HC Deb 21 July 1836 vol 35 cc418-29

On the motion that the Post-office Bill be read a second time,

Colonel Sibthorp

said, that he had been for a long time endeavouring to procure a most important return which he thought ought to have been produced before this Bill was read a second time. The return which he required would show how many days the different Commissioners had sat, and how many hours per diem. He wished to know if that return was likely to be laid on the table of the House, and when.

Mr. F. Baring

could assure the hon. Member, that no delay had been suffered to take place in preparing the return; and the only reason why it had not already been laid on the table was, that the hon. Member had encumbered it with so many details as to make it very difficult to be furnished.

Mr. Wallace

rose to speak to the question before the House, namely, the second reading of a Bill for placing the Post-office under efficient control. He would begin by adverting to the first Report of the Commissioners of Inquiry, which recommended an important mercantile regulation, namely, the transmission of prices current at a small rate of postage. This, he hoped, would be effected; the question, however, chiefly before the House was, as to the adoption of a Board of Commissioners in preference to the administration of the Post-office under a Postmaster-general. It had been contended elsewhere, that this plan had been agreed to be adopted without due consideration. He considered it his duty to remind the House that Commissioners had sat on this question at different periods and all of them arrived at the same conclusion. There were Commissions in 1787, 1797, 1809, 1829, and 1835, all of which recommended that the office of Postmaster-general should be placed under commission. As the conduct of the Sub-commissioners, Captain Clements and Mr. Gardiner, had been animadverted upon elsewhere, he was bound to say, that he believed they had fulfilled their duty with great zeal and integrity. There were many points to which he wished to call the attention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The first was, the reduction of postage on letters. Lord Spencer and Lord Ashburton had both expressed their opinion in favour of such, a reduction. And the latter noble Lord had declared, that a better application of 500,000l. of revenue could not be made than a reduction of postage to that amount. It would greatly benefit the country without the revenue ultimately sustaining any loss. The correspondence in the country would be so much promoted that an equal amount of revenue would be created. In the city of London the utmost possible use had been derived from the establishment of the two-penny and three-penny postage system. It was not, however, generally known that this description of post, in point of fact, was available for the carriage of parcels as well as letters. It would be of great benefit if this system were established throughout the whole country, the parcels being limited to a weight of four ounces. He would strongly press this point upon the attention of the Government. There was another description of postage which required consideration, that of ship-letters. At present all letters going by private ships were charged double postage for being carried across the sea. He begged the attention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to this point. Again, it was often the practice to charge a penny postage in addition to the general postage charged on a letter; but this had been declared by the Courts to be contrary to law. He wished to draw attention to this fact; that in London letters by the General Post-office arrived at one hour of the day only, and at one hour of the day only were general letters sent away from that establishment. The general letters arrived and were distributed about eight or nine o'clock in the morning; and let the letters be put into the General Post-office here, at whatever hour in the day they might, it was not until eight o'clock in the evening that they were sent away, to the very great inconvenience of the country. It was a proceeding altogether unjustifiable, and one which was not known to be pursued in any other part of the kingdom. It ought not and could not be permitted to continue. There were six general deliveries every day from the post-office at Liverpool besides the penny-post letters. In that large community, perhaps second only to London, there was no difficulty whatever in delivering the general letters with those of the penny-post. The same thing was done at Manchester. But in London the post-office had been allowed to be conducted for half a century without any sort of alteration or improvement whatever. He could find out no reason why the mails should not be sent out of London at eight or nine o'clock in the morning, but that it suited the convenience of those connected with the establishment that they should remain till eight o'clock in the evening—that was for twelve or fifteen hours after being-put into the post. Perhaps it