§ LORD CHELMSFORD
asked the Postmaster General, Whether Her Majesty's 1143 Government have accepted a Tender from the Belgian Government for the Conveyance of the English Mails between Dover and Ostend; and whether they contemplate any Alteration in the Mail Packet Service between Dover and Calais; and whether any Failure in the Performance of the existing Contract between Her Majesty's Government and Mr. Joseph George Churchward for the Mail Services between Dover and Calais and Ostend respectively has occurred to render any Change necessary? Up to the year 1854, these services were conducted by the Board of Admiralty in Government vessels. It then occurred to Mr. Churchward—a gentleman whose name was now familiar to their Lordships—that it would not impair the efficiency, and would contribute to economy, if the services were committed to private enterprise. Mr. Churchward submitted his views to the Admiralty, by whom they were favourably entertained; but nothing was done until a Select Committee of the House of Commons reported in favour of the service being conducted by private parties; and in 1854 Mr. Churchward entered into a contract with the Admiralty for the services between Dover and Ostend, and Dover and Calais, for the sum of £15,000 a year. The advantages of this contract were great. There was a considerable saving to the country, and the work was efficiently performed. In the following year, 1855, an application was made by Mr. Churchward for an extension of the contract, and the Admiralty granted a further extension of four years, which time would expire in June next. In the year 1859, under the Government of Lord Derby, an application for a further extension of the contract was made by Mr. Churchward. At that time, as at the present moment, Mr. Churchward held a contract with the French Government for the conveyance of their mails from Calais to Dover, which, of course, afforded him great facilities for carrying out his contract with our Government. The same considerations which guided the Government in 1855 induced the Government of Lord Derby to extend the contract to the year 1870; and accordingly, on the 26th of April 1859, a fresh contract was entered into with Mr. Churchward, by which he was to carry on the whole service until the year 1870, at the increased rate of £18,000 per annum; the addition being a commutation of all extra and special services, and for harbour and other dues, which, under the previous 1144 contract, had been borne by the Government. He would not enter into the question of the validity of that contract of 1859, as it might possibly become the subject of investigation in a court of law; but he might observe that the Government which succeeded that of his noble Friend recognised the contract as a valid and subsisting contract. For instance, the Admiralty informed the Superintendent at Dover that the contract of 1855 had been cancelled, and instructed him to watch over the due performance of the contract of the 26th of April 1859. Again, on the 1st of July 1859. Mr. Churchward sent in a bill to the Admiralty for two months' subsidy, at the increased rate of £18,000 per annum, and there was not only no objection made to the payment of that amount, but Mr. Churchward having claimed the subsidy from the 1st of May, the Admiralty considerately pointed out to him that as his contract commenced on the 26th of April he was entitled to four days more, and they added £23 to his claim. A subsequent claim was sent in by Mr. Churchward for the payment of certain harbour dues, and the Admiralty reminded him that he had contracted to pay all such charges himself. In a subsequent account he had charged for an extra boat for the India mail on the very day that the contract commenced, and the Admiralty held that the old contract terminated on the 25th of April. But that was not all. A lease was executed by two Lords of the Admiralty of certain premises at Dover which were necessary for Mr. Churchward to occupy in order to perform his contract. That lease would expire in 1870, and that lease recited the contract of 1859, which was in fact the foundation of the lease. Under these circumstances, Mr. Churchward was struck with some surprise about six months afterwards on being informed that the Government repudiated the contract of 1859, and intended to adhere to the contract of 1855. They subsequently gave him notice that they considered he was acting under the contract of 1855, and that consequently his engagement would terminate in the month of June next. The validity of the contract probably would be tried in the proper court; but he was anxious to know how the future services between Dover and Ostend and Dover and Calais were to be provided for. He learnt, from what had passed in another place, that the Government had accepted a tender from the Belgian Government for the service be- 1145 tween Dover and Ostend. He wished to know from the Postmaster General if that contract had been completed. If so, it would give the Belgian Government a right to exact performance from our Government. But the contract could not be carried out unless it was ratified by the Belgian Chamber. The Chambers were still sitting; but there would very soon be an adjournment, if not a dissolution, and they would not assemble again until November next. What provision had been made for the time when the Government said the contract with Mr. Churchward would end—that was in June—up to November, which would be the earliest period at which the ratification of the contract by the Belgian Chambers could take place? It was not unlikely that there would be a change of Ministers in Belgium, and possibly the Chambers would refuse the ratification. He had been told that the tender of the Belgian Government was fur as low a figure as £4,000 a year; and therefore it was quite impossible that they would be able to conduct the service except at a very great annual loss. At present he was told that they had half the day and half the night service, and they were losing very considerably by that. They had not got a boat themselves, and they were obliged to hire boats from the South Eastern Company at £350 a month, including seamen's wages, making £4,000 a year. If they were to have six additional services to perform, of course they would require additional boats, which would require an outlay of about £40,000. He doubted whether the Belgian Chambers would be disposed to ratify a contract which was likely to be attended with such prejudicial circumstances. He had been informed, but he could hardly believe the statement, that in order to carry out this Belgian arrangement, it was in contemplation to reduce the services between Dover and Calais. He hoped this was not the case, for he was quite sure that it would produce the greatest possible dissatisfaction and the greatest inconvenience. He would ask if such an arrangement was in contemplation. He would also ask whether there had been anything in the manner in which Mr. Churchward had performed his contract which had induced the Government to take this course. All the predecessors of the noble Lord the Postmaster General had expressed themselves satisfied with the performance of his contract by Mr. Church- 1146 ward. He asked, then, whether it was true that there had been a tender of the Belgian Government as to the service between Dover and Ostend; and if so, on what terms? Whether that tender had been ratified by the Belgian Chambers? Whether it was in contemplation to interfere with the service between Dover and Calais? And whether there had been any failure on the part of Mr. Churchward to carry on the contract which he had so long performed with entire satisfaction.
