Motion made, and Question proposed,
That a sum, not exceeding £31,873,510 (including a Supplementary sum of £10), be granted to His Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1924, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Post Office, including Telegraphs and Telephones."—[Note: £19,000,000 has been voted on account.]
The POSTMASTER-GENERAL (Sir Laming Worthingon-Evans):
As we have only about four hours in which to discuss the Post Office Estimates, I propose to open them with as short a statement as possible, so as to leave time for a reply to any questions which may arise in the course of the Debate. I will deal first with the commercial results for the year 1922–23 and then with the Estimates for the current year. The Committee will remember that the commercial accounts are credited with the business done for other State Departments, and are debited with expenditure which should be charged against the Post Office. The commercial results for the year 1922–23 have turned out better than was expected. The net surplus of revenue over expenditure was estimated at just over £3,000,000, but this surplus was exceeded by nearly £2,500,000, the actual surplus for the year being therefore about £5,500,000. The Postal Services show a surplus of nearly £6,000,000, and the telephones just over £1,000,000, being together £7,000,000; but this has to be reduced to £5,500,000 by a deficit of £1,500,000 on the telegraph services. The improvement of £2,500,000 over the Estimates of last year is due to reduction in expenditure of £3,500,000, against which, however, has to be set a revenue lower by about £1,000,000 than the Estimates. The reduced expenditure of £3,500,000 is mainly due to a saving of about £1,000,000 in war bonus and about £1,000,000 in various staff economies, reduction of overtime and travelling expenses; and £750,000 is due to a saving in engineering plant charges About £400,000 was saved in the conveyance of mails, mainly due to a reduction of parcel post business due to trade conditions and partly to savings on contracts. The balance is made up of many small items.
The loss on estimated revenue arose almost entirely on the postal services, principally owing to the fact that postcards and letters failed to respond to the Substantial reductions in the charges upon them. It was often said that revenue lost by reduction of postage from 2d. to 1½d. would be made up by increased business; but, so far as can be seen, this is fallacious. The only record which the Post Office can obtain of the volume of the postal correspondence is derived from an annual count that takes place in one week only in each year. Of course, this is 'too short a period to give a reliable average for the whole year, and the results therefore cannot be relied upon for anything more than a rough approximation. But for what they are worth the actual increases in correspondence affected by the reduction of rates, compared with the increases on which the Estimates were based, show the following results. In letters which were reduced from 2d. to 1½d. there was an estimated increase of 10 per cent., and the actual increase in business was only 4 per cent. Postcards, which were reduced from 1½d. to 1d. were estimated to show an increase of 20 per cent. and the actual increase was only 5 per cent. In printed papers, which were reduced from 1d. to ½d., there was an estimated increase of 20 per cent., and the actual increase was 25 per cent. That increase was due largely to the fact that there was a great fall in the cost of printing matter at the same time as there was a reduction in the rate. The combined effect of the two decreases undoubtedly stimulated advertising. The figures show that, without allowing for the increased cost of carrying the additional traffic, only 12 per cent. in the case of letters and 10 per cent. in the case of postcards of the gross loss of revenue entailed by the reduction of rates, was recovered by increased business. These facts must unfortunately be borne in mind when the hoped-for reduction to 1d. postage comes to be considered.
I will now explain the Estimates of this current year 1923–24. I would remind the Committee that the figures which I shall now refer to are not those of the commercial accounts, but are those of the printed Estimates of cash issues and receipts. The net estimate of expenditure for this year is £50,750,000, which shows a reduction of about £3,000,000 as compared with the net estimate of last year. I refer to the net estimate, because the gross figures under the several subheads last year included and this year exclude the cost of what is now the Post Office of the Irish Free State, and it is not until you come to page 45 of the printed Estimates that you get figures that are strictly comparable. After eliminating the provision for Southern Ireland in last year's figures, there will still be a reduction under nearly every subhead.
As regards the reductions, we are estimating for a saving of £2,500,000 on salaries and wages, due mainly to the automatic reduction under the cost of living sliding scale. The reduction would have been greater had it not been for the expansion of the telephone service. On the conveyance of mails by rail and road we are saving about £460,000, mainly because of substantial reductions made in road mail contracts through falling costs and increased competition. On postal stores we are saving about £170,000, through the fall in prices and economies in the clothing of the uniformed staff, and on engineering stores and contract work we have reduced the provision by about £240,000, in consequence of the fall in prices. These are the principal reductions in this year's Estimates as compared with last year.
I may be asked how the amount which I am now asking the Committee to vote compares, not with last year's Estimates, but with last year's expenditure. There were large savings alst year—about £3,700,000—out of last year's Vote, and consequently, compared with the expenditure of last year, the present Estimates are slightly higher. They show an increase of about £700,000. I will tell the Committee how this is accounted for. The charges for interest and sinking fund on telephone capital are up by £610,000 in consequence of the large and increasing capital expenditure on the development of the telephone system. Of course, that is reflected in the increase of telephone revenue. The Bill for engineering materials is up by nearly £600,000, in consequence mainly of the fact that last year we were living to a considerable extent on stocks, and we cannot repeat the process to anything like the same extent. There are several other items where for one reason or another we expect to spend rather more this year than we did actually spend last year, most of them being connected in one way or another with the development of the telephone and wireless services, but I can assure the Committee that to the best of our judgment they are not only unavoidable but they will be reflected by an increased revenue either this year or, at any rate, in the near future. As the Committee is aware, heavy reductions in postal and telephone charges came into operation in May and July of this year, and therefore the revenue of this year is likely to lose about £2,000,000 owing to these reductions.
Forecasting the figures on the basis of the commercial account, I will tell the Committee the results which we hope to get. The postal revenue is estimated at £36,750,000, which should produce a surplus this year of £4,250,000. Telegraphs are estimated to provide a revenue of £5,250,000, but, as the expenditure is estimated at six and two-third millions, the deficit is expected to amount to about £1,350,000. The estimated revenue for telephones, after allowing for the reductions in the rates already announced, is fourteen and one-third millions, showing a surplus of about £750,000. The net surplus, therefore, on the basis of the commercial accounts for the year, is expected to exceed three and a half million pounds. In the figures which I have given no account has been taken of expenditure under the Sutton Judgment. On the other hand, the war bonus on salaries and wages have been estimated on a cost-of-living figure of 85 per cent. over the pre-War period. The average for the year is likely to be less, and, therefore, a further large saving on that account may be anticipated.
I propose now to deal with a few of the many activities of the Post Office, but unless I take an undue share of our very limited time I must confine myself to the Telephones, Broadcasting, and Empire Wireless. During 1922–23, 97,000 new subscribers and 165,000 new stations were added to the telephone system of the country, representing, after allowing for cessations, a net increase of 51,000 subscribers and 74,000 stations. The total number of stations on 31st March was 1,050,000. The increase during the year was equivalent to about 8 per cent. This is the highest recorded increase in any one year in this country. The Committee will remember that trunk calls can be made after 2 p.m. at three-quarters of the full rates, and after 7 p.m. at half rates. These concession have resulted in some increase in business, but I think if the public were more fully aware of their privileges the increase would have been even greater. Special efforts have been made during the year to extend the telephone system in the rural areas. Previously the rentals had been fixed at a figure which, it was estimated, would enable an exchange to be opened and operated almost on a paying basis. In most cases, however, the charges at this level proved to be prohibitive, especially in the rural areas. Reduced rates were brought into operation last year, which are admittedly, for the moment, unremunerative. It was felt to be justified in the interests of the rural subscribers that the telephone system should bear a small unremunerative fringe, on which it is hoped the loss will gradually become a diminishing figure. The more liberal terms have been widely taken advantage of and up to date 390 new rural exchanges have been authorised; 166 have been completed, and the remainder are in course of construction. The exchanges authorised provide for over 4,500 new subscribers, of whom about 2,000 have already been connected. The users of rural party lines, for which the rent is only £4 a year, have risen from 3,747 at the beginning of the year to 7,400 in June of this year. Residents in rural areas will also benefit in many cases by the reduction in the extra mileage charges which will bring down their rentals by £4 a year, as no extra mileage is now charged on the first one and a half miles from the exchange. Therefore, I hope that there may be a great extension of telephone facilities in the rural areas.
A word or two now about the automatic telephone. The development of this type of equipment has been steadily pressed on. Those towns in which the automatic exchanges have already been opened consider that the automatic system is a great improvement, and are, as a rule, perfectly satisfied with the service given. New automatic exchanges have recently been opened at Fleetwood and Southampton, and similar exchanges will shortly be opened at Dundee and Swansea. A large number of schemes at other provincial towns are in various stages of completion. The installation of the automatic system of London has been the subject of very careful study by the Post Office engineers, myself, and the telephone manufacturing companies for some time past. The complexity of the problem is illustrated by the fact that facilities for inter-communication with each other without the intervention of the operator will ultimately have to be provided for 1,000,000 subscribers. An agreement has now been reached with three of the leading telephone manufacturing companies by which the patents owned by these companies will, for this purpose, be pooled, and orders will be placed immediately for two new large exchanges for Central London. In future, practically all the new exchanges required in the London area will be of the automatic type, and it is hoped to place orders in the next three years for the equipment of about 85,000 lines.
In regard to broadcasting, I am expecting, at any moment, to receive the Report of the Committee set up by my predecessor, and until I get that Report, and have had the opportunity of considering it, I shall not be able, or perhaps be expected to, make any announcement of policy. The Committee may, however, like to know the number of licences already issued. Experimental receiving licences to the number of 52,264 have been issued; broadcasting receiving licences to the number of 111,905; whilst transmitting licences number 843.
The Government's policy in regard to wireless communication with the Empire was announced in March last. Since then, two applications from private under- takings have been received—one from the Marconi Company for a general licence, covering the whole of the British Empire, as well as foreign countries, and the other from the Eastern Telegraph Company for a licence to erect stations for a service between India and Great Britain. The Eastern Telegraph Company made a similar application to the Government of India, who have not reached a decision. In the event of the Government of India granting to that company a licence for an Indian station, the arrangements to be made for the provision of the communicating station in Great Britain will be discussed with the company. As regards the Marconi Company, negotiations have been proceeding as to the basis on which services conducted from the Government station and the company's stations should be organised.
I propose to give to the Committee a brief outline of the negotiations and the general lines of the agreement which may be made with that company. There are three possible alternatives—either unrestricted competition, regional allocation of the services, or some form of pooling arrangement. Unrestricted competition can, I think, be dismissed at once. It would clearly be uneconomical, it would be inconvenient too, to have two stations in Great Britain competing for the limited amount of traffic available with some of the Dominions. Unless the stations in the Dominions were duplicated elaborate arrangements would have to be made for the allocation of the 24 hours between the two competing systems in this country. The Government station in this country would have the advantage of the Post Office collecting organisation, and would, therefore, secure the unrouted outward traffic. On the other hand, the Marconi stations in the Dominions would probably obtain the whole, or nearly the whole, of the unrouted traffic to Great Britain. The Government station would, therefore, have a great preponderance of outward traffic with very little inward traffic, and the Marconi station would obtain the greater part of the inward traffic, but would not have sufficient in the reverse direction. A regional allocation has many attractions. The various services would be divided between the company and the Government, and each party would be left to conduct his own businees without interference and without restriction.
The Marconi Company, however, preferred the third alternative, that is some form of pooling arrangement. The principal terms have been agreed with that company, subject to certain outstanding points, which are still the subject of discussion. I will give the Committee an outline of the conditions which will be contained in the Agreement. The wireless telegraph services of the British Empire are to be conducted through stations provided by the company and by the Government, respectively, in agreed proportions, the company at the outset to provide two stations and the Government one station, apart from the existing stations at Lea field and Carnarvon. The stations are to be maintained at the cost of the parties providing them. The revenue of the stations is to be pooled and divided between the companies and the Government in agreed proportions, based upon the effective power of the stations contributed by each. The whole of the services are to be worked from the General Post Office by Government operators, and a proportionate part of the cost, including overhead charges, is to be charged against the company. The unrouted traffic is to be allocated as between the cables and the wireless on the principle of the least delay at the transmitting point. The rates to be charged to the public are to be settled by mutual agreement. Whenever possible, the rates are to be lower than the cable rates. The Government has to have the power to admit other parties to the pooling arrangement, provided they are satisfied that they are able to provide a station of substantially equal efficiency, and the Government retains its right to licence other parties to conduct wireless services without admitting them to the pool. The Government is to have the power of expropriation at specified intervals on terms to be agreed probably at the end of the first 10 years, and subsequently at suitable periods.
A site near Rugby has been secured for the Government station, and orders have already been placed for part of the plant required. A final decision as to the power of the station has not yet been taken, but the site purchased will be sufficient to provide for a station of the largest possible size, and its erection will be pressed on as quickly as possible. It may be 12 months before the station, is ready, but in dealing with an engineering work it is well to add a margin for contingencies; especially is this the case when the progress of the science may suggest alterations in design, but no unnecessary delay will be allowed in completing the Government station. I have given in some detail an outline the proposed arrangement with the Marconi Company because I am not at all certain the House will have a further opportunity of dealing with this question before the contract is signed. If as I understand it, that contract imposes a charge upon the public funds it will have to come before the House. If it does not, and I cannot tell whether it will or not until the final terms have been settled, if it does not impose such a charge, the House may not have any other opportunity of dealing with this important contract.
Twenty-five years, subject to powers of expropriation.
The House was told by me some time ago that the Government had decided forthwith to pay off all claims clearly coming within the judgment in the Sutton case. I have brought in a Supplementary Estimate for £1,300,000 for that purpose and payment will be made as soon as the claims have been received and passed.
For the reasons I have already given I expect that savings on the main Estimates will be sufficient to provide for the charge falling on the Post Office Vote, so that I am asking on the Supplementary Estimate for a token Vote only of £10. But there are many other categories of men for whom claims may be made which while not covered by the Sutton judgment may possibly be within the reasoning upon which the decision was based and other claims which may be outside. In view of the amount of public money involved and the doubt which surrounds the legal position the Government think it desirable to obtain authoritative legal decisions on these categories. We wish to get decisions in the quickest possible time and with the least expense. I am glad to say that the solicitors for the parties have already met, and I hope a procedure will be agreed which will enable final decisions to be obtained without any waste of time.
The staff employed by the Post Office on the 1st February, 1923, numbered 209,735, compared with 227,308 at the same date in 1922, but the total of 1922 included about 13,500 who were subsequently transferred to the Irish Free State, so that the real reduction was about 4,000. The immensity of the work done in the course of a year can perhaps be shown by a few illustrative figures. We carry about 5,600 millions of letters, postcards, printed papers, newspapers and parcels. About 18 millions each working day. We deal with about 788 million telephone calls. About 2¼ million calls each day. We pay cash across the counter for money orders, savings bank and savings certificates withdrawals, old age and war pensions of about £358,500,000, or more than £1,000,000 each working day.
