HL Deb 24 November 1931 vol 83 cc115-22

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this is a Bill which gives legislative effect to an International Convention, signed in 1929, for the safety of life at sea, and of another Convention for the load line, signed in 1930. It is in all essentials the same Bill as that which your Lordships dealt with in June and July last. There are a number of drafting amendments which have been made in the Bill—they are purely drafting in character—and three very minor amendments, with which I do not really think I need trouble your Lordships. The only one of any importance whatever is a new Clause 70, which gives power to the Board of Trade to recover costs of detaining a ship whilst she is being examined for load line offences. I understand that the new amendments have been agreed to by all those concerned, and I imagine that your Lordships would not wish me to discuss the Bill again, because, as I have said, it is really identically the same Bill that passed through the House and received a Third Reading on July 7 last.

Since the Bill was before your Lordships' House a number of nations have brought into effect the load line section of the Bill. The Governments of Belgium, Norway and Sweden have issued decrees enabling ships to be marked with the Convention load lines at the request of their owners. A French decree has been issued putting into force the provisions of the Convention with regard to the load mark for timber vessels, and I understand that the German authorities are doing the same thing with regard to their ships. Therefore, the Board of Trade are particularly anxious to be given the powers which this Bill confers upon them of dealing with the new load lines. They are also anxious, as I am sure all your Lordships are, that British shipping should have the advantage conferred by this Bill. Therefore, if your Lordships agree to give it a Second Heading today I would ask you to be kind enough to allow me to put down the Committee stage for to-morrow and the Third Reading for Thursday, so that the Bill would go to another place at the earliest possible moment in the hope that it might receive the Royal Assent before Parliament goes into the Christmas Recess. I do not know if that would meet with your Lordships' views. As I have said, it is identically the same Bill as that dealt with by your Lordships' House at considerable length in June and July. Therefore, perhaps, your Lordships might agree to a rather unusual course. I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Earl Stanhope.)


My Lords, I need not say that we not only offer no opposition to this Bill, but we are very anxious to help the noble Earl to expedite its passage through your Lordships' House. It is, if I may say so, an old friend and I am glad that the noble Earl, who was, perhaps, rather a critic of the Bill, is now its sponsor. I have not had time to go through its voluminous pages, but I am glad to hear from the noble Earl that it is, to all intents and purposes, the identical Bill that we worked at in the summer. I was rather frightened lest he might have inserted some of the Amendments which were rejected when we were discussing it previously in your Lordships' House. AS I say, I am glad to hear that it is to all intents and purposes the same Bill. I entirely agree with what the noble Earl had said as to the extreme importance of getting this Bill through Parliament at the earliest possible moment. It has been hung up in the most unfortunate way on more than one occasion, and I hope that this time we shall successfully put it on to the Statute Book in order to bring ourselves into line with the other nations who have signed the Conventions in question.


My Lords, with the representatives of both the official Parties in your Lordships' House supporting a Bill of this kind it is an exceedingly anxious thing for one of your Lordships who has no political associations at the moment to offer some observations upon the course it is now proposed to take. I venture to say that no uninformed observer who came into this House and heard what has been said from the Front Bench on this side and the Front Bench on the other side could have had the least impression that, among a great body of people vitally interested in the matter, this Bill in its present form is believed to involve serious risks, mortal risks, to a large number of men engaged in the merchant service. No body would suppose that there had been a change in the representatives of the Ministry in office last year when the Bill was opposed by people who at any rate knew something about the views of the men engaged in the merchant service. They have been ignored on this occasion. There are great organised bodies in this country, representative of mercantile marine officers and seamen, and one of the foremost representatives of them writes to me to-day that the Mercantile Marine Service Association and the Imperial Merchant Service Guild, the two representative bodies of captains and officers of the merchant navy, have presented petitions to another place containing 10,871 signatures of masters, officers, and men in active service afloat, against the proposed change.

