HL Deb 21 July 1905 vol 149 cc1501-11

My Lords, I rise to call attention to accidents and loss of life caused by the shifting of loose ballast carried by merchant vessels; to ask whether it is not a fact, that in the case of grain cargoes merchant vessels must comply with official regulations to prevent shifting; and to move to resolve "That, in the opinion of this House, the Board of Trade should now I take the necessary steps in carrying I out the recommendation of the Light Load-line Committee that regulations to prevent the shifting of under-deck ballast carried by merchant vessels should be drawn up and enforced."

I have on many occasions brought to your notice the perils of the insufficient and inefficient ballasting of merchant vessels. These perils have unfortunately not ceased to exist, and if the lives of our seamen are sacrificed to mere considerations of economy or parsimony, I feel it incumbent upon me to bring the facts before your Lordships. You may remember that, after several efforts, I was able to convince your Lordships that at least a thorough investigation was necessary. That was the origin of the Light Load-line Committee which was fortunate enough to have as Chairman the noble Earl who leads the Opposition. As for myself, a certain number of shipowners seemed to consider me an enemy to shipowners, and, for some occult reason which I have never fathomed, as one who desired without cause to maliciously injure British shipping, whereas the shipowners of this country have no more sincere well-wisher than myself. I venture to think that I have shown this more than once.

But if I am a friend of shipowners, I am equally a friend of our merchant seamen. Their interests are allowed to go by the board simply because they have not the means, and are refused facilities, to enable them to voice their many claims and grievances in Parliament. It is our merchant seamen who are crying out against the risks they are required to run in many merchant vessels when sailing in ballast. They have ever regretted the fact that the proposition of a light load-line met with an adverse decision, but, undoubtedly, the feeling has been widespread that the prominence which the subject received has had most beneficial results. This has been admitted by many shipowners and by even the Board of Trade. Last year I brought before your Lordships a similar Motion to this one. My noble friend who was Chairman of the Light Load-line Committee said, in the course of the debate which ensued, that the Committee certainly did think that probably more could be done by the officers of the Board of Trade than had been done. With a hope that the Board of Trade would act more vigorously in the spirit of the recommendations of the Committee he did not think my Resolution should be pressed to a division. The noble Marquess who is Leader of this House hoped that, after the discussion which had taken place, and having elicited a distinct statement from the Board of Trade that the matter was one of which they were not losing sight, I would not press my Motion to a division. In deference to the noble Earl and the noble Marquess I withdrew it and entertained similar hopes to theirs. I must say, however, I had considerable doubts whether those hopes would be realised.

But I ask how long are we to be kept hoping? I have left a very generous interval for the Board of Trade to act more vigorously, and to carry out the unanimous recommendation of the Light Load-line Committee, but the position is exactly where it stood twelve months ago. There was not a single witness before the Light Load-line Committee who questioned the necessity of precautions to prevent the shifting of loose ballast. The representative of the Merchant Service Guild drew our attention to cases of disaster and loss of life which had, at Board of Trade inquiries, been put down to the shifting of loose ballast which had not been secured. He mentioned, for instance, the sad case of the "Moel Tryvan," which left Antwerp for Cardiff in tow. She had sand ballast and, bad weather coming on, the tug was unable to make any headway. The course was altered to make for shelter, but the "Moel Tryvan" broke away from the tug and fell into the trough of the sea. Her loose ballast shifted and she capsised and foundered with such suddenness that ten of the crew were unable to escape and lost their lives. This is a commentary on the ridiculous arguments which have been put forward that vessels coming round the coast in tow can take far greater risks in the way of the amount and the securing of their ballast.

