HC Deb 28 January 1954 vol 522 cc1974-97

Order for Second Reading read.

3.54 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. Hugh Molson)

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

The purpose of this Bill is to encourage shipowners to build ships with engine rooms which are of appropriate size for the propelling power used and which do not contain unnecessary space merely to attain a favourable net tonnage. The House will perhaps know that when a ship is measured, two tonnages are determined: the gross tonnage, which may be described as the overall size of the ship, and the net, or registered, tonnage which may be regarded as indicating the vessel's earning capacity. It is on the net tonnage that port and light dues are usually charged. To obtain the net tonnage certain deductions are made from the gross tonnage on account of the non-earning spaces in the ship, including the space occupied by the propelling machinery and bunkers.

The existing provisions for calculating the propelling power allowance are contained in Section 78 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, but indeed they go back many years before that to the Merchant Shipping Act, 1854. A century ago propelling machinery was much more cumbersome than it is today and it may be that the rather complicated rule for determining the propelling power allowance was then quite fair. The House will understand that there has been much progress since those days and that the existing rules do not adequately meet present conditions.

Strong representations were made to the Government by the representatives of the shipowners, shipbuilders and naval architects that the old rule resulted in the building of ships that were less efficient and less safe than they might be. Before presenting the Bill the Government consulted Commonwealth Governments and the Governments of those countries with whom we have reciprocal agreements about tonnage measurement, and I am glad to say that out of 28 Governments consulted 26 have agreed in principle to what we propose.

In the case of ships propelled by screws with engine rooms measuring between 13 per cent. and 20 per cent. of the gross tonnage, a flat deduction of 32 per cent, of the gross tonnage is at present allowed for the space occupied by the propelling power and the bunkers. In the case of ships outside these limits, the deduction on account of propelling power space is one and three-quarter times the actual size of the engine room. This results in a great disparity between ships with an engine room just above 13 per cent. and just below 13 per cent. It is therefore worth while for an owner to have an engine room larger than the engines really demand so as to obtain the more favourable deduction.

Let me give an example. In respect of two ships of the same gross tonnage, one with a 12 per cent. engine room will get a deduction of only 21 per cent., while one with a13.1 per cent. engine room will get a deduction of 32 per cent. Owners naturally seek to design ships with engine rooms exceeding 13 per cent. even though it would be possible for the engine rooms to occupy less space.

The effect of this Bill will be to remove the sudden drop in the allowance at the 13 per cent. level and to provide for proportionate deductions for engine rooms which are less than 13 per cent. of the gross tonnage. For example, an engine room measuring precisely 13 per cent. of the gross tonnage would receive the 32 per cent. allowance which is given at present in the range between 13 and 20 per cent. and a 12 per cent. engine room would receive an allowance of 12/13ths of 32 per cent.

While there was obviously a strong case for altering the old system of measuring in the general interests of efficiency it was, on the other hand, obviously necessary to safeguard against the possibility that engine rooms might be built so small that they would provide inadequate working space, lighting and ventilation. The House will note that before the more favourable allowance provided for smaller engine rooms in this Bill is given, the surveyor of ships must be satisfied as to the conditions in the engine room.

We consulted the seamen's unions about the proposals contained in this Bill. When they realised the precautions which were being taken to ensure that the smaller engine room would be fully adequate for the comfort and convenience of those working in it, they welcomed the Measure as one likely to increase safety at sea.

The provisions of the Bill will apply to all new ships propelled by screws with engine rooms of 13 per cent. or less, and to existing ships with such engine rooms where the owner so requests. Hon. Members will observe that in the case of paddle ships similar appropriate provisions are made.

This Bill effects a comparatively minor amendment of the law, but one which has the full support of the shipowners, the shipbuilders and the naval architects, and it has been approved by the trade unions concerned. As I have said, it has also met with the approval of 26 of the 28 foreign and Empire governments which we have consulted. In the view of the Government the benefits which will follow are considerable. I am sure the House will agree that anything which will increase the efficiency of our ships, and also their safety, is to be encouraged, and therefore I have no hesitation in commending this Bill to the House.

4.2 p.m.

Mr. E. Shinwell (Easington)

The few hon. Members remaining in the Chamber will be grateful to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for his lucid explanation of this Bill, which is of a technical and also of a very minor character. I recall the debates on shipping matters which we had before the last war. There were many such debates, and I was privileged to take part in most, if not all, of them. During that time hon. Members opposite were not, it seemed, so vitally interested in matters affecting the Mercantile Marine. I regretted their attitude then, and I regret it now, as a drawback to the progress and development of our Merchant Navy. I hope to advance one or two reasons why that is my view.

