HC Deb 09 August 1877 vol 236 cc723-6

said, before the Appropriation Bill was passed, he wished to draw the attention of the Government to a pledge which they gave last Session, but which still remained unredeemed—that they would deal with the state of the law by which merchant seamen were liable to be imprisoned for a breach of contract. He could not, of course, attempt to discuss that question now; and he had no doubt that if it were discussed, they would find considerable difference of opinion as to the extent to which these laws required amendment. The Government, however, last year had emphatically promised to deal with the question this Session, a pledge which they had neglected to fulfil. His object, however, in rising was to urge upon the Government the necessity of dealing with this question in the ensuing Session. Merchant seamen were not a class who had much social or electoral influence, and on that account their wants and grievances were apt to be somewhat overlooked.


said, that the hon. and learned Member had remarked very properly on the omission of the Government to deal with the subject this year. The Act of 1875 had given further powers to the Board of Trade to stop unseaworthy ships, but the duration of that measure was limited to October, 1876. The provisions of that Act were included in the Act of 1876, which extended their operation, not only to British, but also to foreign ships, thus giving the Board of Trade a remarkable jurisdiction over foreign seamen and ships, the latter being liable to be detained if overloaded or improperly loaded, and power being given to inflict penalties in certain cases. At the time that measure was passed, apprehensions were entertained that we might possibly be exceeding our proper jurisdiction in extending its provisions to foreign seamen and ships. He believed that considerable correspondence had passed between the Government and foreign countries on this subject, and he was anxious to ascertain what was the nature of that correspondence—whether it had reached a satisfactory stage—whether Canada and foreign countries were, on the whole, satisfied to be subjected, as we attempted to subject them, to the Act of 1876. If there were any Papers which his right hon. Friend could lay immediately upon the Table of the House, he thought he might say they would be exceedingly useful to the House, both as a comment upon what had passed, and as a guide for any further legislation which they might attempt with regard to our own or foreign seamen.


agreed with the hon. and learned Member opposite (Mr. Gorst), that the Government had shown themselves indifferent as to the interests of our seamen, who were a very numerous and important portion of the population, and who occupied a most anomalous position. He hoped an assurance would be given that the Government would introduce a Bill early next Session to place British seamen in the same position as all other classes of working men.


joined with the hon. Members who had spoken in pressing on the Government the necessity of complying with the just demands of our seamen. At present, they were placed between the alternative of imprisonment for breach of contract, or of what appeared to them almost certain death by going to sea in unseaworthy vessels. It seemed to him a monstrous exhibition of tyranny to continue such a law on the Statute Book in its present terms. He hoped the Home Secretary would redeem his promise, and deal with the subject next Session. He thought if his hon. Friend (Mr. Burt) introduced next Session his own Bill on the question, it would strengthen the hands of the Government in dealing with it.


said, the hon. and learned Member for Chatham (Mr. Gorst) complained with some bitterness of the conduct of the Government. He said they had not fulfilled the pledges they gave on the subject he brought before the House. He (Sir Charles Adderley) maintained, on the contrary, they had fulfilled those pledges to the utmost of their power, and he might appeal with confidence to the House on that matter. The pledges they gave were that they would deal as soon as they possibly could with the general subject of the discipline of seamen in the Merchant Service and with the introduction, as far as possible, of seamen into the provisions of the Employers and Workmen Act. A Bill was drafted and prepared, and it was now in the office; but he appealed to the House whether there had been any opportunities during the Session of introducing the Bill with any chance of its receiving that amount of explanation, discussion, and prospect of progress without which so important a subject ought not to be introduced? On that point, he took distinct issue with the hon. and learned Member for Chatham. The hon. and learned Member apparently thought the Government ought to have thrown the Bill on the Table, without any possibility of discussing it, or the slightest prospect of carrying it into law. Had they done so, the Bill would be discussed during the whole Recess in the country, and misapprehensions and misconceptions would arise respecting it, by which the question would be prejudiced when it came under the consideration of the House. No class of Her Majesty's subjects had occupied the attention of the Legislature so largely during the last two years as the seamen. With regard to the subject itself, he had hoped that in private conversation the hon. and learned Member for Chatham had been convinced of the utter impracticability of his own views upon it. With regard to the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Morpeth (Mr. Burt), he could only say that he extremely regretted that it had shared the fate of his own Bill, and had not been discussed as its merits richly deserved. The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Macdonald) had brought in a Bill dealing partially and vaguely with the subject, and in a manner which the House could not entertain. With regard to the intentions of the Government, all he could say was that he hoped the larger intervals for practical Business which he trusted would be secured next Session, in the absence of that dreary waste of words which had been inflicted this Session upon them to the detriment of the best interests of the country, would give him a fair opportunity of dealing adequately with the delicate and important question of the discipline of merchant seamen. As to the question of the hon. Member for War- wick (Mr. Peel), whether foreign countries had experienced dissatisfaction with those sections of the Merchant Shipping Act which, referred to them, he had to inform the House that there had been remonstrances from the United States, Germany, and Norway. Those remonstrances were in very general terms. A theoretical objection was taken to an interference with their subjects which had never really taken place, and which the answer sent by the Foreign Office had satisfied them never could take place. As the correspondence had terminated, he did not think it would be wise to lay it on the Table. He trusted the Act would work satisfactorily; but if any difficulty should arise, he should be happy to lay any correspondence before the House which might be necessary for its information.


said, if the Government concurred in the view of the right hon. Gentleman that this subject was one of the greatest delicacy and importance, why was not the Bill introduced at an early period of the Session, when it might have been fully considered, without haste or levity? It would seem that he had not been able to impress its importance on the Cabinet, or the Bill would not have been brought forward at so late a period, and left to take its chance in the scramble at the close of the Session. He trusted the Bill would be introduced early next Session, so that they might have an opportunity of discussing it fully. As the right hon. Gentleman had not answered the appeal that had been made by his hon. Friend with regard to the objections taken by foreign Governments to the Merchant Shipping Act, he trusted some one of the right hon. Gentleman's Colleagues would give further information on the subject.

Bill read a second time, and committed for To-morrow.