HC Deb 29 June 1860 vol 159 cc1221-36

Order for Committee read.

House in Committee. Mr. MASSEY in the Chair.

(In the Committee).

(1.) £10,009,778, Packet Service.


said, he wished to know the reason that the Vote for the contract between Galway and New York was omitted from the items of this Vote. The reason which had been given was, that the contract had not yet commenced; but neither had the increased Holyhead contract commenced, and yet the sum necessary for ten months at the higher rate was included. It was not dealing fairly with the two companies, and, as a right hon. Gentleman had given notice of his intention to divide the Committee on the Galway Vote he wished the Government to explain why it was postponed.


said, he wished to state that the order in which the Votes would be taken would be, first the packet service, then the revenue departments—Customs, Inland Revenue, and Post-office—and afterwards the other civil Estimates, beginning with class one. With regard to the Galway contract, the reason it was not included in the Estimates was that at the time the Estimates were prepared and submitted to the House it had not come into operation. The vessels had not then been tendered for survey. A correspondence was pending between the department and the company as to whether the vessels would be ready by the time specified, and the whole subject was before a Select Com- mittee, who had since reported, although that Report had not yet been printed and circulated. The case of Holyhead was very different. That contract was made a considerable time ago, in pursuance of the investigation of a Select Committee; the steamers were ready, and the only cause of delay was owing to some arrangement respecting the completion of the pier at Holyhead. With regard to the Galway contract, there was no alternative but to postpone it; and, so far from the Vote being prejudiced, it was obvious that if it had been inserted the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Bouverie) would have moved that it be struck out, and that a discussion would have been prematurely raised before the Report and evidence taken before the Select Committee were in the hands of hon. Members, and before it was finally ascertained that the company were ready to perform the service. Those who were most interested in the Vote were of opinion that the question would be more fully and fairly brought before the House by a supplemental Estimate rather than under that Vote.


said, he wished to get from the Government an assurance that they were sincere in their intentions as to the Galway contract. If the Government acted fairly with the Irish Members they would, on the other hand, render the Government every assistance.


said, he would promise that an opportunity should be given to the House of fully discussing the question of the Galway contract, which would suffer no prejudice from not being introduced into the present Vote. It was impossible for the Government to give a positive pledge as to the course they would pursue in regard to the contract until they had considered the Report of the Select Committee, which had just been presented to the House, but had not yet been printed.


said, he wished to know whether the Government held this contract to be binding, or whether they understood that question to be under the judgment of the Committee.


said, the vote for the packet service was one of the most important that could be brought before the House, especially as it was increasing yearly. According to an official report, the produce of this department of the postal service was only £400,000, so that the public were taxed to the amount of £600,000 in order to maintain it. He deemed that system both impolitic and unjust. Other countries which shared in the advantages of our postal service ought to contribute to its maintenance, and in the case of those, which would not, either the postal facilities should be reduced or the charges should be raised. The making of these contracts involved not a little corrupt patronage; and he urged the House to adopt the recommendation of one of its Committees, and not allow any such contract to be made without its sanction. He wished to know why the cost of the conveyance of the mails by steam-vessels between Holyhead and Kingstown had been raised from £25,000 last year to £75,750 this year? There was also an extravagant charge of £4,000 for the mails between Southampton and the Channel Islands. The West India mails cost £238,000, a sum which was not warranted by the amount of our trade with that part of the world, and the amount for the mails to the Cape was £32,000, and the conveyance between Point de Galle and Melbourne was £180,000, though he was glad to say that the Government at Melbourne had agreed to pay a large part of this sum. The cost of the mails between this country and America was £175,000, but why could not our Government imitate the example of the United States Government, by which they had recently saved a large sum in the conveyance of mails? He should certainly have divided the Committee on some of the Votes if they had not represented bonâ fide contracts.


