§ Considered in Committee, and reported, without Amendment.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."
§ 3.35 p.m.
§ Mr. ARTHUR GREENWOOD
I rise to raise, on the Third Reading of this Bill, the question of the loss of lives and ships at sea. I do not want to do that in any unnecessarily controversial spirit. The right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade has felt a certain indignation with regard to the strictures which I have made, and which some of my hon. Friends have made, in this House, and he has even threatened to reply to the statements which have been made; but no reply has ever been forthcoming. The right hon. Gentleman, so I am informed, at the annual dinner of the Chamber of Shipping, after enjoying the hospitality of that non-political body, spent most of his time in attacking an absent Member of this House, in the person of myself, for making what he called wild and extravagant statements. If those wild and extravagant statements require contradiction, they ought to be contradicted. So far, they have not been contradicted, and I should hope that in the Debate to-day, if what I have to say is not true, we shall have a specific repudiation of the actual statements that I am about to make.
We have had in the House during the last three months some discussions on the position of one section of the shipping industry. I am bound to say, and I admit this to the right hon. Gentleman, that I think that, as a result of the discussions we have had in the House, the situation so far as the seamen are concerned has improved. I believe that the work of the Trade Union Parliamentary Committee representing the two unions primarily concerned has had a useful influence on public opinion, and it is reported to me, and I am very glad to record it in this House, that alien seamen are now being displaced in favour of British seamen. If all those wild and extravagant state- 1752 ments that I made have resulted in that, I do not regret them in the least. I would, however, ask the right hon. Gentleman to address himself to this point: It is very good, so far as it goes, that British seamen should be employed in preference to alien, and especially Asiatic, seamen; but this question is now arising, to which the Government really must give attention: What about the repatriation of the superseded alien seamen who are now a charge on public funds? Something ought to be done to see that these people, who are no longer welcome on British ships, are repatriated.
The move in public opinion during the last few months is to be welcomed. I think it is true to say that, as a result of the controversy which has been raging, public opinion is more alive now, perhaps, than ever it has been, to the conditions of life afloat, and I am sure that everybody, irrespective of class and irrespective of political views, would like to see that those who go down to the sea in ships get a square deal. It is unfortunate that in recent months we have heard of the loss of a number of ships. It is within the memory of this House that the "Saxilby," "Millpool," and "Usworth" were lost, and more recently the "Blairgowrie" and "La Crescenta." This is a problem of what one might call industrial accidents. In practically every industry in the country, and certainly in every productive industry, there is a volume of law which deals with industrial accidents, but unfortunately we are not quite in that position, unless the right hon. Gentleman will use such legislation as he has to the full.
During the three years 1931, 1932 and 1933—the figures are not available to the public for 1934, and perhaps even the right hon. Gentleman may not have them yet—the number of British vessels, excluding ships belonging to the Royal Navy, lost, were, in 1931, 125, in 1932, 119, and in 1933, 120. In 1931 the gross tonnage of ships lost was nearly 42,000, and in 1933 69,000. That represents British capital. But, in addition to that, there were lives lost at sea which represent something even more valuable than British capital. I do not want to weary the House with details as to the figures of lives lost, but it is perfectly clear that the Mercantile Marine is one of the dangerous trades of this country, and 1753 the question is as to whether anything can really be done about it.
I take, first, the case of "La Crescenta," which was an oil tanker lost with all hands. I have here copies of a number of letters, and indeed I have photographs of letters. All these letters were sent by members of the crew during the last voyage. I am making no charge against the owners, none whatever. I, as a landsman, know what the right hon. Gentleman and other shipowners think about me in this House. I am an ignorant landsman, and I know that they call me the Lord High Admiral for Wakefield. I know that that is a measure of their contempt for me, but I am concerned with the human interests involved in the loss of life and in the loss of ships. Here is a letter sent from the boat when it was at Los Angeles on 6th July last year by a seaman on the boat to his sister:Arrived here to-day. Expect we shall be here some time as we lad a pretty bad breakdown at sea during the week. Broke the pump which operates the cargo pump; hence we have been unable to clean the tanks, so shall have to clean them here as soon as the engine repairs are done.That does not seem to be very serious, but the same seaman writing from San Pedro in California on 16th September, still on the same boat, said:The second Sunday out, the stokehole caught fire. It started underneath the boilers and was not noticed until it had secured a good hold. It fairly put the wind up us for a while as we had explosive oil aboard. Anyway, after an hour's fight we got a hold on it and then soon had it outThat may perhaps not appear to be very dramatic. But here is an extract from a letter dated 21st November, 1934, from the third engineer of this fated ship to his father. I am not presenting this as a seaman with any special knowledge; it is a letter from a third engineer who ought to know his business:This is a proper old ramshackle tub that I am on now, but there is one thing, I am getting fairly good experience for my ticket from her as far as running repairs and breakdowns are concerned. It is not the main engines that are the trouble—they are the best I have been with, thank goodness—but it is the auxiliaries such as the condensers, Weir's pump, fuel pumps, boiler mountings, joints and hundred and one other things.1754Then, of course, there are the tanks; they come under us. They have to be steamed out after every cargo and the heating coils tested, and rivets. I think I have cut more out than was ever put in, at least it seems like that, especially lately as we have been having some rather rough weather. Have you ever cut a rivet out of a ship's side, just below the bilge keel when she was at sea and put a wooden plug in till you reached port, then listed her right over as far as possible and done a bit of fishing with a piece of string and a cork through the hole, when you have found the cork floating on top of the sea, tie a bolt on that has a small eye-bolt tapped in the end of it, then pull it through the hole and tighten up from the inside? Well, that is a job we have just done in this port. How is that for a novel bit of experience?—So novel that I imagine that the owners never had to undergo it—We had a survey of two boilers in Japan last time and are having the other one done here. It means a couple of days extra in port, but it also means a couple of days extra work for us, as we have all mountings and things like that to do ourselves. We even have to clean our own tubes and back ends and chip inside, as we have only two firemen and two greasers now, as two of them were put ashore in America last time with bad stomachs. Still,"—and this is the Mercantile Marine all over—I suppose we have to do it—its what we signed on for.That perhaps may not appear to be very dramatic, but it seems to be cumulative evidence as to the state of this boat. Now I come to a letter which the captain of the boat, Captain Upstill, sent to his brother from Skimotsu in Japan, on 22nd August. I will read the relevant portions of the letter. After explaining that he did not like this running about the world and not being on a regular trip, he said:The only hope I have of getting home is that they might send Captain Sinclair out to relieve me, as his ship is still laid up, and I was supposed to go there before and he come here. I cannot say I will be sorry if they do, for this ship is getting pretty old now and is always getting into trouble, breaking down and one thing and another. There is a row on at present about the cost of some engine repairs last time in Los Angeles. Ah! well, I suppose we will get over it somehow, but I expect they (the owners) will moan about it for months.That carries us a little further in the story. Here is a letter from the captain of the ship to another brother sent the same day: 1755There is another hell of a, row on now about the cost of engine repairs in Los Angeles last time. The Weir boiler pumps and the winch condenser gave out on the passage up from Chili, and, owing to the strike at Los Angeles, I had a terrible job getting them done in time before the cancelling date of the charter. I just managed to get the charter by the matter of an hour or so, but the bill came to nearly £1,000 altogether. Now the owners are playing war about it. I certainly seem to find plenty of trouble. I've never been out of it since I've been master, but I suppose we will get over it somehow.I will not read the letter to his wife, but I will read another letter, of which I have an actual photographed copy, to the brother of the skipper who went down on that boat:It is with sincere regret and sorrow that I am writing this letter. The disappearance of 'La Crescenta' almost broke my heart, as I considered your cousin Norman a very good personal friend. Yon probably do not know it, but I made a trip to Japan and returned on her September 17th-November 21st, 1934, but the condition of the ship so discouraged me that I begged off in Port San Louis, California, although I also tried to get off in Yokohama.Harris and Dixon are so willing to take a drastic chance for a few pounds gain that they never considered the people aboard. As your cousin was very confidential with me he told me many things; one thing in particular. They called them down for spending too much money on her. She needed work done badly. As it was they had several extensions on a general inspection which would take approximately three months. Her conditions were pitiful, and as I made the trip as fireman, nuts and bolts fell out continuously and very large pieces of asbestos fell from the steam pipes. The boilers were in awful shape as also were the fuel pump, flues and fireboxes. More than once we lost steam and had to stop on their account. It wouldn't surprise us to see her capsize in a storm. Really there were so many things wrong that I could write a volume about it.However, I did go to the British Consul here to make a statement regarding her condition, placing all the fault on Harris and Dixon, as it just as well might have been me. I still hope down in my heart that they will be found.That is a little further corroborative evidence in regard to that particular vessel. I will come to the moral of the story presently. As regards the "Blairgowrie," I understand that the right hon. Gentleman has agreed to take steps to hold an official inquiry. The right hon. Gentleman claims that this boat was fully 1756 manned and, indeed, over-manned. However that may be, I will not deal with that point at the moment. I should like to read what I believe is an affidavit from a man who sailed on that boat as carpenter on the voyage before the one on which she was lost. He says:I joined the steamship 'Blairgowrie' at West Thurrock Chalk Wharf on 1st November, 1934 for a voyage via Rotterdam to Philadelphia, United States of America, my rating being carpenter and sailor. On taking up my duties I started taking soundings. I went to the fore peak and found that there were 16 feet of water in the fore peak. I thought there was something wrong, so I dropped my sounding rod and went right down to the engine room and said to the second engineer: 'Have you got the fresh water for the boiler in the fore peak?' He replied, 'No, no, Chippy. What is the matter?' I said: 'Sixteen feet of water in her.' He said: 'That is nothing. You will get that every now and again.' He started to tell me how the ship was leaking and one thing and another and how that had been so for a considerable time. He said that in No. 2 bilge on the starboard side you will always find anything from 18 inches to two feet. I went on with the soundings and when I came to the after peak I found eight feet of water.My other work was general until we came to batten her down when I found hatches on Nos. 1 and 2 were in a bad way. They fitted tight in some cases, but in others they would be about three inches short. I had to put 1½-inch pieces in the back of each end to keep them from shifting, until such time as we got new hatches made. There was plenty of wood to make hatches, and we made them eventually. Then we come to tarpaulins. There was only one good tarpaulin for each hatch.I believe that is against the regulations.For the others I might just as well have used my blankets for all the good they were. What we did was to put an old one on and then a new one and then an old one. Eventually, when we went to sea the sea started to rip them up, so I said to the mate: 'Those old things are rotten.' He said: 'You will just have to do with them.' I went and got battens and put them on to hold the torn pieces of tarpaulin to the wooden hatches so that it would not tear them off and so waste my second tarpaulin. There were no spares on board.About four days out we were getting pretty bad weather. As I was taking my soundings one morning and the captain was on the bridge he called me up and said: 'Chips, you might see what you can do with that port watertight door.' This is the door which leads from the forward well deck into the bunker space under the bridge deck. I said: 'All right, Sir' and went forward to get my hammer and my spanner. With them I came aft. I had encountered 1757 a heavy sea coming along from the forward deck. The captain was on the bridge deck and I was standing on the lee side wondering what I would do, when he came down and said: 'Chips, you will not get that door tightened, standing there,' so I said: 'Whenever you heave her to I will get down there.' He says: 'I won't do that.' I said: 'Here is the hammer. You cannot get this man to do that, as the last one did and lost his life through it. I will go down inside and caulk her instead, but I am not going down there.' I eventually went inside the bunker bridge bunker space and caulked her. When I went in there was about one foot of water washing up over the lip of the combing inside and going into the lower bunker. One of the reasons why the captain had to ask me to tighten the door was owing to the constant complaints made by the firemen that the water was continually falling upon them whilst at work in the lower bunkers.It is a very long letter and I could go on, but I do not want to weary the House. I could go on making quotations about the steering gear, and so on. That is about the "Blairgowrie."
Recently, the officers of the Merchant Navy Federation, which has taken a very active part in this controversy and agitation, has published an interim report covering the last eight months. Their language is guarded. This Federation is a body which I am sure has the respect of Members of this House. It has a Parliamentary Committee consisting of certain hon. Members of this House, some of whom are present now. This is their report:While, of course, phenomenally bad weather may furnish a complete explanation of these casualties"—They are referring to a number of ships that have been lost—federated officers are asking whether the manning scales, which at present satisfy the Board of Trade, adequately provide, in every case, for safety of ships when two or more men are incapacitated through injuries sustained in repairing broken hatches, steering gear, etc. They are asking whether the prolonged periods of laying up may make vessels especially vulnerable. They are asking whether the revised load lines are entirely satisfactory in the light of practical experience.Those are not heated words. They are not wild and extravagant statements. They are statements made by people who have knowledge of these questions. The Imperial Merchant Service Guild, a little less than a fortnight ago, at the forty-second annual meeting held in Liverpool, passed the following resolution unanimously: 1758That we, masters and officers, members of the Imperial Merchant Service Guild, assembled at the forty-second annual meeting of the Guild, desire to place on record the grave concern with which we view the number of, apparently well-found ships which have recently foundered at sea in bad weather, with heavy loss of life, such as the s.s. "Saxilby," "Millpool," "Usworth," "Blairgowrie" and "La Crescenta." We are concerned also at the number of cargo ships which have been in distress in heavy weather through damage to steering-gear and hatches, and we are of the opinion that the whole position, including that of the new load line as a possible contributory cause of these disasters, warrants searching inquiry on the part of the Government, and we direct our executive to send a copy of this resolution to the President of the Board of Trade.Well, he has had it, and I think it is as well to give it also to the House. I do not understand the reluctance of the President of the Board of Trade to hold inquiries where there have been shipping disasters. The right hon. Gentleman says he has never been reluctant. In the case of the "Millpool" and the "Saxilby" he refused inquiries because there were no survivors, and no proof could be found. But he is going to have them now on ships where there are no survivors. My case against him is that in the ease of these two ships there were no inquiries. Now he is having them. I say that inquiries in the case of the loss of a ship ought to be automatic.
