HC Deb 05 February 1932 vol 261 cc425-52

Order for Second Reading read.


I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

The House will see from the Title of the Bill that an International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea was signed on 31st May, 1929, by all the principal maritime Powers. An International Load Line Convention was similarly signed on 5th July, 1930, and it is for the purpose of giving effect to those two Conventions that this Bill has been introduced. It has twice passed another place, on the last occasion, I am glad to say, without any Amendment and with complete agreement with the exception of a small drafting change. The very title of these Conventions, I think, is sufficient to commend them to the good will of the House. I think they are universally desired, and, if any exception has been taken to them at all, it has been in regard to one or two detailed points which I shall mention. Hon. Members will find it to be to their great convenience that the two Conventions are set out verbatim in the Schedules to the Bill. The first Schedule in relation to safety at sea is to be found on page 54, and the other on page 138, so the House can easily become acquainted with the exact technical particulars of these agreements. When they have been ratified—and we now seek the permission of the House to ratify them—the standards of safety of life will be uniform throughout maritime countries, they will be very much higher than they ever were, better life-saving provisions will be enforced. There will be improved arrangements for listening to distress signals and more ships will be fitted with wireless. As to the Load Line Convention, a uniform system will be established, so that we shall have many more countries acting in conformity with our practice heretofore. With regard to those two principles, I do not think there can be any objection.

There have, however, been two criticisms raised against the Bill. The first relates to helm orders dealt with in Clause 29. Everybody knows that in Great Britain we give helm orders in the indirect fashion. When we wish to go to the right, we say "left," and when we wish to go to the left, we say "right." In other words, the order "starboard" means that the ship must turn to port and vice versa. This method has no basis in logic, but it has a very firm basis in custom and tradition, and one may respect the reluctance with which the change will be accepted by many accustomed to the old ways. But this change in helm orders, which, after all, is a logical change, was the price that we had to pay for this Convention. We were the prime movers in trying to obtain a uniform standard of safety of life at sea, and it was the universal and unanimous desire of the Conference that all ships should be put upon the direct method in every country throughout the world. Had we maintained our objection to that course, this Convention would not be before the House to-day. We had to sacrifice that point, and while, as I say, one understands and appreciates the feeling of a great many pilots and masters, the return which we have for making this concession is so considerable that I hope the House will agree with it.

I understand that my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Macpherson) thinks that this matter ought to be referred to a free vote of the House. I agree that that procedure is fashionable, but it will not do here for this reason, that the Convention has been accepted by all the maritime Powers as a whole. We stated our case at the Conference which was held, and we were overborne by all the other participants, and if, as I have said, we had stood out, there could have been no Convention, and you would not have had improvement in life-saving practice, or in wireless, or in any of the other matters in which we were interested. And so we had to give way on this point. I would point out to the House that if other countries have been able to change their practice in this respect without disaster, for, after all, it is only a logical change, it is going in the long run to be no more difficult for British seamen than it is now difficult for British chauffeurs who, when they go over to Paris, have to drive on the right side of the road instead of on the left. The natural reaction to the mind is to give the helm order in the direction in which you wish to go and, if anyone suggests that the British seaman is not capable of mastering that change, it places the intelligence of the British seaman at a much lower level than it deserves. That was the first of the criticisms.

1.0 p.m.

The other point of criticism arose on Clause 33, and that point of criticism the Government have very largely met. It was asked by the shipowners that the Board of Trade, when the Convention is ratified, should forgo its historic duty of making regulations. As everyone is aware, the Board of Trade has been for several generations charged with the duty of making regulations about the safety of ships, and it is necessary that somebody should enjoy a flexible power in that regard. The shipowners thought that we ought to forgo that power. Naturally we were not prepared to do that, because the power has been exercised with complete satisfaction and good will and, with it, we have remained the country enjoying the best maritime practice in the world. If anybody object to any rule or regulation made by the Board of Trade, there is an appeal to a court of survey. During the whole of the time that the Board of Trade has enjoyed its power of making regulations, there has only been one single appeal. The Merchant Shipping Advisory Committee is always consulted before the Board of Trade makes any regulation at all, and therefore, it seems to me that the objection now taken is rather fastidious.

However, the Board of Trade and the Government have largely met the desires of those shipowners who raised this point by the present wording of the Clause, from which it will be seen that any rule or regulation made after the passing of this Act and in force at the commencement of this part of this Act, contains, in the opinion of the Board of Trade, a requirement which—

  1. (a) is at variance with any specific requirement of the Safety Convention; and
  2. (b) was not contained in the regulations or rules in force at the passing of this Act;
the regulation or rule, as the case may be, shall be laid before each House of Parliament as soon as may be after the commencement of this Part of this Act. I do not think that any reasonably minded person could expect us to go further. If we were to lay all our rules and regulations made under Statute before the House, all those rules which are at present in existence, it would be competent for one branch of the legislature to deem what should be the law. We could not put all this concentrated practice into such peril and jeopardy.

