HC Deb 02 December 1920 vol 135 cc1583-98

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £150,905, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1921, for the Salaries and Expenses of certain services transferred from the Mercantile Marine Fund, and other services connected with the Mercantile Marine, including Merchant Seamen's Fund Pensions and Grants to the General Lighthouse Fund and other Lighthouse and Harbour Authorities.

10.0 P.M.

The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of TRADE (Sir Robert Horne)

The sum of £150,905 in this Vote is made up of a small number of items which I am going to explain seriatim. The first item is a sum of £5,700 for an increase in salaries, wages, and allowances. There has been, in the course of the last few years, an investigation into the salaries of people who are carrying on the business of the Board of Trade in relation to the merchant services. The revisal of these salaries has shown that in some cases people were paid at a rate which was not really relative to the present type of salary which people in most services are getting, and as it is necessary that we should have a reliable body of people in whom the Department have confidence, it is necessary that you should pay them the market rate, or as nearly as you can to the market rate, at which other people are being paid. Most of the revisals took place in accordance with the Civil Service Arbitration Board's recommendation, and, in the result, to a certain extent the service was cut down, and to a certain extent salaries were increased. The total came out at £5,700 more than we had given in the previous year's Estimate. The second item is for £2,865 in respect of memorial scrolls, and plaques for the Mercantile Marine. I am sure the Committee will agree that it was very appropriate that some commemoration of the great services rendered by the Mercantile Marine should be given to widows and dependants of those who lost their lives in our service during the War. In accordance with the scheme, there is sent to each of the dependants of any man who lost his life in our Mercantile Marine a bronze plaque, together with a scroll, which commemorates the service in which he lost his life. The scroll has been approved by His Majesty, and, indeed, the whole scheme was based upon a suggestion which the King made. I am perfectly certain the Committee will not want to question that item in this Vote.

The third item is connected with the North Atlantic Ice Patrol. It may be within the knowledge, of the Committee that, after the disaster to the "Titanic," an International Convention was entered into for the purpose of keeping the trade routes of the Atlantic clear of ice. The services, as a matter of fact, were performed by the United States, but a contribution was made by the various other States which entered into the Convention. The sum is more for us at the present time, owing to the failure of some of the States to contribute, as one can readily imagine, and the sum we have to pay at the present time is £8,960. The reason why this sum did not appear in the original Estimate was that, during the War, the whole system was in abeyance, while after the War the scheme once again came into operation. Through inadvertence, it was not estimated for when the original Estimates were made up, but, of course, we are under an obligation, and, indeed, for our own interest we would wish, to pay our share of the duty of keeping these trade routes clear of ice.

The next item is one of £2,600 which, like the first item to which I referred, is the result of a revisal of the salaries of surveyors employed by the Board of Trade who examine ships to see that they arc safely constructed and all other matters connected with the investigation which the Board of Trade have to perform towards the mercantile marine. These increases, for the most part, were recommended under the Arbitration Board's recommendation in connection with the Civil Service, and such others as there are were approved by the Treasury. The item which is lettered "U" is a sum of £5,000 commission to Consuls, exchange, and incidentals. The Committee will remember that our Consuls throughout the world, when sailors come into the various ports, have to keep sums which they wish to deposit when they arrive, and they have to be remitted home from time to time by the Consul. By reason of the great fluctuation in exchange, of which the Committee is aware, there has been a very considerable variation in the commissions to which the Consuls are entitled. It is this extraordinary fluctuation in the exchange which is responsible for our failure accurately to estimate the amount of the commission to which the Consuls are entitled. Therefore, you have this increase of £5,000.

The next item is one of £123,000 for fares of merchant seamen. This amount I am sure is an item which the Committee will not begrudge. In the first place, it represents what has to be paid to sailors who are brought into a port of disembarkation to which they would not ordinarily arrive and their fares are paid to their homes. In the next place, as a further concession—and if my memory serves me rightly it is the same concession given to soldiers—when a sailor who on arrival at port has a journey to make to reach his home he was allowed to make the journey at pre-War rates of travel, the Government undertaking to meet the difference between the pre-War rate and the subsequent rate. I ought to tell the Committee that this system has now come to an end, but £123,000 represents what has to be paid until the system did come to an end—I think from April, 1919, to July, 1920.


