HC Deb 21 June 1906 vol 159 cc449-60

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That a sum not exceeding £10,426,741, be granted to His Majesty to complete the sum necessary to defray the Charge which Mall come in course of payment during the year ending on March 31st, 1907, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Post Office, including Telegraphs."


said that it had been urged that day that great consideration should be shown to discharged soldiers by the Postmaster-General in taking them into the employment of the Department. But he urged that the Postmaster-General before giving special facilities for taking discharged soldiers into the postal service should consider the claim of the thousands of boys who were already in the service as telegraphic messengers. These boys often remained in the Post Office until they were fourteen or fifteen years of age, when it was too late for them to equip themselves for other employment, and were then turned adrift because vacancies could not be found for them. So far as ordinary labourers were concerned, they were treated in accordance with Trade Union conditions, with the exception of the timbermen, who were paid at the rate of 8d. per hour for ten hours a day, whereas the Postmaster-General only paid them 7d. per hour. He wished to call attention to the unsatisfactory accommodation of the post office at Stoke. It was an old railway shed fitted up forty years ago for the purpose of a post office, and he believed if the right hon. the Postmaster-General only visited the place he would acknowledge that it was the worst equipped post office in the whole country. With regard to labour matters generally, he wished to thank the Postmaster-General for the consideration which he had given to all demands made by working men for fair treatment in his Department. Never before did he remember such careful attention being paid to the grievances of workmen employed by a Government Department; and he hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would have many years to carry on his enlightened supervision of that Department.

MR. SILCOCK (Somersetshire, Wells)

said he wished to draw attention to the distribution of lottery circulars through the Post Office. In a case recently brought to his notice, the circulars were posted in London, and he insisted that steps should be taken to prevent the circulation of those incitements to gambling.


said that he had had complaints from business men in a small way in country towns as to the fee of £2 charged in connection with the delivery of telegrams at their private residences after business hours. The clerks in the Post Office had to be there at any rate, and it was only a question of the messengers having to go perhaps a few hundred yards further, and it was hard that these small dealers should have to pay £2 a year for this small advantage. It would be simpler to make a small surcharge on each telegram. The hon. Member also drew attention to the burdens which rural postmen had to carry. There was at the present moment, he knew, a limit of weight, and if the burden of the postman exceeded that limit the postmaster was expected to engage an extra postman to carry whatever was in excess of the limit. He doubted very much, however, whether that order was always carried out, as he had often seen postmen overburdened. He hoped that in future steps would be taken to see that the limit of weight was never exceeded. He hoped, moreover, that the carrying out of the new rules in regard to the conveyance of agricultural produce would not entail more severe labour upon the rural postman than was absolutely necessary. Another point to which he wished to call attention was a regulation in the postal guide in regard to Inland money orders. This regulation ran, "Payment will be subject to the possession by the postmaster of sufficient funds." In the minds of some persons such a condition might give birth to a doubt as to the financial stability of the Exchequer. [Cries of "Oh."] Hon. Gentleman seemed to have a doubt about that. [An HON. MEMBER: "I should think so."] He quite agreed that there seemed to be no foundation for any such fear, but the hon. Member for Anglesey, in a speech he made at Oswestry in January, 1905, alluded to this subject, and said the regulation was evidence enough that they were getting perilously near a paper currency, which was one of the most dangerous events which could occur to any country. The hon. Member said, moreover, that the last Government had hokey-pokeyed the finance of the country, and was responsible for that condition of things. If the hon. Member for Anglesey was still of that opinion let him argue it out with the present Postmaster-General. He quoted that speech to show that such a statement as that contained in the regulation was likely to be used to create in the minds of certain people in the country a feeling of uneasiness. He should like to have the opinion of the Postmaster-General on this point.


asked, first, for information as to the progress being made with the laying of underground telegraph wires to the centres of commerce in Scotland, and, secondly, whether it was possible to extend the trunk telephone lines north of Inverness.

