HC Deb 01 February 1937 vol 319 cc1303-30

Order for Second Reading read.

3.43 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Dr. Burgin)

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

The House will be aware of the circumstances under which my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade cannot be with us this afternoon, and I am sure hon. Members in all parts of the House will be kind enough to extend to me indulgence in presenting this Bill, as I have neither the authority nor the experience of a Cabinet Minister. The Bill is a short Bill. It consists of three Clauses, one of which is the Title. The Bill deals with two specific problems connected with the safety of ships at sea, and those two problems are the problem connected with the sending to sea of ships that are overloaded and the problem of the supply of life-saving apparatus to fishing vessels. That is the Bill. The whole problem of the safety of ships at sea is a wide one and of the greatest possible importance, and it would, I think, be convenient, before we approach the details of a suggested change in the law with regard to some of the measures affecting the safety of ships at sea, that we should look at the problem in its broad aspect.

Whenever a casualty occurs, whenever there is a loss of life, by all means let every possible lesson that is to be drawn from that casualty be drawn by the shipowners and by the Departments concerned. Do not let us, however, get a wrong view of the perspective of the safety of the British Mercantile Marine. Safety must always be a relative term. There can never be absolute safety at sea any more than on land. There can be no finality with regard to measures affecting the safety of ships at sea. The system by which safety has been improved is well known to all hon. Members. The policy has been to lay down certain broad rules, to give extensive power to make regulations, and the industry has co-operated, as was shown in the notable speech by the Junior Member for the City of London (Sir A. Anderson), himself a shipowner, on a recent occasion in this House. Safety must in the last resort be a matter for the shipowner and the master of the particular ship. You cannot procure safety by legislation. You may legislate certain broad provisions, you may punish when there are breaches of those provisions, you may have whole fields of activity in which you make regulations, and you may take the greatest care to keep those regulations up to date, but in the last resort the responsibility for sending ships to sea must he the responsibility of the shipowner and of the master.

The problem of safety can be illustrated very well by a few figures. The number of total losses of United Kingdom passenger and cargo ships and the number of lives lost by shipping casualties, apart from certain major disasters like the "Titanic" in 1912 and the "Empress of Ireland" in 1914, have steadily declined, most remarkably, during recent years, and the general trend towards reduction of losses has been secured by continued and continuing vigilance and care by owners, managers, navigators, and all those responsible for the industry. Some of the figures are of interest. I have here the average annual number of vessels lost and of lives lost from the year 1900 down to the year 1936, and I think the House will be struck by the fall in the figures. The first set of figures that I am going to quote deals with the total number of vessels lost, however the vessel was lost, and I propose to give a subsequent table of vessels foundering or missing. Hon. Members will understand that a large number of losses occur by stranding or running aground, but that some of the cases which had to be investigated recently by Lord Merrivale were questions of vessels foundering at sea, and so I have thought it well to divide these statistics into two tables. The first is that of vessels lost, however lost, and the second table is of vessels that have foundered or are missing.

In the period 1900 to 1905 the average annual number of vessels lost was 84, the average annual number of passengers lost was 150, and the average annual number of crew lost was 320. From 1905 to 1910 the respective figures were 87, 109 and 296.

Mr. Gordon Macdonald

Will the hon. Gentleman give percentages?

Dr. Burgin

At present I am dealing with totals. From 1910 to 1914 there was an annual average of 84 vessels lost, 467 passengers, and 593 crew. The War conditions would hardly be applicable, and I have not the figures for 1915–20, but from 1921 to 1925 they were: 74 vessels lost, 9 passengers, and 220 crew; from 1926 to 1930 the average annual loss was 61 vessels, 16 passengers, and III crew; 1931–35—45 vessels, 11 passengers, 71 crew; 1936—35 vessels, 2 passengers, 7 crew. I do not want to make any unfair deductions from these figures, but it will be seen that in 1900 the number of vessels lost was 84, and in 1936 it was 35.

Mr. Benjamin Smith

Will the Parliamentary Secretary give the total number of ships lost for the whole period and the total number of lives lost? That will be the problem we have to face.

Dr. Burgin

Yes, the total can be calculated while I am making my speech. What I am endeavouring to show is that whereas less than 40 years ago some 80 vessels went down or otherwise came to grief in the course of the year, the figure is now less than one-half, with a more than a corresponding diminution in the number of lives of passengers and crew lost.

I told the House that I would give a second total of figures, and my reason for doing so is that a good deal of attention has been concentrated in recent years upon one particular bad patch in weather and in shipping when a certain number of vessels were lost with all hands in the North Atlantic. A number of these casualties were the subject of special inquiries, and the House is broadly familiar with the subject. These were cases of foundering or missing, and I therefore give separate figures of the average number of cargo, steam and motor vessels foundered or missing with the number of lives of crew lost. The House will appreciate that a very large number of small vessels came to grief. I have therefore, two columns showing "all tonnages," including small vessels, and "ocean going vessels of over 1,600 tons gross." In the years 1900–03 the figures were: all tonnages 15; over 1,600 tons, 4; lives lost, 170 and 83 respectively. I have the figures for each year, but perhaps it would be better to produce them in some other form. Let me say that in 1936 the figures were: all tonnages, 6; over 1,600 tons, none; lives lost, none in either category. We find, therefore, that in 1936, so far as my information goes, no passenger or cargo vessel was reported as missing, and no lives were lost as the result of the foundering of a passenger or cargo vessel.

One commentary on the relative improvement in conditions of safety of vessels at sea can be shown by insurance rates. The Committee on the Insurance of Ships which has just made its report— Cmd. Paper 5349—observes that the more stringent regulations of modern times and the increased use of wireless have so far reduced the risk of total loss, especially of British ships, that the premium for insurance against total loss has dropped from 30s. per cent., which it was as recently as 15 years ago, to 10s. per cent. or less to-day. So far as the Board of Trade is concerned, every effort is being made to maintain and improve that standard of safety which is its constant preoccupation. The House may like to have one further figure showing the comparison of the British standard of safety and the results compared with the world standard of safety and world results. For 1935 the Board of Trade statistics indicate that 0.38 per cent. of United Kingdom tonnage was lost, while the percentage of world tonnage lost as abstracted from Lloyd's Register was 0.44. If my calculation is right, that means that Britain was six vessels better per ten thousand.