November, 1920; page 9.


It is the 1st April, 1919, to the 31st October, 1920. I think I am perfectly right about the date. That concession is now withdrawn. The amount is one which was not estimated for because indeed it could not. Nobody could say precisely during what time this concession would be granted and what the amount would probably be. That is the explanation of the sum of £123,000. With regard to the last item in the Supplementary Estimate, a sum of £2,780 for removal of the Dundee harbour wreck, the circumstances under which that sum had to be paid were these: A certain ship was damaged by a mine and came into the estuary of the Tay, where she sank and became dangerous to navigation. She lay within the jurisdiction of the Dundee Harbour Commission. When representation was made to the Board of Trade that they should perform the duty of removing this wreck, it was pointed out to the Harbour Commissioners that she lay within their jurisdiction and it was their duty to remove her. The Dundee Harbour Commissioners pressed the matter, urging very strongly that it was as a result of an act of war that this vessel came into the estuary injured and sank. The Board of Trade maintained that if they were to satisfy all these claims they would be removing wrecks all round the coast and it was an obligation of liability which they could not undertake. Ultimately, as a matter of concession, they agreed, not recognising any liability, to pay a third of the sum which it cost to remove this obstruction and the third of that sum is represented by the figure of £2,780 in the Supplementary Estimate. I hope these explanations will be satisfactory to the Committee.


The right hon. Gentleman said with regard to the item of £8,960 in respect to the North Atlantic Ice Patrol that this was a danger to other countries. Will he explain to the House why we are liable to pay this money because other countries have defaulted?


The whole situation is this: We are the greatest seafaring nation in the world, and if any nation has an interest in keeping the seas clear, it is the British nation. If any sum has to be paid undoubtedly we shall not fail to do our duty in the matter. The reason why we have to pay more is because there are fewer contributions at the present time. Russia, Germany, and Austria have fallen out, and difficulties have arisen in obtaining payment from them. It has resulted in America and Britain and the other signatories to the Convention paying more than they would ordinarily have done.


I do not desire to offer keen criticism of the Estimates, but I do want to take this opportunity of calling the attention of the Committee to what I consider to be a very low amount, £2,865, allotted for memorial scrolls and plaques for the dependents of those unfortunate seamen who lost their lives in the Merchant Service during the War. Incidentally I want to say I do not think there has been sufficient credit given to the men who served in the Merchant Service during that period under conditions such as perhaps no other body was called upon to undergo, and to the very unsatisfactory treatment ultimately meted out to them. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will kindly give some additional information as to the total number of merchant seamen who lost their lives during the War period and the number of scrolls and placques already issued, if any at all, and whether it is not proposed to do something even further and to see whether in cases of distress or special cases of hardship amongst the dependents some other provision cannot also be made. I have in my mind—I can speak with some little authority on the Merchant Service—the arrangements that existed during the War period by the insurance companies. I believe the Board of Trade and the Shipping Board, where a seaman met with death while serving in the Merchant Service during the War period, dealt with him on the same lines as industrial workmen losing their lives in industry in the country, that is, the Workmen's Compensation Act was made to apply. No special provisions for the special risks undertaken by the merchant seamen were made, which went against the dependents. Members of the Committee will realise that many of these seamen before being finally sent to the bottom had been shipwrecked on two or three occasions. They had to get new outfits, and often had to pay fares, and in consequence were unable to make regular allowances to the dependents and parents who were left at home. When this final settlement of the Workmen's Com- pensation Act was taken in hand we were called upon to state what was the amount contributed by the deceased to the home. That amount necessarily fell short of what otherwise would have been the case had not the circumstances of the seaman's life intervened.

