HL Deb 09 November 1937 vol 107 cc90-9

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this Bill is a non-controversial measure of one operative clause which is designed solely to remove a legal obstacle which at present stands in the way of the introduction of a scheme of pensions for Mercantile Marine officers. At the present time there are about 32,000 masters and deck and engineer officers employed on British ships which engage their crews in the United Kingdom, and of these about 20 per cent.—that is to say, between six and seven thousand—are covered by schemes, operated by the companies they serve, which provide for pensions or other benefits on retirement. For many years now, as I think your Lordships are aware, the conditions of employment in the Mercantile Marine for officers and men have been considered and settled by representatives of owners, officers, and men on the National Maritime Board. The National Maritime Board is an organisation which is fully representative of both the employers and the employed in the shipping industry, and the "Officers' Panels" of this Board—that is to say, panels composed of owners and officers' representatives, which deal with matters affecting the conditions of employment of officers—decided recently to institute a national pension scheme for Merchant Navy officers and, if possible, to bring this scheme into operation on January 1 next year.

The proposed pension scheme is to be a contributory one, financed by payments equal to 7½per cent. of the officers' salaries; half of this sum being payable by the officer and the other half by the shipowner. In this connection it has been agreed by the National Maritime Board that the National Maritime Board rates of pay for all officers are to be increased by the amount of their pension contributions on the date on which these contributions start, so that there will be no net reduction of their salaries. The proposal is that every officer who is not already covered by an existing scheme shall be included in the national scheme, whether he is employed in the foreign trade or the home trade or the coasting trade, and both the employers and the officers' organisations have agreed that, if the scheme, which is to be run by the industry as a national scheme, is to be operated successfully, it is essential that all officers not already entitled to benefits on retirement should be brought within the national scheme and should agree, on engagement, to a deduction being made of the amount of the pension contribution from the wages due at the end of the voyage.

I should just like to remark here that if a pension fund of this kind were being set up in any other industry but shipping, Parliament would probably not have to be approached in the matter. But in the case of the shipping industry it was necessary many years ago for the protection of the seamen—and the word "seamen" in the Merchant Shipping Act includes officers other than masters—to provide that assignments of wages made prior to the actual accruing of those wages should not bind the person making the assignment. In the bad old days it was found that seamen were shanghaied on board ships, having signed documents which, in other conditions and on calmer reflection, they would not have signed, and Parliament sought to prevent signatures so obtained from being binding upon seamen if by the end of the voyage the seamen wished to be released from the assignment. This is contained in Section 163 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, which I think, perhaps, I had better read to your Lordships.

The section says: (1) As respects wages due or accruing to a seaman or apprentice to the sea service—

  1. (a) they shall not be subject to attachment or arrestment from any court;
  2. (b) an assignment or sale thereof made prior to the accruing thereof shall not bind the person making the same;
  3. (c) a power of attorney or authority for the receipt thereof shall not be irrevocable; and
  4. (d) a payment of wages to the seaman or apprentice shall be valid in law, nothwithstanding any previous sale or assignment of those wages, or any attachment, incumbrance, or arrestment thereof.
(2) Nothing in this section shall affect the provisions of this Act with respect to allotment notes. This section, as I think your Lordships will agree, was in its day a very wise and proper one, but no one would sug- gest that it should be allowed to stand in the way of an object which the National Maritime Board now have in view—that is to say, the contribution by deduction from pay to a pension fund set up by the voluntary decision of employers and employed in the industry.

