HC Deb 24 June 1901 vol 95 cc1320-9

Order read, for further consideration of Third Resolution, "That a sum, not exceeding £571,085, be granted to His Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1902, for the Expenses of the Post Office Packet Service."

MR. WEIR (Ross and Cromarty)

moved the reduction of the Vote by £100. He said he had brought this matter forward in Committee, but the reply of the representative of the Postmaster General was extremely unsatisfactory. A subsidy of £3,000 a year was paid to the owners of the steamer "Clydesdale," which carries the Stornoway mails, and which is upwards of forty years old and too slow, and not very safe in these stormy seas. When in Committee, the hon. Gentleman the Secretary to the Treasury had talked of the "Victory" being over one hundred years old, and yet quite safe, but the hon. Gentleman ought to have known better than to have talked such nonsense. If the late Postmaster General, the Duke of Norfolk, had remained in office, he was sure there would have been a satisfactory steamer for this service by this time. A Conservative Government had voted £260,000 for the extension of the railway to Mallaig, on the ground that it would open up better communication with Stornoway and the Western Highlands. He asked a question on the 7th of this month on the subject of an improved packet service, and the Postmaster General's representative replied that it was not the duty of the Post Office to incur additional expense for the conveyance of passengers and goods, and that all they had to do was to see that the steamers were suitable for the conveyance of mails. The hon. Gentleman the Financial Secretary to the Treasury had not been long in office; his predecessor would not have talked such nonsense. On the 9th June, 1899, the Surveyor General and Assistant Secretary to the Post Office stated that it must not be overlooked that the West Highland packet service was established for the conveyance of passengers and goods as well as for the conveyance of mails. There ought to be a better boat between the Island of Lewis and the mainland than the forty-year-old one which was at present employed. He hoped the hon. Gentleman representing the Post Office would give an assurance that a better boat would be provided. He had for months been led to believe that tenders would be invited for the Stornoway mail steamer service, but he was now told that there was no such intention. Seeing that so many Highlanders had gone to fight the battles of the country, he thought the people of the Highlands should receive more consideration. This was a matter which should not be treated in an airy and indifferent manner in this House. He was quite sure if the predecessor of the hon. Gentleman and the Duke of Norfolk had still been at the head of the Post Office it would not have been necessary to bring this matter forward again.

Amendment proposed— To leave out '£571,085,' and insert '£570,985,' instead thereof."—(Mr. Weir.)

Question proposed, "That '£571,085' stand part of the resolution."

MR. O'MARA (Kilkenny, S.)

said the hon. Member for Ross-shire was perfectly right in bringing forward this question in regard to the forty-year-old tub. But the point he wished to bring before the House had no relation to the forty-year-old tub, but to the latest ships that had come from the dockyards. He meant the P. and O. liners. Subsidies were paid to the P. and O. Company to the tune of thousands of pounds a year. Their vessels employed a large number of men, and among the hands were numbered a large proportion of lascars. These lascars did the hardest and most difficult work on board the vessels, and he believed no white men were able, when the vessels were passing through the Red Sea, to stand the atmosphere and the temperature so well. These lascars had to work for their living, and for that reason it was all the more necessary that, looking to the circumstances under which they worked, they should have sufficient, wholesome, and proper accommodation. This was a matter that had come before the House on former occasions. It was a disgrace to the company that they should insist on these men living in over-crowded apartments, working fearfully hard, and receiving insufficient food. Everybody who knew anything about seafaring life knew that these lascars were treated in a way that no Christian employers would treat men, and no seaman of any European nation would put up with the treatment they received. The reason he brought it up on this Vote was not in connection with the case that was decided the other day. In that case he believed the Government did make an attempt to make the P. and O. liners amenable to British law. The P. and O. Company, in order to save the few pounds which would make these lascars fairly comfortable, had appealed against being made amenable to British law, and had appealed to Indian law. His intention in speaking of these matters was to call attention to the fact that this House provided a subsidy every year of £250,000 for these P. and O. boats. [An HON. MEMBER: £330,000.] This was an enormous sum for carrying mails, and he would suggest that the Post Office, in paying this money, ought to insist that these men were carried under conditions that were wholesome and more Christian like than they were now. It was a short-sighted policy, from the company's own point of view, for the men could not be fit to work properly when they were treated in this way. It was a great shame that in this Christian land we should pay £330,000 a year to a company that would treat human beings in the way these unfortunate black men were treated. He had much pleasure, therefore, in supporting his hon. friend the Member for Ross-shire in his Amendment to reduce the amount of this Vote. He thought they ought to have some promise from the Secretary to the Treasury that the matter would be looked into, and that another contract would not be given to the P. and O. liners until the conditions of the men had been ameliorated. He suggested that it should be put in the contract that the men in their employment would be treated in a right way.


