentleman, that it was entirely inappropriate. What I thought I said was—and I meant no more than this—that the hon. Gentleman's mind was, perhaps, blank on one particular topic.

I feel relieved to hear that it is no worse. Nevertheless, when the hon. Gentleman reads the record tomorrow he will see what he said. It is quite forgivable, but I think it is quite unmerited. I am not mealy mouthed about these things. I do not mind taking it on the chin when I ask for it—but until then I would rather not have It.

The narrow point I do wish to raise—and I should like an answer from my hon. Friend who is to reply—is in regard to new installations. I shall quote a specific case because I want to know if it is general policy that has been applied in that instance. A friend of mine who had a highly confidential job left one house where he had a telephone to go to another house where a telephone had been installed for some time. Before the Department agreed to connect it up they insisted that he should agree to another subscriber coming on the same line. Is that the general policy? We should like to know. Personally I thought it was quite unreasonable, particularly in that case.

There is just one other minor point. I am a layman, and I know nothing about telephones or electricity, but I have been wondering whether we could have some protection against crossed wires. I know that other hon. Members must have been embarrassed, even when using the telephone in this House, as I myself have been sometimes. I have gone into a cubicle and found myself listening to an hon. Member from the other side of the House. On one occasion, I remember an hon. Member from the other side of the House disclosed on the telephone, "We really are going to have a Division tonight." Of course, naturally, I did not seek to profit by that information. I innocently put my telephone down. I must say, however, that I stopped here that night.

I do not know whether we can be protected from crossed wires, but I wish we could be because they can be extremely embarrassing and I have noticed how often it occurs even in this House of Commons. Let me say to my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Lang) that, after all, he is not quite alone in wanting to telephone every night. It is quite common. I think that most hon. Members of the House do so. I can make a personal confession. It is not only the provincial Members who do this. Although I am a suburban Member I do exactly the same thing, and it is looked upon almost as a duty. My wife, I must tell the House, is very active in public life, and sometimes, like my hon. Friend, I do not see her until the Friday nights. I think if the truth is known we are all grateful of the telephone service in regard to this matter.

6.47 p.m.

I do not want to keep the House at this stage of the Debate, but there is one point to which I should like to draw the attention of the Assistant Postmaster-General. We on this side of the House are very anxious to get more out of the existing resources. I think everyone must feel a little concerned about the fact that the raw materials, copper and lead, for the underground cables which will be needed for the expansion of the service all over the country are extremely scarce and will be very much in demand not only by his Department but by many other Departments in connection with rearmament.

Could we, therefore, have some assurance that great attention is being paid in his research department to the development of underground cables which do not use the present quantities of lead and copper? Unless some step is taken in that direction I am afraid the lists of those awaiting telephones, which are already very long indeed, will only get longer, and that there will be no hope of any improvement in the near future. I hope that we may be given some assurance that progress is being made in that way, so that we shall not sacrifice dollars or valuable exports or armaments to the need for dollars or valuable exports or armaments to the need for underground cables.

6.49 p.m.

I am sure that everyone will agree with the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. C. I. Orr-Ewing), that every effort should be made by research to try to find satisfactory substitutes, but I would go so far as to say that the hon. Gentleman, who has an intimate, detailed and technical knowledge of the problem, must know full well that it is not only a question of these raw materials being scarce, but also a question of the materials used to cover cables—rubber and bitumen—having risen in price. The price of rubber has gone up to nearly 6s. a 1b. So when we consider the matter from the standpoint of the capital investment programme it is not a question of getting the same amount of material for the same amount of expenditure by the Post Office, but we are faced with the problem that the costs have risen.

Except certain mouldings which have been developed and which could be used while we press on with research.

I am in complete agreement with the hon. Gentleman that every effort to find substitute materials should be made. During the war there was a scarcity of materials, and specifications for cables and wires of various types were of such a character that it was found possible to get virtually the same results by using very much less of those essential materials than had been used before the war. In other words, far too much rubber and other vital raw materials had been used. The specifications were too high for the requirements, and, in fact, when the need arose it was found that it was possible to produce these goods by cutting down the supplies of raw materials.

