Orders of the Day — Post Office

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd July 1947.

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Photo of Mr Wilfred Paling Mr Wilfred Paling , Wentworth 12:00 am, 2nd July 1947

I will try to do that. The hon. Gentleman made a point about the dismissal of men in Glasgow threatening a rise in the unemployment figures. It might well be that after we have dismissed these men, some weeks may elapse before all of them can find their places in industry. There may be a temporary period during which there will be a slight margin of unemployment. It will take some time to swallow all these men. I hope that in the present circumstances it will not be long before they all find employment. The hon. Gentleman also asked what would be the cost of going back to the preware telephone charges. I am told that the cost would be in the neighbourhood of £16 million.

Let me now give the general survey. The Post Office is asking for nearly £147 million. This is a big sum of money, and it reflects the huge business which the Post Office handles. The value of our dealings with the public in 1946 was £3,500 million. We handled nearly 7,000 million letters, nearly 239 million parcels, nearly 52 million telegrams, and more than 2,500 million telephone calls. We paid nearly 550 million pensions, services, and billeting allowances, and the number of our Savings Bank transactions was 123 million. In almost every way—telephones, telegraphs, savings bank, parcels and counter transactions—the business done is well above the prewar level. It is only in postal orders and letter packets that we are handling fewer than before the war, and these are steadily going up. This outstanding increase in business is a sign of the equally outstanding effort made by the Post Office since the end of the war, with diluted and often too little staff to recover as much as possible of prewar standards of service and efficiency. All sections of the Post Office made an ungrudging contribution to the war effort; this left us with a good deal of leeway to make up, and many causes, most of them beyond our own control, have since combined to hamper our recovery. None the less, the greater part of my tale is one of progress, progress made in the face of great difficulties.

The Post Office is such a vast organisation, and its occupations are so many and so different, that I do not find it easy to know where to begin my story. But of all our services the postal service is the senior, and I think that it would be appropriate to begin with that. During the war, the postal services were severely reduced. After the war we aimed at giving the following services: In London head districts five deliveries of letters and three of parcels, the first delivery to start at 7.15 a.m. and the final delivery at 7 p.m. In London sub districts four deliveries, the first commencing at 7 a.m., and the last at 7 p.m. The collections in London were to be more or less as prewar, except that the final collection, both in head and sub districts, was to be at 9 p.m. instead of 10 p.m. to midnight. The latest time of posting for first delivery throughout the United Kingdom was to be 6 to 6.30 p.m. Parcel deliveries were to be as prewar, three in head districts and two in sub districts. In towns adjacent to London there were to be three deliveries, the first starting at 7 a.m., and the last between 4 and 6 p.m.; two parcel deliveries were to be made as prewar. In other provincial areas there were to be three deliveries in the largest towns and twp in the smaller towns; the first delivery to start at 7 a.m. and the final delivery at about. 3 p. m.; the final collection to be at 8 to 8.30 p.m. and restricted to main thoroughfares. In rural areas the prewar service was to be provided generally, that is, two deliveries, one morning and one afternoon, and two collections, the last collection generally about 4 to 6 p.m.

I must explain that the circulation' of mails in this country rests, and is likely for some time to come to rest, on the network of night travelling post offices. Prewar this system provided a very efficient service along the railway routes, but it was inevitable that certain towns, such as Birmingham, should benefit from their geographical position as compared, for example, with Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast and Aberdeen. There were also gaps in the cross-country services when they cut across the main railway routes. One main target which the Post Office set itself in the postwar period was to level up, so far as possible, this unevenness of service by using air services; long distance ones between London and Scotland and Ireland on the one hand; and on the other, shorter links between travelling post offices to close the cross-country gaps.

Our first task was, therefore, to restore the travelling post offices. Immediately the war in Europe ended we broached this with the railway companies. They expected great difficulty because of the state of their permanent way, but they very generously undertook to start the travelling post offices earlier than they themselves regarded as practicable. As a quid pro quo the Post Office was not to expect the same standard of time-keeping as prewar. I should like here to pay a tribute to the public spirited attitude of the railway companies in this respect. They also agreed, in spite of their serious operating difficulties, to re-schedule parcel mails to passenger trains much earlier than they had thought practicable. It was realised on both sides that labour difficulties, particularly at railway transfer points, would prevent us reaching prewar standards here also.

