Motion made, and Question proposed,
That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £2,600,000, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1937, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Post Office, including Telegraphs and Telephones.
§ 10.23 p.m.
§ The Postmaster-General (Major Tryon)
I find myself to-night in a very unusual position, namely, that of a Postmaster-General discussing the Post Office, because recently we have been discussing other matters. This particular Estimate is one which I venture to think will be satisfactory to the Committee. In the first place it does not involve any charge whatever on the taxpayer, and the reasons for it are also satisfactory. It is due to the great expansion of Post Office business, and I am glad to say that this expenditure will be well balanced by the revenue which is coming in, so that there is no loss to the Exchequer in connection with this Supplementary Estimate. I will mention the main items, and will give any details that hon. Members may select afterwards.
There is a larger sum for the British Broadcasting Corporation, due to the arrangement under which in future they will get a larger share of the licence revenue. The expansion of works programme and the building up of stocks of telephone engineering materials involve an additional expenditure of £750,000. 2121 On salaries and wages there is an additional expenditure of £458,000, and there are one or two other details which I think will suggest to the Committee the reasons for the Supplementary Estimate. We estimated that the postal business of the country would increase in the year by 3 per cent.; as a matter of fact it has increased by 5 per cent. We thought the telephone business would show a growth of about 190,000 new telephones, but as a matter of fact we have installed 240,000 new telephones, so that the expansion is even greater than was anticipated. There is also a great expansion of telegraph business. Sums of £116,000 for conveyance of mails, £599,000 for the engineering establishment, and £115,000 for superannuation, are also asked for. The main point is that our business is expanding and that all that we spend has to be agreed to by the House. On the other hand, there is income coming in which balances this extra Vote, so that there is no loss to the Exchequer and no charge to the taxpayer. The main point is that we are able to give the Committee a story of expanding revenue.
§ 10.26 p.m.
§ Mr. Viant
I think the Committee will be very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his statement and is interested to know the manner in which the business of the Post Office is expanding. That in itself is evidence of the expansion of business in general throughout the country. There are a few points in connection with the Estimate that I desire to raise. The first is in connection with the Stores Department. I should like to know whether this increase of £54,000 is due entirely to expansion of business, or is some of it due to an increase in prices, or, on the other hand, to the Department buying in advance? Again, in respect to Salaries in Provincial Establishments, I note that they are up to the extent of £404,000. I should like to know if that is due to an increase in the number of staff, or due in any respect to the amount of overtime that has been worked by the Department? I think the Committee will be pleased to know to what extent the staff has been increased with a view to reducing the amount of overtime that has been worked. I note that Sub-head B, Travelling, Subsistence and Trip Allowances, is up by £43,000. I should like to know the reason for such 2122 an abnormal increase. It seems an extraordinary amount.
Sub-head H.1, Losses by Default, Theft and Fire, is up by £6,000. The Committee will be interested to know whether thefts have increased to an extraordinary extent and to what extent losses by default have increased: The Committee will be disturbed if they learn that the thefts are on the increase to the extent that these figures would lead one to assume. I hope that that is not the case, but having sat on the Front Bench opposite and had to reply to questions connected with thefts, I shall be interested to know to what extent thefts may be taking place at the present time. What do these fires mean? To what extent has the Post Office been subjected to fires, where have the fires taken place, and what is the precise loss sustained as a result of those fires? I notice that Subhead H.2, Compensation for Accidents, is up by £9,000. It is an Estimate, but these Estimates are based upon the previous experience of the Department, and in the main they are fairly actuarially correct. If the Department are estimating £9,000 as compensation for accidents, they must have had a considerable number of accidents during the past 12 months in order to persuade them to make this allowance.