I have candidly explained to the House the objections to this Bill, and they are two technical objections, two committee points. The Conventions await the ratification of this country. Several other countries have ratified, and, of course, we, being the leading maritime Power, ought not to withhold our ratification longer than is necessary. Indeed, we would not have withheld it but for the exigencies of public business. On two occasions the Bill has passed through another place, and this time, as I have said, without amendment, and as it is for the greater benefit of all who go to sea, I have no doubt that the House will give it a Second Reading to-day. The practice, when these Conventions are ratified, will be for the first time uniform throughout the world, and there will be greater protection for life and cargo.


In a few sentences I will take the very unusual course of supporting the Government. I speak on behalf of the party with which I am connected, and I want to give our blessing to this Measure. We are not without knowledge that there are some criticisms of some of its provisions. But that is always the case. It is a very necessary Bill and, of course, it is a nonparty Measure as well. I thought that the hon. Gentleman the Parliamentary Secretary would have pointed out that this Convention is to come into operation in; July of this year, and on that score alone it is very necessary that the Bill should pass through all its stages as soon as possible, because there will be, I understand, several administrative points to be dealt with before that date. As a Labour party, we are naturally very concerned with the safety of the men who form the crews at sea. I have tried to find out what improvement has already been made in that direction, and if the House will bear with me I will give some figures to show the tremendous advance which has already taken place in regard to the safety of crews manning our British ships. From 1871 to 1875 there was an average of 1,943 men lost, from 1891 to 1895, 1,356, and in the five years 1921 to 1925 the figure was reduced to 287. That is a very remarkable improvement, and if we can do anything further to help the men who form the crews to make their lives safer still Parliament ought to do so at once. I was a coalminer for some years and I know what calamities have befallen some colliery districts. There was a time when it was thought that fate determined that we should have an explosion every now and then, and hundreds of our people have been killed, but by means of safety laws and regulations those terrible explosions, I am happy to say, are almost becoming things of the past. I can see no reason why in view of the constant improvements in our factory and mining laws that the same sentiment should not be brought to bear upon the conditions affecting the lives of the men at sea.

It is said that we shall have to give up some of our practices at sea by adopting this Convention. I have taken some interest in international conventions. I was at Geneva, officially connected with the International Labour Organisation, in 1924, and it was made clear to me then that every country which proposes to adopt an international convention must give up something. There is no other way out. At the conference which is now proceeding on the question of disarmament we shall see the same principle of compromise adopted. I have not travelled very much on ships, because I am a very poor sailor, but I do appreciate the importance of all possible steps being taken to ensure safety at sea. The provisions of the Convention relating to wireless telegraphy is very important. When you make the life of the crew safe, you make the ship and its cargo safe too, because a ship can only be safe so long as it is manned properly. We on this side of the House give our hearty blessing to the Bill, and we trust that it will he passed into law without delay.


As the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Rhys Davies) has given his reasons for speaking, I will mention mine. I am not a shipowner but an underwriter. All my life I have been very closely connected with shipping, and particularly with international conventions and agreements for the last 30 years or so. Therefore, the House will perhaps allow me to say a few words on this subject. I happen at the same time to be hon. treasurer of the Mercantile Marine Service Association and representative of the Merchant Service Guild, who speak for a large body of navigating officers of the British mercantile marine. It may be difficult to speak from the point of view of two sides, but the matter is so important that I desire to express it in a few words. We have listened with much interest to the unfolding of the Bill in the speech of the Parliamentary Secretary. He has made the real point very forcibly. The hon. Member for Westhoughton has also clearly pointed out the advantages which have been brought about through the conduct of the Board of Trade in the last century.

Some of us can remember the days when coffin ships were spoken of. We remember the days of the Plimsoll agitation, and we heard much in those days about wicked shipowners, just as we hear to-day about wicked industrialists. Free trade was then in full swing. Everything now is changed, except in the imagination of certain politicians and certain agitators, from what it was in the past. We have good ships and good shipowners. We have excellent seamen, and we have accommodation second to none in the world. Of the officers navigating the ships we need scarcely speak, because they have proved their value times without number. We have had, however, to face many years of difficulties not merely in shipping but in industry generally. We have taken the lead in making conditions at sea satisfactory. Certainly the Board of Trade have taken a very strong and a very proper lead in insisting upon regulations for safety at sea, not merely, first and primarily, in the interests of life at sea, but also in the interests of our trade generally. They took that stand and they have brought things up to a very high standard. In recent. years they have had the full and hearty co-operation of the shipowners in all these matters, and therefore the standard of British shipping and British navigation in regard to safety is the highest in the world.

When we have a high standard we have to pay for it, so long as other nations have not that standard, and we have had to face very difficult international competition. We have seen foreign ships carrying cargoes of grain, timber and so on to an extent which British regulations would not allow British ships to carry. We have seen foreign ships carrying these cargoes, and when they have got rid of the offending quantity they have come to British ports with the rest. Foreign ships do not require the same manning and the same construction and so can be handled more cheaply. We have, therefore, suffered from this foreign competition, which has become very serious. But at the same time there has been a growth in the minds of foreign nations as to their responsibility in regard to safety of shipping at sea, and by degrees the difference between our standard and theirs has become less. We have been negotiating steadily for many years, and we have gradually arrived at a uniformity of practice which is essential in the general interests of an industry which is international in its fullest sense. The conventions which are embodied in the Bill, although they are primarily the work of the Government and shipowners are the outcome of many years study, and the collaboration of vast experience.

