HC Deb 30 April 1913 vol 52 cc1335-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Gulland].


The question to which I want to call the attention of the House, and particularly of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade, is one of considerable urgency to the whole of the masters and officers of the merchant service. The question is the nature of the sight tests for form and colour vision which came into operation on the 1st of this month. The tests have only been in force for a few weeks, but we have already had sufficient experience of the grave change that the alteration makes to find that this is a matter that vitally affects the employment of at least 50,000 officers and masters in the merchant service. I will say very little in regard to the scientific aspects of the case, because it is clearly a matter of controversy, and one which has already been dealt with very fully from the point of view of the Board of Trade by question and answer across the floor of the House. I would only say that at any rate the composition of the Committee appointed to go into the question was open to suspicion—not suspicion in the sense that it was improperly appointed, but on the lines that only the scientific elements were represented, and that no representation was given to the men whose careers are at stake, the masters and officers of the merchant service.

The Imperial Merchant Service Guild were perfectly well advised in saying that as the officers were to have no representation on that committee they would not give evidence before it. If fair evidence was to be extracted under cross-examination, it is perfectly obvious that some representation of the men who were not scientists at all, and who have got to conduct our great merchant service should have been on the Committee to bring out the practical points for these might be different from the point of view of the scientists engaged in the investigation. Further than that, the "British Medical Journal" condemned the findings of this Committee in August last year. The British Association for the Advancement of Science lately appointed a committee to go into the whole question of colour vision and colour blindness. The committee consists of: Chairman, Professor E. H. Starling; secretary Dr. Edridge-Green; and Professor F. Gotch, Mr. Leonard Hill, Professor A. W. Porter, and Dr. A. D. Waller. In addition to this, the Royal Philosophical Society of Glasgow, at their meeting at the beginning of the month, most strongly condemned the findings of the Committee and the tests now imposed, while Dr. Fergus, one of the greatest authorities on this question, expressed his opinion very clearly and adversely to the Board of Trade's present test. Then I want to call attention to the fact that it was made very clear in the article to which I referred in the "British Medical Journal" that it is a very curious thing that the findings of this Committee was that the two tests that have been described as the wool test and the lantern test, should continue in force. The "British Medical Journal" says that if the lantern is to be used in the way suggested perhaps it is as well that the wool test should also be retained. The Committee reported that:— When these tests have been in use for a certain number of years the results of the two method: should be compared and the question of dispensing with one or the other should be considered. Surely the Board of Trade should consider upon what principle these experiments are to be carried out. But while these scientists are considering which test should be finally adopted the certicates of officers and masters of the merchant service have been taken away, because the new tests are infinitely more severe than the old ones. I leave the question of the scientific aspect of the case with these words: I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade to state why these new tests are required. Before the Committee the late Secretary to the Marine Department or the Board of Trade, Sir Walter Howell, said:— The Board of Trade are not aware of any casualties which could be traced to defective vision. The Committee in their Report say:— There appears to be no evidence showing conclusively that defective vision has caused any appreciable number of accidents at sea. I am well aware that the public generally would be in favour of any proposal to make the navigation of our merchant service safer, but surely there are other matters which might have engaged the attention of the Board of Trade before that one thing of the complete revision of these sight tests, when the Secretary of the Marine Department stated in his evidence that no casualties had been caused by the tests in force. They might have devoted their attention to deck loads for Continental ports, to the raising of the deep load line, to the under officering of the merchant service, to foreign officers without certificates in ships flying the British flag—and many other matters of that kind. But it appears they prefer to strain at the gnat while swallowing these various camels. What has been the effect of the actual putting into effect of these new sight tests? I asked a question yesterday, and in consequence of the answer I am raising this question on the Adjournment now. I hardly think the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade, who answered, could have heard the question I asked:— Does that mean that nine officers of the merchant service, previously holding certificates, have been failed entirely owing to the new tests, and will the right hon. Gentleman say whether the lights are not shown as three miles instead of one mile, although one mile is the minimum test of the Board of Trade? And the answer was— Lights do represent a distance of one mile. That is how they are planned, and that is how they are worked. The number failed was not nine, but seven, and they were not officers previously holding certificates."—[OFFICIAL, REPORT, 29th April, 1913, cols. 996–7.] I had a record of four of these cases, and in every one of them the officer was holding previous certificates, and in two or three of these cases has been called upon by the Board of Trade to surrender the certificate under Section 471 of the Merchant Shipping Act. I should like to read the exact terms of the letter to which I refer in this connection. It is as follows:— Under Section 471 of the Merchant Shipping Act, of 1894, if the Board have reason to believe that a certificated officer is unfit to discharge his duties, they may order an inquiry into his competency to hold his certificate. Before taking any action under the provisions of this Section, the Board would he glad to know whether you are prepared, as an alternative, voluntarily to surrender the certificate of competency as first mate of the steamship, which you hold. That was addressed to one of the officers who had failed.


What was the reply?


The officer very properly consulted his guild as to what action he should take, and he has made no reply to that letter from the Board of Trade, dated the 26th instant. Section 471 of the Merchant Shipping Act provides for an inquiry into the conduct of a certificated officer. The words of the Section are:— If the Board of Trade, either on the part of the Local Marine Board or otherwise, have reason to believe that any master, mate, or certificated engineer is, from incompetency or misconduct, unfit to discharge his duty, or that in case of collision he has failed to render such assistance or give such information as required under the 5th part of this Act, the Board may cause an inquiry to be held. There is no doubt that the Board of Trade, in dealing with these cases, has stretched almost to the breaking point the powers they possess under that Act, and I think the officers concerned will be well advised to take the best legal opinion possible as to whether the Board of Trade have any right to address to them a letter of the kind which I have read out. It seems to me to be practically a threat to hold this Court of Inquiry into their unfitness to continue in their avocation, and they ask, in the alternative, whether they will voluntarily surrender their certificates.

Attention called to the fact that forty Members were not present,

It being Half after Eleven o'clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 3. Adjourned at Half after Eleven o'clock.