§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ THE CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER
, in moving that this Bill be now read the second time, said, it had been suggested the other day that the Bill had better be postponed in consequence of the state of Public Business and the position of Her Majesty's Government. Now, if the measure had been one which did not affect private interests and the convenience and accommodation of the public, the Government might have been disposed to yield to that suggestion. But he submitted that it was highly desirable that an early decision should be come to on the matter, not only with reference to the interests of the telegraph companies, but also with reference to the interests of the general public. As the House was aware, the Bill empowered the Government to treat with the various telegraph companies in the country for the purchase of their lines, and authorized the Postmaster 1302 General to work the lines so purchased. If the measure were postponed for another year, the telegraph companies would be under the disadvantage of not knowing what new engagements to undertake; the whole telegraphic system might be in a state of suspended animation as to extension, and the public, who were looking to the passing of this measure, would not obtain at so early a period the benefit of that improved accommodation which this Bill would certainly provide for them. Under these circumstances, he thought the House would agree with the Government that it was right to proceed with the measure in the course of the present Session. In introducing the Bill to the House, he had adduced a good many statistics to prove that the public would derive great advantage from the reduced tariff and increased facilities which would be afforded under the new system proposed. He was not about to repeat those I statistics, as he thought the House was already sufficiently informed as to the figures by the Papers which had been laid upon the table; but would refer shortly to the evidence given of the state of public opinion respecting this Bill. Since he had had the honour of a seat in this House, he had never seen so great a manifestation of opinion from disinterested parties as had been shown in favour of this Bill. In addition to the important petitions which had just been presented, there had been, up to last night, seventy-seven petitions from Chambers of Commerce, public bodies, merchants and traders, and the general public in favour of the Bill, and twenty-four of these petitions had emanated from the metropolis. To the petitions from the City of London the names; of some of the leading firms were attached, and those petitions were very numerously and influentially signed. In addition, no fewer than 177 petitions had been received from the newspaper Press —so that the mercantile community and the Press were almost unanimous in favour of the Bill. On the other hand, he derived some satisfaction, not only from the character, but from the number of the petitions presented against the Bill. These were — Ten from telegraph and railway companies, and 319 from individuals, the 319 individual petitioners being shareholders in the telegraph companies. Apparently, the companies thought they would make a greater show by inducing their shareholders to petition individually; and 1303 this reminded him of the preacher who, drawing a very small congregation, huddled together in one part of the church, told them that if they spread themselves more about the church they would "look more." Upon the same principle, the telegraph companies thought the opposition to the Bill would "look more" if the petitions were from individuals. The only petition presented against the Bill from persons who were not shareholders was one from Leamington. The companies thought that their interests had not been equitably dealt with. The Government had endeavoured to meet the telegraph companies in a fair spirit. That the telegraph companies were more interested in the terms they would get from the purchase of their lines than in anything else, was evident from the fact that they had gone to the Government and stated the terms on which they would be prepared to sell. Their proposals were that the lines of all or none of the companies should be purchased; that the terms of purchase as settled should be inserted in the Bill; and that the terms should be upon the basis of those in the Railway Purchase Act—namely, twenty-five years' purchase on the net profits, and that compensation should be provided for their officers. The Government did not assent to those proposals as they stood, and since the first reading of the Bill they had made these proposals to the companies — The Government agreed to some Amendments suggested by the hon. Member for Liverpool (Mr. Graves); that if the Government purchased the system of one company they should give notice to all the other companies of the purchase of their undertakings, so that there might be no question as to getting possession of one telegraphic line and working it so as to depreciate those of the other companies. As the Government had always intended to purchase the whole of the telegraph lines, he was willing to accept that Amendment. Then the Government proposed that the basis of purchase should be, not that suggested by the telegraph companies, but the highest price realized on the Stock Exchange for the companies' shares up to the 25th of May last. They admitted the principle of giving compensation to officers not retained in the Government service, provided these officers were engaged at a yearly salary and had served for not less than five years. The Government also proposed that if the terms were not agreed on, they should be 1304 referred to arbitrators, one to be nominated by each party, and umpires to be chosen from a list of names of men of high standing— Sir William Erle, Lord Colonsay, and Sir John Coleridge. The telegraph companies had not accepted that offer; but he thought it was a liberal and fair way of meeting them. If the House should consent to the second reading of the Bill, it would be referred in the usual way as a Hybrid Bill to a Committee partly nominated by the House and partly by the Committee of Selection; and it would be open to that Committee either to settle the terms of purchase and insert them in the Bill, or allow the terms to be settled by arbitration. The market price of the shares was the best proof that the proposed purchase by the Government had not been prejudicial to the companies. On November 1, 1867, the shares in the principal company were 144 to 148; on May 8, 1868, they stood at 164 to 169; so that the shares of all these companies rose after the proposal of the Government to purchase. In offering, therefore, to buy these lines of telegraph on the basis of the price of the shares, the Government had, in fact, contributed to the enhancement of the price of the article. Here was another significant fact. In a weekly periodical which appeared during the Session, and which was supposed to possess some authority, it was recently stated that the Government had abandoned the notion of proceeding with the Telegraphs' Bill. That statement was not correct; but it had its-effect, because the shares of these companies immediately fell. These facts showed that the interests of the shareholders, at all events had not been prejudiced by the action of the Government. The only petition against the Bill which came from anybody not a shareholder in any of the companies, was from the town of Leamington, and he did not know what influence had been at work to obtain the signatures to that petition. He now came to the opposition of the railway companies. He quite admitted that opposition was bonâ fide, and that the view of those companies was deserving the serious consideration of the House. He had had a few weeks ago an interview with some of the principal managers of the railway companies, and what they were afraid of was this—that if the telegraphs passed into the hands of Government, they would not have the same amount of accommodation as they enjoyed under the present system. 1305 But to that he would say that if the Government obtained possession of the telegraph lines, it would be their duty to give the fullest accommodation to the railway companies necessary to secure the public safety. He could not conceive a Government taking any other view, for it was most important to those who travelled by railway—and that was now almost every person in the country—that every facility should be given to the railway companies, so that the traffic might be conducted with the same safety and security as at present. But, as he had stated to the gentlemen who had waited upon him, that was a matter of regulation and arrangement between the Government and the companies, and might be freely discussed before the Committee upstairs. In his opinion it was a matter quite capable of adjustment. He had mentioned when he introduced the Bill, that there was a provision in it to enable the Government to purchase from the railway companies, where they were proprietors of telegraphs, their interests in sending messages, leaving them at liberty to work the wires for their own use if they chose, or, if not, giving them every facility for communicating from station to station. In consequence of the shortness of the time at his disposal when he introduced the Bill he had not gone into the financial part of the proposal; but he would now give a few points in connection with that subject. If the measure proceeded as he hoped, it would be necessary to introduce a Money Bill, to make the financial arrangements necessary to complete the transaction. Since this matter of purchase had been mooted, and the Electric and International Telegraph Company had put out their statement, the Government had got some information not at their disposal before, and were enabled now to calculate on a much larger return from the working of the telegraph system than they could have previously done. He could now state that they anticipated a surplus revenue of £210,000 a year from that source, and that would enable the Government, if the proposal were adopted, to pay the interest of the debt, reckoned at the rate of 3½ per cent, and to clear off the debt itself in twenty-nine years. If the House would excuse him he would rather not enter fully into details with respect to the purchase at present. But he would say that, speaking roughly, it would take something near£4,000,000, or at all events, between £3,000,000 and £4,000,000 for 1306 the purchase and the necessary extension of the lines. As to where they were to find the money, they proposed to make use of the savings' bunks funds as far as available, which he believed they would be to the full amount, and to raise money by means of terminable annuities for a period of twenty-nine years. According to the best calculations they had been able to make the whole debt would be wiped out by the surplus income from the undertaking in twenty-nine years. He would, however, take power in the Money Bill to raise part of the capital by bonds and also by bills, to prevent the necessity of drawing on the savings' banks fund to a greater amount than might be convenient. These were matters which would be fully discussed afterwards; but he had thought it better to mention them in order to show that it was not intended to impose any heavy burden on the public for the undertaking. Of course, after the period he had specified, the Government would have a valuable property, which would be of advantage for the further extension of the system, or for the general Revenue. He now asked the House to assent to the second reading of the Bill and to send it to a Select Committee upstairs, to be chosen partly by the House and partly by the Committee of Selection, in order that the interests both of the telegraph companies and the railway companies might be duly protected. The right hon. Gentleman concluded by moving the second reading of the Bill."
