§ Question again proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."
It has been long a boast of mine that I could stop the swiftest horse in the Derby or any other race simply by putting a half-crown on it; and I am now persuaded by frequent experience that I have only to make one of my rare interventions in the proceedings of this House in order to cause a sense of urgency in the legislative body at the other end of the passage. But here we are again, and the interval has at least given the Parliamentary Secretary the opportunity to get away from the pressing business which I know unavoidably detained him; and I should like to congratulate him on his arrival in this office, because I think this is his first public appearance in debate. For his benefit, I was trying to give a sketch of what happened recently in connection with the unavailing attempt by Lord Marchwood and myself to get a Royal Commission and of the abuse which descended upon us from the National Maritime Board and others. Then I proposed to read a few letters from seamen at sea showing that they by no means take the same view, that it would be absurd to have a Royal Commission. I had started to read one complaining of the food and accommodation on ships. It goes on:We all realise the seriousness of the present situation in the Atlantic and the necessity of turning ships about quickly.1706 and finishes with a reference to:ships that are eye-sores on the oceans of the world and a constant reproach to the flag they sail under.I have quoted the phrase "We all realise the seriousness of the present situation," because I am greatly struck by the quality of these letters. They are not the letters of sea-lawyers, not the letters of natural moaners or whiners; they are the letters of men who realise that they have a job and must do it but who also ask us to do our part. Here is a letter from a second mate:I am writing to tell you that such an inquiry would be welcomed by merchant seamen. The boards, bodies and unions who are supposed to understand and look after the welfare of merchant seamen have not made any sort of job of it. … On my ship we stare like cannibals at a gramophone when we see the real wash-basins on some of the trawlers recently taken over by the Navy. On board when we want to wash we have to go down to the stokehold with a bucket for water.That letter comes from an officer. The next letter has many signatures of A.Bs., greasers, donkeymen, firemen and deck-boys and says:Regarding the proposed Royal Commission on the Merchant Service, may we suggest you go ahead with it.A man who is a master mariner writes:The statement that the men do not want an inquiry is astounding and entirely lacking in foundation when the men have never been consulted. The very fact that they made such a statement without an appeal to the seamen shows clearly that their concern was only for themselves.I do not subscribe to all these statements. Some of these views may be extravagant. Another letter says:I am disappointed at the attitude of the national union officials denying the seamen the right to think for themselves. The union has absolutely nothing to do with the majority of sea-going men. We are never consulted on any matter concerning our lives.The next letter says:A proper uniform. This is definite. Don't believe the National Union of Seamen that they don't want a uniform.I could go on for hours reading these letters, but I wish to make these one or two points. First, I claim for myself that, with my customary restraint and Christian feeling, I did not yield to the temptation to send all these letters to the Press when Lord Marchwood and I were so much abused. The second point is that because the National Union of Seamen and the National Maritime Board, who, I know, 1707 are doing great work, say this, that and the other, we must not agree that it is necessarily the opinion of the seamen.
I tried hard to get a Debate in this House, and it was not the fault of the Chief Whip that I could not, because I know that he did his best, but for one reason or another it was not possible. On 3rd February Lord Marchwood returned to the charge in the House of Lords again, and there Lord Leathers again declined to open any sort of inquiry. In doing so, he used words which were very warm in expression, and I am sure Were warmly felt, about the interest which he had always had in the Merchant Navy. He went a little farther than that, but I will quote what he said later.
So it might seem at first that Lord Marchwood's campaign had not borne much fruit; but that would not be quite correct. Everybody concerned owes a great debt to Lord Marchwood for his public spirit and bold endeavour. I know enough of the working of the machinery of Government to be aware that, very often, when a Minister is repelling with obstinacy, and even with worse, the efforts of a pertinacious critic, he is often secretly pleased, because the criticism will help to stimulate those behind the scenes. He is, in other words, using the bark of the wolf to stimulate the sheep-dog. I think something of that sort has happened here. I see that some important and useful little reforms have been announced, although I do not know whether they were begun, since Lord Marchwood's efforts.
Anyhow, since the war began, a great many useful things have been done, such as the pool system, continuity of employment, or at least of pay, increased rates of pay—not too high even now—free railway passes, compensation for lost gear, and that kind of thing. That is but part of the list which I think the Minister had better give us, because he knows more about it than I do. There are also better safety arrangements. In the new ships there is a great improvement in comfort and quarters. I am by no means here to say that nothing is being done. It is not my purpose to throw stones at anyone who is engaged on working at this most important building, and I am sure that if anybody is going to improve things, the new Parliamentary Secretary will make a very good job of it, though I would by no 1708 means belittle the good work of his predecessor, the right hon. and gallant Member for Uxbridge (Colonel Llewellin)
About the future: I should like to say at once that I am not what might be called a "better worlder." I believe in a better world, and I hope for it; but I hoped for a better world before the war, and I see no reason why the existence of a destructive war in both hemispheres should necessarily make it easier to improve the world thereafter; and I have no patience whatever with those who spread abroad the insidious doctrine that no citizen can put his heart into the war unless he is promised not merely a blueprint of Utopia, but something on account at once. I am sure that no seaman would subscribe to such an anaemic doctrine. But that does not absolve us from our responsibility. Not as a matter of sentiment, charity, politics or morale, but as a matter of justice, security and economic efficiency, we must do all that we can to prevent happening after this war what happened after the last war. Then, as we all know, merchant captains were going about the streets selling envelopes and albums at the doors, and ships' crews were manned entirely by master mariners because a place before the mast was the only place which they could find at sea, and all the time our ships were being sold to alien flags all over the world.
As to the future, what did Lord Leathers say? He said two main things. The first was that after the war the Government, in the light of conditions then prevailing, would be able to give a definite answer—he did not really say "after the war," as I prefer to say, but, "on the cessation of hostilities"—the Government would be able to say whether or not there should be an inquiry into the wider aspects of the Merchant Navy. Secondly, he said that he had asked the National Maritime Board to study certain questions, such as continuity of employment after the war, and improved methods of entry and training of "sea-going personnel" and that he would ask them to bring these problems, among others, to the stage of definite proposals, as soon as possible. The main question I want to put now is whether this House, whatever may have been the somewhat tepid applause of their Lordships in another place, is satisfied that that is enough. So far 1709 as I know, I may be the only person in the world who thinks so, but I must say frankly that I am not. I hope, as briefly as possible, to give my reasons.
First of all, perhaps I may try to sketch the kind of subjects of inquiry and the objects of reform which we have in mind. The best and shortest sketch has been made by 40 young seamen who happened to be in London during an examination, and who wrote a letter to "The Times." I may say that they got into great trouble for doing so. The letter set out their proposals as follows:(1) That the terms of employment should he laid down by the Government and that the employment should be continuous;(2) That the entry should be controlled and the methods of training uniform throughout the Merchant Navy and subject at all times to Government supervision;(3) That an officially recognised uniform should be granted and the status of the Merchant Navy be raised to an equivalent of that of any other national service.What exactly they mean by that I do not know, and I am not sure that they know themselves.(4) That living conditions on board should be uniform throughout the Service and all seamen should be entitled to the same standard of food and accommodation irrespective of the company under which they are serving.(5) That all seamen should have a regular rate of promotion and that there should be a set retiring age, with a pension for all ranks and ratings, subject, of course, to good conduct and general discipline. We suggest also that living conditions on all ships should be brought up to those found in the better class of British merchant ships. These proposals are the views of some 40 active merchant seamen, assembled on 19th September in this club.I myself have ventured to describe these objects as the "Five E's"—Entry, Education, Employment, Equipment and Exit. May I say a few words about each? As to entry and education, I am told that one grievance is that many firms are now employing far more apprentices than are ever likely to be absorbed as officers, with the result that while they are good, cheap labour, the parents of these apprentices in many cases have no hope of seeing them emerge as officers. As to education, there is a great variety in the degree of training both of officers and seamen. All officers, of course, have to pass the same examination, though they do not all go through similar schools; but as regards seamen the captain has no knowledge or guarantee in his own mind 1710 before he sails as to what they know and what they do not know. I have certainly seen some remarkable things on the river during this war, when men have come to our service, calling themselves deep-sea fishermen, sometimes, who have been in the Merchant Service. I have found that they have been unable to swim, that they are unable to handle a boat in a tideway, and have never before steered a vessel of any kind. One officer told me the other day that on one occasion, leaving a wharf in the Pool of London, he found that not one member of his crew had ever steered a ship before or was able to do so. A certain modicum of training, even in these difficult times, when we are, no doubt, glad of anyone who will go to sea, would not seem to be a bad thing.
