House Of Commons
Friday, 14th May, 1954
The House met at Eleven o'Clock
[Mr. SPEAKER in the Chair]
Dundee Corporation (Water Transport Finance &C) Order Confirmation Bill
Forth Road Bridge Order Confirmation Bill
Glasgow Corporation Order Confirmation Bill
Read the Third time, and passed.
Bradford Corporation (Trolley Vehicles) Provisional Order Bill
"to confirm a Provisional Order made by the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation under the Bradford Corporation Act, 1910, relating to Bradford Corporation trolley vehicles," presented by Mr. Lennox-Boyd; read the First time; and referred to the Examiners of Petitions for Private Bills, and to be printed. [Bill 112.]
Pier And Harbour Provisional Order (Brighton) Bill
"to confirm a Provisional Order made by the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation under the General Pier and Harbour Act, 1861, relating to Brighton," presented by Mr. Lennox-Boyd; read the First time; and referred to the Examiners of Petitions for Private Bills, and to be printed. [Bill 113.]
Pier And Harbour Provisional Order (Cowes) Bill
"to confirm a Provisional Order made by the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation under the General Pier and Harbour Act, 1861, relating to Cowes," presented by Mr. Lennox-Boyd; read the First time; and referred to the Examiners of Petitions for Private Bills, and to be printed. [Bill 114.]
Pier And Harbour Provisional Order (Llanelly) Bill
"to confirm a Provisional Order made by the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation under the General Pier and Harbour Act, 1861, relating to Llanelly," presented by Mr. Lennox-Boyd; read the First time; and referred to the Examiners of Petitions for Private Bills, and to be printed. [Bill 115.]
Pier And Harbour Provisional Order (Newport (Isle Of Wight)) Bill
"to confirm a Provisional Order made by the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation under the General Pier and Harbour Act, 1861, relating to Newport (Isle of Wight)," presented by Mr. Lennox-Boyd; read the First time; and referred to the Examiners of Petitions for Private Bills, and to be printed. [Bill 116.]
Pier And Harbour Provisional Order (Salcombe) Bill
"to confirm a Provisional Order made by the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation under the General Pier and Harbour Act, 1861, relating to Salcombe," presented by Mr. Lennox-Boyd; read the First time; and referred to the Examiners of Petitions for Private Bills, and to be printed. [Bill 117.]
Pier And Harbour Provisional Order (Whitehaven) Bill
"to confirm a Provisional Order made by the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation under the General Pier and Harbour Act, 1861, relating to White-haven," presented by Mr. Lennox-Boyd; read the First time; and referred to the Examiners of Petitions for Private Bills, and to be printed. [Bill 118.]
Wolverhampton Corporation (Trolley Vehicles) Provisional Order Bill
"to confirm a Provisional Order made by the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation under the Wolverhampton Corporation Act, 1925, relating to Wolverhampton Corporation trolley vehicles," presented by Mr. Lennox-Boyd; read the First time; and referred to the Examiners of Petitions for Private Bills, and to be printed. [Bill 119.]
I beg to move,
At this time we are probably in a stronger and better position financially than we have been for some years, but it is still incumbent upon us to increase our efforts to make this country still stronger by increasing our exports. and our efficiency in every kind of commerce and business. It is essential to speed up industry and cut costs in order to employ labour more successfully and to produce what our customers overseas want from us. One of the best ways of doing this is by increasing the efficiency of our telephone service at home The Chancellor of the Exchequer has been urging us to increase our efficiency and to improve our methods of production. He has urged us to concentrate on greater output, to modernise our plants and to renew our machinery. He has requested us to plan for the best use of labour and materials. By way of encouraging us he has recently given us special investment allowances for the specific and particular purpose of bringing our plants up to date. Surely the telephone is possibly one of the very best examples of what should be brought up to date. Without modern methods and efficiency we cannot do all what the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been urging us in recent months to do. The telephone is the tool of every industry. If that tool is kept sharp it will enable us to cut the costs of production. The Government should practise what they preach. They have been preaching to all industrialists and business men that they should modernise their plant and concentrate on efficiency. The telephone service is lagging behind in this respect to a considerable extent. I know that to bring it up to date will mean spending more money, using more materials, and employing more labour. But none of these is bad if it is done wisely. Money spent wisely on the telephone service will help the finances of industry to a very considerable extent. It will enable it to produce better results as the years go by. I hope the Assistant Postmaster-General will remember that if industry does better and shows greater profits the Chancellor of the Exchequer will get an equivalent return in taxation from these industries, and not only the Chancellor of the Exchequer but the Postmaster-General will get better revenue through providing better services. If he provides a more efficient telephone service, there are bound to be more calls, and the more calls that are made the easier it is to cut administrative costs. Therefore, what I say today will be almost entirely on that theme, that if money is spent, money will come back, and that I hope the Government will therefore spend the money. Industry, business and Government Departments are all dependent on the telephone service. When the Government want greater efficiency and more production, for example in farming, they urge the farmers to bring their methods up to date by buying more tractors, by using them more efficiently. They have even helped the farmers by giving them special depreciation allowances, subsidies on fertilisers, calves, lime, and so on, and remarkable results have been achieved under. both the previous and present Government. I want to see the same kind of results achieved with the telephone service. But it seems that, although the Government are prepared to encourage the private individual to spend money on buying more tractors and other machinery, they are afraid of spending money on the telephone service. Yet vast sums of money are being spent on big generating stations to produce electric light. Every hon. Member must have been completely exasperated from time to time over the delay experienced in trying to get a telephone call through his local exchange or by dialling TOL. During a year many hours of Members' time must have been lost by the apparent inefficiency of this service, and as we multiply that by the hundreds of calls every day put in by commercial houses, the loss must be considerable. Besides the time lost—and time means money—a great many tempers are lost, and there is also a resulting loss in morale. In spite of that, the courtesy of our operators is exemplary and I give high praise to those working in difficult circumstances, because our own manner, I regret to say, on some occasions is not as exemplary as theirs. We are apt to be quick-tempered and to say hasty things over the telephone to the operator. Yet never do we get an unreasonable reply although the operators have to put up with our bad tempers, and thereby they set a magnificent example to all of us. Sometimes we get so exasperated at our failure to get calls that we give up. Several times I have given up trying to get through from London to my own home by telephone. This means loss of revenue to the Post Office and a considerable amount of business being retarded almost every day. While I am talking about the operators I want to ask my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General why there is so much sickness among those who work the telephones? Is it the conditions under which they work? Is it because they have to do too much overtime, or is it general frustration caused by the shortage of lines and the fact that the operators have great difficulty in trying to connect the subscribers? Nothing should be spared to give the operators every facility to work at their arduous task in the greatest possible comfort. Also, I believe that the public should know about the difficulties under which these operators work. My hon. Friend will tell me that chambers of commerce, rotary clubs, and other public bodies are always welcome to see the difficulties under which these people work, but does the Post Office go out of its way to invite them? If not, I suggest this should be done, because it would be good for leading business people to see the difficulties with which the operators have to contend. I have seen them in both my local exchanges and I am full of praise for those who work there. I myself appreciate the difficulties and I hope that the Postmaster-General will ensure that many other people know the difficulties under which the operators work. Those hon. Members who have been to America find a startling experience to use the telephone system in comparison with our own. Only a moment after picking up the telephone receiver in New York, for instance, one can be through to Chicago or Detroit, and there is never a delay on a local call. That sounds astounding to us. And, in spite of spending vast sums of money on their telephone system, and in spite of the higher wages, the American system still gives better returns than ours. What I am trying to impress upon my hon. Friend is that every £50 million he is able to spend on improving facilities will not be thrown down the drain, but will bring in a return. When is my hon. Friend going to get rid of the party lines, which are hated so much, especially as they are compulsory? I know he will tell me that they are not used for business purposes, but there are many business men, as well as Members of Parliament, who do much of their work at home after hours. A considerable percentage of business is carried on over party lines and I shall have more to say about that in a moment. If our exporters were sharing hammers and spanners, with one firm swapping them with another, the Government would be the first to criticise that they were not equipping their industries properly, and would tell them that the sooner they improved their tools, the better it would be for all concerned. Therefore, I am wondering what private enterprise would do if it had the job of running the telephone service. I shall not try to teach the Assistant Postmaster-General his job, because he knows the technicalities and difficulties and I do not. I shall merely put forward a few rather general and, perhaps he may think, vague suggestions. I must say here that we are grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has already done. He is a keen Assistant Postmaster-General, he is always ready to listen to suggestions put from either side of the House and to implement them when possible. If a private company were running the show, the first thing it would do would be to raise money by a bank overdraft, by the issue of debentures or by way of a loan. It would do three things. It would quicken the service, it would produce more automatic equipment, and it would provide more telephones. I said that more calls mean more revenue, and, therefore, I think that the Assistant Postmaster-General would get a return if he quickened up the service. I mentioned the exasperation that hon. Members experience when they dial TOL or ring exchanges. I know that the Assistant Postmaster-General will tell us that on an average it involves only six seconds delay. I suppose that I cannot disbelieve him, but I also suppose that I cannot be an average man, because it always seems to take a good deal longer in my case. Anyhow, I am not very happy about this six seconds delay. If one multiplies that by the number of calls, the man hours lost during a year must be very considerable. Worse than the loss of six seconds is the occasional long delay which sometimes is almost intolerable. We have all had experience of a delay of two or three minutes and people have told me that sometimes the delay is as long as 10 to 14 minutes. That has been overcome in America and it has paid for itself. Is there no way by which a call can be transferred from an operator who is busy to one who is not so busy? I cannot believe that all the operators would all be busy for 10 minutes on end. Perhaps the Assistant Postmaster-General can explain why these delays occur and what steps he can take to get rid of the occasional very long delays. All of us appreciate what my hon. Friend has done in setting up more kiosks in rural areas in the recent months, what he has done to improve the system of personal calls, which I hope will have great success, and also to arrange that messages can be left by telephone. We have an active Postmaster-General and I give him credit for all the things that he has done in recent months, but his weakness lies in lack of liaison with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It is the money that is wanted and probably the Chancellor is the cause of most of the trouble. I am told that out of about 6,000 exchanges in the country, 1,500 are still run by the manual method. Before the war, the Government had decided that all exchanges should be automatic. It is now 10 years since the war and we still have these 1,500 manual exchanges. I suppose the trouble is that there is no money to finance the change-over to automatic exchanges, but this money must he found somehow or other. If the Assistant Postmaster-General wants a suggestion for raising a small sum, at any rate, I suggest that he imposes a very heavy charge on all who use a telephone in a public kiosk for more than 15 minutes. It might, perhaps, be rather a burden on the womanhood of this country but I think that it would be a popular idea and would bring him in at least a little revenue. It is also true that most of the trunk system could be run by automatic methods. At present, only about 30 per cent, of the system is so run. As a Conservative I am very keen to economise on almost every kind of expenditure, but I am not keen to economise on capital expenditure which will bring in revenue or even on capital expenditure which will speed up business. If the Postmaster-General cannot get the moneys out of the Chancellor could there not be a telephone loan? This day, of all days, is an admirable time to consider it, when the Bank rate has been reduced and the Government can borrow more cheaply. That would provide the money to do some of the things that I suggest ought to be done. I believe that such a loan would be an economic proposition. I have suggested that we should have considerably more telephones. I think that the Assistant Postmaster-General would not disagree with me when I say that more than 350,000 telephones are wanted by business people and ordinary citizens at the present time. It seems to me almost fantastic that this state of affairs should exist so long after the war. I believe that the Post Office is content to say that it will be another five years before all will be satisfied. This state of affairs is doing damage to trade and in some cases it is losing people their livelihood. I shall not give many illustrations of that because hon. Members are very familiar with such cases. If, for example, a musician who hopes to be booked up by various people has no telephone he has practically no chance of obtaining engagements. A market gardener who must keep in touch with the markets and with people to whom he wants to sell his produce is almost put out of business if he has no telephone. Sometimes emergency calls on matters of life and death are held up by lack of telephones. I ask the Assistant Postmaster-General directly whether there is a shortage of materials and of labour. I am assured by people who make the equipment that there is no shortage of material and I do not think that there is a shortage of labour. What is my hon. Friend going to do to overcome this problem? He still has party lines which are hated by the people who use them, especially since they are compulsory. No doubt he will reply that party lines are used extensively in the United States, but that is quite a different proposition. In that country there are miles and miles of rural areas where it would not be economic to run separate lines for all subscribers. I do not believe that there is a shortage of anything now, except newsprint. If there is, why does my hon. Friend not produce the telephones? Their production will not cost the taxpayer anything because every telephone will bring in its own revenue. I should like to see the time arrive when advertisements asking people to use telephones, just as the electricity undertakings have showrooms to advertise their goods and encourage people to use more electricity. The more telephones there are the easier it is for the Post Office to reduce its costs. If the Postmaster-General spends more money on equipping businesses and houses with telephones it will also help the people who make telephones to export at a cheaper rate, for we all know that a healthy home market helps exporters. I hope that my hon. Friend will bear that in mind when he comes to tackle this problem. It seems almost incredible that only a short time ago the Post Office was limiting the amount of flex which could be used in the line from the plug where the telephone came into a room to the subscriber's desk, or bed, or wherever he wanted it to be. I congratulate the Assistant Postmaster-General on having overcome that trouble, but I am told there is still trouble about obtaining a telephone of the colour one wants. There are a variety of colours in which telephones can be obtained. But one may get anything else, lamps, lampshades or hats in any colour desired, yet there is difficulty over getting telephones of the desired colour. Another small item is the question of directories. I do not think that there is any rule laid down, but directories are issued about once a year in the London district and we only get them in alternate years unless we ask for them. That was done for a very good reason, to economise in paper, which is one of the few things of which we are still short. But has a result been an enormous number of wrong numbers through subscribers using old copies? Has it put a burden on the telephone inquiry staff? If so, perhaps the Assistant Postmaster-General will wonder whether he has done right and should consider that up-to-date directories are issued, even if people do not ask for them. I appeal to the Assistant Postmaster-General to quicken the service, to make it more automatic and to give us more telephones. If there is a shortage of money, which I think he will tell us is the cause of all the trouble, it is a scandal as we should raise loans and produce revenue. This is not like spending vast sums of money on roads or public parks, which would not be likely to bring in revenue. I hope that all Members will agree and press on the Minister that this money should be spent as he would not be losing taxpayers' money by so doing. If the public are prepared to pay for these facilities they ought to have the opportunity of doing so. I thank the Assistant Postmaster-General for what he has done in the past. He has been very active, has introduced several innovations, and listened to the suggestions which have been made. I hope he will be able to accept the Motion because I feel sure that if he does so it will stimulate him and all his staff to further efforts, which are badly needed. He will also earn the everlasting gratitude of all who use the telephones and this debate will have served a useful purpose.That this House, whilst appreciating the considerable improvement that has been made in connecting new subscribers, urges the Government to recognise the importance of a comprehensive and efficient telephone service to the trade and industry of the country; and, consistent with other demands for capital expenditure, to take every possible step to reduce the delay in obtaining calls and to improve the facilities given.
I beg to second the Motion.First, I would congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge (Mr. G. Williams), not only on his luck in the Ballot, but also on having chosen this very important topic for the House to discuss. He has covered the subject with great thoroughness and has made many points to which we must pay the greatest attention and press on the Assistant Postmaster-General. I am sure the Assistant Postmaster-General is well aware of many of the problems, because he has been working hard on them and has done a great deal to improve the situation in the short time in which he has held office. Substantial improvements have taken place during the last few months, as I am very much aware from personal experience. There are not so many complaints from my constituents about telephone problems as there used to be. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge made a special point of emphasising the courtesy we receive from the operators of the telephone system, and am glad to take the opportunity of congratulating the Assistant Postmaster-General on the excellent service given by the staff for whom he is responsible. We in East Kent regard ourselves as particularly fortunate and this is an opportunity to pay tribute to all the officers in the service from the manager at Canterbury, who has been a very great help to me, downwards. It is of great importance from the point of view of a Member of Parliament to have the close co-operation and assistance of people working the telephone system. No one could be better served in that respect than we in East Kent. It seems that although considerable improvement has taken place, there is scope for further progress and extension. If we could further improve the system it would make a fundamental contribution to the efficiency of industry generally. As a nation we find ourselves running into increasing competition from abroad and competing with the United States of America, where the capital equipment behind each work in industry is two-and-a-half-times what it is in this country. In the U.S.A. they have the good fortune of a vastly larger market on their doorstep which enables them to introduce methods of flow line production which are not possible in this country. If we can step up the efficiency of the telephone system—this vital link of communication—that will be a material factor in helping our industry to right the balance in overcoming handicaps we face of the smaller markets in which we operate. I am specially interested in the telephone problems because in the Dover constituency, at St. Margaret's Bay, we have one of the main jumping off areas for the cross-Channel telephone service. I have been particularly impressed by the efficiency of the repeater station. When I went round the establishment I saw the co-axial cable, which was something quite new to me, and which consists of a central core and outer covering. By its use one can transmit thousands of calls at the same time on the same cable by transmitting the different calls at different frequencies. In a speech in the House on 31st March, 1952, the Assistant Postmaster-General drew attention to the fact that the problem of increasing the number of telephones available in this country was not confined to the question of providing actual telephones, but also involved the provision of trunk communications and a great deal extra main equipment. What use is being made of these co-axial cables which enable one to put over many more calls with a lesser capital charge than by using the ordinary telephone lines we are accustomed to see by the sides of the roads? The development of our trunk lines by use of the co-axial cable would help a great deal in overcoming the difficulty caused through inadequate trunk-lines equipment to serve increasing numbers of telephones in people's houses. May I re-emphasise the point which my hon. Friend made about the need to reduce costs? The efficiency of our telephone system depends upon seeing that costs are kept as low as they possibly can be. That, of course, involves spreading the load as evenly as possible over the 24 hours. Therefore, I should like to ask the Assistant Postmaster-General whether the maximum use is being made of differential charges. Is the service fully occupied at night, for example? If we can spread the load evenly over the 24 hours it will mean that the same capital charges will be covering a larger number of telephone calls, thereby reducing correspondingly the cost of each call. I recall the introduction of the 6d. telephone call and the fact that the Post Office at the time jibbed at the proposal, thinking that the introduction of a 6d. telephone call would result in a loss. It was only because the manufacturers of copper wire realised that the importance to them of impressing the Post Office that it would make a profit by introducing the 6d. telephone call that we eventually got it. The manufacturers of copper wire in those days set up the Telephone Development Company, which guaranteed the Post Office against loss, with the result that the Post Office was prepared to take the plunge. It introduced the 6d. night telephone call to any part of the country, resulting in an enormous increase in traffic and, consequently, profit. I wonder whether there is not scope for a reduction in costs now, particularly in the off-period of the day, to increase the traffic and make the maximum use of the capital equipment already available in the service. Taking up one point which my hon. Friend raised—the question of money shortage, I wonder whether the problem really is financial or whether it is more that there is a danger of telephone equipment competing with the defence programme. It would be extremely helpful if the Assistant Postmaster-General could answer that question when he takes part in the debate. Members on all sides of the House are convinced of two things about the telephone service today. First, we are enthusiastic about the co-operation which we get from the people working in it. Secondly, we are convinced that if we can extend our telephone service and do so as rapidly as possible, it will make a material contribution to the increased efficiency of the industrial life of our country. This is vital if we as a nation are to survive under the growing competition of present economic conditions.
