HL Deb 19 July 1909 vol 2 cc580-94

My Lords, I rise to call attention to the number of aliens serving in British ships, and to the national danger they would present in time of war; to ask whether any precautions have been adopted, and, if so, of what nature, in preventing alien masters or officers of British merchant ships from obtaining confidential information from British naval authorities in war-time; and to move "That in the opinion of this House it is inimical to the interests of the Empire that aliens should be permitted to command or officer British ships."

When last I introduced this question the noble Lord who opposed me remarked that it was a very favourite question of mine; he mentioned the number of times I had brought it forward, and added that on no occasion had I been successful. If I may say so, this want of success was due, not, I feel, to any want of sympathy on the part of your Lordships, but to that stubborn opposition of the Board of Trade with which I am almost invariably faced. I am convinced that there is not one amongst your Lordships who does not, at least, agree with the abstract principle that no alien, especially when certain quasi-magisterial capacities are vested in him, should be allowed to command or officer a British merchant ship.

The noble Lord who represents the Board of Trade dwelt on my pertinacity in bringing forward this subject and on the vain efforts I have made. But, speaking in all humility, I would venture to submit that I have not been quite as unsuccessful as he appears to think. In the Bills which I had the honour to submit for your Lordships' consideration there was one important section framed with the object of preventing aliens from obtaining pilotage certificates for British waters. These Bills were rejected, aliens were still privileged in regard to British pilotage certificates, and, similarly, aliens still supplant Britishers in commanding and officering British ships. But the curious feature about it is that only a little later the Government themselves adopted—or, shall I say, appropriated? —my provision as to alien pilots. An exactly similar section was introduced into the Merchant Shipping Bill of 1906, and the clause limiting the granting of pilotage certificates for British waters to British subjects was carried unanimously. I have not the remotest wish to claim any personal credit for this, but I must at least submit that, in view of what has transpired, the Bill which I introduced was worthy of much more consideration than it then received.

Having themselves abolished alien pilots, I am now anxious that the Government should go a little further and deal in an equally decisive way with what is a far greater national evil. We may forbid aliens obtaining British pilotage certificates but we cannot, in the slightest degree, prevent them from making themselves familiar with everything concerning the shoals and shallows of our coasts and the lights and various navigational safeguards. But where it is a case of an alien commanding or officering a British merchant ship, then I do most earnestly contend that he is a menace to the interests of the Empire and a grave danger to the State.

It is hardly necessary for me to point out to your Lordships that it is on our merchant service that this country primarily depends. For what reason I am totally unable to fathom, agriculture is very frequently described as our premier industry, but the products of the agriculture in this country would not suffice to keep us alive for two months. It is upon our merchant service and upon the food and other supplies which it brings into this country with such unfailing efficiency and regularity that we are absolutely dependent. Cut these supplies off —and it is not a process of such very great difficulty—and we would be starved into submission in no time. Your Lordships will probably agree with me that it is our merchant service which is mainly responsible for the vastness and paramountey of our Empire, and the noble Earl who represents the Colonial Office would, were he in his place, possibly agree with me that the wonderful development of British possessions abroad is due more than anything else to the work of British merchant ships, which are the lines of our trade communications throughout the world.

The source of our present Royal Navy was, as everybody knows, the merchant service. Merchant captains and officers have frequently rendered great national service to their country. Without our merchant service the war in South Africa could never have been brought to a satisfactory conclusion. Even the latest and one of the very finest achievements in the field of exploration has been performed by a merchant shipmaster, Lieutenant Shackleton, formerly an officer in the Union-Castle Line, and now holding a commission as a lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve. I merely mention these matters to illustrate of what immense importance our merchant service really is, and yet, extraordinary to say, it is the one service which Parliament and the public seem to treat the least seriously. When first I introduced this subject of alien captains, officers, and pilots, it was only necessary to say that my proposals would tamper with the principles of Free Trade to make my case hopeless. I notice that allusion to Free Trade has, of late, been carefully avoided, presumably because otherwise it would greatly strengthen my case in the eyes of some of the noble Lords on this side of the House. How letting aliens supplant our own countrymen in our merchant ships can be considered part of the principles of Free Trade is a mystery to me. If it is a part of Free Trade principles, then to be logical Free Traders ought to let aliens supplant our own countrymen in the Royal Navy, the Army, the Civil Service, the Police, and other public departments, but I have not heard of their doing so yet.

