HL Deb 24 April 1890 vol 343 cc1233-46

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this is a Bill which has come from the other House, and I need detain your Lordships but a few minutes in explaining its object. In the year 1876 a Bill was passed for the better protection of life at sea, under which the obligation was imposed upon the owner of every vessel to mark upon her the line of the deck, and also to mark upon her, at such point as he thought right, a disc which was to indicate the depth above which the vessel was not to be loaded. Permission was given under that Act to the Board of Trade to detain ships that were over-loaded, a power which was frequently acted upon. Your Lordships will readily understand that the load-line as marked by the owner was not always such a, load-line as the Board of Trade considered proper, and they consequently were not always satisfied to abstain from detaining ships which were loaded, no deeper than the load-line marked by the owner. But at that time it was thought to be of very great practical difficulty, if not impossible, to fix a load-line on principles which, should be generally satisfactory. Consequently, the Legislature then left the-fixing of the load-line entirely to the owner of the vessel, although of course to a certain extent it may be said that was subject to a revision by the Board of Trade, inasmuch as they might detain a vessel as being overloaded, notwithstanding that the loading was not in excess of that which the load-line defined. Afterwards a very powerful Committee was appointed upon the subject to answer-three questions which were submitted to, them by the Board of Trade for inquiry. The first was— Whether it is now practicable to frame new general rules concerning freeboard which will prevent dangerous overloading without unduly interfering with trade; if so, whether any and which of the existing Tables should be adopted, or how far such Tables can be adopted as fixed rules; and what amount of discretion was necessary to be given? That Committee was presided over by Sir Edward Reed, and upon it were some eminent shipowners and persons connected with insurance bodies. They reported to the Board of Trade— First, we are of opinion that it is now practicable to frame general rules concerning freeboard which will prevent dangerous overloading without unduly interfering with trade; and they submitted Tables which they considered might be adopted in regard to loading cargo vessels for some years to come without giving any more discretion than as concerned the quality and condition of the ship. They also expressed their opinion that the adoption of such a compulsory load line would be an advantage to shipowners in this respect, that it would prevent that tension which existed between the Board of Trade and shipowners with regard to the overloading of vessels; and they anticipated that the time would come, and ought to come, when a load-line should be made compulsory. Subsequently to the Report of that Committee, the final Report was made by the Commission: on Loss of Life at Sea. That Royal Commission made the recommendation that the load-line recommended by the Committee on that subject, and then acted upon by the Board of Trade and Lloyd's, should be made compulsory by legislative enactment enforcible by penalty. This Bill, of which I now propose the Second Reading, is simply to carry out that recommendation of the Royal Commission, that the principles which the Load-line Committee suggested should be acted upon in determining the load-line which was to be marked upon vessels, so that the load-line should be once for all settled by authority, and the point conclusively fired below which the loading ought not to take place. I need not detain your Lordships further upon this matter, except to point out that from the evidence which was given before the Royal Commission upon Loss of Life at Sea, and which led to that recommendation, there was still reason to think that the present legislation was not sufficiently effective for the purpose. Dealing only with the subject of missing ships, there was evidence given before the Royal Commission that in cases which had been investigated of 65 missing vessels, the disasters were due in 30 of those cases to overloading. That is to say, nearly one-half of the cases of missing ships inquired into were found to have arisen from overloading, or, speaking roughly, 46 per cent. The important character of this matter will appear from the fact that during the last eight years the loss of life in missing ships has been very heavy, amounting to 944 lives. It is impossible, of course, to say absolutely that the percentage found in the 65 cases of missing vessels examined into, namely, 46 per cent., prevailed throughout the whole of the vessels lost; but, supposing that to be so, it would show that there had been a loss of life owing to overloading of 434 lives. I do not, of course, suggest that that can be regarded as strictly accurate; but, at all events, it is sufficient to indicate that the recommendations of the Royal Commission proceeded upon substantial grounds, and that ample proof was given that great loss of life did, in fact, result from overloading. My Lords, considering that this measure has been passed in the other House, that it is approved by the Board of Trade, and that it has received the acquiescence of the great body of ship owners, who are well represented in the other House, I think your Lordships will come to the conclusion that it is a Bill which should receive your sanction, and that you ought to give it a Second Reading.

