§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Illingworth.]
§ Mr. MULDOON
I desire to raise the question of the abandonment of the Queenstown call by the Postmaster- 1274 General. I am sorry to have to delay the House at this late hour, but this is a most important matter, which affects the commercial interests of Great Britain, as well as of Ireland, and which has produced in the latter country the most bitter feeling. In the year 1903 the then Postmaster-General entered into a contract with the Cunard Company for the carriage of the mails from Queenstown and the contract was ratified by this House in the month of August, 1904. In the events that have since happened that contract has since been torn to pieces by the Postmaster-General. [Interruption caused by the circulation of figures of polling of South-West Bethnal Green.] I was calling attention to a really important matter, and the matter to which I was calling attention affects the interests of every part of Great Britain, and in a special way the interests of Ireland. It affects very much the tourist traffic in Ireland. My contention is that the real contract with the Cunard Company was to call at Queentown and the contract declares that the vessels of the Cunard Company must put to sea from Liverpool and call at Queenstown every Sunday morning. The contract is now at an end. The proceeding has been carried out by the Postmaster-General without a shred of authority in the contract itself or derived from any other lawful source whatever. The Cunard Company have been using the port of Queenstown for over seventy years. This contract was entered into in the year 1903, and from the very first there was evidence frequently exhibited in this House that the contract was irksome to the Cunard Company, and that they wanted to get out of it; but every Postmaster-General from the time of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Worcestershire (Mr. Chamberlain) onwards have insisted upon the contract being carried out. It was only when the late Postmaster-General was in office last year that the deplorable 1275 weakness was shown of allowing the Cunard Company really to tear up the contract into which they had entered. It was done upon two grounds. One of them was in reference to a mishap to the "Mauretania." I have only to say in reference to the transaction that it was never mentioned to the Cork Harbour authorities, and they never had the slightest opportunity of giving their version of the transaction or of making any inquiry into the circumstances. The other circumstance I do not hesitate to say was one of the most discreditable and shameless transactions of which I have ever heard. It was alleged in the year 1907 that on 29th December the "Lusitania" went aground in the harbour. It was reported to the Cork Harbour Commissioners, they inquired into the circumstances, and conclusively showed that the trouble was due to the default of the pilot of the company. They so reported to the company, and a letter was received from the Cunard Company at the time stating that they were very sorry to say that the default was undoubtedly on the part of their pilot, but, as he was an old servant, they would not dismiss him, but would admonish him as to the future. Will it be believed that five years afterwards the Chairman of the Cunard Company, after that declaration had been made, put forward the circumstance of that grounding, and the Postmaster General, without any inquiry, acted upon that consideration, and gave the company leave to withdraw from the obligation to call at Queenstown When the matter was before the House in August last the Postmaster-General made some apology for having taken that course in reference to two of the larger vessels of the company. He has since enabled the company to walk away from this contract in every particular. The material part of the contract in regard to calling at Queenstown is now abandoned entirely, and it is as if it had never been. My point is that this is a contract which was brought in terms before this House in August, 1904; it was essential that this House should sanction it, because the rules of the House declare that the contract shall be of no avail unless it is sanctioned by a Resolution of the House of Commons. If the Postmaster-General can afterwards tear up the contract in every particular, I say that the sanction of this House becomes a farce. Nor did the Postmaster-General then say, "If we find the contract is diffi- 1276 cult or dangerous on the part of the company I will relieve them of it"; there is not in the contract any authority to relieve them of any part of it. It was his duty, as previous Postmasters-General had considered it to be their duty, to see, in the interests of the public, that the contract was enforced. As regards the complaint about Queenstown Harbour I say without hesitation that there was never proper inquiry into it by the Postmaster-General. We have never heard who the engineers were who made these reports. Statements were said to be made upon the authority of the Board of Trade and others. We do not know who made them. We challenge them, every one just as we challenge the statements made by the chairman of the company in reference to these transactions. We have never seen, nor has the Postmaster-General ever seen, the original report as to the entering of the "Mauretania," but a version of it has been given to him by the chairman of the company, which, apparently, he accepted. Queenstown has been struck out of this contract, and Liverpool has been written in. I say there was no authority to do that. It was a most unwarranted interference with a contract that was ratified by this House, I ask, if the company now come forward and say, "We do not want to start from Liverpool, but we would like to start from Bristol, or perhaps Southamption," will the new Postmaster-General allow them to start from either of these places, or any other place? The authority of the House over contracts; has been destroyed by the action of the Postmaster-General upon evidence which he never sifted, and he has proved himself to be a hopeless child in the hands of a not too scrupulous chairman of the Cunard Company.
