I am glad of the opportunity to raise an important matter affecting my constituents and adjacent constituencies in the North-West London area connected with the planned reduction in the emergency GPO telephone services in the autumn. I hope that the House will bear with me if I become inevitably technical in the arguments that I intend to deploy.
The title of the Adjournment debate was not constructed by myself and it may not, therefore, give the necessary emphasis on the emergency aspect of the services that concern me. The need for constraints in public spending of one kind or another is accorded widespread acceptance in this country, but much greater care and scrutiny has to be given when the services involved are regarded so automatically as being in the public sector. I would have thought that everyone would accept that this applies to the Post Office telephone service. When one considers the emergency telephone services, that argument becomes stronger. That is why I chose today to raise in general context some of the proposals for reductions in services which the Post Office is planning in telephones and other areas.
I wish to single out one specific example that concerns me and will concern many other people when they realise the consequences. The matter arose from newspaper reports in the spring, when the Post Office announced provisionally its intention to reduce the emergency engineer coverage of the telephone services in the autumn by cutting back at various exchanges. I thought it was right as Member of Parliament for an area that covers nearly a quarter of the North-West London telephone area to carry out research into the likely consequences. Once again, I apologise if I become a little technical.
At present, in this area, the emergency cover for telephones is provided by two men stationed at each of three centers—Colindale, Wembley and Watford. The plan is that on 1 September this year the coverage will be reduced by 50 per cent., so that only one man is engaged in giving emergency cover at each centre. I am mostly concerned with the specific areas covering the telephone area of Bushey Heath, Elstree, Stonegrove, Mill Hill, Grimsdyke, Colindale and Dollis Hill.
I am worried, first, that in a heavily populated area of London the public are not really aware of the proposal and, secondly, that it could cause enormous problems. By this proposal, the Post Office may be infringing its own code of practice and therefore letting the public down in terms of its contract to provide an adequate service, above all the emergency service involving 999 calls.
We know from the Post Office's results how successfully it is trading at present. That, too, adds to the general concern. I direct the Minister's attention to a specific technicality, which is important. The main problem will arise in connection with 999 traces. Some people, in a panic or in stress, when dialling the emergency service fail to give their telephone number, in spite of the clear instructions. That necessitates an emergency trace by a highly skilled engineer so that the emergency services can be deployed as quickly as possible. It is easy to imagine the terrible human conditions that form the background to such calls.
Each fault tracing can take 50 minutes to locate. On average, if one assumes that the number of calls involved is 170 a week—and these are my figures—it would take between 120 and 190 hours a week, depending on the intensity of work, to sort them out. The Post Office maintains that these faults can be attended to by one man, and that two men are not necessary.
One man working all the week—assuming that the faults arise smoothly—out of normal hours from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. on weekdays and all day Saturday and Sunday, would have only 110 hours to attend to emergency faults, allowing for meal breaks. That means that up to 50 hours a week could not be worked by one man. That is the crucial argument for having two emergency engineers on duty. Having only one man would mean that 55 emergency faults would not be dealt with in each of the three centres that I mentioned earlier. The Post Office says that it would deal with the possible gaps by calling out men from home to tackle the outstanding faults. It says that not all traces have to be dealt with quickly, because sometimes the emergency is imagined by the caller.
The cost of calling a man from home is three hours' minimum pay plus expenses to and from home. The average cost would be £12 per fault. The yearly cost would be just over £34,000. The saving planned by the Post Office by the proposed redundancy—one man's wages plus extras and one van—is about £14,000 a year. The deficit to the Post Office of £20,000 is the difference between those figures.
Since faults are not reported every 55 minutes in a regular rhythm, it may be assumed that one man will be engaged on emergency faults for only about 80 per cent. of his time in practical behavioural terms. The loss would therefore be higher than the best example that I have cited.
Under existing agreements the man at home who is off duty is not bound to respond to a call-out, since he does not receive a standby payment. The Post Office would have to depend on the good will of the staff. I am sure that the staff would wish to attend. But what if the call-out man is not available, or not fit for duty? I am not being censorious. I refer to normal social drinking or domestic matters. If the call-out man is not available immediately, a delay will occur in the clearing of the fault.