I should like to join the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Arbuthnot) in congratulating the hon. Member for Tunbridge (Mr. G. Williams) on introducing the subject which we are now debating. I should also like to join with the hon. Member for Dover in expressing thanks to the telephone staff in that delightful part of England, the county of Kent, in which both our constituencies happen to be.Particular reference was made to the operators. I am sure that the hon. Member for Tunbridge had it in mind to make a special reference to the Post Office engineers. I have been round the Chatham Exchange. I know the difficulties under which the engineers have worked. I recall particularly how those men worked when we had the floods in East Kent. Without their efforts we might have had no telephone service. I am quite sure that I can leave the subject of the Post Office engineers to my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. J. Edwards), who had such a close association with them for many years. I should have liked to congratulate the Assistant Postmaster-General, who I think has worked hard, but I do not think he deserves congratulation. He has spent far too much time on commercial television, with the result that the Post Office telephone service and other Post Office services generally have suffered. I hope that now chat commercial television seems to be out of the House for the time being he will have more time to attend to what I think are his proper functions as Assistant Postmaster-General. Then, perhaps, I may be able to congratulate him. We shall see what happens as a result of today's debate. If, as the hon. Member for Tunbridge has said, the financial situation of the country was so much better, I should feel inclined to make a full-blooded attack on the Government today. But I do not think that the financial position is that much better, and it would be dishonest for me to try to make an attack when I do not think that one is fully justified. Perhaps the hon. Member is not aware that more dollars come to us under this Government in the form of defence aid and through the stationing here of American troops than came in Marshall Aid in the last years of the Labour Government. In the last Administration I was responsible for tourism, and much as we pushed tourism to get dollar income and other foreign currency, the fact is that more dollars come to us due to the stationing of American troops in this country than from the whole tourist industry. I do not think that these factors are likely to continue. If that aid were withdrawn we should find ourselves in difficult financial circumstances. I refrain from saying anything about Russian gold, a payment of which was recently made. The financial position, however, is not so good as to enable us to make a full demand for an efficient and adequate telephone service. The hon. Member for Tunbridge made reference to the fact that this Government—and the former Government—have spent a lot of money on providing means whereby the farmer can be more efficient. That is a good investment. It is only by getting the most from our own land that we can save imports, and by doing that we shall not have to export so much. In the communications industry we have one of the brightest prospects of building up our export industry. There is both a home and an export market. I am sure that the Postmaster-General has made representations to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the President of the Board of Trade, and that they have said, "We accept your case. It is a formidable argument, but the country's economic situation demands that we should build up our export trade." I should be the last to argue at this stage that we should curtail the export trade in order to have more for home investment. I was a little disappointed that the hon. Member built up a picture of United States efficiency in a way which was not deserved. He made the claim that one picks up the telephone and immediately gets through. But is not the number sometimes engaged? The hon. Gentleman gave the illusion that everything in the United States is perfect. Obviously that is not so if the number is engaged and several people want to get that number at the same time. The United States must have that problem, although they may have more wires and more facilities than we have. But to say that there is never any hitch there is rather an exaggeration.
It is almost true to say that there is no hitch. If a number is engaged one is told so at once, and one accepts that. I do not regard that as a hitch.
The hon. Gentleman gave the impression of everything being perfect, of being able to get on the 'phone in New York and be immediately put through to Detroit.
That is true enough. Let the right hon. Gentleman try it.
Do not let us underrate the efficiency of our telephone service. Its efficiency suffers only because we have not got all the cables required. The hon. Member for Dover talked about the co-axial cable and whether we should not examine its possibilities with a view to making easier the providing of the necessary cable for the service. My guess is that we are probably ahead of America in this respect, as we are in many other fields. I remember a few years ago going to the laboratory of a great organisation in this country where I was shown a project on which they were working which would have the effect of replacing cables by a ray system. As an example, an electric light globe reflects rays in different directions, and I was told that work was being carried out on similar lines.It is not beyond the bounds of possibility therefore that in due course we shall not need to dial, as we do at present when using the telephone, but that there will be a ray used which will do away with the need for cables. I do not know if the Assistant Postmaster-General can tell us anything about it, but if that is possible I think that his Department is quite right not to push ahead with the installation of material which may become out-moded. The chief criticism to be made of the telephone service is that the Postmaster-General does not take into account the needs of the various part of the country. I hope the House will forgive me if I cite my own constituency which is a good illustration of the point I wish to make. Chatham has a Royal dockyard. It has a Royal Marine barracks—I regret that the Royal Marines are not there now—and a Naval barracks. There is also a depot for the Royal Engineers. In addition to the dockyard, Chatham is a busy seaport. There is an airport in my division, and a flying school which is used very extensively. There are engineering firms and several cement combines, associated with the Chatham Telephone Exchange, and just recently there has been established on the Isle of Grain one of the largest of our oil refineries. This all makes a heavy demand on the Chatham Exchange which was scheduled for renewal in 1940. We all know the reason why it could not then be renewed. The exchange covers a wide area including Gillingham, Rainham, Strood and Snodbury. Since the end of the war agreement was reached about the provision of a new exchange. The difficulty was to provide a site, but now that everything is set for a new exchange to be put up there is failure to carry on with the erection of it. With all these claims on the telephone facilities, the Service establishments, industrial concerns, and local commercial and business interests, scores of would-be private subscribers are still on the waiting list for telephones. The effect on the ordinary citizen can be imagined. Again, if I may be permitted to cite a personal case, I will refer to a man whose health has been impaired. This man happens to be a councillor in the city of Rochester, the chairman of the Medway Trades Council and of the Rochester and Chatham divisional Labour Party. He is an insurance agent who has been waiting for a telephone for eight or nine years. He has not pressed for one as hard as he might have done, out of consideration for the national welfare, and as a result of his thoughtfulness, and consequent failure to get a telephone, he is, I regret to say, now sick in bed, and the community is losing the services of a man who might have made a valuable contribution to the civic life of that area. Citizens on the whole stand little chance of getting a telephone, business and commercial interests rarely succeed, and with all the other pressures being exerted on the system it is not to be wondered at that there is complete dislocation in the area. That is not due to the failure of the staff, but to the lack of facilities. The Assistant Postmaster-General should not ignore the fact that the first three speakers in this debate represent constituencies in the county of Kent. It is the responsibility of the hon. Gentleman to look at the country as a whole to see where the need is greatest, but he should do his best, after the requirements of the export industries have been fulfilled, to see that what is left goes to those constituencies which need assistance now.
I must apologise to the House and to my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge (Mr. G. Williams) for arriving in the Chamber too late to hear the first part of his speech. Like other hon. Members, I have had occasion to be very critical of the telephone service and have asked a number of Questions of my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General on the subject.In view of the general interest in this debate, and my own particular interest, I took the opportunity to try to improve my knowledge about the telephone service by visiting yesterday the Whitehall Exchange. I came away greatly chastened and far less critical. Indeed, I was favourably impressed and wondered that our telephone service is so good as it is in view of the many complications with which the staff in a telephone exchange is faced. For all that, I think hon. Members will agree that there is still room for considerable improvement. It seemed to me that the main difficulty was the lack of sufficient money to spend on the service. Another difficulty is the considerable replacement of telephone operators. Many who have been trained at considerable expense—I understand that it costs about £130 to train a telephone operator—are inclined to leave the Post Office to go to what they consider more attractive jobs as telephonists in private business houses. As members of the public, we demand that there shall be a full-time, continuous and efficient telephone service. We expect that as much on Saturdays and Sundays as on any other day of the week. When a girl works as a telephone exchange operator with a private firm she does not have to work on Sundays, and very often not on Saturdays either. I do not believe that the wages paid in the public telephone service are sufficiently attractive to make up for the week-end duty which I understand the operators have to perform about once every four weeks. I do not know whether there is room for improvement in that direction, but there is a considerable wastage of skilled operators, with the result that more new and unexperienced operators come in, and, naturally, the service cannot be quite so efficient. Far more important is the lack of money, a point stressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge. There is no doubt that a great deal of the equipment in many telephone exchanges is getting old and it is inevitable that a lot of money will have to be spent in the near future to prevent a difficult situation arising in some of our exchanges. The difficulty caused by the lack of telephone lines is one frequently brought home to us in our constituencies. The right hon. Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mr. Bottomley) referred to a councillor in the City of Rochester. I could refer to a similar case concerning a councillor in the City of Manchester. The only difference between the two would seem that in my case the councillor happens to be a Conservative. That may be a tribute to his judgment, but I do not think it puts him in a higher priority for receiving a telephone. There must be a great many similar cases in the country. In Manchester, there are many small businesses the owners of which are almost being driven out of business because they cannot get a telephone. I have had many cases brought to my notice of people trying to run a one-man business and who must have a telephone to get orders but they just cannot get one. There are also people, like the two men who are councillors, who do a great deal of public work and for whom a telephone—not a party line, but one on which they can talk privately—is most essential. There are also a large number of people who do a certain amount of business from their own homes. There is a need for telephones not only in small businesses, but in private houses. To remedy this state of affairs the Treasury must make up its mind about what should come first. If we are to have improvements in the telephone service we must spend a great deal more money on it. We have many other commitments, and it is not for me to attempt to lay down the order of priority. An efficient and extended telephone service ought to bs very high on the list. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge (Mr. G. Williams) inferred, there is room for a more imaginative approach on the part of the Treasury. The suggestion about a telephone loan was one which might be further investigated. There might be some other means of raising more money, but money must be produced from somewhere to improve this vitally important service. There is one matter about which I am by no means fully satisfied. I refer to what I believe are known in the Post Office exchanges as "unfortunate calls." I have had occasion to ask my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General a number of Questions on the subject of "unfortunate calls." They are calls when the subscriber seems to have to wait 2, 3, 4, 5 or even more minutes before he can get any result or any answer from the operator. Averages are taken. I had the opportunity yesterday of seeing how that is done. The average works out at a comparatively short time between dialling the operator and getting an answer, but even in Whitehall one finds that some calls take an abnormally long time. I suppose that I have been particularly unlucky in making a number of "unfortunate calls," for the figure which my hon. Friend gave me about the average in the exchange about which I asked my Questions bore no relation whatever to my own experience. As I say, I may have had all the "unfortunate calls," but it is true that in most cases the operator seems to answer in between 5 and 20 seconds. I believe that that is a fair statement of the average. On the other hand, in many cases, one has to wait for several minutes. I wonder whether something could be done about it. I have no technical knowledge of the operation of a telephone exchange and cannot make any suggestions of much value, but I wonder whether it would be possible to introduce a special light like the one which comes on when one dials 999 and which can be seen by all around. When a call has been delayed for an abnormally long time, as sometimes happens through the human element, would it be possible for a special light to come on to attract the attention of the supervisor or all the operators? If such a light came on after a call had been delayed for more than 30 seconds, that might be of some help. There might be something in that suggestion, but, of course, I have no technical knowledge. My hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Arbuthnot) spoke about spreading the load. It is fairly widely known that there are certain peak times when a telephone exchange is inundated with a vast number of calls while during other parts of the day the operators do not do very much except sit waiting for something to happen. Those peak loads do not necessarily appear at regular in- tervals. There are all sorts of surprising factors which govern the sudden rush of calls. If there is a specially attractive play on television the number of calls falls in a marked degree. As soon as the play is over there is a rush to the telephone, whether to talk about the play or something else I do not know. I am told that even such an event as wet weather affects the number of calls on some exchanges. In the Wirral, in the neighbourhood of Hoylake, if there is a very wet Saturday afternoon there is a sudden rush on the local exchange of callers cancelling golf matches and saying that they are going home to do something else. These things cannot be governed against, but the more normal peak periods might be varied by a change in the charges, as has been suggested. The fact is that there are far too many "unfortunate calls" and something ought to be done about them. By and large, we all agree that we get rather good value for our money on the telephone service. Equally, we agree that there is still room for making it appreciably better without any great increase in expenditure. There are small ways in which the service could be improved without a lot of money being spent. On the other hand, if we want more telephones, as we do, and if we want much greater improvements, bringing our equipment thoroughly up to date, we must spend a good deal of money. We must spend more if we want a better service. If this debate serves the purpose which I hope it will serve, it will bring to the notice of the Treasury the vital need to loosen the purse strings and to give more money to improve our already good service so that we can have a considerably better one.
I join in the congratulations expressed to the hon. Member for Ton/bridge (Mr. G. Williams) for selecting this subject for discussion today. Perhaps I might also express the pleasure that I felt when I heard the tributes that he and his hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Arbuthnot) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mr. Bottomley) paid to the personnel of the Post Office who are concerned in the telephone service.As is well known, for about 10 years I had the honour to represent one section of the staff and I still have the closest relations with them. It is true that the efficiency and size of the telephone service is closely related to efficiency in industry. I endorse all that the hon. Member for Tunbridge said on that point. It would, however, be a pity if we believed that it was the business subscriber who was the only person who mattered. It is interesting to note that over the years there has been a considerable change in the proportion of residential compared with business subscribers. The Assistant Postmaster-General will no doubt correct me if I am wrong, but I think that about 40 per cent, of the subscribers are now residential subscribers, whereas 30 years; ago, I suppose, that figure would not have been 20 per cent. The person who uses the telephone for non-business purposes may be, and quite often is, using it for thoroughly desirable social purposes. I remember reading that during the war the President of the United States sent a special envoy here who went back and reported to the President on the state of our morale drawing special attention to what he called our "defence in depth." By that he did not mean the various obstructions which the Home Guard had erected all over the place, but the multiplicity of voluntary organisations which we had in Britain. Nearly all of these organisations require the use of a telephone. Quite apart from any use which I may have for the telephone in my home, there is also the great saving of time to my wife, who does a good deal of voluntary work—saving which arises from the fact that the telephone is there. In a sense it is just as important for the overall efficiency of our country that we should have live and efficient social organisations and voluntary bodies—such as those bodies connected with local government—as it is that we should have a flourishing industry. We have done a very great deal since the war. We have only to look at the amount of money involved to see how true that is. I have not the precise figures—no doubt the Assistant Postmaster-General can tell us—but I suppose we must have spent well over £300 million on capital investment in the telephone service since the war. If we look at the number of exchange lines or the number of stations—that is to say, the number of instruments—we find that there has been a very large increase since the war. It is true, nevertheless, that, judged by comparisons with other countries and using the number of telephones per head of population as a test, we are behind at least some other countries. The latest figures which I have seen appear to suggest that Denmark is about half as much again ahead of us, that Canada, New Zealand and Switzerland have getting on for twice as many telephones per head of the population as we have, and that the United States has about three times as many. I need to say nothing to the Assistant Postmaster-General about the inadequacy of the programme. He himself is fully seized of it. Perhaps I may quote to the House a few words from the speech which he made on 31st March, 1952, when he could not have been blunter or more frank. He said:
It seems to me that the situation was very well summed up by the hon. Gentleman. He, at any rate is clear that, looked at in terms of the Post Office, more ought to be done. But, as I know from my own experience, the claims of the Post Office have to be set against the claims of everybody else. There was a time in the previous Administration when I had a special responsibility for the investment programme and I therefore know what happens when all these claims come forward. We have to recognise that there is a limit to the total amount of capital investment and that somebody has to decide which part of the economy should have what, and to what extent. Although I believe that some limit must be placed on capital investment in the Post Office, I believe that the Post Office ought to have a larger programme. I am concerned not only with the size of the capital investment programme, but also with how it is to be spent. That, of course, is not unrelated to the question of the return which will be received for any expenditure. One of the interesting things which we notice if we look at the figures is the very great change which has taken place in telephone income. Whereas, before the war, the largest item in telephone income came from exchange rentals, the largest item now comes from inland calls fees, and we have now reached the position where the toll and trunk calls yield much the highest single element of revenue—higher than the rentals and higher than the local calls. This is something which, no doubt, will be bound to influence the Postmaster-General in decisions which he takes about how to allocate expenditure. Nevertheless, I am bothered about what seems to be the trend in the allocation of Post Office expenditure and I should be grateful to the hon. Member if, when he replies, he would give any up-to-date figures which he has on the distribution of capital investment as between the main items of expenditure. I am particularly interested in the amount which has been spent on local line development. The latest figures which I have show that in the year 1950–51 the capital outlay on local line development was about £6½ million, out of a capital of £30½ million outlay. That is to say, about 18 per cent, of the total capital outlay in that year was devoted to local line development. Two years later—and these are the last figures which I have—the outlay on local line development had fallen to just under £4 million, out of a total capital expenditure of about £50½ million, or a percentage of 8 per cent. I should like the hon. Member to bring that story as up to date as possible. It is significant, because not only has the percentage fallen from 18 per cent, to 8 per cent, over that period, but it will be noticed that the amount has fallen from about £6½ million to just under £4 million. This is an interesting point. Where has the money been going? I think the answer is that the Post Office have been allocating very much larger sums to trunk developments. That, no doubt, is important for very many purposes, not least, I think, for defence purposes. If, however, it is desirable on grounds of defence and because of the needs of the defence services to have a very much larger programme for trunk line development, I hope that will not be done at the expense of any necessary local line development. Those hon. Members who are interested in the needs of their constituents will, I hope, follow the connection between what they have said and what I am saying, because the fact that Mr. X is without a telephone may be due to a number of different reasons. One of them may be that there is no local line, or no point at which he can get a line from a distribution box. In these circumstances, it may be that some of the backlog of demand for telephones would be met if there was an extension of work under this heading. I do not know what the present situation is, and I am only raising this point to provide the Assistant Postmaster-General with the opportunity to bring us fully up-to-date, tell us what amount of money is available to the Post Office and whether he is satisfied with the balance between the various items. We must also recognise that the amount of money which the Post Office is to provide for the telephone service and its capital needs, however distributed, has an impact, not only on the business man and the private user, but on the men and women who work in the service. The size of the capital investment programme and the way in which it is distributed affects the livelihood and remuneration of the people doing the job. Not only that, it affects their attitude of mind, and I am never tired of insisting that the attitude of mind of people who work in any enterprise is a factor in production of the greatest importance. I have no doubt that the Assistant Postmaster-General will have studied the excellent Report from the Anglo-American Council of Productivity on the maintenance of automatic telephone exchanges. The team which went to the United States included two representatives of my own union, and they produced this extremely interesting document. One of the things discussed at length in it was the policy that should be pursued about the maintenance of automatic equipment—an extremely important matter. I do not propose to go into it in detail today, but, if that equipment is to be properly maintained, it is necessary to have a series of functional tests, adjustments, overhauls and lubrication at regular intervals calculated to find or anticipate failures before they can affect the appreciable quality of the service. Fashions change, and there has been a change since my day. I am told that now there is a good deal of scepticism about thorough-going preventive measures. I shall not discuss whether that is right or wrong, and I refer to it only to bring out the point that, if it is desired to alter the methods of maintenance of equipment, and, possibly, to reduce the actual amount of time spent on maintenance, by having a highly selective way of doing it, that will have an effect on the officers concerned, and their attitude to it will certainly be influenced by the question whether there is to be more work in other directions. When there are changes in organisation or methods, it is very difficult to make these changes satisfactorily if the attempt is made in circumstances in which the service is a contracting one. It is almost impossible to do it in such circumstances; it is very much easier if one is operating on an expanding system. It is so important, from every point of view, that we should have an expanding system, not only because an expending service will meet the needs—the desperate needs, in some cases—of some of the would-be subscribers, but also because it is necessary from the point of view of the efficiency of the service. If the Post Office is to get the most out of its staff, if it is to obtain the full advantage of the most up-to-date methods and organisation, it will need to carry the staff with it in its turn, and that cannot be done unless the men and women doing the work think that they are engaged in an expanding service. The attitude of mind of the staff is no less important than other considerations, like rates of interest or technical development, and I know of no more limiting factor to those who speak for the staff in negotiations than the attitude of mind of the workers in the Post Office. Unless the Post Office can ensure that there is this spirit of expansion, in which the men and women know that, if there are to be certain changes, they will in no sense make it more difficult for them to retain their jobs or earn more money, we shall not retain that sense of responsibility which the men and women who work in the British Post Office have given to their work for so many years."The chief point I want to make in this debate, compared with which everything else is secondary, is that the sum we are providing today, and are likely to be able to spend in the foreseeable future, is quite inadequate for the new developments which the Post Office would like to undertake, or even for us to be able to guarantee that we can maintain the service at present standards."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 31st March, 1952; Vol. 498, c. 1188.]
My hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge (Mr. G. Williams) has done a service to this House in raising this very important matter. The provision of adequate telephone facilities over the past few years has been impressed upon this House more than ever before. I do not remember ever receiving a letter from a constituent in the days before the war, asking for my help to get a telephone installed in his house or in his office, but, of course, nowadays the problem arises more and more and all of us receive hundreds of letters asking for help to provide telephones.This is not a problem which affects only Kent. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mr. Bottomley) pointed out that the first three hon. Members who spoke all came from Kent, but the next three have come from the north of England, where the problem is as urgent as in Kent. We are all agreed that everything should be done towards improving the general efficiency of the telephone service of this country. I am one of those who feel that the efficiency of the service has improved a great deal during the past two years, and I think that the Post Office is tackling a number of the problems which have been facing it. Not so very long ago, whenever one dialled a number on a London exchange, or dialled the trunk or toll exchanges, there was a long delay before one received any reply. That delay is being reduced very rapidly, and we are now getting better service than has been obtainable for some years. I still think, however, that there is great delay in the telegram service, and I think that, if members of the public dial TEL, they should be assured of a prompt reply, so that they can get their telegrams despatched as quickly as possible. At the moment, the delay is very long, but I can certainly say that, as far as overseas cables are concerned, if one dials the number of the private enterprise company handling overseas cables, one receives far quicker replies than one does in the case of the Post Office. I should like to see an improvement in that direction so that the Post Office organisation can provide a service which is as efficient and speedy as that which is provided by any outside organisation. I would also urge that an improvement should be made in the long-distance telephone service. In spite of reports which have been received, I am still firmly convinced that, on the question of long distance calls, the American system is far superior to our own, and I believe that that arises from a greater willingness to go out and find the subscriber who is being called and report back to the caller. In the United States, when one makes a long-distance call, the operator at the other end takes a lot of trouble in an effort to contact the person who is being called, or to make an arrangement for him to call back as soon as he is available, and I have found that these efforts, in some cases, have extended over several hours. It would be useful if we had that same spirit of service in this country. If people knew that there would be a continued attempt to find the other party there would be an increase in the number of long-distance calls. I have wondered whether it would not be good to separate telecommunications from the Post Office. This matter has been put before me on a number of occasions. Constituents have said to me: "Surely the business of telecommunications, which is highly technical, is in no way allied to the ordinary business of the Post Office, which is the handling of mail." They have suggested that separation would lead to greater efficiency. I am not sure of the merits of the matter, but the idea is not new. There is nothing sacred in the principle that telecommunications should be handled by the Post Office. In other countries and many parts of the British Empire the services are separated. I know people in telecommunications who feel that they could get ahead much better if they were in a Department on their own. As I understand the matter, the postmaster of any particular town is also head of the organisation running telecommunications. It would be interesting to know how many telecommunications people have found their way to the position of postmaster, and whether that avenue is open to them. Many telecommunications people have said from time to time that a postmaster is interested mainly in mail and that the telecommunications branch tends to become secondary. I hope some action can be taken to remedy this defect. The main point I would impress upon the Assistant Postmaster-General is the continued need to provide more telephones. In the past year or two there has been great improvement, and I would pay a tribute to the courteous way in which local officers have dealt with my requests for telephones for my constituents. The regional office is in Preston, and I know that the manager has always done his best to help me. Personal, courteous and careful attention has always been given to every case I have raised. We have a real problem in Blackpool. On Wednesday, the Assistant Postmaster-General, in answer to a Question, told me that on 1st April, 1953, there had been 3,419 people on the waiting list for telephones in the town and that during the past year he had provided 1,500 lines. There are 2,175 people still on the waiting list. While that figure remains I hope the problem will be tacked very vigorously and quickly. Many people on the waiting list have been there for a long time. I went over the list recently to see how long the wait had been. I went back to 1952 and I would now give the House some typical cases. An auctioneer and estate agent had waited four years, and he will have to wait longer. The manager of a big firm of chemists waited six years, and the proprietor of a private hotel waited four-and-a-half years. A firm of consulting engineers waited six years and a private subscriber waited four-and-a-half-years. A painter and decorator waited two-and-a-half years. Another man waited four-and-a-half years. He was told there was no hope of immediate relief. A telephone was installed, however, after he had waited five years. One very important man was on this list. His name is probably known by every hon. Member. He is a sports writer and a great international footballer. I refer to Mr. Stanley Matthews, who waited some five years before he could get a telephone to help him in his work as journalist and business man. Some people actively interested in public affairs had waited more than four years, the vice-president of a retail fruit trade organisation had waited two years, an engineer five years and a business man 10 years. A taxi and private hire business had waited five years and a man in the housing department of Blackpool, who has to answer many inquiries, has waited six-and-a-half years. A market gardener had waited five years and a general stores three years. AH these cases waited far too long for a telephone. Many excuses were made, such as shortage of equipment and of lines. It is our job to tackle these problems and not make excuses. I had one case in which the tenants' association of a new housing estate were desirous that there should be a public telephone on the estate, with coin box. They had to wait. They were told there was a shortage of coin boxes. A local Conservative club of about 250 members has no telephone, because it is said that there are no cables available. What happens when people go to the club in the evening? Some of them for instance may be private hire taxi drivers and must be on the 'phone. They cannot go for recreational facilities in a place where there is no telephone. We ought to do all we can to meet these needs. I agree with hon. Members who have said that we should telephone very much more because it saves time. It is not enough to say that every business house must have telephones. We must extend the service and develop the social use of the telephone. For telecommunications to be successful it must be an ever expanding service. Extension of the service will lead to the cheapening of the cost. Some of the long-distance calls are becoming very expensive. I hope that the Post Office will try vigorously to provide equipment to meet the current demand. If the demand should slack off, the Post Office should try to increase it so as to keep a very efficient telecommunications department. We have fallen behind other countries in the provision of telephones. Hon. Gentlemen have pointed out that in other countries many more people have telephones than here and use them both in their social and business life. Our housewives should be able to do their shopping by telephone and should have a telephone handy so that they can speak to their families and friends. We should encourage the housewife to speak as often as she wants to because the more people talk the stronger grow the bonds of friendship. I would like the telephone in this country to cease to be the privilege of the few and to be in every house. That ideal represents a challenge. I hope the Assistant Postmaster-General will make sure that the challenge is met and that the problem of telephone supply tackled with vigour and understanding.
I thank the mover of the Motion for giving us an opportunity to raise matters in connection with the telephone service. I sympathise with the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. R. Robinson) in his difficulties over the long list of people who want telephone service. I would remind the House that the absence of a telephone in urban areas, where your neighbour is a few yards away, becomes quite a different matter in a rural area where your neighbour may be a quarter of a mile away.People in the rural and very sparsely populated areas have been waiting in many cases just as long as those quoted in the urban examples. Their need is of considerable importance. In my own division, which is largely rural, among many people waiting for telephones are some who might have expected a little better treatment from the present Government. There are struggling private haulage men in villages remote from a telephone service, for example, and I even know of a publican who cannot get the telephone. When one thinks of disgruntled private hauliers and publicans, I think that the Assistant Postmaster-General had better beware of the political reactions. If there is to be capital expenditure on development, considerable attention should be paid to the urgent need of rural applicants. Because of the longer lines and greater quantity of cable necessary, it may cost a little more, but the isolation of those people makes their need the greater. I would like the Assistant Postmaster-General to look at the problem of shared telephone services. I had a very irate letter from a very important local government official who, in his private capacity, has to share with another subscriber. He told me that the other subscriber had a very romantic daughter and that often when he was in a hurry to get in touch with people on matters of public importance this girl was ringing up her fiance. Another case was of a political agent having to share a line with someone who, if listening in, might very easily, hear all sorts of things which he should not hear. One could multiply cases of difficulties resulting from shared lines. I hope that sooner or later the Assistant Postmaster-General will see if he cannot give separate lines to a number of people who now have to share them. A little time ago I had to approach the Department about some union difficulties regarding the manufacture of Post Office components. Here again I want to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. J. Edwards) for raising the point of psychology in this regard. There are no doubt many people engaged in the manufacture of components who will listen to or read the speeches made on both sides of the House about these delays. They must wonder how on earth it is that in such circumstances one of the largest companies in London engaged in the manufacture of telephone equipment has recently had to dismiss 300 people as redundant. It may be perfectly true that the demand for telephone equipment has fallen because of the falling off in the export trade. It is difficult to explain that to those people who have been declared redundant and had to look for other jobs in some other capacity when it is known that there is a long line of people waiting for the telephone. It may be that sometimes we get out of balance. Today the emphasis may be more on cable manufacture than on telephone components, but if we are to lay more cables we must need more telephone equipment. I hope something will be done to reassure those people who have been declared redundant. I hope we shall not have to try to explain away how it is that on one hand we have numbers of people wanting telephones while on the other 300 people are dismissed by manufacturers of telephone equipment because of redundancy. Two of the matters I have raised are mainly constituency points, and one affects my own union. I am obliged for the opportunity of putting those points to the House and I hope that the Postmaster-General will give sympathetic attention to them.
I should first like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ton-bridge (Mr. G. Williams) for having introduced this very useful debate. One does not often have the experience of agreeing with almost everything said by everyone on both sides of the House. With a slight reservation in respect of what my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. R. Robinson) said as to the Government encouraging housewives to have long conversations on the telephone in the middle of the morning, I have had that experience. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge suggested a rather more drastic course for such conversations.I want only to emphasise one or two of the more important points which other speakers have already made. At the moment, money is the prime consideration in telephone development. It is possible that in this matter, as in the comparable matter of roads, we have allowed the war-time approach to continue for too long into the years of peace. It is not only natural but inevitable that during a war one allows one's capital resources to run down. That is the most obvious way to concentrate the efforts of the community on waging a war. Quite rightly we then allowed our telephone service to run down, but it would be a great mistake, many years after the war, to economise on what is not in any way a luxury but one of the vital services of the community. I regard the telephone service in very much the same way as I regard the country's roads. From both a substantial and reasonably rapid dividend could be obtained by an increase in the amount of capital expenditure allocated to them. I think that to some extent we have lost ground to foreign countries. Although one must be wary in making such comparisons, we should be slightly alerted by the figures quoted by the right hon. Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. J. Edwards). His figures are only a little different from those which I quoted in a debate on this subject a couple of years ago. We often say that the reason why the American working man enjoys a higher standard of living than does the working man in this country is that he has more horse power to his elbow. One might extend that and say that he has more equipment available to him. The telephone is a most valuable piece of industrial and commercial equipment. If we want a higher standard of living we should regard expenditure on telephones in much the same way as we do that incurred on the purchase of plant and machinery in industry. On that aspect may I repeat and emphasise a slight anxiety which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley (Mr. E. Johnson) and the right hon. Member for Brighouse and Spenborough, and that is the question of the running down of existing equipment in the telephone exchanges. I do not know the latest position about that, and perhaps the Assistant Postmaster-General will mention it in his reply. It would be unfortunate if the equipment is becoming old and if the need for very heavy replacements has been accumulating. If that is so, I hope that it will reinforce any representations which he may make to the Treasury about capital expenditure allocations. I should like to express my warm support for the remarks of the right hon. Member for Brighouse and Spenborough when he said that it is wrong to think that the telephone service is primarily a matter for business subscribers. It is very important for them, but I would say to the Assistant Postmaster-General that if we are to have priority categories for telephone connections—and we must—they should be kept very small, because almost everyone can benefit from being connected to the telephone system. It is not possible to divide the community into useful and useless people. Perhaps that is overstating the position; but it is unsatisfactory to try to make a schedule of priorities going right through the population and connecting people according to estimated needs. Almost everybody is indispensable in his own way and in his own employment. Nor can we chop up the life of the individual into his business or productive capacity on the one hand, and the rest of his personal and social activity on the other. A person exists as a living individual. He lives either efficiently or inefficiently, and his productive capacity and his usefulness in his business and working life can be affected by assisting the efficiency of his personal life. That is undoubtedly so. Whether it is the housewife who has to do her shopping as well as having those cheerful little personal conversations, or whether it is the man who goes out to work and in his leisure time does the many other things which everybody has to do, one's whole efficiency as a person does not depend only upon what one does in direct relation to one's vocation in life. Therefore, I think that we should not go too closely into priorities except when dealing with people like doctors, midwives and other quite obvious priority classes. I am concerned particularly about people who are deprived of the telephone altogether. That is a great hardship, and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South gave some striking examples, to which I and other hon. Members could add. We have all read of these cases in our correspondence and we can understand what a real nuisance, inconvenience and obstruction to these people is caused by having to wait three, four or five years for a telephone. We must try to get rid of this state of affairs at the earliest possible moment. But I wish to add my own comments to what has been said about shared lines. I know that the shared line system has enabled the Post Office to connect the telephone to thousands of people who otherwise would be without a telephone, but it is not a satisfactory substitute for a separate line, for three reasons. First, when someone tries to ring us up, the number may be engaged because the other subscriber is speaking. Secondly, if we want to ring someone up the line may be in use by our fellow subscriber; and thirdly, there is no guarantee of privacy. I know that the Post Office has a very high regard for the probity and strength of mind of the population. The Post Office view is that when the sharing subscriber picks up his receiver and hears a conversation already in progress, he promptly replaces the receiver and goes about his own business. I am sure that most people do that, but a few probably do not. Not all people are virtuous; and even the most virtuous people are not virtuous all the time. The result is a feeling of slight insecurity and a lack of privacy on the part of people sharing lines. We all have conversations which we do not wish to be overheard, particularly in our own neighbourhood. The shared line system must be regarded as a temporary expedient. I hope that the Assistant Postmaster-General will look upon every case in which a subscriber to a separate line is asked to share it as an accumulation of liabilities which one day he will have to liquidate. It is becoming a pretty massive accumulation, and it is going to be a most embarrassing backlog when more money for the telephone service becomes available. I hope that my hon. Friend will try to prevent it growing any greater, and that he will keep firmly in front of him the objective of a separate telephone line for every subscriber, whether for business or private purposes. That is what we had before the war, and that is, I believe though I speak subject to correction here, what is accepted as normal in almost every other country. I hope that we are not going to accustom ourselves to an inferior facility in this country. There is one small point of detail that I want to make. I think that the personal charge for a personal trunk call during the full charge period is at present a good deal too high. I think it is 1s. 6d. My hon. Friend the Member for Black-pool, South referred to the system which is operating in the United States, and I believe that something similar has just been introduced in this country. An allied facility is the personal trunk call. It is very useful indeed, but I think a lot of people have been deterred from using it since the charge was raised to 1s. 6d. in the full charge period. I am sure my hon. Friend will appreciate that no one who has spoken so far has done so in a spirit of complaint about the Post Office or its staff. We really want to strengthen my hon. Friend's hand by bringing to his notice the widespread feeling that the telephone service is important to the efficiency of the country. I remember that in more spacious days my hon. Friend's Department used to postmark letters with the motto "The telephone saves time and money." Of late years we have not heard that theme. I venture to repeat it to my hon. Friend now, and ask him to adopt that old motto of his Department as his own motto and device, and if he possibly can, by means of those persuasive and persistent techniques with which he is so well endowed, persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer to adopt it as the motto of the Treasury.
