HC Deb 09 August 1904 vol 139 cc1621-37

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That a sum, not exceeding £2,615,509, be 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, 1905, for the Salaries and Working Expenses of the Post Office Telegraph Service."


, continuing his speech, said that when the House adjourned he was endeavouring to point out that what they had to discuss that evening was not the question raised by the hon. Member for Canterbury but the question of the Committee appointed by the Government to consider the question of the wages of the postal employees. The House would remember that when this question came before the Committee a year-and-a-half ago, when a Motion was moved to reduce the salary of the then Postmaster-General, it was alleged by those who moved and supported the Motion that the many grievances with which the postal servants had to contend should form the subject of an independent inquiry. At that time they were met by the present Chancellor of the Exchequer with the statement that their information was not correct, that the postal servants were a well-favoured body of men, and that if they had a grievance at all it was limited to the one question of wages. At that time a Committee was appointed by the right hon. Gentleman, which was opposed to these men, and which had now presented a Report to the House. Any person who had read that Report must admit that serious grievances did and do exist in the postal service. They had it laid down by that Committee whose members were free from outside pressure; that widespread discontent existed in the postal service. That Report, which was not asked for by the men, but which was rather taken by the men because they could get no other redress from the House, and because they knew the justice of their cause, had been issued, arid they wanted to know whether the Government would accept the findings of their own Committee. They said the findings were not all they could wish, and the service journals said that they were only partial and did not meet the requirements of the men, but that they were prepared to accept that which had been proved by the findings that they were entitled to. Members on both sides of the House agreed that the cause for complaint had been made out, and they said that the Government was bound in honour to accept the findings of their own Committee, and that was what was asked. It was all nonsense for the hon. Member for Canterbury to call attention to what would be the result and expense of giving effect to that Report. The Committee said that at the present moment seething discontent existed. Was that a state of things that should exist in a public Department? It was the duty of the Postmaster-General to see that the men employed were contented and happy, and that there should be no cause for complaint. He hoped they should have no case of postponement. It was no answer to say that the remedy would cost an enormous sum of money, £2,000,000 the hon. Member for Canterbury said. Even if it did, the Post Office was a commercial undertaking and had worked at a profit. Last year the profit was over £4,000,000.


said there was a loss of £1,000,000 on the Telegraphs.


said even then it left a profit of £3,000,000. That being the case, the Government had no right to sweat labour and ought to pay fair wages. These men at one time rose to the occasion, but they saw that they were doing an injustice to the public, and did not resort to extreme measures. But now that a Committee had brought in a finding—a Committee suggested by the Postmaster-General—the claims of the men ought not to be refused. When he originally brought the case before the House he was speaking solely on behalf of the Irish portion of the service. The claims he then made had been verified by the Report. The claims as to dual work, split duty, and promotion in the Irish Office had all been backed by the Report. The one point dealt with was remuneration. In dealing with the recommendations in that Report, he asked the Postmaster-General not to lose sight of the unattached men and the engineers and linesmen. These must be considered before this question could be settled finally. Let them have a settlement of the question Once and for all. It was all very well to say these men were recommended an increase of 4s. a week, but they were asked to give up their Christmas-boxes, a very considerable item. Certainly a further sum of 4s. per week would not be adequate remuneration for them. If postmen were asked to give up the considerable item of Christmas-boxes, the substitution of 4s. a week would not be an adequate recompense. It was unnecessary to labour the matter further. The point the House had to insist upon was that a Report had been presented by a Committee appointed by the Government, and what they asked was that the Government should give effect to the verdict pronounced against them by their own tribunal.


