§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed. "That the Bill be now read a second time."
§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the BOARD of TRADE (Mr. J. M. Robertson)
This is an emergency measure, to continue only during the continuance of the War. It is not so much a matter of serious necessity as of expediency to make clear the legal powers of the Board of Trade. In December last the Board of Trade issued a circular inviting all persons interested to consult with them, and they have had no difficulty whatever in persuading ship owners to carry out their wishes. I need not point out how dangerous it would be that ships should be transferred to neutrals in the present state of things. The ship owners have shown themselves very ready indeed to assent to the wishes of the Board of Trade. There is always the possibility of some person raising the question of the legal powers possessed by the Board of Trade, which are not so full as we wish. If we have no legal power to prevent an owner from transferring his ship, this Bill gives power to the Board to refuse to permit the transfer of a British ship unless the Board are satisfied of the expediency of the transfer. I need hardly point out that it gives power that the Board should be satisfied that there is no objectionable transaction. The object of the Bill is to make definite and clear the legal power of the Department to prevent an undesirable transfer.
I think we ought to be grateful to the hon. Member representing the Board of Trade who tells us that the object of the measure is to make matters clear. It seems to me that although he admitted the Bill now before the House is an emergency Bill it is really a piece of panic legislation. The first Clause of the Bill says:—
"A transfer made after the twelfth day of February, nineteen hundred and fifteen, of a British ship registered in the United Kingdom, or a share therein, to a person not qualified to own a British ship, shall not have any effect."
Down to that point the Clause appears to be fairly clear. If a transfer were made to-day of a British ship registered in Great Britain to somebody who was not qualified to own it it would not have any effect, and, therefore, the Clause amounts to nothing whatever. Down to that point it simply states a self-evident fact. But going on another word or two, it says:—
"Unless the transfer is approved by the Board of Trade."
I think that if the intention is to give the Board of Trade power to approve of the transfer of a British ship to somebody who is not entitled at present to have it transferred to him, then the Board of Trade ought to tell us so, and the House of Commons would know that it is sought to pass an Act of Parliament enabling somebody who hitherto has not been able to own a British ship to own one for the first time. I listened carefully to the explanation given by the hon. Member, and certainly it did not convey to my mind that the effect of this Bill, if passed, was going to be to enable a British ship to be transferred to somebody who at present is not capable of owning it.
Then there is an end to the transaction. But, if I may respectfully call the attention of the hon. Member to the fact, this is the assent to the transfer of a British ship registered in the United Kingdom, and it does not say anything whatever on the lines indicated by the hon. Member. It is perfectly true that that may be the intention, and if that is the intention of this Bill I think that we ought to be informed of it. Then the second Clause makes an exception as regards ships registered in certain places, and we have had no explanation 336 as to why British India, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand should be left out. Why British ships or ships belonging to British citizens who may live in parts of the world other than those mentioned here should be treated differently is something of which we have had no explanation. I think that when we are told that the new Bill, which is now being introduced, is intended to operate only during the War, and when it is placed before us and we are trying our best to make out what is its real intention we ought to be very careful, for the sake of a few minutes in this House, to see whether we can really understand what is sought to be done.
§ Mr. ROBERTSON
I quite agree with the hon. Member that we should be very careful in regard to all legislation of this kind. In reference to his first point, I may say that the Clause simply follows the forms of words already found in the Merchant Shipping Act, and is simply to prevent a British ship from being transferred to any outside owner where it might not be desirable to allow the transfer to take place. The phrase "person entitled to own a British ship" is the wording of the Merchant Shipping Act, and it is desirable to keep the wording of the various Merchant Shipping Acts as far as possible on the same lines. In the cases mentioned in the Schedule, which are excluded from the operation of the Act, they themselves will regulate the shipping. British India, the Dominion of Canada, the Commonwealth of Australia, the Dominion of South Africa, New Zealand, and Newfoundland, will regulate shipping themselves. That is an understood thing. The purpose of the Bill simply is to regulate shipping in the United Kingdom and those ports where there is British control.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House for to-morrow (Thursday).