HC Deb 06 June 1930 vol 239 cc2633-9

May I recall the attention of the House from contemplation of the Russian bogy to the more homely and less terrifying features of the Assistant Postmaster-General. The matter which I desire to raise is peculiar to my constituency, but it contains other matters of general importance to the inhabitants of the country who send letters overseas. Before dealing with the case I should like to say that, whatever criticism I have to make of the action of the Department, I desire to thank the Assistant Postmaster-General for the personal attention he has given to me during some weeks while these matters have been under consideration. The mails which were carried by the steamship "St. Sunniva" from Aberdeen to Lerwick were lost when that ship went ashore on the Island of Mousa, on the 10th April. She went ashore in a fog and was lying in a very awkward position. The owners of the ship very soon came to the conclusion that they would hand her over to the under-writers, and for some time the under-writers were concerned with the question of salvage. At the earliest opportunity I got into touch with the Post Office, who were closely watching what was happening and assured me that they would do all that was possible to assist in any salvage of the mails. I fully realise that they could not take independent action while the underwriters were still concerned with the possibilities of the salvage of the cargo. Here, I should like to say that one of the objections which they raised in the interview I had with the Assistant Postmaster-General on the 29th April, was that the difficulties of the position were increased by the fact that cargo had been placed on the top of the mails. From information which I have received that was not exactly the case. My information conies from the manager of the company, who states: The mails were placed at each side of the hatchway on the deck below the main deck, the hatches were put on and some goods were placed on the top of the hatch but not on the mail bags. There were no goods or cargo placed on the top of the mails. There is a slight difference there. I fully realise that if mails are placed on the lower deck and the hatch is put on the top and then goods put on the top of the hatch, if the ship gets into difficulty that complicates matters in any attempt to get the mails out of the ship. On the 8th of May the underwriters abandoned all attempts to salve the cargo. I then asked the Post Office to take independent action to see what could be done towards salving the mails, and I understand that instructions were sent to the postmaster at Lerwick to see if the mails could be salved by local effort. Nothing was done, and it was not until the 21st of May that I ascertained, somewhat to the surprise also of the Assistant Postmaster-General, that the actual instructions sent were only to co-operate with others, as the Post Office regarded separate salvage as impracticable.

That is the main point to which I desire to draw attention. Here is a case where the ship has become a total wreck, the underwriters have abandoned all attempts to salve the cargo, and there are 130 mail bags on board, and the Post Office will not take upon themselves the responsibility of an independent effort to salve the mails but limit themselves to co-operating with anyone else who may undertake the work. I do not wish to minimise the difficulties of the position, but everyone will understand why there was general laughter in the House when, in answer to a question put by me, the Postmaster-General said that the position had been inspected by the local postmaster who went out in a small boat. That is not a serious attempt to determine the possibility of the salvage of the mails. The ship was lying in 18 feet of water, and one could hardly expect the local postmaster to give a useful report on such a matter. I complain that the Postmaster-General did not take more serious action. If the Post Office could not get local persons to undertake the salvage, they should have made an effort to get a firm at Aberdeen to give an independent report and to say definitely if anything could or could not be done. On the 22nd of May the ship broke up and the mail bags were lost, as was everything else.

My complaint is this, that the Post Office, although quite willing to co-operate with others, would never undertake independent action, when they had an opportunity of doing so after the underwriters had abandoned the ship, to salve the mails. I want to know the responsibility of the Post Office in such matters, because similar cases may occur elsewhere. Is the Post Office always to say that they will only be of assistance if someone else will do the real work. Surely there is some obligation upon the Post Office. Here are His Majesty's mails being carried in a ship which is lying in a place where they could have been got at, and the Post Office stands by and does nothing unless someone else undertakes the real work. Then with regard to the way in which the mails were placed on board the ship. They were undoubtedly in a position which made it difficult to get at them. Is there any rule that they shall be placed in a position where they can be easily reached in case of disaster occurring? I realise that while the mails are in charge of the shipping company all that the Post Office is concerned with is that they are duly taken over and delivered at the other end, but I should like to know whether there is any rule that mails should be placed in such a position that they can be easily reached.

The loss of the mails carried in this ship is a serious matter to the Islanders. Very often they contain a good deal of money orders, cheques and notes which are of great importance to the Islanders, and while the failure of the Post Office to take independent action in this matter has aroused considerable feeling in the island, that feeling might be somewhat allayed if the Post Office is prepared to give special consideration to the multitude of claims which will inevitably be made. That is the case, and I should be glad if the Assistant Postmaster-General can give an answer which will be a reassurance not only to these people but to all those who may be concerned with mails carried in ships overseas.


