HC Deb 19 February 1952 vol 496 cc33-45

3.45 p.m.

Mr. Wedgwood Benn (Bristol, Central)

I beg to move, in Clause 1, page 1, line 10, after "may," to insert: after consultation with such organisation or organisations as appear to him to be representative of owners of British ships and of seamen employed therein make regulations to. The reasons for this Amendment are twofold. I think every hon. Member accepts the need for this Bill, and agrees that the Minister of Transport must have discretion to make exemptions from the general Regulations which he is empowered to make under the principal Act. My reason for moving this Amendment is to enable the Committee to discuss the machinery of exemption, because I am far from satisfied about the way in which this amending Bill will work.

There are two points I want to make. The first is that under this Bill there is no right to debate exemptions, As I understand it, in Section 11 of the principal Act it is stated that any power of the Minister to make Regulations or Orders should be exercisable by Statutory Instrument, and I understand that all the Regulations that would be made under the principal Act could be debated on a Prayer. I should therefore have thought that all the exemptions to these Regulations should be capable of being debated on a Prayer, but I understand from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport that that is not so, because, in his speech on the Second Reading of this Bill on 3rd December, he said: …it is not possible to write into the Bill an undertaking of that kind."—[OFFCIAL REPORT, 3rd December, 1951; Vol. 494, c. 2158.] Although I can understand, as I am sure everyone does, the need for Regulations to be made at the Minister's discretion, it seems to me that his discretion in this case—the discretion of making exemptions—is quite without the capacity of this House to discuss. Therefore, I very much hope that the Minister will give some answer to this point when he speaks on this Clause.

The second point is, in my view, of even greater importance, because under this amending Bill there is no provision whatsoever for consultation with the interests concerned when the exemptions are made. Under the principal Act, in Section 1, subsections 1 and 2, all the Regulations made by the Minister are made after consultation with such organisations as appear to him to be representative both of the owners and also of the seamen, but apparently exemptions under this Bill are not covered, and I quote again from the speech of the Parliamentary Secretary on Second Reading: 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 in every individual case, we believe, is not practicable as a piece Of machinery."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd December, 1951; Vol. 494, c. 2156–7.] I should like the Minister to explain this at greater length when he speaks, because it seems to me that under the wording of this amending Bill it will be possible for him to make exemptions of ships or complete classes of ships from any Regulations made under the Bill without either the House having any right to discuss it on a Prayer or the unions and shipowners having any right to consultation with the Minister before the exemptions are made.

This Amendment seeks to close two loopholes in the Bill. The first is with regard to Parliamentary control, in that we should be allowed to debate exemptions as we are allowed to debate basic Regulations under the Act. The second is that the machinery of consultation should be extended so that the unions and shipowners can have some say in exemptions of this kind. It seems to me that if this Amendment or something like it is not accepted by the Government, there will be no limit to the exemptions that can be made and that, in a sense, Section 1 of the principal Act will be completely destroyed by this amending Bill.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. John Maclay)

I understand the reasons the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) and his hon. Friend have put down this Amendment, but I hope that after some explanation they will realise that the purpose of their Amendment might well be defeated by the Amendment itself. That is a paradox which I hope fully to explain.

First, it is quite clear that, if this Amendment were accepted, there would be consultation with the representative organisations of both seafarers and shipowners, no matter how small or how detailed might be the exemption which it was desirable to grant. I will give the Committee some examples of the kind of incidents which might arise and for which these powers to exempt are really necessary, and I think they will meet the hon. Gentleman's main point on which he asked for information. But before I do that, I would remind the Committee of what may seem a ridiculous position, that, unless the Minister has powers to grant practical exemptions, the whole standard of regulation might have to be brought down below the standard which we shall be laying before the House in due course when the draft Regulations are made.

