HC Deb 22 July 1875 vol 225 cc1857-67

Order for Committee read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Order be discharged."—(Mr. Disraeli.)


Mr. Speaker, I have to ask the indulgence of the House whilst I make some reference to the extraordinary and very distressing exhibition we witnessed this afternoon. As to the statements made and epithets used regarding myself by the hon. junior Member for Derby (Mr. Plimsoll), I forgive him. Anyone who witnessed his conduct will, I think, agree with me in saying that he was not responsible for his actions or sayings. It is, unfortunately, too true that during the years 1873, 1874, and 1875, I lost five ships—four of them coal laden—and one on her homeward voyage from Calcutta. All of them were iron ships, all classed A 1, and I think I may safely say as fine ships and as well found in every respect as ever went to sea. These particulars I think it necessary I should give to hon. Members. To myself the loss, pecuniarily speaking, was very heavy, as it is well known that I never insure my ships to more than half or two-thirds their market value; but, Sir, this did not give me a moment's thought. I did at the time, and still do, deplore the loss of my men, and the only consolation is knowing that so far as human foresight could go, the ships were as good and safe as man could make them. I thought it was my duty to make this statement to the House. As for myself, I think I may safely leave my character as a merchant and shipowner to the general public outside. I and my ships have been well known for a quarter of a century, and I am proud to think that no shipowner stands better with his underwriters than I do. The statement made by the hon. junior Member for Derby will, to those by whom I am known, be looked upon, I feel assured, as I look upon it—namely, with pity. I thank the House for allowing me to bring the matter before them, and can only hope hon. Members will not think I have occupied their time and attention improperly.


observed, that shipowners were well pleased to learn from Her Majesty's gracious Speech at the commencement of the Session that the subject dealt with by the Bill was to be taken in hand by Her Majesty's Government. They were not, however, satisfied with all the provisions of the measure which had been introduced in pursuance of the undertaking so given. But this Bill, which had been put down for second reading on the 22nd of February, went through various changes during the Session. When read a second time it could hardly be described as the Bill introduced by the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade. It was read a second time on the understanding that it would be committed pro formâ, and that a full opportunity for discussing it would be given. Once more the Bill was changed, and it became of a totally different character from what it was on the second reading. The consequence was, that it was impossible for the measure to be brought into a practical shape without a considerable amount of discussion. But the opportunity of discussion was not given. He and those who were interested in the subject were prepared to sit in the House for any length of time provided Her Majesty's Government would give a full and fair opportunity of discussing the Bill. At length, seeing that we had arrived at this late period of the Session, he felt it his duty to put on the Paper a Motion for the discharge of the Order, not from any desire to obstruct the progress of the Bill, but with a view to elicit the intentions of Her Majesty's Government as to the course of legislation to be pursued. He thought that all who took an interest in our seamen and in the shipping trade felt strongly that they had a right to complain of the conduct of the Government in this matter. No less than five months had been permitted to elapse during which this Bill occupied a prominent place on the list of Orders, and nothing was done. Some time ago it was said that it was impossible to drive five omnibuses abreast through Temple Bar. But Her Majesty's Government had attempted to drive six cabs through Temple Bar, and thus had obstructed the progress of the only omnibus in which the public took an interest. He had no wish to undervalue any of the other measures brought forward by the Government; but he believed he could say with truth that no Bill had been so urgently required as one with regard to Merchant Shipping. The course which the Government had pursued with regard to it would not redound either to the credit of their good management of the business of that House or to their popularity in the country at large. He accounted for the failure of this measure upon two grounds—first, the want of a proper understanding as to the principles of the Bill, and the objects to be arrived at. It was characterized by a want of practical knowledge, and should at an early stage have been referred to a Select Committee. In this way they might have had an efficient measure; but they were now no further advanced than they were in the month of February. The other cause of failure had been that the Representative of the commerce of the country was not a Cabinet Minister, and therefore could not enforce his views on his brother Ministers. He hoped the Government would see the necessity of giving the President of the Board of Trade a seat in the Cabinet. The course pursued by the Government would be received with disappointment throughout the country, and he trusted that they would not long be left without an efficient, satisfactory, and complete measure on the subject.