I will try to state, briefly, the objections of the Board of Trade to my proposals, for it is in the Marine Department of the Board where the opposition really lies. I am, of course, assuming that the noble Earl who is to-day representing the Board intends to oppose me as usual. The first objection is that the number of alien captains and officers is very small; secondly, that they are of different nationalities, and that, in any case, we have the shipowners on our side; thirdly, we are told of the desirable qualities of aliens in regard to foreign languages; and, fourthly, there is the fear of retaliation on British captains and officers serving in ships of other countries. I hope to deal with each of these objections in turn as shortly as possible. In the first place, if the number of alien captains and officers is comparatively trivial, then the other objections raised by the Board of Trade become trivial also. For your Lordships' information I should state that, according to the latest official returns, the total number of aliens employed in British merchant ships is 37,694, or nearly twenty per cent. in proportion to Britishers. In addition to this alarming fact there are 44,604 Lascars and Asiatics serving in our merchant ships. I think the time has arrived when Asiatics should not be classified with Lascars. There is a vast difference between the two, and whilst Lascars are British subjects, Chinese are even worse than other aliens. The practice of carrying Chinese crews on British ships is now becoming a very common one, and forebodes serious results in due time.

Then, again, according to the latest returns, there are 472 alien masters and officers serving in British merchant ships. Since this return I have heard of a Japanese subject who has passed and got his certificate as captain of a vessel, so that would make 473, and there are 108 alien skippers and second hands in our fishing vessels. There are also 3,297 alien petty officers, representing over thirty-five per cent. of the petty officers serving in the ships of our mercantile marine. It is quite probable that many of these petty officers are aspiring to higher positions and to obtain British Board of Trade certificates. I find also that there are eighty-one alien apprentices on British sailing ships, and ten on British steam vessels. It is almost a certainty that these apprentices will, on completion of their qualifying time, present themselves for second mate's certificates. This extract from a letter I have recently received will illustrate what I am stating— My son informed me yesterday that there were two Dutchmen, a Swede, a Norwegian, and an Italian up at the South Shields School for either mate or master; this is a bit rough for Englishmen, and the sooner these certificates are given to Englishmen only the better. The actual percentage of alien captains and officers in our ships is, no doubt, small, but they number 473, and, in the interests of the Empire, this is exactly 473 too many, for reasons which I hope will prove sufficiently convincing to command the support of your Lordships.

As to the second objection, no doubt these aliens are of different nationalities, but I cannot see what difference that makes. In war-time even one alien master who is a subject of a hostile Power might do incalculable damage, as I will illustrate shortly. As to the owners being on our side, this is a. trumpery argument, for when their ships are at sea in time of war they would have no more power over them than we would, or, rather, not nearly as much. The third objection is the desirability of alien masters and officers as linguists. Such an argument is absurd in the extreme, and displays a totally inaccurate perception of the way in which our merchant ships are run. Take, for example, a vessel carrying an alien officer. The master is, obviously, not likely to transact his business through an officer, and in the case of an alien master his business is invariably conducted in the English tongue through the British Consulate and through the agents of the ship at the different ports abroad, all of whom speak English. On the last occasion we were told that at the Levantine ports, for instance, it was extremely important, in the interests of the owners, that one officer, at least, of a ship should be able to speak the different dialects. A more extraordinary suggestion I never heard of. The business of British ships at Levantine ports is always carried on in the English language, and to talk about aliens—probably Germans or Scandinavians—being more familiar than our own officers with the different dialects prevailing at Levantine ports is, on the face of it, absurd.

Taking the fourth, and last, objection, retaliation is feared on British captains and officers serving in ships of other countries. The Board of Trade are really very solicitous. To this objection the reply is simple. The number of British captains and officers serving in foreign vessels is infinitesimal. They are almost all serving in American vessels, and they cannot obtain a master's licence in the States without in the first place becoming a naturalized American subject. If they choose to forswear allegiance to the English flag then they must take all the responsibilities for so doing. Your Lordships were not informed that practically all other maritime Powers confine the commanding and officering of their merchant ships to their own subjects.

