HC Deb 30 May 1952 vol 501 cc1868-80

3.53 p.m.

Mr. Cahir Healy (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

I am sorry that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food has encroached upon our time. Some people are so eloquent that they do not realise the passing of time. I am very much obliged to you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me the opportunity of drawing attention to some matters relating to the administration of Northern Ireland for which this House is responsible. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. O'Neill), who sits beside me, and I represent the counties of Fermanagh and Tyrone and part of Derry—more than one-third of the whole area of the Northern Government.

I realise that in this matter we are rather cabined and confined to the administration of the Postmaster-General. We talk sometimes in this House as if there were perfect freedom at all times under the British constitution, but we take a good deal for granted, because I think that freedom is a good deal more theoretical than real. Although the war has long been over, some of the emergency powers legislation still remains. Until quite recently, we had the power of arrest without trial and now we have the censorship of mail.

Article 12 of the United Nations Charter of Human Rights of 1948, says that no one shall be subject to unreasonable interference with his privacy, his home, his correspondence, or his reputation. We have had in Northern Ireland a long period of peace, which I am very pleased to acknowledge. I merely mention that in passing because under the Post Office Act, the Home Office has statutory power over the correspondence passing through the Post Office, but these powers have only been exercised in periods of emergency prior to 1920 when the Northern Ireland Government began to function.

That Government today can direct the Postmaster-General to pass over to them letters of certain named individuals; for how long that warrant runs we do not know, but in the words of the song, it may be for years or it may be for ever. Nor do we know at whose discretion that power is to be determined. What we fear is that the Post Office do not exercise a sufficient discrimination over the intrusion of the Home Office. After all, the Post Office is responsible to the persons who post letters and the people to whom they are addressed.

What we should like to know from the Assistant Postmaster-General is whether he can tell us the number of letters that are taken out of delivery and whether a sufficiently strict supervision is exercised to see that those letters are put into delivery again. Also, when the letters are opened we suggest that the contents should be noted, particularly when they contain money or valuable documents, because there have been complaints of letters being unduly delayed for several days. I have seen postmen prosecuted in the courts for offences arising out of the detention of letters.

During the war letters were marked, "Opened by the censor." People who got the letters which were marked in this way were aware of the fact that the letters had been opened, and they made particular inquiry to see whether anything was extracted from them. Today both the Home Office and the Post Office apparently are ashamed of the procedure because the letters are no longer marked in any way. Indeed, an effort is made to conceal the fact that they are being opened.

I suggest to the Assistant Postmaster-General that the inventive capacity of his Department should be concentrated on securing the delivery of letters and mail rather than upon the censorship of letters, and that this might be very much to the advantage of the public.

On his coming visit to Northern Ireland, the hon. Gentleman might say a word in the ear of the Government there as to the wisdom of bringing this censorship of letters to an end. We send diplomats abroad to ensure that good will exists among the nation, and I should have thought that charity should begin at home. We have more need for rapprochement of this kind at our own door than we have on the Continent. I imagine that a friendly word from a friendly source here would go a long way in Northern Ireland.

It being Four o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith.]

Mr. Healy

The Minister might be doing a very good day's work for the people not only of Northern Ireland but of this country if he could establish better relations between the Post Office and the public. Stormont would not turn a deaf ear to any representations that the Minister might make in this matter.

Passing from that aspect of the situation, I suggest that the Postmaster-General should adopt the old system of competition in the recruitment of staff. A few years ago the staff was entirely recruited by competition, and they were a fine body of people of whom there were very few complaints. My colleagues and I have a special reason for suggesting that that system should be restored. Boys are recruited for the Post Office Service from secondary and grammar schools, and some have passed the junior grade, some the senior grade and some neither grade. Apart from ex-Service men, for whom there is special provision, there should be no priority for any class of school, and the boys from all schools should be considered equally on their merits.

At Christmas time I intervened to ask that some ex-Service men, and boys from a working-class school, should be employed in the Post Office, I was told that the boys from a particular school—what I might call a classy secondary school—knew more, and therefore were better at sorting letters than boys from another school. I was rather surprised, because I thought all those boys had passed through the same curriculum for the examination.

I knew very well that the boys from the schools I had been recommending were equal to the best of the other schools when the examination figures were added up. Although the boys might have better knowledge of foreign geography, the ex-Service men I was recommending had a far better knowledge of the streets and the location of the houses in the vicinity. Therefore, from the point of view of sorting, they had a far better qualification than had the boys from the public school.

I want the Assistant Postmaster-General to look into that and also into another matter which arises from it. I detest raising sectarian issues, but I cannot help it because this Department forces me to do so. From a Belfast list of salaries of 31 officers ranging from £1,100 down to £750 I see that there is only one Catholic. That is not an accident. Since 1947, 46 posts have been awarded to assistant engineers, and only four of those went to Roman Catholics, some of whom went into the postal service by competitive examination.