I think it well to mention some of these matters. These Conventions deal with the construction and stability of ships, with lifeboats, life-saving apliances, boat crews essential for the purpose of life saving, etc., and, what is of great importance, the load-line regulations, as well as navigation. We have for the first time in sight an international standard, a uniform standard both as to construction of ships, and stability and safety at sea in the case of danger. We must realise the immense advantage that that is going to be. These advantages are so great, in the. opinion of those who have to do with the shipping and trade of this country, that we consider they are paramount in any discussion at the present time. The Parliamentary Secretary has dealt with two points as to which exception can be taken. I am glad he mentioned them and that he was so frank about it. My own view is that, from the outset, the Board of Trade if it is to justify its position as to the one must give up its position as to the other. They cannot stand on both sides at the same time. It is argued that if we do not give way in regard to the helm orders we shall lose the Convention.

The argument which the Board of Trade make as to maintaining their ancient regulations, which they admit do not in any material respect go counter to the principles and the standards of safety in the Convention, is that they do not wish to interfere with them, and they claim the right to hold to these even if they lose the full benefit of the Convention. That may be quite harmless, but does it not open the door to regulations which may be unsatisfactory and dangerous. If we are going to sacrifice so much for this great advantage questions of amour propre are very small in comparison to the invaluable measure of reform and agreement which can be secured. Therefore, I hope the Board of Trade will not hold tight to old regulations, splendid in their time, if they are going to injure the prospect of obtaining uniformity which is so desirable in the interests of life and property and trade at sea.

The other point, a matter of vital principle, is one Committee can be easily thrashed out in Committee upstairs. It would be a great mistake to oppose the Bill on Second Reading because of the helm orders. We have a deep feeling of national sentiment in this matter. I for one plead guilty. I do not know whether other hon. Members have expressed themselves forcibly and perhaps irresponsibly on platforms, but I can well remember, not very long ago, speaking very strongly what I felt, that we are the great maritime nation of the world, the cradle of the merchant service, with the traditions of the sea in our blood, why should we give up our practice at the bidding of any foreign nation? That is a natural and proper sentiment which undoubtedly underlies our feelings in this connection. It has been suggested, and indeed pointed out, that a change of this kind involves a radical change in the whole method of steering a ship, a complete reversal of the previous training and ideas of the navigating officers in our merchant service. That at all times is awkward, but I maintain that the spirit and character of the British nation, and especially of our seafaring men, is such that they are quite as capable of adapting themselves to changes as anyone else.

It may be said that at a critical moment the instinct of years might assert itself and that a wrong order might be given which would seriously endanger life and property at sea. The answer to that is very clear. It is this. The difficulties of the present system are that we are navigating not merely in our own waters but in other waters, in which other people adopt exactly the opposite system. Our ships are taken possession of in foreign waters by foreign pilots, bred in the other system, while foreign ships in British waters are taken in charge by British pilots bred in the British system. You must have constant and increasing danger of accidents in narrow waters through misunderstandings and, therefore, I submit that. my friends the navigating officers must realise that there are two sides to this question. National sentiment is strong, and while we are prepared to admit the necessity for co-operation and agreement yet at the bottom of our hearts we shall still hold that there is no country like our own and no ideas so valuable as those to which we have been bred. But sentiment must not stand in the way of reform. This is a practical question. The point upon which I want to insist is this, that great as the difficulties and dangers may be in certain respects they also exist in other respects in the present system. We have to give up old practices which may involve for the time being a certain amount of danger in exchange for a practice which will, once it is adopted, be uniform and universal and which will remove dangers which at present exist.

What do we gain by the exchange We get a consistent and uniform system of the high British standard for which we have been fighting for years past, and which we are glad to see is being universally accepted as the proper standard to be adopted. I hope the House will realise that it is not a mere question of one particular point, however important. it may be and which, I have no doubt, will be fully considered in Committee. Let us realise that if we sacrifice the great gain of this Convention and all the work that has been put into it for some years past for any one point it would be a fatal move on our part. I am sure that the House, realising the vast importance of dealing with this matter at once, will decide to pass this Bill and adopt these Conventions. If we can settle the points in dispute so much the better, and I still hope we can, but at all costs these Conventions must be ratified. Therefore I feel sure the House will say that the Bill must be passed a Second time and go upstairs to a Committee at once so that the splendid work of the Board of Trade and others may be at the service of this nation and other nations of the world at the earliest possible moment.


It is a somewhat interesting commentary upon our system of legislation that whereas the Canadian Parliament has adopted this great Convention by an Act of Parliament which only occupies four pages our own Government have found it necessary to have a Bill of 53 pages to carry out precisely the same effect. It is astonishing how many words are necessary to say so little. The point to which I desire to draw the attention of the House is the second matter referred to by the Parliamentary Secretary, upon which I have been invited to lay the views of the representatives of the shipping industry of this country. They regard it as a matter of vital importance. I am told also that the seamen's union concur in the views which I am about to put forward. The position briefly is this: that on the Con- vention coming into operation the Board of Trade are empowered to make regulations to implement a very sound and necessary provision.

