HL Deb 30 April 1907 vol 173 cc657-60

My Lords, I rise to call attention to the composition of the Colonial Shipping Conference, with particular reference to the representative capacity of the Imperial delegates; to ask whether any representative of seamen acted as an Imperial delegate, and, if so, I by what representative body was he nominated, and what is its actual membership of British seamen; also to ask why the Imperial Merchant Service Guild, representing over 12,000 British captains and officers, was given no opportunity or representation on this Conference.

When Imperial delegates were appointed to sit on this Conference one would naturally have thought that those who risk their lives on the high seas would be given due representation. Yet what was actually the case? The Imperial delegates numbered twelve. Pour wore officials of the Board of Trade, one an official of the Colonial Office, and five were shipowners. I am given to understand that the interests of seamen were supposed to be represented by the President of a Seamen's and Firemen's Union, which I hear is practically extinct, and which offered free and cordial admission to any British or foreign seamen who would pay a subscription, The twelfth delegate was the President of the Board of Trade.

We find such a large and representative body as the Merchant Service Guild denied the right of representation. The Guild comprises a membership of over 12,000 certificated British captains and officers. These are the men, my Lords, who are experts in ships and seafaring. It is upon them that the chief cares, duties, responsibilities, and anxieties connected with merchant ships rest. Their specialised knowledge and experience would have been of immense value to the Conference, and a most essential form of representa- tion was deliberately thrown away. I cannot regard the nautical advisor to the Board of Trade as in any way representative, for he, of course, is tied down by officialism, and it is some thirty years since he left the sea.

What was the cause of the defect in the constitution of the Conference which I bring to your Lordship's notice? I have my own ideas on this point. In the first place, the Merchant Service Guild, as a very progressive body, has persistently endeavoured to better the conditions and safen the lives of our seafarers. To promote safety of life at sea the Guild has, amongst other things, advocated the institution of a light load-line, and the necessity of British ships being compelled to carry a proper number of competent and certificated officers. They have also urged that British ships should be commanded and officered by British subjects.

Now, as the Board of Trade are well aware, our Colonies, particularly Australasia, appear to be in complete agreement with the claims of the Merchant Service Guild. For instance, New Zealand makes it imperative that captains and officers shall be British subjects, and that merchant ships shall be compelled to carry a sufficiency of certificated and competent officers. I find that the Report of the Royal Commission on the Australian Navigation Bill anticipates the few improvements in the conditions of seafarers which have been enacted in our recent Merchant Shipping Act. Better accommodation and living are recommended by the Commission. The long hours of labour entailed upon officers are commented upon, and a scale of certificated officers forvessels according to size agreed upon. One of the questions recommended by the Royal Commission for consideration at the Imperial Conference was one which I have, on many occasions, urged upon the Government without success, and that is the advisableness of a light load-line for ships in ballast.

I suppose that the weight of an Imperial delegate representing the Imperial Merchant Service Guild, combined with the inevitable support of the Colonial delegates' on these questions, would have placed our own Board of Trade, or, rather, the Marine Department, who have always opposed any measures whose object was to diminish dangers to seamen, in a tight situation. This is the reason why such a representative was not appointed. The result has been that our seafarers of the Empire find that the Imperial Maritime Conference, from which they had hoped so much, has, to them, been practically barren of result. When I know the solicitude shown by Colonial Parliaments to seamen I must confess my surprise that our Colonial delegates at the Conference have been' so moderate in their proposals. I think your Lordships will agree that it is necessary that the maritime profession, which is of such great importance to the Empire, should not be treated as a thing of naught in forming Maritime Conferences, which, without expert nautical representation, are, in effect, so much labour and money wasted.

The shipowners, whose interests were purely monetary, have had full representation, while the men who depend completely for their livelihood on the prosperity of the mercantile marine and who risk continually their lives, have been denied any representation. I may say that these men—the captains and officers—have a far greater interest in the prosperity of the mercantile marine than the shipowner, for the shipowner, if he so pleases, can withdraw his capital and invest it elsewhere, while the captains and officers, whose capital is their years of experience and high professional qualification, are unable to do so. The shipowner only risks his money, and not that even, for he mostly has the underwriter behind him; the captains and officers risk their lives and their professional reputations. Are we to understand that the Marine Department of the Board of Trade sets a higher value on property than on sailors' lives? From their attitude in the past it looks extremely like it. I say, my Lords, that at any Conference or Commission where matters concerning safety of life at sea are brought forward, if the men who are most vitally concerned in these subjects are not given due representation, and if their views and advice are not accorded the most careful consideration, it is a scandal and a farce.


My Lords, in reply to the noble Lord, I entirely dissent from the view that officers were not represented in any way at the Conference. Captain Chalmers, who acted on behalf of the Board of Trade, has been nearly all his life at sea, and he very carefully looked after all the interests of officers. The Conference passed one resolution in the direction which the noble Lord desires, namely— That no person should be employed as an officer on board any British ship registered in Australia or New Zealand, or engaging in the coasting trade of those colonies, who is not a. British subject and thoroughly conversant with the English language. The noble Lord asked about the seamen representation on the Conference. On the nomination of the President of the Board of Trade, Mr. Havelock Wilson attended, but he was nominated, not as representing any particular trade union, but because he has always taken the keenest interest in matters affecting seamen. The President sincerely regretted that he was unable to appoint a member of the Merchant Shipping Guild, but he felt it would be a mistake to increase the number of the members of the Conference, which was already large.

House adjourned at half-past Six o'clock, till tomorrow, half-past Ten o'clock.