§ Mr. Robert Wallace
rose to move "for copies of the instructions under which Postmasters claim a right to unfold or open letters in all or any of the Post-offices of Great Britain and Ireland." His Motion involved a serious charge either against the Postmaster-General, or some one acting by his authority, who had, in order to discover a fraud, committed a felony in the opening of letters. He should prove this before he sat down. He had had two interviews on the subject of his Motion with the Postmaster-General, who had received him with great urbanity, but no adequate remedy was proposed for the evil of which he complained. There were some means adopted at present of getting at the contents of letters, a practice which, if sanctioned or continued, violated that secrecy and confidence on which the public relied in placing their letters in the Post-office. It would ill become him to bring forward a charge of this kind if he had not made himself master, to a great extent, of the proceedings of this great establishment. He would, therefore, read to the House some extracts from the volume which was before him. The House need not be alarmed at the great size of that volume; he had no intention of reading more than a very small portion of it. It was a report from the Commissioners of Revenue in 1829. It was an able and searching report, and made many very useful suggestions as to the Post-office; but, so far as he could learn, they had not been attended with any effect; neither had the previous recommendations made in the reports of 1788 and 1797, though very wise and salutary. The Report of 1829, spoke of the facility, of the great and quick communication, afforded by the Post-office, which it said 370 might be classed amongst the elements of profitable commerce; and was of great importance as a branch of the public revenue. He admitted, that if well managed, it would be a profitable branch of revenue; but it was managed with meanness and parsimony, which greatly diminished the revenue which would accrue under a better management. The whole establishment should be placed on a different footing. The House had an opportunity, by the presence of the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Secretary to the Treasury, and other individuals connected with public departments, the advantage of making inquiries on the spot as to matters connected with them; but with respect to the Post-office, they had no such advantage, as there was no public officer in that House who represented it. The hon. Member next adverted to the report to show the great powers vested in the Postmaster General, and contended, that such extensive powers ought not to be vested in any one individual. No individual ought to have the power of arranging posts at his discretion, and of employing or dismissing public servants at his pleasure. It further appeared, that among his other extensive powers, the Postmaster-General had authority even to regulate the amount of postage on letters. The next department he should mention was the Secretary's office. The salary of the secretary was 300l. a-year—a sum, however, which was raised by various compensations, fees, and emoluments, to 4,565l. The duties of the Secretary's office comprised almost an entire delegation of the powers of the Postmaster-General. The hon. Member proceeded to read extracts from the Report of 1829, to show, that the remuneration of the clerks of the Post-office consisted partly of salaries and in part of allowances and emoluments of a different description. One of these sources of emolument was the Secretary's fund, of which 750l. a-year was paid to the revenue, and the surplus to the Secretary's clerks. The amount of emoluments paid to clerks and others connected with the Post-office in England and Wales, and derived from various sources, was 39,000l. a-year. In some departments the remuneration was very considerable, while in others it was trifling. Such irregularities and such a system of extra remuneration ought not to be permitted. In his opinion the whole system of the Post-office required revision. The charges of solicitors connected with the Post-office were not go- 371 verned by any known table of fees. He must deprecate also in strong terms, as improper and unconstitutional, the practice of Post-office solicitors, requiring the private correspondence of gentlemen to be submitted to them for the purpose of prosecuting the writers. In such cases the authority of the Postmaster-General was made subservient to the interests of the solicitor, who took on himself to institute proceedings when he saw fit. The result of this was, that the public purse was brought to bear against individuals under the exercise of an irresponsible power; notwithstanding which, however, the penalties recovered were trifling, probably because proceedings were frequently brought against poor persons. The hon. Member next adverted to the inland office, in which there were six clerks of the roads, paid by salaries and perquisites arising out of the sale of newspapers, and from other sources. A petition which could not be received had been that day brought before the House, complaining of grievous exactions on the part of the clerks of the roads in Ireland in the exercise of the powers intrusted to them. The Report stated—and every thing he had heard or seen confirmed the opinion—that the Post-office ought to be conducted on more liberal principles. It was stated, that there should be two places of delivery, one in the western as well as in the eastern part of the town; an earlier delivery of letters; and a delivery which should include the letters of all classes, both rich and poor, at one and the same hour: the difference which now existed in that respect was equally unfair and impolitic. He