HC Deb 31 May 1881 vol 261 cc1830-41



, in rising to move— That, in the opinion of this House, it is expedient that the recommendations of the Select Committee of last Session on Fishing Vessels' Lights be carried out in accordance with the Report of the Committee, so far as it affects trawlers' lights; said, he regretted there should be any necessity to bring this matter before the House; but he had no other alternative, because it affected the interests of a most important trade, and the safety of the lives of a valuable class of men. He admitted that there was a necessity for an alteration in the lights of fishing vessels. The Merchant Shipping Act of 1862 and the Sea Fisheries Act of 1868 were at variance with each other, and trawling smacks had been using an illegal light for many years. This was an international matter, and therefore it was of the more importance that it should be settled at once. The question of drift-net vessels had been settled, and the question was solely and entirely in relation to the lights required to be displayed by trawling vessels. They were in the habit of carrying a white foremast light; they also had to carry a side light, inasmuch as when in their occupation they were vessels under way the same as any ordinary sailing vessel. By the 25th clause of the Merchant Shipping Amendment Act power was given to a Joint Committee of the Board of Trade and of the Admiralty, by an Order in Council, to annul or modify any of the regulations or to make new ones; and the proposed alterations came under that clause. It was an obnoxious clause, because it gave a Departmental Committee power to vary regulations without coming to Parliament or consulting the fishing interest or the Mercantile Marine. On the 24th February, 1874, a Joint Committee of the Admiralty, Board of Trade, and Trinity Board, was appointed to draw up regulations to prevent collision at sea. Negotiations were carried on with all the principal maritime Powers. An Article, No. 10, was drawn up and agreed upon, and passed by an Order in Council, in August, 1879; and sub-section D was as follows:— A trawler at work shall carry on one of her masts two lights, in a vertical line, one over the other, not less than three feet apart—the upper light red and the lower light green, and shall also carry the side lights required for other vessels. These regulations appeared in an Order in Council of the 14th of August, 1879, and were published in the usual way in The Gazette and in the local papers of the coasting towns, and that was the first intimation the fishing interest had of the changes. Meetings were called at the principal ports, and a representative conference was held at Great Yarmouth in October, 1879. The proposed regulations were unanimously condemned. The late President of the Board of Trade sent Commissioners to the various fishing ports to hear the objections of the fishing interest to the proposed regulations—the Commissioners being Mr. Gray, Captain Digby Murray, and Captain Weller, of the Trinity House—and they visited Great Yarmouth, Grimsby, Hull, Brixham, and Penzance, to hear objections; and in the following year they issued what was considered a most unsatisfactory Report, which was laid on the Table. In consequence of its being so unsatisfactory, the late President of the Board of Trade was asked that the enforcement of the regulations should be postponed from the 1st of September, 1880, to the 1st of September, 1881, and he agreed to the request, and also that a Select Committee should be appointed to inquire into the objections of the fishing interest. After the General Election the present President of the Board of Trade also agreed to the appointment of the Committee. It sat early in June, and 37 witnesses were examined on behalf of the fishing interest from all parts of the United Kingdom. Their evidence was of a clear, convincing, and telling character. Four witnesses were examined on behalf of the Board of Trade. The Committee unanimously found that Article 10 of the new regulations should be revised; that trawlers should not be compelled to carry side lights when trawling, nor two coloured masthead lights, but that they should retain the white light they had carried so many years; that drift-net vessels should carry two white lights instead of two red lights, as proposed by the Departmental Committee; that pilot boats should carry a red over a white masthead light; and, lastly, that for the future no alterations in fishing lights should take place without ample notice being given to those interested. After so strong a Report as this being made in their favour, the fishing interest made up their minds that their wishes would be acceded to; but he regretted to say that when the Departmental Committee met in January of this year, they made fresh recommendations which, as far as trawling vessels were concerned, did not carry out the recommendations of the Select Committee. They agreed that the trawlers should have a red masthead light, and a white light somewhere in the after part of the vessel. There was a strong feeling among the fishing interest that these regulations could not be carried out. In February he gave Notice of this Motion; but the fishing interest was astonished to find that on the 25th of April another Report—a third edition of the regulations—came out. He considered that Report was only another proof of the ignorance of those who concocted those regulations. The trawling interest objected to them; and in his opinion they would, if carried out, be admirably well calculated to bring about collisions and loss of life and property at sea. The trawlers were to carry a red light at the masthead, and also a white light in the after part of the vessel, somewhere en the gunwale. The red masthead light was not visible at best more than two miles at sea, and on a November night not more than one mile. The white light was certainly visible three or four miles off. Trawling smackowners contended that if this red masthead light were adopted, it certainly would be mistaken for the port light of a sailing vessel. The white light would not be seen in many positions. He was glad to see the Secretary of the Board of Trade present, for he had gone out with him to the North Sea to test these regulations, and he should be surprised if he did not find him in the same Lobby with himself on this question. The Departmental Committee contended that the white light was necessary to prove in what direction the trawling vessel was heading. The witnesses who were examined on the part of the Board of Trade displayed their ignorance as regarded fishing vessels. The white light had been the best means of preventing collisions, and its adoption had been recommended by the Smackowners' Insurance Association. He hoped the right hon Gentleman would take the matter into consideration, and give the trawling trade what they asked for, and which for the last 18 years had proved of the greatest advantage. He begged to move the Resolution of which he had given Notice.


