HL Deb 24 July 1899 vol 75 cc53-9

My Lords, I rise to ask the Postmaster-General if he proposes permanently to revoke the permission confirmed in 1876, and subsequently acted upon for more than twenty years, to send the filled-up rainfall forms of weather sheets at the halfpenny rate of postage; and to move, "That in the opinion of this House the rules governing the transmission of documents by the halfpenny post are anomalous, unsatisfactory, and difficult to interpret, and ought to be amended. "I submit, my Lords, that the first part of my notice of motion invokes sympathy for a useful and perfectly inoffensive class of persons, namely, meteorologists. The action of the Post Office inflicts upon meteorologists a certain amount of fine. I do not myself believe that the noble Duke the Postmaster-General was the originator of this scheme for a raid on the meteorologists; I am inclined to think that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is the person who is responsible, because there is always difficulty in getting money wherewith to deal with various demands that are made by Her Majesty's Government, and I imagine that the proposition is to raise the wind by taxing the meteorologists. Now the Post Office is certainly no respecter of persons, for the person who is principally affected by this new regulation is Mr. Symonds, a member of the Royal Society, who has lately had the distinction of receiving the Albert Gold Medal for Science, and is certainly one of the foremost meteorologists of this country. Now, my Lords, the state of facts is this. In 1867, Mr. Symonds had prepared certain rainfall forms, which he distributed broadcast by correspondence throughout the country.

From 1867 to 1876, that is to say for nine years, those rainfall forms, when filled up, were sent back to him at the charge of a halfpenny for postage. In the year 1876 the Post Office surcharged one of these forms. Mr. Symonds protested; he asked for an apology, and he asked for a return of the money. The apology was made and the money was returned. Ever since that time, up to about a year ago, the Post Office has always allowed these rainfall forms to go for the halfpenny rate of postage—with this rather curious exception. Considering that these rainfall forms were distributed by the thousand all over the country—I believe something like 2,000 forms are returned every year to Mr. Symonds—one would have supposed that from 1876 to 1898 the Post Office would have known their own minds, and would have consistently either charged the halfpenny rate or surcharged the halfpenny; but in point of fact they did neither. Every now and then Mr. Symonds had a demand made upon him for the penny surcharged. He always resisted it, and the penny was invariably brought back to him by a postman. Now, not only did Mr. Symonds himself send out these rainfall forms, but he allowed various friends of his to use these forms. Amongst those friends of his may be mentioned the President of the Royal Meteorological Society. From 1888 to 1898 the present President of the Royal Meteorological Society, in his capacity as Secretary of the Croydon Natural History Club, sent out, with Mr. Symonds's consent, these halfpenny forms, and in no one instance was there any surcharge made. It certainly is a very remarkable thing, considering the number of forms that were sent, that the Post Office should put themselves to the trouble of occasionally making the surcharge, which involved them not only in the trouble of making the surcharge but in the trouble of apologising and sending a postman back with the penny. Then it would seem that the Post Office determined also to take the Colonies under their protection. Mr. Symonds had some of these forms back returned from the Colonies. The Colonies agreed to allow them to go at the lower rate of postage, but when they came to Mr. Symonds he was surcharged three pence. Mr. Symonds is not aware whether the three pence went to the Colonies or not. I do not quite understand why the Colonies should not be allowed to look after themselves in these matters. Now with regard to the general question of the halfpenny postal rate, which is the second part of my notice of motion, the meteorologists ask that they may be placed in the same position as they always have held, and in the same position that is now occupied by a stockbroker who sends round a circular, or a tradesman who sends round receipts or invoices. I have no doubt the noble Duke will not be at all astonished when I tell him that not only the meteorologists have their grievance against the Post Office in reason of the halfpenny postal rate, but also tradesmen have their own special grievance. I will only give one instance at this late hour of the evening to show the kind of grievance against which the tradesman protests. The Post Office rules with regard to receipts and invoices and matters of that character which are sent by the halfpenny post so far as material are as follows. The "description of document" that may be sent at the halfpenny rate includes: Invoices orders for goods, advice notes, way bills, bills of lading, receipts, statements of accounts, prices current, market reports. Then there are some conditions annexed on which the trouble arises, particularly this: That any matter … which may be in the nature of a letter shall be only in print and shall relate exclusively to the subject matter of the document or the terms on which business is transacted by the person or firm from whom the document issues. I am not perfectly certain that if the Post Office were construing these conditions in what I might call a fair and business way there would be very much to complain of, but now I will show your Lordships how the Post Office act with regard to these matters. A certain firm of bootmakers in Leeds have a printed form as follows: We beg to acknowledge receipt of £… for … pairs of boots, and at the end—in print, not in writing—is put this: Your esteemed order is put in hand and shall have our best attention. Yours faithfully. The Post Office surcharge this circular; and the reason they give is I think rather peculiar. The firm in question, having no better means of redress, wrote to Mr. Henniker Heaton, who is very much in the habit of looking after Post Office matters. I would like to read to your Lordships this passage from their letter. They say: We have been in the habit for a number of years past of sending receipts similar to the one enclosed, and which is marked 'A,' and until the last few weeks we have not had any complaint whatever; but a few weeks ago the Post Office authorities detained some of them, and wrote informing us that they required another halfpenny stamp before they would send them off, or, if sent off, the addressees would be surcharged one penny. We have looked up the Post Office regulations, and on page 5 (which we now forward you marked 'B'), paragraph 'F, 'the conditions on which receipts can be sent by the halfpenny post are set forth. There cannot be any question that we have complied with the first part of the section. This the Post Office admit, but say that in consequence of the words 'Your esteemed order' being put on receipt, we are contravening the second part of paragraph 'F,' as it does not relate exclusively to the subject matter of the document. With this we disagree, as the receipt has reference to a certain pair or pairs of boots, and the words above quoted have reference to the same boots and no others. I certainly do not understand on what principle that surcharge has been made, unless it is the principle that has been mentioned in the House of Commons, which is that you must not use any word whatever that can by any possibility be considered as surplusage. For instance, you may write on a receipt "received," but you may not say "received with thanks." That is totally illegal; you must pay another penny if you want to say "received with thanks." Then, you may say "your order has been executed," but if you say "your esteemed order has been executed "you must pay another penny. Really, my Lords, it seems to me that this is the merest pedantry. Why on earth should the Post Office presume to dictate to the community the exact terms in which they should send or acknowledge orders? Is it not ridiculous, if people like to use the phrase "esteemed order, "that they should be placed under this kind of fine for using such an expression? Perhaps I have framed my motion rather badly, because, in point of fact, I should be satisfied if the noble Duke were to consider whether he could not import some modicum of common-sense into the interpretation of these Post Office rules, instead of their being absolutely pedantic, as it seems they are. There is another point with regard to newspapers. A supplement to a newspaper, if it is sent alone, is charged a penny; if the whole newspaper is sent with the supplement it is only charged a halfpenny. I cannot imagine what justification there can be for that. Then, again, you are allowed to send your printed cards at the halfpenny rate of postage, but if you put on your card "with kind inquiries" you must pay the penny rate of postage. The peculiarity of all this is that there does not seem to be any method in what the Post Office does. It has been held that if an author sends his book to anyone he may write on it "with the compliments of the author." If you can do that, on what ground can it be said that you should not be allowed to put on your visiting card "with kind regards"? I should suggest that either these rules are in need of thorough revision, or else the Post Office should do their best to import something of what I may call common-sense into the construction they put upon the rules.

