HC Deb 21 October 1915 vol 74 cc2019-32

For the purpose of enabling effect to be given to certain proposed changes of postal and telegraph rates, the following variations shall have effect with respect to the statutory limits applicable to those rates:—

  1. (a) The maximum rate for an inland book packet under Sub-section (1) (b) (ii.) of Section two of the Post Office Act, 1908, of a halfpenny for every two ounces or fractional part of two ounces shall cease to have effect except as respects inland book packets which do not exceed two ounces in weight; and
  2. (b) A maximum rate of a halfpenny for every six ounces in weight or for every fractional part of six ounces over and above the first or any additional six ounces up to such maximum weight as may be fixed by the Postmaster-General shall be substituted for the maximum rate of one halfpenny for each inland registered newspaper under Sub-section (1) (b) (iii.) of Section two of the Post Office Act, 1908; and
  3. (c) A maximum rate of ninepence for the first twelve words of each ordinary written telegram or for an ordinary written telegram of less than twelve words shall be substituted for the maximum rate of sixpence under 2020 Section two of the Telegraph Act, 1885; and
  4. (d) The maximum rates for Press telegrams under Section sixteen of the Telegraph Act, 1868, shall be varied as follows:—
but rates for Press telegrams shall not be raised above the limits existing immediately before the passing of this Act until after the thirty-first day of December, nineteen hundred and sixteen.


I beg to move to leave out paragraph (a).

I feel quite sure that the Post Office will not be able to defend this proposal in the Bill. It proposes to charge ½d. to carry 2 ozs. and 2½d. to carry 2 ozs. and a fraction. It proposes to charge, say, for a 6-oz. packet, 4d. to convey from Charing Cross to Westminster and 1½d. to convey from Bombay to Westminster. These are among the anomalies which could be pointed out. I feel sure it cannot be defended, and equally that it could not be maintained if it were enacted, inasmuch as there are at least three ways of avoiding its effects, one by printing abroad the communications that are too heavy for the 2 ozs., and using the lower postage which is available from foreign countries; secondly, by cutting up a 6-oz. packet, say, into three 2-oz. packets, and thus getting it within the ½d. rate; and, thirdly, by employing, as I am sure would be employed, new organisations for hand delivery. I believe that the proposal would defeat its own ends. I believe that it would bring, not an increasing revenue to the Post Office, but instead a serious loss.

The POSTMASTER-GENERAL (Mr. Herbert Samuel)

I cannot agree with my hon. Friend that the proposal in the Bill would bring in no revenue. On the contrary, there is a not inconsiderable revenue involved. At the same time, I cannot dispute his contention that the new rates which have been proposed could be to a large extent evaded. The hands of the Post Office in all matters of rates are tied to a very great extent by the International Postal Union, which fixes rates for international traffic, and which cannot be altered except with the consent of the International Postal Union assembled in conference. The consequence is, whenever the Exchequer wishes to get more revenue out of postal charges, it is liable to be met by the fact that it would be charging more for sending a packet from one part of a town to another part of a town than for sending a similar packet to the other end of the earth. It is also the case that, under the international arrangement, packets could be posted from, say, Holland, Belgium or France, and sent over here at a much cheaper rate than those which were proposed by the Retrenchment Committee, and, if that practice were adopted, the British Post Office would have all the trouble of distributing these packets, and at the same time would receive no revenue, while the British printing trade would run the risk of orders being given to competitors in foreign countries in order to save the expense.

Further, in connection with the proposal which has been made in this Bill, the point has to be considered that a very heavy charge for postage would be levied on monthly periodicals. Scientific magazines and other periodicals would have to pay an exceedingly heavy charge at the same rate as letters under the new letter scale. In view of all these circumstances, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has agreed to continue the rate of printed packets as now of not only a ½d. for the first 2 ozs., but also a ½d. for each successive 2 ozs. It is not enough for me to stop there, because the question of samples must also be considered. The old sample post was 4 ozs. for a 1d., and 2 ozs. for a ½d. above the rate of the first 4 oz. There was no ½d. postage for sampled; the post was ½d. for 4 oz., and a ½d. for each additional 2 ozs., and that is also the international rate. In 1897, as the House will remember, when the Jubilee postal concessions of that date were made, the letter rate for ordinary letters was made 1d. for 4 oz, and a ½d. for each additional 2 oz., and consequently it was identical with the sample rate, and the separate sample post was abolished. Now samples, as before, go both within this country and outside, at the rate of 4 ozs. for a ½d. and 2 ozs. for a ½d. beyond the first 4 ozs. I think the business community would be very much affected if an alteration was not made back again, and if the sample post was not re-established, and consequently with the assent of the Chancellor of the Exchequer I propose to do that. The effect generally will be that while the charges for letters will be raised from what they now are to 1d. for the first ounce and 2d. for two ounces, and a ½d. per 2 oz. above; that samples will be charged as now, 1d. for the first 4 ozs. and a ½d. for each additional 2 ozs., and printed matter will be charged as now: a ½d. for the first 2 ozs. and a ½d. for each successive 2 ozs. I do not want to make the sample post identical with the printed matter post, because that would be giving those who send samples a cheaper rate than they pay now, and this is not a time for making any additional concession. The alterations in the letter rate can be effected by Warrant, and the alteration in the sample rate can be effected in the same way, and does not require legislation, because it does not go below the initial 1d. The ½d. rate for printed matter can be left as it is by leaving the Statute as it is—that is to say, by omitting from this Bill the Sub-section which would modify the existing Statute of 1908, and on behalf of the Government I accept my hon. Friend's Amendment.


