HL Deb 28 May 1907 vol 174 cc1456-9


Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the object of this Bill is simply to remedy an omission in the existing law. It does not introduce any new principle at law, or alter or modify any existing principle. It merely extends to owners of lighters, barges, and like vessels the same protection as is given to shipowners.

Second 502 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, provides that no owner of any sea-going ship shall be liable to make good any loss or damage that may happen without his actual fault or privity (1) of or to any goods or merchandise by reason of fire happening on board such ship, and (2) of or to certain valuable articles specified in that section. By Section 503 of the same Act and Section 1 of the Merchant Shipping (Liability of Shipowners and others) Act, 1900, the liability of owners of "ships," which expression does not include lighters or barges, is limited to £15 per ton of the ship's tonnage in respect of loss of life or personal injury, and to £8 per ton of the ship's tonnage where— any loss or damage is caused to property or rights of any kind, and whether on land or on water, or whether fixed or moveable. There is no statute limiting the liability of owners of lighters, barges, and like vessels in any way; and they are therefore liable, though subject to similar risks as shipowners, for the whole amount of the loss or damage, whereas the shipowners' liability is limited. A Bill which contained provisions to remedy this injustice, intituled the Barge Owners, &c., Liability Bill, was referred to a Select Committee of the House of Commons in 1892, and Clause 1 of the present Bill in effect reproduces the clause as amended by the Committee of 1892, limiting bargeowners' liability. Certain other clauses which appeared in the Bill have been emitted as subsequent legislation has rendered them unnecessary, and provision has been made to preserve the existing rights of persons employed in lighters and barges.

The unfairness of the present law consists in the differentiation that is made between barges which are capable of being propelled by sails and those which have no sails. The former are already protected under the Merchant Shipping Act, but barges which have no sails, and which are known as dumb barges, are not protected in the same way. There is no reason that can find for the distinction, as both classes of vessels do the same work and are exposed to the same risks. I could give your Lordships instances if it were necessary to do so, but I hardly think they are called for at this stage. These dumb barges, which are known by other names in various places, are craft varying in size from 20 to 200 tons burthen. Your Lordships will therefore see that except in the matter of the means of propulsion, the vessels are very much of the same order and the same size.

One question which I think will occur to your Lordships to ask is how this inequality of treatment has arisen. I have been at some pains to endeavour to ascertain the cause, and I cannot find that there is any, except this. When the limitation of liability was given to shipowners many years ago there was no association for the protection of the interests of bargeowners, and therefore no steps were taken on their behalf. So far as I have been able to find out, that is the only reason why dumb barges are not included in the definition of "ships" in the Merchant Shipping Acts. To the best of my belief no objection is taken in any quarter to the principle of this Bill, and I believe that if the session of 1892 had been longer the Bill of that year would have been passed into law. The clauses of the Bill do not, I think, require any explanation at the present, moment, but if your Lordships are good enough to give the Bill a Second Reading some little explanation may be necessary at a further stage.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."—(Lord Ampthill.)


My Lords, before your Lordships give a Second Reading to this Bill I would like to say one or two words with regard to it. A sailing barge may be of 100 tons burthen, but it is under control, having a sufficient number of men on board. But one frequently sees large dumb barges on the Thames with only one man on board. He is entirely at the mercy of the current, and though he does his best with a large pair of sweeps, when the tide sets in near the shore he has to let go the sweeps, and when he gets alongside either a wharf or a vessel he takes a turn of a rope and holds on till the barge gets the right swing. It is quite impossible for one man to control a barge of anything like 200 tons, and the process by which the attempt to do so is made leads to very considerable damage to vessels. I would therefore suggest to the noble Lord in charge of the Bill, that at the Committee stage he should accept an Amendment making the extension of this protection only applicable to barges that have at least two men on board.


My Lords, I am sorry to differ from the noble Lord who introduced this Bill, but I think barges and ships are not on all fours. To begin with, the measurement of the tonnage on which the liability is limited is on a different basis. Again, I do not understand that the owners of barges are willing to come under all the rules and regulations which the owners of steamers and sailing vessels have to submit to before they can obtain the advantage of this limitation of liability. As your Lordships know, steamers have to undergo a number of Board of Trade inspections and surveys, and to submit to numerous restrictions with regard to manning, to loadline, and so on; and I do not understand that barges will come under any of those restrictions. I do not see, therefore, that it is fair to put them on the same basis as ships, which, before obtaining this limitation of liability, have to pass through all these different surveys. At all events, I feel very strongly that barges which only navigate inland waters ought not to get the benefit of this limitation, and that barges on estuaries ought to be subject to proper control. At the present time on the Thames, the Mersey, and such estuaries barges drift about in a manner which is dangerous to the navigation of steamers, and therefore hope that when the Bill reaches the Committee stage your Lordships will amend it very considerably in this direction.


My Lords, since this Bill has been down for Second Reading we have received at the Board of Trade evidence of a certain amount of opposition to it, especially from people who represent the coasting class of vessels. They submit to us—and I think with a certain amount of strength—that since the Committee of 1892 these dumb barges have increased enormously in size, and that whereas they used to carry about fifty tons of material, they now frequently carry 300 tons, And are not infrequently built of iron. Therefore if one of these barges not under control runs into a vessel it does a considerable amount of harm, and the question of limiting the liability in the case of this class of vessel is, I think, a very serious one. I would suggest, if your Lordships agree to give the Bill a Second Reading, that the whole matter should be referred to a Select Committee of your Lordships' House before we proceed further with the Bill. I may say that Clause 2, which deals with the question of tonnage, would have to be very carefully considered before we could assent to the proposition contained in the Bill.


My Lords, I very gladly assent to the course proposed by the noble Earl who represents the Board of Trade. In view of the objections, which I may say are entirely new to me, I think it very advisable that the Bill should be examined more carefully and critically than is possible in Committee of the whole House. With your Lordships' permission I should like to say, in reply to the noble Lord on my left (Lord Inverclyde), who criticised the Bill somewhat severely, that he ignored the very point which endeavoured to make clear—namely, that already a large class of barges have this limitation of liability. The noble Lord assumed that barges would not submit to the regulations which are an indispensable condition of limitation of liability, but sailing barges are already classed as ships and treated in the same manner.

On Question, Bill read 2a.

Moved, "That the Bill be referred to a Select Committee."—(Lord Ampthill.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at a quarter before Five o'clock, till tomorrow, Two o'clock.