HC Deb 26 July 1916 vol 84 cc1826-34

In accordance with the notice I gave to-day at Question Time, I wish to put before the House this question of freights. I regret that the President of the Board of Trade is not here, but I hope he will soon be back. Everybody knows that transport is at the bottom of the efficiency of the commerce of the nation, and I quite agree there are certain difficulties, in the way. My complaint is that no real attempt has been made to meet this question. I acknowledge it is a difficult question by reason of the fact of the loss of a number of vessels through submarines, the fact that a number of vessels have been commandeered by the Admiralty, and the competition of neutrals; but, notwithstanding a series of questions on various points by different Members in different parts of the House, there has been really no attempt on the part of the Government so far to meet this question. How this question was brought under my notice was this: happen to have been a member of the Port and Dock Board in Dublin for many years. In one case there was £39,700 freight on a cargo of corn. The amount of the freight paid was absolutely more than the value of the vessel, and the result of this enormous charge was that the cost of bread in Dublin was raised, not, of course, on account of that one particular cargo, but the freights of all these cargoes were the same. Another thing which presses very hardly on the citizens of Dublin is the cost of coal, which, at the present time, roughly speaking, is almost three times what it used to be. I have seen the communications pointing out the fact that the railway companies in this country are placed in extraordinary difficulties with regard to transport. This question has occupied enormous attention in the City of Dublin. Resolutions have been passed by the Corporation, the Chamber of Commerce, the Dublin Industrial Development Association, the Dublin Mercantile Association, and certain United Irish League branches. This question not only affects Dublin, but .practically the whole commercial community of the world.

At the Imperial Conference recently held the Italian representative pointed out that coal was £6 a ton and that the high freights were due to the fact that enormous profits were accruing to the shipowners everywhere. He also pointed out that a better organisation of shipping and some attempt to deal with neutrals would provide a means of reducing the enormous gain which the shipowners are making at the present time. The High Commissioner of Australia pointed out recently that industrial and economic developments had been seriously interfered with since the commencement of the War. But really there is no part of the United Kingdom more hardly hit than Ireland. In the Argentine the ordinary charges before the War from Buenos Ayres to the United Kingdom were from 15s. to 30s. per ton, and now it is between £10 and £11 a ton, and in one instance it was £15 a ton. It is said that the shipowners have been earning enormous profits. I want to know why the shipowners are to be privileged in this respect whilst everybody else is being so hardly hit by the War? Anyone who reads the papers in connection with commercial matters must be aware that every day statements are made with reference to certain companies. I read of one company which had made a profit of 187 per cent., another 150 per cent., and another 200 per cent. In fact, some of these companies have in one year made greater sums in profits than their entire subscribed capital, and the result is that shipping shares have gone up enormously in price.

The other night an hon. Member mentioned excess profits, and said they ought to be reduced. I think the Chancellor of the Exchequer ought to take all the shipowners' excess profits, as has been urged by the Labour Members. I think that some arrangement ought to be tried at least to get into touch with the tramp steamers and also neutrals, and that every neutral steamer should be charged on the cargoes they bring. I would not have brought up this question to-night but for the unsatisfactory replies which I have received. This is a very important question, because it means that the whole community is being taxed for the benefit of the shipowners. I am aware that the shipowners are to give up 60 per cent, of their excess profits, but that is not enough. As long as they are permitted to go on making these enormous profits they will go on trying to make more. Unless an attempt is made to come to some arrangement to reduce the enormous cost of freights everything that is brought here from outside sources and everything that is exported is bound more or less to decrease in quantity. I trust that the right hon. Gentleman will give this matter his attention. I think a Committee of the House ought to be consulted as to what is the best manner of meeting these complaints, which come from all classes of the community.