The third "E" is employment. Is the employment of officers and men after the war to be casual, as it was before, or continuous, as it is now? If it is to be continuous, how is it to be arranged and who is to pay for it? There is another question which those who ask for continuous employment must face. Even seamen perhaps have to face the choice between the regularity of a civil servant on the one hand and the spacious ease, freedom and independence of the Stock Exchange on the other. In other words, may not those who require continuous employment be required in turn to face an obligation for training and discipline? I do not know, but it is one of the many questions which will have to be discussed under this head.
Fourthly, there is the question of equipment, such things as quarters, comfort and so forth, about which I think the Minister will have something to say later. On the question of equipment, may I say a few words on a subject on which a good deal of foolish talk has recently been used, and that is the question of uniforms? Two gallant officers in another place mentioned casually, as one of the curious things distinguishing the Merchant Navy from almost anybody else these days, that they have no uniform, except, of course, the officers and apprentices. At once people leapt upon this remark and said that it was desired to "navify" the Mercantile Marine, to regiment them and all the rest of it. It is really very unfair to Lord Chatfield and others. I am not going to say that I know exactly what it is that that 1711 seamen want, although I have a good deal of evidence in these letters that they would like uniforms. But let us discuss the matter; do not let us jump down each other's throats because someone makes a casual remark.
After all, there are practical advantages in uniforms, or we should not see so many of them about. They are a working dress, saving the private clothes, as a rule provided free—although it is one of the complaints on the part of officers that their uniforms are not provided free—and in war-time, after all, a wandering sailor can find many substantial advantages in a uniform. I get dozens of letters pointing out that when our seamen go to a foreign port, while the naval gunner who goes ashore gets free bus rides, cinemas, canteens and so on, they have to go ashore in their own clothes and do not receive as much attention—sometimes, indeed, they are arrested on suspicion. So there are points in favour of uniforms. Apart from that, they form a great element, almost a spiritual ingredient, in that vague thing we call status. You have only to look about you to realise that the uniform is much more than a badge of servitude. It is a symbol of authority and a title to respect; and though it may be illogical and wrong, it is a fact that people in uniform are much better treated than people who are not. As one who passed without any volition on my part from a civilian force at the beginning of the war to my present uniform, of which I am proud, I do know a little of what I am talking about.
Lastly comes exit, that is to say, the retiring age, pensions and so forth. The pension situation seems to me to be wrapt in mystery. An ordinary seaman, I know, gets the same pension as the industrial worker, and there is some mysterious pensions fund as well, but I only want to raise this special point about pensions. There is an officers' pensions fund which I know has recently come into being as a result of some very splendid endeavours by all concerned, and there is a war risks Government pensions scheme. I gather that it is only for war risks. This curious point arises, and I have heard complaints about it everywhere. If I, for example, a humble unit on the fringe of the Navy, am bombed or mined and perish, or if I slip off a slip- 1712 pery deck into the water and drown, or even if I walk off a pier into the river and drown, in every case—I was going to say I only get what I deserve, but my wile will get the same pension, because I am in the Navy.
But take the captain of a ship, and I am sure the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, who goes out in a convoy and is bombed or mined and perishes. That is a war risk and his wife will get a pension. But if, in the same convoy and through no fault of his, there is a collision with another ship and the other ship is in error, that is only a marine risk, and he gets nothing. I know that that is the result of a legal judgment which cannot be questioned in the courts, but I do ask the Minister whether it is not the kind of thing which can be put right by a stroke of the pen by the Government, because nothing would better bring the status of the Mercantile Marine up to the status of the Navy than to put them on the same footing in that sort of way. I hope that if he has time, the Minister will deal with that.
Now, why do I say that the National Maritime Board is not the body to be entrusted with the preparation of proposals for the future? I will not press my own prejudice against the National Maritime Board, which, I am bound to say, are chiefly drawn from the internal evidence of their pronouncements, nor will I rest entirely upon the known prejudices of the seamen, but there it is. It is quite obvious from my correspondence that this body has not got the confidence of the seamen, or indeed of the officers. That is easy to understand. It may be unjust, and I am not going to throw stones; they have done a very good work on behalf of a very fine industry, but we have to confess, and indeed it is common knowledge among seafaring men, that the mortality among shipowners through tuberculosis and malnutrition is not exceptionally high: and they do comment upon that fact. On the other hand, they do comment on the fact that the Seamen's Union subscription does not seem to be giving them very much. There it is. They have not got much faith in this Board, and if you are relying upon any effect on morale of what you do, that is a thing to be considered.
Far more important than that is the fact that the National Maritime Board, 1713 in its essence, appears to be the wrong body to do this job. It is a conciliatory body confined to two interests, shipowners and Seamen's Union representatives. Never is there represented there the third great party in these affairs, the State. Take any question. If we decide that any benefit is to be bestowed upon seamen and officers, it has to be provided either by the State or by the shipowners—almost certainly, I think, the State. Therefore the State should be at these deliberations. If any new obligation, training or discipline is required of the seamen, it must be imposed presumably, by the State, by legislation or otherwise. Therefore, the State should be present at these deliberations. Take continuity of employment, which has been referred to the National Maritime Board. Who is to pay for that? Presumably the State. Yet the National Maritime Board are to discuss this question by themselves. The same applies to other matters such as "entry and education." All these questions must involve either the State being asked to assist or the State wishing to assert itself. Yet the State is not represented there. Beyond that are all sorts of large questions very much about in the background which ought to be brought into the foreground. How are you to give the service a national status, whatever that means? Can you do that without, at the same time, nationalising shipping? Can you, as one seaman suggests to me, leave the ships to the owners and let the men be run by the Government? All sorts of schemes are about: I believe that the hon. Member for Seaham (Mr. Shinwell) has one. I am not suggesting any opinions on these questions, but somebody ought to consider them.
I think that the time has now come when a really strong body, with an impartial, able chairman, should be set up to go into all these questions calmly, without heated debate, and without the urgency which will arise after the war, now, when the spirit of war is in us and before the spirit of gratitude has died. One power I would give to that new body, the power to say that the next seaman who lands at Hull, the next captain who lands in Liverpool, the next engineer who lands in London, shall come and tell them what he thinks, so that we may make sure whether these boards, unions and protective bodies are standing between the seamen and the nation or not.
1714 I apologise for having taken so long, but it is a fairly large subject. I hope that I have not suggested in any way that the seamen of to-day are a soft and namby-pamby body less worthy than their fathers, because I should be doing a very ill service to them if I did. We all know that it is not true. We know there is some bug in our blood which will always send our men to sea, however great the dangers, however bad the conditions. But that, as I have said, does not absolve us from our responsibilities.
It has been my privilege during this war to see from time to time, at the other end of this great river, the convoys coming home, ships of all sorts and sizes. Their paint is battered, and they have wounds in their sides sometimes, they have come through every imaginable danger, but their flags are flying, and no man can look at them without a lift of the heart. But they go by as strange and silent, I often think, as ghosts. I think, "How little we know about the lives of those men." The seamen look over the side with that remote, sardonic look which they reserve for all miserable mortals who are not sailing in their own particular ship. They seem to say to me, "You will never know anything about us, and you will never really do anything for us. We are the pets of all the world to-day. To-morrow you will forget us, as you did last time." I hope that will not be true, and I believe that it will not be true. But I am sure it is true that we do not know nearly enough about these men. We know more, I think, about the lives of the men in the pits than about the men, and the lives of the men, in the ships. They have no factory meetings, no mass meetings; they do not write to "The Times." We have inspected, all of us, many a fine factory, many a line workshop and many a fine farm, but which of us has ever inspected the forecastle quarters in a tramp steamer? Very few of us, I think. But, when they do speak to us, these silent men, in letters like those I have here, and in the sorry episodes such as we have read about in the papers, it is our duty to find out now, and act if we can.
I wonder what those men whom I saw yesterday, who to-morrow will be in their homes or in the sailors' homes, will say when they read that the great Lord Leathers, himself the former head of a great shipping firm, has said in the House of Lords, after all the 1715 talk, that there may or may not be an inquiry into their future after the war, but that now their old friends the shipowners and their old friends the Seamen's Union are to go into these matters in secret deliberation. I do not think these men will throw up their hats and stand each other drinks about that. Nor do I think that they will make a moan and shy away from their duty. I think that they will laugh a little, shrug their shoulders a little and, God bless them, go back to sea again. But we who remain behind, filling our bellies as often as we do, we who have the honour to represent them as we represent all the citizens of this realm, we have our duties too. I think that we are in the dark and ought to look for light.
