HL Deb 22 March 1888 vol 324 cc3-11

Order of the Day for the Second Reading, read.


in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, observed that the subject of the better preservation of life at sea was one which had already engaged the attention of Parliament, and a Royal Commission had been appointed to inquire into the whole subject. That Commission had dealt with the subject in a far more comprehensive manner than he now proposed to do in the present Bill. A Bill had also been introduced last year in "another place" which had been referred to a Select Committee. That Bill bad dealt exclusively with the provision of boats and life-saving apparatus, and it was upon the Report of that Committee that the provisions of the present Bill were mainly founded. The subject had also aroused the attention of some of our Colonies, and representations had been made by the Governments of Tasmania, Queensland, and Victoria, to the effect that legislation should be initiated by the Imperial Parliament, in consequence of which the question had been discussed at the Colonial Conference. At the present time ships were divided into two classes; the first being "passenger ships"—namely, those only which carried emigrants, and other ships, which meant all ships, whether they carried passengers or cargo, provided they did not carry emigrants. The Passengers Act, 1855, provided that every passenger ship should carry a number of boats in proportion to her tonnage. A ship of under 200 tons was to carry two boats, under 400 three boats, under 600 four boats, under 1,000 five boats, and under 1,500 tons six boats; while a ship of over 1,500 tons, whatever might be her size, was only obliged to carry seven boats, no matter what amount of passengers she carried. It was also necessary to carry four lifebuoys only. Whether a ship carried passengers or not, under the Merchant Shipping Act, 1854, she was obliged to carry the necessary complement of boats according to the scale if she cleared from any port in the United Kingdom; if she did not, there was no compulsion to carry any life-saving apparatus whatever. Owing to the fact that that Act made demands far in excess of the actual requirements of the case, it had become practically a dead letter. By law a vessel could not be obliged to carry more than seven life-boats. In 1873 power had been given to the Board of Trade to relieve shipowners who did not carry more than 12 passengers by diminishing the number of boats they were obliged to carry. It was not a general complaint that the large well-found steamers were insufficiently supplied with life-saving apparatus. If they took the Cunard steamers—for instance, the Etruria—the captain of that ship gave evidence that she carried, on the average, 1,000 persons; that she had 14 large boats capable of carrying 800, with 1,207 life-belts, one in each state room for every passenger, carried overhead in racks. Besides this there were bulkhead doors which were closed every day all through the ship by the chief engineer in his department and by the chief officer in the sailing department. All boats were lowered every Friday in Liverpool before they sailed; the boats were sent away from the ship manned; if there was any wind they sailed; if not, they were pulled; the boats were all ready for sea use, and all the 12 or 14 boats could be lowered into the water in the space of two minutes, and they were also provisioned with water. In the City of New York, lately launched, additional life-saving apparatus was provided in the shape of a false bottom, so that if one bottom was stove in the ship would still have the false one to keep the water out. Similar precautions in regard to boats were taken on board the steamers running between Calais and Dover, and Folkestone and Boulogne. But in short voyage ships, taking the average of 50 ships leaving the Port of Liverpool, the legal requirement of boat accommodation was found to be 7.6 per cent of the passengers carried; but the actual percentage was 10.6, and in those boats which crossed the Irish Channel the legal requirement was 13.1 and the actual percentage 16.1. There were life jackets for the crew only. But life-saving apparatus for only 10 or 16 per cent was very inadequate. These requirements were based upon the tonnage of a ship and not on the number of passengers, and the tonnage of ships was very different from what it used to be owing to the deductions now made from the gross tonnage. He knew of a case where the tonnage from 300 gross had by various reductions been reduced to 6 not, and therefore the life-saving apparatus which the ship would be required to carry would be almost nil. It was also necessary to see that the apparatus was in a state of efficiency. Great complaints had been made on the part of seamen going to sea in cargo ships, not of the amount of boat accommodation provided, but on account of the state of that accommodation. There had been a case not long ago of a man falling overboard and being afloat for 25 minutes; they had been three-quarters of an hour before they got a boat over the side for the want of proper davits. The evidence was to the effect that the boat was on the after-house, turned upside down. They had to turn the boat over; and, finally, a sea had lifted her off the tackles and she had broken in two. At present the Surveyors of the Board of Trade were not empowered to go on board to inspect the life-saving apparatus; they could only inspect crew spaces, lights, and fog signals, unless they were Inspectors also, which they rarely were. Since 1875 the Board of Trade had only obtained four convictions against owners for want of proper boat accommodation and want of efficient life-saving appliances. It might be said that the most efficient mode of saving life at sea was to keep the vessel afloat by means of bulkheads; but, in dealing with these matters, we must not attempt to overweight the Bill, competition with foreign shipping was so keen. The value of boats for saving life was very great, notwithstanding the present inadequate provision. In the period of nine years between 1876 and 1885, of 135,273 lives which had been exposed to loss by wreck, 60,231 were actually saved by the ships' own boats, that was nearly two-thirds of the 109,745 saved, and nearly half of the whole lives that needed saving. We had lost on or near the coast 6,629 lives in the same period. We had fortunately saved 34,602 lives in the nine years, but by far the greatest proportion—namely, 14,807, had been saved by the ships' own boats. The Bill would provide for a new departure in this legislation. The Government thought that those who were primarily interested had already endeavoured in some measure to do their duty. On the lines crossing the Atlantic and the Channel adequate provision far exceeding what was required by law had been made, and he thought we should be meeting the requirements of all concerned if we invited the owners and others interested to advise as to how this life-saving apparatus might be provided. First of all, there were the shipowners, then there were the shipbuilders, then the practical navigators, then the able seamen, and, lastly, the underwriters at Lloyd's. The Bill proposed that a Committee, composed of three of each of these classes, should be formed ad hoc for the purpose of classifying the different kinds of vessels, and then of making rules with regard to the life-saving apparatus to be carried by each. These rules would be subject to the approval of the Board of Trade, and would be laid upon the Table of that and the other House of Parliament, so that Parliament would have an opportunity of judging whether they would be efficient or not. As to inspection, any Surveyor or other person appointed by the Board of Trade might give notice to an owner that a ship should not clear if there was any deficiency. He did not claim that the result of this measure would be absolute immunity as regarded loss of life at sea; but he trusted that it would reduce the risks, and provide some remedy for a state of the law which was at present extremely anomalous and not suited to the requirements of the times. The boat scales in the Merchant Shipping Act, 1854, and Passengers Act, 1855, were framed upwards of 30 years ago to meet a different state of things than now existed. At that time nearly the whole of the passenger traffic was carried on by wooden sailing ships of about 1,200 to 1,509 tons burden. The boat scales were framed on the basis of the ship's registered tonnage, which, in those days of sailing ships, gave a very good idea of the vessel's size and of her capabilities for stowing boats, &c.; but now the sailing ships had entirely given place to iron or steel steamships of two or three times their size. Every merchant seaman on the North-East Coast was in favour of men being provided with life-bolts. He ventured to hope that the rules to be made by this Committee would be welcomed and cheerfully observed by all the interests concerned, and that, if these expectations were fulfilled, it might be possible to extend still further the principle of inviting all the interests affected by other such matters to unite in deciding what restrictions should be laid upon them for their common good. He begged to move the second reading of the Bill.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."—(The Earl of Onslow.)