said the reference to this Committee had very fairly been limited to the lower classes of servants, there having been no strong evidence that the higher departments required revision. In fact, it was generally conceded that the officials in the upper branch of the service had been favourably dealt with, and that those who were less fortunately placed in the matter of wages ought to be dealt with in a broad spirit. When the Committee was appointed, some misgivings were felt because the men had no direct representation thereupon, and the position of the men was made the stronger by the fact that an outside Committee, absolutely unconnected with the Department, and presumably altogether unbiassed, had brought in a verdict in favour of a revision of the pay of these younger officials. The statement of the hon. Member opposite with regard to Christmas-boxes was too true. They had grown into such an institution that the postmen calculated upon them as part of their income. That was a most unfortunate position for the servants of any public Department to be placed in. Whatever pay was necessary to support a man in his proper social position should be paid by his employer. Personally, he would not allow any of his employees to seek a Christmas-box or other favour from his customers, and if the Post Office undertook to deliver letters, and received a reasonable fee for so doing, their servants ought not to be paid afterwards by those who received the letters. Such a practice demoralised the servant, because, if the man did not receive the expected gift, he was naturally irritated against the person who withheld it. Therefore, he held very strongly that, whatever was done by the Postmaster-General in this connection, he should, once and for all, place the humbler servant in such a position, so far as pay was concerned, that there would be no inducement for him to humble himself by seeking Christmas-boxes or any other favours.

With regard to the general service, there were two or three ways in which this Committee recommended that the pay of the servants of the Post Office should be regulated. He had heard it stated that a small country town was more expensive to live in than a large town, and an hon. Member opposite had given that as his own experience. He did not think that that was the general impression. In the first place house rent was very much less in small country towns than in London. The question was how they could make the service of the Post Office a service that could be moved easily front place to place, because the man who had the capacity should have the avenue open to him to carry that capacity anywhere throughout the length and breadth of the land. There were two principles which they ought to fix in regard to that man. In the first place there should be a fixed pay for a definite service wherever the man was moved to. They must have a graduated scale of pay according to the cost of living in different places. Supposing they transferred a man from Belfast, and they found that there his lodgings were costing hint 6s. or 8s. a week. If he came to London a similar lodging would cost him 10s. or 12s. a week. The fairest way was to make up for that by an extra allowance for the extra cost of living. That was one of the recommendations of this Committee, and it solved the problem by giving a fixed payment for a definite service, and then graduating the advantage according to the additional cost of living in the place to which the man moved.

With regard to the telegraphists, no man who went into a large telegraphic station could fail to be impressed with the enormous strain which was put upon the men. He thought it would be well for them all if now and again hon. Members paid visits to such stations to see what was actually going on. They should go into such stations at ten, eleven, and twelve at night, and about two and three in the morning, and see what pressure there was on the operators to get news over the wires in time for the morning papers, which hon. Members read, without much consideration for the cost of producing them, at their breakfast tables. He asked the Postmaster-General to remember the enormous strain there was on those engaged in such telegraphic departments. With regard to postmen they now and again found men prosecuted for wrongdoing in connection with the Post Office service; but he was bound to say that if they had regard to the enormous number employed in that Department, and the many temptations placed in their reach, that the service was wonderfully free from blemish. He did not know of any men who deserved their sympathy, and had merited their confidence, more than the servants in this great Department of the State.

A word with regard to the location of post offices. He might tell the Postmaster-General that he thought there was to some extent, especially in large towns, rather a niggardly disposition shown in respect to the locating of their post offices. There was a contriving to put them into shops and to let the shopkeepers have charge of them. Let them take such an office connected with the telegraph system. One merchant would have very great hesitancy in going into the shop of another merchant to deliver a telegram, of probably a very delicate nature connected with his business and markets, for fear of the temptation to the merchant connected with the post office to take advantage of his position, and use the information handed to him for transmission. The divisional post offices should be clear of such drawbacks, they should be under the jurisdiction of the Post Office and managed by Post Office officials. They should be entirely free front all trade and commerce and front the temptation that might arise in connection with trade interests and trade speculation. With regard to the houses he did not complain of the city of Belfast, because the postmaster and the medical officer of that place had always been willing to lend their assistance, and they had worked harmoniously together. The postmaster had even asked the assistance of the Public Health Department of the city in connection with the health of the workers in the Post Office buildings and the sanitary arrangements which were necessary for a large staff of men. Personally he did not see why Government offices should be free from inspection by the sanitary department, although he understood that the law laid down that they had no right to inspect for sanitary purposes any Government office. He thought he was right in saying that that was recognised as the law of the land. He was aware that they might have some pettifogging officer trying to show his petty authority by demanding that this and that and the other thing should be done in the office, but on the broad principle that every Department of the State should be kept in thorough sanitary order, he did not see why the due inspection of a Government office should be thwarted either by law or practice. A medical officer charged with the service of his country ought to have no personal desire to place any stumbling block in the way of carrying on Post Office work, and their only desire should be to see that Government offices were kept in the same good sanitary condition as they were in the habit of demanding in ordinary workshops in the city. He hoped the day had gone by when it would be held that a Government office where labour was employed should be exempted from the general inspection which applied to every other building where workmen were employed, and which was necessary to ensure, not only the health of officials, but also the general health of the community at large. In conclusion, he hoped the Postmaster-General was not going to give them a mere answer putting them off. They all knew the present Postmaster-General and esteemed him. Surely, if there was any meaning in the Committee's recommendations, they should be carried out. He earnestly asked the Postmaster-General to give a favourable reply to their appeals. He knew his heart would break if he had to say "no" to them that night. By his very genial countenance he thought the right hon. Gentleman was prepared to gratify their wishes or to say, "Gentlemen, I cannot put this question into the present financial year; but having appointed this Committee I feel honourably bound to carry out, not in every detail, possibly not to the maximum, their recommendations, but to carry out in a fair and generous spirit what has been recommended towards the improvement of a service of the State that deserves our sympathy and support."

