HC Deb 07 July 1868 vol 193 cc835-46

(5.) £789,349, to complete the sum for Post Office Packet Service.


called attention to the recent increase of postage on letters addressed to the East Indies and Ceylon, and the exemptions allowed in certain privileged cases. The subject was considered two years ago by a Select Committee of the House, and recommendations were made which resulted in increased facilities being afforded and in many additional services being established. A recent arrangement with the Peninsular and Oriental Company had given the public the advantage of communicating once a week with Bombay, instead of forty-eight times a year as formerly; but this increase from forty-eight to fifty-two posts in the year, or about 8½ per cent, had been followed by an increase in the rate of postage from 10d. to 1s. 1d. for letters going by way of Marseilles, and from 6d. to 9d. for letters going by Southampton. In other words, the Government were making those who used the Post Office pay the extra expense of increased service instead of trying what was to be made out of the cultivation of new and improved communication with India. Great objections had been taken to the course pursued by the Treasury, not only here but in India; and various Chambers of Commerce and other bodies interested had petitioned on the subject, although, so far as he was aware, no answer had been returned to these representations. The present postage system was full of anomalies—for instance, a letter not exceeding half-an-ounce, viâ Marseilles, was charged 1s. 1d., and to China 1s. 4d., whereas the same letter could be sent the much greater distance of Australia for 10d. He could not understand why this should be so. Again, a 845 large mercantile letter, containing enclosures, say, of two ounces, could be sent to Australia for 3s. 4d., the same rate as was charged for India, whereas 4s. 4d. was charged for Ceylon and 5s. 4d. for China. And the only ground that he could see for this overcharge was that the Government had given the people of India the privilege of writing and posting their letters fifty-two times in the year, instead of forty-eight times. He objected to these increased burdens being placed upon the shoulders of correspondents. In the case of American and other letters, the postage was being reduced; and he could not understand why a different system should prevail with regard to Indian letters, unless it was because the Indian purse was a convenient one to tax. The subject was one of great importance, and he had received representations from many people in India respecting it. He had hoped that some Member of the Government would have directed their attention to it. If his remarks were to receive no attention, he had perhaps as well sit down at once, though he had hoped that some Member of the Treasury would have paid attention to what he was saying.


I rise to Order, Sir; I am listening to every word the hon. Member is saying. I have reason to believe that other Gentlemen on this Bench are listening also; and I am therefore quite at a loss to put any interpretation that is intelligible upon the observations of the hon. Gentleman.


said, that he had observed that the First Lord of the Treasury had been paying attention; but he did not think he would interest himself in these mere departmental details. He would now proceed with his remarks. The Post Office authorities had given notice that, concurrently with the establishment of the weekly mail service to India, the rates would be raised to 1s. 1d. per ½oz. to the general public, while letters for officers of the army and navy would still be carried at 6d. viâ Southampton, and 10d. viâ Marseilles. He could not understand on what principle this privilege was granted, and he knew that to many commercial and professional men postage was as much a burden as it was to officers of the army and navy. The recent increased charges had the effect of inducing people who carried on an extensive correspondence with India to look far more closely than they had previously done to that item of their expenditure; and he could state that a firm in the City had thus been induced to use lighter paper and to adopt other expedients by which their expenses were diminished £5 a week on their inward and the same sum on their outward letters, so that the Post Office would receive from them £500 a year less than there had been received before the change that had recently been effected. He felt convinced that a similar course would he followed by other firms, and that the Treasury in the long run, instead of benefiting, would suffer by the increased rate of postage, which could be justified neither by expediency nor fairness. Referring to a recently issued Return, in which the net produce of the mails between the United Kingdom and India, &c, was estimated by deductions of the amounts paid to the French Government and to the colonies, and of £25,000, or 1d. out of the 13d., for inland conveyance, he said that if the latter deduction were made, it would be equally fair to charge the Military Estimates with the sum saved to British soldiers and sailors. Commenting upon some discrepancies in Returns, he traced them to the natural tendency on the part of those who framed the Estimates to make the burden on the taxpayers in this country for Indian postage appear as large as possible. He had no intention of moving an Amendment, and he apologized to the hon. Gentleman the Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Sclater-Booth) for having noticed his departure from the House when his absence was only temporary.


said, the principle had been frequently laid down in that House that mail packet contracts ought to be thrown open to public competition. But he had heard it stated that that rule had not been followed in the case of the contract for the West India mail service, and he should be glad to receive some explanation upon that subject.


