HL Deb 27 March 1911 vol 7 cc633-42

LORD MUSKERRY rose to call attention to the necessity of further legislation, within reasonable limits, ensuring that British merchant ships shall be commanded and officered by men who can produce adequate proof of their fitness for doing so in the shape of Board of Trade certificates as master or mate respectively; to allude to certain recommendations on this matter which were adopted by the Manning Committee; and to move for a Return of those official Board of Trade inquiries in this country, of Naval Courts, and of marine inquiries in our Colonies and Dependencies, or a synopsis of them, which have been issued since the Manning Committee concluded its deliberations, and which contain any material comments or statements relative to the dangerous and common practice of merchant ships being in charge of uncertificated and irresponsible masters and mates.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the question which stands in my name is one of grave importance, for it concerns the safety of life and property at sea. In nearly every occupation where men are entrusted with duties where default or neglect on their part may endanger life, it is taken for granted that they should be qualified to discharge these responsibilities and that they should hold a certificate of qualification and fitness, or a document of some similar kind, which will serve to ensure their responsibility and impress them with the nature of it. But the British mercantile marine is a glaring exception. There is a deficiency of the law in this respect, and the magnitude of the evil is but seldom realised.

In the first place. I may say that so long as a British ship is outside the three-mile limit of these shores, there is nothing incumbent upon her in law that she shall carry either a certificated master or a single certificated officer. I make an exception in the case of certain of our Colonies, such as Australia, where they will not countenance such a thing, and where they will not permit our ships to sail from their ports unless there are a sufficient number of certificated officers on board. Take, for instance, such a ship as the"Mauretania."It is permissible for her to proceed to sea with a full complement of crew and passengers, and carrying His Majesty's mails, with a certificated master and one certificated officer only. It is fortunate for the safety of our seamen and the seagoing public that companies such as that which owns the"Mauretania"fully realise how inadequate the law is in this respect and who, far beyond their legal responsibilities, ensure that their ships shall be commanded and officered by an adequate supply of certificated and responsible men. I will go even further. If the"Mauretania"were making a coasting voyage and did not happen to be carrying passengers, there is no obligation that she should carry a single certificated man, whether he be master or officer. As an actual matter of fact there are many large merchant vessels, both steam and sail, constantly trading round our coasts without a single certificated man on board. As showing how extraordinary the law is, we find that in the case of the fishing trawler, a small vessel, she is compelled to carry a certificated skipper and secondhand. A second-hand is equivalent in a fishing vessel to a mate in another ship.

So far back as the year 1896 the Committee appointed by the Board of Trade to inquire into the mantling of British merchant ships commented as follows:— It is truly an anomalous state of things under which a fishing vessel with a certificated skipper and second-hand may incur the risk of being run down by a large steamer in the home trade, which has not a single certificated person on board, or one the efficiency of whose eyesight has been officially tested and certified. The Manning Committee, on the conclusion of their deliberations, stated that they were strongly of opinion that no vessel of large size or power should be permitted to go to sea unless provision had been made that the deck should always be in charge of some person who had given proof of his qualifications for such a position. They regarded the question as one closely allied to manning, and one urgently demanding legislation.

Your Lordships will appreciate what urgency has been attached to the matter by the Board of Trade when we find things in exactly the same position now as they were in 1896. Ten years later the Government passed the Merchant Shipping Act of 1906. While that measure was passing through your Lordships' House I proposed an Amendment which would have given effect to the recommendations of the Manning Committee. But the Board of Trade through their representative in your Lordships' House, though sympathising with the Amendment, said that they could not agree to it, on the lame excuse that its scope was too large for inclusion in the Bill. Time has gone on, and case after case has arisen where the scandal of allowing merchant vessels to be commanded and officered by uncertificated men has been exposed over and over again.

