HC Deb 03 May 1897 vol 48 cc1492-9

*THE PRESIDENT OF THE BOARD OF TRADE (Mr. C. T. RITCHIE, Croydon) moved the Second Reading of the Bill, which, he said, had been promoted with the view of remedying what he could not help thinking was an omission on the part of the authors of the Merchant Shipping Acts when they dealt with the subject of unseaworthy ships. An ordinary individual would certainly have imagined that an undermanned ship would have been included in the term "unsafe ship," but the Board of Trade had been advised that, although a vessel might be detained for defects in hull equipments or machinery, or for being overloaded or improperly loaded, no ship could be detained under the 459th Section of the Act of 1894, no matter how much she was undermanned. There had been undoubted cases of undermanning—such, for instance, as the Deeside, the Cromartyshire, and the Port Yarrock, but the Board, of Trade were advised that a prosecution would not be successful under the 457th Section of the Merchant Shipping Act. Undermanning was a source of unseaworthiness, not only to the ship herself, but to all other ships on the high seas. The object of the present Bill was to remedy that defect of the law and to include in Section 459 undermanning as one of the reasons for which a ship might be detained. The Committee on this question, after careful inquiry, arrived at the conclusion that, although vessels were as a rule manned with careful regard to the safety of life and the welfare of the crew, yet that there were undoubted cases of undermanning. So far as the experience of the Board of Trade went, he had no hesitation in saying that it was entirely in accordance, with the view expressed by the planning Committee on this point. Therefore, it must not be imagined that this Bill was introduced because the Board of Trade believed that undermanning did prevail to any great extent, or that the great bulk of the shipowners of the country were indifferent to the lives and property intrusted to their care. But, as he had said, there were undoubted cases of undermanning brought before the Committee, and the evidence showed that, of 80 steamships and 65 sailing vessels with regard to which the question of manning was raised at wreck inquiries between 1878 and 1894, 45 steamships and 24 sailing vessels were found to be undermanned. The Committee, after carefully considering the evidence, came to the unanimous conclusion that undermanning should constitute unseaworthiness. There was a difference of opinion as to what action should be taken in order to put a stop to the evil. The majority recommended a manning scheme; the minority on the other hand, objected to that scheme. Undoubtedly, if a manning scale could be agreed upon which would meet all the circumstances and all the conditions of the various vessels affected, it would he a very desirable thing. Everyone would know exactly what he had to do, and would not be left to the discretion of any individual or any Board. After a careful consideration of the question he had come to the conclusion that a hard-and-fast manning scale was not reasonably possible. ["Hear, hear!"] Everyone who had any knowledge of shipping and of the various conditions under which ships went to sea, would agree that it would be an injustice to base such a scale solely on tonnage and rigging. An attempt was made some years ago by some mutual insurance associations to adopt a manning scale based on ton- nage; but the plans of vessels changed so rapidly, that it was found impossible to carry it out, and it had to be abandoned. Again, there could be no doubt that if there was any attempt in the Bill to set up a hard-and-fast manning scale it would meet with strenuous resistance, and would, perhaps, lead to the defeat of their efforts to deal with the question. The procedure proposed to be adopted if the Bill became law was that, if the Board of Trade or any detaining officer of the Board had reason to believe that a vessel was undermanned, the vessel should be detained until the matter was examined into; and if after examination the Board of Trade decided that the vessel should be detained until the defect was remedied, and if the owner demurred to the course, the matter would go before a Court of Survey, composed of a Judge Mid two Assessors, who would decide the issue. It might be objected that that provision would place great power in the hands of the Board of Trade and their officers; but that power was hedged round by another provision that, if a ship were detained unreasonably, costs and damages could be obtained by the owner of the ship against the Board of Trade for such detention. It might be asked in what way would the inspectors of the Board of Trade be instructed in their duties if there was no hard-and-fast scale of manning. What the Board of Trade proposed to do was to draw up instructions of a more or less elastic character for their officers, and they would invite those interested in the shipping trade to associate themselves with the Board of Trade with a view to decide under what regulations ships should be detained. ["Hear, hear!"] He had no doubt, therefore, that they would be able to carry out the provisions of the Act in a manner that would be satisfactory to all concerned, and in no way injurious to the great industry it, was their object to serve and promote. So far, he imagined, there would be little difference of opinion in regard to the Bill in that House. But the Bill as it stood applied only to British ships, and he had no doubt that there would arise in the House, as there had arisen elsewhere, a difference of opinion on that point. The law in regard to merchant shipping was by no means in a satisfactory condition in its application to foreign vessels. For instance, if a foreign ship carried 12 passengers from, one port in the United Kingdom to another port in the United Kingdom it was amenable to the same law as a British ship; but if it carried less than 50 passengers out of the United Kingdom it was not amenable to the same law as a British ship. The section of the Merchant Shipping Act which the Bill proposed to amend did not apply to foreign ships; and that being so, after careful consideration, he had thought that it was better not to bring in other than British ships under the section so far as undermanning was concerned. He had felt that investigations into the internal economy of foreign ships might raise questions which it would be better to leave undisturbed, and would be, besides, difficult to carry out. But, having heard the views expressed from all quarters on the matter, he had decided that the best course to adopt was to amend the provision in Committee so as to make it apply to the undermanning of all ships, foreign or British. ["Hear, hear!"] It would no doubt add to the difficulties of administering the law, but it would be the duty of the Board of Trade to try to work it with as little friction as possible, and with as much consideration as was compatible with the carrying out of the provisions of this Measure. Of course, it would be understood that the Bill would only apply to ships which came into our ports to load. There would be no legitimate ground of complaint on the part of any foreign Government, if the ships of all nations in our ports were treated in the same manner as our own —["hear, hear!"]—and he hoped the justice of the proposition would be so apparent that difficulties would not be created. But in any case, the expression of opinion on this point had been so universal that it was impossible for the Government to resist it. [Cheers.] He hoped that the Measure would be recognised by the House as of a reasonable and proper character, in view of the duty of Parliament to safeguard life and property at sea, and that the Bill would be given a unanimous Second Reading. [Cheers.]

