HL Deb 13 July 1899 vol 74 cc673-7

My Lords, I beg to ask whether Her Majesty's Government are aware that the staff of the harbour-master of Kingstown has been reduced by the Harbour Commissioners, in spite of his repeated representations, to such an extent as to render it quite inadequate for the due discharge of his official duties; and, if so, whether they are satisfied as to the security to life and property afforded to vessels entering and leaving that harbour, or using it either as a harbour of refuge or in the ordinary course of trade. The Harbour Commissioners of Kingstown are appointed by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and are empowered by statute to make bye-laws for the regulation of the harbour. The harbour-master is also appointed by the Lord Lieutenant, and has certain duties specified by Statute to perform, subject always to the regulations of the Harbour Commissioners. But in order to properly perform his duties it stands to reason that he must be supplied with an adequate staff. Of late years, owing to the acceleration of the mail service, the hours of duty of his staff have been considerably increased, for, as part of their duties consists in securing a fair way for the incoming and outgoing mail-boats, the men are practically engaged from about four o'clock in the morning till about nine o'clock in the evening. Before the last acceleration, the harbour-master's staff consisted of six boatmen, and by working alternately long and short days he was able to have four men always on duty. But since the acceleration owing to the increased hours it became necessary to divide the men into two reliefs, leaving only three men on duty at a time. This number the present harbour-master, Captain Crofton, from his professional experience, deemed to be quite inadequate for the due discharge of his official duties, and accordingly he deemed it his duty to express this opinion to the Harbour Commissioners, and asked that his staff might be increased. Some correspondence ensued, and the result has been that his staff is now reduced to four men, leaving only two on duty at one time. At Holyhead, which is under the Marine Department of the Board of Trade, the harbour-master has six boatmen constantly on duty, although his duties are not so arduous as those of the harbour-master of Kingstown. He has no night work, nothing to do with the arrival and departure of the mail steamers, and Holyhead is not, like Kingstown, a yachting station. But Captain Crofton represented that if inadequate for ordinary duty, his staff, if so reduced, would be still more unable to cope with emergencies which might at any time arise. He pointed out that in heavy weather it would be necessary to put one of his men on board any vessel entering the harbour to take charge of her, and bring her up to her moorings. It does not require much knowledge of nautical matters to know that with only two men in a boat neither can leave her. He was then told that in case of emergency he might draw men from the engineers' staff. This he showed to be impracticable, as landsmen in a boat in a heavy sea would be only in the way, and, moreover, as the working hours of the engineers' staff were shorter than those of his, he might not be able to get the extra hands just when most wanted. Finding that the Harbour Commissioners, although a lay body without any nautical experience, were not disposed to listen to arguments founded on experience, he requested them to send the correspondence to the Lord Lieutenant. This they refused to do. He thereupon, thinking that, as he had been appointed by a former Lord Lieutenant, he was responsible to his Excellency, he addressed a communication to the Lord Lieutenant himself, and was informed in reply that the Lord Lieutenant had been advised that he had no power to interfere with the regulations of the Harbour Commissioners. It appears the Treasury have also no power to interfere. Encouraged apparently by this immunity from all criticism, and resenting the fact that Captain Crofton could not concur in views which his professional experience forbade him to adopt, the Commissioners have assumed towards him a most dictatorial and overbearing tone. They have done their best to weaken his authority over his men, by sending officials down to give instructions without any reference to the harbour-master, and they have done everything in their power to make his position an intolerable one. Among other acts of petty persecution, they have lately curtailed his leave of absence on the ground that, taking his pay into account, he ranks as a third-class clerk. Captain Crofton is a retired captain in Her Majesty's Navy, and has held his present appointment for twenty-two years. He was appointed by the Duke of Marlborough, with instructions to co-operate in every way with the authorities. This he has done, and no complaint has been made against him. He is a man of most punctual and regular habits, and has always been most zealous in the discharge of his duties. I have brought this matter forward, not only in the interest of Captain Crofton, who is a near relative of mine, but also on public grounds. It appears to me to be a perilous state of things that the harbour should be left under the control of a board of laymen, who refuse to listen to the representations of an experienced naval officer. I cannot think that Her Majesty's Government can approve of this, and I feel sure that the owners of vessels frequenting this port would be most apprehensive as to the safety of their vessels if they knew that the staff of the harbour-master, on whom they must rely for the protection of their interests, has been reduced to such an extent that the security to life and property afforded to vessels entering and leaving the harbour is of a most inadequate character.


