HL Deb 19 July 1901 vol 97 cc970-2

My Lords, I beg to ask His Majesty's Government whether at the recent Board of Trade inquiries into the loss of the ss. "Mobile," with all hands, and the casualty to the ss. "Huddersfield" with loss of life, it was found that, owing to their carrying deck loads in the winter time in the North Atlantic, both vessels were sent to sea in an unseaworthy condition: whether this is an infringement of Section 457 of the Merchant Shipping Act regarding the sending to sea of unseaworthy ships, and whether it is the intention of the Board of Trade to take prompt action thereupon for the purpose of preventing such needless sacrifice of life in the future. To previous questions on the subject of unseaworthy ships the reply has been that the Board of Trade has no jurisdiction over any vessels sailing from ports outside the United Kingdom to other foreign ports. This is a curious decision in view of the fact that when a British vessel is lost the Board of Trade hold an inquiry, and decide what, in their opinion, was the cause; and should the captain survive, he is tried at the same time, and his certificate suspended if it is ascertained that the vessel went to sea in an unseaworthy condition. Under the Merchant Shipping Act the Board of Trade have jurisdiction over every ship sent to sea in an unseaworthy condition, and I fail to find any provision that the vessel must sail from or arrive at a port in the United Kingdom. A master of a British ship is supposed to have discretionary powers as to whether or not his ship is so loaded as to be unseaworthy; but, as a matter of fact, he has not, because if he refused to take her he would probably be told that his services were no longer required. This is a matter in which some action by the Board of Trade is very much needed.


My Lords, I am afraid the Board of Trade are unable to take any action in the cases mentioned. The vessels went to sea in an unseaworthy state; one foundered, and the other was caught in a gale of wind, and loss of life was sustained. These matters are governed by two sections of the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894. Section 451 deals with the question of deck cargo, and it was with reference to that section that I gave the answer to my noble friend the other day that the Board of Trade had no jurisdiction in the matter. That section lays down that where a vessel leaves a port abroad for a port in this country with a deck cargo over a certain height she can be detained on her arrival here. But it is obvious that if the vessel does not come to a port in the United Kingdom she does not come under the jurisdiction of the Board of Trade. Section 457 does undoubtedly give to us the power to prosecute, on sufficient evidence, any owner or master who sends his vessel to sea in an unseaworthy condition. In the case of the "Mobile" the vessel was lost with all hands. We are, therefore, obviously unable to proceed against anybody. There is no evidence to show that the owner in that case is in any way responsible for the vessel going to sea in an unseaworthy condition. The master has been held by the court of inquiry to blame, but the master has, unfortunately, lost his life. In the case of the "Huddersfield" the court of inquiry found that, although the ship was undoubtedly unseaworthy, the master was not to blame. They found it to be an error of judgment, and we are advised by our legal advisers that, that finding having been arrived at, it is impossible to prosecute the master with any hope of a conviction. For these reasons, therefore, we do not propose to initiate any action against the master or the owner of that vessel. I agree that there may be cases in which an understanding has been arrived at between the owner and the master of a vessel practically to evade the law, but my noble friend knows perfectly well that it is extremely difficult to bring home a charge of that character, and I am afraid that in that respect the section is of but little value.