HC Deb 28 March 1889 vol 334 cc1047-73

(In the Committee.)

(1.) £1,785,516, Post Office Telegraphs.

Sir G. CAMPBELL (Kirkcaldy)

I hope the Postmaster General will be able to give the Committee some explanation with regard to the expense that will be incurred in taking over the Submarine Electric Telegraph Company's system. The charge of £60,000 to be made for taking over this system seems to me to be very large, and I understand that between £30,000 and £40,000 is to be paid in salaries. I have no objection to the taking over of this system; on the contrary, I think it should be taken over by the Government, but at the same time I trust there will be a considerable saving through the proposed amalgamation, and that we are not taking over with the liability to pensioning them, the old and middle-aged servants of the company. There is a large addition to the salary of the office of General Secretary under the Postmaster General. Will he tell us whether the whole establishment of the Telegraph Company has been taken over; and whether it will be subject to future reductions?


I am rather surprised that the Vote should be allowed to pass with so little discussion, for, although this is called a revenue-earning Department, it is a complete misnomer. It may not, perhaps, be known to every Member of this Committee that the Telegraph Service is carried on at an annual loss of at least £350,000. Now that loss is, no doubt, very largely due to the improvident arrangement which was originally made between the State and the Company. The Post Office has acquired a great reputation for business capacity—a reputation which I think, upon the whole, it thoroughly deserves. But it is all the more important on that account that I should call attention to one or two exceptional cases. Now, I want to invite the attention of the Postmaster General to one particular part of the bargain by which we undertake to convey, free of charge, all service messages over the lines which we originally took over. It appears that since these lines were taken over the first complete year was 1871. The number of messages since then has increased to ten times what it was. And, if hon. Members refer to the Report of the Revenue Estimates Committee last year, they will find that the Post Office officials complain very seriously that the railway companies are making an unfair use of this statutory right—that, in fact, they are using the telegraph for purposes in which communication by writing should be the only medium. The annual loss upon this part of the bargain is about £50,000. I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that he should take very serious steps to come to some arrangement with the railway companies by which this privilege may be commuted for a lump sum, or by an annual payment if it is preferred. Then, Sir, I notice another remarkable statement to which I venture to call the attention of the right hon. Gentleman—namely, that there is an annual loss of £200,000 on the conveyance of Press messages. Sir, I am anxious that this subject should be discussed. I do not pretend to say whether this annual loss is justifiable or not, but I certainly think that the principle ought to be raised, and ought to receive some consideration and some discussion in this House. Are we justified in putting upon the public annually a burden of £200,000 for the conveyance of Press messages? No doubt the dissemination—


I rise, Sir, to a point of order. I wish to ask if this arises upon the Vote now under discussion?


Order, order! I think the remarks of the hon. Member are in order.


I was raising the point, when I was interrupted, as to whether we were justified in laying this burden of £200,000 on the people? No doubt it is extremely desirable that Press messages should be disseminated throughout the country; but I think, if this Committee were to refuse to grant the money necessary to defray the loss which is now incurred, it would give an opportunity of raising a discussion on the principle. The question is whether we are not now putting this £200,000 into the pockets of the newspaper proprietors of the country. Now, no doubt, newspaper proprietors are a very deserving portion of the community; they discharge an important function in this country; but, after all, they are only one class of capitalists, and it is a question well worthy consideration whether we are justified in carrying on a service at a public loss for the benefit of one class of capitalists, when you are not willing to do the same for every other class. No doubt, the right hon. Gentleman will tell us that the rates for Press messages are fixed by Act of Parliament. But an Act of Parliament is not irrevocable, and should this House consider the present arrangement to be inequitable, it is open to the Postmaster General to introduce a Bill to revise these rates. Now, Sir, there is one other point which I should like to mention. I have here a Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General—


I must again rise to order, Sir. Last year, your predecessor ruled that the hon. Member for Derby was out of order in raising a similar discussion. We are now asked to vote the salaries, wages, and allowances for the Post Office. That is a separate item from the Telegraphs, and I am anxious, before the Telegraphs are reached, to discuss another point which I think much more important.


Order, order! I cannot rule that the hon. Member for Bethnal Green is out of Order.


The point I wish to refer to is, that in the periodical stock-taking nothing is done to verify the stores. We know that in connection with the Naval Service very serious loss was sustained owing to the regulations in this connection not having been observed, and I do hope that the right hon. Gentleman will take steps to see that the regulations regarding it in his Department are enforced.


I heartily concur in the remarks of the hon. Member with regard to the loss of £200,000 a-year on Press messages. I think the contract can be broken by the Postmaster General, because the Statute provides that it shall be lawful for the Postmaster General to make contracts from time to time with newspaper publishers and proprietors; and, therefore, it is perfectly in the province of the Postmaster General to issue afresh scale of charges. I believe newspaper proprietors, who enjoy large incomes from their papers, are able to pay a far larger sum than they now do for telegraphing.

