HL Deb 31 March 1905 vol 144 cc6-15

My Lords, I rise to call attention to the constitution of the Committee appointed to inquire into the operation of Sections 78 and 87 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, in connection with the measurements of tonnage of merchant ships; to ask what representatives of merchant officers and seamen are acting on this Committee, by whom were they nominated, and what is the numerical strength of those they represent, and to move, "That, in the opinion of this House, the Committee, so far as the interests of merchant officers and seamen are concerned, is defective in constitution and calculated to defeat the objects for which it has been formed."

I should in the first place state that I am calling attention to this subject entirely in the interests of the officers and men of our merchant ships, whose hard life is rendered still harder by the miserable conditions under which they labour in the matter of accommodation and living room. Though it has been quiescent in regard to previous Parliamentary Bills of the kind, the Marine Department of the Board of Trade awoke from its slumbers at the very last moment and successfully prevented the passing of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board Bill, which proposed to levy dues on the gross instead of the net tonnage. The Board of Trade's excuse for stepping in in such a belated way was that such a Bill would tend to reduce the living spaces of the crews of merchant vessels. The Report of the Select Committee found the preamble of the Bill proved, but the Committee stated that they were unanimously of opinion that the Board of Trade should simultaneously, and at an early date, initiate legislation with a view to raise the minimum of crew space per man required by Section 231 of the Merchant Shipping Act. It was ultimately decided that a Committee should be appointed to consider the whole subject of the incidence of tonnage dues, with particular reference to its bearing on living accommodation on board ship.

Answering a Question in another place, the late President of the Board of Trade stated that a representative of seamen would sit on this Committee. I should mention that the Merchant Service Guild addressed a communication to the Board of Trade putting forward in a very strong way the serious grievances of the officers of many merchant vessels in respect of the unsuitable, insufficient, and often insanitary nature of the accommodation provided for them. The announcement that a Committee was to be formed gave great satisfaction to seafarers, as it looked as if at last a Government Department was in sympathy with their claims. This satisfaction has given way to despondency, for what the Board of Trade have given with one hand they have taken away with the other. Professedly they are anxious to protect the interests of our seamen, but when it comes to these men being properly and adequately represented on the Committee it is quite another story. The tactics of the Marine Department of the Board are the usual ones of "running with the hare and hunting with the hounds."

Now, my Lords, I am anxious to know who are supposed to represent our merchant officers and men on the Committee. There are, I understand, three members of it who have had nautical experience. The first of these is Captain Chalmers, who, as nautical adviser to the Board of Trade, is likely to represent official views-rather than anything else. Besides, your Lordships must take into consideration the fact that he left the sea twenty-nine years ago, since when the whole conditions of merchant ships have been revolutionised. Another gentleman Captain Acton Blake, whose life as an Elder Brother of Trinity House has been cast in pleasant places. Previous to his election as an Elder Brother the views he publicly expressed on the merchant service were dissented from by many members of his own profession and members of the Nautical Society of which he was a member. Both Captain Chalmers and Captain Acton Blake are able and conscientious men, but they cannot be looked upon, and are not looked upon, as representative of the officers of our merchant ships.

The other nautical member of the Committee is Mr. J. Havelock Wilson, who has acted as secretary of the Seamen's and Firemen's Union—now an utterly discredited organisation. I should like to have some information regarding its numerical and financial strength at the present time. This member of the Comittee seems to have honoured the law rather in the breach than the observance, judging by the record which I read out to your Lordships on a former occasion, when my noble friend the Earl of Wemyss gave your Lordships his opinion that no man, with a record such as I read—he did not care whom he represented—was a fit and proper person to put upon a Committee of Inquiry, and yet he is still a persona grata with the Marine Department of the Board of Trade. I trust that your Lordships will express strong disapproval of this. Captain Chalmers, Captain Acton Blake, and Mr. Havelock Wilson were the three nautical members of the Mercantile Marine Committee, and the Merchant Service Guild, representing over ten thousand captains and officers of merchant ships, declined absolutely to have anything to do with its proceedings owing to its constitution. Thus the assistance of a great power in nautical matters was lost.

These three gentlemen appear, however, to be prime favourites with the Marine Department for their Committees, for, together with Mr. William Milburn and Colonel Denny, who were also members of the Mercantile Marine Committee, they are now sitting on the present Tonnage Committee. The farce is complete when we know that five members of it are once more deliberating a subject upon which they have already given their views in the Report of the Mercantile Marine Committee. Is it possible that they can, in justice to themselves, say anything different from what they said a few months ago? The Report of the Mercantile Marine Committee was quite fruitless so far as giving seamen better accommodation was concerned. Therefore the Marine Department of the Board of Trade, though, as I have said, professedly anxious for improvement, must be aware that the present Tonnage Committee will most probably be equally barren of result. The failure of the Mercantile Marine Committee made it imperative that other and fresher blood should be infused into future Nautical Committees. The Board of Trade have any amount of choice, and it is their business to take advantage of it.

