HC Deb 19 June 1924 vol 174 cc2464-76

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a sum, not exceeding £231.321, be granted to His Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1925, for the Salaries and Expenses of certain services transferred from the Mercantile Marine Fund, and other services connected with the Mercantile Marine, including the Coastguard, General Register and Record Office of Shipping and Seamen, Merchant Seamen's Fund Pensions, and Grants to the General Lighthouse Fund and other Lighthouse Autheritiee."—[Note: £205,000 has been voted on account.]

Captain Viscount CURZON

I should like to thank hon. Members who have assisted us to get a few minutes in order to discuss this important Vote. The first question to which I desire to allude is that of discipline in the mercantile marine. Those who know the mercantile marine are aware that one of the most important things in connection with the running of any ship is discipline. A ship which is well disciplined is a happy ship, and an efficient ship. Recently I asked the President of the Board of Trade whether his attention had been drawn to the deficiencies in the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, which regulates discipline in the mercantile marine. The penalties laid down in that Act are hopelessly inadequate, and range from 5s. to 10s. The penalty for keeping arms on board is 5s.; for insolent or contemptuous language or behaviour, 5s.; for absence without leave, 5s.; for drunkenness, 5s. I got a sympathetic answer from the right hon. Gentleman which was appreciated in the mercantile marine, and he invited me to submit certain proposals.

My proposals are not quite complete, but I have certain suggestions to place before him, and in doing so I would point out that these fines were fixed when the pay of the seamen was 200 per cent. lower than it is to-day. To-day a seaman who joins a ship, if that ship does not sail at once, may go over the side, may shirk his lifeboat drill, and all the preparations for getting the ship ready, and very often return on board drunk. When that happens, all that can be done by the master is to stop 5s. out of the pay. He can prosecute in a Court of Law but, if he does, it is necessary for the master or some other officer to stay behind to conduct the prosecution, and this cannot be done when a ship is going to sea. The suggestions which I would make are (1) that the Board of Trade should issue some strong caution to the men—a special clause should be put into the articles relating to discipline; (2) that there should be a little more help in these matters from the civil police; (3) that the scale of fines should be revised in accordance with the experience of modern conditions; (4) that there should be more backing from the master of the ship when he comes to deduct a fine when paying off a ship; (5) that the Board of Trade solicitor should be present to help the prosecution of a master or a man for an offence under the Act. Possibly also a revision of the Merchant Shipping Act will be required. These suggestions have had to be put very hurriedly to give other Members a chance to speak. They are not exhaustive but they are preliminary suggestions which I promised the right hon. Gentleman I should give, and I hope to give him some more.

With regard to the question of unemployment, everybody knows that unemployment is rife in our shipping industry, as in practically every other industry in this country, but I think that a great deal can be done in respect of unemployment. One of the things which I have had to bring before the President of the Board of Trade has been the question of the survey of ships before they go to sea. We have had during the past two years two bad cases. One is the case of the "E1 Kahira" which was lost with all hands. Subsequent inquiries showed, and it was held that one of the officers of the Board of Trade was partly responsible for an inadequate survey before the ship proceeded to sea. Another case more recent was that of a ship known as the "Jenny." She proceeded to sea, and the master was subsequently prosecuted because she was found to have gone to sea overladen, and when I put a question to the President of the Board of Trade on the subject he practically admitted drat the ship had sailed without a proper survey through the inadequacy of the surveyors' staff. I have got the right hon Gentleman's answer here, and if he does not agree with me I can read it, but he said that really he could not increase the staff for reasons presumably of expense. If a ship is allowed to go to sea without having been properly inspected she may possibly be lost as happened in the case of the "El Kahira."

Another case was that of the "Nunnington," which was also lost with all hands, and this case has not yet been explained. We have got vast unemployment in the mercantile marine. A large number of competent officers are out of a job. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman if he could not increase his surveying staff to a moderate extent such as would enable it to exercise more efficient super- vision over the ships which go to sea, and at the same time be of use in respect of diminishing the unemployment among the officers of the mercantile marine.

The question of ships going to sea with alien crews also deserves the earnest consideration of this House. There have been cases of ships going to sea nearly entirely manned with alien crews, and at a time when so many British seamen are out of work that is a question which deserves the attention of the right hon. Gentleman himself. Then there is the question of wireless directional stations, which is a question which very largely affects the safety of ships at sea, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will agree. I recently put a question asking the right hon. Gentleman what he was doing in respect of wireless directional stations, and he gave a sympathetic answer, but in the present financial circumstances he indicated that expenditure must be limited and that invention is proceeding so rapidly that it is difficult to say which system will ultimately be used. During the War the Navy made large use of, and largely developed, directional wireless in respect of ships and fleets returning to base. It was found that this invention was of the utmost possible value in securing safe navigation in fog, and that was its chief use. It has, of course, certain limitations, where, for instance, there are large tin deposits on the coast, and so on, but I would submit that there are stations in this country which should be equipped with directional wireless, even in its present stage of development, with the least possible delay. I would submit that such stations as Flamborough, the Isle of Wight, Brow Head, the Straits of Dover, the Lizard, Carnsore Point, Berwick, Malin Head, South Stack, Calf of Man, Seaforth, Liverpool, Clyde Approaches, Pentland Firth, Cullercoats, and several others, a list of which I will furnish the right hon. Gentleman after this Debate, should receive immediate attention. I submit that this will make for safety in navigation, and that at each place where a directional wireless station of this sort is set up a skilled navigator should be at the disposal of the station. Here, again, is a suggestion which will absorb a certain number of our skilled officers of the mercantile marine.

