Motion made, and Question proposed,
That a sum, not exceeding £39,463,000 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, 1935, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Post Office, including Telegraphs and Telephones."—[Note: £21,000,000 has been voted on account.]
The business of the Post Office is sensitive to national conditions. We can see very early signals of national progress or depression. I am glad to say this afternoon that the Post Office barometer is still pointing to "Set Fair," and continues to indicate that the nation is making much progress along the road to recovery and better times. In fact, the Post Office results have exceeded our expectations. The stable levels maintained by Post Office business during the period of depression from which we are now emerging certainly gave us good reason to believe that when the tide turned the Post Office business would show a quick and healthy response, and this it has now done in no uncertain way. Postal revenue has resumed practically its normal rate of growth, and this fact is noteworthy in view of the close relation of postal business to commercial conditions. The long continued drop in telegraph traffic has been checked. In fact, for the financial year ended 31st March the total inland telegraph traffic showed a small increase for the first time since 1919. As far as the telephones are concerned, the year 1933–34 has been a record year for new business, and the net increase every month this year has been larger than the figure for the corresponding month of last year, and, still more important, the increase in trunk traffic has been doubled, and the Continental telephone traffic has reached over 1,250,000 calls.
If Members of the Committee will look at the financial statement, which I hope they have had an opportunity of perusing, they will see from the provisional figures set out in the Estimate that for 1933–34 the postal revenue has again increased, the telegraph deficit has been reduced by a considerable sum and the telephone surplus has been increased by nearly £1,000,000. It is estimated that the total surplus will reach a figure of £12,396,000. Many good horses have come from the Post Office stable and many more thoroughbreds are still in training, but the best horse which the Post Office has turned out is the classic winner "Surplus." He is making more muscle every year, his staying power is beyond question, and his gallant form gives his backers every confidence, as might be expected from a horse sired by "Endeavour" out of "National Recovery." A considerable event in Post Office history is that on the basis laid down in the Finance Act of last year a sum -of the order of £2,000,000 will be paid over to the Post Office in November next from the Consolidated Fund. It will not only be a substantial strategic reserve for general Post Office development, but a considerable guarantee for the obligations of the Post Office to the Exchequer. This is an innovation which has long been advocated, and will, I think, be generally regarded as a considerable step forward in enabling the Post Office still further to serve its customers—the public.
At the same time it should not be overlooked by all who naturally desire an improvement in our services and reductions in charges what material help the Post Office affords the Exchequer each year. The Post Office makes a not inconsiderable contribution in helping trade and business and in mitigating unemployment by the relief that it annually affords to the heavy burden of general taxation. Even figures and data are sometimes fascinating and illuminating, and many Post Office enumerations indicate not only the course of the nation's business but the tendencies and habits of the times in which we live. The extra cost of postage notwithstanding that the nation is writing still more letters. The Post Office received, sorted and delivered 100,000,000 more letters than during the previous year, and we are selling some 20,000,000 stamps every day. I may say that the public have a great affection for Post Office penholders and stainless steel nibs. In July last we supplied some 1,900 holders and 9,000 stainless nibs for their use in 75 of the largest Crown offices in London and the provinces. At the end of the month we were left with 700 holders and 20 per cent. of the nibs. There was no loss in one office—where the pens were chained. We are a comparatively crime free Post Office. Only 29 mail bags out of 40,000,000 were lost in transit and only 37 bags were violated last year. It is also rare indeed for a Post Office servant to be dismissed for dishonesty, and the record in this direction is steadily improving. Many people in the country still retain the old habit of thrift. Our people still continue to save. In 1933 there was an increase of £21,000,000 in the Savings Bank balance; and the balance due to depositors, with accrued interest, has now reached the remarkable figure of more than £338,000,000.
During the past year there were many important changes in the administration of the Post Office. Sir Evelyn Murray, secretary of the Post Office for 20 years, who made many and valuable contributions to our service, became chairman of the Board of Customs and Excise. Mr. Haven, who entered the Post Office in 1896 and retired this year, had, as second secretary, close associations with the staff, and his able, human and personal adminstration made him an outstanding figure in Post Office life. In their place to-day are the new Director-General and the Deputy Director-General, Colonel Banks and Mr. Gardiner, both young men, who have already many achievements to their credit and in whom the Committee can have complete confidence. The new Post Office Board has been appointed, as well as a Public Relations Officer, and a Director of Establishments, and there have been considerable changes in personnel. The secretary's office has been replaced by four separate departments. The important matter of regional reorganisation is now the subject of examination by a special Departmental Committee. As opportunity serves pro vision will also be made—I know many Members of the Committee are interested in this—for a greater fluidity of interchange between headquarters and the rest of the Post Office staff.
We are in this and many other ways seeking to make the Post Office one of the first among modern undertakings. No organisation could have a better staff. They are the largest branch of the Civil Service; their remuneration is subject to Civil Service terms and conditions and in particular it carries advantages in the matter of security of tenure and pension. An addition must be made to the Estimates now before the Committee in respect of wages, having regard to the half restoration of the emergency reductions which, in the case of the Post Office, will amount in a whole year to £550,000. An offer to consolidate their pay is now the subject of consideration, in conjunction with the Civil Service generally. That offer involves not only restoration of half the emergency reductions but also provides, in the case of the less well-paid classes in the Post Office, for certain improvements which together with the half restoration of the reductions I have referred to, will amount to £700,000 a year. On the basis of a full restoration of the reductions, the cost to the Post Office will be a sum of £1,400,000 a year.
Many Members of the Committee are, I know, interested in the position of the auxiliary postmen. The position of the auxiliary postmen and their employment, necessitated unfortunately—I think this is the judgment of all my predecessors—by the incidence of Post Office work, has been the subject of constant examination by my predecessors, especially Mr. Lees-Smith and myself, and I am glad to say that 1,000 auxiliary postmen have, during the last three years, been absorbed in established posts. A scheme was also designed under which auxiliary postmen with 10 years' service and over become eligible for appointment as postmen, and 200 were so appointed in 1933, and a similar number of postmanships are being assigned to them this year.
I am also glad to say that the increasing volume of Post Office work will create additional employment, and in the Estimates now before the Committee £250,000 has been provided in respect of staff increases. The operation also of the system of salary and wages increments will necessitate another sum, also found in the Estimates, of £100,000. It is also a particular pleasure to me, and I am sure it will be to my hon. Friend opposite, to know that the succession of discharges of workmen in the Engineering departments which had been going on for two years and more has at last been arrested, and that in the last quarter of the year a number of men were re-employed, owing not only to seasonal emergency but, to a considerable extent, to new work arising mainly from the extension of the telephone system.
The general improvement I am glad to say enables us, we believe safely, to warrant a capital expenditure in Post Office development in the current year of £8,400,000, an increase of nearly £2,000,000 over last year's expenditure. This not inconsiderable sum will be spent on new telephone exchanges, new trunk lines and their apparatus, new telephone equipment and other Post Office work. This means, of course, not only better facilities for Post Office customers, but more employment, as practically the whole of this very considerable sum of money will be spent in this country.
Our new services and the improvements made in existing services which we have been able to introduce during the past two or three years, like the business reply service, the new railway express delivery service, the reintroduction of the sample post and many others, have been very encouraging, so far as the response of the public has been concerned, and they have played their part, not only in relation to matters affecting the staff, such as promotions and matters of that sort, but in serving the public in many directions. We have made a number of improvements in postal services during the year. An important one is the provision of a late evening delivery in certain of the principle dormitory localities around London, and additional deliveries have also been made in many of the smaller towns. So far as evening deliveries elsewhere, or early morning deliveries generally, are concerned, I proposed to have a further examination made with a view to seeing whether further improvements can be effected in certain areas within reasonable financial limits.
I would like to say a word about the postal air services. A number of hon. Members are, I know, interested in this aspect of Post Office work, and they will appreciate that it is not a function of the Post Office to establish air services; but it is now our settled policy to use the air service wherever practicable, when regular flying can be assured and an appreciable saving of time can be secured for the postal user. Hon. Members are interested in the Empire postal air service. That is still in its infancy. I have no doubt that within a few years we shall be able to look back on to-day's air history in much the same way that we now look back at the beginning of steamships. The matter of an Empire air service is now being examined by the Departments concerned, and before I can announce what the outcome will be, some little time must obviously elapse. There are many complexities and many interests involved.
There have recently been two interesting air mail developments. Up to the present air mail services from this country have been concentrated in London, but we have arranged to use experimentally the new service from Hull to Amsterdam, beginning this June, for the conveyance to appropriate Continental destinations of air correspondence posted in Hull. We are not overlooking the recent developments of air services within this country. The first inland air mail service carrying light letter mail has just been inaugurated between Inverness and Kirkwall, in the Orkneys. This service, which is to operate during the summer months, affords an appreciable saving in the time it takes a letter from London to reach Kirkwall and does not involve any additional charge. The past year has shown a still wider use of the air mail service and our advertising in the national press in this respect has greatly helped. European letter air mail traffic has increased by 100 per cent. during the March quarter this year, as compared with the corresponding quarter of 1933. Some 400,000 more air letters were sent from this country during the March quarter than in the corresponding period 12 months ago. Parcel air mail traffic has increased by over 20 per cent. over last year's figures. We shall continue at the Post Office, of course within our functions, to do all that we can to develop this new but important branch of our service, which is full of promising possibilities and extensions of usefulness for the Empire.
In regard to the telegraph services, the reorganisation of the inland telegraph service is nearly completed. The re-equipment of the Central Telegraph Office will be finished at the end of the year, and it will then be one of the finest offices in the world. The telegraph suffers from the severe competition of the telephone. I may say that the public are using every device, including many trials on telegraph forms, to compress the length of their messages. I am told that even the most well-disposed and affectionate communicant will sacrifice the word "love" to save the small sum involved. Telegrams were never shorter, but there is, in my opinion, a definite place for the telegram, and I am accordingly causing an early investigation to be made into the question whether it is practicable to make some alteration in the structure of the telegraph tariff which might have the effect of retaining and attracting that traffic, and which would, in general, improve still further the financial aspect of the service.
The number of new broadcast licence-holders does not yet appear to be exhausted. On 31st March last, there were over 6,250,000 licences in force. Since the Estimates were prepared, there has been a change in regard to the special contribution of the British Broadcasting Corporation which is shown under Sub-head (p) as £250,000 for the current financial year. The question was raised whether, in view of the general policy embodied in the Budget, some reduction should not be made in the British Broadcasting Corporation's contribution, and, after discussion with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, it has been arranged that their contribution shall be reduced to one-half as from 1st July. So far as television is concerned, I do not think I need say more about it than that there has been sufficient development to warrant, in my judgment, the appointment of a special committee under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend Lord Selsdon, to examine the whole matter with a view to seeing what sort of public service could be produced as the result of that very wonderful invention.
I now come to the telephone service. We have made considerable progress in our national telephone system, which, in regard to quality and speed, is to-day practically independent of distance and location. Demand trunk calls can now be made practically throughout the inland system as well as to parts of the Continent. The quality of speech transmission has been greatly improved, and the speed of the service has been much accelerated. About 37 per cent. of the total number of telephone lines are to-day on the automatic system. Much progress has been made in the rural areas. For instance, during the last five years an additional 5,500 further call offices have been established in the rural areas. We can, I think, regard with legitimate pride and satisfaction these achievements, in which the British Post Office engineering staff have taken such a leading part, and I do not know whether any Members of the Committee will disagree with me when I say that to-day we can fairly claim that we can give to British subscribers one of the best telephone systems in the world.
Telephone subscribers have been steadily added. Last year, when many telephone administrations lost vast numbers of subscribers, we added 78,927 stations, and in 1933 the telephone density in Great Britain passed that in Germany. We have been greatly helped in these connections by the loyal endeavours of the Post Office commercial and canvassing staff, and the use of modern publicity methods, such as national advertising and the film. The telephone surplus is not unsatisfactory. It has been maintained throughout the period of trade depression and it has now been increased. It is due, to a very considerable extent, to reductions in the cost of providing services in recent years, and various technical improvements and inventions.
But, having said all that, I must say that Great Britain is still behind many other countries in the utilisation of this important commercial necessity and social amenity. We are ninth on the list in order of telephone density among the countries of the world. It is true that most businesses of any size and importance and the better circumstanced householders are on the telephone, but we are a long way off the day when every householder and every trader, large or small, has the advantage of the national telephone service. There is no doubt that the level of the rental charges has been the dominant factor retarding a really big scale advance. If we are to make a great advance, it is obvious that the time has now come for substantial reductions in telephone charges so as to stimulate the widest possible development of the service. So far as trade and business are concerned, the telephone is not only a business-getter, but it is a free receiving station constantly open to accept business, and the more subscribers there are, the better it is to the trader and business man, not only in reducing travelling time and costs, but in obtaining orders and inquiries and thus being enabled to deal with them with promptness and despatch.
It will, therefore, not only greatly stimulate telephone development, but be a considerable aid to trade and business if we can attract to the telephone particularly that body of potential residential subscribers which offers by far the greatest possibilities of development anl with which the factor of the general level of charges operates most strongly. Of the 4,500,000 households which may well be regarded as potential telephone subscribers, only 500,000 are already on the telephone, and it is quite clear that it is here that large numbers are abstaining from coming on the telephone owing to considerations of cost. If we can enable them to adopt the telephone service, we shall not only greatly stimulate telephone development, but we shall bring, of course, considerable benefit to the business community as well.
In October next, therefore, it is proposed that substantial reductions in charges and important modifications in the conditions of the service shall be made. They will, I believe, enable the telephone to be brought to the service of many more thousands of homes and businesses. Before indicating the important concessions which are being made, I would like to make one or two preliminary observations. So far as the present tariffs are concerned, the actual average cost to-day of an exclusive line is greatest in London. The large cities of Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester are also more costly from the point of view of telephone equipment than the rest of the Provinces, and, apart from the question of cost, there is also, of course, greater value in the service to the individual subscriber in these large centres of population. It is due, of course, to the extended area covered by the penny local fee with the higher rate of development in these particular industrial centres. These differentiations in charges are, therefore, in my judgment, and, I think, in that of all my predecessors, well justified, and will be maintained.
In the next place, we have hitherto based our tariffs on quarterly payments, but beyond question a more frequent payment, namely, monthly, would be particularly welcomed by large numbers of householders and business firms up and down the country. In many cases the insistence on a quarterly payment by the Post Office has definitely prevented persons from becoming subscribers. Monthly accounts add to the cost of collection, and this must be provided for, but they undoubtedly appeal to a considerable section whose personal budgets are planned on a monthly basis, and to others who have some apprehension of a quarterly account for which they have to make provision. We shall, therefore, in our new tariffs give an option of quarterly or monthly payments. The difference between the cost of monthly accounts and that of quarterly accounts is approximately four shillings per subscriber per annum, and on the new tariffs it is right that quarterly subscribers should be given the advantage of the lower accountancy cost; but this, of course, is a matter purely of free choice for all subscribers.
With those considerations in mind, I propose to reduce annual residential rentals by 30s. in the Provinces, by 28s. in the four large cities—Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow—and by 26s. in London. On the business side I also propose to reduce the annual rental by 12s. in the Provinces, by 10s. in the four large cities and by 8s. in London. The new rates will therefore be as follow:
Similarly calculated monthly rates will also be available for business users who may wish to avail themselves of them. I should, perhaps, explain that London, for telephonic purposes is represented by a 10-mile circle based on Oxford Circus, so that persons who are situated in the dormitory or satellite areas outside that circle will obtain the benefit of the Provincial rates.
I also propose to introduce a new business rate. From time to time I have received representations about the comparative hardship of the high business rates to small users, such as farmers, doctors, district nurses and small shopkeepers, for whom the telephone is mainly a means of communication from outside callers and who originate comparatively few calls themselves. In order to meet this class of user, and, I hope, to attract the small shopkeeper in greater numbers to come on to the telephone, a fresh form of tariff is proposed intermediate between the two main business and residential tariffs which will be known as the "Small user business rate." The rental will be:
|In the Provinces||1||6||0|
|In the four large cities||1||9||0|
It would be too costly to make this concession without some additional charge for local calls, and these telephone subscribers would, therefore, be subject to an increased charge of 50 per cent. on the first 48 call units a month. Their total bill, therefore, would never be more than that of the ordinary business user, and for limited use it would, of course, be appreciably less.
The new Group Service which was announced at the beginning of this year already offered a comparatively low tariff, but I think it will now be possible to reduce the rates for this service even further, and to offer residential lines on the previous conditions I have mentioned with the following low rates:
This will, for instance, enable us to offer the remarkable rate of only 5s. a month as a rental charge for residences on the Group Service in the Provinces. Corresponding business rates will also be made available in the Group Service. Hon. Members will, of course, be able much more easily to observe these rates when they read them, and they will be available almost immediately. I do not think that I am making too high a claim this afternoon that these substantial concessions—an exclusive line, for instance, to a residential subscriber in the Provinces at 7s. a month, or for only 5s. a month on the group system, represents a landmark in telephone history in this country.
As I have pointed out, all our experience and investigation points to the fact that the level of charges is the main obstacle to really big telephone development in this country, but I am conscious that there are other factors in the existing telephone service that are capable of improvement, and among these, I fancy, one of the remaining chief causes of discontent with the service—and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for East Birkenhead (Mr. White) will agree with me in this—is the practice of requiring an increased deposit from all users, whatever may be their standing, as their use of the service tends to increase. So for as I can gather, we are unique among telephone using countries in this practice, and, as everyone who has studied this matter and has endeavoured to deal with it knows, there are grave difficulties in the way of removing it, as the deposit amounts in the aggregate to a very large sum. The fact is that the present telephone system is based on a foundation of prepayment of charges, and if we are to change this system, and to obviate the disadvantages to the subscriber which it involves, the change can only be made by gradual steps.
A substantial start can be made by eliminating the practice of requiring an increased deposit, and I propose, therefore, that excess deposits over £l s line should be returned to subscribers who have made them, provided that they are prepared to assist in effecting this desirable measure by paying their trunk accounts monthly instead of quarterly, as is the present practice. There will, I think, be a distinct advantage to the business man, and possibly also to others, in receiving an earlier record of the more expensive calls they have made, and this step, I believe, will commend itself to those, and there are many, who are in the normal habit of dealing with monthly accounts. There is a considerable case for rendering trunk accounts monthly to all business subscribers. In the case of residential subscribers, the extent to which they normally use the trunk service would not appear to call for the rendering of these accounts more frequently than once a quarter. It will, however, be open to either class of subscriber to exercise an option and receive his trunk account quarterly or monthly if he prefers the alternative scheme. In the latter case, he will have his deposit back in excess of the £1.
I should have liked also to be able to return the initial deposit of £1 per line, which is paid by all subscribers when they come on to the telephone system, but the further outlay involved in such a step would approach £1,250,000, and it is clearly out of the question. We propose that the existing arrangements should not be disturbed in this respect, but that in the case of a new subscriber a non-returnable connection charge of 15s. should be substituted for the present deposit charge of £l. This actually represents appreciably less than the average cost of running a line into a new subscriber's premises, and there is a clear case for charging a part of this cost at the time rather than spreading it over the general body of subscribers. Where a telephone is already connected to the premises, there is ground for making a reduced charge, which it is proposed to assess at 5s. I might mention that a connection fee for new subscribers is a common characteristic of most other telephone administrations' charges.
Another feature of the present system which gives rise to a certain amount of criticism is the requirement of three months' notice on giving up the telephone, and, in the case of removals where such notice has not been given, of a charge of 25s., which is now made as a transfer fee. The proposed alterations which I have just indicated will enable us to effect improvement in this direction also, and the requirement of three months' notice will be reduced to one month and the removal charge will be abolished altogether. Instead of this charge, a subscriber on transfer will now be required to pay the normal connection fee of 15s. or 5s., as the case may be.
These are the major alterations which will be made, but there are one or two minor concessions which will, I think, help to improve the popularity of the service. The new hand microphone telephone has proved exceedingly popular, and has been sold in large quantities. Owing to the extra cost involved in substituting the new pattern instrument for the existing apparatus, a charge of £l per instrument has been made to subscribers adopting it. I feel that the time has now come to reduce this charge to 10s., and thus, I hope, to make this popular form of instrument available to an even wider range of subscribers. Another small concession which it is proposed to make, for the benefit particularly of the business user, is a reduction in the charge for additional entries in the Telephone Directory. This will be reduced from 15s. to 10s. in London, and from 10s. 6d. to 7s. 6d. in the Provinces.
A new type of service will also shortly be made available by which the charge for a trunk call will be debited to the called subscriber if he agrees. It is often the case that ready cash is not available at a call office when a representative of a firm, for instance, wishes to communicate with his headquarters, and this new service will enable such representatives, or, indeed, any other members of the public, if they desire to make such arrangements to establish touch without the difficulties that occur at present. I propose also to make some small revisions in the rural party line rate and the charges for detailed statements of trunk accounts when they are asked for specially; and I would, in concluding these observations, say that, so far as Scotland is concerned, as one would expect, Scotland comes within the definition of "the Provinces," and, therefore, will get these very considerable reductions.
