HC Deb 08 February 1875 vol 222 cc124-38

Acts read; considered in Committee.


, in rising to move— That the Chairman he directed to move the House, that leave he given to bring in a Bill to amend the Merchant Shipping Acts, said: The necessity for the amendment of the Merchant Shipping Acts arises not so much from want of powers in the Executive Government, for the powers already given are not yet half developed, although they are being developed as rapidly as I think they safely can be. What is rather wanted is a supplement to former Acts, enabling the Executive to exorcise existing powers more effectively. The difficulty in dealing with the subject is to give the Executive adequate powers for securing public safety without interfering with the freedom of private enterprize. I am sure the Committee will all agree that freedom is essential to mercantile enterprize, and that mercantile enterprize is of the essence of our national prosperity. Since the Protective system ceased it is more than ever imperative that the Legislature should leave unfettered the self-dependence and elasticity of our Mercantile Marine. On the other hand, we must all allow that the eager competition of mercantile enterprize tends to becoming reckless of human life, and on that account the Legislature have found it necessary to interfere for the public safety. They have done so. Since the repeal of the Navigation Laws the principal Act has been the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854. From that time down to the year 1873 frequent amending Acts have been passed. In that year the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Plimsoll) called more active attention to the subject, and stimulated legislation—as I freely admit, most creditably to himself and most usefully to the country. At the same time it must be borne in mind that he only stimulated legislation which was then in progress, and that the Act passed after he brought the subject so much forward was simply a confirmation and extension of the Act which had preceded it by two years. In 1873 Her Majesty issued a Commission to the Duke of Somerset and others to inquire into the subject, and the Royal Commissioners collected a mass of the most authoritative evidence, and made a most able Report. I suppose everyone in the House who is at all interested in the matter is well acquainted with that Report. Of the suggestions made by the Royal Commission, some of the most important are not ripe for immediate legislation. The subject of marine insurance, for instance, though I believe it to be at the root of the whole matter, could not be dealt with hastily or immediately by legislation until some concert had been taken with other nations. Such correspondence we are now engaged in. When I say that marine insurance is at the root of the whole matter, I mean that those who degrade the Merchant Service by using unseaworthy ships are rendered more reckless by the present state of the law on marine insurance. Another subject not yet ripe for legislation is pilotage, and a third relates to tonnage dues, which—and I myself had painful experience of this last year—cannot be dealt with here as yet on sound principles with any chance of securing international agreement. Some of the suggestions made by the Royal Commissioners, not requiring legislation, have been at once carried out, and the present Bill proposes to carry out the remainder. For example, we have strengthened the Marine Department of the Board of Trade by adding a second nautical adviser. We have improved the organization of the surveying staff; and here I may say that it was impossible to do so more quickly, for the men were not to be found. We have also added to the Department a law adviser, who will conduct prosecutions for the Board of Trade. The other suggestions of the Royal Commission require legislation, and with these points the Bill deals. They may be ranged under four heads, and in this respect the Bill follows the divisions of the principal Act of 1854 in order to avoid as much as possible rendering more complicated legislation which is too complicated already. The Bill deals with the discipline on board merchant ships; the safety of ships and those on board; improved inquiries into casualties at sea; and the training of boys for service at sea. I may, perhaps, mention that I have had prepared by the Board of Trade a digest of all the existing Acts on the subject, on the plan of the Digest of Sanitary Acts, which was prepared in 1873. I had to-day the pleasure of laying on the Table this digest of the Merchant Shipping Acts, and, as there is a complete index, I hope it may almost supply the place of an actual codification of the law. I will now state briefly to the Committee the mode in which the Bill proposes to deal with the four subjects of discipline, the safety of vessels, inquiries into casualties, and training boys for the service. With regard to discipline, the Royal Commission say, in their Report, that the evidence affords ample proof that masters of vessels have not at this moment sufficient control over their men, and that the men can be guilty with impunity of the grossest dereliction of duty. Following their suggestion, the Bill will propose, in the first place, to render illegal the system of advance notes. The object of that alteration is to save the sailor from the crimps, who are at the bottom of the want of discipline in the Merchant Service; and the Bill provides, at the same time, means by which sailors may get any necessary outfit from the shipowners. Then we recast what I may call the criminal code of the Marine Service, The Bill takes out of the hands of the Board of Trade and the local Marine Boards, charges against certificated officers—that is, masters, mates, and engineers—and places all such proceedings in the hands of stipendiary magistrates; or, failing them, in the hands of the local Admiralty Courts. At the same time, it is proposed that all Assessors should be appointed, not, as hitherto, by the Board of Trade, which ought to be the prosecutor, and should not, therefore, share in the office of Judge, but by the High Court of Admiralty. It is also proposed that if, before the now tribunal, a certificated officer should be convicted of incompetency, his certificate should in no case be suspended, but should be cancelled, either wholly, or with a lower certificate substituted. As to the offences of seamen, the Bill proposes to repeal all the existing enactments on this subject, and to make a better