I am sure we are all indebted to my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. J. Edwards) for his valuable contribution to the debate. The debate has been peaceful and uneventful, and, as such, has been a recognition of the service which has been given by the Post Office. I remember debates of some years ago, which were very largely attended, when the then Postmaster-General was badgered about the question of producing more telephones. I think that the mood of this debate shows that the Post Office, with all its difficulties, is managing to cope fairly well. I remember making a speech two years ago and telling the Assistant Postmaster-General that before very long he would have a longer waiting list than anyone else. I am prepared to take that back now.The hon. Gentleman the Member for Tunbridge (Mr. G. Williams) suggested that the Post Office should try better methods of selling the telephone service, and the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. R. Bell) said much the same thing when he asked his hon. Friend to revive the slogan, "The telephone saves time and money." That is all very well if the telephones are available to give to the people. The unfortunate thing is that the salesmen of the Post Office are one of the most frustrated set of "go-getters" of which I know. They would very much like to sell a telephone to everyone who wants it, but they are unable to do that not so much because of the Postmaster-General or the Assistant-Postmaster-General, but because of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and those two hon. Members ought to address their remarks to him with the idea of getting on a bit quicker. The fact is that the sales service of the Post Office has been functioning in reverse. It has been telling people why they cannot get a telephone, and, in the end, advising them to accept a party line. We have had considerable success with that. There are over 650,000 shared lines, and, let us face it, that will continue and will probably be extended. I have not had any complaints about shared lines from my area. It is true that some people have refused to accept a party line. One of my friends was very angry about it, and I think that among the people who should not be asked to accept such a service are ministers of religion. They are as much entitled to priority and consideration in personal lines, as anyone else, because many of the things which they must discuss over the telephone are not things which should, by chance, be overheard by anybody else. However, taking the system as a whole, I think it has worked reasonably well. There is a difference in the rental charge of about 30s. a year for a party line as compared with a personal line. I think the difference between the two should be more than that. The acceptance of a party line merits a greater reduction in rent than is represented by the sum of 30s. a year. The hon. Member for Tunbridge referred to newsprint as being the only other shortage today, but had he been in the House yesterday he would have discovered at least one other shortage and it was not newsprint. The telephone service, like many other essential services, has been restricted because of national considerations. It is not the equipment that is short; it is the buildings in which to put the equipment that is the determining factor in limiting the telephone service. I hope the Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he reads this debate, will find how many of us are anxious to extend this service to many more people and that he will relax his capital restrictions on the Post Office and permit it to spend a little more. There are two jobs waiting to be done if the right hon. Gentleman relaxes the restrictions. The first is to bring the existing telephone exchanges up to date I have a constituency consideration there, because in Kilmarnock we have still the manual system. Many of us prefer the automatic exchange, and I wonder how long it will be before it reaches Kilmarnock. The other thing is to extend the service so as to provide more and more new lines. We must pay some tribute to what the Post Office has done. Since the war nearly 2 million more subscribers have been added to the total, or half as much again as was being done before the war. That expansion means that the Post Office is working under considerable stress. I remember the Assistant Postmaster-General telling us, two years ago, that it would take all the resources available to maintain the service then in existence and prevent its breakdown. That that has been avoided is due entirely to the quality of our Post Office engineering service and its staff, who have overcome many difficulties. The hon. Member for Tunbridge spoke about the sickness rate in the staff. That is a subject with which no doubt my hon. Friend the Member for Droylsden (Mr. W. R. Williams) will deal later in the debate, but we should remember that the conditions in many of the exchanges are such that it is not surprising that there is the present sickness rate. In a matter of efficiency, courtesy and reasonable service the Post Office staff deserved the congratulations of the country. Theirs is a considerable achievement. As I see it, the Post Office is faced with three problems. It has to take advantage of the progressive developments which come from its own laboratories. The hon. Member for Ton-bridge spoke about a co-axial cable. I am sure that if the Postmaster-General arranged for the hon. Gentleman to visit Dollis Hill he would see there an engineering research department which is a veritable paradise for the engineer. He would see there the work that is being done on cables, and so on, and he would learn how to get 60 circuits from one cable to the continent, and of the part that our Post Office engineers have played in the trans-Atlantic development, by which one cable will carry 29 circuits to the United States, six to Canada and leave some for a telegraphic service as well. All this stems from the work done by the Post Office research staff at Dollis Hill, and we should always remember that at the moment these men are being frustrated by the lack of capital which prevents them seeing the progress for which they have worked brought into operation and offering the full benefits of their experiments to the telephone subscriber. Recently, I was reading not about automatic telephone exchanges but about electronic exchanges, where electromagnetic switching arrangements were in operation. That is even one ahead of what we have not yet got in Kilmarnock. I know we are some distance from this electronic system, but that is the kind of thing which will speed up the service, more particularly the long-distance call. It would mean changes in the telephone and in the dial in order to get a much faster and more sensitive instrument. When we remember that we have 6 million telephones at present, it will be realised that there cannot be dramatic and sweeping changes in the telephone system such as the electronic exchange would bring about. It is a question of development. I think that is being adequately done at base by the engineers, but what we do want is a little more capital expenditure to enable some of that benefit to be passed to the subscriber. There is the question of the actual extension of the service. This is fundamentally a question for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and I sincerely hope that when we pass out of the rearmament era big changes will come about. It has to be remembered that a great deal of the Post Office development is concerned with defence. It is true that a certain amount of it will eventually accrue to the benefit of the ordinary subscriber, but I should like to see that done quicker and then we could get a partial settlement of the party line problem. I think it is one in four residential subscribers who have accepted the party line.
One in three.
That makes it even worse, and I believe that if more hon. Members had party lines we should hear a great deal more about it here. I have never liked it, but it has to be accepted because there is the limiting factor of the buildings for housing the necessary equipment. Unless something is done about that now there will be considerable delay before we get the necessary expansion that we want to see.I forget how many people are now waiting for telephones, but I think it is between 500,000 and 600,000. The figure is decreasing slowly. The Post Office would be glad to sell more telephones if it had the necessary telephone exchanges and equipment. The hold-up comes not from the Postmaster-General, but from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. All in all, I think the Post Office is doing justice to the nation within these limits and giving a service that compares with any other in the world. I do not like all the talk about how good the American telephone service is. Frankly, I do not think it is true and, considering the cost of the Post Office and its efficiency, we have every reason to be proud of what is being done in extremely difficult circumstances. However, I hope that before long the Postmaster-General will have more money for capital equipment and thus be able to give us a far better and more extensive telephone service than we have at present.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge (Mr. G. Williams) for moving this Motion and giving us an opportunity, which we do not have here as often as I should like, of discussing the telephone service of the country. As the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) has just reminded us, this has been an interesting and helpful debate. All hon. Members who have addressed the House have wished to help the telephone service, and their criticisms have been directed towards that end.I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mr. Bottomley) has disappeared, because I want to reassure him about something which seemed to trouble him very much, namely, that because of my preoccupation with commercial television, I cannot get on with telephones. The right hon. Gentleman need not worry very much about that, but it is as well for us to remember that the Post Office does other things as well. We sell 25 million postage stamps every day, and we also look after the telegrams. I am happy to accept this Motion, both in the word and in the spirit in which it is moved, because it will give me an opportunity to put before the House some facts which I think will succeed in con- vincing my hon. Friend that we recognise the importance of a comprehensive and efficient telephone service. Not only shall we take every possible step to reduce the delay in getting calls and in improving the service, but, in fact, we are doing it already. I assure my hon. Friend that we are not lagging behind. The first criticism made by my hon. Friend, which has been referred to by other hon. Members, was the quality of the service. My hon. Friend is served by the Tunbridge Wells Exchange, which is a manual one, and such exchanges are generally slightly slower than automatic exchanges; also they seem slower. It is a fact that subscribers on a manual exchange are convinced that they are having a raw deal and that they have to wait much longer for their calls. I do not want to deluge the House with a flood of figures, but I will give two which I think will convince hon. Members that there has been a steady improvement in the quality of the service that we are able to give the country. I will take two years. In 1946 the speed of answer on a manual exchange was 10 seconds. We have now got it down to seven seconds. On automatic exchanges in 1946 the speed of answer was about 10 seconds and we have now got it down to about five seconds. I have chosen 1946 because it was a bad year, directly after the war, when the figures could not be expected to be very good because we had just gone through a lot of bombing. However, as hon. Members will have seen from that comparison, we are getting the waiting period down quite substantially. The hon. Member for Blackley (Mr. E. Johnson) asked whether there was any device which could warn an exchange that a call had been pending for some considerable time. We are experimenting to see whether it would be possible to have in the exchange a lamp, or some other device, which could warn the supervisor that a call had been waiting for some time. If it is possible to perfect that device it should go a long way not merely to remove the troubles of those waiting a long time, but of bringing down the average time to answer as a whole. The House may be interested to know how we get these figures. They are obtained by special supervisors who have no responsibility for the exchange in question and who do nothing else but check up on these figures from time to time. Therefore, I think we can take the figures as toeing reasonably accurate. I should like to give my hon. Friend another figure, concerning the number of calls lost in dialling. The Post Office definition of a lost call is when the caller tries to get through but, for some reason, does not succeed. A person is apt to exaggerate the number of such cases in his own mind but it is most exasperating for him to think he has got through, only to discover that he has to start all over again. Here the figures are even more remarkable. In 1946 the percentage of such calls was 12 per cent., admittedly high. We have now got it down to 2½ per cent, and I hope we shall get it lower. The reason for the reduction is better-trained staff and better-maintained equipment. We have got over the bombing of the war years and now have conditions equal to, and in some ways better than, before the war. One of our local complications, especially in the Tunbridge Wells area, is that of staff wastage to which my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley referred. This amounts in Tunbridge Wells to no less than 25 per cent, per annum in the case of the girls, and most of it is due to the fact that they get married. Many hon. Members may have read in the "Evening Standard" the series it is running of the most beautiful girls who work in offices. I am glad to be able to point out that a large percentage of those girls work in Post Office telephone exchanges, and I think my hon. Friend should be pleased at the high percentage of good-looking young women that he represents in this House. However, this affects our service problem because it is a fairly costly operation in time and money to train a first-class telephone operator, and often, just as they are trained and are about to operate in the telephone exchanges, they rush off and get married. We have recently been able to improve the personal call service in two directions. One of them is what is known as the "leave word" facility. Many comparisons with America have been made today. That service has been in operation in the United States for some time, but it is new to this country. It means that if a man who is called is not available a message can be left for him to ring up the personal call operator at the originating exchange without any extra charge. That is a very useful service, and I should like to give as much publicity as possible to it. Another new part of this service, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. R. Robinson) referred, is also in operation in America, where an operator who cannot get the caller at the first attempt more or less chases him round the country until he is found. That service has been introduced in this country and my noble Friend gave particulars of it in another place. It means that if a man is not at home and is thought to be at his business or club, or any other place that a man might go to, we find him if we can and we do not charge any more for doing so. We should try to give this service as much publicity as we can because, after all, we in this House are supposed to know everything and my hon. Friend did not know of that service. Our policy obviously is to turn every exchange into an automatic exchange. If it had not been for the war we should have done it long ago. Even so we have not done too badly. When war broke out 51 per cent, of subscribers were on an automatic exchange. The figure today is 71 per cent. Putting it another way, the number of telephones which are still connected to a manual exchange is 1½ million as compared with 4½ million which are on the automatic exchange. Therefore, this process of turning manual exchanges into automatic exchanges goes on the whole time. The right hon. Member for Rochester and Chatham asked whether our technical advances in this country are as great as they are in America. The answer to that is most definitely "Yes." I believe that technically the research station at Dollis Hill will stand comparison with that of any country in the world. It has a great record of original research and a good percentage of the equipment on the new transatlantic cable which is now being laid will be British. The repeaters which we have often mentioned in the House are an outstanding example of what very largely originated from Dollis Hill.
But the repeaters only operate from Newfoundland.
Yes. Nevertheless, it is a great achievement and I think that we can hold our own technically with any country in the world.The right hon. Member for Rochester and Chatham also asked about the development of a ray system. We are using this beam radio service largely in connection with islands and isolated spots. It is used to communicate with the Outer and Inner Hebrides, for instance, but it will never take the place of the ordinary and co-axial cables throughout the country.
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for being unavoidably absent when he referred to me earlier. I gather that he then wanted to reply to my question whether he was spending so much time on commercial television that he had not the time to deal with telephones.
I have been able to give the right hon. Gentleman the assurance that he wanted. He should not be kept awake at night by that worry.The 999 emergency service when wanted is wanted very badly and now all large automatic exchanges are fitted with the service. It is of enormous use to everybody in the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Arbuthnot) asked whether we used coaxial cables extensively. We do. We could not possibly carry the present-day trunk service on the ordinary cables that were previously used. The co-axial cable is a normal part of our development. My hon. Friend also asked whether we could spread the load over 24 hours more conveniently. We are trying to do that with cheaper calls in the evenings, but that leaves a very dead period between 11 p.m. and 7 p.m. during which we have to provide a telephone service throughout the country when calls, especially in rural areas, must be very limited. Although we do many things in the Post Office, I do not think we can persuade people to sit up until two or three o'clock in the morning to make telephone calls. I only wish that we could do so. Another new development is that an operator on trunks can now ring up a distant number direct instead of putting the call through a series of exchanges until she ultimately reaches the final exchange. If my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge, for instance, wanted to have an interesting conversation with the hon. Member for Kilmarnock—and I hope that such an occasion will arise—it is no longer necessary for the operator to put his call through from one exchange to another. She can connect the call direct. If one asks for Glasgow one is put through direct to Glasgow and that means an enormous saving of time and cost. We are spending £12 million on that service. Another facility which has not been mentioned today is the speaking clock, which was introduced in London in 1936. It has proved so successful that the service has been extended to 20 provincial cities and we intend gradually to extend it to all big towns in the United Kingdom. It has been introduced recently in Brighton, Southampton and Skipton. The number of TIM calls now exceed one million a week, and I am very glad to say that we are making money on the service. The more people use this service the more money we can make, and therefore I am pleased to be able to give it this gratuitous publicity. I agree with those hon. Members who have said that there are surprisingly few complaints about the party line service. I do not like compulsory shared service and, as I have told the House before, I am looking forward to the day when we can say that shared service is no longer compulsory. At present, any new residential subscriber or any residential subscriber who has moved to a new place must agree to have shared service whether he likes it or not, with one or two exceptions. An exception, referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge, is Members of Parliament. They are among the few people who are not compelled to share their service. I thought that when my hon. Friend spoke of two people sharing a telephone line being like two people sharing a hammer it was not a fair analogy. One does not use the telephone all day, I am glad to say. In fact, rather curiously, one in five residential subscribers use the telephone only four times a week. If one has the good fortune to be connected with a person like that one cannot complain that shared service is a great hardship. This service was brought in, quite rightly, by my predecessors, and it has been an enormous advantage to the Post Office at a very difficult time. It has meant that approximately 400,000 people have been able to have telephones, and that is a large number. We have had to say to them, "Either shared service, or nothing." Comparisons have been made with the United States, and I think it only fair to tell the House what is the position there. They have not had nearly like the same war or post-war difficulties that we have had. Even so, more than 70 per cent, of subscribers in America share a service with two or more on the same line, and more than 30 per cent, share a service with four or more on a line. I do not bring these figures forward for the purpose of disparaging America. They have problems of distance and climate which we have not, but I want to show that shared service, which in some ways is repugnant to us, has been widely accepted in the United States. As I hope hon. Members know, each subscriber has his own number and, when the bell rings in one house, it does not ring in the house of the other sharer. The only inconvenience is if at the time one wants to telephone the other chap happens to be telephoning. On the whole, people have accepted that with very good grace. We only expect this system to go on as long as the need continues.
What happens if one picks up a telephone and someone else is using that line? Does the other party hear the conversation?
Yes, that is the whole trouble, but I think the average conversation has so little meat in it that one cannot be bothered to listen to it. One mutters a few words, puts the telephone down, and comes back to make the call a few minutes later. By this means we have been able to put 400,000 more people on the telephone, and I do not know of any other way in which that could have been done. There may always be a place for shared service in this country but my noble Friend wants to get away from the necessity of making it compulsory. Then we could let people make their choice. There is a differential in cost and that I think will induce some people who now have a shared service to remain on it.I am glad to say that shared service occasionally has its humorous side. I was told of a case of two men, one named Mr. Foot and the other Mr. Legge, who lived in the same street and were asked to share with each other, and so we made them into one limb. There was also the case of a vicar who was very nearly joined up with the local bookie, but we prevented that happening. I come to another matter, which I think is very relevant to the whole question of the quality of the service. May I say how glad I am that so many hon. Members have referred to our staff. The right hon. Member for Rochester and Chatham did so among other hon. Members. He was quite right in talking about the floods. His was a great tribute to the Post Office and we in the Post Office have not forgotten what the staff did then. I was asked whether the high percentage of sickness in the Post Office had anything to do with it being a particularly unhealthy occupation. I am glad to say that the answer is no. The percentage of sickness compared with prewar has gone up, but there are many other reasons for that, into which I will not go now. But I am glad to say that it is showing signs of going down and, although it is nowhere near what it was before the war, that is a good tendency. The right hon. Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. J. Edwards) stressed the need for people in any service, private or national, to feel that they were working in an expanding service. I hope that Post Office workers know that if one thing is expanding it is the Post Office, and the telephone service in particular. I was also asked whether we invited chambers of commerce and Rotary clubs to visit telephone exchanges. The hon. Member for Blackley said that he visited one yesterday. I extend an invitation to hon. Members on both sides of the House to do this. I think it is a very interesting experience for any hon. Member who sees his local telephone service in operation. He can then get some idea of the difficulties. Returning to the comparison with America, I wish to say a word or two about private branch exchanges. The trouble is that many calls in this country finish in a private branch exchange. For example, if it is necessary to ring up a business house or an hotel very often there is delay in getting through to the person wanted, but that may not be the fault of the Post Office at all. It may be entirely due to delay in the local private branch exchange. Here I am sorry to say it is true that the Americans are ahead of us. I believe the average American business house takes infinite trouble to train operators for its private exchange. Nothing is more annoying than to telephone someone, to be put through to his room, and then find that he is not there and, as it were, hang out on a limb because the girl on the private branch exchange does not take the trouble to find out if he is there. The telephone is put down and one has to start the process all over again. The reason is that in many business houses and some hotels the job is left to people who have not been thoroughly trained for it. Although no one has mentioned it today, I hope that hon. Members have appreciated that we have tried to do an enormous amount to improve the quality of private branch exchanges in those Government offices for which the Post Office is responsible. I know that what I am about to say is rather a case of giving a hostage to fortune. If one rang up the Treasury this morning, I hope that the answer would have been "Treasury, good morning"—which is the proper way of dealing with such a call and not by just saying "What?" Infinite trouble is taken to find out if the person being called is or is not in his room. I attach enormous importance to that. We are dealing with the prestige of the Government and the prestige of this country. If people ring up a Government Department and are not satisfactorily dealt with they may go away and grumble about the prestige of the country and particularly of the Post Office, and that is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs. We have tried to do a lot in the past year to persuade chambers of commerce, business firms, hotel managers etc. to co-operate with us on this matter. I only mention this point because the Post Office is often criticised for something which it is not in its power to remedy. I wish to refer to the growth of the service. The right hon. Member for Brighouse and Spenborough asked me how much we had spent since the war, and suggested £300 million. The figure is much higher than that—£450 million, of which £72½ million is being spent this year. He asked me to explain the difference in expenditure on local lines in different years.
How much more is to be spent on telephones this year than last year?
