HC Deb 29 March 1878 vol 239 cc211-7

, in rising to call attention to the mode of appointment to Postmasterships in cases where the salary is under £100 a-year, and to move— That, in the opinion of this House, the responsibility of appointing to Postmasterships, whatever the salary attached to the appointment, should rest solely with the Postal authorities, and that the present system of making such appointments in certain cases conditional upon a nomination by Members of Parliament endorsed by the Patronage Secretary to the Treasury is anomalous, and calculated to interfere with the efficiency of the Postal and Telegraph Service; said, at present these appointments were made by the Secretary to the Treasury on the nomination of a Member of Parliament of the political Party who happened to be in power, and he did not think that it was desirable that such a state of things should continue. The present system often gave rise to very discreditable political jobbery; and, as an illustration, drew attention to what happened last year at Winslow, in Buckinghamshire. A clerk in the post office of a small town in that county, who had been five years in the service, who was well qualified, and whose application was backed by a numerous and respectably-signed recommendation, applied to the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire (Mr. Fremantle) for a nomination to that post office which had become vacant. The hon. Member wrote back to say that another person who had supported the Government at the last Election was also an applicant, and that he was bound to give that person the preference. Could there have been a greater display of naïveté? The hon. Baronet the Member for Carlisle (Sir Wilfrid Lawson) put a Question on the subject of that appointment to the Postmaster General last year, when the latter had replied that the appointment was made in the usual manner. Since that time a Circular had been issued stating that the nominations would be submitted to the Postmaster General, who would regulate them according to character and the interests of the public service; but there was not one word which would prevent the recurrence of such discreditable pieces of jobbery as had sometimes taken place. In many places there were no Conservative Members, and the nominations were made by Members for adjoining districts, who knew nothing of the local circumstances. In America a general movement was being made to do away with the system of making Civil Service appointments by political agents, in order to remedy abuses strongly satirized in the Bigelow Papers You get me into the White House, Your head with oil I will anoint; I will got you into the lighthouse, Down by Gallen Point. The hon. Member concluded by moving his Resolution.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "in the opinion of this House, the responsibility of appointing to Postmasterships, whatever the salary attached to the appointment, should rest solely with the Postal authorities, and that the present system of making such appointments in certain cases conditional upon a nomination by Members of Parliament endorsed by the Patronage Secretary to the Treasury is anomalous, and calculated to interfere with the efficiency of the Postal and Telegraph Service."—(Dr. Cameron,)

—instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


As my name has been connected by the hon. Member for Glasgow with what he termed a discreditable piece of jobbery, I must ask leave to explain the circumstances of the case. In the autumn of 1876, a person named Francis, the assistant postmaster at Winslow, came to me, and said that he wished to succeed the postmaster, who was ready to resign, if I was ready to recommend him to the appointment. I said it was impossible for me to do that; I must wait until the vacancy actually occurred. He wrote to me afterwards to the effect that he thought I had misunderstood his application, and concluded by saying—"If you will do this, I will promise to vote for you at future Elections." I replied that I was obliged by his letter; but that I could make no such arrangement, as when the vacancy really occurred others who might be recommended by friends of my own might apply, and I could not do less than consider their claims as well as his. When the vacancy actually took place, six months afterwards, Francis, who naturally had early knowledge, went round and obtained a large number of signatures in support of his application. It was true that Francis had a knowledge of telegraphy, and that he was fit for the appointment; but, on the other hand, it happened that there had been great reason to complain of the manner in which business had been conducted at this post office. I consulted an hon. Friend of mine, a Member of this House, whose letters pass through the same post office, and he concurred with me in thinking that, on the whole, it was safer to have "new blood." Francis himself had admitted to me that the management had been very bad, and promised amendment. There was but one other candidate, a grocer named Wilford, who was a householder and shopkeeper in the Market Square, a man of good character, fit in every way to be a postmaster, and whose premises were well adapted for a post office. On the other hand, Francis had no house, and would have to obtain one if appointed; and he had actually attempted to influence me by offering to give me his vote. Under those circumstances I nominated Wilford, and I think I was justified in preferring him, although, it is true, he had voted for me. Since he has held the appointment the post office has been well managed, and there have been no complaints. I think, too, I might be excused, if ever such a thing were excusable, in writing to Francis, for having adverted to the fact that the other man was a supporter of the Government, as a kind of argumentum ad hominem. On the general question, all I have to say is that, I believe, all hon. Members of this House would be very glad if this troublesome patronage were taken away from them and placed in the hands of Post Office officials.


explained, that he had not used the words "discreditable piece of jobbery" in reference to any conduct of the hon. Member. If they could, by any construction, be supposed to apply to the conduct of the hon. Member, he begged most unreservedly to withdraw them.


