§ MR. T. E. SMITH
rose to call attention to the increasing powers and responsibilities and unsatisfactory constitution of the Marine Department of the Board of Trade; and to move that a Select Committee be appointed—To inquire whether any alterations are needed in its constitution or procedure in consequence of the important changes which have taken place in the Mercantile Marine during the last few years.The hon. Member said, he hoped the President of the Board of Trade would assent to the appointment of the Committee, on the ground that he would find his hands considerably strengthened by inquiry, and that he would express a willingness to co-operate in ascertaining whether steps could be taken to restore the good feeling which used to exist between the Department and the shipping community. The Motion was not brought forward with animus against members of the Department, who, on the whole, discharged their duties well. He regretted that the Commission on Unseaworthy Ships had not reported upon the evidence they had taken on that subject, as that Report and evidence would, he believed, have strengthened the case he now submitted to the House. By the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854, the general superintendence of the Mercantile Marine was delegated to the Board of Trade; and since then, partly by authority under that Act, and partly by 1678 that conferred upon them by supplementary Acts, they had been charged with the superintendence of local Marine Boards, the examination of masters, mates, and engineers, inquiries into wrecks, casualties, and losses of life. These were important matters, requiring a strong and efficient Department to deal with them. Contemporaneously with these important changes the Board, if there was one in the ordinary sense, had considerably diminished in importance and weight with the public generally. He thought it was a great mistake in the formation of the present Government that the President of the Board of Trade was not given a seat in the Cabinet, as it showed that the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister did not attach sufficient importance to the mercantile community. The Department required a great amount of technical knowledge, and, as a Minister could scarcely be expected to possess this, it was all the more necessary that he should have the assistance of officials who were thoroughly versed in the technicalities of the subjects which had from time to time to be dealt with. There used to be two professional assistants and a Surveyor General; now there was a permanent Under Secretary, who had been brought up as an official in the Department, and an assessor, whose office was to be abolished as soon as he resigned. He had the highest opinion of the permanent Under Secretary; but as that gentleman's hands were not strengthened by a staff of practical officials, the result had been that the legislation undertaken by the Department had been very unsuccessful. He complained, moreover, that when any legislation was contemplated, the Department took no pains to ascertain the opinions of gentlemen who might be interested in and acquainted with the subject, and the consequence was that they dealt in a helpless way with large matters, and in a tinkering way with small ones. Two or three years ago it passed a Chain Cables and Anchors Act, without consulting the shipowners. The manufacturers met to discuss the Bill, and said it must necessarily be inoperative, and that, if it passed, they would defy the Board of Trade, which they had succeeded in doing. The Act was, therefore, entirely useless. Some years ago there was a Committee ap- 1679 pointed to inquire into the question of compulsory pilotage. They reported in favour of the adoption of that system, but no action whatever had since been taken upon that Report by the Board of Trade. Then, after much debate in that House, and great promises on the part of the Board, a code of laws for the regulation of the Mercantile Marine was laid upon the Table by the hon. Member for Reading (Mr. Shaw Lefevre). It consisted of no fewer than 750 clauses. The House of Commons shuddered at the prospect of discussing all those clauses, and would have nothing to do with it; while if the measure had been a consolidating one of some 100 or 130 clauses, there would have been a chance of its passing, and placing the general law on a clear and satisfactory footing. That would have been a very great boon to the Mercantile Marine. He had supported the Motion for a Committee of Inquiry into the sailing Rules brought forward by the right hon. and gallant Member for Stamford (Sir John Hay); but the Committee was not granted, because it was said the present Rules were so perfect, so well understood, and so generally accepted; but he now found by a Parliamentary Paper that the Board of Trade was going to make alterations in those Rules, and had promised shortly to submit them to the French Government. He could not ascertain, however, that they had consulted anyone who was practically conversant with the matter, nor had they given any notice of their intention to make changes. What he complained of was the heedless and almost reckless way in which the Board had lately been acting. Ship-owners and builders were continually receiving new regulations, new orders, and new circulars, many of them inconsistent and contradictory. Then again, with respect to the question of the lighting of the coasts of the United Kingdom, the course taken by the Board was not only unsatisfactory, but had year by year been growing more expensive to the shipowners who had to pay. A Committee which had inquired into the subject some time ago recommended a radical change, but from that time to this nothing had been done. The Board of Trade had confided to the Trinity House the management of the lighthouses under their general 1680 control. The result was that when a shipowner was in a difficulty, and went to the Board of Trade, he was referred to the Trinity House, and when he went there he was told that they were so hampered by the rules of the Board of Trade that it was impossible to give help. The poor shipowner or master was thus kept running from pillar to post, and got no satisfaction; while at the same time, within the last few years, the cost per light had risen from £270 to £1,300, or five times as much. The shipowners, therefore, had a right to demand