We receive cash across the counter for money and postal orders, savings bank deposits and savings certificates and for sale of insurance stamps about £343,500,000 or more than £1,000,000 each working day. Our total cash receipts and payments in the year amounts to about £1,242,000,000. Say £4,000,000 for each working day. I feel sure that the Committee will be pleased to know that this large and varied business has been carried on in a satisfactory way without friction with the staff employed. Staff questions both as to the nature of the duties and the conditions of employment are constantly reviewed and discusesd at Whitley Councils and by the representatives of the staffs and the officers of the Department, and frequent adjustments are made to meet genuine grievances, and while I do not pretend that everyone employed is satisfied with his or her lot, I think I may claim that the staff are assured of sympathetic consideration at the hands of those who represent the nation which employs them. So long as I am Postmaster-General, I shall endeavour to earn the confidence of the staff and to see that their interests as well as those of the customers of the Post Office and the taxpayers are duly taken into account.
I think I shall have the Committee with me in congratulating the Postmaster-General upon his lucid statement, especially in view of the fact that he has had such a short time to acquire a knowledge of the working of his Department. I think he is the third occupant of his office since the present Government came into power, so that if he had been less familiar with some of the details of his great office, I for one should have been inclined to have been very gentle in my judgment on him on that account. It was said in the House a night or two ago that the time devoted to the Post Office Estimates is pretty well taken up dealing with the conditions of service and wages of people employed in that Department. I make no apology for the fact that I am going to deal with the Estimates on those lines.
After all, the House of Commons is the employer of those 209,000 people of whom the right hon. Gentleman spoke, and those people look to the House of Commons to see that they get fair play, and that the conditions under which they are employed by a great State Department are such that they shall be at least as good as those of a model employer. I hope the Committee was struck with the way in which the right hon. Gentleman spoke of the great accomplishments of his Department, because, as a piece of State enterprise, I think we have every reason to be proud of it, and it is a complete answer to those newspapers and critics who are always girding at the Post Office because they believe if they can discredit the Post Office as a national service they will be doing something to make more difficult the extension of State enterprise in other directions.
The Postmaster-General made a brief reference to the Sutton judgment, and I think it will be generally agreed that as that matter has to go to the House of Lords for judicial treatment there will be very little useful purpose served by talking about it here, and I am going to be as brief on this subject as the Postmaster-General was. Although the solicitors of the two parties have agreed to take a statement to another place, that does not indicate that both parties agree that that was the proper course to take. So far as the representatives of the claimants are concerned, they hold, as we hold on this side of the House, that the judgment having been given covering a group of people, it should be honoured, regardless of the cost to the Government, and to go back again to the Law Courts with this case is really putting the Government in a privileged position. If I fall out with my neighbour and go to law, and then go to a higher Court, whether I like the position or not I have to abide by it, and there is no possibility of asking the other fellow to go to a higher Court, because it costs a lot of money, in order to see if we can have the matter reviewed. That is how the people who come under the spcial sections regard this case. I think it is only fair to make that statement, because something more of it may be heard in the Debate. I agree that this is not a matter for the House of Commons to interfere with now.
I want to say a word or two upon a matter with which the right hon. Gentleman himself cannot deal, and that is the appointment of the Anderson Committee. I make that reference because under the appointment of that Committee for the first time the grievances, the conditions of employment and the standards of remuneration are taken away from the purview of the House of Commons, and handed over to a body which is representative of the big business interests of the country. So far as the Post Office staff is concerned, that Committee will not have the confidence of the staff in its deliberations, and those of us who are concerned in the matter from a staff point of view are not unaware of the fact that the Federation of British Industries have been making the bold claim that their power is so great that they can now get their nominees on any Committee of the House of Commons which deals with industrial questions, and that is a rather serious fact, especially when such a Committee has to deal with the wages and conditions of work of Post Office employés.
The Anderson Committee was appointed by the Prime Minister who rested his case on the fact that the Geddes Committee recommended that the police, teachers, and the fighting services should have an inquiry extended to them on lines similar to the Geddes Committee, but strangely enough the teachers and the police have been left out altogether, and in their place the Prime Minister has brought in the whole of the services, not only the fighting services,
but the men employed in civil Departments. How such a Committee is going to function, and conduct an inquiry of an adequate nature, not only passes my comprehension, but it must pass the comprehension of the Ministers themselves. The effect of it will be a serious challenge to Ministers in their own Departments, because it takes away from them their right to control and adjust conditions of employment between Ministers and their staffs on the lines which the right hon. Gentleman himself mentioned as operating in his own Department, which I know he himself favours. The Federation of British Industries actually states that
It is a tribute to the position achieved by the Federation in the national life of the country that it is now regularly consulted by the Government Departments on industrial questions, and is asked to nominate members to act oh the Government Committees to deal with such questions.
I think that is a pretty serious state of affairs, but there follows another statement by the same Federation, which says:
The Federation desire to express regret that the late Government did not carry out more fully the recommendations of the Geddes Report, or effect equivalent economies, and to urge the present Government to reconsider that Committee's recommendations and, above all, to reexamine most carefully those branches of the public service where the failure to carry out the recommendations has been most marked.
The Prime Minister has already inferred that the staffs of the Civil Service are the staffs intended to be referred to there, and therefore we have the position that 209,000 people employed in the Post Office, and hundreds of thousands of people in the rest of the Civil Service, and those in the great fighting services are to have the consideration of their conditions of employment and standards of remuneration taken away from the House of Commons, and they are to be adjudicated upon by a Committee of three business men upon which there is no representative of the classes mostly affected. It comes to this, and I think I can speak for the Civil Service as well as the Post Office employés, that they have not any confidence in this Committee.
I want to refer to a matter which I think will probably interest the Postmaster-General more, and that is the question of the starting pay of ex-soldiers who come into the service of the Post Office. It will be within the memory of the Committee that the question of the starting pay of ex-service men who went into the employment of the State so exercised the consideration of the House of Commons that on a recent occasion it led to the defeat of the Government, and as a result of that defeat the Government appointed a representative Committee of this House to go into the whole question of the starting pay of the people whose case was then before the House of Commons. The result was that the Committee came to the conclusion that the case was a good one, that the men were being sweated, that they were being paid an inadequate wage, that they were not being paid a living wage, and that the conditions were so bad that something would have to be done for them. Thereupon an award was issued which had the effect of increasing the pay of the worst paid of these clerical grades by £32 a year. The case of these men was fought on the question of a minimum wage of £80 a year which, with the present rate of bonus, makes a total of £144 a year.
The case of the ex-service men who come into the Post Office is infinitely worse than that of the men whose case was considered by the Southborough Committee. The position of the ex-service man who comes into the employment of the Post Office is a very hard one. He has to come in at practically a boy's wage, and as a postman in certain districts in the country he receives a wage representing almost £1 a week less than the sweated wage which appealed to the conscience of the House of Commons. These low wages are still in operation. 43s. 2d. is the wage an ex-service man gets when he comes into the lowest grade of the postman's rank, and he passes through various grades up to a maximum of 50s. Of course the wage includes bonus in every case. That is as far as the post men are concerned. There is another class of man whose case should receive careful attention, that is the man who is brought into the telegraph service and who is already an accomplished telegraphist when he comes in. There are two classes. There are the men who are trained while serving in the Army and who come into the Post Office to act as telegraphists, and then there are the men who picked up their knowledge of telegraphy during the great War. Their case is very bad indeed. The average age at which they come in is 32 years and they receive a wage of £2 17s. 8d. per week. The men from the new Army only average 25 years of age. They come in at the 21 years age point at a wage of £2 13s. 9d. These men are in many cases married men with families. I have an instance here of a man aged 33, with four children. He pays 17s. a week rent and receives from the Post Office £2 17s. 8d. Another, aged 38, gets £2 13s. a week; another, aged 34, gets £2 10s. 5d., out of which he has to pay a very substantial rent and to pay expenses which are so heavy that it is impossible for him to make both ends meet. The consequence is that you are having a large number of men employed by the Post Office under conditions which throw a great strain upon them. Not only is their economic position bad, but it sets up another condition which this House should not tolerate. It places them within the reach of temptation, and that is a very important point.
I believe it will be agreed by every Member of the House of Commons that it is desired the House should be a good, fair and even a model employer, and it would not willingly tolerate for one moment wages being paid to men with families that do not enable them to keep body and soul together, or to obtain a decent standard of subsistence for their families. I would remind the Committee of this, that the House of Commons did once tackle this question of the standard. I myself gave evidence before the Holt Committee and pressed that the question of the standard of life for postal workers and for Government servants generally ought not to be left out of account. As a result of careful inquiry—and this, I think, was the first time such a claim was made—the Holt Committee laid on the Post Office the burden of seeing not only that the remuneration should account for the cost of living and the value of the work performed, but that it should also take cognisance of the standard of life. If he pays an ex-service man with a family a wage of £2 10s. 5d., or £2 13s. a week, I think the Postmaster-General will have very great difficulty in convincing the Committee that he has taken into account the standard of life. But this question is one for negotiation on the lines which the right hon. Gentleman himself has stated. I understand it is being represented that conversations are going on, and that negotiations are taking place between the Union of Post Office Workers, which represents the manipulative grades, and the Postmaster-General at his office. I hope that when these negotiations are resumed the Postmaster-General himself will feel fortified by the knowledge that the House of Commons desires him to do justice to these men, and that he will see his way to take his cue from the award of the Southborough Committee and, without a House of Commons inquiry, give an award to the men in question on lines at least as generous as those which the House has decided were proper to other ex-service men. Then there is the question of the pay of officers transferred from one district to another. That, I understand, is also in course of negotiation. It is a question which has rankled a long time in the minds of men who have suffered badly through going from a village to a large city at their old rates of pay. I believe the negotiations have reached a point when there is every prospect of an amicable settlement between the Union of Post Office Workers and the Post Office.
I want to say a word, if I may, about the telephones abroad, especially about telephone machinery. We have heard the statistics and records of work which the Postmaster-General has been able to account for during the past year through the telephone machinery, and I want to put in a word for the girls who work at the telephone. I know there is an idea abroad that the telephone girl spends most of her time chatting with her colleagues as to what happened last Sunday or what she is going to do next Sunday, or about her clothes, or about some other feminine vanity, and that that accounts very largely for the slight delays which subscribers experience when they hurriedly rush to the telephone and expect an immediate answer. I should like Members of the House of Commons to see the conditions under which the girls work. I feel bound to say that if they did visit a telephone exchange—and I am certain the right hon. Gentleman would be only too glad to give them permission to do so—and if they saw the conditions under which the work is done they would no longer be inclined to snap and be impatient every time they go to the telephone and find that in one-hundredth part of a second they do not get a reply. These girls are carrying a very heavy load. They are performing an important social service. The country under modern conditions could not get along without them. Away in a email town the telephone service is perhaps carried on by two or three girls in some cottage rented by the Post Office where they have to exercise initiative and resource and have no one to ask for instructions, yet the responsibility is thrown upon them of providing an efficient service for that town and for its trunk connections.
The telephone operator needs to be quick of sight, of hearing, and of speech. I do not know whether hon. Members know what the inside of a telephone exchange is like. I wish they could go and see it. They would find the girls ranged facing a long blank wall, sitting on high chairs, working the whole time without cessation except on occasions when they go away for meals or casual relief. They have not a moment to spare. Their hands, their eyes, their voices, and their brains are all working at the same time. We talk about betting; hon. Members ought to know what effect betting has had on the telephone service. In some exchanges in districts where betting has grown to a large extent special provision has to be made for the betting classes on the boards, and in some cases this provision is right at the top of the board, so that the girl is on the stretch the whole of the time. The consequence is that under these conditions the girls break down physically. A strong healthy girl who comes into the employment of the State as a telephone operator breaks down. She cannot stand the strain week after week and month after month. She is under constant close supervision, and in constant contact with members of the public, people of different temperaments, and not all good tempered.
Members of this House well know that sometimes when they rush into the telephone box they expect that by some magic the girl at the other end of the wire should he aware that they are in a hurry and get them through in quicker time than is physically possible. As I came into the House to-day I heard an hon. Member opposite make some reference to the difficulties of enunciation of words. That, again, adds to the difficulty of the girl at the end of the wire. She never muddles her words, she gives you 5 or 9 correctly; it is the subscriber who is often the cause of the delay because he blurs his words, he does not speak plainly, he frequently gets a wrong number in consequence, and then he blames the girl for his own fault. I ask Members to accept their own responsibilities as employers and not to devolve them on the Postmaster-General. The Postmaster-General is your agent. He is put in that position, I hope, to protect the interests of the taxpayer and to provide an efficient public service. But he is also to be regarded as a barrier between the staff and bad treatment. He himself must accept that responsibility. In the past so far as my experience is concerned, at any rate up to a very recent date, it has been the case that the Postmaster-General has simply regarded himself as a vehicle for conveying the decisions of his subordinates—the permanent officials, a very able and very efficient staff of officials, whose views cannot always be that of the Postmaster-General if he permits himself to be impartial. I am glad to know however that the present Postmaster-General has a very high sense of his responsibilities, and I am quite certain that if he fills the bill on the lines I have indicated he will find he will not only get more efficient service from his staff, but that he will secure gratitude as well. There is no better set of workers than those who are contented and satisfied, and it is highly important that in the case of the State's service they should be well treated and well paid.
I want to raise another question. I am sorry to take up so much time, but these matters are very important from a staff point of view. I want to raise a question with regard to the Central Telegraph Office. Last year it was decided in connection with the Central Telegraph Office, which is probably the largest institution of its kind in the world, that there should be put on the top of the building a big block in order to provide dining accommodation for the staff which, under the present conditions, is inadequate and disgraceful. The value of the property of the State in that part of London is almost phenomenal, and to put a fifth story on the building would have meant great additional value to the property. In addition to providing adequate dining accommodation, it would have released the rooms now used for dining purposes for post Office agreed that something should be done, and came to the House and got a vote through, and then they surrendered the Vote. That is the complaint I make against the Department, knowing the difficulty there is in these times of getting the House of Commons to vote money for bricks and mortar.
This surrender led incidentally to the breakdown of the local Whitley machine. It was decided that this work should be done by local agreement of the Whitley Council, and it was with a great deal of difficulty that it was discovered that it was not the Treasury who were at fault but the Post Office itself which, of its own volition, had surrendered the money. That is a serious state of affairs, particularly in view of the fact that the building programme of the Post Office is years behind. In large centres of the country and in small centres the building programme of the Post Office has almost been at a standstill. In Cardiff and other cities where they have already purchased land at high prices, the land is standing idle and the State is losing interest on the money, simply because they cannot get the House of Commons to vote money in order to get on with the building. In this case, where the House has actually passed the Vote for a large sum of money, we find the Post Office being foolish enough not to spend the money and surrendering it, thereby necessitating their coming to the House later to get another Vote. Some explanation is due to the Committee which voted the money last year, and I hope the Postmaster-General will to-day be able to tell us that something is going to be done to remedy what I feel is a grave error of judgment.