§ Mr. Shinwell (Seaham)
My hon. and gallant Friend has quite properly stated that this is a large subject. Because it is I would have preferred, and no doubt he would agree with me in this, that we should have had the opportunity of discussing this important matter in no narrow and limited sense but on the broadest possible lines. For example, it is quite impossible to consider the future of the officers and men of the Mercantile Marine without considering at the same time the re-organisation of the Mercantile Marine itself. Some day we may require to ask the Government to afford facilities for a full-dress Debate on these lines. Whatever may be thought about my hon. and gallant Friend's prime objective, the setting up of a Royal Commission to examine this question of the conditions of the officers and men of the Mercantile Marine, we are grateful to him for having made reference to the conditions under which they labour. I feel that I express the views of all hon. Members present and of the men themselves when I thank my hon. and gallant Friend for his magnificent tribute to the gallantry and valour of these men. They have performed a wonderful service to the nation. Of their valour we cannot speak too highly; but let me tell hon. Members—and I have some experience of these officers and seamen—that they are less concerned about eloquent orations on what they do in their everyday avocation than they are about the fundamental conditions which govern their lives. I have not the least doubt that if you approached a seaman in the East India Dock Road, or in Bute Road, 1716 Cardiff, or in the Broomielaw, Glasgow, and told him that you had made the remarkable discovery that he was a wonderful fellow, he would wonder what you were talking about.
What is my hon. and gallant Friend asking? Like Lord Marchwood, in another place, he asks for the setting up of a Royal Commission to conduct an investigation into the conditions in the Mercantile Marine, with a view to their improvement. What are the complaints among the men of the Mercantile Marine? They relate to food scales; crews' quarters; the training of seamen; manning, on deck and below; the long hours for which the men in the catering department labour; and matters of that sort. Not one of those questions requires the setting up of a Royal Commission. Every one can be dealt with by Amendments to the Merchant Shipping Acts; and the Government could to-morrow, or on some convenient date, come to the House with Amendments to those Acts, and correct the alleged abuses in the Mercantile Marine. Therefore, so far as ordinary complaints and the suggested improvements are concerned, there is no need for a Royal Commission. Moreover, my hon. and gallant Friend has, quite properly, referred to certain allegations for which the men are responsible, relating to their conditions and their treatment during the war. For example, he has referred to war risks and inadequate compensation. That is a serious grievance among the men. But surely he will not maintain that these matters can be disposed of by the setting up of a Royal Commission in order to deal with the future of the Mercantile Marine. Something must be done now. It is no use talking of a better world for seamen when the war is over. We had better have a few examples right here and now. That would satisfy the men much more than talk of a Royal Commission.
Undoubtedly, there has been considerable improvement in the conditions of the Mercantile Marine during the war. It is a remarkable and significant fact that you can always secure in war-time substantial improvements which are refused in peace-time. Before the war, when demands were made in this House for a substantial improvement—and it was then necessary—in crews' quarters, we were told that the conditions were, on the whole, very satisfactory, and that, at any 1717 rate, the shipowners were doing their best. Not even the Government were prepared to respond to the claims of the men, as regards crews' quarters, at any rate. But when the war came, everybody was rushing around trying to secure improvements for the men in that connection. Undoubtedly there have been many improvements in accommodation, not only in new vessels but in the older types, where reconstruction has taken place. It is very disconcerting. One wonders why it is possible to secure improvements in time of war which are refused to these men in time of peace. It is not certain even that, at the end of this war, in spite of the manifestations of good will and the desire of everybody to do the best for officers and men in the Mercantile Marine, conditions will be improved. It depends upon circumstances. It depends upon whether the Mercantile Marine can pay its way. It depends, to a large extent, upon whether the Government of the day are prepared to pay subventions. It depends, to a large extent on the state of our commerce, on our capacity to expand international trade, and on the cost of building ships. All these are very serious issues. It is not merely a matter of good will. You have to discuss these questions in terms of stark, naked realism. I hope that we shall do it. But it does not require a Royal Commission. It can be done, to some extent, through the ordinary channels employed by the seamen, through the negotiating machinery; but not altogether. It must be left to this House to consider. It must be left, to a large extent, to public opinion.
I go some way with my hon. and gallant Friend when he says that we cannot leave all these matters to the National Maritime Board. The Board has a specific function, to deal with questions of wages and hours of labour and general conditions in the Mercantile Marine.. There are seamen on one side owners on the other. That is a very satisfactory machinery, particularly for the purpose of settling disputes. It is very necessary in time of war; but I would not suggest for a moment—I profoundly disagree, with those who do make the suggestion—that the National Maritime Board can be allowed to dispose of these matters. If Lord Leathers has at any time made that statement—and perhaps we shall hear something from my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary on that matter—and has suggested at any 1718 time that the Government cannot set up a Royal Commission or undertake a Governmental inquiry because these matters must be left to the National Maritime Board, I profoundly disagree.
Is it in Order for me, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to read an extract from the Minister's statement in another place?
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Dennis Herbert)
Only if it is a statement on behalf of the Government, and nothing more.
Perhaps I misled the hon. Member having said that after the war the Government would be in a position to give a definite decision as to the possibility of an inquiry covering the wider aspects of the whole future of our Merchant Navy, the Noble Lord said:The Government will plan in advance to meet that continuity of employment, improvements of methods and the nature and training of sea-going personnel and matters in regard to which, among others, I have been in communication with the National Maritime Board. I have begged them to give immediate consideration to these problems and bring them to the stage of definite proposals as soon as possible.That looks as if he does rely on the Board.
§ Mr. Shinwell
I agree that that is an interpretation of that statement, and, as I say, I profoundly disagree with it, and I will give my reasons.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of War Transport (Mr. Noel-Baker)
What my Noble Friend said was that the Government will plan in advance to meet these conditions, and he asked the National Maritime Board to put forward proposals.
§ Mr. Shinwell
That puts another construction on the matter, and that is exactly how I feel about it. I conceive the function of the National Maritime Board, which consists of representatives of both sides of the industry, to be to consider what possible improvements can be effected, and then to advise the Government to come to a definite decision themselves. You have to bear in mind that the powers of one side or the other may be weighted and you might get a very unfair decision. Therefore, their function, at any rate as far as the larger issues are 1719 concerned, must be purely advisory in character. It is for the Government to take the necessary action, but I am not prepared to abandon the rights of this House to express opinions and to advise the Government on these issues. We have always done so. That brings me to a point of considerable importance in relation to the demand made by my hon. and gallant Friend. He suggests that since the demand was made for the setting of up a Royal Commission some improvements have been effected, but he must not assume that they have been brought about because of the demand for a Royal Commission.
I will give one or two examples. On the question of the pool system and continuous employment, it may be a surprise to the hon. and gallant Member and other hon. Members to learn that away back in the year 1913, before the last war, I personally advocated continuous employment in the Mercantile Marine. In those days, and before the present war, men managed to secure employment on board ship and went away on long voyages, and when they returned they might be unemployed for many weeks or many months; there was no security of employment in the Mercantile Marine. In 1913 the proposal was advocated, and representations were made to the large shipowning companies on the subject, and among the shipowners who were responsible there were financial difficulties in the way, or so we were informed. During this war there has been established the principle of continuous employment, which is one of the most important reforms ever brought into the Mercantile Marine. If you have the advantage of continuous employment, you must accept responsibility and have to be on call whenever your services are requited. There were many seamen who only agreed to work by ship. After they were paid off, and if they had a few pounds in their pockets, they liked to get away sometimes on the "razzle-dazzle."
We do not get so much of that sort of thing nowadays as we did 20 years ago, but still there are men who like to get away and enjoy themselves. You cannot blame the seaman who wants to enjoy himself after returning from a long bout with the ocean. Sometimes it happens that seamen come back under the influence of intoxicants and make themselves a bit of a nuisance, but you cannot even blame 1720 them for that. I remember that Captain Bourne, the author of many books on the lives of seamen, and the commander recently of one of the large liner companies, said to me many years ago that he could not understand how any seaman could join his ship sober. I agree with him, because when you consider the accommodation which is provided for the men, the wages they receive, the conditions under which they labour and the possibility of shipwreck or something worse you could not blame them for the condition into which they sometimes plunged themselves. But there has been an improvement undoubtedly and it is no use pretending otherwise. There are good shipowners and bad shipowners, and at the present time I believe that there are more good shipowners than bad shipowners, but there are some who make difficulties, and they are largely on financial grounds.
Let us see what we can do about this. There are certain reforms which the Government can bring into operation at once. The first thing to do is to see that no ship goes to sea with accommodation that is inadequate or unsatisfactory if it can be avoided. The question of accommodation should not be left in the hands of the shipowner. It is a matter for the State. That is the first thing that ought to be done. In spite of what I have said about substantial improvements on the score of accommodation, it is still true to say that the quarters of the crew on some vessels is wholly inadequate, verminous and unsatisfactory. You cannot blame the men for that, and putting the men into a uniform will not remedy it. I do not say much about food scales, because undoubtedly there has been an improvement there.