that steps should he taken to render the management of the lights as efficient and economical as possible. Important changes had been made in the position of Merchant Shipping by the Act of 1873. It might be said—and he would admit it—that we had had too little experience to enable us to decide whether the principle of that Act was a sound one; but, at all events, the time had certainly come to inquire into the working of that Act, and to ascertain whether it was satisfactory to the persons affected by it. If it should be found that its effect was to make the Board of Trade obnoxious to the whole shipping community, and that the Act was being carried out in a partial and arbitrary manner, some action ought to be taken by the Legislature. Prior to the Act of 1873 the Board of Trade only took cognizance of passenger steamers, which a few years ago were comparatively few in number. In 1873, however, the Board of Trade took over the management and superintendence of the whole shipping of the country. That shipping had undergone great changes. In 1863 the amount of steam shipping was 510,000 tons, but in 1872 there were 1,500,000 tons of steam shipping, and it had gone on increasing ever since, and now the whole of that steam shipping came under the superintendence of the Board of Trade. This at once introduced a new element in the work which the Board of Trade had to do. Shipbuilding knowledge became essential, and yet in the knowledge of what constituted a well-formed ship, the Board of Trade were entirely deficient at the present time. It was hard that shipowners should have their property stopped, and their characters injured, without any capable body to whom they might appeal. This assertion was con- 1681 firmed by experience; but it would be sufficient to refer to the cases of the Parga and the Eastern Monarch, as well as to the item of £5,000 in the Estimates, to make good claims that might arise from the mistakes of the Board of Trade. Since he had taken up this matter he had received innumerable complaints from various parts of the country of the frivolous and vexatious interference of the Board of Trade with the shipowners. There were no general rules laid down for the action of the surveyors, and on this point he might cite a case which he had himself investigated. A ship of 2,000 tons was being built on the Tyne, but her engines were supplied from London, and the Board of Trade absolutely refused to give her any certificate unless she were sent to London to be inspected—her boilers having been inspected in London, it was necessary that the whole ship should be inspected there. It struck him that to insist upon a vessel costing £30,000 making a voyage from the Tyne to the Thames for the purpose of being inspected was a very unbusinesslike proceeding. It should be remembered that when a ship was stopped by the Board of Trade, the fact was remembered against her whether the accusation turned out to be well or ill founded. In the case of a ship at Whitby, against which some anonymous complaint had been lodged, the action of the Board of Trade was equally frivolous and capricious. He believed that the Board of Trade had at the present time got a most unsatisfactory set of surveyors at the different ports, and that the work was done in a careless manner in consequence of the men not having had sufficient training or experience. In one case, where a man was appointed, his only qualification appeared to be that he had been a midshipman in the Royal Navy, and yet he had to decide upon all important matters connected with the seaworthiness of ships. He believed there was a general feeling of distrust in regard to all these appointments. The men did not pass through any examination, and nobody knew on what grounds the appointments were made. The fact was that the surveyors were not what they ought to be, because the Board of Trade did not pay their officials a sufficient salary. The matter was a small one, but to the shipping community it was 1682 all-important; because on the judgment of those men frequently depended the characters and the reputations of shipowners, and at their instance they were liable to have misdemeanours and all other sorts of offences laid to their charge. It was the more necessary that the Government should reject a cheeseparing policy in this matter, because private firms did not hesitate in paying good salaries to efficient surveyors. With regard to the manner in which the Courts of Inquiry were constituted by the Board of Trade, the House was aware that when an inquiry was about to be held, the Board sent a couple of nautical assessors to sit with the magistrate and assist him in deciding the case. The magistrate of course had no practical knowledge on the subject, and the consequence was that the nautical assessors were practically Judge, jury, and everything else, and upon their decision it depended whether a man who had the misfortune to experience some casualty should be allowed to go on in charge of his ship, or whether he should be ruined for life. Nobody knew how these assessors were appointed, and they were not permanent officials of the Board of Trade. He remembered on one occasion conversing with an assessor who was about to advise upon a case in which the tonnage of the ship and the amount of the cargo were the leading points, and that assessor was perfectly ignorant of the simple fact that a ton according to the Merchant Shipping Act was 100 cubic feet. The largest private steamship owner in the world, Mr. Burn, the head of the Cunard Company, and whose ships had met probably with less casualties than those of any other line, had said that the Board of Trade was a name without a substance, there being no Board, properly speaking; that no public Department with which shipowners had to deal gave them less satisfaction; that the constitution of the Board was proved to be unworkable, and that the Board was offensive to the shipowners of this country, and to none more than to honest and respectable ones. In conclusion, the hon. Member begged to move the Resolution of which he had given Notice.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire whether any alterations are needed in the constitution or procedure of the Marine
Department of the Board of Trade, in consequence of the important chances which hare taken place in the Mercantile Marine during the last few years."—(Mr. Eastace Smith.)