*MR. NORMAN (Wolverhampton, S.)

said the time was painfully and even absurdly inadequate to discuss this question when the Vote would be closured within half-an-hour. He desired, however, to raise two questions to which he hoped the Postmaster-General would be good enough to refer when he replied on the debate. One of these was: Is it the intention to reimpose an examination or technical barrier for telegraphists? The Postmaster-General would remember that this had been found both unsuccessful and unjust in the past, and two of his predecessors in office had condemned it. He asked the noble Lord to state what was intended to be done in that matter. The other point he wished to speak on related to the pay in certain areas. The pay in areas with a population of over 100,000 was to be higher than in other districts, and he would like to have an interpretation of the Committee's recommendation on that subject. In Wolverhampton the population was 95,712, but the total area served by the Post Office there contained a population of over 100,000. Was the higher pay to be given in such an area? Would not the noble Lord regard that as a special case under Clause 140 of the Bradford Committee's Report? There were other points in which he was interested, but he did not raise them simply because of lack of time.


said he had been referred to in this debate by the hon. Member for Canterbury, and he would take the opportunity of making one or two observations. He agreed in the main with the conclusions arrived at by the gentlemen who had signed this Report. He had never read a Report which seemed to him to be so thorough, so clear, and so convincing in its nature. At the same time he wished to register here his protest against methods that were pursued by Civil servants in attempting to practically coerce Members of Parliament into the acceptance of their case. It was perfectly true that a letter was written to him soon after he became a Member of the House suggesting, and articles were written in the Postal Service papers also suggesting, that he was practically a traitor, having broken pledges that he had given, He was glad to say that the Parliamentary Secretary of the Postal Clerks Association withdrew the charge upon the basis that he had not made a pledge. But means were used to belittle him because they did not like his acting with the Government on a particular occasion, and he made up his mind, as he had done many years ago when he saw the same thing exercised in Australia, that it would be a bad thing indeed for the Civil servants and purity of public life that Civil servants should be permitted to exercise undue influence upon Members of Parliament. He had no reason to retreat from that position. He agreed with the substance of this Report, but he was afraid the Postmaster-General was not going to consider these claims as favourably as he ought. The noble Lord would plead, he was sure, that this was a commercial organisation. Well, if it was, he saw no reason why the one milch-cow of the 'Government should be denied decent treatment. It seemed to him too much was expected of the Postal Department; and if efficiency of the public service was effected by parsimony on the part of the Postmaster-General then he thought it was time this the House made a protest, not because Civil servants invited them to do so, but because their claims were, he believed, just and sound. He therefore made his plea to the Postmaster-General to consider these claims, not only carefully, but with an eye to the fact that when the people of the country read the Report they would be convinced as he had been, and many of them had been, that the claims of these Civil servants were just and sound.

Before he closed he wanted to say a word about one class not vet mentioned in the debate that afternoon, namely, the women. Some Years ago when considering the question of residences for educated women in London he went into the whole case of the living of women in London. If they examined this Report they would find that the females in this department were paid, at nineteen years of age, £52 a year, and it was impossible for a decent woman to live in London on that amount. He thought when the House came to examine such facts as those they must necessarily register their sympathy with the claims that had been made; but as to registering his vote against the Government upon this matter he would not do so for the simple reason that he would not be made in any sense the servant of the Civil servants of the State. He considered it an unsound thing. He agreed that these were questions that should be raised above the purview of the House and should be settled by a permanent Committee.