said, he rose to second the Motion. He spoke as the Representative of a port which contained as many trawlers as any port in the United Kingdom. In the Humber there was something like 900 trawlers. In his own port there were as many as 460 registered trawlers, of a total value of £700,000, and affording employment to 25,000 persons, who were unanimously in favour of carrying the white light. It was said that there was the danger of collision from steamers and other vessels passing up and down and mistaking this light for some stationary light. But there was no possibility of any such mistake. In the first place, because the stationary lights were first class lights, electric in many cases, and with which the fishing lights were not for a moment to be compared. Then, the trawlers fished in large fleets and in well-known ground, and steamers passing up and down the Coast knew where to expect to find them. It was a remarkable fact that with the great traffic up and down the North-East Coast collisions with fishing vessels were comparatively rare. Then, as to the possibility of mistaking the white light of the trawler for the white light of the pilot vessel, he might observe that they rarely had more than four pilot vessels at a time cruising off the mouth of the Humber. The trawlers said they were a vast body, and that if a change was to be made it was reasonable that it should be made in the case of the infinitely smaller body, the pilots. As a Member of the Select Committee of last year, he complained very strongly of the manner in which it bad been treated. The question of lights was exhaustively investigated by the Committee—much evidence taken, and an unanimous conclusion arrived at in favour of the white light for trawlers—yet the Board of Trade referred that Report to the consideration of a Departmental Committee, consisting of the Registrar and the Hydrographer of the Admiralty, four members of the Board of Trade, and two Trinity House men, who were under the supervision and control of the Board of Trade. The result was that the unanimous decision of the Select Committee, in which the Secretary of the Board of Trade joined, was overruled by the Departmental Committee. He hoped that the House would insist that their Committee should be treated with respect. He had mentioned one of the best instances of the way in which the Board of Trade had overridden the wishes of the mercantile community, and he hoped that the House would express its opinion on the subject.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That, in the opinion of this House, it is expedient that the recommendations of the Select Committee of last Session on Fishing Vessels' Lights be carried out in accordance with the Report of the Committee, so far as it effects trawlers' lights."—(Mr. Birkbeck.)