I think that we want to be fair to the telephone service. The Postmaster-General has always been open to criticism. If anyone gets into trouble on the line, if he cannot get through, or if he is kept waiting for a long time, the Postmaster-General is always blamed. It is only fair to recognise that the problem today is very much greater than it was before the war, for this reason. I think that the Assistant Postmaster-General will be in a position to tell the House that today we are putting in approximately twice the number of telephones that we were before the war.

I go so far as to say that this is a sign of the times, because the reason for this increased demand is that there are people today who can afford telephones, but who were never able to afford them before. I think that that will be recognised by hon. Gentlemen opposite. That is the case particularly when we have a capital investment programme which restricts the money that can be spent on the expansion of the system. These two factors—the increased demand and less money available than is necessary—quite obviously present a very serious problem indeed.

Hon. Gentlemen who have spoken in this Debate have referred, quite rightly, to the various complaints which people can and do make from time to time about the telephone service. I was very interested to hear one complaint put forward by the hon. Member for Clitheroe (Mr. Fort), concerning a managing director or engineer who wanted a telephone in his home. I have a small experience of these matters, and it really is too much when people, who are working during the day in their places of business and who have the telephone facilities there, think that just because they might want to receive a telephone call at home they should come before business houses, shops and other places which require telephones. I think that that complaint is wholly unreasonable. With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, I am sure that he put it forward in all sincerity, but I have found myself, in dealing with these cases, that on investigation it is very often an excuse to get a telephone for social purposes.

I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman has worked on shift work, as I have. The mill manager of the firm that I mentioned is going on to shift work now, and it is essential that on shift work the manager should have a telephone in his flat.

I agree that it is desirable that every manager of shift work should have a telephone, but there are thousands of managers throughout the country engaged on shift work. In fact, if the tele- phones were available, I think that they should have a certain priority, but, as the hon. Gentleman must know, the increased demand for telephones has resulted in there being insufficient of them to go round, even for those people who have some priority and who have been on the waiting list for many years. Therefore, I think that any pressure that is brought to bear to satisfy the requirements of a particular section of the community, whose requirements are not essential, although desirable, does not help in solving this present problem, which I am sure hon. Gentlemen opposite have in mind just as much as we who are on this side of the House.

It seems to me that, looking at this matter broadly, every effort has been made by the Post Office commensurate with the capital investment programme to make sure that whatever money is available is spent in the best interests of the telephone service. I visited my own exchange in Bolton about a month ago, and I saw the steps taken to expand that exchange so that next year another 200 or 300 people are likely to have telephones in my constituency. I am satisfied in my own mind that there is no jiggery pokery going on, and however much people try to do a bit of string-pulling or log-rolling and try to get in front of someone else, the Post Office acts with scrupulous fairness, and, in every case, it is a question of priority or the date when people went on to the waiting list.

As hon. Members well know, we do complain from time to time. Very often one gets a constituent complaining that someone down the road has a telephone, who came on to the list only a few weeks ago, whereas he has been waiting for two years, and when the matter is examined it is found that there is some other factor which this person did not know about. I am satisfied that this system is carried out with scrupulous fairness, and that the best possible steps are taken to ensure that those people who have the first priority, and who do not want to lose it, do get their phones, and that this follows normally in regard to the date on which the application was made.

We all recognise that the telephone service is not perfect and never has been. I would feel as frustrated as the hon. Gentleman did when he said that at 11 o'clock at night he dialled TRU and had to wait for five minutes, but I am quite satisfied in my own mind that I would have had to wait only three minutes if someone had been attending to the job. These are things which the Postmaster-General himself cannot control. The human element comes in largely in the telephone service.

I have, but it was about five years ago, and I was not as interested in telephones then as I am today.

I would like to tell the House about another difficulty. When I went to visit the exchange in Bolton a few weeks ago, I noticed that the girls had to stretch a long way to reach the furthermost point of their section of the exchange board. I put that down to full employment. In the cotton mills and other places there is a demand for all the female labour that they can get, and there are now not many people to pick and choose from for the telephone service; the telephone service has to take girls of a shorter stature than they formerly did, and it is sometimes very difficult for them to reach the furthermost point on the switchboard. There are all these factors to be taken into consideration.