We ought to remember that many of these men were 20 feet below the water-line, and that their risks were much greater than anything that can be imagined. If £2,800 represents the full recognition to the dependents of these gallant men and women—for there were many stewardesses on board—of the mercantile service, then I think some further consideration should be given, and something tendered more commensurate with the circumstances of the case. My criticism is, therefore, that there has not been sufficient provision made for merchant seamen and the mercantile service as a whole. I feel sure no one would complain of the £123,000; indeed, I cannot anticipate the greatest exponent of economy in this House objecting. Vessels were diverted from their original ports, and the seaman never knew when he went on board what port he would disembark at, and therefore it is only fair and reasonable to suppose that he should be given such facilities as were possible to reach his home, or the nearest port to it. Generally speaking, while I feel that the items cannot be questioned, because they are beyond the control of the right hon. Gentleman—I refer to the increase in salaries which I suppose are the usual bonus allowances permitted by the Treasury—I do ask that he may give some little attention to this item of £2,800.


I beg to move that the Vote be reduced by £100,000.

I should like to ask the President of the Board of Trade a question in regard to the first item, the increase of salaries by £5,700. I understood him to say that this was the result' of the previous year's mis-Estimate. If it is a miscalculation in this year's Estimates—


I gave the reasons why these amounts had increased.


I understood it was in connection with the previous year's Estimate. Then in regard to Item D2 (Memorial Scrolls and Plaques for the-Mercantile Marine), £2,865, it would appear to me that this has nothing to do with the case raised by the hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Hayday). That hon. Gentleman said, quite truly, that the merchant seamen had during the War, undergone great risks. No one denies that. Everyone admits that the House and the country owe a great debt of gratitude to the merchant seamen, and they owe a debt of gratitude to the Army and the Navy. Nobody questions that. But I would point out that the matter with which we are now dealing comes within the period ending 31st March of next year. Therefore we are beginning with a period at 18 months after the Armistice, which was practically the declaration of Peace, and, therefore, whatever ought to have been done has apparently been done, and if it has not special legislation will be required and the matter should not be brought in on an Estimate of this sort. Further, as to the scrolls. They are merely a memento to be handed down in the family to show that a member of the family had done his best to serve his country. This is not a question of giving the dependants something because these men have lost their lives, but it is some little memento to keep in their houses, in order that their children may know what has taken place. With regard to the North Atlantic Ice Patrol, I understand that owing to Russia having become Bolshevik, and therefore not being able to carry out her engagements, and Austria and Germany not having got any money for this purpose, we have to share in making up the deficiency. I understand, however, that America has taken her share of this deficiency, and therefore I have nothing to say about this Vote.

I will deal now with the item of £123,000 for fares of merchant seamen. Before I come to my objection, I wish to congratulate my right hon. Friend upon having put this amount into the Vote, because the practice of the Government has hitherto been not to charge the different Departments with the services rendered by the railway companies, but simply to lump it up in the deficiency or surplus of the railway companies, so that when the Estimates appear before the House they were not true and correct Estimates. Officials, passengers, and goods were sent over the railway lines, and instead of being debited to the accounts of the Departments concerned, they were lumped together in the general Railway Accounts, and nobody knew which Department had spent the money. Therefore, I congratulate my right hon. Friend upon having put this item into the Supplementary Estimates. I hope that all other similar amounts will appear not only in his Estimates but in the Estimates of other Departments. Now I come to the item itself of £123,000 for fares of merchant seamen. This sum is for Provision for payments to railway companies in connection with the concession to merchant seamen to travel to their homes at pre-War fares. This concession was withdrawn from 1st November, 1920. A question was asked a few moments ago as to which period this sum related to, and my right hon. Friend said it was a period from the 31st October, 1919, to the 31st October this year.


April, 1919.


Then the period is April, 1919, to the 31st of October this year. That is my objection. If this period started from April, 1919, why was it not in the original Estimates presented to this House in March this year. It should not have been left over and placed in a Supplementary Estimate covering about 18 months. That, I think, is wrong. I would point out that this occurred long after the War. Perhaps my right hon. Friend will tell us who are these merchant seamen. I understand them to be men who are in the employ of private ship owners and of shipping companies. If that is right, why should we, so long after the War, be asked to impose on the British taxpayer a charge which should be borne by the shipowners and shipping companies? Surely, if these seamen have been for the last year and a half in the employ of these private people, the bur den should be borne by these employers, rather than by the State. Ship owners have made very large profits during the War, and they, and not the State, should bear this burden. Why should I put my hands in my pocket to pay a charge which should fall on men who have made big profits during the War—a thing which I have not done myself. I am not de preciating the great services rendered to the country by these seamen. They were well paid—


It was a night and day risk.


