HL Deb 05 April 1911 vol 7 cc1012-23

LORD MUSKERRY rose to call attention to the tests in colour and form vision to which candidates for Board of Trade certificates as master or mate are at present subjected, and to the form vision test which it is proposed to introduce in the year 1914; to refer to the composition of the Departmental Committee which has been appointed by the Board of Trade to inquire into and advise upon these tests; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, during the session of 1909 I brought this question of sight tests to your Lordships' notice. But in view of the immense importance of it, not only from the point of view of safety of life at sea, but that under the present system it may result in men losing their means of livelihood most undeservedly through its uncertain and faulty nature, I feel that I am justified in calling attention to it once more.

As your Lordships are aware, all candidates at Board of Trade examinations for certificates qualifying them to command or officer British merchant vessels must first undergo a test as to their competency and efficiency in both colour and form vision. The Board of Trade before instituting these tests consulted experts, and the present tests were adopted by the Board of Trade on the recommendations of a Committee appointed by the Royal Society for this special purpose in the year 1892. A distinguished member of this House, Lord Rayleigh, was Chairman of this Committee. I trust that nothing I may say about the Committee will be accepted in anything but a purely general sense, and I certainly would not presume to cast a scintilla of doubt upon the noble Lord's profound knowledge and on his undoubted impartiality and good faith. But I think that the noble Lord must admit that, of late years, these eyesight tests which are applied by the Board of Trade examiners have raised a storm of hostile criticism, and there are renowned ophthalmologists, not to mention all captains and officers, who, of course, are competent to treat the matter in a sound practical light, who are emphatically of opinion that these tests are miserably inefficient and provide a ready source of grievous injustice. They may result in the failure of men whose colour and form vision are perfectly normal, whilst, on the other hand, it is contended that they may admit of dangerously colour-blind men qualifying for a certificate. An eminent ophthalmologist told me that he brought several colour-blind people to Sir William Abney, who tested them with the present official tests and declared their colour vision was all right.

Your Lordships may remember the now celebrated case of Mr. John Trattles, a remarkable illustration of muddle as regards these eyesight tests. This officer went to sea in 1897. In 1904 he passed the tests and also the rest of the examination, and was granted a second mate's certificate. He served for over twelve months as second officer of a large steamer, and then presented himself for a first mate's certificate. The examiner failed him in colour-vision. On appeal to the Board of Trade he was re-examined in London by Sir William Abney and Captain Harvey, who both confirmed the failure. The Board of Trade then requested Mr. Trattles to surrender his certificate as second mate. He declined to do so, and demanded an Inquiry. In September, 1905, the Board ordered a Local Marine Board Inquiry in London. After hearing both expert and practical evidence and testing Mr. Trattles themselves, the London Local Marine Board decided that he was perfectly competent in colour-vision. Mr. Trattles then went to sea, and in April, 1906, again presented himself for examination for a first mate's certificate. He was examined in colour and form vision by the Board of Trade examiner and passed. He then passed the rest of the examination consisting of navigation, seamanship, and other matters. After passing, the Board of Trade declined to grant him his certificate on the ground that on a previous occasion he had been failed in colour-vision. Naturally, by this time the case was arousing a considerable amount of public interest.

