HL Deb 10 February 1902 vol 102 cc817-25

My Lords, I rise to call the attention of the House to the composition of the Committee appointed to inquire into offences against discipline and other matters in the Mercantile Marine. On 13th January last a Com- mittee was appointed by the President of the Board of Trade to inquire into and report upon the following matters:—(1) the causes that have led to the employment of a large and increasing proportion of lascars and foreigners in the British Merchant Service and the effect of such employment upon the reserve of seamen of British nationality available for naval purposes in time of peace or war; (2) the sufficiency or otherwise of the existing law and practice for securing proper food, accommodation, medical attention, and reasonable conditions of comfort and well-being for seamen of British merchant ships; (3) the prevalence of desertion and other offences against discipline in the Mercantile Marine, and to make such recommendations with regard to these matters as they may think fit. Now, with regard to the gentlemen appointed on this Committee. The first is Sir Francis Jeune, the Chairman. To this appointment no exception can be taken, as the learned Judge very worthily and ably represents the legal element of the Committee. The second member is Mr. Anderson, a shipowner, and I agree that the shipowners have a right to, and should, be represented on a Committee of this description. The third member is Captain Blake, an Elder Brother of the Trinity House, who, I presume, is supposed to represent ship-captains. But, as I understand, he does not do so, as you will see by this extract from a letter addressed to the Board of Trade by the Merchant Service Guild— The only nominal representative of the cloth—Captain H. Acton Blake, whose personal ability and integrity are unquestioned—holds, unfortunately, opinions which are entirely dissented from by the members of the Guild, and of other bodies. I am to refer you to his Paper, 'Seafaring as a Vocation,' as read before the London Shipmasters' Society, on the 26th October, 1900. The great majority of members of the profession differed from his opinions expressed in the Paper. The Secretary of the Society characterised it as applicable, not to what a sea life really is, but, rather, to what it ought or might be. Two captains who were present, utterly dissented from the views set forth in the Paper, whilst another member stated that the experience of the majority was dead against the contentions of Captain Blake, and that he appeared to regard the Mercantile Marine from the point of view of one who sat in the sunshine and preached to those in the cold shade of neglect. Therefore, being in the possession of the pronounced views of Captain Acton Blake, there is much cause for alarm in the knowledge that the evils which are certain to be brought before the Committee, may be viewed from the optimistic stand point of his Paper. The fourth member of the Committee is Mr. Thomas Burt, M. P., who, I understand, was a miner and is now a miners' representative. I have heard nothing but what is good about this gentleman, but, however worthy he may be, I cannot conceive why he was placed on this Committee, or what possible knowledge he can have of purely maritime matters. The fifth member of the Committee is Captain Chalmers, the sole and only professional member of the Board of Trade, but as such, and as a paid Government official, the profession cannot in any way regard him as a representative. The sixth member of the Committee is Colonel Denny, a shipbuilder. He is a very necessary member of the Committee, when you remember that one of the matters to be inquired into is accommodation. The seventh member is Mr. Walter J. Howell, the Secretary of the Marine Department of the Board of Trade. The eighth member is Vice-Admiral Lloyd. Now, if it had been an inquiry into matters concerning the Royal Navy, I could have understood this gentleman being on the Committee, but I doubt very much if the gallant Admiral has ever been much in touch with, or knows much of, the interior working of the Mercantile Marine. The ninth member is Mr. W. Milburn, a shipowner, and what I said about Mr. Anderson applies also to him. The tenth and last member is Mr. J. Havelock Wilson, who has certainly had some experience of the sea, in, I understand, the capacity of steward. I have not heard that he served in any other position. He is at present, I believe, Secretary of a Seamen and Firemen's Union, which is not registered. Whatever qualifications this gentleman might have to inquire into and report on Clauses 1and 2, I think your Lordships will agree, when you have heard what I will bring under your notice, that he is most unfit to inquire into, or report on Clause 3—the one dealing with desertion and other offences against discipline in the Mercantile Marine. Here is a copy of the circular which Mr. Wilson sent during the strike at Rotterdam, to the seamen and firemen on British ships— Fellow Seafarers:—The dock labourers and other port workers of Rotterdam, to the number of some 12,000, are now on strike, and I am informed that an effort is being made to compel the crews of British ships to work cargo, and to assist in defeating their fellow workmen in their struggle for fair conditions. I appeal to every one of you to absolutely refuse to do anything which will assist to bring about the defeat of the dock labourers. If you are on monthly boats, you are perfectly safe to refuse to touch or handle cargo. If you are on weekly boats where you may be discharged on arrival at the home port, and they insist upon your working cargoes, 'Ca' canny!'—that is to say, take it easy. There is no reason why you should overwork yourselves, and assist in injuring your fellow workmen. You may be offered extra pay. Don't accept it. Remember, every sixpence you take for such work means the starving of the wives and children of the dock labourers. Money taken for such work will never benefit you. Should this strike continue, I may find it necessary to visit Rotterdam at an early date to look after the interest of sailors and firemen. Yours fraternally, (Signed) J. Havelock Wilson.

