HC Deb 14 July 1835 vol 29 cc538-46
Lord Lowther

hoped to be indulged by the attention of the House for a few minutes on a matter personal to himself. He had seen by the publications of this morning, that yesterday, in another place, there had been what he might call a field-day of Postmasters-General. In the outset he would say that while he had acted as Commissioner of inquiry into the Post-office, although his time had been limited to about two months, he in that period had endeavoured, as well as his abilities and his occupations in the House would allow, to serve the public zealously and faith- fully, and to make such suggestions on that important department as he conceived reasonable and practicable. It seems that there had existed a difference of opinion between himself and another Commissioner; and what that other Commissioner had called alacrity and despatch, appeared to him (Lord Lowther) delay, and something very nearly approaching obstruction. He had no difficulty in stating the circumstances on which he grounded his opinion, and he did not wish in any way to moderate or retract the term "obstinacy" which he had employed. When he used it, he certainly had had in his recollection the Report of the Finance Committee of 1797, in which allusion was made to the obstacles at that time thrown in the way of the Commissioners appointed to inquire into the Post-office. There was so slight a difference between "obstinacy" and "obstacle," that he was willing to take all the responsibility belonging to the employment of the larger term. His late colleague disagreed with him in the application of that term, and he was surprised (yet he was not surprised, because in public life he was surprised at nothing), that his colleague should have forgotten that he (Lord Lowther) had made something like the same complaint in a Report to the Treasury on price currents. At that period there were several questions before the Commissioners, and he was most particularly anxious to investigate the arrangement of steam boats and foreign posts. The noble Commissioner had dissented from the conclusion he had come to regarding the forwarding of price currents at a small charge; and as they were about to quit office they made a Report, as a sort of legacy to their successors, on two or three points with which their inquiries had commenced. On the subject of price currents he would take leave to refer the House to the concluding sentence of that Report. He found that the Commission appointed by the Lords of the Treasury in August last, had furnished the Postmaster-General with a statement of the recommendations of the Commission of Revenue Inquiry, and had requested him to prepare certain documents, showing in what cases those recommendations had been carried into effect, and what had prevented the remainder from being adopted. This paper had not been furnished when the Commission closed its proceedings. The Com- missioners appointed in August last, called for this paper; but as it was not presented when their labours terminated, the order was renewed in February last, and it had not been furnished in the middle of April. He and his colleagues had, therefore, applied for it as soon as they were appointed by the Lords of the Treasury, in order to continue the investigation. This paper had been required, he believed, so long ago as September last; and if he complained, therefore, of dilatoriness, unwillingness, or obstinacy, the House would see that it was not without ground. Colonel Yorke had exerted himself with ability and assiduity, and had devoted a great deal of time to the subject; and if he (Lord Lowther) had wanted any re-compence for the services he rendered, it would have been found in making the acquaintance of an officer of so much talent and intelligence, who was now acting as private secretary to Lord Mulgrave. No explanation had been given why the paper was not sent earlier; and it was important, as it would have facilitated the investigation by showing what had been the suggestions of the Commissioners, and how far they had been carried into effect. He would now refer to another point. He had asked for a detailed account of the steam-boat service, conceiving that the public were great losers by the system of establishment instead of contract. He had not the precise words in which this account was required; but the answer was, that it was impossible to furnish it. That did not satisfy him; and he applied to the Admiralty, sending the same request to his Friend, Mr. Dawson, who in three days returned him a most precise and complete reply. Having been once a Lord of the Admiralty, he (Lord Lowther) knew the accuracy of detail with which the whole of that department was managed; and the discipline had rather