That is as far as the Canadian Parliament goes. But this Bill proposes to go very much further and to confer very much wider powers upon the Department. It proposes that the Department shall not merely have power to bring in regulations to carry out or implement the Conventions, but also shall have power to prepare regulations at variance with the Conventions. If the regulations which they make, although varying from the Conventions, embody merely matters which have existed in regulations in force at the time of the passing of the Act, then the Department may have the power to enforce those regulations without this House having any power at all to veto those regulations. It will be observed that variations may be of two kinds. First of all a variation may be a variation which cuts down or limits the provisions of the Conventions. To that extent it will, of course, be a breach of the Conventions, and if our Government took that course other nations obviously would by no means be reluctant not merely to follow suit, but also to make wider and wider gaps in the Conventions themselves. Therefore one must assume that the Department have in view not matters of that kind, but regulations which would impose additional obligations upon ships beyond those contained in the Conventions. That. is a serious matter.

All previous speakers have laid great stress upon the cardinal principle of uniformity. Any alteration of that kind would cut deep at the principle of uniformity. The real importance of the point is this: The Board of Trade at the present time have power to make regulations upon these matters, but such regulations as they make have effect. not merely upon British ships but also upon foreign ships using the ports of this country. In other words, in all regulations made there is absolute equality of treatment in British ports as between the British ship and the foreign ship. To use a popular phrase, there is equality of sacrifice. But that is no longer to be the case if these Conventions are adopted. The Minister referred to this as a technical matter. So far from it being technical, an alteration of this kind would for the first time impose discrimination against British ships in favour of foreign ships in our own ports. By the adoption of this Convention we give up once for all during the tenure of the Convention our right to impose obligations upon foreign ships beyond those within the four corners of the Convention. Therefore any regulations which the Board of Trade make under Clause 35 are regulations which would affect British ships alone. That is to introduce into our system not a technical matter at all but a matter of great importance.


All foreign Powers will do exactly the same.

1.30 p.m.


But no foreign Power is seeking that right. These Conventions have been brought into force already in some of our Dominions and by some foreign countries, but they are discrimination not seeking anything of that kind. But surely it is qnite immaterial as to what foreign Powers may do. We do not wish to introduce a system of aggression with regard to foreign countries in shipping, or to have foreign shipping countries pursuing principles of aggression against us. We have always had equality of treatment in our own ports, and the shipping community of this country invites the House not readily to relinquish that principle. As a representative of a shipbuilding area, where there is the deepest depression and distress, where 70 per cent. of the shipyard workers are unemployed and with no prospect of work, I view with the gravest apprehension any measures which might introduce discrimination against British shipping. It is not time at all to begin matters of this kind, at all events without the most serious consideration.

So far as safety may be concerned, if any measures are necessary for the safety of passengers and crews of ships, no one in this House would wish that they should not be introduced, but up to the present, in the discussions in another place, no suggestions have been made to indicate that the uniform regulations in the Conventions are not adequate. If it is the case that the regulations contained in the Conventions are not adequate, surely it is necessary that full details of the points on which they are not adequate should be laid before the Rouse in order that the House may decide whether to adopt the Conventions at all. But no suggestions of that kind were made; no sugges- tions were made as to what specific regulations the Department would wish to put into force. It may be that the Department has not any specific ideas on the point.

The power of the Board of Trade to make regulations of this kind has been in existence since 1854, and regulations have been made from time to time during that period. There is an incongruous mass of regulations existing now. A great body of these regulations necessarily goes by the board under the provisions of this Convention, but many of the rest, in view of the great changes in ship construction and safety devices, have become obsolete. A number of others may be inconsistent with these regulations. But no one in this House knows what regulations may be brought into force under this provision. With all respect to the ability of the Minister, I am very doubtful whether he could give the House a categorical statement now as to what are the matters on which regulations may be made.


If the hon. Gentleman wants an answer I will give him one at once. Here is an illustration.


I do not want an illustration.


I cannot say exactly what regulations will be made, but here is an illustration. A company after the War wished to build a number of passenger ships of a new type. There were difficulties over the Board's requirements that fuel oil must have a flash point of not less than 175 degrees. They pointed out that oil with a flash point so high was difficult to obtain commercially, but that if the flash point could be fixed at 150 degrees ample supplies were available commercially and they could get ahead. After discussion with experts this was found to be a safe figure, and the necessary instructions were given to the surveyors to accept this flash point. Had we not had the power to alter that regulation on the spot this ship could not have been built. That is the type of regulation. It must be flexible.


It is quite easy to give one illustration or a number of illustrations. What we want is information as to what regulations the Board desire to bring into operation. A number of the most eminent and experienced men in the shipping industry set about the task of endeavouring to ascertain what existing regulations are not covered by the terms of the Convention. They had to give up the task as hopeless, and I venture to say that there is no one, except, possibly, some gentleman who has charge of the archives of the Board of Trade, who could give a categorical answer to the problem. But the point is not merely one as to whether the Board of Trade should have power to issue regulations or not. If regulations are necessary for the safety of passengers and crews, no one wishes that regulations should not be made. The only point is that when we are introducing, for the first time in these matters, in this country, discrimination against British shipping and in favour of foreign shipping, the shipping community claim that the question is one on which this House ought not to give up its right of exercising a veto. Let the Board of Trade make any regulations they will, but those regulations ought to be placed on the Table of this House in order that the House may give its decision upon them, if they are found to be unnecessary and, particularly, if they are found to be undesirable.

