HC Deb 28 April 1950 vol 474 cc1303-28

Order for Second Reading read.

12.43 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Barnes)

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

This is the third occasion on which I have been privileged to submit to the House legislation designed to improve standards generally within our Merchant Navy. I may recall for a moment that the first Shipping Act of the last Parliament, in 1948, gave effect to certain decisions of the International Maritime Labour Conventions and raised the standard of crew accommodation. Then in 1949 there was the Merchant Shipping (Safety at Sea) Convention, which has still to be ratified by number of countries, but in which the United Kingdom took the lead, for the purpose of advancing various safety measures at sea. The Measure the Second Reading of which I am now moving is designed to improve the standard of accommodation in the fishing fleet of this country.

I would make this obvious point, that in the improvement of standards it does not always rest with the Government of the day to take the initiative. More often than not individual shipowners, by improved designs, lift the standard of accommodation or equipment beyond the legislative standard enforced at the time; and then subsequently Parliament makes that standard general throughout the industry. Since the original Merchant Shipping Acts were passed, considerable changes have taken place. The fishing vessel of today is no longer just a small inshore drifter fishing round our coasts. The term " fishing vessel " today covers boats of 700 gross tons or more, and they voyage very far afield indeed. They represent a considerable source of supply of the food requirements of this country. Over a million tons of fish are brought to our markets by our fishing fleet. There are 14,500 vessels involved and about 50,000 men.

I mention that figure of manpower, of personnel, to emphasise that this is not a small and negligible thing which we are discussing today. It covers a considerable body of persons. I do not pretend for a moment that the benefits of this Measure will be felt immediately in the fishing industry of this country. Obviously, if we propose to change the standard it is not practicable to apply the new standard to existing vessels, because they have been built according to the law in the past; but the new standard will apply to all new construction in the shipyards of this country, and I have made provision that it will apply also in the event of any United Kingdom owner having any fishing vessel built in a foreign yard. There is not much of that type of construction, but nevertheless it is covered in the Bill, so that when the vessels come on to the United Kingdom register they will be covered by this new standard.

The Bill follows the lines of previous shipping legislation in that when a fishing vessel comes in for substantial reconstruction or repair, the new general standard would apply. The opportunity has been taken in this Bill to deal with certain war-time regulations which were applied to the merchant fleet and which have generally been found to be beneficial. In previous Measures I have had the good fortune to receive support from all quarters of the House, and I hope that that will be the case on this occasion. I have secured as great a measure of agreement as possible between both sides of the industry.

Air-Commodore Harvey (Macclesfield)

Would the Minister elaborate the point he made about vessels coming for overhaul and being brought up to the new standard? Assuming that the layout and construction of the vessel does not permit it to come up to that standard, are there limitations?

Mr. Barnes

The experience of the surveyors in my Department is adequate in that respect and I have never known any real difficulty to occur. I think we can leave it to the practical experience of the surveyors and the process of consultation which goes on between them and both sides of the shipping industry. Obviously the new standard would not be applied to any vessel where the physical characteristics were not capable of embodying it. It is always difficult for a Minister to give complete assurances with regard to the future, but we have to bear in mind that there is a long history of experience and tradition behind the Department and generally matters work out to the satisfaction of the industry and the Ministry.

Clause 1 of the Bill, which must be taken in conjunction with the First Schedule, gives power to make regulations governing the crew accommodation in fishing boats. I would emphasise that it is not my desire to give the impression that there has been no improvement in the design and standard of fishing vessels over the last 50 years. From time to time, in consultation with the industry, my Department has advanced the standard. The present instructions to surveyors, established as late as 1937, represented a considerable advance. Nevertheless, in view of the changing design and the ever-growing size of the fishing fleet, this Bill is introduced in an effort to bring the conditions more into line with those of the Merchant Navy.

Clause 2 is a provision which is at present covered by Regulation 45AA of the Defence (General) Regulations. That Regulation continues in force until December of this year under the Supplies and Services Act. I propose to make it permanent legislation, and I am confident that, when its purpose is explained, there will be no objection. The Clause covers the engagement and discharge of crews. It provides that, in the case of home trade ships of 200 tons or more, the crews are to be signed on and off before the superintendent of the Mercantile Marine Office.

It is interesting to note that it is just a century ago, at about the same time of the year, that Parliament created the mercantile marine offices, and now we propose to extend the powers of the superintendents. This enables me, on the centenary of the establishment of this branch of the Merchant Service, to offer my congratulations on the splendid work which has been done during the last 100 years. The purpose of the Regulation is to ensure that a superintendent is present when a seaman signs an agreement between the master and the seaman. The superintendent has to make sure that the agreement is in accordance with the law. It is his responsibility to see that the seaman understands what he is signing and that all other requirements are fulfilled.

This provision is useful under the established service scheme which has been created by both sides of the industry to deal with post-war conditions. The scheme is probably one of the best examples of industrial negotiation which we have witnessed in this country since the end of the war. Both sides have helped to build up the scheme, which is based on war-time experience. As far as possible, it ensures to seamen regularity of employment. Before the war, it was the practice for the superintendent to be in attendance and to supervise the engagement and discharge of seamen on foreign-going vessels.