I desire to express my thanks and the thanks of the traders and printers for whom I have been acting, for the very important concession that has been made by the Postmaster-General and the Chancellor of the Exchequer.


What revenue is the right hon. Gentleman giving up?


I am astounded that the Postmaster-General should yield these matters, although I am glad he has done so. It seems to me that the only people who can get concessions out of the Cabinet and the Postmaster-General are those who can bring pressure to bear. The right hon. Gentleman has made concessions with regard to samples and newspapers, but he is insisting on extra taxation upon those of us who write ordinary letters. I congratulate the Postmaster-General and the Cabinet on having been squeezed.


This is the third or the fourth recommendation which has been accepted of what is known as the Retrenchment Committee with regard to postal arrangements. All the municipalities in this country are now taking into consideration the question of retrenchment, but they appoint a committee within their own body and from their own body—




I was just going to point the moral. It is really a waste of the time of Parliament that we should come here and discuss these matters in the way we are doing—


Then the moral is out of order.


I cannot help thinking that the House has not been dealt fairly with in regard to the production of this Bill, seeing that bit by bit the original proposals are being given away, and we are face to face with the prospect of nothing remaining of the Bill but its title. I think if the Postmaster-General and those who advise him went into this matter with a view to discovering the amount of revenue likely to be derived, they would find that either they would gain very little, or they might even lose by the proposed alteration. The strongest argument for the elimination of one of these proposals was that the right hon. Gentleman was unable to act because he could not bring into line with him his confederates on the International Postal Union. If, therefore, he still at the back of his mind thinks that these things are desirable, I should very much like to know whether he has taken any step to bring about an agreement on this matter with the International Postal Union.

4.0 P.M.


Could the right hon. Gentleman at the same time tell us what increase of revenue he thinks he will get, providing no more concessions are made? I desire to associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down. I have been telling all my Constituents that we are at war, and that they must be ready to pay increased charges. I presumed that the Government had thought out their Bill before they introduced it, and that it was my duty to support them. What position am I in? Every day we have a concession. It is, therefore, no use attempting to support the Government, because after you have said that you intend to support them you have no opportunity, because they yield to clamour and withdraw practically the greater part of the charges which they have put on. When the Government bring in a Bill at a time like this they ought to consider it and to stick to it. If it is not right, they ought not to bring it; but, having brought it in, I do not think that they are doing right to withdraw under pressure practically the greater part of the proposals they have made.


I rise to dissociate myself from the observations made by the last two speakers. The Post Office has suffered sufficient humiliation in regard to the proposals made in the Budget speech by the alteration of the postal rate, and it is wise not to court further humiliation by putting such a proposal as this before the International Postal Union. I am perfectly certain such a proposal would never for a moment be entertained by it. I would like to join in the expression of thanks for the concession the Postmaster-General has made. It would have been an intolerable burden upon many useful industries and enterprises in the country if the original proposals had been adhered to. I should like, if I might without intending in the least degree to be offensive, to give just one word of warning. It may be that other proposals, quite as absurd and ridiculous, will be submitted by that extraordinary body known as the Retrenchment Committee. I would suggest, therefore, when proposals with regard to postal rates do come from that body, that the Post Office, in the future, should give them very careful consideration indeed. I am quite sure, if they will do that, it will save the reputation of the Post Office, which in the past has possessed a fairly considerable amount of common sense and business ability. My hon. Friend behind me protested very strongly against the proposals which are being made by the Post Office for the raising of the letter rate. If it were an alternative between lowering the weight carried for 1d. and any restrictions, I should not hesitate for a single moment as to which alternative I would choose. I would like to see the present letter rate maintained, but still I have often said that I know of no instance where cheapness has been carried to such an absurd extent as in the case of the present letter rate in this country. To be able to send a letter of ¼lb. for 1d. from one part of the United Kingdom to another is either a wonderful achievement in business organisation or economy or it is an instance of loss resulting from generosity on the part of the State.


