§ Sir WILLIAM PERRING
I rise to call the attention of the House to a question which has aroused very great interest and some surprise all over the country 1447 during the past week. I refer to the decision of the Government to introduce a system of cash on delivery in connection with the inland parcels post, and the surprise which has been expressed in regard not only to the introduction, but to the manner of the introduction, of this proposal. Surprise was felt that a question concerning the traders of this country should have been brought forward in this brief and unexpected way, without taking counsel with the traders and farmers, who are very largely concerned and interested in the matter. All who have studied the question of cash on delivery over the last 20 years know that successive Post masters-General, after carefully considering this question and reviewing it in all its aspects, have decided, and I believe very rightly decided, not to intro duce the system, because, in their considered opinion, it was an unnecessary and undesirable proposal.
The right hon. Gentleman who was Postmaster-General in 1923, and who is now Secretary of State for War, gave very great consideration to this question, and he has put on record his considered opinion in regard to it. In order that this question may be fairly understood in all its aspects, I would like to quote some of the contents of a communication which was addressed to the retail traders' organisation known as the National Chamber of Trade. Writing to that organisation in July, 1923, the right hon. Gentleman's secretary said:I am directed by the Postmaster-General to give you, for the information of the National Chamber of Trade, the following statement of the reasons which have prompted his decision not to introduce a system of cash-on-delivery in the inland postal service of this country. One effect of the establishment of a cash-on-delivery service would he to further the development of mail order businesses at the expense of small retail-shops. The Postmaster-General cannot disregard the strong representations which have been made all over the country on behalf of the smaller shopkeepers against this proposal; and, before deciding to proceed with the scheme in the face of those representations, he would require evidence of a substantial demand on the part of the public for the facilities which cash-on delivery affords. It has not been shown to his satisfaction that such a demand exists.After dealing further with the. subject, and saying that he believed a minimum charge of 6d. or 7d. per parcel over and 1448 above the postage rates would be required, he went to to say:That consideration apart, however, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the Post Office to carry on a cash on-delivery system from which every class of parcels, except those containing home grown agricultural produce, was excluded, as the term c home-grown produce is not susceptible of very precise definition, and any limitation would be difficult to enforce and maintain. Moreover, in any case it would be impossible to detect or prevent the use of the service for foreign produce.That was the opinion of the Postmaster-General in 1923. At a later date, in the summer of last year, having regard to the rumours that cash on delivery was about to be introduced, I had the privilege of taking to the Postmaster-General a very representative deputation from the retail distributors of the country. In reply to our representations, the Post master-General said:I have received from the National Farmers' Union strong representations in favour of cash on delivery, but I must approach this question from all points of view.My complaint here to-day is that the Postmaster-General has not approached this question from all points of view. He has ignored the trader, and, with a mistaken idea that he can render some service to the small farmer and the small holder, he has advised the Government to introduce this system of cash on delivery in the belief that he will benefit them.
I desire to point cut to the House that, in considering a question of this kind, the duty of the Government, and particularly of the Postmaster-General, is to weigh up the advantages which may accrue to one section of the community against the disadvantages to another section of the community, and to decide this question on the balance of advantage—in other words, to study the public interest as a whole, and any sectional interest. That is the spirit in which I approach this question to-day. I am here to submit, on behalf of the retail distributors of the country, that in their opinion it cannot benefit the smallholder, while it will create great disadvantages for the average small trader all over the country. I make that statement for this reason. Under the cash-on-delivery system, with its increased charges for delivery, it is almost impossible for the small farmer and smallholder to despatch 1449 and transmit through the parcel post much of their produce. No one will suggest, for instance, that they can transmit cabbages and other vegetables the weight of which is out of all proportion to their value. Therefore, they are limited to certain articles, more or less articles of dairy produce, which they can transmit through the parcel post.
The underlying suggestion which prompted the Postmaster-General to mill reduce this proposal is the suggestion that the producer of farm produce can divide his attention between producing and distributing. I desire to submit. that it is an impracticable and unwise pro position to divert the attention of the smallholder or small farmer from his proper calling of production, and to persuade him to embark upon something which he does not understand, and for which, by his very training, he is, generally speaking, unfitted. The distribution of the various products and commodities which represent the food of the people is a very scientific operation, with wide ramifications, and anyone who suggests that the great machine or organisation which is identified with distribution all over the country is a mere unimportant thing, certainly has not studied or does not understand it. The distribution of thousands of tons of produce every day has to be carried out in a very scientific and to suggest that it would be to advantage to divert the mind of the producer to a method of distribution, with the idea that he can better serve the community than those who have spent their in the business of distribution, is, to mind, hoodwinking the smallholder. If any benefit is to be derived from Government advice or assistance in connection with the work of the smallholder or small fanner, I think he should be tired to concentrate his attention more and more on production, and to endeavour, by more intensive and scientific cultivation, to work out his salvation, instead of persuading him that by dividing his attention between production and distribution he can do better for himself and for the community.
I want to point cut to the Assistant Postmaster-General that the system which he proposes to introduce in a few weeks' time has been time and again described by the trader as undesirable from his point of view; but, over and above that. 1450 there has been no public demand for it, and I hope that, when the Assistant Postmaster-General rises to justify the proposals which he has persuaded the Government to adopt, he will tell the House and the country what new factor has arisen since 1923 to justify this entire change of opinion, and what has happened to persuade the Postmaster-General that he can conduct this cash-on delivery inland parcels post at a much lower charge than was thought necessary in 1923, as expressed in the letter which I have read. That letter refers' to a minimum charge of 6d. or 7d. To-day we have a minimum charge of 4d. If this new proposition is to be worked with out a heavy loss to the postal service, we are entitled to know how this has been brought about and how the right hon. Gentleman intends to work it. I put a question to him on Tuesday as to what increase in the Department he would require to work this new system, and the reply was that he does not intend to employ any more clerks or employés If he is really and seriously suggesting that he can benefit the smallholders of the country—and there are something like 500,000 of them—and consumers generally without giving employment to any more people. in the Postal Service it demonstrates, to my mind, that he has not, very much faith in his own proposal
I should like to ask the Assistant Post master-General another question. Has he consulted the Union of Post Office Workers? Has he considered whether the men engaged in the distribution of parcels are going to carry much larger weights and are going to be made responsible for the collection and accounting of large sums of money day by day and week by week? Has he considered whether the risk involved, and the responsibility the postman is called upon to assume, will not deserve even higher pay? I have always been of the opinion in my business career that where-ever you make employés responsible for money, or put more responsible duties on them, they generally demand higher remuneration than people with less responsibility.
What I am saying may be assumed to have a certain bias, because I am in the retail trade, but a letter appeared in the "Times" yesterday, over the signature of a gentleman who has spent many years in the parcel-post service in India. 1451 He gives expression to views which the traders entirely endorse, and goes on to say the cash-on-delivery system in India has involved them in a loss, and the large, the business the greater the loss. Apart from the loss, he volunteers the view that it is the most difficult branch of the service and gives them the maximum amount of trouble. He further says that 15 per cent, of the goods conveyed are returned unaccepted. Has the Post master considered the number of returns in America and other places, and has he considered what will be involved in loss in transit and damage in various ways, because, if he is going to set up this system with £1,000,000 capital outlay and no additional staff, he certainly does not contemplate a very large volume of business.
Not only the small trader, but the large trader objects to this proposal. The large departmental stores, which have for years carried on a large mail order business, much prefer to conduct their business on the existing method of mail order. They realise that the public in the past have been quite content to send cash before delivery. Immediately you introduce cash-on-delivery it involves a very much larger volume of book-keeping, and it must necessarily involve a very large increase in book-keeping and clerical work on the part of the Postmaster. If the sight hon. Gentleman really suggests that he can carry on the system of cash delivery of any volume that justifies its introduction or that is going to benefit the smallholder or the public, he should tell us how he is going to do it without any increase of staff. Furthermore, we are told on all hands that we are living in an age of mass production, and we are to think in large terms, and yet in the twentieth century he proposes, so to speak, to put the clock back and suggest to the smallholder that he should fill up his time by writing in forms and licking stamps and doing a number of things which divert his attention from his ordinary duties.
