HC Deb 11 February 1850 vol 108 cc685-97

in moving a resolution upon which a Bill should be founded for the better regulation of this fund, said, he now approached a subject of the greatest difficulty, of which he felt conscious. It was that of the condition and prospects of the Merchant Seamen's Fund, and the measures it might be desirable to adopt with regard to that subject. He need not remind those Gentlemen who were at all acquainted with the feelings of the sailors of this country, how deep and how just was their dissatisfaction with the condition and management of that fund. It had been the subject of repeated inquiries on the part of the House and by a Royal Commission. It had been the subject of several Bills, brought forward by several Governments; but he was sorry to say the evil still remained, not only unabated, but actually increased and certainly increasing in amount, until the matter was brought to a state in which it had become absolutely impossible for the Government to refrain from laying it fully and completely before the House, and calling upon them to adopt such measures in regard to it as in their wisdom they might think proper. He would shortly state to the House what had been the past history of this fund. It dated from 1746. Before that time the merchant seamen contributed to Greenwich Hospital 6d. a month out of their wages, but received no advantage from that institution, it being confined entirely to seamen in the Royal Navy. In 1746 some of the principal merchants and shipowners formed a company to establish a sort of Greenwich Hospital for the merchant service. The Government of that day, moved, he believed, much by public motives, but especially desirous at that critical period of our history to conciliate the feelings of the mariners of this country, amongst whom great dissatisfaction prevailed—he spoke of the time immediately succeeding the great rebellion of 1745—co-operated with those merchants and shipowners in establishing the Merchant Seamen's Fund. An Act was passed incorporating that company. Its object was, as near as possible, to give the merchant service that which the Royal service enjoyed in Greenwich Hospital, and, accordingly, they proposed to erect an hospital, and to grant pensions and gratuities to seamen sick, maimed, and disabled, and to the widows and orphans of those—he begged particular attention to these words—who were killed or drowned in the merchant service. Those were the specific objects for which these funds were intended. The main imposition by this Act was 6d. a month for every master, mate, and seaman, in addition to the 6d. then paid to Greenwich Hospital. The fund was very much of a charitable nature, and was supported by most liberal contributions from the great merchants and shipowners of that time. They did not possess accurate records of the proceedings of this society, in consequence of those records having been lost accidentally by fire; but it was perfectly clear, from the state of their funds, that they must have received most liberal support from private subscriptions and from the merchants and shipowners of this country. The hospital was never built, but grants of pensions and gratuities were made as had been contemplated. There was no complaint from the merchant service—it worked extremely well, and proved a most useful and considerable fund for the relief of disabled merchant seamen, and the widows and orphans of merchant seamen, but only of those who were killed or drowned in the merchant service. But a great change subsequently came over the condition of this institution. Between 1820 and 1830 it happened, as he thought for many reasons very unfortunately, that the great merchants of this country withdrew from the shipowning trade, and it fell generally into the hands of a less considerable and opulent set of men, and from that period the private subscriptions of that institution greatly fell off, and the state of the fund and the complaints consequent on that state became such that in 1834 a new Act was passed—the Act which now regulates the Merchant Seamen's Fund, the principal provisions of which were that the contributions of the captains were fixed at 2s. a month, and the subscriptions theretofore paid to Greenwich Hospital were transferred to the Fund. On the other hand, all widows and orphans of seamen who had contributed were allowed to claim pensions, unlike the former provision, which confined the relief to the widows and orphans of seamen killed or drowned in the service. The society in other respects was altogether unaltered. He regretted to say that the fund under this new constitution had entirely failed. The present state of it might he summed up in very few words. The fund was absolutely bankrupt; the