HC Deb 23 May 1928 vol 217 cc1994-2004

8.0 p.m.


I beg to move to leave out the Clause.

I do not do so, because I am opposed to the provisions of the Clause, but in Committee, for some unknown reason, we did not get the information which I think ought to have been available to Members of the Committee. Probably we did not press for it strongly enough or it would have been forthcoming. The Clause relates to two points. It deals with the method of collecting contributions from the mercantile marine. All who have spoken to me as representing the seafaring population are very glad indeed to get rid of the card for each voyage system, I want to know from the right hon. Gentleman, if the card for each voyage is to be abolished, what is to be substituted for it? Are we to have a schedule on each ship covering all the men on board the ship for a particular voyage? That, probably, is understood already, but the point I want to make is, that the problem in the past has been that the man who carried a single card for the single voyage was found on landing to have lost his card. I understand that about one-third of the value of the whole of the contributions was lost to the seamen's fund. When we come to the problem of the Schedule which is to be substituted for the card system, how is the approved society to claim credit for the contributions in respect of the men appearing on the Schedule? Perhaps I had better preface my remarks by first asking another question. How is the shipowner or the master of the ship to know to which particular society a seaman is attached? He must have the seaman's name, the name of the approved society and the number of the man in the ship's books. It is all very well to say that the man ought to know, but as a rule he does not know. I do not think that many of these men will be able to tell the purser on board ship what is the name of the approved society, where the central office is situated, or their membership number in the society.

Having said that in relation to the Schedule, I pass to another aspect. This is a very intricate problem. Supposing a man does give his approved society's title, the address of the central office and his membership in the society's books, the schedule will be passed on, I take it, to the appropriate Department of the Ministry of Health, and the complete list will be there. What I want to know is, how is the society to claim credit in respect of contributions of its members who are in the mercantile marine? I will give the case of my own society. We have a few mercantile marine members. They were once employed in shops and offices. They transferred their labour to passenger ships running, may be. between Southampton and New York. I am very anxious to know what happens when the ordinary civilian card of such a member disappears. When the member goes on board ship, there is no indication at all, except that the information may come from that person after he has joined the ship. Generally speaking, these men do not give information at all until they want to claim benefits. That is the usual practice. I want to know from the right hon. Gentleman how is the approved society to follow this member and his contributions under the schedule? That is the first point on this Clause.

The second point is, that I am under the impression—perhaps I ought to say that I am not quite as familiar with the membership of approved societies covering the mercantile marine as I am with other types of members—that the whole method, not only of collecting the contributions, but that the destination of the contributions in some cases, is to be altered. I would like to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether this Clause does not refer to what is called the Lascar Fund? I think I am right in saying that with respect to the contributions paid by employers in regard to persons called Lascars, such persons are not entitled to benefit because they can never claim benefit. The master or the shipowner is called upon to pay contributions in respect of his Lascar workmen, but the Lascar workmen do not get any benefits at all. The total contributions are paid over what is called the Lascar fund, which, I think, now amounts to about £1,000,000, and that fund is going to be handled by the Board of Trade. Perhaps I must not give away too many secrets about this fund, otherwise when the Chancellor of the Exchequer comes back he will take a part of it, or the whole of it, to help balance his Budget, and no doubt the right hon. Gentleman would be delighted to give him a hand. He wants to take money from the totalisator because he has failed to get money from the Betting Duty.


I think I need do no more than rise.


I was led astray by my most intimate friends. I was making use of these remarks merely by way of illustration. What I want to put to the right hon. Gentleman is, that the Lascar fund up to now has been managed by six representatives of the seamen and three representatives of the Shipping Federation. I believe I am right in stating that in one of the Schedules to this Bill there is a reference to the composition of the board of management of that fund. The matter is referred to in Clause 13, Subsection (2), as follows: For the purposes of this Act, there shall he constituted a special fund to be called 'the seaman's special fund.' Is there really any reason for the proposed change? I am not speaking of the personnel of the board of management but of the numerical strength of the representation from the employers and the workpeople. I know there is very strong feeling on the matter, and I trust the right hon. Gentleman will give us very strong reasons indeed for changing the representation. I understand that it will be on a fifty-fifty basis. As I have said, I move the deletion of this Clause in order that the right hon. Gentleman may explain its provisions more fully than has been the case on any occasion when we have discussed this Measure.

