§ [SECOND READING.]
§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ VISCOUNT ALLENDALE
My Lords, the provisions of this Bill are short and simple, and are clearly set out in its various clauses. Your Lordships will recollect that in introducing his Budget last month the Chancellor of the Exchequer indicated a good many changes in postal and telegraph rates which the Government were prepared to introduce with a view, first, to economy in the postal service, and, secondly, to bringing in increased revenue. Your Lordships will also remember that in the debate in this House on July 6 last, initiated by the noble Viscount opposite (Lord Midleton), it was urged that there was considerable room for national retrenchment by curtailing the cheap facilities given by the Post Office for the transmission of postal packages and telegrams. The Retrenchment Committee which was appointed by the Government at the instance of the noble Viscount opposite considered, amongst other matters, the whole question of postal rates and made a good many recommendations.
I do not know that I can give all the reasons why it was found not desirable or convenient to adopt all the recommendations which the Retrenchment Committee made, but I may, perhaps, refer to their recommendation to impose a special war tax of one halfpenny on inland postal communications. The recommendation of the Committee was as follows—The imposition of a special war tax of one halfpenny on every internal postal communication (whether letter, postcard, postal packet, newspaper, or parcel) in addition to the standard rates of charge applicable in each case. This war tax would not be chargeable on communications to foreign countries which are members of the Postal Union, nor should it apply to communications addressed to parts of the British Empire or to His Majesty's Forces in the Field.The Government decided not to accept this recommendation, and I understand that there is some feeling, at all events, as regards their action in this matter. The initial letter rate of a penny remains unaltered, though the weight which can be carried for a penny is reduced. Had the Committee's scheme been adopted, the letter rate to parts of the British Empire would have been less than the inland rate, and the increase would have 47 been a serious tax on certain trades in which the cost of postage forms a large item of expenditure. The existing letter rate is highly remunerative. A tax on communications is, generally speaking, bad policy. That, I believe, was the view of the Postmaster-General and the Cabinet. The Government were therefore reluctant to abolish the penny post, which has stood since its institution in 1840.
Some other of the recommendations of the Retrenchment Committee were adopted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer with certain modifications; but changes have since been made, as I shall endeavour to show in the course of my remarks in moving the Second Reading of this Bill. It is proposed to alter the inland letter rate in the way described in Clause 1, paragraph (a). Perhaps I might read the old scale and then state the new scale which is to be imposed. The old scale was—Not exceeding 4 oz., 1d.; every additional 2 oz.,½d. The new scale is to be—Not exceeding 1 oz., 1d.; over 1 oz. and not exceeding 2 oz., 2d.; every additional 2 oz., ½The additional revenue, plus the saving in expenditure, for the year 1916–17 is estimated to be £1,030,000.
Then I come to inland postcards. The House will recollect that the Chancellor of the Exchequer originally proposed to abolish the halfpenny postage. Personally, when I heard him make that statement I was rather pleased. In the Bill now before your Lordships, however, there is no mention of the halfpenny postage, as there is no proposal with regard to it. Had it been possible to carry out the proposal that was made, many of us would have been greatly relieved if it had led to the amount of postal matter which reaches us every day being curtailed without any loss to the Revenue. A great deal of this correspondence goes into the waste-paper basket, which I have often heard described as the best private secretary one can have. Personally I regret the dropping of this proposal, as I am sure do a great many of your Lordships, if it would have curtailed the delivery of a great deal of this rubbish. When it was contemplated to abolish the halfpenny postage it was roughly estimated that the yield of the extra halfpenny would represent in additional revenue, plus the saving of expenditure, £1,000,000.
§ VISCOUNT ALLENDALE
Yes; that is the figure given to me.† The Government, for various reasons, abandoned this proposal. It was urged upon them that to charge a penny postage on postcards would be to penalise the poor, who are large users of postcards, and would result in the complete collapse of the picture-postcard industry. There may be different views as to whether that would be a great calamity. However, I suppose it is a considerable industry and one by which a certain number of people make a living. I have stated to your Lordships what the additional revenue was roughly estimated to be; but the estimate was necessarily extremely speculative, as no previous experience was available as a guide. A large number of postcards would have been replaced by letters, which would not affect the revenue. A large number also would cease to be sent; this was put at about 22 per cent., but it is quite possible that, at any rate at the outset, this figure would have been exceeded. If it reached 33 per cent., the additional revenue would have been only about £600,000. Postcards, I understand, are remunerative to the Post Office even at the halfpenny rate.