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer.)
§ MR. LEEMAN
, in rising to move that the Bill be read a second time that day six months, said, he must be permitted to express very strongly the feeling entertained by those whose private interests were affected on the ground of the form in which the Bill now came before the House. The House would observe, from what had fallen from the right hon. Gentleman (the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that interests worth something like £4,000,000 were affected by the Bill, and he objected to the course pursued. As long ago as last November the Government gave notice in the London Gazette of its intention to apply for some Bill to enable them to purchase up the telegraph companies. Unless the Government was to be permitted to make a precedent for them- 1307 selves, and to act upon a principle different from that which was pursued by private persons and corporations who came to that House to procure powers over private property, it was the duty of the Government to have taken the same course as a railway company, or private person, and in the first instance to have submitted the Preamble of the Bill to one of the Committees of the House, before which evidence might have been adduced, not only by the Government, but by the various interests affected. But instead of that the House was asked to assent to the principle of the measure on the mere statement of a Government official, Mr. Scudamore, which was all the information that had been laid before the House. Had they gone in the first place before a Committee upstairs, the companies could have shown the circumstances under which the telegraph system had been commenced and carried on in this country; how it had become intertwined between the telegraph and railway companies; and that, however desirous Post Office officials might be to have the control of the system, the circumstances were such as to render it impossible for the House to pass the Bill. But the right hon. Gentleman asked the House to reverse the proper course of proceeding. The right hon. Gentleman had said that since the Bill had been introduced certain information had been obtained which showed that a sum of £210,000 a year would be derived by the Government as surplus profit from the possession of the telegraphs. But he begged the House not to slur over, as they were asked to do, this great question, whether it was the duty of the Government to conduct business which had hitherto in this country been left solely to private enterprize. Telegraph companies were commenced nearly twenty-five years ago by private persons, out of their own resources and at their own risk; they had gone on extending accommodation to the public, and for many years they had never received a farthing of aid or any encouragement from the Government of the day. It was not until these undertakings were yielding fair dividends that the Government stepped in to buy them up; and they did this without any feeling having previously existed in the country in favour of such a step. As to the 177 petitions from the Press, it would be found on examination that they had a common paternity. Mr. 1308 Scudamore had communicated with the various newspapers through the postmasters, and in his own city it was the postmaster who suggested the petition. The same thing had, no doubt, been done elsewhere. What complaint had the Press to make against the companies? Every provincial daily paper was supplied for £200 a year with telegraphs, amounting on the average to 4,000 words a day. The company had an arrrangement with Mr. Reuter, and had reporters, both in foreign countries and at home, as well as a staff of editors and other persons, so that information was collected in all parts of the world and supplied to the provincial Press on the terms he had mentioned. What, then, could the Government or the Post Office do for the Press more than was done by the existing telegraph companies? But the Press would not have stirred in the matter at all unless they had been incited to support the Bill by the Post Office. With regard to the railways, the right hon. Gentleman appeared to think they had only an incidental interest in the matter; but, in point of fact, their interest was not second even to that of the telegraph companies themselves. At the interview to which the right hon. Gentleman had referred all the great railway interests south of the Tweed were represented, and expressed the alarm with which they viewed this measure. It was not at all a question of money with them, for their relations with the telegraph companies were so intimate and complicated that they could not assent to the scheme on any terms. There were at least 250 agreements existing between the railways and the telegraph companies; and in many cases those agreements gave to the railways the power of controlling the whole working of the telegraph system when emergencies arose. The railway companies had, in many instances, originated the telegraph companies, and had a large beneficial interest in them, and from his twenty years' experience of the working of railways he believed they could not be properly worked if the telegraphs were transferred to a staff of Government clerks. In the undertaking with which he was connected in the North of England, not less than 40,000 carriages and waggons were daily and hourly moved from one part of the line to another, this being done entirely by the aid of the telegraphs. A great number of collieries and large ironworks were connected, moreover, with the line, and at present the telegraphs 1309 were managed partly by the company's clerks and partly by those of the telegraph company. Now, he did not believe the line could be safely and efficiently worked if the telegraphs were handed over to the Post Office authorities. The railway interest sought an interview with the right hon. Gentleman as soon as they knew this Bill was to be introduced, and strongly urged upon him their conviction that the scheme was inconsistent with the safety of the passengers and of the general traffic. It was solely on this ground that he opposed it, for he had never been a share-holder in any telegraph company. He would ask the House, moreover, whether it was prepared to adopt a policy contrary to that which had hitherto been pursued, and to place telegrams, which were open letters, in the hands of the Government. Such a policy might be all very well in Continental countries, where the Government was based upon a system of espionnage; but let hon. Members remember the burst of indignation which was excited in this country by the intelligence of Sir James Graham having opened the letters of Mazzini, and what would people think if they knew their messages might be read by some Government official? A paper read two years ago before the Society of Arts spoke of the telegraph being extended to villages and worked by school-masters, or even by children; but how would such a system work? Then there was the possibility of the control of the telegraphs being turned to political purposes, as was notoriously the case in other countries, and he deprecated the introduction into England of the thin end of the wedge. He knew of a gentleman who went over to a Continental State to negotiate a Government contract involving many thousands of pounds. During a three weeks' stay he frequently telegraphed to his partners in England, and at the end of that time he actually saw in the Minister's office copies of his own telegrams. On his expressing some astonishment, the Minister asked him whether he was not aware that the director of telegraphs had every message sent to him. In France, indeed, four copies of every telegram were made, and were sent to the different bureaux. A similar case had occurred in Egypt. A gentleman in Paris who was conducting some business with the Government of Egypt corresponded by telegraph with his agent in that country; but on six or seven different occasions these 1310 telegrams were suppressed by the Egyptian Government until it was enabled to settle the matter in dispute upon its own terms. He did not believe that the English people would permit a system like that to prevail in this country. It would be against all their instincts to have their telegraphs brought into the same position. The Government ought to have stated some reason for treating the telegraphs differently from the railways. A Royal Commission had recently inquired into the policy of the Government becoming possessed of the railways. Witnesses were examined before the Commission, and Mr. Edwin Chadwick and others had given evidence in favour of such a proposal. The Railway Commissioners, however, in their Report, pointed out that the railway system had originated in the enterprize of individuals, and that