The other thing is to correct the defects in the compensation system. It is all wrong when a man goes to sea in war-time and his ship is attacked either by submarine or aircraft and goes down or is damaged, and he sustains losses in clothing which has cost him several pounds in excess of the amount which he receives from the Government by way of compensation. One can imagine the resentment of the men when they are placed in such an undignified condition. Men cannot go to sea without a fair amount of clothing, and the Government ought to look into that matter. There are several other questions that are now being disposed of by the National Maritime Board, but I 1721 want to say to my hon. and gallant Friend that, although he may not agree about the National Seamen's Union—and very frequently I have disagreed with them myself, as many of my friends know—yet, at the same time, they do a good job of work. There may be some officers and men who are inclined to take independent action and are not prepared to leave this matter in the hands of the National Seamen's Union or the Officers' Union. Nevertheless these organisations are doing excellent work. If my hon. and gallant Friend cared to consult them occasionally, he would discover that these organisations are much more satisfactory than some people are inclined to think.
My last point is on the subject of uniform. It may be that some men want to be put into a uniform, but I am satisfied that the National Seamen's Union is representing the viewpoint of the majority of seamen in the Mercantile Marine when they say, "We do not want the men to be put into uniform." Why do they say that? It is, of course, very satisfactory if you receive a uniform and do not require to provide your own clothing. But let us consider the practical side of the question. Who is to provide the uniform—the shipowner, the man or the State? If the man is to be asked to provide a uniform and pay for it himself, we may as well stop talking about it at once. He would only laugh; even the man who has demanded a uniform would expect somebody else to provide it. If it is to be the shipowner, are we to understand that men are to be tied to the ship or give up the uniform, because that is absurd? You cannot tie men down to a particular ship, even under a continuous and improving system. Men want to leave a ship because they want a change or because they want to sail a different route. Some men like crossing the North Atlantic. I know of men who have crossed it for the last 40 or 50 years. Other men prefer the freight trade, and some prefer to go East. Some men like crossing the Atlantic in summer on a short voyage of three or four weeks' duration and in the winter prefer to go through the Indian Ocean or the Red Sea.
Therefore, you cannot tie men down to a ship, and the provision of uniform by an employer means that they would be tied. If the State is to provide the uniform, would that denote that the men are State servants? I do not raise any object- 1722 tion to that, providing you take over the whole Mercantile Marine and run it as a State concern. One day we may have to face up to that, although not for doctrinaire reasons. We will have to face up to a number of fundamental changes in industrial organisation, not because of doctrinaire reasons, but because of the force of events. Mr. Runciman pointed out at the recent meeting of the Chamber of Shipping, over which he presided, that although he said they would resist nationalisation and will have nothing to do with State interference in their affairs, it will be impossible for them to carry on unless they receive a large measure of financial assistance from the State. Now, a large measure of financial assistance from the State denotes some measure of State control. We must face up to these questions. That is why I said at the beginning that we cannot circumscribe this question; it is part of the new economy and social structure we envisage after the war for the new world, about which so many people speak so glibly but have so few ideas of a constructive character.
May I advise my hon. Friend on a matter on which I have some little knowledge, because I was associated with seamen for many years? May I also say, in passing, that I have been associated with two sections of workpeople in my time—seamen and miners, and they are the salt of the earth. I know how rough and uncouth seamen can be, but they are generous to a fault and delightful people with whom to work. Of course, they have black sheep among them. I have suffered at their hands, sometimes physically, but sometimes I have responded, and it has made me a little tough. Nevertheless, they are fine fellows, and when we think of their efforts on our behalf in this war we cannot help but raise our hats to them. We want to do the best we can for them, and my advice to my hon. and gallant Friend and the Government is to let us see what we can do for them now, not in some remote age, to make their conditions more tolerable and comfortable. Do not let us shelve the question by talking about a Royal Commission. Let us begin to plan for reorganisation of the Mercantile Marine, because the future of this nation as an economic factor depends largely upon the power of the Mercantile Marine.
1723 I have said these few disconnected words in a quite unprepared way. I was not aware that the hon. and gallant Gentleman intended to speak on this matter to-day. I understood it was to come later and, as I have said, some day we ought to have a full-dress Debate on this subject and table our ideas for the reorganisation of the Mercantile Marine. I hope that day will come soon.
§ Mr. Loftus (Lowestoft)
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Seaham (Mr. Shinwell), I was not aware that my hon. and gallant—and, perhaps I should add, learned—Friend the Senior Burgess for Oxford University (Petty Officer Herbert) intended to raise this question to-day but his speech and the speech we have just listened to has prompted me to intervene in the Debate for a few moments. I listened with great interest to the speech of the hon. Member for Seaham, especially his concluding words, which paid a most generous tribute to seamen and miners. He said that they were the most generous people alive. As a class miners and seamen almost alone retain the aristocratic qualities, courage, generosity, recklessness, and an intense loyalty to their leaders. But I think the hon. Member for Seaham was a little inconsistent. He started, as it were, to criticise my hon. and gallant Friend and pointed out that improvements could be made by Government action right away in the conditions of service of the Mercantile Marine. He seemed to think that my hon. and gallant Friend's idea was to have a Royal Commission now to inquire into their conditions and make recommendations for their improvement.
I thoroughly agree with him. Of course, the Government can improve conditions now, and I hope they will do so. I do not tie myself to a Royal Commission, but I do support strongly the demand that now, during the war, we should have a very thorough inquiry into the whole future of our Mercantile Marine and, I would add, our fishing fleet and seamen generally, in order to ensure that they are in a better position and have greater security in the future than they have had so far in the past. It is a curious thing that to-day we are discussing merchant shipping and seamen, that yesterday we discussed agriculture and its 1724 future, and that the day before we discussed coalmining and its future. Between these three great industries there is a strong connection. They are not just ordinary industries; they are ways of life producing three characteristic types of men. The English national character was built by our countrymen and seamen. On successive days the House have discussed mining and agriculture, and on each occasion hon. Members have been concerned about their future and resolved to secure the future of these industries. So in this Debate, when we discuss the third great industry, this typically British industry which builds up the British type of men, as agriculture and mining do, we ought in a few words to express our opinion that we must here and now begin to consider the future of that industry and above all resolve that never again shall we see the men engaged in that industry suffer from neglect as they did in the years before the war.
For there is another connection between coalmining, agriculture and shipping, the three vitally essential industries of the country, and it is that in the years before the war each one of them was in an appalling state of neglect. The Government and the House saw those industries go down and down and down. The rivers were full of ships laid up, our sea-coast ports were full of men, skippers and so on, seeking any kind of job. Our land went completely to rack and ruin. Our miners were out of employment. The Government and the House saw that happening while many luxury industries, many middlemen and speculators, were thriving. I ask my hon. Friend to bear the fishermen in mind in his campaign. I saw the neglect of the fishing industry and their intolerably meagre pay. One wonders why the fishermen took the risk and went through the dangers. The answer is, as my hon. Friend said, that it is in their blood. When I think of the Government's neglect of our seamen, I remember going in a deputation to the Admiralty and being informed by the Admiralty that they did not want the herring boats and that they could do nothing to help the fishermen. Immediately the war came, 80 or 90 per cent. of those herring drifters, which they had told us time and again were useless, were commandeered by them within the first week.
1725 My hon. Friend the Member for Seaham pointed out that the future of this industry is virtually in jeopardy, that it will depend after the war upon finance the state of international trade, and several other factors. He did not mention one factor, that the future of this industry, the future of agriculture and coalmining, and the future of this country, will depend upon our getting a new and better sense of values. It will depend upon our realising that in future we must never repeat the sins of the past, the neglect of those industries which are the foundation of our national greatness and which have made our Empire. It will depend upon our realising that in future the State and Parliament must not encourage industries on the one test of whether they will pay handsomely and well and produce great profits. We must judge them on the nobler test of whether they will produce the finest quality of men, and on that test we should foster and safeguard our merchant shipping and our fishing fleets at all costs.
§ Mr. Beechman (St. Ives)
I am extremely glad that my hon. and gallant Friend the Senior Burgess for Oxford University (Petty Officer Herbert) has taken this opportunity, although it is not by any means the wide one we would have wished; to keep this matter before the House and consequently before the public. The subject has given rise to a lively Debate, which I think has achieved the object of keeping before the public the vital work done by the men of the Merchant Service, always at great risk and with great bravery, and in conditions about which the public does not always know by any means sufficient. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Seaham (Mr. Shinwell) that a commission of inquiry probably would not be the right way to get a move on in this matter. I think that my hon. Friend's demand for a commission, which I then supported, was a useful move in that it was a way of introducing the subject to the public. As I have said, these men always run risks, and they have shown great courage in doing vital work. They are not complaining, but although they are not complaining, those of us who have contacts with them know that they are distressed by certain aspects of their life.