Fortunately fox Mr. Trattles, he was a member of the Imperial Merchant Service Guild, who spared neither effort nor expense in protecting him. Whilst withholding his first mate's certificate, the Board of Trade continued to demand the surrender of his second mate's certificate. Mr. Trattles continued, on advice, to decline to comply. Not content with the result of a previous Inquiry which they had ordered, the Board of Trade then ordered a further one under Section 471 of the Merchant Shipping Act, appointing for this purpose Sir Francis Mowatt, assisted by Mr. John Dickinson, one of the metropolitan Police magistrates. To shorten the story, amongst other practical evidence strongly upholding Mr. Trattles, both the owner and the captain of the steamer in which he had served for some considerable time were emphatically of opinion that he was perfectly competent. The Board of Trade's chief reliance rested upon their expert adviser, Sir William Abney, and the Court witnessed the tests which were applied by Sir William Abney and also by Captain Harvey, who cooperated with him. The defence rightly insisted that as the Court, had witnessed these tests they should also give Mr. Trattles the opportunity of a test of a practical nature. The Court, agreed to this, and, a Trinity steamer being lent for the purpose, the examiner appointed by the Elder Brethren of Trinity House at the request of the Court, Commander Wilson Barker, R.N.R., commanding the "Worcester," put Mr. Trattles through a searching practical test on the River Thames and its outlying waters. This test was personally witnessed by Mr. John Dickinson, a member of the Court. After this test Commander Wilson Barker gave evidence to the effect that he was convinced that Mr. Trattles was perfectly competent. The decision of the Court was to the same effect, and Mr. Trattles's certificate as second mate, which had been surrendered to Sir Francis Mowatt at the commencement of the Inquiry, was returned to him. The Imperial Merchant Service Guild then caused an application to be addressed to the Board of Trade that they would grant him his certificate as first mate, the examination for which he had passed. This was acceded to by the Board.

I mentioned this particular case in a previous debate when moving that a Select Committee be appointed to consider the conditions under which eyesight tests for mercantile marine certificates are conducted. Were it the only instance where most serious trouble and complications have arisen, I would not have laid too much stress upon it. I quoted it to serve as an illustration. When I moved for a Select Committee my noble friend who represents the Board of Trade in this House informed us that the Board of Trade were of opinion that these tests as at present carried out are efficient and that they did not consider that I had made out any case for a Select Committee. But, as in the case of certificates for the coasting trade which I dealt with last week, they have had to alter their views, and have been forced to give way to public opinion. They have appointed a Select Committee, or rather it is called a Departmental Committee, which has been carrying on its duties for some little time. Needless to say, the announcement that a Committee would be appointed gave, great satisfaction. But this satisfaction gave place to dismay when the actual constitution of the Committee was announced.

One would naturally imagine that any Committee appointed by the Board of Trade, especially one dealing with a subject of such grave importance, would be an absolutely impartial one and untrammelled by anything which might hitherto have transpired. I feel confident that your Lordships will agree with me in this. But I trust to prove that this has been far from the case. The present eyesight tests, which were adopted on the recommendations of a Special Committee appointed by the Royal Society, have been condemned root and branch by many people whose opinions must command the greatest respect and weight. Further than this, the Marine Department of the Board of Trade must also accept considerable responsibility, as it is they who are given the powers by Parliament and who have ordered certain inquiries with the object of forcing officers to surrender the certificates which represent their livelihoods. I suggest, therefore, that any Departmental Committee appointed should bear no taint of suspicion as to undue influence being used, and that those composing the Committee should not have had in the smallest degree any connection whatever with either the Royal Society or the Board of Trade in so far as concerns the tests which are now forming the subject of investigation.

But what is the case? Lord Rayleigh, the Chairman of the Committee of the Royal Society which recommended these tests, is a leading member of the new Committee. In the course of a previous debate I was informed that the Board of Trade had communicated with Lord Rayleigh prior to its taking place in this House. It seemed that the noble Lord had written to the effect that unfortunately he could not be present, but he informed the Board that he did not think that they could be wrong in following the advice of their expert adviser Sir William Abney. It was Sir William Abney who originally failed Mr. Trattles in colour-vision, and it was he who appeared as principal witness-for the Board of Trade when they sought to take away Mr. Trattles's certificate. But from the result of the case it was clear that the Court did not accept his evidence or his tests as proof of Mr. Trattles's incompetency. Sir William Abney has not been appointed to sit on the present Committee, but one of the Secretaries of the Committee is Dr. William Watson, a Fellow of the Royal Society, who I understand was, and possibly still is, chief technical assistant to Sir William at the Royal College of Science. It is only human that Fellows of the Royal Society sitting on the present Committee will be possessed of a natural disinclination to cast any reflections on the eyesight tests which were previously recommended by the Royal Society.