I want to say something regarding the conditions of the people who supply the all-night telephone service in London and the provinces when the girls are off duty. Women are not employed at night in the telephone exchanges; the service is carried on by men. In some cases, where the work justifies it, established staff night attendants are employed, but during the last few years a new method of staffing the Exchanges has grown up under which the Post Office will get a man to stay on the premises for a long number of hours and accept the liability to be wakened up out of bed in order to put the telephone calls through. Generally speaking, the telephone calls are so few in number that the Post Office could not pay a man an ordinary wage and get an economic return on the telephone service; but even allowing for the fact that full wages cannot be paid in all these cases, I ask the Postmaster-General to give some attention to the wages which are paid. These people have not a standard. Their union fought for a standard of remuneration, but could not get it. They got an offer which was so inadequate that no union and no representative body could have looked at it, and the consequence is that the old state of affairs goes on, which is that the Post Office gets its work done at the cheapest possible figure locally. This is a serious state of affairs, and I hope the Postmaster-General will personally investigate the case and see whether it is not possible to employ these people on conditions which will enable him to remove from himself the reproach which I am now making.
In answer to a question which I put in this House on 20th June of this year we succeeded in getting from the Postmaster-General the statement that"in cases where the disturbances during the night become numerous, it is the practice to provide full-time established staff."We decided to test that statement by representing a case where an ex-service man at Lamington-Spa was working as night and Sunday attendant at 25s. a week, with no additional pay for Sunday duty. His hours were 80½ per week, with an additional 7½hours on alternate Sundays. The returns showed that there was an actual average of 104'9 calls, and I suggest that in these circumstances we were entitled to expect that a full-time attendant should have been employed. A few words with regard to caretaker-operators, who live on the premises and have to supply the night service. They live on premises belonging to the Post Office, and their rents were very seriously raised at a time when they were unable to get adequate increase of pay. I have here particulars of a case where rent was raised from 5s. to 12s. 6d. Talk about the 40 per cent. which the people have to pay to their landlords, I have cases where caretaker-operators have had to pay increases of rent to the extent of 150 per cent. to the State, who own the houses in which they live. That is a matter which I hope will exercise the attention of the Postmaster-General.
Now I come to a case which affects my own constituency, and relates to the administration of the post office there. I have had complaints from that office that it is not administered in accordance with the principles which are generally regarded as laid down by the Regulations. The complaint that the staff make is that, notwithstanding all the allegations they have made regarding administration, and the complaints that they are prepared to substantiate, they cannot get inquiry into the administration of that office. It would be a very simple thing for the Postmaster-General, when he gets a complaint of this kind, to say:"I will send someone with authority to make a complete and impartial investigation on the spot; someone who will take evidence from the staff, and hear all the parties, and report to me so that I can come to a judgment."Instead of that, we have in the Post Office to-day a system which almost makes it impossible for the lower grades which are suffering any administrative injustice to get their case looked into. One case, which I have brought to the notice of the House before, is that of a man who, by common consent in the locality, and by common consent in the office, with the exception of the one man who has failed, would be regarded as the most capable and most efficient man on the staff, and he was turned down from promotion and passed over because he had failed to get into the good offices of his postmaster.
When I represented this matter to the right hon. Gentleman I got a long reply giving a defence of the Post Office in regard to the action taken. This gentleman. Mr. W. G. Kirkpatrick, overseer at Carlisle, is held by the Post Office to be not so efficient as some of his fellow officers, and to have shown not sufficient ability to be placed in the post that became vacant when he was passed over; but I have in my possession the original document which was handed to him in 1921, when he was asked to
undertake the preparation of Christmas arrangements starting next week. The
inspector will not be detached this year, except for a couple of days near Christmas to go through the duties, and you will plan for both indoor and outdoor, the inspector doing what he can towards the outdoor arrangements in the meantime. S.C. and typewriting assistance will be given you as soon as you can make use of it.
I only instance this seemingly insignificant document to show that the man was regarded as the one man upon whom the most important arrangement of the year should fall, and he was selected for it. Because he happened to be a man who was not a sort of run-about or gad-about, but a man who looked after his work, but did not happen to get into the favour of his postmaster, he is humiliated in the town where he is known by everybody, and where it is publicly reported in the Press that he has been' passed over because he is not efficient. In justice to the man, and in order that the matter should be cleared up by inquiry, I think it right that I should raise the case to-day. I hope that as this matter concerns the general administration of the office the Postmaster-General will see fit to grant an inquiry. We shall get on a great deal better in the relations of the staff and the Post Office if we have more of this kind of inquiry. We have gone a good way along the road. Led by Whitleyism, the public service has made as much progress as any outside industry in this direction. We have joint Committees at work. I am a member of two joint Committees which, with the Departmental officials, tackle big and serious problems affecting both sides, and we are enabled by placing all our cards on the table to come to decisions which are not only satisfactory to the Post Office but satisfactory to the staff.
I would ask the Postmaster-General in connection with the question of telephone loading to grant an inquiry. Girls are working up to a load of 200 calls per hour. A call is measured by the length of its operation. It is measured by the time the girl takes to raise her arm, to drop it, and to perform the necessary operation of putting the telephone call through, and on that basis she is loaded up to 200 calls per hour. She is crying out to the Post Office and to the House of Commons for relief. She appeals to the House of Commons to say to the Post Office that at least they should grant an inquiry. So far we have been unable to get inquiry. What possible justification there can be or refusing an inquiry I cannot see? The man or the party that refuses inquiry into action or administration for which he or the party is responsible are placed in a very difficult position. Where we have been able to get inquiries into other matters we have been able to come to satisfactory decision, and we ask that the telephone girls should be granted an inquiry. So far as we have been able to institute inquiries in individual offices the complaints have been more than justified; the girls have been found to be suffering. In one case, in Manchester, where a large number of girls were being dismissed or transferred in connection with the 200 standard load, the result of the inquiry instigated by the Union of Post Office Workers not only saved the girls from going, but brought about a substantial increase of staff.
I say that all these things put together make out an overwhelming case for inquiry. I do not care whether it is a joint or an impartial inquiry, but I do say that men who have never done the work, and who could not possibly, in the nature of things, do the work are not the people who should have the final word in deciding as to what the conditions of employment of these girls should be. I hope, and I make it my main plea, that the Postmaster-General will give us satisfaction in this respect. If he is not going to give us this inquiry, it means that the agitation must go on, because no self-respecting set of staff representatives could go on seeing these girls suffering day by day and breaking down, without raising a hand to stop it. I put the case to the Postmaster-General in the hope that he will at any rate say, "I do not know whether you are right or wrong, I do not know whether my officials are right or wrong, but we will subject the matter to the test and have an inquiry. "If he can do that, he will not only earn the appreciation of the Committee for doing an act of fairness, but he will earn the gratitude of the girls, who believe that, until they get some sort of inquiry, their conditions, bad as they are now, may even be made worse in the future.
The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Middleton), in his interesting speech to which we have
just listened, has touched upon many points, but not upon the one regarding which I desire to address the Committee for a few minutes, namely, the subject of Imperial Wireless. The Postmaster-General's statement to-day is the final announcement of a grave and complete reversal of Government policy. This is the only occasion—it is the first occasion, and it will doubtless prove to be the last—on which the House of Commons has had the opportunity, not of discussing this matter on its merits, because it was decided finally in principle before the House was informed, but even of commenting upon it at all. I feel very strongly that the House of Commons and the country ought to realise how grave and complete a reversal of policy this is, and it is to that point, and that point only—though there are many other matters that one would wish to discuss—that I shall confine myself. The policy which the Government has reversed took its rise—I must be pardoned for giving a very brief historical summary—at the Imperial Conference in 1911, which then expressed the opinion that a State-owned wireless chain ought to be established. This was further confirmed by Lord Parker's Advisory Committee in 1913, which expressed the opinion that it might be better for the Government themselves to undertake the construction and equipment of the necessary stations. Next came the appointment of the Imperial Wireless Telegraphy Committee, and about that Committee I desire to say a few words, as a great deal of misunderstanding prevails about it. It was a Committee of which I had the honour to be the Chairman, and it was composed, with one obvious exception, of men of great eminence and of the highest authority in their respective spheres. Its recommendations have never been impugned by any independent expert. Its conclusions—and this is the point upon which the recommendations of the Committee have been misunderstood, because people have got into the habit of believing that those recommendations have been shown by subsequent events and the march of wireless science to be now no longer correct—its conclusions as to the greater reliability and economy of 2,000-mile steps, instead of the 4,000 miles now about to be adopted, were true then, they are true to-day, and, as far as it is possible to foresee, they will be true
years hence. That is not merely an expression of my own opinion. I should like to quote a man who, perhaps, may be described as the greatest living authority upon wireless telegraphy, namely, Dr. Louis Austin, of the American Government Radio Service. He is, of course, in this connection an absolutely independent and unprejudiced witness. In an article a year ago he wrote:
There have been heated discussions in England regarding the relative merits of the high-power long-distance transmission systems in comparison with the moderate-power intermediate relay systems.
The latter, of course, was the recommendation of the Imperial Wireless Telegraphy Committee. He goes on to say:
There can be no doubt"—
and, when an eminent scientific man uses an expression like that, it must mean, of course, that he is very sure indeed of his ground—
There can be no doubt that the system of intermediate stations will give by far the most reliable communication.
If a new independent Committee were appointed to-day, I feel confident that they would make the same recommendation. However, the Dominions, acting upon advice not comparable for a moment with the authority of the Imperial Wireless Telegraphy Committee, decided otherwise, and the Government will claim, no doubt, with a certain amount of justice, that they were virtually compelled to follow suit. For myself, I feel confident, after the consideration which was given to this matter by that Committee, and after the confirmation of its views by independent experts since, that the Dominions concerned will ultimately deeply regret their decision. But the basic recommendation of the Committee's Report was that Imperial wireless traffic should be carried by the State, and that long-distance wireless traffic with foreign countries should be left to the commercial companies. Both services, the Committee said, would profit by this healthy competition. Private enterprise, in these circumstances, would have full, free, and fair scope—there was no question whatever of excluding private enterprise—and the science of wireless telegraphy would undoubtedly have its best chance of development. Inventors would have alternative openings for the disposal of their inventions, and men of all ranks would have alternative opportunities of
employment. Imperial interests would be fully safeguarded, and no commercial vested interest in the most vital part of British wireless would be created.
I will continue my brief historical summary. I have mentioned what happened in 1911 and 1913. Then the War intervened, and then came the Imperial Wireless Telegraphy Committee of 1920. That Committee reported in May. In August, the Cabinet decided to accept its recommendations. Then, for what reason, or in consequence of what pressure I do not know, the Cabinet subsequently referred the matter for reconsideration to the Imperial Communications Committee. This very weighty Committee duly reconsidered the matter, and, on the 3rd June, 1921, passed the following Resolution:
That it would be undesirable under existing conditions to modify the decision of the Cabinet by which the recommendations of the Imperial Wireless Telegraphy Committee were accepted, and that the scheme recommended by that Committee be adhered to.
Thus, from that date, the principle that wireless communication from the Mother Country to the Empire should be in the hands of the State became the accepted policy of the Government, and a Technical Commission of high qualifications was appointed to design the stations. This policy was affirmed and reaffirmed again and again. We come now to the Imperial Conference of 1921. At that Conference the then Postmaster-General said:
I think the objections to it"—
that is, to the Imperial chain—
being in the hands of anything but Government are overwhelming, for Imperial and strategic reasons, and also from the point of view of the future of wireless";
and the Imperial Conference of that year resolved as follows:
It is agreed that His Majesty's Government should take steps for the erection of the remaining stations for which they are responsible as soon as the stations are designed.
I come now to another meeting of the Imperial Communications Committee, on the 17th May, 1922, when it was officially announced that
The Postmaster-General was strongly of opinion that any stations in Great Britain used for communication with the Dominions or Colonies should be owned and operated by the State.
There followed on that a Cabinet decision—
That the Commonwealth Government be reminded that the policy of His Majesty's Government is that stations erected in the United Kingdom for communicating with British territory oversea should be operated by Government.
This was confirmed by despatches from the Colonial Office to the Dominions and Colonies. I come now to what is, perhaps, the most important resolution of all, a resolution of the Imperial Communications Committee of the 19th May, 1922—last year; and I would ask this Committee to realise just what is the weight of this resolution which I am about to read. It was signed by high officials representing the Treasury, the Admiralty, the War Office, the Air Ministry, the India Office—with a slight reservation regarding India—the General Post Office, the Foreign Office, the Colonial Office and the Board of Trade. It is impossible to point to any official Committee in this country of greater weight. and this was their resolution:
We, therefore, strongly recommend that the decision that no private company should be granted a licence to erect a wireless station in the United Kingdom with the object of communicating with British territory oversea, should be adhered to, and that all such stations should be constructed and operated by the Government.
That concludes my historical summary. I claim to have proved that that was the accepted policy of the Government, and that it was affirmed and reaffirmed by every body, official and expert, to whom it was referred. Immediately after the late General Election certain changes were made in the personnel of the Imperial Communications Committee, and the policy of the Government underwent a complete right-about-face. The late Prime Minister announced in the House of Commons on the 5th March that:
The Government has, therefore, decided to issue licences for the erection of wireless stations in this country for communication with the Dominions, Colonies, and foreign countries …."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th March, 1923; col. 29, Vol. 161.]
The Government, therefore, have completely reversed the policy of their predecessors. They have done so in direct opposition to the advice tendered by every official and expert body to whom the question was submitted prior to the
constitution of the present Government, and in doing so they are preparing to allow a vital national and Imperial function to become the vested interest of a commercial company, They have made this reversal of policy, in the first place, without giving any reasons for it. When the Prime Minister announced this in the House of Commons—I am reading from the OFFICIAL REPORT—he said:
In view of developments in the science of wireless telegraphy"—
—no development in the science of wireless telegraphy can affect the question of principle of whether communications with the British Empire from the home country should be in the hands of the State—and, the prime Minister added:
and other circumstances which have arisen.
Therefore, the reasons must lie in the "other circumstances," and they have not been disclosed. What are they? My right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General may give them to us to-day, but of course I would remind him beforehand that it will be no reply for him to refer to the action of the Dominions in setting up their own stations. The action of the Dominions regarding their stations does not in any way affect this matter of principle as regards our statons. Secondly, the Government are making this grave reversal of policy, not only without having afforded, but indeed having specifically refused, in reply to appeals made from the Front Opposition Bench, any opportunity either of discussing the principle of giving Imperial communications to a commercial company, or even of considering, except on this occasion, when the question is for the most part decided, the conditions of the licences under which the commercial company is to exercise its rights.
