HC Deb 07 February 1958 vol 581 cc1563-76

Order for Second Reading read.

3.12 p.m.

Mr. Knox Cunningham (Antrim, South)

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

I have been asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. Forrest), who had the good fortune to draw a place in the Ballot, to introduce the Second Reading for, although this is a simple Bill, it deals with a matter which is of considerable legal complexity.

First, I should like the House to pay a tribute to the work which has been done on this subject for a number of years by the International Maritime Committee, and, in particular, the British constituent body, the British Maritime Law Association. It was due to the work of these bodies that the draft Convention on the subject of the limitation of the liability of the owners of seagoing vessels was agreed to in Madrid in September, 1955. With certain amendments, the text of that draft Convention has become the basis of the international Convention, relating to the limitation of liability of owners of seagoing ships, which was signed by the representatives of eighteen nations at Brussels in October, 1957. This Convention was published last Friday by Her Majesty's Stationery Office and is in the hands of hon. Members.

Why, then, do the supporters of the Bill feel that the matter is urgent and requires the attention of Parliament? The present amount of the limitation of liability of shipowners is based on the tonnage of the vessel. The figures of £15 per ton for loss of life, personal injury and damage to property and £8 a ton in cases where there is no loss of life or personal injury, were fixed as long ago as 1862. Those figures were re-enacted in the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, which was a consolidating Measure.

May I quote the view of the judiciary about these figures? I quote from the judgment in the case of the "Landeer", which is reported in Lloyd's List Law Reports, 1955, volume 2, page 554. At page 561, Mr. Justice Willmer states: The other thing I would like to add is this. One cannot, of course, help but feel sympathy with the defendant in this case, who has suffered a grievous personal injury through no fault of his own. It is, unhappily, the fact that the limit of liability, £15 per ton, was fixed nearly a hundred years ago, at a time when the value of money was something very different from what it is today. It must, I think, be obvious—and this case certainly bears witness to the fact—that there must be many instances today when the size of a limitation fund is really quite out of line with the realities of the case. I think this case, therefore, does emphasise the desirability of giving further consideration (as I understand consideration is even now being given) to the question whether the monetary limit should not properly be increased, so as to be brought more into line with the modern value of money. Certainly I think anybody sitting in my position in this Court would have every sympathy with the suggestion that the monetary limits are overdue for review. That also is the view of Her Majesty's Government, as is shown by the reply of a former Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation to a Question in this House in November, 1955, when my right hon. Friend the present Minister of Pensions and National Insurance stated: It has been an international practice for a very long time to have some limitation of liability, but I agree with my hon. Friend that, among other things, the change in the value of money since 1894 makes it desirable to reconsider these figures. If we can, I think we should move with other countries."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd November, 1955; Vol. 546, c. 1429–30.] It may be asked whether any substantial injustice is being done by retaining these out-of-date figures. Figures for limitation actions in England for the preceding six years were given in a Written Answer to a Parliamentary Question in February, 1956, which appears in HANSARD, Vol. 549, c. 87. It shows that the claims proved and allowed amounted to £1,918,000—just short of £2 million—but that the amounts actually paid out to the parties entitled to this £2 million was only £396,000.

That is not, however, the whole story, for many of these disputes are settled on the basis of known figures of limitation and they never go forward to a limitation action. Again, sometimes limitation is used as a defence in an action and here again, no action for limitation of liability is ever commenced. Even if it should be thought that such amounts are small in aggregate, the matter is not a trivial one to the person concerned.

Let me give an example. A seaman is killed in a collision between two vessels. His widow, as administratrix, takes out a writ against the owners of the wrong-doing vessel, claiming under the Fatal Accidents Act on behalf of herself and the dependent children. Liability is admitted by the wrongdoer. The claim goes before the learned Admiralty Registrar, who assesses it at, say, £7,500. But a limitation action has been commenced and everyone realises that the amount of the claim will never be paid. What happens is that a decree of limitation is made and the widow and children may receive, say, £1,000 instead of the amount of their claim as assessed by the court. In such a case, the innocent parties receive only £1,000 and the wrongdoer is relieved by statute of paying £6,500.

This is an injustice which is recognised by everybody who deals with such matters and it is one which the Bill hopes, in part, to rectify.

Clause 1 of the Bill substitutes the figures of 74 for 15 and 24 for 8 in the appropriate Section of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894. These figures are the sterling equivalents of the amounts agreed in the International Convention of Brussels of October last year. Clause 2 substitutes the figure of 24 for 8 in the Merchant Shipping (Liability of Shipowners and Others) Act, 1900. That is the Act which deals with the rights of owners of docks, canals and harbour and of conservancy authorities.

