HL Deb 26 June 1899 vol 73 cc534-7

My Lords, I beg to ask "Her Majesty's Government (1) whether British mail steamers carrying mails for the Post Office are under contract with the Home or Colonial Governments to perform the service contracted for in stated times under penalties in case of late arrival, or with bonus in case of arrival before the specified time, and with or without a clause remitting the penalty when it is proved that the lateness of arrival is due to seamanlike care for the safety of the ship; (2) whether the Government will undertake that in future every contract made by the Postmaster-General for the carriage of letters by mail steamer shall include a saving clause such as that last mentioned; (3) whether the Board of Trade has licensed, or will in future license, a British ship for the carriage of passengers which sails under any contract including such a clause as the following: "Such penalties to be inflicted from whatever cause the delay may arise," referring to penalties of from £2 1s. 2d. to £6 5s. for every hour of lateness in arrival after the appointed time. My object in putting this question is to annul one of the causes which at present tend to produce, dangerous navigation of ships carrying mails and passengers. It is necessary to have penalties for non-fulfilment of contract in every business arrangement, but I contend that, in the case of a ship arriving later than the time contracted for, a saving clause should be inserted in the contract annulling the penalty when it can be proved that the delay is due to seamanlike care for the safety of the ship. The introduction of such a clause into the contract would not materially alter the usage which, I believe, has been generally followed by our own Government, who in every case where good reason for the delay has been shown have remitted the penalty. But the question is of vital importance, whether or not the conditions at present imposed upon the companies and upon their officers tend to promote running at a high speed when it is dangerous so to do; and it seems to me that a clause ought to be inserted in the contract providing, not for the non-exacting of a penalty by the forgiving of a crime, or an act which is penal, but for the annulling of penalty when it is proved than the lateness of arrival is due to seamanlike care. The insertion of such a clause would, I believe, bring about a decided diminution of the dangerous pressure brought to bear upon captains to run their vessels at too high speed for safety. I do not suggest that the Home Government should dictate to the Cape Government in this matter, but I venture to think that the example of the introduction of such a clause into our contract would have a good effect in regard to the contracts entered into by the Cape and other Colonial Governments. The Board of Trade have a locus standi for taking this, matter in hand. The Board of Trade refuse to license a ship for carrying mails and passengers if she is unseaworthy in any respect, and I would ask whether the Board of Trade consider that a ship would, when penalties are inflicted for delay, no matter from what cause the delay arises, be sailing under a system and under regulations suited for the safety of the mails and passengers. I do not expect any immediate action to be taken in the matter, but I do hope the consideration of the subject will be taken up by the Postmaster-General, the Colonial Office, and the Board of Trade.


My Lords, the question put by the noble Lord relates to the Department over which I preside, and also to the Board of Trade. I thought it desirable to submit to the Board of Trade a draft of the answer which I proposed to give, and as they approved of it I do not think I can do better than read that answer to the House. In regard to contracts made by Her Majesty's Postmaster-General for the conveyance of mails by sea, it has for many years been customary to provide in the sense advocated by the noble Lord. The clauses relating to over-time at sea are what are known as non-absolute; that is to say, there is a proviso that no deduction for delay shall be made from the subsidy if it can be shown to the satisfaction of the Postmaster-General that such delay arose from causes beyond the control of the contractors. It is the duty of all masters of packets to adopt all necessary measures and precautions for the safety of the mails—which duty, of course, necessitates care for the ship's safety. Delay caused by taking care of the ship would obviously come within the proviso mentioned already, and would not give rise to deduction. Similar provisions are believed to exist in regard to packet contracts made by colonial Governments. At all events, such is the case in the current contract of the Cape Colony with the Castle and Union Companies, in which the rates of deduction mentioned in the third paragraph of the question are provided. Bonuses or premiums for extra speed are not now paid to packet contractors. I am informed by the Board of Trade that they could not withhold their certificate on the ground that words such as those quoted in the third paragraph occurred in a contract under which a steamer might be employed. A certificate granted for a passenger steamer by the Board applies solely to the vessel for which it is granted and her fitness for passengers on certain voyages within the time covered by the certificate. I understand the noble Lord to advocate that there should be a distinct clause rather than a clause modified by a proviso. I am not prepared to say, at the present moment, what special advantage would be derived from that clause, but I can assure the noble, Lord that I am prepared to consider any clause he might draft. In my opinion, however, the safeguards already provided are sufficient to meet the case, and have been found hitherto to do so.