I shall come to that point before I sit down.The right hon. Member for Brighouse and Spenborough asked why less is spent on local lines in different years. There is no significance in that. The amount varies from year to year. Next year, we are spending £9.2 million. But when a certain amount of money has been spent on local lines we have to be very careful to provide a due proportion of trunk lines also; otherwise there may be a blockage in that respect. The dilemma which faces the Post Office is simply this: ought we to do more to improve the quality of existing services and do away with compulsory shared service and so on, or ought we to try to put more people on the telephone? With the amount of money we can spend, it is quite clear that we cannot do both at the same time. Here we come up against one of the most interesting phenomena of telephone development in the post-war years to which no hon. Member has referred today, namely, the dramatic rise in the number of people who want to have a telephone. The number of new applicants is now running at the record high figure of 450,000 per year. In 1938, the number of new applications was half that. This is very welcome because it means that the country is prosperous. It is also welcome from the Post Office point of view because it means that more people are becoming telephone minded, that they are adjusting their lives to the fact that there is a telephone in their house. If the application list for new phones had remained at its pre-war figure there would have been no waiting list today. When we tried to estimate what it might be we envisaged a certain rise, but I must confess that we did not think that it would be double what it was before the war. That is very satisfactory but it causes complications. The waiting list is 376,000, which is a reduction of more than 100,000 compared with two years ago. I was very glad to hear the charm- ing remarks of the hon. Member for Kilmarnock, who admitted that he had made a mistake in his diagnosis. Not only have we reduced the waiting list during this time by 100,000 but the number of new applicants has been steadily rising. I am often asked in the House what is the average period of waiting. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South gave us some harrowing instances. Unfortunately there is no such thing as an average period because it varies so much from place to place. If there happen to be spare lines and spare cable, as there are in some areas, people can be put on the phone fairly quickly. The fact is that we are putting in new phones one and a half times quicker than before the war, even with the amount of money which we have to expend. In other areas, however, where there do not happen to be spare lines and spare equipment a fairly big job may have to be done before a start can be made. There may, of course, be just a simple cable job, which is fairly easy, but what is required may go beyond that. A new telephone exchange may have to be built, which takes some years to construct and equip, and is very costly. A new telephone exchange to serve 5,000 people costs about £250,000. The fact is that before the war there were three million telephones; today there are more than six million. Considering the difficulties of the war years and since, I suggest that that is a great tribute to anyone who has had anything to do with the Post Office in any capacity since 1945. One of my hon. Friends talked about the rural services. We have done a good deal in that respect. We are putting in call boxes at the rate of 2,500 a year. There are now more than 60,000 of them, of which 20,000 are in rural areas. I must remind my hon. Friends that we lose a lot of money on rural call boxes—approximately £40 on every one. To some extent, at all events, that is made up by the kiosks on Waterloo Station, which are used much more frequently.
A loss of £40 a year seems very heavy when the capital cost has been repaid, if the call box is used, and if it is not used it is ridiculous to have put it in the position it occupies.
But it is not used as much as those in the towns. I admit that it is a lot of money, but rural kiosks cost more to provide because longer lengths of connecting links are required than need to be used in urban areas. There is an average loss, representing amortisation of capital and upkeep, of £40 on a rural kiosk.I suggest that we have done our best for the farmers, not only because they live in isolated areas but also because of the great value of the telephone in these days of scientific production. But we lose money on most farmers' lines. Very often it is necessary to provide long connecting links. I am often faced with the difficulty, which I hesitate to express, when I receive an application from a Member representing a rural constituency: if there is a certain amount of money available to spend should it be spent on linking up 10 urban subscribers or one rural subscriber? On the one hand, the rural subscriber—the farmer—is lonely; he needs the telephone; he is more cut off from other sources of communication. Which is the right thing to do? We try to maintain a happy balance
I take it that the hon. Gentleman is in constant touch with the British Electricity Authority so that when a farmer in an isolated and remote area wishes to have an electricity supply provided to his farm, and at the same time might wish to have the telephone installed, the same poles can be used for the two purposes, thereby reducing overhead charges both for the farmers and to the service. Could the hon. Gentleman say something about that?
The sharing of poles is now common; there is no difficulty about that.I was asked whether the practice followed in the issuing of directories led to a lot of wrong numbers. The answer is, I think, "No." In London, my experience is that most people find it impossible to use the directories, and they keep their own little books or lists of the numbers of the people they normally ring up. If any hon. Member doubts what I say, let him try to find the number of an hon. Member of this House named Smith, who lives in London, and see how long it takes him. I come now to what is perhaps the basic question which has been discussed today: could we do more if we had more money. I was asked, "Why do you not raise a loan?" The answer is that we do. It is not very long ago that I piloted through this House the Post Office Money Bill, fixing the amount of money which the Post Office can spend on telephones and other developments for the coming two years. I was asked, "Is there any shortage of materials?" No, there is no shortage of materials today—it depends on how we use them. We have to remember that we cannot look at this question in isolation, as if nothing else mattered at all. We cannot regard the Chancellor of the Exchequer as a person from whom it is possible to wring money by pleading loud enough. We have to look at the amount spent on the telephone service as part of the national set-up of this country. I was grateful to the right hon. Member for Brighouse and Spenborough who has had great experience of the difficulties for setting them out very clearly. It was argued that the Chancellor should be made to realise the importance of a comprehensive telephone service and give the Department more money. There is not a single Government Department which, if asked, "Can you do with more money?" would not say, "Yes." We can all do with more money. The Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation could do with more money for roads. As the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. R. Bell) rightly suggested, more money is needed to modernise and extend the railways. The Minister of Education could use more money and so could everyone.
Is not a solution of that problem to spend less money on rearmament?
The hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Fenner Brockway) has just come into the Chamber and has not listened to a word of the debate. I think it quite improper of him to intervene in that manner.
Not a bit.
It is ridiculous of the hon. Member to adopt that attitude.There are other things which we must bear in mind. One is the amount of telephone equipment which we export. Surely no one would suggest that our exports ought to suffer, that we should use the material at home? Another thing we must remember is that it is not a question of finding money, or raising loans in the city of London or anywhere else. It is a question of inflation. If we put too much pressure on the amount of money spent in any one year we shall find ourselves in a condition of raging inflation, and we shall have done the whole country an immense amount of harm.
But have not the exporters of this telephone equipment themselves been pressing the Government for extra money?
Some of them have, but the Government have certain responsibilities. But as I will show in a moment, we have increased the amount of money to be spent on capital development in the next year.The Chancellor has always been most willing to listen to what we have to say and has in fact increased our allocation considerably for the coming year. That is why I am glad that in his Resolution my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge included the words,
Were we to ignore that, it would be very easy to claim that the Post Office was in a special category, but it would be foolish of me or any other hon. Member to make such a suggestion."consistent with other demands for capital expenditure."
But tie Postmaster-General does recognise, does he not, that if he spends money he does get a return on it, which is rather different from some of the other examples given by my hon. Friend?
I think the same thing could be said about roads. I am sure that the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation could make the same claim. If we could improve our roads it would be beneficial to the country.I was asked about figures. The amount of money spent on capital investment in 1950–51 was £43 million. In the coming year it will be over £80 million. That figure has, of course, to cover a rise in prices and costs. But even so, I suggest that it represents a substantial increase in the amount of money we can spend on telephones.
The hon. Gentleman should make clear how much of that amount will be allocated to what we might call ordinary civilian purposes as compared with defence purposes.
There is a percentage for defence each year, but a large percentage of the total sum will be devoted to civilian purposes.This has been an interesting debate and I am grateful to hon. Members for the points they have raised. I do not pretend that the telephone service of this country is perfect, nor is it as comprehensive as we all would wish it to be. But taking all our difficulties into consideration and remembering, not only the damage done during the war and the need to export telephone equipment—which is still a valuable asset to this country—but also the astonishing rise in the demand for new telephones, I suggest that we have not done too badly.
I have no need to declare my interest in this debate, because most hon. Members will know by now that J have been associated with the Post Office in one form or another, for the best part of 40 years either with the Department itself or with the trade unions which have been, and are, connected with it. I am glad to have the opportunity to congratulate the hon. Member for Ton-bridge (Mr. G. Williams) on having been successful in the Ballot and deciding to raise this interesting question. He did so with modesty and courtesy, and he seemed quite prepared to be a humble seeker of the truth, which I think is in accordance with the traditions of the tribe whose honoured name he bears.I take the view, as does the Minister, that it is a good thing for us to have periodical reviews of the work of Government Departments. I am one who believes that it is well that Members of Parliament, representing the nation, as we do, should take a very keen interest not only in the broad principles of these important State Departments and industries, but also, so far as possible without overloading things, in the day-to-day conduct of their affairs. I say that for two reasons. First, by so doing we educate ourselves in what are the essentials of the services. I imagine that the hon. Member for Blackley (Mr. E. Johnson) knows more about this part of the service now than he did when he asked a Question about the telephone exchange in Chester a week or two ago. He should be commended for having gone to the Whitehall Exchange to acquaint himself with the procedure there and with the difficulties confronting the staff of a telephone exchange. I was glad that the hon. Member should come here and use such a good expression as having been "chastened" by his visit. Many of my hon. Friends who talk glibly about the position in the mines, for example, would I think be chastened were they to take the opportunity to go down a mine and obtain some idea of what goes on there, or in the factories and workshops of our heavy industries. There is another important aspect, in that it is satisfying and assuring to people who work in the industry that those who govern affairs should take an interest in their work and conditions, and that we as a House of Commons are prepared to look not only into the big principles but into some of the details of their work as well. I am glad that so many hon. Members have paid tribute to the staff. I have been connected with them for almost 40 years and I say without hesitation or exaggeration that I hardly know a body of workers anywhere who take more pride in their service and who struggle and strive so conscientiously to do their work well. I feel, therefore, that we can accept the commendations and congratulations of hon. Members in the spirit in which they were given. The hon. Member for Blackley raised a point about the wastage of staff and the Assistant Postmaster-General dealt with it briefly. He said that the wastage among women staff was about 25 per cent, a year. That means about 5,000 women telephonists a year leave the service. The figure is higher than I thought.
The nice ones get married.
I am coming to that, if the hon. Baronet will wait. He has not been here long enough to know how we are getting on. He will soon acclimatise himself to the tone of the debate. He is letting the standard of the tribe down by the way he is carrying on.I thought that the figure was about 14 or 15 per cent. The figure, be it 15 per cent, or 25 per cent., is too high. I fully agree with the Assistant Postmaster-General that we just cannot afford to have a wastage of 25 per cent, per annum in view of the time we have to spend on training and the need for fully qualified operators if we are to have an efficient service. The Assistant Postmaster-General says that the wastage is purely due to marriage.
Was that not what I said? I was maintaining the tone of the debate.
No. I shall come to what the hon. Baronet said. If the main reason is marriage, I do not think that either the Assistant Postmaster-General or the hon. Baronet is right.Women are allowed to remain in the service after marriage, though that was not so before the war. Very few women were allowed to remain in an established capacity in the Post Office before the war after marriage, but they are completely free to do so now. Therefore, one would normally expect that the wastage through marriage would be less now than it was before the war, but that is not so. The Assistant Postmaster-General has said so. Therefore, we must search somewhere else.
The figure of 25 per cent, was in respect of the Tunbridge Wells Exchange only. I believe that the national figure is slightly lower.
I was not interested in Tunbridge Wells.
But my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge (Mr. G. Williams) was.
The hon. Member for Tunbridge was, but it seems to me ridiculous to talk just about that aspect. I should like the Assistant Postmaster-General to answer quickly. Is my figure of 14.9 per cent, correct?
I cannot give the figure off-hand, but I think that the national figure is lower than the Tunbridge Wells figure.
I think that it is about 14.9 per cent. I have been making certain researches into the matter myself. I do not think that marriage is the main factor. I have been reading a number of advertisements from London papers. There was one in the "Evening Standard" for four nights, which said:
I suppose that in business anything is correct. I suppose that it is right to buy out all one's opponents. I suppose that it is all right to take away a person who has been trained by somebody else. Sometimes I think that there is something ethically wrong about this sort of thing. These people are advertising, recognising that the Post Office go to a tremendous expense and trouble to get the right type of operators, and as soon as they have been trained, they see these advertisements for other jobs. When the hon. Member for Blackley referred to this I heard a snigger and saw a smile from the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin), who, no doubt, is very anxious about the next Motion on the Order Paper. He smiled as if to suggest that this was an argument for private enterprise against the nationalised industries. I can see by the look on his face that I have got it right."Telephonists. G.P.O. trained. Required. Age 20 to 25, with pleasing personality and good voice. Good working conditions and lunch vouchers. Write giving details."
The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. The only occasion when I made any comment during the speech of my hon. Friend was when he spoke of wastage and I mentioned that it was probably due to marriage. I do not think that I sniggered.
The hon. Gentleman has fallen into the same error as the hon. Baronet and the Assistant Postmaster-General.
Does not the hon. Gentleman advertise himself as G.P.O. trained?
I do not think so. I can see that I am treading on somebody's corns.There is something ethically wrong from my point of view in this type of advertisement when somebody else trains people well and then immediately they are asked to go to private industrial establishments. There is an obvious reason why people go. They are offered a five-day week with no Saturday or Sunday work. Often there is no bank holiday work and in many cases there is better pay because of the qualifications required. The aggregation of all that makes it most attractive to some young girls. These sort of attractions are being made available in this form to some of these girls upon whom we will have to depend if we are to have the efficient service which subscribers require. I had thought of dealing with quite a number of items. It is agreed on both sides that we all want the best telephone service possible. We are proud—I am, at any rate—of the success of this section of our oldest nationalised industry. We are all anxious and keen that it should continue to prosper and become more efficient. It might be of interest to hon. Members to know that the Union of Post Office Workers, which I know intimately, is one of the very few trade unions which has as the first item on its programme, "An efficient service." That is the first item on the union's programme. There is no doubt that the members of the union have done a tremendous amount to contribute to increased efficiency. We can see from the debate that there are about four or five main contributory factors to this additional and progressive increase in efficiency. The first is that of installations. Here I agree with the Assistant Postmaster-General that there has been a great change in the attitude of the people of this country towards becoming telephonically minded. Before the war we had plenty of installations ready and plenty of equipment available. Sales representatives went out all over the place encouraging people to become telephone subscribers. It was the public who were hesitant then and not the Post Office. It was difficult to get many people sufficiently interested in the telephone to become subscribers. My hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Deer) referred to the need for more telephone kiosks in the rural area, and I entirely agree with him. If we are to prevent the depopulation of the rural areas, we must provide not only better farms but also better amenities in those areas, and among those amenities must be the telephone and other similar facilities. The problem of installations is now becoming very important. The Assistant Postmaster-General said there were now about 450,000 applicants per year for telephones. I am glad, as he was glad, that this demand exists, and I believe that it ought to be encouraged. I turn now to the question of money—and this is the most important part of the debate. I assume—and I hope I am right—that the Post Office as an establishment and the Postmaster-General and the Assistant Postmaster-General as the political heads of this Department are very anxious to develop the postal, telephone and telegraph service and that if the Chancellor of the Exchequer were able to give them a higher allocation of money they would be only too pleased to do the work. I gather that it is now a question of money and not a question of materials and labour. As I understand, we have cleared away the problems of material, which were substantial not long ago, and have also cleared away the labour difficulties. May I make a submission which the hon. Gentleman may wish to put to the Chancellor of the Exchequer? This is true not only of the telegraph services, but also of the roads. If the Government are not careful we shall get into such a state of arrears that it will be almost impossible to overcome them at all in the future and we shall be spending millions of pounds more than we need to spend simply because we have allowed matters to go too far without giving them proper attention. As the hon. Member for Blackley said, installations need to be changed and renewed in many parts of the country. New installations are required. Although we have to weigh up the situation in a broad sense, and although we can allocate to certain portions of the economy only according to their importance, I think we should remember that the lines of communication in this country are very important, just as are lines of communication on a military manoeuvre. It is not much use having the front line all right and the headquarters all right if the lines of communication between them are no good, for the whole system will break down. There will be a general lack of efficiency. As the hon. Member knows, I have my own problems in Audenshaw and Denton, but I will not take advantage of this debate to deal with those problems. Many people are not satisfied that they are getting equitable treatment, and I want the hon. Gentleman to ask his Department to go carefully into the question of whether priorities are not being overdone. Small business people and private people sometimes become very suspicious when, after they themselves have been waiting for years, a new arrival in the same road is given a new telephone installation within a matter of weeks or months of his arrival. They ask me, and other hon. Members, "Why this inequitable treatment?". If the hon. Member and his Department cannot cater for those people immediately, as they desire, they should at least explain to them, when these matters are brought to their notice, why what appears to be inequity is not inequity at all. I agree with those hon. Members who have said that more ought to be done to increase the number of installations. In the interests of production and of morale, which is very closely associated with production, it is only right and proper that something more should be done. The second question which arises in connection with increased efficiency is whether the Post Office is taking sufficient cognisance of scientific progress and development. I have a fairly long experience and my view is that throughout its history, and certainly from the days which I first remember—and that goes back to 1912 or 1913—the Post Office has been amongst the most progressive of industrialists and employers in this field. Reference has been made to the Dollis Hill Research Department, and I imagine that it is possibly one of the most up-to-date and progressive research departments not only in this country but in the world. We need not be ashamed of the work which has been done by the Post Office engineering side in connection with work on technical, electrical developments which has taken place in the last few years. I do not want to dwell unduly on what has been done over the last 25 years, but I believe that even now, in the examination and the development of such things as trunk mechanisations, the Post Office is abreast of scientific progress. I wish the hon. Member had said a little more about this interesting development. I take the view that in the field of trunk mechanisation we are pretty well abreast of scientific development. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. J. Edwards), I have had the opportunity to read the report of representatives of the Post Office and of certain staff associations who have been to America to examine the situation there. Although in certain directions the Americans are a little ahead of us, in other directions we are certainly holding our own and doing very well, and when we remember the advantages which the Americans have had during the war and in the post-war period in the labour, material and money available, we need not be much ashamed of the initiative and the effort which has been shown by the Post Office engineering department in trying to bring the service up to date and into line with modern scientific developments. The next point, which has been touched upon by a number of hon. Members, is that if we are to obtain the efficient telephone service that we all desire, we must make quite sure that the wages and working conditions of the staff are as good as it is possible for us to make them. Not only is that important in order to retain operators in the service and prevent them going to some other people, who are exploiting their training, knowledge and experience, but it is also important to encourage new entrants into the service. In regard to new entrants, I was very pleased by the suggestion made this morning that we should encourage visits from chambers of commerce and other public bodies, and I agree entirely that it is a very good thing. It used to be a regular feature before the war, when practically every chamber of commerce, rotary club and other public institution in various large towns and cities used to visit post offices to see the telephone, telegraph and postal sides, as a matter of course every year. The practice did a lot of good in bringing these people together to exchange ideas about the various branches of this service. I should like to ask the Assistant Postmaster-General whether he will resuscitate another pre-war practice—that of inviting school children to visit post offices. I do not know whether it is done now, but I think it is most important, from the point of view of recruitment and of getting a very good type of boy and girl into the service, and I hope that the Post Office will return to it, if it is not now being done. Moreover, it helps future citizens to recognise what an important part of the social, industrial and other life of the country the telephone service is. My next point concerns the speed of answer, which has been referred to already. I have read the various documents which have been published on this subject, and I find that the Assistant Postmaster-General has stated that in 1946 the speed of answer on local services with manual exchanges was 10.3 seconds and on the long-distance trunk exchanges controlled by auto-manual equipment 10.7 seconds. I am very glad indeed, as I am sure are all the associations connected with the telephone service, that the speed of answer has now been reduced to 7 seconds in the first case and to 5.7 seconds in the other. That is a remarkable reduction in a few years. Quite rightly, many hon. Members have complained of the delay which still takes place, and I quite sympathise with the hon. Member for Blackley in having been one of the unfortunate callers, but in every walk of life someone is more unfortunate than another. I was very glad to hear the Assistant Postmaster-General assure the House today that we are trying to get some new device which will make it possible for "unfortunate calls" to be detected and be brought specifically and specially to the notice of the operator. If that could be done, I feel quite sure that this very good answering time of 7 seconds on the one hand and 5.7 seconds on the other would be very substantially reduced. I would make this claim. Some hon. Members have talked about America, but I am quite satisfied that, if we could return to the speed of answer, both on local calls through manual exchanges and on the trunk system, that we had before the war, nobody in this country will have legitimate cause for complaint at all. I know from personal experience, and many other hon. Members will be able to recall that, as far as the trunk service was concerned, we had an "on demand" system which meant immediate contact with the subscriber. I have to make quite a number of trunk calls when I go to my constituency of Droylsden, and I should like to say to the Assistant Postmaster-General that I never have to wait more than about half a minute to be put through from Manchester to Burgh Heath, just outside London, which requires two or more connections. Such service is very creditable, and we all want it to be continued. It is the wish of the staff, I know, as well as that of the Department, that it should be improved upon, if it is possible. The Assistant Postmaster-General was quite right in saying that there has been a substantial development in the direction of automatic exchanges. I hope my figures are accurate, because they show that, in 1945, the number of local automatic exchanges was 3,534, and in 1953—eight years later—it had increased to 4,383. For automatic exchanges, the figure in 1945 was 2,503,932, whereas in 1953 it had increased to 4,321,382, which is a very substantial increase in that time. I agree entirely with the Assistant Postmaster-General that, every time we convert an exchange to the automatic control system, we necessarily improve its efficiency, because that system is quicker by nature of dialling than any manual contact can ever be. The debate today has been of great interest, at least to most of us who have been listening to all of it. Many good points have been put to the Assistant Postmaster-General, and I hope he will go to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and say that he is satisfied that Members of Parliament on all sides of the House feel that it is to the advantage of the country and the nation, to the advantage of production in industry and to the advantage of the morale of the people, that he should seek to improve upon the allocation of money to the Post Office. We know that he cannot do everything that we should like him to do, but there is no reason at all why the present allocation should not be substantially raised. I wish the Department well in the future. The Post Office has overcome most of its post-war difficulties, and they were many, including difficulties of materials and also accommodation. These are now being surmounted, and I only wish that we were able to give the Post Office an allocation which would make it possible for it to get absolutely on top of the remaining problems and provide an opportunity to develop and extend the service which has done so much good for the country in the past.