In view of the great alterations made in this Convention, which begins a new era in these matters, it will be necessary to go through all the eixsting regulations and revise them. On account of the fact that there will be discrimination in the future it will be necessary to revise them, not from the old point of view as affecting British and foreign ships alike, but as affecting only British ships, and, possibly, imposing serious obligations upon them. I should like some assurance from my hon. Friend that he will give this matter the most careful reconsideration before this Bill goes to Committee. This is no time to bring in new methods of discrimination against British shipping. We have suffered enough in this country in the past by flag discrimination, and it seems ironic that, at this stage, when the Government are bringing in a wide Measure to protect British industry against foreign competition, they should at the same time propose a new principle which would discriminate against British ships in favour of foreign ships. I am authorised to say on behalf of the shipping trade that, much as they value the advantages of the uniformity which this Convention would give, yet, if it became a choice between accepting this Bill as it stands and remaining in the same position as we are in at present, they would have no hesitation in saying that they would rather be as they are now, without a Convention. They would rather be in a position in which British and foreign shipping are on an equal footing, than subject British shipping to this further discrimination without the House of Commons having any opportunity of expressing its veto on these matters.

Captain MOSS

I am encouraged to speak on the Second Reading of this Bill because I can do so from the particular and peculiar experience which I have derived as a master mariner. Indeed I understand that I may even claim the distinction of being the first practical British shipmaster to occupy a seat in this House and I put forward what I believe to be the views and opinions of those in our own great service who ought to be best able to judge of the advisability of the passage of this Bill as it stands. I do not desire to oppose the Second Reading of the Bill but later I hope to have the privilege of putting down an Amendment asking for the exclusion of Clause 29 which deals with the reversal of the helm orders. In these circumstances, I do not desire at this stage to occupy the time of the House unduly but there are one or two points to which I desire to refer. In the first place this Bill is designed for the preservation of life at sea, yet Clause 29 has been designed specifically to reverse the sense of such time-honoured seamanship orders as "port" and "starboard" and, seemingly, on the confession of the Parliamentary Secretary himself, this is to be done at the dictate of small foreign maritime Powers. I am sure that the House will agree that such a proposal is not and cannot be conducive to the safety of life at sea.

I asked a shipowner recently why he was desirous of seeing this Bill pass through all its stages in its entirety and his reply was somewhat surprising. He immediately said, "Because the advantages are greater than the disadvantages." It seems evident to me, and I hope that it will appear evident to the House, that the shipowners who are themselves responsible, in conjunction with the Board of Trade officials who were delegates to this international maritime conference, for this Convention and for this particular Clause to which I object, themselves admit that there are disadvantages in this Bill—I presume only in Clause 29. But may I refer for a moment to the advantages 2 Let us see exactly what these advantages are. It is the intention of this Convention to ask the largest and the finest mercantile marine service in this world to alter a system of helm orders which has given satisfaction and been successfully practised, without accident, all the way down through the centuries. We are to make this sacrifice in order to bring small foreign maritime Powers into line with Great Britain in such important matters as the load line and the regulations for the carrying of deck cargo. These in themselves would be a very decided advantage to the British shipping industry.

I can quite appreciate and sympathise with the point of view of the shipowner in this country, and I can understand the necessity for bringing foreign ships into line with British ships in so far as the load line is concerned, because it would immediately remove that element of unfairness in competition to which the British shipowner has for long enough been subjected through the adoption by foreign shipowners of the practice of overloading and also of carrying deck cargoes which are greater than would be permitted under the regulations governing and controlling British shipowners. I was not surprised at, but I regretted, the necessity under which the Parliamentary Secretary found himself of admitting that unless we are prepared to make this sacrifice in regard to helm orders in British shipping, foreign maritime Powers will refuse to come into line with British shipping in these essential matters to which I have referred.

We appreciate that this Bill is essentially a Bill to further the preservation of the safety of life at sea, vet we have these foreign maritime Powers only willing to consider the safety of life of their own nationals at sea provided that the largest maritime Power in the world, controlling, navigating, and being responsible for more than 23,000,000 tons of British shipping, accepts this responsibility of the alteration of the helm orders. If this particular Clause can be removed in Committee, the House can make up its mind with absolute safety to seeing this Bill placed upon the Statute Book of this country and can characterise it as the finest contribution to the safety of life at sea that has yet been introduced by any country in the world, and in the interests of the maritime nations of the world; but if this Bill is to find its way on to the Statute Book with Clause 29 included as it stands, then I trust the House will recognise that they are agreeing to an altogether intolerable interference by foreign nations in what is, after all, but domestic detail in the handling and navigation of our own ships, and that we are being subjected to small nations and expected, as the largest nation, to bow the knee, just as we have done in many other directions, and in none more so than in the direction of disarmament.