Clause 3 seeks to ensure that when the Bill becomes an Act references in any other Act to the limitation figures in the Merchant Shipping Acts will be to these increased amounts. This is important because the Crown Proceedings Act, 1947, allows Her Majesty to limit for Her Majesty's ships and does so by referring to the Merchant Shipping Acts without mentioning any figures of the amount per ton of limitation.

This Bill seeks to insert new figures into the existing Acts and not in any way to alter the framework of the law relating to the limitation of liability of shipowners and others. This is not because the supporters of the Bill are opposed to the changes which appear in the International Convention of October, 1957, for although the text of that Convention was published only last week it was quite possible to surmise what the main changes would be from a study of the draft Madrid Convention of 1955. There is, for example, a very helpful suggestion that ships of less than 300 tons shall be deemed to be 300 tons for the purpose of limitation. If brought into force this would mean that when loss of life is involved the minimum total fund would be £22,200. There is also a very helpful provision that the amounts stated in the Convention are fixed in gold francs. This is some protection against inflation.

There are, of course, other matters contained in this Convention, but I do not intend to deal with them now. It would not be possible, however, for a private Member to insert those provisions in a Private Member's Bill. Such alterations in our law will be complex and far reaching. The Government alone have the resources at their command for consultation with the interests involved, for obtaining advice as to the results of certain changes, and for the very intricate legal drafting which will be involved. The supporters of the Bill recognise these facts. They recognise that this Bill is a temporary Measure, one which will go some way to right a crying injustice, but a Measure which will be repealed by and incorporated in the comprehensive Measure which the Government may bring in at some future date.

Why then do we not wait for the comprehensive Measure? Why bring in this temporary Measure? An International Maritime Convention relating to the arrest of sister ships was agreed upon in Brussels in the spring of 1952. It became the law here on 1st January, 1957. There was a four years' delay. A previous Convention agreed in London in 1948 took six years to come into force. A Convention of 1924 dealing with limitation of liability of seagoing ships, and which was signed but not ratified by the United Kingdom, has never come into force. That is the reason why the supporters of this Bill desire that these figures, which have been agreed upon by the 18 nations at the International Convention, should be inserted in our law as soon as possible.

We, the supporters of the Bill, are not concerned with the amount of the limit of liability in respect of property claims. These are largely matters which are dealt with between underwriters. In nearly every case claims are covered by insurance. When two ships collide, for example, it may be a question of which set of underwriters, those of the hull or of the third party bear the liability. The fact remains that the total amount of physical damage, caused by the collision, is in fact covered by insurance. That is not so in cases of loss of life or personal injury. The innocent party or his dependants are generally not covered by insurance. Grave injustice is often done to widows and infant children, and the court is often compelled by statute to issue decrees of liability which cause bitter hardship.

This House in times past has stood firm in support of individuals against the oppression of power, whether it be wielded by the State or by corporations or associations. Today we see the oppressive results of a statute passed many years ago by this Parliament. By giving a Second Reading to the Bill, the House will bring relief in future to innocent persons, to injured seamen or their widows or children.

3.26 p.m.

Mr. George Forrest (Mid-Ulster)

I beg to second the Motion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Knox Cunningham), who gave me such remarkable assistance in the drafting of the Bill, moved and outlined the purpose of the Bill in a most able manner.

It is seldom given to a Member of the House to have the privilege of making his maiden speech upon his own Private Member's Bill. I have that good fortune and I crave the indulgence of the House for what I have to say. As the House is aware, I represent one of the few constituencies in Northern Ireland which have no seaboard. It may therefore seem strange that I should have chosen to submit this Measure consequent upon my good fortune in the Ballot. I hope to justify my choice in the course of my observations.

Firstly, although it is true that I represent an inland and mainly farming community, it is equally true that Northern Ireland, as an integral part of the United Kingdom, is largely dependent upon sea communications for its trade and intercourse with the principal United Kingdom markets, as well as for its foreign and export trade. Northern Ireland products are carried over the seven seas to the most remote parts of the world, and upon our seaborne trade depends not only much of our livelihood but also Northern Ireland's valuable contribution to the dollar earnings of the sterling area.

Likewise, in Northern Ireland we are dependent upon shipping for the import of those raw materials in which we are deficient, which are so vital to our industries and upon which depend our level of employment. Our citizens make frequent use of sea communications for visits to this country and for their business journeys to the great centres of the industrial life not only of the United Kingdom but of Europe and of the world.