I come now to the question of newspapers. It was proposed that newspapers should no longer go for a halfpenny, but that the charge should be a penny. This was, I think, one of the recommendations of the Retrenchment Committee, but this proposal was dropped before the Bill was introduced. It was represented that a penny minimum rate for newspapers would be the doom of a number of small provincial and trade newspapers which had been built up on the halfpenny rate, and that it would be a serious charge on persons living in rural districts who receive their newspapers by post. The hardship occasioned would have been very great compared with the revenue that would have been obtained, and, although the loss on the newspaper post is considerable, the Government decided to retain the halfpenny minimum. On the other hand, a number of weekly papers are very bulky—many weigh ½lb. or more—and the Government considered it reasonable that these papers should make some further contribution towards reducing the heavy loss at which they are carried. The Postmaster-General, in the† This figure was corrected later in the debate by Lord Allendale. [Cols. 54 and 55.]49 debate on the Second Reading of the Bill in the House of Commons, gave an illustration of the enormous expense entailed in carrying some of these bulky newspapers, some of which are largely composed of advertisements, and he showed what a great loss the carrying of these newspapers was to the Post Office. A scale with 6 oz steps is now proposed. Practically all the ordinary issues of the daily newspapers will go at the halfpenny rate; those that do not are largely composed of highly remunerative advertisements. The proposed scale, however, is not remunerative to the Post Office. As far as it can be estimated, it costs a halfpenny per 2oz. to deal with newspapers. To carry out the scale now proposed legislation is required, and this is provided in Clause 1, paragraph (a).
The Retrenchment Committee made some recommendations as regards telegrams which, I think, have been practically adopted. The old rate in the case of ordinary inland telegrams was 6d. for 12 words, and a halfpenny for each additional word. The rate proposed by the Retrenchment Committee, which has been adopted, is 9d. for 12 words, and a halfpenny for each additional word—an increase of 3d. per telegram. On the telegraph service, as is well known, there is considerable loss to the State. I believe it to be about £1,200,000 per annum. My right hon. friend the Postmaster-General dealt with this subject very fully on the Second Reading of the Bill in the other House, and I do not propose to repeat what he said. But I may, perhaps, inform your Lordships that the high cost of dealing with telegrams is ascribed to—first, the bad bargain made with the telegraph companies, etc., on the transfer of their undertakings to the State in 1870; secondly, the increase in the rate of wages of telegraphists; thirdly, the transaction by telephone of what was formerly the most lucrative part of the work—namely, the short distance traffic; fourthly, the increase from one mile to three miles of the free delivery area; and, fifthly, the extension of telegraph facilities to outlying districts. The 6d. telegram, your Lordships will recollect, was introduced in 1885, when it was estimated that the revenue would average 10d. per telegram and the cost of transmission 8¾d., leaving 1¼d. to meet capital charges. At present the average revenue is slightly under 7½d., and the charges for staff alone come to 50 nearly 8d, The total cost per telegram, including maintenance of the telegraph system and capital charges, is approximately 11d. From the proposed increase the additional revenue, plus saving in expenditure, for the year 1916–17 is estimated at £475,000.
An increase is also proposed in regard to inland Press telegrams. An alteration in the rate for Press telegrams was proposed by the Retrenchment Committee, but the scale which they suggested has not been agreed to by the Government, a modified rate having been adopted after communication with and with the concurrence of, the Press. I need not enter into the arguments put forward by the Press which weighed with the Government, but the Government considered them, if not overwhelming, certainly very weighty. The alteration in the rate now proposed is set forth in Clause 1 (c). The old rate was 1s. per 100 words (night) or 75 words (day) for the fast address, with a copying fee of 2d. per 100 or 75 words respectively for every address after the first, whether involving fresh transmission or not. The rate proposed by the Committee, which has not been adopted, was 2s. 6d. per 100 (or 75 words for the first address, with a copying fee of 8d. per 100 (or 75) words for every address after the first. The rate now proposed, which is incorporated in the Bill, is 1s. per 80 words (night) or 60 words (day) for the first address, with a copying fee of 3d. per 80 (or 60) words for every address after the first. The rate proposed by the Committee— which, as I have said, was abandoned—was estimated to produce in 1916–17 in additional revenue, plus saving in expenditure, £250,000. The rate now proposed is calculated to produce in 1916–17 an additional revenue of £15,000. The alteration in the rates is to be deferred until December 31, 1916, in order to enable the newspapers to reorganise their system of news supply. That is the explanation of the small additional revenue for 1916–17; the additional revenue from the increased rates for a full year is estimated at £60,000. There have been a number of other changes which do not require statutory authority and are therefore not. included in the Bill. They include an increase in telephone charges and in the poundage on postal orders, the latter having already taken effect from the 1st of this month.
