HC Deb 23 March 1891 vol 351 cc1750-5
*(11.35.) DR. CAMERON (Glasgow, College)

I rise to call attention to the position taken up by the Postmaster General with regard to the electric call and boy messenger system, and would have moved, if the Orders would have allowed— That this House disapproves of the Postmaster General's refusal to allow the establishment by private agencies in this country of the electric call system, which American experience has shown to constitute a great practical public convenience. I may briefly explain to the House of what this system consists. There is a little box, of which I hold a specimen in my hand, which the companies are ready to place in the house of any person wishing to have it without charging anything for the accommodation. The box is connected electrically with stations of the company throughout the town. By pressing one button a station is rung up and signalled to call a cab, and the cab is called. The next button gives the signal in case of fire, the third that a policeman is wanted, and the fourth that a messenger is required. The Postmaster General, being desirous to put these companies down, and constituting himself for the first time since he has held office the inexorable guardian of the public interest, says that these things constitute an infringement of the rights of the State, and proposes to institute a similar service. In this the right hon. Gentleman is progressing backwards; for in 1886, when a proposal was made to start such a company, he offered to grant it a licence for a royalty of 2s. 6d. per subscriber and one of £25 on the operations of the company. In 1887 the Boy Messenger Company was started, but without the system of electric calls, although it now desires to introduce them. It, however, availed itself of communication by telephone; and it contested the dictum of the Postmaster General, that the conveyance of written communications was any infringement of the monopoly of the Post Office. While the matter was still in this position, it might have been the right thing for the Postmaster General to have done to have had that question decided by a Court of Law; but a company arose which, disregarding all warnings as to postal monopoly, set up a system of electric calls and a service including the delivery of letters. They did not deny that in doing that there was an infraction of the postal monopoly, unless under a licence from the Postmaster General. On the question of delivering letters the second company offered a payment of 1d. on every letter. The Postmaster General has said that he intends to set up an alternative system and to keep a number of messengers at each post office, who are to carry express letters and parcels from one part of the City to another between 8 in the morning and 7 at night. Many people, however, live at some distance from a post office, and, moreover, the duty of the Post Office messenger is to be limited to carrying letters or parcels, and to 11 hours out of the 24. How, in the name of common sense, can the right hon. Gentleman contend that this covers the service offered by the private companies? The company offers, by means of their call boxes, to enable anyone to summon a messenger to his house. Now the Postmaster General makes no proposal of the kind. He tells us he is thinking of a call system; but, at the most, it would be in case a messenger is wanted to take a letter or a parcel, and unless he is prepared to put an electric call box into the house of everyone who asks for it, and to do this without charge, he will not serve the public as cheaply or as perfectly as the private companies. To show the range of work which these Messenger Companies undertake, I will read a list of some of them from a circular issued by one of them. From it, it appears that this company proposes to have boys on duty day and night, to take luggage to and from railway stations, to bring dress clothes to clubs, to deliver messages to tradesmen, to get doctors' prescriptions made up, to fetch parcels from the stores, to get cheques cashed. [Laughter.] That is a service which many hon. Members opposite might find would be a great convenience. ["Hear, hear!"] They also undertake to change books from the libraries, and that would probably be a service which hon. Members opposite might not so frequently call upon them to perform. Then they offer to assist in the house during an "At Home," or take dogs out for a run. That is a service which I think would appeal rather to the sympathies of the Ladies' Gallery than to hon. Members themselves. Moreover, they undertake to "clean windows and boots, and perform many other services which a smart, clean, respectable boy might be employed in." The company are responsible for those boys to the extent of £20. They further undertake to send cabs, fire-engines, and policemen. I have read a long article in the Times of this morning which contains the defence of the policy adopted by the Postmaster General, and a weaker case I have never read. The Postmaster General appears to be afraid that these companies would cut down the Public Revenue, which is derived from the Post Office; but that fear could not be well founded, seeing that the companies offer to pay a royalty of 1d. for each letter they carry. The writer argues against the adoption of a system of royalties, and quotes the case of the telephone. I might show how the Post Office stole the telephone, and I am sure no one can wonder if it never got much good out of an invention which it acquired in the most dishonest fashion. When Mr. Fawcett endeavoured to make reparation for that act of dishonesty he went further than justice required in the other direction, and gave the right of communication by trunk lines between large centres which enabled the private tele- phones to compete with the Post Office. I will not, however, go further into this; but, as far as the question in hand is concerned, namely, the carriage of express letters, I would suggest to the Postmaster General to take a big step which will be worthy of his Department, and he need fear no rivalry. Many years ago a Committee, presided over' by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Leeds, recommended that the Post Office should take the first opportunity of starting a pneumatic tube system of distribution similar to that which is carried out in Paris and Berlin. In Paris for a quarter of a franc one gets a card sent at once by express pneumatic tube, and for half a franc a letter. That is what the right hon. Gentleman ought to do for us. What the right hon. Gentleman proposes to do—namely, to refer the matter to legal arbitration—is quite beside the question, and his action may be characterised, as it has been in various quarters, as nothing better than that of the dog-in-the-manger.

