§ LORD WHARNCLIFFE
wished to ask the noble Lord the Postmaster General (Viscount Canning) whether any and what arrangements had been made for carrying on the postal service between this country and Australia, in consequence of the dissolution of the contract with the Australian Royal Mail Packet Company? In consequence of the termination of the contract with the Australian Royal Mail Packet Company, it appeared that there did not now exist any postal arrangement between Great Britain and the Australian Colonies. This was a point of considerable importance, not less than the solution of the question which presented itself as 516 to the best mode of establishing a different system for securing the efficient discharge of the duties of the public service. Since the report of the Select Committee in 1851 great changes had taken place in the requirements of the public service; and it was desirable, therefore, to know what course the Government intended to take in the present state of the postal service between this country and the Australian Colonies?
§ VISCOUNT CANNING
said, that he thought the noble Lord had overstated the deficiency of the communication that existed with Australia in consequence of the termination of the contract with the Australian Royal Mail Company; and indeed his noble Friend subsequently stated—what was perfect correct—that there was an alternate monthly communication already secured by means of the overland mail branching off to Singapore. That communication was undisturbed by the dissolution of the contract with the Australian Mail Company, and, inasmuch as it was carried on by the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Packet Company, he had no reason to believe that there was any likelihood of a failure in the contract. The route, moreover, was the shortest that at present existed. In regard to another alternate monthly communication in consequence of the failure of the Australian Mail Company, he must he allowed to remind their Lordships that upon the accession of the present Government to office, they found, as was stated a few nights ago in his speech by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that the engagements to which the revenue of this country was liable for carrying on the mail packet service amounted to the large sum of more than 800,000l. a year. It needed no argument to show that the sum thus given was, even for the important purpose to which it was applied, enormous. It was true a certain amount—though, he was sorry to say, not so much as they might expect—was returned to the revenue in the shape of postage. But it was not only the amount of this sum that weighed upon the Government. A great majority—indeed all the contracts on which heavy sums were paid—were contracts concluded for terms varying from seven, to nine, ten, or eleven years; and, consequently, unless in the case of some accident, such as had happened with regard to the Australian Company, where there was an entire failure on the part of the contractors to fulfil their engagements, the Govern- 517 ment was bound for a great number of years to the payment of these heavy sums. The Government had turned their attention to the circumstance, and lost no time in endeavouring to ascertain whether a course might not be taken that would relieve the revenue from these heavy payments. While these investigations were being proceeded with, the opportunity arising from the failure of the Australian Company occurred, and they thought it their duty to ascertain whether a system more effective and economical might not be adopted to satisfy all the requirements of the country and the Colonies. Having this object in view, the Government thought it would not be consistent with their duty to the public interests to accept any overtures for a long and permanent contract such as that which had just lapsed, and such as still prevailed in other cases. Accordingly, one or two offers having been made on the part of other companies to take up the lapsed service of the Australian Company, they were not accepted by the Government. The course which it was intended to pursue was this: The Government thought that, as in all other matters where shipping and commercial enterprise was concerned, so in the mail packet service, that enterprise might safely be called into action; and with this view it was their intention to issue by advertisement an invitation of tenders for the conveyance of one or more mails in alternate months from this country to the Australian Colonies. It was the intention of the Government themselves to prescribe the price which they were ready to pay for this service, and the only matter for competition which would be presented to the commercial and shipping firms who were invited to enter into the engagement, would be the limit of time within which the service was to be performed. It was the intention of the Government to tie up those who engaged in this service with as few stipulations as possible—none, indeed, except such as were requisite to insure the due departure of the ships, and the safe conveyance of the mails. Subject to these conditions, the shipowners who would undertake to perform the voyage in the shortest time, would receive the contract from the Government. Whether the Government would be induced to enter into a contract for more than one month, or for more than two or three voyages, would depend on the nature of the tenders which they received; but in no circumstances would the Government consent to enter into any long continuous engage- 518 ment for a term of years, saddling the revenue with a payment of such heavy gums as were now paid under the present complex system of contracts. No doubt this, to a certain degree, would be an experiment; and though he was pretty sanguine of success, yet it was still possible that the terms the Government thought it their duty to offer might not be such as the shipping interest would accept. But if they should not, he feared no inconvenience from that circumstance, either to the mother country or the Australian Colonies, because the intercourse between this country and Australia had grown so rapidly and extensively during the last few months that, even if the Government were obliged to rely on the Act of Parliament which enabled them to employ any vessel sailing from this country as the medium of conveying ship letters, there would scarcely be any inconvenience or delay whatever. In the course of three months the number of vessels that had left English ports for Australia amounted to 70 a month, and many of these vessels were calculated to perform the voyage at a greater rate of speed than had hitherto been attained by steamers; therefore, if the worst should arise, and if the experiment the Government was about to make with the view of diminishing the pressure of these heavy charges should not be successful, there need be no fear on the part of his noble Friend that any serious inconvenience would be entailed either on this country or on the Colonies of Australia.