Having shown what is the broad position with regard to safety, I invite the attention of the House to the specific problem of the overloading of cargo vessels. Hon. Members will be familiar with the broad practice at ports. Vessels come alongside and take on board their cargoes. Vessels are of many different kinds, ports are of many different descriptions, and cargoes vary to infinity. It is the task of the Board of Trade to supervise the general loading of vessels and, as far as is humanly possible, to see that vessels do not proceed to sea with their load lines submerged. Under Section 44 of the Merchant Shipping (Safety and Load Line Convention) Act, 1932, a British load line ship registered in the United Kingdom shall not be so loaded as to submerge in salt water when the ship has no list the appropriate load line on each side of the ship; and if she is so loaded there is an offence for which a fine can be levied. Ports, ships and cargoes, and, of course, conditions of loading, vary very much. In some cases it is a simple matter for a Board of Trade surveyor to tell instantly whether or not a vessel is overloaded. In other cases the supervision, owing to numbers and to difficulties of geography, is harder to carry out in practice, and there may have to be recourse to launches and to assistance from outdoor officers and those helping on the quayside.

Wherever the possibility of the risk of overloading is greater, so is the care taken to observe it greater still. In some ports where bulk cargoes are loaded, particularly, for instance, where coal cargoes are loaded, special care is taken with day and night watches, surprise inspections by launches, and so on. If we take one or two instances of what happens, we shall realise the human element. There is a master and chief officer on board superintending the loading operations. We will assume that the vessel is being laden with a cargo of coal, the cargo coming on board from hoppers and being delivered to the hoppers by a coal train. The point in the loading arrives when it is nearly completed and there are still one or two trucks on the quayside. It not infrequently happens that the contents of those trucks arrive on board the vessels before either the master or the chief officer is conscious that the load lines are, or are about to be, submerged.

That is an instance of, broadly speaking, accidental overloading. I am not condoning overloading in any form; there must be the greatest possible supervision to see that it does not happen. Let me give one or two instances of the way in which overloading has been pounced upon by the surveyors of the Board of Trade. The House appreciates that at the present time the law is this: That the master must not overload, that on a vessel found with her load lines submerged she is detained on the orders of the Board of Trade officer and the vessel is called upon to discharge a given percentage of her cargo or water until the vessel's trim in correct. It does not follow, because a vessel has been found with its load line submerged and because on order she has discharged the requisite amount of coal or whatever it may be to bring back her lines to the right level, that an offence has not been committed. It may be the best possible proof of an offence that steps were taken to rectify the overloading.

I will give two or three instances of overloadings and of the way in which these matters are dealt with in practice. A vessel from Finland had loaded a cargo of coal for an African port at Barry and was due to proceed to sea. She was visited by one of the Board of Trade surveyors and was found to be overloaded to the extent of 5¼ inches. She was officially detained but released after being lightened to her proper level, after she had got rid of 75 tons of bunker coal and 35 tons of water. Proceedings were instituted under the Merchant Shipping Acts and the summons was duly heard. There was a conviction and a fine and costs. That is the type of proceedings which take place in a normal case. A Norwegian vessel at Newcastle was observed by a Board of Trade official to be overloaded to the extent of 5¾ inches. She had sailed from Algeria with a cargo of iron ore, and she must have been very much more overloaded when she sailed because the voyage had taken place in the interval and her bunkers had been consumed. The master was prosecuted and found guilty and was fined £50 in respect of the submersion and £50 in respect of increased freight and was ordered to pay the costs.

I have here a number of instances of that type of overloading—[HON. MEMBERS: "British vessels?"]—I have no doubt there are some British vessels in the list but I have chosen entirely at random one or two instances in order to point out to the House the circumstances in which this type of overloading occasionally occurs. I have particulars showing the nationality of the vessels. I have mentioned the way in which this overloading is detected and the steps that are taken to prevent it. I have particulars of cases of prosecutions ordered and of the results, and I am willing to take any year that hon. Members opposite like. As a first instance I will take the year 1936. In that year the number of cases of overloading was 13 British vessels and 22 foreign making a total of 35. Prosecutions were ordered in 17 cases; two British and six foreign convictions were obtained, while four cases are awaiting decision. I want the House to face this problem of overloading which occurs in the circumstances that I have described.

Mr. R. J. Taylor

The Parliamentary Secretary has mentioned two British and six foreign prosecutions out of a total of 35. Does it mean that there were no convictions?

Dr. Burgin

It means that in some cases there was an offence committed; there was an overloading which in fact was corrected there and then and in which it was not thought that proceedings should be taken. If there is an offence committed and there is evidence of the offence prosecution is usually ordered, but the number of cases in which prosecution is ordered compared with the number in which the load line is submerged must be less. I want the House to realise why we are proposing in Clause 1 of this Bill that there should be an alteration of the law with regard to overloading. I have already said that under Section 44 of the Merchant Shipping Act of 1932 the offence of overloading a vessel is one which is punishable by a fine. There is a more serious offence, under the Merchant Shipping Act, of taking a vessel to sea in circumstances in which the lives on board are endangered. The House will see at once that it is very difficult indeed to know what is likely to endanger the lives of passengers on board a ship at sea. It is a matter of opinion, a matter of nautical opinion, a matter on which the nautical opinion in one country may differ from the nautical opinion in another country. So as a result of a recent prosecution and comments made by the judge at the hearing of that prosecution it has been decided to recommend to the House the creation of a new offence, of taking 10 sea a ship in fact overloaded. It is melt that if it is an offence to overload a ship in port, taking her to sea so overloaded ought to be a more serious offence. Taking her to sea overloaded in a given circumstance which will imperil the lives of those on board her is already an offence.

