HC Deb 27 April 1906 vol 156 cc181-92

Order for Second Reading read.

* MR. JACKSON (Greenwich)

, in moving the Second Reading, acknowledged that a large number of Members of the House had come to the conclusion that it was not desirable to press the first and the second clauses of the Bill, and he believed that the President of the Board of Trade agreed with them. Under these circumstances, if the Bill reached its Committee stage he would propose to abandon those two clauses. There remained the very important clause which proposed to repeal Section 633 of the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894. The meaning of that clause was that when a vessel was under compulsory pilotage and came into collision with another vessel, the owner of that vessel claimed to exempt himself from liability for damages to the owner of the other vessel. The argument was that so long as he was compelled by law to carry a pilot, and damage was done to another ship while the pilot was in charge, the shipowner should not be responsible. There were several reasons why it was desirable, in the interest of a large number of shipowners that Clause 633 of the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 should be repealed. If a pilot caused the ship in his charge to run into another he was supposed to be responsible; but it might turn out that he was an impecunious person and no damages could be obtained from him. But, in addition, the law as it at present stood, created a tendency on the part of the pilots to act recklessly in navigating the vessels given into their charge in order to catch a tide. He had had thirty-five years' experience of the navigation of the Thames, and he knew that when a large vessel with, say, 2,000 head of cattle on board, was wanted by its captain to get up on a particular tide, the loss of that tide might lead to considerable loss of money, and the pilot might, therefore, be induced under the circumstances to navigate the ship up the river in the most reckless manner. The Report of the Thames Traffic Committee in 1878–9 stated that—; The barge-owners point out with great force that whilst they are bound to employ a particular set of men, they are liable for damage done, whilst if the barges or their cargoes are damaged by a ship in charge of a compulsory pilot, their only remedy is against the pilot. and further on in the Report that—; Under these circumstances your Committee have no hesitation in recommending the abolition of compulsory pilotage above Gravesend. In 1888 the Select Committee of the House of Commons reported as follows—; Your Committee are strongly of opinion, having regard to the views just expressed, that the time has arrived when the exemption of the owner from liability for damage done by his ship, when the ship is placed in charge of a pilot by compulsion of law, should cease to exist. Your Committee are of opinion that such exemption is indefensible, and is inimical to the safety of life and property at sea. In their opinion, the master of a vessel, even while a pilot is on board, should continue to be responsible for the conduct and navigation of his ship. The Committee, therefore, came to the conclusion that the principle on which this Bill was founded was a right one, and that it should be passed into law as soon as possible. In their Report the Commission appointed to inquire into the Administration of the Port of London in 1902 stated that they agreed with—; The Thames Traffic Committee of 1879 in not thinking it necessary that men employed in the navigation of non-passenger-carrying lighters should have any licence, or be subject to any examination. Employers should in this class of craft be left free to employ any man whom they chose, subject to the fullest responsibility of the acts of those whom they employ. An owner who commits valuable cargo to a barge is not, for Ids own sake, at all likely to select an incompetent crew. A careful shipowner would use a pilot more as a local adviser. As to the barge owners, the Thames Traffic Committee of 1878–9 in their Report stated that they were strongly of opinion that a time had now arrived when the exemption of owners of ships from responsibility should be abolished. He would remind the House that the Commission of which Lord Ravelstoke was Chairman reported as follows—; We have thought it to be our duty to mention complaints as to compulsory pilotage, and its legal results which have been made in the evidence which we have taken, and to call public attention to the forgotten Reports of the Select Committee of 1870, the Thames Traffic Committee of 1879, and the Select Committee 1888. The exemption of ships subject to compulsory pilotage from liability for damages presses with peculiar hardship on the barge owners who are a large and important class in the Port of London. We do not think, however, that it is within the scope of our reference to make any recommendation as to t he connection between compulsory pilotage and immunity of a shipowner for damage, which concerns the general law. It had been suggested that there was a remedy, inasmuch as proceedings might be taken in a court of law against the pilot. He knew from his own personal knowledge that a great majority of these pilots gave a Bill of Sale on their goods and assigned the larger portion of their property to their wives. The only thing they could get out of some of the pilots when they were sued was that they were told they were adjudicated bankrupts. Therefore one could not get any redress from Trinity House or from the pilots, and the barge owners were left without any remedy. There was no remedy for the person who was injured, whether it was a question of loss of life or loss of limb. He submitted that this was a state of things which ought not to be allowed to exist, but it did exist, and in 1870 and 1878 it was made the subject of inquiry and report. It was again made the subject of inquiry and report in 1888, and in other years. The lightermen and barge owners of the City of London pointed out that this injustice existed, and they asked the House to remedy the grievance. He would like to quote to the House instances from the Appendix to the Report of the Royal Commission on the Port of London in which the law relating to compulsory pilotage had proved a hardship. He found forty-five cases of collisions which were produced before the Commission, in which it was said that the plea of compulsory pilotage was set up. He found in 1895 four cases; (1) that of the "Furst Bismarck," in which a claim for£34 was made, but which was marked "Abandoned; pilot impecunious." Similarly in the case of the "Merrimac" a claim of £14 was made but it also had to be abandoned because the pilot was impecunious. In the case of the "Canute" it was stated that the action was lost against the steamer and that the pilot had no money, Further, in the case of the "Jane" and "Louisa" and "Byron" the action against the "Jane" and "Louisa" was lost, but that against the pilot was abandoned. There were many other cases. For instance, barge owners sued the owners of the "Nellie" and the pilot was held to be to blame; the action was, however, abandoned against the pilot and costs amounting to £140 were paid by the plaintiffs in addition to bearing the damage and their own costs of action. There were many cases in the Appendix in which it was stated that the action had been discontinued, the official description being "abandoned; pilot no money"; "Abandoned; pilot undischarged bankrupt"; "Abandoned; pilot impecunious." Again, there were half-a-dozen cases in which, although he was held to be wrong, nothing was recovered from the pilot. In fact, save in one case where £100 was recovered from the pilot, who settled, out of a total of forty-five cases nothing practically was recovered. Of course those cases were not exhaustive, and from his own experience he could supply others. The position he took up was this, that His Majesty's late Government having appointed to consider this question a Select Committee which reported that the present system was absolutely indefensible, that those responsible for the Port of London having reported to the same effect, and it having been shown that gross injustice resulted from the retention of this particular section in the Merchant Shipping Act, he did think he had made out a case for justice being meted out to all alike. He suggested to the President of the Board of Trade that this Bill should be referred to the Standing Committee, so that its provisions might be properly considered. He did not know whether the right hon. Gentleman would assent to that course, but, if not, he should be prepared presently, provided that the House passed the Second Reading, to suggest to the House that the Bill should be referred in the way he had suggested. He would not detain the House further as he was one of the advocates for a time limit so far as speeches wore concerned, and he hoped they would proceed to a division as soon as possible.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

