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Clause 9—(Liability In Connection With Postal Packets)

Volume 440: debated on Friday 25 July 1947

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1.28 p.m.

I beg to move, in page 7, line 10, to leave out "market," and to insert "replacement."

This is a manuscript Amendment, which I have handed in to the Table and of which the Attorney-General has cognisance. Those hon. Members who were present during the discussions on the Committee stage will recall that on that occasion an Amendment was moved to delete the whole of the Subsection, and the Amendment was defeated. The reason for that Amendment was, briefly, the argument that the market value of a registered postal packet would be almost impossible to determine. That argument was not entirely successful, and it was rejected by the Attorney-General. The reason I am now moving this much more limited Amendment is because I think it meets, in substance, the arguments which we advanced, and also meets the point raised by the Attorney-General in reply.

The effect of the Amendment is this. We all agree that if a registered postal packet is lost or damaged, the consignor of the postal packet should not be in a position to recover more than—if I may use a neutral phrase—the proper value of that packet. The words in the Subsection are "market value." The market value is likely to be exceedingly difficult to ascertain. A case which has been quoted is that of an article which one might find at some rather specialist shop —not a proprietary article, but an article in reasonably common production which can be bought in a West End shop for say,£20 Elsewhere that article may be obtained for £15, and somewhere else even for £12 10s. The article is new. It is put in the post and gets lost. In the article then new or secondhand? What is its market value? All these questions, and a great many others with which I will not now burden the House, arise on the consideration of the market value. The right hon. and learned Gentleman, if I am correctly reporting him, said that the criterion must be the market value, in order to exclude consequential value. We realise that there may well be a flow of values which are consequential and which should not be recoverable.

It is in order to meet the right hon. and learned Gentleman in that respect that I have adopted the suggestion which was first put forward by the hon. Member for Oldham (Mr. Hale) of replacement value. One example which was quoted from the benches opposite was this: What would be the market value of legal documents which were consigned through the post, registered and lost? What would be the market value of conveyances, contracts and waste parchment suitable only for the making of jam pot covers? The market value would clearly be negligible. But the replacement value, which is really the actual value—and "actual value" was the expression used by the right hon. and learned Gentleman later in the Debate on this subject—would be the true value which, up to the limit for which he had insured by registration, the consignor should be entitled to recover. I believe replacement value is the true criterion which should be included, and which I know it is the desire of hon. Members on both sides of the House should be included in this rather difficult Clause.

I beg to second the Amendment.

The Attorney-General will remember the argument which was advanced on the previous stage. He will remember that it was suggested that the words "market value" in the case of certain types of articles brought in certain disadvantages, and, while he put forward what were perfectly valid objections to the Amendment which was moved on that occasion, I suggest that the present Amendment gets over those difficulties while, at the same time, getting over the difficulties which several of my hon. Friends anticipated from the use of the word "market."

We have given very careful consideration to the arguments which were very properly raised when this matter was considered in Committee, but I am afraid we are not able to accept the Amendment. It has to be understood that the Post Office are only undertaking a limited form of insurance in regard to this matter, and these limitations have to be maintained. What hon. Members opposite are now seeking to do is to substitute for the test of market value, a test which is wider and, as we think, in some cases at all events, more difficult to apply and enforce. Certainly it is a test which, in certain cases, might give rise to a much heavier liability than the Post Office are at present prepared to accept. We cannot attempt to cater for the special type of case which the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Joynson-Hicks) has in mind. In the common run of cases, it is very difficult to see that there is any valid criticism which can be directed against the market value as being the common measure of compensation. It is a measure with which the courts are very familiar, and which they are applying constantly in cases concerning the sale of goods, conversion, detinue, and so on, and in practice the courts have no difficulty in deciding in each case whether to apply a wholesale, retail, new or second hand price.

If, to take a particular example which was mentioned, it turns out that something was bought at an inflated price in the West End, which could have been bought much more cheaply elsewhere, I am afraid that those who made the mistake of buying at the inflated price may have to suffer the consequences of their extravagance in that respect. These are matters which are dealt with commonly by the courts in the normal course of their ordinary jurisdiction. Given the limitation—and this is what has to be accepted in regard to the whole service—of the registered service in its insurance aspect, market value is, we think, the fairest and, on the whole, the most practical criterion which can be adopted.

The Post Office cannot seek to convert registration into a full dress insurance scheme designed to cater for exceptional or varied cases. The provision of a scheme of that kind is not one of the functions of the Post Office. On the contrary, it is absolutely essential, if the service is to be maintained at all, for it to be simple so that it can continue to be run by the ordinary provincial staff who handle it and conduct it now, and so that it should not impose so heavy a financial burden as would necessitate a very considerable increase in rates. The registered service does not pay its way at the moment, and if we undertook a higher liability than that which we are prepared to undertake by the Clause as drafted, the loss would, indeed, be a substantial one. Therefore, I am sorry to say that I cannot accept the arguments of the learned Member, persuasive though they were.

Might I ask one question before the right hon. and learned Gentleman concludes? Suppose a person has paid Lao for a new article, takes it straight off to a post office, and dispatches it by registered post, paying the fee which they ask for registration up to the value of Lao. Does the learned Attorney-General consider it fair, when that article is lost and a claim made: that the Post Office should then say: "The market value is only £10?"

The answer is that the Post Office would not say that at all It would be entirely a matter for the court to say what was the market value, and I have no doubt that the court would come to a fair conclusion about it. At all events, it would not be for me, and is not for me, to criticise the conclusion at which the court might come. I should think they might well come to the conclusion that the market value in the case of the absolutely new article remained at £20. I do not know; it is entirely a matter for the court.

Amendment negatived.