I think the hon. Member must have forgotten that it was stated when this matter was discussed in Committee that the P. and O. Company are carrying these mails for the Post Office under a contract in which the Postmaster has no power to interfere. [An HON. MEMBER: When does the contract expire?] Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will allow me to continue. The Postmaster General has no power to interfere during the currency of the contract. The hon. Member has expressed the hope that this matter will be considered before a new contract is made. I am perfectly certain this matter will be considered at that time, but as the present contract runs till 1905, the hon. Gentleman will see that it is not in my power to interfere in the matter at present. The hon. Member for Ross-shire raised a question, which he has several times raised in this House, as to the Stornoway mail service. He complained that the boat was a slow one—much slower than those engaged in other services—and that it was a very old boat. He suggested that it was not seaworthy. He accused the present Postmaster of extreme meanness in not providing a better service. I cannot help feeling interested in the compliments which the hon. Member paid to our predecessors in office. I hope that when we retire from our present positions he will have a kindly word to say of the services we have rendered. This boat is undoubtedly an old boat, and it does not provide so good a service as either the Postmaster General or myself would desire, but I am advised that it is a perfectly safe boat, and that there is no occasion for the fears hon. Gentlemen may feel in regard to it. The Post Office makes a profit, but it is not to be expected that out of the profit which is made every year we should be able to meet all the claims put forward for improved services. If the Postmaster General were to assent to every demand for better or increased services made upon him, that profit, amounting to between £3,000,000 and £4,000,000, would very soon fade away, and instead of there being that sum to go in the reduction of taxation there would be a fresh demand made for taxation. The Post Office does recognise that it has a monopoly, and that there is laid upon it the necessity of giving services to the poorer and more scattered districts. I have already informed the House that the service referred to by the hon. Member is carried on at a cost of more than double the revenue received from it. I think that that is not an ungenerous arrangement. I cannot hold out any prospect that the Government will very largely increase the cost of the service until they can see some chance of a return for the services rendered. The hon. Gentleman inquires when fresh tenders will be called. At the present time there is no reason to believe that the result of calling for fresh tenders would be the obtaining of an improved service without an undue extra cost to the public. The hon. Gentleman complained of some inconsistency he had discovered between an answer given to him from the Department the other day, and an answer given to him a couple of years ago. I have not seen the latter communication, but so far as I understand it, there does not seem to be any inconsistency between the two. It is a fact that the primary duty of the Postmaster General is to deal with the mail service, and not to provide for the conveyance of passengers.


said he did not follow the hon. Member for Ross-shire in regard to this particular mail service in the highlands of Scotland, but he was bound to hold the opinion that, when a ship was forty years old, and the conditions were as described by the hon. Member, it was a reasonable request to make to the Post Office authorities to put a new ship on the service. The hon. Gentleman said that the Post Office could not afford to increase the expenditure on this service but he must see that it was necessary there should be no accident, and that the mails should not be conveyed in a ship not thoroughly fit to perform the service. If he were a Scotch and not an Irish Member, he would press forward, in the strongest possible way, the reasonable demands of the hon. Member for Rossshire, but he supposed, from the attitude of the Secretary to the Treasury, that he would wait until this ship went to the bottom before any improvement was made in the service. He wished to draw the attention of the House to the subject, very properly brought up by the hon. Member for South Kilkenny, with reference to the subsidy paid to the P. and O. Company. In view of the fact that he had that very day a question on the Paper to the President of the Board of Trade with reference to the employment of lascar seamen, he was glad of this opportunity of asking what the Government intended to do in regard to the subsidy to the P. and O. Company. The hon. Gentleman had said that in 1905, when the present contract terminated, the Post Office authorities would consider what fresh conditions they would make with the P. and O. Company. He begged to say that that would not meet the case. Only two or three days ago a judgment had been given by Mr. Justice Mathews in the King's Bench Division that under British law seamen were entitled to the same treatment in regard to cubic space as European sailors. It was quite true that in answer to his question the President of the Board of Trade told him that the P. and O. Company had lodged a notice of appeal.