* MR. CAIRNS (Newcastle-on-Tyne)

said that he felt that the promoters in bringing the Bill forward, or rather the remains of it, would have been well advised if, having jettisoned Clauses 1 and 2, they had also thrown over Clause 3. Then they might have been unanimous about Clause 4 which simply consisted of the title of the Bill. He would point out to the House that considerable stress had been laid upon the fact that a Select Committee in 1892 recommended the principle laid down in Clauses 1 and 2. No such recommendation even attached to Clause 3, yet Clause 3 was retained and Clauses 1 and 2, the raison d'etre of the Bill, were abandoned. He thought that the owners of dumb barges had every right to complain that the clauses which applied to limiting their liability had not been brought before the House. It seemed to him that there might be something to be said for that view, and if he might offer counsel to the mover of the Bill, it would be rather that the principles embodied in Clauses 1 and 2 should have been proposed as Amendments before the Grand Committee on Trade, which had at present under its consideration the larger measure of the amendment of the Merchant Shipping Act, He thought, all the same, when the barge-owners said that they wanted the same principle as regarded limitation of liability as the shipowners that if they came under the methods of measurement as applied by the Board of Trade it would give them a great advantage as compared with the owners of sea-going craft. He thought the tonnage measurement would come out exceedingly small as compared with the dead weight carrying capacities, which in the case of the merchant steamship was about 50 per cent. more in dead weight cargo than the gross register. He thought if the same process of measurement were applied to the dumb barge of the ordinary type as was applied to the merchant sailing-vessel or steamship they would probably find that the dead weight capacity would be about three times that of the gross register, and that undoubtedly would constitute a preferential position for the barge owners if they came under the Merchant Shipping Act. He thought the bargeowners should have placed their case before the Grand Committee on Trade in reference to this Bill, and even if the standard of measurement was modified, so long as they obtained a limitation of liability he could not help thinking that the House would in that case, at any rate, have given the matter fair consideration. However, the clauses dealing with this matter had been thrown overboard, and whilst he had always been sympathetic with bargeowners to that extent, his sympathy in a practical way and the sympathy of others in that House was going to be thrown to the winds, because Clauses 1 and 2 were thrown over.

