HC Deb 23 August 1860 vol 160 cc1727-33

said, he had a question to put to the hon. Gentleman the Secretary to the Treasury with reference to the convention which had been entered into by the late Government with the Government of Austria, providing for the establishment of a telegraphic line of communication between Ragusa and Corfu and between Corfu and Alexandria; and, though he addressed his question to the Secretary to the Treasury, he hoped he might also bespeak for it the attention of the noble Viscount at the head of the Government, as the subject was one of the greatest importance to the interests of this country. By the convention to which he had referred, a line of telegraphic communication was to be established between Ragusa and Corfu and between Corfu and Alexandria. The cost of the undertaking was to be £500,000, and the convention provided that a guarantee should be given to the shareholders of the company promoting the line to the amount of 3 per cent on the outlay of £500,000, the sum of £15,000 being paid by this country and £15,000 by Austria. The consideration of this question came before the Government of this country some years ago, and on the accession of the Earl of Derby's Administration to office, they thought it desirable that the proposed line of communication should be carried out as soon as possible. They accordingly entered into a convention with the Austrian Government on the terms which he had just mentioned. They thought that for the small sum of £15,000 a year the greatest advantages would be secured to this country; that a direct and independent telegraphic communication would be secured with Alexandria and our Eastern possessions, so that they would no longer be dependent on the means of com- munication through Franco or through any portion of the Neapolitan territory. But beyond this they had important establishments in Malta, and for a communication with that place it was of the highest importance that this line should be established; because it was acknowledged by all who had any knowledge of the Mediterranean submarine communication that the only feasible line was between Ragusa, Corfu, and Alexandria, and then it remained only to establish a link between Malta and Corfu. He was satisfied that for this sum of £15,000, this country would secure for herself much greater advantages than would be derived from it by Austria. He was given to understand that the Austrian Government were anxious still to carry out this convention, but that they were anxious also there should be some modification of the terms. He would give no opinion on that point. He was only anxious that Her Majesty's Government should pay the most earnest attention to the subject, and that they should not be led away by any fancied objections to give up a scheme which he believed would confer the greatest advantages on the country. The right hon. Chancellor of the Exchequer, referring to the subject some evenings ago, spoke of the numerous failures that bad occurred in telegraphic enterprises, and particularly pointed out the case of the Atlantic telegraph; but, in reality, no comparison could be established between the two cases, because, in the present instance, the length of cable was very much shorter than in that of the Atlantic, the soundings were more favourable, and the contract had been entered into by the Austrian Government with English gentlemen of the highest eminence, who had already 4,000 miles of submarine telegraph under their control and in efficient working order. An objection had been raised to the scheme which he did not think entitled to much weight, and that was that it was not desirable in matters of this kind to enter into joint arrangements with the Government of another country. Supposing such an objection to have weight in other instances, it had none in the present, because, though Austria joined this country in the matter of the guarantee, it was settled that each Government was to be responsible for the payment of £15,000 only; so that, whether the £15,000 was paid by Austria or not, no additional charge would be made on this country. It was also provided by the convention that a separate wire was to be preserved for the ex- clusive use of the English Government, not only from Ragusa to Corfu, but from Corfu to Alexandria. It was quite possible for the Government to make arrangements for obtaining an exclusive wire from London to the first station in Austria, and it would, therefore, be easy by adopting the convention with the Austrian Government for Her Majesty's Government to obtain an exclusive wire all the way from London to Alexandria. This matter had passed through his hands when at the Foreign Office. It was one in which he had taken the greatest interest, and he trusted Her Majesty's Government would not allow so favourable an opportunity to pass of obtaining a means of communication which would be of the greatest importance to this country both commercially and politically. The matter was, indeed, of so much importance that he wished to bespeak the attention of the noble Viscount at the head of the Government to it, for he was confident that the noble Viscount would, on examination, see such vast advantages from the formation of this telegraph line that he would not allow the convention to be hastily put aside. He wished now to ask whether Her Majesty's Government had had under their consideration the modifications proposed by the Austrian Government in the convention signed last year, whether they had returned any answer to that proposal, and, if not, whether they had come to any decision as to the answer to be returned to the Austrian Government?


said, that with reference to the general policy of the convention that he was quite ready to admit that the importance of establishing an independent telegraphic communication with India was such that if it could be assumed that for £15,000 a year this link could be secured the arrangement made by the late Government would he very desirable. But the subject had assumed a very different aspect since the arrangement was originally made. The Austrian Government had within the last few days announced that they should require very considerable modifications in the convention. As soon as the consent of the Turkish Government to laying the cable at Alexandria had been obtained the contractors were summoned to Vienna, and negotiations with the Austrian Government were commmenced for carrying out the undertaking. It was represented that the terms of the original convention were so insufficient that it was hopeless to attempt to raise the capital. It was therefore proposed that, instead of a guarantee of £15,000 a year, limited to twenty-five years, the British Government should guarantee an absolute dividend of £15,000 a year paid to the shareholders, so that if the expenses should exceed the receipts the deficiency would he made up. Her Majesty's Government were therefore now asked to guarantee £15,000 a year, and to make up the deficiency between the actual expenses and the receipts. That was a very important modification. Another proposal was that the period of liability for the payment of the guarantee should be extended from twenty-five to fifty years. The proposal, therefore, was that the British Government should give an absolute guarantee of £15,000, which might be greater, for 50 years. That guarantee, it was further proposed, should come into operation on the different sections of the cable being laid down successfully, so as to work for ten days consecutively. When the convention was first negotiated it was thought that if once the contractors succeeded in laying down the wire in deep water the risk was at an end. But subsequent experience had greatly modified this opinion. The cables between Malta and Sardinia and. Malta and Corfu were laid with success and were worked for months, yet from unknown causes they had failed, and the communication had not been restored. Three attempts were also made by the contractors to establish a telegraphic wire between Candia and Alexandria, which had proved to be failures. It was clear, therefore, that the risk of failure was greater than when the convention was originally considered, and that the bargain with the Austrian Government would be much more hazardous and onerous for this country. The Government could not assume with certainty that the first operation of laying the cable would be successful, seeing that the wire would traverse the same line between Candia and Alexandria on which three failures had already been incurred. It was then doubtful whether if the first operation were successful the Government could rely upon the continuance of the communication. He was not able to say what determination would be arrived at by Her Majesty's Government, because the despatch of the Austrian Government had only been in their possession for a few days. The subject would be, however, maturely considered by the Government, who anxiously desired to carry out a communication with India as soon as a reason- able arrangement could be made for that purpose.


