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I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."
I have no doubt that the Committee, and especially the Assistant Postmaster-General, will welcome my assurance that I am not going to delay the Committee for more than a few minutes. I think it is true that almost everything that can be said in favour of this new Clause— and there are quite a lot of things that can be said in favour of it—in terms of foundational argument were used during the Committee stage of the Bill, and especially in respect of the Amendments which were tabled at that time and rejected. Moreover, most of the principles in Post Office accountancy to which we have taken exception and upon the foundations of which this new Clause is based were debated at length as recently as last Monday when we were discussing the increase in the poundage of postal orders.
I would recall to the Assistant Postmaster-General the proposals which we moved a week last Friday when we sought to reduce the new allocation of capital expenditure for the Post Office from £75 million to £50 million. I suggest that our proposed Clause is the next best thing for carrying through the principle for which we have been fighting all the time. It is impossible to draw a line of demarcation between the capital allocation under the Bill and its effects in terms of interest.
The Assistant Postmaster-General should, for the sake of brevity, accept all that we have said before, take it into consideration and reply accordingly. Our main argument is that the Post Office does the work for the State Departments, especially the Service Departments, provides the capital expenditure for the equipment which is used, and, seemingly, also has to pay the interest on the value of the capital equipment. That seems wrong to us and we should like to see a correction. We know that the real correction is in terms of a recasting of the whole of the Post Office finances, on both cash and commercial accounts, and we stress that as the only really satisfactory way of dealing with Post Office finances.
I have three questions to put to the Assistant Postmaster-General, and I hope he will answer them and help us to determine our course of action on the Clause. Are other Departments still to get services without paying cash? Has the Post Office in its capital allocation still to carry capital development for other Departments? Has the Post Office still to pay interest and charges on the cost of capital work done for other Departments? In our debates during the last fortnight the Assistant Postmaster-General has given a clear indication that some consideration has been given to the problem.
I have tried to explain, Mr. Hopkin Morris, that we can hardly divorce the wider question from the narrower question of interest, and, because the Assistant Postmaster-General has indicated that consideration is being given to the problem, I wonder if he is able to make a statement now or can say when a statement will be made which will help us to determine our course of action on the Clause? I hope he will clarify the issue.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Brightside (Mr. R. E. Winterbottom) for moving the Clause, because it gives me an opportunity of clearing up what is in the minds of many people inside and outside the House, and that is exactly how the Post Office finances its capital development, especially in relation to the Service Departments.
The hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends have noted that approximately one-third of the amount provided under the Bill will be spent on defence. Naturally, the hon. Gentleman wants to be reassured that the interest on this money should be met by the Service Departments and not by the Post Office. If that were not so the Post Office accounts would, in that sense, be distorted. It would mean that the civilian account of the Post Office would be called upon to bear expenditure on which in its civilian capacity it receives no return, or that the public were being asked to pay indirectly for increased charges on services which they do not enjoy. That is a very important point, and I am glad to have this opportunity of clearing it up, to the satisfaction, I hope, of the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends.
I want to make the point which I made when we discussed this earlier, and that is the difficulty of separating defence expenditure from purely civilian expendi- ture. The reason for the difficulty is that a very large part of the work we are doing now primarily for the Defence Departments will ultimately be useful and essential for civilian development. All we are now doing is work that we should ultimately do in any case.
The new Clause reads:
The interest charges on any sums devoted to defence purposes shall not be borne on the Post Office commercial account.
I was endeavouring to show that the capital expenditure to which the Clause refers will not ultimately be for defence purposes at all but will be used for civilian purposes. I hope I am keeping in order, because it is very difficult without accepting that basis to deal with the point which the hon. Gentleman raised.
On a point of order. The problem which has been worrying us throughout our discussions on the Bill has been the relationship between the cost of defence services and the interest to be borne on the Post Office revenue account in regard to that defence expenditure. Although it is very unusual to find a Minister being defended by an Opposition back bencher, in this case I appeal to you, Mr. Hopkin Morris, to allow the Assistant Postmaster-General to continue because it is along the line of our argument in support of our new Clause.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Hopkin Morris. When we have a new Clause saying:
The interest charges on any sums devoted to defence purposes shall not be borne on the Post Office commercial account,
surely it must be relevant to discuss which of the charges on the Post Office account
are for defence purposes and for the Minister to make the point, which I understood him to be making, that it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between the two because there is a dual purpose?
