HL Deb 09 August 1875 vol 226 cc741-55

Order of the Day for the Second Beading, read.


, in moving that the Bill be now read the second time, said: Her Majesty's Government feel strongly the necessity of dealing with this subject. They have so felt for some period, believing that few subjects which come under the attention of Parliament require more careful consideration. I do not pretend that Her Majesty's Government monopolizes the feeling of interest which, undoubtedly, prevails on this subject. On the contrary, I am satisfied there is no Member of your Lordships' House who will not desire to carry out, as far as possible, by restrictive powers, the object contemplated by the Bill—namely, to maintain and preserve our ships in a seaworthy condition, and also to give confidence to the crews of our Merchant Shipping. Before going further, let me call attention to what has been done in the past, so that the public may not imagine that only now, for the first time, has the attention of Parliament been directed to this important subject. So long ago as 1855, after the passing of the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854, the opinion of the Law Officers of the day was taken as to whether a seaman, being called upon to sail in an unseaworthy ship, could plead this as a reasonable cause for not being compelled to form part of the crew. As might be expected, the Law Officers answered in the affirmative, and their opinion was made as public as possible by the Board of Trade at that period. Some years afterwards a Circular was issued by Sir George Grey, who invited the magistrates of seaport towns to call in the surveyors of the Board of Trade in all cases where complaints were made by seamen against the unseaworthiness of ships. More recently Bills have been prepared by various Governments. When I was at the Board of Trade I had a measure under consideration, and the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Bright) afterwards had a measure under his consideration, but these Bills were not passed. The subject was next taken up in 1871, when a measure was introduced and passed by the noble Lord opposite (Lord Carlingford). I merely mention these facts to show that stringent Acts of Parliament have been adopted with a view to better the condition of seamen, and that the idea is not now a sudden one. Among other provisions which the Act of 1871 contained in the interest of seamen were three of great importance. First, one-fourth of the seamen charged with desertion might call upon the Court to have the ship surveyed by the Board of Trade surveyor. Secondly, the Board of Trade were empowered to detain un-seaworthy ships. Thirdly, the Act made it a misdemeanour to send ships to sea in an unseaworthy state; it required a record of the draught of water both on the stem and stern of the ship, and it gave power to the Board of Trade to require that records of these facts should be made known. In 1872 the attention of the magistrates was called to the provisions of the Act in a very distinct manner in a Circular issued by the Home Secretary (Lord Aberdare). In the winter of 1872–3 there appeared a remarkable book which was written by Mr. Plimsoll, a Member of the other House. This book attracted considerable attention, the result being that Her Majesty, on the recommendation of then President of the Board of Trade, the noble Lord who sits opposite (Lord Carling-ford), issued a Royal Commission to inquire into the subject. The Government of the day were so anxious to deal with the matter that they did not follow the usual course of waiting till the Royal Commission had reported; but in the year 1873, while the Commission was sitting, an Act of Parliament was passed which gave the Board of Trade very much more stringent powers than had been conferred by the Act of 1871. I will describe very shortly some of the provisions of the Act of 1873, because they show that the great desire of Parliament has always been as much as possible to protect our seamen in this way. By the 12th section of 36 & 37 of the Queen, where the Board of Trade have received a complaint or have reason to believe that any British vessel is unfit to proceed to sea, they may, if they think fit, appoint some competent person to survey such ship and the machinery and cargo thereof, and to report thereon to the Board. Another section provides that the Board may, if they think fit, order any ship to be detained for the purpose of being surveyed. Then, on the receipt of the report of the person making such survey, the Board, if in their opinion the ship cannot proceed to sea without serious danger to human life, may make a further order for the detention of the ship. Another important section of the Act says that when a ship has been detained she shall not be released by reason of her British register having been closed. There was also in the 9th section of the Act of 1873 a very important provision by which, if a sailor who is charged with desertion proves to the satisfaction of the Court that the ship is unseaworthy, the owner is bound to compensate him for the loss he has sustained by his detention. This is a step very much for the benefit of the sailor. With regard to the loss of life which has been so frequently-referred to in the debates and discussions on this subject, and which we all so deeply deplore, I may remark that nothing can be more fallacious and illusory than the returns of the number of the number of persons who perish by the losses of ships at sea. The reason of this is that you cannot get at a proper average of deaths. You cannot show that the number of deaths has been in any way caused by the unseaworthiness of the ships, because a lamentable loss of life is caused by the going down of large vessels which are not unseaworthy, and which, moreover, had been surveyed before they proceeded on their voyages. I need only refer to the instances of the Vicksburg, which struck on an iceberg, of the Schiller, which went upon the rocks near the Scilly Islands, and of the burning of the Cospatrick. I think it is but fair, in the interests of the officials of the Board of Trade, who carry into effect the provisions