HC Deb 30 April 1903 vol 121 cc1015-30

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That a sum, not exceeding £6,267,500, he granted to His Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March 1904, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Post Office Services, the Expenses of Post Office Savings Banks, and Government Annuities and Insurances, and the collection of the Post Office Revenue."


It has not been customary in recent years for the Minister in charge of this Vote to preface the discussion by a statement with relation to matters committed to his charge, but, in recent years, at any rate, the Postmaster-General has been in another place and has not been able to speak for himself. There are one or two matters upon which I should like to address the Committee before the general discussion begins, and which I think will be of general interest to the Committee. They refer, in part, to some of the reforms or changes to which Members have drawn my attention since I have held my present office, and they relate, in part, to those grievances, or alleged grievances, of the staff which makes such demands upon the time and attention, and, I hope I may be permitted to say, the patience of the Postmaster - General. A great many proposals are made from all quarters for changes or reforms, which the writers think would be of great benefit to the public, but the cost of which to the taxpayer they too lightly pass over, and the Postmaster-General, in considering these, has to hold the balance fairly between tli3 convenience lie can extend to the public and the demand he may make upon the public purse.

Even before I went to the Post Office, and while I was Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. friend the Member for Devizes Division of Wiltshire drew my attention to one matter in regard to which he thought, by a small change, the Post Office could confer considerable benefit, especially on the poorer classes of the community. He drew my attention to the fact that when a person wanted a Postal Order for many sums below one pound, owing to the absence of a Postal Order for that denomination, be was obliged to buy two orders and pay-two commissions for the orders for the sum he required, and that very often ho was obliged to pay a higher commission for a given sum than he would be obliged to pay for a higher sum which happened to have an order representing it. I have given a good deal of attention to this matter. I found that to increase the number of Postal Order denominations so that there might be one representing every sixpence, beginning with sixpence and ending with one pound, would involve considerable increase of cost in printing and in staff to manipulate this increased number of orders, and in other ways; but I found also that when a double order was required to make up a sum, it was nearly always composed of a penny order and a halfpenny order. When you consider the cost of handling, issuing, and paying it, the halfpenny order is issued at a loss—at almost exactly the same loss that a penny order brings in profit. The cost of these orders, therefore, is ¾d. to the Department from their birth until they are finally done with, and thus, in each of these cases where it was necessary that two orders should be purchased, the profit made on the one was consumed by the loss made on the other. I am glad to be able to say that I have also been successful in making such arrangements with the Bank of England for a reduced price of printing these orders as will wholly compensate the increased cost of issuing and dealing with them. Accordingly, I propose to introduce, as soon as the orders can be got ready, a complete set of forty orders for amounts from 6d. to 20s., which will be purchasable by the public at the present rates—under 2s., a ½d., and above that sum Id., or of the higher sum now paid. I shall not be able to bring this scheme completely into operation until the 1st of January next year, but the first of these orders—those for the lower sums—will be brought into use on the 1st of July of the current year. I should add that these new orders will have a counterfoil, numbered with the same number as the postal order, and a blank space for the purchaser to fill in on the counterfoil the name of the per on to whom, and the post office at which, the order itself is payable; and I hope when these securities will be given, I may rely upon the assistance of the public in making fraud difficult by the filling up of every postal order before they send it off. In considering these questions, my hon. friend the Member for Devizes brought to my notice the cost the present arrangements had thrown on the members of friendly societies throughout the United Kingdom, many of whom pay their subscriptions, and many of whom receive their benefit, by means of postal orders. I should like to acknowledge the advice and assistance I received from members of the Parliamentary Committee of the Friendly Societies to whom I applied for help in this matter. I believe that while every user of postal orders will effect a saving, not only of expense and annoyance, no section of the community will feel the change more valuable than the members of our great friendly societies.

