Motion made, and Question proposed,
That a sum, not exceeding £32,958,000; 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, 1926, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Post Office, including Telegraphs and Telephones." — [Note.— £20,000,000 has been voted on account.]
In rising to introduce the Post Office Estimates, I am afraid I shall have to start with an apology in advance, because owing to the immense size of the subject I may have to make some demand on the patience of the Committee. I assure hon. Members that I shall be as short as I possibly can, because I personally have never been enamoured of the practice of making long speeches from the Treasury Bench. At the same time, there is a great deal of ground to be covered, and though I shall give a good many figures, I will do my best to give them clearly. I may also say, by way of preface, that Members of the Committee who are not entirely familiar with this particular Estimate, will find a useful index on Page 102, which should enable them to find their way about it in a manner not always possible with regard to Estimates.
Perhaps I might also say another thing by way of preface. Although this may perhaps be familiar to some of the old Members of the House, it is certainly not familiar to new Members, and I suspect that many old Members do not precisely appreciate the fact. I want to call attention to the difference between the commercial accounts of the Post Office, the accounts of the Post Office as a going commercial concern, and this Vote which is presented to Parliament and the returns of Post Office revenue which are included in the Exchequer Returns. The Vote and the Exchequer Returns rest strictly and entirely upon a purely cash basis. They take no account of liabilities incurred but not yet paid. They take no account of revenue earned but not yet received. They include only those payments relating to Post Office services which the Post Office itself makes and the revenue which the Poet Office itself receives. They take no account of the work which the Post Office does for other departments of the State—the Treasury, the Ministry of Pensions, the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of Health—and for which the Post Office receives no actual money payment. The Vote and the Exchequer Returns include interest on capital only so far as money is actually borrowed from the National Debt Commissioners and repaid to the National Debt Commissioners. They include a provision for the amortisation of capital and they include expenditure on renewals; but they do not include depreciation, which is a far greater liability. Further, instead of the pensions liability which is from day to day accruing in respect of those who are in the service of the Post Office appearing, the Vote takes account only of the pensions actually being paid to the staff who are already pensioned.
The Committee will therefore see that, while the Vote in the form in which it appears is necessary in order to ensure Parliamentary control, in the sense that the money voted here has to be approved by Parliament, and is subsequently certified by the Comptroller and Auditor-General as having been correctly appropriated to the subjects for which it has been voted, and while that is the purpose which the Vote serves, it does not purport and cannot in its very nature give what you would call a proper and true commercial picture—an accurate commercial picture—of the returns of the Post Office services. That picture can only be given when the commercial accounts of the Post Office, including all these various items which I have enumerated, are completed, audited, and presented to Parliament; and, having regard to the nature and size of the Post Office services, the process, in the first place, of collecting the accounts, and, in the second place, the process of auditing them necessarily take a good many months, and it is usually December before the commercial accounts of the Post Office can be presented to Parliament. Under these circumstances, I have sometimes thought that it might be an advantage if somehow or another it could be arranged that discussion of the Post Office services of the country could be taken when the commercial accounts are available to Members rather than on the occasion of the Vote. However at the present time we have to deal with the Vote, and, although I will try to give the Committee some figures on the commercial basis, I would ask them please to remember that the figures so given are subject to subsequent audit, and therefore must not be taken as finally and absolutely correct.
If the Committee will look at the Vote, they will see that the expenses of the Post Office for the next year, taking that item first, amount to £55,128,000 odd gross, and £52,958,000 net, after deducting the Appropriations-in-Aid. That is a net increase over the Vote of last year of £1,876,330, but in fact, as compared with the total expenditure of last year, it is an increase of something just about £2,000,000. The bulk of that increase is due to two causes. In the first place, the growth of the Telephone Service, which accounts, roughly speaking, for about £1,000,000 of the increase, and, in the second place, to the growth, in large part of the postal revenue, which accounts for something like £500,000
Let me say one word about the postal revenue. Before the War, it was the ordinary and normal expectation that you would, roughly speaking, year by year have an accretion of about £1,000,000 in the gross revenue. It did not always happen every year, but, taking it by and large over a series of years, that was about the figure of the gross revenue addition in each year. That process, of course, was interrupted by the War, and since the Armistice the position has been very much affected, not unnaturally, by the state of trade, and it has also beer, affected by variations in postal rates But—and this is the first significant thing which I wish the Committee to note today—during the past year, 1924–25, in which there has been no variation in postal rates, the postal revenue has shown an increase of something round about £2,000,000, and in consequence it has become necessary, and that is carried out in Sub-head "A" of the Vote, to make an increase, although not a proportionate increase, in the number of staff employed in order to handle the extra business.
The balance of the increase of £2,000,000 is due to a number of minor causes. They include wage concessions which have been made to persons, chiefly ex-service men, who entered the lower grades of the Service at ages higher than the normal age of entry. Perhaps I may say here, while I am on the question of wage concessions, that I do not propose to say anything with regard to the question of the wage claim which has been presented to the Post Office, because I understand that is likely to figure in the subsequent Debate, and perhaps I had better reserve anything which I have to say to a later stage. I am explaining how the balance of £500,000 increase is made up. In part, it is due to these wage concessions, and, in part, it is due to the automatic growth in the number of Post Office pensioners. Another item of increase is the concessions to pre-War civil pensioners under the Pensions (Increase) Act of last year. Then, of course, there is the provision which has had to be made for the residue of the payments of War bonus arrears to serving men under the judgments which we know as the Post-Sutton Judgments, judgments which followed on the same lines as the original Sutton judgment. That accounts for the increase in the actual figures in the Votes of £2,000,000.
Turning to the commercial results for a moment, the postal revenue, as I have said, during the past year has shown a remarkable and satisfactory expansion. In fact, as I have already said in public, the Christmas increase was so large as to be almost embarrassing, and more than embarrassing in some quarters. I have already said publicly that I am sorry, even although it was only in some minute proportion of the total traffic carried, that the Post Office should have in any way let the public down. I sincerely hope and believe it will not happen again. I want, however, to say this by way of extenuation. I do not believe that any commercial man would have made his preparations on any basis other than that upon which the preparations were made in the Post Office. I am bound to say this, as the responsibility for those preparations was shared by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Hartshorn) and myself, although naturally I had to take the full brunt of it, because the preparations go on in advance for some time. I do not believe that any business man could have foreseen that we should have had the extraordinary and sudden rise in Christmas traffic which we had.
We actually provided for an increase of 10 per cent. over the Christmas traffic of last year. I am perfectly certain that any commercial man would have said that he would not have expected a general increase of business of 10 per cent. over the business of last year. What actually happened was that we got an increase which was wholly embarrassing by its size and also by its concentration in the last few days before Christmas. I do not want to spend much time over this matter, but I might tell the Committee that in the case of letters in London last year the Christmas increase was 48 per cent. and this year it was 65 per cent. In the provinces last year it was 114 per cent., and this year it was 221 per cent. In parcels in London last year it was 168 per cent., and this year it was 205 per cent. I cannot give the parcels for the provinces; I can only give the bags. In the three rush days last year there were at four of the large Provincial centres, 35,812 bags of parcels presented, and this year there were 41,235 of which 27 per cent. came on 24th December. I only mention these figures by way of reinforcing a plea which I hope to make next Christmas to the public through all the agencies at my command that they will try and help the Post Office as far as they can by posting early. I have had a Committee sitting weeks and months now considering the arrangements and how to improve them, and, so far as we are concerned, we shall do our best, but we can only succeed if the public co-operate and help us.
The expansion of the postal revenue during the past year has been on the whole satisfactory. At the moment, the actual rate of expansion rather seems to have slowed down, and I do not anticipate that the result under the postal head will be quite as favourable as last year. As regards telegraphs, the position continues to be unsatisfactory. It is very much what it was before the War. On the telegraph side of the business, the Post Office realised last year a deficit of something like £1,330,000. I estimate that that may perhaps be slightly reduced next year and may be about £1,200,000. In the Inland Telegraph traffic, there has been for a number of years and continues to be a steady and continuous decline, and that of course is to be expected owing to the competition of the telephone service. I think there always will be a place in the inland field for telegraphs, particularly when you get into the longer distances, but, at the same time, it is idle to expect that you will have any revival in inland telegraph revenue, where you have the competition of the telephones growing year by year. The foreign telegrams have been on the whole quite satisfactory, but it is worth noting perhaps that since the change was introduced a short time ago, under which other Government Departments were asked to pay out of their own Votes for any inland telegrams which they sent, instead of charging the Post Office Vote, there has been a most marked falling-off in the number of telegrams sent by Government Departments. It is now half what it was in 1913.
As regards telephones, the telephone service is continuing to make steady progress. In 1923–24, in which year there were substantial reductions in rentals and in rates, the telephone service showed a surplus of £1,720,000; for 1924–25, in which year the local call fee was further reduced to a penny, there was a surplus of £865,000, and for the current year, which will, of course, feel the full burden of the reduction from 1¼d. to Id., a smaller surplus is expected—I should say about £500,000. But this diminution in telephone surplus is not due to any Talling-off in revenue, nor to any disproportionate increase in operating expenditure, but it is largely due to the policy of reducing telephone rates, so far as the financial circumstances of the undertaking will allow, and it is also partly due to the fact that the rapid development of the undertaking necessarily means that you have got, on the edges of it, a fringe which, for the present moment at all events, is unremunerative. Every progressive telephone undertaking, as every other progressive undertaking, if it is to provide an efficient service, has to make up its mind that it will carry for the time being an unremunerative fringe of traffic, and I do not believe, from what I can see of the finances of the telephone system at the present moment, that the fringe which the system is now carrying is too high.
Notwithstanding, and no doubt to some extent in consequence of, the reduction in rates during the past three years, the telephone revenue has steadily grown, from £14,500,000 in 1923–24 to a probable revenue for next year of something like £16,200,000. Taking all the three services together, and without, of course, any pretence at accuracy of forecast, I do not at the moment see that the decrease in the resultant surplus in 1925–26 is likely to be less than £750,000, plus the balance of the liability for payment, under the Sutton Judgment, for war bonus arrears, and here, frankly, I have to throw myself on the mercy of the Committee and to make a confession. I said the balance of payment under the Sutton Judgment was £700,000; but if the Committee will turn to page 82 of the Vote, they will see that the Estimate which appears is not £700,000, but £150,000. That means, in the first place, that I shall have to come along at a later date with a Supplementary Estimate; not that I am necessarily saying that Supplementary Estimates are bad, but, what is worse, and what my right hon. Friend opposite will appreciate is worse, is that it is not merely a Supplementary Estimate, but a re-Vote.
The reason is this: It was very difficult to say when the Appropriation Act was likely to be passed by the House of Commons, and we had to make an attempt at assessing, first of all, our total liability —that is not a very easy thing to do— under the balance of the Sutton Judgment, and, secondly, how much of these total liabilities would be actually discharged during the financial year. In point of fact, owing to Parliamentary circumstances, the Appropriation Act was not passed till 27th March, so that only left us the barest minimum of time to make payments to claimants under the Sutton Awards. Actually, in three days, the staff in the Post Office paid out something like £1,819,000, a very remarkable performance—they had to work night and day to do it—and one on which they deserve to be congratulated, but it was not humanly possible to make all the payments, and, therefore, £550,000 has lapped over from last year into this year, and will have subsequently to be re-voted by a Supplementary Estimate. I make that frank confession, because nobody has said more hard things about re-Votes than I have, and I regret that I should have to stand up and teil the Committee that I shall have to come along later for a re-Vote of £550,000.
Let me run through one or two of the more salient points which have occurred in some of the various branches of the postal service. Take, first of all, the postal service itself. It is quite impossible for me to mention the term "postal service" without immediately having the spectre of penny postage in front of me. I cannot say much about that, and I am sure the Committee will not expect me to; I can only say this, that so long as the finances of the Post Office continue to be an integral part of the general finances of the country, it is perfectly clear that a change in rates which means a deficit of anything from £5,000,000 to £5,500,000 must be a matter which car. only be dealt with in conjunction with the finances of the year in the Budget, and it is quite impossible for me, of course, to forecast what the situation may be next April. There are many factors, but this I can say, that both my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and myself, and, indeed, the Government, continue to hope that, as and when we car. afford it, we shall be able to revert to the system of penny postage. It remains, as I have said already, one of the objectives of our policy, and we hope to be able to achieve it within the lifetime of the present Parliament.
As regards one particular postal change which has been recently made, the Committee may be interested to know what has occurred with reference to the change which was recently made in the heavy parcels in the foreign post. On the 1st June, the limit of weight for parcels in exchange with New Zealand and a number of European countries was increased from 11 to 22 lbs. It has since been extended to 20 lbs. in the case of India and Aden, and 22 lbs. in the case of China, Mexico, and Salvador: Canada and Newfoundland are not in a position at present to agree to any increase of the limit of weight; Australia and South Africa have the question still under consideration; Italy has agreed to commence the exchange of parcels over 11 lbs. on the 1st October next; and the exchange was actually begun with Russia, but was suspended after a few days at the request of the Soviet Post Office. All British Possessions and the principal foreign countries have been invited to exchange parcels up to 22 lbs. in weight, and the heavy parcel post will be extended as soon as favourable replies are received. It may, perhaps, interest many to know that since the 1st June the number of heavy parcels dispatched to foreign countries and the Dominions was 8,400 odd, and the number received was 2,300. The countries to which the dispatches mostly took place were Germany, France, Austria, Hungary, India, and Switzerland, and the bulk of the parcels received came from France, Germany, and Switzerland. On the whole, I think the development of the service, which has been running for only something like seven weeks now, is quite satisfactory and shows that we have at all events been meeting what was a real want.
I am afraid I cannot give the total weight. I do not know whether it is possible to give the figure without an infinity of research —I should rather doubt it—but, if it be possible, I will try to get it. While I am on the subject of postal changes, perhaps I might say something about another change which has been recently brought into effect, and that is the extension of the hours of counter business in certain head offices and other offices in the provinces. Before the War, head offices in towns of a medium size in the provinces generally closed at 8 p.m., but during the War, owing to shortage of staff, a reduction in hours became inevitable, and the usual practice towards the end of the War was to close these post offices at about 7 o'clock, while in many cases there was also a midday closing as well. At the end of the War, the midday closing was abolished, but the hour of closing was allowed to remain at 7 o'clock in a great many towns where the pre-War hour had been 8 p.m.
I had a good many complaints and a good many representations made to me on this subject, especially from sea-side and holiday resorts, and so I issued, a short time ago, instructions that head offices should be kept open till 8 p.m. in towns with a population of 35,000 or over, or in towns which came fairly near that limit, if there were local circumstances which rendered it expedient. I also arranged that all other head offices should be kept open till 7.30 p.m. Where a salaried sub-office or branch office is the principal office in a town or district, the time of closing for counter business will be fixed on the same basis as at the head office in a town of the same population. Other salaried sub-offices and branch offices will remain open for the same hours as the head office, unless local conditions render this clearly unnecessary. These revised hours are being brought into operation in each town as soon as the necessary staff adjustments can be made, in consultation with the staff. All classes of postal and telegraph business will be transacted during the extended hours, and the time for acceptance of parcels and registered letters for night mail despatch is being extended so far as the time of the actual despatch of the mails by train will permit. On the whole, I hope the Committee will agree that, although I know it does not go nearly far enough to meet some of the demands made on the Post Office, this is a reasonable concession, and I am sure, from what I hear, it is one that is very much appreciated in the towns affected.
I should like to add a word on a domestic matter. Quite recently a committee, which has been working very hard for some time in the Post Office on a most important internal question, the question of accommodation and fittings, has completed its labours. The committee was composed of representatives of every side of Post Office work. It had representatives from the Office of Works, and it had representatives from the tracks union. It has already introduced improved fittings, which have resulted in increased efficiency and generally in more economical working. It has also laid down standards of floor space in post offices, which will be of permanent value. I am more than satisfied with the work the committee has done, and I understand my satisfaction is shared by the staff representatives.
I look out of my office on to the statue of Rowland Hill, and I wonder whether that great postal reformer ever anticipated the size to which the postal business would grow. I was not going to give the Committee any figures, but there are perhaps a few which will make the Committee realise better the meaning of what I say. I shall not give the figures of postcards or newspapers, but simply letters carried over a series of years.
In 1840, the time of Rowland Hill, the number of letters carried was 169,000,000. 1870that number had grown to 862,000,000; in 1900 the number was 2,244,000,000; last year it was 3,500,000,000. The Committee will realise that the growth of a traffic like that has created its own peculiar set of problems, not the toast of which is the transport problem. Of course, a large part of the transport work of the Post Office is carried out under a system of contracting. That system of contracts has been universally applied to the carriage of the mails. For reasons of economy the Post Office staff looked round in certain directions to see whether under certain conditions they could not carry on a road service more economically by employing their own vehicles, and not those of the contractors. This, however, does not apply generally; it only applies under certain conditions. There is no doubt that the work we have carried on in that way has meant that we have been able to operate our own motor vehicles more cheaply than by contract. Not only that—although it is very difficult to fix a financial figure and say what the exact result has been with our 550 motor vans and 210 motor cycles—
Yes. As I say, I hesitate to put an actual financial figure, but the State has effected a saving over this work somewhere in the neighbourhood of £60,000. It is not only that, for, as I have said, it only applies to a certain portion of the business, but the knowledge that the Post Office is able, if necessary, to do this has helped us considerably in dealing with the contractors. In three instances, during recent times, reductions in the tenders of the contractors have meant a saving of £50,000 yearly. Of course, in London, the problem, as is acknowledged, is a peculiar one. Somebody said to me the other day, why do the Post Office go along still using those heavy horsed vans? My reply was—which, indeed, is an actual fact—that under certain traffic conditions in London, we can operate horsed vans more cheaply and better than motors.
On the question of London traffic, I might just say this, that work is progressing on the Post Office tube railway from Paddington to Whitechapel. The actual line has all been completed, and the electrification is in hand. The stock is on order, and I shall expect the line, at all events, to be opened for experimental purposes about this time next year.
Blackfriars, yes. The question was whether the railway could be supplied from Blackfriars. We carefully thought this matter out, and I came afterwards fully and absolutely to the conclusion that it would be a great saving to put the electricity supply out to contract rather than to take it from our own power station. That power station will be closed.
I now turn to other matters. I do not want to go into too great detail in regard to the telephones because I shall have to come and get permission for capital expenditure over a period of years for the telephone service. I shall come to the House very shortly with a Bill of the kind and, therefore. I do not want to spend the time of the Committee to-day by going into detail? as to the telephone services. The general policy of the development of the service is that the service shall pay its way and stand on its own feet without subsidy either from the taxpayer or from any other postal service. Since the reduction of the tariff in 1921 I must say that that policy has been successfully carried out. At the same time a pledge was given that when the circumstances allowed rates should be reduced, and that pledge has been fulfilled. The reduced surplus in 1924–25 and the estimated surplus of about £500,000 in 1925–26, of which I have spoken are due mainly to the reduction of the charge for a local call from l¼d. to 1d., a concession which costs about £1,000,000 in a full year. In the last few years there has been a series of other concessions. I have tried to get the financial effect worked out. It is estimated that the concessions made in the last few years, including reductions in the annual rentals, the extension of the free radius from one mile to one and a half miles, and reductions in the charges for short distance trunk calls, represent a sacrifice of revenue of about £3,000,000, of which telephone users reap—and rightly reap—the benefit.
I have said elsewhere, and I repeat to the Committee to-day, that I am not satisfied as to the position of the telephone service of this country. I do not think it is consistent with the dignity and commercial importance of this country to occupy the lowly place it does among the world's telephone users. I do say, however, that the rate of increment for last year has beaten all previous records. We had an actual increase of 115,000 new stations (allowing for cessations) and 48 new main underground cables were completed and brought into use. I have been doing my utmost to try, within the limits which are economically possible, to develop the rural side of the telephone business as much as the industrial. At the present moment there are just over 700 new rural exchanges that have been opened, and we are opening these at the rate of nearly 20 per month. I lose money at the start on every new rural telephone exchange, and I should like the Committee to appreciate that fact; but it is satisfactory to know of the gradual increase in subscribers connected with the exchanges when they are once established. I have gone into the figures very carefully. The first 555 exchanges had an average of 10 subscribers; now the average is 15. The result of this is that the average loss has been brought down to £50 against the original loss of £80. The Committee must not press me too hard in this matter, but must realise that the loss still exists and that I can only cut my coat according to my cloth. I cannot run the risk of running the telephone service into debt. The service already carries an unremunerative fringe, but we must not let that fringe get too big, hence the minimum of eight subscribers for the new rural exchanges must be maintained. I may add that we are pressing on the policy of opening new public call offices. There are now 19,000 of these. There are 900 telephone kiosks which have been erected in the streets and which are doing very satisfactorily. Having had complaint as to the design of the original kiosks, we invited the submission of designs, and a new type of kiosk, designed by Sir Gilbert Scott and approved by the Fine Arts Commission, has been adopted.
The foreign telephone service has during the past year worked quite satisfactorily. There have been some interesting developments in long distance telephony. At the moment a standing committee has been established which meets in Paris, and on which there are British Post Office representatives. That committee is working out a scheme for the extension of the telephone service in Europe, and we are trying to agree, as far as possible, to standard methods of construction and practice. The committee has made very considerable progress I hope before long that telephonic communication with the more distant European countries, which from a technical point of view is quite practicable, will materialise. Last year the second Anglo-Dutch submarine cable was laid, and provided eight additional circuits. The effect of the improved facilities was shown by the fact that the calls increased from 9,500 in May, 1924, to 18,300 in May, 1925. The Dutch Government have placed an order for a third cable to Holland, which will provide for the telephone traffic between England and Germany, and countries beyond, and this, it is hoped, will be available for traffic next spring. It will provide 12 circuits. New submarine cables are also in contemplation to increase facilities to Belgium and France.
As regards the local telephone calls, it may perhaps be interesting if I give the figure of the number of local calls which took place during the past year. In the last financial year the number was nearly 930,000,000, an increase of nearly 100,000,000, or over 12 per cent. increase on the previous year. The number of trunk calls was 80,000,000, an increase of 8,000,000, approximately 11 per cent. On an average, each telephone instrument initiates about 5½ calls a day. When the charge for the local calls was reduced last year from 1¼d. to 1d., it was hoped the reduction might stimulate the use of the telephone. The average calling rate has not increased, although it is so far satisfactory in that it has not fallen. A very large number of the new telephones coming into use are private residents' telephones, and the number of calls on them is, necessarily, lower than in the case of business telephones, but the calling rate is not as high as I should like to see it. The finance of the telephone service depends very largely on the revenue from calls. If one could get a more extensive use. of the telephone, it would tend not only to our being able to give a better service but to a further reduction of charges in the future. If one extra call per day were originated from each telephone in this country, the additional revenue per annum would be nearly £2,000,000.
Now I come to the question of automatic telephones. As the Committee know, the automatic telephone is being introduced gradually, and already it is something much more than an experimental toy. I do not know that many hon. Members always realise that already there are something like 30 towns and districts in this country in which the automatic telephone system has been installed and is at work. Hon. Members, whose constituencies are concerned, will be able, I have no doubt, to tell inquirers that the service does work and works satisfactorily. It is working at the present time in, among other places, Darlington, Grimsby, Leeds, Portsmouth, Swansea, and York; and in Scotland in Dundee, in Kirkcaldy, and in Paisley. By next year, unless unforeseen circumstances develop, I hope the following provincial exchanges will be fitted with automatic apparatus, but, as I say, I must always bar unforeseen contingencies, although this is what I hope will happen in 1925: Bedford, Ipswich, the various sub-exchanges in Leeds, two sub-exchanges in Portsmouth, Shrewsbury, and Torquay (including a sub-exchange at Paignton). Automatics in London are a very big proposition and a very difficult proposition. They involve an immense amount of work and an incredible amount of calculation and labour, provision of plant and premises, and provision of wires in the streets. Work is going forward, and, barring unforeseen contingencies, during the year 1927, the first four automatic exchanges in-London ought to be open. They will be Bishopsgate, Holborn, Sloane, and Western.