What I am endeavouring to show is, first of all, the difficulty on the capital side of differentiating between what is spent on defence and what is spent on ordinary civilian purposes. I then want to show that the interest is received by the Post Office in a rather different way but one which I hope the Opposition will agree is equally effective for the payment of the interest. I hope that I will be allowed to develop the point that the first difficulty is to differentiate what money is spent for purely defence purposes and what ultimately' will be useful for the ordinary service of the Post Office. I want to repeat an assurance I gave a short time ago, that we are extremely anxious, if it is possible, to differentiate and, if we can, we will do so. I can give that assurance with complete sincerity.
On the question of interest charges, I would remind the Committee that the Post Office does not get interest in the ordinary sense but is credited with full commercial rentals for the services which are provided for the defence Departments. In other words, we do not get the interest but we get the same rentals for telephones, or whatever it may be, as if those were used for ordinary civilian needs. Last year the Post Office received £8 million in rentals and other charges from the defence Departments and that sum was credited to commercial accounts.
That is done by a sample. In parenthesis, I might say that from next year the three Service Departments, the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Supply and the Treasury are going to be charged on an annual commercial basis for the calls which they make, and that will have to be debited to their Estimates. I hope as a result of that that we will see the scheme extended generally. It is an experiment, and as that is nearly three-quarters of the expenditure it will meet the point which both sides of the Committee have in view.
There is one other matter with which I would like to deal, and that is that we are investigating to what extent there may be some expenditure for defence purposes which is wholly for defence and expenditure which ultimately can be used for civilian purposes. We are hoping it will be possible to find a formula so that the Post Office will get direct commercial credit for that expenditure. In that way it will not in any sense affect the ordinary civilian accounts of the Post Office.
The last point I wish to make will, I hope, satisfy the hon. Gentleman and his friends. There has been at the back of their minds a feeling that because £25 million of the £75 million was being spent on defence this year, that was likely to hold up the development plans which we all want to see put into operation. But that is not so. The limiting factor is not money, but the extent to which capital resources can be devoted to civilian ends. The handicap on us is that which is on British Railways, the Coal Board and on large civilian companies as well. If it were not for that I would have no hesitation in coming and asking for a further sum of money perhaps earlier than one would come.
I hope I have dealt with the points that the hon. Gentleman raised and also with the misgivings which not only hon. Gentlemen opposite, but hon. Members in all parts of the Committee, have on this point. So far as the interest or income is concerned, the Post Office is not affected in any way. As I have said just now, we are trying to see to what extent it is possible to isolate pure defence items from the capital budget, and to what extent it is possible on the income side to get credit for those works which do not immediately yield ordinary rentals like we are getting from the Service Departments. I trust that I have satisfied all the points which have been raised, and that the hon. Gentleman will not press this new Clause.
I am sure we on this side of the Committee welcome the forthright statement made by the Assistant Postmaster-General. It is a considerable step forward. There are one or two points I want to make about the new Clause and that is the main reason for putting it down. This sum of £25 million represents a considerable amount in interest charges. The interest on this money, according to the statement made by the Assistant Postmaster-General on Second Reading, will be operating at 4 per cent., which means that on £25 million £1 million has to be found annually for the interest repayment on capital works which in the main is for defence.
It is true to say that the Post Office will get revenue from this work. It is perfectly true, as was said a few moments ago and on Second Reading, that a certain amount of capital work can be taken back into the Post Office network when it is no longer required for defence. There is, however, a special problem— and one cannot go into the matter in Committee or at any time in the House to any great extent because of its secret character—which arises from the nature of this work. Therefore, I merely say that the Assistant Postmaster-General is well aware that a lot of work has got to be done in special circumstances and installations made in special buildings.
To deal with these matters we felt it necessary to put down this new Clause. We shall not divide the Committee on it, but obviously it has been worth while having a discussion on this problem for it has elicited from the Assistant Postmaster-General the new methods that are going to be adopted about costing for the Service Departments.
I do not want to take up very much of the time of the Committee, but I feel there ought to be some protest made at the amount of time wasted on this Bill. We have had a statement tonight which we pressed for during the whole of Friday. We have only received it at this late hour. This has happened time and time again, because Ministers come to the House to present matters and have very little knowledge of their briefs.
