HC Deb 15 February 1915 vol 69 cc980-92

I beg to move to leave out from the word "That," to the end of the Question, in order to add instead thereof the words "this House, while recognising the necessity for employing merchant shipping on military business, trusts that the Government will exercise their rights with due regard to the needs of the traders and consumers of this country."

The Amendment which stands in my name on the Paper has been largely anticipated by the discussion last Thursday and to-day. Last Thursday the Prime Minister, in a very long and very admirable speech, dealt with the subject at considerable length, and the First Lord of the Admiralty to-day did me the honour of replying to my Amendment before I had moved it. The Prime Minister on Thursday, however, dealt with the matter only from the point of view of food-stuffs. It is absolutely certain, and everyone knows it, so that I need not argue the matter, that freights have risen enormously, not only for the necessaries of life, but naturally for other things as well, because the freight-owner is not at all particular as to what he carries. The effect on trade generally is, perhaps, more pronounced with regard to other articles than food, because food being an absolute necessity is carried somehow, and the extra burden is shifted on to the consumer. With regard to certain raw materials and certain commodities which have a very low rate of profit attached to them, there is a positive paralysis in some cases in some of these trades because the extra cost of carrying is more than the calculated net profit. Consequently, it is a matter of very great urgency and importance. I do not suppose for a moment that the Admiralty do not recognise that as well as we do. The Prime Minister examined the various causes of the rise in freights. The House will agree that he ultimately came down to this: that the great main cause was the enormous amount of tonnage used by the Admiralty for warlike purposes.

We entirely recognise that that use of mercantile tonnage by the Admiralty is an absolute necessity of the case. We entirely recognise that they have a paramount right to the tonnage of the country, if it is necessary to the country's defence and the proper carrying on of this War. We quite agree that they should have all the tonnage they want. We know that their demands are very great. They have to convoy large bodies of troops to France, to support them with all the necessaries of life and the munitions of war, and that they have to look after the coaling and supplies of the Fleet. In addition, as the First Lord said to-day, and we fully recognise it, they have to be prepared with an ample reserve, so that at any moment when they are otherwise fully employed they have still ships left to carry out some urgent call. Those facts we all recognise. Therefore the amount of tonnage they require is a very large one. But although we recognise that to the full, we want to be quite sure that they appreciate the position with regard to the rest of the country and have it constantly in their minds. It is quite true that the claims of the Navy are paramount, but, to put an absurd case, it would be no use the Navy keeping the sea clear for our commerce if we had no merchant ships left in which to carry that commerce. It is absolutely necessary, although possibly not of such paramount necessity, that there should be as ample a tonnage as possible left to conduct the business of the country.

The Prime Minister quoted the figures, which were also given to-day by the First Lord, showing that the Navy is using 20 per cent. of the mercantile tonnage of the country for this purpose, or 10 per cent. of the mercantile tonnage of the whole world. The figure is such a startling one that in the Debate on Thursday, when the figure was repeated, I noticed that the Prime Minister hurriedly consulted his notes to see whether he had stated it. Of course he said it, and it is perfectly true. We are using this enormous tonnage, and we want to be quite certain that the Admiralty always have in their mind the necessity for as far as possible economising its use or using it in the most business-like way, and sparing as much as possible for the needs of the rest of the community. Those needs are very great. Several hon. Members have already adverted to them, and the Leader of the Opposition has already put in his plea for a business management. The First Lord of the Admiralty to-day rather hotly repudiated the necessity for a business manager, but undoubtedly certain things have been done with merchant shipping which I do not think would have been done by an ordinary man of business managing his own affairs. I do not believe for a moment that an ordinary man of business managing his own affairs, if he had any prisoners to keep, would keep them in expensive liners in the River Thames. We know that three very large and important liners have been used to keep prisoners in. For the purpose of economy it would have been cheaper to take the whole of Grosvenor Square, and furnish it handsomely, and keep them all there rather than to use these valuable steamers, of such importance to the country, for that purpose. I understood from the Prime Minister that the Admiralty have made other arrangements, and that these three ships were to be liberated to commerce, and for this relief much thanks.

