HC Deb 29 April 1897 vol 48 cc1271-5

It is clear to the Committee that this sum is quite insufficient to make any reduction in what may be called general taxation. ["Hear, hear!"] To devote it—or such portion of it as can be spared from the normal small margin such as the Chancellor of the Exchequer is always entitled to—to the reduction of the income tax would be impossible, and to devote it to the reduction of the duty on any article of great popular consumption would only lead to the advantage of the dealers in that particular commodity. I do not think it ought to be devoted to anything but the general advantage of the public at large. ["Hear, hear!"] I have to remind the Committee that our revenue is derived, not only from taxes, but from payments by the public for services rendered to them, and if these payments are in any case higher than they ought to be the result is tantamount to excessive taxation. I call the attention of the Committee to the net receipts from Post Office revenue. ["Hear!"] The net estimated profit from the postal service in the current year, after allowing £139,000 for the increase in the payments to postal servants, amounts to £3,665,000. My noble Friend the Postmaster General desires to make certain postal reforms with a view to the development of the rural districts—[cheers.]—by a more generous treatment in postal matters, and to simplify regulations and benefit trade by removing unnecessary restrictions, and to some extent benefiting the writers of foreign and colonial as well as inland letters. He has placed before me proposals which I will shortly state to the Committee, as to which I wish, to say that the credit is entirely due to him; that I have but accepted his recommendations and ask Parliament to provide the funds to meet them. In the first place, he proposes an important reform with regard to the delivery of letters in the United Kingdom. I dare say the Committee will hardly believe that at the present moment there are 16 millions of letters sent annually by the post in the United Kingdom which are not delivered by the Post Office to the persons to whom they are addressed, but are left at the Post Office or some other house of call until they are called for. ["Hear, hear!"] Even if we allow, as we may allow, for circulars and certain other communications which no one is very anxious to receive—[laughter]—yet the Post Office calculates that there are ten millions of real letters in that position every year—a number equal, I believe, to three-quarters of our total foreign correspondence. It does not require much thought to see what a hardship that must be upon persons living in rural districts, and especially upon the poor. [Cheers.] I do not think myself it ought to have lasted so long. ["Hear, hear!"] It has not lasted so long in France and Belgium. In both, those countries they have, I think, a regular delivery to every house. Our Post Office intend to bring about the same. It will take a considerable time, for they will have first to commence, no doubt, with a delivery in every little hamlet, but as fast as possible they will take steps to secure that there shall be a delivery—not necessarily every day, but still a regular delivery—at every house in the United Kingdom. [Cheers.] That will lead also to a multiplication of rural post offices and of pillar letter-boxes in order to provide for the same kind of services. Further, with regard to the delivery of telegrams—[cheers.]—it is proposed that telegrams shall be delivered free within three miles—["hear, hear!"] —and that for distances beyond that limit the charge shall be reduced to 3d. a mile from the office door. ["Hear, hear!"] It is proposed in the metropolis that there shall be free delivery of telegrams on every day of the week, and at all hours of the day and night. ["Hear, hear!" cries of "Oh!" and laughter.] I am afraid that hon. Members have not quite caught my meaning. [Laughter.] I have no desire to be woke up by a telegram at night. [Laughter.] But the present state of things is this—that on Sundays and at certain hours of the night some telegraph offices are temporarily closed, so that telegrams addressed to persons living at a considerable distance from the offices which are left open have to be paid for according to the distance from the office which is open, and not from the office which is closed. That is a public hardship in the metropolis, and therefore in future the delivery of telegrams will be free at all hours. ["Hear, hear!"] Complaint has been made on all sides as to the cost of the guarantee required for telegraph offices in rural districts. ["Hear, hear!"] The Postmaster General feels it impossible entirely to abolish that system, because he considers that it would result in unreasonable demands—perhaps, say, from wealthy persons with a shooting-box in the Highlands for a telegraph office for I heir own service. But my noble Friend proposes that the Post Office shall bear half the cost of the liability of any such guarantee, so that the locality, or the persons concerned, will only be liable to half the charge for which they are now liable; and, further, when the term of the guarantee has expired, my noble Friend proposes that the telegraph office to which the guarantee relates shall be continued, if it is of any service whatever to the public at large, without further guarantee. ["Hear, hear!"] Then a reduction is proposed in the parcel postage rate—["hear, hear!"] —for every subsequent pound beyond the first. The present charge is 1 ½d., amounting to a maximum of 1s. 6d. In future it is proposed that the charge shall be as now, 3d. for the first pound, and then 1d. per pound, up to a maximum of 1s. These matters may seem to the Committee small things in themselves. [Cries of "No!"] But after all, much of the comfort and discomfort of life, especially in the rural districts, is made up of small things—["hear, hear!"]—and when these changes are carried into effect many an inhabitant in the rural districts will feel that his lot is somewhat more equalised than it was with that of the more fortunate dwellers in the towns. The next change is one of a larger character, and perhaps more important to tradesmen than those I have mentioned. At the present moment samples and books travel by post at cheaper rates than ordinary letters. The postage of samples and books is, however, surrounded by the Post Office with the most minute restrictions, which are very troublesome to the public and to the Post Office officials themselves. The result of those restrictions is often absurd. Take, for instance, the sample post. A man may send a pair of gloves as a sample, but if the person to whom the gloves are sent buys them a penalty is incurred. A gardener may send cut flowers as a sample, but if they are bought a penalty is incurred. And yet flowers may be sent cheaply by parcel post to the purchaser in England from the south of France. With regard to the book post, I dare say the Committee think they know what a book is. [Laughter.] I thought I did until I studied the two and a-half pages of closely-printed matter in the Postal Guide, which explains what a book is in the eyes of the Post Office. [Laughter.] The Postmaster General proposes that in the future the sample post shall be entirely abolished; that the book post shall be abolished above 2oz., under which books will still go for a halfpenny, and that all articles, whether letters, samples, or books, under a maximum of 4oz., shall be sent for one penny —[cheers.]—with a further charge of one halfpenny for every 2oz. exceeding that amount. I believe that will be felt by the public as a very great advantage, as saving of infinite trouble, and also it will be a very great saving of trouble to the officials of the Post Office. I now come to the last point, which relates to foreign and colonial letters. I am afraid I have nothing to say which will satisfy my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury. [Laughter.] It must be remembered that the paying postal service is the home postal service; and even now foreign letters are carried at a loss. But it is proposed that in future there shall be a change made in the postage of foreign and colonial letters, which now amounts to 2½d. per half oz. The amount fixed for the postage under the rules of the Postal Union is 25 centimes, and 2½ d. was adopted by our postal authorities as the nearest expression in English coinage to 25 centimes, the result being that we have at present the dearest foreign postage of any important nation in the world. The rate cannot be altered without the assent of the Postal Union, which meets, I believe, next month at Washington, and at that meeting our representatives will propose that the rate of 2½ d. shall be reduced to 2d., which will, at any rate, place us on an equality with other nations. ["Hear, hear!"] It will take some time to bring all those changes into operation, especially the last change, which can not be brought into operation until January 1 next at the earliest. I calculate that the total cost of them, assuming that they will be brought into operation as soon as possible, will be £366,000 for the current year.