§ LORD BERESFORD
My Lords, I rise to call attention to the serious depletion of mercantile tonnage for trade purposes, and to move for Papers. This is a most vital national question, and in some ways it is more vital than any other at the present time. The danger is likely to be increased in the near future, and if the present rate of depletion continues it will become a very serious question after the war. If we do not face it now, or very soon, we shall lose what has been our heritage—the carrying trade of the world. Besides that, if we do not take immediate steps to make up for the losses there is no doubt that we shall have a shortage of our food supply and of our supply of raw material.
How has this depletion been brought about? The war losses up to the present, from submarines, mines, and in action, are over 860 vessels. Of these upwards of 400 have been vessels of the carrying trade. The Germans are making every effort to reduce the tonnage of the world, both British and neutral, in order that the German mercantile fleet may be used for the carrying trade after the war. To the 860 vessels lost by the effects of the war we have to add normal losses by shipwreck, fire, and condemnation. That runs to about 340. We started the war with 11,353 vessels of over 100 tons. The Admiralty requirements, including transports, are between 2,000 and 3,000. There, are left about 8,853 vessels to carry on the trade of this country, and they have to do three times the work of the 11,353 vessels which carried on the trade before the war. It has been stated that our war losses through submarines, mines, etc., represent 4½ per cent.; but that is on the 11,353 ships. But the war losses must be counted on the number of vessels that are left to carry on the trade of this country, and in that way it will be found that the losses come to 14 per cent. I may be told that it is imprudent to mention these figures, but 879 everything that I am stating to your Lordships is public property and can be procured from Lloyds, except the number of vessels which the Admiralty took.
In addition to what we require in the matter of mercantile tonnage, there are demands made upon us by our Allies for freightage. A good deal of the present shortage of mercantile tonnage is due to what occurred during the Dreadnought craze. Several of us gave warning that to build those heavy ships without small craft and without destroyers was most imprudent, and exactly what has occurred was foretold, but it has taken a war to show that those of us were right who wanted these small craft built. There is another great danger—the enormous number of ships taken for patrol work, cruiser work, and sweeping, most of which would have been done by men-of-war had we had more Had we possessed, say, another 160 destroyers we should never have heard of a submarine or a mine. Now we are obliged to call upon the mercantile marine to take the place of these war vessels, and I am afraid we shall have to take still more ships from the mercantile marine because there is danger ahead with reference to Zeppelins. Zeppelins are in a position to scout most accurately and to inform the enemy not only of the numbers but of the allocation and formation of our Fleets. We have nothing with which to combat the Zeppelins as scouts, and I am afraid, as I say, that we shall have to take more merchant ships as cruisers. It is perfectly wonderful what the mercantile marine have done in this war for the State and the Navy. They were not subject to our discipline, they were not accustomed to keep station or to any man-of-war work; yet I say confidently that had they not come to our assistance and carried out these duties in the able way in which they have done, we should have lost command of the sea at the beginning of the war.
It is difficult to state the value of mercantile tonnage at this moment. It is priceless. The only way in which we can possibly make up our losses is by building new ships. The mercantile marine at this moment is diminishing faster than the leakage is being made up. I would suggest to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that instead of taxing the shipping industry and taking the money to place it in the till of the National Exchequer, it would be wise to put every £1 thus obtained into 880 shipbuilding. The Government have helped other industries not only with money but in other ways. Yet the industry of all upon which we depend for our life and existence—for cheap food for the people and cheap raw material for working up our merchandise—the mercantile marine, the Government are allowing to be depleted.
I should like to call attention to depletion of mercantile tonnage through bad work in the Transport Department. The Transport Department has done wonderfully well. There is no doubt about that. But their wastage has been simply remarkable in some directions. That will occur in any case where people are not prepared, but there are many cases of wastage which was preventable, and a great deal of waste is now going on which could be prevented. I will give an instance of the kind of thing to which I refer. At the beginning of the war the Admiralty took over fifteen tank vessels for transports. There was a curious idea that a tank vessel could not be sunk. They dismantled these vessels, filled their holds with buoyant materials and, having got them ready, sent them to moorings, and there they remained for ten weeks. Only one of them was ever used. Then a complete dismantling process went on, and the vessels were put back to their proper duties. That must have cost the country over £1,000,000, and for no object whatever. Indeed, it was a stupid proceeding. Another matter which comes under the Transport Department is the sending out of ships in ballast. We are so short, of vessels that this is a most imprudent thing to do, and it ought to be stopped.
