HL Deb 17 February 1902 vol 103 cc151-4

My Lords, I rise to call attention to the fact that vessels flying the British flag trade between Colonial and Foreign ports in charge of masters and officers who are aliens, and hold no certificates of competency according to the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894. Some correspondence has already taken place on this subject between the Board of Trade and the Mercantile Marine Service Association. The latter Association wrote to the Board of Trade in December last calling attention to the steamship "Agnar," as follows— The British steamship 'Agnar,' also of Cape Town, until lately in the South African Trade, is in charge of a Norwegian master and officers, and I am informed that no British certificates are held by the navigating officers. The 'Agnar' is reported in Lloyd's Shipping Index as being bound from Christiana to England and Cape Town to take up the duties of a transport. I have, therefore, to inquire if the Board of Trade will take steps to enforce the observance of Section 92 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, should the vessel arrive at an English port, and prosecute the offenders if it is found that the officers are uncertificated. At a time when the nation is involved in a protracted war, this Association regards it as a strange anomaly of British Maritime Law that vessels registered as British vessels, and claiming the privileges of the British flag, should be in charge of aliens who do not hesitate to openly express their hostility to this country, and who, if the opportunity occurred, would probably become the King's enemies. The Association received this reply from the Marine Department of the Board of Trade— With reference to your letter requesting that this Department will take action, under Section 92 of the Merchant Shipping Act, in the case of British vessels sailing with officers not having British certificates of competency, I am directed by the Board of Trade to state that they are always prepared to take action when any infringement of the Section comes under their notice. The Mercantile Marine Service Association will, however, observe that the provisions of Section 92 apply only to British foreign-going ships and British home trade passenger ships when going to sea from any place in the United Kingdom, and to foreign steamships carrying passengers between places in the United Kingdom. I have in my hand a copy of the articles of the "Agnar." Her port of registry is Cape Town. Mr. C. W. Thesen is director, and her new articles of agreement were opened at the British Consulate at Christiana. Her master is Mr. L. A. Marchussen, who holds a Norwegian master's certificate. The first mate holds a Norwegian certificate, and there is no second mate. The crew are all foreigners, and the engineers hold Norwegian certificates. Now, the Board of Trade's reply seems to me a very curious one, for, as the ship was to come to England and then go to the Cape, she must sail from an English port, and as she was flying the British flag she should come under Section 92 of the Merchant Shipping Act. Some more correspondence took place, to which the Board of Trade sent the following reply— With reference to your letter inquiring whether the British steamship 'Agnar.' which is reported to have left Blyth on the 15th ultimo—this letter is dated January 22nd, 1902—for Table Bay, carried certificated officers as provided by Section 92 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, I am directed by the Board of Trade to state that, as the vessel is registered at Cape Town, and on leaving Blyth was on her way direct to that port, and having regard to the provisions of Section 261 (c) of the Merchant Shipping Act, they are not, as at present advised, prepared to say that certificated officers should have been carried under Section 92 of the same Act. Section 92 states that every British Foreign-going ship and British home trade passenger ship, when going to sea from any place in the United Kingdom, shall be provided with Officers duly certificated under this Act. The term Foreign-going in the Merchant Service Act applies to all vessels going to a place outside the Home Trade limits, which are the United Kingdom the Channel Islands, or Ports between the Elbe and Brest. But Section 261 (c), quoted in the Board of Trade's letter, seems to be a contradiction of Section 92, for Section 261 (c) exempts ships going to the Port in the British possession or country in which they are registered. Therefore, according to the Board of Trade's reading of the Act, the largest British Mail Steamer, or any British ship, if registered at any such port could trade there from any port in the United Kingdom without a single officer holding a Board of Trade certificate. Now, I am perfectly certain that this was not the intention of the Framers of the Merchant Service Act, 1894, and, if the interpretation of the Board of Trade is correct, the sooner the Section is amended the better. Though, unfortunately, the law permits a British ship to be commanded and manned entirely by foreigners, yet I always understood—and it is on this point that I hope to get some information from my noble friend—that a British ship must be owned by British subjects. I am informed that the owners of the Agnar are Norwegians, and if there is any truth that she was to be employed as a transport, then things have come to a pretty pass when England has to employ, to aid her in carrying on a war, a ship foreign in everything except the flag. I think this state of things emphasises the great need of a Certificate Bill such as I brought before your Lordships last session.


My Lords, it is, of course, the case under the present law that vessels registered either here or in a British possession abroad, and flying the British Flag, can trade between foreign ports without coming to this country, and so evade the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act which deal with the question referred to by my noble friend. My noble friend deplores this, and in theory, at any rate, I am inclined to agree with him. If it were possible to enact that every British vessel should carry certificated officers, I am inclined to think that that would be desirable, but I confess I do not in the least know how that end could be arrived at. It is obvious that legislation, which we pass in this country could not be made applicable to foregn countries, and so long as a vessel trades between ports in foreign countries, I do not know of any means by which our legislation could be applied to her. It may be said that we could insist that she should then be removed from the British register. I am afraid that action of that kind would do more harm than good to the carrying trade of this country, for any owner who wished to evade the law, with regard to certificated officers and was told that he would either have to comply with its provisions or leave the British register, would at once transfer his vessel to a foreign flag. I am told that that transformation could very easily be effected, and we should merely lose that particular ship from the list of our British owned vessels.

With regard to my noble friend's remarks in reference to the "Agnar," so far as I remember, the case of that vessel was very much as he has stated it. It was a vessel not on the British register but on the Colonial register—registered, in fact, at Cape Town—which signed on her crew at Christiania and touched here for stores and bunker coal. She had no British certificated officer, but we were advised we could not detain her because, under a certain section of the Merchant Shipping Act, she was bound for the port in which she was registered. I am not responsible for that exemption. I can merely state how the Act stands, and tell your Lordships that we acted according to the advice of the Board of Trade solicitor. It is held in the ease of vessels registered in our Colonial possessions, that those Colonial possessions should make the laws with regard to them. Most of them have done so, and I believe that in the Australian colonies and also in Canada and Newfoundland, laws exist pretty much upon our lines for dealing with vessels of this character. I do not suppose that even my noble friend would suggest that we should change that system, or that we should attempt to make our merchant shipping law apply in our self-governing Colonies. After all, I do not think that the grievance is a very great one, because the people who are most affected are the underwriters. If vessels were lost owing to this cause, we should have representations made by the Underwriters' Association with a view to a possible strengthening of the law. No such representations have been made, and so long as they do not come to us I think we are entitled to assume that few, if any, vessels are lost from want of certificated officers. My noble friend wishes to bring about a more complete system than at present is the case. I should advise him to try and induce the underwriters to bring pressure upon the owners and to prevent them by refusing to underwrite vessels, from sending their ships to sea without a full complement of certificated officers.