HL Deb 10 June 1907 vol 175 cc1023-31

My Lords, I rise to call attention to the new official regulations permitting the deeper loading of British merchant vessels; to ask whether, on the ground of increased danger to life at sea, large bodies representing seafarers have strongly protested against these regulations; whether they apply to old as well as new vessels; when is it contemplated that a further revision of the regulations will take place; and to move for a Return showing the particular vessels more deeply immersed under the new regulations, giving in each case the extent of their deeper immersion, their type of build, and their age.

In the interests of the many seafarers who appeal to me in this matter I desire to bring to your Lordships' notice certain facts connected with the deeper loading of British ships, which, under the sanction of the President of the Board of Trade, is now permissible. The Shipping Gazette puts the position in a nutshell when it says:— Failing to get the Germans to come up to our standard of safety we have gone down to their's. And why? Our seamen's lives have been placed in greater danger because our shipowners complain of foreign competition. But are our seamen to be considered the legitimate prey of competition, and are their lives to be exposed to unnecessary and avoidable risks for the sake of making profits? There is but one answer. We should give to the British shipowner a far greater amount of encouragement and assistance than we do, but at the same time we must insist on preserving the safety, as far as is humanly possible, of the men who servo in his ships. The shipowner has his capital at stake, that is if he is not fully covered by insurance, which ho generally is; but with the seaman it is his life we must consider.

I plead on behalf of British seamen because their own mouths are shut. Those who can best and most intelligently judge of the increased dangers which the Board of Trade compel them to run—namely, the captains and officers—dare not say a word, at the peril of losing the positions they hold. The Merchant Service Guild, their representative body, tell me of the indignation of all seamen at this new deeper loading; but, as in so many other things, the men themselves must remain silent and accept greater risk to their lives rather than lose their berths and suffer starvation.

With your Lordships' permission I will quote extracts from two letters, the sentiments in which, the Guild assure mo, are held by practically all nautical men:— This lifting of the load line will make a great difference to many ships, and I am afraid this present winter will tell its own tale, both as to loss of life and also vessels. The free-board of the ship I have just left was decreased by six and a half inches, and she was a totally different ship in a seaway from what she was on the voyage before with the same cargo, only this time we had more of it. The chief officer of another large steamer writes as follows:— This ship (an old one of the partial awning deck type) is put down seven inches more, which means 170 tons more cargo. She was wet before, but we call her the Submarine Al. now. I am well aware that the new regulations were adopted upon the recommendation of Lloyd's Register of British and Foreign Shipping, the Bureau Veritas, and the British Corporation for the Survey and Registry of Shipping, all of whom, it must be carefully remembered, are closely connected and mixed up with shipowners.

But when I asked in this House why His Majesty's Government had not taken the views of seafarers before effecting changes which so closely concerned their safety, I was told that they were not competent to give advice on the subject and therefore were not asked. I cannot imagine a more callous reply, especially as insult was added to injury by insinuating a want of ordinary intelligence on the part of those serving in the merchant service. I do not impute callousness to my noble friend who gave this reply, for he has no experience of that most valuable and intelligent class of our fellow-subjects, the captains and officers of the merchant service, but I can find no Parliamentary term strong enough to condemn those who inspired that reply. I would like to know who are more competent. It is all very well for experts ashore to indulge in intricate calculations and carry on experiments with a model ship and a tank; but who are the best judges of a ship in a seaway when her safety is really at stake, and who from practical experience must be the best judges of the many and various dangers which face our ships on the high seas? With the greatest respect I say it is not marine architects or engineers who can be the most competent judges of the behaviour of a ship at sea.

