HL Deb 25 May 1909 vol 1 cc1156-61

My Lords, I rise to call the attention of the House to the loss of the "Idlewild" of Sunderland, off Portland, on June 30, 1908, to the proceedings at the Court of Inquiry held by the Board of Trade, and to the judgment of the President of the Admiralty Division on an appeal from the findings of the Court of Inquiry; and also to ask His Majesty's Government whether, considering that these Courts of Inquiry already have the power to prevent masters of ships whose incompetence or negligence has been the cause of the loss of a vessel from continuing to exercise their profession, they should not have their powers still further extended so as to be able to deal in a similar manner with the owners of unseaworthy and over-insured ships, and thus be able to prevent such persons from continuing to exercise the profession of shipowner.

The "Idlewild" was thirty-seven years old. I shall not trouble the House by reading the details of the pecuniary arrangements connected with the ownership of this vessel. It is sufficient for me to say that the Court considered them— to be very complicated, and the more so because no books were produced to enable the Court to verify the figures referred to. The "Idlewild" was last surveyed for classification in November, 1905. During the remaining years of her life there were no fewer than thirteen entries in her log referring to collisions, groundings, and minor mishaps. The engineers' log contained innumerable entries of trouble in the engine room department. Her plates were so wasted and so thin that in March, 1908, a cork fender burst through the ship's side when she was entering a dock at Methill. In June of the same year the second mate, Guthrie, touched a crack with a closed pocket knife and it went through and let the water in as if it had been a small tap. Guthrie and another man left the ship on June 27 owing, as they said, to her condition. Three days later Guthrie lodged a complaint with the Board of Trade surveyor at Blyth, stating that the vessel was unfit to proceed without serious danger to human life. That very night she went to the bottom in fine weather off the Bill of Portland. The ship's papers were not saved. The Court found that there was no excuse for this, as no difficulty was experienced in getting the boat's sails out of the cabin. The papers might have been got out also. It appears to me that the natural conclusion is that they were purposely left behind.

The Court described the "Idlewild" as an old vessel perpetually in debt, and said that nothing but the wasted condition of her plates could satisfactorily account for the damage found at Methill and Pelaw Main. The Court said they felt it their duty to censure the master and chief engineer, and, in the exercise of their discretion as to costs, to order Mr. Alexander and Mr. Wilkinson to make substantial contributions towards the expenses of the inquiry, as they were not altogether satisfied with the manner in which they gave their evidence, particularly as regarded the history of the vessel and the disclosure and production of necessary documents. The Court also intended by their order to impress upon Mr. Alexander and Mr. Wilkinson, as the acting owners and re- sponsible managers, that it was their paramount duty to maintain the vessel in a state of efficiency, and to see that the lives of the crew were not unnecessarily imperilled. They also said that— Blame attaches to Mr. Thomas Norne Alexander and Mr. Cuthbert Wilkinson for not taking adequate means to maintain the vessel in good and seaworthy condition, and the Court orders Mr. Alexander to pay the sum of £50, and Mr. Wilkinson the sum of £25, to the solicitor of the Board of Trade on account of the expenses of this investigation.

Mr. Alexander and Mr. Wilkinson appealed against the decision of the Court of Inquiry, and have, by so doing, enabled me to refer to the opinions of Sir John Bigham and Mr. Justice Bargreave Deane. Sir John Bigham said that the survey made by Lloyd's in June, 1908, was a most unsatisfactory survey of a ship with this record. He went on to say that— He was of opinion that the 'Idlewild' started in a grossly unseaworthy condition, and that was why she went to the bottom. It was said that Mr. Alexander and Mr. Wilkinson should not have to contribute towards the cost of the inquiry; but the tribunal gave their reasons for their order—they were not satisfied with the way these gentlemen gave their evidence. He had no doubt that the tribunal would not have put that finding on record unless they had grounds; and if they were not satisfied with the manner in which the evidence was given, he considered it a good reason why these gentlemen should be ordered to pay part of the costs. Mr. Pollock contended that the order amounted to a finding that the appellants had not discharged their duty, and he argued that they were justified in relying on the survey and classification in 1905 and the report in June, 1908, and that these being satisfactory, all further liability on their part was gone. He (the learned President) thought that the facts which were staring these men in the face ought to have made them question the seaworthiness of the vessel. The cracking and bursting of the plates was quite sufficient to have aroused their attention. The tribunal had dealt tenderly with these two. They had acquitted them of criminal neglect, but had found that they were guilty of carelessness. The appeal would be dismissed with costs. Mr. Justice Bargreave Deane agreed with the President of the Court.