Secondly, there is precedent in the House for a Member who represents an inland constituency using his Private Member's Bill for matters maritime. I need only mention that the Private Member's Bill which led to the establishment of the Plimsoll Line was that of a former hon. Member for Derby, to vindicate my introduction of this Measure to the House.

The Bill proposes a reform which in my view is long overdule. It has been quite fantastic that, in the past, dependants of a person killed by negligence on the part of a shipowner or his servants should have been dependent upon the size of the miscreant's ship for the measure of their damages.

Such limitation of an owner's liability is contrary to common sense and alien to our sense of justice. In my view there can be no logical distinction between carriage by sea land and air which can justify a difference in the treatment accorded to dependants of the dead, or to the injured who suffer damage by the negligence of the owner of a sea-borne vessel or by the owner's crew who navigate the vessel.

It has been argued that limitation of liability hitherto available has been justified by the magnitude of the inherent liability of a shipowner whose vessel carries many passengers and, in many cases, a great quantity of cargo disproportionate to the value of the vessel. I would point out to hon. Members that here, in this City of London, on the upper deck of a double-decker omnibus, it is possible that the bus may carry twenty-six company directors whose total value in a fatal accident might well amount to over £30,000, a figure disproportionate to the value of the bus.

In air and land travel there is no limitation. We are a great maritime nation. At Brussels in October, 1957, at the International Convention on Shipowners' Liability, the representatives of Her Majesty's Government agreed that the figures which I have inserted in this Bill should be substituted for those parsimonious figures now in force.

Mr. Speaker, I beg to second the Motion, and I ask the House to give a Second Reading to my Bill.

3.32 p.m.

Mr. Walter Edwards (Stepney)

It is a great privilege for me to follow the hon. Gentleman the Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. Forrest). It was a pleasure to listen to his nice Irish brogue, and to realise that the hon. Gentleman has shown in his first speech in the House of Commons that he has mastered his subject. Indeed, he has given me some information that I did not have before, and so I am sure the whole House will be with me in wishing the hon. Gentleman every success in his future speeches to us. We hope they will be as instructive and as enjoyable as this one has been.

Naturally, speaking from these benches, I can say that I will give every possible support to this Bill, which I am very glad has been brought before this House. Rarely is the Merchant Navy, or its officers and men, mentioned here; and it is seldom talked about unless there is a disaster at sea. This Measure will at least bring some assistance to those who serve at sea in the Merchant Navy and to their dependants, if anything should happen during that service.

The only fault I find with the Bill is that there is not enough in it. In the Merchant Navy there is already a limitation of liability but, thank goodness, if the Bill goes through there will be an increase in the amount of money to be placed in the fund. It should be remembered that those in the Merchant Navy are employed in British industry in the same way as everybody else. Why on earth should not some system be devised whereby men in the Merchant Navy can have the same rights and privileges as other industrial workers?

The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster agreed with measures to that end being taken. I appreciate that, as the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Knox Cunningham) said, in a small Bill like this it is not possible to include everything. However, the Measure gives the House an opportunity to express the view, which I am sure is shared by most hon. Members, that the provisions relating to liabilities in respect of merchant seamen in the event of death and accident are completely out of date in the same way as the figures which it is now proposed to alter are completely out of date, dating back nearly a century. Something ought to be done about this, if it is at all possible, when the Bill is further considered or, if not, it should be done by means of another Bill.

There is something else which I think the sponsors of this Measure might have been able to introduce without causing too much friction. I refer to the question of the minimum of £300. The hon. Member for Antrim, South said he felt that this could be dealt with administratively rather than by the Bill. Those who represent seamen feel that the minimum should be inserted in the Bill. This would be carrying out what the International Convention agreed in October last. This is something else which ought to be done to make things a little better for those who serve in the smaller vessels.

There is something which is not generally known and would not be known except for the Bill. Those serving in the Merchant Navy are at a disadvantage compared with their colleagues in other industries in respect of claims. My information is that in the case of the Merchant Navy the action in respect of a claim is limited to two years, whereas in industry in general under various Acts of Parliament the limitation is three years. That matter should be examined.

I am sure the Bill will receive the approval of the House. I thought it necessary to raise one or two matters in the way I have done, but I have full sympathy with these proposals and I am sure that I can promise its promoters support from this side of the House.

3.37 p.m.

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

Perhaps it will be convenient if I now state briefly the position of Her Majesty's Government in regard to the Bill.