I would like to say one word on the subject of broadcasting. As regards the present position of broadcasting, the Committee are aware that there is a contract which runs until 1926. As regards the future, I said the other day that the Government propose to appoint a Committee to inquire into the whole future of broadcasting in this country. Arrangements for the appointment of that Committee are well in hand. I cannot give a firm promise that I shall be able to announce the actual composition of the Committee before the Recess, though I will do my best to do so. So far as the arrangements have gone, I can say that I am perfectly certain the composition of the Committee will be such as will deserve and command the confidence of the public.
They are not yet settled, but, generally speaking, they are to inquire into the whole future of broadcasting in this country—they are the widest possible terms. Now I am on the subject of broadcasting, I might say a word in relation to the British Broadcasting Company, as to which I think there is sometimes a little misconception. I am led to say this because I have noticed references in the Press recently to the fact that the company have made considerable profits. In the first place, those profits have been practically all ploughed back by the company into the business again. In the second place, under the contract the profits of the company, the visible profits, are limited to 7½ per cent, on their paid-up capital. In the third place, and this is the important thing which I do not think is realised, if and when the present, British Broadcasting Company comes to be liquidated, after the ordinary shareholders have got back the 20s. in the .£ on their paid-up capital, everything else accrues to the State. If that fact is appreciated I think, perhaps, it will tend to remove a little of the apprehension which exists in some quarters today.
One more word on the very important subject of Imperial "Wireless Communications. Until about a year ago it was the policy both of the Imperial Government and of the Dominion Governments to provide Imperial wireless communication by mean of high-power stations. It was in accordance with this policy that the Rugby station was started and is now practically complete. I daresay Members have seen the masts from the railway. There are 12 masts, each 820 feet high. So far as one can say, when it is finished it will, under suitable conditions, be able to transmit messages practically to any part of the globe. The installation of plant is actually going on now, and I think the station ought to be ready for trials in November. After that arrangement had been made, and after certain of the Dominions had started work on their high-power stations, the Marconi Company produced a short-wave directional system of transmission, commonly called the beam system, which, they claimed, would provide adequate service for a limited number of hours with a much smaller capital expenditure. His Majesty's Government and the Governments of Australia, Canada., India and South Africa decided to give the beam system a trial, and an agreement was accordingly made with the Marconi Company in July of last year for the erection of beam stations in this country for communication with corresponding stations in the Dominions.
The company, however, subsequently came to the conclusion that for technical reasons the original scheme of concentrating all the four sending stations on one site and the four receiving stations on the other site was impracticable, and, accordingly, different arrangements were made, find another agreement was entered into providing for the erection of two groups of two stations each, one group in the South West of England, at Bodmin and at Bridgwater, for communication with Canada and South Africa, and the other group on the East Coast for communication with India and Australia. There were considerable difficulties, technical and other, in finding suitable sites. But eventually sites were found at Bodmin and Bridgwater. They were handed over to the company on the 6th April, and the company tell me that considerable progress has been made in connection with the erection of the masts and buildings at Bodmin, and that work is proceeding on the excavations and foundations for the masts at Bridgwater. The stations are due to be completed, under the terms of the contract, by the 6th October. The sites for the sending and receiving stations for India and Australia also presented considerable technical difficulties, but they have been finally settled at Grimsby and Skegness. The necessary legal formalities are just being completed for their transfer, and I have actually placed the order for the stations with the Marconi Company in anticipation of the completion of the legal formalities. Under this contract the stations are to be completed within nine months.
It may interest the Committee to know what is happening to the corresponding stations in the Dominions. They are in various stages of progress. The masts and buildings of the beam station in Canada, which is near Montreal, have been completed, and that station is expected to be ready about the same time as the corresponding station in this country. The beam station in South Africa, situated near Cape Town, is expected to be ready for trials about the end of September. The station in Australia, which will be situated near Melbourne, is due to be completed in January next. The beam station in India will probably not be ready before the middle of next year, at soonest. As I said to the House some little time ago, a, permanent working committee (including representatives of the Dominions) under the chairmanship of my Noble Friend, Lord Wolmer, has been appointed to advise on the practical question of routing traffic, rates, tariffs, and the vest. That Committee is at work now, and is, I am told by my Noble Friend, progressing satisfactorily.
In pursuance of the recommendations of the Donald Committee, the Government, while retaining in their hands through the Post Office all the wireless communications with the Dominions and with Colonies and Protectorates overseas, decided to give facilities to private enterprises to develop wireless services with all foreign countries outside Europe. As regards European services, it has been decided that these shall be shared between the Post Office and the Marconi Company, subject to the payment by the company of a royalty in the case of services with countries where She wireless service competes with Government cable interests, and negotiations have been pursued with the Marconi Company on these lines. It has been provisionally agreed that the company shall be licensed for service with the following European countries, in addition to countries outside Europe: Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, and Yugoslavia.
I have just read out a list of those countries for communication with which it has been proposed to license the Marconi Company. In the case of the other European countries, the Poet Office proposes to retain the business itself. I apologise for having detained the Committee so long, but even now I am afraid I have only surveyed a portion of the vast field of operations of the Post Office. Perhaps I can indicate how vast this field is by giving one final set of figures.
The number of letters handled last year was something like 3,500,000,000. The total number of postal packets handled last year was over 6,000,000,000, the number of telegrams was over 70,000,000, the number of telephone calls 1,000,000,000. In addition to that, you have got the Savings Bank business, War Stock business, and the Savings Certificates business. The Savings Bank deposits amounted to £283,000,000; War Stock to £200,000,000; and National Savings Certificates to £370,000,000. Moreover, you have the outside work the Post Office has for other Departments. Last year they paid out in respect of old age pensions £50,000,000, war pensions over £50,000,00; National Health and Unemployment In- surance stamp business £60,000,000. I tried to get worked out a figure that would give the total value of the Post Office transactions with the public, backwards and forwards, in and out, and the nearest figure at which I could arrive was £785,000,000. In a business of that size it is inevitable that mistakes will occur, and when hon. Members and Members of the public are angry, often rightly, at mistakes which occur in the Post Office, I do ask them to remember that there is such a thing as a sense of proportion. At the same time, I should like to say that, personally, I appreciate the value of complaints. They are one of the most useful things a business man can have, because they give an indication of where things are going wrong and how things can be put right. I hope Members of the Committee will believe that my Noble Friend and myself will always try to investigate any questions they bring to our notice. I present the Vote to the Committee and await their criticism.
After the very interesting statement to which we have just listened, I do not think it would be in good taste for me to detain the Committee very long in anything I might have to say on the subject of the Post Office. I would like to avail myself of this opportunity, not having had the privilege during the very short time I occupied this office last year, to say a few words of a personal character. Naturally, after hearing from the Postmaster-General the nature, the magnitude and the variety of the activities with which the Post Office are engaged, it is easy to understand that one is pleased and proud to have been even for a. short time associated officially with such an important business. When I went there, I went with the bias which the public generally, I think, have against the Post Office. I had concluded, as a lot of other people in this country, that the Post Office-was all wrong and wanted putting right, and I also persuaded myself that I was the chap to do it. I came away with the conviction that the Post Office was the most wonderful piece of business organisation ever yet constructed in this world. I would like to say that I do not at all agree with the adverse criticism against the Post Office that is often made on the ground that the staff is inefficient from the business point of view. The men and women, from the Permanent Secretary down to those in the branches and the departments, are men and women of out standing ability and really very competent in the discharge of their work. They wholeheartedly placed their ability at my disposal, and assisted me with wholehearted co-operation in my work at the Post Office. I am pleased to have this opportunity of saying that publicly for a number of men and women for whom I have developed a high respect.
I am very sorry the Post Office is regarded in this country and by the Government as a sort of second-rate Department. I think my right hon. Friend is the fifth to occupy this office in three years. At the end of 1922 Mr. Kellaway was there and three Members of the present Cabinet, myself and the right hon. Gentleman have got in between 1922 and 1924. It has been regarded as-a sort of stepping stone for something higher. I think there is no more important Department in the State than the Post Office. 218,000 workpeople are employed, and I think it is generally admitted that they are a very devoted body of men and women. Among them is a standard of honesty, sobriety, and ability that compares very favourably with any section of the community. I agree with the Postmaster-General that in dealing with the complaints levelled against the Post Office it is essential that we should keep some sense of proportion. When I went to the Post Office to occupy the position which the right hon. Gentleman now occupies, I decided that I would learn the working of the Post Office by studying its defects as revealed in the complaints that reached the Department from the Post Office. I had every letter which was addressed to me personally placed on my table and I went through them personally, and after I had collected some 12 or 20 complaints—such as from people who generally got letters at 8.15 and one day got them at 8.20—I asked the head of that department to come and discuss with me why these complaints were written. Immediately he began pointing out that six or 12 or 20 or 100 or even 1,000 complaints from among about 300,000,000 was so infinitesimal in proportion to the business that the real surprise was that there were so few.
The general public do not quite appreciate how closely associated with the general business life of the community are the activities of the Post Office. I am very pleased that the Postmaster-General has given so full a statement of the magnitude of the work performed by his Department. I am sure that if more was done to make known the real volume performed, this Department would become the most popular institution in the land and the Postmaster-General's position would be the most envied in the Ministry. As a matter of fact, when I hear the representatives of big business sing the virtues of private enterprise and refer to the Post Office as an example of the failure of State organised business, I become very indignant. I envy their audacity and I admire their colossal impudence. I think that this Department should be regarded as one of first-class importance. Its status should be one such as to command the best brains of the country. I do not think it is a good thing that we should so long have continued to regard it as one of inferior importance. I should like also just to congratulate the Postmaster-General on having the Noble Lord as his lieutenant. Unfortunately, I attempted to do the work alone. The amount of work that falls to the Postmaster-General and his Assistant is certainly something which the public do not realise.
There is one part of the Postmaster-General's statement with which I am not quite satisfied. Unfortunately, we have got no statement from him which indicates that there is any immediate prospect of reductions in prices. In a business which is so closely associated with the general welfare of this country, a business whose efficiency and cheapness will do more, in my opinion, to hamper or help on the general business of the country than any other factor, I think it is very undesirable that the surpluses of the Post Office should be taken by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and used for purposes other than cheapening this great national service, which is so important and so much needed throughout the community. Last year we had to consider, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and myself, whether we could introduce any reduction. We were faced with a difficulty with which the Post Office is not now faced. We had the Sutton judgment hanging over our heads, with a contingent liability of some two or three million pounds. But for that fact we should have introduced penny postage last year. I did all I could in office to induce the legal advisers to push forward that judgment through the Courts, to get it disposed of, and to clear the way so that this year it might be possible to introduce penny postage.
I think the reduction in postage and telegraph charges would be a great advantage to the people of this country. In the year 1922, Parliament authorised a capital expenditure of £15,000,000, and last year a further expenditure of £17,000,000 for the development of our telephone system. The Postmaster-General has stated that he will again come to this House to ask for more money to further extend the telephone system. I know that at the present moment we are far behind other countries in the proportion of our population who use the telephone, but I also know that the schemes which our engineers have in hand will, when completely carried into effect, produce the most efficient telephone service in the world, or at any rate it will give us as great a service as is to be found even in America.
With regard to cables providing facilities for carrying additional traffic, it is important that when those cables are laid they should be able to carry new traffic. I think telephones ought to be cheapened and popularised. It is not sufficient simply to cheapen calls, because the rentals are far too high, and they ought to be reduced very considerably, so that we might be able to get a much larger number of subscribers. I am certain if the right hon. Gentleman is going to be successful in reducing these prices, he will have to put up a pretty stiff fight with the Chancellor of the Exchequer who is always pestered in this way by every Department of State. I am quite aware that it is the Ministry who prepares the strongest case and is most persistent that is likely to get most consideration at the hands of the Treasury. I know of no direction in which the surpluses of the Post Office can be more usefully and beneficially applied than in cheapening the great national public service for which this Department stands.
I wish now to say a word or two about Imperial wireless. I am a little bit dis- appointed that this scheme has not been further advanced at the present time. When my party went into office in January of last year we discovered that, although successive Governments had been dealing with Imperial wireless for about 14 years, nothing had been done, and the position had become exceedingly complicated. Australia had entered into an arrangement with the Marconi Company, and South Africa had done the same. Canada had already got a service from a private station here in this country, and in attempting to apply a national policy to that great Imperial service very considerable difficulties had to be overcome. As the Postmaster-General has explained, up to the middle of last year or the early part of last year, we had been proceeding on the assumption that we were to have a high-power system instead of the beam system. That involved A very considerable amount of communication with the Dominions and with South Africa, because they had to make arrangements by Acts of Parliament, and South Africa, and Canada had to be brought into line with the mother country, and all this involved a great deal of labour and occupied much time. All the complicated tangle, with which we were faced at the commencement of the year, was unravelled, and the whole position was made clear in six months, and by July of last year we presented to this House a contract, which was endorsed, and which is the basis upon which the contractor is now proceeding. Before I left the Post Office, arrangements had been made for the site upon which the two stations for Canada and South Africa are now proceeding, and an agreement had been reached between the Post Office and the Marconi Company, and the matter had been referred to the Office of Works to get the sites purchased. The only thing that was left for my right hon. Friend was to obtain sites for the stations to communicate with Australia and India. I am disappointed that the right hon. Gentleman has not completed that job before this time, and I do not think the same amount of energy can have been applied to this problem during his term of office as was given to it last year, or this matter would have been completed before now.
It is a question of very great importance, and the Dominions, more especially Canada, attach very great importance to having immediate means of communication with the Mother Country, and yet although this Government has been in office as long as the Labour Government were, with only this one job to do in this connection, the sites have not yet been placed at the disposal of the Marconi Company although the contractor is ready to carry out the work of erecting these two stations. I do not know how much longer it is going to take. The Postmaster-General says he has given the order, but that does not mean much unless he places the sites at the disposal of the contractor, because the time allowed is nine months from the date on which the sites are placed at the disposal of the Marconi Company. Up to now the sites have not been so placed. I do not know whether it is the landlords or who is standing in the way, but I regard this matter as being of sufficient importance that I hope the Postmaster-General will exercise any powers he may possess to sweep on one side the opposition of any individual standing in the way of getting this Imperial wireless scheme completed at the earliest possible moment. I was hoping that this matter might have been put in hand during this year, but if there is to be any further delay in getting these sites the probability is that another year will pass before Australia and India will be placed in wireless contact with this country.
The first business I had when I went to the Post Office was with the Prime Minister of Australia who had already interviewed the Prime Minister, and then he came to see me and I know from what he told me, and from reading the reports of the Imperial Conference how vitally important the Dominions regard this question, and for that reason I paid very great attention to it and devoted much time to getting this question settled, and I am disappoined that even to-day the sites for those two stations have not yet been placed at the disposal of the Marconi Company. I hope the Postmaster-General will not spare himself in any way and will use all the powers at his disposal to ensure that this is brought to completion at the earliest possible moment.
There has been some criticism of the Department on the action taken by the Postmaster-General on the ques- tion of an improved business organisation in the Department. I think from what I have already said the Committee will see that I am not one of those who believe in the theory that we have a mass of inefficiency at the Post Office, because I do not hold that view at all. On the other hand, it was held by the Committee which inquired into this question of Imperial wireless that, having regard to the magnitude of the new work that was to be undertaken, and because we have in addition to broadcasting the Imperial wireless scheme coming on, we shall have to consider what is to be the nation's policy in relation to British broadcasting. We have in these services a very big business, and, notwithstanding my conviction that we have as efficient men and women in the Post Office as are to be found anywhere else, I do think it is highly desirable that in the development of these great concerns the Postmaster-General should not make up his mind that necessarily the methods which have been successful in the treatment of other branches of the Post Office would also be equally successful in this connection. I hope he will not close his mind to the possibility of changed methods, and what they call modern up-to-date business lines, may be applied at any rate in a modified extent to the operations and working of these great services. I thank the Committee for having listened to me for so long. I am sure the Postmaster-General cannot say that I have indulged in carping criticism or that I have been unfriendly to the Department. I feel very keenly on this Imperial wireless business, and I hope whatever difficulties are in the way the right hon. Gentleman will devote his time and energy and the powers at his disposal to getting this business completed at the earliest possible moment.
I should like first of all to congratulate my right hon. Friend on the extremely able, lucid, and comprehensive statement which he has made in connection with the work of his Department. I feel safe in saying that now, seeing that the Prime Minister has left his side, because we all feel that if we praise the present Postmaster-General too much, he will get too quickly that which he deserves, namely, promotion to a higher rank. I am very much interested in one or two of the subjects with which the Postmaster-General dealt. I would refer first of all to penny post age. I have, as my right hon. Friend knows, raised this question on more than one occasion, and, as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Hartshorn) has pointed out, we raised It last year on more than one occasion. I was interested in the statement that he made. He told us that, had it not been that the Sutton judgment was pending, and might cost the country many hundreds of thousands of pounds—
—his Government would have given us penny postage last year. I am perfectly certain that the House will accept what my right hon. Friend has said, and I would like to say this to my right hon. Friend the present Postmaster-General, that he could effect no more popular reform in the country than the return to penny postage. 1, for one, believe that the revenues from the Post Office ought not to be part of the national revenues, as they are to-day. The Post Office ought to be run as one great going business concern, and any profits which could be made, and which, indeed, are made to the extent of £5,500,000 or £6,000,000 from the Post Office alone, ought to be utilised for the greater efficiency and effectiveness of that service throughout the country. I do not think the Chancellor of the Exchequer ought to have as much say as he has in the allocation of the profits made by the Postmaster-General's Department. There is a feeling in the House, and, indeed, it is the feeling throughout the country, that while Postmaster-General after Postmaster-General is of the opinion that there should be an immediate return to penny postage, we are always told that the Chancellor of the Exchequer comes forward and collars those vast amounts of profits for other purposes connected with the expenditure of the nation. It is true that my right hon. Friend held out some hope, and I think he may take it from me that everybody in the country, from the cottager to the man who lives in a castle, would be delighted to see a return to penny postage next year.
I was interested in what my right hon. Friend had to say in connection with rural telephones. I think the profits of the Post Office might very well be expended upon the extension of these rural telephones, and I was delighted to hear that so much progress had been made in that connection. I represent an agricultural constituency, which is scattered and sparsely populated, and I am glad to know that gradually—but only gradually—the rural telephone system is extending into those remote and inaccessible parts. I think the Postmaster-General is wrong in demanding at all times a minimum subscriber-ship of eight. There are certain parts of the country, particularly in the more remote districts, where it is absolutely impossible to get eight subscribers, and I think that those parts ought to be taken on their merits. Some parts can easily acquire the minimum of eight subscribers; some parts can very well acquire six; there are other parts which can only get four, but those four are very often most efficient farmers, and they are very often miles away from markets. If, however, they were in telephonic communication with the nearest market town, they would be able to find out at once what need there was for certain cattle, or sheep, or horses, as the case might be.
Moreover, there are other considerations as well as agricultural considerations. I know of places in the country, in my own constituency particularly, but I am speaking for the whole of the Highlands, where there are houses and small communities 20, 30 or 40 miles from the nearest doctor, and there is no possibility of any person who may be taken suddenly ill getting a doctor, or getting near a doctor, without a telephone. The telegraph offices are closed at night, and I know of case after case of extreme hardship because of the lack of extension of the rural telephone system. I am sure the House would agree to any loss that there might be through the extension of this system. My right hon. Friend has said that, the more it is seen in use in the country, the more, he believes, it will be used, and that is true, because there is no man in the country so conservative as the farmer or the man in the rural districts. Until you actually prove to him the utility of a new invention, he will not use it, and I think my right hon. Friend might very well take his courage in both hands and extend that system still more on the lines I suggest.
At the beginning of my right hon. Friend's speech, he dwelt at great length on the difficulties of transport. I am one of those who believe that the proper way to run the Post Office system of this country is in the direction of the ideal of a daily delivery in every home in the country. We in London are harassed by deliveries; we have far too many deliveries; but I could take my right hon. Friend to parts of the country where there is no delivery at all except three times a week. That is wrong. I think that, where it is at all possible, there ought to be the opportunity for every person residing in any community, particularly on the mainland, to receive a daily delivery of letters, because the arrival of the postman in a rural district is the event of the day. He comes with all the news. There is nothing modern in the way of cinemas or theatres in the community, and there is a certain uplifting in the minds of the poorer classes in the rural districts at the idea that there may by some chance come, with the arrival of the postman at some time during the day, some connection with the outside world. Purely as a matter of the happiness and contentment of the people of the country, and not as a matter of profit at all, there ought to be the ideal in the mind of the present Postmaster-General of extending the principle of a daily delivery to the most remote rural parts of the country.
May I say just one word about transport? As my right hon. Friend knows, most parts of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland are dependent largely upon the subsidy that is granted by his Department, not only for the arrival of letters, but for the arrival of foodstuffs, because, were it not for the subsidy granted by the Post Office, the owners of the ships which are running along the West Coast of Scotland, among the various islands, will tell you they could not run them at a profit, and, indeed, they would probably have to take them off. But what are the facts? Those parts of the country did more in the War, in proportion, than any other part that my right hon. Friend may care to think about in this country. The system of transport is worse to-day, from the point of view of delivery of letters, than it was in 1913 or 1914, and the Postmaster-General's subsidy to-day is less than it was in 1914. Surely, that cannot be right. The amount of profit in the letter-posting department is, as my right hon. Friend told us, £5,500,000 of £6,000,000, and, surely, some part of that amount should be spent in assisting the proper and efficient delivery of letters end parcels and the general postal arrangements to these islands, and in assisting transport generally in those districts. I know that my right hon. Friend is considering this question with the Secretary for Scotland, and, therefore, I will not say any more about it, except to ask him to recall to his mind considerations of that kind. These islands are part of this country, and the country ought, just as it is providing roads to develop the country and the mainland from town to town, to see, on the same principle, that proper means of communication and transport are provided for the people in these islands. The principle is just as sound in the one case as in the other, and I am sure that of the enormous amount of profit which has been accruing from the richer parts of this country to the Post Office, some small part—and it is only a small part that would be necessary— ought to be devoted to the betterment of these services in these remote parts.
My right hon. Friend said that he and his Department are delighted to get complaints. I am one of those who are always giving him little delights in that direction. I have been appealing to him on more than one occasion to revive the efficiency of the postal service in the rural districts, and to provide the same efficiency as in pre-War days. During the War, as he pointed out, a great many of the efficient things of the Post Office were wiped out, like the daily delivery, and so on. I have spoken on more than one occasion and have written to him and to the Noble Lord the Assistant Postmaster-General, mentioning the case of a great township like Avoch, in Ross-shire, where it would be in the interest of the community if a small change in the postal service could be conceded. A letter posted in that part of the country on Saturday night is not delivered in Inverness until Tuesday. That is a sort of thing which really cannot be tolerated in any business nation, and I know my right hon. Friend is determined to see that his great business is run on efficient lines. I would, therefore, ask him, or the Noble Lord the Assistant Postmaster-General, to look further into that question, and also into the question of the deliveries in Letterfearn, Opinan, and Badcaul. If the correspondence is looked up, it will be found that I have frequently pressed that point, and one or two others, and I would not have mentioned them to-day had it not been that my right hon. Friend said he was delighted to have complaints. I am sure that these complaints, which one does not like to raise in the midst of a great Debate of this kind, are common throughout the House, and that Members of the House are glad to know that the Postmaster-General is willing to hear them. His speech, brilliant as it was, held out hopes of greater efficiency, and it is because of that that I welcome his presence there as Postmaster-General. I am sure that no one wishes to deprive him of any honour which is bound, in course of time, to come to him, but we should like the present Postmaster-General to remain as long as possible, so that he may have an opportunity of re-creating the ideal of a really efficient public service, which will out-vie any other of its kind in the world.
I want to add my appeal in reference to the penny post. I do not propose to argue upon that point, because I am certain that all the advantages which the penny post would give to commerce and industry are present in the mind of the Postmaster-General. I would only touch upon one-aspect of the subject, which has not at present been mentioned, namely, the immense advantages of Imperial penny postage. I am certain that no member of this Government would wish to hesitate in doing anything which would aid communications between the Mother Country and the various parts of her Dominions. More especially am I certain that the present Postmaster-General, who has shown such activity in the matter of Imperial wireless, would not delay to bring about such a reform as will give us Imperial penny postage a day longer than he need. As he will have to fight the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the money, and as every little bit of advocacy, however humble, may help him if it reflects common-sense public opinion, I have mentioned the matter, though I know it will be spoken of ad nauseam during the Debate.
