The Earl of Radnor
said, the noble Duke opposite (the Duke of Wellington) would recollect that on Friday last, the Report of the Secret Committee appointed to inquire into the practice of detaining and opening letters at the Post Office was laid on the Table of the House. He much wished to know if it was the inten- 1715 tion of Her Majesty's Government to introduce, during this Session, a Parliamentary measure on the subject to which the Report referred. If the noble Duke stated that such an intention existed, he (the Earl of Radnor) would refrain from offering any observation on the subject: but if there were no such intention on the part of the Government, then he should bring forward a Bill which he had prepared on the subject, and which he then held in his hand.
§ The Duke of Wellington
said he had seen the Report of the Committee, but he was not aware that any one of Her Majesty's Servants had seen it except himself. It was, therefore, impossible, under these circumstances, to answer the question of the noble Earl as to the intention of Government to bring in any such Bill.
The Earl of Radnor
said, that after the statement of the noble Duke, he felt it to be his duty to present to their Lordships a Bill for Amending so much of an Act passed in the First Year of Her present Majesty for Consolidating the Laws relative to Offences against the Post Office, as related to the opening, detaining, or delaying of Letters, and he should move, that it be read a first time. He had prepared the Bill before; but he waited until he saw the Report of the Secret Committee, before he brought it in, and he had seen nothing in that Report calculated to induce him to alter it. The Report was in fact one of the most jejune and poor milk-and-water performances he had ever seen. He had very great respect for the noble Lords who formed the Committee; but, nevertheless, he should say that a more meagre performance than that Report he had never read. It appeared from the Report of the Secret Committee, that what he (the Earl of Radnor) suspected had actually taken place—that the letters of foreign refugees in this country had been opened at the suggestion of a foreign Government, and that such a proceeding was not adopted in order to secure the safety of the realm, but with reference to the affairs of other states. The letters were not opened for the security or the safety of this country, and he was sorry that his suspicions had been maintained by the Report. It appeared, from the last paragraph in the Report, that for a long period of time, and under different Administrations, let- 1716 ters addressed to foreign ministers, had been sent from the Post Office to the Foreign Office; but the Postmaster General had been induced to make inquiry into the matter, and finding that the proceeding was not legal, had altogether discontinued that practice since June. It should be recollected that the practice as authorised by custom, although without legal authority, only extended to cases where danger to the State was to be apprehended or prevented, but not to the objects of a Foreign Power. He should now move that the Bill to amend a portion of the existing Act, which related to the detention, &c., of letters, be read a first time.
§ The Duke of Wellington
said, he was not aware, that more than two persons in the House had read the Report, namely, the noble Earl and himself; and he thought the noble Earl might have postponed his observations on that Report, as well as the introduction of his Bill, until the House was more fully aware of its contents. He did not mean to follow the noble Earl through his observations, for he had already stated, on a former occasion, what he conceived was the real ground on which the question turned. With respect to the observation of the noble Earl, as to the contents of the last paragraph in the Report, he could only state that if their Lordships looked through the Journals and Records of, Parliament for 120 years, they would see that it was a practice which had been recognised by Parliament, and had been followed up with the concurrence of Parliament.
said he had cursorily read the Report, but he could not say, that from so hasty a view of it, he was prepared to give any opinion on it; he had no doubt, however, that the Secret Committee to whom the subject had been referred had done their duty conscientiously. From the view which he had taken of the Report, he should say that legislation was indispensably necessary upon the subject. The power had been exercised by many Governments, and it could not, therefore, be said to reflect discredit upon one Government in particular. If, therefore, the Government determined on using such a power, they ought to introduce a measure on the subject; but he had no doubt that after deliberation they would abandon such a practice. He was of opinion that more harm than good 1717 would arise from it, and in after years posterity would wonder at its having been exercised.
§ Bill read a first time.