The difficulty is, as was found in the case of the Crescenta, to find evidence in a case where a vessel was lost in the Pacific Ocean with all hands in circumstances which must to some extent remain mysterious. A full inquiry was held into the loss of that particular oil tanker and the findings of Lord Merrivale are present in the minds of hon. Mem- bers. Lord Merrivale directed that the attention of the Board of Trade should be called to the fact that in the judgment of those who held the inquiry there was fault on the part of specifically named persons for allowing that vessel (a) to be overloaded, and (b) to go to sea so overloaded. A prosecution undertaken by the Director of Public Prosecutions followed, and in the result the defendants were acquitted in September of last year at the Central Criminal Court; they were acquitted by direction of the learned judge who tried the case, who pointed out that there was a difference of nautical opinion as to what did amount to endangering the lives on hoard a ship at sea, and he suggested that the Board of Trade should consider whether there was not a gap in the law, and, if so, to bring forward legislation.

It is in these circumstances that the Board of Trade, having looked into the matter of the Crescenta and the matter of that prosecution, having considered Lord Merrivale's findings that the vessel was overloaded when she went to sea, having considered the judge's observations that it is difficult to prove the degree to which overloading must take place in order to render a vessel unseaworthy —the Board of Trade comes to the House this afternoon and makes a simple suggestion: Let there be created, in addition to the offences known to English law at the present time, a new one—that if the master of a ship to which this Clause applies takes a ship to sea when she is overloaded, or if any other person sends or is a party to sending such a ship loaded as aforesaid, having reason to believe that she is so loaded, he shall in addition to any other penalty to which he may be liable under Section 44 be liable to imprisonment and so on. That is the creation of a new statutory offence. I advise the House that, having regard to the remarks of Mr. Justice Greaves-Lord at the Central Criminal Court on the occasion of the trial of representatives of the owners of the Crescenta, it has been proved that there is a gap in the law, that it is necessary and expedient that it should be filled, and that the proper way to fill it is to make it a statutory offence to take an overloaded vessel out to sea. That is the whole purpose of Clause 1 of the Bill.

Mr. Logan

Suppose that a conspiracy takes place and an owner sends a ship to sea and there is loss of life, does it mean that these penalties are the only ones that can be inflicted?

Dr. Burgin

The Bill does not reduce the law as it now stands. If there was an offence proved, of conspiracy to send a vessel to sea in circumstances which would endanger the lives on board her, that is already covered by the law of conspiracy in one part and of the Merchant Shipping Act on the other. This Clause makes it a new offence, regardless of what nautical opinion may be in this or any other country, an offence punishable with imprisonment, if a vessel overloaded is allowed to go to sea. The taking of her to sea by the master, or knowledge that she was going to sea on the part of other persons, is made a new statutory offence. The House will see that there are two Sub-sections to the Clause, Sub-sections (2) and (3). They are drafting matters, but the House will allow me to explain them in two or three sentences. There are parts of the British Empire where vessels can register, and when we alter the United Kingdom law on merchant shipping it is necessary to see that that law is so altered as to cover British ships not registered in the United Kingdom but in some parts of the Colonial possessions. Sub-section (2) is necessary because the Merchant Shipping Act of 1932, including Section 44, has been applied to British ships registered in the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands, the Bahamas, Barbados, British Guiana, and a number of other colonies. That is a purely formal provision, which is necessary to make this change of the law applicable to ships registered in those parts of the Empire. Sub-section (3) enables the new law to be applied to certain territories. That is the whole explanation of Clause 1 and its three relevant Sub-sections.

I should like to pass from the overloading of cargo ships, which is an entirely separate and distinct matter, to that of the question of fishing vessels, and explain shortly the meaning of Clause 2. The Sea Fish Commission made a report and made certain recommendations. It is Command Paper 5130 and the recommendations are found at page 78. They deal with the inspection and safety of fishing vessels. The present position is that the law with regard to life-saving appliances is not as satisfactory as we should like in the case of fishing vessels. Section 375 and the Fifteenth Schedule of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, are no longer practicable, and the provisions with regard to the safety of fishing vessels require recasting. The Sea Fish Commission have recommended that the general power of making rules relating to life-saving appliances in respect of fishing vessels should be given to the Board of Trade. Under Section 427 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, the Board of Trade have power to make rules with regard to life-saving appliances, but it is expressly provided that these rules do not apply to fishing vessels. The very simple Amendment which I submit in Clause 2 of this Bill is that Sub-section (3) of that Section, which provides that the rules for life-saving appliances do not apply to fishing vessels, is repealed, and accordingly Section 375 and the Fifteenth Schedule are also repealed. The effect of the House repealing those restrictive provisions is to give the Board of Trade power to make life-saving regulations for fishing vessels, as they have for other British vessels at sea, and regulations in respect of those life-saving appliances are in process of preparation. They will deal, of course, with boats and all that type of gear which ought to be applied to fishing vessels in the interests of safety at sea. Clause 3 of the Bill is merely the title and requires no explanation.

I ask the House to allow us to have the Second Reading of this Bill dealing with two specific problems, and I conclude as I began, that while the safety of vessels at sea is a matter of continuous preoccupation it is a matter to be dealt with not by legislative provisions but by making regulations from time to time to fit new circumstances as they arise. These are specific instances where the law is defective, and I ask the House to remedy those defects in the law. I conclude with a quotation from Shakespeare's "Henry IV," and I would say that the Board of Trade, like Hotspur, says: Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.

4.20 p.m.

Mr. Benjamin Smith

Speaking for this side of the House I wish to say that we shall not oppose the Bill. So far as it goes, as affecting the overloading of ships and the safety of fishing vessels we accept it. We join with the Parliamentary Secretary in saying that among the sea-going nations we have the safest merchant fleet in the world, but that is not a reason for not tightening our regulations and making the penalties of such a character that it will be to the serious detriment of ship owners and masters not to obey the law. At present there is merely a fine for overloading. The Bill now adds to that the possibility of imprisonment, and I take it it will be a case of imprisonment and/or fine. We on this side of the House suggest that the added value of the cargo should also be confiscated. It is our experience that the maximum fine is seldom imposed, and we feel that it will be equally seldom that the maximum term of imprisonment will be inflicted. As things are at present, it often pays a shipowner to overload his vessel, because the extra money he gains from the overloading is far in excess of any fine that is imposed. We say the Government should make the penalty fine, imprisonment and the added value of the cargo. We feel that would deter masters or owners from overloading vessels.