The Post Office policy is to save money and to allow the outstanding fault to be left for day staff, or to be left for several hours, so that one man can catch up with the backlog of the night's work in more peaceful conditions. Such a practice would be detrimental to the public and to individuals in moments of crisis. The solemn terms of the Post Office code of practice state that
It is the intention that the customer service must be maintained and increased where possible.
The proposed redundancy flies fully in the face of that solemn proposition.
If the Post Office seriously intends what is laid down in this code it could use the two men who are already at each centre, at no extra cost. That is what I suggest, in contrast to the present proposals. This could be done by using existing personnel to increase security cover at unattended exchanges by random visits at night-time and weekends, to ensure that there have been no illegal break-ins. Non-emergency customer faults could be attended to when emergency faults have been dealt with.
It is important for the Post Office to think again about these proposals. What the Post Office proposes for 999 tracer calls will cause extreme difficulty for my constituents and members of the public in wider areas. It would cause difficulty for people in moments of great stress, such as calling for the police, fire and ambulance or any other service, including calling their local GP, and put at risk other parts of the emergency engineering surveillance service.
I shall cite various other matters about which all of us, quite naturally, know very little, first, because of their technical nature and, secondly, because they are done without observance behind the scenes and involve complicated procedures and equipment. Apart from 999 traces there are exchange failures. The faults dealt with in the 40 exchanges in the North-West area include incorrect charging of customer calls, the general danger of power failures, general loss of exchange facilities—that is, no dialling tone and a howl; manifestations which I think we have all suffered from—cable breakdowns, failure of medical telephone facilities, failure to transfer calls properly, and so on. All that is against the background of an increasing pressure on these services.
All public kiosks are maintained out of normal hours. What would happen to the maintenance of those kiosks in an era, unhappily, when so many kiosks are vandalised and put out of action? Doctors' emergency installations must be one of the most worrying aspects of this proposed cut.
Apart from 999 calls for fire, police and ambulance, problems arise because all lines connected with the emergency services are maintained by that same staff, including vitally important centres such as the police computer centre and the police communications centre which controls North and North-West London.
There are the bank alarm circuits, the high revenue line—so-called—and the general categories of emergency lines, and many other services that I could cite. The maintenance of security in Post Office buildings—not only the exchanges, but other buildings—burglar alarm lines, lines to enable temporary emergency services to be erected, lines used by the police authorities to deal with civil disturbances and serious crimes, are all at the sharp end of the complicated activities of Post Office engineers.
It may be that the same risks and dangers affect other areas of Greater London and elsewhere as a result of the Post Office looking at operational economies. I believe that these proposals require reappraisal.
I am aware that one of the standard responses from any Minister charged with dealing with a technical matter—we all understand why, and do not criticise it—is to say that the Government are not responsible for the day-to-day running of the Post Office and that all that he can do is act as an intermediary. pass on the anxiety expressed, and, in due course, get in touch with the hon. Member again. If the Minister were to give an assurance, I would understand.
I have deliberately focused on one specific technical consequence, and have singled out an economic as well as an operational effect of the planned 50 per cent. cutback in the number of engineers at each centre, to show the general dangers that may arise. If the Post Office wishes to make such economies in its engineering services, which in itself is a rather dubious proposition, surely it could look elsewhere. I believe that the specific proposal that I have mentioned should be deliberately excluded.
It may be that in recent weeks the Post Office has had second thoughts about this, in which case, if the Minister is able to announce that that is the case, everyone will be very pleased. With the current up-market advertising of the Post Office telephone services in the consumer sense, we increasingly think of the more agreeable manifestations of Buzby and his pleasant exhortations to make more calls to all sorts of people, as a way of keeping in touch in a social and human sense with friends, relations, girl friends and so on. That is all right. But when the public switches from that discretionary telephoning to the need to pick up the telephone in an emergency and to call for a service, we see where the telephone is of vital importance, not only to elderly people but to all types of citizens in all sorts of places. As I have already said, this is a highly populated area anyway.