There is nothing in this Bill to which anyone can take exception. It will advantage shipowners in the future if they care to avail themselves of its provisions. The seamen and navigating and engineering officers welcome the Bill on the assurance of the Government, which has been endorsed by the hon. Gentleman, that there will be no interference with ventilation. Anyone who has been in a ship's engine room either in port or at sea, will know that inadequate ventilation conditions are most unsatisfactory for those undertaking the various responsibilities imposed upon them, and I am glad that assurance has been given. No doubt the surveyor, under the supervision of the hon. Gentleman's Department, will ensure that the provisions regarding ventilation of engine-room spaces will be effectively carried out.

It shows to what extent shipowners are searching for some—I shall not say solution—partial solution of the evils that beset them when they are ready to welcome even a Bill of this minor character. In the past they have resorted to various devices. They have preferred to have engine rooms and boiler space too large in proportion to the cargo and passenger space in order to save paying what they regarded as excessive harbour dues. This Bill will remedy that to some extent.

When I saw the Bill and began to understand what it meant—and I found that very few people whom I consulted did understand it; even shipowners were not clear about it—I felt that the dock and harbour authorities might feel a little troubled if they were to be deprived of some of their harbour dues. But if it be to the advantage of the Mercantile Marine, and more shipping is employed in our docks and harbours, the authorities will gain an eventual advantage.

For years the Mercantile Marine of the United Kingdom has been operating under the Merchant Shipping Acts and there are many amendments to those Acts. Presumably the Government are interested in the progress of the Mercantile Marine and it is a pity that time has not been found to consolidate the Merchant Shipping Acts. Were those Acts consolidated, and proper supervision effected on the basis of the right organisation at the Ministry of Transport and throughout the whole administration, I believe it might reduce the manpower required at present, though I cannot say to what extent.

The present Merchant Shipping Acts are in bits and pieces, as I think would be agreed by the hon. Gentleman and by the hon. and gallant Member for Barks-ton Ash (Sir L. Ropner), who has great knowledge of these matters. I therefore beg the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to make representations to his right hon. Friend and to the Government to ensure that at a fairly early stage they will seek to bring forward consolidating legislation. I appreciate that such legislation would be substantial and the discussion would occupy a considerable amount of time.

Here we are dealing with a technical matter, but one which obviously concerns the future of the British Merchant Navy. In some quarters there is an impression that the Merchant Navy is in a very satisfactory condition, but that is not so. Neither is its partner, the shipbuilding industry. It is true that over the last five, six or seven years the shipyards have been fully booked up with orders. Indeed, some of them have been unable to overtake the arrears which have accumulated, partly because of the lack of raw materials—steel plates and the like—and partly because they have undertaken orders which they could not fulfil in the time.

But what is the position now? Some of the larger shipyards are fully booked for some time to come, but orders are rapidly declining, and this is a serious matter. One reason orders are not being placed is that there is a slow-down in international trade. Without active, animated and vigorous international trade, obviously the merchant navies of all the maritime countries must suffer. They are peculiarly affected by this decline.

There has also been a reduction in shipping freights, and that is the first and the most sinister sign of trouble. I cannot go into all that, of course, but there is also active competition, and, strange as it may seem, the most active competition seems to have emerged from our old enemy, Germany. Her shipyards are thriving and prosperous, and, while I do not want to commit myself to figures—though either the Joint Parliamentary Secretary or someone else can correct me if I am wrong—they are producing more ships at the present time than they did before the war, when Germany was regarded as one of the most prosperous shipbuilding countries, and in fact had a large volume of shipping. They are now in active competition with the British Mercantile Marine, and their position has vastly improved. It is true that recently German orders have declined, while production in German shipyards has risen, but not to the extent to which they have declined in the case of the British Mercantile Marine. We have to be rather careful about that.

Of course, there is also competition from Japan, from the United States, from Canada, and from Sweden and Norway, which are traditionally maritime countries. We must expect competition, but one of the vital features about some of the competition that concerns us is the financial assistance that is rendered to the mercantile marines of other maritime countries. It sometimes takes a peculiar form, not necessarily by the giving of definite and specific subsidies. That was the old method used by the United States some years ago and also by Japan, as well as by some of the Scandinavian countries.

As far as Germany is concerned, there is a direct subsidy that is bolstering up the German shipbuilding industry, and thereby encouraging German shipowners to expect relief from taxation. Shipowners in this country have asked for relief from taxation for quite a long time, so that it is clear that we must be careful about that.

I am not committing my party, but am merely thinking aloud, when I say that what we are concerned with—and I think there is a large measure of support for what I am about to say—is the future progress and the stability of the British Mercantile Marine, upon which the industrial and economic position of this country largely depends. Clearly we must seek to afford the greatest possible measure of relief, and if it requires to be done by means of taxation relief, that is a matter which ought to be examined very closely indeed. Just now, I am making a plea for consideration of the matter, and no more than that.