*(11.52.) THE POSTMASTER GENERAL (Mr. RAIKES,) Cambridge University

The lateness of the hour must prevent me from giving a detailed answer to the objections which the hon. Gentleman has taken to my conduct in this matter; and as I hope in a short time to obtain the decision of a Court of Law upon the main issues, it would be premature to discuss this evening what course I may be advised to take after that decision has been obtained. The hon. Member has very seriously misapprehended the action of the Department. The main question is one, not only between the Government and the District Messenger Company, but, in a much greater degree, between the Government and the Boy Messenger Company, which is simply an Express Service by means of boy messengers. The new service, of which the particulars appear on the Paper to-day, will be a far more efficient service. I would merely point out that the number of the stations will be at least double that of the Boy Messenger Company, and the number of boys employed ten times as numerous; the charge will be less, and, in fact, the new system will have every advantage which one system can have over another. I will only say that I should be very glad indeed if I could believe that I had no responsibility in the matter; but having before me the opinion of competent advisers, based upon Acts of Parliament, I am bound to believe that I should have so far a regard to the public interest that I must defend it against speculators whom I cannot allow to carry on a business which I believe is an invasion of the rights of the State. Having obtained the decision of a Court of Law, I shall be prepared to consider any proposal that may be made for utilising either of these schemes. I have been for a long time endeavouring to devise some such scheme which I might dovetail with a Department of the State; but until I obtained the assent of the Treasury to create a substitute Service, I did not feel myself justified in taking action as to which, if I had taken it at an earlier period, might have deserved the epithet the hon. Gentleman has applied to me. My desire is that the public should not suffer from any action the Government had undertaken, but I was was forced to act as I have done because I was threatened a fortnight ago by one of the clients of the hon. Gentleman with a mandamus to compel me to take action in the case. It was out of pure charity that I wished to utilise the boys in the service of the companies. I am sorry that the companies have refused, but the public will not suffer, because I am in a position to offer more efficient service. I am perfectly ready to consider any scheme which the public may expect advantage from as soon as I have established the right of the Post Office to exercise those privileges which are conferred upon it, not by me, but by many Acts of Parliament, the last of which was an Act passed in the first year of the reign of our present Sovereign.

(11.58.) MR. CONTBEARE (Cornwall, Camborne)

So far as his main proposition goes, there is a considerable amount of reason in what the right hon. Gentleman says. Of course, he occupies his present position simply as trustee for the public, and I cannot for a moment, myself, complain of his doing his duty. It appears that the Post Office Act has been infringed, and, therefore I do not wish to complain of what has been done by the right hon. Gentleman. Still that does not "preclude the desirability of obtaining the decision of the Courts of Law as to one point of the operation of this company. But I take leave to observe that there is a good deal to be said on the general question of the convenience of the public at large.


Order, order!

It being Midnight, the Debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed to-morrow at Two of the clock.