said, he wished to bring under the notice of the House and of the Government a complaint made by the inhabitants of Penang. For a period of twenty-two years the people of that colony had enjoyed direct postal communication with England; but they had been deprived of that advantage by the contract recently entered into with the Peninsular and Oriental Company. He had put a question on the subject, and had received a reply which left the impression that the Post Office would re-open negotiations with the Company, in order to remedy the grievance; and a communication was sent to the Secretary of the Company, setting forth the complaints that had been made since their steamers ceased calling at Penang. The Company offered to resume the old system provided their subsidy was increased by £5,000 a year. That offer was followed last month by a letter from the Post Office, stating that the Lords of the Treasury would not assent to such an arrangement. He believed that hitherto no case had occurred when after postal communication had been accorded to a colony it had been stopped without any compensation or equivalent being given to the colony. In regard to this particular colony it could be shown that at the time when the privilege was granted it was poor and unprotected, and yet in the course of twenty-two years it had increased enormously, and was still making rapid advances. This was obvious from the fact that one year's tonnage at Penang now was equal to the tonnage in the ten years preceding the establishment of postal communication. It was, however, now arranged that the mails should be taken from Singapore to Penang and back again to Singapore. But as the outward bound steamer touched at Singapore only three days before the homeward steamer from China touched there it would follow that the merchants at Penang would not be able to answer their letters for a fortnight. It could hardly be denied that this was a substantial grievance. And what was the reason for making the new arrangements? He was told that the only offer for carrying the mails to the East had proceeded from the Peninsular and Oriental Company; but, on the other hand, it should be borne in mind that Her Majesty's Government was the only body which could thus employ the Company, and that consequently the Government was perfectly able to insist that the Company's vessels should touch at Penang as before. Indeed, the contract contained a clause under which the Government could force on the Company the resumption of its former duties as regards Penang, subject to such compensation as might be awarded by an arbitrator. The Company, however, had offered to perform the service for £5,000 extra, and therefore the cost to the country would be but slight when it was considered that the postage between Penang and this country produced between £2,000 and £3,000. He confessed himself unable to say very confidently whether the new system would expedite the transmission of correspondence between China and this country; but at all events the calling at Penang would only occupy fifteen hours longer. The Government was bound to consider whether it could not restore direct postal communication with Penang or make some arrangements which would give satisfaction to the colony. The conduct of the Post Office had been truly, ridiculous. He was not an advocate for an extravagant expenditure; but a stingy saving, which was not economy, had been effected, and it might result in starving one of our distant possessions without nourishing the Empire. Indeed, it would tend to deprive us of those collateral sources of wealth which established the prosperity of the country, and which were obtained by a liberal treatment of out dependencies. The question in reality was, whether the Post Office Department should lose between £2,000 and £3,000 per annum, or whether, on the other hand, the settlement of Penang should be wholly deprived of the facility and advantage of a prompt communication with this country.


pointed out that under the old arrangement the steamers of the Peninsular and Oriental Company touched at Malta; but under the new arrangements they had ceased to do so. At present our communications with that important dependency were made under most unsatisfactory circumstances—Italian steamers being employed to convey the mails to Sicily and thence to Malta. The communication between Sicily and Malta was only once a week, and the consequence was that there was unnecessary delay in the transmission of letters between Malta and this country. This was a great injustice to a dependency which had vastly increased in importance since the cession of the Ionian Islands. Malta was a great port and also a strong fortress, besides which it had the capabilities for becoming a dock for the whole of the Mediterranean. And yet, while knowing full well how important a place it was, the Government had totally neglected the means of communication between this country and Malta, but had allowed the mail service to be performed by foreign steamers. The present service was dilatory, uncertain, and altogether unsatisfactory. If the Government did not take this matter up, he hoped the House would do so, in justice not only to Malta, but to this country also.


said, he had been informed that the Government had not only not invited tenders for an intermediate monthly mail to the Cape of Good Hope, but had disregarded an uninvited tender, though it was lower than the contract made with the Peninsular and Oriental Company. In substance, that contract had been entered into last year; but it was not yet laid on the table of the House. If he had not been correctly informed, the fault was with the Department in not having furnished before now a correspondence which had been ordered for the use of Members. If contracts were laid on the table only a few days before the termination of the Session, the rule of producing them, that they might be approved or objected to within a month, was not kept in spirit.


observed that in the matter of postal contracts the public should be considered as well as merchants and owners of steam-packets, The Government were bound to view such questions in an economical light—not forgetting the taxpayers—and to see that the total sum received for postage, if it did not equal, should at least bear a considerable proportion to the amount paid for the contract. In many cases the subsidies were too large, and he thought better bargains might be made.


suggested that the experiment of having the packets call at Falmouth should be tried, as that of having them call at Plymouth had not been considered successful.