Whatever might have been argued in the past in favour of the introduction of a cash-on-delivery system the arguments in its favour are to-day very much reduced. Ten years ago, communication between town and town, and between towns and villages, was very much less 1452 than it is to-day. Owing to the extensive development of omnibuses and trams, particularly omnibuses, facilities for the people in scattered outlying districts have increased immeasurably, and the opportunity for shopping at. the shops and not through the post has been greatly improved. That being so, the argument that it would benefit the buying public is extremely weak when we consider that this island is entirely different from any other country where the parcel post has been introduced. The density of population is four times what it is in France and twice that of Germany. When be says it has been a great success in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the right hon. Gentleman overlooks the fact: Slat there are only about two people to the square mile in those countries. They are so scattered that they cannot go to the shops, and it is an absolute necessity that they should do their purchasing by mail order. There is not a country in the world where the retail distributing trade is so highly organised and the methods of trading are 80 efficient and so deserving of Government support. What they are proposing to do is to injure one group of distributors by trying to create another set of distributors, or, in other wards, to ignore the man who has spent his life in the business and to encourage a new class of distributors which would divert him from his proper business.
We should not approve of it for this reason. Quite apart from the advantages or disadvantages which any section of the community will derive from this system, we have to ask ourselves, is the Postmaster justified at the present juncture of our affairs in embarking on some sort of experiment, because he admits that it is only an experiment by the fact that he is riot going to employ any more staff. In the light of all the information we have before us it is not justified. Whatever information the Postmaster may have which has induced him to entertain this proposal, so far as I am aware there has been no authoritative inquiry which justifies him in assuming that the system anywhere has been of great benefit to agriculturists. In the very scattered districts where it may be an advantage for the buyer to shop through the post, there is plenty of farm produce, so farm produce will not be sent into the scattered areas. Speaking 1453 in the North Riding a few days ago the Postmaster-General ventured the opinion that it would benefit the shop people. The shop-keepers and the trading community know their business very much better than the right hon. Gentleman, and they know what suits them and what is in their interest, and the Postmaster General is not entitled to advance his opinion against the overwhelming opinion, after long consideration of this question, of the great distributing trades.
I am not putting forward the opinion of a few shopkeepers in a small way of business who are unimportant from the Postmaster's point of view. I am giving the considered opinion of the largest traders in the country who, while carrying on a large mail order business, do not it quire, and do not see the need of this extension in favour of cash delivery. They much prefer to have the cash before hand. The right hon. Gentleman said the small traders would get their money much quicker. They cannot get it very much quicker than having it before delivery, and I hope he will justify that gratuitous advice to the small trader. When he realises, as he will soon, if he has not already done so, that neither the traders nor the public desire, nor have demanded this proposal, I hope he will confine its operation to agricultural produce. If he is so much enamoured of his scheme, let him confine it to those he desires to serve. If he will confine it to agricultural produce, let him also keep separate accounts, so that the House a id the country will be able to find out whether there is loss or profit, because as far as I have been able to learn since I have been in the House, and in the light of the information I gathered when on the telephone inquiry, the Post Office accounts are so mixed up that it would take a very capable accountant to dissect them and ascertain where the overlapping takes place, and how and where he could dissect the work of the various departments so as to present an accurate statement of the money involved in working this system as distinct from all the other systems.
Of course, he cannot do it, and, that being so, the House should not sanction the introduction of a system which, once adopted, will continue whether it involves a loss or otherwise, because if I know the civil servant he will never admit a mistake 1454 of that kind. Therefore, I think we should minimise the loss which is sure to accrue from this proposal by asking the right hon. Gentleman to limit it to those who are engaged in agriculture. If they want it, let them try it. I am convinced that it will be a failure, but 1 am concerned, if this proposal is introduced, that we ought not to give facilities to a class of trader who, in my judgment, is undesirable in the retail distributing trade. We do not desire the same class of trader who is referred to in the letter in the "Times" from which I have quoted. In India, there has grown up a class of trader who merely has a, postal address, carries no stock, and by alluring advertisements secures a fairly large volume of business which invariably is unsatisfactory. He can go on trading where there are millions of people to trade with, never desiring the same customer twice, and encouraging a class of business through the Press and through advertising which is not in the interests of the community. The provincial trader has to bear the burden of the social and municipal services of his own town. The provincial town in a large measure is a self-contained community, and I contend, on behalf of the provincial trader, that he should be protected so long as he endeavours to give good service to the community. That a very large proportion of business should be filched from him by those who advertise outside his area is not helping the provincial trader. I have no doubt the Postmaster-General will make some reference to the large volume of business carried on under this system in Germany. It has been ventilated in the Press. If it be the intention of the Postmaster-General, in introducing this system, to develop in this country a volume of business such as is suggested has been carried on in Germany, then it is his intention to do serious injury to the provincial trader. I hope he will tell us that this is not his intention. He cannot have it both ways. If the business be good and is going to increase in value, it must injure the provincial trader.
I desire to express, on behalf of the retail trader, the considered opinion that the Postmaster-General is going to do him a serious disservice. I express to the right hon. Gentleman the hope that he will reconsider his decision and con fine it, if he does not withdraw it, to 1455 those engaged in producing who may desire to develop the sale of farm produce. If the Postmaster-General, or those who support this proposal, have any doubts as to the efficiency of the immense organisation which is identified and associated with the retail distributing trade, they have only to visit our great markets like Billingsgate, Leaden-hall Market, Smithfield, and Covent Garden, or visit the great railway termini where thousands of milk churns every night arrive in London. If he will consider these things and realise what the distribution of foodstuffs means all over the country, I feel convinced that, if he does not know it now, he will then learn, that the distributing trades of this country deserve his support and en couragement, and not the infliction upon them of any proposal which would do them serious damage. I will conclude by expressing the hope that the Postmaster-General will seriously tell the House the reasons which have justified him in reversing the decision of his colleague in 1923, and that he will tell us how he is going to work it at much less cost than his own Department considered possible in 1923. Also, I hope he will tell us how he is going to work it without additional staff.
§ Miss WILKINSON
I find myself to-night in the most extraordinary position of supporting the present Government on this matter. With all due diffidence, I almost feel that I am sure to be wrong because I do support them. As a matter of fact, I do strongly support the proposal that the Postmaster-General has initiated of cash on delivery. We have heard from the previous speaker the reasons why the traders of this country are, in his opinion, against the proposal. It is always easy for any ordinary body to get its views put before this House, and that is as it should be, but there is a greater number who are not organised, the consumers, whose views are seldom placed before it, especially the very large and inarticulate body of the housewives of this country who are the greatest shoppers in the country. I feel that this system of cash on delivery will be warmly welcomed by many women whose circumstances are such that shopping in the ordinary way is a very great difficulty.
1456 The previous speaker has assumed that the whole of this cash on delivery will benefit the great London stores. I doubt that very much. I think that the provincial trader will also benefit. It is a much simpler matter for the housewife to write her orders on a postcard and to have the goods delivered at her door, than to go round to a post office, which may be inconvenient, to get postal orders for varying amounts and send them to her trader. I think both the provincial and the London traders will benefit by this system. The previous speaker suggested that it will encourage the undesirable kind of mail order business. Surely, that is going on to a very large extent now, probably as large as it ever could be. I suggest that it will rather give the good traders the advantage by making it much more simpler for the housewife to shop in this manner. Take the case of a woman with a large number of children who is living in a suburb. We are ex tending out towns rapidly. We are having large housing schemes where shops are not being built as quickly as houses. There are many places in the suburbs which have difficulties with regard to shops. A woman in a place like that must get an omnibus. Perhaps there are not even omnibuses. In my own constituency, in a garden village, they have to wait half an hour for an omnibus. It is a simple proposition to write on a postcard and get your goods next morning. That will be of immense advantage.
While I can realise that the Post master-General is going to be attacked by every kind of organised trader, I hope the co-operative trader will take the point of view of the people in this matter. I feel sure if they consult the Women's Co-operative Guild, they will find they are warm supporters of the Government in this one instance only. For these and other reasons, the Postmaster-General has hit on a very good scheme, and I hope, whatever strong opposition he has to face from the traders, he will remember the large number of housewives to whom this will be a real blessing and not allow himself to be moved out of his course, hut at least to give it a trial.