On 5th November the President of the Board of Trade was asked in this House whether his attention had been drawn to the judgment of Mr. Justice Greaves-Lord in the "La Crescenta" case, and whether, in view of the comments of the learned judge, the Government proposed to amend the law relating to the maximum loading of ships. The President of the Board of Trade said that he hoped to be able to make a statement. Then one Member wanted to know whether the President was aware that there was considerable anxiety on account of the infringement of the load line rule, which infringement was punishable by a maximum penalty of only £100. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us when he replies the number of cases in which the maximum penalty has been imposed upon shipowners in those cases where fines have been inflicted. The President said that such infringement was no conclusive evidence of unseaworthiness in a criminal prosecution. Then the hon. Member for Seaham (Mr. Shinwell) asked: Is it not clear that it is impossible within the existing law to obtain prosecutions in such cases, and is it not essential to amend the law? The President of the Board of Trade said: That is one of the matters that is under consideration now. If it is necessary to amend the law, I shall make proposals."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th November, 1936; col. 246, Vol. 317.] Presumably those proposals are what are now before the House, and while we accept them we shall ask in Committee that the confiscation of the added value of the cargo shall be included in the penalty, whether that be fine or imprisonment, or both.

Dr. Burgin

I would call the attention of the hon. Member to the fact that what he is now asking for is already the law of the land. In one of the cases which I gave to the House a fine was imposed, and, in addition, part of the additional freight carried was expressly confiscated. The provision is to be found in Section 44 of the Merchant Shipping (Load Line) Act, 1932, which says, that in addition to a fine of £100: Such additional fine not exceeding the amounts hereinafter specified as the court thinks fit to impose having regard to the extent to which the earning capacity of the ship was or would have been increased by reason of the submersion. I will, of course, look into in Committee any proposal which the hon. Member puts forward, but the point appears to be covered already.

Mr. Smith

My point is that the whole of the added value of that cargo should be confiscated, and not such portion only as the court may decide. If that is already the law of the land, perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary will inform us of any cases where the value of the cargo has been confiscated. Another ship in regard to which there was an inquiry was the "Blairgowrie," and during that inquiry some important comments were made on the surveys as carried out by the Board of Trade. The Board of Trade surveyor at Swansea was called to show what was the condition of the ship. He said that he had inspected the ship and found her in a good and satisfactory condition. Lord Merrivale pointed out that this surveyor's knowledge of the ship was derived from observation of the load line for the purpose of seeing that she was not overloaded, and a cursory inspection on board, during which the witness 'saw several certificates.' The annual load line survey of the "Blairgowrie" was made by a representative of the British Corporation. He reported that he found everything in good condition. In answer to a question from the court, he said the examination was not a thorough examination. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary, What is the use of imposing penalties when the examination is of a cursory character, when there is a staff that is insufficient to do the work and a staff that is fearful of detaining a ship on the grounds that she is overloaded, because any person so detaining it can be mulcted in penalties for causing the ship to be detained without good cause? Lord Merrivale said that this was one of a long series of official examinations of the vessel which were relied on at the outset of the inquiry as showing what her condition was during the years before her loss. He added: Upon a careful review of the evidence it appears to us that every one acquainted with the 'Blairgowrie' from service in her must have known well that she had defects which seriously affected her condition as a seagoing ship. Examination of the surveys and repair accounts should have provoked thorough investigation into these matters by those in authority. Further, the Wreck Commissioner said: As to the whole question of securing the safety of sea-going ships and their crews, we feel that the existing provisions fall short of what is necessary. For instance, the load line surveys should have due regard to the general condition of the ship. The instructions to surveyors which are in existence should be made practically effective. Is it the intention of the Parliamentary Secretary so to interpret the provisions of this Bill that the surveys will have due regard to the general condition of the ship? Are the instructions to surveyors to be given practical effect? The "Blairgowrie" was permitted to go to sea—there is not a shadow of doubt—in a condition that called forth that grave statement on the part of Lord Merrivale, although she apparently fulfilled the requirements of the law. Several other cases and several other inquiries have shown that the law is not adequate to deal with the conditions.

On this side of the House we believe that you will never get satisfactory conditions in the merchant service until the Act of 1894 is amended from top to bottom; in fact, there ought to be a new Act in regard to the new conditions that exist in sea service to-day. It must not be thought that we are blaming the surveyors for the state of affairs which exist. We know that they are overworked and understaffed. We want to know from the Board of Trade whether it is the board's intention, having altered the law, to set up a sufficient and efficient staff to carry out that law. We say that the powers of the surveyors are too limited. Section 459 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, makes elaborate provisions for the detention of a ship in any part in the United Kingdom is she is unsafe by defective condition of her hull equipments or machinery, or if there is overloading or improper loading. Does the Parliamentary Secretary agree that the punishment for improper load should be amended?

That is a fact which engenders danger at sea. If the Parliamentary Secretary had had any practical experience of coaling ships he would know the difficulty of loading a ship properly. Is there any law that, for special types of cargo a special system of rigging should be put into operation, known as the saddle-back? Is there any system by which the danger of shifting cargoes can be avoided? Only in Newcastle is the hopper system in operation for coaling ships. It is mostly done by tipping, a truck at a time, and most of it is boxed to save breakages. There are various types of coaling, as the hon. Gentleman will know, from dock to dock, and each of them has its own particular problem of loading. There are such costs as demurrage costs that often impel a master, the owner, or the mate of a ship who is left in charge, not to take the necessary care in that loading that one would expect him to take. Section 460 of the Act makes the Board of Trade liable for costs and demurrage, if it appears that there was not reasonable and probable cause, by reason of the condition of the ship or the act or default of the owner, for the provisional detention of a ship. That is the escape hole. That is also a term that applies to coaling ships, as the hon. Gentleman may know. Sometimes they have to cut escape holes so that they can get away after the coal is in.

