HC Deb 06 March 1879 vol 244 cc297-9

, in calling attention to the present state of the Law by which seamen who have entered into a contract of service are liable before joining their ship to be arrested without warrant and imprisoned with hard labour for simple breach of such contract, and to the pledge given by Her Majesty's Government in relation thereto, said, that as the noble Lord the President of the Board of Trade had intimated his intention to introduce a Bill on the subject, he did not intend to proceed with what he had to say on it; but he desired publicly to call the attention of Her Majesty's Government to the repeated pledges which they had given to the House and the country on this subject. In 1875, a Merchant Shipping Act Amendment Bill dealing with this question was passed through Committee, but eventually withdrawn; while in the following year a most distinct pledge was given on the subject. When the Bill of 1875 was before the House, he moved an Amendment which found a very considerable amount of favour in the House, and which would have had the effect of remedying the evil of which he complained. He withdrew that Amendment on a distinct pledge being given by the Home Secretary that the whole subject would receive the attention of the Government in the next Session. Last year, however, at the beginning of the Session, the Bill was referred to a Select Committee. The Earl of Beaconsfield used to say that a Select Committee was an electorate piece of machinery for discovering something that everybody knew. The Select Committee of last Session fully bore out that description, and it was simply a very convenient mode of shelving the question. The noble Lord the President of the Board of Trade had stated that a Bill was now prepared which would satisfy all parties; and his object in calling attention to the matter was to urge her Majesty's Government to introduce the Bill as early as possible, and make an effort to legislate on the subject this Session. It might be said that it was an inconvenient thing to bring the matter forward upon a Motion for going into Committee of Supply; but this was a question of great importance to merchant seamen, who were not possessed of many electoral privileges, and whose interests, therefore, required to be brought prominently forward in order to insure attention.


agreed that seamen had only a small amount of electoral power, and, unlike many other classes of working people, were so circumstanced that they had not any very powerful trade organization, and were, therefore, very much at the mercy of the Government. He trusted that their weakness would make their claim all the greater, and he earnestly hoped that the Government would speedily introduce the promised Bill.


said, that it was not from any want of interest in the subject that the Bill had not been introduced already. The truth was that his noble Friend (Viscount Sandon), when he went to the Board of Trade last Session, found the Bill under the consideration of the Committee. He had not previously paid any special attention to the subject, and he found it to be one of very considerable difficulty and complexity. He therefore felt it desirable to take some time to consider it, and the matter stood over for that purpose. He had now given a great deal of consideration to the subject, and was anxious to make a statement, and to bring forward a Bill. It would not be fair on the part of his noble Friend's Colleagues to forestall anything he had to say on the subject, and therefore he would confine himself to assuring his hon. and learned Friend and the hon. Gentleman opposite that he should be exceedingly glad so to arrange the Business as to give an early day for the consideration of the Bill; but he did not know that he should be able to do so immediately, as there was a great deal of Business requiring attention. As soon as he could arrange a day, he would take care that an opportunity was afforded of introducing the Bill.