§ The POSTMASTER-GENERAL (Mr. Illingworth)
I beg to move, "That the contract, dated the 11th day of November, 1920, between the Postmaster-General and the London and North-Western Railway Company for the conveyance of His Majesty's mails between Holyhead and Kingstown from the 28th day of November, 1920, be approved."
If any points be raised, I will reply to them later on.
§ Mr. LINDSAY
This contract may not seem of much importance from an English point of view, but to Ireland it is a matter of great importance. I do not find fault with the sea service, which is fairly satisfactory, and the House should realise that the North-Western Railway are giving for £100,000 a year, rather more than what the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company gave over twenty years ago. In 1897, when the old contract came into force, the City of Dublin Steam Packet arranged to run the service in just over three hours for a sum of £98,000 a year, and the London and North-Western Railway Company have now arranged to run it in two and three-quarter hours for £100,000 a year. But my objection to the whole thing is that, although the Post Office has made this contract as regards the sea journey, it has been neglectful, apparently, of the land connections. The railway journey from Euston to Holyhead is considerably longer now than when the old contract was made with the City of Dublin Company, and the connections on the other side of the Irish Channel are much worse. I always hesitate to refer in this House to anything connected with my native town, but 389 I must put forward the case of Belfast. It has a population of 400,000 people, but we do not get our London letters before 10 minutes past 11 in the morning, and in order to catch the outward mail via Kingstown letters have to be posted by 3.15, which, roughly speaking, gives a postal day of four hours. If that were unavoidable I would not complain, but for years we in Belfast have been putting to the Post Office various schemes whereby we should have our letters delivered at nine o'clock in the morning, and the posting time be extended to somewhere about five o'clock. However, the postal authorities have invariably treated all our suggestions with scorn, and we submit that if they argue that our views are wrong and their own right, they ought to be prepared to submit them to some tribunal. I suggest to the Postmaster-General now that it is wrong to have fast steamers and slow trains, because it is an utter waste of money, and I want him to agree to the appointment of a Select Committee to investigate this general question of the Irish mail.
Mr. DEPUTY - SPEAKER (Sir E. Cornwall)
I do not think the hon. Member must enlarge on that topic. The question before the House is the agreement for the conveyance of His Majesty's mail between Holyhead and Kingstown. He has made his point as regards the railway service, but he must not enlarge on it.
§ Mr. LINDSAY
The schedule to the contract deals with the arrival of the trains at points of departure on this side and the times of arrival of the steamer, and really the whole thing is so mixed up that it is difficult to dissect it.
§ Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER
It may be, but the agreement deals with the conveyance of mails between Holyhead and Kingstown. The hon. Member has made his point, and I only say that he must not enlarge on that point.
§ Mr. LINDSAY
If that be the case I will only ask you to allow me to suggest to the Postmaster-General that he should not oppose the inquiry which I advocate, and will then refer to one or two questions connected with the contract itself. The contract contains a provision that if the mail packets between Kingstown and Holyhead do not run in the day service on Sunday, there should be a reduction of 390 some £10,000 per annum. I would suggest to the Postmaster-General that these services are unnecessary. Then it is provided that the service may be run from the inner harbour at Holyhead, instead of from the Admiralty Pier. The distance from the Admiralty Pier to the inner harbour, as nearly as I have been able to ascertain it, is 1,000 yards; and yet, when the service is to be run from the inner harbour instead of from the pier, ten minutes extra is allowed, which seems to be extraordinary for a mail service. Apparently the London and North Western Railway Company, when they get this contract, are going to back their boats into Holyhead, which is a slovenly way of conducting a mail service, but one which the Post Office has sanctioned for a number of years. In the Stranraer service the boats back out of Stranraer and back in at Larne, thus losing about ten minutes on the trip. Then, again, this contract is for twenty years. Of course, I quite realise that the London and North "Western Railway Company could hardly be expected to provide ships for a shorter period, but it appears to me that, considering the advances in aviation that have been made during the last six or seven years, the mails to Ireland will probably be taken by air before 20 years have passed, and then this contract will have to be lapsed, and the service will have to run at a loss, because there is a Clause providing that if the mails are diverted to other routes the contractors will have to submit to arbitration as to what abatement shall be made in the subsidy.
§ Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY
I was interested by what the hon. Member has just said about the mail steamers backing in. Was his suggestion that they should go straight in bows on, and then warp round?
§ Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY
I think that would be a great hardship on the crews, the engineers and everyone else. I have only crossed over by the Stranraer route once, and do not remember the harbour very well, but I know both Holyhead and Kingstown harbours, and warping there would be very difficult in view of the amount of traffic. It would also be extremely hard on the crews, who between trips naturally want to get a little rest, and also to take the oppor- 391 tunity of cleaning fires and so forth. Moreover, as they would have to back out and turn, there would not be much in it as regards loss of time. Warping in harbour is really impracticable.
§ Mr. LINDSAY
For many years past I have seen boats coming in bow on at the Admiralty Pier, landing mails and passengers, and then turning round.
§ Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY
If they do that, it is a great strain on the crews. However, I do not want to pursue the matter. The hon. Member is probably better informed than I am. With regard to the terms of the contract, as far as I know them, I was particularly interested in the question of what was going to happen to the officers and crews of the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company. I understand, however, that satisfactory arrangements have been made by the London and North Western Railway Company, and they are practically going to take over the whole of the personnel, so no sailor is going to lose his job, which is very satisfactory. The courtesy shown by everyone and the efficiency is very high indeed. The vessels are of an extraordinarily useful type in war time. They were very useful in the last War, and made very handy transport steamers. But that ought not to blind us to the fact that there is a great future for air transport of mails, and this route is ideal for that purpose, and without a doubt in quite a few years£I think within five years£the commercially most efficient method of carrying the mails, as regards speed and so on, will be by air. I want to ask the Postmaster-General and the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Baldwin) whether any commercial air companies were invited to tender for the carriage of mails by air either now or in the near future. I am very much afraid the Post Office is not nearly so alive to the importance and practicability of carrying mails by air as other countries are and as they ought to be. The number of mails flown with letters by the mail-carrying aeroplanes in the United States is very great indeed. It is a regular thing between many of the inland towns, and I am afraid our Post Office is lagging behind in this matter and is not putting forward its best efforts in research in this matter as we have a right to expect. This contract provides 392 a subsidy of £100,000 a year for 20 years for carrying the mails between these two Governments, and that subsidy would be of extraordinary value to an aircraft company or group of companies who could form a syndicate for the purpose.
A subsidy which is a moderate one for shipping is a very great subsidy for aircraft, because, for the distance covered and the time, aircraft are infinitely cheaper than water-borne traffic. The advantage commercially in favour of aircraft, either lighter or heavier than air, is getting greater and greater almost hourly as progress is made. It is a tremendous mistake if we have in any way bound ourselves in this contract to carry the mails by water for 20 years. I know in Clause 7 there is a rather complicated paragraph which says the Postmaster-General if he shall deem it expedient in the public interest that any new arrangement shall come into force whereby the quantity of mails or number of officers for the time being required to be conveyed shall be substantially decreased, the contract may be modified and, I believe, even cancelled. There are provisions in Clause 28 for arbitration. Have the legal or business advisers of the Post Office been consulted as to whether an advantageous offer by an aeroplane or seaplane company could be considered in the public interest as a reason for annulling the contract and diverting part of the subsidy to air-borne mails? The Government is giving wholly insufficient encouragement to the commercial development of aviation. The Minister for Air has also the Portfolio as Minister for War, and I feel he is too much engaged in aggressive activities to pay attention to the development of air matters, which I regret profoundly. Has the Post Office considered the possibility of the carriage of mails by air? And the Fame thing applies to passengers and perishable goods. The big lighter than air craft have a lifting capacity of fifty tons, and big aeroplanes lift ten tons. In a few years' time, if we are still bound for twenty years to carry these mails by the Holyhead sea route, we will be the laughing stock of the world.
