HC Deb 29 January 1964 vol 688 cc365-71

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:


To ask the Postmaster-General to what extent he is planning to offer to individual citizens facilities for the delivery of unaddressed and unstamped letters, postcards, and circulars to specified areas.

98. Mr. MASON

To ask the Postmaster-General if he will stipulate that the unaddressed household delivery service will not be used to circularise political propaganda by individuals, organisations and political parties.

The Postmaster-General (Mr. Reginald Bevins)

Mr. Speaker, with your permission, and that of the House, I will now answer Questions Nos. 96 and 98. Both Questions refer to the Household Delivery Service, the Regulations for which were laid before Parliament on 6th January.

In recent years the Post Office has failed to obtain much postal traffic which we should ordinarily have carried by second-class mail, owing to the use of outside agencies for the distribution of circulars and handbills.

From time to time the Post Office has considered how it could counter this by instituting a cheaper system for unaddressed mail. Such a proposal was urged upon me in the House by the former leading Opposition spokesman on Post Office affairs, the late Mr. Will Williams, as recently as March, 1963. For some time before then the General Secretary of the Union of Post Office Workers had been urging on me and my Department the need to increase postal revenues, and this service was one of the possibilities considered as a means to that end.

As the postal service is now in deficit, I myself was keen on this new and what I believe will be a profitable service, partly in the interests of the public who have to pay the cost of the postal service.

When the scheme was launched, it was made clear that postal packets which are obscene, indecent, grossly offensive or which advocate racial discrimination, are prohibited.

When, last week, I suspended deliveries, I did so out of courtesy to Parliament, knowing that the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition wished to question it.

The question now arises whether the Post Office should refuse to handle political matter in this service and, if so, on what ground.

This question, of course, involves the principle of freedom of communications. If it is right to allow the delivery of political matter for 2½d.—or sometimes, indeed, for nothing—it is surely right to allow it through more cheaply. In principle, there is no difference whatever.

If the suggestion is that it is wrong for political propaganda to be delivered unenveloped, I can only say that open postcards can contain any amount of political propaganda. If the suggestion is that Post Office staff should not handle political propaganda, I can only say they do so now. Political slogans printed or labelled on envelopes are a commonplace in the post.

Moreover, it would be quite impossible to define political matter, and any attempt to discriminate between the users of the mail would lead to censorship of the mail. The practice in such Commonwealth and other countries as use this service is not to impose restrictions on political matter. I am, therefore, proposing to go ahead with the service.

In order to avoid overloading our staff, we intend to suspend this service as from the date of the dissolution of Parliament or, in any particular constituency, as from the time of the issue of a Writ in the case of a by-election.

Mr. Swingler

Is the Postmaster-General aware that the postal service is a public service? As this facility is to be offered to firms or citizens without them having to go to the bother of addressing the envelopes, or putting stamps on them, what steps has he taken to consult representatives of the public, besides representatives of his staff, on the question whether this service is required in this form? Is it not a serious matter, in relation to the Representation of the People Act, that this service should be used for any political purposes whatever?

Mr. Bevins

I think that the answer to the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's question is, "No, Sir".

Obviously, the Post Office made the most extensive inquiries amongst the public before this service was introduced. I can tell the House that the attitude of business as a whole is favourable to this service, and that many organisations wish to use it. It is perfectly true that the reaction of the general public so far has been mixed, but I do not think that it is generally appreciated that, if the Post Office does not deliver this material, other agencies will. In any case, if the Post Office delivers, the benefit financially will accrue to the public.

Mr. Mason

We on this side of the House take strong exception to the right hon. Gentleman hiding behind the cloak of one of our late hon. Friends and saying that he had advocated this service. For the record, is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that my late hon. Friend, Mr. Will Williams, on 25th March last, actually referred to— bills, notices, rates notices from local authorities, notices from private commercial firms, from insurance firms …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th March, 1963; Vol. 674, c. 1007.] not advertising and not political matter? Therefore, it was rather dishonest for the right hon. Gentleman to use that statement.

Is the Postmaster-General aware that we have now received information that in London, S.E.1, an application has been made by the British Union of Fascists to distribute racial literature in Deptford and New Cross? I hope that he will check that, also.

Is not the Postmaster-General further aware that this service is causing a great deal of disgruntlement among postmen, because samples, also, are allowed and they feel now that they are to be degraded to the level of detergent deliverers?

Is not the right hon. Gentleman aware, finally, that housewives, too, are upset that they are to have political literature and detergent samples dumped on their mats? I only hope that the right hon. Gentleman will note all this and take care that in what appears to be his craze for commercialism he does not tarnish the public service image of the Post Office.

Mr. Bevins

I think that the whole House will agree with me that my reference to the former Member for Manchester, Openshaw was a perfectly courteous and gentlemanly one. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] As the hon. Gentleman has quoted from what the former Member said, it is only fair to say that Mr. Williams did include in his remarks, when he was urging this service on me, notices from commercial firms, obviously having in mind advertising material.