In the course of the last few days, knowing that I had to say a word or two on this matter, I looked at some material which had been sent to me, but which I had put aside as of no consequence. However, I looked at it again and perused some of the headings. They are from some articles which appeared in the "Financial Times," some others issued by the Shipbuilding Conference and the like, and some of the headings are startling. I do not want to weary hon. Members by reading the details, and I think the headings will suffice. Sometimes I agree, captions and headings and banner-lines do not always convey the actual substance of the article, but these headlines speak of "Competition in Shipbuilding," "Capacity Grows as Orders Fall," "New Contracts Mainly For Replacement," and "Costs Now a Bigger Factor."

By the way, I am reminded that, if we take into account the position of the dry cargo ships, the tramp ship class and the intermediate cargo liner class, we find that most of the vessels that are now sailing the seas were built nearly 15 or 16 years ago, and in another five or six years will be regarded as obsolete. Replacement will be essential; how it is to be done neither I nor certain of the shipowners know at the moment, but something will have to be done about it. I want to make it perfectly clear—and I know very well and take into account what I have said in some other observations—that we realise that our tanker shipping is on the increase. We are producing a vast number of tankers, but so are other countries. Germany has just built the biggest in the world.

Mr. Speaker

I dislike interrupting the right hon. Gentleman in his most interesting speech, but I am bound to confine the debate as far as I can to the scope of the Bill, which is very narrow, and if we embark on a discussion of the whole economic position of the Mercantile Marine, we shall be going much beyond what is permissible.

Mr. Shinwell

I am much obliged, Mr. Speaker, and I readily concede, with great respect, that that rebuke was called for. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) who is also interested in the matter, says that I almost asked for it.

I submit that the condition of the British Mercantile Marine is such that the Bill, although I agree that it is very well-intentioned, is not enough. Something more is required to ensure the stability and the future development of the British Mercantile Marine, and we require, not a minor amendment of the Merchant Shipping Acts, but the consolidation of those Acts.

I hope that the Government, having made a beginning—because this is really only a beginning as regards legislation affecting the Mercantile Marine, and I do not know of very much that has been done, apart from the Bill concerned with the licensing of canteens, which does not touch the substance of what we are discussing—will continue with this good work, so that we may give encouragement to those engaged in the Merchant Navy of this country, not only to the shipowners and shipbuilders, who are vitally affected, but also to the officers and men of our Merchant Navy.

4.19 p.m.

Colonel Sir Leonard Ropner (Barkston Ash)

I am sure you will understand, Mr. Speaker, that it is no criticism of you if I remark that I did not expect that the discussion on this Bill would range over such a variety of subjects as has been mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell). Before passing to the contents of the Bill, I should like to say, in connection with what the right hon. Gentleman has just said, that in my view, and not for the first time, he has displayed a good deal of common sense in the remarks he made about the British Mercantile Marine. Those of us who are forced to think about the future are considerably worried about both shipowning and shipbuilding.

To return to the Bill, as hon. and right hon. Gentleman are aware, many of the charges which are levied on a vessel, such as harbour, light and pilotage dues, are assessed on the registered tonnage of a ship. The registered tonnage is calculated by making certain deductions from the gross tonnage in respect of non-freight-carrying space. The current tonnage measurement rules which apply to the space devoted to the propelling power have ceased to be appropriate to modern engine-room design. Consequently, as I think the Minister and the right hon. Member for Easington said, engine rooms are often larger than they need be, with the further consequence that there is material loss of carrying capacity and, moreover, a good deal of waste of steel in the design and construction of ships.

Since modern and efficient ships are handicapped by the present rules, the General Council of British Shipping together with the shipbuilders and the Institute of Naval Architects have for some time been urging on the Ministry the need for a revision of the measurement rules. The Bill does not attempt to deal with all the outstanding problems presented by the tonnage measurement rules. That would be a long job and a task of great complexity. What we have in the Bill is a step in the right direction and one which I was glad to hear has been accepted, indeed welcomed, by no fewer than 26 out of the 28 countries with which we have reciprocal tonnage measurement arrangements. When the Bill becomes an Act, it will not operate until a date to be appointed by the Minister. We all hope that the intervening period will providetime for other countries to pass similar legislation.

Shipowners are content with the new requirement contained in Clause 1 that the Ministry of Transport surveyors must be satisfied: …that the space provided for the working of the boilers and machinery and the ventilation and lighting of that space are adequate. Naturally, shipowners hope that the word "adequate" will be interpreted reasonably. I hope that the Minister will be able to give me an assurance to that effect. Needless to say, neither I nor any other shipowner has any reason to suppose that such will not be the case. Finally, I would say that the Bill will bring, or at least allow, greater efficiency in ships with no loss of safety or comfort to those on board. It is for these reasons that shipowners welcome it.

