§ MR. LAIRD
said, he would beg to ask the Secretary to the Treasury, Whether, before coming to any decision as to accepting Tenders for the conveyance of the East India, China, and Australian Mails, Her Majesty's Government will afford the House an opportunity next Session of giving an opinion on the subject; and, if in consequence of postponing the decision, any temporary arrangement may be requisite for the conveyance of the Mails, whether Her Majesty's Government have made or are prepared to make such arrangement; also, whether the hon. Gentleman knows what is the nature of the arrangement contemplated by the Government with the Messageries Impériales with regard to the conveyance of the China Mails?
§ MR. HUNT
With regard to the first Question, I have to state that there is no difficulty at present with regard to the Australian mails, because no notice has been given to terminate that contract. With regard to the East India and China mails, the position of affairs is this—that the present contract, according to notice, 1562 will terminate on the 2nd of February next, and the House of Commons will not have, therefore, an opportunity of expressing an opinion on the new contract till after the contract has been made. This result was not foreseen at the time the notice was given; but had it been foreseen, I am not aware that it could have been avoided—for this reason, that before we gave the notice we received a communication from the Peninsular and Oriental Company, that if we did not give them notice they would give us notice. Therefore a new contract was necessary. But in consequence of the expression of opinion on the part of Members of the House that it was very undesirable that the contract should be executed till the House of Commons had expressed an opinion upon it, Her Majesty's Government have been anxious to see whether some temporary arrangement could not be made in order to give the House that opportunity. Accordingly, immediately after the debate in the House, communications were opened with the Peninsular and Oriental Company, inquiring whether they were willing to continue the service for another six months. Only yesterday we received an answer from that Company, in which they expressed their willingness to continue the service for six months, but on such terms as I think the House will consider totally out of the question. They say that if they are to continue the service for six months, they will expect a subsidy of 10s. a mile, which would be at the rate of £280,000 a year, in addition to the present subsidy. Her Majesty's Government think the terms are so exorbitant that they are unable to accede to this proposition; but they will continue their efforts to make a temporary arrangement so as to give the House an oportunity for such an expression of opinion as they desire. With regard to the last Question—what was the nature of the arrangement contemplated with, regard to the China mails—all that the Government has done in the matter, is to endeavour to carry out the recommendation of the Committee who sat last Session. The Report of that Committee was taken as the text book. With regard to the making use of the French company, they were led to believe that such an arrangement was the wish of the Committee. The terms of the Report and the questions asked of the witnesses all tended to show that it was the wish of the Committee that we should avail ourselves of the 1563 French service to China and Japan. An impression got abroad that it was the desire to hand over the whole of the services to India and China if the French tender was lower than the English. But the Government never contemplated anything of the kind. What they did was this—Having regard to the recommendation of the Committee, the Post Office Department sent the terms to the French Company to allow them to make an offer; and secondly, there had been semi-official communications opened with the French Government on the subject. These communications have not been of a formal or departmental character. We were feeling our way as to whether we could make terms with the French Government on terms of mutual advantage. The fact is, the Messageries Impériales can make no tender without the consent of the French Government, because we require a service to China once in two weeks whereas the French run only once a calendar month. But supposing the French Government permitted the Company to alter the time of departure, it would be possible for them to tender. At present there is a ruinous competition between the English and the French Companies with regard to the China service; and, if both are to be continued for the honour and glory of the respective flags, each country will have to pay for this competition by means of a large subsidy. Her Majesty's Government thought that an amicable arrangement might be made on terms of reciprocity, by which the vessels of each country should convey the mails in alternate fortnights. I believe this would be an arrangement of mutual advantage, and would relieve both nations from the necessity of paying a high subsidy. I still think that such an arrangement may be carried out if the House do not object. I think the arrangement would be far more economical than the present; and I do not think there would be anything unfair to the English Company.
§ MR. BAILLIE COCHRANE
asked whether the Government had considered the important question which would arise if the contract with the Peninsular and Oriental Company were to cease before other arrangements were entered into.
§ MR. AYRTON
asked whether the Government had contemplated a failure in their negotiations, and the chance that the Peninsular and Oriental Company would take advantage of the circumstances by asking an exorbitant price; and whether 1564 the Government had thought of availing itself of the transport vessels plying between India and Suez, for the purpose of carrying the mails? His impression was that the arrangement he had suggested would prove the most economical that could possibly be made.
§ MR. CHILDERS
asked whether the Government anticipated making any arrangement with the French company?