Before I sit down I will summarise the additional revenue which it is estimated 51 will be received when these changes are made. I will first give the estimated additional revenue for the remaining five months of the present financial year. It is as follows—Inland letters, £430,000; registered newspapers (inland), £8,000; inland parcels, £90,000; postal orders, £25,000; ordinary inland telegrams, £170,000; telephone exchange service (flat-rate subscribers), £25,000; telephone trunk service, £120,000; telephone call-office fees, £60,000 — making a total estimated additional revenue for the five months of £928,000.
I will now state the estimated additional revenue for the year 1916–17. It is as follows—Inland letters, £1,030,000; registered newspapers (inland), £20,000, and a saving in expenditure of £4,000; inland parcels, £220,000, and a saving in expenditure of £40,000; postal orders, £60,000, and a saving in expenditure of £5,000; ordinary inland telegrams, £410,000, and a saving in expenditure of £65,000; inland Press telegrams, £15,000; telephone exchange service (flat-rate subscribers), £280,000; telephone trunk service, £290,000; telephone call-office fees, £140,000. The total estimated additional revenue for 1916£17 is, therefore, £2,465,000, and if you add to this the. £114,000 to be saved in expenditure you get a total of £2,579,000. But this total does not represent a full normal year's gain to the Exchequer, as the savings will be considerably greater in subsequent years.
I am sorry if I have not been able to give the noble Viscount opposite (Lord Midleton) the whole of the information that he would like to have with regard to the reasons which have prevented the Government from adopting all the recommendations of the Retrenchment Committee. But perhaps he will be able to get that information, if not to-day at some later time, from a Cabinet Minister who can speak with greater authority than I can.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.— (Viscount Allendale.)
§ THE EARL OF CROMER
My Lords, although this is a Money Bill and therefore comes more especially within the competence of the House of Commons, there is no reason why individual members of your Lordships' House should not express 52 their opinions upon it. I am encouraged to do so because, as your Lordships will remember, when the Parliament Act was being discussed in this House and when it was thought by many people that on that Bill becoming law the utility of the House of Lords would disappear—a view which I never shared—it was constantly impressed upon us that though our legislative powers were greatly curtailed we still had the privilege of criticism, which might be of great public advantage. I am going to avail myself of that privilege this afternoon.
This Bill constitutes part and parcel of the general financial scheme laid before the House of Commons and the country a short time ago by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I am, of course, not going into the rest of that scheme at present, because we shall have later an opportunity of doing so when the Budget make before us. I should like to make one general observation which applies to a great many of these financial proposals and more especially to this Bill. I have been responsible in the course of my life for a great many Budgets in other countries—I do not remember how many, but certainly they were very numerous-and I know how very pleasant it is to a Finance Minister to be in the position of having a surplus to dispose of, so as to be able to distribute his bounties all round and thus gain a good deal of applause, sometimes rather cheap applause, as a generous-minded and clear-sighted financier. I also know from experience that when times of stress and trouble come no Finance Ministers can do his duty who attempts to make himself popular. Indeed, I would go further and say that in such instances the main duty of a Chancellor of the Exchequer is to make himself unpopular.
Those views are not confined to myself. They were stated by one of the greatest financiers this country has ever possessed—Mr. Gladstone. I noticed a little while ago in Lord Morley's most interesting "Life of Mr. Gladstone" the following passage—Mr. Gladstone said on one occasion, 'No Chancellor of the Exchequer is worthy of his salt who makes his own popularity either his first consideration or any consideration at all in administering the public funds.'I ask myself, How far has the present Chancellor of the Exchequer acted up to 53 Mr. Gladstone's standard? To a certain extent he has done so. He has, I think, shown a good deal of courage in many matters, which I will not go into now because they are foreign to the Bill under discussion. And let me say that his finance has been distinctly honest, and he has instilled into the House of Commons and the country the necessity of paying their way and meeting their liabilities when they become due. In that respect his proposals contrast very favourably with those of the Germans, which as far as I can make out have been mere jugglery and gambling with the future without any attempt to meet the very serious financial difficulties which they must inevitably incur. So far, well and good. But I am bound to say that, in spite of a good deal of courage shown in some directions, it appears to me that, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer had to deal with the particular measures which we are now discussing, the moment he was faced by a certain amount of Parliamentary opposition in the other House his courage oozed out at the end of his fingers, rather like that of Bob Acres in Sheridan's famous play.
