HL Deb 13 June 1904 vol 135 cc1454-9

My Lords, I rise to call the attention of His Majesty's Government to the practice of other maritime countries reserving what is termed their coastwise trade to vessels of their own nationality, and to refer to certain recommendations and Resolutions on this subject; to ask what has been the nature of the representations of His Majesty's Government to the United States Government respecting the proposed application to the Philippine Islands of the coastwise laws of the United States; also, whether the United States Government have as yet forwarded any definite reply to the representations referred to.

In June of last year I brought this matter before your Lordships, and quoted the recommendation of the Subsidies Committee and the Resolution adopted at the Conference of Colonial Premiers, to the effect that the coastal trade of Great Britain and the trade with her colonies and possessions should be reserved to British ships or to ships of those countries who throw open the trade between their different ports to our ships. I gave the views of Sir Robert Giffen, a recognised authority, that this would mean an increase of nine per cent, in the trade of British ships. I do not know the source of his information, but my noble friend representing the Beard of Trade stated that the question practically affected Russia and the United States alone. I venture to say that if he will refer to the Report of the Subsidies Committee it will tell another story. Though the Beard of Trade received my representations in a very lukewarm manner, despite the authorities supporting me, I was glad to find that Sir Robert Giffen's estimate of gain to British ships did not seem very far wrong. I had also the satisfaction of being accorded an assurance by the noble Marquess the Leader of the House that the matter would not be lost sight of.

I was told both by him and by my noble friend representing the Board of Trade that this important question was connected with the larger question of the fiscal policy, and therefore, my Lords, it seems clear to me that if the representations which the noble Marquess has made to the United States Government are in the nature of intercession on behalf of British ships and British trade, the Government have now made the first move in altering a policy which has proved so detrimental to the shipping trade of this country. I am aware that a resolution as to the reservation of the coastwise trade was carried by a large majority at the annual meeting of the Chamber of Shipping of the United Kingdom, and it is significant that the resolution which followed and which was agreed to at that meeting was one calling the attention of His Majesty's Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to the fact that British shipping would be excluded from July next from the carrying trade between the Philippines and the United States; the consequence being that a large amount of British shipping will from that date be shut out from an important trade.

His Majesty's Government were respectfully requested to make suitable representations to the United States of America upon the subject. All those who are connected with or have that interest in shipping which they should will be gratified at the fact that His Majesty's Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs has responded to the appeal of the shipowners in this matter. I gather from his preliminary reply to the Secretary of the Chamber of Shipping that the United States authorities are postponing making the change they contemplate for twelve months. I am far from being alone in my desire to know the character of the representations which have been officially made to the United States Government on this vitally important subject. It seems to me to constitute a precedent which may have far-reaching results and will justify similar representations being made to other maritime Powers reserving their coastwise trade to their own ships.

I also hope that it may be a step in the direction of British ships being eventually manned by our own subjects, or at least of ensuring that aliens shall not be permitted to command or officer British vessels. It is really appalling to think that in British sailing vessels the number of aliens outnumbers the number of our own subjects serving in them. Some of our vessels seem to be alien in everything but in name. I trust that the noble Marquess representing His Majesty's Government may be able to give us some further information on the representations he has made to the United States Government, and that they will prove to be a forerunner towards British ships being allowed a fair field in all trades. We extend this fair field to the ships of all maritime nations, and we have a right to expect other nations to extend the same privilege to our ships.


My Lords, the Resolution of the Conference of Colonial Premiers, to which the noble Lord alluded, has been referred to the Colonial Governments for their opinions. We have received some but not all of their replies, and these replies vary very much in their tenor. Some of the Colonial Governments are entirely opposed to the idea of excluding foreign vessels from coastwise trade. Others, on the contrary, desired, or intended, to do so. The House of Commons Shipping Subsidies Committee made the suggestion that foreign vessels frequenting British ports should be made subject to the same Board of Trade regulations as British vessels, and we have quite lately appointed a Committee for the purpose of inquiring into that subject. As to the general question which the noble Lord has raised there can be no doubt that the present system under which certain Powers are allowed free access to our coastwise trade while they deny access to their coasting trade to British vessels is an unfair one, and that it operates most disadvantageously to this country. Of course the extent of the injustice is increased when we call to mind that what we speak of in this connection as coasting trade does not mean coasting trade between one port on the seaboard of the British islands to another port on the same seaboard, but means what can be more properly described as Imperial trade—trade, I mean, which passes between, say, the Port of London and an Australian seaport, or, taking the case of a Foreign Power, such trade as that which passes, let us say, between New York and San Francisco, or between a Baltic port and Vladivostok.