MR. DALZIEL (Kircaldy Burghs)

said before the debate closed he should like to refer to one or two points which had not been mentioned. He wished to recommend to the right hon. Gentleman that in cases of appointment to the highest positions in the postal service, where other qualifications were equal, he should in Scotland give the preference to Scotsmen. [An HON. MEMBER: "And to Yorkshiremen in Yorkshire."] He quite agreed that that should be the case if the Yorkshireman had the same qualifications as the other competitor, because his local knowledge would be useful. He also complained that the postal service to and from South Africa was very unsatisfactory, inasmuch as a reply to a letter from the Colonies could not be sent off without the loss of a week. He hoped the Postmaster-General would make some representations in the proper quarters that the South African mail should arrive on a Friday, and then letters in reply could be sent back on Saturday. In that way letters would arrive on a Friday. It was altogether wrong that letters should arrive on a Saturday when it was impossible to reply to them in time to catch the outgoing boat. The difference would be entirely obviated if the steamers kept going and did not deliberately slow down and take two days more than was necessary, in order to save coal. We were living at a time when it was a scandal that steamship passengers should have their voyage deliberately delayed for a couple of days for any such purpose. If it was not for that the letters might be received on a Thursday in ample time to transmit replies by the outgoing mail. He hoped the right hon. Gentleman would be able to give some concession on this point, and that he would also make representations to Durban, which he (Mr. Dalziel) believed was responsible for a portion of the subsidy. There was one other point to which he wished to allude, namely, the question of sending telegrams on Sundays. At the present time a telegram could only be sent on Sundays from the Charing Cross or the Central Post Office. It was extremely inconvenient for any one who had to reply to a telegram on that day always to have to go to Charing Cross or the Central Office. He therefore suggested that for the public convenience a certain number of the principal offices should be kept open for a certain number of hours for the purpose of receiving and despatching telegrams.

MR. FELL (Great Yarmouth)

asked for some information as to the surcharges levied on foreign post cards. If there was any writing on a picture post card in the place where writing would ordinarily appear the recipient would be charged twopence and sometimes threepence. He wished to know whether something could not be done to abolish this charge, which could not result in much revenue to the Government, but which caused an infinite amount of annoyance to the recipients of these cards.

SIR W. J. COLLINS (St. Pancras, N.)

asked the Postmaster-General whether he could make any statement as to the dismissal of telegraph workers at Mount Pleasant. Some who had been there fifteen and twenty years had had notice to terminate their engagements, and they wished to know whether they were to be offered any equivalent employment and in what position they stood with regard to their compassionate allowances. His right hon. friend had, he knew, already considered the matter, and he believed that if the right hon. Gentleman could now see his way to make a public statement it would allay some misapprehension and relieve some disappointment.

MR. E. H. LAMB (Rochester)

hoped the Postmaster-General would establish a uniform boundary for the Metropolitan area telephone system. A message from Gravesend cost sixpence, while one sent from Tilbury, on the other side of the river, cost only twopence. Consequently, there was always a strong temptation for people coming up the river to land on the Essex coast rather than at Gravesend for the purpose of getting into telephonic communication with London. He suggested that instead of the anomalous area that now existed the right hon. Gentleman should give a uniform area to the Metropolitan telephones, say of some thirty-six miles, so that towns in close proximity to London could have the privileges which other towns in the immediate vicinity had. He would also like to know whether it was a rule of the Post Office that when a head postmastership became vacant that position should not be given to the assistant postmaster. Quite recently the head mastership in Rochester became vacant and the assistant postmaster was not put into the position but some other person brought in from the outside. Was that to be a rule of the postal service?