The Post Office also approached the Ministry of Civil Aviation about night flying services. The Committee will realise that, if an effective postal service is to be provided, the air service should operate with practically 100 per cent. regularity. For 100 per cent. regularity in night flying services, the air operators must have at their disposal all the most up-to-date night flying aids. Lack of this equipment has held us up so far, but we are being very persistent. I hope that, within the next 12 months, it will be possible to make a start with the long-distance inland night air services. The provision of airlines between travelling post offices is even more difficult. We need airfields practically next door or as near as possible to the railway stations, if we are not to lose the time we gain in the air by delay between the airport and the railway station. Possibly a solution of this difficulty will be found in the direction mentioned by the hon. Gentleman opposite. It may be that we shall have to wait until a helicopter service has been developed. At the moment the helicopter is in its infancy and there are only a few machines in this country. We are expecting to make experiments soon in collaboration with the Ministry of Civil Aviation, and with dummy mails; but the helicopter has to make a lot of progress yet. In particular, it must be faster and, from our point of view, it must have a greater mail capacity than it has at present.

We actually made a start in October, 1945, with the restoration of the night travelling post offices by putting back the four main mail carrying trains, the Up and Down Specials, which run between London and Aberdeen, and the G.W.R. travelling post offices which run between London and Penzance. Seven more travelling post offices were put back in the spring of last year and the remainder, with one or two exceptions, in the autumn. As the travelling post offices were put back we were able to begin our work of introducing the post war services, and by the end of the year they had all been established in the provinces. London offered a more serious problem. The postwar services were not ready until the end of the year. To avoid confusion with Christmas work the new services were deferred until 20th January. They were then introduced under the most unfavourable conditions. The transport strike had left an accumulation of mails to be disposed of, and the severe weather had led to very heavy sick absences. All the same, the new services went in. They had only run for some three weeks when the fuel crisis and the amount of sick leave made it impossible for us to continue with the late delivery and collection.

At this point we were called on, along with other Departments, to make our contribution to releasing manpower for productive industry. The Post Office is a commercial concern, and its staff numbers are closely related to the services. The only way in which we could show a substantial manpower saving was by cutting services. This, though it went right against the grain, we had to do. We have tried our best to avoid inconveniences to the community as a whole and, in particular, to the commercial community. By retaining a first delivery starting about 7 a.m. and a final general collection from 5.30 to 6.30 p.m. —Head Office boxes are later, of course, and are generally not cleared before 8 o'clock—the Post Office offers the best service it can provide with the manpower available to it.

I am sorry to say that the new services are not even now working everywhere as they should. In the first place, the change in deliveries meant in many places a complete recast and reorganisation of the postmen's walks. Thus, for the moment, many postmen are entirely new to their duties. They will quickly become familiar with their new rounds, and as they do, the services will show a steady improvement. Secondly, the railway companies frequently find it impossible to maintain scheduled running times, and so mails sometimes miss connections. I have already described how the Post Office and the railway companies are working closely together to provide an efficient mail service, but so long as the present difficulties regarding manpower, rolling stock, coal and permanent way remain, the companies find it difficult to restore their services to the pre-war level. They have gone out of their way many times to retime trains to try to help us.

I can assure the Committee that nothing is being overlooked which will make for improvement in the mail services. As an earnest of this, I am glad to be able to say that I am arranging to restore the prewar late fee facility on mail trains. As from 7th July, the public will be able to post letters with an extra halfpenny stamp on mail trains to which sorting office carriages are attached. Let me freely admit that the services the Post Office is offering at present fall short of our own standard of an efficient postal service. My intention is, as soon as the manpower position lets us, to build up the postal service again to the level which was aimed at after the war.

Let me say a word about personnel. The Committee should realise that at the same time as the Post Office was reorganising its postal services after the war, it was also carrying out the most radical overhaul in its history of its postal personnel, of their grading and organisation with the sole aim of greater efficiency. I should also on this point say something about the conditions of work of the postal staff. There is a feeling that I and my predecessors have given too much weight to the claims of the staff when mapping out the shape of the services to the public. Before I do this, I must pay a tribute to the scores and hundreds of thousands of ordinary Post Office workers of all kinds—postal, telegraphs, telephone, engineering and clerical—who kept the services going, often in the worst possible conditions, throughout the war, and through the in some ways not less difficult times since the end of the war. The public is apt to take the efforts of these unassuming Post Office workers too much for granted. During the war they perhaps did not realise to what an extent the whole defence mechanism of the country depended on services constructed, manned and maintained by Post Office men and women.