On the present Committee appointed by the Board of Trade, apart from Dr. William Watson, of the Royal Society, no fewer than five out of eleven of the Committee are Fellows of the Royal Society. Let me go further. One of the experts who had witnessed the tests applied by Sir William Abney when he failed Mr. Trattles was Dr. J. H. Parsons. Dr. Parsons attended the special Inquiry into the case of Mr. Trattles and strongly supported Sir William Abney's justification of the present tests. I find that. Dr. Parsons has been appointed a member of the Committee now sitting. I would ask your Lordships in all seriousness to consider whether a Committee of this sort can command the confidence of anybody. Certainly not of those connected with shipping. There is a very strong suspicion of, I will not say jobbery, but of engineering of a very improper character, and one has reason for strongly suspecting that an effort has been made to whitewash the present tests and the action of the Board of Trade in respect to them.

The appointment of the Departmental Committee is unquestionably the outcome of the great outcry raised by the Imperial Merchant Service Guild. Naturally those whose livelihoods are at stake—the captains and officers of our mercantile marine—have a right to demand every possible consideration in this matter. But the Guild were given no opportunity of nominating a representative on the Committee, and indeed were satisfied when assured by the Board of Trade that they wished the Committee to be a perfectly impartial one. I think I have proved that the Board's assurance was a very empty one. It is true that the Committee have invited the Guild to tender evidence, but the invitation has been refused, the Guild declining to commit themselves in any war to the doings or recommendations of the Committee, and there is not the slightest reason to doubt that they could have given some very valuable information which is now lost to the investigation which is in progress. I regret that it has been necessary for me to refer at some length to this matter, but I deem it my duty in the interests of safety of life at sea and also of those who command and officer British merchant ships and who are so badly off in the way of representation in Parliament, to bring to the notice of your Lordships the extraordinary methods which are sometimes pursued by the Board of Trade, and I suggest that before the recommendations of this Committee are acted on they should be submitted to a Committee of independent and practical men.

I will conclude my remarks by a brief reference to the new tests in form-vision—that is, distinguishing certain objects at a certain distance—which are to be introduced by the Board of Trade in the year 1914. The Board have even gone further than the original Committee of the Royal Society. Their hands were forced by the last Colonial Shipping Conference, as can be seen by a reference to the Blue Book. Why our Colonies should step in and dictate to the Government on such a matter seems incomprehensible to me, but it is decided that the new tests shall be introduced. The new proposals have excited the greatest indignation on the part of those representing captains and officers. This indignation is also shared by the shipowners of our country. Various of their great representative associations have with complete unanimity adopted resolutions condemning the proposed tests; there is absolutely no evidence whatever that any accidents have ever arisen at sea through inefficiency in form-vision. Under the new tests, which are of the utmost severity, it amounts to a certainty that a very great proportion of candidates for certificates of competency will be failed. It is also quite certain that a very large number of those now holding certificates would be quite unable to pass the test were they subjected to it. Your Lordships will appreciate the results of all this. There will be a vast amount of suffering of a most grievous kind inflicted upon a deserving class of the community who are entitled to all possible protection and sympathy at our hands. There will be a very serious inadequacy of certificated men. If only for our safety and welfare in time of war it is imperative that there should be a full complement of responsible and certificated officers in the mercantile marine. I would ask the Government to pause in this matter before they create a sorry state of affairs. The tests which are suggested are ridiculed, and I am at a loss to understand the theory that, because a man cannot read certain letters—each eye being separately tested—at a distance of sixteen feet, it must therefore be assumed that his seafaring vision is defective and that he cannot discern objects or pick up lights at sea with perfect efficiency. In all earnestness I ask that renewed consideration should be devoted to this matter now, when there is ample time for doing so. If our shipowners are fully satisfied with the present tests in form-vision, surely it is folly for any Government Department to interfere at the risk of doing incalculable injury to our greatest national industry. I move for a Return showing what accidents, if any, have occurred at sea in our mercantile marine through a deficiency in form-vision amongst officers in charge of ships. I also move that the Board of Trade should furnish their reasons for adopting the new test for form-vision, and state who has recommended it.

