HL Deb 26 May 1905 vol 146 cc1517-24

LORD MUSKEREY rose "To call the attention of His Majesty's Government to the carriage of timber deck-loads across the Atlantic in winter-time, and to refer to the steamers 'Majestic' of Hull, and 'Selma' of West Hartlepool, which have lately carried such deck-loads to the Continent, and, in consequence, have figured in the casualty list; to ask whether these casualties will be dealt with at a formal investigation, and whether the Board of Trade will furnish information showing the number of similar casualties during the past winter season; also whether His Majesty's Government have communicated with the Governments of other maritime Powers on the dangers of timber deck-loads, and, if so, what replies, if any, have been received." He said: My Lords, I trust you will pardon my once more bringing forward the subject referred to in my notice. I feel, however, that when human life is at stake, and when—I say it without hesitation—the lives of our seamen are being subordinated to sordid gain and thrown away, it is incumbent upon me to seek your Lordships' sympathy and assistance in requiring the Government to stop, once and for all, these outrageous risks to which our seamen are subjected.

On the last occasion when I introduced a Bill for this purpose I adduced evidence of a most positive character—the evidence of the Board of Trade's own tribunals—that great loss of life has occurred which, undeniably, was due to winter deck-loads. Even the law as it stands recognises the danger of such cargoes, for ships are forbidden to carry them to the United Kingdom in the winter season. But certain shipowners drive the proverbial coach and four through the law and send their ships to Continental ports to discharge their deck cargo, after which they come to this country to discharge the under-deck cargo. As I have again introduced a Bill to your Lordships which I consider will surmount those difficulties of combating the situation which appear to so much frighten the Board of Trade I do not propose to go over the whole ground of evidence.

To touch upon the two steamers mentioned in my notice, I have observed that the "Majestic," of Hull, arrived at Hamburg in the early part of April last, having lost her deck-load, her mainmast, and her rigging, and with her bulwarks, rail, and winches damaged. Your Lordships will see how narrowly a great disaster was averted, and you will fully appreciate the effect of great baulks of timber becoming freed from their lashings through bad weather and taking complete charge of the deck. I am assured by many merchant captains that bodily injuries to seamen caused in this way are frequent. The ss. "Selma" arrived, I noticed, at Bremen, having lost her deck cargo. This is the only detail I am in possession of. The loss of the deck cargo is, in itself, of no moment to me. The point I should like to emphasise is that the process of "losing" a deck cargo is an extremely dangerous one for the ship and for her crew. These casualties are reported on the Continent and would almost entirely escape notice if not brought forward in this way.

I contend that as I have received a good deal of support in this House when raising the question of these unjustifiable risks to life, it is a duty imperative on the part of the Board of Trade to themselves show that they are moving in the matter. Under pressure from the noble Marquess, Lord Ripon, it was said that the Government would take into their consideration the advisability of communicating with other Maritime Powers with a view to securing mutual co-operation in the matter. Now, whilst I would welcome this mutual arrangement were it found possible, and whilst I would be the last to advocate an unjustifiable increase in the already far too many disabilities on British shipowners, I can only characterise it as an absurd, and furthermore, an inhuman argument which urges that because a foreign shipowner may gamble with the lives of his employees it is only right that British shipowners should be allowed to do the same. This procrastination goes on, and, meanwhile, many of our seamen are, as a, result, finding watery graves, and the agony of their last moments is accentuated by the thoughts of the heart-rending sorrow and distress of their wives and children and of the fact that it is we who turn a deaf ear to their entreaties for protection against these dangers.

