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Clause 1—(Charges For Telegrams)

Volume 526: debated on Wednesday 14 April 1954

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It might be for the convenience of the Committee if we took the first two Amendments to page 1, lines 9 and 11, together.

6.3 p.m.

I beg to move, in page 1, line 9, to leave out "three," and to insert "two."

I agree, Sir Charles, that it would be also convenient to discuss the Amendment to page 1, line 11, to leave out "threepence," and insert "twopence."

The object of the two Amendments is to reduce the increase in charges by 66| per cent. As it stands, the Bill doubles the charges for telegrams of 12 words and also doubles the wordage charge. Quite frankly, we think that that is far too excessive. We opposed the Bill on Second Reading, although we fully appreciate that a case can be made out for an increase in telegraph charges. The Committee cannot view with equanimity a deficit of £3,636,000 in the telegraph account. It is also pretty obvious that we share with the Assistant Postmaster-General concern for the preservation as far as possible of the 2½d. post. I think that it would be generally agreed that the main reason for the introduction of this Bill is to preserve the 2½d. post.

We have had an increase in the Money Order poundage, the telephone rentals and the telephone call charges and, when we on this side of the Committee were in office in 1951, an increase in telegraph charges. Everything is being done to conserve the 2½d. postage. We feel that if these telegraph charges are to be doubled, they will be far too excessive for those who use the telegraph service. To double the charges is very unfair, and we believe that it will lead to an increased deficit.

We are strengthened in our belief by what has happened heretofore. For instance, in 1950–51 the telegraph deficit was £4,193,097. The deficit by 1951–52 had been reduced by something like £800,000. But it is interesting to note that in the following year, 1952–53, the last year for which public accounts are available, when telegraph charges were increased, there was a rather sharp increase in the deficit on telegrams of roughly £300,000.

That rather points to the fact that an increase in the telegraph charge will not have the effect that the Assistant Postmaster-General thinks it will have. The hon. Gentleman was quite frank on Second Reading and said that he was making an intelligent guess. We have not the same sources of information, but we too can make an intelligent guess, and we think that if there is an increase of 6d. to 2s. on telegrams and an increase on the wordage charge from 1½d. to 2d., that will meet the case.

The hon. Gentleman based his argument on the fact that the more telegrams that are sent the bigger the loss. I do not think that that follows. The hon. Gentleman has obviously taken the number of telegrams sent and divided that number into the revenue and worked out the cost of the telegram. That would be all very well if one presupposed that every extra telegram that is sent means increased labour. In our submission that is not the case. If the hon. Gentleman goes round the various telegraph offices and the ordinary post offices, he will see that that cannot possibly appertain. Surely the hon. Gentleman is not going to suggest that all the telegraph offices and the Creed machines are occupied all the time. That cannot be so by the nature of the telegraph service. One is bound to have a peak service from time to time and at other times a "float" of staff.

With the possible exception of the ring of telegraph offices in London, the telegram boys, or junior postmen as they are now known, are not fully occupied in delivering telegrams. The average junior postman when he is in the post office goes round the office to learn the job. His work is something in the nature of an apprenticeship. Therefore, we believe, even on the arithmetical sum that the hon. Gentleman presented to the House on Second Reading that it will not follow that the more telegrams that are delivered the greater will be the deficit.

We realise that the telegraph service is bound to continue to show a deficit for the obvious reason that more and more telephones are being installed. Furthermore, we believe that the Department has done everything possible to economise on the telegraph service. As I said on Second Reading, there have been many Departmental inquiries into this problem and every Postmaster-General has had to face it from time almost immemorial. The mechanisation that has taken place in the service has saved £500,000. There has been considerable saving in the deployment of manpower. Here I think we can rightly pay tribute to the way in which the unions have approached the problem. It has been done in a constructive manner. They have realised the problem and have been accommodating in dealing with something which is bound to lead to redundancy. I think their approach has been very statesmanlike.

The main issue before the Committee, and the purpose of our Amendment, is to reduce the charge which it is proposed to make for telegrams. We have gone into this very carefully indeed, and we feel that if the Bill becomes law as it is now drafted, the deficit will not be reduced. We think it will cause hardship to people who use the telegram service. We all want to preserve the 2½d. post. It has always been a matter of amazement to me to see how the Post Office has managed to do so, particularly as it has carried wage increases of more than £50 million since 1945. That is certainly a tribute to a nationalised industry. I should like to know what private industry has carried anything like the same proportion of wage increases and not increased its prices since the war. That is one of the finest tributes we could pay to a publicly-owned service.

The Department and the hon. Gentleman, having considered the advice given him, have been frank enough to say that this is an intelligent guess. We believe that our Amendment is also an intelligent guess, but we think it has the advantage of not pricing telegrams out of the market. It avoids putting an unnecessary incubus on certain sections of industry. I do not like special pleading for special industries. Reference has been made to the fishing industry, but that argument does not appeal to me. I think that, taking the whole field of industry, what the hon. Gentleman is now doing is such as will not mitigate the deficit but will cause hardship. Therefore, we hope that he will consider the Amendments very carefully. They are not made in the spirit of obstruction; indeed, our whole approach to the Bill is constructive, as was outlined by my right hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Ness Edwards) on Second Reading.

My right hon. Friend had to deal with the problem when he came to the Department. I was there for six and a half years, and I know that it was continually discussed. In the light of our experience and of consultation with the people engaged in the Department actually doing the job, we feel that to increase the charge by 100 per cent, is far too much. Therefore, we move the Amendment to increase the charges by one-third.

I am rather surprised that, after the debate we had on Second Reading, the Assistant Postmaster-General did not volunteer to come today with an Amendment, if not exactly on the same lines as these Amendments, at least proposing some thing less drastic and less fatal to the Post Office service than the original proposals. I do not know about my hon. Friends and hon. Members opposite—