§ LORD ESLINGTON
, as a Member of the Royal Commission, thought it necessary to reply to some observations of his hon. Friend who, he was not surprised, had brought the subject before the House. His hon. Friend expressed regret that the Commission had not reported on the question of seaworthiness; but the fact was they were not prepared to report. The question of seaworthiness involved many most important, difficult, and delicate matters—the construction of ships, measurement, insurance, inquiries by the Board of Trade into accidents and losses, the conduct and character of seamen, and it was perfectly impossible, until all these had been duly considered and weighed, that they could report upon that question.
§ MR. T. E. SMITH
explained that he made no complaint about the Commission not reporting on the subject; he merely stated a simple matter of fact.
§ LORD ESLINGTON
hoped the House would think that the Commission were the best Judges of the proper course to pursue on the question of seaworthiness, and he would promise that when the proper time arrived for reporting, it would be found they had devoted their best attention to the subjects referred to them. His hon. Friend had said he was not quite sure whether the operation of the Act of 1873 came within the scope of the Order of Reference. He could relieve his hon. Friend's mind on that point by informing him that the Commissioners had gone at great length into the operation of the Act. Again, his hon. Friend had said that the Board of Trade were unfit to cope with the work which they had undertaken. Now, the Board of Trade had undertaken the work that had been forced upon them by the House of Commons, and they were perfectly aware of the responsibility which had been imposed upon them. In his opinion, the Act of 1873 was introduced by the late Government rather hastily, in obedience to the call of public opinion at the time, which was not very well-informed as to the actual extent of the evil intended to be remedied by the measure, and it did not receive at the hands of Parliament the careful consideration it deserved. Never- 1684 theless, he thought it was too soon to begin another investigation into the working of that Act. The charges preferred by his hon. Friend against the Board of Trade ought rather to have been brought against Parliament itself and over-legislation. Now, he wished to make a few remarks in defence of the action of the Board of Trade. According to his hon. Friend's statement, the Board of Trade Surveyors had carried out the provisions of the Act of 1873 in a partial and unsatisfactory manner. He could quite understand that they had not given satisfaction to the shipowners in many of our ports; but with reference to the action of the Board of Trade, he would mention some simple facts which he thought ought to be known for the justification of the Board of Trade and its officers. Out of 264 ships which had been detained by the action of the Board of Trade for alleged unseaworthiness, 234 had been found unseaworthy, and only 13 of those ships had been shown to be seaworthy; 17 were still sub judice, the surveys not having been decided upon. With regard to overloading, 22 ships had been reported by the officers and referred to the Board of Trade. Six of those ships had been lightened in consequence of that representation. There was another test which he would apply to the action of the Board of Trade. There had only been half-a-dozen cases in which owners had availed themselves of their right of appeal, and only in one appeal case—that relating to the Parga—was the decision adverse to the Board of Trade. Compensation had been paid in four cases, without going to law at all. The really important public officer who was required if the House determined to carry out efficiently the provisions of the Act was a Public Prosecutor. That was the deliberate opinion he had formed on the information and evidence put before the Commission. His hon. Friend had, with justice, complained that a Department charged with the surveillance of the trade of England did not hold the rank to which it was entitled. He (Lord Eslington) had no hesitation in expressing the opinion that the head of the Board of Trade ought to be a Member of the Cabinet. As long as the grip of the Treasury was on the salaries of the Surveyors it would be difficult to secure the services of the most 1685 able and competent men; but, nevertheless, those officers had, on the whole, done their work in a very admirable manner. He thought it would be most desirable, in re-constructing the Board of Trade, to strengthen the Permanent Staff. His hon. friend spoke of the frivolous objections taken by officers of the Department with regard to lights; but the House would be startled to hear that no light had yet been manufactured which came up to the standard required by the Act of Parliament, and in fixing such a standard, Parliament had done a great deal of mischief. There could be no doubt that the less they interfered to affect or restrict trade the better. His hon. Friend had blamed the Board of Trade for having encouraged the passing of the Chain Cables Act; but the truth was that that Act was passed by that House with the sanction of some of its leading mercantile Members, in spite of the remonstrances of the Board of Trade. ["No!"] An hon. Member expressed his dissent from that statement—such was his impression—but, at all events, the Board of Trade were now convinced that Parliament had acted injudiciously in passing it, and the compulsory testing clauses were now to be repealed. He knew that some of the permanent authorities of the Board had always been opposed to it. He agreed with his hon. Friend that, although there were at present highly competent men at the heads of the various Departments of the Board, there would be the greatest difficulty in replacing them, and that Parliament should Occupy itself with the re-construction of that Board. There was a very strong opinion entertained by the commercial community that shipowners, when their ships were condemned as unseaworthy, if they thought that their ships were seaworthy and safe, should have a power of appeal upon the spot and at the moment. In his opinion, that was a very fair claim on the part of the shipowners, and he believed the Associated Chambers of Commerce at a meeting last month at the Westminster Palace Hotel unanimously passed a resolution embodying a recommendation to that effect. He trusted that these recommendations would receive the attention of the President of the Board of Trade.