of the law, that I should bring these facts under your Lordships' notice, because there is a considerable feeling in the country that Parliament should do everything that it possibly can in this matter. One remarkable fact, showing the manner in which those officials put in force the provisions of the law, is to be found in a Parliamentary Return, granted in the present year, of the vessels ordered to be surveyed by the Board of Trade. I find that out of 550 ships surveyed between the 5th of August, 1873, and the 30th of June, 1875, no fewer than 505 were surveyed in consequence of reports made by Government officers, leaving, therefore, only 45 ships which were reported by other persons. Having thus endeavoured to show the interest which has been taken in this matter by former Governments, I come to the Bill introduced by Her Majesty's present Government in the early part of this year. I may say that Bill was based mainly, if not altogether, upon the recommendations in the Report of the Royal Commission. It was framed with the view, as we hoped and expected of meeting all the necessities of the case, and I think I am justified in saying that the failure to pass that measure is not wholly attributable to any fault or laches on the part of Her Majesty's Government. The failure is to be attributed more to the magnitude of the subject. A measure of such a kind which was to be of a permanent character naturally suggested a large number of Amendments to Members of the other House, many of whom were thoroughly competent to propose Amendments, which, from the very nature of the case, would require and deserve considerable discussion before they could be put into such a satisfactory shape as to warrant their addition to the Bill. Therefore, when I say that the failure of the measure is mainly attributable to the great number of Amendments, I wish wholly to absolve myself from the charge of blaming those who placed those Amendments on the Paper, for from the very nature of the case it was necessary that they should be put down. Accordingly, when the 22nd of July arrived, Her Majesty's Government found on the Paper no fewer than 170 Amendments, of which 136 were suggested by hon. Members sitting on the Opposition side of the House. Having stated this, I do not think I shall be contradicted if I say it would have been almost, if not quite, impossible to bring this measure to a satisfactory termination in anything like the time ordinarily devoted to the transaction of the Business of the country by this and the other House of Parliament. With the most unfeigned regret, therefore, we felt ourselves obliged to withdraw that measure. But at that time we did consider whether by conferring additional powers, like those given under the Act of 1873, it would be possible to mitigate some of the evils which may be expected during the coming winter, and whether it would not be possible by increased restrictions to deal with the subject. We did not believe we could do that in a very satisfactory manner, and circumstances arose to which I need not further allude at this moment. We believed that it was possible and necessary to bring in a short Bill which should be temporary in its character, and which would meet some of those evils and some of those disasters to which it is our hope and desire to put a stop. Therefore, we brought in the Bill to which I shall presently ask your Lordships to give a second reading. I wish, however, to say a few words on the allegation that it was unfair for the Government to proceed with a Bill which dealt with compensation to tenants, while they put aside a Bill for preventing loss of life by sea. If we had abandoned the Agricultural Holdings (England) Bill for the purpose of proceeding with the Merchant Shipping Bill, the result would have been that neither of those Bills would have been passed this Session. This Bill will give power to an officer appointed by the Board of Trade to delay a ship until he has reason to believe that it is in a satisfactory condition. Under the existing law an officer appointed by the Board of Trade cannot act in that respect until he is directed to do so by the Board of Trade. This Bill also enables one-fourth of the seamen belonging to a ship, if they apprehend that it is unseaworthy, to require an inspection of it by an officer appointed by the Board of Trade, and then an officer appointed by the Board of Trade must take proper steps to ascertain whether the ship ought to be detained. That provision, undoubtedly, will greatly increase the power of a Board of Trade officer. There were four other points that were suggested during the passage of the Bill in the other House of Parliament—namely, first, deck cargo; second, grain cargo; third, load line; and fourth, survey. As to the first, the proposal to deal with the question of deck cargo was rejected on a division in the other House. The question of survey was dropped. The other two points—namely, grain cargo and load line—are dealt with by this Bill. As to grain cargoes, this Bill provides that not more than one-third of the cargo of a British ship shall consist of grain, unless such cargo shall be carried in bags, sacks, or barrels, or be secured from shifting by boards, bulkheads, or otherwise; and that for an offence against that provision a penalty not exceeding £200 may be inflicted. The load line is to be marked on the side of the ship, and is to be entered by the master in the agreement made with his crow. The 9th clause gives to seamen a remedy for any loss they may sustain from a ship having been sent to sea in an unseaworthy condition. The last clause provides that this Bill shall be in force until the 1st of October, 1876. That provision indicates that this Bill is to be regarded as a purely temporary measure, and it is an earnest of what Her Majesty's Government intend to do during the Recess—namely, to take the whole subject into their consideration, and, if possible, bring forward a measure which may be of a permanent character, and which will deal with this very important subject in a satisfactory manner.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."—(The Lord President.)


