§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Sir M. Hicks Beach.)
§ MR. CONYBEARE (Cornwall, Camborne)
I think the House ought to know something about this Bill before it is read a second time. We have not had a single word from any responsible person to explain its provisions, and unless we have some explanation I think we should be entitled to move the adjournment of the debate. I have no desire to proceed to extreme measures, but I have a strong objection to the exceedingly vicious practice of rushing Bills through the House without explanation.
§ *THE PRESIDENT OF THE BOARD OF TRADE (Sir M. HICKS BEACH,) Bristol, W.
If I did not explain the proposals of the Bill, it was because, the matter being of a technical nature, I have circulated a memorandum with the Bill fully explaining its provisions. I will, however, shortly inform the House what the proposals of the measure are. Under the Merchant Shipping Act, vessels are charged for dock, light, and harbour dues upon their net tonnage. In calculating the net tonnage from the gross tonnage, certain deductions are made for light and air spaces and crew space. The law, under what is known as the Isabella decision, is in a state that Parliament never intended it to be in; and the result is that, in calculating the net tonnage, deductions are made for spaces which have never 1667 been included in the measurement of the gross tonnage. I think it is obvious that the law ought not to be allowed to continue in such a state, for it is not only unfair to the light dues and to the dock companies, but also obviously unfair as between ships of one class and another. The Bill before the House, therefore, proposes to restore the law to the condition which it was the intention of Parliament to create by taking the measure of the gross tonnage inclusive of everything, and calculating the net tonnage from that.
§ SIR J. CORRY (Armagh, Mid)
As I was one of a large deputation to the President of the Board of Trade on this matter, I may say that I do not intend to oppose the Bill, but in Committee I shall move an Amendment for the omission of the clause which provides that the measure shall be retrospective.
§ MR. J. C. STEVENSON (South Shields)
I heartily hope that the Government will stand by this Bill, which will be of advantage to harbour authorities all over the country. In some cases the deductions that are made are of a very serious character, and enable vessels to enjoy all the advantages of harbour accommodation at a much less rate than in former years.
§ MR. SEXTON (Belfast, W.)
I wish to testify that two ports in Ireland in which I feel a particular interest—namely, Dublin and Belfast—have suffered a great and growing injury to their incomes by reason of the condition of the law which this Bill is intended to amend. The right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade (Sir M. Hicks Beach) has accurately stated that the object of this Bill is not to create a novelty in legislation, but to give effect to the intention of Parliament in former times, The hon. Baronet the Member for Armagh (Sir J. Corry) has stated that in Committee he will move an Amendment to prevent the Bill having retrospective action. If the measure is to be made effectual, it must have retrospective action; it would be worthless without it. The effect of carrying such an Amendment would be 1668 to introduce a double law, and one set of ships would be measured under a different law to another. That would be an indefensible anomaly, and would occasion great damage to the various parts of the Kingdom.
§ SIR H. DAVEY (Stockton)
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade (Sir M. Hicks Beach) on having brought in this Bill, which will have the effect of redressing a very gross injustice which the harbour authorities are at present labouring under. I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman who has just spoken that if the measure is to have its full effect it ought to be retrospective, because, undoubtedly, great anomalies will be introduced if there are to be two classes of measurement—one for ships measured before the Bill comes into effect, and one for those measured afterwards. The object of the measure is one which will, I think, commend itself to the sense of the House. There is no doubt that the decision in the Isabella case has not commended itself to the minds of commercial men or of lawyers, and I think the Government is to be congratulated upon having brought in a measure of such a beneficial character. I hope they will not allow its benefits to be lessened by accepting an Amendment which will have the effect of making it merely prospective.
§ MR. WHITLEY (Liverpool, Everton)
I think it is right I should say that the population of Liverpool, who are largely interested in the Bill, generally approve of it. At the same time, there is very great force in what was observed by the hon. Member for Armagh. There is no doubt that if the Bill is made retrospective it will have a very serious effect upon vessels which have been built under the old régime. Owners of vessels who built their vessels under the old regulations will suffer great loss if they are made amenable to legislation of a retrospective character. I am sure I represent the views of shipowners when I say they approve of the provisions of 1669 the Bill, but they do think it would be very unfair if the provisions were applied to old vessels. I hope the President of the Board of Trade will reconsider the question before the Bill proceeds upon the present stage.
§ MR. SUTHERLAND (Greenock)
I cordially endorse the observations made by the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Whitley). Great injustice will be done to a large number of shipowners whose vessels have been built and worked in conformity with the existing law, if the operation of the Bill is made retrospective. There is another point worthy of consideration. The House must be aware that there is a very large and increasing competition between English vessels and foreign vessels, or vessels sailing under foreign flags. To these vessels you cannot apply the proposed law, and therefore, if the Bill is made retrospective in its operation, the conditions under which foreign vessels sail in competition with us will be more advantageous than those under which our vessels trade.
§ *SIR J. PEASE (Durham, Barnard Castle)
Let me respectfully suggest to my hon. Friends that the question of the retrospective action of the measure will be best dealt with in Committee. What we desire now is the Second Reading of the Bill, in order that it may go to Committee, and then be dealt with on its merits. But one single fact, perhaps, may be worth a bushel of arguments. I hold in my hand a Return of several ships which have come into the River Tees. One of these vessels, a steamer, carried to sea 600 tons of pig iron. The vessel's gross registered tonnage was 587 tons. Under the old measurement she was 323 tons, under new measure 252 tons, and, therefore, she had 600 tons of pig iron on board, and yet she only paid port dues on 252. If this Bill is not passed it is perfect beggary to some of our harbours. I hope, therefore, the House will, without hesitation, agree to the Second Reading.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read a second time, and committed for Monday next.