HC Deb 28 May 1946 vol 423 cc1121-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Captain Michael Stewart.]

10.12 p.m.

Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

My object in raising this matter tonight is to better the conditions of life and work for the men of the Merchant Navy. I urge that the Minister should hold an inquiry into those conditions, and I have every confidence that if he does so he will find that they are thoroughly unsatisfactory. I appreciate the skill and sympathy of the present Minister, but he has the neglect and damage of his predecessors to repair. He is not to blame for what is past, but he should make good where his predecessors have failed. It cannot be denied that this nation and, indeed, the whole world owes a great debt of gratitude to the merchant seamen, for their courage, skill, perseverance and self sacrifice. This is largely recognised, but the vast body of goodwill has not been implemented and has not led to better conditions. After the 1914–18 war striking tributes were paid to them. Lavish promises of better conditions were made, but they have not been implemented. If one looks back one finds that the Merchant Navy is the Cinderella Service. They have served the country and their fellows, but they have sacrificed themselves.

The history of the last 100 years shows that the progress in the Merchant Navy has not been comparable with the progress in industry ashore. As regards health, hygiene, hours, wages, food, accommodation, or security no industry depends more on Statutes than does the Merchant Navy. The seaman is bound by Statute during most of his life. A series of Merchant Shipping Acts spread over the last 100 years ties him down in every way. Act by Act was wrung from successive Governments, and yet his conditions are not at all as favourable as the conditions of workers ashore. He served the country gallantly during the 1914–18 war, but as soon as that war was over the industry was allowed to drift, and the men's conditions became worse. Reduction after reduction was made in wages; undermanning became rife; unsatisfactory conditions at sea grew worse; men left the ships in large numbers, only to find ashore 3,000,000 people in unemployment, destitution and want. The reasons for these conditions were twofold: first, the inefficiency and mismanagement of individual owners and companies; and secondly, the unsound policy of the Government then in power. Then there Came the recent war—

Mr. Malay (Montrose Burghs)

The hon. and learned Gentleman is making the most wild and outrageous charges against the industry, which are simply not sustainable. Has he any knowledge of the negotiations which have beet going on for years between the shipowners and the unions on this whole question of conditions? Has he any knowledge of the agreement of 1937 determining standards? Has he any knowledge of the fact that those standards have been continually improved? If so, will he please say so?


I hope that the hon. Member will not expect me to anticipate my speech. I shall deal with the subject in my own way. During the war the merchant seamen maintained our food supplies, transported vast numbers of men and materials, and braved, with unrelenting courage, the submarine menace and air attacks, as well as the gales and mountainous seas and the elements. Are they now to be forgotten? The figures show the service which the merchant seamen have rendered. Over 29,000 were killed by enemy action, and many more were maimed and are now physical and mental wrecks. Over 11 million gross tonnage of shipping was lost. This is a terrible but glorious record of loss, sacrifice and sorrow which is worthy of the highest traditions of the Merchant Service. The merchant seamen are justified in their expectation and hope for better conditions, but they have not got them on matters such as wages, continuity of employment entry to and training for the Service, promotion, safety and social insurance.

I cannot hope to deal with all these subjects, but I would like to deal with one, namely, wages. I shall not deal with the quantum of wages, but with certain features regarding the manner in which merchant seamen are paid. Firstly, wages are not paid from the date when a man signs on, but from the date when he has to report for duty, and this is wrong and unfair, because there may be a loss of several days during which time he is awaiting call. The merchant seamen cannot afford to wait for payment. The second feature concerns advances. The merchant seaman is not entitled to any payments in advance before he starts on a voyage. This again is unfair, because he may be starting on a long voyage extending as long as two years, and he may require to make an apportionment of money to his family, which is impossible if he does not receive an advance. The third aspect is in regard to allotments. The restrictions should be altered, and allotments should be paid without—

Sir Douglas Thomson (Aberdeen, South)

Will the hon. And learned Member say what these restrictions are because this is all quite new to us?

Mr. Hughes

I am referring to the series of Merchant Shipping Acts. Seamen on monthly articles are not paid allotments except at the end of a voyage, which may take a very long time and extend over two years. This leaves him at the mercy of the master or the owner. Why should he not get the money he earns, as do workers on shore? Merchant seamen are not paid even at the end of the voyage, because under the Merchant Shipping Acts, the owners and masters have two clear days, exclusive of Sundays and holidays, in which to pay wages —

Earl Winterton (Horsham)

On a point of Order. May I call your attention, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to the fact that the hon. and learned Member is now dealing with a feature of an Act to which he takes objection which would require legislation?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker(Mr. Hubert Beaumont

If the hon. and learned Member is making reference to something which involves legislation, it would be out of Order on a Motion for the Adjournment.

