HL Deb 14 May 1919 vol 34 cc661-9

Order of the Day for receiving the Report of Amendments from the Select Committee, read.


My Lords, I rise to move that the Report of Amendments from the Select Committee on the Medway Conservancy Bill be now received. This is, I know, an unusual course. It is unusual that there should be any such formal stage in your Lordships' House upon a Bill that has been through the procedure that this Bill has been through, but I put this stage down for a special reason, which I hope to make clear to your Lordships in the few remarks that I desire to offer. Primarily I have done this in order to have an opportunity of asking my noble friend opposite, who represents the Treasury, to make a statement as regards the attitude of the Government to one clause in this Bill—an attitude which affects dock companies all over the kingdom, and is one of very great importance. It is in fact really more important, I think I may say, as touching the general principle involving all dock companies than it is as regards this particular Bill, although the point concerning this Bill itself is not by any means un important.

To state it broadly, the case is as follows. Your Lordships are aware that men-o'-war using harbours do not pay harbour dues. This is on account of ancient constitutional reasons, which I need not now enumerate. But it has always seemed to me that there is a further and more modern reason which is based upon common sense—namely, it is obviously reasonable that ships which are defending our shores should have every facility in performing that duty. But the point of view of the harbour authority—a body on which certain public duties are cast, and which is, of course, not a body trading for profit—must not be forgotten. Before the war no difficulty arose, because whereas then men-o'-war paid no harbour dues, coal and goods intended for the Fleet, being carried in private traders' ships for the most part, did pay dues in the ordinary course. The war, however, brought about a new state of affairs. Through the great extension of the system of charter, and through the system of control, all ships became Government ships; and had the full claim for Crown exemption been insisted upon, harbours would in a very few months have become bankrupt.

I understand that this difficulty has been recognised during the war, and that in many if not all harbours full rates have been paid on all goods—munitions and everything—and 75 per cent. rates have been paid even on His Majesty's ships flying the White Ensign. This is always provided that use was made of the docks or other facilities in the harbour—that is to say, that the use was not confined merely to anchorage. But with the end of the war in view the position again becomes very difficult. These ex gratia payments—for that is all they have been during the war—may be presumed to be coning to an end. And the position of subsisting upon ex gratia payment is not a satisfactory one to a dock company, which, of course, has to go to the public for money, and has to show what its receipts are and to show a certainty of receipt in order to raise money on advantageous terms. And this is complicated at this moment by the belief—which may be right or may be wrong, but the belief undoubtedly e'xists—that in future the Admiralty intend to run their own store ships, containing coal and goods, to at any rate a very much greater extent than they have in the past.

These preliminary remarks bring me to what I want to say as regards the Medway Conservancy Bill. The revenue of the Conservators arises under the Medway Conservancy Act of 1881. It is derived solely from vessels carrying coal and from vessel carrying corn. Your Lordships will understand at once that those carrying coal are responsible for the vastly greater percentage of the revenue; vessels carrying corn are not very many in these days. There are two Admiralty dockyards within the Conservancy's jurisdiction—Chatham and Sheerness. I do not wish to weary your Lordships with figures, but I might perhaps quote just these two. In 1912–13, 204 merchant vessels came into the river with coal for the dockyards, and 55 ships passed as hired transports. For the 204 ships the Conservators received £2,984; that is, practically £3,000 for coal dues. The 55 hired transports, your Lordships will see at once, paid no dues at all. But in 1916–17, 350 ships with coal for the dockyards came in, but they were all classed as hired transports, and it is in respect of these that it was open for the Crown to claim exemption and make no payment whatever. His Majesty's Government, I know, have recognised the unfairness to the Conservancy, and a special grant was made to them, for the period from August, 1914, to June, 1917, of £6,000.

But now that that is over, what is to happen? The Bill, as it is now before your Lordships, suggests that the exemption, by Section 28 of the Harbours, Docks, and Piers Clauses Act, 1847, of Government vessels or vessels hired or used by the Government should be removed, the present policy of the Admiralty being, as we understand, to charter vessels on time charters and on this ground to claim exemption from dues for those vessels within the meaning of the section to which I have referred. The promoters of the Bill suggest that the condition of affairs that has arisen was never contemplated by the Act of 1847, and they therefore ask for this release; indeed, they say that if they do not receive it they will be unable to carry on their duties.

We understand, however, that His Majesty's Government object to this being done, and ask that Clause 2 of the Bill, which is the clause now under discussion, should be so amended as to preserve the full effect of the exemption of Government vessels under Section 28. I understand that there have been various interviews and negotiations, and it is arising out of these that I desire to ask my noble friend to inform your Lordships as to what the policy of the Government is.

The Conservators feel that unless the Crown is prepared to pay on the general lines proposed by the Bill, it will be impossible for them to carry on their statutory duties. And though I believe the promoters would naturally prefer that their Bill should remain in its present form, I hope that my noble friend will be able to dispel the difficulties that arise in this matter; and if he is able to do so it will obviously be convenient and proper to amend the Bill in any form which is agreed on the Third Reading. It is for that reason that—if I may use the word—I have almost invented this stage, and put this Report down for your Lordships' attention this afternoon.

