HC Deb 12 August 1898 vol 65 cc15-29

Upon the Motion for the Third Reading of this Bill,

MR. HAVELOCK WILSON (Middlesbrough)

I should just like to call attention to the amount of accommodation given to Lascar seamen on board the ships of the P. and O. Steamship Company. The right honourable Gentleman, in reply to a question from me, appeared to intimate that I was entirely wrong in the contention that I brought forward—namely, that the Merchant Shipping Act applied to these as to other seamen. Since then I have looked up the Merchant Shipping Act, and I find section 265 of that Act is very definite with regard to the point. The sec- tion says—the right honourable Gentleman is not giving much attention to this; may I crave his attention? I do not intend to prolong the discussion upon this point, and if the Board of Trade prove themselves to be in the right, I am quite prepared to make an apology for the stand I have taken? but if, on the other band, the legal advisers of the Board of Trade think they are in the wrong, then I think I am entitled to have an apology from the right honourable Gentleman. The section says— Where, in any matter relating to a ship, or a person belonging to a ship, there appears to be a conflict of law, then if there is in any part of this Act any provision which is here made, or might be made, to expressly extend to that ship, the case shall be governed by that provision; but if there is no such provision, then the case shall be governed by the law of the port at which the ship is registered. Now that establishes exactly what I say; I contend that all persons serving on board of ships registered in the ports of this country come within the Act. The right honourable Gentleman said that the legal advisers of the Board of Trade held that the Indian Act, or some Act of George IV., altered that. Now section 206 of the Merchant Shipping Act clearly proves that where there is any doubt as to the accommodation provided in vessels, the law shall be the law of the port at which the vessel is registered. As the P. and O. vessels are registered in England, I do not think there is any doubt but what they are governed by the law of the port. I do not wish to labour that point, but I do hope the legal advisers of the Board of Trade will look into the matter and put the Department right upon it. Now there is another matter upon which I would like to ask an explanation from the Board of Trade. The Board of Trade have recently given orders that the wreck inquiries, which have generally been held in the port of Cardiff, before the stipendiary of that port, are henceforth to he removed to Newport. Now it is very hard for us to understand why this change is made on the part of the Board of Trade. The learned stipendiary of Cardiff is a very competent gentleman, and takes a great interest in these matters, and he has on several occasions had to find fault with the way in which the Board of Trade have performed their duty upon that point, and upon occasion he has imposed full penalties. In the port of Cardiff the overloading of vessels has practically ceased. He gave notice that in any cases brought before him he would inflict the full penalty, and the result of that is that there have been very few cases of that kind, whereas before it was an everyday occurrence. Now, it appears that there is a desire on the part of the Board of Trade to take these cases for trial to Newport, where most of the magistrates are shipowners. That, in my opinion, would be a wrong thing, and an improper thing, for them to do, and I hope that they will alter their intentions. Good work is being done by the learned stipendiary of Cardiff, and because he has sufficient independence to do his duty without fear or favour it ought not to be the policy of the Board of Trade to change the place of trial. I trust that the Board of Trade will reconsider the matter, and not proceed to carry out their present intentions. If they do carry them out, the people of Cardiff, who have every confidence in the magistrate of that port, will consider it a great grievance. There is only one other point to which I wish to draw attention, and I have done. I am sorry to be compelled to bring this question before the House at this time, but I cannot help it. The Estimates were not brought forward at the time when I might have referred to it, and I have had no other opportunity of calling attention to what I consider to be not only a very great grievance, but also a very great scandal. The shipment and discharge of seamen at the port of New York is a perfect scandal and a disgrace. From the 23rd of December to the beginning of March, I visited the Consular Office at that port every day. I was an eye-witness of the scandalous things which took place at that office. I saw seamen who, directly they had received their money from the shipmasters, had it taken out of their hands by crimps and thieves, who infest the office; and if the men protested, they were brutally assaulted—inside the Consular Office—and more than that, in consequence of the scandalous state of affairs at the port, a British seaman is unable to engage on board a British ship unless he is prepared to pay a fee varying from £1 up to £5. I boarded British ships to combat this system, and I established under the Consular Office, a free shipping office, where seamen might be engaged without paying any fees to the shipping master. During the time those offices were open 12 captains applied for men. The others paid no heed to it whatever; and I was told that the shipping masters who engaged the men shared the spoil with the captains. Now, when I returned to England I sent a full report of this state of things to the right honourable Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade. I gave him a detailed account of all that I had seen, and I supported it by sworn declarations made by seamen. I had some 10 or 15 affidavits which were made by seamen who had been charged these fees. That was in March. Now we are in August, and from what I can learn from seamen arriving from New York the same system is still going on. I put a question to the right honourable Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade calling his attention to a particular case of a steamer, the Port Charles, which was paid off on the 1st of July at the Consular Office in New York. As soon as each man received his money, so the crimps tried to take it away from him. If he refused to let them have it, he was assaulted—all in the Consular Office—and was severely treated by them. Now, I made a report of that in the month of July; and it does seem very strange to me that when these things are brought under the notice of the Board of Trade they take no steps to have them put an end to. I know that the excuse is that year by year this system has been growing, and that it is very difficult to put it down; but the same system two years ago was in existence in Hamburg, and eventually the Board of Trade removed the consul, and appointed a new one, who went in with specific instructions to exclude crimps and all that class of people, and the men can now go to a ship and get a place, and go to the Consular Office and get signed on; and if the Government can do that in Hamburg, they can do it in New York. What I ask the Government to do is to give instructions to Her Majesty's Consul to exclude from the shipping office of New York all persons except the captains and the seamen. I am sure, if honour- able Members of this House had been in New York and seen what I have seen at the Consular Office, they would do all they could to put an end to this scandalous state of things. For every seaman who is there to be paid off there are three or four crimps, many of them the most desperate characters. It will hardly be credited that there are men there who are known to be runners for brothels; and there are ladies of easy virtue all inside the Consular Office ready to take the money from the unfortunate seamen. This is the only opportunity I have had of calling attention to this matter, and I sincerely trust that there will be no further delay, and that instructions will be given to clear out this nest of vermin from this office, and that two constables shall be appointed to see that no one goes in except those who have business. In other shipping offices the Board of Trade provide two constables to see that no one goes in except the seamen and the captains; and I want that done in New York. It may cost £2 or £3 a week, but that is a small sum, and it will protect the seamen from being robbed as they are robbed at the present time. I have a case here where a man was charged £9 for a ship, and he had only been four or five days at the crimps' house. I do not think it is at all creditable to the Board of Trade that this matter should be neglected, and I hope it will be attended to at once.