, as representing the largest shipowning constituency in the country, desired to confirm the protest of the hon. Member against the conduct of the Government. The right hon. Gentleman who had charge of the Bill had listened carefully to all the suggestions that had been offered him, and had done his best to carry the Bill; but he did not think the right hon. Gentleman had been put in a proper position to conserve and promote the best interests of the trading classes of the country, because, as President of the Board of Trade, he had not a seat in the Cabinet, while he was assisted by a Minister who was not allowed to speak in the House. The Bill was mentioned in the Speech from the Throne, the country expected it to be passed, and the shipping trade was hampered by the prospect of legislation which might affect the principles on which ships were built and found.


said, he sympathized with those who expressed regret and disappointment at the withdrawal of the measure. He could only say that he himself did his utmost to press it on; he had been in earnest from the very first; he had taken every means in his power for the success of the Bill; he had spared no care or pains to make himself acquainted with the subject; and he employed men of the greatest acquaintance with it and of first-rate ability to assist in the preparation of the Bill. He deeply regretted that the pressure of other business and the want of time had led to postponing a Bill which he believed would have been a settlement for many years of a great part of a question of national importance. He wished to bear testimony to the fact that Members of the House on both sides, having a personal interest in this question, had shown a noble readiness to postpone to the public interest what, if they had taken narrower views, they might have thought adverse claims of their own. He took every means of consulting them, and he obtained great support and assistance from them; although, whatever assistance he had received from the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. T. E. Smith), he must say the hon. Gentleman seemed to have put the highest value on this measure at the moment when he was about to lose it. He would also say with regard to the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Plimsoll), of whom they had such painful recollections that evening, that the House must acknowledge that hon. Member had shown great forbearance, and had reserved his opposition to the Bill to that part with which his name was honourably associated. He was well aware of the way in which that hon. Member's mind had been excited on the subject, and that many of his statements, such as they had heard that day, had been unfounded and exaggerated. But, at the same time, they would acknowledge the gratitude which the country owed to him for calling public attention to this most important subject, with a vigour which led the Government to deal with it in a manner which they might not otherwise have done. For himself, the only thing which at all reconciled him to the withdrawal of the Bill was the assurance he had that it would be one of the first measures dealt with and vigorously prosecuted next Session, and he could promise that, in the meantime, he would not fail to take advantage of the information he had gained in the discussions that had taken place on this Bill, in order as far as he could to improve and enlarge the measure. He hoped that next year the Government would arrive at a complete and permanent settlement of a difficult national question.


said, that the House could not do otherwise than admire the good feeling and good taste of the remarks just made by the President of the Board of Trade. While he deeply regretted the withdrawal of the Bill, he entirely appreciated the spirit in which the right hon. Gentleman had dealt with this matter. The Government deserved great credit for not having been carried too far in a feeling, most honourable in itself, as regarded the great shipping interests of this country. While he wished to pay this tribute of respect to the right hon. Gentleman, it only heightened his regret that the opportunity had not been taken to settle a question that had excited so much interest in the country. The House must, however, feel that whatever the fate of this Bill had been, it had not been suppressed by the action of the shipowners. He assured the right hon. Gentleman who had charge of the Bill that when it was next introduced he would find the House, so far as he could answer for it, ready to assist him in passing it. He regretted that the Bill could not be passed that Session, as the hanging up of the question was very injurious to the shipbuilding interest of the country. The Government ought not to have introduced so many Bills, nor have allowed less important measures to interfere with the passing of this one. The best course for a Government to follow was to stick to their great measures and not to leave them till they had passed through the House. But in the case of this Bill the Government had postponed it from time to time, and had permitted other measures which were not so much needed to be dealt with by the House, and he hoped that that course would not be pursued in another Session. He thought the House had reason to complain, not of the Minister who had charge of the Bill, but of those who were responsible for the conduct of Public Business.


