HC Deb 15 May 1950 vol 475 cc877-83

Section three hundred and seventy-six of the principal Act shall have effect as if in paragraph (d) of subsection one for the words "four weeks" there were substituted the words "one month."—[Mr. Nield.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Basil Nield (City of Chester)

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

The Committee may recall—such hon. Members as were present then—that in our discussion on Second Reading I raised a matter which, I hope, the Committee will regard as of some importance in relation to a proposed amendment of Section 376 of the principal Act, the Act of 1894. That Section deals with the penalties which may be imposed by the courts of summary jurisdiction for offences against discipline. The offence of wilful disobedience, which is the most common in the fishing vessels, is punishable by either four weeks imprisonment or a fine of 20s., and the courts have been in a considerable difficulty in dealing with this matter because of the very small fine which alone may be imposed. These men are earning considerable wages—up to about £15 a week, I think—and the courts have found, especially in the case of second convictions, that while they are very unwilling to send these men to prison, a fine of 20s. is really inadequate. I hope the Committee will agree to an alteration, so that instead of the alternative of a fine of 20s. there should be a penalty of a £5 fine. It seems a modest Amendment.

There have been available for one of the fishing ports some figures which have shown that there has been a considerable increase in the number of prison sentences on fishermen who have been wilfully disobedient, and we want to avoid that if possible. The reason, I think, has been that justices have felt that to fine a man 20s. once, twice or three times really does not meet the case. The matter is somewhat technical, but the Committee may accept—and I hope I am right—that by amending this Section of the principal Act so that the words "four weeks" are omitted and the words "one month" substituted there will be available, by reason of the operation of the Summary Jurisdiction Act, 1879, an alternative fine of £5.

Mr. Barnes

I noted the observations of the hon. and learned Member for Chester (Mr. Nield) on Second Reading, and it appeared to me that he touched on a fairly serious matter. I therefore had this examined to ascertain whether it was possible to meet his point in this Bill. I think the hon. and learned Gentleman will appreciate that I am not able to enter on an argument with him, with his legal knowledge, on the advisability or otherwise of changing the severity of these sentences in order to deal with the problem which the courts have to face from time to time. For the moment I am not looking at it from the point of view of whether or not the proposal is justified on experience.

The difficulty I had to face was that with the proposed alteration, we would get into a real difficulty if we attempted in this Bill to alter the law, because it would be a different provision from that which obtains in the 1894 Act, and as applied to merchant shipping generally. I am therefore very reluctant to agree, on this Bill, to make any alteration of the law which would impose a more severe penalty on fishermen than has been the case hitherto. I have secured a very large measure of agreement amongst all the sections of the industry in support of this Bill, and I am very reluctant to offset that agreement by amending the law dealing with penalties.

If there is a case as put forward by the hon. and learned Gentleman, I think it ought to be dealt with in a different form and on a different occasion and not on a Bill of this description. I therefore ask him, whatever he consider to be the value of his case, not to press this new Clause, because I am afraid it would lead to difficulties which I could not overcome. In any case, these provisions have existed for an exceedingly long time; this Bill merely extends provisions that we passed in 1948 for merchant ships; we did not deal with this point on that occasion, and I therefore should not like to deal with it today. I hope that the new Clause will not be pressed.

4.15 p.m.

Commander Galbraith

I am sorry the right hon. Gentleman feels as he does about this. It seemed to me that part of his observations were somewhat irrelevant to the question we are considering. For instance, he referred to the long period during which the 1894 Act and the particular provision to which we refer in this new Clause have been in operation. Of course, it is only in recent years that the situation has changed. In the old days, to impose a fine such as is allowed under the present law was a very severe penalty to inflict upon a seaman, because in those days his wages were not very great. Today, with the altered value of money and the consequent increase in wages, the situation is quite different, and I do not think there would be any grievance or ill-feeling if the Minister were to do what he is invited to do in this new Clause.

I say that because on Second Reading my hon. and learned Friend drew attention to the fact that the owners and unions had agreed, in certain cases at least, to set up their own organisation to deal with this matter. If that is the case—there has been no attempt to contradict it, and I am sure my hon. and learned Friend would never have put it forward had it not been the case—then it is surely right that the law should not remain as it is, but that some alteration should be made in it.

My hon. and learned Friend's wish and intention is to protect the men. At present there is an inclination to impose very heavy penalties on them, and my hon. and learned Friend wants to guard against that and to see that they are treated reasonably. It does seem that to alter the words from "four weeks" to "one month" so that the maximum fine is increased from £1 to £5 is a very simple way of protecting the men against perhaps harsh treatment in the courts. In 1949 there were 132 convictions with 20 sentences of imprisonment. My hon. and learned Friend's contention is that had the law been as he desires to make it, instead of sentences of imprisonment being imposed, there would have been fines of £5, that being considered quite adequate for the offence committed.

I would remind the Committee that the offence involved is that men absent themselves just as the vessel is about to sail so that the ship is held up; she does not go to sea and the men are prosecuted. At present, when they are so prosecuted, all the court can do is either to impose a fine of 20s. or to send them to prison. That is what we wish to guard against. I hope the Minister has looked into the matter seriously, because from what he told us a moment ago it would not seem that he has done so.