private enterprize had led to a much more rapid development of railways than any other system could have done. The conclusion at which the Commissioners arrived was that on the various grounds mentioned by them they could not concur in the purchase of railways by the State, and that it was more expedient to leave the construction and maintenance of railways, under certain conditions to be imposed by Parliament, to the free enterprize of the people. The same language equally applied to the purchase of the telegraphs by the State. They were begun by private persons at their own risk and under great disadvantages, and their introduction here had led to the adoption of telegraphs through the whole world. The Electric and International Telegraph Company had grown seven-fold since 1850, and had now 49,000 miles of wire. In 1850 it possessed less than 1,000 instruments, it now owned 7,245. The United Kingdom and Irish Telegraph Company, whose petitions were on the table, had also shown the progress they had made up to the present moment. There were now in operation 80,000 miles of telegraph wires, the result of the private enterprize of this country, and there were not less than 2,000 telegraph stations at work. The telegraph companies during that time had availed themselves of every improvement that had been introduced as to the working of telegraphs, so that at the present hour the system of telegraphy in existence in this country was not to be surpassed in the whole world. The Government were bound to show that the public would be likely to obtain some ad- 1311 vantage in regard to price, but this they had not done. At the commencement of the telegraph system the charge for twenty words was 1d. per mile for fifty miles, ½d. a mile for 100 miles, and ¼d. a mile for more than 100 miles. Successive reductions of price had, however, been made, until in July, 1865, the scale now in operation was fixed. The charge for short messages in the London district and in other large towns was now 6d., for which would be substituted by the Government Bill one uniform telegraphic rate of 1s. The present rate was—for 100 miles, 1s.; for 200 miles, 1s. 6d.; and for any distance beyond 200 miles, 2s. The telegraphic companies had given the public the advantage of this progressive reduction in the rates, coupled with every improvement in telegraphy. He would ask the House to consider the advantage of this 1s. charge to all places in the midland districts, including Birmingham, within 100 miles of London. It placed Manchester in communication with the whole of Lancashire, the West Riding, and many of the midland towns. Coming to London, the 1s. rate also prevailed to every place within 100 miles, south, east, and west. It prevailed as between London and Dover, London and Brighton, London and Southampton, and so on. Let them take the whole of the receipts from the telegraphs, and see what proportion the lower rates bore to the 2s. rate. He found that last year fully three-fifths of the entire receipts of the companies from the inland telegraphs of this country were at the 1s. rate. Of the remaining two-fifths, two-thirds were at the 1s. 6d. rate, and only the other third was at the 2s. rate. If, then, the object of the Government, as stated in the face of the documents prepared by Mr. Scudamore, was to reduce the general rate of telegraph to 1s. throughout the country, why had they not gone to the companies, the parties who could best do the work, and who, as he had shown, had evinced no disposition to keep up the rates? But, supposing the Government took possession of the telegraphs tomorrow, it was clear, from Mr. Scudamore's statement, they must embark in a very large expenditure to give effect to their views; and how, he asked, would people in Liverpool and Manchester be benefited by an outlay of public money in order to secure for them at 1s. what they could now get done for 6d.? He would put this practical question to the House. 1312 Supposing the Government had established the reduced rate, who were the persons who would reap the advantage from it? Was there one man in a thousand in England who ever used the telegraph? When the rate was reduced to the figure which the right hon. Gentleman spoke of it would still be found that not one man in a thousand would use the telegraph. The people in the country villages, the tailors, shoemakers, and blacksmiths never used it, and it was very rarely indeed that the farmer had to spend more than 1d. in sending his business communications through the post. Even in most of the country towns it was a very exceptional thing for d tradesman to resort to the telegraph. Therefore, when the charge had been brought down to a 1s., the general mass of the people would not have recourse to it. Then, as to the commercial classes, what proportion did their letters bear to the telegrams they sent? If the business they had to transact demanded a telegram at all, a slight difference of 6d. or 1s. in the charge would practically be of no importance to commercial men. Then, as the public at large were not likely to use the telegraph, they ought not to be called upon to bear the burden of the great outlay which the Government would have to make in order, as it were, to run all the other coaches off the road. It was surely hard that 999 taxpayers should be compelled to pay for the accommodation of the only man in 1,000 who wanted to send a telegram. But it was said that ultimately the telegraphs would not only pay, but would yield a profit to the Government; and the experience of the Post Office had been quoted. Now, the penny postage plan was tried under very different circumstances from those now existing in regard to the telegraphs. The Post Office had then been at work for a century and a half, and when the penny postage system was introduced they had not to buy up vested interests as they now must do. The Post Office had only to deal with its own property in making that experiment. True, the Post Office was now producing a large revenue; but the penny postage system never would have been made to pay as it now did—and here he spoke feelingly—if the Government had not entered into competition with the railway companies and become common carriers. [An Hon. MEMBER: Quite right, too.] It might be quite right as between the public and the Post Office; but it was not 1313 right as regarded the inference he wished to draw in respect to that particular question. By poaching on other people's manors the Government had been enabled to derive a considerable revenue; but a Return recently presented supplied valuable information upon that point. The penny postage was adopted in 1840. The year before that the revenue of the Post Office was £1,659,510, and in the first year after the penny postage system was introduced that revenue fell to £578,000, and the Return showed that it took twenty-four years to bring the revenue up to the figure at which it stood before the new system came into operation. The present income from the Post Office was over £2,000,000; and he asked—was this a time, having regard to the financial position of the country, in which they could afford to experimentalize with an item of £2,000,000, which went to the relief of the general taxation of the public, in order to secure the more than doubtful advantages which the Government sought by their scheme to obtain for any class, even the commercial class, of the community? He would now call attention to the mode in which it was proposed to carry out that measure. The practical clauses of the Bill were Clauses 4, 5, and 7. By the Bill as it originally stood the Government would have been permitted to take possession of the whole of the telegraph lines of the country, the payment for them to be fixed by an arbitrator, who was to be appointed by the Government itself. He was however glad to find from the statement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer that he had seen the injustice which such a provision would, if acted upon, produce; but still he must say that, if the Government deemed it right that they should possess a monopoly of the telegraph lines the intention should be set forth plainly on the face of the Bill. Why, he should like to know, should not the measure be dealt, with in the same way as the County Financial Boards Bill, so that the whole subject of the policy of the Government taking possession of the telegraphs might be clearly ascertained through the medium of the labours of a Committee upstairs? Believing that to be the wisest course to adopt, he begged leave, instead of moving as he had given Notice, that the Bill should be read a second time that day six months, to propose as an Amendment that the question of the expediency of purchasing the Tele- 1314 graphs by the State be referred to a Select Committee.
