HC Deb 04 December 1930 vol 245 cc2549-56

Order for Third Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time."


There are one or two points to which the attention of this House should be called before the Bill goes through. It is a Bill which I, for one, have no wish whatever to oppose, but it is an unfortunate example of the Government having failed, as they have failed so often, when they have done a necessary or a proper thing, to do it efficiently and in the proper way. Under the first part of this agreement the premium for the construction risk is fixed at the rate of 30s. We have never yet had any satisfactory explanation as to why the rate was so fixed instead of the matter being dealt with in the same way as the marine risk is dealt with in a later part of the agreement, so that the premium to be paid should be the true market rate whatever it might turn out to be.

I know it has been stated by the President of the Board of Trade that this rate was fixed after consultation with members of Lloyd's, but I have no hesitation whatever in saying that the Government did not consider this matter sufficiently carefully or go into consultation with all the persons and bodies with whom they ought to have gone into consultation before fixing this rate. I am certain that the Government have failed to deal with this matter efficiently, on their own confession, by reason of the fact that they have apparently consulted nobody beyond certain members of Lloyds. Any business man who is in any way concerned with these very large insurance transactions, knows perfectly well that the matter is not dealt with by Lloyds entirely. A risk of this kind is under-written to an enormous extent by companies, and I believe I am right in saying—and I shall be glad if the hon. Gentleman opposite can correct me—that the Government did not before they settled this draft agreement, consult the representatives of the large companies who are concerned in taking risks of this kind.

The serious part of this question arises in this way. The Government have not merely fixed a rate of 30s. for this construction risk, but they have undertaken to ensure at that rate so much of the risk as is not taken by the ordinary market at that rate. If that rate—as I believe it is—is lower than the average market rate would have been if the matter had been dealt with by the market as a whole, it means that the Government are going to be saddled with a larger amount of the construction risk than they ought to be. I am told by people who ought to know something about this thing, people who, although members of Lloyds, and who are known as insurance brokers and are the people who know the markets in these matters better than anybody else, that the real difficulty in regard to the insurance of these two new ships is the marine risk, and that in all probability there would have been little or no difficulty in getting the market to take the whole of the construction risk. There may have been some doubt about it, and in those circumstances I do not blame the Government for agreeing to take so much of the construction risk as the market might not take, but I do blame them for not making it a provision that they would take only so much of the risk that the market could not take at the market rate. I have no doubt about it whatever. It is a matter of common talk among those who are concerned in this kind of business that the Government have made mistake. It is a serious mistake, and one for which, as far as I can see, there is no excuse. The Government ought to have consulted many more people than they did in this matter if they were going to fix the rate at all, but I have yet to know what excuse there is for having fixed a rate for the construction risk instead of leaving it to be dealt with in the same way as in the agreement for dealing with the marine risk.

I will add only one more thing, upon which I will not enlarge, because it was dealt with to some extent a few nights ago. It is the question of the sixpence after the first period under the construction contract has expired. There again, in spite of what the President of the Board of Trade has stated, his view does not seem to be that which is held by the people who really know about this particular kind of business. Their point of view is that the risk in the later 'stage is not so much less, as the right hon. Gentleman has stated, but rather more. It is a greater and more dangerous risk, because, when a ship of this kind is being built, there is at first nothing but the shell, and fire, which is the great risk, can do but little damage, comparatively speaking, and there is not much risk of fire. In the last stage, however, when a great boat like this is fitted with all its expensive fittings, they are inflammable, and far more inflammable than the mere shell. Therefore the risk of fire is immensely greater, and that is the kind of risk which the market takes. There again, we are entitled to say that the Government has failed to go into these matters as fully as they ought to have done, and to take the best advice as to the rates which they ought to have fixed.


On the previous stage of this Bill, I raised certain questions to which, so far, I have not received any reply. We cannot allow the Bill to go forward without once more pressing upon those who are responsible, the necessity for satisfying those of us who are most directly interested that this is not to be entirely a one-sided matter in which the public interest is left out. The Government are giving a large measure of assistance to this company, and we are entitled to ask whether something cannot be done to persuade them to cease the wholesale discharge of their employés at 65 years of age.


On the Third Reading we must confine ourselves to what is in the Bill and not introduce something which is not in the Bill.


May I ask that the questions which were put on a previous occasion and were not then replied to may now be answered? Would that be in order?


The fact that those questions were not answered on a previous occasion does not affect the position that on the Third Reading of a Measure we cannot allow a discussion to develop on matters which are not contained in the Bill. That is a very well-known Rule of the House.


In that case we shall have to confine ourselves to the technical side of the subject. From that point of view, may I ask whether this Bill is confined to the Cunard Co., or whether it is linked up in any way with an arrangement which has been entered into between the Cunard Co. and the White Star Line to run ships alternately, and so to cut down their regular sailings, leading to wholesale discharges among crews? Is that the position, or are other companies excluded, making this a water-tight arrangement between the Cunard Co. and the Government? Further, I would like to know whether the Government have fully protected themselves so far as their commitments in respect of unemployment are concerned. There is a good deal of uneasiness on that point in the district in Scotland where this ship is being laid down. At first those who live in the district and have worked at shipbuilding all their lives, but are now unemployed, were pleased to learn that the Government had agreed to assist the Company to build this new vessel; but now they find that this financial assistance is not to be used in what one may term legitimate construction, but that the Company are contemplating arrangements which will enable them to get the major part of the construction work done by boy labour, by the employment of large numbers of apprentices to the exclusion of capable and fully qualified men.

