HL Deb 10 July 1907 vol 177 cc1539-47

My Lords, I rise to call attention to the alleged shortage of officers engaged in the merchant service; to the conditions under which those officers labour; to a resolution adopted at the last annual meeting of the Chamber of Shipping, calling upon the Board of Trade to remove any obstacles and give greater facilities to men desiring to obtain certificates of competency as second officers; to a proposal of the Liverpool Steamship Owners' Association that the qualifying time for a second officer's certificate be reduced from four to three years; and to ask what attitude the Board of Trade propose to adopt on these several matters.

I am calling attention to this subject, not so much in the interests of British shipowners—who are well able to look after their own interests—but in the interests of the country, of safety of life at sea, of the further development of our shipping trade, and in the interests of those who devote themselves to a hard life at sea. Though we are getting nearer to it every day, we seem, as yet, far from able to realise the importance to the nation of our merchant service and of those engaged in it. Our food supply mainly depends upon it: our Army depends upon it for transport, and without it our troops are useless for operations outside these islands; our ships in the Royal Navy and our Naval depots abroad depend on it for coal and all other supplies, whilst in its officers and men we have a Reserve which is certain to be called on whenever we are engaged in a maritime war. Therefore, when we hear of a shortage of officers in our merchant service it is, I venture to think, a subject which should be brought to your Lordships' notice. I say this more especially as the schemes which are mooted for the purpose of creating an artificial supply will tend to produce large numbers of inefficient and inexperienced officers, and this would greatly endanger life at sea.

When we are travelling on the high seas we entrust our lives to the care of the captain or officer on the bridge. We naturally expect that he is fully competent, careful, and, above all, an experienced and resourceful navigator. But if we allow these so-called schemes, proposing to make it much more easy to obtain certificates of competency, to slip through, we shall find that we have, without a protest, reduced the standard of safety and lessoned the efficiency of those who, as officers of merchant vessels, have such serious responsibilities vested in them so far as life and property are concerned. It is this attempt to tamper with efficient and safe navigation that has caused the Merchant Service Guild to address emphatic protests to the Board of Trade.

I understand that the proposal of the Liverpool Steamship Owners' Association is to reduce the period of qualifying time for a second officer's certificate from four to three years. I hope that the Board of Trade will not entertain this proposal for a single moment. It is a very serious change of front that the British shipowner, who hitherto has always required men of experience, should now urge that three years training is sufficient to enable a youth to become a full-fledged officer and take his place on the bridge with many lives in his hands. Then, again, the Chamber of Shipping, which is the representative body of British shipowners, requests the Board of Trade to remove obstacles and give greater facilities for second mates—the lowest certificated grade—to obtain such certificates. I trust that the Board of Trade are not going to allow themselves to be hoodwinked in this matter, and lend their aid to methods and schemes which are proposed, not in the interests of safety or efficiency, as we have that already, but for the purpose of once more glutting the market with captains and officers who will have to accept employment on any conditions.

We have a striking contrast to the present attitude of the British shipowner when we turn to Japan, where cadets for the mercantile marine are drawn from the most successful scholars in the higher schools. Two and a-half years they must spend at the Imperial National College at Tokio, and they receive there thorough instruction in navigation and seamanship. Then there is six months in gunnery training at the naval depot, from whence the youths proceed to a Japanese seagoing training ship for two years. Then a further six months must be spent on a steamship. It therefore takes them five and a-half years before they can pass for second officer, and, on doing so, they are entered in the Naval Reserve. Japan has lately taught a lesson in maritime war to the world. When war is going on between other countries we send accredited representatives of our forces to learn the lessons of failure and success. But what I would like to know is, do we ever send representatives to ascertain what part the merchant services of other countries play during the struggle? I venture to think that inquiries would show that Japan's merchant service officers proved a very valuable asset at the time to which I allude.

Reverting to our own service, I may say that our shipowners have now got hold of the wrong end of the stick. They will never do any good for themselves or their interests by promoting a a large supply of immature officers. The plain fact is that owing to their treatment of captains and officers in past years, the calling of the sea has become absolutely discredited so far as its conditions are concerned. it seems a pity to have to say it, but we cannot ignore facts, and the difficulty is best solved by looking them square in the face. Niggardly pay, inferior, insufficient, and perhaps insanitary accommodation, no guarantee of continuous employment, dismissals for trivial or no reasons, unjust suspensions of certificates, no leave from their arduous duties, continuous labour from day to day and night to night, frequent Sunday labour, long absences from home and friends and families, absence of proper rest through an insufficiency of officers on board — many ships carry only two officers—these and other reasons, combined with the fact that a good deal of the romance of the sea is dead, are responsible for the present position of which British shipowners complain.