said, he had received several communications from merchants and others on the subject brought under the notice of the Committee by the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. T. Baring), and he had accompanied that hon. Gentleman as one of a deputation on the subject to the Postmaster General. By a Resolution passed in 1860, all contracts extending over a period of years for the conveyance of mails by sea were required to be laid on the table of the House for a month, and the sanction of the House was necessary to give them validity. When this question was first started by the hon. and learned Member for the Tower Hamlets (Mr. Ayrlon) the present Chancellor of the Exchequer said that, in consequence of the view which seemed to be taken by the House, he thought it would be undesirable to conclude the contract till the House should have had a further opportunity of expressing an opinion on the subject. Now, he took it that the rule respecting the laying of those contracts on the table had reference to a regular Session; but when Parliament held what he might call the Abyssinian Session last November, the Chancellor of the Exchequer laid this particular contract before the House on the 27th of that month, and proposed a Resolution giving it the approval of the House on the 29th. In a House of sixty-eight that Resolution was carried by 55 to 13. He thought that, under all the circumstances, that might be considered as snapping a division in favour of the contract. This case was one without precedent. Twenty-five years ago a postal communication was i given to Fenang. Since that time Penang had gone on improving. It had an increasing revenue, and that being so, there was no precedent for taking away from it postal advantages which it had been enjoying for a quarter of a century. The intention of Parliament had plainly been set aside, inasmuch as no opportunity had been afforded them of seeing the contract that was laid upon the table, while at the same time their representatives in this country were precluded from expressing their opinions as to its merits. It had always been the practice—a practice invariably adopted by Sir Rowland Hill—not to withdraw postal communications which had been once established, on the ground that the districts so convenienced failed to make a profitable return to the revenue, because it was found that, though a loss might be incurred for a few years, the very nature of such communication was to produce and create a development of correspondence, and so ultimately to make an ample return. As there was no precedent for withdrawing this communication from Penang, it only required, he felt sure, that the facts should be stated in order to obtain the alteration which was so much desired.


said, he would endeavour, as far as he could, to answer the observations made by hon. Members, though the Committee would, he trusted, extend some indulgence to him, as much of what had been referred to related to his predecessors in Office. In answer to the observations of the hon. Member for the City of London (Mr. Crawford) with reference to the increased charge levied upon letters sent to India, he would remind the Committee that the new contract with the Peninsular and Oriental Company had entailed an additional expense of £300,000 a year upon the country. When he was asked if the new contract was a paying one, he could only say that, while the old contract was conducted at a loss of £82,000 a year, the new contract, even if the new rates returned what was anticipated, would involve a loss of £195,000 a year. He was far from denying that these matters ought to be regulated by considerations apart from a mere question of profit or loss to the revenue. The subject, however, had received a very fair share of attention in the short Session held before Christmas. The increased charge, as far as their present experience had gone, had fully answered their anticipations. At the time that increase was made it was contemplated that the result would be an increase of £37,000 a year to the revenue; but their experience hitherto had shown that something like an increase of £40,000 would be realized by a charge which, if heavier than that formerly imposed, was to a great extent justified by the increase of postal facilities. He admitted that it was an experiment, and that circumstances might occur which would render a change necessary; but, considering the enormous increase which they had to pay for the contract, he thought that it was but right that they should endeavour partly, at all events, to re-coup themselves by the imposition of an extra charge on those availing themselves of postal communication between England and India, The hon. Gentleman also complained of the reduction which was made in favour of the officers of the army and of the soldiers in India. He (Mr. Sclater-Booth) was not sure that the reduction in favour of the officers was altogether justifiable; but it should be remembered that those officers were stationed in India from no inclination of their own, but simply for the purpose of performing certain duties to their country, and the indulgence to them in this respect was something analogous to that which was made in their favour when travelling. The rates charged in the case of soldiers had always been lower than those exacted from the public, and he scarcely thought that any alteration in that respect would be desired. The reduction had only been granted to officers of the army within a recent period, and might, perhaps, have arisen, to some extent, from the fact that a reduced rate had long been used in the case of officers of the navy and sailors. If that were so, it only showed how dangerous it was to establish a precedent, and how difficult it was to adhere to the strict path of rectitude after having once departed from it. The hon. Gentleman next complained as to the difference of charge between letters and parcels sent to India and those sent to Australia. He (Mr. Sclater-Booth) was not sufficiently informed on the point to account for the discrepancy alluded to by the hon. Gentleman; but he would cause inquiries to be made into the matter, although it might arise from the greater frequency of the communications in the one case than in the other. He could not, however, help thinking that the hon. Gentleman employed rather a suicidal argument when he said that in consequence of the increased charges those who sent to India so compressed their parcels and reduced the weight of the paper they used that they were enabled to send what they required at a less cost than formerly. He congratulated the hon. Gentleman on the facility with which he and his friends had overcome the difficulties placed in their way; but the hon. Gentleman and his friends could scarcely expect that the old rates would be recurred to unless he could guarantee that the paper formerly used should be again employed and the present compression be discontinued. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Liverpool (Mr. Horsfall) had complained that the West India mail contract had not been thrown open to public competition. He had on several occasions, in answer to questions which had been put to him, stated that the old contract was renewed in consequence of the injury caused to the West India mail steamers by the hurricanes of last autumn. That Company had represented to the Government that an extension of the term, of which two years then remained unexpired, would enable them to raise fresh capital, re-construct their fleet, and carry on their affairs as before; and under the circumstances the Chancellor of the Exchequer, after a great deal of correspondence had passed on the subject, and after taking the advice of the Postmaster General and his very able staff, did not regard the proposal as unreasonable or improper. He was sorry that on a recent occasion he had been unable to give his hon. Friend (Mr. T. Baring) a more satisfactory answer with regard to the postal communication with Penang. It was true that Penang was shut out by the terms of the new contract with the Peninsular and Oriental Company from the advantage of the postal communication which it had hitherto enjoyed. But the objection taken to stopping at Penang was a very serious one—that it interfered to a certain extent with the direct communication with China and Japan, and that, if continued, would result in a delay of twenty-four hours. The postages received on account of Penang would not amount to one-half of the cost, but no doubt some arrangement might be come to between the authorities at Penang and Singapore, whereby some of the extra cost might be borne by them. The wants of these colonies had not been lost sight of by the Government, and it was hoped that some means might be adopted whereby the wants of those colonies might be complied with. With regard to the Malta mail, he said that one might, suppose, from the observations of the hon. Baronet opposite (Sir George Bowyer), that Malta, as well as Japan, was cut off from all communication with England. That, however, was not the case, for the Malta mail from Southampton, though not so speedy as could be wished, called at Malta every week, and there was a communication by overland mail viâ Marseilles. There were two mails in addition every week, one through Italy and the other from Marseilles by French steamers. Greater regularity might shortly be expected in the arrival and despatch of those mails. He was sorry that the contract and correspondence with reference to the Cape mails laid on the table had not been earlier in the hands of hon. Members, in which case the objection of the hon. Member for Sunderland (Mr. Candlish) would have been satisfactorily met. It would be found advantageous both to the Government and the colony.