They sometimes do not fully realise under what a strain these men and women have been working, both during the war and at times such as we experienced earlier this year when the climate did its worst for us. There is also a very special class of officer, the counter clerk, who stands particularly in the public eye, and who has to contend with a pressure and a variety of business very much greater than before the war, and to contend with it in conditions which are often not nearly as good as they ought to be. I have myself seen the number and the variety of transactions undertaken by some of these counter clerks, who must be nearly encyclopaedias in the width of their grasp. I think the Committee will agree that, taken by and large, these servants of the Post Office have done magnificent work during these last hard years.

As regards staffing conditions on the postal side, the Committee must realise that the efficient yet not extravagant postal service which we enjoyed prewar rested on staff conditions and attendances which, under present-day conditions, could not be defended. In London many postmen began work at 6 o'clock in the morning and did not finish until 10 o'clock at night. This "covering period" of 16 hours, with a break in the middle of the day, was only tolerable at all because most of the postmen concerned worked in the neighbourhood where they lived. Now, as a result of war damage in London, the position has been radically altered. Many postmen now have to travel a considerable distance to their work. I hope the Committee will agree with me that it is quite out of the question to ask any man to accept a working day covering 16 hours with the addition of a journey to and from his work, and we know in London how long these journeys can be. In the provinces, too, most postmen worked "split duties." and though the "covering period" was not as long as in London, "covering periods" of as much as 12, 13 or 14 hours were common. After the war, "split duties" were abolished entirely in London, and we were considering how to reduce them in the provinces when the manpower crisis supervened. When the services were reduced we took the chance of improving staff attendances, without additional calls on manpower and, in town areas, we have materially reduced the number of "split duties."

Now let me mention one or two aspects of the postal services which will be of particular interest. Today there are letter services to all parts of Europe and parcel services to all parts except the Dodecanese Islands. To the rest of the world, except the Far East, postal services continued during the war, but they were hampered by the lack of shipping. As the shipping position has improved, the postal services have also improved. Today there are letter services to all the world and parcel services to all the world except parts of the Far East. We keep a keen eye on shipping outlets and send mails by all suitable available ships. We have made some very solid if not spectacular progress since the war in connection with external air mails. The air services to Europe have now been restored on a surcharge basis and B.O.A.C. now carry the bulk of the mail. It is hoped that the outcome of the Universal Postal Union Congress at present sitting in Paris will be a reduction in operators' air transport charges to Europe. If this comes off, I hope as a result to be able within the next 12 months to restore the prewar non-surcharge system to Europe under which letters will be carried by air without surcharge whenever the use of air affords worth while acceleration.

We are keenly exploiting the Empire Air Mail Services, so tremendously important to us and the rest of the Commonwealth. Today the volume of air mail carried on the Empire route is roughly equivalent to what was carried in 1938–39 under the Empire Air Mail scheme. The Committee will not think I am satisfied with this. It is a matter of aircraft. Give us the cargo space and we will fill it with mails. The air service before the war to North America was in its infancy and mails were almost exclusively carried in American planes. Today the volume of mails totals some five tons a week and the great bulk of it is carried by B.O.A.C. In January, 1946, South American Airways Corporation started their service to South America and today they carry weekly one ton of mail as compared with the weekly figure of 200 lbs. before the war which was carried by French and German services.

The Committee will be interested to learn of the improvement which has been effected in transmission times. Whereas before the war the mail took 12 to 14 days to reach Australia, today it takes three. To New Zealand before the war it took 16 to 21 days, today it is five. To India it took five to seven days, today it is three to five. To South Africa it took five to six days, now it is three to four. To West Africa it was five days, now three. To South America it took three to four days, now two to three days. To Egypt two to two and a half days, now it is one.