Moved, That there be laid before the House Papers relating to the tests in colour and form vision to which candidates for Board of Trade certificates as master or mate are at present subjected, and to the form vision test which it is proposed to introduce in the year 1914.—(Lord Muskerry.)


My Lords, before I enter into the other details to which the noble Lord has referred I should like to say a word with regard to the gentleman around whose name this discussion has ranged. I refer to Mr. Trattles. The noble Lord has given the House a perfectly accurate account of what happened in the case of Mr. Trattles. My right hon. friend the President of the Board of Trade has dealt with the case, which, as you have heard, was decided first one way and then another. Mr. Trattles's vision, I think we may take it, is not quite normal, though it has been decided that it is safe. My right hon. friend referred it to a further Court, and the result of that inquiry was that Mr. Trattles was given back his certificate. I should like to take this opportunity of saying, on my own behalf, that I am very glad that this gentleman, who I believe is a very efficient officer, is now in a position to carry on his profession again.

I am afraid I cannot, enter into a discussion to-day on the merits or demerits of the Board of Trade sight tests. I hope, in saying that, that the noble Lord will not think that I am in any way trying to detract from the importance of this question, or that I am in any way discourteous to him. The reason, as your Lordships will have gathered from listening to the noble Lord's speech, is that my right hon. friend has referred the whole question to a Departmental Committee, and I think that until that Committee reports any discussion of the sort would be not only unprofitable but perhaps undesirable as well. I think I had better read to your Lordships the terms of reference to that Committee. The Committee are invited— to inquire into what degree of colour blindness or defective form vision in persons holding responsible positions at sea causes them to he incompetent to discharge their duties, and to advise whether any, and if so what, alterations are desirable in the Board of Trade sight tests at present in force for persons serving or intending to serve in the merchant service or in fishing vessels, or in the way in which those tests are applied. Your Lordships will see that the terms of reference cover the whole field of inquiry in this matter, and I am sure that when that Committee has reported my right hon. friend will review the whole matter most carefully, not only the colour tests, but also those tests of form vision to which the noble Lord has referred, and as to which notice has been given that it is proposed that the new tests should come into force the year after next. The whole matter will be reconsidered when this Committee has reported.

The noble Lord has criticised the composition of this Committee. I can only say that my right hon. friend has no ulterior motive in this matter. He really is not guilty of any deep laid scheme. He has appointed a Committee to advise him on a highly scientific and technical matter connected with his Department, and he has done so with the object of ascertaining what is the best course for him to follow. I think I must read to your Lordships the names of the gentlemen who compose the Committee. The Chairman is Mr. Dyke Acland, whose name is well known to the House. Then there are Mr. Raymond Beck, the Chairman of Lloyds; Captain Thomas Golding, an Elder Brother of Trinity House; Professor Gotch, Professor of Physiology at Oxford; Mr. Norman Hill, the Secretary of the Liverpool Steamship Owners' Association and Chairman of the Board of Trade Advisory Committee on Shipping; Mr. Edward Nettleship, whose name is well known as a distinguished ophthalmic surgeon now retired from practice; Dr. Parsons, to whom the noble Lord has referred, another distinguished ophthalmic surgeon who is still in practice; Professor Poynting, Professor of Physics of Birmingham University; Lord Rayleigh, who is well known to your Lordships on account of his scientific attainments; and Sir Arthur Rücker, a distinguished physicist. The other member was Professor Starling, who has unfortunately been obliged to resign his position owing to ill-health, and whose place has been taken by Professor Sherrington, Professor of Physiology at Liverpool University.