Such costs and damages can come to a very substantial sum, and every Board of Trade surveyor is made aware of those possibilities. It is therefore only natural that, in every case, the shipowner gets the benefit of the doubt. It is not likely that surveyors will make frivolous charges or would carelessly detain ships. We shall ask, in Committee upstairs, if the Bill goes upstairs, that no ship shall go to sea unless she carries a certificate, issued and signed by the surveyor, to the effect that she is properly and efficiently loaded. I suggest that the Minister should accept that Amendment. Taking the matter by and large, that is all that we have to say on Clause 1 of the Bill.

When we come to the Sea Fish Commission, the Parliamentary Secretary, just as he overloaded his case for Clause 1, so he passed over the Sea Fish Commission's report in a very cursory manner. I shall endeavour to prove that statement to the hon. Gentleman. In the Commission's report on page 19 was a series of recommendations on labour questions, and one of them was upon the question of signing on and signing off. This again is an omission of the hon. Gentleman. I quote from recommendation 60 of the report: Trade union witnesses attached great importance to the signing on and off of crews taking place at the Board of Trade offices… In particular it was suggested to us that it would be more difficult for ' ships 'husbands' or 'runners' to obtain sums from men as a tacit condition of engaging them. They go on to say that they do not think that this is a general custom, but they recommend: We therefore recommend that the relevant section of the Merchant Shipping Act should be amended to render compulsory the signing on of crews of fishing vessels at Board of Trade offices in the presence of a marine superintendent. We shall ask the Parliamentary Secretary in Committee to accept that recommendation.

With regard to life-saving appliances, which have been dealt with, we suggest that it is not good enough to give us appliances that apply only to the small coasting vessels. We want life-saving equipment equivalent to that which is given to ocean-going vessels. Trawlers, as the hon. Gentleman knows, are often al sea for more than three weeks at a time, and are practically the whole of the time in dangerous waters—the Faroes, Iceland, and so on. By virtue of their position in the sea they are often in great danger of being run down, and we ask that the conditions applying to the ocean-going vessels should be applicable to the trawler; that is, we want the line-throwing apparatus on board which at present, and I believe under the Bill, will be a condition for those ships.

Another very old grievance that was fully discussed by the Sea Fish Commission was that of settling sheets. They say: It was represented to us ill evidence that the safeguards in the Merchant Shipping Act designed to ensure fair dealing between owners, skippers and men are inadequate. They describe in paragraph (a) the present methods of payment, and in Recommendation 63 they say: After careful consideration of this problem in the light of the evidence submitted to us we recommend that Parliament should be invited to amend the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, in relation to the employment of men in fishing vessels in the following respects:"— Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would not mind if I quote them— (a) It should be made compulsory for owners to give to each member of the crew of a fishing vessel who is paid partly by share in the profits a detailed settling sheet in the form now furnished to skippers and mates. There is no real hardship in that. The skipper and the mate get the sheet; so also should the crew who are paid by the share system, as well as by a minimum rate. They go on: (b) It should be made compulsory for the owner of a fishing vessel to furnish to the Marine Superintendent a certified true copy of the settling sheet issued to that skipper master and crew. Failure to do so should be made an offence subject to a substantial fine.

(c) The Board of Trade should be given such powers as may be necessary to enable Marine Superintendents to satisfy themselves that settling sheets submitted to them represent the true statement of the cost of a voyage and of the proceeds therefrom Superintendents should be empowered to make such inquiries from time to time and to take any necessary action against the owners, without waiting for complaints to be received. This is a very old grievance. The system of payment is not only by share and by wage, but there is a system of deduction, even for fresh water and breakages; such things have to be set against it.

In the past there have been certain perquisites for the crew, in the way of offal, liver and such things, that were sold to firms abroad, but in many cases that has been taken away altogether or has been whittled down to practically nothing. Nevertheless, we say that as a right a man who is paid by this system should have a full and detailed statement submitted to him, and not, as at the present time, a mere hanging up of some statement in an office, that may be glanced at or may never be seen. In Committee, we shall ask the Board of Trade to accept that recommendation and to implement it by way of Amendment to the Bill: Another source of discontent to which expression was given in the evidence laid before us is to be found in the present system by which the auctioneer who sells the fish at the port is usually the servant of the owner of the vessel It was suggested to us that as a result it sometimes happens that the correct amounts that the fish fetched at auction were not set out in the sales notes which are used to support the settling sheets. Thus, it was suggested that sometimes the rate on such sale sheets is less than the rate at which the fish is actually sold, or that the salesman permits the purchaser to appropriate a larger number of boxes than has in fact been knocked down to him. It may surprise the Parliamentary Secretary to know that that is one of the grievances to which I have listened most. Chiefly the men concerned are employed by the trawler owners. They have a system of selling that is known as "behind the line." There are buyers who have given an order for the first take of fish. That is shipped away by passenger train, by the first train in the morning probably, and it never reaches the market and never finds its way on to the settling sheets. When men are risking their lives in unholy conditions—as they are, because even when a trawler comes in there are hours of work to be done—surely they are entitled to have the truth given to them. If the auctioneer, as we know is often the fact, is conniving to see that the settling sheets do not give the correct settling on them, it militates against the men getting their fair share in the catch, and is neither more nor less than robbery.