Now let me say a few words about telecommunications, which the hon. Gentleman raised. Whatever the world may think about the telecommunications services, the progress has indeed been spectacular. The Post Office faced the peace with some five to six years of arrears of plant and a waiting list of 300,000. Added to this, the appetite for telephone service was just about double that of prewar. Some 16,000 out of 41,000 of our engineering staff had joined the Forces but, as demobilisation proceeded, we managed to recruit some first-class material from the Signal Services. We have now an engineering force of about 53,000 and, during last year, 1946, we succeeded in providing over 800,000 telephones as against the prewar record of 438,000. In spite of this great effort, of which the Post Office may well be proud, the waiting list has slowly but steadily increased until it now stands at just over 400,000.

In the last 12 months our great difficulty has been to obtain sufficient stores and equipment from the manufacturers and to get the necessary buildings. We have placed large orders, but we are competing with demands for housing and the export trade, and delivery of plant has not kept pace with our needs. To add to all our difficulties, we have now a shortage of raw materials, particularly cotton, steel, timber, and moulding powder for plastics. We are still managing to provide between 50,000 and 60,000 telephones a month. Before the war our pace was 35,000. However, we have been living on our fat, our margin of spare plant has steadily dwindled, and the provision of telephone service now means the construction of more new plant than it used to do. We still have to impose restrictions on the amount of plant and stores we can afford to use for the provision of service to a new subscriber; but we have specially in mind the needs of rural areas, and the farmers in particular. We feel justified in devoting to them a larger proportion of our resources than we would to subscribers in urban areas.

We are anxious too, to provide more telephone kiosks. Since the war we have provided 1,000 new kiosks and we are aiming at 1,700 a year for the future. We try to give special attention to those applicants who have, I am sorry to say, had to wait so long. Demand is still high, and there is plenty of room for further development. We shall not be happy until we see a telephone in every house. In the meantime we hope to go on providing 50,000 to 60,000 telephones steadily month by month so long as supplies of plant and buildings permit, and to continue our intensive research into the use of substitute materials. We have in mind also new methods of distribution to give us a greater exploitation of line plant, and we are studying carefully the possibilities of developing "snared" service under modern conditions. I should like to note here that a similar position exists in America. At the end of 1946 the Bell Telephone system had a waiting list of about 2,000,000, much the same proportion to existing lines as obtains in this country.

Another telephone problem to which we have been giving our attention is that of maintenance. Preventive maintenance work had to be dropped during the war and a good many weaknesses in the plant were caused by war damage. There is no doubt that the whole of the telephone plant requires a thorough overhaul, and this has now been put in hand. It is a job, of course, which will take several years to complete. The telephone system suffered widespread damage from the severe weather during the first three months of this year. About 200,000 subscribers' lines were put out of action, mainly by the floods. It is something of an achievement that service was temporarily restored within a month to nearly all these subscribers. Permanent repairs still remain to be done, and they will have to be completed before next winter, even if provision of new service has to suffer in consequence.

At the same time, while we have had this constantly increasing demand for more telephones, the use of the service by existing subscribers has been increasing. There are now nearly four and a half million telephones in this country, well over a million more than there were before the war. In fact, one out of every four telephones in use today has been provided since the war. The local calling rate has risen, and during the last year there were 2,300 million local calls. The increase in the use of the trunk service also has been astonishing. During the war many thousands of trunk circuits were handed over to the fighting Services, but these have now been returned to us. More cables have been laid; now we have some 13,500 trunk circuits in use. Last year the number of effective trunk calls rose to well over 200 million, just about double the prewar use.

The standard of service has been steadily improving, though it is still some way behind the prewar standard, and the latest observation results show that 75 per cent. of the calls were completed on demand. All these increases in traffic have meant a large increase in the operating force, about which the hon. Member asked. There are some 14,000 telephone operators in London alone, and we expect that as the staff gain more experience the standard of service will continue to improve. As I mentioned in answer to a Question today, we are faced with the added difficulty of a tremendous turnover of telephone staff each year, amounting, in some parts of London, to nearly 50 per cent. The Committee will imagine what a great effort has been required of the engineering staff, who have formed a spearhead of this very great expansion on the telephone side. I should like the Committee to know that they too at the same time have taken in their stride a not insignificant reorganisation—a reorganisation aimed like that on the postal side, at greater efficiency and flexibility.