Another change which, with the sanction of the Treasury, I am now in course of carrying out, is one which is less easy to describe in definite terms, but it is the more generous treatment. of the smaller country places, especially in regard to the allowance of a second post. The Committee will bear in mind that, since the Jubilee concession in postal matters, much greater facilities have been given than were given before. I think the time has come for some further move forward in this respect, and, though I do not wish to raise any hope which necessarily will be disappointed, and though I do not pretend for a moment that I can grant anything like all the applications made, still I hope to be able to deal more generously than has been the practice in the past with regard to those appeals for a second post in rural districts.

Two other trifling changes, which I should like to take this opportunity of announcing, though they more properly belong to the Telegraph Vote, perhaps, you will allow me to mention them now. In the first place, my attention has been called to the fact that the Post Office charges 2d. for a receipt for money paid for a telegram. I do not think it is desirable to encourage everyone to demand a receipt on the payment of their telegrams. It would very much hamper business if there was a crowd at the counters, and it would delay sending away rather than facilitate the work. But there are cases where a person wants a receipt for one reason or another, and I can see no reason why it should be 2d., and I have decided, with the consent of the Treasury, to reduce it to Id. Lastly, there is a small point to which my attention was called by my hon. friend the Member for Canterbury, who is also active in postal reforms, and that is in regard to the sending of a re-directed telegram by post after it has been delivered at the proper address and when the addressee is not there. The Committee are aware that a penny letter sent to any man's house can, if that man is absent on holiday, be re-directed and posted without any fresh charge. I am not prepared to allow a telegram to be re-directed as a telegram without repayment of the telegraph fee, but I see no reason why, in the case of a telegram on which 6d. has been paid, any further charge should be made when re-directed as a letter, and as soon as the new regulation comes into force it will be accepted re-addressed for transmission by post without a stamp. [An Hon. Member: After it has been opened?] Of course not—if it has not been opened; but is forwarded in the state in which it is delivered it may be re-directed like a letter in similar circumstances without fresh payment. These are all in the nature of concessions to the public; but in connection with the extension of the postal order system, there is a restriction which I propose to make, and in which I trust I shall be supported by this Committee and the public at large. Hitherto no postal order has been obtainable for any sum under 1s. It will now be possible to obtain a postal order when these regulations come into force for so small a sum as 6d. That is not profitable business for the Department. It is done entirely for the convenience of the public, but I think, in bringing that into force, I shall be justified in placing a further restriction on the re-purchase from the public of stamps across the counter. It is the custom to make in stamps remittances of sums under 1s., in reply to advertisements in papers, and as long as there was no postal order by which these sums could be made up, it was hardly possible to refuse to allow stamps to be sent in payment and to make payment for the stamps across the counter when they are tendered. At the same time there have been great complaints, from magistrates sometimes, of the temptation to fraud which the practice places in the way, especially of boys and young people with comparatively low rates of wages employed in offices. They are tempted to pilfer stamps and take them to the post office, and obtain money in return. That leads to what, I regret to say, is the most frequent form of fraud amongst the Post Office officials, but which, I am happy to say, is rare proportionally to the number of employees. It undoubtedly places temptation in their way. Many cases have come under my own notice, and still more under the notice of my advisers. I therefore propose that from the 1st January next the repurchase of stamps across the counter by the Post Office should only he made under the following conditions: Any person tendering such stamps for purchase should fill in a form stating his name and address and the value of the stamps; he will not be paid on the spot; but the money will be remitted to him at his address by money order. The commission charged to the public will be increased from 2½ per cent. to 5 per cent. in order to cover the cost of the postal order. The very smallest amount of stamps that will be purchased is £1. I think, if I am supported, as I hope I will be, when this sixpenny order is in force, and that regulation comes into operation, they will do much to diminish the temptations to fraud which are offered, both to those inside and outside the Post Office.

MR. LOUGH (Islington, W.)

Is there any restriction at present on the amount of stamps that may be repurchased?