(General President of the National Sailors', Firemen's and Fishermen's Union of Great Britain and Ireland.")

Your Lordships will see that he directly incited seamen and firemen to refuse to obey the orders of their captains and officers. A short time ago there was an article in The Times on this very Committee, the purport of which was that the President of the Board of Trade, having been bombarded with questions by the Irish Members on shipping matters, often of the most trivial kind, in pursuance of their compact with their friend Mr. Wilson, the President, in order to escape this worry, appointed this Committee and placed Mr. Wilson on it. The article is rather a long one, and, with the exception of a very short paragraph, I do not propose to read it. The paragraph I wish to quote is as follows— The opinion is openly expressed in ship-owning circles that the Committee was demanded in the personal interests of Mr. Havelock Wilson, so that he might once more come to the front, and was conceded by Mr. Gerald Balfour in order that he might have a somewhat more comfortable time in Parliament this session than the Irish Party, acting as Mr. Havelock Wilson's representatives, would have otherwise have allowed him to have.

I can hardly credit the statements made in this article. Surely, if any Minister did so prostitute his position and misuse his powers as to appoint, simply to save himself some worry, an utterly unfit person to a position of great trust, that Minister would be unworthy of his post, and should be called on to resign. I understand that Mr. Wilson has several times been convicted and punished for offences against the law. He was imprisoned for six weeks at Cardiff. Yet, my Lords, he has been placed on the Local Marine Board of the Port of London—a Board appointed to administer the Merchant Shipping Act, which Mr. Wilson has constantly set at defiance. I can only describe this, in place of a stronger term, as a most extraordinary proceeding on the part of those responsible for it, and one that badly needs investigation. The ten Gentlemen whose names I have mentioned comprise the Committee who are to inquire into and report on matters that are not only of great importance to the Mercantile Marine, but to the United Kingdom and the British Empire in general. Your Lordships will observe that of that body of men who are most interested and best able to give an opinion on these matters—Imean the ship captains of the merchant service—now in active service there is not one member. Can your Lordships wonder, therefore, at the feeling that is shown in the following extract from a letter received by me from the secretary of the Merchant Service Guild?— The greatest indignation is being expressed throughout the whole service at the manner in which this Committee has been formed, and at the lack of a sufficient number of practical men who would be able to guide the Committee in their dealings, and elicit from the witnesses what would be required.

There is no excuse for the Board of Trade. They could have applied to the Merchant Service Guild, the largest body of ship captains and certified officers in the United Kingdom or in the world; or to the Mercantile Marine Service Association, the London Ship Masters' Society, or other kindred societies, and there would have been no lack of eminently practical men to aid the Committee in their enquiry. But as the Committee is at present constituted, both shipowners and the educated members of the profession regard it with distrust, and consider it a farce. I am afraid that the result of the Com- mittee's labours will be the same as what I once heard the Prime Minister describe as the usual result of a Royal Commission—namely, nothing. I would suggest that either this Committee be dissolved and a new one appointed in its place, or that the present one be reconstructed, and those members who are not qualified for an inquiry into matters concerning the Mercantile Marine replaced by practical men fully acquainted with the subject under discussion, such as ship captains who have not retired from active service and are fully up-to-date. Then the Committee will secure that confidence on the part of the shipowners and the profession which it does not at present possess. I may say that, important as the matters are that the Committee propose to deal with, they do not embrace the interest of the Mercantile Marine as a whole, which I understood was the primary intention of the Board of Trade. Two most important subjects have not been mentioned. In view of the rapidly increasing competition of other nations, who rightly, regard their merchant navies as most important factors, both in peace and war, and encourage their shipowners in every way, the Committee should consider what encouragement and assistance could be rendered to our own shipowners to enable them to hold their own against foreign competition. Another important matter is the presence of foreign masters and officers in our own ships. In Ireland we have suffered for the past thirty years from ill-advised and unstatesmanlike legislation, but though the mischief has been very great, Ireland is but a very small portion of His Majesty's dominions, and those who have principally suffered have been the friends and supporters of the Government. As yet the mischief has not extended beyond Ireland. But if there is any truth in the allegations made in The Times article it seems that the same disastrous policy is commencing to be applied to the Mercantile Marine. Then the evil effects will no longer be confined to a small portion of the Empire but will extend far and wide, to the detriment of that service on which, under the good providence of God, second only to the Royal Navy, the wealth, strength, and safety of this Kingdom doth mainly depend.


