§ Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [1st May], "That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the subsidies to steamship companies and sailing vessels under foreign Governments, and the effect thereby produced on British trade."—(Sir William Walroud.)
§ Question again proposed.
§ (9.0.) MR. CALDWELL
said this was a Motion to re-appoint a Select Committee to inquire into the subsidies to steamship companies and sailing vessels under foreign Governments, and the effect thereby produced on British trade. The Committee was first appointed on 23rd April last; it held eighteen sittings and examined twenty-two witnesses, and it had published the evidence it had taken. It was said recently that they were nearly at the end of their inquiry, and only proposed to examine two or three witnesses. He wished to draw the attention of the House to the terms of reference. The Committee was to report on the effect on British trade of subsidies to steamship companies and sailing vessels under foreign Governments. But it had been taking evidence as to the effect of these subsidies on British shipping, and he ventured to assert that had the House known the Committee would do that, it would never have appointed it. British trade was a thing quite distinct from British shipping. The country was, of course, peculiarly interested in the question of the prosperity of its trade; its wealth largely depended on its exports. But this Committee, instead of inquiring as to the effect of these subsidies on that trade, had held an inquiry, in the interests of British shipowners, as to whether British ships should not be subsidised in order to enable them to compete with foreign vessels. That was the tenour of the whole of the questions put by the Chairman and other members of the Committee. He would like to illustrate his point. The British shipowner naturally wished to get as high freights as he could, and to have his vessels well filled. He was not so much interested in the volume of 847 trade as in the rate of freight, whereas, on the other hand, the British trader was more interested in the volume of the trade of the country than in the question of high freights: the interests were, in fact, antagonistic. The evidence showed that subsidies to foreign vessels did not tend to keep down freights, yet the whole tendency of this inquiry had been in the interest of the British shipowner, and not in that of the trader. Hence he was opposing the re-appointment of this Committee by way of protest against the conduct of its members. Of the witnesses examined, six were Government officials, seven were British consuls, and seven were shipowners: only two were connected with British trade; one was connected with the trade of Zanzibar, and his evidence echoed the views of the shipowners as regarded Zanzibar; and the only witness representing British trade came from Manchester, and gave evidence as to freights for cotton goods which showed the difference between the interests of the shipowner and the trader. He pointed out that cotton goods were sent from America to Shanghai at 27s. 6d. per ton, whereas it cost 50s. a ton to send them from this country. It was only true that British trade was best promoted in British ships where freights were equal. The Committee had gone outside their reference. They had entered into an inquiry into the subsidies of British ships as armed cruisers. This had nothing to do with the question the Committee had to consider. The Committee's object was to make out and bolster up a case for an extension of the system of subsidies. The Committee had also taken up the subject of mail contracts with the same object.
§ SIR CHARLES CAYZER (Barrow in Furness)
I wish to ask whether the hon. Member is in order in saying the Committee is bolstering up a case for shipping subsidies when they have made no Report.
§ * MR. SPEAKER
They have not made a final Report, but they have made a Report—they have reported the evidence.
§ MR. CALDWELL
repeated his charge, and, in support of it, declared that a combination of British shipowners had 848 succeeded in almost doubling the rates from Hamburg and other continental ports. [AN HON. MEMBER: That is not so.] Well, they had it in the evidence of Mr. Hill that the Norwegian Government fixed the rates, and a Norwegian Company had to carry goods at those frieghts. At first the Wilson Company tried to compete and keep up their rates, but eventually they had to come down to the level of the Norwegian Company, although they said it did not pay them.
§ * MR. SPEAKER
Order, order! The hon. Member is going too far in discussing particular cases. I understand he is objecting to the re-appointment of the Committee on the ground that it has, in taking evidence, gone beyond the scope of its reference. He is entitled to do that, but he is not entitled to deal with the facts proved in the evidence with a view to testing their accuracy.
§ MR. CALDWELL
said he had been led into doing that by the interruptions to which he had been subjected. It was endeavoured to show at the inquiry that a combination of British shipowners had endeavoured to raise rates, and it was that which was causing Germany, Russia, and the United States to build ships of their own. [An HON. MEMBER: Nonsense.]
§ MR. CALDWELL
said the combination was doing more than anything else to dislocate the trade of this country. He could only repeat that the shipowners were directing the inquiry in their own interest, and their presence in such force that night was sufficient proof of it.