I quite appreciate that. But these payments refer to a period after the War and I fail to see why we should pay the charge when it is the duty of the shipowners and of the shipping companies to look after there own employés—I will not call them their servants. Unless the Government can justify this Vote I shall feel it right to go to a Division against it. In order to get an explanation I move a reduction of the whole Vote by £100,000.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

I think I can satisfy the right hon. Baronet. I take it that he agrees that ships were diverted all over the place, and that it was only fair to help the men back to their homes. The shipowners have protested vehemently against this system of control, and I think they are quite right. I am only talking now about the working of control as it affected shipping, and it has been disastrous. Some ports have been empty while others have been congested, and that is the reason why the payment has been kept up.


As my hon. and gallant Friend knows, I have always been against all control, and I still am, but I cannot help thinking that, although the shipowners may well have wished to be without any control, they have not suffered much.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

I agree that the shipowners have not done badly, but in cases which have been brought to my notice the control has been worked extremely badly, and the seamen have been hit in this way, so that I think it is fair and reasonable to keep up this concession in regard to fares; and, as neither the shipowners nor the seamen wanted control, I think it is only fair that we should foot the bill.

I wish to make three remarks on three items in the Estimate. The first is on Item A, on the question of the outdoor officers of the Mercantile Marine Office staff. I see that Sub-section (iii) of Item A refers to the retention of the temporary staff necessitated by continued pressure of work. That may be justified, but this Mercantile Marine Office staff, which performs very useful work at the ports, includes a certain number of officers who were taken over from the local port authorities when the Board of Trade took this service over under an Act of Parliament, I think some 20 or 30 years ago. These original officers are treated differently from those appointed later, not as regards their pay, but as regards pensions, and they cannot get any definite statement from the right hon. Gentleman as to whether they are to receive pensions or not. I have written to him on the matter, and he has sent me very courteous replies, but I have not been able to get anything very satisfactory on behalf of these men. It is only a small matter, but it seems to me that, if we could do away with some of that temporary staff and apply the money saved to the formation of a pension fund for these old officials, who have borne the heat and burden for many years, it would be only justice. I would request my right hon. Friend to look into that matter. It is a small matter, but it is one that affects people who are held in great esteem in the ports, for they have done great services. With regard to "D 2—Memorial Scrolls and Plaques," I cannot refrain from saying this. We have had a lot of eulogy of the services of the Mercantile Marine, but their dependents have had the greatest difficulty in getting their just dues from the State. They are referred to the Admiralty, from there to the Ministry of Shipping, from there to the Board of Trade, from there to the Ministry of Pensions, and so on. Any Member who has a number of mercantile marine constituents will bear out this, I am sure, that it is extremely difficult to get the compensation and pensions to which the widows and dependents of the men who have actually lost their lives are entitled.

We are voting £2,865 for memorial scrolls and plaques. Whatever sentimental value may be attached to them, I think we ought to see that the pensions due to these widows are paid. I do not complain of the methods of the President of the Board of Trade, for he is always exceedingly courteous in his replies to me when I write about these poor people; but I have a case now of an unfortunate ship's captain who went through the Dardanelles campaign, and who has been partly unfitted by his exposure and sufferings there, but he cannot get from the Admiralty or the Board of Trade, or his own shipowners, any compensation, and his wife and dependents are suffering heavily. The Government gave the most solemn pledge during the War that the dependents of these men would be looked after by the State.

