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Political Broadcast (Telephone Delays)

Volume 529: debated on Wednesday 7 July 1954

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24.

asked the Assistant Postmaster-General if he will make a statement on the inconvenience and delay caused to telephone users as a consequence of a television programme organised by the Conservative Central Office on Thursday, 1st July; and what steps are being taken to prevent a repetition.

25.

asked the Assistant Post- master-General the reason for the almost complete hold up of trunk line telephone services from many principal towns in the United Kingdom and London at about 8.45 on the evening of Thursday, 1st July, 1954; and what steps he proposes to prevent similar breakdowns in an essential public service.

26.

asked the Assistant Postmaster-General what prior arrangements were made by his Department to cope with the additional burden imposed on the telephone services by the party political television broadcast last Thursday.

My noble Friend always regrets any inconvenience which may be caused to telephone users. In this particular case, the number of calls forecast by the Conservative Central Office was 200; this number could have been met without any difficulty. The actual number of calls was at least 10,000 and may have been as high as 20,000; this caused delay mainly for about 15 minutes, especially on some trunk circuits.

It is the duty of the Post Office to give the best possible service our equipment will permit, but the practical difficulties of carrying such a concentration of traffic and the inconvenience to the public would, I hope, enable us to dissuade anyone contemplating repeating the experiment in this particular form.

Was it not obvious that there would be thousands of people ringing up complaining about high rents, high prices and other things, and that something must be done about it? May I make one suggestion, that, in view of the dangers and difficulties which for centuries have attended the practice of allowing Tory Ministers to speak in public, he should consider advising in the next television programme the presentation of, say, the Minister of Works as a silent film?

Can my hon. Friend say if the Post Office had been put in similar embarrassment in the time of any Labour Party broadcast?

The only parallel case we have had was an offer from Radio Luxembourg with regard to give-away programmes, and that completely jammed the Mayfair telephone service.

Was it consistent with the proper discharge of his duties for the Postmaster-General to be junketing with the smart-alec tacticians of the Tory Party Headquarters while the telephone service was being submerged, and would it not have been better if he had been at the exchange helping out the unfortunate operators?

Has the Assistant Postmaster-General any power to stop any person from advertising their telephone number and offering to pay the reversed charge? Might there not possibly be a slight element of sour grapes in these complaints

In view of the Radio Luxembourg precedent to which the hon. Gentleman called attention this afternoon, why was the Post Office so naive as to accept without question the Conservative Central Office estimate of only 200 calls, if the nature of the programme was disclosed to them? Is this the result of political pressure through the hon. Gentleman himself?

The Conservative Central Office informed us that there was to be a broadcast which would make demands on the telephone exchange. Strictly speaking, they need not have done so. They estimated that it would cause 200 telephone calls. I think that they were wrong in their estimate.

Can the Assistant Postmaster-General say whether on this occasion any local calls were dislocated?

No. It had hardly any effect on local calls, but it had an effect on the trunk services for about 15 minutes.

Can the Assistant Postmaster-General say what good purpose is served by 20,000 members of the British public ringing up the Conservative Central Office for answers to questions when Tory Ministers at that Box cannot answer simple questions at 2.30 in the afternoon?

Would not perhaps the best solution of this serious inconvenience to the public be for the hon. Gentleman, through channels with which he is very familiar, to make representation to the Conservative Central Office that they might consider the convenience of their fellow citizens and not make these schemes, which have the purpose of stopping other people from using the telephone? I understand that the purpose is to get votes. Will he put it to them that they may lose votes by this anti-social practice?

I do not think the right hon. Gentleman heard my original answer. I pointed out the practical difficulties of such an operation and the impossibility of it fulfilling its purpose in the sense of people getting through which would, I should have thought, deter the promoters of such a scheme from repeating it in its present form.

Is it not gratifying that this most successful experiment has received so much publicity today from hon. Members opposite?

The hon. Gentleman did not answer my supplementary question. Can he say why the Post Office expert advisers accepted uncritically the estimate of 200 calls, in view of the precedent which he has quoted of Radio Luxembourg?

The Conservative Central Office told the Post Office that it was going to do a party political broadcast, which would entail a certain amount of telephoning. The Conservative Central Office was under no obligation whatever to tell that to the Post Office, but they did so. Therefore, the Post Office accepted the estimate of the traffic that the broadcast would entail.

In view of the most unsatisfactory nature of the replies in this matter, I shall endeavour on the Adjournment to explore further this public nuisance.