§ *(9.20.) MR. CHARLES WILSON (Hull, W.)
said he could hardly imagine a more inopportune moment to bring forward such arguments as had been employed by his hon. friend. It appears to be the hon. Member's view that shipowners ought to be tabooed as much as possible. His own view was that never in the history of England had the shipping interest been of more importance 849 to this country than at the present time. What had it done? Personally, he was not one of those who had approved from many points of view of the war in South Africa, but still, if it had not been for our shipping interest, what would have happened? It was our splendid fleet of transports that had carried our Army in safety across the seas, a thing hitherto in its magnitude unknown in the history of the world. They were now asking for the renewal of the Committee on Subsidies. He had given evidence before it last year. His hon. friend's line of argument appeared to be that foreign nations were envious of our shipping and wished to drive it from their ports by granting subsidies, and that this competition re-acted favourably on British trade by lowering freights. Probably that was the case in almost every maritime country. In many instances that had already seriously affected our mercantile marine. Take Norway as a particular instance. He had been connected, through his firm for fifty years of his life, with the trade of that country. In no maritime country was there more jealousy of the British flag. We considered ourselves a maritime nation, but Norway especially considered she had a right to her trade on the high seas, and to displace the British flag. The Government of Norway, to protect their shipping, gave subsidies. They fixed certain rates of freight as part of the terms of the subsidies, no doubt making them unrermmerative to unsubsidised shipping. Also, their sailors got lower wages than ours, and they had not the same restrictions under the Board of Trade which we had. He was not complaining of those restrictions. He thought that in this country those restrictions had to an enormous extent been in favour of saving life at sea.
They had very many dramatic scenes in older days in the House of Commons—especially one great scene that he was old enough to remember, and to know that good had resulted from it. Still, at the same time, we had restrictions, as we had expenses which some foreign nationalities had not. Naturally, if we were to continue the competition, we had to do the same thing, and carry at the same freights. He could say from his 850 own experience that as a result it had been difficult for British shipping to live in competition. But Englishmen did not like to give in, and certainly his firm would not. But supposing any British line of shipping had to succumb as a result of Foreign subsidies and was withdrawn, the freight was advanced again, and that benefit disappeared. This had only to be carried to its ultimate end—destroy one branch of British shipping after another, and practically destroy the great maritime power of this country, so it was a much bigger question than his hon. friend assumed. Personally, as a British shipowner, he should do what little he could to counteract the arguments of his hon. friend. We had at present one drawback in the question of light dues. German steamers running to America were, he believed, exempted from what were called tonnage dues, because the Germans did not charge light dues, while we did. Taking one case in connection with his own business, that made a difference of over £500 on one steamer in twelve months. It practically meant the difference between a profit and a loss. He asked the Government to relieve shipowners from light dues, which would carry a double advantage. He had not been there for some time, but the House had been exercised over the question of the American combination. The White Star Company had sold their entire fleet to the Morgan Syndicate, lock, stock, and barrel. Did we want this to extend, or did we not? If it was extended, it was the beginning of the decadence of British shipping, and without British shipping what would this country be? He was speaking as one intimately connected with British shipping for the last fifty years, and he had not heard one argument from the hon. Member which he was not surprised to hear coming from the Liberal Benches, and he did not think they would find favour even on the Government side of the House. He certainly hoped they would not. He hoped this Motion would be passed, and that it would be the inauguration from the present time of a determination to see that the interests of British shipping were paramount and of considerably more importance than during his time the House of Commons had ever considered them to be. One good thing might result from the attention which had been drawn to this subject by the American Syndicate. 851 It showed conclusively that we must take more interest in our shipping. We had a great example set us in Germany by the Kaiser, who did all in his power to foster German shipping. He did not think we could say that similar great influences operated in this country, but he trusted that the facts which had been disclosed would open the eyes of those who were interested in the maintenance of the power of England. He hoped that very little support would be given in that House to the views which had been expressed by the hon. Member for Mid Lanark.
§ *(9.35.) MR. EVELYN CECIL (Aston Manor)
As Chairman of the Committee on Steamship Subsidies last year, I think it will perhaps be convenient that I should intervene at this stage of the debate. I [...]sh to deny altogether the allegation of the hon. Member for Mid Lanarkshire that the appointment of this Committee has been promoted by shipowners.
§ MR. CALDWELL
I did not say it had been promoted by shipowners. I said it had been promoted in the interests of the shipping trade.
§ MR. EVELYN CECIL
The hon. Member evidently draws a distinction between British shipping and British trade. There may be, as is alleged, some antagonism in certain circumstances between British shipping and British trade; but, unquestionably, in the main, British trade has been in British ships, and if British shipping were by any chance to pass over to foreigners, I should like to ask the hon. Member where he thinks British trade would be. The hon. Member says this inquiry is merely intended to bolster up recommendations for British subsidies. Allow me to say that that is not in the least the object of this inquiry. This inquiry is determined to get at the bottom of circumstances which have arisen in connection with trade and shipping, and I am most anxious to deal with these questions impartially, to call witnesses of all shades of opinion, and to cover all the ground that is reasonably contained in this reference. Personally, I should not have had any objection if this reference had been somewhat larger. It would then have covered some of the technical objections raised by the hon. Member for Mid Lanarkshire, and, if I am 852 permitted to deal with what is and what is not the extent of the terms of reference, I should like to call the attention of the House to two or three considerations connected therewith.
