HC Deb 13 March 1924 vol 170 cc2721-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. F. Hall.]


The subject I wish to raise is one which affects every shipbuilding town. It is a question for the Board of Trade to deal with, and it chiefly concerns the ships which carry passengers more particularly between the Port of Glasgow and certain ports in Ireland and the Western Isles. An agitation has taken place against the lack of accommodation provided for the passengers. The accommodation provided on the ships that ply between Glasgow and Ireland, particularly relating to steerage passengers, is not a credit to the Board of Trade. At a time like this, when unemployment is rife in every shipbuilding town where shipbuilding is a staple industry, I think this is the correct time for the Board of Trade to have a more thorough and regular survey of the ships plying between the ports in this country carrying passengers.

Take the Belfast and Glasgow ships. They are owned by G. and J. Burns. They provide, they say, accommodation for cabin and steerage passengers. I have travelled both as a cabin and a steerage passenger. The cabin is fairly comfortable, but the accommodation for steerage passengers is a disgrace to any company, and a disgrace in this year when we claim to be an enlightened community. And yet you have the sad feature of idle men capable of producing good ships, while, on the other hand, you have these ships plying from port to port, when they ought to be scrapped and new boats built in their place. Let me take a worse case. Take the ships plying between Glasgow and the Western Islands, owned by a firm named MacBrayne. The conditions are worse, not only as regards the steerage, but even the cabin accommodation is not up-to-date. I make bold to say that if those ships were plying between this country and, say, France, on routes where well-to-do people used them, the firms who owned the ships would not be tolerated. They have ships at the present time that to my knowledge have been plying between Glasgow and the Western Islands well over 20 years. Their ships are the laughing-stock of every man who understands shipping and the whole purpose of ships. It is a disgrace.

I understand that the Act now governing the survey of those ships was passed in 1906. Since then I think science and the development of the industry of shipping has given room for considerable improvement, and I think it id the duty of the Board of Trade, at a time when unemployment is abnormal, to compel the owners of ships to see that the accommodation they provide for passengers, and for seamen, is better, and that the ships are of a seagoing character and are made suitable for the traffic in which they are engaged. We think this is a suitable, correct, and a real time when the Board of Trade ought to carry out a thorough survey of these ships, with a view to improving accommodation, making the lives of the sailors more tolerable, the conditions of the passengers better, and with a view of providing useful, remunerative work for those men who, for the last three years, have been walking the streets idle, when they might have been doing something for the nation's good.

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present; House counted; and 40 Members being present


I want to press upon the Board of Trade the great importance of doing something in this direction. It is the law of the land that houses that have gone into complete disrepair and have become unsanitary should be closed. It is the law of the land that food that has become diseased should be destroyed. What my hon. Friend the Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) is trying to impress upon the Board of Trade is that the same general principle should be applied more stringently in shipping. We have great unemployment in the shipbuilding industries. That industry is suffering to-day because the men engaged in it have been too productive. They have produced far too many ships with the result that a great amount of tonnage is lying idle, while at the same time a great quantity of inferior tonnage is sailing the seas. I have in mind particularly a ship that is the only means of communication between the mainland of Scotland and the Island of Lewis. It is called the "Sheila," owned by the MacBrayne Company. It is a Government ship in the sense that it is the mail carrier to the islands. It is a food carrier, and a passenger carrier. It has been on the route for years. It is un-seaworthy. It is slow. It takes a long time to travel a journey that could be done in a short time. Accommodation for man and beast is quite unsatisfactory, and we suggest that the Board of Trade should exercise its powers to have a complete regrouping, inspection and classification of all the merchant shipping now sailing the seas. The Act of 1906 brought about a change in the position of the Plimsoll mark on ships, and we think, now that we have a superabundance of tonnage, that that Plimsoll mark might be reconsidered again, with a view of removing it so as to make shipping safer both for passengers and crews. In the interests of the travelling public, in the interests of the crews, in the interests of speedier communication, and in the interest of the shipbuilding employés—for whom even the five cruisers only represent a very small fraction of work—the Board of Trade should seriously take this matter up with a view to bringing about some improvement.


I should like to call attention to the same matter, not so particularly in regard to passenger vessels as in regard to the last point raised by the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton). Under the changes made in the Plimsoll line by the 1906 Act, we have a very large percentage of the present shipping tonnage built and designed to be safe when fully loaded under the old conditions. These ships were given an extra licence to carry further cargo, especially deck cargo. I want to relate one experience of my own, because it is only on special occasions that it is possible to load these old ships up to the limit of the new loading marks. The case I have in mind was that of a ship going out to the Mediterranean with coal. She was loaded with every ton of coal that could be loaded into her, and had also a deck cargo of bunker coal, but in spite of all that the ship could not be loaded below the original mark. On the voyage out, in spite of a storm, that ship never took a single sea inboard. But, on the voyage back, it happened that she was loaded with roasted iron ore, and the weight of the cargo was such that, even with only a quarter of the cargo space filled, she was loaded right down to the new mark. There were an extra 600 tons over what the ship had been designed for. The result was that, encountering a storm in the Bay of Biscay, she came within an ace of being lost.