The right hon. Gentleman has been good enough to acknowledge a letter which has been sent to the Secretary of State for War in relation to the colliery in Queen's County, and I wish to put to him this point. If this short railway, which would be the means of connecting the colliery up with the Port of Dublin, were constructed, it would mean that the number of ships required to bring coal to Dublin would be very much decreased, and thus leave more ships for other purposes. This coal is the best in the Kingdom. It has been tested by experts from all parts of Scotland, England and Wales, and only two months ago the Minister of Munitions, who is now Secretary of State for War, sent an expert to Queen's County and the result of his testing was to show that the coal contained the necessary percentages to make it valuable for use for Government purposes. What do we find happening in the City of Dublin? Two of the largest consumers of coal in the city—one of whom is Mr. William Murphy, the proprietor and editor of the "Irish Independent," is at present the champion of of Irish interests in Ireland—refuse to allow this coal to be used in their works. I hope that the President of the Board of Trade will take this matter into his hands. This coal was found by experts, and two or three individuals in Dublin should not be allowed to refuse to permit it, when it is found suitable, to be used in different spheres of work all over Ireland. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will give the matter his favourable consideration. It would only cost £50,000 to build this railway.


This colliery is situated in my Constituency, and I would like to endorse what my hon. Friend has said. The colliery, the output of which is 1,500 tons per day, was started some years ago by private enterprise. A man who probably could not afford to put his money into such a concern did so for the purpose of developing the mines, while the Government, knowing the advantages of the coal to be found in that district, from the various reports and surveys made year after year, have done nothing. He put probably everything he had in this mine, and it would only be a small thing to ask the Government to finance a small line of railway running a distance of eight and a half miles. A light railway, especially at this period when there is such a want of coal in Ireland, is a thing so much needed that the Government should finance it. At the present time, owing to the freights, and owing also, unfortunately, to an industrial dispute in Ireland—a strike in Dublin—it is impossible for anybody in the midlands of Ireland to get coals from England or Wales. The cost is prohibitive, and owing to the railway facilities—[An HON. MEMBER: "There are no facilities!"]—if there were proper railway facilities the coal (and there is plenty of it in the Queen's County collieries) could with advantage be sent round to different parts of Ireland. Unfortunately, the nearest railway is Athy. The result is that you have to do cartage for 8½ miles, and that is, as we can all understand, a distinct disadvantage in sending this coal round to different parts of Ireland, where it could be used with advantage. There is one point I wish to press. The last seam of coal discovered in that particular colliery has been found by consumers who live in the district to be equal to the best English or Welsh coal for household purposes, and taking it at that standard I think—as my hon. Friend the Member for East Limerick (Mr. Lundon) said, the Government ought to step in in a crisis like this, where it is for the advantage of the Empire, and for the advantage of public life in England, Ireland, and Scotland, where we want to get cheap coal, cheap food, and cheap production, and should put their minds to this question and see if they could establish this railway, or give some Grant, anyhow, to relieve a man who has invested a lot of his capital in this concern.


I beg to point out to the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Harcourt) that a large quantity of this coal is at present used in the Arklow munitions works. Kynoch's, where you have the largest munition works in Ireland, are largely using" this coal. It means a considerable amount to the Government, the extra cost of overland carriage from the colliery at Madubeagh Bay to Athy, a distance of 8 ½ miles, and I would like to ask the Government to look at this from a purely business point of view. A comparatively small sum would construct a light railway over the 8 ½ miles to Athy, and the Government would save by the lesser price at which they could get the munitions they want in this War from Kynoch's and Company in Arklow. We all know that if the material that is required in the way of coal is cheapened by the construction of a light railway, the Government will really save money by the lesser prices at which Kynoch and Company will be able to supply them with munitions. I hope that he will look at it from the point of view of a saving to the Government and apply his attention to that point.


I received no notice that the subject which has been dealt with by the last three hon. Members who have spoken would be raised to-night. I can only say that I will give it very careful attention to its merits. I feel bound more especially to direct the few minutes at my disposal to the observations of the hon. Member for the St. Patrick's Division of Dublin (Mr. Field), who had given me notice that he wished to raise the ques- tion of freights. I am grateful to him that he has been lenient in anticipation for the shortcomings of a locum tenens and an understudy. I will do my best in the circumstances. We must all be sympathetic with the very great rise that .there has been in the cost of living throughout the country, and we have a fellow feeling for all our fellow sufferers in all the extravagances and inconveniences which are entailed upon us by this War. But we must realise at the same time that we are at war and that we have got to face all the unpleasant consequences which that fact entails. I should like to say this—it may be some comfort or it may be very little—but at all events we are suffering least of all the belligerents. That is particularly due to our insular position and our command of the sea. But our very dependence upon sea carriage and upon shipping, of course, accentuates some of our difficulties. There is no empiric remedy for our present discontent. We depend—it is a very remarkable fact—for at least one-third of our imports upon foreign ships.