Another question which I would like to ask the right hon. Gentleman is in respect of a contributory pension or superannuation scheme for officers of the merchant service. Officers of the merchant service are practically ruled out of every other pension or superannuation scheme in. this country to-day. I think they deserve well of us, and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will agree that their gallantry, and that of the men, of course, was second to none during the War. Might I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to give this matter his most earnest consideration, as to whether something cannot be done to bring in some contributory pension or superannuation scheme for the officers of the Mercantile Marine?

The only other question I would like to bring to his notice is the question of oil in navigable waters. This is a question which was nut to him recently in this House, and, if I understood him aright, he admitted that it was an evil, but he did not give the House the idea that the Board of Trade were really enthusiastically and energetically undertaking its elimination. I would submit that if other countries are backward in this matter, that is no reason for us to be backward. Anybody who knows our coast, especially near our great ports, knows very well that oil is still a very considerable nuisance, and even worse. Sea birds are being picked up by the scores of hundreds on the sea shore, dying, through oil. It interferes with our bathing mid seaside resorts, and I would submit to the right hon. Gentleman that we should have a few prosecutions. If he is in earnest, I am certain his advisers will be able to secure prosecutions, and successful ones at that, and one successful prosecution would do more good than any number of questions in this House.


I wish to raise a question connected with the Mercantile Marine which is largely of local interest. At the same time, I must say that I agree with the Noble Lord the Member foe South Battersea (Viscount Curzon), who raised the question of the staff of surveyors. I find that the Home Office are increasing the factory inspectors, I find that the Ministry of Mines are increasing the number of mines inspectors, and I find a general desire running through the Government to increase the number of persons engaged in work of this kind. I find the Board of Trade acting rather in the other way. They are becoming even more reactionary in this respect than the late Government. I actually find that in this Estimate there is a reduction and not an increase. You have the Minister of Mines increasing his staff. You find the Home Office increasing the factory inspectors. Yet the men who fulfil the same office in connection with the Mercantile Marine are being reduced by the present. Government. That is indefensible. The men ought to be increased. [An HON. MEMBER: "They have been increased!"] Well, read your own Report. Apart from, in certain respects, an increase, there is a decrease. You have every year a large increase in the tonnage in this country. More and more ships are being built, and you ought to have a corresponding increase in the staff of inspectors, apart altogether from this fact that the staff is already overburdened. The consequence is that we have to-day a. President of the Board of Trade even more reactionary than his predecessors.

I want to say in this matter that the sailor is entitled to some defence. After all, we are all keen about housing at the present time. Whether on the Liberal, the Tory, or the Labour Benches, everyone deplores the bad housing conditions. Here you have a number of ships. These are the homes of the sailors. We ought, therefore, to be as careful about the, homes of the sailors as we are endeavouring to be with respect to the homes of in-shore people. I have raised this question to point out what its effect is in several directions. I agree with the last speaker, possibly for the first time, but I want to show the effect of this. You have to-day round about the coasts, and in the place of which I am a native and know best—you have the steamers that ply to and fro on the Clyde, or the cross-channel steamers going from Glasgow to Belfast or Dublin, or from Glasgow to Greenock and the Western Islands. This is about the time, the months of June and July, of holidays in Glasgow; these boats are engaged in carrying the people to and fro.

