HC Deb 24 June 1880 vol 253 cc789-800

Order for Committee read.

Ordered, That it be an Instruction to the Committee that they have power to consider Clauses with reference to the conditions of service of seamen and the licensing of their lodging houses.—(Mr. Evelyn Ashley.)

Motion made, and Question, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," put, and agreed to.

Bill considered in Committee.

(In the Committee.)


in moving the following clause:—

(Modification of Penalty for neglecting to join.) For neglecting or refusing, without reasonable cause, to join his ship, or to proceed to sea in his ship, a seaman or apprentice to the sea service shall he liable on summary conviction, instead of being liable to the penalty imposed by section two hundred and forty-three of 'The Merchant Shipping Act, 1854,' to a fine not exceeding an amount equal to four weeks' wages; and in the event of his failing to pay the fine, and in that event only, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding, in England and Ireland, the term limited by law on non-payment of a fine, and elsewhere, six weeks: provided that if the neglect or refusal tend immediately to endanger a ship or cargo or the life or limb of any person belonging to or on board a ship, the offender shall be guilty of a misdeamour, and be punishable accordingly, said, that if the Government were not willing to accept that clause he should not press them to do so. He should, however, be sorry to allow the opportunity to pass of releasing seamen from some of the penalties to which they were liable if they neglected or refused to go to sea. He was aware of the intention to introduce a general Bill next year dealing with the question of discipline on board ship, and he was convinced that that was a most serious matter. Seamen, at present, if they refused to go into a ship or to go sea were liable to be imprisoned for 10 weeks. The proposed clause he had drawn up during the time he was President of the Board of Trade, after having conferred with a number of leading shipowners on the subject. They had all agreed with him that it would be desirable to introduce such a clause by which seamen would be placed in the same position as landsmen as far as possible with regard to breach of contract. If he neglected to go to sea after that clause had been passed, he would only be liable in the first instance for breach of contract. On a subsequent occasion he would be liable to a fine; and if that fine were not paid, to a month's imprisonment. So that imprisonment would only take place in case of nonpayment of the fine. He was aware that a great many changes were desirable in the rules of discipline on board ship; but, although the matter was a comprehensive one and ought to be dealt with, perhaps, comprehensively, he thought there could be no harm in doing justice to the seaman thus far at once, and so prevent him being imprisoned for a long period for simply refusing to go to sea. He knew the difficulties the Board of Trade had in that matter; but he thought they could acquiesce in the proposition he had made. He would not press it on the Government, however, provided he obtained a pledge from them to deal with the subject; but he begged them to consider whether it was not a reasonable compromise in the matter, having been adopted by some of the best shipowners as a solution of the question.

Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."—(Viscount Sandon.)


said, he fully agreed with the noble Lord opposite (Viscount Sandon), that the question of the punishment of seamen for refusing to go to sea was a most serious one; but, at the same time, he ventured to doubt whether the proposed clause could be accepted, inasmuch as it hardly dealt with the question. The real grievance of the seaman was that he was liable to arrest without warrant, and it was in that respect particularly that he was in a totally different position from other working men. The proposed clause would not relieve him from that at all. All it would do was to modify the law with regard to the penalty to be inflicted for refusing to serve. It was not, he thought, impossible to deal comprehensively with that question so as really to relieve seamen from that exceptional condition. He thought that if the noble Lord would communicate with his hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Chamberlain) between that time and the Report on the Bill, they might be able to propose a clause that would, perhaps, deal effectively with that question. Even if the clause were adopted it would give but temporary relief, as the Government intended to bring in a Bill to deal with the whole question next Session.


said, he did not like the idea of the Bill passing through the Committee stage before they had had an opportunity of seeing and discussing the clause proposed. Both the Predecessors of the Government and the Government itself had promised to deal with this matter, and he would suggest that they should report Progress—[Cries of "Oh, oh !"]—in order that the clause which the Government were considering might be put upon the Paper and considered in Committee. He observed that hon. Members opposite cried out "Oh, oh!" Their idea of legislation was, apparently, to drive the Bill through as fast as they could. The Board of Trade seemed disposed to hurry it through without consideration or reflection; and, for his part, he begged to say that those Members who really had the interests of seamen and shipowners at heart, were not willing to allow that rash kind of legislation to proceed. He would inform hon. Members below the Gangway, who were, perhaps, fresh to the labours of the House, that when a Government announced an intention to propose a new clause, it was not at all an unusual practice for the Committee to report Progress, in order that that clause might be placed upon the Paper and be properly considered before the Bill passed through Committee. He should move that the Committee report Progress.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Chairman do report Progress, and ask leave to sit again."—(Mr. Gorst.)