The DEPUTY-CHAIRMAN (Sir E. Cornwall)

I do not see how that arises on the Vote we are discussing.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

My point is this. We are voting £2,865 for plaques which have only a sentimental value, but if the Government do not insist on doing their duty by the widows themselves this money might be better expended. There is great sentimental value in these plaques and scrolls, but a little practical sympathy would be better. The Prime Minister gave the most specific pledges on this point, and they have not been kept. My last remark is with regard to Item E 1—The North Atlantic Ice Patrol. This ought not to be here at all. When we dispose of the heavy reduction moved by the right hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London, I propose to move a reduction on this item. It ought to be on the Foreign Office Vote, and it ought to be undertaken by the League of Nations. It is the very sort of work the League of Nations could and should undertake. My right hon. Friend will say certain nations who ought to take a share and pay for a share in the Ice Patrol are not in the League of Nations.


I was not going to make that remark.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

It is the remark I made.


That, of course, commends it to me.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

If this could be put on the League of Nations it is a matter with which they could occupy themselves. Unless I get a good explanation from the Board of Trade in this matter, I am going to move that this be taken off this Vote and put on the Vote of the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. If it has not been transferred by now, this Ice Patrol ought to be transferred. I do not make these criticisms in any hostile spirit.


There is one item on which I should like a little more explanation. On item "U" there is £5,000 for additional loss by exchange incurred on remittances to this country by officers abroad. It seems an extraordinary lack of business capacity on the part of the consuls abroad that, knowing the state of the exchanges, they should have been so remiss as to leave money lying about the consulates and failing to remit it, with the result that there has been a loss of £5,000. I presume that there must have been more loss, because this is "additional" loss. With respect to item. "Z," Dundee Harbour wreck removal, £2,780, the Government have got very well out of it. The Board of Trade is to be congratulated on getting off with such a small sum. I am not a Member for Dundee, but I have been an old member of the Dundee Harbour Board, and I think the Harbour Board should have had a larger sum. This should have been covered as a war risk and yet the Board of Trade get off with £2,780, while at the present time the Dundee Harbour Board have before them claims amounting to something like £500,000 sterling. With regard to item "XI," "Fares of merchant seamen," one of the reasons for this amount of £123,000 is that ships were diverted all over the country. They were taken off their regular routes, and the seamen wished to leave vessels at the out ports and travel home, and it was considered a natural concession made to them to travel home at pre-War fares, considering the great work which merchant seamen did during the War. The reason for diverting these ships was that the warehouses at the ports were full and the railways were glutted with the result that vessels had to be diverted to other ports where the cargoes could be discharged, and also that railway haulage from one part of the country to the other might be saved. As a shipping man I should like to make that explanation.


The greater part of this is for this year. All this could not happen this year. The hon. Member is one of those fortunate people who are connected with shipping. He has not done badly, therefore he ought to pay his share of this particular item.


At the same time, we cannot fill ports and warehouses in a few months. The warehouses of London at present are absolutely blocked with goods. The same thing applies all over the country. I have no doubt that at those ports that were idle the Ministry of Labour, and other Departments, were very anxious to see the men employed. That is why the ports got blocked up and the ships had to be diverted.


I am sorry that I cannot agree with my hon. Friend in reference to item Z.1, payment to the Dundee Harbour Trust, as to which we are entitled to further explanation. I do not suppose that there is a single harbour in the whole United Kingdom which has not a similar case. There are about half a dozen to my knowledge with wrecks in the harbour ways, caused by a similar kind of enemy action It seems to me that if you admit this claim by Dundee Harbour, you open the door to a whole series of similar claims by harbour trusts in other parts of the country. I understand that there has been considerable litigation in that case, and there are very large claims against this particular harbour trust amounting to something like £500,000, owing, it is alleged, to these wrecks having been wrongly located by the harbour people. We are entitled to further explanation as to whether the wrong location of that wreck was the fault of the Government or officials of the local harbour board.

Lieut.-Commander WILLIAMS

In reference to D 2, memorial scrolls and plaques for the mercantile marine, it should be made clear by those of us who know that great value is placed on these memorials by the widows and mothers of the fallen. It is impossible for the State in any way to recompense them for what they have suffered, but these memorials are something which they and their families can hold to show what their closest and most valued relatives have done for our nation in the War. In reference to Item J 1 in which there has been an increase, I would ask the Secretary to the Board of Trade what were the figures for this amount in pre-War days? I would like to know what steps have been taken to see that in due course the amounts which are to be paid by other nations shall be paid as soon as possible. The hon. and gallant Member for Hull (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy) mentioned that the North Atlantic Ice Patrol should be paid for by the League of Nations. I have the greatest respect for the League of Nations and am an optimist regarding it, but I would like to know whether this is yet another method invented by the hon. and gallant Gentleman for throwing ridicule on the League. How are you going to persuade a country like Switzerland to contribute to the League for the purpose" of a North Atlantic Ice Patrol?