MR. DILLON: (Mayo, E.)

They have asked permission to appeal.


said that whether the P. and O. Company appealed or not the decision on this matter would be either set aside or upheld within the course of a very short time. In the meantime, the judgment given by Mr. Justice Mathews stood good; but they had this circumstance, that whereas it had been laid down by the King's Bench Division that lascar seamen were entitled to the same space on board ship as European sailors, the representative of the Post Office said that the matter would not be considered until the conclusion of the contract in 1905. That was not reasonable. Did the Secretary to the Treasury tell him that the Post Office authorities would continue to pay a subsidy of hundreds of thousands of pounds to a company which was not giving these lascars the treatment to which by law they were entitled? That would be intolerable. The Government should insist now, instead of waiting until 1905, on these coloured seamen being given the same treatment as white seamen. He asked the hon. Gentleman whether he could not give some undertaking that if the decision of the King's Bench Division was upheld, some attempt would be made to get the P. and O. Company to give the same treatment to lascars as to European sailors. He understood that the subsidy to the P. and O. Company amounted to £330,000 a year, and he said it would be a monstrous thing that that subsidy should be given to a company which acted contrary to the law.


said that this was a matter of very great importance. He went on the lines of the hon. Members for East Clare and South Kilkenny. The judgment given in the King's Bench division was only the last act in a whole series of events in a grave public scandal. Here they had a great, wealthy company, which for years had enjoyed the largest and most profitable contracts under the Government, which contracts had been renewed again and again in spite of the fact that the service had been scandalously bad in point of speed. His hon. friend said that the subsidy amounted to £330,000; he thought it was over £400,000; at all events, it was by far the largest given to any steamship company. Four or five years ago this matter was brought up before the House by his friend Mr. Wilson, then Member for Middlesbrough. The charge was made that the P. and O. Company had been violating the law for many years, and that the Board of Trade was overlooking that violation. That was a very serious charge to make, and had been indignantly denied by the then President of the Board of Trade. There was a very angry con troversy between Mr. Wilson and the President of the Board of Trade, but afterwards Mr. Wilson did succeed in establishing the proposition to the satisfaction of the Board of Trade and the law officers of the Crown that the P. and O. Company were breaking the law. As he understood, the ordinary practice, and the practice prescribed by a section in the Merchant Shipping Act, was that for every seamen denied his proper accommodation on these steamboats the Board of Trade should proceed under summary jurisdiction to recover a penalty of £20. That would be the ordinary course of procedure with any other company, and why was it not taken with the P. and O. Company at once?

MR. BANBURY (Camberwell, Peckham)

I rise to a point of order. Is it in order to discuss the action of the Board of Trade on this Vote?


It is not the action of the Board of Trade that is being discussed. It is the question whether under the circumstances subsidies should be given to this company. To discuss the action of the Board of Trade would not be in order.


I was avoiding discussion of the action of the Board of Trade. What I am discussing is that this subsidised company has been allowed persistently to break the law.

MR. HOULT (Cheshire, Wirrall)

I think the hon. Member will only be in order if these ships are not properly equipped.


Can the hon. Member not have common sense to listen to what I am saying, for that is the whole point I have been endeavouring to make. The ships are admittedly—and they have now been decided in the Court of King's Bench to be—illegally equipped, and sailing in every voyage in direct violation of the laws of the land. When we bring forward that statement we are met by the Secretary to the Treasury in a light and airy manner, who says that in 1905 the matter will be considered by the Post Office. Are we to be told that this enormous subsidy is to be paid to a company for a single steamer which is illegally equipped?