Now what were the proposals that were originally put forward? The noble Viscount who moved the Second Reading of this Bill alluded to the speech made in your Lordships' House a little while ago by my noble friend Lord Midleton. I remember that speech very well. It was one of the most temperate, best reasoned, and most logical speeches it has ever been my privilege to hear in this House. It commanded, I believe, the general assent of all your Lordships. I do not remember whether my noble friend behind me recommended that the halfpenny war tax should be imposed on all letters, but it was certainly alluded to in the debate, and it has been referred to again to-night by the noble Viscount opposite. I quite admit that it is a matter of opinion whether such a tax ought to be imposed or not. Personally I would prefer that it had been imposed, because it was so very successful in Canada. In Canada the halfpenny war tax yielded, I am told, during the first two and a half months that it was in operation, an increased revenue of a million dollars over that of the corresponding period of last year—that is to say, 35 percent. of the total increased revenue. There was some diminution in the amount of 54 correspondence that went through the post, but that was much more than compensated for by the large increased revenue from this tax. Therefore for my own part I regret that this suggest on was not adopted. I believe the revenue which could have been got from it, though it is very difficult to estimate, would probably not have been less than £4,000,000 or £5,000,000.
As regards telegraph rates, the 6d. telegram is to be raised to 9d., but that does not anything like cover the cost of transmission. I cannot see why the general taxpayer should bear the charge which ought to fall on individuals. Why should not the charge be raised to the full amount of the cost of transmission? I understand that if the rate had been raised to 1s. for the first twelve words with three-farthings for every additional word the increased revenue would have amounted to £500,000 a year and the saving of expenditure would have been £600,000—in all, a total of £1,100,000. The original intention was to abolish halfpenny postcards and the halfpenny rate on packets, circulars, and so on, and I think the noble Viscount in charge of this Bill appeared to express personal regret that that suggestion was not adopted. I remember perfectly well that when my noble friend behind me (Lord Midleton) alluded to that subject a murmur of satisfaction went round these Benches, as we all thought that we should thereby be relieved from some of the enormous number of circulars which we receive and which go into the waste-paper basket. I noticed, by the way, that the Postmaster-General stated in the House of Commons that we had over-rated the number of these circulars. I think he said that circulars of the kind in question only amounted to 14 per cent. of the total number of halfpenny packets, and that the balance of 86 per cent. was composed of communications of a different description. Anyhow, here was a possible revenue which, to my great surprise, I heard the noble Viscount estimate at only £1,000,000. I could not follow the noble Viscount's figures as he was stating them. I have always heard the revenue contemplated from the yield of the extra halfpenny put at nearer £2,000,000 than £1,000,000.
§ THE EARL OF CROMER
Then on postcards together with the other halfpenny postal packets the additional revenue would have been more than –1,000,000?
§ VISCOUNT ALLENDALE
Yes; the additional revenue on other halfpenny postal packets was estimated at £750,000 if the proposals of the Retrenchment Committee had been adopted. I am sorry if I did not make that quite clear.
§ THE EARL OF CROMER
Therefore there is, under that heading, a revenue of nearly £2,000,000 lost. But that is not the only harm that has been done by the sacrifice of this proposal. At this moment it is very desirable to relieve the Post Office of all the work possible, so that a large number of men who might be employed either actually as soldiers or in other work connected with the war might be set free. It is further desirable to relieve the labour market by setting a number of the men free who are now engaged in this halfpenny postal work. In ordinary times, of course, an argument of that kind would be not only fallacious but pernicious. The more letters that pass through the post the greater are the signs of the prosperity of the country. But we are not living in ordinary but in extraordinary times, and we have our attention entirely fixed on one subject—to win this war; and one of the means of doing that would be to set free a number of these employees so that they might be occupied in functions connected with the war. That is another loss we have sustained through the Chancellor of the Exchequer yielding on this point.
Why did he yield? If it could be shown that the raising of the half penny rate to a penny was unremunerative, then I confess my own view would be very much modified. Statements of that kind were made in the House of Commons. but I must say they were unsupported by a tittle of evidence of any kind or sort; and though the noble Viscount mentioned that point just now I must again ask to be excused if I could not follow the whole of his argument. I cannot help thinking that it is a mistaken view that there would be no increase of revenue. I believe there would be an increase. I do not wish to say anything unnecessarily offensive, but I believe that the real reason why the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Postmaster-General yielded was that a certain amount of Parliamentary pressure was put upon them by interested parties. 56 Anyhow I think it a very great pity, in present circumstances, that at the first feeble blast of Parliamentary opposition the walls of the Downing-street Jericho instantly fell down. If we are to get through this war I think our statesmen will have to show an amount of moral courage much more on a par with the splendid physical courage which is displayed by our men at the Front. Unless they do so, we shall not get on well.