said, he rose to call attention to the manner in which the Appropriation Bill was brought before the House. During that Session they had heard many discussions regarding the privileges of the House of Commons, and they had arrogated to themselves the supreme and entire right of legislation in all matters of finance. It therefore behoved them the more imperatively to take care that they should always follow a clear and intelligible course in all matters affecting the financial arrangements of the House. It was well known to every hon. Member that the Appropriation Bill was an enumeration of all the Votes which had passed during the Session in Committee of Supply. It was by that Act alone, legislative power was given to the Government to carry into effect what already had been voted; until that Act was passed there was no direct appropriation of the sums voted in Committee of Ways and Means. The Bill was, therefore, a most important one. Yet it was never brought forward in a way which enabled hon. Members to examine whether it assigned the Votes correctly to the different items for which the House had voted them. It appeared to him that there was a simple remedy for this. There would be no difficulty in the Government laying before the House a simple record of every Vote that had been passed in the course of the Session as soon as the last Vote was passed. Hon. Members could then compare the Appropriation Bill with that paper, and see whether the two documents agreed. At present there was no possibility of doing so. He thought, also, that the Appropriation Bill should contain a statement of the total amount of money voted in Committee of Supply, as that would enable hon. Members to see whether the sum total was exceeded by the various items or not. He understood from the Chairman of Committees that there would be no objection to such a course. It was quite possible, too, that when a Vote was reduced in the Committee, the reduction might not be made correctly. He wanted to know, moreover, why this Bill was not printed. He believed there was only one year in which it ever had been printed; it was the only Bill which was not printed, though it was in many respects the most important Bill of the Session.


said, his hon. Friend who had just spoken had done that which was very unusual in discussing the Appropriation Bill—namely, he had spoken strictly to the point. One of the objects which the hon. Member seemed to have, was to guard against any arithmetical error, and to place before hon. Members, generally, those data and that information without which they could not fulfil their duty. With respect to the former object, perhaps his hon. Friend was not aware of the course actually pursued. The Votes were watched and recorded at the Treasury, where accounts of the respective amounts were kept and the totals summed up. An independent account was also kept by the officers of the House, and when the results of the two accounts were the same it might be justly held that there was no error. With regard to the printing of the Bill, his hon. Friend was not strictly correct in saying that the Bill had only been printed once. The fact was, it was always printed, though not circulated, as it would be really a waste of money to print such a bulky Bill for general circulation. However he apprehended there would be no difficulty in striking oil a few copies, which might he in the Vote Office for any hon. Members who might call for them. With regard to the suggestion of printing a statement of the Votes at the close of Committee of Supply, such statement really was printed three times over, either literally or substantially, and he was doubtful about the necessity of printing them a fourth time. They were first printed in the Estimates, where, though they were liable to alteration, such alteration was not made in more than one instance out of fifty; they were also printed in the proceedings of the House from day to day, and in the Appropriation Bill. If, however, it was the opinion of the House that a fourth statement should be made at the close of Committee of Supply, there could be no objection to its being given. He certainly had begun to feel rather nervous when his hon. Friend first spoke of the privileges of Parliament, and the necessity of standing by the institutions of the country in the mode of conducting the business of the House, because he felt that his hon. Friend might perchance be about to allude to greater malversation of duty than that he had named. He thought, however, that the suggestions of the hon. Member were of a very suitable character.


said, the Bill had been printed four years ago, in consequence of his wishing to have a clear un- derstanding that the alteration in the Army and Navy Estimates were duly recorded. If his hon. Friend (Mr. Hankey) wished to ascertain the correctness of the accounts, he could compare the summary of Votes printed, after Vote No. 7, with the Appropriation Bill, making allowance for the alterations, and arrive at the result he wished in less than ten minutes.


said, that in consequence of what took place during the debate on the Estimates, he had moved for certain papers; and as a good deal of discussion had since taken place elsewhere as to the execution of the contract with the Indian Telegraph Company, he was anxious to know whether those papers he had moved for would be laid on the table during the Session.


said, there would be no difficulty in having them placed on the table before the end of the Session. He thought it very desirable that they should he, and that the Government should have the assistance of hon, Members in determining what might be their duty in reference to the subject. The late Committee on Telegraphic Contracts necessarily took a very limited view of the question, being appointed to consider not so much the provisions of the contracts as the manner in which they were made. If it was the opinion of the House that any of the provisions of those contracts ought to be a subject of investigation by a Committee, no objection, in his opinion, could be taken to a proceeding of that kind.

Bill read 3° and passed.