The clause which remained, however, contained such a revolutionary project that he could not for a moment think that the House would entertain the principle of it. What did it mean? It meant that in regard to the 10,000,000 of gross British tonnage which represented the British Mercantile Navy at the present time, they were going, by a Bill introduced by bargeownors—;and might he say almost entirely at the instance of London bargeowners—;to change the law and bring upon that tonnage a great liability. This Bill as originally presented sought to minimise or reduce the liability of bargeowners. That might be a reasonable thing to do, but on the other hand the clause in the Bill which remained increased enormously the liability of the shipowners. It seemed to him that the Bill was drafted on the lines of trying to make the best of both worlds, and if, as a bargeowner, he could succeed in reducing his liability and at the same time increase enormously the liability of the interests with which he had connection or dealings, he should think he had done a good day's work. But he did think that the reasonable people among the bargeowners should be and would be satisfied with the first condition, and that was a limitation of liability. Why should shipowners, who were compelled to employ pilots, be made liable for their actions? It was well enough known that shipowners would prefer to be free from compulsory pilotage. They were quite prepared under proper conditions, under which they could control the pilot and make selections, to use their own knowledge and experience. In other words, if they committed their property with safety to the charge of tried men, they would emphatically prefer that system rather than one which, against their will, imposed pilots—;he was happy to think not all of the character referred to by the mover of this Bill—;upon them.


said he did not say that the whole of them were of that character but part of them were.


replied that that was exactly what he was saying. He was pointing out that they were not all of the character the hon. Member had described in regard to some of them. Some of them were very substantial men and had balances at the bank which, if they could be revealed, would raise a natural feeling of envy in the minds of many Members of the House. He did not know whether that statement would reassure the bargeowners, but surely it would be better to have prosperous pilots responsible rather than impecunious shipowners. He hoped that the House would consider that where shipowners wore compelled against their will and without any option on their part to employ pilots in certain waters, it was reasonable that when control was taken out of their hands they should not be responsible for any accident which ensued in consequence. The shipowners themselves were in the same boat as the Thames bargeowners. Supposing a vessel valued at £50,000 was coming up the River Thames and received damage from another vessel, the other vessel being in charge of a compulsory pilot, she had no recourse against the vessel which inflicted the damage. In this way shipowners were in the same boat as the bargeowners, with this difference, that in the case of the bargeowners the value of their craft was comparatively small when taken against that of steamships or large sailing vessels. The remedy, therefore, of the bargeowner was more substantial than that of the shipowner. The shipowner never thought of having recourse against the pilot, because the large amount of the claim would financially swamp any pilot, however wealthy he might be. Shipowners, however, took the practical course of taking all these conditions into account, and in arranging their insurances they adjusted them to meet these contingencies. He did not see why bargeowners should not do the same thing, and he believed they did so, and if they did not he must say they conducted their business in a way which was very different from the ordinary practice. Perhaps it was to be inferred that they had such ample assets or reserves as to justify them in taking such an enormous risk. Shipowners had a right to lodge a strong complaint against the damage which their ships received and the damages they had sometimes to pay to bargeowners, especially to the owners of barges in the London river. He would ask hon. Members to consider what happened when a vessel was coming up the London river just at the beginning of the ebb, when these barges were coming down not in their hundreds but in their thousands, and the vessel had to navigate through them. Trying to reach the North Pole through floes of ice was nothing compared to it, and if one did any damage to a floe of ice one would not be brought into a court of law. The shipowners of this Kingdom considered that they paid for all the repairs of the London barges and that they renewed them all in a course of ton years by the payment of claims for damages. Claims were brought against them and they had to pay heavy damages, as with two or three hundred barges around at the time of the accident it was very easy for the bargeowners to get witnessess who would support their claim. He believed the Bill was being brought forward at the instance of only a section of the bargeowners of the country. He represented a constituency on the banks of the Tyne and they had many barges there. They had also a great number of lighters the operations of which were confined to river purposes. He had not however, received a single request from any lighter owner or bargeowner to support this Bill, and he had not heard from any part of the country any representation in its favour except from London. The fact was that it was the bargeowners of London—;some of those syndicates which almost amounted to a monopoly of trade—;who sought immunity and to extend the liability of vessels, so that the barges which were now renewed every ten years by the shipowners should in future be renewed every five years. He would strongly advise those who were interested in the reputation of the Port of London—;he might say the declining reputation of the Port of London—;that they should not seek to put any further impediments or place further disadvantages upon this great port in addition to those which already existed. The conditions of navigation in the Thames were known not only to owners of British vessels but to the owners of the vessels of other nations, and they would find great difficulty, indeed, in inducing foreign or even British owners to charter for the Port of London if the liabilities and difficulties were increased. He felt justified, therefore, in calling upon all those who wished to make the Port of London attractive among the ports of the world unanimously to resist this Bill. The value of the British mercantile fleet might be taken at anything from £80,000,000 to £110,000,000, and he was sorry that the hon. Gentleman who introduced this Bill did not give some data to show to what extent barge owners had suffered detriment taken over a course of years. They were told of one or two cases where the pilot was impecunious and where there was a claim against him for £14 or £24, but surely in an important matter like this the House was not going to be influenced by petty sums like that. He thought that upon the Second Reading of a Bill like this they were entitled to have a comprehensive presentation of the figures that they were dealing with. They had had no such figures presented, and he felt that if there was any hardship, and if that hardship was widespread, they ought to take into consideration all the claims, whatever they might be. But in the absence of any such information he hoped the House would not entertain the idea of proceeding further with this Bill. He begged to move as an Amendment, that the Bill be road a second time that day six months.

