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Inland Telegrams (Tariff Increases)

Volume 524: debated on Wednesday 3 March 1954

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With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like, in answer to Question No. 36, to make a statement about the inland telegram service.

As the House is aware from the Eleventh Report from the Select Committee on Estimates in the last Session, the financial position of the inland telegram has been getting steadily worse since the war. It has, in fact, lost money ever since 1872; but we have now reached the stage where an inland telegram brings in an average revenue of little over 2s. against a cost of 5s., which means an average loss of nearly 3s. on each message. The total loss this year will be about £4½ million.

The Government have reluctantly decided that it would not be right for the users of other Post Office services to go on subsidising telegrams to this extent. We have now nearly reached the limit of internal economies; in fact, the engineering plant costs, on an average, on one telegram are now less than 6d. out of the total cost of 5s. A reduction in tariffs would only increase the loss.

It is, therefore, proposed to introduce legislation to provide for the following increases in tariff: The charge for an ordinary inland telegram will be increased from Is. 6d. for 12 words and l½d. a word thereafter, to 3s. for 12 words and 3d. per word thereafter. The greetings telegram will be continued at the new tariff, but the supplementary charge will remain at 6d.

For Press telegrams, which have now been largely replaced by private telegraph wires, and now only amount to £30,000 per year, the charge is 1s. 3d. for each page; this will be raised to 3s., the same charge as for ordinary telegrams, and copies from 3d. a page to Is. a message, also as for ordinary telegrams.

An analysis of telegraph traffic shows that nearly 50 per cent, of telegrams are business messages, two-fifths of the balance are greetings telegrams, and an overwhelming percentage of the rest are social and domestic. Less than 3 per cent, of the messages sent are of a life and death character. To put it another way, on an average each family sends one telegram a year, and less than one life and death telegram every 12 years.

I am, however, glad to inform the House that a cheaper overnight service will be introduced at the present rate of Is. 6d. for 12 words and l½d. for each additional word. Telegrams, other than greetings telegrams, will be accepted at any time up to 10 p.m. for delivery early next morning, normally by the first post.

We estimate that, when these changes are-fully effective, they will reduce the deficit on inland telegrams to about £2 million a year. Even so, the inland telegram will still be subsidised by the users of other Post Office services to the extent of about a quarter of its cost.

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will realise that what he has conveyed to the House this afternoon will be regarded with very great dismay. I am afraid that he is attracting to the Post Office an unpopularity which it does not deserve. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the telegraph service has always made a deficit, and has been carried by the generality of the services. He now proposes, does he not, to reduce the deficit to the lowest point since 1920—to 73x00A3;2 million—by charging people who send life and death messages five times the amount that he charges the Press lords for similar services.

Is the hon. Gentleman not also aware that his analysis of one life and death telegram over 12 years is utter nonsense? He has brought into account the 5 million people with other means of communication—the telephone users. If he reduces his figures by including only those people without other means of communication, it is plain that, unfortunately, these occurrences take place much more frequently. This proposal is quite unjustified. It is a bad handling of Post Office finances, and we shall resist the hon. Gentleman's attempt to put it through the House.

The right hon. Gentleman is quite wrong when he says that we are reducing the deficit to the lowest point for 20 years. The average deficit for inland telegrams during the years between the wars was £1 million. It has now reached £4½ million, and unless we increase the charges to the people who use the telephone, or make additional charges for postal services, we are faced with the decision that this service must break even to a far greater extent than it has done in the past.

Is not the hon. Member aware that the size of this increase will do what some of his hon. Friends want to do—kill this service and have no regard for those without other means of communication?

We are not disregarding these people at all. The traffic has been going down every month, and we are faced with the position that Post Office finances, at this moment, cannot stand the continual loss.

On a point of Order. As Question No. 36 is my Question, is it not usual to allow the asker of a Question to put the first supplementary? May I ask the hon. Gentleman a supplementary question?

As the Post Office has managed to make a loss for 82 years on this service, will my hon. Friend consider consulting the Government to see whether private enterprise might take on the job?

Is the hon. Member aware that his statement will come as a very great shock to the whole community, and that this further addition to the daily announcements we have had about the increased cost of living will be resented by everybody except the Government? In view of the fact that many telegrams are sent by telephone, is it not possible for the hon. Member to say that in such cases there shall be no further increase, since no delivery charge is required?

There are other charges. The cost of delivering a telegram by telephone is not all that much less than for delivering it in the ordinary way.

