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Telephone Service, Kensington

Volume 526: debated on Monday 5 April 1954

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [ Mr. Kaberry.]

10.1 p.m.

The subject of this Adjournment is a far cry from the hydrogen bomb, and I am sure the Assistant Postmaster-General will turn his attention to this rather mundane matter with relief.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware from my communication with him before this debate, I am anxious to ascertain from him and his Department what steps they propose to take to alleviate the serious telephone shortage in Kensington. I do not propose to delay the House very long, because I know that the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington, South (Sir P. Spens) wishes to say a few words about his part of the borough.

We have had, as the Assistant Postmaster-General knows, a very great shortage of telephones in Kensington since the end of the war. I am not disposed to blame either him or his predecessor too much for this shortage. We know that the chief villain of the piece, if he can be so described, is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the Postmaster-General is caught between the pincers of rearmament and the Welfare State. There is, however, a widespread feeling among my constituents that Kensington is not getting its fair share of available materials. Time after time I receive letters from my constituents complaining that they are unable to get a telephone installed and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, too often the reply is that no cables are available. This has very serious consequences for a great many people in Kensington.

All sorts of people nowadays find the telephone an indispensable part of the equipment of their ordinary everyday life, and indeed some of them are unable to carry on their normal employment because of their inability to secure a telephone from the Post Office. I do not wish to bore the House with a repetition of many instances of personal difficulties, but there is a member of the London Symphony Orchestra who is unable to get engagements because he has no telephone; messages sent by post or by messenger are inadequate to secure him work, and as a result he often loses what engagements there might be.

Another case that I have concerns a London County Council member from my area who is going to change her residence in a few weeks' time, but she has been told that she cannot have a telephone. People find it difficult to understand why, having had a telephone, they cannot have one immediately they move to another area. Of course, they do not understand the technical difficulties of cables and so on, but it is obviously very difficult for a person like a member of an important body like the London County Council, who is a governor of several schools and who has need of a telephone, when she is unable to secure the installation of a telephone within a reasonable period.

Then there are people like nurses, who also depend upon telephone communications for their engagements, and miss much employment because of the absence of one. Quite a wide variety of members of the public in North Kensington experience great difficulty and personal hardship because of their inability to persuade the Post Office to grant them telephones. I am aware of the difficulties, but we some-times feel that the Post Office is not giving our area its full share.

The Royal Borough of Kensington is a very important part of London, as the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington, South would agree. We have a cross-section of the most important people in London. A great many Members of this House live in Kensington, together with many learned men, scientists and artists, and it is important that we get a fair share of the materials and capital which the Assistant Postmaster-General has to spare for London. I hope that he will give an explanation of the delay in supplying telephones in Kensington and give us some idea of future prospects by telling us of his immediate aims for the solution of this shortage in Kensington.

10.6 p.m.

I am very glad to support the hon. Member for Kensington, North (Mr. G. H. R. Rogers). However bad the problem may be in North Kensington, I feel that it is very much worse in South Kensington, and has been so for a very long time. That is chiefly due to the fact that throughout the whole of South Kensington the old, large Victorian houses are being sub-divided, and houses which, before the war, were well served by one telephone, are now demanding at least two and very often a great many more. That process is going on.

I know very well that the difficulty of cables and materials is very great, and I want to tell my hon. Friend that the assistance I have received from his officials over the last three years has been very helpful and sympathetic. None the less, sitting in this House one is well aware of pressure from all over the country being brought to bear on the Post Office, and I share to a slight extent the feeling voiced by the hon. Member opposite, that unless one speaks up vehemently —I will not say violently—for one's own area there is a chance that materials will go elsewhere. It is for that reason that I support the hon. Member tonight.

On the whole, the system of dealing with this large demand is as fair as it can be, but there are two points which now operate to cause the strongest feeling among people. One is the necessity for people to share lines which the Post Office has had to impose in many cases. I have received numerous letters from people who have enjoyed for years an exclusive line, and have then been called upon abruptly by the Post Office to share another line. Those letters are very strong in their tones.

If it is necessary to pursue this line-sharing policy, it is absolutely essential for the Post Office to explain to its old subscribers the necessity for the policy, and to deal with the matter sympathetically, and not by writing a short, curt letter, saying, "You signed an agreement some years ago under which we are entitled to make you share a line, and you are going to share a line from the day after tomorrow," or in a fort-night's time, as the case may be. That does not make for contentment among people, and it causes much harassment and trouble to the Members of Parliament concerned.

The second point, which causes equal trouble, and, I suppose, is necessary, but should be avoided in every possible case, arises when people move into a house or flat which possesses all the necessary equipment. They ask for the telephone to be connected up. "Not a bit of it," says the Post Office, "there is someone much higher on the list than you." Instead of the telephone's being connected up, somebody comes to remove the instrument. That makes people savagely angry with the Post Office. It may be fair to those who have been on the waiting list for a long time, but it is a most unpopular thing, and explaining to people the fairness of it causes Members of Parliament great trouble. I know my hon. Friend has had very many letters from me about these things, and so have his officials. They have been sympathetic, but I want them to redouble their efforts to get the waiting lists very much shorter than they are.

10.11 p.m.

I can understand the hon. Gentleman, Member for Kensington, North (Mr. G. H. R. Rogers) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington, South (Sir P. Spens) being worried about the telephone position. I suppose that every hon. Member of this House is. However, I hope I shall be able to convince them that their constituents are certainly being fairly treated.

My right hon. and learned Friend said that when a customer of the Post Office moves to a new house he is put more or less at the bottom of the list, even although there may be a telephone in the house to which he goes. That was the case until fairly recently. That has now been altered, and we leave the telephone where it is, except in the most exceptional circumstances where we have a very long waiting list of people who have been waiting a very long time. However, it is now the abnormal practice rather than the normal practice to move the telephone.

