HC Deb 21 October 1915 vol 74 cc2034-44

During the currency of the present War there may be stamped upon the face of every postage stamp issued for use and used for postal purposes in the United Kingdom the words "War surcharge one farthing," and all such stamps shall be charged at ¼d. each in addition to the charge appropriate to the face value of the stamp.

Clause brought up, and read the first time.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be now read a second time."

In moving this Clause, I take advantage of your ruling, Sir, based on Mr. Speaker's ruling with regard to the nature of these postal charges. Mr. Speaker ruled that these postal charges were not taxes, but payments for services rendered, and in view of that you have informed me that I am in order in proposing an increase in certain of these postal charges. In order to keep with the Short Title of the Bill I have limited my Clause to postage stamps used for postal purposes only, and I do so more readily because the Bill itself provides for an increase of approximately 50 per cent. in the minimum charge for telegrams; therefore, so far as telegrams are concerned, the Bill is a real and substantial contribution towards the increase of the postal revenue. With regard to the Title of the Bill, you have been good enough to point out to me that as the Title is:— To alter certain statutory limits of postal and telegraph rates, and for purposes connected therewith that in the first line of the proposed new-Clause where I have used the word "shall," I ought to use the word "may." I shall therefore move the Clause with the word "may" instead of "shall." In that case I am not under any fear that it will limit or injure the value of the Clause, because I feel quite confident that I shall be able to show the right hon. Gentleman and the Committee that it is a Clause of such substantial merit from the point of view of providing the sinews of war, that if the Committee are good enough to empower the Post Office to make a surcharge—a war surcharge of ¼d. on every postage stamp issued for use and sold in this country for postal purposes—the right hon. Gentleman will not hesitate to put that power into force.


One farthing on all stamps?


Yes, on all denominations. The right hon. Gentleman told the Committee just now that the alterations just made in the Bill to meet the representations of certain trades and interests in this country will reduce the additional estimated revenue by about £400,000. The right hon. Gentleman also said that the 2-oz. packet for ½d. just about pays its way, balancing the profit on postcards and the loss on newspapers. We have here a Bill which he tells us, in spite of the whittling down in Committee in comparison with the proposals of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, will, with the administrative changes he is going to make which are not in the Bill, yield £3,000,000. It is not possible for any private Member to know how much such a proposal as that I am putting before the Committee would be worth, because he has not the information. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman, if he has taken the trouble to have any estimate made, would be good enough to tell the Committee, so that they may know what the amount involved is. I have been told that from £7,000,000 to £8,000,000 would be the additional revenue for the Post Office, which would be in turn handed over to the general national revenue as profits, which accrue to the Post Office. Therefore, in taking advantage of the opportunity I have on this Bill to propose this surcharge it cannot be said that I have put down an Amendment which is not a substantial contribution to what really interests the Committee most of all, that is, providing a substantial contribution towards the cost of the War. I admit that the Bill as it stands is worth the time of the Committee it has taken and the printing and so forth, but it would be a really substantial War measure if the right hon. Gentleman included the Clause I have put down.

May I enumerate briefly one or two of the merits of the surcharge I propose. First of all, although it would bring in an immense revenue to the Post Office, it is about as cheap to collect as any form of revenue. All that is necessary is that stamps of all denominations shall be surcharged—every Member will know what I mean by that—upon the face of them with some such words as I propose, "War surcharge, ¼d." It does not interfere with the Postal Convention, because I limit it to stamps sold and used in this country. From the internal postage stamps used in this country the revenue I refer to would be brought in. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has told us that one of his purposes in the Budget is to bring home the fact that we are at War, and give some inducement to economy to every class in the community. I cannot think of any method cheaper or more effective of doing that, and of warning every person who uses the Post Office that he is expected to make some little contribution to the War than that of a special postage stamp which bears on the face of it a statement that it is a War charge. I do not think it will bring about any material diminution in the postal revenue. The hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury) expressed regret that so many of these proposed charges had been whittled away, and that he was very sorry there was so little left in this Bill, therefore I shall count upon his support, at any rate, for this Clause. I need not say that the Chancellor of the Exchequer wants money. I propose by my Clause to give the Postmaster-General the opportunity of handing over to him a sum, which no doubt he will tell us in detail, but which I am within the mark in saying is double the value of the rest of the Bill put together. The trade and the public have asked, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Mile End (Colonel Harry Lawson) pointed out on the Second Reading, for some assurance that these increased charges are strictly limited to the period of the War and are War surcharges, therefore I hope that he will support a perfectly fair proposal not to discriminate between one value of stamp or one kind of parcel or letter or another, but to put on a stamp which will carry on the face of it, as proposed in my Clause, a statement that it is a charge limited to the period of the War.