I do not understand this hydra-headed beast called the Board of Trade. There is the more humane railway department which always has an inquiry if there is a railway accident. There is another branch, the Marine Department, which has to be fully persuaded into an inquiry. In the case of road accidents innumerable questions are put down to the Home Secretary, and there is an immediate police inquiry. I believe I am right in saying that the owner of a vehicle involved in a road accident is under a legal obligation to report the circumstances. That, apparently, does not apply to the sea. In the case of another branch of the Board of Trade, that subsidiary part of it known as the Mines Department, whenever there is a mine disaster in this country, there is a private notice question, and it is stated right away that there is to be an inquiry. There are, of course, inquiries whenever there are mining disasters. Yet, as regards ships at sea, it is a matter for strong pressure before a full inquiry is instituted. When a ship is 1759 moored to the dockside, however, it is a factory, and then it comes under the administration of a much more efficient department, the Home Office, and if there are infringements of the law, in that case there are proceedings in the Court. But not so when a ship is not in dock, and it happens to be under the jurisdiction of the Board of Trade. It is obvious that under the best conditions with the finest ships, in certain circumstances there may be disasters and calamities. Let us admit that you cannot make life at sea as safe a job as, shall we say, being a Member of Parliament, though that is not too safe a job. But is the President of the Board of Trade, and are Members of this House, and are the best type of shipowners in this country quite satisfied that no lives are lost at sea which could have been saved? That is really the question which has caused us to raise this subject in the House to-day.
I would like to ask the President of the Board of Trade and the House whether they regard the staff of surveyors as sufficient? On them rests a tremendous responsibility. If ships leave port un-seaworthy, the right hon. Gentleman is morally responsible. It requires an adequate staff of not overworked officers to see that that kind of work is adequately done. I think it is a little unfortunate that while there were in 1931—I am leaving aside senior surveyors and engineering surveyors—47 ship surveyors, the year after there were only 45, and now there are only 43. I think that this House is entitled to ask whether that staff is adequate to carry out the responsibility which rests on the right hon. Gentleman. Arising out of that, I would like to ask him whether he is satisfied that every step is taken to see that no ship which is not reasonably seaworthy leaves the shore? There is too much evidence now, not merely among seamen but among officers and all ratings, to show that many ships—some of them have been laid up far too long to be healthy when they go out again—are not fully seaworthy, may be leaving these shores.
Then I would ask the right hon. Gentleman whether his Department does everything it can under its instructions and regulations, and with the staff at its disposal, to ensure that the accommodation of the seamen and the officers is reasonable in all the circumstances. I would 1760 like to ask him, also whether he really does regard the present regulations as to manning as being adequate in the interest of the ships and in the interest of the people aboard the ships? I would further ask him whether the Department is sufficiently alive to the interests of the people who spend the greater part of their lives afloat? It is a terrible thing to say, but on the whole I think the Board of Trade's interest in shipping has been more in ships than in seamen. Its interests have been primarily commercial. I think I may put down a question to the Prime Minister asking him whether he would not transfer all the labour sections of the Merchant Shipping Acts to the Home Office for their administration, because I believe if they were administered by the Home Office they would be far more effectively administered than they are by the Board of Trade to-day. The Board of Trade seem to have divided loyalties on this question.
My submission is that the number of surveyors is inadequate. I believe that seamen and officers are losing their lives through the inadequacy of the surveys that take place. The Merchant Shipping Act gives surveyors power to detain ships if they are unseaworthy, or for other causes, but—and I have no doubt that this is a sound provision—the Board of Trade is liable to damages in the case of unnecessary detention. I understand that the surveyors' instructions are so vague as to make it impossible for them to determine what are good grounds for detaining a ship. If there are good grounds which could be specified, I think they ought to be specified here to-day and made public. A certain number of what are called efficient deckhands have to be carried, but there is no definition of efficient deck hands, and, as a consequence, a surveyor can never detain a ship because it is undermanned. I do not pretend to be able to judge between the value of various classes of seamen, but the sort of theory there is that two odd people make one able-bodied seaman seems to me to be fantastic. As a friend of mine wrote the other day, on that theory two bus conductors would make a driver, and two medical students would make a surgeon. That is, obviously, fantastic, and my submission is that the supervision to-day is inadequate to protect either the property or the person, 1761 either the ships or the crews—not of all ships, but of a number of ships.
The accommodation on many boats is a scandal. Without condemning the whole of the industry, or any section of it, I am quite satisfied that if this House became as familiar with the worst conditions on board ship as they have become with the worst housing conditions on land, they would feel just as strongly as they do now about slum clearance, and I am not withdrawing the term "slums of the sea." I hope it will become historic until they have been abolished. I could keep the House much longer than I wish to keep it in describing the conditions which obtain on many ships. I will give one or two quite haphazard quotations. Here is the case of a certain boat—I can give the name of it; I have never quoted in this House without being able to give the name of the boat—Some of the crew supply their own buckets in which to wash; others use discarded paint drums. On each side of the deck aft a small compartment is divided into two sections—one for a w.c. and the other for a shower bath only. A table is provided in the firemen's and A.B.'s foc'sle for messing purposes, no mess-rooms being provided. The sailors' foc'sle is leaking badly. The facts have been reported to the sanitary authorities on the Tyne, but no action has been taken. The ordinary seamen's room has no heating apparatus of any description; a leaking ventilator keeps the room always wet and cold. An O.S. has fixed a piece of wood to the bulwark for use as a table, having nothing provided for messing purposes. The lamp has a glass that has now been broken for months, despite the request for a new one; consequently the cabin is full of smoke. The crew also state that owing to the lack of lamp glass they are compelled to change over the glasses of the navigation lights to the anchor lights when in port, or vice versa when going to sea.I could quote case after case of ships where the conditions to-day really will not bear any kind of examination. Here is another one from Newcastle-upon-Tyne:The foc'sle is aft, and reached from the poop deck by staircase. At the foot of the stairs the crew's messroom is entered, and inside the messroom the washing place is entered by another door, from whence access is gained to the crew's w.c., which consists of a long trough with a piece of wood along the front edge for the men using same to perch on. There is no continuous flow of water when in port, and as there is only one port and a small vent in the w.c., unless water is drawn from over the ship's side the accumulation of 1762 filth is deplorable, and in warm weather the stench is detrimental to the crew's health, as the smells traverse the messroom into the foc'sle.I could go on giving cases of living conditions which are more or less acquiesced in by the Board of Trade. As regards safety, we should all of us attach far more importance to the safety of life than to the conditions of living accommodation, but are we satisfied that there are no ships leaving British ports in a condition which renders them liable to be lost in heavy weather. I had put into my hands this morning some bolts which were taken from a lifeboat not of an ordinary cargo steamer or a tramp steamer, but from a lifeboat of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Line. These bolts were holding the fittings together in the knees of the lifeboat. Repairs had to be done; these bolts were taken out only last Friday. They have never been inspected. I am told by people who understand these questions, they cannot have been looked at for 20 years. What use are these bolts to hold a lifeboat which is probably overcrowded? How many ships are there going to sea with rotten rivets? I do not know. I am making no charges, but if that happens to this boat, I can give the name if it is necessary, it is likely to happen on scores and scores of smaller ships where there is not the same care taken about their condition. I say that I am making no general charge, but, if there are half a dozen tramp steamers as rotten as that, something really ought to be done about it.
This is the kind of thing which I am certain is bound to touch the consciences of hon. Members and indeed the conscience of industrialists throughout the country. There are ships—I could give the names—of great firms of shipowners whose conditions for the seamen are regarded by them as admirable. I am making no charge against the industry as such. The President of the Board of Trade has interpreted what I have said in the past as a charge against the industry. It never was, and it never has been. I am charging those blacklegs of the industry who do not live up to the standards set by the best shipowners. In our big industries the leaders on the employers' side know perfectly well that the future of their industry does not depend upon bringing labour into it as an 1763 element of competition. They realise that the problem of hours of labour, wages conditions and safety appliances, ought to be imposed on everybody alike, that everybody ought to live up to a proper standard, and then those employers who by their ability and foresight can get a trade advantage at the expense of their competitors have done so as the result of their own organisation and brains and not by sweating the people they employ. That principle is established in practically every large industry in this country. Coalowners would not go back on the collective bargaining system, the iron and steel trade certainly would not, and the textile trades would not. The good employers are only too concerned to bring the bad ones up to the scratch, so that all employers could start on the same mark. This question must be alarming to the good shipowner, the man who cares for the sea, who has done his best to make his boats as good as they can be, but it also affects people who are concerned with industry in general.
Despite all the claims and boasts of the shipping industry I do not think that it is as efficient as it pretends to be. It cannot be. It has not got nearly as far along the road to collective responsibility as other industries. We hope it will, and we ask the President, not to alter the law, because that would be out of order at the moment, but to use what power he has under the law to issue instructions and regulations to ensure that the shipping industry of this country is put on a proper basis, so that there shall be no unnecessary loss of life. Nobody but a fool would pretend that in any industry of this country people are not going to lose their lives. Railway servants do so every year, and miners, and seamen as well, but it is a crime against the nation if any seamen lose their lives when the right hon. Gentleman might have exercised a little more supervision over the ships in which they sail.
In raising this question to-day, we are hoping that public feeling in the country, which is growing on this issue, will be satisfied and that the nation will know that the Board of Trade is prepared to use every single power it has, if need be, to increase the staff, to see that the job 1764 is properly done, and make quite sure that people do not risk their lives in boats which are really floating cemeteries. It is not right that this should happen in this century. We got rid of the worst types of boats 70 years ago, but we have some ships to-day which, according to modern standards, are just as bad as the coffin ships of years ago. They must go in the interests of the credit of the British shipping industry and in the interests of our own honour as a shipping nation. It is a mistake to think that all the best ships afloat are British. Unfortunately, that is not so. I wish they were. If they were, England could still hold her head up as a great seafaring nation.
§ 4.25 p.m.
§ Brigadier-General NATION
I want to take this opportunity to draw the attention of the House once more to the serious plight of the seamen in our mercantile marine. The position is so serious that there is something like 40,000 men out of work, and I am afraid that far from improving as time goes on the situation is likely to become worse. A few months ago we had a debate on this subject. The matter was seriously discussed, and we had a reply on behalf of the Government. Since then I have been making some inquiries in the port which I represent. I have visited a large number of ships and many local port authorities, and I have been convinced that the two main causes why there are so many of our seamen out of work are, first, the employment of a large number of foreigners, and, secondly, the employment of a large number of lascars and other coloured seamen. With regard to the foreigners, I understand that there is nothing to prevent the owner of a ship, or a company, employing as many foreigners as they like. They are signed on at foreign ports, come with their cargoes to this country, and then return to foreign ports. They are not discharged here, and therefore our seamen have no opportunity of going on board these ships.
These foreigners are employed because they are willing to accept worse conditions than our own men. I do not believe that they get the full salaries which are paid to our seamen. They are willing to work longer hours than our own people, but I do not believe that they work any better than our own seamen. They are 1765 also employed because, coming from Asiatic ports, they can be got for longer journeys at much reduced rates of pay. In the port which I represent a census has been kept from 1930 onwards, and during the five years up to 1935 there have been 500 Asiatics coming into the port who have claimed to be of British nationality. On verification only 40 were found to be British subjects, the rest being foreigners. I do not think that any other industry in this country would tolerate the employment of foreigners in this way. I cannot imagine a building society or a large contractor employing a number of Italian workmen or French carpenters, or any other kind of foreigner, for a moment. Why then, in the chief industry of this country of which we have been so proud for centuries, should we tolerate foreigners on ships flying the British flag.
There are many reasons given why lascars should be employed. They are said to be British subjects. That is true. The same is true of a certain number of Arabs and Chinamen. They are also British subjects. It is said, therefore, that they have just as much right to be employed as our own seamen. I would have no objection whatever to their being employed provided they were employed under the same conditions as our own white seamen. In reply to a question which I asked a week or two ago, the President of the Board of Trade told me that the rate of pay of lascars was 27s. a month. We know that the National Maritime Board scale of wages for white seamen is not less than £8 6s. a month. That is to say, the lascar receives only one-sixth of what the white sailor gets. Then I am told, "But we have to employ many more lascars than white seamen for any given work." I am informed on very good authority that the proportion is three to two, that three lascars will do the work of two white seamen.
Taking the question as a whole, the ship manned entirely by lascars would pay one-fourth of the wages that the same ship would pay if manned entirely by white sailors. That is a, situation which should not be tolerated. Then I am told that the lascars are employed because they can do the work better in tropical climates. That is a matter of opinion. Those who have travelled in the Tropics 1766 have seen many ships manned entirely by white sailors, and I think that the officers of the Royal Navy who are Members of this House will bear me out when I say that there are ships of the Royal Navy stationed in places like the Red Sea for years on end, and that there are no lascars on board. If the Royal Navy is satisfied that white sailors can do the work there is very little excuse for the merchant service employing coloured seamen.
I would not have any objection, even if the rates of pay were less, provided the lascars were employed only on ships that traded in the Tropics and did not come to European waters. They would not then come into competition with our own people. But when we see ships that are registered in this country, starting from ports in this country and proceeding to India, Hong Kong, Australia, and so on, passing through the Red Sea and Mediterranean, half their voyage being in European waters, I think we have a just cause of complaint that these lascars come here and receive only one-sixth of the pay of our own people. I am convinced that if their pay was similar to that of our own people and was regulated by the National Maritime Board, there would be no question whatever as to the number of white seamen that would be employed in replacement of the lascars. The situation is very serious from the point of view of the unemployed in this country. All of us who came to this House, I am sure, at one time or other gave pledges that we would do all that we could to reduce the number of unemployed in this country. I know that the Government have done their utmost in almost every industry to reduce unemployment, but in this one particular industry instead of unemployment becoming less I am afraid it tends to increase.
I asked the President of the Board of Trade a short time ago whether any steps were being taken to remedy this defect, and he told me that he was making inquiries into the matter. I hope that he will give this very serious question his utmost consideration, and not only that he will conduct inquiries, but that before long he will take urgent measures to reduce this evil. It is a very serious one, and we all as Englishmen feel it very strongly indeed, especi- 1767 ally those of us who represent ports in this country.
§ 4.35 p.m.
