HC Deb 22 July 1862 vol 168 cc672-82

, in rising to move that a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the Grievances alleged to exist and complained of by the Persons employed in the Post Office Department, said, that at the commencement of the Session he had presented a petition signed by more than 1,500 men employed in the Post Office complaining of their grievances, and he did not think that Parliament ought to separate without considering their statements. The object of the Post Office originally was to raise a revenue; but a change took place when the penny postage was introduced, that system being based upon the principle that the Post Office ought to be regarded as a Department of the public service, and that the question of revenue should be a matter of secondary consideration. At all times, even after the penny postage had been introduced, a certain amount of revenue was derived from the Post Office; but Sir Rowland Hill and others undertook to make it pay as well, or nearly as well, as it did before. That object could only be carried out to any extent by diminishing the pay and emoluments of the persons employed, by diminishing the number of the persons employed, and by the adoption of other economical measures which, in his opinion, were not fair to the employés nor consistent with the proper administration of the Department. The consequence was, that the men were overworked and underpaid. Great dissatisfaction and great disorganization arose, and something like a revolt had shown itself among the letter-carriers. Three inquiries had been instituted into the subject, one in 1834, one in 1858, and the last in 1860. In the last-named year there was an inquiry instituted by a mixed Committee, composed partly of persons employed in the Treasury, and partly of persons employed in the Post Office. The chief complaints were general inadequacy of pay and overwork. That great distress existed among the letter-carriers and sorters might be shown by the frequent collections which were obliged to be made for the families of those persons, and even for the burial of their relations. What the result of that inquiry was he was unable to say, because the report had never been made public, and the annual reports of the Postmaster General gave no information on the subject. He would, however, quote a few figures to show that the pecuniary position of the letter-carriers had been gradually deteriorating. From a statement compiled out of official returns, it appeared that in 1845 the annual amount of wages received by twenty-five senior letter-carriers was £962; but then there were emoluments amount- ing to £2,364; making a total of £3,326. In the same year the annual amount of wages received by twenty-five junior letter-carriers was £1,324 8s., with no emoluments. In 1861, the annual amount of wages received by twenty-five senior letter-carriers was £1,950, their emoluments, Christmas gratuities, &c., amounting to £175, making a total of £2,125; and the amount of wages received by twenty-five junior letter-carriers was £1,170, without any emoluments. The result was that there was a loss in 1861, as compared with 1845, of £27 2s. 4d. per man. The average wages and emoluments of a letter-carrier in 1845 were £93, but the average wages in 1861 were only £75; so there had been a loss per man of 10s. a week since 1845. He should, perhaps, be told that a system of promotion had been established; but he would remark that the poor letter-carriers derived very little benefit from it, because when a man was promoted from the highest class of one grade to the lowest class of the class just above him, in some instances he actually lost money by his promotion. An employé must wait a long time before he could get any wages except such as were grossly inadequate. One must begin as a supplementary man at 18s. a week, and then, after three or five years' service, he would get £1 a week. How was it possible for a man to maintain himself and his family on such a pittance? It might be said that men could be found to do the work for lower wages still—and, indeed, men had been engaged as extra letter-carriers at 10s. a week. He did not think, however, that public offices should be put up to a sort of Dutch auction. He had no doubt that persons could be found who would perform the duties of the Lord Chancellor or the Chancellor of the Exchequer for smaller salaries, but he held that when they gave a man arduous duties to perform they ought to pay him liberally. The result of the cheap labour system adopted at the Post Office had been that a great many persons had been introduced into the establishment who had betrayed their trust, and there had been numerous convictions of men for stealing letters. But then there was also the question of overwork. He knew that men were worked to such an extent that towards the conclusion of their work they did not know what they were about. That was the case both with the letter-carriers and the sorters; and the consequence was that letters were mis- sent, mislaid, and perhaps even lost. The first consideration ought to be the efficiency of the public service, and that efficiency could not be attained unless the men were liberally paid, and a sufficient force employed for the performance of the duties. He felt that at so late a period of the Session he could not move for a Committee; but he should bring forward the subject early next Session, and he hoped that there would then be a full inquiry into this important subject. Nobody could deny that there were great grievances, otherwise there would not be the large amount of discontent now existing, and which had been the object of inquiry by three different Commissions. The last inquiry took place in 1860; and he had frequently asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the Report of the last Commission; but the right hon. Gentleman had always refused to give it. Why, he would ask, should the Government keep back the result of that inquiry? If the result had been satisfactory, tranquillity would have been restored to the Post Office. It was clear the result arrived at had not been satisfactory, or it would have been communicated. He hoped, however, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would that evening undertake to lay that Report before the House. The great discontent had clearly not disappeared, although it had been said that something had been done; but he believed that what had been done had been entirely insufficient, and he hoped at some early period the whole question would be taken into consideration.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the Grievances alleged to exist and complained of by the Persons employed in the Post Office Department.