The new rates will come into force generally on and from the 1st October next as regards both new and existing subscribers. During the interim period until the 1st October, it is proposed to give new subscribers the option of coming in on the new connection charge system instead of the deposit system, and during this period also the removal charge of 25s. will be reduced to 15s.
The cost of these concessions is, of course, considerable; they will involve about £750,000 in the present financial year, and £1,500,000 in the following year. But they are made, not only in the belief that a bold policy will greatly help telephone development in this country, and will be a real aid to trade and business, but in the belief that they will meet with a considerable response and will in due time bring in such additional revenue and business as will amply justify the step which we are taking to-day. I desire to say that, in making these important and, I think, valuable concessions, I have had the considerable advantage of the advice of the Prime Minister and of their detailed consideration by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and particularly I have had the assistance of the business panel of the Post Office Advisory Council, consisting of Lord Luke, Sir Maurice Jenks, Mr. F. J. Marquis and Mr. John Cliff, to whom I am much indebted, as well as of the new Director-General of the Post Office and his colleagues, who have given much of their time and ability to this matter.
I desire, in thanking the Committee for listening to me for so long, to add only one more personal word. In all that it has been possible to accomplish during the past year, and all that we hope to do, I have been particularly fortunate. My predecessors in office, particularly in their sound financial plans and policies, have laid the foundation for many of these improvements. My hon. Friend the Member for Limehouse (Mr. Attlee), in his short time, planted many seeds, the fruit of which I have been able to garner. My right hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Viscount Wolmer) will see that many of the suggestions that he has made have been adopted, though I hope that this will not unduly encourage him in his role of "red agitator." The hon. Member for East Birkenhead will be glad to see that many of the suggestions which he made when he was with me have been adopted to-day. I have been greatly assisted by my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General, and, by no means least, by my hon. Friend and Parliamentary Private Secretary, the Member for Bromley (Sir E. Campbell). I can say of him what I believe a former Minister once said of a faithful servant—that during the first five years of their association he had proved to be an excellent servant, during the next five years a kind and interesting friend, and ever since a firm but indulgent master. In conclusion, I desire to assure the Committee on behalf of the Post Office that, while we are naturally proud of our organisation and of such progress as we have been able to make during the past year, we recognise that there is still much to be accomplished, and that we should constantly keep before us what I believe will always be the aim and object of this great institution, the efficient service of the public.
May I ask the right hon. Gentleman a question? I did not intervene before, as I was anxious not to disturb his interesting statement. He made reference to the British Broadcasting Corporation. May I ask him whether any consideration has been given to the development of the future of that service?
I am sure I shall only be expressing the view of the whole Committee when I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the very full, interesting and prosperous statement which he has made. But I would go much further than that. I should like to congratulate him very warmly on his administration at the Post Office. It is not our custom always to be very complimentary from this side. and we think that there are a good many crocks in the Government's stable, but we think there is at least one winner, and that is the right hon. Gentle-man at the Post Office. In the course of his interesting statement he has travelled at the speed of a postman going his rounds, and has knocked on a large number of very interesting doors, but I do not intend to open them all. There are, however, one or two matters with which I should like to deal. First, we are all very grateful for the reforms in the telephone rates that he has been able to introduce. The way the telephone service stood up to the depression was a great tribute to the staff and to all the workers, and I am glad to see now this sign of recovery in revenue which renders possible these reforms. I am sure they will be made known very widely among the general public and there will be a rush to take advantage of them. I should like to ask what kind of response has been made to the installation of the group service. With regard to the telephone service in general, I certainly agree that enormous strides have been made and that we are really well on the way towards wiping out some of the reproaches that were made against the Post Office, which had some foundation in the past. I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the way in which he is carrying out the recommendations of the Bridgeman Report. I should like to join with him in expressing my sense of the value of the services of Sir Evelyn Murray and Mr. Raven and I hope they may have happiness in their new sphere, and also in welcoming the new and young men who are now coming in. There is nothing that I wish to criticise in the way the Postmaster-General has been carrying out the Bridgeman Report.
I should like to deal with the question of the wages of the workers. I am not sure whether the Postmaster-General is really a great expert on pedigrees, but I am sure if I were to consult some of my friends they would tell me that Surplus came from Treasury Regulations out of Workers' Wages. I should be inclined to say that the horse Surplus had quite an extended pedigree. I should be prepared to say with the Postmaster-General that the sire and dam that he accorded to Surplus might certainly appear in that pedigree, but I am not sure that he would not agree that there should also appear Treasury Regulations and Workers' Wages. While I welcome the prospects of pay consolidation and better conditions, I think a good deal more has to be done. After all, the two essentials of a successful public utility service like this are the good will of the consumer and a contented staff. The concessions that we have had to-day and the number of reforms in the Post Office that the right hon. Gentleman has introduced should go far to establish that atmosphere of good will towards the service which is so necessary, but there is still a long way to travel before we can say we have a contented staff. I am not suggesting in the least that the right hon. Gentleman is indifferent to this. I know it is difficult, but perhaps the difficulties may not be quite so great in the future as in the past. We have the possibility now of the Post Office being able to use part of the surplus for the workers but I think it is time that, apart from any Civil Service settlement or restoration of cuts, the whole question of basic wage rates should be taken up. I know it is an extraordinarily difficult subject and I know there is the question as to where you are going to get that basis as to the relation between the pay of the staff of the Post Office and that of other Government Departments.
I have never held that there is any real comparison in a vast number of cases between the kind of work that is done in a great business like the Post Office and that done in the Civil Service. I am not saying that one is more valuable than the other but the grades are not comparable when you come to consider wage rates and it is time that the Post Office had its own basic rates. We know that there are thousands of men who are not getting the wages that they ought to get, and there is a big case for a great levelling up of the lower paid grades. That is of importance in relation to the efficiency of the service and it would make for the contentment of the staff. It has a bad effect throughout the country when a particularly hard case comes up in court. Everyone reads it in the Press and there runs through the country the general idea that the Post Office does not pay its workers properly. Undoubtedly there are rates which certainly ought not to be continued.
I should like the Postmaster-General in the forthcoming financial year to take up very seriously the whole question of the pay of the staff. I should also like to suggest that still more will have to be done with regard to the part-time staff. I welcomed the right hon. Gentleman's efforts for the absorption of a thousand auxiliaries and those 200 who have been appointed, but that does not alter the fact that you have a system of part-time employment which is really an inheritance from a different state of affairs. The old theory was that a part-time postman could get other work. That may have been possible many years ago, at any rate more possible than it is today, but the fact is that you have different conditions in industry. You have the entry of women into industry and you have a mass of prolonged unemployment and, therefore, you really have very great difficulty in recruiting workers who have other jobs which will dovetail in with their postal duties. I am sure any Member of the House who tries to earn a living in addition to doing his work here realises the difficulty of dovetailing in a remunerative job with his public work. The whole matter ought to be gone into.
Then there is the question of the rehabilitation of the Post Office Insurance Fund. It is important that the Postmaster-General, in addition to introducing actual new services, should look out for opportunities of increasing the activities of the Post Office. I like to see things being done by the community, but I should like to look at it from another very practical point of view. My short experience of the Post Office was that one had all the time pressing on one two problems. One was increasing efficiency, and increasing efficiency generally means that you get some redundant staff. On the other hand, you have a desire to keep people in employment. The only way to do that is by increasing absorption. He is doing it in the case of the engineering staff by the natural expansion of that service and, the more efficiency and development he gets, the more he will solve that difficulty. That is why I should like to see a launching out, for instance, in this matter of insurance. There is a field there in which I think masses of poor people are really exploited and they could be saved by proper postal development.
I was pleased to hear the Postmaster-General talk of the honesty in the Post Office service. It is a very great tribute to an enormous service that there should be so very few cases of dishonesty. I was also glad to see that the mail bags were being saved from depredation. I rather wondered at it, because I was in the train the other day and, walking through to the luncheon car, I passed through the unattended mail van. The price of the safety of our mail bags is eternal vigilance, judging by the efforts that are made to steal them. I am glad to see that the telegraphs are making a less strain on the finances of the Post Office. That is very satisfactory. It is an extraordinarily difficult problem to an essential service like this to stand on its own feet and I am glad to hear of the reforms now almost complete, at the Central Telegraph Office. I should like in conclusion to thank the Postmaster-General for his unfailing courtesy and if I may say so, his unfailing generosity, to his predecessors and his critics who have been connected with the Post Office. I may say at the risk of appearing to be too laudatory that I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman very much on the work which he has done and, if he can top off the work which he has been doing, by establishing really satisfactory wage conditions for the staff, and if he succeeds in having both a contented public and a contented staff, then he will have earned the right to go down to history as a very great Postmaster-General.
The annual statement of the Postmaster-General, which must in any event be of interest, is of more than ordinary interest in the present state of active development and transition in the Post Office. To-day we have had a statement which is not only interesting to this Committee and to the country but which has placed before us a record of sound administration and constructive achievement. These results we may, I think, regard as the first fruits of that policy of the emancipation of the Post Office for which the Postmaster-General has worked so hard and so successfully. Last year at a time when optimism was not so easy as it is now he was optimistic and what he has been able to relate to the Committee this afternoon shows that his optimism was well founded. I, therefore, wish to associate myself with the congratulations which have been offered by the hon. Member for Limehouse (Mr. Attlee) to him and all those working with him on the successful outcome of their activities during the year.
The Postmaster-General said nothing less than the truth when he suggested that the new concessions and arrangements with regard to the telephones mark a historical point in the development of the telephone service of this country. I congratulate him not merely on the fact that he is in a position to make important concessions and constructive proposals, but on the fact that these are being made in a courageous and convincing way. There must be some risks involved—although I' think the Postmaster-General is well justified in taking them—and, having regard to the fact that there are concessions involving £1,500,000 in a full year, it would have been possible for the right hon. Gentleman to have said, "We shall only do part of this." But nothing would have been more ineffective than partial measures for dealing with questions like the question of telephone deposits, for instance. I am glad that that question has been dealt with in such a way as will meet the case of the larger telephone users.
The commercial community has never been able to understand why an increased use of the telephone and a larger number of trunk calls should immediately attract what is, if not a fine, at all events a penalty on increased use which was being made of this service. Only a few days ago I heard of the case of one of the oldest telephone users in this country who had the first business station in Liverpool, a man of whom it could be said that he had contributed enough money to the telephone service the last 60 years to entitle him to the freedom of the Post Office if such a privilege could be created. He is a man approaching his ninetieth year, and on a recent occasion owing to a case of illness in his own house the necessity for a deposit arose. After all these years of valuable connection with the Post Office he received a note requesting the payment of an extra pound. That is the sort of transaction which leads the public at large to regard the Post Office as an institution which, if not without a soul, is at all events without any human contacts. The abolition of that kind of thing will immensely increase public interest in and goodwill for the Post Office as an institution.
A few years ago if one were asked to estimate the commercial value of the goodwill of the Post Office, one would not have been inclined to put it at a very high figure. I think that these proposals, the continuous evidences of activity and development, and the increased efficiency of the services will vastly improve that intangible but very valuable asset of the Post Office. I was pleased to hear the announcement with regard to the development of the "small business user" service, if I have the title correctly. There are many people, such as nurses and veterinary surgeons, whose businesses require that they should be called up frequently but who have not much necessity for making calls themselves. I think the proposal in this connection will meet a long-felt need, and I am impressed by the ingenuity with which this new service has been devised.
However much my right hon. Friend may be able to do, he will still find a certain number of people ready to adopt the rôle of Oliver Twist and ask for more. I know that he will be the first to admit, and indeed he has already said so, that he hopes to make further improvements in many directions in the future and there are one or two questions which I would put to him before I leave the subject of the telephone service. First, I would ask whether there is any real development and improvement in the calling rate in the rural areas. The Post Office regarded as a business instrument, is a good deal handicapped by being called upon for social purposes and private services which would not be justified on a purely economic basis. The Post Office telephones render a great service to the rural communities and it would be interesting to know whether the rural districts are playing up and making full use of the valuable service which has been supplied to them.
According to my observations there are just one or two points on which there is some little public discontent in relation to the telephone service. I find for instance that people are mystified as to the basis upon which trunk calls are timed. One hears complaints about that matter and I would be glad to know what the system is, whether any complaints about it are being received and, if so, whether any steps are being taken to deal with them. Another matter in regard to which one hears comments from time to time is the delay which occurs sometimes in connection with subscribers telephone calls. I believe that the time occupied now is much less than it used to be but one still hears a certain amount of comment in regard to that matter.
The right hon. Gentleman did not refer to what seems to me to be a very promising development in regard to the teleprinter service. I know that he could not range over every aspect and every activity of his Department but many people are much interested in the development of the teleprinter service and would be glad to know, in general, how that service has developed, and whether the hopes entertained regarding it are being justified. Many people have also been impressed with the progress of the "ondemand" system in this country and abroad since its extension to the Continent. It would be interesting to know whether and to what extent use is being made of that system on the Continent and also whether there are prospects of further countries being added to the list of those to which this service is already available.
The hon. Gentleman the Member for Limehouse referred to the question of staff. It is obvious that there must be an almost permanent problem of staff and organisation in a Department of such size and complexity as the Post Office. A frequent subject of discussion among economists and administrators when they meet for purposes of light recreation is the question of the relative merits of the large and the small unit for purposes of control and organisation. I may add that these discussions and consultations are always inconclusive. Whatever may be regarded as the right size for particular industrial units, we have here to deal with a Department in connection with which the question of size is settled for us. It is necessarily of enormous size and it is clear that many questions must arise in connection with it which can only be dealt with by a wise system of decentralisation. The Bridgeman Committee has recommended that, and I am glad to hear that it is proceeding. Then there are the difficulties inevitably associated with a service, the efficiency of which is based primarily upon the application of the most recent scientific inventions. There must be a certain amount of dislocation in some sections of the service as a result of such developments, but the activity which is being displayed by the Department itself encourages one to believe that these difficulties are being met.
The Post Office is not merely a British service. It has become a world service, and it cannot afford to refrain from adopting new inventions or devices which are found useful in any country. I am not suggesting at all that it is our Post Office which follows the lead of other countries. I know the contrary to be the case. We are glad and proud to know that we create new services and new ideas and that other countries follow us. But it is essential that the Department should adopt the latest mechanical and scientific devices wherever they are to be found, and it ought to be within the scope of the Department's capacity when new developments are introduced, which are extremely valuable to the community, to be able to utilise the services of those who may be displaced by the introduction of new scientific devices and mechanisation.
I was glad to hear that the question of the wages, especially in the lower-paid ranks, was under consideration. It is a considerable item, and in relation to the lower-paid ranks of the Post Office it is a matter which calls for consideration. We have to remember when we come to discuss this question in Committee in the House of Commons that the Postmaster-General is not the only target for criticism. It is true that we have now obtained a very welcome degree of emancipation for the great Department that he controls, but we have still to deal not only with the Postmaster-General, but with the Treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
I think the general situation may be summed up in this way: That the growing satisfaction of the public of this country with the Post Office and its service, and the increasing pride which the public are taking in the Post Office as an institution, could only be marred by the knowledge that any of that success was being reached or achieved as a consequence of unfair treatment, or the fact that any ranks in the service were not having a fair and square deal. That is the only feature of the public service which could lead the public not to feel complete satisfaction with the progress that has been made. With regard to the question of auxiliary postmen I think there is a difficulty which is inherent in the postal service. The hon. Member for Limehouse said truly that there had been a great change in the general economic situation of this country, a change which had vitally-affected the position of auxiliary postmen, who in normal times had been able to pick up other part-time occupations. It is also true to say that the economic situation of the Post Office has not changed. The outer conditions may have changed, but the difficulty of the Post Office with regard to the volume of its work and other incidental matters of that kind which arise from local conditions and local exigencies, must involve for some time still the employment of a certain proportion of part-time labour. But with the re-organisation which is now taking place, if it is a definite policy to do away as rapidly as possible with auxiliary postmen and part-time labour, I think the problem will become very much less serious in the near future.
I know that the Committee have heard the statement of my right hon. Friend with great satisfaction. I think we ought to congratulate him upon the new deal which he has instituted or announced for the benefit of the telephone service of this country. I hope that the public will respond to these concessions and what I think may fairly be called a new deal. I have no doubt that the public will do so. I do not think that even to-day, in spite of the additional publicity which is now being so admirably carried out by the Post Office, the public realise fully the service which the Post Office renders to them. It is amazing to me to find the enormous number of people who have not yet seen the inside of a telephone exchange. I hope the public will take increasing interest in this great institution. I hope the Post Office will increase all its activities, with the exception of the activity in connection with the supply of penholders and stainless steel nibs, to which reference has been made. I hope that the reports from my right hon. Friend will gather force with crescendo, and that when we next have the operations of his department under review, he will have something good and promising to tell us.
I should like also to add my congratulations to the Postmaster-General for the magnificent financial result he has shown, the great improvements he has already effected and the further reforms that he has announced to-day. As one who has agitated in the past for Post Office reform I am bound to say that it is very encouraging to see many of the things that were held to be impossible a short time ago now being carried out under the skilful administration of my right hon. Friend. He cautioned me not to become a red agitator. He will bear me out when I say that ever since he undertook to carry out the reforms of the Bridgeman Committee I have ceased to badger him altogether. I have no desire to badger or criticise the right hon. Gentleman when he and his lieutenants are doing such splendid work in bringing about long overdue reforms. I think that a subject upon which we can congratulate my right hon. Friend most heartily is the appointment he has made of the new Director-General and Deputy Director-General. They are not only young men, but, as he said, men with a great record of achievement behind them during their comparatively short careers, and men who have only just got into these positions of great responsibility. I am certain that they will enable my right hon. Friend to-carry out even greater reforms than those which have already been effected.
The great profits that are shown this year, I believe, are only a foretaste of what can be shown in future if there is energetic publicity, rigid economy and increased efficiency of the service. That I believe we shall get under the new regime. It is good to know also that the secretary's office has been completely reorganised, that the old watertight compartments have been broken down, and that now the members of the team are working happily together under their energetic captain. I think that the Committee was also delighted to hear that the system of interchange with the provinces has already begun. I am sure that the greater touch, the greater liaison there can be between headquarters and the provinces, the more efficient the Post Office will become. During my tenure of office in the Department nothing struck me more than the amount of ability there was in the provinces, ability which seemed to be marooned, out of touch and lost sight of and unable to get recognition or encouragement from headquarters. If the necessarily difficult task of keeping touch between St. Martin's and the provinces can be made greater, efficiency will result.
I was also very interested to hear from my right hon. Friend of the response of the public to some of the reforms he has carried out, such as the sample post, the return business card and the hand microphone. I remember being told on countless occasions that there was no public demand at all for these things, that the sample post had previously been tried, that it was a failure and had to be abolished. But the men at present in charge are not likely to return that sort of answer. I think my right hon. Friend has taken completely the right step in reducing the cost of the telephone. The Committee must have been impressed by the way in which he anaylsed the market and field of development that was open to him, and aimed his shots right into the centre of the target. That is the commercial way of expanding business, and it is quite clear that the right hon. Gentleman and his advisers are wording with clearly defined object. I believe that the steps he is taking will go far to achieve that result.
My right hon. Friend said nothing about the reduction of costs to the Department. The reduction in charges that he is to make will cost him £1,500,000 in a full year. That money, I take it, he gets out of the surplus which the Bridge-man Report releases for his use. If it had not been for the financial arrangements of the Bridgeman Report he would not be able to make that experiment. The great reduction in telephone charges will, therefore, be welcome as the first fruits of the increase of financial freedom that my right hon. Friend has got under the Bridgeman Report. But I would like to hear from him what saving he has been able to make in the cost of erecting telephones and telephone lines and building telephone exchanges throughout the country. I am sure that he has made economies, because the charges a few years ago were altogether too high. It would be very interesting if in his reply he could give us some indication of the economies that have already been made. I would like to know how far the economies will go to balance the £1,500,000 revenue that he will lose in the initial stage of these reduced telephone charges.
We were all delighted to hear that not only has my right hon. Friend reduced charges, but had also reduced annoyances. I would give him one more annoyance that it would be very easy for him to abolish as far as many telephone users are concerned. We all have our own likes and dislikes. I am bound to say that what always annoys me greatly, when I am in the middle of a long and complicated trunk call or toll call, is to hear a voice "bingeing" in and saying, "Three minutes." It is awfully nice of the Post Office to take care that I do not spend too much money with them, as that is the object of the warning, and I can understand that there are certain economical but loquacious ladies who would like to ring up their friends in the country for a little gossip and feel that they can at any rate afford three minutes' or six minutes' gossip according to the length of their purses, but when people are trying to do business at a distance they do not really limit the amount of business they do by the number of "three minutes" which they are spending at the counter of the Postmaster-General. People doing business get through it as quickly as possible, and if it takes them six minutes instead of three they cannot help it.