The United States of America, whose mercantile marine consists of some 14,500,000 tons of shipping, has definitely refused to change its present system of helm orders, which is precisely the same as our own, and these two nations, Great Britain and America, comprising between 37,000,000 and 38,000,000 tons of shipping, are to be dictated to by countries such as Germany, with 4,000,000 tons, France, with 3,000,000 tons, Norway, with 3,000,000 tons, and all the other nations who are signatory to this Convention, being still smaller in their aggregate tonnage. They are to be permitted to dictate to the two largest nations, and unless we are prepared to make this sacrifice, we are not to see the real meaning of this Bill brought into being, and we are not to enjoy, in the interests of the safety of life at sea, the inclusion of these small Powers along with this country in such matters of outstanding importance as the load line and the carriage of deck cargo.

I trust that, while the House will raise no objection to the Second Reacting of the Bill, it will find itself compelled to support this very essential Amendment for the deletion of Clause 29. If that Clause should be deleted, I repeat that this Bill may go on to the Statute Book with the blessing of this House, for it will then be, in my humble judgment—and I trust the House will agree with me—the greatest contribution to the preservation and safety of life at sea, affecting alike all the maritime nations of the world.


First, I should like to congratulate the Board of Trade upon bringing to a conclusion the long negotiations which have taken place before this Bill has reached its present form. That the Conventions at which so many nations were represented should come to so great a degree of unanimity is, I think, a great example from the shipping world which others might well follow. But in all international Conventions, just as in questions of life, no man expects to get all that he desires. As in this House, in relation to another place, sometimes there are discussions as to what would be best and desirable to give way a little bit, so in this Bill, we should be prepared to give up something which in the past has been very dear to British seamen, in order that we should get what to my mind far outweighs that which we are asked to give up. Safety of life at sea is something like safety of life in the mines. People who are engaged in the occupation are so much up against danger that they become reckless. It is a matter for congratulation that we can get such a large measure of agreement in such difficult and complicated subjects going deep into mathematics, geography and latitude and longitude.

There are only two things, as the Parliamentary Secretary has pointed out, about which there is any comparative controversy. I find myself, to some extent, in disagreement with the last speaker with regard to Clause 29, because I think the vast majority of people have now come to see that it is wiser to give up an old custom than to imperil life. For instance, a British ship master in a foreign port would get one order. He might say that his steersman found difficulty in obeying that order, as it might be in a different language from that which he sometimes uses. It seems, therefore, wise to give up this old custom. Of course, there are people who would find it extremely difficult to change the custom of a lifetime, but I think that those people are excluded from the Bill. For instance, in Clause 40: sailing ships under 80 tons register engaged solely in the coasting trade. Further, paragraph (c) says: ships solely engaged in fishing. 2.0 p.m.

In the fishing fleets that go out from our ports people would find it difficult, perhaps, to alter what they have been used to, and which is now not second nature, but their entire nature. They are excluded. So, on the whole, while I own that it is a great demand to make upon a custom, it is wise, because of the great advantages, that we should give up what we have held in the past.

Then the Parliamentary Secretary referred to Clause 35, and I should like to impress upon him that, perhaps in the Committee stage, he would give great consideration to what my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle, East (Sir R. Aske) has said with regard to that Clause. It is very keenly thought about by shipping owners, although I do not know that I would go quite as far as he when he says that they would be prepared to scrap the whole of these Conventions and this Bill for that one provision. But I greatly hope that what he has said has been impressed upon the Parliamentary Secretary, and I will conclude by again congratulating the Board of Trade upon introducing this Bill

Commander MARSDEN

Practically everything has been said so far on this Bill by those connected with the sea in every shape and form, and as I find myself so much in accord with what has been said, I will not weary the House by repeating the arguments. I trust that those Members who have not read through this voluminous book will do so, because I think they will be astonished at the care and forethought displayed in looking after the safety of those who go down to the sea in ships. Some of the best points in the Bill have not been mentioned so far. One realises after years at sea that the best methods of saving life are not necessarily, for example, filling up the ship with belts. This Bill is very clear as to the extra safeguards in the way of wireless and closer watch in the wireless rooms. Among other proposals is the provision for the locating of ice on the Northern sea routes, and 1 only regret it is not a British ship which is doing this service, so that the money voted for that service would go to British seamen.

There are numerous other points to which one might refer, but I come to the most debatable, and the first is the owner's point of view. If an Amendment is proposed to alter the wording of Clause 35 by adding the words "or before," I shall support that Amendment, because I think it is very necessary. The Government have said that any Order made by the Board of Trade subsequent to the passing of this Bill must be placed before the House, and I am of opinion that any Orders made previously to the passing of this Bill should also be laid before the House. 1 am not in the shipping trade in that direction myself, but I have close knowledge of the fact that some of the Board of Trade regulations, with the worthy object of protecting ships and cargoes, are so drastic that a great deal of trade is taken away from our shipowners. For instance, the timber trade regulations made by our own Board of Trade are much more severe than those made by other nations, who are able to carry these timber cargoes in various parts of the world with as great a number of safe passages as the most drastic Board of Trade official at home could possibly desire or hope for.

Another point is this: There are existing regulations which, as I think, the Parliamentary Secretary rather suggested lie dormant and might well be resuscitated. Supposing, for example, the great emigrant traffic came back, and with it a great demand for large ships to carry emigrants. We should be left behind, because other countries would be able to take those emigrants and deliver them safely, while our ships would not be allowed to go forth, because the old regulations, which are now lying more or less dormant, would then be resuscitated, we should know nothing about it and our shipping industry would suffer.