said, he should support the Motion which had just been made. He was of opinion that many hon. Members were entirely unacquainted with Parliamentary usages and the forms of the House, and they should exhibit more tolerance in the discussion of measures. Not long ago he had heard loud cries raised when an hon. Member had endeavoured to address the House. When those hon. Gentlemen who raised those cries had a longer experience, they would find that it was convenient to listen to all sides of a question. He knew that to men uninitiated in the doctrines of the House that was not altogether palatable. He thought it would be well if hon. Gentlemen would exercise a little more discretion, and not be quite so hasty in preventing measures being discussed. He ventured to support the proposal of the noble Viscount the Member for Liverpool (Lord Sandon). He thought there ought to be a mitigation of the present law, with regard to summary-arrest, in cases where seamen failed to fulfil their contracts. He was convinced that was a subject of the utmost importance, and the noble Lord had proposed to mitigate that law by substituting a fine in the first instance in lieu thereof. That was a step in the right direction, and he could not understand why the Government refused to agree to the proposal. Representing as he did, a large seaport, he ventured to assert that a large number of seamen understood the position they were in quite as well as anyone in that House. The proposal of the noble Lord was likely to prove a beneficial one, and he should support it. Notwithstanding the ejaculations of hon. Members below the Gangway, he should support the adjournment of the debate in order that they might have time for proper consideration of the clause.


said, he hoped that the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. Gorst) would withdraw his Motion, and that the Committee might be permitted to get through the present stage of the Bill. He did not think that the reasons the hon. and learned Member gave were convincing to the Committee. He told them that seamen, of whom he made himself, in reference to that Bill, the champion, could get nothing more than promises in regard to that matter. He (Mr. Chamberlain) was sorry to find that he had so bad an opinion of the way in which his clients were treated by the present Government's Predecessors. [Mr. GORST said, he stated they had been fed upon promises.] He understood the hon. and learned Member to say that, considering the number of promises, it was surprising that nothing had been done; he would not dispute with him, but merely undertake to say that the present Government should do something more than that. Next Session that subject would be thoroughly considered, and the Bill would then be much more comprehensive than the present one. It had already been stated that on the Report of the Bill a proposal would be made, by which the question now under discussion would be attempted to be settled; and he must say that if that proposal met with the amount of support from the hon. and learned Gentleman that he usually gave to all proposals for the advantage of seamen, then it would be impossible, in the present broken Session, to proceed any further with the Bill. He must say he thought it curious that delays of that sort invariably came from those who pretended to be in favour of the class the Bill would affect. The hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. Gorst) said, it was desirable that time should be given in order that the proposed new clause might be left upon the Paper, and left there a sufficient time to get into the hands of Members and be fully considered before they asked the House to take the next step. For his own part, he considered that was just the way in which seamen would be fed upon promises and get nothing beyond. His hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Hull (Mr. Norwood) had said that he should give his hearty support to the proposal of the noble Lord. He begged to say that, in his humble judgment, that proposal did not meet the difficulty at all, and it was on that ground that he was unable to accept it. What was, in fact, the complaint of the seamen? Why, undoubtedly, the anomalous position they were placed in with regard to their contracts. In case of breach of contract a landsman was liable to an action only, and not to criminal proceedings; whereas a sailor was liable to those proceedings, and might be in gaol many weeks in consequence. The noble Lord, by his proposal, still left the seaman subject to those criminal proceedings, and added a fine which, in all ordinary circumstances, he believed, the seaman would be unable to pay. What was likely to happen if the course proposed to be taken was followed? It was well known that certain magistrates, who had acted in a manner which seemed harsh, had sent to gaol seamen who refused to go to sea in ships which they deemed unsea worthy, and some of which ships afterwards went to the bottom. The fact of the ships having been lost, showed, at any rate, that the men who were imprisoned had good prima facie grounds for the belief which led them to refuse to go to sea and resulted in their imprisonment. If the proposal of the noble Lord were adopted the fine upon seamen would be very heavy; and as seamen were, as a general rule, a very impecunious class of men, the result would in a majority of cases be imprisonment, for the reason that the men could not pay the fines. It was urged that the imprisonment would be for non-payment of the fines imposed, and not for breach of contract. But this was not exactly a statement of the case which could be generally accepted as an adequate mode of dealing with the grievances which the seamen alleged to exist; and when the question came to be dealt with in a more complete manner next Session, it would be necessary to repeal the clause which was proposed by the noble Lord if it now became law.


