Supply. — [16TH Allotted Day.] – in the House of Commons on 17th July 1919.
The Post Office now covers such a large field of activities—there is both the Post Office business and the work undertaken for other Departments—that it is impossible to deal with all the subjects in one speech. Consequently, I propose to refer only to those questions which have excited criticism both inside and outside this House. That, of course, will confine my remarks to not many subjects. On the two previous occasions that I have addressed the House on the Post Office Esti- mates I have not referred much to the financial position. Everyone knows that the position was so obscure that it made it very difficult, and I am afraid that at the present moment the position is not very much clearer. Still, I will do my best, and give the Estimates that I and my financial advisers have made. In the year 1913–14 the profit on all the services of the Post Office amounted to £5,200,000; in the year which has just closed, 1918–1919, the profit amounted to the larger sum of £6,500,000, which is the largest sum, I believe, that has ever been made in the Post Office in any one year. That is one record which I hold during my term of office as Postmaster-General. Unfortunately, it has not continued up to date, and I must present my hon. Friends opposite with a very much worse record. The estimated deficit for the year 1919–20 will amount, in round figures, to about £2,000,000. It is not possible to make an exact estimate, as so many factors have to be taken into consideration. There is the question of demobilisation, the uncertainty of the revival of trade, the extent that trade will revive, and there are possible changes which may take place in the rates of wages and prices of material. I cannot say for the moment that there appears to be any prospect of a reduction in those two last-named items. During the War, in order to make provision, and to meet to some extent the extra cost of the Post Office, there have been increases in charges which, during this year, will bring in £6,500,000 more as compared with the year before the War.
When we turn to the expenditure side of the account, we find an enormous increase of work for Government Departments, mainly the fighting Departments, the War Office, the Admiralty, and, later, the Air Force. This will continue for the present, though I hope and trust—up to date my hope has not been realised—that it will be on a smaller scale. The prices of materials have very largely increased, and the cost of the mail-cart service has greatly increased. The drivers of the mail carts used to work very long hours—I believe about sixty and over—but now their hours are reduced to forty-eight, without any reduction of pay. Of course, this has made a very large increase in the cost of the mail-cart service. The cause of the main increase in the cost of working the Post Office is the bonus on wages which has been given since the War began, and which now amounts to £14,500,000 per annum more than was paid in the year before the War. Against this item the charges which has been transferred to the public only amount to £6,500,000 per annum. We had to consider, in view of this great increase, whether it was necessary or desirable to make a general increase in the charges for the services rendered by the Post Office; but I do not think, during the period of reconstruction, when it is necessary to maintain as cheap and efficient a service as possible, it would be in the general interests of the country to make a general increase of charges all round. Later on, towards the end of the year, or when the year is finished, we shall see whether this is going to be the permanent situation or not.
The financial transactions which have been conducted by the Post Office on account of other Departments are very large, and are really the direct outcome of the War. Last year the separation allowances alone caused some 179,000,000 separate transactions, and payments amounting to over £157,000,000. The pensions amounted to 38,000,000 separate payments, involving a sum of £34,000,000. Since the Armistice over 3,000,000 cases of demobilisation have been dealt with, and it has all been done hurriedly, involving payments of over £50,000,000. When such large figures as those have to be dealt with, it is not astonishing that in a few instances the regimental paymasters, or whoever the people responsible in the Army happen to be, and the Post Office, should make a few mistakes. There were also other big financial transactions in connection with the War Loans. The amount dealt with through the Post Office before the present War Loan, the figures of which are not complete, was over £401,000,000, and, as most of it was made up of small, or rather small, sums, it is very satisfactory to know that the deposits in the Savings Bank since 31st March, 1914, have increased from £189,000,000 to £252,000,000 at the end of March this year. The latter figure includes, perhaps, £20,000,000 in connection with the payment of war gratuities.
I have dealt roughly with the general financial position. I propose to go further into the question of the finance of the telephone service, which has been the subject of a certain amount of criticism lately, though whether it has all been directed against the telephone service or whether it has been for other motives I am not prepared to say. The National Telephone Company had a capital of some £11,000,000, including debentures, preference shares, and ordinary shares, and on this they paid 6 per cent. dividends on certain deferred stocks, preference shares, and others; but the average dividend on the whole capital for the five years before the transfer to the State was £5.13 per cent. In 1913–14, after the service had been transferred to the State, it showed a profit of £239,000 in addition to an interest charge of £692,000. These two figures together gave a dividend of £4.29 per cent. on the total capital employed. Above this, the National Telephone Company paid in royalties to the Post Office 10 per cent. on the gross receipts from the service. This in the last year of working amounted to £353,000, but, as everybody knows, the provision of the National Telephone Company for pensions and wages paid were not what could be described by anybody as being on a liberal scale. All they provided for pensions in their last year was £13,000. Immediately the service was taken over by the State this sum was increased in 1913–14 to £243,000 per annum. Not only that, but salaries and wages were immediately increased by £158,000 per annum, and, though by transferring to the Post Office the undertaking has benefited by the extinction of the royalties, amounting to £350,000, paid by the company, this is more than set off by the addition of wages and pensions. The latter, in round figures, amount to £400,000 a year.
The plant was run down, it has been very expensive to keep it in anything near a working state, and in the future it will call for a very heavy outlay of capital in order to bring it up anywhere near to a state of satisfactory efficiency. The dividend which would have been paid had this been a commercial concern is only 1 per cent. less than the average dividend that was paid by the National Telephone Company in the five years before the War, and that is accounted for by the improved conditions and pay of the staff. Before the War and after the system had been taken over by the State the profit, as I have already said, amounted to £239,000, and if the situation had not been so tragically altered by the War I am perfectly certain that it would still be making similar profits, or, at any rate, profits somewhere in the region of those which it was making before.
No; it is the profit made in the first year after the service had been taken over by the State—the year 1913–14. On account of the War the cost of living has increased by degrees, and, consequently, the bonus in the way of wages paid to the telephone workers has been also increased. It began in 1915–16 with a very modest sum of £177,000. In 1918–19 this had increased to £1,440,000 per annum, and this year it amounts to £2,500,000, or more than the wages paid when the telephone service was first taken over by the State. That means that the wages bill has practically doubled since 1913–14. These are not, I am sorry to say, all the inevitable troubles which have arisen. This is a result over which we have had no control whatever. Over and above all this, provision has had to be made for the pension liability which has increased concurrently with the rate of wages. The renewal of the plant will be very much more expensive, and the new construction and extension of the system will be very expensive, and as a consequence the provision for depreciation must be very much higher than it was when the same number of units were put in during the War. An exchange costing £100,000 before the War will now cost very much more, and certainly more than double. Towards all these extra expenses all that was done in 1913 was to transfer to the public a charge of £500,000 a year.
The present position is that the increased cost of services in labour and higher prices comes out at between £2,500,000 and £3,000,000 a year, and the increased rates have only produced about £500,000. Consequently hon. Members will realise that, it is obvious that the services must either be run at a loss, and so become a charge on the taxpayer, or the charges must be increased to the public. All commercial undertakings in private businesses have increased their charges, and I do not see why telephone charges should not be increased. Everything has increased. Most of our newspapers have doubled the selling price of their wares. This, however, is not quite so simple a matter as it appears at first sight. People not familiar with the administration of the telephones cannot realise the complication involved in constructing a tariff which will be fair and at the same time yield sufficient revenue to place the undertaking on a self-supporting basis. Naturally, this is a matter of very great interest to the general public. Almost everyone in the country has an interest in it. I am having schemes prepared which I am considering, and when these are ready I propose to come to the House and ask for a Select Committee to examine them and advise upon them, and undertake all the functions usually performed by a Select Committee.
I am now referring only to the telephone. The increased cost of working is not confined to this country, but it also affects the service in America. The present rates in New York are a little above the London rates for small users, but for large users they are considerably higher. In London for £6 10s. a subscriber gets 360 calls per annum, as against the charge for a similar number in New York of £8 6s. 8d. I am taking the normal exchange. For 800 calls the charge is practically the same in London and New York, but when we come to the larger number of calls, for 3,000 calls in London the charge is £17 10s. against £26 5s. in New York. The cost of the telephone service in the States has increased very considerably, though perhaps not quite so much as in this country. The cost of their material has gone up about 100 per cent. and wages about 70 per cent. I think the members of this Committee will see that I have shown the reason why the telephones have been run at a loss in this country is the direct result of the War in. increasing the cost which has not been transferred to the public, as has been done in practically every other business or public utility undertaking. This increase in cost is not peculiar to the telephone but extends over all industries up and down the country in varying degrees according to the cost of labour used, the cost of raw materials, and so on. That is all I have to say about the financial position of the telephones.
I now come to the general position of the telephone service, which has been very much criticised lately by people who, I am sure, are not fully conversant with all the facts and difficulties with which we have to deal. One of the many difficulties we have had to contend with during the War has been the question of staff. When a great demand for munitions was made a good many of the telephone staff, who were very efficient and highly-trained girls, went to other positions in various offices and places where the work was easier, and where they considered they were performing more patriotic work than when being employed answering telephone calls all day. A great number left on account of this, and the result naturally has been that a very large percentage of inexperienced staff wore left to man the exchanges.
In 1915, less than 4 per cent. of the people employed in the exchanges in London had under six months' experience or service in the telephones. Now this amounts on the average to fully 25 per cent., and in some of the exchanges it is at an even higher figure than that. Before the War, when we had a large number of very experienced girls of many years' service, we were able to put them on to the busiest parts of the board and if there was one very inexperienced girl she could be put next to a very experienced one who would be able to help her out of her difficulties. Now the instruments have to be manned by those who have not so much experience, and the inevitable result is that there have been many more mistakes and a great slowing down of the service. Many of these girls, in order to maintain the service at all, are being put on the boards after six or seven weeks' experience in the schools. Not only that but before the War the Government telephone services did not make many calls on the Post Office. We only had then some 107 people who were lent to the various Government offices. At the beginning of the War there was an enormous expansion of the various Ministries—the fighting ones, of course—and over and above that there was a fair number of new Ministries started, such as the Ministry of Munitions, the Air Board, the Food Control, and so on, which caused a very great demand on the trained staff. In 1918, at the time of the Armistice, over 800 were supplied to the various Government Departments, and now the number is still over 700. I keep hoping it will decrease, but it does not decrease with anything like the speed I should like to see. The position, however, has got better, and the supply of recruits is improving, and not so many are leaving, and consequently, slowly but gradually, things are improving, and I hope it will go on at a quicker rate as the year goes by and we shall get more efficiency.
The average number of daily calls about the time of the Armistice in London was somewhere between 900,000 and 1,000,000 per day, and this has increased now to over 1,250,000 per day. That means we have got a much heavier load to handle by a less experienced staff, and this is one of the principal reasons which accounts for the deterioration of the service since the time of the Armistice. Recruiting is not assisted by the Press and public ridiculing and abusing the telephone operators, charging the girls with yawning and talking together, and reading novels instead of attending to their duties. I wish some hon. Members not conversant with the inside of these exchanges would come and see them. Some hon. Members have done so, and they have been astounded at the activity shown. The girls have no time while they are on duty for reading novels, or sewing, or knitting, or conversing, or anything else. They are continually on the go. I hope as things improve the strain will be less on the girls, but how soon I do not know. On the other hand, the language used by some of the subscribers over the telephone to the girls is such as to make them reply. I should like hon. Members to know that there is a human being at each end of the telephone. They have their irritation, and their troubles and annoyances, just the same as the impatient creature who is trying to call out a number. The best assistance really that can be given—and it is not a big thing to ask—is more patience and forbearance under difficult circumstances, and to try and make the work of the telephone operator more congenial, and if they do that, I am sure they will get a better supply of people, and the subscribers will be more content as well as the operators. It is very easy for an inexperienced operator to make a mistake. Some may have as many as 10,000 numbers to deal with on the board. In order to be accessible, 100 numbers must not occupy more than 8½ inches by 1⅞ inches, and when operators are in a hurry—I know they should not do it—it is very easy for them to connect the subscriber up to a wrong number. All construction work has been suspended for five years, and switchboard positions have been all taken up, all spare wires and cables have been exhausted, and that has made it impossible for us to put on new subscribers who are very anxious to be joined up. I have referred to a few of the principal outstanding difficulties.
I now propose to put before the Committee the remedies which we are going to apply. The recruiting question I have already dealt with. There is a great shortage of underground cables, and this year I propose to spend £250,000 in laying extra cables. But this will not, by itself, relieve the whole of the congestion. It may relieve it to a certain extent in some exchanges, but it will not really be of much relief until new buildings are ready, or the present ones extended—both buildings and switchboards. The latter take one year to make. The first new exchange, which will be in operation towards the end of the year, will be called the Clerkenwell Exchange. It will relieve Avenue and London Wall, two of the busiest exchanges in London. Immediately it is ready it will be able to take 1,700 new subscribers, and I hope that before long the number will be increased to 7,000. The Avenue switchboard is also being extended, and before very long the boards at Victoria, Hop, and Park will be extended. In order to improve the trunk service the shorter trunk circuits are being moved out of the present building, which is very much congested, into another building where there will be more room. I should add that a new exchange will be built on the site of the Inns of Court Hotel. We have not begun pulling down that building yet, but the work will be in hand before long. There will also be two new exchanges at Bishopsgate and Tower, and three more in the West End to relieve Holborn, Victoria, and Mayfair. In outer London seven new exchanges will be built and five others will be considerably extended.
In the provinces about £250,000 are being spent in laying underground cables in over twenty towns—Perth, Dunferm-line, Saltburn, Lincoln, Grimsby, Dews-bury, Ashton-under-Lyne, Eccles, Accring-ton, Stroud, Newcastle (Staffordshire), Malvern, Cardiff, Porth, Tonypandy, Mansfield, Nottingham, Chesterfield, Market Harborough, Sheffield, Shrewsbury, Norwich, Aldershot—and some smaller places. A new exchange has just been completed at Huddersfield, and is working very satisfactorily. A new switchboard is being provided for the Central Exchange, Liverpool, and exten- sions at the Bank Exchange, Liverpool, and at Derby and Leeds. Orders will be placed almost immediately for five new exchanges (switchboards and apparatus) at Carlisle, West Bromwich, Milnsbridge, Northampton, Guildford, and there will be extensions of existing exchanges (switchboards and apparatus) at Lincoln, Cambridge, Birmingham North, and Hove.
The building programme for the provinces this year includes eight new exchanges — Grantham, Henley-on-Thames, Stratford-on-Avon, Lancaster, Southport, Northampton, Preston, Whitley Bay (Northumberland), and extensions to seven existing exchanges, namely, at Dublin, Swansea, Burnley, Dundee, Canterbury, Fleetwood, and Wigan. A principal item in our work will be the provision of underground now trunk lines from London to Manchester, passing Northampton, Leicester, Loughborough, and Derby. From Derby a line will run to Nottingham, and there will be a new cable from Derby to Sheffield and Leeds. This will be a big undertaking, and will not be finished for about eighteen months. Contracts have been placed for certain underground cables between Liverpool and Manchester, Liverpool and Chester, Leeds and Wakefield, Manchester and Bolton, Manchester and Rochdale, Glasgow and Motherwell, and London and Stanmore (to connect with other routes—Luton, Watford, St. Albans, etc.). Eight underground telephone lines will be begun during the year—London to Bristol, London to Southampton, Loughborough to Nottingham, Derby to Nottingham, Hull to Grimsby, Leeds to Harrogate, Leeds to York, and Paisley to Greenock, In addition, 140 overhead circuits will be provided. Contracts have been placed for new duct lines to be subsequently cabled—Glasgow to Coatbridge, Coatbridge to Airdrie, Motherwell to Hamilton, Motherwell to Wishaw, Glasgow to Dumbarton, Ormskirk to Preston, Rawtenstall to Bacup, Slough to Windsor, and Sevenoaks to Tunbridge Wells. The total cost of these will amount to some £3,000,000. About £1,000,000 will be spent this year, and, in addition, about £2,000,000 on exchange and local work. I should very much like to have been able to say that there are larger sums than these to be spent during the year, but, unfortunately, there will be a good deal of delay and difficulty in getting material and engineers. Many of these men are still in the Army—between 3,000 and 4,000 of them—and I can assure the Committee we are anxious to get them released as soon as possible. Government priority has been abolished except in the most important cases, and official calls have now been placed on a par with public calls. During the War trunk lines have been taken over by the fighting Services. Those trunk lines were really absolutely necessary for them to conduct their business, and they numbered in all 342. The number now held by them is 112. This will improve naturally the trunk service to a certain extent.
I am dealing with the Telephones, not with the Telegraphs. There has been introduced, but only in an experimental stage, in America, what we hope to introduce also in an experimental stage in this country, and that is what is called the Multiplex Telephone system, enabling several people to telephone in each direction over the same wire at the same time. By this it is hoped to get five messages over one wire at the same time in each direction. But this is only in the experimental stage at present, and is not very practicable, as only one wire can be put on a pole. There are difficulties in insulating the other wires, and they can only be used overground and not underground.
Sir F. HALL:
Do you not run a great risk of induction—of the messages being heard by more than one person? Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise, with regard to the telephone, it has been found on several occasions where there have been two or three messages on one wire, two or three people have heard them all at the same time?
Under certain circumstances that has occurred. It has been due, perhaps, to the bad insulation of the wires. I do not think that the telephone system has really had any fair chance in this country. The National Telephone Company, which was working under a terminable licence, naturally when that was coming to the end of its tether was not going to lay out large sums of money, especially as the amount to be paid was to be settled by arbitrators. Again, the development of the industry by the Post Office had only just begun when the War started, and it had to be suspended. That was followed by five years of depreciation of plant which the Government were unable to keep up in an efficient state. A beginning is now being made which will, I hope, as material and labour become available, be extended very considerably. There has been delay this year as the result of severe storms, and it took months to repair the wires which were thrown down. This has held up the development very considerably, but since the Armistice we have not been altogether idle. We have put in over 60,000 telephones in one part of the country or another. I am quite well aware it is not the business of the Postmaster-General to apologise for the shortcomings of the service; it is his duty, rather, to find out what the shortcomings are and to remedy them. I have explained the difficulties, I have also told the Committee what steps are being taken to overcome them. I think hon. Members will agree it is a very extensive programme, but I hope the result will be, in the course of time, although not immediately I am afraid, a very much more efficient service than we have had for some years. Laying underground cables has been a very pressing question for many years. It will prevent a great deal of interruption which has been experienced in the past on account of storms both of snow and wind. With all said and done, I am sure that the telephone system in this country and in London compares very favourably with that of any other of the belligerent countries.
In the "Times" of the 4th July there was published a long article called "America Revisited," which described the present conditions in the United States as compared with pre-war conditions, and I should like to quote these few words from it:
It is with mixed emotions that the English visitor arriving in America finds that the New York telephone service is a good deal worse than that of London. Irritation is tempered with a certain grim satisfaction. For more than twenty years we have had to submit with such equanimity as we could to the jeers of the American in England on our telephone service.
I desire to draw the attention of hon. Members to the fact that the American telephone service has been under war strain a period of three years less than our own service. Some months ago—
I was just going to say that some months ago somebody sent me a paper from Boston containing an article over a column long, which said that they wished they could have as good a service in New York as we were having at the time in London. I have not had time to confirm everything said in this article in the "Times," but I know quite well that the deterioration in New York has been considerable. Cables are not, strictly speaking, under the Government, but we have always worked harmoniously with the companies, and we have done what we could to assist one another. As hon. Members know, they are under the management of private companies, with the exception of one or two small ones. The cables generally, however, are showing rather less delay, except for Egypt and Australia. Like the rest of the Post Office services, they are suffering from too much traffic and also from frequent interruption. In addition, there was the cessation of work which went through Germany and Russia, where the cables have naturally not been used since the War began. Under ordinary conditions the capacity of these cables is 253,000 words per day, but on account of the interruptions and various other troubles at present their capacity has been reduced to 167,000 words. Government traffic is enormous. It is eighteen times more than it was before the War. As I said about the telephones, I am anxiously looking forward to the day—it appears to be continually put off—when there will be a substantial reduction in this Government traffic. It is now occupying 25 per cent. of the total capacity of the Eastern cables. I am glad to say that at last the censorship of cables will be abolished as from midnight on Wednesday next. That will allow the introduction of private codes and a consequent decrease of between 20 and 30 per cent. in the traffic. I know the cable companies place it rather higher, but I prefer to put it at a more reasonable figure. Unless there is an increase in the messages, there should be a great acceleration in the service. I am assured by the companies that they are doing everything in their power—I know it is so—to improve their service and make it as efficient as possible. Nobody regrets more than they do the great inconvenience caused to business men, especially those trading with the East. The companies are fully alive to that. I am sure the trading community will keep them posted up as they have done me.
The postal services of this country are gradually being restored. The town district deliveries have been increased from five to seven, and in the sub-districts from three to four, or four to five, or five to six, according to the importance of the locality. The last delivery commencing at eight till nine will be restored before very long. An extra delivery in the East Central district has already been put on. There will be additional facilities in other districts at the end of this month. That would have been done sooner except for the delay caused in dealing with what are called "split duties." I am trying, as far as possible, to do away with those or to diminish them as much as possible, and I hope that in these districts we shall be able to carry on a reasonable service. In the provinces, in towns, three deliveries a day will be given, four in the larger towns, possibly five in some of the largest provincial cities, while the collections will be about double this number. Many have already been put into force, and others will be brought into operation as soon as possible I would like to point out to hon. Members that there are still 27,000 men in the Army, which adds to our difficulties.
Can the right hon. Gentleman say a word about the postal deliveries to Scotland? There have been complaints about the delay of deliveries to Edinburgh and Leith.