*ME. JOHN E. ELLIS (Nottingham, Rushcliffe)

I think the Committee is much indebted to the two Metropolitan Members who have initiated the discussion. Among the very great variety of subjects which come before the House, I am not sure whether the extreme importance of this particular question has not escaped attention. As is stated in the Report of the Select Committee on Revenue Estimates which sat last year up to the 31st March, 1887, the loss of interest at 3 per cent on the capital account on the purchase of the Telegraphs amounted to £3,024,889, and the deficiency had latterly been increasing year by year, the Return for the year 1887–8 being £471,889. I venture to say that that is a state of things which demands the serious attention of the Committee. I am aware that the last Return received shows that there was considerable improvement for the year ending March, 1888; but I observe that in the Estimates now laid before us there are two very serious increases. How does this deficiency, which amounted to £471,000 for the financial year 1887, arise? Three or four causes have been pointed out—the enormous capital account is responsible for £300,000 annually, Press messages are responsible for a large amount, and railway messages and unprofitable extensions cause the rest. I am not sure that the country would suffer much loss if a large number of these Press messages were not sent at all, especially the London correspondence of certain provincial journals, containing personal gossip and tittle-tattle respecting Members of this House. The Telegraph Department have, under the terms of the Telegraph Act, to transmit railway companies' messages free of cost in return for the use of the lines for their telegraphs; but whereas in the first year the number of such messages transmitted was 97,000, it had last year grown to 960,000. It was given in evidence that whilst there is, on the one hand, a possibility of indefinite increase, on the other there is nothing more contributed for it to the State by the railways. I venture to say that that is a most serious matter, and one which demands a remedy at the hands of the House. The unprofitable character of the Department's work is also partially due to public pressure to improve the service even at a loss, but the Select Committee which considered the subject gave expression to the opinion that the reasons which existed against treating the Post Office as a commercial business were not applicable in the same degree to the Telegraph Department, and I hope the Committee will endorse that policy and consider the Telegraph Department as a commercial concern, since if we are to allow those responsible for it to go on increasing its work un productively hither and thither meeting, every local demand, we shall soon land ourselves in a Serbonian bog of difficulty. I hope that the Postmaster General will find himself in a position to inform the Committee that the Government will adopt the policy set forth in the Report I have quoted.

*MR. SHAW LEFEVRE () Bradford, Central

I rather hoped that the Postmaster General would have commenced this discussion by making a financial statement with regard to the Telegraph Service, and that he would have explained some of the points which have been alluded to. I believe that the Postmaster General has been in the habit of making such statements, seeing that there are very important financial questions involved. Now the last Return which has been presented to the House with regard to the Revenue Account of the Telegraph Service shows an improvement as compared with the previous Return. In the year ending March, 1887, the deficiency was£145,000; in the year ending March, 1888, it was only £6,800. This is a very great improvement, and I should like to know from the Postmaster General whether it is likely to continue, and whether for the year ending in this month it will show a corresponding improvement as compared with last year? One can hardly expect such a marked improvement as that of last year, because that was due to exceptional causes, but I venture to hope that the revenue of the Telegraph Service will go on improving, for we must now be rapidly approaching the point when, at all events, there will be no deficiency on the Revenue Account. Whether, however, we shall come to a time when there will be a sufficient surplus to pay the full interest on the money invested in the Telegraphs I venture to doubt. I think we may, indeed, confidently expect that such a day is very far distant. Hon. Members should remember that the sixpenny telegrams were forced on the Post Office and on the Government by the House of Commons. I ventured at the time I prepared the scheme and laid it before the Government, and explained it to the House, to inform them that it was highly probable there would never be, in the future, sufficient profits to pay interest on the capital account, and if there should be any surplus it will be much better than I expected. My strong impression was at the time that the scheme which was then adopted was the most moderate from a financial point of view, and it was the most beneficial in the public interest, but I always held that the results were not likely to be such as to give a surplus to represent the interest on capital. The hon. Member for Bethnal Green raised two important points; one with regard to railway messages, and the other as to Press messages. Now, in regard to the former, I cannot but think that there has been a great abuse. It appears that these railway messages have increased ten-fold since 1871, and I cannot for a moment doubt that a large proportion of these messages are not really essential for the railway service, but that the wires are used for other matters. I think the wisest course would be to buy up this interest of the railway companies, and in future charge them for all the work performed; and if the matter could be referred to arbitration, then it would be for the arbitrator to look into the messages and see whether they come within the purview of the Act of Parliament, and whether it was originally intended that such messages should be sent free of charge. I believe it would be found that the messages now sent involve a vast amount of work which was never intended to be provided for. No doubt it would involve an immediate outlay to buy up the interests of the companies, but I think it would be the cheaper in the long run. And now as to the Press messages. I know I have been in considerable doubt as to whether the conclusions of the Committee on that point are right, and as to whether it is a fact that these messages cost the country £200,000 a year. I know it has been stated to be so more than once; but I recollect that when I was at the Post Office I looked carefully into the matter, and I came to the opinion that it was very doubtful whether this could be proved. It is quite true that if the Press messages were sent at the ordinary rate for day messages, a large additional revenue would accrue to the Post Office; but these messages are, for the most part, sent at night, when the wires are not occupied, and I think it is hardly fair to compare the receipts from them with the charges which would be made had they been sent at the ordinary rate for day messages. I am not sure that it would be wise on the part of the Postmaster General to attempt to alter the present arrangement. Undoubtedly, he would meet with very serious opposition from the Press generally. In conclusion, I can only say I hope the right hon. Gentleman will give us some financial explanation of the present position of the Telegraph Service, and what are the immediate prospects of the receipts exceeding the expenditure.