Those aspects may be summed up in three categories—their status, their remuneration, and their conditions of 1726 living. We have heard already a great deal about their status. There has been a repetition of suggestions that they should have a uniform, and there have been suggestions that the Merchant Navy should, in some way about which I am not quite clear, be a part of, or ancillary to, the Royal Navy. My feeling is that the Merchant Navy of this country is not a service which is inclined to regimentation, and for my part, I would say, look after their remuneration, look after their safety, look after their living conditions, look after their food, and the status will take care of itself. There has been of late some improvement in regard to pay and remuneration, and on this occasion I would like only to refer to one practical and urgent matter.
Nowadays, when a man goes on a voyage in one of these ships, he may not return, and he wants to know that his family, his wife and dependants, will be properly looked after. I have no complaint to make against the Ministry of Pensions in this matter; although I do not always agree with their decisions, they are certainly helpful; but I do not know whether the House fully understands how this matter works. When a ship is lost and a man is lost from it, there is an obligation on the shipowner to inform the Government, and then action is taken, as I understand it, to see that the widow obtains her pension. Therefore, I would like it to be impressed upon the shipowners, who, as a whole, respond admirably, that there is this obligation upon them to act without delay, and an obligation also to inform the Regional Officer of the Ministry of Pensions of any dependants who may be involved in a loss of this nature. Only this week I have had a letter from a lady who tells me that she lost her husband in October of last year, and that she has written again and again to the shipping company concerned—it is not a question of a pension, but a similar matter—and she has not yet received the pay which was owing to her husband and that she has received nothing in respect of his effects. I shall send this communication, which I have only just received, to the Department concerned, and I have no doubt it will be looked into.
On the subject of living conditions, I am entirely in agreement with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Seaham. There has been an improve- 1727 ment, but it must be for the State to see that proper conditions are maintained. It may be difficult now that we are building as many ships as we can and have to put into commission old ships which perhaps would not be employed in ordinary circumstances. One must not generalise too freely. One knows that in a long voyage conditions deteriorate, and that conditions will depend very largely on the climate in which the ship is operating. I hope that the Government will recognise their responsibility in the matter, and that in the new ships coming into commission every effort will be made to see the living conditions of the crews are suitable for the valuable work they are to perform.
We must not forget some of the ancillary services to our Merchant Shipping Service. There is the Coastguard Service. I was glad to receive a letter from the Admiralty informing me that adequate arrangements were being made to provide coastguards and those in auxiliary services with a suitable dress. Their work is of great value, and these men have to be out in all sorts of weather. I have asked again and again for the Coastguard Service to be put under the Royal Navy, because, as far as I can see, that is the only way in which they can be put on a satisfactory basis as far as pensions are concerned. I am interested to hear that coastguards are to come under the Admiralty for operational reasons, but that still does not answer the point I had in mind. In all matters affecting the Merchant Service, it is very difficult to know with which Department one has to deal. Take the question of harbours. It is a nice point to argue whether on a particular matter you should approach the Board of Trade, the Ministry of Transport, the Ministry of Fisheries or the Admiralty. I might add that in the case of a haven which you think ought to be a harbour, you cannot find any Minister to deal with the matter. Take lighthouses. I have a great respect for Trinity House, but the Statutes controlling their functions are so antique as to be ludicrous—or they would be ludicrous if they did not affect such serious matters. For instance, who is there to deal with the question of whether a lighthouse should be set up in a place where one does not exist? I suggest that after the war we must have one Minister to take in hand all these matters appertaining to our Merchant Service, and I 1728 would include looking after our fishermen, who contribute so many of the finest men to the Merchant Service.
§ Lieut. - Commander Gurney Braithwaite (Holderness)
For many years I have followed with great interest the career of the hon. Member who is now Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of War Transport. I should like, if I may, to take this opportunity to congratulate him on his well-earned promotion. The hon. Member has, for many years, built up for himself a great reputation as an internationalist, and I am convinced, therefore, that he will recognise the international significance of the Red Ensign, and will be sympathetic to the views put forward by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Oxford University (Petty Officer Herbert). I am not one of those who advocate change for the sake of change. I am able to speak objectively on these matters, because it so happens that for the last six months of the last war and for the whole of this war my duties have been in connection with the convoy system. I was astonished and depressed to find on returning to duty in this war that little or no improvement had been made in the general conditions of our Merchant Service. I have been able to study them effectively, because, except for very brief periods, I have not shared the perils of these men, although I have shared their anxieties, particularly in the case of coastal vessels and colliers, which are of such vital importance. The conditions are nothing short of a discredit to a great maritime nation such as Great Britain.
A Debate on this subject took place some five months ago in another place, following which a certain amount of opposition was organised against the suggestion that reform of the Merchant Navy were desirable. No doubt hon. Members received at that time a memorandum circulated by the National Maritime Board. It is about this that I should like to say a few words. I am bound to say that the whole theme of the memorandum is an attempt to create bad blood between the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy at a time when relations between the two Services are better than at any previous period—certainly better than during my lifetime and the lifetime of any other hon. Member in this House. We are told there is no demand on behalf of the officers and men for reforms. The 1729 Merchant Navy have never been vocal. They have no opportunity to foregather in large parties or at huge meetings. Although I have not had time to look it up in the Library, I believe that when Samuel Plimsoll produced his load-line reform, which has been so beneficial to the Merchant Navy, he was met with the argument that there was no call for it among the officers and men. To-day the Plimsoll line has become almost the Ark of the Covenant in the Merchant Service. Those of us who ask for certainty of employment for the officers and men of the Merchant Navy are told in this memorandum that there is certainty of employment in time of war. That seems to me to show a firm grasp of the obvious. What we are asking for is continuity in the aftermath of this difficult period, when many problems will arise which may affect the economic chances and opportunities of our merchant seamen. Then we are told that the idea of uniform is abhorrent to the officers and men. The circular states:We desire to say straight away that the compulsory wearing of a uniform would be regarded with the greatest suspicion by merchant seamen, more particularly when this so-called reform is advocated by active or retired Naval officers.
§ Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite
It is a circular which has been sent to me and I thought it was sent to all hon. Members. It is sent by the National Maritime Board, and signed by D. M. Robinson, Clerk-in-charge. Included with it is a letter to the Press, signed by a number of gentlemen, the President of the Shipping Federation, the Employers' Association of Liverpool, the Marine Engineers' Association, the Officers (Merchant Navy) Federation, the Amalgamated Engineering Union, the National Union of Seamen and the Mercantile Marine Service Association. It is a composite letter to the Press. It deals with the question of uniform. I would ask those who put forward that view—I think it must have been conceived in the office of some shipowner. By whom do they think the auxiliary craft of the Royal Navy are manned? I wonder whether they have ever heard of the Royal Naval Reserve. There must be officers and men of the Royal Naval Reserve in a great many of His Majesty's capital ships, as 1730 well as these auxiliary craft, and they wear the uniform with pride and not with any sense of grievance. It is deplorable to suggest, as it is suggested in this memorandum, that they resent association with the White Ensign. I believe that to be entirely untrue. As the Parliamentary Secretary knows, I am honoured by the possession of a brother who, for the second time, in his second war, has been engaged continuously in mine-sweeping. Not long ago I spent a day in his ship, a converted merchantman. There was not a Royal Navy officer or rating on board. All were merchant seamen and fishermen engaged on this vital task to our shipping. It is an extremely happy ship and well disciplined, although my brother might be called a nautical form of blimp when it comes to looking after his crew, but happy none the less and proud to sail under the White Ensign.
Again, we are told that certain things will not be tolerated by the personnel of the Merchant Navy. "Merchant seamen will not tolerate being made an appendage of the Royal Navy, any more than munition workers would tolerate being made a detachment of the Army," says the circular. Surely we have got beyond language of that kind. One might as well say we will not tolerate coal rationing, or clothing coupons, or Income Tax at 10s. in the £. Surely at this moment it is not open to anyone to use such language as that. The nation will tolerate what the Government decide is necessary for the successful waging of the war. I am bound to say that my opinion of shipowners has proceeded in inverse ratio to my admiration for their officers and men. Two days ago the House was debating the vital question of coal. I do not think the point was made that part of the coal problem is due to the shipowners' inveterate adherence to the week-end habit in some of our great ports, certainly as far as the sailing of colliers is concerned. Here is another thing on which the Government might put their hand.