Before we consent to any Amendment of the Bill, could we not get a statement from the Postmaster-General as to the changes he proposes to make, not merely by this Bill, but in postal arrangements generally? We are asked now to give up a particular matter which is in the Bill, but we want an assurance, if we give it up, that some other tax will not be put upon us.


The hon. and learned Gentleman's observations would lead a very long way, and I think he had better try them on the Third Reading, when he would, perhaps, have a better chance.


We have not been told what is the general scheme of the Post Office. We cannot ask, and we do not know it. We must therefore look very carefully, indeed, upon any suggestion made by the Post Office. We had a very strong appeal from the Postmaster-General, on the Second Reading, as to the care we ought to take, and it is very dfficult to know whether to support the Amendment, which is substantially accepted by the Government, by leaving out the Clause altogether, or whether we ought to press the Government to keep to the charge they have proposed. We are acting to that extent in the dark. The right hon. Gentleman pointed out that pressure was brought to bear upon the Post Office which was not brought to bear upon any other trading community. Bearing in mind that pressure is brought to bear upon hon. Members who have a large number of Post Office employés in their constituencies, it is our duty to go very carefully into proposals of this kind. The Postmaster-General himself has told us that hon. Members who have Post Office employés in their constituencies have pressure brought to bear upon them and they in their turn bring pressure to bear upon the Post Office. Therefore, we should fully understand any extra charge that is being put on. We all feel it is important that we should know what we are doing when such a trustworthy Member as the hon. Member for Salford (Sir W. Byles) has concessions granted to him without the House knowing what it is going to cost the nation.


Various suggestions have been made as to the reason why the Postmaster-General sees his way to withdraw this particular Clause. One hon. Member suggested a squeezing process, and another hon. Member suggested pressure; but, if I might place my own construction upon it, I would say that it means, if I might say so without offence, that the Postmaster-General is one of the few business men in the Ministry, and, instead of yielding to pressure from hon. Members, he has listened to the representations of business men in the trade affected. I would add my thanks on behalf of the Labour side of the trade to the right hon. Gentleman for the concession which he has made.


I should like to ask whether after accepting this Amendment this particular branch of the Post Office will pay its way. I maintain that there is reasonable ground for suggesting that each branch of the Post Office should pay its way. There is no reason why the general body of taxpayers should be burdened for the benefit of special classes or special trades. It was suggested the other day by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Spen Valley (Sir T. Whittaker) that no business concern would proceed in this way to increase its rate; but would any business concern be able to be carried on at all on the lines on which the Post Office has been carried on in several of its branches? It has been carried on with very serious loss in some branches, and were it not for what has been regarded as the unfathomable pocket of the taxpayer the business could not be carried on at all. Therefore, the question ought to be asked, "Will that particular branch of the Post Office be self-supporting if the Amendments and concessions which are being dealt out so freely are carried?"


I should like to ask two questions, both of which, I think, the right hon. Gentleman can easily answer. First, looking at his proposals as a whole and giving effect to the concessions which he has just intimated, how much additional revenue will be left; and, in the second place, will he consider the practicability of curtailing the number of deliveries in small villages? Three, and sometimes four, deliveries are being made in small villages—


That question cannot be raised at this stage.


In all these matters of increases of rates we have to take into account the advantage of getting more revenue on the one hand and the disadvantage to the public and inconvenience of creating possible postal anomalies on the other hand. That is obvious, and we have to weigh those two factors. It is an exceedingly difficult thing to get anything approaching an exact financial estimate in such a matter, but a very rough speculative estimate of the result of this proposal to make all printed matter above the first 2 ozs. fall into the ordinary letter post and be charged at letter rate puts it rather over £400,000.


Is that the cost?


No; the additional revenue that would be derived if printed matter, instead of going 2 ozs. for a -½d., were to go 2 ozs. for the first ½d. and then above that be treated as letters. That £400,000 would be sacrificed by this Amendment. If £400,000 of revenue can be realised, it is worth a good deal of inconvenience to the public and worth creating a number of anomalies. Consequently, the Government proposed this plan and put it into the Bill. Since then it has been pointed out—and, of course, we knew it before—that undoubtedly a certain number of traders, perhaps a great number of traders, having large numbers of catalogues weighing more than 2 ozs., weighing, say, 4 ozs., instead of sending them by letter post and putting 2½d. on each, a very heavy cost on the postage of a large number of catalogues, would divide them into two sections, each section weighing below 2 ozs., and the Post Office would only receive ½d. on each. It would have to carry two packets instead of one and receive the same revenue as now.