BARON ROTHSCHILD (Bucks,) Aylesbury

There is one small point to which I wish to invite the attention of the Postmaster General. Two months ago I questioned him in regard to it, and I pointed out to him that the public were very much in doubt as to whether telegrams, which were sent to places in the country so distant from post offices that mileage had to be paid, should have the mileage paid upon them by the senders, or by the receivers. The Postmaster General, on that occasion, said that the matter had been settled; but I venture to tell him that at this moment telegrams are often sent on which this mileage is often paid, not only by the senders in London, but by the recipients in the country. Personally, I think the better arrangement would be to charge the senders with the mileage, as we, know perfectly useless telegrams are sometimes sent promiscuously into the country for the mere object of getting them opened, and they entail unnecessary and unpleasant expense on the receiver, I should like it to be understood in the future that the mileage in these cases is not to be twice paid, but that it must be paid by the sender, and not at the place of destination.


I only intend to occupy the attention of the Committee for a few minutes in regard to the complaints raised by the hon. Member for Bethnal Green, and I propose especially to deal with the Press messages. When a Select Committee sat on this subject I examined Mr. Patey as to the grounds on which he based his calculation that the Press message cost he country £200,000 annually. He told me it was based on the number of words sent, and it was further explained that though a very large number of the messages were duplicated, yet on the calculation each newspaper was charged as if it were an original message sent to that paper alone. Again, it should be remembered that most of these Press messages are sent at night, and I will venture to assert that £50,000 a year would amply cover any loss arising from Press messages. As to the Telegraph Department generally, I have great satisfaction in saying that it is a model department, and the few reforms needed are being gradually introduced. But I cannot say the same of the Post Office. I believe that if the accounts of the Telegraph Department were drawn out on a commercial basis it would surprise the Committee to learn that the Post Office every year shows a profit. For instance, in the year 1883–84 the profit was 2.97 per cent. Last year it was £500. My object in calling attention to this matter is to show that the Department is being conducted on commercial principles. In the Telegraph Department we have no account of the money expended on buildings, and one of the great stumbling blocks in the way of preparing a business-like statement is that a large debt was incurred in the purchase of the telegraphs. In my opinion it would be wise to follow the example set with regard to the Crimean War Fund, and wipe it off altogether.

*SIR J. SWINBURNE (Staffordshire, Lichfield)

I wish to draw the attention of the Committee to the position of the great railway companies in regard to the Telegraph Service. I maintain that every railway station ought to be a telegraph office. In Northumberland such offices have been established on one of the lines, with great advantage to the public. There appears to me to be no reason why every railway station should not be a receiving-office, even if it could not deliver messages. It would be an enormous advantage to the local police if they could send a telegram from any railway station at any time during the night by paying an extra charge. I would suggest to the Government that when the great railway companies come here with their annual Bills clauses should be inserted making pro- vision in the direction I have indicated.

*MR. W. P. SINCLAIR (Falkirk, &c.)

I wish to ask the right hon. Gentleman the Postmaster General whether he has considered the question of night or half- rate messages? The system is commonly in vogue in America, and the proceeds derived from it form a very valuable adjunct to the amount received by the telegraph companies. Of course such a system is not so necessary in a small country like the United Kingdom as it is in the United States; but there are many parts of the kingdom where it would be of great advantage. Take, for instance, the two important towns of Belfast and Liver pool. The mail closes in Belfast at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, and any letter posted later than that is not de livered in Liverpool until after 4 o'clock on the following evening. If half-rate messages were allowed between the two towns, I am sure that the telegraphic business between would be greatly in creased, and a large revenue would be derived from it. The necessity for the same convenience is, I believe, felt else where. A very large revenue would thus, I believe, be gained by the Post Office if messages were allowed to be sent during the night at half rates. Another matter which has frequently been put before the Postmaster General is that of lowering the rate for messages after a message has reached a certain length. For instance, the charge for transmitting every word over 48 might be reduced to a farthing. In that case I believe a large number of long messages would be sent that are not sent now, and in that way the Post Office would derive an additional revenue.

MR. LABOUCHERE (Northampton)

I do not entirely agree with the hon. Member who has just sat down. It may be desirable to have night messages, but I do not know why half rates should be charged for them, inasmuch as somebody would have to remain in each office during the night, and an additional charge would thus be imposed upon the Post Office. Nor do I understand why there should be a reduction in the rates upon long messages. I regard it as one of the advantages of the present system that it induces us to cultivate brevity, and no doubt the brevity of the speeches delivered in this House is much increased by the habit when drawing up telegrams of trying to save as many halfpence as possible. I hope the right hon. Gentleman the Postmaster General will tell us something about the exact position of the Post Office with regard to telephones. In my opinion it is desirable that the telephone business should be acquired as soon as possible by the Government, and that it should be constituted a branch of the telegraphic service. Owing to the present high charges, very few persons put themselves in general telephonic communication. I should like to see at every telegraph office a telephone, which could be used by any person for one, two, or three minutes at a very small charge. I believe some of the telephonic patents will soon lapse, and I hope that the Post Office will, without recognizing vested interests, acquire the telephonic service for the use of the public.