There is another point I wish to mention. His Majesty's Government have recently organised a campaign in favour of economy —economy, that is to say, by the public. I fully sympathise with their view, and I think the campaign has done a great amount of good. I believe there has been a good deal of economy practised of late by the upper and middle classes—phrases, by the way, which I distinctly dislike to use—though how far that economy has extended to the working classes is more than I can say. I rather doubt whether the movement with them has extended very deeply. But if there is to be anything in the nature of rigid economy practised by the whole body of the people, surely the first thing is that the Government should set the example. Have they done so in this particular matter of telegrams I fear they have not. From all I can understand, the abuse by the different Departments of free telegraphy has been excessive. I am told that during the last seven months the inland telegrams of the War Office have cost no less than £123,000. That seems to me to be an excessive figure even during the present strain of war.
Let me give another instance which comes to me on very good authority, and which shows the amount of recklessness with which this right of free telegraphy is used. I heard the other day of a well-authenticated ease. I do not, of course, expect the noble Viscount in charge of this Bill to tell me now whether it is true or not, but I should be glad to be informed at a later period whether the facts as I state them are correct. The case was this. Some sixty officers had to be warned to go to France at a week's notice. One would have thought that the natural thing to do was for the War Office to send a short telegram to each of those officers telling him where he had to proceed. That was not done. A General Order was drawn up giving the details as regards the 57 whole of the sixty officers and—would you believe it possible?—that telegram, which consisted of 400 words, was sent to every individual one of the sixty officers; that is to say, all the sixty officers were informed what was to happen to the whole of the rest of the fifty-nine. I can quite understand that this saved the War Office a good deal of trouble, and I am also fully aware of the fact that the War Office staff are now very much overworked. But consider the effect from the point of view of the work involved, of sixty telegrams of 400 words each being thrown on to the Post Office! A case of that kind is what I would describe as a scandalous abuse of the right of free telegraphy.
I rather doubt whether the control of the Treasury over these matters is as severe as it used to be. Let me tell your Lordships a fact within my own personal experience, which shows the amount of control which used to be exercised in this matter of telegraphy years ago. It is a rather curious experience. I am speaking now of the winter of 1884, at the most critical period of the Khartum crisis, when General Gordon's life was trembling in the balance and Cairo society was seething with anxiety to know what the Government were going to do. The mails came in once a week, and in one particular mail about the middle of December it was thought that I should certainly receive something definite of which I should be able to inform the public. The people who thought that were very little versed in official ways. But the mail bag came in and I opened it, and there was only one letter which dealt with Sudan affairs at all. It was a little private letter from Lord Granville, a perfect gem of its kind, and as thirty-one years have elapsed since it was written I think there will be no breach of confidence in stating what its contents were. The letter was dated December 7, 1884, and runs as follows—My dear BARING,—Gladstone and Childers are grumbling about the expense of the telegrams. Please condense as much as you can, but omit nothing of urgent importance.—Yours sincerely, GRANVILLE.I am bound to confess I did not at the time receive that letter with enthusiasm, because, as I say, we were in the middle of very serious affairs. Still for the purpose of my present argument it does show that, even in the midst of the very important affairs that were then going on, not only were the Treasury officials alive to the 58 desirability of watching over public expenditure, but here were two principal members of the Government, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, finding time to deal with the matter and to give peccant officials due warning that they must not abase the right of free telegraphy. From point of view of an economist that action was no doubt very healthy, however much it may be criticised from the point of view of the politician. Is that kind of thing done now? I very much fear it is not and I think it would be a good thing if a little of the spirit of Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Childers were introduced into the Treasury as regards telegraphy and also as regards other matters.
These are all the remarks I have to make now. I understand that the noble Marquess wants to pass this Bill through all its stages at once. I did not understand that that was going to be the case, and I had been going to suggest, although there was no question of not passing the Bill, that there should be a short interval before the Committee stage in order that some answer might be given to the remarks which noble Lords might put forward. But as that is impossible, I hope that the noble Viscount in charge of the Bill, or one of the noble Lords on the Front Government Bench, will take an early-opportunity of giving some sort of reply to the observations that I have just had the honour of making.
THE LORD PRESIDENT OF THE COUNCIL (THE MARQUESS OF CREWE)
My Lords, I am sure we have all listened with deep interest to the remarks which have fallen from my noble friend opposite. As regards the circumstances in which it becomes necessary to take this Bill through all its stages to-day, my noble friend behind me and I are exceedingly sorry that noble Lords opposite should have remained under any misapprehension on that account. On Tuesday last I was prevented by an important public engagement elsewhere from attending the House, but my noble friend behind me (Lord Lansdowne) tells me that he then stated that when the Bill was considered to-day it would be necessary to take it through all its stages. I am sorry that his announcement was not brought to the notice of my noble friend opposite. I am informed that it is absolutely necessary that the Bill should receive the Royal Assent to-day in order that it 59 may become law before November 1. Therefore I hope that the House will agree to take it through its remaining stages this afternoon.
