HC Deb 02 August 1935 vol 304 cc3019-27

11.53 a.m.


I now wish to deal with the main objections which have been raised. These objections have been given to me in order that I may submit them to the consideration of the Minister. Strong objection is taken to the reference by the Board of Trade of the important question of manning regulations to the Merchant Shipping Advisory Committee. We consider that this particular body has a Victorian outlook. In fact, we go as far as to say, in regard to the personnel, that most of it is actually Victorian, although I daresay that exceptions may be trotted out to us later. But we feel that this body is not modern, and is not equipped with modern knowledge, whatever other knowledge it may have. Socrates and Diogenes were people of great knowledge, but in a matter of this kind we are not looking to the philosophers of the past. We want men who are thoroughly acquainted with all matters appertaining to seamen, and whose knowledge of these matters is up to date.

While it is true that there are four Labour representatives on the Committee, the predominant interest on it is that of the employing class, and, consequently, it cannot be considered as a body which will reach judicial and unbiased conclusions on these very important questions. In raising these points relevant to the constitution of this body, we may be told that we are wrong, but as interested parties we have to consider carefully this machinery just as any other people have to consider any machinery which is applicable to their own particular trade or profession. We feel that this body will be biased and non-judicial, and on account of that fact we feel that it will be of no importance whatever. If the President is not prepared to proceed to a complete overhaul of the merchant shipping legislation, which is generally admitted to be hopelessly out of date, he should at least refer these matters to an independent committee with power to call for evidence and to come to a speedy decision. We feel that it is vital that these points should receive due consideration and should be acted upon. We feel that this Committee is not fitted for the job and that there is so much suspicion in the minds of people who know the business in regard to this reference to a body which they consider to be important, that, as a matter of justice, the Minister ought to take what steps he can to remove suspicion from the minds of all people and to leave this body fully empowered as a judicial authority to deal absolutely and impartially with the matter.

There is another observation that I am compelled to make. The employers are bound to be satisfied with the existing minimum scale. This is an important factor. Wherever great expense has to be incurred or improvements have to be made in any industry, you will find those interested in regard to having to pay out are always economical and that the question of life is very seldom taken into consideration. I admit that, as far as the mercantile marine is concerned, there are many good shipping firms and shipowners, but there are exceptions, and great loss of life may be entailed through some of the firms which have ships going to sea that do not make adequate provision. Therefore we feel that those who are interested in this trade should not have the power to consider an indictment laid against their own industry and the power, from the point of view of constitution, not only of considering the finance of the business, but of returning a verdict which will enable them to keep up the continuity of the whole system. We feel that that is wrong, and that in 1935, if the Minister intends to do anything, it must be of such a searching nature that there can be no room for doubt as to what he intends to do.

The Merrivale court of inquiry, in dealing with the "Blairgowrie," said that technically she had a sufficient complement of hands. If lawyers use phraseology within the law, so can the man who goes down to the sea in ships understand what it means. As a practical matter we are not satisfied that she had a sufficient number of deck hands, and anybody who has sailed in the mercantile marine, any ordinary man in the street, would laugh immediately at you if you said that this was quite convincing that justice was being done by the State. The court said that there was no apparent margin for safety so far as the "Usworth" was concerned. If there is such a thing as caressing for the wrong doer, and putting forth the velvet hand to smooth difficulties out of the road, this language is couched in that direction. In ordinary cases, where there would not be so much at stake, I am afraid that different language would be used in regard to the fatalities that have lately occurred, and while this language is guarded, it has its implication, an implication of which the Parliamentary Secretary would know the value, and although those who find verdicts in court may use language of this description, yet to the Parliamentary Secretary it has a value that we ask him to deal with.

Obviously the law is wrong and the regulations made under that law are inadequate. In fact, the whole of the regulations in regard to manning are absolutely out of date, and because they are out of date we feel that we have a right to come to a reasonable Minister, who has a thorough knowledge of these matters, and to ask that something should be done as a result of the terrible tragedies that have recently occurred. In summing up, I want to say that we feel that the method adopted is only throwing dust in the eyes of the general public and is not genuinely dealing with the situation as it concerns the lives of the officers and men of the British Mercantile Marine. To be quite candid, we think it is a subtle move of an inquiry being held which on the face of it would seem to possess some value, but we feel in our heart of hearts that it has no value at all. When I recall what this nation, nay, what the world owes to the British Mercantile Marine, I am compelled, in response to a national duty, to ask for an independent committee and a complete overhaul of the merchant shipping legislation. I trust, having put this point forward, that the Minister, who, I know, is always courteous and always attentive to any request that we might make, will give this his deepest consideration, for there is so much at stake that I do not think I have overstated the matters that I have brought before the House.