With regard to the question of the Lascars, I do not think there is any necessity for an apology, so far as the Board of Trade is concerned. All I said was that, having regard to the various Acts of Parliament dealing with this matter, and the section of this Act, the Board of Trade were advised by their legal advisers that, the matter was one of great complexity, and they think that the section of the Act of George IV. governs the question of the Lascars. I asked my right honourable and learned Friend the Attorney General, when this question arose, his opinion, and he told me that it would be impossible to carry this matter any further, and I told the honourable Gentleman what he said. The rule as to the accommodation for sailors shall be carried out, but if it is decided by the legal advisers of the Board of Trade that there is a difficulty in the Act, it cannot be done until that doubt is cleared up With reference to the question of Cardiff, the honourable Gentleman has got hold of the wrong tale. There is no intention upon the part of the Board of Trade to permanently remove the inquiries from Cardiff, and the removal and the change made up to the present is not due to any desire to alter the decisions arrived at by the stipendiary magistrate at Cardiff, but is entirely owing to the fact that very often these wreck inquiries are delayed owing to the pressure at the stipendiary court, and cases, which, when they come on only occupy a few hours are extended over many days. It was in the interest of the public and not for any private reasons that this experiment of moving these inquiries to Newport has been made—it is only an experiment, and is stated to be so by the Board of Trade. And the Board desire me to say that if the honourable Gentleman, or anybody else has any argument to advance or reason to give to show the Board that it might result in a miscarriage of justice, the Board will give the matter their consideration. With regard to the New York shipping office, if I remember rightly, that question was answered the other day. The matter is under the consideration of the Board of Trade, and if the statements which have been made to-day are correct, and I have no reason to suppose the honourable Gentleman has not stated them correctly, the matter does unquestionably amount to a very grave scandal, and there can be no doubt that in the interests of the good name of Great Britain, as well as of humanity, such a state of things ought to be promptly terminated. And I undertake oil behalf of the Board of Trade that if this state of things is found to exist we shall do everything we can to terminate it.