remarked that the increase in the cost of the Holyhead and Kingstown service had been recommended by a Select Committee. It was now proposed to vote £75,000 as an increased subsidy for ten months. When, however, the agreement was made with the Railway Company and the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company for this increased service the companies wore promised an excellent pier in Holyhead Harbour. The companies had carried out their part of the agreement by the construction of magnificent vessels and by building new engines; but the third party, the Government, had never laid one single stone of the new pier, and consequently the service for which the Vote was proposed could not be carried out in so efficient a manner as would otherwise have been the case. If the present pier, with the alterations proposed, could be made as efficient as a new one, he would not be the advocate of an unnecessary expenditure. He would therefore agree to the Vote upon the Government giving an assurance that if at the end of a short time the proposed arrangement should not be found satisfactory, the original proposal would be carried out.


said, he understood that the pier at Holyhead would not be completed for two years. During that period the company would be carrying on the service without being subject to penalties, on account of the failure on the part of the Government to make the stipulated works at Holyhead. He regretted to see that while the amount for the Holyhead service was proposed to be voted, the Galway contract packet Vote of £60,000 was excluded, although that service had already been commenced on the faith of the country, and that shareholders had expended nearly £500,000 upon the building of four large vessels to carry out the mails. While, however, he thought it would be dangerous to break the public faith upon a commercial undertaking he agreed that these contracts ought in future always to have the first sanction of Parliament.


said, he thought that the people of Ireland would not have justice done to them if the Galway contract were not carried out.


said, he was glad to hear so general an expression of opinion in favour of laying these contracts before Parliament prior to their ratification by the Executive, and he should shortly submit a Resolution to the House in accordance with the recommendation of the Select Committee. The present contract expenditure amounted to between £600,000 and £700,000. It was not under the control of the House of Commons, and the Committee were satisfied that the services might be far more cheaply performed. In the instance of Belfast the mails were carried gratuitously, and he thought it possible in other cases to make the same arrangement, as many companies would carry the mails for the honour of their vessels being called mail-steamers. Without entering into the merits of the Galway contract, he would merely observe that the Report of the Committee which inquired into that matter not having been yet circulated, it was impossible for the Government to come to any decision; but he hoped that soon they would be in a position to do so.


said, he knew nothing of the recent disclosures as to the Galway contract, but hoped that the question would not be prejudiced by the mere fact of the contract being excluded from this Vote. It was a matter of great magnitude and importance, which he hoped would be seriously considered when the whole question of packet companies could be brought before the House. There was one recommendation of the Committee which he could not agree with. The Committee suggested that with respect to fresh contracts of this character the Government should accept some tender, but that the contract should not be binding until laid for a month before that House. He conceived that such an arrangement would be transferring from the Government to the House one of its most important functions. He thought it would be better, when the engagement was to extend over several years, that the Government should come to that House with a Resolution approving the service to be embodied in an Act of Parliament, and that the contract should be subsequently taken by the Treasury in the usual way. Such a course was adopted in other countries possessing representative institutions, and might well be adopted here. He wished for an explanation of one or two points from the hon. Secretary of the Treasury. He observed that in some instances where Estimates were framed of particular services there was a note that provision was otherwise made for those services; but the contributions which would cover part of the expense of the year would not be received until after the close of the year, and therefore no deduction was made on account of those contributions. That was a very inconvenient and not a very rational course of proceeding. In other parts of the Estimates this principle was entirely overlooked, as indeed it was with respect to some of the services in this very Vote. But as to others the deductions were large and not allowed for. In one instance, the deduction that should be made was £67,000, and in another instance £24,000, making a total of £91,000, which was a considerable sum out of £1,004,000. He also wished to know whether the Government had considered the expediency of taking steps to reduce the rates for the conveyance of mails to those of our possessions which were able to bear a portion of the cost. In some cases, such as Canada, India, Australia and Mauritius, those colonies did defray a portion of the cost, and he could not understand why the Cape and the West Indies could not do the same. He would also call attention to some of the arrangements for postal service between this country and our possessions beyond the Isthmus of Suez. Three or four years ago Lord Canning, then Postmaster General, made an excellent arrangement by which there was to be a fixed and uniform rate to all our Colonies, for letters of a certain weight, and another for newspapers. That arrangement worked well, and foreign countries and distant colonies adopted the plan; but lately there had been a change of policy at the Post Office, and a system had commenced under which in different ways impediments were placed in the way of the transmission of newspapers abroad. For instance, suddenly, and without notice, the rate of postage was doubled for newspapers across the Isthmus of Suez. When this was objected to, in justification of the course taken by the Post Office it was stated that since the completion of the railway, the charge on the public for crossing the Isthmus had been increased. He had moved for a return on this subject, from which it appeared that, instead of an increase there had been really a decrease in the charge to the extent of £20,000 a year; and he hoped that the conduct of the subordinates at the Post Office in putting forward this plea would be noticed by the Treasury; and that the additional tax would be taken off. It had been removed as to the Australian mails, on condition of the Colonies paying an equivalent; but even this, although unjust, had not been done for the India and China mails.