§ Amendment proposed,
§ To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "the question of the expediency of purchasing the Telegraphs by the State be referred to a Select Committee,"—(Mr. Leeman,)
§ —instead thereof.
§ Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."
§ MR. GRAVES
said, it must be admitted that the question under discussion was one which had two sides, and that the arguments on that side which was opposed to the views of his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer had been laid before the House with considerable force and ability by the hon. Member who had just spoken (Mr. Leeman), and were well entitled to consideration. He must, however, add that those arguments had entirely failed to remove from his mind the impression that the advantages which would be likely to be derived from the transfer of the telegraph lines of this country to the control of the Government would be greater than the disadvantages which his hon. Friend had described. In replying to the objections which had been urged by the hon. Gentleman against the Bill, he would, in the first place, observe that there was no such similarity as he sought to establish between the case of telegraph and that of railway companies, inasmuch as the House had, he believed, never required the former, in transferring their property, to come before it for its approval, the only consent they were compelled to obtain for the purpose being that of the Board of Trade. If that were so, he could not perceive that there was any great force in the argument that the Bill should be so dealt with as to be sent first to a Select Committee and then be brought before the House. He altogether differed from his hon. Friend, too, as to the number of persons who would avail themselves of the facilities afforded by the telegraph if the tariff of charges were reduced. As mutters now stood, communication by telegraph in this country was a luxury which was confined to those who were able to pay for it, and it was because he desired to see the benefits which such persons enjoyed in that respect extended as 1315 widely as possible that he was so strongly in favour of the present measure. So far from concurring with his hon. Friend in thinking that the use of the telegraph would not under its operation be greatly increased, he believed that would be the result in a degree which the House could hardly conceive. In support of that opinion he might briefly state what had been the consequence of a reduction of the tariff in other countries. He found, for instance, that at the beginning of the year 1863 the Belgian rate for inland messages was reduced from 15d. to 10d., a reduction at the rate of 33 per cent, and that the in land messages increased in that year on those of 1862 at the rate of 80 per cent. In the year 1866 the inland rate was again reduced from 10d. to 5d., a reduction at the rate of 50 per cent, and the number of messages increased at the rate of 85 per cent. In Switzerland the inland rate was also, on the 1st of January, 1868, reduced from 10d. to 5d, and in the first three months of this year the inland messages increased at the rate of 90 per cent on those of the corresponding period in 1867. In Prussia a like result had been observed. On the 1st of July, 1867, the inland rate for the first zone was reduced from about 9d. to 6d., a reduction at the rate of 33 per cent. A slight extension of the limits of the zone was at the same time made. In the first month of the change the messages increased at the rate of 72 per cent; 70 per cent being due to the reduction of the rate, and 2 per cent to the extension of the zone. In Prance, in the year 1862, an uniform rate of 1s. 8d. was substituted for a rate varying with distance. The average cost to the French public of a message in 1861 was about 4s. 6d., and in 1862 the average cost was about 2s. 11d., the reduction being at the rate of about 35 per cent; and the messages increased at the rate of 64 per cent. It was there fore only reasonable to suppose that a reduction of the tariff would be followed by the same results in this country as it had produced in others. If he did not think that the investment would be remunerative he should be very sorry to advocate it; but, seeing the progress which the Post Office had made in respect to the conveyance of letters and the money-order and savings-banks systems, he did not think that there need be any fear that the investment would be unremunerative; for he conceived that the telegraphy of this country was capable of immense de- 1316 velopment. The objection which had been raised in connection with the railways was the weightiest and most difficult to deal with; and it was incumbent that it should be fully considered how in this matter the railway interest, or, rather, how human life might be protected. This was not a small question, and it ought not to be judged merely by a reference to the £3,000,000 or £4,000,000 which it involved. Increased facilities for communication meant the development of national resources, and by a large and comprehensive development of the telegraphic system an enormous boon would be offered to the trading and commercial energy of the country. Wherever the telegraphic and railway systems exist, traders are enabled to regulate their supply and their daily wants, and commercial industries were enabled to turn over their capital with great rapidity, and thus, as the resources of individuals were increased, so was the capital of the country. If the proposal had been to raise up a new Government Department for the control of telegraphy, he should have objected to it; but his confidence in the administration of the Post Office made him favourable to the proposition. There was, besides, an affinity between a letter and a telegram; the one was, in fact, but a more rapid form of communication than the other; and the perfect organization of the Post Office would enable the proposed system to permeate every village and hamlet. If there were any possibility of the telegraph being used by the Government for political purposes, in order to ascertain and thwart the views of their opponents, he should then say that the Bill ought not to pass; but the fear of exciting that indignation which was formerly raised in the country when it was known that a single letter was opened at the Post Office would, in his opinion, prove a sufficient check against any abuse of power. Moreover, he had too high an opinion of the honour of British Statesmen to believe that they would in any way invade the sanctity of telegraphic communication. This was not merely his sentiment, but it was the opinion of the late Mr. Ricardo, the originator of the most prosperous telegraphic company, who stated—To secure the honour and reputation of the British Government as a guarantee for the privacy of communications, necessarily more confidential than those conveyed under sealed envelope through the post; to establish a conviction that the pub- 1317 lie are dependent, not upon the discretion of individuals, but upon the faith of a Ministry responsible at any moment to a vigilant Parliament, that there shall be no undue preference or precedence given even to the highest financial or most powerful influence in the land; in fine, to substitute the safeguard of statesmen chosen by the nation for their talent and integrity, for that of men of business, however high their character, elected by a body of shareholders simply to pay them the highest amount of interest obtainable from the tolls levied upon the public; to retain the telegraphic despatches of the various Departments charged with the maintenance of the honour and interests and tranquillity of the country inviolate and inviolable, instead of being passed through the hands of a joint-stock company, are advantages which no man can deny, and which Parliament and the people will not fail to appreciate.Should there be any disinclination on the part of the public to subject their private; communications to the supervision of a Government official, all difficulty on that score might easily be overcome by the use of cypher. With regard to the purchase of the existing telegraphic system, he heard with pleasure the Chancellor of the Exchequer state that it would be conducted on the principles of equity and justice. He thought that when the Government sought to acquire this property it should not be forgotten the owners were unwilling sellers, and it would be but fair that it should be taken under the ordinary conditions of compulsory purchase, and he would only support the measure upon the understanding that the private companies were to be dealt with in a large and liberal spirit. For years and years the telegraph companies were anything but prosperous, and it would not be dealing fairly with them, now that the tide of prosperity had set in, unless they were treated liberally. Allusion had been made to the fluctuations which had occurred in the price of these shares, consequent on the passing or withdrawal of this Bill. This, he thought, was not quite a fair light in which to view the subject. It was only proper to remember that the companies during the year had paid dividends which warranted the price. His opinion was that the dividends would rise every year even if the telegraph lines were left in the hands of the present companies, and the longer Parliament delayed the passing of this measure the more difficulty there would be in dealing with; the subject. It had been alleged that some of the petitions in favour of the Bill had been got up by the Post Office officials. Now, he had presented a petition in fa- 1318 vour of the Bill, signed by nearly every merchant and broker of any eminence in Liverpool, numbering altogether over 600, and he was told that every signature had been given spontaneously and unasked for. This was a recognition of the value which the commercial community placed upon the measure. More than thirty Chambers of Commerce had petitioned in its favour; the Press supported it strongly; and there was greater unanimity with regard to it than had prevailed with regard to any question which had been discussed in the present Session. On the whole, he believed that the advantages were greater than the disadvantages of the Bill; that its passing would give immense satisfaction to the county, and that immense success would follow, both financially and otherwise.