I remember a number of years ago travelling across, in July, on a steamer which, as I understood, for the better part of the year was engaged on the Manchester Ship Canal as a cattle boat. It was carrying passengers from Glasgow to Belfast, and there were no inspectors there to see that matters were properly carried out. You have boats at the present time going from Glasgow to the North of Ireland and the middle of Ireland, in which the passengers have not even decent sanitary accommodation. It is a disgrace, and a shocking disgrace. Even the men's quarters are not desirable. They are not fit for human beings to live in. If Cabinet Ministers had to reside in them instead of in some of the homes in which they do reside, we should have inspectors doing their work, and more efficiently than now. It is a standing disgrace that you have this going on. In Glasgow we are paying 15s. a week—[An HON. MEMBER: "18s.!"] No. I wish it were 18s.; to unemployed and skilled shipping men, men who have served their time, men of the finest type, and together with that you have boats a disgrace to the country going to sea. You cannot defend that position. The position at the present time, even from the point of view of saving the country's money, is bad. Instead of having those men wasting their time in the streets, you ought to be utilising them in making the ordinary life of the sailor more comfortable, and rendering the lot of the passenger who has to use the boats better than in the past. Let me raise the question of the Western Isles service. There are boats in that service which have been plying for over 50 years, and we were told the other day that those boats were not very bad. I have worked all my life in a shipbuilding yard, and I should say that those boats ought to be condemned. In the cross-Channel traffic between this country and France you have in the main magnificent steamers, compared with those which ply between Glasgow and Belfast and the Western Isles. In these Scottish steamers you have people who are just as good as in the Dover and France traffic, having to travel to the Western Isles in shocking steamers. [An HON. MEMBER: "They are Scottish owners!"] Yes, that is true, but it would be the same if they were English owners. This is a serious matter, and I want to ask the President of the Board of Trade what he is going to do to put the thing right.

It is no good him telling me that he is limited by Acts of Parliament, because no Acts of Parliament can keep him from sending his inspectors to see that a ship is properly equipped, decently manned, and the accommodation up to a decent standard. The inspectors are not doing that. You have not sufficient inspectors to begin with, and those who are there are not doing their job in a proper way. If they were, a large number of those ships would be stopped and new ships built to replace them, and those allowed to sail would be repaired and put into a better condition. That would make the lot of the sailor more comfortable, and anything this House can do to make a sailor's life more comfortable ought to he done. I remember going to Belfast to work, and having to travel overnight in order to start the following morning In Belfast, and if we did not do that we used to lose our Labour Exchange benefit. If you had your ships properly equipped, you would make the lot of the passengers far more comfortable.

The, third point I wish to put to the right hon. Gentleman is that, instead of men drawing 15s. a week as unemployed doing nothing at all, we should find them doing useful work, and doing something for the good of the community as a whole. I understand that the Parliamentary Secretary went down and saw these boats. I hope he has seen them, and has agreed not to do, as formerly, nothing at all, but that we shall see a real step forward in the direction of making these steamers at least habitable and safe, with good accommodation for the passengers, at the same time giving useful work for very useful men to do at this time of crisis.


I want to say a word or two with regard to lifeboat apparatus in our mercantile marine. I understand that a Committee sat some two or three years ago and made a Report on this subject, but up to the present nothing has been done with regard to the improvement of the lifeboat apparatus. I have already mentioned to the previous President of the Board of Trade that in the district which I have the honour to represent there is a firm which brought out a patent by means of which, when lifeboats were launched, the lights would not go out. The usual thing, as I have understood from seamen, is that in a rough sea, and especially on a dark night or in fog, they cannot be seen when they are in distress. I understand that, by the patent which was presented to the Board of Trade by this firm, a light can be kept burning at any angle or in whatever position the boat may be, but nothing has been done in the matter of getting this improvement instituted on our boats.

I also want to say a word regarding inspection and inspectors. I was employed for 15 years in a ship-repairing yard, and I know that there has been very little inspection by many of the inspectors when they have come down, simply because there are not enough of them to do the work that there is for them to do. Very often they get on board, see the captain, go into the saloon, and then out again. That is about all the inspection that has been done. The lifeboats were supposed to have been inspected, and I maintain that the best way to have a lifeboat inspected is to have the falls examined and the boat lowered and pulled up again.


Is it in order to say these things against this body of men, who cannot reply for themselves in this House?


I am saying what I think. I know that the inspection is got over in a great hurry, simply because they have not the time to do it properly, and I am very sorry to see that there is a likelihood of a reduction in the number of inspectors. I would say, following what the Noble Lord the Member for South Battersea (Viscount Curzon) has said with regard to the "El Kahira," that that ship happened to go out of the docks in Poplar, and also that the second and third engineers were residents of Poplar. When they went out with that vessel, they had been 18 months unemployed, and they were very glad to get a job to do. They were not out for more than two days when the boat was lost with all hands. Those two men left widows and 11 children, and those widows and children have been kept by the Poplar Board of Guardians from last July 12 months to the present time. They had no compensation, because the firm was in bankruptcy. That is the kind of thing with which we have to contend when ships are allowed to go to sea which are unseaworthy, through not being properly inspected, and when one knows of cases of that kind, it behoves one to speak very strongly on the matter of inspection. This vessel had been laid up for two years before she went to sea, and I want to see such inspection that vessels and their accommodation, and especially the lifeboats, are thoroughly overhauled before the vessel is allowed to go out. I know there was some misunderstanding in connection with this Vote. The officer thought too much of the word of the firm that they would see everything was right before she passed through. Things were not put right, the boat was lost and these people are left to mourn the loss of their breadwinners. When we know of cases of that kind, I think it is the duty of the Board of Trade to use every endeavour to see that things like that should not recur.