Has any account been taken of reduced traffic?


A considerable loss of traffic has been allowed for in the estimate of £400,000, but whether that estimate is adequate or not only experience can show. It is quite certain that a considerable number of traders would post their catalogues from abroad as I have stated, and there being this danger of the Post Office being brought into discredit by these obvious means of evasion the question arises whether it is worth while proceeding in order to get that additional revenue at that cost. It has been further pointed out that the effect of these proposals would undoubtedly be very serious on the printing trade and also upon the publishers and proprietors of monthly periodicals which have not the advantage of the newspaper rate. On a review of all the circumstances, it has been thought that perhaps on the whole it is inadvisable to proceed with this proposal, even though such a considerable revenue as £400,000 is involved. This estimate cannot from the nature of the case be regarded as really reliable and trustworthy, and it might be that when the new rates were brought into operation the sum involved would be found to be much less or it might be much greater than £400,000. Those are the reasons why the Government have proposed to accede to the representations that have been made to them and not to go on with this proposal. In answer to the hon. Member for Windsor I have to say it is estimated that a ½d. for a 2-oz. packet is just remunerative to the Post Office. Probably there is no profit in it. There is a trifling profit on the postcard, which weighs a good deal less. There is a loss on newspapers which weigh more than 2 ozs., and the loss on newspapers may be taken very roughly as about equal to the profit on the postcards. The ½d. packet of 2 ozs., I think, just about pays, so that the ½d. post as a whole—newspapers, packets, and postcards taken together—brings in no appreciable profit and causes no appreciable loss to the Post Office. That is, as I am informed by my advisers, the best estimate they can make. With respect to the question of the hon. Member behind me, whether it is not possible to arrange with other countries to alter the international rates, these rates can only be altered at the International Conference which meets once every few years, and which, of course, in the present condition of the world, cannot conceivably meet at the present time. The total amount of revenue which would be derived from all the Post Office changes, those made by this Bill and by warrant and including the savings on expenditure, will approach £3,000,000. The changes will include those announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as modified by my own statement on the Second Reading of the Bill, and as modified by the further concession involved by this Amendment.


Surely these primeval dodges for evasion were considered by the Government before they made their original proposal?

Question, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Clause," put, and negatived.


I beg to move, at the beginning of paragraph (b), Sub-section (1), to leave out the word "six" ["six ounces"], and to insert instead thereof the word "eight."

I do not propose to press this Amendment very hard. I put it down in order to obtain reconsideration by the right hon. Gentleman of the question whether the rate for trade journals especially cannot be slightly increased over the 6 ozs. A good many would come well within 8 ozs. The change would make a serious difference to many of them.


Perhaps I had better say that this is an Amendment which I cannot accept, and I am glad my hon. Friend does not propose to press it. The newspaper post, of course, is unremunerative, and the House generally approved a modification of the present regulation which allows a paper weighing even as much as 5 lbs., and many weekly papers weigh 2 lbs., to be carried for ½d. That is quite indefensible, and by general agreement it was felt that a lower limit of weight ought to be imposed. The question is what should that limit be? We thought we ought to put our limit at such a figure that the ordinary daily newspaper would still be able to go for ½d. We do not want to discriminate between particular classes of newspapers, charging 1d. for some and ½d. for others. Consequently the figure was put at 6 ozs., which covers the bulk of the daily papers. It is true that there are one or two newspapers which occasionally, or even frequently, do exceed 6 ozs., but these papers consist to a very large extent of highly remunerative advertisements.


Not all.


We think the taxpayer ought not to be called upon to carry them at a very heavy loss in consideration of the fact that they differ from other newspapers mainly in the additional advertisements that they contain. Another reason why we do not want to lower the rate from 6 ozs. per ½d. to 8 ozs. is the effect it would have at the second point in the scale. It would mean that a newspaper weighing between 12 and 16 ozs. would go for 1d. instead of being charged more, and these weekly papers weighing up to 1 lb. again include great numbers of highly remunerative advertisements. We think that they ought to bear a charge which approaches more closely the cost to the Post Office of distributing and delivering them. As I stated in my remarks on a previous Amendment, to be remunerative a newspaper ought to be charged a ½d., not for 8 ozs., nor for 6 ozs., nor even for 4 ozs., but for 2 ozs., and I think the State is going far to consider the interests of the newspapers, and also, of course, to meet the convenience and requirements of the public at large, by carrying a weight up to 6 ozs. for ½d. I ask the Committee to maintain that figure in the Bill.