What is in question among the opponents of this change, the opponents who are the petitioners to another place and I think have been petitioners to your Lordships' House, is this. The Bill in its present form proposes to reverse the helm orders which have been in use time out of mind in the British mercantile marine. It is proposed to reverse the simple order by which the man at the wheel knows whether the vessel's head is to go right or left. By some nondescript means—nobody has said what it is to be, but it will be a penal offence to continue the present mode of communication—the man at the wheel is to be given some other mode of directing his helm action. Anybody who has ever stood on the bridge of a ship will know what this may lead to. In normal times if there is a slip it can be corrected; but on one of those critical occasions when a slip involves a collision and an order has suddenly to be given to a seaman who all his active life has followed a particular helm order, he is called upon to take some other mode of action to secure the intended object—I do not know what it is.

If a, man at present is intended to bring his vessel's head to the right he gets the order: "Port your helm." If he is intended to bring her head to the left he gets the order: "Starboard your helm." He knows it. Anybody who is familiar with this matter will know that the process has gone on with absolute safety—I think I might say with absolute safety—to the lives of His Majesty's merchant seamen. How many there are I do not know, but anybody knows that our mercantile marine is at any rate not far removed one way and another from half of the whole mercantile marine of the world, and it is the seamen who are engaged in that service who, as many of them feel and still larger numbers of them know, are put into peril by this proposal to introduce some unascertained mode of communicating helm action to the man at the wheel. There is no purpose beneficial to our mercantile marine for which it is wanted. Most of the objects which are in view here are the objects of the mercantile side of the marine— commercial objects, which owners of ships know quite well will be beneficial to them, and they have been promoted by merchant shipping associations and by bodies representative of shipowners. I am not suggesting for a moment that they are indifferent to the well-being of their crews, but that is not their first consideration.

I do not propose to occupy your Lordships' attention long, but as some of your Lordships know, I happen to be the administrative head of the department in which justice is administered in the Admiralty Courts of this country—the Admiralty Division. I have sat there during a good many years, and I have had as my colleagues three men in succession—the late Sir Maurice Hill, who unfortunately retired because of ill-health something over a year ago, and my two present colleagues. No man was more absolute in his condemnation of this proposal than Sir Maurice Hill, and I venture to say that there never has been a man who has had so close an acquaintance with the perils of navigation which are exemplified in conflicts with regard to collisions as Sir Maurice Hill had. He was an inveterate opponent of this proposal because he knew it to be at risk, and at needless risk, to the lives of His Majesty's subjects engaged in the mercantile marine.

As for my own view about the matter, I have considered it from such experience as I have had in collision cases. I have discussed it with almost numberless people and I have not found a man of practical experience who views this proposal with other than grave anxiety. Yet in this Bill, which is entitled "an Act to give effect to an International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea," a salient proposal is that from the coming into operation of this Rill as an Act no person on any British ship shall give the at present recognised helm orders, and that if he does so he shall incur the penalties prescribed in the Act. An Act to give effect to a Convention for the safety of life at sea! It seems a mockery to the men who are immediately concerned. It is for those in this House who represent authority to take the course which they think fit to take. This Bill can be brought into operation when it has passed the two Houses, if it does in its present form, by an Order in Council. You know how promptly action under an Act of Parliament by Order in Council can take effect, so, if the views noble Lords have exchanged across the floor are effective, by about this day fortnight you may have this revolutionary proposal in its full effect. All I say about the matter is that this wide risk to the lives of seamen is not one which a man who feels an individual responsibility in the matter would allow to be incurred, he sitting silent, and so far as I am concerned, while this proposal is in this Bill any opposition I can make to it I shall make here, and any influence I can exercise I shall exercise here and elsewhere. I venture to move that the Bill be read a second time this day three months.

Amendment moved—

Leave out the word ("now") and at the end of the Motion insert ("this day three months").—(Lord Merrivale.)