In the early part of the present year the President of the Board of Trade stated in the House of Commons that the statutory tables of free-board under which load-lines are assigned to vessels were so modified as to permit of the deeper loading in varying degrees, ranging from six to twelve inches, of certain classes of vessels of modern construction and approved strength, but the older vessels which did not come up to this standard were allowed no such deeper loading. I ask your Lordships to mark these words. Twelve inches is given as the greatest margin of deeper immersion, and we are told, in so many words, that the older vessels are not given this doubtful privilege. I have at times complained of the nature of the replies which we receive to questions raised in this House in regard to ships and seamen. I would ask how the President of the Board of Trade reconciles his maximum of twelve inches deeper immersion with the fact that it is by no means the maximum. Coupled with this I would ask how his statements as to the older vessels not being deeper loaded can be reconciled with the following statements written from abroad by an officer for public use in case his vessel never arrived homo again— I was much surprised, when reading the Guild Gazette, at the report of remarks made by Mr. Lloyd-George with reference to the new load-line for British vessels. This officer, in commenting on the statement of the President of the Board of Trade in the House of Commons to which I have referred, says— It may interest my colleagues and possibly Mr. Lloyd-George to know that this steamer is one of the oldest of our fleet. She is over sixteen years of age and her load-line has been raised fourteen inches, whilst the more modern vessels of the company have only suffered to the tune of six or seven inches. The officer further states that he once experienced a full dead-weight cargo in the vessel when the original load-line was in vogue. In encountering some heavy weather on her voyage, it appears she was not an enviable ship by any means, and needed some very careful nursing. The officer remarks— God help us if we are ever loaded to the draught permitted by the President of the Board of Trade and meet heavy weather before the greater part of her coal has been consumed. The letter written by this officer is from a very distant port abroad, and he states that the vessel is now proceeding to Europe with a full dead-weight cargo, and that full advantage is to be taken of the alterations in the load-line, which the officer states has practically destroyed the great work of Samuel Plimsoll's life. He prays—and naturally so—for a fine weather passage, his shipmates sharing his doubts as to the consequences in the event of heavy weather.

My Lords, I have supplied you with actual facts which will show how different is the position from what we ourselves are led to believe. I have too much respect for the President of the Board of Trade to infer that he has the slightest intention to mislead, but I think that the information which is placed in his hands should more nearly approach the mark of accuracy. For my part, I feel bound, for the protection of the lives of our sailors, to revert to these matters and to endeavour to influence your Lordships to give your assistance in setting them right.

I ask your Lordships to bear in mind that seamen get no extra consideration for the additional risks they run, and it is to us that they look for protection. If we disregard their pleas, if we treat their safety as a quite unimportant matter compared to, for instance, the Street Betting Bill, or shorter hours for shop assistants, we take upon ourselves a most serious responsibility. Human life should be as sacred at sea as it is elsewhere. Though the Marine Department of the Board of Trade may consider otherwise, I venture to think that it is for us, with the powers at our disposal, to protest against the national scandal of lowering the standard of safety at sea to that of the alien competitor, whoever he may be. We, who take a pride in the greatest industry the world has ever seen—the British mercantile marine—should have a regard for its fair fame, and I would beg you not to remain impassive when its credit for safety and efficiency is at stake, as it is now.

Moved, "That there be laid before the House a Return showing the particular vessels more deeply immersed under the new official regulations, permitting the deeper loading of British merchant vessels, giving in each case the extent of their deeper immersion, their type of build, and their age." —(Lord Muskerry.)


My Lords, I agree with a great deal of what, my noble friend has said as to the need for every precaution being taken to protect the lives of our seamen when at sea. We all recognise what they have done for the Empire, and would be very sorry to think that any regulation of the Board of Trade or of any public Department in this country had an injurious effect upon them. I can only say, with regard to the special subject under discussion, that the Board of Trade, in conjunction with the various bodies mentioned by the noble Lord, came to the conclusion that with safety the free-board of certain ships could be decreased. The noble Lord in referring to some remarks made in the House of Commons by Mr. Lloyd-George, said that my right hon. friend had stated that the present rules only applied to new ships. What Mr. Lloyd-George intimated was that the rules permitted of the deeper loading of now ships and of older vessels when they comply with the same regulations as to strength and other points.

With regard to the Return for which the noble Lord has moved, I very much fear that it will not be possible to grant it, simply on the ground of expense. If we had to go through the different assessments of load line for every single ship of the mercantile marine it would entail a very large expenditure, and I very much doubt whether the result attained would be of any use to your Lordships. There was one other question raised by the noble Lord with reference to the competency of captains and officers of the merchant service to give advice on questions of this kind; but from information at my disposal I am inclined to think this would not be the case. This subject is a very technical one, and one which I am informed can only be dealt with by naval architects and that class of people. It seems to me, therefore, that it would have been useless to ask any member of the Merchant Service Guild to have joined with the other experts in assessing the load-line. We all recognise that the subject is a very serious one, and all I can add is that if it is brought to our notice that any revision of the load-line is required, and that there are good reasons for it, we shall consider it; but at the present moment His Majesty's Government have no intention whatever of revising the load-line.