Holding the views I do, I must rejoice at least that the Government are keeping one station, that there is to be something saved out of the wreck; but, in view of the amount of work which has been done in preparation for that station, they could hardly do less. It is difficult to foresee, I fear, either peace of permanence in the arrangement now being made. If the service proves unsatisfactory, as it well may under these dual conditions, there will of course be mutual recrimination. The Government will reproach the commercial companies; they have often done so before; the commercial company will say that if only the whole service at the beginning had been left in their hands all would have been well. The usual campaign against the Government in the Press and elsewhere will begin again. If the campaign fails, there will be a state of affairs such as I outlined a moment ago. If the campaign succeeds and all the wireless stations are to be commercial—we are told there are to be five or six and every expert knows that there is not the slightest chance of traffic being sufficient for so many stations—I fear the Government will, unwillingly and indirectly, become a party to a great financial promotion. Nothing could possibly be more undesirable than this. For myself—and this will be the last opportunity, I suppose, on which anybody will discuss freely in this House the question of the Imperial wireless chain which is to be decided for our time, and I have been connected officially and unofficially with this matter of Imperial wireless, and have given, I fear, too large a part of my life to it for the last 10 years—I deeply deplore, having regard only to the national interest, that the Government should make this complete reversal of policy, and I have shown how remarkable and complete that reversal of policy is. There are many other matters, in connection even with this, that I would wish to discuss, but, as time is so short, I will leave it at that.
I have only one single plea to put forward, which? hope may have some effect on the Postmaster-General. It is not on a topic which he mentioned in his very interesting report. I have some hope that it may appeal to him in a way in which it did not appeal to his predecessor who sat in that place a year ago—a gentleman of great talent whose policy seemed to be to give the worst possible service at the greatest possible expenditure. How could he hope to do anything else when he with some pride announced that he had raised the number of servants in the Post Office receiving more than £800 a year, including bonus, from 68 to 642? The right hon. Gentleman now in charge of the Post Office is not a great spender, and I have, therefore, to make my appeal to him in the humblest way on behalf of people who in the last few years have been suffering the greatest possible delay and nuisance from a war-time change which has not been done away with, like so many other war-time changes. I refer, of course, to the putting down of the Sunday delivery in those provincial towns and villages of England which have not the facilities of London for the rapid receipt of letters. I have often tried to interest Londoners in the grievances of the provinces. They say,"Oh, no. We get as many letters as we want on Saturday night. In fact, it is rather a relief to have Sunday without any letters at all." The Londoner does not understand in the least the position of the provincial, who has one delivery on Saturday morning, or possibly two deliveries on Saturday, and who is cut off the whole of the rest of the week-end from any possible receipt of letters. I live in a town of 60,000 inhabitants, and we have no delivery on Saturday afternoons after 4.30. The result of this suspension of the Sunday delivery in the English countryside is that there is excessive delay in all correspondence. It does not much matter whether you write the letter on Friday night or Saturday or on Sunday morning, it will inevitably get in on Monday only, whichever you do, because there is no Sunday morning delivery.
The sort of way this works may be best illustrated by two examples. I was living last summer 14 miles from a brother-in-law of mine with whom it was necessary I should have some correspondence. If I posted a letter a minute after 9 o'clock on Saturday morning, it did not get to him till 10 o'clock on Monday morning, although there were only 14 miles between us. The right hon. Gentleman the Postmaster-General may say, "Why did you not use the telephone or send a telegram?" Unfortunately, one cannot send legal documents or press proofs by telephone or telegraph. There is no doubt that the delay in cross-country posts, owing to want of the Sunday post, is dreadful. I can give an example of something amounting to a 56 hours' delay, in which I consider that something like moral responsibility rests on those who put down the Sunday post. It was a case which happened in my own county, and I know the people who were concerned. An old lady in a village, which had one post a day and no telegraph station, was run over by a motor lorry on Friday afternoon. Her sons, believing she was mortally injured, and wishing to call their sister, who was in service in a town 20 miles away, put a letter at once into the clearing box on Friday afternoon, believing that their sister would appear at what they believed would be their mother's death bed on Saturday. Nothing of the kind. The letter was delivered to this girl in Oxford on Monday morning. That is only an exaggerated example of the many un- fortunate occurrences that come of this system of non-delivery on Sunday. The right hon. Gentleman the Postmaster-General did not mention anything about Sunday delivery in his speech, but I do sincerely hope he will take it into consideration. I understand it would cost a certain amount of money, about £200,000 or £300,000, but I am sure it is not outside the resources of civilisation to find some ways of economising that £200,000 or £300,000. I could think of a good many small items on which he might start: for example, if a little more careful inquiry were made into the hundreds of thousands of people who are wrongly receiving doles and who are really in full employment—
Then I will not pursue that question. I will only content myself by suggesting that several hundreds of thousands of people in small towns and villages are suffering great inconvenience through the lack of the Sunday post.
I am sure that those who sit on these benches would wish me to say that, while we may be compelled to criticise certain aspects of the Post Office and telegraph services, we realise that the Postmaster-General has not had a great time in which to effect improvements, and, while we express our hope that he will employ those great qualities we know him to possess in improving these essential services, we cannot attach personal blame to him for the particular matters to which we feel it necessary to draw attention. I should like to put to him one or two suggestions and points with regard to the telephone service. The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Middleton) told us with great force of illustration, and evidently with great personal knowledge, that the defects of our telephone system are not due to the telephone girls and operators.
I am sure that no sensible person really supposed they were. One constantly hears small complaints being made about the attendants on the telephone exchanges, but I am sure there is nobody who has given any thought to the matter who would for a moment blame the employés of the London Telephone Service for any delays that may occur. But, if the employés are not to blame, it must be the methods of the service that are to blame. We all know about the kind of idiot who is described in "The Mikado,"
The idiot who praises in enthusiastic tone,
All centuries but this and every country but his own.
Though I hope I do not belong to that class of idiot, whatever other class of idiot I may belong to, one is bound to point out that these things are better managed in other countries, admittedly in America. The difference between the telephone facilities available in this country and in America are so striking as almost to lead one to the conclusion that they use not only a different system but a more up-to-date and a more scientific form of exchange and a better instrument. Friends of mine who are familiar with these things in America tell me that not only is the local call system strikingly better than that in this country, but that trunk calls and what we call here toll calls are surprisingly better; that you can telephone from Chicago to New York with the greatest case, without any unreasonable delay, a delay of not more than five or 10 minutes; and that you can telephone across the country from California to the Atlantic side without any inconvenience. That kind of thing is impossible in this country.
Everyone who has had any occasion, as most hon. Members of this House have had from time to time, to endeavour to do business by means of trunk calls in this country, must have been struck with the difficulty of getting calls through. At certain times of the day it is practically impossible to get them through. I recollect distinctly occasions when, in the busy times of the day, I have tried to telephone from my constituency in Nottingham to London, and it has taken me an hour or more to be put through. That is a state of things which calls for an immediate remedy. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to tell us that his Department are pursuing investigations, not only to improve the local telephone service in this country, though God knows that wants improvement greatly, but also the trunk and toll services. Attention was called to-day to the confusion in numbers and the false calls that take place. The right hon. Gentleman, in reply to a question, said that the facts were not so serious as people were led to suppose. I think that the strongest criticism of that branch of the telephone service is to be found in the fact that the words, "I am sorry you have been troubled" are now a household expression. They are a common form of humour. Expressions of that kind do not become household words if they are not used frequently in all households in the land. It would be well for the Postmaster-General to investigate that matter a little further.
Passing to another aspect of the telephone question, I would like to know what developments are taking place in what may be termed wireless telephony. I do not mean at the moment in the sense of broadcasting—I shall come to that in a moment—but wireless telephony by a combination of landline and wireless services. I know that experiments have been proceeding in the matter, for some time, because I recollect an occasion when I was at Geneva, and Lord Burnham addressed a gathering of journalists in Geneva, speaking from his own house over the telephone, and his message was picked up after being transmitted by wireless to the Marconi Station at Geneva, and was brought by land line down to the place where the gathering of journalists was taking place. If that was possible two and a half years ago great developments ought to have taken place by now. When may we expect to be able to make use of this combination, when subscribers may ring up the exchange and say, "please put me on to the 'Aquitania' or to a certain number in New York"? When may we expect that this invention will be commercialised?
That brings me to the question of broadcasting. The right hon. Gentleman told us that he could make no announcement as to the policy of the Government until he had the report of the Committee. Can he tell us whether he ad-
heres to the statement of policy made by his predecessor in a Debate on the Adjournment in this House, when that right hon. Gentleman said that he was opposed to the broadcasting license being used to create a monopoly. Does the Postmaster-General adhere to that and does he intend, when the Broadcasting Committee reports, to view that report in the light of that particular policy? There is another question as to the contract with the British Broadcasting Company. This is a contract which, under Clause 26. creates a public charge. If the right hon. Gentleman doubts that a charge, actual or prospective, is created by Clause 26, may I point out that on page 88 of the Estimates there is the item
Wireless Broadcasting Grant to British Broadcasting Company equivalent to one-half of the amount of the fees received by the Post Office in respect of wireless telegraph receiving licences, £30,000.
In view of that item no one can contend that this contract does not create a public charge. Those of us who follow the developments of this new science in the Press must have been struck recently with the number of reports which appear with regard to messages received in foreign countries. I saw an article—I think it was in the "Daily Telegraph"—not long ago, describing how concerts broadcasted by this company were picked up, I am not clear in my recollection as to whether it was in Spain or in Spanish Morocco, but they were picked up in either place. In view of that I would ask the right hon. Gentleman if he could say why this contract contains no such provision as is laid down in Standing Order 72 of this House that the contract shall not be binding until approved of by Resolution of this House? It is impossible to blame the right hon. Gentleman for that, because the contract was made long before he went to the Post Office, but this is a contract which has to be renewed after, I think, two years. Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that, when the question of the renewal of this licence comes up a Clause will be inserted in the contract providing that it shall not be binding unless it has been submitted to the House as provided by Standing Order 72 and having made such provision will he submit it to the House for approval? Because on every public ground, apart from the technical
ground laid down in the Standing Order when dealing with a young, scientific invention of this kind it is most important to the general public that the House of Commons should have an opportunity of expressing an opinion as to the nature of the contract into which the Government enters granting rights to private companies in relation to such inventions.
With regard to wireless telegraph licences, the right hon. Gentleman gave us a resume of the terms which he believes will be embodied in these contracts creating licences, and he warned us that Parliament need not expect, in his opinion, to have any further opportunity of discussing these contracts. The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Sir H. Norman) mentioned a number of highly important public grounds to show why these contracts should be rigorously scrutinised by the House of Commons on account of the change of policy of the present Government as contrasted with that of the last Government. I do not press this on that ground, because that ground has been sufficiently developed by my right hon. Friend, but I put it principally again on the ground of Standing Order 72. How could it be said that the service, which on the right hon. Gentleman's own showing is to be run by the Post Office, by Post Office officials, paid out of the public purse does not create a public charge seeing that the salaries of those employés of the Post Office, who work the service, will obviously have to be included in the estimates presented to this House? The proposed agreements with the Eastern Telegraph Company and the Marconi Company, if the right hon. Gentleman has correctly informed us as to their terms, must create a public charge, if they are to be worked from the Post Office. There is no question about that. As to their fulfilling the other requirement of the Standing Order, namely "telegraphic communication beyond sea" there can be no argument whatever.
In view of all this I would suggest that there should be another opportunity for this House to consider and debate the whole of this very important wireless question, and I would ask the Postmaster-General is it not incumbent on him to see that these agreements contain provisions that the contract shall not be binding until it has been approved of by Resolution of the House so that it will be placed beyond any possibility of misconstruction that the sanction of Parliament is necessary before the contract is finally concluded. One last point to which I wish to refer is the question of penny postage. On this I will merely ask a question. Will the right hon. Gentleman give some intimation as to when we may expect a return to the penny postage, which is urgently demanded by the whole commercial public of this country? If he consults business people in his constituency they will tell him that he could not confer a greater boon on the commercial community generally than the return to the penny postage in this country for business purposes. I think that I am right in saying that at least one of our Dominions, New Zealand, has found it possible to return to the penny postage.
The argument that was advanced in favour of the penny postage, that by cheapening the postage you will increase revenue because you will increase the general volume of correspondence, is just as true to-day as ever it was, and if the right hon. Gentleman can see his way to go back to the penny postage in addition to conferring a substantial boon on the community he will increase the revenues of the Department of which he is the head.
I want to try to interest the Postmaster-General in a subject which I do not think he mentioned in the course of his statement this afternoon—he may have referred to it during the minute or two I was out of the Chamber, but I do not think he did so—the question of agricultural deliveries. The right hon. Gentleman has for a great many years taken a great interest in the matter, and I am going to try to get him to put the same amount of interest into his Department, in regard to agriculture, as he has himself. His Department is rather too much inclined to look upon the big agricultural districts as being places from which no revenue will accrue to them to any great extent, and they are, therefore, too much inclined to think that it is unnecessary to have anything of what I may call "go" in the postal service. I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that, for the benefit of agriculture and for all the country districts, his Department should take a much wider view of the situation than they do at the present time. If I may emphasise my point by giving a particular instance, I would quote one which happened in the North Riding of Yorkshire. There is an area there of about 200 square miles in extent which, in the year 1923, is in the position that its only delivery during the day is much nearer 12 o'clock than 11 o'clock. I cannot help hoping that the Postmaster-General will realise that a delivery at that time makes business almost impossible. That is in the district of Wensleydale, which is noted for its cheese and for its beauty, while it is also a great health resort.
It is a place which is used very largely during the summer season as a health resort, and to which tremendous numbers of people go, and it ought to have a much better service than at the present time. The right hon. Gentleman has told me that it is not his fault, but that it really lies with the railway company, for not running such a train service up the branch line as would enable him to have the letters delivered. I think I can finish that argument off, so far as the right hon. Gentleman is concerned, by reminding him that the postal service is even worse now than it was when there was no railway there at all. If the right hon. Gentleman will start to bring the postal service even up to the condition of 50 years ago, he will be doing something of service. It would be very simple to do that by running a motor service. His predecessor, in 1920, told me that a motor service would cost £1,000 a year, but the costs were a great deal higher in 1920 than they are now. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to give his personal consideration to this matter, and to see whether he cannot open up the question again, and provide a postal service which will, at any rate, give us some little convenience in that large area.
There is one other matter, which is a local one, and which affects his Department. That is the question of the Post Office at North Allerton. Some years ago the present buildings were condemned as being insanitary, and anyone who knows the buildings will realise that they are not buildings in which it is fair to expect the staff to work and to carry out then duties properly. It is not really a question of great expense, because the Department has bought another site and another building which only requires alteration; and all that is required before the Post Office staff is transferred from the old site to the new one is that such alterations may be made as are necessary. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will give that point his consideration, and remove a very real grievance on the part of his staff. While we are grateful for what he has done for us in the way of telephone services, and for trying to help agriculture in that direction, I hope he will press his Department to take a broader view. They should take the view that the postal service in agricultural districts cannot be expected to pay its way, but that, notwithstanding, it is his duty, and the duty of his Department, to give at any rate a reasonable postal service, and one which will enable us properly to carry on our business.