said, he thought that by better arrangements a considerable reduction might be effected in the amount charged for the conveyance of mails between an English port and any foreign country with which an active and a permanent trade was carried on.


said, it required a considerable number of men to man those packets, and it should be made a sine qua non that the whole of the men on board the packets should be reserved seamen, for they could always be found in the event of a war. A naval officer should be attached to the Post Office to see that these packets were properly manned. He did not think there would be any objection on the part of the contractors to consent to a plan for that purpose.


observed that the crews of those packet-ships would always be available for the country in case of any emergency; but he protested against any such interference on the part of the Government with the ships as the hon. and gallant Gentleman had suggested.


asked whether the Treasury had made any arrangement as to the future mode of entering into these packet contracts. Much evidence had been laid before the Committee last Session of the irregular course pursued by the public departments on this point. One striking fact was that no contract after it had once been entered into had ever terminated; they all seemed to prove a perpetual monopoly in the hands of those who originally got the grant. Now, that was not a proper state of things. It might be true that the original contractors were, on the whole, able to perform the work most efficiently and economically. But he was confident that there were occasions when these contracts should be thrown open again to public competition; and he thought the House was fairly entitled to expect the Government to give an undertaking that some fresh arrangement would be made for the future. The question was one involving the expenditure of more than a million a year, and after the mismanagement and abuses which the Committee had exposed the House ought to insist on a change in the system.


said, he entirely agreed with the right hon. Gentleman as to the unsatisfactory mode in which these contracts had been entered into in many cases in past times. The system of subsidies had frequently been carried further than was right, and he admitted that when Colonies were in a position to contribute a share of the cost of conveying the mails, as Australia was now doing, they should be called upon for a contribution. In the appendix to the first Report of the Committee there was a Treasury Minute showing that the subjects of these contracts had been fully considered, but as to the mode in which formal effect would be given to the conclusion of the Committee, the best plan would be by the adoption of the formal Resolutions which the Chairman of the Committee (Mr. Dunlop) intended, he believed, to bring before the House. He hoped that such Resolutions, giving effect to the unanimous opinions of the Committee on this point, would be submitted, for they would be found the most efficient remedy for the abuses which had prevailed. Entire publicity should be given to these transactions before they were finally concluded by the Government. The general question of contracts would not at all be prejudiced by taking this Vote, and in the expectation that the whole subject would be brought before the House he thought it better not to pursue the general question further.

With regard to the question of the Naval Reserve, there was no doubt that ships of most of the contract packet companies were manned by a superior class of men, but in the case of some of them it was obviously impossible that the men could find time for training. With the large companies, where long voyages were made, and the vessels remained some time in port, of course the men would have more opportunities. He was glad to say that the Peninsular and Oriental and the Royal Mail Steampacket Companies had shown great liberality, and had given every facility for inducing their men to join the Reserve.

With regard to the postage of newspapers to the Colonies, he quite agreed that every facility should be given for their transmission at as low an expense as would cover the prime cost of conveyance; beyond that he did not think it the duty of the Government to go. The complaint from Australia had instantly been met by a remission of the additional penny, but as yet he had received no representations with regard to India and China. If any were made, they would meet with the fullest and fairest consideration. No doubt, the account would look better if the sums paid by the Colonies for the transmission of the mails appeared on the face of it; but, as all the payments had to be made within in the year in this country, it was necessary to take a Vote for the whole, otherwise there would be no authority to make the requisite payment. The contributions of the Colonies were paid into the Exchequer, and went to swell the account.

