HC Deb 28 February 1896 vol 37 cc1433-47
MR. J. HAVELOCK WILSON (Middlesbrough)

, in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, said at present it was all important that this country should have a body of men connected with the Mercantile Marine, upon whom it should be able to rely in time of war or danger. At present the qualifications of a seaman now serving in the Mercantile Marine were anything but satisfactory. The law of 1880 provided that no person shall have the rating of able seamen on board British vessels unless he had served four years at sea. But the working of that Act had not been satisfactory. There were thousands of men going to sea at present who were not competent seamen. If a seaman now signing on a vessel was not able to produce four years' service to prove his competency, the Board of Trade made arrangements whereby he would be entered on the articles as an able seaman giving him the description "N.P.," which meant "not proven" as to sea service. It was more important to-day to have a better class of men on steamers and sailing ships than it was many years ago. There had been a steady decrease year by year in the number of men employed on steamers and sailing vessels. In consequence of the keen competition in the shipping trades managing owners had considerably reduced the staff on board vessels. There were vessels sailing to-day which formerly carried eight and nine able-bodied sea-men; now they were carrying four or five. There were hon. Members who intended to oppose this Bill in the interests of the Shipping Federation. He believed the reason was that the Shipping Federation already insisted on seamen having four years service before giving them a parchment certificate enabling them to ship on board. He denied this. At the present time large numbers of men were obtaining certificates from the Shipping Federation without producing one day's sea service. Only last week a case was brought under his notice of a man who went to the Shipping Federation office in London, and without producing one day's sea service got a certificate certifying that he was a competent seaman to go on board a ship. All that the Bill asked for was that a seaman before he should be entitled to the rating of able seaman, should produce four years' discharge either as an apprentice or as an ordinary seaman. Only last November, in consequence of an incompetent man being at the wheel of a vessel and not understanding the orders which were given by the chief mate, a collision occurred, the other vessel was run down and five lives were lost. The present Act provided that a seaman should serve at least three years on board a vessel or that he had gone to sea for one year in a registered decked fishing vessel. He had made some alteration in the Bill, because at the present time sailing ships were rapidly dying out, and in 20 years sailing ships would be scarce in the Mercantile Marine. Provision was made so that a lad might serve his time as an apprentice or ordinary seaman for four years on a steamship and then to be rated as an able seaman on board ship. The Bill did not prohibit the employment of foreign seamen. A forother could serve on board vessels just as an Englishman did, but before he was entitled to the rating of able seaman he must be able to prove to the satisfaction of an officer of the Mercantile Marine that he had been four years in the capacity of ordinary seaman or apprentice, and in addition, that he should be able to understand the common orders given on board the vessel. It was absolutely dangerous to have a crew of foreigners on board who were unable to understand the orders given by the officers. Out of about 200,000 men and officers employed in the Mercantile Marine there were not more than about 45,000 British born sailors and firemen. That was a serious matter, and the sooner the House dealt with the question the better it would be for the Empire. In the event of war and we should need men to man our ships, from whence were we to get them? Could we place Lascar seamen on board war ships to do our fighting in the place of the British seamen? Twenty years ago we had in the Merchant Service about 20,000 sea-going apprentices; at present, there were only about 4,000 ordinary seamen and apprentices, and yet we owned 12 millions of tons of shipping. He believed that the Bill would go a long way to alter that state of affairs, and it would improve the seamen in every direction. There was only one way to check desertion or failure to join a ship, and that was by making the sailors and firemen hold and produce a parchment certificate similar