HC Deb 03 December 1951 vol 494 cc2113-49

Order for Second Reading read.

7.36 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. John Maclay)

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

The purpose of the Bill is to enable me, as Minister of Transport, to grant exemptions from requirements as to crew accommodation imposed under the Merchant Shipping Acts of 1948 and 1950. Both of those Acts achieved a very smooth passage when they were launched on the not altogether untroubled waters of the last Parliament. That was due in part to the nature of the Acts, to the spirit of those who sail in British ships, and to the high degree of constructive consultation and agreement which had been reached by all concerned; and in part to the skilled pilotage of my predecessor in office, the right hon. Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Barnes).

This is my first venture in that difficult Parliamentary art of pilotage, and I only hope that I am able to keep this Bill equally clear of dangers, hidden and otherwise. I am not quite sure whether I have to class the hon. Baronet the Member for Gravesend (Sir R. Acland) as a hidden or as an "otherwise" danger, in view of the Motion which he has on the Paper.

Sir Richard Acland (Gravesend)

I am certainly not hidden.

Mr. Maclay

Strange though it may seem, the powers which this Bill would give to the Minister of Transport, to grant exemptions is absolutely essential if the highest average standard of accommodation throughout British shipping is to be achieved. I can assure the House that this view is also held by unions and shipping companies alike. Both of whom, it is no exaggeration to say, are equally wholehearted in their desire to see the standards of comfort for those who go to sea in British ships equal to, if not better than, those of any other nation. I think it is safe to say that in a great many cases that is already the position.

The Bill is short, but it needs some technical explanation, and this I will try to give the House as briefly as I can. The Merchant Shipping Act, 1948, empowers the Minister, after consulting organisations representative of shipowners and seamen, to make regulations covering crew accommodation to be provided in British merchant ships registered in the United Kingdom. The Act of 1950 gives similar powers in respect of fishing boats registered in the United Kingdom. I think it would be convenient to hon. Members if I dealt first with the proposals of the Bill in relation to the 1948 Act.

The powers of that Act were obtained in order to give general effect to the provisions of the International Labour Convention concerning Crew Accommodation which were adopted at Seattle in 1946. It was not possible for the Government of the day to agree to ratify this Convention because it contained a number of unacceptable provisions. These provisions were, however, modified in the Convention on Crew Accommodation adopted by the International Labour Organisation at Geneva in 1949, a year after the passing of our own 1948 Act.

The Convention of 1949 also included a new provision permitting crew accommodation which, although not complying with the strict requirements of the Convention, was of an equal or better standard. The British Government's intention to ratify the 1949 Convention was announced in September, 1950, and steps were taken to draft the Regulations to be made under Section 1 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1948, to give effect to the requirements of the new International Convention.

These draft Regulations have now been agreed in principle with the National Maritime Board which, as hon. Members will be aware, is fully representative of the shipping industry, employers and unions alike. When made, the Regulations will lay down standards of crew accommodation based on the best modern practice. They will, in certain respects, provide for standards that are higher than those laid down in the Convention itself.

The Regulations will apply to all British merchant ships registered in the United Kingdom. Hon. Members will appreciate that this means they will apply to a very great variety of ships, and that it would not be practicable for every ship of every type, regardless of size and method of working, to be provided with crew accommodation conforming with all the requirements of the Regulations.

It may be asked why the provision in-eluded in Section 1 (2) of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1948, which enables the Minister to make different provisions in respect of different classes of ships, does not give him all the powers which are necessary. The explanation is that it is my aim, as the Minister of Transport, to set the standards of the Regulations for all the different classes of ships as high as is possible, but circumstances are bound to arise in which a particular ship will not be able to comply fully with all the requirements laid down for its class.

It is in such cases that I must have power to grant exemptions or to modify the application of the Regulations so far as I consider this necessary, and subject, of course, to such conditions as I feel should be imposed. If I did not have this power there would be the danger that a ship which was far ahead of other ships in relation to accommodation would be ruled out altogether.

The Regulations which have now been agreed in draft with the representatives of the owners and of the officers and men will set extremely high standards which will, in many respects, go beyond the provisions of the Convention, and will extend to ships which are outside the scope of the International Convention altogether. As regards the ships to which the Convention applies I am bound, of course, to see that in no case is a ship permitted to have accommodation lower than the standard of accommodation fixed by the Convention itself.

The 1949 Convention provided that, after consultation with the representatives of the owners and seafarers, crew accommodation might be permitted which did not strictly comply with the requirements of the Convention, provided always that the standard of accommodation on the ship was equal to or better than that laid down in the Convention. The purpose of this provision was, as hon. Members will appreciate, to ensure that experiments and developments in design were not hampered by the rigid application of the very detailed provisions of the convention.

The draft Regulations which have now been agreed with the owners and the officers and men are based on the assumption that I will have power to relax particular requirements in cases where there is good reason why these requirements cannot, or should not, be carried out for example, in respect of smaller ships, or in respect of ships that are engaged in particular trades, or ships which operate in particular climatic conditions.

The Bill enables me to attach conditions to any exemption I may make. To take a practical example: the requirements in the draft Regulations relating to merchant ships of 1,000 tons or over require separate mess rooms for petty officers of the deck department, for the petty officers of the engine room department, for other ratings of the deck department, and for other ratings of the engine room department, four separate mess rooms in all. The Bill will enable me to exercise my discretion by relaxing this requirement according to the circumstances of the case, and subject to any conditions which I may think should be imposed.

I could, for instance, exempt a ship from the full requirement on condition that separate mess rooms were provided for the petty officers and ratings irrespective of department, or possibly on condition that separate mess rooms were provided for the petty officers and ratings of each department. We might have the fantastic position arising on small ships, if I did not have these powers, that there would have to be a mess room provided for one man. Such a position might be very bad for the rest of the ship.

A similar position arises in respect of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1950, which deals with the crew accommodation in fishing boats. Because of the small size of these vessels and the peculiarities of their employment the need for powers to exempt vessels from the requirements of any Regulations made under the Act is as indispensable as in the case of merchant ships. The Regulations in respect of the crew accommodation in fishing boats have not been finally drafted, but I hope soon to be able to arrange for consultation with the fishing industry. In preparing these Regulations we are bearing fully in mind the recommendations of the Gowers Report.

The wording of the additional subsection which this Bill adds to Section I of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1948, and to Section I of the Act of 1950 is identical with the wording of Section 28 (1) of the Merchant Shipping (Safety Convention) Act, 1949, which gives me the same powers in relation to safety requirements on board ship as I now seek in respect of crew accommodation. The shipping industry, owners, officers and men, have all been consulted about this Bill, and they all agree that the Regulations which have now been agreed with them can only be effective if I have a discretion in their application.

It may seem a paradox to hon. Members, but without these powers of exemption it will be necessary to reduce the standards laid down for crew accommotion in the draft Regulations, particularly as regards those ships which do not come within the scope of the International Convention itself. The reason for this, as hon. Members will appreciate, is that it would not be practicable for some of our ships to comply with the full standards of the Regulations, as drafted and agreed, and if I had not the power to exempt those ships or relax the requirements in respect of them, I would have to reduce the standards required in the draft Regulations for the different classes of ships so that all ships in those classes could comply with them. There would be a dragging down instead of the lifting-up process at which we are aiming.

