HC Deb 26 July 1861 vol 164 cc1659-67

in calling attention to the Report of the Merchant Shipping Committee of 1859–60, said, that the House was aware that the shipping interest of this country for more than two centuries was a protected interest, and presumed to derive from protection peculiar advantages in which other classes of the community did not participate. Consequently, peculiar taxes of various kinds were laid upon that interest. In 1849 and 1850 protection, and all the supposed privileges of protection were taken away. The least the Government could have done when they removed protection was to remove those burdens and those restrictions which were created with that protection. Well, he was sorry to say that, though Committees of that House had reported over and over again in favour of removing the burdens which still fettered that great and important interest, most of those burdens still remained. For two years he had the honour of sitting on the Merchant Shipping Committee upstairs. That Committee, after great consideration, laid a Report, in 1860, upon the table of the House, recommending, under ten distinct heads, that various burdens and restrictions ought to be removed, and stating that these were questions which seriously affected the maritime interests of this country, with which it was the duty of the Government to deal. He had delayed calling attention to this subject up to that late period in the hope that the Government would have introduced Bills for the removal of at least some of the most oppressive of those burdens. From some cause or other he was sorry to say but one of those ten recommendations had been dealt with by the Government. The Merchant Shipping Committee recommended that the question of belligerent rights should be dealt with, and unanimously arrived at the conclusion that the time was come when all private property not contraband of war ought to be exempt from capture at sea. His hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool (Mr. Horsfall) made four or five attempts during the Session to bring that question under the notice of the House. It was but reasonable that he and other hon. Members, and many out of doors who felt that we had a larger share of private property. On the ocean than any other nation, should desire that that private property should be exempt from capture. But all attempts to bring that question forward were, he was sorry to say it, stifled by Her Majesty's Government. After unsuccessful attempts, on the 18th of February and the 17th of April, his hon. Friend on the 7th of May had an opportunity of bringing the question forward, but an appeal was made to him not to do so, on the ground that the whole question of the Treaty of Paris was under consideration. Now, he wished to know from his right hon. Friend, the President of the Board of Trade, what was the result of that consideration on the part of the Government? Again, a revision of the liability of shipowners who were exposed to heavy and ruinous penalties and conditions in fitting-out passenger ships, &c, was another of these recommendations which had not been carried out. So far back as 1845 a Committee, of which the noble Lord at the head of the Government was a Member, recommended that the shipping interest should be relieved from light dues, but since that period nothing had been done, and since then the shipping interest had paid for the liquidation of debts contracted for the purchase of private lighthouses no less than £1,250,000. Pilotage was a monopoly in the hands of private individuals. It was clearly shown that where pilotage was voluntary a better supply of pilots was to be obtained. With respect to local charges at various ports, the shipping interest was still taxed for craneage where there were no cranes, for buoyage and beaconage where there were no buoys or beacons, and for wharfage where there were no wharfs. It had been proved before a Commission appointed by this House that there were many who levied those dues who had no right to levy them, but even where there were rights those rights could be valued and redeemed, and he could not help expressing his surprise that the Government did not deal with them during the Session. It might reasonably be supposed that, considering the vast increase of trade, the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854 and the Passenger Act might require some modifications, but nothing had been done with regard to it. In respect of the main and truly important question of reciprocity, he was sorry to find that nothing whatever had been done, and he feared that no exertions had been made by Her Majesty's Government to obtain from foreign nations those reciprocal privileges and advantages which we had long granted to them. France still maintained differential duties against us—duties so high as in many cases entirely to exclude our shipping. Spain, Portugal, the United States, and various other nations, including Austria and Russia, still excluded us from the coasting trade. There was one remark which struck him very forcibly which was made by a large shipowner who was examined before the Committee of which his right hon. Friend, the President of the Board of Trade, was at the head. Alluding to his ship in the port of Calcutta, he said— It is very galling, indeed, and enough to break one's heart, to see my ship lying at Calcutta getting only 15s. a ton, while a French ship alongside obtained 60s., 70s., or 80s. per ton, simply because the latter vessel, on arriving at this part of the world, was at liberty to deliver its cargo with equal facility either in England or France. In the Report of the Merchant Shipping Committee regret was expressed at the apparent apathy on the part of the Government in connection with this important question, and their neglect to enforce the retaliatory clause. That Report had been upon the Table of the House for a year and a half, and he wanted to know what had since been done to obtain from foreign nations a reciprocity of advantages. He was in America during the last recess, and Mr. Buchanan in discussing the question with him frankly admitted that, it was no more right to call the trade between New York and California a coasting trade than the trade from this country to Calcutta. He believed, too, from what he learned while in France, that the French Government, if the matter were fully brought before them, would have seen the justice of reciprocating the many advantages which this country had granted to French ships. Of all the re-Commendations of the Merchant Shipping Committee only those relating to the abolition of passing tolls and the settlement of differential dues had been carried into effect. The right hon. Gentleman, the President of the Board of Trade, had given notice of a Merchant Shipping Bill, but it was too late for such a measure to be introduced in the present Session. He hoped, however, that the Government would early in the next Session bring in measures to carry into effect the more important provisions of the Merchant Shipping Committee. The shipping interest did not require protection, but they desired a clear stage and the opportunity of conducting their business without those disadvantages which they were at present subject to. Having made these observations, he did not intend to move the resolution which stood on the paper in his name.