to that held by officers of vessels. The desertions or failure to join on the part of officers in the Mercantile Marine did not represent more than 1 per cent. of the total number of persons engaged, whereas in the case of sailors and firemen it was probably something like 10 or 15 per cent. This parchment certificate the sailor or fireman would, at the time of signing articles, hand over to the captain, who, if the seaman failed to join, would hand over the certificate to the Board of Trade, and, before the man could get another certificate, he would have to give some account of himself to the Board of Trade as to why he failed to join his vessel. In London and in other ports there were a body of men who, he regretted to say, made it a practice to sign articles in a vessel with no intention whatever of going to sea. They did it for the purpose of getting advance notes, which they got cashed, and in the end the people who cashed the note lost their money. In consequence of these practices the shipowner was put to much inconvenience, as when his ship was ready for sea he found some of his crew were not there, and so he was compelled to ship the first man he could get to fill the place of the absentee. Men so obtained were often incompetent. This did not apply to the liners whose crews were well paid and well fed; it applied principally to tramp vessels such as sailed from the Tyne or from Cardiff, where men were paid the lowest rate of wages. At the port of Cardiff there were men paid as low as l½d. and 2d. per hour for their labour. Nobody could expect to get the best class of men for that wage. There was another clause in the Bill which he thought important. Where an incompetent fireman or stoker was engaged inconvenience was perhaps not much felt on board vessels which carried a large number of firemen and trimmers, but in the case of steamers of 2,000 or 3,000 tons who carried three or four firemen, and one or two subsequently proved to be incompetent, the matter was very different. In such a case the engineer was compelled very often to leave his engines and go into the stoke-hold and show these men how to do their work, or do it for them. He could not understand any shipowner, or any person interested in shipping, opposing this Bill. They complained that since the power of arrest without warrant was taken away they had had nothing but difficulties in getting men to join their vessels after signing articles. He ventured to say that this Bill placed such a power in the hands of shipowners that no sailor or fireman would dare to wrongfully, or without just cause, desert his vessel. It provided that the Board of Trade should appoint a Committee in each seaport town, composed of shipowners, shipmasters and representatives of engineers, firemen and sailors, which Committee should deal with the certificates of men who had failed to join their vessels at the appointed time. He ventured to say that it would be far more punishment for a sailor, or fireman, to go before such a Committee, composed partly of masters and partly of their own fellow workmen, and answer for misconduct, than it would be for them to go before a magistrate. For that reason he thought the Bill would be a means of improving the conduct of the sailors and firemen of the merchant service. It might be asked what would be done when a ship was in a foreign port and the captain could not get men with certificates. The Bill provided for that, by a clause enacting that it should only apply to the United Kingdom and the ports of the Continent between the Elbe and Brest. If sailors were required for a vessel lying in Hamburg, Antwerp or Rotterdam, they could be sent over from this country at the cost of a few shillings. Outside that area the Bill did not apply. He appealed to the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade to take a reasonable view of the Bill, because he was confident that, if he did so, the Bill would pass. The evidence before the Manning Committee provided enough justification for this Bill. Some might he inclined to say why not wait for the Report of that Committee? but they had been waiting for that Report for 12 months, and meanwhile lives were being lost. It would be worth passing the Bill if it saved only a few lives a year. It did not adversely affect the shipowner, and it would tend to benefit and improve the sailors and firemen, and he was sure that the officers, sailors, and firemen of the Mercantile Marine would be unanimously in favour of it. He hoped the President of the Board of Trade would give them some hope that justice would be done to them at last.