pensions were inadequate of themselves, and grossly unequal at different ports; that was to say, whereas the seaman contributed the same amount of money, no matter what port he belonged to, the pensions he received in his old age were altogether unequal, according to the accident of his having passed the last five years of his life in this or that port, and, in fact, the whole system would soon be in complete insolvency. The sailors' dissatisfaction at this state of things was great and justifiable. There was a fund to which seamen were compelled to contribute—the House must never lose sight of the fact that it was not a voluntary act—and under the management prescribed by the Act of Parliament pensions of unequal amount were paid to men whose contributions were on a par, whilst the fund itself was reduced to the brink of insolvency, and, if left to itself, it would in a short time be insufficient to pay even the present inadequate pensions. The disparity in the amount of the pensions paid to seamen who had contributed equally to the fund, arose from the circumstance of the mariner receiving his pension at the port at which he had resided during the last five years of his service: and it happened that the ports which sailors selected for their residence towards the end of their career were different from those at which they were located during the more active part of their career. Experience showed that it was in the usual course for seamen to enter first into the foreign trade, and, subsequently, as their powers began to decay, they established themselves in the coasting trade; and those trades being chiefly carried on from different ports, the result of the regulation which apportioned the pension to the port with which the last five years of service were connected, was disadvantageous to the sailor in the way he had stated. To show how the system worked, it was only necessary to refer to the tonnage of four ports, and the number of recipients of the fund at each of those ports. At Liverpool the tonnage was 407,207, and the number of recipients 1,044; at Newcastle the tonnage was 311,303, and the recipients 2,687; at Sunderland the tonnage was 191,374, and the recipients 2,053; at Whitehaven the tonnage was 38,821, and the recipients 744. Thus, while the tonnage of Liverpool is greater by one-fourth than that of Newcastle, the number of pensioners of the former was only one-third of that of the latter. The tonnage of Liverpool was more than double that of Sunderland, but the pensioners were double the number at Sunderland. The tonnage of Liverpool was more than ten times that of Whitehaven, but the pensioners at the former port are not nearly twice as numerous as those at the latter. Those figures at once made apparent the inequalities of the existing system. As a corollary to the foregoing statement, he would put the House in possession of the rates of pension paid at different ports. At Belfast the average rate of annual pension was 7l. 10s.; at Liverpool, 7l.; at Dundee, 6l.; and at about that rate it stood until we came to some of those ports to which sailors in their old age resorted in order to embark in the coasting trade. At Newcastle the average rate of annual pension was 1l. 16s.; at Whitehaven, 1l. 10s.; at Poole, 1l. 4s.; of Sunderland there was no return, but the rate there was probably extremely low. It was now necessary to call the attention of the Committee to the manner in which the fund had been absorbed by the alteration of its constitution enabling widows and children of seamen, without distinction, to claim pensions. The pensions due to widows and children amounted to 36,866l., whilst those granted to seamen reached only 18,391l. So much for the arbitrary and capricious manner in which the present system worked. The more serious evil remained to be noticed, and he could not designate it otherwise than as the insolvency of the fund. It was not his intention to demonstrate the insolvency of the fund by any nice calculations; it would be sufficient to refer to the report of the Commission over which Lord Ellenhorough presided a few years ago, and by which the whole subject had been ably investigated and scrutinised. That Commission, of which the hon. Baronet the Member for the Tower Hamlets was a member, and assisted by Mr. Finlayson, the actuary, established the fact that the fund was in a state of complete insolvency, and that if it were allowed to go on for a short time longer the result must be utter ruin. The Commission held that, in order to determine as to the solvency of the fund, recourse must be had to the general principles by which insurance societies were regulated; for the fund differed from private benefit societies only in being compulsory instead of voluntary, and in having its contributions and distributions determined by law instead of by agreement. Tried by that test the fund proved to he insolvent in the aggregate, and also more or less in all its parts. In various ports the fund appeared to be more or less in a comparatively prosperous condition; but there was scarcely one in which, if left under the existing system, it would not shortly become insolvent. The assets and liabilities of the fund in respect to existing pensions on December 31, 1846, were thus stated in the report of Lord Ellenborough's Commission:— 1. Of the whole Fund.