I believe that, taking everything into account, we have a good telephone service, although I believe it can be improved. I know that the research department of the telephone service is of the highest efficiency, and I believe that every day there is work going on to ensure our service being better than it is today. When we have more money to spend on the telephone service and we can satisfy the demand, I think we shall get fewer complaints about it. In the meantime, we ought to be very grateful for the first-rate service that we have today, under great difficulties due to shortage of capital for extension purposes, and other factors, including the labour factor which must always be taken into account.

6.59 p.m.

I must apologise for not being here earlier to hear the debate, and, therefore, I do not propose to make a speech, but to ask a question or two. I can sympathise with the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. J. Lewis), with regard to the problems which the Post Office must now be facing due to the shortage of equipment and the ever-growing and vital need of the population for more and more telephones.

I would like to put forward a case for the rural population and to ask that they be given priority in the limited supplies of equipment that are available. It is usually possible for people living in urban districts to use a neighbour's telephone or to go to a telephone box not very far down the street, but in rural areas, particularly in the part of Scotland which I have the privilege to represent, there are many miles between one telephone box and another, and possibly between one farm and another which is connected by telephone. As the House well knows, the problems of the farmer are very different from those of the townsman, but there are many occasions when he has vital need of a telephone in cases of illness and other matters.

I ask the Post Office to give greater thought and priority to the demands and vital needs of the farming community, and that, even at a time of scarcity of materials, the county council allocation of public telephone boxes be increased, so that the telephone boxes can be spread more advantageously throughout their areas. In one of the counties I represent, which has an area of some 700 square miles, the allocation of telephone boxes is approximately four per year. That number is quite inadequate. I hope that the Postmaster-General will give sympathetic consideration to the needs and vital requirements of the rural population, both in regard to individual telephones and the allocation of more public telephone boxes.

7.2 p.m.

I gladly join in the appeal which has been made on behalf of Scotland. I represent an area with a considerable number of burghs, one of which is particularly large and is building a new suburb. As soon as I find myself asking for something for the rural part of my constituency, my conscience pricks me on behalf of the other part which also requires telephone equipment. We are apt to lose sight of the task which the Post Office has done since the end of the war. There was no provision, from 1939 to late 1945, for any extension or replacement of telephone equipment. It says much for the work that has been done by the Post Office engineering.

I join with the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mr. Shepherd) in paying tribute to the ability of the Post Office engineers, although I do not agree with his suggestion that they would give better service under some other form of organisation. I do not know how we are to prove this, unless we take a look at Cable and Wireless and see how that service was handed back to us after it had been under private enterprise. My most recent information is that private enterprise made no improvement at all, and that the service was handed back more or less in the same state as that in which it was taken over.

The hon. Member cannot really get away with a statement like that. Cable and Wireless had the same difficulties that the Post Office had during the war. Is he not aware of the considerable technical development, for example, of the repeater booster, which they put into operation during the war?

Why was the telephone service nationalised in 1911? Was it not because of the failure of private enterprise?

I think that we had better get away from this side issue of nationalisation. I am sure that a visit by Members opposite to Dollis Hill, which is not very far from here, would be welcome by the Post Office. It would show them what the Post Office are doing in their research department, and I am sure that Members would go away impressed by what is being done.

It is not, however, necessary for Members to go to Dollis Hill to find out what is being done by way of research. They have only to look at the Fourth Report of the Select Committee on Estimates, which was published in July. They will find there pages on recent developments resulting from Post Office engineering research, developments which are saving us hundreds of thousands of pounds a year. Research is being carried on in regard to the question of alternative materials, to which the hon. Member for Hendon. North (Mr. C. I. Orr-Ewing) referred. These alternatives are effecting a considerable saving in the scarce materials available to us at the moment. Despite all the difficulties in shortages of material and manpower, we find that since 1939, when there were just over three million telephones, we now have 5,100.000, which is an increase of 60 per cent.

There is something far more in this than merely putting in the wires to connect up the telephones. This is not a matter which applies to any one area, but to the whole of Britain. There are 51,000 engineers in the regions today, as compared with 37,000 before the war. That, of course, means that there are more men doing the job today. As I say, it is not just a question of putting in the telephones, but of providing equipment at the exchanges. At the rate at which new subscribers are coming forward, it means that exchanges have to be enlarged, and that many new areas in the country now require exchanges.