Therefore, I suggest that the Postmaster-General allows us in future to ask for an uninterrupted call. That is all that need be done. Then we shall not have a conversation interrupted every three minutes. Some people will think that that would be extravaant and will not ask for an uninterrupted call, and they can be reminded every three minutes how much they are talking. That would be an interesting experiment in this House, perhaps. But I believe there are many subscribers who would find the uninterrupted call a great convenience, and my feelings I know are shared by a good many other individuals. The right hon. Gentleman might make the telephone more popular by being a little more discriminating in the amount of credit he gives. Cases have come to my knowledge, and I am sure that they have been brought to his, of people who have gone abroad for a few weeks and have come back and found that they have been cut off the telephone, much to their annoyance. They are people of undoubted financial stability. It is very annoying for people of that sort who generally are big users of the telephone to find that, through some inadvertence, or through their being absent at a certain date, they have been cut off. If the right hon. Gentleman could give some assurance that people will not fee cut off automatically, if I might use that phrase, without the matter being brought to some official fairly high up, there would be a great many cases where latitude could be given when it is clear that the non-payment has been due to some accident of that sort, and not due to the fact that the subscriber is financially unsound.
There are other Departments in which my right hon. Friend is making improvements as well as in the telephone service. We were all delighted to hear of the improvement he is making in the postal deliveries in the dormitory areas. I hope he will make it his aim to see that, as far as possible, men who live outside London or outside any of the other big cities who go into the large centre to their work every day should receive their letters before they leave and should be able to send a reply when they get home. Otherwise, it may be two days before they can send a reply to their correspondents. I am very glad to hear that my right hon. Friend is making mechanical improvements on the postal side of the Department as well as on the telephone side. I hope that he will be able to tell us something about the mechanisation of the Department on the postal side. When I was at the Department I was always impressed with the amount of work that could be done by machinery that was not done by machinery. On that subject I entirely agree with my hon. Friend opposite, that when you introduce a new machine which displaces the labour of a large number of men, those men should not be thrown out of work. In an expanding service like the Post Office, where the numbers of people employed are constantly increasing, there is no necessity why the installation of a new machine should result in the dismissal of anybody. So far as I am aware my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General is carrying out that course.
When I was at the Post Office I saw the plans of a machine for sorting parcels, which had been put into the pigeon-hole many years ago. I made efforts to get it re-examined, without any success. I was very much interested to hear the other day that a new sorting machine has been introduced at Brighton for sorting letters. I should like to ask my right hon. Friend whether that sorting machine is on the lines of the machine, the plans of which were submitted to the Post Office nearly 20 years ago, for the much more rapid and much safer sorting of parcels, which is a far more difficult operation than the sorting of letters. That machine was an English invention. I am told that the new sorting machine to which I have referred is a foreign invention, not that that really matters, because the Post Office ought to use new inventions wherever they are invented. I should like to know, and I am sure the Committee would like to know, whether the mechanical sorting of letters has now come within the bounds of practical policy, whether it has resulted in increased efficiently, whether it has resulted in diminished cost and whether the right hon. Gentleman has been able to continue in employment any men who have been displaced.
I do not wish to introduce a jarring note into this very harmonious Debate—my right hon. Friend having been sitting under a shower of rose petals and bouquets—but I do not think I can allow the speech of the hon. Member for Lime-house (Mr. Attlee) to pass without some notice, although he is no longer in his place. He made an impassioned appeal to the Government to increase the wages of the postal servants. It is time that we realised what is the situation in regard to post office wages. The regular staff of the Post Office are, on the whole, extremely well paid. The men draw wages which many industrialists would be only too glad to accept. They also have security of employment and a pension. That is as it should be, but this constant talk about the Post Office sweating does not give a true impression as to the facts. I think that out of a staff of 250,000 there are only about 20,000 on the Establishment who get less than 40s. a week, and of those three-fourths are juveniles. Of the remaining 5,000 half are women cleaners and the other half are very junior postmen. Therefore, the Committee will see that the whole-time staff get wages at a very much higher rate than hon. Members sometimes lead us to suppose.
The people who are badly paid in the Post Office are the scale payment sub-officers, the men and women who are employed in the village shops, and who are not, technically, postal servants but contractors with the Post Office. If we compare what they are paid with the pay of the State employés, the disparity is altogether too great. There are men and especially women in the village shops and in the scale payment sub-offices in the big cities who are paid wages and work hours which are not a credit to the Department. I do not think the Post Office ought to continue to get the benefit of the eagerness of these small shops to attract custom by having the Post Office at their counter, and to use it to an extent which leads to the grave underpayment of the employés in those shops. I do not see why part of the surplus should not be used in improving the conditions of employment in the scale payment sub-offices.
In regard to the established staff it seems to me that any improvement in conditions that can be given, and we all want to see conditions improved all round, ought to be more in the direction of shorter working hours than of increase in wages. By that method you would be adding to the number of people employed. At a time when great commercial firms, run by private enterprise and in the keenest competition with their rivals, are going over to the five day week and in some cases to the 40 hour week, it is rather in the direction of a reduction of hours that improvement of staff conditions should take place. These pleas for higher wages for the Post Office staff only come from the Labour party when they are in Opposition. When the Labour party were in power they reduced the wages of the Post Office servants. They made a cut of 5 per cent. in the wages of postmen and sorters. It is absolute nonsense for them to go to the hustings in the country and pretend that they always stand for an increase in wages and an improvement in the conditions of the employés of the Post Office, and that it is only the wicked Tories or the wicked Liberals who will not agree to improvement. The fact of the matter is that the last two cuts in the wages of postal servants were made by the Labour Government.
As the cost of living fell the Conservative Government had to reduce the wages in accordance with the sliding scale. That policy was continued by the Labour Government when they were in office, and when the smash came in August, 1931, the Labour Government agreed to a further cut in postal wages. The present Government have restored part of that cut to which the Labour Government agreed in August, 1931. In view of all these facts, hon. Members opposite had better be a little careful when they talk about the wages of postal servants.
Mr. TEMPLE MORRIS:
My Noble Friend dislikes his trunk calls on the telephone being interrupted by the warning that he has occupied three minutes. I share that dislike. There is a way to obviate that interruption. I think—I shall be corrected if I am wrong—that one can ask for an optional call of so many minutes and pay for that optional call, and if one does not use the whole of the minutes one can get a refund at the end of the trunk call. I should like to join, respectfully and sincerely, in the congratulations which my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General has received. If the Department went wrong he would receive criticism. When the Post Office works well it is only right that he should receive reward and tribute.
I should also like to congratulate him on the loyalty of his staff, from the highest to the humblest worker in the Department. The Postmaster-General used a phrase which is pregnant with meaning. He said that we had a Post Office which was almost crime free. We see a lot sometimes in the Press about dishonest postmen, and the reason for that is that when a postman is dishonest and interferes with letters in the course of transmission, or steals from postal packets, he receives, and rightly, a sharp sentence which is given a considerable amount of publicity. The words of the Postmaster-General, that dishonest postmen are few and far between, that dismissals for irregularities are very few, should be given equal publicity, because they are calculated to give the public confidence in the Post Office. In discussing the Traffic Bill we hear sometimes of peak periods. The Post Office has peak periods. Christmas time is one of their peak periods, and they recruit men from outside to help regular workers during the Christmas rush. I hope the Postmaster-General will be able to tell the Committee the precautions which are taken to investigate the character of people who help the ordinary postal workers during this peak period. Sometimes one hears that a man comes along and helps for about 21 days who has a black mark on his record which has not been found out, and it sometimes works disastrously. But these things are very much the exception. The rule is that when these men come in their records are subjected to the closest investigation, and I am certain that this again will give confidence to the public if it is known that the offences which are committed in the Post Office are not committed in any peak period and that auxiliary workers are exempt from suspicion.
The Postmaster-General's announcement about telephone rates obviously means that there will be more telephones in the future, that after October more people will have the telephone. The Post Office, more than any other Government Department, has more opportunities for advertising; it owes its very satisfactory state at the moment to the good use it has made of the arts of advertising. I would like to urge that it should advertise a little more the advantages of the telephone system. The Postmaster-General said, to use a phrase which the House will understand and forgive me for using, what you lose on the swings you gain on the roundabouts; the more telephones in use the less the number of telegrams. Any commercial man will say that money spent in telephones is money well spent.
I should like the right hon. Gentleman to tell us whether we are going to get more dials, that is to say, is the person who uses the telephone going to get his number without the aid of the exchange, jay means of the machine attached to the telephone operating apparatus. If that is so will it be a disadvantage so far as the people working at the telephone exchange are concerned? Does it mean less employment? If it does, then I think it is a development which I would urge the Post Office not to take up unless those who now work at the switchboard can be put into other spheres of work. It is a mystery to me why at Swansea I am able to use the dial system but in Cardiff, in my own constituency, I cannot. If the dial in Cardiff means unemployment amongst the telephone girls in the exchange then by all means let us not have them; if you can use the telephone operators in any other branch of the Post Office then they are useful.
There is one thing upon which I should like a little guidance, it may be very helpful. I understand that women are sometimes employed up to 11 o'clock at night on the switchboards in the Post Office; sometimes men and sometimes women. I believe that the time limit for women is 8 o'clock, yet they go on until 11 o'clock. There are four questions which immediately arise when you consider this matter. First, is it because women are more efficient at this particular work than men? Secondly, are women compelled to work after 8 o'clock, or is it entirely voluntary on their part? Thirdly, is there extra remuneration for it, and, lastly, is this method displacing men? If it is displacing men then there may be advantages and there may be disadvantages. There are numerous grades in the Civil Service, there are numerous grades of postal workers. Hon. and right hon. Members have no doubt at some time or other received deputations from postal workers and they must have been amazed at the various scales of pay, the various kinds of employment, the ranks, and grades and methods of promotion. There are ex-service men working in the exchanges in the evening, and I would urge that whatever may take place in the future these ex-service men should be kept on in whatever capacity they are employed at the moment.
I also want to refer to the question of telegraph poles. Information will be appreciated by other hon. Members besides myself as to the extent to which homegrown poles are used for telegraph poles. I may be wrong, I hope I am, but I understand that a large proportion of these poles come from foreign countries, and I hope we may be told what efforts the Post Office are making to obtain homegrown poles and, failing this supply, whether it is possible to obtain them from the Empire. We have been told that telegraph wires are in future to be underground instead of above. May I ask whether this will have the effect of lessening employment in the Post Office; will less money be spent, or more?
There is one other point I desire to raise and that is the 24-hour clock. I have an open mind on this matter but there is no doubt that we have to face the position that the 24-hour clock does irritate a large section of the British public. They find it somewhat illogical and rather silly when they have a watch in their pocket or a clock on their mantelpiece giving one radius of hours to hear, by means of the British Broadcasting Corporation, an entirely different system. It only means an ordinary mental calculation, but at the same time if we are going to have a revolution in the giving of times in this country, if we are going to adopt the continental time-table, surely it should come from quarters other than over the waves of the British Broadcasting Corporation.
Mr. T. MORRIS:
I, of course, bow to your Ruling, and would only urge that as far as the Post Office has control they should take steps to clarify the 24-hour clock system. In conclusion, may I deal with the question of publicity? The Post Office have a lot to do with publicity. They have advertised in leading shops in our large towns, the methods of saving money, the advantages of the telephone system, and there is no doubt that it has had a considerable effect as far as the Department is concerned. I want them to do a little more advertising in this direction. If they invited the British public to visit post offices to see how the telephone exchanges are worked, how telegrams are sent, it would not only be to the educational advantage of the community but might help the British public in co-operating with the Post Office to the advantage of the Department. I make these observations in no critical sense on the excellent service we are discussing, but with the hope that they will have some constructive effect on the already excellent Department under review.
I want to deal almost entirely with the human element within the Post Office. The question of the supply of telegraph poles has already been mentioned, and I endorse what the hon. Member for Cardiff, East (Mr. T. Morris) has said. I should like further information in regard to their source of origin. At the present moment they are a blot on the landscape, and the sooner the Post Office pay some attention to an improvement in the style of telegraph poles the better for those who have to travel about the country. In my own area the local authority on numerous occasions has raised this matter with the Post Office. We have made the most strenuous objection to the ugliness of the poles sticking up all over our principal streets, and I hope the Assistant Postmaster-General will convey to the Postmaster-General the strong feeling there is amongst our people, who have some desire to keep the streets tidy and as beautiful as they can be kept. There is a great objection to the poles that are being used, and there is certainly much room for improvement in them.
The other question I want to raise has already been dealt with to a large extent, but the speech that was made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Aldershot (Viscount Wolmer) calls, I think, for some comment. I am sure everybody in the Post Office who has the opportunity of reading that speech will feel relieved that the right hon. Gentleman has been removed from the position he once had within the Post Office service—the position, I believe, of Assistant Postmaster-General. For anyone to tell us at this time of day that the wages paid to certain of the Post Office employés compare well, not to say with wages paid by some employers, but with wages paid by decent employers, is certainly going very far from the truth. What are the wages that some postal employés are being paid? I am speaking now of full-time postal employés, not of part-time postal employés, who are an entirely separate problem. I know it can be argued that they have continuity of employment, that their job is a regular one. That, of course, is a very great advantage in comparison with some people outside. But when I heard the right hon. Gentleman speak of continuity of employment it reminded me of a judge who, having sentenced a man to imprisonment for life, consoled him by saying that his job in future would be constant. A constant job is an advantage up to a point, but, if one is compelled to suffer constant misery throughout life because of unfair conditions of work, it is obvious that some attempt at improvement ought to be made.
I think it is well known to anyone who takes the slightest interest in the postal servants, that the Postmaster-General himself does not share the view of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Aldershot. I know he has on several occasions in the lifetime of this Parliament intimated to people who represent the manipulative staffs of the Post Office, that it is his desire that the lowest-paid sections of postal employés shall have at the first opportunity an increase in their wages. I would be the first to admit that the present Postmaster-General has not only brought business ability to bear on the improvement of the service but that in his dealings with the human element, at least as far as words go, he has shown a deep interest. But, after all, expressions of opinion do not feed one, and expressions of good will do not help one to pay the rent; and when people are put on from year to year, over a period of years, they get somewhat irritable in regard to conditions which they consider unjust.
Now it is admitted by the present Postmaster-General that there are grades in the Post Office that are inadequately paid. Nobody perhaps, except the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Aldershot, would dispute that. The public ought to know just what some of these rates of wages are. You have postmen, full-time workers of 21 years of age and upwards, working in the provinces for from 31s. 6d. to 36s. 9d. I do not think anyone would say that that is a just wage or one which would compare favourably with wages paid by decent employers outside. In London the wages are from 36s. 9d. to 39s. 9d.—in all cases under £2 per week. In London the manipulative staff embraces a body of people numbering somewhere about 125,000. Out of these 125,000 people, some 75,000 are receiving £3 per week or less, and 42,000 adult men are receiving wages under £3. In the borough where I reside, and of whose council I am a member—a borough of which we are very proud, regarding it as the hub of the universe—every adult worker for the council is paid at least £3. Nobody gets less. And I think the Post Office cannot be very proud if many of its adult workers receive considerably under £2 a week in London and as little as 31s. 6d. in some provincial towns. You have Post Office counter-hands and telegraphists in London receiving, at 21 years of age, 45s. a week.
These, after all, are highly skilled workpeople. They undergo training that is not very easy, they are men—some are women, but I am speaking at the moment of men—they are highly skilled men. Outside the Post Office the average mechanic who had had training in some respects similar to the training of those in the Post Office would not consider himself very well paid if his wage were 45s. a week. It is not a wage of which the Post Office ought to be very proud. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Aldershot said he thought Post Office servants were very well paid. Many thousands of them are receiving between 40s. and 50s, a week. I think some 90,000 are receiving between 40s. and 50s. a week, most of them men. Take a man living in the area in which I live. He has to pay 4s., 5s. or 6s. a week, according to the exact locality of his house, to get to London, if he goes by train, which is probably the best way. He is lucky indeed if he gets a house at a rent from 11s. to 15s. a week. Taking the average cost of travel at 5s. and the minimum cost of a house at 11s. a week, 16s. a week has gone out of his money before he can buy for his family any food or any of the other things that make up family life. I think everyone will agree that these lower rates of pay ought to be raised as soon as possible.
I put it to the Postmaster-General, What does he mean? He has intimated to the Union of Postal Workers, I believe, that he is very sympathetic with all these lower-paid men, and that at the earliest possible opportunity he proposes to go into the whole question sympathetically. I want to put this direct question to him, particularly in view of the statements which have been made from the Government Front Bench recently, including statements by himself, in regard to the great improvement that is taking place in the financial condition of the country—is he prepared to receive the representatives of the postal workers in the lower grades with a view to considering what improvements can be made in their wages? I shall be obliged if he will say, personally or through the Assistant Postmaster-General just where he stands on this quetion of improvement of the conditions of the permanent staff.
I should like to add my plea to what has already been said upon the need for some further consideration of the part-time staff. The average wage of postal workers on the part-time staff is 25s. to 26s. a week, and it is almost impossible for them, in present circumstances, to obtain other work that will fit in, in considerations of time, with their postal duties. I know several of them personally. I can give instances of people with whom I am very well acquainted who are in part-time employment in the Post Office, and I know some of the means they have adopted to add to the inadequate income they have from the Post Office. I know they have applied in some cases for licences to go in for street trading in the great London areas where street trading is practised under licence from the local corporations. I know that the corporations, in some cases, will not allow them to have licences, because, they say, they are in employment—and most people seem to imagine that a person employed in the Post Office must have an adequate wage. In other cases, the corporations will not permit these men to have a licence because they would be competing with people getting their living entirely from street trading. Where their families are large, or fairly large, they have gone to the public assistance committees, because of their inability to live on the wage they get. In some cases the public assistance committee grants them relief.
It is not very satisfactory that a public assistance committee has to grant relief to enable the family of a breadwinner working in the Post Office to live—or perhaps it would be a more accurate way to put it, to keep them from dying. In other cases the public assistance committee refuses to grant arty relief at all, on the ground that it is not its duty to grant relief, but the duty of the Post Office to pay a proper rate of wages to people in its service. I would say to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Aldershot that if he is as unfair in his general way of dealing with things as he is in dealing with this question of the Post Office workers, I am glad that I have no business relations with him. His statement was very far from true. It was grossly unfair. The cost of living basis, so far as it relates to the Post Office, is one that was instituted long before the Labour party came into office.
On the contrary. we all know exactly what happened, because the most illuminating Debate took place here when the present Dominions Secretary, the Prime Minister and Lord Snowden were able to tell to their late colleagues, those sitting on the Opposition bench, exactly what happened. Their statements were not denied, and the whole of these facts came out in the OFFICIAL REPORT.
As a matter of fact, the Noble Lord, as I said before, is talking sheer nonsense. Neither he nor anybody else knows what took place, and I should be very sorry indeed to think that those matters that are discussed inside the Cabinet could become the property of either Front Bench or back bench men like the right hon. Member for Aldershot. If Cabinet secrets are to be given out, as one would be led to believe by the statement just made, to all kinds of back benchers for political purposes, the less we hear about the secrecy of Cabinet business in the future the better it will be for the country generally. The statement was emphatically denied, and the right hon. Gentleman the Dominions Secretary was asked at the time to produce the evidence of it. Further than that, the Prime Minister has been repeatedly asked, and I ask him again now, to bring any evidence of the statement that has been made just now and several times before. Let them bring the evidence. The kind of lies that we have listened to here occasionally, and that the public had to listen to at the time of the last General Election, on the wireless, is the kind of thing that is damaging to this House and to politics generally, and I am very glad indeed that the people are showing that they are waking up to the fact that these things are known to be lies.
On a point of Order. The hon. Gentleman has more than once used the term "lies" in connection with statements in this House. Surely it is not in accordance with the traditions of this House that such expressions should be used?
The statement that I made was in reference to the last election campaign over the wireless, and I repeat definitely here that it was a deliberate and calculated lie.
Yes, but I must not repeat what I said, because the Chairman has told me not to. I had almost finished when the Noble Lord came back, and I had to some extent to repeat what I had already said because he was here.
In conclusion, I want to make something in the nature of an appeal. Believing as I do that the Postmaster-General is personally sympathetic with regard to the conditions of work of many of those employed in the service over which he is the chief, I would like to ask him whether he does not think now, in view of the fact that, as he said to-day, he has a surplus of upwards of £12,000,000, part of which must have been accumulated by reductions in the wages of some of those members of the staff, and in view of the fact that it is agreed by everybody, excepting the right hon. Member for Aldershot, that these men and some women at any rate are grossly underpaid—whether he does not think that he should meet the representatives of the staff at as early a time as possible and discuss with them in an amicable manner the best means of raising the standard of wages now in operation to a standard that he and they can negotiate. I ask that question directly, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be able to tell us that he is willing to discuss this underpayment within his Department and to remove this blot on the fine service over which he presides.