—Value of existing pensions, 506,586l. 4s. 5d.; investments, 202,696l. 4s. 56l.; balance in hand, 29,925l. 5s. 11d?.: balance against the whole fund, 273,964l. 14s. ld. 2. Of the Funds under the Management of the London Corporation.—Value of existing pensions, 162,439l. 16s.; investments, 53,944l.; balance in hand, 857l. 15s. 10d.; balance against this part, 107,638l. 0s. 2d. 3. Of the Aggregate Funds of the Outports.—Value of existing pensions, 344,146l. 8s. 5d.; investments, 148,752l. 4s. 5d.; balance in hand, 29,067l. 10s. 16l.; balance against outport funds, 166,326l. 13s. 11d. The state of things which he had described had attracted the attention of Parliament and of successive Administrations. The right hon. Baronet the Member for Dover a few years ago, when he was Vice-President of the Board of Trade, introduced a Bill which was intended as a remedy for the evil. The right hon. Member for the University of Oxford also introduced a Bill for the same object. It was likewise his (Mr. Labouchere's) lot two years ago to bring in a measure founded on the report of Lord Ellenborough's Commission. All these attempts of successive Governments to cure the evil had unfortunately failed. The Bill which he introduced proposed, in the first place, to effect a saving by consolidating the various boards established for the administration of the fund. It was intended that the management of the fund should be altogether placed in the hands of the Trinity-house. It was further proposed, by way of augmenting the fund and rescuing it from insolvency, that 1s, a ton should be paid by shipping, and that the sum of 25,000l. a year, which was paid by the Trinity-house for analogous purposes, should be united to the Seamen's Fund, and administered in conjunction with it. It was likewise proposed that at the expiration of five years no more pensions should be granted to widows and orphans. Those were the chief provisions of the Bill which he introduced, and they were founded upon the recommendations of the report of Lord Ellenborough's Commission, for he did not feel himself warranted in departing from the suggestions of that able and well-considered document. The representatives of the shipping interest in that House were so unanimous in their condemnation of the proposal for placing a tax of 1". a ton on shipping, that he was obliged to abandon it. It was now necessary for the House to consider what should be done. To postpone that consideration further, would be improper in the face of the just and growing discontent of the seamen with reference to the question. No one, he apprehended, would recommend that the thing should be allowed to take its own course until utter insolvency ensued, and that the seamen who had been compelled, by Act of Parliament, to contribute to the fund during the whole of their lives, in the expectation of receiving a pension, should be left destitute in their old age. The House and the country were responsible to the seamen for their pensions. It would be dangerous to disregard the just claims of the seamen; but he did not wish to appeal to a sentiment of prudence; he would rather appeal to a sense of justice. Dismissing, therefore, the supposition that Parliament would allow matters to remain as they were, two courses were open to them. One was to undertake the responsibility of discharging all legitimate claims upon the fund, and, at the same time, to put an end to the system as one which had proved to be vicious. To that course he could not accede. The other was, to put the fund on a proper footing, and to provide in future for seamen not unequal and inadequate pensions, but pensions which would be valuable to seamen in their old age, and which might conduce to an important national object, by inducing mariners to engage continuously in the service of England, and attach themselves to her shores. Those, then, were the objects which he proposed effecting by the measure he was about to introduce. In the opinion expressed by Lord Ellenborough's Commission, that the fund ought to be placed under central authority, he entirely concurred. It was his opinion, also, that this central authority should not be