been increased than lessened while his right hon. Friend the Member for Cumberland presided over it. He had also applied to the General Steam Company, through a friend, who was a governor, and all the most accurate particulars were instantly furnished. He had therefore summoned the accountant of the Post-office, and going into the accounts with him, they had together abstracted all the items required for the last three years. Another point related to the foreign postage of the country, which he considered essential to be examined; and he had called for an account of all the letters sent from London to Calais, and from Calais to London. What was the answer he had received? That they amounted to 134,0001bs. in the course of the year. What was the answer regarding letters from Calais to London? That they amounted to five millions of draughts. Not being able to understand these returns, he had referred to other authorities, in order that the matter might be rendered intelligible, but he had obtained no satisfaction. Did this show a willingness on the part of the Post-office to furnish information. He would add, that their accounts must be excessively ill-kept if they could not state the amount of postage between England and France, and show whether this country lost or gained by the 12,000l. paid for interior transit duty. He could enumerate other instances in which no return at all had been made—for instance, as to the number of persons employed as packet agents. The late Postmaster-General had said, that the Commissioners examined all they could examine; but he had not given any reason why more accounts were not produced. There was another matter that seemed to be a great grievance: it was generally reported that the Postmaster of Jamaica received a very large salary, and he had called for an account of his income and allowances; the answer was 400l. a-year salary, and 160l. a-year allowances. He was dissatisfied with this return, and when he called for another, the reply was, that no other could be given. He had therefore summoned the clerk of the Post-office, and he very reluctantly admitted, that the situation was estimated at 1,600l. a-year. He had heard that it was much more, but it was admitted to be worth 1,600l. a-year, and it was supposed that the Postmaster of Jamaica derived an advantage from the sale of newspapers. As far as his recollection served, evidence to this effect was either at the Treasury or in possession of the Board of Trade. Was this like willingness to give information? It could not be said, that the Post-office did not possess the knowledge, for the son of Sir F. Freeling had been sent out, at heavy expense, to examine into the Post-office of the West-Indies, and could hardly be ignorant of the salary and emoluments of the Postmaster of Jamaica. Then he had required a detailed account of he perquisites and salaries of the clerks; as it was known that there was a clerk in the post-office who was or had been a contactor for lighting the mails, and others were paid for conveying electioneering intelligence to the editors of newspapers. Two or three other instances might be mentioned, but he thought he had said enough to show, that he was justified in reiterating the statement of the Commissioners in 1797, and enough to establish that there existed both unwillingness and obstinacy. In the course of his public life, he had been selected on various occasions to make inquiries into the Excise-office, the Tax-office, and into the Exchequer, and the first step towards the abolition of the last was a report made by himself and the hon. Member for Mon-mouth. In examining into the Excise and Tax-offices, he had formerly met with every facility, and he might add, that the difficulties in the Exchequer did not exceed those he had experienced in his investigations regarding the Post-office. He wished that the noble Lord who had appeared in evidence against him was now present; and he would ask him what paper which had been required, the Post-office had shown alacrity in producing? If the noble Lord could adduce a single instance, he was ready to bear all the obloquy of having made an unfounded attack. He might advert to several minor points; but having made this general statement, which proceeded from a sense of duty, he would refrain from going further. If he had made any rash assertion, he should be ready either to retract it, or to bear the consequences; and this he would say, that there was no man more anxious than he was for the correct despatch of public business in all departments of the State. The noble Lord concluded by moving for a Return to show which of the recommendations of the Commissioners of Revenue Inquiry in regard to the Post-office had been carried into effect.