I should like to make one or two observations about the telephone service. The telephone is a monopoly, and must under existing circumstances be a monopoly, but since the man who is responsible for this monopoly is a Member of the House and of the Government it seems to me that he must take very special care to see that the disadvantages that there are in any monopoly are not in this case greater than they need be. One of the disadvantages is that the subscriber, or the person who purchases the service, has absolutely no redress if he thinks he has been hardly done by. From time to time criticisms reach one, and I daresay they reach many Members in the House, that subscribers are overcharged. What foundation there is in the criticism it is quite impossible for an ordinary Member of Parliament to ascertain, but there must be some foundation. There must occasionally be overcharges. I only wish to ask the Postmaster-General if there is any system within his machinery whereby, unknown to operators and to his accountancy staff, he checks the number of calls that are recorded and the accountancy machinery which has to be put into motion before the bills are sent out. If he does so check it, how small or how large are the number of errors that are found? I am willing to believe they are very small, but it is just because the ordinary subscriber has no redress and feels so helpless at the end of the line that he is apt to exaggerate, and I feel that possibly some statement from him which might show how efficient and how accurate the Post Office is in this matter might allay a good deal of anxiety.
I believe it is a commonplace that in this country the telephone is very greatly neglected. Indeed the Postmaster-General himself said he himself was not satisfied with the extent to which it is used. I do not in any sense desire to blame him for that, but I cannot help blaming his Department, and all previous Ministers, for it seems to me they have neglected the first thing that is necessary to make for good business, and that is to advertise. They have, I believe, put up an advertisement in the post offices which quite wrongly tell you you can get in touch with any part of the country. If the right hon. Gentleman could get more-subscribers, and if in fact he had more subscribers, that advertisement might be more true, but what the Post Office requires to do is, not to advertise in its own offices, but to advertise in general. It may be said that means considerable expenditure. A very small amount of expenditure relevant to his turnover would bring him new business. I have not yet heard of anyone who has been persuaded to buy a telephone or anyone to whom the great advantages of the telephone have been properly set forth by circular, by advertisement or even by canvass. I have taken some pains to inquire into the matter and I find that in my constituency, which is in London and is very thickly populated, there are only a few hundred telephones. There are probably twice as many persons who would gladly take a telephone if only there were more people in the same district on it with whom they could get into touch, and if prices were lower. A little money spent upon advertising the telephone and making it known what a convenience it is would bring him new subscribers and, therefore, cumulatively add to the rate at which his system would progress and his revenue increase.
One other remark about telephones. I am surprised that public opinion has not expressed itself as yet in regard to the quality of the speech that is transmitted over the public telephone. By quality I mean the extent to which it approximates towards being something like the real voice. In these days when the human voice can be heard reproduced by electrical and mechanical means, mainly through broadcasting, with extraordinary accuracy and extraordinary faithfulness, it is surprising that no one has noticed so far how extraordinarily bad the telephone is from every point of view. I believe if it were not for the fact that in an ordinary telephone conversation the greater part of what is going to be said is anticipated by the very fact that you are in conversation, one would not be able to understand much of what is being said, and I should claim perhaps to be more than averagely good at understanding what is said under these circumstances. Of course we cannot change the system in a few minutes. To get better quality would mean better microphones and better lines, but the right hon. Gentleman's engineers have been shown—and it is only, fair to say they have largely contributed in showing —how better quality may be had on the lines themselves for they are in use in connection with broadcasting, and all I raise the point for is because, for a series of years, if his engineers had in mind a definite attempt to improve the quality of reproduction of speech over the Post Office telephones they would produce greater intelligibility, and as and when the plant is renewed they might be able to give us some improvement in the really bad and almost unreasonable speech which at present we get over the ordinary telephones.
Might I venture one or two remarks upon broadcasting? First of all, with so much criticism, to which I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is very friendly, i should like to congratulate his Department upon their share in the success of broadcasting, for the policy which the Post Office has pursued has very largely been responsible for the very great success of this service in this country. I only hope the maintenance of unified control in that service may be brought about, and may be continued, for I believe the success is largely due to that point, in which we differ from other great countries which have preceded us. I want to ask the Postmaster-General if he will give me an answer to a question I put some months back, which he then found it impossible to answer in a way which was entirely satisfactory to me at any rate. I asked him if he had any surplus funds as the result of his share of the broadcast licence fees, and he admitted that he had a reasonable margin. I want to ask hint what he is doing with it. I do not want him to hand it over to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and thus follow the bad habit which appears to have become traditional in reference to postal profits. I do not want him to reduce licences, for in spite of much that may be said about the reduction of licences, I for one should prefer to see them maintained at their present level, because I believe it would be in the best interests of the listener to have the British Broadcasting Company, under proper control, getting increased revenue. There is plenty of room for development of their service, and any attempt to cut the modest sum of 10s. would take away from the listener a very great possibility of advancement. He might use his share in that connection if he likes to, but I do not want him to take away from the company any part of their share.
He might, however, utilise it for the purpose of securing that broadcasting is less interfered with. Certain stations that do direction finding work, and certain other coast stations, use a wave length right in the middle of the broadcasting band. If this question had been raised 18 months ago it would have been said, "How can you possibly set the claims of this broadcasting entertainment against so important a thing as shore stations giving directions to our shipping?" and everyone would have agreed that the suggestion was preposterous. The days have gone when broadcasting is a small entertainment, or even a mere entertainment. It is a great educational power, and incidentally a very large growing commercial enterprise depends upon it. Millions of people listen, and I believe they receive far more than entertainment from listening. The position is that, especially near the coast, many people's pleasure and education is interfered with, and I want to ask the Postmaster-General if he will not see if he cannot give broadcasting an absolutely clear field between, say, 250 and 500 metres. The detail is not important, but I mention the figure roughly to show what I have in mind. He would have to inquire how many direction-finding stations he would require to move and he would have to forbid ships to come down 450 metres as an alternative wave length, a practice which, I believe, they are increasingly doing, as anyone who understands Morse and listens on that wave length will know. In America the alternative wave length used by ships, and for direction finding, is 800 metres, which, I admit, would interfere with Croydon, but it is his business and not mine to make this patchwork puzzle. I ask if he will see if, having regard to the importance of broadcasting, he cannot entirely eliminate from the broadcasting band any interference from stations doing direction finding or shore to ship work.
One other point in regard to broadcasting. I believe it is a fact that his Department has placed some difficulties in the way of the British Broadcasting Company having increased power. At least one has heard rumours to that effect. They say, quite rightly, that we cannot have more power here without increasing the jamming somewhere else. If, on the other hand, he would remove from that wave band something else that is now there, that complaint would not arise, and that difficulty would to some extent be solved. One finds it a little difficult to appreciate the Post Office official's point of view when he says we cannot have this and we cannot have that, but one recalls that only two short years ago they said, "You cannot have any broadcasting," and only when the utmost possible pressure was brought to bear were reasonable wave lengths and reasonable facilities given. Under those circumstances one is apt to think that their desire jealously to guard this band against interference from the intrusion of the Broadcasting Company is a little out of date, and the time has come for them to realise what an immense public service it is and to give it as much freedom as it can possibly have.
I have one more observation to make with reference to a very small section of the community that is interested in wireless, and that is the amateur transmitter. I want to thank the Postmaster-General for the concessions he has made. He is the first Postmaster-General to make concessions, and credit is due to him for having understood and met the difficulties of this very energetic section of our community. I want to distinguish between the amateur transmitter, as he is known to the general public, and the amateur transmitter as the Postmaster-General should regard him. The one who is known to the general public is the one who grinds out bad gramophone records after broadcasting hours, and generally makes the night hideous. He should not necessarily be encouraged, and he perhaps does great disservice to the amateur movement in general, because he leads people to believe he is only playing. There are some hundreds of people, working on other wave lengths which the general public do not hear, who do really useful work, and who, in my opinion, should be encouraged. This the Postmaster-General has given already, and one thanks him for that, and expresses the hope that he will go on being generous to them, particularly in the direction of allowing them more freely to work with amateurs in foreign countries. That would be an advantage both to science and international friendship, even though in a very small degree.
I regret that the time at my disposal will not permit me to follow the line taken by the last speaker. I want to deal with the opening statement of the Postmaster-General. It is not possible for me to touch on the many interesting subjects with which the right hon. Gentleman dealt, but, in the first place, I want to refer to the general question of wireless. I asked the right hon. Gentleman whether he could say on what basis the Anglo-Continental wireless services were being shared with the Marconi Company and I must say, with all due respect, that I was not altogether pleased with the terms of his reply. I did not. understand him to explain the way in which that work was being shared between the Post Office and the Marconi Company. I am particularly interested in this Anglo-Continental wireless service, because under the provisional licences which have hitherto operated, and which have permitted the Marconi Company to perform wireless service between this country, France, Germany, and some other countries, the company has had all the cream, and the skimmed milk has been left to the Post Office. I should like the Postmaster-General to go very carefully into the whole of the possibilities so far as the Anglo-Continental wireless schemes are concerned, because I claim that this service is much too important to be handed over to the Marconi Company, and that in the national interest we should do it for ourselves. I hope that the matter has not gone too far to make a fresh decision impossible.
I did not understand the Postmaster-General to express any opinion with regard to the beam system. Last year I said in this House that, in my opinion, the beam system was nothing more than an experiment. I was hoping that the Postmaster-General, with his very efficient staff behind him, would have been able to make a pronouncement on that subject to-day. Is or is not the beam system a tried and efficient system which will serve this country satisfactorily in its endeavour to maintain communication with the Dominions? I am not in a position to say anything more on that point than I said last year, but I should like to have an authoritative assurance from the Postmaster-General that the beam system is now regarded as satisfactory, and that we may look with certainty to permanent wireless communications between this country and the Dominions. I hope the Postmaster-General will be adamant in his determination to retain absolute control of long-distance stations in this country, and, in addition, that he will see whether it is not possible to co-ordinate wireless research work so that the best brains of the Admiralty and of the civil administration may work together for national good and inter-Dominion good. Wireless is likely to play a very great part in the future in regard to our relations with the Dominions, and I am particularly anxious that we should keep a very strong control over the whole of its operations in order that at some distant-date we may not find that the Commercial Radio International Committee, of which the Marconi Company is an important part, have succeeded in allotting to themselves spheres of exploitation for their personal good.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman and the Post Office upon the introduction of telephone kiosks; but I regret to say that the policy of the Post Office has been to discriminate between areas in regard to permitting them to have kiosks. I am greatly interested in an extremely poor district in the City of Bristol where there are no facilities, and where the inhabitants of the district are not in a position to become subscribers, they feel that they would like to share in the growth of modern science and have petitioned that a kiosk might be allotted to that particular district, which is more or less isolated from the city. The reply of the Post Office was that such a kiosk was not likely to produce very much revenue. What struck me as being much more extraordinary was that the same persons who were considered as not likely to bring much revenue into the Post Office were told that they could have a telephone call if the Post Office had closed by paying a late fee of 1s. per call. That does not appeal to me one bit. I trust that the matter having been mentioned during this Debate, the Postmaster-General will be good enough to look into it again.
There is also the question of accommodation. I am assured that owing to the economies which have been secured in the past, the conditions in a number of offices are extremely unsatisfactory. With the permission of the Chair I should like to refer to an office in the right hon. Gentleman's own constituency which needs urgent attention. I am told that the Government chemists examined the matter in 1920 and reported entirely unfavourably with regard to the conditions, but that nothing has been done. I do hope the right hon. Gentleman will look into the matter, and also into the question of the offices at Northallerton and Preston, which are in a similar, if not a worse, condition. At Northallerton the conditions have been extraordinarily bad since 1914. I understand that the Post Office have been in a position for the last 11 years to put these conditions right, and that it needs a very strong push on the part of the Postmaster-General to secure that the existing site is used at the earliest possible moment.
A good deal has been said with regard to telephones. I wish to lead up to the telephone question by saying a few words with regard to development. The Postmaster-General referred to the co-operation of the staff in regard to the Fittings Committee. I gathered that he was very glad to have the cooperation of the men and women who spend their lives in the industry. The organised men and women in the Post Office are very greatly interested in the question of development and have pressed the matter on the Postmaster-General for generations. I do not wish to recite the innovations which have found favour with his predecessors, but I would ask the right hon. Gentleman what is his attitude towards the question of the general development of the Post Office? I do not know whether I missed his reference, but I anticipated that he would make an answer with regard to the cash-on-delivery system. Does he propose to introduce that system, or, alternatively, if he does not, what are the grounds on which further delay is to occur.
The last speaker referred to the question of advertising. I believe that if wider publicity were given to the functions performed by the Post Office and the service which it renders, the Poet Office business would grow very rapidly. There is also the question of the postal cheque system, the possibility of increasing the Savings Bank facilities and, finally, a subject in which. I am very much interested, the extension of the Post Office Insurance system by a new policy and more active propaganda. The staff of the Post Office regard their experience as of particular value, and they would like to be regarded as partners in the industry; partners interested in securing the highest possible efficiency. They hope that the Postmaster-General will look at their suggestions and at their offer of co-operation in that light. The Post Office has immense possibilities, and if wisely administered it can become an even greater benefit to the community than it-is at the present time.
Some people seem to think that if we could secure more subscribers to the telephone system that all would be well. As I understand it, that is not the position. I am assured that telephone equipment in this country, despite the unemployment problem, is three years behind our normal requirements. I am assured that the persons responsible for making the estimates for ordering the necessary plant to keep pace with the rush of new subscribers is so conservative that the equipment will never be up to the standard of requirements until the present gentlemen have retired. What strikes me as being most remarkable, is that I have been reliably assured that in a town not a very great distance from this House it would be possible to secure 800 or 900 new subscribers during the present week if the Post Office were in a position to supply the equipment. I am told that the headquarters of the Post Office are aware of these facts and that the contract officers, whose duty it is to secure new contracts between the Post Office and the public, are failing to secure new subscribers because they know that the Post Office cannot carry out the orders.
The staff of the Post Office have a different attitude towards their industry than the average employé has towards industry. The Post Office servants spend, usually, the whole of their lives in the industry. They are keen to see the development of joint working, and when the present Speaker of the House of Commons introduced the Whitley system they welcomed it with open arms. To-day, we have a Whitley system in the Post Office, but I am very much afraid that some of the officials have never understood the spirit which must underlie that system. If economy or a greater output is required the officials are anxious to start a discussion around a table, but when the staff require consideration for their conditions or their point of view the position is not regarded as being the same, and a joint discussion has not the same appeal. The Postmaster-General referred to the terrible state of affairs which occurred at many centres during the last Christmas pressure. He told us that he had set up a committee to go into the whole facts. I understand that organisations representing the staff of the Post Office asked to be allowed to join in that inquiry in order that their experience might be at his disposal. I very much regret that, despite his testimony to the success of the Fittings Committee, and to the very great success which has been obtained with other pieces of joint working, he has not seen fit to permit some of my colleagues to help him with his problem of Christmas pressure.
I now come to what is, after all, the main subject on which I wish to speak to the Committee this evening, it is perhaps as well to remember what I have just said, namely, that we have the Whitley system, a system of joint working, at present in operation at the Post Office. On 23rd October last the Union of Post Office Workers submitted a wages claim to the Postmaster-General, covering 30 grades, with differing conditions. Having regard to the existence of the Whitley system, the union asked that a deputation might be received to amplify their case, and they urged that a small joint committee should be set up to examine the claims in accordance with the usual practice. On 24th December the Postmaster-General replied that a deputation could not be received, and if the union wished to pursue the matter a detailed ease should be submitted in writing. The union replied, outlining the general basis of the claim, and pointing out that it would be most convenient to deal with the details when the proposed deputation was received. On the 12th February this year the Post Office replied that the union had not established a prima-facie case, and referred the union to the Arbitration Board. The union replied, expressing its dissatisfaction and pointing out that there was a general understanding that every effort would be made to reach agreed decisions before reference to the Arbitration Board would be made. The union repeated the request for a deputation to be received.
The Postmaster-General then changed his ground and received a deputation on the 11th March this year. He declined to alter his decision, and further, he declined to discuss any claim involving wage conditions prior to 1920. I may just quote from the actual letter of the Postmaster-General. He said, in a letter dated 18th March:
Had the claim been based solely on alleged changes since the settlement of 1920 he might have been prepared to afford facilities for a detailed discussion of the specific question "—
I want the Committee to mark the following words—
in accordance with the practice of the Post Office he maintained his decision that the setting up of a joint committee would have no practical result, and he must leave the union to have recourse to arbitration.
The Union being disappointed with that position asked the General Council of the Trade Union Congress to intervene, and on the 16th June a deputation from that body pressed the case for direct negotiations without success. When my attention was first called to the fact that the Postmaster-General had stated that the union had not made any prima facie case, and that he must regard 1920 as the datum line for all future wages negotiations, I thought that, being a new occupant of the office, he had struck a new and bright idea, but on making careful inquiries I found that this demand for a prima facie case, and this demand that 1920 was a year which marked a period suitable to become a datum line for the wages of men employed in industry, were not thought of during his term of office. I found that the officials persuaded his predecessor to try a similar phrase upon a kindred organisation and that after that effort had failed, after the organisation concerned Had put up a big fight, a Wages Negotiation Committee was appointed, and is still in existence, and that 1920 is not the datum line on which the negotiations are taking place. In addition I would like to say that the Association re-
presenting the Postmasters in this country has been in negotiation by this method with the Post Office for some considerable time, and that a settlement will be announced almost immediately. In those circumstances I see no reason for differentiation between one organisation and another, even if I saw the force of the contention in itself, and I contend that it is quite impossible for the Postmaster-General to differentiate between different sections of the staff in this way.
My complaint with regard to the right hon. Gentleman is not that he has actually done something, but that he has permitted himself to be influenced by officials who are absolutely opposed to Whitleyism and to joint working. The gentleman who, I imagine, is responsible for this line of conduct having been taken by the Postmaster-General, was recently at a public dinner when he boasted that the Post Office was the training ground for the Cabinet, and I imagine that he thought that he was the trainer. Well, if the men who are being trained in the Post Office for subsequent service in the Cabinet are training on those lines, it will be, an extremely unfortunate thing in my opinion for the Cabinet, for the Government and for the people generally. I am hoping that here to-day it will be possible for the Postmaster-General to go back on the decision which he has taken with a view to affording the staff of the Post Office the ordinary conditions and opportunities to negotiate on a claim which has been submitted. I want to draw the attention of the Committee to the fact that the Postmaster-General has made two remarkable admissions, one of which I have already brought to its notice. In a letter dated March, 1918, he admitted that joint detailed discussion is the usual practice of the Post Office, and in the interview with the Trade Union Congress he said that given his conditions he was perfectly prepared to receive representations in the ordinary way. I am here to-night to ask that the normal methods of negotiation may operate and to ask him to appoint a Joint Committee in the ordinary way to examine the wages Claims.
In the final communication from the Postmaster-General to the Trade Union Congress he appeared to introduce a new factor. He appeared to demand that the men and women in the Post Office should agree to conditions in outside industries being taken into account in fixing their remuneration. He may regard that as being a new point, but during the very many years in which I have been associated with this particular Department it has been the constant endeavour and the daily endeavour of the Post Office to fix the wages of the staff according to that standard, but I would remind him that many Select Committees have delved into this subject, that Select Committees of this House have examined the problem, and that it is on record not only that the most efficient Secretary whom the Post Office ever had has recorded his opinion that no outside work was comparable with the Post Office work, but that the Committee presided over by Mr. Richard Durning Holt was emphatic on the point, especially as such a comparison was introduced into their terms of reference at the instigation of the Post Office.
I believe that the Postmaster-General is entitled to take into account every relevant consideration. What we object to is the love of the Post Office for comparisons that are always made with lowly-paid men or women outside, so that it would be impossible on such a basis to secure a fair assessment of Post Office wages. There was the further claim with regard to the 1920 datum line. It is impossible for the union to agree that wage negotiations in the future shall have no regard whatever to the years which preceded 1920. What would it mean? It would mean that the many thousands of men and women in the Post Office who were underpaid in 1920, and I may say who are underpaid to-day, should always have to acquiesce in the 1920 standard, which gave them insufficient food, insufficient housing and very often insufficient clothing. The position which we take up, and will continue to take up, is that we shall endeavour to secure better conditions for our members. We shall insist on every relevant consideration being taken into review, and, no matter what the conditions were in 1920 or even in 1914, if the present circumstances are unsatisfactory to our members we shall continue to insist on reconsideration.
There is one final point. The Postmaster-General seems to have the impression that it is possible for this matter to
go direct to the Arbitration Board without prior consideration between the staff and himself. I would remind him that Clause 1 of the constitution of the new Arbitration Board begins:
We are agreed that, failing agreement by negotiations, arbitration, shall be open to Government Departments and the recognised associations of civil servants "—
and during the negotiations which resulted in the Board being set up, it was clearly laid down that the Board was not intended to replace collective bargaining, but only to supplement it in case of failure to reach agreement. But there is an even stronger point. The original Arbitration Board was abolished in 1922 on the ground that its existence tended to discourage joint negotiation and discussion. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Hillhead (Sir Robert Home) on 22nd February, 1922, and again on 27th July, 1922, contended that the arrangements for arbitration tended to militate against the development of Whitley Councils on the best lines, and that the, Board had a destructive effect on collective bargaining. This Government is formed very largely of the same persons who were in office at that time, and their particular anxiety to-day is to do the very thing which they were so anxious to prevent in 1922. Sir William Mackenzie, reporting to the Ministry of Labour, said:
The Industrial Courts Act of 1919 does not contemplate that the parties to a trade dispute or difference should go direct to the Industrial Court to have their dispute settled.
The same gentleman, on June 18th last, is stated to have said, as President of the Arbitration Court,
that conciliation was quite possible under the rules and the procedure of the Court, and that in his view settlement by arrangement was much preferable to the making of an award by the Court.
I have a great deal of respect for the Prime Minister, and I do not want in any way to quote anything he may have said in a political speech if such a quotation can be. regarded as being in any sense unfair. The Prime Minister said:
Let those who represent labour and capital get down to it and reason and pursue peace through every alley and every corner of this country. Our greatest difficulty in the past, and even to-day, is the creation of an atmosphere in which forces hitherto hostile can be brought to negotiate amicably. What is true of Europe is true of England.
If the Prime Minister cannot persuade his own Ministers to follow his lead, can ho expect the world outside to listen to his appeal? I am not moving a reduction of the Vote, because I am hoping against hope that the things I have placed before the Postmaster-General will have made him understand that at least there is a very strong point of view which is opposed to his point of view. I have tried to state the case fairly, and I trust that he will do what he can to strengthen the Whitley movement in the Post Office, to strengthen the method of joint working, and to achieve our ideal of a staff working with the Postmaster-General and the higher officials in a whole-hearted endeavour to co-operate for the common good.
My speech will be short; I cannot promise that it will be sweet, for I have had to put down a Motion to reduce the salary of the Postmaster-General by £100, not because I have in the least any personal grudge against him—indeed I love and respect him—but because I maintain a mild vendetta against him and many of his predecessors for carrying out a policy which I regard as the subordinating of their duties as Postmasters-General to certain side issues. The Postmaster General should, above all things, be a quick and cheap deliverer of letters. I acknowledge that the right hon. Gentle man is a very complicated person. He issues licences, he advertises for the Army and Navy, he pays out a great many pensions, he patronises broadcasting, and in fact his are multifarious duties; but at the bottom he should be the arch-postman of England Considering him as the arch-postman of England, I am bound to point out that he is, compared with his predecessor of the year 1914, selling inferior services for much higher prices, that is not the duty of a servant of the Crown. The rise in the prices cannot be disputed. The postage on our letters is three-halfpence instead of a penny, and our telegrams are 1s. instead of 6d., and I doubt very much whether these higher prices are necessary. But we are denied the habitual and ordinary services of the Post Office that were in practice in 1913 and 1914.
