HC Deb 08 February 1838 vol 40 cc900-6
Mr. Wallace

called the attention of the House to the petition from the Chamber of Commerce of Edinburgh (presented 5th of February), praying that no experiment on Mr. Rowland Hill's plan might be entertained, unless based on its main principles. Much alarm had been occasioned throughout the country by the notice given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer of his being about to make an experiment of his own in contradistinction to that recommended by the Post-office Commissioners. In the course of last Session it was distinctly stated, that there commendations of the Commissioners with regard to the twopenny and threepenny postage being reduced to one penny, and the collection being made in advance by the use of stamp covers should have a fair trial. When the Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked in December last what he meant to do upon the subject, he replied, that he intended, instead of following the recommendation of the Commissioners, to bring in a bill to authorise the use of twopenny stamp covers, within the twopenny district. If the right hon. Gentleman had offered a premium for a plan by which to overthrow the recommendation of the Commissioners, a better mode could not have been devised. The Chamber of Commerce in Edinburgh, considering the great advantage that would accrue to the country from the adoption of a uniform system of charging postage, and of making a large reduction of the rates, had taken alarm at this proposal, and by their petition strongly urged upon the House that some means should be taken to prevent the right hon. Gentleman from following up his intention. On this occasion he would confine himself to this plain and simple question, whether anything could be more perfectly absurd and untenable than that of pretending to carry out a suggestion for permitting the use of a stamp cover, at a penny rate, by means of a twopenny stamp cover? He could not for a moment suppose that the right hon. Gentleman would persevere in adopting so strange a proposition. The idea of the public being willing to take the additional trouble of purchasing a stamp, when they could send their letters at the same rate without a stamp, seemed to him so exceedingly preposterous that he would not argue the matter further. The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving that the House resolve itself into a Committee to take into consideration the laws relating to the Post-office.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

presumed that the only object of the present motion was to raise a discussion. To that he had no objection. He should ill discharge his duty, and not be showing that respect which he entertained for a Committee of this House, if he were to prejudge a question which was now under the consideration of a Committee up stairs. He had been called upon to consider the propriety of adopting Mr. Hill's plan. For that gentleman he entertained very great respect, but he could not, in deference to Mr. Hill's judgment, hazard the loss of an enormous amount of revenue. If he had made the experiment of Mr. Hill's plan, and had reduced the postage of all letters from their present amount to a penny, the increase in the number of letters that would be required to be delivered by the Post-office in order to prevent a loss would be from their present amount of 43,000,000 to somewhere about 400,000,000. No person on earth could imagine that any permanent arrangement could be made that would augment the correspondence in this country within any limited period to such an extent. All existing arrangements would have to be reorganised, and that upon a mere hypothesis. He would not presume to say that Mr. Hill's plan was wrong. Indeed he had consented to the appointment of a Committee, to whom that plan was submitted, and he thought it would be only prudent to await the report of that Committee, in order to see whether they considered it feasible The twopenny postage was an increasing source of revenue, which clearly proved that the present rate of charge did not operate to diminish that description of correspondence. He had reduced the four penny postage to two pence, and had directed a registry to be kept of the amount of correspondence before the reduction and after, this would show the effect of that reduction upon the amount of correspondence. This information was essential, because all the reasoning in favour of an alteration would fall to the ground, unless it could be shown that the present postage duty threw difficulties in the way of the correspondence of the country. The hon. Gentleman was favourable to the experiment of a stamp-cover, but did he wish to try it fairly? It would not be trying it fairly if they said that a letter should go under a stamp cover for a penny, whereas a letter not going under a stamp cover should be twopence. It was supposed by some Gentlemen that notes of invitation and messages would be frequently sent by the twopenny post instead of by servants, if a stamp cover were allowed: he therefore had consented to the experiment. When the whole plan of Mr. Hill should have been considered by the Committee, and reported upon to the House, he should be prepared to give his determination upon it. At present he thought it prudent not to make any alteration in the existing system. He had great respect for the Chamber of Commerce in Edinburgh, but he should have attached much more weight to their recommendation if it had been made with reference to their own city, instead of relating to the mode of carrying on correspondence in London.

Mr. Hume

said, that the object of his hon. Friend (Mr. Wallace) was precisely that which the right hon. Gentleman professed to be his; namely, that no alteration should be made until the whole plan had been fully determined upon. The right hon. Gentleman, however, said he was willing to make a partial attempt to carry Mr. Hill's plan into effect. It was not a partial trial of that plan, because Mr. Hill suggested the reduction of the duty to a penny. Two years had elapsed since the right hon. Gentleman declared that the present system should be altered; yet nothing had been done. The Post-office Commissioners had made ten reports, and he remembered no instance in which so many recommendations of a commission had been left unnoticed. He admitted that several useful alterations had been introduced into the Post-office department; but he would press upon the consideration of the Government the distrust prevailing throughout the country as to any really beneficial change being effected while the present system continued.

