HC Deb 01 April 1913 vol 51 cc348-54

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Gulland.]


In asking the attention of the House from the questions of national importance that Members have been discussing for some hours to one that affects my Constituents in the North-West corner of Ireland, I would ask the House to excuse me, for to us the question is one of vital importance. For over sixty years there has been maintained between the towns of Ballina and Belmullet, on the extreme Western coast, a mail car service—the only one in the district. The distance between the two places is 40 miles. The car service is what has been known in Ireland as a long-car service, being used for the conveyance of passengers as well as for the mails. The House can imagine what it means to a scattered population of 20,000 persons to be absolutely deprived of any transit facilities. The Post Office, I understand, have been in communication with the other Irish Departments, and my object is to appeal to the Postmaster-General and the other Departments concerned, whatever may be the cause of their action in discontinuing the service, that in the matter of inter-departmental arrangements some modus vivendi should be found so that the people should not be deprived of this service. I do not think any request in the question I put to the Postmaster-General yesterday is unreasonable. The Departments concerned include the Congested Districts Board, which operates in the district. We have had lately an intimation that money was likely to be given to a matter in Ireland that is a vexed question, and about which there is a good deal of feeling: here is an excellent object, not requiring a very large sum, which the Government might come forward and help. The people in the district I refer to are wretchedly poor, and are the first to feel the failure of the crops, and so on. This is the district which, above all others, has been selected to be isolated absolutely from the rest of the community. The importance of this matter to the people concerned cannot be exaggerated. It touches their daily lives at close quarters. These mailcars furnish the only public transit facilities in the district, and now for the sake of effecting a saving of £170 per annum these 20,000 people are to be deprived of even these facilities. This primitive link connecting a whole countryside such as I have described with the most wretchedly poor and scattered population in the British Isles is, for the saving of £170, to be cut off, so far as transit facilities are concerned, from the rest of the world. The nearest railway station is 40 miles away. Price of a car from Belmullet to Ballina is absolutely prohibitive to 99 per cent. of the people. It means two days, and the expenditure at the very lowest of a sovereign, which is a very large sum to people circumstanced as these people are. I hesitate to believe that the Postmaster-General and the other Departments concerned in allowing the withdrawal of these facilities have been fully cognisant of all the surrounding facts of the case. The Department, in reply to my question, admits it is wholly a question of cost. The amount is £170. Does the present Postmaster-General say that the saving of £170 by a public Department justifies the hardships I have described without exaggeration on a population of 20,000 people helpless to provide transit facilities for themselves? In a country with a £200,000,000 Budget the Barony of Erris must be deprived of the facilities of riding on a mail car so that £170 may be saved for the Budget. As a business man I like the application of business methods to public affairs but I decline to worship a business fetish irrespective of the surrounding circumstances. A combination of head and heart is desirable in business as in other affairs of life. The reply of the Postmaster-General mentioned that two other Depart- ments declined to provide the subsidy of £170, and that it was not the duty of the Post Office to provide passenger facilities. The Mayo peasant condemned by the Post Office to isolation in his mountain home does not trouble to differentiate between the obligations of the different Government Departments. He knows that the Post Office is a Government Department, and that it has provided those facilities for more than sixty years, and he expects them to be continued. Whether they are continued by one Government Department or another is not a matter for him; he expects the various Government Departments to conduct their own departmental negotiations, and his demand in this case, I venture to submit, is neither extravagant nor excessive. There are three departments operating in Ireland in addition to the Post Office—the Congested Districts Board, the Development Commission and the Board of Agriculture. On a previous occasion when a motor service was instituted in this district for carrying the mails, they came forward and helped with a contribution. I refused to believe that if the Postmaster-General and the officials of this other Department are brought into contact they will allow this district to be cut off in the way I have described. I will quote from a letter written by the Congested Districts Board to the Post Office, which perhaps more eloquently describes than I am able to the hardships. Here is the letter:— It is hoped that you will agree with the Board in thinking that for what may be only a transitory increase in the cost such a service should not be abandoned, and such a very serious injury inflicted upon what is undoubtedly the most backward and inaccessible district in Ireland, with a scattered population of 20,390 inhabitants. The distance between the termini of the service in question (Ballina and Belmullet) is over forty statute miles, and the existing cars also serve localities fifteen miles from Belmullet. The Board believe that the proposal for the abandonment of the pair-horse passenger service from Ballina to Belmullet could not be persevered in by any person who has sufficient knowledge of the district to be able to realise what the condition of the Barony of Erris (in which this is the only passenger service) would be if the proposal of saving £170 a year were to be endorsed by you. I think with that calm statement of the case, and the hardship that is threatened to be immediately inflicted upon that section of my Constituency, probably the Department concerned might take a little further time to continue this service, as I ask for a little while until we see whether the Post Office, the Congested Districts Board, the Development Commissioners, and the Department of Agriculture might not all of them help in some way to meet this sum of £170, so that the service may be continued. I should like to add that from the people of the district I have had numbers of applications from public bodies and from meetings of the people affected by the discontinuance of this service, and they are greatly disturbed at this isolation they are threatened with. In the coming months in previous years six cars have always been used by labourers coming over to work for a few months in the English harvest fields. How are they to get to the railway station if this service is discontinued. They come over here to earn a few pounds to keep the home together, and nobody suggests that they should go to the expense of taking a car down to the railway station. I ask the Postmaster-General to give sympathetic consideration to my request that the service should be continued until we see whether something cannot be done to maintain it permanently. That is not asking a great deal. I am sure I have carefully avoided either appealing to sentiment or to prejudice or exaggerating in any way. My case rests upon its own merits, and I submit it on those grounds for the consideration of the Departments concerned.