I refer to two special things, the evening post and the Sunday delivery. The cessation of the evening post is not a question that presses on London. People living in London are already blessed with an evening post. But in the large country towns, where there is no delivery at all after 4 p.m., it is an intolerable nuisance to those who are blessed or cursed with a large correspondence. It means that since there are no letters delivered after 4 o'clock an intolerable bulk is delivered on the following morning—the whole accumulation of three quarters of a day instead of the accumulation of one post arrives at breakfast time. In a town with 60,000 inhabitants, like that in which I live, where an enormous amount of correspondence is always going about, it is intolerable that any letter posted at any hour except the earliest in the morning cannot be delivered on the same night. That becomes still more intolerable when Sunday intervenes, when any letter posted on Saturday at noon not soon enough to catch the four o'clock delivery, is not delivered until Monday. That is 40 hours suspension of all correspondence. We feel it in my town particularly strongly for this reason. The suspension of the evening delivery is the breaking of an old official promise made by the Post Office when I was a comparatively young denizen of the place.
In the 'eighties, and a little earlier, we organised a postal service of our own because of the extreme inefficiency of the deliveries of the General Post Office. We had messengers, and postage stamps which are now much sought for by philatalists. We had a working local post to supplement the inefficiency of the ordinary post office. Of course that was perfectly illegal, and in pursuance of the advice of the Attorney-General it was completely put down. We were told to discontinue deliveries, and the use of postage stamps, as we were violating His Majesty's monopoly. But, in return, we were promised much more frequent deliveries, and especially an evening delivery. The evening delivery, started in 1885, was continued for nearly 30 years, and has now been taken away. In a town that writes a great deal that really is an intolerable grievance. It becomes still more intolerable when Sunday is thrown in. Any communication of any kind that is put into the post at anything but an early hour on Saturday morning remains for 40 hours locked up and inaccessible in the General Post Office. I quoted to a previous Postmaster-General one incident which serves as an illustration. Nineteen miles from Oxford a letter describing the dangerous illness of a relative was dropped into a letter box in the late afternoon of Friday. It reached Oxford on the following day, a Saturday. It stuck in Oxford all Saturday afternoon and Sunday, and was delivered to the addressee on the Monday morning. That relative at the same time might have received the news of the death of the patient. As a matter of fact that did not follow. Two whole days and eight hours over were occupied in getting that letter 19 miles to Oxford, and getting it delivered. That sort of delay is intolerable. I could quote many more examples.
At the end of the week it is quite impossible to rely on any correspondence with any place except London or the very large towns. The Postmaster-General, as long as he denies us a single evening delivery in a large and busy town, and as long as he shuts up the Post Office entirely on Sundays, will earn the extreme disapproval of my constituents. He is bound, in reorganising post-War conditions, to look to pre-War conditions as what he should aim at, and evening deliveries in the larger towns were regular and universal. I am not asking the Postmaster-General to send a daily post to St. Kilda. I am merely asking him to utilise the large existing postal staff of a town of 60,000 people, and to give us one evening delivery.
I have a further hope, and that is that some day he may take it into his head to give us once more the Sunday delivery. The Londoner does not feel these things because he has a delivery late on the Saturday night. I beg the Postmaster-General to think of himself, mainly, as a quick deliverer of letters, and not to be bothering himself with telephones or with broadcasting. Neither of those things appeals to me very much. I cut off my own telephone, years ago, because I found that it was a nuisance. Generally, when I am called to it, I find either a demand for some historical dates—the date of the Battle of Hastings or something of that sort—or else requests to speak at small political ward meetings. The only way to remain one's own master is to cut off the telephone, and I have not had one now for years. As to broadcasting, it seems to me to be still less to be desired. I have only heard broadcasted messages two or three times. One was on the habits of spiders, which, candidly, I found to be atrocious. I slunk away in horror from the ghastly lecture. The last thing but one that I heard was some silly tittle-tattle to children. No amount of broadcasting or of telephoning will console me for the want of my evening delivery of letters, praying for the restoration of which I hereby state that I shall not move my Motion for reducing the salary of the Postmaster-General.
I desire to raise a matter which, as the Postmaster-General and the Assistant Postmaster-General will appreciate, is very delicate. It is in reference to the investigation branch of the General Post Office. Whatever I may have to say in this connection, I do not wish it to be understood that all I have to criticise belongs to the administration of the present Postmaster-General. On the contrary, it is the accumulation of years, following on a practice that has gone on, comparatively unchecked, I think, in recent times. As far as I can ascertain, the investigation branch of the General Post Office is controlled by a number of, no doubt, very efficient officers of the Civil Service, supplemented by a number of special investigating officers recruited from the ranks of the Metropolitan Police. It is not so much the work they do, or the results they attain to which one desires to refer, as the principles upon which the Department does its work. Anyone who has followed the criticisms of eminent Judges during the last few months on the evidence submitted by the investigation department of the General Post Office can only come to the conclusion that the General Post Office ought to overhaul its methods of investigation.
I know that in a public service employing nearly a quarter of a million people, where there are extraordinary opportunities for transgressing the law of the land, and particularly the law of the Department, some kind of check must be organised and some kind of protection must be given to the public which confides its property to the custody of the Post Office. At the same time, the Post Office has no more right than any private employer to adopt methods which are outside the law. The Investigation De- partment, in my opinion, has got off scot free on many occasions when its methods might have been questioned, and I wish to give one case in particular, as concrete evidence that the criticisms I offer are more than justified. In the case which I am about to submit I do not claim either that the individual in question is guilty or is not guilty of any charge made against him, but I submit that the methods of the investigation branch in this inquiry left much to be desired by the Department, and much to be desired by the service in general. I refer to the case of a man named Hudson of Liverpool. In explaining how this case come to my notice I must express regret for introducing the name of an hon. Member who has since passed away, namely, the late Sir Harold Smith, who was Member for the Wavertree Division of Liverpool at one time. He took an interest in this case, so much so that he said Hudson was entitled to an impartial hearing, and had not been treated at all fairly. Owing to the unfortunate circumstance of Sir Harold Smith's death, the case passed into the hands of Sir Robert Houston, who unfortunately suffered from ill-health and subsequently resigned, and the case then passed into my hands.
This is the first opportunity I have had of bringing the facts before the notice of the Postmaster-General across the Floor. I brought it to the notice of the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor, and it has also been brought to the notice of the Postmaster-General in the previous Conservative Government, but so far no satisfaction has been given. Hudson was a sorter clerk and telegraphist in the Liverpool Post Office. According to the statement of the Postmaster-General, he was suspected for some time of having tampered with correspondence. The information supplied by the Postmaster-General is that on several occasions this man had been observed by members of the investigation branch to open letters, and in other ways to interfere with those letters, during a period of two or three months. Apparently, no action was taken against the man at the time these first offences are alleged to have been committed, if the statements made subsequently are true. On a given date Hudson was taken from his sorting table to a room in another part of the building occupied by the investigation branch, and was asked if he had anything upon him that was not his property. He was searched so thoroughly that he was stripped to his shirt. There was no opportunity for him to do away with any property that might otherwise have been found upon him. The investigation officers who conveyed him to the room alleged that they saw him put upon his person some of the correspondence he had been handling; yet when the search was complete, not a single tittle of evidence had been found.
If there be any real object for such a search, it must be to discover evidence of a man's guilt, and, in the absence of any such evidence, the man is entitled to be regarded as innocent, unless and until he is subsequently found guilty. But the investigation branch apparently do not proceed on the assumption that a man is innocent, and do not observe the elementary principle, impressed on every police officer when he joins the force, that no questions should be put to a person about to be charged with an offence which might incriminate that person. That principle has been so definitely laid down in the Courts, that police officers find themselves in very bad odour in the Courts if it transpires that they have put to persons about to be charged, leading questions or any questions likely to incriminate an individual who is answering under stress and in circumstances which are not normal. Nothing was found on Hudson, and he was then asked if there was anything in his locker which did not belong to him. He said there was not, and that he had no objection to the locker being searched, and, this being done, nothing of an incriminating character was found. They asked him then if they could proceed to his home and search his premises.
Here the matter reached a point where an individual with a wife and family had to consider the effect upon his wife and family of allowing investigating officers to visit his house and put a request—in his absence—that they should be allowed to search the house. This man recognised that the interests of the health and the peace of his family did not justify a request of that kind being made in his absence, but he said he was prepared to allow his house to be searched, if permitted to accompany the officers to the house, and in their presence to tell his wife the object of the visit. He himself offered to remain on the doorstep while the officers went inside with his wife and search the house. I think that was a, very generous offer. Perhaps my previous calling has made me suspicious, but, personally, I do not think I would have agreed to a search unless I myself were to be present. I suggest this was not only a fair, but, as I say, a generous offer, and if it had been accepted by the officers, there could have been no complaint.
In point of law, these officers had no right to ask the man to allow them to search his premises. They do frequently search premises without search warrants, and, if successful in finding incriminating evidence, all goes well, so far as the investigating officers are concerned. If things do not go well, of course, it is another matter; but here was the case of a civil servant with 30 years' service behind him, a great deal to lose, a wife and children to think of, and this man, like a good many more, would be jolly glad if nothing incriminating were found, if he got away with a whole skin, and if he was able to resume duty without a stain on his character. However, the officers did not accept his offer to search the house under those conditions. The man was detained in the room, and two officers proceeded to the sorting table, at which he had been working. They returned in about an hour's time, and brought with them, I think, four letters which they showed to Hudson. Hudson had not seen them before—so he said. I am not saying whether his story or the story of the investigating officers is correct. I am merely stating the facts as they have been given to me. The officers alleged that these four letters had been tampered with. Hudson could not see anything wrong with them, but it was alleged, and it was subsequently stated in correspondence, that the letters were moist as if they have been steamed over and re-sealed with stamp edging. Now, a letter which has been opened and re-sealed would have become perfectly dry after the lapse of an hour. It is difficult to understand how these letters could have been in the condition described.
Nothing was found by which the man could be pinned down to the charge, but he was suspended. He was suspended with the additional agony of not knowing whether he was to be charged or not, and, consequently, whether or not he was to have an opportunity of proving his innocence. He was not even informed in writing of the grounds on which he was suspended, nor was he allowed to submit himself to any inquiry by the Post Office authorities, or any other authority where he could have challenged the statements of the investigating officers and proved his own movements. He then complained that he had not been informed of the charge on which he was suspended, and, a week later, he received a letter from the then Postmaster-General declaring that his services were no longer required, and that he would receive his pay up to that date. This was after four weeks of suspension, and after he had asked for an opportunity of hearing the charge against him. Yet during all that time, he was not presented with the opportunity which he should have had, of establishing his case.
He made a complaint to the Union of Post Office Workers, and the union made representations to the Postmaster-General, and three weeks after his discharge he was sent for by the local past-master and confronted with two investigation officers. A postal order was produced, and he was told that on the very day when he was taken from the sorting table it had been cashed at a post office close to his home, where he had lived for a number of years, and where he was known as a post office official. Hudson is a man who is up to the average intelligence, and the most unlikely place where an intelligent man would cash a postal order purloined from a postal packet would be in a post office where he was well known as a postal official. The postal order was valued at 2s. He was then told —harking back seven weeks—that when he was searched on the first occasion, two. of the Treasury notes found in his wallet had numbers identical with the numbers of two Treasury notes that had passed into the post and had not been delivered to the addressee, and that these two Treasury notes were in the same envelope as the two shilling postal order. That may be so, but it is not; good enough to say to a man over whose head there is a charge of felony hanging, "These are two notes which you had in your possession seven weeks ago bearing numbers identical with the numbers of two that had been reported lost. How do you account for coining into possession of them?" There is no Member in this House who could say with any degree of accuracy, unless he had only one Treasury note in his pocket, from where he had obtained any of the notes that he had in his pockets. Several weeks had elapsed, and it was impossible for the man to say where he got the notes, and he could not give any explanation. I want to ask the Postmaster-General this: Was Hudson, this postal clerk, confronted with the evidence that those missing notes were ever sent through the post? That is one question. Did they produce the sender of the notes? Has the sender of the notes been asked by what means he identifies the numbers of certain notes as the numbers of the notes that he sent through the post? Has the sender of the notes any explanation to give as to why the 2s. postal order was obtained and put in the envelope with two 10s. Treasury notes? If the sender is going to post a 2s. postal order, he will take a little more care and get a postal order for the two Treasury notes, but in any case the sender ought to be produced, and he should be produced to the accused person in order that the accused person may have the right of cross-examination. He should be asked to produce the evidence that justified the use of the numbers as being identical with those found in Hudson's pocket.
Can the sender produce the counterfoil of the postal order that passed through the post? I would like to have an answer to that question. Can he produce the counterfoil? Has Hudson at any time had an opportunity of knowing what inquiries were made or what evidence was subsequently adduced by the investigating officers to justify the Postmaster-General, through the permanent officials of the Department, dismissing this man from his employment without ever putting the charge in writing to him on which he was dismissed? Before I go on to the question as to why the law was not set in motion, I want to remind the Committee that this is not criticism of the present Postmaster-General. He is merely holding the baby, and I hope he will hold it very neatly and that we shall get some satisfaction from him that will endear him to postal
servants in this country who feel far from secure with methods of this kind being adopted in the Post Office. Before I proceed to ask why the law was not set in motion, may I quote a statement made by one of the most eminent Judges this country has ever had, the late Lord Brampton, 23 years one of His Majesty's Judges. In laying down the curriculum of conduct for a police officer, he declared, and, mark you, the investigating officers in the Post Office are police officers and have no more title when employed by the Post Office, to transgress in their duties as police officers, than they have when employed by the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police: —
It is wrong to question such person"—
that is a suspected person—
touching the crime with which he is accused. Neither Judge, Magistrate, nor juryman can interrogate an accused person or require him to answer questions tending to incriminate himself; much less ought a police officer to do so. For a police officer to press any accused person to say anything with reference to the alleged crime is very wrong, and, if a police officer does so, assuredly he will be severely handled at the trial, and it is not unlikely the evidence will be disbelieved.
I suggest that one of the reasons why the Post Office did not proceed to court in this case was that they had a lively anticipation of the application of the late Lord Brampton's remarks. The Judge at the Old Bailey during the last few months has commented very seriously on the methods of the investigation department with regard to offences alleged to have been committed by postal servants. He said:
The law of England says that a wife cannot be called to give evidence against her husband except in certain cases without the husband's consent. I disapprove of statements being read to a prisoner which have been taken from other witnesses.
That is not so in this case, hut I am endeavouring to show that the methods of the investigation department have been subjected to a good deal of judicial criticism.
It is like the French system of confrontation which has been condemned again and again by the Judges of this land. Above all, I disapprove with all the authority I possess of the system followed in this case. The Post Office did it with their eyes open. I am told that a gentleman named Tutton"—
who was a chief investigation officer—
knowing full well the disapprobation that I had expressed, snapped his fingers in my face and said, 'I am going on with it. I am the executive; the judiciary has no power over me.' That is rather the attitude which has been taken up by the executive in other relations of life. The Judges of this land are free and independent, and, while I sit in this Court, I am going to have the practice followed that I think is right until the Court of Criminal Appeal tells me that I am wrong. It is entirely contrary to the whole principle of the laws of England, and the Post Office must be taught that they are only a branch of the public service, and that they have got no rights that are not common to other prosecutors.
I did inquire of the Post Office why they had not prosecuted this man for felony. He had committed a felony. That has been definitely declared by the Post Office authorities. The man is discharged from the Post Office and he does not even get an impartial inquiry. The investigation officers are constituted as the investigators, the accusers, the judge and the jury, and the man has no remedy whatsoever, and yet the most hardened criminal in the land, if anyone dared to charge him with having committed a felony, has the right to demand that they shall take him into a court of law, or he can get redress in the, civil courts for wrongful dismissal or defamation of character. This man is a civil servant, and he is denied the privileges that are accorded to the ordinary citizen so far as taking action is concerned. The Crown would no doubt plead Crown privilege, but the Post Office has a duty to other citizens, and, if it is right for the law to declare that the conduct of a person who becomes cognisant of a felony may, if he fails to take action, become subject to very grave suspicion, then surely it is not asking too much that one of the Government Departments should accept the same degree of service to the community as the individual has to accept.
When I asked the Post Office why this matter was not referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions—and, after all, the Director of Public Prosecutions is a very great judge as to whether it is a case in which there is evidence sufficient to warrant the charge of felony—they replied that though they were perfectly satisfied that the guilt had been proved there were certain technicalities, or words to that effect, that might make it not a case that would stand for prosecution. In other words, there were certain facts or certain assumptions that were held by the Post Office that could not be substantiated in a Court of Law, and for that reason apparently the case did not go to Court. When Sir Charles Matthews was Director of Public Prosecutions he said that, whether innocent, or guilty, the accused person was entitled to protection, and innocent he must be assumed until his guilt had been declared by a competent tribunal. I cannot conceive that the House of Commons ever intended that, I will not say the Postmaster-General, but his advisers, should be regarded as a competent tribunal when they wore the accusers to give judgment against one of their employés who denied the charges that had been made against him and when they had not presented to the individual an opportunity of having the evidence put before him in order that he could examine it.
I am of the opinion that the Post Office cannot escape responsibility in this matter. This man Hudson, who may be one of many more cases, ought to have an opportunity of proving or disproving the case against him. The investigation branch may have made a mistake. If this man's name had been Major Sheppard, it would have been a different matter entirely. There have been cases of genuine mistaken identity, and, even where an officer had actually observed with his own eyes something taking place, subsequent examination of the facts has proved that he has been wrong. We ought never to forget the case of Adolf Beck, the man who served for many years penal servitude and was subsequently found to be quite innocent of the charges preferred against him. The Fitzroy case and the Madame D'Angeley case, over which there was a Royal Commission, come down to us to prove that mistakes can occur, and we ought to take every possible step to see that there is no mistake, particularly when it affects the rest of a man's life and the prospects of his family.
If in this case there has been a mistake, an innocent mistake, and even if there has been no mistake at all, it would be far better if this man had an opportunity of having the situation cleared up. It would bring a measure of security and more peace of mind to the colleagues he has left behind in the postal service, and the British public would feel that they are not running risks in this public Department to the same extent as they are doing perhaps outside. I have merely presented the facts as I know them. I could speak more strongly on them. I could say many unkind things that I have tried not to say to-night, but I believe that the Postmaster-General has an opportunity without interfering at all with the dignity of his office, the dignity of his colleagues in the Government, or of the Post Office. It must be a fine thing to be able to do a right action at a time when you feel there is something wrong being done. I ask him if he will review all the facts in this case, and that Hudson shall be given an opportunity of proving his innocence or the Department of proving his guilt, and that the methods of the Investigation Department of the Post Office should be brought into line with the practice and principles that ought to obtain.
Mr. SANDEMAN ALLEN:
I wish to deal with the point with which the Postmaster-General opened his speech, which showed that he realised that the first thing to be borne in mind in regard be the Post Office was the question of penny postage. I think we received a very interesting admission from him when he said that it was one of the objectives of the Government policy and hoped that it might shortly come to pass. This Debate has also brought out the interesting fact that there was a deliberate intention on the part of the Labour Government to grant this reform had it not been for the Sutton judgment. One regrets that the previous Government did not grant it rather than reducing the Entertainments Duty as they did, because if there is one thing that commercial men in this country feel more than another —and I know the Postmaster-General realises this—it is that to increase the communication between this country and the other countries of the Empire would be one of the best things possible for our trade. We talk a great deal about the development of the Empire, and here is one of the simplest and most important ways of bringing the various parts of the Empire more closely together. The commercial men in this country have been pressing for the re-introduction of these facilities at the earliest possible moment. The Postmaster-General said he looked daily at the statue of Rowland Hill, and it reminded him of the great days. I wonder if he has not seen the shade of Sir John Henniker-Heaton looking reproachfully at him for some time past. Be that as it may, the argument that has been brought forward is one that I wish to challenge.
We contend that whatever surplus may be earned by the Post Office should first of all be applied to restoring the facilities to the users of the Poet Office which they had previously, before any of that money is handed over to be used for the general funds of the country. I know very well that the Postmaster-General is sympathetic, and so was the previous Post-in aster-General, and then we found that the Chancellor of the Exchequer stood in the way. This time we hoped we had a better chance, but at last we found that this Chancellor of the Exchequer was not considering his own popularity, because there can be no question that nothing could be more popular than this reform I feel that I have dealt rather inadequately with the point, for the simple reason that I am somewhat disarmed by the way in which the Postmaster-General opened his remarks, but I only hope that he will realise that what we want to do is to support and encourage him in the steps he is taking, and to let both him and the Chancellor of the Exchequer know that the general feeling of the country is behind them in their earnest endeavours to restore to us penny postage, which is so essential to the good of the country. They would get the blessing of everyone in every class of life, because not merely would it be for the good of trade, but it would be welcomed in every home in this country.
On a matter of procedure, might we be informed, for the convenience of hon. Members who have points to raise, whether there will be a further reply by the Government after this?
I think it will be for the convenience of the Committee for me to reply now on the points that have already been raised. I do not propose to go into the question of penny postage. I think hon. Members know very well that the Post Office, at any rate, needs no conversion on that point, and that they must address their remarks to the Treasury in order to get a move on in that direction. But I should like to say something in regard to two points which have been made by hon. Members opposite and on this side of the House. We have been asked, first, by the right hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Hartshorn), the late Postmaster-General, in regard to Imperial wireless, for an assurance that the present Government is pressing on the matter with the same zeal and keenness that the late Government showed upon the question. I am in a position to give him an unqualified assurance in that respect. It is quite true that there has been a most unfortunate delay in regard to the selection of the sites for the wireless beam stations for India and Australia, but I think, in common justice to the Department, that I ought to say that the delay has not really been on their side.
I would ask the Committee to remember that when we are dealing with beam wireless we are dealing with a subject about which our knowledge is increasing from month to month and even from week to week, and that fact, that the science is in its infancy and that we and the Marconi Company are constantly gaining fresh information, has made a consistent policy difficult on several occasions, as nobody knows better than the right hon. Gentleman himself. In this particular matter there has been a change of policy, because the Marconi Company at first intended to concentrate all the four beam stations in this country at one point, and then, for technical reasons, came to the conclusion that it would be better to have the stations for India and Australia in the north-east of this country, instead of at Bodmin and Bridgewater. That is the chief cause of the delay. New sites had to be selected and they had to fulfil very special qualifications. It was not easy to find them, and when we had found a site which the Marconi Company were able to accept, we had to deal with nine different landowners, and, I believe I am right in saying, with something like sixteen different life interests, before we could get a valid title to the sites. It is the technical matters that produce so much delay, but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman and the country that in the Post Office we expect that the legal formalities in regard to these sites will be completed by the end of this month, if not sooner, and so sure was my right hon. Friend on the subject that he felt justified in placing a contract for the work of the stations so that the company should get on with the job as soon as possible.
Therefore, the right hon. Gentleman can rest fully assured that my right hon. Friend is pressing forward this matter of Empire wireless by every means at his disposal, and I hope that, by the time that the stations in all the Dominions are erected, the corresponding stations in this country will also be erected, if not actually as soon as in the Dominions, within a very short time afterwards. Perhaps the Committee might be interested to know that the Wireless Advisory Committee, of which I have the honour to be Chairman, and which contains representatives of all the great Dominions, has been at work for several weeks past, and is making steady progress in arriving at recommendations which we hope to be able to make to the various Governments of the Empire, so that the rates, routes and arrangements by which the Empire wireless system shall be conducted shall be one consistent whole.
I hope the Noble Lord will excuse me for asking a question now which I intended to ask when I spoke before; but could he let me know what is the position now in New Zealand? Has anything been done in connection with that?
The New Zealand Government is the only Dominion Government that has not definitely decided to erect a beam station. Of course, I am not in a position to speak on behalf of the New Zealand Government, but I think I can say that their attitude is to watch the working of the service between this country and, say, South Africa, which will be in operation by September, we hope, in an experimental state and by October to the public, before they definitely decide whether they will go in for a high-power station or for a beam station. That, I understand, is the atti- tude of the New Zealand Government. The hon. Member for East Bristol (Mr. W. Baker) asked whether we were satisfied that the beam system had left the experimental stage and was really going to deliver the goods. All that I can say to him on that point is that the Marconi Company, who are the originators of the beam system, and whose original experiments were of such a convincing nature that not only the late Government but also the Governments of the Dominions were induced to experiment with it, are more than satisfied, so they tell us, by their recent experiments that everything that they have undertaken to do in their contracts with the British Government and the Dominion Governments they will easily be able to carry out. But, as I said just now, we are learning more about wireless telegraphy every day, and we cannot claim for the beam system the same degree of established success that we can for other systems of less recent discovery. Nowhere in the Empire is there yet a beam system working under conditions of public service, but we hope that there will be by the month of October between this country and South Africa and between this country and Canada.
