HC Deb 23 June 1891 vol 354 cc1303-11

Order for Second Reading read.

(12.1.) THE POSTMASTER GENERAL (Mr. RAIKES,) Cambridge University

I hope the House will be willing now to give this Bill a Second Reading. I will shortly refer to the matters with which the Bill deals, matters which have been the subject of much consideration and consultation between the Departments concerned, and which are the outcome of many suggestions made from time to time. The Bill deals with details of a somewhat technical character, the importance of which may perhaps not be apprehended by Members who regard them for the first time, but which have in certain quarters excited much interest. The first clause of the Bill has reference to the much-vexed question, now I hope to be set at rest, of circulars of different descriptions passing through the post for delivery. At the present time the law requires that in order to entitle a circular to pass through the post at the ½d. rate it must consist of matter of a general character, written or printed. If printed, the addition of any note in writing deprives the circular of the privilege. The consequence is that documents printed, so far as the body of the circular is concerned, such, for instance, as notices from a Trade Society, giving the date of a meeting or other formal matter of general information to members, travel by the ½d. rate; but if there is appended a few words, such as "Your subscription is now due," or" Your subscription is so-and-so," then, as the law stands, the circular is transformed into a letter, and is liable to the Id. rate. The consequence has been that an enormous number of circulars issued by trade and other societies, without any intention whatever on the part of the senders to break the law, have been surcharged to the receiver. Great expense and inconvenience have been caused thereby, and the Department has frequently been memorialised on the subject. Those who know how numerous and how large these bodies are, how the members may be counted by the hundreds of thousands, will realise the importance of making such a change in the law as will protect such correspondence from surcharge on the part of the Post Office. This, perhaps, is the most important provision in the whole of the Bill, and it enables the Post Office, with the assent of the Treasury, to frame a new regulation, defining the nature of a circular; and this, being embodied in a Warrant, will exempt from penal consequences those who forward or receive those circulars to which I have referred. I may say that this matter has been very fully and carefully examined by a Departmental Committee, consisting of the higher authorities of the Post Office, who believe they have been able to frame a new rule, which is to be embodied in a Treasury Warrant, which will efficiently protect these societies from the unpleasant consequences I have referred to. The second clause is intended to meet a grievance which has frequently been brought under my notice by newspaper proprietors. At the present time it is necessary that any supplement should have upon it the date of the newspaper with which it is issued. This may seem a very natural and reasonable provision, but in these days of illustrated papers, when it is frequently the custom to prepare many months in advance a supplement to come out at Christmas or Midsummer, and which is to be a great feature in the issue of the paper for the year, it is not always possible to foresee exactly the time when the supplement will be ready, and in what particular week it is to be put before the public, and if this supplement takes the form of an engraving, costly to produce and of considerable artistic merit and value, it is found almost impossible to impress upon it the date of its appearance. Great incon- venience has been caused to newspaper proprietors in connection with this question of supplements, and it is proposed hereby to put an end to this requirement of the law, and to enable supplements, under certain restrictions mentioned in the clause, to appear without a date affixed. There are other provisions in relation to newspaper supplements—how they are to be stitched and printed, and other matters of detail with which I need not now trouble the House, but which may become matters for discussion in Committee. One point I may mention, which was brought to my notice by a deputation to-day, a deputation of newspaper proprietors and managers. Exception is taken to a requirement in the clause that the supplement shall be printed by the printer of the newspaper. That is a provision I shall be prepared to modify if in discussion it should appear desirable to do so. Our object is not in any way to impose restrictions on the circulation of a newspaper; we wish to facilitate and assist that circulation. The third clause has reference to the present state of the law under which a newspaper which is held to have violated the conditions of the Newspaper Acts of 1870 and 1875 can only be punished for such violation by being excluded from the register of newspapers to be transmitted by post. That is severe punishment to inflict on a newspaper which may in only one or two cases have deviated from the provisions of the law, and therefore the Post Office asks for power to exclude only a particular number of the paper from the benefits of the register, not excluding the newspaper altogether from the register for the year. This clause is framed entirely in the interest of newspapers. Another clause provides that the Treasury may fix a maximum weight for a newspaper. Newspaper proprietors have been rather prone to imagine that there is an intention on the part of the Government to interfere with newspapers which are at present of a bulky character. I will at once allay the suspicion by saying that the weight which the Treasury think of suggesting as a limit is 1 lb. That secures every newspaper in the country from any awkward consequences, and at the same time it is only reasonable that some limit should be fixed. The next clause contains a provision which will be acceptable to the public generally. We propose to follow the practice in many foreign countries of abolishing the charge for the redirection of letters. This has been brought to our notice particularly by the regulations of the Postal Union, and we feel that the privileges accorded to foreign correspondence under the Union should not be denied to our home letters. A letter originally directed in England can only be redirected at an extra charge; but if directed from abroad to Great Britain it can be re-directed without cost. The Bill will equalise this state of things. The 6th clause gives to the Postmaster General power to enter into arrangements with subsidiary and auxiliary agencies to carry on part of the Post Office work, when it may be thought desirable to give facilities for so doing. I may instance the case of the Messenger Companies, of which we heard a good deal a few months ago, which it is now determined shall be allowed to carry on part of the business of the Post Office under licence from the Postmaster General. This same provision was in a Bill of last year, which unfortunately we were unable to pass from want of time, but which if it had become law would have enabled us to deal with the demand of the companies, and would have obviated much unpleasantness. Then comes a clause referring to land, which enables the Post Office to accept from a Municipal Authority a gift of land for, or a contribution in and of, the construction of a post office. As hon. Members will be aware, it is often a matter of paramount importance to a town to have the post office in a particular position, and I do not think there will be any objection to a provision which will enable localities to facilitate such arrangements. Another clause relates to the punishment of persons who divert or intercept letters with mischievous intention. At present it is not possible to punish this offence unless it is committed for the purpose of stealing from letters, unless those committing the offence are in the Postal Service; but it will be within the personal experience of many hon. Members that cases may and do occur where letters are intercepted or detained from motives other than theft. As the provisions of the Bill are of considerable public importance, I thought it would not be respectful to the House not to give some explanation. If the House will read the Bill a second time tonight, I will give ample time for hon. Members to put down their Amendments. If there are any serious attempts to largely interfere with the structure of the Bill, however, it will be impossible to pass it into law this Session.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Raikes.)