12.3 p.m.


The Board of Trade welcomes the fact that this matter has been raised this morning, and the hon. Member for the Scotland Division of Liverpool (Mr. Logan) has raised it in a speech to which I take no exception. I shall hope to convince the House by the arguments that I adduce that some of the harsh things he said in his concluding words show a rather jaundiced point of view, but I welcome the raising of the matter and the speech in which it has been raised. The hon. Member represents the great port of Liverpool, and he does no less than justice to the seafaring community in reminding this House of the immense debt which this country and the world owe to those who go down to the sea in ships. This House may rest assured that the Board of Trade will tackle this matter in the way in which it should be tackled. The hon. Member was careful to say that he was not proposing to discuss the findings of the Merrivale Committee in regard to the particular vessels, and that was wise, because the fourth inquiry has not yet taken place, and it would be much more convenient for the House to deal with all the inquiries together, when the results in each of the four cases have been published and when there is an opportunity to consider them and the House can make up its mind as to whether any particular instruction or direction ought to be offered to the Board of Trade.

The hon. Gentleman's observations were chiefly centred round the manning provisions and the method which the President of the Board of Trade has announced for dealing at once with the consideration of that topic. The hon. Member realises, of course, that in no one of the three findings that have yet been published did the court come to the conclusion that the disaster was due to undermanning. In none of these three cases has it been established that the loss was due to undermanning. The hon. Member says that the Merchant Shipping Advisory Committee is Victorian in constitution and outlook and that a recommendation from it would not give confidence to the merchant shipping world; and he asked for a special committee or a general overhaul of the Merchant Shipping Acts. I think that we can perhaps leave the latter question until we have had the inquiries into all four vessels, because, obviously, so large a matter is on a different scale from the question under discussion to-day.

As the House may not be wholly familiar with the Merchant Shipping Advisory Committee, its constitution and objects, perhaps I may take a minute to make that clear. The Merchant Shipping Act, 1906, Section 79, authorised the Board of Trade to appoint committees for the purpose of advising the Board of Trade when considering the making or alteration of any rules, regulations or scales for the purpose of the Merchant Shipping Acts consisting of such persons as they may appoint representing the interests principally affected or having special knowledge of the subject matter. The Merchant Shipping Advisory Committee is the standing advisory committee appointed under that Section. At the opening meeting of the first committee the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) was President of the Board of Trade and he described the Committee as more or less a permanent committee to advise the Board of Trade with regard to the policy which it is to pursue in the administration of the whole of the merchant shipping laws of this country. This Standing Advisory Committee is appointed every two years and the present committee was appointed less than a fortnight ago. Although the hon. Member says that it is mid-Victorian in fact it is neo-Georgian in the date of appointment. It is thoroughly up-to-date as regards its personnel. In accordance with Section 79 of the Act of 1906 nominations to the committee are obtained from all the mercantile shipping interests. I will give the House a list of the organisations which make nominations. The interests comprise shipowners, naval architects, classification societies, underwriters, deck officers, engine room officers, seamen, wireless operators and pilots. The present committee consists of 22, and its chairman is Sir Norman Hill. He has been chairman of each successive committee since the first committee was set up in 1906, and in all probability he will be elected chairman of the present committee at their first formal meeting. He enjoys the complete confidence of all sections represented on the committee, and he conducts its proceedings along judicial lines. There is no one in any part of Great Britain who would suggest that Sir Norman Hill would not be other than a most acceptable chairman for a committee that had anything to do with merchant shipping.