§ Major-General Sir A. KNOX
The hon. Member for North Paddington (Sir W. Perring) who introduced this subject was, first of all, concerned that the 1457 agricultural producer should confine all his activities to producing. Secondly, he was very much worried that the Post Office employés should have more work without extra wages; thirdly, he had a great deal of sympathy with the Postmaster-General lest he should not be able at the end of his year to balance his accounts; and, fourthly, he allowed it to be understood that he was speaking entirely for the retail traders. I quite allow that this system has been blocked consistently for many years by the retail traders. This has been entirely through misapprehension. I have had some experience of the system in India for 11 years. It was an unqualified success. Many countries in the world now have this system. I was reading a pamphlet published 10 years ago which said that only two countries in the world, one Great Britain and the other China, were denied this privilege. I believe that is an exaggeration. I believe every country in Europe—
§ The ASSISTANT POSTMASTER-GENERAL (Viscount Wolmer)
China has it now.
§ Sir A. KNOX
Practically every country in Europe and every Dominion has now got this. It may not be generally known in this House, but our Pest Office has for many years worked a system for overseas cash-on-delivery; a system which has worked with considerable smoothness. Our Post Office has undertaken cash-on-delivery for foreign producers. Our Post Office has so far consistently refused to collect those charges for the British farmer and retailer unless he was sending his goods abroad. The hon. Member who opened this discussion referred to a letter in the "Times" yesterday from a very distinguished civil servant in India who was, I think, for many years Postmaster-General. I would like to quote also from a book by the same gentleman in which he touches on the question of cash-on delivery. It is a book called "The Post Office in India, and its Story." He writes:The increase in the past few years is little short of marvellous, and is due to the reduction of rates and the growth of the value payable by the cash-on-delivery system so largely adopted by all retail firms.1458 After all, it is perfectly true to say that the conditions in India, Canada and Australia are not comparable to Great Britain, but the conditions in Germany, Denmark, and other countries are more or less alike, and I would like to quote reports from some of those countries and show how the system has affected retail traders there. First of all, as regards Germany, where I believe the system was introduced as long ago as 1874, it is stated:No opposition experienced. Service regarded as almost indispensable. No harm done retail trade. Is equally advantageous to large and small traders.
§ Sir A. KNOX
These reports are from the Post Offices in the countries concerned. I understand they are official replies. From Denmark, where the system was established in 1854, they reply:System in force. No complaint has ever reached the Post Office.Sweden says:Little, if any, effect on retail business.Hungary says:Retail business not adversely affected.Take the case of the small country retail trader. I have his interests at heart as much as anyone so long as he is not a profiteer. If that, man is content with a fair profit, he has no cause to fear undertaking cash on delivery. After all, he gets his goods by goods train at a cheap rate of transport. He has to compete against cash on delivery with a minimum charge of 10d. He will get his goods far cheaper, and he can afford to undersell and yet get a decent profit. Another reason is that many customers naturally prefer to handle their goods before they pay the money. The third reason is that he has the personal touch over the counter which counts for a good deal. The fourth reason is that there is a class of customer who like short credit, and this cash on delivery means cash down. A certain class of customer cannot afford that, and the retail trader will retain that trade. Therefore, the retail trader who will be content with a fair profit has no cause of complaint. If the retail trader is not only out for a fair profit but for an extension of his trade, he can extend his circle of custom enormously. In his slack hours in the day he can attend to the cash-on- 1459 delivery orders. By that means, he can bring new life into his business. He can extend his trade beyond the local village. If he goes into the enterprise honestly, he can extend his business to a very large extent over a wide area.
The cash-on-delivery system is long overdue. Several countries have adopted it, and there has not been a single case where any country that has adopted the system has abandoned it. Is not that proof positive that the people towards whom the hon. Member for North Paddington (Sir W. Perring) is so sym pathetic are satisfied with the system in the countries where it has been adopted? I believe the Post Office workers have given their undertaking to give the system a trial and to do their best to make it a success. A departmental committee which was set up some years ago in order to report on the disparity of the prices received by the producer and the prices paid by the consumer, reported in favour of the introduction of a cash-on delivery system. In their unanimous report in 1923 they urgently pressed that recommendation upon the Postmaster-General. I am delighted that, at last, we have a Postmaster-General who has had the courage to set this system into operation without setting up another committee to report, with the result, possibly, of the question being put off for a further period.
As I am interested in agriculture, I should like to say that we look forward to the time when there will be a cheaper and lower minimum cash-on-delivery rate, and that instead of 4d. the charge will be 2d. That would be an assistance and encouragement to the small house wife and would help the small producer. The new system of cash on delivery will be a. real help to the poultry producer. Hon. Members may say that the large stores will crush out the village retailer. I do not believe that to be true. The large stores charge enormous prices for poultry which you can get far more cheaply in the country. There is a difference of something like 5s. You can have a chicken sent by cash on delivery from the country for a charge of 1s. 1d., that is, 9d. for the parcel post, and 4d. for the cash-on-delivery order. That will help considerably the smallholder who goes in for poultry keeping.
1460 I should like to see, if possible—I do not know whether it is possible—the Ministry of Agriculture setting up a sort of clearing-house for orders, and a card index of smallholders who are willing to produce certain articles such as eggs and poultry, so that anyone in London can apply to the Minister of Agriculture and be put into touch with the small man who is producing these goods, without the medium of advertisement which, naturally, must be expensive. Perhaps at some future date the Government will introduce a preferential parcels post rate for agricultural produce. We must do all we can to get the people back on to the land, and I believe that by help of this kind we can accomplish our object.
§ Mr. WOMERSLEY
I should like to express my views as a provincial trader and my thanks to the hon. Member for Paddington, North (Sir W. Perring), for introducing this question. I entirely support him. He represents the London traders who, I think, really have no complaint against the Postmaster-General, and I am delighted that he is prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder with his provincial brethren in order to fight against what we consider is an unjust proposition on the part of the Postmaster-General. We protest that this matter, which has been debated for over 20 years and is a subject of great controversy as between the provincial trader and other people, is introduced now as a sort of departmental decree, without any reference to Parliament. That is a point on which we feel very strongly. We feel that if the matter had been put before Parliament and had received the sanction of Parliament, we could not complain. We believe, as other people believe, in democratic government, and we are prepared to stand by the decision of this House, and we would have done so had the matter been decided by this House before action had been taken by the Postmaster-General.
I am speaking on behalf of 200,000 pro vincial traders who feel that in this way we have been, to use a common phrase, "sold a pup." A deputation went to the Postmaster-General, and we came away believing that before anything further was done in the matter Parliament would be consulted. I hope the Postmaster-General, in his reply, will deal with that point. We are told that the demand has 1461 come really from the agricultural community and that that is the one class which is going to receive some advantage from this scheme. We are also told that an argument in favour of this scheme is that other countries have adopted it and that therefore this country ought to do the same. As regards the agricultural products of other countries, the reports we have received—and we have made very careful inquiries—show that in Denmark perishable goods, such as foodstuffs and agricultural produce, are rarely sent by the cash-on-delivery system. In Sweden, there is no information available. In Norway, very little is forwarded by the cash-on-delivery system. From Australia, the report is that the cash-on-delivery service is not used to any extent for such produce, while, as regards Canada, we can get no information regarding the transmission of these particular commodities by post. These facts prove our contention, right down to the hilt, that instead of this cash-on delivery system being of benefit to agriculture, it will benefit the mail order house firms who are exploiting the public in many cases.
Reference has, been made to the difference between this country and other countries in regard to the density of population. The figures respecting the density of population show that in England the population density is 701 per square mile; in France, 187; in Germany, 348; in the. United States of America, 31; in Canada and Australia 2, and in New Zealand 11. The contention that has been put forward as to the different conditions in this country compared with other co entries really proves that there is no necessity for this system to be introduced, because at the present time, with the local markets—I am speaking as a provincial man who knows something of the subject, because I have been in trade ever since I was 12 years of age, and I know a great deal about the retail trade—there is ample opportunity for the country people to send their products into the markets. People come from the towns into the country with their vans and collect the produce and pay quite good prices to the farmers. If the farmer is going to get any advantage under this cash-on-delivery system, he will have to overcharge. I can assure hon. Members that produce is collected by tradesmen in our provincial towns from the surround- 1462 ing country districts and sold on the basis of 10 per cent profit. If the farmer is going to get any advantage out of this new system, he must charge for his packing. He will have to spend time in packing, and he must charge at any rate 10 per cent. on the top of what he will get from the wholesaler; otherwise, he will find that it will not be any good to him.
