HL Deb 24 February 1899 vol 67 cc429-35

My Lords, I beg to move the Second Reading of this Bill. The subject of the Bill is by no means a new one. It has, in one form or another, been before the House for the past four years, and I moved a resolution on the subject in your Lordships' House last year, but that resolution went a great deal further than this Bill. I think, my Lords, I have said enough to show that the Board of Trade have had ample time to ascertain the views of the various Chambers of Commerce and shipowners. This Bill was introduced in the House of Commons last year by Sir John Willox, but in its then form it included mates and engineers, and also dealt with pilotage certificates. The shipowners objected to it, but said that if all except the masters were eliminated from the Bill they would not oppose it. The Bill which I now have the honour to present to your Lordships is restricted to masters. I think, my Lords, that this is such an important matter to the nation that the views and wishes of any one particular body of men should not be considered as final. The good of the Empire should be the first consideration. I would like to ask your Lordships what is the good of adding more ships to Her Majesty's Navy and going to a very large expenditure to do so, if at the same time you do not take care of its only reserve—the mercantile marine? Your Lordships, I am sure, would never consent to one of our men-of-war being commanded and manned by subjects of another Power. The merchant navy, in its way, is just as important for the welfare of the Empire as the Royal Navy. If your Lordships will look at the position you would be in in case of war, you will see the great disadvantage of having our merchant vessels commanded by foreigners. Should we be so unfortunate as to be at war, and the master of a merchant vessel who happens to be a foreigner hears of it—he is much more likely to hear of it than his crew or his officers—the first thing he would do, if he belonged to the nation or to one of the nations hostile to us, would be to hand over his ship to the enemy, and if that ship should happen to be laden with corn or other food supplies, this would mean a very great loss to us, and a very great gain to them. You must also remember, my Lords, that these men are gaining an intimate knowledge of our coasts and harbours, and the navigation of our inland waters, which would be a great advantage in time of war to the enemy. Now, my Lords, would you allow, or does the law allow, a subject of another Power to be a magistrate in our country? Or would you accept in the police force a subject of another Power? My Lords, the master of a British ship at sea is a magistrate. The ship is part of the British Empire, and the captain is the administrator of the laws in that portion of the Empire. Surely, my Lords, it is only right and just that under those circumstances he should be a subject of Her Majesty. Speaking about this matter in the House of Commons, the President of the Board of Trade said— It is not an agreeable thing to know that no less than 30 per cent, of the petty officers and seamen on board British ships are foreigners. I think we would all prefer that the mercantile marine should be manned by British seamen. The right honourable Gentleman then went on to say that he was unable to restrict the command of British ships to British subjects, because it would mean a reversion to the policy of the Navigation Laws. Well, my Lords, sooner or later we will in some measure have to go back to the old Navigation Laws. Other nations have them, and I believe the United States are now enacting laws very much the same as the old Navigation Laws, which were repealed by us in, I think, the year 1849. It is shameful that no encouragement is offered to a body of men who have rendered most valuable services to the Empire, both in peace and in war, and that aliens should be encouraged to compete against them. My Lords, if this goes on, you will have plenty of ships, but in an emergency you will fail to get British subjects to man them. I know that at the present day some very large British ships are still completely manned by foreigners, and have not a single British subject on board. I know of one ship which did retain a British subject as chief officer. He had been in the employ of the company for 11 years, but was discharged through no fault of his own, and a foreigner put in his place. My Lords, I do not think this is a case in which you can adopt the principle of Free Trade, and I hope your Lordships will pass this Bill if only to let it go to another place, where, it will have full discussion and be thoroughly investigated. It is a matter of too much importance to be delayed, and I earnestly trust the Bill will receive a Second Reading.