Unfortunately, the legal authorities who have examined this section on behalf of the industry are satisfied that an agreement on engagement to the deduction of the pension contribution from the wages due at the end of the voyage would be an assignment of wages within the meaning of the section and could be voided by an officer at any time. The Government have been advised that this view is correct. The Government have been informed by the National Maritime Board that, whilst they are anxious to bring this scheme into operation in January, 1938, it will be impossible for them to introduce the scheme unless and until this legal obstacle can be removed, for the financial soundness of the scheme might be seriously prejudiced if an officer was able to revoke his undertaking to pay his share of the pension contribution, or to void the assignment of part of his wages for the purpose of the payment of this contribution, and to claim the repayment to him of any sums which might have been deducted from his wages for this purpose. I think no one will differ from the view that in these circumstances the shipping industry must not be in a worse position than any other industry in this matter, and that this obstacle in the Merchant Shipping Act to the proper operation of a scheme for pensions should be removed. The sole purpose of this Bill is to secure this end.

Reference has been made to the fact that something like 20 per cent. of the officers in the Mercantile Marine are already covered by schemes which provide benefits on retirement. Many of these schemes provide the officers concerned with legal rights to pensions, others provide for the payment of other benefits on retirement such as the payment of lump sums. In so far as these schemes are contributory schemes, officers have, for many years, been permitting the deduction of their share of the contribution from their wages As these existing schemes are to continue to run side by side with the national scheme, it is clearly desirable that they should also be brought within the scope of this measure. The Bill accordingly provides that it shall apply to the national scheme as from the date on which it is registered under the Superannuation and Other Trust Funds (Validation) Act, 1927, to such other pension schemes as have been registered by shipping companies under that Act, and also to such other schemes run by shipping companies as the industry may desire to be brought within the scope of the Bill, the officers covered by all such schemes being exempted from the national scheme. As has been indicated the immediate object of the Bill is to facilitate the introduction of a scheme of pensions for officers in the Mercantile Marine, but the Bill has been drawn up in general terms and would cover the assignment of pension contributions by seamen other than officers, if ever the industry should decide on the introduction of a pension scheme for the men.

In conclusion I should like to say that the desirability of some such scheme as that which the National Maritime Board are anxious to bring into operation at the end of this year has long been accepted generally in the industry. It will give the officers in the Merchant Navy a life interest in their profession and will be a very big step forward. The Bill is introduced at the strong and unanimous desire of the shipping industry, with the complete sympathy of the Government, and, as I said, it has as its sole object the removing of a particular legal obstacle to an important advance in the conditions of employment of officers in the Mercantile Marine which is agreed upon by the employers and employed. The National Maritime Board are anxious to bring this scheme into operation on January 1 next and, therefore, there is a certain amount of urgency about this measure. With the concurrence of your Lordships I would propose to take the Committee stage on Thursday, and if, as I think probable, there should be no Amendments, we could then read the Bill a third time this day week and send it down to another place so that they shall have ample time to pass it into law before the Christmas Recess. I hope your Lordships will agree to this course, and I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Templemore.)


My Lords, I rise to support the Bill in principle, and also to support what has fallen from the noble Lord with regard to the urgency of the measure, and not to offer any delaying Amendments. But there are two matters I would like to raise in connection with this Bill. It was not absolutely clear when the Bill was first laid and printed that it applied, or could be made to apply, to seamen, firemen, stewards, and so on. It is true that in the Merchant Shipping Act "seaman" means everyone on board except the master, and includes the officers, engineers and so on. With the explanation of the noble Lord I am half convinced that paragraph (b) in subsection (2) of Clause 1 meets one point which I propose to submit to your Lordships. I am speaking here on behalf of the National Union of Seamen, who are affiliated to my Party, but I do not speak in any Party spirit on this particular matter.

When the Bill first came before that union they were not at all certain, and indeed until I had a word with the officials of the Board of Trade this morning I was not at all certain, and I am not entirely convinced now, that they can come in. After consultation with the representatives of the union this morning I tried to get in touch with the noble Lord in charge of the Bill, but I was unsuccessful. I am sorry he has not a room at the Board of Trade. If I might respectfully say so, I think he should have the largest room available in the Board of Trade as its representative in your Lordships' House, and every sort of facility given to him to do his work. But that is another matter. I did speak to the principal official of the Department concerned, and I got certain explanations for which I am very grateful. Then I had a further talk with the representatives of the National Union of Seamen.