First, I would congratulate both of my hon. Friends, the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Knox Cunningham) and the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. Forrest), on the way in which they have introduced it. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Ulster has had the exceptional experience of making his maiden speech upon his own Private Member's Bill, and he did it in an admirable way. I am very glad that he has taken such an interest in shipping, which concerns my Department. We shall very much look forward to hearing him again. My hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South has been tireless in his study of the difficult question of the limitation of shipowners' liability and his efforts to seek a reform of the law.

As the House knows, the Convention was drawn up at the diplomatic conference at Brussels. I should like to join my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South in paying tribute to the work of the British Maritime Law Association in that regard. Perhaps I might also say that the two leaders of our delegation at Brussels were two judges of the High Court, Mr. Justice Pitcher and Mr. Justice McNair, who have wide knowledge on this subject; I should like to pay tribute to the work that they did on our behalf, and also to the Belgian Government, which convened the Tenth Session of the Conference in Brussels, for all the facilities that they gave those who took part in the Conference.

I should tell the House that the Government support the principle of the Bill as far as it goes, provided—I think this is the answer to the hon. Member for Stepney (Mr. W. Edwards)—that it can be expanded to cover the full scope of the Brussels Convention. The Government are anxious to ratify the Convention as early as practicable. They are convinced that such a lead by the United Kingdom, as the major maritime Power playing a leading part in the preparation of this Convention, would do much to give confidence to other countries to ratify also. However, before we could ratify the Convention, the Merchant Shipping Acts must be amended so as to bring them into line with the provisions of the Convention.

The major points which it would be necessary to cover by amendment of the Merchant Shipping Acts are as follows. First, we would have to raise the existing limits of liability under United Kingdom law to those provided for in the Convention. That is dealt with in this Bill and in Article 3 of the Convention. Secondly, it would be necessary to extend the kinds of liability which can be limited. Thirdly, it would also be necessary to extend the list of persons who can be limited, so as to include a gross charterer, the manager and operator of the ship as well as the master, crew and other servants of the owner, charterer, manager or operator. Hon. Members will find all that in the Sixth Article of the Convention.

Now, I come to the point put by the hon. Member for Stepney about the 300 tons platform. It will be necessary to provide that the tonnage of a ship of less than 300 tons would be deemed to be 300 tons, and hon. Members will find that in Article 3 of the Convention.

The amounts at which liability would be limited would have to be expressed in gold francs with a specified gold content, and that would have to be dealt with in special detail. Provision would also have to be made for the release of a ship, or bail put up for a ship, if the ship had previously been arrested, or satisfactory security given, in certain other places specified in the Convention. I thought I should list these matters in view of the course which the Government propose to take in this matter.

This Bill, therefore, deals with one aspect only of the problem—the increase of monetary limits, which is undoubtedly important, but it would seem unfortunate if legislation were confined to that one point, for the following reasons. There is a strong case to bring the existing law up-to-date, as my hon. Friends have already said. The provisions of the Convention form an integral whole, and it would be unsatisfactory to impose the higher limits of liability without at the same time giving the benefits of the other provisions of the Convention.

Of the other provisions, that relating to the minimum tonnage of 300 tons—the "tonnage platform"—is of particular importance. Its purpose is to ensure that, even in respect of the smallest vessels, there is an adequate fund for meeting claims, especially those for death and personal injury.

If we did not do as I have said, Her Majesty's Government would not be in a position to ratify the Convention, and, therefore, the Government are convinced that legislation should cover the whole range of the Convention, and not merely one particular aspect of it. In the normal course of events, the Government would have introduced their own Bill amending the Merchant Shipping Acts to bring about such important changes, but they cannot undertake to do this during the present Session of Parliament. They therefore feel that the best course would be to move Amendments to the Bill at a later stage so as to cover all the provisions of the Convention. It may not be possible to introduce all the requisite Amendments in this House, in which case others would have to be moved in another place. The Government ask for the assistance of hon. Members in this process. The ultimate objective is highly desirable, and should, I think, commend itself to the whole House. Everyone has something to gain if our existing law, which dates back to more than ninety years ago, is amended and brought into line with modern conditions.

Finally, all the interests concerned will, of course, be consulted beforehand. There was in fact full consultation before the Brussels Conference which took place last year, but many of these interests may feel that they would like to make further representations about the implementation of the Convention. I appreciate that the time available will be limited, but consultations to this end have already begun, and I can assure the House that they will be pressed ahead with all possible speed during the next few weeks before the next stages of the Bill. The Government will, therefore, after consulting all concerned, move a number of Amendments in Committee. We welcome the principle of the Bill as far as it goes and that is the course which we propose to adopt.

