HC Deb 11 February 1859 vol 152 cc250-8

On the Motion, That the House at rising adjourn till Monday next,


said, that according to notice he rose to call attention to the Order of the Postmaster General of the 27th of January last, directing, in effect, that after the 10th of this month all letters which are not prepaid shall be opened by the Post-office authorities; and to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer what provisions had been made thenceforth to guard the inviolability of letters sent through the Post Office. In bringing this question forward, he wished to guard against derogating, in the slightest degree, from the deep obligation which the country owed to Mr. Rowland Hill for having effected one of the greatest reforms of this century, in establishing penny postage. He assumed that the Order emanated from the noble Lord at the head of the Post Office, and not from the gentleman to whom he alluded, and he could not but feel that it was by such orders, either from indiscreet friends or covert enemies, that great social reform was most liable to be endangered. The purport of the Order was to open every letter not to a certain extent prepaid, and to send it back to the writer. Hitherto the practice had been to leave it to the option of the person to whom unpaid letters were addressed to refuse them or to pay double postage. If that was not a sufficient check to any growing neglect of pre-payment, the Post-office authorities might have doubled or quadrupled the penalty, and if they had no such power, the House would readily have assisted in such a practical remedy. But, instead of that, this Order was issued, by which every person, who through his own inattention or the inattention of his servant, or the default of adhesiveness in the Government stamps, posted a letter without pre-payment, was subject to have it opened and read, at least so far as to discover it writer, to whom it was then returned. He could not conceive the motives that induced the Postmaster General to issue such an Order. Was it that some hon. Gentlemen had not yet disabused themselves of the notion that the Post Office was an engine of taxation? For his part, he always thought that this Government monopoly was for the special convenience of the public, in order that the people might feel the greatest security in the transmission of their letters, combined with the least cost consistent with their rapid and proper delivery. The present order sinned against nearly all those principles. He doubted even that it would be economical. It might simplify the accounts a little if all letters whatever were pre-paid; but this was clearly impracticable, for the Order itself showed that the Post-office authorities dared not refuse to convey letters upon which a certain amount of postage had been paid; they had not yet drilled the public into running about with balances in one hand and a letter in the other to measure the exact amount of postage before consigning it to the letter-box. Colonial and foreign letters would also protect us from this Procrustean uniformity. At present rather more than 2,000,000 of letters were not pre-paid, and about one-half of these were accepted at double postage. Therefore, substantially, payment was made on every letter, and the Post Office lost nothing, but if all unpaid letters were confiscated this recompensing double payment would cease, and there would be a loss of £6,000 or £8,000 a year, allowing even that some of these unpaid letters come back again. This would more than counterbalance any economy in the office. It was not, however, a question of a few thousand pounds in the revenue of the Post Office, but of the just claims of the public to accommodation. It was suggested to him that the Post Office was bound by law to transmit every letter posted with a proper address, and especially had no authority to open any except "dead letters." If that were so there was an end of the matter; but whether or not, he thought he should show that this Order would cause such grievous inconvenience to the public that it must be rescinded. Nothing, it might be said, could be easier than to put a postage stamp on a letter. True; but it was just in these easiest and most ordinary transactions that every one of us not only was liable, but was certain occasionally to fall into errors, and it was both folly and tyranny to legislate on the assumption that rules and regulations could put an end to them. What could be more absurd—more improbable—than that thousands of people should put letters in the Post Office without directing them. And yet such was the hurry of business and the occasional pressure on men's minds, that according to the Postmaster-General's report, more than 7,000 letters were annually put into the Post without any direction at all, many of them containing money or checks. In two years, letters containing £18,800 in money, and £1,236,000 in bank post bills, checks, &c., were posted in letters, either without any direction, or so incorrectly directed that they had to be returned to the Dead-letter Office and there opened, in order, if possible, to restore them to their writers. He believed that he was correct in estimating the revenue the Post Office obtained from the inability to decypher the names either of the writers of such letters or those to whom they were sent, at not less than £9,000 a year. Most of these were posted by merchants and bankers, or their confidential clerks; and if men of business habits could thus, with every inducement and appliance to regularity, be unable to guard themselves against such apparently unaccountable negligence, how could it be expected that the general community should be constantly accurate and precise in the still minor matter of fixing on a postage stamp? The lower orders were those who benefited most by the penny post, and who now contribute largely to the postal revenue; but if restraints of this nature were put in force they would be aggrieved and driven to evasions where-by that revenue would suffer considerably. He could imagine many cases where, from no postage stamp being at hand, letters must either be not sent at all or be put into the post without being prepaid. Mistakes also occurred in moments of emergency, when the mind was