It is our port medical officers who are best qualified to speak about the accommodation given to officers and seamen. The Medical Officer of Health for the port of London, in his Report, states that the results of the Mercantile Marine Committee Inquiry are "most disappointing." There is no mistaking him when he declares that the conditions under which seamen have to live on board ships are such as would not be tolerated for an instant on shore. I would point out to your Lordships that seamen are allowed seventy-two cubic feet per head. In common lodging-houses even the allowance is 300 per head, and in Army barracks it is 600 feet. The Report of the Medical Officer of London says that, to improve the conditions of seamen's accommodation on board vessels, the following requirements are necessary:—(1) an increase in the available cubic space; (2) an increase in the available floor space; (3) more efficient ventilation; (4) sufficient light, natural and artificial; (5) thorough insulation of bare iron—my noble friend Lord Ellenborough could tell your Lordships what a miserable thing it is for a man, after spending his watch on deck and getting wet through and chilled, to turn into his berth and find the clothes sopping wet through drippings from bare iron overhead— (6) a separate room for meals and recreation—sailors, however, have little chance for recreation when at sea—and (7) a washhouse.

The Medical Officer of Glasgow, speaking at the Sanitary Congress, said that in some of the larger liners reaching Glasgow it was not uncommon to see bunks placed in all available comers, absolutely dark, and little short of coffins. If this is the case with liners your Lordships can imagine what it is often like in tramps. The Medical Officer of Health for the port of Manchester says that out of a total of 2,385 ships inspected, no fewer than 916 showed some one or other insanitary condition, the insanitary conditions discovered amounting to no fewer than 1,876, a considerable proportion of which were cases of contraventions of the Merchant Shipping Act. These are scathing commentaries on both the action of the Marine Department of the Board or Trade and the Report of the Mercantile Marine Committee. One would have thought that, as health and sanitation on board ship were vitally concerned, some medical expert would have been invited to sit on the Committee. I trust I have proved to you the unrepresentative character of the Committee, and have clearly shown that five members of the present Tonnage Committee are already committed to views on a subject which the Board of Trade have invited them to inquire into again. The benefit to officers and seamen will, in all probability, be nil, and the Marine Department of the Board of Trade will have attained its object. To stop this waste of time and public funds I have felt it my duty to lay these facts before your Lordships, and I hope you will accord your support to my Motion.

Moved to resolve, "That, in the opinion of this House, the Committee appointed to inquire into the operation of Sections 78 and 87 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, in connection with the tonnage of merchant ships, so far as the interests of merchant officers and seamen are concerned, is defective in constitution and calculated to defeat the objects for which it has been formed."—(The Lord Muskerry.)


My Lords, I was under the impression that there was a Committee sitting on the question of tonnage with a view to seeing whether an alteration of the rules of tonnage would improve the condition of merchant seamen, but I find now that this Committee is sitting on another matter— on the question as to the space to be allowed for the propelling power, and also as regards the question of local rates for measurement of tonnage; and that the reference to this Committee has nothing whatever to do with sailors' accommodation. I would, therefore, suggest that the present Committee should go on with its work, and that another Committee should be appointed to deal with the question of the housing of merchant seamen. Everyone knows that the accommodation at present existing is very bad in a great many ships. In some ships it is good enough, but the difficulty is to discriminate between the good and the bad shipowner.


My Lords, the noble Lord who has just sat down has most correctly stated the reference to the Committee which is now sitting. I confess I do not think your Lordships would have gathered it from the speech of the noble Lord who first addressed you. He roamed over a very wide subject—namely, the general question of the accommodation of seamen on our merchant ships. The Tonnage Committee has no such wide significance as that. It has to deal with a very plain and precise point, arising out of the rejection of a certain Liverpool Bill in the House of Commons in the last session of Parliament. I might remind your Lordships, though no doubt you are aware of the fact, that that Bill sought to change for the port of Liverpool the method upon which registered tonnage was calculated. Instead of the present general system, under which the propelling power and certain other spaces are legitimate deductions from the gross tonnage in order to arrive at the net tonnage, the Mersey Bill sought to provide that only a certain, percentage of the tonnage should so be allowed to be deducted; that it should not be the complete but a limited amount of the tonnage devoted to propelling power which should be deducted.