I am sorry the hon. and gallant Member did not give me notice that he wanted information about those deliveries. I would remind him that, there are some 25,000 post offices, and if he picks out two of them, I cannot be expected to give all the details. I shall be pleased to give him all the information he wishes, if he will be good enough to give me notice. The restricted hours of business which have been necessary on account of the shortage of labour are being removed to a very large extent. All scale payment sub-post offices are still being opened at nine instead of eight where there is no great inconvenience to the public. The closing during the middle of the day has been reduced to one hour. The mid-day closing of offices has been abolished where they are directly staffed by people under the Post Office.
The road mail services are being improved gradually where it has been possible to get hold of motors or horses as the case may be. I hope that soon they will be very much extended. It does not altogether depend upon the Post Office. In some cases the first delivery is still affected by the restricted railway service. The railway companies have been obliged to cut down the number of trains and also their speed. We have to depend upon them very much, more especially in the country districts, for early and efficient posts. The question of air mails is one which, naturally, has occupied our attention very much during the War. This has been placed entirely, and quite rightly, under the care of the Air Force. It does not do to have half a dozen people interfering with one thing. The results which have been achieved in flying the Atlantic have been very remarkable. The first attempt by Hawker, unfortunately, was not a complete success, but he managed to deliver a small number of letters which he was bringing, and they were quite safely delivered in London. I received a letter from the Postmaster-General of Newfoundland, to which I replied in suitable terms. The next attempt, by Captain Alcock, was completely successful. He flew in sixteen hours from Newfoundland to Ireland, and managed to deliver his mails in a very satisfactory condition and in a short time. What I consider to be one of the most remarkable achievements was that just accomplished by the R 34—the lighter-than-air ship—which went from here to America in an incredible short time, made a round, and came back to this country again. I sent a letter to the Postmaster-General of Canada by the R34, and a few hours after she arrived back in this country his reply was delivered to me at the General Post Office in London. Of course, these things do not make the question of air mails a practical proposition, but it has been shown that there are great possibilities. In the course of time, if the progress made is as rapid as has been made in the flying branch of the Army, before many years the long distance post, at any rate, may be carried by cither lighter or heavier-than-air machines.
At present the great difficulty is the state of the atmosphere, I am told there is great difficulty in navigating in a hazy atmosphere and also in landing. I am informed that when that is overcome it will be a practical proposition for the longer distances. I do not know what means are taken to fly and land in thick weather, but I gather that it will not be beyond the resources of the people of this country to do that.
I have just touched on a few of the outstanding features of the Post Office which have come in for a certain amount of criticism during the War. Hon. Members will realise that the Post Office business has been carried on under the greatest difficulties during the War—difficulties which have been very much accentuated since I became Postmaster-General, which was a few months after the Conscription Acts came into force, when a greater number of men were required for the Army. I would remind hon. Members that over 85,000 men have gone from the Post Office into the Army. Eighty-five thousand men is enough to shake any organisation. It is about one-third of the total number of people employed in the Post Office. It has been a very great tax on its efficiency, but, all things considered, I think the greatest credit is due to the efficiency of the organisation of the Post Office in being able to improvise services which have enabled the general business of the Post Office to be carried on more or less satisfactorily, not only the ordinary business of the Post Office but also the extra business we have had to undertake for other Departments. Now the War is over, everyone is straining every nerve and exerting all their energies to restore the services to the old state of efficiency. I am confident that not only will they succeed in that effort,. but that in the course of time they will make every branch more effiicient than it has ever been in the past.
Everyone must have listened with real interest and some degree of gratification to the right hon. Gentleman's statement. There were, of course, two or three points which were not very gratifying. I think he regrets himself that he has made his last handsome dividend, and is looking forward with some degree of misgiving to a deficit on the next occasion. But his statement as to the developments which are taking place must really be a cause of great gratification to everyone, because during the last three or four years there have been great complaints about the telephones, and particularly about the lack of underground cable communication, when we see that big cities are being put very closely into touch with each other, and there is great development going on in London itself. The establishment of a large number of exchanges is very gratifying, and it is also very gratifying to hear of the very great increase in wages and the very substantial reduction in the hours of labour. The right hon. Gentleman has a very large staff, an army of almost 250,000 people.
It is a very great thing indeed for the State that it can have in its employment such a very large number of men and women, and I believe, taken altogether, the conditions are honourable both to the State and to the people. From. time to time a little disquiet and unrest are inevitable. That is the case in every human organisation.
I should like to refer to the payment of sub-postmasters and mistresses. They really are, and have been for a very long time, doing most useful duties, increasingly onerous, requiring a very great deal of skill. They have given all this labour for a remuneration so small as hardly to be worth mentioning, and I think if there is any body of people in our service whose case ought to be generously considered it is the case of the sub-postmasters and mistresses. I have had in the part of South-East Lancashire with which I am most closely acquainted a great deal of knowledge of the people who perform this work, and broadly speaking they are the best class of citizens we have. They are patient and courteous to a degree. They are very self-sacrificing, they have had all kinds of duties imposed upon them, and they have shown a willingness to perform them which is beyond all praise, and I really think this House would hail with gladness any movement on the part of the Postmaster-General to improve the conditions of service of this very estimable body of people.
I wish I could speak with anything like the same admiration of the parcel post as of other branches of the service, but I am informed that parcels carried by the railway companies for the Post Office pay 55 per cent. of the gross receipts to the railway companies themselves under an arrangement that followed upon the Act of 1882. That is thirty-seven years ago. I understand the Act was to have been reviewed in 1907, twenty-five years after the first agreement, but I am given to understand that no revision has actually taken place, and indeed so onerous are the conditions, and so large is the amount of the gross takings that go to the railway companies, that it is cheaper for the Post Office to send their parcels by coach scores and sometimes a hundred miles, rather than hand them over to the railway companies. If that is the truth—and I am simply making inquiry—it is a very regrettable condition of things, and it is very desirable that it should be altered as quickly as possible. If revision was due twelve years ago it is very pressing now.
Another point that seems to me, and I am sure it must to the right hon. Gentleman, to be one upon which the nation might very well congratulate itself, is that, though we only took over the telephones in 1913–14 as the result of arbitration between the private companies and the State, we are faced in the very immediate future with tremendous sums for renewals and new plant. It almost seems as if we took over at the time an institution which was very little more than moribund. I think the right hon. Gentleman himself rather feels that there is something in that. Anyway, the State has often been had in this kind of transaction. One can only regret that an organisation which was taken over so recently as five or six years ago, and which was paying some where about 4¼ per cent. in the very last year—[An Hon. Member: "16 per cent."] —were able to make a calculation that it was paying us 4.29 per cent., I think, in that year. Is that so?
The figure of 16 per cent. was clearly the very last percentage which the National Telephone Company was paying before. If they were paying that they were paying inflated dividends and not true dividends. They could not have been keeping their plant in anything like a decent state of efficiency.
I said that the average on the whole of their capital for the five years was 5.13 per cent.
I suppose it is flogging a dead horse. During the last five years the nation has had the most gigantic task on its hands to which any nation has ever been committed, and, of course, the transaction between the National Telephone Company and ourselves is a thing of the past. But we really may have the pleasure of regret that such a transaction took place at all and that we should be saddled in these days of gigantic expenditure with a good many hundreds of thousands of pounds for renewals and new plant in the case of an organisation such as this. I think an increase in the variety of the Department's activities might very well be made. There is no institution that, taken on the whole, commands such a complete share of the public confidence as the Post Office. We sometimes rail against the inefficiency of its servants. We complain of the telephones, and so on, but after all, a little courtesy and human kindness at our end of the 'phone would enable the work to be performed with not merely greater efficiency but with an increasing kindliness between the operator and the person at the business end of the telephone, so to speak. We find in our own daily life that a little quiet, kindly word to the operator brings almost an instant response, and it would be greatly to the credit of our English race if we exercise a little more courtesy, gentleness, tolerance, and decent human kindness when we are trying to transmit a message. I am sure that would have the effect of sweetening the relations. We hear awful language sometimes. If a. man were heard coming out with that kind of language in his own home his wife and children would be horrified, and it is really due to us, as representing the nation, to enforce the lesson that the right hon. Gentleman wishes to instil, that we ought to be tolerant, and kindly, and human when we are trying to transmit these messages, and think that there is a human being at the other end of the telephone.
There are only a relatively small number of trains which may be said to be post-office trains, carrying a post office as part of the rolling stock. Why should there not be letter boxes attached to the trains? Everybody wants to write when making a railway journey. It is the easiest thing in the world, and we might be able to get our stamps and postcards and a hundred and one small conveniences during the course of a railway journey or at the railway station. But there seems to be an almost perfect lack of this kind of convenience, which would not only be much appreciated by the public itself but would enlarge the scope of the Department's activities and bring it really into greater esteem than it already commands. These are only a few of the matters that I think might very well be brought to the attention of the Department. The more we can enlarge the scope and variety of its activities, the less will be the working cost and the profits will be larger. But the real profit is the increasing esteem that the public gives to the Department. The only serious complaint which has come to me in respect of the relations between the Department and the workmen has been in connection with the conditions of labour and the payment of the partly-disabled men in the service. The complaint has been made that a disabled man is doing the actual work which under normal conditions will be performed by fully able-bodied men. Supposing there had been no War, this particular set of duties would have been performed by able-bodied men at a definite able-bodied wage, so to speak, but I am told— I hope it is not true—that when a disabled man is performing exactly those duties under exactly similar conditions as would have been performed by a fully able-bodied man if no War had taken place, his pension is taken into consideration, and He is pressed to perform these duties at a lower figure. That is not a state of mind that the nation desires to entertain towards our disabled soldiers. There is not a man living who desires that, and there is not one of us but would resent it bitterly if it were brought to our knowledge that men's pensions, for which they have fought and been willing to sacrifice their lives—pensions which are only an expression of the nation's gratitude to the men who saved the nation—are being utilised to lower the rate of wages that an able-bodied man would have received for exactly similar labour, performed under similar conditions. There has been a Committee inquiring into this matter, and I believe the right hon. Gentleman has full knowledge of it. I believe the representations of that Committee have caused considerable heart burnings amongst the people concerned. There is no Department that stands so high in the public esteem as the right hon. Gentleman's Department, and I do not think there is any Department that has such a range of potential usefulness. Therefore, I ask my right hon. Friend to take this point into consideration and not to permit any of his chiefs, or any people working under him, to so manipulate the fact of a man's relative disability as to place him in receipt of a lower wage than that which would be paid to an able-bodied man performing a similar class of duty. If we do not put that thing right in a State Department it will condemn us in the eyes of the country. There is no Department that stands higher in public estimation, and the one thing that will down the Department is, if it be a fact, that we are paying a lower wage because of a man's disability.
I beg to move
to reduce the Vote by £1.000.
I move this Amendment in order to draw attention to the breakdown of the cable system between this country and the oversea markets. The breakdown is having a very prejudicial effect on the all-important export trade of England, and more particularly the cotton trade of Lancashire. No doubt, some improvement has taken place, during the present year, but I do not think the authorities even now sufficiently realise what a very grave handicap this is, and that the length of time it takes to cable from England to the East has a serious effect upon the welfare of our staple trades. At the present time it takes, on an average, nine to eleven days for a cable to pass from England to Calcutta. It takes eleven to sixteen days for a cable to travel from Lancashire to Karachi, seven days to China, ten days to Bangkok. There was a case as recent as last Tuesday where it took nineteen days for a cable message to come to Manchester from Padang, in Sumatra. I ask hon. Members to realise the effect of these delays upon the transaction of business between this country and the oversea markets. Every commercial contract consists of an offer and an acceptance, and in a trade like the cotton trade the offer must depend upon the then value of cotton. That value fluctuates from day to day, and greatly from week to week, and, of course, an offer which is held up for something like a month before the acceptance is sent back goes absolutely to nothing, because by the time the acceptance reaches this country the value of the cotton may be twice as much or half as much as when the offer was sent out from Lancashire. The result is that business is not being done.
This breakdown is not confined to the cables between England and the Far East. There is great delay in cables between England and Egypt, and an extraordinary delay in the transmission of telegrams from countries as near as France and Belgium, to England. There are many cases, which have come to the actual personal experience of business houses in Manchester, of great delays in the offer or acceptance of business. A telegram offering or accepting business from Paris or Antwerp has been accompanied by a confirmatory letter, and in a very large number of cases the letter has arrived several days before the telegram. There can be no greater condemnation of the management of the present telegraphic system between England and other countries than that, and there could not be a greater drawback to the carrying on of the shipping trade, on which the welfare of so many millions of people depends. I ask the Postmaster-General whether he will not adopt certain specific measures straight away and put an end to this deadlock, so as to give Lancashire and the whole trade of this country those facilities for export trade for which we are entitled to look? It is good to know that the commercial codes are to be allowed again in this country; no doubt that will increase the volume of our oversea trade.
There are many cases where we believe that the reason why commercial messages from England to the Far East and the Near East have not travelled with due dispatch is due to the cables being taken up by far too large an extent with Press news. We have in Manchester firsthand information that the newspapers in India and Shanghai are in possession of news of utterly insignificant social events in this country within a few hours of their occurrence. There was one case where a social event of very minor importance was actually recorded in a Shanghai newspaper on the 27th March, at a time when they had no later commercial news from England than the 11th March. [Hon. Members: "What was the event?"] It was the Royal visit to Bethnal Green. Hon. Members will remember the well-known criminal case called the Billie Carleton case. News of that case was flashed to every market of the Far East within forty-eight hours of its occurrence. Any social scandal, any celebrated suicide or murder echoes round the world, while the voice of commerce is hushed. I think we can justly complain that there is an undue dispatch of Government messages along these lines. The right hon. Gentleman stated that the volume of Government messages over the cables to the Far East is about eighteen times what it was in 1914. No doubt a large number of those messages are exceedingly valuable, but a very large number of them must be of relatively minor importance. It does not need anyone to be particularly imaginative to conjure up the kind of message that is flashed across these cables by the Government. "Soldiers will be demobilised as soon as the political situation allows; compassionate cases will be considered as soon as political exigencies admit," and all the other Government messages of a stereotyped character. These messages choke the cables, and the result is that the great commercial houses in England are unable to carry on business with their markets oversea, to the very great detriment of every interest in this country. It is the practice to accept urgent cables from Hong Kong to this country which do not take longer than thirty-six to forty-six hours in transmission. We should very much like to know whether it is possible to have the same urgent rate available for those who wish to send messages, to Hong Kong. If urgent messages can be sent from places like Hong Kong, why should they not be sent from stations in India, Egypt, and the Near East?
We are given to understand from the the speech of the right hon. Gentleman that there is a difficulty due to the want of efficient personnel. I have had several cases brought to my notice of men who have served during the War in the signal sections of the Royal Engineers, and they say that they would most gladly undertake work in the Post Office if they could be placed upon the permanent establishment. One man wrote to me and stated that he had been four years on signal work at Army Headquarters, that he had passed an examination to be a skilled-rate engineer, able to receive and send forty telegrams an hour, and he and many men like him would be very willing to enter the service of the Government if there is a shortage in personnel, provided that they are given places on the establishment. I understand that places on the permanent establishment are refused to these returning soldiers if before the War they did not happen to be in the employment of the Post Office. On that point I think everybody will be in thorough agreement with the observations of the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. Walsh) in regard to the treatment of Post Office servants. If their conditions were made attractive there is no doubt that people would be only too glad to enter into the service. Many of us receive complaints from persons in the employment of the Post Office, and pre-war pensioners, who complain that their pensions are totally inadequate to the present cost of living. We have also complaints about gratuities. We know that many of the 85,000 returned soldiers still labour under a sense of grievance, just or unjust. If the service in the Post Office is made attractive, and if provision is made for highly-skilled, technically-trained returning soldiers, who have not had the good fortune to be in the Government service before or during the War, the alleged deficiency in personnel will be removed, and we may have high hopes that this great breakdown of our cable and telegraph service will be rectified.
Those who are associated with me in this Resolution have no feeling whatever against the Government in bringing the matter forward. We have put it in this form because the breakdown has a most important bearing upon the great problem of reconstruction which occupies everybody's mind. Reconstruction is in a sense a matter that is moral and spiritual. We want to translate into civil life the high standards that have been followed by our fighting men and by the women who have waited for them at home. But no moral and spiritual reconstruction, and no scheme of social reform, no betterment in housing, health, or education, is of any value unless it is built upon the sound, sure, and solid foundation of prosperity on which Old England rested. It is no good trying to translate ideals into realities unless the country at the same time has a sound economic basis. That is the reason why I wish to call attention to this great stumbling-block to the progress of our staple industries. Before the War we can all recall the shining pageant of the British export trade, the ceaseless flow of English goods, English credit, English influence along every avenue of the world's commerce, and it was this system of cables and telegraphs which has now broken down that acted most powerfully as an agent for transmitting the energy of Britain into every corner of the globe. That system has broken down. Of that system the Postmaster-General is the trustee, and it is because we want to see a thorough reformation of that system that I move this reduction.
In the few remarks which I am about to make I speak, not only as a Member of this House, but as a director of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce and their representative in the Associated Chambers in London. Since the Armistice was signed I have seen the disastrous effects which the breakdown of the cables has had on the cotton trade in Lancashire. I do not want it to be taken that every trade is not affected by this breakdown. Other traders are in the same position, but in Lancashire we are very peculiarly affected. As many hon. Members will know, we do our business as low down as sixty-fourths to the penny. We make up for abroad prices of from £90,000 to £100,000—we will say 5,000 lumps of goods. When we make that up we offer it at a price, say, of £3 per lump. Before the War we could get back a reply within forty-eight hours. At the present time, owing to the great fluctuations in the cotton markets, when you cannot get a reply back in less than from nine to ten days, it will easily be seen that the business is lost. I have got here a sheaf of correspondence. I am not going to trouble the Committee by reading it; but we are always asked by Ministers, when we bring up these questions, to prove that what we say is founded on fact. Therefore I will take a few passages from what has been written by some of the largest merchants in Manchester to show the effect on the Manchester trade. What we complain of is that for months we have been complaining to the Postmaster-General and the Board of Trade with regard to these cable delays. We have been promised that the matter would be put right, and that it was having every attention both of the Postmaster-General and of the Government; but notwithstanding those promises, instead of matters becoming better, they are worse.
As far back as the 10th of June the Postmaster-General wrote a letter to the Manchester Chamber of Commerce with regard to this matter—
The present situation is the result of circumstances which could not be prevented. The proper maintenance of the cables was hindered during the War by enemy action and the restorations which have recently been effected were much delayed by bad weather. The Postmaster-General is satisfied that the cable companies have done all in their power to
cope with the difficulties which have unfortunately arisen, and are endeavouring to have the obstacles to normal conditions repaired as circumstances admit. The American Pacific Cable was restored on the 7th instant. This cable was interrupted on the 11th of April last. Since then the greater part of the American traffic for the East has been transmitted over the Eastern Telegraph Company's cable. The withdrawal of this traffic will materially reduce the traffic of the Eastern Company's system so far as telegrams for the Far East are concerned, but some days must elapse before any marked improvement is effected.
On the 17th of June there is another letter from the Board of Trade confirming what I have read in the letter of the Postmaster-General. I may now give a few figures with regard to delays supplied by some of the biggest houses in Manchester. The first gives cases of undue delays in the transit of cables to the Far East. It starts on 14th June and goes down to 28th June. No cables were received in less than six days. In the majority of cases—there were about forty cables—they took from ten to eleven days. Then another firm writes that, in reference to cables from Hong Kong, a cable dispatched on 12th June arrived in this country on 19th June; one sent on 20th June arrived on 30th June, and so on in another twenty or thirty cases. Those letters are a sufficient instance of good faith to show what damage this breakdown in the cables is doing the Lancashire trade. Not only is it preventing us from getting the wheels of industry going, but it is keeping men walking the streets out of employment. A letter written to the President of the Chamber of Commerce from another large firm in Manchester, states:
We are very pleased with the manner in which you have taken up the delay in cables. To-day we are in receipt of a cable handed in on the 23rd ultimo, so that it has been in transit nineteen days. You will notice the difference in the cost of 5,000 lumps now and when we quoted. It is really impossible to do business on these lines.
Again I would urge the Postmaster-General that he should use his influence with the War Department and other Departments to restrict these cables, which are very often unnecessary, and that he should see that at any rate the great staple trades of this country have the same opportunity as the War Office have.
Now with regard to the telephone service. Everybody in Manchester has a bad experience of the telephone service. It is grossly inefficient. We have been told by the Postmaster-General that it was due to the War. I am not going to try to depreciate those difficulties. I agree with him to a certain extent, but I would ask him if he were a director of a public company and had to go and face a, meeting of his shareholders with the statement which he made to-day, how would he be received? In the first place I may remark that wherever a municipality or the State takes over a private business it can only end in inefficiency. Before telegrams were nationalised they were yielding a handsome profit on which the shareholders paid Income Tax to the Government. In the year 1917–18 the net revenue accounts showed on the telegraph service a deficit of £556,330. No allowance is made in this account for interest charged on past losses, aggregating by 31st March, 1916, to over £26,000,000. Under the National Telephone Company we had in the telephone service efficiency, courtesy, and cheapness. When the Government took over the National Telephone Company they had paid a dividend, spread over five years, of over 5 per cent. During the time that they were paying the dividend they were paying in royalties to the Government £320,590. In 1917–18, after the Government had taken them over, the sole revenue that went to the Exchequer was £355,468. So that the Government has not made as much money as the National Telephone Company were actually paying to the Government in royalties. Again, we have not had the same efficient service. Every member of the Committee knows that. It is all very well to say that some men are rude over the telephone. We know that all men are not gentlemen, and also that a lot of the telephone operators are not ladies, but I am quite sure that if the Postmaster-General came to Manchester and spent two or three days going round a few of the business places, though he would not use bad language, he would think it.