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


My Lords, I do not rise in any way to oppose the Second Reading of this Bill, which I understand, as the noble and learned Lord has stated, has received the entire approval of the Board of Trade. But, since the Bill was discussed in the other House, it appears that a difficulty has arisen with regard to Canada. I have had strong representations made to me from Canada, and especially from New Brunswick, that this Bill will operate very prejudicially against a certain class of wooden vessels which are largely used there. Those vessels are classed in the Bureau Veritas and not at Lloyd's; they are built on a different model to that of the iron vessels constructed in the United Kingdom; it is thought that British surveyors have not a sufficient knowledge of those vessels which would enable them fairly to decide what should be the load-line for those vessels; and, lastly, a strong objection is felt to any British Association being employed in finally approving or fixing a compulsory load-line for those vessels. It is proposed that Canadian vessels of this character should be altogether exempted from the operation of the Act: or, if that is not practicable, that the further proceeding with this Bill should be delayed until it can be submitted to the Canadian Government, and until some arrangements can be made for meeting this special difficulty. It would not be right, I think, that Canadian vessels should be altogether exempt from the operation of this Act, and not subject to, at all events, the principles there laid down; but, after consultation with the officials of the Board of Trade, and with the concurrence of the President of that Department, we have framed a clause which I think ought to satisfy, and will, I believe, satisfy, the Canadian Authorities. The effect of the clause is that if by a Colonial Legislature provision is made for fixing and marking a load-line which, to the satisfaction of the Board of Trade, is based upon the principles of this Bill, that load-line so fixed should then be (subject to the approval of the Board of Trade) declared by an Order in Council to be a load-line in conformity with the provisions of this Bill. Similar provisions were, as the noble and learned Lord is aware, made some years ago, by Section 8 of 32 & 33 Vict. c. 11, with reference to the examinations and certificates of masters and pilots. Upon the Board of Trade being satisfied that the examination in those cases were equal to the examination in this country certificates which were given in Canada and other colonies to pilots and masters were held to be certificates within the meaning of that Imperial Act. I shall, therefore, propose in Committee that this clause, which I will hand to my noble and learned Friend, and which embodies the substance of what I have stated, be added. As I have stated, it has received the approval of the President of the Board of Trade.