On the return of Mr. SPEAKER after the usual interval—

*COLONEL DENNY (Kilmarnock Burghs) rose to move that the Bill be read a Second Time that day six months. He congratulated the hon. Member for Middlesbrough on the moderation of his tone, but said that a little analysis would show that the moderation was more apparent than real. For himself, he disclaimed any intention of underrating the necessity for having the best class of seamen in our Navy, and therefore in the merchant service, as the feeder of the Navy, but whether the Bill offered the best means of attaining that end might be open to doubt. While he had a respect for the Shipping Federation, he did not hold a brief for it. A number of gentlemen interested in the liners were leading men in the Federation. According to the hon. Member there were thousands of sailors holding AB certificates under false pretences, and ships and lives were risked by their incompetence. The hon. Member had cited one case, that of the Netley Abbey, which it was said was lost owing to the ignorance of the man at the wheel who did not understand English; but an answer given to the hon. Member yesterday by the President of the Board of Trade amounted to a direct contradiction of that statement. It was said the Shipping Federation had issued many certificates to men under false pretences; and here again one instance was cited, without names or particulars. If these things could be brought home to such an association, they should be laid before the President of the Board of Trade, who would deal with them. ["Hear, hear!"] For some years the character of British sailors had been aspersed, and foreign seamen had been imported into our merchant service largely because British seamen were not to be depended upon. This was being remedied by one of two competing associations, but by which might be left to inference. The hon. Member said that the officers of the Mercantile Marine were evidently of a high class, but it was the very men whom he eulogised as sticking to their agreements whom he condemned as taking incapable seamen with risk to life and property. A Bill of this kind ought to be opportune, necessary, and be introduced by a responsible Department. This Bill was inopportune, because they were still waiting for the Report of the Manning Commission appointed at the instance of the hon. Member himself. He appealed to the House whether a Bill of this kind, which affected so large a number of men and such an enormous amount of wealth and industry, should not be introduced by a responsible Department—he contended that it should not be by a private Member. He had noticed with pleasure and a little surprise the rapid conversion of the hon. Gentleman to the side of the shipowning class, but it was an extraordinary thing that they were opposed to this Bill. Perhaps they were suspicious of these rapid conversions. Now the question was, was this Bill necessary? They were well aware of the regulations of the Merchant Shipping Act, under which men were qualified by a certain term of service at sea, and did the hon. Member suggest that the officers under the Board of of Trade had so little interest in their business—were so little qualified to perform their duties—that they passed thousands of unqualified men. They were told that every day unqualified men were sent to sea with certificates issued by the responsible advisers of the President of the Board of Trade. He asked was it fair on the part of the hon. Member to cast a slur upon as hardworking a body of officials as ever existed. ["Hear, hear!"] The hon. Member said they were unfit to do their business.


said he wished to correct the hon. Member in the facts. He had cast no reflection on the Board of Trade or any other Department.


said, the hon. Member had avoided doing it in a direct way, but he said when you assert that a Department is passing through their hands men who are not qualified, then with all respect that Department was not doing their duty. That was practically a slur on the Department—to say that certificates were given to men who had not earned them. He hoped the House would pardon him for his lengthy statement, and he moved the rejection of the Bill.