One of the requirements of the draft Regulations which we have now agreed in detail with both sides of the industry and which will shortly come before the House will be this. The Regulations will require a settee to be provided in an officer's room. It should be six feet long, but the Minister will be enabled to ignore this Regulation in ships of under 400 tons gross. It would be absurd to go through the whole procedure of consulting all organisations of seafarers and shipowners in order to make a Regulation to allow in one cabin in one ship the size of a settee to be reduced from six feet to five feet because the structure of the ship did not make it possible to have a six-feet settee.

Mr. Benn

Surely it would be possible to arrive at some general arrangement with the unions and shipowners so that detailed matters of this kind could be settled without using the full machinery of consultation. The question we are interested in is the possibility that exemptions will be totally excluded from consultation.

Mr. Maclay

I think the hon. Gentleman will find that is what has already been done in the draft Regulations. Other hon. Members have been worried on this point. I will give another example. The draft Regulations will specify minimum clearances between floors and berths, between lower and upper berths, and between berths and deckhead beams. Obviously, for an individual ship, or even for a group of ships, it simply would not be practicable to go through the formal procedure of consultation, when we consider the time that would be taken up in the making of a Regulation and the laying of it before this House. It would mean taking workable Regulations and making them unworkable.

I now come to the safeguards, which I suggest are very strong indeed and which prevent the things of which the hon. Gentleman is frightened from happening. First of all, in the case of convention ships, that is, ships covered by the I.L.O. Convention of 1949, no matter what is in this Bill there can be no relaxation of requirements, but there may be a variation to produce results not less favourable than international standards.

The next safeguard is that our draft Regulations will fix higher standards than those required by the Convention, and, what is more, these will be applied to ships outside convention requirements, principally small ships. The next safeguard is an obvious one, but there is a point in it which was not made clear. The draft Regulations, which have at present been agreed in detail with the seafarers and shipowners and which are now being put into legal form before coming before the House, will set out the particular requirements from which exemptions may well prove necessary. These have been foreseen and will be specified in the draft Regulations as far as possible; but when these Regulations come before the House, it will be made clear that the exemptions are accepted by the seafarers and shipowners, and they will be specified in the Regulations.

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

May we have an assurance that there will be consultation regarding Regulations which will apply in future? The Government are cutting out that consultation altogether.

Mr. Maclay

That will depend on the form of Regulations made. At the moment we have under contemplation only the one set of highly detailed and technical Regulations which, as I have already explained, will be coming before the House.

Mr. Awbery

Is it not a fact that the Minister is exempting all Regulations? According to the Bill and according to the 1948 Act, there must be consultations between the owners, the men and the Government.

Mr. Maclay

The Regulations are made under the 1948 Act, and we come back to the point at which I started, that if we had no powers to make exemptions, that Act could not function properly.

The next point is that Regulations to give effect to that Act are at present under contemplation. They have been fully discussed and will come before the House for consideration in due course. If further Regulations are made in future, the same procedure will be followed. The only difficulty in which hon. Members find themselves is that in this Bill I am asking for powers which I believe to be essential in order to make the Regulations work. So far as future Regulations are concerned, I should not like to say anything at the moment. I can only assume that they would be dealt with in this way.

I now come to the final safeguard. It happens that in 1949 the Merchant Shipping (Safety Convention) Act, which was piloted through the House by my predecessor, contained precisely the same powers of exemption; these have never been questioned by seafarers or shipowners. They have accepted them in that case and they are also in entire agreement with our proposals in this case.

4.0 p.m.

There is one final safeguard which, although it is not written into the Bill, is one which I think hon. Members must feel is a strong one. The relationship between my Ministry and the unions, and, for that matter, between the unions and the shipowners, have been extremely good and close for years. If any individual sailor should see something happen on a ship which he does not like, if he thinks it is breaking the spirit of the Regulations, obviously he will get hold of a local union official and he will go straight to the union, which will get into immediate touch with my Department. That is how this works.