The inquiry had not proceeded very far before I was brought face to face with one or two difficult points, upon which, as chairman, I was called upon to rule. The question very naturally arose at once as to whether this inquiry was to be limited somewhat in the direction sketched by the hon. Member for Mid. Lanarkshire, that is to say, limited to an inquiry into the sums granted by foreign Governments as steamship subsidies, which, after all, were easily obtainable from the commercial reports issued by the Foreign Office, or whether it was to be an inquiry of some real, substantial value, which should look at the question from a more general point of view. We inquired into the system of subsidies to steamship companies, and among others the Gorman companies: and we found that these subsidies to German companies were granted under express conditions. Let me inform the House of two or three conditions which are required by the German Government to be observed before such subsidies are paid to the companies. One article of the contract between the German Government and the North German Lloyd Company is that the steamers of the latter are to be built in German yards, as far as possible of German materials, according to the requirements of the German Admiralty, and the plans must be submitted to the German Chancellor. That raises the question of the mercantile marine available in time of war, and it was not possible wholly to exclude this question from the Committee's inquiry, seeing that it was an essential condition upon which the German Government gave the subsidy. Another condition is that the sale or hire of vessels to foreign countries is not allowed without permission of the German Imperial Chancellor. That raises a question which fringes upon the recent Atlantic "combination" and is a material matter for the inquiry. I do not think we can go into the whole question upon that article of the German contract, but the House will see that it does raise the question of sale to foreign countries of British ships, and 853 if this can be prevented by making it a condition upon which subsidies are granted to British owners that those ships shall not be sold to foreign countries, this is a point very material to our inquiry.
Take another article imposed by the German Government on the North German Lloyd Company, which is that the rates of freight and fares cannot be changed without the consent of the Imperial Chancellor. That raises the question of through preferential rates and through bills of lading, which have a material effect on the increase or the decrease of British trade. This raises, to some extent, the question of shipping rates and shipping "rings" or conferences, because it is clear that if the rates are such as the German Chancellor does not approve of, he can compel those rates to be reduced to a lower figure, which will be more advantageous to the Government or the public. It would not be fair to contemplate recommending the subsidies to be granted, assuming for a moment that the Committee were to do so, if we felt that the money simply went to bolster up objectionable practices sometimes in favour with a shipping ring. Let us take another article. The German Government stipulate in granting subsidies that all adult deck hands and members of the engine-room staff engaged in Germany are to consist of men belonging to the naval reserve of Germany or persons who have contracted to serve under the Imperial Navy, if steamers are requisitioned, hired, or bought by the Gorman Government; and natives only are to be employed in the engine and boiler rooms, when employment of European firemen and stokers is inadvisable for sanitary reasons. Here, again, it is made an express condition in the granting of subsidies by the German Government that, if possible, the crews should be German crews. That raises to some extent the question whether crews in British subsidised ships should be British crews or not.
Then there is another subject which, to my mind, necessarily comes in some degree within the scope of our inquiry. I allude to a class of matters, which I venture to call possible contributory causes, which affect British trade. There seemed to be many other causes besides subsidies which might affect British trade. If we 854 are told by witnesses of causes affecting British trade, I submit that the Committee must inquire into those causes so far as to be able to tell whether they are contributory causes or not. I do not propose that we should inquire elaborately into them, but I do not think we can shut our eyes to the fact that they may be causes very seriously affecting the granting of subsidies. Such things as the load-line regulations were mentioned, and the light dues have also been referred to. No doubt these have some effect upon British trade, and testimony has been borne to this fact by the hon. Member who has just spoken. It is also stated that the Board of Trade regulations and restrictions are a cause affecting British trade. I do not say that this is within our terms of reference, but we cannot shut our eyes to the statements which have been made to us upon these points. We have been told that trade is affected by the regulations which countries like Russia and the United States adopt with regard to the coasting trade. For instance, Russia and the United States confine their coasting trade to their own vessels, and interpret the term coasting trade so widely that it includes a voyage from Odessa to Vladivostock, and from San Francisco to Honolulu. The Committee must, in my opinion, have their eyes not wholly fixed upon subsidies, but also consider other facts and circumstances which surround them.