a Government board, but an institution independent of the Government, and he, therefore, proposed, as Lord Ellenborough's Commission had done, to entrust the general management of the fund to the Trinity-house, with authority to amalgamate with it their own annual fund of 25,000l., and to dispense both under one uniform system. At the same time, it was desirable that the Trinity-house should not exercise the power confided to them altogether without control; and, therefore, he proposed that the two mercantile naval officers, who, under the other Bill which he had opened to the House that evening, were to advise the Board of Trade on matters connected with the subject to which that measure related, should be joined with the Trinity-house in the management and distribution of the fund. It would also be provided that the Trinity-house should present periodical accounts of the state of the fund to Parliament and the Board of Trade; this would furnish a security for good management. The next point to which he would call the attention of the Committee was, that if the Merchant Seaman Fund were to be continued, it ought to give disabled seamen something worth having. The wretched doles bestowed on them were of little use; and the fund would not be placed on a satisfactory footing unless they raised the payments to such an amount as to exercise a material influence on their condition in old age. It was proposed, therefore, that the merchant seaman should not receive less than 6d. a day from this fund; and it appeared just and proper that, as the contributions were to be equal, so should the pensions—that it should not chance, according as a man was set down at Sunderland and Liverpool, that he should have three times as much as he would have at any other port. It was proposed, then, that every one who contributed should, on an average, receive 6d. a day when he became a pensioner. In order to effect that object, it was necessary to make some important alterations in the sources from which the money was derived, and also in the distribution. In the first place, he proposed to raise the sum paid by the sailor from 1s. per month to 1s. 6d. He was assured, by those most conversant with the feelings and opinions of that class of men, that if they saw and were persuaded those contributions would se- cure for them a valuable pension in old age, the increase would be readily accepted. But he further proposed to revert to the original rules of the institution with respect to the pensions of widows and children. If they wished to keep within reasonable bounds, they must revert to the system by which pensions or gratuities were given only to the widows and orphans of sailors killed or drowned in the service. The alteration was not intended to apply to widows or orphans who now received pensions, for such a measure would be harsh and unjust. Nay more, he felt it would be very improper to deprive of pensions those who had a strong probability of receiving them. He proposed that, after a period of five years, no names, except those of the widows of sailors killed or drowned, should be placed on the lists; so that, for the next five years, all widows would have their names placed on the lists. There would still remain a deficiency of 30,000l. a year to be supplied before the fund could be brought to a state of solvency. On the whole, he was prepared to recommend that that 30,000l. a year should not be drawn from a tax on the shipowner, or from an increased mulct on the sailor, but should be contributed by that House. Considering the great public and national objects of retaining to the State the services of their sailors, he believed it would be sound policy, as well as true humanity, to assist a fund in which that class were so interested by a moderate contribution; and he had every reason to think—having gone through the calculations, and consulted Mr. Finlayson—that, according to the plan of which the chief provisions had now been described, a system would be established which should ensure to a master or mate, the moment he becomes disabled, a pension of 1s. a day, and to a common sailor 6d. a day. Such were the outlines of the scheme he ventured to recommend. He was aware of the difficulty which attended the subject; but he was convinced that, in some way or other, the House must deal with it; and it would be scandalous if matters were to be left in their present position. He felt assured that the plan he had proposed would give the greatest satisfaction to a class of men who deserved the solicitude and care of the Legislature as much as any class of Her Majesty's subjects, and to whom some compensation might justly be awarded for the great injury and injustice which they had for a series of years had to sustain.