3.46 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Rossendale)

I join in congratulating the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. Forrest) on the enterprise he has shown in bringing forward a Measure which many of us have wanted to see introduced for a considerable time, and to thank him for the very friendly and informative way in which he presented his case.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary stressed the difficulties which many of us felt about this Measure. It is a good Bill and a great step forward, bringing up to date the law which has existed since 1862 and whose figures are wholly unrealistic. We were anxious to know whether certain gaps in the Bill were to be filled, and we therefore appreciate the assurance which the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has just given.

We are particularly interested in three points. The first concerns accidents involving personal injury or loss of life being removed from limitation. The second is that the minimum of 300 tons should be included in the Bill, and the third is that there should be the same provision about the time limit in the case of merchant seamen as there is in the case of other workers. The course of action the hon. Member has suggested will commend itself to the House, and I assure him that we on this side are as anxious as anybody else for the Convention to come into force. We shall, therefore, do what we can to help the Bill through the House so that the Convention can be ratified.

3.48 p.m.

Mr. John Howard (Southampton, Test)

We were all relieved to hear what my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary said. As it stands, the Bill is incomplete in that it deals with only one item contained in the draft Convention, admittedly a most important item, but it would have been a pity if the House had passed the Bill dealing with one limited point. We are the leading maritime nation and to put on the Statute Book a Measure which dealt to such a limited degree with the recommendations resulting from some four years' study of the problems of maritime law and limitation would have been a mistake. I conclude from what my hon. Friend said that there will be consultation with the industry all the way along in the hope that the whole of the Convention will be implemented.

I welcome the Bill, with those reservations, on behalf of my own constituency in Southampton. We have one of the largest harbours, and, speaking from a seaport constituency, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. Forrest) on his maiden speech, and also thank him from a land-locked constituency for introducing a Measure of such importance to the sea-going community.

I want to refer to only one matter contained in the Convention. That is a recommendation concerning the limitation of liability in the case of accidents in harbours involving the clearance of wrecks. I understand that Her Majesty's Government representative entered a reservation on this point, but at the moment consultations among the Ministry of Transport, the British Maritime Law Association and the shipowners are in progress on the subject of making good out of some specific insurance fund any shortfall in the cost of clearing a wreck arising from this limitation clause. I hope that those deliberations will be satisfactorily concluded and that we may see this additional clause included in whatever form this legislation finally takes.

3.50 p.m.

Mr. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

It may seem strange that the hon. Member for Twickenham should intervene in this debate on merchant shipping. The fact is that my constituency has nine miles of river frontage and my constituents are vitally affected by the provisions in this Bill. On a dark and foggy night barges and tugs proceeding up and down the river, as well as afternoon pleasure steamers, can bang into the banks and do a considerable amount of damage. I should like to mention a specific case which came to my notice recently.

One of my constituents, Lord Saltoun, has a gazebo or summer house at the end of his garden facing the river, which is scheduled as an ancient monument because it belongs to an 18th century house. This monument has twice been knocked down in recent years by barges, and its re-erection has in each case cost about £1,000. The last time it was knocked down by a 30-ton barge and, there being a limit of £8 per ton, the liability which shipowners pay is therefore £320. I am well aware that in most cases the difference between the liability paid by the shipowners and the cost of re-erection may be covered by insurance. But when there is more than one accident the insurance rates go up, and it seems unfair that riparian owners should have to pay heavy insurance rates to protect their property. On behalf of these riparian owners, I welcome the improvements contained in the Bill.

I was pleased when my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary said that in improving this Bill there will be an Amendment to reproduce Article 3 (5) of the Brussels Convention, in which the tonnage of ships less than 300 tons will be counted as 300 tons. That will help the owners of riverside properties alongside the Thames. It does not seem to be any part of the duty of the police to make inquiries on behalf of owners whose property has been damaged by a ship. If there is a road accident, the police normally make a report which is available to one or both of the parties to the accident. In the case of Lord Saltoun, it being a dark and foggy night, he was unable to trace the owner of the boat which caused the damage. Although the matter was reported both to the police and to the Port of London Authority, it did not seem possible for anybody to take up the matter on his behalf. Lord Saltoun had to make his own inquiries, which I think were unsuccessful. I should like to move an Amendment, or perhaps the Ministry of Transport would move an Amendment, to give powers to the police to make inquiries on behalf of owners.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 38 (Committal of Bills).