I do not know if the Leader of the House has suddenly become gun shy, but he never seems to be here on these occasions. These Minister in charge are without authority to give reasonable undertakings for which the Opposition ask, and constantly are without a Law Officer of the Crown to assist them. When that happens the opposition is bound to go on, because that is the only method of providing the Minister in charge with an opportunity of consulting his colleagues and to get the requisite authority, and thereby attain the legitimate objects for which the Opposition has asked.
It has happened time and again that because the Government have not got anybody here who can give the Minister permission to say anything, or a lawyer who can tell him what effect anything he may say might have, we waste hours and hours of the time of this House. I hope that eventually the Government will be educated by the Opposition, and that we shall be able to get through business with a little more despatch.
I have been called twice, and at the moment I feel like a jack-in-the-box. My intention is to ask leave to withdraw the Motion. I am doing so bearing in mind what the Assistant Postmaster-General has said, and also bearing in mind that he has been pushed into accepting at least part of our case.
I wonder if my hon. Friend would allow me to intervene briefly before he continues? I have no quarrel with what he proposes. I rather take the opposite view to that of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) that we have been wasting time. Would my hon. Friend not agree that we have served a very useful purpose in directing the spotlight upon a weakness in Post Office commercial affairs? I am rather inclined to the view that we should be commended for the efforts which we have been making and for the response of the Assistant Postmaster-General to those efforts. I do not think he has gone far enough, and I am sure that my hon. Friend, in asking leave to withdraw the Motion, will try to persuade him to pursue the matter further before he comes to the House with another Bill.
I can agree with everything which my hon. Friend has said. I wish to emphasise that we have pushed the Assistant Postmaster-General and his noble Friend at least part of the way we wanted them to go.
I wish to call the attention of the Committee to the fact that the concession which has been announced today by the Assistant Postmaster-General relates only to the commercial account as it is affected by the Service Departments. I wish to stress that. The concession completely omits the other State Departments and does not cover the capital account. There must also be added the free services given to all the other State Departments, and because these are not covered, I wish to issue a very friendly warning to the Assistant Postmaster-General that we shall return again to this problem as opportunity offers.
In asking leave to withdraw the Motion, I wish to say that, the first step having been taken, we shall press on until we have got the finances of the Post Office —both the cash account and the commercial account—on a fair basis that will satisfy the needs of the general public and the Members of this House who for quite a long time have been dissatisfied with the position. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.
It would be unfortunate if those Members, particularly on the opposite side of the House, who take a great interest in Post Office matters did not say just a word of commendation for what is, after all, a Government Measure. When the House comes to consider whether we should pass this Bill—quite frankly, I think we should—we ought just to consider what is the sum of money involved, whether it is sufficient or not and to what purposes it is to be devoted.
It is true that on the other stages of the Bill various difficulties and accounting problems have faced the Assistant Postmaster-General. In my constituency I have the good fortune of having—at least he is buried in my constituency—the first Postmaster-General. His tomb is in the church at Hornchurch, and therefore I feel that this Bill might well be described as from Hornchurch to Hornsey. One would like to think there was an even rate of progress, but unfortunately there is not.
When one considers this large sum of capital expenditure and casts it up against what is to be done, one is tempted at first sight to think that perhaps there is no point whatever in passing this Bill. It is said that we need a lot of capital expenditure for the Post Office. One looks round in one's own constituency and tries to see what is being done there. I am sorry the hon. and gallant Member for Romford (Lieut.-Colonel Lockwood) is not here, because we share the one telephone exchange in our two constituencies and the same sort of problems face both of us.
Thanks to the public interest roused in Post Office questions by the previous debate there was an inquiry carried out by the "Romford Times" into the conditions in Hornchurch. They said, quite properly, that there is a Bill to provide a huge sum of money for the Post Office, and they went to the Post Office officials and said, "What will it do for Hornchurch and Romford?"
The answer, I am sorry to say, which was given by the Post Office official was, "Nothing." Far from there being anything for Hornchurch and Romford, the situation now is far worse than before the Bill was introduced. The Post Office official, or whoever it was—the spokesman—said that by capital expenditure restrictions brought about by the country's present economic plight, it really was not possible to have much development. He went on to say:
We are not allowed to spend the money we would like to on new exchanges, and new automatic equipment or new cables. Anyway, you've got to have all or nothing. You can't mate old equipment with new.