§ The EARL of HARDWICKE
expressed his gratification at the statement he had just heard. He wished, however, to remind the House that the contracts which had been made by the Board of Admiralty for this service were made with a view that the vessels should be of such a scale as to enable them to carry armaments, in order that they might be ready for all contingencies. This induced a larger demand being made by the owners of those vessels. But it turned out, notwithstanding, that in no instance had the owners of these vessels made any preparation for arming them, and indeed these vessels had been found unfit in this as in other respects; and the contractors bad, therefore, totally failed in the performance of their duty-Now he did not consider it was at all necessary for the Government to take into their consideration the question of armaments; for those vessels destined for the conveyance of mails, need not, in his opin- 519 ion, be armed at all, as their great object would be to escape from all hostile engagements when occupied in such service. These vessels should be built for speed and safety, and that consideration alone should determine their fitness for the mail service. The necessity also for extending the contracts over a long period was productive of ill effects; for if there were a fair competition amongst the shipping interest, these vessels would, no doubt, be obtained at a much cheaper rate than they had paid heretofore. He found during the time he was in office that there was a great anxiety on the part of that interest generally to be engaged in this line of the public service. As the case now stood, he did not think that there could be any difficulty in making arrangements for the future, for in all the contracts entered into by the Government there was a provision, that upon the payment of a certain fine, the contract might be put an end to. He considered that it would be advisable for the benefit of the public to close those contracts by the payment of the fines, which could not amount to a very large sum—probably not more than 250,000l., and which would enable the Government to make much better arrangements at a reduced cost to the country for the conveyance of the mails.
§ EARL GREY
said, he looked upon this as a subject of great importance, and they were certainly obliged to his noble Friend for having brought it under the consideration of the House. No doubt there were good reasons for the experiment which the Government proposed to try, and he did did not think it at all unlikely that such an experiment might succeed. He could not avoid reminding the House, however, that when these contracts were first entered into a plan of this kind would not have answered, because until the present enormous intercourse between the mother country and the Australian colonies had sprung up, such a plan would not have been remunerative, and as regards most of our colonies, it would not answer at the present moment; consequently the service, in order to be effectually and economically performed, required that the contract should be entered into by some individuals or company, who could take it for a considerable period, and who could make arrangements for coaling, and otherwise rendering the whole service effective in consideration of the length of term. He had always been opinion that all successive Governments 520 had made a mistake in not reducing the cost of sending letters to the colonies. They charged a very high price for letters, and thereby reduced the number that were sent. A charge of 1s. on a letter was nearly prohibitory, except on rare occasions, to the labouring classes. The expense of sending letters was not proportioned to their number or to their bulk; a single letter would cost very nearly the same as a large number. If the charge was reduced to a penny for a half-ounce letter, as in this country, a much larger number would be sent, and a better return made to the revenue. Assuming that a penny was charged on every half-ounce letter, a ton of such letters would produce 300l. If they must carry on a very costly service by sending ships on such distant voyages, they should take care that such an increase of letters was sent as would produce a considerable sum in the way of postage, and this could be best effected by such a reduction as he had suggested. Though there might be a loss of money in the first instance by this reduction in the price of letters to the colony, and he would add, to all parts of the world, he was satisfied that it would be found the most economical course in the end.
§ VISCOUNT CANNING
wished to correct a misapprehension of the noble Earl (the Earl of Hardwicke). He had reason to believe that the contracts entered into with the Government by no means gave them the power, by the payment of a certain amount of fine, to release themselves from them. He had taken the opinion of the law officers upon the point, and that opinion was, that the meaning of the clause imposing a fine was, that in case of any unforeseen accident which disabled the contractors from carrying out their engagements, it might then be in the power of the Government to impose such a fine, and to annul the contract; but it did not empower the Government at their own pleasure to release themselves from the obligations they incurred under the contract by merely paying the amount of the fine. In regard to the suggestion of the noble Earl (Earl Grey) for the reduction of the postage of letters to our Australian colonies, he must remind him that the success of the 1 d. postage in the United Kingdom was not only owing to the vast increase in the number of letters, but also in the increase of the opportunities for despatching them. The increase of those opportunities, however, was a very serious 521 question when they were considering our mail communications with Australia.
§ EARL TALBOT
wished to ask the noble Viscount whether any particular route was to be adopted with regard to the mail ships; and whether any reduction was likely to be made in the rates of postage between this country and France?
§ VISCOUNT CANNING
said, it was not the intention of the Government, in calling for tenders for the conveyance of the mails to Australia, to confine the contracting parties to one particular route. In reference to the cost of the postage of letters to France, he had to inform the noble Earl that a proposition had been made to the French Government on the subject, but as yet no answer had been received. The Government of this country were ready to accede to a reduction in the postage of those letters, if the French Government were willing to assent to the proposition made.