HC Deb 14 June 1907 vol 176 cc4-7
Mr. J. DEVLIN (Belfast, W.)

To ask the President of the Board of Trade whether his attention has been called to the correspondence between Messrs. Harland and Wolff and the Belfast Harbour Commissioners with reference to the inadequacy of the graving-dock accommodation at that port; whether he is aware that within thirty-one days of 2nd July, 1906, this firm were compelled to dock in Liverpool, London, and elsewhere six of their ships with a tonnage of 55,757 because of the lack of docking accommodation in Belfast; that in the six or seven months preceding the date given above fifteen large steamers which the firm of Harland and Wolff controlled had to be docked in either Liverpool, Southampton, the Clyde, Rotterdam, and other ports; that the loss in wages to the workers of Belfast in consequence of the removal of shipping contracts to other ports was over £250,000; that since then other contracts have had had to be refused for the same reason; that the need for graving-dock accommodation is urgent; that the necessary repairing of the Alexandra Graving Dock has been unduly delayed; that the construction of the new graving dock is likely to occupy ten years; that when Messrs. Harland and Wolff renewed their lease they were given to understand that the new graving dock would be completed in two years, and, in order to expedite this construction, contributed. £2,000 annually as a guarantee that the revenue from it would not be less than £6,000 per annum; that the harbour commissioners refused to entertain the proposal of Messrs. Harland and Wolff to build a dock themselves; that the situation with reference to graving-dock accommodation has grown so serious at Belfast that Messrs. Harland and Wolff have been compelled to establish a new repairing yard at Southampton; that in consequence of the failure of the commissioners not only the shipbuilding trade of the port of Belfast but the numerous local industries dependent upon it are seriously threatened; and whether, seeing that the harbour board is elected on a restricted franchise, and is immune from the influence or control of the overwhelming majority of the people of Belfast, he will introduce a Bill to place the franchise on a popular basis or, failing that, will undertake to support a Bill introduced by a private Member with that object.

(Answered by Mr. Lloyd-George.) My attention has been called to the correspondence referred to by the hon. Member, and I have made inquiries into the matter. It appears to be the fact that within thirty-one days of the 2nd July, 1906, Messrs. Harland and Wolff docked elsewhere than at Belfast six of their ships with a gross tonnage of 55,642 tons, and also that within six or seven months preceding the above date fifteen other large vessels were docked elsewhere. I am not in a position to say what was the consequent loss of wages to the workers of Belfast, nor have I any information as to the refusal of other shipping contracts. I am aware that the need of graving-dock accommodation is urgent, and that delay may imperil the prosperity of Belfast. The commissioners with whom I have communicated deny that there has been any undue delay in repairing the Alexandra Graving Dock, on which they state that men are working day and night, and which they hope will be available for use before the end of the year. They further state that the completion of the new graving dock is likely to occupy two years and not ten, as stated in the Question, and that they have offered a bonus of £600 to the contractors for every month that the dock is completed before the stipulated time. As the result, however, of further inquiries which I have made on this point, I find that only a few men have been employed at night, and I do not feel satisfied that the work has been expedited as much as possible. With regard to the guarantee offered by Messrs. Harland and Wolff, the Commissioners state that the company undertook that if the gross receipts from the new graving dock should in any year be less than £8,000, they would make good the deficiency to an extent not exceeding £2,000 a year. The Commissioners deny that they have refused to entertain any proposal of Messrs. Harland and Wolff to build a graving dock themselves, and state that they have informed that firm that they are prepared to consider any definite proposal on the subject. I understand that Messrs. Harland and Wolff are establishing a new repairing yard at Southampton, but I am not able to state the reasons which influenced them in so doing. The transference of a portion of the shipping with which they deal from Liverpool to Southampton may of course, has been a contributory cause. I am informed that Belfast industries, including shipbuilding, are very prosperous at present. The constitution of the Harbour Commission is fixed by the Belfast Harbour Act, 1883. The Commission consists of the Lord Mayor of Belfast and twenty-one other members elected by a constituency of shipowners and occupiers of premises within the city rated at £20 and upwards. The number of such electors is, I understand, 9,869, which is a much larger number than at Liverpool, Glasgow, or Dublin. Comparatively speaking, therefore, the franchise can hardly be termed restricted, and I do not see my way to propose an alteration at present.