MR. URE (Linlithgow)

I desire to call the attention of the House to the delay in dealing with the question of the Kow-Ching. That vessel was British owned, and was chartered by the Indo-Chinese Steam Shipping Company in July, 1894, to convey Chinese troops and dispatches to a port in Korea. She was duly cleared by the British Consul at Tien-tsin, and started on the 23rd July. On the 25th July, two days after, she was fired into by a Japanese cruiser, and sunk. Many of her crew were drowned, and the vessel, of course, became a total loss. The owners at once entered a claim against the Japanese Government, and asked the Foreign Secretary of the day to intervene on their behalf; but, after full investigation had been made, on the 19th February, 1895, the Foreign Office came to the conclusion that not the Japanese but the Chinese Government was to blame, and that from them compensation should be demanded. The reason for that was that although war had not actually been declared at the time the Kow-Ching left the port, certain acts of hostility had been committed, and a Chinese warship, flying British colours, had fired into a Japanese ship of war. The Japanese cruiser Nanqwah fired a shot across the bows of the Kow-Ching. Her captain was, of course, prepared at once to surrender; but the Chinese troops on board forcibly took possession of the vessel, and prevented the British commander from doing his duty. Of course, under those circumstances it is obvious that the Chinese Government must be to blame. Now, before the present Government came into office the Foreign Office telegraphed to our Minister at Pekin to present this claim, but nothing more had been done when, in June, 1895, the present Government came into office; and in the middle of August a verbal intimation was received from the Foreign Office by the owners of the ship that it would be much better to prosecute the claim in this country through the Chinese Minister here, and that probably the settlement would come sooner. Months elapsed and nothing was done. In December, 1895, the excuse was made that the delay in settlement was due to the illness of the Chinese Minister, but when he recovered the Government remained as supine as before. The next step that was taken was in June, 1896, when Lord Salisbury took the opinion of the law officers of the Crown on the claim—a somewhat belated proceeding, it must be admitted, although, if some practical result had followed, no one would have complained. Within 10 days after the legal opinion was received by the Government it was communicated to the Chinese Government, and they were asked to consider and settle this most just claim. The matter then went to sleep till November, 1896, when, nothing having been done, it occurred to the shipowners that it would be well to make a direct representation to the Chinese Government instead of doing it through the Chinese Minister here, and accordingly Lord Salisbury telegraphed to our Minister at Pekin to present they claim, but instead of its being settled in the beginning of 1897 our Minister replied that it would be very much better to prosecute the claim in this country, because by that time the Chinese-Minister was changed, and the gentleman who was Naval Secretary when the ship was chartered had become Minister. Matters then looked hopeful, but again the Government went to sleep. Months passed, and when, in December, 1896, the shipowners again ventured to urge that their claim should receive attention, the excuse of the Chinese Minister was that the documents were so lengthy and so complicated that the translation: would occupy a very considerable time. I do not think the Government accepted that excuse, which was of a kind which has proved conspicuously successful in other spheres of political administration, as the House knows well. In the begin- ing of January, in the present year, when the shipowners again asked that a direct claim should be made against the Chinese Government, they were met by the statement from the Foreign Office that the feeling at Pekin was so bitter against the British that the chance of obtaining a settlement would be very much better if the negotiations were conducted in London than if the matter were prosecuted in Pekin, and so this matter stands at the present moment. Nothing has been done, and four years have elapsed since this confessed wrong was done to British subjects, and for four years this British loss has remained uncompensated. I freely allow that the Government have done something in the way of writing letters, but they have absolutely done no more. The course of procedure is this: at wide intervals of time—for I believe I am not unduly pertinacious—I write a letter to the Foreign Secretary, urging that speedy steps be taken to have this claim settled. He then writes a letter to the Chinese Minister, who invariably treats the communication with silent contempt, or writes an evasive answer, which, as the House knows, is the conventional method of the Oriental diplomatist, and in the long intervals of time which separate these communications Her Majesty's Government goes fast asleep. I speak, Sir, on behalf of the hapless widow of the chief engineer of the Kow-Ching, who by this wrongous act of the Chinese has been deprived of her bread-winner. I have written letters to our Foreign Office on her behalf, not, I think, at too frequent intervals. Whenever a letter is sent by me, another proceeds from the Foreign Office to the Chinese Minister, and then matters are allowed to drop, and nothing further is done. I have sometimes been tempted to think during the last three years what would have been the result to French or German, not to speak of Russian, subjects, had such a confessed wrong been done to one of them. Does this ment would have tolerated such an attitude as the Chinese Government have persisted in adopting? For here, Sir, is in undeniable wrong which still remains, after four long years, unredressed. Throughout the Government have never disputed the fact that the claim was unanswerable. They simply acknowledge the receipt of letters, and say something will be done in the future, and Her Majesty's Government rests contented with that. My complaint is this, that, now that the claim is formulated and admitted to be a just claim, and the amount is not questioned, Her Majesty's Government ought to insist that the claim be paid. And it is intolerable that years and years should elapse while British subjects' wrongs remain unredressed, and British subjects' losses are treated with silent contempt by a foreign Government. I do not know what the Government are going to do; they may ask me probably what is to be done, but that is not a question which should be put to a humble Member of the Opposition. Her Majesty's Ministers must know what ways and means are available to secure the speedy settlement of this undeniable claim. If they still persist in a policy of inaction, if they still accept with easy complacency the preposterous excuses for delay put forward on behalf of the Chinese Government, then, in my judgment, Her Majesty's Ministers will do much to confirm the reputation which, in these past 10 months they seem to have been acquiring for frailty, vacillation, and incompetency in their administration of foreign affairs, qualities which I rejoice to think have been rare in the annals of British Ministries.