If the Board of Trade are sincere, they will accept an Amendment based upon a Recommendation. The Commission say: To meet this complaint, we recommend that Parliament should be asked to confer upon the Board of Trade power after inquiry to prescribe by Order in cases of ports where they consider such a course desirable that the sale by auction of trawled fish which affects the settling sheets between owners, skippers and crews should only be conducted by salesmen independent of the owners of the fishing vessels. We propose to ask the Board of Trade to accept, by way of Amendment to the Bill, that recommendation of the Sea Fish Commission. They go further and say —and this may perhaps anticipate what we may hear upstairs, if not in reply here to-day: The amendments of the law recommended in the preceding paragraphs would throw some additional work upon the Marine Department of the Board of Trade, and might entail a small increase in staff. The sum involved would not be considerable; but the financial difficulties of the present time are, we realise, such that no new expenditure of this kind would be justified unless it can be shown that it is really required for the proper conduct of an essential service. After full consideration, we are satisfied that the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act safeguarding the conditions of employment in the fishing industry are inadequate in the respects indicated in the foregoing paragraphs, and should in the public interest be amended in the sense we propose. Notwithstanding, therefore, the financial difficulties of the hour, we are of opinion that immediate effect should be given to these recommendations. We on this side of the House ask that immediate effect shall be given to them, and we ask the Parliamentary Secretary to say, when he replies, that he is prepared to accept Amendments on the lines of these suggestions. While we on this side of the House unreservedly accept Clauses 1 and 2 of the Bill, we would point out that here is an opportunity, when Parliamentary time is to be taken and new legislation is to be introduced, at which the recommendations of the Sea Fish Commission's Report as applying to labour conditions might be embodied in the Bill. That would lead to a saving of Parliamentary time in the future, and to the elimination of serious grievances which exist in an industry that has never been too well paid, but has always been robbed more or less by the customs that have grown up within the trade. We suggest, also, that the Amendments that may be accepted should include a provision that there shall be consultation at all times with the organisations concerned in the industry. I speak, naturally, for the men employed in the industry, and I would claim on their behalf that they should be consulted at all times as to the operation of any regulations that may be brought in for the safety of the ships at sea or in regard to the labour conditions, the wage-paying machinery, and the selling methods applied in this industry. We accept these two Clauses as acts of commission on the part of the Govern- ment, but, when the opportunity presents itself upstairs, we shall move by Amendment to incorporate in the Bill the various recommendations of the commission which I have indicated.

4.50 p.m.

Sir Hugh Seely

I want very briefly to say that we here accept the Bill and welcome it in every way. The reason for the Bill has undoubtedly been the occurrence of sad cases like those of the "La Crescenta" and the "Blairgowrie," and we feel that legislation which virtually deals with these two cases is not going far enough. There may perhaps be other loopholes and difficulties in connection with the original Act of 1894, while there may not be another case similar to that of the "La Crescenta." I think the hon. Member for Rotherhithe (Mr. Benjamin Smith) was dealing with this Bill very much as though it were a question of altering the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894, and I am wondering whether, when the Bill reaches its Committee stage, anything that he has now said will be in order, or whether it will be possible to amend the Bill on the lines he has suggested.

Dr. Burgin

It will not.

Sir H. Seely

The Parliamentary Secretary bears out what I thought, having regard to the Title of the Bill. That is why I shall, as I have said, be very brief. We accept the Bill. We see that it deals with these two disastrous and sad cases, and we wish it could have gone further, because we feel that it is perhaps time that some of these provisions were amended to bring them into line with modern conditions in the merchant shipping industry. The Parliamentary Secretary at the beginning of his speech gave some very interesting figures, and there are many questions that one would like to ask. Although we may have gone up as regards safety at the present time, after all, in 1900 there was still a large proportion of sailing ships, so that it may not be a matter for great congratulation that we have this proportion as compared with 1900, because obviously the safety line is far higher in the shipping world now, when most of the shipping is steam and not sail. We accept, however, these two Clauses, and we hope that at a future time the Parliamentary Secretary will bring in a further Bill which will deal with the many points which have been put by the hon. Member to-day.

4.53 p.m.

Mr. Richard Law

As a representative of a fishing port, I should like to voice my support of this Bill in so far as it touches the deep sea fishing industry. At the same time, I should like to echo some, though not by any means all, of the regrets of the hon. Member for Rotherhithe (Mr. Benjamin Smith) that the Bill does not go further than it does. The Parliamentary Secretary pointed out that Clause 2 of the Bill was being introduced on account of a recommendation of the Sea Fish Commission, a recommendation which was also in the earlier report of the Addison Committee, from which the hon. Member for Rotherhithe quoted; and I think it is a great pity that the opportunity has not been taken to incorporate in the Bill the further recommendations of the Sea Fish Commission, and, incidentally, the report from which the hon. Member read in relation particularly to the question of settling sheets. This Bill will, no doubt, do a great deal to increase the safety of our fishermen, but it will be a great mistake to think that the Bill will relieve the calling of deep sea fishing of all and every kind of hazard. The deep sea fishing industry must, from its very nature, be an extremely hazardous pursuit for those who are engaged in it, and must make the utmost demands upon their fortitude and hardihood and, indeed, their heroism.

So far as the fishing port which I represent is concerned, I shall be very surprised if this Bill will make much difference. The deep sea trawlers which go out from Hull are, in the main, extremely well found vessels. They are, ton for ton, probably as well found and as seaworthy as, for example, the "Queen Mary." They have wireless telegraphy, they have wireless direction finders, they have Marconi echo sounding machines; they have boats, and detonators, and instruments for flinging out lines such as the hon. Member asked for, and probably nothing in the Bill will improve them so far as safety and seaworthiness are concerned. But I would like to point out that, in spite of the fact that the Hull fishing fleet is on the whole so up to date and so well found, there have been in the last six years 18 vessels lost at sea, with the loss of nearly 100 lives, and I am afraid that this Bill will not help that situation very much. There is, however, one thing that I should like to suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary by which he might supplement the effort which he is making under this T11. A week ago last Sunday, one of the Hull trawlers, the trawler "Athethyst," sent out an S 0 S from waters North-East of Scotland because she was disabled, and not a sign or word has been heard of the trawler "Amethyst" for the past eight days. It looks very much as though she has foundered, but at any rate there is a chance that she may be drifting somewhere out in the North Atlantic, with her crew of Hull fishermen still living, quite hopeless and quite helpless. Because of that chance the Admiralty, I understand, has dispatched three ships of the Fishery Protection Patrol to go out and search for the "Amethyst." That is obviously a very useful, and even noble, work on the part of the Admiralty, and any Member who has listened to the weather reports which have been coming in for the last week will realise that these vessels are setting out on a very difficult, arduous and dangerous task.