said, that he would not discuss the question whether the Government were justified in abandoning their original Bill. That question had been amply discussed in the House of Commons; but the noble Duke, by way of excuse, pointed to the number of Amendments on the Paper, a large number of which came from the Opposition. That remark implied that those Amendments had been placed in the way of the Bill as a matter of Opposition policy; but nothing of the kind took place.


explained that he did not in any way complain of the Amendments which were placed on the Paper. He said that it was obvious that in such a subject there must be great difference of opinion, and that he by no means deprecated or complained of any Amendment that was proposed.


accepted the explanation; but still the remark that the large majority of the Amendments came from the Opposition meant something. This fact could be easily explained. Almost every shipowner sat on the Opposition side of the House, and they, as shipowners, proposed a great number of Amendments. Mr. Plimsoll was also a Member of the Opposition, and he naturally was the organ of a great number of Amendments. The object of the hon. Member for Derby was to convert the Government Bill into a very different measure, and upon the occasion of that memorable scene in the House of Commons he denounced it as a miserable sham, but said that he had every expectation of converting it into a satisfactory Bill. In his (Lord Carling-ford's) view of the matter the course that should have been taken by the Government with regard to the original measure was obvious. The Bill contained proposals which would have effected a complete alteration and reform in the laws relating to Merchant Shipping, in addition to provisions which dealt solely with the question of saving life at sea. Instead of abandoning the Bill as a whole, the Government would have done well, when they found it impossible to carry the whole Bill, to abandon for the present Session all the clauses except those which dealt with the question of saving life. The history of the Bill now before the House was a short and stormy one, and an amount of myth and fable had gathered about it which was worthy of a long and remote period of existence. It had reached them in a more rational and respectable form than might have been expected from the circumstances of its origin, and its advent was therefore to be welcomed, although it came late in the Session. This Bill proceeded, like other recent Acts on the same subject, on the policy of endeavouring to exercise such a police over the shipping as would prevent unseaworthy ships from going to sea, and would bring such stress to bear on the small minority of shipowners who would send ships of that kind to sea as would deter them from continuing those practices, and would gradually weed out and break up dangerous ships. On the general question, he could not help thinking that Mr. Plimsoll was to blame for not having either justified, qualified, or retracted the sweeping charges which he had brought against certain shipowners and against the permanent officials of the Board of Trade. He could say from his own experience that these officers devoted themselves ably to the fulfilment of duties imposed upon them by Parliament. The present Bill proceeded entirely upon the lines of 1871 and 1873. It had been said that the power which the 1st clause gave to detain unseaworthy ships was an alarming innovation; but it really did nothing more than place additional machinery in the hands of the Board of Trade. Under that clause the surveyor of the Board of Trade would have the power of stopping vessels on the same ground only as the Board of Trade could stop them now—the ground—namely, that they could not proceed to sea without serious danger to life. As supplementary to the Acts of 1871 and 1873, he believed the present Bill would be found very useful. It contained no violent proposition, and he saw no reason why a great part of it should not occupy a permanent place in the Statute Book. At the same time, he hoped it would not be understood that, because Mr. Plimsoll had called public attention to an existing evil his proposals for checking that evil, were to be taken as a guide or as an authority in future legislation. Insurance still remained to be dealt with, and there was no doubt that the question whether an owner should be allowed to make a profit out of the wreck of his ship, or should merely receive an indemnity for his actual loss, deserved consideration. It was the opinion of the Royal Commissioners that great benefit might result from placing the inquiries into wrecks on a sounder basis than they were at present. To the importance of that subject the Government were evidently alive, and he had no doubt they would consider it before next year. On the whole, he thought their Lordships might congratulate themselves that a rational measure had come out of the recent confusion and excitement, and that a whole year had been gained in the passing of provisions which were calculated to diminish the loss of life at sea.