Then a good deal of depletion has been due to the action of the Admiralty. There were seventeen dummy battleships which were to cost over £2,000,000. A number of those vessels were taken off the trade routes. Some of them were valuable ships. This was an absurd thing to do, and any of those ships that are in that condition at this moment, representing dummy battleships, ought to be put back on the trade routes. I know that one or two of the older ships have been sunk to make harbours, but any that remain should be put back on the trade routes. I also find fault with the Admiralty for the fact that some ships, though not many, have capsized owing to guns being put on the upper deck and the ships not being properly balanced, Another case that I would like 881 to bring before your Lordships is this. The naval and military officers naturally desire as many ships as they can get on the plea that they may be wanted. They are quite right to take that view. But there is an enormous waste of vessels hung up in ports "in case they are wanted." This is not necessary now, if there is proper organisation, in these days of wireless telegraphy and high speed. A few may be held in reserve, but nothing like the number now laid up "in case they are wanted" is necessary. There has also been great waste of money in connection with yachts. A large number of yachts were taken at £l per ton a month, to be returned in good condition. Many of the yacht-owners have already received a great deal more in money than the yachts were worth at the beginning. Then there was the despatch of steamers to Archangel when everybody knew the sea was frozen. Those ships were hung up there for a long time, for no object whatever. And this wastage of tonnage took place at a time when we wanted every merchant ship. I need not refer to political ventures or to the failures of Antwerp, Gallipoli, and Mesopotamia, which took up a large amount of tonnage that ought to have been devoted to trade.
There are three links in the chain which this country ought to see are sound and well linked together. The first is the question of compulsion for the military needs; the second is the question of the supply of men in the workshops which manufacture what is necessary for the men at the Front; the third is the most important and the master link of all, on which the others depend—the maintenance of the trade and commerce of the country, which is represented by the mercantile marine. I believe that we cannot win this war unless we mobilise the whole nation, and I personally would like to see the Government empowered to take any man or any woman at any time to do anything. But I know the difficulties; they are immense. What is the best thing to do in the circumstances? To get as near to that state of things as possible. Several of my friends said to me, when I told them that I was going to make such a proposal, "You will only defeat your object. If we get universal compulsion for the Army, we shall be able to tell off people for the industries of the country." I absolutely deny that. I am certain of this, that you 882 will get the country to agree to universal compulsion for the Army, but you will never get the country to agree to dragooning the working men into the workshops. Well, then, we must try some other way. I believe that if the working men were told the whole truth about the position; if it was shown to them that, taking this great industry of shipbuilding, it is absolutely imperative that we should build at once in order to meet our shortage; and if they were told what the alternatives may be—the running up of our food prices and the prices of raw material, and, I will not say losing the war, but having an inconclusive peace which would entail universal conscription of the heaviest kind afterwards—I believe that if the truth were told to the working men they would agree to some sort of discipline in regard to shipbuilding.
We have seen this proposal carried out to a certain extent. There are already dockers' battalions. I was in Liverpool on Monday and made inquiries concerning them, and I was told that they are working admirably. They are under a sort of discipline, though not under military discipline. You are shortly going to have transport battalions. These are all on the same principle as my suggested shipyard battalions. But the difficulty with regard to shipyard battalions is this. There are so many different trades connected with shipbuilding that you would find it more difficult to get shipbuilding battalions than dockers' or transport battalions. But I believe the labour is available in the country, but has not been put to its most effective use. That can be done only by organisation. There is another difficulty with regard to the shipbuilding question. The representatives of Labour state that the men do not mind how hard they work and sweat in the dockyards for the State, but they do not care to work and sweat in private yards where the shipbuilders are making enormous sums of money. I think Labour is wrong there. Capital has been put under compulsion, and I should like to see Labour under sonic sort of discipline. But you can only bring that about by discussing the matter with the Labour leaders. I believe that it could then be done.
