§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—[Mr. Beck.]
Sir H. DALZIEL
I do not see any representative of the Board of Trade present nor any Member whose name is on the back of the Bill. I think that surely we are entitled to have the courtesy that some one of them should be here to give us an explanation of a Bill of this kind at this late hour of the morning. Personally I am sorry the Government have not thought it worth while to move the Adjournment now. They have had up to the 1612 present a very good night's legislation, and I should have thought that they had better postpone the several Bills, which they are about to take, until another occasion.
This Bill deals with the important question of the transfer of British ships, and again I say I think we are entitled to the courtesy of an official explanation of it. I am one of those who complained that from the very beginning of the War the Government allowed British ships to change their flag without taking any notice whatever of it. They have allowed British ships to change their flag and the number of them is considerable; it was 100 some time ago. I know that certain restrictions were made as to particular ships that were allowed to do it, after these transfers were made, and I understand that the object of this Bill is to deal with an oversight that was made upon that occasion. This is intended to deal with mortgages that might exist in regard to any particular ship, thereby giving practically a certain price to the owners in exchange for the real proprietorship. The Board of Trade can also deal with a foreign controlled company, and the question of foreign directors having control. These are matters of most vital importance, and I hope the Government will be content to have this Debate adjourned to-night. I do not know whether it is intended to take the Bill through now. [HON. MEMBERS: "No, no!"] We are prepared for anything in these times of Second Reading, Committee, and Third Beading in one night. I only wish to register my protest against this Bill being taken without any representative of the Board of Trade being present. I care not what other Minister is going to deal with the matter; I know he will deal with it excellently and courteously, but for a matter of this kind we have certain Ministers, and their names are on the back of the Bill. There is the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade, and the President of the Board of Trade, and in his absence we might have had the Acting President of the Board of Trade. The name of the Secretary to the Admiralty is also on the back of the Bill. Yet there is not one of them here to give the slightest explanation of it. It is due to the House that the Debate should be adjourned even now. It is not treating the House fairly. Unless we make a protest, heaven only knows what the Government will try to do when the House is sitting very late some of these nights.
§ Mr. BECK (Vice-Chamberlain of the Household)
Perhaps the fault is mine that the right hon. Gentleman has had to complain, but the facts are very simple. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade has unfortunately met with a slight accident which has rendered him lame. He was here until a late hour to-night to take this Bill, which is a Bill not at all controversial in character, and he has asked me to explain it to the House, and he hopes the House will assist him to get it before the Adjournment. He only left the House when it became obvious that it would become impossible for him to get home except by walking. Unless he took a cab whilst he could get it, it would be quite impossible for him in the condition in which he was after the slight accident to get home, and that is why he asked me to explain the Bill to the House.
Indeed, this Bill is only one for extending a principle which the House accepted and passed as recently as March of last year. It is simply a Bill which stops up certain gaps which have since appeared, and which I think no one is more anxious to stop up than the right hon. Gentleman who has just spoken. Under the Act of 1915 the transfer of ships which were British ships to foreigners was prohibited, unless the consent of the Board of Trade was obtained. That Act has been useful, and great use has been made of it. But certain gaps have appeared in its working. One of the most noticeable is the granting of a mortgage up to the limit on a British ship to a foreigner or foreigners and that, of course, gives the foreigner the control of the British ship. This Bill takes power to stop that, and requires that such transactions also shall have the consent of the Board of Trade. Then another great gap discovered in the Act was that, whereas the Act makes it illegal to transfer British ships to foreign ownership without sanction, it has been found possible for a foreigner to float a British company, which is really a foreign company to this extent, that the money or the shares are held in foreign hands, and there is no law to prevent what may be called a bogus British company holding a British ship. This is another gap which this Act is intended to stop. The only other really important feature of this Bill is that it gives the Board of Trade power to call for full information from companies with a view to seeing whether the law is being com- 1614 plied with—that is to say, it enables the Board of Trade to see constantly that British ships are really and genuinely in British ownership. I really do not think that anybody in the House will object to this Bill, and I can assure my right hon. Friend below the Gangway (Sir H. Dalziel) that it really was, as he would know, a great deprivation, if I may use the word, to the Parliamentary Secretary of the Board of Trade (Mr. Pretyman) not to be here to conduct the Bill in person. As we all know, he is one of the most assiduous and conscientious of our Ministers, and it was with great reluctance that he was persuaded even by the Whips to leave this Bill to our tender mercies. He asked me to say to the House that he would be certain, as far as a human person can say he is certain, to be here on Committee stage to explain any points that may arise. I hope that, both in justice to the urgency of the occasion and as a sort of token of esteem for my right hon. Friend (Mr. Pretyman), the House will agree to the Second Reading being taken. There is really nothing that we have not already agreed to; it is merely a practical measure for carrying out a principle which, I believe, this House will warmly approve, and of which my right hon. Friend is one of the most ardent supporters.
After the explanation we have had, perhaps the right hon. Gentleman (Sir H. Dalziel) will not press his objection, though I think, in principle, that objection is sound, especially when we have such a large number of these Departmental Bills being brought forward by the Government at so late a stage of the Session. I always think that the Government will never learn from its own experience. Here is a gap to be filled in a Bill that, as late as March last, I think, was before the House—or certainly it was in the last Session—to extend to British ships the Act of 1915. If that Bill had been properly discussed and considered by the House there would not now be the necessity to bring forward this Amendment to stop up the gaps. While I think the House can rest perfectly satisfied with the explanation which has been given to us from the Front Bench, and whilst we all deplore the slight accident that has happened to the right hon. Gentleman referred to (Mr. Pretyman), there was another right hon. Gentleman, whose name is on the back of the Bill, here until a couple of hours ago and who has gone away. I refer to the 1615 Secretary to the Admiralty (Dr. Macnamara). I do not see why, since his name is on the back of the Bill, he should not have remained here to give the House any explanation it desires. Like the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Sir H. Dalziel) I have only intervened to safeguard what I think are the rights of the House of Commons in a matter of this kind.