HL Deb 25 March 1878 vol 238 cc1927-37

My Lords, I rise to put to the First Lord of the Treasury the Question of which I have given Notice, and to move for Papers. The latter will not be refused—they are the Correspondence respecting the Repairs of the Admiralty Pier at Dover, and they have already been given to the other House of Parliament; but the Motion for them puts me in Order in prefacing the Question by a few remarks. I have some right to consider my case as not bad, as I have never heard any argument even attempted against it on the several occasions on which I have brought it forward. My chief embarrassment is to know how much of it I need repeat to your Lordships on the present occasion. In any case, I will not trouble your Lordships with any reference to the importance which has been attached to Dover Harbour, both in times of peace and of war, for many hundreds of years. I will only remind your Lordships of the inquiries which have been entered into by Commissions and Committees since 1836. In 1840 the Commission appointed to survey the South-Eastern Harbours, reported— The situation which, appears to us to be of the greatest importance, and at the same time offers the most eligible position for a deep-water harbour, is Dover Bay. In 1843 the Duke of Wellington laid the greatest stress on Dover, not only as a spot for a harbour of refuge, but also as a salient military point. During the last 10 years the Dover Harbour Board has made several attempts, in addition to those proposed by others, to make the Harbour in some degree fit for the great traffic between Dover and the Continent. These attempts were always frustrated by the opposition of the Government Departments—especially the Admiralty —an opposition exclusively grounded on the military importance of Dover, and the necessity of not undertaking any mere commercial work which might mar such a scheme as was demanded by Imperial requirements. In 1872 the Dover Harbour Board came to an agreement with the two Railway Companies to construct a water station for the Continental traffic, at a cost of £200,000. If this scheme had been allowed to proceed, we should long before this have had all the accommodation required for the Continental traffic. But, in the autumn, I learnt that the usual opposition would be forthcoming from the same Departments on the same grounds. I represented to my Colleagues that the position of the Government had become untenable —that we must either decide to do something ourselves or allow the local authorities to proceed. A sub-Committee of the Cabinet was appointed, representing the naval, military, and commercial Departments, and last, not least, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Lowe), one of the most economical of that hard-fisted race of men. The matter was thoroughly investigated by this Committee, and again considered by the whole Cabinet of Mr. Gladstone. The result was that a plan, worked out by Sir Andrew Clarke, of the Admiralty, and Sir John Hawkshaw, was adopted by the Cabinet, and agreed to by the Railway Companies and the Dover Harbour Board. The plan met the requirements of the Admiralty and the War Office, as well as the commercial wants of the public. The cost was to be less than £1,000,000. The means were to be provided by a Loan from the Public Works Loan Commissioners, and a Vote of £40,000 a-year, for eight years, from Parliament—the whole amount to be repaid by the rents of the property of the Harbour Board, and by the produce of the tolls receivable by them. A Vote of £10,000 was given, and in the autumn of 1873 the Harbour Board gave the necessary notices. There was a change of Government at the beginning of 1874, and the new Government said that they must have time to consider so important a question; but in 1875, after a year's mature consideration, they proposed a Bill to carry out the same plan. The second reading was carried, and the Bill was referred to a Select Committee. The evidence taken before that Committee was overwhelming in favour of the plan. If His Royal Highness were not present, I should like to read the whole of the evidence of the illustrious Duke the Commander-in-Chief. His Royal Highness, with his usual clearness and knowledge of the subject, gave the reasons why he entirely agreed with the late Duke of Wellington as to the necessity of such a work, which he considered "of the greatest possible importance." Colonel Nugent, E.E., Deputy Director of the Works, said— It is geographically the most important point in Great Britain for having a military harbour. The fortifications at Dover would command the whole of the harbour. Major General Collinson, E.E., said, among other things— Dover is the most important strategical point for naval and military operations in the Kingdom. I think it is really absolutely necessary for strategic purposes and for military operations. Sir Alexander Milne, the First Naval Lord of the Admiralty, gave the reasons why, in his opinion, "it was absolutely necessary that this country should have a harbour in the position of Dover." Captain Evans, Hydrographer to the Admiralty, agreed in this evidence, and stated the necessity of preventing the silting that was now going on, and that, in his opinion, the proposed scheme would effect this object. Colonel Pasley gave powerful evidence in favour of the Bill. The Civil Engineers proved the feasibility of the works. There was one other witness whose opinion is now even of greater importance than it was then —it is that of Mr. W. H. Smith, who is now First Lord of the Admiralty, and was then Secretary to the Treasury. In the latter capacity he said— We