classification, graduation, and arrangement of many scattered enactments constituting what may be called the criminal code on board ship. The only addition to the list of offences—and it is strange that at such a late hour it should be necessary to make such an addition—will be neglect to keep a look-out or sleeping on the watch. A now principle will be introduced, by which double punishment will be inflicted in cases of drunkenness and other offences committed under circumstances which endanger the ship, or the lives of those on board. The Bill also proposes a somewhat more easy and summary process in the case of all offences short of mutiny. On this point I may say that a measure is in contemplation, enabling Her Majesty to enter into Consular Conventions with other Powers, which will enable Her Majesty to make mutual arrangements with those Powers for bringing the law to bear in foreign ports. So much as to discipline. Now as to the safety of ships and seamen. The principal Act of 1854 contains one whole part—Part IV.—relating to the safety of the ship and prevention of accidents. The Act of 1862 improved those provisions. The Act of 1871 imposed upon the Board of Trade the delicate and difficult duty of stopping unseaworthy ships, and also made the sending such ships to sea a misdemeanour. The Act of 1873 increased the duties of the Board in the way of stopping ships from going to sea on the score of unseaworthiness or overloading. As to Government survey, the Bill does not depart from the principle, now acted upon, of obtaining good and trustworthy information, and dealing only with cases which are reported as suspicious. The Committee, probably, know what is done now in the way of legislative survey. Besides the survey of all ships on the first Registry, the Board of Trade surveys passenger ships annually, stops all ships suspected of being unseaworthy, enforces repairs or alters loading, and takes legal proceedings in certain cases. I agree with the Royal Commissioners that a general periodical Government survey of all ships would, even if possible, be most mischievous and vexatious, and not only that, but I will go further and say that it would be fatal to its object; because if the Government were to certify continually all ships in the Merchant Service, it would be impossible, in the case of any casualty, that anyone but the Government should be made responsible. On the other hand, on the principle which has boon adopted by Parliament, and which we continue to act upon, proceedings against ships reported to be unsoaworthy have led almost invariably to conviction and punishment. Every such case acts also as a general warning to owners of unsoaworthy ships, and this course of action tends to the total eradication of unsoaworthy ships from the service. We altogether decline to certify the whole Mercantile Navy; a course which would not only be vexatious in itself, impede improvement, and shackle our commerce in foreign competition, but which would relieve shipowners of the liabilities which are the chief security of public safety. The Bill makes other provisions for safety by dealing with overloading, deck-loads, supply of boats, adjustment of compasses, and by increasing the liability of ship-owners for damages to persons or property on board arising from the unseaworthiness of ships. As to overloading, we see no possibility of making a compulsory load-line. On the contrary, we think the attempt would be most mischievous and delusive; but we do adopt the suggestion of the Commissioners that there should be an added scale of feet downwards amidships to test the buoyancy of ships, as a caution against overloading, as affording instructions to the surveyors, and as a record and evidence in case of casualty. As to deck-loads, we do not entirely adopt the recommendation of the Commissioners, but we do to this extent—that every ship carrying a deck-load should report to the Customs the weight, hulk, and character of any such cargo, and should also have an entry to that effect in the log-book. The various regulations as to the provision of boats in the Acts of 1854 and 1862, and the Passenger Acts, are all reduced in the Bill to a uniform principle, with elastic rules to meet special eases; and the adjustment of compasses we propose to entrust only to persons who have been examined and certified as competent for such a duty. As regards the liability of ship-owners, we propose to make it unlimited with respect to any damage to persons or property on board, caused by their having knowingly, and without excuse, sent unseaworthy ships to sea. Lord Campbell's Act is also extended to seamen. The Bill proposes to make a charge on the Mercantile Marine for the training of boys for the Merchant Service. Lastly, it makes a material improvement in the system of investigating casualties, separating the first inquiry into the circumstances and causes of any casualty from any criminal proceedings subsequently taken against all who appear to have been culpable. The preliminary inquiry by the Receiver of Wrecks will remain the same as it is, except in so far as regards its extension to foreign ships and boats, the omission of the condition of material damages having been incurred, and a slight improvement in the nature of the evidence. The formal inquiry which may follow the preliminary one will be simply an inquest, and taken altogether out of the hands of ordinary justices and placed in the hands of stipendiary magistrates with Assessors appointed by the Admiralty, so that the Board of Trade will stand altogether clear of any judicial action, ready to take criminal proceedings in the ordinary Courts of Law as prosecutor against guilty parties. These are the main enactments proposed by this Bill, which is a measure entirely independent of party. Drawn up with careful attention to the Report and collection of evidence of the Royal Commission on the subject, I hope it will, with perhaps some modifications, be accepted by the House. The question, though not a party one in any way, is one of great national interest; and I believe, after having carefully considered the matter with those who are best able to give advice, that the Bill will be found calculated to ameliorate the condition and character of our merchant seamen, place the shipowner in a sounder and more satisfactory position before the law, and at the same time enable the Department, on which a delicate and difficult task is imposed, to develop more vigorously the powers with which it has been entrusted.