Had I no regard for your Lordships' patience, I could give at great length the actual experiences of captains and officers which have been placed in my hands merely as samples, and which show what bad treatment members of the nautical profession receive. The existence of the Imperial Merchant Service Guild to-day is for no other reason than that members of the profession, tired of hoping for proper consideration, joined in forming; an organisation which, I am glad to say, has succeeded in doing an immense amount of good for them. But there is much more to be done, and it is for the Legislature and for British shipowners to co-operate in the work.

If your Lordships will allow me, I will refer to a few instances of the treatment of merchant service captains and officers. A case has lately come to my notice where a captain of a sailing vessel arrived home after a voyage of over four years. The size of the ship was over 2,000 tons and the owners, who are well known, assess his pay at £12 10s. per month, or we may say £3 3s. a week, whilst they deduct 15s. per week for the time his wife was on board. One of the leading shipowners on the north-east coast and a gentleman well-known in Parliamentary circles pays the masters of some of his large steamers at the rate of £13 per month, making them find their own charts, which are pretty expensive, and return to the owners all gratuities and commissions they may receive. From £15 to £16 per month is very common pay for masters of large vessels, and an accident usually means that they must start elsewhere as an officer at £6 to £7 per month. I have a letter from an officer who says— One hears a lot at present about the scarcity of officers, but I am thinking it is a bit of a fairy tale, for I can assure you for the last two months during which I have been out and looking for employment, I have come across a good number who are in the same position as myself at present. Quite recently, eight masters in the steamers of one of the leading and largest firms in the country threw up their positions and returned home rather than submit to the treatment they received. An announcement recently appeared in the Press to the effect that they had increased the pay of their officers all round, and the new rates were given. This has been a paper increase, as I am advised that in most cases the increase is conspicuous by its absence. As showing how little shipowners have advanced with the times in the matter of remuneration I may tell your Lordships that, according to official figures, and despite all the wonderful developments in connection with merchant ships, both in regard to size and the immense amount of additional work which has to be carried on on board of them by our merchant officers at the present time, their pay is much as it was twenty-five years ago.

A subject which I have previously brought to your Lordships' notice is that of accommodation provided on board for officers. In most cases, both in liners and other vessels, the accommodation provided for officers is very inferior. I have been looking over the annual report lately issued by Dr. Howard Jones, Medical Officer of Health for the port of Newport, Monmouthshire. These are certain observations in an extract from this Report referring to merchant ships. Dr. Jones says— After the vessels have been passed by the Board of Trade and arrive at a British port during a voyage, they come under the observation of the Port Sanitary Authority, and it is not an uncommon occurrence for the latter to insist on structural alterations, in order to remedy nuisances soon after being passed by the Board of Trade. This is naturally a source of annoyance and expense to the owners, and an unpleasant duty on the part of the Port Sanitary Officials.…Officers' quarters also frequently exhibit gross errors in design in this respect; as will be seen by the following example: — 'January 27th, S.S.M. — I—, newly launched. The officers quarters afforded accommodation for nine officers, etc; one w. c. adjoining captain's cabin, and separated from latter by thin matchboard partition, which allowed test gases to pass between the boards freely.' As illustrating the work that an officer is expected to perform, I have before me the case of an officer of a large steamer in receipt of £8 per month as pay. The steamer being at anchor, this officer had been tallying cargo from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m., or rather, by the time he had seen that hatches were on and attended to other details, it was 11 p.m. On the following day he had to start work at 6 a.m. and tally cargo until 8.30 a.m.; after half an hour for breakfast he continued tallying until about 1 p.m. After an interval of an hour for dinner the tallying was carried on till 6 p.m., and after tea the work was proceeded with until 11.30 p.m., when this officer and the third officer were told that they would have to keep on working watch and watch—that is, one would require to relieve the other every four hours. In the steamers which carry two officers only—and there are very many—the approximate amount of duty an officer must put in per diem is something like fourteen or fifteen hours. In ports abroad, or where vessels are engaged in trading between a large number of ports only shortly removed from each other— such, for instance, as the Mediterranean trade—the physical strain imposed upon the officers in regard to hours of labour is intolerable, and whilst stevedores and others engaged in the work of cargo, as also seamen and firemen, are paid overtime, this, in practically all cases, does not apply to the officers.

I have a letter by me from a member of the profession, who speaks of his trade being one where they load out for five to eight ports and take others for loading homewards, frequently touching at twelve to fifteen ports in a six weeks voyage. This gentleman, who is a shipmaster, says that on Sunday work is becoming more and more prevalent instead of less, and though the owners in this case pay overtime, thereby setting, an example to many other lines of ships, yet it is said that the two officers of this particular ship are frequently very fagged when the ship is ready for sea. It does not say very much for the sea as a lucrative profession when we see officers with extra masters' certificates, Royal Naval Reserve commissions, and other qualifications, who have been four or five years in leading lines and whose total service at sea has been probably ten or twelve years, earning the munificent remuneration of £8 per month, with expensive uniform to provide.