The House will not, I think, be disposed rigidly to limit the Committee to a very technical and scrupulous interpretation of the reference. We cannot put blinkers on our eyes, and keep looking at subsidies and subsidies alone, and take no consideration of any other matter which might materially affect the question. While we ought certainly to make subsidies the centre of our investigations, in some degree we ought to keep our wits alive to the fact that there are numerous other circumstances which affect British trade. I have endeavoured to conduct the inquiry on those lines, and I trust what I have done has been in accordance with the wishes of the House. The effect of enlarging the terms of reference will be that the inquiry will take very much longer. I hope that if this Committee is appointed we shall be able to report this session. As the 855 whole of the shipping question has come so much before the public in recent times, more especially during the last few months, I venture to think that the public will be very glad of some Report upon the evidence brought before us, and if it is thought that our Report does not cover the whole of the question, and that some of these matters require further inquiry, it is open to the Government and to the House to have that inquiry made. I am fully alive to the importance of every one of those questions which have been referred to. I dare say every one of them would be deserving of a Royal Commission to itself, and a Commission could be appointed expressly fitted to deal with any one of these special subjects. In conclusion, I repeat that, while I am anxious to keep these other considerations in mind, I think we should fix our attention in the main upon the question of steamship subsidies. Considering that the public require a Report as soon as possible, and that anything which is not reported upon can easily be inquired into by any other Committee, I hope the House will decide to allow us to consider this question without any further delay. It is almost unprecedented in the history of this House that a Committee such as this, which has taken two-thirds of its evidence, should be refused re-appointment. Its re-appointment ought to be almost a matter of form. I would suggest that the procedure on re-appointment of a Committee of this kind is quite as important and useful a matter for the First Lord of the Treasury to turn his attention to, when he is considering alterations of the rules of the House, as any other matter which has been before him.
§ SIR ALFRED HICKMAN (Wolverhampton, W.)
The traders of this country would feel much more sympathy with complaints as to the disadvantages under which British shipowners labour if they felt that British shipowners acted fairly towards their own country. The shipping ring, which has been referred to, is a combination whereby British shipowners bind themselves to keep up the rates from English ports, whereas they leave the rates in foreign 856 ports perfectly open to competition. They prevent any natural competition arising by a very ingenious device—
§ * MR. SPEAKER
The hon. Member will not be in order in discussing the effect of the shipping ring upon English trade. The question before the House is as to whether there should be an inquiry into subsidies to foreign ships by their Governments and their effect upon British trade. Therefore, the argument of the hon. Member in regard to shipping rings generally is out of order.
§ *(9.50.) MR. NORMAN (Wolverhampton, S.)
My hon. friend the Member for Mid Lanark has brought something in the nature of a personal charge against every member of this Committee, although, no doubt, he did not mean to do so. He has charged the Committee with a deliberate bias in favour of a certain class of busines men. It will have been a matter of surprise to most Members of the House who have taken an interest in this matter, that my hon. friend has stayed up night alter night to oppose the re-appointment of this Committee. He has, however, let us into the secret tonight in the passionate invective he has indulged in against this Committee. What is his charge based upon? It is based solely upon the evidence. The evidence simply consists of a series of questions put by members of the Committee, and answers to them. Any denunciation of the Committee ought to be based on its Report, but the Committee, while formally reporting that it should be reappointed, has not given any indication of what its views are, and has given no indication of what its views on the subjects which came before it may turn out to be. I submit, with all respect to my hon. friend, that it is entirely unfair to conclude from those questions and answers what the Committee is likely to say in its Report or to anticipate what that Report is likely to be. Those questions were put simply to elicit information. The hon. Member for Mid Lanarkshire has no right to talk about the Committee attempting to bolster up any case for the shipowners. I know there is not an hon. Member of this House who would be more unwilling 857 to do anything unfair than the hon. Member for Mid Lanarkshire, but I think that in this case his action has been very unfair.
§ * MR. SPEAKER
I do not understand that the hon. Member for Mid Lanarkshire used the term "bolstering up" in that sense. Had I understood the hon. Member as making a charge of deliberate unfairness in regard to the Committee, I should certainly have called him to order.
§ * MR. NORMAN
My hon. friend certainly used the words "To bolster up a case," and my criticism applies only to that expression. Unfortunately, I am not a shipowner, and I have absolutely no interest in ships, though I have, however, seen a, great deal of ships. It is most unfair to me and to other members of the Committee to say that we have any bias whatever in favour of shipowners. Shipowners are exactly like any other class of business men in the community, they know their own business very well, they are interested in shipping, and they naturally desire, when possible, to promote their own interests. This is not peculiar to shipowners, but to every class of the community, and to stigmatise shipowners as a sort of leprous class who ought to be segregated in the public interest seems to me to be distinctly unfair. Personally, I cherish a lively suspicion of shipping rings, and as far as possible my own questions have been so directed as to find out something about their origin and methods. A good deal has been said about the terms of reference, and the Chairman of the Committee has made a very able defence of the action of the Committee and the scope which has been given to this inquiry. I would venture to defend our inquiry on rather different grounds. I cannot say offhand exactly what the terms of reference are, but I take it that any good Committee frequently goes beyond the terms of its reference—not intentionally, but accidentally; and, indeed, this is inevitable, when a Committee shows enthusiasm and a desire to follow up any train of interesting information that comes before it. If a Committee is led by enthusiasm to go beyond its reference, I think the House might generally regard that as 858 reflecting credit on the Committee and not as a proper basis of censure, and that is what seems to mo to he the ease at the present moment, when matters connected with British shipping have come to the front in so sensational and vital a manner. When the Committee reports, its Report may be the last word of wisdom, or it may be a piece of folly. When the House gets the Report, it can do what it likes with it. It can act upon it, or put it in the waste-paper basket. I think it is wholly unreasonable that a Committee, which has gone through two-thirds of its work and in obedience to instructions from the House to carry out a certain inquiry to the best of its ability, whether great or small, should be stopped just before it has finished its labours. It is almost, if I may use the word, farcical. If there is anything to be deduced from the speech of the hon. Member for Mid Lanark, it is that he himself ought to be added to the Committee, and I feel sure I speak for the Committee when I say that we should gladly welcome his presence.