Congratulations have been showered on the Postmaster-General from all sides, and also expressions of confidence as to his ability in which I should like to join. He told us this afternoon that the barometer of the Post Office was still set fair, and he drew our attention to what he described as an extremely satisfactory Post Office surplus, but I think that before we can describe the Post Office surplus as satisfactory from every point of view, we have to understand what we mean by the word "satisfactory." The Post Office has a complete monopoly and has made a very large profit, but the question that we have to consider is, Has it put sufficient of its profits back into its service to ensure that that service shall be in every respect completely up-to-date? If we look at the surplus from that point of view, I do not think we can believe that it is entirely satisfactory.
I would look at it for a moment from the standpoint of the development of civil aviation. I believe that the Postmaster-General has in his hands the power to develop perhaps the most important instrument of progress possessed by our country. I do not think too great an emphasis can be laid on the importance of the service that he can do to the country and to the Empire. Aviation suffers from the very unfortunate position of having to be in the hands of the Air Ministry, of the Exchequer, and also of the Post Office, and it is when you have this divided control that you are in danger of having an incomplete, or at least an insufficiently speedy development of a service. With regard to the air, above all other services, we cannot wait. The right hon. Gentleman the Postmaster-General, when speaking of the air to-day, said:
Hon. Members … will appreciate that it is not a function of the Post Office to establish air services; but it is now our settled policy to use the air service wherever practicable, when regular flying can be assured and an appreciable saving of time can be secured for the postal user. Hon. Members are interested in the Empire postal air service. That is still in its infancy.
The reason why the Empire postal air service is still in its infancy is because it has not had sufficient support, and I would ask the right hon. Gentleman if it is not true that there can be no adequate (lying service until there is the assurance that there will be a sufficiently large bulk of mail sent by air. Machines will certainly be built and run at regular intervals when there is guarantee of a sufficiency of mail being sent by air. That
there is anything like a sufficiency of mail being sent by air to-day no one can possibly assert, and while we have irregularity or uncertainty in the rates in the air mail service, we shall never get the public. air-minded.
The right hon. Gentleman the Postmaster-General congratulated himself today because he said that a million more letters were delivered and distributed this year than last year. The whole point is, By what means are they being distributed? To what do we owe the tremendous growth in the letter service? We owe it in the first place, of course, to the work of Rowland Hill, who established the penny postal service, but we owe it largely also to the fact that there was a flat rate all over the country for postal services; and what we want in the air also is a flat rate. While people have to go to the post office and make inquiries as to how much it will cost them to send a letter here or a letter there, by air, they will never take the trouble to send their letters by air mail, but the very moment that they are assured of a flat rate and know that they can go out and post a letter—and it would be an advantage if we could have it stamped with an air mail stamp—then I venture to say that there is not a single person who could not guarantee that in the space of a very few years there would be an enormous increase in the number of letters sent by air.
When the air service is so desperately important to our country and Empire, and when it is being so quickly developed in other countries, it is up to the postal department to make it their business to inquire how they can increase our air efficiency. All over the Continent you can go into almost any hotel and see a map of all the air services from one town to another and the times at which they leave. But in this country it is extraordinarily difficult to find out how, when, and where you can go by air, and I hope the Postmaster-General will see to that. The Air Ministry, with regard to the air, are under this difficulty: whenever they ask for an increase of money for the air services, the cry goes up that we are arming, but that cannot apply to the Post Office. If the Post Office wishes to increase the efficiency of the air service, it will only be told that it is providing for the future and that it is enterprising. We are very glad when this country makes trading agreements with other countries that increase our trade and prosperity, but trade which is got by enterprise and endeavour is the trade of which this country would be most proud, and it is that trade which we look to the air to secure for us.
I should like to add a word or two to the pleas which have been made to the Postmaster-General to give very early consideration to the claims of the lower-paid Post Office workers. I was very surprised that the Noble Lord the Member for Aldershot (Viscount Wolmer), who, I believe, claims to be somewhat of an authority upon Post Office matters and ventures to constitute himself the unofficial adviser of the Postmaster-General, should have inflicted upon the Committee a series of statements which were as unjust as they were inaccurate. He stated that the Labour Government had inflicted two cuts in the pay of the Post Office workers. That statement is the worst kind of inaccuracy. It is a distortion of the truth. The actual facts are that the Labour Government inflicted no cuts in the pay of the Post Office workers. During the period that the Labour Government were in office, by the ordinary operation of the cost-of-living bonus sliding scale, due to the fall in the index figure, there fell to be made, automatically according to that scale, two reductions in the bonus. The Labour Government did not apply those reductions as they automatically would have done, but deliberately held up the application of those reductions, not once but twice. It was not until 1931, after one of those reductions had been delayed for nearly two years and one of them for, I believe, over a year, that the Government, in the financial conditions then obtaining, did, very late, operate the ordinary sliding scale bonus reduction.
I do not think that the Committee will appreciate an argument across the Floor of the House as to what the Noble Lord did or did not say in so many words, but I think that I shall be reflecting the opinion of the Committee when I say that the impression which he created was an entirely different one from the impression created by a recital of the actual facts.
The fact remains that the Labour Government were by far the most generous employers that the Post Office employés have known since the War. If the criterion is to be who applies the cost-of-living bonus, then I will agree that the Labour Government did allow two automatic reductions to take place, although they delayed them for a very long time, but successive Conservative Governments during the last 10 years have applied 23 such cuts. If that is to be the criterion of a good employer, then the Labour Government come out very high on top.
I had not the privilege of being a Member of this House at the time, but if I had been I should have supported those attacks, because the financial circumstances were such that the reductions were not justified. I am sure that the right hon. Member would be the first to admit that the circumstances in 1931, to say the least of it, were peculiar. As to who was responsible for the peculiarity, I think that probably we should get out of order if we attempted to discuss the matter. I was very glad to hear the Postmaster-General say that he is considering the question of the payment of the lower grade servants. It is generally known that negotiations are afoot with regard to the consolidation of the cost-of-living bonus, but the Committee will forgive me, I am sure, if I point out that the settlement of the question of consolidated pay will not deal with the real root problem of Post Office pay. The amounts involved will be a few pence or a shilling at the most. The problem of the underpaid Post Office employés is, despite what the Noble Lord has said, one of very grave poverty affecting a vast number of people.
The hon. Member for West Waltham-stow (Mr. McEntee) quoted some most telling figures, and I am sure that it came as a revelation to some Members of the Committee that there should be employed by the Post Office, a highly prosperous business, 125,000 full-time Post Office servants, men, women and juveniles, and that 75 per cent. of that huge number should receive £3 a week or less. Among those receiving this pittance of £3 or less, are over 42,000 adult men. This means that over 50 per cent. of the full time adult men are trying to live on that miserably inadequate wage. A very large number of these men are married and the fathers of families. It does not require very much imagination, even if the Noble Lord is not very close to conditions of this kind, to imagine the sort of life that a civil servant leads whose family income is below £3 a week. As my hon. Friend pointed out, these men, especially those who live in London and in the large cities, have to pay a very large proportion of that miserable income in house rent. There are many cases which we know where Post Office employés are compelled to expend from 25 per cent. to 30 per cent. of their total earnings in rent alone. I have Post Office workers in my constituency who, out of a wage of 60s. a week, are compelled to find some 15s. or 17s. a week for the rent of a mere part of a house. It is a monstrous scandal. If they go further out of London, the slight reduction in the amount of rent is offset by the cost of travelling to their work and the inconveniences and difficulties which arise by reason of the conditions and hours of Post Office service.
I know very well that the Postmaster-General is full of sympathy for these employés and that he has, over and over again, expressed the opinion that the case for an improvement in the wages of this vast army of employés is an overwhelming one. He has never rejected this claim on the ground that there was no case. He has rejected it year after year on another ground, namely, that the state of the public finances does not permit of his giving any more to those unfortunate servants. I submit that the time has come when the Postmaster-General should reconsider this matter anew. The plea that financial stringency makes it impossible to consider this overwhelming case has gone. We have heard from the Chancellor of the Exchequer the most glowing accounts of the financial effects of the present administration, and we have in these Accounts of the Post Office evidence that the Post Office is now flourishing, and is a thriving and an expanding business. I can assure the Postmaster-General and the Noble Lord that nobody welcomes this tribute to the-basic principles of Socialism more than" we who sit on these benches. We have always said that it did not require the stimulus of private profit to produce a-devoted and an efficient service to serve the public well. The Postmaster-General is providing us with ample evidence and ammunition that the case is on a sure foundation, that, in fact, the community itself can provide its own services with efficiency, enterprise and imagination.
Only one thing is lacking to complete-our joy in to-day's disclosures, and that is the knowledge that this business has-largely been contributed to by the underpayment of those who do the Post Office work. I would make a new appeal to the Postmaster-General to indicate in his reply that he will extend to his employés, through their recognised representatives, an invitation to discuss this problem, together with the terrible difficulties of the part-time employé, afresh in the light of existing financial conditions. I appeal to him to give us that assurance to-day. With regard to the part-time postmen, enough has been said and enough is generally known to make us feel sometimes that we are ashamed when we read of public assistance committees being, called upon to augment the earnings of Post Office servants. I have here a cutting from a newspaper of a very rare case of theft of postal orders by a Post Office servant, and it was disclosed in the court that this postman's wage was 37s. 6d. He had no other income. He was married, and he said that he had spent the money which he had stolen upon his home. A wage of 37s. 6d. for a man with a wife to maintain! The report does not disclose whether he had any children. But that a case like that should come into a court, that this unfortunate man should be sent to prison in those circumstances, and that he should be an employé of the State should make every Member of this Committee feel somewhat ashamed that such conditions can go on. I know the difficulties of part-time service, and of removing part-time service. But with the coming of the motor delivery van and the tendency to enlarge the delivery area, it should be possible for the Postmaster-General to consider whether the time has not come, in view of the flourishing condition of his Department, to remove these scandals, and to place those servants on a full-time basis with an adequate living wage.
Another matter which I wish to mention is one about which the Post Office is receiving a good deal of advertisement, though of rather an unfortunate kind. We are all pleased to see the energy and initiative displayed by the Post Office, but the sort of advertisement we must try to avoid is the advertisement being given to it by reason of the discontent of the staff in many ways. There is the question of the employment of women telephonists on late work. It is a question which has its difficulties, but, nevertheless, it is the cause of the gravest discontent. It has been the practice for the telephone service to be staffed by women operators between eight in the morning and eight in the evening, and after eight in the evening by men telephonists, very largely ex-service men. This form of employment has been largely offered to partially-disabled ex-service men.
In recent years the Post Office have decided that the work between eight at night and 11 at night shall be done by women operators. The claim is that the women do the work better than the men. A promise was given by the Postmaster-General that no compulsion should be applied, but that volunteers would be sought among the women telephonists. Unfortunately, the methods adopted to secure these volunteers are open to very grave objection, and have aroused the utmost resentment among the women. Volunteers have been called for, and where they have not been forthcoming important officers from the Postmaster-General's Department have called at the exchanges and pointed out to the reluctant women that unless they volunteer for this 11 o'clock duty they are liable to be transferred to other exchanges; and by various hints and suggestions they are made to feel that their status in the service, their chances of promotion, their comfort in their occupation and various other advantages may be in jeopardy unless they volunteer for this work.
The women do not want to do the work; they feel it would be a definite worsening of their conditions. For many reasons they do not wish to work in the exchanges until 11 at night. If there were no other way of obtaining an efficient evening telephone service, then the overriding consideration of securing an efficient service would demand that this be done. Various alternative suggestions have been made by the staff, who have shown, as the Postmaster-General has acknowledged, that they are only too eager to do everything possible to contribute to the efficiency of the service, but I submit, with all respect, that these alternative suggestions have not been properly considered. The evening inefficiency is largely due to the fact that the Post Office is employing part-time men who are ineffectively trained, and who, having to do other work during a large part of their time, because the wage they receive from the Post Office is a mere pittance, have not the interest in the service and the professional esprit de corps to be expected from full-time servants. The men are not equipped with the necessary training to make them as efficient as the women. Moreover, after 8 p.m. the exchanges are hopelessly understaffed. They are manned by men disabled in the War, forced to follow another occupation during the day time, men who have had no effective training, and with the added disability of being forced to work at very high pressure over a very large area of lines.
Before making this alteration, which is resented by the women, and would result in a reduction of employment for men—a very serious thing in these times—the Postmaster-General ought to consider the possibility of establishing an efficient night telephone service operated by men properly trained, properly employed and properly paid. The last thing we want is to see the discharge of the ex-service men who are doing this job, but we ask that they should be given the opportunity of doing this work under conditions which will enable them to do it efficiently. I hope that the Postmaster-General will consider this question afresh. It has been hanging about since 1929, and is almost another Waterloo Bridge; but it is not too late to reconsider it in order to see whether the wishes both of the women and of the men can be met, and whether an efficient service cannot be built up without the creation of all this discontent and resentment. Finally, I wish to repeat my appeal that the claim of the low-paid men and women in the Post Office should be reconsidered in the light of existing financial circumstances.
What has very often been regarded as a dull Government Department is now a fairly prosperous public utility, and there are a great many reasons why that has come about. In any industry to-day two things matter very much; one is a continuous reduction in costs—and about that we have heard something—and the other is an efficient marketing end. I think the second consideration very largely determines the success of a good deal of modern industry. The Noble Lord the Member for Aldershot (Viscount Wolmer) and various other Members have said that they were amazed at the public response to some of the innovations and improvements brought in by the right hon. Gentleman; and I would like to congratulate him, as we are now in that mood—to come away for the moment from the wage question—on another innovation, the introduction into a Government Department of a public relations officer and also the bringing over of that sensitive little film unit from the Empire Marketing Board. I do not think some of us realise how complicated Government Departments are becoming. I do not wish to go into the merits of the film unit or the connection with the Film Institute or any kindred questions, but wish simply to refer to this new move towards making the complicated and rather stubborn material of Government Departments alive and active through these new methods. I am referring to broadcasting, the film, the poster and to advertising.
We see the Postmaster-General frankly facing up to the problem; and as we have coming over from the Empire Marketing Board a team of specialists, with continuity and concentration in what has become a specialised job, ought we to stop at the Post Office, or should the Post Office not carry a somewhat wider burden in regard to other Government Departments? This is a new point of view on national information. Personally, I think it would bt a great mistake, after spending a great deal of money, to let 800 of these poster frames rust in disuse instead of using them for some national purpose. There are a great many non-party questions to-day which provide plenty of material. There are the defence forces, the whole field of agriculture, the whole field of the Ministry of Health, the whole field of the Ministry of Transport and the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. I will not labour the point, because it must leap to the imagination of any hon. Members.
I suggest that these new media of publicity which are being developed through the Post Office could be developed further, with a pooling of resources, possibly under the Treasury, and that there might be in this House a committee, somewhat on the model of the Public Accounts Committee, to act as the guardian and watchdog for the public. I believe that we have here a possibility of doing what every other European Government has so far failed to do. Nobody wants to see Government control of these various new publicity media—the radio, the poster and advertisement. At the present moment we are doing things in an amateur way, through the Exhibition Division of the Department of Overseas Trade, through a Press officer here and a film unit there, and I suggest the time is rapidly arriving when statesmanship ought to take hold of this business and organise it for a national end. By that I simply mean keeping the Government and the people in touch with each other. The only way to preserve Parliamentary institutions to-day and to keep democracy alive is to make this so-called dull stuff, which is not dull—the cable ship is not dull; the air post is not dull—alive to the people; and, if necessary, to let loose on other Departments some of the people who can make the story of their work just as alive and interesting. I suggest to hon. Members who are talking about the decline of democracy and the rise of dictatorships and Fascism that this is a positive and popular step which might be taken by the right hon. Gentleman in developing the marketing end of his service. I would like to congratulate him on being the first Minister, to my knowledge, who has really taken hold of this problem in an imaginative way, and I hope that he will continue to give a lead to the other Government Departments.
I have an Amendment on the Order Paper to reduce the salary of the Postmaster-General, but although I do not propose to move it I should like to take the opportunity which has kindly been given to me of explaining to the Committee exactly what was in my mind, and what it is that, in spite of the many successes in the past year of the Postmaster-General's administration, he has failed to do. It is pointed out in the Financial Memorandum which has been supplied to the Committee that during the year the Postmaster-General has had increased revenue, and that there is an increased surplus. I want to show that there are sources of profit in a great service to the poorer classes of which he has not been taking advantage. I refer to industrial assurance, which was also referred to, in his reply to the Postmaster-General, by the hon. Member for Lime-house (Mr. Attlee).
In the City news in the "Times" of 4th April, after I had raised this question on the Motion for the Adjournment for the Easter Recess, I read a note which stated—many hon. Members are no doubt aware of this—that for a long period a system of industrial assurance was worked by the Post Office, and that about five years ago the decision was taken to cease to transact new business. On that decision being taken, there was an offer to the Post Office by the Prudential Company to take over the existing policies; that offer, I am glad to say, was refused by the Post Office. I conclude that there are operative industrial assurance policies which were taken out with the Post Office. I ask that that decision of five years ago should be rescinded, and that the Post Office should take a very active course of getting into touch with the working class through its vast network of post offices in almost every street of every town and village in the country, in order to take advantage of the unique position which places the Post Office in closer contact with the working classes than any industrial assurance company can achieve, even with a vast expenditure on insurance agents.
The Postmaster-General has used racing similies. I want him to go on from what he has done this year, and to develop the staying power of a "Windsor Lad" and win, in the Post Office stakes, the unique achievement of giving a new and immense benefit to the working class. That enormous profits are made in industrial assurance is not open to question. Since 1920, the premium income has increased from £36,000,000 to £54,000,000 a year; that is during years of great industrial depression. During the past 14 years, companies and societies have increased their invested funds from £86,000,000 to £300,000,000; dividends paid to shareholders in those companies have increased from £759,000 in 1922 to £2,144,000 in 1932, that is, nearly threefold in 10 years. In the past three years, the income of the companies, after the payment of every claim, totalled £127,000,000. It is clearly not only a very large but a very profitable business.
In the 1933 report of the Prudential it is stated that there was a premium income of £19,500,000; that is of one company. It has to be set against claims of all sorts which were paid out, of £12,500,000. The Committee should not think that that indicates that the Prudential made a profit of £7,000,000; nothing of the kind, because there are enormous claims to be met for expenses. Although the company have brought down their expenses ratio from 40½ per cent., as it was in 1920, to under 24 per cent. in 1933, the expenses of the army of agents who are engaged in harrying the wives of the working class, in order to get new business all the time, still absorbs an enormous amount of the surplus. Paragraph 28 of the Report of the Committee on Industrial Assurance shows that of £54,000,000 premium income, nearly £18,500,000, or 34 per cent., is spent in commission and expenses of management. Paragraph 32 of the report states that, apart from the Prudential, the average for the societies and companies for expenses is 39 per cent. of the premium income, against 43 per cent. as it was in 1920.
There are 16 companies and 153 collecting societies, employing among them 52,000 whole-time collectors, 16,000 spare-time agents and 2,650 canvassers, all harrying and hunting workingmen's wives for new business. I should like to make this very brief quotation from the
"Assurance Agents' Chronicle" of 24th March, 1934:
It has ever been the urge by assurance offices and societies to make the god "Increase" the governing factor in the business. This god must be served by all agents, and its devouring capacity is unlimited. It does not matter how business is obtained, legally or illegally, but it must be secured, no matter who suffers, the assured or the agent; for, of course, the offices never lose, and never will under the present system.
It reminds me of the old saying at the time Louis Blanc was the manager of the tables at Monte Carlo:
No matter whether the public or the agents lose, it is always the companies who win. In paragraph 60 of the report to which I have just referred, is a statement of the same nature, although perhaps in less picturesque language. I should like to trouble the Committee by reading a few lines of that paragraph:
When it is recalled, as we have previously explained, that some 20 companies and societies are insistent in their competition against each other and that during the last 10 years (a period of perhaps unprecedented difficulty in trade and industry) the premiums collected under the system of industrial assurance have increased by 50 per cent., the conclusion becomes inevitable that the wide extensions of the doubtful 'life-of-another' policy, of uneconomic endowments, and of whole-life policies involving the payment of unjustifiably heavy premiums on the lives of young children, are traceable, no less than the great number of lapses and the heavy expenses ratio prevailing over the greater part of the business, to the one common cause of 'pressure for increase.'
It is clear, referring once more to the report, that at the very outset the committee were not satisfied with their recommendations. I am suggesting to the Postmaster-General that the proper solution of this difficulty is that his Department, instead of ceasing to do insurance business, should utilise the immense power that they have to do this business much cheaper, on a voluntary and not a compelling basis, among the working class. May I read to the Committee a line or two from paragraph 5 of the report
where the committee indicate that some such solution must be found?