believed it could not be denied, that there was an early delivery of letters in the metropolis, for which an extra charge was made. The Report showed, that there were two deliveries at the Post-office called window deliveries. It appeared that the office of clerk of the roads was one of those which was least required, and which admitted of the most abuse. After referring to the Secretary's office, which comprehended the control of the whole department, the hon. Member observed that there were 101 statutes relating to the Post-office. How was it possible for people to guard against violations of these laws? The hon. Member next alluded to the parsimony of the Post-office in not sending expresses, on the arrival of the Jamaica and Oporto packets at Falmouth, after the despatch of the regular mail. It was not expecting too much to require that the post-office should, upon 372 such occasions, imitate the conduct of the newspapers, and despatch the intelligence by a post-chaise. The conductors of the public journals displayed no such parsimony as the Post-office. Perhaps they benefited by a priority of intelligence upon the Stock Exchange, independently of the other uses to which the news was put. He n-tended no charge against the conductors of newspapers,—he cast no blame upon them, oven if they did so benefit by the possession of early information. After quoting from the Report various details connected with Sunday arrivals and the management of the inland office, which the hon. Member described as being of a most complicated nature, he said it would require the full exorcise of the abilities of a trained and competent person, who had been educated in the establishment, to manage the Post-office. He did not see why the Post-office should not be conducted as the Excise and Customs, by persons qualified by experience and practical knowledge to manage the department to the best advantage. Allegations were now publicly made, that parcels were broken open by the Post-office, to the manifest inconvenience and injury of the mercantile community. To mention no other inconvenience, the mixing up of samples, which thus occurred, occasioned the most serious inconveniences. He believed the law was clear that such parcels should not be opened; and he had been informed, that one of the greatest commercial establishments in the city had bearded the Secretary and Solicitor of the Post-office, by declaring that they would continue to send letters in boxes, leaving it to the Post office to prosecute if it pleased. The next point he should mention related to ship-letters. In 1815 it was found impossible for the Post-office to collect a revenue from the home postage of letters going to the colonies; and there was an understanding that in future such letters should be sent out of the country free of postage, on the proviso that letters coming from the colonies should pay 2d. a-piece more than formerly; or 8d. instead of 6d., which latter was the old charge. The practice was pursued up to a recent period with advantage; but it was now broken in upon, and letters could not be sent with the same ease and frequency as heretofore, He was sorry he did not see the Vice-President of the Board of Trade in his place. If the right hon. Gentleman were present, he would appeal to him to apply the principles of free trade to the transmission of letters; above all things, 373 to remove all unnecessary restrictions, and provide for their security and rapid trans-mission. By the same law which enacted that ship-letters should pay 8d. postage, 2d. a piece was allowed for their carriage to the owners of the vessels which conveyed them. It was understood that the letters should be brought to the ports to which the ships were destined; but "no," said the Post-office, "the vessels shall be boarded by pilot-boats, &c., which shall carry away the letters, and land them at Falmouth, Plymouth, or where we please." The effect of this regulation was to convert the postage of 8d. into 20d. or 21d. the home postage, from the post being added to the original charge. The hon. Member instanced the transmission of a letter from New York by the packet-ship "Hudson" in December, 1827, which was taken out of the vessel by a pilot boat, and landed at Southampton. The letter was charged with the Plymouth postage, and a suspicion arose, not unnaturally, that the Plymouth post-mark had been placed upon it in London. He held the letter in his hand. He was ready to prove with respect to several thousand letters brought from the East Indies, that the twopences had been with-held from the captains of the ships which brought them, and never paid. What became of the money? He knew one instance of an American captain landing from a ship, and being requested to put a letter into the post-office of the port, but through mistake he carried it to London, and put it into the post-office here; the result was a prosecution and fine, [Sir James Graham: What is the date of the transaction?] Without going through the whole of the letter on the subject (which was a long one) he could not say. [Mr. Alderman Thompson said. The date is 1831, and the letter comes from Calcutta.] One of the reasons for objecting to letters being sent by private opportunities arose out of packets having been provided to convey communications to America and the colonies, But the provision was very inadequate; the worst class of vessels in the known world were his Majesty's packet-ships. They were dangerous, slow, and unsatisfactory. The speed of the American packets was much greater. It was not uncommon for the sailing of the packet from Jamaica to be announced here viâ New York, in consequence of the slowness of the one, and the speed of the other conveyance. The same defective and mischievous post-office