But the Prime Minister said something further and that was not confirmed by the First Lord of the Admiralty to-day, and I understood him to speak rather in a contrary sense. The Prime Minister said that the Admiralty were going to make such arrangements as they could for the releasing of such tonnage as it was possible for them to release from time to time in order to relieve the scarcity of shipping; but I did not understand that the First Lord to-day went nearly so far. I understood him to say that they wanted the tonnage, they had not any too much, and were not prepared to give up the use of any of it. I hope that what I understood from the Prime Minister is the fact, and that what I understood from the First Lord is not the fact, because although we recognise the right of the Admiralty to the tonnage, and wish them to have it if it is necessary for the War, we think that as far as they possibly can, they ought to recognise the importance of the commerce of this country and the difficulty there now is in carrying it on. We all recollect the fable—I think it was Æsop's fable—where the arms and the legs and the brains made up their mind that they were not going to work any longer to support the idle belly, and we know what happened in a neurasthenic kind of way to the people who joined in this conspiracy. I do not for a moment think that the Admiralty do not recognise the importance of the commerce of this country, I have often heard them say that one of their chief functions is to provide an open sea for it, but I think there is a certain amount of obsession in favour of their own Department, and, if I were there, I should probably feel the same. They are so anxious to have every available piece of tonnage they can get hold of at their command, that they sometimes forget the importance of the other interests. The "Times" to-day, dealing with this Motion, referred to it as a kind of truism, from which I suppose they meant that it was the sort of thing anyone would agree with. I hope the Admiralty will agree with it, and that we may feel quite certain that in commandeering or requisitioning tonnage, they really want it and intend to use it in a businesslike way, and that they intend, as far as possible, to give consideration to the commerce of this country.


I beg to second the Amendment.

I do not intend to utter a word of general criticism on the admirable way in which the Navy is performing its duties now. I have listened with very great pleasure to the excellent speech of the First Lord of the Admiralty, and I do not think there was a spot of weakness in it, looking at it from my hon. Friend's point of view, except perhaps his treatment of this question. Our thoughts have been drawn towards this question of the dear-ness of necessities by the Debate of last Thursday, and I am sure everyone has made up his mind that almost the only practical point from which relief may come is this point which is raised by my hon.

Friend. Prices in this country are governed entirely by the supplies that come in. The Admiralty is in this position: It has taken charge of the mercantile marine of this country as completely as it has in usual times of the war marine. The whole of the mercantile navy is now at the disposal of the Admiralty. I should like to put the question in even a wider sense. All the ports are now in charge of the Admiralty. No ship is allowed to sail except by permission of the Admiralty. A great many ports are closed by the Admiralty action, and the great fleet of merchant ships that they have employed occupied a good deal of space in the ports, so that they are accountable for the congestion of the ports as well.

All my hon. Friend asks is that, as it is absolutely for the Admiralty to take charge of such a vast section of the nation's interests, it should endeavour to manage it in such a way that as little harm should be done to those great commercial interests as possible. It is not for me to defend a point made by the Leader of the Opposition, but it struck me that in the little debate that took place between the First Lord of the Admiralty and the right hon. Gentleman opposite, the Leader of the Opposition had the best of it with regard to that ship which was delayed for three and a half months in order that coal might be there ready for the Fleet. Coal must be there, we all agree, and we would not put a single obstacle in the way of it, but why could not one ship be kept full of coal and the other ships allowed to go away, instead of a quarter of their cargo being kept there for three and a half months, dangling about because some coal, if it were coal, was necessary? We only ask that as much consideration as possible should be given to business necessities in this matter by the Admiralty, and if they have not got skill of their own to work this matter out in a way which will not be detrimental to the great interests of the country, they should call on some business assistance in regulating these matters. Let them see the importance of the interests which will be sacrificed when a port is closed, or ships taken off a certain route, before they take action. I desire, in pressing the point very strongly, again to assure my right hon. Friend and the First Lord of the Admiralty that it is not done in any spirit of unfriendliness to the Navy or through any want of appreciation of the great work which they have in hand at present.


By the Rules of the House I am compelled to confine my remarks to the Amendment of my hon. Friend, but I may be allowed to say with regard to the many interesting questions which have been raised—separation allowances, pensions, and so on—I have no doubt an opportunity will be given to make a statement upon them during the course of the Debate to-morrow.


Will that apply to the two points I have raised?


I have taken careful note of all the points put to me.




That is a matter more of policy, which should be referred to the First Lord.


Are we to have no further statement?


I will communicate with the First Lord to-night, but I am compelled now to deal with the Motion which has been made.


The Amendment will not allow an opportunity for a full statement of our case to be submitted?


That does not follow. The hon. Gentleman will have the privilege of replying.


Part of the First Lord's speech broadly stated our position in advance, therefore the remarks I have to make cover ground which to some extent has been covered to-day. My hon. Friend will be the first to realise that at the outbreak of hostilities every moment is of vital importance, and every step we took had to be taken instantly and swiftly, and delay might have had fatal consequences. There was no time to fix rates or to sign charter parties. We might have waited for all that, and made possibly a nicer discrimination as to the amount we would take up. If we had done so, we might very well have been a day too late, and that day might have been a fatal one for the British Empire. In the first place, as regards the necessary auxiliaries for the. Fleet at the outbreak of hostilities and the provision for Army transport, the only way was to deal with the situation at once and take up all available vessels necessary in naval opinion, and to give an assurance to the shipowners, as far as we could, that they would be fairly considered later; and, remember, in a good many cases, adaptation for transport work particularly was necessary, and that involved a certain amount of delay. In all these matters we received ready assistance from the shipowners, and without that ready assistance we certainly could not have moved with the rapidity we did.

