§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ MR. BURT,
in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, said, the object of the Bill was to remove an invidious and unjust distinction between seamen and other classes of the community with reference to the fulfilment of contracts with employers. Seamen were subject to Criminal Law, and might be sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour for 12 weeks if they did not present themselves to go on board a ship of which they had contracted to be one of the crew at the time she was about to start. Seven hundred seamen, on an average, were imprisoned every year for that offence. He should like to hear from the Government what they intended to do with reference to this question.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Burt.)
§ MR. CHAMBERLAIN
thought they all sympathized with the object which his hon. Friend the Member for Morpeth had in view. He was sure that all would agree with his hon. Friend that if, without serious injury to trade, this anomaly could be removed it ought to be removed. At the same time, he must remind his hon. Friend that they were dealing with a class who were already the subject of special legislation. He referred to the exceptional legislation with reference to advance notes to seamen. Many shipowners had declared that unless some exceptional provision were made by the law they did not see how it would be possible that their ships could be manned, because it appeared that in too many cases seamen did not go on board till the last moment, and that they went or were taken to the pier in a state of intoxication; and unless there was a 158 special power by which they could be put on board it was probable the vessel would have to sail without a crew, or have to take on board at a moment's notice men who might not be qualified for the work they undertook to perform. Having, however, studied the evidence given before the Committee of 1878, he did not think that the arguments in favour of the existing law were at all conclusive. His decision was that it might be possible to assimilate the law as to seamen and other workmen; but he did not think it would be possible to do away with the power which at present existed of putting seamen on board when they had made a contract to join a ship. With such restriction and modification of the law, he did not think the sailors' friends would have any cause to complain of it, while he hoped the Merchant Service generally would find no difficulty in manning their ships. He could not accept the present Bill, because it went too far; but early next Session the Government would themselves present a Bill dealing with the whole subject of discipline in the Merchant Service.
§ VISCOUNT SANDON
said, he thought the President of the Board of Trade had adopted a wise course in declining to support the Bill. At the same time he must express his sympathy with the hon. Member for Morpeth (Mr. Burt) in his desire to put merchant seamen on a footing with all other workmen. But there was a time for all things; and if they waited awhile and did all they could to raise the position of merchant seamen they might be able to put them on the same footing as other workmen in this particular. The occupation of a merchant seaman, however, was totally different from other occupations; he was exposed to greater temptations; there were epochs in his avocations, such as starting for long voyages and returning from them. During a voyage he was isolated from the rest of the world, and at other times he was exposed to great temptation, and led into great perils, so that he was hardly responsible in the same way that other men were, and he could not be dealt with as they were. For these reasons, some of the best seamen rather approved the power of arrest without warrant as a means of 159 saving them from themselves and getting them on board when otherwise, owing to circumstances beyond their control, they would be likely to break their engagements. He should be glad if the right hon. Gentleman could see his way to insert in his Bill relating to Merchant Seamen's Wages the provision which he had himself proposed, by which a seaman should no longer be exposed to imprisonment for neglecting to join his ship without the option of paying a fine; if the fine were not paid, then let there be imprisonment in default. Experience had taught that it was not an easy thing to deal with the question of discipline in the Merchant Navy. As a great many questions were coming on next year, it would be well to secure this year the boon he had suggested for merchant seamen; and it would not interfere with any further legislation on the subject.
§ MR. BURT
said, that, after the assurance given by his right hon. Friend that he would deal with the subject next year, he begged leave to withdraw the Motion and the Bill. But he thought it would be a good thing if the right hon. Gentleman could embody in his Bill the principle suggested by the noble Lord.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Bill withdrawn.