HC Deb 11 May 1860 vol 158 cc1107-9

said, he wished to call the attention of the House to the state of the Law with regard to Collisions at Sea, so far as Foreign Vessels are concerned, and to ask the President of the Board of Trade whether Her Majesty's Government are prepared to urge on the Governments of other Countries the expediency of establishing some international rule for assimilating the liability of Shipowners in cases of Collision, at home and abroad. The subject was one of great importance to the mercantile marine of this country, especially now that our foreign trade was increasing so rapidly. The question involved principles of international law, and was one on which there was great diversity among the different systems of law recognized by the principal commercial nations of Europe, as well as the United States. By the law of France if a vessel belonging to that country damaged one belonging to another nation, the owner, by abandoning his ship, might save himself from further consequences. A similar rule prevailed in Holland, Sardinia, and other countries of Europe; while the law of the United States of America bore more analogy to that of England. The liability of the British shipowner was fixed and defined by the Merchant Shipping Act; but, while that liability was limited in the case of collision between two British vessels, the limitation did not apply when a collision took place between a British ship and a foreign ship. It was only just that all parties should be placed upon the same footing, and therefore he felt it to be his duty to call the attention of the Government to the subject. He trusted the Government would see the necessity of coming to some international arrangement upon the subject, with which an Act of Parliament was necessarily incompetent to deal.


said, that communications had already passed between the Board of Trade and the Foreign Office in reference to the subject to which the hon. and learned Gentleman had called attention. The Government were quite alive to the importance of this proposal, and were very desirous that some international arrangement should be entered into for assimilating the laws of the different countries, so that a British ship in a foreign country might receive a similar treatment in that country to a ship of that country, and that we should in turn reciprocate that protection to ships of other countries. It was desirable, in fact, that some arrangement should be made by which each country would give national treatment to the ships of the other. That matter was under consideration by the Foreign Office, and so far as the Board of Trade was concerned, they would give their best attention to it.

He would also beg to reply to a question of the hon. Member for Sunderland (Mr. Lindsay), who had inquired whether the Government intended to introduce a measure to carry into effect the recommendations of the Harbours of Refuge Commission. Of course there could be no difference of opinion respecting the desirableness of having harbours of refuge upon the coasts of this country, and especially upon the eastern coast, which was passed by a much greater number of merchant vessels, because every one must be struck with the loss of life and property that annually took place at sea. The question was, as regarded harbours of refuge, from what source were the necessary funds to be obtained? The Royal Commission and the Committee of the House were not of the same opinion as to the source from which the funds were to be derived. The Committee considered that a portion of the expenditure should be derived from tolls levied on merchant vessels passing those harbours. The Commission recommended that the expenditure should be met by Votes in Parliament, and by the expenditure of the public money. He did not find on inquiry that the shipowners and insurers valued those harbours of refuge sufficiently to be willing to take upon themselves any considerable portion of the charge; and with regard to a large expenditure of public money, it was a matter on which he was not at liberty to speak; it was a question for the consideration of the Treasury, rather than for the Department with which he was connected. The Government were fully impressed with the importance of these harbours of refuge; but no decision had been come to as to whether any plan could be laid before Parliament with the view of carrying out that part of the recommendation of the Commissioners. With regard to the question as to whether the Government were ready to do anything to facilitate the construction of harbours of refuge, and the improvement of such harbours as now exist, he begged to say, that instructions had been given to prepare a Bill to effect that object; and when the state of public business would permit he should state the provisions of that measure to the House. It was a Bill that he thought would materially assist the object in view, though certainly it would not go to the full extent of all the recommendations of the Commissioners. It was proposed to introduce a provision to give facilities for obtaining powers to make improvements without the necessity in each particular case of parties incurring the expense of coming to the House for a special Act of Parliament. The Government were quite alive to the importance of the whole question, and the hon. Member for Sunderland would admit with him that it was a matter that could not be undertaken without more consideration, involving, as it would, a large grant of public money.