was not known to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the clerks in the General Post-office were employed only for a few hours in the day. The great proportion of them began duty about a quarter to six in the morning, and continued until nine, and from nine till five in the evening they were their own masters, most of them, indeed, being employed as merchants' clerks, attorneys' clerks, and such like. In short, instead of being public servants, they were servants to any who chose to employ them. This accounted at once for the detention of the mails. This was the best information he had been able to obtain upon the subject, though, as he had on former occasions stated, it was almost impossible, by any means he had been able to devise, to get an accurate and complete return of what went on in the establishment at St. Martin's-le-grand. Another subject of complaint was, the circuitous routes which letters often went. This was most unjustifiable. Some letters were sent to places eighty or ninety miles off, and were charged accordingly, although their places of destination were not distant more than six or seven miles. Nay, he knew of instances where letters were sent eighty miles, although the distance of their destination was only four miles from the post-office. Yet the postage for the whole distance was charged. The parties, therefore, not only suffered by the delay, but were additionally taxed in the bargain. This it seemed depended solely upon the fiat of the Postmaster-general, or of his secretary. In a petition from Great Yarmouth it was stated, that they not only had letters sent round in all directions, but that the Postmaster-General had positively refused to redress the grievance. He had told them, "I will tax you 9d. instead of 4d.," thus making himself equal to King, Lords, and Commons. And why? For no other reason than that he was Postmaster-General, and willed it to be so. It was with him, "sic volo, sic jubeo"—" I am Postmaster-General, and I have a right to do it." He would recommend the Great Yarmouth petition most strongly to the attention of his Majesty's Government. He begged to say, that, in the observations he felt it his duty to make, he had no intention whatever to reflect upon any person. It was the system which he complained of, and wished to see reformed. He would avail himself of this opportunity of saying, that of Lord Litchfield, the present Postmaster-General, he had seen nothing but what was exceedingly creditable to the noble Lord. He denied, however, that that noble Lord had an accurate knowledge of his office. The noble Lord knew, no doubt, as much as any of his predecessors, but in the short space of time he had held his appointment it was impossible he could have acquired the necessary information. He (Mr. Wallace) was most ready, however, to admit that the noble Lord was an active, zealous, and intelligent public officer, anxious to perform his duties, and if he did not do so to the extent which he (Mr. Wallace) conceived he ought to do, the fault did not rest with him. He would now call the attention of the House to another part of the system. When he, on a former occasion, expressed a wish that letters should be delivered on a Sunday, he was accused of a wish to desecrate the Sabbath. Now what was the fact? Clerks were employed at the Post-office every Sunday to sort out the letters; but the mail-coaches were allowed to go out of town empty. What he contended for was, that the letters so sorted and ready should be put into the mails, and not be allowed to remain in the Post-office for forty-eight hours. The mail-coaches were not only prevented taking letters, but also newspapers; the consequence was, that expresses were employed to carry the papers to Barnet and other places about ten or fifteen miles out of town, and then put into the mail-coaches. Letters, as it was well known, were also often forwarded in this way. Who would advocate such a system as this? But would the House believe, that the Post-office positively employed another description of persons to do the duty at Barnet, Hounslow, and other towns, on the Sunday, which this system necessarily created. So that instead of lessening the labour on a Sunday they increased it; besides putting the editors of papers to a great expense for running expresses which they must and would do. Foreign mails, it should also be borne in mind, were allowed to go on a Sunday. The editors of papers had frequently applied to be allowed to put papers into the mails, instead of being forced to hire expresses to carry them to the adjacent towns, but permission had always been refused to them. There was another circumstance connected with this subject, to which he requested the particular attention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, because it not only referred to a matter of great public convenience, but one which in some degree was connected with his own office. He alluded to the system of registering letters, so that they should be secured going to their place of destination