said, he heartily supported the principle of the Bill, which he earnestly hoped might conduce to the saving of life at sea. He would also suggest that, in accordance with the recommendation of the Committee, something should be done to require the use of oil in cases of storm and shipwreck.


said, that the object of the Bill was one which every man would approve, and he entirely agreed with the noble Lord who had moved the second reading that the present law was most unsatisfactory. It was more—it was extremely anomalous, and in some of its provisions almost absurd. But he wished to say that there was no class of men in this country who were more anxious to save life than the shipowners, and he was not in the least ashamed to tell their Lordships that the conviction had been forced upon his mind that, of all the traders of this country, the most capable of conducting their business were the shipowners. He regarded, therefore, with some degree of suspicion, or at least of jealousy, all those attempts to teach men a business which they knew much better than the Legislature. By Clause 2 the President of the Board of Trade, for the time being, was authorized to appoint a Consultative Committee to assist him in this particular matter. There were to be three representatives of each class concerned on that council, the selection of whom was to be left absolutely in the hands of the President of the Board of Trade. Now this council ought to consist of the most competent men in the country; but the most competent men had so much to do at home that they would be prevented from coming up to London, and waiting on the President of the Board of Trade to teach him his business. He was much afraid that the persons who would be left to select from would be gentlemen who had nothing else to do, and who would be very glad of a run to London, at the public expense, if they had the opportunity. He thought that question would require considerable threshing out on the next stage of the Bill. He would further point out that what the Bill required to be done was practically done now by all the best shipowners in the country. Interference with a great industry should be confined to a minimum, and only to such matters as were absolutely necessary to protect life. The next point he wished to refer to was Clause 5, which provided for the inspection of ships for the purpose of enforcing the rules made by the Bill. That inspection was to be undertaken by a Surveyor appointed under the Merchant Shipping Act, 1854, or any such other person as the President of the Board of Trade might appoint. Those words seemed to him very much too wide, and ought to be altered by adding some such words as "properly qualified." He had ventured to make these few remarks preparatory to the next stage of the Bill, because he thought it was only fair to point out defects in the Bill on the second reading, so that the Government might have an opportunity of considering them before the Committee stage was reached.


