HC Deb 23 May 1895 vol 34 cc192-6

On the Motion "That this House do now Adjourn,"

MR. HAVELOCK WILSON (Middlesbrough)

said, he wished to bring before the House a matter of considerable importance. He put a question the other evening, (Tuesday) to the President of the Board of Trade, with reference to the accommodation provided for Lascar seamen on board the P. & O. steamship Himalaya and other vessels. The answer he received was to the effect that there was accommodation on board the vessels for 123 feet cubic space for each Lascar, whereas he had ascertained that no fewer than 154 men were living in the forecastle with most inadequate accommodation. He desired on the previous occasion to move the adjournment of the House on the question, but the Speaker ruled that, under the circumstances, he could not do so, because it was not a matter of "urgent public importance." Consequently, he now brought the matter again before the House, having reason to feel confident that the President of the Board of Trade was entirely wrong as to the cubic space he said was allowed to the Lascar sailors on board the ship named. The right hon. Gentleman said the seamen were engaged under the Indian Act, and that they entered into their contracts in India. Now he had given the right hon. Gentleman notice of his intention to bring the matter forward to-night—he sent a letter to him to that effect about 10 o'clock.


I received it only five minutes ago.


said, that delay was no fault of his—he sent the letter in good time. Now, according to the Merchant Shipping Act, all vessels registered in the United Kingdom were bound to give the seamen 72 cubic feet of accommodation, and yet the P. & O. Company were cutting-down the space to 36 cubic feet for the accommodation of those poor men. He could not understand how the Board of Trade could tolerate such a scandal.

MR. BROMLEY DAVENPORT rose to a point of Order. He asked whether the right hon. Gentleman was entitled to make a speech of great length at that time of night?


said, an hon. Member might take advantage of the Motion for Adjournment to bring a matter of importance before the House, but it was not usual on such occasions to make a speech of any great length.


said, this was a matter of such importance to the men he represented that he was certainly entitled to call the attention of the House to it, and to expose the scandalous state of things that existed. When it was considered that even a convict was allowed 380 cubic feet of space, was it not a disgrace to the country that the Government should allow any shipping company to crowd men into the forecastles of vessels to an extent utterly repugnant to human beings? He had noticed that when a captain or a seaman committed breaches of the Merchant Shipping Act, the Board of Trade came down upon them, the captain's certificate was suspended, and his living taken from him. Now he demanded that exactly the same measure of justice as was meted to the officer and the seaman should be meted out to the shipowner. The P. and O. Company received nearly half-a-million a year from the country for carrying mails, and yet they employed poor Lascars at between £1 and £2 a month instead of engaging competent British-born seamen at a fair rate of wages. Then, instead of giving the 72 cubic feet of space to which they were entitled, they brought them down to 36. And what was the consequence of this conduct? What was it doing? It was crowding out the British-born sailor entirely. In another ten years they would not be able to get British-born sailors to man our warships in the event of a great war. He did not intend to say a word about the poor Lascars, but the more sober and intelligent and desirable they were as a body of men the less excuse there was for treating them like dogs or slaves, crowding them into forecastles in a manner compared with which pigs in pig-styes had more accommodation. He was determined to follow the question up, and to use all the power he could as a Member of the House to insist that the President of the Board of Trade should administer the Merchant Shipping Act in the manner laid down by law. In the case of the Himalaya, the President admitted that 154 men were crowded into a space only certified to accommodate 123, and yet he refused to take action. He was entitled to take this opportunity of calling the attention of the House, and still more of the country at large, to this shameful state of affairs. It was stated there was a Petition, written and signed by the Lascars themselves, in which they talked about being very happy and comfortable. He would like to see the Lascars who were said to have drawn up this Petition. He had been endeavouring during the last six weeks, by means of interpreters and visits to the Docks, to find out these Lascars, but he had been unable to discover any trace of them. He did not ask for any new legislation, but he did ask the President of the Board of Trade to make up his mind to enforce the existing law. He hoped that there would be no more shuffling upon this question.


said, that he told the hon. Member a few days ago exactly how this matter stood. Either he had failed to convey to the hon. Member what he had intended to convey, or else the hon. Member had ignored his explanation. He had told the hon. Member that the Board of Trade were putting the law in force and doing the best they could to insure the application of the Merchant Shipping Acts. The Indian law on the matter was not identical with the British law. Under the Indian law the same amount of cubic space was not required. The Board had instructed their surveyors to deal with these cases, and had told the company that they must not overcrowd the Lascars, and that the British law must be enforced. Steps had also been taken which had had the effect, where there was overcrowding, of increasing the amount which vessels had to pay for light and harbour dues. A kind of fine was thus imposed in the case of ships where there was an overcrowding of Lascars. It was very surprising that the hon. Member should say that the Board were encouraging the reduction of the accommodation. The Board had communicated to the Indian Government their desire that the Indian law on the subject of the cubic space available should be brought up to the level of the British law. There was no reason why a full inquiry should not be made into the conduct of the Board in this matter.

MR. D. CRILLY (Mayo, N.)

thought the reply of the right hon. Gentleman was a justification of the action of his hon. Friend opposite.


said that he had given exactly the same reply as he gave a few days ago.


said, that when the hon. Member wished to raise the question a few evenings ago it was apparent that the right hon. Gentleman wanted to shirk it. Was it, or was it not, true that these Lascars, who came from India to the Thames had not the same cubic space of accommodation as British sailors had? When his hon. Friend made an effort the other evening to raise this question he was prevented from doing so.


Order, order! The hon. Member must not refer to past decisions of the Chair. The question is: That this House do now adjourn.