If I may anticipate the criticism which will certainly be made about my hon. and gallant Friend who initiated the Debate, and no doubt myself, that we are amateurs addressing ourselves to this problem, I may say that amateurs are perfectly capable of forming an opinion as to what constitute decent living conditions on board ship, and it is to that 1731 matter that I hope the Government will particularly address themselves. I anticipate that we shall have a friendly reply from the Minister. I shall be very disappointed if we get anything else. I hope he will tell the House that the Government will inquire into the matter. If they do, might I suggest to the Minister that he might pursue very fruitful inquiries among the naval control officers who have been busy for two and half years in organising these merchant ships into convoys, and the commodores who have sailed with them and know the conditions at first hand?
§ Vice-Admiral Taylor (Paddington, South)
I very much regret that I was not able to be here to hear the opening speeches in this Debate on shipping and the necessity for inquiry with regard to the conditions of service of the men, and also as to the speed of the ships themselves, which is of the utmost importance. I do not think it is necessary to argue as to the nature of the inquiry. The important thing is to have an inquiry into the whole of the conditions in the Mercantile Marine and the policy for its continuance after the war. Now is the time to go into it, to obtain the evidence and to make up one's mind as to what shall be the policy after the war. At the same time, wherever it is possible now to improve the conditions of the men steps should be taken at once, and I feel certain that that will be done. The hon. and gallant Gentleman who spoke last referred to the Commodores in charge of the convoys. The Parliamentary Secretary, whom I congratulate on his appointment, should please note that officers in charge of the convoys act as a direct link between officers of the Navy and officers and men of the Mercantile Marine. These Commodores are, I think, all officers of Admiral's rank in the Service who are now acting as Commodores R.N.R. in charge of convoys.
§ Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite
There is also a large number of Commanders R.N.R. drawn straight from the Merchant Service.
§ Vice-Admiral Taylor
I quite agree, and all credit to them. The service of those officers is of the very highest possible utility to the country, and all honour to them for the way they are serving. They have personal contact with the officers and 1732 men in the Merchant Navy and could supply useful information and guidance with regard to the steps that might be taken to improve conditions in the Merchant Navy. There has been for many years close co-operation between the two great sister Services, and I should like to see that co-operation closer still. Every step which would bring closer co-operation between them is all for the benefit of the country, because it is on the two sister Services that the whole existence of the country in peace and war must depend, and nothing will alter that fact. Improvements have taken place, and I believe it to be the case that shipowners as a whole are most anxious to improve the conditions of their men, but there is room for greater improvement. There is no difference of opinion about that. Now is the time to collect the evidence, and now is the time to make up our minds what can be done, so that no time may be lost after the war in forwarding the policy decided on. I most strongly support the suggestion for an inquiry. I should like to pay my tribute to the officers and men of the Merchant Navy for the magnificent way in which they have carried out their services in the war. Never before in the history of the country have their conditions been so exacting, and never has this grand body of men risen to the occasion better than they have done to-day. They indeed deserve well of the country.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of War Transport (Mr. Noel-Baker)
I should like to begin by offering my thanks to my hon. and gallant Friend the Senior Burgess for Oxford University (Petty Officer Herbert) and my other hon. and gallant Friends for the kind things they have said about me. I should also like to thank my hon. and gallant Friend the Senior Burgess for raising this Debate to-day. I agree with him in thinking that it was required. I agree also with my hon. Friend the Member for Seaham (Mr. Shinwell) that our shipping industry and Mercantile Marine raise fundamental questions of policy which we must consider before the war is ended and when we start to make the peace. If it is thought useful to have another Debate—I do not say how soon, but I hope not too soon—on the widest possible lines, dealing with these fundamental issues of policy, I shall be very glad. I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend the Senior Burgess because 1733 he has given the House an opportunity of showing that they take a deep interest in the Merchant Navy and in the honourable part which our seamen are playing in the war, and of showing, too, that they are resolved that the services of the seamen, shall not, either now or later, be unrecognised and unrewarded. Although people say that seamen do not want rhetoric but want results, I think that it does no harm if we in this House show that we know what is going on.
In saying what I shall now say, I include the Mercantile Marines of the Allies fighting on our side, the Belgians, Dutch, Poles, Danes, French, Yugo-Slavs, and perhaps especially the Norwegians and the Greeks—all the Allied seamen who are taking their merchant fleets to sea on our behalf. At a time when we were an island fortress, in 1940, when we were alone against the Germans, we depended for all warlike activities on our supplies of oil. At that time, the Norwegian tanker fleet alone brought us two-fifths of all the oil we used. The Greeks have 1,000,000 tons of shipping serving us. They have had greater losses than any other Merchant Navy in the world, so great that I hesitate to mention the proportion to the House, yet they helped us to supply Tobruk; they are still sailing on every sea. To all these Allies we must express our gratitude.
It is a platitude to say that the life of the nation depends on the Merchant Navy; but it is a platitude about the truth of which too few people take any trouble to think. Everybody knows the great part played by the Merchant Fleet in the last war. Their part has been far more important in this war and far more difficult and dangerous. There are 4,000,000 more mouths to feed in this country. When the last war began we were importing 600,000,000 gallons of oil a year; when this war began we were importing 3,000,000,000. Armament and equipment for the Armed Forces are far more important than in the last war in relation to man-power, we have to have far greater quantities of arms; we are our own arsenal, by far the most important of all our arsenals in the war so far; we have to import vast quantities of steel, and it is an awkward cargo. This time our fighting fronts are not 40 or 400 or 4,000 miles away, as in the last war; they are more like 14,000 miles, round the Cape to the 1734 Middle East, the Far East, Australia, and so on.
The seamen on the ships are on the most dangerous of our fighting fronts. They have had the scantiest holidays or rest; they have been at it for three years; they go from port to port, and very often months pass before they even get letters from home. They are subject to the constant attacks of the enemy by submarine, by surface raider and from the air. Their casualties from hostile action, both in dead and injured, are inevitably heavy. When shipwrecked they have to face ordeals more terrible perhaps than any of the war. Quite apart from enemy action, they are beset by far greater marine dangers than in time of peace. They have to sail their ships in convoy without lights at night and through the foulest weather; they have to face the North Atlantic in winter in ships built for the tropics; they have to drive through storms to keep up with their convoy, without heaving to, as they would in peace-time, for several days. Month after month they have to fight cold, ice, fog and mountainous seas. Every day makes its call upon their courage.
In my present office I hear more stories of the valour of the merchant seamen than most people do. I would like to mention two. One is the story of an apprentice, 18 years old, on his first voyage at sea. His ship was torpedoed, and three boats got away. In the master's boat there were 34 men, and they had a barrel of water, a box of tinned milk and a tin of hard biscuits. After 14 days the first man died. Then deaths followed quickly. At last only two were left, one of whom was this apprentice. On the 24th day they sighted a man-o'-war, but it did not see them. The other survivor jumped overboard, having, it is believed, gone mad. The apprentice was alone. Five hours later he was picked up by a neutral ship. He was found fishing with mussels as bait, and a bent pin as a hook. He had half a tin of condensed milk left to live on. He was interned by the neutral Power, but he escaped and made his way to this country and immediately joined another merchant ship. There is another story which shows the kind of thing our men have to face. A ship received a signal from another vessel near by which had been dive-bombed and set on fire. She 1735 altered her course and went alongside. The chief engineer and the leading salvage man went on board, got on to the skylight of the engine room, and trained the hoses on the flames, knowing very well that at any moment the boilers might explode. In spite of that, the chief engineer lowered himself into the stokehold to release the safety valve. He and his companions were in constant danger of bursting munitions and of fumes. Their boots were burned away and their feet were in a frightful condition, but they went on for four hours until they had subdued the flames, and so were able to bring the vessel safely home. There is common agreement that for such men as these we cannot do too much, either now, while the struggle continues, or when the war is won.
The main difference between my hon. and gallant Friend the Senior Burgess and other hon. Members and myself relates to the question of a Royal Commission. Like my hon. and gallant Friend, I have a certain feeling for Royal Commissions. Perhaps that comes from our common fondness for academic institutions. In any case, I agree with him in thinking that it is very unfair on Royal Commissions that, owing to the inevitable delays of their procedure, and the fact that no Government ever seems to carry out their recommendations, they have gained a reputation which they do not deserve. But let us take a recent example. A Royal Commission on Armament Production was set up in 1935. It worked with extraordinary speed and produced its report in two years. Its recommendations were tabulated in sets of ten points under ten main headings; so that it was quite simple, by a mathematical calculation, to discover that the Government carried out one half of one per cent. of them. If those recommendations had been carried out, we should have been in an incomparably better position than we are to-day to fight the war. But they were not carried out. Even when they themselves do extremely well, Royal Commissions rarely succeed; and I am afraid it is no wonder they have acquired the reputation of being a good way of burying a troublesome question about which action is required. That is really the essence of the case that I put to my hon. and gallant Friend and to the House about a Royal 1736 Commission; and it applies to a Royal Commission either now or after the war.
