HC Deb 15 April 1937 vol 322 cc1286-93

9.3 p.m.

Sir D. Thomson

I beg to move, in page 10, line 12, to leave out Sub-section (3).

The Lord Advocate said that he would look into this matter before Report stage. The Brussels International Maritime Conference adopted an international Convention for the unification of certain rules of law relating to the limitation of a liability of owners of sea-going vessels, and this Convention recommends, although there was a protocol, a limit of liability with regard to wrecks. The Bill goes against this Convention. All those connected with sea-going vessels attach very much importance to this Convention. I would not like hon. Members to think that as a shipowner I am trying to get away with anything. The position is that citizens of this country will benefit as passengers under the Convention. In the case of the "Titanic," for instance, under British law the owners were limited in liability to £500,000. Under the Convention the liability would have been about £275,000 and they actually paid £200,000. Under United States law they would have been limited to £20,000. Therefore, it would still be a very great advantage to British persons travelling in foreign ships to have the Convention ratified. I hope the Lord Advocate will assure us that the inclusion of this Clause in the Bill will not prejudice the consideration of the whole of the Convention. I would also like him to give some hope to shipowners that progress is being made with the drafting of the necessary legislation to ratify the Convention.

A further point which I would like to put to those responsible for drawing up this Clause and those who draw up similar clauses in private Bills is whether there is, in fact, any protection. We are very much apt to think of large liners and cargo vessels—insured vessels —sinking at sea. In this Bill we are dealing with very small harbours used by correspondingly small vessels, such as fishing vessels and barges. Very many of them are owned by poor men, whose only means of livelihood they are. Probably they are the only capital of these poor men, and—what is very important—are almost certainly not insured. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Major Neven-Spence) and the right hon. Baronet the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir A. Sinclair) will bear me out on that point. If one of those vessels sank with a cargo of cement, the cost of removing it might be very much more than the cost of a new vessel. What is a local authority to do in those circumstances? Is it to bankrupt the small owner, to take his house and furniture and put his family on to the street?

Hon. Members know that there are very many small foreign coasting vessels under a foreign flag—what might be called family-owned vessels—where the owner is the master and his family are hands on the craft, and if one of those vessels sank, it would neither be possible nor practicable to get any money from the owner. In those cases, the cost would come on to the local authorities, and would fall on to the rates or on to other users of the port. It should be the duty of these small harbours to insure against that risk. The risk is small also the premium. Taken for all the small harbours in Scotland, the cost would be trifling, although for one particular harbour the cost of an accident might be entirely out of proportion to the resources of the harbour. I understand that such an insurance could be made at a very nominal premium. I suggest that this Clause, if it deludes small harbour authorities into thinking that their liability is extinguished, is a danger, and I think that the Government might keep that point before the authorities, not only in their own interest, but in common fairness to the small men who use them.

9.10 p.m.

Major Neven-Spence

I beg to second the Amendment.

In this Bill we are dealing mainly with small harbours frequented by small coasting vessels, very largely fishing vessels. Many of them are owned by the skippers or by a combination of poor men who, if they lose their fishing boat, lose everything. I think it would be very hard for these men to be in the position that if, through stress of weather, they lost a boat in the conditions visualised in this Subsection, they would be liable, as I suppose they would be, for the cost of removing such a vessel. It may be said that these things do not happen very frequently, but many of these harbour works are small and difficult to get into in bad weather, and it happens from time to time that a small fishing boat is cast away. It is not long ago that I saw an instance in Aberdeen. A trawler coming in was struck by enormous seas just as she got to the mouth of the harbour and was thrown on to the breakwater and sunk, a man being drowned before anything could be done to save him.

I realise that this is more or less a permissive Clause. At the same time, a boat fishing at Banff might be cast away and the people there might be sympathetic in not seeking to recover the money, but I am not so sure that a Banff boat fishing off Peterhead and cast away there would get the same sympathy. I feel that the proposal made by the hon. Baronet is a sound one. When a small boat is cast away in these circumstances, it is an act of God. It is very hard to make the individual suffer for it, and I think it is much more a case for the community. The pro- posal that small harbours should insure against accidents of this sort, which they could do for a very small sum, would be a much happier solution.

9.13 p.m.

Sir A. Sinclair

I have listened with very great interest to the speeches made by the two hon. Members, and I agree that they have made an interesting case from the point of view of the small owners. I cannot help agreeing with the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Major Neven-Spence), even without his reservation, that if it was a case of a small fishing boat being wrecked, for example, at the mouth of the harbour at Banff, the authority would not proceed with all the rigour of the law and compel a small boat such as that to pay heavy damages. Indeed, I do not imagine the cost of moving such a small boat would be prohibitive. As a matter of fact, that is not the only damage that can occur in the Islands and Highlands of Scotland. Perhaps the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Orkney and Shetland has not yet had the experience in his constituency—and I hope he will not have it—which we had on the North Coast of Caithness of a great ship called the "Linkmoor," a cargo boat belonging to the well-known Moore Line, which was wrecked there, and was washed ashore at the mouth of the tiny harbour of Scarffskerry. It blocked the harbour completely, so that the fishermen could not go in and out at certain stages of the tide, although, of course, they could at some stages.