said, that the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Board of Trade had done his best to carry this Bill through during the present Session, but that circumstances had been against him. He thought that the withdrawal of this measure should be a subject of congratulation to the country, because almost all the causes of the loss of life at sea were left untouched by the Bill. He was glad that the measure had been disposed of, and he hoped that before next Session the Government would be able to consider more carefully the details of the subject.


concurred with the observations of the hon. Gentleman who had just sat down. He thought the Government had done the only right thing in withdrawing this Bill. The Royal Commission recommended that the system of advance notes should be prohibited, and the Bill, as originally framed, prohibited it, but pressure was brought to bear on the Government, and under that pressure that most valuable part of the Bill was lost. He rejoiced that the Bill was withdrawn, because he hoped that the Bill to be introduced on this subject next year would deal effectually with that question. Hon. Members on the Opposition benches professed to regret the withdrawal of the Bill; but it should be remembered that the representatives of the shipping interest did everything they could to impede its progress. They tried to cut out the best parts of the Bill, and to increase the pains and penalties on seamen. He thought it was very bad taste on their part now to turn round upon the Government and upbraid them for withdrawing it.


said, he deeply regretted the withdrawal of the Bill, and sympathized deeply with the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade, after the trouble and pains he had taken in preparing it, to find himself compelled to take that course. He had had as much experience of the feelings of the shipowners as perhaps any Member of that House, and he denied altogether the allegations which had been made against them. So far from impeding the progress of the Bill they had done everything in their power to and the Government in preparing and passing a satisfactory measure. He did not, however, regret the withdrawal of the measure on its own merits. He regretted that it did not embody the recommendations of the Royal Commission, of which he was a member, for the Saving of Life. In that respect the measure was inadequate, and its provisions of the most meagre character. After the statement of the right hon. Gentleman he did not doubt that the whole subject would receive ample and careful consideration during the Recess; and he trusted that its withdrawal would have the effect of enabling the Government to introduce at the commencement of next Session a measure which would not only protect the interests of the shipowners, but also secure protection to the seamen so far as the preservation of life was concerned.


believed that the Bill had been framed by the Government under the pressure of an outside agitation, and he hoped that during the Recess they would not need a renewal of that agitation, because of the influence which had produced the present disappointment. With respect to the recommendations of the Royal Commission, he had always felt that in many respects they were objectionable; and he trusted that in framing a new measure the President of the Board of Trade would be guided less by their views than by the opinions of Members of that House who were practically acquainted with the details of the subject. He regretted to hear the right hon. Gentleman express his confidence in the gentleman who had drawn the Bill. He hoped that confidence would not be carried so far as to entrust him with the drafting of the Bill for next Session.


said, he thought the Government deserved the thanks of the country for having had the courage to refuse to pass a mutilated Bill. There was a strong temptation to pass into law those clauses through which the Committee had gone. Those clauses related chiefly to pains and penalties, and the clauses which had not been touched were those which related to the preservation of life at sea. If a measure containing the former were passed, while the clauses relating to the preservation of life were indefinitely postponed, the seamen would probably be placed in a much worse position than they were in at present. He hoped that, profiting by the experience of the present Session, Government would introduce a Bill next year which would effectually settle this great question.


remarked that the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Plimsoll), under feelings of great excitement, had accused the shipowners of having done their best to impede the progress of the Bill, but that the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Macdonald) had deliberately repeated the charge without having the same excuse. To the statement those hon. Members had made he must give a most emphatic denial. The ship-owners, on the contrary, had done everything in their power to assist the Government, not only in preparing the Bill, but in carrying it through the House. He would also testify to the great trouble which the President of the Board of Trade had taken to make himself acquainted with all the bearings of the case. The right hon. Gentleman visited all the principal ports, and did everything in his power to obtain practical information from those who were able to give it. Probably the country would not be inclined to accept the excuse which had been given for the withdrawal of the Bill—namely, that that course was rendered necessary by the pressure of Public Business—for this was a question of life and death, and ought therefore to be preferred to the questions involved in the Agricultural Holdings and other Bills, which could stand over without much detriment to the country.