MR. MOSS (Denbighshire, E.)

I regret that I must interpose in this last stage of the Session, but I feel compelled to do so, to call attention to what is looked upon as a very great hardship. From the year 1883 the Admiralty, as I am informed, have used, and used exclusively, South Wales coal for Her Majesty's ships, but in the year 1883 North Wales coals were on the Admiralty list, and it was only proper to infer that, apart from the fact that South Wales coal is absolutely smokeless and North Wales is not, North Wales coal is suitable for Her Majesty's ships. Now, when the strike in South Wales occurred, the Admiralty were approached in the month of May with regard to using North Wales coal, if not permanently, during the strike in South Wales, and after some correspondence on the 27th May the North Wales coalowners were informed by the Director of Navy Contracts that, although South Wales coals were used in Her Majesty's ships, still, North Wales coals had been used in consequence of the strike; and he went on to say an opportunity for tendering would be offered to North Wales also. That was on the 27th May. On the 23rd June the First Lord of the Admiralty said, in answer to a question put to him, that what they had seen of the difficulties of Welsh coal would induce the Admiralty to extend the experiment in every possible direction. That was on the 23rd June, and on the 28th the director of Navy contracts wrote again to the North Wales coal-owners, in reply to an appeal from them, and he begged to assure them that their coal should not be overlooked if it were found to be suitable upon experiments being made. No coal was required at that time, so the North Wales coalowners were left alone. But other coalowners— the Scotch, and the north country coalowners—were required to tender for the supply of coal for the use of Her Majesty's Navy.




On the 28th July we had the statement made in this House that careful experiments had been made of the different coals not ordinarily used in Her Majesty s Service, which had been recently offered, so the coal apparently had been offered and tested, and experimental trials of the following coals will be made. There is a long list of the various coals, with which I will not now trouble the House, which was given to the House on the 28th July by the First Lord of the Admiralty, and he said that these coals will be tried, and invitations issued during the continuance of the coal strike.

MR. MACARTNEY (Antrim, S.)

Yes, will be issued; not were issued.


The first part of the answer is that a careful examination has been made, not that it will be made, so that apparently on the 28th July an examination had been made of coals not previously offered to the Admiralty. Now, although this took place in the month of August, in spite of the promise of the director of Navy contracts, the North Wales coalowners have not had their coals tested, and had not even been given an opportunity of tendering for the coal to be used in Her Majesty's Navy.