With regard to the class of goods for which the smallholder wishes to find a market., such as potatoes, vegetables, and other bulky things, this new system will he of no use to him. Before he can get into communication with the buyer he has to do some advertising. I have done a good deal of advertising in my time, and I know something about it. He will not get good trade by cheap advertising. The hon. and gallant Member for Wycombe (Sir A. Knox) was a guest of the Advertising Association, and he will hear me out in this, that nothing is so futile as cheap advertising. But r can not imagine the smallholder hoping to gain an extra 2d. a dozen on his eggs or an extra 2d. a 1b. on his butter advertising in the "Daily Mail" at a cost of £14 for a two-inch advertisement. Without advertising he will get only his regular customers, and the cash-on delivery system will, therefore, be of no Else to him.
The result of the introduction of the cash-on-delivery system will be to divert a large volume of trade from the local shopkeepers into the hands of those who contribute nothing to the upkeep of the municipalities. These people will draw the trade from the local shopkeepers and will seriously injure the provincial traders, and I question whether the public, on the whole, will benefit. The hon. Member for East Middlesbrough (Miss Wilkinson) raised the question of the housewife. She said that the house wife wanted this new system, because it will be much better for her chopping. I know something about housewives, and I can tell hon. Members that the housewife, if she is a wise housewife, will not send for a chicken through the post. She will go to the shop herself to select it. Chickens sent by post are sometimes very disappointing.
It has been suggested that this system will be of assistance to the fishing industry. As I am a representative of the fishing industry in this House, I 1463 should like to say something on that subject. The bulk of our trade is done through respectable merchants in the various towns. We find that that system is suitable. As regards the sending of small parcels, Mere is a considerable trade being done in thaht way to-day. Will this cash-on-delivery system be of any benefit to the fishing trade? We are told that the person at the other end will have to pay the charge before they can examine the goods, but, if the Post Office delays in the delivery of the goods, it is very likely that the person to whom the goods are consigned will have no need to open the package. She will know, particularly if it contains fish, that it is not worth while paying for it, and she will tell the postman to take it back.
What will happen as regards perishable goods? There is the week-end difficulty. Is it proposed to provide cold storage accommodation at each local post office? What is to he done with the returns? A figure of 15 per cent. has been quoted by the hon. Member for North Padding ton, but the information which we have had from Chicago, from a large mail order firm, shows that 40 per cent. of the parcels sent out are returned. If that happens there, where the system has been in operation for a considerable time, what will happen here when we introduce this new system? It will not be very long before the people will cease to send perishable goods through the post, and then the Postmaster-General will find that this system will not be such a boon to the producers of foodstuffs as he imagines.
I cannot imagine how he expects the rural postmen to deal with this new traffic without any help or without any assistance in the way of transport, other than the use of a bicycle, as at present. I do not believe that the Postmaster-General will be able to carry on this system without giving extra help to the postmen, and that means extra expense. The hon. and gallant Member for Wycombe has already suggested that the minimum charge of 4d. for cash on delivery is going to be almost prohibitive for certain people who sell for small profits. We in the fish trade have been told by the railway companies that one reason why they cannot go back to the old pre-War system of payment of carriage 1464 on delivery is because of the huge cost it will entail for collecting. If it is too costly for the railway companies, what, will it cost the Post Office to carry out this system of collecting the money for the parcels which they deliver?
Finally, I wish to put certain points to the Postmaster-General. I submit that there is no demand for the scheme from any representative section of the public, that the existing local facilities for the sale and purchase of farm and dairy produce, either by the markets or through the shops, are adequate both for seller and buyer, that there is local com petition enough to ensure fair prices, that all parts of the country are reached by existing methods of distribution, which are within easy reach of local centres, and that the scheme could not be used by local traders with any advantage to themselves or to the general public in regard to price and value. I submit also that the system would not have the effect of increasing the trade of the country, but would only divert and centralise it. That is all that it can do. In view of those considerations I ask the Postmaster-General to defer putting the scheme into operation. I have my tongue in my cheek when I say that, because my right hon. Friend has already announced that the system is to come into operation on the 29th. Considering the fact that this. House has not had an opportunity of discussing the matter, it ought to be delayed until, at any rate, we have got the considered opinion of those who represent the people.
§ Mr. SPENCER
Those who have opposed this innovation have done so very largely from reasons of purely private interest, and not in the interest of the great trading community. More over, their opposition has been narrowed down to the opposition, not of trade in general, but of a particular trade and of minor trades. Neither of the hon. Members who have opposed this innovation have been able to show, and they cannot show, that if the proposal is carried out it is going to affect trade in general adversely. I think it may be said that if there is to be any change in trade, as a result of this proposed system, it will be a change to the advantage of trade as a whole, and I am certain that it will be to the advantage of the consumer. 1465 The opposition have been most illogical. The hon. Gentleman who began this Debate stated that the Post Office or any one else who gave consideration to this question should look at it from every conceivable point of view, from the point of view of the consumer, of the small trader, or the large manufacturer, of the great multiple stores, of the producer and the distributor; and then he went on immediately to base his opposition merely upon the distributing retail traders of the country, and left totally out of his calculations all the other interests to which lie says the Postmaster-General should give consideration.
§ Sir W. PERRING
May I point out that there is no demand from the public for this system, and that the manufacturer does not come into the picture at all, because he does not come in contact with the public and does his business through the medium of the retailers.
§ Mr. SPENCER
Not in every instance. There are traders and manufacturers to day who do their own distribution.
§ Mr. SPENCER
Oh, yes. Therefore, from that point of view the scheme may lead to a greater elimination of the middleman, which is a very much needed change. The hon. Gentleman has just said that there is no demand for this system from the great body of consumers. It is quite true that up to now nobody his attempted to organise the consumers to state vocally their decision in the, question, but if the same trouble had been taken to organise the opinion of the consumers as has been taken to organise the opinion of the small traders of the country, you would have had most vocally the decision of the consumers in favour of this proposal. Those who have opposed this system have had no evidence to submit to the House to prove their case. Their case is that the system will damage the small trader. As far as the small traders are concerned collectively I do not think that that will be true. Individually and in cases where there is a lack of enterprise, it may be so. But where you have a small trader who has enterprise, who is seeking to expand his business, the possibilities of this system will be such as to lend him further aid and to advance his trade rather than restrict it. Therefore 1466 I cannot believe that those who, have been speaking for the small trader have been able to make out a case.
There is another ground of objection, and that is that the Post Office cannot do this thing efficiently. Anyone who has any knowledge of the distribution of parcels in the large towns knows perfectly well that the distributing vans of the Post Office are sometimes only about a quarter full. If the vans could be filled by this system there would be far more revenue for the Post Office, and, instead of the Post Office showing a loss on its transactions, the possibilities are that there would be a great increase of trade, the Post Office would benefit in revenue and the consumer would get a benefit in service. I am just as entitled to say that it will be done successfully and efficiently—I am far more entitled to say that, than hon. Gentlemen opposite are entitled to say that it will not be done efficiently and will be done at a loss. At least those who are supporting the scheme have the evidence of countries that have adopted the system and have not had to abandon it after giving it a trial. Therefore, if there is any weight of evidence it is on the side of those who are supporting this scheme.
I want to support the scheme on behalf of the consumers who have a limited range of purchase. Everyone who has knowledge of scattered districts knows that it is always difficult to get the article required with an unlimited choice and at a reasonable price. If it is a dress or anything of that kind there is a limited choice, and those who want to keep up with the times have either to go into the towns or to send into the towns for what they want to purchase. Let us suppose that those who are able to frequent large centres of shopping go there and see something they like, though they do not at once purchase it. They go home, and think about it. After that it will be quite easy to despatch a postcard and have a far greater choice than would be possible if no cash system were in operation. It cannot be denied that where you have a limited choice in any rural area there is always a tendency to raise the price. Where choice and competition are limited there is always a tendency for prices to rise. In many respects rural people have to pay a higher price than they would pay if competition were greater.