4.25 p.m.

Mr. Stan Awbery (Bristol, Central)

It has been said that this is a very small Bill but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) said, we have some difficulty in understanding it. Before we go further, I should like to get a clear understanding on one or two matters. It is about 12 months since we lost the "Princess Victoria," with one of the hon. Members of this House on board. I wish to ensure that any changes in our Mercantile Marine law do not affect the efficiency of our ships at sea.

We are drafting a new code for ascertaining the net registered tonnage of ships. Why are we doing that? Is it only because the dock dues are paid on the registered tonnage, or does it mean that a ship will be allowed now to carry more cargo? If a ship of the same size is to be allowed to carry more cargo under the new method, then that means an alteration in the Plimsoll line. I certainly oppose any move which will alter the Plimsoll line, which caused so much trouble years ago.

Will the variation suggested by the Minister for the ascertainment of this tonnage affect the buoyancy of ships? If it will, I am against it. If it will not, then what advantage is there in introducing the new method? If we are to increase the amount of cargo which a ship can carry, then technically we are making that ship less seaworthy, and I am opposed to that. If there are big advantages to be derived from the new method, I ask the Minister why he has excluded the fishing vessel. There must be a reason why trawlers have been excluded. Perhaps the Minister will tell us.

My last question is whether the new method has been brought about now because we have learned by experience that the old method was wrong. Perhaps the Minister will answer this question. If I am satisfied with his answer, I shall support the Bill.

4.30 p.m.

Mr. J. N. Browne (Glasgow, Govan)

I shall not attempt to answer the hon. Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Awbery), but I think he will agree that it is strange that the shipping industries of the world have for so long allowed a method of calculation which left a gap of, I think, 9¼ per cent. in the registered tonnage calculation and, consequently, artificially expanded the engine rooms of vessels. I am sure that everyone will be glad that greater safety can be obtained by having a smaller engine room which assists so much in the making of watertight compartments of the ship by more proper subdivision.

I do not always agree with everything that the right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) says, but in this case I agree with him, and I am glad that Mr. Speaker allowed him to go on so long. I agree that this Bill must be looked at in the perspective of the cargo shipbuilding industry. The right hon. Member for Easington made reference to this, although he did not give the figures. In 1951, 4 million gross tons were ordered, while in 1952 only half a million tons were ordered. That is a very serious problem, but, of course, we must see it in its perspective of the post-war boom.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Charles MacAndrew)

We cannot go into that in this Bill which deals only with the size of the engine room.

Mr. Browne

I was afraid of that, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and so I shall now turn to the size of the engine room. There may be some loss, perhaps, of pilotage, harbour dues and light dues, but I think that the swings will be offset by the roundabouts.

We must remember that this Bill will bring four very definite advantages—(1) a saving in cost; (2) a saving in steel; (3) an increase in shipping space; and (4) an increase in the safety factor. For all those reasons, we should welcome the Bill, even though it is only a tidying-up Measure and we could cover a much wider field if allowed to do so.

I wish to pay tribute to the power unit makers and especially to the boiler makers who have enabled us to put an increasing power into a decreasing space. This Bill also gives an added opportunity for a renewed study of pipe work methods and layout. There was a time when I was rather afraid that the Americans would show us the way by their increasing reliance on welded pipelines. I am glad to learn—and here I must declare an interest—that our own yards are increasingly using the modern and space saving technique of welding fittings which make such a neat and clean job of the engine room and allow it to be so much smaller.

Finally, I join with my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Sir L. Ropner) in asking for an assurance about adequate space, and I should like a further assurance that, so far as possible, there will be no delay in the examination of ships' plans consequent upon this Bill. I support this Bill, and I know that the British ship owners do likewise.

4.34 p.m.

Mr. William Keenan (Liverpool, Kirkdale)

It is obviously anticipated and hoped that this Bill will increase the cargo space of ships. Whether it will also mean increased cargoes, I do not know. It probably will. The construction of ships has undergone great alterations; it has passed through the stage of the coal burner to the oil burner, and we now have the diesel engine and motor ship. I quite understand that the changed position will probably permit of the changed measurements proposed in the Bill.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) in some of the criticisms he made. Why, after all, do we introduce such a small Measure when there are a number of other very important matters in relation to shipping which need consideration? However, I suppose it is no good worrying about them and that we must concern ourselves with what is.

Will this Bill permit a reduction in the net tonnage and thus assist in reducing port charges? I am concerned to know whether the proposed change is likely to mean an increase in the cargo capacity of ships which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Awbery) pointed out, may mean an interference with the load line of a ship, which is not the Plimsoll line, because that was altered some years ago. I also feel very unhappy about that, because I do not think that the Plimsoll line should have been interfered with. However, it has been interfered with; but we do not want to see the position worsened.

