Sir D. NEWTON:
I would venture, even at this late hour, to crave the indulgence of the House to say a word or two on this important Measure. We are asked to sanction the expenditure of £15,000,000, which is a very considerable sum, and I want to urge upon the House the desirability, nay more, the necessity, for a change of policy in regard to the telephone administrative system now in operation in respect of telephones installed in rural areas. At the present time the position is very unsatisfactory, although there is no part of the country where telephones are more required. They are so expensive that the countryside is practically unable to get them. We have not heard any complete explanation as to how this £15,000,000 is to be spent. £5,740,000 is to be spent on new exchanges, £750,000 is to go in sites and buildings, and £2,500,000 in the extension of the trunk system. That leaves about £5,000,000 to be dealt with in some other way. I wish to urge that a considerable portion of that sum should be definitely earmarked towards the development of the rural telephone system. One direction in which it is very desirable that alterations should be made is in regard these rural dwellers should be encouraged to speeding up the change-over of the telegraph offices in rural districts and making them into telephone exchanges. I respectfully suggest that in all cases where the expenditure involved does not exceed £1,000, or about that figure, the change should be made forthwith.
Another direction in which help is required is in connection with telephones for railway stations. The National Farmers' Union, the National Agricultural Council, and other representative bodies that carry weight in agricultural circles, have repeatedly passed resolutions asking that telephones should be laid to stations, particularly those stations at which soft fruits and other perishable produce are consigned. Although I am aware that it is not within the power of the Postmaster-General to insist that a railway station should establish a telephone, and that there are railway directors who are obstructionists to some extent, yet I think that, as far as the Post Office is concerned, facilities should be provided enabling railway stations to connect up as easily as possible, and that there should be no impediment as far as they are concerned. The principal suggestion I wish to make is that the policy in regard to the telephones in rural areas should he reviewed, and that we should have at an early date a clear-cut policy set before the country which should be more generous than the present one. Under present conditions we see, from the Report of the Select Committee on the Telephone Service, that large areas of the country are without telephones altogether. The Committee say that the guarantees asked by the Post Office are prohibitive. In other words, the Post Office cannot do the work itself at a reasonable rate, and at the same time the public are forbidden to do the work on their own account. The time has come when the embargo should be removed. So far as any extension lines are concerned, individuals should be allowed to run their own extensions and should get service on to those extension lines, the Department only accepting responsibility so far as the connection is concerned. I would further urge that rural lines—always costly, as pioneer work must be—would be much better erected either by small local committees or by individuals or small groups of individuals, and that these rural dwellers should be encouraged to work these lines, if need be, even by financial assistance. They could get material, such as telephone poles, much more cheaply than the Post Office.
When we realise that the United States of America has one telephone for every eight inhabitants, and that there is only one for every 47 in this country, and that in America there are nearly two million rural lines, it does indicate the need for a policy of encouraging local enterprise and of letting local enterprise do the pioneer work which is far more likely to lead to successful results than our policy of monopoly, which allows no scope for private enterprise. I respectfully ask that the Department should lay down at an early date clear conditions under which they will permit these people—these local subscribers—to work their own telephones and that a Committee should be set up for that purpose, and that in that way we should get the telephones now so urgently needed.
I wish to support the words that have fallen from my hon. Friend, and again to impress on the Postmaster-General the, necessity of improving the rural telephones. I wish to thank the Postmaster-General for what he has already done during the period of his office, and my object in speaking is to support him in that work. I would like to bring to his notice the great difficulties the railway companies are offering to the installation of telephones at the railway stations. The telephone at the railway station is almost the key of the rural system. Farmers and others who have business there cannot conduct that business except by personal attendance, and they often make daily visits, which may take three, four, or five days, to ascertain particulars of the loading or unloading of wagons. These difficulties have been brought before the railway companies. This is a reply which has been sent to the secretary of one of the farmers' organisations who put the case before the company, by the general manager of the Great Eastern Railway Company. It will prove to the House the impenetrability of the railways to these representations. The letter says:
In further reply to your letter"—
the letter was dated 7th July, and this letter is dated 21st July—
I am desired by Sir Henry to say that the question you raise was under consideration
a short time ago, when it was felt that, so far as the company was concerned, there was no justification for the expense. In view of our recent communication the matter has again been looked into, but the circumstances do not appear to warrant any alteration in the decision come to. In the circumstances a meeting with your committee as suggested would only be committing the members to a fruitless journey, but should subsequent events justify a re-opening of the subject you may be quite sure my company will be pleased to favourably consider the matter.
When a reply to representations extending over years is so unsatisfactory, if nothing further is done by the railway companies we shall, certainly so long as I am in the House, do our very best to block Railway Bills. I thank the House for their patience in listening to me, and it is only because I feel I have urged this matter so frequently and so insistently that I ventured at this late hour to add my protest to that of my hon. Friend.
I should just like to say one word in support of the rural areas. I do hope that the Postmaster-General will give a proportion of this very large sum which is to be expended on the telephones to installing telephones in the rural areas, where they are badly in need at the present time.
Will the Postmaster-General give an assurance that he will take this question of telephones in the rural areas into further consideration? If he will, then I think we shall feel that we have not waited all this time in vain. I would especially ask him to consider whether it is not possible to bring some pressure on obscurantist railway companies. They are blocking the road in a way that is a detriment to their own interests. Can we not bring influence to bear upon the railway companies to reconsider their attitude in regard to rural stations.
Even at this hour of the morning the House will allow me to make one or two personal observations in respect to the matter. I do not agree that what is wanted is a change of policy. The hon. Member who said this does not seem to be acquainted with what has been done during the past 12 months, and he does not assist the case which, I believe, he has at heart by ignoring the very remarkable development that has taken place. There has been greater development in the past 12 months than during all the preceding period since the telephone was introduced in this country. I have given assurances repeatedly in this House that it is my desire to see the telephones extended as rapidly as possible to rural districts, but I am not going to leave out of account the financial aspect. I have here a return of the revenue secured from a large number of rural telephone exchanges, and the total yearly revenue from these exchanges varies from between £1 and £8.
In this matter of development I must have some regard to its financial effect on the system as a whole. Having regard to the development which has taken place in the last 12 months—and I am intent that that development should go on at a more rapid rate—I do not think that what we need is a change of policy. In regard to the railway companies, we have given instructions to all our representatives throughout the country to press companies to see that telephones are installed in all their stations and I would appeal to any railway directors who are Members of this House to use their influence in this direction with their companies. I have no power to take railway directors by the neck and say that they must do this.
The hon. Member for Cambridge (Sir D. Newton) suggested that something more might be done to assist rural communities who are willing to instal the telephone. I am prepared to consider such schemes sympathetically, but we must see that the efficient working of the national system is not interfered with by these schemes. I hope with these three assurances the House will give us the Third Reading.