HL Deb 20 June 1836 vol 34 cc603-10
The Duke of Richmond

would commence the very few observations with which he had to trouble their Lordships on the subject of the Post Office, in pursuance of his notice, by assuring them that it was not his intention to make the slightest attack either upon the present Commissioners, the former Commissioners, or any of the persons to whom they might at any time have delegated their authority. He brought forward the question now, because he felt that if he delayed it until the measure for the new regulation of the Post Office came before their Lordships, and then moved that the Bill be referred to a Select Committee, he should lay himself open to the imputation of wishing to get rid of the measure by a side-wind. He now gave his Majesty's Ministers the power, before they proceeded with a measure which he was persuaded would be most prejudicial to the best interests of the country, of moving that it be referred to a Select Committee. If they would do so, and if before that Select Committee they could prove to him that it would not be attended with danger to the manufacturing, commercial, and agricultural interests of the country, he would withdraw his opposition. Ever since he first became acquainted with the details of the Post Office he had always held the opinion that the idea of abolishing the office of Postmaster-General, and appointing Commissioners in his stead, was wild and visionary. It was due to the public that they should have some person at the head of that department, who was responsible for the discharge of the functions intrusted to him. What said the Commissioners on this point? What reasons did they assign for the change? Why they set out by saying, "We have had under our consideration the general management of the Post Office, and we feel convinced that it would be impossible for us to propose any substantive alteration in the number of clerks, the present mode of conducting the business, or any of the complicated machinery of the department, without in fact placing ourselves in the situation of the Postmaster - General." The Commissioners, in fact, acknowledged that they were ignorant of the whole details of the establishment, and because they were so, they recommended the destruction of the present mode, and a substitution of another mode of management. One of their grounds for recommending the abolition of the office of Postmaster-General was, that the duties of it generally devolved on the Secretary. Well, but whose fault was that? When the Government appointed a Postmaster-General, let them take a pledge from him that he would discharge the duties of his office in person, and if he did not, let them do their duty and recommend his Majesty to discharge a person who disgraced the office he held. Their Lordships must feel themselves justified in demanding some evidence on this point, before consenting to the abolition of the office of Postmaster-General. There were sixty pages of evidence certainly, but of those sixty, forty had been taken prior to the year 1827, and the whole department was remodelled in 1830. In addition to which there was throughout the whole this singular inadvertency—no one witness was asked his opinion of the proposed change, or even whether he thought any change necessary. If the Commissioners could not inquire into the details of the office without putting themselves in the situation of the Postmaster-General, why, at least, could they not have given the House the Postmaster-General's evidence? There was not a word from him; there was no knowing from the Report whether he concurred in the propriety of the proposed change or not. He submitted, that the House had a right to call for the evidence of the Postmaster-General before they proceeded further. The Commissioners recommended a Board of two perpetual Commissioners, and one responsible chief in Parliament. They then said, that all letters of great importance were to be signed by the whole three. He (the Duke of Richmond) did not object to the three Commissioners being forced to sign every letter, but at the same time he thought it would be just as satisfactory to the public to have the signature of the Postmaster-General. The Commissioners did not say in what respect the appointment of the Commissioners would benefit the department, but he could tell his noble Friend in one moment how to make the department popular. The secret was this. It ought not to be considered so much in the light of a revenue board, but the Postmaster-General ought to be allowed to spend more money in increasing the advantages derivable from the Post-office. In the evidence he had given before the Commissioners, he had told them, that if the rates of postage were reduced, he had no doubt the revenue of the Post-office would be increased. There were many other points in which the Postmaster-General might make a sacrifice with the greatest advantage to the public. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, however, would not allow him to do so, because he wanted the money. Was there any reason to suppose that he would be a whit more good-natured to the three Commissioners, than to the Postmaster-General? Supposing the proposed Board were constituted, the chief would have to go out of office with every Administration. The Postmaster-General at least had the power of ordering things to be done, even supposing he delegated his authority to the Secretary, which he (the Duke of Richmond) denied, while this new chief would be under the complete control of the two perpetual Commissioners, from whom he might always disagree; He must assert that there was no authority for the proposed change. The Finance Committee of 1827 had merely said it was questionable whether some such Board might not be advantageously constituted; but the Finance Committee of 1817 was decidedly opposed to any such Board. He agreed with that Committee that it would be dangerous to remodel this office without inquiry; and he contended that there was no ground whatever to justify their Lordships in effecting a change of this importance. When he reminded their Lordships that a great machine like the Post-office affected every interest, manufacturing, agricultural, and commercial, and was intimately connected with the comforts, the feelings, and the well-being-of every man in the community, he need not recommend them to proceed with caution and deliberation. He would give his noble Friends notice, that when the Bill for the regulation of the Post-office reached that House, he should move, that it be referred to a Select Committee, wholly dissatisfied as he was with the evidence on which it was founded.