MR. C. E. PRICE (Edinburgh, Central)

complained of the way in which these higher appointments were filled up from London, with the result that there was no promotion. Two years ago, owing to representations that were made, one of these higher appointments was filled up by its being given to an assistant with the result that there was general promotion all through the office. It had a most injurious effect on any body of men to find that all the higher offices were a close corporation and that they could never obtain any of these higher positions. He was glad that the right hon. Gentleman had taken up the question of the illustrated price lists for Canada, but at the same time he would like to call attention to the difficulty with regard to Australia. In the last few years considerable restrictions had been placed upon illustrated price lists for Australia. He also called attention to the position of sub-postmasters, who were now on a fixed scale of salary, and unfortunately their work was not recognised on public holidays. The guarantee which sub-postmasters had to give for their assistants was also a matter which required looking into. He thought, too, that as they were not civil servants they should be free from political restrictions and should be allowed to exercise the ordinary rights of citizenship.


presumed the item of £21,290 for electric light generating plant implied that the department made their own electric light. That was no doubt right in days gone by, but with the great increase of electric lighting companies in London would it not be cheaper to obtain the light from one of them instead of maintaining costly plant? It was well known that electricity generated on a small scale was extremely expensive. Unless the right hon. Gentleman had a very good argument to adduce against scrapping the plant, it would be better to obtain the light from a company.

MR. REES (Montgomery Boroughs)

asked if it were possible to give a second delivery of letters in Montgomeryshire. There were many towns of a fair size which had only one delivery a day and which were very anxious to get another. The Cambrian Railway service was not good, though he did not complain of that, as the circumstances of the railway should be considered. But where the railway service allowed of a second delivery he thought such should be granted at places like Caersws, for instance. The complaint of the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy Burghs with regard to the slowing down of steamers with the South African mails applied similarly to the mail services to and from India. If it could be possible to make an arrangement to obviate that it would be more satisfactory and would result in some saving of time, possibly at no great expense.

MR. W. T. WILSON (Lancashire, Westhoughton)

thanked the Postmaster-General for his kindly reference to trade unions, and his announcement that the fair wages clause should be put in future contracts. He hoped the right hon. Gentleman would put that clause into operation in all workshops and factories under his control, so that trade unionists would be able to accept employment therein. He also wished to ask the right hon. Gentleman if he would alter the regulations with regard to the charge made for circulars. Another question which called for consideration related to learners in post offices. In some of the provincial towns a great many learners were taken on by postmasters, and the result was they often had to wait a considerable time before being appointed as clerks.


hoped the Committee would allow the vote to be passed to-night. In reply to the various criticisms, he would try to take them in the order they were put. First with regard to the question of the employment of ex-soldiers and ex-sailors. The hon. Member for Stoke had asked whether he was prepared to give a larger number of appointments to them. As Postmaster-General he entirely declined to take such action. The result of agreements with the Admiralty and War Office, made a few years ago, that 50 per cent. of certain appointments should be given to ex-soldiers and ex-sailors who were eligible had been that the Post Office had had to discharge a very large number of their boy messengers instead of giving them establishment appointments. That was a serious blot on the present postal system, and he should strongly resist any extension of the system, although, of course, he was in entire sympathy with the War Office point of view. He had been in communication with the War Office in regard to the matter, and hoped that by arrangement they might be able to obtain greater elasticity, so as to enable the Post Office in future to continue in their service a larger number of their boy messengers. With regard to the condition of Stoke Post Office, he was not at the present moment versed in the matter, but if he found that the post office was in the deplorable condition which the hon. member described he would certainly endeavour to do something—at all events not another ten years would be allowed to pass before something was done to remedy the evil. The hon. Gentleman had also raised a matter relating to wages which he would look into at once. If the hon. Member for the Westhoughton Division would mention any specific cases in which justice was not done to learners he would give the matter his attention. As to objectionable circulars, where they were open he had stopped them and had challenged legal action which had not been taken. But a sealed letter was a different thing. About a sealed letter there was felt to be a certain sanctity, and without an Act of Parliament he had no power to open such a letter, except with the written consent of a Secretary of State. He desired to assure the hon. Member who had raised this question that although he agreed with his views, at the present moment he was not able to carry his administrative action as far as he would like. Where the Post Office had evidence that illegal matter was being sent information was given to the police. The underground main telegraph line had now been carried to Glasgow, and the construction of the sub-lines. He had not had time to deal with the cash-on-delivery system; it was a thorny subject. His predecessor introduced a scheme with a great flourish of trumpets and had immediately to withdraw it. The last point he had to deal with was the question put by the junior Member for the City of London as to whether it would be cheaper for the Post Office to go to companies for the supply of electricity than to generate its own. The point had been carefully considered, and it was thought that it was cheaper to generate electricity. There had been no general principle laid down. Each case was considered on its merits.