In regard to telephones, I would tike to deal with some of the very interesting points that wore made by the hon. and gallant Member for North St. Pancras (Captain Fraser), who inquired whether care was taken that telephone subscribers were not overcharged in their accounts. I can give him a positive assurance on that point. Of course, the telephone operator has no financial interest whatever in overcharging any subscriber. All that he or she does is to make an automatic record of the call against the subscriber, and no operator has the slightest motive for overcharging. For the assurance of the hon. Member who put this point, and other hon. Members who may feel somewhat the same on the matter, I should like to tell them that we do check over 30,000 calls per month in order to see that the calls are properly recorded. By means of this check our supervisors can tell whether a call which has been put through has been properly charged or not, and more careful watch is kept in every case where there is reason to believe that the recording has not been done properly.
May I ask the Noble Lord what is the regulation in regard to the calls that are not put through, and that the operator thinks have been put through? I myself have often asked again and again, and have spent five or ten minutes, in order to get the exchange and to tell the exchange that I have not got through.
Where the operator is under the impression that she has put the subscriber through, and as a matter of fact the subscriber has not got through and rings up the operator and so informs the operator, there is an arrangement by which she can cancel that call against the subscriber.
When the buzzer goes on the operator is aware that the call has not got through. Sometimes it does happen that the operator is, in fact, under the impression that the subscriber has got through when the subscriber has not got through. In that case the subscriber himself tells the operator that he has not got through, otherwise the operator—
But I do not know whether the Noble Lord should hold me responsible. I get out of the telephone box and tell the operator, after, perhaps, having two or three times tried to get in my call. But I have paid my money!
This is important. What check is there that the operator does not charge for the wrong number when she does get the right number? Does she cancel out the wrong number again?
When she gets the right number she does not press the key again. If the wrong number is given twice, then the operator puts into force what we call the cancelling key, and then the next call is not debited against the subscriber.
Hon. Members, however, will be glad to hear that there are only about four inquiries per 1,000 of accounts sent out by the Post Office That figure will show that only a very small fraction of the public have any serious reason of complaint against the way this thing is done. Where the automatic telephone is installed, the operator cannot be held responsible for any mistake that takes place. The hon. Member for St. Pancras (Captain Fraser) spoke about broad-easting and the power of the Postmaster-General. He spoke about the somewhat autocratic attitude of the Post Office towards the aspirations of the broadcasting company. The Postmaster-General generally regards himself in this matter as being in the position merely of a policeman who regulates the traffic. He does not want the ether for himself, but he has to see that the Admiralty, the War Office, the Air Ministry, the Mercantile Marine and other great national services, to say nothing about amateur experimenters, all have their slice of the ether. As the Committee knows, there is not anything like enough room for the ether for all the people who want it. It is for that reason that the Post Office has cut down everybody to what slice there is preserved for them. We have no reason to think that the British Broadcasting Company finds itself really checked in that respect. I can assure the Committee that at any time representations made to the Postmaster-General for some further extension or modification, if it can be arranged, will be most carefully considered. Then the hon. Member for Bristol (Mr. W. Baker) asked a question about cash on delivery. He wanted to know whether the Postmaster-General was going to introduce that service. That is a matter which is still under consideration. Being myself in a position of greater freedom and leas responsibility than my respected chief, I have been allowed to express publicly my own views in favour of the system. Fortunately, Governments are not committed by the statements of Under-Secre- taries, but I can say that my right hon. Friend has had to consider this matter from every aspect, especially the aspect of those who consider that they are deeply concerned in the matter. I may repeat my private view, perhaps, that both sides seem to me to exaggerate the importance of the proposed change. But on the whole this proposal has advantages that will be found to be greater than the disadvantages which some sections of traders seem to fear.
There are other points which I will not detain the Committee by going over in very great detail, but I must deal with the point raised by the hon. Member for Edge Hill (Mr. Hayes) in some detail. There is nothing more unpleasant than the duty which falls upon the Postmaster-General when he is called upon to dismiss from the. Postal Service a person who has been guilty of dishonesty. I can assure the Committee that no dismissal of that character takes place without the Postmaster-General or myself seeing and reading every paper on the subject. Every postal servant has the right to appeal to the Postmaster-General. That right is very freely used, and every case is gone individually into by the Postmaster-General or myself. In cases of this sort no man would dare to give a decision without absolutely satisfying himself that justice was done. Unfortunately the Committee will also be aware that there is a certain amount—small, very small, compared to the numbers of the postal staffs engaged—and I should like to take this opportunity, if I may, to pay a tribute to the high standard of honesty and sobriety of more than 99 per cent. of the Postal Service. But there is a number of thieves in the Postal Service; in that vast service a very serious amount of thieving goes on which the Postal Authorities are constantly doing their best to find out and check. Of course, the public has the right to demand that the Postmaster-General should take every step to remove every thief, and even every very-strongly suspected thief from the Service. In the nature of things the Service demands that the standard of honesty should be above suspicion. The case which the hon. Member for Edge Hill raised is by no means a new case. I should like, to thank him for having given us notice that he proposed to raise this case. In 1922 the case was decided upon by the right hon. Gentleman the present Minister of Health when he was Postmaster-General. I feel sorry, if I may say so, that the hon. Member for Edge Hill, if he intended to raise this matter on the Floor of the House, did not raise it before now.
May I tell the Noble Lord that this is the first opportunity I have had of raising the matter. I went to some trouble and expense to meet the case when it came to my notice, and two other hon. Members were concerned in it, but they had to give up their Parliamentary duties. I took the matter up with the Post Office as soon as it came into my hands.
I beg my hon. Friend's pardon. The matter was also taken up by the hon. Member for Kirk-dale (Sir John Pennefather). Therefore, I feel bound to give the Committee again the facts of the case. The late Postmaster-General took this matter up with my hon. Friend the Member for Edge Hill by way of lengthy correspondence, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Hartshorn) felt himself unable to reverse the decision of the present Minister of Health. This is a case where two previous Postmasters-General, one Conservative and one a Socialist, have looked into the facts of the ease, and come to the conclusion that no other course than dismissal was open to the Post Office. The facts of the case are as follows. I ought to say, of course, that suspicions had been aroused by losses of letters in the particular office where this particular postal servant was employed, and that a watch was being kept by the proper authorities on the movements of sorters. On 5th September, 1922, and on the following day, one of the chief superintendents saw this officer open a letter. On 8th September a superintendent and an assistant-superintendent saw him dealing suspiciously with postal packets. On the 23rd, 24th, and 26th October he was again observed to open letters. He was not tackled then. I think it was rather unfortunate that he was not tackled at that moment, but I understand that those who were watching him thought that, although his movements were very suspicious, there was nothing sufficiently strong for them to take action on. On 6th December an overseer and two officers of the Investigation Branch saw him put three letters in his pocket, they also saw him subsequently attempt to open them, and finally secrete them. When questioned immediately afterwards, he had no letters in his possession, but three letters which showed signs of having been recently tampered with wore found on his table. Moreover, postal orders which had been enclosed in missing letters were found to have been receipted in handwriting which bore a marked similarity to that of this officer. Evidence that Mr. Hudson had opened any particular postal packet was not regarded as sufficiently conclusive to justify prosecution, but the accumulative evidence left no room for doubt that he was guilty, and he was informed by the Postmaster-General that he had no further need for his services.
It was subsequently discovered that two currency notes found in his possession when he was questioned were identical with notes the cyphers and numbers of which had been quoted by the sender of a letter lost in the post. It means this, that after this postal servant had been suspended a man wrote to the General Post Office and said that he had lost a letter. It was subsequently found that this letter must have passed through Mr. Hudson's hands. This complainant quoted the numbers of two currency notes which were the same as those on currency notes found on the person of the officer who had been suspended. The hon. Member opposite may say that we had not got there absolute proof of dishonesty that would enable a Judge and jury to convict. I would ask him, and I would ask the Committee, "Is the Postmaster-General never to be allowed to dismiss an officer unless he can bring him into Court and get him convicted of theft?" because that is really what the argument of the hon. Member comes to. I can assure the Committee that every case in which the Postmaster-General has to exercise this power is gone into most carefully by him at the present moment, and I am perfectly certain that when the same power was exercised by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ogmore he himself took nothing for granted, but went personally into every one of these cases. No Postmaster-General could do otherwise. But there are cases where the evidence is not sufficiently strong to warrant prosecution, and yet the Postmaster-General, if he is to do his duty in defending the public against thieves, must take the step of dismissing a man against whom a very strong suspicion rests.
Certainly, after proper inquiry, but the inquiries in this case were very exhaustive indeed. As I said before, two previous Postmasters-General have been convinced that no other course was the proper one, and I am perfectly certain that any impartial person who went into these, papers, and impartial people have been into these papers, would come to the same conclusion. That is the only thing I can say in reply to the hon. Member, but I would like to assure the House that in every instance these matters are gone into with the greatest fulness and the greatest impartiality. The hon. Member for Edge Hill (Mr. Hayes) used some words about officers of the Investigation Branch which I hope he will regret when he sees them in cold print especially as he has been a policeman himself. The officers of the Investigation Branch are not out to secure convictions, they are out to do their duty, and it is their duty to detect crime. It is not their duty to make criminals, and the suggestion that they lend themselves to anything of the sort is a cruel and an unjustifiable one.
May I suggest to the Noble Lord that he is suggesting that I have put a different construction entirely on their action? I said mistakes may be made, and that they may be honest mistakes, and when a Member of this House, a King's Counsel, has been appointed to test one case, an inquiry might be given in another matter.
I accept the hon. Member's statement, and if I Have attributed motives to him that I should not have done, I withdraw them; but I do wish to make a strong plea on behalf of those officers who have to carry out, very often, a very unpleasant duty, because they have been attacked in many quarters. When the hon. Member asks for an impartial inquiry, I can tell him that the inquiry in the Secretary's office, and the inquiry by the Postmaster-General or his assistant, is an impartial inquiry, if ever there was one. The last thing we desire to do is to convict any postal servant, especially to convict him unjustly. If there is a doubt of which he can have the benefit, it is given to him, but the Postmaster-General has a duty to the public in this matter, and he is bound to accept that responsibility.
On the rare occasions on which postal matters come up for consideration, so many Members have local interests to bring forward that I will endeavour to make my remarks as brief as I possibly can. I had intended to say a word or two with regard to the. return of penny postage, but after the remarks of the Noble Lord just now I am sure he realises how important it is that we should return to penny postage at the earliest possible opportunity, and how very great is the weight of public opinion behind that desire. He suggested we should address our remarks to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I suggest that he and the Postmaster-General should address their remarks to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. They are the protagonists of the fight, if I may put it so, and the people to put up this fight with the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Turning to a local matter, it happens that in the constituency which I represent, so far from having a postal delivery service anything like the one we had before the War, we are a great deal worse off. As far as can be seen, there is no obstacle to a return being made to the pre-War service, or at any rate if we cannot get quite the pre-War service, why we should not have a, better service than the existing one. Not only do we no longer have a day-to-day delivery, but we have deliveries only three days a week, and no longer do we have a Sunday delivery. Out of seven days in the week there are deliveries on only three days. In the circumstances under which people live in the islands, it is very important, not that the letters should be actually carried round and delivered on a Sunday, but that the people should be allowed, as they were in the past, to go to the post office to collect their letters. In the Island of Unst the direct boat from the South arrives on Sunday evening at eight o'clock and leaves the next morning at six o'clock. In the old days letters were handed out from the post office in the evening, and they could then be answered and the replies despatched by the return boat in the morning. That is no longer possible, and now the boat goes away before people have got their letters, and no return letter can be sent for two or three days.
Then there is the question of telephonic communication between the islands. As the Postmaster-General is aware, a petition has recently been sent to him from a particular island, the island of Papa Westray, which furnishes a very good example of the difficulties which people suffer who live in islands where there is no telephonic communication either with the mainland or the next largest island. Papa Westray is separated from the next largest island by a sound through which runs a strong current, and it is dangerous for an open boat to cross at night in the winter. No doctor lives on the island, which has over 150 inhabitants, and it would be of inestimable advantage to them to be able to communicate by telephone with the doctor, not necessarily in order that the doctor should come across, but in order that they might give a statement of the case to the doctor, and that the doctor should send over the telephone instructions as to how the patient should be treated. If the Postmaster-General were to live on an island of that sort, he would realise what difficulties there are through being cut off from communication with the rest of the world. The neighbouring island to that island has been cut off from telephonic communication with the South twice during the last two years. The telegraphic cables are generally broken by the severe storms in the winter. The year before last the cable was down for seven months before it was repaired. Last year it broke down again, and I think it was five months before it was repaired. The reason for this is that the repair ship starts in the south when the weather begins to get fine in the spring, and gradually works her way up north, and the unfortunate people at the far end of her journey have to wait month after month to be put into communication with the rest of the world again. Cannot the Post Office see their way to extend wireless communication with these outlying islands? We have had wireless communication with one of the outlying islands since before the War, and with the extending knowledge that we have of wireless communication I think we now have an opportunity of getting rid of the many delays we have through the breakdown of telegraphic cables, and the great expense of the maintenance of cables and land-lines.
In conclusion, I would ask that the Post Office, in considering these points, would seriously consider the position under which people in islands like these live. The conditions are entirely different from what people find themselves in on 6he mainland. When the petitioners write for consideration, they are faced by the answer that the Post Office is controlled by Treasury minutes requiring guarantees and it is impossible to make an installation because it will cost more money than can be afforded. But I do seriously suggest that peculiar conditions require peculiarly favourable consideration. I know the Postmaster-General is willing to be sympathetic in the matter, but I would ask him to use his influence with the Treasury to see if more sympathetic consideration cannot be given these people, both in the matter of daily delivery of letters and in the matter of wireless in the outlying islands.
I should like to make one observation with regard to the Postmaster-General's duties which have been referred to by the Noble Lord and also by the hon. and gallant Member for St. Pancras (Captain Fraser). It is with regard to the present position of the amateur wireless experimenter, that is to say, the individual who possesses a right to transmit for experimental purposes. I think everyone will recognise the value to science and research work in general of the amateur. I think we have a good instance in another direction of Mr. Barnard and the work he has done for cancer research. I feel that in this field of wireless there is very great scope indeed for the amateur, and I do wish that a greater consideration and more practical dealing should be given to him. I have been in communication recently with certain gentlemen who have been doing experimental work for some time, and, as far as I can make out, the position of the amateur is extremely unsatisfactory at the present moment. The space in ether, as the Noble Lord pointed out, is extremely limited, which makes it necessary that this right to experiment should be limited to people with a real knowledge of the subject, and people who have ideals which can be of some real benefit to the world and this country in particular. Consequently, at the present moment, the first thing to do is to limit the number of people who are able to have such a licence. I believe at the present moment there are about 2,000 such licences in use. From information I have received, out of that 2,000 there is quite a number who really have no right to possess such power. If they do have this authority to transmit, it should not be used for purposes of carrying on conversations with their friends in adjoining places, but in the interest of science. I suggest that some revision be made in the method of obtaining these licences. At the present moment one has to fill in a form which asks for a great deal of information, but the only practical test is that the applicant should possess a knowledge of the Morse code. That is extremely useful, and would have to form part of any test in the future, but I think we must be very much move stringent. I suggest that the first thing demanded from any applicant should be a letter of recommendation, either from a recognised Radio Society or from a local advisory council, that is to say, somebody who would only recommend a man they believe could do useful work.
The next thing I would do would be to subject the applicant to a real examination by an expert with thorough knowledge of the subject—an oral, not a written examination. I think a competent examiner would soon discover whether the individual applying for a licence was one really worthy of receiving it. The third and final tribunal would have to be the Postmaster-General. Even if the other two tests, the letter of recommendation and examination succeeded, still the Postmaster-General must retain the right of saying "Yes" or "No" to any applicant. In the public interest he must be able to say the licence can be granted to any particular individual, however skilful he might be. Having done this I should certainly try to give much greater latitude to those who possess these licences. It would probably be found necessary to revise the rules relating to present holders of these licences, because a good many of them, if examined as I have suggested, would be restricted. From the information I have received, the first thing they would like is liberty to use a greater amount of power. I am not in a position to speak technically, but it has been suggested that if an amateur is really in earnest and capable of doing good work, he might be allowed to use up to 100 watts. Secondly, it has been suggested that they might be allowed to use a greater waveband than at present.
With regard to transmitting abroad, at present when an application is made one has to state the circuit of one's apparatus. Any reply, however, must be only a formal one, because apparatus and its range must vary from day to day. I hope that in these genuine cases it will be possible for the Postmaster-General to give greater facilities for transmitting abroad than at present. I believe the present system of inspection of such transmitting apparatus is far from being a good one. I was speaking the other day to an individual who owns a transmitting set. The first inspector who saw it was exceedingly interested in the set he possessed. Why? Because it happened to be the first wireless set he had seen in his life. This was the inspector sent round by the Post Office. This is more or less a farce. I have heard of cases where the local linesman is sent round to inspect extremely technical apparatus. You must have expert inspectors. I do not think it would be very costly, because, after all, the theory is that at least part of the expense of the inspection shall be borne by those who have the transmitting sets. Another use that could be made of the inspectors would be as examiners of the new applicants. I think more practical and businesslike methods with regard to this apparatus could be applied with little cost to the State. I feel that wireless is something now which we are only vaguely touching, and of which we have only a very small knowledge, but the day is coming when it will be of greater value, and if you can have a body of men, keen, and trying to work at problems we want to solve, you have there a body of people we want to encourage.
I am sorry the Postmaster-General dwelt so briefly, and, if I may say so, cavalierly, with the question of the electrification of the Post Office railway line. In 1910 a power station was established at Blackfriars, and that power station during the intervening period has not only produced cheap electricity, but has a record of service in continuity and efficiency that cannot be denied. As the Postmaster-General has said earlier in answer to a question in this House, the power station at Blackfriars has been handed over to private enterprise, and it is stated the nation is going to save because the private contract is a cheaper one than the actual price of the light and power that can be supplied by the Government station at Blackfriars. It is perfectly true that the contract about to be signed is one for a smaller price per unit, but I regard it as important that at the back of this question there should be two private concerns. The power station at Black-friars has been serving the Post Office railway line and has also been providing power and electricity for large City post offices at about something less than 2½d. and a contract has been entered into, or will be signed shortly, unless different ideas prevail, for the supply of electricity to them at not 2½d. but one halfpenny per unit. I am sure it will be said that it is a very good stroke of business for the nation to have electricity at a halfpenny per unit, instead of at 2½d. per unit, but I would like to point out that the private concerns, the Charing Cross and City electricity concerns, are to-day selling electrical power to the Government in certain ways and also to private concerns, not at one halfpenny per unit, but at 3½d. per unit, taking a three years' average. Their price is considerably above that which the national concern was able to provide. There seems somebody at the back of all this, and when I examine the whole case, I find that last year there was a Bill called the Post Office Railway Bill, and it contained a Clause the object of which was the supplying of electricity from the Blackfriars power station to the district post offices in London. There is no limit to the possibility of the development of this highly efficient power station, and not only could it provide the post offices throughout London with its plant or with its easy extensions of plant, but ultimately it could practically supply the whole of the Civil Service and the Government offices.
One of the Clauses of that Bill was to enable the Post Office power station to supply electricity, not only to that small railway line, but throughout the whole of London itself. The private companies opposed that Clause in another place, and they did it successfully. These companies do a big business throughout Greater London and the City of London, and they are supplying electricity at ½d. a unit, which is practically nothing, and they could afford to supply the electricity for nothing if they were sure of killing the national enterprise. If that Clause in the Bill had not been carried it would have allowed a reasonable development of a national supply for London, or, at any rate, for the Government offices of London as well as the Post Office. I think the attention of the House ought to be called to the real move at the back of this business, which is intended to kill an enterprise which has proved to be eminently successful in its object.
We have a difference of one halfpenny per unit as against 3½d. per unit to the private concerns of this country. At present they are selling; under cost price, and at the same time they are fleecing the electrical consumers of London. They are not concerned about the amount they are losing, but; they are concerned about the possible advent of a Labour Government which would carry on the electrification of offices in the Government service from a station which has already proved to be highly economical. Although I know we shall be told that we have a 25 years' contract for these electrical services at absurd rates, I would like to see more foresight shown in this matter, and I do not like to see a national concern of this kind set at nought by these companies. As the agreement has not yet been signed, although I know everything is ready for the transfer from the public to private enterprise, I ask that the agreement should lie on the Table so that we can see exactly what is happening.
The point which was raised by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Macpherson) was put very well and I do not want to repeat his argument, but there is one point upon which I disagree with him. While I quite recognise the importance of having more local exchanges in regard to the telephone service, I hope we shall endeavour to get more subscribers, and the only way to achieve this is by offering better facilities at a cheaper rate. It may be said that a minimum charge for subscribers of £4 10s. per annum is very little for the great benefits of the telephone, but the places where the telephone is most wanted are those out of touch with civilisation in general, and the people who live there are just that class who can least afford to pay £4 10s. per annum for the use of the telephone. Those are the places for which I am pleading, and I should like to see some cheaper scheme whereby these people can be given facilities at a much cheaper rate. The Postmaster-General said the telephone was not paying on its present basis, and I should be the last person to urge any Government to indulge in wild expenditure just now.
I do think, however, that by giving a cheaper type of service, even if it is not so efficient, we might be able to get some reduction in the cost of the telephone system. I have looked at the telephone poles which have been used and they are beautifully finished, but I suggest that, particularly in country districts, we do not need so much perfection, and we can do with much rougher poles, and I think if the right hon. Gentleman would look at it from that point of view, we might get a cheaper system and cheaper instruments because half a loaf is better than no bread. I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to give careful consideration to this point so that we may be able to make some progress along the lines that I have advocated. That is the chief thing I want to say on the subject of rural telephones.
One other point I want to raise is in regard to the mail service for the North-East of Scotland. Not long ago the Postmaster-General gave some figures showing how the night mail failed to meet its connection at Aberdeen on no less than nineteen occasions last month. I think arrangements ought to be made to guard against the mail train arriving so late that it misses its most important connection. It is no excuse for the London Midland and Scottish to say that the London and North Eastern have not kept their connection. The responsibility, surely, is on the company that starts the service, and it is up to them to see that their service gets to its destination in time for the connection. I would suggest to the Post Office that in giving these grants they should institute a system of fines—that there should be a substantial fine for, say, every five minutes that the train is late. They would then have some incentive to keep it punctual.
I want, in the first place, to thank the Postmaster-General for what he has done in the division that I represent, but he has not done sufficient; he has done for one district what he has not done for another. I have made appeals to him, and I desire to support those who have asked for a return to penny postage. We are told that we cannot have that yet, but I should like to ask whether it is not possible to return to pre-War conditions. I do not mean pre-War wages, because I know the men's wages are sufficiently small to-day, but I do think we might return to the condition in which each post office would have its own postmaster. The condition of affairs in this regard is shocking to-day. It is causing a great deal of unrest, because there are no opportunities for promotion. A man may work for 30 years in the poet office without getting promotion, but another man can come in and work for the Postmaster as his secretary, or something of that kind and get promotion, while the man with 30 years' service is left in his old position. It will be within the knowledge of the Committee that I recently asked the Minister of Transport if it were not possible so to arrange with the railway companies that two stations should not be run with one stationmaster, but there is in Lancashire one post office with 48 post offices under it. What is to become of unemployment in such circumstances? There is bound to be unemployment if one man is going to serve all these post offices. Moreover, before very long. I understand—probably within a month—another post office will become vacant, with which five post offices are connected, and they are going to be attached to the one that already has 48. Two years ago it had only 18.