I will not task your forbearance by quoting these various cases, but I will briefly allude to two or three of the latest. One of these is where the cargo steamer"Paragon,"in charge of an uncertificated man, sank the pilot steamer"Excelsior,"loss of life ensuing. The Court which investigated the circumstances attending the accident expressed the opinion that— A man in sole charge of a steamship at night in a busy waterway, possessing no certificate of competency, is charged with a responsibility which should never be imposed on an officer without full professional qualifications:' It is not long ago that the steamer"India,"the master and mate of which were both uncertificated, sank the sailing ship"Kate Thomas,"when nineteen lives were lost. In the course of the decision of the Board of Trade Inquiry into this catastrophe the Court expressed the decided opinion that for safe navigation those in charge of steam vessels such as the"India"should be certificated—an opinion, I may remark, that very few would endeavour to dispute.

The latest case is that where the fishing boat"Alice"was sunk by the steamer "Melissa,"which was in charge of an uncertificated man at the time. The Court found that the cause and the consequent loss of life was the absence from the deck of the"Melissa"of a responsible officer, and the neglect of that vessel to observe the Regulations for preventing collisions at sea. As it so happened, the master of the"Melissa"held a certificate, but was below at the time of the collision. The Court suspended his certificate for twelve months, and ordered that he should pay £50 towards the costs of the Inquiry. The following extract from the judgment of the Court is very significant— The Court is aware that in suspending the certificate of the master it is inflicting a more or less nominal penalty, inasmuch as masters and mates of home trade ships not carrying passengers are not required to possess certificates of competency; and the Court is strongly of opinion that, in the interests of safe navigation, the time has come when all masters and mates in the home trade should be certificated.

This matter is one upon which, very properly, I consider, the Imperial Merchant Service Guild, which represents over 15,000 certificated captains and officers, has agitated for many years past. They have appealed to me once more to refer to it in your Lordships' House, and I cannot but feel that they have absolute justice on their side. All these gentlemen have certificates at stake, and the suspension of a certificate is a very serious matter and may mean the ruin of a man's professional career. When they navigate our home waters they are exposed to undue and unfair risk when meeting vessels in charge of uncertificated and irresponsible men. I hear that, owing to constant pressure having been brought to bear upon them, the Board of Trade are now considering the framing of a measure which will deal with the situation. This I think we will all hail with considerable satisfaction and I sincerely trust that my noble friend representing the Board of Trade in this House will be good enough to give us some definite information upon the point. A measure of the kind must inevitably be introduced sooner or later, especially as, from what I am given to understand, the leading representatives of all the principal sections of shipping are in accord as to the necessity for it.

Perhaps my noble friend will also give us information as to what views on this matter have been communicated to the Board of Trade by the Merchant Shipping Advisory Committee. Personally I am of opinion that so soon as a measure of the kind is introduced Parliament should be provided with the fullest information, which will enable us not only to realise the evidence in favour of the Bill, assuming, as I believe I am right in doing, that it will be under the sponsorship of His Majesty's Government, but information of the kind would disarm opposition and facilitate its passing through its various stages with the smallest trouble and in the least possible time. I have moved for a Return from the year 1896, as it was then that the Manning Committee declared that the matter urgently demanded legislation. If we had a Return reporting these cases of accidents at sea where the evils of uncertificated masters and officers have been referred to it would be enlightening to the members of both Houses of Parliament who may have to consider the measure, and, further, would be of the greatest use to His Majesty's Government as a complete justification for dealing with it.

Moved, That a Return be laid before the House of those official Board of Trade inquiries in this country, of Naval Courts, and of marine inquiries in our Colonies and Dependencies, or a synopsis of them, which have been issued since the Manning Committee concluded its deliberations, and which contain any material comments or statements relative to the dangerous and common practice of merchant ships being in charge of uncertificated and irresponsible masters and mates.—(Lord Muskerry.)