I should like to substantiate the remarks which my hon. Friend who has just sat down has addressed to the Postmaster-General. We are all agreed that for years the postal service has been very inefficient. I know that my right hon. Friend is genuinely anxious to bring into the Post Office service a spirit of businesslike efficiency. If I may say so, I had an example to-day, in a reply which he gave to a question which was put down by me, and for the second time by the hon. Baronet who represents Caithness and Sutherland (Sir A. Sinclair). We have, in the North, a district which is an extremely wide and depopulated one. Villages may be seven miles apart, and it would interest the House to know that a letter posted in one village and sent to London will take just the same time to get a reply as a letter posted in that village and sent to one seven miles away. That position of affairs is intolerable, and I am glad to think that my right hon. Friend had the wisdom to pay personal attention to a case like that and to produce a remedy. The remedy was very simple, in that he introduced a sorting van from the town of Inverness to Helmsdale. I am glad to think that the right hon. Gentleman's Department is being run at a profit. I think it is the one Department of the State which, being run efficiently, the taxpayers of this country would not mind if they did not mate a farthing profit out of it. The postal service in the country districts is the one light from the outside world, and the day service is essential, not only as a social amenity but for business purposes throughout the whole country.
I would particularly refer to the case which has been adumbrated by my hon. Friend the Member for the Richmond Division of Yorkshire (Mr. Wilson). I am not going to deal so much with the postal service, though I must say that the case he has adduced of a highly industrialised agricultural community gave me cause to think. I have an infinite number of such cases, and so have my colleagues, from all over Scotland; but I am dealing with the rural telephonic side of agricultural life. Let me take the North of Scotland again. The people there, though they are not very conservative in politics, are extremely tenacious of old customs, and for years they thought that the telephone was most uncanny, just as many people think that wireless is uncanny to-day. Instead of the Government coming in and assisting those very able and intelligent farmers in the North to break down that prejudice and to make the telephone a real power in the land, I have the greatest difficulty in getting the Postmaster-General to consider whether he should reduce the number of eight subscribers to six. Very often when you cannot find eight intelligent farmers in a locality you may find six. The party line system in the North is no good, because the distances are so far one from another. I am perfectly convinced that the Postmaster-General has only got to make a start in the Highlands to familiarise the people with the telephone, and that then he will be able, in a year or two's time, to come to this House and say that his own foresight and business capacity have brought him a profit where he never expected one.
Let me point out what are the benefits to the farmers, from the point of view of their own industry, in having an efficient telephone system. There is, first of all, the consideration that these farms are outlying, away from the local post office. If they have a telephone, telegrams coming to the post office or the station can always be sent with great expedition to the residence of the farmer. You could also, by means of a telephone system, have co-operation in sending farm stock to the local station. There is no such co-operation at the present time, because the distances to the various farms in these depopulated districts are so great that there is no opportunity for cooperation, and a great expense is placed on the shoulders of each individual farmer. I have talked with the most intelligent farmers in the North, and they tell me that that would be one of the greatest benefits which a cheap and efficient rural telephonic system could produce in their midst. Again, these farms—we are all out to encourage the agricultural industry, especially in Scotland—are very often far away, not only from the station, but from the market town. I am going to repeat what a most intelligent farmer in the North told me when he said that if they had this system of rural telephones they could always telephone to the auctioneer at the market in the morning to find out what demand there was for a certain stock and a certain breed.
Like Canada, as the hon. Baronet the Member for Central Wandsworth points out. Our Colonies, I believe, can give us points in regard to the use of the rural telephone. By its aid the farmer can inquire about the prospects of the market. He can find out if the market for a certain stock is a good one, and again, by use of the telephone, he can communicate with his friends, and by cheapening transport through having such co-operation they can send their cattle into the market towns with a reasonable chance of profit. Again, farmers, instead of Very often wasting a day in running about to the various markets, can, if they have a telephone—which they are all anxious to instal, once it becomes efficient and cheap—telephone one to the other. The farmer who wants more barley can telephone to the man whom he knows has got barley. He can quickly effect a purchase by telephone without the waste of a day going to the market town where there may be no barley at all. I feel sure that the people of the country will have reason to trust the ability and desire of my right hon. Friend to look after the interests of the country in this respect even at a cost to the taxpayer, and I believe he could make a great name for himself in the Post Office if he tackled the rural telephone system and the daily service system from the point of view of agriculture. I sit down, as I began, by saying that I believe, providing you have reasonable efficiency, that if the Committee knew that every home could be connected with the centre of life by a daily service, it would pay little regard to any profits which would be produced from this system as a whole. I ask my right hon. Friend to consider what can be done on this particular point, and I sincerely hope he will be able to tell us in a short time that he has been able to benefit the agricultural industry and that he and his Department are anxious and eager to advance, still further, an industry which, in this country, should be the greatest and most efficient of all.
I wish I could share in the expressions of some of my hon. Friends who have been complimenting the Postmaster-General, but I am afraid I cannot compliment either the Postmaster-General or his assistant on anything but their honesty in stating that certain grievances cannot be redressed. When I came into this House in November one of the first complaints I had to make was with regard to the hours of posting at Brighouse. Prior to the War, the latest time for posting at that post office was 8.30, but during the War the hour was changed to 7.30. I made application on behalf of the Tradesmen's Association that the hour should be fixed at 8 o'clock, and we were prepared to be satisfied with that. It was altered from 7.30 to 7.45, but letters posted at 7.45 require an extra halfpenny stamp. As has already been pointed out, there have recently been three Postmasters-General, and when the second Postmaster-General was appointed, I thought I was going to be successful, because we were told distinctly that the Post Office was for the benefit of the inhabitants of this country and that the first consideration was that the public should be well served. As a matter of fact, the Post Office is not serving the public well if it is not prepared to fix a later hour than 7.30 for the posting of letters in a district of from 20,000 to 25,000 inhabitants. A man who works in Bradford or Halifax and who has to travel home to that district will leave his work at 5.30 in the evening and then he has got to spend three-quarters of an hour on the tram, and when he reaches home, if he is called upon to write a letter for that evening's post, he must do so before he can have his tea. I appeal to the Postmaster-General to say if that is a satisfactory condition of affairs.
There is one thing, however, for which, as I say, I give the present Postmaster-General credit, and that is honesty. The other two Postmasters-General made me believe that something was going to be done; that they were making inquiries as to how to meet my complaint. When I met the secretary to the present Postmaster-General he plainly stated that what I desired could not be done, because he said if it were done for us it would have to be done for others. I say that it ought to be done for others. The Post Office is for the benefit of the public, and we have heard from the Postmaster-General of the great wealth that is being made from it. Why not try to make still more by giving people the proper facilities. At Huddersfield and Halifax boxes have been put upon the trams and if you miss a general post, you can by affixing an additional halfpenny stamp post your letter on the tram in either of these two districts, and yet in the district with which I am dealing, 7.30 is the last hour of posting in the general post office. Consider the inconvenience which this causes to business men and tradesmen; it would appear as though nobody was looking after their interests in this matter. The compromise between the hours of 8 and 7.30 was fixed at 7.45, but as I have stated an additional halfpenny stamp was necessary and I do not know why that should be so. The Post Office would have a great deal of extra revenue if proper facilities were given, and it is difficult to understand why the public should be called upon to pay an extra halfpenny for a quarter of an hour's grace. I have made inquiries, and I know the postmen do not object to the alteration but would be glad to see it made in the interests of the public, while so far as the Post Office officials are concerned there is not the slightest objection. Nor is there any difficulty with regard to trains, and in a district like Batley, which is not many miles away, the latest hour of posting is 9 o'clock.
There is another point which I desire the Postmaster-General to look into at once. Last February I made application for a telephone on behalf of the firm of Messrs. Dyson and Sons. Prior to that they had been making application themselves for months and Mr. Dyson, the head of the firm, told me he could get nothing done and requested me to take the matter up. It was a serious trouble to this firm in their business. I made the application and a letter has been received stating that the telephone is about to be put in. It has taken from February until July to bring the matter to that stage. We have now come to the last week of July, but the telephone has not yet been installed and the people concerned do not know whether they will get it in to-day or to-morrow or when they will get it in. The result is that when telephoning is necessary, they have to use the telephones of other business houses in the locality which they do not like to do because it is undesirable for business people to discuss business matters over the telephone in another business concern. I trust the Postmaster-General will see if it is not possible to expedite the installation of telephones, especially for business people. I know the difficulties which existed during the War, but that is not the position to-day and if the Post Office are short of men to do the work there are plenty of unemployed. It is by looking after the public in general that the Postmaster-General will be able to increase revenue. After all it is the public of the country who are the chief supporters of the Post Office and who deserve consideration from the Postmaster-General and he will, I hope, consider the matters I have brought to his notice.
There are two points of Post Office policy to which I shall draw attention in connection with which something might be done to redress real grievances. I first refer to what is called the bulk system of dealing with registered letters. Since the War a great change has taken place in the method of dealing with registered letters and this change has disadvantages for the public while it also involves danger to the postal sorters who are handling registered letters. Before the War every registered letter had an identifying number and nobody accepted a registered letter without giving a receipt to the man who handled it last, while nobody relinquished his hold on a registered letter without getting a receipt from the person to whom it was handed over. The whole history of a registered letter or package could be traced from the time it was posted to the time it was delivered. Since the War, registered letters and packages are made up in parcels or in bags of 50, 55 and 60, and there is no identification of each particular letter so that it is very much more difficult now to trace through whose hands a particular letter may have passed. The result is that the postal sorters find there is great danger that they may be charged with being concerned in the loss of letters and packages the history of which they are unable to trace. This matter came up in a case heard yesterday in the Old Bailey and scathing remarks were made by the Recorder of London on the way in which the system has been changed since the war. A postal sorter was charged with the theft of a letter and was found not guilty. The Recorder said, the charge should never have been brought against the man; also that the whole system was thoroughly bad and that the Post Office should consider a return to the pre-War system. Incidentally, may I point out that this man although discharged from Court without a stain on his character, is left to pay the entire costs of the proceeding amounting to something like £200? It seems a case where the Post Office should consider whether it would not be wise and just to give the man compensation. I am not, however, raising this question from the point of view of an individual, but from the point of view of the public service. It is to the interest of the public and certainly to the interest of the sorters, that the Post Office should revert to the old system.
The second matter to which I direct attention is the question of the recognition of the National Federation of Postal and Telegraph Clerks. I ask the Postmaster-General if he cannot see his way to recognise this body. It is of very great value to any association or society of State servants to be recognised when bargains have to be made between the State and its employés with regard to pay, con- ditions and status. When the present Financial Secretary to the Treasury was Postmaster-General he recognised the Guild of Postal Sorters. The guild, however, is only one of four guilds which compose the National Federation of Postal and Telegraph Clerks, and they find it a very great grievance that when questions are discussed between the Department and its employees they are not consulted and have no voice in determining their own fortunes. There are about 7,000 employees in the federation, representing some of the best elements in the postal service. They broke away from the Union of Post Office Workers because they did not see the point of belonging to a union which was affiliated with a political party and imposed a political levy upon all its members. For that reason they formed this federation and they ask the Postmaster-General to give them the same recognition as that which is given by every department of the State to a society of employés as soon as that society comprises within its membership a sufficiently large section. It seems only fair that this organisation should have the same recognition as other bodies in the Post Office service. I trust the Postmaster-General will see his way to accord that recognition straight away or, alternatively, to receive a deputation of these men and hear what is to be said on their behalf. I only rose to call attention to these two questions, which are of considerable moment not only to the servants of the Post Office but to the public as well.
I find myself in rather a difficulty, because I have to make an appeal to the Postmaster-General and, at the same time, a criticism of his Department and an attack on the policy of his Department. If I make the appeal first, I wonder whether the attack I may make afterwards will do away with any good that my appeal may make on his mind, and, on the other hand, if I make the attack first and the criticism afterwards and then make an appeal to him, I wonder whether that appeal will not fall on deaf ears. I feel somewhat reassured by the statement that the right hon. Gentleman made towards the end of his exceedingly interesting speech, which I feel reflects credit not particularly on a new Postmaster-General, but on a huge national service, and a very old service. The right hon. Gentleman was good enough to say that he will always endeavour to consider any grievance that any of the members of the staff have, and that it will always be his policy, within reason, of course, to stand on good terms amongst the members of his staff.
The appeal that I want to make to him—and I have decided to make the appeal first—is on behalf not of a very large section of his employés, but of a very small section. In fact, I think the whole body of them would not number more than about 100 men. It is that section known as the Post Office stamp section, a section that originally was established under the Inland Revenue and was transferred to the Post Office very much later. The Service was reorganised in 1906, and from that time onward it was treated always as doing work equal in value to the work of the assistant clerks in the Civil Service. Not only were they graded very much the same so far as their general conditions were concerned, but after the reorganisation in 1906 they were actually brought on to the same standard of salary, and maintained that standard equal to that of the assistant clerks during the time that they remained inside the Department they were then under. They were, however, transferred, without being asked whether they would like it or not; they were transferred, largely against their will, in 1914 to the Post Office. Under the agreement in connection with the reorganisation in 1906 these men were graded, and the new grading matured to the senior men in 1910. It is quite a long time since 1910, and I believe that I should be speaking the truth if I said that there is no other branch of the Service, except these men, who from 1910 to the present time, 13 years, have received no increase of wages at all.
They have from time to time taken steps to bring their grievance to the notice of the Department, but apparently their claim has not been met, and I think has not been very favourably or even reasonably considered, because, in the first place, they did not desire to go to the Post Office, and were not asked whether or not they would like to go to the Post Office. They went there, and when they were transferred they were graded as warehousemen. These men, who previously were admitted by the Treasury to be equal to the assistant clerks, were getting all the privileges of assistant clerks, and were receiving the actual salary of the assistant clerks, were, shortly after their transfer, degraded and called warehousemen, and since then their progress has not been upwards but all the time downwards. One cannot expect men in that position to feel happy or contented in their work. Their duties are varied, and, frankly, I think it is quite ridiculous to call these men warehousemen. The work they are doing at the present time is very largely supervisory; it is work that to a considerable extent is clerical, and it is also what might be called manual or manipulative. They supervise, in the first place, the manufacture of all watermarked paper, the paper for stamps, the paper for Treasury notes, and for all bills, postal orders, and that kind of thing, and when it is manufactured they take the paper over. They take the manufactured articles, the stamps themselves, the postal orders, the Treasury notes—the paper for the Treasury notes, I mean—and they check it, and they are actually responsible for the clerical as well as the manipulative side of its distribution.