The staff has not been increased since the extra hour and a half was put on. The. men at these offices are complaining, and are very restive, and some have been so badly treated in regard to promotion that they have actually become ill as the result of the feeling they have in regard to it. I can give the names of these people and the post offices, where young men have come in. It is just the same as in the mills and in other places, where, as long as a man is prepared to act, perhaps, as a tale-bearer, or to do an hour or two's overtime for nothing, he will get promotion before others who have been 30 years in the service. I appeal for better treatment for some of these people who have been long in the service. As regards wages, I myself would not like to work in the same responsible positions for the wages they get. There is, in the case I have already mentioned, one postmaster to 48 post offices, and there are others in just as important positions who get very meagre wages for very responsible work. I do not think the post offices are staffed as they ought to be to-day. In the district where I now live, I cannot get my letters before nine in the morning, and, on asking the reason, I have been told that it is because the staff is insufficient—the man has such a long round that he cannot get to the end of it before nine o'clock. It is not the postmaster's fault; it is at the headquarters at St. Martin's-le-Grand where this is done. They are not only charging more for everything connected with the postal service, but are trying to save by having less staff. I appeal for an alteration, in the interests of the unemployed. We have had discussions in this House with regard to the King's Boll, and we have had meetings with employers to see how many ex-service men they could take. I would ask the Post Office how many of these ex-service men they can take?
That may be, but I say there is room for more. I do not know whether the Noble Lord has followed a case that I have placed before the Postmaster-General, in which the reply given was that the young man in question was not big enough. They were prepared to take him for summer work, when the holidays were coming on, but be would not do for a regular postman. Is it necessary for a man to be tall in order to be a postman? I generally find that he does not need to be very tall, but this young man had served his country, and yet it was said that he was not capable of carrying letters because he was not big enough. He was, in fact, put on in one case, but the Postmaster at Huddersfield, under whose control the office was, stopped it, and said he could not be made a permanent postman, but only a temporary one to assist at holiday times. I say that that is not fair treatment for these lads Who have fought for their country; and I appeal for consideration of and inquiry into these cases.
I should like to emphasise the question of the extension of rural telephones, which has been brought before the House by the hon. Member for West Aberdeen (Mr. Barclay-Harvey), and also by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Macpherson) earlier in the Debate. I would ask the Postmaster-General to bear in mind that there are wide spaces in other places than Scotland. In my own constituency we have very remote places in which there are post offices, and in which the telegraph service is conducted by means of the telephone. I would ask the Postmaster-General that in these places, and others where the telephone service is now used exclusively for Post Office purposes, it shall be placed at the disposal of the public. In these places most of the farming is done by small farmers, and the small farmer cannot afford, and does not want a telephone of his own; what he requires is access to some call office which he can use when he wants it. In hope the Postmaster-General will extend the call office system to every post office in every village. It is most important that a village should be in communication with the centre, because the village itself is very often the centre of a large agricultural population. There may be no railways, there may be no means of communication, and in my district the ordinary small farmer cannot even afford a motor car. He does not mind putting his pony in his trap and driving four miles or more to get to the post office, but, if all he can do when he gets there is to send a telegram, and perhaps wait four or five hours for a reply, it really does not answer his necessary purposes. In a village the other day in North Pembrokeshire two accidents happened within an hour or two. The nearest doctor was eight miles away. The telephone wire was down, as it has been very often. The only means of communication was by way of pony and trap. The patient had to be sent to the county hospital, which was 15 miles away, and there was a lapse of 11 or 12 hours before he could get there, all of which might have been avoided by the telephone. I do not say that is not an exceptional case, but there are many hundreds of cases where the telephone would be used if it was only available, and we have had the sincere expression of the Postmaster-General that he wants to see us raised from the lowly level of being the worst users of the telephone in the world to a high level. Let him therefore do what private enterprise does, and bring his wares to the notice of the public so as to bring the telephone into a position where it can be useful to the community, and specially the rural community. Very often the telegraph posts are there and the wires are there but for some reason—I think I have been told once by the postal authorities it was a trade union reason, but I can hardly think any trade union would stand in the way of turning the telephone that is in existence to-day into one that could be used by the public.
Another matter I would urge is, that we have to try to get back in some degree to the pre-War position. We find that letters are delivered in the towns in Pembroke—not the rural districts; we only get them next day—but letters posted in London before six are not delivered till midday. That makes it very awkward for business people. The whole of the morning they are waiting for their London post. Most offices post their letters, in a batch, to catch the six o'clock post, and the result is that it is exceedingly difficult to get them answered by return of post in many cases. Anyhow, business cannot be carried on the way it should be. There is room for improvement in that way.
Another matter I will trouble the Committee with is in regard to telegrams sent by the fishing community. Most of the fish quotations sent to the retailer by the fish merchants are in the form of telegrams. Many hundreds of thousands of pounds are spent on telegrams merely to give a quotation to the different buyers all over the country from the various fishing ports. Many of these, of course, are inoperative. You get perhaps 30 or 40 fish merchants quoting to a number of fish buyers in different towns and villages and the buyer will only select one of them. The other 39, of course, are useless. The public get the advantage of it, because they get close quotations. I urge the Postmaster-General to consider whether it would not be possible to put these telegrams, which are purely quotations for foodstuff, on some special rate in the same form as he puts Press telegrams, and not to charge for them in the same way as an ordinary private telegram about a private matter. Fish being a perishable article, you cannot quote by post. You must quote either over the telephone or else by telegraph. In the case of the telephone very often you can get in, perhaps for a sixpenny call, what costs you half a crown by telegram, but the trouble is to get the connection in time, and it has been found very much handier, especially in the case of long distance calls, to send all quotations by telegram. That means a big tax on the fish merchants, which the general public have to pay in the end. I commend that matter to the earnest attention of the Postmaster-General, and I hope he will pay sonic attention to the request from all sides of the House with regard to rural telephones. I am not speaking of the case where you want eight people to get an exchange. That is not of much use to us. If a man can afford to pay £4 10s. he can often afford to pay more. Again, the expense of connecting up remote farms by telephone would make it prohibitive, but very often telephone call offices can easily be supplied in rural districts. The wires going through the, villages could be utilised at little expense, and it would be a great help to the community.
As I am privileged to follow the hon. Member, since I am, in my holiday hours, one of his constituents, I should like to offer my strong support to the remarks he has made. I feel that in these remote areas they have a strong claim upon the Postmaster-General, though from the point of view of business it might not be so profitable. It is his duty, not only to look after those who can afford to pay for any postal facilities, but to provide essential facilities in the remote rural areas. However, I should have been surprised, had it not been for the importance of the various items that have been raised to-day, to find that the Postmaster-General so soon escaped from what might be described as a general condemnation of Post Office administration. When he rose to speak he did it in such a jovial, non-controversial manner, imparting to everything he said a non-controversial aspect, that he succeeded in hypnotising the Committee into believing that all was well with the Post Office administration and that on general grounds no serious criticism arose. I have always thought the position of a Conservative Postmaster-General defending the administration of the nationalised Service of the Post Office is a rather peculiar one, and the position of hon. Members above the Gangway who wish to attack it is equally peculiar. The one must be careful not to defend it too well and the others not to attack it too effectively. I want to attack the general administration of the Poet Office, so far as my limited capabilities will allow, on the ground that this gigantic State organisation, which only pays 2½ per cent. on its vast deposits, which has a monopoly of many Services that are necessary for practically the whole community, is only able to show at the end of the year a very small surplus on the balance sheet. It is unfortunate that the Post Office is the one conspicuous Service which is nationalised in this country. I think it would be much better if we had one or two of the great food Services nationalised in order to sec how they were getting on, rather than the Post Office.
I should like to say a word or two about these commercial accounts. I do not think anyone has referred to them hitherto. There are a great many items in them which call for some very serious explanation. I support the hon. Member who spoke a few moments ago about the Blackfriars Power Station. I notice one or two more things about it in these accounts. I find, for instance, that whereas no insurance charges were made to the account of any single postal
service in the ordinary way, the Black-friars Power Station alone of the postal services was singled out to stand the insurance premium. I should like to know what reason there was for that before it was closed down, and why those overhead charges which it was not thought necessary to impose on any other part of the Post Office should have been charged on the Blackfriars Power Station. The second point I want to make about the commercial account is with regard to the complaint of the auditor, which has been voiced in the last three issues of this document. As it is put in summarised form in the one that is issued, I will read it:
As the entries in the telephone accounts A, C and D in respect of the cost of renewal and additions to plant are largely dependent on that allocation, it follows that the uncertainty as to the accuracy of these entire entries to which I have referred in my last two reports continues in the account under review.
It seems to me an amazing thing that in this gigantic State service we should find the Auditor-General in three successive issues of the commercial accounts making complaints of the accuracy of certain items. I suggest respectfully, that it is time that this inaccuracy was done away with.
There is a further point, in regard to the Jersey telephones. In the commercial accounts we find a statement with respect to the telephone system of Jersey, which was sold to the States of Jersey in 1923, and the plant no longer appears in the balance sheet of the Post Office. I have looked through the commercial accounts, and I have not been able to find any credit in respect of this matter, but I should like to know whore appears in the accounts the amount that was received, and how much was received, from the Jersey Government in respect of the telephones handed over. I do not intend to examine this system of accounts, but, a document like this which, on the surface, contains so many obvious inaccuracies, and so many blatantly incomplete arguments, is hardly a document which can be accepted by the House of Commons in its capacity as custodian of the public purse.
I hope that because one is speaking during the dinner-hour—which is an experience which has fallen to my lot many times during this Parliament, and no doubt will be my lot on future occasions—that the points one raises will not be deemed of insufficient importance to be dealt with by the Minister when he replies. I want to raise, with as much force as possible, the question of the advertising of the Post Office. I find that the word "advertising" only appears twice in the index of the Estimates. One item shows a sum of £55,000 which has been received by the Post Office for advertising, while, on the other hand, among a large number of incidental items which add up to £10,000, there appears the amount which is spent by this great service on advertising. Not more than about £2,000 a year is spent on advertising, and most of that is spent on urging people at Christmas time to post early. The present Secretary of State for War, who held the office of Postmaster-General two years ago, admitted that insufficient advertising was carried out by the Post Office. He said that after two o'clock trunk telephone calls could be put through at three-fourths of the ordinary cost, and that after seven o'clock they could be put through at half the ordinary cost. He said that if this fact had been properly advertised he would have been able to show much larger receipts from that source. He further pointed out that messengers could be got at the Post Office at a much cheaper rate than from the district messenger offices and other agencies who cater for that sort of thing. There are innumerable services which the Post Office control of which 99 per cent. of the people of the country know nothing. I would urge the Minister to consider whether he is up to date in this matter, and that having regard to the fact that every business has to advertise in order to live, and that he is only spending such a paltry sum on advertising this gigantic service, he is serving the public interest.
With respect to the conveyance of mails, I find that in the Estimates for 1913–14 the sum expended was £2,300,000, whereas in 1925–6, the Estimates we are now considering, the sum was £5,943,000. I should like to have some explanation of that very great difference because, as far as I am able to estimate, the number of letters, parcels and express letters carried in no way warrants that extraordinary increase. Railway rates in general have only gone up by 50 per cent. How is it that for the conveyance of his mail matter, the cost has gone up by more than double compared with 1913–14, representing an increase of nearly £3,000,000, or 100 per cent., although the railway rates in general have only gone up by about 50 per cent.? Has he exhausted the possibility of securing some reduction from the railway companies? We do not expect that he will be able to go to the railway companies and say, "I want a reduction of £250,000," and so on, because we know what they would say, but he can go to the Railway Rates Tribunal and get them to adjudicate upon a fair amount, and in that way he might save his Department £500,000. He spoke with some pride because the Post Office have set up in rivalry with the road transport companies by establishing a Post Office road service of their own, thereby saving £30,000 or £40,000 a year. That is not a negligible saving, and we are grateful for it; but in the question of railway rates there is very much greater scope for the saving of money.
With respect to the penny post, I should like to know what he meant when he said that a situation which means a deficit of £5,000,000 cannot be faced by the Postmaster-General, and must be dealt with as part of the general finance of the country By that I understood that it could not be provided for without a charge in the Budget, apart from the Post Office Estimates. But I find, on looking at the commercial accounts, that there has been a surplus on the Post Office for several years of from £4,000,000 to £5,000,000, and that surplus accounts for the total surplus of the Post Office, which amounts each year to £4,000,000 or £5,000,000. Would it not be possible instead of paying this money over to the National Exchequer, as is done every year, to hand it back in the form of a great national boon, such as the penny post? It is said that the reduction from the 2d. to the 1½d. post was not very effective in increasing the number of letters. The psychological effect of the reduction of the postage from 2d. to l½d. would be infinitesimal compared with the reduction from l½d. to 1d. A man who is not well up in mental arithmetic does not find it easy to calculate how much it costs to buy 25 three-halfpenny stamps, or how many three-halfpenny stamps can be got for 5s. Everybody knows how many penny stamps can be got for 5s. It is not fair to say that because the reduction from 2d. to l½d. did not bring about a commensurate increase in the number of letters, that the reduction from l½d. to 1d. would prove to be a failure. I believe it would be an outstanding success.
I do not wish to level any general charge of inefficiency against the Post Office service. I believe the Post Office servants do their work very well, especially the telephone girls. I think that any mistakes or inefficiencies which arise are either due. to defects in the system or to the under pay or overwork of those against whom the complaints are made. I may draw attention to several mistakes which have been made in the delivery of telegrams and letters to the largest of the right hon. Gentleman's customers. I refer to some of the newspapers in Fleet Street. In one case a telegram was handed in at Stornoway at noon, in duplicate to the "Press Association" and the "Daily Sketch," London. It was delivered to the "Press Association" at four o'clock, and it had not arrived at the "Daily Sketch" by six o'clock. I do not know whether it arrived after that time or not.
Another example was a telegram handed in to the "Daily Sketch" at Edinburgh at 2.25 which was not delivered at 5.20. Complaints being made it was said by the General Post Office that no trace could be found of the telegram, and shortly afterwards the newspaper in question received a bill for 15s., which was the cost of the telegram. That put the accountant of that paper in a very awkward position. If he paid that bill for 15s., the auditor might come in and say, "Why did you pay for a telegram which you never received, and which the Post Office said it could not trace?" while if he refused to pay he laid himself liable to be brought before the Courts by the right hon. Gentleman's agents. Another case is so complex that with the permission of the Committee I will just read it. It will only occupy a few lines:
A telegram from Belfast was duly delivered to the 'Daily Sketch.' Shortly afterwards it was delivered again to the 'Daily Sketch.' This time it was addressed to the 'Daily Express' and was contained in a batch of 'Daily Express' telegrams which were wrongly being delivered to the 'Daily Sketch.'
Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can work that out. If he cannot work it out, I will let him have a copy of my notes. These things lay the Department open to charges of gross inefficiency.
I want now to say a word about the ex-service man to whom the right hon. Gentleman has refused to give an appointment because he is below 5 feet 4 inches in height. The point has been raised before. Here is an ex-service man who is something like 5 feet 3½ inches in height. He applies to the Post Office for a job as a sorter, and because it is thought by some people that he cannot reach the topmost pigeon-holes, or whatever they are, without having a half-inch or an inch board put under him, he is thrown out of his job. I consider that to be grossly unfair. When I had the honour of serving in a battalion of the South Wales Borderers in France, we had a battalion of bantams sent to us for instruction in the trenches. We had several of these men at the same part of the line as that in which I was, and when they stood on the firing step it was found that they could not see over the top. I happened to be just behind one of these men and, having experienced a very similar difficulty myself, I was wondering how this fellow was going to get over the difficulty. He hauled a sandbag off the top and put it on the firing step and stood on it. Three days later that battalion took over the lines, and I found that along the whole line that particular difficulty had been overcome by every one of them.
I say without laying myself open to any charge of sentimentalising or anything of that kind that for a man of this kind to be rejected by the Post Office because he might require a small piece of board to stand on is a gross offence. The Noble Lord the Member for Aldershot (Viscount Wolmer), would never attempt to justify it to his constituents. I do not suppose that the Postmaster-General has considered the matter himself, and I appeal to him not to accept the word of his Department in a matter of this kind, but to assert what I believe is the feeling of this Committee on the matter. No man who served his country, and who was strong enough and tall enough to carry a pack and to fire over the top of the trench, should be told that he is not strong enough to carry a bag of letters or not tall enough to reach the top pigeonhole in a sorting office.
The Post Office has always been held up as a supreme example of the horrors of nationalisation. We have heard it on every platform. We do not hear so much about it in this House because it does alternate between the different parties. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman, even though he may be depriving some of his colleagues of an argument in the country, will make his Department the best example among employers, whether nationalised or not, in this country.
I have a great deal more experience of Press telegrams than the hon. and gallant Member for South Hackney (Captain Garro-Jones) and after 30 years' experience of journalism I find that the Post Office authorities in sending out Press messages have on the whole done their work remarkably well. I am not going to detain the Committee by getting into the rarefied atmosphere in which Liberal Members sometimes wander. I have something more prosaic to say I want to urge the Postmaster-General to take into serious consideration the position of 36 supervisors in the Belfast; post office. I put a number of questions to him during the last six weeks, and three points have come out clearly as a result of those questions. The first is that the right hon. Gentleman seems to have no definite standard for determining the upgrading of any office to the A.1 class. The second is that the work of a superior nature that was formerly done by others is being done by these people in the Belfast post office at the present time, and the third point, which I would like to emphasise, is that all the Government officials in Belfast, whether they are employed by the Imperial Government or by the Northern Government, have been granted metropolitan status, and I would urge on my right hon. Friend that he should take these cases into sympathetic consideration and see whether ho cannot put them in the same position as the other officials. He can understand how these people, seeing others around them treated differently from themselves, see how important it is that they ought to be treated fairly. I am making no unfair claim on the right hon. Gentleman and I ask him to give this matter his serious consideration.
I hope that the Postmaster-General will not become confused with the variety of the topics which have been raised in the course of this Debate, ranging as they have done from the re-establishment of the penny post to the telegraphic troubles of the "Daily Sketch," and for that reason I have some diffidence in raising still another topic which, so far as I know, has not been raised in this Debate up to the present. I wish to claim the attention of the Postmaster-General for a brief period in order to raise the question of another section of ex-service men who are working under very unfortunate conditions in the Post Office service. I refer to those who are working on part-time employment. I want to give two examples. I am informed that in the General Post Office in King Edward Building there are at present about 100 ex-service men employed as temporary part-time postmen. Up to a fortnight ago their working wages, after deducting their insurance money, amounted to just over 32s. per week. That is a very small sum of money to take home in order to keep a household going for a week. That was the case up to a fortnight ago, and it was bad enough. But within the past fortnight the conditions have been made worse. I am informed that two hours extra duty, which these ex-service men were working in the mornings, has been taken away. That reduces these men to four hours duty per day and their weekly wages to 19s. 10d. Surely there is something wrong with the organisation when it is not possible to obviate men going home with a wage of 19s. 10d. a week? What makes matters worse, if my information is' correct, is that, while this is happening, many members of the full-time staff are continually offered extra duty, and in a good many cases are taking home as much money for overtime as the others are taking in total wages. I ask the Postmaster-General to be good enough to look into the matter and to see whether it is possible to reorganise the service in such a way that men working in the same building and on the same duty are not, in the case of full-time men working overtime, while part-time men take horn-' only 19s. 10d. a week in wages.
A second phase of the same matter is this. A few weeks ago ex-service men signing on for employment at some of the London Employment Exchanges, were informed that there was employment available and that they could be trained as part-time night telephone operators in London. The wages offered were 1s. per hour and the period of training was to be six weeks. One can realise the difficulty in which a married man with a family would be put on getting an offer of that kind. The hours were, approximately, 18 a week, which meant 18s. a week for the man while learning. Out of that he had in some cases to pay 4s. or 5s. a week as travelling money, and the total payment was a hopeless sum with which to do anything. But these men were in the position that if they refused the offer they might be struck off the unemployment register and lose the benefit. Some of them accepted the training and went through the six weeks period. Some weeks ago I put a question to the Postmaster-General on the subject, and I am glad to say that he made a slight concession, although not altogether in the direction in which I was most interested. I understand from some of the men themselves that, presumably, as a result of the matter being ventilated, the pay was raised from 1s. to 1s. 1d. per hour. At the end of the six weeks' training, the men had to pass a test, and those who succeeded are now being employed as part-time night telephone operators and are receiving about 1s. 2d. an hour.
It might be said that the work is easy if it can be learned in six weeks. At the moment it is not the amount of money that they are receiving that makes me raise the point, but rather the extraordinarily difficult position in which these men are placed. Obviously nobody expects a married man with a family, whether an ex-service man or not, to be-able to live upon a sum of from 17s. to 22s. per week. These men are unable to go to the Employment Exchanges and draw any money, as they are disqualified. The result is that they are driven to the Boards of Guardians in order to make up an amount sufficient to maintain themselves and their families. Is it not possible to rearrange this work in order that these men may be able to earn a living? Not only in the case of the men who are employed as postmen, but in the case of those trained as night telephone operators, surely it would be possible to arrange to give them a sufficient term of work to enable them to take home a week's wages? I am not going to confuse the issue by raising any further point, in the hope that by confining my remarks to these two phases of the same question, the Postmaster-General may be able to give them more attention than would be possible if I raised other questions. I remember that when the hon. Gentleman was appointed to his position as Postmaster-General, many favourable comments were made in the Press, to the effect that we ought to get wonderful results because a business man had been placed at the head of the Post Office. I put it to him as a business man that he might look into this matter and see whether some business re-organisation is not possible. That is a perfectly reasonable request.
Mr. R. W. SMITH:
I would like to press the request for improved postal facilities in remote parts of the country. The point has already been dealt with by Members on both sides of the Committee, but it is one that I fear is often rather lost sight of, because people are more interested in the question of a return to penny postage. Before considering a return to the penny post, we ought very seriously to consider the question of improving facilities in the rural areas. It is true that in many cases we in the rural areas are not able to pay for the services that we have, but it is in the interests of the country as a whole that every part of it should at least have a decent postal service. The postal service in many of the remote parts is very inferior to what it was before the War. Let me give an illustration from my own home. A letter posted in London prior to the War for the evening post at 6 o'clock was delivered at the local post office at 8.30 the next morning. Now, a letter posted at the same time in London is not delivered until 4.30 in the afternoon. A letter for the South from that part has to be posted at 2 o'clock in the afternoon so that it is impossible to send a letter from here to-night and get a reply to-morrow.
That is rather a poor service to have, and if there is to be talk of reducing postage to a penny, I hold that we ought first to have a better service in the more rural parts of the country. The reason why the postage was good before the War was that a sorting van ran right through from London to Elgin and it now stops in Aberdeen. The estimate for the conveyance of mails by rail is down by £137,000 and it would be of enormous advantage in a large part of the country if the Postmaster could see his way to run that sorting van through to Elgin again because, at present, there is a large population in that part of the country which is not getting an adequate postal service. I also desire to support the proposal which has been made for improved rural telephones. The hon. and gallant Member for Pembroke (Major Price) referred to the question of installing call offices in the small villages. I hope the Postmaster-General will see his way to take up that point seriously and also to consider the setting up of telephones at stations. Reference has been made to the fact that rural exchanges have done very well in some cases and that where they have been set up the number of subscribers has increased but I am perfectly certain the Postmaster-General would find that the rural exchanges will do still better if there were telephones at the stations. By means of these farmers would be able to find out when goods had arrived at the station and they could send for these goods at once. They would not be the same waste of time in arranging for cartage and, generally speaking, these telephones would prove of enormous advantage to residents in the country.
With regard to the parcel post service, we used to have a service by means of which the parcels arrived more or less in the condition in which they were sent out. Nowadays, one cannot be sure, even though one takes the precaution of packing a parcel in wood, that it will reach its destination in the manner in which it is sent out. I am not surprised at that, because I have spent two hours in the middle of the night at Carlisle watching the parcel train being unloaded, and as far as I could see it was quite impossible for anything in the nature of an ordinary cardboard box to protect the parcels from the treatment which they suffered. They were handled by fairly hefty porters, who first threw down four or five boxes and then seized some heavy object and hurled it on the top of them. Is it not possible to institute the old plan of baskets for parcels? I think it would be a great benefit to many people who have to send parcels if, by paying a slight extra fee, they could have their parcels sent in baskets. I think it would save much expense in packing as well as inconvenience and loss. I hope the Post-master-General will give consideration to the points which I have raised, but, more particularly, to my appeal for facilities in the remoter parts of the country.