There may be a minimum, but I really could not at the moment say what the smallest amount of stamps that may be accepted is. There are other subjects of postal administration and reform, affecting large sections of the public and exciting great interest, on which I would have been glad of this opportunity to make a statement, but I think that, having regard to the time at which we have now arrived, I must postpone that to some other occasion. I proceed at once to deal with another class of questions which have come under my notice. Of course, I have had before me a demand for an investigation into the grievances of the Post Office staff. That has been made on previous occasions, and reiterated from year to year. The demand is that a Select Committee of this House should be appointed to examine into their grievances. I have made it my business since I have been at the Post Office to see that every memorial from the staff dealing with their grievances, addressed to me, should come before me personally, and that whatever reply was sent should be one that I personally, not merely officially, approved of, and was responsible for. Even though I have felt that many of the matters thus brought to my notice were very small details of administration, I am determined that an official of the Post Office, going to the head of his service, should receive as fair and careful consideration of his appeal, if he applies to me direct, as if he sought Parliamentary influence to urge his claim. And I venture to think that nothing has occurred during the time I have been responsible which can justify any servant of the Post Office in saying that he is unable, except by Parliamentary influence, or by Parliamentary exposure, to obtain the attention of the head of the Department. Of course, under these circumstances, I have had to examine into the details of a great number of grievances alleged by the staff, and I have received many deputations which have addressed me personally, in addition to the countless written statements which they have submitted to me.

The other day, at the request of several Members on both sides of the House, I met the Members themselves, and consented that, if they wished, they should be accompanied by members of the staff, who should make before them, and in my presence, a statement of the grounds on which they asked for this Parliamentary inquiry, in order that then and there I might discuss it with my hon. friends. The statement was a long one; we were interrupted by a division, half-past seven had very nearly arrived, and it was not convenient for the Members to further discuss the matter at that moment. Accordingly I was asked by them to draw up a written statement on that subject, which is very nearly ready, and I intend to send it to each one of them. The Vote comes on to-night, and I intend to take this opportunity of making a few observations on the grounds for this Parliamentary inquiry as put forth by the staff. There are three main grounds alleged by the spokesman for the staff for a Parliamentary inquiry—wages, sanitation, and meal reliefs, or the time allowed out of working hours for taking refreshment. As regards all of these subjects, I must remind the Committee again that they were the subject of very full and careful inquiry by what is known as the Tweed-mouth Committee. I am aware that the Members of the staff were disappointed at the composition of that Committee and have expressed an opinion, shared by some hon. Members, that its composition was not of a character likely to secure absolute acceptance of its decision. I think that the staff might have protested in that respect before they found that the report was not wholly in their favour. Whatever may be said as to one gentleman who might be supposed to be too closely connected with the Post Office Administration to be without prejudice, nothing can be urged against the other three; Lord Tweedmouth, who was a member of the Cabinet and Lord Privy Seal, and Sir Arthur Gordon, who was Permanent Secretary of the India Office, not connected with the Home Civil Service at all, and not connected in any way with the Post Office or with the Treasury Administration. The last member of the Committee was Sir Llewellyn Smith, of the Board of Trade, who by his special training was peculiarly qualified to express an opinion on the matters submitted to the investigation of the Committee. The Committee bad many sittings; they gave the most careful attention to the grievances which were urged on their attention by the Post Office witnesses, and while they made a report which proposed many concessions and improvements in the conditions of the Post Office work, that report was adopted and accepted en bloc by the Postmaster-General of the time. And not only was it accepted as it stood, but within a year—or at least a very short time—its recommendations were further received by the then Postmaster-General, the Duke of Norfolk, and by Mr. Hanbury, Secretary to the Treasury. Further concessions were made and the total cost of these concessions, made under these two inquiries, to the taxpayers was something like £600,000 a year.