Whereupon the reporter referred the official to a statement made in the days when another Government were planning our capital expenditure for the Post Office, and pointed out that under that plan there was very shortly to be a new exchange. He inquired what was the effect of this further £52 million. The reply was:
I can find no information in the files"——
I perfectly appreciate that, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, but whether we are to raise the money at all depends upon whether the people of this country will receive any benefit from it. I do not want to dwell too long on the problems of my own constituency, but I think that all hon. Members, when dealing with Post Office matters, are in the position that they can only judge Post Office questions from the conditions in their own areas. If, as the result of taking another £52 million for the civil side of the Post Office, what has apparently happened in Romford is that a new exchange is to be postponed until 1962, then surely that is an argument why the House should not indulge in capital expenditure which results in a worse and not a better Post Office service. I hope, therefore, that when the Assistant Postmaster-General replies he will deal with this matter once again.
What is not understood by the people in the country is how, under the present administration, we can spend so much money on the Post Office and yet, in an area such as mine, obtain so little in return for it. The Post Office is a very important service which affects especially the small business man. Before the Assistant Postmaster-General accepted his present office, he was always taking the part of the small business man. So far as I recall, he even gave his time to some organisation called C.O.R.D. which dealt with the problems of the small business man. And if there is one problem which confronts the small business man at the moment, it is to get a telephone.
There are 1,500 small business men in the Romford area who are waiting to be connected to the telephone, and what is the solution that is offered? It is not a plan of reform based on the £50 million, but that 500 of them should be transferred to the Hornchurch exchange. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has ever tried to make a connection between these two points, but if he has attempted to do so, he will have found that the Hornchurch exchange is already over-burdened.
I think that, in passing a Post Office Bill of this sort, dealing with capital expenditure on the Post Office, we ought to say that the difficulties which we all experience with these manual exchanges are in no case the fault of the operators, but are due to the absence of sufficient capital equipment, to the size of the switchboards——
With great respect, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I think not. What we are concerned with on the Supply Vote is the pay of the people working there, but the question here is what they are to work and the capital expenditure that is provided for permanent installations. As I understand the memorandum which we had, the purpose of the Bill is to provide the capital installations which will be worked by the Post Office. From time to time, it is necessary to secure more money to enrich the Post Office to build up their material, and all I am trying to say is that we should review the matter before we part with the Bill in order to find out exactly how this money is to be spent and what are the capital works in which the Post Office will engage.
The point that I have in mind, in dealing with these capital works, is that we cannot—indeed, it would be quite unfair to do so—blame the operators in the Post Office, because the absence of proper facilities makes it impossible for them to give proper connections. It is entirely wrong merely to transfer, as is now proposed, 600 subscribers from an exchange already overloaded to another exchange which is even more overloaded. If this is the problem in Hornchurch, it is also the problem all over the country.
The only point I raise is the suggestion that, while the hon. Gentleman is now in office, he ought to show the interest in the small business man that he used to show when out of office. Surely, this is not only a political facade? Surely, he has the small business men's interests at heart, and will tell us what he will do to provide them with telephones, because the telephone is very often life or death to the small business man. It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to say, "We are in a mess now and we cannot give anyone a telephone." This is a poor reply to the business man, who may suffer damage in his business, and there are hundreds of people of that sort.
In my constituency, certainly, the problem is worse because of war damage. We have never really repaired the damage to the Post Office circuit which was done in the war period, and, if we are raising this amount of money, we ought to hear a little more about what is being done in the blitzed areas to restore the telephone service in those areas which suffered most in the war.
One of our problems in the area of which I am speaking is created by an aerodrome in the constituency, which takes a great number of lines. In these circumstances, are we to increase capital expenditure in these areas to make up for the difficulties which they have suffered from the presence of military and air installations? What is the position there?
Leaving aside the telephone service, I want to ask what is being done to provide better Post Office facilities, not only behind the counter, which the people can see, but in the building behind, where all the hard work is done. How far are we to have a proper development of the buildings of the Post Office, and how far are we to provide a post office that really corresponds with local needs?
To take one example in my own area, we have always been in the Romford postal area. The one thing which gives a locality some degree of individuality is the possession of its own post office, and where this is not so, it leads to great difficulties in the case of people paying their rates, and so on. Again, in the case of houses, when there is such a restriction on the number of houses available, as is the case in my constituency, it is important to be able to ascertain under which authority one is living. [Laughter.] I do not know why hon. Gentlemen laugh, because it is so, although I cannot develop that.