§ Mr. DINGLE FOOT
I did not agree with all the arguments and allegations of the right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood). Nevertheless I think the House is grateful to him for raising the subjects that he mentioned. I think it is true that there is a good deal of anxiety in the public mind as to whether everything possible and practicable is being done to guard against loss of life at sea. A question I wish to ask is whether the Board of Trade is satisfied that all reasonable precautions are being taken in the case of the smaller vessels, particularly the fishing vessels? In 1908 there was a Departmental Sub-committee of the Board of Trade which reported very strongly in favour of the use of line-throwing apparatus on all fishing vessels. There was a delay of 20 to 21 years, but about 1929 the Board of Trade actually made the use of apparatus of this kind compulsory on all vessels of over 500 tons gross burthen. That regulation is all right as far as it goes, but I suggest that there has been a very considerable loss of life on vessels of a smaller size, and that the time has come when the Board of Trade might very well consider applying similar regulations to these smaller vessels.
I have figures here for the years 1930 to 1933, showing the number of wrecks among vessels of less than 500 tons, and the number of lives lost in those wrecks. In 1930 there were 55 wrecks and 41 lives lost; in 1931 there were 63 wrecks and 38 lives lost; in 1932 there were 60 wrecks and 37 lives lost; and in 1933, the latest year for which I have the figures, there were 58 wrecks and 69 lives lost. Those figures are sufficient to show that this is a very serious matter. I know that there are a number of people who are entitled to speak with authority on this question and are of opinion that a high proportion of those lives could have been saved if all the vessels concerned had been equipped with line-throwing apparatus in the same way as the larger vessels. Of course it is not possible to say exactly how many of the lives represented in the figures I have quoted would have been saved, but it is possible to give many examples of wrecks of steam trawlers 1768 where lives have in fact been saved because the vessels had this apparatus on board and were able to use it. To illustrate my point, I will give the House two recent examples dating from the autumn of last year. I have here extracts from the reports of skippers of the vessels concerned. This is a report of the skipper of the steam trawler "Orsino":the skipper of the steam trawler 'Orsino' reports that on 9th October he was asked to assist the steam trawler 'Kingston Diamond' who could not move his engines and was on a lee shore off the entrance to Westfjord in Norway. There was a confused sea, with a strong wind. The 'Orsino' steamed past the 'Kingston Diamond' and made connection with the first rocket fired, although it was dark. He took the 'Kingston Diamond' in tow to Tromsoe.There is another case:On 25th October, shortly after 6 p.m., weather hazy and rainy, the 'Holborn' stranded on Medellandsandr, on the south coast of Iceland. Flares were burnt, and shortly before midnight shore people arrived on ponies from across the desert. The 'Holborn' crew made connection with the Schermuly apparatus across the surf, and the crew landed by means of journeys to and fro on an improvised raft.Those are just two examples I have taken. It would be possible to obtain a great many other cases in which lives have been saved through the use of apparatus of this kind, when without it those lives would have been lost. No one wants to place an undue burden on the fishing industry, particularly on the trawling industry, at this time; but my information is that the insurance companies have realised the importance of this matter and have made arrangements to buy this apparatus in bulk and to supply it at cost price to owners of trawlers and other fishing vessels. This sort of apparatus, I understand, is extremely efficient. It is possible to get a pistol which will fire a rocket something like 140 yards and the cost of the apparatus is not more than £9. So I ask whether the President of the Board of Trade will reconsider this matter and consider whether the time has not come to amend the Board of Trade regulations with regard to line-throwing apparatus, so that it will be compulsory to carry apparatus of this kind on vessels of less than 500 tons gross burthen.
There is one other matter I wish to raise. The right hon. Member for Wakefield referred to the manning of boats, and he seemed to imply that a good 1769 deal of unnecessary danger was incurred because ships put to sea undermanned. I do not know whether that is true or not, but, even if the manning of ships is unsatisfactory in the case of British ships, most of us would agree that it is still more unsatisfactory in the case of a number of foreign ships, and in the case of foreign ships which sometimes compete with our own. Many times the President of the Board of Trade has had his attention drawn to the competition which our coasting vessels have to meet from foreign vessels which, at any rate judged by our standard, that is by the standards of the Board of Trade, are undermanned.
I have in my hand a letter from a firm of shipowners in the North of Scotland, not in my constituency. This firm wrote to one of my hon. Friends a few days ago and enclosed a circular from a firm of ship brokers to give their correspondent an idea of the competition with which they had to contend from Dutch vessels working on the Scottish coast. They say:We know from actual experience that British coasting owners are being squeezed out by these Dutch vessels. If the Government cannot reserve the coasting trade for our own vessels, then shipowners should at least be entitled to claim that the Dutch vessels should be manned according to our Board of Trade rules, so that we may be able to compete with them.I am not suggesting for a moment that it is possible or desirable to reserve our coastal shipping simply to our own ships, partly because I am naturally not very favourable to proposals of that kind, but principally because we would expose in that matter a very broad flank to retaliation. But is there no possibility in the near future of obtaining an international agreement on this question of the manning of ships? After all, we have international agreements with regard to other matters. I think I am right in saying that it was only recently that an international agreement was reached on the matter of load line. Something similar might be done in this matter as well. It was raised last December during the Debate on the Shipping Subsidy Bill by my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Rea), and he put a question at that time to the President of the Board of Trade asking whether something could not be done to differentiate between ships which observed 1770 our standard of manning and other matters, and the ships of countries which did not, and whether it would not be possible to have some system of differential dock dues. He did not suggest that we should do that by ourselves, but that some agreement might be come to, at any rate among the countries that were prepared to observe a common standard. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman whether since then he has considered that or any similar suggestion, and whether we are any nearer an international agreement with regard to this matter of the manning of ships?
§ 4.46 p.m.
§ The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of TRADE (Mr. Runciman)
With regard to the inquiry made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee (Mr. Dingle Foot) on the question of line-throwing apparatus, the matter has been considered by the Board, but we will look into it again, as into any other suggestion that may be made with regard to the throwing of lines. Particulars have been given this afternoon with regard to small vessels and those engaged upon fishing. It is, however, with regard to the cargo vessels that I am going to address the House this afternoon. In the first place, may I congratulate the right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) on the very much improved tone that he has now adopted. He has this afternoon given a repetition of some of the charges that he made some months ago, and he has read a certain amount of impressive correspondence to the House. I am sure he would be the first to admit that it is impossible to clear up the facts with regard to these matters by purely ex parte statements. Inquiries must be very much more drastic. Let me go through some of the main points which the right hon. Gentleman raised. He asked questions again about manning. The history of the manning question is well known to those who are connected with the industry, and I will give a short narrative of the way in which the present scale and inspections have grown up. As a matter of fact, the Board have no legal power to deal with the numbers of crew on board any vessel excepting only on grounds of safety, and it is only on grounds of safety that I understand the right hon. Gentleman raised the question this afternoon. The question of manning on other grounds is for discussion between 1771 representatives of the shipowners and the seamen themselves.
The origin of the present scale is this: Acting on the recommendation of a committee appointed in, I think, 1894, power was taken to detain British and foreign vessels for undermanning. That was incorporated in the Merchant Shipping Act, 1897. After 1897 the Board's officers were instructed to require foreign-going ships of over 200 feet in length and not less than 700 tons gross to carry a sufficient number of deck hands, for division into two effective watches; that is to say, a competent hand at the wheel, a look-out man, and an additional man on deck for any purpose, so that no such foreign-going ship could put to sea without a minimum of six efficient deckhands. The principle of the effective watch is the basis of this arrangement, and it applied to vessels of over 200 feet in length and not less than 700 tons gross. In 1909, however, a considerable advance was made, and on the advice of the Merchant Shipping Advisory Committee the scale which is now in existence was brought into force, including two additional efficient deck hands in the case of foreign-going steamships of over 2,500 tons gross or more than 320 feet in length and four additional efficient deck hands in such ships if they were over 5,500 tons gross or 5,420 feet in length. This increase was justified on the ground that the new scale represented the ordinary custom and experience in well-found ships. I understood from the concluding portions of the speech of the right hon. Gentleman that all that he desired was that the standard throughout the merchant navy should be raised to that of the best-found ships, and that is exactly what is attempted in the manning scale of 1909, which has been the basis of the scale ever since, varying, of course, with the size and length of the vessels. The scale is a minimum, and is usually exceeded, although not in every case.
So far as manning is concerned, there are various ways of ascertaining whether or not there has been any infringement of the law or of the regulations. Perhaps the House might be interested to know what is the machinery to ensure compliance with the board's scale. In the case of British ships it is as follows: All agreements for foreign-going voyages must be completed—that is, wage agree- 1772 ments, the signing-on—before a mercantile marine superintendent, who is instructed to satisfy himself that the Board's scale is complied with before the signing on of the crew. That is the first ordeal through which this agreement or manning scale must pass. In the case of difficulty, the superintendent may communicate with the Board's surveyors, who are able from their own technical experience to decide whether a man may be considered efficient or not. The Board's surveyors have power to detain a ship if the scale is not complied with, and that power has occasionally been used within recent times and is always effective. Non-compliance with the scale may also be brought to light when agreements are scrutinised after discharge of the crew, so that if there has been a cutting down of the crew during the course of the voyage, the ship is caught immediately on her return here at the signing off, so that both at the signing on and at the signing off there are chances of seeing whether or not the manning scale has been complied with. So much for the manning scale.
I do not go into the technical question of what is or is not an efficient deck hand. I prefer to discuss that with those who have technical knowledge rather than with those who have no technical knowledge. What is an efficient deck hand? I ask the right hon. Member for Wakefield. He does not know. I ask his neighbour the right hon. Member for Swindon (Dr. Addison); What is an efficient deck hand? He does not know either, and I think it would tax the ingenuity of any man without experience—
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
The right hon. Gentleman is correct. I am responsible, but I am not going to be rushed into doing silly things merely because the right hon. Gentleman says the responsibility rests on my shoulders. I suggest that our manning scales and methods are a model for the whole world and are followed by our inspectors, our surveyors, and our officials. I have nothing more to say on that subject except that if they are not complied with, the usual penalties will in every case be incurred.
§ Mr. MACLAY
That same question of what is or is not an efficient deck hand is causing a certain amount of discontent among owners themselves and among those who are employed. I know the difficulties, and I hope this matter will have attention, so that surveyors, those who go to sea, and those who employ may know what is meant in the regulations by an efficient deck hand. It is the whole root of the problem.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
I quite agree that it is the root of the problem, because it is no use having men who are inefficient, but it is very different from saying that an apprentice who is well grown and physically fit is not as efficient as an able-bodied seaman of several years' experience who does not possess those physical qualifications. That is not a case where it is possible in this House to lay down a standard. If my hon. Friend asks me, or if I am asked from the other side whether steps will constantly be taken to see that the standard is complied with and that there is no evasion under the heading of efficient deck hands, I can assure them of that for the very simple reason that that is the duty now performed by the surveyors of the Board of Trade and the Mercantile Marine superintendent. If my hon. Friend has any case at any time to bring to the notice of the Board of Trade staff, I am sure it will be looked into immediately without the least hesitation.
What has really brought out once more the criticism of the right hon. Gentleman opposite is this: He thinks there is a certain number of vessels—I do not know whether large or small—which are badly designed, which have bad accommodation for the crew, and which on the whole are not only uncomfortable but unsafe. What steps are taken to prevent that being the general rule in the British Mercantile Marine? First and foremost, there is the method of inspection. I was asked what is the position with regard to the inspection staff. I have here the number of 1774 surveyors employed by the Board of Trade. I do not know from what figures the right hon. Gentleman was quoting, but they were not the same as mine. I am giving the surveyor staff, including the principal consultative officers, district principal officers, and consultative survey staffs. In 1981 there were 209 and in 1935 there were 187, but of course, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, owing naturally to the depression and the diminution of the number of vessels now flying our flag, their duties have been very much curtailed. What has been the result of their activities? These men, who number anything from 187 to 209, last year made their general inspections in no less than 11,738 cases, and in 1930 the total had only reached 7,932, so that it has risen considerably. That shows a very considerable degree of activity, and it shows also that the inspections made by the Board of Trade surveyors must have covered a very great variety of vessels. In some cases their requests have not been complied with, and in any case where they have not been complied with pressure has been brought to bear in the proper quarters.
It is very easy to criticise the surveyors unless one has seen them at work, and I regretted to hear the comparison made between the Home Office and the Board of Trade.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
I am afraid the right hon. Gentleman cannot separate them. They are one department working together, some in Whitehall and the others in the various ports, and they work together with complete harmony and are complementary to each other. It is impossible for them to work in isolation. I say that these surveyors have done their work well, and I did regret hearing a comparison made between the Home Office and the Board of Trade, as though the Board of Trade were doing their work much worse than the Home Office. Indeed, it was suggested that when a vessel was lying in dock and became, for some purpose under the law, a factory, the inspection was very much better done than when it was lying in the roads or was not brought under the Factory Acts. I most seriously disagree with that suggestion. The inspections, I believe, are done with the greatest assiduity and 1775 they cover a very large amount of ground. They look into the condition of every kind of ship, large and small, and the result has been that the standards in British ports—I say it without the least hesitation—are higher than in the ports of any other country in the world. That is the result not only of the general spirit of the Mercantile Marine as a whole, but of the complete organisation of the Board of Trade, both in Whitehall and in the out-ports. I do not know how the right hon. Gentleman is going to distinguish between what is done here in Whitehall and what is done in the out-ports. It is impossible for the officials here to carry on inspections. They have to do their work through the ordinary channels of office routine. It is impossible for the people in the ports to do the work necessary at the centre. Each have their own duties to perform. I do not hesitate to say that these practical men, the Board of Trade surveyors, are as fine a body of technicians as you will find anywhere in the world. I had experience of their work long before I came to occupy this post. If is in these circumstances that the right hon. Gentleman said he had been provided with a number of instances of the bad condition of ships. He produced a rotten rivet which I think he said came from a lifeboat.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman suggests that lifeboats in passenger vessels are all in that condition. How do we know that that lifeboat has actually been in use recently? We have no evidence of that. Any evidence of that kind which has any bearing on the losses recently will, I presume, come out at the inquiry.
§ Mr. GREENWOOD
These were taken out of the lifeboat of an R.M.S.P. boat last Friday. This boat is in active commission.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
Well, the right hon. Gentleman knows something about the rules of evidence. He knows that that could not be accepted as full and complete evidence in a case of that kind. The main suggestion made by the right hon. Gentleman was that we at the 1776 Board of Trade were more interested in ships than we were in seamen. He does not bring anything to support that charge. I think I can show—as I have shown in other Debates during the past few months—that the Board of Trade has not been lacking in its duties. It has been continuously screwing the standard up, year by year, in all the essential conditions for the employment of our men, wherever they have to do with the accommodation given them. There has been a continuous raising of the standard. There is no one with any working knowledge of our merchant ships, whether old or new, who does not realise that that is the case.