said, that his hon. Friend exercised a wise direction in not proposing to press his Motion on the present occasion, for it was obvious that the appointment of a Committee of Inquiry at the present period of the Session must be perfectly futile. He should have felt it his duty, however, at any period of the Session, to oppose the Motion, which he regarded as being of a most dangerous character not only to the good order of the Post Office Department, but to the entire public service. His hon. Friend asked, why was there discontent at the Post Office? But his hon. Friend could answer that question better than any other man. There would be discontent in any public department when the persons employed in it found a gentleman of ability and character willing to take what might be called a partisan view of their case and encourage them in demanding greater wages for their labours. He trusted, however, that other hon. Members would consider the responsibility which rested on them before they gave the strength and aid of their character and ability to inflame the minds of men who, though very competent for their duties, were yet of humble station, and naturally inclined, like other men, to believe that they were underpaid when they were told so. It would be totally impossible for any Department of the executive Government,—whether the Post Office, the Inland Revenue, or any other Department in which the number of public servants amount almost to armies—to conduct the public service if the men employed in the various Departments were to be told by persons of authority and ability that they were overworked, ill-used, and underpaid; and it was more than could be expected from human nature, that under such incentives, discontent should not be prevalent. His hon. Friend had said that the Post Office was worked for revenue, and not for public accommodation. That observation was rather hard upon Parliament. There was a time when the Exchequer derived about £1,500,000 of revenue from the Post Office, and, with a view to public accommodation. Parliament surrendered the whole. Let it not be supposed that he blamed Parliament for so doing, for he believed that a wiser measure was never adopted, or one which effected a greater amount of public accommodation; but then it ought to shield Parliament from the reproach of having used the Post Office exclusively, or in an exaggerated degree, as an instrument of revenue, and not of public accommodation. His hon. Friend had asked him to produce certain documents with respect to the case of the inferior members of the metropolitan establishment; but he felt that it would be inconsistent with his duty to produce them. The state of the case was this. In 1860 that distinguished and most valuable public servant, Sir Rowland Hill, was, in consequence of the heavy burden of his labours, stricken with a dangerous illness, and it was during his absence that the discontent of the nature alluded to became serious. In the absence of that officer it was ne- cessary to call in the aid of other gentlemen in the Post Office and from the Treasury, who, together with Sir Rowland Hill, gave their advice to the Government and the Postmaster General; and the Treasury then took the measures which they considered just, and which, in their opinion, were eminently liberal with respect to the men. It was perfectly natural that some of the members of the Department should not concur in all the details of the measure which was then adopted; and it was not to be supposed, that in a matter involving a multitude of details, and the interests of a very large class of men, perfect unanimity could be obtained; but it was perfectly obvious that it was not the most wholesome way to secure unanimity to bring before Parliament the opinions of every man who served in the Department. What did the Executive exist for? Parliament invested the executive Government with general power, and the Departments were responsible for the exercise of the power to the Government as a whole. His hon. Friend said that the servants of the Post Office were underpaid, and he was echoed by the hon. Member for Finsbury (Mr. Cox), who probably numbered a good many of these persons among his constituents. [Mr. Cox: The Government do not pay them well enough to give them votes.] In some sense, there was no part of the public service that might not be said to be underpaid. He did not now speak of Ministers of State, and he hoped his hon. Friend did not intend to institute a comparison between the duties of Ministers of State and the duties of men who carried letters. No doubt, with respect to a certain description of labour there was the test of looking to the labour-market and seeing whether a sufficient number of persons could be obtained; but if his hon. Friend meant to appoint a Minister of State on that principle, it was for him to prove that the principle was applicable. At any rate, it was substantially applicable for filling up the places of the great number, he might almost say the armies of public servants, and was applicable in the highest degree to the