MR. HICKS BEACH (Gloucestershire, Tewkesbury)

asked whether the increase in the number of employes in the Post Office was due to a general increase in business. He also called attention to the absence of a Sunday post in some places, contending that it should be made universal in country districts or done away with altogether.

MR. CLAUDE HAY (Shoreditch, Hoxton)

expressed very great regret at the accusation of having written a letter which was a travesty of the truth, made against the secretary of Lloyd's by the Postmaster-General. Sir Henry Hozier had occupied a distinguished position in the Army, and had rendered great service to the commercial community in the position which he at present held. It was unfortunate that the right hon. Gentleman had been betrayed into making the accusation. He regretted that they had not had the advantage of hearing what the House of Commons thought on re-consideration of a certain measure recently returned to this House from the House of Lords. He was sorry that the right hon. Gentleman had been content to say "Ditto" to his predecessors in regard to the matter of wireless telegraphy. In dealing with this intensely valuable means of communication, not only to the whole commercial and maritime community, but also to the nation in times of war, all that the right hon. Gentleman could do was to say, "Let us go on as we did a few years ago." The Minister in charge of this difficult and important matter should not tie the hands of Parliament, and merely continue the arrangements he found when he entered upon office. He should ask the advice of Parliament as to the steps he should take.


That is a question of legislation. You cannot attack the Postmaster-General with regard to a matter of legislation.


said he was betrayed into a phrase which did not convey his meaning. He wished to say that in the whole course of the debate the right hon. Gentleman had not given a shadow of an indication of any progressive method of administration in respect to wireless telegraphy. If this matter were allowed to lapse under the existing state of things, and unless it was ruthlessly dealt with by the Postmaster-General, the country might be landed in the same mess as former Postmasters-General had landed them in connection with the telephone and telegraphs. He appealed to the right hon. Gentleman to say definitely what were his intentions, not in the way of legislation, but of administration on the important subject of wireless telegraphy.


said that in view of the important conference to take place in the autumn he did not think it his business to lay down at present any new rules. His policy was to prevent any monopoly and to give a free hand at present to the various inventors. He had issued licences to various companies applying for them, and four stations were going to be started by the Post Office to experiment as to the system likely to be the best. He did not withdraw what he had said in reference to an absolutely unprovoked attack on his predecessor being a travesty of the truth.

MR. MEYSEY-THOMPSON (Staffordshire, Handsworth)

said he wished to make a special appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to find employment in his Department for old soldiers after they left the Army. Their training in the Army fitted them well for Post Office work. He pointed out that while the messenger boys' claim should be by no means overlooked, it must be remembered that the soldier who had spent in the service of his country some of the best years of his life, the years when it was most easy for him to establish himself in some regular employment, was apt to be thrown out of employment at an age when employers were disinclined to take him in preference to a younger man. He drew attention to the fact that if it was wanted to have the best class of men in the Army, and to do justice to those who were willing to give their lives for their country, we must not overlook their claims to considerate treatment on their re-entry into civil employment.


said that there was a large increase of £10,000 a year in respect of the conveyance of mails by road, and a great decrease in respect of the conveyance of the mails by rail. He asked whether it would not be possible for the Postmaster-General to improve the system of delivery of letters and telegrams in the country. If a telegram was sent from this House he sometimes reached the place to which it was sent before the telegram was delivered.


said that he would give attention to the representations of the hon. Gentleman.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolution to be reported upon Monday next; Committee to sit again upon Monday next.