As I have already stated, the draft Regulations and the proposals contained in this Bill have been very fully discussed with, and agreed by, all sections of the shipping industry, and I am confident that, having heard this explanation of the reasons why these powers are necessary, the House will agree that the Bill should be given a Second Reading.

I hope the hon. Baronet, the Member for Gravesend will realise that the reason why he is seeking to reject the Bill is far from the minds of anybody responsible for this Bill.

Mr. Percy Collick (Birkenhead)

What is the extreme urgency of this Measure, because the Bill was only laid before the House on Wednesday last and was not available in the Vote Office up till Friday? It was not until Friday that we were able to see what was in the Bill, and I suggest it is quite unfair to the House of Commons that the Second Reading of the Bill is being taken today when the Bill was only available on Friday.

Mr. Maclay

I appreciate the hon. Member's concern and I regret the urgency. However, ships are being planned and some are being built. The Regulations are ready, and until we get this Bill we cannot go ahead the way we want to. It is very desirable to get this Bill through, if we can, before the House rises on Friday.

7.49 p.m.

Mr. Alfred Barnes (East Ham, South)

In moving the Second Reading the Minister of Transport referred to the fortunate position that I was in in having the support of hon. Members in all parts of the House when securing the passage of the 1948, 1949 and 1950 Merchant Shipping Acts. The hon. Gentleman was good enough to pay some tribute to me, but my modesty precludes me from accepting his compliments. It really springs from the second point that he made—that in the post-war period ship-owners, officers and the seamen's unions of this country have developed a very wise and far-sighted policy of industrial co-operation.

Colonel L. Ropner (Barkston Ash)

Why does the right hon. Gentleman refer to the post-war period only? It was equally true during the war and the years between the wars.

Mr. Barnes

I cannot agree with the hon. and gallant Member, but I do not see that we need to introduce a note of discord on this Bill. If the hon. and gallant Member thinks back and is of opinion that conditions were satisfactory he is entitled to that view.

During the war the relationships between the Minister of Transport and the shipping industry of this country were, naturally, very intimate and confidential. It is a very gratifying situation that, after the war, all sides of the shipping industry have co-operated most closely with the Ministry of Transport with very beneficial results. It has enabled Parliament by agreement to pay its debt to the shipping industry, because there is a deep sense of gratitude and appreciation among the people for the service which the Merchant Navy gives to our nation in times of war and in times of peace. In the five or six years that have passed since the war, the enormous losses which the Merchant Navy endured during the war—some 10 million to 12 million tons of shipping—have been replaced. The strength of the contribution to our economic life which the shipping industry gives has been fully restored in that short period. That is a fact which demands from the House the most sympathetic consideration for any Measure that is designed to strengthen the industry and particularly to raise the standard of service and conditions for the men who go down to the sea in ships.

The Measure before us this evening is a modest one, but, nevertheless, it rounds off the Acts of 1948 and 1950, one applying to the Merchant Navy and the other to the fishing industry. When the 1948 Act was being introduced I explained that, whilst the Government were able to ratify the four Conventions dealing with food and catering services, able seamen's certification, ships' cooks and social security, we were not able at that time to ratify the Convention dealing with crew accommodation. In the intervening period negotiations have taken place that will now enable the Government to ratify that Convention.

I should like whoever replies to the debate to emphasise again the assurance that has been running through the whole of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. The wording of this provision enables the Minister to exempt any ships or classes of ships, and that conveys to those who are not familiar with the problem that it is a let-out for some class or group of ships which may not be conforming to the standard which Parliament has insisted should be provided. I know that that has never been the purpose behind the consideration of these problems. If anything, the type of ship which is likely to be included represents a standard of crew accommodation above the average.

In matters of this kind, when our chief concern is to establish and improve the general standard of working conditions, it is essential that we do not make the standardised conditions so rigid, comprehensive and complete that we rule out the creative type of enterprise which is always seeking to go one better. Although I am not technically knowledgeable upon shipping construction matters, I have nevertheless been able to observe the very considerable advance which has taken place in crew accommodation and facilities in the new type of construction which has been coming from our shipbuilding yards in the post-war period.

Owing to the enterprise and initiative which British shipowners must always display if they are to keep their competitive position in the grave and complex state of world shipping, we are bound in the very nature of things to develop specialist ships from time to time. The two Queens represent a type of ship which does not come within any class of shipping because no other nation in the world has equivalent vessels.

My view is that in all these matters it is in the interests of labour conditions that the type of owner, employer, business or organisation which has a creative inclination and desires to improve upon the prevailing generous standard should have scope for so doing and should not be unduly hampered and restricted. It is that type of owner or organisation which eventually raises the standard and enables Parliament to see that it can be done and to apply it to the less efficient units in industry.

Another case which comes very clearly to my mind is the type of ship which Mr. Edmund Watts, of Watts, Watts and Company, has recently had constructed in this country. It was a most novel type of construction representing in some directions revolutionary ideas in crew accommodation. It was difficult for the Ministry of Transport at once to accomodate themselves in their regulations and conditions to that type of ship, but this shipowner has always taken a very keen interest in welfare matters affecting seamen, and a provision of this kind enables the Minister to deal with a problem of that character.

It is not my practice unduly to delay proceedings if I agree with the proposal put before us. I would, therefore, merely add that this Measure, completes and rounds off the Act of 1948, for which the Opposition were responsible, and that they were proud and privileged to be able to introduce it into Parliament. That Act received the support of hon. Members on all sides of the House, and tonight I am gratified to be able to respond and to continue the very desirable practice of acknowledging the nations' debt to the Merchant Navy.

8.0 p.m.

Sir Richard Acland (Gravesend)

I have listened with great care and attention to the Minister and to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Barnes), and in view, among other things, of the unanimity expressed between the two Front Benches I do not rise here and now to move the Amendment which I have put on the Order Paper for the rejection of the Bill, largely in order that I might be, as the Minister said, a disclosed and not a hidden obstacle.

On an occasion like this we have the right to ask one or two questions and to raise one or two points which we think ought to be brought to the attention of the House and of a wider public before such a Bill as this obtains its Second Reading. If we do not get satisfaction, I conceive that I still have the right formally to move the Amendment. If not, we have the remedy of simply voting against the Second Reading, but, in view of the high degree of co-operation which has been shown between the two sides of the House and that which has been described as taking place between the Government and both sides of the industry, I very much hope it will not come to that.

I am glad to hear—as I am sure are all hon. Members who did not know it already—that all the Regulations contained in this group of Measures are administered not by the Minister taking decisions entirely on his own but by the Minister in consultation with both sides of industry, and I feel sure that while that continues they are likely to be administered in a reasonable and liberal way. I understand the argument that elasticity is needed and that power to grant exceptions may indeed be something which we need for the very purpose of raising the general standards, but, of course, all the very satisfactory things about which we have been told tonight do not in any way appear in the Bill itself.

As the House sees it, the Bill gives the Minister power to make any exemptions to any of the Regulations for any ships or for any class of ship; and we must remember that at some future time we might not have a Minister so reasonable as the present Minister, nor, I think, do the exceptions which the Minister and his successors may make come before the House.

Mr. Maclay

I hate to suggest it, but if the hon. Baronet will carefully study the original Acts of 1948 and 1950 he will find that they contain a lot of safeguards. After all, the Bill merely amends the Acts of 1948 and 1950. If the hon. Baronet looks in those Acts he will find that practically all the safeguards are there.

