HC Deb 16 August 1911 vol 29 cc2012-9

I desire to draw attention to a matter in connection with the Post Office. I do not see the Postmaster-General at present, and of course I cannot make any statement except when he is here. In the meantime I may take this opportunity of referring to the way Supply has been managed during the past five or six years. There are some of the Scottish Votes which we have not had an opportunity of discussing in Committee since 1906. I hope the Government will take note of that in future, and arrange to give us an opportunity of discussing Scottish matters, which are not necessarily party matters, but are matters connected with the good government of Scotland. The Government now arrange the time to suit themselves. If they do not wish a Vote to come on they take care that it is not put down, and it is guillotined in due course, and there is no opportunity of discussing it in Committee. I have no wish to detain the House, but it is not my fault that I am waiting for the Postmaster-General.


I will take a note of what my hon. Friend says.


The worst of it is that I was told that before. Now I see the Postmaster-General coming in. When we had the Post Office Vote before us I raised the same question in regard to Sutherland-shire that I am going to raise now, but I got no reply at all. The Postmaster-General went away, and the Assistant Postmaster-General did not appear to know anything about it. I commented on the Estimate being completed that night—[Laughter.] There is nothing to laugh at in that, and I asked that the Vote should be put down again so that we might be given a proper opportunity of discussing matters. But, like other Votes mentioned just now, it was duly guillotined the night before last. The first matter to which I wish to draw attention is the necessity for establishing telegraph communication between Rosehall and Elphin. An hon. Gentleman is laughing at that. If he had to live down there and go twenty miles on horseback for a doctor because there was no telegraph he would not laugh. We have been asking for this extension of the telegraph ever since I represented Suther-landshire; that is since 1906. I have perhaps 100 letters about it, but I am not going to read them all to-night. We are in this difficulty. The Postmaster-General says it will have to be carried on at a loss and if a loss does occur he says we must pay all of it. On this point I will read the last letter we have received:—

"General Post Office,

"London, 24th July, 1911."

This comes from the Assistant Postmaster-General:—

"My dear Morton,—As promised you in the House of Commons on the 18th May last, I carefully went into the subject of the telegraph extension to Elphin and elsewhere in Sutherlandshire, and I even laid the case before the Treasury and endeavoured to induce them to modify the guarantee terms which they had laid down for these extensions. The Treasury, however, decline to authorise the extension, except on condition that the guarantors bear the whole loss involved for a period of fourteen years, and I am afraid I can do no more.

"Yours very truly,


Therefore they are asking us, contrary to what I say is the policy of the Treasury, to stand the whole of the loss. I have made one step forward. The blame is now laid by the Postmaster-General on the Treasury. Two or three years ago I approached the Treasury, and they practically said they had nothing to do with it. The then Postmaster-General hinted strongly that he was the Treasury in those matters. When I put a question on the matter in the House of Commons, instead of the Treasury answering the question the Postmaster-General answered it. Now I have got a step forward, because this letter says distinctly that the Treasury are the wicked people.

The Prime Minister, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, made on April 30th, 1906, his Budget speech, in which he said, referring to postal matters and telegraphic matters:— Secondly, we have given larger postal facilities to rural districts by means of which all places in the United Kingdom shall, save in very exceptional cases, have at least three deliveries a week.

I am not going to raise the question of three deliveries a week to-night, but there are a number of places in Sutherlandshire where they do not get them, and there are some places where up to a little while ago there was only one delivery a week, though I have got them to make it two; but I only mention that in passing as that part of the Prime Minister's promise has not been carried out, up to the present moment, in Sutherlandshire. Then he goes on to say:— and in cases of guarantee being required where postal, telegraph or telephone facilities are given, the Postmaster-General shall in ordinary conditions take two-thirds of the risk.

The Postmaster-General has no business to refuse to carry out that promise, and we ought to insist on the Treasury keeping their word with us. I know they may say there is a little loophole here about ordinary conditions. If there is any point in that in connection with this district it ought to be in favour of the district and of the Treasury taking two-thirds of the guarantee rather than otherwise. It was understood to be settled some time ago by the Government of the day and the House, that these districts were to be considered, not with regard to the profit which was made out of them, but with regard to the necessities of the case. In my opinion, the people of this district ought to have had this telegraph long ago. I can get the local authorities to guarantee one-third of the loss, but I call upon the Government and the Treasury to carry out the promise contained in the speech of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, now Prime Minister.