§ MR. SAMUDA
said, that before the Act of 1873 was passed, there was no doubt that the knowledge acquired by Parliament was such, that it became imperatively necessary to strengthen the hands of the Board of Trade or some Department in order to provide the public a greater amount of security to life and property, owing to the disregard of the sea-worthy qualities of vessels. To the written law of the Board of Trade no objection was offered, but there were the unwritten laws used by Inspectors, who, in consequence of being threatened with personal responsibility if they made a mistake, sometimes imposed very unfair and vexatious restrictions upon shipowners. Shipowners received very various treatment at the hands of different surveyors; thus, in some cases, the surveyor of an emigrant ship would be satisfied with inspecting certain samples of the articles of food to be used in the course of the voyage, while another would require every package on board to be opened, and it was impossible to carry on business under these circumstances. It was very proper that the sending of an unseaworthy ship to sea should be regarded as a misdemeanour; and he should like to see any shipowner prevented from recouping himself in full by means of insurance in such a case if the vessel was lost. The great thing wanted was that the Board of Trade should separate inspection from direction, and confine their Inspectors to the former, making them abandon the latter altogether; because direction in the hands of the Inspectors was mischievous, interfering with private action, and over-riding men of great experience who had been familiar with the special business they were carrying out all their lives. He took the opportunity of pointing out to Lord Carlingford, before he brought in the Merchant Shipping Bill, that one effect of it would be to increase enormously the price of chain cables without any advantage whatever to the public, and this had really been the case, and it was now even proposed to go so far in the opposite direction as to remove all penalties from using untested chains—a course equally objectionable, and to his mind proving the absolute necessity of more consultation and cooperation between the Board of Trade and the mercantile community, before rashly entering upon legislation which 1687 often, as in this case, might have been well intended, but for want of practical knowledge was found to entail as many objections as it removed. The Act of 1873, however, contained some very useful provisions, which he should be sorry to see repealed. When the House came to examine the whole question, the conclusion at which it must arrive would be that some further information was required on the various points to which his hon. Friend had referred. The only question, however, before the House was the appointment of a Committee, and whether that should be done now, or whether it was more desirable to wait and see to what extent the Royal Commission on Unseaworthy Ships dealt with the subjects of complaint. He thought it would be desirable to wait for the Report of the Royal Commission. They had, however, the assurance that the Committee would be granted, and that being so, whether it came now or afterwards was unimportant.
§ MR. BENTINCK
said, it was impossible to exaggerate the importance of the question which had been brought before the House by the hon. Member opposite (Mr. T. E. Smith.) He did not rise for the purpose of attacking his right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, who had been too short a time in office to master all the subjects with which he would be called upon to deal. All, however, were agreed as to the great talents evinced by Mr. Gray. He most cordially agreed with the hon. Member who brought forward this Motion that it was impossible for the Board of Trade, in its present position, to fulfil its duties, He also agreed with him that it was very much to be lamented that the President of the Board of Trade was not a Cabinet Minister, for no one who was not could bring to bear on the Cabinet that weight of authority which would be required to induce them to take up the important subjects which demanded attention. His right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Stamford (Sir John Hay) had often brought before the House the question of the rule of the road at sea, but always without success; and the argument urged against him was that any attempt to disturb it would only lead to confusion and consequent loss of vessels and lives. But how did the case stand now? His 1688 right hon. Friend was aware of the fact that Her Majesty's Government had been memorialized by all the principal Powers in Europe to revise the rule of the road on the ground that it led to great loss of life and property. As the rule now stood, if he had not, in his own experience, deviated from it he should not then have the honour of addressing the House of Commons, but should have been at the bottom of the sea. Then we had endless absurdities in the present system of lights. The multiplication of authorities having jurisdiction in the matter of lights prevented our having that uniformity and continuity of system which was carried out on the French coast. Something was due to the unfortunate way in which the House of Commons tried to deal with maritime questions, the result of which was illustrated by the passing of a provision requiring ships to carry something which did not exist. With regard to the Board he did not want to curtail its powers, but largely to increase them.