§ (9.56.) MR. CHARLES McARTHUR (Liverpool, Exchange)
I support in the heartiest manner the Motion for the appointment of the Committee. I certainly think it is desirable that it should be allowed to finish its work and present its Report. I cannot understand the argument of the hon. Member for Mid Lanark in objecting to the reappointment of the Committee. He has endeavoured to draw a distinction between British trade and British shipping. He says that an inquiry into British trade ought not to be extended to British shipping, but surely shipping is a branch of our trade and a very important branch. I quite agree with what has fallen from the hon. Member for Aston Manor that, although in certain points there are distinctions between the mercantile interest and the shipping interest, the mercantile wishing to have freights as low, and the shipping to have freights as high, as possible. If anything were to happen to the detriment of British shipping it would not be an advantage but a loss and disadvantage to British trade. I honestly confess, and I am not ashamed to confess, that this inquiry should relate in the main to British 859 shipping, the branch of British trade which is immediately affected. I wish every Member of the House knew as well as I happen to know, coming from a great shipowning centre, how critical is the condition of British trade at the present moment. The eyes of the country have been directed to the recent combination. I merely refer to that as an illustration, which I think I may do without being out of order, of the critical condition of British trade at the present time. If we look at the tables prepared by the Board of Trade showing the complete tonnage of shipping in the carrying trade, distinguishing as they do between British and foreign tonnage, we find that in the last five years the proportion of British tonnage in the carrying trade between the United Kingdom and foreign countries and the colonies has decreased 10 per cent., while the foreign tonnage has increased 10 per cent. I say that that is a most alarming state of things, and one that seriously deserves attention. There is no doubt that the bounty system is most injurious to our trade.
There is no necessity for me to go into details, because the subject has already been mentioned, but I wish to state that the large bounties given by foreign Governments, and especially the French Government, amount to £1,500,000 per annum, and I wish to refer to the danger, at the present time, of the bounties increasing. It is the old story of the sugar bounties over again, certain terms being made against a branch of British trade, and unless that branch can be protected against attack it is ruined. With regard to French bounties, the House may not know that in 1893 a law was passed giving large bounties to sailing ships. This year that law has been renewed, and the bounties are to be continued for a period of ten years. I want to explain to the House what effect that has upon our shipping trade. These bounties are given to ships engaged in what is known as the long voyage trade, such as the trade to San Francisco. A ship of 3,000 tons starts with a bounty equal to £4,500 for the twelvemonth which is occupied by the voyage to San Francisco and back. When a British ship arrives in San Francisco the rate 860 of freight is cut by the French ship because it can make a profit at the lower rate, while the British ship makes a loss. The entire working of the French, ship is paid out of the bounty. The owners of our sailing ships are in this position at the present day, that they do not know where to go to get freights. It is proposed at the present time to advance to the foreigner shipowner half the cost of a new vessel, which is to be paid back in twenty years, in twenty annual instalments, without interest. There is a proposal also to pay part of the coal consumed if the ship is trading to Russian ports, and it is further proposed to pay the marine insurance on the ship to the extent of three-fourths of the value at the ridiculously low rate of 2 per cent. That shows the great danger that is looming in the future, and the shipowners are coming to the conclusion, and I think they are justified, that in some way or other, if some branches of our shipping trade are not to be killed, we must find some means of defending ourselves against this unfair method of attack.
