HL Deb 11 August 1904 vol 140 cc202-5

I desire to ask His Majesty's Government whether arrangements have been made for transferring from the Crown Agents to the Administrations of the Transvaal and Orange River Colony the responsibility for the placing of freight contracts and the purchasing of stores.

The approaching conference which has been convened by Lord Milner to consider the question of shipping freight to South Africa makes it important for us to know whether the Crown Agents, acting under the control of His Majesty's Government, or the Administrations of the Transvaal and Orange River Colony, are to be responsible in future for the placing of freight contracts.

If If the Crown Agents are to remain in the future, as they have been in the past, responsible for the purchase of all the Government stores and railway material required by the Transvaal and Orange River Colonies, they will approach the conference with all the weight and importance of the predominant partner, and unless they can recommend a definite policy of their own they will occupy a position which will not add to the dignity of, or reflect credit upon, the Imperial Government.

Although I have repeatedly called your Lordships' attention to the fact that under the present system, supported, as I think, most unwisely by His Majesty's Government, British shipping companies are charging English shippers more than twice the rates charged to American shippers on manufactured goods consigned to South Africa, the Government have shown, up to now, no sign whatever of ability to cope with this question. The noble Duke stated on the 12th July, when the matter was last under discussion, that until the Government were informed of the wishes and views of the people of South Africa upon the shipping question it would be premature for His Majesty's Government to offer an opinion upon such a difficult and complicated matter.

My Lords, I certainly hope that this declaration on the part of His Majesty's Government means that they intend to hand over the responsibility of placing their freight to the Administrations of the Transvaal and the Orange River Colonies. They cannot contemplate attending this shipping conference as the largest shipper, with no mind of their own and nothing but a drifting policy.

I wish to state, with all the emphasis I can command—and I have good reasons for my statement—that if the various Governments of South Africa agree to a common policy of refusing to place their freight contracts with any shipping company which employs the 10 per cent. rebate system, or which refuses to carry for the ordinary public at the same rates as for the Governments, or which carries goods from United States ports which are more than 600 miles further from South Africa than the ports of the United Kingdom at lower rates than from British ports, the present system, which is driving trade to America, which under the free play of natural conditions belongs to England, will at once disappear.

If the Government have no mind of their own on this matter, is it not better that they should transfer the responsibility to those who recognise that they have both an opportunity and a duty of safeguarding the interests of the South African consumer and of the British producer?


My Lords, I hope I shall not be out of order if I allude for one moment to a Question put to me by Lord Stan-more to the effect whether His Majesty's Government would lay upon the Table any correspondence in connection with Fiji. I can assure him that between now and next session the Papers to which he refers will be laid, and that will give him an opportunity of discussing the affairs of Fiji when Parliament re-assembles.


The noble Duke will be somewhat out of order in alluding to that question.


My Lords, with reference to the Question of the noble Lord, Earl Grey, as to whether His Majesty's Government have come to any arrangement for transferring from the Crown Agents to the Administrations of the Transvaal and Orange River Colony the responsibility for the placing of freight contracts and the purchasing of stores, I have to say the reply to the Question is in the negative. Our intention is not as the noble Earl surmises, but Lord Milner has asked us, and the Secretary of State has agreed, that the local Government of the Transvaal may, in those cases where economy can clearly be shown, and where it is likely to be promoted, issue tenders for stores locally as well as through the Crown Agents to the merchants at home. Those tenders will be issued simultaneously, and it is hoped by this departure from the previous system that the local merchants may be given every facility for seeing whether they can complete on as favourable terms as the merchants at home have done hitherto through the Crown Agents. The noble Earl, in the course of his remarks, said His Majesty's Government did not know their own mind in this matter, but I think that is rather a severe criticism of their action. We are as aware as the noble Earl that this matter of contracts, and especially of freights, is one that is exercising the minds not only of people in this country, but also in South Africa, and it is our desire to co-operate, so far as lies in our power, in discovering whether any machinery can be employed for rectifying any of those evils which, in the opinion of the noble Earl, exist. Perhaps he will allow me to tell him exactly the position of the South African Conference which is to take place on 22nd August. The Governments of the South African Colonies have decided to hold this conference with regard to shipping freights. The terms of reference and the methods of procedure have not been finally settled, but Lord Milner has informed the Secretary of State that the object of the conference will be to inquire into the charges now obtaining for ocean freight to South Africa and the disposal of shipping orders by the various Governments, and to endeavour to arrive at some means of securing advantages for the general public equal to those enjoyed by the Governments. The delegates will be invited to present a report and recommendations. The Colonies asked through the High Commissioner that an expert should be sent out to assist in the labours of the conference—an expert who was unconnected with any Government or any ring. In response to that request Mr. Douglas Owen, a barrister-at-law, has been selected and sent out. Mr. Owen is a recognised authority in all branches of shipping law and practice; he is well known for his work in connection with the Port of London, and is not connected with any Government or any shipping firm. In view of the fact that this conference is going to be held, and of the important matters which will be discussed at that conference, I do not think that the observations I made to the noble Earl the other day were altogether misplaced. I then said that it would be premature, in view of these facts, for the Government to offer any opinion until we were able to ascertain the views and ideas of the various Governments of South Africa upon this very difficult and complicated question, a question which is exercising the attention, not only of the noble Earl and people in this country, but also of our fellow countrymen throughout South Africa.

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