said, he had been in that House for four years and during that period he had never listened to a more moderate speech or more rational and a more unimpassioned speech than the one delivered by his hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough. In fact, he thought his hon. Friends did their cause considerable damage by their moderation. The Bill, too, was so excessively moderate that it surprised him and many other Members of the House. He thought that some of the implications, not to say the insinuations that had been made against the hon. Member for Middlesbrough would have been all the better if they had been couched in that tolerant spirit of fair play which he had displayed. The Member for Middlesbrough by the fortune of the ballot had a very successful opportunity of bringing this Bill to a Second Reading tonight, but he ventured to say that Samuel Plimsoll would not have been able to introduce the radical and the beneficent legislation which he brought forward unless he had spoken as he undoubtedly did with great vehemence. He came to the salient feature of the gallant Colonel's criticism on this particular Bill. He congratulated his hon. Friend on the tone of his speech, and he congratulated the gallant Colonel on his quotations and statistics. In respect to the figures with regard to British born seamen the case had been proved up to the hilt. The gallant Colonel, with a view to minimise the object of this Bill, ventured to say that the Member for Middlesbrough made wholesale charges as regarded the wholesale loss of life that occurred owing to the employment of incompetent foreign seamen. Let them take the gallant Colonel through his own Blue-book. Was it not a serious matter that 2,100 sailors should be killed every year? Was it not a serious matter that 2,500 sailors, firemen and fishermen should be killed every year? Was it not an important matter that they should consider that above the 2,500 there should be many thousands of men injured? He was perfectly certain that the President of the Board of Trade, if it could be alleged that even a dozen sailors were killed annually, as the result of incompetence or ignorance, or the lack of experience, would be one of the first to ask that this Bill should have hearty support. He wanted to go a bit further. The Manning Committee had many witnesses before it. It would be contrary to the Rules to disclose it. [An HON. MEMBER, "No, no!"] He would rather satisfy his own conscience. There was not a single witness or shipowner, master, engineer or seaman who had not admitted that four years' minimum experience at sea was very desirable. That being so, why haggle because his hon. Friend had gone a little further and said those witnesses spoke even stronger than the general tenour of the evidence? The hon. and gallant Colonel hoped to score a point by admitting that only 1 per cent. of all the officers of the Mercantile Service did what they ought not to do, and he inferred that what was right and possible in the case of officers was also applicable to and possible and probable for the average seaman. That was not so. The President of the Board of Trade would probably say there was much in the Bill with which he agreed and very little with which he disagreed, that the Bill hoped to secure a desirable object—but this was not the appointed time. The House had discussed fairly and temperately the question embodied in the Bill. Why could not the right hon. Gentleman satisfy the legitimate demand of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough? Why could not he do justice or seem to do justice to a body of men who, whatever might be their opinions upon other questions certainly thought the sailor and fireman had a right to be protected? The President of the Board of Trade would probably say the hon. Member ought to have waited until the Manning Committee had made their Report. He was told that the Manning Committee completed the taking of evidence 12 months ago, and that the Chairman was preparing his Report. How much longer was that Chairman going to take to make up his mind? If he managed a ship with half the delay he had taken to present his Report, he would have been wrecked every 24 hours of his life. The delay might be due to the fact that he was not a sailor or marine engineer, but an engineer in ship designs, and consequently wanted plenty of time. Why could not the President of the Board of Trade concede the reasonable demand of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough and let the Bill be read a Second Time on the condition that the Committee Stage be postponed until the Manning Committee had presented their Report? Hon. Members could not get away from the fact that at the present moment sailors were being shipped at Cardiff at from £2 15s to £3 a mouth. On one occasion he himself had to spend 70 hours in a stoke-hole in consequence of the weakness of foreign and other sailors who were beguiled into signing articles. Many sailors altogether lacked the qualifications they ought to possess. Hon. Members had no right to compare in this matter the ordinary tramp steamer to our magnificent liners. On the latter, there were the very best skippers and officers, and generally the most steady and sober sailors, men of intelligence and fine physique. What they had to judge this Bill by was not by men to be found on board the Etruria but by men on board the average tramp steamer, who did not always get her cargo, whose food was bad and whose accommodation was worse, whose skipper was often driven out of his mind by his anxiety to make the ship pay. They had no right either by law or voluntary effort to allow the safety of men and ships to be jeopardised. He respectfully advised the President of the Board of Trade to signalise this Session by a generous support of this Bill, the operation of which would go a long way to rehabilitate the Mercantile Marine.

MR. G. W. WOLFF (Belfast, E.)

said, the hon. Member for Battersea had stated there were 240,000 sailors and firemen and that 2,100 lives were lost annually. Anything that could be done to save the life of a single man ought to be done, but at the same time the loss was considerably under 1 per cent. He doubted whether railway travelling was as safe as that. He did not use that as an argument that nothing should be done to try to diminish loss of life, but he thought it was a point worth considering when it was said that the navigation of this country was carried on with recklessness. He understood the object of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough in bringing in the Bill was to diminish loss of of life, but judging from the speech of the hon. Member for Battersea, it was hoped to run up wages. The Bill was not quite so innocent as it seemed, and the object of its promoters was not altogether a philanthropic one. He saw nothing in the Measure about diminishing loss of life. The more he looked at the Bill the more strongly he was of opinion that it was, under the circumstances, unnecessary and impracticable. For instance, as to the point of taking steps to see that seamen who received certificates on board British ships should be able to speak the English language, that was already provided for by the Shipping Federation. [Mr. HAVELOCK WILSON: "It is not so."] And the suggestion that the Board of Trade should appoint Committees to carry out this object was futile. In fact, he thought there was very little in the Bill, from beginning to end, and he believed that even if it was passed it would not accomplish the objects at which it aimed. However, he approved the suggestion which had been made by the supporters of the Bill, that it should be read a Second Time, but on the understanding that the Committee stage should be postponed until after the Report of the Manning Committee was presented. There could be no doubt that that Report would have a very important bearing on the Bill, and in the circumstances he would advise the hon. and gallant Member for the Kilmarnock Burghs to accept the suggestion which had been offered, and to withdraw his Amendment to reject the Measure.