when they contained money. That system was established in Ireland by Sir Edward Lees, and worked well for three years, not costing the Post-office more than 80l. a year. It was put an end to by the Duke of Richmond when he consolidated the Irish with the English establishment. The effect was, that 20,000l. a year in banknotes used to pass safely to their destination, which did not now pass safely through the Post-office. Temptations were afforded to persons connected with the Post-office to break open the seals, extract the contents, and destroy the letters. Immense money was thus lost, and the plunder never discovered. It was, in fact, an encouragement to Post-office thieving. The system of negotiation ought to be established throughout the three kingdoms. There was no reason why it should not, except that it would occasion a little additional trouble. With regard to the number of hours the Post-office in London was kept open, the time was curtailed most extraordinarily. No letter could be put into the General Post-office after seven o'clock in the evening, nor before eight in the morning. Even the very receiving-boxes were shut. A person might go to the General Post-office, and find many ladies and gentlemen, tradesmen, and working-men, coming with their letters, after the prescribed hour of seven, when, too late for that night's mail, they had not the consolation of even being allowed to drop their letters into the box, but must repeat their visit in the morning. What reason could there be for this? No reason, but a vulgar prejudice at the Post-office, which made them think that a General-post letter was a better thing than a Two-penny-post letter; whereas, common sense saw no difference between them. They were both letters, and nothing more. But the Two-penny-post box was open at all hours of the day and night (Sundays included) as all the post boxes ought to be. If those letters were safe, so would General post letters be safe too. If the mails were sent at all hours of the day, it would be a great convenience to the public. This could, he was sure, be done, while at the same time the rate of postage ought to be reduced. It would be proper not to charge more than 3d. upon any letter sent a distance of fifty miles; for 100 miles 4d.; 200 miles 6d.; and the highest rate of postage ought not to be more than 8d. or 9d. at most. He could not understand why letters ought not to be sent by the stage as well as the mail coaches, for, according to a return he had, it appeared that no stage coach travelled as slow as the mails. He had to call the attention of the House to the packet service. According to the recommendation of the Commissioners, two Bills were to be brought in; that expectation, he believed, would not be found to be correct, for this reason, that it was known that a second Bill was not necessary, the Treasury having sufficient power to act upon the suggestions of the Commissioners. The report of the Commissioners proved, that there had been a loss, not as he had stated upon a former occasion, of 800,000l., but not less than from 1,200,000l. to 1,300,000l. For such a loss as this surely some one ought to be responsible. There had been, instead of a profit, a large annual loss both at Holyhead and Liverpool. At Holyhead station there had been a degree of fraud, carelessness, and plunder, which was disgraceful to any country. In a petition which he had seen that day, but which was not yet presented, it was alleged that an agent in Liverpool had, in the name of the Post-office, run in debt 6,000l. more than he had assets to pay. He did not think that anything could be more objectionable than the system of intimidation that prevailed at the Post-office. It had prevailed to such an extent that the captains of packets and those who supplied the stores were afraid to make any complaint. Now, with regard to responsibility, he had to remark that the Under Secretary for the Post-office denied that he was responsible, while the very acts of that Secretary went to show his responsibility. A system of mulcting the inferior and hard-working officers of the Post-office was one not creditable to the establishment, nor useful to the public. Taking that department altogether he was obliged to say of it, that it was a general system of jobbing from first to last. There were, for instance, the packets. From 800,000l. to 1,000,000l. had been expended upon twenty-four packets employed by the Post-office, and if they were to be sold to-morrow he was sure they would not bring more than 150,000l. The hon. Member proceeded to say, he was glad to find, that they were now to have letters sent to France at a given price, provided they did not exceed a certain weight. That was a just principle, and one which was sure to be approved. He had now done what he proposed; he had brought these several points under the consideration of the House. In conclusion, he would move the adoption of the following resolutions, with the exception of the three last, which he did not intend to press on the House:—