Then as to the trunk service in Manchester, I would almost guarantee that you could not get through to London under an hour and a half, if it would not take from two to three hours. How is it, when I was engaged in the Naval Service in Manchester, and I was constantly in communication with London, sending O.H.M.S. 'phone messages through, that I could get into communication with London in under three minutes? If that can be done with Government messages, why should it take one and a half hours for a. commercial message? Again, we experi- ence great difficulty in local calls. A picture has been painted of telephone girls reading novels and having afternoon tea, and so on. I have had a great deal of annoyance in getting through these local exchanges. It takes you frequently from fire to ten minutes to get a call through from Manchester to Preston, and you constantly hear conversations going on as to who shall have the next cup of tea, or one thing or another, or who should go to attend to the 'phone. I asked for a number and was told that the number is engaged. To test that, I thought that I would see whether those numbers were really always engaged. I happen to have a friend next to me. I asked for his number one evening, and was told that he was engaged. I put on my hat and went round to his house and asked him, "Has your telephone been engaged during the last five minutes?" and he said, "It has never been engaged to-night." I said, "Would you mind asking for my number?" He rang up the exchange and asked for my number. He was told it was engaged. I went back to my own house. I said to the girl at the exchange, "What did you mean by telling mo that the number was engaged?" She replied, "Oh, but it was engaged." I told her it was not. I asked her also, "Have I been engaged for the last quarter of an hour?" She replied, "No." I then asked, "Why did you tell my friend that I was?" That is the sort of thing that is going on. I do not want to be hard on the telephone operators, for they have a very hard time, but all this is a matter of organisation and system. With regard to the installation of new telephones, I want to give specific instances that concern myself. I happen to have large works near Oldham. Over two years ago I had to pull down a certain building, and the telephone wire, which had to come off that building, was, for temporary convenience, put into the mechanics' shop instead of into the office. I have had made repeated application to have the instrument removed only a space the length of this House. That application has been made over two years, and the work has not yet been done. Any number of cases in the city of Manchester could be cited where wires have been fixed in places of business, and application for further instruments to be put in has been made, seven, eight, and nine times, and they cannot get the work done. What is the excuse? The Postmaster-General has told us that it is labour. I should like to inform him for his guidance that there are to-day any number of men walking about the streets of Manchester who are qualified engineers, and that the managers of the different Departments in Manchester cannot take them on. Why? What I am told is this, and I ask here if the information is correct. I am told that in the Post Office the managers of the different sections are not allowed to engage their own men, that there is a sort of employment bureau, that if a manager wants a man he sends his application into this bureau, and that perhaps in a month he gets a man who is entirely unsuitable for his requirements. If these managers were allowed to engage their own men they would very soon bring about a different state of things. I would add only this, that no business could be run on those lines and get an efficient service.
The Postmaster-General told us of a large deficit he had which is due to the cost of labour and the cost of material. I think he said it was between £2,500,000 and £3,000,000, and that he was getting an increased revenue of only £500,000. We were told not many days ago by the Leader of the House that it was wrong to subsidise coal. Is it not equally wrong to subsidise the telephone service in this country? What are we doing? For the sake of those who have a telephone in their houses or works we are making nine people out of ten, who have no telephones, pay for those who have them. I do not want to advance this as a cause for the rates being put up, because in my opinion there is very little cause for any great increase in the rates. Might I give another instance? In an office in town a gentleman applied for an extension wire to be put in from his general office to his private office. The quotation for pulling in those 3 ft. of wire and the instrument was £14 19s. and the rent was to be from 30s. to £2 a year. The National Telephone Company would have put it in for nothing and would have charged a rent of only 30s.
Only quite recently. I want to sum the whole thing up briefly. To a certain extent we know the great difficulties that the Postmaster-General has had to go through, but the difficulties are not such that, had the telegraph and telephone service been in the hands of private companies, they would have produced the lamentable state of affairs that exists now. If the director of a business firm came to his shareholders and told them that because the cost of labour had gone up, because the working day of labour had become shorter, because the cost of materials had gone up, the shareholders had to face the huge loss of £2,000,000 a year, what would the shareholders do? I should think they would put the management into new hands. On top of all these things you have a worse service. What I seriously suggest to the House—I hope Members will not laugh at me—is that the Government should hand back the telephone service, or lease it, to a private company and let that company carry on the business. I guarantee that within five or six years after they had got out of the terrible chaos that the Department is now in, we should have an efficient and a much cheaper service. I beg to second the Motion.
I should not have taken any part in this Debate had it not been for the speeches of the two hon. Members who spoke last. To a great extent I agree with the remarks they have made. I must say at once that I may be greatly prejudiced in the view of this House. From my connection with cable companies there must be attributed to me a certain amount of hereditary sympathy. If the House will bear with me a few minutes I would ask them to look at the question of cable delays in a general rather than in an individual way. On our part we welcome most thoroughly a discussion of the whole question of cable delays; I, in conjunction with my hon. Friends, have asked for such a discussion for some time. Of all the statements made in the right hon. Gentleman's speech this afternoon, that in which he announced the ending of the cable censorship was by far the most welcome. We regret all the delays which of necessity have arisen throughout the cable communications of the Empire. The causes of delay might be enumerated under five headings: First, the limitation of the mail services owing to enemy submarines has undoubtedly forced big business houses to send many communications over the cables—communications which before the War were normally sent by post. Secondly, there were the censorship restrictions, now happily done away with. When they were in force the suppression of private codes no doubt added enormously to the traffic over our lines. Moreover, every cable sent had to bear signatures in full. Thirdly, no code addresses were allowed; all addresses had to be cabled in full. The necessity for that no longer exists, and the change will make an enormous difference in the future.
I have not the figures at the moment, but I can get them. Another reason for the delay has been the great influx of social telegrams—entirely a war traffic. By social telegrams I mean telegrams and cablegrams sent to their homes by men who had come to fight for us from Australia, Canada, South Africa, and all parts of the world. It meant a very considerable amount of fresh traffic. Fifthly, there were interruptions. It must be obvious to everyone that during the War the cable ship has not been able to go to sea and mend cables in the same comparative safety and with the same leisure as before the War. When submarines are hanging about the open sea is not a particularly healthy place. In regard to that, I might say that we on our part regard with the liveliest satisfaction, and are very proud of, the cable ships and their work during a long and trying time. I will give one instance of what is in my mind. During the Gallipoli campaign a ship had to go up and cut the enemy cables underneath the fire of the enemy guns, and later to repair some of her own cables. A telegraph ship is tied round by the nose to the cable she has on hand, and her movements are hampered. This little ship was hit on two or three different occasions; they wore direct; hits from the guns. The man in command of the ship was rewarded. We look upon men of that sort who are in our service as fine fellows, and I am proud to think we have them in a service to which I have the honour to belong. Other interruptions to which I should like to draw attention are interruptions such as those of the Indo-European Company, over which before the War no less than 50 per cent. of the European traffic to India was carried. The whole of that since the very first day of war has been carried over Eastern and associated companies. The Great Northern Telegraph Company were in very much the same position, their percentage being, I think, 34. The whole of that was also hurled on to our lines, and had to be carried at the same time. All these causes of cable delays can, I think, be wiped away in future. At any rate, we can look forward with a fair amount of confidence that they will not affect us very much in future. I now come to the last point, and that is the question of Government traffic. That is, perhaps, the most serious of the lot. I had hoped that the Postmaster-General would in his speech have given us the figures and thus shown the House the exact percentage of Government traffic carried by the cable companies, as compared with that before the War. If the right hon. Gentleman will take this question up with the other Government Departments, I am perfectly certain he will have the support and sympathy of everyone in this House. To me it appears that in future that can be the only serious delay or cause of delay which will hamper us in our work. Twenty-five per cent. of the traffic which is being carried by cable companies at the present time is due to Government work. My hon. Friend who spoke just now said that we are returning to peace and it is time that our trade had a chance of competing with foreign countries in different parts of the world. I do wish pressure were brought to bear on the Departments concerned, and especially on the War Office, where, I am afraid, having had the power in their hands so long, they think they can go on without having any restriction applied to them. If the Postmaster-General were to rise in his wrath and say, "This must now cease," I am perfectly certain that everybody in this House would back him up. Is he going to take that line? I have given a very brief outline of what the cable service regard as the chief causes of delay. In looking forward to the future, now that the censorship is off, and now that the right hon. Gentleman is going to see that there is no more undue Government traffic, we have only one other reason to get over, because cable companies have had their troubles just the same as any other industry or any other commodity during the War we have gone through. During the whole time of the War we have never been able to get the amount of cable necessary to renew those already in existence except in the scantiest amount.
The question is often asked, What is the life of a cable, and it is certainly a somewhat difficult question to answer. I do not think, even now, after cables have been laid so many years, that we can say
exactly what the life of a cable is. What we can do is to find out the percentage of renewals, and in that way get a fair idea of the amount of renewals a cable will require to convey the traffic satisfactorily. The figures work out at about 12½ to 15 miles renewals per annum in every cable, and that of course has been absolutely impossible during the last five years. Had it not been for the generous assistance given by the Admiralty and the General Post Office we could not have got enough cable to enable us to carry on, as the Government controlled the whole of it. All the cables have now got to be thoroughly overhauled, and our ships are going to be very busy for some time to come. All the cable that has been made has been practically used up. The Government has used cable for other purposes in connection with mines and submarine work, and there is now very little stock in this country. We are in a position to say that by the end of next month all our existing cables will be in a very advanced state and in very fair working order. Not only that but in October we expect to lay a new cable from this country to Gibraltar and gradually to extend it round the Mediterranean through Aden and on to Singapore. I think that a certain amount of the criticism that has been levelled against the cable companies has not been entirely from those who know very much about it. For instance I saw on Tuesday last a little article in the "Evening Standard" from a Manchester M.P. where the article said the business community is up in arms about telephones and cables—
This M.P. told me yesterday that the censorship is not the only trouble and that the submarine cables have not been kept in a proper state of repair during the War and that wireless has been all the official fashion.
I wondered who this M.P. was or if he were a myth, but since I came down here this afternoon I am beginning to have my suspicions aroused as to who is that Manchester M.P.
I am rather glad to know that, but hunting is a fascinating hobby, and I have got to go on again to try and find this Manchester M.P. I am in entire sympathy with the hon. Gentleman who spoke earlier, and I may tell him we regret the delays, but to a certain extent we have not had any control over those delays. I notice that several questions have been addressed to Ministers on the subject. Only yesterday the right hon. Gentleman was asked was he aware of the cable delays, and he must be rather amused when he has been aware of it for four or five years to have his attention called to it the night before the Debate on the subject. He was also asked whether he was aware of treble rates being charged. The right hon. Gentleman knows, of course, that the treble rate has been done away with in this country for some considerable period. Another reason assigned for the delay is mutilation of cables. I think in a supplementary yesterday an hon. Member asked the right hon. Gentleman whether it was not the fact that the cause of cable delays was due to mutilation as they came through. It has not been possible for us to test our operators in the same way since the War as we used to do before the War. Before the War, the percentage of errors hardly ever varied, and was as nearly as possible one error in every thousand words. Since the War we could tell pretty well mostly by the repetitions, and not so much by actual tests, and we found that the percentage has hardly increased at all, and you may take it now to be about 1¼. I think that the House will agree with me that with a staff which has been serving as ours has during all these years, that a small increase of that sort is not very great.
Let me bring to the notice of the House exactly what these men have been doing. When war broke out there were a great many of our men serving in the tropics due to leave. Every one of them asked to stay on at their posts, and they are gradually coming home now. The usual time to keep an operator in a tropical station is about three years. These men have been out there from the very beginning, and all through the War, and as well they have been doing about three times as much work as they did before the War. I think hon. Members will see that you cannot have the same excellence of work from men who are over-tired and over-strained, as these men have been for the last number of years. I had not meant to say as much about the actual work, but I felt that I could not sit down without saying one or two words publicly as to how proud we are of the way those men have done their work and behaved during the whole of the War. Let me again say, that the only point of difficulty that we can see arising in the future is the point of trying to get this Government work cut down. Let me give the amount of actual Government traffic for the years 1913 and 1918. The Government outward traffic in 1913 was 903 words daily, and in 1918 16,609, on an average, amounting to an increase of 1,739 per cent. more words per day. In the inward traffic the Government messages were 1,475 words in 1913, and 28,007 in 1918, making an increase of 1,799 per cent. per day. Let me induce the right hon. Gentleman to take a firm stand on this subject; we know that he is bullied by all the Government Departments in this matter, and he will receive the united support and sympathy of the whole House.
I venture to ask the Postmaster-General a few questions with regard to cables, and to try to elicit from him later on this evening a fuller explanation of what is being done with regard to improving the cable communications of the Empire than we had in the very few remarks in which he referred to this question in his opening speech. A great many Members have already drawn attention to the very large number of places to which it takes an unconscionable time to send a cable at present. It takes something like seven to ten days to get a cable from New York, nine days each way from Manila; Australia, twelve days; Bombay, a telegram I know of took three weeks to England last month; Japan, ten to twelve days each way; and I know of another cable, sent by a relation of mine to Melbourne on 7th May, which did not arrive till the 2nd June. I give these figures as an indication of the sort of delays which are taking place, and although it is true, as has recently been stated by the right hon. Gentleman, that there is a distinct improvement in the last few weeks, yet at the same time the situation is anything but satisfactory. The fact that he is going to remove the censorship, and, I suppose, allow codes, will increase the capacity of the cables by between 20 and 30 per cent., probably, but even that docs not meet the situation, and I particularly wish to allude to the question of cabling to Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, three of the most important Dominions as regards wealth and numbers. Before the War we had a debate on the Past Office Vote on this subject, I think in 1912, and those of us who were urging the provision of greater cabling facilities strongly urged the laying of a State-owned cable across the Atlantic, and the Postmaster-General of that time, Mr. Samuel, replied that it was not thought possible to do it, on account of the expense, which was estimated at something like £25,000 a year, of which the British Government would only have to provide something like £10,000.
Shortly after that war broke out. The situation then was, as regards cables—and it remains the same to-day, with one small exception— that out of the seventeen cables crossing the Atlantic thirteen were in the hands of the Americans, two were in the hands of the Germans, and two were French. That situation remains to this day, with the exception of the two German cables. Both of them were captured by us, but one has been handed over to the French under the Peace terms, I believe, and the other one is in use by us. Therefore, we have got our All Red Route by using this captured German cable. But I would suggest that if we had laid another cable or leased one of the American cables it would have enormously helped our mercantile business to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The Pacific cable, which is the State-owned cable on the other side of Canada communicating with Australia and New Zealand, has, as I think was given in evidence before the Marconi Committee the other day, begun to pay very handsomely during the War. All the messages to Australia are sent by the Pacific cable, and not by the Eastern Telegraph line. In the Pacific cable report last year they drew attention to the fact that a great deal of their business had been curtailed owing to the fact that the connecting lines were unable to give them the business. The exact words are:
The international traffic was less by 1,250 000 words. This reduction was due to the enforced curtailment of the cheaper classes of traffic owing to connecting companies toeing unable to accept them.
The connecting companies were these thirteen cables crossing the Atlantic, which are all in the hands of the Americans. Five of those cables, up to 1912, had been British-owned cables. The Western Union Telegraph Company of America was absorbed by the American Telegraph Company, and they proceeded to freeze out the British companies by saying they would not allow them facilities in America for delivering their telegrams. Hon. Members will remember that in America telegraph offices are not run by the State, but by private companies. The result of that was that the English companies were
obliged to lease their lines to the Americans, and that was done in spite of our protests in this House and in spite of the fact that the Postmaster-General had ample powers really to prevent that transaction. In the first place, both ends of these cables land in British territory— in Ireland and in Newfoundland— and therefore the landing rights are in the power of the Postmaster-General in this country. I believe that up to 1917 those landing rights had not been granted to the American companies, and I would like the right hon. Gentleman this evening to say whether the landing rights have been given to those American companies yet. The reason I am drawing attention to this is that, owing to our having allowed these British lines to pass in1o foreign control, our own communications with our Empire over our State-owned' cable is seriously interfered with, because by that report they say that the connecting companies were unable to give them business— that is, that the American companies joining across the Atlantic were choked up with their own messages from the American troops, and the result was that our business was put into a secondary position.
I say that that is directly due to the neglect of our national interests in the past by the Post Office in allowing these cables to be handed over to the Americans, and, secondly, in not having laid a State Atlantic cable or, alternatively, having leased one of the American lines. The Dominions Royal Commission backed up the urgent request of all our statesmen in the Dominions overseas that a State-owned cable should be placed across the Atlantic. It is absolutely an anomalous position that we should have this very long cable owned by the Governments of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand across the Pacific, with a connecting line to Nova Scotia, and that the link across the Atlantic should not be in the hands of the British Post Office. Now we have got a captured cable, and I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he can tell us this evening what steps are being taken by the Imperial Communications Board to increase the cabling facilities of the Empire, which are of enormous importance to our trade and our industry and to the social intercourse and growth of the Empire generally. The Dominions Royal Commission said in their Report:
Cable communication tends to quicken the pulse of nationality and forms an effective
supplement to the broader though slower interchange of thought and sentiment by means of postal communication. It reinforces the feeling of joint life in a manlier not possible by correspondence when two months or more are required for a reply to any letter.
Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us what is being done, or whether he will use his great influence to bring pressure to bear on the cable companies to increase their facilities as soon as possible; and further, whether he is prepared to ask the Western Union Company to lease one of their lines to this country? Before the Dominions Royal Commission, who recommended that course, the European manager of the Western Union said he did not see any insuperable obstacle to that course. There is a case in which our communications with Canada and Australia might be enormously improved if the Post Office would either take over that cable themselves or would get the cable taken over by the Imperial Communications Board and hand it over to the Pacific Cable Board to deal with. There is one; other cable which I wish to draw attention to, and that is the West Indian cable, the duplication of which to the West Indies from Halifax has been urged repeatedly by Royal Commissions, by chambers of commerce, and by other important bodies all over the Empire, and nothing has been done. May I ask the right hon. Gentleman if he will signalise his term of office by also using his influence to try and get an improvement made in that direction? He has told us to-day the very interesting story of great improvements which he proposes to carry out in England, and for that I am sure all of us are very grateful, but the communications of the Empire are also of enormous importance, and if he could tell us anything to-night in that connection I am sure the House would be interested to have it.
There is a small point I wish to bring up with reference to the Post Office policy as regards the receipt of cablegrams in their London offices. I communicated privately with the right hon. Gentleman some time ago on this subject, and it is only a very small matter, but I suggest that it is in these matters of detail that the Post Office fails to a certain extent, and where I think I might suggest an improvement. The foreign cable companies cater for the trade of the big firms in the City. They send people round to collect cablegrams, and they give facilities by granting credit to firms of repute for any number of cables they wish to send. What is the action of the Post Office in that matter? They refuse to send for telegrams. In every town, except London, there are facilities under which you can ring up a messenger to take your telegram to the post office. That means in the first place that you have to pay for the messenger, and in the second place that you have to pay for the telephone call, and it is a great deal more trouble than when a firm comes round and caters for the trade and takes the cablegrams. I call this a parsimonious, a peripatetic, and an absolutely pachydermatous attitude on the part of the Post Office, who refuse to do what every ordinary business firm does, and that is to cater for the trade. Then there is another very small matter, but it is one which really counts when you are trying to get trade for a big-Government Department. I should like to know what private firm would issue the disgracefully bad forms which the Post Office use for foreign cablegrams. I do not think the worst election literature or the worst pamphlets were ever printed on worse paper than that used for foreign cablegrams by the Post Office. When I brought this to the notice of the right hon. Gentleman, the answer was that the Stationery Office said it was the same that had been used for a very long time. I say that that is the typical bureaucratic attitude, and it is one that ought to be altered by an up-to-date Postmaster-General.
I rise to support the case put by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Moss Side Division of Manchester (Major Hurst), because the hon. Member for Balham and Tooting (Mr. Denison-Pender), who elaborated the difficulties under which the cable companies are working, rather suggested that we were overdoing the case. But those difficulties which the hon. Member-elaborated, of which we are all more or less aware, do not really affect the charge that my hon. and gallant Friend made. My hon. and gallant Friend stated how cases like the Billie Carlton case were printed in full detail in the Indian newspapers within forty-eight hours, whilst urgent commercial cables from Manchester were taking ten or fifteen days. Was the censorship responsible for that, or is the right hon. Gentleman giving some pre- ference to Press messages? If he is giving a preference to Press messages, which we must realise in certain cases may be necessary, surely there ought to be some discretion to avoid perfectly useless sensational and harmful nonsense getting preference over urgent commercial messages to India. With regard to cables to Shanghai, on the 27th March the last cable they got from Liverpool was dated llth March, quoting spot cotton at 15.86, a difference of eighteen points on the previous day. It is a very serious matter for commercial men when a cable is held up for sixteen days. I do not want to quote all these different cases; it is quite sufficient if we look at the general run of them.
The hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Denison-Pender) referred to social messages. So far as Egypt is concerned, in 1916, I know from my own experience, that one could send messages from either Suez or Cairo to England and get a reply either just over the week-end or, at any rate, within four or five days. How docs that compare with the present experience? Here is one instance. A telegram and a letter were dispatched from Cairo on 16th June. The letter arrived in Manchester on the 28th June, and the cablegram on the 1st July— twelve days for a letter, and fifteen for a cable. If such a delay is anticipated, it is more reasonable to dispatch a cablegram by post, so that it will at least arrive on the same day. The same thing is happening with messages to France and from France. Telegrams almost always arrive after the letters that are sent in confirmation. Things are rather worse with Sweden, a neutral country, in which America is competing for our trade. We have a case hero of a Manchester firm whose agent cabled to them on the 5th May. His cable has not been received up to date. They cabled out to him in one instance that their cable had arrived after considerable delay. In another case it had not arrived at all, and in one particular transaction, out of their messages to and fro, one important message in each direction has been lost. Those things should not arise. Regarding the Far East, here is a long list showing that from Hong Kong messages are taking over five days. I do want to press the right hon. Gentleman to inquire what is the real cause for these delays in urgent commercial messages at a time when sensational nonsense is going through in Press telegrams in forty-eight hours. If he can give some assurance that that sort of thing is to cease, that an obvious abuse of the cable is to stop, then the trading community, who depend on the rapid transit of telegrams to such a large extent, will be—I do not say satisfied, but reassured. We shall feel that there is a chance of things being righted in the near future I hope the right hon. Gentleman will deal specially with, that point.
I listened with great interest to the speech of the Postmaster-General. I congratulate him on having such a large surplus in the year which has gone past, but 1 regret that he is looking forward to a deficit for the current year. I have also listened with pleasure to the criticisms that have been levelled against the administration of the right hon. Gentleman's Department. I, for my part, have risen for the purpose of offering some comments in relation to a different matter affecting his administration. I trust. I shall be able to strike a human note. The Post Office, the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. S. Walsh) said, was the Government Department which attracted the attention, perhaps, of more people in the country than any other Department connected with the State. In my estimation, it is the Cinderella of Government Departments. It does the work, and many of its servants are not very well paid for the work. I, therefore, this afternoon draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to some of the grievances which exist, and which I think ought to be remedied in the interest of fairness to the employés who carry out the State's work. I regard a Government Department, especially when working for profit, as an institution, which should, above and beyond everything else, see to it that its employés are contented, that they are well paid, and, so far as possible, that there may be no reasonable cause for discontent; and, in the second place, that it should supply to the Government the highest efficient service possible at the cheapest possible rate. But, as the right hon. Gentleman will notice, I place the human factor first. I am not concerned whether the Post Office is making greater profit than in prior days by other institutions which the State has taken over. I am concerned in the Post Office being in a position to do the right thing by its servants, and show a better example to ordinary private employers.
In the Post Office there is a certain class of servants who come under the designation of the scale payment sub-office system. I know, so far as I can find out, of no other country where the postal service is organised to secure for the State a method of escaping from its responsibility to those who do a good deal of its work. The scale payment sub-office system, to my mind, ought to be as speedily as possible reduced to a minimum. There can be no justification for it anywhere, except in those villages of our country where there is not sufficient postal work to employ a full-time officer. But immediately you have sufficient postal work to supply a full-time officer, then the State should saddle itself with its responsibility to that individual, and see that he Is well paid for his work, according to Post Office rates of pay, and also that the hours of labour are in conformity with that which is just and reasonable. If, as I say, this system applied only to our outlying villages, probably I would have no reason to complain, but it applies to, and works in, our large cities and our towns, and until it is satisfactorily dealt with, I am sure the Post Office cannot be adequately reformed. There is no general justification for the system. How is the system working? The Post Office work is farmed out to contractors, as it were, who are paid by commission. Just imagine in a country like ours, and at a time when our Prime Minister is talking about this country being made a place fit for human beings to live in— [An Hon. Member: "Heroes!"]— I am concerned about human beings for the moment— the biggest Government Department is practically conniving at the living-in system, which is so pernicious to so many workers of the country, and, at the same time, by this system is escaping the responsibility of the Fair Wages Contract Clause, which should apply in every Department in relation to Government work. As I say, this work is contracted out, as it were, to sub-postmasters. They are paid by commission. They employ their own assistants. They pay those assistants just as much as they can afford to do, according to the state of the labour market— no more. In fact, they pay them as low as is possible, and these assistants' wages and hours are determined by the unskilled and unorganised state of the labour market in the various places.
I think the Committee will agree that that is radically wrong in as far as a State Department is concerned. I am not say- ing a word against the sub-postmasters themselves; it is the system under which they are working. Probably these sub-postmasters themselves are very badly paid even now, although I understand, during the past few years, there has been some slight improvement in their remuneration. At the same time, whatever their remuneration may be by this system of commission, there is nothing to compel them to pay other than unskilled labour rates of wages. So I have no hesitation in saying that the profits of the Post Office largely depend on sweated labour in these sub-offices. Now I want the right hon. Gentleman to realise this important fact, that these servants of the sub-postmasters number in some places three, four, or perhaps more, and that if you can employ two, three, or four through a contractor, you had better do it yourself directly through the State. But the service these assistants render is similar service to that rendered by the established officers in the Post Office service—similar work of equal value, but there are great differences in the conditions. The established servant of the Post Office is established, and he has security of tenure; he is working on a basis in his office, I understand, of forty-eight hours a week, is paid for Sunday work and overtime, is on a pensionable basis, and is entitled to sick pay and holidays. But in these sub-offices hardly any of these things apply in spite of the miserable wages paid in the majority of cases.
I have here some very startling figures which may be of interest to the right hon. Gentleman opposite, Here is a Schedule showing the conditions under which scale payment sub-office assistants are employed by sub-postmasters. For these the Postmaster-General declines responsibility. Those of us on these benches agree that it is not a wise thing for the State to decline any responsibility for any of its servants. Here are the cases— I will not read them all— there is a large list— I will give the right hon. Gentleman a few as examples. I find that in London the daily hours of attendance are twelve and a half and the weekly wage 25s.; holidays in the year twelve, no recognised meal times— meals are partaken during work. Losses have to be made good. There is no payment for overtime. I shall mention the next place to which these abominable conditions apply—the Royal Automobile Club. There are two men employed here for between twelve and thirteen hours daily.
They get 35s, per week. They have twelve days' holiday, one Sunday duty in four without payment; otherwise the conditions in relation to meals and making losses good are what I have stated. There are three men with twelve and a half hours' work, and 27s. 6d. per week, with twelve days' holiday, and under the same condition of payment. Might I point out that the Post Office wages for similar work is maximum for men, 65s, plus 36s. war bonus, and for women 40s plus 23s. war bonus.
We are really no more responsible for the payment of the men in the Automobile Club than we are for the railwaymen.
But the Department of the right hon. Gentleman is primarily responsible for these people who are doing Post Office, service at the Club. Here is a whole list which I could give him.
The hon. Member mentioned a club. The Department which I represent is no more responsible for the men who are acting in this respect at the Automobile Club than it is for the men employed by the railway companies.
Might I ask the right hon. Gentleman is there a sub-postmaster at the club paid by commission?
I have not gone into that question. I understand there is a man representing the service at the club.
The conditions under which the scale payment sub-postmasters and assistants are employed by the sub-postmasters are what I am dealing with. I have been giving figures in relation to the payments made to the ordinary servants who are directly responsible to the right hon. Gentleman. That is in London. The, same sort of thing applies to Manchester. Here you have an eleven hours day, with 25s. weekly wage and one week's holiday. In another case there is an eleven hours day and 10s. per week wage, no pay for Sundays, make up counter losses, and live in. One hour is allowed for dinner and half an hour for tea. This refers to the people employed under sub-postmasters, paid by commission. As I say, they are employed by those responsible at the Post Office. Therefore, I ask him to realise that so long as this sort of system continues we cannot say to him that his Department is carried on on humane, economically sound, and businesslike lines. I have other figures with me. I will not read them. But this is interesting—a case in which the normal hours per week were fifty-four; they worked much more. There is a weekly half-holiday, a 20s. wage, living in, one and a half hours for meals, and there is also a week's holiday in the year. There are other cases where sixty-two hours arc worked, the pay being 20s. weekly; and another case of fifty-six, hours and 14s. per week, and to live in.
I am trying to point out to my hon. and right hon. Friends there are in the Post Office system a number of people employed by the Post Office who are paid on commission for doing Post Office work, and who employ their servants, some of them three or four, at Post Office work.
I am pointing out that they are doing Post Office work, and ought to be employed by the Post Office. The Post Office is escaping its responsibilities, and the work of the nation is being done, as I indicated, by sweated labour. These people are doing the same work as is done in any of the branch offices in and around this locality. Therefore I ask the Postmaster-General seriously to consider the matter and to get rid of this pernicious system.
Might I ask as to the position of the caretaker operators? We have heard something to-day about telephones, etc. I am astonished to know that some of these work from thirty to 168 hours per week, and also to know they get from 4s. to 16s.— free quarters being in some cases the only remuneration. At Tynemouth 105 hours per week are worked and the total remuneration (including the value of the house, and cleaning materials, and cost of coal and light) is 10s. Chorley it is 168 hours per week; the total remuneration is 10s. I have other cases here. They have to be there at all times; they live on the premises. [An Hon. Member: ''They sleep there?"] They may sleep, but they are wakened up very often. I wish to draw the attention of the Postmaster-General to another matter. This is rather ancient history so far as the Department is concerned. His
predecessors in 1911 had a reorganisation in connection with the second-class engineers. That reorganisation benefited at that time half of the second-class engineers; the other half were for some unaccountable reason relegated to a position in which all prospects, future success, find advancement were denied them. I am glad to inform the House that since then there has been a modification in the decision which was reached then. The reason given at that time was that action was taken for the sake of efficiency. There was no real ground for the charge that was implied. Forty-four of those blocked were placed on the list within a year for future promotion. Subsequently they were reinstated in their former positions, and were even advanced to higher positions than they had occupied. The real object, evidently, was that certain young men who had been favoured with a university education should toe interpolated into this particular part of the service. There were thirty of these university young men with little experience. I am not saying a word against university education, even from an engineering standpoint, but I do insist that university or technical knowledge and education is not sufficient in the Government Departments where practical work is to be done— that there must be a combination of both. These young men had practically no practical experience, and yet were advanced over the heads of men who had fifteen or more years' experience. These young men were pitchforked into the higher grades. T would like to read, in this connection, some observations of Sir William Slingo, Engineer-in-Chief, British Post Office. I have taken this extract from the January number of the "Telegraph and Telephone Journal" in 1917. He says, with reference to this matter of technical training in the Post Office,
the next attempt was to ask the universities to select suitable candidates who were first submitted to the ordeal by interview. Those who satisfied the interviewers were then subjected to an examination among themselves. This also resulted in failure to get the right class of men. I should indeed have been greatly surprised had any other result followed. In the first place, the prizes offered were insufficient to attract the ambitious and persevering men. In the second place, there is strong objection to asking men in the academic walks of life to select suitable candidates for a commercial and professional industry like that of the Post Office Engineering Department. A few good men were undoubtedly obtained, but with a little meal we had a quantity of husks.
Since then more men have been reinstated in their former grade, but, unfortunately for them, they have been deprived of something like eight years' seniority. They were put back under a system which has been admitted to have been the wrong one to adopt at that time. My complaint about it is this. The Government is asking us to do what we can—I mean the whole House— to create better feelings and relationships between employers and employed; yet the Government Departments themselves seem to be the last to help along these lines. The Post Office Servants' Society took seven years before they could get an interview on this question. I believe the right hon. Gentleman opposite was present at that interview. The case was stated, and the request that there might be an inquiry on Whitley lines was made. I should have thought, seeing that it was March this year, that the inquiry would have been readily granted, and that those who have been professing that it is necessary to establish industrial councils and Whitley committees would have seen, when there was a grievance of that character among their employés, that something was done to meet their request. Instead of being met, they were ultimately told that a new investigation had taken place, and, as a result, that a few men would be uplifted and the; others would have to wait until vacancies occurred, i suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that it is not sufficient to have an investigation of this character. It will not allay industrial unrest, and it will not do away with that discontent which is felt when workmen have a grievance. It would be well, in the interests of the Post Office itself, that these men should be heard and that they should have an opportunity to state their case fairly and frankly. A joint inquiry should beset on foot to come to some definite and permanent decision. They have a legitimate and reasonable claim. They have suffered the indignity of being placed on one side as inefficient, without any individual among them having been told why his work is regarded as unsatisfactory. Had these men belonged to a much stronger union, their grievances would have been more quickly attended to. Probably the experience will not be lost upon them, and they will make good in time to come by joining a general engineering union.
I should like the right hon. Gentleman to say why it is that the salaries and wages of the technical staff should be determined by those paid to the secretarial and clerical staff. I know no reason why the salaries and wages of the clerical stall should be the basis to determine the wages and salaries of those engaged on the technical work of the Post Office. I should have been delighted if I had been able to congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the that that there are no grievances among the employés in the Post Office. 1 could have listened with a certain amount of equanimity to complaints in relation to other matters, realising that in time the Post Office would surmount all those difficulties, but this is a matter in which people who have to earn their bread and butter are concerned, and it is a disgrace that any person rendering services to any Government Department should have to work for sweated wages or unskilled rates of pay. The Department repudiate responsibility, but I say that they should accept responsibility for all those who do their work, and if they continue to contract out work they should lay it down that sub-postmasters must pay wages commensurate with those paid by the Post Office to the people to whom they are directly responsible. I trust also that the right hon. Gentleman will do his best to eradicate the grievance felt by the sixty engineers or more in his Department. They feel that they have been deprived of eight years' seniority by university men having been pitchforked into positions over their heads. I hope he will do something to remove the injustice under which they labour, and thus bring about a state of contentment among the members of the staff.
Sir F. HALL:
I listened with much attention to the speech of the right hon. Gentleman, who, I thought, rather congratulated himself on the position obtained by the Post Office, not only before the War, but during the War. I am afraid, from the letters that I have received, that the general public do not agree entirely with the opinion of the right hon. Gentleman as to the manner in which the work of the Post Office is being carried out. The public during the War put up with all sorts of inconveniences, They had a bad telegraphic service, a bad telephonic service, and a bad cable service, and the deliveries and collections of 1etters were cut down, and there were no complaints. We are now, however, in a different position. It is true that a large number of the staff—80,000, or about one-third of the total employés— joined the Colours, but the right hon. Gentleman must recognise that the Post Office did not do any more than the general business community. The business man is now looking round to put his house in order, and I want the right hon. Gentleman to see if steps cannot be taken to get back somewhat nearer to pre-war conditions. Formerly, if we posted our letters in London up to midnight, we could rely with certainty upon them being delivered first post the next morning. Now we may post them, but we do not know when they are going to be delivered. I am sure that my right hon. Friend, who, as we all recognise, is a thoroughly competent business man, realises the difficulties that accrue to mercantile people if their post is not regular. I hope he will give the matter his attention, and see also whether he cannot increase the number of deliveries and collections in London, so as to give us something like the facilities we used to enjoy in old times.
If my hon. and gallant Friend had been here, he would have known that I said that these deliveries and collections were to be increased very rapidly.
Sir F. HALL:
I can assure my right hon. Friend that I have been here the whole time. Letters may be posted by the midnight mail, but we do not know what hour the next day we are going to get them. It is an absolute necessity that there should be a more regular post in the future. I want to deal with the telephonic service. My right hon. Friend said that if we could be a little more humane, and if, when there was any trouble of getting connected, we could give a gentle reply to the maiden at the other end, we should get that attention to which, as subscribers, we are entitled. There are two sides to the question. You may ring up in London, and be told that they are engaged. You may ring again and again and perhaps succeed after a quarter of an hour in getting in contact with the subscriber. You say, "Have you been engaged during the past quarter of an hour?" and you receive the reply, "No; this is the first call that we have had." My right hon. Friend is surprised that a would-be caller should get a little annoyed, and he thinks it is unreasonable on his part. It is no more unreasonable on his part than it is on the part of the people who try for months to get a connection without success.
I brought to the notice of the House at Question Time the case of a keen business man who happened to live in my Constituency, but who had many branches and wanted connecting with the telephone. He applied in March, 1918, and he was told that he could not be connected then, but he would get on very soon. We have had the same reply in this House: "There is going to be an improvement, and subscribers will get their connections very soon." After twelve months of this shuttlecock and battledore business between the Postmaster-General and himself, he brought the matter to the notice of his Member, and, owing to the courtesy which is usually extended to Members by my right hon. Friend he was successful. The right hon. Gentleman had said that he would connect this gentleman provided he paid £277. It is scandalous, because the Post Office have not provided themselves with sufficient cables, that would-be subscribers should be told that they must bear the cost of laying the cables which should be borne by the Post Office. This gentleman happened to know that three floors away there was somebody who had been connected and who had given up the telephone because he did not get that amount of use out of it which he desired. If a public utility company had endeavoured to extort from those who were desirous of getting something from them a sum like £277, the Government would have taken the matter up, as it would have been their duty to do, and would have said, "No, we are not going to allow profiteering. You agreed to take so much, and you have got to find the connection." I succeeded eventually in my correspondence with the right hon. Gentleman in getting this sum reduced from £277 to £4. [Laughter.] Hon. Members laugh at that statement; but I want the public to appreciate that they are not here to have their pockets dipped into to such an extent in regard to things which should be paid for by the Post Office.
During the War very large surcharges were put on the telephones to discourage people having certain connections on account of urgent military necessities, but these surcharges have now been taken off. The matter referred to by the hon. and gallant Gentleman was not one of beating me down in price, but simply an alteration in the Regulations.
Sir F. HALL:
Will my right hon. Friend tell the House when these alterations came into force, because I am referring to the last three or four weeks. Considering the Armistice was signed on the 11th November, 1918, I hardly think that a letter should have gone from his Department demanding from a would-be subscriber £277 to enable him to get a connection. I hope there is going to be none of this sort of thing in the future, and everybody should be charged the same. If there are going to be two different prices to subscribers, or demands made from them in some clandestine manner, the sooner the House knows about it the better. I hope in a case like I have brought forward that even a charge of £4 is not going to be made in the future unless it is necessary that everybody should pay the same price. I do not say that the whole of the blame should be placed upon my right hon. Friend, and I am inclined to think that some other Department has been pulling the strings. This may have been a Department which is very careful in parting with some of its money, and that is the Treasury, and if they are to blame, I hope; the fact of its being ventilated here will put a stop to the manner in which they have endeavoured to extract such sums from the public in the future.
The question of the sub-postmasters and caretakers has been raised. If you are going to say because a man or a woman is a caretaker they are to be asked to work 168 hours per week it might be rather misunderstood. It might be said that in the case of a postmaster working in his own department he works more or less the whole clock round, but I do not think anybody would accept that statement. I am going to plead for the special class to which my hon. Friend refers. There are the redundant engineers, and the Postmaster knows inwardly that these people-have not been treated fairly. The Post Office, if it expects to get the best out of the service, must treat these men fairly, and it is not fair to have men who have been in the service twenty-five years and have other people come in with a service of six or seven months and placed over the heads of those who have been in the Department for years. When we raise-this question, the reply we get is, "Oh, yes; the circumstances are that these men. have been put there, although they have only had six months' experience, because they are more capable of carrying out the duties." It is nothing of the sort, because the new people were very often taught by those whom you say are not capable of carrying out their duties. There are some fifty or sixty of these people left, and I know my right hon. Friend has promoted a certain number of them.
I was told at the Post Office twelve or eighteen months ago that everything possible was being done for these people, and, provided they could carry out their duties, their cases would be considered when those promotions were made. That is what should be done, but I am afraid it is not what has been done. The engineer-in-chief of the Post Office himself stated to a deputation which waited on the Postmaster-General in March last that at all events he did not agree that fair treatment had been meted out to these men. If the head officers on whom we can rely are of opinion that these men have not been treated fairly, can my right hon. Friend be surprised that there should be friction in his Department? I hope more attention will be given to this matter, and that there will be no more shelving of these people, and, as vacancies occur, I hope they will be inquired into, to see, at all events, whether these people can carry out their duties. There ought to be some independent inquiry, and if they can perform these services it is only fair they should be put into those positions.
Then there is the case of the permanently unestablished staff. I think there are only about twelve of these on the central telegraph staff, and some of them are women. They have a disjointed service, but it runs through thirty and forty years, and in one case I know it is forty-seven years. These people have given anything from thirty to forty, and one forty seven years' service in the postal department, and they are unestablished, although some tenth-rate clerks who joined the service since 1914 have been established. These are just a few who have not been established, and there is no pension to be given to them, and I can see nothing but the Poor Law or the workhouse for them unless some sympathy and help is extended to them by the Post Office. You have had the work out of them, and because they have got married and become widows or their husbands have left them, and they have had to turn round and earn their own living, surely the Post Office is not going to say that they are going to allow them to starve after the country has had the benefit of their services! I will give the right hon. Gentleman a list of these people, and 1 feel certain if they cannot be put on the establishment there is some way in which the Post Office can acknowledge their ser-vices and give them something for what they have done, so that it will not be necessary for them to obtain relief from the parish.
My right hon. Friend stated that he intended to appoint a Commission to inquire into the telephone service. The Post Office is a business body, or at any rate it should be. We always look upon it, as the best-arranged business body in connection with the Government, and yet the right hon. Gentleman has stated that it is necessary to appoint a Commission to inquire into the telephone service. I am going to ask him to go a step further and appoint a committee of business men to inquire into the various grievances of the public with regard to telegraphy and telephony, in order to see if they can give any good advice to the Government. They should not be tied down in their inquiry to telegraphy or telephony by red tape, and the Government should not appoint officials from the Post Office, because we want a free and independent Report. Under these circumstances, I cannot help thinking that my right hon. Friend and the Post Office and the public would derive some great material benefit from such an inquiry.