so intent upon the subject of the letter that it could not attend to these minutiœ. Such letters were precisely those which often most needed an immediate answer; but long after the bill for which the letter was meant to provide had been protested, or the parent to whose sick bed a son or a daughter had been summoned was dead, the emergent, all-important letter would be returned with a cool printed notice, that as no postage stamp had been affixed it had not been forwarded. There was another consideration of great importance. The sanctity of a seal had hitherto been regarded as inviolate. The letters of the highest or meanest person in the realm could not be opened by the highest or lowest authority in the Post Office. It was felony to do so. As long as letters bore on them a direction they were forwarded to every corner of the realm where it might be supposed the receiver was to be found, and, when all efforts had failed, they were consigned to the Dead-letter Office, and then opened, in order, as it was found impossible to discover the ostensible owner, the person addressed, that they might be restored to the next presumptive owner, the writer. Hitherto the Post Office had gone to great expense and trouble in thus dealing with such letters for the convenience of the public, but by this order that principle of action was to be reversed, and the public was to be put to all manner of inconvenience in order to carry out some fantastic and pedantic uniformity in the office itself. Was there to be one central Dead Letter Office in London? or were they to be scattered about in different districts? If the first, the inconvenience casused by the detention of letters from Ireland, Scotland, and other remote parts of the kingdom, would be very great; if the latter, the expense would be increased, and there would be a scattered, and therefore less responsibility. At present there was an active and constantly working supervision over all Post-offices. If an overcurious Post-master or other of the very miscellaneous thousands to whom, in some stage or other of their transmission our letters were entrusted, ventured to open them—and they seldom, except for fraudulent purposes, went so far as to purloin them. Opening and resealing them as carefully as they could before they sent them to their destination, the receiver would find that the seal had been tampered with, he would complain to the Postmaster-General, and sharp inquiry would ensue. But now, when a letter had been opened, either from dishonesty or curiosity, nothing would be easier than to rub off the postagestamp,—the Government glue was not particularly adhesive; it was only the other day that a letter had come to him with the stamp hanging to it,—then the letter no longer would be forwarded to its destination, and nothing would be known, or suspected, of its having been previously and surreptitiously opened. Thus an important check over the sanctity of letters would be destroyed altogether. And, moreover, there was the broad dangerous fact that this order, if not founded on a disregard for the sanctity of the seal, still tended, plainly and directly, to undermine it. He hoped, therefore, to hear that this measure had been suspended, and that the Post Office authorities would be contented gradually to educate the public to affixing the stamp to their letters by charging double, or even higher, postage on unpaid letters. But, if some assurance of this sort were not given, or if it were not shown that the alarm which he felt on the subject was groundless, he should feel it his duty to take some further steps in the matter.


said, the observations of the hon. Gentleman might lead the house to believe that this change had been made for the benefit in some way of either the Government or the Post-office, but he begged to assure the hon. Gentleman that the reverse was the fact. The main object of the change was greater convenience to the public, and not at all that which the hon. Gentleman appeared to suppose. The hon. Gentleman had, in fact, by his observations shown that the change could not have been introduced for the benefit of the revenue, for, in his opinion, it was erroneous to assume that the Post-office revenue could benefit by it, inasmuch as the warrant would put a stop to the posting of those unprepaid letters for which 2d. was till now received by the Post Office. Further, by the warrant the fines on the receivers of insufficiently paid letters would be less than heretofore, and also in some cases the fines upon the senders would be less. On these grounds he (Sir S. Northcote) trusted the House would believe that the change had not been introduced for any Treasury purpose. The hon. Gentleman paid a very just compliment to Mr. Rowland Hill, but with regard to this change he seemed inclined to make a distinction between Mr. Rowland Hill and the Postmaster-General. There could be no doubt that in all cases of this nature the head of a department was personally responsible for every change made in his department. The hon. Gentleman had insinuated that this measure was probably not approved by Mr. Rowland Hill, but he begged to assure him that it was part of Mr. Rowland Hill's original penny postage plan, that all letters should be prepaid, and that this particular measure was advocated by Mr. Rowland Hill, not because it would diminish the labour of the Post Office, but because it would accomplish that great object which the Post Office should always keep in view—namely, the transmission of as many letters as possible from the persons by whom they were sent to those to whom they were sent, which object had not hitherto been attained for reasons which he would endeavour to point out. Hon. Gentlemen were aware that, by the law which had been in force hitherto, in the case of an inland letter posted without prepayment double postage was demanded from the persons to whom it was sent. The hon. Gentleman imagined that if the fine for neglecting to prepay inland letters were doubled or increased a stop would be put to the sending of unpaid letters. But he (Sir S. Northcote) did not think that such would be the result of increasing the fines on neglecting to prepay. Besides, under that plan the wrong person—namely, the person to whom the letter was