HC Deb 23 February 1939 vol 344 cc694-701

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £10, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1939, for the salaries and expenses of certain Mercantile Marine services, including the expenses of Coastguard and General Register and Record office of Shipping and Seamen.

9.28 p.m.

Mr. Cross

This Estimate was originally £422,970 and the revised Estimate is £422,980, involving only a Supplementary grant of £10. The need for this supplementary grant arises from excess expenditure over the gross total which is made up under three heads, Salaries, Wages and Expenses of seamen left abroad, and the North Atlantic Ice Patrol, totalling £12,000. From that we can deduct savings on the other sub-heads totalling £2,500, leaving a net excess of £9,500. This excess necessitated the Supplementary Estimate. We expect to get further receipts which can be used as Appropriations-in-Aid which amount to rather more than the sum of £9,500 and of this we propose to use £9,490 in order to leave, as we must do, the sum devoted to the Supplementary Estimate. So much for the actual figures, but hon. Members will desire some explanation of the items. The first relates to salaries in the Mercantile Marine Department. That increase is wholly attributable to an increase in the staff of the Sea Transport Branch, which is consequent upon a very substantial increase in general defence preparation work, and also in consequence of additional demands which have been made on the Sea Transport Branch by the Defence Departments. This Branch is responsible in time of war for the control of the employment of the Mercantile Marine and this sum represents the cost of the preparations for this work. At the same time the Sea Transport Branch arranges for the conveyance oversea of men and stores for the Service Departments. The costs in regard to this work are recoverable from these Departments, but a greater amount has been done than was estimated owing to the situation in the Mediterranean and the Far East, and that explains another part of the increased salaries which will be found under Appropriations-in-Aid H.15, a sum of £2,990.

Mr. Adamson

Could we have some more details of that expenditure in the Mediterranean?

Mr. Cross

These are services which were undertaken on behalf of the Service Departments in conveying troops and materials by sea. These added movements were consequent upon the international situation. With regard to wages and expenses of seamen left abroad, under the Merchant Shipping Act, where a seaman is left abroad without having a proper discharge from the consular authority, the balance of his wages at the end of the voyage is paid by the master to the Superintendent of the Mercantile Marine offices at the British port to which he returns. That money is remitted to the Board of Trade, where it is treated as an Appropriation-in-Aid. Under that heading there is a sum of £3,000. These wages, however, are not necessarily forfeited, and under the Merchant Shipping Act the Board of Trade may meet a claim by a seaman for wages and defray the cost of relieving and repatriating seamen. Such claims by men, and the expenses I have mentioned, are charged to the Vote. The number of cases has increased, largely owing to the difficulties of shipping in Spanish waters, and that explains why there is a further sum of £1,000 under that head.

The third heading is that of the North Atlantic Ice Patrol. The expenditure here represents the United Kingdom contribution which is payable under the International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea towards the total cost of the patrol of the North Atlantic which is carried on by the United States. The season was an exceptionally lengthy one, icebergs appearing near the Trans-Atlantic steamship tracks at an abnormally early date. Consequently, the whole cost of the patrol was increased and that explains why the British portion has increased and why it is necessary to ask the House for an additional sum of money. There are some small savings under headings B.1 and D.1, attributable to small changes in personnel and under D.4 there is a reduction in the remuneration of the Coast Life Saving Corps. The amount of remuneration required for that corps depends, to some extent, on the amount of work on which they are engaged, which in its turn depends on weather conditions and, weather conditions having been rather more favourable than was allowed for under the Estimate, there is this saving. I turn to the Appropriations-in-Aid. Under the first there has been a small increase in the fees that have been collected by the Mercantile Marine offices and, secondly, there is an item which relates to the recovery of sums from ship-owners in respect of the maintenance, medical care and conveyance of men left behind in ports abroad owing to injury and sickness. I have explained the other two Appropriations-in-Aid. If hon. Members have other particular points to raise I shall do my best to answer them.

9.35 p.m.

Mr. Ede

May I ask whether any part of the salaries under item A.1 was paid to the staff engaged in chartering Greek steamers to bring corn to this country, which were seized by General Franco?

Mr. Cross

I think I must ask the hon. Member to give me notice of a detailed question like that. I shall be very glad to try to answer it when it comes to winding up.

Mr. Benn

The Debate may be prolonged for some time, and no doubt the hon. Gentleman has sufficient staff to give us the information before its conclusion.

9.36 p.m.

Commander Marsden

Could my hon. Friend give us a little more information as to the North Atlantic Ice Patrol? We know that the United States do this work, and do it very efficiently, but it seems to me rather summary if we merely get a demand note for £4,500 in excess of what we had previously promised to pay. Can we be given some more information? Do the United States give us a detailed account of the way in which they use this money?

Mr. Markham

Can the Parliamentary Secretary give us information, also, as to whether the Canadian and Newfoundland contributions are restricted to ice patrolling, or whether scientific work comes under the scheme?

9.37 p.m.

Mr. Adamson

The Parliamentary Secretary has given us some information as to the increased expenditure in connection with the salaries, wages and expenses, etc., of seamen left abroad, but there are one or two points which might be more clearly elucidated. For instance, could the hon. Gentleman indicate how much of this increase is due to the fact that British seamen were left stranded in Spanish ports? If this is a responsibility of the Government, we ought to know how it is allocated. There is also the question whether there is any contra account with the other departments in that connection. I should like, also, further particulars as to whether the increased expenditure was largely incurred owing to the fact that British seamen lost their jobs through their vessels being bombed in Spanish ports.

9.38 p.m.