It is only in these instances of very heavy cargoes that this occurs. It occurred in the case of the "Okara" last year, and in the case of the "Trevassa" with a cargo of zinc concentrates. All these old ships are dangerous to the lives of the seamen. They are not dangerous on ordinary voyages with bulky cargoes, because the ship cannot be stowed with cargo beyond the space available; but with zinc concenrates or roasted iron ore, where full use can be made of the latitude of the new loading lines, the ship and every soul on board of her is in very imminent danger. That has been shown in the inquiries. They give the shipping companies a clean bill, but I want to point out that, while they do that, it is only on the basis of these new loading lines, and, in the Indian seas especially, on the loading line for summer loading, to which attention was particularly called, as being a danger, in the case of the "Okara" inquiry. A large percentage of our shipping is laid up, but it is largely the new shipping, because it costs so much per dead-weight ton to build that it does not pay to run it. The new ships in many cases are lying rotting in the sea locks and harbours, but the old ships, which it does pay to run with cheap cargoes, are being run — very largely to the danger of their officers and men.


I am glad to have the opportunity to reply to the important points which have been raised by my hon. Friends from Scotland. There are two main points which they have brought before the Board of Trade. The first is with regard to the survey of ships in so far as passenger accommodation and comfort are concerned and the second is with regard to the desire expressed by them for the reconsideration of the Plimsoll Line, which was moved some years ago. If I may deal with the second point first, I am sure that the House will be concerned, as I understand it always has been, with any danger either to the crew or passengers on boats in connection with the Plimsoll Line. Whenever the matter has been discussed in the past, Members in all parts of the House have given the most careful consideration to regulations and to safeguards concerning both the safety and comfort of the crew and passengers.

As comparatively recently as 1915—I think upon the instructions of this House—a Committee was appointed to consider the whole question of the Plimsoll line. They went into the matter in very great detail and presented a report. It may be said, generally, that with the new designs of modern ships, the Plimsoll line, in the view of that Committee, might be moved from its original position with comparative safety although until proper arrangements are forthcoming for the secure battening of hatches and the like, it is probable there will be greater discomfort in some respects I can only say on that point that the whole question of the Plimsoll line is being reviewed by my Department at present. It will have to take into consideration the views which were expressed in detail in evidence before the Committee of 1915 and the subsequent information which has been made available to the Department from time to time since then. I think my hon. Friend will not require me to say more to-night than that we are inquiring into the matter, and probably at some later date we may be able to state what our findings are.


Is it not a fact that the 1915 inquiry only led to the tightening of the hatch coamings?


Speaking from memory I think my hon. Friend is correct. With regard to the other point which has been raised one must always have very great sympathy with shipbuilding centres suffering very badly from unemployment, but I am sure hon. Members will realise that the Board of Trade cannot under its existing statutory powers appoint ships' surveyors and arrange surveying work to deal with unemployment. Their duty under the Statute is to arrange for the survey of ships to secure the safety of the lives and the reasonable comfort of the passengers.


Will my hon. Friend in studying this question have serious regard to the question of deck cargoes, especially on timber and coal ships, where the whole of the space and the compartments of the crew are taken away by having to climb over the cargo to get from forward aft?


I was coming to that. I was trying to deal with the points raised, in the order in which the hon. Member for Gorbals dealt with them. He dealt, first of all, with the question of passenger service and coastal service between Scotland and Ireland and the Western Isles. It is the duty of the Board of Trade to see that boats are surveyed from that point of view. At the time of the "Titanic" disaster it was found necessary to increase the survey staff. That has been done, and we have at the present time rather more than 200 surveyors, who are available to act in this particular kind of work, not only with regard to passengers and the comfort of passengers, but also with regard to the minimum requirements as to cubic space, and superficial floor space for accommodation of crews, etc., and for seeing that the quarters of the crew are reasonably sanitary in other respects so as to protect from such things as the effluvium from cargo, etc. I have every reason to state from the inquiries I have made that the survey is not in any way inefficient at the present time. The significant thing that occurs to me is that the Board of Trade have no evidence in regard to any specific cases in which it is definitely charged or stated that the survey has not been efficient and that the ships which have been the subjects of survey—


I did not charge inefficiency under the present Act: what I did charge to the Board of Trade was that their standard of efficiency under the present Act is too low. I made a definite charge in regard to the Western Isles ships as was shown by the hon. Member for the Bridgeton Division, and particularly in regard to the steerage passengers, which, as the hon. Member for Bridgeton knows, on the boats between Glasgow and Belfast is a terrible thing and a scandal.


If the hon. Member's complaint is against the Act of Parliament, then the whole Debate has been out of order.


I am much obliged to you, Mr. Speaker, and I was about to remind the hon. Member that we could not criticise the Statute on these points. I will promise my hon. Friends that the point specifically made by the hon. Member for Bridgeton will be inquired into. He gave a specific case. I can only say on the general question that the Board of Trade is exceedingly anxious at the present juncture to see that the survey is sufficient, and that the boats which are under its control in this respect will go to sea in a seaworthy condition, and in such a manner as shall be satisfactory both to the passengers and the crew. We shall be obliged to hon. Members if they will bring to our notice specific cases which can be dealt with within the Statute, and without which we have at present no grounds for a reconsideration of the Statute in the future.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-eight Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.