My Lords, this is one of the questions which the noble Lord has frequently raised, but never, I think, since I have had the honour of answering for the Department. I may congratulate him on having put it down at this time because otherwise he might have been too late and the legislation to which he refers might have been already before your Lordships' House or the other House of Parliament. I am afraid that the noble Lord has not always derived much satisfaction from the official replies, but I am happy to think that on the present occasion we are prepared to grant all, or nearly all, he asks.

I am afraid I cannot quite agree with what the noble Lord said as to the regulations with regard to officers' certificates, and even at the expense of keeping your Lordships for a few minutes I should like to run over what they are. For the purpose of determining what certificates are required British ships are divided into, three classes. There are, first, foreign-going ships sailing from the United Kingdom, and in this class are included home trade passenger ships. I ought to explain that the home trade includes all ships trading, between ports in the United Kingdom and also with certain Continental ports situated between the River Elbe and the Port of Brest. In the second class we have the home trade cargo ships, and in the third class British ships trading wholly abroad. The provisions with regard to the officers who must be carried apply only to the first of these classes. Those regulations are broadly these—that every British foreign-going ship and every other passenger ship must carry a duly certificated master and must also carry at least one other officer holding a mate's certificate, except in the case of certain small sailing ships. But there is a further provision. which extends that rule considerably, and that is that where, as a matter of fact, two mates are carried, one of those must have a first mate's certificate and the other must have a second mate's certificate at least. There are further regulations to which the noble Lord has not alluded which apply to engineers. Every foreign going steamship of 100 horse-power and. upwards must carry two engineers, one with a first-class and the other with at least a second-class certificate, and if of less than 100 horsepower it need only carry one engineer with a second-class certificate. Those are the regulations, and what I have to say with regard to them is that, in the opinion of the Board of Trade, regarded as a minimum—and your Lordships must remember that these are minimum regulations—they are sufficient, and it is thought at the Board of Trade that, considering the enormous amount of shipping which goes in and' out of our ports, the wreck returns and, other information available do not show that our ships are insufficiently officered.

The second class are the home trade cargo ships. With regard to this class I agree with the noble Lord that at present there are no requirements as to certificates of officers, but, as I have already stated, my right bon. friend does propose—he hopes this session—to introduce legislation dealing with that subject. And I may say that it is largely done for one of the reasons given by the noble Lord—that at present there are no means of dealing with these officers, because they have no certificates which can be forfeited in cases of misconduct and carelessness. I would also like to say of the men who carry on that trade that they are a fine body of men, and I do not wish to say anything in any way disparaging about them, because their trade, which is carried on in narrow waters very full of ships, has been carried on with extraordinarily few accidents. I would also observe that the men who are at present carrying on this trade will not suffer in any way, because we propose that they shall be given certificates of service to which they will be entitled by reason of the time that they have carried on the trade.


I take it that if a man's certificate of service is suspended through any fault of his own, it will be understood that he will not be allowed to command during the period of suspension.


The noble Lord will not expect me at this stage to give details of the legislation which it is proposed to introduce. The third class consists of British ships which trade wholly abroad. There are, of course, difficulties in making regulations for them, because it is extremely difficult to enforce any regulations you may make, but I may say that my right hon. friend is considering that question as well, though I do not definitely promise any legislation regarding it.

The second part of the noble Lord's Question deals with the recommendations of the Manning Committee. There are two principal recommendations, as far as I can make out, which are applicable—No. 31, which suggests certain detailed requirements with regard to the certificates of officers engaged in the foreign trade; and No. 32, which suggests legislation with regard to the home trade. As to the first of those recommendations, I have already said that in the opinion of the Board of Trade those requirements are not necessary, and with regard to the second, it is, as I have said, proposed to carry that out. As to the Return for which the noble Lord asks, we are quite willing to give it to him, and the only suggestion I would make is that he should consult with me as to its exact form with the object of limiting its size.