Last year I appealed to your Lordships to pass my Bill and pointed out that the winter season was at hand. Apart from accidents such as I have now mentioned there are three steamers which carried, or, rather, attempted to carry, deck-loads across the Atlantic during the past winter of which all hope has been given up. Dead men tell no tales, and, when the inquiry comes on, those who are really responsible have the whole field of shelter open to them and they do not fail to take the utmost advantage of it. The Board of Trade have ordered inquiries into the losses of two of the steamers I have just mentioned, and therefore any comments on details must be reserved. I may inform your Lordships, however, that I have received a most pitiful letter from the father of one of the drowned men of the ss. "Nutfield.'' He is bereft of his son, upon whom in his old age he was greatly dependent, and, needless to say, he is distracted over his loss But he is only one of many who mourn for their relatives and friends whose lives have been sacrificed by the carriage of timber deck-loads in the winter time. Whilst regretting my inroads on your Lordships' time and consideration I trust to hear from the noble Duke, who on this occasion represents the Board of Trade, something more than the commonplaces which have been used on previous occasions to defeat an object the simple purpose of which is humanity to mankind. I also trust that some assurance will be afforded the House that His Majesty's Government are thoroughly alive to the serious responsibilities resting upon them in this matter, and intend to deal with it with resolution and dispatch, and make the Marine Department of the Board of Trade do its duty. I beg to ask the Questions standing in my name.


My Lords, the noble Lord did me the honour, when he introduced his Merchant Shipping Bill, of asking me to look into this question. I have made inquiries, and certainly the position is not satisfactory. The facts are, I believe, substantially as stated by the noble Lord. There is always some doubt whether the loss of any particular vessel is due to her carrying deck-cargo or not, because in many cases all we have is the sad and simple statement that such and such a vessel sailed and has not since been heard of. There is no doubt whatever in the minds of those who are best able to judge that in some, at least, of these catastrophes the loss is due to deck-cargoes. But I am not so sanguine as my noble friend in thinning that it is in the power of His Majesty's Government to put a stop to this unfortunate state of things. I am afraid that our legislation, as regards shipping, has gone as far as is wise, and the only effect of further legislation in this direction would be that these particular cargoes would be carried in foreign vessels, and lives would be lost all the same.

I venture to hope that His Majesty's Government will put themselves in communication with other countries, and induce them to adopt legislation similar to our own. The French, Germans, and Scandinavians do not wish their sailor; to run these risks any more than we do, and I cannot help thinking that if His Majesty's Government would make strong representations to the other Maritime Powers, it might be possible to come to some arrangement on this subject. Their interests are really the same as our own, and a common agreement would save the lives of their sailors as well as ours. There are other cognate questions—that of the load-line, for instance—on which it is very desirable that the maritime nations should act together. I believe that until lately we insisted on the load-line of foreign vessels coming into our ports being the same as our load-line, but in the case of German vessels we now accept a load-line adopted by Germany which does not give so much safety as our own. There are, moreover, other questions on which it is very desirable that the Maritime Powers should act together, and I hops His Majesty's Government will place themselves in communication with those Powers, and endeavour to arrive at some common action on these important questions.


My Lords in the absence of the noble Marquess the President of the Board of Trade, I have been asked to reply to the noble Lord on behalf of that Department. I gathered from the remarks which fell from the noble Lord that he had no complaint to make concerning the rules and regulations which govern the entrance into our ports of ships which occasionally have too much deck-cargo. As the noble Lord is no doubt well aware, regular penalties are embodied in the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894, and the owner of a vessel who places too much deck-cargo on a ship entering English ports can be fined under that Act.

It is perfectly true, as the noble Lord stated, that English vessels plying between foreign ports carry in many cases too much deck-cargo, and there is nothing to prevent their doing so. There is, I believe, a law in existence, but the machinery for carrying it into effect is inadequate. Indeed, it is impossible to apply it. The noble Lord pointed out the risks that were in consequence incurred by the crews of those ships, and expressed the hope that in my reply I should not give expression to those commonplaces which have been used on previous occasions in these discussions. I am afraid that I shall probably incur the displeasure of the noble Lord, because I do not think I can throw any fresh light such as he would wish upon this particular point. Though there are casualties in respect of English ships plying between one foreign port and another, the noble Lord will see that each year the number has been diminishing, especially during the last five years. There are, however, as the noble Lord opposite (Lord Avebury) readily admitted, great difficulties in enforcing the suggestions which have been made. So far as I am aware the Board of Trade have no technical officers in any of the Continental ports, and thus there are no means of making an examination of English ships going from one foreign port to another.