Arising out of the evidence we have, in Part II of this report, made certain recommendations for the amendment of the law, but as the inquiry has proceeded we have been gradually led to the conclusion that while improvements of varying degrees of importance may be expected from the adoption of these proposals, the defects of the business, and their consequences to the assuring public, call for remedial measures of a much more substantial character than can be secured by the ehanges in the statutory provisions which have been submitted to us.
The report, in paragraph 13, contrasts endowment policies with the Post Office Savings Bank, and says that comparison of endowment policies taken out with industrial assurance companies with simply putting money weekly into the savings bank shows the ordinary endowment policies to great disadvantage. I would point out to the Parliamentary Secretary of the Post Office that industrial assurance is quite unlike marine, accident or life assurance because there are no great risks involved and no large sums. It is made up of millions of small and most trivial sums, although the total volume is enormous. In 1933, the report of the Prudential shows that the total sum assured by that company is £520,000,000 sterling, in the industrial branch alone, and that is contrasted with £225,000,000, or less than half, in the whole of their ordinary branch insurances. The business appears to me to be suitable in every way for the Post Office. There is no need for the Post Office to go round to the homes of the workers, who are always in contact with a post office, and are free to go in and pay into their savings bank account, or their premiums for policies of industrial assurance, if they prefer to do so.
I want to see the wives of the working class left unharassed by assurance agents and free to insure or not as they choose, with the certainty that the sum-insured will bear a reasonable relation-to the amount of the premiums which, they have to pay. I suggest to the Postmaster-General that if capital is required" in order that the Post Office might go into this business on a practical scale—and that is undoubtedly a fact—he has indicated in his speech that he has a vast sum at his command which certainly could be, and I think should be, used in this way. The Postmaster-General told us in his speech just now that the Savings Bank deposits now amount to £338,000,000 and I think he said that £21,000,000 had been added during the last year. I contrast those figures with this £54,000,000 which was paid in insurance premiums, as against the £21,000,000 additional deposits in the Savings Bank, but I find in paragraph 8 of the report of the Committee on Industrial Assurance that the assurance funds on the last day of December, 1930, the last figure then before them, were £264,500,000. So that there is a very close parallel between the total of the Savings Bank's deposits, and the total capital invested of the insurance funds of these companies. I think that indicates that it is within the range of practical business to make a truly mutual system. Let the working class have the profit of their own life and burial assurances. There is a vast sum extracted every year which goes to these companies and societies. I suggest it is not a question at all of private enterprise against State trading. This business has been carried on for years, not only by companies, but by collecting societies, friendly societies, co-operative societies, even by the Salvation Army, all kinds of societies, competing one with the other. I see no fundamental difficulties from the point of view of Socialistic theories.
There ought to be an assurance branch in the Post Office, developed by the Post Office, instead of huge profits being made by private companies, so that there shall be a better division among the working class. This system has been truly characterised as the industrial assurance scandal. I want the Postmaster-General to note that. I want him and the Assistant Postmaster-General to study this report carefully, and to consider whether, although the terms of reference of the committee were lot wide enough for them to suggest it—though they do suggest it in a way—that the Post Office should take up this business. That is the real solution, and there is nothing this Government or the State could possibly do more for the benefit of the working class in utility and magnitude than to take over the entire industrial assurance business through the Post Office. It may be that by some of my friends this will be regarded as a curious plea to be put forward by a Conservative and a believer in capitalism, but I am not deterred by that for a moment. I hope that before the next year we shall hear that the Post Office have taken this matter into really serious consideration. It is because I am now raising this on the Post Office Vote for the first time that I do not propose to move a reduction in the Postmaster-General's salary; I leave that to next year if no step has been taken by then. If no step has been taken by then I hope to co-operate with Members opposite— anybody who will support this policy—in moving the reduction of the Postmaster-General's salary.
We have listened to the hon. Baronet on the subject on which he has addressed the Committee. Perhaps it is a little departure from the subjects discussed this afternoon, and from the laudatory observations addressed to the Postmaster-General. One may add to these-laudatory observations, but say in passing that if the Postmaster-General had taken the steps the hon. Baronet desires, I do not think he would have come forward with such a great profit for his Department as he has been so fortunately able to do this afternoon. This is not a new subject. It was brought into operation as far back as 1864. There have been, from time to time, committees appointed to go into the question of the non-success of Post Office insurance. A Select Committee was appointed in 1882, and nothing was done on the recommendations of that committee. There was a Departmental Committee in 1907, which brought forward a very long list of suggestions they thought the Post Office might adopt for the development of this particular Department. There was the Parmoor Committee in 1920, which made strong observations with regard to the Post Office in comparison with industrial assurance companies and their collecting methods. Industrial assurance came to an end after 64 years as a separate department of the Post Office. What was the result of the effort of the Post Office over this long period of years? They produced at the end a total amount insured of £500,000, and the cost of running that department was just over 24 per cent. of the premium income.
My hon. Friend has pointed out that the industrial companies spend an enormous amount of money on administration. They have, as he says, a vast army of agents harassing the wives of the working men. What is the effect? With this great army, which is doing its work, the cost to-day of the largest industrial assurance company is under 24 per cent., so that, considering the working expenses of to-day, the costs of administration show not only excellent results, good amounts paid, guaranteed policies, participation in profits, equal to, if not better than could have been shown by the Post Office. It is rather interesting to go back only to 1930 and see the kind of question the bon. Member asked with regard to administration of the Post Office. I should have thought he would have refreshed his mind with the answer then given to him by the Postmaster-General. If he had, he would have hesitated to come down here and recommend what has proved for 64 years an unsuccessful venture. This was the question asked:
On what bases the liabilties are valued under Post Office Life Assurance contracts, apart from annuity contracts; whether the valuations during the past ten years have disclosed surpluses; if so, how much surpluses, derived from the premiums of the assured have been dealt with; and whether any bonuses have been declared, and, if so, at what rates?
The reply given by the Postmaster-General to this question was:
At the date of the last two statutory quinquennial valuations at 31st December, 1920, and 31st December, 1925, the liabilities under life assurance contracts were valued so far as mortality is concerned on the basis of the table deduced from the mortality of healthy males insured with life assurance companies as published by the Institute of Actuaries in the year 1872, known as the H.M. table, with a rate of interest of 4 per cent.
Up to date I may say that insurance companies do not value at 4 per cent. but 3 per cent.:
There is no separate fund in respect of life insurance contracts granted through the Post Office, as the Act 27–8 Vic. c. 46—which was repealed and re-enacted in 19–20 Geo. V. c. 29—created one fund in respect of both deferred life annuity contracts and life insurance contracts. The last two quinquennial valuations of the assets and liabilities of this fund showed that the liabilities exceeded the assets, and a contingent liability of £244,785 in this respect is, in accordance with Section 3 of the Act 27–8 Viet. c. 46—repealed and reenacted
in Section 67 of 19–20 Geo. V. c. 29—shown in the Finance Accounts, 1929. It will thus be observed that as the valuations disclosed a deficiency of assets the question of disposal of surplus does not arise."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th April, 1930; cols. 1961–2, Vol. 237.]
Here is a Department which has all the advice it can get from the several committees to which I have referred, after working for 64 years, winds up, not with a surplus, not with a distribution of profits, not with the cost of administration lowered.
May I interrupt to ask the hon. Member whether he has noted paragraph 32 of the report which shows that the combined expense ratio of companies other than the Prudential for which he is speaking is approximately 39 per cent.?
I do not speak for a company but with knowledge of a company, and I think it right that this House should have what knowledge is available on the subject. My hon. Friend refers to the fact of the higher cost of administration of some companies. I do not deny that. I do say there is a marked decrease though in some of these societies. These societies have brought their expenses down to, and below, the level of the administration of the Post Office Department, and represent a large proportion of the total insured population of this country. Let us see what the Select Committee of 1928 says, just before my hon. Friend was asking his question:
The Select Committee on Estimates in July, 1928, referring to the life assurance department of the Post Office reported: 'Your Committee consider that it results in mere distraction of Post Office energies which might be better employed. Taking into consideration the immense strength of commercial insurance companies, the necessary restriction of Post Office Insurance funds to British Government securities, and the extreme difficulty of competing seriously for new business, they recommend that the Post Office Life Assurance business should be discontinued.'
What does my hon. Friend wish? He has brought forward statements from certain portions of the recent Committee on Industrial Assurance. He has been promised by the Government that the report will be taken into consideration. No doubt in due course some kind of legislation will be introduced to give effect to that report. Has it not been shown that the confidence of the people of this country is in insurance on a
voluntary basis? But the people of this country, according to the suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Limehouse (Mr. Attlee) have been exploited by the industrial insurance company. There is this to be placed on the other side. Millions of people, not for a period of 10, 30, or even 60 years, but going back nearly a century, generation after generation, have been satisfied with the payments received by their forebears. If they have been paying in periods of depression they have still great faith in them. I know the cases which were cited before the Committe, but, when one comes to judge this matter in a sane way, the number of complaints as compared with the enormous volume of business is comparatively negligible. By all means let my hon. Friend bring to light what he believes to be disagreeable conditions connected with industrial assurance, but let him give credit to the vast proportion of that business which is done well and is well thought of by the great mass of the people of this country. The proposal that the Postmaster-General should undertake this work would not, I believe, be in the interests of the insured people.
My hon. Friend does not suggest that there should be agents to attend to this business; he suggests that people should go to the post office and buy stamps, or whatever might be the method adopted by the Department, in order to pay their premiums. But, whether this business be done by the Post Office or by a private concern, lapses will occur. Lapses occurred under the old Post Office system, and, wherever such business is done, even in the case of a trade union organisation, unless you pay your contributions you lose your benefits. The suggestion has been made that in many of the cases which have been brought forward there has been unfair treatment, but it is not unfair treatment at all; it is merely a contract betwen the insured person and the company, and one of the parties has failed to keep the contract. But the best companies give every consideration in respect of past contributions, whether by way of free policies or of surrender values. As my hon. Friend knows, because he has made a special study of this subject, although the Par-moor Committee recommended free policies at the end of five years, many of the companies to-day are issuing free policies, not at the end of five years, but at the end of two years, or even at the end of one year when people have failed to continue their contributions. I submit that a proposal such as that which my hon. Friend has made this afternoon is not one which is going to add to the prosperity of the Post Office, and, if I understand my right hon. Friend aright; he is not going to jeopardise the success which he has attained in the Post Office by bringing into his Department a matter which has proved to be a failure in the Post Office, but which in the great commercial world outside has proved to be a success, having been carried on at a cost of administration not greater than that attained by the Post Office which has failed.
I wish to join in the general chorus of praise of the efficiency of the Postmaster-General's Department, but I wish also to bring forward the complaint of a constituent of mine, a trade union official, that there is a serious dislocation in the registered postal service between Borough High Street, S.E.I, and the Plaistow District Office, E.13. My constituent, Mr. E. W. Blackwell, of 14A, Lawrence Road, Upton Park, E.13, came to me last week-end and complained to me that his registered letters are not delivered in the time within which they ought to be delivered. I asked him for details, and received them from him this morning, and they seem to me to justify the complaint that he has made. He writes that:
Registered letters were despatched to my address on the following dates this year alone. There were others previously that were held up:
Friday, 12th January, one delivery overdue.
Friday, 2nd February, one delivery overdue.
Friday, 23rd February, two deliveries overdue." and so on. He informs me that, if a registered letter is posted in the Borough at 4 p.m. on one day, it should be delivered the same night, but that the letter posted overnight on the 12th January was not delivered until the next morning, and the same thing happened on the 2nd February, while on the 23rd February the letter was two deliveries late, which means that a letter posted at 4 o'clock in
the afternoon in Borough High Street was not delivered in West Ham until 11 o'clock the next day. That, however, is not the worst case. The worst case is more recent. On the 25th May, he states, a letter posted on Friday afternoon at 4 o'clock did not arrive at his house until the last post on the Saturday night. That, I submit, is a case which seems to show that there is something wrong somewhere; and it has not stopped. On the 1st June, a letter posted at the same time on Friday did not arrive by the first post on the Saturday morning, and it did not arrive by the 11 o'clock post. At midday he went to the Plaistow District Post Office, E.13, and made inquiries, and was informed that the letter was out for delivery. He asked the official in charge why a registered letter posted in Borough High Street at 4 p.m. on the previous day had not arrived at his address by the time at which he made his application. The man in charge said he did not know, but the letter was out then, and he would get it all right. He goes on to say:
I reminded him of how frequently my letters were delayed, saying that these registered letters contained my wages.
The hon. Gentleman in charge will see at once how important this is to a man who is only getting a weekly wage. If he does not get his wages until 9 o'clock on Saturday night, he is in a rather difficult position, because, of course, Saturday night is the shopping night, and is a night sometimes for other things that call for the spending of money. As I have said, he is a trade union official, and the Postmaster-General will know that in some cases trade unionism is a competitive business—that, if a member of a trade union does not get what he thnks he ought to get from his trade union, he may change to another union, and the union official concerned may suffer damage with his employers because somehow or other there has been a lapse in his duty inasmuch as he has not given prompt attention to a complaint which has been made. I want the Postmaster-General to look into this matter, and, if these letters are dealt with by a, special Department—I do not know the procedure of the Post Office at all, but it may be that registered letters are dealt with by a special Department—I would ask the Postmaster-General to
see that this Department is speeded up, and that the cause of this complaint is removed at the earliest possible moment.
As I followed the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnstaple (Sir B. Peto), it seemed to me to come to this, that he says that there are many defects in the industrial assurance system, and that the one remedy is to allow this class of business to be conducted by the Post Office. I think everyone would agree that anything that can be done to improve the system should be done, and no one would object to criticism directed to the object of attaining improvement, but, with all respect to my hon. Friend, I think it is unfortunate that he should come down here and make a very violent attack, talking of insurance scandals and all that sort of thing, but practically speaking should not even attempt to prove the charge by any detailed evidence.
There is one thing that he overlooked. Here we have a business which has been built up, over something like 100 years, to enormous proportions; to-day there are no fewer than 80,000,000 industrial policies in existence; and it seems to me to be impossible to assume that such a business would have been built up unless those who constitute the assured felt that they were getting real value for their money, and unless this assurance business fulfilled a real public service. No one would say that the industrial assurance system cannot be perfected, but I do suggest that it is most unfortunate if remarks are to be made from the Floor of the House of Commons which may cause apprehensions to arise among these many millions of policy-holders which are not justified by the facts. With, all respect to my hon. Friend, I would ask him, if it be true that this business is built up by the harassing of wives and so on, as he says, how does, he explain the fact that these very same societies have built up an ordinary insurance business—not an industrial one—to such an extent that one-half of the ordinary insurance business to-day is in the hands of the industrial offices? I would suggest to him for his consideration that the fact that they have this enormous ordinary business, largely from the same clientele, shows at any rate that those who come closely in contact with the offices and their staffs take a very different view from that of my hon. Friend.
As for the suggested remedy, namely, intrusion into the business by the Post Office, that has been dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham (Sir H. Meller). I cannot imagine anything more farcical, if I may say so, than to suggest that the Post Office, by coming into this business, will put all these things right. My hon. Friend talked continually of the "god of increase," but is he going to check that by bringing in the Post Office and putting the Post Office and the industrial offices in competition? Does he really suggest that the "god of increase" will in any way diminish as the result of that? The one thing that is certain about the previous intrusion of the Post Office was that it was a complete and ghastly failure from start to finish. People knew about those policies, but they did not go to the Post Office; they did not want the Post Office. It may be that they were wrong, but that does not matter. You are dealing here with a class of person who likes to be called upon from week to week, because orherwise it is perfectly incomprehensible that, while the offices were increasing the number of their policy-holders, the numbers who insured with the Post Office gradually shrank until there were only something like 200 policies a year, and the result, as has been pointed out already, was a ghastly failure.
My hon. Friend quoted a great deal from the Cohen Report, but I do not think he will get from that report any encouragement for his idea with regard to the Post Office. The report was quite explicit in saying that the class of business done By the industrial offices is quite unsuitable for anything in the nature of a nationalisation scheme. I do not know how far my hon. Friend will go before he has finished. He starts with the Post Office, and he may be a full-blooded advocate of nationalisation before very long, but, so far as the Cohen Report is concerned, it said that it was not practical politics. I would like to ask my hon. Friend, does he want the Post Office to confine itself to industrial assurance business? I cannot see why. If he does not, does he want it to go into ordinary business—fire, burglary and all the rest?
I dealt with that question in my speech. I said that this assurance business is totally different from fire and life insurance—that no large sum is involved, and no large risks.
I am glad to hear that my hon. Friend does not go quite so far as I thought he might. It may be that I did not follow his remarks correctly, in which case I apologise. But there is one thing which I think is quite certain, and that is that he did not tell the House in what respect the Post Office could possibly meet the situation. When it comes to a question of complaints about various policies, the figures published in the report to which he referred show that out of these millions of policy holders only 20,000 made complaints in the course of one year. We ought to have some regard to proportion. If you are dealing with tens of millions of policy holders, you are bound to have some complaints. I am astonished, not that there are 20,000 a year but that there are so few. It goes to show that the vast bulk of the business is done in a manner that gives satisfaction to its customers. The instances to which the hon. Baronet referred are to a great extent built up on exceptional cases. He made an attack upon the companies because he said they made big profits.
The Chair, having allowed a certain amount of latitude to the hon. Baronet, was compelled to allow a certain amount in the reply of the hon. Member for Mitcham (Sir R. Meller), but I must ask the hon. Member to keep closely to the salaries and expenses of the Post Office.
I only wish to point out that a very large proportion of the profits that have been made by these companies have been paid away in benefits to the policy holders. They have not only performed the statutory obligations mentioned by the hon. Member for Mitcham but have given benefits under the contracts of insurance, and indeed have gratuitously given benefits to many policy holders whwo were not entitled to them. The hon. Baronet also mentioned the question of the ratio of expense.
Not the facts that I am giving. One of the points made by the hon. Baronet was that these companies make large profits and that that was an argument why the business should be taken away from them, if possible, and taken over by the Post Office. On the actual figures published, it is clear that a very large proportion of those profits come back to the policy holders, so that, in estimating the respective advantages of Post Office and private administration, if you are going to take account of profits, you must also pursue the use that has been made of them in other directions. In the same way the hon. Baronet suggested that, by some operation that I cannot follow, big lapses of policies have taken place and that it would be better under the Post Office system. I do not know what the system of the Post Office would be, but they would also have to have some system of lapsing. They would have to lay it down that after a certain period of arrears policies lapsed.
Whatever administration you have, whether national or private, you must have some stipulation as to what is to happen if arrears occur, and it is inevitable that in such cases there must be a forfeiture, but it is only fair to point out that the record of the companies shows that they have given indulgence to their policy holders which is not likely to be given by a Government Department. Anyone who has had anything to do with Government Departments is convinced that mercy is not one of their outstanding characteristics. They drive a particularly hard bargain. Every possible indulgence is given by the companies, because it does not pay them to have these lapses. That is the long and short of it. If lapses are to be brought into account, the assured are likely to get much better treatment from private people than from a Government Department. If the business is being well done by private enterprise, if they are giving something which people consider is of value, I cannot for the life of me see why we want to interfere. It is surprising to me that, because a business has been highly successful, an old and very respected Conservative Member, above all people in the world, should say this is the sort of thing in which we shoud have a kind of nationalisation experiment. The record of the Post Office administration was a ghastly failure, and we have no reason to expect that it would be any better if it were renewed.
I was delighted when the Postmaster-General referred to one of the most recent developments in the air mail service that have taken place in this country, and I should like, on behalf of my constituents, to thank him and to congratulate him on the enterprise that he has shown. I admit that he watched a little time to see that the service could be carried on satisfactorily and, when he was satisfied, he had no hesitation in entrusting His Majesty's mails to the company that was working the service without any extra surcharge, thereby laying down a- very important precedent which, I take it, will be followed when the air mail service is extended, as he indicated that he hoped it would be in the future. It happens that my fortunate constituency is benefiting from another enterprise which the right hon. Gentleman has undertaken, and that is the establishment of a system of wireless telephony between the islands. It is not actually working at the moment, but it is being installed. The advantage that we shall gain by the experiment is obviously very great, and I trust that, thankful as we are for this first experiment, when he sees the success of it, the right hon. Gentleman will be prepared to extend it to other islands which are at present without the benefit of telegraphic communication with the mainland. I understand that it is not to be used as a telephonic service, but for the transmission of telegrams, and, as the right hon. Gentleman indicated that he was going to recast the system of charges for telegrams, I hope that recasting on a lower scale will cover the telegrams that will be sent by wireless telephony as well as by the ordinary telegraphic service.