  1. 1. "That the present numerous complicated laws respecting communications by post be repealed, and replaced by clear comprehensive statutes.
  2. 2. "That a reduction be made on the present rates charged on letters sent by the General Post, whether domestic, colonial, foreign, or private ship letters.
  3. 3. "That the rates of postage by the General Post be chargeable only according to the computed distance by the nearest carriage- road between one post-town and another.
  4. 4. "That letters from the colonies and dependencies of Great Britain and Ireland may be received free by Members of Parliament, the same as if coming from subjects of the King in these countries.
  5. 5. "That postage be chargeable to Members of Parliament, by weight, on whatever may exceed the allowance of one ounce each on the aggregate of fifteen letters, presently allowed to be franked, namely, fifteen letters free, if not exceeding fifteen ounces on the whole.
  6. 6. "That the terms penny and two-penny posts shall cease to be used.
  7. 7. "That the term parcel post be substituted for those of penny and two-penny.
  8. 8. "That parcel posts shall be considered elsewhere, as they are in London, as short distance local posts; and that postage shall not be superadded, in future, on general post letters or newspapers, although forwarded through the parcel or penny post.
  9. 9. "That parcel posts, similar in all respects to the present two-penny and threepenny London posts, which cover letters and parcels not exceeding four ounces in weight, and which have so long been working beneficially for fifteen miles in and around London, be generally established all over the kingdom.
  10. 10. "That parcel post mail bags may be sent by stage coaches wherever this can be done better and cheaper than by horses, mail carts, or mail coaches.
  11. 11. "That mail bags may be sent from the General-Post-office in London, as they are in every other town whatever, at any suitable hour of the day.
  12. 12. "That all mail bags arriving early in the morning in London, be sent forwards towards their destination by ten o'clock at latest the same day.
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  14. 13. "That stage coaches, having a guard, may be employed to carry mail bags containing general-post letters, whenever the public Service will benefit thereby.
  15. 14. "That the powers, duties, salaries, and emoluments of post-office surveyors and deputy post-masters, be denned and regulated, and published at every post-office.
  16. 15. "That post-offices in towns be established in convenient central situations.
  17. 16. "That maps of the roads of post communication be published by authority, and for sale; and time-bills connected with each locality be exhibited in every post-office, in some conspicuous place.
  18. 17. "That a sum amounting to 800,000l., as some calculate, or to nearly double that amount, according to the computation of others, has been lost to the nation, in consequence of recklessly creating and obstinately persisting in the maintenance of a fleet of post-office steam-packets.
  19. 18. "That those to whom these losses are attributable are unworthy of public confidence.
  20. 19. "That the Crown lawyers do prosecute defaulters or delinquents connected with any frauds or other unwarrantable losses sustained by the public in the steam-packet branch of the post-office service; and also, any other defaulters or delinquents in any other branch of the post-office department, where losses have been unduly sustained, since the consolidation of the Irish and Scotch post offices with that of England."