The point I would like to suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary is that his Department should get in touch with the Admiralty and organise the fishery protection patrol on a more reasonable basis than is the case at the moment. There are two great disadvantages at the moment. The first is that, as I understand, the disposition of these vessels to-day is exactly the same as it was in 1882, whereas the whole balance of the fishing industry has changed since then, and now 70 per cent. of the fish landed in this country is landed in the Humber ports. The second disadvantage is that some of these vessels are out of date and obsolete, and I think that, if the Parliamentary Secretary could see his way to collaborate with the Admiralty, he would undoubtedly do a great deal to forward what he has in mind under this Bill. The hon. Member for Rotherhithe drew attention to the Addison report and the statements which it contained regarding the sale of fish at the ports. I think it is fair to point out to the hon. Member that since the publication of the Addison report there has been published a report of the White Fish Commission, and that the second report—the last report published last year—more or less withdraws the allegations in that respect which were made in the Addison report. If the hon. Member will refer to page 28 of the report of the White Fish Commission, he will see this sentence: The gross proceeds of sales of fish included in settling sheets were found"—

Mr. Speaker

It appears to me that this is outside the scope of the Bill.

Mr. Law

I am sorry. I am not anxious to detain the House, and will only add that, so far as Hull is concerned, I am sure the fishermen of Hull will support this Measure whole-heartedly, and am equally sure that they will look forward to seeing it followed up by further activities on the part of the Parliamentary Secretary and his Department.

4.59 p.m.

Mr. Adamson

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherhithe (Mr. Benjamin Smith), I shall not oppose, but shall support, the Second Reading of this Measure, but I desire to ask the Parliamentary Secretary some specific questions with regard to Clause 2, in reference to the application of life-saving rules to fishing vessels. Under the original Act, the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, to which he referred, there was set up a consultative committee for the drafting of rules in regard to the vessels to which the Act applied, and I would like to ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether it is his intention to refer the drafting of these rules to such a committee, or, preferably from the point of view of the fishermen, to a special committee having regard to the varied conditions of sea fishing, so that they could draft rules according to the circumstances applying to that particular section of the industry. Secondly, I am assuming that the Clause and the rules which have to be drafted will equally apply to drifter vessels, mainly of course in the herring fishing industry. I, therefore, support the plea that such a consultative committee should decide not only upon rules essential to ordinary shipping vessels, but for the specialised fishing vessels which the Clause is intended to cover. There is deep feeling among fishermen that such a Bill as this should be limited merely to life-saving appliances. I would refer the hon. Gentleman to a reply that he gave me last month. Perhaps he will be able to give me some further information as to other steps that will be taken at a later stage. The latter part of the reply was: Considerable progress has been made in the examination of the recommendations of the Sea Fish Commission relative to settling sheet grievances but my right hon. Friend will not be in a position to indicate the action to be taken until the necessary consultations with the industry have been coinpleted."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th December, 3936; col. 1811, Vol. 318.] I was one of the representatives present at the consultation with the trade unionists concerned over a month ago, and I have good reason to believe that we were the last of the deputation that were consulted. I am somewhat surprised that even now, after the very full consideration that was promised by the chairman and the Board of Trade representatives, something has not been done in that direction. However, I trust that we may have an assurance on the point.

Returning to the question of life-saving appliances, I put a question to the President of the Board of Trade some 12 months ago with regard to a Lowestoft vessel which was wrecked near Milford Haven, and the body of a member of the crew was found on the rocks. I would press upon the Parliamentary Secretary that, if there had been rocket life-saving lines, the probability is that disaster would not have overtaken the man, who had apparently swum ashore and climbed upon the rocks. While we welcome the steps that are to be taken, I trust that we can have some further assurance that this is but the initial step towards legislation which will ultimately embody the greater and equally important recommendations of the Economic Advisory Committee. The provisions for life-saving are very often not satisfactory and we ask him to strengthen them and to increase the inspectorate and that those responsible for framing the rules will see that, as frequently happens in fishing vessels, the lifeboat is not filled with ordinary and extraordinary utensils which are not essential in the interests of life-saving, and in other respects that it will be carried out in the interests of the fishing industry as a whole, and as a protection for those who risk their lives in going down to the sea.

5.9 p.m.

Mr. Lewis

The House of Commons has repeatedly shown that it is willing to give a sympathetic hearing to any reasonable proposal designed to increase the safety of those who work or travel in British ships, and it is evident from what has taken place to-day that the House is sympathetically disposed to this Bill. There is one point which has not yet been made which, I think, is worthy of attention. It is often assumed that, because other countries have regulations relating to the safety of life at sea similar to our own, we impose no particular burden on shipowners by Measures such as this. Though it may be true that the regulations, in many cases, are not dissimilar from our own, their administration and enforcement are often very different in foreign countries, and consequently regulations such as these constitute an extra burden on British shipowners. When our attention is directed to the need for assist ante for British ships, the question of the burden of regulations such as these and the financial effect on shipping should be kept in view. An example from my own experience of a case which is very closely akin to the matters referred to in the Bill will sufficiently illustrate my point. Some years ago I was travelling down the west coast of South America from Antofagasta to Valparaiso in a Chilean ship. The Chileans are recognised as the best sailors in South America and as having a higher standard in matters of shipping than the sailors of other South American countries. The line was in direct competition with British ships calling at the same port. We had our full complement of passengers and, in addition, the upper deck was crowded with out-of-work labourers from the nitrate fields.

On a perfectly calm day a child fell overboard. The greatest confusion resulted. No lifebelt was thrown, for the very good reason that there was none, although a notice was exhibited in a prominent position that under the safety regulations the vessel carried 12. She took a long time to go about. An effort was made to lower the two lifeboats. In one case the falls jammed in the davits and the boat dangled over the water. In the other case the boat got away, but there were two rowlocks missing. In neither boat was there an officer and, from the way they rowed about, it was evident that they had no clear idea what they were to do. Nothing further was seen of the unfortunate child. Afterwards one or two of us on board went about and examined the life-saving appliances. We found there were not enough for the ordinary complement of passengers according to the regulations exhibited, despite the fact that, owing to the extra out-of-work people we were carrying, we had more than twice our ordinary complement. Had any misfortune overtaken the ship there must have been very great loss of life.