My Lords, the noble Lord who has just sat down has made a very kind reply in answer to the Motion of my noble friend behind me. But I am not sure that the noble Lord realises what a service my noble friend has rendered to the country and to the merchant service by pressing this matter upon your Lordships' House and upon the country for so many years, and, may I add, for so many years in vain. My noble friend began to agitate in this matter some eight or nine years ago, and it is only now that His Majesty's Government are able to say that they hope—the noble Lord opposite was characteristically cautious—that they hope to introduce legislation on this subject in the present session. I confess I do not understand why there should be any doubt. Where does the difficulty lie? Does the noble Lord think he will be opposed in your Lordships' House if he tries to legislate in a matter of this kind? Does he anticipate in another place there may be opportunities for delay of which advantage will be taken when the interests of those engaged in the merchant service are at stake I can assure the noble Lord that he is quite mistaken if he thinks that there will be any difficulty in passing legislation of this kind if it is really called for.


May I interrupt the noble Marquess? I do not anticipate any delay. I believe that the legislation will be introduced this session, but the noble Marquess himself must understand that there has been difficulty in the past. The Manning Committee reported in 1896, but no President of the Board of Trade, not excluding the noble Marquess himself, has seen his way to introduce legislation up to this date.


I think my noble friend has indulged in what we used to call in my early days a tu quoque, but I cannot charge my memory with its having been brought to my notice when I was at the Board of Trade. The broad fact remains that this matter is at present under the notice of the Board of Trade, and my noble friend behind me is justified in his complaint. Therefore I should have expected an absolutely confident promise that legislation would be introduced, rather than the cautious hope that it would be introduced this session. However, that may be a form of words equivalent to the same thing. If legislation is not introduced I hope that my noble friend behind me wilt return to the charge.


The Bill is drafted.


I apologise for having criticised the noble Lord's phraseology. The Bill is drafted, and no doubt will be introduced forthwith. Just let me say one word upon the remarks of the noble Lord opposite. He declined to go into the details of the Bill. Of course, he is perfectly right. If the Bill is yet to be introduced it would be out of place to discuss the details. But I am rather concerned with the interruption my noble friend made in the noble Lord's speech—that if certificates of service are to be granted to those at present engaged in commanding ships, they should be liable to the same accidents which at present fall to the certificates of certificated officers—namely, that they can be suspended or removed altogether in case of misconduct. That seems to follow as a matter of course, and without that the certificates cannot be of much use. I noticed that the noble Lord made a marked distinction between cargo ships engaged in the home trade and ships engaged entirely in the foreign trade, and that whereas he confidently hoped that this Bill, which is already drafted, would be introduced with regard to the home trade, he was unable to give any promise with regard to ships engaged in the foreign trade.


Those are ships which trade wholly abroad, and never conic home.


My noble friend was referring to the trade represented by a very large number of ships which never come home but which carry on trade between foreign ports. He said he was not sure that he could introduce legislation with regard to them because of the difficulty in enforcing it. That is a matter I should hardly like to go into now; but I should have thought that there was full opportunity of exercising such an authority over these ships as would be sufficiently effective to force them to carry out such regulations as to carrying certificated officers as Parliament and the Board of Trade might see fit to impose. I know that these ships navigate the seas under a very strict code of regulations made by this Parliament, and therefore I do not see why in this matter they should not be subject to the same rules as those ships which are engaged in the home cargo trade. However, I do not want to press the noble Lord upon the point at this moment. He is fully entitled to reserve to himself the right to go into the details at a later stage. I will content myself on that head with merely asking the noble Lord and the right hon. gentleman the President of the Board of Trade to consider whether they cannot extend the same provisions as to enforcing certificates to ships trading between foreign ports as they propose to enforce with regard to the home trade. I do not think it is desirable to trouble your Lordships further. I wish to thank the noble Lord opposite for his promise, and to congratulate most heartily my noble friend Lord Muskerry on the success of his efforts.


May I suggest that the Bill might be introduced into this House? It would expedite it very much.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.