We should remember that "tramp'' steamers—the word "tramp" is a very unfortunate and misleading appellation —represent over 80 per cent. of the shipping industry. It is not only in these, but in almost all the large lines that officers bitterly complain of their treatment. Promotion is very slow, their pay is poor and certainly not what it should be having regard to their enormous responsibilities, they are relegated to take their meals in inferior mess-rooms, lodged probably amongst steerage passengers and humiliated in other ways. They must provide them selves with expensive uniform, and altogether the lot of the "liner" officer is very different from what people imagine when they see him in uniform on the bridge or about the decks.

I say remove all this discontent and give proper inducements for the right sort of boy to outer on a sea life and the shipowner need never fear for an adequate supply of officers in the future. And let him treat them as men and as gentlemen and his interests will be well rewarded. The Merchant Service Guild tell mo that it is no uncommon thing to lay courteous representations before firms of shipowners which do not elicit even an acknowledgment. This sort of thing is not calculated to make things better or to promote that kindly feeling between employer and employee which is so desirable. Furthermore, I have it on the authority of the Guild that there is no real lack of officers. They inform me that for any position where, say, £8 or £9 per month is offered, any number of suitable officers can be had. Surely if such small pay as this can command an ample supply there is not much basis for the cry about a shortage of officers.

I hope to hear that the Board of Trade will unhesitatingly oppose any proposals which will tamper with the efficiency and safety of merchant ships. We require to maintain capable and highly experienced captains and officers in them such as we have now. It will be an ill day for this country when we reduce the standard in this respect, and thus not only still further endanger life at sea, but play into the hands of other maritime Powers whose fierce competition appears to be of such great moment to the British shipowners at the present time.


My Lords, I am sure we all admit our indebtedness to the merchant service in the building up of this great Empire and for their valuable services during the South African war. With regard to the points raised by the noble Lord, the Board of Trade are inclined to agree that there is no shortage of officers. There may be some slight shortage in the coasting trade, in regard to which we have received complaints from junior officers, especially as to the rate of pay and Sunday work, but the Board do not think that that condition is very prevalent in the foreign trade. I can give a very simple answer to the noble Lord's inquiry as to the intention of the Board of Trade with regard to the examination for second-mate's certificates. The Board have no intention whatever of departing from the present rule as to sea service before a man is able to take out his certificate. He will still have to serve four years at sea before he can go up for his second mate's certificate, though the rule is somewhat modified in the case of boys serving in the training ships "Conway" and "Worcester," who can sit for their certificates after three years. As I am on this point I may inform your Lordships that though the number of second-mate certificates taken out has shown a decrease in recent years, yet while in 1905 only 616 such certificates were issued, last year this number had increased to 759. With regard to the training of boys for the British mercantile marine, a Committee is now sitting at the Board of Trade with the object of, if possible, evolving some plan by which boys of British nationality may be more attracted to the sea. It seems to me that the only way to get boys for this purpose is to make the following of the sea attractive. Until that is done I am afraid we shall find it very hard to increase the number of British subjects serving in our mercantile marine.


My Lords, I was exceedingly glad to hear so satisfactory an answer from the noble Earl who represents the Board of Trade. I confess I was under some apprehension that the qualification, as tested by examination, of second mate officers was to be reduced. Such a course would have increased the dangers of navigation. I agree that there is no shortage of officers. There is, however, among many shipowners a shortage of inducements both to enter and to remain in the service, and that ought not to be met by any reduction of the standard of examination.


My Lords, I think the Answer of the noble Earl was a satisfactory one, and I rise merely for the purpose of expressing my hope that the Board of Trade will adhere to their attitude, and be extremely careful not in any way to relax their requirements in regard to the efficiency and competency of these officers. The matter, as the noble Lord who brought this subject to our notice this evening truly said, is not one which we ought to consider merely from the point of view either of officers or shipowners. It is a question which concerns the carrying trade of the country and the lives of all who serve in these ships or travel on board of them. It is, therefore, of great Imperial moment. I understand that the shipowners allege a shortage of officers, and are putting pressure on the Board of Trade to obtain relaxation of the conditions on which the Board of Trade have insisted. On the other side it is urged—and, so far as I can make out, with much force—that this shortage does not exist, or is not so serious as has been represented, and that the inducements offered to young men to join the service have not improved in the same degree as those in other professions. I must say that some figures which have been shown to me seem to support the latter contention. I hope we shall bear in mind that the carrying trade of this country is a matter of the greatest possible moment, and that nothing will be done which might, directly or indirectly, tend to diminish the efficiency of the mercantile service of these islands.