protested against the suggestion that this was entirely a seaman's question; he thought it was extremely undesirable that the House should hastily pass a judgment upon questions affecting seamen, which, though they occupied a large amount of time in the last Parliament, had not been satisfactory settled up to the present time. The able, good, and steady seaman, was, perhaps, more interested than any other person in seeing that the crew of a ship was well constituted before he went to sea in her, and, therefore, it was important for every shipowner to pick his crews with the utmost care. It was also of the utmost importance that the shipowners should be careful to get their crews on board in good time before the fixed time for the sailing of the ship, as otherwise there was a probability that a number of worthless substitutes would ship instead of the competent men who had been engaged, and the competent men left would naturally object to go to sea with incompetent and unworthy shipmates, whose presence would be disagreeable to themselves and perilous to the safety of the ships and to the interests of the owners. He must, therefore, demur to the statement of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade, that, in supporting the views of those who desired to change the existing law, he was acting only in the interests of the seamen, because the true interests of the seamen were only to be provided for by taking such steps as would secure the shipping of sailors possessing the highest character as well as the best technical ability. The whole question was one of the greatest difficulty and delicacy, and he hoped it would be handled with the utmost care by the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade, in view not only of the interest of the seamen but of the shipowners. The more closely the right hon. Gentleman looked into the question, the more clearly would he see the importance of dealing with it in a cautious manner.


hoped the Committee would not adopt the suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade. He would not attempt to discuss the question of who was or was not the sailor's friend, his view being that the only matter for present consideration was as to whether the time was opportune for discussing the question before the Committee. In his view the time was not opportune, and he therefore hoped Progress would be reported, in order that further opportunity might be afforded to Members to consider the details of the question which had been raised before pronouncing an opinion upon it.


said, he had been astonished by the appeal of the President of the Board of Trade, because he could not understand the grounds on which Her Majesty's Government asked the House to postpone till the Report the consideration of a new clause, which was more important in principle than any other part of the measure. He could not too strongly deprecate the fashion which seemed to be growing with Her Majesty's Government, of first introducing a Bill and then making Amendments affecting its vital principle at the last moment. He now asked for delay, because he thought it important that the new clause should be printed, and in the hands of Members, before the House was asked to determine upon it.


hoped the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade would accede to the appeal for delay which had been made to him. The question involved was one of grave importance, and was not likely to be solved by bandying sarcasms as to who were and were not the friends of the seaman. The question was as to how sailors who did not fulfil their contracts were to be dealt with; and he felt sure that no satisfactory solution of it would be arrived at which did not deal with seamen as ordinary workmen who entered into contracts with their employers, and, if they broke such contracts, rendered themselves liable to civil action, which might cause them to be mulcted in damages. The proposal which was now made was, in his view, one which should be made in Committee when it could be fully discussed, and should not be deferred until the stage of Report when no hon. Member could speak more than once as to the details of the proposal. The difficulty of considering a new clause in a Bill on the Report of Amendments was extreme, and the difficulty was largely increased when, as on the present occasion, the new clause was more important than any part of the original Bill. The House was in progress with the Bill; and the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade could lose but little, if any, time by acceding to the manifest justice of the case and consenting to Progress being reported, in order that further time could be given for consideration of the measure.


said, Her Majesty's Government could not accept the clause, because they did not think it would have the effect of ameliorating the condition of the seaman, and so settling the question which was before the Committee, and which, undoubtedly, called for settlement. The matter must be dealt with next year, and Her Majesty's Government were anxious to bring about a satisfactory settlement. If possible, a proposal would be made on the Report of the Bill, which would have the effect of putting an end at once to the difficulties that had been raised; and he hoped that the Government would have afforded to them such an opportunity as they desired, their wish being to produce a satisfactory settlement of the question.


said, his clause did not touch the question of arrest with warrant. This was a matter of the utmost importance, and one requiring very grave consideration. Two Sessions ago it was considered by a Select Committee of this House for many weeks, and if any hon. Member read the evidence given he would see that it went against the change proposed. The result of the inquiry to which he referred was that the question remained quiet for some time, until it was re-opened by the hon. Member for Morpeth. As far as he had been able to form an opinion on the question in its present phase, he thought it was of too grave a nature to be dealt with on the Report, and should, therefore, support the Motion to report Progress. As representing a large shipping community, he could say, without fear of opposition or doubt, that his constituency would be much surprised if a question of this importance was to be dealt with at the present stage. As far as his Amendment was concerned, it did not deal or attempt to deal with the large question which had been raised by the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade, but simply proposed to subject offending seamen to a fine instead of imprisonment in case they committed a breach of contract.


