§ VICOUNT GALWAY rose to call attention to the manner in which the Post Office authorities are using the Shops Act, 1911, to close telegraph offices in rural districts for one half-day a week, thereby causing great inconvenience to the public.
§ The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I am anxious to call your Lordships' attention to a great grievance that has been inflicted on rural districts through the action of the Post Office authorities in closing telegraph offices for one half-day a week. The case is different in a town where there is another telegraph office a little distance away, but in rural districts telegraph offices are several miles apart. No doubt when these telegraph offices were originally started there was some guarantee given that there 52 would be a sufficient number of telegrams sent every week to justify telegraph offices being placed in those districts. For many years the inhabitants of these rural districts have had the right to demand that telegrams should be despatched and received from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on week-days, and from 8.30 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Sundays. It is not merely a question of the despatch of telegrams, but, what is more important, the receipt of telegrams. It is under the œgis of the Shops Act that these rural telegraph offices are being closed for one half-day a week, but I am quite sure your Lordships never intended for a moment that the Shops Act should have that effect. On looking at the Shops Act I find a provision there that nothing in that Act is to apply to premises such as those to which I have referred. It is also provided that the Postmaster-General shall make the best arrangements possible with a view to giving persons engaged in post offices a half-day's holiday a week. That is one thing, but the convenience of the public has to be considered.
The small rural telegraph office at Oldcotes in my neighbourhood was closed for one half-day a week, and the inhabitants wrote to me about it. I expressed the opinion that in all probability the closing did not apply to the receipt and dispatch of telegrams, but after some little time I received the following communication from the Department—
Under the Shops Act of last year we are required to close for one half-day a week. This causes little or no inconvenience, especially as the business transacted after one p.m. on Thursday is very small. Telegrams after that time will be delivered from Blyth with an additional charge.
I ask your Lordships whether it is consistent with fair play to the public that the telegraph office should be closed, thereby not only compelling persons who wish to send a telegram on that half-day to go several miles to the next office, but requiring the recipients in the rural district in which the telegraph office is closed to pay an additional charge in respect of telegrams sent to them during the half-day's holiday. In the rural districts these small telegraph offices have very few messenger boys, and if you suddenly put double work on any rural telegraph office there will be no messengers to carry the telegrams to the people concerned. Let us presume that the telegraph office in the district in which the noble Lord the Paymaster-General resides is closed for a half-day on a Wednes-
day or a Thursday, and I have a most important telegram to send to him. That telegram goes to a place six or seven miles away, and if there is no messenger boy available to take it the noble Lord probably would not receive it that day.
§ I have no objection to telegraph clerks having a holiday, but this ought to be arranged without incurring this great inconvenience and expense to the public. If it is necessary to close these telegraph offices for one half-day a week there should be an additional staff of messenger boys at the offices which are substituted. But, what is much better, a telegraph clerk from a neighbouring town should be sent round to take the duty at one village telegraph office say on Monday afternoon, at the next one on Tuesday afternoon, at the next on Wednesday, and so on, by which means the half holiday could be given to the regular operator without the telegraph office serving the particular district being closed for this half-day. I do not think the seriousness of the matter is fully realised by the authorities. A most urgent telegram might be sent to one of these districts where it was a case of life or death, and instead of the inhabitant being able to rely for certain on receiving the telegram it may be sent to a distant office and may not be delivered that afternoon at all. This half-day's closing has not only taken place in cases where there is a shop connected with the post office business. I know one rural village post office which has nothing to do with any shop at all, and I was informed yesterday that it was going to be closed for one half-day each week. In old days we understood that the officials of the Post Office were for the good of the public, but it seems now that the public must suffer for the benefit of the officials. There is no reason why the departments which deal with money orders and the other routine business of the post office should not be shut on this half-day, but I ask that telegraph offices should be kept open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and that the inhabitants in these districts, who have been accustomed to rely upon the telegraph offices being open during these hours, should not be put to the great inconvenience to which I have referred. I hope I shall get a satisfactory reply from the noble Lord opposite.
§ THE PAYMASTER-GENERAL (LORD STRACHIE)
My Lords, I should like, in the first place, to disabuse the noble 54 Viscount's mind of the idea that this action of the Postmaster-General has anything whatever to do with the Shops Act of 1911. I can assure him it has nothing at all to do with that Act. There may be incidental circumstances which may make it easier to close telegraph offices in consequence of the Shops Act, but as long ago as 1907 a recommendation was made by a Parliamentary Committee that a weekly half-holiday should be given, and it was in consequence of that recommendation that the Postmaster-General decided to inquire into the matter and see whether a weekly half-holiday could not be given in rural post offices where in many cases there is only one person who is able to look after the telegraph business. The noble Viscount has referred to my own telegraph office. When it was first proposed to close that office for one half-day a week I anticipated that there would he inconvenience, but I find that in practice no inconvenience has arisen. In the great majority of cases where these offices are closed for a half-day the telegrams are sent from an office not very far off. In the case to which the noble Viscount has referred, that of Oldcotes, telegrams are sent from another office two-and-three-quarter miles off.