On page 23, the Estimate for Engineering Materials is up by 750,000. Are there any good reasons to be advanced? We have already been informed that the business is expanding, but I should be interested to know whether the Department are buying in advance. It is apparent to the mind of probably every hon. Member in the Committee that we might expect an advance in prices, and if the Departments are looking ahead and buying in advance, one can appreciate the immensity of the Estimate in that regard. Engineering Establishment salaries are up by £469,000, and I hope that the increased Estimate has been made with a view to increasing the number of staff so as to wipe out the question of overtime completely, making allowance for certain contingencies which are bound to arise in completing an order or something of the kind, when half an hour's or an hour's overtime might be necessary. Also on page 23, I notice that the Estimate in respect of Losses by Default, Accident, etc., has risen from £2,200 to £8,200, very nearly three times as much as the 2123 original Estimate. How is this accounted for? These are very reasonable questions which interest the Committee, and they will give the Department an opportunity of telling the Committee the reasons for the Supplementary Estimate additional to those already advanced by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman on the grounds of expanding business.
§ 10.35 p.m.
§ Mr. Tinker
There is one matter that I should like to raise. It comes under the heading of "Conveyance of Mails," the cost of which is increased by £116,000. On page 24 it is stated that £29,000 additional provision is required for the letter mail traffic, which is greater than was provided for in the original Estimate. The letter-carrying business covers millions of letters. My complaint is in regard to one letter. [Laughter.] It may seem a small matter to hon. Members, but the aggregate is made up of units, and if we can deal with the grievances of the units the whole will be right. The point of my question is whether the expense in cases such as the one which I am about to quote could have been curtailed and, if so, if there are many such cases, the business of the Post Office might be made even more successful than it is at the present time.
Some time ago a letter was sent from America, it was a packet which contained a diploma that had been won by a Britisher. It was sent from America, in a registered letter, to the home of his parents in St. Helens. The letter was held up at Crewe and notification was sent to the parents at St. Helens that the letter had been held up, and that if they desired to see it opened they could go to Crewe for that purpose, otherwise, it would be opened in their absence. They were not able to go to Crewe, and the letter was opened in their absence. Four days elapsed before the letter arrived at St. Helens. There was nothing in the letter of a condemnatory character, or anything that needed to be taxed. It was held up because it was registered. I brought the matter before the Postmaster-General and he agreed that it seemed to be outrageous that it had been held up, but when he went into the matter he found that a certain course had to be adopted and could not be altered, because the Customs and Excise authorities were 2124 concerned. As they had no place nearer to St. Helens than Crewe they had to deal with the matter at Crewe. My suggestion is, that if a letter of this kind does arrive and it is thought to contain dutiable goods, instead of holding it up 50 miles from its destination it might very well be sent on to the town to which it is addressed, and some person in authority at the Post Office there could deal with it. That would have meant in this case it being sent to the St. Helens Post Office and word being sent to the parents that it had been held up for a certain purpose, and that if they cared to see it opened they could do so without any expense to themselves.
This is one of those small matters which may affect a large number of people, but because it happens to be small no one cares to raise it. I am taking the opportunity of raising the matter on this Supplementary Estimate, because if this sort of thing is carried on to any large extent it must mean additional expense to the Post Office, as they hold up the letter at Crewe and have to despatch it again, thereby incurring extra expense It may be a small item, but if such cases are multiplied by hundreds or thousands one gets additional expense, which may well amount to a much bigger item than would appear on the surface. I hope that if the Postmaster-General cannot to-night give me satisfaction, he will take it from me that a sense of injustice prevails in this particular home because of what happened. If they had gone to Crewe it would have cost them at least £1. That is unfair. We trust the Post Office in a great many matters, and I think this could have been dealt with in a better way.
§ 10.41 p.m.