sent, instead of the person by whom it was sent, would be punished. In fact, the plan suggested by the hon. Gentleman was like the practice of some schoolmasters in bygone days, who, when a book was thrown at a boy in school, punished the boy at whom it had been thrown, when they could not ascertain who had thrown it. The whole mischief of the system hitherto arose from the double payment demanded from the persons to whom unpaid letters were sent. Persons in business were very much pestered by unpaid letters. Many of those letters were sent merely for the purpose of annoyance. In fact, about one-third of the letters that reached the Dead-letter Office were simply for the purpose of annoyance. A great proportion of these letters were valentines. Hon. Gentlemen should understand that with regard to valentines the mischief was very serious, because they were, in a vast number of cases, not merely offensive as far as the language contained in them was concerned, but also the things enclosed in them—namely, soot, dead animals, glass bottles. The number of valentines every year that pased through the Post Office was about 800,000; of these 800,000 about 60,000 were rejected, and they were consequently sent to the Dead-letter Office. The way in which many people protected themselves against this annoyance was by giving orders that no unpaid letters should be taken in. Those persons consequently rejected many worthless letters; but they at the same time rejected some very valuable letters, which they would wish to have received. Now, the view of the Post Office was that, by rendering compulsory the prepayment of all letters, they could put a stop to the sending of insulting and offensive letters, for which the senders did not choose to pay. The number of unpaid letters hitherto had been 2,500,000 every year, but large as that number was, it amounted to only a small proportion of the whole of the letters that passed through the post offices of the United Kingdom in a year. The total number was 523,000,000, and of the 2,500,000 of unpaid letters, about sixty per cent. consisted of advertisements or letters of an annoying character. He thought, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman and the House would perceive that the warrant had, instead of inflicting a grievance upon the public, put a stop to a system by which several persons were greatly annoyed, and that it had not been issued for any revenue or official purpose, but simply with a view to the greater convenience of the public. But the hon. Gentleman had said that this compulsory prepayment might be productive of greater inconvenience than convenience. On that point he (Sir S. Northcote) would set the practical opinion and experience of persons in the Post Office against the opinion of the hon. Gentleman, with regard to letters on which prepayment was compulsory—namely, all colonial and a considerable number of foreign letters. He might also adduce the experience of Spain and the United States of America. During the last four years prepayment had been, and now was, compulsory in the United States, without causing any inconvenience. With regard to letters to the Colonies and elsewhere, prepayment had been found to cause but trifling inconvenience; while other cases quite as weighty as those to which the hon. Gentleman had referred, might be put, but he was not without hopes that all of them might be met. If the Government should find that the warrant worked in a manner contrary to that which they intended, the House might feel assured that the warrant would be repealed or altered. There might be some momentary inconvenience felt, until the public became perfectly aware of the change. That was the first day on which the system came into operation, and however widely the knowledge of it might have spread, it could not be expected that the public generally understood the working of it. He begged, however, to inform the House that the number of unpaid letters received by the Post Office that very day was only one-third more than the usual number before the issuing of the warrant. The hon. Gentleman had called in question the legality of the warrant, but on that point he would refer him to 10 & 11 Vict., c. 85, s. 3, in which he would find a provision that the Postmaster General, with the authority of the Lords of the Treasury, might direct that letters should not be received at the Post Office without being prepaid. This change, therefore, was in fact in accordance with the existing law. With regard to the objection that the warrant would subject the contents of more letters than heretofore to exposure in the Dead-letter Office, he might state that not an instance had yet occurred in which an improper use or exposure had been made of any of the letters that reached that office. It was the duty of a small body of clerks, who were properly selected, to open those letters, simply for the purpose of ascertaining the name and address of the senders; and, considering the great number of the letters that reached the office daily—6,000—and the small number of clerks in the Dead-letter Office, it was evident that it was impossible for them to read the contents of the letters. It was a mistake to suppose that the postmaster, in every neighbourhood in which unpaid letters might be posted, could open them and inform himself of their contents, because those letters would be immediately sent to the Dead-letter Office in London (and in the cases of Scotland and Ireland, to the Dead-letter Office in Edinburgh and Dublin), where only they would be opened, and forwarded by the next mail to the senders. At present, the person by whom the unpaid letter was sent was compelled to pay a double charge. But for the future all that would be abandoned, and all the inconvenience that could occur would be some slight delay. The difficulties with regard to persons in poor-houses and others, he believed, would now be less than under the former system. If, however, it should be found that an alteration ought to be introduced with regard to the letters of those persons, no delay should take place in introducing such alteration. The matter was one affecting the interests of the whole community, and he trusted the new plan would be found to work for the public convenience.