HC Deb 04 May 1922 vol 153 cc1585-8

When I rose last year to move the Post Office Estimates I had a particularly distasteful task to perform. It was my duty to tell the Committee that there had been a loss on the previous year's working of the Post Office of £7,300,000, and I expressed the hope that, if I remained in this office for another year, I might have a more satisfactory statement to present to this Committee. I can summarise the situation by two figures. In 1920–21 the deficit on the Post Office commercial account was £7,300,000. In 1922–23 I estimate on the present charges for a surplus on the commercial account of £9,300,000. I hope that those two figures will not be regarded as presenting an unsatisfactory condition of affairs.


Had you not doubled the charges, you would have shown a lot more.


I said, in introducing the Estimates and in asking the Committee to agree to certain increases in postal charges, that the Government had decided as soon as the costs were reduced that the benefit of that reduction should go to the users of the Poet Office. That pledge the Government intends to carry out both in the spirit and in the letter, as I think the proposals which I shall proceed to outline will show. I expressed the hope then that, as the result of the proposal which I was making to the Committee, it would be possible during the past year to establish an equilibrium in our accounts. I regret to say that for causes which I will briefly indicate I have been disappointed in that hope. During the first six months of last year there was a loss on the commercial account of the Post Office of £2,800,000. During the second six months the position rapidly improved, and there was a surplus of £1,000,000, leaving a deficit on the year's working of £1,800,000. I should like for a moment to set out to the Committee the actual results as compared with the Estimate which I put before them last year. I estimated for a revenue on the commercial account of £69,100,000 and for a corresponding expenditure. The actual results were a revenue of £64,900,000 and an expenditure of £66,700,000. Our revenue was down by £4,200,000 as compared with the Estimate, and the expenditure was down by £2,400,000 as compared with the Estimate.

Commander BELLAIRS

Are those net or gross figures?


These are the net figures. It was a disagreeable task to ask the Committee last year to agree to the increases in postal charges. Indeed the Postmaster-General would be the last man to welcome any increase in charges, but there were two alternatives before the Committee. It either had to face these increases in charges—postcards and printed paper rate, with suspension of Sunday services—or it had to agree to the continuation of the Post Office as a subsidised Service. Between those two alternatives there could be, in my view, no hesitation as to which line to take. The danger of continuing a subsidised Post Office is far greater than is generally understood. It might readily lead to the wholesale corruption of a great body of public servants, and I am glad that this Committee was prepared to take the unpopular decision it did take rather than allow the Post Office to continue as a subsidised Service. But for three causes, which I will now indicate, the Estimates which I laid would, I am confident, have been realised. The first was that the increased charges did not come into force until nearly three months of the year had elapsed; the second was, that I agreed not to impose the increased rate on printed matter going abroad; and the third was the stoppage in the coal mines and the extent to which it increased the prevailing trade depression. The figures of the Post Office show by a remarkable curve the way in which every class of correspondence, whether correspondence on which the rate was increased or no, fell off as a result of the stoppage in the coal mines. But for the fact that the Committee had agreed to the increases which I proposed, the deficit on last year's working, instead of being £1,800,000, would have been £5,000,000.

The improved position, and I think it is an improved position to have changed, within two years, a business which was losing £7,300,000 in one year to a business which is able to estimate for a surplus of £9,300,000, is entirely due to the drastic reductions of expenditure which have been effected in the Post Office. The expenditure last year was £67,120,000. Our estimate of expenditure for this year, and I am speaking now of the cash account, is £53,800,000, a reduction of £13,350,000.


Can you give us the figure for 1913?


I cannot carry that figure in my head, but it was very much less. The figures are not exactly comparable, for this reason. Last year we included the expenditure for the Post Office of the South of Ireland, and this year it is not included. Excluding Ireland and comparing like with like, there is a reduction of £10,650,000 in the Post Office expenditure. That reduction is made up under these principal heads: Cost-of-living bonus, £6,750,000; materials, £1,500,000; cost of the conveyance of mails, £850,000; and reductions in staff and in the amount of overtime, £2,500,000. There is an increase in the amount for the interest and repayment of the telephone loan of £700,000, but the net result is a reduction of £10,650,000, excluding Ireland. I have mentioned a reduction of £2,500,000 as a result of reductions in staff and in the amount of overtime. The figures are interesting, and I should like to give them to the Committee. Last year, when I opened my Estimates, the staff, excluding Ireland and the engineering staff, was 191,000. To-day it stands at 185,000. That is a reduction of 6,000 in the year, and a reduction of 6,500 as compared with the numbers in 1914. I emphasise that last fact because, while there has been a slight diminuation in the amount of postal work, there has been added to the Post Office a great number of new services, such as the payment of War pensions, War Loan, National Savings Certificates, insurance stamps, and so on. For these the Post Office provides staff and the necessary buildings, and I think it is not an unsatisfactory fact that, with a staff reduced, as compared with 1914, by 6,500, we are able to discharge all these new additional services which the House of Commons has put upon the Post Office.