1467 I support the system also on the ground that I think every encouragement should be given to the Post Office to increase its services. I can understand opposition to that suggestion from some Members of this House on grounds of general principle. They stand for the limitation of all public services. I am consistent when I say that I believe in the extension of public service, and that I believe that by those means we shall be going a very great service to the community. Thirdly, I am supporting the system as an aid to agriculture. If there is anything that we can do to foster agriculture it should be done. I have spent the last four or five days in the Library getting out the returns of agriculture for years and years, viewing the decline in prices of corn, examining the effect it has had on labour, and while I cannot pursue that subject here, I will say in parenthesis that in my opinion to a large extent the solution of the unemployment problem is associated with agriculture. Anything that we can do to eliminate the unnecessary middle men in agriculture, and to get the produce of agriculture direct to the consumer, the better it will be for the farmer.
Take the case of a great harvest, say, of plums or apples, when there is a glut. If you had a system of this kind where, by rapid transit, the farmer could get his plums and apples to the ordinary house holder at special rates, the possibilities are that instead of having to throw them on the manure heap because he cannot get a remunerative price, or sending them to a commission agent in a large centre and having to pay carriage upon them and then to get no return, the farmer will get a reasonable return. If there is one thing more than another that he ought to get it is a reasonable return on the produce that he has cultivated. For all these reasons I believe in this innovation. In the first stages there may be some mishap here and there. One does not expect that the scheme will work like a clock at once. But I believe that in the long run it will prove to be advantageous to the small trader and to trade generally, advantageous to the small farmer and the market gardener, and advantageous to the general consumers of the country.
Captain A. EVANS
I want to join in expressing regret that the Government did not see fit to announce their decision 1468 in this matter long enough ago to give those who are opposed to the proposal an opportunity of airing their views. It would have been very easy for my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General to have made an announcement in a public speech or by answer to a question in this House that the Government proposed to give effect to this decision as from a certain date. That would have given an opportunity not only for those who are intimately concerned with this matter, but an opportunity for Members of the House, to express their views, in order that those views could be taken into consideration by the Government before the decision became effective. I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend will tell the House that he did this because he considered it to be in the interest of the community. Is he justified in saying that, unless he has consulted all those interests which are affected? I, personally, do not think the right hon. Gentleman was afraid to let the country know that he proposed to introduce this system, but I feel that people in the country will take that view. Otherwise they will ask, why did he not make the announcement long ago? He must have known that the Government proposed to introduce this scheme by Order in Council, because he had prepared the necessary machinery, arid it would have been much fairer to the provincial traders, who will be adversely affected, if he had given them an opportunity of registering their opinions.
As has already been asked most forcibly, what is the reason for this extraordinary change of front on the part of the Post Office? In 1923, in spite of many deputations and many questions in this House the Government's considered opinion was that it was not desirable in the interests of the retail trader that this change should be made. What is responsible for this alteration in the view of the Post Office? I know when a proposal of this kind is made it is usual for the Minister concerned to cast about to see whether such a system has been tried elsewhere, and whether it has proved a success or otherwise. I do not think the right hon. Gentleman's investigations carried him as far as India. The hon. and gallant Member for Wycombe (Sir A. Knox) earlier in the Debate said this policy had been a 1469 success in India. Personally I am not going to express a contrary opinion, but I invite the House to consider the opinion of an expert. Those who are interested in this matter will have read an interesting letter, which appeared in the "Times" yesterday morning, from no less a person than the late Director-General of Posts and Telegraphs in India, who writes:In India over 11¼ million articles were despatched by cash-on-delivery post last year, and the trade collections amounted to 265 millions of rupees; but there is little doubt that the parcel portion of the service is run at a loss to the Post Office and that the larger the business becomes the greater the eventual loss. In addition to loss, the Post Office of India has learnt by bitter experience that the cash-on-delivery branch of the Department gives more trouble than all the other branches put together.He gives some reasons for this and they include:
In face of the experience of such an expert, this House is entitled to regard the financial aspect of this experiment. It may do some good if this experiment makes a loss. Hon. Gentlemen opposite will no longer be in a position to point to the Post Office as being an example of successful Government trading. But we must ask ourselves: Is the Postmaster-General justified in gambling with that surplus of which he is so justly proud? We were told only the other day that the Government are unable to economise in the cost of administrative and social services to a greater extent than £10,000,000, but in spite of that the Post master-General proposes to introduce an experiment without any apparent limit on the liability of the Post Office. I observe in the Estimates of the Post Office, which only reached us this morning, an additional sum of £484,835 for salaries. Does that include the cost of additional labour necessary for this system? If, as has been stated, no additional staff is to be engaged, we are entitled to know on what this sum is being spent and how the necessity arises 1470 for this increase at a time when it is vital that every possible economy should be made in our administrative services.
- "(a) The maintenance of numerous small accounts.
- (b) The high percentage of refused parcels amounting in India to an average of 15 per cent.
- (c) The delay in effecting delivery, as money is frequently not forthcoming when the postman presents a parcel, with the result that the parcel has to be taken to the Post Office and kept in deposit."
I have no doubt the Postmaster-General assumes and believes the system will be a success, but has he any figures to sup port that view? Can he estimate the possible revenue or loss? These are points which ought to be clearly understood by the House before we commit ourselves to this proposal. What will be the effect on trade and industry? It will be agreed that this is an age of decentralisation. In the year of grace 1926 and in a highly industrialised country like this the future does not lie in the centralisation of sits activities, but rather in the decentralisation of the majority of its resources. Facilities already exist for the purchase of goods by post. All one has to do, instead of paying on delivery, is to send the cash in advance, and the majority of the large concerns spend hundreds of thousands of pounds in advertising goods which will he sent either on approbation or on receipt of a stated amount. There fore, I do not think this innovation is necessary at the present time. The local shopkeepers are the natural distributors of goods in their own neighbourhoods, and their position under this system will be a serious one. Local money will find its way to the large stores in the big towns instead of to the local traders. The hon. Member for East Middlesbrough (Miss Wilkinson) at Question Time yesterday told us not to worry about the small traders, but to consider the position of the women who wanted to purchase from the London stores. We should, however, remember that if their trade is diverted into other channels local traders will not be able to pay rates and taxes, and those rates and taxes will not be able to bear the cost of social services to which the hon. Member is desirous of adding. Let us take the view of a typical trader in this matter. This is from a firm of outfitters in my own constituency of Cardiff:In reading some of the opinions of the leading managing directors of large London stores I can well imagine how jubilant they must be over their great victory, and the tremendous pull they have added to their already prosperous businesses. One has only to glance at their share quotations to realise this. The big London stores have facilities which can never apply to us, such as get- 1471 ting an option on goods without actually committing themselves in any way, requiring no extra staff to cope with their large orders which pour in on them, this work being undertaken by the wholesale merchants or manufacturers, and when they have run the line to its utmost they drop it, leaving the wholesale merchant with the remainder. Small business concerns are doing their best to keep their staffs together.I would remind the House that this condition applies particularly to South Wales, where we have experienced a period of trade depression unknown in the previous history of the Principality. In Cardiff only the other day a local trader put this point to me. The glamour to the customer of an article purchased in London is in itself sufficiently harmful to the provincial trader, without this addition to the gigantic pull which is already placed in the hands of the London concerns. That is the opinion of a practical trader. We have also to consider the fact that this is a manufacturing and not an agricultural country. It is a highly industrialised country. We have better means of com munication and distribution than any other country in the world, and in face of the representations which have been advanced on both sides of the House, most earnestly ask the Government, it they cannot refrain from introducing this scheme to give it a fair trial for a year and after that period to review the whole facts and the whole results. I hope that in doing so they will be careful to collect the opinions of those most intimately concerned. I feel confident, if the Post master-General undertakes to do so, those of us who feel that our constituents are not being fairly treated in this matter, will go away from the House to-night in better heart. All I would say to this House, and to the people of South Wales, is that whether this scheme is introduced or not.Selling or buying, Cardiff's worth trying.