Mr. Keenan (Liverpool, Kirkdale)

On a point of Order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I submit that the point of Order as submitted by the Noble Lord was rather rigid. I think that it is permissible for firms to pay off in less than two days, because they frequently do so.

Mr. McKie (Galloway)

Mr. Deputy-Speaker, the Noble Lord was asking you to give a Ruling as to whether the hon. and learned Member for North Aberdeen (Mr. Hughes) was not transgressing on this Motion for the Adjournment in calling attention to certain Sections of the Merchant Shipping Act which would require legislation to amend. I fail to see how the interjection of the hon. Member for Kirkdale (Mr. Keenan) has anything to do with that.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I did not hear what the hop and learned Gentleman said. If he did say anything that involves legislation, that is not permissible on the Adjournment. Further, I would say that, in view of the fact that the Debate has to terminate in a few minutes, I think that the hon. and learned Member for North Aberdeen (Mr. Hector Hughas) had better continue his speech.

Mr. Hughes

I did not say anything about legislation in the hearing of hon. Members on this side of the House. If the words " Statute," " legislation " or " Act " are not to be used in a speech, without it being inferred that one is inviting legislation, that, in my respectful submission, is drawing the rule too tight. I am not, in any way, quarrelling with your Ruling on the subject, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I am drawing attention to the fact that the seaman is not paid even on the conclusion of the voyage and that under the Act, under Statute, under legislation, the master or owner has power withhold payment for two days during which the seaman is bound to wait about to be paid. I had other points which I wished to raise relating to accommodation in the merchant service, but owing to the interruptions, the time has gone, and I think it right that I should give the Minister an opportunity of replying to the points that I have made.

Mr. Maclay

I regret having had to interrupt a speech during a Debate on the Adjournment, when I know the time is so short. But it was absolutely essential to put right some of the astonishing misstatements that were made. I hope that the Minister will carry on that good work now.

10.23 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Barnes)

I should like to express my regret that this matter, and the debt which the nation owes to the merchant seamen of this country, should have come up in the circumstances in which it is being discussed tonight. I feel it would be the wish of hon. Members on all sides of the House that discussion of this matter in Parliament should be made the occasion to express the deep appreciation of the whole nation to the merchant seamen for the remarkable services which they rendered during the war. Although I only have a few minutes at my disposal, I feel that I cannot let the occasion pass without reminding the House of one or two facts. The record of the Merchant Navy is one of the most magnificent contributions which this country has made, not only to our own affairs, but to the affairs of the world, during the past six or seven years. In that period, over 180,000,000 tons of dry cargo was carried in British ships, more than half of which was food. We also have to remember the enormous supplies that had to be moved in different parts of the world to maintain our Armed Forces. The interest of the hon. and learned Gentleman in this matter is well known, and I fully appreciate it and applaud him for his efforts in trying to bring it to the notice of this House so as to ensure that some of the mistakes that possibly occurred after the last war would not be repeated on this occasion. I am sure that that is the main purpose of which he has in mind. I do not feel that we serve any purpose of that description if it is backed up by inaccurate statements, and I think that all sides of the industry would agree that there has been some slight exaggeration in the evidence that has been submitted.

Mr. Keenan


Mr. Barnes

I think that we must recognise on behalf of my hon. and learned Friend that he raised the matter in very difficult cricumstances. He lost a good deal of the time at his disposal, and in those circumstances it is not easy to marshal the evidence in the way that one would wish. As a matter of fact, at the present moment a British delegation comprising shipowners and representatives of the officers and men's unions, with representatives of my Ministry, are travelling to America for the International Conference at Seattle. As far as I am concerned, so important did I consider the matter to which my hon. and learned Friend referred, that I requested the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport to accompany that delegation, so that there should be a direct representative of the Minister at the Conference. All those matters which my hon. and learned Friend has raised will come under review at the Seattle Conference. He will also recollect that some months ago there was a preliminary conference—a prelude to the International Conference—at Copenhagen, where many of these matters came under consideration. As regards the statement about allotments and matters of that kind, now that there is a pooling system in operation, seamen under the conditions that he referred to are today in a more favourable position for drawing their pool pay.

Finally, a point I should like to make for the purpose of putting it on record is that the machinery of the National Maritime Board, which represents the shipowners and all the officers' and men's unions, stands fairly high in the machinery of negotiation in this country. I can say that because of the contribu- tion that that Board has made. In any case to that machinery the Government leaves these matters of negotiation between the unions. Even with the improvement that has taken place, I should be the last person to say that there is not room still for further improvement. I think we can best encourage that improvement by assisting machinery of that description gradually to work its way to improved conditions. The Government, I can assure my hon. and learned Friend, will give whatever assistance is possible to accomplish that end.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Ten o' Clock.