As regards insurance, the Court of Inquiry said— There was no evidence to show the original cost of the vessel, nor her actual value at the time of the casualty. She was in the hands of Mr. T. N. Alexander (Managing Director of the Tyne Dock Engineering Company, Limited) as the first mortgagee in possession, and Mr. Cuthbert, Wilkinson as second mortgagee, by whom she was valued at about £7,000. The vessel was insured for £7,250. In addition, Mr. Alexander had a P.P.I. policy for £350, and Mr. Wilkinson a P.P.I. policy for £300, making a total of £7,900. I have been informed, on what I believe to be good authority, that these sums have been paid. A Bill making P.P.I. policies illegal is now before the other House. By it, both parties to a P.P.I. policy are to be liable to six months imprisonment with or without hard labour. In the interests of the lives of seamen I hope that the Bill may become law this year. The only punishments inflicted on the owners of this vessel were fines amounting to £75. Yet if we accept the valuation of one of them—the only valuation apparently available—that of Mr. Wilkinson, the owners must have made a profit of £900 by the loss of their ship. The President of the Admiralty Court said that the Court of Inquiry had dealt tenderly with these two men—far too tenderly in my opinion. I wish that it had been possible to pass a sentence rendering them incapable of acting as owners, managers, surveyors, or in any capacity connected with shipping, and ordering them immediately to dispose of any property or shares they might possess in ships or shipping companies, and declaring that all such property owned by them three months after the date of the sentence should be forfeited to the Crown. The arguments brought forward in favour of the owners made their case much worse. They actually had the audacity to claim that as their ship had passed the surveyors all responsibility on their part was at an end. This theory found no favour from the learned Judges who heard the appeal. If once it is admitted, it means that if a shipowner can succeed in hoodwinking a Board of Trade surveyor his responsibility for the safety of the vessel and the lives of her crew is at an end.

The only way to bring home responsibility to such men as managed the "Idle-wild" is to subject them to considerable annoyance and pecuniary loss whenever they neglect their obvious duties to ship and crew. I consider that the infliction of severe punishment on incapable shipowners is far more likely to conduce to the safety of ships and their crews than the employment of an army of surveyors, whose continual interference with shipping would act as a check to trade and inconvenience owners of high character and standing. I believe that the vast majority of the ship- owning community would prefer such a method of getting rid of their black sheep to increased restrictions on the management of shipping. The Courts of Inquiry have the power of preventing a master of a ship from continuing to exercise his profession. I cannot see any reason why men who live on shore should be treated differently whenever a disaster occurs which has been caused by their carelessness or misconduct, especially when dealing with fully-insured or over-insured vessels. Barristers, solicitors, physicians, and men belonging to many other professions can be deprived of the right to exercise their profession by means in accordance with the law, and I think that shipowners should be placed on a similar footing.


My Lords, I am very glad to hear that we are to have the noble Lord's good wishes for the P.P.I. Bill when it arrives in your Lordships' House. I can assure him that my right hon. friend is using every endeavour to push it on as fast as possible. The loss of the "Idlewild" is another case which has been investigated by a Court of Inquiry. Fortunately in this case no lives were lost. The noble Lord will have seen that the Court stated that, in all the circumstances, they did not feel justified in finding that the owners knowingly allowed the vessel to go to sea in an unseaworthy condition, but they blamed the mortgagees and acting owners for not taking active measures to maintain the ship in a good seaworthy condition. That was the finding of the Court, and by that finding the owners received what I might be allowed to describe as a coating of rather diluted whitewash. The circumstances of the case do justify the noble Lord in bringing the matter forward, and I have only to say about it that the Board of Trade are still making investigations, and should any further evidence of an important nature come to light there is no reason why the matter should not be recommitted to the Court to be reheard. If evidence of that sort does come to light I am quite certain that that will be done. Then the noble Lord made the suggestion that the same law should be served out to the owner of a ship as to the master. At first sight it does seem as if there is a good deal to be said for that. I stated the law on the subject just now. Any owner who knowingly sends a ship to sea in an unseaworthy condition may be sent to prison, with or without hard labour, for two years, and in the opinion of the Board of Trade that is a sufficient deterrent. If the law as it stands should not prove a sufficient deterrent, the Board of Trade would be ready to introduce legislation making the penalty more severe; but I do not think that that penalty would take the form suggested by the noble Lord, because there are practical difficulties in the way of carrying it out. In the case of a master or any other officer of a ship who has a certificate you can, of course, withdraw that certificate. The matter is a simple one; but, in the case of an owner, I do not know how it would be possible to carry out the noble Lord's suggestion. But I can assure him that if anything of the sort is found necessary the Board of Trade will act very quickly in asking Parliament to pass further legislation.