The hon. Member will realise that in the case to which I referred, the equipment is already there, and that the thousand cases to which I referred in the Oxford telephone area are cases where nothing more needs to be done than to connect up the wires.

I think the figures have been given to the House; that of the 500,000 people on the waiting list, 217,000 would require underground cables. That is not a simple matter. There are also the junction circuits to be provided between one exchange and another for local calls. It must be remembered that the number of local calls has gone up by 70 per cent., and that the number of trunk calls has gone up by 170 per cent. There were 112 million trunk calls per year before the war, as compared with 232 million today. It is a tremendous problem to fit in the junction circuits for trunk calls.

It has also been suggested that an expenditure of £300 million would be required to wipe out the waiting list. That is not altogether true. Not only have we to wipe out those on the waiting lists, but we have also to deal with the 200,000 new applicants that are coming forward each year. The difficulty is not so much shortage of labour and existing equipment; the equipment is there. The trouble is that the equipment is going abroad. This is one of the difficulties that has arisen out of war. Telephone equipment was one of those items which could be exported quite easily because of the high demand for it from abroad. Because of this demand, the manufacturers were asked to supply the equipment, and they responded to that request. The position now is that the manufacturers are finding the export market is reaching saturation point.

The Select Committee's Report states:
"The industry succeeded very well in its export drive, but competitors abroad have recovered and the effects of competition are being felt. There is already a small degree of hidden unemployment and some spare plant capacity. The industry expect further recession during the next two or three years. In these conditions they naturally look to the Post Office for possible help. They do not wish to turn off their workers, many highly skilled and all highly trained."

I am saying that there is unemployment in certain sections on the manufacturing side. My hon. Friend will see that this is true if he reads the evidence given before the Committee. Therefore, we can say that the only thing that is preventing an extension of the telephone service is the limitation put on capital expenditure. I hope that the Postmaster-General is making demands on the Treasury for an increase in their allocation for these purposes. We should bear in mind what the Post Office has done in meeting these pent-up demands, and the fresh demands that are coming forward, due entirely to the new prosperity that has come to Britain. Members opposite may smile, but there was not a waiting list before the war, simply because people with telephones could not afford them and handed them over.

Is the hon. Member suggesting that this prosperity has arisen out of such social experiments as nationalisation of coal and the groundnut scheme?

The hon. Member is trying to deny a fact. The fact is that there are about half a million people who want telephones, in addition to the large number of people who have already been connected up, which means that more people can afford to have a telephone today.

We must look at this matter from the objective point of view of the amount that can be spent under the investment programme. One of the astounding facts is that the Post Office are spending only £29 million a year, which means, when we translate that amount into pre-war figures, that we are spending no more today than before the war. There is a very good case for an increase in the allocation of money for expenditure by the Post Office on capital investment.

At the same time it should be remembered that we have not only to extend the service but in many cases to replace some of the existing plant. One million telephones are of the old candlestick variety—it has been obsolete for about 10 years—and the Post Office also has the task of replacing them. I do not believe that justice has been done to the engineers and to their desire to go ahead and make the service even more modern than it is now. That cannot be done unless the capital investment allocation to the Post Office is increased.

7.16 p.m.

We have had a very interesting debate about telephones, the shortage of which—we readily admit it—has existed since the end of the war. Although the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Bell) appreciated the difficulty in his speech, he failed to indicate any way in which the position could be ameliorated. He referred to the increase in the allocation of capital expenditure to the Post Office, but that is hardly in conformity with the general policy of the Opposition. Quite recently at Blackpool the Opposition were saying that the first priority after defence ought to be housing. We cannot have more houses unless there is a greater allocation of capital investment to housing and if that is to happen there must be less capital investment for other services such as power stations, schools and the telephones. As long as there is the difficulty about capital investment there is bound to be a shortage of telephones.

