HC Deb 29 July 1869 vol 198 cc974-8

Bill, as amended, considered.


rose to move, after Clause 24, the insertion of a new clause, the object of which was to provide for the destruction of any record of a message which might remain in the Post Office after the message itself had been delivered. The hon. Gentleman said, from what had occurred in other countries, a feeling of popular distrust had been excited which he should be sorry to see incurred by the Government of this country. In his view the telegraphic system monopolized by the Government, whether for purposes of economy, efficiency, or both, would not stand in the same position as the competition of companies working against each other, and dependent for popularity on their success. According to the Bill as it was framed, they were told to regard every telegraphic message in the light legally of a postal letter. He accepted that definition, and only asked that it should be rigorously adhered to. An open letter was the true definition of a telegraphic message. As long as a letter was in the hands of the officers of the telegraph office it was in the custody of the Postmaster General; but the moment it was out of his possession he had no right to remember its contents, far less to make himself the depository of evidence to be used either in a civil or criminal suit, or to make the Post Office the medium of every scandal or extortion which the wit of man could devise. What was wanted was to give the public confidence. He would not have the thoughtless told that they were liable to have their chance, impulsive thoughts recorded and chronicled, to be dug up by some mischievous person at the end of many months, and used to their prejudice. In the case of a telegram it was impossible for the receiver to know whether it came from the person who appeared to send it; yet that telegram might deal with the honour of a man, the fame of a woman, or, perhaps, decide a contested election. Telegrams were altogether different from letters, and it was not right to enable the Postmaster General to pile up messages to the possible injury of private persons. [Mr. ACLAND was understood to say people should bear this in mind.] That might be the opinion of the hon. Member for North Devon; but the House had to make laws for persons not so well informed as the hon. Member, and they had no right to set a trap for them. The object might be to store up evidence for criminal cases; but that evidence would be forthcoming for civil cases as well, and would even enable the crafty to extort money from the weak. The Post Office would become a confessional, without the sanctity of even morals or religion. ["Oh!"] Those who cried "Oh!" might object to the confessional, as he did on religious grounds; but the Romish confessional was better than this would be, because the priest kept the confession in his breast, while the message intrusted to the Postmaster General would be known to a whole army of clerks, who would not be overpaid, and who should not have unnecessary temptation put in their way. With a view to bring the question to an issue, he had put a clause on the Paper providing for the immediate destruction of messages; but as he had been informed that it was sometimes found convenient to verify a message by letter, he was willing to modify his clause to the extent of delaying the destruction by twenty-four hours. He concluded by moving the insertion of the following clause, after Clause 24:— (Destruction of transcripts of messages.) That so soon as any message conveyed by postal telegraph shall have been duly delivered to the person to whom the same shall hare been addressed, or an acknowledgment received for the same, the original and transcript thereof, if any, which may have been made in the Post Office shall be destroyed, and no record thereof, in part or in whole, shall he preserved in the Post Office, or by any person in the employment of the Postmaster General."—(Mr. Torrens.)

Clause brought up, and read the first time.


observed that the whole cause of this Bill having come before Parliament was to facilitate the communication on matters of business by telegraph; and not to accelerate the transmission of messages relating to all sorts of painful secrets. And the question at issue was whether or not it was desirable to have at command evidence to decide an issue between two persons, as, for instance, whether A had bought what B directed him to buy by telegraph. Thinking it better this evidence should not be willfully destroyed he could not vote for the Motion of his hon. Friend.


said, he thought the legal question had been disposed of by the remarks of his hon. and learned Friend, and dealt with the practical difficulties in the way of adopting the clause. At present telegraph companies retained the original message and transcript for three months for the purposes of checking the receipts at the various offices, to meet complaints of wrong transmission, and other practical reasons. The experience of the Electric and International Company showed that complaints of erroneous transmission were made generally within twenty-five or thirty days after receipt. Then it was necessary to retain those telegrams for a time in order to serve as evidence in a court of law, and although it was quite true that telegrams could not be considered as authentic documents as letters, the House could well afford to leave it to the courts to decide what weight should be attached to them. The discussion the other night led him to infer that some supposed the Government might make use of information obtained through the telegraph for political purposes; but it was clear that if this suspicion had any ground at all the adoption of the clause would make it much easier for the Government to abuse the confidence reposed in it. If the Government could be capable of using the information for political purposes, it must also be assumed the Government would be capable of delaying or even mutilating the messages of its opponents, and the hon. Member's clause would permit of this, because he invites the destruction of all evidence upon the subject within twenty-four hours.

Motion made, and Question, "That the said Clause be now read a second time," put, and negatived.


moved, the addition of the following proviso to Clause 24, thus placing the Government in the same position as telegraph companies were in at present:— Clause 24, at end, add 'Provided always, That nothing in this Act contained shall have the effect of relieving any officer of the Post Office from any liability which would but for the passing of this Act hare attached to a Telegraph Company, or to any other Company or person, to produce in any court of law, when duly required so to do, any such written or printed message or communication?


asked whether the telegraphs would be liable to the payment of rates?


replied that that point was provided for in the Bill of last year.

Proviso agreed to.


said, that as it was very important that the Bill should proceed to the House of Lords as soon as possible, it would be very convenient, if the House did not object, that the third reading should be at once taken.


desired to know what provision had been made against exorbitant demands being made by some of the railway companies on the Government? In the case of the Midland Railway, for instance, the existing lease expired in six or seven years' time; and, although the Bill provided that no other telegraph company could lay wires over the railways, it would be in the power of companies so situated to make large demands upon the Government, unless such a contingency had been provided against.


replied that with most of the companies settlements had already been made, and there was no reason, as far as he believed, to presume that there would be any difficulty in settling with the Midland Company or any company so situated, or that better terms than those already ac-3epted by other companies would be awarded upon an arbitration.

Bill read the third time and passed.