It is a very good thing that the proposal, which was one of the most substantial made by the Retrenchment Committee, to increase the ½d. postage to a 1d. straight off has been dropped. Undoubtedly it has been shown that that was too steep an increase. But in respect of postcards and many other particulars no increase is put on the ½d. postage at all. That being so, it is reasonable to propose, as I do, a charge only one-half as great as the one which has been rejected. In spite of spending an enormous amount of time on this question it has been finally decided to do nothing at all. I would mention one other virtue of my proposal. We should be acting in concert with some of our Allies and some of the Dominions of the Crown in putting a special surcharge on War stamps. I beg the Postmaster-General not to follow the Chancellor's of the Exchequer's lead in the matter of Import Duties. Do not let him have this portion of the proposals, which were put forward originally as one whole, whittled down until they are not worth the time that would be spent upon them. Let us realise, apart from any special interests, that it is the business of the Committee to find and pass means of bringing in substantial blocks of revenue to meet the enormous exenditure on the War, and let us put aside, as I hope hon. Members will put aside, all the small objections that may be raised to this proposal for one reason or another, or from one interest or another. The Postmaster-General has just said that the proposals he has dropped would have produced £400,000, and that considerable inconveniences and anomalies were justified if he could get a revenue of £400,000; therefore, I hope that I shall not be met with the claim that there might be slight inconvenience, one way or another, when I am proposing to obtain a revenue, not of £400,000, but probably £7,000,000 or £8,000,000.

What are the objections? The first objection I am quite sure I shall be met with is that a poor person going into a Post Office to buy a single ½d. or 1d. stamp will have to put down two coins—in the case of a 1d. stamp, 1½d., receiving ¼d. change; or in the case of ½d. stamp putting down 1d. and receiving ¼d. change. The ¼d. is still a current coin of the realm, and it is not asking Post Office officials very much to keep a certain amount—a very small amount indeed—of this smallest coin to give in change where people ask for single postage stamps. In the case of any larger purchase, of course, the inconvenience is reduced to nothing at all. It is merely a question of being prepared to pay what is admittedly a contribution to the expenses of the War. A 1s. worth of 1d. stamps will cost 1s. 3d. A 6d. packet of postcards, where we now have the postcard itself thrown in for 6d., will cost 9d., and I do not think that is an unreasonable suggestion under the circumstances. A 2s. book of stamps, which many people find very convenient, I admit does not come out at a very easy figure. It comes out at 2s. 7½d., because it contains thirty stamps—eighteen 1d. and twelve ½d.—but it would be very easy for the Postmaster-General to put in a few more ½d. stamps and so make it even money—say 3s.

There is another objection to be raised. For some years now we have been accustomed, and the traders of the country, I admit, have found it convenient, to use an ordinary 1d. postage stamp when giving a receipt, but a few years ago special receipt stamps were printed and I quite admit, if the Postmaster-General does not care to enlarge my Clause so that it would cover receipt stamps, which I cannot do under your ruling as to the title of the Bill, it would be necessary to issue receipt stamps. I do not think that is a very great hardship at all. It might also be pointed out that it would cause a little inconvenience because you would have to have another set of stamps for telegraphs. They would be telegraph stamps, and only a very few denominations would need to be printed. Each 1d. probably up to 1s. would cover the whole of the possible stamps to be used. People would buy their telegraph stamps, if they wanted to keep them in their pocket, or the postal officials at the end of the counter where telegrams are dealt with would have that class of stamp in their till or in their book, and the other officials where you buy postage stamps would keep postage stamps. I admit there would be a trifling inconvenience to the Post Office in having the stamps printed. I should like to ask the Postmaster-General very seriously to consider whether he would not be giving a good lead. I should like to see this system of war surcharge carried very much further. I only mention it now because it is an argument for making a beginning. I should like to see it carried as far as the tickets for all amusements.