There are some other matters to which I wish to draw attention. I am making no attack upon the Postmaster-General, but I am simply, at the request of my Constituents, which is contained in the petitions signed by many hundreds of people, endeavouring to carry out their wishes. There is the question of the postal facilities between Lairg and Lochinver. At the present moment it will astonish people in London to hear that English letters that come down to Lairg, arriving about one o'clock in the day, instead of being sent on the same afternoon to Lochinver, have to wait until ten o'clock the next morning before they go forward. We got the Postmaster-General (not the present one, but his predecessor) to improve one of those routes, with the result that they wait until the English mail train gets in at one o'clock, and they are delivered that night, and a whole day is saved in connection with the delivery. I quite admit that part of the road between Lairg and Lochinver is not quite safe in the winter, but I hope it will be improved by-and-by. There is no difficulty, however, at all in taking the mail through Lairg to Lochinver in the summer time at one or two o'clock, after the English mails are in. I have been writing numerous letters to the Postmaster-General and to the Deputy Postmaster-General, and I was told that that was going to be carried out. That has been lately again refused, and nothing has been done as far as that is concerned. It is one of the cases to which I wish the Postmaster-General to give his attention. In another case, as in this, which has been brought to the attention of the Post Office authorities for years, we have got nothing. It is an extraordinary thing. I do not know why it is, that we can get nothing out of the present Postmaster-General; we can get no improvements whatever of any account. Under his predecessor we got a good deal, though not all we wanted. It seems now that in the Post Office, somehow or other, they will not do anything. There are a number of other districts that have been asking for facilities in the form of motors, which would greatly improve postal deliveries in a county like Sutherlandshire. In some districts they want the motor instead of the coach which is used at present.

9.0 P.M.

There is no doubt at all that the introduction of motors has greatly improved the service, and will still further improve it if the Postmaster-General will endeavour to distribute the service of motors over the whole district. I know we will be told that the service does not pay. What the exact position is about the service paying does not matter to me at all, because it has nothing to do with the penny post. The principle of the penny post is that the rich and populous districts pay for the thinly populated and scattered areas, so making ends meet. That is the principle on which any post office which is started ought to be carried on. It is not necessary to say that a particular service does not pay. What I notice particularly in regard to Sutherlandshire is— and I call the attention of the Postmaster-General to it—that a reorganisation of the whole district is required. Some of the postal service in that area is carried on in the most stupid manner. You will find them bringing mails from a place far up in the north for a distance of, say, a 100 miles, and taking them back next day for delivery. The whole thing wants revising to bring it up to date, and I have no doubt that with better facilities the Postmaster-General will find that the service would pay better. I do not suppose that he is likely to be personally acquainted with these districts, but it is the fact that they make great use both of the telegraph and the post in connection with their business. For the last five or six years we have been trying to get these particular reforms, and I do hope that at last the Postmaster-General will do something for us. Otherwise, like my friend the late Mr. Weir, I must trouble the House with questions until some reforms are obtained. It is my duty to represent the views of my Constituents, and I must do the best I can with the Postmaster-General. It appears to be a fact that one cannot get these reforms without putting questions every other day in the House of Commons. I shall be obliged myself to take that course, and I suppose I can do it as well as anybody else. I trust that the Postmaster-General will endeavour to do something to meet us in connection with the postal service and the telegraph extensions in the Rosehall district. Outside these local matters, I wish to call the attention of the Postmaster-General to the question of the penny post between this country and France, and I ask whether anything has been done to carry that into effect. I know that we have lost a great postal reformer in Mr. Henniker Heaton, but humbler persons must keep on moving. I trust that in regard to this, as well as to the local matters that I have brought forward on behalf of my Constituents, reforms will be carried out, and that some announcement will be made by the Postmaster-General, not only in regard to them, but in reference to the question of the penny post between this country and France. I put these questions in no offensive manner, but simply because I have been requested by my Constituents, in hundreds of letters, to bring these matters not only to the attention of the Postmaster-General, but to the attention of the House of Commons.


In the first place, in answer to my hon. Friend's last question, I have nothing to say with respect to the matter of a penny post between this country and France.