I wish to say at once that, in my opinion, at the time these recommendations were made and accepted they were a really fair and even generous settlement of the questions which were considered. I would not be thought to cast any kind of discredit on the recommendations of that Committee, and would not have it supposed that I attach otherwise than the highest value to them. I think we were greatly indebted to the gentlemen who gave so much time and attention I to the solution of these questions. Of course it is the case that with every year elapsing since that inquiry circumstances change more and more, and it does not necessarily follow that what was fair and right then is in all respects fair and right now. I myself have come to the conclusion, after examining the many questions brought before me from time to time, that while a great number of the complaints made have no foundation in justice, and that a great many of the men who think themselves aggrieved would find it difficult to get, elsewhere than in the public service, such good employment as they have now, there are other cases which are open to improvement and for which further inquiry is needed to fix exactly what should be done. I have on two occasions, speaking on behalf of the then Postmaster-General in this House, stated that I hold as strongly as I ever have done that a House of Commons Committee is not a body for such an inquiry. No one can have a higher respect than I have for this House or its reputation, and for the spirit which leads so many gentlemen to give up so much time to public work, and it is, therefore, with no disrespect for the House or its Committees that I repeat for myself and for my colleagues that we are unalterably opposed to anything in the nature of a Select Committee of the House of Commons for the decision of this question. Hon. Members know, and it is no use blinking it, the kind of pressure which is brought to bear, or is attempted to be brought to bear, upon Members in all parts of the House by the public servants, servants of the Post Office I am afraid especially, though not entirely, at election time. I have had Members come to me, not from one side of the House alone, to seek from me, in my position as Postmaster-General, protection for them in the discharge of their public duties against the pressure sought to be put upon them by the employees of the Post Office. Even if the machinery by which our Select Committees are appointed were such as would enable us to secure a Select Committee composed of thoroughly impartial men who had committed themselves by no expressions of opinion on one side or the other, I still think that it would not be fair to pick out fifteen Members of this House and make them marked men for the purposes of such pressure as is now distributed more or less over the whole Assembly.

But if I am opposed to the appointment of a House of Commons Committee for fixing wages in the Post Office, I am still more opposed to thrusting upon it, or, indeed, on any Committee, the duty of regulating in all its details the daily administration and work of the Post Office. The two main points which were brought before the Committee upstairs in support of the demand for an inquiry were sanitation and meal relief. It was contended that certain post offices, owing to a broken staff, necessitated by broken business, became over-crowded, ill-ventilated, and otherwise in sanitary. Of course it must happen from time to time that the staff will exceed the capacity of a building, and that the Department has to look out for a new one, but no one who knows the difficulty the Government has to contend with as a purchaser or renter of property when it is known that the Government is in the market will be surprised if there is sometimes an unavoidable delay extending over a greater period than, to members of the staff not cognisant of the difficulties, appears reasonable. But how can a House of Commons Committee, or any temporary Committee, examine into the sanitary condition of; every Post Office building throughout the in country which the staff thinks not to be in a good condition? Two specific I instances have been given to me of offices which were said to be in an unfit I condition—Swansea and Grimsby. At in Swansea the new head office was opened in April of last year, and the old office continued to be used merely as a branch sub-office, with a greatly reduced staff, until new premises could be found. It was only a week or two ago that I had papers before me with proposals for a new site, but they did not appear to me to offer proper accommodation for the staff, and I was obliged to direct that some other scheme should be devised. I At Grimsby we are in negotiation for, and I hope we will soon purchase, a site for a new telegraph office. The existing one consists of four houses thrown to gether, not a very convenient arrangement, although I am pleased to say not an in sanitary arrangement. As this is a typical instance of statements submitted to me, I will read the report, dated June 6, 1902, of a local medical practitioner who is the medical officer to the Post Office and also certifying surgeon under the Factory Acts. He says that after a very careful examination there was no objection of any kind on sanitary grounds, and that it appeared to him that great pains had been taken to render the office sanitary. The rooms were clean, the air was abundant, and no illness, as far as he knew, could be attributed to the sanitation of the building, and that is a typical case. After all, the real test is the amount of sick leave taken by the staff. Let it be borne in mind that a member of the established staff, if provided with a proper medical certificate, receives full pay up to as much as six months' sick leave; and that a member of the unestablished staff receives something less than full pay. I ask the Committee to bear that distinction in mind while I give the statistics. The average sick leave for 1901 was—for men on the established staff, 7.6 days per annum; and for men on the unestablished staff, 5.2 days; while for women on the established staff it was 12.1, and for women on the unestablished staff it was 8.4. It will be found that these numbers are below the normal for similar classes throughout the country, and at any rate I am quite confident that they will not support any charge that the Post Office buildings are generally in an in sanitary condition. Cases will arise from time to time in which buildings become out of date and overcrowded through the growth of work, but all such cases must be dealt with on their merits, and if the Postmaster General and his staff, with the assistance of the officers of the Board of Works, and, if necessary, of the factory inspectors, whose services we can obtain through the Home Office, are not competent to look into these matters they are not fitted to hold the positions to which they have been appointed.