Moved, That the, Report of Amendments from the Select Committee be now received.—(The Earl of Donoughmore.)


My Lords, I have no interest in the Medway Conservancy Bill, but it raises an issue in which all the dock and harbour authorities of the kingdom are deeply concerned. Merely to amend Section 28 for the benefit of the Medway Conservancy might satisfy the injustice under which they feel they are suffering, but it would make the feeling of hardship more acute with the other dock and harbour authorities unless they were treated in a similar way. And although I am not suggesting for a single moment that the Medway Conservancy should not get the fullest possible advantage of the advocacy of my noble friend, still I am going to suggest, after I have pointed out the effect of this Act of 1847 in recent working, that some steps in the direction of amending the Statute are necessary, even to the repeal of certain parts of it that bear so hardly and unfairly upon the dock and harbour authorities.

Perhaps I had better recite to your Lordships how this particular section in the Harbour, Dock, and Piers Clauses Act, 1847, has operated during the last four or five years. Section 28, as has been stated by my noble friend, exempts from dock and harbour rates any vessel belonging to or employed in His Majesty's service. "Employed" means, of course, any ship on charter or taken possession of by the Government, as was the case during the war. It also exempts any goods carried for the Services, or being the property of the Crown.

Now, what has been the effect of this upon the dock and harbour authorities? The Admiralty at the beginning of the war took over a vast amount of mercantile marine shipping, and they very soon intimated to the dock and harbour authorities that under the provisions of the Act of 1847 we were not entitled to any dues. The very ships they took up were what I may call the regular ships trading to and from the different ports. Take the Port of London for example. They took the P. & O., the British India, the Cunard, the White Star, the Ellerman Line, and all the others, and these were the regular customers for which provision was made as regards accommodation and services. The very moment they took them up these became Government ships, and became consequently susceptible to the conditions and provisions of the Act of 1847. And although we were called upon to render these services—labour, implements, material, and so on—we ceased from the very moment the Government took them up to receive any remuneration.

As my noble friend pointed out, that was steering straight ahead for bankruptcy, and we began to approach the Admiralty. For two solid years, however, we obtained not the slightest satisfaction, or encouragement to think that our complaint would be listened to. In fact, it was only when finally we hit upon the expedient of summoning to our aid political help in the form of the Members of Parliament representing these constituencies that we got a hearing. We had a hearing before the Prime Minister of that day, with the result that we received quite generous ex gratia payments; but the point remains that those ex gratia payments were granted for the period of the war only, and that was specified. Here we are now with the war practically at an end, and we shall have to revert once more to the previous condition of affairs.

This Statute is an ancient Statute viewed from the point of view of to-day. The things that were in contemplation in 1847 were very different from the things which have happened in recent times and things which will continue to happen. For instance, it was never contemplated when the Statute was passed that the Government would ever take up the mercantile marine of the country and call them Government ships. Therefore I suggest that the Statute requires reconsideration. Had we not succeeded entirely by political pressure we should not have succeeded at all. Representation coming from the dock and harbour authorities as trading concerns had no effect whatever upon the Government. Supposing our then condition had continued, what would have been our position? I mentioned just now that all the ships were taken up, but later, under various forms of control, everything was taken up—food products, timber, tobacco, cotton, and so on; and our last state in the Port of London would have been that the Government would have had the whole of our revenue of £5,000,000 a year.

It is ridiculous to continue a Statute like this, which cannot be worked. Therefore I suggest that the only way to deal with the matter is to give some sort of promise that it shall be investigated by a Committee. I do not suggest what kind of Committee it should be; but I am perfectly certain that a Departmental Committee—a Treasury Committee—as long as they invite to serve on it those who are competent to give an opinion from experience as to what is necessary and what has happened under the conditions—would probably find a. result in justice being accorded to those authorities. To continue to keep the Statute alive and not daring—I do not mean "daring" in an offensive sense—to impose it because it would lead to bankruptcy, seems to me to be an unthinkable and undignified position for the Government to take up. Consequently I have taken this opportunity of giving the House the benefit of the experience of the various dock and harbour authorities in the hope and expectation that the Government realise that the position is altogether out of tune with modern requirements, and that they will give us some assurance that an early opportunity will be taken of releasing us from the conditions of this antiquated Statute.


My Lords, I think that those of your Lordships who have heard the speeches of the Lord Chairman and of Lord Devonport will admit that a difficult situation has arisen owing to the war, and that hardships have been inflicted on various dock and harbour authorities. But it must be remembered at the same time that hardships have fallen not only upon dock and harbour authorities. Hardly an individual or corporation or public body has not had to suffer hardships, sometimes of very great dimensions, in consequence of the war.