I did not have an opportunity of listening to the speech made by the Postmaster-General, but I have listened long enough to realise that his Department has not got a Friend in the House. Not one good word has been spoken, for his Department. What would happen if the right hon. Gentleman had been presiding at a meeting of business men and shareholders in an ordinary company if he had received such complaints as he had to-day of inefficient work, increased pay, delays in the delivery of letters, and, at the same, time, great additions to the expenses as a result? I cannot help thinking that if it had been an ordinary business meeting, instead of mild and cooing complaints, we should have heard the business described by the Press very strongly. I do not want to reiterate more than is necessary the com- plaints about the telephone service. Everybody knows how bad it is, whether it is in London or over a long distance. It is difficult to talk from one part of London to the other, and very often much more difficult to hear, and it takes longer to get on than it does to get on a long-distance telephone from New York to Washington, Hon. Members who have had any experience will agree that this statement is correct. There is the usual complaint that the line is always engaged, and if you ask to see the supervisor you hang on until one says a bad word, and puts the telephone down.
Another complaint I have to make with regard to the Post Office authorities is that they are so fond of pulling up the streets. There is one case I would like to draw attention to. In one of the most frequented thoroughfares in the West End near Piccadilly, for the last week there has been an obstruction caused by the Post Office, and invariably there has been one gentleman there sitting on a barrel, smoking a pipe, and apparently doing nothing else. I have never seen anybody working there except on one occasion, yet that is a part of London where there is some of the worst traffic, and for a week this obstruction has been there. I should like to refer for a minute to the postal delays. On Tues day I had to send round a communication to many Members of this House. I posted them in this House at twenty to nine. They were delivered only this morning, it having taken practically thirty-six hours to convey them from one part of the House to another. I know, of course, that they had in the meantime to be sent to the South-Western District Office. Apparently they were there unattended for a period. In my own house this morning by the second post I received a letter posted here last Tuesday evening. I hardly think we can look upon the whole postal service—the cable, telephones, or telegraphs—as efficient It has been held up by some hon. Members as a pattern to be copied by other branches of the industry in this country, but I am rather inclined to think that the sooner we get back to the day when the telephone especially was in private hands, the better it will be for the country as a whole. We have heard from an hon. Member above the Gangway that not only arc the services inefficient, but that the staff do not get proper treatment. Of that I have no knowledge, but I sincerely hope that something will be done to get rid of the apathy shown by the general public in this matter and to ensure that a proper and efficient service is provided for the benefit of the taxpayers.
I do not rise to attack either the system of individual enterprise or of national ownership as exemplified by our telephone service. Perhaps my experience is singular. But when one takes into consideration the exceptional circumstances arising out of the War I do not find that I have much to grumble about with regard to the telephones.
I do not think my temper is better than that of anybody else, bat I say I generally get prompt attention and courtesy whenever I use the telephone. If I might make a suggestion to my right hon. Friend it would be that if he wishes to improve the telephone system of this country he should improve the conditions of service. I do not know whether when a telephonist has to deal with three calls per minute there is really very much time for her to attend to her knitting or to gossip, and when she only reaches a maximum wage of 29s. after ten years' service, I do not think she can be regarded exactly as overpaid. As a matter of fact the right hon. Gentleman has lost the services of from 6,000 to 8,000 telephonists in late years, and I can only suggest that if he really wishes to retain experienced operators he should pay them, better and work them a little less hard. An hon. Member sitting on the Labour Benches (Mr. Young) said he wished to look at this question from the human point of view. There is no doubt that the workers of this country, whether in national or in individual employment, are coming more and more to approach these questions from the human point of view. I am glad to hear the right hon. Gentleman is taking steps to introduce the Whitley system into the telephone service. If we are to solve the problems that now humanise industrial and social life and if we are to eliminate waste and inefficiency, there is no doubt we must secure the co-operation of those who work in the industry If we do that we cannot do better than entrust to them a certain amount of responsibility with regard not only to discipline, but also the efficiency of the work
The same hon. Member gave instances of the bad old autocratic system, and the injustice it brought about. He referred especially to the treatment of the Post Office engineers. In 1911 a revision took place in the status of the second-class Post Office engineers. One hundred and thirty of them were promoted to another class, but the other 130 were told that they were redundant—in other words, they were branded as inefficient, and informed that they had no prospect of promotion. That was a very wrong and unjust decision on the part of the Department. Representations were made to the Postmaster-General by myself and other hon. Members, with the result that forty-four of these so-called redundant engineers were afterwards promoted to the upper category and since that time they have proved themselves officers of exceptional merit and ability and have risen to executive and other positions of very great responsibility. That in itself proves how very unjust was the autocratic, decision of the Department to turn down these 130 people as redundant and inefficient. The hon. and gallant Member for Dulwich and myself have for some years been bringing these men's grievances to the notices of the right hon. Gentleman, and my right hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General has been kind enough to promise that he will personally look into the matter. I hope my right hon. Friend will not think mo disrespectful if 1 suggest that his inquiry should be conducted entirely in the modern spirit, and that ho should enlist the co-operation of their workpeople themselves, as nothing will content this very hardly-used class of worthy public servants if it is not a kind of joint inquiry.
I want to call attention to the position of the girl telegraph messengers. Some 6,500 of these girls are still in the Government service. I should like to know what prospects they have and what education is afforded them. I put a question to that effect to my right hon. Friend, and he replied that they were encouraged to attend night schools, and suitable ones would be given opportunities of passing into the telephone service. I submit that that is not enough, and that the Department should charge itself with a much greater responsibility in respect of these girls. The form of education which is open to them is by no means educative. It is of a vagrant type, and somewhat demoralising in its nature. A girl who is knocking about the streets all day long cannot get much good from that form of education. I submit that these girls should either be dismissed altogether or else should definitely be taken in hand and made to attend secondary classes, and have a proper chance of being absorbed into the national service. Some years ago the boy telegraph messenger service was one of the most disgraceful services in the country, and afforded one of the worst examples of boy unemployment. For a great many years the Postmaster-General said it was quite impossible to give these boys a better chance in life, but eventually after a good deal of pressure the Department gave its mind to the subject, and just before the War a good scheme was devised whereby these young people got a chance of being absorbed in the Post Office service. I suggest that if the girls are to be retained in the service they should have the same chance.
There is also the question of the scale payment sub-postmasters. An hon. Member opposite condemned the position of this class in very eloquent terms, and he spoke of it none too harshly, because it is indefensible to have a scheme whereby the work of the Post Office is given out to sub-contractors who have a right to engage assistants at entirely inadequate wages. It is a really abominable thing that the Post Office should give out its work and not be able at the same time to control the rate of wages paid to the assistants. The system may to some extent be defensible in out of the way villages, but it is entirely indefensible when used in places like Manchester and other large towns and cities. The hon. Member opposite gave perfectly true instances of sweated wages which are being paid. It is monstrous that the Post Office should get its work done and make its profits on such glaring instances of sweated labour. I should be glad if my right hon. Friend would give these three separate grievances his kind attention.
I wish to ask. the right hon. Gentleman when we may expect some improvement in the postal service in Somerset between Taunton and Minehead? Before the War, that district was served by a motor van, and there was no good reason for complaint. The letters are now conveyed by rail, and are not delivered at Watchet until eleven o'clock in the day. At Minehead, where the sorting-takes longer, letters are not delivered until after one o'clock. In certain places in my Constituency west of Minehead, the arrival and despatch of letters are practically simultaneous, making it almost impossible for a business man to answer his letters on the same day that he receives them. At Watchet there are factories of some size, while Minehead is a large seaside town and a very popular place, which will be full of people during the next month or so. I have received endless complaints on the matter, and I know that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Colonel Sanders) has had the same experience. The Post Office have promised over and over again a speedy return to the motor van service, but nothing has been done. I would impress upon my right hon. Friend the urgency of this matter, which is causing a great deal of irritation and annoyance in the district, and I hope he may be able to give me some satisfactory assurance on this subject.
I desire to call the Postmaster-General's attention to a very deserving class, about whom I have had some correspondence with him, and have received very courteous replies. I refer to the class of auxiliary postmen. I may explain to the Committee that auxiliary postmen are a class of men employed by the Post Office for about four or five hours per day, two and a half hours in the morning for the early delivery, and two and a half hours in the evening. They do not get very much remuneration for that service, but during the middle of the day they have been in the habit of obtaining other employment, as jobbing gardeners, window cleaners, and so on. At the beginning of the War, when the regular postmen were called up to undertake military service, the auxiliary postmen were asked to do full time duties. They cheerfully complied with that request, but now they are told, the regular men having returned, that they must resume their duties as auxiliary postmen. The effect has been to reduce their remuneration from 49s. to 28s. a week. That is totally inadequate for a man to keep himself, his wife, and family,
Of course, but the unfortunate thing is that in many eases which I have investigated personally the men have not been able to regain their original employment in the middle of the day, therefore the 28s. a week is the only remu- neration on which they have to keep themselves, their wives, and families. I respectfully suggest to the Postmaster-General that he should make representations to the Treasury, and that a small gratuity, at any rate, should be given to these men for some little time, until they have had an opportunity of obtaining full employment again. I would also suggest that when he has an opportunity of appointing full-time postmen he should extend to these men the privilege of taking those situations.
I am afraid that what one or two hon. Members have said is true— that the Post Office has not very many friends, especially as regards the telephone service. There is every justification for that. Of course, one has every sympathy with the Postmaster-General in pleading the War, bat it does not account for the state of the telephone service. That service was bad long before the War. It always has been bad. It has never been fully satisfactory, but it was much more satisfactory in the days of the National Telephone Company, and it would have been much more satisfactory even in these days had it not been for the arbitrary hand of the Post Office, which fell heavily upon it. The telephone company paid the Post Office or the Treasury a royalty of 10 per cent, on its gross receipts. Imagine what a royalty of 10 per cent, on the gross receipts of any business would mean! It was an extraordinary thing. Why did it pay that to the Post Office? Nobody knows. The Post Office had no telephone. The telephone was one of the most wonderful and delicate inventions ever conceived by the mind of man. The inventor himself could hardly understand how it came about. By some extraordinary legal misdecision in the eighties, someone decided that the telephone was something like a telegraph, and the Post Office jumped in and laid its heavy hand upon it. From that time the telephone service became worse. Then the Post Office took over the service. Why should the Post Office have taken possession of a delicate engineering problem of this kind, one of the most difficult to undertake? It is an organisation fairly well fitted for one of the most simple and elementary jobs known to man, the delivery of letters which only requires care and accuracy, but not for anything in the nature of science or skill. Yet this body came in and took over this delicate scientific system and strangled it. It led to an enormous expenditure of money.
The telephone company gave 10 per cent, of its gross receipts to the Post Office. If any landowner or duke had received a royalty of that kind I can see Mr. Smillie having something to say to him. It was a successful company. In Glasgow, not so very many years ago, we could get a, perfectly satisfactory telephone in our dwelling houses for 25s. a year. It was an admirable and most successful telephone at that price. I would like to see the telephone in every home. If we are going to have our people housed over wide districts why should not the telephone be put in the homes of the working men?
The hon. Member must be one of the gentlemen who has had trouble with the telephone ladies. I have never had trouble with them. The telephone ought to be available for practically everybody. There is only one way of doing that. You will never make a job of the telephone service so long as it is in the crude and clumsy hands of a Government Department like the Post Office. I have always noticed a curious feature about Members of the Government. Instead of taking up a quasi-judicial or public attitude in regard to the particular Department they happen to represent, they always, defend it, with all its blunders. You can never get them to admit there is anything seriously wrong. You may question and cross-examine them, but they always speak up for their Department. That is a mistaken notion of loyalty. If a proper investigation were made into the working of this telephone system, if it was realised that it was there for the benefit of the public and that one of the first things we had to secure was a cheap and efficient telephone, everyone would see it is impossible to administer this complicated system as a mere sub-branch of the Post Office. What we really want, if we cannot retrocess it to a private commercial concern—of course taking care that the tariffs are duly limited—
I am sure they would. I have been in communication with one man who says he would put it in a satisfactory position in twelve months. Remember that the company paid £3,500,000 in royalties for nothing to the Post Office. It must have been profitable. We want a special telephone authority like the Port of London Authority, a body whose business will be to do nothing else but to see that the telephones are administered in the public interest and not merely run as a sub-branch. Then we should have an authority which might possess a little of the same spirit which works in the ordinary commercial concern. In that case the employés know that if the ship goes down they go down with it. That is a marvellous stimulus to the ordinary man. If the employés know that it does not matter what happens and that all the cost comes out of a boundless exchequer, they will not care. We all know what Government Departments are and have been for all time. It is extraordinary to hear the demands made for the further development of Government Departments. One would have thought that the experience of any hon. Member in trying to get a man demobilised or a telephone fixed up in his house would have made him say, "God forbid we should have any more of it!" I hope that when this Committee is appointed there will be some real live business men on it. It is no use having Government officials. They cannot do anything.
I think an hon. and gallant Member referred to a Telephone Committee, but my right hon. Friend said that was a Committee which would be appointed to deal with the question of telephone rates—that is, the financial aspect of the question.
One knows what that Committee will recommend— a raising of the rates. They cannot report in any other way. I remember once, in a certain department, in a great corporation where there was a deficiency, a certain superintendent was asked to make a report on the deficiency and how to cure it, and he took the very simple way that all officials do. He simply doubled and trebled the rates for everything. One of them happened to be a swimming-bath, and the representative said to him, "If you raise the rates three or four times like that, you will not have nearly so many people making use of the premises." "Yes," he said, "there will be as many, only they will not come so often." That was a type of the official mind. This Committee is only to deal with rates. I want to see a Com- mittee which will examine into the whole question and see if it is not possible to construct something more like an ordinary commercial concern and something more scientific. You might as well have handed over the aeroplane service to the Post Office as the telephone service. It had nothing to link it with the Post Office. It was the worst Department that could possibly have had to deal with it, because it only had the simplest of Government activities to perform, namely, the collection and delivery of letters. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will prevail with his chief to do something much more effective than merely overhauling the rates, and will go into the whole question of the desirability as to whether this Department should maintain its grip of the telephones. From the very day it took them over it began to work them inefficiently, in a costly manner, and to the great dissatisfaction of the whole public.
I cannot say much about the telephone system of late years, but the Post Office generally, up till quite recently, used to be considered one of the most efficient and best-run institutions in the whole country. Whether it has changed of recent years I do not know, but a few years ago it used to be recognised as a very efficient institution. This Committee has been likened to a shareholders' meeting, but shareholders would not be demanding post offices here and extensions there, and the spending of money in some other quarter, as some of us have been doing. It interested me greatly to hear hon. Members talking of having only six, seven, eight, nine, or ten postal deliveries in the day. I want to speak about a place where we do not have postal deliveries except perhaps occasionally, if the weather is good, twice a week. I am not speaking of the local parish pump post office, but of the postal communication with the whole of my Constituency, the outer Hebrides. Certainly in the Northern part of the constituency there is a daily mail, but in two-thirds of the area there is only a mail twice a week, by steamer. I am not talking of internal communications; they are bad enough, but they might be worse, and I am quite content to leave that to the Post Office, but I do not think it is too small a matter to call the attention of the Postmaster-General to the extremely defective condition of the postal services to the outer Hebrides. At this time of day any considerable population in the country should have a daily postal service. I do not think that is too much to expect. Of course, I shall be told it will not pay. I quite admit that. In every part of the country there are areas that do not pay in the conventional economic sense of the term, but I think it pays the country from many other points of view that there should be a good postal service, as good as we can afford, in every part, so that in these islands I think it is quite a fair claim to make that we should have a daily service between them and the mainland. In Lewis there is a daily service. The only complaint we have to make there is that the Highland Railway Company is a bit slow in its methods of progress. It is suggested sometimes that you can take a walk to vary the monotony of a journey. There is a good deal of lost time at the railway stations on the way, so that the mail boat which brings the mails to the whole population of Lewis, which is 30,000, has been a good many hours later in the last few years than in former years. The boat used to arrive in time for an evening delivery. Now it arrives at midnight and you do not get the mail until the morning.
There is another matter which I think the Post Office, if it took a broad view of its functions, might take into consideration and that is the suitability of the boats. I do not allege that they are not quite safe to carry the mails, bur. the Post Office could largely help the population with regard to the passenger service if, when making their contracts, they made it a condition that the boats should be suitable for carrying passengers at every time of the year. Post Office subsidies arc a valuable addition to the finances of the steamboat companies, and I would very strongly impress on the Post Office, who are the only people we can directly appeal to, that they should lay down severe conditions when the Post Office subsidy is granted that the boats should be of sufficient size to carry the usual number of passengers and that those who travel in these parts should be carried with a reasonable degree of comfort in winter as well as in summer. There is quite a considerable population in the southern part of the constituency, but the only communication with the mainland is twice a week, and, as a rule, the two days are consecutive. I do not think that is fair treatment of a population that has given a good deal of support to the nation in the time of stress through which we have recently passed. Before the War they had a daily service, and, of course, they miss it much more now than if they had never had it. The people naturally think, now that we have had peace for some months, that some tendency should be shown, to have these services improved and that the return to a daily service should be made as soon as possible. I hope the Postmaster-General, although this is only an out-of-the-way corner of the country, will endeavour as soon as possible to raise the postal service within measurable distance of the level of civilised life.
Sir J. D. REES:
The hon. Member (Mr.R. Young) blamed the Post Office for sweating labour, which it does not employ, and praised it for not making a profit which it does not make. As the hon. Member is a lecturer, presumably on economics, this gives occasion for thought. For if it is a praiseworthy thing to manage a Department without making a profit, one wonders what is to happen when great industries are to be nationalised, as the hon. Member would wish, in the near future. Having been both a business man and a Government servant for long years, I sincerely hope the sphere of Government management will be as contracted as possible. A good deal has been said about delays in cabling, and two hon. Members from Manchester made most interesting speeches on the subject. Manchester is, perhaps, more affected than any other centre in England, but any persons interested in the cotton trade, no matter whether they get their cotton from the banks of the Nile, from the Zambesi, from the Mississippi, from Nyasaland, Egypt, India, or America, are all interested in Manchester. They all have their cotton brokers at Manchester, and all of us who are interested in the cotton trade have suffered severely from the delay in the cables. Nothing can exceed the trouble, annoyance, and loss to which business is put by these delays, whether or not they are due to the Post Office or to the telegraph companies, as to which I am not in a position to express any opinion. Delay has been our portion in London in regard to cabling and in regard to telephoning, and over and over again when I have been waiting for an answer to a cable in the City from the East I have been reminded of the Eastern letter-writer. In every Eastern city there is a man whose business it is to write letters. He site, on the floor with his materials, and all and sundry come to him to write letters, whether it be business letters, love-letters, or letters of any description whatsoever. A man came to him one day and asked him to write a letter. He said, "I cannot, because I have a bad leg." He said, "It does not matter. I do not want your leg. I want you to write a letter." He said, "In my case it does matter, because when I write a letter I have to walk to the recipient to read it to him and to explain it to him. Consequently, when I have a bad leg it is no use my attempting to write letters." I declare that in London on the telephone it is almost quicker, if you have not got a bad leg, to walk to the person you want to talk to rather than wait to get connected and talk across the telephone. The telephone system is inconceivably bad in London. Nothing is altogether bad in itself, but only in comparison with something else. Take the telephones in other countries. They are immeasurably superior. In Scandinavia you see children getting on to stools because they cannot reach the telephone, and having long conversations with other children in localities some distance away. Along the Baltic coast and in the interior, you can telephone to the remotest village without the slightest difficulty, and if you have left behind your hat, your umbrella, or your walking stick, you can arrange to have it returned very quickly by telephone; but here in the greatest city in the world the telephone is the worst I have ever known. I do not know why the Postmaster-General does not gently chide these ladies who are so suspiciously ready to say, "Number engaged," or who cannot be got to the telephone for such long times. I am sure they are very charming ladies, and their occupation is exceedingly boring and troublesome, as one realises when one sees them at work on their key-boards; but, at any rate, it is their occupation, and they ought to be patient, and there ought to be some means of getting an early answer to a call. One hon. Member says he has never had any trouble with the telephone ladies. That must be because his "is a melodious voice that floats along the languid wires." Most of us have great difficulty.
I did not get up to attack the Post Office; I have great sympathy with Government Departments, because I have spent most of my life in Government Depart- ments, and I realise that it is impossible for them to do their business in a manner comparable with private management. I am sorry for a Government Department. I realise that the men are as good as they can be, but in the element in which they work, and the conditions which prevail, they could not, if they were angels come down from heaven, compete with business men, who have to make their living by the success of the business they manage. If there could be some retrocession of the telephone to private enterprise I believe it would be an extremely good thing for all concerned. There is one matter to which I should like to draw attention. Eleven miles from London there is a, village which is just outside the London radius. Anybody living in this village, on the border of Hertfordshire, can telephone to St. Albans or to Harrow, but people living eleven miles from London do not have a great deal of business with St. Albansor Harrow. They may also telephone to Watford; but whenever they want to telephone to London, to which place, obviously, they would want to telephone, every single telephone is a trunk call. In other countries you have zones of distances within which calls are local or trunk calls. Why is it that the line if drawn so narrowly as eleven miles from London, from some centre in London which may be Piccadilly Circus, or Nelson's Monument, or some other place. It is an absurd line, and seeing that the area of London extends into several counties, the area within which calls can be permitted without making trunk charges, should obviously be extended to a radius of more than ten miles from some London centre.