MR. JAMES BRYCE (Aberdeen)

said that no one who had followed the investigations of the Committee on the subject of manning could doubt that the subject required to be dealt with. Although the great majority of our shipowners had a proper regard for the lives of their crews, there was a certain number with regard to whom more stringent rules were needed. Collisions had been known to arise from undermanning, which might make it impossible for a proper look-out to be kept; and in the great gales which sometimes visited our coasts the foundering of a large number of the smaller steamers was, in a large degree, attributed by experts to undermanning. There would be no doubt as to the desirability of the Bill, and the only question was as to the framing of it. He agreed that, in the first instance at any rate, the right hon. Gentleman was justified in not adopting a fixed scale as recommended by the Committee. So much depended upon a ship's equipment and machinery. Of course, a great discretion had to be left to the Board of Trade; but since the passing of the last Merchant Shipping Act the discretion then given to the Board of Trade had not been badly exercised. During the last few years complaints had been very few, and he saw no reason to doubt that the same judgment would be exercised in the future. He supposed that the Board of Trade would issue rules indicating in a general way what the scale ought to be; and though minuteness and precision were impossible, guidance would thus be given to shipowners and to the officials. As to the application of the Bill to foreign ships loading in our ports, the justice of the claim could not, in the abstract, be contested; and having regard to the manifestation of opinion by which that claim was backed up, he could not quarrel with the right hon. Gentleman for acceding to it. But he had considerable doubt whether the application of the Bill to foreign vessels could be carried out. There would be a good many difficulties in the way. He would give one as an illustration. He believed that in the law of some countries, notably France, there was a provision that a certain proportion of the crew of a vessel should be citizens of those countries. If n foreign vessel were loading at one of our ports she might, while having the proportion to satisfy the law of her own country, not comply with our requirements. Whenever we imposed rules on foreign vessels we ran the risk of retaliation. More British vessels entered foreign ports than foreign vessels entered our ports, so if there were retaliation British shipowners would suffer most. If the Board of Trade considered the Bill workable they would not mi the Opposition side of the House offer it any opposition. The chief cause of objection had been removed by the concession of the right hon. Gentleman, and I here would be no difference of opinion as to giving the Bill a Second Heading, and he might say for those on that side of the House whose opinions he knew, that he would be only too glad to forward the progress of a Measure which they believed to be called for in the interests of humanity and the general interests of the merchant seamen of this country. ["Hear, hear!"]


