HL Deb 10 July 1851 vol 118 cc423-30

rose, in pursuance of his notice, to move for certain reports and returns relative to the Merchant Seamen's Fund, which he thought ought to be in the hands of their Lordships before they proceeded to discuss the measure on this subject, which was likely to come up to them soon from another place. That measure was so much mixed up with money matters that it would be impossible for their Lordships to make any alteration in it and he should, therefore, offer a few remarks upon it now, in the hope that they might be found useful elsewhere. He viewed with great regret this measure for winding up the Merchant Seamen's Fund; but it would be in vain, he believed, to bring forward arguments in the hope of persuading Government to desist from the measure which they had already brought in. He would, however, state, in the presence of the noble Earl the Vice-President of the Board of Trade (Earl Granville) the reasons why that measure, if persisted in, should not be carried out in the way developed in the provisions of this Bill. The Merchant Seamen's Fund was established so far back as the reign of William III.; but the arrangements at present in force were founded on an Act passed in the time of George II. In the second year of the reign of that king, an Act was passed whereby the merchant seamen were bound to pay to Greenwich Hospital a tax of 6d. a month out of their wages to provide for the relief and support of disabled seamen, and of the widows and children of such of them as should be killed, slain, or drowned in the merchant service. In the year 1834 a measure, miscalled an Amendment, was introduced upon this subject—not by the Government, but by a private individual—and was at last acquiesced in by the Government very reluctantly. By that measure—the Act 4th and 5th of William IV., c. 34:—the contribution of 6d. per month by seamen in the merchant service to Greenwich Hospital was to cease from the 1st of January, 1835, and 20.000l. a year was to be advanced from the Consolidated Fund to Greenwich Hospital to make good the deficiency caused by the cessation of such contribution, and the whole of the payment was thenceforward directed to be paid to the Merchant Seamen's Fund. But unfortunately that measure contained a provision granting pensions not only to the widows of all seamen who were killed or drowned in the service, but likewise to the widows and orphans of all such as had contributed for twenty-one years, or who died in the profession. This important measure was passed at the end of the Session, without any steps being taken to ascertain its financial capability; Committees were appointed in 1840, 1844, and 1847 on the subject, and then upon calculation it was ascertained that instead of the 9s. contributed by seamen on the average during the year, it would have required the payment of 21. 15s. per annum to support all these pensions, and the result was, that the fund had become irretrievably bankrupt. The Bill was introduced for the alleged purpose of benefiting the merchant seamen, and it was said that it was hard that they should be obliged to contribute 6d. to Greenwich Hospital, from which they derived no benefit. That was not, however, strictly correct, for almost all merchant seamen passed in succession into the naval service in time of war, and moreover the shipowners paid one of the sixpences for the seamen; but after the passing of the Act he had mentioned, the payment of the whole shilling was thrown on the seamen. That change, therefore, was a benefit to the shipowners, and not to the seamen. In consequence of a Commission of Inquiry, a Bill was introduced on the subject in 1847, in which it was proposed that the shipowners should pay 1s. per ton to the fund; but unfortunately the Government were induced by the opposition of the shipowners not to press it to a successful issue; and matters had now come to this unfortunate result, that the Government proposed a Bill for winding up the fund. The num- ber of persons affected by the Bill could hardly be less than 500,000; and they were deserving of the most kind consideration of the House and the country. One of the provisions of the Bill was, that hereafter there should be no contributions on the part of any persons who had not already contributed to the fund; and another provision necessarily introduced was that the Government should bear some of the weight of the pensions already incurred; but what he took exception to was the part which related to those who had not had pensions granted, but who, having paid to the fund, had an inchoate right to them. That provision was introduced, he would not say insidiously, but most carelessly and hastily. The Bill, moreover, after enacting that any seaman should be entitled to a pension who should have contributed for sixty months before the Act, or partly before and partly after the Act (in manner afterwards provided), provided "that no seaman should be entitled who, after the time fixed for the commencement of future contributions, and before finally quitting the service, should fail to contribute for a period of two years continuously." Now, this proviso would exclude a large number who had already acquired an inchoate right to pensions, by reason of their having contributed for five years or sixty months, and also would now have to contribute for two years longer, that is, for seven years altogether. Then, again, it was practically impossible for the seamen to pay for two years continuously, as even the young seamen were not employed above nine months in the year, the old seamen not above six, and they could only pay while they were employed. By a calculation made in 1847, there were, he believed, 800 persons who every year became entitled to the pension by being worn out; therefore, by the provision he had just referred to, 1,600 persons must be deprived of all claim to pensions, for it was morally impossible that being worn out they should be able to contribute for two years "after the passing of the Act, and before quitting the service." But the effect went beyond that, for a continuous payment was a thing unknown in the administration of the Merchant Seamen's Fund; the seamen only paid while they were employed, and the operation of the clause would be to deprive of all claim not merely 1,600, but double