I want to ask a final question on a very small point. Am I right in assuming that this Lascar fund will be handed over entirely to the Board of Trade for administration? If it is to be handed over to the Board of Trade, I should like to know the reason. This money, after all, is collected under the provisions of the National Health Insurance Scheme, and I am very jealous indeed of any of the functions of the Ministry of Health being handed over to the Board of Trade in any circumstances whatever. I do not take this attitude because the Ministry of Health is well managed. That is not the reason at all, nor do I believe that the Board of Trade is well administered either. I am very anxious that the whole of this scheme shall be kept within the same sphere, and that every contribution paid in respect of any person under it shall be controlled ultimately by are appropriate Minister.


I beg to second the Amendment.

I wish to say at once that if the explanation we desire be not satisfactory, I shall certainly demand the deletion of this Clause, even with all that attaches to it. In Committee we did our utmost to obtain a satisfactory answer from the right hon. Gentleman as to why this alteration is to take place. We were unable to secure a satisfactory answer from him, because I do not think he was well acquainted with the whole position. However, I trust he will be able to satisfy us this afternoon, and if he does not we must press our Amendment to a division.


I will endeavour to answer to the best of my ability the questions which have been put to me by the hon. Gentleman opposite. I may say that I have had many representations on the matter and conferences with the hon. Gentleman who sits behind him, and who, I am certain, is also very much interested in this matter. Although the question is rather technical, I hope Members of the House who are perhaps, not particularly interested in it will bear with me, because I know from the point of view of a very large number of men, hon. Members naturally desire to see that under this Clause adequate and proper arrangements are made on behalf of those men. I do not think there is much need for me to justify the necessity of a change. The hon. Gentleman indicated a fact which is, I think, very well known, namely, that the present system as far as seamen are concerned has not worked well. I will not apportion the blame. I will not say whether it is something in the national insurance system itself, or whether it is, perhaps, the freer habits of seamen, who seem to lose more cards than other people. When they lose cards with stamps on them, it is rather unfortunate from their point of view, arid very often they get into arrears when they ought not to do so. If their cards had only been surrendered they would have been in benefit. I have been endeavouring to devise, with the help of the shipowners and the representatives of the Seamen's Union, a more satisfactory scheme by which they may avoid the surrender of cards, and so keep, if possible, the seaman in a better and longer term of insurance.

This Clause really provides for what may be called the schedule system in place of the stamped card system. The suggestion is, that the master of the ship should prepare a schedule summarising the number of foreign-going seamen and the number and rates of contributions payable for them, and in addition—and this is a point to which I beg the hon. Gentleman's attention, because I think it may solve a good many of the difficulties —a voyage card containing short particulars of each seaman, hut no stamps. The schedule is also to include a summary of the contributions payable for foreign-domiciled seamen which are at present subject to separate quarterly returns. The voyage card—and I think this will meet a great part of the difficulty—shows the seaman's name, together with the name and the official number of the ship, the dates of the voyage and the number of contributions paid. The point was put to me, how are these to be checked? The suggestion is that the schedule and voyage card with the corresponding money payment, which will be made by cheque., are to be handed to the superintendent of the mercantile marine office or the corresponding officer overseas by whom the crew are discharged at the end of the voyage. It is then proposed to link them up with the societies, and they are to be sent forward, after examination, to a clearing-house which will be under the auspices of my Department.