Question put, and agreed to.
That this House, whilst appreciating the considerable improvement that has been made in connecting new subscribers, urges the Government to recognise the importance of a comprehensive and efficient telephone service to the trade and industry of the country; and, consistent with other demands for capital expenditure, to take every possible step to reduce the delay in obtaining calls and to improve the facilities given
Derelict Common Land
I beg to move,
In giving notice of this Motion, I forgot to add the words:That this House, whilst recognising the complexity of the problem of derelict common land, calls the attention of the Government to the pressing need for securing greater production from common land which is cultivable, whilst at the same time protecting the rights of the commoners to enjoy their present right of access.
I have raised the question of waste land in Great Britain on many occasions in this House, but this is the first time I have been fortunate, by the luck of the Ballot, and able to move a Motion on the subject. There is a tremendous waste of agricultural land in this country. I hope that we shall have a full debate, but many of my colleagues felt that in even mentioning the question of common land I was dealing with political dynamite. I want, therefore, at the very start to reassure hon. Members who may be waiting to criticise what I say about common land. I hope that at the end of my speech they will thank me. I see in front of me one very formidable protagonist of the rights of the public. He has warned me that he is here to look after their interests. I warn him, if he has a drastic speech ready to pull to pieces what I say, that he must get ready now a speech of congratulation. I am not proposing to do anything which will prevent the public enjoying open spaces. I have discussed the position in years gone by with many commoners, and they have agreed with me that it was time that derelict common land was brought into a state which would be some good to them. I have also had correspondence with the secretary of the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society. If the Government accept the Motion, I shall probably receive a letter of thanks from the secretary for what I have done. At the moment, many commons are completely covered with bracken and bushes and are not available for ramblers to enjoy. In an article which they sent to me dealing with common land, the society said they were prepared to acknowledge that if some of the commons were improved agriculturally they would at the same time be improved for the public and the rambler. If anything is done to open up common land so that people can enjoy them, I hope that the leaders of this society will take steps to induce the public when they use commons not to leave a frightful mess of litter on them. I saw in a Nottingham paper the other day that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion) was proposing to speak in this debate to protect the interest of the commoners. I quite expect that in so doing he will also support what I propose to say. It would be well if I gave figures of the extent of common land in Great Britain. I think the figures are correct, because I had them from the Ministry of Agriculture. Commons run to some 3 million acres, of' which 1 million are in England, and 8.000 of these are in my own county, Hereford. I am sure that any hon. Member who knows my county will be aware of the great agricultural value of it, and will agree that it does not make sense that there should be 8,000 acres largely covered with fern and bracken and doing nothing to provide food for the country. I assure hon. Members that there are many commons that are of no use to ramblers and holiday-makers. Going from Worcester out into the West Country, hon. Members would pass about 600 acres of more or less derelict common land, although the area is scheduled as containing some of the best fruit growing land in Great Britain. That is borne out by the fact that squatters have at some time improved the pasture and planted trees in the middle of the commons. Some of these small holdings in the middle of commons are worth several hundred pounds per acre, whereas the land round about is not worth more than £1 per acre. That fact should be sufficient to encourage any Government to tackle the problem. There is a great variety of common rights. In one area in my constituency are 120 acres of arable land, one-third of which becomes common each year and is lost every year by becoming fallow. It is of no use to the tenant fanner because he cannot plant it with a crop, and it is no use to the commoners because they cannot graze it. I do not think there is much demand for the Ramblers' Association to walk round a barren field of 40 acres producing nothing at all. That scandal has been going on during the war, but no Government have been prepared to tackle the question because of treading on the corns of the commoners. There was a scheme for grassing down a portion of that land and giving it to the commoners so that they could get value out of it, but the scheme was not proceeded with. Somebody should deal with cases like that, in the interests of production and of the commoners themselves. The amount of common land which was requisitioned during the war and was brought into cultivation was something like 22,000 acres. Some of it has been handed back, but there is still a lot in hand. The Government have to face the fact that they must hand the land back, and I hope that this debate will give the Ministry of Agriculure an opportunity of letting the country know exactly where we stand in regard to requisitioned land, and when and under what conditions they propose to hand the land back. As the law stands, the Minister has no power to compel anybody to keep this land in good condition, and there is no authority for anybody to take steps with regard to common land. It will be interesting for the House to realise the value of some of this common land from the agricultural point of view. I had something to do with one common during the war. After it had been cultivated it grew two tons of wheat per acre. The county war agricultural executive committee had been afraid to take the common land, because of the commoners, and they said to me, "Thank goodness you are going to use it. We want it brought back into food production." When I raised this question of waste land and common land some time ago in the House, I had a letter from the vice-chairman of the Bromyard Rural District Council, which covers the area of the common land which I previously mentioned. This is what he wrote:"and also to protect the rights of the public to enjoy the amenities of these open spaces."
"The picture of our Bromyard and Bringsty Commons is this. Six hundred acres of excellent rolling land covered entirely, with the exception of some green strips leading to cottages, by impenetrable seas of bracken and the whole tenanted by few scraggy sheep. Occasionally in spring someone sets a light to the bracken and then there are left huge black patches of burnt sticks.
That is the common sense way of looking at the problem, and I hope that the writer's views will receive attention. What he says about the fires is correct. When the bracken is dry someone sets it on fire thinking that it reduces the strength of the growth. Instead it increases it. There is often danger to the surrounding area, and frequently the fire brigade has to be called out at considerable expense to extinguish the fire. I hope that I have indicated some of the complexities of this common land. Even on adjoining commons the rights are rarely the same. It is a difficult problem, but is this generation any less able to deal with it than were our forefathers? Though our forefathers got into a bit of a row about it, but we must realise that at one time all the cultivable land was common land, and had it not been enclosed I do not know how we should have become a nation of 50 million people supporting so great an industrialisation. It is startling to think that in 500 years the population has increased from about 4 million to 50 million and is still increasing. What steps are we to take to avoid a possible food shortage? We must not be obsessed with the idea that the present apparent surplus of food will continue. That surplus does not result from the production of a lot of cheap food. In North America it is a high cost surplus, and the American taxpayer is tired of subsidising farmers to grow that wheat. As a result, both the United States and Canada have offered their farmers the choice of either reducing their acreage or accepting a lower price. The farmers have, wisely I think, agreed to limit the acreage, in the one country by 15 per cent, and in the other by 25 per cent. If a succession of bad harvests should follow the last three good harvests those huge surpluses may vanish. We must not rely on the existence of such a surplus to make good our own deficiencies. In this period when we are passing from controls to a free economy, we may be in a somewhat awkward position and have fears as to how we shall exist, but we must not let up on agricultural production. We must increase it, and this Motion suggests one way of doing it. The Chancellor has a difficult job in deciding to what extent he can pay deficiency payments to farmers and to what extent, if he does not pay them, the Treasury will be called upon to buy food from abroad. I suggest that it is better and safer to keep the fanners going with deficiency payments than to reduce prices and production which may prove difficult to increase again. It may be argued that we have not the time to introduce the necessary legislation. The Government are spending time on Bills which they might well forget altogether. They could spend some of the time saved to deal with the resuscitation of common land. In addition to the common land there are some 12 or 14 million acres of rough grazing, but I cannot refer to that, I know, without being ruled out of order How best can we deal with the problem? We do not want an Act of Parliament cluttered up with too much detail. All that is necessary is to give power to the county executive committees, the rural district councils, the commoners, the Ramblers Association and the Council for the Preservation of Rural England to form a committee. That committee would deal with each common on its merits. No two commons can be dealt with in the same way. Such a committee is necessary because, although the majority of commoners may want to do something with the common, nothing can be done if one or two oppose such action. We may be sleepy in my part of the world, but in this instance we are ahead of a great many other districts with common land. We have formed a commons management sub-committee which, amongst other things, has bought out the rights of the lord of the manor, and is now itself lord of the manor. I think that is essential before any common is dealt with. There are good lords of the manor—in my area there is one who is co-operating with the commoners to get back from the Ministry land which is at present requisitioned. There are other lords of the manor who are obstructive, but the value of their rights is so small that they should not be allowed to be obstructive.In the summer time the inhabitants of Birmingham and Worcester come at week-ends to visit the Commons, and are prosecuted if they park their cars more than 15 yards from the highway. Those then are the existing 'amenities.' In what way would public amenity be jeopardised if, instead of bracken, our visitors could roam freely over a rolling plain of flourishing grassland populated by healthy flocks of sheep and cattle?"
The hon. Member says their rights are very small, but in many cases the lords of the manor not only own the timber but also minerals and things of that sort.
Does he not own the soil of the manor?
I am divulging no secrets by saying that in the case I have quoted the lord of the manor sold those 600 acres for £100, so he did not think them of much value. I agree that the lord of the manor has the right to fell timber, but if he wants the right to the timber he should be compelled to plant some trees. I hope that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Grinstead (Colonel Clarke), who is a great authority on forestry, will say something on this matter if he gets the opportunity.It is important that many of these commons which are not cultivable should be planted with trees and thus improve the amenities and help in the rainfall. It is wrong that large areas of land should be completely devoid of trees. If my hon. Friend wishes, I will show him the minutes of the first meeting of the sub-committee on common land to which I have referred, whose members I think should be congratulated on what they have done. I suggest that they should be regarded as a pilot committee for dealing with common land. In some instances there are small commons adjacent to a village or a small town, measuring only a few acres in extent and which do not require to be interfered with. They provide open spaces for the local inhabitants, and they should not be touched. A great deal of the common land in London is at present controlled by the L.C.C. which. I believe, has powers to ensure that the public have the right of enjoying this common land. All I am anxious to do is to ensure that there is no idle land in this country. We cannot afford to let our land do nothing. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary may say that no legislation is necessary as powers are already given to rural district councils under the Enclosure Acts, 1845 to 1852, and the Commons Act, 1899. I do not imagine that the Enclosure Acts, 1845 to 1852 will be very acceptable, but I believe that under the Commons Act, 1899, the powers of district councils for developing their commons are pretty full. It seems to me that all that is necessary is to stir up those district councils which are not aware that they have these powers, and ensure that they take steps in this matter. I ask the Ministry to deal immediately with the question of common land at present under requisition. Some nine years have elapsed since the war ended, and it is about time that the Ministry took some action to hand this land back to the commoners. I have a letter from the Parliamentary Secretary in reply to an application that I made to him about a common which the commoners were clamouring to have returned to them. I do not suppose my hon. Friend will mind if I read part of this letter, which said:
That is excellent, but it cannot continue indefinitely. The Ministry cannot continue to let it on licence to these commoners. The commoners have been very quiet about it up to now. They have been asking in a gentlemanly way but, knowing what goes on among commoners. I suggest that if the Ministry does not take some steps to hand the common land back to the commoners, the commoners may well take control of the situation. I want to say a word about expenditure. If many of these commons are to be brought into cultivation in order to give some worth while return, a certain amount of expenditure will be required in the form of drainage, in some cases bulldozing, the clearing of bracken and so on. I do not suggest that the taxpayers of this country should be called upon to pay anything towards that work, any more than they have to pay the marginal land grants. I do not suggest that a Government Department should have a hand in it. I do not want the taxpayer or a Government Department to take a hand in it. All I ask is that a committee of the commoners should be given powers to act. I know sufficient of the commoners to be able to say that if they have powers to act and to keep out any commoners who are not prepared to pull their weight, they will be able to tackle these problems on their own, so long as they can have the benefit of a grant. I suggest that they might be given loans—not free of interest —which can be paid while they are getting this land into production, and which in due course they can repay by instalments when the land is in production. We in this country are living dangerously. Our economy is completely unbalanced. We are a great industrial nation, but we are not feeding one half of our population. It is time we woke up to the fact that if we do not produce more at home, some day we may suffer and we may have to take measures which may not be so effective as we could take if we took our time about it."… Since then we have been considering whether it ought to be retained after the end of this year, and if so, for how long. The requisitioned part of the common is no longer used for arable cropping but has been sown down to grass and is let on licence to a Committee of Commoners."
I beg to second the Motion.I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) on the manner in which he has introduced this subject. I know that he has very strong feelings about it, and I think he has been very restrained and has put forward a very balanced argument. It is just a year ago today that I moved a Motion dealing with another agricultural problem, that of rough grazing. This is a more difficult problem than that because, as has already been pointed out, these commons are owned by different people and they come under different forms of management and partial ownership. Therefore, I do not think it would be possible to introduce one Bill which would deal with all the commons in the country. Separate legislation would be necessary for each common. I speak from experience because we have quite a number of these commons in Dorset, and each one differs from the others and each presents different problems. I should like to refer to the need for commons to be properly managed, first from the point of view of road safety. The number of road accidents which occur through animals straying from commons on to the highway is surprising. Unless we do something about this problem we shall get further trouble in our scheme for tuberculin-tested cattle. A man may have tuberculin-tested cattle in a field near a common, yet any sort of animal can be put on to the common. There is a grave risk to animal health if we allow commons to continue to be treated in the lackadaisical way in which far too many of them are treated today. I was very interested in the figure of 3 million acres of common land. It is the first occasion I have heard a figure for it, and I do not think that the Ministry of Agriculture have one. Being common land no one is responsible for filling in an agricultural return for it, and I would have thought that the figure would have been very much more than 3 million. We have a good deal of common land in my county and I do not think it can ever be said that Dorset has lagged behind other counties in this matter.
The figure that I have for Dorset is 1,600 acres.
I was about to mention that we had one common of over 700 acres which has been dealt with very efficiently indeed. It and another one close by were requisitioned during the war. The agricultural committee wondered what was going to happen to this land, which had produced first-class crops. The commoners said, "What a shame it would be if it were to revert to what it was before." The landowner came forward and they worked out a very satisfactory scheme. The agricultural committee ascertained how much the leases had been sold for, those that were sold, before the war, and that was the agreed rent for the commoners. They had the right of grazing the common.This is what happened recently. The lord of the manor came along and said. "It would be such a pity if we had to go back to the previous position. I will tell you what I will do. I will cultivate the common and take over the land. Those who have the right to graze animals on that common can graze them on my land, which is more suitable, at an agreed rent under the settlement that was made at the beginning of the war." That is working very happily indeed. In fact, the commoners are much better off because they are to get first-class pasturage rather than the alternative system year after year, and in addition to that, the landowner has put up sheds on the land so that in the winter time the cattle can have shelter. Furthermore, he is prepared, while common grazing is restricted, to have grazing over the whole year. I see the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) becoming perturbed at something I have said. The rights of the people are being preserved and their right of ways still exist. Notices have been set up and the people have as much access to the land as in days gone by.
I was not at all perturbed. I was very interested, but what I should like to know is, are these graziers who get these benefits the people who had common rights and rights of pasturage before, or are they a wider section of the community? Has a person who was a commoner before, an inherent right in the new scheme?