With regard to the telephone extensions and reductions to which he referred, I join in congratulating him on the great step forward that he has taken. I think he is the first holding his office to deal with this very important matter as a business matter. It is true that he has the opportunity, which his predecessors did not have, of getting more elbow room and having more money to put back into the business, but he has been developing it, and he has seen the great advantage of increasing the number of customers. The more customers you get, the more useful the business is to everyone and the cheaper the service that can be supplied. The reduction in rates will undoubtedly be of very great advantage, especially in what I think he called the business small user rate, for country doctors and people like that. I happen to have here a letter from a country doctor in an island in my constituency. He informs me that the rental charge that he has to pay is £ 12 a year with a 3d. or 4d. call. Hon. Members will understand what a very heavy charge that is for a country doctor in a poor district. Any reduction that can be made will be extremely valuable.
There is one matter of practical local interest that I should like to raise again. Our mails between the islands have to be loaded on to steamers and off again and, as all parcel post is carried in bags, fragile articles often suffer severely. In the old days such articles were always carried in crates, or baskets, which protected them. Could the right hon. Gentleman have that matter looked into again and, if it be found possible, could not the fragile parcels be carried separately in baskets? I am sure those who receive them would even be ready-to pay a small extra charge for the advantage of having their goods preserved. Drapers and hatters have told me that, when they get orders delivered by post, very often a hat which they have ordered and for which they have paid a considerable price has arrived in such a condition that it is impossible to sell it. Again, when you have a considerable quantity of eggs sent by post, it will be realised that rough handling is bound to create a very considerable loss, and there would be a very much better chance of their coming through safely if they were sent in crates.
I should like to congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the system that he has inaugurated of getting local officers in close touch with the people in the area over which they exercise authority. Nothing in the long run can conduce more to a better postal service generally than to have small complaints put right by someone in authority in the locality. I hope that the success that has attended that system will be extended and that it will not be allowed to go back. I should like to join with the whole Committee in congratulating the right hon. Gentleman and, although he sits on the opposite side of the House, I should be very sorry to see him leave the position of Postmaster-General.
The position of either a Chancellor of the Exchequer or a Postmaster-General with a moderate surplus is not an entirely unmixed blessing, at least for his mental repose. I do-not know what the official attitude may be now, after the Bill introduced in another House regarding lotteries, but what has been said to-day reminds me very forcefully of a man who was the victim of a recent Derby sweepstake. The wretched man won what you might call a certain surplus. But he had so many, and so managing, and so active relatives, who were so urgent with their advice as to what was the best way of spending the money, that in a short time not only was the surplus dissipated but he was driven into the bankruptcy court.
I can see the difficulties of the Postmaster-General with a surplus when he receives all this advice as to what to do with it. Speaking for a Scottish constituency, I would suggest to him that he should not be deflected from remembering this, that one of the first duties; that lie before him in dealing with a surplus is to see that the lower-paid grades of the service get justice. It is not only a matter of moral justice; it is a matter of expediency. In the War no doubt the high command, and modern mechanical inventions, did a great deal toward victory, but, if it had not been for the morale of the ordinary man in the trenches, we could not have won. We cannot conduct a good, sound Post Office business, the first concern of which is the safe delivery of the mails of His Majesty's subjects, without seeing that the men who do the hard manual and foot work receive fair treatment. Whatever mechanisation is effected, they have a great deal of hard work. If I were an Irishman, I might say they had a great deal of manual work to do with their feet. Not only that, but they have a certain amount of responsibility, because I believe in redirecting letters a good deal is left to the man who is called, in other businesses, the roundsman.
It is not only a matter of honesty, of withstanding the temptation to take money; it is a matter of taking care and of taking an interest—not merely doing the work because of being driven to it for a wage not worthy of being called a living wage. Looking at it from the point of view of our desire to have our own letters handled carefully and delivered intelligently, honestly and with care, which after all is one of the first functions of His Majesty's Post Office, I cannot conceive that any one, least of all my right hon. Friend with all the gifts of character and intelligence and enterprise that he has shown, can fail to appreciate the importance of fair treatment of the lower grades. He may have to take a long view and he may have to say, "I must defer an improvement." It may seem to some that it is "always jam tomorrow but never jam to-day." But I believe he is looking forward to see whether he can put the matter on a proper basis so that first of all the lower-paid grades, indoor and outdoor, in the Post Office are so remunerated that they can take a pride in their work. A great many of the communications we receive through the Post Office are circulars and rubbish that we do not want, but there are very many that are of vital importance to every one of us, and we want to have the feeling that those to whom we entrust these things are so remunerated that they can take a pride in conveying them to the best of their abilities.
I concur entirely with the expressions regarding the Postmaster-General, because. I know what he has done in many ways in meeting the wishes of our people in Scotland. I agree entirely with what has been said in his praise. He is not one who is liable to a swelled head, or his head might have been swollen by what has been said to-day. I feel confident that in the multitude of counsels he will remember the first claims of the lower grade of postal servants.
I have listened to this. Debate since the commencement, and have observed that the tone has been one of congratulation of the Postmaster-General. We have had almost an atmosphere of mutual admiration. I am just wondering what has happened to the Post Office, that whereas a year or two ago the Department was looked upon with considerable scorn, and right hon. and hon. Gentlemen were suggesting it would not be a bad thing to hand it over to private enterprise, to-day, apparently, we are all agreed that it is doing remarkably fine work. In the later stages of this Debate, there arose considerable considerable controversy upon an almost innocent suggestion by the hon. Member for Barnstaple (Sir B. Peto), that he would like to see the decision to cease the transaction of assurance business rescinded. He considered that the Post Office should get a chance of doing some insurance business. It is astonishing how very soon that brought up hon. Gentlemen who are solicitous for the insurance companies. I am afraid that the hon. Baronet who sits for Barnstaple will find that when he tackles this question of life insurance he will have up against him tremendous vested interests. I am afraid that the Postmaster-General who says, "Yes, I think it would be a fine-thing for the Post Office to do life insurance business for the country," will not have quite such a smooth passage as the right hon. Gentleman has had this afternoon. All the same, it is of some interest that the suggestion is put forward; and I am satisfied that sooner or later the country will have to look into-this question of life assurance and possibly find methods of dealing with it.
I want to add my appeal to those that have been made this afternoon on behalf of the Post Office staff. As a trade union secretary who has negotiated many agreements with employers, I am one of the first to realise that, if an agreement be arrived at with any employer, based upon a rise or fall in the cost of living, that agreement must of necessity be honoured and observed by both parties until such time as it is rescinded. I think that any talk about a Labour Government being in office, or a Conservative Government being in office, is quite beside the mark so long as the agreement is there, in operation. But I want to suggest that the time has surely come when this agreement should be scrapped. An agreement based upon the cost of living, upon a rise or a fall of the index figure, is altogether out of date. I may tell the Postmaster-General that the employers in my own industry realised that fact some three or four years ago, and willingly agreed with me for the scrapping of a cost-of-living index figure agreement. I think there must be consolidation; there must be a standard rate set up. I am also satisfied that the case of the lower-paid Post Office servant must receive special attention. If you can get rid of the cost-of-living index figure standard, then agree upon a consolidated standard, you must, I think, proceed farther and deal with the lower-paid Post Office servants.
When I examined the financial statement in connection with the Estimates, I felt like a shareholder in a very prosperous company. The chairman of the company in this case is the Postmaster-General, and the shareholders are the people of the nation; and he can congratulate them, in his annual review, on the surplus that has been made and on the flourishing condition of the department. I want to suggest this: that if the department is prosperous, if the Postmaster-General is able to show a surplus of £12,396,000, then, surely, if there be one time more than another when it would be not only right and proper but also opportune to consider raising the wages of the lower-paid Post Office servants, that time is now. I have met employers many times upon rates of wages, and they have nearly always suggested to me "The time is not opportune. We are making no profits. We are not doing well at all. A year or two back when we were doing well, we might have been able to consider the request." But the position of the Post Office to-day is that it has a handsome surplus. It is suggested, I think, by the Postmaster-General that the putting back of half of the cuts of 10 per cent. would cost £550,000. That is, after all, a comparatively small figure in a balance of over £12,000,000.
While I agree that the Postmaster-General is wise in putting back into the business a considerable amount of the surplus, yet I think that as concerns the Post Office, the old maxim many of us have put to all kinds of employers in all kinds of industries still holds good, and that is that the first charge upon an industry must always be the wages of the people employed in the industry. Figures have been quoted over and over again in this House which have proved that many men in the Post Office receive comparatively small wages, far less than they should recive for their responsibilities. I think that that is agreed on all hands. I hope and pray that when we are considering the Post Office Estimates in 12 months' time the Postmaster-General will be able to make generous provision for better conditions so far as Post Office employés are concerned.
The case has often been raised here of the auxiliary postmen. May I suggest that—anyway here in London—here is a problem which can be solved, gradually maybe, by reorganisation? After all, the Post Office is not the only business that has rush work at certain hours of the day and night. The transport people are able so to adjust their shifts that they can give men continuous employment and still have at certain hours of the day a considerably greater number of people actually at work than at other hours of the day. I am satisfied that this problem of organising the labour of the Post Office should not be beyond the wit of those who administer the Post Office. I also hope that when the question of the better conditions of Post Office employés is being considered the question of a shorter working week will also be considered. Surely if there is a Government Department in which a shorter working week should be experimented with, it is the Post Office.
There is one other point I want to mention. It was suggested by an hon. Lady that the Postmaster-General might consider the question of subsidising the air mail service. She complained that there was not sufficient advertising of the possibilities of the service. It appears to me that the Postmaster-General has done a very great deal during the last year in advertising the air mail service and bringing it prominently before the public, and I am satisfied that he has done really good work. But if it were a question of subsidising an air service why should not the Post Office buy its own aeroplanes and run its own service? Surely that would be far better than subsidising private companies, which exist only to make as large a profit as possible.
We who represent the public are immensely proud of our Post Office. Many jokes are made at the expense of the Post Office service and officials, but we are all conscious that we do get a really efficient service and one which becomes more efficient each year. We on the Labour Benches want to see the service well paid. We are proud of the service because it belongs to the people. We hope that the Postmaster-General will go on with his forward policy, will popularise his work and make telephones cheaper. I believe that, given cheaper telephones, the public and the Department will be surprised at the millions of new subscribers who will come in. On that part of the Postmaster-General's work we are heartily in accord with him and wish him well.
I do not propose to add my plea to that of other hon. Members who have spoken with regard to the wages of the lower grade servants of the Post Office, for I know my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General so well that I am satisfied there is no one who will be more pleased than he when he is in a position to revise the wages and the terms of service of his staff. I would say to those who have appealed to him that it is only right to remember that it is not only the lower grade servant of the Post Office who can reasonably claim to be taken into account in any review, but that there are other Departments of State employing a similar type of servant, and it would be quite unfair for the servants in any one Department to have preference over the servants in any other Department. I am sure hon. Members recognise that this matter affects not only the Post Office, but other Departments of the State.
It was interesting to hear some hon. Members claim that the great success of the Post Office was due to the fact that it was a Socialistic institution. It is nothing of the kind. It may be likened to a Socialistic institution, but it owes its origin and its record of profits for past years and this year to the fact that under a system of capitalism it has been possible to find out of the pockets of the taxpayers the £150,000,000 which is at present at the disposal of the Post Office. This organisation, having a turnover of £75,000,000 a year, is dependent upon £150,000,000 of capital which is lent to it by a fairy godfather in the person of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. But behind all that you have the vast majority of the people of this country, who in years gone by have contributed in rates and taxes and have made it possible for this vast organisation to be built up. The Post Office represents not a monument to Socialism, but a monument to the success of capitalism.
I was glad indeed to hear that this year the Post Office has made a record surplus, as it is called. I do not know whether that is appreciated by our Socialist friends, because they seem to abhor anything in the nature of profits. We call it a surplus, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend on it. But he is not the sole arbiter as to how this surplus is distributed. It is well to remember that for many years there has been rather a haphazard sort of view with regard to the contribution which the Post Office should make to the relief of the general taxes of the country. The bulk of this surplus to-day is not so much at the disposal of the Postmaster General as at the disposal of another right hon. Friend who is equally conspicuous in the discharge of his duties. I would give much to witness a tug-of-war or argument between the two right hon. Gentlemen as to how much should be taken from the Treasury and given for the development of the Post Office. In that particular case I would wish the Postmaster-General every success, though it may be that on another occasion I would wish my other right hon. Friend success.
I am certain there has been no Postmaster-General who has shown such ability, such enterprise and initiative as the present Postmaster-General. He has given the Government a lead in the way in which he has presented to the general public the goods which he has for sale. Mention has been made of greater use by the Post Office of the arts of advertisement. There are certain advantages in that. I am satisled that the efforts of my right hon. Friend are appreciated in the country as they are appreciated in this House. The reason for the enhanced feeling of good will towards the Post Office to-day finds its origin in the belief of the people that in our present Postmaster-General we have a sympathetic and industrious and competent Postmaster-General. That I can say without any disrespect to those who have preceded him. But it is important that advertising in connection with the Post Office should continue.
One further small point I would mention. The telegraph service shows the big deficit of £641,000. It is the lowest deficit there has been since 1917, but still it is a large sum. What is the Postmaster-General doing to reduce the deficit? I understand there is what is known as a night service telegram. I do not think it is generally known that by that service a person can send a telegram of 30 words at a cost of a shilling. It strikes me that that would be a very valuable means of communication, say between a commercial traveller and his firm. Have steps been taken to bring that service to the notice of the trading community? I suggest that the matter should be ventilated so that trading organisations in particular have knowledge of it, for I feel sure that it would provide a definite source of revenue. Then there is the question of the financial arrangements between the Exchequer and the Post Office. It is quite true that these were altered a short time ago. But is it not time for considering some new arrangement? If the Post Office is to increase its service by expanding its activities, is it right that the Post Office should continue willy willy and without proper consideration' just to hand over to the Treasury the surplus which arises from the Post Office's activities? It is handing over not only the product of its own activities, but something which really represents the enhanced price to Post Office customers. While I have the greatest sympathy with pleas for the increase of wages, it is also right to consider how soon the Post Office can reduce the charges which are now made. The sooner we get back to the penny post, for instance, the better it will be.
Then there are the financial arrangements with the British Broadcasting Corporation, which now has 6¼ million subscribers. I do not remember the date when the corporation's charter comes up for revision, or whether the Post Office has any right to a revision of the financial arrangements. I shall be glad if some information could be given on that point, and if we could be told whether the Postmaster-General is satisfied with the arrangement after the experience which has been gained during the past few years. Is the arrangement fair to the British Broadcasting Corporation, to the Post Office and the country? One small matter upon which there is some public interest is question of the 24-hour system. What is the official view of the Post Office with regard to it? Does the Post Office favour it? Was the Post Office in any sense responsible for the initiation of the experiment by the corporation? Has the Post Office bad any communication with the corporation, and what expression of view has been made with regard to it? Suppose that the 24-hour system were adopted, what would be the expense involved, and would the great inconvenience which would undoubtedly be caused be greater than the convenience? We might have an expression of the official view of the Post Office on the matter.
I rise for the purpose of making reference to a matter of which I gave my right hon. Friend notice, and to which my hon. Friend opposite has alluded. It is no derogation from the importance of the other matters mentioned to-day to say that the service of the British Broadcasting Corporation has a relation to the homes of the people of this country which cannot be surpassed by the work of any other branch of service with which the Post Office is connected. My hon. Friend alluded to the interest of the country in this matter, and he certainly did not exaggerate. I have desired, with other hon. Members, to ask the Government to give special attention to this matter of the broadcasting service, because within a comparatively short time this House will be called upon to frame a new charter. My hon. Friend made an inquiry as to the position of this
matter. May I inform the Committee what the position is, because it is not generally known? The charter, granted in 1926, expires in 1936. This House, on a Motion initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Springburn (Mr. Emmott), after a very interesting discussion, in February of last year, came to the conclusion that:
It would be contrary to the public interest to subject the British Broadcasting Corporation to any control by government or by Parliament other than the control already provided for in the charter and in the licence of the corporation.
I do not think that I should be rash if I ventured the opinion that this House is not likely to depart from the conclusion it came to in February, 1933. I am not inviting my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General to indicate to-night any substantial decision with regard to the British Broadcasting Corporation, but I want to say that I have been disturbed by disquieting reports, freely circulated in the Press, with regard to the various activities of the present administration. I have an open mind on these matters, although I have received a very considerable correspondence. I wish to say that I believe the administration is excellent and the service entirely admirable. I am making no complaint, but I am merely saying that some agitation is taking place outside the service, and I hope that it will induce the Government, as soon as the interests of public business permit, to enter upon the inquiry, which they must enter upon sooner or later, as to the arrangements which are to follow on the conclusion of the present Charter.
I wish to ask the Assistant Postmaster-General—I congratulate him on his share in the splendid work of his Department—to communicate to the right authority the view that, having regard to the obvious necessities of this matter, and the duty of the House in framing a new Charter within a comparatively short period, the necessary inquiry ought to be entered upon so that all relevant matters may be taken into consideration and the House may be placed in possession of the requisite information, so that when we have to consider the future of this fine service we may be able to do it on the best possible lines. I ask my hon. Friend to communicate that view, which is very widely held outside the House, to the proper authorities.
I join my colleagues in congratulating the Postmaster-General and the Assistant Postmaster-General on the efficiency with which they carry on their great Department, as shown by the Postmaster-General's speech. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Sir R. Hamilton) congratulated the Postmaster-General on the air mail service to the Orkney Islands, and said that no surcharge was made. I think he expressed the delight of his constituents at that fact. I am very much concerned about the high mail charges for Imperial air mail services. If hon. Members will look at the Post Office pamphlet, issued under the heading "Air Mail," and turn to the ready reckoner they will find that on the Empire air mail service the charge for letters, for the first half ounce, is: Egypt and Palestine, 3½d.; India and Ceylon, by air to Karachi, 6d.; Straits Settlements and Malay States, 11d.; the Sudan, 5d.; Kenya, 7d.; Northern aid Southern Rhodesia 9d.; South Africa, 10d., and so on.
I submit that these rates are far too high, and I should like to know why we cannot have a flat rate. People who want to send mails by air cannot go into all the figures. There is a whole batch of figures in the pamphlet. The whole question needs a thorough overhaul. I put a question to the Postmaster-General earlier in the week, and asked him if he could reduce the air mail rates, not only for internal air services but on the Imperial air mail routes at present being operated. The answer that I received was:
The air postage rates on the Imperial services are constantly under review, and are fixed as low as possible consistent with the avoidance of actual loss."—[OFFICIAL REPORT-, 4th June, 1934; col. 563, Vol. 290.]
That is scarcely the answer that we should have got from Rowland Hill. When Rowland Hill introduced the penny postage, or, rather, advocated the penny postage in 1840, there were only something like 80,000,000 letters handled by the Post Office, but in one year after the penny post was introduced the numbers went up to 170,000,000, and 30 years afterwards they went up to 800,000,000. If the Postmaster-General will only reduce the air mail rates I am certain that more letters will go by air.
It is no good the Assistant-Postmaster-General shaking his head. He has to take risks. You must take risks. With the efficiency of the air service, which is going up by leaps and bounds every year, the public will demand that more letters be carried by air. I submit that the Postmaster-General does not show great vision by answering me in the way he did. Who will benefit by a development of air mail services? The Postmaster-General will benefit. He will get more revenue. The Treasury will benefit, because subsidies may be done away with if the air mail services are great enough to bring profit to the companies. The Air Ministry would benefit, because they would have a great reserve of pilots and machines that might be useful in emergency. The great air mail service would be exactly like the mercantile marine is to the Navy, and would be available for the Secretary of State for Air, should he require it. It would also help the aircraft industry, because they would get more orders to provide more machines. The whole question of whether the air cannot carry more mail services should be considered. I think that in the near future all first-class mail matter will be sent by air, and the sooner the Postmaster-General faces up to that the better.
I come to the question which the hon. Lady the Member for West Willesden (Mrs. Tate) mentioned, namely, an air mail stamp. I went to the General Post Office on the invitation of the hon. Member for Bromley (Sir E. Campbell), the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Postmaster-General, who showed me over the building. I saw one of the heads of the Post Office and discussed with him the introduction of an air mail stamp. He said that it was not necessary, would not bring in any revenue, and that people did not want it. He did not impress me very much. We went down into the room where they were sorting the air mail, and I said to one of the sorters, "Would you care to have an air mail stamp?" He said "Yes, we should prefer it, some of these blue labels get torn off." He took a view opposite that taken by the official higher up in the Post Office, who did not think it worth while introducing an air mail stamp. I submit that the Post Office will be negligent in their duty if they do not explore all sources of revenue. What revenue would be obtained by introducing an air mail stamp? Some 60 nations already have an air mail stamp, and they have not introduced them just for fun but because they get a profit. I maintain that the Postmaster-General will be negligent in his duty if he does not explore all avenues of revenue, and I am certain that philatelists all over the world would welcome an air mail stamp.
The right hon. Gentleman has told us that he is devoting £250,000 to a new staff. I hope he will allow the staff to go into the question of air mails and see if there cannot be a reduction in the rates to a low flat rate. He is also devoting £8,000,000 to new developments. Is any of that money going to developing the air mail services? It is a most important matter. The question was raised by the hon. Lady the Member for West Willesden in a very able speech. We want more letters carried by air. This is not entirely a departmental question, it is a national question. People will demand very soon the handling of their mails with great speed. The air can give them that. We must have vision in this matter, and I hope the Assistant Postmaster-General will go to his chief and say "We want a little more vision in the air service."
