HC Deb 01 December 1837 vol 39 cc502-8
Mr. Wallace

rose to call the attention of the House to the most extraordinary document that had ever been laid before them. From a return which had been laid before the House, it apeared that in a period of eight years no less a sum than 640,000l.had been abstracted from letters in their progress through the Post-office. He saw by the newspapers of that day that it had been stated by the Postmaster-General in the House of Lords, that of this sum 400,000l. had been restored to the individuals from whom it was taken. He was very much astonished at the statement that this money had not been abstracted, as he could not comprehend how it could have been restored unless it was first abstracted. He did not know how this money could have been abstracted without a violation of seals. It was a general practice in the country post-offices to break the seals of letters and read their contents; but he believed the practice of opening letters was carried on to a greater extent in Glasgow than anywhere else. The hon. Gentleman referred to two cases in which parties had put money-letters into the Glasgow post-office, which letters had never reached their destination. A good system existed in Ireland in 1831; but it had been put down when the Irish and Scotch offices were united with that of England. They had in Ireland at that time an excellent system of registry, which, while it saved 20,000l. a year, cost only 100l. He hoped that her Majesty's Government would take up the subject in one way or other. It was not to be endured that the Post-office should have a monopoly of the carriage of the country, that there should be a penalty upon using any other mode of carriage, and yet that they should not be bound to make up losses. The hon. Member complained that whilst Ireland and the north of England had now the benefit of the Irish express by the railroad, Scotland was still deprived of that advantage. There was another matter of which he had to complain. At his instigation the Post-office had consented to send two mails daily to Glasgow and Edinburgh. They had certainly done so, but they had sent a mail-bag by only one of them, not a single letter or paper being taken by the other mail to Scotland. He considered this a complete breach of faith. He moved for leave to bring in a bill for the registration of letters.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

was glad the hon. Member, by making a motion, had given him an opportunity of making a brief reply. He was not surprised that the hon. Member had drawn the attention of the House to these returns, seeing the amount of money involved in them. The hon. Member seemed to suppose that this sum, 600,000l. represented the amount abstracted from the Post-office. Now he would show that the return bore no such meaning. He would first ask of any mercantile Gentleman pre- sent, whether, as a matter of common sense, he believed it possible that 600,000l. could have been abstracted from the correspondence of the country without raising such a clamour on the part of the trading interest of the country as to induce them to complain of the grievance, and not leave it entirely in the hands of the hon. Member for Greenock? Would they not have heard of it before through the representatives of Manchester, of Bristol, of Liverpool, and of every other commercial town in the country, which must have felt its interests deeply affected by such proceedings? It was therefore unlikely that the conclusion come to by the hon. Member should be correct. But not only was it not likely, but it was impossible. This 600,000l. was not a return of the amount of money lost; it arose in this simple way. Suppose a person expected a letter containing money, and the letter was delayed in consequence of some accident one or two days; under these circumstances he makes an appeal to the Post-office, and the appeal is registered, she wing the amount of money thus detained. But it did not by any means follow that the money should be lost, and the party receiving it did not always inform the Post-office of the fact. There was also another case which was not impossible, namely, parties sending their servants to put money letters in the Post-office, which letters might never have been posted. The House must not therefore, in looking at these returns suppose that the sum of 600,000l. in anyway represented the amount of money actually lost in the Post-office. He was not prepared to deny that a considerable sum of money was lost in its passage through the Post-office; but that was a circumstance which could never be wholly prevented. With respect to the transmission of money in letters, he believed that in nine cases out of ten, unless an additional envelope were put upon the letter, the money was so carelessly put in that it would fall out. He did not wish to deny that an evil existed in the present system, to which he should be anxious at the first opportunity to apply a practical and efficient remedy. He thought, however, that nothing could be done with any approach to success until a system for the registration of letters had been adopted. By this means the safe delivery of every letter would be ensured, though of course the same responsibility could hardly be attached to any alleged or supposed contents of it. With respect to the proposal for establishing day mails, he had only one word to say. It must be evident that if this proposition were adopted, the mails would arrive in London at different times of the day instead of at one general and fixed hour. Now, it was only within these few days that he had been complained to of the irregularity of the arrival of certain letters from Liverpool and elsewhere, and a desire expressed that the period of the arrival of letters should be well understood and permanent. His own opinion certainly was, that it was far preferable that the letters should arrive at one fixed hour from all parts of the country, as at present, than that there should be one hour for the Liverpool letters, another for those from Glasgow, another for the foreign letters, another for the Edinburgh, and so forth. In conclusion, he had only to say, that he hoped, at novery remoe period, to introduce a measure for the registration of letters at the Post-office upon the principle he had already stated.