said, that in the matter of these appointments in Ireland, especially in the rural districts, the motto of "the spoils to the victors" was generally acted upon.


observed, that the course usually adopted when a postmastership became vacant was for the Government of the day to write to the Member for the locality to nominate a person to fill it, and there was usually a great difficulty in his doing so. Instead of the Member exercising a right of patronage, he had to discharge what was a most responsible and troublesome duty. Ireland land, of course, was different from any other country in the world, and he did not say the same thing happened there. The present system, however, worked well as far as the public service was concerned, and he did not see how the Postmaster General, who could have no local knowledge, could make better appointments than were now made.


said, that the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire had satisfactorily explained his share in this transaction, he merely having nominated an honest Tory who had actually voted for him, in place of a humbug who had only promised to vote for him if he got the appointment. The present system, however, was open to the charge of political jobbery, and should be changed. The Postmaster General ought to be able to do his own business without the assistance of hon. Members.


suggested that it would be better if hon. Members left these appointments to be filled up at the discretion of the Postmaster General. He recommended the Government to make their own appointments without consulting anybody.


said, that although hon. Members often had considerable difficulty in finding persons fit to fill these posts, his opinion was that the present system had worked well, and to the satisfaction of the districts concerned. It had very little to do with politics, and the persons nominated were those generally known to be fit and proper persons for the posts. It would be rather sudden to make a change from the old system to that now proposed, and therefore he should oppose the Motion.


said, that the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire had acted justly and wisely in refusing to nominate a man who had promised to vote for him. The hon. Member for Glasgow, who had brought this matter forward, appeared to think that a horrible state of corruption and immorality existed with respect to these appointments; but the facts did not warrant that assumption. Nothing could be more childlike in its simplicity than the correspondence that ensued whenever one of these posts became vacant. He wrote to hon. Members, asking them to nominate a suitable person for the office—married women, minors, and inn-keepers, being ineligible. The usual reply was that they had great difficulty in finding a fit person to fill the post, and in many cases they had to apply to the clergyman of the parish to recommend a candidate for it. The subject had been carefully considered by the authorities of the Post Office last year, and the permanent officials were of opinion that the present system of consulting Members of Parliament in reference to these appointments was a good one as far as the public service was concerned. He did not believe that the closest investigation would disclose any instance of these appointments being used for political purposes. The name of the office he had the honour to fill was a misnomer. He was called the Patronage Secretary of the Treasury; but the only patronage he had the misfortune to possess was the making of these small appointments, which had been to him a sore burden and distress.


said, he would be glad to be relieved from the troublesome and annoying duty of nominating persons for these posts. He thought that if the Government placed the responsibility of these appointments in the hands of the Post Office authorities, they would be entitled to the thanks of the country.


(who was absent elsewhere upon public business when this discussion was raised) fully concurred in all that had been said as to the troubles and annoyance of appointing to these offices. The object of the hon. Member for Glasgow, who had brought forward this Motion, appeared to be to transfer that troublesome duty from his hon. Friend on his left (Sir William Hart Dyke) to himself, for which he was scarcely disposed to be grateful. If it were, however, clearly shown that by that transfer a public benefit would result, so great was his public spirit that he would cheerfully consent to be sacrificed, and to undertake this additional trouble. But after the question was raised last year by the hon. Member for Leicester (Mr. P. A. Taylor), the matter was carefully inquired into, and the conclusion that had been arrived at was that it would be better not to interfere with the existing system, which worked well, in the opinion of the practical officers of the Department, so far as the country offices were concerned. It was obviously most difficult to find suitable persons for these positions; and the only officers on whom the Post Office could rely were the district surveyors, of whom there were only nine for England, and they could not have a sufficient knowledge of the local qualifications requisite. To ask them to undertake the discovery of fit and proper persons in every small village would be to impose upon them an intolerable labour. All they could do would be to accept the recommendations of others, and in that way we should again be referred to the persons of the greatest local influence, who would give tolerably sound advice. But the opinion of the officers of the Department was that through the agency of local members the Post Office got the best recommendations it was likely to get; and, with few exceptions, the system had been found to work smoothly and well for 100 years, at least as regarded the rural districts. With respect to receiverships in towns, further inquiry might well be made. In London the appointment was vested in the Postmaster General, who, of course, acted on the recommendations of the district postmasters; and he believed the system worked satisfactorily. It might be a fair subject of inquiry whether, in the large towns, the filling up of the receiverships might not be left to the postmasters. In other respects the present system worked well, and he was not disposed to recommend the House to sanction the alterations suggested by the hon. Member for Glasgow. Therefore, he hoped the House would not be put to the trouble of dividing.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 174; Noes 78: Majority 96.—(Div. List, No. 81.)