However, that was not the practice in ships of the home trade which sail around our shores. During the war, it was necessary for all seamen to be in the reserve pool. It was essential, because all seamen had to be available for whatever services were required during the war. The Ministry had to know exactly where the men could be found. Both sides of the industry have agreed that it is desirable for this practice to be continued in peace time. So far, it has been continued under the Defence (General) Regulations. If the House agrees with this Clause, then Regulation 45AA can disappear.

Clause 3 deals with naval courts. The powers proposed are by no means far-reaching. It is not very often that a naval court is required in peace time but, to provide for any eventuality, we propose to keep them in being and at the same time to give wider discretionary powers to the naval officer. Here again, this is a result of experience gained during the war which has commended itself to all engaged in the industry, and this Clause merely provides for the practice to be continued in peace time. Defence Regulation 48B will disappear, and this provision will take its place. I do not want to exaggerate its importance, because it is very seldom that these courts are used in peace time; but, as they may be needed, it is desirable to meet this general request based on experience.

Clause 4 removes and anomaly. When fishing vessels were, relatively speaking, much smaller than they are today, some of our more venturesome and courageous skippers—possibly in search not only of adventure, but of larger catches and better remuneration—used to go as far afield as Newfoundland. In the circumstances, they had to hold a foreign-going certificate of competency. The type and design of these vessels have changed, and it is now common for them to journey far afield. It is more or less a routine operation for a large section of the fishing fleet. We propose to adjust the circumstances and to remove the anomaly. Clause 5 is merely the legal form for dealing with this type of legislation when, as in the case of the Merchant Shipping Acts, we use the terms " summary jurisdiction " and " summary conviction " as they apply to Northern Ireland. I am informed that the form adopted in this Clause is the common one.

I do not know whether there is any further information which I need give to the House at this stage. I have outlined the general purpose of the Bill. It is simple and beneficial. In presenting, for what I am certain will be general commendation, a Bill which seeks to improve the peace-time conditions of the fishing fleet, we are honouring a deep debt. By this steady process of agreement between both sides of the industry, and by the implementation of the new standards by legislation in the House of Commons, we are honouring the debt we owe to our Merchant Navy, in all its branches, for the great work performed during the war and for the great work which equally they are discharging in our peace-time difficulties.

If we take the Service as a whole, during the war 180,000 persons generally were running the Merchant Navy of this country in all its aspects. As I have indicated, the fishing industry is generally comprised of about 50,000 personnel, so they are certainly a considerable proportion of the total number of men who are responsible for conducting the Merchant Navy in war and peace. Out of that figure of 180,000 who served in the war, the casualties amounted to 32,000. I do not know how widely it is appreciated that the rate of casualties in the Merchant Navy was higher than that of the casualties in the Fighting Services of this country, and I think that on these occasions hon. Members in all parts of the House might very well remind themselves of these circumstances, and, through our Debates here, refresh the memory of the nation as a whole.

I turn again, as I had the opportunity of doing the other day when giving certain information to the House, to contemplate the contribution which this industry as a whole is making at the present moment in assisting the nation to fight its way out of its post-war difficulties. I want again to refer to the fact that, whereas in 1936 the net earnings of the shipping industry were £24 million, it is estimated that the net earnings of the industry in 1948 were £100 million, and therefore, allowing for the depreciated value of currencies between that period and the present time, it is quite clear that the Merchant Navy as a whole is not only making the same contribution to the economic prosperity of this country as it did before the war, but is making one that is still greater. When we look at the tonnage of the Merchant Navy, we find that before the war it was 16.8 million gross tons. We lost over 11 million tons during the war, and yet the present tonnage of the Merchant Navy is 16.3 million gross tons. Here We see a Service fighting back gallantly after the war, just as it assisted the nation in its fight during the war.

Therefore, I must say that, of all the opportunities that I have had of promoting legislation in this House, much of it very controversial, nothing has given me greater pleasure than to be responsible for a Measure of this description, which will receive general approval and which I think interprets the desire of the nation to honour the services which we have received from the Merchant Navy in all its branches during the war, and assist it to establish permanent conditions of goodwill and prosperity during its peacetime affairs.

Mr. Collick (Birkenhead)

Before my right hon. Friend sits down, and with the permission of the hon. and gallant Gentlemen opposite, may we get one point quite clear? I think the Minister said that the casualties in the Merchant Navy during the war were 32,000. If my memory is correct, I think it is true to say that the fatal casualties were 30,000, and, if they were 30,000, quite clearly the total casualties must have been very much greater than the 32,000 which the Minister gave. I thick that ought to be put right, before it goes out to the public Press.

Mr. Barnes

I was really referring to fatal casualties.

1.5 p.m.

Commander Galbraith (Glasgow, Pollok)

I am quite certain that the entire House will agree that the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Transport is to be congratulated on his great good fortune, this being the third occasion on which he has introduced to the House a Bill which improves the conditions of those who serve us so well in the Merchant Navy. Further than that, I most warmly agree with him when he says that we should take every opportunity to remind this House and the country of the great services which the Merchant Navy renders to our country, both in war and peace.

