HC Deb 01 September 1939 vol 351 cc176-80

" To impose restrictions on certain transactions in respect of ships and aircraft and parts of aircraft; and for purposes connected with the matter aforesaid," presented, pursuant to the Order of the House this day, by Mr. Stanley; supported by Sir Kingsley Wood, Captain Balfour, and Mr. Cross; and ordered to be printed. [Bill 241.]

8.54 p.m.

Mr. Stanley

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

This Bill, again, is one with which the House will agree in principle. It has for its object the restriction of the transfer and mortgage of ships and aircraft without the licence of the President of the Board of Trade or the Secretary of State for Air. It is clear that we cannot allow the transfer of ships on the British Register except under circumstances which are believed by those responsible to be in the national interest. With regard to ships, we have, under the Emergency Powers Act, powers in regard to this matter, and we are now exercising them. As far as ships are concerned, therefore, this will only put in a slightly wider and better drafted form the powers that we already exercise under the Emergency Powers Act. But under this Bill similar powers are extended to the Secretary of State for Air in respect of aircraft or parts of aircraft.

I think that the only provision to which I need call attention is that here again we give to the Treasury the power to impose a charge. It was found once or twice in the last War that it was in the national interest for some reason or other to allow the transfer of a ship from a British register to another register. The powers included in this Bill will permit the Board of Trade to license such a transfer, but, at the same time, it will give the Board of Trade powers to attach conditions. They will be able to attach the condition of the payment of a sum of money to the Treasury, and they can attach sucha condition, as they naturally would, that the owner who transfers his ship should build another one in its place. These are powers which the experience of the last War showed that the Board of Trade should possess. I do not think that in this Bill there is any other point to which I need call specific attention. I shall be glad to answer any questions with regard to that part that deals with the transfer of ships, and the Undersecretary of State for Air will reply to any hon. Member who asks questions in regard to aircraft.

8.57 p.m.

Mr. Ede

The months of June and July now seem a very long distance away, but the right hon. Gentleman will remember that during those months he was continually being pressed by this side of the House to take powers similar to those conferred upon him now by this Bill, and he will readily understand that we heartily welcome that part of the Bill, and especially its extensions to cover aircraft. There is only one point upon which I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman a question. It is with regard to Clause 6, sub-section (1, a). If a person is guilty of an offence and has been found so guilty on indictment, it will be seen that he is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or a fine of an unspecified amount.

I understand that there are precedents in the particular kind of legislation in which the Department of the right hon. Gentleman specialises for a provision of that kind, but I am very anxious to ensure that some guidance should be given to the courts, especially in view of the extension of the power of treating cases on indictment, so that they should have some idea of the amount of the fine that ought to be inflicted. I understand that precedent would seem to point to the fact that the maximum fine might be regarded as the value of the ship, and there is another Act dealing with the Department of the right hon. Gentleman where the fine in similar cases is fixed at £5,000. It is important that some guidance should be given to the courts, because it will be seen that the imprisonment of six months is put in the same Sub-section as a fine not exceeding £100. I suggest that there might be cases where four times the addition of £100 might still be a very inadequate monetary penalty to impose, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to give the House some guidance on that point. Apart from that, we on this side of the House heartily welcome the Bill, and regret that it has not been put on the Statute Book before.

9 p.m.

Mr. David Adams

The Bill now before us is no doubt very essential, but I think that we ought to have a little more explanation of Clause 1. What is the particular thing that is in the mind of the Government in their special objection to the transference from one port in the United Kingdom to another port, and to the sale of a vessel or part of a vessel, or the transfer of a mortgage? It seems to me that none of these acts could in any way be detrimental to the public interest, but it would be contrary to the interests of the country if such ships were transferred to foreign owners. During the last War there were many notable changes in the ownership of vessels and indeed in the ownership of whole lines of vessels. Lines were transferred from one firm to another which was more competent to handle them than the original owners, by virtue of the fact that they could supplement the lines by having at call a larger fleet than those who originally owned the vessels. I have no objection to the Treasury or the Board of Trade making profit out of such transactions if it can be shown to be reasonable, but I think we are entitled to some explanation as to what evil might ensue from the transfer of such property from one Englishman to another or from one port to another.

9.2 p.m.

Mr. Stanley

I gladly avail myself of the opportunity of explaining the matter raised by the hon. Member for Consett (Mr. David Adams). I can assure him that there is no intention to use Clause 1 in order to put any obstacles in the way of ordinary, legitimate transactions between one British owner and another, such as he referred to. The whole object is to prevent the weakening of the national effort by the transference of ships from the British register.

Mr. Adams

You do not say so in the Bill.

Mr. Stanley

Why we seek to make it necessary for a transfer even between one British owner and another to receive the licence of the Board of Trade is that it is essential that we should be in complete control of these transfers and that they should not without our knowledge take place from an individual or a company whose good reputation we know, to someone whom we might suspect of being in a position or having a desire to evade the provisions of the law and in some way or another to get a ship off the British register. It is only for that reason that we ask for this power in regard to changes between British owners. I can give the assurance that there is no intention to use the power to prevent ordinary legitimate transactions beween bona-fide owners.

In regard to the case which the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) raised as to the penalty, he is right in saying that there is a precedent to this Clause in the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894. That precedent has been on the Statute Book for 45 years and during that time no complaint, I understand, has been made against it. I do not think the inference the hon. Member drew that because it is two years in one case and six months in another, a £100 fine becomes £400 in another, has any validity. It will be a matter for the discretion of the court. A person who is fined always has the protection of the common law in regard to what might be regarded as an excessive fine.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read a Second time; considered in Committee, and reported, without Amendment; read the Third time, and passed.