said, he rose early in the discussion, with the hope that the statement he had to make on the part of the Government would be satisfactory to the hon. Members who had moved and seconded the Resolution. The position of the Government in relation to this matter had been stated both publicly and privately on more than one occasion, and the House was aware what that position was; but there seemed to be some confusion in the minds of hon. Members as to Departmental Committees, and the Departments of the Government by which they were appointed. He wished, therefore, to explain that in the case of the Departmental Committee appointed by the Board of Trade the Board did not accept its Report as final, nor, indeed, had they expressed an opinion on the subject. They had, in fact, to consider the antagonistic Reports of two Committees, the Departmental Committee and the Select Committee of the House of Commons. The hon. Member for Hull (Mr. Norwood) had expressed his sense of the disrespect with which that latter Committee had been treated; but it was a Committee appointed at the request of the fishing interests, and of its 11 Members seven represented places in which the trawling interest was powerful. It had done valuable work, no doubt; but it was not a tribunal so impartial as to merit more consideration than the House itself. It was appointed to inquire into the objections urged by persons connected with the fishing interests against the new regulations as to the lights to be carried by fishing vessels. Accordingly, none of its Members represented the shipping interests generally, which interests, however, the Government was bound to consider. If it were a question of fishing vessels alone, there would not be the slightest difficulty. The trawlers were in favour of their present illegal practice of carrying a single white light at the masthead; but representations had been made, both by foreign Governments and by the drifters, who were in favour of a more distinctive light. It was most desirable, if possible, to come to some international agreement in the matter before committing the fishermen of the country to the adoption of any particular light, and with that object he had caused circular letters—[Mr. NORWOOD: Fishing letters.]—to be sent asking the opinions of various parties interested. No replies had as yet been received from foreign Governments; but from the large shipping firms in this country more than 60 answers had been returned, of which 41 were against the proposal of the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Birkbeck), and 14, including that of the Peninsular and Oriental Steamship Company, in its favour. In these circumstances, he hoped the House would not come to an immediate conclusion on the subject. The object of the Government was to promote some arrangement by which the lights used should be at once distinctive and self-descriptive, so as to announce three main facts—the kind of vessel, the direction of its head, and its being under command or otherwise. Of course, the peculiarity of trawling vessels was that, though they were under sail and had steerage way, they were not under command, and consequently they required a special light to distinguish them, on the one hand from vessels at anchor, and on the other from vessels under way and under command. It was difficult, however, with the limited number of combinations and permutations of red, white, and green lights, to find a light that would answer the purpose. The objection to the proposal of the hon. Member for North Norfolk was that if trawlers carried white lights they might be mistaken for pilot vessels or for vessels at anchor, while the multiplication of white lights on our coasts would render it more difficult for home-bound vessels to make the shore lights. The hon. Member for North Norfolk had said that the white lights in question had been carried for the last 18 years with perfect safety; but the statistics of the case compelled him to traverse that assertion. The figures showed that during the last three years alone 69 fishing vessels—not all trawlers, as far as he knew—had been sunk in collision, and 49 lives had been lost in consequence. Of these, there were no less than 39 collisions involving the loss of not less than 36 lives, which were collisions with other vessels, and not collisions of fishing vessels inter se; and from the evidence brought to his notice he could not doubt that some, at all events, of these collisions, probably the greater part of them, were due to a confusion of lights. Now, the Departmental Committee had made two recommendations. The Departmental Committee and they alone were responsible for those recommendations. He would not trouble the House with regard to the first recommendation of the Departmental Committee. With regard to the second recommendation, they differed from the conclusion of the Committee of the House of Commons. They said, with regard to the masthead, there should be a red light, with a white light below abaft the beams, on the taffrail or some other convenient place, and that the side light should be discontinued. The hon. Member for North Norfolk objected, in the first place, to the red light being at the masthead, because it might be mistaken in many cases for the light of a sailing vessel. It was also objected, he believed, that the white light, which was in the after-part of the ship, would be in the way of the steersman and prevent him from keeping a good look-out. A further objection was that the light would not be seen, because the sail would be in its way. He was not going to discuss those points. He merely wished to put them before the House. He thought they were all agreed, in the first place, that the object he had stated to the House was a desirable one to obtain—namely, that there should be a distinctive light; and he was not unwilling to say that they were all agreed that all the methods of securing that distinctive light which had hitherto been suggested were open to grave objections, and therefore he was not prepared, at the present moment, to adopt the Report of the Departmental Committee, or to adopt any other suggestion which had been made to him. But neither could he, until he had before him the opinions for which he had asked both from foreign Governments and from the shipping interest generally, adopt the conclusion of the hon. Member for North Norfolk. He was not altogether unfriendly to the hon. Member's proposal. He was certainly not unfriendly to the object the hon. Member had in view, and he would suggest to him that he should withdraw his Motion to-night, satisfied with the discussion to which it had given rise; and then he (Mr. Chamberlain) would undertake that as soon as he had obtained the replies to which he had referred, they should be laid on the Table of the House. He would then propose to refer those Papers, as well as all previous Papers on the matter, back to the Departmental Committee; but he would propose to add to that Departmental Committee, to which objection was taken that it was too much of an Official Committee, some hon. Members of the House, as Representatives of the trawlers as well as of the drifters and of general shipping. As to the new Regulations, he would undertake that they should not come into force until a further Report was made.