Mr. Labouchere

begged to state, that so far from the recommendations of the Commissioners a pointed to inquire into the Post-office establishment not being attended to and supported by the Government, he (as one of those Commissioners) knew there had been on the part of the Government a most anxious desire to carry those recommendations into effect. When the Commission was appointed it was stated that the Commissioners would be a mere screen to the Government to stave off all reform, and that there was no real intention of looking into the abuses of the Post-office. He on that occasion gave a pledge in his own name, and in the name of his Colleagues, that they were determined to look fully and fairly into the subject, with a desire to lay before the public the sincere impressions which the inquiry might make upon them, and he now trusted that by the course they had taken, the expectations of the country had not been disappointed. The Commissioners made their reports without any communication or previous consultation with the Post-office or the Treasury, as they might have done, in order to ascertain whether the opinions of those authorities coincided with their own before being promulgated to the world. It must necessarily have sometimes happened that there should be a difference of opinion between the Commissioners and those two departments. He believed that the Commissioners would not have done their duty if they had by previous communications endeavoured to avoid that difference of opinion. At the same time they had no right to blame the Post-office authorities or the Government for exercising their own judgment with respect to the recommendations of the Commissioners. Nevertheless, he was not aware until this report with regard to the twopenny post-office came under consideration, that any important recommendation of the Commissioners had not been carried into effect as far as lay in the power of the Government. He denied that it was the fault of the Government that the Post-office had not been placed under the management of Commissioners, instead of a postmaster general. It was the fault of Parliament. With regard to applying Mr. Hill's plan to the twopenny post by reducing the charge to a penny, it certainly involved a considerable amount of revenue; still he was sorry his right hon. Friend did not think himself justified to try the experiment. He should be glad to see it tried. He did not agree that the stamp covers was the chief part of Mr. Hill's plan. The most important principle of Mr. Hill's plan was the payment of the postage. This was a part of the plan about which he had always entertained the greatest doubt. He very much doubted the readiness of the public to acquiesce in a system which would deprive them of all option, when sending letters, whether to pay the postage or not. Upon the whole he thought it would be better to let the entire matter rest with the Committee up stairs; and he should be rather glad if his right hon. Friend would not make any partial experiment with regard to the stamped covers. He did not think it would be likely to lead to much satisfaction.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, the experiment of the stamped covers was not of his seeking. He had not the slightest difficulty, if the same Gentlemen who first wished to see the experiment tried were now desirous that it should be suspended, to accede to their request. With regard to the observations of the hon. Member for Kilkenny as to the recommendations of the Commissioners not having been acted upon, he wished to remark, that it was much easier for Commissioners and Members of Parliament to lay down a principle than for those who were charged with the execution of it to apply that principle. No principle was laid clown more authoritatively than that of applying the system of contracts to our packet communications. Every body seemed to consider that there was no port in which that experiment could be better tried than in the port of Liverpool. Parties informed him that if the unjust competition of the Government packets against the owners of the commercial packets were withdrawn, those owners were of that character that they would undertake to discharge the duty of carrying the mail for nothing. He and the Admiralty had been engaged from that time to the present in trying whether they could ob- tain such a contract, and what was the result? The only tender which the Government had received, contrary to all the predictions made, was, that whereas the Government packets yielded from passengers 21,000l. a-year to the Government; there were gentlemen in Liverpool generous and liberal enough to offer to enter into a contract, not to carry the mails for nothing, but for the sum of 34,000l. a-year.

Mr. Wallace

would not occupy the time of the House in replying to the statements which had been made, but he must make one or two observations on the remarks of the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the contracts for the packet service. In 1836 the St. George steam-packet company offered to carry the mails to Ireland for nothing; but what did the Government do? They refused this offer, but allowed in the same year an Act to be passed by Parliament limiting the liability of the company. This was done under the plea of assisting the inland navigation of Ireland; but 200,000l. having been raised in consequence of that act, the company, instead of applying themselves to the inland navigation, set to work to build boats purposely to beat the Post-office, or rather, at that time, the Admiralty packets. The Admiralty continued their old boats, and the consequence was, that the St. George's company, having completely outsailed them, and carried away all the custom, now turned round and did what every other trading company would do under similar circumstances — they demanded 34,000l. to contract for doing what, before their new boats were built, they would have gladly undertaken for nothing. The great been held out by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the reduction of the four penny postage to twopence, was not recommended by the Post-office Commissioners, but was introduced by the right hon. Gentleman on his own responsibility. It was true that a Committee had been appointed, and was still sitting; but before any report had been made, the Chancellor of the Exchequer had given notice of his bill. If the whole subject of the Post-office were to be left to the inquiry of the Committee he had no objection to make; but he hoped that in the meantime no attempt would be made by the right hon. Gentleman to give effect to his twopenny proceeding. Having elicited that discussion he would beg the leave of the House to withdraw his motion.

Motion withdrawn.