Only 11 Catholics hold supervisory posts in the whole of Northern Ireland against 75 of other denominations, and recruitment today is at the rate of 10 Protestants to one Catholic, as the hon. Gentleman will find if he makes investigations. I detest the idea that in a public service there should be discrimination between people of one Christian faith and another, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will see that it is brought to an end. Only one Catholic supervising officer has been given a supervising grade in recent years and he had come in by competitive examination, although there were 26 promoted in all. The entire Promotion Board in Belfast and Northern Ireland are non-Catholics.

Mr. William Wellwood (Londonderry)

Will the hon. Member allow me to interrupt?

Mr. Healy

I am sorry, I have only a few minutes. One question asked of those applying for promotion is, "What do you think of the partition of Ireland?" I believe that the careers of these people depend a good deal upon their answers to that question. We want all promotions to be by merit and we want all recruitment to the Post Office to be by merit. For that reason I appeal to the hon. Gentleman to restore the competitive examinations which have been in abeyance for a considerable time.

Northern Ireland is peculiar, as the hon. Gentleman will probably remember. [Laughter.] All countries are peculiar where there is a statesman, higher in the Government service, who says he will not employ anybody but those of one faith. It is because of that I have to appeal to the Assistant Postmaster-General to exercise some discrimination to show that his Department does not fall into the groove of many Departments under the Northern Ireland Government.

Many of the existing staff feel that they would fare better in the service if they had been born under a different star or in a different home. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will resolutely set his face against a condition that is a disgrace to the Post Office and which ought to be brought to an end in Northern Ireland.

4.6 p.m.

Captain L. P. S. On (Down, South)

There is an article in the "Daily Herald" this morning about the Minister who believed in fairies. I do not know whether you believe in fairies, Sir, or whether anyone else in this House does so, but in Ireland there is a traditional belief in these peculiar creatures, and the evidences produced for their existence always seem to be somewhat similar. After long intervals they suddenly appear out of nowhere, as it were from behind a thorn bush, and in a short time they endeavour to carry out the utmost depredations, to inflict the most severe troubles upon their victims by over-turning the milk churns, turning the milk sour, pinching the cat's tail, and upsetting the children's chairs when they are not looking. Then, suddenly, quick as a flash, just as swiftly as they came, they disappear and are not seen again for another long period. The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Healy) irresistibly puts me in mind of these creatures. He is rather like a wicked old leprechaun.

Mr. James Hudson (Ealing, North)

On a point of order. Is it in order to apply to an hon. Member the term of being like a leprechaun?

Mr. Speaker

I know what a leprechaun is, so I think I can rule it in order, although unusual.

Captain Orr

I am sure that the hon. Member takes it in good part. Here he is, after we have spent quite a number of days and nights discussing all sorts of things like the Finance Bill, on the very last day before the recess, and right at the very last hour, trying to do as much as he can within a quarter of an hour. He will disappear again, and we shall not see him for months. But before I say any more, let me say that we are glad that he has recovered from his illness and that we hope that we will see him more often, perhaps, than in the past.

The hon. Member has raised what seems to me to be quite an important question: the question of the responsibility of my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General in the matter of the postal censorship. I should have thought that it was a quite proper and usual thing for any nation to reserve to its Executive the power to exercise a censorship, where necessary, in the national interest, and where the safety of the State was concerned, over the correspondence of its members. That seems to be nothing new or unusual. It has gone on from time immemorial.

If I recall aright, there was a case just before the war—the Bailey-Stewart case —in which the prosecution rested its evidence upon certain letters which were produced and which had been handed over by the Department of the Postmaster-General for examination and scrutiny. No one at that time thought that there was anything improper in it. [An HON. MEMBER: "Oh, yes they did."] At an rate, I never heard of anybody objecting to the method.

Suppose that I carried on a correspondence with a Unionist in the Republic of Ireland and that the tenor of that correspondence was that I was encouraging him, and he was undertaking, to carry out a coup d'etat to overthrow the present reactionary Government down there that is keeping the people in poverty and their standard of living debased. Supposing Mr. de Valera's Government then said, "We must examine this man's correspondence. We have reason to suspect it," and supposing that they opened his letters and took some action. Surely, everybody would say that they were perfectly within their rights—

Dr. H. Morgan (Warrington)

They took no action against Carson.

Captain Orr

—and that it was perfectly normal. To take a reverse case, suppose that an hon. Member during, say, the war had got in touch with a friend in the Republic of Ireland, which was then netural, and that the tenor of that correspondence was that this friend should get in touch with the German Embassy in Dublin. Suppose that as a consequence of that, and in consequence of a perfectly legitimate censorship, that man was put away for a while under Regulation 18B. Nobody could say that there was anything improper in that.