My Lords, I do not propose to oppose the Second Reading of this Bill, but I should like to say a few words upon it. As my noble Friend has shown, it is approved by very high Authority, and has passed the other House of Parliament. It has also received the acquiescence of shipowners; but there are one or two observations, I think, to be made upon it, which I hope your Lordships will pardon me for making at this stage. We have already heard of the requests, to which I shall presently refer, by a very important Body with regard to the approval of the Board of Trade, and consequently it has been thought proper to insert a clause to meet the objections on that point. I shall claim, on behalf of an equally important Body, the inser- tion of a clause in Committee which think it only fair should be inserted And, speaking for myself, I will venture to make one or two observations which, I think, are not altogether without foundation. I deny that any cause whatever has been shown for this Bill. I very much object to the principle of a fixed load-line by enactment, upon this broad ground, that you are shifting from the shoulders of the shipowners that responsibility which experience has shown ought to be thrown upon them, and which they are the most competent to bear. I would also make this objection: it is thought by many who are well qualified to judge that this Bill proceeds upon an entirely erroneous principle, and I am quite sure that my noble and learned Friend will admit the force of this objection. It proceeds upon the assumption that a certain amount of freeboard or clear side is a guarantee of seaworthiness. No greater error can possibly be advanced, but that appears to be the idea most prominent in the minds of the framers of this Bill. It is no guarantee at all. In loading ships infinitely more depends upon the nature of the cargo, the strength of the vessel, the disposition or placing of the cargo, and the effect of strains upon certain portions of the vessel when labouring in heavy seas. Those are considerations of paramount importance, but they are altogether ignored, and there is merely dealt with in the Bill the question of giving a certain amount of clear side in a vessel. Therefore, I think my noble and learned Friend will admit that my objection on that ground, that a fixed load-line is no guarantee whatever of the seaworthiness of a ship, is entitled to, at least, some weight. Then, my Lords, there is another matter. I quite admit that the Board of Trade have desired to consult not only humble individuals like myself in this matter, but the wishes of the general body of shipowners. They have, in a fair and honest manner, endeavoured to meet many of the objections raised against a fixed load-line, and the Bill now before us is a very different Bill indeed to that which was originally proposed in the House of Commons, and (Specially there are further important provisions in it, to apply after the Bill has become law, as regards the administra- tion of the Act. The supervision of a single official, unassisted by scientific and competent advice, would have boon a very unwise thing, but if, as I understand is the case, the Board of Trade have appointed the Committee of Lloyd's to administer the Act, that entirely avoids the objection, because of all Bodies in this country, I think it will be agreed, there is none more qualified than that Committee. If you are to have a public Body appointed which should be competent to administer this Act, I do not think you could select a more desirable Body. There is another point of very great importance, which this Bill leaves entirely untouched, and that is with regard to foreign ships. The representative of the Board of Trade will correct me if I am wrong, but I think they have power to stop any vessels in our ports, if unduly loaded. That is a very important matter. But I must point out that British ships go to all parts of the world. Supposing a ship built for a particular service—for instance, designed to carry dead-weight cargoes, the most dangerous of any kind of cargoes. Her load-line will be fixed with reference to that particular purpose of carrying such cargoes. She may start from those shores under a time Charter, and may be absent for a couple of years, loading cargoes at foreign ports in various parts of the world, competing with foreign vessels on which there is no restriction, and the fact of her being restricted to a deadweight load-line may absolutely confine her to taking a dead-weight cargo. Vessels are not very likely to get a deadweight cargo in a foreign port, but they go out with various cargoes and they will be heavily handicapped against foreign ships by being bound to a fixed line for a dead-weight cargo. That, I think, is a most important matter for consideration. Then there is another point to which I desire to call your Lordships' attention. When I rose, I intended to make a suggestion to the Board of Trade with regard to appealing in cases which involve technical scientific details, and I may state that I have received communications from two Bodies which, I think, are worthy of consideration. I refer to the representatives of two of the ports in this country. Now, if there are two of our ports which are distinguished among the others, though I do not mean to the exclusion of others, for it would be invidious to say that—two ports which stand high in regard to the type and character of the vessels belonging to them, they are the Clyde and Belfast. They have addressed me on the subject, and have asked me to press this point upon the Board of Trade. To show the bona fides of their request, I may point out that they are perfectly willing, in case there should be any difficulty in carrying out the necessary scientific investigations and recommendations, which very few people are qualified to deal with, and which may entail considerable expense, that in all cases of final appeal the shipowner shall bear the costs, in order to prevent frivolous and vexatious appeals. They state that they are perfectly willing that that should be required, and I think that shows a reasonableness in their request, which I hope will not be lost sight of. However, this is not, of course, the right stage of the Bill at which to propose the introduction of a clause of that kind. All I would ask is that that matter should not be lost sight of. Since this Bill has passed the House of Commons I have had the opportunity of speaking to a man who is, perhaps, as competent to give an opinion upon the subject of fixing: a load-line as anybody; I mean the Chairman of the Peninsular and Oriental Company. He is strongly in favour of the introduction of such a clause, and, in the event of the Bill passing without it, it would, in his opinion, be necessary to present to Parliament a special Bill for the purpose of making provision for what is required. He is an authority of some weight, and he is entirely in favour of such a clause being introduced. Then, my Lords, there is another great objection which, to my mind, operates more strongly than any other; and I am speaking now from many years' personal experience of these matters, and having had the opportunity of consulting very high authorities on the subject. My objection is that if you lay down a law for a fixed load-line with regard to ships (because the gist of this Bill is that every vessel ought to be marked with a fixed load-line), in addition to the stronger objection of removing responsibility from the proper shoulders, you must consider what has been the effect of such legislation in past years. My opinion is that shipowners and shipbuilders will build simply according to the law, and not for safety. When the Tonnage Laws forced the shipowners into building a particular description of vessels, they built their ships with the view to getting the largest amount of carrying capacity. You will find deep, narrow, long vessels being built which will present a plausible amount of freeboard, but which in heavy seas will be inevitably lost. Scores and scores of vessels have, under those circumstances, been lost at sea. My firm conviction is that shipowners will load simply according to law, and not according to their own wishes and discretion as to what the ship should really carry. A shipowner will say: "Here is the load-line; I am entitled by law to load the ship down to it." You will divert shipbuilders from building otherwise than as the law authorises. Now, my Lords, against whom is legislation of this kind directed? It seems to me it is directed against the wise, prudent, and humane shipowner, who does his best for the prosperity and advantage of a great industry, and of all industries in this country I think this is the most important for us. I can speak from my own knowledge on this subject, because I know that the improvement which has taken place in the type of our merchant vessels is very great. That is admitted on all hands, and by no one more so than the Chairman of the Committee to which I have referred, Sir Edward Reed, who says that the improvement in our ships has been enormous. What has been the great object which our shipbuilders have had in view during the last four or five years? It has been by careful experiment and trial to ascertain those parts of the ship where the strain is felt, from the dead-weight cargo which I have described as the most unfavourable kind of cargo acting upon the bull or frame of the vessel, and to strengthen the ship in those parts; that is to say, the upper decks and those portions of the ship where the strain is found to operate most. Surely it is a very hard thing for our shipowners to be called upon now to build by a hard and fast law of this kind, and that a hard and fast line should be enforced upon them. I do not think that would be at all a wise piece of legislation. My Lords, I have detained you longer than I wished. I do not like to go into technical matters on this subject; but I do hope to hear, on behalf of the Board of Trade, that they will take into consideration the suggestion I have thrown out with regard to the insertion of a clause in reference to a Court of Appeal. It is necessary that provision should be made for that purpose. Scientific judgment is absolutely necessary upon the question whether a ship is seaworthy or not, and provision should be made for obtaining in proper cases a decision whether she is thoroughly safe or not by some experienced Body. I wish, of course, to speak in the highest terms of Lloyd's, yet they have, no doubt, their own particular views. Then, another point is that an owner may build a ship and not choose to classify her at Lloyd's. He may prefer to class her with some other Association, and he may have built her even in excess of Lloyd's own rules. Yet the load-line would be fixed without reference to that fact, which should have, I think, some weight, given, of course, that she will stand the strain. I will not trouble your Lordships further, but I hope I shall receive something like an assurance from my noble Friend on behalf of the Board of Trade that they will take into consideration the question of a Court of Appeal.