Sir J. D. REES:
When I mention the name of the village the hon. Member may say it is an insignificant place, although it is entitled to the prefix of "Great." It is called Great Stanmore. I happen to live there, and I think in this I represent the inhabitants who are anxious to get the privilege—which should not be a privilege—of telephoning to London, not as a trunk call, but by way of getting some return for their subscription, which presumably is of some use even to a Government Department. I associate myself with the speech of the hon. Member for Dulwich (Sir F. Hall), and the Noble Lord my colleague in Nottingham (Lord H. Cavendish-Bentinck) concerning the redundant engineers. It is unfortunate when one gets the title of redundant. It would almost seem to justify a policy of procrastination as the appropriate thing for anyone called redundant. I wish they were called by some other name, because I think these men have not been fairly treated. I hope that my right hon. Friend, who is a fair-minded, generous man, and must see there are strong points in their case, will give ear to their plaint, and that it will have favourable consideration. The Postmaster-General has now returned, but too late to hear what I said about the telephones. It would not be fair to repeat it, although it would lose nothing in the repetition. Perhaps my hon. Friend will communicate to him what I have said, and tell him in the politest manner possible that as a traveller throughout the world I regard ours as the worst telephone system in it.
The hon. Baronet has been criticising the Postmaster-General for referring to some of his employés as redundant engineers. I do not wish to be a redundant Member of this House, but I have to revert to the question of the telephone system, and the position of affairs in Manchester. Perhaps the Committee is not aware that we had a snowstorm on the 4th January this year, which dislocated one-half of the telephone instruments in the city of Manchester, and they remained in that condition for something like two months. Imagine the condition of a telephone service in a city like Manchester— if there is any other city like Manchester—the hon. Member has been referring to the importance of Manchester all over the world in regard to cotton goods—when one-half the offices in the city had their telephone service out of order and the other half were unable to use theirs on account of the lines of the other subscribers being broken. I do not know which people were in the worse condition—those who had their lines broken or those who had not. I suppose the Postmaster-General will tell the Committee that that breakdown and delay was caused through the snowstorm.
My contention is that if this had been a private concern, the engineer would have been called over the coals immediately. Any business house would have discharged the engineer who so arranged the lines that they would break in consequence of a snowstorm. I do not happen to be an engineer myself, but there must be something wrong with the system of erecting telephone wires if they have got to break because we have a snowstorm. One would think that fewer wires could be put on each pole, or that the poles might be put more closely together in order that they might not bear the same weight of snow, or that the wires might be put underground to avoid snowstorms. The Postmaster-General has also pleaded, as other Government Departments have done, difficulties in consequence of the War. But it is not only from the Post Office that men were drawn for the Army. Every business man in the country had to run his business denuded of men, and in some instances a larger proportion of men was taken than from the Post Office. The right hon. Gentleman may have noticed that all through the War he always happened to have bread on his table. The difficulties in the bread trade were just as great in consequence of the War as in the Post Office. Yet the industry has been carried on. The Post-master-General has no right to expect bread on his table all through the War if he is not prepared to see that there is an efficient telephone service for the interests that are necessary in order to produce the broad.
There is another matter which I wish to raise with the Postmaster-General. I cannot conceive a more glaring example of what I might call official stupidity in dealing with cases like this. There is a firm of India rubber manufacturers in Manchester which makes rubber tyres for the Post Office, the firm of Moseley, a well-known firm. They delivered a parcel of tyres to the Post Office in Fordrough Lane, Birmingham, in October, 1916, for which they hold the railway company's receipt, and this firm is unable to obtain payment for this parcel of tyres because the Post Office say that they have not received them. Correspondence has been going on since 1916. To my mind the proof is absolutely clear that these tyres have been received. But to show the way the Post Office run the business, this firm wrote to the Post Office pointing out that this parcel had been delivered, and produced the signature of C. W. Brain, which the Post Office admit is one of their employés at this establishment in Birmingham; but the Post Office said that this parcel came from
Aylesbury. The firm took up the matter and traced this parcel, and proved that it had not come from Aylesbury. Then the Post Office people said that this parcel came from Todmorden. Then the Post Office changed again, and said that the parcel came from Rochdale; and this firm went to the trouble of tracing all these different parcels sent by different firms, and they ended up by producing four signatures for four different parcels. The Post Office are only prepared to admit that they received three parcels. It is quite possible that this parcel may have been stolen in the post office, and because they have no record in their own books they deny responsibility. The firm actually sent one of their head men down to Birmingham to argue the matter out with the people there, and still they are turned down. The Postmaster-General acts as a sort of stone wall in this case, and in a letter written so recently as 10th June he says:
Nothing further has been elicited to throw light on the matter and in the circumstances the Postmaster-General regrets that ho can accept no responsibility for the matter.
If a case of this sort were brought in a County Court, the County Court judge would have no hesitation in giving a verdict for the plaintiff. I do not know whether it is possible to sue the Government in a County Court. I suppose it is not. The only possible thing is to bring a case of this sort before Parliament. But the correspondence in this matter has been going on for nearly three years. It is only a matter of £2 13s., but the principle is there. The Post Office, because of some defect in their own system, or because of some peculation in their own establishment by which this parcel may have been stolen, will not admit liability. Cases of this sort are a disgrace to the public service, and if this is a sample of nationalised industries I do not know what is going to happen when we get some more industries nationalised. However, I hope that we shall all be Government servants in those days rather than Government contractors selling goods, if this is the way they are treated.
During the whole of this Debate we all seem to have forgotten that there has been a war on, that we have passed through the five most trying years in the history of this country, and that when we did take over the national telephone service it was almost on the eve of war. I am not yet in a position to judge it exactly as we find it, but I am trying to compare what it is with what it might have been if the Government had not taken it over. As an ordinary man I am as frequent a user of telephones and telegrams as any other ordinary man in the Labour movement all over the country, and I have heard some hot language, and the only marvel tome is that the whole system has not been consumed. There are even some Members of this House who know how to talk over the telephone in a very haughty manner. It is true that an hon. Member sitting below the Gangway encouraged us at the start of this speech to believe that he was going to stand up in defence of the Department. However, he eventually joined in the attack. An hon. Member on the other side of the House talked a good deal about a snowstorm which broke down the wires. I do not know that we can blame the Post Office for that. We must wait until we have all the wires underground. Our telephone service is not all that we would like it to be, nor is it anything approaching that. Probably it would have been very much better but for the War. Looking back upon the period of the past five years, with its troubles and difficulties, I am not going to find fault and blame the authorities for all the mishaps. All I can say is that if it had not been for the War, if the course had been clear and the chances had been fair, I would be one of the first to condemn the postal authorities for not giving us a better service than that which exists now. We have to look at facts as they are. I do not know whether the little system of telephones that has been adopted in the town of Newport, Mon., was an experiment intended to be extended. It is a peculiar system, which I have always found great pleasure in using, and have always found quick and efficient. I was informed that it was installed there as an experiment, and that if successful it would be extended. From my experience, I should say that the system could be extended to the benefit of the users. It does away very largely with the exchange. You ring up, turn a little wheel, get your number, and you are in direct contact with the person with whom you want to talk.
I do not know the exact description of it. There is a little wheel and a circle of numbers. You give the wheel a twist until you get your number, and you are through to the person you wish to communicate with. I think it is a most efficient service, and I hope it will be extended on a much larger scale. There is one other matter to which I should like to refer. In the scattered area of the Forest of Dean there have been great difficulties during the War on account of the road service. Questions have been asked and answered, and the road service is now, I understand, to be extended. One of the troubles in some of the towns is the collection at the week-end. I am not going to plead for a constant delivery of letters. I do not think it is necessary to have deliveries four, five, and six times a day, except in very large business centres. I think that two or three deliveries daily in the residential areas are ample. Nor am I going to advocate the increase of Sunday work. I hold that we could do very well without postal deliveries on Sunday. If the great and mighty City of London can go without letters on Sunday I do not see why the rest of the country cannot do the same. When I am in the country I look out for the post on Sundays the same as on other clays. When I am in London In ever trouble about the postman on Sunday, because I know he is not coming, and sometimes I am grateful to know he is not coming, for one has at least the assurance of a quiet day. I mention this incidentally because I think we sometimes expect a great deal more than we have a right to expect from Government service. Although I am not pleading for deliveries on Sunday in the area I have referred to, I think there ought to be an additional collection to cover the week-end posting. During the election I posted some letters on a Saturday evening in the town of Cinder-ford. Some were addressed to the North of England. I was informed afterwards that these letters would not be cleared until some time on Monday morning. I traced the letters and found that those I had posted on the Saturday evening were not delivered in Middlesbrough until Wednesday morning, and this was all because of the break in the collection from the Saturday evening till the Monday morning. I am informed that that break has always been the custom, and that it has been the subject of complaint. If arrangements could be made for an extra collection early on the Sunday morning, or at midnight on the Saturday, it would remove the difficulty and be a great convenience in all these towns. I feel sure it is only necessary to bring it before the notice of the authorities for the matter to have consideration.
I make no apology for going back to the table question, because I have a constructive suggestion to make. The Debate, so far, has been nothing but criticism; not one suggestion has been made except the handing over of the telephone service to private enterprise. This cable question is of tremendous importance, as we all know, especially in the East and in China, Things are in such a state that it takes many days to get commercial cables out to China. One of our greatest commercial competitors, Japan, is on the spot, and is not under this disability. America is not troubled with delay in getting her cables from the Pacific Coast ports to the China ports. I mention China particularly because I happen to know the facts. We do not use wireless. I know that the Imperial chain is not completed, but that could be made up, and I would suggest that the Government examine very carefully the feasibility of using our cruisers on foreign stations for this purpose. Those cruisers, fitted with the C. and W. wireless installations can communicate over very great distances, and could be used to convey Government messages. During the War in the height of the submarine campaign, wireless was used for such messages because of delays in the cable, and we used the wireless also for messages to French and Italian ports and to Malta and Gibraltar. That was at a time when cable delays were more serious than they are even now when we are engaged in a great commercial struggle to regain markets. Some Government messages which are sent are simply scandalous, because of the small things they deal with, and yet such messages take priority over the most urgent commercial messages, the delay of which may mean the losing of a particular order or even a whole market, and that in a time of world reconstruction, when we are trying to get the wheels of commerce and industry going again. This is a matter of very great importance, and I have raised it by questions in the House. I do suggest to the Postmaster-General most earnestly to consult with the Admiralty on the subject, but before doing so to see the Prime Minister, as otherwise the Admiralty will tell him we have never done this sort of thing before and we can- not do it now. Therefore I advise the Postmaster-General, in the interest of the commercial community, to short-circuit the Admiralty by seeing the Prime Minister and then pressing for this concession. Wireless operators in ships on the Navy might do this outside work until the cables get into order again, but that will have to be pushed by the Postmaster-General or it will never go through.
There is another matter to which I wish to refer, and that is the complaint which is sometimes made about the sharp manners of the staffs of post offices, especially in provincial towns. Speaking personally, I have never had any complaint to make and I have always been treated politely, so that in raising this matter it is not in any way personal. But one does get complaints, especially from elderly people or those who may be a bit slow that they are treated with discourtesy. Sometimes Government servants think they are little tin gods. That feeling has grown during the War, and they may be apt to think because they are employed in the Post Office that the people are there for their convenience and not they for the public convenience. I dare say that the Postmaster-General has bad complaints on this subject before, and I would ask him to see that everyone is treated with the courtesy deserved. I believe a Whitley Council has been set up in the Post Office. It will not be a success unless the heads of the Post Office make it so, and help to make it so. I know that the employés want to make it a success, and that, so far as the Postmaster-General is concerned, it will be a positive blessing to him if it is. Referring to the question of wages, I would ask the attention of the right hon. Gentleman to the item in the Estimates giving the salaries paid in London in the Stores Department, and on page 4 of those Estimates he will find that the superintendent of typists is paid the princely salary of 45s. per week. When we come down to the humble typist, who may be keeping a widowed mother or a disabled mother, we find that she is paid 20s. per week, rising apparently by yearly or bi-yearly increases of 2s. to 26s. per week, and that in London for typists.
I do not think the cost of living is coming down, and I think it would be really more generous and just if the permanent wages had been raised. The permanent salaries of the Army and Navy have been raised, and the Post Office, I think, should receive the same concession. We do not know how long the war bonus is going to remain, and if it is removed I hope that the established salaries will be increased. On page 36 I see that in the Secretary's Office in Edinburgh there is a female typist, twenty-one years ago, who receives a salary of 19s. per week. Really, that is sweated labour.
Lieut.-Commander KEN WORTHY:
We know there has been a bonus, but, nevertheless, I would like an assurance that that salary wall not drop back to such a low level, and that a lead will be given to private employers in this matter, and that the Post Office will not act as a sweater of labour. Let me say a word about the telephone. It is the fashion now to crab the telephone service or any proposal for nationalisation. No one has talked very much in recent weeks about the London tubes, for instance. An hon. Member opposite spoke about bread, and we had many complaints about war bread. The 4-lb. load is now 9d., and there is a subsidy of £50,000,000 per year, so that I think-that illustration, compares badly with the telephone service. I use a telephone, and honestly, when we consider the difficulties connected with all telephone materials required for the front, and the fact that operators had to go abroad, and that many of the telephone girls joined the picturesque V.A.D. or the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps and left the equally important work of the telephone, and when we remember the number of vast hotels occupied by bureaucrats with the telephone in every little cell, and when we know there was no delay in getting them, I really think that on the whole the telephone service is not so bad. I have not experienced any discourtesy in connection with the telephone, and I think there is a good deal in the way you address people in a matter of that kind. The Telephone Service in Paris has deteriorated very much since the War. knew Paris before the War, and the deterioration of the Telephone Service there is most marked. I was in Paris in 1918, and one noticed it there, and all this controversy had not then come about, and I think it is not a little strange that Member after Member should abuse our Telephone Service and then say, "Now, how can we possibly nationalise anything else? Had not we better give back the telephones, the trains, and everything else to private enterprise?" I do not often praise the Government, but on this occasion I think there is a lot to be said for them, and I think we shall see an improvement soon.
I wish to make an appeal to the right hon. Gentleman in regard to the present postal service in the county of Norfolk, which is an agricultural county. It is a county that is almost by nature an island, and it is thinly populated. The railway service was never very complete, and it is extremely roundabout in its methods. The result of this has been that since the post carts have been taken off, as they were some two years ago, the agricultural communities in the outlying villages do not get their letters till ten o'clock or afterwards in the morning, whereas they used to have the best postal service that any country could wish for in getting their letters very often before seven in the morning. It will be within the memory of the Assistant Postmaster-General that a very strong deputation came up from the county to protest against the taking off of those carts, and the Noble Lord who then represented the Post Office said it was the most important and convincing deputation he had ever received, but in spite of that, the carts were taken off, and the county goes on suffering now. It is not a light handicap on the working of a very difficult productive industry. There exist there men in outlying farms very far from the centres who are professors of agriculture of no mean order, and who get their letters so late that it is impossible for them to take the only train in the morning that takes them to Norwich. I have a word to say about the Telephone Service, and that is the extraordinary way in which the lines are not linked up in certain places in the eastern counties. It has been brought before the Post Office on many occasions, but now I think the time has come when something, surely, can be done. It has been applied for by the police, by the guardians, by the county council, and by numberless individuals. There are three spots there, in Norfolk alone, where the telephone is prac- tically within sight, yet it does not come to the village that most needs it. These things are, I believe, before the notice of the right hon. Gentleman, and I therefore do not wish to take up the time of the House in dealing with them in detail; but the people down there are really suffering serious inconvenience, and if the right hon. Gentleman knew how serious, I am sure it would soon be removed.
I do not wish to criticise in a hostile way the administration of the Post Office, because all of us who listened to the Postmaster General's statement must realise that he has been contending, with some success, against tremendous difficulties. When he gave us the figure of the men taken away for the War, one began to understand what a very hard task he has had. In passing, one must notice that even now a service which is so essential to the industrial reconstruction of this country as the Post Office is still handicapped by the absence of some of its men at the front. That is an illuminating commentary on what the military adventures of the War Secretary really cost this country. First it is the farmers, who cannot get men for the harvest because they must be sent to Russia, and now it is the Post Office. Of course, that is not the Postmaster-General's fault, but it is worth while to notice what it is costing us to go on with the sort of military adventure to which this Government appears to be committed. That is the only controversial point I wish to make on this occasion. This is the appropriate occasion on which to bring to the notice of the right hon. Gentleman local difficulties in connection with the administration of the service, and I have had some correspondence with him about the delivery of letters in the North. He spoke of Edinburgh and Leith as only two of 24,000 towns in the United Kingdom. Of course, I cannot admit that they are the only two, but it is true that the mails from London to the North do not get delivered in Leith until half-past twelve in the morning. You must get your mail first thing in the morning in order to get your business to work, as every hon. Member who knows anything about business matters is aware. The right hon. Gentleman was very courteous in investigating the matter when I brought it to his notice. It is a matter which presses very hardly on Leith, and I would remind him that Leith is the com- mercial part of the Edinburgh district. I would like to remind him, too, of the great delays in the transmission of telegrams and cables between Leith and the Dutch and Belgian ports. I have had cases brought to my notice where a firm only got an advice of the sailing of a ship from a Dutch port the day after the ship had actually arrived in Leith, and it is obvious that if that sort of thing happens it makes the cable worse than useless. It is not a selfish interest I am pressing, but the general interest of the commerce of a very important centre.
I want now to touch on a matter which is not a complaint, but which, I hope, will have a stimulating effect on the policy of the right hon. Gentleman's Department, and that is the question of aerial mails. The War Secretary made a speech the other day in which he said, proudly, that we wore at the head of aviation in the world. I am sure we would like to lead, and I am sure we have got some of the best manufacturers in the world, but I am not at all sure that in practical ways we are at the head of aviation, particularly in this matter of aerial mails. We all know that developing new aerial routes is a very expensive matter. It will be, in my judgment, a very useful development indeed, and I think the commercial possibilities of an aerial mail service in particular are considerable, because a mail does not weigh very much; it is not like carrying passengers. But you cannot expect private firms to do this out of their own funds; it is too expensive. The risks are too great, and it is a service which properly should be undertaken by the Post Office, in conjunction, of course, with the Air Ministry. Of course, being, as I am, a most firm believer in the necessity of unity in the Air Service, I should foe against the right hon. Gentleman in his Department starting a little air service of his own. It must, of course, be done by the Air Ministry, but then the Postmaster-General should be an employer of the Air Ministry, and use them for this very necessary service. I ventured to interject a remark during the right hon. Gentleman's speech, touching this matter, and he replied that it could not be done owing to the atmospheric conditions. I think he has rather overstated the difficulties. It is not necessary for an aerial mail service to fly high. It is not necessary to have very swift machines—it is advisable to have them for long distances—but a sort of machine like the D.H. 10, which lands very slowly, and could be used for this purpose, would very much diminish all the dangers of which the right hon. Gentleman spoke. I think you could get a very large measure of success—I will not say 100 per cent., but certainly 90 per cent. of success. I wish the right hon. Gentleman would turn his attention to that, because the Air Estimates are very large— £65,000,000—and you can only justify estimates of that size if the Air Ministry sees that we do not fall behind other countries in civil aviation. It would be lamentable if we allowed the great lead we secured during the War to be taken away from us.
Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman of some of the things that are happening in the world in the direction of aerial mails. In the forefront is the United States. It is more than a year ago since the United States instituted a daily aerial mail between Washington and New York, with one stop at Philadelphia. As people very often say that these islands are not big enough to have an aerial mail, it is interesting to notice that the distance between Washington and New York is about 210 to 220 miles, and the whole of last and during this year this service has been run with very great success. I want to mention the various countries in which the thing has been done, in order to bring to the right hon. Gentleman's notice the possibility of doing it. During the War there was, I believe, a daily mail service between Vienna and Budapesth; in Denmark, a daily service between Copenhagen, Gothenburg and Christiania; in France, there were several, including a very constant service, used for Government purposes, between London and Paris; in Germany, a daily mail service between Berlin and Munich, with an average time of four and a half hours. In Greece, a daily mail service has been attempted. In Italy, the submarine difficulty was overcome by sending mails to Sardinia by aeroplane, and, as a matter of fact, there were many other services. As regards Brindisi and Valona, one can see the enormous advantage of sending mails over the neck of the Adriatic. In Spain, there are two projected lines. Surely, the example of these foreign countries should be sufficient to encourage this country to make a bold start. It seems really lamentable that even now, with the War over, and with hundreds of surplus machines, we should not make a start. The Air Ministry has got large contracts with the manufacturers, and the manufacturers, I believe, are ordered to continue them. I think I am right in saying that in many hangers in this country machines are pouring in, are being heaped up and are deteriorating, and never see the air at all. Yet the right hon. Gentleman has not utilised any of these machines even for an experimental air service.
This is such a fascinating subject that if I did not check myself, I am afraid I should weary the whole Committee, but they have even got so far as to have aerial stamps. In Newfoundland they produce stamps for the Atlantic air post. In Tunis, they have a converted 35 centimes postage stamp. In Switzerland, they have a stamp for the air post between Zurich and Lausanne, and elsewhere, so that other countries are getting to work in every way to develop this air service which we are neglecting. The right hon. Gentleman will no doubt say in reply to this, "It is all very well, but what would happen would be that you would start the thing, everyone would send their letters, there would be a great many failures, and the whole idea would-be discredited." That is the sort of answer I anticipate. Let me give him. some figures which I got only a fortnight ago, showing the success of the service in the United States. These are not newspaper reports, although those reports are very often more illuminating than official documents, but these figures I am giving have all the sanctity which belong to papers issued by Government Departments. The first annual report of the aerial mail service between Washington and New York has been published, and this is what it says:
Out of a possible 138.000 miles for flying "—
That is the number of journeys added together—
128,000 miles were actually flown—a performance of 92.73 per cent. Out of 1,263 trips, only fifty-five were abandoned owing to the weather, and during the twelve months there have been only thirty-seven forced landings, and the balance sheet"—
This will surely induce the right hon. Gentleman to consider it favourably—
shows a surplus of 10,000 dollars.