I have allowed as many hon. Members to express their views as possible, but I feel the moment has come to reply to the criticisms that have been made on the Department over which I preside. The general run of the debate has undoubtedly been upon what we call the Bradford Committee, but there have been one or two subjects which I think it will be better to clear up before I come to the principal subject of the debate. The hon. Member for West Islington brought up the case of a man called Carless who was dismissed some years ago on the ground that there was a great suspicion, at all events, that he committed a theft. He has recently agitated, and I must say very fairly agitated, on his own behalf to clear himself of the accusation. He has put forward various statements both in writing to myself and in the Press which are not substantiated, and which are in fact contradicted by the records, but at the same time he has brought forward new facts which I think anybody in my position would be wrong to put quite aside and not take into consideration. Of course, it is very difficult to know what to do under such circumstances. Probably it might have been better at the moment to have prosecuted the man and to have given him a chance to clear himself if he could; but that, of course, is out of the question now and I have to consider how I can do justice and at the same time exclude the man who was dishonest. I am entirely without bias in this case, and what I have decided to do is the only method that appears to me possible—to have the case thoroughly investigated by two gentlemen in the Post office who have not been in any way intimately connected with the former decision, though, of course, they have seen the papers, and for him to be allowed to give the fullest possible explanation of his own conduct before them, and for the whole matter to be referred to me for my consideration and decision.

There are three other small matters that have been brought up. The hon. Member for Leicester brought up the question of the auxiliaries, who are apparently postmen one day and golf caddies another. These are matters very difficult to deal with, because the House will clearly recognise that there are times, Christmas, for instance, and in the summer at watering places, when we have to have extra men who would be redundant during the rest of the season; and it is quite impossible, therefore, to put these men on the establishment. The only thing we can do, and 1 think we may be able to, is, when these men are employed as auxiliaries, to see that they are paid excellent wages, and to do all that we can afterwards to put them on the establishment if possible. The hon. Baronet behind me has spoken of one other matter, and that was about the sanitary condition of the post offices. I do not know whether hon. Members have been in the House after twelve o'clock, but, if so, they will have seen my struggles to get the Post Office Sites Bill through, which only means that I want to supply sanitary offices in place of insanitary offices. They will recognise the amount of encouragement I am getting from the House when I have embarked upon such a project. The hon. Member mentioned the subject of Home Office inspectors inspecting these buildings. I cannot agree that it would be possible under all circumstances to allow such inspectors at all times and at all places to inspect the various post offices, but I have not the slightest hesitation in saving that, if he has any doubt as to the sanitary condition of any post office he should certainly employ such an inspector to give me a report.

I have now got rid of all subsidiary points, arid I come to the main question, which is the dealing by the Department and the Government with the findings of the Bradford Committee. First of all I should like to refer to the speech of the hon. Member for one of the Ridings of Yorkshire. Although we try and hide it we must in time recognise that it is quite impossible for either side to go on for long if we are to he swayed in all these matters of increased wages by any political pressure that may be put upon us. It does: not only refer to postmen. There is not a class receiving Government wages which will not, when it sees one class get an increase by agitation, at once try the same thing. All such questions as pay should be referred not to this House, where whatever we may preach we certainly do not practice—we always preach that we are not influenced by political motives—but should be referred to some judicial body, who could feel no outside influence and look at the matter as between employed and employer, with the object of giving to the employed those wages which in the open market a good employer would give to his employees, and at the same time protect the master, which is the Government here, from any outside influence. That being so, and being admitted I hope by the House, I feel a time may arise when both sides of the House should devote themselves to forming some such judicial body which shall be free from those circulars which we get imploring us to vote extra money for the employees of the. Government. I mean a body whose action in the matter would be absolutely final; that is my idea of a judicial body. The hon. Member said he looked upon this particular Committee as having been a body of arbitrators whose Report we should accept as an arbitration award. The hon. Member may be perfectly right in so accepting it himself, but those who are mostly concerned, the employees of the Post Office, take a diametrically opposite view. In one of the circulars they kindly sent to me they said— We must make it perfectly clear that we do not regard the Committee in any sense as an arbitration board. which is rather against the argument of the hon. Member. With regard to ordinary circulars I cannot complain. Every man has a got right, if he likes to circularise Members of Parliament as long as he thinks they are concerned with his prospects and future, but here is one circular I have objected to. A circular was sent round at the bottom of which was a paragraph which could be torn off which Members were asked to sign, telling him he ought to do this or that. Now I object to receive these recommendations. I am perfectly ready in such matters to receive any complaints or recommendations from the men themselves; they can send them to me straight, but hon. Members can give me their views and opinions in this House and in this House alone. I think no member of the Government ought to get those circulars; we ought to have their views straight from hon. Members themselves and not through any independent channel.