The hon. Gentleman really should consider this sort of question. Each of the new areas should have its own post office or its own centre where people can come. To some degree, the post office is a social centre. It is the place where people draw their money. One of the great complaints locally is that we have no post office of our own. Are we going to get one in the near future? Hornchurch is the place which produced the first Postmaster-General and because of that fact alone is, I think, entitled to have its own postal services.
For the first time in my life I have been disappointed by the hon. and learned Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing). During the whole of, his remarks he did not mention Northern Ireland, which surprised and disappointed me very much. Here was an opportunity for the hon. and learned Member to find fault with the Post Office service in Northern Ireland, although I am happy to say that I am perfectly satisfied with the service I receive from the Post Office there.
I want to make it clear that the only reason I did not refer to the matter which no doubt the hon. Gentleman has in mind, the opening of the mail of people in Northern Ireland, was because the funds for that are not borne, I think I am right in saying, on capital account. No doubt the Minister can tell us whether any permanent installations for this purpose are being installed in Northern Ireland on capital account. I think I am right in saying that is a Supply question and that I could not deal with it on this occasion without being out of order.
The hon. and learned Member has not got with him tonight his guide, philosopher and friend from the County of Fermanagh. There were no complaints from any other quarter of the House at the time regarding the Post Office service.
I have intervened in the debate because I wanted to say that I am very happy to know that the hon. and learned Member for Hornchurch is quite happy regarding the Post Office service in Northern Ireland, as also I am.
I intervened in one stage of this discussion to mention one or two questions regarding Oldham, and I think it might be convenient to mention them briefly now. It seems to me that we are entitled to know how it is proposed to spend this money. Up to now we have had very little information as to its prospective allocation. We are told that it is for the capital development of the Post Office, for periodic grants and that the money voted last time has not yet all been spent, but will be in a limited space of time.
We have been given no information whatever except on the basis of the curious figure of percentages when we were told that 90 per cent. was being allocated to some form of telephone service. We were given no information as to what are the plans of the Assistant Postmaster-General. The difficulty is, of course, that the Postmaster-General is a Member of another place and we do not have the privilege of hearing him. Therefore, we have to rely solely on vicarious statements in this House.
I want the Assistant Postmaster-General to realise that once he was committed to the proposition that capital development in the Post Office should be diminished, and once he was committed to accepting the dictation of the Treasury and the decision to slow down all this development and to cancel many projects, the whole question of priorities became a new question altogether. The House is entitled to be told how it is going to be handled now.
Twelve months ago in Oldham there were several thousand applications for telephones outstanding, and some were of quite vital importance. At that time we were told in a speech at the local Rotary Club by a distinguished Post Office official that the whole of the lag would be taken up by June of this year. As I understand it, if there had been no change of Government, that might very well have been the case. [Laughter.] I do not know what is the meaning of that interjection. This was an official statement made by the Post Office of what was going to happen in the programme then being carried on so efficiently by my right hon. Friend the then Postmaster-General.
I am much obliged, but I am very surprised that it was joy. It sounded like nervous irritation.
This question of priorities is one which we have never had explained to us. Whilst Oldham has one or two useful hotels, it is still very short of accommodation. Many people who have business in Oldham have to stay in Manchester, and yet there is difficulty in having a telephone installed in an hotel right in the middle of Oldham, West. We are told that there is no cable available, that applicants have to wait until a cable is put down and that that depends upon the capital investment programme.
The result of all that is that there will be no practical cable-laying in towns such as Oldham for the next year or two. Almost all the projects contemplated in Oldham which would have built up the telephone and Post Office service are to be abandoned and we are to have no new development at all.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) referred to the manual exchanges. I was very glad to hear him do so, because I think the time is coming when, except in rural areas where an automatic exchange is impracticable, we all want to see the manual exchanges go. I have worked on a manual exchange and my wife was a sub-postmistress. [An HON. MEMBER: "Is that why the hon. Member wants it abolished?"] If the hon. Member who interjected will have the courtesy to rise in his seat and ask his question, I will tell him precisely why. It is because the only provision made in that post office was a bell——
With respect, the whole purpose of the development is the construction of central exchanges, which is an absolutely vital matter to the modern telephone service. It means centralisation and, therefore, a more efficient service, and so it is vital that we should have an assurance from the Assistant Postmaster-General that a good deal of this money is to be put to that purpose. Since I was interrupted, perhaps I am entitled to complete my reply to the interruption.
