HC Deb 20 June 1892 vol 5 cc1563-6
(3.47.) MR. HOWELL (Bethnal Green, N.E.)

I desire for a moment to call the attention of the House and of the Postmaster General to a notice, which was issued by the authority of the latter, apparently since the Debate which took place at the latter end of last week, in which the Postmaster General cautions postal employees with regard to their conduct in the forthcoming General Election. One particular paragraph in the notice I desire to call attention to. It is as follows:— The Postmaster General at the same time desires to warn Post Office servants that it would be improper for them, in combination or individually, to endeavour to extract promises from any candidate for election to the House of Commons with reference to their pay or duties. This is dated Friday, 17th June, and I feel it my duty at once to call the attention of the House to the position in which postal employees are placed by a notice of this kind. In the first place they are denied the right of ordinary combination, and the leaders in such combination, contrary to the law of the realm, were a year or two ago punished for such combination. Some of them were deprived of their positions, and others had their good conduct stripes taken from them, and they have never been restored; and now these employees are placed in the unfortunate position that they are denied the right of combination to which they are by law entitled; and they are refused the right of appealing to Parliament through the Members for their constituency in regard to their duties and pay. Now, I hold it is not within the competence of the Postmaster General to issue a notice of this kind. I hold it is altogether a violation of the duties of the position of Postmaster General to deny to postal employees this right conferred upon them by law. If these men are not permitted to combine and are not permitted to bring their complaints before the House of Commons, how are they to obtain any redress of the grievances of which they complain? I fully admit it would be very improper with regard to the rules quoted by the right hon. Gentleman as issued in 1885 that postmasters and others in the Service should take prominent parts in Party elections. I am quite prepared to go that far. But if this is fair towards postal employees, then it is a rule which should equally apply to all Civil servants of the Crown. But it is well known in the House, or it ought to be well known in the House, that many of the higher officials in the service of the Crown employ much of their time—and it is very doubtful if they do not employ time which should be devoted to the Public Service—in taking part in Parliamentary elections for the purpose of serving the candidate of the Party they support in any given constituency. Now, what is right with regard to the higher paid officers in the Service ought to be right for those who are underpaid. The rights of the latter should be more secure, and they should have the opportunity of putting their grievances before the House. But the Postmaster General would deny to these men the right of public petition through their own representatives for the Division in which they happen to reside when they have any grievance to bring before the House. I have no wish, and perhaps it would be unseemly for me, to put the House to the trouble of a Division on this question; but I should like to learn from the Postmaster General under what authority, under what Statute, under what regulation passed by this House, he has cautioned — or warned, to use the words of the circular Servants of the Post Office that it would be improper for them, whether in combination or individually, to endeavour to extract promises from any candidate in reference to their duties and pay"? Let me remind the House that this is done particularly by two branches of the Public Service. Every Session we have Members representing the Army and Navy bringing forward grievances of men in those Services, and long Debates ensue. But men in the Postal Service have no Members here capable of representing their case. The only man capable of dealing with these questions is the Postmaster General, and he deals with them adversely to the interest of the employees. I have felt it my duty, having had the opportunity of seeing a copy of this notice issued, to declare that, so far as I am concerned, I do not understand there is any right on the part of the Postmaster General to issue such a warning; and I ask him under what Statute does he exercise such authority? So far as my information goes, every postal employee in the country whatever his position has the right of every citizen to apply to the Member for his Division for representation to the House of Commons of grievances of which he may have to complain. When and where has Parliament sanctioned any regulation in abrogation of such a right?


The hon. Member has correctly quoted a passage in the circular which has been issued to servants of the Post Office, and it has been usual to issue such a circular previous to a General Election warning public servants not to take a prominent part in elections. It is desirable, and it is recognised as proper, that while public servants should be entrusted with the franchise—and we will not quarrel now over the question of whether it is a privilege or a right—they shall not take a leading part in elections. It would be extremely inconvenient, and lead to all sorts of abuses, were officers of the Post Office to be at liberty to do so. To this circular has been added a special caution on account of a disposition which has been shown in some branches of the Service to put test questions to candidates at the General Election. I read to the House the other night passages from a circular which had been issued, and which bore the very strong appearance of being put to candidates as the condition upon which the votes of members of the Service would be given. That, as I said then to the House, appeared to me to be an abuse of the privilege of the franchise, and calculated to impair the purity of elections. The hon. Member has, I think, overstrained his case in asserting that in issuing this caution, this warning, to servants of the Post Office against putting test questions in reference to pay and duties, I have gone the length of denying the right of public petition. I in no way deny the right of members of the Public Service to appeal to Members of this House to get their case represented here. But there is all the difference between Members being asked to represent a primâ facie case and candidates being asked to pledge themselves upon an ex parte statement to support a revision or a commission of inquiry—in fact, to prejudge the case. To ask for such a promise as a condition of giving a vote does seem to me inconsistent with the duties of a public servant, and to go beyond his constitutional privileges. In that view the warning has been issued. By what law or right has this been done the hon. Member asks? By the right and duty which belongs to the head of a Department to preserve proper discipline. Of course my actions in this respect are subject to review in Parliament, and I submit the grounds on which I acted. The hon. Member says that officials of a higher grade take a prominent part in elections; but I am not aware of any cases. If this has been the case such officials have undoubtedly been guilty of a breach of discipline and are open to censure. For my part, I make no distinction between the lower and higher branches of the Service. The hon. Member refers to discussions upon the Army and Navy Services, and I make no objection to similar discussions on the Postal Service; but that is altogether different from this putting of test questions to candidates. If such a practice were carried out, say by such public servants as soldiers, where would discipline be? It is surely desirable that there should be some reserve maintained by all public servants. The hon Gentleman says that I have been insensible to the wants of the members of the Department while I have been active in maintaining discipline. I do not think that is the feeling of the officers of the Department, nor would the Chancellor of the Exchequer say so, and I repel the charge as undeserved.


May I be allowed to make the explanation that I know nothing whatever of the test question being applied? I have had no test question put before me, nor have I had any information from the employees themselves. I have taken the matter up simply as a public duty.