HL Deb 29 June 1897 vol 50 cc720-2

, in moving the Second o. Reading of this Bill, said that the object of the Bill was to do away with a defect in the merchant shipping law, which had for some time past caused considerable comment. Many of their Lordships were no doubt aware that since 1876 certain officers of the Board of Trade had power to prevent British ships leaving our ports in an unsafe or unseaworthy condition. If it were shown that a vessel was defective in her hull or machinery, or improperly overloaded, then, subject to an appeal to a Court of Survey, the surveying officers of the Board of Trade could order her detention. At that point the law stopped, and its framers appeared to have altogether ignored the case of a ship, safe and seaworthy enough so far as her cargo and appliances were concerned, but rendered dangerously unsafe by the fact that she carried an insufficient crew. The omission was a serious one, and it was difficult to conceive any condition which ought to be more taken into account in estimating seaworthiness than the adequacy of the crew, because undermanning not only affected the safety of a particular vessel, hut by reason of the fact that in the circumstances navigation was found to be very slipshod, it constituted also a grave peril to other ships; and as an illustration of that he might remind their Lordships of the collision which took place between the Crathie and the Elbe. The Bill proposed to extend the scope of Section 459 of the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894, and to include undermanning among the reasons for which a ship might be detained; and in attempting to amend the Section the Board of Trade followed the recommendation of the very strong Committee which, under the Chairmanship of Sir Edward Reed, recently investigated the subject. That Committee fortunately was able to report that, in the great majority of cases, British ships were managed with careful regard to the safety of life and the welfare of the crew; but at the same time the evidence that was given before them clearly proved that occasionally vessels did go to sea undermanned. The Committee found that in 145 cases in which the question of undermanning had been raised at wreck inquiries between 1878 and 1894, 69 ships—45 steamers and 24 sailing vessels—had been in such a condition; and they reported, therefore, that undermanning should by legislation be embodied in the law authorising the detention of unseaworthy vessels. This view was shared by all the best ship-owners, who were as anxious as were the Board of Trade that no opportunity should be afforded of omitting precautions for ensuring the safety of their crews. So far, therefore, by the introduction of this Bill, they were merely giving effect to an almost unanimous desire, and it was not until they came to the question of the manlier in which the remedy should be applied that any difference of opinion was expressed. It was proposed by this Bill to leave the question of what constituted undermanning to the detaining officers of the Board of Trade, who would be guided by instructions furnished by that Department. There was, however, another course recommended in some quarters, and that was to embody in this Bill a definite manning scale, which should lie applied uniformly to all ships, a manning scale based upon tonnage. He did not think there was the smallest doubt that if it were practically possible to frame such a scale, which would allow for all the different conditions that had to be taken into account in estimating the adequacy of a crew, it would be by far the most convenient method to adopt; but after considerable discussion and consideration the Board of Trade, as at present advised, had come to the conclusion that the framing of such a scale was not practicable, for it was not only upon the tonnage and upon the rig of a, vessel that an estimate of her crew must be based, but also upon many varying conditions, such as the nature of her' cargo, the length and nature of her voyage, the season of the year, and the extent to which labour-saving appliances were available. All these things had to be taken into account, and. therefore, the Board of Trade thought it better to leave the question to experienced officers of the Board of Trade, who would be able to judge every case upon its merits, and to use their discretion in the matter, than to attempt to formulate a scale which would become stereotyped by Act of Parliament. Moreover, before issuing the instructions, the Board of Trade would of course consult those who were interested in the shipping trade with regard to them. These instructions could be modified or altered as might appear necessary in the light of experience. A hard and fist manning scale was once attempted by some mutual insurance societies, but it had to be abandoned on account of its want of elasticity. He need hardly remind the House that the detention officers of the Board of Trade were practical men of great experience, and the owner of a ship that had been wrongfully detained would always have the fullest opportunity of obtaining damages and costs against the Department. Such were the provisions of this small Measure, and he hoped that it would commend itself to the House, and that their Lordships would consent to give it a Second Reading.

Read 2a (according to Order), and committed to a Committee of the whole House on Friday next.