The public complain of high freights and shipowners' large profits. They do not realise the difficulties which shipowners have to face. I know cases where shipowners have made important contracts, 883 and three out of four of their ships have been commandeered. In such a case the shipowner has to look round and secure ships at whatever price he can in order to maintain and keep his contracts alive, or be ruined. That has occurred over and over again owing to the shortage of shipping. The price of food has already gone up, and a great deal of that increase is entirely due to the shortage of tonnage. At the present moment I think I am right in saying that the British are getting 25s. a ton freightage, and the neutrals are getting 40s. a ton. The result is that the neutrals are making enormous fortunes. They have no taxes to pay on extra profits, and they are going to devote the reserves of money which they are able to pile up to the building of ships. I wish that all the neutral Powers would copy Portugal and utilise the interned ships, but, of course, that would be very difficult unless they recognised what is palpable to everybody—namely, that Germany is now the enemy of the whole world, and has proved herself so in this war. If the present depletion of tonnage continues, we must either depend on neutral countries for supplies, or scarcity of food products and raw materials will ensue, and, as I have already said, we shall lose the carrying trade of the world. As tonnage diminishes, so freights go higher, and the consumer will have to pay more for his food. I believe it would he possible to have a meeting of the Labour leaders and explain the whole position to them. Labour in this country has certainly been patriotic. It has sent millions into the trenches. The whole situation should be explained to the working men, and they should be asked whether they could not devise some plan by which we could get in the shipyards something of the sort of discipline which obtains in regard to the dockers' battalions. I am certain that if I met these men, I could organise something better than exists at present. We are hung up for these ships; we must have them. The only possible way of filling up the shortage is by building new ships.
I have just received a telegram from Lord Nunburnholme, which shows another difficulty which the Government will have to face. He says—I see you are speaking to-day on the shortage of tonnage. The output of new steamers is being delayed through the Scottish works declining to supply steel for shipbuilding at the prices fixed by the Ministry of Munitions for steel supplied by English works to shipbuilders.884 If that is so—and no doubt it is—I think it is a matter for the Government to think seriously over. If they fix a price it should be adhered to, more particularly with regard to this very serious question of the depletion of the mercantile marine. It is not always remembered that this country has to provide a million men for the sea service. We depend upon the sea service for everything. It is our life and existence. First, the trade routes, the arteries of trade, and the mercantile marine should be big enough; secondly, we should have a Fleet capable of defending them. We have to provide for the Navy, for the mercantile marine, and for the fisheries, a million men, independent of the dockyards and shipbuilding yards. There is no other nation in the same position.
I would like to make certain proposals with regard to the depletion of the mercantile marine. First, I would propose that, after consultation with the Labour leaders, something should be done in the direction of forming shipbuilding battalions on the lines of the dockers' and the transport battalions. It will be difficult, but, as I have said, I am certain it is possible if Labour is properly organised and the most effective use is made of the men. Secondly, I would suggest, ill reference to the meeting of the Labour leaders, that something of this character should be the reference—"To suggest a scientific organisation in the national service of labour for shipbuilding"; and there should be a clause that neither Capital nor Labour should make any undue profit. I would suggest that in such a big question as this everything should be made as easy as possible. The men should have proper hospital accommodation, proper living accommodation, and a food supply at reasonable prices. My third suggestion is that the wholesale waste and confusion such as I have described to your Lordships with regard to tank ships, dummy men-of-war, ships that are hung up in case they are wanted, yachts, and the holding up of ships all over the world without absolute necessity, should be stopped. Fourthly, I would suggest that most of the profits should be utilised on the construction of further ships. That will want organisation, but it would help enormously to supply the merchant ships that are wanted. The First Lord of the Admiralty said the other day that the Navy had not got all the material required in any branch of the 885 Service, but my belief is that with some such organisation as I have suggested—I do not say that my proposal is the best—you would have enough men to carry on the naval construction as well as the mercantile marine construction. The fifth suggestion I make is this. The Government have already limited imports. I do not think they have limited them half enough. They ought to be limited much more than they are at present. But that would require—and I suggest—the appointment of a Committee to examine into and report upon this question. My sixth suggestion is that in no case should a ship be sent away in ballast.
This is a serious situation, and it should be faced by the Government at once. I am glad to know that the noble Earl, Lord Curzon, is to reply to me on behalf of His Majesty's Government. No man knows more of this question than the noble Earl, because he has been chairman of the Tonnage Committee. I am sure he cannot be pleased with what lie found out on that Committee. I am also satisfied, from what I know of him, that he must have made a Report of some sort or other, and, I should Say, a Report which would meet the case. I am anxious to know why that Report has not been submitted to the House and why we do not know what is proposed to be done in regard to this question, which I maintain is more serious than any other facing the country at the present moment. I am afraid that the Government once more will set to work too late. This Government appear to me to be like a man who puts a fire service into his house after he sees it alight. I hope that we shall not be too late on this question of mercantile tonnage. Without prompt action the war will end in an inconclusive peace, which would be fatal to this country, and the millions of money and the splendid lives which have been lost would have availed us nothing.