The functions of the clearing-house will be to check the correctness of the schedules and the voyage cards, and then it will be the responsibility of the clearing-house under my Department to disperse all the cards to the various approved societies and branches in order that they may post their registers and provide the necessary material for crediting them with a proper amount of contributions. In order to enable the clearing-house to allocate the cards to the societies concerned, the societies will be asked to furnish an index card for each of their foreign-going seaman members, giving the seaman's name and continuous discharge number and his membership number in the society. New entrants into the foreign-going sea service are also to be notified in the same way, and cases where members become foreign-going seamen without the knowledge of their societies—and there are cases of that kind—are to be identified by the approved society's particulars given on the voyage card, and, if necessary, by a special inquiry from the seaman concerned. The administrative expenses of the clearing-house and of the Board of Trade under the new system, are to be provided as set out in the Bill, and the contributions paid for foreign-going seamen and foreign-domiciled seamen are to be pooled, and after the. necessary credits have been made to the approved societies and the deposit contributors the cost of the administration is to be a first charge on the pool. I think that will be very satisfactory to the societies. This new system is to come into force for all voyages on and after the 1st January, 1929.

The hon. Member put another important point. He asked, why do we want to make this alteration so far as the management of the Lascar Fund is concerned, and why should it not be linked up with the national insur- ance system as it has been hitherto. A very important alteration has been made in relation to the fund and its extent. These pensions are at present restricted to members of approved societies and those seamen who are still insured as members of societies on reaching pensionable age. It was represented to the Royal Commission that many seamen ceased to go to sea in later years and pass out of insurance and unless they become insurably employed on shore they lose all the benefits for which they have paid. The suggestion was made that the fund should be extended so as to embrace as many of these men as possible, and the Royal Commission concurred in the suggestion. Under the Bill, this is the important part so far as the seamen are concerned, all seamen, as defined in the Merchant Shipping Acts, will be eligible for pension out of the Seamen's Pension Fund, in addition to any pensions to which they may be entitled under the Contributory Pensions Act. I think that is a fair settlement and that it will give a great deal of relief to a large number of men who have been in and out of insurance and have lost their benefits.

This consequence naturally follows that if you get all the seamen, whether members of approved societies or insured persons or not, you very greatly widen the scope of your scheme and you can no longer say that the fund should be governed by representatives of approved societies. When von have all the seamen in under the scheme it is reasonable that the constitution of the governing body should be reconsidered, and that it should not necessarily continue to be linked up with the national health insurance bodies. The old constitution was framed on the basis of the national insurance system and the representation is divided into three parts the seamen, the employers and the representatives of the Seamen's National Insurance Society. That represents both employers and employed, and it really came to representation on the basis of fifty-fifty. In order to meet the position fairly the suggestion was made in Committee that in the management of the fund the representation should be equal. That gives an indication that this is a very considerable advance so far as it concerns the men who certainly deserve well of us. We have devised a scheme which I think will overcome many difficulties. It will save a very large number of men from going out of benefit, perhaps through losing their cards, as they have done in the past, and it will give adequate representation to both sides.


Who will appoint the chairman of the committee of management?


I will inquire and let the hon. Member know. Speaking broadly, this new scheme, which has been the subject of constant consultation between all the people interested, the unions and the employers, and which has given us a great deal of anxiety, is an improvement. At any rate, we can try it. I think it may be a means of benefiting considerably a large number of these men. In these circumstances, I hope that the hon. Members who have moved the Amendment, and the House will be satisfied with the explanation I have given.


May I ask a question in regard to the Seamen's Fund? At what age will a seaman who has left the sea be entitled to a pension?


At the age of 65.


How many years may he have left the sea before reaching that age to be entitled to a pension?


I will inquire.