I wish to say a word in support of what has been urged by my hon. Friend (Mr. Labouchere) in regard to the development of the telephone system. Anyone who has seen the working of that system in America must be aware of how backward we are in this country in regard to it. It would be a most useful thing to have telephonic communication between the various post-offices.


I will endeavour as far as I can to answer the various questions which have been put to me, but I would first thank those who have taken part in the discussion for the disposition they have shown not to criticize the Post Office, but rather to show their appreciation of what the Post Office has endeavoured to do to add to the convenience of the public. With regard to the Submarine Telegraph Company, I can assure the Committee that we have not fallen into the mistake made on a previous occasion with regard to the recognition of vested rights which are not compatible with the plainest and most obvious principles of justice. We are not taking over the whole staff, but are making certain exceptions. It has not yet been quite possible to ascertain the amount of the cost to be imposed on the State by the addition of the work of the Submarine Company. We are taking over many of the servants of the Company, and they are to receive the same salaries as they now obtain. As opportunity arises, they will be drafted into different classes of the Postal Service, and will be invited to accept positions in those classes at the recognized rates now paid to the servants of the Crown in those classes. They will then have the prospect of annual increment and pension, but the appointments will be dependent solely upon their capacity to perform the duties attaching to them. In the event of any of them declining to avail themselves of these advantages they will be entitled to remain individually at the service of the Post Office, but at the salaries they now receive, and they will lose the prospect of any increment or pension. I think the Committee will agree that, in taking this course, while we have treated these gentlemen fairly and justly, we have not acted any more liberally than we were bound to do in taking over a service of this importance. I am not in a position to make a statement to the Committee in regard to the precise sum to be paid for the plant and goodwill of the Submarine Telegraph Company. Though we are on the eve of arriving at a settlement, there is yet one nation at all events which desires further information before the ratifications of the Convention are exchanged. I believe the Committee and the country at large will be very well satisfied when they come to know the terms on which we propose to acquire the cable, but that will form the subject of further discussion in this House when the additional Estimates are laid on the Table. Attention has been called to the painful subject of the constantly increasing annual loss on the capital sum laid out in the purchase of the telegraphs. The deficit in 1887 amounted to nearly half a million sterling, but in 1888 it shrunk to £6,000. I am happy to say that a very great improvement is still perceptible, and I am rather more sanguine than is my right hon. Friend and predecessor (Mr. Shaw Lefevre) that the income of the service will eventually clear off the debt. I do not say that the loss of former years is likely to be replaced, but I do say that last year a respectable profit was earned, and I trust that now that the Submarine Telegraph Company is being taken over, the profits will be largely increased. I will give the Committee the figures of the last ten years. In the first five of these a very considerable profit was earned by the Postal Telegraph Service, though it never amounted to such a sum as would quite wipe off the amount put down for interest. In 1879 the profits on working amounted to £280,000; in 1880 they amounted to £296,000; in 1881 to £325,000, (so that the service was then within £1,000 of clearing the interest on the debt); in 1882 to £213,000; and in 1883 to £184,000. In 1884 there was a deficiency of £19,000; in 1885a deficiency of £32,000; in 1886, a deficit of £45,000; in 1887, a deficit of £145,000; and last year, 1888, a deficit of £6,000, which is the smallest deficit since we have got on the wrong side of the account. I venture to believe that next year will see a substantial sum on the other side of the account. The deficit, which began in 1884, is coincident with the extension of the telegraph service and the increase of telegraph salaries. Although the six penny telegrams have been a very great obstacle for some time, I trust that obstacle is now surmounted, and that we are now on our way to earning a profit The deficit of £145,000 in 1887, although due in some degree to the sixpenny telegrams is in a large degree due to extraordinary expenditure in that year, which will not occur in following years. With regard to the loss on railway messages, I agree that there has been a great departure from what must have been the original intention of Parliament. I do not think that Parliament could have contemplated that within 20 years the number of those messages would be multiplied tenfold. I should always be glad to exact a quid pro quo from the railway companies by enforcing upon them the necessity of giving greater facilities to the public, and I am quite aware that the private Bills coming before Parliament always afford an opportunity of raising a question of that kind. As to how far the railway companies ought to be made to pay for the facilities given to them by Parliament, I would not like to say. With regard to Press messages, they are very well worthy of the consideration of the Department and of the public. I must demur to the exact phrase of "loss of £200,000 on Press messages." I think that is not the most correct way of referring to that part of the question. There is no doubt that if Press messages were sent at the ordinary rates charged to the public the Department would receive £200,000 a year more; but if the same rates were charged to the Press as to the public many of those messages might never be sent at all, and the Department might not receive anything like £200,000 more than at present. That, no doubt, operated largely on the mind of Parliament and of the Ministers who were responsible for that part of the matter as well as the question of the public convenience and benefit, quite apart from the personal profits of owners of newspapers which might result from cheap telegraphic rates to newspapers. The hon. Member for Nottinghamshire (Mr. J. E. Ellis) made reference to both those questions, and I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for calling attention to the recommendation of the Committee that there should be a more strict adherence to