§ Moved, That there be laid before the House Papers relating to the serious depletion of mercantile tonnage for trade purposes.—(Lord Beresford.)
§ THE LORD PRIVY SEAL (EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON)
My Lords, I agree with the noble and gallant Lord in certain of the general observations with which he prefaced his interesting speech. None of your Lordships will dispute for one moment the vital character and urgency of the problem which the noble 886 Lord has brought before us, any more than they would contest his personal right, as great as that of any man in this House, to call attention to this subject. I was glad also to hear him pay the well-deserved tribute that he did to the work which has been done in the course of this war by the British mercantile marine. What he said was quite true. It has been splendid and devoted service; it has been service that has been rendered in silence and often in the face of considerable risk, far away from the public eye, without the attraction of advertisement and without the hope of immediate reward. When the history of this war is written no historian will be worthy of the name who does not assign its proper part to the incomparable service which has been rendered by the British mercantile marine.
A good many of the observations to which we listened from the noble Lord were in reality, as he will admit, directed to Departments for which I have no right to speak. Some, for instance, of his observations directly concerned the Admiralty, and I should be trespassing on ground which I have no right to tread if I dealt too closely with that portion of the noble Lord's remarks. My own connection with this subject does not, I fear, entitle me to speak with anything like the authority with which the noble Lord was kind enough to credit me. It arises from the secondary and incidental fact that I happen for the last few months to have been chairman of a Committee, a prominent member of which is my noble friend Lord Faringdon, whom I see opposite. The value of the labours of that Committee consists exclusively in the work that has been rendered by the experts who compose it, and it is only the accident of my having been chairman and having been brought, therefore, in relation not merely with the work of the Committee but with the Cabinet and the War Committee in carrying out the resolutions at which that Committee arrived, which gives me any qualification to speak to your Lordships at all this afternoon. The noble Lord complained that the Report of the Committee had not been made public. The Committee's Report was addressed to the Prime Minister and the reason for its non-publication is simply this, that it contains information, figures, and facts of a character so confidential that the noble Lord himself would be the first to agree that it was undesirable 887 in the public interest that it should be made known to the world.
The noble Lord went on to say, Why don't we know what is being done, and what is going to he done? I am here this afternoon to answer that question, and to give the noble Lord, broadly speaking, the information, suggestions, and facts contained in our Report in so far as they can be made public; so that I hope the general suspicions which the noble Lord obviously entertains of the Administration the unfortunate members of which sit on this Bench will not cover the particular Departments with which I am now dealing. Before I pass to the specific question of the depletion of tonnage by the many causes which were enumerated by the noble Lord. I should like to say a word or two, if I may, on the general question of the use of the British mercantile marine during the course of the war. I doubt if any one not conversant with the matter, as is the noble Lord, at all adequately realises the fact that the whole of the British mercantile marine, which amounts to one-half of the gross tonnage of the whole world, is under control and is being administered by the British Government at the present time in the interest of the Allied cause. The question may be put, How has this been brought about? We obtain these ships, as the noble Lord knows, in one of two ways—either by requisitioning them at Blue-book rates, or by chartering them in the open market. I shall speak later about the manner in which, when we have obtained them, we control them.
If noble Lords go on to ask how and for what purpose are these ships employed, I think I can state the case in two ways. Firstly, I will give the proportion of the shipping that is employed in particular work. Over 43 per cent. of this shipping—I am speaking, of course, of British shipping which is suitable for overseas employment—has been requisitioned by His Majesty's Government for the naval and military and the essential civil needs of the Allied Governments; 14 per cent is occupied in carrying foodstuffs, war material, etc., on behalf of His Majesty's Government and the Allies; and the remaining 43 per cent is left to the British shipowners and is under State regulation which ensures its employment in the interests of the Allies. So much as to the distribution of the shipping. Now as 888 regards the uses to which it is put. I suppose it is natural that, speaking in this country, we should look at our own case and consider the service to ourselves which is rendered by so much of the shipping as is employed for our own cause. This shipping is employed, of course, firstly for the operations of the war, the transport of troops, conveyance of supplies, munitions, and coal to the various combatant forces in the different parts of the world; secondly, for the import of foodstuffs to this country—keeping alive, as the noble Lord said, the existence of this nation; thirdly, for the general import trade of the country; and, lastly, a certain amount is employed in neutral trade, much in the same way as a considerable amount of neutral shipping comes to this country. So much for the use of the shipping by ourselves.