§ Viscount WOLMER
This is a very interesting discussion in which a considerable diversity of opinion has been expressed, and perhaps the House would like to hear what the Government have to say as a defence to the impeachment which the hon. Member for North Paddington (Sir W. Perring) has so fully and so courteously levelled against it. My hon. Friend makes complaint, in the first instance, of the fact that the chambers of commerce in the country had 1472 not been consulted. I do not think, however, that is a fair criticism. It is over a year since I myself went into the lion's den of the Associated Chambers of Commerce and informed them that this matter was engaging the careful consideration of the Postmaster-General. They were not at all slow to take the hint, and since that time we have been kept fully informed of the views of the chambers of commerce by deputations and by resolutions. The Postmaster-General deliberately wished this matter to be canvassed by the chambers of commerce, chambers of agriculture, societies representing smallholders and all the other interests involved, and I would not like him to think that we had not, paid the greatest attention to the opinions of the chambers of commerce. I quite admit that, the great majority of them are against the Government on this point, but other interests have a right to speak on this subject, and for reasons which I am about to give, the Government felt they had no logical reply to those other interests. My hon. Friend asked why, if the Postmaster-General in 1923 said that the minimum cost of such a service to the Post Office would be 6d. or 7d., the present Post master-General has been able to name the minimum cost as 4d.
8.0 P. M.
The only thing that I can say in reply to my hon. Friend is that, when this matter began to be seriously considered, the question of cost was very closely gone into. Calculations on the basis of the time factor and overhead charges were very carefully entered into and the charges which the Postmaster-General now proposes are such as, an the opinion of his advisers, will enable the service to be run at a moderate Profit. There is no sort of question of this being a subsidised service. It is going to be a self-supporting service which is not going to cost the taxpayer a penny and, in the opinion of our advisers, is going to bring in a. moderate profit to the State. May I say to those hon. Members who cast some doubt on the validity of those calculations that nothing impresses the layman coming into the Post Office more than the amazing way in which the permanent officials have been able to forecast the general tendency of postal development for our Estimates.
§ Sir W. PERRING
Will the right hon. Gentleman tell me whether that charge is based on any particular number of parcels or volume of business?
§ Viscount WOLMER
No, it is based on the time factor, on the amount of time that it takes to handle individual parcels and individual trade charge forms through the various stages through which they have to go. That is the way in which the parcel post is very largely calculated in Post Office Estimates. My hon. Friend asks what has happened since 1923 to cause the present Postmaster-General to take a different view from the Post master-General of that day? In answer to him, I should like to say that the Government feel it is their duty to do everything that they can to assist those who are living in the country and living by agriculture, and that when they have been pressed, as they have been pressed by the representatives of agriculture, to give this facility, there really is no valid answer that the Government can make in reply. He has spoken as if this is a great experiment, but really it is a service which is in operation in every civilised country in the world, and it is merely a combination of the system of parcels post and postal order service. As an hon. Member pointed out, we have bad it in this country ourselves 20 years in regard to foreign parcels. We as a Government have been pressed by demands from the Central Chamber of Agriculture, the Scottish National Farmers' Union, several comity Chambers of Agriculture, the Smallholders' Associations, and Members of Parliament representing agricultural constituencies. We have been told plainly and emphatically in the Linlithgow Re-port that this is one of the things any Government ought to do in order to benefit agriculture and smallholders. Therefore the Government have really not got a valid reply to those representations.
I do not want to pretend that this is going to solve the agricultural problem. I do not want to pretend that this is going to revolutionise the methods by which smallholders sell their produce at present. But I do say that this is going to be of considerable convenience and use, not only to smallholders but to anyone who lives in the country. It is useful, not only in the selling of their produce, but in the purchases they have to make. 1474 I ask my hon. Friend to consider the position of the small farmer or small holder. Say he is working 50 acres, and he has a piece of agricultural machinery such as a reaper. He very likely bought it second-hand at a sale, for that is what those small men do. If it breaks in the middle of a harvest and he wants a, spare part, at the present moment it is very difficult for him to get that spare part quickly, He is not a regular customer of the manufacturer, he has not got credit, and he does not know exactly how much that small part will cost. By this system of cash-on-delivery it is possible for him to send a telegram for that part to be sent to him quickly, and the manufacturer or dealer will send it on and will get paid. Similarly in regard to medicines, which are frequently urgently required in the country. It is in those directions that I look on this service as being of great assistance to those who live in the country as well as in regard to the marketing of their produce.
I really think that my hon. Friend and those who have supported him this after noon have really attempted to prove too much. I noted down some of the statements which they made in their speeches, some of the arguments which they would have us believe. Let me taken them in pairs. In the first place, it is going to do great injury to the retail traders; secondly, nobody is going to make any use of the service.
§ Viscount WOLMER
It has been very strongly said by some hon. Members this afternoon. Thirdly, we must beware of the difficulties that have arisen in India, but we must not pay any attention to the advantages that have accrued in Den mark. Then my hon. Friend the Member for North Paddington urged the Government to confine the service to agricultural produce. He went on to say that agriculture did not want it.
§ Sir W. PERRING
What I said was that it is the retail trade of the country who did not make a demand for it. I said it would be of no use to them.
§ Viscount WOLMER
I am very glad to have that disclaimer from my hon. Friend. He said that it would be of no use to agriculture. Then he rebukes the Post master-General for tendering gratuitous 1475 advice to the retail traders. May I suggest that he lays himself open to the same rebuke for tendering the same advice to those who are representing agriculture? I cannot help feeling that this matter has been greatly exaggerated from both points of view. There are those who have built wholly undue hopes on the inauguration of this service, and there are certainly those who have built wholly unwarranted fears. I could not help being reminded, when I was listening to the hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Womersley), to the hon. Member for North Paddington and others whom I heard speaking this afternoon and on the deputations, of some of the fears which were expressed at the time when the parcels post itself was inaugurated by the Post Office some 40 years ago. May I read two paragraphs from a typical letter, dated 29th June, 1882, from the political ancestors of my hon. Friend's Constituents:SIR, Have you ever thought of the effects that will be produced on the retail traders in country towns and districts by the introduction of the parcels post? It will very nearly destroy them in almost every trade. The heads of families of the upper and middle classes, who now deal largely with the Civil Service and other stores and with the Lon don houses, leaving only trifling odds and ends to their local tradesmen which they reckon not worth paying carriage for, will then make it a practice of sending their orders, even for trifles, to London.This will concentrate trade in London to the disadvantage of country traders. It will gradually throw out of employment a great number of respectable girls who find healthy occupation in country towns, in workrooms as machinists, milliners, dress makers, etc., and will increase the number of poor London workers who are far too numerous already. It will increase the trade of these huge stores and monster houses, and for a time those who trade with them from the country will think they are doing so at a great saving. Evils will soon manifest themselves which will demonstrate -the fact that the system he proposes establishing is not founded on a just or true principle.Really, that is almost like the peroration of my hon. Friend. Similarly, when we introduced the foreign cash-on-delivery system, in 1904 Lord Derby, Postmaster-General, had to listen to the argument of the Federation of Grocers' Associations that it was going to be of no benefit whatsoever to British trade, and that, on 1476 the contrary, we would be injured by the importation of foreign-made goods through this system. What has been the result? Why, last year, under the foreign cash-on-delivery system we bought from abroad 10,000 parcels at a cost of £20,000. That means that 10,000 parcels came into this country for which we paid foreigners £20,000. We sent out 270,000 parcels, for which the foreigner paid us £696,000, so that those evil fore bodings were also entirely dissipated by the events. I do venture to think that it will happen in the same way in this case, and that the "dungeons in the air" which my hon. Friend has been building and the fears which his constituents are nursing will not be realised. We will only be following in the wake of all our Dominions and all our Continental neighbours. It is absurd to say that we are not to pay any attention to the ex perience of France, Belgium and Germany. Their conditions are not so dissimilar from ours that we can afford to ignore their experience altogether. The Postmaster-General has made most detailed inquiries in those countries and has ascertained that the working of the system has not stamped out or injured the small trader, but is regarded by the small trader and everybody else as an ordinary service of the parcels post and one which is a great convenience to every body concerned.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Paddington asked one or two questions which I think I ought to answer before I sit down. He made a great complaint that we have not already taken on any extra staff to deal with this new service. I say, in reply to him, that the parcels post service at the present moment is so vast that the Postmaster-General's advisers are confident of being able to take this new service in their stride. We are at present dealing with 120,000,000 parcels a year. The increase in the parcels post caused by the introduction of this method will not in the opinion of the Postmaster-General's advisers be more than the ordinary expansion of the service can readily assimilate. Therefore we think that a rapid increase of staff will not be necessary, that no great increase of expense will be involved, that the service will not expand to such an extent as to revolutionise the trading channels of this country or to realise the fears that some of the traders have 1477 expressed, but that it will be a great convenience and help to all those who live in the country, whether in their capacity as producers or in their capacity as consumers, and that it is a. reform which the Post Office ought to have brought in many years ago.