I come to a very much more serious matter, and that is the losses that have taken place during this terribly severe winter. That some of the vessels trading in the North Atlantic have gone down is a matter of regret, no matter for what cause it may be; whether from the overwhelming of these vessels in tempest or by some material defect in the vessels themselves. At all events, in two or three cases entire crews have disappeared, and it is doubtful whether we shall ever have any evidence of what brought about the calamity. But the right hon. Gentleman seems to think that we have never thought of having an inquiry on this subject till it was suggested by himself. He drew a long comparison between what happens with the Ministry of Transport in the case of a railway accident, and a number of other accidents where inquiry is held immediately there is a calamity. Apparently he does not know what happens at the Board of Trade. If there is a loss such as has been discussed today, an inquiry takes place automatically within the Department by the Department's own officials; and the inquiry then made may provide us with grounds for believing that we should have what is called a formal investigation. That is, of course, a much more solemn court. It is open to the public in a way which the departmental inquiry is not; and it does bring out, as we know by experience, all the known facts in cases of this kind. The Board of Trade inquiries, internally, have been going on in each of these cases as they have occurred whenever we had any material on which to work. I must interpolate here that 1777 in some of these cases, I regret to say, the possibility of getting material has gone for ever. That does not prevent us making use of all the information we can get from any other quarter. Therefore, nothing which has been contributed to the Debate this afternoon or to previous Debates would be foreign to an inquiry or an investigation which is made on the broadest possible lines.
When I went through the material which has been collected I came to the conclusion that, though the number of ships lost was not very large, yet every loss meant the disappearance of a whole crew and the breadwinners of a considerable number of families, and I felt that we might draw some good out of the experience which has been gained with regard to bad weather in the case of some of these disasters. I have, therefore, provided under the Merchant Shipping Act for the setting up of a formal investigation—a court under a wreck commissioner in the usual way. I am glad to say that I have been able to obtain the services of Lord Merrivale, who has had long experience of these matters, to preside over the inquiry. The inquiry will cover all the recent losses which have been referred to. The losses seemed to have occurred in the same quarter during the same period of weather. I thought it as well that we should take the whole of them together. Lord Merrivale will have it open to him to have an inquiry covering the widest possible ground. I hope that every effort will be made to provide him with such material as is available. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to be so good as to allow the communications which have passed through his hands also to reach Lord Merrivale. Obviously, anything which is germane to these losses ought to be brought in as material for this inquiry. But do not let us run away with the idea that losses in the British Mercantile Marine have got out of hand or are more serious than usual. I have here returns covering the whole period from 1921 down to last year. For last year we have not the complete return, but we can give them approximately. During that period losses have been lower than they were in the previous period of 20 years, taken year by year, and the number of lives lost since 1928 has fallen to an average of 39 per annum. That is a very remarkable result. When one 1778 remembers the losses that used to take place in the past it is wonderful that the figure should have come down to such a low average, in the last six years, as 39 per annum. In these circumstances and with these figures before me I venture to say that it is nothing but the grossest exaggeration to regard this industry as being so much more dangerous than others. As a matter of fact, it would be a very fortunate thing if some other great industries in this country had a death roll as small as this. Though it is small, obviously we must take full advantage of the machinery provided by the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, and of the custom which has grown up in the Mercantile Marine. For that reason, I hope the House will feel that there is no necessity for us here to go into the merits of these cases, and to make accusations or charges, or to produce evidence which is obviously ex parte when we can hand the whole thing over to a wreck commissioner, in whom we have complete confidence.
§ Sir BASIL PETO
May I ask the right hon. Gentleman if he can give the figures relating to losses that have already occurred this year, because some of the vessels have gone down with all hands?
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
It covers the well-known case of the "Usworth" and the case of the "Blairgowrie," the "Mill-pool" and the "La Crescenta." Those are the four important cases.
§ 5.10 p.m.
We all deplore the tragic losses which have been referred to this afternoon, and most of us will await with 1779 great interest the result of the inquiry which is to be entered upon. Until the result of that inquiry is available, I do not intend to follow on what has been said. Nor, indeed, do I desire further to enlarge upon what have been called "the slums of the seas." I believe that just as the question of house slums has taken nearly half a century to become an important factor in the minds of our people it will probably take another 50 years before it is agreed that we need a common national policy to do away with the slums of the sea. I have no doubt that in 1980 or 1990 we shall have a great slum clearance on the shipping side. That is a long time to wait.
I intend to speak for a short time on something to which I would have hoped all Members in every part of the House would have been anxious to lend their support. We are all desirous of decreasing unemployment, and here we have in our shipping industry, so it seems to me, a great opportunity for providing employment for more British seamen. I can never understand why Members of other parties who claim to be so keen on giving preference to British goods and British services should not be, by virtue of that same principle, equally keen on giving preference to the employment of British white sailors on British ships. But it is obvious that hon. Members are not so united about giving employment to British sailors as they are about having British goods produced. For example, we have been told from official sources that the total number of coloured and foreign seamen in our ships is over 40 per cent. I think that the actual figure, including lascars, Chinamen, and other foreign seamen is 43 per cent.
That may be, but I am not so sure that these lascars would be allowed to come into employment in London. I am not against their being employed on the brotherhood idea, but the hon. and gallant Member who interrupts knows very well that it is not a question of brotherhood or non-brotherhood, but a question of cheapness and economy only. He knows that very well. There is this enormous proportion of coloured seamen employed, and, when one tries to get reasonable explanations as to why they are employed, one is met with peculiar 1780 reasons which give no justification of the policy. If you are, as I am, a landlubber and a person who does not know a great deal about shipping and the sea, then when you hear a Member talk about having travelled round the world 10 times or having spent 30 years on ships you are half-inclined to take his opinion as that of an authority; but I find that these statements when examined generally fall to the ground. The hon. and gallant Member for Barkston Ash (Colonel Ropner) told me in a previous debate that if I knew anything at all about shipping I ought to realise that lascars were not employed on tramp steamers. As the hon. and gallant Gentleman in question is a shipowner I thought he knew all about it and I therefore felt rather small at the time, but on examination I discovered that that statement was absolutely untrue. I discovered that lascars and coloured seamen generally are employed on many British tramp ships in spite of what the hon. and gallant Member said. That is one example of the false justification offered for what I believe to be a wrong policy.
Again, the hon. Member for Consett (Mr. Dickie) said that although lascar seamen received lower rates of pay, it was necessary to employ more of them, and therefore the question of cheapness did not arise. He said it cost more money to employ the coloured seamen because it was necessary to employ a greater number of them. As the hon. Member had been round the world, I think 20 times, and as I have not been round the world once, I bowed to his superior authority at the time, but afterwards I inquired from other experts who had also been round the world, and I am told that that is untrue. The ratio I am told is three to two, that is to say three coloured men can take the place of two British seamen. But that ratio of three to two must be compared with the ratio of the lascar seamen's wages to the British seamen's wages. The average British white seaman is, I am told, paid at least four times as much as the lascar or the Chinaman, and therefore, even allowing for the ratio of three lascars to two white men, when the difference in wages is taken into account it will be seen that the shipowner is making an extraordinary profit on the bargain by employing the coloured men.
1781 Another hon. Member said that lascars were not employed because of their cheapness, but because unfortunately the ordinary white seaman could not stand the work under tropical conditions. It was suggested that the shipowners would rather employ white men—their own countrymen—and decrease unemployment at home, but that they were compelled to employ lascars on boats which had to go into tropical seas. That again appeared at the time to be a reasonable justification, but when I inquired into the matter I find that in this case also the experts who have sailed round the world have been giving me most misleading statements. I find from other experts that Dutch, German and Italian liners and tramp ships employ their own white nationals exclusively, and if an Italian sailor can stand the work in a tropical climate I have no doubt that a British sailor can stand it equally well.
The hon. Gentleman opposite seems to be rather amused at my statement. I suggest that if a Dutch seaman can do the work in the tropics so can a British seaman. According to the creed of hon. Members opposite, a British sailor is surely as good as a Dutch or German sailor, and do not know why the statement should cause any amusement. Not only do German and Dutch companies employ their own nationals exclusively, but some of our own people do likewise. I find that a British company which has 80 steamers in the Persian Gulf employs British seamen exclusively, and surely the Persian Gulf is a place to which the condition mentioned would apply. If this firm, which employs a very large number of sailors, is able to employ British labour exclusively in the Persian Gulf it knocks the bottom out of the argument that British sailors are not able to stand tropical conditions.
Another example of gross misleading of the House was given by the President of the Board of Trade when, in reply to a question of mine, he said that coloured seamen when they signed on under European articles were paid the rates laid down by the Maritime Board. I was rather perplexed at that answer, and I realised that if such were the ease there was not much support for the argument that cheap wages represented the main consideration in employing coloured seamen. But once again I find that I have been misled. It may be 1782 true, it probably is true, that when a coloured seaman, a lascar, is signed on under European articles he is paid the Maritime Board's rate, but the point is that at least 99 per cent. of these coloured seamen are not signed on under European agreements. It is misleading the House to try to make the point that where coloured seamen are signed on under European articles they receive the same pay as British white seamen, because the right hon. Gentleman must have known better than I do that not 1 per cent. of them are so signed on.
Surely the major point is that 99 per cent. are signed on under their Asiatic agreements, and therefore the shipowners have the benefits arising from these shockingly low wage rates, shocking accommodation, and shocking food supplies of which we have heard—all things which while providing higher profits for the shipowners are not compatible in my opinion with the principles of British justice and fair play. I believe that if hon. Members opposite, instead of trying to discover these peculiar justifications for the employment of cheap foreign coloured sailors would face up to the truth and admit that coloured seamen are employed mainly because they are cheap, their attitude would be much more respected. To try to ride off on misleading and untruthful excuses is not worthy of them. I, as a non-expert, am told by experts that it would be possible to supplant at least 50 per cent. of the coloured seamen and replace them by British sailors who would be paid the National Maritime Board's wages. Surely if that were done it would be acting decently towards the 50,000 British sailors who are at present roaming our ports put of work, and would be much more in keeping with our general protestations as to giving the Britisher preference over the coloured seamen in Hong Kong, Aden, Singapore or anywhere else.
§ 5.25 p.m.
§ Commander MARSDEN
I am very glad that the Opposition chose this subject for to-day's Debate, because to whatever party we may belong I think there is no question nearer all our hearts than the welfare of our seamen. I do not accuse the Opposition of insincerity in this matter, but surely they are inconsistent, because, whenever any definite step forward towards bettering the em- 1783 ployment of sailors is proposed, they are the first people to vote against it.
§ Dr. ADDISON
But the hon. and gallant Member must know that we voted against the subsidy because the sailors were not getting their share of the benefit.
§ Commander MARSDEN
I have said that I am not accusing hon. Members of insincerity, but I repeat that they are inconsistent. Let us go further into this matter. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) made a speech about the conditions under which our merchant seamen go to sea. It was a speech which was intended to move the House, and no doubt did so to a certain extent, and the right hon. Gentleman referred to the case of a ship with her fore-peak with 16 feet of water, and generally in an unseaworthy state. But what was the attitude of the Opposition towards seamen of another type? We had a Debate recently concerning the seamen of the Royal Navy. We had before us the question of obsolete ships, of old cruisers, of guns which were not up to date, of ships that could not steam as fast as enemy ships, of ships that were really past their time and were due to be replaced by modern vessels, if our men were to be able to meet an enemy on equal terms, and have a fair chance. The Opposition voted against the proposed improvements. Therefore, I think I am justified in saying that we must treat a lot of what we have heard as mere talk. The truth of the matter is that the Opposition think they have got hold of a good story, and they are going to stick to it, but in fact it does not bear examination.
I have the utmost sympathy with the general idea of bettering the position of the merchant seaman. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield made a number of assertions, as evidence for which he had his pockets full of rivets which I suppose he has taken away with him to show to his friends outside. But what do his assertions amount to? He said he did not make any accusation 1784 against the Board of Trade inspectors, and that they were in fact a very worthy class. It was the President of the Board of Trade and his Department that the right hon. Gentleman was after, not the inspectors. Yet if it were true that ships had been passed with their rivets in the condition which he described, the inspectors were the people to get at, because in that case they would not have been carrying out the instructions of the Board of Trade. Although I am very proud to hold a merchant master's certificate, I do not profess to have a close knowledge of merchant ships, but my friends in the Merchant Service when they want to "grouse"—and sailors like to "grouse" occasionally—complain that the Board of Trade inspector will take nothing for granted, that he refuses to accept the carpenter's sounding of water in the hold, but must sound it for himself, that he insists on tapping all the timbers in the lifeboats to see that they are sound, and on examining the paintwork round the rivets to see that there is no rust. The complaint is not that the Board of Trade inspector slurs over his work, but that he is over-enthusiastic about it.
I do not wish to talk unnecessarily on this subject. I believe that we all desire the same thing. We feel very much the losses which have occurred among these ships during the recent winter, and we welcome the statement that there is to be a searching inquiry under a most able chairman. We sincerely trust that the original cause of these accidents may be found and proposals made to prevent their recurrence. Whatever the original cause of the founderings may have been, there is not the slightest doubt as to how the ships sank. They sank almost certainly, because the helm or engines for some reason ceased to function, the propeller stopped, and the ship became unmanageable, and got into the trough, beam on to the waves. Enormous seas were crashing over her and thousands of tons of water fell on her decks. In such cases, sooner or later something gives way, usually the hatch covers or something of that sort; then ventilators get washed away and water gets into the bottom of the ship, which starts labouring and rolling; more seas come over her, and eventually the point comes when she sinks.
1785 That is undoubtedly how these ships went to their end. What caused the breakdown is a matter for investigation. I would like to make one suggestion, which is not only mine, but has been suggested to me by many merchant seamen, and I have seen it in merchant sailors' periodicals and journals. It is, that steamers of under a certain horsepower and strength should be fitted with a certain amount of canvas, because if they had mizzen and head sails the chances are that they would be able to heave to and to weather the gale until assistance was forthcoming. I hope that the President of the Board of Trade and his advisers may consider that as another safety move for the smaller-sized ships. I repeat what has been said about the Socialist party. We are making every effort to find employment for these men, and yet, what was the cry when the subsidy was granted? It was that it was going into the shipowners' pockets. Would all the bad ships and the black-legging ships to which they refer be in that condition if reasonable profits were being made?