was sorry that the Government had been obliged to abandon their larger measure on this subject, but glad that, under the circumstances, they had introduced the present Bill. In 1870, he brought before the House of Commons a great number of painful cases of unseaworthy ships that had been lost, and moved for a Royal Commission of Inquiry on the subject. At that time the President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Bright), was unable to attend to the duties of the office, and he got no answer from the Government. In the following year, however, they brought in a Bill dealing with the Mercantile Marine of this country. In 1873, Mr. Plimsoll moved for a Royal Commission, and he most cordially seconded the Motion. That Royal Commission was presided over by the noble Duke opposite (the Duke of Somerset), and in a manner which excited the universal approbation of every one who took an interest in this very important subject. There were points in this Bill, short and temporary as it was, which, to his mind, were of extreme importance. There was one subject, however, which he was sorry had not been dealt with—the Bill contained no provision with regard to deck loading. The argument used in its favour was that it applied only to timber loading brought from Canada, and that to prevent it would seriously injure that trade. He did not believe that, nor was he of opinion that it applied exclusively to the timber trade. Many painful cases had occurred where the only cause that could reasonably be assigned for shipwreck and loss of life was the deck loads which had been carried. Two provisions in this Bill he regarded with the greatest satisfaction—he alluded to the provisions for limiting the loading of grain in bulk and for establishing a load line. Whether this last provision was quite satisfactory in its nature he would not say; very likely it might be necessary to re-consider it in a future Session. He had been for many years the President of the Society of Naval Architects, which consisted of a great number of eminent naval men, and they had all been of opinion that they saw no reason why deck loading should not have been long since prohibited and a loading line adopted in the Mercantile Marine. He was convinced that, on the whole, the Bill was one which would give great satisfaction to the country. He thought the part which Mr. Plimsoll had taken on this important matter entitled him to the gratitude and respect of the country. The noble Lord who last addressed the House had spoken with some severity as to part of Mr. Plimsoll's conduct. He did not stand there to defend everything he had said or done; but this he would say—Mr. Plimsoll had shown a zeal and energy which did him great honour, and he was glad to see that his exertions had been crowned with success.