Most of us who have sat through this Debate have had the opportunity of hearing—and I suppose it is the general rule on these occasions—a number of local complaints and also the objection of the commercial man that the Post Office is inefficient and does not give him sufficiently cheap facilities. We on these benches would rather see the profit of the Post Office abolished if the Service were more efficient and more economical, but we are not concerned with cheaper facilities for the commercial classes who are generally attacking nationalisation and lauding to the skies the advantages of private enterprise. We are more concerned with the under-dogs and with the ordinary working staff of the Post Office. The hon. Member for North Tottenham (Mr. E. Morrison) has referred to the conditions of the part-time workers, and without going into the points which he raised, I wished to say a word on behalf of the casual worker who comes into the Post Office to assist in times of stress such as Christmas. These people struggle to put their names on the list for employment at Christmas time in order that they may have a few-more stamps on their cards. I have met many of them and have heard complaints from them, and one of their strongest complaints is as to the number of pensioners of various kinds who are working in the Post Office.
I do not mean ordinary ex-service men. We all stand up for the ex-service men though we should also remember that there are thousands of men who were not allowed to join the Army or who could not join the Army and who are out of work and who have just as much right to consideration as ex-service men. In this ca6e, however, I refer to ex-policemen and ex-civil servants of various kinds with pensions who could well be relegated to their proper positions of ease for which they have, shall I say, qualified, and many of the "out-of-works" of the present time could take up the positions vacated by such people. I know I am treading on very thin ice when I say it, but I believe the Post Office organisation could dispense with a good deal of the excessive overtime which is worked. I do not believe the ordinary Post Office worker desires to do so much overtime. I recognise, of course, that the Post Office buildings are not elastic and cannot be extended to cope with difficult periods, but I think a good deal of the extra time worked by the regular permanent staff could be abolished and thousands of honest men outside who are trying to get a living would thereby have an opportunity of getting a living. I ask the Postmaster-General to give his sympathetic consideration to these points.
I wish to appeal to the Postmaster-General to consider the introduction of a system of cash on delivery in this country. The system of cash on delivery is, I think, familiar to most Members— at any rate, to those who have travelled abroad. I became acquainted with it in India 30 years ago, and it had then been working for some years in that country. The system, briefly, is, that the Post Office undertakes not only to deliver the parcel but to collect the price of the parcel. The procedure is, comparatively, simple. The retailer or producer, on receipt of an order, makes up his parcel, stamps it with the number of stamps requisite to convey it to its destination and also with stamps to cover what is called the cash-on-delivery fee—a small fee which is taken by the Post Office for the collection of the money. He then fills in a form, giving the names and addresses of the consignee and the money which is to be collected from the consignee. He also puts his own name and address and takes his parcel to the post office. The Post Office does the rest. It delivers the parcel to the addressee and collects the money from him and delivers it in due course to the sender of the parcel. My object in advocating this system is primarily to help the smallholder. We all in this House are out to help agriculture, and especially the smallholder—I would rather have it the "small owner," not only the occupier, but the owner of his land. It is hopeless to subdivide the whole of the land of England into small holdings unless you provide a market for the produce. Under this system the
smallholder would be placed, by the medium of cheap advertisement, in contact with the small consumer and would find a ready market for his goods. It is not a new idea. I would like to quote, if the Committee will bear with me, from the Linlithgow Committee's Final unanimous Report published on the 22nd November, 1923. I think in every one of the Interim Reports of that Committee they referred to the necessity of introducing some system of cash on delivery in the interests of agriculture. In this Final Report, after referring to the ruinous charges for parcel post in this country, and asking that they should be cut down, they went on to say that these rates
tend to deprive both producers and consumers of one of the easiest means of dispensing with intermediaries and deriving mutual benefit from the direct transit of such commodities as eggs, cheese, butter, cream, poultry, bacon, and certain fruits and vegetables; they discourage that larger home production which will open the way to larger postal revenue, and should, if possible, be reduced.
The Report adds:
We would also reiterate our recommendation that the Post Office should adequately test the cash-on-delivery system for parcels, taking care to make the booking fee no higher than that which is found to be adequate in other countries.
It is about a year and a half since that Commission published its Report, and no action has been taken yet. I appeal to the Postmaster-General to put their recommendation into practice, and help agriculture, Which we all want to help. I have got a more recent quotation, which I would like to give, from the Noble Lord who is Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture. He said the other day, regarding this cash-on-delivery system:
There is no one proposal for the betterment of the agricultural industry which I regard as more important than the establishment of the cash-on-delivery system, and indeed, in its absence the extension of small holding will probably result in loss and disappointment.
It is the declared policy of the Government to encourage small holdings. Where you have a member of the Government saying that without the introduction of cash on delivery small holdings would result in loss and disappointment, I think it is up to the Government to introduce this scheme as soon as possible. It is
not only the smallholder who would benefit by this scheme, but also the housewife, the small consumer. If you introduced this scheme she would no longer be at the mercy of the local retailer, who is possibly the local profiteer. She could choose from the whole length and breadth of England the shop and the retailer where she wanted to place her order. She could go down to the post office, and, provided the telephone system became a little better, she could telephone, or she could send a postcard and give her order, and the next day she could receive the parcel she ordered; because the retailer or the producer runs no risk, the post office agreeing to undertake the collection of money there is no fear of bad debts. T contend that this system, if introduced, would do more to reduce the price of food in this country than any Food Council. It would be a real boon to every class in the country. I know there is opposition. There is large opposition from retailers. I contend that that opposition is largely-owing to ignorance.
The Assistant Postmaster-General in this House, the other day, in reply to a question, stated that representatives from foreign countries and Dominions where this system has been in operation for some time indicated that there was no damaging effect on the interests of retailers. I think it would be found that the system when introduced would prove a wonderful boon to the small retailer who had got enterprise, efficiency and industry. I can understand large stores being against the introduction of the system, because they have their large fleet of motor cars to deliver their stuff, and they have got a large clerical staff to collect bad debts. But the small retailer has none of these things. He cannot get them without large capital. If this system is introduced, the Post Office will undertake delivery and the collection of debts, and he starts really on an equal basis with these large stores and the future will depend entirely on his own efforts, his enterprise, his efficiency and his honesty. It will give him a fair chance in competition in this country.
I acknowledge there is one man who would suffer and that is the profiteer, but he will only suffer until he comes to his senses and reduces his prices in accordance with the wider competition to which he will be exposed. I make this appeal to the Postmaster-General to introduce the system and give it a chance. I am told he is waiting for a demand to be voiced in this country. I would like to know what demand has been voiced in the other countries and the other Dominions where this scheme has been in operation. He should take his courage in both hands, and give this system a chance. The success will depend very largely on what the cash-on-delivery fee amounts to. The fee for the delivery of the parcels must be as low as possible. The data which I have shows that the lowest fee is in Canada where a fee of 15 cents is sufficient to ensure the collection of a trade charge of 50 dollars. I calculate that that is about .3 per cent. In India and New Zealand, where the system is called the "valuation payable post" the charge only amounts to 1 per cent. to 1½ per cent. In other countries it is very much larger. In the Irish Free State it amounts to 2½ per cent., which I think is almost prohibitive. We must have a small charge and we must have efficiency, and I appeal to the Postmaster-General to give this system a trial and let the country decide whether it is a success or not.
I wish to add my support to those who have advocated the restoration of the penny postage. I do so on behalf of the, Associated Chambers of Commerce of Great Britain, of which, at the present time, I happen to be an honorary officer. I know it is impossible to do this in the present year, but we hope that the Postmaster-General will use his persuasive eloquence with the Chancellor of the Exchequer in order that it may be introduced next year. At the pro-sent time penny postage would do a great deal for trade. It would not only enable costs to be somewhat reduced, but it would reduce unemployment because more people would undoubtedly be employed in the Post Office as the result of the restoration of the. penny postage. We have been told, not only this afternoon but on other occasions, that it would mean a cost to the Post Office of about £5,000,000. I am not going to contest that figure, but we have been reminded also to-day that there have been very large surpluses in the Post Office for some years past. It is quite true that some part of these surpluses have been handed back to the public in the shape of reduction of telephone and other charges, but we think, those who are members of the Chamber of Commerce, that the Postmaster and the Chancellor might carry out this useful piece of work and let us get back to normal trade as soon as possible. I know from the remarks which the right hon. Gentleman has made that he is in favour of penny postage, and when I had the honour of being on a deputation to him a few months ago, he told us that he was in favour of it under certain conditions. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has stated that he is in favour of it, and I hope these two Ministers together will, before next Budget, be able to devise ways and means by which fade may be relieved to this extent, so that we may get back to normal pre-War days by the restoration of penny postage. We were told earlier this evening by the hon. Member for Central Aberdeen (Mr. R. W. Smith) that we should have better facilities in the country districts before getting penny postage, but I think that is the wrong way of looking at it, because if you had penny postage, it would mean a greater amount of correspondence, and ipso facto I believe these further facilities for the outlying districts would follow as a matter of course. I plead with the Postmaster-General to keep this matter continually before him and thus to a certain extent help the trade of the country.
I desire to take this opportunity of thanking the Postmaster-General for what he said about the increase in the number of rural telephones, and I am certain that, in addition to the increase in the facilities for doing business in the country that would be conferred on the countryside, it would ultimately be a paying proposition for the Postmaster-General. But I rose really to second what was said by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wycombe (Sir A. Knox). I consider —and I rather think the Postmaster-General agrees with me—that this country is one of the most backward in the world in not having a system of postal cash on delivery. I believe it exists in nearly every important country. It has been found to be a useful method of sale and transfer of goods, it has been found to be a great convenience to people living in remote country districts, it has been found to be profitable to the Post Office, and many people are astonished that we have been so long without putting it into practice in this country. No words are necessary to emphasise what was so well expressed by my hon. and gallant Friend, as showing the enormous advantage of such a system to the people we are putting on the land to farm in a small way. If you could put them in contact with the townspeople and enable them to sell their chickens, their ducks, their eggs, their vegetables direct, and to be certain of receiving the money whenever they receive an order, you would be conferring an absolutely inestimable advantage on their means of livelihood and on their trade.
I do not believe anybody in the country would suffer at all. I know that in America and in Canada it works out that, after having been opposed by the retail traders, in far away country villages, thinking it would deprive them of custom, they have come round to the opposite view of thinking after experience of its working. They have found that the local customer does not know where to write to in the big cities for the particular article that he wants, and that he goes to his local trader just the same, and the local shopkeeper gets the article for him and is paid by the commission he gets for the city supply. I believe this would apply in this country and that it would do a huge service. It would lead to a great increase in the sale of goods, not only from the country to the town, but there would be the corresponding increase of sales from the town to the country, and I urge on the Postmaster-General with all the weight that I can, on behalf of the rural districts particularly, that he should at once take steps to see whether he cannot put this system into operation.
I support the majority on all sides in the desire that penny postage should come as early as possible. The only warning I want to utter is this, that I hope it will not be found necessary to introduce it on decreased wages or bad conditions of employment in the Post Office. If penny postage is to come, it ought to come as a business proposition and not at the expense of decreased wages or lengthened hours of the staffs employed. I am sure that everyone, apart from these considerations, wants to see penny postage as quickly as possible. The one or two grievances to which I want to draw attention are local, but nevertheless of national application. The Postmaster-General ought to be complimented in that almost all the Government Departments show retrograde steps with the exception of the right hon. Gentleman's Department. I can see no evidence of a Conservative Government being in power in his Department so far, and I congratulate him on the progress that he has made. It is the one Department where the dead hand of Conservatism has not made its fatal mark, and I think the right hon. Gentleman is to be complimented on that fact.
The right hon. Gentleman may be aware, as I am sure are all his colleagues, of the great development of housing throughout the length and breadth of the country. In every great town, like Liverpool, Glasgow and Birmingham, you have on the outskirts huge housing areas now springing up, and the Postmaster-General is faced with a position that hitherto has not been faced by most of his colleagues. The more rapidly that any Government faces the housing problem, the sooner will there be certain difficulties in the way of the Postmaster-General, such as difficulties of delivery and of post office accommodation. I see the hon. and gallant Member for Partick (Major Broun-Lindsay) here. That is a constituency which in past days was rather familiar to the right hon. Gentleman who is now Postmaster-Genera!. They have built recently a new post office in Partick, and that post office is very badly situated. A post office, to my mind, ought to be in a central locality, and it ought to be in the main thoroughfare, or as nearly so as possible. I find, in regard to that post office in Partick. that the situation is not desirable, and while it is no good crying over spilt milk, I mention it because I feel that in the selection of sites for the future, post offices ought to be as central as they possibly can.
In our big towns such as London or Glasgow we are not all angels, and the people nowadays use the post office more than they used it in the past. They go there to draw their old age pensions and their soldiers' pensions, and the woman who goes to draw a pension—it may be a large or a small sum—wants absolute security after all, in the carrying away of the sum, and I feel that the more central and the better situated your post office is, the greater the security you are giving to the person who has to use it. I would direct the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the Partick post office, which is not the fault of the right hon. Gentleman, or of his predecessor, but of one of the many gentlemen who were in office previous to either of them. Still, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will make a note of what I am saying.
In regard then to the first point, about new housing; I only hope that the present occupant of the office will see that any new post offices which are built are built in the central parts of the towns, and as far as possible in those areas which the users of them have to go into. With respect to the post office of which I have spoken, it is thoroughly inadequate, and far too small to deal with the dimensions of the district. What I say in this respect does not apply only to Glasgow but to the outskirts of Glasgow, and it applies also to many of the large towns throughout the country. Doubtless the population of the place has grown considerably to the size of the post office, and that means that the building has not grown anything like commensurately with the size of the district. In most of these offices the sanitary and health arrangements are bad, and it is of the utmost importance to see that matters are put right. I know the difficulties of the Postmaster-General and the housing demand makes it difficult for the Post Office. But I do want to urge him to see, if possible, in these areas around the very great towns, that the houses built are such that the staff will have decent rooms, decent accommodation, and decent sanitary arrangements. I do not want to blame him, but I hope that at the very earliest possible moment he will take steps such as I have suggested to see that around our big towns the staff and the users of the Post Office have greater accommodation. In Glasgow the problem is very acute, and the matter has been made worse by the suburbs that have lately sprung up round the town.
There are one or two other grievances that I desire to mention. We have in the City of Glasgow a privilege given to the postmen of a free Saturday afternoon—at least they are freer than in most towns. I want to ask the Postmaster-General if he cannot see his way to extend that advantage of Glasgow. There has been little complaint about the non-delivery of letters on a Saturday afternoon. I have been here for the last two or throe years, and before that I served on public bodies. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to extend this privilege, if he can, in the interests of giving the postmen more chances of civic and social life. I understand the system is by no means universal. I ask whether it is not possible to see that the system is developed? We have the last delivery about two or three o'clock in the day. There have been comparatively few complaints. There are two or three other points, but they are minor points. One is whether it is not possible for the Postmaster-General to instal automatic machines in all the post offices? I often feel that that might be done without injury to anyone. It does not involve any labour, and it makes for a maximum of revenue. Everybody I think will agree that if it can be done, if these machines can be put into post offices and sub-post offices, it would be an advantage to the people, especially the very poor people, who do their writing at night, who only buy one stamp at a time. It would be a great advantage if they could get a stamp or two when they had written the letter and get the letter posted as soon as possible. Then, again, I would suggest a development of the telephone system. Naturally these are not in many of the poorer homes. It would be a great thing if, a father say, could slip out to a telephone kiosk at a point not far from his home to telephone, say, in connection with a maternity case. It would not only get him in touch with the doctor, there would not only be that consolation which the doctor brings, but it would give him a feeling of confidence if he could soon get in touch with the doctor. I plead, then, that in my division, and in Glasgow generally, in these working-class areas, there should be the telephone kiosks and the automatic stamp machines to which I have alluded.
Lastly, let me refer to a matter dealing with Inverness. Recently in a town in Inverness it came about that there were two promotions to be made in the postal service. The complaint which I have to put forward to the Postmaster is—and I am only giving it to him so that he may inquire into it, as I am sure, with his usual courtesy, he will—that when these promotions were made, where usually seniority is taken into consideration, it was not considered here; and the two men concerned had given long and faithful service. These men were passed over for reasons, I understand, of favouritism, and not given their promotion. I raise that point because it is causing a good deal of dissatisfaction in the town. These two men are local citizens who have served the city and the Post Office in a thoroughly reliable fashion. It may be that the staff have good grounds for what has happened. If so, I should like to hear what it is. If the right hon. Gentleman pays attention to the points I have mentioned, he will have at least justified his term of office.
I wish to make an appeal to the Postmaster-General on behalf of rural industry. I feel that the Post Office, so far as rural industries are concerned, is suffering from the reaction to Socialism. I should like to read out one or two figures showing how few telephones and telegraphic facilities there are in the County of Lindsey, which is one of the three districts into which Lincolnshire is divided. Of the sub-offices in Lindsey only 118 have both telephonic and telegraphic facilities. Seven have telegraphic and eight telephonic facilities only. That leaves 130 post offices unprovided with telegraphic or telephonic facilities. There are some of these in the neighbourhood of railway stations, but if agriculture is to be helped it is not sufficient to rely upon the railway stations, which, after all, are very few in the country districts, to provide the necessary telephonic accommodation. In some cases the distance from a telephone is as much as four to eight miles. This is a time when we are urged to do all we can to encourage agriculture. The farmer has to arrange about selling His produce, and wants to ascertain prices; the auctioneer has to make arrangements for getting cattle to different markets, and it militates against the success of agriculture that these country districts should be so badly provided with telegraph and telephone facilities. Doctors also are few and far between in the country, and illness is apt to be sudden. Generally, the doctors are on the tele- phone, but in many villages the only way of summoning a doctor is by sending a. man on a bicycle for him, with the result that sometimes the doctor is hours late in arriving, because it has not been possible to get hold of Him. A great deal of unnecessary suffering is caused by the absence of telephone and telegraphic facilities. I urge the Postmaster-General to do all he can for these country districts, not only in Lincolnshire, but all over the country, because I am certain that if people find they have these and other modern facilities, it will help to bring about the return of population from the towns to the rural districts.
I promise not to take more than three minutes, though I would like to speak for half an hour. I understand the Minister said to-day that one of his objects was to secure a return of penny postage as early as possible, and I sincerely hope he may be successful during his term of office, but not until he has satisfied a demand for better terms from the sub-postmasters of this country. There are 5,000 sub-postmasters serving the country for less than 9s. a week. I understand there are 2,000 who are getting only 5s. per week, plus bonus, and 5,000 getting 10s. a week plus bonus. In every case they have to find a room for the service, they have to insure against loss from burglary, and in many instances they have to get up at 5 o'clock in the morning to meet the mail; and at the end of a year they receive less than £'12, plus bonus. Before anything is done in the way of restoring penny postage the Postmaster-General ought to receive a deputation of sub-postmasters who wish to place before him their grievances. When a sub-postmaster sells £1 worth of stamps—and in a rural area that may mean going into the shop innumerable times to supply one l½d. stamp or one 1d. stamp or one id. stamp—he gets 3d. on the unit system. When he sells 80 postal orders of a total value of £220, he gets 2s. 4d. For paying 86 old age pensions the payment is 3s. 5d. And so I might have gone on, if I had had the time, to show that these sub-postmasters who, as an old Postmaster-General said, are doing service equal to, if not better than, that of the salaried postmasters, are paid a shocking, sweated wage; and before any- thing is done to bring about penny postage they ought to have real consideration.
It is not only a question of money There are other considerations. A man may carry on a sub-post office for 40 years, but if at the end of that time they decide to go in for a salaried officer then he is put on one side without any consideration. After long service, men ought not to be treated so cavalierly. If a man who is a sub-postmaster and has got a business of his own in a little area sees a better opening elsewhere, with a chance of buying another business there, he has no certainty that he can get the office of sub-postmaster attached to that new business. I suggest to the Postmaster-General that where a man is a sub-postmaster and desires to transfer his business to some other centre he should have priority of right to the sub-postmastership in the other centre. Then there is a serious grievance with regard to illness. If a sub-postmaster falls ill he often has to get an assistant. The Post Office will send him one down, and in some instances he has to pay 75 per cent more than he is actually taking in order to be able to keep that assistant while he is ill. Such conditions ought not to exist, and the Postmaster-General ought to meet these sub-postmasters. If there is any body which ought to adopt the principles of the Whitley Council in dealing with a grievance it is a Government Department, and I hope that any grievances of these sub-postmasters will be dealt with even if the machinery of the Whitley Council has to be brought in.
I would like to speak on behalf of the cash-on-delivery system, in which smallholders in my county, where we have a great number of small holdings, are particularly interested. Many of these smallholders are ex-service men, and they find great difficulty in marketing their produce, because what they have to sell is generally in small lots, and, naturally, the wholesale buyer prefers to buy from the larger producer, because he gets a larger quantity of stuff and there is less book-keeping to be done. For that reason the smallholder generally has to sell his produce for less than is obtained by the large producer, and as the Government have placed these men upon small holdings, it behoves them to do something to enable the men to get fair market value for their produce, at the same time assisting consumers to get produce at a reasonable price.
But what I really rose for was to represent, on behalf of the farmers, that the cost of telephones in the rural districts is too high. As my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Louth (Lieut. Colonel Heneage) has said, we have a very small proportion of telephones to post offices over a very large area. I believe the reason for that is the charges that are asked. I know of one case where a man farming 1,000 acres of land is only one mile now from a telephone office, but is 2½ miles from a telephone exchange office. He has applied to be put on the telephone, and the charge quoted is £16 per annum. If the price were more reasonable, I am quite certain it would be profitable to the Post Office to make a far less charge, and if they did so, they would have no difficulty in getting a number of subscribers. But if you get into small villages and ask men to pay £16 to go on the telephone, you cannot get sufficient people to make it worth while to the Post Office or to make it pay. If the Post Office could see their way to considerably reduce their charges—I remember immediately after the War, I think the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) suggested that all people should be put on the telephone for three guineas per annum each, but it was not done—I am convinced you would have the bulk of the farmers in this country on the telephone and it would be an advantage to all traders. I do not know any country in Europe or any other continent where you find, in comparison, so few men on the telephone, and the charges so great in order to get on the telephone. It is indeed a serious matter for agriculture at the present time, and if the Postmaster-General could see his way to reduce the charges, the income from the telephones to the Post Office would be far greater than it is to-day.
Having regard to the hour and wishing to give the Postmaster-General time to reply, I shall have to cut out many of the points I wished to bring before the Committee. I congratulate the Postmaster-General that he has come fairly scatheless through this Debate. There has been a wide and varied scope of subjects talked about, all of which go to prove the extent and ramifications of the service of which he is at the head. It is the largest business in the world, and has set a high standard of efficiency. There are, however, one or two points of criticism to which I want to draw the attention of the Committee. In the first place, a statement was made by the Postmaster-General earlier in the afternoon when he paid a tribute to the work carried through by the Fittings Committee. That committee was composed of representatives of several departments and also of the union. The Postmaster-General paid a tribute to the efficiency of their work and said it had resulted in greater economies and efficiency of output. That, I suggest, is an indication of trade unionism at its best, endeavouring to co-operate with the industry with which it is concerned, in order to develop it and give the best service it can to the community. That has always been the aim and object of the Union of Post Office Workers. Therefore, I am all the more surprised that the Postmaster-General cannot see his way to extend the practice, particularly with regard to the suggestion made by the hon. Member for East Bristol (Mr. W. Baker), when he drew attention to what I will not call the dispute, but the discussion, concerning the wages claim submitted on behalf of the organisation. The point at issue at the moment is not the justice or otherwise of the claim preferred, but that the Postmaster-General shall agree that the claims be examined by a joint committee representing the staff and the administration. He has replied, in effect, that you can take this question to the arbitration committee. The answer is that you do not go to arbitration until negotiation has broken down in other respects. We have got the Whitley machinery, and it has operated very well in the Post Office.
We have had pleas from the Prime Minister for peace in industry in order to arrive at a better understanding. Surely the place for a start to be made. is in our own house, in the Post Office especially, when we remember that it is the largest single employer of labour in the country. The point at issue has been thought of such importance that the General Council of the Trade Union Congress thought it worth their while to wait on the Postmaster-General and see if he could not meet the unions in this particular respect. I take the opportunity to ask the Postmaster-General to consider this point. After all, against what is he standing? Surely it is an elementary principle that people should meet first to discuss claims and grievances, if any. All we are asking is that we should meet for joint discussion and then, if we cannot arrive at an agreement, to take advantage of the arbitration machinery. Supposing, as he may suggest, there is no possibility of any such Committee arriving at an agreement, surely he remains in a very strong position, and can at least say to this House, that he went all the way in endeavouring to arrive at agreement, and was prepared to discuss the subject with the men concerned, and having discussed it, the negotiations broke down, so now they are going to arbitration. I urge the Postmaster-General to consider it, for it has been put forward, not only by the union, and in this House, but by the General Council of the Trade Union Congress, and this at a moment when we have great threats of an industrial dispute outside in other unions, and it would be a great thing it those unions would come together as the Government would like them to do.