The only ground on which the hon. Member puts his Clause forward is that of charges for services rendered. His speech in in great danger of rendering his Clause out of order.


I need not say I quite agree with your ruling, but I thought I should be in order in pointing out that in making the change I am advocating, the right hon. Gentleman would be giving a lead in suggesting to the public mind a method of producing an immense amount of revenue. I do not want to carry it any further. I use that as an argument, and I think a substantial argument, in favour of making a beginning in the matter of postage stamps. I would ask the Postmaster-General, in his own words, not lightly to throw over this proposal because he may be able to point out some trifling anomaly or inconvenience to the public or the Post Office, but to be guided by his own dictum that £400,000 is worth anomalies and inconveniences, and I ask the Committee to consider how much of these inconveniences and anomalies £8,000,000 are worth.


This is one of those proposals that occur to ingenious minds, and which seem very attractive on paper but which do not bear examination from a practical point of view. There are several difficulties, any one of which would wholly prevent the adoption of the hon. Member's proposal. In the first place, although he assumes that it would not interfere with the regulations of the International Convention in effect it would, because the 2½d. stamp put upon a foreign letter in this country is bought at the Post Office and used in this country and you cannot without a breach of the International Convention charge 2¾d. for that letter. Similarly for the 1d. postcard which goes to a foreign country, or the ½d. packet of printed papers. Consequently, you have to exclude foreign correspondence from this proposal. Secondly, there is the difficulty of receipt stamps. The whole nation is accustomed to use an unified stamp both for postage and for fiscal purposes, and it would be intensely annoying to find that a receipt was invalidated because the wrong stamp had been used. On the other hand, the hon. Member proposes to raise the fiscal charges not by 25 per cent., or ¼d. in the ¼d., but by £d. for each stamp, no matter what its amount might be. Further, stamps are used for defraying the cost of telegrams. The hon. Member would have a separate series of stamps for that use, which would again cause the greatest inconvenience to the public and to the administration of the Post Office. Also stamps are affixed to postal orders for the transmission of odd amounts, they are used for savings bank deposits, and also for accounting purposes in the General Post Office. These are the minor practical objections. The major objections are the great inconvenience to businesses that depend on the use of the ½d. post in having their expenditure increased by 50 per cent., and, lastly, the trouble and annoyance and irritation, which would be widespread, owing to the absence of farthings. The farthing, although still a current coin, is very sluggishly current. It hardly circulates at all; and there would unquestionably be the greatest annoyance on the part of members of the public going in to buy a postage stamp if they were required to pay for it not 1d., but 1¼d. I imagine that if the hon. Member's proposal were to be adopted in legislation it would be almost unanimously condemned by an exasperated public; the Postmaster-General of the day would be torn to pieces by an irritated nation, and it would be little consolation to him to know that the hon. Member who had proposed the scheme would share his fate.


My hon. Friend's proposal is not an improvement on the suggestion of the use of the ½d. war stamp; but, as regards the yield it would give, there is no doubt that, if carried into effect, the right hon. Gentleman would derive a revenue from it, as far as I can see, of about half the amount he would from a ½d. war stamp. As regards the difficulty of the ¼d. coin, I am sure the rarity of that coin is due to the little use to which it can be put, and if there were any use such as is proposed in this Clause undoubtedly it would very rapidly come into use, and the public would not find a very great inconvenience in adapting itself to it. But if the proposal is not accepted I press upon the right hon. Gentleman once more to seriously give consideration to the question whether the use of a war stamp of some kind on all postal packets is not the easiest way to derive a revenue, which is very large in proportion to the amount of the charge, which is probably the least irritating and would cause the least friction of any method by which he could otherwise raise the sum of £4,000,000, which that ½d. stamp was calculated to yield.


I should like to point out one thing I ought to have said before, that obviously in the case of receipts it will not be necessary to invalidate a receipt that had a postage stamp on it. If anyone liked for his own convenience to put 1¼d. instead of 1d., that would be an end of that inconvenience. I should be very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, as I feel quite sure he takes a wholly wrong view of what the public think of this proposal, if he would tell the Committee, before he finally turns it down and dismisses it from his mind as not worthy of consideration, how many millions he is throwing away.


