HL Deb 23 January 1945 vol 134 cc649-56

3.9 p.m.

LORD MIDDLETON rose to call the attention of His Majesty's Government to the fact that members of the Forces serving overseas are prohibited from sending postage stamps to the United Kingdom; to make suggestions; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the object of this Motion is to draw the attention of the Government to a grievance that is felt by a considerable number of members of the Forces serving overseas. Your Lordships know that wherever men serve they wish to send articles of use or interest to their families at home as often as they can. I have no idea what the volume of parcels handled by the Army Postal Service is, but it must be colossal. Foodstuffs are sent home in considerable quantities but the amount any individual may send is restricted and due regard is always paid to the needs of local inhabitants. Materials for making garments, silk stockings and gloves and so on are sent home under proper regulations. All parcels are censored before dispatch, the contents are noted on outside wrappings and if the goods are dutiable the duties are paid at this end. But a concession is made once a year, I think, for each individual, when dutiable goods may be posted free of duty by any member of the Forces and sent home provided an appropriate certificate is attached to the parcel.

But it seems that postage stamps, used or unused, may never be sent home by members of the Forces. It is true that licences may, in certain circumstances, be issued for the importation of postage stamps, but I am credibly informed that such licences are granted to dealers only and never to private collectors, so it would seem that the interests of the middle men are very well served. Unfortunately, this war-time regulation is not generally known in the Forces. I have been unable to discover that any order has ever been published, as far as the Army is concerned, warning soldiers that the embargo exists and that senders as well as recipients are liable to heavy penalties for infringement of the rules. Many members of the Forces are enthusiastic philatelists and others have children or friends who collect. I know as a fact that a considerable number of officers and men have sent home postage stamps in all innocence, quite unaware that they were doing any wrong. I may add that those serving in Italy have unrivalled opportunities to make valuable additions to their collection of stamps since the Armies there include troops from so many parts of the world.

I have heard through welfare officers of the hot indignation of men who have, in all innocence, sent stamps home and have had those stamps seized presumably in censors' offices, with the result that the pecuniary losses to the senders have been considerable. Knowing that I was interested in this matter, though I am not a philatelist myself, a senior officer wrote just before I left Italy a few weeks ago as follows: I learn that I am a sufferer. I bought stamps in Algiers and in Corsica and was given other Vichy French stamps by inhabitants in Corsica. I am faced with the difficulty of keeping safely an accumulation of stamps abroad, as I am liable to be moved about with a kit allowance of 40 to 100 lbs. In June I sent some to the United Kingdom, in ignorance of the prohibition. I now hear that they were seized. I have no information as to whether 'seizure' means 'confiscation' and if not, what formalities I must fulfil to re-obtain possession. If senior officers in high places find these difficulties it is not surprising that other ranks are liable to get into trouble.

It is scarcely necessary in your Lordships' House for me to dilate on the merits of stamp collecting, but I do submit with great respect that it is far better that men should spend their money sensibly on things that have a permanent value and interest, rather than waste it on atrocious rubbish in the way of souvenirs that so many buy for outrageous prices. I presume that the rules against importation are based upon Treasury measures to safeguard the exchange value of sterling, and it may well be that unlimited importation of stamps is undesirable, but surely it will be quite easy to frame rules to prevent abuses. All parcels and letters are censored in units and censoring is most conscientiously carried out. I suggest that proper restrictions could protect sterling and at the same time satisfy collectors. I trust that in this matter the Government will not be unsympathetic and will be disposed to find a way that will remove a grievance which is very widely felt by men serving their country overseas. I beg to move.

3.16 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to agree, from my own knowledge, with what has been said by the noble Lord who has just spoken. In my own case I have had stamps sent to me from America by a friend. Two sets of unused stamps were sent and were surcharged, and also some used American stamps. I finally got a letter from the Stamp Control Committee, as I suppose it is called, saying that the Eritrea stamps had been forfeited and that they were sending me the used American stamps. What will happen to the others I do not know. I have no knowledge as to the number or what happened to them, but I do know that stamps are being continually forfeited which are being sent to one, not at one's own request, by friends who know that one is a stamp collector and wish to help. About six months before the commencement of the war one of the Maharajahs was good enough to send me a complete set of his own George VI stamps. If he wished to send them as used stamps and put then on envelopes the probability is that they would be forfeited—why, I cannot think. They did not cost me any money, I was giving nothing for them. I was not therefore sending any money out of the country. I did not even know of the existence of the Eritrea stamps. They were bought in New York and sent to me here.

As I have said, stamps are being continually forfeited. Yet I can think of no better way for a serving soldier to invest his money to-day than by buying stamps. It is much better for him to do that than to buy the rubbish that a great many of them send home. Stamps have increased enormously in value in the last four years. People who have been lucky enough to get them are very much better off to-day and they have something that they can turn into money right away. Some of the Government offices get stamps in the natural course of their business and people know that this is so and try to buy some of those stamps. I did so myself the other day and the answer I got from the clerk who handled the stamps when they came into the office was that the order from the office was that these stamps were only to be sold to dealers. Why that should be so I cannot think. Why the ordinary English citizen, if he is able to buy stamps, should have to pay perhaps 20 per cent. or 25 per cent. profit on what the dealer gives the Government, is something that I cannot understand. Certainly I think that at any rate the Forces should be allowed to send stamps for the benefit of their relatives.

3.19 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Middleton has brought forward a matter this afternoon dealing with a grievance which he says exists, and I have no doubt he is right, among members of the Forces. These matters always call for, and receive, a sympathetic hearing in your Lordships' House. I will endeavour to explain the reasons for these regulations as far as I am able to do so. As my noble friend may be aware, this control of stamps has now been in operation for some years. It was instituted in June, 1940. Its primary object was to save foreign exchange by preventing the use of it on an article which was not strictly a necessity. Another important object was to assist the work of the Ministry of Economic Warfare and the Trading with the Enemy Department. Postage stamps are a ready means of paying money to enemy agents and receiving foreign exchange and they have even been used to transmit messages.