§ LORD STANLEY OF ALDERLEY
said, that to the earlier observations of the noble and learned Lord he should make no answer; because, as the noble and learned Lord himself had remarked, the matter would probably become the subject of legal investigation. But with regard to the specific Questions that had been put to him, he would say that, as to the service between Dover and Ostend, a conditional engagement bad been entered into between the Belgian Government and the English Government for the performance of the mail packet service at a considerably reduced rate. The arrangement was a conditional one, the condition being that the English Parliament should not find the money for the continuance of the contract with Mr. Churchward. If Parliament should find the money to continue that contract, Mr. Churchward would continue the service as at present. If, on the other hand, Parliament should not find the money, then the Belgian Government would be bound by their contract, and would undertake the duty; and there was no reason to suppose it would not be done in a satisfactory and efficient manner. As to its involving a loss to the Belgian Government, with that the British Government had nothing at all to do. All that they had to do was to see that the service was properly performed. With regard to the mail packet service between Dover and Calais, an offer had been made to the English Government to perform it at a lower rate than was at present paid; and the negotiations were still proceeding with the parties who made the tender. If an agreement were come to, it would stand on the same conditions as the Belgian arrangement—namely, it would be conditional on Parliament not finding the money to carry on the contract with Mr. Churchward. The last question was, whether there was reason to complain of the manner in which Mr. Churchward had carried out his contract? He was 1147 happy to say, in confirmation of what had been stated by the noble and learned Lord, that it was not on account of any inefficiency or from anything unsatisfactory in the performance of the service that notice had been given to Mr. Churchward of the termination of his contract with the Government. That notice was given in consequence of the course taken by the other House of Parliament (of which the noble and learned Lord was no doubt cognizant) on the Report of a Committee condemning the conduct of Mr. Churchward, and expressing an opinion that—It would be impossible for the House of Commons, with due regard to its honour and dignity, to vote the sums of money necessary to fulfil the agreement." [See 3 Hansard, clvii. 1331.]Upon that Report, a friend of Mr. Churchward, Captain Vernon, raised a specific Motion, challenging the opinion of the Commons, and proposed a Resolution that the contract should be carried out. That Motion was discussed for a considerable time, and by a majority of forty it was decided that it would not be consistent with the honour and dignity of the House to vote the money to carry the contract into effect. The Government, therefore, had every reason to believe, after that expression of opinion from the House of Commons, that it would be impossible to carry out the contract with Mr. Churchward, and that if they did not take the steps they had taken of inviting tenders for a contract for the service from other parties, they might, after 1863, be left without any means of continuing the service. For those reasons the Government had taken the steps they had taken; and he trusted that, instead of producing inconvenience, their course would be productive of advantage.
§ LORD CHELMSFORD
said, the noble Lord had not answered the question, whether the contract had been ratified by the Belgian Chambers; and, if not, what provision had been made in the event of the Chambers being dissolved without the ratification being completed, and not re-assembling till November next—he meant, supposing the British Parliament did not vote the money to carry on Mr. Churchward's contract?
§ LORD STANLEY OF ALDERLEY
said, there was no reason to expect that the Belgian Chambers would rise before this question had been disposed of. The Belgian Government had given a positive engagement that they would undertake the contract, and we had accepted it condition- 1148 ally on the British Parliament not voting the money.
§ THE EARL OF DERBY
asked, whether the sum to be proposed for Mr. Churchward's contract had been inserted in the Estimates to be submitted to Parliament? He asked the question, as Parliament would otherwise have no power to vote the money.
§ LORD STANLEY OF ALDERLEY
said, the money was not in the Estimates, but it was competent for any Member of Parliament to raise the question again, as it had been raised by Captain Vernon, and Parliament would decide the point.
§ THE EARL OF DERBY
said, it was not competent for any but a responsible Member of the Government to propose a vote of money for such a purpose, and then it must appear on the Estimates. Therefore, it was idle to say it was left to the option of Parliament whether Mr. Churchward's contract should be carried out or not.