I have said that a Royal Commission is unnecessary, and I think so, because, in spite of all that has been said about the National Maritime Board, I still believe that Board can do a considerable part of the necessary work, and that anything it is asked to do it will do extremely well. In addition, there is in the Ministry, as part of its machinery, a Shipping Advisory Council, on which the whole shipping world is represented, where I he members are free to raise anything they like and to debate it with the Minister himself, and where, if there is a demand for it, all the questions raised to-day can be discussed. That Council ensures the closest touch between the Minister and those who are operating the ships at sea.
Not only do I think that a Royal Commission is unnecessary, but I put it with respect to my hon. and gallant Friends that it would be inexpedient, if not pernicious. As my hon. Friend the Member for Seaham said, if there is a Royal Commission, questions which arise are always pushed over to it, and we do not take the action that is required. Often it would be almost impossible, or at least most embarrassing, to take action, because the very question might be, so to speak, sub judice, before the Royal Commission, and so, if you did decide upon a line of policy, it would be prejudicing the decision which the Royal Commission might make. Moreover, it might lead different sections of the industry, which at present are working together extremely well, to jockey for position. It would certainly introduce into the present situation an element of uncertainty, which I believe would seriously delay the progress that is now going on.
I hope that my hon. and gallant Friends will recognise the force of the contention I have laid before the House and be convinced that the shadow of a Royal Commission might tend to discourage present developments which we all want to secure. In spite of what has been said, and in spite of the letters which my hon. and gallant Friend has received, I believe that the creation of a Royal Commission would be against the strongly expressed desires of the vast majority of those most intimately concerned. Not only is there no evidence that they want it, but there is a great 1737 deal of evidence that they do not want it. The National Maritime Board is a body of a very representative character, and I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Holderness (Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite) for reading their letter to the House. The present chairman of the Chamber of Shipping said in his presidential address recently that there is no more successful and constructive part of our industrial machinery than the National Maritime Board, and I think his opinion is entitled to respect. Only yesterday I was talking to perhaps the principal leader of the seamen, the general secretary of the National Union of Seamen, and to several of his colleagues; and the language in which they talked about a Royal Commission would have been of great interest to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Oxford University.
The Government, at any rate, are satisfied that the objects which are sought by his proposal can be far better attained by the methods which they are at present pursuing, that is to say, by their own action and by co-operation with the National Maritime Board. I have always thought of the National Maritime Board as the Whitley Council of the industry. When my hon. and gallant Friend says that it is the wrong body to do this job, because the State are not represented, I say in reply that nobody has ever proposed that they should do the whole job; but for a part of the job one could hardly have a more satisfactory or a more representative mechanism. Every employers' organisation and every society or trade union of the officers and men is represented. There is equality of numbers on the two sides of the table. They work in six panels—masters, officers, radio officers, engineers, deck hands and the rest. They have a long record of extremely successful work, which has grown more and more successful in recent years.
I would remind the House of a few things which have been done by the National Maritime Board since the war began. They have raised the basic rate for navigating and engineer officers by £2 a month, the basic rate for adult ratings by £1 and the basic rate for boys by 10s. They have given war risk money of £5 a month and negotiated what they call the "differential payment" of £2 a month to bring wages 1738 more nearly to the level of those paid to the seamen in the merchant fleets of our allies. They have arranged for compensation for loss of effects as a result of wreck or loss by marine risk; the Government looking after enemy-action risk. They have arranged special leave for navigating officers and engineers who have to work more than the normal hours. They have arranged overtime rates for crews when they are in port. They have given an increased subsistence allowance to officers and engineer officers when they are working their vessels in port. They have made various other arrangements to the advantage of the crews of smaller ships.
§ Vice-Admiral Taylor
Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House what the port welfare committees have done, because that is very important?
§ Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite
Can the hon. Gentleman tell the House how many of the beneficent reforms he has outlined were brought about on the initiative of the National Maritime Board? Is it not the case that great pressure had to be put upon them to initiate them?
§ Mr. Noel-Baker
It depends upon what my hon. and gallant Friend means by pressure, whether it is from or upon the Board. A great many things have been done by pressure from the Officers' Association and the Seamen's Union—I do not say that the Government are not in favour of them. Many things are done by the Board as a result of suggestions from one side or the other, and it is natural that the greater part of such suggestions come from the Seamen's Union and the Officers' Associations. That, in deed, shows how useful the Board can be, just because the officers and seamen are adequately represented. But I do not want the House to think that it is only the Maritime Board that have done anything for the improvement of seamen's conditions. A very considerable number of measures of real importance have been arranged by the Government. Officers and men of the Merchant Navy can travel at half fares when they are on leave; four times a year they can travel home free, like the troops, on vouchers which they are given. Railway tickets are given free to the relatives of seamen who come home dangerously ill from sea, so that these relatives may go to the port to meet them. 1739 There are special arrangements, as I have said, for compensation for loss of effects. There is a scheme of compensation which is of the very highest importance, compensation for war injury; it is, roughly speaking, on the same model as that operating in the Navy. From the very beginning of the war it has been applied to the Merchant Navy. I do not say that we are completely satisfied with that scheme. There are points about it being considered now, and others that will need to be looked into. But, when that scheme was introduced, it was widely welcomed as an immense advance on what was done in the last war. It was put forward by the Government spontaneously at the very start, and up to the present time it has been of the greatest possible advantage.
§ Vice-Admiral Taylor
I would like to put one more question to the hon. Gentleman, which may possibly be irrelevant. It was the custom, when a man was discharged sick abroad, that he lost his pay. Has that point been dealt with?
§ Mr. Noel-Baker
Yes, Sir, it has been put right. They receive pay and some other allowances for a considerable period; unless I am mistaken, it is for three months.
§ Mr. Buchanan (Glasgow, Gorbals)
Has anything been done in the case of British sailors who sail in Allied ships or in ships owned by neutrals, such as Sweden, and who have lost their lives? Is nothing done for the widows while the authorities stand wrangling as to who was responsible for the death? Who accepts responsibility in cases of such disputes, whether it was done by enemy action or in the ordinary course of duty?
§ Mr. Noel-Baker
I greatly regret that any dispute should arise about that sort of question, but the hon. Member will appreciate that, in working any regulations, you sometimes get to the point where dispute arises. British seamen in Allied chartered ships are treated on the same footing as those in British ships. They benefit by the arrangements I have described. I should like to have notice regarding men in neutral ships, for example, Swedish ships, because I am not absolutely sure what the precise arrangements at present are.
§ Mr. Buchanan
Three cases have been brought to my notice. One in particular 1740 related to a ship which was obviously sailing for our Government. The ship went down, and a certain man lost his life. The widow had to live on public assistance for months or upon anything she could get while both sides were disputing. The poor woman had lost her husband in the Service.
§ Mr. Buchanan
I sent them to the hon. Gentleman's predecessor, but he did nothing. I will try the hon. Gentleman.
§ Mr. Noel-Baker
At any rate, I can look into the matter. I am now informed that even in chartered neutral ships the arrangements I have described apply, so I do not understand what happened in my hon. Friend's case. I will look into it and let my hon. Friend know.
When our seamen are made prisoner by the enemy, they are paid their wages while they are in German prison camps. That change was made not many months ago. I think it was right, and I am glad that it was made. It was another action by the Government Officers and men whom we take out of civil employment and send back to sea are able to obtain grants for their kit and their equipment. There is also a very large system of clubs, institutes and hostels which carry on what may be called welfare work. They are for seamen both when in this country and abroad. The Ministry of Labour is primarily responsible for them, and there is a Central Seamen's Welfare Committee with wide representation, here in London. There is a Port Welfare Committee in every important port. They have their own officers, and the officer of the Ministry of War Transport always cooperate in the work of those committees. I have myself visited a number of these clubs and institutes in some of our ports and I formed the opinion that they are extremely good and very well run. The Foreign Office has co-operated in helping to establish such clubs and institutes in foreign countries, wherever our ships may go. The United States have been extremely good about it, and the citizens of that country have paid large sums of money to create clubs and hostels for our men.
