HL Deb 13 May 1907 vol 174 cc537-45

rose to call attention to the disabilities of mariners in recording their votes, and to move to resolve, "That in the opinion of this House His Majesty's Government should appoint a Committee to consider and report as to feasible schemes, either by means of proxy voting or otherwise, which would tend towards removing these disabilities."

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the grievance I bring to the notice of your Lordships is a very genuine one, and I feel sure that it will command your entire sympathy; for it is only consistent with reason and justice that, if we compel our seafaring population to contribute their quota to the National Exchequer, we should at least give them some opportunity to record their views on the government of the country, just as other classes of the community in more fortunate circumstances ashore claim their vote as a right and exercise it as such.

For reasons which will be obvious to your Lordships, mariners are at present, to all intents and purposes, disfranchised. And yet their calling is one upon which the British Empire mainly depends. Take away our merchant service and where should we be? And I would remind your Lordships of our seafarers in the Royal Navy, who have just as much right to their Parliamentary votes as men employed in dockyards and other naval establishments ashore. At times our seamen, both of the Royal Navy and the merchant service, receive great praise and admiration, but, when they ask to be given an opportunity to exercise the franchise, their request meets with a good deal of apathy. Yet to a certain extent the Legislature has already accepted the principle of giving special facilities to mariners to record their votes. Over six years ago the Second Reading of a Bill for this purpose was carried in another place by a majority of no less than 103. The Motion that it should be committed to the Standing Committee on Law was opposed by the late Lord Ritchie—then sitting in the House of Commons as a member of the Government—and was, in consequence, unfortunately lost by twenty-nine votes. This gave sore disappointment to seafarers, but by means of private Bills of Members they continued the struggle but without any luck in the ballot. Three years later Sir Elliott Lees succeeded in getting the first place for a Resolution on the question, and it formed the subject of an evening's debate. The then Government were sympathetic in the matter, and would, I understand, have agreed to appoint a Committee of inquiry; but the Resolution was over-loaded by a very mistaken Amendment of Mr. Bell, which included railway workers and others, and the efforts of those working for seafarers were again frustrated. It was pointed out that the grievance on the part of the mariners was far the greatest, and that anything done for them would be a useful precedent for others. But all to no purpose. Negotiations, however, continued, and ultimately the following reference to a Committee was agreed to by the different parties interested— Parliamentary Elections (Mariners', Fishermen's and Railway Servants' Votes).—That a Select Committee be appointed to consider and report whether any practical facilities can be provided whereby mariners, fishermen, and railway servants may record their votes in advance at Parliamentary elections, when by reason of their calling they will be absent at sea or on duty on the day of the poll, and whether it is advisable to provide such facilities. The then Government were not averse to the appointment of this Committee if agreed to by the Commons, but they could give no time for a discussion on the matter. On the first occasion when the appointment of a Committee was formally moved it was objected to by Mr. Caldwell, who eventually withdrew his opposition. Yet this did not serve, for, on the Motion being again formally introduced, Sir Frederick Banbury entered an objection and declined to remove it, and the hopes of seafarers were once again dashed to the ground. Your Lordships will therefore see that unless His Majesty's Government are prepared to give that material assistance to seamen which they can give without any difficulty there is little chance of bringing about a most desirable and necessary reform.

I do not think there is any necessity for elaboration of my case. The justice of it cannot be questioned. I will quote one instance which has come to my notice, and which is common to a great number of mariners. A commander of one of our largest merchant ships has been a householder for twenty years, but, as yet, has never been able to record his vote. When at home on one occasion he was required to proceed from his residence in the South of England to look after a steamer which was in course of building for his firm in Scotland. During his absence from home he was summoned to serve on a jury, and for non-attendance was fined £10. Through his solicitor it was partly refunded, though his absence cost him £5. This self-same shipmaster points out that last year he was unable to record his vote by a few days, whereas the doctor on his vessel, a young man who had only lately left his University, was able to send his proxy vote from Marseilles. There is no equity in treatment of this kind.