The honourable Gentleman has complained that no opportunity has been given to the North Wales coalowners to tender to the Admiralty for coal for use in Her Majesty's ships; but he forgets, when he makes that complaint, that he has in his possession a letter from me, in which I stated that no less than three collieries had been invited to tender for coal for ship purposes, and I told him yesterday afternoon that tenders had been accepted from the North Wales coalowners, and in this House yesterday I told him that the North Wales coalowners occupied the same position, and would be placed on exactly the same footing, as the north country coalowners had been with regard to coals which the Admiralty considered would be useful. They have been given the same opportunity for tendering as the coalowners of Scotland and of the north country. No steps have been taken with regard to the coal of Scotland, the West Riding of Yorkshire, Durham, and Northumberland that have not been taken with regard to the coal of North Wales. I do not think I can state more strongly than I have already said to the honourable Gentleman what are the intentions of the Admiralty. All the coalowners are on precisely the same footing, and I cannot understand why the honourable Gentleman thought it necessary to raise the complaint he has raised.


The letter sent to me did not contain a statement that a form of tender had been sent for coal to be used for shipping purposes. The form that was sent had relation to dockyard purposes. If the right honourable Gentleman tells me that tenders have been accepted for shipping purposes I am content.


I can only say I saw the tenders myself, and one was for shipping purposes.


I do not wish to be discourteous to the honourable Gentleman the Member for Linlithgow, by not replying. I presume the honourable Gentleman sent notice to the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs of his intention to raise this question. That notice has not reached me, and therefore I have not the facts at my disposal which will enable me to deal with the subject.

MR. DOOGAN (Tyrone, E.)

I desire to call the attention of the right honourable Gentleman the Secretary to the Treasury to the great dissatisfaction that exists in Cookstown with reference to the late arrival of the train which brings the English, mails and Dublin papers to that part of my constituency. The right honourable Gentleman admitted that there is a delay of thirty-eight minutes,at Dungannon before the English mails are despatched therefrom to Cookstown, and he explained that this delay occurs in order that, a connection might be made with the Armagh and Omagh trains. Now, I think it would be possible to start the Derry train a little earlier, and to have its rate accelerated so as to reach Dungannon at least half an hour earlier. Cookstown is an important commercial centre, and has a good deal of correspondence with England, and I hope the right honourable Gentleman will interest himself so that they may have all reasonable postal facilities. I consider his answer to my Question of yesterday on this subject as wholly unsatisfactory. He admitted the grave inconvenience of the late delivery of the English, mails, but held out no hope that it would be obviated. It seemed to me that his reply was not in his characteristically courteous style, and that his manner was unaccommodating and uncompromising. I hope, however, that to-day the right honourable Gentleman will be able to give me a more favourable reply. I do not ask for a specific promise of improvement, but I do ask that the matter will receive his early attention. I would also remind him of the very deficient service in certain rural postal districts which I have more than once brought under his notice, and of my request that house to house delivery be extended to these districts.


I promise the honourable Gentleman that I will not be either unaccommodating or uncompromising in this matter. It will, however, be almost impossible for me to give any very definite assurance upon this question. I quite understand from the honourable Member's remarks that this is a very important matter, and I regret that in the stress of work I have had during the last fortnight I have not been able to give it the attention which I otherwise should have done. I will, however, promise to give it my attention during the Recess. I under- stand that the difficulty arises from the fact that certain trains arrive about nine o'clock and do not leave until half-past nine, and that consequently the inhabitants of the honourable Member's Division get their Dublin newspapers and their English newspapers half an hour later. Now, I will undertake to put this matter before the Post Office authorities, who will, no doubt, go into the question, not only of the mails, but also into the question as to how far the convenience of the passengers to Ireland will be affected. We have to consider, not only the convenience of the people who wish to receive their papers half an hour earlier, but also the railway passengers, and we shall have to consult the railway company to see what can be done in the matter. As to the house-to-house deliveries that is a very difficult matter, and there are a great number of places in England in the same position. However, before I see the honourable Member again next Session I will give the matter my careful consideration, and see what can be done to meet his wishes.

Question put. That this Bill be now read a third time.

Agreed to.

Sitting suspended at 11.35 until 2.30 for the Prorogation.

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