HC Deb 22 August 1846 vol 88 cc955-61

rose to call the attention of the House to the petition of Thomas Mitchell, late sub-sorter in the General Post Office (presented on the 6th day of August), complaining that his dismissal was occasioned by proving in evidence certain malversations and corruptions on behalf of his superior officers, and to move for inquiry therein. This was not a question merely affecting an individual, but involved the character of the establishment. It would be recollected that he (Mr. T. Duncombe) had pointed out many abuses in the Post Office, and amongst others that connected with the Post Office Directory. An investigation was instituted, and Mr. Mitchell, who had been in the Post Office for ten years without having a complaint preferred against him, was called before Mr. Peacock, the solicitor to the Post Office, who conducted the inquiry, to be examined. Mr. Mitchell inquired whether he should receive protection if he spoke the truth, and being assured of that, he made an unreserved statement of mal-practices on the part of Mr. Kelly. Copies of these statements were furnished to Mr. Kelly, and it was soon afterwards whispered about that Mitchell was a marked man. On a second inquiry taking place, Mitchell was again called up and again assured of protection. Afterwards, being a weak man, and feeling himself fatigued, he asked for leave of absence; but to this request his superior officer demurred. Mitchell then left the office, but on his way home he was taken ill, and requested a brother officer to inform the proper authorities at the Post Office that he was too ill to attend to his work; and in this respect he acted strictly in conformity with the regulations of the Post Office, which required notice to be given in case of absence. However, greatly to Mitchell's surprise, he received a communication to the effect that absence from duty, without permission, had led to his dismissal. Since then a new ground had been taken up, and it was alleged that he was dismissed for insolent conduct; but it was too late to come forward with such a plea, for it was posted up in the establishment that Mitchell was guilty of absenting himself without leave; and, as a proof of the weakness of the new allegation, he might mention that a letter was sent to Mitchell, offering him some mitigation of the punishment, that was to say, offering him a lower situation than he had previously held in the establishment, on the ground that he might not possibly have seen a certain order. Why, if the man was guilty, he ought to be dismissed entirely; and if not, he ought to be fully reinstated. The question was, would this man have been dismissed at all, if he had not given certain evidence? The tendency of such a proceeding was to deter other parties from giving evidence displeasing to their superiors; and it had had that effect. Five or six other sub-sorters had been called on to give evidence; but they said that in consequence of the treatment which Mitchell had received, it was quite impossible for them to open their lips. Consequently the inquiry which had been commenced was stopped by intimidation. He did not believe that there would be any peace in the Post Office as long as Colonel Maberly and Messrs. Kelly and Bokenham were connected with it. The inquiry to which he had alluded ought to be proceeded with by commission, where the evidence should be taken on oath and the men protected. He should therefore conclude by moving— That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will be graciously pleased to appoint a Commission, to inquire into the administration of the General Post Office, especially into the complaint of Thomas Mitchell, as well as into the causes of dissatisfaction alleged to exist among the officers of that establishment, and whether a private speculation, carried on therein by the aid of public servants, known as the Post Office Directory, ought to continue.


seconded the Motion. He did not think the man had been properly treated. A dismissal for one day's absence, seeing that he had been ten years in the service of the Post Office, was most harsh and unjust. Whatever was the nature of the charge, whether true or false, he did not think the Post Office authorities had conducted the inquiry in a creditable manner. He would conclude by seconding the Motion.


, on behalf of the noble Lord at the head of the Post Office department, said, he had to explain and defend the act which was complained of. When the present noble Lord who presided over that establishment came into office, he found, from the discussions that had taken place in this House, that a very unsatisfactory feeling existed among those engaged there. In fact the whole establishment was in a most unsatisfactory condition. In regard to the getting up of the Post Office Directory, while some sorters thought they were benefited, others considered themselves aggrieved, and in consequence a most uncomfortable feeling existed. He was, however, happy to say that arrangements were in progress which would tend in a great degree to allay the spirit that existed. Several papers had been already presented on the subject, and others were yet to be presented, before they could have the whole facts of the case before them. It was said that this man was dismissed on account of his giving evidence before the Commission appointed to inquire into the Management of the Post Office; but it should be recollected that fifty other witnesses were examined, while only one was dismissed. It could not therefore be for giving the evidence in question that the party was dismissed. The whole truth of the allegation depended on the authority of two persons, whose evidence, from the circumstances under which they were placed, should be looked on with great caution. He would sugget that the Motion be withdrawn, as the Postmaster General was undertaking an investigation into all the matters relating to the management of the Post Office.