My Lords, I did not argue the case in regard to helm orders again before your Lordships, because I think it will be in the recollection of the House that we had a very long debate about the same subject as recently as June. I think your Lordships will also remember a very forcible speech which was made by my noble and gallant friend Lord Jellicoe, whom I am sure we are all sorry not to see in his place to-day. He showed how clearly, from a practical seaman's point of view, the matter had been reviewed in the past. Your Lordships will recollect that he told you that in any ship which he commanded he insisted that a hole should be cut in the compass platform in order that he should be able to see what the helmsman was doing, and that on more than one occasion in his experience the helm had been put the contrary way to that in which the order had been given, in spite of the order being, as the noble and learned Lord said, one which has been followed for many generations. The whole reason for this change, which everybody admits is one that none of us really desires, is that foreign nations insisted, if there was to be an International Convention at all, that this country should come into line with other countries in this matter. We either have to agree to this Convention as it stands, including a change in our helm orders, or we muse agree to let the whole Convention drop with the benefits that it brings with it.

Those advantages are very material for the safety of life at sea. They include such things as wireless in all ships over 1,600 tons, and of someone being on board who is capable not only of sending but of receiving signals by wireless, and of a watch kept on ships so that a signal shall at once be received. They include such matters as the streng- thening of hatchway covers, which are of immense importance, to those who spend their lives at sea. Various other matters are included which in the opinion of those concerned tend very greatly to the safety both of passengers and crew. My noble and learned friend quoted two federations which are opposed to this, change. On the other hand I could quote him the opinions in favour of the change of the Honourable Company of Master Mariners, who, after all, are connected with the sea and all of whom have been masters of ships, the Officers (Merchant Navy) Federation, a far larger body than the two which he mentioned if their figures are combined, the National Union of Seamen, the United Kingdom Pilots' Association, Trinity House, the Chamber of Shipping, the Liverpool Steamship Owners' Association and, last but not least, Lloyds. I venture to suggest that in view of the very strong support which this Bill has from the majority at any rate of those who are connected with the sea, and in view of the very recent debate and the decision which was arrived at without a Division that these changes in helm orders should be made, I hope your Lordships will agree to support the Second Heading of this Bill now.


My Lords, before this matter is put to the vote perhaps the noble Earl sitting on the Front Bench (Earl Stanhope) would tell us why it would be impossible to introduce an Amendment to I his clause during the Committee stage. The noble Earl, Lord Stanhope, said that other nations would not agree to it. Is that quite certain? Would they throw over all the advantages—and I believe they are many—which are contained in this Bill if we, the principal maritime country in the world, pointed out that it was a very unfortunate alteration for us to have, and if we asked them to agree to an amendment of the Convention in that respect? Perhaps the noble Earl will tell us why it would be impossible for us to carry that out, and why other nations should object to what appears on the face of it to be a desirable thing?


My Lords, if your Lordships will forgive me for speaking yet again, may I say that it was made quite clear in the 1929 Convention that a number of foreign nations felt they could not enter into a Convention unless we were prepared to agree to this change. Several nations did not like all the provisions of the Bill because they imposed severe expenditure on their shipping. Some of them objected, for instance, to the wireless provisions in the Bill. Therefore, if we had made a reservation in regard to helm orders, it would have been followed by reservations from other Powers and the whole purpose, of the Bill, which is to get international uniformity in matters relating to shipping, would have gone by the board. There is another matter which I forgot to mention before. The noble and learned Lord spoke about the great danger to shipping which the change would involve. May I say that other nations have made this change—other nations who, in our opinion, have not such fine seamen as ours. I refuse to believe that British seamen are unable to make with safety a change which has been made with safety by other seamen.


Perhaps the noble Earl could help the House if he would tell us whether any interim period could be introduced during which experience could be obtained and there would be an opportunity of training men before making the change. At present what is proposed is a sudden change. That is the gravity of the matter.


I ought to have said—and I apologise to the House—that there is no intention of bringing the whole Bill into operation by an immediate Order in Council. The Board of Trade proposes that there should be ample warning of the change in helm orders before the Order comes into effect.

On Question, Bill read 2a and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.