My Lords, I had hardly thought, after the speech from my noble and learned Friend opposite, that it would be necessary for me to say anything in regard to this Bill; but I feel bound to say a few words in answer to the direct application made to me by the noble Lord who has just sat down. As the noble and learned Lord has said, a great many alterations were made in this Bill while it was passing through the other House of Parliament with a view of making its provisions workable and rendering it a useful measure. I was glad to hear from the noble Lord who has just spoken, that he considers those Amendments as improvements, and was not now prepared to offer a strenuous opposition to the passage of the Bill through your Lordships' House. Upon one remark which the noble Lord made I should like to say a few words. He said, which is no doubt very true, that the having a compulsory load-line beyond which a ship should not be loaded was not in itself an absolute guarantee that that vessel so loaded would be safe. We entirely accept that statement; but, on the other hand, I think it will be admitted that a ship which is obviously overloaded is in a dangerous condition on that account, and that she should, if possible, be prevented from sailing. Every effort should be made to prevent, at any rate, a portion of the loss of life which has been mentioned by the noble Lord opposite.


You have the power of stopping any ships which you think are overloaded now.


Yes, there is that power, but still the provisions of this Bill will be an additional guarantee against overloading, and will strengthen the hands of the officers of the Board of Trade in carrying out the powers they already possess. I wish also to refer to what the noble Earl said as to the powers given to the Board of Trade to make regulations in regard to the difficulty of settling any fixed load-line. That difficulty was present to the minds of those who settled this Bill in the other House of Parliament. If your Lordships will turn to Clause 2, Sub-section A, you will find these words: that the Board of Trade may make regulations Determining the lines or marks to be used in connection with the disc, in order to indicate the maximum load-line under different circumstances and at different seasons, and declaring that the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act", 1876, are to have effect as if any such line were drawn through the centre of the disc. Your Lordships, therefore, see that it is to be according to the different times of the year, and the different classes of cargo which the ships are intended to carry that the regulation will be made; and I think the noble Lord, therefore, will admit that as far as possible elasticity has been introduced into the provisions of the Bill without sacrificing what is good in them. No doubt it is the case that when ships go from ports in the United Kingdom to foreign ports and are there re-loaded, the control of what may be done there will to a very considerable extent be lost by the Board of Trade. It is intended in Committee to define accurately the application of the Bill as far as possible, and to put in an Amendment which will make distinct the exact limits to which the Act will apply. A proviso will be submitted to the Committee-having that for its object. My Lords, the noble Lord called attention to the provisions of the 2nd section and approved! of the course proposed to be taken of authorising the Board of Trade to appoint the Committee of Lloyd's Register to carry out the provisions of this Bill. But the provisions of the Bill are even more liberal to the shipowners than the noble Lord indicated. Not only is it compulsory on the Board of Trade to appoint the Committee of Lloyd's Register if the Board wishes any appointment, but permission is given to the owner of the vessel to select any other Corporation, or Association, approved by the Board of Trade, or any officer of the Board of Trade specially selected by the Board for that purpose. I think it will be admitted that on that point, again, a desire has been shown to meet all the demands of the ship-owning community. With regard to the Amendment which the noble Lord has intimated his intention of moving, I can only say at present that I have not had the opportunity of seeing the representations which he says have been sent in to the Board of Trade. I only returned this morning from Ireland, where I have been engaged on business connected with the Board of Trade; but I will give him this undertaking, that I will, at the earliest moment, examine those representations, and that any recommendation put forward will receive the most careful consideration; but, as I understand he says they are recommendations which can only be dealt with in Committee, I will not say any more about them now. I will ask the House to give a Second Reading to the Bill, and I would ask the noble and? learned Lord who has charge of it if he will allow a week to elapse at least before taking the next stage. That will not prejudice the Bill.