system prevailed in the colonies as in the 374 mother country—a system of sponging upon the commercial community by unfair charges of commission and exchange upon newspapers and letters. He objected to the mode of charging on double letters, which was infinitely inferior to the French system of charging by weight. The latter practice avoided all pretence for scrutiny and examination, which were the grand mischiefs of the English system. He was satisfied that it was utterly impossible for any party to express his sentiments by single letters so as to be secure from observation in the Post-office, where an effectual method of examining the contents of letters existed by means of strong gas-lights, and a particular description of shade. He should produce letters so folded that it would appear the seals had been broken, under pretence, no doubt, of information being lodged against the parties. If the public knew this fact, they had better send their letters to the Post-office at once, without the protection of cither seal or wafer. For his own part, he had thought, till recently, that an un-sealed letter would have been as safe from inspection in the Post-office as upon the table of any Member of that House. Now, however, he was of a different opinion. He held in his hand copies of a correspondence between the noble Postmaster-general and himself, in which the noble Duke declared that he would do his utmost to put an end to the evils complained of. He believed, that the noble Duke had been to a certain extent successful; but he complained of the system, which allowed such proceedings to be repeated at any time under the noble Duke, or another Post master-General. He had received a communication from the Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce of Greenock, complaining of the abuses of the Post-office; and a memorial had been forwarded on the subject. In consequence of this he communicated with the Post-office, and the representative of the Postmaster-General at Edinburgh distinctly avowed, that there was "a necessity for examining every letter that passed through the Post-office," and, that "each postmaster had printed instructions directing him to ascertain whether letters had been legally conveyed, or whether any attempt had been made to evade the postage." A letter was sent to Mr. Ayton, a banker of Greenock, by the Post-office solicitor, requiring him to give up a certain letter, That letter he (Mr. Wallace) now held in his hand; it was written by a parish-clerk from a place about ten 375 miles from Greenock, summoning Mr. Ayton to a meeting; the clerk carried the letter in his pocket to Greenock, and put it into the Post-office, and it was delivered, and a penny postage charged for it. Upon this transaction it was, that the solicitor of the Post-office sought to inflict a penalty on Mr. Ayton. There was another letter from Glasgow, upon which penalties to the amount of 570l. were sought to be recovered against J. Reed & Co., simply in consequence of the clerks of the Post-office having examined and discovered the contents of the letter.
Mr. Secretary Stanley
asked whether the right of examining letters had not been expressly disavowed by the noble Postmaster-General, and whether the hon. Member did not say that he was satisfied with that?
§ Mr. Robert Wallace
had told the Postmaster General, that he should be satisfied if a stop were put to the practices complained of, at the same time, he thought, that, as the law now stood, the Postmaster General did not possess sufficient power to put a stop to them, though he possessed the power to sanction much evil. He blamed the law, not the noble Duke, who had acted as well as he could. He had in his possession a communication from the Board of Trade at Greenock, referring to a statement on the part of the Postmaster General, declaring that the practices complained of should not in future occur at Greenock or elsewhere. Another he should refer to was addressed to James Scott and Co., wine merchants, and it was folded in that sort of manner that it was absolutely impossible its contents should be known (as they were known at the Post-office), unless the seal had been violated. In conclusion, he thought it necessary to state, that unless he received an assurance from Government of their intention to take the subject up, he should, in the next Session, move for a Select Committee to inquire into the state of the Post-offices of Great Britain and Ireland. The hon. Member then concluded by moving for Returns of all instructions or directions from authority under which Postmasters were authorized to open or unfold letters, or apply strong lamp lights for the purpose of ascertaining or reading the contents of letters fastened by wafer or wax, or unfastened; and for various other Returns connected with the management of the Post-office.
§ Mr. Buckingham
said, that the hon. Member was wrong in condemning the 376 practice of landing letters from inward-bound vessels at the outports. It was necessary to do so, as in many cases nearly a month elapsed after such vessels making land before they reached the ports of their destination. With respect to the old Post-office packets, he (Mr. Buckingham) could speak from his own knowledge on the subject, as he had been born at Falmouth; and he would challenge contradiction to the assertion, that of all the vessels that were ever constructed, the vessels carrying the Post-office mails were unrivalled for their speed. A prejudice had been of late created against the packets, in consequence of ships-of-war gun-brigs having been employed in the public service, and which had been commanded by naval officers; but enough remained of the old Post-office packets to show, that, for safety and speed, they were unrivalled.