I do not believe it would be possible for such a state of affairs to exist on a British ship. It is well that cases like this should be called attention to, and that people should realise that to travel British is to travel in safety. I also think that the financial implication of this, the fact that these regulations are not only made but enforced in the case of British shipping, should not be lost sight of when application is made to the Government to consider the financial plight of British shipping in relation to foreign shipping, and particularly in relation to subsidised foreign shipping.

5.14 p.m.

Mr. David Adams

I congratulate the Government on taking the steps outlined in this Bill. We may feel that it is somewhat late, and that it required the series of accidents that have occurred before the steps were taken, but better late than never. I hope that, in any fines that are inflicted in addition to the punishment of imprisonment, there will be specifically included the amount of the additional freight earned by the vessel that may have been overlooked. As the Parliamentary Secretary and others well know that, from many causes and particularly in the case of war between certain countries in which we are not necessarily involved, British shipping being so universal, frequently very high freights may be earned. That applied in the Great War, but it applies in a lesser degree in the war prevailing in Spain at the present time. It might be a very strong temptation to the master of a ship to overload his vessel and take the risk, because of the additional freight to be earned, of improperly overloading.

When we are dealing with the question of the safety of life as far as overloading is concerned, the case of a shipmaster whose vessel went to sea without the ordinary voyage repairs being effectively carried out to bring the vessel up to normal Board of Trade standards, would be an appropriate case for action by the Court, but presumably that cannot be included in the present Measure. It is important that the Board of Trade surveyors should be instructed that when vessels—it may be, accidentally overloaded through the ship loading two or three holds at the same time—are discovered to be overloaded, discharge should not be permitted if the vessel were found about to sail, but a prosecution taken.

From my personal experience there is no more conscientious or competent body of officials than those who are engaged by the Board of Trade in the merchant shipping service. There is a greatly increased consciousness of responsibility both on the part of masters and of owners, and they will welcome the new legislation proposed in the Merchant Shipping Bill. I sincerely hope that the Minister will take serious notice of the comments which have been made, and will see his way to secure a penalty adequate to the excess represented, which may amount in many cases to hundreds of pounds, for vessels which may have been loaded particularly during war time in any part of the world under the British flag.

5.18 p.m.

Dr. Burgin

I can reply only with the assent of the House, but I am sure it is the wish of hon. Members that I should say a few words in answer to some of the questions which have been raised in the Debate. The Government naturally are gratified at the reception which the Bill has received at the hands of hon. Members, and there is very little to which I need reply at this stage. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Rotherhithe (Mr. Benjamin Smith) who gave us, as usual, an informative speech, drawing upon some of his own personal experiences in the mercantile marine, touched upon one or two points, some of which were taken up by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Berwick-on-Tweed (Sir H. Seely). I should like the House to believe that the idea that our safety legislation is out of date really will not stand examination. I know of the temptation to make a statement of that kind and to imagine that, because the main operative law was passed in 1894 and the world has progressed very much since, safety legislation must be dated back to the same period. That is not the case. Regulations have been made, as far as I know, up-to-date.

The hon. Member for Berwick-on-Tweed asked whether there are no other ways in which casualties may occur and show that there are other points in the Merchant Shipping Act which require amendment? If any hon. Gentleman knows of a provision in the Merchant Shipping Act which requires amendment, he should by all means call the attention of the Department to the matter. Speaking with authority from this Box, I do not know of a safety or other provision which requires attention other than is being given to it by regulations and discussion with the societies and other bodies with whom we work. I say that with a full sense of responsibility.

The remarks made by hon. Members have gone very largely to the question of the recommendations of the Sea-Fish Commission. The hon. Member for Rotherhithe gave notice that certain matters would be raised in Standing Committee upstairs. It is not for me to say what will or will not be in order when we reach Committee upstairs. That will be a matter for the Chairman of the Committee. But I think that I can give the House substantially what it is asking, and that is, an assurance that the recommendations of the Sea-Fish Commission are being taken seriously. They are: but in matters like safety in ships, it is very desirable that we should work hand-in-hand with the industry and that we should make regulations which are going not to be pieces of paper kept in surveyors' offices. I have myself made an investigation into the fishing ports of this country. I know the grievance and the point to which attention is drawn and the seriousness of the recommendations of the Sea-Fish Commission. A very large measure of agreement has already been reached between the different interests as to the form in which these recommendations should be implemented.

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Cannock (Mr. Adamson) mentioned a meeting on 22nd December, when the officers of my Department met officers of various organisations representing share fishermen, and there was a full exchange of views. The matter has largely progressed. If it is necessary for legislation, there will be legislation. There is a very large measure of agreement on these matters of the Sea-Fish Commission, and I do not think that the House need trouble about thinking that it is necessary for these provisions to be included in the present Bill. The present Bill deals with safety. It deals with two specific matters which require amendment, and that is precisely the type of Bill which, in the present overcharged programme, secures quick passage, and I hope that hon. Members will not delay the passage into law of this very necessary Bill by trying to improve matters which do not fall within its title. The hon. Member for Cannock asked what rules were to be made and to what particular vessels they were to apply? There will be special rules for different kinds of fishing vessels, including drifters, and the rules when drafted by the Board of Trade will be sent to the Merchant Shipping Advisory Committee. We shall follow the practical procedure, and I hope that with this assurance the House will give a Second Reading to the Bill.

Mr. Dingle Foot

Will the Parliamentary Secretary tell the House whether the provision of Clause 2 will include making compulsory the provision of line throwing apparatus?

Dr. Burgin

I cannot, obviously, give any definite answer as to what particular form of life-saving appliance will be used. The effect of the passage of Clause 2 will be to give the Board of Trade power to make regulations. The particular type of boats, floats or other life-saving apparatus are matters for discussion. I can give no pledge. There is no reason why the industry need think that there will not be consultation.

Mr. Adamson

Will the Advisory Committee have consultations with representatives of the organised fishermen?

Dr. Burgin

The actual machinery will be that the Board of Trade will have consultation with all these interests before the rules are sent to the Merchant Shipping Advisory Committee. That consultation will, of course, take place.