§ MR. THOMAS CAVE
said, he had no interest, either directly or indirectly, in any of the telegraph companies; but, speaking from a public point of view, he thought the objections of the hon. Member for York (Mr. Leeman) were not such as should influence the House to reject this Bill. These objections were tenfold, and he should endeavour to reply to them seriatim. First, the hon. Member said that the safety of the public in railway travelling would be interfered with; but the Chancellor of the Exchequer had clearly stated that the railway companies would still be allowed to use the private wires which they now had, and would therefore have the same means of communicating from station to station for the regulation of their traffic as heretofore. As to the objection suggesting Government espionnage, that was rather an appeal to popular prejudice than the use of fair argument. In his business experience he had found that espionnage was not always confined to the action of Governments, though he believed that in the hands of the Government they would be safer from it than they were at present. In a recent transaction respecting the insurance of a vessel in which he was interested, he was able to obtain by a moderate fee such information from a telegraph clerk abroad as led to the detection of a serious fraud; and in this country he believed that the contents of telegrams were frequently communicated to parties interested in their contents, who were in that way able to obtain from the I poorly-paid clerks information which defeated the object of sending telegrams at all. He hoped that too much weight 1319 would not be given to this objection, another answer to which was that, as the hon. Member (Mr. Graves) had suggested, a cypher might be used where secresy was desired. A fourth objection raised by the hon. Member (Mr. Leeman) was the interference of this Bill with private enterprize. Such an objection no doubt required due consideration; but the same might be said of the Post Office, which they would all regret to see in any other hands than those of the Government. A fifth objection—that the telegraphic system had grown and that rates had been reduced under the present management— was really no objection at all. In fact, it proved the case of the Government, and showed the growing requirements of the public. He hoped that when this Bill became law, as in this or the next Session he felt confident would be the case, the telegraphic system would continue to grow, and still more rapidly than before; that the Government would extend the system to every Post Office throughout the country; and, with regard to rates, that a 2d. postage stamp would in time cover a telegraphic message from any Post Office in the United Kingdom. The hon. Member (Mr. Leeman) appeared to speak from a narrow point of view and rather as a railway special pleader; and he regretted to see a Gentleman of his high standing and ability seeking to advance the interests of a no doubt highly important, but also from their wealth and influence and power of united action, a body which might easily become highly dangerous to the public weal, and who required quite as much watching as the Government did. The sixth objection advanced by the hon. Member was that telegraphs could never be used by the uneducated in the villages; but if poor people there could not write, it was surely a great advantage to them that they should be able to speak through the telegraph. [Mr. LEEMAN said, that what he referred to was their condition and pursuits.] That still left the argument that it would be useful to those who could not write. The hon. Member had said the scheme would not pay; but the Chancellor of the Exchequer ought to be a good judge on that point; and he had stated that it would not only pay the interest, but that there would be such a surplus profit as in twenty-nine years would clear off the entire capital debt. It was quite true the Government should not interfere with the interests of private persons; but he thought 1320 that subject to compensation of these interests they might do so for the sake of an immense public advantage. The hon. Member had also objected to the course taken by the Government in asking the House to affirm the principle of the Bill before sending it to a Committee upstairs. On that point he took direct issue with the hon. Gentleman, and maintained that the proper course was, in the first place, to ask the House to affirm the principle of the measure.
§ MR. GOSCHEN
said, that the hon. Gentleman who had just sat down (Mr. T. Cave) had not treated one of the objections of the hon. Member for York (Mr. Leeman) with the consideration which it deserved—namely, that which related to inquiry into the subject. He regretted that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, on both occasions when the Bill had been before the House, had felt himself under the necessity of curtailing his observations, and therefore had not been able to do full justice to his own proposal. On the occasion when the Bill was introduced there had been no discussion at all, and to-day the right hon. Gentleman had felt it necessary to be somewhat brief in his remarks on a subject, the importance of which, whatever their opinions might be as to the merits of the Bill, no one would undervalue. The right hon. Gentleman had attached too much importance to the petitions presented in favour of the Bill, though in the spirit of those petitions he (Mr. Goschen) quite concurred. It might be that it was desirable that this Bill should pass into law. But at present the House scarcely knew enough to affirm the principle of the Bill. He should not have felt able to vote against the measure if the hon. Member for York had persisted in his intention to move that the Bill be read a second time that day six months, because that would have been a declaration against the principle of the measure. But it appeared to him that it would be better that the whole subject should be referred to a Select Committee than that the Bill, in its present form, should be so referred; and for this reason, that if the Bill was referred to a Select Committee, it must of necessity be a hybrid Committee. It was necessary that the question of compensation to the companies should be dealt with very carefully. If they looked to the great importance of the measure, he maintained that it would be impossible without precedent that a proposal of such magnitude 1321 should be accepted without previous inquiry into the matter. He wished the House to understand that he was by no means hostile to the Bill; but there were many difficulties connected with the subject which ought not to be merely argued by counsel before a hybrid Committee, but the policy and expediency of which ought to be decided by the House. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had pointed out the importance of this Bill to the State as a financial measure. Well, that was a subject which could be argued better in the usual Select Committee than in a hybrid Committee, and it was a matter which would require the most serious consideration. The Committee would have to determine how far it might be wise to run the risk of loss to the State. The policy of the Government dealing with matters of private enterprize would also come under the general head of inquiry; but what he feared was this—that if the Bill were read a second time, the discussion on the principle would be considered at an end, and the main points to be afterwards argued would be with regard to the mode of purchase. He did not think that they had as yet arrived at the condition at which they were able to decide whether there should be purchase or not. He agreed with the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer in thinking that the country was in the main in favour of the principle of the Bill; but he doubted whether all the difficulties in connection with the subject had been properly thought out. It would tend ultimately to the success of the measure that these matters should be inquired into, and that any difficulties which might exist should not be slurred over at this time of the Session. He put it to the House whether they thought it possible that this Bill should pass into law this Session; for they might judge from the speech of the hon. Member for York (Mr. Leeman) what a strenuous opposition would be offered to it. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had suggested that, in dealing with private interests, it was better to settle the matter at once than keep it in suspense for another year. There was something in that argument; but still he thought it was too late to proceed with the measure now. It was scarcely possible that a Bill dealing with such vast private interests should pass into law in the course of six weeks or two months. He agreed very much with what had been said by the hon. Member for Liverpool 1322 (Mr. Graves) that they could not exaggerate the importance of pushing the telegraphic system into every quarter of the country where it was possible. He did not think the hon. Member for York had done justice to the argument of the importance of such extension not only to trade, but to those whom trade supplied, when he contended that it was not so necessary to carry our telegraphic communication into remote places as some people believed. An immense importance was attached to the Bill by the great wholesale houses, who thought they could serve their customers cheaper, as they could economize capital, and need not keep as much stock on hand; nor did he doubt that this could be done without any loss to the State. He believed that Mr. Scudamore had been very moderate in his suggestion, and that the amount he calculated upon would be realized. The surplus of £210,000, estimated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer as accruing to the State, arose, he presumed, from the charge of 1s. He was himself much in favour of a uniform rate; and there would possibly be less enthusiasm for the Bill amongst the commercial circles of our large towns if they anticipated that the result would be to enhance the rate of charge. In a very short time, probably, the returns would be such as to make the maintenance of the 1s. rate needless, and enable the charge to be reduced to 6d. He did not attach much weight to the argument of the companies that, owing to the large number of circulars sent by post in this