said, he was glad his hon. Friend had brought forward this subject. On most of the points he took he cordially agreed. He would remind him, however, that the difficulty of obtaining reciprocity was caused by our having given everything to other nations without stipulating for anything in return. He had intended asking the right hon. Gentleman a question on this subject, but was better pleased that the initiative should be taken on the opposite side of the House. Those who, like himself, were interested in the welfare of the Mercantile Marine had, he thought, reason to complain that the right hon. Gentleman had not, he might almost say, redeemed his pledge, but at any rate had not fulfilled his intention, and brought in again a measure which he carried last year, of great value and utility to the shipping interest—he meant the Clearance Inwards and Lien for Freight Bill—or, at any rate, incorporated its provisions in some more comprehensive measure. This Bill simplified and rendered intelligible the laws respecting freight, which were now the source of constant litigation. It also placed the law which regulates the landing of goods (which was now habitually disregarded) on a footing more in accordance with the important changes caused by the general use of steam in merchant shipping. The right hon. Gentleman met with no opposition from that side of the House. He was sure he would allow that he gave him, in his humble way, all the assistance in his power both in and out of Parliament, as did the Member for Sunderland. The Bill was one which severely tried the patience of those interested in it. It appeared on the orders of the day two or three times a week during the greater part of the Session, and eventually came on between two and three in the morning, in an empty House, when the reporters were worn out, and the space in the papers allotted to reports filled up, when it might be said that virtue was its own reward; for though for two or three nights there were lengthened and animated discussions, strong opposition from a few hon. Members opposite, whose constituents were interested in maintaining the present anomalous state of things, and two or three divisions, yet all these exertions, all this expenditure of time and patience were as little known to the public as the achievements of the heroes who lived before Agamemnon. However, the Bill passed, and if they might judge by the comments of the Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, and other papers specially devoted to the subject, it gave universal satisfaction to the shipping interests. It was too late, unfortunately, to pass through the House of Lords, and it was generally supposed that it would have been re-introduced at the earliest moment this Session. A Bill of this sort, full of details affecting particular interests, and which Members in general could not, or at any rate would not give themselves the trouble to understand, had little chance unless it was brought in as a Government measure, and he did hope that the right hon. Gentleman would give the assurance that evening that he would introduce some measure of the kind as early as possible next Session.