There are the Consular officers.


In order to fulfil their duty in a proper manner these officers need a certain amount of technical knowledge, and I should have thought that it would not be wise to place the responsibility of a technical examination on the shoulders of our Consular officers. I doubt very much whether you would in that way achieve the object desired. There is another point. It would be impossible to exercise supervision over foreign ships entering foreign ports in the same way as the Government are being asked by the noble Lord to supervise English ships entering foreign ports. Consequently, even if we were able to put in force what the noble Lord desires, we should be placing restrictions on British ships which would not apply to foreign ships. I know that the noble Lord holds that that line of argument is an inhuman one, but I cannot help thinking that care must be taken not to place restrictions on our ships which would not apply to the ships of foreign nations, especially in view of the keen trading competition between ourselves and foreign countries.

In the two cases cited by the noble Lord—those of the "Majestic" and the "Selma"—I understand preliminary inquiries were held as to the casualties that befel these vessels. It was clearly established that there was no loss of life, that they completed their voyage, and that the casualties were entirely due to the rough weather they experienced. I am further informed that formal investigations are seldom held, unless it is clearly established that there has been either loss of the ship or of life, or injury to someone on board. This has not been so in the case of either of these two vessels, and I think the noble Lord will admit that there was no need to hold formal inquiries in their cases.


I do not admit it.


The noble Lord finds himself in disagreement with me, but, after all, when it is clearly established that the vessels arrived at the port of destination, that there was no loss of life, and that the casualty was entirely due to rough weather, I really do not see the necessity of putting the great machinery of a regular formal investigation in force. The whole matter has been already cleared up at the formal investigation. The noble Lord is anxious to have information showing the number of casualties during the past winter season. I am happy to inform him that it is shown in the Board of Trade Return that this year there has been but one case of death, due to the man having been washed overboard in a storm, and in no way due to the manner in which the ship was loaded with deck-cargo.

The noble Lord inquired whether His Majesty's Government had communicated with the Governments of other Maritime Powers on the dangers of timber deck-loads. I understand that His Majesty's Government are in communication with foreign countries to see whether a definite understanding can be arrived at for drawing up restrictions and prohibitions against shipowners who overload the decks of their ships. At present no replies have been received. Foreign Powers are considering the proposals of the Government, and until the Foreign Office receive replies no statement on the subject can be made to your Lordships. I do not think I can give the noble Earl any further information on the points he has raised, but I can assure him that the Board of Trade have not lost sight of these matters and that they are fully alive to the dangers he has pointed out.


My Lords, I have on former occasions addressed your Lordships on this matter, which has been so constantly brought forward by Lord Muskerry. I had the honour of being Chairman of the Committee which investigated most of these cases not long ago. We took a serious view of this matter, and thought the Board of Trade ought certainly to adopt some more active measures than they have done in investigating cases like this, and, if necessary, prosecuting. It is for that reason that I regret that Lord Wolverton, who was a member of the Committee, is not present to take part in the discussion. On a previous occasion Lord Wolverton, speaking on behalf of the Board of Trade, promised an inquiry into certain cases which were brought before your Lordships by the noble Lord who has raised this discussion to-day. I should like to know whether that inquiry has been held, whether a Report has been received, and, if so, whether it will be laid on the Table of the House. The question of getting foreign Governments to act in the same way as we do in this matter is, I know, a difficult one; but I cannot help thinking that it would be just as much in their interest to protect their people as it is in our interest to protect our own people, though they may not have the same immense concern in merchant shipping that we have. It would be a great thing if the noble Marquess the Leader of the House could persuade foreign Governments to make rules and regulations similar to our own in regard to this matter of deck-loading.


In reply to the Question put to me by the noble Earl, I have to say that an inquiry has been ordered into the cases of the "Freshfield" and the "Nutfield," but, so far as I am aware, the result of the inquiry has not yet been published.


It is a long while ago.


Will the noble Duke say whether the inquiry has even taken place?

[No Answer was returned.]

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