§ Captain Harold Balfour
I want to raise one question which I think, will be in order. It concerns the w hole of the Committee very much. It is the question of the poultry industry. There is under the heading H.2, Compensation for Accidents:Owing to the increase of business additional provision is required for compensation in respect of losses, damage, accidents, etc., £9,000.I think we are entitled to ask the Postmaster-General whether all this extra sum of £9,000 is in respect of the transport of the very fragile type of goods—eggs in the post. We are all aware of the great 2125 increase in the imports of foreign eggs, which is causing deep concern to every Department in the State, including, I hope, the Minister of Agriculture, and we hope that the Post Office may be able to throw some light on the question as to whether any of this increased charge is in respect of these eggs. Hon. Members will agree that we cannot raise this matter too often in order to draw the attention of the Government to the many complex problems which hon. Members have to meet in this particular difficulty, and the Post Office in this matter can be helpful if they will give some indication as to whether we are now importing a great number of eggs which are being broken. If the Postmaster-General replies that we are importing eggs but that an increased number are not being broken, we shall nevertheless not be shaken in our knowledge that a large number of eggs are coming in in a condition even worse than we had anticipated.
§ Captain Balfour
I only want to ask whether we can have an assurance from the Postmaster-General? I trust the Committee will agree that we cannot raise this matter too strongly or too often.
§ 10.43 p.m.
§ Mr. Lyons
I want to refer to one matter which, I think, will be in Order. It is an item which concerns an additional sum of £500,000 which is to be given to the B.B.C. I understand from what the right hon. and gallant Member said that this is the B.B.C.'s larger share of the licence fees. Does this mean that the Postmaster-General henceforth will have no control whatever—
The hon. Member can raise that question on the salary of the Postmaster-General but not on this occasion.
§ 10.44 p.m.
§ Sir Percy Harris
There is one item which is puzzling many hon. Members, not eggs, either good eggs or election eggs, but the transport of mails by air. There is a saving of £95,000. Is that arrived at by making more satisfactory contract terms? If that is so, then the very high charges now made for the transport of mails by air should be reduced.
§ 10.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Sexton
I would like to ask a question with regard to the item for rent. Does that include anything for new sub-offices that have been opened in the country, or is the additional provision needed for the expansion of the Post Office service? If it includes any new premises, are any of them places where the sub-postmaster or the sub-postmistress is remunerated at £52 a year or less? I understand from questions I have asked that there are 6,500 such places in the country, and I am wondering whether that number is being increased. In my opinion, the remuneration of £52 per annum is totally inadequate. When one considers that the person concerned has to provide premises with rent, at a modest estimate, at 5s. a week, which takes £13 of the £52 and leaves £39—
§ Mr. Sexton
I would like also to ask a question concerning the item for losses by default, theft and fire, to which reference has already been made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Willesden (Mr. Viant). Have the people who have defaulted or stolen been covered in any way by fidelity bonds, and is the loss by fire covered by fire insurance?—
That does not arise on this occasion. All the hon. Member may ask is why the Supplementary Estimate is presented.
§ 10.47 p.m.
§ Major Tryon
I would like, in the first place, to answer the point raised by the hon. Baronet the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Sir P. Harris) as to why so much has not been spent on the air mail. I am sorry to say that it is because the air mail has not developed 2127 as rapidly as we had hoped. It is going ahead now, but we made provision for it to develop more rapidly.
§ Sir P. Harris
Is the right hon. and gallant Gentleman considering lowering the prices in order to encourage greater use of the service?
§ Major Tryon
It has nothing to do with that. The service did not develop as rapidly as we had hoped, but it is going ahead now. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet (Captain Balfour) made an interesting speech on the subject of eggs in connection with the Post Office, but he did not tell me whether he thought we ought to break the foreign eggs or not. The hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) raised a point on which he has already been in communication with me, but it is a matter for the Customs and Excise, and not for the Post Office. If the packets could be examined nearer to their destination, it would be a great convenience, but I do not think anybody would agree that the levying of these Duties should be handed over to the Post Office. However, I agree with the hon. Member that if the packets could be examined nearer their destination, it would be more convenient. I am glad that the article in question was not a perishable article, and I hope the certificate will long be treasured by the parents.
§ Mr. Tinker
Can the right hon. and gallant Gentleman advise me when I should raise this point in order to have it dealt with by somebody?