That is a most satisfactory statement to have elicited on the Floor of the House.

That practice has been in operation for some little time. The number of telephones in the Royal Borough is approximately 30,600. and over 10,000 have been put in during the last three years. Of those, 2,500, were put in in the Kensington, North constituency. Last year we put in more telephones than in any previous year. We put in more than 4,000 in the borough as a whole, and nearly 1,200 in North Kensington.

At 31st December last, the last date for which figures are available, there were 1,862 people waiting for telephones in the borough, of whom 1,019 were in course of being met or under inquiry. This represents a fall of not less than 1,064 compared with a year ago. In North Kensington the total number of people waiting for telephones fell during 1953 by 452.

All the private subscribers. I shall come to that in a minute. The number of people on the telephone waiting list in the borough in 1953 was only 6 per cent, of the total number of working lines, compared with 9·2 per cent, in London as a whole and 9·9 per cent, in the United Kingdom. So I think the hon. Gentleman and my right hon. and learned Friend will agree that Kensington, although it is not getting what it wants, is certainly better off on the average than the rest of the country.

What has hampered Post Office plans more than anything else, and this applies not only in Kensington but is the trouble everywhere, is the enormous number of new applications. From one point of view, of course, we ought to be pleased about that, because the fact that people can afford to have telephones is a reflection of the general prosperity of the country. It is, however, a difficulty that stands in our way in reducing materially the waiting list. In 1953, in Kensington there were no less than 3,380 new applications. And, of course, it may well continue.

Perhaps I may give the figures for the country as a whole. At present, new applications are flooding in at the rate of over 400,000 a year, compared with 350,000 for 1947–48 and only 238,000 in the year before the war. It is almost double the number of before the war. Although we have put in three million new lines since 1st April, 1945, we are still faced with a waiting list for the country as a whole of over 360,000. This includes 106,000 in course of provision or under investigation. This waiting list is a substantial figure, and if new applications continue to come in at the present rate, as well they may, it may be some time before we can reduce the list to moderate proportions. It is, however, only fair to point out that the waiting list is 130,000 less than it was two years ago and almost 200,000 less than it was at the peak waiting period of five years ago.

To have over 6 million telephones, about half of them added since the end of the war, is not a bad achievement. How have we done it? Very largely by the shared service to which my right hon. and learned Friend objects. I do not like shared service any more than anyone, else, and it is not our intention that it will continue longer than is necessary. I hope it will fall to my lot while I am at the Post Office to announce that shared service is no longer compulsory.

But what it has meant is that of the 700,000 people with shared service, half would not have a telephone at all if there were no shared service. It is an expedient which we have had to adopt in order to meet this period of shortage, and while the waiting list continues at the present level it would be ridiculous of us not to insist on shared service.

My right hon. and learned Friend complains that people are told abruptly that they have to share. No one who was on the telephone before 1948 has to share. The obligation is only on those who have moved or come on to the telephone since 1948, and when they came on to the telephone they knew that they might have to share. As my right hon. and learned Friend knows, shared service is not all that bad; each subscriber has a separate number and a separate bell, and unless the other chap happens to be talking when one picks up the telephone, there are no disadvantages with shared service.

In the United States— and I quote the United States because we tend to regard their flourishing economy as a standard for us all—40 per cent, of residential subscribers share with one partner and a further 30 per cent, share with three or more partners, so that over 70 per cent, of the residential subscribers in America share their service. I know that conditions are different there; it is a much bigger country and more people live in the rural areas. But the fact that the people of America have accepted shared service—up to 70 per cent, of them—is not a bad comparison for this country.

I was asked about our plans for the future. In one sense Kensington is lucky because there is at present no shortage of exchange equipment. Hon. Members will appreciate the difference between exchange equipment and line equipment. If there were a shortage of exchange equipment we could put it right only by building a new exchange, and before we had acquired the site and finally equipped the exchange it might take anything up to four or five years. What is lacking in Kensington is lines.

People do not always realise the difference between a telephone line and some other line. A telephone line is not like an electrical supply line, where all we have to do is to tap into the main cable. Every subscriber has to have a pair of lines running between his house and the exchange. If there is no spare cable the only thing is to put in a new one, and that is an expensive business and may mean having the road up. What we like to do is to put in line plant when the situation has got to the stage when we can put in enough new cables not only to meet the immediate demands but to meet probable demands for many years to come. That is why the position often tends to go in jerks. It seems to get no better and then a whole line plant scheme comes into operation, and we mop up all the people waiting in the particular area.

In Kensington, we are already providing additional cables, and we hope to cater this year for about 250 applicants who cannot have telephones because there are no spare wires for them. Of these 250, 160 are in the North Kensington area. Hon. Members have asked me to give some estimate of what the position will be like in say a year's time. I cannot be very definite, because I have no idea how many new people will come along. I do not know whether the demand will maintain itself or whether there is a sort of saturation or semi-saturation point. We also do not know how many people will give up their lines because they have died or moved out. My guess is that in the next year it will not be very different to what it was in the past year.

To sum up the position briefly, the general situation in Kensington is better than the average for the country as a whole. Good progress has been made in connecting up applicants, and there has been a very marked reduction in the numbers outstanding in the past year. We have achieved this in spite of the heavy rate at which new applications are coming in. We expect further improvement in the future, although there may be a bold up in some localities until additional cables can be laid. Everything depends on the rate at which new applications come in. I hope that I have been able to persuade the two hon. Members that their respective constituencies have not been lost sight of by the Post Office. They have done rather better than the average, and I hope that this very healthy improvement will continue to maintain itself.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-three Minutes past Ten o'Clock.