This Bill, I am quite certain, will be welcomed by the House, because it provides for one category of seafarers the possibility of greater comfort and more hygienic living conditions, and, for another category, an improved status and the maintenance of safeguards introduced during the war, since found to be beneficent in peace and therefore to be continued. It also provides for all seafarers one whom I might call a referee, whose duty it will be to review any punishment or sentence awarded by a naval court. My feeling is that anything which tends to improve the conditions, safeguard the position or raise the status of those who go down to the sea in ships is not only welcomed by the House but also by the entire nation, for there is certainly no other section of the community which deserves better of the country, nor any section on which the safety, welfare and prosperity of our country more greatly depend.

I welcome this Bill from another point of view. For very many years now, the shipping industry has been an example to all industries in that it has succeeded over a long period of years in solving its many problems, many of them problems of the deepest human complexity, by the process of reason, and it seems to me that the industry recognises the other man's point of view, understands his troubles and difficulties, desires to see fair play and is determined to keep abreast of the times, as the Minister himself said when paying his tribute to it. In that connection, this Bill is no exception. Both sides of the industry are in complete agreement, and in that respect I am quite sure that this House will not lag behind.

If I might be reminiscent for a moment, I would say that at one period of my life I was under the necessity of going to sea from time to time in fishing craft. I can assure the House that, as my turn of duty approached, I studied the weather forecast with great anxiety, because I found that fishing craft, even in conditions of moderate weather, were very lively indeed, and on many occasions much too lively for my complete comfort. I have never been able to understand how, in the conditions which I found in these buoyant ships, so light that they were bouncing about all over the place, fishermen were able to keep their feet and work their gear at the same time. That is a mystery which I have never solved, but, apart from the particular discomfort which the public associate with the sea and the difficulties to which I have alluded, fishermen have to contend with many things—cold, wet, long hours of toil, no settled hours of rest, and the rest often interrupted.

I do not think it requires much imagination to picture the discomfort and danger which these men suffer and also overcome. We hear very little about them, because they do not speak about their conditions very much or very often. I do not think, either, that it takes a very lively imagination to appreciate just how welcome a spell below in the wonderful " fug " of the cabin must be to them. I found the quarters rather cramped, and there was certainly no room for anything beyond standing up and turning about. Judged by shoregoing standards, the whole thing was quite inadequate.

The Minister has told us that considerable advancements in the comfort and the quarters of the crews are constantly being made, and of that fact I think we are all aware. The thing that stands out most in my memory is the comfort which one derived from the warm atmosphere of the cabin and also the food. I say to hon. Members of this House that none of them has really tasted fish unless he has tasted it in the cabin of one of our fishing vessels. To eat it in those conditions would give hon. Members a different opinion from that which they may hold now about that article of food. These two things—the warmth of the cabin and the good food—induced in me a very pleasant, drowsy and relaxed feeling so that I very speedily forgot the conditions which existed on deck, which I had left a few minutes before and to which I would shortly be called upon to return.

Mr. Barnes

Is the hon. and gallant Gentleman sure it was the food?

Commander Galbraith

If the provisions of Clause 1, are going to bring more comfort and a greater sense of well-being to our fishermen, then no one can possibly deny that those things are richly deserved and well earned.

I wish to utter one word of warning before I pass on, and that is to say that we must always have a care—and here I am not being niggling—of the cost of these improvements. After all, it would be a very ill service to our fishing population if we were to provide them with comfortable quarters at the expense of their job. After all, a cabin is no good to them if, through providing it, the addition to the cost lays up the boat and compels the men to kick their heels ashore and to queue up at the employment exchange or elsewhere. That is a danger at this time when costs are rising so prodigiously, and it makes it essential that in this and other matters we should keep a sense of proportion.

One thing is called for, and perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will consider it before we come to the Committee stage of the Bill. I know it does not often happen, but if there is a difference of opinion between the owner and the surveyor in regard to compliance with the regulations, then there should be a right of appeal to some tribunal. That is a matter—I am advising the right hon. Gentleman of it now—which we intend to take up on the Committee stage, and, as I have said, we shall be glad if he will give it his consideration before that stage is reached.

The Bill recognises that the time has now come to give to the men employed in the home shipping trade that same measure of continuity of employment and that same machinery of engagement and discharge and other protections as have been enjoyed by those men who " go foreign." As the right hon. Gentleman told us, while these benefits have been enjoyed by the home trade for many years now, under Defence Regulations, it is right that they should become a permanent feature of our merchant shipping code.

Apart from these matters, the Bill allows for a review of any punishments which may be meted out by naval courts. That, of course, just makes permanent once again something which has been in being under Defence Regulations for a considerable time, and I cannot think that anybody can take any exception to it. The Bill undoubtedly improves the existing law. The provisions of the Bill are supported by both sides of the industry, and accordingly we on these benches, for whom I have the honour to speak today, trust that the Bill will receive its Second Reading, and will speedily pass through all its remaining stages until it finds its place on the Statute Book.

1.15 p.m.

Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

As the Minister has truly said, this is the third of a series of Merchant Shipping Bills presented to this House since 1945. I agree with the hon. and gallant Member for Pollok (Commander Galbraith) that my right hon. Friend has every reason to be proud of his success in this sphere. I welcome the Bill as another step along the weary road which has been trodden by seamen since the days described by Macaulay when he said there were gentlemen and there were seamen in the Navy of Charles II, but the seamen were not gentlemen and the gentlemen were not seamen, or since Dr. Johnson said: No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into gaol, for being in a ship is being in gaol, with a chance of being drowned. A man in gaol has more room, better food, and commonly better company. Emphatically that is not so today thanks, very largely, to the work of the trade unions and also to the work of this Government.

Commander Galbraith

Will not the hon. and learned Gentleman extend his generosity to the whole industry for, I think, it is due to the work of the whole industry

Mr. Hector Hughes

I do not wish to make a party matter of this, but I am sure the hon. and gallant Gentleman will not withhold his meed of praise from the Transport Union and the National Union of Seamen which have done so much to ameliorate the conditions of workers at sea.

This is the latest of a series of beneficial Bills which have been introduced by this Government. I am sure the hon. and gallant Gentleman will agree that, in the past, the lot of the seaman has been a very unhappy one. He has had to struggle for every ameliorating measure he has got. His conditions at sea have not kept pace with the conditions of workers on shore. In the last 100 years there have been a number of factory and health Acts which have improved the conditions of the workers on shore, but nothing comparable has been done for the workers afloat except during the last few years. It is remarkable, but perhaps not surprising, that merchant shipping—one of the most important features of our national life—should have been treated in this way since the earliest Navigation Acts of 1660 until recently.

In 1860, 200 years later, a distinguished judge, Vice-Chancellor Wood, said: There are two points of public policy which may be suggested in these Acts relating to shipping: the one, a policy regarding the interests of the nation at large; … the other being similar to that which gave rise tp the Acts for the registration of titles to land, the object being to determine what should be the proper evidence of title in those who deal with the property in question. Nothing was said about the rights of the crew. They had to be fought for, and were fought for, and, thank:: to the battle put up by them and their representatives, the series of Shipping Acts which have been passed during the last. 100 years have greatly improved their conditions. In 1854, the General Merchant Shipping Act was passed, and after that Act came a series of other Acts which culminated in the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894—a gigantic Act, comprising 748 Sections, which consolidated the law with regard to merchant shipping.

Commander Galbraith

Do I understand that what the hon. and learned Gentleman is saying is that the conditions on board the " Queen Mary " are different and rather better than those which existed on the " Mayflower "?

Mr. Hector Hughes

If the hon. and gallant Gentleman desires to put it in that extreme way, that is indeed what I am saying. Furthermore, I am saying that the introduction of a Bill of this kind provides an occasion on which one may legitimately review the legislative progress which has been made. I am glad the hon. and gallant Gentleman accords his support to this Bill; I hope every hon. Member will do that.

It does five very important things. It improves the new accommodation in merchant shipping boats, and I am sure that no hon. Member or any member of the public would wish to withhold better accommodation to the men in the merchant fleet at sea. It improves the law governing agreements with the crews of foreign going ships. This is also a change and an improvement which is badly needed. The earlier law was open to grave abuse. Speaking of the corresponding Section of the Act of 1854, a learned judge, Mr. Justice Chitty, said: The mischief which this part of the Act is intended to remedy was the risk of the men being carried out to sea by some captain, who was minded to take them a long distance to some foreign country, when they really had not come to a definite agreement that they should sail upon such a voyage. Section 115 of the Act of 1894 took that a step further. Now we have paragraph 2 of the Second Schedule of this Bill which carries it further still.

I am sure that hon. Members opposite will also agree that the provision in the Bill with regard to punishments imposed by naval courts, under Part 4 of the 1894 Act, providing for review by a senior naval or consular officer is a big improvement. I should have thought that it was almost axiomatic that no court is so infallible that there should be no means of appeal from it. That is what is dealt with by this particular provision of the Bill.

There is one thing I should like to see included in the Bill. Perhaps it could come fairly into the Second Schedule. There is no adequate provision in the Bill regarding the payment of crews. Sometimes there are irregularities in the paying off of crews, and these should be guarded against. I cannot put this danger to be guarded against more succinctly than it was put in a letter which I have received from the Aberdeen branch of the Transport and General Workers' Union, who know a great deal about these things. This is what they say: There is no provision for the crews of fishing boats to be paid off before the Superintendent. Most offices provide a room for the crews to wait in while their pay is being made up; but one office, in particular, keep men hanging about outside, and when, finally, they do settle it is usually in a coal shed or a net store and very often in a pub. This office is notorious for its cavalier treatment of fishermen and it would be a good thing if the crews of fishing vessels were to be paid in the presence of the Superintendent. This is a grievance, and it should be remedied. I hope the Minister will give some attention to it when the Bill comes to its Committee stage. Apart from that, I join with other hon. Members in welcoming this Bill as a great improvement in the law relating to merchant shipping. I hope it will be speedily passed into law.

1.24 p.m.

Mr. Gerald Williams (Tonbridge)

I do not intend to weary the House with Volume 2 of the history of the Merchant Service because I think the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes) has dealt with it fairly fully. I want to confine my remarks to what is or is not in the Bill, and to add my welcome to the Bill, which, clearly, will improve conditions for those who go to sea, especially in fishing trawlers. I had two years in Grimsby during the war. There, I met many fishermen and got to know them as very gallant, hard working and honourable men. They brought to us supplies of fish which we so sorely needed during the war. When their trawlers were taken away from them and transferred to the White Ensign, they continued to fight for us, either by sweeping mines or by escorting convoys.