Sir R. Acland

That may be true, but the Bill gives the Minister power to exempt any ships, or any class of ships, from any of these requirements. In the words which I put on the Order Paper, to give an indication of the sort of point I want to raise, I state—and I do not see how it can be denied—that this gives to a Minister power to grant to shipowners concessions which will relieve them of financial obligations.

I believe I am right in saying that from time to time it has been a quite traditional procedure of the House that when Bills of this kind, which can give such financial concessions to companies, come before the House, we have a right to examine whether the time is appropriate to make such concessions or whether there are any facts which should, at least, make us pause and ask for an explanation or comment before these powers are finally granted by the House.

It seems to me that what has recently been happening—it may not be to all, but, at any rate, to some—shipping freight rates is a fact which might make the House pause now and ask for an explanation or for assurances—

Commander Harry Pursey (Hull, East)

On a point of order. May I ask for your guidance, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, for the benefit of future speakers, as to what shipping rates and freights have to do with the Bill? I think everybody would agree that the Bill is little more than a drafting Amendment. It applies simply to a subsection of an Act, and it relates merely to crew accommodation. The issue can be narrowed down still further, because it deals with the exemption of certain ships, which have been specified by the Minister with the support of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Barnes). I submit that any question of profits, freights, or anything of that nature, is entirely out of order on this very limited Bill.

Sir R. Acland

Further to that point of order. Before you give your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, may I say that I took pains to seek advice about this point before putting an Amendment on the Paper. I was assured—by somebody who, of course, did not know the merits of the facts that I wanted to raise, but simply as a matter of form and formula—that the point I wanted to raise, and the way in which I wanted to raise it, was unexceptionable, in that the Bill enables a Minister to give concessions to companies and that it is proper for the House, before granting such concessions, which would relieve companies of financial obligations, to ask questions as to whether it is necessary or right and appropriate at this moment to grant concessions of this kind.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Hopkin. Morris)

I understand that an arrangement of that sort was made, but I hope that the hon. Baronet will not carry the discussions into too wide a field.

Sir R. Acland

I quite understand, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that if I were to give innumerable examples of freight rates, you would very properly have something to say.

Mr. Maclay

Perhaps I might be able to help the hon. Baronet. It is extremely difficult to visualise more than the most exceptional cases where the use of these powers of exemption would relieve any shipping companies of any expenditure at all.

Sir R. Acland

I quite imagine that the exemptions which the right hon. Gentleman now has in mind, or the exemptions which, at some future time, he could persuade the organised interests in the industry to accept, might not exempt shipping companies from any very large financial obligation. That, however, is not in the Bill.

Commander Pursey

It is in the Act, but my hon. Friend does not understand that.

Sir R. Acland

We are not discussing the Act.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

If it is not in the Bill, it would not be in order to discuss it, but I understand that there was an arrangement, in view of the Amendment, which the hon. Baronet is not moving, that he might go a little wide; but I hope he does not go too far.

Colonel Ropner

Further to that point of order. Would you elucidate, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, for the information of the House, what exactly you mean when you say that an arrangement has been made? I do not think that any of us on this side know anything about it.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I cannot go any further than that at this stage.

Mr. Barnett Janner (Leicester, North West)

The usual channels.

Sir R. Acland

I hope, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that you and the House will allow me to give one example, which I choose from the West African trade, because that is a part of the world in which I am extremely interested. I choose it from timber, because whereas other trades—say the trade in cocoa—could not be stopped, even by a ten-fold increase of freight rates, because those rates would still be so small in relation to the total value of the crop, in timber we are dealing with something where there is real danger that a considerable part of the trade could be actually closed down.

The pre-war freight rate for timber was about 42s. 6d. per ton. By the end of the war, it was 83s., or an increase of 100 per cent., which was not very different from the general increase in the price levels of many things which took place during the war years. By April, 1951, it had gone up to 165s., which is a further 100 per cent., and by September, 1951, it had gone up to 256s., which is another 60 per cent. increase. Thus, there has been a three-fold increase since 1946, and a six-fold increase since 1939. There may be some explanation of these facts; there may be circumstances outside the power of the Government. If so, the House should be entitled to hear of these things.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Baronet may indeed—as, in fact, he has done—raise the general, abstract question, but I think that when he goes into these details he is going very far beyond it.

Sir R. Acland

There is another thing, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, which needs a little explanation, namely, that these increases in shipping rates are by no means universal all over the world. For example, the present rates to East Africa are actually cheaper, not only per mile—the distance is much longer—but absolutely cheaper than to West Africa. I think it would be fair, as I am making this point, which may seem to be a criticism of all shipping lines, to say that, as far as I am able to understand the matter, the regular lines are to some extent being driven by circumstances outside their control.

That is to say, the regular lines do not at the moment have enough ships to lift the whole of the freight which is coming forward for carriage from West Africa to this country and to other parts of the world. They therefore have to charter other ships, and to meet the exceptionally high charter rates they have to charge these steeply rising prices in order to average out between their own costs—which, I am informed, have not risen anything like as much as have these charges—and the even more than proportionately increased costs which they have to pay when they have to charter ships.

It seems to me, therefore, that there are facts in relation to shipping in general at which we are entitled to look, and which, without, I hope, having taken up too much time, I am entitled to ask the House to examine, before we pass the Bill. Although, I repeat, I accept the assurance given by the right hon. Gentleman as to the way in which he personally intends to operate it, the Bill, nevertheless, in form, grants concessions to existing shipping companies which, or some of which, on the face of it, are behaving in a way which gives rise to anxieties in the minds of the general public, of traders, and, of course, of people in West Africa and in other places from and to which these freight rates have to be paid, as to whether their trade or some part of it is to be strangled by what has happened.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman, being the Minister in charge of transport, will see whether privately owned transport can hold down its freight increases somewhere near the very modest increases in freight rates which have been imposed by nationalised transport. The Minister grimaces at me for saying this, but the freight increases to which I have drawn attention are, as he must know, vastly greater in proportion than those which have been imposed by nationalised transport undertakings. To cut short those who would like to raise points of order, I end by saying that I hope the right hon. Gentleman will see what can be done.

8.17 p.m.

Mr. James Johnson (Rugby)

After listening to the honeyed words of the skilled pilots who are steering the Bill through the House, we are completely disarmed in this matter. I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Sir R. Acland) is not moving his Amendment but, since my name is on the Order Paper, I wish to say a few words about it.

It is quite obvious that the Bill is another example of the legacies left to this Government by their predecessors; like the Japanese Peace Treaty, a foundling left on the doorstep, bearing the mental image of the former Minister. However, reading Clause 1 we find it somewhat sinister. We see: The Minister may exempt any ships or classes of ships from any requirements of regulations made under this section, either absolutely or subject to such conditions as he thinks fit. On the surface that looks sinister, and I hope that what I am about to say will not invoke the ire of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Hull, East (Commander Pursey), who may deliver a broadside on us later.

Since putting down this Amendment I have been happy to consult the national organiser of the National Union of Seamen and we are assured, as we have been assured at the Despatch Box, that there is nothing to be feared in this Clause. Even so, we want an assurance by the Minister that he will exert all his efforts to keep up the standards of all out ships.