Mr. Vernon Smith

did not wish to enter into the question between the noble Lord and the Postmaster-General, or to join in any crimination or recrimination on either side; he rose only for the purpose of alluding to one return which the noble Lord complained had not been made. He had had the honour to belong to the Post-office Commission, and he would state that Colonel Yorke had certainly drawn out the paper referred to, and it ought to have been found among the documents which devolved into the hands of the new Commissioners on the change of Government. He coincided in the praise bestowed by the noble Lord upon the talents and assiduity of Colonel Yorke.

Mr. Hume

considered himself, and he hoped the House would also consider itself under an obligation to the noble Lord for the statement just delivered; the active part the noble Lord had taken in public affairs, and the manner in which he had devoted his time to inquiries into the different departments, rendered his evidence of peculiar value. He was sorry that the noble Lord had not had justice done him for his exertions in the Report on the Exchequer, as he had been the first to take up the subject with a determination to go through with it; if obstacles had not been interposed, a reform of the Exchequer would have been effected at least ten years ago.

Mr. Wallace

merely rose for the vindication of his own conduct, which had been impugned in another place. He adhered to every word he had uttered on the former night, and was prepared to prove his statement if an opportunity were afforded. In answer to the noble Duke, he would only refer to a speech he had delivered on the 6th of August last. With regard to the speeches of the various Postmasters-general, it was perfectly conclusive, from their remarks, that they were very ignorant of the office they administered. The noble Lord the late Postmaster-General, after highly lauding Sir Francis Freeling, had arrived at the strange conclusion of differing from him upon many important points, and reversing his directions. He had praised him as if he were the first person in the country, and must, therefore, have possessed a most extraordinary degree of self-complacency when the noble Lord considered himself competent to decide against the opinion of so able and experienced an officer. He (Mr. Wallace) had complained that opening letters was a common occurrence, and in two several years he had complained that a felony had been committed in opening letters in Scotland. He had moved for some papers upon the subject, namely, the informations lodged for the prosecution of the parties; he had argued that the letters had been opened at the Post-office for the purpose of prosecution, and he had moved for a return which would give the House all the necessary particulars, together with the names of the parties who were to be prosecuted. Part of the order had been complied with, but no places were given where the information was dated, and a most extraordinary fact occurred, which he had noticed last year, and which he would now briefly repeat. A very large number of informations were laid against a stationer in Glasgow, of the name of Read, and the solicitor's letter stated that the letters were put into the Post-office on the 15th of February, 1833; the letters themselves showed that they were not written at that date; and the return on the Table stated, that informations were lodged on the 18th of February, whereas he held in his hand the subpœna to bring the parties to justice, which was dated the 4th of February, or eleven days previous to the time when the letters were said to have been written, and fourteen days before the informations appeared to have been lodged. There was positive proof, therefore, that the letters had been opened, and that a felony had been committed. He would now content himself with repeating his anxiety to verify, in any place, the statement he made to the House on Thursday last. One of the noble Lords had said, that he had an opportunity of repairing to the Post-office yesterday, in order to ascertain how far he could refute the assertions made by himself (Mr. Wallace), and by the noble Lord. In justice to himself, and in order that a Member of one House might not be elevated above a Member of another House, in point of privilege, although he left the House only at two o'clock this morning, at eight he had written to the Postmaster-General, demanding to be allowed to visit the Post-office, that he might enjoy the same advantage as had been granted to the noble Lord. He received from the Postmaster-General a most polite refusal to put him on a footing with the noble Lord. Now, he (Mr. Wallace) contended that he had a right to have all the information which was furnished to the noble Lord. He would not trespass upon the House by arguing the question there, but he was ready to meet the five Postmasters-General in the largest hall in London—["Exeter Hall!"]—ay, with all his heart, in Exeter Hall; and let the public be the umpires.

Mr. Labouchere

regretted the manner in which this subject had been brought forward. He had had no recent communication with the noble Lord at the head of the Post-office department, but he understood that an accusation had been preferred against Lord Maryborough, for his conduct when that noble Lord was Postmaster-General. He thought, therefore, that the noble Lord now at the head of the department was justified in allowing Lord Maryborough to go through the Post-office, for the purpose of making those personal inquiries, the answers to which were necessary to his defence. But it was not because, under such circumstances, he allowed the noble Lord that privilege, that he was to allow it to any individual Member of Parliament by whom it might be required. He repeated what he had stated the other night, that he did not stand there as the defender or apologist of any abuse of what kind soever. He trusted that he and the other Commissioners who were appointed to investigate the management of the Post-office, would be found prepared to do justice to the public. In consequence of what had been stated the other evening by another hon. Member, he had thought it his duty to inquire at the Post-office, how it happened that such imperfect returns had been made with respect to the Money-order Office, and other matters; and he could now state that in a few days an amended return, comprehending complete details on the subject, would be ready to be laid before the House.

Dr. Bowring

stated, that when he was in Paris four years ago, he had an opportunity of knowing something of the correspondence on the subject of the Post-office, which was going on between the British and French Governments; and he must say, that more unworthy documents than those which proceeded from Sir Francis Freeling he never met with. The conduct of the French Government, on the contrary, was most conciliatory and praiseworthy. They offered, if letters for France were put into the Post-office in England without any postage being paid, to take the trouble of arranging and settling with the British Government afterwards. They were willing to allow that the English Post-office packets should convey the letters both from England to France, and from France to England. These propositions were rejected; and they were rejected in a tone and manner that did the English Post-office no honour. He had then stated, that he was sure the English Government would not approve of the course pursued by the Post-office.

Motion agreed to.