The number of people in South Buckinghamshire waiting for telephones to be connected is 319 out of a total of 1,262 on the telephone waiting list. They are having to wait because of a shortage of labour, but the hon. Gentleman must realise that there is a very difficult situation in that area owing to the necessity for allocating skilled engineers to defence purposes, and, according to the Opposition itself, defence must come first. The hon. Gentleman had a little fun about letters. The letters which my right hon. Friend has sent him are factual letters. When a case is remitted to the Department by an hon. Member we state categorically the reason why the telephone cannot be provided. That is why there is a variation in the letters.

What are the real reasons for the shortage of telephones? There is the lack of cables, the lack of exchange equipment, and the shortage of buildings. At present 169 exchanges are completely full and require new buildings. In order to overcome the shortage the Department must have a larger capital investment allocation. However, many interests in the country are competing for a greater capital investment allocation. The power stations, the modernisation of the coal mines, the railways, the textile mills and so on all have to be considered, and my right hon. Friend consistently and persistently puts forward the Post Office's claim for a greater allocation. This year we have been allocated an extra £500,000 capital investment for the Post Office. The figure will be £44·5 million as against £44 million for the year before.

An interesting point is that the rate of demand for telephones today is half as much as it was before the war. As my hon. Friends said, this is an outward and visible sign of a flourishing economy—

Does not the hon. Gentleman mean "half as much again"?

Yes, half as much again as before the war. The trunk service has increased by 100 per cent. and is annually increasing at the rate of 7 or 8 per cent. The capital investment allocation of £44 million for this year represents 77·3 per cent. of the average pre-war amount. As hon. Gentlemen on both sides have indicated, this is due to the considerable increases in the prices of the raw materials required in connection with the installation of telephones. The number waiting for telephones a month ago was 543,326. During the last month it has risen slightly: two months ago there was a slight reduction. At present we are holding the position at round about 543,000.

The amount required to wipe out the whole of the waiting lists, to pay for the development of the trunk network and to meet the capital costs charged to capital account by the transfer of telephones is the colossal sum of £300 million. It will therefore be generally appreciated that it is impossible for my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General or my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, having regard to the present international tension, to say how long someone who is at present waiting for a telephone will have to wait before he is supplied.

Can the hon. Gentleman tell us the extent of the demand of Government Departments for telephone services, bearing in mind that in 1948 the Ministry of Supply had a telephone bill of £1,100,000?

I cannot give that information now as it is a new point raised by an intervention, but if the hon. Gentleman cares to put down a Question I will readily supply the answer.

We must not under-estimate the work done by the Department in the five years since the end of the war. Tribute has been paid from both sides of the House to the work of the Post Office engineering department. An attempt has been made to insinuate that the figure given for the number of new telephones installed since the end of the war is incorrect and that it takes into account transferred telephones. I am happy to be able to give the exact figure. On 30 June, 1945, the number of telephone stations in Great Britain and Northern Ireland was 3,903,000; on 30th September, the last available date, the figure was 5,294,000. Therefore, there has been a net Increase of 1,391,000 or 26 per cent.

We can say that one in four of the telephones now in Great Britain have been installed since 1945. That is a tine achievement having regard to the difficulties of capital investment and the shortages of equipment and raw materials. It is also a tribute to the foresight of the Department before the war in planning ahead in the requirements for laying cable ducts and in making available the necessary telephone equipment.

I was giving credit not so much to the Tory Party as to the engineers. In providing new telephones we have given preference to farmers in a way which the Opposition never did. Very few farmers today have not got a telephone or are not on the waiting list for one. They can afford telephones today, but they could not before the war. Telephones have been supplied to 12,000 farmers in the last two years. In reply to the point of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Macdonald) about the provision of rural telephone kiosks, I can say that more than 5,000 have been provided in the last two years. Today the local community has not to pay the £20 which was required for the provision of a rural kiosk before the war. The allocation of rural kiosks is now the province of the rural district councils and the county councils.

Does the hon. Gentleman anticipate that in the near future he will be able to increase the number of telephone kiosks available to rural communities?

I cannot say. The position is continually under review. The figures for last year were greater than those for the previous year. We are fully alive to the necessity for providing rural kiosks. That is apparent to anyone who goes round the countryside.