said, he was afraid the noble Lord did not quite understand the question as it was stated at the commencement of the debate. He was quite prepared to admit that the clause which had been proposed dealt with a very important and complicated question, and was one which might require very careful consideration and discussion; but the Government were quite prepared to pledge themselves that, if the clause was not pretty generally accepted as a settlement of the matter, they would abandon all hope of dealing with it in the present Session. He hoped, however, that the proposal would meet the approval of the Committee for the reason that, as far as he could judge, the House was almost unanimous in its favour.


said, the question was one of very great importance, and ought to be discussed in a manner which it deserved. The proposal made by Her Majesty's Government affected the whole shipping interest of the country, as it dealt with the owners of ships as well as with the seamen, and he could not admit that a proposition of the kind could be adequately discussed on the Motion for the Report of the Bill. The matter was one which ought to be dealt with in Committee, where it could be fully discussed, and he therefore hoped it would not be pressed by Her Majesty's Government at the present juncture. The noble Viscount (Viscount Sandon) was anxious to ameliorate the law, as far as the seamen were concerned, by substituting a fine for imprisonment; and he could not help thinking that the proposal was one which not only ought to be very carefully considered by Her Majesty's Government, but ought to be thoroughly discussed by the House. He further thought that such discussion was scarcely possible, unless the proposal was allowed to pass through the Committee stage, when hon. Members could, if they thought it necessary, speak more than once, and so thoroughly sift the details of the question.


thought the Motion to report Progress was a thoroughly reasonable one. They were told that the question was one of the highest importance, and one requiring much and careful consideration; and every hon. Member who had experience of Parliamentary proceedings knew that such consideration could not be given to a proposition which was made for the first time on Report of a Bill. The clause which had been vaguely sketched out by the Government was, in fact, the key-note of the Bill, and thus the most important clause in the Bill was not even printed. As far as he knew, there was no precedent for discussing a clause, involving a new principle, on Report, and he thought the Government ought not to use its majority for the purpose of compelling the House to take so unprecedented a course. He hoped they would assent to the reasonable proposition that Progress should be reported, in order that the Government might bring up their proposed clause, and that it might be properly considered in Committee.


said, that, as the representative of an important seaport, he earnestly supported the proposal that had been made to report Progress, because he thought the new clause was one that ought to be discussed in Committee, and not on the consideration of Amendments which had already been made.


said, the Committee were hardly aware of the state of the case. The Bill was one in which he had personally a very great interest, for he drew every clause which it contained, and the Bill was, in fact, his own measure with a different name. He had the greatest possible interest in the passing of the Bill, and was not likely, therefore, to take any step which could have the effect of impeding its progress. He hoped it would be possible for him to support the clause which had been introduced by the Government; but he could not say what his course would be until he had had further time and opportunity for considering it. He protested against the course which had been taken in introducing the clause on the Report, for he saw no earthly reason why it should not have been introduced a month ago. It was of the greatest importance that the general understanding which had been long in existence should be adhered to, and that new principles should not be introduced into a Bill on Report which could have been introduced when the Bill was in Committee and there was ample opportunity for its discussion.


said, that when the Bill was last before the House he gave full credit to the noble Lord who had just spoken for its authorship, and hoped that, with certain modifications, it would be accepted by Parliament; but the noble Lord now asked why the alternative clause was not introduced earlier? All he could say was that, having only recently acceded to Office, and finding so many loose threads of legislation to take up, he had found it impossible, until within the last few days, to come to any satisfactory conclusion as to the best mode of dealing with this question. While he held that the clause which he had proposed would materially improve the Bill, he thought that, as there seemed to be a general desire for further time to consider the matter, he should not oppose the proposal to report Progress. But, under the circumstances, he must withdraw the pledge which he had been willing to give if hon. Members opposite had allowed the Committee stage to be taken and not to press the new clause on Report, if there were any serious objection. The new clause would now be discussed fully in Committee, and the Government would urge its adoption in the House.

Question put, and agreed to.

Committee report Progress; to sit again upon Thursday next.