supported the Motion of the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. T. E. Smith), and said that at null, Newcastle, Liverpool, and London there was general dissatisfaction with the constitution and action of the Board. It was felt that, to some extent, the commercial supremacy was at stake, because of the vexatious interference of the Board of Trade. Indeed, some ships had already been put under foreign flags. One point of objection was the action of the Board of Trade surveyors at the different ports. Often they were men not equal in ability or position to the representatives of the great shipping firms with whom they came in contact, and yet over whom they had at present arbitrary and uncontrolled powers. That was a matter which, it was felt, required immediate attention and alteration. It was not right that when ships were built according to the rules and requirements of the Board of Trade, and when these ships were ready for sea, a newly-appointed Inspector should come and find fault with what his predecessors had done and refuse to give the vessel a certificate. Another ground of complaint was the constitution of the Courts of Inquiry. That was a great grievance, and another argument in favour of the appointment of a Committee of Inquiry. In every maritime district there were 1689 different trades and various circumstances which required diversity of action, and he thought it desirable that the Local Marine Board should be entirely re-constructed, so that each district could have more control over its own affairs. The prevailing dissatisfaction among the shipping community would not exist if there were not some good ground for it, and he would appeal to the House to support the Motion of the hon. Member for Tynemouth for a Committee.
§ MR. RATHBONE
concurred in what had been said as to the existence of general dissatisfaction at the present state of things, but maintained that the blame rested mainly, not with the Board of Trade, but with the public and the House of Commons, who had devolved upon the Board of Trade functions which it was impossible for it to perform efficiently. From a statement of those functions it must be obvious how far we were deviating from those principles which had made the country's Mercantile Marine what it was. Recent legislation had diminished the responsibility of shipowners, and placed the responsibility on a Government Department which was unequal to the duties devolved upon it. The course which ought to have been pursued was exactly the reverse. They should have concentrated responsibility on the shipowners, leaving them free to carry on their trade, but punishing them whenever they did wrong. The want of a public prosecutor, or some one who would undertake his duties, had caused most of the recent heart-burnings and outcries, and the want was one easily remedied.
§ MR. GOURLEY
complained that shipowners were not only placed under exceptional laws, like the Merchant Shipping Act of 1873, but they were also responsible to the Common Law of the land and liable to the interference of well-meaning but mistaken philanthropists. They were also subject to illegal interference on the part of the Board of Trade, and in substantiation of that assertion he would refer to the case of the Western Ocean, which was recently detained, upon the ground that it was unseaworthy, but the owners of which had since obtained £600 as a compensation for that detention, and also to the case of the Mary Anne, the owners of which had brought an action against the 1690 Board of Trade for illegal detention. Besides, when an action was to be brought against the Board of Trade, if they declined to name a defendant the shipowner was put to the expense of filing a petition of right and proceeding against the Queen to recover damage for the illegal detention of his property. This state of things could not go on. Either the shipowner should be left to his responsibility under the Common Law, or the Board of Trade should take the entire responsibility of ships being sent to sea in a seaworthy condition. This could only be done by the Board of Trade laying clown specific rules for the building of ships. He had every confidence in the permanent officers of the Board of Trade, and trusted that shipowners would no longer be compelled to go on working in the dark, but that the Act of 1873 might be carried out in a more satisfactory manner.
§ MR. SHAW LEFEVRE
observed, that notwithstanding the statements of the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. T. E. Smith), all who had had experience of the Department would agree that the Board of Trade had amongst its staff men of almost unequalled ability, and that the business was conducted in a most business-like manner, and would compare favourably with any other Department of the public service. In Mr. Farrer, the Permanent Under Secretary, the Board of Trade had an officer of great experience and undoubted ability. He had been at the Board of Trade for many years, and had the principal share in drafting the great Merchant Shipping Act of 1853. Mr. Farrer had also been the mainspring of all the legislation for the regulation of the Mercantile Marine since that time, and his evidence before the Commission on Unseaworthy Ships and the Pilotage Commission showed the great range of his knowledge. Mr. Gray, the Secretary for the Marine Department of the Board of Trade, in addition to great experience, possessed a knowledge of all matters concerning the sea which might be described as unequalled; and with reference to the lower appointments, the Board of Trade had 12 assessors, two of whom had been admirals, five captains, and five merchant captains; 30 or 40 engineering surveyors, 16 wooden shipwrights, 16 merchant shipwrights, and 20 officers who were connected with the Emi- 1691 gration Department. The hon. Member who brought forward this Motion and others had apparently misconceived the scope and purport of the Act of 1873, which they had described as bringing the whole Mercantile Marine under the Board of Trade in the same sense that passenger ships were brought under their control before 1873. The Act of 1873, however, gave no general powers of survey to the Board of Trade, it only gave them power, if an information were laid either by their own officers or others, to hold an inquiry and to detain a vessel if it were unseaworthy or overladen. He was not surprised That certain shipowners should find