The priorities for the telephone are: public utilities; health and life saving services—doctors, nurses and midwives; Government Departments; businesses engaged on production for export or the saving of imports. Those priorities are rigorously applied and in present circumstances the potential residential subscriber is bound to come last. That does not mean that residential subscribers have not been provided with the telephone during the last few years. There has been a net increase of 78,000 residential subscribers in the last year. Where cable and exchange equipment are available the residential subscriber gets the telephone because it is in the interests of the Department to provide as many telephones as possible.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the policy whereby if a tenant leaves a house or shop where a telephone is installed the telephone is taken out, even if the incoming tenant is prepared to take it over? Would it not be greatly in the interests of the Department and save manpower if the priorities were waived and the telephone left so that the incoming tenant could take over the service forthwith?

My hon. Friend is anticipating my reply to the debate. That point has been raised by two hon. Mem- bers who asked what happened when a telephone is taken away from a removing subscriber. I shall deal with the point. I hasten to assure hon. Gentlemen that there have been many Parliamentary Questions on that point.

Before that intervention, I was saying that at the present time the stringency in capital investment did not mean that residential subscribers were never supplied with a telephone. We have gone further than that. We have introduced telephone sharing, by the shared line. There are more than 266,000 people availing themselves of the shared service. In 1947 my right hon. Friend's predecessor laid it down, in this House, that new subscribers coming in would have to enter into an agreement to share their lines, and that is now taking place.

Now let me come to the position of the person who is removing, and another person comes into the premises. There is a telephone, and we proceed to remove it. We take, quite rightly, I think, the view that it is unfair that a person coming from one district to another should automatically go to the top of the list for the provision of a telephone. It may appear to be a hardship and a source of annoyance to an incoming tenant to see the instrument there and not to get it. The tenant assumes naturally that, the telephone being there, all we have to do is to connect it. What my right hon. Friend does is to use the wires and the cables for somebody who has been waiting for a telephone for a considerable time. In the circumstances, that is the most just way to deal with a very difficult problem.

Is my hon. Friend saying that whereas he cannot afford the labour to put in new telephones, he can afford the labour to rip some out?

That is rather a disingenuous intervention. They are two entirely different matters, and no one knows that better than the hon. Member. I want to come to the question which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Lang), who made a fervent appeal—

Will not the hon. Gentleman answer the specific question put to him by his hon. Friend? How much does the taking out of telephones mean in man-hours and manpower, when the Department is so short of labour?

It is entirely impossible to assess it. We are concerned about being fair to the people who are coming in. If hon. Gentlemen will give us specific cases where this has happened, we shall be only too happy, either in Horsham or elsewhere, to tell them how many man-hours it took to effect the change.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde complained about the tone and the nature of letters sent by telephone managers, and asked that in every case where it was impossible to grant a telephone we should give the specific reasons to the applicant. My experience of telephone managers, now and before I came into the House, has been that they are very accessible and that they are only too happy to help people who require the telephone.

I come to the point raised by the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mr. Shepherd). He cited the case of a person who had been waiting for 10 years for a telephone. If that is so, it is not the responsibility of this Government; but I have never before heard of a person waiting for 10 years for a telephone. If the hon. Gentleman will let us have the case we will look at it and see what has been the reason for the delay.

The hon. Member drew a red herring across the trail when he said that people in nationalised industries have preference in the provision of telephones. He made the general statement that anyone employed in a nationalised industry is automatically provided with a telephone. That is untrue. What we would do, if it were the case of a resident engineer at a power station, for instance, or at a gas works, and he had to be on call in order to preserve continuity in the public service, would be to say that there was obviously prima facie case for giving him preference, and that would be done. There is no preference whatsoever for the person who is employed in a nationalised industry. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the case of a business in his area. Lacking details, I cannot give him the reasons why no telephone has been made available.

I was then asked to qualify an answer given by my right hon. Friend with regard to the speed of answer and the overall efficiency of the service. A week ago, my right hon. Friend said in answer to a Question quite categorically and without any qualification whatsoever that the speed of answer in the telephone service is better than pre-war. The hon. Gentleman doubted that, but the figures show that in pre-war days the percentage of calls connected at the first attempt was 72.4 per cent., that in 1945 it had dropped to 70.8 but in September, 1950, it was 74.4. The percentage of calls lost due to the Department, by wrong number, no tone or incorrect tone was 9 per cent. before the war, 9.1 per cent. in 1945 and 6.1 per cent. in September, 1950. Those figures are perfectly genuine and they prove the overall efficiency in the maintenance of our telephone network, particularly in the exchanges.

