HC Deb 21 January 1878 vol 237 cc304-14

Considered in Committee.

(In the Committee.)


in moving, in a Committee of the Whole House, for leave to bring in a Bill to Amend the Law relating to Merchant Seamen, said, this Bill had for its object to redeem pledges that were given by the Government last year that they would, as soon as possible, attempt to deal with seamen in two directions. They wished, in the first place, to introduce seamen, as far as possible, into the provisions of the Acts which were passed in the year 1875—namely, the Employers and Workmen Act, and the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act; and, secondly, to consolidate and revise the laws relating to the discipline of seamen. The principle of the two Acts of 1875 was that the relations between workmen and their employers should be one of contract, and that breach of contract should not be treated criminally. The Conspiracy Act repealed several Acts which made breach of contract criminal. It also relaxed, to a great extent, the law of indictable combinations; but it left the breach of contract between employers and workmen to be dealt with criminally where the offences were malicious, or wilfully and knowingly such as to endanger life. The Employers and Workmen Act brought disputes between the employers and workmen under the jurisdiction of the County Courts, giving these Courts bettor powers both for adjusting such disputes and of rescinding contracts or of enforcing their performance. In both these Acts seamen were specially ex-cepted. The present Bill proposed to deal with that exception. Merely to repeal the exception would leave seamen under the special discipline law of seamen; but this Bill proposed to place thorn altogether under the operation of these Acts until they joined the ship and began work. In fact, the Bill would place seamen until they were on actual sea service in the same position as ordinary workmen under the operation of these two Acts. It would abolish arrest without warrant up to that period under any circumstances. With regard to the second point with which the Bill proposed to deal—namely, the subject of seamen's discipline, it must be manifest upon the slightest reflection to everybody that the relation between the master of the ship and his crew after the voyage was begun could not be that between ordinary employers and workmen. It must be the relation of military discipline. The master of a ship on a voyage was responsible for the ship, the cargo, and the lives of all on board. If an officer in command of troops, upon his troops refusing to obey him, was obliged to get a writ of summons for the appearance of his men before the nearest Civil Court on a charge of breach of contract, one could easily see how little possibility there would be of commanding troops upon such terms. Precisely in the same way the master of a ship, who had the whole responsibility for the lives of those on board, must have arbitrary authority to deal with any cases of emergency on a voyage. He must have the widest discretion. The exercise of his power was necessarily unlimited, except in so far as he was restrained by the liability to an action being brought against him for using it in an unjustifiable manner. The master of a ship on its voyage must have unlimited authority, and that was really no more than was absolutely necessary for the safety of the lives and property entrusted to him. He believed, indeed, that so far from being relaxed, the present regulations of discipline at sea ought in some respects to be made more stringent; and the object of the Bill was to consolidate and amend the laws of discipline relating to seamen. The Royal Commission on Unseaworthy Ships, two or throe years ago, reported that the evidence brought before them clearly showed that the masters of ships in the merchant service of this country actually had not sufficient control over their crows for the safety of those under their charge, and that sailors could be guilty with impunity of the grossest dereliction of duty, directly tending to the loss of life. On this point the Bill proposed to amend and consolidate the law. He thought it necessary, so far, also, to maintain the power of arrest without warrant, otherwise a ship having put into a port of call, or by distress, might lose half her crew by men with advance notes in their pockets taking the opportunity to desert, repeat their fraud, and compel the ship to proceed on her voyage without a sufficient crow. The Bill, however, proposed to give a power of rescinding the contract between master and seamen after the voyage began, the same as the Employers and Workmen Act conferred upon master and man on shore. In considering this subject, it was necessary to bear in mind that the relation between masters and men in the merchant service was altogether one of special legislation, regulation, and protection, as well as of special discipline. The seaman's own safety, health, provisions, wages, discharge, care abroad, and the very process of his contract, were all subjects of legal enactment, and there was nothing more special in the terms of the discipline under which he served. Such an artificial scheme of legislative protection had been considered by Parliament necessary by the special nature of his employment. The Bill was in strict accordance with maritime law and with the usages of maritime nations. Penalties for absconding with advanced wages, and for the broaching of cargo, were added in the Bill to the existing law. The latter of these offences had become of late specially dangerous to the safety of the ship and the lives of the crew. There was also a clause of great importance relating to the payment of wages, dealing with the time they become due, which was at present a matter of some uncertainty, and with the mode of paying, enabling the discharged seaman to get home as quickly as possible, and not hang about the scenes of temptation at his port of discharge. By Clause 26 the Bill proposed to strengthen the law with respect to crimping. The clause was introduced at the suggestion of Mr. Boyer and others, and by making the penalty severe against crimps boarding vessels, not only arriving, but arrived, would, it was hoped, put down an evil which existed to a great extent at most of our ports. The greater part of this Bill was also in the Bill of 1875, and many of the clauses were amply discussed in this House, and passed through Committee, and therefore came with a certain amount of previous sanction already established in their favour. In the Bill of 1876 the discipline clauses were not introduced, as from their experience of the previous Session they thought the rest of the Bill would be sufficient to occupy all the time available. He had, however, now redeemed a promise he made to the House last Session by laying this Bill on the Table at the earliest possible moment of the Session, and he trusted that the House would favourably take it into discussion.

