§ LORD MUSKERRY rose to call attention to the recent Board of Trade inquiry held at Cardiff for the purpose of investigating the circumstances attending the loss of the steamer "Workfield;" to ask whether it is a fact that ten firemen and two sailors who alleged insobriety against the captain were retained by the Board of Trade for some length of time antecedent to the inquiry, whilst the chief engineer, who stated before the Receiver of Wrecks that the master was perfectly sober, was allowed to proceed to sea; for what reasons did the Board of Trade not place all the evidence before the Court which they had the opportunity of doing; why was it that the chief engineer and second officer wore not retained by the Board of Trade, similarly to the seamen and firemen, to give evidence; and whether, in view of the defective nature of this inquiry, the Board of Trade will quash the judgment arrived at by the Court.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, as Board of Trade inquiries into shipping casualties have earned amongst nautical men a most unenviable reputation for injustices caused by improper procedure and preconceived bias on the part of those sitting on these inquiries, I have felt it necessary to bring forward this case of the "Workfield" inquiry. And I do so principally because, if the facts are as I understand them, the Marine Department of the Board of Trade have conducted their part of the business in a fashion which in the interests of justice cannot be too strongly condemned. Whilst the Department very zealously retained a number of seamen and firemen—amongst whom was the usual admixture of aliens—to support a charge of drunkenness against the captain, they did not exercise a similar power in detaining responsible men whose evidence would have been an emphatic denial of these charges.1061
§ I have information to the effect that the chief engineer of the ship stated in his depositions before the Receiver of Wrecks at Cardiff that the master was perfectly sober. I therefore want to know why both he and the second officer of the steamer were not required by the Board of Trade to give the Court of Inquiry the benefit of their evidence. At the Board of Trade inquiry the master strenuously denied the charge of drunkenness, and in his denial he was supported, by his chief and third officers. Add to the evidence of the two latter, the evidence—which was not given—of the chief engineer and second officer, and we have all the really responsible men in the ship supporting their commander againgst the charges levelled at him by a number of irresponsible seamen and firemen. I am not going to criticise, either one way or the other, the decision of the Court that there had been careless navigation, for which the certificate of the captain was suspended for nine months; but I do think it a most scandalous thing that a Court, supposedly judicial in its dealings, should say it was satisfied that the master was drunk and then recommend that he should be tried again—and punished again, I suppose—by a local marine board.
§ Again, the first inquiry had been in progress for several days when one of the assessors—too old for the work—became indisposed. He then resigned his nautical assessorship and a new inquiry had to be got through before another assessor. The prosecution, therefore, had the opportunity provided them of doctoring the discrepancies in their evidence to the further detriment of the master. The protracted nature of the inquiry has entailed not only great loss of time but considerable expenditure of money to the captain. However, I understand that, fortunately for himself, he was a member of the Merchant Service Guild, which has defrayed his legal expenses. But the principle remains the same, and the Board of Trade should ensure that these inquiries are carried on as expeditiously and inexpensively as possible. The position as it stands now—especially after this "Workfield" case—is that captains and 1062 officers are subjected to a prosecution in respect of which, win or lose, they must pay their own costs. If they are successful in appealing against a decision of a Court of Inquiry they are not allowed their costs, because the Board of Trade are presumed to be absolutely impartial. What a hollow presumption this is, is shown by the way material evidence in favour of the captain of the "Workfield" was withheld from the knowledge of the Court. In view of the most unsatisfactory nature of the whole inquiry, and of the anxiety and loss of time and money to which the captain has been subjected, I hope that the Board of Trade will set aside the judgment of the Court and let the whole thing fall into oblivion—for it certainly reflects no credit on our reputation for strict impartiality and justice.
§ I would like to draw your Lordships' attention to these punishments that are inflicted on captains and officers of the mercantile marine. Assuming a case where a captain or officer has been found in default, either through neglect of precautions or error in judgment, it is usual to suspend his certificate for a certain period, and in any case he has to pay the costs of the inquiry. Now, the suspension of his certificate for three months, or for nine months, may on the face of it seem a rather simple thing, as the idea would be that at the termination of the period for which the certificate was suspended the punishment would there and then cease; but, unfortunately, that is not the case, and the suspension of the certificate means a punishment during the whole time he remains at sea. It is a serious bar to his getting further employment and is a most serious detriment to him professionally.
§ If your Lordships would contrast this with the punishment and results of the punishment that would be meted out to an officer in the Royal Navy for a similar neglect of precautions, or error of judgment, you will see what a vast difference there is. The officer in the Royal Navy has not to pay any costs of proceedings; his being reprimanded does not necessarily imply a loss of all future professional advancement; his case will be tried before a Court comprised of his own 1063 fellow officers, and he knows that the trial will be an absolutely fair one, and that he will be afforded every possible chance of vindicating himself. Contrast that with the unfortunate merchant officer who is often tried by those who have no practical experience of the extreme difficulties and disabilities under which he has to carry on his professional duties, and who, as I have said before, has often to contend with a preconceived bias against him on the part of those who are trying his case. My Lords, in the interest of fair play and impartial justice, the Legislature should inquire closely into the proceedings of these Courts with a view to instituting some reform. I beg to put the Questions standing in my name.
§ THE UNDER-SECRETARY OF STATE FOR THE COLONIES (The Duke of MARLBOROUGH)
My Lords, I will not follow the noble Lord into the various points which he has raised in the course of his speech. No doubt, on some future occasion, the noble Marquess the President of the Board of Trade will deal with these matters, if the noble Lord refers to them again. I will confine myself to-day to replying to the Questions which stand in the noble Lord's name on the Paper. The noble Lord asks whether it is a fact that ten firemen and two sailors who alleged insobriety against the captain of the "Workfield," were retained by the Board of Trade for some length of time antecedent to the inquiry. The reply is that the master, and the chief and third officer, and ten seamen were detained for the purpose of the inquiry.
The noble Lord referred to the fact that the chief engineer, who stated before the Receiver of Wrecks that the master was perfectly sober, was allowed to proceed to sea, and asked for what reasons the Board of Trade did not place all the evidence before the Court which they had the opportunity of doing. The reply is that the chief engineer did receive notice that he was detained for the inquiry; but he wrote to say that he had lost all his effects in consequence of the wreck of the ship, and had been out of employment for four months, and that he had then got a very good berth offered him, which in all probability 1064 meant that he would be employed for several years to come. He, therefore, desired not to appear at the Court and was given permission to sail. His statement was submitted to the Court, but I understand that the solicitor employed for the defence of the captain did not think fit to use that evidence. Inquiries were made with a view of detaining the second officer, but it was found that he was bound on a ship for Baltimore, and no statement could be got from him.
I must remind the noble Lord that all the evidence available was placed before the Court of Inquiry, and that out of the crew of twenty-nine men, sixteen were called as witnesses. The chief officer and the third officer were detained, and they were the two men who gave evidence to the effect that the captain was sober; but the noble Lord will notice in the report of the inquiry that the Court thought their evidence—generated the belief in their loyalty to their master rather than in their veracity.In reply to the third Question—namely, whether, in view of the defective nature of this inquiry, the Board of Trade will quash the judgment arrived at by the Court—I have to say, on behalf of the Board of Trade, that they do not propose to take any further steps in the case, except to direct a local marine board inquiry to be held by the Court into the master's misconduct in drinking to excess.
§ House adjourned at five minutes past Five o'clock, to Tuesday the 20th instant, a quarter before Two o'clock.