I had not intended to intervene but I think it strange that we the greatest maritime country in the world should devote only 40 minutes to discussing our great Mercantile Marine. The last speaker has attacked the Board of Trade inspectors. Be may be right when he says they are insufficient in numbers. I am not going to discuss that. I should point out they are drawn from the class which the Noble Lord extolled. They are drawn from the Mercantile Marine officers. I have been on dockside for the last 30 years, and have seen them carrying out their duties. I am a practical man in the business, and they have always carried out their duties to the best of their ability. I deprecate the attacks. I think if an hon. Member has charges to make he should bring specific instances. I deprecate very much what the Noble Lord was saying, that crews join their ships in a drunken condition.

Viscount CURZON

I would like to correct the hon. and gallant Gentleman. He is misrepresenting me. What I said was that cases had been known where that had actually happened. I only pointed it out as a thing that might happen.


I should not like it to go forth to the world that the sailor was a drunken man. The pilots of the United Kingdom visited this House today. I was speaking to some of them on the terrace and one of them said to me that he was more than delighted at the change that had come. over the Mercantile Marine in the last 30 years, and that now it was a very uncommon thing for a man to join his ship unless he was in class condition, and it was practically unknown now for a, drunken sailor to join his ship. The Noble Lord asked for greater penalties on these men. The greatest penalty which can be inflicted on them is a bad discharge which it is in the power of every master to give. With the unemployment in the maritime trade to-day the fact that a man does not get a very good discharge practically debars him from further employment. I think my hon. Friend should make specific charges and I am very glad the Noble Lord has corrected the impression he gave me when he spoke.


May I say at once that, while I am obliged for the intervention of the hon. and gallant Member, he might always rest assured that the responsible Minister is prepared to defend every official until he gets specific instances of them being in fault. I am sure that would be adopted by any Minister standing at this Box. With regard to the points raised by the Noble Lord the Member for South Battersea (Viscount Curzon) I regret, with him, the very short time given to the discussion of the Mercantile Marine Department. That is no fault of those who are answering for that Department. The points he raised are not new points. He raised them before with the Government he supported at the time. On the question of discipline, everyone must agree that it is essential in the interests of the crew themselves to have good arrangements for discipline. But I am not at all satisfied that an Amendment of the Act to increase penalties would have any great effect. At the same time I recognise that there is very considerable difficulty in the case of masters having to take action at ports of call. The whole question will have to be gone into very carefully. We are trying to do what we can, but I am sure the Noble Lord will agree that we shall have to seek the cooperation of the men's organisations themselves before we go any further in the matter.

With regard to the question of the employment which the Noble Lord said might be provided for officers at present unemployed,' may I repeat what has been said by the President of the Board of Trade, that the Estimates which we have before the Committee to-night are not the Estimates of the Labour Government, but were in course of preparation before we reached these benches. As a matter of fact the Mercantile Marine Department has been instructed again and again by rigid economists to reduce its provisions in this direction, but we are quite prepared to take this particular matter into consideration. May I suggest to the Noble Lord, however, that if we increase the number of surveyors very largely, it will not prevent in some cases offences against the law being committed. We have a large number of policemen in the metropolitan area, but they cannot always prevent motorists exceeding the speed limit.

With regard to the question of wireless direction finding, I welcome the suggestions put forward by the Noble Lord, and I hope he will submit to the Department definite proposals. But it is essential in the present state of matters that we should go along with very great caution indeed. We are actively engaged in experiments at the present time, and one of my officials only this morning was telling me of the experiments carried out by Trinity House. We shall continue to do all we can in the direction of this desired development. With regard to the question of officers' superannuation in the Mercantile Marine, if we are going to have a Government-aided scheme for officers, we may expect to be asked what we are going to do about the seamen If we are to have a Government scheme of superannuation for the Mercantile Marine, why should there not he a similar scheme for every other class in the community? If we had nationalisation of the industry we might get superannuation schemes as well. Is the Noble Lord willing to support this solution? With regard to offences against the law in respect of oil in navigable waters, prosecutions are ordered by the local harbour authorities, and in the last 12 months there have been three convictions. With regard to the question of steerage accommodation on the boats between Glasgow and the Western Isles and Belfast, I have seen some of the vessels referred to by my hon. Friend (Mr. Buchanan), and I know they are unsatisfactory. We are taking steps in the Department to deal with this question, and are considering the question of revising our regulations.

Lieut. - Commander KENWORTHY

It is quite absurd to take this Vote on this very big subject to-night. We have only had 50 minutes to discuss this particular question, and I myself raised some very important questions with regard to the employment of seamen—

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

Resolution to be reported To-morrow.

Committee report Progress: to sit again To-morrow.