I have no doubt the House desires to hear the right hon. Gentleman, but he has exhausted his right to speak.


I do not think any hon. Member will object to the Postmaster-General replying to the hon. Member.


I think I may answer the hon. Gentleman now, and I am happy to do so. I spoke on the same Motion earlier in the afternoon. I may repeat that the attitude of this Government and the French Government is unchanged on the subject of penny postage. My hon. Friend said that he had some results with my predecessor with regard to postal facilities, but that he finds me stony hearted. He asks an explanation. The explanation is, of course, simple and obvious. My right hon. Friend my predecessor granted to the hon. Member all his reasonable requests, and then fled to another department, leaving me to bear the brunt of refusing his unreasonable requests. I am glad my hon. Friend has to-night made some definite suggestions with regard to postal matters, but I am sorry he did not give me notice that be was going to bring this matter up.


I sent word through the Assistant Postmaster-General and took particular care to ask him to let you know.


I was informed that the hon. Member intended to bring up the question of telegraph extensions in Sutherlandshire. I was uninformed that he intended to bring up the question of postal facilities, otherwise I might have taken the opportunity of consulting the officers of the department as to the particular point he had made. He has made some suggestion as to particular matters into the details of which I cannot go now, and I can do no more than promise that those specific suggestions shall receive consideration and investigation. If it is the case that by improvement in the circulation of traffic we may be able to effect improvements in collection and deliveries no one would be more pleased than the officers of my department and myself. I will see that careful inquiry is made into the practicability of effecting improvement in postal circulation in the particular places the hon. Member mentioned. When he turns to the question of telegraph extensions my predecessor and myself for several years on every conceiv- able occasion have listened with much interest to the hon. Member's representations.


And done nothing.


And have heard on very many occasions the quotation from the Prime Minister's speech of 1906. That quotation was to the effect that under ordinary circumstances guarantees should be accepted for telegraph facilities, the guarantors bearing one-third of the amount. But the circumstances in Sutherlandshire are not ordinary. I do not know what the density of the population is to the square mile or how many square miles there are to each individual of the population, but certainly the amount of telegraph traffic which is to be expected from the district of Sutherlandshire in which the hon. Member is specially interested is so small that no one can say that the circumstances are ordinary. The form of guarantee that would be used in any average district could not possibly be accepted in a place where the distances are so great and the likely business is so very small. The hon. Member says that the cost is a matter of indifference to him.


Not about that. I said it in regard to the penny post and that one district should pay for another. I did not apply that to the telegraph system, as I know it is on a different footing and there is a loss.


Then I will not attempt to hold my hon. Friend to that. In any case, the cost is not a matter of indifference to the Post Office or the Treasury. There is a loss of a million per year, defrayed out of the general Post Office revenues, on the telegraphs of the country. That loss has been largely incurred by extending the telegraph system into unremunerative districts. It is to the interest of the community at large that that should be done, and that loss may be worth suffering in particular cases, but there must be a line drawn somewhere. There cannot be a telegraph run into every parish in the whole of the United Kingdom, even though there may be only one or two telegrams to be sent by individuals. You cannot, irrespective of loss, run your telegraph system into remote, thinly-populated districts without a full guarantee. My hon. Friend persuaded my hon. Friend and colleague the Assistant Postmaster-General, who perhaps may be more soft-hearted than myself, in the kindness of his heart to re- present the matter to the Treasury. I am not sure that I should have gone so far, but the Treasury having gone into the matter came to the concluson, which I came to some time ago, that there was no case for charging the general taxpayers of the country with this particular extension. I am, afraid, in view of the action taken by the Treasury, I cannot favour the telegraph being extended to that place. If my hon. Friend desires further inquiries into the telegraph facilities of Sutherland-shire, I would gladly have them made, but the inquiry must be in two directions. It must not only consider whether facilities are needed, but whether there are any places where the business is quite adequate to pay a reasonable proportion of the cost incurred. If my hon. Friend, as he suggests, puts me weekly questions.




On this subject I may perhaps be obliged on some occasion to give him the answer that in the general interest of the community at large it is necessary to close some of the existing telegraph offices.


I will bring the matter up on Friday to call the attention of the Treasury to the matter.