Moved, "That the Chairman be directed to move the House, that leave he given to bring in a Bill to amend the Law relating to Merchant Seamen."


said, he wished at once to state to the House his conviction that the alterations which the right hon. Gentleman proposed to make in the law affecting merchant seamen were not only of a very important, but of a very serious character. The right hon. Gentleman had proceeded on an assumption, altogether erroneous, that the conditions of the servitude of seamen and of workmen on shore, and following an ordinary occupation on the land, were similar. Instead of the conditions of servitude of seamen and of workmen upon land being similar, any intelligent man must at once feel that the relations between the two services were anything but parallel. The right hon. Gentleman said the Bill would abolish the right of arrest and criminal prosecution of a seaman evading an agreement solemnly entered into with the master of a ship at the shipping office, to attend on a certain day and be ready to perform his duties in a particular ship as a sailor. He wished to point out the great hardship there would be in relaxing the conditions that were now enforced in that respect. The shipowner might have a fine vessel ready to sail on a certain day; he might have a full crew engaged; but at the last moment the ship might be detained by half-a-dozen loafing, idle fellows, standing, perhaps, at the dock-side, who, when the ship was ready to move away, at the instigation of some evil-minded person, instead of performing their duty refused to go on board. Under such circumstances, the ship would be undermanned, and the captain dared not leave the port, and the merchant, passengers, and shipowner interested in the vessel would be exposed to serious loss and inconvenience, without any practical remedy whatever. There was a still further point. Absolute danger of loss of life and valuable property would ensue if the change contemplated by the right hon. Gentleman were carried out. What was the case now? It frequently happened in the port of London that sailors failed to carry out their agreement, and a ship dropped down the river to Gravesend short of hands. The captain was, consequently, compelled to pick up long-shore men where he could, in order to make up the number of the crow—a fact which could not tend to improve the service. At other ports many ships went to sea short of hands, which would have been fully manned if the contracts originally entered into were carried out. And the necessary consequence of relaxing the existing law would be greatly to increase the number of these delinquencies. With regard to the disciplinary clauses of the Bill, he was not aware that a single shipowner had asked for them. On the contrary, when the question was under discussion a couple of years ago, shipowner after shipowner rose and said—"We do not care to have those excessive penal powers over the seamen. In fact, we have too many penal laws at the present moment." He had hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would have spared the House the necessity of re-opening shipping questions. He felt that he had no right to enter into the subject at any length at the present moment; but he hoped the right hon. Gentleman would be prepared to give the House an assurance on a matter of such importance, that he was willing to refer the Bill to a Select Committee. All he (Mr. Norwood) would do now was to content himself by stating that the proposed alterations in the law were of a very serious character indeed, and he was afraid they would load to considerable discussion and opposition. He believed there was no desire on the part of the shipowners to press unduly upon the seamen, and no wish for the enactment of additional penal powers; but he thought there would be a strong opinion that the important distinctions which existed between servitude on land and at sea ought not to be entirely got rid of, and that it was absurd to place the sailor under the same law of contract as was reasonable with landsmen.