As long as there is a fair field and no favour our shipowners are perfectly ready to meet competition, but they cannot meet the competition of oreign shipowners who are backed up by foreign Governments, and I think the British shipowner has a right to come to his own Government to ask for something to be done to protect him. Do not allow our trade to be ruined before your eyes. There is only one thing that can be done in the future if we cannot get these foreign bounties removed, and that is, we must for the time being meet bounty by bounty. I perfectly agree with what has fallen from the Chairman of this Committee that it would be a mistake for the Committees to take too narrow a view of their instructions. It is quite true that they have only been appointed—To inquire into the subsides to steam-hip companies and sailing vessels under foreign Governments, and be effect thereby produced on British trade.But this question is so intimately connected with other questions to which my hon. friend the Member for Aston Manor alluded that it is impossible to separate them. We find that when any 861 great question is alluded to it is impossible to judge upon it without knowing something about other questions with which it is connected. Although I should be sorry myself to see the terms of the reference to the Committee enlarged, I agree with the Chairman of the Committee that they should take an all round view, and not be restricted absolutely to the instructions. The Committee have power to see if an evil exists, but if they find that it does exist, they have no power to make recommendations to meet the evil. It seems to me that that is the crux of the question. I do not think there is any reason to doubt that our trade has suffered from foreign subsidies, and I think the Committee will find some means of overcoming that difficulty, if they are not specialty authorised by the House to make recommendations. I think I may be permitted to glance at one or two questions which have already been alluded to in the course of the debate. It is possible that the Committee might decide against making any recommendation in respect to bounties on shipping. I have already felt a great indisposition to ask bounties. I have always been a Free Trader, and I believe in Free Trade, but you may work Free Trade to death.
§ * MR. SPEAKER
Order, order! It would not be in order to discuss our commercial policy on this Motion. The proposal before the House is that a Committee should be appointed to inquire into the effect produced on British trade by the granting of subsidies to foreign steamship companies.
§ MR. CHARLES McARTHUR
There are other ways in which the Committee might ultimately find it possible to do something for shipping. One way is to relieve shipping from some of the restrictions to which it is at present subject. The present system is to give preference to the foreigner.
§ * MR. SPEAKER
I must say again that it would not be in order for the hon. Member to discuss the whole position of British shipping. The Committee is specially to inquire into the effect of foreign subsidies, and to go into all the remedies that might be suggested 862 for the amelioration of the portion of British shipping would be outside the scope of the proposal.
§ MR. CHARLES McARTHUR
I will only say in conclusion that I am sure the House will feel that our mercantile marine ought not lightly to be tampered with. It is indispensable for the safety and prosperity of the country. We owe our Empire and our world wide fame to the colonial mercantile marine and our navy. We have in our mercantile marine a reserve on which we can fall back. It would be a disastrous thing for this country if anything happened to impair the prosperity of the mercantile marine. I hope the Committee will be able before very long to present a Report, but I believe the position of our mercantile marine is so critical at the present time that we ought not to wait for any Report of any Committee. I believe it is not a matter for a Committee, but for prompt and energetic action on the part of the Government.
§ (10.10.) MR. WILLIAM ALLAN
I think, from the tone of the speeches delivered on this subject from the various shipowners who have spoken, that they are getting into a state of terror. I am afraid they are getting alarmed for themselves, but I do not think the shipowners of Great Britain have yet come to the point when they are going to come to the Government hat in hand and ask for subsidies. It is true that the Committee who are sitting are doing their very best to find out the causes of the present situation, but they have not yet given their Report. I have no doubt that in the Report they will go into the whole question of foreign subsidies, and I have no doubt that the question whether it would be advisable or not to give subsidies to British shipping will be thoroughly thrashed out. I think, therefore, it would be better to wait until the Committee has given its Report before we cry "Peccavi." I have every faith in the Committee, although I should have liked to see more business men upon it. I say so without any reflection upon the Members who are upon it. The hon. Member for West Hull alluded to the Morgan syndicate purchasing the White Star boats. I am afraid the ghost of that syndicate haunts shipowners night and day. It is all a storm in a teacup. 863 We can lick the Morgan syndicate easily. We could build the boats for speed or anything else, and we can run the Morgan syndicate or any syndicate off the face of the water. I do not like to see our shipowners losing heart. What we have to do if we find the shipping trade of this country declining is very simple. Let British goods be carried in British bottoms and nothing else. [Ministerial cheers.] Yes, I am very glad that meets with the approval of hon. Members on the other side of the House, and also of the gallant Admiral whom I am glad to see sitting there. I personally deprecate all the sorrowful tone our shipowners are assuming at this period of our history. I have much pleasure in supporting the proposal for the appointment of the Committee, but I would like to see some more pronounced business men appointed. If I am in order I would nominate a gentleman or two.
§ * MR. SPEAKER
This is a Motion for the appointment of a Committee. If the Motion is carried, then will come the time to nominate Members.
§ MR. WILLIAM ALLAN
I am very much obliged to you, Mr. Speaker. I think these are questions which we should not approach in terror. We have not lost our British nerve or pluck yet. There were only three or four good ships amongst those acquired by the Morgan syndicate, and British shipowners need not be lugubrious over what is being done.