The committee is not primarily representative of employing interests. There are six direct representatives of shipowners, nine of officers' and seamens' organisations, and of the remaining seven, three represent classification societies, two the Institution of Naval Architects, one the Liverpool Underwriters' Association, and one the Institute of Marine Engineers. When the question of the constitution of the committee has been under consideration in the past the ship-owning interests have from time to time suggested that the officers' and men's interests were rather over represented. I do not want to make any point of that; I only mention it because the hon. Member thought that the committee was an employers' committee. The organisations represented are 16 in number, and they are:

  • Shipowners' Parliamentary Committee,
  • Institution of Naval Architects,
  • Lloyd's,
  • Liverpool Underwriters' Association,
  • Lloyd's Register of Shipping,
  • British Corporation Register of Shipping and Aircraft,
  • Institute of Marine Engineers,
  • Honourable Company of Master Mariners,
  • Imperial Merchant Service Guild,
  • Mercantile Marine Service Association,
  • Officers' (Merchant Navy) Federation,
  • Marine Engineers' Association,
  • National Union of Seamen,
  • Transport & General Workers' Union,
  • Association of Wireless & Cable Telegraphists,
  • United Kingdom Pilots' Association.
I suppose that it would be very hard to find an interest connected with merchant shipping that is not represented by one of those organisations. I need not trouble the House with the names of the gentlemen nominated by these organisations, but if there is any general desire for them an answer to a question can be circulated in the OFFICIAL REPORT. I think the names are such as will carry weight. For instance, the Shipowners' Parliamentary Committee is represented by such men as Sir Norman Hill, Mr. H. M. Cleminson, and Mr. Michael Brett. There are representatives of a similar character for the different institutions. The National Seamen's Union is represented by Mr. J. H. Tarbitten, Mr. R. W. Clouston, and Mr. W. R. Spence; and the Transport Workers' Union by Mr. James Henson.

I think that the House will feel that the proper way in which to deal with a matter arising under merchant shipping practice would be, in the first instance at all events, to consult the general standing committee. The House and the hon. Member must not assume that this would necessarily be an end of the matter. What I am concerned with at the moment is to point out to the House the wisdom of the President of the Board of Trade, immediately the question obviously becomes important, in saying at once, "I should like some information about it, and let everybody interested in manning make to me the appropriate reports." He tries the instrument nearest to his hand, the instrument which has actually been responsible for bringing into effect the existing scales of manning. It is in accordance with sound administration that if a scale originated by a body in the past, which has worked with comparative success, is attacked, those who were responsible for putting the scale forward should have an opportunity of passing comments on subsequent recommendations and suggestions. Successive advisory committees have dealt with a very wide range of subjects, some controversial and some requiring a careful balance of safety and economic factors. The committee take evidence from outside authorities whenever it so requires, although there is often somebody round the table with sufficient knowledge to make it unnecessary to call for outside evidence. Outside evidence is clearly only asked for when the matter is highly technical.

The committee has produced many valuable reports, and all the important instructions and regulations in force have been considered from time to time by it. For example, the important changes made by the Safety of Life at Sea Convention and the Load Line Convention occupied a great deal of the time of the Committee in 1931–32. The present manning scale, which is embodied in Circular 1463, is based on the advice of this committee. It was introduced in 1909, and the scales have never been seriously criticised and are found satisfactory in practice.

The point raised by recent inquiries as to the margin of safety and matters of that kind is quite obviously the sort of point that ought to be referred in the first place to this standing Committee, and if what the hon. Member is really asking is that the recommendation of this standing committee is not necessarily the last word, I will give an assurance that the Board of Trade are fully alive to the disquiet that is felt in certain quarters, that they are anxious properly to allay that disquiet, that they intend to do what is necessary to see that this subject is properly studied, and if proper recommendations are made to give them attention. The hon. Member need have no apprehension that this reference to the standing Committee is in the least an intention to fob the matter off and to delay action. Quite the reverse. It is the opinion of the President of the Board of Trade and of his advisers that the right thing to do in the first place is to ask those who are appointed by Parliament to consider these matters to pass judgment upon the suggestions that are made.

The manning problem is, of course, technical, but it covers a very much wider range. It affects every interest connected with the safe and successful running of ships. The Advisory Committee contains representatives with wide experience of all sides of the industry. It is particularly well fitted to review the manning requirements, and is the body envisaged by Parliament for that sort of work, and unless and until the members of that Committee have made recommendations which show that they have not fully considered the problem, or made recommendations which are clearly not adequate, I do not see that there is any call for the appointments of any special committee. The committee representing all the interests which originated the scale, being the instrument nominated by Parliament, is the one which should express an opinion. I give the House an assurance that neither the present President of the Board of Trade nor the Board of Trade generally is going to rest until the whole of the matters arising from the inquiries recently made in the north Atlantic losses have been probed. With that assurance I hope the House will pass to the next business.