servants of the Post Office. His hon. Friend seemed to think the case of the lowest class of letter-carriers especially doleful. What was the case? He was appointed at eighteen years of age with a salary of 18s. a week, had no apprenticeship to pay for, and was allowed two suits of uniform and medical attendance and medicines gratuitously. In the course of a couple of years that young man would become a regular letter-carrier at 30s. a week, with a pension secured to him after a certain number of years' service. His hon. Friend, if he thought that a hard case, should consider whence the money came, and should also look to other branches of the public service, and he would find that letter-carriers were better remunerated than the police. A letter-carrier was better off than a policeman, who entered the service at 19s. a week, and served for years without an advance. Why did not the hon. Gentleman take up the case of the policeman, and say it was very hard that they should have to spend their nights in the streets for 19s. a week and upwards? Was it not enough to show how imprudent these complaints were when he stated that the service of the police was a cheaper service than that of the letter-carriers? Men of the lowest class became letter-carriers before they were twenty years of age. Their wages rose to 30s. a week, besides clothing and Christmas-boxes, which averaged 2s. or 3s. a week more. They could become sorters and rise to 40s. and ultimately to 50s. per week, and the higher ranks of the service were open to them in case of good conduct. No doubt there was a great deal of hard work; and he quite agreed that it was the duty of the heads of Departments to see that their subordinates were not overworked. That was, as a general rule, very bad economy, and no increase of payment afforded any justification for it. He did not deny that there were many cases of hard work, but how could it be otherwise? In the metropolis, where new streets were being opened and added from day to day, it was impossible to be constantly altering the beats of the letter-carriers. There must be inequality, and in particular cases there must be excessive work for a time. But those cases were limited to the smallest possible number of individual instances, and it was clear that they were wholly exceptional. The hon. Member found fault with the Post Office because they employed auxiliary letter-carriers at 10s. per week. His hon. Friend knew, that if the words were true, the signification of those words was not true. His hon. Friend knew that those men who were paid 10s. per week were paid for a portion only of their time. It might be scandalous to employ men for 10s. per week; but it did not follow that it was at all scandalous to pay them 10s. per week if they gave only two or three hours a day for it. He hoped, if his hon. Friend dealt with this subject again, he would be careful to give an accurate impression to the House. The question had been settled by competent authority—namely, the executive Government. The executive Government were ready to defend what they had done in the face of the House of Commons, and they were ready to defend the arrangement which they had made as reasonable, just, and liberal. In proof of its being liberal, he might mention that the new men were entering the service at materially lower rates than those who were in the service before a certain date, and on whose behalf the hon. Member complained. While it was obvious that there was an abundance of men able and willing to perform the work in a satisfactory manner, the hon. Member came forward and denounced the Post Office upon the ground that its servants were overworked and underpaid. If his hon. Friend should feel inclined to renew his Motion, he should be prepared to follow him into all the details, and he thought it would not be difficult to show that nothing could be more unfortunate than for the House to accede to it. If they thought the executive Government were to blame, let them take the proper course and pronounce their censure upon the executive Government; but he was satisfied that no worse policy could be adopted than for the House to take into its own hands the management of the public services.


said, it was no answer to assert that there were plenty of men ready and willing to take upon themselves the duties which the letter-carriers had to perform. Of course there were—but would any one deny that the crime of letter-stealing had alarmingly increased, and that the remuneration of the letter-carriers had diminished? He could not help thinking that it was a proper subject for inquiry by a Committee how far the one was relative to the other, and whether the reduction of payment had brought into the service less honest and trustworthy men. It also appeared to him to be a proper subject for inquiry whether they had been endeavouring to make the Post Office remunerative by excessive reductions of the charges of the establishment. He hoped the hon. Member would take the first opportunity of renewing his Motion, and he should certainly vote in his favour.