§ Mr. A. V. ALEXANDER
The House has listened, I am sure, with interest to a statement which it would have welcomed a long time since from the Noble Lord. The great burden of the complaint that the House has to make is that it has been kept so much in the dark as to what was the intention of the Government, and there have probably been many misunderstandings arising which might have been dispelled by an earlier and exhaustive statement by the Post master-General. After all, there is a very considerable change in the policy which is now being adopted, and I do not think the Noble Lord has really explained exactly what has occasioned such a complete volte-face between 1923 and 1925. At the same time, I think a good deal too much has been said on both sides. I believe a good many of the fears which have been expressed as to what will be the result of the cash-on-delivery system are exaggerated, but I also think that a good many of the things that have been sail in support of the introduction of the system are equally exaggerated.
For one thing, the main case of the Noble Lord is, if I understood him aright, that it is going to assist mainly people in the country and the agriculturists generally, and I noticed that the Post master-General applauded once or twice during the Debate when references were made to the Report of the Linlithgow Committee. I had the privilege of giving evidence on many occasions before that Committee, and of producing a good many costings with regard to the different kinds of agricultural produce, and I can not yet understand where the advantage is going to be to the agriculturist in the system which has been inaugurated. The hon. and gallant Member for Wycombe (Sir A. Knox), who referred to the delivery of a chicken from a rural area to a town, would, I thought, do well to study with me some time the detailed costings of a retailer through from his purchase direct in the country to the delivery to the customer, and then compare it with what would be the cost 1478 under this system. So far as the consumer is concerned, I conceive that he will get no advantage at all—absolutely none. [Interruption.] I am only trying to show, not that I am against the system, but that I think many of the things that have been said in support of it are very much exaggerated. [An HON. MEMBER "You are on both sides !"] I am on both sides. I am quite willing to see some sort of experiment carried out, but I do not want to see it adopted in such a way that people in the country districts will think that a new heaven and a new earth are to be brought in, because I think that is absurd.
Another hon. Member referred to the agriculturist's market, but I very much doubt whether this system will do much good in that respect, when you are faced with this position, that the agriculturist's market is captured, not by the retailers, but by the ordinary agricultural producers of other countries, who do not seek to deliver in small quantities, but beat him in his own market with bulk parcels, and not by sending little parcels. It would be far better, if you are going to consider a remedy for the agriculturist in this country, to develop something approaching a more scientific grading of his products and a possibility of handling them in greater bulk than can be done by a parcel post system the maximum weight to be carried by which is 11 lbs., and when one comes to the kind of problem that has been referred to, of a glut of fruit, it would be exceedingly difficult to arrange, through a system of cash-on-delivery, to be able to dispose of a rapidly perishing crop like plums, for instance, by means of individual deliveries to consumers, although one might think it would be helpful and desirable to try to use that system. As a matter of fact, the only possible way 6f disposing of such a large surplus, if it is not possible to obtain a retail price to cover the cost of carriage, is to dispose of it to those who can use it in bulk, such as jam makers and the like, and I am sure that the Postmaster-General would not suggest that in the case of perishables like that he will bring a solution to the agriculturist by this system.
It has been suggested that this system will assist the economy of the Post Office in helping to use their rolling stock and 1479 the like. That may be so, and I have not a word to say against that, but it will also perhaps interfere with the use of the rolling stock of people who are already organised to do a distributing trade. My hon. Friend the Member for East Middlesbrough (Miss Wilkinson) referred to her own town, and said you would do a great deal by a woman sending a post card and getting her purchase delivered under this system, but I would suggest that a postcard to the local co-operative society would get immediate response, owing to the network of transport which covers the whole of that area. I do not want to oppose this system in any carping spirit. If there is a feeling that the experience of other countries has been beneficial, and it is thought that it might help a little in this direction, I would suggest that it be given a trial, but let the Postmaster-General watch it very carefully, and let him learn a lesson from his experience this year. That is, if he is going to make a change after 12 months, let him, not be so unmindful of the various people to be consulted as he has been on this occasion.
The Noble Lord said he was quite sure the Postmaster-General was desirous of having all the interests concerned duly canvassed, but the one interest that he does not seem to have canvassed was the organised consumers. I have not seen any communication from the Postmaster-General to the great consumers' organisation in this country, responsible for a, retail turnover of £200,000,000 a year. Perhaps they were overlooked, as some times happens.
§ Mr. ALEXANDER
We shall always be ready to communicate with the Post master-General, but we cannot do it when we do not know what he intends to do, and all that I am asking is that, if he comes to the conclusion, at the end of a given period that this experiment has not been se much worth while as some people have suggested, and that he is going to make a change, he might really consult all the interests concerned and have it adopted beforehand. He ought not to adopt the high handed action he has taken on this occasion and bring in what is, 1480 after all, a fundamental reform without any reference to or authority from the elected representatives of the people.
May I, on behalf of a very large and very scattered agricultural constituency, welcome most warmly this Cash-on-Delivery system which the Postmaster-General is bringing in? Some previous speaker has assured the Postmaster-General that there is no demand for it. I venture to disagree. Speaking on behalf of my constituency, there is a large and very scattered demand for it. The demand arose in this way. An enormous number of Canadian soldiers returned, during the War, to visit their relatives, and it was a matter of general comment that we had not got the ordinary postal facilities in this country to which they had been accustomed for several years in Canada, and especially in the United States. Other hon. Members say that they think we are building too great hopes on the results of this proposal. May I venture to call the attention of the House to the result that has come to the agricultural population of the United States? Last year this service was utilised in the United States to the extent of over £11,000,000, or 55,000,000 dollars, and I think the House has no idea of the enormous extent to which this service will be used, now that the opportunity has been given to the small holders, the allotment keepers, and the small farmers.
The fears that this will damage the small local shopkeepers are, I think, quite unfounded. When this was first introduced in Canada, exactly the same fears were expressed there, that the small local retailers would suffer. Now the small retailers in Canada are the greatest users of this service. I speak more especially of the Eastern part, where conditions are much more comparable with those in England. One hon. Member said he thought that when they came to compare the cost of the Post Office with that of the retailer, the agriculturist would find the margin was small, and that it would not be a paying proposition for him to retail eggs, poultry, and so on, direct to the consumer. I venture to think that what he should look at is the disparity between prices paid to the producer in the country to-day and what the consumer in the town has to pay, and, if considered 1481 from that point of view, the margin will be found to be more than ample to make a considerable reduction to the consumer in the town, and give a very considerably enhanced profit to the producer in the country.
I do not wish to traverse ground that has already been gone over, but I do not think I shall be in the least exaggerating if I describe this service as the charter of success to the smallholder, to the allotment-keeper and to the small farmer of this country. It was the one thing that was wanted to enable the small farmer to get into direct touch with an enormous unexplored body of customers, and eliminate to a vastly increasing amount of intermediate profits coming between him and the consumer. I do not think the House realises on what a very small margin of profit agricultural products are produced to-day. The margin is so small that any addition to it is more than welcome. If I might venture to put the thing on a practical basis, the account that is paid last by any Member of this House is an account of 6s., 8s. or 10s., for the simple reason that he does not wish to write out a cheque. He intends to get a postal order, but generally forgets. The result is I hat the small agricultural producer, who is working on a small margin of capital, has very often to wait a long time for the payment of small bills.