Viscount Duncannon

would oppose any such motion, even if he stood alone in doing so. Three Commissions on the subject had been already appointed, and he could not help thinking that referring it to a Select Committee now, would only be in effect postponing any measure for the reconstruction of the Post-office for an indefinite period. After taking the evidence, of the Secretary, the Commissioners had come to the conclusion, that if they had entered further into the details of the Post-office, they would have neglected objects of the utmost importance, such as the mail-coach contracts, the steam-packet establishment, the communication by letter with other countries, and other points which they had now under their consideration. For himself, he must say, that the opinion he entertained on this subject in July last was strengthened in a tenfold degree by the evidence which the Commissioners had appended to their last Report. The evidence given by the Secretary himself, proved that he was the only person who had discharged the functions of the Postmaster-General up to the noble Duke's time. He stated, that he always exercised his judgment as to the business which he should lay before the Postmaster-General, and that during his absence he was the responsible party. His noble Friend had said, that the chief would change with every Administration, and would be outvoted by the other Commissioners. He could only say, that this was not the case in other Boards, similarly constituted, of which he was a member. The examination before the Commissioners had been carried on with the roost anxious wish to obtain every information on the subject. Their Lordships would perceive by the statement contained in the Sixth Report, that every packet on the Holyhead station had been on fire in the course of the last year in their passage across—some more than once, and that there were no means for extinguishing the fire. On the whole, he felt that their Lordships would consider it to be most unwise to postpone any legislative measure on this subject, by the intervention of a Committee of Inquiry.

The Duke of Richmond

wished to ask his noble Friend, whether he did not know that at ths moment the packets were transferred to the Admiralty? Did not his noble Friend know, that it might be done without a Bill; that it required only an order of the Treasury to make the transfer; and he should not be surprised if the transfer had already been made. It was objected that this country had lost 4,000l. a-year by the packets sailing too early for the passengers. He remembered telling his noble Friend, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, that if he agreed to the treaty with France, there would be a loss of 4,000l. a-year; but his answer was, that he (the Duke of Richmond) ought to look to the great advantage which would accrue to the commerce of this country by the merchants obtaining their letters at a much earlier period; and therefore the Government ought not to compete with private packets in conveying passengers. His noble Friend had spoken of the great loss sustained by this change; but he ought on the other hand to take into account the gain by accelerating our commercial intercourse. But what did his noble Friend mean by loss? It appeared by the Appendix A., No. 27, that the total gain in one year previous to the alteration was 315l. 11s., and that the total loss during the first three after the treaty was 155,272l.5s.,being an average loss of about 45,000l. a-year. Now suppose they had taken the packets by contract, what would have been the loss? During the three years of his experience of the change of system, the loss had been for the first year 18,959l.; the next year, 21,612l.; and the third year, 17,000l., making an average loss of 19,000l. a-year. But could his noble Friend expect that his letters could be carried for nothing? With respect to the charge of peculation at Holyhead, the Postmaster-General or the Admiralty ought to institute an inquiry who were the guilty parties, and when discovered, they ought to be punished. When he was in office he had intended to have gone to Holyhead and made an inspection there; but the reason he deferred doing so was, that it was every day expected the Government would come to some decision with respect to the transference of the packets to the Admiralty. The Commissioners in their Report stated, that the Lords of the Admiralty ought to regulate the salaries of the officers in the Post-office steam-packet service. It was also his opinion that they ought to do so. At present the pay of those officers was not on a footing exactly such as their Lordships would approve. The captains had 145l. a-year ordinary pay; but then they were allowed freight, and what profit they could make by entertaining the passengers. He did not think it was a good system to make officers of the navy keepers of hotels; and one great benefit which would be derived from putting the Post-office packets under the Admiralty, he expected, would be a change in this respect, by calling the attention of the Admiralty to the matter.