Now let me point out that we are rendering precisely the same services in all these respects to the Allies as we are to our own people. Our ships are conveying supplies of food, coal, grain, timber, raw material for munitions, munitions themselves, to all of the Allied Governments. The assistance which we are rendering to them in this respect is on a scale unprecedented in the history of any war—a scale unsuspected, I believe, by the Allied Governments whom we are assisting, and practically unknown, except to experts, in this country. But for British shipping there would not now be pouring into France, Russia, and Italy the food and munitions which are necessary for the efficient conduct by them of the war. But for British shipping they would be dependent in all these respects upon their own resources, which are notoriously inadequate for the purpose.
While I am speaking about the service to the Allies let me, in no spirit of vainglory but as a simple statement of fact, deal in rather more mathematical terms with the precise service we are rendering. I will not give, although perhaps the noble Lord knows, the exact number of oceangoing steamers—that is, steamers above 1,600 tons—which at the present moment we possess, but I may say that the total number is between 3,000 and 4,000. Out of that total we have dedicated over 500 of these ships to the exclusive use of France, Italy, and Russia. These ships are either requisitioned at Blue-book rates or they are black-listed—that is, they are 889 chartered by them on the understanding that they will not be requisitioned by us. These 500 ships are a subtraction from the total shipping of this country, every ton of which is really required for our own service. Let the House be quite clear about that. We gladly give it. We wish we could give more. My Committee is daily confronted with the difficult task of having to refuse to give more. We take no credit to ourselves for what we have given, but at least let our services be acknowledged and be known. Not that I wish to discriminate or differentiate between the services rendered by mercantile shipping to ourselves and to the other Allied Powers. I look upon the contributions of the Allies to this war—whether they take the shape of soldiers, or ships of war, or munitions, or mercantile shipping—as part of one great pool which is created and dispensed for a single and common cause, namely, the defeat of the enemy and the winning of this war. From that point of view it seems to me that whatever the ship is doing, so long as it is engaged in the Allied cause, it is doing its work. For instance, the ships which are bringing ore or steel to this country to be turned into munitions here, or the ships which are bringing grain to this country and which are thereby releasing a large number of men who would otherwise have to be employed in the production of food for ourselves—these ships are just as much doing the work of the Allies as they are of ourselves. It is all one work. It is not national work, but international work. I have only given you these figures because it seems to me that there is a good deal of misunderstanding on the point which it is desirable to remove.
I now come to the points more immediately raised by my noble friend—namely, the depletion of mercantile tonnage in the course of the war. I agree with him that it is serious, although I should not like to use language graver than that. With his expert knowledge, my noble friend analysed perfectly correctly the various causes to which this depletion has been due. Some of these would have been operative in ordinary times; others of them are due to the special circumstances of the war. The ordinary wastage—I forget exactly how the noble Lord defined it, but the wastage that arises from age, from the perils of the sea, and so on—is inevitable. In fact, in this war the loss 890 in these respects has been rather less than normal, and for this reason, that with the present high rate of freights many old ships are running which would otherwise have found their way to the scrap heap. Another cause of depletion is the number of British ships that, at the beginning of the war, were interned in German ports. These were some seventy in number. But this number is almost exactly balanced by the number of enemy vessels which have been captured as prizes by ourselves. Then there are a number of British ships which are permanently locked up during the war in the Black Sea and in the Baltic. On the other hand, we have to add to the total of the available marine the German vessels which were detained or seized in British ports at the beginning of the war, which were over 100; while the total number of enemy ships which have been detained, seized, or captured by the Allies in all parts of the world since the beginning of the war has been 450.