That Bill was resisted by His Majesty's. Government, and I think that is one of the points which the noble Lord hast entirely forgotten. The noble Lord is evidently arraigning the Government as if we had appointed this Committee without reference to the interests of the crews of these ships. Why, my Lords, the very origin of the Committee was precisely the contrary. It was because the Government were not satisfied that the Mersey Bill would sufficiently protect the interests of the crews that they advised the House of Commons to reject the Bill. That is an important point to remember. The noble Lord asks what representatives there are of the masters and men on this Committee. He has taken the names of the gentlemen on the Committee and declared that he is not satisfied with them. I am very sorry that he is not satisfied, but I think the appointments to that Committee have been very proper and appropriate. Captain Blake is a master, and Mr. Havelock Wilson, who is very well known in connection with seamen, has also been appointed a member of the Committee. The noble Lord seemed to think that they stood alone. That appears to me to be a profound delusion. They do not stand alone. The interests of the shipowners are for this purpose precisely identical with the interests of the crews. The shipowners do not desire that there should be any limitations upon the deductions which are made from gross tonnage in order to arrive at net tonnage. They prefer that the present system should continue, and that they shall be allowed, without hindrance, to deduct the whole space occupied by propelling power from gross tonnage in older to arrive at net tonnage. Of course, that is not the view of those who represent harbour boards, dock companies, and so forth, but the shipowners' interests are for this purpose identical with the interests of the crews, and they are fully represented upon this Committee. There are three shipowners on the Committee; but it does not finish there. There is Captain Chalmers representing the Board of Trade.

The noble Lord has made an attack upon the Marine Department of the Board of Trade, and with great deference to him I should like to make a respectful protest against the language which he used. There is nobody responsible to your Lordships' House or to the other House of Parliament for the conduct of the Board of Trade except the Parliamentary Ministers who sit in the two Houses. The Marine Department consists of a very hard-working and efficient body of men, who work under the orders and directions of their Parliamentary chiefs, and for the noble Lord to come down to this House to attack that department as if they were responsible for the policy adopted by the Government is, I submit to your Lordships, a strong measure, utterly contrary to the traditions of this House and Parliamentary government. I take complete responsibility for what has been done by myself and my predecessor in office in the appointment of this Committee. We have complete confidence in the Marine Department of the Board of Trade and in Captain Chalmers, who has no axe to grind, and goes on the Committee as a perfectly impartial member. The noble Lord has no reason to suppose that his interest will be used in any other way than strictly impartially in order to protect the interests of the crews just as he would protect the interests of any other parties concerned. Besides Captain Chalmers there is my hon. friend the Secretary to the Board of Trade, who is Chairman of the Committee—the very man who moved the rejection of the Mersey Bill on the grounds, partly, which the noble Lord has put forward. Lastly, there is on the Committee a very well-known Member of Parliament, the senior Member for Oldham, Mr. Emmott, who certainly does not represent any interest antagonistic to the men, and, being a representative of a large working-class constituency, if he was supposed to have any partiality one way or the other, he would no doubt be more in favour of the men than anybody else. But I do not suggest that for a moment. I know he would be impartial, but certainly not prejudiced against the interests which the noble Lord represents. That being the constitution of the Committee, I submit that the attack which the noble Lord has made upon it falls to the ground.

I can assure your Lordships and the noble Lord that His Majesty's Government are fully alive to all the difficulties connected with the life of the men who form our merchant service. There was, as I daresay your Lordships know, a Bill before Parliament last session, which has been reintroduced, or is about to be reintroduced this session, which will to some extent, we hope, make easier the conditions under which they live. I do not propose to go into details with regard to that Bill, nor do I say it will cover all the points with which the noble Lord has dealt, but it is an earnest of our desire to deal with that important branch of this subject. The Government cannot agree to the Motion of the noble Lord. I repeat that we have appointed this Committee in order to prevent the very evils arising to which the noble Lord has called attention, and which would have ensued if the Mersey Bill had been allowed to pass. We have, therefore, given an earnest of our desire as to the way in which this subject should be dealt with, and we are confident that when the Committee has reported it will be time enough for the noble Lord to criticise it, and if, as I believe it will be, the Report is a reasonable one, to support His Majesty's Government in any change of the law they may propose in pursuance thereof.


My Lords I, have listened with great interest to the statement of the noble Marquess the President of the Board of Trade. I am greatly astonished to hear that this is only a Tonnage Committee and that it has no reference to accommodation on board ship. If that is so, why was any representative of the seamen put on it at all? They have absolutely nothing to do with tonnage. That is entirely a financial question between the shipowners and the various harbour and dock authorities. The noble Marquess stated that throughout my speech I spoke of masters. I never used the word "master"; I said "officers and men." The master is always pretty well berthed on board. It was the case of the officers and men of which I spoke. The document placed in my hands by the Merchant Service Guild stated that the Committee was appointed to consider the whole subject of tonnage, with particular reference to its bearing on living accommodation on board ship. I have had documents through my hands for the last seven years from the Merchant Service Guild, and have never found a single mistake in them. Therefore, with all due deference to the noble Marquess below me and to my noble friend Lord Ellenborough, I cannot help thinking that they may have made some mistake. I repeat that if this Committee is dealing with living accommodation it is not a representative Committee.

On Question, resolved in the negative.

House adjourned at Five minutes before Five o'clock, to Monday next, a quarter before Eleven o'clock.