The only other point on which I might say something are these very much disputed helm orders. My hon. Friend who spoke on this subject might be interested to know that he is not the only master mariner in the House. I also have that very great honour. There is nothing I prize more than my master mariner's certificate, and although I am retired from the Navy I am not retired from the sea. At the present moment I confine my sea-going to a small yacht, but these helm orders affect anybody who goes to sea at all in any capacity. I am of opinion that this provision should not be allowed to stand exactly as it is, and I might on some other oppor- tunity suggest a redrafting to make the words clearer—perhaps not 'clearer to those lawyers who interpret these things in the courts, but clearer to the sailors who have to carry them out in practice. These helm orders will be chalked up and down the seven seas and debated very keenly. To show how keen the debate is On the subject, a conference was called by the Board of Trade two years ago and the various associations were represented—owners, officers, Trinity House, pilots and the Admiralty. Their feeling was absolutely even for and against the change. The only representation which did not give an opinion was that of the Admiralty, who subsequently said that they were quite prepared to stand by any finding that was arrived at, quite satisfied that the new helm orders could be carried out without any danger or difficulty.

When we find a large body of seamen like that differing, we may be certain that if a discussion took place in this House, the Eleven o'Clock Rule would have to be suspended indefinitely, and then we should not be able to come to any satisfactory decision. I know perfectly well, being a sailor, that among so many who have spoken and signed petitions, and so on, against this change, the feeling is largely that whenever there is an international discussion, all other countries are represented equally with England, although their interests are very much lower than ours. Whatever the subject, whether disarmament or helm orders, it is always this country which has to give way. We may say that our seamen have a far higher sense of the position of our country than a great many of our representatives at these conferences. That is the feeling that seamen have, and although they may not disagree with the helm orders, it is actually that feeling that this country has always to give way that determines their opposition.

Helm orders are a technical subject, and one might talk about them for a long time. You actually refer to helm orders because you are talking about the helm. No doubt hon. Members present know the relationship between the rudder, the tiller and the wheel. The wheel is a compartively new invention. There was always the rudder and all our science has not yet discovered any other method of steering a ship than by a rudder. The simplest thing with a tiller was to tell the helmsman to put the tiller to port or starboard. If you told him to put it to port, he put it to port. In after years the wheel was introduced, and that reversed the position. When the tiller was put one way, the helm was put the other. But what are we asking now? We are asking that we should go back to the logical position of years ago when there was only the tiller. We are now asking that if the ship wants to go to starboard the helmsman should be told to put the wheel to starboard.

The skilled seaman will naturally react to his training, and the unskilled man such as the chauffeur whom the Parliamentary Secretary takes to Paris with him, can be taken in a, ship and told: "Don't bother about any seafaring knowledge; if I say Right' put the wheel to the right, and if I say Left' put the wheel to the left." That man could do his job satisfactorily, and you could take a ship to sea with him and be confident with him. But no man, however clever or logical,, could possibly get the fact that if you said "Starboard," he had to put the wheel to port, and vice versa. If there is therefore a danger that in the transition the orders may misfire, I think that there is little doubt that when the transition stage is over, it will be for the safer conduct of ships.

Take the question of pilots. It is true, as has been pointed out, that when a foreign ship comes into our waters, the pilot has to go on board and say, "Which way do you want, the old or the new way?" In other words, the English pilot can do it any way you like. I am certain that the ability of the mercantile marine is not so small that they will not seize on the new system of helm orders as soon as they are put into force. This is the first occasion on which I have addressed the House, and I hope that it will not be the last. There will be a further discussion of these things in Committee, when I shall hope to have the opportunity of saying much more.


I cannot help regarding this Measure with a certain amount of suspicion, though I am by no means hostile to all of it. I should like, however, a certain amount of reassurance from the Board of Trade, for it is their attitude towards the whole question which puzzles me most. I have been a little alarmed at the unanimity of the shipping interests in favour of it, and I am inclined to wonder whether that is possibly due to the fact that the provisions for the safety of life at sea and the actual provision of material for that purpose may not come cheaper under this Bill than under the present Board of Trade regulations. Though the Bill is a voluminous labyrinth, there is not a Clause in it which excuses British shipowners from observing the more stringent Board of Trade regulations.

With regard to the helm orders, which of. course cause most anxiety, I under- stand that after the Bill becomes an Act, helm orders must be given in a direct sense having regard to the direction in which the ship's head is proceeding at the time, and there will be a penalty of £50 for giving orders once in the contrary sense. We all know that the railway packet every day of its life, or twice a day, goes stern first into Boulogne. Which way is it to give its orders when the ship's head is going astern? Has the Board of Trade provided for that? I do not know where the Board of Trade get their advice on these subjects. Perhaps they do not take it from such people as masters of steamers. They may have had recourse to very hardened shellbacks from the windjammers, of whom there was at least one on the Labour benches in the last Parliament. I think that I am right in saving, however, that you will not hear of any British sailing ship at sea using such words as "port" and "starboard." The terms used are "luff" and "keep her away." That being so, I have a certain amount of distrust of Clause 41. After all, the present indirect method has suited us very well over a great number of years, and it is news to me that British seamen take the seamen of any other nation as their example.