I was particularly pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman's remarks that the telephone service ought to be handed over to private enterprise because it would then become very much more efficient. I very much doubt it. I do not think it would. I should be interested also to learn how far he would be able to carry his own front bench colleagues with him, or the Blackpool Conference, on this new plank in the Tory platform. I am sure that the employees in the Post Office will be interested in this new line of Tory policy.

I did not make the suggestion that the service should be transferred to private enterprise. I said that the engineers were so keen and enthusiastic, and did their job so well, that I imagined how much better it would be for them to be working for private enterprise so that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was not grabbing the fruits of their work.

The hon. Gentleman has succeeded in making a nice little intervention, but when he compares it in HANSARD with the earlier statement he made, he will find that there is a difference between them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke Newington and Hackney, North (Mr. Weitzman), raised a point with regard to the Clissold exchange which, as he rightly said, is an old manual exchange. I am not in a position to say when it will be converted to automatic working but I can assure my hon. Friend that the speed of answer at Clissold is a vast improvement on what it was 18 months ago. We have that exchange continually under review, and we are doing our best to make continuous improvement.

The hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Hay) was very fair in his remarks about the Post Office in general. He reinforced the figures given by one of his hon. Friends regarding the density of telephones amongst the population in Great Britain as compared with the United States and the Dominions. True, with the exception of South Africa, there are fewer telephones per 1,000 of the population in Britain than in most of the Dominions and in the United States; but that is a rather facile remark and is not altogether relevant, because no other country felt the impact of the war more than we did; no country mobilised its manpower, money and wealth more than Great Britain during the five years we were fighting the common enemy. To make a comparison with the U.S.A., with Australia and with New Zealand, is a little unfair. Had it not been that we had to sustain the malice of the enemy, the waiting list today would be considerably shorter than before the war.

I could not follow the argument of the hon. Member for Clitheroe (Mr. Fort). I must say, however, that for him to ask specific questions such as he did on the division of capital expenditure and the number of people who have been waiting two or three years for telephones, after informing the Department only at one o'clock that all these details would be needed, seemed to me a little unfair. I am, however, happy to pay tribute to the efficiency of the Department and to say that we have been able to get all the information which the hon. Member required. I hope he will bear this in mind when dealing with some of his private enterprise friends. I shall not weary the House by repeating all the figures for which the hon. Member asked, but I should be happy to supply them to him at the end of the Debate. I hope that if similar requests for information are put upon us in the future, we shall be given greater notice.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Daines) praised the work of the Post Office and was concerned about crossed wires. That is something which is quite liable to happen; it is a question of the maintenance of the plant. The matter is continually under review. It is quite true that interesting circumstances arise from conversations which are overheard.

The hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. C. I. Orr-Ewing) asked what was being done in the field of research regarding substitutes for lead and zinc. It would be a good thing if hon. Members on all sides were to visit the Dollis Hill Research Laboratory of the Post Office. I happened to be present at its opening, as a very junior member of a local authority. I live nearby, and over a period of years I have maintained great interest in the work of the Research Department. We have made great strides forward in the sheathing of cables by insulating materials and we hope that in time this progress will go a long way to solving this very difficult and costly problem.

We know that the acute shortage of telephones is a source of annoyance to many hon. Members and to the public, but any fair-minded person, approaching the matter even from a critical viewpoint, would realise that under present circumstances the Department are doing all they can to meet this need and are displaying initiative and drive. Until sufficient capital for investment is available for the Department, the shortage is bound to persist, but within our resources we are doing all that we can to meet the problem. The amount available depends on many competing needs of the general economic life of the community. We shall continue to do what we can, and shall be always happy to listen to any suggestions which hon. Members in any part of the House may make for dealing with this very difficult problem of the shortage of telephones.

Has my hon. Friend anything to say about the very strong complaints I made on the question of the duplicated letters?