In the past terms such as "coffin ships" have been used; those days have long since gone, but it is most important, not merely for men serving in those ships, but for the standing and prestige of this nation, that we should have the highest possible standards in our ships. I say that with all sincerity, although I do not represent a shipping division.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend, talked of the African shipping lines making money and about the high freight charges. They are high. He gave figures, which I shall not repeat. There is no doubt that the shipping lines are making quite a deal of money. We all like to make money, but I say to the shipping lines that if they are making money, as undoubtedly they are—we have only to look at the financial columns of the morning papers to see that—let them share it with the men who go down to the seas in ships and let us have decent accommodation in those ships.

Although we have these assurances about the lack of any hidden motive in these Clauses—and I accept them in all sincerity—I ask the Minister to be on his guard in this matter.

Mr. Ellis Smith (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

It is not the Minister's assurance, but what is in the Bill that matters.

Mr. Johnson

I am perfectly happy at this stage to accept the assurance of the Minister as I would have been of my own Minister in the last Government.

Mr. Ellis Smith

Some of us remember several experiences of this kind, for example, on the Anomalies Act, when from the Despatch Box we were given an undertaking that it would be administered in a certain way but workpeople throughout the country know how that was administered afterwards.

Mr. Johnson

The proof of the pudding is in the eating and when members of the National Union of Seamen, with whom I have spoken—people like Mr. Percy Knight—say that on their side of the fence they can accept the word of the Minister in this instance, I am perfectly happy to accept the assurance. Therefore, I associate myself with the hon. Baronet in saying that we shall not press the Amendment.

8.22 p.m.

Mr. C. W. Gibson (Clapham)

I confess that when I read the words of this Bill, I, like some of my hon. Friends, was very much disturbed. Not being a lawyer, I read the words as they are written and came to the conclusion that this was a very dangerous Bill. I consulted my union head office, as they are very interested in the shipping industry, particularly on the fishing side, and I discovered—I hope the Minister will note this—that they had not been consulted in the drafting of the Regulations. But I discovered afterwards that they were referring to the fishing Regulations.

Having heard the explanation of the Minister, and having made a few inquiries during the afternoon, I am much less worried as to how this Bill will operate.

I see quite clearly the necessity for some flexibility in the operation of the Regulations.

On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. J. Johnson), while of course it is never safe entirely to trust what is said at the Despatch Box, especially if there happens to be a change of Government, or change of Minister, I am quite confident that these Regulations, which have been agreed with the National Union of Seamen and the shipowners cannot be altered without the seamen having something very strong to say about it; and I believe they will see that any attempt to reduce the standard of crew accommodation by using these Clauses will be very vigorously resisted and, I believe, with success.

I understand that the Regulations are not yet fully drafted, and I believe I shall be pushing at an open door if I say that I hope the Minister will make quite sure that the union representing fishermen is fully consulted before the final conclusions are reached about these Regulations as they affect fishing vessels. It has always appeared to me that there is particular necessity for protecting the conditions of crews of fishing vessels. I admit that it is much more difficult, but such vessels are much more uncomfortable to work in, especially if there is rough weather. It is proper therefore that we should try to get the best of the internationally agreed Regulations, and better still, if we can, put them into operation in fishing vessels.

I believe the Minister is prepared to try to reach that very desirable state. All I would ask is that he will give a clear undertaking that, just as in connection with the normal shipping trade the unions representing the men have been consulted, so, in connection with fishing vessels, the Transport and General Workers' Union will be consulted before the final drafts are concluded. On that undertaking being given, I do not see that there should be any opposition to this Bill at this time, and I have pleasure in supporting it.

8.26 p.m.

Colonel L. Ropner (Barkston Ash)

This has been a very friendly debate, and I do not desire to raise the temperature. But I propose to return to the remarks made by the former Minister of Transport. I do not think he should have said that the good relations in the shipping industry dated from the termination of hostilities of the last war. I have had something to do with the shipping industry for more years than I care to count, and I can assure the House that ever since the time immediately following World War One, which is the date I entered the industry, relations between employers and employed in the shipping industry have been of a most friendly and cordial nature.

I do not deny that difficult days were experienced, but those difficulties were shared in a friendly spirit by owners and by seamen. At no time did the relationship within the industry deteriorate because of the difficulties; and one of the matters in which in a small way I take some pride is that all my life I have been engaged in an industry where relations between employers and employed have been so good.

The Minister was completely right when he said that the National Maritime Board had been consulted before the introduction of this small Bill. For the information of hon. Members who do not know that such is the case, I would mention that the National Maritime Board is a joint organisation composed of shipowners and of seafarers. Not only was the National Maritime Board consulted, but I know I speak the truth when I say that all the members of the Board welcome the provisions of this Bill. Speaking, I am sure, for both owners and seafarers I can say that we want to reach the moment when the provisions of the 1948 Act can be implemented.

Mr. S. S. Awbery (Bristol, Central)

May I point out to the hon. and gallant Member that there is nothing in the Bill now before us regarding the National Maritime Board? All that the law says is that the Minister may make exemptions in respect of certain conditions. There is nothing about consultation with the Board.

Colonel Ropner

I do not know what point the hon. Member is trying to make. All I was saying was that the national body which represents shipowners and seafarers had been consulted, and I should have thought he would have been glad to hear that.

Mr. Awbery

The point I was trying to make is that even if in the past con- sultation has taken place with the Board. there is nothing in this Bill which indicates that in the future the Minister must or will consult with the National Maritime Board.

Colonel Ropner

I am not saying that there is. I am saying that consultation has taken place and that both sides which are represented on the National Maritime Board welcome the provisions of this Bill. The hon. Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Awbery) had better read the 1948 Act, the 1950 Act and this Bill, and he will then understand the machinery which those Acts and the Bill set up for consultation between the Minister and representatives of both sides of the industry.

Both sides of the industry welcome this Bill because at present under Section 1 of the 1948 Act no allowances are made for exemption within classes of ships. Therefore whole classes of shipping are or would be excluded from the provisions of the Act. By allowing exemption, which this little Bill seeks to do, whole classes of vessels can be brought within the provisions of the original Act. Speaking, as I think I may, not only for the shipowners, but for both sides of the industry, I express the hope that the House will give this Bill a Second Reading.

8.32 p.m.

Mr. S. S. Awbery (Bristol, Central)

I would go back to the point that the Bill states the power of the Minister of Transport to exempt from requirements as to crew accommodation. This is a two-Clause Bill and it appears to me to give too much power to an individual. Only a faultless man should receive such power and as there are no faultless men nobody should be given such power.

In reply to the hon. and gallant Member for Barkston Ash (Colonel Ropner) I would say that I have read the 1948 Act and the 1950 Act. Section 1 of the 1948 Act states that after consultation with the owners and with the unions the Minister shall make Regulations respecting crew accommodation to be provided in specified classes of ships. He may prescribe the minimum space for sleeping accommodation and recommend and regulate the position of the quarters of the crew and the store rooms, and prohibit the use of these quarters for any other purpose.

The Bill before us now suggests that after that Section 1 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1948, there shall be inserted: The Minister may exempt any ships or classes of ships from"— the requirements of the Regulations. Section 1 of the Act says he shall consult the Maritime Board and the union of the men and make Regulations, and it appears to me that in this subsection we are giving the Minister power to exempt ships from the Regulations made under Section 1 of the Act.

The present Minister of Transport understands shipping. He has been connected with shipping for many years. But who knows who his successor may be? He may not know the stem from the stern of a ship or the port from the starboard side. Still he is the man who will be called upon to make Regulations so far as the quarters of the crew are concerned.