The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Sir R. Hamilton) has referred to the statement of the Postmaster-General that the Postmaster at Lerwick went out to survey the wreck in a small boat. My right hon. Friend did not intend to suggest that the local postmaster went out in order to give a report as to the possibility of salvage operations. He did not wish to convey the impression that the postmaster was sufficiently expert to go out in a small boat and survey the wreck and decide whether salvage was possible or not.


Let me read from the OFFICIAL REPORT: Sin R. HAMILTON: Have the Post Office made any independent survey of the wreck, or any independent efforts to salve these mails? MR. LEES-SMITH: Certainly. The postmaster himself was out there in a small boat."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th May, 1930; col. 986, Vol. 239.]


Yes, but the Postmaster-General gave that reply under a misapprehension. He mistook the wishes of the hon. Member. What he desired to convey to the House was that the local postmaster had gone out in a boat to survey the spot and see for himself that there was little or nothing left. He did not wish to lead the House to believe that the evidence of the local postmaster had been accepted as to whether there was or was not any possibility of salving the mails. The Post Office, of course, is extremely sorry for the inconvenience that has been caused by the loss of these mails and regret that it was not possible to avoid it. Whenever a vessel carrying mails is lost, the department is placed in a very difficult position. The legal position is not strictly defined. The position has always been maintained that mails are not liable to general salvage contribution and in practice What usually happens in these cases is that the salvage company, acting for the underwriters, recover the mails, as far as salvage is practicable, in the course of their operations, and subsequently they receive an ex gratia payment from the Post Office in respect of any special expense which they incur. I think it will be admitted that in so far as we are not the owners of the vessels that are carrying mails we are very much in the hands of the underwriters. The result was that the local postmaster had to co-operate with the various authorities that were brought in to Survey the wreck on behalf of the underwriters. The postmaster of Lerwick was in touch with the representatives of the underwriters and the London Salvage Association with a view to ensuring that the mails should be included in any attempt at salvage, and assurances were, in fact, received that if salvage proved possible the mails would be recovered as part of the general operation. From the first, the difficulties in the way of salvage were regarded locally as formidable, and this was recognised by the senior bailiff, Mr. Ollason, who discussed the position with the postmaster and a representative of the local ship-repairing firm. The House will therefore appreciate the fact that technical advice was there on the spot, and that the local postmaster at Lerwick was co-operating with the authorities responsible.

I understand that there were 15 letter bags and 114 parcel bags on board, and it is estimated that the amount of compensation would probably be about £100. I will explain the reason for that compensation. The Post Office is not legally liable for the loss of anything tent by post, but compensation will be paid in respect of the mails lost in the "St. Sunniva" up to the limits and under the conditions applied in the case of other losses in the inland service. These limits are, in the case of registered packets, £5, and, in the case of an unregistered parcel, £2. No compensation is payable in any circumstances in respect of an unregistered letter or letter package. The Salvage Association appears to have endeavoured to arrange a stripping contract. That is to say, anything recoverable would be salved in return for payment on the basis of a percentage of the net realised amount. The conditions of such contract were hardly applicable to mails, but the Post Office offered to make a reasonable payment for services rendered in the salvage of mails if a contract were arranged. No firm, however, was found willing to undertake the work on any terms acceptable to the underwriter, and it is evident that no firm would have been prepared to make an independent attempt to salve the mails on any terms which the Post Office would have been justified in accepting, having regard to the probable condition of the mails and to their long immersion.

From reports which have been received, it appears that in the case of the "St. Sunniva" the heavy cargo was placed at the bottom of the forehold with the mails on battens above. That is due to the fact that the mails had to be placed on board before a certain amount of the cargo had arrived. This cargo arrived after the mails had been put in position, and it is made clear by the shipping agents that it would be impossible to retain the mails until the whole of the cargo was placed on board for the simple reason that it would mean detaining the vessels. The result is that the mails are put in position, and battens put above, and the remaining cargo placed on board. So, even if the Post Office had been in a position to attempt salvage on its own, that cargo would have had to be removed. But the experts say that, not only was it impossible to take the steps that were necessary, but immediately the ship struck the rocks there was evidently a hole made in the forehold. The result was that the forehold was immediately flooded with water. The question of accommodation for mails on the Shetland service will be further considered, but it seems clear from the later reports that the manner in which the mails was stowed in the "St. Sunniva" did not affect the possibility of salvage. The force of the impact on the rocks must in any case have caused a considerable shifting of the cargo in the forehold.

3.0 p.m.

That is a statement that has been prepared and sent to the Postmaster-General. As briefly as I could, I have endeavoured to give the facts to the House, but I am not suggesting that the statement is satisfactory in every respect. That is an impossibility in the circumstances, owing to the fact that we are very largely in the hands of the shipping companies who are charged with the responsibility of conveying mails after they leave the hands of the Post Office staff. However, the whole position will be very carefully considered, and I hope that the inconvenience that has been caused will not arise again in the near future.

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