Then we come to what has, of course, been the largest and the most formidable cause of depletion—war losses resulting from attacks by enemy cruisers, sinking by contact with mines, destruction by submarines, and so on. The noble Lord gave some figures in that respect. I think I would rather not give the official figures, although I am not at all concerned to contest what he may have said on the point. But I may remark this, that by a curious coincidence the number of merchant ships which have been lost to this country is almost exactly balanced, both in numbers and in tonnage, by the new ships which in the course of the war have been added to the register. That, I think, is an encouraging fact. When you balance all these factors against; each other and consider the enormous strain which has been put upon the British mercantile marine in the course of the war, it is to me surprising that it has stood the strain as well as it has. As a fact, after a year and three-quarters of war, at the present moment the British mercantile marine differs in a degree that is only inconsiderable in respect of tonnage from its tonnage at the outbreak of the war. The noble Lord gave us some figures and some percentages. It is always difficult for one man to criticise the figures of another, because they are as a rule drawn up on a different basis. I will say nothing upon the noble Lord's percentages, but I am inclined to dispute the facts 891 upon which they are based. I think I heard him say that at the beginning of the war the number of steamers of 100 tons gross and upwards that we had on the registers of the United Kingdom was 11,000, and that it had now been reduced to 8,000 odd. He will find that these figures are not correct. As a matter of fact, the number at the beginning of the war was something over 8,000, and the number now is about the same. The difference between the two is scarcely more than 100.
§ LORD BERESFORD
My noble friend has not taken into consideration the enormous number that have been taken for man-of-war work. The number could not have been 8,000 at the beginning of the war, and 8,000 now.
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
I will show my noble friend the figures afterwards. As regards construction—these are ships of 100 tons and upwards—at the present moment between 400 and 500 merchant ships of all sorts are in course of being built. While if I may diverge for a moment to a slightly different topic—the noble Lord alluded to the number of small craft required in connection with naval operations—I may tell him that the number of these small craft which have been added to the strength of the mercantile marine, and it might be said to the British Navy for the purposes of the war, has been over 2,500. In one part of his speech the noble Lord seemed inclined to argue that the depletion of mercantile tonnage had been in part due to faulty administration by that Department which he once adorned but which he finds now so inadequate to the needs of the country. I think his charge took the following form. He said that the Admiralty wanted ships which ought to be spared for mercantile work because they had not enough cruisers, destroyers, and small craft of all descriptions. That is a charge which the noble Lord has brought before, but which I am not concerned to answer now; it is an Admiralty matter. Then I think the noble Lord said that more ships could not be built now because the Admiralty wanted the docks.
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
Anyhow, that is a thing I have heard said. But speaking of the Admiralty, let me with regard to the last point say this in their cause and in their defence—namely, that discussions are now proceeding with the Admiralty for the release of a number of shipyards in which Admiralty work is now going on but which are specially suited to the production of merchant vessels; and, further, that communications are proceeding between my Committee and the Board of Trade and the War Office and the Admiralty, not merely as regards the economical use of the shipping which is under the control of the two last-named Departments, but also as to the surrender of any such as can be spared. Of course, this depends largely, as nobody knows better than the noble Lord, upon the number and the nature of our commitments, of our campaigns in different parts of the world. It is quite true that the campaign in the Dardanelles, the Expedition to Salonika, the presence of forces in Egypt—all these things make a very great drain on our marine. That is one of the factors that have to be remembered; and one of the few gratifying incidents connected with the evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula was that it released a certain number of ships of the mercantile marine for use elsewhere. The noble Lord or anybody else is quite entitled to criticise the strategy of the war; but I think the reply is really that it is inevitable with an Empire like our own, with its frontiers far flung all over the world, that you cannot in a war of this description confine the area of your fighting to a single country or single spot. It is inevitable, whether you provoke it or whether you do not, that it will find an outlet in other parts of the world; and a good many of our commitments were forced upon us, although that is a subject into which I need not enter this afternoon.
I come now to the point about which the noble and gallant Lord quite fairly interrogated me—namely, What are the steps that you are taking to render more tonnage available? The fifth among the six recommendations which he made was a more drastic restriction of imports than we have yet undertaken. Well, the Government began with goods which were either not necessary for the life of this country or which were very bulky in character and dimensions; and the first imports 893 that were either prohibited or restricted were wood pulp, tobacco, furniture-wood, stone, dry and preserved fruits, motorcars, musical instruments, spirits, and many manufactured goods and raw material. In this way we have reduced the amount of stuff which was brought annually into the United Kingdom by between two and three million tons. The noble and gallant Lord says he would like to go much further. So would I. So would the Committee over which I preside. I do not say that we cannot go further than we have done. We are continually making attempts in that direction. But the difficulty is this. The moment you propose a more extended list of prohibitions or restrictions yon are brought up at once against the trade interests—the almost pathetic petitions of your Allies on the one hand, and of your Dominions on the other. Nobody will appreciate better than the noble and gallant Lord the extreme complexity of such a case as that; and he may rely upon it that the list would be a very much greater one had it not been for the over-mastering considerations to which I have just alluded.