§ Lord Althorp
said, that he did not mean to object to the hon. Gentleman's Motion, at the same time, he must say, that a great portion of it might have been omitted, as the documents for which it called were documents that never existed. The hon. Gentleman was aware, that the Postmaster General had disavowed ever having given any authority to Deputy Postmasters in the country to open letters in order to ascertain where they were dated. But the hon. Gentleman handed to him, in proof, a letter across the Table; and he said, that it was impossible that the place from whence that letter was dated could be ascertained without opening the letter. Now, without breaking the seal or opening that letter, but in consequence of the awkward manner in which it had been folded, he, simply by looking into it, could, as easily as possible, read the word "Dublin," whence the letter was dated. But the Postmaster General had, as the hon. Gentleman was aware, disavowed having given to Deputy Post masters authority even to look into letters in that way, in order to discover their dates. The hon. Gentleman, however, must see, that the date of this letter might be discovered without opening it. The notice which the hon. Member had placed upon the paper had not certainly led him to expect such a statement as that which he had now made to the House, for that notice was for "copies of the instructions under which Postmasters claim a right to unfold or open letters in all or any of the Post-offices of Great Britain and Ireland." It was scarcely to be supposed, that, in bringing forward such a Motion as that, 377 the hon. Member would have gone into a general statement as to the whole conduct and management of the Post-office. There was not the slightest object to be gained in moving for such instructions, as no such instructions had ever been given by the Postmaster General, seeing that they would be instructions to commit a felony. The hon. Gentleman had referred to the Report of the Committee of Inquiry in 1829, to show the abuses that existed in the management of the Post-office. Now, he believed, that a large portion of the recommendations contained in that Report had been since carried into effect. The hon. Gentleman referred to a list of the clerks in the Post-office contained in the evidence submitted to that Committee, in order to show that, in many instances, more places than one were held by the clerk. He (Lord Al-thorp) would now state, upon the authority of his noble friend the Postmaster General, that, in the Post-office, at present, none of the clerks held more than one office. He would not follow the hon. Member through all his details, and for this simple reason, that looking, as he had said already, at the terms of the hon. Member's notice on the paper, he had not the least expectation that a general discussion of the whole system of the Post-office of England would have been entered upon on this occasion. With reference to the complaint made of the Post-office at Greenock, he was informed, that the hon. Member had expressed himself perfectly satisfied with the result of his application on that point to the Postmaster General. The hon. Gentleman was aware, that a fraud had been, in that instance, committed upon the revenue by the conveyance of the letter from Dublin to Greenock, where it was thrown into the Post-office. He was not prepared to go into the general discussion which the hon. Member had opened. He would merely caution the House against supposing that the statement made by the hon. Member applied to the existing system in the Post-office. Not only the Report to which the hon. Gentleman had referred, but one of the cases which he had cited were of old date; the latter occurred in 1827, and the Report was made in 1829, and it was hardly possible, that, taken unawares as they had been in this instance, he (Lord Althorp) and his colleagues could give any explanation of the circumstances to which the hon. Member had thus alluded.
Mr. Charles Stuart
said, that he had 378 come down to the House under the expectation that the Greenock case would not have been gone into, for, on a former day, he, in company with the hon. member for Greenock and others, had waited upon the Postmaster-General, and had received from his Lordship a most satisfactory explanation with regard to it. Indeed, the hon. Member expressed himself then so satisfied with the explanation in question that he (Mr. Stuart) understood him to say that he would either withdraw or postpone his Motion on the subject. Was it fit and proper, under such circumstances, for the hon. Member to endeavour to spring a mine under them, and under the Post-master-General, and to bring the whole Post-office establishment of the kingdom before the House? With regard to the people of Greenock, they were perfectly satisfied as might be seen from the public Press there, with the result of the interview with the noble Duke at the head of the Post-office department. The general and very important subject into which the hon. Member had gone ought not to have been brought forward in this way. To all persons engaged as he was in commerce the undeviating regularity and despatch exhibited in the operations of such an extensive establishment as the Post-office were a matter of wonder. As the particular evil of which the hon. Member complained was in course of remedy, it was not fair towards the noble Postmaster General, or the establishment over which he presided, to drag it before the House in the way that the hon. Member had done. Great credit was due to that noble Duke for what he had done last Session to meet the wishes of the people of Glasgow in facilitating the intercourse with that town; and as to the Greenock case, the people of Greenock were satisfied with the explanation that had been given.
said, he wished to put a question to the noble Lord with regard to the laws relating to the Post-office. Many and well-founded complaints had been made as to the laws and regulations of the Post-office. He would refer the noble Lord to the Report of the Revenue Commissioners in 1818, who recommended a consolidation of all the Acts relating to the Post-office. The Acts at present in force relating to the Post-office amounted to no less than 101; and when, therefore, any one had occasion to refer to the law with respect to the Post-office, he was placed in the greatest possible state of perplexity. 379 He begged to ask whether the noble Lord in the next Session would propose a Committee of Inquiry for the purpose of consolidating the Post-office Acts, as those relating to all the other revenue boards had been consolidated; when questions as to the general management of the Post-office, would be fairly and fully and properly discussed.