As to the Holyhead Pier, he could assure the House that there was no intention on the part of the Government to depart from their obligation to construct such a pier as experience might show to be requisite for the convenience of the Irish service. Some delays had occurred in carrying out the original plan. A short time ago representations were made by the City of Dublin Steampacket Company that the most convenient arrangement would be to alter and complete the present pier, so as to make it a permanent structure, while the railway company were in favour of the original plan. Under these circumstances, it had been thought desirable to have a short experience of the actual working, and by next summer the Government would be in a position to see how the money could be spent with the greatest advantage.


observed that the explanation of the hon. Gentleman was not satisfactory. An additional expense of some £50,000 was to be incurred for the improvement of the Irish service, and it was very doubtful whether all the advantages which the House contemplated in voting that sum would be gained. All the other parties had performed their parts of the contract, but the Government had neglected to carry out theirs. About half an hour would be lost of the hour and a half which the House had calculated on gaining when it consented to this additional expenditure.


said, he was not satisfied with what the hon. Gentleman had said about the Galway contract. The Irish Members were not content with the statement that that contract should not be prejudiced. What they wanted was to know accurately and definitely in what light the Government viewed the contract, for the hon. Gentleman had given no satisfactory information on the point. He should like to hear him say in so many words whether if the contractors performed their part the Government would consider themselves bound by the contract. A very large proportion of the postage to America came from Ireland. He did not see, when contracts were made for packet service with other countries, the justice of always omitting Ireland. He wished, therefore, to know whether the principle, fairly and honestly adopted by the late Government, of making contracts for Irish service, was to be carried out.


said, that the only answer which he could give to the question of the hon. and gallant Member on the subject of the Galway contract was a very simple and distinct one. A Select Committee had been appointed by the House to report on the contract. Its Report was not yet printed and distributed, so as to be in the hands of the Government and of Members of the House, and until it was it would be impossible for the Government to indicate what course they would take. If any hon. Gentleman persisted in construing that into an adverse opinion on the part of the Government with respect to the Galway contract, he (Mr. Laing) must only say that such hon. Member was, in his opinion, prejudicing his own case very much.


observed that the large Vote now under consideration did not represent so much money out of pocket, for a deduction must be made for the postage, received and the amount paid by the Colonies. With respect to the Galway vote, there could be no doubt that the contract was made by the late Government in a perfectly legitimate and proper manner. He believed that the service had actually commenced, and that the Company would now be entitled to their money. There was no absolute necessity, however, that the Vote for the money should be taken immediately, and it would be inconvenient to take the Vote now, as the Report of the Select Committee would be circulated in a few days. He entertained no apprehension that the circumstances brought out in the Report would prejudice the parties to that contract, or interfere with the subsidy, but it was proper that the subject should be discussed, and he wished to understand that an opportunity would be given as early as possible, after the Report was in the hands of Members, for a full discussion, which was due not only to the public interest, but to private interests also.


said, he was entitled to ask the Government to say distinctly whether they were determined to ask for the £60,000, in accordance with the Vote in the Estimates, on the condition of the Galway contractors beginning to fulfil their contract not later than the month of June, 1860?


said, he noticed an increase of £600 in the Vote for the Dovor contract, which was said to be on account of a Sunday service, and he desired to know on whose recommendation that increase had been made.


said, that the increase of £600 in the Vote for Dovor arose out of new trips for Sundays between Calais and Dovor, which were rendered necessary in consequence of arrangements for considerably accelerating the mails between London and Paris. With regard to the Galway contract, he wished to explain that the Committee on Mail Contracts, who on a previous occasion declined to recommend the suspension of that contract, had been again called together by the Chairman. They went into a further investigation and made a Report, which was laid on the table, but was not yet printed and circulated. Under these circumstances it was impossible for him at present to give a pledge that the Galway Vote would be brought forward and supported as a Government measure. At that moment it was not possible for him to give any positive undertaking, but at the earliest moment after the Report had been printed and circulated which the state of public business would admit, the Government would consider the subject, and would make up their minds, and a full and fair opportunity would be given to the House of considering this question.