Then the noble and gallant Lord said, Go on with merchant shipbuilding; build more merchant vessels. I need hardly say that this is a matter which for a whole year has received the constant daily attention of every Department concerned. It has proved a most difficult matter for reasons some of which I think the noble Lord himself indicated. Firstly, the war needs of the Army and Navy, which stand first; secondly, there are the demands made by the Admiralty and the Ministry of Munitions on the engine shops; thirdly, there is the shortage of labour; and, fourthly, there is the point which the noble and gailant Lord made of the preference of the men to work in the yards for war work with the higher rate of wages which it carries. Lately, however, there has been a successful attempt to cope with this difficulty by declaring the building of a number of merchant ships now being constructed—oil ships and meat ships—to be war work. Over a hundred ships have been so certified, and this brings them under the provisions of the Act and means a considerable acceleration of building. I may mention another expedient which has been adopted, and which I think is in course of producing good results. We have engaged a considerable number of Canadian lumbermen—some 1,500 are on their way 894 —to come and cut down timber in this country, so that by using British supplies of timber for sleepers, pit-props, and so on, we are rendered not so dependent as we have been hitherto on foreign supplies and upon the shipping which is required to bring those supplies to this country. In a few weeks quite a big result is expected from this experiment.
There is another category of measures which we have had under constant consideration, and that is attempts to improve the labour conditions in the ports themselves. It is true, of course, that congestion of the ports is equivalent to a reduction of available tonnage; and you must look to the ports and see what you can do there to relieve the conditions as well as build ships or obtain them from other sources. This, as everybody knows, is a very complicated question. It raises labour problems, as the noble and gallant Lord admitted, of a very delicate and stubborn kind. It brings in the question of the railways and the railway organisation of this country; and the number of available men is further increasingly affected by your spreading wider and wider the net of enlistment. The first step attempted by the Government was to bring back a large number of dockworkers from the Front. This has proved, for reasons in the main military, a much more difficult task than was anticipated. A certain number have been brought back, but the expectations which some of us formed of considerable labour recruitment from this source have, I am sorry to say, not been completely fulfilled.
Something substantial has been done by the pooling at the docks of railway trucks owned by the companies which are now under the control of the Government, and also by the releasing of sheds at the ports so as to keep up a continuous flow of traffic. I will come in a moment to the question of labour at the docks, raised by the noble and gallant Lord in the latter part of his speech. Then we have paid great attention to the economical uses of the existing shipping. Various Committees have been set up, under Cabinet authority, which have power to direct vessels into any trade where a special emergency exists—it may relate to wheat or flour on one occasion, to coal on another, or to munitions on a third—and to divert vessels from one port to another so as to secure the more rapid discharge of cargo.
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
That is so. Then there are the operations of my Committee in examining the goods of the Allies and allocating on a scientific system the shipping which we are able to give them. And with reference to another point made by the noble Lord, arrangements are now being perfected by which, when a vessel becomes free, she is promptly used for another voyage instead of wasting time or making a voyage empty.
Now I come to the suggestions with which the noble Lord concluded his speech. I may say, speaking for all the Departments concerned, that we welcome any suggestion likely to be of practical value coming from the noble and gallant Lord or anybody else who is willing to help us in the matter, and I have not one word of complaint of anything in the nature of suggestion that fell from the noble Lord this afternoon. He was particularly concerned with the scientific organisation of the shipyards. He drew attention, very naturally and properly, to the excellent work done by the dockers' battalion at Liverpool, and he said, "Why cannot you extend this system? Why do you not enter into friendly communications with the leaders of the trade unions, and appeal to them to extend this organisation to the docks?" I have already pointed out to him that we are doing something in respect of putting some of this merchant shipbuilding under the Munitions Act. As the noble and gallant Lord knows, when that happens the workmen who are engaged upon this work come under the provision of the Act both as regards leaving certificates and workshop customs. Further, negotiations are at the present moment going on between the Ministry of Munitions and the Admiralty and the trade unions for the introduction of dilution and the abrogation of demarcations. I will, however, represent to the Board of Trade the specific suggestion that has been made by the noble Lord. Nobody would welcome more than myself a closer co-operation with Labour and its leaders in settling this problem.