Many fights have taken place in this Chamber over accommodation for seamen, and it appears to me now that to take Regulations out of an Act of Parliament and place them in the hands of an individual is a retrogressive step. The Minister stated that he was anxious to get the Bill through Parliament soon, as ships now under construction could not be proceeded with. The inference which I draw from that is that there is certain accommodation to be provided in the ships now under construction which, if this Bill is passed, the Minister will exempt from its provisions.

Mr. Maclay

The point is that the Regulations which are to be laid before Parliament are already in draft, and have been agreed by the unions and the employers. It is very important to get these Regulations agreed. If we do not get them agreed before we apply the Regulations difficulties may arise in the construction of certain types of ships. This is a very technical subject, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and I do not think that, without making another speech, I can go any further.

Mr. Awbery

These Regulations could be put into operation without this Bill. Section 1 of the 1948 Act provides that, after consultation with the owners and the unions, the Minister may make Regu- lations respecting crews' accommodation. There is, therefore, no need for this amending Bill. The Regulations could be put into effect. What I was trying to establish was what, if we have to pass a Bill so that new accommodation may be provided in ships, is to happen after the ships have been constructed and the Regulations are already made? Then, we shall have to have the ships put back into dock and the accommodation altered at great expense to the owners.

I suggest that the wisest thing to do, in the interests of the shipowners, is to put the Regulations into the Bill, so that, when shipping is constructed, it will be constructed according to the Regulations, and there will be no need for an alterations afterwards. The Bill gives the Minister very great powers indeed, and I am hoping that Parliament will not agree to giving the Minister such powers as may be used in an autocratic way. I am not suggesting that the present Minister will use them in that way, because he knows the shipping industry, but there are men who would use this power autocratically to the disadvantage of the men who go down to the sea in ships.

8.38 p.m.

Commander Harry Pursey (Hull, East)

As I happen to be following the hon. Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Awbery), I must link up the debate with his speech, but all I wish to say to him is that he was barking up the wrong tree. He has made a speech which should have been made during the debate on the principal Act.

Mr. Awbery

I had not the opportunity then.

Commander Pursey

Unlike a lot of hon. Members taking part in this debate, I happen to have been at sea for 30 years, and, secondly, for over six years I have had the honour of representing in this House East Hull, which includes the main docks of the third port of this country. So I hope that I have some slight knowledge of shipping.

Originally, I had no intention of intervening in this debate until I heard the speech of the hon. Baronet the Member for Gravesend (Sir R. Acland). The whole of that part of his speech which dealt with the Bill before the House—and it was only like a tiny drop in the ocean, if I may say that without casting any reflection on the Chair—obviously displayed ignorance of the main Act, and was largely nonsense. As in the case of the last speech to which we have listened, I have no recollection of the hon. Members concerned ever taking any part in shipping matters, either publicly in this House or privately among their party colleagues who are interested in shipping.

There can be no question of my criticising the hon. Baronet adversely when I warned him and told him before the debate that it was obvious from the Amendment which he had placed on the Order Paper that he did not understand the sharp end of a ship from the blunt end and would have no knowledge of the difference between the deck and the keels. Moreover, his Amendment is another example of self-appointed experts barging in—and nautical people will know what barging in means—on a subject on which they know little or nothing. In fact, I advise him to find an hon. Member from the other side of the House, pair with him, go home and forget all about it.

The Minister, in presenting the Bill to the House, explained the reasons for it, and it is no part of my duty to answer the questions which were raised from this side of the House. I shall leave it to the Parliamentary Secretary, but when, in addition to those I have mentioned, the former Minister of Transport, having been responsible for piloting through the 1948 and 1950 Acts, speaking from this side of the House, has supported the Minister, then I cannot see why this "schemozzle" is going on about this Bill.

But I would not leave the matter there, any more than my hon. Friend who is so concerned because the Bill on the surface appears to take away some authority in regard to getting better accommodation in ships. This Bill has to be related to the main Act, and I am fortified in the attitude which I am taking up by having consulted the unions concerned, or, indirectly, having had the advantage of seeing the representations which they have made to responsible hon. Members on this side, suggesting that this Bill is an agreed Measure.

While I am mentioning that, I think it was quite wrong of my hon. Friend to mention the name of Mr. Percy Knight in connection with this Bill. He ought to realise, as an old hon. Member of this House, that there are a number of re- sponsible individuals among shipowners, trade unions and other interested parties, who take part in negotiations, and it is entirely wrong that the name of any particular individual, no matter from what side of the industry he should come. should be mentioned in this House. It ought not to have been done, and, if the hon. Member had had anything to say about the position of the National Union of Seamen, he ought to have restricted himself to a reference to the Union as such, or to a representative of the Union, instead of allowing the name of one individual to be mentioned.

As this Amendment on the Order Paper has been referred to—although I cannot see that my hon. Friends can move it, when, in point of fact, it is not before the House—the hon. Member for Gravesend referred to dividing the House. Again, I say to him "What nonsense." What is he going to divide the House about? Does he mean that he and his colleagues will go into the Lobby to register some protest?

Regarding this Amendment, I see that the second hon. Member who has put his name to it has spent his life in education. What in the name of goodness does he know about shipping, and, more particularly—

Mr. J. Johnson

We are now having put before the House the argument that an hon. Member can only speak on his own technical subject, according to which thesis I can only speak of educational matters, and must keep my nose out of debates in any other field of which I have no personal experience. This is an entirely new thesis to me.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Hopkin Morris)

I would point out to hon. Members that we are debating the Second Reading of this Bill.

Commander Pursey

I have no intention of pursuing that thesis; all I want to do is make my speech. I have no objection to other hon. Members taking part in any debate on any subject at all. The question I would pose to the hon. Member through you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, is what would be his attitude if he were the last one in the queue in a debate on education and I barged into the debate and pushed him out, even though admitting that tonight there is plenty of time and that it is not a question of pushing anybody out.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. and gallant Member is now straying a little from the Second Reading of this Bill.

Commander Pursey

The Bill is supported by both sides of the industry, as has been clearly stated, and everyone, apparently, agrees that it should go through. In fact, as I said earlier in my interjection on a point of order, it appears to me to be simply the equivalent of what would have been a drafting Amendment if this point had been discovered while the Bill was still before the House and before it became an Act.

I am as keen as anyone for improving the accommodation of crews and so on. The explanations have been given, and, therefore, there is no question at all that this is a Bill that should not have been brought before the House. Indeed, it is a Bill which should be given a Second Reading and which should go on the Statute Book for the reasons given. I hope that my two hon. Friends who put down this Amendment will take this as a lesson, and that it will prevent them from diving in off the deep end on future occasions to deal with a subject of which they know practically nothing.

Sir R. Acland

As my hon. and gallant Friend has seen fit to criticise me, may I point out to him that there are two aspects in relation to shipping? There is the aspect of those who work it—the owners workers and technicians—about which I never claimed to have any special knowledge, but there is also the aspect of the people concerned with shipping, namely, traders, customers and producers, and as one who makes no claim to any special knowledge on the technical side, I would point out to my hon. and gallant Friend that this latter group also has an interest in the subject.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I must remind hon. Members that the House is considering the Second Reading of this Bill.

8.48 p.m.