That is all I have to say, but I do think it is much more than merely a wild dream of those who, like myself, are enthusiastic over aviation. I think it is a practical step, which the right hon. Gentleman. would do well to consider seriously.
One realised that, during the War, the Postmaster-General was unable to give us the service to which we were entitled. That was due to circumstances beyond his control, but, since fighting has actually ceased, one wonders if the Postmaster-General has done everything in his power to put our postal service on a proper basis, and as evidence of that I came across a case of an expert linesman in the postal service, a conscientious objector, who went before a tribunal, and they decided in their wisdom that the man should make a sacrifice, so they ordered him to become a farm labourer. He willingly complied, and did his best as a farm labourer until December last. He then applied to the Postmaster-General to be restored as an expert linesman. The Postmaster-General, in his wisdom, said he could not put him back until all the demobilised postal service men were able to return to their duties. [An Hon. Member: "Quite right!"] I quite agree there was some-tiling to be said for that. But let me give another case. A telephone operator, who is still serving with the Colours, and was not claimed by the Postmaster-General, wanted to know why, and I sent a communication to the Postmaster-General, asking why this man should not be claimed, as the telephone service was not to my mind working satisfactorily. The reply I got from the Postmaster-General was to the effect that they could do without the service of this man. Here is one man willing to return to his job, now the fighting has ceased, but he cannot be employed until those serving are restored to their jobs. But the Postmaster-General is not claiming these men, or all these men. Therefore one wonders whether some of the drawbacks which we are experiencing now are not due to what seems to be some lack of zeal on the part of those employed by the Postmaster-General.
What about the female operators, of which I am the victim almost every day? When I want to use my telephone, I fail to get satisfaction, although I complain to the operator and the superviser. I have also pitched in letters to the Postmaster-General, and yet without any satisfactory result. I think there may be something due to the men who are on military service, but one wonders what is wrong with the female operators—there seems to be some mysterious reason for the drawbacks and disabilities from which we suffer. I just rose to emphasise the point that many other Members have made, that our telephone service is much less efficient in my judgment than it should be, and in my judgment could be.
I want to make a small constructive suggestion to (he right hon. Gentleman and perhaps the best way I can go about it is to give a personal experience or two. Last Saturday morning from my house I rung up my office. I gave the lady operator the telephone number. I heard that number repeated first of all to the local exchange, and then to the Victoria exchange, and ultimately I was put on to the wrong number. Taking the advice of the Postmaster-General I at once rung up the Victoria superviser. I said to her, "We are told the best way to correct mistakes is at once to inform you that a wrong number has been given, or any detail of the sort." The lady took details. I asked, "What are you going to do?" The reply was, "I am sorry you have been troubled." "The regrets are mutual," I returned. "Doubtless you will at once take up this matter, find out the cause of the wrong number being given, and put a mark against that operator so that if this-mistake is continuously repeated you may know you have an inefficient person"—which in an ordinary business undertaking would follow the usual line. Tea minutes later I rung up the supervisor. I inquired what she had done, if anything. The reply I got was, "We have no means of tracing where the fault lies." Really, that is not a business undertaking. If you cannot trace where a fault of that kind lies, I suggest to the Postmaster-General that lie should devise some means by which mistakes of that sort can be detected at once, and inefficiency dealt with.
I also wish to refer to another matter in connection with which I have been in correspondence with the right hon. Gentleman. That is the question of cable delays. A fortnight ago he made a statement in the House in reply to questions. He first explained the delays in the Atlantic cables. The information he gave to the House was utterly at variance with the actual experience of business firms in the East End of London. There was no correspondence whatever between the information given in the House and the knowledge of business firms who had suffered. I hope, for instance, in the case he gave of a delay of six hours in Press messages he will make further inquiry, for as a matter of fact that same company that same morning had informed me that they were unable to take any cables at all on the proper Press rate. This is most discouraging, and especially dangerous and harmful I when you are dealing with Empire relations. We have next year a great Empire Press Conference in Canada, and this question is coming up as a matter of urgency. It would be a great service to the Empire and the new relationships we want to bring about between the peoples of the Empire if the Postmaster-General were able to talk over in friendly conference with the companies these questions of communication by cable and wireless, and see if we cannot get the whole affair put upon a more equitable and sensible footing. I am told that these relations would be greatly promoted through the wireless system. I believe it is a fact that the wireless people are now approaching the Postmaster-General in order to got more facilities, or some new facilities, high power stations, etc. If this means an escape from the present delays, then I sincerely hope the Postmaster- General will take that line of deliverance.
There is another matter. I believe it is a fact that the Government is paying a large sum yearly to Reuter's Agency in order to promote Press communications between the various parts of the Empire. That, I think, is a most dangerous proceeding. It is not right to choose one particular undertaking in this way, pay it, and j use it as a Government channel for sending out Press communications. It is a wrong principle altogether. I am persuaded there is only one proper function for a Government in the matter of cable communication of this kind, and that is to bring down the rate for everyone, and not to subsidise any particular agency, but to lower the cable rates all round, and leave it to the ingenuity and enterprise of those dealing with the supply of news on both sides of the Atlantic to give what is required to the public. That is the only principle we should go upon, and I sincerely hope we may hear that the Reuter's subsidy is stopped, and the money, with other money if necessary, is used in order to bring the cable system up to date and give a more effective service to those who wish to use it.
First, I should like to express to my hon. Friend opposite my thanks for the statement he made in regard to the speech of my right hon. Friend. I am sorry that many of those who criticised the various parts of the Post Office to-day did not have the opportunity of hearing that speech. I think that my right hon. Friend explained many difficulties and troubles which have been experienced by the Department I represent, and hearing the explanation would have saved hon. Members the trouble of stating grievances of which my right hon. Friend is well aware. Personally, as one who has been connected with the Post Office for four years, and has been associated with two other Postmasters-General, I may say that I think we ought to look upon this subject from a very broad point of view. I am not one of those who is going to try to defend the telephone system of this country at the present time. I realise it is bad. What this Committee wishes to do, individually and collectively, is to try to make it a great deal better, if possible. I can give a good many reasons for the position in which we are placed. The first, and a very broad reason, is that there is no class of the community in this country to-day which is giving as good work as that given five years ago for the same money, or for nearly double as much. And if the telephone system is not even as good as before the War, it must be remembered that the men and women have not had that amount of education and experience they ought to have received. It would be a perfect miracle if things were different. It is really not very extraordinary if we do not find the telephone system in that condition it should be.
In regard to questions of the amount of difficulty experienced by individuals in various parts of the country, I would say that the correspondence which I have received, which is very extensive, suggests that the difficulties are more in London than anywhere else. In criticising the Postmaster-General, the first question one would ask is this: "If I were Postmaster-General, what would I do under the circumstances?" I am inclined to think, from my twenty years' knowledge of the House of Commons, that most of those who have criticised ray right hon. Friend to-day would be doing exactly what he is doing—that is, trusting the men who have been responsible for the telephone service when it was more efficient than it is at the present moment. I can-
not believe that in existing circumstances, when the country is suffering the strain of the War, that there are many reasons why the telephone girls in particular are not working as well as they did in the past, but to make a change would be inadvisable. I notice in a leading article in the "Times" this morning we are told:
The Postmaster-General, who will tell Parliament to-day as much as he dare about the telephone, must feel like the man of whom it was said it were better that a millstone were about his neck and he were cast into the sea.
The writer goes on to say:
We persist in hoping for the best.
Well, as far as this Debate is concerned to-night, I would like to deal with the various aspects one by one, and to endeavour to give as brief a reply as I can to each. First, let me thank the right hon. hon. Gentleman for what he said in regard to other points of the service. There is the question of aviation. That is a question in which personally I take a very great interest. I agree with him that it is not a question which ought to be thrown aside or considered as a wild dream. I believe that the possibilities of aviation for commercial purposes, so far as the Post Office is concerned, are very great. It may be that in a very short time we shall be able to send letters to China or Australia or other distant parts of the world in a comparatively few hours, and that the whole basis of our commercial business will be changed. So far as the telephone service is concerned, I would like to say that I have had some little experience of the automatic service, and 1 believe that would be a way out of our difficulties.
There is no doubt that controversy has arisen as to whether telephone management in America is better than it is in this country, and also whether it is possible for us to proceed on the same basis with regard to the extension of the telephone service as the Scandinavian and other countries. One thing is certain. There is absolutely no complaint in regard to the automatic service, though the capital expenditure of putting in the plant is very great indeed. The hon. and gallant Member for Tonbridge (Lieut.-Colonel Spender-Clay) said that we had no Friend in the House of Commons. As far as his telephone experience is concerned, there have been a great many difficulties, but some of the difficulties arise from the way in which individuals themselves deal with the telephone. It is a small matter, Taut it is really a rather important one: The majority of people do not mention their names when first they speak on the telephone. At both ends they say, "Hallo!" and then they proceed to talk. People who speak to me at the General Post Office often do not mention their names until they have had a long conversation with me. It is a matter of very great importance, because it means that the system is being wasted and that a great deal of time is being occupied quite unnecessarily. I shall be very glad to look into the question raised by the hon. Member for the Frome Division of Somerset (Mr. Hurd) and communicate with him in regard to it.
The question with regard to finding out who is responsible for action on the telephone. I do not know whether his suggestion can be adopted or not I would like to refer to the speech made by the hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. R. Young) in regard to the question of wages. I have had the opportunity for many years of listening to Post Office Debates, and on some occasions in the past I have taken part in them, and so far as the Debate today is concerned the question of wages has not arisen to any great extent. It may be due to the fact that neither the Postmaster-General nor the Assistant Postmaster-General now deal with the question of wages. As the Committee knows, it is dealt with by separate arbitration. I would like to point out, however, that the increases have been enormous. When the hon. Gentleman on one of the Back Benches said that it was remarkable that the charges should go up after these large increases of wages, I could not follow him in the least. I will put before the Committee a few of the increases with regard to two classes of labour in the Post Office Department, to give an idea of the increases that have taken place in wages. It is a comparison of weekly wages in 1914 and in 1919. In 1914 the wages of telephonists in London of eighteen years of age and over ranged from 16s. to 28s., and in 1919, for the same work, they ranged from 37s. 10d. to 52s. 2d., including bonus. Similarly, as far as the provinces are concerned, the wages of telephonists in 1914 ranged from 14s. to 26s., and in 1919 they ranged from 35s. 5d. to 49s. 10d., including bonus. One can, therefore, see that to mention wages without bonus would be absurd, because the bonus is a very largo part of the total wages paid. The wages of sorters, telegraphists, and counter clerks and telegraphists (male) in London in 1914 ranged from 20s. to 65s., and at present they range from 41s. to 101s., including bonus. I could give a large number of extra figures.
I will look into the suggestion of the hon. Baronet the Member for Nottingham (Sir J. D. Rees) and see what can be done, and I will also look into the matter mentioned by the hon. Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Jodrell) and see whether what seemed to me to be a reasonable suggestion cannot be me. I want now to deal with the question of noises on the telephone which has been raised, though, perhaps, not so much in this Debate as on former occasions. Very few people realise that if one places his mouth a long way from the telephone the person at the other end only hears his voice as if he were a long way off. It is under those circumstances that many people decry the telephone. They do not speak into the tube, and therefore do not give the person at the other end an opportunity of hearing their voice. There is no doubt that insufficient maintenance of wires produces bad insulation, and that the double wire circuits used for telephones are thus more apt to be affected by induction from neighbouring wires or by the currents which escape from electric light and power circuits in the vicinity. The same results are produced by faulty joints in switchboard connections. My right hon. Friend referred at great length to the question of plant. If hon. Members take an impartial view of the question, they will agree that there is very good reason why the plant of the State telephones should not be as good as it was five years ago. When we consider that an enormous number of men have left this country for foreign parts in various theatres of war we realise that it is quite impossible without these skilled men with technical knowledge to do the same work that was done in times gone by. While faults of every kind are more numerous than they should be, I do not think that they are any greater than they were, though latterly people have been more acute in their criticisms.
I should like to say one word with regard to the question of surcharges. It is a Treasury question to a large extent. When people like my right hon. Friend and myself, who have both had some experience in business, are mentioned as repre- sentatives of a State Department and are compared with business men, it is hardly realised what a difference it makes if you have the Treasury to deal with. The reasons I will not go into to-night. With regard to the surcharge introduced during the War, it was intentionally designed to restrict the number of applications in regard to the more expensive installations when labour and material were not available to provide them. As was stated earlier in the Debate, the Treasury have agreed to make an alteration in this respect, and the charges have been reduced in many case. The extra mileage charge for installations beyond one mile (two miles in London) for the Exchange will be increased.
On the general revision of the telephone tariff the surcharge will probably be merged in an increased rental. I would like to say in regard to that question, as I had so much correspondence, that there was no desire on the part of the Post Office to make a large amount of money out of it. The difficulty was that there were over 200,000 orders which were not complied with, and therefore it was essential to do something to render the position more possible. In regard to wrong numbers it is very easy to condemn the Postmaster-General because a certain number of girls in the Post Office or the telephone service cannot tell the difference between five and nine, and say a line is engaged when it is not, and make mistakes of that kind. It has been stated by the Postmaster-General that during the War a majority of the best female employés in the telephone service went to other Government Departments. Everyone knows that a great many of those girls were able to obtain very large wages in munition works and other places, and at the end of the War it was found that the telephone was far more defective than it ought to have been. We did not realise last year that at the present time there would be an increase of more than 25 per cent, in the number of calls required compared with the first day of this year. We must also realise that that means a very large increase in the demand for staff, and although we are educating these telephone girls at our school as quickly as we can, it must be some time before they are efficient.
Is there any explanation of that 25 per cent. increase?
I have no explanation, but there is undoubtedly a very considerable amount of business activity in this country at the present time. As far as these girls are concerned, I have great hopes that they will improve in future. I would appeal to every employé of the telephone service and every other part of the Post Office service to show that splendid spirit of patriotism shown at the beginning of the War. If everyone tried to put in the best they could at this very critical time, there might be a very great change so far as the Department is concerned, and everyone knows, who has any knowledge of business, that it is on that that the interests of this country depends to a very large extent.
With regard to another question which has been raised, I consider that the Post Office have been treated badly by other Department. People hardly realise what the duties of the Post Office are, and that is shown in particular by the criicisms we have had this afternoon in reference to the Censor's department, because that department is not under the Post Office, but under the War Office, and therefore the whole of the criticisms made in regard to the censors full to the ground. I would like to give a list of the automatic exchanges which are being put up in this country. They have been erected in Accrington. Blackburn, Chepstow, Darlington, Dudley, Epsom, Grimsby, Hereford, Leeds. Newport, Paisley, Portsmouth, and Stockport. Of course, hon. Gentlemen opposite who referred to the ex-changes hardly realise that an automatic exchange means the depletion of the staff to a very large extent.
I come now to the question mentioned by a considerable number of hon. Members, and I have to make a brief statement in regard to it, and that is the question of the redundant Post Office engineers. I was asked by some of them to receive a deputation in the Post Office in March last, and I did so. They placed their case before me very ably and fairly, and I endeavoured as far as possible to consider the matter with my right hon. Friend. Anyone must realise that this is a question of extraordinary difficulty, and therefore, under the circumstances, there is no doubt the best way out of the difficulty, after the alteration I am now going to mention, is for this question to be taken up by the Whitley Committee which is to be appointed, and that Committee can deal with the question, which I hope will then
be removed from the area of the House of Commons. This is the statement I wish to make upon the case of the redundant second-class engineers:
The revision of the Engineering Department in 1911 was devised to meet important changes which had then occurred recently in the work of the Department. Post Office engineering had long been comparatively simple and the qualifications of the officers recruited for the Engineering Department were accordingly not of the highest class. But developments affecting electric power, high-speed telegraph instruments, wireless telegraphy, etc., had created need for much more thorough engineering training, and it became essential to recruit officers trained to a higher degree of technical skill. The authorised scales of pay were not calculated to attract men of the required type, and accordingly a new class of assistant-engineers was created with scale superior to that of second-class engineers.
It was not doubted that the second class of engineers comprised a considerable number of men whose capacity was equal to the duties of the new class. The qualifications of all members of the class were reviewed by the then engineer-in-chief, who selected 148 of the whole number of 263 officers as possessing knowledge and aptitudes equal to the responsibilities of the new class. The excluded officers were left in possession of their title of second-class engineer, and their scales of pay, and were placed against vacancies as chief inspectors under the new revision.
The revision further provided for the recruitment of the new class of assistant-engineers by examination, half of the vacancies to be given to candidates from within the service, and half to outsiders, with the same standard of qualification in either case; and thus an avenue was provided for the excluded staff to demonstrate their fitness for the new class. But before this could happen so many appeals were received from the excluded officers that it was thought well to review their qualifications a second time, and this board of three engineering officers was appointed for the purpose. This board recommended that seventy-one of the excluded second-class engineers should be regarded as qualified to become assistant-engineers as vacancies occurred. The magnitude of this recommendation created surprise, but as the new engineer-in-chief was confident that recommendations of the board maintained a proper standard of qualification, forty-four of the redundant officers were promoted. Other promotions having been made from time to time there remained thirty-six excluded officers. The engineer-in-chief reports that some of these officers have worked hard to improve their qualifications. He has now again reviewed their aptitudes, and it has been found possible to regard a proportion of them as having attained a standard of qualification which will admit of their promotion should they be found equally well qualified when vacancies occur. The Society of Post Office Engineers is being told, however, that it is not possible to indicate beforehand either the total number of officers likely to be selected or the Particular individuals on whom the selection will fall.
In my humble opinion, this question will never be settled, without controversy,
until Whitley Committees are appointed, which will be almost immediately. That will be the best way to settle this question. I have considerable sympathy with these gentlemen. They placed their case before me in a very fair way. I was very anxious indeed to meet them if possible, and I promised that each case should be reviewed again. That review has taken place, and a certain number of them have received the positions which they desired.
Sir F. HALL:
Is it not a fact that some of the new men referred to were taught by these people, who yet were placed on the redundant list? Will my right hon. Friend also tell me what he is going to do with regard to the few women in the Central Telegraph Office, to whose case I referred?
With regard to the question of the hon. and gallant Gentleman, it is true that these men did instruct the other men, but as far as that is concerned, one cannot judge a question of this kind in that way. Since I have been at the Post Office, I have found that one of the greatest difficulties in dealing with the question of promotion has been in regard to the reasons why men are promoted. Amongst servants of the State there is a, strong feeling that they ought to be promoted in the order in which they stand on the seniority list, but anyone in private business knows perfectly well that that is a very great mistake. In a private office you may have a large number of people with extraordinary qualifications for doing work, and these may be placed over others who, from their own point of view, are equally qualified to accomplish the work in hand. In some Departments of the State there are cases where men in lower positions who have been Brought forward have been doing the best work during the War. It is found in offices of State as well as in private offices absolutely impossible to give any particular reason why men are promoted. With regard to the other question put by my hon. and gallant Friend, I will have the matter inqiuired into and will write to him on the subject. I should like to say a word or two in regard to what was done by the Posit Office in the War, because I think it is due to the Department which I represent to say something in respect of the war-work to which certain allusions have been made in the course of this Debate. Very few people realise that it is owing to the service of the Post Office, to a very considerable extent, that this country is in its present position. I had the extreme privilege of visiting Headquarters in France towards the end of the War; I was in Peronne on the day 5,000 prisoners came in. I visited various stations, and while I was at the Headquarters of General Rawlinson's Army there were no fewer than 7,000 telegraph and telephone messages dealt with at that headquarters. That is something which it is almost impossible to conceive—one headquarters and 7,000 messages in one day. Of course, the Post Office was not. responsible for the signal section, but there were a good many men employed in the Post Office working there in the service of the country. When we consider that during the War no fewer than 2,000,000,000 letters were delivered to the troops, most of them without any delay, it will be realised that we did a great deal to help the men by securing them delivery of home news and parcels so quickly. I should also like to make a statement with regard to what the Post Office, telegraph and telephone service did in the War for the Army. With regard to the personnel, from the staff of engineers, skilled engineering, workmen and telegraphists, the Post Office supplied to the Air Force, the Navy, and the Royal Engineers, no fewer than 609 officers, and 20,000 non-commissioned officers and men. This, of course, is included in the total of 85,000 to which my right hon. Friend referred.
The Stores Department is a Department of the Post Office which rarely comes under the notice of the House, but it is really one of the most important Departments of the State, and it performs many functions which are quite unknown in the House of Commons. For instance, it has a great Inventions Scientific Department, and the machine which provided information as to the distances guns were firing, the range-finder—without aeroplanes going up in the air—was invented by a man in the Post Office Scientific Department. The Stores Department of the Post Office took over in 1915 the work of supplying telegraph and telephone stores to the Army abroad and at home. In the early months of the War there was great difficulty in supplying these stores owing to the unprecedented demand. The total value of the stores supplied by the Post Office to the military authorities during the War was about £6,500,000. The whole of these stores were examined and tested by the Post Office staff. They included over 90,000 poles and over 400,000 miles of copper, bronze and iron wire of the value of over £2,500,000, 45,000 miles of trench cable of the value of over £3,500,000, and switchboards and telephones of the value of over £500,000. With regard to the question of special apparatus, before the War the telephone apparatus used for military purposes was very simple, but a demand quickly arose for more complicated means of communication with special devices to meet the novel conditions of trench warfare, and the Post Office designers and Research Branch were employed in the production of this apparatus. May I say here, that if any hon. Members of this House would like to visit the stores, and will let me know, I will make arrangements, and I am sure they will be shown something which will astonish them, and which will be of great value to them as Members of the House. During the War four new telegraph cables containing twelve circuits were laid between England and France for military purposes, whilst four new telephone cables, also containing twelve circuits, were also laid. One Post Office ship was lost through striking a mine.