While I entirely realize the injustice done to our commerce by its exclusion from certain portions of the coasting trade of other Powers, I think we must be careful not to exaggerate the extent of the grievance, because it is not the case that that exclusion is by any means general or universal. Out of the seven Powers which do a large amount of coasting trade four—Germany, Holland, Denmark, and Portugal—admit our vessels freely to their coasting trade. France does the same with the exception of Algerian trade, which is specially reserved. There are only two considerable Powers—Russia and the United States—which exclude us altogether. It is necessary to bear in mind when you speak of the possibility of retaliatory action on these Powers that they are, as it happens, the very Powers which make least use of our coasting trade and which consequently afford the smallest target for reprisals. Indeed, it is necessary to remember that the whole foreign participation in our coasting trade is relatively insignificant. Of our coasting trade in the narrower sense of the word—that which passes along the coasts of the United Kingdom—99 per cent. of the whole is already in British hands. Of the larger coasting trade which we are discussing this evening 88 per cent. is in British hands, and 12 per cent. only in the hands of foreigners. The total coasting trade amounts to 38,000,000 tons, of which 33,000,000 tons are in British hands. Therefore the 12 per cent. in foreign hands represents 5,000,000 tons. I do not say that that is an amount which can be dismissed as of no importance; but many matters have to be considered before we can entertain the idea of restricting the conditions under which that proportion of our coasting trade is carried by foreign vessels.

It is obvious that if we were to exclude foreigners from access to our coasting trade altogether we should find ourselves liable to reprisals at the hands of those countries which do at present admit us. That would be a serious matter. We should also have to anticipate that those foreign vessels which we exclude from our trade would reappear somewhere else in the guise of competitors with British vessels. Besides that we should certainly have to think twice before we took any steps which might have the effect of interfering with what is known as the entrepôt trade of this country. Large quantities of goods come here for re-export to other countries. It is obvious that if facilities of access were denied to trade of that character the result might be to drive it to the ports and emporiums of foreign Powers. I mention these considerations because I think it necessary to bear in mind that in matters of this kind it is necessary to proceed with great caution, and with an anticipation of the remoter results which might follow from the adoption of hasty or ill-considered steps. Moreover, this question is intimately connected with the larger and more difficult question of the fiscal problem, which we have frequently debated in this House, and which we cannot be expected to deal with in a fragmentary manner. I am afraid, therefore, that, though there is a grievance, I cannot hold out to the noble Lord any prospects of our immediately adopting the steps of which he is, I understand, in favour.

In answer to his specific Question with regard to the treatment of British commerce in the Philippine Islands, I have to say that in 1903 a Bill was introduced in Congress under which the trade passing between the United States and the Philippine Islands was declared to be coastwise trade, and under which foreign vessels were denied participation in that trade. That restriction seemed to us on the face of it inconsistent with certain declarations which had been made by the United States Government at the time when the treaty of peace was entered into between Spain and the United States. We desired our representative to call the attention of the United States Government to the matter and to point out the effects of the restriction on the commerce of this country. These discussions are still proceeding, and I do not think it would be for the public interest that I should enter into details with regard to them. The Bill to which I referred just now was, however, altered during its passage through Congress, and in the shape in which it ultimately became law at the beginning of the year it is laid down that the application of the new law to the trade of the United States and the Philippines shall not come into effect until 1906. There is, therefore, time to consider the matter. It is certainly one which deserves and shall receive the attention of the Government.


My Lords, I am afraid the sparse attendance on these Benches at the present moment rather points to the fact that your Lordships' House hardly realises the great importance of the question raised by the noble Lord. I only rise to say that I value the statement of the noble Marquess and the decision arrived at. There is very little doubt that the position of foreign vessels and our coastwise trade is of the greatest possible importance. It is of enormous importance to the entrepôt trade of the country, and anything that affected this question might be full of disaster to the country. I am, therefore, glad that the noble Marquess has not given countenance to the proposals of the noble Lord. What we have to fear in dealing with these questions is the prospect of serious reprisals against our trade; and I hope that the point will be considered by His Majesty's Government when the Report of the Committee is presented.

House adjourned at live minutes past Seven o'clock, till Tomorrow, half-past Ten o'clock.