said, that when first he heard the Government intended to bring in a Merchant Shipping Bill his hopes were highly raised, and he felt like a shipwrecked sailor who saw a sail in the horizon bearing down towards him; but now he had ascertained what kind of a measure it was, he felt like that shipwrecked sailor would feel when, the ship having come quite close to him, it suddenly altered its course and left him to his fate, with the only consolation that his case would be inquired into when the vessel reached home. Since he had listened to the speech of the right hon. Gentleman, he must confess his hopes and the expectations in which he had indulged had undergone a similar diminution. The President of the Board of Trade had certainly respected the rights of property, and the right hon. Gentleman had told them he did not wish to interfere with the freedom of commerce. The Committee had also had the old bugbear again dangled before them. They were told that shipowners would be held responsible for wrong-doing. He maintained that responsibility in this case was an utter delusion, because as a rule the registered owners were not the actual owners of the ships, and thus it would be most difficult to punish the proper parties. Before proceedings could be taken against a ship-owner, it would be necessary to prove that he had previous knowledge of the ship's unseaworthiness, and it would be found that the Bill in this respect was an utter delusion. The existing law on this point was practically inoperative. The President of the Board of Trade had told the Committee that shipowners could be made responsible; but he would ask the right hon. Gentleman whether it was not a fact that only one firm had been punished? and he would also ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he thought that even they would have been done anything to if they had been Members of Parliament? The Board of Trade would rely on the detection of vessels on certain information afforded to them. What kind of information did they require? The right hon. Gentleman had also said he would decline to certify the whole of the Mercantile Navy of the country. He (Mr. Plimsoll) never proposed anything of the kind. What he said had reference to unclassed ships, and to the necessity for their examination. He wished to direct the attention of the Committee to a case which had recently happened. On the 19th of December last he received information from a most reliable source, which he could thoroughly trust, that the owners of the La Plata were sending out the Sydney Hall, with the remainder of the cable which the former ship had to lay, in a very unseaworthy condition. The fullest particulars were given to him as to the repairs which were necessary, and he was told that 46 seamen would be taken on board the next morning. The information was so specific that he at once sent a messenger up to Whitehall begging the Board of Trade to stop the ship, offering at the same time the name of his informant, but said that he would rather have the responsibility placed upon his own name. At 10 o'clock at night a special messenger came to say that the Receiver of Customs was to detain the vessel, but with the distinct assumption that if the information proved erroneous, he should indemnify the Board of Trade and the owner of the ship for all costs and charges. He (Mr. Plimsoll) did not shrink from that responsibility, and the vessel was stopped; and he subsequently learned that the vessel had been condemned by the Board of Trade, and a large quantity of repairs were ordered to be done upon her. The owner protested against this, and offered £100 for the name of the person who had given the information; and he also called in an independent surveyor, but that gentleman certified for more extensive repairs than had been ordered by the Board of Trade. Now, if the Board expected any one to give them information, which could only be given at the peril of the person giving it, he asked the Committee how much information that Board was likely to get? He be- lieved that the Board had acted only on information so forwarded to them; but, practically, the only persons who knew what was the condition of the ship were the people on board, and people who had business relations with the owner; and neither of these classes of people could give information without running the risk of sacrificing their means of livelihood. It was in vain to suppose that, under such circumstances, information would be forwarded to the Board. The right hon. Gentleman, in introducing the Bill, said he adopted the recommendation of the Royal Commission to the effect that a scale in feet should be marked upon every merchant vessel amidships, to indicate the number of feet she was out of the water. This was a step in the right direction; but he would observe that they already had from every port a statement of the amount of free-board, and to paint such matter upon the side of the vessel would not be much more useful. Moreover, unless the unit adopted was much smaller than a foot, the use of the scale would be of little use in the case of many ships sailing from English ports. He had a record of one vessel which was loaded with iron, and which left in mid-winter with less than 11 inches of free-board. A steamer—the Volga—left Cardiff in 1873, having 15 feet depth of hold, and the return stated that she had only one inch of free-board. By his direction a letter was written to the Board of Trade to know if there was any error in the return, and the Board replied that they saw no reason to doubt it. There were two other vessels, each having 13 feet depth of hold and loaded with iron, and they had respectively 4½ and 7½ inches of free-board. The Committee had been told that in future there would be more strict inquiries in the case of ships which were lost; but what he wanted to see was the adoption of a system under which the loss of ships would be prevented, at any rate to a very considerable extent, by a careful examination of them before they were allowed to proceed to sea. One-half of the losses would be prevented by the expenditure upon preliminary examinations of the money which was now found necessary to pay the expense of Board of Trade inquiries into the circumstances attending the loss of vessels and the enormous waste of human lives. On the whole, the measure introduced by the President of the Board of Trade was weak and ineffectual, and seemed to fall lamentably short of meeting the requirements of the case, for the reason mainly that it contained no provision for the surveying of ships and none to prevent overloading.