Yes, these people all had common rights before, and one interesting case concerned a small area of land which the Dorset County Council bought to erect a cottage for a policeman. That house has with it the right of grazing on the common for some 33 sheep. The rights are there, running back into the centuries, and no fresh people have come to it. I would commend this idea to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary with the idea of trying similar schemes to bring land back into cultivation.Nearby we have got the New Forest. A great deal has been done there in the New Forest, which is common land in a wide sense. There have been many schemes of reclamation, and only recently when I was driving through it I was very interested to see the amount of progress that has been made during the last few years. My hon. Friend mentioned the expense of clearing this land. There is a great deal to that, but what we want to do is to create a very much greater pride of ownership in this land than we have had, so that the people who have a right to go on to it will do so. I believe that if that is done the cost of clearing it will not be so great, particularly if there are people with the right ideas of co-operation. I would rather approach the problem from that angle than to try to do it through legislation. I suggest to my hon. Friend that he or someone else in the Ministry should tackle this problem seriously, because it is a question of management. We must produce more food. We are losing land year by year as a result of house building, and much of this land could be brought back. The spendid harvest last year, which produced greater yields from each of the crops than ever before, must be some incentive to people to try to bring back into cultivation a part of our heritage which has been wasted for such a long time. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Grinstead (Colonel Clarke) is much more qualified to deal with afforestation than I am, but I must say that much of this land would be more suitable for afforestation than for agriculture, and it would add to the beauty of many of our commons. In conclusion, I ask my hon. Friend if he and his right hon. Friend will be bold about this problem. Too many words have been spoken and written about it, but no one has yet tried to tackle it. When he gets down to the problem I believe that my hon. Friend will be able to make his presence felt, so I ask him to do all he can to reclaim this land which we have been wasting for centuries.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) for his Motion, and probably the best way of showing my gratitude to him is to be brief. I agree with two points which he and the hon. Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Crouch) made. The first was that we should not be complacent about the food outlook of the world. I agree entirely that we must keep our land under the fullest cultivation. The second was that the problem of dealing with common land varies from district to district, from common to common, and cannot be dealt with entirely by general legislation.I hope I shall be forgiven if I speak about Scotland because two-thirds of the common land is in Scotland and, as you know, Mr. Speaker, it is an essential part of Highland agriculture. I know that the hon. Gentleman will not be able to reply, but I hope that my remarks will percolate through to the Scottish Office. Every true croft in the Highlands is composed of some arable land and the right to allow sheep, ponies or cattle to run on the common grazings. Even so far as the arable land is concerned, in the crofting counties the gates have to be opened after the crops are in, and the beasts can wander where they like. So, in a sense, the whole of this land is common land. A very good Report has been published on this subject by the Commission of Enquiry into Crofting Conditions and some of it may apply as well to England as to Scotland. Dealing with this matter the Commission said:
The full implementation of that Report may take a long time. It is, however, very important to improve these grazings quickly, and a great deal of the present general agricultural legislation does not get that done. It is not easy to get drainage, fencing and road construction done on these common holdings, and I think that the Report is right in saying that the ultimate way of doing it is to set up a commission empowered to make decisions and to press on with the matter. When such a commission is set up, I hope that it will be given discretion to deal differently with different holdings according to local needs. I hope, too, it will be given powers to lay out the money available to the best advantage of each district. The second problem is concerned with the crofter's right to apply to the Land Court for apportionment. He am then be given a part of the scattald to himself if the court approves. This is a difficult matter. It is extremely important that the survey which the Taylor Commission has recommended should be carried out. If apportionments are to be made, and in some cases I certainly think that they should be made, the common should be surveyed and it should be discovered whether a certain amount can be apportioned without destroying the whole economy of the township. The rights to run sheep should be safeguarded where necessary. I believe that the land should be apportioned as far as possible at one time, otherwise one man gets the best land because he happens to come first. In Scotland, of course, we do not have the problem of public access. We have a much better form of law in that respect than exists in England and any time that the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) wants to go and wander at will over our land he can do so."There are many districts in which the area of arable land per holding is so small, and its quality so poor, that no great advance can be expected, but where the common grazing is capable of spectacular improvement. This is already a matter of demonstration in certain parts of Shetland and Lewis. A development of (his kind is generally set afoot by the younger and more active members of the township, who deserve and should receive encouragement and reward for the exercise of those qualities of initiative and resource which the crofting communities so sorely need. It is a matter of urgent necessity that they should be freed from the shackles which at present encumber them."
I have been there.
I was afraid that the right hon. Gentleman might have to save some money before he could raise the fare to Shetland.We are troubled like England with the general problem of securing co-operation. It is important that the co-operative features in our agriculture should continue. If they are to continue we must take notice of the psychology of the people concerned. It is sometimes said that it is difficult to get crofters to combine, and the same thing may be said of people with rights on common land. But I do not agree that the crofters are always at fault. These rights, after all, provide their livelihood, and if things go wrong they are left to bear the result. They may well want to examine new experiments very carefully. It is all a matter of dealing with the particular problems of each common and township and of obtaining the maximum amount of agreement on a sensible scheme rather than the forcing through of some scheme in the teeth of local opinion by people sent to the locality from Edinburgh or London.
I wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) on having chosen this subject, which is a very relevant one, and also my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Crouch) for so ably supporting it and giving extremely interesting details about commons in his county. My approach, however, will be slightly different from those of my hon. Friends and such recommendations as I make will be slightly different also.Since commons are in such infinite variety in size and quality of pasturage—a point which has already been made—and the custom, using that word in its agricultural tenancy sense, which controls their use varies so much from county to county, I want to confine my remarks to what I might term typical ordinary rural commons, not those which are subject to Section 193 of the Law of Property Act or those which are regulated. Nor do I want to say anything about commons which were temporarily requisitioned during the war. With regard to rural commons I support all that has been said as to the disquiet in the minds of agriculturists and the public interested in commons and the way in which many commons are rapidly growing, not only into bush-clad areas, but actually into scrub forest. In Surrey I know many commons, portions of which are today hardly distinguishable from woodland. First, patches of thorn appear and then acorns and other seeds are allowed to grow among them, and so the commons become practically indistinguishable from woodlands. As one interested in agriculture I deplore the loss of agricultural land and. as a member of the public, I regret that many of these commons are rapidly becoming of little use as amenities. Often when away from home I have been glad to walk on a common where I knew that I should not be trespassing, but would be able to enjoy the countryside. From both points of view something should be done about these commons. Land is rapidly being lost to agriculture and to the public. The reason is that the number of animals on commons has decreased, partly because of motor cars, partly because in these days people living by a common are better off and are not so dependent on the cow or two which used to be kept, and partly because children go to school and cannot now be employed as herdsmen. The whole result is that there are far fewer animals and the scrub is not grazed, but rapidly increases. I feel that some action should be taken because at present the only person gaining is probably the lord of the manor to whom the trees belong, but actually such trees are generally of very poor quality. My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North referred to forestry and I think that is a possible use of common land. But on practically every common it would be against the custom and the law of the common for the lord of the manor to plant as that would interfere with the grazing rights of the common. We also have to remember that large-scale afforestation on commons would take away a great deal of the amenity provided for the public. The more I have thought about it in the last few years the more have I realised the highly explosive nature of the whole subject. Unfortunately, there is a deep-seated opposition to any interference with the commons. That is based on memories of the enclosures in the 17th and 18th centuries. I will not go into the rights and wrongs of that, though I believe that but for those enclosures our present agriculture would not have developed, nor would we have won the Napoleonic Wars. Unfortunately, the somewhat blind memories of unfortunate things that happened remain, and one has to be extremely careful when any change or any alterations are suggested for commons. Therefore, I do not go quite so far as my hon. Friend in asking for legislation at once. I should like to see the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and the Ministry of Agriculture start a full-scale public inquiry into the whole subject, so that the public could be educated about the real facts of the situation. There is great ignorance about the whole position of commons. Many people think that they belong to the public. I believe I am right in saying that in most cases the public actually have very small rights indeed. They are, naturally, allowed to use footpaths and bridle paths, and under an Act of 1876 there is a rather vague obligation on the Minister of Agriculture to make sure that if any change takes place in the user of a common the change shall be of benefit to the neighbourhood as well as to the lord of the manor and the commoners. The actual rights of the public, however, are very small indeed, but that is not generally known, and it should be made clear. I therefore believe that we should be proceeding in the best way by starting with a full-scale public inquiry.
The hon. and gallant Member has forgotten to mention the rights which the public can acquire under the Law of Property Act, 1925, Section 194, when the Lord of the Manor makes a deed giving them the right to air and exercise over the common.
The right hon. Gentleman will perhaps recollect that I began by saying that I was not then talking about commons that were regulated or came under that Section. Knowing the difficulties of this subject, I wished to confine what I was saying to the simplest case—the ordinary rural common.As I have said, I feel that the first step is to have an inquiry of this kind. Until that inquiry has reported and the whole position is clear for everybody, particularly the public, to appreciate, no further action should be taken. If and when action is taken, however, I suggest, with great deference, certain principles on which I think it should take place. First, no common should be allowed to become the private property of an individual or corporation of individuals in the sense that agricultural land is ordinarily owned. If possible, the rights of commoners, the lord of the manor and such rights as the public have should be preserved in whatever is done. A possible approach would be to remove the inhibiting Section which prevents the Agriculture Act, 1947, affecting or being of effect on commoners, because I believe they are technically supposed to be not direct occupiers. If they could be compelled to make use of their agricultural rights, it would be a good thing, taking into consideration that a common should not, except for the purpose of improving grassland by temporary leys, be converted into permanent arable ground. I believe that fencing should be allowed, provided that it is of a temporary nature for a period during which the grass is being improved; but that the fences put up should be properly gated to allow access to the public. I repeat that commons should not become permanent arable land; they should go back to grass as soon as possible. Commoners should be encouraged to form syndicates as they are doing over a number of commons, and, if they do not exercise their rights themselves, to let those rights in the form that the Syndicate agist the cattle of people other than commoners; and any benefit in the form of rent for so doing would go to the commoners. I realise that many commons or portions of them have a high amenity and natural history value. They may be the only places where it is possible to see what is supposed to be the natural flora of the country still growing. I suggest that that is not always the case because these commons are mostly in a state of transition. But if it is considered that they are of great importance from that point of view then I think that they should, after compensation to the lord and commoners, be handed over to the Nature Conservancy or some other organisation. But we should not attempt to combine the two things, to give to the commons the highest amenity value and leave them as nature reserves and, at the same time, try to make them agricultural land. I wish to repeat the warning I have given. I think it very important both from the point of view of agriculturists and of ramblers. One cannot hurry this matter too much, otherwise there will be a danger of misunderstanding arising in the country which might prevent anything from being done. I believe that a public inquiry would provide an opportunity to educate people, and enable them to understand what commons really are; to whom they belong; what rights are possessed by various people who are interested in them and how much more valuable those rights could be made both to the agriculturists from the point of view of food production and to others from the point of view of amenities.
When he opened this debate, the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) said that he was handling political dynamite. He handled it very carefully, and it did not explode in his hands. I regard the Motion as objectionable, because I think that the hon. Member should have included something to ensure the continuance of the rights of access to these common lands by people who are not regarded as commoners in the generally accepted sense of the term. Had he done so, I should have supported his Motion instead of expressing the hope that the House will not adopt it.This is a topic on which there is still a measure of controversy which is considerable, but certainly nothing like as bitter as that which raged in the last century and at the beginning of this. There still is a diversion of opinion. Some people think that we ought to enclose, cultivate and rent out the commons, or ensure the continued cultivation within fences of this type of land. Others consider that the policy of enclosure was carried much too far in the last century and the preceding century; that such commons as were left in the hands of the people away from the grasping landlords of that period ought to remain, so that the commoners can have free access to them and establish and continue their rights in them. Whatever point of view we hold on this matter, there is no doubt that many of the 1½ million acres—which was the figure given to me when I occupied the office of Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Agriculture—are neither being used for a sound agricultural purpose nor for the recreation of the people. It is a fact that much of the land held as common land is being used for neither purpose. That is a serious loss of a valuable asset which we ought not to allow to continue. Part of the difficulty that we have in this matter is that there is no up-to-date survey of this problem of the land and its use. Here, rather surprisingly perhaps, I find myself supporting the hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead (Colonel Clarke). The time has come when there ought to be undertaken by some body to be set up by the Government—a Royal Commission or something like that—a complete survey of the land held as common land or regarded as common land. I believe that such a survey, such a consideration of the whole problem involved, would be of assistance to this House in deciding what ought to be done and, as the hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead said, in forming public opinion on this question. Some of the questions which I should like to hear answered are these. How are these commons owned? How much of the land is reasonably productive? How much is being well-managed under existing arrangements? How much of the common land is in fact being used for a real recreational purpose of value to the nation? What is, and what would be, the value of the land if it were properly farmed? What is its potential agricultural value, and what would be its potential value if it were under timber? Quite a lot of the land that I happen to know, which is certainly not used for recreational purposes or for good farming, could be carrying timber which would be of great value to the nation. How much of the land would it be possible to fence temporarily, to plough, to fertilise and to re-seed and then to remove the fences and allow the land to go back to the commoners under some system by which they would have placed upon them an obligation to keep the land reasonably well farmed when once it had been so improved? Also I think that it should be part of the job of a Royal Commission, or similar body conducting such an inquiry, to make a survey of the existing legislation covering the whole of these common lands. There was a tremendous amount of legislation through the last century culminating in the Property Act of 1925. Perhaps the time has come when we ought to examine that legislation and introduce into the House a Measure which would replace much of it. There is one point which I specially want to put. I want to see if it is possible to have something done about the mountain and hill grazings to which a number of farmers have access. In my lifetime I have seen in South Wales a tremendous decline in the agricultural value of much of this land. Much of it has been encroached upon by bracken. Bracken has been a creeping paralysis, and no one has done anything about it. The trouble is that each farmer who has rights of access and grazing upon the hill tops and mountain tops feels that the business is the other man's and not his. As a result, nothing is done to destroy the bracken. Nothing is done to lime the land or to give it artificial fertiliser or something which would put back into it some of the value which undoubtedly it once had. In the course of such an inquiry and of its report I should like to have made known to us the cost of reasonable compensation to owners where land could be fully used only when fenced in and under one ownership. These are problems which we have to tackle. It is true that the use of much of this common land at present is wholly out of step with the needs of the nation, both for recreational purposes and for the production of the food which we so badly need. I realise that the Parliamentary Secretary will be unable to answer this debate fully today, but I hope he will bring to the notice of his right hon. Friend the point made by the hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead, in particular, and I hope, by myself—that the time has come when there should be a survey of all this land, conducted by some body set up by the Minister of Agriculture, and that its report should be presented to the House and should be fully considered in all its relationships, particularly as to the proper use which can be made in the future of this common land for both agricultural and recreational purposes.
This debate, although short, has been very interesting. I want to begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) on his good fortune in drawing a place in the Ballot and on the able way in which he moved the Motion. If, as the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion) remarked, I am unable to deal with every question which has been put to me or with every aspect of this difficult problem, it is not because I am not interested in it but because the complexities are very great and the conflicts of opinion which arise are also very great.Before I deal with the general problem I want to reply to the comments of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond). I have taken careful note of his remarks about the problems of the crofters. I was glad to hear him welcome the recently published Taylor Report and I will certainly commend to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland the various suggestions which the hon. Member made and the questions which he put. The hon. Member for Derbyshire. South-East suggested that a survey should be made. I recognise that it would be a great help to us if we knew precisely what was the acreage of common land and of what it consisted. The last survey which was presented to Parliament was in 1874 which is, of course, some years ago. Nevertheless, it would be right to commence on such a survey, which would be a very big job and. naturally, of interest to people locally, only if we were already prepared to take some action following it, and I have to acknowledge that we are not yet in that state of preparedness. According to the best figures which we have at present, there are about 2 million acres of common land in England and Wales. There are about half-a-million acres in Wales. Much of it, I concede to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East, consists of these mountain grazings, which in many cases are steadily going back through lack of co-operative effort by the farmers who have common rights upon them. I have noted the figure, which is, I think, reliable and which is given in our Agricultural Returns, of about 1½ million acres of rough grazing returned as common land; so that gives us a rough guide as to what these 2 million acres consist of. I think we would all say from our own personal experience that much of this 2 million acres of common land consists of moor, heath, and so on, which would be of very little grazing value at all, even if large sums of money were spent upon it. We would also recognise that, in the nature of things, the fact that it is still common land and was not enclosed in the 18th century is evidence that most of it was not very good land, because, otherwise, it would have been collared along with the rest. Although I recognise that, in the constituency of my hon. Friend, there is some very good land on the commons, in the main, this land is not good, and much of it probably could not be brought into profitable agricultural use. I accept, however, that much that is now classed as rough grazing could be greatly improved if the management of it could be improved. The difficulty with which we are confronted is that there axe three main interests in common land. First of all the ownership of the soil, which is usually, but not always, vested in the lord of the manor. The owner of the soil has limited rights, varying from one manor to another and from one common to another, but, usually they include mineral rights and the right to grazing. They usually also include a right to timber, but not always, and there are immense variations. Next, there are the commoners. As far as I can discover, some of the commoners derive their original rights from the lord of the manor of other parts of which they were tenants, and, at the time of the enclosures, the lord of the manor granted them these particular rights over what was left of the manorial waste. They had such rights as grazing, cutting bracken and underwood, and, in some cases, I believe, cutting timber. There are all kinds of restrictions and variations of the different rights of commoners. Finally, and not by any means least, there is the position of the general public. On most commons, the public have no rights actually vested in law, although, on some commons, they have. On some of them, they have a right by dedication by the lord of the manor; on others, they have statutory rights, which have been mainly conferred under the Metropolitan Commons Act, but there are others as well. The general public, although in some cases they have a statutory right, in others have acquired a claim to access by long custom lasting over the centuries. These common rights, as we all acknowledge, are of enormous value to millions of people in their recreational amenities. That is the position; we have these three parties with interests that are interlocking and varying from one particular common to another. It is quite impossible, on the face of it, to contrive a new management of any particular common without, first of all, getting the agreement of all these three parties, and it would seem very difficult to get it without in some way interfering with the interests of those parties. In looking at the record of what has happened, there seems to be only one consistent principle which has guided past Governments, and that has been one of intense caution in handling this matter. The law, as the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East said, is diverse, antique and complex in the extreme. As the law stretches over centuries, he would be a bold man who said he knew or understood it all. This is a problem of enormous complexity. Each of us may feel particularly interested in one aspect of it, but when we apply our minds to the whole picture we must confess that it is not easy to see which way to move to make a general improvement. Our wartime experience was valuable in showing what can be done with some of the commons, and was extremely valuable from the point of view of food production. But it is no guide to what can be done in peace. Members of the general public are willing to sacrifice their interests of amenity and access during time of war for the general good and to help food production, but that does not mean that they are agreeable to do it in peacetime. I remember visiting a common—but I must not refer to the part of the country. There was a very fine open space where there were large areas of open common land. One particular piece of several hundred acres had been enclosed and cultivated very successfully during the war. There was a proposition that this piece should remain permanently farmed and should have buildings on it for all time. The proposition was put to the people in the locality. It is extremely inprobable that many of the people had ever used the land, but now they loudly complained that this piece of 200 or 300 acres, set in the middle of tens of thousands of other acres of common land, was the lungs of the locality and that they could not do without it. We had to give way, and now that piece has gone back to be once again the lungs of the locality, and I doubt whether it is now much more than that. This illustrates the strength of the public interest, and we must give full weight to at in considering the general picture. The figures given by my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster of the wartime acreage were right. About 20.000 acres were cultivated during the war, and 10,000 acres of them have been returned to the commoners and the general public. All of them are now producing more than they were. They went back with good pasture on them, whereas previously there had been little or nothing on them. so that some benefit has been derived. I am bound to admit that in many cases this land is progressively deteriorating, in the nature of things. In some cases the commoners have tried to do their best, but they are up against the fundamental fact that once land reverts to common nothing can readily be done to improve it. Even ploughing is impossible because it is technically enclosure. Once the land becomes common land there is no way, as the law now stands, of renovating the pasture. The remaining 10,000 acres are still under requisition. Some are let to the commoners under various arrangements to enable them to have the benefit of the land. So long as it is requisitioned it is enclosed. The position legally is that the land is requisitioned under Defence Regulation emergency powers which are renewed from year to year. They now run to the end of this year, and after the date when the emergency legislation comes to an end will be a period of two years during which the requisition continues to run so as to enable such winding-up operations to take place as are needed. That is the position as it now stands. Wherever we can we do all that is possible to bring the commoners together so as to make management arrangements with them for their benefit and that of the commons. Now that we are coming back to peacetime conditions there is, naturally, a growing pressure to have these commons returned so as to give full rights of access, of amenity and of recreation to the general public When I was looking at the records of this difficult but very fascinating subject I turned to the general course of events in the 18th century when the great enclosures were taking place. I read how very strongly the wretched commoners and the general public, who saw the land disappearing from their use, felt about the enclosures. There was an amusing little jingle which illustrates the state of mind of people who feel that they are not being properly treated. The jingle goes:
"The Law doth punish man and woman
Who steals the goose from off the common,
But lets the greater felon loose,
I see that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) knows the rhyme better than I. We cannot risk returning to a state of affairs in which people would again have such cause for complaint. In commenting on the general preservation and care of the commons, I would like to pay my tribute to the Commons Preservation Society for the very enlightened interest it takes in trying to maintain the commons, not only in the interests of the general public but also of food production. The interests of the general public must be particularly before us. I do not hold myself out in any, way as an expert on the law of common land, and I cannot do more than just comment on one or two aspects of a very complex affair. The law as it affects us today is mainly to be found in the Enclosure Acts, 1845–1899—there are quite a number of them; the Metropolitan Commons Acts, which affect a number of commons, and the Law of Property Act, 1925. Those seem to be the main legislative provisions. There seem to be two procedures for dealing with the management of commons, one designed in the interests of the commoners—who would normally have agricultural interests—and the other designed in the interests of the general public. I suppose that there is a third one under Section 85 of the 1947 Act which, in certain circumstances, would permit purchase by the Minister. As far as the commons are concerned in regard to the trend of this debate there are the two procedures; one enabling a management scheme to be set up in the interests of the commoners and the other a scheme in the interests of the general public. The interests of commoners, or of the lord of the manor, can be provided for by schemes promoted under the Act of 1876, which lays down that not less than one-third by value of those with interests in the common can make an applica- tion to the Minister for an enclosure or regulation scheme. They have to satisfy the Minister that the scheme will benefit the neighbourhood as well as themselves. It is interesting to see that before 1876 they had only to have regard to the benefit of the neighbourhood as well as the benefit to themselves and that there were a great many more enclosure schemes before 1876 than after. The result of the 1876 Act was that a certain number of schemes came forward in the latter part of the 19th century. Since then there have been hardly any. If the Minister is satisfied that a case has been made out he embarks on a lengthy procedure which includes a public inquiry. At some stage he has to get the consent of not less than two-thirds of those interested. The procedure culminates in the Minister coming before Parliament with a Bill and if Parliament is satisfied that the public interest is to be catered for the scheme is approved and the Bill becomes law. This is a very long, complex and costly process, so it is not surprising that it is not often initiated. The last one was in 1918, in Gloucestershire, and since then one has been considered in Northumberland. The general public's interest can be promoted by a scheme of regulation more particularly by county district councils initiating regulation schemes under the Act of 1899. I am glad to say that particularly in my own county of Surrey, several of these regulation schemes have been proceeded with. Incidentally, these schemes can also be proceeded with under the Metropolitan Commons Acts. These schemes are really mainly for the benefit of the general public, giving the county district councils concerned the necessary powers to manage the common in the interests of the general public, to spend public funds on such matters as clearing the common, making roads and shelters, draining it and so on, and generally improving it for the public amenity. I am proud to be able to claim that we have contrived to do that in respect of the common in my own village after a good deal of trouble, when I personally had to acquire the manorial rights before we could do it. I made it over to the district council so that it could be preserved in perpetuity. I think I should comment, in passing, that as the ownership of manorial rights gradually leaves the hereditary families who have held k for many years, and the property becomes just anybody's property, the interest of the public, apart altogether from agricultural interests, may suffer severely because there is nobody to look after it, to collect fees for different rights of access and keep it clear or drain it. Indeed, it may fall into the hands of unscrupulous people who may cut off all the timber and even strip off the turf and ruin it for everybody for ever. Therefore, there is everything to be said for county district councils initiating such schemes. I have not had time to do more than call the attention of the House to the great complexity of this matter and to the three main interests that we have to keep in mind in approaching this very difficult and complicated problem. I should like to assure my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster that I am fully aware of the desirability of making better use of these commons for the production of food and timber, and I fully recognise that there is scope for that. My right hon. Friend and I will give most careful attention to what my hon. Friend has said today, and we shall certainly study the matter and see what means can be found to meet the views that he has put forward. We certainly wish to make full use of these commons. We recognise that in our present position we cannot afford to have commons which are lying idle when they could be producing more food, so long as we do not interfere with the public's interest of recreation and access. With those few comments, I thank my hon. Friend for moving this Motion, and I am glad to be able to tell him that we shall he very pleased to accept it.That steals the common from the goose."