thought an inquiry was necessary, as the House was bound to defend witnesses who were called on to give evidence of the abuses that existed in any department of the public service. He hoped the noble Lord (Lord J. Russell) would take the matter into his most serious consideration, and allow an inquiry to be made. If improvement was to be looked for in the Post Office, it could only be looked for by the introduction of a system best calculated to effect that object; and, being of that opinion, he would ask why was Rowland Hill not employed? Why was not a man employed who was instrumental in effecting one of the greatest social reforms that had taken place in his time? Why was not Mr. Hill employed, that he might carry all his plans into effect? He supposed the reason was, that certain parties in the Post Office were not favourable to that gentleman. Had Mr. Hill's plans been carried out, the revenue would have increased, the expenses diminished, and the public would have been better accommodated. Why not now employ Mr. Hill? Why not now avail themselves of his services? The public cried out shame on the Government who dismissed so useful a man as Mr. Hill.


stated, that as regarded Mitchell, having the fullest confidence in the discrimination and in the impartiality of the Postmaster General, he was sure no act of injustice had been done by him. He was certain also that if the Postmaster General were of opinion that any act of injustice had been done to the petitioner, an inquiry would be instituted and redress afforded. It was very difficult for those who presided over public departments to satisfy those under them: they frequently became dissatisfied if they were not promoted according to their expectations: they often imagined that their merits were intentionally overlooked, and from that feeling they became discontented; they made complaints when they supposed anything was carried on wrong in the office where they were connected; they became impudent to their superintendents, and they often acted in such a manner that no business could satisfactorily go on. As for himself he did not wish to pronounce any opinion one way or the other on the conduct of the individual in question. With respect to the Motion for a Commission, he could not see what good it could effect even if granted. As there was one individual responsible for carrying on the whole duties of the Post Office, he was of opinion, although there had been grounds of complaint, which attracted the attention of the late Government, and respecting which a great deal of correspondence had taken place, that it would be better to leave the whole matter in the hands of the Government, whose attention was directed to the working of the Post Office, with a view to its more efficient management. And the plan now being adopted would remove, he had no doubt, those grounds of complaint to which the hon. Member referred. He hoped, therefore, that the hon. Member would leave the subject in the hands of the Government. He would however say, that he was by no means satisfied with the state of the Post Office, nor did he think the plans of reform, instituted by Mr. Hill, had been sufficiently carried out.