With the pressure on those emergency services, the need for meticulous co-ordination between them is so adamantly and obviously pressing and crucial. Alas, we live in a time when not only must we put up with vandalised kiosks but there are also repeated instances where constituents have to wait much longer than one would normally expect for the arrival of an emergency vehicle as a result of a 999 call. We know full well that these services do their best, but unfortunately there are now delays that are often caused by traffic congestion which never used to exist in the old days. One can imagine the catastrophic consequences that would arise if added to that normal delay was the inability to trace a 999 call with the requisite efficiency of which Post Office engineers are proud.
To the extent that Post Office engineers can express an opinion, I do not believe that they are very enthusiastic about this proposal. It may look good at first sight on the figures of savings in wages, vehicles and infrastructural expenses, but this is a matter about which the Post Office should think again. If the Minister can allude to that rethink as soon as possible before 1 September—after all, we are now entering the holiday period which makes the problem all the more difficult and pressing—I, along with many thousands of people in the area, will be very grateful.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) for the constructive and reasonable manner in which he has raised this subject and for giving me an early indication of some of the points that he wished to make.
My hon. Friend said that he would go into a number of points in detail. Recognising the tenor of what he said, and his natural concern in the way that he expressed it, I understand why he went into detail. For that reason, I should like to respond in perhaps a more detailed way than we might otherwise consider these matters, given the normal desire not to intervene in the management affairs of the Post Office.
I hope that the debate will provide an opportunity for the removal of what in some circumstances is a misapprehension about the true nature and effect of the decisions that the Post Office management has taken on the staffing of exchange maintenance services in the London North-West area. My hon. Friend has clearly given the matter careful attention. I think that he would agree that there is perhaps a general misunderstanding about the various types of maintenance and emergency services. I should like to spell this out.
I emphasise that these developments in London are of great significance in the Post Office overall. I believe that they are of significance not only in regard to the matter that he raised but also in relation to the way in which the Post Office is attempting, and indeed achieving, certain improvements in efficiency.
First, I fully understand and sympathise with the concern expressed by my hon. Friend on behalf of his constituents. It is typical of his assiduity, and I understand that he is expressing the views of those who are worried about the effect that the planned reduction in the numbers of employees engaged in standby maintenance duties may have on the telephone service.
I understand from the Post Office that the London North-West area management has decided to reduce the number of standby maintenance engineers working on a rota basis to repair faults arising on exchange equipment outside normal working hours. At present 10 men are employed at any one time on these duties at seven locations. At three locations—Watford, Wembley and Colindale—two men are employed at the same time. The intention is to reduce that number to one in each case. The total number working on rota maintenance duties at exchanges in the area at any one time will thus be reduced from 10 to seven—one at each location at present covered.
I gather that the reason for that decision is that with the improved performance of automatic equipment the Post Office has concluded that the number at present employed on standby maintenance duties at exchanges in the area is no longer required. Management studies have indicated that fewer people could provide a more efficient service. That was confirmed during industrial action by members of the Post Office Engineering Union last year, when it proved possible to provide standby maintenance cover using fewer people without adversely affecting the overall level of service.
There are three main points that I should like to make about that decision. First, it is part of a continuing drive by Post Office management to improve efficiency. That is an objective that we must all applaud. The Government attach great importance to the provision of efficient telecommunications services at reasonable cost. That is vital to business and to the community as a whole, and is the only way in which we can ensure that this country reaps the full benefits of the exciting prospects for growth in telecommunications services of all sorts in the future. The Post Office management has our full support in seeking to achieve improved efficiency.
Over the next few years the progressive modernisation of telecommunications equipment will entail widespread changes in working practices within the Post Office and considerable increases in productivity. I pay tribute to the POEU. It fully recognises that development, as is brought out in its recently published and impressive study on the modernisation of telecommunications. The changes in the manning of the standby maintenance rota at exchanges in the London North-West area that we are discussing this afternoon are part of that process.