We should, therefore, do everything to encourage these men, with their great record in the past, to continue to bring fish to this country. The fish is not only needed for the people but also a great deal more fish is needed in the form of fish meal for feeding pigs. If improved conditions mean a greater incentive to bring in the fish we want, then this Bill is a step in the right direction. I should like the Minister to tell us whether the Bill applies to foreigners, as he did not mention it in his speech. It appears from the Clauses that it does not apply, but the Schedule mentions something about foreigners having a certificate to the effect that they are carrying out the same regulations as are carried out by our own vessels. But it is not clear to me, and I should like the Minister to make it clear to the House.

It is extremely unfair if certain regulations and conditions are laid down and our ships have to comply with them while their competitors, who land large quantities of fish in this country, do not have to comply. The Minister mentioned that over one million tons of fish were landed every year in this country. I believe very nearly a quarter of that amount is landed by trawlers belonging to Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and even Poland and the Netherlands. If that is the case it is extremely important that these foreign vessels should have to comply with these regulations.

I know that the British trawling industry has been hit already by the International Convention on Overfishing, to which many of the countries I have mentioned agreed. But some of them have not ratified the Convention and they are still being allowed to land fish in this country. I hope the Minister will tell us that he intends that any foreign trawlers landing fish in this country will have to observe the same regulations as our own vessels.

Clause 2 of the Bill affects the coasting trade in relation to the engagement and discharge of crews. The Minister told us that this is covered at the moment by Defence Regulations which, I understand, expire in December of this year. If these are allowed to expire we shall have to go back to pre-war conditions. If this Bill becomes law, then the Shipping Federation can continue to operate the Merchant Navy reserve pool.

I have been in touch with representatives of a large number of coasting colliers. They authorised me to say that they welcome the continuation of this pool. They go so far as to say that if it should be discontinued, it would throw the industry into chaos. Therefore, the Minister can feel he has the support of coastal colliers behind him. It enables them to "stagger" the six-monthly articles that ships take out and, therefore, makes the signing of crews much easier.

The Explanatory Memorandum to this Bill states that Regulations are to be made after consultation with representative organisations of the fishing industry. That is as it should be, but when one turns to the Bill one finds that in Clause 1 (1) it states that these consultations are to be made with such organisation or organisations as appear to him"— that is, the Minister— to be representative … It may be that that is usual in Bills of this nature but, after all, there are many societies or organisations which may claim to be representative of the fishing industry. Does this mean that they have no way of stating their claims and that the Minister does as he likes? Is there no arbitration or no appeal and is it left to the Minister himself? I should be glad if the Minister would give us some reassurance on this subject.

My last point relates to the First Schedule, paragraph 5, which says that whenever a complaint about accommodation is made, presumably by one of the crew, a surveyor of ships shall carry out an inspection. Later, it says that the surveyor who carries out the inspection shall have his fees paid. Presumably that means that the owner of the vessel has to pay the surveyor's fees. It may be rather bad luck for the owner if an unjustifiable complaint is made by one of the crew which leads to a surveyor being called in and then the owner has to foot the bill. I suggest that that provision might be improved by inserting some such words as "if the surveyor considers it to be a justifiable complaint."

I would like also to reinforce what my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Pollok (Commander Galbraith) said about an appeal against decisions. Having drawn the Minister's attention to some points which I hope he will consider before the Committee stage, I should like to say once more that I personally regard this as a very good Bill which will help to maintain our tradition and reputation as the greatest seafaring nation in the world.

1.32 p.m.

Mr. Edward Evans (Lowestoft)

It is a matter of some gratification to those of us who represent fishing areas and seaside towns to know that the subject of the sea has come up for discussion in this House on two successive days. I shall not detain the House long, except to say that I could not resist the opportunity of adding my commendation to this Bill and of congratulating the Minister on the way he presented it. I was very sorry when we heard yesterday that the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire (Mr. Boothby) had killed the Sea Fish Industry Bill. I was very sorry when that Bill met its demise, because it destroyed the amended Clauses which provided for the very benefits which are now reintroduced into this Measure. Those of us who have a deep interest in and admiration for the fishermen and the fishing industry are very glad to see that the Government have put those Clauses into this Bill.

It is 20 years since I first went aboard a drifter, and I can remember the shock that I had when I went over the men's living quarters. There is no doubt that in a large number of drifters the conditions in those quarters were very bad, and even now some of them, particularly those which have been at sea for 30 or 40 years, are in a precarious state. I heard a story in my constituency, which I believe to be true, about a boat which was being repaired; a workman who was preparing the hold dropped his hammer and it went through the bottom. That shows the condition of some of the boats, and the amenities for the crews are consistent with those conditions. I was very glad when, some six or seven months ago, we launched at the Lowestoft yards an Icelandic drifter. It really was a work of art; it was a beautiful craft. It was the pride of the shipbuilding yard, but the part in which I was most interested was the crew's quarters.