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

suggested to the hon. Member to withdraw his Resolutions, on the ground that they would prove a serious obstruction to the measures in contemplation for the removal of many of the evils of which he complained.

Mr. Wallace

said, he should be sorry to persist in any course that would have the effect of obstructing measures so valuable as those to which the right hon. Gentleman had alluded. Therefore, he at, once consented to withdraw his Resolutions.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

thanked the hon. Gentleman for the course he had taken, and informed him that his Resolutions would have been a great impediment in the way of the proposed Bills. The House would not expect him, at that late hour of the night, to follow the hon. Gentleman through the whole of the details of his speech; at the same time he hoped the hon. Gentleman would not attribute his not referring to those details to any want of respect for himself, and still less to any indifference towards the important questions brought under the consideration of the House. He agreed entirely with the hon. Gentleman as to the firs proposition laid down by him. He admitted that the present constitution of the Post-office of the country was indefensible. It appeared to him that a great office of administration like this, or a great revenue department, was not properly constituted in being placed in the hands of one officer, who retired from the office whenever a political change in the Government took place. Such an arrangement must have a tendency more or less to throw the administration of the establishment into the hands of subordinate persons. Within a short period not less than five noblemen, had held the office of Postmaster-general. The result of a system of that description must be an administration of a nature that ought not to exist in a great revenue department. He was gratified in hearing the hon. Gentleman render justice to the great merits of the noble Lord who at present held the office of Postmaster-general (Lord Litchfield.) But he would go back to the administration of the Duke of Richmond, and rest his disapproval of the present administration of the Post-office on the result of the exertions of that noble Duke. He was convinced that in the perfect knowledge he displayed of the principles on which the Post-office department ought to be administered, in the indefatigable industry he exhibited, in the pains he took to do all himself that he could do, in the general ability that he showed, he had never been equalled; yet it was impossible to say, that even the administration of the Duke of Richmond was a species of administration that they would wish to continue of a great revenue department. It was evident, however, that if any one could have succeeded in it the Duke of Richmond could. These were the general views he entertained of the subject, and he thought they were sufficiently forcible to induce the House to read the Bill which he had submitted to them a second time. All concurred in this, that the period had arrived when they must not only contemplate an alteration, but endeavour to effect a real improvement. Such was the object of the Bill he now proposed. There were matters of detail, of course, to be embraced in the after discussions of the Bill, but they were matters rather for a Committee than for the House, while the Bill was in its present stage. He asked them now to read the Bill a second time—to approve the general principle —that a mere political officer, acting at the head of this department, was as improper, as such an officer would be at the head of the Customs, the Excise, or the Stamp Department. As to the patronage, he would not make the officers entirely independent of the treasury. The right hon. Gentleman defended to a certain extent the packet system, as at present established. He would say, however, that the department of St. Martin's-le-Grand ought not to be intrusted with the management of the steam packets: the Admiralty was the proper power for governing them. He did not mean to recommend that the Admiralty should determine at what hour the packets should sail; that was an arrangement which should remain with the Post-office; but all relating to the administration of the general affairs of the packets would be more safely left to the Admiralty, than to the Post-office. The hon. Gentleman had alluded to the French convention. He thought it a subject for much satisfaction, that that convention had been agreed to, for it put an end to a very rude and inconvenient system. He believed, that the two countries, in making this arrangement, which had been done with perfect cordiality on both sides, and in a very liberal feeling on the part of the French Government, which was certainly reciprocated by ours, had commenced a good system of communication, which would not be bounded merely by the limits of France, but would extend itself over the whole continent of Europe. Belgium, Holland, and no doubt the other powers would in time show themselves willing to adopt the same principle. But an observation had been made on the irregularity with which this treaty had been carried into effect. He did not mean to make any complaint in the slightest degree with reference to the manner in which the convention had been acted on by the French Government; but for that irregularity, such as it was, this country was in no way accountable. It was referable entirely to the French authorities, who had their own agent here to make arrangements to carry the treaty into effect. An ordonnance, it appeared, was issued before the arrangements were complete, for the convention to be carried into effect. The French authorities were aware that it was necessary to come to Parliament on the subject—that Parliament should sanction one of the Bills they knew was necessary; but they issued the ordonnance it appeared while their own negotiator, their own agent, was on his return to Paris, and he did not know of the issue of the ordonnance till he arrived at Paris. In the course of this day, however, the direction had been given, to which the hon. Gentleman had adverted, and he trusted that no further inconvenience would be experienced. He hoped the House would pass this Bill, and he had no doubt that those points which had been thrown out, would not escape the attention of the House.

Mr. Hume

inquired of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, what he thought of the propriety of transmitting prices current, free of postage?

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, he felt the importance of the suggestion, but he feared that great inconvenience would arise from sanctioning the free postage of every publication that assumed to be a price current.

Mr. Mark Phillips

suggested the propriety of having two mails every day, between London and Liverpool, and London and Manchester. He thought that the foreign letters, which were received at an early hour of the day in London, ought not to be detained the whole day in the Post-office in London, but that they ought to be forwarded immediately to their different places of destination, in order that the interests of commerce might not suffer by their detention. He also suggested the propriety of allowing foreign prices current, to be sent free by the post.

Mr. Labouchere

said, it was under consideration to abate the inconvenience usually felt from the detention of foreign letters in London, during the whole day; it was not, however, without difficulty that such an arrangement could be made. When the Bill came into Committee, he would explain why it was, that the Commissioners were strongly of opinion, that a person at the head of the Post-office department, should have a seat in the House. He anticipated considerable public advantage from the transfer of steam packets from the Post-office to the Admiralty. He was of opinion, that much benefit would result to the public, when the steam-packets were provided for out of the navy estimates, from the strict scrutiny to which those annual votes were subjected in this House.

Mr. Goulburn

said, that as the right hon. Gentleman who last spoke had stated, that on the present occasion he should not enter upon the reasons why he supported this Bill, but should defer them until it went into Committee, he should also be content to let the subject pass at present, after merely entering his protest against what he must consider the very unconstitutional principle involved in the Bill.

Colonel Sibthorp

expressed his determination to oppose this Bill in every future stage, as he looked upon it as highly unconstitutional, and as he had no confidence whatever in the present advisers of the Crown. He was sorry that he had not a fuller attendance on his side of the house, for if he had, he would have opposed the second reading of it to-night.

Lord Lowther

approved of the Bill. He believed there were in existence a vast variety of abuses in the management of the Post-office Department, which, when the proposed commission was appointed, would be speedily got rid of.

Bill read a second time.