said, he did not intend to follow the hon. Member who had just addressed the House from the opposite side into any discussion at this stage of the Bill into the principle of the measure. He thought that most of the points raised by the hon. Member for Hull would be more easily and more usefully discussed when the House went into Committee, and they had the provisions of the measure regularly before them. He merely rose now for the purpose of congratulating the Government upon having at last redeemed their pledges, and placed the Bill before the House. It was not last year that those pledges were given, but the year before last, and it was last year that the House endeavoured to induce the Government to redeem the pledges they had given. But during the whole of last Session, notwithstanding the pressure brought to boar upon the Government, the Bill was not allowed to see the light. He differed from the hon. Member for Hull in the belief that the scope of the measure, so far as he was able to form an opinion upon it from the statement of the right hon. Gentleman, was very large. He had understood the pledge of the Government to be that they would extend to seamen the principles of the two Acts relating to labourers on land which were passed in the year 1875. But, so far as he was able to gather from the statement of the right hon. Gentleman, the principles of those Acts were only to be extended to seamen for the shortest possible time—namely, the time between the making of the engagement and the time of joining the ship. Just for that short time seamen were to have the benefit of the principles laid down in the Masters' and Servants' Act. The moment they joined the ship, the principles of that Act would cease to apply to them, and they would come under a special maritime code. He hoped it was not too late to induce the Government to alter the principles of their Bill in this respect. It seemed to him that it would be a far better fulfilment of the pledges they had given, and would make their Bill a better measure, if they would boldly extend the provisions of the Masters' and Servants' Act altogether to seamen. A great many of the provisions of that Act might be made to apply to seamen when at sea, just as well as when on shore, and especially those relating to contract, and a considerable number of those relating to the treatment and position of apprentices. The question of apprentices, and especially in the fishing trade, was one of the questions which would have to be considered by that House, and it was one which had had a great effect in bringing forward the demand for the measure. Everyone admitted that when a sailor was at sea he must be subject to special maritime rules, and he quite agreed that it was not so much an alteration of the law in regard to discipline that was required as that there should be greater skill and efficiency in putting the law into force. Whatever special regulations might be necessary at sea ought to be embodied in a special code of maritime law applicable to seamen when at sea; and during the time they were on shore, and during the whole time of their engagement, when not actually performing the duties of seamen, they ought to be subject to the operation of the Masters' and Servants' Act. He would not take up the time of the House further, because these were matters which could only be discussed at length when the provisions of the Bill were fairly before them; but he had thought that he could not allow the observations of the hon. Member for Hull to remain unanswered, because he believed the hon. Gentleman was alarming the House unnecessarily. The measure was by no moans so large in its extent and scope as the hon. Gentleman supposed it to be, and he (Mr. Gorst) had no doubt that when it came to be printed it would prove to be a very harmless and innocent measure.


remarked that until the House saw the Bill itself, it would be extremely difficult to criticize its details. It might, however, be divided into two parts. The first part dealt with the question of engagement— the engagement which a man entered into when he signed his contract, and they heard a great deal as to this being a penal contract. It was a simple contract between an employer and a workman, which the latter entered into with his eyes perfectly open. It appeared to him (Mr. Smith) that the tendency of the measure was not so much in the direction of freedom of contract as in the direction of freedom of breach of contract. He saw great force in the remarks of his hon. Friend the Member for Hull upon this matter, and he was afraid that very dangerous and awkward complications might- arise hereafter if the Bill was passed as shadowed forth by the President of the Board of Trade. At the same time, he was not prepared to oppose the Bill, because he was aware that there was a feeling in favour of carrying this view considerably further, and he was willing to accept the propositions of the right hon. Gentleman as a compromise. He should, however, ask for one condition—namely, that having given freedom of breach of contract to the sailor, the right hon. Gentleman should give freedom of broach of contract to the employer. If the seaman was to have immunity from the consequences of a breach of contract, they must allow the employer to have full liberty to make his contract as he liked, and he should not be compelled to go before a Government officer to make a contract under Government inspection when the seaman was able to break it subject only to a money penalty. He thought that was a matter in which equal justice should be done to both parties. As to increasing the penalties upon seamen, he would only re-echo the view expressed by the hon. Member for Hull that it was unnecessary. The captains of all good merchant ships could manage their discipline very well when at sea. They did not want increased discipline, or anything that would create or increase a jealous feeling between the employer and the employed, and he hoped the right hon. Gentleman would not persevere with this part of his Bill. There was, however, one thing which he wished strongly to point out to the right hon. Gentleman, and it was this—that the seamen in the United Kingdom— and he had a good many of them among his constituents — wore a travelling people, and that many of them were constantly from home. They wore a set of people nine-tenths of whom were away from home at any given moment, and therefore it was impossible to obtain any concerted action among them. Under these circumstances, and as he believed there would be a general concurrence of opinion against the propriety of increasing the stringency of the penal laws, he hoped, upon consideration, that the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade would admit the importance of acceding to the suggestion of the hon. Member for Hull, that the Bill should be referred to a Select Committee, so that they might afford some opportunity of eliciting the views of seafaring people. If they were only to discuss the details of the measure in a Committee of the Whole House, he was afraid they might run into a course of legislation that might be dangerous, and that might lead to serious consequences. As the seamen had no means of expressing their views in any other way, he was of opinion that the proper course would be to call upon some members of their body to give evidence, so that the House might hear what the real opinion of the sailors was upon the subject. He therefore pressed upon the right hon. Gentleman most earnestly the necessity of referring the Bill to a Select Committee. In the meantime, he would assure the right hon. Gentleman that in the remarks he had made he had not the least wish to oppose the Bill. He thought the law as to breach of contract was fairly drawn at the present moment, and that it gave every satisfaction both to the shipowner and to the seaman. He certainly hoped that the whole matter would be thoroughly investigated by a Select Committee.


