HC Deb 03 July 1919 vol 117 cc1262-6

Order for Second Reading read.


I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a second time. This Bill is one which will be welcomed by the House, and I can explain it in a very few sentences. Its object is to extend the strategical requirements, as to wireless telegraphic installations on merchant ships, and it is proposed to require every passenger steamer and every cargo vessel of 1,600 tons gross and upwards to have wireless telegraphic installations and such watchers as may be necessary. Rules will be made by the Board of Trade in consultation with the Postmaster-General. The Board of Trade may also exempt certain vessels from the operation of the Act. This measure is necessary because the only requirements now on the Statute Book are those contained in the Merchant Shipping Act of 1914, and that Act is not in operation because its operation has been postponed to the 1st January, 1920. During the War, under the Defence of the Realm Act, smaller ships have been required to be fitted with wireless installations, and this has been found to be a very great benefit in the saving of ships. The Admiralty are strongly in favour of this Bill, and if it had been in force at the beginning of the War a very large number of ships might have been saved which have been lost. It will be plain to hon. Members that at such a time as the outbreak of War this increase in the number of ships fitted with wireless telegraphy would be an immense advantage. We also think this will be an advantage in time of peace for the safety of ships in distress, who would be able to get their messages passed on to other ships, and so make their position known to a larger number of ships that might come to their rescue. Those are the main features of the Bill, and I hope the House will agree to the Second Reading.


The remarks of the right hon. Gentleman show the extraordinary value of this Bill, and although it is one which I can support in every way, I must say I consider 'it to be totally inadequate. When Committee is reached I shall propose Amendments to reduce the tonnage of ships which the Bills applies from 1,600 to 500. I am speaking on this matter of wireless as a shipowner. I am very sorry the line I am taking on this question is in conflict with that of my shipping friends, both in this House and outside, but before I was a shipowner I was a sailor, and it is the welfare of the seamen and of passengers for whom the seamen is responsible with which I am concerned at this moment. If wireless is such a valuable life-saving medium that it is to be fitted to any ship of 1,600 tons, then, in the name of common sense, why not fit it to any ship that can be usefully called up to the service of a ship in distress? Perhaps 500 tons is the limit of the class of small ship to which it would really be of much use to fit the wireless. One advantage of the wireless at sea is that the ship keeps within continual communication with the outside world, and at any moment she is able to communicate with the land or with any other ships with a wireless installation. I have argued this with shipowners for ten years past, and up till now, and until the Defence of the Realm Act of 1916 was passed, or until war's necessities forced ships to be equipped with wireless, there has been no legislation compelling the installation of wireless. The shipowners have been amazingly reluctant to my mind to adopt the most modern, the most wonderfully scientific invention and the greatest life-saving medium known. As the result of that awful "Titanic" disaster—the one outstanding case of the loss of a ship—an international convention was formed which made certain recommendations for the equipment of wireless, but instead of insisting that ships should be fitted with it, they filled them up with boats and rafts and lifebelts. When a man goes into the water in a boat or on a raft, even under the most favourable circumstances, it is a very serious position indeed. What I want to provide is that every ship shall be able, when in distress, to make her position known. Again, I want to call to mind the loss of the "Titanic." That vessel sank in a flat calm sea, after being three hours afloat after her accident. If this Clause for fitting ships of 1,600 tons with the wireless had been in operation then, who knows how many ships might have been called up in those three hours, so that every one of those 1,400 people might have been transferred to something larger than a lifeboat. They certainly would not have perished with cold at night.

One can give a long list of accidents involving loss of life that might have been avoided. This Bill is a somewhat belated action on the part of the Board of Trade. This should have been done years ago. It is no use blaming anybody. The shipowners are just as much to blame as the Board of Trade, but, for Heaven's sake, when we are going to do this thing let us do it properly. It is no use complaining of the cost. I was the first cargo shipowner in Great Britain to fit my ships with it. I know what it costs, but I am prepared to produce figures to show that tramp owners with experience can fit their ships with wireless as an ordinary commercial practice. The great objection of shipowners to wireless is the cost. But by a reasonable and intelligent use of it they would soon be able to recoup themselves that cost. It means, in the first place, a reduction in the marine insurance premium. If you had the wireless installed on all ships, naturally the result of a system by which you can give the actual position of a ship at sea, and in the case of the adoption of the fog wireless it is impossible for ships fitted with the installation to come into collision in a fog— would be a reduction in insurance premiums, and with a very small percentage of reduction it would be possible to pay for a year's wireless. Then a ship with wireless will always be able to warn her agents at the various ports well ahead what she is going to do, and she can get her bunker coal, her dock ready, and her labour ready. The whole machinery can be arranged well ahead. Time is saved, and it may easily be calculated how many days saved will pay for a year' s wireless. But even should it cost the ship £400 or £500 a year, that ought not to weigh in the scale against life. I am, therefore, very anxious that this House should seriously consider the value of wireless in every ship as a medium for being called up to ships in distress. I think we ought to put out of our minds any question of cost. After all, that is negligible. There are, I believe, certain objections with regard to the carrying of operators, but possibly one operator in a smaller ship would be quite enough. I certainly support the Bill as far as it goes, and I want its provisions extended.

Lieut-Commander KEN WORTHY

I would like to associate myself with what has been said by the last speaker, and I would like also to protest against taking the Committee stage of this Bill at once. I am sure we all welcome the measure. I do not think I can go quite so far as the last speaker in supporting the installation of wireless on ships with so low a tonnage as 500. Wireless is a little overrated, and I do not think you will find that on a ship of 500 tons or under it would be much good. I am not a ship-owner at all, but most of my Constituents are employed by shipowners, and, in view of the fierce competition which now obtains among the class of tramp steamer, I think it will be found that the compulsory fitting of the wireless would be too much of a financial burden. I do not wish to pursue that point too far. It is rather a matter for the Committee, and I am certain that if it would pay ships below 1,600 tons to instal the wireless there is nothing in this Bill which will prevent them doing it. I see one danger in this Bill, and it is in the provision that a ship cannot go to sea unless she is provided with operators. Now these wireless operators will be organised into a trade union—indeed, I am told they already are—and I would like to know if a ship of 30,000 tons is to be held up because the wireless operators are on strike? Of course, that is a matter of law, and it may be all right if the point is in the discretion of the Board of Trade, but I am going to propose to the President of the Board of Trade that in a case of that sort he should consult the Joint Seafarers' Council which has just recently been set up. That body might be of the greatest assistance in solving a problem of that kind and in dealing with other labour questions. A ship can go to sea without operators, but she cannot go without engineers and crew. It is doubtful, however, whether the captain should be at liberty at his own discretion to start without an operator. There is one most valuable concession in this Bill for which we should be grateful to the President of the Board of Trade, and that is that the responsibility is not to be put on the master of the ship alone. This is a unique proposal. The owner is also to be made partially liable and I think the Committee will see the wisdom of strengthening that principle. I am sure the Bill will commend itself to the common sense of the House.

Bill accordingly read a second time, and committed to a Standing Committee.