The Lord Chairman correctly stated the legal aspect of the case—namely, that the Crown is not liable to pay tolls or harbour dues in regard to His Majesty's ships. I am told that this is a practice which has obtained from time immemorial, for obvious reasons—partly connected with the fact that the foreshores of all estuaries and harbours were originally the property of the Crown. But the Lord Chairman has also correctly pointed out that during the war it became necessary for the Government to requisition shipping or to employ vessels upon time charters. All such vessels came for the time being within the category of His Majesty's ships; and, as Government vessels, their cargoes were equally exempt from tolls and harbour dues, just as in the case of men-o'-war. It was, of course, a hardship to deprive the dock and harbour authorities of their revenue. That hardship has been emphasised by the noble Viscount who has just spoken. He admitted, however, that the Government has recognised the hardship by undertaking to pay, as an act of grace, rates in some cases equal to and in other cases somewhat below those paid by private traders. The noble Viscount also stated that it took a considerable time—I think he said two years—before the Government agreed to assent to this undertaking. I was not aware that it had taken so long, but I think it must be obvious that, in the "middle of a great war, questions like this could not be disposed of off-hand.

At all events, in the year 1916 this arrangement was come to, and so far as I am informed it has been working with, I do not say universal satisfaction, but with a fair amount of satisfaction since that time to the dock and harbour authorities concerned. From what the Lord Chairman said it appears that there is some fear on the part of the dock and harbour authorities that, as these payments were only promised for the duration of the war, they will cease on the conclusion of peace and before shipping has reverted to its former conditions. I am authorised on behalf of the Treasury to say this afternoon that, so long as it is incumbent upon the Government in the national interest to employ tonnage under requisition, it is proposed that the Crown should continue to pay these dues upon the general lines of the arrangement at present in force entered into in 1916. Certain modifications in the arrangement, however, appear to be desirable and the details are under consideration. I will make it my business to convey to the Treasury the suggestion of the noble Viscount that a Departmental Committee, or some other body, should be set up in connection with this subject, and I will let him know what decision in regard to that is come to by the Treasury.

My noble friend the Lord Chairman said he understood that it was the intention of the Admiralty in future to run store ships on a much greater scale than had been the case before the war; and it is no doubt obvious that if that plan was carried out dock and harbour authorities would be very considerable losers in the matter of the dues they would otherwise receive. That is a point which has not been brought to my notice before, and it, again, is one which I will certainly inquire into. I imagine that it is a point upon which questions will have to be addressed to the Admiralty.

I think I ought to add that while the decision as to what payments are equitable in regard to all these matters must rest with the Government, the Government has no desire to take undue advantage of its strictly legal position in this matter, and will be ready to consider any representations from the various authorities concerned before any changes are carried out in the existing arrangement that was entered into in the year 1916. What changes may be proposed by the various Departments concerned, other than the Treasury, the Treasury is not yet aware of, but they will probably refer rather more to the form and mode of payment than to the substance, and will be rather administrative than financial; but the general arrangement which has been alluded to, which was come to in 1916, is one that for the present the Treasury is quite ready to go on with as far as possible. I am informed that the present arrangements are well known to all the parties affected, and I rather understood—I do not know whether I am in error—that the Medway Conservancy were satisfied with the Bill in its present form.


Yes; but. I understand that the Government are not, and want an Amendment made.


On the Third Reading an Amendment is going to be moved. I was informed that it was agreed to by the Conservators of the Medway. The noble Viscount, Lord Devonport, asked whether the arrangement that had been come to with the Medway Conservators would be similarly entered into with regard to other port authorities. So far as I am aware, the existing arrangement which, as I have already informed the House, the Treasury have agreed to and will continue for the present, will apply to all other authorities. I hope that what I have been able to say on this matter will be sufficient to satisfy noble Lords.


That is not quite the question I asked. I said that simply to give satisfaction to the Medway Conservancy in this Bill would not meet the case of all the other dock and harbour authorities, and therefore I ventured to suggest that it was a question of either the repeal or amendment of the Statute, which it is obvious must be the course adopted. The Government was willing to make ex gratia payments, but they have got the Statute staring them in the face and can escape payment whenever they like.


My Lords, I was chairman of the Committee before which this Bill came, but otherwise I have no interest in it. I understand from what my noble friend says that the proposed alterations which will be made at another stage are agreed to, but it seems to me that the further suggestion which he has made, or which was made to him, that there should be a Departmental Committee to consider the whole question, and not merely as it affects the Medway, raises a much larger issue and raises the whole question of the liability of the Government in other directions. There is the question of rates and payments for buildings or roads—I know too well what happens in Wiltshire. The present system under which the Government work I have always felt to be a most objectionable one. It is perfectly true, and I wish to say so with all gratitude, that the contribution which we get in lieu of rates is certainly adequate from the rate-receiving body's point of view, but it is after all a contribution given in order to stop our mouths, and I think that the time has come when this Statute should be reviewed and the burdens which different districts of this country are called upon to bear for the national benefit should be shared by the nation at large. So I hope that the Committee which is going to be set up will not be confined merely to docks and harbours and undertakings of that character.

On Question, Motion agreed to.