) said, that everyone would sympathise with the hon. Member for Middlesbrough in bringing forward the Bill. He had introduced the Measure in a speech of great moderation, and he had no complaint whatever to make of any of the statements the hon. Member had made. ["Hear, hear!"] It would also be generally acknowledged, probably, that the hon. and gallant Member for the Kilmarnock Burghs moved his Amendment in a speech which greatly interested the House, and which did honour to the hon. and gallant Member himself—a speech of a character which might lead them to hope that he would take an active part in their Debates. [Cheers.] Of course, everyone would sympathise with the objects the hon. Member for Middlesbrough had in view in bringing in this Bill,—namely, the saving of life, the better manning of our merchant ships, and the displacement, if possible, of foreign seamen by British seamen in the Mercantile Marine. He was himself strongly in sympathy with the hon. Member in regard to each and all of those three objects, and he was sure the House would feel with him that if there was anything they could do in reason, fairness, and justice to promote them, they ought to do it. ["Hear, hear!"] But did the hon. Member really think that this Bill would bring about any one of those three objects? He was bound to say that he did not himself think it would do so. There was nothing in the Bill which would compel a shipmaster to rate men as able seamen. The hon. Member laid down certain conditions in regard to the engagement of able seamen and firemen; for instance, that no shipmaster should engage men as able seamen who were not possessed of the qualifications of four years' service, and of 12 months' service in the case of firemen. But what was there in the Bill to prevent a man engaging men to do the duty of seamen and not calling them able seamen?


said he anticipated that one of the conditions the Manning Committee would lay down in their Report was that so many able seamen should be carried in a ship.


said, that was a complete contradiction of the position the hon. Member had taken up in bringing forward the Bill. If he relied on any of the recommendations of the Committee, which had not yet reported, why did he not wait until the Report of that Committee was presented. He maintained that until that Committee had presented their Report, and until the recommendations of that Report were passed into law by Act of Parliament, the Bill, though it were passed into law, would be inoperative. He understood that the hon. Member made no complaint at all in respect to the best class of shipowners, and against the great Line Companies, but that he intended the Bill to apply mainly to that inferior class of shipowner and shipmaster connected with what were called "tramp" vessels or steamers. ["Hear, hear!"] But there were some, even of this class to which the Bill would not apply, and therefore it must not be assumed that the accusations which had been made in this matter applied to all of even the inferior class of cargo-carrying vessels. ["Hear, hear!"] But as regarded the lower class of shipowner or master, did the hon. Member think that that class of man would hesitate for a moment to resort to some means of evading the conditions of the Bill? What was there in the Bill to hinder such men from engaging men as seamen, and, instead of rating them as able seamen, calling them deck hands, or by some other name? He therefore maintained that the Bill, if passed, must be inoperative until the Manning Committee reported, and until legal effect was given to their recommendations. In those circumstances he felt much inclined to suggest that the Second Reading should be postponed, but probably it was not necessary to take so extreme a step as that. The motives of the hon. Member were excellent, but the hon. and gallant Member for the Kilmarnock Burghs had laid down the conditions under which it was wise to propose legislation on this matter. He agreed with the hon. and gallant Member, for it was a great mistake to propose legislation which would be inoperative unless certain conditions were fulfilled. With regard to the employment of foreign seamen, again, there was nothing in the Bill, if it were passed the next day, that would prevent any number of foreigners being engaged under conditions such as he had named. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough contended that foreigners engaged in the British Mercantile Service ought to undergo an examination to prove that they knew English. In illustration of this he gave the case of the man on board the Netley Abbey who, he stated, in consequence of not knowing English, made a wrong turn of the wheel, and thus endangered the ship. The hon. and gallant Member for Kilmarnock had stated that this man, whose wrong turn of the wheel was said to have contributed to the accident, did understand English. The information of the Board of Trade was that the man had a very good knowledge indeed of the English language; that an Englishman was standing near, saw the man make the wrong turn of the wheel, and allowed him to do so. Therefore, it was an open point whether the Englishman was not as much, or more, to blame than the foreigner in charge of the wheel. At any rate, if it were possible to ensure that all the men employed on board ships should be capable men who understood their work, it would be in the interests of the community at large, and especially of those on board ships; and certainly, so far as the Board of Trade were concerned, nothing could be more desirable from their point of view. ["Hear, hear!"] Under those circumstances, and having regard to the suggestion that no further progress should be made with the Bill until the Manning Committee had reported, he would ask his hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Kilmarnock Burghs not to proceed with his opposition, and when the Manning Committee had reported it would be for the Government to consider whether they would themselves take in hand legislation for the purpose of carrying out the recommendations made. [Cheers.]