That is a very strong Committee, and my right hon. friend's object in appointing it was that he believed, and he still believes, that it is a thoroughly impartial Committee which will be able to give him the best possible advice on this matter. The noble Lord has referred to the fact that some half dozen of the gentlemen composing the Committee belong to the Royal Society, and he appeared to think that members of the Royal Society might be prejudiced in this matter because the present sight tests are founded on the Report of the Committee of the Royal Society which sat twenty years ago. I do not think that is an argument which will weigh very much with the House, particularly when we consider that science is always advancing, and I do not think that the members of the Royal Society are in the least likely to be of opinion that there is any imputation on their body if what was acknowledged to be the last word in science twenty years ago is now found to be not quite up to date. Besides, it would be as absurd to say that in composing a scientific Committee you should have no members of the Royal Society upon it as it would have been to say, when the Constitutional Conference was being got together last year, that you would have no members of the Privy Council upon it. With regard to the other two gentlemen whose appointment the noble Lord criticised, it is quite true that Dr. Parsons did give evidence against Mr. Trattles in one of the many cases with regard to Mr. Trattles, but I can explain his presence on the Committee in a manner which I am sure will be perfectly satisfactory to the House. Dr. Parsons is at present there because his name was furnished to the Board of Trade by the Royal College of Surgeons when they were asked to suggest a suitable person as a member of it. The other gentleman—Dr. Watson—is not really a member of the Committee at all, but is acting as Secretary. It was thought that his scientific knowledge might be of advantage to the Committee, and that is the only reason why he was appointed. I do not believe your Lordships will think that in appointing this Committee, as my right hon. friend has done, to advise him with regard to this highly scientific and technical matter and to help him in carrying out a duty which is imposed upon him by Act of Parliament, he has been actuated by any but the most transparent motives of wishing to arrive at what was the best and what was the truth in regard to this question.


My Lords, I should like to say one word, in reference to the Committee that has been referred to, in support of what has fallen from my noble friend who has just sat down. In the first place, if you are to have the highest scientific knowledge you must take members of the Royal Society, because the Royal Society is composed of those who are most skilled in scientific matters in all depart ments of science, and to suppose that the members of the Royal Society who have been appointed would be in any improper manner influenced by a Report of a Committee twenty years ago, is my noble friend will forgive me for saying, really absurd. They certainly would be influenced, of course, so far as it was right that they should be influenced, by the Report of the Committee of twenty years ago; but where advances have been made in science they would not feel themselves in the least bound by that Report or the least indisposed to take a different view if evidence was advanced in favour of a different view being taken. I happen to know some of the gentlemen on the Committee who are interested in science, and with some of the, others I am connected in matters of business, and I must say it seems to me to be a strong and excellent Committee, and one which would take a reasonable view of any matter brought before it. I think, therefore, that my noble friend who has brought forward this Motion may very well be satisfied that the matter is in very good hands, and that the Committee will certainly take a reasonable view of the whole subject, on which they are thoroughly qualified to advise the Government.


My Lords. I would ask, Ought not the vast body of officers concerned in this important matter to have a perfect confidence in the tests to which they arc to be subjected, and on which their whole future life depends? When one hears of a man being condemned because he cannot pass certain theoretical' tests on land, and then when taken out on the ocean in a ship and tested in the practical exercise of his vocation lie is found to be perfectly competent, one naturally asks whether it would not be possible to devise some practical test in the exercise of a. man's duties as a commander or an officer to prove whether he can properly fulfil his duties or not. Surely it would not be difficult to take a malt out on a ship on a dark night and see whether or not he can properly distinguish lights, and so on.


I do not think the noble Lord dealt with my Motion for Papers or said anything with regard to form vision.


I have only just seen the paper the noble Lord has handed in, and I think I must have time before I can give him the information for which he asks.


My Lords, I wish to say a word of reply with regard to what has fallen from my noble friend Lord Avebury. If a man is put on the bridge of a steamer and is taken down a river that he does not know and is able to distinguish correctly the colour of every light on shore that he passes, the lights of every vessel that he meets, and the colour of the stars, all I can say is that if all the scientific men in Europe or in the world said that that man was colour blind it would not alter my opinion that he was perfectly competent, so far as colour vision goes, to take charge of any ship. I beg to withdraw the Motion which stands in my name.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.