Having, I hope, disposed of these objections, I now propose to turn to the national aspect of the case. When the late Lord Ritchie (then Mr. Ritchie) was President of the Board of Trade he told us that if, in war-time, the Royal Naval Reserve were called out our merchant ships would be wholly manned by aliens. We may talk about naval scares, but this is one which would stagger any but an easy-going and careless nation such as ours. We depend upon the food supplies brought us by our merchant ships. What, then, might we reasonably expect, in time of war, of such ships carrying alien captains or officers, with the whole of the crew aliens? Are they going to be loyal to the flag under which they serve or to the flag under which they were born? The answer is obvious.

I will take a further striking illustration which will show the grave dangers to which we are exposing ourselves by allowing aliens to command and officer our merchant ships. In the course of last session I addressed what, at the time, may have been construed as a very innocent question to His Majesty's Government. I asked whether any official notices had been issued to the effect that, in the event of war, certain instructions would be placed in the hands of captains of British merchant ships; and, if so, what form these instructions would take? Also, I asked at the same time whether the Admiralty had invited the captains of British merchant ships to supply information concerning the movements and doings of vessels belonging to foreign maritime Powers; and, if so, whether the Admiralty would supply information as to the text of the communication containing this invitation.

The reply of my noble friend the Earl of Granard, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, was more brief and concise than it was satisfactory to me. His response was that no official notices of the character referred to had been issued by the Admiralty, and that the Admiralty at that time had no intention of issuing notices of the type suggested by me. This was on November 10, 1908. Not for one moment would I question the veracity of the noble Earl who made this reply; it was prepared for him, and I will, therefore, dispose of it so far as the noble Earl is concerned. But I have a little more to say about those who framed this reply, and I must once again protest against the evasive way in which matters that I take the liberty to bring to the notice of your Lordships are sometimes replied to. I do not intrude upon your time without in the first place making myself familiar with the questions I bring to your notice. From His Majesty's Government we have had practically a denial of any confidential matter being entrusted to the captains of British merchant ships in time of war. Let me tell your Lordships that it is far the reverse. To show you whether the observations of merchant shipmasters, even in time of peace, are considered of some value, I may say that I have in my hand a copy of a letter which, at the instigation of the Admiralty, has been addressed by Lloyd's to the shipowners of this country. It is dated April 2, 1908, and reads as follows:— Dear Sir,—I beg to inform you that a book entitled 'Block Sketches of War Vessels' has been prepared at the Admiralty for use in the mercantile marine in order to enable the masters and officers of merchant vessels in peace time to practise themselves in recognising war vessels at sea, and reporting them, when possible, to naval authorities. The Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty are desirous of securing the co-operation of shipowners in this object, and the Committee of Lloyd's have been asked to assist in the distribution to shipowners of copies of the book in question and to invite shipowners to instruct their captains to report, as far as is practicable, to the naval authorities the movements of any warships which may be observed during their voyages. In anticipation that you will be quite willing to assist the important object that the Admiralty have in view, I am forwarding under separate cover a sufficient number of copies of the block sketches for distribution to the captains of the principal vessels of your fleet. It is desired that the captains of the vessels to whom the copies are supplied should be invited to report the movements of war vessels observed, either—

  1. 1. By signal to any of His Majesty's ships passed on the high seas;
  2. 2. To the naval intelligence officers at Gibraltar, Malta, Colombo, Singapore, Hong Kong, and the assistant paymaster in charge at Bombay;
  3. 3. To the boarding naval officer at ports where vessels are boarded by British officers; or
  4. 4. If not already reported through any of the above channels, on arrival at the terminal port of the voyage, where no intelligence officer is stationed, to the Commander-in-Chief or Senior Naval Officer of the Station in which that terminal port is situated.
The report in this case should be sent by post if the Commander-in-Chief or Senior Officer is not at the port. It would be preferred that any information of this description supplied to the naval authorities should be furnished by the captains of your vessels on plain paper, not on the printed Lloyd's forms which are issued for the purpose of reporting on merchant vessels spoken at sea. My Lords, I should be the last to bring forward a letter of this character had I received a satisfactory response to my inquiry, but I am not to be put off by evasion, and I want to know whether, in view of this letter, the Admiralty attach no importance to the masters of merchant ships in reporting matters affecting our national welfare and safety. What is likely to be the result if a letter such as I have read falls into the hands of an alien master of one of our ships, which it will be sure to do?