said, the real reason why he had not dealt with some of the subjects to which the hon. Member for Sunderland had called the attention of the House was that the opportunity of doing so had not been afforded him. He had brought in a Bill for the purpose of abolishing passing tolls, but when that measure received the assent of the House he found there really was no time at his disposal to proceed with a measure of such magnitude as that to which the hon. Member for Sunderland adverted. So far as light dues were concerned, the question arose whether the object for which they were imposed should be carried out by means of public taxes or of dues levied on shipping, and, although a good deal might be said in favour of the former alternative, yet he could not help thinking there was nothing very unreasonable in the latter when it was taken into account that it was chiefly for the benefit of the merchant shipping that the lights were maintained. If, he might add, the charges under that head had not been placed on the Consolidated Fund they had, at all events, been reduced to the extent of £60,000 or £70,000. Then came the question of compulsory pilotage, which was beset with much difficulty. In principle there was, he admitted, not a little to be said in favour of not compelling the owners of vessels to employ pilots, while there was a legal difficulty pointing in the same direction, inasmuch as if, as matters at present stood, a ship in charge of a compulsory pilot did, owing to his fault, any damage, the owner was not held to be liable to make compensation. Indeed, the consequence of that state of the law was to give shipowners themselves an interest in upholding the system of compulsory pilotage, and he was not at all sure, therefore, that if a measure for its abolition were introduced it would not meet with some opposition from that quarter. Be that, however, as it might, the subject was one with which the Government fully intended to deal, and a ' Bill had actually been prepared, which he thought would be found to contain some satisfactory provisions with reference both to light dues and pilotage, and which he hoped to be able to lay on the table of the House at an early period next Session. He now came to the complaint of the hon. Member for Sunderland that the Government had taken no steps to insure reciprocity from foreign countries, and he begged to assure him that in that respect he was in error, as he would discover if lie were to look into the records either of the Foreign Office, or of the Board of Trade, which clearly showed that Government had lost no fitting opportunity of representing to foreign countries the claims which England possessed to full reciprocity in navigation. The subject was one, he might add, on which a great deal of misapprehension prevailed in this country as to the extent to which reciprocity was really withheld from this country by foreign nations. At present there were only, three countries—France, Spain, and Portugal—that in the indirect foreign trade did not give to England complete reciprocity. In the direct foreign trade they had, he believed, reciprocity with every country. He believed that British ships coming direct from England received national treatment in almost every country in the world. In many countries the coasting trade was given to England in consequence of the repeal of the navigation laws. And it was something to say that the three countries he had mentioned were the only countries that had not given to England complete reciprocity. With regard to the direct trade with France they were on the footing of national ships. With regard to the indirect trade with France they had recently received very considerable relaxations. The differential dues on jute and cotton wool coming from Australia and India to France had been abolished, and those articles were liable to the same duty, whether brought in French or English ships. That was a great object effected, and he hoped we might be able to secure a still larger share of advantage in that direction. He quite concurred with the hon. Member for Sunderland in regarding the shipping interest as of the utmost importance, as well as with respect to the expediency of adopting the necessary measures for its encouragement; but he should beg the House to bear in mind that that interest was evidently increasing both in amount and prosperity. He found, for instance, that for the first six months of the present year, ending the 80th of June, the total British tonnage entered and cleared with cargo amounted to 5,951,722 tons as against 5,628,589 tons in the corresponding period of 1860; and 5,429,277 for the first six months of 1859, thus showing a regular increase of tonnage for those three years. He also held in his hand a statement which proved that the repeal of the navigation laws had, instead of doing harm, done great good to British shipping, though we had not received from any country the same privileges of free navigation which they granted to all the world. Be that, however, as it might, he found that on comparing the year 1860 with 1850, the year immediately subsequent to the repeal of the navigation laws the tonnage entered and cleared with cargoes in the former year amounted in six months to three-fourths of what it was for the whole year in 1850. So that since the repeal of the navigation laws there was a constant increase in the amount of tonnage. It might also be satisfactory to the House to know that our export trade was exhibiting no signs of that decline which some persons anticipated, inasmuch as for the month ending the 30th of June last the declared value of British exports was £10,362,893 as against £9,236,454 for the month of June, 1860. The decline in the export trade was not so considerable as many people supposed. In the first six months of the present year the declared value of British exports was £60,143,425; in the first six months of 1860 it was £62,019,989, showing a decline of only 3 3-10ths per cent—a much smaller decline than at the commencement of the year seemed probable. He might mention that there had been a considerable increase in their trade with Italy and also with China, owing, no doubt, in the case of Italy to the changes that had taken place, and to having the benefit of a more liberal system under the Sardinian Government. He mentioned these facts in order to remove an impression which seemed to prevail—that some very considerable decline was taking place in the export trade of this country, which might have a serious effect on the revenue of the country and on the interests of the merchant shipping. The hon. Member for Sunderland was not more anxious than were the present Government on every fitting occasion to urge upon foreign countries the claims of the country in regard to freedom of navigation. At the commencement of the next Session a Bill would be introduced dealing with light dues, compulsory pilotage, and the liabilities of shipowners, and he trusted it might become law.

In reply to a question from Mr. CAVE,


said, he could not give a definite pledge to the hon. Member opposite (Mr. Cave) that the Bill which he (Mr. Gibson) introduced last Session, and which passed that House with reference to clearances and freights inwards, would be reintroduced next Session. Since that Bill passed the House of Commons representations had been made which somewhat altered the view originally taken by the Customs authorities in this matter. He could only promise that a measure dealing with the subject would be introduced.