Mr. FRED HALL (Dulwich)
I wish to draw attention to the rather unsatisfactory position of the English shipowner in the event of an accident in connection with a battleship. I have recently asked one or two questions of the First Lord with reference to a collision between. His Majesty's ship "King Alfred" and a merchant steamer called the "Cheapside," which resulted in the total destruction of the merchant steamer. According to the Merchant Shipping Act the liability is 2009 limited to £8 a ton of the registered tonnage. When both vessels are to blame, as was the verdict in this case, the owner of the merchant vessel has to pay to the Admiralty half the actual loss of wages and provisions of officers and crew during the period of detention. The actual cost of repairs to the "King Alfred" was £313 15s. 4d. The English shipowner is debited with £1,200 for loss of the use of the vessel and with £2,554 18s. 5d., loss of time or expenses of the officers and crew during the time of detention. It is a hardship upon the English shipowner, because if he happens to get into collision with a battleship, naturally the cost of the crew and the officers is exceedingly greater than would be the case than with regard to two merchant ships.
What I particularly wish to know is whether it is necessary to keep the whole of the officers and crew on the ship doing nothing? If, on the other hand, it is not necessary, it is not just or equitable to debit the English shipowner with the loss of time, wages and provisions. Am I to understand that no work could have been found for 590 men and thirty-two officers? I find from the reply I received that the services' of thirteen men were dispensed with. I have yet to learn why it is necessary to maintain thirty-two officers and 590 men on a battleship while she is in port undergoing repairs for three weeks. I know something about repairs to ships, and it seems rather an extraordinary thing to me that it should take twenty-one days to do repairs costing £334. I do not know whether it was found necessary that certain repairs or refitting were found to be required. If they were done during that period it is absolutely unfair that the English shipowners should be debited with the whole cost of the wages and provisions of the ship's company. If there were no repairs that had to be done, could not some service be found for them? Could not they have been put to torpedo practice or target practice, or sent on their annual leave? The Admiralty ought under any circumstances, in the event of such an accident happening, to do all they can not to penalise the English shipowners, but to do all they can to assist them, either to dispose of the crew in some way, or if they are being utilised on board for the purpose of assisting the repairs or refitting, the expenses should not rightly be charged against the English shipowner. There is another item that seems rather an ex- 2010 traordinary one for the loss of the use of the vessel, amounting to £1,200. I am one of those who are prepared at any cost to see the Navy carried on in a state of supremacy. If my right hon. Friend says that the charge for the loss of time should be adopted because the ship could not be at work, and because there had to be met the interest on the capital invested during that period, I accept the statement, but I should like some explanation from him on that point. I think if he would give it, it would be satisfactory to the English ship-owning fraternity.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the ADMIRALTY (Dr. Macnamara)
I thank my hon. Friend for his courtesy in mentioning that he proposed to raise this question to-day. I confess that I have not had time to read the whole of the papers again in detail, as I should have liked, but, nevertheless, fortunately the point he raises is a comparatively simple one. The facts are, shortly, these. The collision between the battleship "King Alfred" and the "Cheapside" took place on 18th June, 1910. The "Cheapside" was sunk and totally lost, and thereafter in the High Court of Justice judgment was given on the basis of "both to blame." Then the Registrar assessed the damages on that basis, as he was entitled to assess them, by consent of the parties.
Mr. FRED HALL
The Registrar did not assess the damages. He allowed damages to the amount allowed by the Admiralty.
§ Dr. MACNAMARA
He went to work on the basis of the judgment, "both to blame," and allowed damages by consent of parties. The point my hon. Friend raises is the question of keeping the officers and crew on board the ship during the time the repairs were being done, and he says, "Why could not you dispense with a great many of them? If the Admiralty at that time had dispensed with them the victualling allowances and wages, would be reduced as against the damages pro tanto." The "King Alfred" was under repair three weeks, and the number of officers was thirty-two and men 590. We claimed on account of the pay and allowances £2,554 18s. 5d., and that claim was allowed in full by the Registrar.
Mr. FRED HALL
The amount of the claim by the Admiralty was £4,700, and the amount allowed was £2,554 18s. 5d.
§ Dr. MACNAMARA
Do I understand the hon. Gentleman to say that what we claimed in respect of the pay and allowances of the men was not allowed? If my hon. Friend will give me the data on which he makes that statement I shall feel obliged, because I have the statement of claim before me, and it shows that we put in for the pay of officers and crew while the ship was undergoing repairs, and the amount allowed by the Registrar, to whom the claim was referred with the consent of both parties, was £2,554 18s. 5d. I think my hon. Friend is misinformed on that point. His suggestion is that we need not have kept this full crew during the time the ship was under repair. If we had reduced the number, obviously the share of the damages would be reduced to the extent of the number of men dispensed with. I would say shortly that, naturally I cannot presume to discuss this matter over the head of the finding of the court. I do not think I am competent to do that, and I shall not presume to do it; but I may point out that this ship was in commission. If she had gone into the dockyard for a large refit, it would have covered a considerable period of time. Then we should have kept a nucleus crew on board and detached part of the officers and crew to go into the depot. But this was a matter of three weeks, and I am afraid it was not practicable to dispense with the crew for that period, to find new jobs for them, and to re-assemble them at the end of the period when the repairs were made. The hon. Member suggests that they were doing nothing during that time, but that is not so. It is quite true that their ordinary duties were interfered with, but they were not entirely interrupted. Many of these men were engaged in the work of repair. The engine room artificers were so engaged, and there was a great deal of cleaning to be done as the result of the collision, which fell to the men as part of their ordinary duty, and I should think that the men on board the "King Alfred" thought it was as busy a time as any they had during the commission. It would not do to say that the men were doing nothing. Our claim was made in accordance with the rules laid down by the Treasury Solicitor, and it has been allowed by the Registrar. I am afraid I am not competent to do more than to give this explanation which, I hope, my hon. Friend will consider satisfactory.
Mr. FRED HALL
May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether the crew were 2012 employed during that time assisting in the repairs, or were any other repairs done besides those represented by the £334?
§ Dr. MACNAMARA
The question is whether the men were engaged upon a refit which they would have had to do in any case. I cannot answer that question now They would be going on with their ordinary duties—their ordinary training duties and their ordinary military service, but I cannot say, looking at the character of the work they were engaged on, the claim included any amounts which were not properly charged. The best testimony I have of that is that the Registrar admitted the claim in full.