I was saying that in this post office there was a bell. It rang over the whole house every time the telephone was used. Someone had to go down every hour of the day and night when that bell rang and its ring was loud enough to awaken the dead. At nine o'clock the mail came and someone had to handle that. That was the sort of life in small villages in those days. I am very glad to see that something has been done to put it right.
There are still one or two services which have not yet even been started, and I want to press the Assistant Postmaster-General to give us some information about priorities. I want him to tell us what case has to be established in these difficult days to obtain a telephone and how he fixes the priorities. There are instances of a big bookmaker with 200 telephones, whilst a smaller fellow cannot obtain one.
A doctor should be able to obtain a telephone in almost any circumstances. I hope that there is no case in the country of a general practitioner who is not on the telephone today. There must be many matters of urgency where a telephone is essential. There are people like nurses and midwives who have to be available at any moment. It can be a grave tragedy in some of the wide rural areas where problems are liable to be magnified by the size of such areas.
There are one or two curious procedures which still remain. I was surprised to learn the other day that I had to pay for the delivery of a telegram if I happened to be more than a certain distance away from the post office. This matter was taken up by a former distinguished Member of this House, Sir Frank Lockwood, who was Solicitor-General many years ago. He had a friend who was known for his particular objection to the fact that he had to pay 5s. for the delivery of a telegram. He sent a wire asking whether he could come to stay for a few days. He got a letter back saying, "Yes, by all means come, but please do not wire." Whereupon he wired back and said, "I am arriving on the train at 3 o'clock in the afternoon." He got the reply, "I will meet you by all means, but please do not wire." He terminated the matter by wiring "Why not?"
I still have to pay for the delivery of telegrams. I do not object to it because I think the people running the post office have a hard job. They have to go round these vast areas. At the same time, I hope that a gradual development will eliminate some of these archaisms and will give us an efficient system as soon as reasonably possible.
It would not be right for me to conclude without saying that, on the whole, this service is one of the best that have been produced. The removal of our grievances in Oldham in such a comparatively short time after the war is a tribute to my right hon. Friend. I am complaining about the deliberate decision of the Treasury to set the clock back and to cease to proceed at the same pace of development.
On the whole, the efficiency of the Post Office and the courtesy of the telephone operators is quite incredible. I appreciate very much the constant courtesy and assistance that we get from a staff who have never been overpaid, who always have a tendency to be overworked, and who have to face a great many technical problems in the course of their duties.
This is the supreme example of nationalisation which has now become part of the fabric of our life, which is part and parcel of almost every commercial activity, which renders assistance and is still conducted, even under a Tory Government, at rates which compare favourably with almost any Post Office service in the world. The Assistant Postmaster-General has taken over a responsible task, and one in which I am certain his passion for private enterprise is beginning to abate because of the efficiency of this nationalised service.
I deplore this introduction of large defence expenditure in the Post Office accounts. I deplore the fact that we are adopting a method which we condemn so often when we refer to other countries, by which a sum of £25 million of defence expenditure is concealed in the Post Office accounts. This is a very regrettable matter. There was never any necessity for it from the first. It could easily be borne on the Defence Vote, as it has always been previously. Subject to that, my only regret is that the services are being run down. My desire is that we should be informed a good deal more fully what are the effects of this running down in Oldham and other Lancashire towns.
I too should like to know how this money is going to be spent, and I think Northampton would like to know that too. In Northampton the situation has really been outrageous. It has been going on for years.
There is a system of priorities which goes about half way down business needs. No private persons have the slightest hope of getting telephones in Northampton. Indeed, they are constantly losing them. If householder A changes house with householder B, both telephones are taken away. A is not allowed to move the telephone with him to his new house and B is not allowed to take over A's telephone because he was not previously a subscriber.
Each time we are told that the reason for this lamentable situation is shortage of capital. It is not the telephone; it is not the equipment; it is the exchange. The exchange cannot deal with the volume required. Over two years ago Northampton was promised a new exchange. I have been putting down Questions to the hon. Gentleman and to his predecessors for many years now. Each time I am told, "It is going to come," and it never turns up. In voting this money I hope that Northampton is going to get its share, because that share is very much overdue.
I should like to say something with regard to the countryside, because telephones are highly important instruments of production on the farms today. We are trying to get a large increase in our dairy and meat production. That increase can be achieved by improved cattle breeding, which in turn can be achieved by artificial insemination; but the work of artificial insemination depends entirely upon a telephone being available. [Laughter.] Hon. Gentlemen opposite laugh. I presume they do not come from the countryside, where this is a very real problem.