country, the proportion between letters and telegrams in Belgium and Switzerland afforded no criterion; for he believed that, as soon as people got accustomed to them more money would be spent in telegrams in England than in other countries. The more the charges were reduced the more, he felt confident, would telegraphic communication be resorted to; and he did not think Mr. Scudamore's calculations were too sanguine. He believed that telegraphic communication was at present insufficient, that its extension was desirable, and that such extension under good management would prove remunerative. On those points, the weight of argument seemed to him to be all on one side. He was not, however, inclined to think that the working of the telegraphs in remote villages would be found so easy as some Members supposed; and he thought the House should be informed of the means 1323 by which, in the belief of the Post Office authorities, the system could be carried on. As to secresy, greater precautions would hare to be taken than were embodied in the Bill. The Post Office, no doubt, stood deservedly high in the estimation of the public; and when engaged in business he was struck by the rarity of cases of miscarriage or of blame being due to it. Indeed, he was convinced that the transfer of the telegraphs to any other Department would have encountered much more strenuous opposition. Now, the Bill incorporated the Electric Telegraph Act of 1863, thus applying to the Post Office the same precautions that were applied to the companies. He did not think there was likely to be any difference in point of discretion or virtue between Government clerks and companies' clerks; but there was a great difference as regarded their employers. A Government might have so great an interest in knowing the contents of telegrams and in applying to its own servants for valuable information, that clauses ought to be framed which would render such a course improbable or dangerous. By the Act as it now stood, ny person divulging secrets intrusted to him for telegraphic conveyance was made liable to a fine of £20; but there were many secrets the divulging of which would be very inadequately punished by such a penalty, and he believed it would be necessary to make this offence a misdemeanour. He did not, indeed, apprehend a systematic disclosure of messages to the Government as was done on the Continent; but stringent precautions ought to be taken against any occasional instances of it. Another defect which he noticed in the Bill was that there was nothing to compel the Government to forward messages. At present the competition between rival companies afforded sufficient protection to the public on this head, and no doubt as a general rule the Government would desire to make as good a revenue as possible; but other motives might come into play which would more than counterbalance this. Under the Act of 1863 the Secretary of State might, by warrant, whenever it was expedient for the public service, take possession of the companies' works and make use of them for Her Majesty's service, the warrant requiring renewal, however, at the end of a week. Now, security must be taken against the permanent operation of such powers, and against allowing a postmaster at his own 1324 discretion to refuse at any time to transmit messages. These matters had not been considered sufficiently in the Bill before the House, which deserved the most serious consideration, and was worthy of the most serious inquiry. The principle of the Bill might be easily decided on; but weeks might be necessary for the due examination of the clauses and details. It appeared to him that there was no chance of passing the Bill this Session, and, regretting that this was the case, he should vote for the Amendment of the hon. Member for York.
§ SIR STAFFORD NORTHCOTE
said, that the speech of the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Goschen) threw a light upon a circumstance which occurred in the early part of the debate, and seemed rather peculiar. The hon. Member for York (Mr. Leeman) had given Notice of his intention to move that the Bill be read a second time that day six months. That was a natural course for him to take, because the hon. Member objected to the Bill, and wished to get rid of it. But some intimation appeared to be conveyed to him from other parts of the House and from right hon. Gentlemen on the front Opposition Bench, that they were not prepared to support him in his Amendment. Strangely enough, after the hon. Gentlemen had declared against the principle of the Bill, he sat down without moving his Amendment at all, but got up to move instead, without explanation, that the whole subject be referred to a Select Committee. It was observed that the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Goschen), who approved the principle of the Bill, and had argued in favour of it, handed to the hon. Member for York the terms of the amended Notice that he was to give. It was clear that some telegraphic communication had been passing between the Benches opposite which had rapidly altered the strategy of the hon. Member for York, and he congratulated the hon. Member on the promptitude with which he had executed a "change of front" on a very short notice. The hon. Member equally obtained his object whether his original Motion that the Bill be read a second time that day six months were carried, or his amended Motion that the whole subject be referred to a Select Committee. Practically, the result was the same, the only difference being that he would have had a difficulty in carrying his original Motion, but that he expected to get a large number of Members to vote 1325 for the amended Motion. The right hon. Gentleman thought there would not be time to pass the Bill this Session. That might be a very good reason for putting the Bill aside and getting rid of it; but it was not fair on the part of those who held this language to come forward and declare that they approved the principle of the Bill. The course which the right hon. Gentleman recommended had not been pursued in the analogous case of the Post Office Savings Banks Bill. His argument was that the Post Office Department were not such good judges of the mode of administering the details of the measure as a Select Committee of that House; but he contended that many of those matters were far better understood by the Executive Government, and might safely be left to the Department. It was incorrect to say that this measure had been hastily dealt with, because it had been under the consideration of the Government for a great length of time. Two years ago, when he was at the Board of Trade, this was one of the first matters brought under his notice. It was discussed by the public Press, and it could not be said in any sense to come as a surprise upon hon. Members. The House was prepared to discuss the principle, and was in possession of quite sufficient facts to enable it to discuss all the questions raised by the Bill. He thought that the hon. Member for Barnstaple (Mr. T. Cave) in a few sentences had completely answered the objections raised by the hon. Member for York. The right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Goschen) said it was impossible the measure could pass this Session; and, no doubt, if the right hon. Gentleman and his Friends were determined it should not pass, they would have very considerable means for preventing it. Certain matters might be referred to a Select Committee, but was not the general sense of the House in favour of the main principle of the Bill? If so, was it not fairly probable that, with a business-like treatment, the Bill might be passed during the present Session? All the questions which had been raised could be dealt with — some by the Committee of the Whole House, some by the Committee upstairs, and some when the Money Bill, which would have to follow this measure, was before them, Only let the House be told on what footing the question really stood; because it would be much fairer if those who wished to throw over the Bill voted for the ori- 1326 ginal proposition to postpone it for six months than to vote for referring the whole subject to a Select Committee, which amounted practically to the same thing. The effect of that would be to cause a considerable inconvenience, so he was informed, to the telegraph companies. It kept them in a state of agitation and uneasiness for an unnecessary length of time, and it deferred a great social improvement, on which he believed the mind of the country was set, and which he believed would be very advantageous to the public; and all for a very insufficient and, to him, incomprehensible reason. The hon. Member for York (Mr. Leeman) had spoken of that as a measure which would be of use only to a very limited portion of the community, because very few people used the telegraph now, and he instanced the village tradesmen as not being likely to avail themselves of it. Now he (Sir Stafford Northcote) maintained that those were just the people to whom it would probably be a benefit if they could introduce the telegraph to every village and corner of the country. He could mention to the House his own case and that of others who were similarly circumstanced — namely, they were constantly in communication with a neighbouring town some miles distant, and the services of the tradesmen of which they occasionally required very rapidly. Where they had to write a letter and wait for an answer next day, they did not avail themselves of the services of those tradesmen; but if they could telegraph for the plumber, the glazier, or the blacksmith to go to them at short notice they would be glad to do so. Thus the system would be found to work in and extend itself in a very extraordinary manner. The argument of the hon. Member for York might have been urged, as he dare say it was urged, against the penny post. It was said they were sacrificing the interest of the country for the sake of the comparatively few people who wrote letters; forgetting that when they had the advantage of the lower rate of postage hundreds and thousands of persons would write letters who never wrote them before. So he believed it would be in the case of the electric telegraph when its advantages were held out to the country. For those reasons he opposed the Amendment, and he earnestly hoped that the House would assent to the Motion for the second reading of the Bill.
