HC Deb 09 May 1878 vol 239 cc1598-601

rose to call attention to the Contracts at present existing between the Post Office and the Peninsular and Oriental Company, under which the Company are fined for the non-delivery of the mails at the contract dates, without any allowance being made for fogs or bad weather; and to move— That, in the opinion of this House, the existence and the enforcing of such a Contract leads to incurring great and unjustifiable risks, by inducing, and even compelling, the masters of mail packets to neglect the usual and necessary precautions in such weather, and thereby to endanger life and property; and that in such Contracts the give and take system ought to be adhered to. The hon. Member said, he had taken up the question entirely on public grounds, not having the smallest amount of interest in any of the Companies comprised in the Resolution. The manner in which these Contracts were drawn up induced commanders of vessels to run unjustifiable risks, and involved great loss of life and property at sea. A letter, which had recently appeared in The Times, entirely bore out that view, and, indeed, might be accepted as an absolute proof of the correctness of that view; for that journal was not in the habit of inserting letters without having full confidence as to the position of their writers and their means of obtaining information. He maintained, therefore, that the inevitable consequence of holding a Company rigidly to the terms of its Contract under all circumstances was to jeopardize the safety of the steamers, their passengers, and crews. It was not right that such Contracts should contain the clauses to which he referred, as their retention had lately resulted in the loss of a fine mail steamer off Ushant, while attempting to cut off a corner, in order to save time. There was no possible justification for them, and the safest and surest way to all concerned would be to revert to the old system. The hon. Member concluded by moving the Resolution.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "in the opinion of this House, the enforcing of a Contract which makes no allowance for fogs or bad weather leads to great and unjustifiable risks, by inducing, and even compelling, the masters of mail packets to neglect the necessary precautions in such weather, and thereby to endanger life and property; and that in such Contracts the give and take system ought to be adhered to,"—(Mr. Bentinck,) —instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


said, he could not concur with the remarks that had fallen from the hon. Member. It was not absolutely the case that no ship of the Peninsular and Oriental Company's fleet had ever been lost; it was a fact that none of them had ever been lost on account of excessive speed in a fog. The case of the Bengal, with which he was himself acquainted, might, perhaps, seem to bear out the assertions of the hon. Member; but the fact was, that the delay was occasioned entirely by the inferior quality of the coal supplied, and was not caused by any danger or risk. He had never heard of any complaints on the part of the Company that the Government had been too hard on them; on the contrary, the Contract was, to some extent, expansive, and allowed a certain margin of time for stress of weather. If it were true that the Poonah had been fined £400, the fine must have been inflicted for reasons other than delay on account of bad weather. It could not be said that the captains of the Company's ships ever ran unjustifiable risks in using a high rate of speed during a fog; no body of officers were more praiseworthy, and they were particularly careful, both as to the discipline and the navigation of their ships—being, in fact, ordered to go at a low rate of speed rather than run into danger. The loss of the European, he would remind the House, was due to bad seamanship, and not to the terms of the Contract with the Government; and it was not in accordance with the practice of the captains of the Company to run risks in order to save fines. He thought that the Motion was rather uncalled for, and that the hon. Member had not made out any case whatever.


said, that he quite appreciated the motives of his hon. Friend who had proposed the Resolution, and he knew that he would, at the same time, do the Government the justice to believe that they did not desire to enforce any Contract injurious to human life. As a matter of fact, he had never before heard it suggested that the Contract had operated injuriously and had been the cause, either directly or indirectly, of any mishap and loss of life. It was a most extraordinary circumstance that, in the whole of the four years during which the contract had existed, no such case had occurred, though the Company's steamers had performed 364 voyages within that period. The matter did not rest there; for another Company—the Royal Mail Company—had a similar Contract with the Government, and their steamers had performed 154 voyages during the same period, without the loss of a single life having occurred through the provisions of the Contract. Consequently, for want of evidence, he was not much surprised to find that his hon. Friend had fallen back upon an anonymous letter published in The Times, which was said to have been written by an ex-captain of a Peninsular and Oriental steamer. He found that the Post Office had no knowledge of what was described in that letter as the "give-and-take system," nor was any information as to the meaning of the phrase to be had at the office of the Peninsular and Oriental Company; and he was consequently at a loss to know what was the system advocated in that letter. The old system was one of penalties on the one hand, and small premiums on the other; but he did not imagine that his hon. Friend wished them to recur to it; for if there were danger to life from the system of penalties, it would be increased by adding the motive of hope as an incentive to the ship's captain, and the House would probably agree with him that a premium for speed was not desirable. He confessed, then, that he thought the present system satisfactory. The Company itself had, in 1874, requested an alteration of the Contract then existing, and the Government, in making the alteration, had thought themselves justified in imposing penalties for undue delay. It was to be remembered that the Contract exacted no immoderate speed; the maximum contract speed was only 11 knots, and east of Suez the minimum fell to 9½ knots; so that the stipulation could not be said to be productive of danger. Since they had entered into that Contract no disasters had been attributed to it, and the European, which had been lost recently, belonged to neither of the two contracting Companies. In short, the existing system worked satisfactorily. Under these circumstances, and especially as there had been complaints from India that the contract speed of these ships did not meet the requirements of the mercantile community, he thought the hon. Member might rest content without asking the House to pass his Motion, which was devoid of all substantial foundation.


concurred in the opinion expressed by the two last speakers, adding the expression of his belief that the proposed alteration would be injurious rather than beneficial.


said, he had in the course of the last 10 or 12 years made 25 voyages in the Peninsular and Oriental ships between this country and Egypt in all sorts of weather, and could bear testimony to the admirable manner in which those vessels were managed, both by officers and men. He had never known an instance of these ships going at an unduly fast speed in order to keep time. The present rate was, in his opinion, too slow; and he hoped the Postmaster General would provide for a material increase of speed when the noble Lord came to consider the renewal of the Contract.

Question put, and agreed to.