Moved, to resolve, "That in the opinion of this House the rules governing the transmission of documents by the halfpenny post are anomalous, unsatisfactory, and difficult to interpret, and ought to be amended."—(The Lord Monkswell.)


My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that I have done my best to see if it is possible to continue the practice of charging only halfpenny postage on the meteorological returns to which he has referred. There is really no deep plot against the interests of the Royal Meteorological Society. The fact is that we have found that for many years these forms have been charged at the halfpenny rate, though there was no legal authority for doing that. The society has for some years been reaping the benefit of our remissness in this respect. Now that the attention of the Post Office has been drawn to the matter, we find that we have no legal option but to adhere to the practice which has now been started of charging the full rate for these returns. This position, no doubt, does lead up to the second part of the noble Lord's notice of motion, namely, the extreme difficulty of dealing always with every case on an equal footing as regards these rules. The real fact is this. Certainly I find at the Post Office—I imagine it is found in other Departments as well, but probably chiefly in the Post Office—that any concession whatever which is made to the public is sure to lead to a great many difficulties; any claim made in respect of one matter opens the door to a great many claims of a like nature, and it is found impossible to grant everything that is asked. When an effort is made to meet those claims which seem to be just, further concessions are certain to be asked for, and those in turn lead to further difficulties. I do not for a moment deny that there are certain aspects of the regulations of the Post Office which may merit the terms used by the noble Lord in his notice of motion, "anomalous, unsatisfactory, and difficult to interpret," and I quite feel that the instances which the noble Lord has pointed out are very difficult ones to deal with. The present state of matters has really arisen out of the efforts of the Post Office to meet the wishes of the public. In about 1892 efforts were made to meet the anomalies which arose under these regulations, because all the absurdities and difficulties which the noble Lord has pointed out were keenly appreciated. Instead of leaving it to the rule that anything not in the nature of a letter should be allowed to pass at the cheaper postage rate the Post Office did draw up certain rules, one of which has been quoted by the noble Lord. That was an endeavour to inform the public distinctly what might and what might not pass at the halfpenny rate. While that led in certain directions to simplification, it undoubtedly raised many other issues and difficulties. Now, my Lords, speaking for the Post Office, while I cannot accept the somewhat sweeping motion of the noble Lord, at the same time I can assure him that these matters are constantly having our attention. If we may hope to be aided by his own shrewd common-sense, any practical suggestions with which he may favour me I shall gladly give careful attention to. At the same time, judging by our past experience, and knowing the difficulties of the position, I am afraid I cannot hold out any hope that it ever will be possible to frame rules and regulations or to carry out any interpretation of those rules and regulations which will not always be open to objection or difficulty in one direction or another. That we have done as much as might have been done in the past I do not venture to assert, although I honestly believe that the difficulties have been coped with as far as could be. I am afraid I cannot give a favourable answer to the first part of the motion of the noble Lord, but I can assure him that any practical suggestion from any quarter, and especially from himself, will be heartily welcome by the Post Office.


My Lords, in withdrawing my motion may I be allowed to say this? The noble Duke is under a misapprehension in supposing that I made my remarks in the interests of any particular society, the Croydon Club or any other society. My point was that for more than thirty years certain particular forms had been sent everywhere at this rate and had come back to Mr. Symonds without surcharge, and I do not quite understand the difficulties which led the Post Office to alter regulations which had been acted upon for thirty years.


I can only say, my Lords, that under the terms of the Royal Warrant by which we are governed in this matter we find we are not justified in allowing these returns to be circulated at the halfpenny rate.


Then perhaps the noble Duke will consider whether the terms of the Royal Warrant to which he has alluded may not be altered.

Motion (by leave of the House) withdrawn.

House adjourned at twenty-five minutes past Eight of the clock till To-morrow half-past Ten of the clock.