said, he was glad to see the long-promised measure for dealing with the laws affecting the merchant service introduced at last. He saw no reason why the penal laws should be in the slightest degree increased. He had constantly had seamen brought before him on cases of desertion, and he had generally found the existing laws so severe that he had on more than one occasion dismissed the men without any punishment. He was satisfied, therefore, that the provisions of the Bill in this respect would not be satisfactory to the generality of seamen. So far as the question of discipline was concerned, it was very difficult to suggest how far they could go satisfactorily in the direction of amending the existing law. His own experience and view was that they did not want any increase of discipline. The shipowners had quite enough power over the seamen already, and if the Legislature increased the power, the only result would be that they would increase the barbarous and inhuman treatment of the men. Their legislation ought to be of such a character as to induce the masters of vessels to treat their seamen in a more humane manner. One part of the question which was very important, and which he hoped would be thoroughly dealt with, was that of crimping. He had no doubt that a great many of the desertions, in connection with the merchant shipping, arose from the existence of the crimping system. It was frequently found that the men, after they had signed articles, were taken possession of by the crimps in the seaports, deprived of the money they had received on their discharge, furnished with advance notes, and when they ought to join their ship they were in a state of inebriation and unable to do so; He thought the provisions of the Bill shadowed forth by the right hon. Gentleman on this part of the question might be improved. Until they had the full details of the measure before them it would be impossible to discuss them satisfactorily. So far the right hon. Gentleman had only given them the principles of the Bill without entering into full details of all that he proposed. It was, therefore, quite impossible to criticize the provisions of the Bill as they ought to be criticized; and, under these circumstances, he ventured to support the suggestion, of the hon. Member for Hull (Mr. Norwood) that the measure, before being proceeded with further, should be referred to a Select Committee.


said, his experience of the seamen who were in the habit of refraining from joining their ships was that they were generally worthless when they did join. He thought the present penalties were quite sufficient. It might be relied upon that when they found a crew in a state of bad discipline the fault was not entirely on the part of the crew; either the ship was defective or the men were not properly treated. Where a ship was well managed and well fitted out they seldom found any cases of broach of discipline. He agreed with the opinion already expressed that the Bill ought to be referred to a Select Committee. He thought a great deal of advantage would be obtained from such a reference, and the Bill would be made a much better measure than it could be othewise.


said, he was sure that his right hon. Friend would be satisfied with the discussion which had taken place. At the same time, of course, it was very difficult to discuss a Bill until the measure itself and its provisions were fully before the House. For instance, his hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Gorst) would find, when he came to see the Bill, that it did contain a clause for rescinding contracts, which it was hoped would be of use in a matter now much brought before the country—the cases of breach of discipline by fishing lads at Grimsby and at Hull. Although there were clauses which increased some penalties, there were also clauses which reduced certain other penalties. There was a power to inflict forfeiture of wages as an alternative for imprisonment, and a clause to permit the cancellation of on-tries in the log against a sailor. It was hardly necessary to refer more in detail to these provisions now as hon. Members would see thorn for themselves when the Bill came before thorn. The hon. Member for Hull (Mr. Norwood) had pointed out that the Bill contained details of a most difficult character. The Government were well aware of that; but they had considered the matter very carefully and wore quite prepared to refer the Bill to a Select Committee in order that there might be a close examination of all these details; but, on their part, they thought they were entitled to ask hon. Gentlemen in that case to try and assist them in obtaining a settlement before a Select Committee as soon as possible, in order that the Bill might be proceeded with during the present Session.

Motion agreed to.

Resolution reported: — Bill ordered to be brought in by Sir CHARES ADDKRKLEY and Mr. EDWARD STANHOPE.

Bill presented, and road the first time. [Bill 79.]