There was no question of insurance for a small place such as Scarffskerry, any more than for hundreds of little places round the coast of Orkney and Shetland, for there is nobody there to take out an insurance. It was, of course, far beyond the means of the local people to move the wreck. They applied to the county council, and it was also far beyond its means to move it. Then they applied to every Government Department, one after another. The Fishery Board was asked, but it said the question had nothing to do with it. The Wrecks Department of the Board of Trade was asked, but it could not do anything in the matter. The Admiralty were asked, but, of course, they would not do anything. The lawyers advised us that, in fact, the ship had been abandoned, and that there was no claim that could be made in law against its owners. As I understand it, under this Clause a claim can be made. I am very glad to think that that is so and I hope that the Clause covers a case of the kind to which I have referred, because that sort of case seriously damages the interests of a number of small fishermen. Therefore, while I understand that there is much to be said for the case which has been stated so persuasively by the hon. Baronet the Member for South Aberdeen (Sir D. Thomson) and the hon. and gallant Member for Orkney and Shetland (Major Neven-Spence) I think there is also a case on the other side.

9.16 p.m.

Mr. Maclean

I do not wish to safeguard a situation such as that outlined by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir A. Sinclair) but may I put this point to the Secretary of State? Would it not meet the case put by the hon. Baronet the Member for South Aberdeen (Sir D. Thomson) and the hon. and gallant Member for Orkney and Shetland (Major Neven-Spence) if, instead of the word "shall," we inserted the word "may." The Clause at present says "the deficiency shall be recoverable" from the registered owners of the vessel. If that were made to read "the deficiency may be recoverable" it would safeguard the interests of the harbour authority in a situation such as that outlined by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Caithness and Sutherland by making it possible for them to have the ship removed by the owners if they could not take action themselves. At the same time, I think it would meet the purpose of the Amendment. But to delete the entire paragraph would mean that nothing at all need be done and would leave the local authorities even more helpless than they are.

9.19 p.m.

Mr. Elliot

To deal with the last point first, I think the case is met by the wording of the Clause as it stands. I ask the hon. Member for Govan (Mr. Maclean) to note that the Clause does not say "shall be recovered" but "shall be recoverable." You can either have "may be recovered" or "shall be recoverable," both of which are optional, or you can have "shall be recovered" which would be mandatory. But "may be recoverable" does not make sense. It introduces two permissive words and would be bad draftsmanship. The hon. Member may take it that the Clause is optional as it stands and I am so advised by the Lord Advocate.

Mr. Maclean

Some maritime lawyers might advise the other way.

Mr. Elliot

That may be so, but I am not looking for snow before it falls, or to the opinion of any other lawyers while I have one of the best lawyers in Scotland beside me. The Clause, I am advised, is optional, and therefore the case put by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Major Neven-Spence) about the small boat which goes ashore, and the master of which loses his all and is subsequently liable to proceedings by a Shylock of a local authority, would not, I think arise. After all, in a small area the members of the local authority themselves are likely to be men subject to the hazards of the sea, who have experienced, in their own persons, similar accidents and possibly disasters. I believe that in these cases they would show the spirit of comradeship which is one of the features of seafaring life. I do not think the small man need apprehend unreasonable treatment by harbour authorities.

Then we come to the well-known case of the Linkmoor and the harbour of Scarffskerry. I think it unreasonable for a large company whose ship has gone ashore and filled up the entrance to a harbour to say to the harbour authorities, "You can have the ship." They do not want the ship. It would cost a great deal more to take away the ship than they could get for it. In the case of a small harbour it might be cheaper to pull down the harbour and build it somewhere else than to move the ship. Harbour authorities in such a case might reasonably say: "We do not think it fair for you to walk off leaving your great ship blocking up our harbour, and then to proceed to run other ships up and down the coast, one of which may bump ashore at the next harbour, and all the time we have no redress." I think it is reasonable to say that recourse may be had against the owners of a ship for a sum which might easily transcend the proceeds of a special rate in some of these places on the iron-bound coasts of the islands around the North of Scotland. I think therefore the Clause is justifiable on the merits.

I come to the last point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Aberdeen (Sir D. Thomson). He asked, were we sure that this part of the Clause did not prejudice the signing of an international Convention which would be of great value to British shipowners and the British mercantile marine generally? He asked for an assurance that everything possible was being done to press on with the signing of that Convention. I fear it is beyond my power to give that assurance. The President of the Board of Trade, who takes a great interest in shipping matters, is the most appropriate person to be in charge of a shipping convention and if he cannot get it through nobody can get it through. The hon. Baronet asked me was I sure that I was not doing something here which would make it impossible for my right hon. Friend to get that Convention through. I do not think so. In the first place, 40 harbour authorities in the United Kingdom already have this power. It has been granted to them individually.

Then the hon. Baronet said that those were cases of private legislation but this was a public Bill, and he asked, would the public Bill injure the cause of the ratification of the Convention? I am assured that it would not and I am so assured by the Department most concerned, namely the Board of Trade. I have letters here from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade of 16th March and 8th April in which he gives an assurance that this Sub-section will not prejudice the position as to the ratification of the Brussels Convention of 1924 on the limitation of shipowners' liability. I am also advised that there is no inconsistency between the Clause and the Convention. I hope, in view of that assurance, which I give on the word of responsible advisers and as a Cabinet Minister doing my best to advise the House, that my hon. Friends will not find it necessary to press the Amendment.

9.25 p.m.

Major Neven-Spence

It will be within the recollection of the House that during the War the Admiralty sank a number of ships at Orkney, in the Holm and Water Sounds, thereby completely destroying two fishing ports and destroying for all time the livelihoods of people dependent upon those ports. If this Bill becomes law, will it now be possible for the County Council of Orkney to remove these ships and send the bill into the Admiralty?

9.26 p.m.

Mr. Elliot

No, Sir. I have the best legal opinion in Scotland sitting by my side, but I doubt whether he would advise me on this point and I doubt whether I would ask him to. I should have to consider first whether the Board of Admiralty were the registered owners of these vessels. I think that the hon. Member has quite rightly seized a Parliamentary opportunity of calling attention to a grievance.

Sir D. Thomson

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement, and beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.