It was with the object of preventing further unjustifiable sacrifice of life in this way that the Light Load-line Committee recommended the enforcement of measures to prevent the shifting of loose ballast. To the Marine Department of the Board of Trade it has been simply an empty utterance, and I ask your Lordships to support me in protesting against the contemptuous way in which the recommendations of Parliamentary Committees are treated by that Department. Since the recommendation of the Light Load-line Committee was made and ignored by the Board of Trade, we have had the case of the serious accident to the sailing-ship "County of Anglesea," bound from Rouen for Liverpool with silver sand as ballast. Meeting with bad weather, in almost exactly the same place as the "Moel Tryvan," she fell off from the wind and was struck by a sea and thrown on to her beam ends. A portion of the sand ballast was thrown up into the 'tween decks. Her steering wheel was smashed and the captain had to cut the main-topmast away to case the ship. Two tugs eventually rescued her in this most perilous situation and towed her into Portland. There is no doubt that a considerable portion of this loose silver sand was thrown up into the 'tween decks, and there is no doubt that, had proper precautions been taken to prevent such an eventuality, this would have been an impossibility.

Anybody who studies the report of the Board of Trade inquiry into this disaster will see exactly what I mean; but, unfortunately, the report of the inquiry in this case is wrapped up in a good deal of unnecessary verbiage, and the reasoning contained in it in several places is open to a good deal of criticism. I will ask your permission to quote from a leading article in our first shipping paper, Lloyd's Shipping Gazette,which states as follows— The result of the inquiry is not altogether satisfactory. For instance, the Court remarks that sand ballast appears to be the only material for the purpose obtainable at Rouen, and, therefore, in this instance must be considered proper ballast. Does sand ballast become a proper material to employ merely because there is no other? Then we read that 'it would undoubtedly have been far safer had the sand ballast been carried in bags, but this method of stowage does not seem to be customary in the case of vessels leaving the port of Rouen.' Again, it may be asked whether it really matters what the custom at Rouen is if it is a wrong and improper custom? If it is unsafe, as the Court suggests, to carry sand in bulk, instead of in bags, on a voyage of this description, is it not better to say so out and out, and to be done with it? We regard this judgment as singularly feeble, and as calculated to suggest the inquiry whether it is really worth while going to the expense of these investigations if their practical consequences are to be so limited. I give these remarks because they are the more significant owing to the line of strong opposition to me on the point of insufficient ballasting which has invariably been pursued by Lloyd's Shipping Gazette.

Subsequent to the inquiry into the accident to the "County of Anglesea," Lloyd's Agent at Rouen made some rather astonishing revelations in a letter he addressed to the Shipping Gazette. At the Board of Trade inquiry at Liverpool the Court were led to suppose that ballast other than silver sand was not obtainable at the port of Rouen. Lloyd's agent at Rouen stated, however, that there was plenty of other ballast there, and the supply and cost of it compared favourably with that of the neighbouring ports. He informed the public that, as a matter of fact, the ballast which was carried on the "County of Anglesea" was, in reality, cargo on which no freight was paid and was loaded free of charge to the ship. We therefore see where the economy comes in in this case. I made it my business to communicate with Lloyd's agent at Rouen, and he was good enough to supply me with the following information— Silver sand is often supplied here to sailing vessels desiring ballast, and, naturally, as the same is placed on board, trimmed, and discharged free of expense to the ship, this ballast is much sought after. As I stated in my letter to the Gazettethe sand, as far as the ship is concerned, may be considered as ballast, but it is, in reality, cargo which the owners take the opportunity of getting transported free of expense to the destination of the ship. I am of opinion, taking into consideration the nature of the sand, that when the same is shipped as ballast and therefore not an entire cargo taken, in the interest of the underwriters and safety of life at sea it should be loaded in accordance with strict regulations and the supervision of a recognised authority. Here your Lordships have the views of an expert actually on the spot, and who had the "County of Anglesea" under his observation before she sailed.