My Lords, the noble Earl has said very frankly that the subject of this conversation is a very serious one, and that undoubtedly is the case. Any proposed change, or any change which has been carried out, in regard to the load-line of our vessels, seeing that it involves the safety of a number of His Majesty's subjects, is, of course, a very important matter. The noble Earl stated, in reply to my noble friend, that ho is not able to lay on the Table the Return asked for, and he added that ho was unable to do so on the ground of expense. The noble Earl is the best judge of that, and I certainly should not attempt to controvert the opinion on which that answer is given; but I do think that your Lordships are entitled to a little more information as to the grounds upon which the change has been made to which my noble friend has called attention.

I apprehend that no Papers of any kind have been laid before Parliament with reference to this subject. Therefore we are not seised of the reasons which have led the Board of Trade, on the advice of those bodies to which reference has been made, to change the load-line conditions. I think we are entitled to have that information. We ought to be told why it is that suddenly the Board of Trade have been advised that, in cases of certain vessels, they may be immersed to the extent of a foot deeper than has hitherto been the case. I say so all the more emphatically because there appears to be a certain ambiguity as to what vessels this change applies to. The right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade seems to have said, in another place, that the only vessels affected are new vessels, or, at any rate, vessels of now construction; but it appears, from the modification the noble Earl has just made in his chief's assurance, that that was not strictly and rigidly accurate, and that there are a certain number of older vessels to which this new change will apply. That affords, perhaps, an additional ground why Parliament ought to be informed of the reasons which have led the Board of Trade to this decision. The question, therefore, which I would with great respect put to His Majesty's Government is whether they will lay Papers on the Table so that Parliament may be informed of the reasons which have led to this change.

My noble friend behind me indicated in one observation what he appears to think was the motive which led to the change. He hinted, apparently, that the change was made in order to meet the statutory provisions of the German law. I have no ground for agreeing with my noble friend in that suggestion, and I do not know what led him to make it: but it gives me an opportunity of asking the noble Lord the Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs, whom we are all glad to see in his place, whether any progress has been made in the negotiations for an international agreement as to load-line, which formed part of the discussions on the Merchant Shipping Bill in the last session of Parliament. My noble friend the Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs will re-member that on that occasion both sides of the House were agreed that we could not pass a certain Amendment which was said to infringe International law, but my noble friend took the opportunity of saying that the Foreign Office were engaged in trying to persuade foreign Governments to agree to an international load-line, and he added that in the case of Germany, Norway, and Spain those negotiations seemed to be likely to be fruitful. I feel that I ought to have given my noble friend notice of this Question, and if he wishes it I will postpone the Question until another day.


My Lords, I make no complaint of my noble friend for putting this Question, but I shall take advantage of what he has just said and ask him to give notice. There are a great number of delicate considerations involved in these negotiations, and I would be anxious that any Answer I gave should be accurate.


My Lords, I had not intended to address the House on this question, and I only do so in consequence of a remark which fell from the noble Earl who represents the Board of Trade as to architects and such persons being the only people capable of giving advice in this particular matter. I would point out that there are in the mercantile marine a large number of master mariners who have passed extra first, some of whom are perfectly capable of dealing with these highly technical subjects. I would, therefore, suggest that in future the aid of such men should be called in, and Committees and Commissions on these questions should not be left entirely to naval architects.


My Lords, I would regret to say anything which might be considered to give approval to any course taken by the Board of Trade which implied an increase of risk to those whose employment is on the sea. But it may interest your Lordships to know that according to the latest information we seem to be steadily making progress in the diminution of loss of life at sea. In the first paragraph of the last issue of the Wreck Register it is stated that the total number of sea casual ies reported in 1904–5 was less by 937 than the average for the previous twenty years, and less than in any of those years except three. In the return of loss of life by foundering, which is the matter particularly at issue with reference to the load-line, in the case of steam vessels the loss of life by foundering in 1902–3 was 113. The number fell in 1904–5 to twenty-three. In the latter period the loss of life by the foundering of sailing vessels was thirty-three as against fifty-six in 1902–3. That is very satisfactory as showing the results of close attention on the part of the Board of Trade in regard to all that has reference to safety of life at sea.


My Lords, after what the noble Earl has said I will not press my Motion; but I would ask him for a Return in the case of the "Manningtree." This ship took advantage of the new load-line and went to the bottom, and the Court found that she was not overloaded "according to the new regulations."


I can assure the noble Lord that we shall be very pleased indeed to give him a Return in the case of any particular ship. As regards what the noble Marquess opposite said, I will inquire whether it is possible to lay on the Table any Papers relating to the matter at issue.

On Question, Motion, by leave, withdrawn.