I happened last week to be talking to the skipper of that boat, an Icelandic gentleman, and he was telling me that the reaction of the crew was such that they were determined to keep up the standard of these amenities that had been provided by the owners. If we give these men, good chaps that they are, decent conditions to live in, we shall not only help them to retain their self-respect but give them an added incentive in their work.

I do not wish to keep the House any longer because all the points have been covered by hon. Members on both sides, but I should like to commend this Bill very warmly and to thank the Government for reinstituting in this Bill the Clauses that were dropped from the Sea Fish Industry Bill.

1.35 p.m.

Mr. Basil Nield (City of Chester)

I should like to follow the hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Edward Evans) in adding my word of welcome to those provisions in this Measure which are designed to improve the crews' quarters in these fishing boats. There is no doubt that these men undertake a most arduous task. Their work is very necessary to all of us and we should do all we can to improve the conditions in which they are employed.

There are three specific points to which I would address a few words in my short speech. The first relates to the retention of the naval courts referred to by the Minister and the provision of a reviewing officer to review the proceedings of those courts. As the right hon. Gentleman has pointed out, in peace-time happily they are very seldom required to function, but they have considerable powers of imprisonment, forfeiture of wages and so on; and it seems to me—I am sure the House will agree—quite right that the senior naval officer or the consular officer in the area should be able to review proceedings of those courts and either confirm or not confirm or vary those orders. That, of course, follows the procedure of courts martial.

My second point was raised first by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Pollok (Commander Galbraith) and was again referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge (Mr. G. Williams); it relates to the First Schedule. The House will appreciate from reading this Measure that if there is a complaint that a ship does not conform to the regulations laid down, a surveyor of ships may make his inspection and may give a decision in effect as to whether or not that ship so conforms, and his decision may have a very far-reaching effect on the continuation of the business and of the men's employment. I support the plea that has been made that there should be some appellate tribunal to which an appeal may go from the surveyor of ships. It might be useful to add to the suggestions already made that perhaps the right hon. Gentleman and his advisers would be good enough to see whether such a suggestion might fructify in the light of Section 487 of the principal Act of 1894, which deals with the question of courts of survey. An appeal might possibly go there. At any rate, that is a matter which might be considered.

I come to my final point, which is not within the Bill but which I commend to the House as one which might well be incorporated in the Bill at some stage. Section 376 of the principal Act, which re-enacts Section 28 of the Merchant Shipping Fishing Boats Act, 1883, deals with offences against discipline in fishing vessels. It is nearly 70 years since the provisions were laid down and times have much changed. The value of money, wages and conditions, all have changed. I think it is right to say that the most common offences against discipline today are two in number. First, there is the offence when the man does not appear at the time of sailing, and that, of course, is a serious matter involving, perhaps, the holding up of a trawler, great damage to the man's own workmates and a great deal of trouble and inconvenience. The second common offence is that of refusing to work while the vessel is at sea. In those circumstances the man may have to be put off at a foreign port and ultimately repatriated, with all the inconvenience and expense.

What I am pointing out is that in my view, and in the view of many who have considered this matter, the penalties provided by Section 376 are inappropriate. I purposely do not use the word " inadequate "; I say " inappropriate," and I ask the House to bear with me while I remind them of the position. Most of the offences of the nature which I have described are usually charged in the magistrates court as under " wilful disobedience." For that offence the old Section lays down a penalty of four weeks' imprisonment or forfeiture of two days' wages. It has been held that if there are no wages earned, then they cannot be forfeited, and, therefore, when the man fails to turn up there are no wages which can be forfeited and the court is left with the sentence of four weeks' imprisonment. If we read that in conjunction with the Summary Jurisdiction Act, 1879, we find that the only alternative to four weeks' imprisonment is a fine of 20s.

I am quite certain that over and over again magistrates are, rightly, most unwilling to impose terms of imprisonment, but they take the view—especially if the offence is rife that where a man may be earning up to £15 a week a fine of 20s. is no sort of deterrent in these matters. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for York (Mr. Hylton-Foster), who has specialised information on this matter, has supplied me with some of the figures for one of our fishing ports—in fact, for Hull. I shall take just one or two. In 1946, out of some 1,400 sailings, there were 194 convictions for wilful disobedience and there were no sentences of imprisonment. Things got rather worse and in 1949 there were 132 convictions that is, fewer—but there were 20 sentences of imprisonment. Obviously the justices were taking the view that 20s. was a quite inadequate deterrent in the circumstances.

I respectfully ask the Minister to consider this point with considerable care, and I am sure he will. The courts have taken the view that the situation is not satisfactory and one point which I think is of very great interest is this. I believe I am right in saying that in Fleetwood, another fishing port, the position has been regarded by both sides of the industry, the owners and the unions, as being so unsatisfactory that they have agreed to set up their own organisation for dealing with these offences. I think I am also right in saying that under their own arrangements they may now suspend an offender for one or two or three weeks from his employment. I express no view as to the legality of this, but that does not arise in my argument; the point shows the dissatisfaction with present arrangements.