MR. F. E. SMITH (Liverpool, Walton)

seconded the Motion for the rejection, and said that the subject was so important that it was impossible to deal with it at the end of a sitting. The hon. Member for Newcastle had stated with great force and cogency the considerations which ought to guide the House in dealing with the Bill, and therefore it was not necessary for him to enlarge upon them. The tonnage of this country amounted to some 10,000,000 tons, and this was a proposal to inflict upon our shipping a serious burden in the future. Such a proposal was in conflict not only with the Merchant Shipping Act but with the common law of the country which was incorporated in the Merchant Shipping Act. The law as it now stood existed in the common law long before it was made the subject of statutory provision. The principle underlying the law was that while they might well make a man liable, even at the cost of individual hardship, for the wrongdoing or fault by any error of omission or commission of an agent whom he had chosen for himself, and in the selection of whom he might have shown incompetence or negligence, they must not make him liable because of an act of omission or of commission by an agent who was imposed upon the man against his will and in pursuance of a policy which he most bitterly resented. The principle of the Bill was one which could not be applied without injustice, and there was no principle in the whole law of agency such as was incorporated in this measure. If the principal or employer had been in a position to exercise an independent judgment in the employment of his agent, he might well be made liable for the acts of that agent; but who chose the pilot for whose acts it was sought to make the shipowner responsible? He was chosen by a committee over whoso action the shipowner had no control and in whoso proceedings he had no voice. It might be that the committee had a particular standard in regard to pilots which would not commend itself to any business man. Let them take the principal Pilotage Committee and its decisions. He had been engaged in the Admiralty Division in many of those cases, and he knew that a very lenient view indeed was taken in regard to pilots against whom negligence had been found. He had known pilots reinstated in whose reinstatement he would never have acquiesced. Could it be that the House was going to make a shipowner liable for the negligence of a pilot who had been sent on board his ship against his will and who had been found guilty of negligence in a previous case? Moreover, could such a provision be introduced into the law after a brief discussion at the end of an afternoon sitting? There was still another consideration, and one of the greatest importance, and that was that the public and the bargeowners had a safeguard as far as the owners were concerned, which was as great as they could legitimately ask for.

And, it being Five of the clock, the Debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Monday next.

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