I think it is really absurd to call these men warehousemen at all, but it is even worse than that, when we find that instead of getting increases in their wages, they are actually getting a decrease. At the present time they are being put on a longer working week. They used to work 39 hours a week, and now they are put on what is actually a 51 hours week—what is called in the Service a 48 hours week. The Postmaster-General will see that the effect of transferring men who used to work 39 hours a week, with a half-day off on Saturday when circumstances permitted, to a grade where they have to work 48 hours a week is actually a reduction in wages. They are getting less per hour for their services to-day than they were a number of years ago, and I hope, the Postmaster-General will consider the condition of these men, who, as I say, have had no increase since 1910, and the youngest man in the Service is 32 years of age and has 19 years' service to his credit, so that they are men, assuming they are efficient—and that is not in question—who deserve the attention of the right hon. Gentleman and those responsible for the Department. They are only a little section, and it is probably because they are only little that they have not been able to bring their grievance as forcibly before the public mind and before the Department itself as otherwise they would have been able to do.
They are asking for a special committee of inquiry, and I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to try and forget anything I may say afterwards, and to give these 100 men, this little section of his very wonderful and large staff, some attention. It has been suggested to me that he might set up a committee, consisting of one member of the staff, one of the high administrative staff in the Postal Service, somebody nominated by the Prime Minister, and somebody else nominated by the Leader of the Opposition, with, perhaps, an independent chairman from outside, to inquire into the matter. I am sure these men would be satisfied with, the result of such an inquiry, and that justice would be done by such a committee.
Now I want to criticise the action of the Department, although not the action of the right hon. Gentleman himself, because he has not been long enough Postmaster-General, probably, to be aware of the facts of the case. The matter was raised to-day in the form of a question by an hon. Member in regard to the Press Association and, I believe, the Central News and their relations to the Post Office, in the system by which they hire some of the wires of the Post Office for their own particular work. The objection that is raised to that system is, that they use some of their own staff, not the staff of the Post Office, but a staff hired by themselves. A claim has been made, and I think rightly made, that these hired men should have applied to them, in exactly the same way as it is applied to the Post Office staff themselves, that Clause that is commonly called the Fair Wages Clause. I know that the company say that they are prepared to apply a certain Fair Wages Clause, and that they are prepared to pay a certain minimum for telegraphists, but that minimum, for the service which they expect to receive, appears to be altogether ridiculous. They expect a man to be an engineer, a linesman, a mechanic, and a telegraphist all in one, and for all those services they are prepared to pay the minimum that is given to the ordinary telegraphist with none of the other quali-
fications at all. It is argued by the Post Office officials that they have no control over this matter. I have in my hand a report of a speech made by the then Postmaster-General when this matter first came under the observation of this House. The Postmaster-General at that time, in 1909, when it was contemplated that an arrangement such as has actually been made would be made between these Press services and the Post Office, said:
The Press Association and the Central News have agreed that if it is done, and if some of the staff that they employ are not supplied by the Post Office, a Fair Wages Clause should be introduced into their contracts which would secure the payment of a proper rate of wages.
If the Postmaster-General in 1909 gave a pledge, as he did, to the delegates of the Trade Union Congress who waited on him and asked him to give his consideration to the matter, that if this contract should ever be made between the Press Association and the Government that Fair Wages Clause should be introduced into the contract itself, we have a right to expect to-day that the successor of the Postmaster-General of that time will give consideration to this matter and remedy this legitimate grievance of the telegraphists against his Department. If the Postmaster-General personally said to the company that he thought, in view of the pledge given by his predecessor, that he ought to have insisted on this matter going into the contract, I believe that the Press Association would agree, although the matter might not actually be in the contract, to some reasonable settlement with the telegraphists concerned in the dispute which is now going on. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will give this matter his personal attention.
The other matter to which I wish to refer is the attack on the Department which I mentioned in opening my remarks. I do not want to call it an attack—perhaps "criticism" would be a better word. But I do suggest that the Post Office, having actually asked this House to give them large sums of money for certain buildings, must have been assured beforehand of the necessity, and if those buildings, seven, eight, or ten years ago in some cases, were admitted to be in an insanitary condition, and altogether insufficient for the staff, I think it must be said to be a stupid policy to give the money back, and leave the staff under the old conditions in which they were working. You have such a state of things at Mount Pleasant and Carter Lane, and I believe in many other places. An hon. Gentleman gave an instance of some place in the provinces where a similar state of things exists. It was on grounds of insufficiency of accommodation and the insanitary condition of the dwellings generally that predecessors of the right hon. Gentleman came to this House and asked for a grant of money, and, having got it, for some extraordinary reason, they never used it, and gave it back to the Treasury. I have never been foolish enough, if I have been given any money, to return it without some very good reason, and I cannot understand why this should have been done.
There are large numbers of men in my own industry, the building trade, begging for work, and here you have Government buildings admittedly insanitary and overcrowded. You have the men, who could put them into good sanitary condition, standing idly outside the Employment Exchanges, and you have the money granted by this House being held up for a long period of months, or even years, and then handed back to the Treasury without any kind of explanation being given to this House or anybody at all. I say that is a state of things that ought not to exist, and I hope the Postmaster-General will see that these men who are out of work are put to some kind of useful work when you have the money and the job there. Surely it is not an economy to do things in this way, and I do hope another attempt will be made at a very early date to take these men off the streets and put them on to the work of repairing these buildings. It will make the men more happy in earning money instead of getting it for doing nothing. The country will be better off, and the staff inside these buildings will be contented and able to do better work because of the better conditions.
May I, in conclusion, go back to the first point of mine, and ask the right hon. Gentleman to give serious consideration to that little group of men who are giving good service to his Department, and to see that they get something more like reasonable justice than they have got in the past? I know the conditions, and I know they have a legitimate grievance. I hope, therefore, whatever decision may have been given in the past by some official, that the Minister himself will be big enough to say, "The official made a mistake; we will give their case another hearing," and if the official has made a mistake, I hope he will be big enough to say so, because it is only big men who can say they have made a mistake. I hope they will say so, and the wrong will be put right.
Mr. GRAHAM WHITE:
I rise for the limited purpose of drawing attention to an anomaly which exists in the postal service of the Cheshire side of the port of Liverpool. This anomaly has persisted so long that it is now felt to be an injustice. It arises from the fact that, although the port of Liverpool is one unit, the employés of the post offices at Birkenhead and Wallasey are in Class 2, while on the Liverpool side of the water they are in Class 1. If any test can be applied to the conditions under which the work is done, it will be found that the work is identical. The Post Office is the only service which makes any difference in conditions or rates of pay between the employés on different sides of the river. In the case of the employés of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, various branches of work at the docks and the clerical occupations, there is no difference whatever. Those who know the district well, will know that on both sides of the river there are districts which are identical as to density of population and in other respects. Petitions have been lodged, I understand, asking for this anomaly to be put right in 1919 and also in 1920. In 1921 an assurance was given by the then Postmaster-General that the matter would have attention, but nothing has been done, and, as I say, that anomaly which has persisted for so long has become, in fact, an injustice. The Postmaster-General and the Committee will realise the sense of injustice which is felt by people who live in the same road, who may even be neighbours, and who go to work, one in the Post Office at Birkenhead or Wallasey, and the other at Liverpool, doing exactly the same work and yet being rewarded in a different way. I have, therefore, taken this opportunity of directing the attention of the Postmaster-General to this anomaly, in the confident hope that he will give it his attention, and remove what is felt to be an injustice.
In connection with the large sum of money which this Committee has been asked to pass to-day, I would like to draw the attention of the Postmaster-General and the Committee to what I, in common with a large number of the public and traders in London, consider is a crying scandal. I refer to the reckless and haphazard way in which the postal authorities and the telegraph authorities tear up the streets, utterly regardless of any other work that may have been carried on just previously. I have been informed that an application has been made to the local authority by the Post Office authorities that they intend to lay telephone ducts in Oxford Street, Oxford Circus, and Market Street, and also along Oxford Street to Davies Street, and from Portman Square to Edgware Road. It is only three or four years ago that these streets were reconstructed in a very substantial way. It is also still more astonishing that these works should be done now, as the local authorities, before they put the road reconstruction in hand, wrote to the postal authorities and asked them if they had any work under consideration, but no notice was taken of the letter. Every trader who has premises in these main streets will tell you of the tremendous financial expense to which he has been put when the roads have been taken up, and when these streets were relaid he naturally expected he would be allowed to carry on his business in an uninterrupted way. Now, thanks to the postal authorities, the whole of this work has to be gone over again.
Apart from the fact that these obstructions cause a great deal of expense to the trader, there is also a great deal of delay to traffic. Everyone realises the inconvenience of the congested state of the streets, which is made infinitely worse by these excavations. The streets which have just been re-made in Oxford Street and Oxford Circus were re-laid in the most approved fashion, having been constructed with 12 inches of solid concrete, on top of which you had screeding, and on top of that wood block paving. The whole of this work has to be pulled up, long trenches made, and telephone ducts laid down. I think, in view of the cries for economy, it is surely up to a Government Department to point the way, and not to follow. I would suggest that the Post Office authorities might act in a little less arbitrary manner, and when they have any programme under consideration, they should get in touch with the local authorities, and if those authorities have got any work to do in the streets, they should arrange that all the work could be done at the same time. A lot of these excavations and operations in the roads could be avoided by constructing tunnels under the streets. There are a lot of public utility services, such as gas, water, and telephones, which could be carried in these tunnels. It would serve a double purpose, because it would give work to the unemployed, for which everybody is asking just now.
Before dealing with one or two main points which I desire to bring to the attention of the Postmaster-General and the Committee, I want to touch on one or two of the points that have been raised in the discussion. In the course of his opening statement, the Postmaster-General somewhat deplored the fact that the reduction in postage had not resulted in the tremendous increase in revenue that might have been expected, but I venture to say that there is no better barometer of trade than the Post Office, and the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has a considerable surplus is an indication, largely, of the success of the reduced postage, because it is pretty evident that, had the postage not been reduced, his balance sheet would not have been so satisfactory as it is. I think it can be claimed, on behalf both of the Post Office and of those who have always pressed the case for reduced postage, that the reduction has been warranted right up to the hilt, and there is a case made for even further reduction, namely, a return to the penny postage.
Among the matters raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Middleton) was a reference in particular to the conditions of working of the telephone operators, the great and nervous strain that is placed upon them, and the neurasthenia and breakdown that occurs. We have again and again pressed on the right hon. Gentleman and on his predecessors before him to consent to a joint inquiry into the industrial fatigue in co-operation with the Industrial Fatigue Board to see whether ways and means cannot be found to overcome the strain, to inquire whether the load is not too heavy, and whether it does not have the effect of giving the impaired service of which complaint is made. With some experience of the American Telephone Service, I very seriously discount all the eulogiums passed on it in comparison with the service here. Having regard to all the circumstances, and the tremendous distances that rule on the American continent, we need have no fear of a comparison between the services in this country and in America. As I said on this Vote last year, some years ago, when I happened to be on the Continent for some time at the request of the then Postmaster-General, I made some inquiries in the best way that one could, and submitted a Report to him. On the whole, I was convinced that, taking all things into consideration, the service on this side of the Atlantic will compare with anything they could give us on the other side. One really cannot compare the facilities which largely arise from the difference in the standard of living in the two countries. There, in almost every artisan's house when he takes it, there is a telephone, which is an entirely different state of things from anything we have in this country.
Reference was made by the hon. and learned Member for Moss Side (Mr. Hurst) to the bulk system of handling registered letters. I have memories of bringing this before the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor no less than two years ago, and of impressing it on him, while I have also been on deputations on this particular subject. The Post Office Department have always answered that the conditions were satisfactory to them. I can tell the House that the union with which I am connected approached chambers of commerce, we saw business men, tried to get them to co-operate with us to bring pressure to bear on the Post Office to alter the system. We could not get it, and to a large extent our case broke down at that point. I am prepared to reiterate the case that from the point of view of the conditions of handling by the employés—I know this, because I spent a good many years in the Registered Letter Department—and of the safety of the goods committed to the Post Office, it would be very much better if they could return to the old hand-to-hand check system, so that they could follow the registered letter at every stage, from the moment it was committed to the care of the Post Office to the moment when it was delivered to the addressee.
I want once more to emphasise the point raised by the hon. Member for Carlisle regarding the starting pay. The matter was raised in a question in this House, which resulted in the defeat of the Government, with regard to what are known as the Lytton Entrants. A Committee was appointed and made its Report. It was brought to the attention of the right hon. Gentleman's Department that it called naturally for consideration to be given to the starting pay of entrants in his own Department. It was promised that the matter would be inquired into expeditiously, but there has been no indication of any expedition up to the present moment, and I hope we shall get it from him that he is going to ginger things up a little, and that the Department will deal with it as expeditiously as possible. If a Committee of this House could get on with its business as quickly as they have done, surely a single Department, such as the Post Office, can handle the matter within their own province equally quickly.
One point that I raised last year had reference to an alteration and saving that had been made—one of the meanest savings that could be made by any Department—on the quality of the uniform supplied to our postmen. The complaints are still that the quality of the uniform in its material is very much inferior to what used to be supplied years ago, and surely it is no credit to a great Government Department to come to the House of Commons and say that they are able to save so many hundreds of thousands of pounds a year at the expense of the uniform which these men have to wear to protect them against the inclemency of the weather, and in which they have to carry on their duties at all times. Further, it is a false economy, because there is increased sickness among the staff. I hope the Postmaster-General will give some attention to this matter in particular. I would remind hon. Members who have been pressing for reforms that they will get the co-operation of the staff, and if we do that we have to recognise that there can be a profit given by the Post Office to the community as a whole even if it is not always expressed in a cash payment. If we get improved service and improved facilities for the Post Office, the community get it in another way. Somehow or another there always seems to be an anxiety to look on the Post Office as a sort of milch cow to supply a considerable balance to carry to their Budget. Some years ago I gave evidence before a Committee upstairs under the Chairmanship of Mr. Holt, who was then a Member of this House, and he put to me the question, "Suppose there was no cash surplus in the Post Office, where would your claim be for improved conditions and payments for the Post Office staff?" My answer was that my claim was precisely as good, because the community got the advantage of improved service whether they had it in a form that could be added to the Budget or not. While we join hon. Members, therefore, in these demands, we recognise that they have to be paid for and may result in a somewhat decreased revenue.
The two points to which I wish to speak more particularly are the sub-office assistants, and the subject mentioned by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Sir H. Norman)—the Imperial wireless chain. With regard to the first, the point has been frequently raised in discussions in this House, and I want to call the attention of the right hon. Gentleman to a fact in his Department with which probably he is not yet acquainted. I think one has a right to enter a demurrer against the action of a Government which has had three Postmasters-General in nine months to preside over the Post Office in this country. It means that one cannot expect Post Office undertakings to be carried on on satisfactory lines. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will have a long tenure of office, and that his statement to-night, good having regard to the short time he has been there, may be improved upon as he goes on, that it will be still more satisfactory next year, that he will tell of improved facilities to the public, and that many of the grievances complained of by the staff have been remedied. Old Members must have been impressed by the fact that much less time is taken up than used to be the case with the grievances of the staff. That is an indi- cation of the new spirit in the Post Office, where the associations and administration now largely deal with the points of difference and are able to settle them without worrying or wasting the time of the Houes. I hope the Postmaster-General will do all he can to encourage that spirit, and that it will operate in the right way, each side yielding here and there, while looking at the matter impartially and endeavouring to arrive at a common agreement.