commercial principles. I should be extremely obliged to hon. Members if they will assist me in carrying out that recommendation and aid me in resisting applications from those Members who apply for every form of uncommercial arrangement for the benefit of the particular localities they represent. I think it may be sometimes desirable, not so much in the interests of particular localities as in the interests of the general public, to carry out telegraphic works in connection with very distant parts of the Kingdom which are not strictly remunerative. For instance, in some places in the Highlands of Scotland telegrams are very few, and the offices not likely to be self-supporting, but it is absolutely essential to the living of the people that they should have ready means of telegraphing for salt to salt their fish, upon which the existence of some of the natives may be said to depend. I think there are a few cases also where the same thing has been done in the North and West of Ireland. I am quite sure the Committee will not object to such expenditure, which is the exception from what I think is an excellent general rule. There was a point taken by the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire (Baron F. de Rothschild) with regard to porterage. Undoubtedly the rule is that the sender is responsible for those charges. If the sender is not aware of the exact porterage to be paid, and the office is not aware of it either, it is the duty of the latter to require a deposit, and that rule ought to be strictly enforced. It is quite possible that a sufficient deposit may not have been obtained, and in that case application may be made to the receiver; but I think the whole expense ought to be upon the sender; and if the hon. Member is aware of any cases of hardship and will submit them to me I will consider them. The hon. Baronet the Member for the Lichfield Division (Sir J. Swinburne) has urged the increase of the number of telegraph offices at railway stations. I find that there is some friction on the part of the railway companies, and that they object to their servants acting as servants of the Post Office. It is not desirable to force upon them duties which would interfere with their first duty. It would not, therefore, be easy to increase the number of telegraph stations in this direction. I am at the same time quite willing to consider any case for the establishment of a telegraph office at a railway station where public convenience would be served, and I should be glad to consent to any such proposal where it could be done without unnecessarily infringing on the revenue. The hon. Member for Falkirk (Mr. Sinclair) has brought forward the question of half-rates for night messages. I only wish that I could meet his views. At present a good deal of additional attendance is involved, and the rate at which messages are transmitted is barely remunerative. It is therefore more than doubtful whether the revenue would stand the strain of sending messages at night at half-rates, and I cannot hold out any expectation that such a scheme will be adopted. There exists, however, a plan in London by which telegrams may be sent at night after the offices are closed. If an hon. Member goes from this House at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning and wishes to send a telegram he can do so by putting the message on a post card in the pillar box. It will then be delivered by 9 o'clock in the morning. Probably that will meet my hon. Friend's objection. I would remind my hon. Friend when he speaks of the cheap telegrams in America that the American initial rates are very much higher than ours. Where the rate is 2d. or 2½d. a word it is possible to send at half-rate, but I cannot hold out any hope that such a suggestion would be accepted in this country, where the charge is only a halfpenny a word. As it is we barely pay our way. The tendency of messages is to get shorter and not longer. The average amount per message is now distinctly below 8d. It is 7.9; and as the tendency is in that direction it is likely to be still further developed as time goes on. Before the 6d. telegrams were introduced the average was 1s. 1d. per message. I do not think that the state of the revenue of the Department would justify me in holding out any hope with regard to a cheaper rate of telegraphic transmission. As to the telephonic system, which has been referred to by the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Labouchere), the Courts have declared it to be a part of the Government monopoly in telegraphs, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Post Office is keeping a watchful eye over the telephones, more with a view to the improvement of the system than with any intention of acquiring them. My predecessor, Mr. Fawcett, unfortunately stated in public that steps would not be taken by the Government to enforce the rights which the Judgment gave them; and a state of things has thereby been created which requires very careful handling, so far as the department is concerned. The patents, however, are likely to lapse very soon, and when they have run out that will be the time to make arrangements, which, I trust, will differ in almost every respect from existing arrangements. With regard to telephones being put into post-offices, that is subsidiary to the larger question. In some parts of England the telephonic system is under the control of the Government absolutely, and there it is, of course, comparatively easy to make arrangements such as have been indicated. So long as the telephone companies continue to ply their trade, it is not desirable, I think, that the Government should commit itself to arrangements Which might seem in any way to recognize or establish a vested intereset, which I, for one cannot admit to exist. The grievance of the public in this matter ought, no doubt, to be removed as soon as possible, and it should be done upon terms satisfactory to all parties. I congratulate the Committee upon having taken a step which has been looked forward to for many years by all who have been anxious to extend our telegraphic system—the step of sanctioning the acquisition of the system of the Submarine Telegraph Company, from which I anticipate the most beneficial results alike for the public and for the Department.


When will the acquisition take place?


I think I had better not enter into particulars at present.


There is one matter which the right hon. Gentleman has overlooked. I refer to the paragraph in the Report of the Controller and Auditor General in which he says that no attempt has been made at any detailed stocktaking for many years, and that the regulations laid down for the purpose have not been observed. I hope that matter will receive the attention of the right hon. Gentleman.