Will this proposal interfere with the buoyancy of the ship through permitting a greater weight to be carried in it? Is this likely, because of the advantage which this Bill gives to new ships, to result in our getting rid of the older ships? I hope this will not result in the disposal of our older ships to other countries for use by them in competition with ourselves. This country has suffered from such competition in the past. Other countries bought our old ships and built up a service of tramp marine shipping with which it was very difficult for us to compete owing to the very different conditions under which our merchantmen serve.

Is this Bill intended merely to make it easier for shipowners so far as harbour dues are concerned, and is it a fact that the additional space provided for cargoes and the weight allowed will not interfere with the existing buoyancy and safety of ships?

4.39 p.m.

Commander R. Scott-Miller (King's Lynn)

I welcome this Bill, which I think will substantially ease the task of our Merchant Navy. Reference has been made to the importance of our Merchant Navy, and nobody could agree with that more than I do. We are now embarking on an era of greater exports, which will probably make all the difference to the future welfare of this country. That being so, it is of paramount importance that our exports should be carried from our shores to places throughout the world in the most economical way. Any Measure, therefore, which enables the shipbuilders and the shipping industry to conserve the space within the hull and so give greater carrying capacity can only have a beneficial effect to our industry in exporting throughout the world.

Mr. Awbery

May I ask the hon. and gallant Member whether this Bill is designed to give an increased carrying capacity? I put that to the Minister, and I want to know.

Commander Scott-Miller

I am much obliged to the hon. Member for referring to that point, because I read into the Bill that very effect. The smaller the engine space the greater the space outside the engine room, and thus the greater the freight-carrying capacity throughout the ship.

Mr. Awbery

The displacement is exactly the same whether the engine room is small or large.

Commander Scott-Miller

I do not dispute that. It would, of course, be the same, but on that very account the smaller the engine room space the more space there is within the hull for other purposes, and I do not think that the load line will be affected by this Bill at all. I certainly do not think that the safety of the ship can be affected other than beneficially, because we shall be able to have smaller watertight compartments and better damage control, and the ship will be very much more seaworthy and sound.

The Bill is very welcome, and I regret the conditions under which it has been necessary up to now to make engine rooms larger than necessary. This takes me back to the days when I served in the Merchant Navy; I remember that many years ago ships were built with an extraordinarily narrow beam on the upper deck. The ship had a very narrow upper deck and then came right out to nearly twice that width on the lower deck. That was done to obviate the high charges on ships going through the Suez Canal, which in those days were based on the width of the upper deck.

Here we have a similar thing. Hitherto, in order to avoid highpilotage charges and dock dues, engine rooms have been built bigger so as to have the right registered tonnage. We must try to avoid such measures in future and give our Merchant Navy every chance of that success which it is only too anxious to achieve. I am quite sure that the Merchant Service and the shipping industry fear no fair competition. We can stand in competition with anyone if given fair trading.

At some risk of being called to order by the Chair, I should like to refer to the threat from Germanshipbuilding mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell). He said that they had built a 30,000-ton tanker, but did not mention—though perhaps he would have done so if given the opportunity—that that ship was built in 18 months. That is something that we ourselves have not been able to do; so, apart from this Bill, there are plenty of opportunities of further increasing the efficiency of our Merchant Navy. I think that only good can come from the Bill, and I certainly give it my full backing.

4.45 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Gough (Horsham)

The majority of the speeches this afternoon have proved that this small Bill is, on the whole, completely non-controversial. A point has been raised by the hon. Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Awbery) with which, in some measure, I agree, and I hope to be helpful to him in what I have to say about it.

Like the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell), I am concerned about the complication of this Bill. I think I had to read it about ten times before I could begin to understand what it was about, and as it is designed to put right what is already a highly complicated state of affairs, I can only hope that it will achieve its purpose.

I was reminded of the sport of pony racing, in which I was interested many years ago, and I hope that I am in order to quote it as an example. In that sport the handicapping of the pony was by height. If the pony measured 14 hands 2 inches, it carried a certain weight; if just above that height it was not allowed to race; and if below it, the animal carried a lower weight. Without enlarging on this, I can assure hon. Members that I used to be astonished at the size of many ponies entering the races, but discovered that, by various methods, their owners and trainers were able to make these intelligent animals crouch whenever the yardstick was placed upon them by the official handicapper.

The reverse has been happening in the shipping industry, because if the ship designer and shipbuilder could manage to make the engine room and boiler room big enough, the registered tonnage bore a far more advantageous percentage to the gross tonnage than if, by a slight mistake, they went just below the 13 per cent. figure to which reference has been made, and the difference was as much as between 32 and 22.6 per cent. As I understand it, this short Bill is designed to cut that out and to taper it off in a proper manner, the effect being, more freight-earning space.