If we can have a satisfactory assurance on those points, then we shall be much more satisfied than we are at present. I urge that, if on any future occasion there should be a request for assistance from any company in this country, that assistance should not be promised until guarantees have been given that they will, as employers of labour do their duty to those they employ. This is not a matter of expediency, but it is the primary duty of those companies to see that employment is given under proper conditions.


I wish to ask whether the Minister will make a statement in reply to a question which I put on the Second Reading of this Measure in regard to the accommodation of seamen. I then pointed out the extremely bad conditions under which the seamen of this country are accommodated, especially on very large liners. I realised at that time that it was too late to insert anything in the Bill, but I did ask that the Minister should communicate with the Cunard Company with a view to their providing more decent accommodation than has hitherto been provided on this class of steamers. Is the Minister prepared to make those suggestions to the Cunard Company, because I think that that should be done?


The hon. Member's arguments might be used as reasons for voting against the Bill.


I think it has already been established that when railway companies come before this House asking for special benefits or safeguards from the State it is the practice at all stages to raise grievances and public complaints against the operations of those companies if the Bills promoted by them did not actually contain Clauses dealing with those particulars. I ask you now, Mr. Speaker, if the Bill we are discussing does not compare, in a large degree, much more closely with a railway Bill asking for powers and State advantages than an ordinary public Bill?


I fancy the hon. Member wishes to ask me that question as a point of Order. It certainly has been the practice on large railway Bills for a general discussion to take place on the Second Reading on the management of the company or in regard to grievances raised by hon. Members as to what is being done or is not being done. That always takes place on the Second Reading of such a Bill and certainly not on the Third Reading. On the Third Reading the discussion is always confined to what is in the Bill. It is only on the Second Reading of railway Bills that a wider discussion can take place, and I cannot allow a similar discussion to take place on the Third Reading of this Bill, which is certainly not the same thing.


There are many parts of this Bill where risks are mentioned, and I would like to ask you, Mr. Speaker, in view of that fact, whether it is not adding to those risks if a company discharges a large number of those men who should be carrying on the work of the ship? Would not a depleted staff mean a greater risk and consequently that the insurance would be a much more serious matter?


That seems to be a rather subtle way of getting round my Ruling.


If the statement of my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr. Kinley) is only partially correct, it would appear that of the people employed in the construction of this ship a large number will be only apprentices, and therefore not sufficiently qualified to carry out the work properly. Is not that adding to the risk, and will not any risk after the ship has been launched be greater than it would be if the work had been done by fully qualified men?


I do not know how far it is possible for me to answer the points that have been raised, because they have been rather on the borderline of order. So far as the construction of the ship is concerned, the Board of Trade does possess fairly extensive powers in regard to the supervision of construction, and those powers will be exercised to the full. Moreover, I think it is fair to assume that a company like the Cunard Steamship Company will not take any undue risks in the construction of a ship that is going to cost so much money.

With regard to the point raised by the hon. Member for Watford (Sir D. Herbert) my right hon. Friend stated in the early discussions on this Bill that the department did take the best advice that they deemed necessary and possible before coming to any conclusion as regards the insurance of this vessel, and, so far as any other investigations or inquiries have taken place, I do not think that the department has any need to regret or feel that they have made any mistake in this matter. I am sorry I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the marine risks are greater. In any ease all the advice that we have taken goes to suggest that the practice in connection with the insurance of vessels is all along the line provided for in this Bill.


I do not want to go into the technicalities of the matter, but the insurance of one single big risk like this on one single ship is the difficulty. The amount could have been insured quite easily by the market if the risk had been in smaller units, but with one single big risk of total loss the difficult risk was actually the marine rather than the construction risk.


As I have said, we acted on the best advice we could get, and I suggest that this is the usual procedure in regard to insurance, though I admit that from the nature of the case this is perhaps rather different from previous constructions. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is correct in his assumption that the Government will be burdened with too heavy a risk in this matter. We have received assurances in that direction, and although there may be some difference of opinion as to whether the rate is adequate or not, I think that in the end it will work out satisfactorily from the Government's point of view.


What about the accommodation for the crew


I have said that I cannot go into these questions, because it has been ruled that they are not provisions contained in the Bill, and it is not possible to deal with them now. As have indicated, however, in so far as the Board of Trade have powers, and we have certain powers in regard to the supervision of the construction of vessels, those powers will be exercised to the fullest possible extent in seeing that the provision necessary for the accommodation of the crew will be as adequate as possible. I think that hon. Members will realise that in the construction of new vessels the accommodation is of a better character each time a ship is constructed.


I do not want to oppose the Bill, because one welcomes the fact that the State is engaging in this type of insurance, and also because a large number of workmen are to be employed on the construction of a civil liner, which is infinitely preferable to a warship. We realise, however, that in this Bill the State is stepping in because the Cunard Company could not obtain insurance facilities through the ordinary channels and we wish to urge upon the Government that when the State gives assistance to great capitalist or financial concerns in that way it should demand a minimum of conditions for the workers in return for that assistance. We pro- foundly regret the fact that this Bill has reached Third Reading without some Clause to that effect.