In fact—I have given the hon. Member notice of this—that is what happened to the hon. Member himself. He was interned under the 18B Regulation as, it is generally believed, a consequence of this, and it was his right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison) who carried it out. I am glad to see that the hon. Member has now reformed, that he has taken the Oath of Allegiance and that he now supports his right hon. Friend from time to time in the Lobbies. It is a very good sign of reformation, and we welcome it.

Mr. J. Hudson

Is the hon. and gallant Member suggesting that that is the only reason why Regulation 18B is not now applied against my hon. Friend?

Captain Orr

I was not suggesting anything of the sort. I was hopefully suggesting that he shows welcome signs of reformation.

The hon. Member referred to the question of the recruitment of staffs in the Post Office, and he has given figures as to the religious faith of people who are in the higher positions. I do not know these figures and I do not believe that my hon. Friend knows them, because to my knowledge the question of religion is never asked of a man when he is seeking employment in the Post Office. I am certain no one ever asks him, "Are you a Mohammedan, a Buddhist, a Roman Catholic, or anything else?" I am sure that the only things which affect recruitment for the Post Office are ability and reliability. Naturally, I suppose that a knowledge of geography might come under the heading of ability, because it is always well to know where Enniskillen is.

Mr. Heal

And the name of the school where he was educated.

Captain Orr

That may be. I think it is desirable to know whether a man is properly educated. I do not see any reason for not asking that. But I do not believe there is any discrimination between one school and another, which is what the hon. Member appears to be suggesting.

So far as I can see. the hon. Member rested his case upon the two points. There was the point about censorship, which seems to me to be perfectly right and proper, on which my hon. Friend appears to have acted perfectly legally and in accordance with the Constitution. There does not seem to be anything wrong in what he has done. The second point was the question about the staff.

It would appear that my hon. Friend has practically nothing to answer, and the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone can whisk himself back again to his wilds and disappear like the leprechaun behind the thorn bush, amid the plandits of his supporters.

4.17 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. David Gammans)

The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Healy) has raised two questions; first the method of appointment of the staff of the Post Office in Northern Ireland and the other question which he has brought forward on several occasions in this House, the charge of alleged censorship.

Regarding the appointment of staff, there is no difference whatever between the way the Post Office staff is appointed in this country and in Northern Ireland. In all grades the staff is recruited in exactly the same manner.

Mr. Healy

indicated dissent.

Mr. Gammans

It is no use the hon. Member wagging his head, that is a fact.

He raised the question of religion. At no stage does the Post Office ask a man his religion. There is no place on the application form for his religion. We are not in the least interested in what is his faith, or if he has a faith at all. It is a pity, I think, that we cannot debate anything to do with Northern Ireland without religion coming into it. It may interest the hon. Gentleman to know that just as he is an extremist about religion in one direction, so there are extremists in other directions. We get complaints from extremists on the Protestant side that the percentage of Catholics employed in the Post Office is greater than the percentage of Catholics in the total population. We are not interested in the figures.

The hon. Gentleman has trotted out some figures today, and I should be glad to know where he got them, because we have no knowledge of these figures. We have had complaints from Protestants similar to those which he has raised on the Catholic side. We had a complaint that the late head postmaster in Londonderry was a Catholic, and that out of 15 head postmasters in Northern Ireland today four are Catholics. That complaint does not interest us at all. Our rule is to appoint the man who in every way is the most suitable for the job.

I know that in Northern Ireland it is impossible to conceal a man's religion, but I would be very surprised if the hon. Gentleman could prove to me that Catholics are employed in the Post Office in a smaller percentage than the percentage which they comprise of the total population of Northern Ireland. These are the facts. What I want to make quite clear is that we have one rule, and one rule only, and that is that the most suitable man for the post is appointed.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of what he called "censorship." There is no censorship in the ordinary sense of the word either in this country or in Northern Ireland. The Postmaster-General is empowered, instructed and compelled in certain circumstances to open letters. It is as well that the hon. Gentleman should know what the circumstances are. He might read Section 56 of the Post Office Act, 1908, where they are set out.

The Post Office is allowed to open letters if the addressee is dead or otherwise cannot be found, and if a letter cannot be delivered the Post Office is instructed to open it to find out who was the sender. The second condition under which letters are opened is in respect of printed papers and newspapers, and this is to see that nothing has been put in the printed papers and newspapers which should have been sent by the ordinary post. If a newspaper is sent by post it is sent under the condition that it may be so opened.