Proverbially a little knowledge is rather a dangerous thing, and I do not want this to be left in the position stated by the Postmaster-General before the Committee adopt this Clause. It is not the case that only occasionally daily newspapers exceed the weight of 6 ozs. As a matter of fact, both in the provinces and in London, there are many that are looked upon as principal newspapers which habitually exceed that weight.

Mr. H. SAMUEL dissented.


The right hon. Gentleman contradicts me, but perhaps on this particular matter he will allow me to speak with somewhat greater fullness of knowledge than I could with regard to letters. The "Glasgow Herald" is one of the cases in point. These papers, of course, are harder hit by the change than if the uniform rate originally proposed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer had been maintained, because they vary, and, therefore, it is not possible to shift the burden, even if they wish, on to the subscribers. Nor is it the case that most papers mainly consist of advertisements, as the right hon. Gentleman seems to think. The increased size is generally due to special pages or supplements dealing with special phases of national life, trade, and agriculture, and kindred matters which are published for the benefit, let us say, of the whole of the community. I do not put the case of the daily papers. I am thinking much more of a category in which I have no interest—that is to say, trade papers and weekly papers. They are really the commercial intelligence department of the nation, much more so, perhaps, than the Commercial Intelligence Department of the Board of Trade—not that I am underrating much of the work it does. They supply all the trades of the country—and I wish to draw the attention of the members of the Retrenchment Committee to this fact—with the data upon which they act from week to week, with the information on which great commercial and industrial firms conduct their business. They are part of the commercial and industrial mechanism of the country. This is going to be a bad burden in a very high degree, and the papers will be largely crippled by the changes now proposed.

I do not make that statement without authority. I have had special communications from the proprietors of weekly newspapers and periodical publications pointing out that this new scale will impose a crushing burden on many trade papers, and stamp some of them out of existence. That is the opinion of those who know. I certainly should not dream of asking the Committee to divide on the question, as obviously it is one in which I have some personal interest, but I want to put the case of the trade papers before the Committee so that they may know what they are doing. If they wish to diminish the commercial intelligence of the country and to put a burden on the whole of the framework of our national industry they are quite right to adopt the scheme proposed. But they should do it in the full knowledge of what they are doing, and not solely in the light of information furnished by representatives of the Post Office to the Committee. I do not suppose anything more can be done now. I hope it will not be put as a permanent burden. I confess I view with great misgiving the effect it will have upon our being able to respond to the call of neutral markets, and on our being able to take advantage of opportunities that must arise especially in the immediate future, and after the War, for the supply of commodities from this country abroad. Having made this statement on behalf of the weekly newspapers and trade journals I do not propose to press the matter any further.


In reply to the remarks of the last speaker I would like to point out that these journals, whether they be weekly or daily, have this enormously enlarged bulk from time to time because they issue special supplements dealing with trade conditions which appear to them to justify the increase of size. They may be national agencies for the encouragement and development of trade, but the cost to the owners is very largely discounted by the enhanced advertisement charges which are made on these special occasions. If I had, as an advertiser, to go to the advertisement manager of my hon. and gallant Friend or anyone else connected with the Press, I should expect, and rightly so as a business man, to be met with a quotation for the advertisement which would be justified by the added interest which attaches to the compilation of the journal or periodical, an added interest which would be represented by these increased fees. I think, therefore, too much can be said on that side of the matter. I do not want the Post Office or any other Department of the State to be ungenerous to our magnificent Press enterprises But the advantages are not all on one side and neither is the burden put on one pair of shoulders. Immediately you increase the bulk of a paper you increase the value of its advertisements, other things being equal, and if you increase the revenue on one side it is fair that that revenue should be taxed in times like these, without there being laid upon the taxpayer charges which the Post Office seeks to distribute more equally.

Sir J. D. REES

Without possessing the special knowledge of the hon. and gallant Member for Mile End (Colonel Lawson), I should like to say I have received from a good many quarters representations which lead me to say how strongly I agree with all he has said. The concessions the Post Office has made will give very great satisfaction, but still what my hon. and gallant Friend has said should also receive consideration. There is great danger lest we do damage to trade in this respect and cause greater loss than any immediate gain which may accrue to the Post Office from the actual increased postage in the particular cases concerned.


I ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question, "That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill," put, and agreed to.