Lastly, there is the question of meal relief, which is intimately connected with the arrangement of the hours of work. The work of the Post Office servant lasts for eight hours, and if he does eight hours' continuous duty he is allowed half-an-hour out of that time for a meal, reducing his actual working time to seven-and-a-half hours. But the work of the Post Office is peculiar. The Department has practically no control over the time at which it comes. It has to be taken whenever the public bring it, and when they bring it they expect it to be dealt with at once. Therefore, it is not possible, in spreading the work evenly over the twenty-four hours, as is comparatively simple in many manufacturing and distributing businesses, to divide it up into continuous hours duty. Accordingly there are a certain number of split duties in which the eight hours' work is divided between two attendances; and it is chiefly in connection with this that the grievance as to meal relief is alleged. I have had one or two cases brought before me which I thought not satisfactory, and whenever a grievance, in my judgment, has been proved, I have tried, or am trying, to devise a remedy. I am not going to trouble the Committee with many more details There are over 150,000 persons constantly employed by the Post Office, and, although this House can do many things, it cannot lay down rules as to the working hours of such a vast number employed in varying circumstances. I only wish to draw the attention of the Committee to what was described to me as a typical grievance by the spokesman of a deputation which waited on me shortly before Christmas. It is the case of certain sorting clerks and telegraphists in the provinces, who have to come on duty at ten o'clock and work till two o'clock and who then, after two hours off, work from four o'clock till eight o'clock. The typical grievance was that they were not allowed twenty minutes for tea. I do not think that was a reasonable claim, or that the working day I have described was an unreasonable working day, and I hold that the country ought not to be expected to pay for tea-time taken out of the working hours for people engaged on these duties. I put it to the deputation whether meal relief which was not counted as part of their working hours would be accepted but they replied in the negative, and said that they thought they were entitled to meal relief, and ought to be paid for it. In the judgment of any impartial person was that a reasonable grievance?