If I remember rightly, the Prime Minister not long ago said that he did not include the United States in calculating the two-Power standard. Let me give you a little incident which has been brought to my notice which shows not only what may be thought by the Americans of the new book of Block Sketches of Men of War which has been put into the hands of merchant shipmasters, but the way it may be looked upon by other maritime Powers. I have a letter in my hand written by a member of the merchant service who draws my attention to the letter from Lloyd's which I have read. He states that the first copy was sent to his ship at New York and was confiscated and destroyed by the American Government officials. I offer no commentary on this incident, but leave your Lordships to draw your own conclusions.

I have not done with this phase of the situation yet. In view of the reply I received last session I should like to point to the notices which have been issued as to the desirability of the interchanging of signals as much as possible between merchant ships and His Majesty's ships. But the gravest question of all which I ask is how the Admiralty reconcile their reply to me last year with the general notice to mariners which has been issued by the Board of Trade for some time? This is a notice stating that, in the event of relations becoming strained between this country and any naval Power, an examination service may come into force at the different ports or localities in the United Kingdom and His Majesty's possessions abroad. Masters are warned that before attempting to enter any of these ports they must, in their own interests, strictly obey all instructions given to them by the vessels which will be charged with the duty of examining ships desiring to enter the ports and allotting positions in which the ships shall anchor. The institution of an examination service at any port will never be publicly advertised, but at all times when the relations of Great Britain with foreign Powers are known to be in a state of tension especial care should be taken, in approaching the ports by day or by night, to keep a sharp look-out for the examination steamer, and to be ready to "bring to" at once when hailed by her or warned by the firing of a gun. The notice in itself is very comprehensive and minute, but what I have read of it will be enough to enable your Lordships to understand the nature of it.

I understand that the Imperial Merchant Service Guild, representing the British captains and officers of the service, state that they have received no satisfactory reply whatever to their inquiry addressed to the Admiralty as to an alien master of one of our ships being given information of the strictly confidential description in the official notice. To give this information away to one single alien might be the means of inflicting incalculable mischief upon ourselves, and I venture to say that no reply can prove to the contrary. Again, I would ask what encouragement we are giving to our loyal and patriotic subjects in the merchant service when we allow aliens to dominate over them in our ships. Is this calculated to in any way remove the stain on our Red Ensign caused by the alarming number of aliens serving under it? From this point of view alone I would urge that my Motion is worthy of your Lordships' support. But I do not rely upon this so much as I do upon the urgent question of alien masters and officers being of the most serious danger to the State and to the Empire, for the preservation of which this country is chiefly responsible. And remember, my Lords, each of these aliens is taking up the place of one of our own countrymen who would be of the greatest value in any time of trouble, while the alien will always be a danger.

Moved to resolve, That in the opinion of this House it is inimical to the interests of the Empire that aliens should be permitted to command or officer British ships. —(Lord Muskerry.)


My Lords, in replying to the noble Lord to-day in the unavoidable absence, through indisposition, of my noble friend Lord Hamilton of Dalzell, who represents the Board of Trade in your Lordships' House, I am at a disadvantage owing to the fact that the Papers have only just been placed in my hands. The subject which the noble Lord has raised has been before a number of Committees; and the Committee on the Supply and Training of Boy Seamen, which reported in 1907, stated that— the employment of a large number of foreigners on vessels trading exclusively abroad or opening an agreement at a foreign port cannot well be avoided. As an example we may give the Pacific Steam Navigation Company, who alone employ 1,100 foreigners on board their vessels trading on the west coast of South America. Many vessels so employed in distant parts of the world only return to the United Kingdom at long intervals for overhaul and refit. The Committee, in a subsequent paragraph, said— Therefore we are led to the conclusion that…a large proportion of the foreigners serving in British vessels must be regarded as a constant element in the mercantile marine. The actual numbers employed as stated by the noble Lord were, I think, approximately correct. From the return of the seamen employed in British merchant vessels on April 4, 1906, it appears that 201,408 seamen were so employed, of whom 128,077 were British, 38,425 were Lascars, and 34,906 were foreigners. Thus more than half of the alien element is represented by Lascars, who are very largely British subjects. Your Lordships must also remember that nearly one-third of the foreigners—10,100 out of 34,906—are drawn from the three countries of Norway, Sweden and Denmark, and without undue confidence it may be stated that these are not countries with which we are likely to have unfriendly relations.