asked whether the first packet had actually sailed in fulfilment of the terms of the contract?


said, he was informed by a telegram received that day that she had done so.


said, he would congratulate the Committee on the official recognition which had at last been given to the contract by a Member of the Government. The system of manning packet vessels by the naval reserves would not be very favourably recceived. The competition was quite suffiient to ensure a good supply of able seamen.


complained of the unbusiness-like way in which these packet contracts were managed. He agreed with the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Bouverie) that, instead of being renewed, the contracts should be allowed to come to an end, and that all of them should be put up to public competition. In that case he believed the charge would soon be reduced.


said, he hoped the Committee, before it voted so large an amount, would receive from the hon. Secretary to the Treasury some more distinct and satisfactory assurance than had yet been given, that whatever might be the tenor of the Report of the Committee the Government would in no way interpose to prevent the fulfilment of the Galway contract, providing the parties were capable of carrying it into execution. The remarks of the hon. Gentleman rather conveyed the impression of a foregone conclusion; but he trusted the English Members would not be led into committing an act of injustice towards innocent parties who had become shareholders in the company on the faith of its receiving the subsidy from Government. Unless the pier at Holyhead were completed it would be put out of the power of the public to enforce penalties against the steampacket companies if they failed in their portion of the undertaking.


said, he thought that hon. Gentlemen interested in the Galway contract were only manifesting their apprehensions by endeavouring to elicit beforehand from the House a pledge that they would not be guided by, or even wait for, the Report of the Committee to whom this subject had been specially referred.


said, he was of opinion that upon every principle of justice the Galway contract ought to be maintained; but that that was not the time for discussing the question, as no satisfactory conclusion could be arrived at in the absence of the Report of the Committee. Putting contracts up to competition was not always the soundest manner of proceeding, for very often it happened that it resulted in one or two great companies getting the contract simply from the fact that there was no one to compete with them. He believed that where there were many competing elements, the putting up of contracts to public competition was sound, and he looked forward to the time when the postal communication with America could be put up to public competition, but that was not the case with regard to the conveyance of mails between this country and other places, especially the East; and he might mention the fact that an attempt was made to throw the conveyance of mails between this country and the Red Sea open to public competition; but after numerous attempts it fell, after all, into the hands of the Peninsular and Oriental Company.


said, he must again ask for a distinct assurance that, unless the circumstances which had occurred since the 11th of June were such as to justify the Government in retracting their previous proposal, the Galway contract would be brought forward in the Estimates with the full weight of Government influence.


repeated that the circumstances to which he alluded were the reassembling of the Committee consequent on the receipt of fresh information, and the furnishing of a fresh Report, which had been laid on the table of the House, but which had not yet been printed.


asked, whether any understanding had been come to with Mr. Churchward about the extra services?


replied, that Mr. Churchward was entitled to payment by the piece for the extra services which he performed for the Post Office. It was found that this came as nearly as possible to £2,500 a year, and it had been thought more convenient, both for the Post Office and the contractor, that a fixed sum should be paid as long as the contract lasted. But it was distinctly understood on both sides that this in no way altered the period at which the contract was to expire, which, according to the view of the Treasury, was in the year 1863.


asked when the new pier at Holyhead would be completed, and whether the plans had been submitted to the railway and steamboat companies?


said, the plan of the temporary pier had been first suggested by the Dublin Steampacket Company, and approved by the railway company.


said, that so far from the sum of £2,500 being the amount at which the extra services would be charged if paid for by the job, the fact was that it would cost £3,400. There was a sum of about £900 estimated as the expense of a small steamer running to Calais, which was a matter of dispute between the Post Office and Mr. Churchward, and that was the way in which the sum of £3,400 was made up. Mr. Churchward had commuted the whole of the bonâ fide extra services for £2,500 a year, on the faith of the extension of the contract.