We have the protection I have quoted and the whole spirit of co-operation which has existed on this matter of seamen's accommodation for years. We have the power and the obvious right of the unions to come and argue. But, above all, in this case there is the difficulty that if I were to accept the Amendment, we should have to re-draft the Regulations in such a way that it would lower the whole standard of the requirements if we were to make certain that we would not be held up by the cumbersome procedure which would follow if the Amendment were accepted. That is the difficulty. One cannot secure consultation of the kind required without serious delays.

I assure hon. Members that in a great many of the cases which they are afraid might arise, it would be a matter for the marine superintendents and one of my surveyors, actually on board the ship where work is being done to bring the ship up to standard, to decide on the spot how this could best be done. The decision is made on the spot. If the matter had to go to full consultation, it would bring the Regulations into complete disrepute and the procedure would not work. Accepting as I do the good intentions of the Amendment and of those who sponsor it, I trust they will realise that, if we were to adopt it, it would be an unworkable proposition. I hope that the Amendment will be withdrawn.

Mr. Benn

There is one final anomaly. Under Section 11 of the principal Act, (1) Any power of the Minister to make regulations or orders under the foregoing provisions of this Act shall be exercisable by statutory instrument. This amending Bill which the Minister is presenting does not affect Section 11 of the principal Act. It simply amends his powers earlier on. Even if my Amendment is not accepted, surely Section 11 remains and the power of exemption, like the power of making any Regulations, will have by law to be exercised by Statutory Instrument and, therefore, the House must be able to debate it on a Prayer.

Mr. Maclay

With respect, I do not think that is right. The power to exempt is one for the Minister under conditions which I have outlined. Obviously he could not have Regulations laid before the House to decide whether a settee should be reduced by six inches below the regulation six feet. That would really be carrying the law to fantastic lengths.

Mr. Benn

Surely every power the Minister exercises under this Bill derives from the Act and must be covered by Section 11 to which I have referred. It may be there is a mistake and that the Minister is not aware of it. Surely his own powers derive from the Act and all his powers from the Act are debatable on Prayers because they have to be exercised by Statutory Instrument.

Mr. Maclay

I am afraid the way the hon. Member has put this is new to me, but I do not think he can be correct, because if there is a deliberate amending Bill which gives power to exempt, then that must be valid.

Mr. Benn

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has not grasped the point I am making. This Bill gives him power to exempt. It adds to the many powers he already had under the principal Act and therefore this new power, like those other powers which he has under the principal Act, must be exercised by Statutory Instrument. That was what I thought when I read the Bill, and if the Parliamentary Secretary had not told me on Second Reading that it was not so, I should have thought the law was clear. I am simply saying that these powers to make exemptions are simply new powers added to the Minister's other powers, all of which powers must be exercised by Statutory Instrument.

Amendment negatived.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

Mr. Awbery

The difficulties that have been pointed out to the Minister today were all in existence in 1948, yet when the 1948 Act was before the House the Minister gave his full approval to all that was said and done. He said at that time that he was pleased to find himself on the side of the then Minister and that years of …steady, useful co-operation in the discussions between employers and unions through the National Maritime Board …"— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th April, 1948; Vol. 450, c. 844.] had brought this about. If we are not very careful, the present Bill will take that consultation away altogether from the unions.

Clause 1 of the Bill says that the Minister "may exempt." Section 1 of the original Act says that, after consultation with the owners and unions, the Minister may make regulations respecting crew accommodation to be provided in specified classes of ships. In future there will be no consultation, except at the will, wish and favour of the Minister, and not by Act of Parliament. I want it laid down in the Bill that no alteration must be made without consultation with the men in the industry who know most about the workers concerned.

I said in the Second Reading debate that we were putting too much power into the hands of one individual. We are giving more power to the Minister of Transport under this Bill than we are giving to any other Minister. I am rather afraid of that, not because of the present Minister, who understands ships and has spent his life in the shipping industry, but because a new Minister may come along who does not understand the industry. I want to ensure that whatever conditions and Regulations are laid down, there are consultations with the unions, with the men concerned, with the Ministry and with the shipowners.

