HC Deb 29 July 1836 vol 35 cc679-86

Mr. Vernon Smith moved the order of the day for the House to resolve itself into Committee on the Post-Office Commissioners Bill.

On the 1st Clause being put,

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that he should endeavour to comprehend the two questions which arose out of this Bill in the observations which he meant to make, namely, to defend the proposed alteration which placed the administration of the Post-office in the hands of Commissioners; and next, to state the reasons why he conceived one member of the commission should also be a Member of the House of Commons. Now, as to the first branch of the subject, which referred to the administration of the Post-office, he relied on authority for a justification of the change which was proposed; because, whoever read the Report of the Post-office Commissioners would see, that whenever the department of the Post-office was brought under the consideration of a tribunal appointed to inquire how it might hereafter be managed, the result (no matter what was the constitution of that tribunal, whether Whig or Tory) which had been arrived at on all occasions was, that the present system of administering the Post-office was objectionable and indefensible. Hon. Gentlemen opposite seemed to consider, that the present measure was a discovery first made in the year 1836, and that the object of it was to add to the political influence of the present Administration, But it was a well-known fact, that whoever were appointed to consider this subject, however they differed on other questions, and however remote the period at which the inquiry was instituted, came all of them to the conclusion, that a change was required in this department. But the case did not stand simply on authority; it was supported also by common sense and reason. The result of the present system had been, to show that those individuals who had been appointed Postmasters-General, however endowed with abilities, could not (to use a phrase applied to represent the difficulties attending their office), if they were angels instead of men, properly perform the duties committed to their care. The consequence was, that the administration was placed in subordinate hands, which, though they were ever so able, were yet under no due responsibility for the discharge of such important functions. He should now proceed to show, in a very few words, why it was expedient that one of the Commissioners should be connected with Parliament. In the first place, the head of the department was now connected with Parliament, but he was a Member of the House of Lords, and not of the House of Commons. The department, then, was at present represented, not in the House of Commons, but in the House of Lords. Now he should like to ask in which of the two Houses of Parliament ought it to be represented? If explanations were to be given of its measures, and attacks on them to be defended, where were these explanations more likely to be called for, and these defences to be required—in the House of Lords or the House of Commons? He decidedly maintained in the House of Commons. It was a mistake to suppose, that they were for the first time connecting this department with Parliament: they were only anxious to attach that responsibility to it which was due from every great officer of the state to that House, and in which it might be most actively called into operation. But it might be said, why connect it with Parliament at all? For this reason, that there was a wide distinction between this department and the ordinary departments of revenue. The officers of customs, excise, and stamps, were purely revenue departments, the object of which was, to collect as large an amount of revenue as they could under the law, for the purpose of having it transferred to the Exchequer. But was this the case with the Post-Office? Undoubtedly it was a department of revenue; but it was also a most important and responsible department of administration; and intimately connected as it was with our trade, commerce, and social intercourse, ought, in his opinion, to have a responsible representative in the House.

Colonel Sibthorp

opposed the motion. If the Government wished to introduce an ameliorated system, they should be called on to do so, without prejudice to other interests, else they were liable to all the censure that dereliction of duty called for. He was of opinion, that the appointment of Commissioners would not serve the object looked to.

Mr. Labouchere

was surprised to hear it insinuated, that the House was taken by surprise upon this occasion, when it was perfectly well known, by the Report on their table, that the Committee to which this subject had been referred, had reported, after mature and cautious consideration, that it was expedient for the interests of the Post-office, and still more so for the interests of the public, that some person at the head of a governing board like this, should be in the House of Commons. It should also be recollected, it was now become more necessary than ever it had been previously, that the duties of this department of the Government should be performed efficiently, and under a stricter system of responsibility, in consequence of the pending improvement in the several branches of this important department, and the great beneficial changes which were either actually made, or in contemplation, with respect to our foreign correspondence, and our future mode of intercourse with the other nations of the globe.

Mr. Goulburn

said, even if it were necessary to have a Board, still it was not desirable to have one of the members of it in that House. He never understood that Lord Wallace recommended that any member of the commission should be a Member of that House. If there were changes in the office of Postmaster-General, it was the result of the changes of Government. If the Government changed, so did the Postmaster-General. But though a change in name was proposed by the Bill, yet the control was given to the chief Commissioner. Where, then, would be the advantage? It might not be fashionable to revert to the old practice of the Constitution; yet he would do so, and say that the spirit of the Constitution excluded all officers who had the management of money from that House. If this precedent were established, they would have all the chief officers of the revenue departments in that House. The right hon. Gentleman concluded by entering his protest against the introduction of a Commissioner of the Post- office into the House of Commons, as an infringement on the first elements of the Constitution. Any proposition for making such an innovation should have been founded on former rules and precedents. But it was not so. He objected to the proposition as a gross violation of those principles laid down at the Revolution, and a departure from which would lead to the most dangerous consequences. He admitted that the Report of the Commissioners was of so high a character, that lie knew of nothing that had appeared before Parliament of a similar kind during late years; but, at the same time, he could not adopt all its recommendations.

Lord Lowther

supported the Bill, and denied that admitting public Commissioners to be Members of Parliament was contrary to law, or without precedent, even of recent date.