Although it has not been mentioned this afternoon, I have heard one or two people discussing the Bill and wondering whether it will mean more space for the crew. This Bill is not designed for that purpose. I am a member of the British Sailors' Society, so I am naturally extremely interested in the question of crews' quarters; but as I see it, the Bill has nothing to do with that. As the right hon. Member for Easington said, that is a matter dealt with under other legislation.

It has been argued by the Chamber of Shipping and others interested that this Measure will increase safety in ships, and my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has said so. At this point, I must declare an interest. I am a reasonably active underwriter at Lloyds, so I am very interested in the safety of any ships all over the world. I have taken a great deal of trouble to find out the views of leading underwriters in the marine insurance market, and I do not believe that this Measure is going to increase the safety of ships. On the other hand, I do not think that the hon. Member for Bristol, Central need be unduly concerned that it will make the risk greater.

The argument has been made that the safety of ships will be increased because of smaller compartments. It is perfectly true that, if a ship is built with very small compartments, its safety at sea increases. The most startling recent evidence of that was during the last war, when the "Bismarck," as we all know, proved to be practically indestructible. I was in the Navy many years ago, and I remember the German fleet being sunk at Scapa Flow. German battleships were always built with very small compartments. There is no doubt that that increases the safety of the ships but, as I see it, this Bill reduces only that compartment in which the propelling power is situated. The idea is to make the remainder of the holds even larger.

I want to ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether the marine designers, when designing new ships under this Measure, will give consideration to the distribution of weight. That is the point to which the hon. Member for Bristol, Central referred. I believe that that this question is connected with what is called the metacentric height, which is the difference between the centre of gravity and the centre of buoyancy. That will vary according to the type of ship. If that question is taken into account, matters affecting the load line or the old Plimsoll line will not need to be considered; but the marine insurance world will take the most serious view—and they control a great deal of thought on the subject—if, as a result of this Bill, the design of future ships becomes more dangerous.

I was very glad to hear that so many of the countries which are within the reciprocal tonnage measurement agreement have adopted provisions similar to those laid down in this Bill, but I should be interested to know which are the two countries which have not done so. I saw a list which included virtually all the biggest shipping countries—the Scandinavian countries, France, Italy, Greece, Russia, Japan and the United States—but I wonder whether Panama is included?

It sounds rather absurd to think of Panama as a big shipping country, but it has many ships flying the Panamanian flag, for reasons which I should be completely out of order to go into now. It would be important if Panama were within this agreement, because of the question of dues through the Panama Canal. I may be quite wrong about Panama, but I shall be obliged if my hon. Friend can help me on this matter.

While I am entirely satisfied with the provision that the Minister's surveyor should examine all these vessels, I do hope that we can have a complete assurance from the Minister that that will not cause any undue delay, and that the test he makes will be a reasonable one. This Bill has the full approval of the British shipping industry and of the seafaring trade unions, and it will have the effect of simplifying a matter which is extremely complicated at the moment. From that it is sure to lead to more economic design, and it is right to say that it will lead, also, to more carrying power for the same tonnage with equal safety to that which we have at the moment. I feel that the Second Reading of this Bill should be agreed to on all sides.

4.54 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

I also welcome this Bill, but I welcome it rather as the fairy prince welcomed the first flutter of the eyelids of the sleeping beauty.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

You are no fairy.

Mr. Page

I am no fairy. This is only a flutter of the eyelids, but it is a sign of some awakening. Without following the right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) too far outside the orbit of this debate, I should like to mention that a fortnight ago I saw a far more disturbing sign of awakening in this connection. I stood in the shipyard of the Deutsche-Werft in Hamburg and saw how that shipyard, which had started rebuilding only two or three years ago, had built more tonnage last year than any other shipyard in the world. That was because of the encouragement which shipbuilding has received in Germany for the past few years.

This Bill is some encouragement to British shipbuilding. I had hoped that the shipbuilding industry might have received even more encouragement, but this Bill is at least a crumb in that respect. Only by going a little into the history of tonnage is it possible to understand the purport of this Bill and its importance to the industry. Many hon. Members have said that it is quite a minor amendment of the law. It will, in fact, give very considerable assistance to the industry. The legislation on ships' tonnage is buried in the depths of antiquity. It is probably the most antiquated system of legislation applying to any active industry at the present time, and is entirely antiquated in the light of modern shipbuilding, engineering and mercantile practice.

Even the origin of the word "tonnage" is most uncertain. Nobody can say with confidence whether it refers to the ton avoirdupois or the tun of the French wine cask. In our mercantile law we chose the unit of 100 cubic feet of space of the ship as meaning one ton of tonnage, whereas, in the 17th Century, the French were measuring theirs by the 42 cubic feet of the four tuns of the French wine cask. At first sight it may seem to go rather wide of the terms of this debate, but I mention it because it shows the principle upon which tonnage is measured and which, I submit, is wrong for modern shipbuilding practice. It is measured on the assumed earning capacity of the ship. It is a kind of means test on the shipowner in connection with the dues which he has to pay to the port authorities.