themselves aggrieved at the action of the Board of Trade, but cases of real grievance were more rare than hon. Members might imagine. The Shipowners' Society had, it was said, collected numerous cases in which shipowners complained of having been harassed in their business; but the few cases in which mistakes had been made were not a fair specimen of the action of the Government. Under the Act of 1873 the Board of Trade had taken action in 264 cases. Of these 234 vessels were found unseaworthy; in 17 cases the survey was now pending; and in only 13 had the vessels been found seaworthy. In only six cases had the decision of the Board of Trade Courts been appealed against, and in every one the decision was affirmed. In only five cases had compensation been paid in respect of mistaken apprehension, and the total amount was only £700. When the action of the Board of Trade and its surveyors was looked at broadly he believed it would be found that it had been proper, reasonable, and in the interests of the public. He would remind the hon. Member and those who thought with him that the Board of Trade was always placed between two fires—the shipowners, who thought they were unduly interfered with, and the seamen and others, who demanded greater interference. The Board had been even more attacked for disregarding the interest of the seamen, and for allowing vessels to go to sea in an unseaworthy condition. Their action, however, had been most valuable in the interests of the seamen, and he could quote many cases in which the Board of Trade had stood up against the shipowner in defence of the sailor. The Act of 1873 had been 1692 passed in defence of the seamen, and too short a time had as yet elapsed to ask for its repeal. Upon the whole the principle of the Act was sound and good, and although he should be sorry to see it carried any further, as it might tend to greater dangers than at present existed, still he regarded the Act as wise and calculated to promote the interests of the country as well as of the seamen. The Unseaworthy Ships Commission were taking a deal of evidence as to the Act of 1873 and all the points alluded to by the hon. Member—the action of the Board, the want of an adequate staff of surveyors, &c., had been brought before the Royal Commission. It would, therefore, be premature to pass an opinion on these points, still more upon the much greater question whether the Board of Trade should institute a periodical survey of all vessels whatever. Until the Report of the Royal Commission was known, the House was not in a position to inquire into the constitution of the Board of Trade. He quite concurred in the regret expressed that the Board of Trade were not represented in the Cabinet, for their functions had become very important and were daily increasing. During the illness of Mr. Bright, when he (Mr. Shaw Lefevre) was practically in command of the Department, he found it very inconvenient that the office was not in any way connected with the Cabinet. He would conclude by saying that, in his opinion, the time had not yet arrived for considering this question in the way the hon. Member proposed, because it was probable that the Royal Commission which was now sitting would recommend a considerable enlargement of the duties of the Board. He trusted, therefore, that the hon. Member would be satisfied with the discussion which had taken place, and not press his Motion to a division.
§ SIR CHARLES ADDERLEY
said, he was glad the discussion had taken place, because it would have the effect of removing many misapprehensions which had prevailed as to the action of the Board of Trade. The hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. T. E. Smith) asked for a Select Committee to inquire whether any alterations could be made in the constitution and procedure of the Marine Department, owing to the increase of work which had recently been cast upon 1693 it. In the first place, the hon. Gentleman's proposition was illogical. If the work were badly done that would be a reason for a change in the constitution; but as the allegation was simply an increase of work, it was not logical to infer the necessity of re-constitution, provided the work of the Department was well done. But what the hon. Member, and indeed the speakers who followed him, objected to was the action of the Board of Trade under the recent Act of 1873. That Act had already excited a good deal of discussion. But the really fatal objection to the hon. Member's proposal was that the subject itself was within the province of the Royal Commission that was now sitting, and if there ever was a subject on which it was undesirable to have two independent and simultaneous inquiries it was this. If it was desirable to reconsider such recent action, the subject had better be referred to one body only, so as to avoid the possibility of conflicting conclusions and inconsistent Reports. It would, at all events, be bettor to wait until the Royal Commission had reported before fresh counsellors were taken in. It should be remembered that frequent change in the law led to confusion, which might be worse than even bad law. The first question they had to consider was, whether Parliament was already prepared to re-open the Act of last year, and, secondly, had the Board of Trade discharged faithfully and discreetly the duties imposed upon them by that Act? With regard to the first question, everybody would allow that Parliament did act under strong impulse when it passed the Act which ordered the Board of Trade to stop ships from going to sea on information being received of their unseaworthiness. Hon. Members would recollect very well that on the strength of the representations made by the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Plimsoll)—whom he was sorry not to see in his place—they were ready almost to pass any measure which he might recommend; but they would also recollect that the hon. Member did propose a measure of a most sweeping nature, which proposed to subject every ship in the Mercantile Marino to an inspection by a Government Surveyor. It was the President of the Board of Trade who stood between Parliament and the hon. Member for Derby, and induced 1694 it to pass a more moderate measure with a view to save the lives of Her Majesty's subjects by giving the Board of Trade the power to inquire, upon trustworthy information being conveyed to them, of ships about to sail unfit to go to sea. The shipowners