Mrs. E. M. Braddock (Liverpool, Exchange)

I hope that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Hull East (Commander Pursey) will not accuse me of speaking about something of which I know nothing. I have not had any experience of running ships or of being in ships, but I have the advantage of representing and of living for many years in a seaport. I would not have made any comment in this debate but for the remarks made by the hon. and gallant Member for Barkston Ash (Colonel Ropner) to the effect that the relationship between the men and the employers had always been particularly good.

That is not so. I can remember the time just after the First World War when the shipowners of this country refused point blank to employ white seamen because they could employ coloured seamen at 30s. a month at a time when the wages of British seamen were very much higher. I can remember with some anger how hundreds of British seamen walked the docks at Liverpool trying to get employment only to be met by the complete refusal of the shipowners in the Liverpool area to employ them because, as I say, they could employ lascars much cheaper than the rate laid down by the National Union of Seamen.

Colonel Ropner

If the hon. Lady is saying that British shipowners have employed coloured seamen at lower wages than British seamen, and if she is saying they employed them for that reason, then I think she knows she is saying something which is totally untrue.

Mrs. Braddock

I simply am not saying something that is totally untrue. I know from my own experience after that war that that was the position in the seaport in which I lived.

Colonel Ropner indicated dissent.

Mrs. Braddock

I do not know whether I am in order, but the point was allowed to be made by an hon. Member opposite and, knowing the position as I do and having, at the time, taken part in the representation of many British unemployed seamen in Liverpool, I felt I could not allow that remark to go unchallenged.

I am in the same position as are some of my hon. Friends. When I saw the Amendment on the Order Paper I wondered what the situation was regarding these ships. I made the necessary inquiries because the position in relation to the consultations that have taken pace between seamen and employers has altered very considerably.

On making inquiries I was told that nobody is satisfied with the conditions for crews on very many of the ships owned by British shipowners in this country at the moment and there is no intention at all of reducing the standard of accommodation for crews. Because they are so old and out of date and are still being used it would be impossible to bring the accommodation in some ships up to the standard laid down in the Acts we are now amending. I think that statement covers the reasons for the Amendment to the Bill.

Far from suggesting that there might be any alteration in the high standard of accommodation at present laid down, I am certain that any suggestion of reducing that standard would call for some very drastic action by the seamen who have to sail in these ships. They have complained bitterly in the past and they still complain bitterly. I represent very many British seamen in my constituency who are still travelling in ships in very bad conditions. I know that any suggestion of reducing the standards in new ships now being built, or to prevent alterations being made in the newer type of ships that can be altered, would result in very strong action being taken by the seamen who have to sail in those ships.

After having assured myself that the National Union of Seamen and those organisations responsible for seamen in this country have agreed and are satisfied that this matter can be dealt with on the lines laid down in the Amendment I join my hon. Friends in supporting it.

8.54 p.m.

Captain Robert Ryder (Merton and Morden)

I must say that when I read the Clauses of this Bill I had the same misgivings as have been voiced by hon. Members opposite. These Clauses are a complete blank cheque. It would be difficult to imagine any more sweeping Clauses being put in any Bill.

I am completely re-assured by the words of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport about his intention in connection with this Bill. But, as we all know, Acts of Parliament remain on the Statute Book for many years and we have to consider what interpretation may be placed on this Bill in a court of law in 40 years' time or maybe later. I put it to my right hon. Friend that these Clauses, copied as they are, he assures me, from a former Act, are too sweeping. I should like to have seen in the Bill some such remarks as, "In exceptional circumstances the Minister may exempt certain ships from the operation of these Sections of the Acts as the exceptional circumstances may justify." I shall not attempt to re-draft the Clause, but I submit that these words as they stand are too sweeping in their extent.

8.55 p.m.

Mr. Wedgwood Benn (Bristol, South-East)

Before I make the very short comments that I should like to make on this Bill, I wish to refer to the speech made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Hull, East (Commander Pursey), because it seems to me, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. J. Johnson) said, that we should be in a very curious situation if it was only those with expert knowledge who were able to speak on a Bill in this House.

Commander Pursey

That was not my point at all. Every Member in the House—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Order. We cannot pursue this point now.

Mr. Benn

It seems that the hon. and gallant Member for Hull, East, is prepared to make exceptions of classes of Members—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

We cannot pursue that point any further.

Mr. Benn

I confess that, as with many other hon. Members who have spoken tonight, I viewed this Bill when I first saw it with intense suspicion, and I am only partially satisfied by the explanation given by the Minister of Transport. I should like to ask two questions which I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to answer when he winds up the debate. We all understand that the Minister's discretion is an essential part of the machinery for Regulations of this kind. The day has long since gone when everything could be put in a Bill; we have to, delegate powers to Ministers, and with complicated Regulations of this kind it is obviously very necessary.

But, as the hon. and gallant Member for Merton and Morden (Captain Ryder) has said, the exemption in this case is very wide, and I think that two additional precautions should be introduced. The first is that the words "after consultation with those concerned" might be added in this subsection, as is the case in Section 1 of the 1948 Act, which I have read, and the second is that some way should be devised so that all of these exemptions could be debated, if necessary, on a Prayer.

I know there is the normal safeguard for any Orders made by the Minister, even under this amending Act, whereby they can be debated on a Prayer, but if when the original Regulation is made dealing with crew accommodation certain exceptions are made in that Regulation, it seems to me that Mr. Speaker would rule out of order the discussion of those exemptions on the Prayer. To take a practical example, if some Regulation were put into force by the Minister dealing with crew accommodation in passenger ships, and in that Regulation he exempted the "Queen Mary" and the "Queen Elizabeth" specifically by name, surely we should not be allowed to discuss the exemption of the "Queen Mary" and the "Queen Elizabeth," because Mr. Speaker would, no doubt, say that the Regulation did not deal with them and that it dealt with only other vessels. This seems to me to be a very important point.

I hope that when these Regulations are made, general Regulations will be made under the principal Act dealing with standards of crew accommodation, and that exceptions will be made the subject of special Regulations so that we can debate those exceptions on a Prayer instead of finding ourselves excluded from discussing them on a Regulation which itself makes exceptions. If I could have such an assurance from the Parliamentary Secretary who, like myself, shares the honour of representing the ancient City and port of Bristol, I should feel much happier about supporting the Bill.

9.0 p.m.

Mr. Percy Collick (Birkenhead)

I rise to take part in this debate because there are in my constituency a very large number of Merchant Navy men who are intimately affected by what the Minister may do under these Regulations. That is the reason why I voiced earlier my sincere regret that the time at which the Bill was available to Members had made it impossible for an hon. Member to make those contacts which he should properly make with those of his constituents who are affected in order to see what they feel about a very important Bill of this kind.

I must confess that when I read the Bill, I felt, as indeed any person who reads the Bill literally would feel, nothing but the greatest apprehension as to what might be in the mind of the Minister in introducing it. It was not until this morning that I had certain consultations and was pleased to learn that apparently the Bill has been the subject of some conversation with the trade union interests concerned and that apparently they are willing that it should become an Act of Parliament. Nevertheless, that does not excuse Members of this House from examining the Bill very closely.

Mr. Maclay indicated assent.

Mr. Collick

Members of the House of Commons have that right and duty quite apart from anything else. Let me put it quite frankly to the Minister. As I read the Bill, I think it could be a dangerous Bill. I do not suggest for a moment that in the hands of the present Minister it would be such a thing or is likely to be such a thing, but as drafted the Bill could quite easily be dangerous.