Our instructions to head postmasters make it perfectly clear that we shall not accept for this service items which would give offence to the public at large, and we cite specifically circulars advocating racial discrimination. A copy of the material has to be submitted to the head postmaster before acceptance. This is a safeguard and a precaution.

I realise that there has been some feeling about this, but I still believe and hope that counsels of moderation will prevail.

Mr. Randall

As probably I am the only ex-postman in the House, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he is aware that I very much regret his reference, to the late hon. Member for Manchester, Openshaw? Is he aware that that reference was grossly unfair and that I actually discussed this matter with the late W. R. Williams, arising from a conference decision, and that he told me that he did not put forward a system such as the Household Delivery Service? In view of this, will the Postmaster-General be good enough to withdraw his references to the late W. R. Williams?

While I am grateful that consultations have taken place—they will be useful—is it not a fact that so far, neither at national nor local level, has co-operation been possible? Would the right hon. Gentleman not agree, looking at this matter as a whole, that the real issue—apart from the matter of the content of political material in the literature—concerns emotions and fears which are arising among postmen who feel that, as a result of this new service, their craft, skills and responsibilities are likely to be downgraded? Cannot the right hon. Gentleman do something to avoid this happening, for have not the postmen a genuine and real grievance?

Mr. Bevins

I can only refer the House to the OFFICIAL REPORT of 25th March, 1963. I think that we can all see from that fairly clearly what the late hon. Member for Manchester, Openshaw said—[AN. HON. MEMBER: "Why bring it up?"] I heard one right hon. Gentleman opposite say, "Why bring it up?". I brought it out because I wanted to make it clear—

Mr. G. Brown

He is dead. He cannot answer for himself.

Mr. Bevins

—to the House that the idea of a Household Delivery Service was not solely the conception of the Post Office. [Interruption.] I do not want to say anything provocative. I must say, in view of the comment just made by the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown), that the Executive of the Union of Postal Workers actually recommended this scheme to its conference 12 months ago.

Mr. Tiley

Would my right hon. Friend bear in mind that the majority of people will applaud his decision to make this unprofitable part of the Post Office more profitable? Will he bear in mind that those who will benefit first will be the workers in the Post Office? Will he also remember that if we carry this objection to its logical conclusion Socialist engine drivers will begin to refuse to deliver Tory M.P.s to London?

Mr. Bevins

I agree with a great deal of what my hon. Friend has said. What I think has perhaps been overlooked in the House is that political propaganda and leaflets on an enormous scale pass through the post now and that some of them are visibly political propaganda. For example, the Labour Party—and I do not blame it—legitimately sought our approval to produce envelope slogan labels last year, and was granted permission. The slogan was, "Let's go with Labour and we'll get things done".

Mr. Wade

Looking at this from the point of view of the general public, as we must, will the Postmaster-General give an assurance that the ordinary mail services will not be delayed by the introduction of this door-to-door service? If, for example, there is a flood of literature from a large organisation, what effect would this have on the ordinary mail?

Mr. Bevins

We gave the most careful consideration, before this scheme was introduced, to making absolutely sure that the first-class and second-class mail received absolute priority and was not interfered with.

Mr. G. Brown

Has the Postmaster-General considered the extraordinary situation that he should now be proposing to allow the Post Office total freedom to distribute political literature when British Railways, for example, does not allow that same literature to be advertised on its property, and when television, the I.T.A., does not allow that kind of advertising to be done through its channels? Why should the Post Office now adopt a totally different approach from that of other Government Departments or semi-Government agencies?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this goes further than some leaflets which may seem convenient now to hon. Gentlemen opposite; that it can apply to all kinds of leaflets getting past his definition of what is acceptable being issued openly by the Post Office—all kinds of contentious matter which could raise a great number of problems for the nation and for our people? Does he not think, therefore, that he should look at this again?

Is not his statement that any attempt to discriminate between users of the mail would lead to censorship not ruled out because he is already proposing to discriminate by laying down some things that should not happen? What he has decided, for a short-term advantage for his own party, is to allow through some leaflets which are agreeable to hon. Members opposite. The Government reduce all the standards of everything they touch for their own advantage.

Mr. Bevins

Under this scheme leaflets, circulars and postal packets are treated in the same way as any other postal communications. If it is right in principle to allow political matter through our first-class and second-class mails—and I assume that no one would argue that that is wrong—that principle should equally be respected in the new service. This principle is and always has been observed in the G.P.O. It is observed by two Commonwealth and seven European countries which run precisely this sort of service in their own territories. In any case, nobody can define political matter without censorship of the mails. The right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) referred to the position of the I.T.A. The I.T.A. and the B.B.C. are required by the Government broadly to be impartial in the handling of political matter.

Equally, the Post Office will take any party's literature under this system. If the suggestion is that this service gives one party an advantage over the other, it completely ignores the fact that this service is cheaper than any existing postal service and, therefore, creates a facility more likely to be used all round.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot debate this matter without a Question before the House.

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