§ MR. CRAWFORD
said, he would give no mere party vote upon that occasion; 1327 but he confessed that he had never, in a tolerably long experience, felt so much difficulty in coming to a conclusion on any subject as he had done in reference to that Bill. As the representative of a great commercial interest, he ought to be one of the last persons in that House to interfere with the due progress of a measure calculated, in the estimation of those who proposed it, to confer a great social and commercial benefit on the community. At the same time he must claim the privilege of considering how far the measure was likely to effect the object for which it was introduced. He was one of those who were charged with the care of the interests of the telegraph companies whose property was about to be taken from them, and he was exceedingly desirous that the whole of the facts and circumstances on which that proposal rested should be clearly understood, not only by the House, but by the country, before they came to a decision upon it. It was appalling to look at the amount of literature on that subject with which they had been deluged. First they bad a paper from Mr. Scudamore, and then one from Mr. Grimstone on the part of the telegraph companies. Then came a rejoinder by Mr. Scudamore, and another by Mr. Grimstone; and it was some what remarkable that there was not one fact stated by one of those two gentlemen which was not denied by the other. How was the House to judge in that matter? He claimed on the part of the public that they should not be led into a premature decision of that question. The only fair, legitimate, and proper manner of arriving at a decision on its merits was by having not the Bill only, but the whole subject in all its details, thoroughly threshed out in a Committee upstairs. For that reason he had cheerfully seconded the proposal of the hon. Member for York (Mr. Leeman), that the expediency and the policy of that measure should be referred to a Select Committee. He could not have seconded his hon. Friend's original proposal that the Bill should be read the second time that day six months. He had been gratified to witness the eager and ardent manner in which the Secretary of State for India supported that proposal for taking into the hands of the Government the whole telegraphic system in England; but he could not help remembering that the other day, when he went with a deputation to ask him for a very moderate amount of assistance towards establishing 1328 improved telegraphic communication with the East the right hon. Gentleman met them with a blank refusal. The apparent inconsistency thus displayed tended somewhat to detract from the force of the right hon. Gentleman's arguments on the present occasion. The Post Office savings banks had been referred to; but there was a vast distinction between them and the present proposal. In the former case there was no attempt to deal with private property; whereas they were now asked to deal with an immense amount of such property, the owners of which, according to all precedent and justice, ought to have an opportunity of stating their case before a Committee. It was rather late in the day to go into the general question; but he wished distinctly to say that he was not then prepared to express any opinion on the principle of the Bill. He wanted to see what the real facts were. Mr. Scudamore had mounted on a hobby, and when a great man did that he was apt to be rather enthusiastic. On the other hand, Mr. Grimstone opposed, tooth and nail, everything advanced by Mr. Scudamore. He therefore wished to have the counter-statements of those gentlemen confronted and thoroughly examined in a Committee upstairs. A statistical comparison between this country and Belgium and Switzerland had been adduced; but the circumstances of those countries were not quite analogous. Our Post Office carried an enormous amount of what he must call trash; and much matter of that description was delivered by it for himself at his place of business, also at the Bank of England, and at his private residence, and likewise at his club. Some of these communications consisted of letters begging him to go to some charitable dinner or other, a matter in respect to which he was glad to observe in the Press that day the expression of an independent opinion; while others of them perhaps invited him to visit an Idiot Asylum. He might safely assert that the rubbish brought to him through the post in that way exceeded the number of real bonâ fide letters in the proportion of at least five to one. He would like to see these things inquired into, in order to ascertain whether the comparison between the quantity of letters carried in this country and in Switzerland and Belgium would really hold good. He wished, he might add, to know whether, in the event of the Government becoming possessed of the property of the telegraph 1329 companies, they would have, in addition to those lines of wire which the railway companies were permitted to use for their own purposes, a complete monopoly of telegraphic communication throughout the country? Would they, for example, take charge of those messages which were brought into the country by the submarine lines, such as the Atlantic Cable? If the answer to that question should be in the affirmative, he did not exactly see how they would very well be able successfully to conduct the amount of business which would thus be thrown upon their hands. Again, he understood that part of the work done by the telegraph companies consisted in supplying the London and other newspapers regularly with information as to proceedings which might have arisen in the country. He was told, for instance, that when the First Minister of the Crown visited Edinburgh last year the whole of the speech which he delivered there was transmitted to London by a telegraph company for the use of the newspapers. Were the Government prepared in like manner to undertake the business of reporting? If so, was it probable that they would report the speech which had been delivered the other day by his hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham (Mr. Bright), at Liverpool, with the same exactitude with which they would have given that of the Prime Minister? The subject was one in which the public was much interested, and, believing that it was one into which further inquiry was desirable, he should vote for the Amendment of his hon. Friend the Member for York.