said that, after the remarks of the right hon. Gentleman, he would ask leave to withdraw his Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


said, the right hon. Gentleman, had asked the hon. Member for Middlesbrough why he had not waited to introduce the Bill until the Manning Committee had reported. Some time ago, before he had any idea of the introduction of this Bill, he put down a question on the Notice Paper for next Monday, asking the right hon. Gentleman why the Committee had not reported. ["Hear, hear!"] The Committee had been sitting for nearly two years, and had taken an immense quantity of evidence, which had been com- piled into an enormous volume, and that evidence was nominally confidential, but in fact had been accessible to every Member of the House. The Committee had not yet reported. It seemed to him that that was a discreditable state of things, and when the hon. Member for Battersea spoke as though it ought not to be alluded to in this House, all he could say was that there was no such etiquette in existence. They were not allowed in that House to allude to Reports of their own Committees until they had reported to the House. This was not a House of Commons Committee. It was a Departmental Committee, as to which there was no such etiquette. It was of the highest national importance that it should be known at the earliest possible moment. A mass of evidence of great importance to the country had been collected, and it ought to be before the House; and it seemed to him that if the Committee were not ready to report, at all events they ought to follow the usual course and report the evidence to the House, so that they might form their own opinion upon it. The main point of this Bill was really that it aimed the first blow at the increasing predominance of the foreign element in the British Merchant Navy. The President of the Board of Trade said that he agreed in that view, but that the provisions of the Bill would not secure it. He was one of those who were strongly and most bitterly opposed to all proposals to interfere with general alien immigration; but there was a case for preventing the complete manning of the British Merchant Navy by foreign sailors that was entirely apart from and independent of the general question of alien immigration. There was the position of this country in time of war. To have British ships manned all by foreign officers and foreign men was to put themselves in a position in time of war in which the country ought not to stand. The foreign element in the British Navy was increasing every day. It was already far larger than was generally supposed—the mere percentage figures were not sufficient—and for military reasons, quite apart from trade grounds and the safety of the ships, there was a necessity for interference in this matter at a very early date. He did not wish to oppress the British shipowner. Shipowners complained, and yet British shipping was continually increasing. They got from year to year a larger and larger proportion of the shipping of the world; but their ships were being increasingly manned by foreign crews. That was a state of things they would all wish should cease to exist. If, for national reasons, they imposed new burdens on shipowners, they ought to search about and see if they could not help them in other ways. He believed the "other ways" in which they could help them was by national assistance in the apprenticeship of seamen. There was a great deal to be done in that respect. They would be enabled to limit, as they must limit, the employment of foreign sailors in the British Merchant Navy, and be doing something to help the shipowner, by taking English apprentices at an early age into his service and training them for the sea. He thought his hon. Friend deserved well of the House for having forced this matter upon its attention.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read 2a, and committed for Friday, 27th March.