Viscount Duncannon

repeated his opinion, that no further inquiry was necessary as to the charge of peculation. The person who had made the inquiry had taken the best means he could to ascertain the fact, not only with respect to the charge of peculation in coals, but also with respect to iron and to oil. This person was contradicted by the resident at Holyhead, but in every case he made good his charge.

The Marquess of Westmeath

thought that a case of misconduct and peculation had been made out, with regard to the Holyhead station alone, sufficient to make the public anxious to have at least as much efficiency displayed in that department, as was the case when the noble Duke (Richmond) was Postmaster-General. He could corroborate the statement of the noble Viscount as to the facts arising out of the evidence; and if a Committee should be applied for, by which another delay would occur in remedying the present defective system, he certainly should oppose it. He wished to ask the noble Earl opposite, whether the appointment of Capt. Bevis was not at the instance of the Lords of the Treasury.

The Earl of Minto

knew nothing of the circumstance mentioned by the noble Marquess.

The Earl of Lichfield

said, that he appointed Captain Bevis from the Milford station to Holyhead, previous to any recommendation from the Treasury. He did so, because the Post-office would otherwise have been without an agent at the latter station. Captain Bevis was an officer of experience in the navy, and one whom he thought a most proper person for the appointment in question. On receiving the recommendation of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, he informed the right hon. Gentleman of the appointment he had made, at the same time expressing his entire conviction of Captain Bevis's perfect competency to fill the situation. The experience he had since had of the conduct of Captain Bevis at Holyhead fully satisfied him that he was perfectly right in making that appointment.

Lord Ashburton

had long had a strong impression on his mind that some alteration in the system of the Post-office department was necessary. He believed that the noble Duke (Richmond) was almost the first Postmaster-General who could be said to have looked into the details of that department. If any measure should be brought forward for altering the organisation of the system, he should certainly give it his support. The great and leading error in the Post-office establishment of this country was, that it was made a source of revenue to the State. This was the only country in Europe where impediments were thrown in the way of commercial intercommunication by financial exactions. He was perfectly well aware that during the war the Minister required every means by which to obtain a revenue, and that since the war, the demands for a reduction of taxes of various descriptions had been so pressing, that it was not to be expected the Chancellor of the Exchequer would voluntarily relinquish a tax against which no serious and earnest complaint had been raised. But what surprised him was, that in a commercial country like this, and in a country too where the diffusion of knowledge was so strongly advocated, such a serious check upon the intercourse between this country and foreign nations should have been suffered so long to exist. It was a perfect anomaly, that on an expenditure of not more than 500,000l, a-year, a tax should be raised to the amount of upwards of a million and a half. What would be thought of a tax upon verbal communications, or commercial transactions in the same town? and yet in principle, a tax upon the correspondence between commercial men in different parts of the world, beyond the necessary revenue to defray the expense of conveyance, was precisely the same thing.

Lord Wallace

concurred most cordially in the principle of the measure intended to be brought forward by the noble Viscount (Duncannon). He anticipated great advantages from the substitution of a Board of Commissioners for a single Postmaster-General. He did not see any reason for the appointment of a Committee to make further inquiry on this subject. They had the Reports of several Commissions, composed of persons connected with all parties; and every one coming to the same conclusion as to the desirableness of substituting a Board of Com-missioners for the present system. For, not-withstanding what the noble Duke had said upon the subject of the Finance Committee of 1817, he (Lord Wallace) still must claim the authority of that Report in favour of the view which he took of the subject. It was true, that Committee did not recommend the appointment of a Board of Commissioners to be constituted like the existing revenue hoards, but they were of opinion that it would not be advisable permanently to leave the office of Postmaster-General in the possession of a single individual. If there ever was a question on which it did not seem necessary that there should be any further inquiry, it was the very one which their Lordships were then discussing.

The Duke of Richmond

said, that it certainly appeared by the evidence that there had been great negligence and carelessness on the part of the agents at the Dover and Holyhead stations, and that if he had been Postmaster-General, he should have removed those parties. But that was not a sufficient ground for altering the present system. It was quite clear that the packets were to be transferred to the Admiralty, therefore all the arguments deduced from the sixth Report in favour of the intended measure must go for nothing. In conclusion, he thought it but fair to give his noble Friend notice, that when the Bill he was about to introduce should come before their Lordships, he (the Duke of Richmond) should move, as an amendment, that the fifth Report should be referred to a Select Committee, and he should certainly take the sense of the House upon it.

The conversation terminated.

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