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 Wilfrid Burke Mr Wilfrid Burke , Burnley 12:00 am, 2nd July 1947

We have had a very wide Debate, and very many points have been raised by various Members; and, at the risk of this course making my remarks rather scrappy, I should like to deal with those points as they have been made. I want to thank those hon. Members—and they have been very many on both sides' of the Committee—who have paid tribute to the work of the employees of the Post Office, and who have said many kind things about what the Post Office did in the past and even what the Post Office is doing at the present time. The hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Grimston) made a speech which was critical in many respects, but which was from his own knowledge of the Post Office, kindly, I think, in its intentions; and I should like to say at once, about the study group of which he was chairman, that those who have followed on after him value very much the work of that study group and have tried to implement as many of its recommendations as we possibly could in the difficult circumstances of these times.

It was the opinion of that study group that the Post Office Guide should be published as early as possible. That we have done. It was the opinion of that study group that we should have an inquiries section for the public at the counters, and, as far as possible, in some of the bigger offices, that also has been done. It was suggested that there should be public relations officers in the various regions. I think it is true to say that eight have already been appointed. The telephone directories have been issued. I am sorry we have not been able to get the quality of paper we thought we were entitled to, but that is one of the difficulties' with which we are faced; but still we have got the telephone directories out. The "Post Office Magazine," hon. Members will be glad to know, has been published, and has a circulation of 170,000, and is very warmly welcomed by the staff and much appreciated. Those are all recommendations of this interim report. We are trying to do as well as we can with regard to the other recommendations of the report, which came out later, but many of them depend upon supplies of paper and getting the printing done; and, in so far as that is difficult, it is made difficult for us to carry out those recommendations.

The hon. Member asked about the "Ask Me" service. That corresponds I think, with a service they have in France called the"M'aidez"Service, or something of that description. We have considered that very carefully. As the hon. Member said, it has very great attractions, but unfortunately it would need a good deal of work on telephone equipment, as he probably realises. In the present state of the telephone services, when so many demands are being made upon us for fresh installations and speedier services, I am afraid that that service cannot be put into operation at the present time; though, I must say it is one of the things, amongst others, which the Post Office are looking at, and we hope that sooner or later there will be an opportunity of putting it into operation. When something like it was run under private enterprise, I believe by Selfridge's, I understand it had to be abandoned because people were making rather frivolous use of it. Possibly that is one of the dangers we would have to avoid in the Post Office.

The hon. Member next asked whether we were thinking about the use of helicopters. We have this in mind. In the speeding up of the service we have in mind not only the use of helicopters, but also the use of ordinary aeroplanes. The difficulty, of course, is that the Post Office would want planes which would fly at night, and that cannot be, unless we get perfect regularity, and perfect regularity depends upon certain navigational aids, which are not available at the present time. I remember the case of Burma, which the hon. Member mentioned, because I dealt with it, but I am afraid there were complications of a personal nature there, which I do not want to enter into now, which prevented us obtaining all the information which we might have obtained in another kind of case. It was the responsibility of the War Office, who withdrew the Army postal facilities there, and they regarded their action as being essential. It is not a matter about which the Post Office itself had any control.

The hon. Member for Wood Green (Mr. Baxter) raised the question of frauds, which has caused a good deal of perturbation in the minds of hon. Members. We know that a good many frauds are taking place now with Post Office bank books, and we have withdrawn certain facilities in order to try to tighten up the machinery. I am not trying to minimise these frauds, but on the other hand people ought to have this thing in the right perspective. The frauds come to between £90,000 and £100,000 out of a turnover of about £1,250 million a year. In other words, the extent of the fraud is about equal to 1.9d. in every £100. When one reads about these frauds in the reports of court cases it looks very formidable, but in actual practice it does not involve the public in any very great loss of money.

I come now to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) who has repeatedly raised the question of the inefficiency of the Post Office, and who has said that he has never had an explanation—and one or two other hon. Members have said the same thing—why the services which were put on at the beginning of this year, on 20th January, were withdrawn at the end of the fuel crisis. In spite of many definite denials on my part, I think the hon. Member is still of the opinion that those services were withdrawn because of the pressure of the staff; and he has quoted to us a passage from the "Economist," in which the editor, or whoever wrote the article, shares that view with him. He read it very impressively and felt very right about it, but he is not nearly as right as he thought.