When an opportunity is afforded to us for stocktaking, I hope to be able to effect a thorough overhauling of every department.


When the right hon. Gentleman says that the average number of words in a telegraphic message are eight, does that include the addresses? If I recollect rightly, the addresses used to average 12 words; the average number of words in a message was about 25.


I ought to have said that the average charge for each message was 8d., and not that each message averaged eight words.

*SIR J. PEASE (Durham, Barnard Castle)

I may remind my right hon. Friend, who seemed somewhat to complain of the use the railway companies made of the wires, that if his business has increased, that of the railway companies has increased also as regards the forwarding of goods by methods which differ from those formerly adopted, and that in this respect the requirements of the traders are much greater than formerly. I do not think the right hon. Gentleman intended to convey that there is any friction between his department and the rail- way companies of the Kingdom. It has been my duty to sit on a Railway Committee which has to deal with the Post Office, and I may say that in order to meet the convenience of the public and the Post Office, many trains are now run at earlier hours than they would otherwise be run, and that the profit of the railway companies is made subservient to the interests of the public as far as the Post Office is concerned. As a matter of fact, I do not recollect, in a long series of years, any dispute with the Post Office as to what should be paid for these earlier trains, or at what hours they should be run. The railway companies feel that it is a public services which they are bound to perform in connection with the monopoly they enjoy, and there is very little or no friction whatever in carrying out the wishes of the Post Office.


There is one small point which I desire to mention. A messenger who delivers a telegram should be authorized to wait for five or ten minutes in order to see if there is a return message. This would be an indulgence to persons living in the rural districts who at present find the tariff for porterage almost a prohibitory tariff. At present whether the messenger waits for a reply message depends upon his amiability, which in its turn depends upon a pecuniary douceur.

*SIR J. PULESTON (Devonport)

I must congratulate my right hon. Friend on the satisfactory results which have attended the establishment of sixpenny telegrams, and which are due largely to the efficient administration of the department over which he presides. When the question of sixpenny telegrams was before the House a great point in the discussion was then propriety of allowing free addresses. The right hon. Gentleman who was then Postmaster General and others did not see their way at that time to give free addresses, but there was a kind of understanding that that would follow when the cost and the expenditure were something like equal.




That was certainly the general understanding. Every Member of the House recognized the importance of free addresses, and it was understood that they would be given when the cost and the expense reached an equilibrium. I am delighted to find that we have now reached a point when the profits, notwithstanding the additional outlay, are appreciable, and I hope the Postmaster General will be able to give some encouraging assurance that we shall now get free addresses. It is an important point and the only objection that was urged when the matter was discussed before was the financial one.

*MR. H. H. FOWLER (Wolverhampton, E.)

I am afraid that the coping stone the hon. Member would like to see placed over the telegraphic system is the privilege of sending messages gratis. The address is an integral part of the message, and I think I may say that it formed no part of the plan of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bradford (Mr. Shaw Lefevre) that there should be free addresses, nor of those who supported my right hon. Friend in his movement for sixpenny telegrams. The objection to free addresses was that unnecessary words were consumed in the addresses. My right hon. Friend told us that upon one occasion he received a telegram in which the address numbered 17 words. One great improvement derived from the introduction of the present system is in the reduction of the number of words in the addresses, and I think it would be a highly retrogressive step to revert to the old system. Any reduction that is made ought to be made in the cost of the whole message and not in any particular part of it. The figures which the Postmaster General has laid before us this evening are, I think, highly satisfactory, and show that the Post Office is conducted on sound commercial principles, while at the same time a due regard is paid to the public interests. The figures, however, are not those which are ordinarily presented in any other commercial undertaking. There is no capital account. The entire capital expenditure is charged against the expenditure of the year, and therefore when you say that you have a balance against the telegraph income you are debiting that income with a large capital outlay for the purpose of developing the business. The capital outlay upon the Post Office and Telegraphs is defrayed out of the income of the year. It is not fair therefore to say that it is only producing so much in the year because it is really producing the entire capital expenditure of the year, and in addition a small sum beyond with every prospect of its being hereafter increased.

MR. S. BUXTON (Tower Hamlets, Poplar)

I wish to put a question in reference to the submarine telegraph. Do I understand that by voting an additional sum now we are committing ourselves to any particular scheme, or that we are actually committed to the purchase? Having regard to the disastrous bargains which we have hitherto made, I think we ought to have an opportunity of discussing the matter before we are committed to the purchase. The right hon. Gentleman says that the matter is still under negotiation, and that he is unable to give us the actual figures. What I wish to know is whether before we are committed to a large expenditure we shall have an opportunity of considering the matter?


A separate Estimate will be presented to the House, and the House will have an opportunity of expressing an opinion upon it.


I believe that only £41,000 is paid by the Submarine Companies for the use of special wires, and I think that it might be readily increased to £100,000. The Eastern Telegraph Company only pays £6,000, whereas, I think, it could well afford to pay £20,000. Some very important evidence was given by Mr. Patey in regard to these special wires. He was asked if he had any idea of the amount of business done between England and the rest of the world by the Cable Companies, and he answered in the negative. Nor was there any power, he said, to ascertain the business done by these companies. In view of the fact that the Cable Companies pay much larger dividends than the Telegraph Companies, I think that some steps ought to be taken to ascertain what business they do with the view of increasing the sum now paid by them for special wires.