*(12.18.) DR. CAMERON (Glasgow' College)

The Bill is intended to deal with certain public grievances, and to a certain extent it will do so; but it will not remedy either the newspaper grievances or the public grievances. In previous Post Office Acts certain regulations are laid down by Act of Parliament with respect to the rights of the public, but this Bill simply provides for the Treasury and the Post Office making what regulations they may think proper. I have not the smallest doubt that if the matters were left to the present Postmaster General and his colleagues at the Treasury that the rules would be so framed as to carry out the intentions the right hon. Gentleman describes. But any rules the right hon. Gentleman may make will not bind his successors. We object to the interests of the public being thrown without reservation into the hands of any Department. The right hon. Gentleman has told us of the benefit proposed to be extended to Trade Societies and other Associations, that they may send out circulars advising members of the amount of subscriptions due, which circulars shall be carried at the halfpenny rate, but there is not a line in the Bill enabling this to be done. The Bill has a clause enabling the Post Office and the Treasury to make a regulation to this effect, but the same clause would empower the Post Office and the Treasury to decree that invoices and advice notes shall not be sent at the halfpenny postage rate. Then the right hon. Gentleman has told us of the inconvenience of the requirement that a newspaper supplement shall be dated, but the Bill does not contain a line declaring that supplements need not be dated. The Bill contains a provision which is an addition to the existing Act, but it does not repeal the existing provision in the old Act, which requires that a supplement shall be dated. So I might follow the right hon. Gentleman through the clauses of the Bill. But I will only refer to Clause 3, which the right hon. Gentleman tells us is intended to remove a hardship to which proprietors of newspapers are subjected, in that they may be struck off the register for an offence against the regulations. As a matter of fact, the Postmaster General never has struck newspapers off the register, and newspapers have never experienced any difficulty or hardship in the matter, and have made no demand for any change. The right hon. Gentleman says he means to fix the weight of newspapers at one pound. That is reasonable enough, but what guarantee have we that his successors or his colleagues in the Treasury will not fix it at one ounce? That may seem absurd, but we know what the Treasury have done in the past. We know that the Treasury made a bargain with newspapers in relation to telegraph rates, and when the bargain did not pay as they expected they tried to upset the bargain. Now, I make a suggestion to the right hon. Gentleman. He says there are two parties to these arrangements, the Treasury and the Post Office, but there is a third interested party, the public. The public have had no chance of being heard on these proposals. With every desire to give a friendly reception to the proposals in the Bill, I find that some of those most concerned are very dissatisfied. I should like them to have the opportunity of laying their case before the right hon. Gentleman. I suggest, therefore, that we should read the Bill a second time, and then refer it to a Select Committee. Evidence will then be taken, the proposals will be sifted, and next Session the right hon. Gentleman can re-introduce the Bill in a form that will raise no controversy.

*(12.25.) MR. S. SMITH (Flintshire)

I would suggest to the right hon. Gentleman would it not be possible to introduce a clause for the purpose of dealing with what amounts to a public nuisance, the sending of advertisements through the post inviting subscriptions to foreign lotteries? There are also circulars of a still more pernicious character which find their way through the post, and may do a vast amount of harm to our young people. How addresses are found I do not know, but I am informed that the Post Office have no power to suppress advertisements and circulars of this character. Now in the United States, I know the Post Office does possess and use power to destroy unwholesome matter of the kind, and I would suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that he should take this opportunity of introducing a clause to deal with the evil.