My noble friend went on to ridicule a remark I made some time ago with regard to the Levantine trade. He declared that all the trading there was done in the English language, and that consequently there was no reason whatever why British captains should not be employed on those ships. The information at my disposal is quite to the contrary. I am informed that any company trading entirely in the Levant and in the Mediterranean considers it absolutely necessary, simply as a business proposition, to have some foreign officers for dealing with the different traders in those parts. The British merchant service is a trade that fluctuates considerably in accordance with the prosperity or depression of the trade of the world as a whole. Thus The Times, in its annual review of trade last January, calculated that 1,250,000 tons of British shipping lay idle at the close of 1908. The returns from eighteen of the principal ports in the United Kingdom for the years 1907 and 1908 show that the number of men engaged in those years fell from 427,948 to 414,771. The numbers of foreigners in those totals, other than Asiatics or Africans, were 46,054 and 39,840 respectively. The fact, therefore, emerges that these foreigners formed about one-tenth of the total employed, but that they bore nearly one-half of the decrease made necessary by the year of depression in the world's trade. It would appear, therefore, that the alien may be regarded as having solved for us in some measure the problem of a reserve of labour in the mercantile marine.

The noble Lord went on to refer to the question of retaliation, and stated that, in his opinion, if we limited certificates entirely to Englishmen the retaliation which the Board of Trade feared would not really take place. As a matter of fact, it appears that neither Germany, the. Netherlands, nor Belgium has any such restriction, while Italy, Denmark, and Norway enforce it only as regards the master of a ship. No figures are available to show the number of British subjects serving as officers on foreign ships. Their number must, however, be considerable. Let me touch on the actual number of certificates granted. In the year 1905 there were 4,322 certificates granted; out of that number only seventy-seven were granted to foreigners. In 1906 there were 4,565 certificates granted, of which sixty-six were given to foreigners; and, in 1908, 4,830 certificates were granted, out of which only seventy-six were granted to foreigners. Your Lordships will gather from those figures that there is no great upward tendency in regard to foreigners holding masters' certificates. We naturally regret that our merchant service is not manned entirely by people of British origin, but it must be remembered, in that connection, that we have the largest carrying trade in the world, and that it is, therefore, as all reports state, nearly impossible to man the whole of our ships entirely with Britishers.

The noble Lord proceeded to criticise the answer I gave him last year on behalf of the Admiralty. I can only say that the reply I then gave was based on the facts supplied to me by the Admiralty. I was informed that no instructions had been given of any sort or kind on that point. The letter that the noble Lord has quoted was certainly not mentioned to me at the time. The Board of Trade have written to the Admiralty asking for any observations they might have to make with regard to the Motion of my noble friend, and, with your Lordships' permission, I will read their reply. It is as follows, dated July 15, 1909— In reply to your letter of the 2nd instant, inquiring whether the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty have any observations on the terms of the Motion which Lord Muskerry has announced his intention of moving in the House of Lords on the 19th instant, I am commanded by their Lordships to state, for the information of the Board of Trade, that care is taken as far as possible that confidential information from British naval authorities does not come into the possession of alien masters or officers of British merchant vessels in time of war. Later the Admiralty say— It may, however, be taken as certain that naval officers will exercise great care in any communication which they make of an important character, so as to prevent it from being used in a manner contrary to the public interests. I do not think there is anything more that I can add on these points. This matter has been discussed very fully on many different occasions, and the conclusion arrived at, both by the Board of Trade and by the Admiralty, is that the danger to which my noble friend has referred is not so real as he seems to think.