§ (10.19.) MR. GERALD BALFOUR
I think I may appeal to the House to bring this discussion now to a close. The debate has ranged over a great number of topics, from the question of paying subsidies to British shipping to the re-enactment of the navigation laws. I do not think this is an occasion for the discussion of so wide a range of topics. The question before the House is an extremely simple one. It is whether we should reappoint the Committee which was appointed last year, and which—if I may judge from what fell from the hon. Member from Aston Manor—has probably taken two-thirds of the evidence which it would require to take before reporting to the House. The 864 one argument which has been urged against the reappointment of the Committee is that advanced by the hon. Member for Mid Lanark, that it exceeded its reference in the evidence which it took last year. What remedy does the hon. Member for Mid Lanark propose? That if the Committee were reappointed it should be reappointed with a larger reference! I think those who listened to the hon. Member for Aston Manor will not have carried away the idea that the Committee is likely to interpret its reference too narrowly. At the same time, it is quite another thing to enlarge the reference, and to require the Committee to inquire into the additional points which an enlarged reference would include. If that were done, it would be absolutely impossible for the Committee to report during the current session. The question before the House, then, is really this:—In the first place, should this Committee be reappointed or not? and on that point no one but the hon. Member for Mid Lanark has any doubt. The second point is the extension of the reference; and as to that I can only say that, after what has fallen from the Chairman of the Committee, there is no necessity for any such extension.
§ * SIR JOHN COLOMB (Great Yarmouth)
said he wished to point out that the terms of the reference this year were not identical with those of last year. Two important words had been left out. Last year a Select Committee was appointed to inquire into "the system of subsidies." This year it was appointed to inquire into the question of "the subsidies." He presumed that this was a clerical error, and could easily be amended, but he thought it was important. He considered it was a great misfortune that the reappointment of the Committee should have been so long delayed; and he thought the sooner it got to work the better. He took a very serious view of the outlook for shipping, and also in regard to the question of the protection of commerce in time of war; but his present point was, that the sooner the Committee got to work and completed it the better.
§ SIR FORTESCUE FLANNERY (Yorkshire, W. R., Shipley)
said that the hon. Member for Mid Lanark appeared to 865 oppose the re-appointment of the Committee on the ground that last session they had exceeded the scope of the reference to them; but the hon. Gentleman did not quote, in his hearing, a single question or answer which had the effect of proving that the Committee had exceeded their reference. He ventured to submit that the reference was so wide that it would be practically impossible for the Committee to go beyond it, seeing that it was to inquire into the effect produced on British trade by foreign subsidies. Now if that were the case there was nothing, in his view, connected with British trade which would not fairly come within the scope of those words in the reference. Something had been said by an hon. Member on the question of light dues, but he ventured to think that there were other matters than that which bore more heavily on ship owners. There was, for instance, the question of the load line. They knew that the British ships had to have a load line painted on their sides, and these ships could not be loaded to immerse them below that load line. They also knew that foreign ships had no such obligation on them. The result was that vessels that had been built under the British flag and had been sailed at a loss by British owners on account of the load line, had been sold to foreigners and that these same vessels come back to British ports and were allowed to sail away therefrom with excessive cargoes. This worked enormous disadvantage to British owners. Similarly, foreign ships coming into British ports were not under the same obligations as British ships as to the number of passengers they could carry and as to the various restrictions for the safety of passengers. The result was that foreign vessels came into Southampton and took on board a much larger number of passengers than British ships would be permitted to carry. The hon. Member for the Exchange Division of Liverpool had pointed out that these conditions had been so extremely onerous that there were few spheres in which British ships could obtain freight which would enable them to pay their way. His hon. friend the Member for the Exchange Division had suggested that the only way to deal with this question was to meet bounty with bounty. He would not enter into that question, but he would ask hon. Members opposite how they were going to 866 deal with this matter, and the effect which subsidies had in assisting foreign shipping. Like the hon. Member, he was a Free Trader, and was heartily opposed to bounties of every sort and kind; but he failed to see bow the difficulty was to be got over unless some means were pointed out for the consideration and approval of the House which would equalise the conditions under which British and foreign shipowners conducted their business. Speaking with some knowledge of the subject he most earnestly commended to the House the speedy re-appointment of the Committee, and he was sure the House would not find fault with them if they took the widest view of the scope of the reference, and fully inquired into this great national question.
§ (10.35.) MR. RENWICK (Newcastle-on-Tyne)
said that while he fully sympathised with the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade in his desire to curtail the debate, he would just like to point out to the House why he thought it was absolutely necessary that they ought to be allowed some latitude in discussing this question. Not an atom of evidence had been taken by the Committee since the month of August last, and although nearly two-thirds of the session had gone, there seemed to be the greatest desire to burke discussion with regard to the re-appointment of the Committee. It was the duty of the Government to face the facts which were patent to the whole country, and if this Committee was not able to inquire into the whole of this most important question, a Committee which had that power should be appointed. They were face to face with one of the most momentous crisises in the shipping trade of this country. The hon. Member for Gateshead had told them that they must not get into a state of alarm; ho deprecated the desire to give bounties; but then he went on to make the most extraordinary statement ever made in the House, that British goods should be carried in British bottoms.