*MR. HALLEY STEWART (Lincolnshire, Spalding)

The right hon. Gentleman says that it is incorrect to speak o a "loss of £200,000 on Press messages.' I gather from his statement that this sum is an unmade profit, which is quite a different thing to a loss. We should like to learn from the Postmaster General what is the actual cost of the messages and the income—to know whether there is a profit or loss?

*MR. BARCLAY (Forfarshire)

With regard to the Post Office Department acquiring the telephones, I should like to ask if the right hon. Gentleman will oppose any application which may be made by the Telephone Company for extension of their patent?

*MR. DE LISLE (Leicestershire, Mid)

I think there is great force in the remarks which were made by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras (Mr. Cochrane-Baillie). We are supposed, now, to be in the enjoyment of sixpenny telegrams. As far as the towns are concerned, that is really so, but in the rural districts the sixpenny telegram does not exist. You cannot get a telegram for less than a shilling if you live a mile away from the office, and anything over two miles cost 1s. 6d. Now, our letters are conveyed all over the country, whether 100 yards from the post office or 10 miles, at the same charge of a penny. I am quite aware that the Department cannot be called upon to deliver telegrams at the public expense at a cheaper rate than now, but I would suggest that something might be done for the rural districts by a re-arrangement of terms. For instance, where 6d. is charged for porterage, the messenger should be required to wait for at least a quarter of an hour to enable the receiver of the telegram to write a reply. By far the greater number of town telegrams relate to gambling or speculating in some form or another, while those to and from rural districts relate chiefly to agriculture, which at the present moment is a much-suffering industry. Manufacturers can send back their replies without having to employ porters, and it is to be hoped that the Post Office will soon be able to devise a scheme by which town and country may be placed more on an equality with regard to telegraphic facilities. The telegraphs are now much used by the farmers, and the complaint is that more attention is paid to the horse racing and gambling interest than to those of agriculture. The men on the Stock Exchange get their telegrams for sixpence, while the farmers have to pay double. I trust that my right hon. Friend may be able to give the Committee an assurance that this matter will receive due consideration.

MR. MOLLOY (King's County, Birr)

I rise for the purpose of supporting the statement which has been made by the hon. Member for Devonport (Sir J. Puleston). The hon. Member has said that when the subject of the sixpenny telegrams was before the House a demand was made for the inclusion of the addresses. That demand was not conceded, but it was understood that as soon as it was shown that sixpenny telegrams were a financial success the inclusion of addresses should be considered. The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton says there was no such understanding.


Not on the part of the late Government.


It was distinctly understood that as soon as the sixpenny telegrams proved a financial success, as they have now proved to be, the addresses should be sent free. I recollect that both the hon. Member for Devonport and myself spoke upon the subject, and the statement of the then Postmaster General was that it would be better to see what the result of sixpenny telegrams would be financially before we went further. We had a long fight about these sixpenny telegrams, and the prophecy then made has now been fulfilled. Therefore I think the time has now arrived when the inclusion of free addresses should at any rate be considered. The fact that the right hon. Member for Bradford once received a telegram in which the address comprised 17 words is of no importance at all; it is very improbable that a person sending a message to the Postmaster General would say "The Right Hon. John Joseph Jones, Her Majesty's Postmaster General," and so on. The cheaper telegrams are made, the more will the telegraphs be used, and the better it will be for the commercial prosperity of the country. I believe that, on the average, five words cover addresses; and therefore, notwithstanding the opposition of the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, I trust that the Government will concede the boon now asked for.


The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wolverhampton has taken exception to the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport on the ground that free addresses would encourage an unnecessary and extravagant diffuseness of language; but surely any concession in this direction would naturally take the form of allowing a certain number of words—say four or five—to pass free, provided these words formed the address. I can conceive no reasonable objection to such a concession, and it really amounts, in one point of view, to a reduction in the general price of telegrams. It is not a very large concession for the Post Office to make, and would not entail a heavy charge upon the revenue of the Department. It would simply increase the number of words sent for 6d. from 12 to 16 or 17, because, as a rule, four or five words of each telegram consists of addresses. I hope that my right hon. Friend, if not mow, will at some early period see his way to make this concession.


While we have no right to expect that the Department should be carried on at a loss, I think we might well insist that as soon as sixpenny messages realize a profit free addresses should be wholly or partially included. I believe that that was the understanding when the system of sixpenny telegrams was established.

*MR. CAUSTON (Southwark, W.)

Before the telegraphs passed into the hands of the Government longer messages than at present could be sent for sixpence within the Metropolis. When the Government took over the telegraphs the rate was at once doubled. I hope that at no distant time the experiment will be tried of including addresses in the charge. We were told, when sixpenny telegrams were first proposed, that the system would involve a terrible loss to the Revenue, and the right hon. Gentleman, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, said it was impossible to carry it out with success. They have now been in operation for some years, and the experiment has proved to be successful, and I think the time has now arrived when it would be wise on the part of the Government to concede free addresses. It would not entail any considerable additional cost upon the Post Office, and would, undoubtedly, be of great advantage to the public generally.