Mr. Hume

thought, that as the right hon. Gentleman threw some doubts upon the accuracy of the supposed losses to the public, as manifested in this return, the Post-office should be at some pains to ascertain whether those returns were correct or not. He thought also that it was high time that the public, having only this one means for the conveyance of their letters at their disposal, should enjoy something like security as respected their letters and the contents of them. There was the case of 71. 10s. sealed up in a letter before the Postmaster, and treble postage paid, and yet the letter was lost; and when the Postmaster-general was applied to, he wrote a letter saying that "He was not aware of any law which rendered the Post-office liable for any losses by reason of a letter's not reaching its destination." Now he maintained that the Postmaster-general who could write such a letter as that should not be suffered to remain in his situation, and that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, if he sanctioned such conduct, ought not to remain in his. The public were prevented by penalties from sending letters by any other means of conveyance than that of the General Post-office, and in return for this valuable monopoly the Post-office owed the public something like security in the conveyance of their letters. There ought to be responsibility somewhere. Before he sat down he begged to ask a question of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Two years ago the Chancellor of the Exchequer pointed out, in a most able manner, the abuses of the present system of Post-office management, and said that things ought not to remain as they were. The right hon. Gentleman at the same time brought in a Bill to reform these evils; but when that Bill arrived in the House of Lords, the nobleman who had been Postmaster-general under all these abuses caused the Bill to be turned out, and then laughed at the Government and this House for the trouble they had been at for nothing. Now, he begged to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether it was his intention again to bring in, and to pass into a law, the Bill which he had formerly introduced on this subject?

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that it was quite true that, in conformity with the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry into the affairs of the Post-office, he had introduced a Bill for the reform of that department, two Sessions ago. At that time he certainly did state that he could not approve of the present system of Post-office management; but, at the same time, he said so without at all impugning the conduct of the Duke of Richmond, or of his successor, the Earl of Lichfield. On the contrary, he bore testimony to the zealous efforts of those two noblemen to contend against the radical defects of the system under which they had to act; and the conclusion which he then drew was, that, if after all that had been done by them, there were still defects at the Post-office, there was the greater necessity for a complete reform. He had succeeded in carrying that Bill through that House, but he could not be held responsible for its fate in the other House. He had only to add on this subject that nothing but the early termination of the last Session had prevented him from again introducing a Bill on this subject, and that he certainly proposed to do so in the present Session. With respect to the letter which the Postmaster-General had written in reference to a letter containing money which had miscarried, and upon which the hon. Member for Kilkenny had commenced by declaring, that the man who had written such a letter should not remain in his situation, he begged to submit that, however such a circumstance might be received as an additional argument for a reform in the present system, yet as long as the present system remained unaltered by act of Parliament, the Postmaster-general had given a perfectly correct statement of the law of the case, and in his opinion, therefore, it was the only letter which could have been written by the Postmaster-general on the subject.

Sir G. Strickland

thanked the hon. Gentleman who had brought forward this motion for his exertions in a matter of so much public interest. It was highly necessary that a system of increased security and vigilance should be introduced without delay into the post-office department. He was glad to hear that the Chancellor of the Exchequer intended to take a step towards this by introducing a Bill for the registration of letters.

Mr. George F. Young

believed, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that the merchants and bankers of the metropolis would not be in favour of any alteration in the conveyance of letters which should subject them to deliveries at different periods of the day instead of at one fixed and uniform hour.

Mr. Labouchere

believed, that most of the charges against the post-office which had been made this evening were extravagant and unfounded. He admitted that the security of letters at present enjoyed was not such as the public had a right to look for from a public department; and he believed that the best remedy which could be applied to this evil was that of a registration of letters as proposed by his right hon. Friend. Such a registration, he thought, could be very easily carried into operation as far as the security of the letter was concerned; but as to the contents of it, that, he thought, could hardly be attempted to be ensured, as it would be impossible to examine every letter in the midst of the hurry of business at a place like the post-office. Registration was already to a certain extent carried on at the twopenny post-office whenever the letter contained money or otherwise, on the demand of those who sent the money, and it had been found so efficient, that in upwards of 100,000 letters which had been registered in this manner, only two losses had occurred. He thought, however, that if the post-office were responsible for small sums, it would be of great convenience to the poorer classes.

Mr. Wallace

was glad to hear, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer intended to bring in a Bill for the reform of the post-office, and that he should, therefore, withdraw his motion.