§ MR. WILLIAM ALLAN
said he had not said that. What he had said was that that might be a possible arrangement.
§ MR. RENWICK
ventured to maintain that that would be a possible disarrangement, because he believed it would be impossible to discover whether the goods 867 belonged to British subjects or to foreign subjects. The large liners seemed almost to monopolise the attention of the Committee, but what were called the tramp owners who, he believed, represented 70 or 80 per cent. of the whole tonnage of the country, were entitled to consideration equally with the liners. He ventured to appeal to the Government to meet this whole subject boldly when they were about it, and if the Committee was too limited in its reference, the Government should move for the appointment of a Committee to go into the whole question. He maintained that if there had been a Minister, as there ought to have been, specially appointed to look after shipping, trade, and commerce, there would have been a different state of things with regard to this matter.
§ MR. DUKE (Plymouth)
said he would like to tell the House what in fact the Committee, of which he was a member, had done last session. The view which the hon. Member for Mid Lanark had given of the proceedings of the Committee was the strangest travesty he had ever heard. He had been present at every meeting of the Committee, and had read through the notes of its proceedings twice since it met last session, and he could say with the utmost confidence that the Committee was in no sense a shipowners Committee, or one in the interests of shipowners. Further, as a man with practical knowledge of business, and with some experience in conducting inquiries, he maintained that the inquiry could not have been conducted more clearly and closely with regard to the terms of the reference than it had been conducted by his hon. friend the Member for Aston Manor. That hon. Gentleman had insisted that the Committee should not go beyond the reference, which was as to the effect of foreign subsidies on our own trade; but it would have been idle if the Committee had rejected what was told them by experienced men of the effect being produced by these foreign subsidies. As to the suggestion that the Committee was an instrument of the shipowners, he would point out that a considerable majority of the members had no interest in shipowning. Then it had been said that the inquiry was not confined to trade; but the only latitude the Chairman allowed them was to regard the carrying trade as part of the trade of the country. He had 868 been amazed to hear hon. Gentlemen opposite, posing as business men, speaking of the trade of this country as though it did not include the carrying trade. The export trade of Japan had grown during the last twenty years from £10,000,000 a year to £45,000,000 a year, and a very large proportion of the increase had gone to foreign countries—that was, had been carried in foreign bottoms—as a direct result of the subsidies which had been given by foreign Governments, especially French, German and American. The British Consul at Yokohama said before the Committee—It looks as if the day were not far distant when Germany and Japan will do the whole of the carrying trade between Japan and this country.Twenty years ago British ships had almost the monoply of that trade. The same thing might be said of the Straits Settlement Trade, and the Bombay trade; and the manner in which this inquiry began was the connection between the depression of the trade of the East African settlements and our own colonies, and the introduction of subsidised lines by Continental States. The Committee had dealt in the same manner with the East Indian, the China, the Japan, and the Australian trade. He could not understand how the Committee could have dealt in a more business-like manner with the question raised in the reference. If some business man wanted to take a place on the Committee it was open to him, but so far as the Committee at large was concerned they, under the Chairmanship of the hon. Member for Aston Manor, had at any rate clone their very best.
§ MR. DAVID MACIVER (Liverpool, Kirkdale)
said that this inquiry was especially important to the owners of sailing ships, because the subsidies given by foreign countries, especially by France, were largely clearing out British sailing ships. It was greatly to the interest of this country that our sailing fleet should be maintained. Only the other day he had made a short voyage, and he was very much struck with the fact that the only sailing vessels they passed were magnificent French four-masted sailing ships. He himself was not an owner of sailing ships, but he would say that the position of the owners of British sailing ships was 869 deplorable by reason of the subsidies granted by foreign countries. The owners of tramp steamers, of whom he was one, disliked subsidies, whether foreign or British. This was not the occasion on which to discuss the American combination, but he wished very briefly to reply to the remarks of the hon. Member for Gateshead. If it were only a matter of purchase of White Star ships, the country need not be afraid; it had other ships and plenty of shipowners; but the real danger of the combination was not the ships that were purchased but the trade that was purchased. He hoped on some future occasion to make it clear and emphatic that that was a very real danger indeed, and a very serious blow to British commerce. The real question was to keep the British carrying trade as far as possible in British ships. At present, however, he would confine himself to the expression of a wish that the Committee should be reappointed, and of regret that that should have been delayed by the action of the hon. Member for Mid Lanark.
§ Ordered, That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the subsidies to steamship companies and sailing vessels under Foreign governments, and the effect thereby produced on British trade.