Mr. Barnes

Yes, I have. I understand that if I accepted this new Clause there would be different penalties imposed upon fishermen from those now imposed on seamen of merchant ships. That is the situation I wish to avoid on a Bill such as this.

Commander Galbraith

I gather the right hon. Gentleman is saying that there would be a different penalty imposed upon fishermen as compared with those who go to sea in foreign going vessels, or even in coastwise shipping.

Mr. Barnes


Commander Galbraith

Well, I do not know the rights and wrongs of that. I presume the right hon. Gentleman has taken advice before making that statement

Mr. Barnes

This brings out the difficulty I am in. However, if it would satisfy the Committee for the time being, I am prepared to look at this more closely before the Bill goes to another place. When I was faced with the difficulty, I did not feel that I could accept this new Clause. I am, of course, always anxious to examine any proposal, but I did not quite see how this proposal could be applied to this Bill.

Commander Galbraith

The right hon. Gentleman is always very fair in these matters. I should have thought that if we altered a Section of the Merchant Shipping Act it would apply equally to all seafarers. The right hon. Gentleman does not seem to think so. However, in view of the Minister's undertaking to look at this matter again before the Bill goes to another place I am satisfied, because I know that he will look into it and consider it seriously. May I say once more that my hon. and learned Friend's only object is to protect members of the fishing community from having more or less savage penalties inflicted on them when a much lesser penalty would fit the offence. That is our reason, but in the circumstances I would suggest to my hon. and learned Friend that he might see his way to withdraw the Clause in view of the Minister's answer.

Mr. Hector Hughes

I am glad that the Minister has taken the line that he has taken on this new Clause, which would not fit into this Bill. This is a Bill dealing with a specific subject, namely, the fishing industry. It does not deal with merchant shipping as a whole. The new Clause is designed to amend a Section of the Merchant Shipping Act which is not strictly relevant to this little Bill. Therefore, I hope that the Minister before he gives serious consideration to the arguments that have been adduced by the Opposition, will take into consultation the persons who are interested in this industry with a view to seeing whether this is a proper amendment.

It is a technical matter; it will have to fit into the Whole merchant shipping code, and the new Clause is designed in a piece-meal and haphazard way to amend a Section of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, in a way which does not appear to me to be appropriate in the present circumstances. It is sought to change the period of four weeks into one month, which seems a small and almost trivial alteration, but I would draw the attention of the Committee to the fact that in the Section referred to, namely, Section 376 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, the period used is four weeks all the way through. That is a long Section, with many subsections, and in every case where a period of time is referred to, it is weeks and not one month. It would be very inappropriate to put into one subsection a period of one month and leave four weeks in the others. The new Clause is quite inappropriate, I suggest, to the aim which the hon. and learned Member for the City of Chester (Mr. Nield) has in view.

Mr. Nield

I am persuaded by the right hon. Gentleman to take a certain course in this case, but if there is an argument which would indicate that I should do the opposite, it is that of the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes). Apparently he does not appreciate the point of what I have been saying to the Committee. This is a matter upon which legal Members may disagree, but the hon. and learned Gentleman should understand that when Section 376 of this Act is read in conjunction with the Summary Jurisdiction Act, 1879, it means not a difference as between four weeks and one month but that if one month is inserted the alternative fine may be £5 instead of 20s. That is the whole purpose of this proposed new Clause.

I disagree profoundly with what the hon. and learned Gentleman said about this being an unsuitable time or Bill in which to make this amendment. The Bill, according to the Explanatory Memorandum, is to amend in a number of respects the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Acts, 1894 to 1949. That is exactly what I am seeking to do. We are in this Measure, seeking to provide certain new arrangements, particularly in the fishing industry. One of the difficulties which is felt in that industry by both sides—the unions and fishermen and the owners—is the difficulty in cases of wilful disobedience of having a penalty which is appropriate to the case. That is all I am seeking to do. It is sound opinion, in my submission, which I am advancing.

There is one other point which I should like to make. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Pollok (Commander Galbraith) has pointed out that the chief offence is that of a man failing to appear when the ship sails, with great damage to the man's fellow fishermen, the owners and everyone else. The other principal offence is to refuse to work at sea, when a man may have to be put ashore and possibly repatriated at great inconvenience and trouble to everyone. It is ridiculous to suggest that on the second conviction a 20s. fine is appropriate.

The Minister has pointed to a difficulty which I fully appreciate. If I am here proposing a different penalty for one section of the industry, that may create a difficulty, but I would point out that Section 376 contains a great number of offences. It is wilful disobedience to which I am referring, and that is the Section under which these two common offences are usually brought, and why I focus attention on this particular Section. However, in the circumstances, as my hon. and gallant Friend has stated, the Minister is always receptive in these matters, and I think that he, at any rate, appreciates the point, which the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North, apparently does not.

This is a matter of substance, a matter of importance to the industry as a whole and in the interests of the fishermen particularly. I hope that the Minister will look at it again and be ready to put into effect the purpose of this new Clause, and that by the time the Bill goes to another place some proposal may be made. I am obliged to him for his undertaking, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the new Clause.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.