said, that as some hon. Members in that part of the House wished to make explanations on behalf of the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Plimsoll), in order to give them an opportunity of doing so he begged to move the adjournment of the debate.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Debate be now adjourned."—(Captain Nolan.)


said, he could not understand what advantage would be derived from adjourning the debate. There was a general feeling that the Bill was one of such great public interest that its withdrawal justified the somewhat unusual conversation which had occurred. But it would be carrying the proceeding rather far if they were now to adjourn the discussion to another day. It would be really very difficult to find a day for its resumption, and it was more in consonance with the feeling of the House that the discussion should now be brought


said, he hoped that the hon. and gallant Member would not press his Motion. The only question was whether Government had done rightly in preferring to proceed with the Agricultural Holdings (England) Bill rather than with the Merchant Shipping Acts Amendment Bill; for it had become perfectly evident that both could not be proceeded with. But there would be other opportunities of discussing the conduct of the Government in that respect, and no public ad- vantage could be gained by the prolongation of this debate.


considered that the hon. Member for Derby had been very unfairly treated. The right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister brought the debate on the Agricultural Holdings (England) Bill to an abrupt termination at an early hour, on the alleged ground that some hon. Members were desirous to make "personal explanations;" but no personal explanations had been made, and the Merchant Shipping Acts Amendment Bill was then called on in order that a Motion might be made that the Order for proceeding with the Bill be discharged. He considered the proceeding a most unfair one.


said, it had been already arranged that the hon. Member for Derby should have an opportunity of making any explanation next Thursday, and that the House would have been in a position to pass this Bill had it not been for the conduct of hon. Members opposite, below the Gangway.


complained strongly of the course taken by the Government, who, when they were trying to push the Irish Coercion Bill through the House, persevered with it from day to day, and did not cease until they carried their object.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.


said, he had not desired the adjournment of the debate from any wish to lend unusual importance to what he wished to say on behalf of the hon. Member for Derby, but he was anxious to fulfil an obligation to that absent Member. He desired to lift the question out of the position into which it had fallen, and to fix the Government with a proper measure of accountability. He complained that under cover of a sympathetic hearing for a personal explanation the Government was about to escape from a considerable and painful dilemma. For seven hours they had been discussing in Committee the question of manurial value, and the Government, on a point of obstinate pride, was persisting with a Bill which many of their own supporters opposed, which was not urgently called for by the country, and for which they were sacrificing this vital measure. The House would naturally revolt against an attempt to present the sentimental side of the Merchant Shippings Acts Amendment Bill after the circumstances that had occurred that evening. Yet, however much they might condemn what had happened, public opinion out-of-doors moved very much in the same line, and the Government incurred a terrible accountability when they threw over a Bill that would save human life in order that they might persist in carrying out a permissive theory of tenant right. Until within the last three or four days the Government had kept the word of promise to the ear, the Prime Minister having only three days ago mentioned the Merchant Shipping Acts Amendment Bill as second on the list of those that he intended to persevere with. He would conclude by referring to the contents of letters addressed to the hon. Member for Derby on the condition in which ships were sometimes sent to sea, and would press upon the attention of hon. Members that this was a question of life and death to hundreds, if not thousands, of people.


said, the Government cordially reciprocated the regret which had been expressed by his right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade at the withdrawal of the Merchant Shipping Bill. It was with the greatest regret that the Government found it necessary at the last moment to move that this Order be discharged. They found the Merchant Shipping Bill in such a position that even if the Agricultural Holdings Bill were out of the way there was not time to consider it fully. The postponement of the Bill till next Session would forward the solution of the question rather than hinder it.


said, he could not allow the debate to close without pointing out that the statement just made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer was totally at variance with that which had been made by the Prime Minister.

Original Question put, and agreed to. Bill withdrawn.