Mr. Cross

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Chertsey (Commander Marsden) asked whether we had detailed accounts with respect to the North Atlantic Ice Patrol. The answer is in the affirmative. I have not, however, the detailed account for last year, but only telegraphic information as to the amount; but we do get these accounts in due course. The hon. Member for South Nottingham (Mr. Markham) asked whether the patrol engaged in research work. I think the answer to that question is in the negative. It is engaged in bringing information as to the presence of icebergs, and since it was first instituted not a life or a ship has been lost. The hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) asked about the chartering of vessels for the purpose of bringing Rumanian wheat from Danube ports in the Black Sea. There is no additional expenditure in this Supplementary Estimate in connection with that matter.

The hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Adamson) asked a question with reference to item E.2—Wages and Expenses of Seamen left Abroad. These seamen, are ordinarily, so far as can be known, deserters, though perhaps there may be exceptional instances in which they have, so to speak, deserted accidentally, that is to say, have met with some accident which has prevented them from rejoining their ships. I have no doubt that instances of that kind have occurred, particularly in Spanish ports. There has been an increase in the number of men left abroad, and while, no doubt, the attractions of the ports have played their usual part, some of the increase is no doubt attributable to the troubled times in Spanish ports, where, perhaps, seamen have gone ashore during an air raid and have failed to rejoin their ship when it left, or perhaps, finding themselves in a foreign port without knowing the language and without any papers, they have been arrested and their ship has gone before they could return. During air raids, more particularly, they would have gone ashore in order to get shelter. In such cases I do not think the' can be reckoned as deserters. I am unable to say exactly what has happened in the case of all these men, but, so far as I am able to inform the Committee, we can only assume that the increase in their number is probably due in the main to men being left behind in Spanish ports.

9.42 p.m.

Mr. Benn

The speech of the hon. Gentleman really passes belief. Here we have an Estimate in which the word "Spain" does not occur, but, when we cross-examine the hon. Gentleman, we find that the increase in the Estimate is due in part—I do not know whether it is a large part—to the need for assisting British sailors in Spanish ports. That shows the use of the Committee of Supply; we find out something, at any rate. The second point to which I desire to draw attention is far worse, namely, the jocular tone in which the hon. Gentleman refers to this matter. [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] He is pleased to say he supposes that the attractions of the ports have kept these men, but the plain fact is that these British seamen, on their lawful occasions, were bombed by pirates, and the Government will not lift a finger to aid them; and when we come to vote a sum, as we have to do under the Act of 1906, to help them, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade is pleased to say he supposes that the attractions of the Spanish ports are so great that they have not returned to their ships. [Interruption.] That is the plain fact. We cannot vote against this Estimate, because it would be reducing the assistance that we want to give, but the Committee, I hope, and the seamen of the country, I am certain, will take note of the fact that all we can get in regard to assistance for men carrying on their legitimate trade area few evasive and jocular remarks from the hon. Gentleman to the effect that they have not been able to return to their ships because the forces of General Franco were bombing their ships, and they could not go back except at the risk of their lives.

9.45 p.m.

Mr. Garro Jones

I was rather disquieted by one remark of the hon. Gentleman, and perhaps he would enlighten us further on the point. He stated that the whereabouts of some of these sailors was unknown, if I correctly understood him. If that is so, what inquiries have the Board of Trade made through the Consular Officers and others to ascertain where they are? When they are driven ashore from their ship they are without papers or means of identification. It is possible that some of them may have been arrested, and have adequate measures been taken to ascertain if that is so, and to secure their release?

9.46 p.m.

Mr. Ede

I want to thank the Parliamentary Secretary for the courteous reply he gave to the question I addressed to him. I also want to join with the right hon. Member for Gorton (Mr. Benn) in the protest he made against the way in which the hon. Member has treated the remainder of the subject. A large number of men from my constituency have sailed to Spanish ports. I had the privilege recently of meeting in a Committee Room here a captain who came from the constituency of the hon. Member for Sunderland (Mr. Furness). He had been to Spain, and he took the whole of his crew from my constituency. He expressed to me his regret that he was not a sailor out of my port. The depression in the shipping trade has been very bad, and to ask for this extra sum this year indicates how very many more of these men have been left in foreign ports than would have been the case but for some of the extraordinary things that the Parliamentary Secretary has mentioned. It is far more serious than it would have been in any year when shipping was normal, and it is the more distressing to find that there is this substantial increase.

9.48 p.m.

Mr. David Adams

I would like some explanation in regard to the item relating to the North Atlantic patrol. Why has it gone up? We are entitled to know why, unless there is some exceptional service to be rendered, this charge should have been increased this year, and whether we are to look in the future for any further increase of this substantial amount.

Mr. Garro Jones

I should have thought——

Mr. Cross rose——

Mr. Garro Jones

I should have thought the hon. Gentleman would have been good enough to answer. We are in Committee, and the object of these interrogations is that they should be vouchsafed a reply. I hope the hon. Gentleman is not trying to ride off——

The Chairman

I think it is only a question of whether the hon. Gentleman got up at this point or not. I do not think we need waste any time on it.

9.49 p.m.

Mr. Cross

The answer to the hon. Member's point is a short one. He was mistaken in thinking I said that these men had disappeared. That cannot be the case, because the Vote relates to men who came back to this country and claimed their wages, and it allows also for the expenses of repatriation. As for the hon. Member who spoke about the North Atlantic patrol, this is not a patrol carried on for fixed periods each year. It is dependent on weather conditions, starting when icebergs first appear in the Atlantic and continuing till the danger of ice disappears.

Resolved, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £10, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1939, for the salaries and expenses of certain Mercantile Marine services, including the expenses of Coastguard and General Register and Record Office of Shipping and Seamen.

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