said, he thought the House ought to feel very much indebted to the right hon. Gentleman for the trouble he had taken on this subject. He hoped his hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Birkbeck) would accept the proposition of the right hon. Gentleman, it being, of course, thoroughly understood that the House would have an opportunity of discussing the regulations before they came into operation.


said, it seemed to him that the proposals of the right hon. Gentleman would simply make confusion worse confounded. In his opinion, they had before them all the evidence that was necessary, and they ought to endeavour to make an end of the question as soon as possible. All the witnesses from England, Scotland, and Ireland, said that a white light involved safety, and that red, green, and all the other rubbish, would lead to nothing but confusion. He hoped the hon. Member for North Norfolk would take a division on his Resolution, and thus put a stop to all this useless foolscap Correspondence. The matter should be dealt with without any further delay.


said, he thought there was every reason to be satisfied with the tone of the discussion, and with the offer of the President of the Board of Trade, who appeared to be gradually coming round to the views of the hon. Member for North Norfolk, though the right hon. Gentleman had been hampered by the Office over which he presided, and the Reports of the Departmental Committee. The strong expressions of opinion would show him that it was necessary that the matter should be dealt with and settled. The old system had worked well for 18 years, and it was a pity that it was interfered with. The new system would be dangerous, and might cause a great loss of life. There were very few cases in which the lights had been the cause of collision. The difficulties had arisen from the Board of Trade desiring to have a new plan that would be theoretically perfect, for which they were willing to sacrifice one that had worked well. He thought his hon. Friend might be satisfied with the debate without pressing the matter to a division.


said, he had intended giving some account of an experimental trip to sea with the hon. Member for North Norfolk and the Secretary of the Board of Trade; but the speech of the right hon. Gentleman had made it unnecessary for him to do so. When it was said that 30 accidents had happened from trawlers carrying white lights, he should like to ask how many more would occur if they were compelled to carry red lights, which, as it was known, were very inferior to white lights? Their experience of the white light was that it was infinitely clearer than the red light, and was visible at a greater distance, and that notwithstand- ing that the red light was brought from the Board of Trade and the white light was taken from a fishing smack. A gunwale light in the after-part of the ship was perfectly dazzling to a man there, and it prevented them seeing the hull of a steamer at a distance of 30 yards, although her lights could be seen; and this was on a fairly light night. He should support his hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk if he pressed the matter to a division.


said, it was clear that the balance of argument was entirely on the side of the hon. Member for North Norfolk. The right hon. Gentleman professed to be consulting the shipping interest and foreign nations. The Representatives of the shipping interest had spoken in that House. The success that had hitherto followed the efforts of the Government to obtain the concerted action of the Powers on other questions rendered it doubtful whether they would succeed on this question.