, as a Member of the Royal Commission on Unseaworthy Ships, said, the Commission approached the consideration of the important questions referred to them with the most perfect impartiality, and the most sincere desire to arrive at a sound and just judgment upon the matters referred to them for investigation. With respect to the question of load-line, it was right to mention that in no other maritime country had it been thought judicious by the Government to insist upon the principle of a load-line in the Merchant Navy, the different circumstances necessary to be considered in fixing a maximum load-line being so complicated, as to make it practically impossible to insist on any uniform rule. At the same time, the Commission felt that it was essential not to absolve shipowners from all responsibility in this matter. In common with all those who took an interest in the subject, he wished to acknowledge in the fullest manner the immense services which had been rendered by the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Plimsoll) in directing public attention to this question. He thought, however, that the hon. Gentleman was mistaken in respect to the extent to which loss of vessels at sea was to be attributed to over-loading. The right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade had stated very truly that the condition of the law in reference to marine insurance lay at the very root of this most important subject. In the present state of the law, there were many cases in which the insured could recover more than the value of his ship if it happened to be lost, and it was most desirable that the law should, if possible, be amended, and marine insurance limited to indemnity for losses actually sustained. If the present state of things could be revised, it would be a most desirable consummation, and he trusted the Government would not lose sight of the point. If no other means could be adopted, a Commission should be appointed to inquire into and report upon the question. He was glad to find that the Government had strengthened the Board of Trade in its Marine Department; but a still further development in this direction would be necessary, if the country was to rely upon the action of the Department to enforce the laws which Parliament had passed.


said, he was disappointed with the Bill as being too severe, and rather than accept the Government Bill, as indicated by the President of the Board of Trade, he would give a preference to the Bill introduced to the House some time back by the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Plimsoll). The Government measure left it to the shipowners and shipmasters to determine the seaworthiness or otherwise of the ships; whereas, in the Bill of the hon. Member for Derby, rules were laid down for guidance in that respect. It was an attempt to place the shipowners in the position of unlimited liability companies, for the loss of passengers going to sea in their ships, so that the result of a single accident might be to reduce a millionaire to poverty. There were already on the Statute Book, Bills relating to merchant shipping, which contained not less than a thousand clauses, and to these it was proposed to add another lengthy measure—a course the only effect of which would be to make "confusion worse confounded." The principle of prevention would be much better than seeking for a remedy after a disaster had occurred. In his opinion, the first thing which the Government ought to have done was to have introduced a Bill with the object of codifying the existing laws on the subject of merchant shipping. Owing to the enormous number of statutes with reference to the shipping interest, it was quite impossible for masters of ships and shipowners to understand what course they should take. The right hon. Gentleman proposed to repeal the Amendments to Lord Campbell's Act, but what did that mean? It simply meant that shipowners, instead of registering their ships in England, would register them in other countries, where they were safe from the responsibility this Bill sought to impose on them—namely, unlimited liability for loss of life and property. He admitted there were some things in the Government measure which he thought would be a considerable advantage, and one of those was the prevention of over deck-loading. He was also very glad that it was proposed to abolish advance notes, and he suggested that the shipowners and shipmasters should be permitted to pay the wages of the seamen on board ship directly they arrived in port, instead of at the shipping offices. In that way, they would be able to keep the men out of the hands of the crimps. His own opinion was, that the only way out of many of the difficulties that had arisen was by appointing a competent staff of surveyors, to have a proper survey, especially if they were to insist upon a recognized load-line. He did not think there need be any insuperable difficulty in carrying out such an idea. It was dealt with at New York and Montreal. For his own part, he would rather have a regular survey and a load-line applicable to the build of the vessel, fixed when first loaded in some degree such as was suggested by the hon. Member for Derby, than be subjected to the uncertainties and inconveniences of the existing law.