As the hon. Gentleman's right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture will tell him, the main breeding policy of this country is based upon the extension of artificial insemination, making selected and valuable bulls available to thousands of cows where previously they served only tens. That whole service depends upon the provision by the hon. Gentleman of an adequate supply of telephones. This is a service which is essential to production.
Now that we are giving him these large sums and now that we have exerted enough pressure for him to succeed with his colleagues, I hope we shall hear that he is going to hang on to the Post Office's own money and not have it concealed in defence, and that we are going to make a proper use of this money, a proper extension of the telephone service to the countryside, and in particular, that Northampton is going to have its new exchange, which it has been promised over and over again and which is still being delayed.
I think that we must pass this Bill tonight. I do not think that there is any question of voting against it. At the same time, I think we should let it be known that this Bill, which is seemingly so satisfactory, does not bear optimistic examination. After all, last year we spent £36 million on capital equipment —the very things which my hon. Friends have been talking about, such as new post offices, extra telephone exchanges and kiosks in the countryside.
This year we are to spend £48 million and the year after that £50 million, which. on the face of it, looks very good indeed. But, as we have learned from the discussion of the Bill, we have to reduce that £98 million in the next two years by about £25 million, which is being diverted purely to defence purposes and from which, for the moment, the civilian population will get no benefit.
I want the Assistant Postmaster-General to be frank with the country and the House. No one has done more than the party opposite to rouse the hopes of farmers, of business men, of shopkeepers, of the still growing army of citizens needing a telephone, that if only they got rid of the Labour Government they would get telephones. It is for them to bring the Bill to the House and to be frank with the country. They should tell the country what little hope there is of meeting the demand. There is even less hope when we appreciate that since the end of the war we have been building up a service, for the ordinary replacement and maintenance of which we need to spend more capital each year. Furthermore, with equipment of this type there has been no fall in price, so that for the same capital expenditure this year we shall get less in results—in telephone exchanges and so on—than in the past.
One of the most disagreeable features is how little we are to spend in the next two years on postal and telegraph services. That means that these small towns and new areas within our cities, new housing estates, which have been hoping to get better postal facilities, will for some time have to be content with makeshifts. The Assistant Postmaster-General must be frank and tell the House and the country what the position is. It is far better that he should do so than he should lead the people to hope that something will come along.
For the Post Office itself and those who work in it, this Bill and this situation spells frustration. I do not know any service which sets out more anxiously to provide the facilities which it could provide, given the elbow room within the existing situation. We on this side of the House are faced inevitably with this situation and we have to accept it; and, in supporting the Bill, I ask the Assistant Postmaster-General to be frank about the situation.
I do not propose to detain the House for more than two or three minutes. I am sure both sides of the House appreciate the biennial Post Office (Money) Bills, because they afford to the House an opportunity to discuss the whole ramifications of Post Office work. In that way, the Bill is an advantage, as, indeed, it is to everyone who holds the position of Postmaster-General or Assistant Postmaster-General.
I took three of these Bills through the House and I know the time necessary to study the potential questions which may be asked. I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman, particularly in view of the fact that the Postmaster-General is in another place. I do not propose to deal with the difficulties in my constituency, the Keighley Division of West Yorkshire; nor do I suppose the Assistant Postmaster-General will reveal the difficulties which exist in Clissold and Tudor. All I can say is that he is probably now cognisant of the reasons for those difficulties.
I was interested in the short debate we have had, because I remember discussions on rating and valuation arising out of a Post Office (Money) Bill, but never a debate on artificial insemination; and only a lawyer of the standing of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) would not incur your pleasure, Sir Charles, when discussing such a subject on the Post Office (Money) Bill.
In a more serious vein, I just want to say to the Assistant Postmaster-General that I do hope he will see to it that some of the £75 million we are voting tonight is devoted to the building of new exchanges, and that he will use all the influence he can with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to remove the ban on new buildings, because if the ban is not removed there will be a far greater waiting list in a few years' time than that which exists at the present moment. I know full well that one in five of the exchanges at the present time is full. Moreover, even with shared services there has to be separate equipment. Therefore, it is essential that some of this money should be spent on new building, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will use his influence in that regard.
I think we have certainly had a very friendly debate, and I do not want to say anything that would alter the atmosphere in which we have reached the Third Reading of this Bill.