said, that his constituents were of opinion that the Report of the Select Committee should be upheld, and that trawlers should carry a white light. The offer of the President of the Board of Trade was fair and reasonable, and might, he thought, be accepted by the hon. Member for North Norfolk.


said, he hoped his hon. Friend would accept the proposal of the President of the Board of Trade, who had met the matter in a very fair spirit. In the interest of human life it was necessary to make a change.


said, it was not only a question of life, but also a question whether the Board of Trade would put an end to an important trade, because the seamen belonging to the trawlers intended absolutely to refuse to go to sea with the lights prescribed by the Board of Trade. He was glad to find the spirit in which the right hon. Gentleman had made his proposal; he only regretted such an arrangement had not been made sooner. He hoped, however, it would be distinctly understood that there was no disposition to place themselves in the hands of a Departmental Committee whose conclusions a Select Committee of the House of Commons had entirely set aside; and he thought that more consideration should be shown to the Report of that Select Committee, as there was a concurrence of opinion in the evidence of the ship-owners, skippers, and insurance officers, with which the Committee unanimously agreed in a Report drafted by their Chairman, the Secretary to the Board of Trade.


begged it would be understood that so long as the matter remained in its present state the seamen would enjoy their white light under all the conditions which they themselves preferred. As Chairman of the Committee, he must also state that all the other recommendations in their Report had been carried out with the exception of the white light. His own opinion was certainly in favour of the white light. The Departmental Committee had no disposition to run counter to the decision of the House of Commons' Committee; but as men having considerable experience in the general trade of the country, although not practical fishermen, he thought their opinion was entitled to respect, looking as they did at the question on all its sides, and not merely as a trawlers' question. He hoped the proposal of his right hon. Friend would be accepted in the spirit in which it had been offered.


, in reply, said, he had hoped that his hon. Friend the Secretary to the Board of Trade would have mentioned to the House the nature of their experience on Wednesday last in the North Sea, and would have told the House that, in his opinion, the recommendations of the Committee could not be carried out. He thought it most unfair that the letter describing the regulations should have been sent to foreign Powers without any intimation to them that the regulations could not be carried out. He trusted he would receive a distinct assurance from the President of the Board of Trade that this important matter would not be settled before the House had been afforded an opportunity of fully discussing it.


said, that the House would have an opportunity of considering any new regulations that might be proposed—anything that differed from the present practice.


said, he threw the whole responsibility resulting from this matter on the Front Bench. If disasters occurred from the proceedings of the Board of Trade, the Government must take the consequences. He begged to withdraw his Motion.


said, he had made careful inquiry into the subject the House had been engaged in discussing, and would read a telegram he had that day received from a gentleman of high authority resident in Hull, and who had made himself acquainted with the opinions of steamship owners whose vessels made, not dozens, but thousands of voyages across the North Sea. He said— After consulting captains as well as shipowners, we are of opinion that the present lights used in vessels employed as trawlers are good and safe, and that any alteration would cause great confusion, collision, and possible loss of life. That, he believed, was as reliable as the information that had been procured by the Board of Trade.


observed, that the House had been placed in a very peculiar and somewhat difficult position by the extraordinary conduct of the Board of Trade. It now turned out that the Reference by the Board to the Departmental Committee was of a very limited character, and that the Committee were entirely precluded from going into the question at large—they could, in fact, only approach the fringe of the matter—and the Board of Trade were at liberty, if they thought fit, to ignore any opinion they might express. The Secretary to the Board of Trade had stated that he did not feel at all aggrieved that his opinion as Chairman of the Committee had been overridden. Well, had he been selected as Chairman, he would certainly feel aggrieved if his opinion were regarded as useless by the head of his own Department. He trusted that in future the Board of Trade would appoint its Committees in such a manner as that they would be in a position to arrive at some definite conclusion on the subjects referred to them.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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