should be grateful to the President of the Board of Trade for having given the House this alternative to passing the Bill of the hon. Member for Derby. The House probably, therefore, did not repent of its Act. In regard to the second point, he must honestly and sincerely say, from his three months' experience in the office he now held as President of that Board, that it had discreetly and faithfully discharged a most difficult duty. The Act of 1873 made the interference of the Board of Trade discretionary, and he believed it had exercised a wise discretion, and had not carelessly proceeded on every case brought before it. It had been said that the President of the Board of Trade ought to be what was commonly called an expert in the multifarious business brought before him. He would have to be a Jack-of-all-trades, and very likely a master of none. Such a notion sprung from a wrong view of the nature of the office. The Board of Trade was not intended to take a share or interfere in the various mercantile enterprises of the country. What it had to do was to guard the interest of the public in relation to the great mercantile enterprises. If the Board of Trade were to share in the private enterprise of the country it would cause great mischief, and be acting in direct antagonism with the spirit and genius of the nation. He might also say that he did not agree in the suggestion that the President ought to have a council of advice. The plan was tried some 20 years since, and proved to be a failure; for while it delayed and obstructed the performance of public work, it only afforded a cover for inefficiency and irresponsibility. The great mass of duties imposed on the Board of Trade were by general consent well discharged. The Department was notoriously well manned. Every speaker had allowed that in the Permanent Secretary (Mr. Farrer), the public service had a servant most capable and most devoted. The Marino Department was differently constituted from what the hon. Member for Tynemouth seemed to suppose. It had been re-organized within the last 1695 few years, and consisted of the Marine Department, the Harbour Department, and the Finance Department, of which the heads were Mr. Thomas Gray, Mr. Cecil Trevor, and Mr. R. G. C. Hamilton, who, as everybody knew, were most efficient public servants. He believed that with regard to technical qualifications, as well as vigour and devotion to his work, no man was Mr. Gray's superior. In the course of this debate it had been said there was a want of professional knowledge in the Departments. The fact was Mr. Gray had the opportunity of consulting Captain Digby Murray, while Mr. Trevor was assisted by Admiral Bedford; and besides those naval officers there was a staff of clerks, who were immediately and constantly connected with them. There were marine engineers, shipwrights, emigration officers, nautical assessors, and nautical examiners. Besides, the heads of the Departments had the advantage of consulting with officers of the Trinity House and the Admiralty, and they were in constant communication both with Lloyd's and the Salvage Association. The hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. T. E. Smith) was wholly mistaken in what he had said about those officers having been reduced in number. In point of fact, any alterations in their number had been in the way of multiplication instead of reduction. As to the surveyors, who had been so much abused to-night, they were for the most part shipwrights or marine engineers. It might be said that, in con-sequence of the smallness of the salaries, the Board could not secure the services of men of higher position; but they were in every case men of respectability, and qualified by experience and character. Passing from the personnel of the Board to its machinery and work, they were owing almost entirely to the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854. It consisted, in the first place, of the registry of ships, for which there was a general registration office. There were also local Marine Boards at the ports, where the examinations of masters and mates were conducted, and the engaging, discharge, and protection of crews. The Emigration Department, which had been undertaken by the Board of Trade in the last two years, was a most important branch of its work, and the examinations in that 1696 Department were of a most minute description. The Lighthouse and Pilotage Department was in connection with the Trinity House. The Finance Department superintended Mercantile Marine Fund, money orders, savings bank, salvage, and distressed seamen. He would now make a few remarks on the work imposed upon the Board of Trade in connection with the stoppage of unseaworthy ships under the Act of 1873. The action of the Board had been described as "vexatious." The Board of Trade, on receiving any information, before stopping a ship, required the surveyor to fill up a Return containing most minute particulars of the condition, size, destination, and cargo of the vessel; and if they thought that there were reasonable grounds for believing the vessel to be unseaworthy, they instantly instituted a survey. The practical result was that 264 ships had been stopped, and out of these 234 had been adjudged to be unseaworthy. Considering the haste with which this difficult and delicate duty had been imposed on the Board of Trade, he was astonished that there should have been so few mistakes. Out of the 30 unadjudged vessels, 13 were still tinder inquiry, and only in five cases had compensation been granted on the ground that the charge had not been sustained. Six appeals had been made, and all withdrawn. The number of surveyors had been increased from 84 to 148, and every care had been taken to test their qualifications. No doubt it must often be very annoying to great shipowners to have any inquiries made respecting their vessels, but he must show the House how complaints of undue interference were got up. In a circular emanating from the North of England Steam Shipowners' Association the following passages occurred:—Our president, T. E. Smith, Esq., M.P., has given notice that on the 21st of April, he will Call the attention of the House of Commons to the increasing powers and responsibilities and the unsatisfactory constitution of the Marine Department of the Board of Trade, and move a Resolution. It is desirable that Mr. Smith should he supplied with as many facts bearing upon the subject as