said that he desired to thank the Government for this Bill, but it did not go quite far enough. Some day they would have to go a step further, and have a proper manning scale in accordance with the recommendations of the Committee which sat over two years inquiring into this question. Some hon. Members thought it not possible to have a manning scale, but as a practical seaman he thought it was possible, and, as a matter of fact, the vast majority of ships were now all manned on the tonnage system; while as to the firemen's department the vessels were manned according to the amount of coal consumed. But one of the greatest dangers at the present time was not so much the number of men on board as the way in which the men were worked at sea. Another dangerous practice was that the officer of the watch, instead of being on the bridge to look after the vessel and maintain a proper look-out, was called to assist the men at work on the coals. It. was absolutely necessary for the officer of the watch to be on the bridge during the whole of the time the vessel was at sea. The Board of Trade would have to do something in this direction. The Bill did not provide for the regulation he suggested, but he recognised that it was a step in the right direction, and for that reason he should support it. He was pleased the right hon. Gentleman had extended the provisions of the Bill to foreign ships in British ports, and he could assure the light hon. Gentleman there would be no difficulty in obtaining foreign crews in British ports like Cardiff. He expressed approval of the provision as to representatives of the shipowners and seamen composing a kind of tribunal to consult with the Board of Trade, and advise as to when a ship was seaworthy and unseaworthy. That was a practical suggestion and one which, from the seamen's point of view, would meet with every approval. He trusted the shipowners would be able to approve of it also. He had much pleasure in supporting the Bill, which he hoped would speedily pass into law.


said the remarks of the hon. Member in favour of a manning scale were answered by his own argument, because he told them that, even though a vessel had a considerable number of men, on board, at sea these men were improperly employed when they should be upon watch. It was quite clear that, whatever manning scale might have been adopted, it would have had to be followed up by a code of regulations governing the action of the captain and officers of the ships as to the way in which the men were to be employed. The President of the Board of Trade had alluded to certain instructions that would be laid down for the guidance of their officers. Might he venture at this point to call the right hon. Gentleman's attention to what the minority of the Committee considered the most important part connected with this question of manning of vessels? It was the maintenance of an efficient watch during the whole time a vessel was at sea, without which other precautions were of no avail. The minority in their Report said: — Every foreign-going vessel shall, when under weigh, at all times and places have a minimum effective watch on duty on deck to secure her safe navigation, and in default of such effective watch the master, owner, or officers in default should he held liable to the consequences of the failure of duty, and the ship regarded as in default and undermanned. With regard to the application of the Bill to foreign ships coming to English ports, he expressed the opinion that the President of the Board of Trade would find it impossible to put into force any clause dealing with the question of the manning of foreign ships, and any legislation in this direction would be an invitation to foreign Governments to interfere and impose restrictive and difficult regulations on British ships visiting foreign ports.


said he did not wish the hon. Member for Middlesbrough to be under any misapprehension. He said that before drawing up these rules they would take care to consult with the shipping industry. The hon. Gentleman rather assumed that they were going to appoint a committee on which not only shipowners but all classes employed on ships would be represented. That was not at all the idea; but he was perfectly certain that, when, they invited the co-operation of any shipowner to assist them in the formation of these rules, he would be a shipowner who would command the confidence of all those employed in the ships.

Bill read a Second time, and committed to the Standing Commitee on Trade, Etc.