said, the hon. Baronet the Member for Dundalk (Sir G. Bowyer) was slightly in error when he stated that three Committees were appointed in consequence of the dissatisfaction of the Post Office employés with their remuneration. He was a Member of the Committee of 1854, and that Committee was one of a series appointed for the purpose of revising the public establishments, and not in reference to any complaints by the clerks or letter-carriers as to the insufficiency of their remuneration. At that time there was a particular reason for inquiring into the Post Office, for the purpose of bringing the working of the Department into harmony, and adapting it to the new postal system then recently established. The old system was under Colonel Maberly, the then Secretary, and the new system was under Sir Rowland Hill, who was called the Secretary to the Postmaster General. Up to that time the two systems had not been thoroughly fused, and the Committee went into the inquiry desiring to bring the whole office into harmony, and, at the same time, not to place the men in a worse position than they were before. There were reductions made in certain appointments, but the intention as well as the effect of the Report of that Committee was to improve the position of the men who might afterwards enter the service. One or two changes were afterwards made, and the change for which the late Government were responsible, extending superannuation to the servants of the Post Office, materially improved their position. Upon the whole, there was no disposition on the part of former Governments, or on the part of the House, to put them in a position in which, for the interests of the public, it was not desirable they should stand. He fully agreed that there was no worse economy than underpaying public servants, and there was no Department in which more consideration ought to be shown to the men employed than the Post Office. They were, generally speaking, men of humble rank, and were employed in duties of great trust and importance. They might not be overworked, but they were very hardly worked, and of late years the work of the Department had increased enormously. Sir Rowland Hill, when he proposed his reforms in the postal system, foresaw that the revenue would ultimately increase through the increase of correspondence. Sir Rowland Hill was a man of whom too much could scarcely be said in his praise. He was a man of a suggestive and fertile mind, who was continually devising new schemes for the accommodation of the public. Of indefatigable industry himself, he was fully impressed with the importance of exacting a sufficient amount of work from others. The tendency in the Post Office was to throw upon the servants, perhaps, a little more work than they were able to bear without detriment to themselves. At the same time, as far as he knew anything of Sir Rowland Hill's proceedings, he believed that he was anxious to do what was right and fair, and to promote any arrangement for improving the condition of those employed under him. He entirely assented to the doctrine laid down by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that it was most mischievous for the House of Commons to take out of the hands of the Government the details of arrangements made in the various Departments. He thought it might tend to cause dissatisfaction among the persons employed, and to encourage the Government in a lax spirit of dealing with those departments, and he thought the principle applied with especial force to the Post Office. At the same time, he must say a few words in reference to the last Commission. It was quite open to the Government to inquire or not to inquire into any grievances which the Post Office employés might bring before them. But before appointing a Commission the Government ought to have considered what would be the effect of the appointment of that Commission upon the persons whose interests were at stake. The persons employed in the Post Office represented to the Treasury that there were certain arrangements in the Department which told heavily upon them, that their position was not altogether that which it was intended to be by the Report of 1854, and they made such a statement as induced the Treasury to investigate the case. When the employés heard this, they were full of expectation as to the result of the inquiry. In fact, there was great excitement in the Department; and the feeling was increased by a supposition which they were led to entertain that the Report of the Commission fully bore out their complaints, and recommended measures which would have been to their advantage. For a long time, however, they got no answer to their complaints, and, in fact, they had been totally unable to find out what the Report was. Under such circumstances, there had been considerable agitation among the men, and they were hardly to be blamed for it. Some blame certainly attached to the Treasury in the matter. After receiving the Report they ought to have made up their minds, which they appeared to have been very slow in doing, and then to have announced to these men what their intention was. In this manner much dissatisfaction would have been spared. He saw very little use in referring the matter to a Select Committee. It would be better left in the hands of the Government. It was very desirable that the Government should present the Report of the Commission to Parliament, and he hoped, that taking warning from what had happened, they would see the necessity of dealing with these and all other public servants in a spirit of frankness and openness. With regard to the salaries, it frequently happened that the maximum of one class was higher than the minimum of the class above; but he certainly was of opinion that a man promoted from one class to another should go up at least at the salary he was receiving before.


said, he was willing to ask leave to withdraw his Motion. According to the argument of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, no grievance existed at all, and the right hon. Gentleman made out that letter-carriers were the most favoured class of all public servants, and better paid than the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself. There were, however, grievances, or there would not have been a Commission to inquire into them.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.