I will deal with some of the difficulties. In the first place, the Report does not comply with the reference because no comparison is made with the rates of pay current in other occupations. In other words, the Committee was asked to report upon the conditions of these men as compared with those of men in other trades in order that we might see for ourselves what position we were putting these men in in the social scale and might be told whether they were still as badly treated. The Committee did not do that. They expressly excluded that and took as the basis on which to form the Report, the numbers and character of those who offered and their contentment. They admit that the numbers of the men we get and their character is everything that could be desired, and that we get the right kind of men, but they add, granted these two things, they are discontented and you must raise their wages. I say that that is a direct premium on discontent. It is a direct encouragement to the men, to say we will give you everything we think right now, but if you agitate you will get more in the future. They went outside the reference because they propose a complete re-organisation of the whole of the office, including the overseers, and on this particular subject they took no evidence of any sort or kind. I admit that to a certain extent it is impossible to increase the pay without some reorganisation of the office, but the House will see the difficulty one is in, being asked to deal with the question when the whole of the increase of pay is practically wrapped up in the reorganisation of the whole system which employs 180,000 men.

MR. JAMES O'CONNOR (Wicklow, W.)

Will the noble Lord say whether he has any intention of adopting any of the recommendations?


Hon. Members themselves pointed out some of the great difficulties that are contained in this Report. There is the question of Christmas-boxes, a small Blotter in itself, but yet it must be remembered that in this Report there is an increase of pay given on the distinct understanding that Christmas-boxes should be given up. Everybody agrees that these Christmas boxes are not in accordance with the right principle and that they should be given up, but then we have an hon. Member coining down, speaking on behalf of those whom he represents, and asking not only that an increase of pay should be given, but that Christmas-boxes should be kept on.


I suggested nothing of the kind, I said that if You take away Christmas-boxes the equivalent should be given in lieu of what is taken away.


What I understood the hon. Member to say was that an increase of pay should be given, and also some further equivalent in lieu of Christmas-boxes. That is different from the Report, and asks a considerable amount more. There is also the question of administration, the question of the senior men being made overseers. It would be quite impossible to put that into operation. Another question is the question of the areas. It is quite impossible to put that into operation. It does not follow that the increase of expenses over the normal is co-existent with the population of the town in which a man is placed. All these are points put before me with which I have to deal. I may have been considered to be unsympathetic, but that is not my intention. I quite admit that the Report has shown that there are increases that will have to be given. I quite admit that it has been shown that there are men in a position which it is not possible for a model employer to justify. An hon. Member has mentioned the subject of women employed by the Post Office. That is a question which certainly ought to be considered. Another is the question of rural postmen. All these are matters

for consideration and I propose to go fully into the question in the autumn. The extent to which the country will be committed by these proposals will be over a million a year, and the House will think I am justified when I say that I require time to consider these proposals, and to bring the matter forward on the Estimates next year, and I can only say that I shall examine the Report and the proposals in it with the utmost consideration towards the men of the Post Office.

And, it being Ten of the Clock, the Chairman proceeded to put forthwith the Question necessary to dispose of the Vote under consideration.

Question put.

The Committee divided:—Ayes, 172; Noes, 87. (Division List No. 317.)

The Chairman then proceeded, in pursuance of Standing Order 15, to put severally the Questions. That the total amounts of the Votes outstanding in each Class of the Civil Service Estimates, including Supplementary Estimates, and the total amount of the Votes outstanding in the Estimates for the Navy, Army, and Revenue Departments, be granted for the Services defined in those Classes and Estimates.

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