Is not the hon. Gentleman aware of the general principle of the postal service, which has been not to consider each service or area as making a profit? If we worked on those business lines there would be no telephones in Scotland. Is it not a fact that the Londoner pays a great deal for the service to the rest of the country, because London is a paying proposition and the country is not? The hon. Gentleman is introducing a principle which is quite alien to the Post Office tradition which has been established for very many years.

I do not think I am. When the deficit on the telegraph service has reached the enormous sum of £4½million a year, something has to be done about it, unpopular though it may be to do it, unless we are to charge users of other Post Office services even more.

Surely exactly the same would apply, if the hon. Gentleman chose to work it out, in remote parts of the country. He would find that he was spending millions of pounds on them. That is carried by the rest of the community. That is a Post Office principle, and a very sound Socialist principle, too.

I agree, but the point is that the deficit has reached £4½ million and we have to do something about it. I must warn the House that the estimated Post Office surplus for next year is the lowest for 30 years.

Can my hon. Friend say whether the Post Office Advisory Council was consulted before this step was taken? If it was, did it agree with the step?

On a point of order. I understand that it is quite contrary to Post Office practice to divulge the attitude and views of the Advisory Council. I am informed from the minutes, of which I have a copy, that it did not agree to this proposal.

Order. This is to be the subject of legislation at a later time when we can debate all these issues in plenty of time. At present, there is no Question before the House.

On a point of order. As a large number of members of the staff are also likely to be involved ill this matter, Mr. Speaker, do you not think it would be fair to allow a supplementary question to be put in connection with that issue?

There are many interests involved here, and if I were to feel bound to allow every interest to be voiced at Question time we should never get on. All the interests of the staff and other interests can be voiced more appropriately, with more time and without holding up the business of the House, when the Bill is before the House.

Perhaps I may reply to the point raised by the right hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards). The statement which he has made is not correct.

I put a point of order to you a moment ago, Mr. Speaker, about the disclosure in this House by the Assistant Postmaster-General of the advice of the Post Office Council. He answered "Yes" to two questions put to him. My information is that that statement was made to the Advisory Council but that it was not asked to give a decision on the specific proposal.

That is quite different from what the right hon. Member said earlier. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] What the right hon. Gentleman then said was that the Advisory Council did not agree to this step. That is not correct.

The Council was not asked to agree. It was asked to receive a report and it was not asked to agree with the proposal which was put forward. That is not what the hon. Gentleman said in reply to his hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Mr. Erroll).

Is it not clear that the Assistant Postmaster-General distinctly gave the impression to the House that the Advisory Council had concurred In the Government's decision? Why does he shuffle about like this when it is now quite clear from what my right hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards) says, and from what the Assistant Postmaster-General himself says, that the Advisory Council was not asked to give a clear "Yes" or "No" to the question and has not given a clear "Yes" or "No" to it? Why does he shuffle about on this matter?

There is no question of shuffling about. I do not know why the right hon. Member for Caerphilly has knowledge of what happens with the Advisory Council, but the question was put to the Advisory Council as to whether or not it agreed with this step, and the answer was "Yes.

I must ask hon. Members to resume their seats. The hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) had a point of order first.

As a member of the Post Office Advisory Council, but one who, unfortunately, because of Estimates Committee duties, was not at the last meeting, I want to know what protection members of the Post Office Advisory Council have from statements which are made by the Assistant Postmaster-General. Never in my knowledge of the workings of that Council have we been asked to agree to anything which has been put forward by the Postmaster-General.

On a point of order. I should like, Mr. Speaker, to ask your permission to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 9 to give the House an opportunity to discuss the situation which is now manifesting itself from the report of the Assistant Postmaster-General and the rash decision of the Government on a matter of great social importance.

I could not accept such a Motion. It does not comply with any of the conditions of Standing Order No. 9.

Further to my point of order. In view of what has been said, may I ask the Assistant Postmaster-General whether it is not the case that the Advisory Council makes no decisions at all but merely receives reports? The Postmaster-General can hear what it has to say, but it is not entitled to take, and never has taken, decisions on Government policy. That is a matter entirely for the Postmaster-General, not for the Council.

As its name implies, the Advisory Council is advisory. This question was put to the Advisory Council and the Council agreed that it was a necessary step.

Order. I must ask hon. Members not to attempt to prolong the debate under the guise of points of order. It is a misuse of the procedure.

In view of the importance of the statement which has been made, may I respectfully submit that it is totally impossible to elicit the necessary information by way of questions, Sir?

I think it is. I think we shall get on better when we come to the legislation.

On a point of order. In his statement the Minister mentioned official documents in support of, and justification for, the statement he has announced. Would it be in order to instruct or request the Minister to place such relevant documents in the Library, so that they may be inspected by hon. Members?