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Holyhead And Kingstown Mail Service

Volume 41: debated on Wednesday 4 August 1920

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rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether they have invited tenders for the carriage of mails between Holyhead and Kingstown after the expiry of the contract with the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, on May 26 the Postmaster-General sent a communication to the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company giving formal notice of his intention to terminate, after six months, the contract for carrying the mails which has existed for so long between the Post Office and the Company. The contract, therefore, comes to an end on November 27 this year. The question raises two points of some importance. One is whether the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company has been fairly treated; the other is whether, under the new arrangement, it is proposed to give Ireland as efficient a mail service as was provided up to May, 1918. The City of Dublin Steam Packet Company is one of the institutions of Ireland. Every Irishman has a good word to say for it—Sinn Feiners, Unionists, and Nationalists are all agreed that it has done excellent work—and on an occasion more than forty years ago when the Government of that day attempted, towards the expiry of the then existing contract, to make secretly a new contract with the London and North Western Railway Company public opinion was so strong against them in Ireland and such pressure was brought to bear on the Government that they rescinded the arrangement they had made with the London and North Western Railway Company. Since that time the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company have carried the mails to the satisfaction of every one.

At the present time there is a dispute between the Company and the Government. The matter is sub judice, and it is therefore rather difficult to deal with it. There are certain facts on which everyone is agreed which show that the Company has been unfairly treated. Before the war four ships did the service between England and Ireland. In the year 1915 the Government requisitioned one of these ships—the "Connaught"—under the Defence of the Realm Act. At the time the representative of the Admiralty wrote to the Company saying—

"I have to inform you, in reply, that I am prepared to give you an assurance that in the event of the loss of the "Connaught" by war risk the amount to be paid will be the cost of replacing her by a vessel in all respects suited to carry out the general Post Office contract."

Well, the "Connaught" was torpedoed early in 1917, and the Company then applied to the Government for permission, according to the arrangement, to construct a new vessel, and the Admiralty very reasonably pointed out that in the circumstances of difficulty then existing it was impossible to allow men to be diverted from national interests to the construction of a ship for a private shipping company; but to a letter from the Secretary of the Company, in which the Company agreed to the reasonableness of this view and asked that the letter which the Company should receive should contain an undertaking that the building of a new vessel would take precedence of the construction of any other fast cross-Channel vessel, the Admiralty replied stating—

"When it can be taken in hand the construction of the vessel to replace the "Connaught" will be given priority over that of any cross-Channel vessel of similar speed being built for private use on the England-Ireland service."

They mentioned that another vessel was nearly finished, the "Anglia," for the London & North Western Railway Company, and said that if it was considered desirable to finish that ship it would only be used for Government purposes, and not for any rival service.

After the war the City of Dublin Company were naturally anxious that a new "Connaught" should be built at once. It appears that the matter had now passed into the hands of the Director of Transports and Shipping, and on December 11, 1919, he wrote—

"The present view of the Department is that the most reasonable settlement would be for the Ministry to pay the cost of the new vessel less the first cost of the old vessel."

The Company could not agree to that, and a petition of right followed, which was tried, and in the decision given by Mr. Justice Coleridge the learned Judge found in favour of the Company, on all points—that the Government were bound to give them sufficient to build a new vessel, and also that in contradiction of their undertaking not to allow any other ships to be built which could compete with the City of Dublin Company, they had in fact allowed two new ships to be built for the London & North Western Company's

service. One was finished and running between England and Ireland, and another will be finished in November.

The Government have appealed against this decision, and it is quite possible that the judgment of Mr. Justice Coleridge may be overruled, and so I am not basing my argument upon what he decided, but I submit that it is hardly fair to the Company that while matters are still sub judice the Post Office should terminate the contract which has existed for the last forty years, when the City of Dublin Company are manifestly not in a position to tender with equal advantage with the London & North Western Railway Company, which has just been provided with two new ships. Therefore I ask the noble Earl, when he replies, to say whether he can give me some assurance that until the appeal has been taken and a decision given upon it some temporary arrangement, at any rate, will be made to continue the contract with the City of Dublin Company, and that then the City of Dublin Company will be enabled, if they choose, to tender for the contract on equal terms with the London & North Western Railway Company. That is the first point which I want to make.