I admit also that I have found some duties which hive seemed to me unduly arduous and unduly inconvenient. But these are not questions capable of settlement by any general set of rules. They must be judged on their merits, having: regard to the person doing the work and the circumstances and conditions under which that work must be done—I means as regards the despatch of mails or telegrams at the proper time. I venture to say that no Committee, be it a House of Commons Committee or any other, which may be asked to examine this question, could possibly lay down rules for the guidance of the Postmaster-General on all these various matters. I said, therefore, the grounds which were put before me for a Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry were all unsuitable for consideration by such a Committee, and some were unsuitable for the consideration of any Committee at all, bat that each case, as it arises, must be judged by the Minister who may be from time to time responsible for this great office. But as I hare already said in regard to our status of wages, I have come to the conclusion that the wages the postal servants receive are not in all respects satisfactory. I am not certain that in some cases they do not erron the side of being unduly hard, while, on the other hand, they err in the opposite direction, and I think my hands would be strengthened in this matter, and that I should be able to deal more satisfactorily with it if I sought advice from men of practical and business experience. Accordingly, I propose to take that course. I think that such an inquiry should be limited, as I have said, to the question of wages, the adequacy or inadequacy of the wages, having regard to the conditions of the work, and the general remuneration which Post Office employees obtain. I think such an inquiry should be conducted by men of practical business experience, and I think, if we are to get an impartial and judicial decision, the gentlemen who are invited to undertake this most difficult task should be as free from any kind of political and electoral pressure as they should be from any departmental influence. Therefore, if I can obtain the services of such gentlemen, I propose to seek them outside this House and outside the Department. I should suggest a small body of men—I hope not more than five—of practical business experience, who will consent to examine the scale of wages now paid, and who will report for my advice and information as to whether they consider the wages adequate or not. I do not wish to pledge myself to the terms I am now going to read, because I have not had time fully to consider them; but in order to give the Committee an indication of what is in my mind, I may say I think the reference should be something of this kind: "To inquire into the remuneration of the undermentioned classes of Post Office employees, and to report, having regard to the wages current in other employments, whether the wages of postal sorters, London, telegraphists, London, and sorting clerks and telegraphists, provincial, are adequate or inadequate." Those are the four great classes of Post Office employees. If I am fortunate enough to obtain the services of gentlemen who can and will give their time and experience to this matter, I shall hope they will be able to lay down a general opinion on the scale of wages for these classes, and that I or my successor, whoever he may be, will be able to deal with the claims of the minor classes who would not be actually included in the list I have read out. I think it is very important that, if this inquiry is to Le satisfactorily conducted, it should be a limited inquiry and not interminable. It is absolutely essential, if I am to get men of business experience to give their time to this matter, that I should reduce the inquiry to reasonable limits, and for this reason I think it necessary to limit it to that definite subject, and so limit the scope of the inquiry. I have approached no one on the subject at present, and therefore I had better say at once that I am not prepared to give any names, but my idea is that these gentlemen should not be members of the Civil Service at the present time; that they should be men of business experience and not Members of this House. [An Hon MEMBER: Nor of the House of Lords.] I would not like to say that under no circumstances would I take a Member of the House of Lords, but if I took a Member of the House of Lords it would have to be on the condition that he had business experience and that he was not subject to any influence whatever.

CAPTAIN NORTON (Newington, W.)

Might I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether the question of leave, which in of greatest importance to the Post Office officials, will be included in the scope of the inquiry?


No, Sir. I have made, I think, most clear the length to which I am inclined to go. I am certainly not prepared to place the whole of the duties of the Postmaster-General in the hands of a Committee.


I presume the right hon. Gentleman will give an answer himself on the question of special leave.

MR. SOARES (Devonshire, Barnstaple)

Will the provincial salaries be included?


Yes; the postal sorters, London, telegraphists, London, and sorting clerks and telegraphists, provincial—they are the four classes. I do not want to go outside the scope of the particular case with which I am dealing. I think it would be a great advantage to the Postmaster-General—I think it would strengthen his hands if he had the judgment of a body of business men in this matter of the Post Office wages, but I do not propose to surrender the general duties of the Postmaster, General to a Committee so long as I have the honour to hold office. I ask the Committee to give me all the confidence it can, and when it is unable to give me that confidence I say that that is no reason for granting a Committee to do my work, but only for transferring the office to somebody who is more competent. I thank the Committee for listening to me in the way they have done. It is an unprecedentedly long statement for a Postmaster General to make, but I was anxious to make known the conclusions I had arrived at at the earliest possible moment, in the hope that they will be received in the spirit in which they are made by me, by both sides of the House.

MR. BAYLEY (Derbyshire, Chesterfield)

said he congratulated the Postmaster-General on the able speech he had made, and also upon the fact that while he had not promised a Committee of the House, he had promised to appoint a Committee with which they had every reason to be satisfied. The reasons given for not accepting a Parliamentary Committee were most extraordinary. They were that the Postmaster-General had to protect Members of this House against their own constituents, by whom they might be influenced in this matter; and also that the right hon. Gentleman wanted a Committee of business men. There were plenty of business men in the House, and there was no need to go outside for them. He was not willing to give up the rights and privileges of the House of Commons, whose duty it was to remedy the grievances of the public service.

And, it being half-past Seven of the clock, the Chairman left the Chair to make his Report to the House.

Committee Report Progress; to sit again this evening.