The result of the 1948 Act was a tripartite arrangement between the Government, the shipowners and the unions concerned. There is no reason why the same consultation should not take place in future on the construction of crew quarters in ships. The Minister will control the living conditions of one-third of the sailors of the world. I think we are giving him too great powers in that control. These men spend practically the whole of their lives in the living accommodation on these ships. We have to be careful to see that the accommodation is proper, satisfactory and meets with the approval of the men.

If the Minister says, "The power given to me would not be used in an arbitrary manner, it would be used in a humane way," why have the power at all? Why not say, "I am prepared in the future to consult with the organisations regarding these Regulations in the same manner as I have done in the past"? The Regulations which have been discussed recently have been part of a tripartite arrangement between the State, the owners and the men. Why not continue this arrangement so that the men will have decent accommodation on the ships? I suggest that the Minister is taking too much power to himself.

Mr. Benn

As I did not have the good fortune to get a reply from the Minister on the point which I made in moving my Amendment, I should like to return to that point. I am glad to see the Attorney-General here, because I suspect that this is a question of interpretation on which we may need his opinion.

If I understood the Minister rightly, he told us that Clause 1 gives him powers which he exercises in some way other than by the use of a Statutory Instrument. From what I understand from the speech of the Parliamentary Secretary on Second Reading and from the Minister's speech today, the Regulations for exemption which the Minister makes will not be subject to any sort of supervision by Parliament. I hope that I am wrong about this, but that is what I understood.

It seems to me to be perfectly clear that these exemptions, when made under this amending Bill, must be debateable on a Prayer. The marginal notation to the amending Bill reads thus: Power of Minister of Transport to exempt from requirements as to crew accommodation. Section 11 of the principal Act says that any power of the Minister to do anything must be exerciseable by Statutory Instrument. Therefore, I should like to ask whether the Minister does not agree that, in effect, my Amendment was unnecessary in that every exemption he makes, even though it may be altering the height of a settee or lowering a bunk or altering the thickness of glass in portholes, is bound to be submitted to Parliament in the form of a Statutory Instrument and is bound to be debatable on a Prayer.

We on this side of the Committee are not opposed to the principle of exemption at all, because we are perfectly aware that if it were necessary to make Regulations suitable for the lowest standard of crew accommodation, the inability to make exemptions would lead to a lowering of the general standard. Nor do I intend any criticism of the relations between the Minister or the Ministry and the unions. It seems to me that if the Minister is right, he is telling us that he will be able to make Regulations which, once made, will not come before Parliament in any form at all.

Mr. Maclay

I hope I have understood correctly the point which has been put to me. It seems to me that the hon. Member is talking about Regulations. Regulations do come before Parliament, as is set out in the Bill, but this is purely a question of exemptions from Regulations, and I am informed that it is clear in the drafting that it is only the power to make Regulations and Orders that has to be exercised by Statutory Instrument. That surely meets the hon. Member's point.

Mr. Benn

Is an exemption not an Order?

Mr. Maclay

No. I think that is the foundation of our misunderstanding. I am trying to say that we are dealing here with exemptions and not Regulations.

4.15 p.m.

If I may return to the remarks of the hon. Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Awbery), I think I must stress again the very important point that the draft Regulations which will come before Parliament have been discussed and agreed in detail with the unions and the shipowners' organisations. Equally this little Bill, which I am having a certain amount of difficulty in piloting through this Committee, has been discussed in detail with the unions and the shipowners' organisations.

I am informed that they are entirely clear in their minds that this Bill is desirable in its present form, and I do not think they have any doubts that if we tied it up too rigidly we should not get the best results. In view of the assurance which has been given, and the fact that there is no argument about this Bill by those who are intimately concerned with the detailed problems which must arise in the application of Regulations of this kind, I feel hopeful that the Committee will agree to this Clause.

Mr. Awbery

If the difficulties mentioned by the Minister were known at the time of the 1948 Act, why were they not raised?