said, he approved of the plan of centralisation alluded to by the right hon. Gentleman, but dissented from the provision that they ought to supply this fund by substracting from the scanty wages of the seaman. Why not, as the Committee upstairs recommended, abolish the light-dues, and place a duty of 1s. a ton once a year on the registered tonnage of the country—an impost which would not only maintain all the lighthouses, but provide ample funds for the object the right hon. Gentleman had in view? The late Mr. Soames was of opinion that Is. per ton on the tonnage registered once a year upon the whole of the ships of all nations, would maintain all the lighthouses in Scotland, England, and Ireland, and leave an adequate fund for a pension of at least 6d. a day to the seaman. He was surprised that the Government should think of placing more funds at the disposal of the Trinity-house. It would be found that the people at the Trinity-house could not properly manage this fund. As it was, the lighthouse dues at present paid, amounted to from 350,000l. to 400,000l. a year, while the system of management was most unsatisfactory and imperfect. He considered the Trinity-house to be a great burden, and he could not conceive why the lighthouses in this as in all other countries were not maintained by the State. Of what use was Lord John Russell or Sir James Graham as members of the Trinity-house? The thing was a mere mockery. There was evidence upon the table to show that every shipowner was willing to contribute 1s. per ton to the abolition of the lighthouse dues and for the provision of a seaman's fund. Those funds were now extended as a matter of favour, whereas they ought to be a matter of right. The seaman ought to have the same right to a pension as the soldier. He protested against putting any more power into the hands of the Trinity-house. No class of men led a more severe and arduous life than seamen. They were generally attacked with rheumatism, and seldom reached even the middle period of human life. Why should there be a divided management of the Seamen's Fund? Why should it be partly administered by the Board of Trade and partly by the Trinity-house? Why not altogether by the Board of Trade? The Government actually declared itself incompetent to manage a public fund without calling upon the Trinity-house for aid. The sum which the right hon. Gentleman proposed to take from the sailor, although it sounded small, was a great deal to him, and he could see no reason why the poor merchant sailor was thus mulcted, and why the commercial marine of this country was obliged to maintain the lighthouses, whilst Her Majesty's ships of war and gentlemen's yachts did not contribute a shilling. He felt bound to express his decided dissatisfaction at many of the provisions of the measure.


observed that, as Vice-President of the Board of Trade, he had introduced a Bill on the subject. The right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade had taunted him for not bringing it forward sooner; but from the objections taken to the most important part of the measure, which agreed with the present one in regard to centralisation of management and equalisation of pensions, it was found necessary to drop the Bill. The right hon. Gentleman might experience opposition from the outports where some funds were perfectly solvent—others the reverse; and many had been formed by liberal donations from parties who desired to benefit persons connected with their own port. He feared an attempt was made to do too much with small weekly or monthly subscriptions. Few sailors were fit for service after 45 or 50; a seaman was fortunate if he were employed ten months in the year, and the fund raised from payments of 1s. a week was obviously inadequate. But he doubted the policy of raising the payment to 1s. 6d. In the end the money must be paid in additional wages by the shipowners, who would be better pleased if a yearly contribution were required of 1s. per ton, which would yield 5l. for every 2l. raised at present. He did not understand from the right hon. Gentleman whether, in addition to the 1s. 6d. a month, he intended to take the sum of 25,000l. at present paid by the Trinity-house, and that then there would be a deficiency of 30,000l. to be supplied from the Consolidated Fund. For himself, he must say, if it were thought essential to maintain this pension fund, that he did not see the equity of granting a bounty of 30,000l. a year to the shipping interest at this moment, when there were other interests which had equally strong claims. He thought it would be infinitely preferable to adopt the recommendation of Lord Ellen-borough's Commission, which he regarded as a much simpler and better plan. He should like to know also whether the right hon. Gentleman proposed to grant these pensions, subject to a certain length of service or age of the seaman, or was the disposal of this large sum of money to be left with the board? Unless some check of that nature were imposed, he feared that the amount spoken of by the right hon. Gentleman would be inadequate to the purpose contemplated.