§ Major Tryon
When the appropriate Vote is submitted. I come now to the very interesting points raised by the hon. Member for West Willesden (Mr. Viant), and I will endeavour to deal with them. In the first place, he referred to the numbers of the staff, and I am glad to say that during the last year the staff has been increased by 15,000. Although I cannot discuss overtime, the hon. Member will realise that we are enrolling men rapidly, especially in the engineering departments in which I know he is interested. We are making a rapid increase in the staff with a view to handling the work and incidentally—an important point—reducing overtime. The hon. Member made rather a mistake when referring to Item A (5), where there is an 2128 increase of £54,000. He asked whether this was due to a rise in prices. It is not due to stores, but to additional wages for additional Post Office workers, and I am sure the hon. Member will not object to that. It has nothing to do with the prices of commodities.
§ Major Tryon
I am not blaming the hon. Member but the sum of 54,000, for the Stores Department comes under the main heading "Salaries, etc." The hon. Member asked about the losses by default, accident, etc. Losses by default amount to half of the whole total, the losses by theft to one-third, and one-sixth of the losses are due to other causes, including fire. He spoke feelingly of the number of mail-bag thefts which were going on when he had the great pleasure of working at the Post Office. I am delighted to be able to assure him that the losses are now very small. In 1935–36 the total losses by the stealing of mail-bags amounted to only £272. We have not the figures for the whole of this year but we are approaching the end of the financial year, and the losses are so small that the figure I have given is likely again to represent the losses sustained. Two hundred and seventy-two pounds is very little to lose.
§ Mr. Garro Jones
I have had occasion to write to the right hon. Gentleman in the case of one or two losses of this character for which he has repudiated liability, and I would like to know whether the figure he has given is composed only of losses for which the Post Office recognises liability to repay and excludes all those cases which are far more than the figure he has given where the Post Office recognises that there have been losses but rejects any liability to repay.
§ Major Tryon
The hon. Member has suggested that we have not compensated anybody but that we are asking the Committee to grant money which we have not paid.
§ Mr. Garro Jones
The Minister has completely misunderstood my point. I recognise that in this case he is asking the House to pay certain losses. In other cases he is not asking the House to pay losses because he has not paid them him- 2129 self. What I wish to know is whether the figure of £272, which he gives to the Committee as an indication of the total losses for the whole service and for which he obtains the plaudits of the Committee, does include all the losses. I wish it to be understood that there are enormous losses for which he rejects responsibility.
§ Major Tryon
The hon. Member is mistaken. There are not enormous losses. The figure I gave is for the mail-bag robberies.
§ Mr. Benson
Is this a thing which fluctuates very considerably from year to year? On page 25 the greater losses are attributed to the increase of business. The increase in business is 5 per cent., whereas the increase in the figure for losses is nearly 25 per cent.
§ Major Tryon
There was one particular case of default where we had to make up the money and that has swollen the return for this one particular year. It must not be taken as normal. I am glad to be able to tell the hon. Member for West Willesden that we are buying in advance. One of the principal causes of the size of the Estimate is that we are laying in stocks in good time to make provision for the increase which we are aware is coming, particularly in connection with the telephone service. Then he referred to the Post Office Savings Bank and noticed that here, unlike on previous occasions, there is something said about losses by default and accident, but nothing about losses by fire. The reason why there has been no loss by fire at the Savings Bank is that there has not been any fire there. I have endeavoured to explain that these increases are due to increasing business, and I hope they will go ahead next year. All that can be said against us is that we have not foreseen the success that has attended the efforts of the staff of the Post Office with whom I am very proud to be associated.
§ Major Tryon
I am obliged to the hon. Member for reminding me. The reason why there are more accidents is that we have an enormously increased number of motor vehicles and that their mileage is 2130 much greater. I had the opportunity not long ago of answering a question about fatal accidents, and I am glad to say that these have gone down. With regard to the question the hon. Member asked about fire, it is a very small amount. One-sixth of that item includes a number of various things, of which fire is one.
That a supplementary sum, not exceeding £2,600,000, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1937, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Post Office, including Telegraphs and Telephones;
put, and agreed to.
§ Resolution to be reported To-morrow; Committee to sit again To-morrow.