, having been Chairman of the Royal Commission which had been referred to, wished to say a few words to their Lordships, and they should be very few. He was sorry this subject had been brought forward in the last days of the Session, and especially that it had been brought forward in a somewhat sensational manner; for he must confess it was sensational, when the measure was the result partly of meetings out-of-doors, and partly of the hysterical screams of a Member of the House of Commons. He thought that such a measure should be dealt with in the calmest and most judicial spirit. The Act of 1873 did undoubtedly give great powers to the Board of Trade, and, though brought forward like this Bill late in the Session, it had worked very well for the country. No doubt, it gave the means of stopping unseaworthy ships, and the officers of the Board of Trade told the Royal Commission that they had no difficulty in stopping such vessels, telegraphing to the Board that they did so. That looked like an arbitrary power, for it seemed as if gentlemen sent round the coast had an absolute power of stopping ships, only reporting the fact to the Board of Trade. That was a great power, and when they considered what the tonnage of our Mercantile Marine was—that it was larger than the tonnage of all other mercantile nations—it was of the greatest importance that such powers should be used with caution. The interests of the shipowner must be carefully considered on the one hand, and the interests of the seamen on the other. It must not be supposed that the shipowner was the only party that was blameworthy and that the seaman was never in any way to be blamed. The fact, in many cases, was very different. However anxious parties might be to increase the seaworthiness of vessels, a seaman could very seldom be induced to walk 100 yards to look at the ship he was going in—he did not care a pin about it. When they joined a ship they were often drunk, being literally carried on board by their lodging-house keepers—the vessels in the Mersey and the Thames serving as hospitals in which they might recover from their crapulous imbecility. When collisions occurred whose fault was it? In great measure the fault of the seamen, who would not keep a look-out; and they could not be punished for not keeping a look-out. What he wanted was, while they proposed to punish the shipowner for the unseaworthiness of his ship, that means should be given for enforcing discipline on board our Mercantile Marine as in the Navy. Why were the ships in our Navy safe? Because they were better built, better manned, better disciplined, and because a better look-out was kept. They had introduced the examination of masters and mates to make them able to manage their ships; they had made regulations as to the crew to make them comfortable on board; they had prescribed a scale of food so that the seamen should be well fed; and they had given notes of allotment by which seamen might provide for their wives and families. These allotment notes, by the way, were mistaken by some persons for advance notes. With regard to the latter, he urged their abolition, because of the evil use made of them by crimps. Merchants, shipowners, and others who had looked into the subject had said that until you got rid of these advance notes, you would never get rid of the slavery to which the sailor was subjected. He hoped when the Government brought in the Bill of next year it would be seen that they had paid special attention to this subject. People talked about free contract between the seaman and the shipowner. But how could there be free contract when one of the parties was unfortunately often in such a state that he had to be carried on board? Then there was another point, as to the ships themselves. It was a mistaken opinion that all the ships which were lost were old, rotten, wooden vessels. The great danger now was from new iron-built ships. Those who had looked into the subject were well aware of that. The new iron ships were often of very great length. They had all sorts of contrivances, which worked very comfortably while the weather was fine, but which were very dangerous in rough weather and squalls. Those large vessels should have machinery in proportion; but in that point they were often very weak. Lloyd's surveyed ships, it was true; but they did not survey their machinery. Vessels of this kind were liable to be overwhelmed when they got into the trough of the sea when a squall was on. With regard to insurance, he hoped that question would not be taken up in the same Bill which dealt with unseaworthy ships, or the discipline of the men. The subject of insurance was one which would require to be treated with great care and consideration, and if all these questions were to be dealt with in one Bill he feared the same fate would await it as had overtaken the Bill of this year—they would never get it through the House of Commons. Merchants and persons conversant with the subject must and would discuss it, and therefore if they had one great Bill the Government would not be able to carry it through the House. He also hoped they would be able to repeal a great many of the provisions which we now had. Could anything be more absurd than the provision that boats should be carried in proportion to the tonnage and not to the men? Then there was a regulation that ships should carry coloured lights, so that they might be seen at a certain distance. Shipowners were very much puzzled, and bought lanterns after lanterns, but they could not be seen. Then they went to the Board of Trade, and said—" We will get any lights you like, but we cannot get lanterns to suit." The Board of Trade, however, answered—"Oh! we cannot help you. That is the Act." He feared that the Board of Trade would be too much taken up in carrying out this Bill and in watching railways during the coming autumn, and would not have time to prepare a now Bill. He hoped the Government would strengthen the Department, so that they might have assistance in preparing the measure of next year.