said, the right hon. Baronet had been more successful in pointing out the difficulties of the question than any practical remedies. Of the difficulties of the case he was well aware, and he knew how strong was the objection raised by local interests to any settlement of the question that involved the principle of centralisation—a principle, however, without which he was convinced it would be impossihle to arrive at any satisfactory conclusion. With the greatest reluctance he had proposed to increase the contributions from the sailors; and he should not have done so unless it were accompanied with a grant of 30,000l. from the Consolidated Fund. Under the circumstances, he had no fear, if this Bill were properly explained to the sailor, but it would become most popular. It was in truth a most liberal measure, and he was sure when the sailor saw the fund placed on a sound foundation, and himself receiving an increased pension, he would view it in that light. With regard to the observations of the hon. Member for Montrose, he must observe, that the question of light-dues was not before the Committee; but he believed that by the measure of last Session great and substantial relief had been granted to the shipping interest; and he had received most satisfactory assurances from the coasting trade to that effect. Not only had the Trinity-house carried out fully the assurances which he had made in their name, but other corporations, feeling the pressure of public opinion, were acting in the same manner. Only two days ago he had received a communication from Liverpool, informing him that the pilotage board of that town had made a regulation by which steamboats between Liverpool and Ireland would no longer be required to take pilots unless they used them; and, by this relaxation, 3,000l. a year would be saved to one company alone. Before asking the House to arm the Government with more compulsory and summary powers in these matters, he was anxious to allow time for public opinion to have its full influence.


was opposed to the system of centralisation, as suggested by the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade, and concurred with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Dover in his regret that the right hon. President had not brought the same measure which he had introduced two years ago, for he thought the shipping interest of this country and of Ireland would contribute 1s. a ton on the tonnage of the country, as they had an equal interest with the sailor in the matter. He, however, concurred in the principle of the measure, as he thought it most desirable that the pensions should be raised to 6d. a day. He trusted the right hon. Gentleman would reconsider the question as to the imposition of 1s. on the tonnage.


explained the course which had been taken by Lord Ellenborough's Commission, of which he had been a Member, and confessed that, paternity apart, he should have preferred a measure founded upon that report to the present plan. At the same time, that even was preferable to allowing the fund to fall to the ground. He quite agreed in the propriety of cutting off the pensions to widows except in the case of accident or drowning. With regard to pensions to the seamen themselves, it might often happen that an excellent sailor might, through accident, be prevented from following his avocation at an early age. The Commission, feeling this difficulty, had used no other qualifying term than "disabled." He thought, that, in order to do justice, it would be necessary to give a large discretionary power to those who should have the distribution of the fund.


said, that when a proposal of this sort was announced to them for the first time—a proposal from the Government to make from the Consolidated Fund a grant of 30,000l. a year, or, in other words, to present them with something like a million of money, it was desirable that hon. Gentlemen should have time allowed them to consider the subject, and to consult with their constituents before pledging themselves to anything definite. The difficulties which had heretofore occurred had arisen from insolvency, occasioned by bad management; and it was now proposed to place the funds under central instead of local management. He thought the experience they had had of central management in London was not such as to encourage them to expect that these funds would be better administered by a central authority than they had been by local managers. The hon. Member for Cork and himself happened to represent places where funds had been well managed by local authorities, while central management had resulted in insolvency. He understood it was proposed that the central management of the funds should be in the hands of the Trinity Board, aided by some Gentlemen from the Board of Trade. Now, he thought these Gentlemen from the Board of Trade would be likely to have very considerable control in the disposition of pensions, which were not to be matters of right but of favour; and they would find much jealousy on the part of local contributors, if the funds were placed to such an extent in the power of the Government.


considered, that the changes proposed by the right hon. Gentleman, entitled him to the thanks of the shipowners of the country. He (Mr. Head-lam) did not agree with the hon. Member for Liverpool in his objections to a system of central management; for he believed that under such a system the funds were likely to he administered with far more justice and fairness than was the case at present. He concurred with the hon. Member for Montrose in thinking that the share of control which was proposed to be given to the Trinity Board would be very objectionable; for, although that board nominally contributed 25,000l. a year to the funds, the amount was really charged upon the shipowners. He would rather see the funds under the control of a responsible Government board, represented in that House, and who might by their representative be called upon for explanations as to the discharge of their duties. 2. Resolved—That the Chairman be directed to move the House, that leave be given to bring in a Bill for regulating the Merchant Seamen's Fund.