HC Deb 05 February 1844 vol 72 cc257-60
Mr. Gladstone

had also to move for a committee with reference to the Merchant Seamen's Fund, a subject of considerable importance and interest. Shortly after the commencement of the last Session of Parliament his attention was drawn to this subject and he found that committees had been appointed some years ago, and had made several recommendations, but that no steps had been taken to embody those recommendations into a law, and, indeed, the committees had not recommended such a proceeding. He must say, that apparently there was strong ground for the reasonableness of this course, for the committee were of opinion that any change must be approached gradually. On looking into the reports, however, it appeared to him plain that the Merchant Seamen's Fund was in a state which called for more stringent measures than the committee recommended. There were certain defects in the system which the committee proposed to remove, such as the uncertainty and irregularity of the administration of the fund in different parts of the country, and the necessarily expensive system which this involved; but on looking further into the neglect, graver difficulties presented themselves to view—for instance, it was extremely doubtful whether, if, at this moment, the affairs of the fund were to be wound up, it would be able to meet its liabilities. Gentlemen were aware that it was in the nature of a great insurance company. It had payments to make which were of an immediate nature, but it had also liabilities which would arise at distant and remote periods. As to the payment of pensions, he believed that no difficulty could possibly arise; but the ultimate solvency formed the difficulty, and the whole question was one which required the immediate and serious attention of Parliament. There were two reasons why the Government considered it advisable to appoint a select committee—first, that the matter had been already considered by a select committee, and the House would thereby have the assistance and advice of many Gentlemen who had turned their minds and attention to it; and the other reason which influenced the Government to come to the same conclusion was, that the merchant seamen, who as a class had, of all others, perhaps the strongest—certainly no other class had stronger—claims upon the sym- pathy of Parliament, were, at the same time, of all others the class who were least in the habit of approaching Parliament with the expression of any opinion. He confessed he viewed the opinions of these seamen as a very material element in the consideration of the question of this fund, and he trusted that, by composing the committee, in a considerable degree, of the representatives of the seaports, the House would have the opinions of persons whose local knowledge and communications would give their recommendations an advantage which they would not otherwise possess. The right hon. Gentleman moved for the appointment of a select committee to inquire into the state and prospects, and into the advantages of the Merchant Seamen's Fund.

Mr. Labouchere

confessed, that he was somewhat disappointed at the course which the right hon. Gentleman had taken. Early in the last Session, he (Mr. Labouchere) had called the attention of the Government to the subject, and from what the right hon. Gentleman then said, he had hopes that the Government would in this Session, not propose a committee of inquiry, but would be prepared with a well considered measure for the deliberation of die House. The subject had already been thoroughly sifted and examined by a committee. In 1840, when he filled the situation which the right hon. Gentleman now occupied, complaints were received from the ports as to the application of the Merchant Seamen's Fund. He thought it perfectly right, as the right hon. Gentleman also thought, that the matter should undergo a previous investigation before a committee of the House of Commons, at which the representatives of the seaports could attend, before the Government was pledged; but the subject having been considered by a committee of the House of Commons, that committee having received a great deal of evidence, and having drawn up a detailed and voluminous report, in which they made certain distinct and definite propositions, he regretted that the right hon. Gentleman should find it necessary again to refer it to a committee for consideration. The right hon. Gentleman said, that the previous committee had not recommended legislation. He found that they did expressly recommend legislation. They said in their report that, upon consideration of the whole subject, they ventured to recommend an alteration of the law; and then they proceeded to state what that alteration was. It was true the committee stated that they thought further consideration of the subject advisable; but it was clear to any one who looked at the report, that that consideration should be given by those who ought to be best qualified to carry their recommendations into effect, namely, the Government, in communication with the local interests, for they did not recommend that another committee should be appointed on the subject this Session. He, therefore (while he gave the right hon. Gentleman full credit for taking that course which he considered best calculated to bring this important and intricate subject to a satisfactory conclusion), must say, that after what bad occurred last session, it is not without some disappointment that he found the right hon. Gentleman proposing to refer the subject to a select committee, instead of taking it up on the responsibility of Government. He hoped, however, he need not despair of the preparation of some bill, arising out of the deliberations of the committee, which might pass into a law this Session. The Government, he trusted, had matured some scheme which they were prepared to submit to the committee; for if the whole subject were to be placed before a committee, without guide and without compass, he feared the whole of this Session might be consumed in taking evidence and conducting the deliberations, and that the House might not arrive at that most desirable conclusion of putting the law upon a satisfactory footing.

Sir C. Napier

trusted the right hon. Gentleman would do what he could to correct the abuses existing in the administration of this fund. He had received many complaints from the sea-ports of its misapplication, and if he could be of any use in sitting upon the committee, he should be happy to form one of the number.

Mr. Gladstone

begged to remind the right hon. Gentleman opposite that some of the most serious considerations connected with this subject, and those which created the greatest difficulties, had not been investigated at all by the former committee. The main point of the foundation of the fund, and the means of permanent payment, had never been touched upon. There were certainly a number of recommendations upon details of a sub- sidiary nature, and which might be wise as they related to minor points, but the most important matters had not been touched upon at all. At the same time, the committee having placed their opinions on record, and the Government conceiving their recommendations to be inadequate to the exigency, there would be some difficulty in altogether throwing overboard the suggestions of the committee.

Mr. Hume

said, he had last Session received a great number of petitions from Montrose and other seaports on the coast of Scotland, desiring to be enabled to lay their grievances before some committee. He, therefore, thought that such a committee, undertaken by the Government, with a desire to see and to remedy all evils was a proper step, and he could see no objection to it. He hoped there would be no unnecessary delay, and that some legislation would take place before the end of the Session.

Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at seven o'clock.