The particular criticisms which the noble Earl made were important in themselves, and I am sorry that he had not the opportunity of making them in the manner in which he desired. But if there are any questions of fact, referring to the particular items in the Bill which were run through by my noble friend, on which the noble Earl desires to receive a later explanation, we shall be happy on this side of the House to give him one if he cares to raise the matter again. It is quite true, as he pointed out, that the Bill before the House is not one on which we are accustomed here to enter into a discussion which could be of a very fruitful kind from the point of view of those who object to any particular part of the Bill. It is not the habit of your Lordships to attempt to amend a Money Bill, but the noble Earl was completely within his right in saying that, so far as a discussion of the details of any measure of this kind was concerned, it is open to your Lordships' House to undertake that to any extent that you think proper, and in certain cases it may be no doubt greatly to the public advantage that you should do so.
As regards the particular modifications which were agreed to in the course of the discussion of the Bill in another place and also the departures which were originally made in the Bill as introduced in another place from the recommendations of the Committee, I am not sure that my noble friend was altogether fair in ascribing those changes to the protests of interested parties. The change, for instance, affecting postcards, if my recollection is right, was mainly justified on the ground that the maintenance of the contemplated higher rate would mean a serious deprivation of reasonable facilities to a large number of the poorer classes. Those, I think, were the considerations which weighed with the House, and they are considerations which I am sure we should all desire to admit so far as we could.
As to the question of Press rates, my noble friend opposite spoke of the subdued applause heard in the House when the noble Viscount (Lord Midleton) suggested that a drastic dealing with circulars might be both advantageous and lucrative. But, if I remember right, there was an 60 equal note of encouragement when it was suggested that the rate for Press telegrams should be raised, because, as we all know, the Press, at any rate in some of its elements, has not succeeded during the progress of the war in securing the entire affection either of those in Parliament or outside it. But it was found, when this question of Press telegrams came to be examined, that the main hardship caused by high rates would not be inflicted upon those elements of which I have spoken which have incurred the displeasure of many, they being in the main London newspapers, but that the hardship would fall almost entirely upon the provincial Press, upon a great many papers which at ordinary times did not find it easy to make both ends meet. Therefore the infliction upon the Press generally of the rate for telegrams which was originally suggested would have been exceedingly unequal in its incidence and would have punished severely a great number of reputable papers and also a number of trade papers with whose industry there would be certainly no desire to interfere.
I will not go into the question of the halfpenny packets, on which the noble Earl dwelt. But he was quite right in giving the figure of only 14 per cent.—the surprising figure as it proved to many of us—presented by the Postmaster-General as representing the proportion of those halfpenny packets which could be ascribed to circulars of the kind which found their prompt way into our wastepaper baskets. In our individual experience I am certain the proportion is infinitely greater.
THE MARQUESS OF CREWE
But the Postmaster-General is no doubt right in the figure he gave, and we must presume that we are exceptionally unfortunate in that respect. I think the House generally will be disposed to agree that the further examination which was given to the propositions of the Retrenchment Committee when the Bill was considered in another place was, in the main, justified. I have no doubt that there will be many in this House, as there were no doubt many in another place, who consider that the Chancellor of the Exchequer ought not to have given way in respect to a particular item. But we on this Bench cannot accept the implication made by the noble Earl that in sacrificing a certain amount of 61 revenue by the reductions which were made in the Bill as it went on its course the Government in another place showed a great want of backbone or willingness to give way to mere interested clamour and a carelessness of the saving which might be effected in our huge national expenditure.
There is one other point with regard to the matter of telegrams, upon which the noble Earl told us an amusing anecdote of the late Lord Granville. As it happens I was myself connected in a modest capacity with the Foreign Office in those days, and, if I remember rightly, one of the items which at the later date—my experience there was somewhat earlier—caused the particular admonition to be addressed to the noble Earl opposite was this. On one occasion an official in a modest position—a Vice-Consul, I think—possibly gratified by having important news to transmit and being for the moment in a position to transmit it with the utmost freedom, expended in less than a week the sum of £465 in telegraphing to the Foreign Office. That may have been one of the items which caused the gloomy view which the then Chancellor of the Exchequer took of telegraphic expenditure from Egypt. But so far as the present is concerned I think I may say without hesitation, having some knowledge of what has been going on in the Departments, that though there is necessarily a vast amount of telegraphing to be done, both abroad and at home, the responsible heads of the Departments, both political and permanent, are fully alive to the necessity of keeping that particular kind of expenditure in as reasonable limits as possible, and that they are prepared to, and as a fact do, reduce and cut down where possible those messages which appear to be sent at inordinate length, and where possible they substitute some cheaper form of transmission. I am not at all sorry that the noble Earl raised this important point, but I hope that to some extent what I have said will tend to reassure him.
