§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ MR. FAWCETT
said, he begged to move the second reading of this Bill, and to express a hope that, in spite of the late period of the Session, the House would pass it, because it was very important in the interests of the public from an administrative point of view. When the Post Office Acts were passed, many ways of carrying on business now in practice were not adopted. For instance, when most of the Post Office Protection Acts were passed, the sole receptacles for letters were the post-office boxes. Since that time an enormous number of pillar-boxes and wall-boxes had been put up in different parts of the country, and a very considerable proportion of the letters posted in the country had been posted in those boxes. Legally speaking, the letters so posted had not the same protection as letters posted in the ordinary post-office boxes; and that seemed to him to be a state of things which, in the interest of the public, ought to be remedied. One object of the Bill was to make the protection the same in both cases. Well, it so happened—perhaps through an oversight—that no punishment at present could be meted out for one of the cruelest of all hoaxes perpetrated through the agency of the telegraph. He would give an instance of the kind of hoax to which he referred. Last year, a noble Lord, who sat on the opposite side of the House, while staying with his wife at a friend's house in Buckinghamshire, received a 352 telegram stating that their infant child was dying. That news naturally gave them a great shock, and disturbed the enjoyment of the whole family. A telegram was at once despatched to the family doctor for further information, and in due course an answer was received stating that the child was perfectly well. The original telegram proved to be nothing but a mischievous hoax. Every effort was made to discover the perpetrator of the hoax, but without avail, though even if he had been found it would have been impossible to punish him. The House, he thought, would agree with him that the perpetrators of such outrages ought to be punished. The only other part of the Bill which it would be necessary to describe was that which attempted to deal with what was called the "milking" of foreign telegrams. He did not wish to say much about the matter; but he hoped he had said enough to induce the House to assent to the second reading.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Fawcett.)
§ MR. WARTON
said, he had an intense admiration for the right hon. Gentleman the Postmaster General, and for the zeal he always showed in the discharge of his duties. They had to thank him for very many great improvements introduced into the Post Office Service during his period of Office. Indeed, he (Mr. Warton) thanked the right hon. Gentleman so heartily, and for so many improvements, that he could hardly find, it in his heart to oppose the Bill now before the House. He felt it his duty, however, to do so, as he was at a loss to imagine why the Post Office should have such extraordinary protection. The measure seemed to him to be an attempt at a species of tyranny to be founded upon the idea that there was something sacred about the Post Office Department which was not to be found in connection with any other Institution. He was a great believer in and admirer of the old Common Law, and thought that all offences it was possible to bring under it should be dealt with by it. It seemed to him to be advisable to have as few Statutes as they could; and he thought the Postmaster General would not contradict him when he said that this Bill would constitute 20 or 30 353 new crimes. If the Bill did not constitute these new crimes, it, at any rate, appeared to do so. There were a great many things mentioned in the Bill which were not required at all; and, in fact, the whole scheme of the Bill was wrong. Many things contained in the Bill were already provided for by the ordinary law. It was true there was a Post Office Bill last year; but when they compared the present measure with the measure of last year, they would find a considerable difference between them. There was, in the present Bill, an evidence of a growing tendency in this matter. The 7th clause was new—that was to say, it had not been contained in the Bill of last year. The 11th clause was new, as was also the 14th. They might, by these clauses, form some estimate of what the thing would grow to in the long run. It was not as if the Postmaster General had come last year saying—"There is a defect here and there, and I want this or that alteration in the law," and had come again this year with the same request; but it was obvious that, just as in the case of Hamlet's mother, "appetite grew by what it fed on." So was the Postmaster General's appetite growing by what it had received in previous years. He (Mr. Warton) was correct when he said that many of the clauses were new ones, and, more than that, seemed to be intensified; and what he complained of was that the second edition of the Bill showed how strong a tendency there was to introduce unnecessary legislation in matters of this kind. The right hon. Gentleman the Postmaster General had made a strong appeal to them to save the public from those cruel hoaxes he had described. They had listened to the right hon. Gentleman with interest, and sympathized with him in his desire; but that clause with regard to the sending of false telegrams was not in the Bill of last year. What was the reason the clause was not in the Bill as originally presented? Why, it appeared that alter the House had been told what was necessary for Post Office protection, it so happened that a certain noble Lord sitting on that (the Opposition) side of the House was away in the country with his wife when the telegram was sent to him, telling him that their baby was ill. An intimation to that effect was conveyed to the Postmaster General, and that was 354 why the clause was now proposed. The hoax had, no doubt, caused the noble Lord to whom he referred a great deal of annoyance; but his (Mr. Warton's) point was this—that the very case which the right hon. Gentleman the Postmaster General said was such a cruel one was never contemplated by him when he brought in his Bill last year. That only showed how ill-considered had been the measure of last year, and how ill-considered, therefore, the present Bill was likely to be. He should advise the Postmaster General to withdraw the measure, and see whether he could not find a few more clauses to introduce into it between now and next Session, and whether it would not be better to give them a substantial interval to see what the Bill would grow to. There might be some more new clauses to be added next year. [Cries of "Divide!"] He (Mr. Warton) hoped he might be allowed to put his case before the House without interruption. He had considered this matter very carefully, and it was his habit always to stand up for freedom of debate. They knew perfectly well that the law provided that insulting words should not be used in the street; but why should there be a greater degree of wickedness in using insulting words in the Post Office than in the street or anywhere else? Why in the world should it be more heinous to use indecent gestures or words in a Post Office than in any other building? What was the reason? Was it on account of the sanctity of the Post Office? This was simply another evidence of that high official idea that a kind of special ægis was to be thrown over the Post Office, because it was a "Public Department." He did not like that at all. Then, besides making it a greater crime to act indecently in a Post Office than anywhere else, under one of the sections a police constable could be called in on the instant by the meanest Post Office official to carry out the idea of his importance or dignity. If the simplest clerk in a Post Office had anything to object to on the part any Member of the public—for instance, if he was slow in his work, and a person said to him—"Now, then, look sharp," or something of that kind, that was an "indecent expression," and the clerk would have power to remove such person, and any police constable would have to assist him. Why should 355 it be assumed that offences of this kind, where even they were offences, were more objectionable in a Post Office than anywhere else? He would not scrutinize the language of the 3rd clause; but the Bill certainly seemed to suggest to inventive minds all sorts of new crimes. He had no doubt the Postmaster General had them all in his mind, and it would not be decent to repeat them, so as to suggest them to the boyish mind, or any person of unregulated mind, who had not come to the years of discretion, who might think it a "lark" to do some of these things. He failed to see why the Postmaster General should suggest to the people these offences against pillar boxes and Post Offices, and could only attribute it to a high, inflated notion of the importance of one's own Department. This was a Bill which ought never to have been brought in. Was the right hon. Gentleman the Postmaster General now satisfied with it? He desired an answer to the simple question, was the Postmaster General satisfied with his own Bill, or did he intend the growing process to go on? Could he not invent a few more offences, and put in a few more crimes? He (Mr. Warton) would like to know who advised the right hon. Gentleman in this matter. Most delicate legal questions would arise under the Bill, as the punishments provided under it would be found very often to conflict with punishments provided under well-known statutes. It might turn out that persons committing certain offences specified in the Bill would have been much more seriously punished under the Common Law, whilst some would be let off altogether. It might turn out that whilst persons committing grave offences were let off with small penalties under the Bill, persons committing slight offences would be heavily punished.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read a second time, and committed for To-morrow.