inherited the scheme from our Predecessors. We found it in the form of a Bill last-year, and it was delayed in order that the present Government might give it a more full consideration before they committed themselves to it. The Treasury would not have assented to the scheme—I am speaking of the present Treasury—unless it had felt that there were public grounds, grounds of national interest, which justified the scheme as a whole. The Committee reported strongly in favour of the Bill, both on military and commercial grounds, but added, not a recommendation, but a suggestion extending the scheme, which they thought might be done at a moderate increase of expense. In consequence of this suggestion, Her Majesty's Government dropped the Bill for that year, on the ground, as was stated by the Lord President, that they might thoroughly sift and digest the evidence, and prepare a plan to submit to Parliament in the next Session. He added that in making that statement he did not pledge the Government to any particular scheme, but he did so with a view of showing their Lordships that the Bill was not withdrawn with any view of shelving the matter in any way whatever. On the faith of this assurance the Dover Harbour Board took no steps that autumn; when, on the 10th of November, at the very last moment, they were abruptly informed that Her Majesty's Government did not intend to proceed with the Bill. In the following Session, I made a somewhat similar statement to that with which I have just troubled your Lordships, and the answer of the Lord President, still Leader of this House, so far as words went, was perfectly satisfactory. He said he did not undervalue the importance of Dover Harbour in a strategical, national, or commercial point of view—he accepted the high authority of the witnesses I have quoted—he acknowledged the accuracy of my statement, and he said the subject had received the renewed attention of the Government in the autumn. But—and I am afraid that little word is at least as important as "if"—the subject was one of gravity and importance, the undertaking was large, and one which required a considerable outlay, and there was one important person to be consulted—namely, the Chancellor of the Exchequer—who, by-the-by, was the same Chancellor of the Exchequer who, after considering it for a twelvemonth, approved it in 1875 —and the result was that it was not possible to proceed with so large a scheme during the then present Session. The noble Duke added, with his usual fairness that the Government were perfectly satisfied that Dover Harbour was of very great value in a national point of view, that Mr. W. H. Smith had said so in evidence, and that the matter was still under the consideration of Her Majesty's Government. Whether that consideration has been continued during the last 20 months I do not know, but no further communication has been received from Her Majesty's Government. The Dover Harbour Board have powers without any Act of Parliament to make certain improvements and alterations in Dover Harbour; but we do not like to proceed unless we clearly know whether or not the Government have definitively abandoned the intention of doing anything on the lines of the late scheme. I have purposely addressed this Question to the Prime Minister, because I wish to draw his personal attention to the matter; and, secondly, because it is not likely that in his position he will give one of those vague and indefinite answers which mean nothing. If it is the intention of the Government definitively to abandon a plan which was thought of national importance by them and their Predecessors, he will say so and give the reasons for it. But if, as I trust, he gives a more favourable reply, I feel sure it will not be merely to repeat the great importance the Government attach to the subject and the consideration they are giving to it; but to say that for the present the Chancellor of the Exchequer does not see his way to asking Parliament for a Vote for this purpose. If Her Majesty's late Government had remained in office, half the work would already have been finished. If it is as important for our national defences and for the prosecution of possible foreign wars as has been decided by the military, naval, and civil authorities of this and the late Government, surely further delay is injurious. We spent £4,000,000 on the purchase of shares in the Suez Canal to obtain an indirect influence over the administration of that important communication—the shortest of three routes to India. We have declared our readiness, in order to preserve it, to go to war, which must cost millions, and may cost hundreds of millions. Surely a telegraphic mechanician would be blamed if he concentrated his whole attention on the maintenance of one only of numerous wires, and neglected what was necessary to protect the instrument which supplied all the wires with the required power? We are spending millions at the present moment on horses and stores, most of which are of a perishable character, and which all of us—at all events, the majority of us— hope may be worn out by old age before they are really used. But we refuse, merely on financial grounds, to spend less than £1,000,000, which it is hoped will be repaid, on necessary and permanent work—work which will be as useful in peace as in war, and is of a reproductive character. I trust the noble Earl can give the House some definite information as to the views of Her Majesty's Government. In conclusion, I beg to move for the Papers to which I have referred. Moved that there be laid before the House, Copy of the recent Reports on Dover Harbour.—(The Earl Granville.)