that number of most deserving persons, and probably every one who now had an inchoate claim to a pen- sion. Thus the Government, while generously undertaking to pay existing pensions, practically excluded from benefit all persons who, by contributions, had acquired a claim. Then there was a provision in the Bill that all pensions hereafter to be granted should be on one uniform scale, according to the average rate of present pensions. Now, at present the rate was different at different ports; at Liverpool, in consequence of the seamen being engaged in voyages to foreign ports, their contributions were very large, and their pension amounted to 12l.; while in other ports where the men were engaged in the coasting trade it did not exceed 10s. Undoubtedly, on principle, all men paying the same sum should receive the same advantage; and if a new system were now to be established, that principle should be acted upon. But these men had established rights, and now the Government Bill for winding up the Fund proposed the Socialist principle of equalising all these rights, and creating a uniform rate of, probably, about 50s. Under this plan, many would obtain an advantage, but only to the disappointment of the just expectations of those entitled to pensions at any of the richer ports. The noble Earl then adverted to another provision of the Bill; to the effect that the aggregate number of pensions in each port should not exceed the average of the last five years, and observed, that by it many might be deprived of pensions to which they were entitled. Another provision was, that "the aggregate number of pensions to be granted at any port is not to exceed the average yearly number of pensions granted at such port during the last five years." How would this operate? At all the large ports during the last five years there had been a considerable increase of the number granted. But supposing that during that last year the number was less than the average of the five, there could be no doubt that the number to be granted would be far below the number of parties who had acquired the right. Then there were always seamen being discharged as worn out, and some sudden calamity might happen to a large port whereby twenty widows and two hundred orphans might be claiming the pension; but, bound by the limits introduced into the Bill, not one of these widows or orphans, so suddenly rendered destitute, could possibly receive any pension. Then, again, there was a provision to the effect that the aggregate amount of pensions at each port was not to exceed that of the preceding year until the new rules came into force. That, he supposed, was intended to control any extravagance on the part of the trustees before the new rules came into operation. But it might happen that during the first eleven months of this year there might have been granted pensions to the amount of all those granted the previous year, and if this were the case, the trustees would be prevented for a whole month from relieving any case however urgent or deserving. He recommended these matters to the consideration of the noble. Earl (Earl Granville). He did not attribute to the Government any intention of doing wrong to the seamen; but he thought the measure afforded evidence of culpable negligence. He viewed with deep regret, with shame and humiliation, the determination of the Government to wind up the accounts of this Fund. Not only all other great States in Europe, but the smaller States, made provision for their worn-out seamen; and yet it was now proposed that this country, which pretended to the dominion of the seas, and which might have, in a future war, to contend for its very existence, and to depend for its security on the fidelity and affection of the merchant seamen, should throw them away, and tell them that they were to shift for themselves, for the State hereafter had no regard for them; and the poor seaman, who had passed his life in dangers and difficulties, must, in his time of need, go to the board of guardians and get from them, like a cotton-spinner or a weaver, such relief as they would grant. He could not bear to contemplate such a possible termination of the services of seamen. He had always been taught to consider them as the favoured children of the State, and he looked on the merchant seamen with the same regard as the seamen of the Navy. He could not but bear in mind that, under the old law of this country, strengthened by repeated Acts of Parliament, the Crown was justified in calling for the services of any one of those men in time of war, and he must say that at least it was an act of impolicy to do anything to disgust them, and teach them that the State did not regard them. Instead of selecting the present moment for treating the seaman with less regard, Government ought, looking at the tendency of other measures recently passed, to do all they possibly could to attach him to the country, and to induce him to give his ser vices to England, and not to foreign countries. He could hardly trust himself with the further prosecution of this subject. "I feel (continued the noble Earl) most deeply many things which pass before my eyes day after day, indicating, as I think, that however this country may have increased in wealth, though not in proportion to the increase of wealth among other nations; but, whatever its increase of wealth, indicating that we are not at any rate in mind, spirit, and statesmanlike wisdom, the great people we- once were. Nay, more than that; I will state that, looking at what is occurring day after day—at the inroads made on our old establishments, and the disregard shown to those who deserve the best of the country, I am led to believe that one of the greatest calamities which can affect a constitutional State is the long protracted continuance of a weak and timid Government." The noble Earl concluded by moving— That there be laid before this House a Copy of a Report from Mr. Alexander Glen Finlaison to the Right Hon. H. Labouchere on the Merchant Seamen's Fund, dated the 18th of March, 1850, and laid before the House of Commons, and by them ordered to be printed on the 26th of March, 1850; also any Reports received by the Board of Trade since the Report of the Commission of 1848, relating to the present condition and prospects of the Merchant Seamen's Fund.