I must express my profound disappointment that the Parliamentary Secretary has not seen his way to accede to the request made by the hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead (Colonel Clarke) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion) that there should be a proper inquiry into the very complicated matters which he has mentioned. In fact, if I may say so with due respect to my hon. Friend and to the hon. and gallant Gentleman, the Parliamentary Secretary made a better case for the inquiry than even they did.As a Vice-President of the Commons and Footpaths Preservation Society, I can tell the Parliamentary Secretary, what he already knows, that they have made a request for such an inquiry. I sincerely hope that this is not the last word to be said on this matter and that the Government, which, in this matter, has professed the ignorance that it displays on every other, will take severe steps to enlighten itself and the country on the various ramifications of this question. As the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) forgot to include the interests of he general public in his Motion, it would be quite wrong to allow this Motion to go through without strong protest. If he had added that, I would have joined with the hon. Member—
It being Four o'Clock, the debate stood adjourned.
School Meals Service
Motion made, and Question proposed, 'That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Kaberry.]
The subject that I am raising on the Adjournment is the school meals service, and I want to ascertain from the Parliamentary Secretary what in his view and that of the Minister are the main factors that have caused the recent contraction in the numbers of children using the school meals service. I do not want to weary the House with figures, but I should like to point out that in October last there was a sharp decline in the number of children using the service to about 46 per cent, of the total of the school population. That is somewhat disturbing to me, and not only to me but to those who are deeply concerned about the welfare of this excellent social institution, which has now become a permanent part of the British way of life.When the first Bill was introduced in Parliament to deal with the feeding of necessitous schoolchildren, I read the report of the debates in another place. One noble Lord said that he would have nothing to do with such a scheme because it was lit up with the fantastic fireworks of Socialism. I am perfectly certain that neither the Parliamentary Secretary nor the right hon. Lady the Minister of Education are possessed of any such hallucinations about this service. One of the main debates of the conference of the National Association of Executives in Education at Weston-super-Mare last September was on the school meals service. It arose on a motion asking the Minister to review the financial charges to parents which had been increased from 7d. to 9d. in March of last year for the mid-day meal. The second part of the motion deplored the increased cost because it had the effect of removing children from the scheme, and they were the children of families for whom the school meals service was primarily intended to serve. In my own constituency I recently saw the report of the medical officer of health for Oldbury, and I find that there has been a sharp decline in the number of children using the service—a decline of 10 per cent. Taking that together with the debate to which I have referred, it would appear that the reduction in some districts during 1953 has been as high as 16 per cent. I shall be glad to know from the Parliamentary Secretary whether the decline has been arrested, and what are the latest figures at his disposal as to the number of children using the school meals service. The hon. Gentleman will recall that it was the intention of the Government, when the Education Act was passed, to provide a free school meals service and that this should be put into operation at the same time as the free milk service came into operation. We have had the latter since August, 1946. but neither the Coalition Government nor the Labour Government were able to realise the intention of the Education Act to provide a free school meals service. For my part I stand wholeheartedly for its provision, for two reasons. The first is that it is essential for children to be properly fed in order that they may benefit to the fullest extent from an education provided for them in accordance with their age and ability and aptitude, as the Education Act puts it. Secondly, I consider that it is a sound investment, wise and productive, and that it is reaping and will reap even greater dividends to the nation in the form of happier and healthier children than we have known before in this country. The climate in which this matter is now discussed is much more congenial to the subject than it was even 20 years ago, because the country has never forgotten the description of this nation as a C3 nation in connection with the First World War and the resulting large number of rejects from military service on physical grounds. The nation wishes to forget that and has no desire to see it repeated in our history. Therefore, this service is vital to the nation. With regard to the effect of the increased charges last year from 7d. to 9d., I know that the Parliamentary Secretary will say that there is the provision of free meals for children whose parents are unable to afford the present charges. May I say to the hon. Gentleman and, through him to his right hon. Friend, that working-class pride is of such a nature that people will not stand for their children being hived off from the rest as those who, on the one hand, are enjoying free meals because their parents cannot afford to pay and, on the other, the children who are able to pay for their meals because their parents are in better circumstances. I do not want to lay the responsibility for the decline in the use of the school meals service on the basis of the increased charge of last year or the cumulative effect of increased charges during the last two years. I suggest that there is another factor which is much more insidious and, I fear, much more effective in militating against the welfare of the school meals service. It is the recent policy of the Minister in forcing economy cuts on the staffing arrangements, particularly of the kitchen staff, in relation to the total number of meals served. I speak after testing information that has been supplied to me by the National Union of Public Employees, of which I am an officer and which has a very large membership employed in the school meals service. A circular issued to local authorities, for which I give the Minister every credit, sets out provisions to ensure the highest possible standard of hygiene and the taking of all necessary steps to avoid food poisoning. The Minister, in that circular, advises local authorities that the food given to children should be prepared, cooked and served on the same day but, as a result of the Minister's policy in enforcing these continuous reductions in the number of hours permitted to the staffs, increasing difficulty has been experienced in carrying out arrangements which, according to the circular, are considered essential to the service. I have nothing but the greatest admiration for the teaching staffs and those employed in the service, either whole or part-time. They are doing grand work. Seized as they are by a sense of vocation, they realise how invaluable this work is to the welfare of the children for whom they are responsible. It is because of that conviction of their high sense of duty that I raise the point that I am now making. I am advised that in many parts of the country, food is prepared and cooked the day before and warmed-up again before it is served. That is entirely contrary to the Minister's advice. I make that statement with particular reference to the cooking of carcase meat and meat products. I am advised that in some cases children have to wait until 12.30 p.m. and sometimes 12.45 p.m. before they are served with their mid-day meal because the staff is unable to make the arrangements that are so essential for the proper preparation and cooking of the food and its serving. That is the result of the model staffing scheme which the Minister issued to the local authorities. If the Parliamentary Secretary tells me that that circular relating to staffing is only sent to the local authorities for guidance, I say at once that that is certainly not the case, because the Minister is responsible for the service. It is financed wholly by the Exchequer, directly in respect of capital equipment and in the form of expenditure approved by the Minister in relation to the cost of preparing and cooking the meals. In those cases where the county authority is unable to make good the cost within the range set by the staffing scheme of the Ministry it is at once informed that unless it puts its house in order the Minister will not sanction the increased cost by way of reimbursement. The Minister is the boss; the Minister has the economic power. I sincerely hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will not hide behind that skirt by saying that it is purely a matter of guidance for local authorities and not to be regarded in any way as an instruction. Through the Parliamentary Secretary, may I ask the Minister of Education to encourage consultation between the trade unions and herself. Why does not the Minister invite not only my union but the whole of the unions concerned in the organisation of the staff and ask for their views as to what should be done in relation to the proper staffing of the school meals service and what is essential to provide for the highest standard of hygiene, not only in relation to the centre but also in the localities? Speaking as a trade union officer over many years, I can see nothing but real productive good coming from the closest possible consultation between the unions' officers concerned, the directors of education and, if necessary, their appropriate county committees and, most certainly, the Minister and her appropriate officers at the centre. I am not asking for any managerial interference in this matter. I appreciate and fully respect the managerial rights of those responsible for the conduct of the service, but I do say to the Parliamentary Secretary that he should urge on the Minister the good sense and wisdom in this 20th century of securing the experience and knowledge of the unions concerned whenever she is disposed to issue a circular to local authorities, particularly about staffing arrangements. This is a permanent service. It is part of our British way of life. I hope and feel certain that it will not disappear from the fabric of our social institutions. It is my responsibility, in common with hon. Members on both sides of the House, to see that this scheme, to which the nation devotes a part of its income, shall realise the purposes for which it was originally intended and that notions of economy which, in fact, are nothing but parsimony shall not be allowed to injure the institutions which in its operation the Minister seeks to improve and nurture.
I do not think it would be proper, in a short debate on the Adjournment, to go into the general questions the hon. Member for Oldbury and Halesowen (Mr. Moyle) raised, one of which was that there ought to be a universal free school meals service, which might be a matter requiring minor legislation, and, therefore, inappropriate for discussion now, and the other to consider the general question of what is economy and what is parsimony. Of course, everyone entirely agrees with him that the scheme ought to be properly managed and ought not, in the interests of economy, to be so twisted and bent as to destroy its virtues, or any part of them.I think we are all agreed upon that, and for the purpose of this sort of debate I should have thought that that was enough to start from, and that other greater matters of principle, and the fantastic fireworks of Socialism, which is what it was called before there was Socialism—now it would be called rather the dreary, damp drip of Socialism—all that, I think, we can very well leave out. I am sorry to have to confess to the hon. Gentleman that I do not know the answer about the resolution from the Association of Divisional Executives at Weston-super-Mare. I have had no notice of that; perhaps it is one of the things that I ought to have come across in preparing for the debate, but I did not, and I shall, if the hon. Member will allow me, have to write to him about it later. I understand people having pride in regard to seeking or not seeking an eleemosynary advantage, but I did not quite understand what the hon. Member said about children being hived off: I do not think it is a fact that children whose parents claim that they ought not to be compelled to pay are in any way marked off or separately dealt with. If anything of that sort does happen and it is brought to our attention we shall, of course, look into it with the greatest care. We are conscious of the importance of all this. The hon. Member spoke very kindly and fairly, and I do not want to turn this debate into a party wrangle at all, but may I remind him that the price increase in March, 1953, was not the first? There was an addition from 5d. to 6d. in 1950 and from 6d. to 7d. in April, 1951. I mention that not to make a party point upon it but because it is a necessary part of the argument, as will be seen presently. Even at 9d. I do not think that anybody doubts the school meal is very good value for money; the charge represents generally rather less than half of what the meal actually costs. My right hon. Friend has taken pains to make clear that she was willing to consider proposals from local education authorities for shifting the scales upon which parents' incomes are scrutinised so that hardship shall be avoided. We all know the value of money; we all, unfortunately, know what our fathers and grandfathers had forgotten, and could hardly understand, that the value of money shifts. In fact, 101 of the 146 authorities, in particular Worcestershire, have put up new scales which have been approved. The hon. Member kindly avoided worrying me with figures, and I do not know how much I can worry him in seven minutes with figures. I will do my best to answer his points. The latest returns show that there were 51·3 per cent, of children taking meals in October, 1952, and 45·1 per cent, in October, 1953, so there was a fall of 6·2 per cent. In Worcestershire, the fall in the percentage taking school dinners after the price increase was slightly less than the general fall in England and Wales; though again, inside Worcestershire, in Oldbury the fall was not only greater than in Worcestershire but greater than in the country at large. It is worth remembering, if only to show the complications of the subject, that although the extra 2d. went on everywhere the effects have been different in Worcestershire from those in England generally, and different in Oldbury from the effects in Worcestershire generally. So any simple presumption about causes and effects in this matter is almost bound to be mistaken, and, if right, is right rather by chance than by logic. No one knows how closely or directly the extra 2d. is really connected with the fall in the percentage of children taking meals. I would remind the hon. Gentleman that the fall in the percentage of children taking meals when the price was raised to 6d. in 1950 was considerable—from 53 per cent, to 50·2 per cent. One would have thought that the raising of the price to 7d., in 1951, would have the same effect, or more so. On the contrary it had much less effect, almost no effect at all. Moreover, the general effect of those two 1d. increases dwindled away again quite a good deal soon afterwards. So the effect of the latest increase, which the hon. Gentleman so properly and moderately deplores, we may hope may prove too to pass fairly quickly. We shall have more figures which, if the hon. Member will remind me, I will show to him before very long, but we have not them now. With every respect—I use those words not in any conventional sense—for medical officers, and particularly for the Oldbury medical officer—who, for all I know, may be the best of medical officers—to use words like, "It must be presumed" or, "We are driven to conclude" that the whole of this effect is directly the result of the extra 1d. or 2d., will not quite do. The clearest indication of that is that the number of free meals also fell between October, 1952 and 1953, and it cannot have been the additional cost which was causing that result. The variations in the extent of the decline in meals taken in general are very wide. I think that the hon. Gentleman used the figure of 10 per cent, in Oldbury, but actually it is more: it is 11 per cent, or 12 per cent., whereas in Worcestershire generally it is 6 per cent. I am not familiar, as he, of course, is, with the exact conditions in that part of the world. But I cannot believe that a penny matters so much more in Oldbury than in the rest of Worcestershire—as the results would lead one to suppose, if. in fact, a penny was the only cause of the results. As I have said, in so far as matters of hardship are concerned, there has been a loosening, and easing of the scale for free meals. Since the new scale for Worcestershire was not approved until July, 1953, it may be that it had not got through to the consciousness of parents fully before the beginning of the new school year when our last return was made. It may be that we shall now find that there are more meals being taken, and particularly more free meals I entirely agree, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend and her advisers agree, with the medical officer, that if parents do feel honestly persuaded that they cannot afford the cost of school meals they ought not to have any false shame about it: they should not hesitate to apply for free meals. I hoped to have something else to say about that, but as I have only a minute of time left I should say something about the reduction in the serving staff. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me I will therefore pass on to that. It is the duty of my right hon. Friend to see that the total cost is reasonable, in the light of local circumstances and so on, and therefore to exercise a certain responsibility about the amount of money spent in staffing and to exercise some control over the number of persons employed. That is done, but it is done with indirectness. The sanction is simply that if the head office, if Curzon Street, is persuaded that in a particular area too much is being spent on the meals service then there would be financial loss to the authority, since they would not get a grant. If there is reason to suppose that there is under-staffing in Worcestershire, then the first approach ought to be to the Worcestershire authority. So far as any information I have goes, there is not any reason to make that supposition. If I have time to get in one last figure, so far as the poisoning point goes, so long as children are poisoned in this way—
The Question having been proposed at Four o'Clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjourned at Half-past Four o'clock.