First of all I should like to refer to the point made by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale), in which he paid a great tribute, and a very deserved tribute, to the Post Office staff. All of us who have ever had anything to do with the Post Office for long or short periods agree with what he said, but the particular point I should like to make is, that if we in this House feel a sense of disappointment and frustration that more developments cannot be done by the Post Office because of re-armament and because of our economic position, that presses especially hard on the men in the Post Office itself.
I hate to use this word "frustration," but there is nothing more discouraging than to know that projects that ought to be undertaken, and which, as an engineer, one would take part in, simply cannot be carried out. I cannot imagine any more satisfying job, any more satisfying post in any Government, than that of the Postmaster-General or Assistant Postmaster-General at a time of great development and expansion, and the tragedy of the situation today is that we know that there are great developments possible, technical and otherwise, and that there is great expansion required, and yet I have to stand at this Box at a time when I know that that cannot be done, and when I have to tell so many people they cannot have this and they cannot have that—not because I do not think they ought to have it, but simply because I know it is not feasible.
The hon. Gentleman the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) asked me to be frank. I tried on Second Reading to be very frank, and I think that what I said then covers all the points that have been raised by hon. Gentlemen tonight. Let me quote one thing I said:
The chief point I want to make…is that the sum we are providing today and are likely to be able to spend in the foreseeable future, is quite inadequate for the new developments which the Post Office would like to undertake"—
and I should like the House to mark these words—
or even for us to be able to guarantee that we can maintain the service at present standards.
I do not think anyone could be franker than that, and I do not think that any Minister could come to this Box to say anything more disappointing than that. I went on to say:
I am not suggesting the Post Office is unique in that respect. Almost every Government Department which serves the public, and most private concerns, would today say the same thing."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 31st March, 1952; Vol. 498, c. 1192.]
But let us realise the reason for it. This is due to the defence position and
the need to restrict capital development on account of the economic situation. That is the reason, and the only reason. Therefore, when hon. Members on either side of the House criticise us for having to take up that attitude we very soon come to the question whether we agree that it is necessary for us to undertake this great defence programme, or whether it is necessary for us to divert to the export trade many of the materials and much of the results of the skill which we would like to keep at home.
The hon. Gentleman says it is necessary in the public interest to restrict spending on capital account. How does he reconcile the restrictions of expenditure on capital account in the public sector with the increase of expenditure in the private sector, as, for example, the increase in building allowances at the moment for repairs and building?
It would be completely out of order for me to try now to make a speech on housing or house repairs, which are not my concern. The point I want to make is that this restriction is caused for two reasons: the need for re-armament and for maintaining and extending the export trade. That is a very disappointing position to have to take up, and I have warned the House now on three occasions that this may mean, not merely that we cannot improve our telephone service, not merely that we cannot provide the hon. Gentleman and his constituents in Oldham, or elsewhere, with the telephone exchange they require. It may be worse than that. It may mean that we may not be able actually to maintain the present level of the service that we are giving the public today.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the need for re-armament as the reason for the diminution. There have been substantial cuts in armaments, because they are now spreading the whole programme over three years instead of two. Could not Oldham therefore get a telephone exchange without actually reducing expenditure on armaments?
It has not developed up to now As hon. Members are aware, British telephone equipment has an unrivalled position and reputation in the world, and in the past few years has contributed very substantially to our export trade.
I want to be absolutely frank about this, because I do not want hon. Members to go away with the wrong impression. I said on Second Reading that this year, so far as I could see, we were not likely to be able to start any new building at all. Now that is a most depressing state of affairs, because anyone who knows, as the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Hobson) knows so well, the whole organisation of the telephone service, appreciates that if we start now in a new area it would be four or five years before we could adequately cover that area with a proper telephone service, and the first stage of that development is the building into which the telephone exchange equipment is put. There are parts of the country—luckily it is not universal—where the congestion is extremely serious, and where the only thing we can do to start to put things right is to put up a new telephone exchange. That is why the whole of this is so depressing.
I hope I have given hon. Gentlemen who have raised certain matters the information they require. If they would like further information about their particular constituencies I should be only too glad to supply it. I can only end by saying that I hope the time will not be all that distant when it will be possible for me, or someone holding the position I now hold, to come to this Box and give the green light to the development of the telephone and postal services generally, in order to provide our people with the services they require and should have.