The one word which hon. Members in the Opposition hate is "profits," and yet without profits the ships could not function at all; they would be laid by and there would be further unemployment. Without profits nothing would happen, and yet, if there is any suggestion of the word, hon. Members opposite start objecting. We might examine that question much further, but I can only say from my small experience of the Opposition that with all their talk about unemployment, they would much sooner 99 men went out of employment than that one owner should make a £5 note. It is against their policy that any profits should be made. Let the working people suffer and the sailor be put out of employment, but, they say, do not let the shipowner make anything or we shall lose all the votes in our constituencies if we agree to any such proposal. In such arguments as the party in Opposition have advanced towards the betterment of the conditions of our merchant seamen, I heartily support them. I can only say that I hope the inquiry will lead to something which will ensure that British seamen shall go to sea only in ships which are absolutely seaworthy.
§ 5.34 p.m.
§ Sir BASIL PETO
I am sure it was with great satisfaction that the House heard the President of the Board of Trade announce that there was to be a full and comprehensive inquiry into the foundering of these various vessels. He said that every relevant bit of information that had any bearing on these sinkings would be brought to the attention of the Board for inquiry to be made into it. The President also told us, and indeed it is of the essence of the matter, that in these particular cases it is a matter of great difficulty to obtain any evidence at all because, as he reminded the House, in two of the four cases to which I referred in my question yesterday, the vessels sank with all hands. They were the "Millpool" and "Blairgowrie." The "Saxilby," which was sunk in September, 1933, under apparently similar conditions, also left no trace of evidence behind which could be brought before any court of inquiry. As far as the five vessels referred to in my question yesterday were concerned, three of the five went down with all hands and left no trace of any evidence. That being so, I think the answer I received yesterday can hardly be regarded as satisfactory, because the Parliamentary Secretary told us:The extent to which recent casualties have been due to failures of hatches will no doubt be brought out in the reports of the formal inquiries."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th March, 1935; col. 1580, Vol. 299.]I hold that that is impossible. All we know—and this, at any rate, will come before the inquiry—is that in nearly every case where these vessels were lost, the final, or nearly final, SOS message spoke of certain holds being full of water. The probability is that those holds would not have been full of water if the hatch covers had not given way. I think that that is a very material fact, and, in view, of that, it appears to me that enormously more information can be gained by Lord Merrivale and those who are pursuing this matter, if the inquiry is sufficiently wide to take into account the experiences of vessels which, perhaps because of different construction, have been able to weather the most appalling gales during the past winter and come through safely. I do not think I need apologise to the House for reading a really thrilling account of the vessel to which I referred in my question yesterday, the "Arcwear," 1787 which met with just the sort of weather and conditions which would have sent most vessels to the bottom, and which was no doubt responsible for the loss of many of the vessels to which I have referred. May I read the account of the Master, Captain A. Hawkins—On Sunday, the 24th February, the barometer, which was very high at 30.20 inches, began to fall, and the wind increased in strength considerably, reaching a strong gale by midnight with a very heavy sea running. During this period the ship was behaving excellently. On the 25th, the weather became so bad that I hove to at 1.30 p.m. with the engines just turning enough to keep steerage way"—That is the condition to which my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North Battersea (Commander Marsden) referred as a condition that makes for safety. It is vital to keep the engines turning.—with the sea about two points on the port bow. Heading this way the ship was riding beautifully and was shipping practically no water. At 5.50 p.m. we noticed ahead what appeared to be one sea trying to override another and rising to a considerable height. From the bridge the top of the sea was in line with the mast cross-trees, and there was no doubt about it being a tidal wave.The ship tried to rise to the wave, but could not get high enough, and the huge wave curled over the forecastle head without doing any damage there, and fell bodily on No. 1 hatch with a report as if a large gun had been fired, and shook the ship from stem to stern. The wave filled the whole of the forward well, passing over the top of the navigating bridge, flooding the wheelhouse, chart room, and all the midship accommodation, broke all the port lights on the upper and lower bridge fronts, bent the rails at the front of the upper and lower bridges, smashed down the engine room skylights, wrenching the skylight support rail stanchions out of the skylight top with a piece of plate attached, flooded all the engineers' accommodation, extinguished the electric lights, travelled over the after well, and flooded the crew's accommodation.The tremendous blow from this single huge sea smashed in five only of the sections of the steel hatch cover over No. 1 hold, the remaining 43 sections remaining intact. As the cover sections on all the hatches are interchangeable, the five damaged sections were quickly replaced by five from the 'tween deck hatchway of the cross-bunker. At 9 p.m. the weather modulated somewhat and I was able to resume my course and speed. All the ventilators on the forward well were smashed; the boats were lifted out of their chocks and moved aft, but were held by the gripes and guys.On further examination I found No. 1 hatch coaming set in on the port side and the deck at the side of the hatchway set down, although these received a much 1788 lighter blow than the hatch cover; the derrick table support bracket is also set in slightly. There is no damage to any of the other four steel hatch covers on the weather deck, and there appears to be very little damage to the grain in No. 1 hold in the way of the damaged cover. I am positive that if wood covers had been on No. 1 hatch the complete cover would have gone, and the ship endangered, and most possibly No. 2 hatch cover would also have gone and the ship lost. On previous voyages ordinary heavy seas have fallen on the steel hatch covers, and, as you are aware, they are in as good condition as when they were fitted.I have read that to the House because I want to impress on my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary that he must make the inquiry wide enough so as to profit by the experience of vessels that did not go to the bottom with all hands. Then, perhaps, we shall find out what special precautions in construction are likely to prevent these terrible accidents in future. A letter which I received this morning from Sir Joseph Isherwood said:The locked steel interchangeable hatches fitted on the vessel and referred to in the report were, in the opinion of a number of experts who examined the ship on arrival home, responsible for her safety.Modern conditions involve, necessarily, very large openings to the holds. It is necessary for ships to take motor cars and larger machines, and very long and bulky pieces of freight are now regularly lowered through the hatchway into the hold. I do not say it has anything to do with it, but we must remember that the Plimsoll line has been altered slightly in the recent Safety-at-Sea Convention, and when you get a steel ship with an immense proportion of the deck consisting of the hatch covers to the holds, it is obvious that we must have a form of construction in which these covers are as strong as the deck itself. Otherwise there will not be safety.
May I draw the attention of the House to the analogous question which has arisen in naval construction? As a result of our experience at Jutland and during the Great War we have found that now that our ships are liable to bombs from aeroplanes dropped upon the decks and to the dropping fire of long range high projectiles, it is necessary to have an altogether different strength of armament for decks than existed before. There is an exact analogy between that and our merchant vessels. If we are to get such freights as there are, and we 1789 want them badly enough in order to employ our ships, we have to have these large openings to the holds. Therefore if the inquiry is wide enough to get evidence from vessels that have not foundered, where the captains are of opinion that certain definite factors in the construction of the vessel have saved him from going to the bottom, that will be evidence infinitely more valuable than such evidence as is obtainable—and it is very slight—in the case of vessels that have actually foundered.
I should like to know what information the Board of Trade have as to the pressure which can be exerted by a sea falling upon the deck of a ship in the manner I have described. What pressure do the regulations of the Board of Trade and the insurance companies require hatch covers to withstand? Those are material facts, and I hope they will be brought out in the inquiry, or perhaps the hon. Gentleman who is to reply can tell us. It may be held that I am suggesting new regulations which would impose a further burden upon our merchant ships. We know perfectly well—at least we on this side of the House are convinced of it—that there are no better constructed and better-found merchant ships in the world than British merchant ships, and, if we were to require that our vessels engaged in the North Atlantic and other oceans where heavy seas are likely to be encountered should have steel hatch covers, or covers equally strong, it might be protested that this would add another burden to British shipping by increasing the cost of construction.
I think I am entitled to point out, in view of these sinkings, five vessels having gone to the bottom, three of them with all hands, that there are other people who are interested in this matter. In the first place, there are the people who send their freight—valuable freight—across the seas. Vessels constructed in the manner I have suggested would, I think, command the pick of such freights as are offering, and that is exactly what we want to get. Further, Lloyd's and other marine insurance people will take note of the fact that these vessels have been lost, and if, as the outcome of this inquiry, Lord Merrivale says, which I think is very likely, that they have gone down because they filled with water from 1790 above owing to the hatch covers breaking, then Lloyd's will say that vessels fitted with interchangeable steel hatch covers will be granted lower insurance premiums. Therefore, we shall find that the extra cost of construction will be more than offset by the increased competing power of the ship in the freight market on the one hand, and the cheaper insurance rates on the other hand.
I hope my hon. Friend will be able to refer to this matter again, because I do not think it was left in an altogether satisfactory position by his answer yesterday, and I am fortunate in having this opportunity of putting the whole matter before him and the House in a manner such as one cannot possibly do by question and answer. I want such publicity as one gets in a Debate in this House, because this is a very important matter. A most important point in connection with the inquiry is that Lord Merrivale's instructions should be wide enough to allow him to call for evidence from vessels which have not gone to the bottom, but have been through weather of the sort that has sent to the bottom the vessels, the loss of which is the subject of his inquiry. In that way we shall get much more practical results from the inquiry.
Employment on ships is another matter to which I wish to refer. In 1929 an agreement was made by the National Maritime Board that foreign-going vessels of 2,750 tons and over trading outside the Western Europe limits—I need not trouble the House with details of the exact areas to which the agreement applies—should carry three officers. There was only one condition, and that was that the agreement was subject to the supply of navigating officers being adequate for the purpose. I find a note in the Maritime Board's year book that the Imperial Merchant Service Guild, the Mercantile Marine Service Association and the Officers (Merchant Navy) Federation, Limited, shall be the people through whom the question of the adequacy of the supply of officers shall be tested. The test is to be the ability of the bodies I have named, affiliated to the National Maritime Board, to supply a reasonably suitable officer in time to avoid delay in the sailing of a vessel.
I am sorry to hear, though I am not surprised, because I know the conditions of the freight market and the desperate 1791 straits of our shipowners in picking up a living, that quite a number of tramp ship-owning firms have not carried out, and are not carrying out, this agreement. Although, perhaps, the position has been a little better since the subsidy came into operation, we have a long list of ships which have sailed without a certificated third officer which ought to have had one had the agreement been carried out. Under the Merchant Shipping Act two certificated officers only are required. When that agreement was come to in 1929 we hoped that the evil and bad old system of watch and watch and no rest had ended. Under conditions in the North Atlantic such as we have been considering one can imagine what that system means in the wear and tear of the human constitution. We hoped that there would always be an officer, so to speak, in reserve, so that the two officers could get a little reasonable rest between watch and watch. I had hoped that the granting of this subsidy, which was supported from this side of the House and opposed on the opposite benches, would make it certain that where three officers were required under the agreement three officers would be employed. When the agreement was made in 1929 the only proviso was that there should be an adequate supply of officers. Now that there are officers at every port, standing about waiting for the chance of a berth, it seems rather ironical that ships should fee going to sea with only two certificated officers because things are so bad that, presumably, the expense of a third officer cannot be afforded if the ship is to be run at all. The subsidy may make a difference, and I hope that it will at any rate operate to find some further employment for the officers of the merchant service.
§ 5.55 p.m.
§ Mr. LOGAN
I am very glad to have an opportunity of saying a few words on this subject. The hon. Baronet the Member for Barnstaple (Sir B. Peto), in his concluding remarks, mentioned the number of British officers who are unemployed, and said that while his party voted for the subsidy we on this side did not. As it happened, I did vote for the subsidy, and most of my hon. Friends here put forward a very sound reason why they did not vote for it. When the subsidy was under discussion it was sug- 1792 gested from this part of the House that certain protection ought to be given as a condition of the subsidy, and as such protection—the particular protection that was mentioned a few moments ago—was not guaranteed, hon. Members on this side did vote against the subsidy. The case which has been presented here today is practically an indictment, and it must be brought against the Board of Trade, but not for a moment must anybody think that we mean to imply that the President of the Board of Trade is responsible for all the tragedies of the sea. For the purpose of debate, and as a matter of form, we must make our attack upon the President of the Board of Trade if we are to put forward what we regard as a grievance. As to the personnel of our mercantile marine, there is nothing to be said. I will go so far as to say that on all the seven seas no finer body of men are to be found than those sailing in British ships, and, therefore, there is no question here of being a "Little Englander" and belittling our mercantile marine. My constituency is composed of those who go down to the sea in ships, and therefore on any question concerning either conditions in the forecastle or the firing of a vessel I am pretty well au fait with the technical terms.
I was surprised at the flippant manner in which the President of the Board of Trade turned on one side an intervention I made during his speech when he was dealing with deck hands. It was a pertinent question, because deck hands have never been defined. In this House one must not show any temerity. When the President of the Board of Trade is delivering his oration no one must intervene. The Floor of the House must be left entirely to the President of the Board of Trade, and when the oracle has spoken what he says must be accepted as authentic. I am not going to accept it as authentic. We have never had a definition of a deck hand, and I want to know whether two youths are to be considered equal to two men as deck hands. There can be no ambiguity about that question, and it is no good the President of the Board of Trade saying, "You might have two old and decrepit men in one case and two fine young men in the other." I might come into the category of the old and 1793 decrepit men and he might come into the category of the able young men, but that was not the question. What I asked, and what I want to know is, whether two young men with no experience are as fully qualified to be on deck as two able-bodied men with, at least four years' seafaring experience?
From the point of view of cheap labour and the manning of our ships, that is an important point to those shipping firms who engage only competent deck hands. There are firms that consider that they can put these youths on board. The President of the Board of Trade said that we might find an able, physically fit, young man coming from a school, a training college or a ship, but the fact of the matter is—I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will make a note of this—that most of the men and the youths who come on board as apprentices have come directly from home, and have had no seafaring experience. When we inquire into the manning of ships it is of no use to turn us to one side by that sort of answer, or to use the technique: "The Opposition know nothing at all about the question; therefore I can turn them down, and there is no need to give any reply." Any right-thinking man would give an answer, not according to a lower standard but from the highest standard, whether he were asked by an ignoramus or not. When questions are asked, the questioners may know as much about the matter as he who has to reply. I was always taught that when I was at school, and it would be better if the President of the Board of Trade would bear that in mind when he is dealing with matters which are vitally important.