Another condition under which the Post Office opens letters relates to exchange control. We are authorised to do that under the Foreign Postal Packets (Customs) Warrant, 1948. Letters are also opened under Royal Warrant, under the Royal Prerogative, one section of which relates to lotteries, and we also detain and hand over letters in response to a warrant signed by a Secretary of State in this country or the Governor of Northern Ireland.

The point I want to make to the hon. Gentleman is that there is not one iota of difference in the procedure as between this country and Northern Ireland. Our authority for what we do as far as this country is concerned is Section 56 of the Post Office Act, 1908, and in the case of Northern Ireland that procedure has been brought up to date by the Irish Free State (Consequential Provisions) Act, 1922. I want to make it perfectly clear to the hon. Gentleman that in this matter the Post Office has no discretion whatever. It acts under the Warrant and it must obey that Warrant.

There is nothing new about all this. There has been no change so far as this Government or any previous Government is concerned, not an atom of difference. This has been going on ever since 1922 in the case of Northern Ireland and since the passing of the Act of 1908 in the case of the United Kingdom. I assure the hon. Gentleman that if he is trying to pretend that something is done in Northern Ireland which is not done here he is absolutely wrong and there is no justification whatsoever for his doing so.

He asked what happens to the letters that we so hand over. It is our responsibility to deliver them after they have been handed back to us. He made a charge that money was lost. I should be pleased to be given specific cases. It is no good saying in this House that someone has stolen money without giving any particulars about it. I should be glad to examine such particulars at any time.

So far as the Post Office is concerned, the hon. Gentleman must understand that we are merely agents acting under a Warrant duly executed under an Act of Parliament, which we must obey. What happens after that until the letters come back to our custody we have no knowledge and we have no responsibility in relation to it. However, I would certainly investigate any cases of suspected theft which the hon. Gentleman could substantiate. I know that on this latter point I have not told him anything that he did not know before. He has raised the matter on several occasions in Questions, and if I have not pleased him I hope that I have at any rate satisfied him.

Mr. Healy

indicated dissent.

Mr. Gammans

I see the hon. Gentleman wags his head. I am sorry. Perhaps I can never satisfy him. Perhaps he does not want to be satisfied on this matter.

Those are the facts. On the question —[Interruption.] It is no good the hon. Member for Warrington (Dr. Morgan) intervening here. There is nothing here that has taken place under this Government that did not take place under the Government which he supported, and I cannot remember that he ever questioned my predecessor about it. It has been going on all these years, and the Warrant under which I acted in Northern Ireland very recently was signed by my predecessor in office. There is no difference, either in law or in the procedure under which this was carried out.

Lieut.-Colonel Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

The hon. Gentleman has referred to the Warrant having been signed by his predecessor. Does that mean that it is recent, and that it has only been signed in the last year or two?

Mr. Gammans

I am sorry; I did not mean signed by my predecessor, but executed by him. The Warrant has to be signed by a Secretary of State, so far as this country is concerned, and by the Governor of Northern Ireland, as far as that country is concerned. These Warrants are issued to cover specific periods, and they are then renewed.

When the hon. Member for Warrington intervened, I was merely pointing out that there is nothing new in the procedure at all, and, if the hon. Member feels passionately about it, he would have shown his sincerity if he had brought this matter up this time last year, but he did not do so. I hope I have made the position clear as far as the Post Office is concerned. We have very limited powers in this matter. We are authorised to do something; in fact, we are compelled to do what is stated in the Warrant.

I would therefore conclude on the last point that was raised, namely, this question of religious differentiation. I would say that the hon. Gentleman has not substantiated his point. He trotted out a lot of figures, which may be right or wrong, and I do not know which they are. They are not evidence which we keep in the Post Office, because we are not interested in a man's religious beliefs.

On the question of appointments, the method is exactly the same, and there is no difference at all. The only criterion with us must be "Is this man suitable or not?"

Mr. Michael O'Neill (Mid-Ulster)

How about my question as to what is the hon. Gentleman's opinion of partition?

Mr. Gammans

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman expects me to launch forth on this subject, which has nothing to do with the Post Office. I have no doubt that he holds very strong views on partition, and, perhaps, on some more suitable occasion, he may trot them out, but I can assure him that this matter has no connection with the responsibilities of the office which I hold. I hope that, in future we may have the pleasure of hearing from the hon. Gentleman not only on the subject of the Post Office, but on wider issues as well.

Mr. Healy

Will the hon. Gentleman give me an assurance that appointments in the Post Office in Northern Ireland will be on a competitive basis in future?

Mr. Gammans

They are exactly the same as in this country. There is not one atom of difference between the way in which Post Office staff is recruited in Northern Ireland and the way it is recruited here.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Four o'Clock, till Tuesday, 10th June, pursuant to the Resolution of the House yesterday.