I should be willing to acquiesce in the restriction to five words for the address, if we can induce the right hon. Gentleman to accept that as an instalment, and I believe there was an understanding, though not, perhaps, a bargain, with the right hon. Member for Bradford, that the inclusion of addresses should be considered as soon as a financial equilibrium was established. I do not think we should regard the Post Office revenue as a source of profit only, where the general interests of the country are concerned.


I feel bound to confirm the statement of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, that, at the time sixpenny telegrams were adopted, there was no understanding whatever come to at the time that there was to be a return to free addresses; and the difficulty chiefly put forward was not the financial one, but it was the large number of words used unnecessarily in addresses when addresses were free. It was found that the average number of words for the names and addresses of sender and sendee was 13.


I think the average number was nine.


No; 13, and the surplusage involved a large loss in transmission, which was saved by abolishing free addresses. I believe that now the average number of words required for names and addresses has been reduced to something like four. This shows a saving, both to the public and to the Department, in the cost of transmitting four words, as against 13. I believe the Postmaster General would do a very unwise thing if he were to revert to the old system of free addresses. It cannot be done without greatly increasing the cost, and if any additional advantage is to be given to the public, it should be given in another direction.


I think the country is to be congratulated on having acquired the Channel cables, and on making the service a public one for the country, instead of being in the hands of a company. I hope there will be an early reduction in the rates now charged for telegrams by the monopolist companies. Although I believe that the Postmaster General is inclined to do his best for the public, we all know that enormous pressure has been put upon him by quasivested interests. I trust that the adjustment and absorption of the submarine cable will lead to a considerable reduction of expenditure as well as an improved service. So far as the newspaper telegrams are concerned, for my part, I am very willing that the country should submit to a very cheap rate in that respect; but I think that some supervision should be exercised over the telegrams themselves, in order to see that the news is really of interest to the public, or that the money is not expended on messages about pugilism, royalties, and subjects of that kind. As to telephones, there is a very convenient service in Switzerland, and I do not see why we should not possess similar advantages. With regard to the House itself, it is most inconvenient to have to go beyond the Outer Lobby in order to despatch a telegram. The journey is not only long, but also dangerous, because hon. Members are liable to fall into the hands of strangers. I trust that something will be done for the convenience of the House in this respect.


I am afraid that I cannot hold out any hope of adopting free addresses. The estimated cost of reverting to free addresses is not less than £400,000 a-year, and he would be a bold Minister indeed who would hold out a prospect of incurring such a loss in restoring the old system. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury wishes us to institute a roving Commission to ascertain how the Transatlantic and other submarine cable companies transact their business. I do not see how such an inquiry could be prosecuted, as we have no right to overhaul the books of those companies or to go to Foreign Powers in order to ascertain what their arrangements are with these companies. Therefore, I can hold out no hope of such an inquiry being instituted. The hon. Member for Forfar-shire (Mr. Barclay) has made a suggestion which I will mention in order to correct a mistake into which some hon. Members have fallen. There is no intention on the part of the Government to acquire the telephones by purchase. I may, in conclusion, take this opportunity of referring to the grievous loss the Telegraph Department has just sustained in the death of Mr. Patey, who was a most competent public servant. His loss is deeply felt, and his memory is endeared to all who had the advantage of serving under him.


If all of the small railway stations were made telegraph offices, I think that would do away with the difficulty in regard to porterage in the rural districts.


I desire to know whether the Postmaster General is satisfied with the amount which the cable companies pay to the Government for the use of the wires? That amount is, I maintain, very much less than it ought to be.


I should like to recall the attention of the Postmaster General to a matter I referred to at the end of last Session—namely, the case of a postmaster in a country town who has been elected Mayor of that town. I should like to know how this public functionary can fulfil his duties to the municipality—attending meetings of the Town Council, meetings of Committees, and so on—and at the same time discharge his duty as postmaster? I also understand that this person is agent for the Sun Insurance Company, and I wish to know whether it is permissible, under the Post Office Regulations, for a postmaster to occupy, with matters of this kind, the time he should be devoting to the service of the Post Office?


The subject the hon. Member is raising is not relevant to this Vote.


If I do not receive a reply on the subject of the charges to the cable companies, I shall feel obliged to move a reduction of the Vote. These Companies are paying £41,000 a-year to the Government for the use of their wires, which I submit is not nearly enough. One of the companies is only paying £6,000, whereas it should be paying £20,000. No steps, I believe, are being taken to ascertain the amount of business that the companies do, which, I think, is a great mistake.


If the hon. Member wishes the Government to make an inquiry into the matter in order to ascertain the amount of profit earned by the Cable Company, I must repeat what I have already stated—namely, that the subject is not a proper one for Government investigation. When we put up a wire for a company we make a charge sufficient to yield a fair profit and cover the cost of repairs, and that is all the answer which I can give the hon. Member. As to the amount of money which the people who use the wires make under the arrangement, that is a matter which lies wholly outside the consideration of the Government.

Vote agreed to.