My Lords, I desire to ask His Majesty's Government whether it is true that a ship full of foodstuffs was lately sunk while proceeding from one home port to another home port because no arrangements existed at the first port for disembarking the cargo; and, if true, why ships are not ordered in the first instance to proceed to ports where they can discharge their cargoes.
THE EARL OF LYTTON
My Lords, I imagine that the case referred to in this Question is that of the steamer "La Blanca," and the circumstances are as stated—that is to say, the steamer put into an English port and being unable there to discharge her cargo proceeded to another port and was torpedoed on her way. But there was an explanation in this case. The steamer was not destined to the port which she first entered, but was obliged to call there on account of engine trouble. As soon as the defects to her engines were repaired she proceeded on her way, and was torpedoed before she could reach the port of her destination. I am sure the noble Viscount feels, as we all feel, that the loss of a ship carrying a valuable cargo of food is made all the more grievous by the knowledge that that cargo had once been in an English port. Your Lordships will remember that on a previous occasion, when I was discussing the case of the "Rotarua," I gave your Lordships an assurance that every possible effort would be made to enable cargoes of foodstuffs to be discharged whenever possible at the first port of call. The arrangements which I then had in contemplation have, in fact, been put in hand, and are very nearly completed. Accommodation for cold storage at the port in question is being erected and is nearly completed. If it had been completed the cargo of the "La Blanca" might have been saved. I hope that your Lordships will believe me when I say that every possible effort is being made to provide the necessary machinery for dealing with cargoes of Foodstuffs at all ports so as to prevent the recurrence of incidents of this kind.
§ LORD BERESFORD
My Lords, the sinking of ships which have arrived at one English port and have been sent out to another because there is no storage for the cargo at the first port has been a frequent occurrence since the war began, and I think it is unpardonable. It is all a question of escort. The noble Earl will tell us that we have not enough escorts. I suggest that the ships should wait at the ports until they obtain escorts. We are getting so short of food in many directions that it appears to me to show a great want of administrative skill to allow any ship to come into this port, for any reason whatsoever, and then send her to another port 66 without escort, when she is almost certain to be torpedoed. I would ask the noble Earl whether he can assure the House that this will not occur again. It is nothing but the lack of escort that is responsible, and ships should be detained in poll until an escort is ready.
THE EARL OF LYTTON
I am afraid I cannot give your Lordships any assurance that no such case will ever happen in future, but I can assure the noble and gallant Lord that the facts which he has mentioned are regarded just as seriously by the authorities as they are by him. All provision for the escort of ships is carried out by the Admiralty, and every effort is made to save ships from destruction. Your Lordships will understand, however, that the provision of arrangements for dealing with cargoes at particular ports must take time. They are being pushed on as quickly as possible, and when they are completed the cargoes can be unloaded whenever they are brought into port. The protection of ships passing from one port to another is provided for by the Admiralty, and so far as possible we do try to ensure the safety of such ships. We cannot be successful in every case, and I cannot give the noble Lord an assurance that no ship will ever be sunk in future when proceeding between two ports in this country. But I need hardly tell your Lordships that the loss of a ship is not due to any failure on the part of the Admiralty to provide escort for it.
Having listened to the noble Earl's reply, I would join in the opinion expressed by the noble and gallant Lord that it is most unsatisfactory. We are being asked throughout the country to save food and net waste it; yet the authorities allow a vessel to go out of port, with a cargo of food—I do not say how many thousand tons—to be the prey of the first submarine or mine that comes along. This is a thing that is raising the ire of the country. Surely there is an alternative. It would be better to allow the people living in the neighbourhood of the harbour to have the food rather than permit the ship to put out again and go to the bottom.
§ House adjourned at five minutes past five o'clock.