Under this system you eliminate bad debts, and reduce the amount of capital required in business, on account of the rapid turnover, and if the customer be not satisfied, he is not committed to any liability. In the United States they have even gone further. They have permitted smallholders to advertise in the local post offices for a small rent. People motoring through the country take note of the names of agriculturists advertised in the local post offices offering to supply agricultural produce. That trade last year from the country to the towns in the United States reached over £8,000,000. I do not think the Postmaster-General himself can realise what a great vista and future he has offered to the small holders of this country, and, on their behalf, I wish to welcome most cordially this most useful measure of public service which he has introduced.
§ Mr. BROMLEY
I am rising to criticise what, in ray opinion, is a some what ill-considered administrative action on 1482 the part of the Postmaster-General. I am differing from some hon. Friends of mine who have previously spoken from this side of the House, and I can only wish that the hon. Member for East Middlesbrough (Miss Wilkinson), when she said that she was doubtful whether she was right in supporting the Government, had listened to that very natural intuition which tells us we are bound to he wrong in supporting this Government, judging by its actions since it has been in power. I want, first of all, to examine where any of these valuable results, which have been suggested by so many previous speakers, are likely to come to the community as a. whole. One hon. Gentleman below the Gangway opposite spoke of the desire of the farming element to assist the community. I think the experience of the community as to the altruistic nature of the farmer during the past few years will not lead us to fall into that trap, and as for the great assistance to the smallholders or the farming class, let us look at it as practical people who have had some experience of produce coming from the country into the town. How is it going to assist the farming people? They will not send trusses of hay or a, ton of mangel-wurzels or swedes through the post. [An How. MEMBER: "What about spring chicken?"] Spring chicken and other perishable articles of foodstuff in small quantities will be very dubious articles of consumption after they have passed through the post, and I cannot conceive any farmer, in the ordinary accepted sense of the term, sending any of his produce by the new parcel post system.
With regard to the remarks of my hon. Friend on the subject of fruit, I know something of the small fruit-grower, and we can all deplore the fact that every year, either in a lean year or in a prolific year, so splendidly managed is the economy of our nation, that tons of beautiful fruit are allowed to rot on the ground, because it does not pay to market it. That is perfectly true, but how are you going to get the smallholder to advertise sufficiently to get the ordinary house wife into touch with him so as to buy his produce? We know as practical people it is impossible. I would suggest to the House that this is an ill-considered scheme, because it cannot bring to the 1483 ordinary consumer in the town the pro duct of the farmer. Without some very much further and more intensive organisation it cannot bring the ordinary pro duct of the market gardener or the small fruit-grower.
I can quite conceive the Government bringing the scheme in for the benefit of the small people, but it will really only benefit the great multiple trading concerns and the great newspapers which will carry their advertisements. The consumer surely ought to be sufficiently wide awake to consider that the extra charges for delivery, of whatever the article may be is likely to be passed on to him by the great multiple shops. These are not going to bear it by any means. The Postmaster-General, again might consider how he possibly is going to conduct this business in any magnitude. We have heard that it is going to be the produce of the market garden and the small fruit growers, and, if so, it is going to be perishable goods. Consider the postman in the street waiting while the intelligent housewife opens the parcel containing the fowl from the farmer to see whether it is fresh, or while she examines the parcel of butter, or care fully opens any other package of perish able articles to see whether they have arrived in a proper condition! The, thing appears to me to be too ridiculous.
I do again ask the House to consider whether it is possible that this scheme is going to benefit the consumer in any way. The people it will benefit are the great multiple shops who, by the use of advertisements in all manner of news papers, Sunday and week-day, will be able to supply, not perishable foodstuffs from the farm or the market garden, but all manner of necessities apart from food stuffs. These, I believe, will come through the post, but will this be an advantage to the community as a whole? We know that many working people are deceived very often through the specious advertisements appealing to them on behalf of the mail order business. They get goods delivered, and have very great difficulty in getting justice if they have been, badly treated. The ordinary working-class housewife going to the local shops can examine her purchase. She knows what she is getting. She can deal with the shopkeeper over the counter. I again suggest that the only people likely 1484 to be advantaged by the scheme of the Postmoster-General are the great multiple shops supplying other than perishable goods—some of it shoddy—and the big advertisement agents and the newspapers.
Let us see if it will damage the community at all. I represent a community—Barrow-in-Furness—which has suffered very much of recent years, possibly more in proportion, owing to unemployment and trade depression, than any other town in the country. In a lesser degree, perhaps, a great many industrial centres have suffered, and are suffering, and unfortunately it has not only been the weekly wage earner that has suffered. There are in a place like Barrow-in-Furness rows of shops where there were prosperous small shopkeepers. Many of these shops are standing empty that were carrying on business or are only just making that thin margin that enables the traders to live. I am not going to suggest that the mail order business which the Postmaster-General has instituted will at once do away with that margin and wipe away all their business; but I do seriously suggest this: that it may just take that little cream off their business which is the difference between success and dismal failure, and possible bankruptcy. The benefit will go to the great syndicates and newspapers and advertisement agents to meet the desire—the laudable desire—of the Postmaster-General to extend his business as the Postmaster-General of this nation. I have indicated that in the interests of the community this House should not let pass this particular Measure without severe criticism.
The problem, I suggest, will not end there. The small trader—and he is generally a Tory—and I am not speaking for him because he is Socialistic!—and can never understand his point of view!—is the person more than another whose very existence and welfare depends on the wages of the working people. If they get half-a-crown more wages it at once goes to the local shopkeepers. It will go further in future. There is already sufficient suffering, unemployment, and low wages—wages reduced by millions and millions during the last few years. It is all bad enough. The attitude of this Government has been to get all national taxation, so far as possible, pushed on 1485 to the local rates; to get men off unemployment benefit on to the Poor Law. Towns like that which I have the honour to represent are in a particularly parlous state. Do not let this House overlook that fact. Because of these various things, because of the lack of wages, and the plight of the shopkeepers, the rates of the towns are thousand's of pounds in arrears, and many a small trader is faced for the rest of his life with only a meagre, hand-to-mouth existence. If we allow now his little margin of profit or living to be swept away in the next three or four years, what is going to happen to many of our towns and townships? Many of our towns are already heavily burdened, and you may destroy the small trader in the interests of the great firms. I do not think it is a wise procedure for the Postmaster-General to institute this scheme, and it is certainly not wise of this House to pass it without very serious consideration.
I have sufficient confidence in the good sense of the House that it is not necessary to make a lengthy speech, if hon. Members will keep in mind the few salient points that have been brought to their notice. I would appeal seriously to the Postmaster-General, even at this late hour, to consider what he may be doing. It has been stated by previous speakers that he might give the thing a trial for 12 months and see how it works out. I would respectfully suggest to him that if the scheme comes into operation, if he can discriminate, I feel confident he will find that. one half of the produce carried will not be from farmers, fruit growers, or market gardeners; it will be from such commercialised concerns as I have indicated and for the benefit of these, and to the detriment of the provincial shopkeeper and ratepayers of the small towns who are already struggling merely to live. I would conclude by asking the Postmaster-General another question in which we on these benches are somewhat interested. I see by the Memorandum which I have obtained in the Vote Office that a postman will be allowed to collect on his round charges up to £5.
I once had the, I was going to say honour and I had almost said the misery, of serving in the Post Office. I was a civil servant when I was 12 years of age, carrying letters for 4s. a week. I did not put up many houses on that money, and 1486 I realise that wages of postal servants are not what they ought to he. When this scheme comes into operation we shall ask men not only to deliver parcels but to collect very large sums of money. It will be something more than an automatic delivery of letters and parcels; it will require care in the reckoning of cash and the giving of change, and there will be the responsibility for the money. Will the Minister tell the House whether pro vision has been made for increased re muneration for the people who will take on these added difficulties and added responsibilities? Finally, I would ask the Minister if he has seriously considered the possibility of ruining not hundreds but thousands of provincial shopkeepers, and, possibly, damaging very seriously, if not beyond repair in our time, the financial position of some of our provincial towns and cities.