Mr. Maclay

I think that when I made my speech, I had not realised that this power was not in that Act. Anybody going into the matter in detail will, I hope, realise that these exemption powers are necessary to make a desirable correction.

Mr. Alfred Barnes (East Ham, South)

The Minister went rather a long way round before eventually he arrived at the position of making it clear that the Regulations are subject to annulment but that this matter of exemption can apply to individual ships. I thought the Minister might very well have followed on by giving my hon. Friends a clear and specific assurance that in all these matters he will consult fully both sides of the industry. That is a practice which has continued all the way through.

When we were dealing with the Second Reading, the Minister gave that assurance in a general way, and the only point of difficulty which has arisen in the passage of this amending Bill is the anxiety of some of my hon. Friends that this deals with the exemption of certain ships from standards that Parliament has laid down. My hon. Friends wanted a specific assurance that consultations between the Ministry and the industry would apply specifically to matters of exemption. The Minister should have no difficulty in giving that definite assurance.

With regard to the alleged omission, in my view there was no omission. When I was dealing with the 1948 Act, I made it plain to Parliament at the time that the Government could not ratify this particular Convention until further negotiations had taken place. Those negotiations have taken place, and they have brought out some of the peculiarities which exist in our Merchant Navy. We have, for instance, a type of ship like the "Queens" that no other nation in the world owns. Therefore, they could not be described as a class. Yet the standard of accommodation in vessels of that kind is not below but above the average, and this amending Bill which is really an addition to the 1948 Act, does not in any way interfere with or lessen the value of Section 1 of that Act. It specifically places on the Minister the obligation to consult these various bodies.

I know from my own experience that the degree of co-operation between the Minister and both sides of the industry is as full and complete as any form of consultation that I have known in my public life. That being so, I feel that if the Minister will give my hon. Friends a definite unqualified assurance that he will always consult both sides of the industry in regard to exemptions, we ought to be able to pass on to the Third Reading and restore the unanimity which has always been characteristic of our merchant shipping debates.

Mr. Awbery

I am sure that we are all agreed that the high standard of British shipping should be maintained, and we on these benches feel that it can be maintained if there is full consultation. If we can have the assurance which has been requested by my right hon. Friend that there will always be that co-operation and full consultation to which he referred, we shall be perfectly satisfied.

Mr. Benn

I should like to ask one final question. The Minister has told us that exemptions are not made by Regulation; they are in a special category and they are not debatable on a Prayer. I should like to ask what form these exemptions will take. Will they be published? Will the union officials and Members of Parliament be able to see the exemptions? If they are not made by Statutory Instruments, I do not know how they can be made at all.

Mr. Maclay

I understand that what happens is that one of the Minister's surveyors on the job will note that an exemption has been given. That will not be published in public form because it would be quite fantastic to think that all the possible small details could be published. Union officials will be able to ask to see whether any exemptions have been made. The exact detailed procedure is difficult to visualise because we cannot foresee the conditions in which it will operate. It should be possible for anybody to know if an exemption has been made. I thought I had made it clear throughout the discussion that I am quite sure there will always be the close and continuing association with the unions that there has been in the past.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

I have met a very large number of seamen in my constituency. I understand that the marine surveyor goes round and makes a note in his book. That is very convenient for him; but how is that note conveyed either to the Ministry or to anyone else? If it is a question whether a certain ship was up to standard, how is the fact that an exemption has been granted to be made known to the person who challenges it?

Mr. Maclay

I cannot at this moment give the precise machinery. I should be dishonest if I said I could state exactly what is the procedure. I understand that when an exemption of that kind is made —which means the Minister's powers have been used—it reaches the Minister through the report of his surveyor. I am quite sure that if any union official were concerned about what was happening and wanted to know what exemptions had been granted, there would be no difficulty in his finding out.

Question put, and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill reported, without Amendment; Read the Third time, and passed.