HC Deb 19 June 1893 vol 13 cc1328-31

I beg to ask the President of the Board of Trade whether he has obtained the opinion of the Law Officers of the Crown as to the legality of the action of the Shipping Federation referred to by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough?


Perhaps the House will allow me to answer this question at some length, as it is desirable that the facts of the case, and the position of the Board of Trade in the matter, should be fully before the House. Sections 146 and 147 of the Act of 1854 are the re-enactment, with certain modifications, of sections contained in the Act of 1845, which, as the preamble of those sections shows, were intended to prevent crimping. In 1889, shortly after the formation of the National Amalgamated Sailors' and Firemen's Union, the Board of Trade were informed that a local Secretary of that Union, although he had no licence from the Board of Trade to supply seamen under Section 146, did supply seamen (being members of the Union) to serve on board British ships. Upon this fact Mr. Wright (now Mr. Justice Wright) advised that the local Secretary was liable to conviction under Sub-section l of Section 147. The Board of Trade, although they had no reason to differ from the opinion that a technical offence had been committed, considered that it was contrary to the intention and spirit of the Act to extend provisions intended to prevent crimping to the action of the officials of the Seamen's Union arising out of a trade dispute. About 1890 the Shipping Federation was formed. They established Registry Offices at all the principal ports of the Kingdom where qualified seamen could enter their names for employment. They thus practically undertook to supply crews to shipowners who were members of the Federation. Application was made to the Board of Trade to licence the Federation officials. The Board of Trade, having determined to grant no licence to the Sailors' and Firemen's Union, adhered to that position when applied to by the Shipping Federation, and further withdrew all existing licences with the exception of those granted to training ships. The Sailors' Union, whom, in pursuance of the policy I have previously explained, the Board of Trade declined to prosecute for offences under Section 147, in their turn pressed the Board of Trade to prosecute the officials of the Federation; but the Board adhered to the policy which they deliberately adopted when urged by shipowners to prosecute seamen—namely, of not extending the provisions to prevent crimping to actions which were not in the nature of crimping, but which arose out of a trade dispute. My predecessor, on the 11th November, 1891, stated publicly to a deputation that— The provisions of the Act were intended to deal with and to put down crimping; they were not intended to be used on either side by the Board of Trade in favour of employers or against employers—in favour of seamen or against seamen. In consequence of a Debate which recently took place in this House I consulted the Law Officers as to whether the action taken by the Shipping Federation comes within the provisions of Section 147 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1854, and whether, if in strictness such action amounts to a technical breach of the section, the offence thereby committed is of such a criminal or quasi-criminal nature that the Board of Trade, as Public Prosecutor, is bound to prosecute the officials of the Federation. I am advised that the first question is of some nicety, but that upon a strict construction of the section the procedure of the Shipping Federation involves an infringement of the provisions of the Act. I am further advised that the Board is not bound to prosecute the officials of the Federation unless satisfied that the public interests require the interference of the Department, and it must be remembered that—(1) It is open to any parties interested to prosecute. (2) The Preamble of the Act of 1845 clearly shows that the object of the Legislature was to put a stop to the system by which persons having no interest in ships supplied seamen under well-known demoralising circumstances, and was not to prevent bona fide associations of shipowners, seamen, or others having an interest in the ships, from taking steps by which the services of seamen seeking employment should be made available. I am further advised that the Board, in determining their duty under the later Act, are justified in taking into consideration the origin of the legislation, and need not interfere in cases not thought by the Board to be within the substantial mischief aimed at. The action of the Board of Trade which has corresponded practically with the above opinion is, therefore, perfectly impartial. They do not strain the provisions of the Act against seamen when pressed to do so by shipowners, nor do they strain the provisions of the Act against shipowners when pressed to do so by seamen. It is open to either party to prosecute if they consider the Act to be infringed. The Board of Trade decline to make themselves, in any way, partisans in a trade dispute. At the same time, the Board will continue to act upon the practice which has hitherto prevailed, and in any case brought under their notice in which the spirit and intention as well as the letter of the Act of 1854 are infringed, they will cause investigation to be made with a view to a prosecution.

MR. BUCKNILL (Surrey, Epsom)

Arising out of that answer, may I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman has not within the last few days received from the Shipping Federation a statement the effect of which might alter the opinion of the Law Officers of the Crown, which, I understand, amounts to this—that in the case stated by the right hon. Gentleman they are of opinion that there has been only a technical infringement of the law?


I do not know that anything I have received would alter the opinion of the Law Officers of the Crown. iEverything has been carefully put to the Law Officers, including the Rules of the Shipping Federation and their own statement as to the way in which they work those Rules. It is quite true they came to the conclusion that what was done amounted only to a technical infringement of the Act; but there is great danger that they may go beyond mere technical infringements, and in that case it would be my duty, whichever side committed the offence, to prosecute.