After all, what does it do to Section 1 of the 1948 Act? It empowers the Minister to make certain Regulations governing those very important matters about which the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn), informed the House—the amount of space available to the crew, sleeping quarters, feeding arrangements and all sorts of things too numerous to mention. The Minister is empowered to make Regulations governing those conditions on those boats. Under the Bill which he is introducing tonight he can exempt any ship from any of the Regulations which he may make under Section 1 of the 1948 Act; and he can also do exactly the same in relation to Section 1 of the 1950 Act.

Am I not right in suggesting that the 1950 Act was the first Act which was in any way intended to lay down certain conditions, by the Minister's Regulations, in relation to fishing vessels? I recall that when I had the honour of serving in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries it was my duty to go to one of the largest fishing ports in the country. There it was impressed upon me by those who were speaking on behalf of the men that it was very difficult nowadays to persuade the younger men to enter the fishing industry because of the conditions prevailing on our fishing boats.

They were most anxious for the Government to do something to improve the accommodation for the crew on fishing boats. When I returned to London I made certain inquiries and was a little astonished to find that there seemed to be no very clear understanding about what exactly might be done in this connection. Certain things followed, and I think it was largely as a result of them that the Section of the Act of 1950 to which I have referred was introduced. For the first time it empowered the Minister to make Regulations, in the modern sense, governing the accommodation of crews on fishing boats.

Under this Bill we give power to the Minister by a mere stroke of the pen to exclude any ship from the operation of Section 1 of the 1950 Act. I listened with the greatest attention to the Minister's speech but I am bound to say that I was not completely convinced that he had made a case. Possibly that was due. to my inattention, and certainly I do not complain of lack of lucidity in the Minister's explanation.

But I cannot quite understand why, in any of these matters the hon. Gentleman may have in mind, he cannot do this by classification when making the Regulations. The Minister told the House that the draft Regulations were almost ready. I wish hon. Members could have the facility of looking at the draft Regulations before the Committee stage of the Bill. Perhaps the Minister may be able to put them in the Library.

Mr. Ellis Smith

On the Table.

Mr. Collick

No. I am speaking of the draft Regulations. It would help us if, before the Committee. stage of the Bill, we could see them. I do not understand why, when the Minister makes these Regulations, he cannot do this quite successfully by distinguishing between the various classes of vessels. I clay be very thick-headed, but I did not follow the hon. Gentleman when he said that this Bill was absolutely necessary, if we were to have the highest standards laid down in the Regulations. I think that that was his main point in favour of the Bill.

Mr. Maclay

The point is this. This applies not only to new ships, but to existing ships, which, at some future date, may have to have certain modifications made to their accommodation. If we do not have this power to exempt, the only Regulations we could make would be Regulations which covered the worst possible ship which, owing to her trade, or to her particular method of construction, could not be improved beyond a certain standard. Therefore, there would be a lowering right down instead of a pulling up of the conditions. I am sorry if I cannot make the point clear.

Mr. Collick

I should have thought that the answer to that was that the hon. Gentleman could easily put such a ship in a certain class, if it had been completed before a certain date. I am dealing now with ships that require rebuilding, and so on. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman could have made a classification covering that type of ship. Of course, if the Minister tells me that that is utterly impossible, I shall accept his statement.

Mr. Maclay

I am anxious to get this point clear. Consider an old ship. We shall not know until it is in dry dock just what aberrations of construction there are: they need not necessarily be aberrations of construction. She may have been constructed 10, 15 or 20 years ago. But we shall not be able to tell until we see her in dry dock how to get her up to the desirable standards.

Mr. Collick

I should have thought that the Minister's officers at Grimsby and so on would have known the make-up of ships not only 15 or 20 years old but built 40 years ago. If the hon. Gentleman tells me that that is the complete answer, I must accept it, but I should have thought that it would have been possible to have classified the ships in the Regulations, and made the point clear.

I should like the Minister to consider whether we might see the draft Regulations, if they are so far advanced as he has indicated. I wonder if he could give me an answer to this question? It is probably an easy one to answer. Supposing this Bill becomes law, and the Minister grants an exception to any particular ship, how are the men of that ship to know that that ship is exempt from the standard Regulations?

Mr. Maclay

Is the hon. Gentleman sitting down because he is asking me a question and awaiting an answer, or because he has finished his speech?

Mr. Collick

I was hoping that the Parliamentary Secretary, when winding up, would deal with the point.

9.9 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Gurney Braithwaite)

This discussion, like the discussions upon the predecessors to this Bill, has been characterised by a most agreeable degree of unanimity. Such controversy as has developed has, I think, been due to excess of zeal on the benches opposite; but zeal is an excellent quality; and I think it is a healthy sign that so many hon. Members should have thought it proper to speak on the important topic of the crew conditions in merchant ships.

Let me begin by giving an assurance that was asked for and that we gladly give—that any exemption under this Bill will be for the better. The whole object is to get rid of the rigidity that may arise, and to cater for the specialised ship; in other words, to ensure that British initiative in shipbuilding improvement shall not be hampered by too narrow—

Mr. Awbery

Will the hon. Gentleman give an assurance that that will be put in the Bill, and that any alterations will be improvements?

Mr. Braithwaite

It is very early for interruptions to a winding-up speech. I have taken notice of all the interventions that have been made, including that of the hon. Gentleman, and I will come to his remarks in due course. I shall try to deal with hon. Members seriatim. I begin with that assurance to the right hon. Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Barnes).

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Rugby (Mr. J. Johnson), whom I think that we would all like to congratulate on a most successful broadcast on Saturday evening, to which I for one listened with great enjoyment, was concerned about the powers granted to the Minister under the Bill, and, of course, he was not alone in that. I quote the words given in Clause 1 (1): … The Minister may exempt any ships or classes of ships from any requirements of regulations made under this section, either absolutely or subject to such conditions as he thinks fit. Those are words which have been criticised by a number of hon. Gentlemen.

The short answer—I am now coming to what was said by the hon. Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Awbery), who made much the same point—is this: not only are they words carried in previous statutes, but they are words which are agreeable to both sides of the industry. The hon. Member for Bristol, Central—a Parliamentary neighbour of mine—said that this was a very wide authority to give to anyone. He said, "There is no faultless man"—I took down his words. For six years, the hon. Gentleman has been pleased to give these powers to the faultless gentlemen who sit opposite to me. The right hon. Member for East Ham, South, was regarded by hon. Gentlemen opposite as sufficiently free from faults to be allowed to carry this very wide authority.

Mr. Awbery

The right hon. Member for East Ham, South (Mr. Barnes), put in his Bill that there would be full consultation with the men and the employers before any alterations were made in connection with any regulation. But the Bill says that the Minister may exempt all classes of ships from any requirements of Regulations. That gives full power to the Minister without any consultation whatever.

Mr. Braithwaite

It seems difficult to get this point home to the hon. Gentleman. This is one of a series of Merchant Shipping Bills, and we hope that it will shortly become an Act. It may almost be described as legislation by reference. The provision to make exemptions, as the Minister thinks fit, appears directly in the previous statutes, and may I remind him once again that these words have the approval of both sides of the industry, including, of course, the trade unions. There would have been far more criticism, I think, from the hon. Gentleman if my right hon. Friend had come to the Box without having consulted both sides of the industry. We now come before them with that agreement.