Secondly—and this I must stress in view of the concern expressed by my hon. Friend—the Post Office has assured me that there will be no reduction in services to the public as a result of that decision. I am assured that there is little connection between the rota standby maintenance service, which is primarily concerned with the rectification of faults arising in telephone exchange equipment, a number of examples of which my hon. Friend quoted, and the 24-hour emergency service that is properly summed up in the 999 call. There is a distinction. The latter service is provided to cover emergency maintenance of telecommunications for life or death services such as police, fire and doctors, and those at special risk in the community, at the discretion of local management. The service is mainly provided by engineers, many of them with different skills to those on the maintenance rota at exchanges who are called out specially from home or from a central point to carry out repairs in the emergency category where necessary. That service—and this is the important assurance that my hon. Member would wish to hear—will continue to be provided in the London North-West area on exactly the same basis as at present.
My hon. Friend went into detail on the 999 traces, and I am not aware that they will be affected in any way. Recognising, however, the detailed work that my hon. Friend has put in, I should like to take further advice and get in touch with him again. I am sure that he will appreciate the importance of looking at the matter with the greatest possible care. I reiterate that I am presently assured that there appears to be no way that that would be affected, and the service will continue to be provided in his area on exactly the same basis as at present.
I assure my hon. Friend that I shall look at the matter that he has raised, but let us see what the answer is before we decide what is necessary thereafter.
To continue with the general argument on that point, I should like to emphasise that in the Post Office's view there is no danger that reducing the number of engineers on the exchange standby maintenance rota will significantly increase the risk of major breakdown leading to the interruption of services. At each location that is at present covered there will still be a maintenance engineer to identify any major faults as they develop, to take appropriate action and, where necessary, to mobilise help to put the situation right. In fact, on, the basis of its management services studies, the Post Office considers that under the new arrangements at the three locations directly affected there will still be a safe operating margin of extra maintenance effort to deal with unusual circumstances, but that will now be at a reasonable rather than an excessive level.
Thirdly—this partly answers my hon. Friend's concern; he will recognise that were the anxieties he expressed fully borne out he might well expect the unions in negotiating these matters to be somewhat more reluctant to agree—it is important in these technical areas to recognise that there has been full consultation between the Post Office management, the staff affected and their trade union representatives. I understand that there have been discussions stretching back over a considerable period between the management and local trade union representatives and that the management have been very willing to discuss different ways in which the reduction in the rota might be achieved so as to minimize the impact on the individual pay packets of the staff affected. The Post Office would have preferred to proceed with the full agreement of the local staff but, failing that, reluctantly concluded that the change must go ahead. I gather that the employees concerned have all received well over three months' written notice explaining the intended changes, which are now due to take place in September; and I am told that in deciding which employees are to be affected the Post Office will be having full regard to their personal circumstances.
I stress that there is no question of redundancy, but one naturally has a good deal of sympathy for employees who will suffer a sizeable reduction in overtime earnings as a result of this decision. However, it would clearly be wrong to continue these payments when they can no longer be justified on operational grounds.
I would not wish to let this occasion pass without paying tribute to the work of the Post Office telecommunications maintenance engineers. These men, working unsocial hours and often in extremely difficult conditions—as, for instance, last winter—keep the telephone system in operation which the rest of us tend to take for granted. It is right that we should remember the skill, hard work and devotion to duty that goes with this task.
Let me say, as I said at the beginning of my speech, that the significance of these developments is not confined to London. They are an example of the way that, on the one hand, genuine productivity improvements are being achieved in the Post Office and, on the other, are being viewed against the background of increasing job opportunities on the telecommunications side of the Post Office. The management and the Post Office Engineering Union are to be congratulated on their close collaboration in seeking developments of this kind. At a time when there is public disquiet about the Post Office level of services to the customer, it is heartening to see such improvements, which I hope may be more widely extended.
I hope that this debate has been useful in explaining the background to the London North-West area management's decision to reduce the number of engineers on rota maintenance in telephone exchanges in the area. I hope, in particular that what I have said has provided some reassurance to my hon. Friend's constituents about the effect of the decision. I have noted my hon. Friend's remarks. I have already given him an assurance that I shall refer specifically to the question of the 999 traces. I should like to pay my tribute to the hard work that he must have done in looking into this matter. I shall ensure that the points he brought to my attention are, in turn, made available to the Post Office chairman. Meanwhile, I give my hon. Friend and his constituents the categoric assurance, based on that of the Post Office, that emergency maintenance services in the London North-West area will not be affected.