1741 I do not say that everything is perfect. A place like Freetown, on the West Coast of Africa, is not exactly a health resort to begin with; it is very congested, and it may leave something to desire in this respect. But the Government have made a great effort, and big results have been obtained. I can assure hon. Members that the Treasury have never once raised any objection to a single pound of our expenditure, and, if hon. Members can suggest improvements and developments, I shall be very glad to see whether they can be carried out.
§ Vice-Admiral Taylor
I am sorry to have to ask another question, but this is a matter on which I have a personal interest. I was Chairman of the London Port Welfare Council for some five years before the Government took it over, and therefore I take a great interest in port welfare for the Merchant Navy. When the hon. Member spoke about clubs and hostels, I wondered whether he referred to the British Sailors' Society, Mission to Seamen, etc., and their clubs and hostels, or to the hostels and clubs or inquiry offices which have been set up by the Port Welfare Committees. There is a reason for my asking that question. Rightly or wrongly, and although I have nothing to say against the British Sailors' Society, etc., for the exceedingly good work which they have done and are doing, it is a fact that some seamen will not go there because there is a parson. I am very strongly of the opinion that the Port Welfare Committee should set up their own place to which all seamen can go. That is why I am raising this matter.
§ Mr. Noel-Baker
It is true that many of these clubs are run by voluntary societies, and some of them have parsons. But very many seamen go to those clubs; I have found them very full of seamen, who seemed to appreciate what was done for them. But there are now other places, run by the Government itself. I recommend to my hon. and gallant Friend one on the Tyneside run by the Government and which they call, I believe, the British Merchant Marine Hostel. The principle and system vary from place to place, but in general, the Government are seeking to do everything that will be effective.
I now come to the question of conditions on the ships. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Seaham is here, because I go very far in agreeing with 1742 what he thinks, and what he said to-day on the subject. Conditions on British merchant ships used to be much less good than any of us would desire. I remember a report by the sanitary officer for Hull and Goole, not many years before the war, in which, classifying the accommodation on ships which came into his port and which he had to examine, he said that the Scandinavian ships came first, the Dutch second, the American third, and the United Kingdom ships fourth. I do not say that that was a general rule for all ports; but that official report was made, and I regret it Since that time, however, there has been a very great improvement, as my hon. Friend has said. Of course when my hon. and gallant Friend the Senior Burgess for Oxford University receives a letter from a man who says "he wonders whether steps will be taken to improve the foul conditions on the average tramp," he must remember that during this war we have to send to sea anything that will steam from one side of the Atlantic to the other. We cannot pick our ships. We must take anything that will get the stuff across, and we must say to the men who go on board, "We are sorry, it is awfully bad, but the troops have to face horrible things in the front line and you are in a front line, and perhaps the most important front line there is."
Whenever there is a case of avoidable bad conditions, the Ministry does, on the instant, institute an inquiry. There have been several since I was at the Ministry. The inspector goes into everything with the utmost care, and tries to find out why things went wrong. He will not readily accept the argument that it was the men's fault. The good old days when you could say that a ship was lousy because the men were dirty have long gone by. If, in fact, the men did not wash themselves or their clothes enough, perhaps it was because they never had a bath to wash in. Every attempt is made to improve the conditions on the old ships which we have to use. In the new ships which are being built, I think my hon. and gallant Friend and all hon. Members would really be satisfied with what is being done, or at least they would agree that there has been a big advance. I have seen a number of these ships in different shipbuilding yards, and the accommodation now is very different from what it used to be. I hope and believe that we shall keep up the im- 1743 proved standard and continually raise it, both now and after the war.
I must now say a word or two on some other immediate issues which hon. Members have raised. There is the question of uniform and of having a status equal to the Navy. I do not think I need say very much about uniform, because, if I may say so, I think my hon. Friend the Member for Seaham made a devastating case against the uniform on practical grounds. As my hon. and gallant Friend said, the officer in the Merchant Marine already has a uniform, and on a passenger liner at sea he wears it; but not many of them wear it elsewhere. I submit that there is overwhelming evidence that the vast majority of the men not only do not want a uniform, but want the talk about a uniform to be completely killed. All the responsible leaders of the men whom I have been able to reach agree that that is true. As for the question of their being entertained in port, here or abroad, they have now got their Merchant Navy Badge, of which they are extremely proud, which they all wear, and which in the ports of the world is now becoming just as good a passport into naval canteens or other institutions as any uniform.
I come now to pensions. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Beechman) said that there is a serious lag in the payment of pensions. I will look into the question and see whether something can be done, and if my hon. Friend knows of any particular case, I should be glad if he would let me have particulars. With regard to the larger point raised by my hon. and gallant Friend the Senior Burgess about the difference between marine risk and war risk, about death from marine risk being borne by the employer as workmen's compensation and death from war risk being borne by the Government because it is a matter of national service, all I can say on that point is that it has come to my attention and that I was already actually inquiring into it. I am consulting now with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Pensions, who, of course, is primarily concerned. I have omitted to mention the Merchant Navy reserve pool, which has given continuity of employment, more leave, pay while at home and other advantages of a most important kind. and which has greatly served the national 1744 interest by keeping ships at sea. That will, I hope, in some form or another, be continued in times to come. That, of course, was set up by the National Maritime Board and the Government acting in co-operation together.
Having thus given a sketch of what the National Maritime Board and the Government have done, either independently of each other or acting together, I want now to talk about the future and the five "E's" mentioned by my hon. and gallant Friend the Senior Burgess. In the passage from my Noble Friend's speech in another place which was read to the House, it is made quite plain that my Noble Friend had asked the National Maritime Board to consider continuity of employment, the conditions of entry into the Service, education and the other things of which my hon. and gallant Friend spoke. In fact, he has also asked them to consider the question of an "exit pension." I believe that if I could show the whole case to my hon. and gallant Friend, he would see that his five "E's" are covered. My Noble Friend has asked the Board to bring their deliberations to the stage of definite proposals as soon as possible, and he has done that saying, as he did in another place, that the Government want "to plan in advance" to meet the needs of the Merchant Marine, as in other phases of post-war reconstruction. It is quite plain that the part of the National Maritime Board is to make proposals; but the Government's action does not end when the proposals are made. What action may be taken we cannot now say, but the point is that my Noble Friend intends to continue his consideration of the matter in order to formulate a policy. The object of his policy is perfectly plain. He has stated it again and again. He wants to ensure that after the war there shall be a merchant navy which shall be adequate in strength and which shall be fully efficient; and he has defined efficiency as including the best possible attainable conditions for the officers and men of the merchant marine.
Stating that that is the purpose of the Government, I add this: My hon. Friend the. Member for Seaham is perfectly right when he argues that shipping is part of our general economic structure, and that it cannot be prised apart and treated by itself. My Noble Friend said that theproblems of the Merchant Navy personnel are obviously closely bound up with those of 1745 the whole shipping industry, and those in turn are bound up with the immense question of post-war policy and reconstruction.When my hon. and gallant Friend the Senior Burgess says, "I am not very patient when I hear people talk about the blue-print of a better world," I say to him in reply that, whatever kind of world we have, we must try and do our best for shipping. And speaking for myself, I hope that, whatever kind of world we have, we shall do better than we did last time. But even my hon. and gallant Friend the Senior Burgess must recognise that the true prosperity of seamen must depend on the prosperity of international trade. Lord Essendon said not long ago that the foundation of the British merchant fleet would always be the medium-sized tramp. What does the medium-sized tramp do? It goes from port to port all over the world. It can only be properly employed if we have active, prosperous, multilateral, international trade, and that, if I may say so, is, to my mind, the international significance of the Red Ensign. For this reason, the pledges of the Atlantic Charter are of fundamental importance to the future of the shipping industry. The Atlantic Charter talks of opening free access to trade to all States, great or small, victor or vanquished, after the war, in order to promote their economic prosperity. It says that the Governments are all going to work together in the economic field to promote international trade, raise labour standards, promote economic advancement and social security. It has been proved that our Government and the Government of the United States desire to make these pledges a reality by the new Lease-Lend arrangements they made the other day.
I would like, speaking from this place, to plead with the shipping interests, the shipbuilders, the owners, officers and men, to recognise that it is their vital interest that these pledges should be made a reality. I hope that they may learn the lesson of the last 10 years. Anyone who thinks we can go back to the 1939 world, to international unrest, competitive national armaments, national economic autarchy, latent or active economic or military war—anyone who thinks we can go back to all that and still have a really prosperous shipping industry, is living in a fool's paradise, or perhaps I had better say, a fool's 1746 inferno. Even under those conditions we should have to try and do better for shipping than before. But if the Governments of the world can manage their reconstruction aright, we can make of the shipping industry, and of the noble profession of the sea, a far finer thing than it has ever been before.