§ MR. LIDDELL
, having observed that the confidence which was reposed by the public in the mode in which the commercial affairs of the country were conducted by private companies was very great, said he thought further time should be allowed the public outside to express an opinion upon a measure by which it was proposed to make considerable inroad on that feeling, and with the extent and cost of the operations of which they were as yet unacquainted. The only great commercial concern in which we had experience, he added, of Government management was the Post Office, and it was not a satisfactory proof of their fitness to carry other commercial undertakings to a successful issue that that Department had remained for so long a time unprofitable in a monetary point of view, us had been stated by the hon. Member 1330 for York (Mr. Leeman). The object which the Government sought to attain in reducing the charge for telegraphic communication was no doubt a good one, and the concentration of the various lines in one hand would no doubt facilitate that object; but then he should like to know whether the telegraph companies had hitherto shown that they were adverse to making such a reduction. Until a proposition of that kind was made to them and they refused to accede to it, he could not help being of opinion that their property ought not to be taken away from them in the hurried manner proposed. In making these remarks he must not be understood as speaking against the principle of the Bill, but only as arguing in favour of that full inquiry which the whole subject and the policy of this measure ought, he thought, to undergo at the hands of a Select Committee.
said, he rose to take part in the discussion chiefly in consequence of the speech which had been made by his right hon. Friend the Secretary for India (Sir Stafford Northcote), who he regretted should have thought it discreet or expedient, in dealing with a measure such as that under discussion, to speak of those Gentlemen who sat on the front Opposition Bench as acting in a body with a purpose prèpense to defeat the Bill. Against the use of such language he desired to enter, in the most distinct terms, his protest. So far as he was aware, those Gentlemen who at that moment occupied the front Opposition Bench were divided nto two classes. One of them comprisedi the hon. Member for York (Mr. Leeman), who founded his objections to the Bill on the broadest basis which could be conceived. He knew that other Gentlemen in the House took the same view; but he had not himself that knowledge of details possessed by his hon. Friend, which would lead him to the conviction that the Bill now proposed was incompatible with the safe and satisfactory working of the railway system. He certainly approached the Bill with favourable prepossessions, expecting to find a practical measure; but he was not to be induced to accept advice that he did not think was good advice in regard to the mode of proceeding with reference to it. He was not convinced that the subject was sufficiently advanced for legislation. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had expressed his opinion with a care proportionate to the difficulty of the 1331 question; but, considering that the matter had not gone through the ordinary process of inquiry previous to legislation, it was not possible for a complete case to be made out without many questions, which the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as well as his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for India, had left untouched, being entered on. The Secretary of State for India had not given them the smallest light on any of those questions in the course of his speech. He (Mr. Gladstone) did not now speak of executory difficulties. He thought that it was quite evident, as regards a very large proportion of the country — namely, the population not dwelling in towns—that the present sys tem of electric telegraphy was exceedingly defective. It was maimed and crippled in every point, from a want of independent and effective means for the distribution of messages. Messages were delivered as best they could, with great delay, and at heavy cost. It was also quite obvious that the Post Office possessed machinery which would afford immense facilities for the distribution of telegraphic messages, if there was no objection to it. An argument to which he attached considerable weight was that the business now carried on by a multitude of establishments competing at different points might be carried on by a single establishment more efficiently and at less cost. These were strong arguments for entertaining the question. And he was not free from official responsibility in the matter. He had very willingly and zeal ously promoted all the official inquiries that could tend to bring the matter into a state that would make it ripe for legislation. He felt great confidence—founded on experience—in the efficiency of the Post Office authorities generally, and more especially of that distinguished public servant, Mr. Scudamore, who had, perhaps, had more to do than any other person with the recent development of the Post Office for secondary purposes. He did not doubt at all that the promises in Mr. Scudamore's Report would be realized and fulfilled. He was ready to place confidence in the calculations presented to them on the part of the Government relative to the return to be obtained after payment of expenses, and he saw no difficulty in the financial part of the question respecting the means of providing the capital necessary for the purchase of existing interests, and the fresh investment of capital that might be required. But there were a number of 1332 questions that had not yet undergone elucidation, and which the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer might be reserving for his reply; but they were of such a character that the House was Justified in asking that a clear light should be thrown on them, even before being called on to assent to the principle of the Bill. Serious difficulties, as yet unelucidated, were more matters for a Committee on the subject than for a Committee on the Bill. One question was—could the telegraphic system be given to the Government without giving the Government a monopoly? If, however, the Government obtained a monopoly, a great deal might be said in favour of their possessing it, upon the same principle as they had the management of the Post Office. But the Bill did not go to that extent; and the question was an exceedingly large one. Another question which arose was, whether there was any serious objection to a system which placed under the control of the Government that portion of the correspondence of the country which was open to the eyes of those who transmitted it. It was a serious question. He was far from saying they would not get over the difficulty; but it was a serious and broad question, and a Committee on the Bill would find themselves in rather a false position in examining such a question, because it was one which more properly fell under the cognizance of a Committee on the subject. Was the Government competent to manage a system like that of the telegraphs, if it should be found to involve the necessity of working, not merely a fixed tariff and fixed regulations, as was the case at the Post Office, but also of dealing largely with discretional arrangements with the conductors of the Press and others, analogous to those between railway companies and the people in business for whom they conveyed goods? He believed that the present telegraphic companies, besides enforcing their ordinary fixed tariff, undertook other business, such as the collection of intelligence, which was conducted under voluntary arrangements; and he owned that, however he might be disposed to commit to a Government Department the transaction of business fixed by a tariff, he thought they should hesitate before they resolved to engage it in a work which required the exercise of that discretionary power. Again — though this might appear like an old woman's apprehension— 1333 was it perfectly clear that the transmission of political intelligence—especially during the time of a General Election—could be safely confided to Government officials dismissible at pleasure? The mere order of priority in the delivery of intelligence might involve the most important political consequences. Was it quite clear, too, that a Department of the Government could be properly charged with the duty of considering and accepting or rejecting all supposed improvements in the system of telegraphy? He by no means gave an adverse opinion on these points; but he wanted light and knowledge. But examination was required to satisfy the House whether they could throw into the hands of the Government the main and principal charge of a system of this kind, in which science was continually bringing to bear on executory arrangements all the results of the active human mind. There were many matters connected with the Bill which, quite apart from any hostility to it, opened a wider inquiry than could be dealt with by a Select Committee upon the clauses, which must become a Committee on the whole subject raised by the hon. Member for York.
§ MR. AYRTON
said, the first suggestion of the hon. Member for York (Mr. Leeman) was that the House should express an opinion upon the policy of the Bill; but, in compliance with the fooling of many Members on that side of the House, he concluded with a Motion that the House should not express any opinion upon the policy of the Bill. Thereupon the right hon. Baronet (Sir Stafford Northcote) took an extraordinary course, for he declined to discuss this proposal, because it might have the same effect as one to postpone the second reading for six months. He could only account for this course by supposing that the right hon. Baronet was unable to deal with the considerations involved in this question. As one of the Railway Commissioners, he could not help remembering that a literary agitation was got up which suggested that the purchase of the railways in this country by the State would be a panacea, and that some gentlemen in the Post Office were active in that agitation.
§ Debate adjourned till To-morrow.