§ LORD STRACHIE
I expect the noble Viscount would find that telegrams for people in the Oldcotes district would arrive quite as soon from the substituted office as they would if sent direct to Oldcotes. It certainly is so in my own case, because the telegraph office two-and-a-half miles off which is substituted on this half-day is a larger one and it is much easier there to get a messenger. Although I live only a mile from my telegraph office it sometimes takes an hour to get a telegram delivered owing to the difficulty in finding a messenger. I do not think that in practice there will be found to be any delay arising from this arrangement. The Post Office began to deal with this question of a half-holiday in 1909, and they revised their regulations in 1910. It may interest the House to know what these regulations are. They have been very carefully drawn up with the idea of giving the minimum of inconvenience to the public. The first regulation is that there must be another telegraph office not more than three miles away during the time affected, so that special difficulty and expense would not be involved in the reception and delivery of telegrams during 55 the hours of closing. The next is that the office affected and the temporary telegraph office have the same transmitting centres which are themselves in direct communication. The last regulation is that an average of not more than five telegrams in all, both sent and received, would be dealt with in that part of the afternoon during which telegraph business is suspended. Therefore the Postmaster-General has taken the greatest care that this closing shall only apply in small villages where there is not a great deal of telegraphic business done, and as it is provided that there must be a telegraph office within three miles there cannot be any considerable inconvenience. I notice from the return sent to me that there are only about fourteen houses in Oldcotes which receive as much as one telegram a week on an average. In regard to the letter as to an additional charge, which the noble Viscount read, I think he must have left out a word, because I have a copy of that letter here and it reads—Telegrams after that time will be delivered from Blyth without additional charge.I agree that if an additional charge was made there would be a distinct grievance.
The original letter, which I hand to the noble Lord, distinctly says "with an additional charge."
§ LORD STRACHIE
The noble Viscount is right. The word in the letter to him is "with" an additional charge, but the copy which has been furnished to me reads "without" an additional charge. No doubt it is a typist's error; but if the noble Viscount will let me retain this letter I will bring it to the attention of the Postmaster-General. In the great majority of cases I am informed that there is never any objection by the local authority. In fact, some local authorities have asked for the post offices to be closed upon the general closing day, and that certainly seems reasonable when there is a general holiday for everybody concerned in business in the town. The noble Viscount has not given any cases of actual hardship except that of the additional payment, and, as I have explained, that is based upon an inaccuracy in the letter which the noble Viscount received. These telegraph clerks work from eight o'clock in the morning until eight o'clock at night on week-days and also have to be in attendance on Sunday mornings, and I think it is only reasonable, if there is no 56 practical inconvenience to the public, that they should benefit by a half-day's holiday a week like other people.
§ THE MARQUESS or LANSDOWNE
My Lords, I am sure that neither my noble friend nor any member of your Lordships' House would desire to stand between these employees of the Post Office and the half-day's holiday which it is proposed to give them, a holiday which I must say they are amply entitled to, because, as we all know, their hours are very long and while they are on duty they are tied to their office very closely. But there is no doubt, as my noble friend has said, that the closing of these offices may involve a good deal of inconvenience to private individuals, and I was glad to gather from the speech of the noble Lord who has just addressed the House that the Post Office are watching that aspect of the case and are determined, so far as possible, to minimise that inconvenience. I understood the noble Lord to say that these offices would not be closed unless there was another office within three miles.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LANSDOWNE
That seems to me to be a reasonable stipulation. Then there is the additional stipulation, I understand, that in such a case the message is sent from the more remote office free of charge to the recipient. There was an unfortunate lapsus in the letter which my noble friend became possessed of, which from his point of view no doubt very materially altered the case. If the Post Office are content, as I think they evidently are, to watch this matter carefully and see that no undue public inconvenience is occasioned, then I feel sure that no one will in the least criticise them for giving this slight concession to their employees.
It is only fair that I should say that the letter which I received had great influence upon me, because I thought it was most unfair that an additional charge should be made in this case. But as I now understand that the matter is on a different footing I am satisfied with having raised the point to-day; and I would only ask, further, that where it is found that in any case there are not enough messenger boys to take important telegrams, complaints will be carefully listened to with regard to the appointment of additional telegraph boys.