was perfectly aware that there was communication with Malta, but he complained that the communication was excedingly dilatory and uncertain; and a considerable improvement would he effected on the present system if the Government would run a steamer between Malta and Sicily.


admitted that the hon. Gentleman had given an explanation with respect to Penang with great fairness, but there was no precedent either at home or abroad of postal communication being withdrawn from any community to which it had once been granted; and the Resolution of the House providing that the postal contract should be laid on the table for a certain period had practically not been carried into effect by the course which was adopted.


urged the claims of Penang to improved postal communication.


called attention to the inconvenience which arose in respect to answering letters arriving from Australia by the present arrangement for the arrival and departure of the mail steamers, the letters from Australia reaching this country after the mails had left. He had moved for a copy of the memorials from bankers and others presented to the Postmaster General on this subject on the 31st of March last; but the answer given was that the matter was still under consideration. What was wanted was a fortnightly mail to Australia.


asked if the Cape mail contract is to be entered into before hon. Members had an opportunity of seeing what that contract is?


said, that the contract had been laid on the table, and would, be hoped, be in the hands of Members to-morrow. The question of a fortnightly mail to Australia was still under the consideration of the Postmaster General. No doubt there was inconvenience, in consequence of only four days being allowed to answer letters to Australia, but it was very difficult to arrange the mails so as to suit all places; but, in the course of another year, perhaps some more convenient arrangement might be devised. The expense of a fortnightly mail to Australia would be very great, and it was by no means clear that all the Australian colonies were of one mind on the subject.


complained that while the postage of newspapers to Australia was only 1d, it was 2d. to India.


observed that the difficulty was to meet the requirements at both ends, consistently with the arrangements for India and China. If another week were allowed for answering letters in this country, the result would be that the letters would arrive at Sydney two days after the homeward mail had left. On the existing basis, he believed that the present time-table was the beat that could be devised. He hoped hon. Members would suspend their opinion till the correspondence was in their hands.

In reply to Mr. Alderman LAWRENCE,


stated that there were two Italian mails from this country to Paris, but only one from Paris to Italy. The Post Office, however, had no power to remedy that inconvenience.

Vote agreed to.

House resumed.

Resolutions to be reported upon Thursday; Committee to sit again Tomorrow.