possible; and if you have Suffered from vexatious interference on the part of the Board of Trade officials I shall feel obliged by your sending me full details of the same, including names, places, dates, &c., in order that I may arrange and forward them to Mr. Smith at least a week previous to the day when the hon. Member proposes to address the House on this question.1697 This reminded him of a quack doctor in a market-place shouting out, "Is nobody ill?" The Chamber of Commerce of South Shields sent to the Board of Trade a memorial, in which they stated—That in many instances the surveyors appointed to carry this provision into execution are ignoring the spirit of the Act, and so interpreting and working it as to produce grievous loss, and it may be ruin, on many honest, thrifty, and experienced shipowners, whose vessels are well found and quite efficient, having regard to the nature of the service for which they are intended. Your memorialists, judging from the cases submitted to them of incapacity and undue interference on the part of the Board of Trade Surveyors, are convinced that persons have been appointed who do not possess the requisite practical knowledge of shipping matters or the peculiar qualifications that are so essential for the proper and satisfactory performance of the highly important duties pertaining to the office of surveyor.To this the Board of Trade replied—These paragraphs contain a distinct charge against the Board of Trade officials, and the Board feel it their duty to call upon the memorialists to give a full, clear, and distinct statement of the cases to which they refer. When this is done the Board of Trade will, if it appears to be necessary, institute a strict and searching examination into those cases.And the Chamber rejoined—It was deemed undesirable, after weighing the tenour of your reply, to enter specifically into past cases of undue interference, inasmuch as many of the instances submitted to us have, we understand, been brought directly under your notice by the parties most intimately concerned.Similar correspondence had taken place with other shipowning bodies with similar results. Nor had the shipowners made out any case of hardship before the Commission. The Board of Trade had taken all possible means of getting to the bottom of complaints, and they vanished when approached. The hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. T. E. Smith) complained of the regulations made by the Board for the survey of passenger steamers; but unless the Department laid down some regulations everything must be left to the discretion of the surveyors. The House would bear in mind that the Act of 1854 required a solemn declaration on the part of the surveyor that the passenger ship was in hull, machinery, and equipment sufficient for the service. An honest surveyor would, before making such a declaration, 1698 desire to be guided by efficient rules and regulations rather than act on his own discretion. And though in respect of the rules which had been attacked that evening the able Assistant Secretary of the Marine Department had to bear the brunt, still they were prepared by him in concert with experts of the highest authority; as, for instance, when there had been a question about the efficiency of chain cable testing machines, the action followed on the advice of Sir William Armstrong, and the rule for the strength of boilers was adopted on the advice of Sir William Fairbairn. He would not pretend to say that the survey was the best that could be devised. For his own part, he confessed he thought that the survey of those ships in the interest of ignorant passengers was, to a certain extent, antagonistic to the general principle that the Government should not interfere with private enterprise. It was an exceptional action imposed by Parliament, in the public interest, on the Board, and the least satisfactory part of the duty it had to perform. While, however, Parliament imposed the duty, the Board should endeavour to place the best possible rules before their surveyors for their guidance, and in no case theoretical rules, but only such as were of recognized necessity for safety. If by better payment of the surveyors or an alteration in the present system the survey could be improved, no one would rejoice more than himself. The two subjects which had been so fully discussed were now before a competent tribunal of inquiry—namely, the Royal Commission on Unseaworthy Ships. That Commission had largely entered into those particular subjects, and were about to make their Report. He thought they should have that Report in their hands before proceeding to further inquiry, and he hoped, therefore, the hon. Member for Tynemouth would, under the circumstances, be content with the very useful debate which had taken place, and not press his Motion to a division.
§ MR. NORWOOD
said, he thought that if the Inquiry for which his hon. Friend (Mr. T. E. Smith) asked took place either this year or next, it should not be confined to the Marine Department of the Board of Trade, but extend to its entire constitution. He (Mr. Norwood) trusted that when the Report 1699 of the Royal Commission was laid before the House a more satisfactory state of the law would ensue. He was strongly of opinion that, instead of a Trade Department, a Minister of Trade and Commerce should be appointed, who would hold the rank of a Cabinet Minister. If that step were not adopted, at least the President of the Board of Trade should hold a position equal to that of the other Heads of Departments. At the same time, he would bear his testimony to the general ability and care bestowed by the officers of the Board of Trade, and especially of the Marine Department, upon duties of great delicacy.
§ MR. WHALLEY
was also of opinion that the scope of the Inquiry, whenever it took place, should be extended to the administration of the various branches of duty committed to the Board of Trade. The hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Plimsoll) was absent in consequence of indisposition; but, if he had been present, he would have borne testimony to the remarkable efficiency with which Mr. Gray discharged his duties at the Board of Trade.
§ MR. T. E. SMITH
agreed that it might be premature to enter into the proposed Inquiry while a Royal Commission was sitting. He should, therefore, not put the House to the trouble of dividing.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.