HL Deb 30 November 1837 vol 39 cc376-81
The Duke of Richmond

rose to present a petition, most respectably signed by bankers, merchants, and traders of the town of Elgin, praying, in the first place, as the system of railways was now becoming extremely general, that his noble Friend, at the head of the Post-office department, might be directed to re-model the present mode of communication by post, so that greater expedition and a more frequent delivery of letters might be insured. The second prayer of the petition was much more important. The petitioners complained that they paid a postage of 14d. or 15d. on letters from London, which they considered exorbitant, and they proposed that the plan published by Mr. R. Hill should be acted on, especially as they understood that the Post-office Commissioners, one of whom was a Cabinet Minister, were of opinion that the experiment should be tried. He, however, was of opinion, that in the present state of the revenue, this could not be done. He feared, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer could not spare so large an amount of revenue. There was one point which, when he was connected with the Post-office he had always advocated, and which he still continued to support. He was then of opinion, and he now retained the same feeling, which he held in common with the practical officers of the Post-office, that the rates of postage ought to be reduced. If the rates of postage for short distances were reduced, it would be beneficial not only to the towns and neighbourhoods immediately interested, but to the country at large. By taking that step, they would effectually get rid of the illegal conveyance of letters, and the revenue would not suffer. The revenue would be as great, if not greater than at present. If it were not practicable to adopt Mr. Hill's plan, still he thought it would be right to pay some attention to the opinion and authority of the officers of the Post-office, and of several Postmasters-general, and to consider whether it would not be proper to reduce the rate of postage in certain cases. He could not avoid remarking that statements had been made by an individual, in which it was alleged that enormous sums of money had been plundered in the Post-office department for a series of years. He would not allude to the offensive manner in which this charge was made by the individual in question, nor would he take further notice of the accusation, for he believed where that person's character was known, no mischief could arise from his representation; and on the other hand, where his (the Duke of Richmond's) character was known he was convinced it would be felt, that even if he had had it in his power, he never would do an act that would justify such an allegation. The fact, however, was, such were the law and the regulations by which the department was governed, that it was impossible for any Postmaster-general to defraud the public, even if he were so inclined.