I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman misunderstood me. I did not say that this thing was to be allowed to continue. What I said was that the Post Office had no power to terminate the subsidy before the year 1905. What action is taken must be taken by the Board of Trade.


I shall not go further into the question now, because I believe I shall have an opportunity of raising it fully on the Board of Trade Vote. I had forgotten that. I stated at the beginning that the reason I proposed to debate the subject at this late hour was that I thought it would be the last opportunity. I shall simply give notice now that the matter will be raised on the Vote for the Board of Trade.

Question put.

The Committee divided:—Ayes, 142; Noes, 71. (Division List No. 274.)

Acland-Hood, Capt Sir A. F. Bentinck, Lord Henry C. Chamberlain, J. Austen (Wor'c
Agg-Gardner, James Tynte Bignold, Arthur Chapman, Edward
Anson, Sir William Reynell Bigwood, James Churchill, Winston Spencer
Archdale, Edward Mervyn Blundell, Colonel Henry Collings, Rt. Hn. Jesse
Arkwright, John Stanhope Bond, Edward Compton, Lord Alwyne
Arnold-Forster, Hugh O. Boscawen, Arthur Griffith- Cox, Irwin Edward Bainbridge
Arrol, Sir William Bousfield, William Robert Cranborne, Viscount
Atkinson, Rt. Hon. John Brodrick, Rt. Hn. St. John Crossley, Sir Savile
Bagot, Capt. Josceline FitzRoy Butcher, John George Dalkeith, Earl of
Bain, Col. James Robert Carson, Rt. Hn. Sir Edw. H. Davies, Sir Horatio D. (Chatham
Balcarres, Lord Cautley, Henry Strother Dickson, Charles Scott
Balfour, Rt. Hn. A. J. (Manch'r Cavendish, R. F. (N. Lancs.) Dickson-Poynder, Sir John P.
Balfour, Capt. C. B. (Hornsey) Cavendish, V. C. W (Derbyshire) Doughty, George
Balfour, Rt. Hn. G. W. (Leeds Cecil, Evelyn (Aston Manor) Douglas, Rt. Hon. A. Akers
Banbury, Frederick George Cecil, Lord Hugh (Greenwich) Durning-Lawrence, Sir Edwin
Fellowes, Hon. Ailwyn Edw. Leveson-Gower, Frederick N. S. Robertson, Herbert (Hackney
Fielden, Edward Brocklehurst Llewellyn, Evan Henry Rolleston, Sir John F. L.
Finch, George H. Lockwood, Lt.-Col. A. R. Round, James
Fisher, William Hayes Long, Col. Charles W. (Evesham) Sackville, Col. S. G. Stopford-
Fletcher, Sir Henry Long, Rt. Hon. W. (Bristol, S.) Sadler, Col. Samuel Alexander
Forster, Henry William Lucas, Col. Francis (Lowestoft) Sandys, Lt.-Col, Thomas Myles
Godson, Sir Augustus Fredk. Lucas, Reginald J. (Portsmouth Smith, Hn. W. F. D. (Strand)
Gordon, Hn. J. E. (Elgin & Nairn) Macartney, Rt. Hn. W. G. E. Stanley, Hn. Arthur (Ormskirk)
Gore, Hn. G. R. C. Ormsby-Salop Macdona, John Cumming Stanley, Lord (Lancs.)
Goschen, Hon. George Joachim M'Calmont, Col. H. L. B. (Cambs. Stroyan, John
Gray, Ernest (West Ham) Malcolm, Ian Sturt, Hon. Humphry Napier
Green, Walford D. (Wednesbury Manners, Lord Cecil Talbot, Lord E. (Chichester)
Greene, Sir E W (B'ry. S Edm'nds Maxwell, W J H (Dumfriesshire) Thornton, Percy M.
Grenfell, William Henry Melville, Beresford Valentine Tomlinson, Wm. Edw. Murray