One thing about which I should like to be reassured is how far the Admiralty acquiesce in this change. The hon. and gallant Member for North Battersea (Commander Marsden) said that the Admiralty, after some demur, had agreed to work these orders if the change were made, and did not think that in the end much harm would result. That may be so, but if there is any harm in the interval it will happen in our generation. I do not know whether it is any good asking the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade whether the Admiralty would be prepared to send the Atlantic Fleet to sea the week after this change is introduced to carry out a complicated set of manoeuvres. I should not like to go with them in that case. There is a good deal more I should have liked to say, but I find myself very much in agreement with the hon. and gallant Member for North Battersea in the maiden speech he has made, and therefore it is not necessary for me to trouble the House for so long as it would have been otherwise.

My real object in rising was to make it clear that, while a considerable number of us in this House do not wish to prevent the Board of Trade getting through a Bill to give effect to an international convention—because in matters of this importance it is a great advantage for the nations to have the same code and to pull together—there is yet a certain amount of suspicion as to the nature of the technical advice which bas been given to the Board of Trade. I have not looked through the list of the Ministry lately to see how many bluff sailors are there, men who are thoroughly familiar with spun yarn and Stockholm tar, but if I get an assurance that in spite of the petition of the Master Mariners' Association, in spite of the large amount of advice that has been proffered, and the large amount of printed matter which has been circulated against this Bill, the Board of Trade are still satisfied that, on the whole, they are acting for the best, I shall not be a party to dividing the House against the Second Reading, though I wish to have the opportunity of doing my bit towards seeing that the helm order Clause is deleted upstairs.


I wish to join mine to those voices which have spoken against the inclusion of Clause 29, in the hope that it may still be possible for the Board of Trade to do something to relieve the seamen of our nation from the affront which is undoubtedly being put upon them. We, who are the leading maritime nation of the world, now find ourselves in the position of having to give up our traditional method of controlling ships. But it is not merely a matter of sentiment. It has been said that this alteration can be made without any grave danger of accidents at sea. I do not know that anyone can produce a single instance of any accident having occurred at sea under our present system of helm orders. I speak with some little personal knowledge, because I have conducted I do not know how many preliminary inquiries into shipping accidents, and I have never heard of it; and I believe it is right to say that the President of the Admiralty Court has never heard of any accident arising from the present system of helm orders. Therefore, it seems unnecessary that our seamen should be affronted in what appears to be a more or less wanton manner. I dare say that most Members of the House have received a great number of communications on this matter. On the seat beside me I have a note of a petition signed by 8,670 navigating officers in active service who are against the change, and when I ask the Board of Trade to give some further consideration to Clause 29 I do so knowing that the navigating officers of the mercantile marine generally are against it. I may go even further, and say that the bulk of those who know anything about the sea are against this alteration.

It is one of the extraordinary things in life that very often the strongest person, and the person in the right, has to give way. If this Clause is accepted it will be simply because our common decency of feeling urges us to give way in order to gain what are the undoubted advantages of the Bill. I am not going to discuss them, but everybody knows that there are great advantages, and I will confine myself to a plea for a reconsideration of Clause 29. It has already been hinted that in any case it will have to be altered, because it is technically incorrect. This is supposed to be a Measure for securing the safety of life at sea. An alteration of helm orders may not be effectual for that purpose. The mercantile marine, though manned by most excellent seamen, includes also some men whose characters will not bear the closest investigation during the few hours immediately after they have joined their ship and while she is putting out to sea. It often hap- pens that in those few hours those men are under the influence of—emotion, shall we say—arising from having to leave their homes to go to sea. Under the influence of that emotion it is just possible that the most praiseworthy British seaman may find himself automatically following the practice in which he has been brought up, and I look forward with considerable apprehension to what may follow the introduction of this new system.

This Measure, while including something which is, I say it with all due deference, to a certain extent offensive to the seamen of this nation, does nothing whatever in a much more important direction. It does not attempt to standardise the qualifications which are necessary before a man can gain a navigating officer's certificate, nor does it ensure that there shall be a proper investigation of shipping accidents affecting the vessels of other nations. This nation, I was going to say almost alone among the nations of the world, conducts its shipping inquiries with absolute impartiality and with extreme thoroughness. Anybody who has knocked about on foreign ships knows that not only is the standard of navigation there sometimes very much below that of this country, but I myself have conducted an inquiry at which a foreign skipper has admitted under cross-examination that his qualification was obtained at an inland school before he had ever been to sea. That occurred some 20 years ago, I admit., and things may have been altered since, but I have seen the most slack procedure on foreign ships. I have seen a ship in the Sunda Strait—whose sister vessel had been lost only three months before with practically all on board—without a single navigating officer on the bridge and with only a Chinese quartermaster in charge there. There is nothing in this Measure to prevent that sort of thing going on; nothing Which requires foreign nations to introduce provisions ensuring that navigating officers shall be properly qualified and that there shall be proper inquiries into accidents at sea. With those few words, I would once again urge the Board of Trade to do what they can to meet the wishes of the great mass of navigation officers.