said, the noble Duke had stated that something should be done to make seamen more careful. He was bound to say, according to his experience, derived from cases in which he had been engaged, that the want of look-out was seldom attributable to the sailors, but much more frequently to the master or the mate, or, in other words, to the skilled navigators of; the ship. The noble Duke had said that sailors were a very careless race—that they would not take the trouble to walk 100 yards to see whether the ship was unseaworthy or not, and that they were often carried on board drunk. There could hardly be a better proof of the necessity of legislation. If sailors were careful and vigilant, legislation would not be required. It was because sailors were negligent and often taken on board drunk that it was necessary to enforce against the shipowner what, after all, was only the shipowner's duty. With regard to the advance note system, it was fraught with evils of every kind. Sailors for a debauch on shore would anticipate their earnings, and not only would they not receive the full amount they were entitled to, but the notes were discounted at an exorbitant rate, and a very small portion of the money was enjoyed by the sailor. But the noble Duke ought to remember that this matter had been canvassed very fully "elsewhere," and that there was a strong opinion against interfering with freedom of contract. The noble Lord (Lord Carlingford) had examined the Bill in a manner which was extremely candid and fair, and had avoided reference to many subjects upon which he might easily have dwelt. Nothing could have been more useful than his examination of the measure and the history he had given of the Act on which it was founded. The noble Lord had said that this measure proceeded upon the lines of the Act passed under his own auspices when he was at the head of the Board of Trade. It was of some importance to refer to the exact difference. As the law now existed, the Board of Trade must act at the outports through an officer who would make his examination and report the result by telegraph or letter. The difficulty of the case was that delay occurred first in the officer sending his report, then in the Board of Trade's considering it and conveying its decision to the officer. As their Lordships would see, the opinion of the officer must mainly guide the Board of Trade, and if the Board of Trade detained a ship improperly, it was liable for damages. But under this Bill the officer must act on his own discretion in the first instance, and the Board of Trade would be responsible for his action. As to insurance, he could say that the subject would be most carefully considered by Her Majesty's Government. The more it was looked into, the more the question would be asked why, if in the case of life and fire insurance the insurer would not be allowed to receive more than would compensate him for the loss sustained, the insurer of a vessel might contract beforehand that there should be no examination into the amount of damage, but that a gross, absolute sum should be paid over, no matter how much that gross sum might exceed the loss. This was a grave subject for consideration, and the more it was considered the more closely it would be found connected with the subject now before their Lordships. However, this was a matter which required ample time for its discussion.


quoted the opinion of an experienced officer of the Navy who had also sailed in merchant vessels, and who said that the load line ought to be fixed by the owner, with the approval of the Board of Trade officials; but the great difficulty would be to find competent men at the low rate offered by the Board of Trade, to see these regulations strictly carried out. This officer added that, having brought home several cargoes of grain in bulk from Odessa, he regarded such cargoes as most dangerous, owing to their tendency to shift, notwithstanding the use of boards; and, as many claims were usually made for damage done to the grain in transitu, he suggested that if the money thus paid were laid out in bags, it would be better for both parties. He hoped time would be given for the proposal of Amendments in Committee, and believed that limiting the weight of grain, instead of permitting the carrying of any quantity, with a proportion only of it loose, would be an improvement in the Bill.


said, he did not propose to prolong this discussion, particularly after the speeches of his noble Friends (Lord Carlingford and the Duke of Somerset)—speeches which, he could not help thinking the Government would find of great use when they were engaged in preparing the permanent and more extensive measure which they proposed to submit next year. Without entering into the story of the Bill—a story which might be told in different ways—he expressed his satisfaction that the Government had been able to introduce even this provisional measure which was likely soon to pass into law.

Motion agreed to: Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House To-morrow.