As regards payments, what we endeavoured to do was to make advances based upon the average rates which were at the time ruling for similar vessels under peace conditions. No doubt we could have gone to work more slowly, more circumspectly, and more cautiously. To use a railway simile, we could have taken care that there was no rolling stock in any siding. But if we had done that, the indictment which we should have had to face to-day might very well have been a different indictment from that which we have to face. The indictment which has been made against us we can face, and I am quite sure we shall receive a generous recognition of the very heavy task which was before us at the outset of hostilities. The indictment of not having done the thing thoroughly and promptly is one which, of course, we could not have faced. I think it is not sufficiently understood as to what we did along business lines. I have noticed with great interest the constant reference to the necessity to deal with this in a business way. At the very outset the intention and method of exercising the prerogative of the Crown in this matter of requisitioning was announced by a Royal Proclamation. The Royal Proclamation provided for the appointment of an Arbitration Board, or rather a set of panels from which arbitrators could be drawn as and when occasion demanded, and the Board was formed in consultation with Lord Mersey. He was appointed the President. Various shipping associations, chambers of commerce, trade unions and so on were asked to nominate representatives.


The right hon. Gentleman is dealing with a point which I never touched at all. It is not a question of whether the shipowners who have given ships to the Government are fairly treated. The question is whether the Government are managing the ships which they have taken with proper regard to economy in the use of the ships.


All I am anxious to do is to state the whole of the case, as far as I can, as to what our proceedings were, and to show that, at any rate as far as we could, in setting up this Board we have endeavoured, subject to the exigencies of the military situation alone, to follow business lines. The Board was constituted by the representatives of the shipping associations, chambers of commerce, and trade unions, and there were eleven Government nominees—a Board of seventy-four That was constituted finally on 31st August for the purpose of considering the treatment, rates and so on to be paid to shipowners. I quite recognise the distinction between what I am now calling attention to, and the criticism of the right hon. Gentleman. Then we went on with the assistance of Lord Mersey to the question of setting up panels to recommend to us for our guidance, though not for our necessary approval, the rates to be decided, and at the beginning of this year we agreed generally that the proposals they put before us could be accepted. We had the assistance also of Lord Inchcape, who was Chairman of the Sub-committees appointed by Lord Mersey, and their rates were very carefully considered. That is shortly what our proceedings have been. I agree there has been dislocation. I agree that we must have diverted the mercantile market probably rather seriously. I agree that our operations have reduced the number of available bottoms, and no doubt that has had an effect on freights in the mercantile market. I do think that those who make that criticism might remember one elementary factor in the whole matter, and that is Germany. War is war, and it is very difficult to conduct war on peace lines, which I rather think some people seem to think possible. It would be a very small consolation to the parties concerned if by a cautious and carefully thought-out scheme we had succeeded in giving Germany a great opening, but we have played our part in preventing that. I agree with the spirit of the Amendment, and I take no exception to the speeches of the hon. Members who moved and seconded it. Our duty is to keep our eyes fixed on two vitally important considerations. The first is dependent for its success very largely upon the second. The first is to meet every military necessity fully and promptly at whatever cost; and the second is—I suppose everyone will agree that it is a difficult task—to do that with as little dislocation of the business of the country as we can. These seem to mo the two duties which are before us, and no one will deny that these tasks are not easy. They would not be easy at any time, but we will do our best to achieve what is required of us, and I hope my hon. Friends will accept that assurance on my part, and consider that the ventilation they have given to the topic is sufficient, without further pressing the discussion.