The general policy is to prohibit all stamps having any sort of enemy taint, no matter from what country they originate, and all those involving loss of foreign exchange. The control of postage stamps, of course, needs special knowledge and it has been delegated by the Board of Trade to the British Philatelic Association who have given a great deal of invaluable help to the Board of Trade. The Association works on broad principles laid down by the Board of Trade. The arrange rents are well understood by the trade although difficulty does arise with private individuals, as my noble friend stated just now, through their unfamiliarity with the regulations. The administration, I can assure my noble friend, is as liberal as possible. If only a few stamps obviously imported for private purposes are involved they are usually released, and travellers who return or who are repatriated to this country are allowed the return of their collections against suitable guarantees regarding disposal. It very seldom happens that confiscation takes place; instead, the control usually arranges to hold the stamps until the regulations can be relaxed. This is, of course, in marked contrast to the procedure regarding every other commodity where goods whose importation cannot be licensed are confiscated and sold by the Customs.

These regulations which I have described are the general arrangements. The importation of ex-enemy stamps by members of His Majesty's Forces raises special problems. It may be argued that the acquisition from our liberated Allies of stamps issued during the enemy occupation cannot now be of any direct service to the enemy. That is very likely true, but it may still be a handicap to the Ministry of Economic Warfare in their efforts to stop the traffic in enemy stamps abroad, since the existence of a large legalized gap in the control would make it much more difficult to identify those ex-enemy stamps which are still acquired from enemies to their advantage. It may also be said that since our troops in liberated countries are free to spend their pay there on what they like there can be no advantage by way of conserving foreign exchange in preventing them from spending part of it on postage stamps. This again is quite true as far as it goes, but if members of the Forces were allowed to import stamps acquired with their own money without question there would be a real danger that some of them would be got at by dealers and would on their behalf acquire collections for commercial purposes against some kind of arrangement for payment at a later date. If these stamps were once admitted into this country it might be very difficult to refuse to allow payment to be made and this would of course involve an avoidable loss of foreign exchange. In this way an avoidable loss of foreign exchange would still take place.

Concessions are made to members of the Forces in the sending of a limited number of gift parcels of dutiable goods but similar concessions are not readily applicable to postage stamps whose value is often a matter for experts and would not be readily determined by the normal censoring officer. For this reason when a member of the Forces knowing nothing of the regulations sends over his collection of stamps in a letter which is detected by the censorship the stamps are sent to the control, which releases small quantities obviously intended for private purposes and in other cases holds them temporarily as I have described. The control is thus generously administered, but a general immunity from control would give rise to the difficulties to which I have referred. While there is no desire to maintain control longer than is necessary the dominant consideration must be the conserving of exchange and prevention of possible advantage to the enemy. I have answered my noble friend to the best of my ability. He said in his speech that members of the Forces—officers and men—were not aware of these regulations. That may very well be so. There are present in your Lordships' House this afternoon the Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty and the Under-Secretary of State for Air. I am sure they will note what has been said and I will make it my business to transmit what has been said to my noble friend Lord Croft at the War Office so that we may hope to get these regulations more generally known. As to the suggestions which my noble friend made at the end of his speech I will see that they are passed on to the proper quarter.


My Lords, I would like to ask my noble friend why it is necessary to differentiate against private persons in favour of the dealer.

3.25 p.m.


My Lords, I feel that I must condole with my noble friend who has given such a very unconvincing answer to a very straight question. I think he can scarcely have been satisfied with his own answer and I hope that he will make representations to the noble Lord, Lord Croft, with a view to the matter being gone into much more closely. At this stage of the war we are burdened with regulations which seem to increase instead of decrease. Naturally we have all been ready and willing to accept regulations in the belief that they did some good and that the authorities considered it necessary to burden the population with them, but the more one goes into these things the more it seems that some of these regulations are merely made by the bureaucracy whose duty it is to fill up their time by devising regulations putting burdens on innocent people. This matter touches very closely the censorship. It is a censorship matter and it touches the matter of communications between England and Northern Ireland. Some of your Lordships know the delays which are going on because of this censorship, the things that are taken out of letters by the censor and lost and the number of letters that take a fortnight to get across. I sincerely hope that the noble Lord, Lord Croft, will take the matter to higher quarters and see whether the censorship cannot be relaxed.

3.27 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to join the noble Marquess in offering sympathy to my noble friend in the matter of the reply he has made to my question. I asked for a fish and if I did not get a stone I certainly got something of the order of a newly hatched minnow. I hope that not only will there be some relaxation of the regulations but also that a better statement will be given of the reasons for them than we have been given so far. I have served in eight countries since 1942 and I know the morale of our Forces is very high. But they are extremely indignant about this question. I am afraid the answer which has been given will cause grave dissatisfaction. I hope the suggestion made by the noble Marquess will be adopted. Having made my protest I think there is nothing left for me but to ask leave to withdraw my Motion.


Would my noble friend give an answer to the question I asked about differentiation in favour of dealers?


My Lords, I did not get up to answer my noble friend's question because I did not think that I could do so. If he will allow me to find out I will communicate with him but I cannot answer his question this afternoon. While I am on my feet perhaps I may be allowed to answer the noble Marquess, Lord Londonderry. He said he hoped I would bring the matter to the notice of the Under-Secretary of State for War. I said that I would do so.


I am afraid my noble friend did not fully apprehend my suggestion. I said I hoped he would bring the matter to the notice of the noble Lord, Lord Croft, with a view to his taking it to a higher authority.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.