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London Telephone Directory

Volume 292: debated on Monday 27 May 1968

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2.38 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in view of the almost universal criticism of the proposed abolition of the London Telephone Directory, they are now reconsidering this proposal.]

My Lords, the Government do not accept that there has been almost universal criticism of the plans for new London telephone directories. There has been some controversy, largely due to misunderstanding of the details. By 1975, with the very rapid growth in the number of subscribers, the present directories would more than double in size. This has caused the Post Office to examine alternatives to the present directory arrangements which would meet the needs of subscribers and might offer some advantages to them. Research into the way in which present subscribers use the number information services led to the evolution of a plan to provide each user with a single directory about the size of the existing London A-D book. This would be specially compiled to provide him with virtually all the information he needs—not only information about his own neighbourhood, but also about installations in the whole of London such as railway termini and hospitals. The proprosed plan will be the subject of an independent public opinion survey before an irrevocable decision is taken.

My Lords, is there any other capital city in the world that does not publish an alphabetical list of its telephone subscribers?

My Lords, I cannot give that information to the noble Lord, but I think he will recognise that there has been a growing number of subscribers. In my own recollection—which does not go back very far—the size of the book has changed considerably over the last 10 or 15 years. There has been a constant change.

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that if the Post Office think that this proposed proliferation of telephone directories is going to be helpful to the general public, they are almost alone in that view?

My Lords, the noble Lord is entitled to his point of view, but I think he would have to produce substantial evidence to prove it.

Because I have studied the papers as carefully as has the noble Lord, and to make a categorical statement that there has been universal criticism—

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there certainly has been practically universal criticism of this? Is she further aware, or are the Government aware, that no subscriber in London wishes to have 36 telephone directories at home, which is what they will need? Can my noble friend give any justification as to why in the future, in addition to having telephone charges increased, if subscribers wish to telephone somebody in another borough—information which is already in the present books—and know only the name of that person they should have to pay ls. for the information?

My Lords, in the first place, the noble Baroness was probably not present when I replied to a Question on directory inquiries a few days ago. There would not be a charge for the service, except in the case of a substantial search. In other words, if you were able to produce the name and address, and you merely wanted the telephone number, there would be no charge. The charge would be imposed if a substantial search was involved. In the second place, I cannot imagine that the noble Baroness speaks for every subscriber in London, because I do not see how she could have carried out this research in time. If a subscriber needs to have all these directories he will be able to have them. I know personally that I have not every number that I should like, because I constantly need a number in Surrey, Kent, Essex or Hertfordshire. One cannot have all these numbers.

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether she is aware that if I wish to telephone a Mr. Smith who lives in another borough, and I do not know his address, this will be a reckonable charge for which I shall have to pay ls.?

My Lords, if the noble Baroness replying to the Question is not satisfied that certain noble Lords have expressed public opinion on this subject, would she state what procedure the Post Office will adopt in order to ascertain the general view of London telephone subscribers before this radical change is made?

My Lords, I think that perhaps the noble Lord did not hear what I said, and I will repeat that the proposed plan will be the subject of an independent public opinion survey.

My Lords, can the noble Baroness say how long the Post Office esimate it will take before one gets an answer from directory inquiries when this new system is working?

My Lords, I have already said this, but I will repeat it; and I made a spot check last weekend in anticipation of a comment of this kind. The directory inquiry service is highly efficient, and if you were to make a comparison with other telephone services, I think it would be interesting to find out just how quickly you would receive a similar reply in other countries.

Of course it is efficient, my Lords, but I am asking how efficient it will be when people do not have the full list of names.

My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness would like to hear from some noble Lords who sympathise with this scheme and think that on the whole it would be a good one.

My Lords, I am grateful for that remark. May I repeat that this is not actually happening next week. It is not in fact planned to start until 1970.

My Lords, would my noble friend ask the Postmaster General whether he is aware that New York, which has about the same population as London, has one telephone directory?

My Lords, would the noble Baroness investigate and discover that in New York there are in fact five directories? The one on the hotel table is the directory which covers Manhattan, but there are four other directories of the same size.

My Lords, while I do not want to get involved in this controversy, may I ask my noble friend whether she will consider what I hope is a constructive suggestion; namely, that without deviating from the main policy of the Postmaster General consideration could be given to having a special directory just for the Central London district?

My Lords, I think I can assure the noble Lord that when this scheme is put forward for discussion it will be just what the noble Lord has described. While the directory will be for the neighbourhood, it will embody also the places for which one is likely to need to find a telephone number quickly, such as railway stations, hospitals and so on. That is part of the scheme.

My Lords, would the noble Baroness be kind enough to make it clear whether or not this is an alternative scheme? Because in the week-end newspapers there was the implication that the subscriber would be able to choose to have the new scheme or, alternatively, to retain the existing, but rather enlarged, telephone directories.

My Lords, as I understand the position the subscriber will be able to choose whether he wants only the neighbourhood directory or whether he would like all the directories—in other words, the 36 to 40 volumes.

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend what research is being done into embodying in the existing directory, further abbreviations, and also additional columns, so that London could retain a one-volume directory—as indeed is done in New York, as my noble friend Lady Gaitskell pointed out?

My Lords, I will take note of that and will refer the suggestion to my right honourable friend. I cannot answer for him, of course, but I will let the noble Lord have an answer in due course.

My Lords, I am quite sure that every one of your Lordships feels absolutely passionately on this subject but there will not be time For us all to take part in the discussion to-day. Therefore I think we might move on to the next Question.