Mr. Francis Baring

said, as to the objection urged by the right, hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Goulburn) to the sitting of one of the Post-office Commissioners in that House; if his (Mr. Baring's) memory served him, there were, in not very remote times, four postmasters, two for England, and two for Ireland—every one of whom might have sat in that House. The objection urged by the right hon. Gentleman might have held good some hundred years ago. But now, considering the great changes in the Government—considering also the much greater check and control which now existed over the Representatives of the people in that House, in his (Mr. Baring's) opinion, there was not to be apprehended such great danger from the placing an additional revenue officer in the House of Commons, as the right hon. Gentleman seemed to anticipate. The right hon. Gentleman had argued upon this question,—whether or not, the business of the Post-office would be better conducted on the plan recommended by the Government, one of the Commissioners having a seat in that House, than by a permanent board. That question he (Mr. B.) admitted might fairly be open to considerable doubt. But certainly he had reached this conclusion—that though undoubtedly, as the right hon. Gentleman had pointed out, there might be some advantages attached to the permanent board; those advantages were counterbalanced by equal or superior disadvantages. On the one hand, he allowed there might be expected in the members of a permanent board, more thorough acquaintance with the details of business, and the arrangements of the office; on the other hand, there was to be apprehended, if he might use such an expression, (without reference let him add to particular parties) a strong departmental feeling, a feeling that they were relieved from responsibility, and that they were only the independent officers of the Crown. But the plan, as proposed by the Government, combined the advantages of both arrangements, without, in his opinion, retaining the more striking disadvantages of either. The two permanent Commissioners would be possessed of that experience and practical knowledge which was necessary for the well-administration of so important a public office; while, on the other hand, by having one of the Commissioners in the House of Commons, a greater degree of responsibility would be secured in the management of the Post-office than had ever yet been attained. On these grounds he hoped the House would support the Bill as it now stood.

Mr. George F. Young

said, he agreed with the noble Lord (Lowther) that the plan of the Government was generally likely to work an advantageous alteration in the administration of one of the most important public offices, by establishing a board for its future management more permanent in its character than the present office of Post-master General, and in his opinion calculated to prove more efficient in its operation: with reference however, to the chief Commissioner having a seat in that House, he confessed he entertained great doubts as to the expediency of that part of the proposed plan. It did appear to him that some danger was to be apprehended of incurring, by such a measure those very evils which it was the main object of this Bill to get rid of. He (Mr. Young) could not help fearing that the chief Commissioner being thus to a certain degree necessarily rendered a political character, being liable to the loss of his seat, and the consequent vacation of his office almost upon every change of Government, and being consequently much less acquainted with the business and internal arrangements of the Office, would inevitably become, in all matters relating to the practical administration of the Post-office entirely subordinate to the two assistant Commissioners; thus those advantages which were anticipated from this plan would be rendered nugatory and especially that every practical irresponsibility would remain which was so much complained of in the existing system.

Mr. Wallace

only rose to say, that although he had before expressed very strongly his dissent from that part of the Bill which related to the Chief Commissioner having a seat in that House, he had received so many communications, and heard so many opinions, from persons more competent than he was to judge of the matter, all in favour of that arrangement, that he would not press that objection further, but if it went to a division he would certainly vote for the Government plan.

Viscount Sandon

said, he did not consider the objections which had been urged to that part of the Bill which allowed the chief Commissioner to be a Member of that House had been met by any speaker. He could not help thinking that all the evils complained of, in regard to the present constitution of the office of Postmaster General would equally attach to that of the chief Commissioner, as established by this Bill. It had not in his opinion been shown, that by giving the chief Commissioner a seat in this House there would be more control exercised by this House over the general arrangements of the Post-office than there was at present. There was already an officer in that House, not he believed overwhelmed with business, the very nature of whose office closely connected as it was with the trade and commerce of the country, pointed him out as not an unfit person to answer questions relating to the Post-office, if responsibility to that House was essential to the just managemement of that department. He alluded, the House would readily imagine, to the right honorable Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade: he thought also that the plan recommended by the Government would render the office of chief Commissioner a kind of stepping stone for young men desirous of advancement in the public service who would remain in it only so long as they were enabled to gain higher distinction, and who would, therefore, be quite unfit to discharge the duties attached to so important a situation. On the whole he should feel it his duty to oppose this clause.

Mr. Poulett Thomson

observed, in reply to one of the remarks of the noble Lord, the Member for Liverpool, that he, for one, should be very unwilling to undertake, as President of the Board of Trade, the responsibility of an office over which he had no control whatever. Such an arrangement as the noble Lord had recommended would be irksome and unfair to the Gentleman who happened to fill the office he had the honour to occupy, and unsatisfactory to the public at large. The noble Lord had stated, that, in his opinion, there would be no great difference between the administration of the Post-office as it now existed, and the administration of it under the system to be established by this Bill. He (Mr. P. Thomson) would tell the noble Lord where the difference in his opinion lay. Instead of having at the head of this important branch of the national service a nobleman, generally with no great experience in business, the business of the office being consequently conducted by the Secretary,—an irresponsible officer, at all events irresponsible to the public:—instead of this, there would be at the head of that office, three persons all of whom would be responsible (are directly responsible, through seats in that House) to the public. Was there no difference between the administration of an office being conducted by practically entirely irresponsible persons, and its being conducted by a board, which would, through its head, be liable to be called to account in that House for every measure they might take? As to the objection of the noble Lord, of this office of chief Commissioner becoming a mere stepping stone to higher stations, any one acquainted with the nature of the business transacted there, and the duties required of persons at its head, would see at once that there was no likelihood of its ever being considered in that light. On the whole, he (Mr. P. Thomson) believed that the plan contained in this Bill would combine (as his hon. Friend the Secretary to the Treasury had said) the advantage of practical knowledge and experience with the advantage of responsibility to the public, and he hoped the House would adopt it.

The Clause was agreed to, the blank, having (on the motion of Mr. P. Thomson) been filled up with the word "three."

On Clause 5,

Colonel Sibthorp

said, I must divide against this clause.

The Committee divided. Ayes 60; Noes 13:—Majority 47

The other Clauses were agreed to.

The House resumed.