I desire, first of all, to address a question to the Assistant Postmaster-General relative to short wave radio telephone experiments. I understand that an experimental radio telephone link, using ultra short waves, has been in commercial operation over the Bristol Channel since October, 1932, with satisfactory results, and the particular question I wish to put to the hon. Member is this: what is the result of further experiments which, I understand, have been carried out across the channel with a view to operating a multiple link, involving the use of six circuits simultaneously? The Committee will appreciate that there are considerable possibilities in the use of this type of service over sea routes, such as those across the English Channel, and that the cost of this service is less than that of submarine cable circuits. My chief purpose in addressing the Committee to-night is to refer in a few sentences to a topic of great importance, to which the Postmaster-General briefly referred in the extremely able and interesting speech which he made to the Committee this afternoon. I mean television. This latest product of the inventive genius of man is now beginning to pass out of the stage of experiment. I do not wish to go too far, but I think it is not inaccurate to say that we are within reach of the general use of television for the purposes of entertainment and, shall I say, of instruction.
What contribution television will make to the happiness of mankind is a question of great importance and interest, but it is one which I am not prepared to discuss to-night. If a system of television were in general operation to-day I do not know what advantage there would be in visiting Epsom Downs to witness the winning by "Windsor Lad" of a great classic race. But I do not propose to expatiate on that aspect of this topic. This however is certain. The inventive genius of man must have full and free scope for development; and it is not the least important of the duties which we here have to discharge to ensure the establishment of conditions favourable to the development of that genius. Television is at present operated by the British Broadcasting Corporation. Not very long ago the Corporation reduced the opportunities for television which had been available up to that time. A reduction, I understand, was made from four occasions a week to two. What was the reason for this reduction? They can hardly be blamed who find in this act an evidence of a lack of sympathy in the Corporation towards television. I do not assert that the British Broadcasting Corporation are unsympathetic to television, but I say that there is evidence for the view that there is in the Corporation a certain lack of sympathy for this particular invention. If this is the case, it may well be that this House, when it comes to consider the matter, will insist upon an arrangement different from the present one by which the British Broadcasting Corporation remains responsible for television.
The whole subject of television has been remitted to a committee by the Postmaster-General for investigation and report. That report will be awaited by the House and the country with great interest, and I hope it will not be long delayed. In the meantime all I am doing in these few moments is to suggest certain considerations by which, I believe, this subject should be governed. The whole matter raises technical questions of great importance. Those who will be charged with the duty of deciding them will have to decide what in fact is the best system of television. Is there an alternative, involving a choice between a British invention and inventions which are not British? Statements have recently appeared, I am informed, in the American Press to the effect that American interests propose, or hope to capture the British television industry. We do not ask any favour for a British invention if it is inferior to an invention which is not British. All we ask is that if there is a choice between a British invention and inventions that are not British, a fair trial shall be given to the British invention. We ask no more, but we ask no less. Although I do not know what view the House may ultimately take when it comes to consider the matter, I shall be much surprised if it will consent to the establishment of a system other than British and under British control. I press with great urgency upon the right hon. Gentleman the necessity of making every effort to develop, by speedy and sympathetic encouragement, a British system of television.
The Postmaster-General and his staff on 364 days in the year are targets for popular abuse. The Post Office's activities touch us all, perhaps two or three times every day, and the general public show little hesitation about telling the Postmaster-General, through the telephone and the music hall, by letters and public speeches, exactly what they think of him and of his staff. But once a year the House of Commons has an opportunity of speaking in a more deliberate way than is usual with people who have personal grievances and the tone throughout this Debate has been one of whole-hearted approval and admiration for the Post Office and all who work in it. The sums of money handled by the Post Office as a business organisation are extremely large. The detailed sums which are handled by it are often extremely small. The Post Office employs officers of all types and all degrees of education and upbringing and what must strike all of us is the singular honesty which pervades every section of that great public service. Occasionally, we see in the Press unfortunate lapses which are followed by prosecutions, but when one considers how extensive is the handling of money throughout every grade of the service, we must be convinced that the Postmaster-General is served by a staff which is both honest and efficient.
Then I think we owe a word of thanks to the supervising staff for the manner in which they keep our letter-boxes free from improper and indecent literature. Occasionally, in spite of the Postmaster-General's vigilance, literature does reach us of a kind which should never have had the porterage of His Majesty's postal service, but I have found, and friends of mine have found, that complaints on that score are always attended to sympathetically and effectively and it is only right that the Postmaster-General should be told that that work is much appreciated by those who benefit from it. It would also be unfitting if one who has to live so closely with the poor, as I have to do, did not on an occasion like this to enter a plea for the better payment of the lower grades among the Post Office workers. I represent a poor constituency in London and because my constituency is within walking distance of the General Post Office hundreds of members of the Post Office staff live there. The straits to which they are reduced in endeavouring to maintain a respectable appearance in life are simply pitiable. It is true that we have all been subject to cuts but I hope that the Postmaster-General at the earliest opportunity will give a chilly welcome, as it were, to the accountants and establishment officers who advise him on these matters and will turn his own personal attention, not to the salaries of the higher or middle grades of officials but to the remuneration of the postmen, the counter hands and similar officers who work so efficiently for him and for us.
We of the general public do not come into close personal contact with the organising staff at the Post Office, but we come into contact with the Postmaster-General here and we come into contact with the outdoor workers and the counter hands every day of our lives. We benefit at their hands, and we would be ungrateful if we did not put forward a plea that they should receive the personal consideration of the Postmaster-General. I notice as I travel about the country that Post Office buildings are improving in size, in quality and in convenience. That must be due, in some measure, to the architects department of the Post Office. I hope the Postmaster-General will take the first opportunity of looking into the salary list to see whether his architect, a professional man of some eminence, and his architectural staff are rewarded in a manner commensurate with the remuneration of other special branches of the establishment. I would also ask the Committee to refer for a moment to page 49 of the Estimates from which they will find that the resident assistant medical officer is rewarded with £150 a year. I take it that the resident assistant medical officer is on night duty at the General Post Office. It is in the night that catastrophes happen, that lifts fall down and people are gravely damaged. Medical and surgical emergencies frequently occur in the night. If the right hon. Gentleman himself while working overtime, as he often does, were unfortunately seized with illness it would be a pity if a young resident assistant medical officer rewarded with £150 a year represented the full measure of medical attention available for His Majesty's Postmaster-General, perhaps on a cold night in mid-winter.
I have heard statements from hon. Members on the benches below me to the effect that the Post Office staff should be reorganised so as to create more per manent employment. Reorganisation is attractive to administrative minds, but the opportunity of earning a little money in the Post Office at Christmas and other times of pressure is very welcome among the poor and the unemployed. The more you organise the less opportunity, unfortunately, there is for the very poorest to gather occasionally these crumbs that fall from the rich man's table. Therefore, I hope that if the lower branches be reorganised we shall not exclude the possibility of taking on extra hands at times of pressure because such opportunities of work are most gratefully received in the poorer districts. Post Office workers whom I have met up and down the country in the last few years show a pride in their work of which previously
I had not been conscious. That must be due to the fact that the Postmaster-General has stuck to his job and got to know his staff. There was a song we used to sing:
Stick close to your desks, and never go to sea,
And you all may be rulers of the Queen's Navee.
In the past the Postmaster-General has never been anything but a wanderer from post to post, but the present Postmaster-General has stuck to his job. He has learned to know those who work for him, and a spirit of personal knowledge and friendliness has grown through the whole of the staff, which is wholly admirable, and by that we benefit. Therefore, much as I appreciate the Postmaster-General's ability, I hope that when the early reshuffling of the Cabinet takes place, with which the newspapers threaten us every Sunday, the Prime Minister will turn a blind eye towards the abilities of the Postmaster-General. That is selfish, but it is sincere and complimentary.
Just one word dealing with the East End of London. A little while ago I was at the opening of a new exchange of the telephone service for my area, and the opening was very well done by the hon. Member for Bromley (Sir E. Campbell). I believe also that he has opened many other telephone exchanges with an ability and an engaging efficiency that the Press has recorded, but I hope that at times he will wander around the ancient Post Offices in the East End of London. There we have a central Eastern Office. My population is a little cosmopolitan, and at Christmas time and at various ceremonial seasons of the year when greetings are despatched to Scotland and various countries of Central Europe, the air in the crowded central Post Office in my district is distinctly lethal. Furthermore, at Christmas time so busy is the work that the Postmaster-General has to extend his staff by taking whitewashed tubs, filling them with earth and scaffold poles, and then erecting a tarpaulin extension outside in the Mile End Road. I hope he will have the time, and the money, and the wish to see whether the East End of London is sufficiently served by the cubic space of the Post Office in which the work is done.
I fail to find in these Estimates a matter which interests me, and that is a record of the money spent upon research. It may be shown in the engineering Department, but there is a magnificent research Department on one of the northern hills overlooking London. Those of us who watch the growth of the Post Office with keen interest know that its future depends very much upon scientific research; perhaps in future Estimates we shall be able to watch from year to year the growth of the research Department as we watch through the Estimates, as recorded in these papers, its staff and its expenditures.
Memory is short, so that, in spite of all that has been said in praise of the work of the Post Office, I wonder how many of us have cast our minds back, not so many years, to the time when a Post Office was a dirty building and the staff, unfortunately, were renowned for their slovenliness rather than for their efficiency. I think it says a great deal for the present administration at the Post Office that in something like the same way as Signor Mussolini has roused Italy, so the Postmaster-General has roused the Post Office staff to feel a pride in the organisation to which they belong. I think this redounds to the credit, not only of the Postmaster-General, but of the Assistant Postmaster-General and also of my hon. Friend to whom the Postmaster-General referred as their firm but indulgent master.
My right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General referred, in the early part of this Debate, to his interest in the air mail, but some of us, and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for West Willesden (Mrs. Tate) and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Hertford (Sir M. Sueter), who have preceded me in speaking on this matter, will, I feel sure, agree that this little seed of interest which the Postmaster-General says he has planted has not yet blossomed forth as fully as we might have hoped. I would not at this stage criticise my right hon. Friend for that omission, because, as I see the whole sphere of Post Office work, he has an immense amount of reformation, reconstitution, improvement, and development to undertake. He has announced to the Committee this afternoon a large number of improvements in the Post Office service, and I hope and believe that my right hon. Friend is just about to tackle with the same efficiency that he has indicated in all these other sides of Post Office activity this important question of the air mail.
I feel that the Postmaster-General is in a somewhat difficult position in this connection, because he has nobody, as I understand it, on his staff who can properly advise him on these aeronautical problems. He must, therefore, depend on another Government Department, and most unfortunately for him and for the air mail, he has to depend upon the Air Ministry. I say that for this reason, that the Air Ministry, if one looks at the Votes over which it has jurisdiction, is a 97 per cent. military department and a 3 per cent. civil department, and the civil side of the Air Ministry is not a technical side. It consists of clerical officers, who, able though they be, merely pass over the requests for information on aeronautical subjects that the Postmaster-General sends to them to the military side of the Air Ministry itself. Hon. and right hon. Members will know that between the military side of aviation and the air mail there is "a great gulf fixed," and this was no more amply demonstrated than in America, when the military service attempted, with such signal failure and loss of life, to operate the civil air mail service. If my right hon. Friend wants information other than from the Air Ministry, I believe that sometimes he may be of a mind to appeal to Imperial Airways, but that, I would suggest, is a very dangerous procedure. Imperial Airways, efficient though it be as a passenger-carrying organisation, would itself admit, I fancy, that it is not laid out primarily for the carriage of mails. It is, to be quite faithful, a very slow but safe service.
The essence of the air, particularly in reference to the mails, is speed, and it is upon that point that I want to address a few words to my right hon. Friend or the Assistant Postmaster-General. The absence of the appreciation of this fact by Government Departments is well instanced in the recent case of the air mail to Australia. If my hon. Friend will look up, some time, the terms of the tender for that service, he will see that while America is flying at over 200 miles an hour and many of the Continental countries at speeds approaching that figure, the tender for the air mail service from Singapore to Australia asked for a speed not less than 95 miles per hour. A friend of mine inquired of the appropriate authorities in Australia why they asked for a speed which was suited only to the development of aeronautics 15 years ago, and the answer was that they were told by the experts in the Government concerned that that was all they might reasonably expect. That view is typical of the bad, out-of-date advice that the Post Office is continually being given by those who are not in a position to advise them expertly and whose only claim to speak at all is that they happen to know something about flying and to be another Government Department.
If there be one feature in the present administration of the Post Office which I admire more than another, it is the ability which my right hon. Friend shows of thinking and acting radically. I want him in this case to review the whole situation, and I would suggest to him that the principle which he has adopted in connection with television of setting up a special committee might very well be followed in the case of the air mail. There happen to be a number of public spirited individuals, and I would mention, in particular, the civil aviation section of the London Chamber of Commerce, who have given a great deal of consideration to the question of the air mails. They do not look at it from a military point of view, and they would not be satisfied with a speed of 95 miles per hour. I would like to suggest to my right hon. Friend, if he will to-morrow read my speech, that he should obtain for his service and advice a small body of folk who have made a study not of military aeronautics, but of the air mail and the types of craft which are necessary for a modern air mail service. So much for that point.
With regard to what my hon. Friend the Member for West Willesden and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Hertford have said on the necessity of having a standard air mail fee, that obviously must come. But I am one who tries to get to-morrow what I feel can be obtained to-morrow, and as I look round I fear that we may have to wait possibly a little time before the administrations concerned swallow the whole of that bait. In the meantime I ask myself what may we fairly hope for as being the next step, and the next step which I feel my right hon. Friend might take is to speed up the air mail. In this connection, there are some very significant factors, which, I believe, have not been previously considered by the Post Office authorities. In Europe the air mail is, in spite of its great increase over the last few years, a negligible proportion of the total passenger, freight, and mail load carried by each civil aircraft on an average flight. But if we turn to the air mail to India, we find that for the last period for which I have figures, the ton-miles of mail carried are 28 per cent. in excess of the ton-miles for passengers, which means that in connection with the Indian mail the -air mail should be calling the tune. But is it? On the contrary, we are flying in aircraft which have an average cruising speed of something like 100 to 110 miles an hour. We have eight to 10 hours flying a day and shut down for the other 14, so if we take the average speed of this air mail it is something between 30 and 40 miles per hour.
I heard from a friend of mine who keeps me informed of air mail improvements and developments in America that one of the latest American mail planes has flown from coast to coast, from San Francisco to New York, a distance, I believe, of 2,750 miles, in 11 hours and 23 minutes. If we had a craft of British manufacture such as that—and there is no reason why we should not if the demand" were created by the Post Office—we should be flying to India with the mail, not in five days as at present, but in under 24 hours. Another point which might appeal to my right hon. Friend is that we do not ask for speed merely because it gives quicker delivery, but, as I think he will agree, because it encourages business. If we compare the figures of our slow air mail to India with the figures of the fast Dutch air mail from Holland to the Dutch East Indies, we shall see that, in spite of the fact that we are in an infinitely superior position to obtain air mail for our great Dominions, the Dutchman is carrying more mail than we ourselves are doing. My right hon. Friend has only to inaugurate a fast instead of an ambling air mail service, and he would see his volume of mail would go up by leaps and bounds. The present is also a very significant and opportune moment, because we have now reached the point where the average load of mail on the Indian air mail service is about 900 lbs. per machine. That is a very convenient weight with which to fill one of these high speed air mail craft. I want him therefore to consider radically in the manner in which he is tackling all his other problems, whether the time has not come for deciding once and for all that, when we have an adequate volume of mails such as this 900 lbs. a week, it must be separated from the relatively slow passenger service, and put on to fast air mail carrying machines.
The other point to which I would direct my right hon. Friend's attention is the question of the night air mails. I had the opportunity on the Debate on the Adjournment before the Whitsuntide Recess of referring to this matter. I want to recall to my right hon. Friend its significance in connection with commerce. Germany each week operates 98 separate air mail services. This country operates either in Europe or in England—none. I do not think any hon. Member will say that that redounds greatly to the credit of this country or of the Postmaster-General, but, as I said, I believe he is feeling his way, that he is just about to do big things in the development of the air mail, and I trust one of the big things he will do is to develop night air mail services on those routes where early delivery the following morning will be a benefit to the commercial community.
With regard to the first point, the flat air mail rate, obviously that matter is solely within the jurisdiction of the Post Office; but on the question of the speeding up of the mails and of running night air mail services this does involve, unfortunately, as we are at present organised, both the Post Office and the Air Ministry. Any hon. Member who has listened to the replies of my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General and my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Air when any questions have been asked on this subject will know that they are playing a political game of Box and Cox. I appeal to them to get together on this matter, in so far as it is within their Jurisdiction. It is very unsatisfactory to the commercial community to be told that they must look to the Air Ministry, and by the Air Ministry that the Post Office is really the villain of the piece. I believe we shall never get any signal development, for which, Heaven knows, the time is now ripe, and overripe, unless the Postmaster-General realises this basic fact, that the initiative must come from him. The Air Ministry is not interested in the air mail as such; it is a military Department, and it will only be dragooned into action by the enthusiasm of the Postmaster-General, Rowland Hill is remembered by every hon. Member as the man whom we have to thank for the penny post, and I believe my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General has a great opportunity of going down in the history of the Post Office of this country as the man who made the air mail. I trust that by the time, 12 months hence, we come to discuss his Department again, he will have launched forth on a bold air mail programme such as will redound both to his own credit and the credit of the National Government.
We have had a fairly long discussion on the Post Office Vote, and I think those who have taken part in it may not only compliment the Postmaster-General on the very fine report which he had to submit, but also congratulate themselves on the interesting Debate which has followed, in which some subjects of outstanding interest have been ventilated. The last speaker and the hon. Lady the Member for West Willesden (Mrs. Tate) sought to induce the Postmaster-General to set up an inquiry if he were not prepared immediately to inaugurate an air mail service. The hon. Member for West Willesden desired to have subsidies in order to maintain the service—I should imagine during the period when it was in its infancy. But if there is to be any development of an air mail service in this country the matter ought first to be gone into carefully by the Postmaster-General and his advisers, so that any service may be put into operation under the best possible conditions, and not in an experimental fashion. The speediest air craft possible should be employed from the very commencement. Critics, in the House or outside, ought to be given no ground for criticising the Department for starting a service not worthy of the British Post Office. The matter should be gone into without delay by the Post Office authorities, and, if possible, they should start a service between certain industrial and business areas in the country. It might be possible to institute very soon an air service in Britain between several of the big commercial and industrial areas in order to see how it was appreciated by business firms in those areas and whether it helped to stimulate trade; and I am certain that as the result of such an experiment it would be possible to develop it not only generally over the country but to extend it to the far-flung British Empire.
Another proposal with which I heartily agree is the necessity for an inquiry into television. The hon. Member for Spring-burn (Mr. Emmott) spoke very eloquently on the subject, and, I should say, authoritatively, at least as authoritatively as the developments of television permit. Here is another subject which might be taken up by the Post Office. Usually they wait until matters have been developed by outside parties and then come in at the end, when they are unable to get out of the particular system all the advantages they ought to have derived from it had they taken it up at the proper moment. A year or two ago we regarded television as placing the people of this country almost in the position of the sorcerers of whom we used to read in the Arabian Nights. To be able to view incidents happening miles away as though they were occurring in the immediate atmosphere before our eyes was regarded as being on the borderline of witchcraft. But I think it is now a generally accepted fact that in television we have something which can be of great material advantage not merely in commerce and industry, but can also serve us in the matter of amusement and recreation.
Complaints have been directed against the Post Office or, rather, against the British Broadcasting Corporation, respecting the programmes of music and talks broadcast over the ether. I possess a wireless set but I am so seldom at home that I cannot have the advantage of it. I therefore do not know whether those complaints are justified. When I am at home, so many jazz tunes come over that I shut the wireless down. I detest the very sound of a jazz tune, and I will not have it flung into the atmosphere of my home life. There have been so many complaints from so many different quarters that one is tempted to apply the old saying that there cannot be smoke without fire. The charter of the Corporation runs out in 1936, and it is high time that a committee of inquiry were set up to go into the question of the British Broadcasting Corporation, its methods of control, its operation, the way in which it is conducted and whether it is possible to evolve a better scheme which would give complete satisfaction to those who pay for the programmes by taking out a licence, or would, at least, reduce complaints to the lowest possible number.
