HL Deb 01 March 1906 vol 152 cc1256-8

My Lords, I rise to ask His Majesty's Government whether it is their intention to introduce into the proposed Bill for amending the Merchant Shipping Act a clause relating to the employment of foreign seamen on British ships; and if so, what the nature of that clause is to be, and whether such clause will make it obligatory on shipowners and masters to employ none other than British seamen on their ships.

I venture to submit that the time has arrived when the earnest attention of His Majesty's Government should be given to this important question, with a view to dealing with it as speedily and as effectively as possible. The Subject has been mentioned in Parliament on more than one occasion, but no Government has hitherto attempted to find any remedy for a condition of things which should never have been tolerated by a nation which has always claimed to be the first maritime power in the world. We have to face the fact that over 40,000 foreigners are employed in our mercantile marine and in our fishing fleets, and I think it will be generally admitted that in the event of our being involved in a war at sea this foreign element in our merchant service might constitute a very grave danger, and would certainly give rise to serious complications.

But, my Lords, I think there are other evils in the present system which are, perhaps, of a still more pressing nature. One, I think, lies in the fact that over 40,000 British subjects are being kept out of employment on our ships; another is that the safety of our ships, their passengers and cargo, are being endangered constantly under the present system. I remember a few years ago being told by the captain of a British ship that, besides himself there were only two Englishmen on board, one being the first mate and the other the chief engineer. The rest of the crew was composed of men of all countries, and he added that if an accident should occur he feared the very worst results from his inability to make his crew understand his orders.

I think it will be within the recollection of the House that quite recently, at an inquiry held by the Board of Trade, the Court drew attention to the fact that within one month there had been three inquiries during which it had transpired that certain wrecks had occurred and that the deck hands on those ships were chiefly foreigners who did not even know the English language. I think this is a state of things which should be remedied at the earliest possible opportunity, and I sincerely hope that we shall hear this evening from the noble Lord who represents the Board of Trade that it is the intention of His Majesty's Government to deal with this matter at an early date.


My Lords, I have had an opportunity of consulting the President of the Board of Trade upon the noble Earl's Question, and I find that the Bill to amend the Merchant Shipping Act which was referred to in His Majesty's gracious Speech has not as yet been finally settled. I gather that it is likely to come before the other House in the course of a very few days. It is not in my power at present to give the noble Earl the information he has asked for, but I am in a position to inform him that the opinions which he represents are fully appreciated by the President of the Board of Trade and by His Majesty's Government as a whole.


My Lords, may I just add a word to what has fallen from my noble friend who has just replied on behalf of the Board of Trade? I do so with no discourtesy to the noble Earl who asked the Question, nor with any desire to check the intelligent interest which he takes in this most important subject—a subject which is receiving the attention of His Majesty's Government; but I do not think that it is quite according to precedent, or, indeed, very con- venient, that His Majesty's Government should be questioned as to the exact terms of a clause in a Bill which is going to be introduced within a very few days. I do not think it is unreasonable to ask that noble Lords and Members of the other House who are interested in such a measure should wait till the Bill is produced and see what is proposed. I can assure the noble Earl that Mis Majesty's Government do take the keenest interest in this subject. We think it is most important that we should, as far as possible, have our ships manned by men of our own race. But the exact details of the Bill I think we have a right to keep secret until the measure is brought before the House.

House adjourned at ten minutes before Five o'clock, till To-morrow, half-past Ten o'clock.