It would be very simple indeed to effect an improvement. One could introduce into this Measure an Amendment of Section 376 (1, d) of the 1894 Act by saying " or a fine not exceeding £10." There is an even readier way of dealing with the matter because if, in this Measure, the Government or anybody else—and we shall see on Committee stage—were to introduce an Amendment to the 1894 Act by which the sentence of four weeks' imprisonment were changed to one of one month, then under the Summary Jurisdiction Act the magistrates would be entitled to impose a fine of £5 instead of one of 20s.

I am afraid I have spoken at some length on this point, but I hope the House will think it an important one which is designed to help the industry and discipline in the industry without the necessity of introducing harshness, which one wishes to avoid. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider the point. If he can say a word about it, I shall be grateful and the matter could be considered at a later stage. I join with all hon. Members who have welcomed this Measure. It will, we trust, when the regulations have been formulated, assist part of a great Service which has done such valiant work both in war-time and in peace.

Mr. Keenan (Liverpool, Kirkdale)

Before the hon. and learned Member sits down, may I ask, whether it is possible in the pool scheme, for the employers and the union jointly, to inflict penalties for the offences about which he has complained? Does he suggest that there should be an additional penalty, apart from that?

Mr. Nield

What I say is that I am doubtful whether private arrangements between employers and unions for suspension are appropriate for dealing with this. In my opinion it should be clear in the law that magistrates are enabled to impose penalties and sanctions which are just and equitable

1.48 p.m.

Mr. J. J. Robertson (Berwick and East Lothian)

I do not know whether this nation will ever be able fully to repay the great debt of gratitude it owes to the men of the small ships—the merchant ships and the fishing industry. Speaking as one who had some early experience in both sides of the sea-going service—the fishing industry and the Merchant Service—I welcome this Bill and I also welcome the way in which the Minister introduced it by paying tribute to the great Service for which the Bill is designed. If there is anything we in this House can do to make the conditions for the merchant seamen and the fishermen just a little better than they were in the old days, when the ships of Britain were very often described as the slums of the sea, then it will not only be our duty to do so but I am sure it will be welcomed by the whole nation as a small tribute to and reward for the great sacrifices which those brave men made during the war.

Turning to the Bill itself, there are one or two points upon which I should like to have some rather more specific information and to which I should like to draw the attention of the Minister when he considers the framing of the regulations. I should like to see certain references made rather more specific. For example, in Clause 1, on the question of space accommodation provided in ships, it has been my experience that if we merely provide air space in the forecastle of a vessel where there is a very considerable overhang, we may get the air space mostly on the top of the roof and very little deck space for movement. Therefore, the only possible way to have adequate room for movement in the quarters where the seamen have to live would be to have them in that part of the ship where the deck space is equal, or nearly equal, to the space on the deckhead or ceiling. I hope that in future every effort will be made to transfer the quarters of the seamen from the forward part of the ship, right up in the bows, to perhaps the mid-ships or even the after-part of the vessel.

I want to draw the Minister's attention to a practice which is becoming prevalent on some of our trawlers, the near and middle-water trawlers, which I think is fraught with danger to the fishermen employed on those vessels. I have a letter from the officer of the Transport and General Workers' Union responsible for the care and conditions under which these men work in trawlers plying from Aberdeen. I think that I cannot do better than read briefly from his letter. He tells me that, due to the over-fishing which has taken place in the North Sea, it has become the practice for small near-water vessels to make longer voyages than those for which they were originally constructed. As a result of the longer voyages being undertaken, it is necessary to carry more coal than the bunkers of the vessels will hold, and it has been the practice for some time, particularly in Aberdeen, for loose coal to be stowed on deck.

During October, 1949, the steam trawler " Eveline Nutten " was off the Shetlands in very bad weather and carried loose coal on deck. The crew were endeavouring to save the coal by putting it into bags, when, in the course of this operation, four men were washed overboard. One of these men, unfortunately the second fisherman of the vessel, was not saved. That man's death could be attributed, I think, quite clearly to this dangerous practice of carrying coal on the deck during bad weather, and in attempting to save the coal these men were washed overboard. I hope that the Minister will give some attention to that point when he brings in the regulations, with a view to making it obligatory on the owners of small trawlers to have the coal bags stowed perhaps in the fish hold, if it is necessary to carry this extra coal and there is no other available space for it, and not to have coal lying loose on the deck of a trawler where the sea washes aboard and there is great danger for the men passing backward and forward.

With regard to Clause 2, I welcome the proposal that coastal vessels should be brought within the conditions of engagement. I wonder whether that also carries with it the condition that the owner shall be responsible for providing the food on these vessels, because I have very amusing memories of the days when, as a young sailor, I went in what were called weekly boats, and we had to buy our own food and cook it ourselves. I hope that practice has now gone forever, because many times I have been standing at the wheel and wondering whether the stew was getting burnt over the galley fire because there was no one to attend to it. I hope that in future regulations, it will become obligatory for the owner to provide the food, the cook and the facilities for conveying the food to the seamen, who cannot possibly carry out their work as sailors efficiently, if at the same time they have to act as their own cooks.