We have stuck to that old and revered method of measuring space in order to convert it into tonnage, assuming from that an earning capacity for the ship. Our legislators in 1894 guessed at some sort of deduction to be made in respect of the propelling power space. The guess which they made was 13 per cent. of the gross tonnage for machinery and boiler space, and they made a deduction of 32 per cent. from the gross tonnage in order to arrive at the net register tonnage. The difference is, of course, another guess at the space which would be occupied by bunkering.

That magic figure of 13 per cent. has given rise to immense trouble. As my hon. Friend explained, if we are unable to make our engine space exceed 13 per cent., by some device or artifice, then the 1¾ rule applies, and if the engine space is only 13 per cent. of the gross tonnage, and if my mathematics are correct, we get a deduction of 22¾ per cent., whereas if our engine space is 13.1 per cent., our deduction from the gross tonnage immediately jumps 10 per cent. That is under the present law. That is what this Bill is intended to remedy.

The dangers under the present law are that in order to get that 13.1 per cent. propelling power space shipbuilders have adopted all sorts of devices. There are spaces for light and air around the machinery. I do not consider that is a danger, but it certainly reduces the ship's efficiency. More dangerous are the devices to reduce gross tonnage. The builders of cargo or tanker vessels do not build a truly single decker or a truly two-decker ship. They put in a 'tween deck, and in the main deck there is the tonnage opening—to those uninitiated, a hole in the floor—which has to be kept permanently uncovered. In every bulkhead between the upper deck and lower deck there is cut a hole. That hole must be kept permanently unclosed, so that the space between the upper deck and the lower deck is not permanently enclosed. Then it does not come within the internal measurement of the ship, and is, therefore, not calculated in the gross tonnage. The danger from that is, of course, that although it reduces the net register tonnage, it certainly increases the risk of the spread of fire through that deck. I hope that the Bill will make unnecessary wiles of that sort to reduce the gross tonnage artificially.

Our modern knowledge of engines has increased enormously since 60 years ago, since 1894, when the legislators guessed at the 13 per cent. We can now use much less than 13 per cent. space and still give sufficient light and air around the propelling machinery that can be installed. There is a compact, streamlined engine which can be installed now. So far as the diesel engine is concerned, very little effort has been made to reduce the size of the engine, although I understand it can be reduced in size and yet provide the same power. There has been no encouragement to reduce the size, for why should a shipbuilder trouble about that if he has got to provide it with 13 per cent, space to get the advantage from the deduction, the advantage from the reduced dock fees?

So far as the gas-turbine engine is concerned, which, in my humble opinion, is the next advance in British shipbuilding, and is already installed in a French vessel of some considerable size, it can be installed in a very small space. Up to the present, however, shipbuilders and shipowners have been reluctant to advance along those lines. They have in effect said, "What is the use of installing the small engine if we cannot have the advantage of the small space in which it is to be installed?"

Before the war the fashion was to operate cargo vessels and tankers of some 12,000 to 18,000 tons. Shipowners at the present time find that it is more economical to operate with the very much larger vessel of 30,000 tons, and are now asking to go up to 40,000 and 45,000 ton tankers. If we had continued under the present laws it would have been necessary, to obtain the advantage of the deductions from net register tonnage, to set aside 13 per cent., and 13 per cent. of 45,000 tons net register is a very large figure. I endeavoured to work it out a few moments ago. I came to the figure of 575,000 cubic feet. To set aside 575,000 cubic feet for propelling space is, of course, nonsense. I think that this Bill will relieve the shipbuilder and the shipowner from adopting that rather farcical position.

In the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, I think, perhaps, the legislators had more foresight than we have at the present time, because there is no doubt that they foresaw the progress in machinery and in the propelling power for ships. In Section 78 of that Act, which is the Section relating to these deductions from net register tonnage, after providing for the present deductions for vessels with propelling power space between 13 per cent. and 20 per cent., there is the following provision that in any other ships, that is, those whose propelling power space is less than 13 per cent. or more than 20 per cent. …the deduction shall, if the Board of Trade and owners agree thereto, be estimated in the same manner. In the case of the ship with less than 13 per cent. propelling power space, it was within the power of the Board of Trade to say, "We will allow you the 32 per cent." without any further legislation. I understand that the regulations made under this Section, the instructions the Board issued for measuring tonnage, have always applied the 1¾ rule to ships whose propelling power space is under 13 per cent.—the same rule as has been applied to ships with propelling power space exceeding 20 per cent.