I could not state that without knowing how many stamps would be excepted for foreign postage, for receipts, and for all the various other purposes I have mentioned. You cannot assume that all the stamps in use would in fact pay the extra ¼d. It is impossible without information like that to give an estimate.


I think there are some difficulties as regards the proposed Clause, but I cannot but regret that the Postmaster-General takes such a decidedly hostile attitude to any idea of a more or less general war charge by way of stamps. He has carefully avoided saying anything about the Canadian system, which consists of putting an extra ½d. on all ordinary letters and an extra ½d. on all ordinary cards. I believe there was no violent opposition, or indeed criticism, in Canada when the thing was put forward as a general war charge for the period of the War, and some such proposal as is involved in the Clause might be seriously considered by the Post Office. It was proposed by the Retrenchment Committee. Both the hon. Member (Mr. J. Samuel) and the hon. Member (Mr. Snowden) showed themselves very ignorant critics of the Retrenchment Committee. The hon. Member (Mr. J. Samuel) thought there was not a single Member of the House of Commons on it.


No, I did not say that. I said they were not composed wholly of Members of the House of Commons.


The number of Members of the House of Commons on it is seven, of whom two sit at present on the Treasury Bench and two used to sit on the Treasury Bench, so that their weight should be very considerable. Of the remaining four members, most people we meet say that most of them are thoroughly business men. The complaint which was made the other day by the right hon Gentleman (Sir T. Whittaker) was that there were not enough business men upon it.


Earlier in the Debate, when that was attempted to be raised by the hon. Member (Mr. J. Samuel), I ruled him out of order.

Motion and Clause negatived.

Bill reported.

As amended, considered.

5.0 P.M.


I should be glad if the House would take the remaining stages of the Bill to-day, for this reason: that I am anxious to bring the new charges into operation on the 1st of November. It is convenient that the new charges should be levied from the 1st of the month. I want to bring them into effect as soon as possible, for the mercenary reason of getting more revenue. As the Bill effects changes important to the public, I want to give some notice before the new charges are levied.


These changes are of great importance to the whole of the commercial community, and I think the House ought to have an opportunity of considering them, and, if necessary, conversing with people outside as to the effect of the changes that have been made. I am very reluctant to oppose anything the right hon. Gentleman asks for, but unless there is overwhelming reason for taking the Bill to-day, I think it would be fairer that notice should be given.


I hope the hon. Member will be good enough not to press his objection. I do not think I have received any representation of any opposition to the remaining proposals to speak of, certainly none that are pressing. The objections that have been made have been met. I do not think the hon. Member can quote any interest of importance that raises any objection to any provision in the Bill as it stands. If he presses his objection, the result will be to postpone the Bill. We are now at the 22nd of October, and, as I have said, I desire to bring the new charges into operation on the 1st November. It would be wrong to bring in the new charges without some notice. The effect of the hon. Member pressing his objection would be that we should lose possibly a month, certainly some weeks, of the additional revenue that we desire to obtain.


I should like to say that the Postmaster-General has given us more than we have asked. Not only has he met us on the points raised, but we have got the concession about samples thrown in. Then there is the question of concession in regard to monthly trade circulars. I am sure there is no opposition outside.


I should like to know whether there is anything in this Bill that touches correspondence between this country and India, or the Colonies.


No, Sir. I think there is nothing. I am not quite sure about letters between 1 oz. and 2 ozs., but the Id. rate is not affected.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the third time."


I am very well content with the way in which the Postmaster-General has met all the objections that have been raised. I am quite prepared to give him the Third Reading of the Bill now. I know perfectly well that his object in proposing these postal changes is to obtain revenue to help us to pay for the terrible War in which we are engaged.


On a point of Order. May I call attention to the fact that there has been no Report stage?


The Report stage has been taken by general agreement.


I agree to an increase in postal charges with reluctance. I would suggest that the real way of obtaining revenue by the Post Office is by a progressive and enlightened policy. That has been so ever since Mr. Fawcett introduced a Bill of any importance at all. I firmly believe that a progressive, enlightened and forward policy in Post Office matters would be far more likely to result in an increase of revenue than increased charges.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read the third time, and passed.