May I say in regard to what the hon. Member for Walthamstow said this afternoon about cables, that there is no doubt it was quite impossible for us to mend cables as we should wish to do in time of war. So far as regards sending out cable ships, which was. suggested in some speeches made this afternoon, that was utterly impossible. I should like to say one word in regard to the question of instruction in telegraphy so far as the War was concerned. This is a matter of considerable importance, and one which is not generally known. A staff of telegraph instructors was supplied to the Royal Engineer Signal Training Centre in 1915. A staff of fifty instructors in telegraphy and telephony, each provided with demonstration sets of apparatus, was recruited for the purpose of training the Royal Artillery in telegraph and telephone signalling. About 60,000 Artillery signallers attended the courses of lectures and subsequent examinations. In 1915 a Wireless Telegraph School was staffed with instructors and partially equipped by the Post Office and the Royal Air Force, and Post Office instructors also took part in the training of many hundreds of wireless tele- graphists for the Air Force at the Polytechnic in London. With regard to the arrangements for air raid warnings, probably the Committee will have some knowledge of the work which was done and also of the recognition by His Majesty of the splendid bravery shown by many of the girls employed in the telephone service. These are the same girls about whom there has been complaint made to-day. I would like to mention one case of a girl in London who went to one of the big stations and a very big bomb fell on the station within a, few yards of her. Several other people round her all went away, but she got down to her horse, stroked his nose, talked to him, got on the mail cart again, and drove away. There has been nothing more magnificent than the courage shown by these girls.
I can easily give the name to my hon. Friend, but for the moment I cannot remember it. She did receive an honour. With regard to home defence communications, which is also an important point, on 'the outbreak of war a chain of naval war signal stations on the coast was connected with Naval Headquarters, and to a considerable extent staffed by the Post Office. The bases of the Grand Fleet, the dockyards, and the wireless stations of the United Kingdom were placed in direct communication with the Admiralty. Communications were also provided for the Naval Coast-Watching Stations of the United Kingdom, and for the stations of the Naval Air Service. Special cables were laid to many lightships. For Army purposes high-speed telegraph and telephone circuits were provided on the outbreak of war. When the New Armies were being raised many thousands of telephone lines were provided for the barracks, camps, and billets in which they were housed and trained. Complete systems of emergency communications to be brought into use in case of invasion were provided for the Armies of the Home Defence Force. For the Anti-Aircraft Defence Service a complete network of communications was provided, connecting 450 gun stations, with 700 range-finding circuits, 750 searchlight stations, 450 observer posts, and numerous squadron headquarters and flight stations of the Royal Air Force, for which no less than 600 aerodromes of various kinds were equipped with telephone installations. The new telephone and telegraph works provided by the Post Office for war purposes cost altogether £2,335,000, in addition to which over 48,000 miles of existing overhead wires and about 50,000 miles of existing underground wires were used for the same purpose. I am very glad to have had an opportunity of giving the Committee that information with regard to the war work done, because we are inclined to look at these questions to-day from rather a narrow point of view. We often hear condemnation of the Post Office, generally in regard to some particular instance. An hon. Member will come to me and say, "I think it is the worst service I know in the world." The reason is that he has seen somebody sitting on a barrow smoking a pipe, or perhaps someone in his house has not done the amount of work he ought to be able to accomplish in a few hours. It is no excuse, of course, but, at the same time, the people of this country, owing to the nerve strain of the War, are not able to or do not at the present time in any walk of life accomplish the amount of work in the same time they did previously. I would now refer to what was said by the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. Walsh) in regard to the telephone service. He referred to the sale of that service to the State, and thought that the State had made a bad bargain. That may or may not be so. It was done when I first came into the House. So far as the amount paid is concerned, I should like Mm to remember that the amount asked for by the National Telephone Company was £21,000,000, and the amount awarded by the Railway and Canal Commissioners, who were the arbitrators or referees In the matter, was £12,000,000. The day after that was announced the stock fell by 30 per cent., which is a very considerable amount.
I would also refer to the question of the employment of disabled soldiers and sailors. I can assure my hon. Friends that there is no body in this country more anxious than we are to employ, if possible, these men who have served this country and who have made such great sacrifices, so far as their strength is concerned, as the Post Office servants. The ex-soldiers and ex-sailors appointed to permanent or quasi-permanent Post Office situations are as follows: This is for 1919—January, able-bodied 62, disabled 13; February, able-bodied 192, disabled 36; March, able-bodied 396; disabled 56; April, able-bodied 804, disabled 83; May, able-bodied 1,106, disabled 136; June, able-bodied 1,521, disabled 219.
Can the hon. Gentleman say what percentage that is of the total number taken on by the Post Office?
It is impossible for me to say at the present moment because of the number of men who are coming back from the front. In connection with that I should like to say that, so far as my answer this afternoon was concerned, there is a demand in the Post Office at the present moment, especially in the Engineering Department, for skilled men. There is any number of applications, for which there are not many vacancies, by men who are not skilled. I could not follow what was said by an hon. Member just now with regard to skilled men not being able to obtain employment, unless it is a question of establishment. If he would communicate with me on that question I should be very glad to look into it further.
I should like to say something with regard to the services which are performed by the Post Office. One might have the idea that the work is comparatively small. It has increased year by year, and anyone who thinks of what the Post Office was able to accomplish ten years ago and realises what they have to do now will see that the quantity and quality of the; work has completely changed. The additional services performed by the Post Office, outside what is generally considered to be Post Office work, comprise facilities for the remittance of money orders, a Savings Bank, which represents an enormous amount of work. The number of clerks in it at present is between 3,000 and 4,000, most of them women. It invests small sums on Government security and performs services in connection with Government Loans, which is a very great item. it transacts annuity and insurance business for the National Debt Commissioners; it sells certain local taxation licences for county councils; it pays Army and Navy and other Imperial pensions, and Army and Navy allowances by means of allowance forms or money orders for the War Office, Admiralty, and other Government Depart- ments. That is really a very serious matter, and makes a great many of those difficulties, which we have to acknowledge, for others who are trying to do business in a particular post office. That is, to a very great extent, the reason of much of the criticism we have heard. It receives duties and taxes on behalf of the inland Revenue by means of money orders. It pays bankruptcy dividends, by means of money orders, for the Board of Trade. It exhibits throughout the country. Government notices which require wide publicity— for instance, recruiting notices for the War Office and Admiralty, and notices regarding emigration for the Board of Trade, the Colonial Office and other offices. It pays old age pensions. It distributes cards and sells stamps in connection with national health and unemployment insurance, makes payment on behalf of various Government Departments by means of postal drafts, arranges for the disposal of currency notes withdrawn from circulation, and exchanges mutilated currency notes for the public for the Inland Revenue. These are only a few of the extra items which many hon. Members do not realise the Post Office accomplishes.
Does the Post Office make a charge for these very large services which it renders to other Departments?
Yes, in the commercial accounts. I should like to mention the question of the restoration of road services for the mails. In a number of places, during the War, road services were taken off and the mails transferred to the railways. The road services are being restored where the absence of suitable trains causes delay, and my right hon. Friend is extremely sorry for the great inconvenience which has been caused to communication. I get an enormous number of letters, and I should not be a bit sorry if I did not see most of them till the next day, but I can realise that it must be a matter of very great annoyance to hon. Members when they do not receive their letters within a reasonable time in the morning, but have to go out before the post arrives. The general standard is that delivery should be completed by 8.30 a.m. in the central parts of a town and by nine in the rural district immediately surrounding it. In a number of rural areas the first delivery is still affected by the restricted railway service. As far as Aberdeen and many Scottish towns are concerned the delay caused by the slower train service is, to a great extent, put down to inefficiency in the arrangements made by the Post Office. If there is any blame it should not fall on us but on the railway companies.
I am inclined to think it does, but 1 would not be perfectly certain without looking into it. With regard to the mail services to the provinces, as far as towns are concerned, in the future there will be three deliveries a day, four in the larger towns, and possibly five in. some of the larger provincial cities. Collections will generally be about twice the, number of deliveries. In the rural districts a second delivery will generally be provided when it existed before the War. In some cases the restricted train service prevents this being done at present. A third delivery will only be given in places like the Home Counties, where a large number of letters are available shortly after the first delivery, and at large villages and industrial districts and in the outskirts of the larger towns. With regard to several complaints which have been made in the last few days in regard to the rural districts, great, headway has been made in. trying to arrange pre-war conditions as far as delivery is concerned, but naturally the difficulties have been considerable. The daily deliveries in town districts will be increased from five to seven, and in sub-districts from three or four to four, five, or six, according to the importance of (he district, An extra delivery has already been provided in the East Central district, and in other districts the additional facilities will be working about the end of the month. The last delivery from eight to nine will be restored.
Has the right hon. Gentleman anything to say about the Western Isles, which have only two mails a week?
I have not forgotten the hon. Member's speech in regard to the four islands he represents. I could not say anything definite in regard to it without looking into the question, but I will do so, and will communicate with him. With regard to foreign mails, a conference was held in Paris in March last with representatives of the French Post Office, as the result of which the mail service with France and places beyond has been materially accelerated. There are three cross-Channel services available for the French mails, two viâ Boulogne, and the third viâ Havre. Letters posted in London before 10.45 a.m. are delivered in Paris the next morning, and letters posted before 4.30 p.m. are delivered in Paris next afternoon. The time of transit is thus about twenty-four hours. No material acceleration can be expected until it is possible to restore the night service across the Channel, which will enable letters posted in London in the evening to be delivered in Paris next morning. With regard to Switzerland and Italy, the mails leave Paris on the evening of the day on which they are dispatched from London. Mails should arrive in Switzerland twenty-four hours after dispatch from London and Italy thirty hours after, but there is considerable congestion, both on the Swiss and Italian railways, and the actual course of post is longer. With regard to Belgium, mails are dispatched by Dover and Ostend, and letters posted in London in the evening are delivered in Brussels thirty-six hours later. Mails to Antwerp are dispatched direct by Harwich twice weekly. The service to the United States is still somewhat irregular, but it has considerably improved. Since 1st January there have been, on the average, five sailings in three weeks. The duration of the voyage was about six days in 1914, and in 1918 it was from nine to eleven days. Now it takes seven to eleven days. At present nearly every steamer is required by the Admiralty to call at Halifax, which extends the voyage by at least one day. In regard to the Indian mails, about which I have had many complaints, the weekly overland service was restored in January last. The mails take three weeks to Bombay, as compared with fourteen days before the War, the difference being due to the much slower ships which are available, and which cannot be remedied.
That is in an experimental stage. The ocean mail service generally will be improved as ships are released from Government service, but they cannot be restored to the pre-war standards until the losses of fast ships during the War have been made good.
With respect to the complaint of the hon. and gallant Member for the Taunton Division, I would say that some days ago authority was given for the acceptance of a tender for the restoration of the road service for the Minchead and Taunton mails, and we are waiting for a local report as to the precise date when it will be restored. In regard to the Post Office Relief Fund, the established liabilities are £316,000. To meet these the present rate of subscription continued until the end of August will be sufficient. On the books of the fund there are over 3,700 widows and 4,500 orphans. At the time of the Armistice it was supplying parcels of food to over 900 Post Office prisoners of war.
I come next to the question of cables. This is a difficult question, and I was rather relieved of my responsibility by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wandsworth, who replied to the previous speeches in a much more able way than I should have been capable of replying, because he is interested as a part owner of one of the cable companies. He went very fully into the difficulties and told how they had sought to overcome them. Therefore, I do not think it is necessary for me to say much more, but I would advise hon. Members who did not have the privilege of hearing the hon. Member's speech to read it as an answer to the various speeches on the subject. I realise to the full, and my right hon. Friend realises, the extraordinary importance of a good cable service. It is essential that we should realise this and try to overcome the difficulties.
I understand that one hon. and gallant Member is desirous of having a State-owned Atlantic cable, worked in connection with a State-owned Pacific cable, in order to establish an "all red" cable route to Australia and New Zealand. As Germany has now signed the Peace Treaty, under the terms of which she renounces all claims to cables, which have been taken over and used by the Allied Governments, there appears to be no objection to a public announcement being made concerning the Government Atlantic cable. One of the German cables between Emden and New York viã the Azores was diverted in July, 1917. to Penzance and Halifax (Nova Scotia) and has since been worked between the Central Telegraph Office. London, and Halifax. All telegrams handed in at post offices for Australasia are sent by this cable, unless the senders mark them for transmission by some other specified route. All Government traffic for Canada and Australasia is sent by the cable. The Halifax station is worked by the Pacific Cable Board on behalf of the British Post Office, and the traffic for Australasia is forwarded by the Board over special lines across Canada to Bamfield, whence it is dispatched over the Pacific cable, thus completing an all-red route between this country, Canada, and Australasia. It is not possible for mo to follow all the figures given by the hon. Member for Salford in reference to the cable delays, but the figures which I am about to give the Committee will show that to some extent at least those of the hon. Member are incorrect, unless we are speaking of different periods. The present average delays for ordinary full-rate traffic are as follows: Egypt, outward 4 days, homeward 1; India, outward 4, homeward 1 to 11/2; Straits Settlement, outward 4, homeward 2; China, outward 4, homeward 2; South Africa, outward 4, homeward 2; Australia, outward 5, homeward 1. This shows the following improvements as compared with last month: Egypt, homeward 6 days; India, no alteration outward, homeward 5½ days; Straits Settlement, outward 1, homeward 5½ China, outward 2, homeward 2½; South Africa, outward 2, homeward 2½. In the case of Australia and Egypt there has been an increase of 1 day in the outward direction. The daily average of outward and homeward traffic (in words) over the Eastern Telegraph Company cables in 1913 and 1918—the latest dates for which statistics are available—was as follows: In 1913 the outward average was 31,678 words, and it was 86,313 in 1918, an increase in percent age of 172. My hon. Friend cannot hold the Postmaster-General responsible in any way for the difficulties which have occurred in regard to the cable services. I am quite sure that my right hon. Friend did everything that he possibly could to improve the services, and it must be evident to all who take an impartial view of these things that during war-time and for some time after war-time it is impossible to maintain as efficient a service as was maintained in the past.
There is some little misunderstanding about the removal of the cable censorship on the 23rd. I have no doubt myself that it means that the whole cable censorship will be removed, and that there will be-no restrictions. Some hon. Members-seem to think that private codes will not be allowed in full. I believe that they will be but I would like the right hon. Gentleman to make some statement, first, as to whether private codes for all commercial business will be allowed, and second, whether there will be any restrictions of any kind or whether cables will be as they were before the War?
The censorship on cables will be entirely abolished on midnight next Wednesday, private codes will be used, and everything will go on precisely as it did before the War.
I should like to appeal to the House to-night to give us this Vote without a Division. I believe that the service generally was a good service to this country during the War. I have recognised to-night that many of the services are at present not so good as they should be, and I realise to the full that the commercial prosperity of this country-depends to a very great extent on the service. I would appeal to the public to look at this question from a broad point of view, to be a little kind to some of the sins of the Department. I have not received any rudeness on the telephone, though I have used it for thirty years, but 1 have been annoyed on many occasions. I believe it will improve, and I hope that a little patience may be shown in regard to it, in spite of the great daily trouble which some people experience. I recognise to the full the great generosity which has been shown to my right hon. Friend and myself recently in regard to many questions which have been raised. We have endeavoured, as far as we could, to meet criticisms and to look into grievances, and in future we shall always endeavour to take up the same position.
Before the Vote is put could we have a word about the pension claim of K Company of the Royal Engineers?
Could something be said in reply to a question 1 put earlier in the evening about the land- ing rights of the Western Union cables in England and Newfoundland, and as to the duplication of the Halifax-Bermuda line, which was recommended by the Dominions Royal Commission; and, lastly, the question of leasing another American cable from the Western Union?
I am sorry in regard to Bermuda. I ought to have been able to give the hon. and gallant Gentleman the information, but it escaped my memory. I will look into the whole question and write to him.
As one who served for some time with an expeditionary force in the East, I should like to pay my tribute to what has been said about the work of the Post Office. The celerity and regularity of the delivery of letters in different places struck one with amazement, and the way in which the work was done is a matter for legitimate pride. There is another question I wish to mention. It is a matter of same importance to the city of Aberdeen that the train arriving from the South with the mails reaches Aberdeen so late in the morning that letters are not usually delivered until between eleven and twelve. It is a considerable handicap to the business community of Aberdeen and other places in the North of Scotland. The inconvenience was accepted willingly during the War, but I sincerely hope that it may now be removed.
Lieut.-Colonel Sir J. HOPE:
We were very glad to hear the Postmaster-General's statement regarding the employment of ex-soldiers, but it was a little difficult to understand owing to his being unable to give the proportion of such appointments to the total appointments, ex-Service and otherwise. He also stated that it was difficult to fill certain appointments for which skilled men were required. That is rather borne out by an answer of the Postmaster-General on 27th February, 1919. He was asked,
If it is intended that the 50 per cent. of vacancies in the Post Office reserved in the past for the Regular ex-Service men will still be available?
Mr. Illingworth: All vacancies for postmen and for 'porters which are not required for ex-boy messengers will be given to ex-soldiers and ex-sailors. I hope that the 50 per cent. will be exceeded during the period following the end of the War."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th February, 1919, col. 1957, Vol. 112.]
That referred only to postmen and porters. The Assistant Postmaster-General also implied that they found it difficult to get skilled men from amongst ex-soldiers and ex-sailors. I suggest that clerks and sorters and sales clerks, and even telegraphists, could be found from amongst those who have served in His Majesty's Forces. The Ministry of Labour is paying considerable sums of money, and quite rightly, or is going to, and I hope it will soon get started, for the training of ex-soldiers in various employments. Would it not be worth while for the Post Office to take on even unskilled men, and train them in the same way as the Ministry of Labour propose to train them for private work? I do think, after this great War, that we should arrive at a decision that there should be no appointments to any public service, and especially the Post Office, of men who have not served in His Majesty's Forces while there are men who have served, disabled or not disabled, who are waiting for jobs. There is an enormous number of unemployed men, and I think the Government should set an example and give a pattern by taking on no man, probably for some years to come, except those who have served in His Majesty's Forces. In the future we may find considerable difficulty in recruiting sufficient forces for His Majesty's Army, and the best solution of that difficulty might be to provide what would be a greater alteration than extra pay or conditions if there, was some assurance that these men, who joined His Majesty's Forces in the future, would, on the termination of service, have a claim on Government employment. That is another reason for pressing the claims of ex-soldiers, both now and in the future. I do not suggest that a certain amount has not been done.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the restoration of deliveries in country districts and road services, but I heard no mention of any restoration of those sub-offices which were closed down during the War. I know a good many of those cases over the country and in the Constituency which I have the honour to represent. I hope the Postmaster General will consider the desirability of restoring those sub-offices. The answer I suppose is that they are not economic, and do not pay, but does the whole Post Office pay? We have heard there is a loss on the whole of the Post Office service. I submit there is a considerable claim for the opening of these sub-offices. Many old men and women have to draw pensions and get stamps, and they have to go a long way to the central office because these sub-offices are closed. That causes a good deal of grievance and discomfort in small rural districts. I trust, therefore, the right hon. Gentleman will consider the reopening of most of these sub-offices, unless there is very strong reason shown to the contrary and little business done. There is certainly one office in my Constituency which he did promise to consider directly after the War was over that has not yet been opened.
I should like, first of all, to bear out the remarks made by the hon. Member beside me (Sir J. Hope) in his contention that we should, so far as possible, employ ex-Service men; I think we are all agreed upon that. I should like to pay a tribute to the right hon. Gentleman on the excellent service which has been maintained during the War under very difficult circumstances, and I know of nobody who has shown greater service to the country than the right hon. Gentleman, who is most conscientious and most industrious, end has contributed in a very largo degree to the efficiency of the service. I have three points to pub to him, and the first is the dissatisfaction felt by many with regard to the delay in the delivery of telegrams. This morning I got a telegram from my son saying he had been delayed in coming up from Salisbury Plain, which I received about an hour and a half after he arrived. That, of course, is a very grave defect in the telegraph service. There was apparently no reason why the telegram should not have been delivered before, and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will inquire into that matter. In regard to the telephone service, the public think, rightly or wrongly, that they have a very legitimate complaint as to the difficulty in getting their telephone messages through. We all know that you ring up the exchange, and sometimes you get an answer and sometimes you do not, and there is a very great delay, which causes enormous inconvenience to the public. That, I think, my right hon. Friend will put right. The third point to which I wish to draw attention is this, that in the country the telegraph service and the telephone service are claiming that certain trees are obstructing the wires which run past private property. I have suffered from this myself, and therefore I speak feelingly. I am only too delighted that any branches of my trees which are in the way should be removed, and I should be very glad to remove them myself, but when you find men coming down and taking charge of the matter without any notice at all to the owners, and removing branches in the most rough and ready way, dropping them on to your fences, breaking down your trees and undergrowth, it is a matter which requires some attention. I am sure nobody would be more sympathetic in regard to that matter than the right hon. Gentleman, and I know he is the very first person to be anxious to remove any such cause of grievance.