My Lords, I regret very much to hear that the noble Lord is not satisfied with the composition of the Committee recently appointed by the President of the Board of Trade. I am afraid, however, that it will be an absolutely impossible task to attempt to satisfy all the conflicting interests and views on the subject of the Mercantile Marine. The views expressed by my noble friend on these matters are very similar to those held by the Merchant Service Guild, who are, no doubt, distressed that no member of their body has been appointed to serve on this Committee; but without any disrespect to them I see no reason why they should have been selected any more than any other Association (there are many) to supply the Committee with a representative of the shipmasters. Captain Blake, who has been selected, has had a very long experience of the sea. He has served in sailing vessels, in steamships, in tramps, and in men-of-war, and has only recently left the sea His knowledge is, therefore, what my noble friend calls up-to-date. Captain Blake is an Elder Brother of the Trinity House, and is in every way qualified to represent the shipmasters upon this Committee. It seems to me that the noble Lord has entirely misconceived the functions of a Committee of this kind. He seems to imagine that what is wanted is a conglomeration of individuals who have already formed preconceived opinions with regard to the subjects referred to them. That is not my view of the functions of a Committee. The President of the Board of Trade no doubt sought for unprejudiced people, men of sense and judgment, who had not formed any preconceived notions with regard to the subjects that they were to be asked to consider. In this sense I hold that Captain Blake is a most worthy representative of the class he represents. My noble friend then referred to Mr. Burt. He said, I think, that Mr. Burt was a miner or had been a miner, and therefore had no practical knowledge of seafaring matters. That may be perfectly true. No one imagined that Mr. Burt was an expert on seafaring matters, but he is essentially a man of good sense and great judgment. He is known, I think, all over the country for those characteristics, and he is, to my mind, an excellent gentleman to put, not only on this Committee, but on any Committee to consider subjects upon which information is required. Mr. Burt at one time filled an official position in the Board of Trade, and he is therefore pretty well conversant with many of the matters he will have to consider.

I am not going to follow my noble friend into his history of Mr. Havelock Wilson, for I do not know whether it was accurate or not; but I know of nobody else who could represent so well the seamen and firemen whom it is absolutely necessary to have represented on the Committee. Although it is true that the Board of Trade warned Mr. Wilson that his position on the London Local Marine Board made his signature to what was known as the "Ca' canny" circular most improper, I do not think that the issue of that circular is sufficient ground for calling in question Mr. Wilson's appointment as a member of the Committee. Mr Wilson, as I have said, represents very largely the seamen and firemen, and we hope that he will help the Committee with regard to many of the questions which they will have to consider. Then my noble friend alluded to Captain Chalmers. Captain Chalmers is, as he says, at present an official of the Board of Trade, but he has had a very long sea experience. We have always found at the Board of Trade that his judgment upon marine matters is very accurate and very good, and I am quite sure my noble friend may feel certain that any views which Captain Chalmers may express on this Committee will not be in the least prejudiced or coloured from an official point of view. My noble friend finds fault with the reference to this Committee, and contends that we have not taken into our net sufficient subjects for inquiry. It seems to me that the task which the Committee have been asked to perform is already large. I do not admit for a moment that my noble friend or any one else has any right to criticise the reference which a Minister makes to a Committee. The reference is merely an instruction from a Minister who requires information upon certain subjects, and it may be assumed that on the subjects left out of the reference there is already sufficient information at the Board of Trade. I am sorry that my noble friend is not satisfied, but I think that with the exception of the Merchant Service Guild and one or two other Associations of that character, whose grievances may be of a similar kind, the composition of the Committee has been received with tolerable satisfaction in the country.


I should like to ask whether Mr. Havelock Wilson is the gentleman who made himself somewhat notorious for many years by his opposition to shipowners, and who was regarded as a dangerous agitator?


Even if that is true, it does not affect the question. This is not a Shipowners' Committee, but a Committee representative of all classes in the Mercantile Marine. We have appointed shipowners, shipmasters, and representatives of the seamen and firemen. Whether Mr. Havelock Wilson has made fiery speeches in the country or not does not affect us.