The only reason these services were withdrawn in the beginning was because of the fuel crisis. While that fuel crisis was on, we were asked by the Government to make a contribution to the manpower situation, by releasing some of the people in the employment of the Post Office. We looked around, and we found that we could not release anyone from the savings bank, from the telephone side, or from among the engineers. As a commercial firm, if we had to make a contribution, we could make it only by cutting down some of the services. Therefore, it was decided not to restore these cuts when the fuel crisis eased. The reason the fuel crisis interfered with the services was because the men had to go out into darkened streets in the evenings and early morning, and because the staff had no heating in the sorting offices. For all these reasons the services were cut, and as a result we have succeeded in releasing about 3,500 up to the moment, as well as stopping the recruitment upon which we were engaged to improve the services.

If the need for manpower had not arisen, we should have continued with that recruitment, easing away our temporary people, and recruiting, as we have been doing all along, ex-Servicemen on the 50 per cent. basis. I hope that I have disabused the mind of the hon. Member, although I am afraid that he will still be of the same opinion; but if he is, he is sticking to it in complete contradiction of the facts. The hon. Member also asked whether we were doing anything about mechanisation. It is very difficult to get mechanisation on the postal side, but our research department are doing what they can. He also asked whether the staff were running the Post Office. Well, the staff do not think they are running it at all. To all those who have been talking about the influence of the trade unions on the Post Office, let me say that we understand the trade union point of view. The hon. Member for Mid-Bedford (Mr. Lennox-Boyd) has told us what we ought to do about the unions and those who lead them. The unions have been choosing their leaders for a long time, and they will not take advice from the hon. Member on that. We are not afraid to trust the trade unions, or to take them into our confidence. I am perfectly satisfied that we shall handle this situation, getting the goodwill of the workers, and at the same time doing the right thing by the customers. It is not the intention of the Postmaster-General to be in the hands of one side or the other. His intention is to hold a just balance between the needs of the people and the rights of the trade unionists.

The hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) referred to the difficulty of getting a toll number last Friday. I do not know why that was, but I suspect that last Friday quite a few lines were put out of action by the storm. It seems that the services of the Post Office are not supposed to stop at all. Even when there is a storm, like we had last Friday, it seems that if a Member of Parliament wants to make a telephone call he ought to be able to get through. Although we have control of many things we do not control the weather. The hon. Member exaggerated a little, I think, when he said that somebody died as a result of an accident, because of the failure of the Elmbridge exchange. We went into that case, and the trouble was not that the hon. Member failed to get through in three minutes as he said—somebody else said it was two minutes—but because there was no local ambulance available. It was, therefore, wrong of the hon. Member to put the blame on the Post Office for that.

In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for East Walthamstow (Mr. H. Wallace), and the hon. Member for Abingdon (Sir R. Glyn), I am glad to be able to tell them that the Post Office is doing a considerable amount towards the improvement of research at Dollis Hill. We have taken some houses at Stone, in Staffordshire, at which we shall train 1,000 engineers, some of whom have been at Dollis Hill. This has been done so that other people can have more accommodation at Dollis Hill in tackling real problems of fundamental research. We expect, by 1950, to have 150 fully qualified scientists and engineers on basic research work, and we propose to double the major scientific and engineering staff during the next few years at Dollis Hill.

I want to deal briefly with the hon. and gallant Member for Holderness (Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite). I would only say this to him: that I thought his remarks about Sir Drummond Shiels were in extremely bad taste. He criticised someone who cannot defend himself in the House. I always understood that it was not the right thing to do to criticize a member of the Civil Service when he could not defend himself. To the knowledge of myself, and others, Sir Drummond Shiels has been a very loyal and faithful servant of the Post Office, and is very widely respected by' many people with whom he has come into contact. His has been one of the best appointments which the Post Office has ever made.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Sir B. Neven-Spence) asked about telephone facilities in that area. We have plans for improved communications for the whole of Scotland and the Islands as soon as possible. It is only a short time ago since one of the Islands up there was marooned, and the Post Office succeeded in getting a plane across and delivering the mail. The hon. Member for Abingdon also asked me about plastic containers. This is one of the matters upon which our research department is at present engaged—