The subject under consideration is indeed one of great importance, not only in relation to the trade and commerce of the country and in enabling it to proceed on normal lines, but on account of the bearing it has on food prices and the necessaries of life. We are all agreed that the necessary commandeering of so large an amount of our mercantile marine as 4,00X3,000 tons has been one main cause of the enormous rise in freights for the transport of our food supplies and of the raw materials for our manufactures. No one of any party will desire that the military needs of the country should not be fully and adequately supplied, but the question before us in my judgment is rather whether this enormous portion of the mercantile marine which has been commandeered is being utilised on the best business lines and with the greatest advantage not only to the military needs of the country, but to the commercial needs of the country, as regards the food of the people. Taking, for instance, the coal trade, we know that it is the habit of coal-owners in Northumberland and Durham when they make contracts for coal in London to cover themselves by entering into contracts with shipowners. The normal rate is 3s. per ton. I know cases in which large contracts have been entered into for the delivery of coal in London where freight has been entered at 3s. per ton and where every ship owned by a particular shipowner who made the contracts was commandeered by the Government at the commencement of the War. I understand they are to receive from the War Office, or the Admiralty or the Government, equal to 4s. per ton from the Tyne to London, but on the other hand those coal-owners who have thus contracted with shipowners found that the shipowners were utterly unable to give them a single ship to convey coal under these contracts because their vessels had all been commandeered by the Government. The result of this commandeering of the suitable ships specially designed for conveying coal is that the shipowners have had to pay as high as 13s. 6d. per ton for outside boats, not at all so well fitted and designed for the purpose as the boats they were deprived of.

The question is: Can we rely that the 4,000,000 tons of the mercantile marine commandeered are being managed to the greatest advantage? Are they under expert management? I understood from the First Lord of the Admiralty that they were under the management of Mr. Graeme Thomson. Is he a shipping expert? He may be a man of the greatest ability, as no doubt he is as a public servant, but I wish to know whether he is a shipping expert. I am told—and I shall be glad to be corrected if I am wrong—that he is not a shipping expert at all, but a Civil servant. My suggestion to the Government is that they ought to call in the assistance of the best shipping experts in the country and place the management of this huge mercantile marine in their hands, on the distinct understanding that the first requirements they are to fulfil are those in connection with the military needs of the country, and that from time to time, when it might probably be found that considerably less than 4,000,000 tons of the mercantile marine of the country would more than meet the requirements of the military needs of the country, a certain number of ships could be returned with advantage to the ordinary trade and commerce of the country. This would promote a reduction of freights and would in turn cheapen the cost of the food supplies of the country and of the raw materials upon which we are vitally dependent for the carrying on of those industries which we are able to continue. I hope the Government will take the suggestion of the Leader of the Opposition most carefully into consideration and that we shall soon have the welcome news that this huge mercantile marine which has been commandeered by the Government has been put under the most expert management possible.

I believe that we should find that everything required for the military needs of the country could be efficiently done without running any risk whatever, by substantially less tonnage of the mercantile marine than is now employed. I believe it is due to the trade and commerce of the country, and due also to the whole nation in the matter of cheap food supply that action should be taken by the Government in this way. If this huge tonnage of the mercantile marine was placed under the most expert management, it would probably be found that they could spare a certain number of ships from time to time, even if they did not dispense with them altogether; and just in the same way as the interned ships are being devoted to the trade and commerce of the country, so from time to time trade and commerce might be assisted by allowing a certain number of these other vessels to take cargo coal, or food supplies, or anything else. There is a curious anomaly which I cannot understand. I believe that the owners of the commandeered ships are receiving equal to 4s. freight, as compared with the pre-war price of 3s., and yet if anyone in the coal trade wishes to have the use of these interned ships to convey coal to London he has to pay 11s. per ton. It hardly appears a fair and equable arrangement that the Government should be getting 11s. per ton for all the interned ships, whereas they are only paying the owners of the coal-carrying steamers 4s. per ton. That means that the gas companies in London are paying at least 7s. per ton more for coal than there is any necessity to pay, assuming that the 4s. paid by the Government is a fair rate for these cargo steamers. My own opinion is that if the assistance of shipping experts were called in, and if the Government approached this matter with a determination not only to provide effectually for military needs, but also to assist the trade and commerce of the country and prevent the rapid rise in the price of coal in London, which means a higher price for gas and a higher price for coal for the whole community, that rise in price could be considerably obviated if the Government would act on the suggestion I have made to employ the best shipping experts.

Question, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question," put, and agreed to.

Main Question again proposed.

8.0 P.M.


I wish to make a protest against the procedure this evening being made a precedent in the future. Some important points have been raised in the speech of my Friend on my right, and also by hon. Friends below the Gangway. In the ordinary course these would have been answered by the representative of the Admiralty this evening, but that course has been avoided, because hon. Members opposite moved an Amendment. I shall content myself by making my protest to-night, for I understand that the matters which have been referred to can be raised again to-morrow. If it were not possible to raise it to-morrow, I feel sure that the Admiralty would perceive the unfairness of discussing the Amendment where the Main Question has been put. I merely make these remarks as a protest on this occasion because this very important question of court-martial can be raised to-morrow on Vote A.


I may ask if, with your approval, we can continue the general discussion in Committee on A?


It does not require my approval. It is one of the rules of the House that on the first Vote of the Navy Estimates any matter which is relevant to the Navy Estimates may be discussed.

Main Question put, and agreed to.