Might I suggest to the noble and learned Lord to say the week after next?


My Lords, I should, of course, be desirous of meeting the views of the House in the matter; but there is this reason against any delay taking place greater than is necessary, that the Bill does not come into operation until six months after it passes. Of course, that suspension was intended to-give an opportunity to the shipowners to comply with its requirements. But even six months from the present time will bring us on to the beginning of winter; and, therefore, one would desire that the passing of the Bill should not be delayed longer than necessary. Subject to that, I should be glad to give time, as the noble Lord desires. Now, I should like to say a few words upon what my noble Friend has said with regard to relieving the shipowner from responsibility. I believe the noble Lord was in the other House in 1876, when the Merchant Shipping Act was under consideration, and I was one of those who took much the same view as the noble Lord in regard to being very much disinclined to relieve the shipowner of responsibility. But I think in this particular it may safely be done. The noble Earl has suggested that, having regard to the different characteristics which different ships may possess, there are many elements to be considered besides the mere question of free-board in considering the point to which a ship may safely be loaded. You cannot put the point in the same place in all circumstances; but whether you can in no way prevent dangerous overloading is another question. I do not express any opinion myself; but I think consideration should be given to the fact that such a very competent body to represent the views of the shipowners as Lloyd's Registry, has distinctly come to the conclusion that it is practicable to frame general rules which will prevent dangerous overloading without interfering with trade. As to the point of making it compulsory, a letter has been written by the Chairman of the Peninsular and Oriental Company, drawing attention to the difference of opinion in these matters between the shipowners and the Board of Trade with regard to the proper loading of vessels, and that it has become necessary that something should be done to put an end to the state of tension existing more especially in regard to ships engaged in carrying heavy cargoes. So that a distinct indication is given there that it will be an advantage to shipowners, seeing that the Board of Trade has power to detain overladen vessels, that there should be a load-line fixed which has the sanction of the Board of Trade, and which should settle the question as between the Board of Trade and the shipowners. When the noble Earl suggests that vessels should be so constructed as that they will require more freeboard than at present, surely all that can be taken into account by so highly competent a body as Lloyd's Registry who, before fixing a load-line, would take that into consideration and fix it accordingly. I can only say with regard to the question of appeal, it seems to me there would be considerable difficulty in establishing or determining upon a competent Court of Appeal. As the matter at present stands if there is no prior appointment by the shipowner it would be left to the determination of Lloyd's Registry. As far as that body, being a capable tribunal, goes, I do not suppose there will be much question about that; but if the shipowner objects to that tribunal he may name any other Registry of Shipping, and if that body is approved of by the Board of Trade the line may be fixed by them instead; or if he pleases he may ask that the line be fixed by an officer of the Board of Trade specially appointed for the purpose. It seems to me that that gives such a practical choice between tribunals of equal competence as to leave the shipowner really in the position of getting a satisfactory line fixed. I have some doubt, I confess, whether there would be likely to be any advantage to the shipowner in having a Court of Appeal, and whether you could get such a Court of Appeal as would be practically a suitable Court by reason of superior knowledge and experience as compared with the knowledge and experience to be found in any of these authorities between whom the shipowner—not the Board of Trade—is given the choice. My Lords, I do not think at present I need say anything further.

On question, agreed to.

Bill read 2a (according to order), and committed to the Standing Committee for General Bills.