I receive my instructions on these matters from those who have given most of their lives to the sea. During the last few months there has been an appalling loss of life. Six ships have gone with a total loss of life, and yet we are not able to get any account of them. It would appear that they have to go among the casualties of the sea that are unknown, and it has to be said that in the British House of Commons we are not to ask pertinent questions about them. There were the "Saxilby," the "Mill-pool," the "Usworth," and the "La Crescenta." The last one to go was the "Blairgowrie." I hold in my hand a 1794 letter from a master mariner, who is a past master and holds an ex-master's certificate. He writes to me from a ecrtain part of the country:As I said before, I am thankful that I have not got to go to sea in any such rattle-traps. I may tell you that you are up against a tough proposition,What does he mean by that? He means that when we try to deal with the unseaworthiness of the ships which go down with loss of life, we are up against the shipowners and their £5 note which was referred to by an hon. Member a few moments ago. I would much prefer that the shipowners in the country lost all their money rather than that sons and fathers who sail from our ports should go to their doom in rotten ships, and that that should never be pointed out in this House. Questions of £5 or £10 are apparently a first consideration, rather than the human life in our vessels. That is a wrong sort of opinion to express, and from my knowledge of a good many shipowners I am convinced that that is not the point of view which the shipowners of this country would put forward. Our indictment to-day is not against the general body of the shipowners of this country but against those who use unseaworthy ships. We feel that a Board of Trade inspection ought to take place. Lord Merrivale has been appointed to open an inquiry. I do not know whether it will be an inquiry pro forma, or whether it will give the fullest opportunity for investigation. Three or four months before a ship goes down we get letters sent to us privately, not only from mothers and fathers but from officers who have sailed on the ships, pointing out that there are leakages, that the ship is unseaworthy and that when she goes to sea she will sink. One mother writes—
§ Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Sir Dennis Herbert)
I am not quite sure to what the hon. Member is referring, but I am sure that he will realise that, the investigation having been decided upon, certain matters are sub judice, and must not be gone into or discussed on merits.
§ Mr. LOGAN
I will be subject to your Ruling. I think it will be within the rules of order if I do not give names, but only broadly mention statements that have been made, and if I do not generalise 1795 or give any particular point that would be relevant to any evidence in regard to loss of life. I may point out that certain expressions of opinion have been made. It should be perfectly in order to say that a very responsible body of shippers in Liverpool made a comment last week in regard to the appalling loss of life at sea, and pointed out that it was absolutely necessary that the Board of Trade should institute such an inquiry as has now been forecast, as that would be in the best interests of the shipping of the country. On that we are perfectly at one. I do not wish to say anything that will prejudice an impartial inquiry or handicap those who will have to deal with the matter. I will, therefore, take another phase of the question. I have ventilated my opinion, and I will leave it at that. I am particularly interested in the aspect of the unseaworthiness of our ships and the loss of life.
If ever there were a subject that called for the consideration of this House it is that of the manning of boats and the employment of white labour. I am convinced, whatever the opinion of the Board of Trade may be, that this House will have to make up its mind on the loss of life at sea, the management of ships and the employment of white labour. There are tens of thousands of unemployed, and no reason has been put forward by any Minister why the white labour of our cities is walking about without employment, except that we are under contract. I find black and coolie labour fully employed. That is no solution to the problem, and is not to the benefit of our shipping. If it is a question of cheap labour there ought to be a subsidy in order to get rid of cheap labour and to bring in our own white labour to man our ships. I have yet to learn that, sailing any of the seas of the world, coolie labour is better than white. I have yet to learn that white labour has not been able to travel on any part of the sea of the world. In all seriousness I suggest that from the point of view of the prestige of the British nation and of security, employment ought to be found for Britishers. Officers of the mercantile marine ought not to have to walk the streets of our great cities.
Not many months ago a ship sailed out of the Port of Liverpool with officers 1796 serving as able-bodied seamen. Ex-masters and men with masters' certificates are unemployed while negroes in the same port get employment. I have had, standing before me and asking for public assistance, a man who had a past-master's certificate, and I have only been able to give him 15s. I have felt ashamed. A man with a double-master's certificate has stood before me and asked for relief of 15s. to be granted, and that was for one who had sailed the sea, but, because of redundancy of ships, had got into a bad way. He could not get a boat. He had parted with all his home. He had tried for five years, had had to part with everything he had in life, and finally had had to come to the Poor Law. It is of no use to talk about contracts, or agreements made with other countries, when our own men, our own flesh and blood who have fought for us, are wanting food and sustenance. Have we not the right to speak in the British House of Commons for our own men and to demand that the time is now for the British nation to make the provision which is absolutely essential for those who ventured their lives in a great war, and who now call upon us to come to their aid?
The officers and men of the Mercantile Marine do not want public assistance; they want the right to sail in British ships. They want the right to be leaders in the navigation of the world. They want the right to take their proper place. The Government should see that that type of labour gets its proper place. When there is danger, coolie labour is no use on a boat. When there is danger, British white labour is there, and always leaves a name of which the British Mercantile Marine can be proud. I speak on behalf of the Port of Liverpool when I say that this Debate must not be taken as meaning nothing. The Minister is fully conscious of what I mean and I hope that he will give every attention to finding some means, even at this late hour, of giving the protection to the Mercantile Marine which is so necessary in order that the men may be placed upon those ships, and that there may be proper supervision. The definition must be more explicit, and it must come more definitely from the Board of Trade than has been explained to-day. My purpose in rising is to make known to the House that we feel at one on the question of shipping, 1797 which affects the whole life of our nation. It is not a party matter but one which strikes into the home of every man, woman and child in this Britain of ours. Because I feel so keenly, I raise my protest and ask that there may be some redress. This is the only opportunity that there has been in the course of this Debate.
§ 6.13 p.m.
§ Admiral of the Fleet Sir ROGER KEYES
After the distressing charges which were made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) the whole House was, I am sure, delighted to hear from the President of the Board of Trade that there is to be a thorough inquiry into the recent loss of life in merchant ships, and that the inquiry is to be under the chairmanship of such a distinguished person as Lord Merrivale. The hon. and gallant Member for North Battersea (Commander Marsden) spoke of the inconsistency of the Socialist party. Ever since I have been in this House I have pleaded that our obsolete ships should be replaced and the men who man them should be given a fair chance. The last time I did it an hon. Member from the Opposition side of the House said that I was trying to make another war, or words to that effect. The hon. Member for Abeldare (Mr. G. Hall), whose devotion to the Service to which I belong is thoroughly appreciated by the Navy, was put up the other day to move a reduction of the personnel of the Navy. He knows perfectly well that the personnel of the Navy was greatly reduced during the two years of Socialistic administration. Whom did that hit? It hit the seamen and their wives. The Navy is so under-manned that men who have served abroad, particularly those in some classes, have to go straight off abroad again after a few months at home. Reduction in personnel for which the Socialists voted would have hit the welfare and the happiness of the men of the Fleet still harder. The British Shipping (Assistance) Bill was opposed through all its stages by the Opposition, with the exception, apparently, of the hon. Member who has just spoken. Only a few days ago I received a letter from a friend of mine, the master of a tramp vessel now at Rosario. He wrote: 1798The subsidy is now au established fact, and I hope some of the poor fellows who have been out of work for so long will get berths. The thing that is noticeable here is that ships which sailed without third mates and fourth engineers have been telegraphed by their owners to sign them on at once.He goes on to say:I think the subsidy may cut freights, and the shippers will benefit. This in time, may drive the Greek and Italian out, which may save us.There is first-class testimony that the British Shipping (Assistance) Bill, which the Socialists attacked so hotly, is doing good. The hon. Member for the Scotland Division of Liverpool (Mr. Logan) told us that he voted for the subsidy, and said that there ought to be a larger subsidy if it would help to employ British seamen.
I would like to ask the President of the Board of Trade a question. He will remember that some Amendments were moved by the Opposition, and also by hon. Members associated with me, with the object of getting introduced into the Bill an undertaking that the shipping subsidy should only apply to ships carrying a fair proportion of British officers and men. The President of the Board of Trade gave an undertaking that, although this could not form part of the Bill, for various reasons, it would be implemented administratively. That was very satisfactory. The right hon. Gentleman also said that the Board of Trade would only give the subsidy to ships that observed the National Maritime Board's recommendation. The National Maritime Board has always pleaded that three officers should be borne in every ship, in addition to the master, but frequently this is not observed. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman if he would make it one of the conditions of granting the subsidy that a ship should carry a master and three navigating officers, because, if there are only two, it means watch and watch. I have kept watch and watch for some weeks at a time, and it is a very hard life. It means about 90 hours on duty in a week, and it cannot make for the efficiency of the ship if the watchkeepers work such long hours. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be able to tell us that any firm which is granted the subsidy will have to employ three navigating officers as well as the captain. It seems that firms are 1799 anticipating this, to judge from the letter I have just quoted, which says that owners are actually telegraphing to their ships to engage a third officer.
There is another point. The Socialist Opposition have referred to the slums of the sea, but the British Shipping (Assistance) Act, which they opposed so hotly, has a scrap-and-build Clause, and this affords a splendid opportunity for owners to get rid of these old slum ships, as they are called, and replace them with modern ships. I would urge that the Socialist Opposition, if the subsidy already granted is increased next year, instead of opposing it should support it, and thus benefit the men who go down to the sea in ships.
§ 6.20 p.m.
§ Captain PETER MACDONALD
I would like at the outset to say how pleased I was to hear the Minister deal with the question of employment in ships. It is a question which I have raised at various times in this Parliament, and the answers I have received have never given me any satisfaction. I do not say that they are altogether satisfactory now, but I am glad to hear from the Minister that some steps are being taken to ensure that more British seamen are employed in British ships. I know that the right hon. Gentleman has not always a free hand in the matter, but certainly where, as is the case to-day, shipowners are enjoying the benefits of a subsidy provided by this House, he has a complete lever, and I hope he will use it for all he is worth in order to see that these owners only employ British seamen in their ships.
Another question which I have raised in the House on various occasions is that of inter-coastal trading. A very sore point with many people engaged in the Mercantile Marine is the fact that, although they are precluded from entering practically all foreign ports and engaging in any form of coastal trade, either picking up passengers or cargo, foreign steamers are allowed to come here and engage in inter-coastal trade. That is very unfair. I know, from the answers I have received in the past, that I shall be told to-day that, as compared with the total shipping of this country, the percentage of inter-coastal trading is negligible. I think that the last time I asked a question on the subject I was told that it was 3 or 4 per cent. But even 3 or 4 per cent. is an important margin 1800 when one considers the condition of our shipping industry to-day. When the Minister gives the figures to-day, as he will, I would like him to consider the question from an Empire point of view, and, if he has the figures of inter-coastal trading in Empire ports as well as home ports, it would be very interesting to know what they are. I think that here again he has an opportunity of helping British shipping if he will approach Empire countries with a view to seeing that, if regulations are made, they are enforced throughout the whole Empire. I feel confident that in that way he could do a great deal for our shipping industry.
Further, I think a great deal might be done in the direction of co-ordinating the shipping industry, and especially coastal shipping, with road and rail transport. The problem of road transport is becoming a growing one, considered in conjunction with our railways, but, while it is very often discussed in conjunction with our railway system, no one ever seems to mention it in connection with our shipping industry, in spite of the fact that the last Road Traffic Act contained provisions for co-ordinating the three services. I should like to hear if anything has been done since the Road Traffic Act was passed, containing that Clause, in the way of co-ordinating shipping with road and rail transport. If road transport is to grow up, as it is growing every day, to the detriment of our coastal shipping, it is very important that some action should be taken by the Government to see that the interests of shipping are protected. I should like to hear some statement from the Minister as to whether any action has been taken in co-ordinating these services, because there is a great deal of overlapping in the transport services to-day.
Another point that I want to raise is with regard to inter-Imperial shipping. The other day I asked a question of the Colonial Secretary with regard to the use of foreign ships between Cyprus and Palestine, and I was informed that no British ships were working on that service. It is a very serious situation that, when shipping interests in this country are clamouring for subsidies and assistance, there are certain very important ports exporting and importing British goods from and to Empire ports, and it is necessary to use foreign ships to transport those goods. Surely something 1801 can be done by the Board of Trade to encourage British shipping interests to trade between these ports, so that our interests may be protected and at the same time more employment may be found for British seamen.
§ Captain MACDONALD
It may be that there are services from London to Cyprus, but not from Cyprus to Palestine.
§ Captain MACDONALD
The trade is there, but it is being carried by foreign ships. I am informed by Ministers that all these goods should be carried in British ships, but they cannot get any British shipping interests to make contacts. The hon. Baronet may know more about the matter than I do, but I should like to know from the Minister if what I have stated is the fact. The statement was made to me the other day, not in reply to a, question, but as the result of further inquiries. If it be the fact, it is very serious, and I would urge the Minister to look into it. The same thing applies to Rumania, where there is an opportunity for British shipping to extend and at the same time look after British interests.
A very important question, which has not been touched upon to-day, is the question of British pilots. Year after year the position of the British pilot has been brought to the notice of the Board of Trade. Nobody would deny that the British pilot is the best pilot in the world. He spends his whole life learning his trade; he is on duty at all times and in all weathers outside every port in Great Britain; and yet it is a fact that there are ports in this country where ships of a certain tonnage, and at some ports of any tonnage, are allowed to use the port without having a British pilot on board. That is a thing which would not be tolerated, and is not tolerated, in any other country in the world. Master mariners will always engage a pilot when there is a fog or a storm, but when the weather is good, and they can find their own way into port, they do not employ a pilot. Sometimes, indeed, they use the subterfuge of waiting till a ship goes into port with a pilot on board, and then sneaking in afterwards. In that way 1802 the British pilot loses his dues, and he considers that he has a very just grievance.