I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North Mayo for having given me the opportunity of stating on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General and myself how much we sympathise with him in the action which he is taking on behalf of his constituents in endeavouring to continue this passenger service between Ballina and Belmullet, a distance of some forty miles. It serves a district which is perhaps one of the poorest. It has only a population of some 20,000, and it is perhaps more scattered than any other part of the United Kingdom. On 7th February the contract became vacant, and we put out alternative tenders for both passenger and non-passenger services. The contractor entered upon his contract on 21st February, and he, on his own option, declined to carry passengers. The present position is this: He has undertaken to carry the mails only by means of a single-horse car, but in order to suit his own convenience he is now running a pair-horse car and carrying passengers. The moment the new car which he has on order arrives his contract will debar him from carrying passengers even if he is willing to do so. It is impossible, owing to the position of the contract itself, for that contract to be altered. Therefore the only consolation I can give my hon. Friend is to express the hope that the delivery of that car may be long delayed. I venture, as an Irishman with a vivid recollection of my boyish days, to think the force of public opinion is so great in Ireland, and that so much deference is shown to public opinion there, that it is quite possible the car may not be delivered until my hon. Friend has been able, in conjunction with the assistance of the Board of Agriculture and the Congested Districts Board, to make some arrangements which will continue the service. I now come to the question of how we have arrived at this state of affairs, and why it is we are unable to carry on any further this service which has been continued for some six years. The whole question is a matter of cost. Thirty years ago, in 1883, we were able to carry out this service for £290. That was increased in the year 1890 to £340, and in 1899 to £450. Fourteen years ago the sum for this passenger and mail service combined was £450, whereas at the present time the contract for a similar service would be £770—that is to say, £320, or 60 per cent. more. We endeavoured in 1910 to run a motor service. A heavy motor carrying mails and passengers was run by the Government. The cost of the service was £700. But we could have had the mails carried at that moment for £500. Nevertheless this motor service at £700 was established because, owing to the fact of there being an improvement in the service, the Congested Districts Board contributed the sum of £100, and the Department of Agriculture contributed £50 while we in the postal service saved £46 on incidental expenses. Consequently there was a difference of £4 which we waived in the Postal Department, and the service was run. But after a year had elapsed it was found that the state of the roads was such that they would not carry the motor service. Representations were made to the Mayo County Council, but that body, not from any unwillingness, I believe, but from inability rapidly to repair the roads, did nothing in the matter, and the Treasury was obliged to relieve the English contractor of his responsibilities in the matter. Then on 13th January, 1911, this service was discontinued, and we had to reestablish a horse-car service. The cost of the passenger mail service was £575, whereas at that period we could get no diminution on running an ordinary mail service further than the sum of £3. The cost of running the mail alone was £572, and seeing that the loss was only £3 the Postal Department waived that and the service came into operation. But the present cost of running this passenger and mail service combined will be £770, whereas we entered into a contract for the carriage of mails for the sum of £600. Therefore, it is a matter of £170, and we have no authority to spend public money on anything but the carriage of mails solely. What would my hon. Friend the Member for Sutherland (Mr. Morton) and other Scottish Members say if money were expended on objects such as these in Ireland and none devoted to places in the North and West of Scotland. I quite realise that the mere peasant does not differentiate between Departments; it is difficult to make him understand why he is deprived of the service. He looks on the Government as the Russian peasant looks on the Czar. He only knows he is being deprived by the British Government of a privilege he has enjoyed for a great number of years.

It may be asked, how is it that the cost has increased? We are told that it has increased owing to the dearness of food stuffs and commodities, and also owing to the fact that there is a certain amount of competition in consequence of a steamer running three times a week to Sligo. Further, I am given to understand that it is caused in a great measure by the fact that, although the roads are not fit to carry a large motor and convey mails and a number of passengers, the roads are sufficiently good to stand rough small motors carrying two persons, and these motors are used by a certain number of tourists who come to that part of Ireland for fishing and shooting. As a consequence it deprives the contractor who runs the cars practically of his best customers. Then I would like to point out to hon. Members from Ireland that the cost of the service in that particular part of Ireland is extremely large. They may be surprised to hear that the actual deficit on the mails in that part of the world is no less than £1,703. Therefore not only is the Postmaster-General prohibited from doing anything in the way of assisting passenger traffic, but he would scarcely be justified in spending more money in conjunction with the carriage of mails. It may be asked why we have not used our best efforts to get some assistance from the Congested Districts Board and the Department of Agriculture. I may point out that my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General has been in communication for some time with both those Departments. The answer from the Congested Districts Board is that the present service is in no sense an improvement. They say, "We were able to give you a certain subsidy when you instituted a motor service, and there was some improvement in the service, but in the present circumstances we are debarred from doing so." The Department of Agriculture paint out that since we are giving no special facilities for the carriage of fish or agricultural produce, they are debarred from giving assistance. I can only say that, pesonally, I deplore the fact that this service is about to be abolished. I can assure my hon. Friend that if it were in the power of the Postmaster-General and his Department to ameliorate things, they would do so. The only consolation I can give my hon. Friend is that I hope and believe that owing to the pressure of public opinion the car of which I spoke, and which has not been delivered, will not be delivered for some time, and I hope that in the meantime he will be able to bring some pressure to bear on the Congested Districts Board and the Department of Agriculture. I can assure him that my right hon. Friend, myself, and the Department with which we are connected, will do everything we can and look at any project which is put forward by those Departments in conjunction with the Mayo County Council, and if that project is put before us we will listen to it with the most sympathetic ear.

Question put, and agreed to. Adjourned at Twenty-eight minutes after Eleven of the clock.