Surely, then, if it is good in one respect, it is good in this, and I suggest that the Postmaster-General would be doing the right thing and adding to the prestige he has already earned in his Department and to the good relationships between employés and himself. But that cannot be expected to continue if he sticks himself in the ground like this, and will not admit the discussion on this particular wages claim. It is no good, and it is unfair to refer us back to 1920. It has nothing to do with the present situation, and is no answer. Neither is it fair that the Postmaster-General should lay down the terms on which we should meet to discuss. The union have submitted their claims, and then, if we fail, arbitration can be resorted to. I will now leave that point, because it has been dealt with at great length by the hon. Member who preceded me, but I sincerely hope that the Postmaster-General will see his way to meet us in this particular respect.
Turning to the question of a wider policy, the hon. and gallant Member for Wycombe (Sir A. Knox) has referred to the cash-on-delivery system. The Post Office organisation has always pushed this as an essential part of the work that should be carried out by this Department, and they did this as long ago as 1911, when a case was submitted and a pamphlet issued on the cash-on-delivery system, and also with regard to postal cheques. Whatever attention the Post-master-General may think it right to pay to pleas that come from these benches, when such a plea comes from the Assistant Postmaster-General him-self he must find it difficult to turn it down. The Assistant Postmaster-General has said that so far as he is concerned, he supports the cash-on delivery system, and consequently it must be extremely embarrassing for the Postmaster-General to refuse this plea unless he agrees with his assistant on this point I want to call attention to a reply which was given to a question put by myself on the 17th June last, which was as follows:
The cash-on-delivery system is in operation in the internal service of Australia, Canada, the Irish Free State, India and Ceylon, and of 30 foreign postal administrations, including nearly all the principal European countries and the United States." —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th June, 1925; col. 540, Vol. 185.]
Surely we are very much behind in that respect, and what is good for other countries ought to be good enough for this country, and when an individualistic State like America can adopt this system, surely we can carry it out in this country. It would have a beneficial effect on our agricultural industry, and at the same time it would encourage the smallholder. After all, if there is any substance in the argument used by the retail traders against this system, those ill effects have not shown themselves in the countries which have put this system into operation. By this system certain expenses will have to be undertaken in the shape of postage and delivery by the senders which will have to be added to the cost, and this ought not to place the retailers at a disadvantage. I do not know whether it would be fair to press the Postmaster-General in respect of the Post Office motor system, and ask him what special terms he has made in this connection? He stated that they were being run under special terms and conditions, but I would
like to ask, are they terms imposed by the larger contractors, and do we only come in where there is a small margin of advantage to be got? I remember that the Postmaster-General estimated a saving by this arrangement of £50,000 or £60,000 a year.
I want just to reinforce the plea of my hon. Friend the Member for West Islington (Mr. Montague) with regard to the closing of the power station at Black-friars. I am bound to say I heard with a good deal of apprehension that it has been decided to close down this station, and not to use it for power in connection with the Post Office tube railway, which will shortly be opened. It will be remembered that, in a Bill which was before the House a little while ago, there was a Clause to the effect that the power station at Blackfriars should supply the motive power, both for this Post Office tube railway and for the post offices throughout London; but the different electrical interests got to work, and managed to get that Clause eliminated; in another place. It does seem that the Postmaster-General has surrendered this position to the pressure of the big electrical combine, and that, while it is true that he is going—as we admit—to get a cheap supply for his own particular work, what he has done has been to hand over all the other consumers of electricity to the mercies of the electrical combine. It would have been a tremendous advantage —it might have been so even in case of an industrial dispute—if this power station had been kept and developed, not only to run the Post Office services, but, perhaps, to be used even in other directions as and when necessary.
I am afraid, also—I hope I am wrong —that the Postmaster-General has rather been had with regard to the beam system in connection with our Imperial wireless. The Marconi Company did all they could to put sand in the machine and prevent the development of the Imperial wireless chain, and, after we had got past that, and the Post Office had agreed and all was put in hand for the development of high-power stations, the Marconi Company came along with the suggestion that they had an entirely new invention, the beam system, which was going to operate even better than the one upon which we had already entered. As one has seen it up to the present, it seems to be quite in the early stages of experimental development, and I sincerely hope the Postmaster-General has not so committed himself and handed himself over to the Marconi Company that Imperial wireless is again going to be hampered and checked in its development because of this. No doubt he will put the case with, perhaps, a little more amplification before the Committee, and relieve our disquietude in the matter. As he knows the last Government like himself was very much concerned at getting a move on and getting the Imperial wireless chain developed and extended at the earliest possible moment. The history of the Marconi Company in regard to development is such that one views with a good deal of apprehension their entry into this matter, fearing that, after all, we may have to do much of the work that we have had to do in past years, and may find it extremely difficult to get on with the work in the way we would like. I have promised to give the right hon. Gentleman ample time in which to reply, so I conclude by expressing the hope that he will give due regard to the claim which has been put before him by my hon. Friend the Member for East Bristol, and will see his way to meet the union in this respect, so that we may carry on as harmoniously and well as hitherto, both with the staffs in the Service and with the right hon. Gentleman himself as Postmaster-General.
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in giving me so long a portion of time in which to reply. I am afraid I cannot hope to cover the whole of the field that has been raised by various speakers, but should like to say in the first place I am grateful to the Committee for the general way in which they have received these Estimates, and if in the course of my reply I omit any particular points it is not that they have escaped or will escape my attention, because though I may not have time to cover the whole of the questions that have been raised, I can assure hon. Members that I shall give the most careful attention to what they have said, and I will not fail to take note of the various points that have been raised. I should like to say a word, in the first place, with regard to an observation which fell from the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down. He referred to the general efficiency of the Post Office system. I think the Committee will have realised from what I said in introducing the Vote that I appreciate as highly as he does the efficiency, the willingness, and I think I can truly say the general spirit of pride of service which animates the postal staff. It is a great thing that that spirit should exist, and I hope it will long continue. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Hartshorn) asked one or two questions with regard to Imperial wireless and the beam stations, and the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down has added a request for some further information on the subject.
As regards the particular question of the actual sites for the Indian and the Australian receiving and sending stations, my Noble Friend explained that all that stands in the way at the moment are the legal difficulties of transfer. They are in this case very complicated and there are complications about rights of way and questions of that kind. I only mention that because, in case anything I say is read overseas, I should like overseas to appreciate that the question of land transfer and getting clear titles is not quite so easy as getting them in the Dominions overseas. It is not our fault, but we are getting on with it. Meantime I can reassure the hon. Gentleman on one point. The Indian station will not be ready before we are, but it may happen that the Australian station will be ready before we are, and if so, I am told it is possible, so far as we know—and, after all, all of us know remarkably little about the beam system, but we believe it to be quite possible as a temporary measure to make use of Rugby for the purpose of communication with Australia and so make a temporary working arrangement until the completion of the Grimsby and Skegness sites. Rugby will certainly be ready in November, which is a considerable time before the Australian station will be ready.
The hon. Gentleman who spoke last expressed a fear lest somehow or other, in the course of transactions with the beam stations, we might have committed the sin of, as he said, handing over the conduct of the business to a monopoly. I do not think there is any danger of that happening, but I would remind him that the contracts under which the beam stations are to be erected were made by his own Government, and therefore I think he must settle that with the right hon. Gentleman who sits next him. In point of fact, the whole of the beam system really is in a more or less experimental stage. We know, and the Marconi Company know, very little about it, and unless and until we get the stations actually working, we cannot do more than theorise. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Macpherson) asked me, among other things, about the Highland and Island services. As I think perhaps he knew, there is an Inter-Departmental Committee of the Scottish Office and my Office sitting at this moment on the subject. They have already made considerable progress in their investigations. I asked to-day, and they tell me they hope soon to be in a position to sumbit a report.
The hon. Member for West Islington (Mr. Montague) and the hon. Gentleman who spoke last alluded to the question of the Blackfriars power station. Here I am afraid I must join issue. They regard the question of the maintenance of the Blackfriars power station, if I apprehend them rightly, as a question of principle. I deal with it solely as a question of business and of economy. I only had to satisfy myself as to what was the most economical proposition for the taxpayer in regard to the supply of power for the Post Office tube railway and the other undertakings. I went into the figures not once or twice but three times—I am fairly well accustomed to going into the figures of commercial accounts—and I have no doubt and my advisers have no doubt that there is a considerable annual saving to be made by cutting out Blackfriars and adopting the method of private supply. Accordingly we asked for tenders and tenders were received and accepted.
Several of my hon. Friends drew attention to the question of rural telephones. I have already stated, in introducing the Vote, that I appreciate as much as any hon. Member the importance of developing that side of the telephone system. I think I am giving an earnest of my good will in the matter, because these new rural exchanges are being opened at the rate of something like 20 a month. I beg hon. Members, who are interested in that aspect of the subject and who appreciate its importance, not to press me too hard, because in advancing the system I have to consider the question of finance. I cannot, having regard to the principles upon which I am trying to run the telephone system, namely, that it should stand on its own legs and pay for itself, press forward more quickly, but I can promise that the development of the telephone system in rural areas will certainly continue to be pressed forward as fast as is reasonably possible, having regard to the conditions which I have indicated.
The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Sir R. Hamilton) asked me a question as to the advisability of installing wireless between the islands. I have looked into that matter. It was one of the first things into which I went, very carefully, because I know the conditions, not only in the Orkneys and the Shetlands, but in the outer islands. I say, frankly, that unless and until the science of wireless telephony, as opposed to wireless telegraphy, has developed further, I do not think the hon. Member's proposal is practicable, because the cost would be enormous. If, as I hope will soon be the case, the science of wireless telephony makes further progress it may be possible to do something in that direction, but so long as we are confined to wireless telegraphy the cost of his proposal is out of the question.
The hon. Member for Bradford North (Mr. Ramsden) spoke of the roll of amateur wireless experimenters. If I understood him aright, he suggested, among other things, that I should, in a way, delegate the responsibility which I have by Statute for the keeping of the roll into the hands of some scientific body.
I am glad to hear that, because that was a point to which I was going to call the hon. Member's attention. It is absolutely essential that this business, which is a very invidious task, of rationing the wave bands must be in single hands. There must be some single person to whom the House can look for responsi- bility. I am not very anxious to have the job, but so long as I have it I will try to discharge it as well as I can. The hon. Member for South Hackney (Captain Garro-Jones) must forgive me. because he asked mo so many questions it is impossible to answer all of them. He asked me three accounting questions which I can answer. With regard to the Jersey telephones, he asked me where in the commercial accounts the credit for the Jersey telephones appears. If he will look at the foot of the page from which he quoted he will see one figure for depreciation and on the other side he will see a credit for the Jersey telephones. He also asked a question with respect to the Auditor-General's report regarding the commercial accounts.
That is a rather difficult question to answer at the moment, but, subject to correction, I should say that the amount is about £30,000. In reference to the question about the allocation of fixed works, the investigations of the Comptroller and Auditor-General are now complete, and it is found that the basis taken is still correct. The hon. Member asked about the payments to the railway companies for the conveyance of mails, and said that there appeared to be considerable inflation in the figure comparing the amount paid in the year 1914 with the amount now paid. The answer is that up to 1914 payments to the railway companies for the conveyance of mails were made out of revenue. Now they are shown on the Votes. Making allowance for that fact, and an allowance for capitalised value, the figure for 1914–15 was just under £3,000,000, and it is now £3,405,000, so that, having regard to the general increase the present amount is not disproportionately high.
The hon. Member for North Tottenham (Mr. R. Morrison) asked me to look into the question of part-time employés on the one hand, and overtime and wholetime employés on the other. I will do that, but the total amount of overtime in the estimates for 1925–26 is only £330,000, and that is a very small proportion of the wages paid, and a very small amount per head of the staff employed. But, as I think the hon. Member knows, we are now considering this very question of the relation of overtime to the part-time employés. My hon. Friend the Member for West Belfast (Sir R. Lynn) asked about the status of Belfast. The short answer is that while it is not possible, in the case of many offices, to work out a direct unit for comparison, it is quite possible in the case of one or two offices, and a comparison of units shows that while in the offices which are now graded as Class Al, Leeds, Newcastle-on-Tyne and Bristol, the aggregate amount of postal and telegraphic work ranges from 3,900 odd units to 3,500 odd units, the similar figure for Belfast is only 2,650. I quite appreciate the difficulty, particularly in the case of Belfast, which has been pointed out, but one has to draw the line somewhere, and at the moment the line has to be drawn a little above Belfast.
The hon. Members for Wycombe (Sir A. Knox), East Grinstead (Sir H. Cautley), and North Camberwell asked about the cash-on-delivery system, for the adoption of which very eloquent pleas have been put forward. I have heard a great deal about it before now. and my Noble Friend (Viscount Wolmer), like many other agriculturists, has been an advocate of that system. We cannot expect people, any more than we can expect the leopard to change his spots, to change their views on taking office. But I must say that in his frank statement to the Committee earlier in the day, he was only saying what one would expect him to say having regard to his previous utterances. I am bound to say, speaking for the Government, that the mind of the Government is entirely open on this subject at the present moment. It is still a matter for inquiry. There is a good deal of feeling against the proposal, as some hon. Members know, and there is strong support for it. We are bound to look at both sides, and we are doing so. Further than that, speaking for the Government, I cannot say anything at the moment.
I have much ground to cover in the few minutes that remain before eleven o'clock, and I cannot undertake now to start a debate on the general question again. All I can say is that there are certain classes in this country who view with considerable apprehension the institution of such a thing. They may be right or wrong, but they exist and that is their feeling, and, having regard to that fact, the Government are bound to look very carefully on both sides of the subject before coming to a decision. The hon. Member for Gorballs (Mr. Buchanan) raised a number of points. He said that sites for post offices ought to be central as far as possible. So they are, so far as we can manage it. But there are local difficulties every now and then which prevent our getting the kind of sites that we want. The hon. Member then put forward a very important problem, which I am very glad to see is appreciated by hon. Members. That is the difficulty which has inured to the postal service from the growth and spread of population from the centres of big cities out to the suburbs. That is a very real problem and one which is anxiously engaging my own attention, as it has done for months past. It is very difficult to deal with all the ramifications of it, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it is very present to the minds of the Post Office. We are doing our best to meet some of the difficulties which arise.
The hon. Member spoke of half holidays. The general rule is that the particular day selected is left to the discretion of the local authority. We find it more convenient, as a rule, for the local authority to advise us as to which particular day is most convenient as the half holiday for the Post Office. With regard to Inverness, I am afraid I can only say that I have looked into this particular case myself It was not settled by me in the first case. It is one of the class of cases which is settled by the surveyor of the district in the ordinary way. Having regard to the questions which were raised, I did look into this particular case myself. I saw all the papers and, having regard to the invidious task for anyone to have to select people from a number for such promotion, I am bound to say that in this case there is no doubt that the surveyor selected the best man. The hon. Member for North Camberwell (Mr. Ammon) asked me a question about postal cheques. I know that the postal cheque system operates and, I believe, operates with considerable advantage in many continental countries, but so far as my own personal opinion is concerned, having regard to the wide extension of banking facilities here—an extension which does not exist in those continental countries—I doubt very much whether it would really be the boon which it is said to be in other countries.
The last question with which I wish to deal is the question of the wage claim from the organised staff in the postal service. This was alluded to by the hon. Member for North Camberwell and the hon. Member for East Bristol (Mr. W. Baker), who is not now present. I would say what I would have said to him, that I appreciate very much the spirit and the way in which he and the hon. Member for North Camberwell spoke on this question. The only thing I regretted was the suggestion. of the hon. Member for Bristol that there might be, in the higher command in the Post Office, a spirit of opposition to Whitleyism. I can assure him that is not the fact. We appreciate the value of Whitleyism in the public services just as much as he and his friends, and we are only too anxious to see it continue to work. He has presented his side of the case with great fairness and moderation, but I am bound to say there is another side which I ought to present. I would like the Committee to realise, in the first place, the nature and magnitude of the claim put forward by the organisation of which some hon. Members are spokesmen. The claim is for an all round increase of wages in respect of a very large proportion of the staff of the Post Office. If that claim is conceded—though this is, I agree, no answer at all if the claim is essentially just—it will mean an addition to the wages bill of from £6,000,000 to £9,500,000 per annum, and, in consequence, if a deficit on the Post Office budget is to be avoided, it would necessitate practically an immediate reversion to the 2d. post. As I say, however, if the claim is otherwise essentially just that is no answer. The claim is said to be submitted, not as a valuation of work done, but in order to bring the remuneration more into relation with present-day conditions, and complaint is made by the hon. Member for Bristol, and by some others outside, that I have said that I adhere to the view that in considering the question we ought to refer to the settlement of 1920. I do not see what else I, or anyone else holding my position, could say, having regard to the fact that that settlement was negotiated and accepted at a time when, notoriously, commodity prices and industrial wages were at their peak.
What have I said? I have said, in the first place, to the hon. Member and his friends: "If you can show me any class or case suffering injustice because of being omitted from the 1920 settlement or because the 1920 settlement is being applied to them in a faulty manner, I will go into committee with you at once." I have said, in the second place: "If you can show me any new factors which have arisen since 1920 and which in regard to any particular class or any case call for immediate revision of wages, I will go into committee with you." I have said, in the third place: "In the absence of any such evidence, I only agree to a committee to discuss the claim for a general increase, if those who put it forward are prepared to admit, as a starting point, the principle that in considering that claim regard shall be had to the general rates of wages payable in other industries." I do not think that is an unreasonable position, and, in order to make quite clear that it is the position I have taken up, the Committee will bear with me if I read a letter which I addressed on this subject a few days ago to the General Council of Trade Unions which had been considering the subject. I have, as yet, had no reply, but I do not say that by way of complaint, and I only read the letter because I think it puts clearly our position in this matter:
The Postmaster-General desires, in the first instance, to repeat his willingness to authorise negotiations with respect to any claim submitted by the Post Office staff which discloses a prima facie case and appears to offer even a remote prospect of an agreed settlement. Such negotiations, as the unions are well aware, are proceeding almost daily at the Post Office with reference to the pay and conditions of service of one or other of the numerous sections of the Post Office staff, and the Postmaster-General has no intention of changing this policy.
But the claim now in question stands on an entirely different footing. It includes, directly or indirectly, virtually all
the manipulative grades of the Post Office, outside the engineering and stores departments. It entails a radical revision, not only in detail but in principle, of the settlement which was reached by agreement with the Union of Post Office Workers in 1920; and in presenting it the union expressly stated that it is not based upon a valuation, of work, and they have dismissed comparisons with the wages payable in the great industries of the country as irrelevant to the issue.
The Postmaster-General, on the other hand, considers that the general rates of wages payable in outside industry for work involving a similar degree of skill and responsibility are vital to the consideration of a claim for an increase in the pay of the Post Office staff.
Then I proceeded to give some examples by way of comparative figures, which I said I had forwarded to the General Council. I will not quote them at length, but I will give, shortly, one or two salient points. I pointed out that, taking Post Office wages first, the actual average paid per man in London, including sorting clerks, telegraphists and counter clerks, was 94s., approximately, and postmen 71s. 4d.; in the provinces, for sorting clerks and telegraphists, 79s. 10d.. and for postmen 60s. 3d.
I pointed out that in other sheltered industries, not in unsheltered industries, there were rates of wages prevailing at the present moment which I think, certainly ought to be taken into consideration in considering any question of an increase in the rates of wages which I have just quoted. I pointed out, for instance, that signalmen, whose responsibility towards the public is certainly very great, in London, get 48s. to 75s., and in small towns 48s. to 60s. Carpenters and joiners get 73s. 4d., tramway drivers and conductors 59s. 1d., and when you come to the unsheltered industries, the rates, of course, are much lower, and the comparison is much more remarkable. The letter proceeded:
Moreover, the Post Office staff are entitled to pension privileges, estimated to be equivalent on an actuarial basis to about 15 per cent. of their pay, in addition to considerably more liberal leave and sick leave than is admitted in other occupations.
Faced with such comparisons, the Postmaster-General is obviously not in a position to offer any increase upon the existing rates of pay. But, apart from this, there is the further and more serious obstacle that there is no common ground upon which negotiations can proceed, because the union
have excluded as irrelevant those factors which the Postmaster-General regards as most material to the issue. If the union"—
I repeat this offer—
is prepared to accept the principle that the pay of the Post Office staff shall be discussed and assessed by comparison with, and in relation to, the rates payable in other industries, the Postmaster-General will be prepared to authorise a discussion on this basis.
Who is to choose the particular industries against which the comparison is to be made? A former Postmaster-General and the right hon. Gentleman himself, have laid down entirely different standards from which the Postmaster-General now draws his inference as to the proper rates of pay.
That is clearly a matter for discussion later. The first point that I want to settle and that hitherto I have been unable to settle with the hon. Gentleman and his Friends because they have refused to admit the principle of comparison, the first principle on which alone I will enter into discussion, is that, in considering the question of a general claim for an increase in Post Office wages, regard shall be had to the wages in other industries. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"]
I am sorry to interrupt, but, really, does the right hon. Gentleman seriously suggest, and does the Committee cheer the suggestion, that before you go into a discussion, one side shall lay down the terms on which you shall discuss?
All that I am suggesting is that, before you have a Committee discussion, you must have a Second Beading, and this is a Second Reading question of principle— whether or not we should consider the servants of a great State trading Department in complete isolation from any other class in the industrial community. I say that you cannot, and you ought not, I say that the position which I have taken up is inherently just and economically sound. I say this further, that if that be not agreed to, and if it be said that the position is unjust and economically unsound, I am prepared, as I have said, to go to arbitration on that point. I have told the hon. Gentleman and his friends that, if they will bring a series of test cases before the Arbitration Board, I am prepared that the Arbitration Board should rule on them, and say whether that position is sound and economically just or not. I am still prepared to go to arbitration on that point.
I am bound to say, as representing the Post Office, and I do in this matter occupy the, position, not merely of the head of the Post Office—I am glad and proud to occupy that position—that I am not only occupying it in relation to my staff, but I also have a fiduciary capacity towards the general community. I am the trustee for the general community in this matter. Some hon. Gentlemen, not in this House, but others outside, have suggested that I am an employers' man, that I am somehow or other inspired in this matter by a sinister motive towards an attack on the general level of wages. Nothing could be further from the truth. In this matter I am not an employers' man: I am not even a party man. I know the hon. Gentleman opposite has not said so, but it was said outside. If I am anybody's man, I am "John Citizen's" man in this matter, because, after all, his are the interests that I have to protect, and he is the person who, in the long run, has to pay. That is the position which I have taken up, and I am bound to say that, while I appreciate the tone in which that position has been attacked, I still remain unshaken in my belief that that is the right position, and indeed the only possible position that the Postmaster-General, in considering a matter of this kind, can take up, having regard to the responsibilities which devolve on him, not only as head of a great State service, but as trustee for the interests of the whole community.
Whatever the John Citizenship of the right hon. Gentleman may be, I think Mr. "Poy" will be very glad of the hint he has given him. His speech is an example of how much the public would appreciate Parliament being broadcast. It is a great pity that the peroration of the right hon. Gentleman was not heard by millions instead of by the 50 or 60 present in the Chamber. I am an advocate of the broadcasting of Parliament, and I am sorry that the Committee to consider the matter is being set up so late in this year. It ought to have been set up a month ago—to consider the subject thoroughly. I see no reason at all why, since it is the rule to record proceedings of this House in the press, they should not be broadcast over the wireless, and if the people do not want it they will very soon let us know. I want to raise one small point that has not been referred to in the Debate, and that is the question of carrying mails by air. There is an appropriation for that purpose of only £7,500 this year. The Air Ministry are at last taking active steps to have an air mail to India, and I hope the Postmaster-General is working in close co-operation with the Air Ministry in this matter.