I should like the Board of Trade really to consider this question, and see if the same policy cannot be adopted in this country as is adopted abroad. There it is compulsory for every ship-owner to contribute towards the pilotage, and the result is that pilot dues are much lower than they are in this country, and, whether or not a ship uses a pilot, the ship-owner has to contribute towards the dues. Surely, that is a policy which might easily be adopted in this country. I have several times asked questions about it, but I have never received any satisfactory answer. Several times I have been present when deputations of pilots have come to interview Members of this House and lay their grievances before us, which we have passed on to the Board of Trade, and yet they still suffer from the same grievances from which they have suffered every year since I have been in this House. I should like the Minister when he is replying, if he has any answer to this question, to let us have it to-day in order that we may try to satisfy this very worthy and important body of people that their interests are being safeguarded in this House. At the present time they feel that they are being sacrificed in the interests of foreigners, because no British ship can enter a foreign port without a pilot abroad, and they cannot understand why foreigners should be able to come here and ignore their skilled pilotage and try to make entry into our ports. It is also extremely dangerous from the navigation point of view to have inexperienced foreigners using such a narrow river as the Thames or using the Bristol Channel, and there are very often accidents as a result. It is very important that this question should be looked into and steps taken to look after the interests of this very important service.
§ 6.33 p.m.
§ Mr. G. NICHOLSON
I wish briefly to refer to a subject which has already been raised to-day, namely, the question of the employment of alien seamen on the ships of this country. I quite realise the great difficulties that exist in discriminating against coloured seamen who are British subjects, but I also have a strong feeling 1803 that the Board of Trade is not sufficiently aware not only of the uneasiness but of the grave misapprehension that exists in our ports. My plea, therefore, to the Board of Trade is that the Government should make a very clear statement of policy and give definite statistics of the number of aliens and coloured seamen in our ships. The other day one of my constituents wrote saying that there were 50,000 aliens employed on British ships. Of course, that is a wild exaggeration, but I submit that while ideas like that are current and widely believed in British ports, there is a clear need for an official Government statement on the subject. The point that really worries me is that, in the present world crisis, when so many trades and industries are in a state of acute depression, we are making a grave mistake in not keeping our equipment and personnel up-to-date. My excuse for speaking to-night is that I represent a small but very important port in Northumberland. I think that that port has possibly a greater percentage of unemployment among its seamen than larger ports. I bring it in because it is on the same footing. It has a shipyard which once employed a large number of men but now does very little, and that only in the way of repairs. My submission is that more attention should be paid, if necessary State attention, to keeping up the seafaring tradition as well as the shipbuilding tradition in these smaller ports. I would not have risen, but I feel that among my constituents there is a very real sense of grievance. The general consideration is that the subsidy is being given but that the employment of British seamen is being neglected. As I said, I intend to be brief, but I hope none the less that the Board of Trade will take my protest to heart and make the true facts known, and also carefully reconsider their position to see whether something can be done to secure greater employment for British seamen, particularly in the smaller ports.
§ 6.36 p.m.
§ Vice-Admiral G. CAMPBELL
I should like to make one or two remarks on the very important subject which the House has been discussing. It so happens that during my service in the Navy I spent two years in command of the very type of ship that is being discussed to-night, the ordinary tramp steamer, and I spent 1804 two winters in the Atlantic ocean similar to the winter which has been experienced during last year. On one occasion my ship nearly capsized in the Atlantic, and had it done so it would have been, I think, due to act of God. I should like to associate myself with other Members of the House in expressing thanks to the President of the Board of Trade for the fact that he is going to have an inquiry into the whole question of shipping in the Atlantic. I should hardly have thought it necessary for us to thank the President of the Board of Trade for having the inquiry, because I am confident that the Board of Trade are only too ready to investigate every loss which takes place and to listen to every suggestion for the improvement, safety and welfare of merchant shipping. I think that one is apt to exaggerate the loss of these vessels in the Atlantic at the present time, because one does not always remember the fact that a few years back a ship might be posted as missing at Lloyds, and nothing more particularly heard or thought about it except by the Board of Trade and people interested. Nowadays, a ship may possibly send out an S.O.S. by wireless that she is on her beam ends, and vessels of all nationalities rush to the rescue, and in due course we have big headlines in the Press calling attention to the fact that the ship has been lost. It is all to the good, because it helps the community to take more interest in the Mercantile Marine than it used to do, but there is no cause for unnecessary panic. I hardly think that all the ships that have been lost during the winter can possibly be due to act of God, and that is why I welcome the inquiry which is to be set up.
On the occasion to which I referred just now when my ship nearly turned over in the Atlantic Ocean during the worst winter actually I have ever known, it was chiefly due to the fact that the ship had not sufficient horse-power, and although hove-to and steaming with maximum horse-power the ship was going astern all the time, so much so that a man who was washed overboard was washed back again. I remember at one period, when the wind was blowing so hard, and I could not see, but knew myself to be in the vicinity of very dangerous rocks off the west coast of Ireland, I was obliged to turn my ship round for 1805 navigational purposes, and when I turned her round she went beam-on, and but for an act of God I might have gone right over. There might be similar cases to that and no one ever talk about them. My wireless had gone, and I could not send any message. My compass had gone as well, but the ship was well-found and well-manned and her hatches secure and all the rest of it, but in that particular case, if she had gone over, the loss would have been due to insufficient horse-power.
When the inquiry is set up, I hope that it will be remembered by this House and by people in general that it is not necessarily one to find fault or to hang anybody. We want the inquiry not to find fault with this or that person, but to find out the causes, if possible, of these accidents, and to see what steps are necessary to improve our ships and the manning arrangements, and so forth. I hope that they will give particular attention to the question of manning and the efficiency of the boats of these various tramp steamers. We have on record the famous case of the steamship "Trevessa" which was lost 1,600 miles from land where the whole of the crew, except those who died from exposure in boats, were saved, thanks to the seamanlike way in which the lifeboat was manned. Consideration, I hope, will be given to the question of the manning of these merchant ships. I know that the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade has already said that he is, to some extent anyhow, satisfied with the manning of these vessels. I do not say on this point that they are unmanned, but I think that the limit is too low. One can imagine, if in a gale there is any trouble with the steering gear, that in the course of trying to repair it two or three men may be injured, and if you have half a dozen as deck hands it does not leave many for odd jobs later on. I hope that the question of manning will be considered with a view to seeing whether this really low limit is not a little too low. Then, to have officers working watch and watch for long periods during the winter months and during bad weather is too great a strain for efficiency. I remember in the Navy one of the punishments I used to receive among many others was to keep watch and watch for two or three days 1806 on end, and, personally, I would sooner have two cuts of the cane.
§ On the question of personnel, I would remind the House that we have in this country good shipowners and bad shipowners. I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade knows more about that subject than I do. The conduct of some shipowners, no doubt, makes it necessary for the Board of Trade to keep a watchful eye on the welfare and advancement of men who go to sea. Although the National Maritime Board may lay down certain rates of pay and wages supposed to be received by the officers and men, they must know as well as I do that the officers and men do not always receive the scales laid down by the board. If an owner says to one of his officers, "I am supposed to pay you £10 a month. I am afraid that I cannot do so, and I am going to get a Dutchman in your place, as I can only afford £7 a month." The officer will reply, "I will take the £7, and say nothing more about it." There ought to be some safeguard against a shipowner who does that sort of thing, which occurs, as is well known. The whole question of the service of officers and men in the Merchant Navy requires very careful investigation. A petition on the subject was presented to the President of the Board of Trade last year, and I hope that it will receive his attention. It is absolutely wrong that we should have at the present time men holding masters' certificates who are applying for employment, and suffering what I might almost call the indignity and hardship of having to go to sea as quarter-masters and deckhands. It is not only unfair to these men who have qualified for their master's certificate; it is unfair to men who expect to go to sea as seamen to find their places taken by men who have had the command of ships and hold masters' certificates.
§ I have referred to the fact that I commanded for a couple of years two merchant ships during the Great War. All my officers and practically all my crew were men of the merchant navy, men of the Royal Naval Reserve. I would remind the President of the Board of Trade that when he is considering the personnel of the merchant navy he must remember that they require to be treated with fair- 1807 ness and generosity at the present time for the services they are rendering in times of peace, because if war comes again we shall not be able to get through without the great merchant navy on whom we have depended so much in the past.
§ 6.41 p.m.
§ Dr. ADDISON
I should like to associate myself with my hon. Friends in expressing our appreciation of the fact that the President of the Board of Trade has arranged to hold a special inquiry into the losses which have been occurring with such tragic frequency during the last 12 months. I am glad that at last the President of the Board of Trade—of course he will not say that it is due to us—is coming down a little bit from that pedestal which he has been occupying in such a superior way for the last few months. It is really a comfort and an encouragement for us to go further and to hope that perhaps, not by making what he describes as outrageous statements but by putting up a good case, we can get him to do a little more. I have before me statements by the President of the Board of Trade on the 4th December and the 12th March in which he did not see that there was any case for such inquiry.
§ Mr. RUNCIMAN
The right hon. Gentleman is not distinguishing between what is called an inquiry and what is called a formal investigation.
§ Dr. ADDISON
That is not the ease. If the right hon. Gentleman really wants me to quote what he said on the 4th December, I will do so. He said that he was afraid that no useful purpose would be served by holding any further inquiry. He now proposes to hold a further inquiry, and I congratulate him. It is not for him to say that he has not altered his opinion; he has, and I congratulate him on doing so. There are one or two points on which there is still a good deal of misgiving. In regard to the subject of manning, the right hon. Gentleman, in his usual artful way, asked us to define an "efficient" seaman. He first asked my right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) and on draw- 1808 ing blank from him he turned to me for a definition. I promptly observed that it was not my job. I am not the President of the Board of Trade. I am not charged with the administration of the Merchant Shipping Act, but the right hon. Gentleman is. I have here a case, and I would draw the attention of the right hon. Gentleman to the manning of this particular ship. I will give all the particulars if they are required. It is a ship of 3,000 tons and it only carries two able seamen, two ordinary seamen and two apprentices, who are boys. According to the ruling of the Board of Trade apparently they were efficient deckhands, whatever the word efficiency may mean in that case. They worked on the two-watch system and as the carpenter and bosun were really day workers, there were left one able-bodied seaman, a sailor or ordinary seaman and an apprentice. The able seaman would probably take the wheel thus leaving an immature youth as the only available deck hand. Our contention is that manning on that scale is not efficient manning.
It is not my concern to supply the President of the Board of Trade with a definition of what is an efficient sailor, but I do say that the records of these ships ought to be inquired into, because these and other records which I have in abundance raise serious misgivings as to whether the President of the Board of Trade is calling upon his Department to see that the ships which go to sea, and particularly the ships which receive subsidy, have a proper and sufficient complement of efficient sailors. One Daniel after another has come to judgment on the Government benches. It comforts me. A short time ago we asked the President of the Board of Trade, in the course of his administration of the Merchant Shipping Act, to see to it that a proper proportion of British seamen was employed on our ships. He refused, I will not say scornfully but almost scornfully. Now, his friends are exhorting him to the same good work. We are bound to look into these records and to see what are the standards now being accepted as sufficient by the Board of Trade. I have a whole crop of cases where aliens are employed, largely consisting of Chinamen—the names of the ships can be supplied if required—relating to the Port of Liverpool. There is one shipping company with 11 steamers 1809 employing mostly Malays and Arabs. There is another important shipping line which largely employs Chinamen.
§ Sir B. PETO
Does the right hon. Gentleman wish us to infer that these vessels because they are registered at Liverpool go to Liverpool with crews of Chinamen? Are not they engaged on the eastern trade?
§ Dr. ADDISON
I do not infer anything. I said that these ships are owned by a British shipping company, registered under the British flag, and therefore my suggestion is that it is incumbent upon the Board of Trade if they want to promote the employment of British seamen as far as they can, to make it a condition for a grant of the subsidy that British seamen should be employed on these ships.
§ Dr. ADDISON
They receive a subsidy in aid of the voyage, to enable them, as the Act says, to compete with foreign ships.
§ Dr. ADDISON
Yes they are. If the hon. and gallant Member wants the names, I will pass them on to him with pleasure. I will give him the list and he will find that a considerable number of ships to-day—there are scores of them, including one or two well known groups of ships—employ Chinamen, Malays, Arabs and so on. The point that I want to impress upon the President of the Board of Trade is that he will instruct his officers to see to it that ships that obtain or apply for the subsidy are required to employ British seamen, or a proportion of efficient British seamen, whatever the word efficient may mean.
The loss of ships suggests the need for special alertness on the part of the Board of Trade, as to the condition of the ships themselves and the accommodation on the ships. We have some reports which have been collected with great care. Let me give a few facts. The Medical Officer of Health of the Port of Newport says: 1810During the past year, the notice of the port sanitary authority has been called to the accommodation"—He mentions the names of five ships—which in every case can only be described as deplorable. The report shows that there are numbers of British ships with sanitary defects, and that accommodation and sanitary arrangements generally compare badly with those of foreign ships.That being the case, it seems to me that the administration of the Board of Trade needs to be tightened up. The medical officer of health for Swansea for the quarter ended December, 1931, says:20.2 per cent. of the British ships from foreign ports were found to be defective, as against 13.2 per cent. of the foreign ships inspected.In the same report it is stated that 422 nuisances and defects were dealt with during the period, and, in addition, 242 verminous and dirty beds were destroyed. Here we have a percentage of defects found which suggests that the administration of the Board of Trade in this respect needs to be stimulated and if necessary augmented. I notice with some surprise that the President of the Board of Trade passed over a statement to the effect that the number of inspectors had declined. That perhaps accounts to some extent for what is now being reported. We suggest, and we propose to keep it up, notwithstanding the animadversions of the gallant Admiral the Member for Burnley (Vice-Admiral Campbell) that subsidies should not be paid in respect of any ships where these discreditable conditions exist with regard to the accommodation for seamen. We hope that in the course of a few months the President of the Board of Trade will undertake to augment if need be the inspectorate of his Department or, at all events, he will so act as to secure that no ships that are defective in these matters shall receive one penny of taxpayers' money in respect of their operations.