We are all grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for giving us, for the first time, a very clear and lucid account of the proposals under this Clause, but I do not think it meets all our objections. I refer particularly to seagoing engineers. The position of the seagoing engineer is very ambiguous. He may or may not be an insured person. If he is receiving less than £250 a year he is an insurable person, but if he is receiving over £250 a year and is not engaged by way of manual labour, he is not an insurable person. There is a great deal of doubt and difficulty in the minds of employers as to whether a man is receiving £250 a year or whether he is engaged by way of manual labour. As that difficulty solved one way would be to the advantage of the employer, he usually decides that the man is not an insurable person. The question as to the amount of the money which the man receives is not alone the amount of cash that he receives; there is also included the value of food and accommodation which he may receive, but that is not a definite and fixed amount in every case. It varies according to the character of the ship and whether the ship carries cargo only or both cargo and passengers. There is also the question whether the man is engaged by way of manual labour. The seagoing engineer, which term includes electricians, plumbers and other skilled craftsmen, may be engaged to a considerable extent in manual labour, but unless they are engaged mainly in manual labour, and receive over £250 a year, they are not insurable persons. Such cases have been taken to the Law Courts for decision and we have had decisions to that effect.

At the present time, a seagoing engineer on coming home will know when he receives his card or not, whether he has been regarded as an insured person, and if not he can tell his society and they can take the matter up; but if his name is to be entered on a schedule and sent in through various Departments and finally allocated to a society, it makes a very difficult position. The man will not really know his position and the society will not know. He may have been discharged at a foreign port and if he does not receive a card he will not know his position and his society will not know. We have been able to keep in touch with our men by this card method, because at each of the ports we have branches of our union and a seagoing engineer or other craftsman on arriving at that port would go to his branch secretary and pay his contribution. He would then be asked for his insurance card and if he said, "They have not given me one," the society would take the matter up. But it would be almost impossible to take the matter up at a remote time when schedules have been sorted and aggregated in a Department and have to be finally sorted out from books.

It will mean that many of these men who have previously been insured persons, when working in the shops or on coast-going vessels, will lose the benefit of all they have paid in and at the end of their career will find, owing to the way in which they have been treated by their employers, that they are not insured persons. When the Minister is drawing up the Regulations I hope those grades which are not so free and easy and happy-go-lucky as the ordinary Jack Tar, will be excluded from the operation of this proposal, and that they will continue under the old system. The big society composed of the employers and the National Seamen's Union want to monopolise the whole of this insurance. They want to make every man to go through the scheme, and we may find that they will be more readily recognised as insured persons if they go through the seamen's society than if they go through the Engineers' Amalgamated Union. That is what I fear, and I do not think it is right. If he has to put in his card his employer will be able to know whether the union to which he belongs is a trade union or not. These seagoing engineers number 3,000 members in my own particular society. We have gone into it very carefully and we see great difficulties in it. Many of the approved societies see difficulties, and the Ministry of Labour, which also handles insurance business, has refused to have anything to do with the matter.

As no date is mentioned when this new scheme is to come into operation, I hope the Minister will hold his hand for some time and go into the whole matter. It may appear to be a better control system, but I am afraid it is a half-baked scheme at present. More conferences are required before it is applied. While I agree that the scheme is in the interests of the bulk of the men and should like to see it go through, I hope seagoing engineers will be excluded. There is another point I should like to mention. In regard to pensions, is it to be limited to those grades who are insurable? If that is the case there is a risk that many of the lower grades of engineers will be insured persons for a good part of their time and then for the latter half of their life on the sea will be uninsurable. I should like to know whether they come within the scheme or not.


The hon. Member knows that I have given great attention to the case of the engineers, and we have been in constant touch with the very efficient secretary of their organisation. I agree with him that the case of the engineers is much more difficult than the case of other persons affected by the scheme, but I can assure him that we will exercise every possible care and caution and do what we can to meet the administrative difficulties which he has put forward so well. We will endeavour to see that many of his objections are met if it is at all possible to do so. I hope the hon. Member will be satisfied with that answer.


In view of the explanation which has been given by the Parliamentary Secretary, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.