We specially legislate for the blind, the illiterates, and the Jews in the matter of the franchise, but we entirely ignore such a capable, intelligent, and worthy man as the British sailor. In him we find our first line of defence, to him we look for our food supplies; without him, we in these islands would be starving within the space of a few weeks. Even a comparatively small maritime country like Norway makes special provision for her sailors in the way of recording their votes. And yet we, who have the greatest and most progressive mercantile marine the world has ever seen, give no helping hand to those upon whom we are so supremely dependent.

I am, of course, well aware of the difficulties which beset us in this matter, but I venture to submit that it is at least our duty to our seafaring fellow-subjects to make some conscientious endeavour either to overcome these difficulties or to meet them as far as we possibly can. If no satisfactory solution can be found I think that the suggestion of constituting special seafaring constituencies should be taken into consideration. The calling of a seaman is peculiar to itself and is, I would urge upon your Lordships, one requiring special and peculiar treatment. It is the height of inconsistency and injustice that a comparatively unimportant constituency of some two or three thousand votes should have the right to a Parliamentary representative when the men serving in the two greatest services of our Empire are denied any facilities whatever to take part in its political affairs.

I feel I am not unreasonable in asking for the formation of a Committee to enable us seriously to tackle this most important question. I have avoided statistics and suggestions, as statistics are really immaterial and suggestions are better thrashed out by a Committee of the kind I ask for. Whatever the result of their deliberations might be—and I do not see why they should be in any way futile—it would at least show our brethren on the sea that we are not entirely unmindful of them. Owing to their lack of political representation they merit all the more consideration and sympathy from your Lordships' House, and I trust to learn that His Majesty's Government—who, I must say, have so far given a good deal of consideration to the sailor—will give their most favourable consideration to the proposal which I now bring before your Lordships.

Moved to resolve, "That in the opinion of this House His Majesty's Government should appoint a Committee to consider and report as to feasible schemes, either by means of proxy voting or otherwise, which would tend towards removing disabilities of mariners in recording their votes."—(Lord Muskerry.)


My Lords, the question which has been raised by my noble friend has already been discussed on several occasions in the House of Commons. In 1904, as the noble Lord has stated, Sir Elliott Lees moved a Resolution in somewhat the same form. In the course of that debate Sir Elliott Lees stated that there were about 254,000 seamen of different kinds. He could not tell how many were voters, but on the whole he thought that there would be about 50,000. Mr. Bell afterwards moved that engine drivers, guards, and other railway servants should be included. I think he estimated there were 76,000 railway guards and engine drivers and that only about 25 per cent. of them were able to exercise their vote. I understand that Mr. Long offered no objection to the formation of the proposed Committee. The whole matter seems to me to be a very complex one. There is beyond question a certain hardship in seamen being unable to record their votes. I notice that in New Zealand a measure has been passed lately to meet the case of seamen recording their vote. I should like to bring to the notice of my noble friend a Bill which has been introduced in another place entitled the Absent Voters Bill, and which has for its object affording facilities for voting at Parliamentary elections to sailors, fishermen, and others whose vocations make them liable to habitual absence from home. I suggest that the noble Lord should try to get this Bill pressed forward in the House of Commons. I think that in every way that would be a better course than the appointment of a Committee. If the noble Lord has not seen this Bill I shall be glad to send him a copy. I trust that, in the circumstances, he will not press his Motion.


My Lords, I understand from the noble Earl who has just spoken on behalf of His Majesty's Government, that there is a Bill in another place dealing with this matter. The noble Earl calls upon the noble Lord who raised this question to use his influence with that Assembly to get the Bill passed, but I think it more natural to call upon the Government and the Front Opposition Bench to use their influence in that direction. If the Government will give facilities to secure the passing of the measure in another place, it is highly improbable that when it reaches this House it will meet with opposition.

The greatest blot on the history of England has been her treatment of her seamen. At a time when the arrest of a civilian would have raised throughout the country an outcry sufficient to overturn a Government, seamen were being pressed and sent to sea against their will, flogged as much as the captain thought proper, caned as much as the boatswain considered necessary, and rope's-ended at intervals by the captains of their tops. Furthermore, they were fed on bad food by fraudulent contractors, kept waiting for their pay for years, and, worst of all, compelled to live at close quarters with gaol-birds who had been sent from prisons to fill up the complements of our ships.