I think I have now covered all the ground—perhaps more than the ground—which was dealt with by the noble Lord. I will only add that the vital importance of the subject is thoroughly recognised by 896 us. For a year and a-half it has been employing some of the best brains in this country, whose services have been voluntarily given and continued day after day in circumstances of which the public knows nothing. The Government could not have carried on its work had it not been for the fact that the expert business community has come forward as one man and placed itself at the Government's disposal. In every office in London there are sitting day after day and hour after hour men of capacity, men of large fortune, who have given up everything in order to come up here and silently and modestly but patriotically to render what service they could to their country. I take the opportunity of thanking these men for the service they have rendered, and I will conclude by saying that either from the noble Lord or from any other noble Lords who address us we shall be only too glad to accept any suggestions that may help the Government in the difficult task they have in hand.
§ LORD BERESFORD
Might I, with the permission of the House, ask my noble friend one question? Will he consult the Labour leaders more than has been the case up to the present? I believe that more could be done by consultation with the Labour leaders in carrying on this work than in any other way.
§ EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON
It is not for me either to undertake the task or to make a promise about it. That is a matter specifically for the Board of Trade, and more generally for the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. But I will represent, with such force as I can, the suggestion made by the noble and gallant Lord.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, I am sure your Lordships will have heard with great satisfaction the speech which has just been delivered by my noble friend opposite. I think that very good effect will be produced by what he had to tell us about the work which the British merchant marine has been able to do not only for this country but for our Allies. For it must be well known to your Lordships who watch the ordinary sources of information that there has been a certain amount of complaint amongst those interested in the trade of our Allies on the subject of the want of sufficient shipping accommodation for their own purposes. I think what 897 my noble friend has told us of the great success of the efforts of our merchant marine, not only in coping with our own trade under very difficult circumstances, but also in helping forward the necessary supplies of our Allies, will go a long way towards removing that sense of grievance. Those things are very satisfactory. Also I think we may congratulate him and the Government upon a great number of smaller details which he went through with his accustomed lucidity—details showing what the Government were doing in order to free the congestion at the ports and generally to help forward trade. He also reminded us that the Government had done a good deal already by restricting imports to increase accommodation in the merchant marine, and that they were quite prepared to go further in that direction if the difficulties which presented themselves could be overcome. All that is good. I cannot help thinking, however, that something more might be done. There was a difference of opinion between my noble friend opposite and my noble and gallant friend as to figures. I generally observe that as between the Government and their critics there is a difference of opinion as to figures. That is true of all Governments, and of all critics. But my noble and gallant friend behind me gave your Lordships one figure which impressed itself on my mind—that whereas there were 11,000 ships before the war to do a certain task, there are now only 8,000 to do the same task. I do not know whether Lord Curzon admitted the accuracy of that figure?
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My noble friend denies that, but I do not think he gave us any figures which he wished to substitute for the figures of my noble and gallant friend.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
I do not think my noble friend opposite goes so far as to say that there are as many ships available for the ordinary work of the merchant marine now as there were before the war. There is, of course, a very large deficit. Whether it quite amounts to the figure which my noble friend behind me gave I cannot say; but unless the ordinary 898 sources of information are very badly advised there obviously is considerable pressure. In order to deal with those circumstances my noble friend opposite said that the Government had control over a large number of ships which they were able to use in whatever direction would be most profitable for overcoming the difficulty. I observed, however, an interruption by my noble and gallant friend, and the reply of my noble friend opposite. My noble and gallant friend said, I understood, that the Government controlled only the ships which they had commandeered. As I understand that is only a proportion, a very large proportion no doubt, but only a proportion of the whole. There remains outside a certain amount of what I may call free tonnage which the Government do not at present control.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
Does my noble friend say that the Government are able to divert the whole of the tonnage to any purpose they wish? My noble friend explained to us just now that wherever there was any emergency the Government were able to divert the tonnage in order to meet the emergency. Does that extend to the whole of the mercantile marine of this country?
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
Then I do not think the Government need be afraid of taking the most extended powers that are required for this purpose. The country is quite prepared for extended powers. The only thing we hope, earnestly hope, is that no time will be lost in thinking out what is required and in working for it. 899 My noble friend spoke of negotiations with the Board of Trade and with the Admiralty. I do not know whether these are necessary, but they take a long time. What we are so dreadfully afraid of is that, as in other things, the Government will find the time running out without the necessary arrangements having been made. If my noble friend opposite has made the arrangements all I can say is that I cordially congratulate him, and I hope that in other respects his 900 example will be followed by other Departments of the Government.
§ Motion (by leave) withdrawn.
§ House adjourned at twenty minutes before Six o'clock, till Tomorrow, a quarter past Four o'clock.