§ Brigadier-General Sir OWEN THOMAS
I have not very much to say about one company or the other, but I was greatly concerned about the employés 393 of the City of Dublin Steam Packet Co. When I heard of the possibility of that company losing the mail contract, I felt that something should be done in the interests of those men, who deserve so well of the country for all they did during the War. I made inquiries and I am glad to say I received a letter from Sir Thomas Williams, the General Manager of the London and North Western Railway Company, which is a credit to that company and a great source of satisfaction to the employés of the City of Dublin Company. I should like to read some extracts from that letter, as it will in future be some kind of record—Relative to the men who are now employed by the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company I would like to express the obligations of my directors to you for giving them the opportunity to state their intentions in case the Government accept their tender for the carriage of the mails between Holyhead and Kingstown. The question has already been raised by Mr. Havelock Wilson, M.P., and discussed with him by one of the chief officers of this company, who gave an undertaking that if this company's tender is accepted the London and North Western Company are prepared to take over at Holyhead, and even at Kingstown the men under sixty years of age, and to consider on merit those cases of men over sixty years of age. With regard to the latter it was pointed out that the number must be very small, and that the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company have their obligations, particularly in regard to men who have been in their service for many years. … I have much pleasure in giving you on behalf of my directors the same undertaking that was given to Mr. Havelock Wilson, and if there are any other points on which you would like further information I will be very pleased to discuss them with you at any time and place convenient to you.I have had the pleasure of discussing various points with Sir Thomas Williams, and I am perfectly satisfied that the London and North Western Railway Co. are going to do everything that one could expect the company to do with those men whom they are taking over. Therefore I have great pleasure in supporting the proposal.
§ Lieut.-Colonel MOORE - BRABAZON
This is not so simple a matter as might at first sight appear. In aviation I always think that we are falling into the mistake of presuming too much and giving too little, and that people will be discouraged with the whole subject unless we put the facts more fully before them. The whole question of air mails is a diffi- 394 cult one, because the aeroplane is not an efficient traveller at night, whereas the ordinary traffic across the sea goes on in the dark, and until we educate people to post their letters in the morning, which we shall never be able to do, then this evening service is as satisfactory a thing as one can get. In the London and Paris air service there is very little advantage. The needs of the community are met by the ordinary traffic. But, provided you do get a night service as well as a day service, there is no doubt that an air service can be useful in getting together letters from main sources and sending them on at once and avoiding a great deal of waste of time. The whole question of air mails is one which concerns the general policy of the Postmaster-General. Are you to look upon the carriage of mails as purely a business proposition, or can you use the money voted for the Post Office indirectly to benefit the nation in other ways? We have been told recently by the military authorities, the chief of the Air Staff especially, that an efficient air force must necessarily depend on efficient commercial aviation. Therefore it is to the national advantage to see that somehow commercial aviation in this country should flourish. At present nothing is being done to encourage it. Though there have been recommendations by advisory committees that there should be subsidies these have not materialised, and in the present state of our finances I do not think they ever will. So commercial aviation looks to the Post Office as one of the few helps that it is ever likely to get.
With regard to Ireland, I do think that a special appeal ought to be made to the Postmaster-General to do his best to try a service as soon as possible, because the difficulties between the two countries, which are largely centred on ethnological and other causes, owe a great part of their existence to the Irish Sea. If we could do away with that there would be no Irish problem. The better we know each other the less likely we are to quarrel. By increasing the speed of communications we draw the two countries nearer together.
I notice in this contract that Clause 7 allows the Postmaster-General practically to do what he likes with regard to breaking or changing the mode of transport. It is a most extraordinary Clause and seems to me to redound to the credit 395 of the Postmaster-General. I think we ought to have a word from the Postmaster-General that, if possible, he will divert some of the mails along the new route.