§ Mr. Cobbett
would recommend the hon. member for Greenock (Mr. R. Wallace) not to have interviews again. They were very dangerous things. What he would say with regard to the Post-office was this—that a letter had been posted in the country addressed to him in London, which he had never received—that two witnesses could swear as to the putting the letter into the Post-office in the country—that the Postmaster there was ready to swear that he had received it; and yet the letter in question never reached his address. He made application to the General Post-office in London; but could get no account of his letter. It was a letter of some consequence, intended to be printed. He therefore had to complain of the General Post-office. It appeared in the present case that the Postmaster in Greenock stated, that he bad authority to open letters. If he had not that authority—if he had not the right to do so—he ought to have been punished. Had he been punished? There was no answer to that question. He would recommend all who had complaints to make to make them to that House. He believed that the Post-office read all the letters that it liked to read.
Mr. Secretary Stanley
said, that it would no doubt be a source of great regret indeed to his noble friend the Postmaster-General, to suppose that any possible neglect in the department over which he presided should have delayed, even for a single week, the transmission of those elaborate compositions which the hon. Member intended for publication in the Register. [Mr. Cobbett: They never appeared at all.] Still greater must be the regret, then, that they failed in reaching their destination. But with regard to the more serious complaint as to the opening of letters, the hon. Member said, that every one who had a complaint to make against the Post-office, or other public departments, should come with them to the House of Commons, Now, he (Mr. Stanley) thought it would be better and safer for the individual to apply in the 380 first instance to the department of which he had to make a complaint. If he did not get redress there, then let him apply to the House of Commons; that was the proper course: but to say that every man who thought that his letters were opened either in Scotland or in England should come to the House of Commons at once, instead of applying to the Post-office for redress, was to say that that House should take upon itself an unnecessary load of business, without any prospect of thereby effecting any good. As to this present charge of breaking open the Greenock letter, which, in point of fact was not broken open, the letter itself was a fraud upon Government, for, though written in Dublin, it was taken over and put into the Post-office at Greenock. This fact was not disputed; the date was clearly to be seen by merely looking into the letter. Now here was a clear fraud; and it was, moreover, a fraud by which Government were defrauded of no small sum every day in the year: in point of fact, this species of fraud was carried on systematically at this place. It must be acknowledged, however, that the Postmaster at Greenock bad in this case exceeded his duty, even though it were only in reading the portion of the letter alluded to. He must complain of the hon. Member who sought to turn the information he had obtained from the Post-office against that department, and even after he had stated in private, that with that information he was perfectly satisfied. Let the hon. Member bring forward any specific grievance; let him not turn to the reports of 1828, for the grievances therein referred to had been redressed; let him make a substantive motion; and he would find the Post-office department quite as ready to court inquiry as he was to institute it, and give relief for every case of grievance which could be proved to exist. If the hon. Member proved that any frauds were committed by any public officer, he would find no person more ready to suppress them than the noble person at the head of that department. Of the hon. Member's present Motion he must complain, for it could have no practical result.
§ Mr. O'Dwyer
was prepared to prove, that the officers of the Post-office in Ireland were engaged in a traffic by which they defrauded the revenue. He knew that Clerks of the Roads—and he had documents to prove it—sent unstamped publications when they were ordered, through these Clerks of the Roads, free of postage. He had circu- 381 lars in his hands announcing that and other similar facts, not in one instance alone, but in many.
§ Lord Althorp
could assure the hon. Member, that the Clerks of the Roads were not authorised to forward any unstamped publications free. If they did so, those publications would be charged to them. Certainly, if the hon. Member could prove the existence of frauds—if be could prove that the Clerks of the Roads did commit these frauds on the Government—he should be most ready to receive the information, and make use of it.
§ Mr. O'Dwyer
would most readily place his documents in the hands of the noble Lord, and prove the statements he had made.
§ Mr. Robert Wallace
, in reply, repelled the attack made on him by Mr. Stanley, and denied, that he had seen any explanation of the circumstance mentioned in a Greenock paper. He reiterated his assertion, that letters should not be opened, as they were at present liable to be opened on account of the tax.
§ Motion agreed to.