The second point is that I should like him to give me some assurance that the Post Office intend that there shall be the same efficiency in the service between England and Ireland as existed before 1918. Certain changes were made at that time, the hour of sailing from Ireland being advanced by three-quarters of an hour, with the result that the whole of the railway arrangements in Ireland were put out of joint, and it now takes forty-four hours longer for letters from London to places more than two hours from Dublin to receive a reply than it did in 1918. There is a very strong feeling in Ireland that the London and North Western Railway Company, of which I have nothing but good to say—we think it is a very excellent line, but it has been unduly favoured by the Government in this matter—there is a strong feeling that this notice ought not to have been served at a moment when it was well known that the City of Dublin Company was at a disadvantage. Further, it is thought that the ships built for the London & North Western Railway Company are not so suited for sorting the mails as those of the City of Dublin Company, which were specially built for that purpose. I am told that it is almost impossible that they can be sorted on the new ships of the London & North Western Railway Company. It may be said by the Post Office that that is not of much importance, and that the whole traffic in Ireland is a small matter compared with that in Lancashire or Yorkshire, but Irishmen cannot be expected to take that view, and, apart from the abnormal conditions which prevail at the present moment, when things revert to normal conditions we think that we ought to have at least as good facilities for the transport of passengers and mails as existed up to 1918, and, further, that our old friend the City of Dublin Company, which every Irishman and every noble Lord from Ireland would wish to say a good word for, should be given a fair chance and no favour in the new arrangements made for the tenders for the mails.

My Lords, arising out of the Question I would like to ask the noble Earl who is going to reply if he would consider the state of things now prevailing at Holyhead. The Customs are examining all luggage there, and as the boats are bound to sail as soon as the mails are placed on board a great deal of luggage is left behind, and this is to the detriment of the steamship company. I would therefore ask the noble Earl to consider whether the luggage might not be examined at Euston, or some other place, and then be placed in a sealed compartment.

My Lords, with regard to the question by Lord Muskerry, I am afraid I have not had notice which will allow me immediately to answer him, but I will call the attention of the Ministry of Transport to the matter. I think that is probably the Department which is most likely to intervene with success.

As regards the Question on the Paper, Lord Oranmore has told your Lordships that some of these matters are still sub judice, and notwithstanding that he has expressed very decided opinions as to the propriety of the judgment already given and as to what the Court of Appeal is likely to settle, I can only say with great respect that I do not propose to follow him with regard to whether the company was fairly or unfairly treated by the Postmaster General.

I think I said that the decision might be reversed on appeal.

Yes, I will say it may be reversed, and content myself with that. The answer to the Question is in the negative. The Postmaster-General has not yet invited tenders, and as Lord Oranmore and Browne went into the matter with some care I will give a general statement on the subject which has been prepared for me by the Post Office, recalling the history of the contract as a whole.

When the war broke out in 1914 the mails between Holyhead and Kingstown were being conveyed by four packet boats belonging to the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company, an Irish Company with its headquarters in Dublin, under the provisions of an indenture dated July 1, 1895. The contract between the Post Office and the Company provided for remuneration at a rate which would enable the Company to build four boats and to bring about the amortization of the necessary capital expenditure within twenty years. At the end of twenty years, therefore, the remuneration was to be decreased by £20,000 a year. The term of twenty years from the commencement of the contract expired on March 31, 1917. The Packet Company protested against the reduction being carried out, alleging the expenditure occasioned by the war The Post Office refused to pay more than £78,000 a year to which the remuneration had dropped under the contract. On June 26, 1917, the Company gave formal notice to determine the contract as from June 30, 1918. Under the conditions then prevailing it was clearly impossible to invite tenders for a permanent service, and it was accordingly agreed, after negotiation with the Company, that they should carry on the service on the terms of the contract of 1895 and at the same remuneration—namely, £78,000 per annum—the arrangement to be subject to six months' notice given at any time by either party.

This arrangement was intended to be only of a temporary character, and it was recently decided that the time had arrived when the mail service between Holyhead and Kingstown should be placed upon a permanent footing. Six months' notice to determine the contract was accordingly given by the Post Office to the Company on May 26 last and expires on November 27. It is proposed to issue invitations to tender for the new contract as soon as possible, and the City of Dublin Company will be given an opportunity of competing if they so desire. As regards the question of efficiency, I have no doubt that I can safely say that the Postmaster-General will do his utmost to ensure that under the new conditions the efficiency of the old service will be maintained.