said, that having been called on by the late Government to give his opinion as to the advantage of such works for the Harbour of Dover as those to which his noble Friend had just referred, he had no hesitation in confirming the statement of his noble Friend with regard to the importance of the works in question. Certainly he thought that from a military point of view they would present very great advantages. There was no available port between Portsmouth and the mouth of the Thames. Troops and stores could not be embarked with convenience in the Downs, but for their embarkation Dover was most convenient. It must be borne in mind that Portsmouth would be so overcrowded for naval purposes in the event of war, that it was most desirable to have another port. It was not for him to say what Her Majesty's Government ought or ought not to do in respect of such works; but he had no hesitation in saying that his opinion had not changed since he gave the evidence to which his noble Friend had referred; and he, for his own part, would be most glad to see these works carried out. It was important to bear in mind that works of defence already existed at Dover. Their existence made it all the more desirable to have that harbour improved. If money for military and naval purposes were laid out on a harbour which had no works such as those to which he referred, the ultimate expenditure on such harbour would probably be much greater than what would be sufficient in the case of Dover. With respect to the size of the Harbour, he would be satisfied with the smaller one proposed.


My Lords, I certainly should be very glad to see the Harbour of Dover enlarged and strengthened in the way the noble Earl (Earl Granville) proposes, and I think it very natural that he, as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, and in addition to that a public man filling a very leading position in the country, should take a great interest in the question. And, my Lords, I will not give the noble Earl a vague or merely formal answer; but I will place before the House the facts in relation to this question, and leave the House to decide whether Her Majesty's Government have acted with neglect or improvidence in not precipitately attempting to carry out the work in the way proposed. The matter is one which engaged my consideration when I was in the other House of Parliament shortly after the present Government came into office. I think it was in 1873, as the noble Earl says—the year before we came into responsible position—that the question was dealt with by the late Government. When we succeeded to them, we had to consider the question and to decide what, in our opinion, was the necessity of the case—and what it was our duty to perform in regard to it. At that time the plan laid before the Government contemplated an expenditure little short of £1,000,000—the amount was£970,000 —and that, your Lordships must feel, was a matter of considerable importance. It was a sum the expenditure of which no Government would have been justi- fied in embarking in without great consideration. However, having inherited, as my right hon. Friend the First Lord of the Admiralty said in the passage quoted by the noble Earl, the proposal of the late Government, and wishing to go as far as we could in carrying into effect what, no doubt, would be a work of great public importance—though I would remark that it is not the Harbour of Dover only, but many other harbours which are deserving of consideration— we brought in a Bill, which was read a second time and referred to a Select Committee. Well, the Select Committee increased the contemplated expenditure on this object. The noble Earl seems to demur to that statement; but I think that on reflection he will see that it is quite correct. The plan which the late Government approved would have involved an expenditure little short of £1,000,000; but the Select Committee increased the expenditure by £130,000; so that the plan recommended by it contemplated an expenditure of £1,100,000. The first thing, then, which the Government had to consider was what was to be done about the recommendation of the Select Committee, and how the additional £130,000 was to be provided for. It appeared to be the general opinion— the opinion of the Harbour Commissioners of Dover and of the Committee of the House of Commons to which the Bill had been referred, and of all concerned— that certainly the £130,000 was to be provided by Her Majesty's Government. I am not prepared to say that, in a case where an urgent necessity of the public welfare has to be considered, that was a difficulty which might not have been got over; but this increased expenditure of from £970,000 to £1,100,000 was not an unimportant matter, and we had to consider the means by which the larger sum was to be provided. I do not know whether our Predecessors were responsible for it, or whether we are; but, at all events, as we were in office, we could not shrink from the responsibility which had devolved on us; and it appears that the original plan of providing the £970,000 was this—one-third was to be provided by the Treasury, and two-thirds were to be advanced by way of Loan from the Public Works Loan Commissioners. If the money could have been provided in that way, it is not improbable that the Government would have considered themselves justified in advancing the further sum of £130,000. But a difficulty occurred. A somewhat singular state of things was found to exist. The Public Works Loan Commissioners demurred to an advance of two-thirds of the sum of money required on this