said, that the observations of his hon. Friend the Member for Montrose, and the comment made on those observations by the noble Lord (Lord J. Russell) had given to the present discussion far greater interest and importance than belonged to the original question. The hon. Member for Montrose had advised the Government, if really intent on a good administration of Post Office affairs, to do as they did before, and to appoint Mr. Rowland Hill to some office that would enable him to see his own plan properly carried out. He joined with his hon. Friend in pressing that advice upon Government. When Lord Melbourne's Cabinet had decided on giving their sanction to Mr. Hill's plan, he and several other Members who had sat on Mr. Wallace's Committee, had, in concert with Mr. Wallace, given similar advice to the then First Lord of the Treasury, and they brought the following precedent under Lord Melbourne's notice. A Committee which sat to consider Mr. Palmer's claims (the Mr. Palmer who substituted mail-coaches for horse mails) had called before them, and examined as a witness, Mr. Pitt. Mr. Pitt stated, that fearing, from the opposition given to the proposals of Mr. Palmer by the Post Office authorities, they might obstruct the plan they were directed to execute, he appointed Mr. Palmer to an office in that department, himself to direct the execution of his own scheme. Lord Melbourne adopted and acted on this precedent. Mr. Hill was appointed to an office to act under the immediate direction of the Chancellor of the Exchequer; and he was thus invested with as full authority as he could desire, under the straightforward rule of the present Member for Portsmouth. His tenure of office was not made permanent; but a long term could not at that time be secured to him, because it remained, by the working of the plan, to demonstrate its efficacy. The hon. Member for Montrose said that Mr. Hill's conduct, while in office, was never the subject of complaint. Not only was there no complaint of the kind, but Mr. Hill's conduct was exemplary. The Minister under whose direction Mr. Hill served, the right hon. Member for Portsmouth, had again and again assured him (Mr. Warburton) that Mr. Hill conducted himself admirably as a public servant, and that the right hon. Gentleman had formed a high opinion of Mr. Hill's moral worth and sterling character. In the official correspondence relating to Mr. Hill's dismissal from office by the successors of Lord Melbourne, ample testimony was borne by them to Mr. Hill's good conduct during the interval (a short interval, it was true) for which he retained his office under them; and to this it might be added, that the late First Minister of the Crown had, in his private capacity, paid a tribute of respect to Mr. Hill, by joining with the public in a subscription, intended by them as a testimonial of the sense they entertained of his great and singular merits. What was formerly matter of anticipation had now been practically demonstrated. Mr. Hill's plan had succeeded financially, and the uniform penny rate had rendered the Post Office the most thriving branch of the revenue, as they saw by the increase in that branch last year to the extent of 115,000l. If such had been the results with the present defective administration of Post Office affairs, what increase to that branch of revenue might not be expected, if Mr. Hill's plans for saving expense and increasing the returns were carried out, and were Mr. Hill in a position to see his plans properly executed? He had listened with great satisfaction to the declaration made by the noble Lord, that in his opinion Mr. Hill's plans had been imperfectly executed, and that the present administration of Post Office affairs was unsatisfactory. If Mr. Hill were called to perform those duties, for the discharge of which his talents appeared to have peculiarly fitted him, it would be most satisfactory to him (Mr. Warburton) and to many other Members of the House; to Mr. Wallace, the former chairman of the Committee, and to a large body of the public, composed of men of every political party, who had their eye on Mr. Hill, and, with the hon. Member for Montrose, asked the question why Mr. Hill was not employed to execute his own plans?


would ask what, after all that was said, was to be done with Mitchell? For ten years that man held a situation in the Post Office, with credit to himself and with advantage to the public; and because he gave evidence not very agreeable to certain parties, he was dismissed. If there was one thing more than another which should excite the vigilance of that House, it was in affording protection to persons who held subordinate situations, when they had the honesty and the courage to expose official malpractices. Instead of punishing them, they ought to be rewarded. He would show the heads of departments, that there was an authority to which they were accountable, and that if the persons under them were subject to their vigilance, they should remember they would be made to know there was an authority above them which could make them also vigilant. When an investigation was to be held, an individual should be appointed totally independent of the department which was the subject of inquiry—an individual who could not be damaged by the discovery of the whole truth. In the Post Office investigation, while the inferior officers were giving their testimony, the superior officers were present. Under such circumstances, the whole was a mockery. Could it be expected that those men would state all they knew, standing in the presence of those who might on the following day dismiss them? No good could come from such an investigation. But what was to be done with poor Mitchell was the question which still recurred? Here was a man dismissed from his situation, because he gave an honest testimony: was there any effort made to get him a situation elsewhere? Was it just—after ten years' faithful service—to turn him on the world—to reduce him to beggary? To permit such conduct would be unworthy of the heads of the Post Office. If before the next Session of Parliament a situation was not provided for Mitchell, his conviction was, that there was very little justice to be expected either from the Government or from the heads of the Post Office.


, considering that the subject was under the consideration of the Treasury, would withdraw his Motion.

Motion withdrawn.