§ Sir R. THOMAS
The last speaker has inquired whether this is a business proposition. I think this tender is evidence of that fact. The City of Dublin Company put in a tender for £150,000 for ten years, and the London and North Western Railway Company a tender for £100,000 for twenty years. As a business man, that strikes me as a very good business proposition, and the Government have accepted the only possible tender. One hon. Gentleman opposite has referred to the way the London and North Western Railway Company steamers have to navigate the harbour of Holyhead. I happen to be a resident of Holyhead, and know something about the manœuvring of these boats. There is no necessity whatever for the boats to come into the harbour stern foremost. They can come in bow foremost and swing round quite naturally, and then go out bow foremost. The hon. and gallant Member for Anglesey (Sir O. Thomas) has referred to the undertaking given by the London and North Western Railway Company to take on all the employés of the City of Dublin Company. That is satisfactory. As a result of the railway company getting this contract all their repairs to boats will be done at Holyhead, which will mean additional employment. The practice of the City of Dublin Company has been to send ail the boats from Holyhead for repairs. It is therefore obviously to the advantage of Holyhead that the contract should go to the London and North Western Company.
§ Mr. WIGNALL
Up to a few hours ago the Labour party had been preparing for a tremendous fight against the confirmation of this contract, simply because we were concerned on behalf of the labour employed by the City of Dublin Company. A letter has been read which gives certain assurances. When I tell you we have been at work from 3.30 to nearly 9.30 to-day, you will realise that the question has not been as simple as it appears. I am glad to say that I can spare the House from the infliction of a speech. I hold in my hand an agreement which we have succeeded 396 in concluding with the London and North Western Company, and it covers all the sea-faring men, cooks, and stewards, the labourers at Kingstown and the whole of the men employed at Holyhead. This, I am glad to say, will meet the difficulty with one exception, and that is the case of the men over 60 years of age.
§ Mr. WIGNALL
Only eleven! If you were one of the eleven, you would realise the importance. It is in regard to those eleven men that the main difficulty has arisen, and they are the men in whom we are now most concerned.
§ Sir R. THOMAS
Is it not a matter for the City of Dublin Company to find compensation for the men who have served them all these years?
§ Mr. WIGNALL
I quite agree, but if the hon. Member were one of the directors of the City of Dublin Company, he might be inclined to say, "We have lost the contract, and have nothing to pay with." It is necessary to face this position. We have got a guarantee that the cases of these eleven men will be considered individually. On the general merits of the case, we have accepted that Clause, and, with the exception of these eleven men, the agreement I hold in my hand covers the whole position with universal satisfaction. The position of the workmen will, as a result of our negotiations, be better in the future as regards both hours of labour and remuneration. Therefore, the Labour party withdraw that opposition.
§ Mr. ILLINGWORTH
The hon. Member for the Cromac Division of Belfast (Mr. Lindsay) raised a question as to the speed of the service. That is a matter not for the Post Office, but for the Ministry of Transport, and I am not in a position to make any comment on it. I will however mention that to my right hon. Friend.
§ Mr. ILLINGWORTH
And I have been assured that it has. With regard to entry into the inner harbour, ten minutes will be saved thereby, and the transfer of the 397 mails will be greatly expedited. The hon. Member for Central Hull (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy) referred to the question of air mails. I can assure him that this is not being overlooked by the Post Office. Air mails are at present more or less experimental. There are now air mails to Paris, Amsterdam, and Brussels, but the atmosphere is more favourable for them. There is less cloud and fog than on the route from this country to Ireland. In the United States of America, too, they are able to work under more favourable conditions. These distances over land are very much greater than is possible in this part of Europe, and in the case of landings they run much less danger.