At least one-third. That is a very important element in the present situation. It is very easy to talk of fixing freights, but we must beware, as I am sure the hon. Member himself feels, of driving neutral ships away or of diverting British ships possibly to neutral service. We must have sufficient shipping during the War, at any cost. If I may quote a sentence which I used in my reply to a deputation I received the other day: It is better to have plenty dear, than scarcity still dearer, a situation in which only the rich will be able to secure the supplies in competition with their poorer fellows. What causes this situation? There has been a great decrease in the world tonnage available for general use. A number of German ships are either laid up or interned either in Germany or some other part of the world. Some of ours are interned in Germany. A large number of ships are held up in the Baltic and the Black Sea—they are blockaded there—and enormous numbers—far beyond the knowledge or belief of this House—of our mercantile ships have been commandeered and taken up by the Admiralty for war purposes. Along with and just at the same time as all this shortage of shipping we find a greater need than ever of imports—imports of food, raw material, manufacture, and munitions. At the same time we find ourselves under the necessity of supplying France, Italy, and Russia with a very large proportion of their needs during the War. This means a considerably smaller reservoir of ships for our needs for all purposes. The hon. Member asks why freights are so high. It is partly because of world competition. It is partly due to the fact that the cost of running ships is very great. The prices of coal and of other materials have gone up very largely. There is another reason for it. The importers themselves bid against one another for freight space. It is not so much the ' greed of the shipowners as the competition and the almost extravagance of the shipper. It is a case of Adam and Eve over again—the temptation of the apple has not been resisted. Even the Allies are found bidding against one another in the freight market of the whole world, and the very magnitude of these rates is the measure of their needs. We must not exaggerate too much the effect of freights on the price of commodities. Assume that freights have risen by £5 per ton, which is a very large rise. Assume that rise on a cargo of meat. That rise of £5 in freight is only equal to an increase of ½d. per lb. in the price of meat.. We all know—none I am sure better than the hon. Member—that that is a very small fraction of the increase in the price of meat. Look at milk. That is a commodity which is not subject to shipping freights at all, but of which the price has gone up very largely. Of course, it must be admitted that there are many elements in food and milk, such as labour and feeding-stuffs, which contribute to this dearness. There is sitting now a very able Committee on the increase of food prices under the chairmanship of a distinguished Member of this House. I am sure that we shall obtain wise advice from them, and I am sure that they will be gratified if the hon. Member is able to put his views and the facts which are in his possession before them for their illumination. The hon. Member asks me what we are doing to deal with the shipping and freight question. We are doing a great deal. No British ship can move from these shores without a licence issued from the Shipping Licence Committee. By that very fact we are able to direct the ships into particular routes or particular trades. British ships are subject to Admiralty requisition. At this moment it is no exaggeration to say that at least 50 per cent, of British shipping is under requisition. The building of new merchant ships in this country, subject, of course, to the difficulties of labour, is being accelerated by every means in our power. We are to-day converting and have converted some dredging hoppers on the Thames in order to turn them into coal carriers for our coasting trade; and, above all, we are endeavouring now, as we have done in the past, by a more economic use of transports and storeships which are in use by the Admiralty—and they are a very great number—to give a sensible relief to the shipping problem as we find it at present. But I know the hon. Member will admit with me that the requirements of our troop must be our first care. There are, I am glad to say, other ships which are not at present in use which are now in view, and are likely to come into our use. And lastly, there is the restriction which we have already imposed on nonessential imports in order to save as much space in our shipping as possible for the essential imports, and I can assure the hon. Member and the House that I am prepared to go further in that direction if and when I think further prohibitions are necessary. The Government and the Board of Trade are taking every measure which they believe to be economically sound and practically effective to ameliorate and relieve the shortage.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine minutes after Eleven o'clock.