I wonder, indeed, whether the Bill is necessary at all and whether everything could not have been done under regulations made under Section 78 (1, b) of the 1894 Act. The answer, I suspect, may be that the Ministry is not prepared to be quite as generous to the shipbuilder today as were the legislators in 1894 and that the Ministry is not prepared to allow the full 32 per cent. deduction but only a proportionate part of it. I had hoped that the Ministry might be generous enough to allow the whole 32 per cent., but perhaps that is a Committee point and not one for discussion on the general policy of the Bill.

Undoubtedly the general policy of the Bill is a step in the right direction. I hope it is only a step; I hope this is a short-term policy and is merely the forerunner of a complete revision of tonnage measurements. In the Bill we are still retaining the old principle of measuring the earning capacity of the ship and, thus, the capacity of the owner to pay. We are not measuring the ship's demands on the port. Surely the demands on the port and the services which the port gives could better be measured by the displacement of the vessel, its length, its breadth and the draught of water involved, than by this fanciful figure of net registered tons. I hope the Bill may be a forerunner of some complete revision of tonnage measurement, and in that hope I trust that it will receive a Second Reading.

5.12 p.m.

Mr. Molson

I trust that I may have the permission of the House to reply to a few of the points which have been raised. [HON MEMBERS: "Agreed."] I should like to begin by expressing my gratitude to the House for the general welcome which this small Bill has received. The speech of the right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) started the debate on a very happy note. I was very glad that he was able, for a time, to go perhaps a little outside the terms of the Bill in order to express his patriotic concern about the present state of the shipping industry. He asked me whether I was satisfied that, in granting certain concessions to ships, the Bill was acceptable to the docks and harbour authorities. We included them amongst the representative bodies whom we consulted, and they raised no objection. I note what the right hon. Gentle- man said about the consolidation of the Merchant Shipping Acts, and I will certainly consider that matter.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Sir L. Ropner) also expressed his general support of the Bill, and welcomed it. He asked me for an assurance that the surveyors of ships would interpret the word "adequate," in connection with the space, in a reasonable manner. I am told by the officials of the Ministry of Transport that relations have always been extremely happy between the surveyors of ships and both the shipowners and the trade unions, and the same reasonable attitude which has been adopted in the past will certainly be adopted in the future.

The hon. Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Awbery) raised several points. He asked whether the effect of the Bill would be to enable ships to carry more cargo and whether that would reduce the factor of safety. It is, of course, the purpose of the Bill to enable ships to be designed and built so as to have a larger space available for carrying cargo. The whole question of how much cargo and what weight a ship is allowed to carry depends upon the load line conventions and the rules made there under, and this Bill will in no way affect the law concerning load lines. There is no question whatever of reducing the margin of safety in that respect.

Indeed, it is our view—and I am glad to have it confirmed by hon. Members with shipping knowledge who have spoken in the debate—that because the engine room will be smaller there will be a better sub-division in the ship and, therefore, we believe, greater safety. The hon. Gentleman also asked why trawlers were excluded. Fishing ships are not expressly excluded from the operation of the Bill, but in fact they will not be affected because practically no fishing ship has an engine room as small as 13 per cent. of the total gross tonnage.

In the course of a brief speech in which the set out the advantages of the Bill in effecting economies in cost, in steel and in space and in increasing the factor of safety, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. J. M. Browne) asked for the assurance which I have given about the interpretation which will be placed by surveyors of ships upon the word "adequate" and also that there should be no undue delay in the approval of plans. I can certainly give the assurance that we will do everything possible to ensure that plans are examined without any delay.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for King's Lynn (Commander Scott-Miller) gave general support to the Bill and, in particular, with his experience of having served in the Merchant Navy, expressed his view that the effect of the Bill would be to increase safety. I am very glad indeed to have this support from him.

My hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Gough) asked about the two countries which are not included in the 26 with which we have reciprocal agreements and which have approved the proposal. The only country which has expressed disagreement with these proposals is Italy. Russia has not yet replied. We had no reciprocal arrangements with Panama and therefore that Government were not consulted. As for the metacentric height, I am assured by the technical advisers of my Department that they agree with the naval architects that there is no danger in that respect.

In his speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) touched upon the particular category of ships most likely to benefit by the provisions of the Bill—the tankers. At present we do not think more than 4 per cent. of British ships have engine rooms of less than 13 per cent. The maximum which we can expect at any time, if the provisions of the Bill are as satisfactory as we hope they will be, is that that percentage will be increased to something like 10 per cent.; but that 10 per cent. may be extremely important, because it will consist chiefly of tankers which come into this category. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the increase in the ordinary size of tankers is likely to make this Bill more important than it would have been at some time in the past. I should like once more to express my gratitude to all those hon. Members who have given their approval to this Bill, and I hope that we shall have that continued co-operation during the remaining stages of the Bill.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith.]

Committee Tomorrow.