I want to say a final word about training and recruiting. It is quite obvious that we have to train rather a different type of sailor nowadays from the old-time sailors who were required for the tramp steamers and Merchant Service generally. The sailor today must be almost a mechanic. He has to know quite a lot about the sounding machines which are operated mechanically and about the motor engines for the boats. It is really more important that he should know how to start up an engine in a life-boat than to use an oar, although that is very important also. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will give attention to encouraging the training of young boys and lads in their early years at established training schools along our coasts. If that can be done, I think it would be a very good way of getting a better type, if I may use the term, of sailor in the Merchant Navy than we had in the old days. I mean by " better type " one who is more efficient, who has been trained carefully for the work, and who is capable of performing all the functions that now fall on the modern sailor. I welcome the Bill most sincerely, and I think it will go a considerable way towards easing the lot of the merchant seamen and fishermen.

1.58 p.m.

Mr. Duthie (Banff)

I appreciate the opportunity to speak for a few minutes in connection with this Bill, which I welcome most sincerely. I am sure that the fishermen all round our coasts will be very appreciative of the remarks made by the right hon. Gentleman and other speakers in this Debate.

I have seen accommodation in our fishing vessels around the Scottish coast improve in my own lifetime. I have personal experience of the sailing boat in the old days, the coming of the steam drifter and its various stages of development, and of our seine net vessels. It has been my privilege every year to make a trip to sea in an inshore fishing vessel. I can assure the House that through the years, our skippers on the Scottish coast have vied with each other in providing the best possible accommodation for their crews. The owners have been proud of their crews, and there has been a magnificent camaraderie. That development in the accommodation has taken place at the instigation of these men themselves. There has been no governmental control up to the present, but I welcome the Bill most sincerely.

There are two points which I would put to the Minister, and on which I should be most grateful for an answer. No doubt these points will be illustrated in the Committee stage and possibly when the regulations are introduced. I should first like to have an assurance that there will be a certificate of exemption for existing vessels. Second, I should like to have an assurance that there will be no interference with the layout and traditional desires of our fishermen, who have their own ideas as to where a cabin should be located.

In some of the vessels we see from Denmark and Sweden, which are magnificent, the crew sleep forward. That does not suit our seamen. They prefer to sleep aft. I trust that no one with any idealistic whim will decide that sleeping quarters must be forward. The same thing applies to the trawlers. The sleeping quarters are mostly aft, although there is accommodation in the forecastle, of which I had some experience when I went to the North Sea fishing grounds. As have said, I welcome the Bill, which, I am sure, will be of benefit to a class of people to whom this country has every reason to be everlastingly grateful.

2.5 p.m.

Commander Pursey (Hull, East)

I apologise for again addressing the House, due to the arrangements that have been made for today's Business. I welcome this Bill to improve the accommodation in fishing vessels, and I do so because was born into this industry and have served in drifters and trawlers. Therefore, I know something about it. Last night, when the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Law) wound up the Debate for the Opposition on the fishing industry, he made a political speech. He said that the people in the industry would know what to do at the next election. Let me put it on record that this is the third occasion on which the Labour Government have improved conditions at sea. More has been done for the merchant shipping seamen and for the fishermen during the last five years than at any time in our long maritime history.

The hon. Member for Banff (Mr. Duthie) has raised the question of costs and exemptions for old ships. This is the same old argument that has been used on other occasions when reforms have been suggested. The success of the industry depends on contented personnel serving in these vessels. As conditions are, it may well be that men will be attracted to more lucrative jobs on shore than to serving under the conditions which obtain at sea. I beg Members opposite who represent the fishing industry to press for these reforms to be undertaken to improve the conditions of the men serving in these vessels. Some of these old vessels are of a Botany Bay standard. They remind me of Dr. Johnson's saying, that " No one would go to sea who could get into prison."

Clause 3, which deals with the review of punishments imposed by naval courts, has been agreed to amicably by both sides of the industry. I am prepared to admit that for disciplinary purposes it is necessary for these courts to have these powers, but I wish to put it on record that those who are in the fishing industry view with apprehension any question of being dealt with by the naval authorities. The penalties which can be imposed on fishermen are greater than in the case of any other section of the community. The fishing industry is the only industry where a man can be sent to gaol for being absent from work.

Mr. Richard Law

(Hull, Haltemprice): What about the dockers?

Commander Pursey

The docker is in a different category, and to discuss that subject would be outside the scope of the Bill. I am prepared to take on the right hon. Gentleman, as far as the dockers in Hull are concerned, any day in the week, and twice on Sundays. The dockers in Hull have the best record in the country, and if the employers pulled their weight in the same way as the dockers in Hull are doing, we should be having no trouble in the docks.

The position at these naval courts wants watching. I admit there is the saving grace of a reviewing officer, and that if there is any error of judgment, or, what is worse, any error in justice or law, it can be decided by the reviewing authority. The question of a superintendent Mercantile Marine officer being present when engagements arc signed and crews are being discharged is also of importance. It will be possible to develop some of these points when we come to the Committee stage.

The hon. Member for Banff referred to Norwegian and Swedish ships, which he described as fine vessels. Surely the object of the fishing industry should be to produce equally fine ships in this country. I appreciate that some owners have improved conditions, but cannot some of these old ships, when they have to come into port for major repairs, have their accommodation improved within their structural limits, so that the crews in these small and lively vessels may have better conditions of service? support this Bill wholeheartedly as a further example of the interest taken by the Labour Government in the conditions of employment in the fishing industry.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Sparks.]

Committee upon Monday next.