thought it would be better to discuss the merits of the Bill on the second reading, when they had the details before them; for the hon. Member for Derby had told the House that the Bill was utterly weak and ineffectual, while the junior Member for Hull had said it was so stringent that he preferred the recommendations of the hon. Member for Derby. He (Mr. Rathbone) could not agree with the junior Member for Hull that it was desirable to codify before they amended a branch of the law—quite the contrary, amendment ought to come first and codification afterwards. He thanked the right hon. Gentleman for the promise he had given that the law should be digested.


said, that on a future occasion he would be quite prepared to discuss all the details of the Bill; but, on the present occasion, he should abstain from doing so. He was glad that some legislation was to be attempted on the subject. It was not, and ought not to be regarded as a party question, and the sole object of the House ought to be to abate human misery and preserve life. The right hon. Gentleman proposed to give aid on a liberal scale to training ships for the Mercantile Ma- rine, the money to be provided out of the Mercantile Marine Fund; but as that fund was contributed by the shipowners, the proposal would, in fact, be a tax upon them. Besides, foreign shipowners contributed to the fund in question, and it was worthy of consideration how far they ought to contribute towards the training of boys for the British Mercantile Marine. The right hon. Gentleman would, he trust, lay upon the Table full details with regard to these points at a future stage of the Bill. In dealing with insurance, the right hon. Gentleman said, the assent of foreign Governments to the main portions of the proposed clause must be obtained; but it appeared to him that in the Report of the Royal Commission several recommendations were made which did not so much affect the general law of insurance, as the special law of this country, and which might have been judiciously included in the Bill. He had no doubt, however, that the right hon. Gentleman would be able to show the Committee that he had taken steps to procure the assent of foreign Governments to some greater changes in the general law.


, as the representative of a large shipping community, wished to express his opinion that the proposals of the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Plimsoll) were more likely to tend to the preservation of life at sea than the programme sketched out by the President of the Board of Trade. Prevention was bettor than cure, and if a survey was to be of any real practical use, it ought to be made before the vessel was sent to sea, and not after the mischief was done. The general feeling in Hull was that it was comparatively useless to make surveys, and to institute inquiries, after a ship had been lost and the lives of the seamen sacrificed. Again, many practical men, in common with himself, were of opinion that there was not the slightest difficulty in fixing a load-line, and shipowners would be much better pleased if such a course were adopted. In all our ports, associations of shipowners, of ship-masters, and of sailors and firemen had been formed, and it appeared to him that such associations, acting to some extent in antagonism to each other, were doing more to damage our mercantile supremacy at sea than was commonly imagined, The Government, while shrinking from the responsibility of fixing a load-line, actually held Courts of Inquiry and punished a captain who was supposed to have exceeded the limit of safety. How could anyone expect captains of vessels themselves to do what Her Majesty's Government, backed up with the assistance of a large staff of surveyors, declined to undertake? In the course of the last few weeks, the captain of a steamer belonging to Hull had the misfortune to lose his vessel; but, although he saved the lives of all on board, and stuck by her to the last, his certificate had been suspended for 12 months. Great indignation prevailed at null in reference to this case, and an appeal had been made to the Board of Trade, but as yet no action had been taken by that Department in the matter.


said, he was glad the Government had taken this important question out of the hands of private Members, but he regretted the Bill did not go further. For example, it ought to have provided for the compulsory survey of all unclassed ships; and he trusted that when the Bill was in Committee, clauses would be inserted providing for that object.


hoped ample opportunity would be given for the discussion of the Bill, for he could hardly believe an Administration so strong as that which now occupied the Treasury Bench would be content to introduce a measure which simply did as little as possible in satisfaction of a great public demand. In his opinion, our merchant shipping could not be properly dealt with by the Board of Trade until that body was itself dealt with. The present Bill did not provide those guarantees for safety which many hon. Members thought necessary; but, at the same time, such parts of the measure as were good would be welcomed. His present impression was that the Bill did not deal with the whole question on a sufficiently broad basis, and he hoped the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Plimsoll) would insist upon the adoption of many of his requirements.

Motion agreed to.

Resolved, That the Chairman be directed to move the House, that leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Merchant Shipping Acts.

House resumed.

Resolution reported:—Bill ordered to be brought in by Sir CHARLES ADDER-LEY, Mr. CAVENDISH BENTINCK, and Mr. WILLIAM HENRY SMITH.

Bill presented, and read the first time. [Bill 4.]