Most of the subjects which one has in mind at the commencement of a Debate are touched upon by those who speak, and they gradually fade from one's mind altogether. One may remember them, but nothing is left upon which to speak without repeating speeches which have already been delivered. There are, however, one or two things which I wish to remind the Assistant Postmaster-General to deal with when he replies. There is the comparison which has been made between the large surplus shown in the Post Office accounts and the low wages that are paid to a certain section of the employes. A request has been made that the conditions of those employés should be reconsidered with a view to giving them an increase which will put them beyond the scale which they now receive, and which, in spite of its having been slightly augmented by a cost-of-living bonus, is not one that can be regarded as satisfactory for those who are placed in responsible positions in the Post Offic. I hope that the Assistant Postmaster-General will give some satisfaction to us on that point.
There is the question of the penny post. It may seem strange that a Labour Member should put forward that plea, but, while it may be put forward by those who are interested in commercial enterprises who send out large numbers of letters every day—I do not deny that a reduction might be an inducement to some firms to make a greater use of the Post Office to get into touch with prospective customers—the point that weighs with me is that the three-halfpenny stamp, which is used for the one-ounce postal packet, is a relic of the War. Postage was increased during the War to 2d. for what had previously been carried for one penny, and then it was reduced to three-halfpence. Now that the Department shows a profit of over £12,000,000, there is an opportunity to consider bringing back the old postal price for the one-ounce packet.
There are many families in Britain to whom the sending of a letter frequently is beyond their incomes. In the case of many people, we are back to conditions similar to those of the incident related in connection with Rowland Hill. An old lady got a letter and would not open it because it had no stamp. The officials wanted to charge her the price of a letter delivered without a stamp. She felt the envelope and then handed it back. The feel of the envelope gave her the knowledge that there was nothing in it, and that informed her that her husband was keeping quite well and that there was no need for her to worry. That is the story that we used to read in school in Scotland in connection with the institution of the penny stamp. There are many families to whom the sending of postal packets is almost as difficult as was payment for the unstamped envelope to that woman.
My last point may seem trivial and trifling. It arose a week or two ago in my constituency. An individual has been refused employment in the Post Office, even as a temporary man at the New Year, because he was under height. I notice that the Assistant Postmaster-General nods his head. Let me point out that there is no height limit for the Postmaster-General. He may have reached the, height politically, but there is no minimum limit for his height as an individual. The man who complained to me took out of his pocket a packet of medals and said, "They did not reject me on account of my height when I had to go out and get these things." I submit that it is not a matter of height, carrying a bag of envelopes containing letters to distribute to various houses, shops or business premises. I cannot for the life of me see why this action is taken.
I have seen individuals in drapery establishments who were not very tall, and they always got up to the top shelves and gave you what you wanted. I suggest that this matter might be gone into as well. This is a nonsensical method, measuring good postmen by inches. Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that a 5½-foot or 6-foot individual will make a better postman than the man who is 5¼-foot? There has been quite an avalanche to-day of good wishes thrown at the Postmaster-General, and, I take it, also at the Assistant Postmaster-General. I wish to associate myself quite happily with what has been said. The Postmaster-General, when he sat in this corner, used to be constantly jagging at Labour Ministers, always getting up perkily and making them sit up. Had he not been the man he is, had he conducted himself in his position other than he has done, we would have done just as much as we possibly could to make him realise that he is in a position where we could jag him. He is, however, the one Member in the Cabinet who has made it absolutely impossible for Members to harass him at Question Time, or find it possible to-day, when he presents his Estimates, to put a case that would cause him embarrassment, or would make it impossible for him to ride off with flying colours against criticisms of himself.
The outstanding feature of these Estimates is the welcome announcement of the diminution in the charges for telephones. I have no doubt that the approval given to the proposal by this House will be cordially endorsed by the country to-morrow morning. Since that announcement a number of interesting points have been raised by various Members, and on the whole it has been an extremely pleasant discussion. I do not think the Assistant Postmaster-General has ever had a more easy task than I have to-night. In passing, I would say a brief word about the adoption for public service of the 24-hour clock. I should like to say that in my opinion the Governors of the British Broadcasting Corporation deserve the thanks of the community for bringing before them the meaning and the method of the system which, whether you agree with it or not, is in use among the peoples of Europe and in the great Dominion of India. I do deprecate some of the unreasoning attacks on the British Broadcasting Corporation in this connection. Terms like autocracy, dictatorship or even impertinence seem to me completely out of place in connection with what my right hon. Friend described as a very interesting and useful experiment. The position of the Postmaster-General in the matter is that he has an open mind on the question. We shall await the report of the British Broadcasting Corporation; then he will consider it and reach a decision.
A number of speeches have been delivered on the subject of industrial assurance. I should like to say a word about that. Various Members have called attention to the present position of industrial assurance in this country, and suggested that in view of its defects the Post Office should resurrect its old policy of running life assurance. A great deal has been said about the conditions attaching to the present system in vogue in the country. I hold no brief whatever for existing methods of industrial assurance in Great Britain. But we are not concerned to-night with the ethics of industrial assurance. We are concerned only with the question whether it is incumbent on the Post Office to resurrect its old plans for industrial assurance. In the report of the Departmental Committee, which came out last July, there is no mention or suggestion that the Post Office should take on the work of industrial assurance, but the Financial Secretary to the Treasury made a statement some time ago in this House to the effect that the Government were considering carefully this very important report, and there the matter rests to-day. I am afraid that the Post Office system of life assurance had a very chequered and unfortunate career from the start. It goes back to 1864, but from the first, in spite of efforts to popularise it by lowering premiums and so forth, it never got hold of the people of this country adequately, and never became popular. Throughout its history from 1864 to 1928, the annual number of new policies was 506 and during the last 10 years there were only 293 fresh policies a year. In 1928 the Committee on Estimates advised that in view of the immense strength of commercial insurance companies, the necessary restriction of Post Office funds to British Government securities—and that is a very important point financially—and the extreme difficulty of competing seriously for new business, the Post Office life assurance business should be discontinued. And so on 1st January, 1929, this came to pass.
The hon. Member may read into this report what he thinks. There were then in existence 10,000 insurance policies, which of course have continued since. In view of the facts the question of whether we are prepared to restart assurance, answers itself. I am very loth to say that any enterprise under the present Head of the Post Office and his exceedingly capable staff would not succeed, but I do hold the opinion that the prospects of business in this direction are very small. In view of the immense efforts that would have to be made by individual canvassing in order to increase it, the outlay would be out of all proportion to any results likely to accrue. Although we cannot see our way to re-introduce the old system, our annuity business, of course, goes on as before.
Several hon. Members have spoken with considerable warmth on the vexed question of the employment of women telephonists between the hours of 8 and 11 in the evening. This question was discussed for a number of years in the Post Office, and the decision was based on the recommendation in the Bridgeman Report. The normal practice, as hon. Members know, has been to staff exchanges after 8 o'clock with full-time men telephonists and with part-time men. Many of these part-time men have already done a day's work, and, naturally, as has been pointed out, they are not so alert or capable of doing the work as a trained girl whose normal employment it is. Moreover, I am afraid we must face the fact that women are rightly regarded as better telephonists than men. In all the circumstances, we think that the employment of girls as recommended by the Bridgeman Committee is a sound proposal, and we intend to go through with it. It must not be forgotten that in many other countries girl telephonists are employed up to midnight, and sometimes all night continuously.
The scheme for the employment of women telephonists up to 11 at night is framed on the following lines, which I would like hon. Members to consider before they make up their minds on this question. In the case of the existing staff, employment after 8 p.m. will be voluntary, and no volunteer will be required to work these late hours more than one week in four. That fact is nearly always suppressed by those who attack the system. It means that in practice girl telephonists will be required to work during these hours one week in four. Extra payment will be made for duty after 8 p.m., at the rate of 4d. an hour on week-days and 6d. an hour on Sundays. That will amount to a sum of 5s. at the end of the week—a not unacceptable addition to the girl's salary. With regard to the suggestions which are often made that this will lead to loss of work by male telephonists, I would like hon. Members to note that no full-time male telephonist, and no part-time man whose telephone work forms the main part of his employment, will be dismissed as a result of the scheme. I think that the criticisms directed against the scheme will be found on examination to be weak and feeble, and we have made up our minds to go through with what we regard as a just and reasonable reform in the Post Office. As is well known, opposition to the scheme has been offered by the staff associations, but I resent the charge, made by one hon. Member opposite, of victimisation. There is no victimisation about it whatever. No girl is prevented from being offered promotion because of her refusal to work these late hours, and, although we may be compelled under the new system, when girls refuse to work these late hours, to move them to another place——
It is only a matter of spacing the hours. As regards the feeling about the men, which I share, and the opinion that it might cause them loss of work, I should like to say that as yet no men have been dismissed as a result of the scheme, and the Post Office, which as has been mentioned by the hon. Member opposite, is a very humane employer, does not dismiss its employés if it can possibly help it.
The Noble Lord the Member for Alder-shot (Viscount Wolmer) asked me whether a new sorting machine has been imported into this country for use, and, as that is rather an important topic, I venture to say a word upon it. A number of mechanical sorting machines have been investigated by the British Post Office for some 18 months, and at last we have discovered a Dutch machine which appears to offer possibilities of use as a mechanical sorter. Two such machines are working in Rotterdam at the present moment, and have been in use, one for four years and the other for two years; and I am told—it is somewhat lukewarm praise—that neither has broken down for any considerable period or has given any serious trouble. The machine appears to be suitable for offices of medium size, and so we have selected Brighton as the site of the new experiment, in which the staff there are very much interested. We have been training a number of sorters and four postmen since March last, and at about the middle of June the experiment will be commenced at Brighton.
The ever present question of wages has been raised in a very temperate and reasonable way by the hon. Member for Linehouse (Mr. Attlee) and by the hon. Member for West Walthamstow (Mr. McEntee). All that I wish to say tonight is that the question of increased wages can only be considered after the consolidation question is out of the way, and in that connection I should like to quote a statement by the hon. Member for Limehouse, a former Postmaster-General. He said that it must be remembered that the Post Office was a branch of the Government, and could not act independently of the Government or of the Treasury, but that the desire of the staff for improved salaries had his entire sympathy. It has our sympathy on this side also——
That is true, but a fund of £2,000,000 would not go very far to meet the demand made on the hon. Gentleman which meant something like £4,500,000. The hon. Member for East Cardiff (Mr. T. Morris) asked me a question, which has been asked before, about the importation of foreign timber into England for Post Office purposes. A certain amount of attention has been paid to the topic in the Press. Last year the number of home-grown poles used was 16,000, side by side with 95,000 imported poles. In the present year for the first time the number of home-grown poles considerably exceeds foreign, the figures being 15,000 against 10,000. This is a satisfactory result due very largely to the ability of our Post Office inspectors. We shall do our best next year to meet our needs from our own forests. Practically all the foreign timber that we use comes from Finland, Sweden and Norway. We have explored every channel by which we can secure supplies of suitable timber from Imperial sources, but, there are various difficulties in the way. Questions of freight and price come in and also the quality of the wood. Whereas we already know the admirable qualities of the Baltic timber and our own Scotch pine, we are still ignorant of how some of the hard woods from the Dominions would stand the vagaries of our climate, and it will take a period of many years before we can be certain on the point. While there is an abundance of soft wood that could be used, we have to have regard to freight charges. Investigation initiated last year by the High Commissioners for Canada and Newfoundland led to no result. I should like to utter this word of warning, that, in view of the development of underground cables, the Post Office for some time is not likely to come into the market for many stout poles.
I will certainly bear in mind what my hon. Friend the Member for South Nottingham (Mr. Knight) said about our relations with the British Broadcasting Corporation, but my right hon. Friend regards as premature any attempt to discuss, by means of a Select Committee or otherwise, the financial position or other conditions in view of the fact that the licence does not terminate until 1936.
Will my hon. Friend point out to the Postmaster-General that the time is rapidly running out? There is a good deal of ground to be surveyed and the Bill itself will probably take some time to discuss. There is a good deal of work to be done.
There is time to do much between now and 1936, but I will bear in mind what my hon. Friend says and bring it to my right hon. Friend's notice. The hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Maitland) mentioned night telegraph letters. I do not think that service is sufficiently known. In the smoking room of a London Club the other night I found that not a quarter of the people had ever heard of it, and probably the smoking room of the House of Commons is just as badly informed. The hon. Member was not quite correct as to the number of words. It is not 30 but 36. Although this system was previously confined to a small number of towns, it was extended last year to practically every postal area in Great Britain, with the exception of a few remote islands. Letters are taken by telephone, or handed in up to midnight where there is an office open, and they are delivered the first thing in the morning, either by the ordinary postman or by special delivery. It is an extraordinarily useful item of reform. I hope hon. Members will make it known. We have lately started a publicity campaign in its favour, and the result has proved that advertisement does indeed pay. In the short period since the campaign started the use of the service has increased threefold. We have a very smart envelope specially designed for it. Its colour is green. We are engaged in another campaign at the moment for making its virtues known in Glasgow.
I think every one has been impressed by what has been said about air mails. It ought to be remembered that we have no air vessels of our own, and we have to consult the Air Ministry, but I do not believe that they are so devoid of experience, ability and public spirit as might be inferred from what has been said. There is proof that we are doing a good deal, and there is no need to be ashamed of many of the achievements of our Post Office. The Indian air mail was extended to Calcutta in July, to Rangoon in September, and to Singapore in December. We now reach Calcutta in seven days, Rangoon in nine, and Singapore in 10. With regard to speed, it is well to remember that passengers have to be carried as well as letters. We may in the future get up to the level of speed desired by some hon. Members opposite, but at present we are not doing so badly. New services are being instituted and by the end of this year or early next year we shall be reaching Australia via Singapore. The air mail traffic is going up by leaps and bounds, and we are not so devoid of success in that direction as some may have been led to suppose from some of the speeches to-day.
The hon. and gallant Member for Hertford (Sir M. Sueter) rated us rather thoroughly because we had not an air mail stamp. I do not know whether the hon. and gallant Member is a philatelist himself, but most of the agitation for an air mail stamp has come from philatelists. One argument up to the present in favour of an air mail stamp is that it would secure a certain amount of publicity for the air mail. I have in my own household experience of the enthusiasm of philatelists. But, apart from increasing the outlet for the zeal of the philatelist, what real benefit would an air mail stamp bring? It has been tried in two countries to my knowledge—in France and in Germany. What percentage of the letters carried by air in France, do hon. Members think have borne the air mail stamp? In France only 4 per cent. In Germany the figure is 9 per cent. India tried an air mail stamp for her letters and has dropped it altogether.
The difficulty, of course, is that if you introduce an air mail stamp you cannot prevent people putting on ordinary stamps. It is a great hardship to people accustomed to use ordinary stamps for their letters to be debarred from using those stamps for those letters which they send by air mail. So it is a question whether the Post Office is going to abandon its policy regarding special stamps. We are aware of exceptions in which special stamps have been issued. We issued some for Wembley in 1924 or 1925 and we also issued a special stamp when the Postal Union Congress met in 1929. It may happen that in the future we shall have to consider the question of a special stamp, but, if it is to be accepted, it will presumably be necessary to consider its design and to have a special committee consisting of representatives of various interests, as was done in the case of the Wembley and the Postal Union Congress stamps.
The question of a flat rate has been considered over and over again by the Post Office authorities. At present we have not seen our way to accept a flat rate. I am quite prepared to review the matter, and it may be that further reasons may be seen for making a change. I regret that I missed hearing the Lady's remarks on this subject.
May I add a word to what the hon. Gentleman said a few minutes ago regarding my comment as to the Air Ministry? If he will read my remarks to-morrow, he will find that I did not say the Air Ministry was lacking in public spirit. What I said was that they are experts in military aviation and not in the civil side of aviation, suitable to his Department.
Speaking for myself, the hon. Member's suggestion of a special committee to consider the subject of air mails may be worth pursuing. With regard to television, I am afraid that I know nothing about it. I can only await the report of the excellent Committee which we have set up. The hon. Member who spoke last asked one or two questions regarding the very old subject of restoration of the penny post. The answer is a very simple one. To restore the penny post would cost approximately £6,500,000, and I think that represents 3d. on the Income Tax. If the British public were willing to submit to an addition of 2½d. or 3d. to the Income Tax, it would, of course, he all right.
If you reduce the cost of the stamp, you do not necessarily increase the amount of traffic. It really does not follow. After the War, when the reduction was made from 2d. to l½d., the increase in the amount of postage was not at all large. The hon. Member for Govan (Mr. Maclean) brought forward the case of a constituent who had been refused work in the Post Office, because he was too short. I sympathise with him, and can assure my hon. Friend that the only reason for such a rejection is that we have to draw the line somewhere. My hon. Friend must see that there is a reason for it in the case of a Post Office worker, just as there is in the case of a policeman. For the carrying out of certain work a certain stature is necessary.
It has been a very happy experience this afternoon to feel the general atmosphere of congratulation of and contentment with the signal success of the Post Office. That success is doubly welcome to everyone, because we know it to be due to the loyalty and efficiency of the staff and because it provides a sure and certain indication that our country is regaining its prosperity.
Criticism has been uttered regarding the slowness of our air mails from here to Australia. I should like to make a few observations which may throw some little light on the enormous difficulties which have to be surmounted before any real acceleration of that service can be made. Only those who have had to take on transport contracts can realise the difficulties that arise in making that service a success. Some 30 years ago when in the motor business I took out a contract for conveyance of newspapers, and I remember the reserves I had to keep in hand in order to keep that service efficient. What was that compared with the gigantic work in which we are now engaged in our air service from here to India, Singapore, and eventually to Australia? One must realise the cost of each aeroplane; a sum of about £80,000 has to be put down for a single machine. It is quite useless having a fast plane on one portion of the journey only, for that would disorganise the entire service. One has to remember that the keeping of spare parts and reserve planes also is no little matter.
In a trip of 20,000 miles extending over about six months, in which I dropped off at each city spent a week there and caught the following mail, I had an exceptional opportunity of seeing how the postal service was worked. When one comes to remember that that service has to be dealt with by Arabs, Malays, Indians and men of all sorts of nationalities and that the correspondence is written in all sorts of European languages one can form some small idea of the difficulties of the work. I remember very well that on the journey from Bahrein to Koweit, in Arabia, where we were to land at 12 o'clock, we arrived in a whirling dust storm, with nothing visible outside, and had to carry on to Basra with a furious gale blowing. From there the mails had to be returned by rail to Koweit. That disorganised that day's delivery. In Calcutta a plane from Rangoon broke a wheel in landing. No wheel to fit that particular plane was immediately available, and, therefore they had to send a wireless message to Rangoon for another plane to take up the service.
It is in all these little details, insignificant possibly in themselves, that you find the difficulty in the maintenance of the service. Take one single journey from Calcutta to Karachi. We left at 5.30 in the morning. One pilot carried that aeroplane through 1,500 miles via Allahabad, Cawnpore, Delhi and Jodhpur to arrive at Karachi at 9 o'clock at night. The strain of driving an aeroplane that distance is no light task; it is far greater than driving a motor car on land. So as to appreciate correctly what the position is let us visualise the necessity for having spare pilots to take up an aeroplane should any man become unfit or for any reason be unable to continue the journey. Acceleration is all very well. It is all very well to have an aeroplane tuned to go from here to the Dutch East Indies in four days, which has been done by the Dutch, but to keep that going day in and day out, flying night and day in order to achieve that object is something which cannot be maintained as a regular thing.
I have no hesitation in saying that we must restrain our anxiety in expecting miracles to happen, because it means the entire reorganisation and re-equipment of the service from here to Australia before any material acceleration can be made. I would like at this juncture to express my admiration for the marvellous organisation which is shown by Imperial Airways Limited. They may be slow but they are sure. I think I am right in saying that there were not more than two occasions when we did not arrive at our destination on time, a thing which I greatly appreciated. You have to remember also that the organisation of the ground forces and equipment is a great problem. In Penang they have not yet got the aerodrome in order. The ground has just been laid out and levelled. And we must not forget the difficulties with the Persian Government, which have necessitated us flying down the coast of Arabia instead of Persia and have made it necessary to cover some 200 extra miles. Flying over the Dead Sea with a strong adverse wind we were obliged to return to a desolate tract of country to pick up petrol out of a tank placed there to meet such an eventuality. That is another little instance of how the unexpected may happen at any moment with a full load of passengers and freight for which allowance must be made, and everything done to keep the service up to time.
The cost of acceleration of the service will be enormous; and what is to become of the present planes which are now being used? They cannot be sold secondhand at a moment's notice. They cannot simply be scrapped as one would scrap an old secondhand car. Those planes represent a very considerable amount of capital expenditure and the financial position must of necessity be very carefully considered. I am told, and I think it is correct, that even with a full load of mails and passengers and also taking into account the subsidy of the Government, there is no profit made at the present rate. That again is a matter which needs great consideration before you reduce the rates from here to the East. I think that the air is going to play a very great part in the future of this country, in a naval and in every other sense. I hope that the Government will keep in view the necessity of not being parsimonious in any financial assistance that is necessary so as to make early acceleration possible and give us a service which, while it is now the admiration of the world, will in future give us extra speed and so enable us to compete with our foreign rivals.