A century has passed since those days. The seaman's hardships have been considerably lessened, but there is still a differentiation between the liberties of the seaman and the landsman to the disadvantage of the former. The workingman on shore has the franchise and is able to make use of it; the seaman is nominally in possession of it, but, in consequence of his frequent absence from home, is unable to exercise it. Is there any class on shore whose duties are as important and as useful to the country as those of the captains, officers, engineers, and seamen of the Royal Navy and the merchant service that is without Parliamentary representation? Why, it is on our commerce that we depend, not only to procure us food, but the income to buy that food. Yet the best of our working bees connected with that commerce remain as much unnoticed by Parliamentary candidates as if they had lived a century ago.

If any proofs are required to show the necessity of extending the seaman's possibilities of voting they are to be found in the history of the Merchant Shipping Act passed last year. The three great grievances of the seamen were—first, insufficient and badly-cooked food; secondly, delay in payment of wages; thirdly, unhealthy quarters with insufficient space to live in. When that Bill was first introduced into Parliament it was a much better Bill, as far as the seamen were concerned, than it was when passed. The shipowners, who are well represented in both Houses, succeeded in getting a number of Amendments accepted by the Government, as regards both payment of wages and housing space, which will have the effect of rendering illusory the greater part of the benefits that the Bill as originally drawn would have conferred on seamen. Had mariners been in a position to record their votes this would probably not have happened. I endeavoured to remedy these grievances by moving Amendments in this House. I believe that several of them would have been accepted here, had it not been that a compromise had been made with a group of shipowners in another place, and the acceptance of my Amendments at so late a period of the session might have wrecked the Bill.

But if seamen had had any voting power there would have been another Parliamentary group who, owing their seats to the seamen's votes, might have successfully opposed the shipowners. But there was only one man that I know of who had a seat in another place who was considered to represent seamen—Mr. Havelock Wilson. His views on many points are strongly antagonistic to those of a great number of mariners; so much so, indeed, that an association called the Mercantile Marine Guild, which has a membership of several thousand, was founded for the express object of opposing him; therefore large numbers of voteless mariners were left without any exponent of their opinions. At present the chances of an officer or seaman on active service being able to vote are so small that agents scarcely trouble themselves to put them on the register. It would be otherwise if proxies were allowed.

My suggestion is that every officer and man, whether in the Royal Navy or in the mercantile marine, who is on the register, should have power to fill up an official form, which should be noted on the register, giving some proxy in his neighbourhood the right to vote for him at any Parliamentary election after 4 p.m. for a certain number of years. This would leave the seaman an opportunity of voting in person if he were anywhere near at the time of an election. If he did so the proxy, on appearing at the polling booth after 4 p.m., would be told that the proxy vote could not be received. Some people consider that if you admit proxies for seamen you must do so for other professions. I do not agree with them. In other professions some few individuals may occasionally be prevented from voting who would probably be able to record their votes at the next election. But, in the case of seamen, the whole profession is permanently disfranchised. I appeal, not only to the Members of this House, but to all those who already possess the franchise, to take the earliest opportunity of doing an act of justice to seamen.


I hope we are right in inferring from the statement of the noble Earl opposite that His Majesty's Government will do what they can to facilitate the progress of the Bill to which he referred in another place. To suggest that my noble friend who moved the Motion should procure the passing of the Bill, or, indeed, any other Bill, considering the legislative programme before Parliament, is really a proposal with which I do not think my noble friend behind me should be put off. Therefore, unless we hear something to the contrary we shall infer that His Majesty's Government will do what they can to advance the Bill in question.


My noble friend is indeed a tempter. He took us to task rather sharply the other day for taking up other people's Bills. That is exactly what my noble friend now proposes. All I can say is that the experience of last session does not lead me to think that to take up other people's Bills would be a profitable course for the Government to pursue at the present moment.


I would point out, with regard to the Bill to which reference has been made, that it has been three months getting to the Second Reading stage, and it has not yet been read a second time. I therefore ask His His Majesty's Government to consent to the appointment of the Committee for which I move. The Committee need not be immediately appointed, and if the Bill in another place passes there will be no need for the Committee to sit. But if it is thrown out I submit there will be every reason for the Committee, and I therefore ask your Lordships to assent to my Motion.

On Question, Motion negatived,