§ THE EARL OF CROMER
I am not certain, but I think I remember the Vice-Consul to whom the noble Marquess alludes. It must have been the Vice-Consul of Suakim.
§ THE EARL OF CROMER
It was at the time when General Biker went to Suakim and when there was a disastrous action which led to a great loss of life. I must say I think the gentleman in question, although not in a high position in the Consular Service, was justified in telegraphing at great length.
§ LORD SYDENHAM
My Lords, this discussion is necessarily of an academic character as such discussions are apt to be at present, your Lordships' House having no power to amend or even to try and improve Bills such as the one now before us. But the House still retains the power of criticism to which the noble Earl referred. From many of the instances given by the noble Earl and from what we all know it does seem as if all effective control of the public funds had now lapsed, and lapsed just at the time when that control is most necessary. For that reason, though this Bill must pass to-night, I feel glad that it should not go through without some protest. The effect of the Bill is to lose a large amount of revenue which is most urgently needed at the present time. In the case of Press telegrams the effect is to postpone the collection until after the war, when perhaps the newspapers to which the noble Marquess referred will be less able to meet the charge than they are now. The Bill has a double effect. It not only means the loss of revenue, but the loss of the services of men who might be spared from the postal and telegraphic services, and might devote their time to other and more necessary work for the State. The Government must have decided after full and careful consideration that the new revenue as originally proposed was wanted, but when protest was made by interested parties—naturally so, for protests always come in cases of increased taxation—then there followed immediately concessions which never ought to have been made. It is almost impossible to believe that those concessions could have been discussed and considered in full by the Cabinet as a whole, because the Cabinet had only just before decided that the extra revenue was necessary and ought to be raised. At such a moment as this, when 63 we are faced with vast and almost daily increasing expenditure, it does seem to me that the impression produced by this Bill must be peculiarly unfortunate.
§ LORD SUMNER
My Lords, I should like to associate myself with what has just been said upon this subject. In your Lordships' House criticism of financial policy is, as has been said, purely academic, but I cannot help expressing regret that the Government should have lost the first opportunity that has come to them of teaching the people of this country generally that the time has come for making sacrifices—and sacrifices on the largest scale—as and when our constituted rulers call upon us to make them. The increase of Post Office charges would have brought home to everybody that sacrifices of all kinds are necessary. Nobody is ever satisfied with the incidence of taxation; everybody discovers, and truly discovers, cases of hardship in every Budget. But when the Government had maturely considered that a certain number of Post Office changes should be made and proposed them, I think it is profoundly to be regretted that they did not insist on having their own way. The people of this country only require to be called upon for sacrifices to make them. I am convinced that the country only requires to be educated into the realisation of what the war means for it to rise to the full height of the necessities of the times. Had the Government on this occasion adopted the policy of demanding not less but more sacrifices from the people, I feel sure that those sacrifices would have been made with a unanimity which would have astonished the Government.
§ VISCOUNT MIDLETON
My Lords, as I took part in the work of the Committee whose recommendations are really on their funeral pyre, perhaps I may be pardoned for saying a word in connection with what has fallen from the noble Earl, Lord Cromer, and the two noble Lords on the Cross Benches. Looking back to the history of this question, I am afraid that even the apologetic tone in which the noble Marquess opposite supported this extremely restricted Bill will hardly justify the course which events have taken. The Committee which was appointed had the advantage of having upon it not merely the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of the Treasury but seven or eight members 64 of Parliament, representing all shades of political opinion, and two or three men quite at the head of their profession in business. The Post Office was first considered in response to the general desire which had been expressed and supported throughout the country for civil economy at this crisis. The proposals which were before the Committee emanated from the Post Office itself. The Committee were absolutely unanimous in their decisions. The Cabinet considered the recommendations and accepted some, and rejected others. The Chancellor of the Exchequer in his Budget specifically noted the recommendations which would be accepted. Yet we are asked to-night, in a few minutes, to pass this Bill through all its stages, although in almost every particular what was proposed by the Committee has been overthrown, and even the largest of the proposals passed by the Cabinet has been abandoned.