My Lords, the behaviour of the Harbour Commissioners towards the harbour-master of Kingstown has been outrageous; there is no other word for it. They have reduced his staff without asking his opinion, and, what is more, there is nobody to whom he can appeal for redress. On one occasion they sent to say that they intended to reduce his staff by one out of two, and asked which man he wished to keep. The harbour-master replied giving the name of the man he wished to retain, but the Harbour Commissioners discharged that man and kept the one whom the harbour-master said should be dismissed. That shows the state of things that has been going on, and how these Commissioners do their work. I do not suppose you could find a similar case in any Government Depart- ment either in England or in Ireland. I have no doubt that the motive of the Commissioners is economy, but I think it is a very mistaken one. It will be impossible during the winter time for the staff to properly perform their duties, and if, from any failure on the part of the harbour-master to afford the necessary assistance to vessels running in in distress or in a gale of wind, those vessels have to incur demmurage, the Government will be responsible. I hope the whole subject will be fully inquired into, and that the Harbour Commissioners will be called upon to give evidence before an independent Committee of experts, who shall form their opinion on the matter.


My Lords, I am afraid I cannot now go into any of the questions which have been raised by the noble Lords who have spoken. I can only give the House the formal answer which I have been instructed to give by the Treasury, and which has just been sent down to me. This is a matter which comes under the direction of the Treasury, and not under the Irish Office. The Commissioners of the Harbour, and not the harbour-master, are, of course, responsible for the management of the harbour. The staff was re-arranged early in this year. The Commissioners of Kingstown Harbour considered that if the harbour-master took a more active part in the discharge of his duties the staff might be reduced from twelve to eleven. The harbour-master was instructed to report immediately any case in which the authorised staff was proved to be insufficient. No such instance has been reported. The Commissioners are satisfied that, if the harbour-master properly carries out the instructions given to him, there is no danger whatever to life or property in the harbour. The noble Earl (the Earl of Clanwilliam) pointed out that there was a difficulty in ascertaining to whom the harbour-master was entitled to appeal in order to obtain redress. In the absence of the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, I cannot express any opinion, but I will make inquiries into the matter if the noble Earl desires.


I do not consider the answer of the noble Lord at all satisfactory. I think the Harbour Commissioners have treated the Kingstown harbour-master very badly, and while they have never made any complaint against, are now trying to indirectly throw a slur on his professional capacity in order to hide their own shortcomings. I regard that as most unworthy conduct on their part.


My Lords, listening to this matter as an outsider, and looking at it from an impartial point of view, I consider the answer of the Treasury unsatisfactory to a degree. To my mind the question resolves itself into one of two things—either the harbour-master is competent or he is incompetent. If he is incompetent, the sooner he is dismissed the better; but if he is competent—and I gather that he is, seeing that no complaint has been made against him—it does appear that a system of petty tyranny has been directed against him, either to hunt him out of his berth or to make his life so unpleasant that he would have to retire. I think my noble friend is entitled to a more satisfactory answer. The noble Earl who has replied to my noble friend has the highest sense of justice and honour, and I do not think he would tolerate such tyranny against an official under the Department with which he is connected. I quite understand that he has given the best answer he is able to give. So far as I can gather, the Kingstown harbour-master has done nothing to merit the censure of the Commissioners, and there has never been any complaint against him. If my noble friend takes my advice, he will not let the question drop, but will draw further attention to the matter.


In conformity with the advice of my noble friend and with the suggestion of my noble and gallant friend, Lord Clanwilliam, I will call attention to the subject again, and move for a Committee of Inquiry.

House adjourned at a quarter-past Five of the o'clock, till To-morrow, half-past Ten of the o'clock.