said, he entirely agreed with the noble Earl who had introduced the Bill that the present state of the law was most anomalous. It was most important not to take the responsibility away from the shipowners, and that whore ships were not well found there should be some regulations which would show what was desirable for saving life at sea. He agreed with the noble Earl who spoke last that the Consultative Committee should be composed of thoroughly practical men, but he could not but believe that the President of the Board of Trade would do his best to attain that object. It was shown in a discussion that place in that House some years ago that throwing oil on the water immediately around a ship had a very beneficial effect. He thought that if to every lifebuoy a bag of oil was attached much good might be done. When the buoy was thrown into the water the oil would trickle out, and there could be no doubt that that would smooth the water for some distance round the buoy. He thought that was a point worth consideration by the Board of Trade. He was extremely glad the Government had taken up this matter, and he sincerely hoped the Bill would be passed almost in its present shape.


said, that as he had something to do with the earlier stages of the Bill he should like to say a word in support of it. He thought his noble Friend who had introduced the Bill with such a clear and able statement must be satisfied with the reception it had met with at the hands of their Lordships. No doubt, the Bill dealt with two very important questions. In the first place, it revised the boat scale; and, in the next place, it contained a provision by which the Board of Trade would be brought in future more directly in touch with some of the commercial interests. It had been said that the Board of Trade had been indifferent to the interests with which it had to deal; but he did not think that was a just accusation. No one who had not been at the Board of Trade could understand the difficulties which surrounded the Office of President, and the vast number of subjects with which he was called upon to deal. The subjects brought under the President's consideration ranged from lighthouses to bankruptcy, and from sea vessels to salmon fishing. It was, therefore, impossible that any man who undertook that Office could have a full knowledge of everything with which he had to deal. The noble Earl (the Earl of Ravensworth) appeared to think that the most competent men of their respective class would not be secured to act on the Consultative Committee. He could not agree with the noble Earl in this view. During his short experience of the Board of Trade he had found gentlemen, at great sacrifice of their valuable time, and often at much inconvenience to their own business, ready on all occasions to come forward freely and frankly to give the Department the benefit of their advice, and he desired to take this opportunity of acknowledging the debt of gratitude under which he lay to those gentlemen. He could well understand the feeling of shipowners towards the Board of Trade, for they certainly had sometimes had a rough time of it. With regard to the method of constituting this Consultative Committee, he thought the mode proposed in the Bill—namely, that of the selection of three names out of nine names submitted by each of the respective bodies—was the best that could be devised. The Bill followed as closely as possible the recommendations of the Committee which sat last year to inquire into the subject, with Lord Charles Beresford as Chairman. The proposal in the Bill for constituting the Consultative Committee was the most practical form of giving effect to the recommendations of the Committee. The noble Earl seemed to make it a point of objection to this Bill that it merely provided for that which all good shipowners already made it a practice to do; but this was an argument in favour of the Bill—namely, that it would merely compel careless shipowners to take the precautions which good shipowners took already. Another excellent point of the Bill was that it aimed at securing its object by prevention rather than by penalty. In proceedings against a shipowner the jury were only too ready to give him the benefit of the doubt, and proceedings after a casualty had occurred were consequently found not to be effective. He hoped that this experiment of appointing a Consultative Committee to assist the Board of Trade would be followed in regard to other matters, but to appoint a general Consultative Council to assist the Board of Trade in regard to all its operations would be quite illusory, for men of great experience on some matters might be asked to express an opinion on others of which they had no especial knowledge. The appointment of Consultative Committees ad hoc for the purpose of dealing with the details of particular measures might, however, be very desirable and of great practical utility. Nothing would do more to break down that feeling of antagonism which in certain quarters unfortunately and unjustly existed against the Board of Trade. He was sure his noble Friend in charge of the Bill would give a full and fair consideration to any Amendment which might be brought forward with regard to the details of the Bill, and he believed that the Bill, when passed into law, would prove a most useful measure.


said, he welcomed the Bill most cordially, for it promised to be very useful and valuable. The most important provision in it was that contained in the 2nd clause, which, for the first time, established a Consultative Committee to assist the Board of Trade. There was much to be said in favour of such a Committee, but there was the danger attached to this proposal that it might diminish the responsibility of the Minister at the head of the Department. The matter required to be carefully watched. It would probably be a good plan if a Committee ad hoc were appointed whose views the Minister could consult, and after consulting whom he might form his own opinion, but the full responsibility of that opinion ought to rest upon him. He desired also to point out that in the case of the rules to be drawn up, and which were to be laid on the Table 40 days before they came into operation, it ought to be provided that the 40 days should only commence to run from the time that they were in print and circulated. He had known cases in which rules were laid on the Table in dummy, and the printed rules were only circulated 30 days after. This made the control of the House almost illusory.


said, that the suggestions made by the noble Earl who had just sat down and by other noble Lords who had spoken would be very carefully considered. In answer to the suggestion that the proposed Committee would weaken the authority and responsibility of the President of the Board of Trade, he would point out that then, as at the present time, he would make the rules, and would be responsible to Parliament for them.

Motion agreed to; Bill read 2a accordingly.