The question of the sub-office assistants concerns 15,000 employés who are not directly responsible to the Postmaster-General. The major work of the Post Office is carried on in sub-offices. They are of two kinds. The larger kind are known technically as Crown offices and are directly under the control of Parliament and the Postmaster-General. Then, there are a larger number of scale-payment offices held by people who have some other business. The employés in these offices are not subject to the same conditions either of pensions, hours, pay, or anything else that obtain in the Post Office. I am not going to blame the sub-postmasters in this respect. They are merely agents carrying out work that the Post Office itself should undertake, and are given a lump sum out of which they have to get what assistance they can in order to carry on their work. It is suggested that at least the Postmaster-General might carry out the suggestion of the Holt Committee, which recommended in paragraph 936, that the rule that when the gross emoluments of an office were over £250 per annum in the provinces and £500 per annum in London the office should be transferred to the salaried class, should be strictly enforced in every case other than those of some very large offices at which the postal business only represents a trifling proportion of the whole business, and is carried on ancillary thereto for the convenience of the sub-postmaster and his customers. Predecessors of the Postmaster-General have given lip-service to that suggestion, and have said that they were prepared to carry it out. The attention of the right hon. Gentleman and his predecessors has been called to the fact that there are in London several post offices where the emoluments exceed £500. Surely, it is fair that they should be brought under the control of the Post Office direct, and that the staff should be under the control of the Postmaster and subject to all the conditions both as to emoluments and conditions of service. I beg the Postmaster-General to give attention to that. So far as those who are in the other offices are concerned and who remain in those shops, the grocers, tobacconists, etc., it has been suggested that they should come under the Trade Board. That has been refused on the ground that the Minister of Labour has no authority. That is hardly a fair answer. These people are not Crown employés, and therefore must and can be treated in precisely the same way as other employés and can be brought within the ambit of the Trade Boards Act and made subject to the fair wage clause. The Post Office cannot evade responsibility in this matter by trying to carry on with other people, putting on them the onus of doing Government work under sweated conditions.
I noticed with some interest that the Postmaster-General in his opening statement referred to the fact that there are to be some high-power stations opened here jointly with the Marconi Company, that they are going to be worked from the General Post Office, and that there are going to be two other stations held by the company and one by the Post Office itself. That is another way of subsidising a private industry, and setting up a monopoly in this country that may have a very grave national and international danger. Last week and last night we took the first steps towards the next war, and it is probable that the monopoly that is being set up in regard to the Imperial Wireless Chain will land us in very grave difficulties if ever we find ourselves in disagreement with other nations. The Committee will appreciate the fact that the whole of the wireless chain, practically the whole of the world, is now in the hands of four private companies. That is the actual position. They are the Marconi Company, the German Telefunken Company, the French Marconi Company, and the Radio Corporation of America, the latter probably the stronger. Although the Postmaster-General has told us to wait, I think the House will be very ill-advised to let this develop without seriously inquiring into the possibilities involved. Attention has been called by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Blackburn (Sir H. Norman), who speaks with some authority on the matter, to the grave danger with which we are faced. Here you have four important companies concerned in world development in long-distance wireless telegraphy. They have mapped out practically the whole of the world into sphere of exploitation. They have arranged the common use of patents and the interchange of expert apparatus and ideas.
The Big Four, as they are known technically, are closely related. The French company came under the control of Marconi's in 1913. Marconi's and the Radio Corporation of America share the ownership of the South American Radio Corporation. The Big Four have subsidiary companies associated with them, and they are also associated with engineering and manufacturing concerns. Surely one need not dilate at any length, in raising this question, to show the very grave dangers with which this nation is going to be faced in handing over this tremendous power to these three or four companies, which at the moment are actually one world-wide wireless combine with increasing monopoly. With all respect to the right hon. Gentleman the Postmaster-General it is sheer nonsense for him to talk, as he did in his opening statement about competition between the Post Office and these companies. There is no competition. Competiton has been eliminated. The different companies have marked out their different sphere of exploitation, and they are in a position to exert great pressure on the nation life of any nation. I have already spoken of the grave danger both internationally and to international security if the matter had not already arrived at that stage. It is as well to notice, as bearing out what I have already said, how these companies originated, how they stand, and their ramifications. The Swiss Marconi Company was set up in 1921–22 with a 30 years' monopoly of wireless telegraphy and telephony. In Austria a similar state of affairs was set up, and I think there 65 per cent. of the shares are held by Marconi's. In Peru, Marconi's have taken over the entire wireless services, and also the posts telegraphs. In Portugal, a Marconi subsidiary company have a 40 years' monopolistic concession. Marconi's have also secured practical control of the Swedish Radio Company.
Then we come to the British Empire. In Australia there has been set up a scheme very much on the lines of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in this country, the position being that the balance of shares is held by the Government. It is worth while to note that ex-Premier Hughes was anxious to give Marconi control on the Board of Directors. Then take South Africa. Marconis there are getting practical control of the wireless system. The same thing applies to Canada where they have a licence to erect a station at Montreal. I observed that yesterday the right hon. Gentleman received a deputation from the Empire Press Union to discuss the question of wireless telegraphy with particular reference to the position of India. This very powerful deputation seemed to desire to bring pressure to bear on the Government to give greater concessions and control to Marconi. It was rightly pointed out that this country and other countries have suffered very long and waited for a long time in this matter. The Government, as I see by what happened yesterday, has to face some opposition in Government circles. There has been some endeavour to get the position settled so far as India is concerned. Pressure has been exercised. The Marconi Company are exercising pressure in order to obtain control in India. It is of interest to note that some time ago the technical adviser of the Indian Government recommended the Marconi Company. Our interest and our curiosity perhaps is deepened when we realise that this gentleman was formerly managing director of the Russian Marconi Company, so that we are beginning to see the ramifications of this company in the various countries and their apparent desire to get control of the world-wide Imperial wireless chain. The Norman Committee, presided over by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn in 1919–20, recommended in effect that a scheme should be carried out of an Empire Wireless Chain under which the Empire was: to be encircled in stages of 2,000 miles and British and Dominion Post Offices were to own and finance it. The Milner Commission reported on the technical side of the Imperial wireless chain, and they much strengthened this recommendation. Early in 1923 the Cabinet Committee came down with a decision, deciding to hand over licences to private enterprise with wireless chain stations in Great Britain to carry on this particular work. If that is going to be done, and the Postmaster-General in his opening statement said that this, wireless was going to be worked from the Post Office, what does this mean? That all the expenses are to be borne by the Government, and that this company is coming in and going to cream off the profits, get control, and have a dominant voice in the matter which is of vital importance to the British Empire.
I suggest even now it is not too late for the Government to revise its policy and to refuse licences in Great Britain to private enterprise. The Union of Post Office Workers, by means of their central committee, has suggested that they might form a deputation to discuss this question. The request has been refused on the ground that the question was one of national policy, but it is a long time since the trade unions and the people who carry on important industries have been concerned only with hours of labour and conditions of the men they represent. We are vitally concerned in the services in which we work. We claim to have much knowledge and understanding that is of value to the community. We ought to be allowed to bring our point of view into touch with the Administration in effecting a solution of this matter. It is claimed on this side by some of us on behalf of the Post Office staff that we are capable of undertaking these services ourselves, and that there is no need to hand this over to Marconi or to any other particular company. The British Government evidently recognises that the Post Office is capable of conducting our wireless services, since it is already building a high-power station claimed to be the most powerful in the world. If that is so, it is all the more extraordinary that a licence should be granted to Marconi. It is recognised that the Post Office is capable of carrying on experimental and other research work. It is recognised that the naval authorities must carry on experimental equipment and expenditure in wireless, and this provides an excellent opportunity surely for co-operation in the State wireless services. It is unsafe in many ways to co-operate, so far as a naval service is concerned, with any private company. Then why not develop jointly your State service both for your naval wireless and for your civil purposes, for
such co-operation and experimental work will ensure an up-to-date service? It is a business proposition, one beneficial to the naval and Post Office services. In March the Prime Minister, in announcing that licences would be granted to private enterprise, stated that
It is necessary in the interests of national security that there should be a wireless station in this country capable of communicating with the Dominions and owned and operated by the State.
It is not for the Government to allow this sort of business to get into the hands of private companies, but to recognise the great danger to which the nation might be exposed by so doing. It is essential from the point of view of national security that the wireless services should be controlled by the State, and not by one of the four members of a world-wide wireless monopoly.
What I want to put to the right hon. Gentleman and the House is, that having regard to the possibilities and the future development of this service foreshadowed, it is an unwise thing from every point to allow this to get out of the control of the State and to get into the hands of companies whose ramifications are to the ends of the earth—people who are interested from a financial point of view who are in this country, but are not concerned about the development of or the fortunes of the Empire. It is right surely that the growth and development of a power like this, which can be used for good or ill, should be under the control and monopoly of the Government itself, that they should have the last word, and not any private enterprise which stands to exploit the machinery, experience, experiments and so on on the Government side, yet are going to take all the profits, hold all the power, and, it may be, hold the nation to ransom when we may have need of wireless in the days to come. I trust the right hon. Gentleman will give consideration to this important problem which has been raised with the expert knowledge of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Blackburn, and, I may say, with that of myself representing those who know something about this business, who have taken part in it and are concerned about the development of it, both in the interests of the Post Office and for the good of the nation as a whole.
May I interrupt a moment? I have an important matter I want to put to the right hon. Gentleman, and five Members who have spoken have taken, on an average, 30 minutes each.
The point I wish to make is this: Is it possible to expedite the improvements already foreshadowed—and we know that the changes have perhaps had to wait up till now—in regard to the delivery and dispatch of the morning mail from Cardiff to the Rhondda, and also to the late collection of letters, as we had it pre-War, and the letters on the tramway system? We feel very much at Aberdare and Merthyr, with a population of half a million, the absence of facilities for getting both outwards and inward mails earlier. We are two hours behind in the Rhondda Valley.
There is an understanding to close this Debate at 7.30, and I am very sorry if I should appear to cut off the opportunities of other hon. Members who desire to speak. There is another Estimate to come on, and I think it would be less than courteous if I did not give a reply to some of the questions which have been put to me. We have had a very interesting speech from the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Blackburn (Sir H, Norman), who is a recognised authority on wireless matters, and has served the State so well in that connection. At the same time, I will try and deal with the speech on somewhat different lines made by the hon. Member for North Camber-well (Mr. Ammon). The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Blackburn accused the Government of having reversed their policy of an Empire wireless. That is quite true, but it is not anything like such a reversal as the right hon. Gentleman seems to imagine.
It is true that at one time it was intended that the Government, and the Government alone, should deal with the Empire wireless matters from this end. But at that time it was thought that the Dominion Governments would also set up their own stations so that all the Governments of the Empire would own their stations, and be able to communicate with one another. Australia and South Africa have decided not to follow that policy, and the actual choice before the Government is either to monopolise the Government wireless or make arrangements on this side corresponding with the stations owned by the Marconi Company in South Africa and Australia. When the rest of the Empire changed their policy we had to follow suit, and although that is a reversal of policy it is nothing like the reversal suggested to the Committee, because we do not give up control.
It is suggested by the hon. Member for North Camberwell that the Government is creating a monopoly in the hands of a group of private companies and retiring from the business altogether. He suggested that a monopoly was being put into the hands of these private companies, who were going to squeeze and hold up to ransom this country, and the other countries of the Empire. That is an absurd exaggeration, because far from there being a power under the Marconi Company to squeeze us and charge what they like for them or to take our messages or not, far from that being the case, all our messages are going to be sent by the Government and we are going to use the Marconi Company's station and the Government station. The Post Office will route those messages through either station, and the interest of the Marconi Company is to be a share in the gross receipts of those messages proportionate to their stations as against the Government stations.
Yes, that is outward. Of course, I cannot control the inward messages from South Africa, Australia, or India. Is it suggested that by some over-riding and autocratic power we are to tell the Dominion Governments that we are to control the messages which they send? I am talking of outward messages, because they are the only messages that we can control.
Companies have made arrangements with the Australian and South African Governments, and there are companies there which the Australian Government and the South African Government respectively control, and it is for them to see that no monopoly is created in their country, as we are seeing on this side that no monopoly is created against us. Although that is a reversal of our policy, it is not such a reversal as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Blackburn suggested, because the control of the routing of those messages is kept in our hands. Again, the Member for North Camberwell suggested that we were going to run some strategic risk by allowing the Marconi Company to have a licence to carry on wireless telegraphy, and that during war, or without war, we should be running some risk. That is why we are controlling the routing of the messages in the Post Office.
There is provision in war time, under which the Government can take over any private service. Very often it is the days just before a war, when it may be very necessary that there should be some control over messages that should be sent or not sent and arrangements have been made to protect us in that direction. It has been suggested that the agreement ought to come under Standing Order 72. The Committee will remember that when I first spoke on this subject I said that it might very well happen that, in the final form of the agreement, there might be some charge created upon Public Funds, and if that turns out to be the case, it will have to come within the Standing Order. But no one can say until the agreement appears in its final form whether it does or does not create a charge.
My point was not only that the agreement ought to be laid on the Table, under Standing Order 72, but that the contract must contain a provision that it will not be binding until approved by the House.
It is obvious that if the agreement creates a charge it will have to come before the House. The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Middleton) said that the Anderson Committee was taking away from the control of the House of Commons the consideration of the terms and conditions of employment in the Post Office and the standards of remuneration, which had hitherto been under the control of the House of Commons. The hon. Member need have no such fear, because whatever may be recommended by the Anderson Committee, he knows perfectly well that they will not be carried out behind the back of the House of Commons, which has an annual opportunity of discussing the Post Office Vote; consequently, he need not worry that things will be done to take out of the power of the House of Commons that sort of criticism which he has favoured us with upon the terms and conditions of the employment of Post Office servants.