I ask in all confidence whether we should continue to run contrary to such views? It is not as if the subject had any complication or difficulty about it; and the Board of Trade can adopt the necessary measures just as they did in the case of grain cargoes, where the danger of shifting is exactly similar. In furnishing your Lordships with the necessary details I have been compelled to trespass longer on your forbearance than I would otherwise wish. Not an atom of doubt exists as to the necessity of loose ballast being properly secured, but, unfortunately, there are shipowners who, to save money, will not take the necessary safeguards. Their own lives are not at stake, and in nineteen cases out of twenty the wheel of fortune turns favourably for them. Then comes along the twentieth case when the lives of our sailors are thrown away. Their wives and families are cast on the world, whilst the shipowner's loss comes out of the underwriter's pocket. Last year I had the qualified support of the noble Earl the Leader of the Opposition, and also of the noble Marquess the Leader of the House. I trust that on this occasion I shall have a still stronger measure of their support. I am simply asking that, for the greater protection of life at sea, a recommendation coming from a Committee of your Lordships' House shall have the respect it demands at the hands of the Marine Department of the Board of Trade. I do not think I am unreasonable in this, and I hope that with the support of your Lordships we shall soon see that disasters at sea from the shifting of loose ballast are things of the past. I beg to move the Motion standing in my name.

Moved to resolve, "That, in the opinion of this House, the Board of Trade should now take the necessary steps in carrying out the recommendation of the Light Load-line Committee that regulations to prevent the shifting of under-deck ballast carried by merchant vessels should be drawn up and enforced."—(Lord Muskerry.)


My Lords, I have listened with great attention to the speech of the noble Lord who has moved this Motion. I will not follow him through the various remarks he made, but I must take exception to one statement which fell from him—to the effect that the Board of Trade had treated in a contemptuous manner recommendations of a Committee of your Lordships' House. Many of your Lordships are intimately acquainted with the workings of the great Departments of State, and I am sure I am expressing the views of those who have that intimate knowledge when I say that they never on any consideration ignore or neglect the recommendations which a Committee of your Lordships' House make to them. I therefore heard with some feelings of regret the somewhat strong criticism which the noble Lord thought it necesary to deliver at the head of the Board of Trade.


Not at the head of the Board of Trade, but the Marine Department.


It is exactly the same thing. Let me remind your Lordships what was the recommendation of the Committee on this subject. The Committee, at the conclusion of their Report, stated that they confidently relied upon the Board of Trade to use the powers already conferred upon them by Parliament to prevent the improper or insufficient ballasting of ships.


Will the noble Duke read further on.


I will come to that presently. On that recommendation the Board of Trade issued special instructions to their survey staff to exercise most carefully the wide powers already possessed by them with regard to the detention of ships deemed to be unsafe by reason of insufficient or improperly-secured ballast. They issued warnings on the subject to shipowners, to masters, to the associations of shipowners, to shipbuilders, and to registry societies, local marine boards, and other bodies. Indeed, a Paper has been laid on the Table of your Lordships House, and is no doubt in the possession of the noble Lord himself, showing the action taken by the Board of Trade with regard to the recommendations of the Select Committee, and a perusal of that document will show that the Board of Trade at once took action upon the Report. The Committee further recommended that it was the duty of the Board of Trade to apply at once to Parliament if they considered an extension of their powers necessary in the public interest. I have to inform the noble Lord, on behalf of the Board of Trade, that they do not consider it necessary to ask Parliament for an extension of their powers. There are, as the noble Lord is aware, the widest and fullest powers granted in the Merchant Shipping Act to the detaining, officers and surveyors.

The noble lord is, I have no doubt, familiar with the provisions of that Act, and I will not trespass on your Lordships' time by reminding you of the powers which the detaining officers and surveyors possess; but I may say that they have ample powers of dealing with the sending of unseaworthy ships to sea. This offence is considered a misdemeanour, and they have power to deal with it. They also have powers with regard to the obligation of shipowner to crew with respect to reasonable efforts to secure seaworthiness, and powers to detain unsafe ships. In fact, there is regular machinery in existence, under the Merchant Shipping Act, by which provisions have been created enabling; the detaining officers and surveyors to thoroughly superintend and examine the ships leaving our ports. I gather from the remarks of the noble Lord that he does not quarrel with the powers possessed by these officers, but would, like, in addition, that they should be given specific regulations which they could enforce in the exercise of their duty. I am informed that the Board of Trade do not in any way consider this necessary. Furthermore, they are confirmed, in their opinion when the list of casualties which have happened to ships in ballast is examined.