ground—they could not recognize that there was security for the sum they were called on to advance. For the £600,000 which they had been asked to advance the revenue of the Dover Harbour Board would have been part security, and it was calculated that the revenue would be further increased by the improvement of this splendid Harbour. But another security was put forward. It was proposed that a Bill should be introduced in Parliament which would empower the Dover Harbour Board to levy a charge of 1s. on every passenger that left the Harbour; and it was said that such a charge would be cheerfully paid for the increased convenience which the Harbour when improved would afford. But the Public Works Loan Commissioners took a different view. They did not think the existing revenue of the Dover Harbour Board was a security of a very satisfactory and substantial character, and they thought it was doubtful whether that revenue would be increased by the proposed works. It was also thought that, though in a moment of enthusiasm the House of Commons might attach 1s. to every passenger leaving the Harbour of Dover, there was no security that a Bill having that object would ultimately pass, or that, if it did, it would be continued long on the Statute Book. And probably in these days, when agitations are so easily got up throughout the country against tolls and other imposts, an agitation for a free passage and no 1s. duty between Dover and Calais would be one which in a short time would have a very good chance of success. The Government, under these circumstances, had to consider what was the real position under which we were called on to provide for the sum of £1,100,000. I must recall to your Lordships' attention the very great changes that have occurred in the financial position of the Treasury since the first of those plans of improvement was proposed. The overflowing treasuries to which the noble Earl (Earl Granville) was accustomed, and under the inspi- ration of which he and the Dover Harbour Board must, I think, have conceived this scheme, have ceased to exist. If we carried into effect the plan of the noble Earl and his coadjutors, we should be putting a charge on the country of £125,000 a-year for nine years. The revenue of the country does not justify such a charge; and on that ground alone I should be perfectly prepared to rest the remarks I have made on the proposal of the noble Earl—a proposal which in itself I do not oppose, but which I should like to see carried into effect if the means were in existence by which it might be carried into effect. It is very well known that the surpluses at this moment in Her Majesty's Treasury are not abundant, and probably before many days or many hours have past they will have ceased to exist, and be succeeded by another state of the account. No doubt it would be an advantage to give the Harbour of Dover a larger area; but many other schemes—such, for instance, as some in connection with harbours of refuge—would also be very advisable; and the state of the finances of the country would not justify the Government in coming forward and proposing that for nine years the country should pay £125,000 a-year in order to effect the object which the noble Earl has so ably brought before us. I place the matter on that ground. I think it would be extremely inconvenient to go into the naval and military considerations to which the illustrious Duke, with all the weight which attaches to his position, has referred, and to which the noble Earl also called attention. Those are points which never can be foreign to the consideration by Her Majesty's Government of a question such as this; but, if admitted in this case, there are other cases which must command attention on the same ground. But it is not on this ground I wish this proposal to be decided. I want the House to see that the proposal which the noble Earl makes, however founded on sound principles, and however it might conduce to beneficial results, is not one which in the state of the finances of the country a prudent Government should embark in. The Papers which the noble Earl moves for have been already laid on the Table of the other House, and the noble Earl can have them, and any further Correspondence on the subject which may not have been laid on the Table of the other House will be at his disposal.


said, there was no disputing the fact that the question was one of great military importance; no other question of the same nature was comparable to it in that respect; and he was surprised at the reply made by the noble Earl at the head of the Government when he remembered the charges levelled against the late Government on the ground that they thought more of curtailing the public expenditure than of attending to the naval and military requirements of the country. The plan of the late Government for Dover Harbour would impose on the country an expenditure of only £40,000 a-year for eight years—it was a mistake to say that the Select Committee had recommended a more expensive scheme than that submitted to them. If their Lordships would refer to the Report, they would find that the Committee did not recommend the more expensive scheme for adoption. What they did was this—they delivered a verdict on the scheme before them strongly in its favour, but appended a statement that if the whole question were before them they would suggest the larger scheme. He had never seen a stronger case of a Government contriving "How not to do it," and he did not think they would meet with the approval either of their Lordships or of the country.

Motion agreed to.