HL Deb 12 February 1908 vol 184 cc7-12

rose to call attention to the Report of the Departmental Committee appointed by the Board of Trade on the supply and training of British seamen for the mercantile marine. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in calling attention briefly to the training of seamen, I need not insist on the importance of the subject. Your Lordships are familiar with those imposing statistics of tonnage on which Presidents of the Board of Trade delight to dwell. We are justly proud of the British mercantile marine. But when we turn from the number and tonnage of our ships to manning, there is less cause for satisfaction. We are unduly dependent on foreigners. Under the restrictions imposed by the navigation laws, a considerable percentage of foreigners was allowed. Since the completion of the Suez Canal, Asiatics have been introduced in large numbers into our merchant service. We need them. In the heats experienced on the Red Sea route Europeans must in time deteriorate. To exclude, or even to diminish, the employment of Asiatics is not desirable. It has been recommended that a reserve for the Navy should be raised in the ports of India. The Committee on Manning, over which Lord St. Helier presided, were favourably impressed with the manly character of the native witnesses who appeared before them, and they reported that Lascars were fully competent for the naval service as stokers and firemen.

Turning to the trades for which British seamen are suitable, foreigners have always been employed to some extent, and until quite recent years in an ever-increasing proportion. There are ships sailing under the British flag manned before the mast almost entirely by foreigners. Such a state of things must be viewed with regret. It has given rise to apprehension that the characteristics of the British as a sea-going race are deteriorating. Successive Governments have appointed Departmental Committees to suggest remedies. In 1894 the manning of merchant ships was considered by a Committee, with Sir Edward Reed as chairman. His colleagues included Mr. Forwood, Secretary to the Admiralty, and several leading shipowners and commanders of the mercantile marine. In their Report the Committee dwelt at length on the disadvantageous conditions of the seaman's calling as compared with those of employments on shore. With wages it is not possible for Governments directly to deal. The recommendations as to training, though strongly urged, have been too long neglected.

The Committee advocated the establishment of training-ships. They pointed out that the Legislature had provided liberally for the promotion of technical education, and that no branch could be more directly profitable to the country than the preparation of youths for the sea service. A few years later the subject of manning was once more referred to the Departmental Committee appointed in 1902, with the late Lord St. Helier as chairman. Effect has since been given to the recommendations of the Committee as to cooking, inspection of food, and the exclusion from British ships of foreigners whose knowledge of our language is not sufficient. But nothing has been done in aid of training-ships and the training of boys on merchant vessels.

And now I come to the Report of the Departmental Committee of which Mr. Hudson Kearley, Parliamentary Secretary of the Board of Trade, was chairman. The Committee had before them previous unsuccessful efforts. The boy sailor scheme was connected with the light dues. It gave less to long voyage ships than to vessels in the coasting trades, and the former are the best schools for training. Later the Admiralty proposed a plan, but that scheme was a failure because the grants were insufficient. Mr. Kearley's Committee, having the experience of past failures before them, were more liberal. They proposed a capitation of £20, under suitable conditions, for each boy, not exceeding 5,000, annually trained for the sea service. The Committee repeat and emphasise the arguments used by Sir Edward Reed's Committee as to the duty of a maritime State to train boys to the sea, as a vitally important branch of technical instruction. An expenditure of £100,000 a year on training is, in my opinion, a small item in the vast sums we spend on education.

I turn to methods of training. For those serving as firemen there can be no training so practical as that to be obtained in the stokehold of a well-manned steamer. Discipline can best be taught in a well-ordered school-ship, of which the "Exmouth"—the vessel maintained by the Metropolitan Asylums Board—is an admirable example. For officers and seamen to be employed in deck duties and in handling canvas, sailing ships are the best schools. Mr. Kearley's Committee refer with special commendation to the "Port Jackson," a sailing ship which recently took out a hundred boys from the "Warspite" on a ten months voyage to Australia and back. The arrangements for instruction were singularly efficient. At the end of the cruise no difficulty was experienced in finding good employment for all the boys at sea, thus proving that good training supplies a want. We must, view with regret the fact that sailing ships are disappearing under the British flag. Here we may learn a lesson from Germany. By far the finest sailing ships of the present day are those in the nitrate trade, under the German flag. They go out in ballast round the Horn in from sixty to seventy days, and they return, carrying cargoes of 6,500 tons of nitrate, in from seventy to eighty days. It would be well if a few ships such as those now sailing from Hamburg were running under the British flag to Australia. They would be a valuable nursery for British seamen.