My Lords, whatever your Lordships may think as to the expediency of legislation upon the subject which my noble Friend has raised, at any rate, I think that many of us will be disposed to sympathise with him in his desire to decrease the number of foreigners who are employed in our Mercantile Marine, and to secure as far as possible that British ships shall be commanded by British seamen and by British subjects. Personally, my Lords, to that extent I am quite in accord with my noble Friend, but I confess that when he proposes to bring about that result by legislation his views no longer coincide with my own. My noble Friend has referred to the fact that Bills of this kind have been promoted on one or two occasions in the House of Commons, but I think I am right in saying that in no single instance has any one of these Bills reached a stage when any discussion has been taken upon it. I believe they have been introduced, but there they have re- mained, and have died in the ordinary course at the end of each Session. My noble Friend has quoted remarks made by the President of the Board of Trade on the subject, of the employment of foreigners in the Mercantile Marine, but these words were, I think, used in connection with a different subject—namely, the Mercantile Marine Fund Bill last year, and had, I think, no connection with any proposal of this kind. To my mind there are several very good reasons why it would be undesirable for Parliament to assent at the present time to legislation such as that proposed by my noble Friend. In the first place, it would involve a considerable, if not a complete, reversal of the policy which has been deliberately adopted both by Parliament and the country for the last 45 years. Under the old Navigation Laws, as your Lordships are aware, restrictions were certainly placed on the employment of foreigners in our mercantile marine, but with the adoption of our present Free Trade policy, these laws, in common with many others of an analogous and protective character, were swept away, and I venture to believe there has not been any sufficient demonstration of public opinion to justify us in seriously considering any important departure from the policy then deliberately adopted or in placing fettering conditions on those who are carrying on one of the most important industries of this country. It is, of course, true that the present proposal is only of a limited character, and does not go nearly so far as the old Navigation Laws did, but the worst of it is that if once we embark upon a voyage of this kind, under the command of my noble Friend, where are we going to stop? There is no finality at all in the present Bill, and if once it is laid down that British ships shall, under no conditions whatever, be commanded by the subjects of any foreign Power, then, personally, I fail to understand upon what principle, or by what logic, any similar demand with regard to mates, or even with regard to any other class of seamen, can be resisted or refused. My noble Friend seems to foresee some danger in the possible handing over of British ships by foreign captains in time of war. That, I think, assumes considerable powers of persuasion on the part of the captain, and considerable simplicity on the part of the crew. It is, I think, a very common thing for a ship to be commanded by a foreign master, but manned by a British crew, and surely it is a little difficult to contemplate a situation in which the crew would consent to be taken to an enemy's port and handed over to the authorities there in time of war. I should think, my Lords, that the captain would be much more likely to be anxious to come to the port in this country where he could draw his wages, than to return to his own country under those conditions. But, however that may be, I think that even on practical and matter-of-fact grounds there is no necessity for this Bill. It is surely not too much to say that before Parliament can be asked seriously to consider a proposal of this kind, it ought to be satisfied that the evil which the Bill seeks to remedy is one of considerable magnitude. To listen to my noble Friend, one would imagine that the results of the non-existence of restrictive legislation were that a large proportion of British ships were commanded by foreign captains—in fact, that the bridge of an English vessel was a kind of Tower of Babel, upon which every language under the sun was heard except our own. But, as a matter of fact, what is the present situation? In 1891, upon a given day, 188 foreigners were in command of English ships, and in 1896, on 25th March, 180 out of a total of 10,339 captains in command of English ships were foreigners.


Did the noble Earl say 1896?


Yes. In that year, out of a total of 10,339 captains in command of British ships, only 180 were foreigners. Therefore, I venture to express the opinion that even if we were justified in reverting to drastic legislation under the pressure of any great proportion, or excessive proportion, of foreign commanders in our Mercantile Marine, such justification in no way exists when it can be proved that the proportion is an infinitesimal one—something like 1 per cent.—and one which tends to decrease, rather than to increase. Under these circumstances, I hope your Lordships will not assent to the Second Beading of this Bill; but before I sit down I should like to assure my noble Friend that those at the Board of Trade do not lose sight of this ques- tion, and that with every means, and on every occasion, they seek to stimulate the employment of British subjects in British ships. My noble Friend seems to have doubts on that point, and he said nothing was done to encourage such employment. I would venture to remind him of the discussion which took place in this House between himself and me two days ago, in which I told him we at the Board of Trade would attempt to introduce the continuous discharge. What is the object of that? In order, if possible, to raise the status and character of British seamen, and thereby to induce British shipowners to more largely employ them than they do at present. In the course of the last three years we have taken several steps which, in our view, conduce to such an object, and we shall continue, I can assure him, to take every opportunity of doing so. But in attempting to take measures of that kind, we would rely not upon drastic legislation and antiquated legislation such as my noble Friend proposes, but we would rather look, firstly, as I have said, to the gradual removal of those causes which at present induce shipowners to employ foreign seamen; and, secondly, we would look to that feeling which, personally, I believe still strongly exists, that in the majority of cases British sailors are still the finest seamen in the world, and that in their hands, rather than in the hands of any foreign crew, is it wisest for a shipowner to entrust his cargo and his ship. Under these circumstances, I hope your Lordships will not give a Second Beading to this Bill.


My Lords, the noble Earl who has just sat down has given very few reasons, and very bad ones, for doing nothing. He has admitted that the present state of affairs, so far as the mercantile marine is concerned, require improving. He also said the House of Commons had not discussed the matter, but he must be perfectly well aware that mercantile sailors have no votes, and therefore their interests count for little with the House of Commons. The noble Earl says that public opinion has not been roused on this matter. Has he not read the correspondence which has been going on for weeks in the columns of a morning paper? The evils attending the present system have been clearly pointed out, and it has been shown that in cases where mates are foreigners, they have discouraged English mercantile sailors from joining ships. The noble Earl said that only 1 per cent. of captains in command of British vessels are foreigners; but I think if he will work out the figures he will find that the percentage is considerably higher. The noble Earl said we should not reverse the policy of 40 years, but in my opinion there was a great deal in that policy which should be reversed. It is quite natural that the Board of Trade should be the place where the officials cling to the cosmopolitanism of the Cobden school which brought about the repeal of the Navigation Laws and the falling off of the supply to our Navy. How much public opinion does the noble Earl want before the Board of Trade will move? The most competent persons have been writing on the subject, and have shown that the supply of mercantile sailors is falling off, and in view of the fact that we are increasing the Navy, this becomes a still more serious matter, as we shall not have men to man our ships. I hope the noble Lord will divide the House on this Bill.

Question put.

Second Reading negatived without a Division.

House adjourned at Five of the clock to Monday next at quarter-past Four of the clock.

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