Why was the Committee brought into being at all? It was appointed because it was felt, while we were raising something like £6000,000,000 at that moment and a total which was then put at £2,000,000,000 for the National Debt—which has since been largely exceeded—that it was absolutely necessary that there should be civil economy where possible. The Committee held sixteen or eighteen sittings almost de die in diem in August, and submitted recommendations which would have resulted in gains to the public Exchequer of £8,000,000 a year, which, after all, very nearly represents the interest on £200,000,000 of debt and is not to be despised. Of that £8,000,000, the Cabinet dismissed £1,000,000 by declining the extra half-penny on postage—on which I will say a word in a moment—and of the £4,000,000 remaining £2,000,000 was knocked off by the Postmaster-General before he had come to the House of Commons and before he had heard the debate or given those members of the Committee who had gone into all the figures with the greatest carefulness and bad considered every argument which has been raised in this House to-night an opportunity of presenting their views. A friendly question was put to the Postmaster-General, and he said he had undertaken to abandon half of the decision of the Cabinet.
There are two questions I want to ask. In the first place I do not challenge, except in a single sentence, the decision of the 65 Cabinet. The recommendations of all such Committees are, of course, subject to the decision of the Cabinet. But recollect that by deciding that an extra halfpenny should not be imposed for all postal communications you are refusing to introduce in the United Kingdom a tax which Canada has adopted in consequence of the war in order to enable her to provide the immense forces she has sent to our assistance. And, what is more, the sales of stamps in Canada between April 15 and June 30—the first two and a-half months of the tax—went up by thirty-five per cent., which in itself is an eloquent testimony of the gain of the public Exchequer and the fact that the tax has not acted as a restriction of business. I very much regret that the Cabinet should have decided to throw out this proposal. But the Cabinet having agreed to what was really the abolition of the abuse of the halfpenny packet system, I should like to ask this question of the noble Marquess. The Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in his Budget speech that these recommendations had been considered by the Cabinet and had been adopted by them. Did the Cabinet ever consider the reduction which the Postmaster-General gave away in the course of a few moments in the afternoon?
§ VISCOUNT MIDLETON
I have no more to say upon that, if that was so. At the same time it seems to be rather a strange proceeding that all these authorities should be overthrown, and that the £8,000,000 should be brought down to £2,000,000. It makes rather a sorry result. And I would say also that I do not think the Government have encouraged a Committee which gave up a great deal of time and pursued their inquiries with great vigour. The Committee now find that seventy-five per cent. of what they proposed, after hearing the whole of the evidence, is regarded as improper and impossible, although in other parts of the Empire this sacrifice has been made. The Postmaster-General had to stand up in a white sheet and admit that one advertiser alone had, under the present system, put the Post Office to the expense of £500 in one week by adding so enormously to the weight of the papers which had to be carried by reason of the special advertisements which he put in. That system is going on, and 66 the permitting of halfpenny packets of an enormous character is not merely handicapping the revenue of the Post Office but also largely increasing the staff which has to be employed in the country districts.
I sincerely hope that the Government have not said their last word on this matter. I agree with much that has been said by my noble friend Lord Cromer. But I would ask the Government whether this is the method in which they are going to approach the whole of the attempts made at economy. Do they really think that the whole work should proceed from outside? All these questions could have been considered by Government Departments. But it has been left to an external Committee to recommend retrenchments, and the only part the Government have taken up to now is to stab in the back all the work of those who are endeavouring on behalf of the country to obtain this advantage. Again, do the Government think that such speeches as they have had to make on this subject convince the country that they are in earnest in this matter of economy? I put this question to them with all respect, Is this to be their attitude all through the campaign which we are trying to carry on? I receive letters full of indignation at what is going on in some of the Government Departments without regard to the war—such things as my noble friend Lord Cromer mentioned. Every one knows of this who has a house anywhere near a military camp. You cannot get a telegram for three hours very often, even if it is sent only ten miles, because of the demands of military telegraphing on every conceivable subject, most of which business could better be conducted by post. The item brought before our Committee of £123,000 being spent in seven months by one Department on inland telegrams alone, representing hundreds of pounds every day, speaks for itself. It is, of course, out of our power to do more than enter a protest. In this matter I think we have hardly been fairly dealt with. But if this is the best the Government can do at the present moment we should be only halting the reform they have made, small as it is, by attempting to put off this Bill. Therefore I offer no opposition to its passage through all its stages this afternoon.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a.
§ Committee negatived: then (Standing Order No. XXXIX having been suspended) Bill read 3a, and passed.