The Earl of Lichfield

said, the matter of this petition was of so much importance, that he felt called on to trouble their Lordships with a few observations connected with it. He should confine himself, as shortly as he could, to an expression of his own opinion on the subject to which the petition referred. The question to which it referred had caused much excitement throughout the country, and that excitement had increased to a very great extent since the report of the Commissioners was published last summer. His noble Friend had alluded to the statements made by an individual who had particularly applied himself to this subject, and who had thought proper to arraign his (the Earl of Lichfield's) conduct. He should not make any observations on the extraordinary language which that individual had thought proper to adopt in stating his opinion through the public press on the conduct of those who were at the head of the Post-office department. It was, however, his duty, at all events, to take the first public occasion which offered for the purpose of endeavouring to disabuse the public mind with reference to statements made by the individual to whom he alluded—statements that were calculated to do infinite mischief to the character of a department in the correctness and honour of which the public had always placed implicit confidence. As to Mr. Rowland Bill's proposition he would say, that no man regretted more than he, that it could not be followed without materially affecting the revenue. It should, however, be ex- amined thoroughly, for the purpose of seeing whether any part of it could properly be recommended to the public for adoption. He had, in the last Session, made a few observations on this subject, and he then stated, that in his opinion the plan was not practicable, and to that opinion he still adhered. The question, be it observed, was not merely whether the revenue would suffer by the adoption of this plan. It went much further. It went to this point—that were the plan adopted, instead of a million and a half of money being added to the revenue, after the expenditure of the establishment was provided for, he was quite certain that such a loss would be sustained as would compel them to have recourse to Parliament for money to maintain the establishment. The plan proposed a postage of 1d. throughout the country, and the argument was, that the increased number of letters would meet the deficit in the revenue. Now, the number of letters from which the present revenue was derived was annually 42,000,000 or 43,000,000; and if the reduction proposed was made, the number of letters, in order to secure the existing amount of revenue, must be increased from 42,000,000 to the enormous extent of 480,000,000. It was very well to talk of public accommodation, and to argue, that in consequence of the very low rate of postage an immense number of additional letters would be written; but it was madness to suppose that the correspondence of the country could possibly be increased to such an amount and extent as he had described. The great principle of the plan was to have one uniform rate of postage. This, however, could not, in his opinion, be effected. Suppose the rate of postage in all instances to be fixed at 6d., would persons residing at a short distance be satisfied to pay the same rate that was charged to those who lived much further off? If such a plan were adopted, they would immediately find the former party complaining of the hardship that was imposed on them, and calling on Parliament for relief. These were his reasons for considering the plan as impracticable. The individual to whom his noble Friend had alluded had taken upon himself to make observations upon those who had not at the time any opportunity of answering them—observations, too, of such a nature as were calculated to produce a very mischievous effect on the public mind. Now, he would distinctly say, that the statements to which he alluded were scandalous and infamous libels, having no shadow of foundation to rest upon. The noble Earl read an extract from one of these publications, in which the Postmaster-General's conduct was spoken of in vituperative language. Such, said the noble Earl, were the terms in which this individual thought proper to indulge; and he should like to know whether such language as this did not, on his part, call for the strongest possible condemnation. The individual alluded to had stated that large sums of money, contained in letters, were lost in their transit through the Post office. Now, what he was about to state would tend very much to prove that no loss of the sort could be attributed to the Post-office. No person had a right to make such a charge as that unless he had clearly ascertained that all the alleged missing letters had been posted. All monies applied for at the Post-office, on account of letters which had not, from misdirection or other causes, reached their destination, was immediately paid. Of the sum of 600,000l. alleged to be thus lost or abstracted, 400,000l. and upwards had been recovered and restored, leaving 200,000l. unaccounted for. Now, one half if not the whole, of that sum, as his, noble Friend himself must have had opportunities of knowing, might never have been posted. How many letters might have been stolen by clerks or servants, to whom their delivery at the Post-office had been intrusted? Beyond this, could any man suppose, if such an immense sum of money as 200,000l. had been lost or disappeared in its transit through the Post-office, that the country from one end to the other would not have been in an uproar? The thing was impossible. Now, he should state one case, to show that when letters were posted, and complaint was afterwards made of their non-arrival, every effort was made to set the matter right, and also to prove that letters posted were not so easily lost as some persons might suppose. When he first became connected with the Post-office he received a letter from this individual, stating that a petition and letter had been addressed to him, and that neither the one nor the other had reached its destination. He caused a strict and close investigation to be entered on for the purpose of finding this letter and petition. He ascertained that it had been posted, and put in the same bag at Edinburgh. It occurred to him as a very curious circumstance that this letter and petition, both referring to the same matter should alone be missing from the bag, and he wrote to Mr. Wallace to that effect, and stating that every inquiry should be made on the subject. In two or three days afterwards he was apprised that the letter had actually been received, but that this individual had, in consequence of his mind being occupied by a multiplicity of business, carelessly thrown it aside. Another charge made by this individual against the Post-office was, that seals were violated. Was it possible to conceive a more mischievous or disgraceful charge against a public establishment? He should here state one other instance to show how charges of this sort were got up. This individual had written to him to know whether it was possible to post letters after the eight o'clock despatch for the next day; and he wrote, in answer, that they might be posted until twelve o'clock. Immediately afterwards four letters were put into the office by this individual, the seals of which were said to have been violated. They were sealed in the most peculiar manner. He wished that it was possible for him to show to their Lordships the way in which they were sealed. The mere dropping them into the letter-box was sufficient to fracture the seal. One seal was broken in that way, and was so found in the letter-box. It was a frank, and on the outside of it was a memorandum calling on the individual to whom it was addressed to apprise the writer of the fact, should the seal be broken. He wrote to the person to whom he had often alluded, stating the facts, but he had heard nothing further on the subject. And yet, on such a foundation as this, a charge of the violation of seals had been gravely made. Having made these remarks, he should only say, that if hereafter similar charges were made in the same quarter, he would confidently leave it to their Lordships to judge how far they were worthy of belief or attention.

Lord Brougham

had to present a petition on the same subject from (as we understood) certain merchants and traders of London He had examined the arguments of the petitioners, and the statements made by Mr. Hill; he had also listened attentively to the observations of the noble Earl, who had come forward with a counter-statement, and he must say that nothing which he had heard had in the least degree shaken his opinions as to the utility and feasibility of Mr. Hill's plan.

Petitions laid on the table.

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