was unwilling, considering the attention given to this subject by the noble Earl, to dispute his right to bring it before the House. He was grateful for any information which the noble Earl might give to the Government, but he did not think that the noble Earl's speech proved very conclusively the advantage of debating by anticipation a Bill now before the other House. He thought he should better consult their Lordships' convenience, and the regular despatch of business, by refraining from going into the clauses of the Bill at present; and he would only say that when the Bill came up from the other House, he thought he should be able to prove that the assertions made with regard to the general character of the measure were erroneous, and that the provisions of the Bill did not deserve the description given by the noble Earl. It was with extreme regret that the Government felt themselves under the necessity of winding up the Fund, and he concurred in what the noble Earl had stated with respect to the evils of the Act of 1834, and the injurious extension of the benefits of the Fund, which led to inevitable bank- ruptcy; but he must remind the noble Earl of the great difficulty in which Governments found themselves to meet that state of affairs. Valuable information was contained in the report of the Commission, and no one could feel that any want of respect was shown to its suggestions, for a Bill was brought into Parliament by the President of the Board of Trade, carrying them out. But with respect to all Governments, whether they deserved the name of weak and timid, or whether they were the strongest possible, it was not desirable, he apprehended, that they should press Bills completely in opposition to every one most interested and most informed on the subjects to which those Bills related; and the result of the introduction of the Bill recommended by the Commission was, that there was scarcely a single individual connected with the seaports who did not declare his determined opposition to it. Obviously, then, it was perfectly impossible to press the measure to a successful issue. The Government then attempted by another Bill, founded on a different principle, to induce the sailors to subscribe a little more, instead of depending on an insolvent fund. This was looked on by the sailors and different parties with distaste, and now the present measure was brought under the consideration of Parliament. It had passed through Committee in the other House that day, and the Government had persuaded the House of Commons to behave with unexampled liberality with the view that good faith might be kept with the sailors who had subscribed to the Fund. He therefore most deeply regretted to hear a speech delivered to their Lordships calculated to convey an idea that the measure, instead of constituting the only practical and advantageous arrangement, considering the insolvent state of the Fund, would bear hardly on the interests of a class of persons respecting whose merits his opinion did not differ from the noble Earl's. He could not concur in the noble Earl's observations respecting the state of the country. From his childhood he had heard persons, at different times, describe the country as being on the brink of ruin, and such descriptions continued to the present hour; but he believed that the country was never in a more prosperous condition, and he contemplated the efforts made to increase our commercial prosperity and the intellectual and moral state of the people with feelings of confidence rather than with the alarm expressed by the noble Earl.


blamed the Government for having allowed an Act to pass which produced the insolvency of the Fund. He regretted still further that this Bill did not profess to hold out any hopes that, after the few years in which this would be wound up, the Government would bring forward any other measure to provide for the sailors. There was hardly any country in Europe which did not provide for its seamen; and he trusted that the Government would not let it go forth to the seamen of this country that, when this was wound up, they could not look forward to any assistance from Government after age or other causes had disabled them for active service.

On Question, agreed to, and ordered accordingly.

House adjourned till To-morrow.