Mr. Scholefield Allen (Crewe)

Is not the answer contained in Clause 2 that the Acts may be cited together as the Merchant Shipping Acts?

Mr. Braithwaite

The hon. and learned Gentleman has a firmer grasp of the obvious than usual. I thought that that was apparent to hon. Members on both sides of the House. I am grateful to him for enlightening them.

The hon. Member for Clapham (Mr. Gibson) raised the position of fishermen and the Transport and General Workers' Union which represents them, and I am only too happy to give the undertaking for which he asked, that consultation with that body will take place when operating the Bill when it becomes an Act. That may also help to cover the objection which was made by his hon. Friend who sits behind him.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Colonel Ropner) and the hon. Lady the Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock), had a slight altercation on certain unhappy events in days gone by. I feel that hon. Members on both sides of the House are tonight anxious that this industry should look forward into the future rather than discuss such unhappy controversies. We believe that the Bill enables that to take place.

The hon. and gallant Member for Hull, East (Commander Pursey), made one of his refreshing interventions in our discussions. He was another old Parliamentary neighbour of mine until redistribution removed me from his side. We used to have a large number of disputations in other Parliaments. Tonight, I would congratulate the hon. and gallant Gentleman on his detached consideration of the Bill. He placed the British Legion firmly behind him for one evening, in order to come to the rescue of the merchant seamen.

I would add, for the benefit of the hon. Member for Rugby that the hon. and gallant Gentleman is fully qualified to address the House, as I hope one day he will, on the subject of education. He was a lecturer of great distinction, and on many occasions he has enlivened the lower deck of the Royal Navy. Many a naval rating has been lulled to sleep by the hon. and gallant Gentleman, so I hope that he will one day address the House on that subject.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Merton and Morden (Captain Ryder) was another Member who felt that the Clause was too sweeping. He took a rather different view of it, however. He said that it had been copied from previous statutes, and that 40 years from now the situation might be very different. Indeed, it might, but at the moment I would remind my hon. and gallant Friend that this phraseology was not only copied but agreed with those concerned. I am optimistic enough to feel that 40 years from now the House of Commons will be as alert on these matters as it has shown itself to be tonight, and that if the machinery is creaking or is not satisfactory, the necessary amendment of the law will be made.

The hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn), put two specific points to us on the machinery of the Regulations. He wanted to be quite sure that these steps were taken after consultation, and would like to see the words actually inserted in the Bill. There is an actual reason for this omission, which is that it has not been suggested by either side of the industry, by those who have taken part in the conversations, which led up to this Measure, that consultation will be possible in the case of every individual ship. Consultation will take place in certain cases. The safeguard still exists. Should there be contraventions or a backsliding in the case of any individual vessel, the unions will be on the alert and will be able to call the attention of the Ministry to the facts. Consultation in every individual case, we believe, is not practicable as a piece of machinery. It is for that reason that the Bill is on a somewhat wider basis.

Mr. Benn

Are we to understand from that explanation that the great number of individual ships, and some classes of ship, will be exempted from the Bill, and that the Minister is to lay down individual conditions for almost every ship in the Merchant Navy? Otherwise, I cannot see why consultation should not take place.

Mr. Braithwaite

That is not the intention. I hope the hon. Gentleman will see, as Member for Bristol, South-East, that the situation may arise suddenly when a ship is under repair and a defect is suddenly disclosed. When the ships are under repair or when instructions for a remedy have been passed by word of mouth that condition cannot apply. This has been very thoroughly thrashed out on both sides of the industry, and it is not possible to write into the Bill an undertaking of that kind.

Mr. C. R. Hobson (Keighley)

On this question of consultation when ships are under repair, can the hon. Gentleman say if he has in mind the continuing of the noxious practice of putting high-pressure steam pipes through the cabins of the crew, which is dangerous? Will consultations take place not only with the Amalgamated Engineering Union, who are interested in this matter, but also with the Seamen's Union?

Mr. Braithwaite

I think the hon. Member will find that the Regulations cover all the main provisions. I confess that he has put a point to me to which I cannot give a snap answer. I am quite certain that all these matters are, in fact, generally governed by the Regulations.

The hon. Member for Bristol, South-East, wanted, as a second point, some machinery for praying in these matters. Again, the reason is the same as given in reply to his first point that the ships come into port and are actually in a state of repair and under repair at the moment when improvement is made in accordance with the Regulations. One cannot really pray about that when a ship is under repair, and I and those concerned with the matter do not see what Parliamentary procedure there is which can cope with that situation.

I have left to the last the hon. Member for Gravesend (Sir R. Acland), who put an Amendment on the Order Paper. If I may say so without offence, it seemed to me that the hon. Member found himself this evening between wind and water. There is no reason at all why any hon. Member of the House should not take a step which the hon. Baronet has. I should be the last to take the line that only those can discuss these matters who have intimate knowledge of them. The hon. Baronet suspected that there was something here which required probing, and he made a speech which dealt with the issue of freights. The Chair allowed the hon. Member to make a passing reference to this subject, and for the purposes of the record I hope I may be allowed to make a passing reference in reply.

The hon. Member will appreciate that this question of shipping freights is international, that shipping is a world-wide problem and that ocean freights are determined internationally and reflect the conditions obtaining in commerce generally. There is no separate level of freights applicable only to United Kingdom ships. The rates applicable to regular liner traffic are determined by the appropriate shipping conferences. These conference tariffs are highly scientific and delicately balanced schedules settled by agreement among the ships of all flags operated on the route concerned. While, taking into account fluctuating costs of operation, they are designed to secure the most efficient loading of the ships and to encourage the development of trade at the highest possible level. Several Governmental inquiries, both in the United Kingdom and abroad, into the operation of the conference system have shown it to be in the best interests of shipper and shipowner alike.

Tramp charter rates are even more susceptible to general world conditions. In the early months of 1950 they fell to a level at which they were quite unremunerative in many trades, and a growing number of ships was being laid up. Indeed, it looked at the time as if a difficult situation might arise similar to that mentioned by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Barkston Ash as having occurred between the wars. But the Korean campaign brought with it a sudden expansion of the demand for ships. This was accompanied by large abnormal requirements of coal from the United States to Europe, due mainly to the inability of this country and Germany to supply the increasing needs of the European countries, and a great rearmament programme brought with it a great demand for coal.

At the same time, threatened famine in India could only be averted by large abnormal imports of wheat from North America and Australia. It was largely these developments which caused such a sharp rise in the freights. Indeed, the hon. Baronet may recall that units of the United States reserve merchant shipping fleet were brought into action. The rates began to rise, but so also did the operating costs. Wages, fuel and stores have all risen appreciably, but even more serious a factor in this respect has been the lengthening of the time for loading and discharging ships in all parts of the world. A quicker turn-round would bring lower freights.

These increases in the cost of operation affect all classes of shipping, and both liner and tramp shipowners have had to meet them by increasing their rates. Incidentally, some very wise remarks on the subject of freights were made in the House by my hon. Friend who is now the Minister of Transport on 13th December, 1950. He foreshadowed exactly what has taken place in the freight markets of the world consequent upon certain developments at that time.

To sum up, it is the desire of both sides of the industry that the Bill shall have a speedy passage to the Statute Book, and I trust that the House, after this full discussion, will now feel able to let us have the Second Reading.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Committed to a Committee of the whole House for Tomorrow.—[Mr. Redmayne.]

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