These increases in staff mean an increase in training facilities. This indeed applies over the whole field covered by Post Office activities. The provision made for training in the Post Office is one of its most notable achievements. On a recent visit to Edinburgh I had the opportunity of going round one of the engineering schools, where young men, most of whom have been in the Services, were given an opportunity of acquiring new knowledge or, in some cases, brushing up their old knowledge. Perhaps equally important, a lot of the young ones, the boys coming into the service, had been sent to the training school to become acquainted with the new equipment in a much better way than they could by going straight into the service. Thus they get some elementary training, so that when they go into the service they will have some knowledge of it.

Now for a few words about the telegraph service. This service suffered severely from enemy action; the Central Telegraph Office—the largest telegraph office in the world—was destroyed in the heavy raid on London at the end of 1940, and other large telegraph offices such as Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol, were severely damaged. It was thus necessary to introduce dispersal arrangements, and the service is still suffering from the fact that the average telegram has to undergo more handlings than in prewar days. As the trunk telephone service has improved, telegraph traffic has fallen, but it is still higher than it was before the war, in spite of the fact that we are not yet able to restore the "Greetings telegram." I agree with the hon. Member, I should like to do so at the earliest possible moment. Paper restrictions and printing difficulties are the main difficulties which stand in the way of our doing this.

We are steadily introducing switching methods to eliminate the retransmissions of telegrams. The present switching system is operated manually and we propose to replace this by automatic switch- ing. We hope to begin this work in 1949 and to complete it by about 1953. Meanwhile the standard of service, though still well below the prewar standard, is steadily improving. The average time from the handing in of a telegram to sending out for delivery was 30 minutes in 1939, and 140 minutes in 1945; today it is 45 minutes. Before leaving the subject of telephones and telegraphs, I would like to say a few words about the restoration of the overseas services. Before the war the public telephone service was available to every European country except Albania. A 24 hour service has now been restored to all European countries except Albania, Greece, Turkey and Poland, and negotiations are in hand for the restoration of services to these countries. The volume of traffic is about 84 per cent. of the prewar level.

Our research engineers have developed a submarine repeater, a very notable achievement, and this is likely to have a marked effect on the technique of submarine cables. We have already incorporated one in a new cable laid to Germany and expect to lay a new cable with repeater to Holland in the next few months, to be folowed some time later by one to Belgium. Radio telephone services have been restored and extended to most of the important countries outside Europe and to ships at sea and radiotelephone traffic is now about two-and-a-half times the prewar level. Similarly the telegraph services to Europe have been restored and the traffic is about 25 per cent. above the prewar level and ship-shore traffic is also well above the pre-war level.

Let me say a word about savings, which is also an important part of Post Office work. I refer to the work done by the Savings Department. Since the start, in November, 1939, of the War Savings Campaign, this has been continuously expanding. During the year ended 31st March last, the number of savings bank transactions amounted to 123 million with a turnover of £1,249 million. The 25 million active accounts at 31st March, 1947, had a balance of £1,981 million standing to their credit. Compare this with the figures at the end of 1938–39, when there were 11½ million active accounts with a balance of £523,700,000, and the number of transactions had, during the year, amounted to 47 million, of £264 million.

The foregoing figures include transactions in accounts opened for war gratuities and postwar credits due to members of the Armed and Civil Defence Forces. The work of issuing these credits involved the opening of a new office at Manchester. The degree of activity in these accounts generally is much higher than that in ordinary savings bank accounts, as the benefits were mainly intended to help the recipients in the difficult task of resettlement into civilian life. The work of issuing the bank books and maintaining the accounts requires a staff of nearly 1,800. In view of the abnormal activity of the accounts, work which can be classed as non-essential to the day-to-day upkeep of the accounts has had to be allowed to fall into arrear, and some 12 million payments on demand are awaiting posting to the accounts. Extra staff is required to clear off these arrears. The number of release benefits accounts opened to date is 6,400,000, with initial credits amounting to £362 million. In the last financial year, 3,100,000 accounts were opened.

The curtailment and abandonment of prewar safeguards and checks have led to a growth in the amount of losses by fraud, particularly since 1945. The recent large increase is attributed in the main to two factors—to the fact that forged identity cards are easily obtainable by determined offenders; and to the increase in criminal activity following demobilisation. All the same, the requirement that the National Registration identity card be produced, first when a new account was opened, and later when a withdrawal on demand was made, has been of valuable assistance in checking fraud. Further measures for preventing fraud have recently been introduced.