The hon. Member expressed some anxiety about the starting pay of ex-soldiers employed in the Post Office, and he urged that this should be dealt with on the lines of the Southborough Committee Report. That Report said that ex-service men who joined as civil servants should be given not the starting age of the earliest entrants, but the age of 22 and the emoluments of the starting age of 22. As regards postmen, already they get without any alteration the starting rates of a man aged 22. It is true that the telegraphists do not get this advantage and they get a starting age of 21. I am already considering in the Department whether there is any case for an alteration from the present arrangement of 21 to the starting age of 22. The hon. Member urged that the wages of a Post Office servant ought to be considered in the light of whether it was a living wage for a married man with a family. He mentioned a wage of £2 7s. 8d. and £2 13s. 8d., and these are not insignificant wages. I am sure the hon. Member will not think I am saying that that is a wage on which a man with a large family can thrive and get fat, but £2 7s. 8d. is not an insignificant wage, but of course I will consider that point
Telegraphists and sorters are all exactly on the same footing. The postmen already start at 22 and the other classes at 21, and I am considering whether any alteration can be made in that respect. With regard to the question of telephones raised by the hon. Member for North Camberwell, I agree that it is a mistake to believe that because the telephone is not answered immediately, that the girls at the telephone exchange are having their tea, or chattering, or otherwise neglecting their duties. I would invite hon. Members who have difficulties with their telephone to go and see a telephone exchange and try and appreciate what there is to do at the other end of the wire. I am no better tempered than anybody else and just as irritable, but I know it is a first-class education for an irritable man to go and see in a telephone exchange the class of work which the girls at the other end of the wire have to do. Their work is indeed very hard.
When the hon. Gentleman says that there have been cases of break-down, I may say that I have gone into all the specific cases that were brought to my notice by a deputation of the trade union concerned. I had inquiries made into each one of them, and there were two specific cases—one of nervous breakdown, which was a mental case, and another of fainting—and both of them were considered by my medical advisers, and they reported that neither of them could attribute her illness to the telephone service. But two cases of that sort are not sufficient to make a general charge of overloading. I am not going to say that the work is not hard, but I am having it watched carefully in order to see that there is no overloading, and I am certain the House would support any measures which were thought necessary to prevent any undue overloading of telephone girls.
One hon. Member referred to American experience in this matter, but our load here is 10 per cent. below the Americans, and they load their telephone operators much more than we do. All I am saying is that there is no case made out on anything I have had in front of me which shows that the average work done by these girls is excessive. I know there are cases where there has been an extreme rush of telephoning. The hot weather greatly increased the number of telephone calls in London, because many subscribers did not want to go out in the heat, and they did their shopping by telephone. That greatly increased telephone work during the hottest week, and you can imagine the heat of the telephone exchanges during that time and the conditions under which the girls were working. You will find, undoubtedly, times of overloading in that sense, but instructions are given and are carefully carried out to anticipate any increase of work and to endeavour to see that the staff is not overloaded.
I come next to the complaint with regard to the Central Telegraph Office and other buildings. We are accused of having, unlike most Departments, got a Vote and then surrendered it. That is a very heinous offence from one point of view, but, from another point of view, we might be congratulated on having postponed or saved expenditure which did not appear to be necessary at the moment. I am going personally to the Central Telegraph Office to see what the conditions are which are the subject for complaint. I am just as anxious as any hon. Member that there should be proper provision for refreshments and relaxation, and I will go there and see what I think of the existing arrangements. If I can accept the view put forward by hon. Members I shall endeavour to find money to carry out the work suggested.
Next I come to the all-night services. There are two sorts of all-night service. There is the caretaker operator in regard to whom apparently no serious complaint is made. The real complaint is as to the temporary assistant who sleeps in the building and has the duty of answering any telephone call which may turn up at night. There is every variety apparently of small office, although there is no great number of them concerned and the payments made equally vary. They start, I think, at 5s. and go up to 30s. per week. The duty of the operator is to sleep in the building and, if the telephone bell rings, to answer it. On occasions his night is unbroken; on other occasions it is broken. The work is done by people in employment or by ex-service men with a pension, and it is sought after. Local contracts are made with local applicants for the job. It is not done centrally, it is done by the local people, and a reasonable rate is agreed upon between the local postmaster, the local postal representative, and the applicant for the work. That is the ordinary way of getting casual work done, and I do not know that there is any magic in endeavouring to centralise it by having some maximum or minimum fixed in an agreement with the trade union. The best plan would be to continue letting the local people who know their varying needs, arrange the work. If the needs did not vary there might be something to be said for centralising the work. It is said that at Leamington 25s. a week is paid and 108 calls at night are on the average dealt with. I agree that that is not casual, half-time employment. If 108 calls have to be dealt with in the course of the night it is too much. It is not perhaps continuous service, but it means that the night is broken so much that you depreciate the value of the man for his day's work. That is an excessive amount, and it ought to be made into some form a full-time employment. But between that and one or two calls occasionally there is a vast difference. The local cases ought to be dealt with locally. I think I have dealt with all the cases raised by the hon. Member. Now I want to reply to the appeal of the hon. Member for the Richmond Division (Mr. Murrough Wilson).
The Carlisle case is an individual case of an individual Post Office servant who apparently has been passed over for promotion. He wants an inquiry into his competence. I will not make any promise of an inquiry, but I will see what the practice is in the Post Office and will inquire if it can be granted.
My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond complained that there was no postal delivery at Wensleydale before noon. I have made inquiries and I have found that the railway company state it would cost £2,440 a year to carry the mail there by an earlier train than at present. I do not object to my hon. Friend blaming the Post Office, but I think he should turn his attention to the railway company and see whether he cannot get them to reduce that demand of £2,440 a year which they say it would cost to anticipate the present postal delivery by, perhaps, an hour or two. Of course, I want to give every possible facility in rural areas, but we have to guard against undue extravagance in expenditure.
The right hon. Member for Ross and Cromartie (Mr. Macpherson) pressed the case of rural telephones. I do not think we have done so very badly in that matter in the course of the past year. It is the Post Office and my predecessors who deserve the credit, but they certainly have pushed the rural telephones with considerable success. They have enormously increased the facilities and have doubled the number of subscribers. That is a policy with which I thoroughly agree, and I will do everything I can to extend it. But when the right hon. Gentleman says he wants us to fix six instead of eight as the guaranteeing number of subscribers, let me remind him that even with eight we anticipate a loss of £70 per year and if the number were reduced to six that loss would be increased to £100. Still, I am not going to be deterred by any little difficulties of that kind. I will go into this matter from the point of view of seeing what better can be done.
The hon. Member for the Elland Division (Mr. W. Robinson) waxed very eloquent about 7.30 p.m. being the latest hour for posting letters in a town with a population of 20,000, and he also wanted to know why an extra ½d. was charged on letters posted during the last quarter of an hour. The answer to that is that it is to deter people waiting until the last moment before posting letters. If they do that you get the peak load of work at the last moment. Instead of spreading it over a longer period, you get it all concentrated in the last few minutes, and you have either to overwork the staff or to increase it. It is therefore highly desirable that the work should be spread over a longer period. I am told that very few people have availed themselves of the privilege of posting in the last quarter of an hour for the extra ½d., and that the posting is not very heavy in that time. Then I come to the case of Mr. Dyson, who says he has been waiting for his telephone from February to July. I will do all I can for him. I have not heard of him, but I feel he has waited too long, and if there is anything I can do it shall be done. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Moss Side (Mr. Hurst) referred to the bulk system of dealing with registered letters. Reference was also made to a case which was heard yesterday in which a sorter was discharged on a charge of theft. I will see whether it is possible to revert to the old system. It would be a matter of considerable expense to deal with these registered letters otherwise than in bulk, involving as it does checking at so very many stages. The letters pass through a great number of hands and it is obvious that it would be much more expensive to deal with these letters separately than in bulk.
I was asked that the National Federation of Postal and Telegraph Clerks should be recognised. The Guild of Postal Sorters, which is one of the four sections of the federation that has already been recognised, has been recognised because pretty nearly one-half of the sorters in London are members of the guild, and it would have been wrong to have said that they should be represented only by another union of which they were not members, and to which they actually object. There must obviously be a limit drawn somewhere as to the number of unions that can be recognised for the purpose of representing the staff. The other three branches of the federation have relatively few members compared with the number of members which belong to the opposition union. Exactly what percentage of numbers unions should have in order to be recognised is a matter which does not affect the Post Office only. It affects whatever Department has to deal with trade unions. I am looking into that question with the other Departments in order that a decision may be come to which will affect not only the Post Office but the other Departments.
The hon. Member for West Walthamstow (Mr. McEntee) complained that the Post Office Stamp Section have received no increase of pay since 1910. I am told that their pay is more and their hours of duty are less than those of relative grades in the Post Office. It must not be thought that because they have received no increase since 1910 they are underpaid. It may be that they are paid a higher rate than corresponding men in the Post Office, and that they have, therefore, no cause of complaint. I am not familiar with the case. I will look into it. The hon. Member also raised the question of the Press Association. They are not contractors under the Government, and I am told that they do actually pay trade rates to the telegraphists whom they employ, and that those rates have been agreed with the representatives of the men.
I am told that is so. If it is the case, it would be a compliance with the Fair Wages Clause, supposing they were contractors and that Clause was within their contract. As a matter of fact, they are not contractors, and I have actually no control over the wages they pay. I think I may now deal with the other questions which the hon. Member for North Camberwell asked me. He spoke of the reduced expenditure on the uniforms of the staff and suggested it caused an increase of sickness amongst the staff. If there were a shadow of evidence that it has caused increased sickness amongst the staff I would be with the hon. Member, but is there any evidence whatever that the alteration in the cloth, or in the cut of the uniform has spread sickness amongst the staff As he says so, and as I have always found that he is not likely to bring cases which have no foundation, I will look into it, but I cannot believe that that has been the case.
He also raised the question of sub-office assistants. The hon. Member knows that that is an extremely big question. The number of post offices which are staffed by established civil servants are 524 head offices, 600 salaried sub-offices, and 300 branch offices, or a total of a little over 1,400. These offices are staffed by full-time civil servants, with civil service holidays, and civil servants' rights, medical treatment, sick pay, etc. There are 19,000 offices which are known as scale payment offices. We are all familiar with these offices. Three-fourths of the premises are used as grocers' shops, or chemists' shops, and so on, and one-fourth of the premises as post office. The complaint is that the employés in these 19,000 offices are not getting the same rate of pay as fully-fledged civil servants in the permanent offices. It is true that they are not getting the same rate of pay, but in the appointment that is made with the sub-postmasters we provide that
the conditions and the service of assistants other than relatives of the sub-postmaster employed on post office work should be not less favourable than those of shop assistants of about the same standing
in the service of good employers in the same district.
That condition, so far as we know, is carried out. We have a return every year of the remuneration paid to these people, who really are to be classed as shop assistants, because in the majority of cases they are also doing shop assistant's work, and they have to be paid on the same good terms that the best employers pay to their shop assistants. That we provide for.
The point I make is that most of these people are employed in small shops, and there can be no comparison with the people employed in these small shops and the shop assistants employed in the big shops.
The shop assistant is employed by the sub-postmaster, who may be a grocer. That grocer goes into the market for his assistant. He offers wages, and the assistant comes in and takes those wages. I admit that economic pressure has an effect upon wages. What would the hon. Member have us do? If we try to staff these 19,000 sub-offices with assistance on Post Office terms we should either increase the Estimates so enormously that there would be immediately an outcry, or we should have to curtail the service to the public by refusing to have Post Office business done in small shops. Which is the better thing? To give this employment through the grocer's shop, and to give a service to the public through the grocer's shop, or to withdraw it altogether? Do not let us forget that the grocers and the people who take the Post Office work take it not primarily to make profit out of it, but primarily because it gives them a standing. It brings customers to their shop, and it enables their shop to prosper. It is because of that that we get these 19,000 offices relatively cheaply run. If we tried to put them on full civil service terms, I am certain we should find that the service to the public would depreciate.
The hon. Member has suggested that we ought to be bound by the Holt Committee's recommendation, and that wherever the emolument of a sub-postmaster in the country is £250 a year, or in London £500, we ought to staff that office with full State servants. I would point out that when the Holt Committee reported, money had a different value than it has to-day. We could have done it in the days of the Holt Committee at very little expense, but to-day it would cost several hundred pounds, and even up to £1,000 additional to take over this sort of office and put in a full State servant. I cannot give any undertaking that the Holt Committee figures are now to be held binding upon us, although the principle that where it can be done without undue additional expense it should be done, is a principle that I accept. I do not, however, accept the figures of the Holt Committee to-day.
Perhaps my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Rhondda (Lieut.-Colonel Watts-Morgan) will allow me to look into the question of the mails from Cardiff. I have not the necessary information in my mind, but I will inquire and communicate with him on the matter. There are one or two other minor questions which I have not dealt with, but if hon. Members will communicate with me I will try to deal with them individually. I regret that I had to rise when I did, because I am sure I deprived the Committee of speeches on interesting questions which were going to be put to me.
I want to call the attention of the Postmaster-General, in a few sentences, to a grievance in Dumfries which every effort of mine has failed to redress. I know the industry with which the right hon. Gentleman devotee himself to every part of the Department over which he has jurisdiction, and I want him to give his personal attention to this matter. A few years ago the Dumfries Council cleared away a slum area in order to provide a site for a post office. They sold a section of the area to the Post Office, and the Post Office undertook within a certain time to build a post office there. Time has gone on, and nothing has been done, although there has been an unemployment problem in Dumfries that has been costing £700 a week. A great deal of unskilled labour is required for excavation.
If the hon. Member will allow me to interrupt him, I can assure him that I will look into the matter. I want, if I can, and I am sure the Committee desires, to give proper time for the Estimates which are to come on immediately. If the hon. Member will communicate with me, I promise him I will look into the question.
I want to appeal to the Postmaster-General to go on with the work of providing the plans, so that the town council can sell the other section of the land. They can do nothing until they know what the ground plan and elevation of the Post Office is to be. I have been trying for months to get that done.
I want to bring forward one point in regard to a matter which is causing a great deal of irritation, and that is the very rigid interpretation of the rule which allows five conventional words to be written on a picture postcard. I should like to know the amount of expense and trouble which is involved in the Postmaster-General's staff in deciding what is real correspondence and what is purely courtesy terms. Will not the Post Office accept any reasonable five words?
I wish my hon. Friend would come along and see the pile of correspondence I have upon this subject. It is not quite so easy as he thinks. However, I will do my best to meet him in the matter. I hope the Committee will now let me have the Vote.
Is this discussion to end without our having had any statement about the prospect of a return to penny postage for letters and a return to the halfpenny rate for postcards? I should like to emphasise the point made by the hon. Member for Barnstaple (Mr. Peto) in regard to what is a very important matter, namely, the five words of conventional writing on picture postcards. It is the most ridiculous regulation ever promulgated by any Department of the State. It is detrimental not only to the Post Office but to the whole of the British post card industry. It has a serious effect upon employment in that industry. Post Office administration, thanks to the fact that we are getting less than four hours' discussion on the Estimates, is rapidly drifting into the hands and under the control of the permanent officials. The right hon. Gentleman is the last of a succession of four Postmasters-General, and it is impossible for us, who are supposed in theory to represent the clients of the Post Office, to obtain satisfaction in a few hours' debate, especially when we have a constant succession of changes in the Parliamentary representation of the Post Office. I protest against the method which the Government is adopting, and I trust the Committee will divide against the Vote.