My Lords, I am quite sure that the noble Earl need not have made any apology to your Lordships for want of preparation in the statement he has just made, for it has been, as usual from him, of a very complete and satisfactory character. But I should have been glad if he could have added one or two more figures as to the progress of the number of foreigners in our merchant service. He did, I think, tell us that, as regards masters and officers, there was no substantial increase, but he did not mention any figure as regards men. If there were to be an increase, I think your Lordships would agree that it was a matter deserving our careful attention.

As I have ventured to say to your Lordships on previous occasions, we have to weigh against one another the two aspects of this question. On the one side there is our trade and the necessity for the proper manning of our ships, and, on the other side, there is our national position and the re-action on our naval service of the personnel of the merchant service. I quite agree with the noble Earl who has just sat down that we must treat our trade and the personnel of our trade with the greatest care, and any extra weight upon the trade is so much against its prosperity and success; but I do not think we can leave out of sight the other side of the question, and my noble friend Lord Muskerry has done good service in reminding your Lordships and the country of the great importance of maintaining, as far as possible, the British character of our merchant service.

The noble Earl said just now that all of us would wish our merchant service to be entirely British manned, and I think that is true. We all regret that it should be necessary to include in the service persons who are not British subjects. I do not say that principally because of what my noble friend behind me has called the confidential character of the position of masters of merchant ships in time of war, although I do not think the matter is so unimportant, perhaps, as the noble Earl made out. There is no doubt whatever that the information to be derived from British ships in time of war would be of great value to the Admiralty. Our ships cover every sea and have an opportunity of acquiring information which is to be acquired from no other source, and I suspect that the Admiralty would rely a good deal on information which reached them from the masters and officers of British ships. If that be so, I think my noble friend is justified in saying that protanto it is a matter for regret that the persons in a certain number of instances through whom this information would pass would not be British subjects but foreigners perhaps in sympathy with those with whom we were in hostile relations at the moment. I do not attribute the highest importance to the point, though I do not think it is to be treated with insignificance, as the noble Earl was, I think, inclined to treat it.

But the main point is undoubtedly that the ultimate reserve of the British Navy must lie in the sea-faring population of the country. I should like to put it to the noble Earl whether the Admiralty have ever really thought out that aspect of the question. They have a splendid body of seamen now serving in the British Navy; they have behind them a most valuable number of the Royal Naval Reserve; but in a great struggle I imagine that not only would the seamen now serving in the Navy be exhausted, but perhaps the Royal Naval Reserve as well, and we should have to fall back on what we could get from the sea-faring population of these islands. I therefore ask the noble Earl and those whom he represents whether they have thoroughly thought out what reserves we really have behind us in the case of a very great struggle. I do not think it is possible to exaggerate the importance of maintaining not only the actual personnel of the Navy at the highest pitch of numbers and quality, but also to have the reserve and the ultimate reserve carefully planned out in our minds in case they should have to be called upon.

It is for these reasons that I am never inclined to treat the speeches which Lord Muskerry makes on this subject as unimportant. We are bound to keep a very careful watch on this question, and no doctrinaire ideas of what may be within the four corners of some Free Trade doctrine would ever restrain me for one moment from advocating even the most drastic measures of restriction if they were necessary to maintain the sea-faring population of this country at its present numbers, in order that when a time of necessity arose these men would be available. Therefore, I am indebted to the noble Lord for bringing the question forward, although I do not suppose that on the present occasion he will think it necessary to divide the House on his Motion.


My Lords, I desire to say one or two words in reply. I should like to point out that the Pacific Steam Navigation Company, which was mentioned by the noble Earl, run a number of steamers between Valparaiso and Panama, and as they are never off that coast they are naturally unable to get British subjects to man them, but all the officers on board those vessels are British subjects. Then there is one other aspect on which I do not think the noble Marquess touched. The noble Earl pointed out that there is an immense amount of tonnage laid up. That means the throwing out of employment of a number of captains and officers. There are no more loyal and patriotic men in the world than the captains and officers of the mercantile marine, and I ask, Is it fair that they should see their places filled by 473 aliens? As to the other point, I have been in the Mediterranean a good deal and have seen many English vessels trading there, and I do not remember one which was officered by a foreigner. But as the noble Marquess advises me not to press the Motion, I ask your Lordships' permission to withdraw it.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.