MR. LABOUCHERE (Northampton)

This is really a most important Bill. The suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, that it should be referred to a Select Committee, is a good one; but if the right hon. Gentleman is not disposed to adept that course, may I suggest to him as an alternative proposal that he should allow a reasonable interval to elapse before taking the Committee stage, and that the stage should be taken at an hour when the many important points of detail may be thoroughly discussed?

MR. SHAW LEFEVRE (Bradford, Central)

I think the right hon. Gentleman would do well to listen to the proposal of the hon. Member for Glasgow, that the Bill should be referred to a Select Committee, and, on the whole, I think time would be gained by adopting such a course. The hon. Member takes exception to the permissive character of the Bill, but, for my own part, I do not think that is objectionable. I think that the regulations hitherto have been too rigid in their character. I make no objection to the changes proposed, but I presume they will involve a certain amount of cost. Perhaps the Chancellor of the Exchequer will tell us what he anticipates this will be?

(12.30.) THE CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER (Mr. GOSCHEN,) St. George's, Hanover Square

With regard to the general position of the Bill, I must ask the House to consider that if we look upon it as a controversial Bill, the Government, of course, will not be able to press it forward. The Postmaster General has been anxious to bring forward a measure embodying certain concessions to the public. He has had some difficulty in getting the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Treasury to the point of agreement to all the clauses of the Bill. He has succeeded, and I can assure the House that he has been working most strenuously in the interest of the public in the matter. I do not think we could send the Bill before a Select Committee at this period of the Session, seeing that controversial points would have to be dealt with upstairs, and that they would be raised again subsequently in the House. I would suggest to the House that, after hon. Members interested in the provisions of the Bill have conferred with my right hon. Friend, and if they find that there are clauses to which they sincerely object, then it will be better to postpone the clauses until another Session, and to proceed now with those which are of advantage to the public, and as to the utility of which they are generally agreed. I cannot tell the cost of the various changes at present, but it is estimated that the item for re-directed letters will amount to £14,000 a year, although my right hon. Friend thinks it will be considerably less.

MR. FULLER (Wilts, Westbury)

I wish to draw the attention of the Postmaster General to a particular clause of the Bill, and to ask if he will consider it. The 8th clause introduces a new principle, that of the Urban Sanitary Authorities assisting in some way the right hon. Gentleman and the Post Office in making better provision for the Post Office Service, and so on, in large towns and boroughs. What I want to ask is whether he would allow these facilities to be extended to Rural Sanitary Authorities. In-outlying villages, in many instances, there seems to be little or no chance of getting a post office. In many places they do not get the advantage of telegraphs or postal orders or money orders or savings banks. It is in these rural districts, where there are no large traders and no influential persons to intercede for the parishes, that the parishioners should be allowed to appeal to the Sanitary Authority to urge their case before the Postmaster General. I do not see why in this matter partiality should be shown to the large towns. Will the right hon. Gentleman the Postmaster General say if there is any hope of an Amendment being introduced by him to meet the case I have pointed out?

*(12.35.) MR. J. A. BRIGHT (Birmingham, Central)

The right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer says the Postmaster General has been watchful of the interests of the public and has been anxious to make concessions in the interest of the public. I would appeal to him to make another concession, and to allow that which is permitted on the Continent and in the United States, namely, to allow circulars and printed matter to be posted in an unclosed envelope at the halfpenny rate.


A large deputation—the largest, perhaps, that ever waited on him of late years—has just waited on the Postmaster General. Various points in this Bill were discussed. We thought we had squeezed the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the utmost possible extent in so far as the Postal Authorities were concerned. Various Amendments will, no doubt, be moved in Committee with the object of limiting the power of the Treasury. On the whole, however, I hope that the concessions offered by the Postmaster General, such as they are, will be accepted by the House.

*(12.37.) MR. LENG (Dundee)

I think there is no disposition to postpone the consideration of this Bill, and I should be disposed to agree that it should be submitted for consideration in Committee, if the right hon. Gentleman would undertake that it should be submitted at such an hour that it could be properly discussed.


I can only speak by the indulgence of the House. The complaint made by the hon. Member for Wiltshire (Mr. Fuller) has come to my knowledge for the first time this evening, and it is a matter as to which I should like to consult my Colleagues. It is not, of course, in my power to fix a time for Committee, but I will use my best efforts to obtain a proper opportunity for the consideration of the Bill. I sincerely hope I may take it that it is the general disposition of the House to push the Bill forward, and if it is necessary to abandon any portions of it the Government will be willing to do so.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for Thursday.