The noble Lord dwelt eloquently on the loss of life; I am sure we all regret that loss of life. But I must remind the House that in the seventeen years down to 1901 the average number of vessels lost each year in ballast was fifty-nine, and the average number of lives lost, ninety-nine; but in the four years from 1901 these figures have fallen to thirty-eight and fifty-nine respectively, that is to say, with regard to vessels; there has been a reduction of 35 per cent., and with regard to loss of life a reduction of 40 per cent. That seems to me to show that the measures which have been taken by the Board of Trade's detaining officers and surveyors have had the effect; of producing the results which the Committee over which the noble Earl the Leader of the Opposition presided aimed at. I gather that it was the view of the Committee that only when it was shewn that the powers possessed by the Board of Trade were insufficient to grapple with this problem would it be advisable for them to apply to Parliament for an extension of those powers. Since the loss of ships and of life has been so materially and considerably reduced the Board of Trade are of opinion that the powers they possess have been proved to be adequate to grapple with the problem of the shifting of ballast, and they do feel some confidence that they are producing the results which the Committee desired without asking from Parliament an extension of their powers.


My Lords, as the noble Duke referred to me as having been Chairman of this Committee, I feel it right to say a few words. There was a doubt expressed as to whether the Committee had power to inquire into this question of under-deck ballast, but in our instructions we were clearly directed to consider whether, and to what extent, British ships were sent to sea in an unseaworthy condition by reason of their being insufficiently or improperly ballasted. That, I contend, gave full power to the Committee to investigate this matter. The noble Duke has answered to some extent the speech of my noble friend, who was also a member of the Committee, and who has followed up this subject with the greatest possible assiduity in the interests of the merchant service. It is curious, but a paragraph will be found in our Report showing that the Board of Trade declared that their detaining officers, although they frequently warned owners and masters whose vessels appeared to be improperly or insufficiently ballasted, had never detained ships sailing in that condition. I am not sure whether that still remains the case. I understand that it does, and that they do not detain ships. The noble Duke informed the House that the number of lives and ships lost on account of insufficient or improper ballasting was less now than when we were inquiring into the matter. I am very glad to hear that. I quite admit it is not always easy to account for the loss of a ship, and it may not be proved that the ship was lost entirely on account of insufficient and improper ballasting. I certainly have no reason to alter the opinion which the Committee formed—I do not know whether Lord Muskerry joined us in it—that we did not think the necessity of fresh legislation had been proved; but I sincerely trust that the Board of Trade will be more active than they were. There have been a good many ships found improperly ballasted, and I should like to ask why the Board of Trade do not detain those ships. This is a most important matter, and I would press on the Board of Trade the necessity of urging their officials to do all they can to prevent insufficiently and badly-ballasted vessels from going to sea.


I may tell the noble Earl, for his information, that not a single case has occurred in which it has been found necessary for the officers of the Board of Trade to detain a ship.


My Lords, I should like to say a few words in reply. I would recall to your Lordships the statement of the late Lord Norton in this House, that if one sailor's life was lost from a cause which legislation could prevent, that legislation should be passed. I have said nothing about the proposed legislation for a light load-line, but have referred entirely to the regulations which the Committee recommended should be made by the Board of Trade to prevent the shifting of under-deck ballast carried by merchant vessels. The Board of Trade have not drawn up and enforced such regulations—regulations not for telling owners and captains they ought to secure that their ships are properly ballasted, but for seeing that that is done. When grain cargoes are shipped the Board of Trade do take precautions. They see that proper shifting boards are there, and that the grain is toned down so that the cargo shall not shift. But they have not taken any precautions as yet against the shifting of loose ballast. They have not carried out the recommendation of the Committee of your Lordships House. The noble Duke defended the Board of Trade very well indeed, but I must take exception to his statement that they have done all in their power in this matter; for they have not. I quite agree that they need not get fresh powers; they could do what is required without, but they have not done so. I shall press my Motion to a division.


Perhaps I ought to say that if the noble Lord goes to a division I am afraid I shall not be able to divide with him, as I do not think he has sufficiently proved his case.

On Question, resolved in the negative.