Gretton, John Molesworth, Sir Lewis Tufnell, Lt.-Col. Edward
Greville, Hon. Ronald Montagu, Hon. J. Scott (Hants.) Valentia, Viscount
Hambro, Charles Eric Morgan, David J. (Walthamst'w Warde, Colonel C. E-
Hamilton, Rt. Hn Lord G (Midd'x Morrell, George Herbert Webb, Colonel Wm. George
Hanbury, Rt. Hon. Robert Wm. Morris, Hn. Martin Henry F. Wentworth, Bruce C. Vernon
Hay, Hon. Claude George Morrison, James Archibald Whiteley, H. (Aston-und-Lyne
Hobhouse, Henry (Somerset, E.) Mowbray, Sir Robert Gray C. Williams, Col. R. (Dorset)
Hogg, Lindsay Murray, Rt. Hn. A. G. (Bute) Willox, Sir John Archibald
Hops, J. F. (Sheffield, Brightside Murray, Chas. J. (Coventry) Wilson, A. Stanley (Yorks, E. R.
Hoult, Joseph Nicholson, William Graham Wilson, John (Glasgow)
Howard, John (Kent Faversh'm Nicol, Donald Ninian Wodehouse, Rt. Hn. E. R. (Bath)
Jeffreys, Arthur Frederick Peel, Hn. Wm. Robert Wellesley Wortley, Rt. Hn. C. B. Stuart
Johnston, William (Belfast) Percy, Earl Wrightson, Sir Thomas
Kenyon, Hon. Geo. T. (Denbigh) Pretyman, Ernest George Wyndham, Rt. Hon. George
Keswick, William Pryce-Jones, Lt.-Col. Edward Young, Commander (Berks, E.)
Knowles, Lees Purvis, Robert
Lambton, Hon. Frederick Wm. Reid, James (Grcenock) TELLERS FOR THE AYES—Sir William Walrond and Mr. Anstruther.
Law, Andrew Bonar Rentoul, James Alexander
Lawson, John Grant Ridley, Hn. M. W. (Stalybridge)
Leigh-Bennett, Henry Currie Ritchie, Rt. Hn. Chas. Thomson
Abraham, Wm. (Cork, N. E.) Hayne, Rt. Hon. Charles Seale- O'Dowd, John
Allen, Chas P. (Glouc., Stroud Helme, Norval Watson O'Kelly, Conor (Mayo, N.)
Barry, E. (Cork, S.) Jones, Wm. (Carnarvonshire) O'Malley, William
Boland, John Jordan, Jeremiah O'Mara, James
Boyle, James Joyce, Michael O'Shaughnessy, P. J.
Caldwell, James Kennedy, Patrick James Partington, Oswald
Campbell, John (Armagh, S.) Layland-Barratt, Francis Power, Patrick Joseph
Channing, Francis Allston Leigh, Sir Joseph Priestley, Arthur
Cogan, Denis J. Lundon, W. Reddy, M.
Condon, Thomas Joseph MacDonnell, Dr. Mark A. Redmond, John E. (Waterford)
Crean, Eugene M'Dermott, Patrick Rigg, Richard
Cullinan, J. M'Govern, T. Shaw, Thomas (Hawick, B.)
Delaney, William Mooney, John J. Sheehan, Daniel Daniel
Dillon, John Morley, Chas. (Breconshire) Soares, Ernest J.
Donelan, Captain A. Murphy, J. Sullivan, Donal
Doogan, P. C. Nannetti, Joseph P. Thomas, David Alfred (Merthyr
Duffy, William J. Nolan, Col. John P. (Galway, N.) Thompson, Dr. E C Monaghan N
Elibank, Master of Nolan, Joseph (Louth, South) Thomson, F. W. (York, W.R.)
Esmonde, Sir Thomas Norman, Henry White, Luke (York, E. R.)
Farrell, James Patrick O'Brien, K. (Tipperary Mid.) White, Patrick (Meath, North
Ffrench, Peter O'Brien, Patrick (Kilkenny) Whitley, J. H. (Halifax)
Flynn, James Christopher O'Brien, P. J. (Tipperary N.)
Gilhooly, James O'Connor, Jas. (Wicklow, W.) TELLERS FOR THE NOES—Mr. Weir and Mr. William Redmond.
Hammond, John O'Donnell, John (Mayo, S.)
Hayden, John Patrick O'Donnell, T. (Kerry, W.)

Resolution agreed to.