I want to call attention to another subject which the President of the Board of Trade, with his usual skill, tried to avoid by asking me a question the other day. On the 14th March I called attention to the losses that had been incurred by the White Star Line and to a statement of the chairman at an extraordinary meeting of shareholders, in which he said that £6,000,000 had been 1811 lost and that in addition to the £6,000,000 that had disappeared there were debts of £3,000,000 and apparently nothing was available to meet that sum. The right hon. Gentleman in his reply said:I am not clear what suggestion for the amendment of the Companies Act the right hon. Gentleman has in mind, but if he will let me have some specific proposal I will consider it.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th March, 1935; col. 562, Vol. 299.]In other words, he was trying to put on to a Member of the Opposition, who is not possessed of the advantages of a great Department, with its considered memoranda, etc., his own duties, just as he has been trying to get us to define an efficient sailor. I am calling attention to a matter which is in his administration and I will make a suggestion which he might consider. Here is £6,000,000 of the peoples' money which has disappeared. It has taken some time to look into the records, but perhaps I might remind the House of one or two things that have happened. This White Star Line was registered as such in January, 1927, and purchased the authorised capital of £5,000,000, through the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, of the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company. This was obtained by various allotments of shares to the extent of £7,000,000, but £5,000,000 was obtained from the public by preference shares and £4,000,000 additional was to be found by certain other parties, payable by cash by the Royal Mail and the directorate of the White Star. They only paid 2s. on account, but certain other moneys have been received since. I have here the report of Sir William McClintock on the point.
May I draw the attention of the House to another incident? This company took over the Aberdeen Commonwealth Line consisting of seven vessels of the Australian Government for £1,900,000. In due time, not having paid this amount, the Australian Commonwealth required the sale of the ships, and they were sold in 1933 for £500,000. But this company had taken them over originally for £1,900,000. Sir William McClintock pointed out:It appears various dividends were made which were really paid from the subordinate company, which paid £458,000 in 1928, £400,000 in 1929 and another £400,000 later on.1812 At the same time it appears that the company had an overdraft of £725,000, and in order to enable them to pay £400,000 the other people had to back further loans. I suggest that if the public had been told, or if the Board of Trade had administered the Companies Act to secure that the public should be told the material facts of this case when that prospectus was issued, the public would not have subscribed £5,000,000. Of course, we believe, though it would not be in order to elaborate this subject that here is a case in which the complicated interlocking of companies—of which I have given only the briefest outline—is calculated completely to befog the ordinary member of the public who has no idea of what it means. In consequence of the incomplete revelation of all matters concerned, the public loses £5,000,000 or £6,000,000. This is a good case for the institution of a national investment board, which the party I represent urge should be set up. At all events, I would suggest to the President of the Board of Trade that he should administer or amend the Companies Act so that whenever these prospectuses are issued they should be accompanied by two things. Here I am trying to make a constructive suggestion in response to his request. There should be a profit and loss account issued in every case where holding companies issue these prospectuses, showing complete details of net trading profits and debentures and losses and all the rest. In addition to that, there should be a full statement of the assets and liabilities of the different concerns.
If the President of the Board of Trade cannot see his way to adopt the Socialist proposal for a proper national board to supervise these matters and safeguard the interests of the ordinary public, he ought at all events to see what he can do with the Companies Act. If he will not adopt the Opposition's proposal, though he has now adopted their proposal for an inquiry, I hope that before many months have passed he will adopt the suggestions for conditions for those in receipt of a subsidy. Perhaps, if he remains in office long enough and these tragic disasters continue with such regularity, he will come to our point of view and set up a national board to control these matters. Until that time arrives, will he administer or amend the Companies Act 1813 in the way I have suggested so as to safeguard the public against exploitation? The right hon. Gentleman a few months ago left an impression on this House, which was not altogether happy, of extolling the god of profit almost above any other god. I think it is up to him as President of the Board of Trade to see that the worshippers at that shrine are somewhat curbed in their actions in getting the public to subscribe to their enterprises. Here is a case in which millions of public money have disappeared, simply because we have never set ourselves to undertake a national system for the control of the savings of the public. This convinces me that before very long the people of this country, instead of being intimidated by the right hon. Gentleman as to what will happen to their deposits in the savings banks, will see that the Socialist party are their chief safeguard, and that we shall stand for the safeguarding of the uninformed public against exploitation.
§ 7.9 p.m.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the BOARD of TRADE (Dr. Burgin)
It was not only the last sentences of the speech of the right hon. Gentleman who has just sat down that contained a touch of unreality. Nobody could possibly object to a debate of this kind being staged in the House of Commons, but it is necessary to bring the matter back to a right sense of proportion. Two subjects have been dealt with, in both of which the Board of Trade have come in for a good deal of hard words. The company law and the administration of the Mercantile Marine regulations have been dealt with. Let us endeavour in a few minutes to bring back both of these subjects to a right sense of proportion. In his concluding remarks, the right hon. Gentleman referred to the circumstances attending the flotation, capitalisation and the ultimate foundering of the White Star Line. There was some confusion in the right hon. Gentleman's mind, for he several times used the expressions "taxpayers' money" and "public money," though never a penny of the latter was involved. The White Star Line was a public limited liability company to which public subscription was invited, and all company legislators in every part of the civilised globe have been trying for a great many years to prevent a fool and his money being parted, and have so far 1814 failed. No amending of Acts of Parliament will prevent people subscribing to issues to which others more well-informed would not subscribe. The only concern of the Board of Trade in that matter was that they administered the Companies Act.
There was a reform of the Companies Act in 1929 after a most elaborate survey under a very able chairman and after witnesses had been called from all classes of the community. In the opinion of the Department, it is too early to re-amend the Companies Act, 1929, until there is an overwhelming case from experience in the City and the general practical working of the Act that such amendments are called for. The President of the Board of Trade needs no defence at my hands, and was entirely right when, in reply to the right hon. Member for Swindon (Dr. Addison), who asked about the White Star Line, he inquired what particular part of the Act was defective, and, if defective, what was the particular remedy. Although the observations made by the right hon. Gentleman will, of course, be examined in the Department and classified and noted for consideration when the amendment of the Companies Act becomes a practical suggestion, until that moment arrives nothing useful can be achieved in further discussing the capitalisation of the White Star Line, Limited. If the House will itself look into one or two of the circumstances connected with that great company, they will find that much of the money was lost by the acquisition of the Royal Mail group at prices which turned out to be wholly uneconomical in the light of shipping conditions. Other features will probably be fresh in the public mind, so that it will not be necessary for me to particularise.
It is suggested that we should do something with the Mercantile Marine Department of the Board of Trade. If the Board of Trade were to obtain its knowledge of British shipping solely or mainly from the speeches of right hon. Gentlemen opposite, what an extraordinarily distorted picture they would have of British shipping. It would appear that British ships were going to sea in an unseaworthy condition, that the accommodation for sailors was unsuitable and insanitary, and that the port officials would condemn these ships 1815 out of hand. It is suggested that the Board of Trade inspection through its officers is loose and lax, and that vessels disappear with all hands without any inquiry being made. What a travesty of the truth. There is no commencement of foundation for any such impression to be given in the House to-day. We must, therefore, begin by bringing the whole of the Debate back to a proper sense of proportion by looking at the matter calmly and seeing what lessons we can draw from the most unfortunate happenings in the loss of vessels in the North Atlantic. I accept at once the point of view that the mere fact that the weather was exceptional is not in itself an excuse. The weather in the North Atlantic during the winter has certainly been abnormally severe. I accept also the fact that anxiety has been caused in the public mind by the loss of these vessels, in many cases unhappily attended with considerable loss of life. These vessels have all been cargo steamers. In some cases there were no survivors.
These casualties at sea, even with the exceptionally heavy weather that has been experienced, give rise to anxiety as to whether every proper precaution is being taken; whether the Board of Trade by the diligence of its surveyors is seeing that no vessel is likely to go to sea from a British port in a condition which is not satisfactory. I have little doubt that when the facts are rightly appreciated and calmly judged the misgivings, if there are any, in the public mind will be allayed. First of all, let us ascertain the facts, and, while ascertaining the facts, remove some of the more prominent misapprehensions which are known to exist. The safety of vessels at sea depends on several factors: Construction, supervision, perhaps steering gear, manning, and appliances. I refer to such matters as hatch coverings and tarpaulins. Let us have a look at some of these matters. The House realises that the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act are much more severe with regard to passenger ships than they are with regard to cargo vessels. The power of the Board of Trade is much greater in connection with passenger vessels than it is in the case of freighters. Freighters for insurance purposes require classification, and, as far as I recollect, nothing 1816 much has been said yet about the classification societies. For insurance purposes different classification societies have their own standards. For engaging in commercial work the standard of insurance must be higher, and the standards of the classification societies are therefore higher; the better types of freighters will secure the better type of classification. The Board of Trade have no reason to believe that the safety requirements of the classification societies are in any way lax or inadequate. Let that be quite clear. Although there is a difference between the Board of Trade supervision for passenger vessels and for freighters, the matter is adjusted in practice by a freighter being compelled to conform with the requirements of the classification societies and to obey their standards.
Take supervision. There is a general power of supervision, but I wonder how many hon. Members after hearing the attacks of hon. Members opposite appreciate the power which the Board of Trade have in their inspectorate. The surveyor can go on board any vessel he likes, he can examine any ship, making any comments he likes, and require any defect to be remedied, and he has, in addition, a substantial power of sanction in order to carry out his requirements. That power is widely used by a competent and adequate staff, who constantly supervise vessels in British ports. The right hon. Member for Swindon seemed to suggest that the President of the Board of Trade has not adequately dealt with the question of a declining number of survey staff. I thought that the President of the Board of Trade made it abundantly clear to the House that although the numbers of the survey staff have been slightly reduced owing to fewer vessels coming into British ports, the number of surveys made have largely increased. If there be any doubt on that matter, let me remind the House that in the years 1930 to 1934 the number of general inspections made ran like this: in 1930, 7,900; in 1931, 9,100; in 1932, 12,600; in 1933, 14,300, and in 1934, 11,700. There is therefore no point whatever in fact or in accuracy in the suggestion that the inspections are fewer. The truth is exactly the reverse. There have been more inspections than 1817 ever before, notwithstanding the melancholy fact that there have been fewer vessels to inspect. The whole point made by the right hon. Member for Swindon falls to the ground. Although the staff is just as competent and as efficient as ever, the number of occasions on which the inspectors have been able to go on board has unfortunately, in a restricted trade, been much greater in recent years. The House has allowed me to give figures showing a doubling almost of these occasions between 1930 and 1933.
Nor is that inspection the last word on the matter. The right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood), who opened the Debate, referred to the Load Line Convention, and then left it. He never developed the story at all. It becomes therefore necessary to mention the matter of the load line, and the one point which arises under the Load Line Convention of 1932 is that an animal compulsory survey obtains under the Merchant Shipping Act, 1932. The whole of the case that because there have been more vessels laid up for a length of time that one has got out of the way of doing it, that there have been fewer or less qualified inspections, is shown, on examination, to be without foundation.
A reference was made to steering gear. No one has developed this matter to any extent, and I do not propose in my reply to break new ground, but a full examination of the different types of steering gear used by different freight vessels is under consideration as a matter of routine administration of mercantile marine requirements, and until evidence is produced showing conclusively that a vessel has been lost as a result of steering gear no case is made out for requiring a difference in steering gear regulations. A good deal has been said about manning, and I think that the House is fairly well in possession of the facts with regard to it. But the right hon. Member for Swindon is still under a misapprehension. He would try to make the House believe that the reason why his party voted against the Shipping Subsidy Bill is because there was not inserted in that Bill a provision with regard to the wages and conditions of the seamen.
§ Dr. BURGIN
We will leave the House to judge. The right hon. Gentleman 1818 knows that the only reason for not inserting those conditions in the Bill was because it was not possible to do so as the Bill was drafted. The right hon. Gentleman knows that the committee dealing with the administration of the tramp shipping subsidy has circularised owners requiring them wherever possible to secure British seamen, and he also knows that wherever the rate of wages of the National Maritime Board is applicable the subsidy will not be paid unless those conditions are observed. That has been stated over and over again from this Box in answer to questions and in Debate, and it is now being implemented by a committee whose business it is to do this work; not a committee of the Board of Trade, but a committee of the industry itself. This committee it is which has circularised the owners of tramp ships qualified for receiving the subsidy telling them the type of crews they are to engage and the conditions they are to see observed.
§ Vice-Admiral TAYLOR
Will the Board of Trade consider exercising some control over the entry of apprentices, as 2,000 officers are out of work and over 800 second mate certificates were issued last year? Will he exercise some control to obviate this congestion in the officer class?
§ Dr. BURGIN
Certainly, that is a matter which will be considered. In regard to manning there was a discussion across the Floor as to the meaning of "efficient deck hand"; whether two youngsters equal a fully grown man. Let us be clear what we are talking about. The manning scale must be a scale to comply with a standard. The standard was laid down between the shipowners and the shipping employés as far back as 1909. I understand that the hon. Member for the Scotland Division (Mr. Logan) merely asks for a definition. He is familiar with the practice of the industry and knows that the manning scale has worked satisfactorily since 1909. The point he asks is whether any particular person would comply with the definition, whether two youths would equal one man? The answer, of course, depends on the age, the physical fitness of the youth, his sea experience and his sea capacity. There is no doubt about the matter. Statements have been made in this House as if anyone can come straight from home, proceed on board 1819 ship, and claim to be qualified as an efficient deck hand. That will not do.
§ Dr. BURGIN
I cannot go into the matter to-night, but there is no difference between us as to the working of the manning scale and as to the proper method of approach in order to obtain a definition. I will not deal with other matters which have been raised in the course of the Debate except to say that the whole question of hatches is under detailed consideration. In the inquiry which is going to be made into the question of the hatches of particular vessels, to be undertaken by Lord Merrivale, the question as to whether he will be able to accept evidence from other vessels is a matter for those in charge of the inquiry.
§ Dr. BURGIN
The terms of reference of the inquiry are very wide, wide enough to enable every possible factor to be inquired into. As to the casualties in the North Atlantic, by all means let us have a searching investigation, let every possible fact be discussed, but, when all this is said and done, when every recommendation is made, let the House be convinced that British vessels, built in British ports in normal conditons and manned by proper crews, are as reasonably safe in the North Atlantic from bad weather as it is possible for any sea-going craft to be.
§ Sir R. KEYES
Can the Parliamentary Secretary answer my question with regard to the appointment of the three officers?
§ Dr. BURGIN
If the National Maritime Board prescribe three officers as their requirements any breach of that is a matter to be taken up.
§ Dr. BURGIN
If the hon. and gallant Member can convince the shipping community that compulsory pilots are desirable—a point upon which they are in complete disagreement—then we will deal with the matter.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read the Third time, and passed.