Not only that, but I would remind the hon. and gallant Member that the essence of the Irish mail is that it should go by night. At present, of course, night flying cannot be done. I know it was done during the War under exceptional circumstances, but it cannot be expected to be done now, and in fact it is impossible to be done at the present moment. I have had considerable discussions with those interested in the flying industry, and they admit that, as far as that is concerned—the most important point for the mail service—it is impracticable for the moment, and many of them are also of the opinion that they must depend more on the carriage of goods than on the carriage of mails. Clause 7 has been referred to by various hon. Members. In case in the next 20 years the mail service by air becomes a practical proposition, there is provision made in this Clause for making a corresponding reduction in the amount paid to the London and North Western Railway Company for the fewer mails they carry. I think I have met all the points that have been raised, and I hope the House will ratify this agreement now, as the present contract expires at midnight on Saturday or early on Sunday morning.
§ Mr. MOLES
I regret very much the attitude of the right hon. Gentleman in respect to the railway time. There is, of course, an enormous advantage in the rapid transport of mails to communities such as my hon. Friends and I represent, and I think it is a reproach to the right hon. Gentleman that he comes down here and asks this House to give its endorsement to a contract which, while upon the one hand it speeds up the sea-borne por- 398 tion of the journey to the extent of 15 minutes, more than throws away that advantage in another direction. The right hon. Gentleman has in effect told us that he will not even consider a representation upon it at all, and he says the railway portion of the journey is a matter for the Minister of Transport, but I think he is mistaken and that he has himself a function in the matter. He has a right to make terms with the London and North Western Railway Company in so far as the carriage of the mails is concerned, and he has equal power when he enters into his contract. He does exercise these powers now with the Great Northern Railway Company, who carry the mails in Ireland, so that it will not do to tell the House it is a matter solely for the Minister of Transport. If the right hon. Gentleman makes that suggestion, I am bound to say£although I do not like doing so£that he does not understand the duties that he is entrusted by this House to carry out. I regret to make such an observation to him, but only quite recently he gave me an answer which was the most obvious shuffling. He is aware of the constant representations that have been made from commercial bodies and from chambers of commerce all over Ireland, who have appealed to him again and again and have never got from him other answer than the kind of thing he has given to this House just now. We cannot force the right hon. Gentleman's hands. We would not, of course, desire to defeat a contract of this kind, because that would hang up the thing altogether. All that we can do is to protest against the attitude he has taken up, and I do so as strongly as I can, and I am sure I have the good sense of the House with me.
§ Mr. MacVEAGH
I rise only to express my cordial agreement with the remarks which fell from my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Central Hull (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy), and I think this contract should not be allowed to pass without making it perfectly clear that everybody in this House recognises the services which have been rendered by the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company which carried these mails so efficiently for so many years. I think the efficiency they showed was practically unparalleled in this country, and the greatest courtesy was at all times shown by all the officials from the highest to the lowest. I regret that circumstances should have made it 399 necessary to accept the competitive tender, because naturally, this being an Irish company, most of my countrymen would have preferred to see the contract remain in their hands, but if they have found themselves unable to compete with the London and North Western Railway Company in this matter, the fault is entirely due to the Government for the manner in which they treated the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company. They lost two of their steamers during the War when they were requisitioned by the Government. The Government did not pay them the compensation, but compelled them to indulge in very costly litigation, and it is the fault of the Government entirely that the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company has been placed in the position in which it finds itself to-day. I understand litigation is still going on. That, of course, is no fault of the Postmaster-General, who is in no way responsible. Perhaps if the Secretary to the Treasury could be induced to speak to-night, he could throw some light on the manner in 400 which that company has been treated by the Government. We have no alternative left now. A contract has to be made in some form, but I do not think this contract should be allowed to pass without there being expressed from this Bench the most cordial support of the tribute which was paid by the hon. and gallant Member.
§ Resolved, "That the contract, dated the 11th day of November, 1920, between the Postmaster-General and the London and North Western Railway Company for the conveyance of His Majesty's mails between Holyhead and Kingstown from the 28th day of November, 1920, be approved."
§ It being after half-past Eleven of the clock, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
§ Adjourned at Seven minutes before Twelve o'clock.