In conclusion, the ships in which the boys would be trained before the mast would be suitable for the training of the young officers of the Naval Reserve. The names of the officers of the Reserve fill twenty pages in our Navy list. Is that Reserve effective, or a force on paper? If intended to be effective, provision should be made for training. For officers entered for the permanent Navy no expense is spared. Nothing, however, has been done for the Reserve; yet at a small cost much might be accomplished. The cause which I have endeavoured to plead has fewer friends than might be wished. Attention at the Admiralty is naturally centred in the permanent force, and reserves recruited from the permanent force. Leading shipowners have no difficulty in manning their ships; many are content to rely on foreigners, who serve them cheaply. The recommendations of the Committees to which I have referred rest mainly on considerations of a national character, and these will, I know, have weight with your Lordships, and, I trust, with the public. For without the support of public opinion it is vain to appeal to the Treasury.


My Lords, the question raised by my noble friend is one of deep interest in this country, and I suppose there is nobody more competent to speak upon it than the noble Lord, who from his earliest days has derived his pleasures from the sea, and has done a great deal to improve the lot of the seafaring community as a whole. The noble Lord virtually wishes me to say what the Government propose to do as regards the recommendations of the Kearley Committee which reported last August.

That Committee made various propositions and considered various proposals. One of the first proposals they considered was the compelling of every ship to carry boys, but they abandoned that standpoint altogether, and I think your Lordships will agree, quite justly. Then they discussed the question whether or not capitation grants should be given to shipowners. Various arguments were adduced against this course, and I think one of the strongest was that of the Admiralty, who said they would derive no benefit whatever under such a scheme, and that it would not affect the Navy materially one way or the other, as they were always able to get as many boys for the Navy as they wanted. The Committee eventually decided that the best course would be to give grants to certain training ships, and they argued—I think very justly—that it would be a great national advantage to have boys who were going to adopt a seafaring career better trained. Many of the shipowners who gave evidence used an argument which I think is a very true one—namely, that if they took boys they were of very little use to them for something like two years. They are not in the same position as boys on shore, for in the case of the latter the Government support technical schools, and a boy entering, say, the engineering trade would work at the shops during the day and take advantage in the evening of the technical instruction for which the country pays. Secondly, the shipowners say they have to bear the whole cost. There is no doubt that a boy who has served on a training ship is much more competent to take his place among a crew than a boy brought straight from the country. Several shipowners, however, said they would much rather take a boy direct from the country than one who had had experience on a training ship, but I cannot think that any of your Lordships would agree as to the wisdom of that.

There are one or two other points to which I should like to draw your Lordships' attention. It is our great hope that in the future we shall be able to reduce very materially the number of foreigners employed on board ship, but in this respect it must not be forgotten that this country has 50 per cent. of the whole carrying trade of the world; we have the largest fighting Navy and the largest fishing fleet in the world, and, with our population, I think it is impossible to hope that the whole of the British mercantile marine can be manned entirely by British subjects. However, I may say in this respect that the number of foreigners employed on British ships is gradually decreasing. I hope this state of things will continue, and I think the Merchant Shipping Act which I had the honour of presenting to your Lordships in 1906 will go a long way to effect this. Before that year seamen did not have the best of treatment, but we have now improved their food and accommodation, and I look forward to the future with great confidence in that respect.

Now to touch briefly on the recommendations of the Committee and their cost. The output of boys from these training ships would be about 5,000 per annum, and that, at £20 per year, would work out annually at £100,000; and if the Committee's recommendation is to be acted upon that sum of money will have to be found by the country. One great objection is that there is no way of determining that a boy, after we have paid this capitation grant for him, will remain permanently at sea. He may go to sea for two years and at the end of that time give up the calling, and we then derive no benefit from the amount expended on his training. I cannot give your Lordships a definite answer to-night as to whether or not we shall be able to find the money necessary for this proposal, but I may say that we all view the objects of the Report with great sympathy, and if it is possible to adopt the views expressed in it I am sure His Majesty's Government will do their best in that direction.

Since we met last session my noble friend who has raised this question to day has been honoured by being made Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. I feel sure that every one of your Lordships will agree that no more suitable appointment could possibly have been made, and I feel that I shall be voicing the opinion of noble Lords present when I express the hope that my noble friend will be spared for many years to enjoy the honour he has so well merited.

House adjourned at a quarter past Five o'clock till Tomorrow, half - past Tea o'clock.