§ Captain DONELAN
I desired to make a few observations in support of the very strong protest which has been raised by my hon. Friend, but, under the circumstances, I will content myself with associating myself most heartily with the protest, for I desire to leave the Postmaster-General time for reply.
§ The POSTMASTER-GENERAL (Mr. Hobhouse)
I am sorry I did not catch the intimation which I "believe the hon. Member gave at Question Time, that he intended to raise this question this evening. I understand that the notice was given in inaudible tones, for which 1277 I do not attach blame to the hon. Member, but at the same time he will understand that what I have stated is the reason why I am not so prepared as otherwise I would have been to meet the statements he has made. There are, therefore, only one or two general observations that I can usefully make at this time. The hon Member suggested that without the authority of this House the Postmaster-General, my predecessor, had interfered with a contract with the Cunard Company. That is not the case. The contract was not interfered with at all. The facts are briefly these: Since the time that this contract was made in 1903 ships had been built of a size, depth, and length that never for one moment was anticipated either by the shipbuilders, the Post Office, or by any of the persons concerned with the transmission of the mails across ocean. The immense size of ships since that day has revolutionised the whole of the conditions then in force, and in no case, perhaps, more than in that of the port of Queenstown.
§ Mr. MULDOON
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that these two larger vessels were actually part of the contract entered into in 1913; that they should be built, and that their dimensions are mentioned in the contract for the Queenstown service?
§ Mr. HOBHOUSE
What I would point out is this: that on a recent occasion, when one of these big ships—I do not remember whether it was the "Lusitania" or the "Mauretania"—entered Queenstown, there was only three feet of water beneath her at the time she was at anchor in the harbour. That is a condition of affairs which no shipmaster or owner could be prepared to contemplate without the gravest anxiety. What has happened is this. Under the terms of the contract the ships which have to carry the mails are required to be the fastest—I forget the exact phraseology, but I think it is the fastest and largest in the company's service. Therefore the Post Office had no alternative in the matter, as the shipping company have told the Post Office that they cannot without danger, which they are not prepared or entitled to face, take these ships into Queenstown. Therefore the Post Office inquired of the naval experts of the Board of Admiralty, of the Board of Trade and from their own naval expert as to 1278 whether or not these objections on the part of the company were justified. They reported that the companies' objection was justified. What could we do? There was no penalty clause which could be enforced against the company if they refused to go in. There was, moreover, in the wording of the contract, nothing which expressly provided that, if for reasons of force majeure the company could not carry out the terms of the contract, the contract would be enforced against them. As a matter of fact, it is a contract which we did not create, but which" was sanctioned by this House. We were helpless in the matter. Were the American mails to be indefinitely left behind at Queenstown and the whole service disorganised in permanency? I do not think that is a position which the hon. Gentleman, advocate though he is for the claims of Queenstown, can contemplate. Our desire is to get, not merely the Queenstown, but the Irish and English mails to America with the greatest possible dispatch. Under present conditions the mails are now dispatched from Liverpool. The time for posting, if my recollection is right, is, for the moment, worsened for the South of Ireland, from a dispatch in the early afternoon on Saturdays to the last post on Friday night. That, of course, is an inconvenience.
§ Mr. HOBHOUSE
It is very much better that the mails should be despatched twelve hours later for the South of Ireland than that they should be left at Queenstown with a chance of a passing steamer calling for three or four days. If the hon. Member puts one inconvenience against another, I am sure he will decide, whatever may happen in future that on the whole we have taken the wisest course in the interests of the South of Ireland. As regards the North of Ireland, my recollection is that the time of posting has not been worsened at all, and that being so, although I regret the inconvenience which has occured to part of Ireland, I think the conditions of Ireland are not so bad as has been represented.
§ Mr. MULDOON
Does the right hon. Gentleman say, as regards Belfast, that there is no loss of time under the new arrangement?
§ Captain DONELAN
Will the right hon. Gentleman lay a copy of the statement submitted to the Law Officers of the Crown on the Table?
§ Mr. HOBHOUSE
No, Sir, that has never been done on any occasion in reference to any matter.
It being Half-past Eleven of the Clock, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
§ Adjourned at Half after Eleven o'clock.