said, he wished to understand whether the Treasury had, on the one hand, taken advantage of the arrangement made by the late Government with Mr. Churchward to give a certain commuted sum of £2,500 as for extraordinary services, and, on the other, did not allow Mr. Churchward the advantage of an extension of his contract. The late Government thought it desirable to settle Mr. Churchward's claim by a commuted sum, which he had agreed to take in consideration of the extension of his contract. That was the bargain. If both parts of it stood it was a right and good bargain, for the advantage of the country and Mr. Churchward also; but if the Government took one half and not the other, he did not know what to think of it.


said, he could not allow such a statement as that of the hon. Under Secretary to pass uncontradicted. The whole matter was very carefully in- quired into, legal opinions were taken, and it was found that Mr. Churchward was entitled to the full amount of £3,400; and that not a farthing could be deducted for the steamer alluded to. There was no stipulation whatever about such a steamer in the contract, and, in point of fact, it was, as had been stated, a commutation of a claim on the faith of the extension of the contract.


said, that the arrangement made by the Post Office with Mr. Churchward was the alternative one either to pay him by the job or at a commuted rate; and, without any pressure being brought to bear upon him, he elected to take the commuted rate. The employment of the small steamer had been dispensed with.


said, he was sorry to trouble the House again about the Holyhead pier, but as they were now in summer weather—he meant the period when summer might be expected—and in six months the winter would come, when it was most important that there should be good accommodation for the mail packets, he thought it was hardly fair that the Government should be so strict with the steam packet contractors while they neglected to complete the necessary arrangements for the landing and embarking of the mails.


said, it was absurd to call it a pier at Holyhead. It was impossible to run large vessels along side of it in any weather.


said, he wished to know whether the pier arrangement at Holyhead was a temporary one; if so, it was a very good one, but if it was intended to be permanent it was a bad one. There must be a permanent stone pier.


said, the present structure was merely temporary, until it could be decided where it would be most advantageous to construct a permanent pier. He hoped it would be ready by the 1st of August.


inquired when the Estimate for Galway would be brought forward.


said, he could not in the present state of public business name a night, but ample notice would be given on the subject.

Vote agreed to, as were also,

(2.) £855,200 Customs' Department.

(3.) £1,490,813 Inland Revenue Department.


asked for an explana- tion of the sum of £14,000 for the services of the Irish constabulary.


said, that that sum had been set down in the Estimate in consequence of the transfer to them of the duties of the late revenue police.


said, that with reference to the reduction in the expenses of the Customs department promised by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his financial statement, he wished to ask why that reduction had not been carried into effect.


said, it was manifest it must take some time to carry the proposed reduction into effect. In the Customs' department the consolidation consequent upon the simplification of the tariff had as yet been put into operation only in the port of London, where a reduction in the establishment of 276 persons and a saving, consequent on the proposal of his right hon. Friend, of £48,471 a year might be expected. The Committee might rest assured that so far as the Government were concerned they would be prepared to give the country the benefit of any saving which might be accomplished in the working of the department.


said, that it was not wise to effect savings in the Custom-house at the expense of the merchants who had to do business there. He understood that the reductions already made had rendered necessary the employment of 300 or 400 additional clerks in Mincing-lane.


said, he thought that the Committee ought to have some further explanation as to how this saving was to be effected.

Vote agreed to.

(4). £2,108,581, Post Office.


asked whether it was intended to appoint any one to replace the Earl of Elgin as Postmaster General, or whether that noble Earl was to continue to draw the salary of that office?


said, that since the departure of the Earl of Elgin from this country the Duke of Argyll had held the office of Postmaster General and had received its salary. If the Earl of Elgin proceeded to China some other arrangement must be adopted, and a permanent successor to him must be appointed.


asked whether the Duke of Argyll had vacated the office of Lord Privy Seal?


replied that the noble Duke filled both offices, but received only the salary of the Postmaster General.

Vote agreed to; as was also (5) £477,838 Superannuations.

House resumed; Resolutions to be reported on Monday next; Committee to sit again on Monday next.