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

Swiss subjects travel by sea, and I am sure Switzerland would be quite willing to subscribe.

Lieut.-Commander WILLIAMS

No doubt they would do their best, but this is a matter dealing solely with the mercantile marine. I would like to say how much I appreciate the very valuable work done in connection with the Dundee Harbour Wreck Removal in not allowing more money to come out of the public purse to subsidise a particular Scottish locality.


Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can enlighten us further with regard to the duties of the Atlantic Ice Patrol. He nodded acquiescence to a statement that it was to keep the sea clear of ice. Knowing somehing of the size of the Atlantic icebergs I must express astonishment at the small amount, of the Vote. With regard to the item dealing with the railway fares of merchant seamen, I agree with the right hon. Baronet (Sir F. Banbury) that it ought to have been in the original Estimate. There have been two or three suggestions as to the reason. I would add another suggestion. It is that this was a privilege granted, quite rightly, to the merchant seamen during the War, when they were put more or less on the same footing as the men in khaki. Probably the privilege was forgotten and allowed to continue until the Department was brought up with a round turn by receipt of the bill from the Ministry of Transport. Another theory is that it has been continued deliberately, in which case I suggest that it is nothing more nor less than an insult to the soldier, who, when he came home from France and was demobilised, found a similar privilege withdrawn in his case.


The main element of criticism to which attention has been directed has been the item of £123,000, which has been paid in respect of the travelling concessions to merchant seamen. Undoubtedly, that concession was originally given to merchant seamen because, in point of fact, the merchant seamen belonged to the fighting forces of the country. The seaman has been put in the same category as the soldier in many respects, and I do not think anyone can suggest that he did not deserve it. The last speaker referred to the fact that the soldier, after demobilisation, no longer enjoyed these privileges. You cannot say at what point merchant seamen became demobilised. As everyone knows, shipping in this country was dislocated for a very long time after the War, and the difficulty was to determine the precise point at which such a concession should no longer be granted. I am perfectly certain the Committee is not generally of a mind to question the concession, even although it may have been continued for a short space longer than that at which, perhaps, it might have been possible to have stopped it. As to the item not appearing in the original Estimate, I quite admit that was a valid criticism, and I say quite frankly that some amount of this sum ought to have been foreseen and provided against. It was difficult to understand the complete extent of the negotiations or that the shipping of this country would still be kept in the hands of the State for a much longer period after the Armistice than anybody anticipated. With regard to the ice patrol, the last speaker must not assume that £8,760 represents the whole payment. Originally we paid 30 per cent, of the cost of this patrol, but now, since other countries have dropped out, we pay 38 per cent. The sum here does not represent the whole of the amount of the service. I readily assent to what has been said by the hon. and gallant Member for Hull (Lieut.-Commander Ken-worthy) and the hon. Member who spoke first, as to the obligations we owe to the widows and dependants of the merchant seamen. This granting of a plaque and scroll, I am sure, is something which is pleasing to those who receive it, and I do not think anybody grudges the expenditure for that purpose. The Committee will remember that compensation is paid to widows and dependants. I am quite certain there are cases in which hardship is suffered, and which is not remedied so readily as it ought to have been. The hon. and gallant Member has brought cases of that kind to my notice from time to time, and I always do my best to have them looked into and to have the proper concession granted at as speedy a rate as possible. I do not think there is any other point to answer, and I hope the Committee will grant me this amount now, because I understand it is for the convenience of the Committee that this matter should be concluded to-day.

Amendment negatived.

It being Eleven of the dock the Chairman left the Chair to make his Report to the House.

Resolution to be reported To-morrow.

Committee to sit again To-morrow.