Your Lordships will be aware that there is only one pension scheme at present covering the whole of the seamen, and that also covers the officers. That is the fund, known as the Royal Pensions Fund, to which the great company with which the noble Lord, Lord Craigmyle, is associated, makes a very large contribution. It is the old Lascar Fund of the war-time period carried on now under the Royal Pensions Fund. With the contributions which at present come into it, a seaman reaching the age of sixty-five, or any officer for that matter who has had twenty-five years service either as a deep-water seaman or fisherman, receives the pension of 5s. a week, which is not very much in these days. If he reaches the old age pension age then, of course, he gets the national old age pension as well. I understand that the Government of India—I am sorry I do not see the noble Marquess the Secretary of State in his place—are extending the sort of provision we make for health insurance in this country to Lascar seamen in the Indian Government service. If that is the case this Lascar Fund may come to an end, and the Royal Pensions Fund may also come to an end because of that.

There is another voluntary pensions scheme in existence. I repeat that the Royal Pensions Fund applies to officers as well, but there is another voluntary scheme that is run and managed by the National Union of Seamen for giving an old age grant of 5s. per week at the age of 65. By voluntary arrangements at present between the seamen and the ship-owners certain deductions are made from the money due to the men for that part of their union contributions which eventually accrues to them in the form of pensions. On my reading of the Bill if the National Maritime Board, for example, come to an agreement among themselves to make this scheme all embracing, to include other ratings besides officers and apprentices, then the wording of the Bill would apply to that; but I would like to be clear on the point for the reason that the scheme includes other benefits as well as retirement benefits. I have here an extract from the rules of the union. They provide that in return for contributions the union will give an accident allowance of one pound a week for eight weeks, a funeral allowance of ten pounds, or fifteen pounds if the membership of a man is over five years, compensation for loss of clothing and other things in case of shipwreck to the amount of six pounds, exemption from contributions for twenty weeks in the case of sickness or accidents, legal assistance in case a man gets into trouble with the law, lockout pay if he is involved in an industrial dispute; and in addition he gets the old age grant. Therefore he gets a number of benefits.

What I should like to ask is whether the present scheme of the National Union of Seamen, run on friendly society lines, comes under this Bill or does the fact that members get shipwreck and sickness benefits mean that they must come again to Parliament with a new Bill if they wish to have the same benefits as this Bill will confer on officers and apprentices? I am not quite clear about that and if the matter could be cleared up before the Committee stage I should be very grateful. I should like to know from the noble Lord whether it is necessary to amend the Bill to do what I suggest, and I should also like to know if an Amendment would be entertained either here or, if it is necessary to avoid delay, in another place. I do not mind how it is done if the matter is made perfectly clear. The sort of Amendment we have in mind is to amend paragraph (b) so that the first part would read something like this: any other fund maintained by a friendly society or a trade union for which purpose the provisions are to provide benefits for seamen in the case of death, accidents, shipwreck, convalescence, old age on retirement and legal benefits, if notice in writing has been given to the Board of Trade by an organisation"— and then the paragraph should carry on as it is printed in the Bill. It seems to me that some such Amendment might be required, but it is a matter really for consultation between the noble Lord and his advisers and the National Union of Seamen and the National Maritime Board. I want to see this Bill pass and I want to see its passage facilitated. Perhaps in a friendly discussion we could see whether an Amendment is necessary, and, if it is necessary, whether we can agree on a form of words. There is no agreement at the moment for the other ranks to come into the benefits of the Bill. I am sure the Government will be sympathetic to the inclusion of all ranks who serve in the Mercantile Marine.

The other point I want to make is this. I think that the time has come when we should provide a real pension scheme for seamen, and I have a constructive suggestion to make in regard to that. We have passed through your Lordships' House on two occasions a Tramp Shipping Subsidy Bill. I am speaking in the presence of two noble Lords with great shipping interests, and I hope they will support me in what I am going to propose. I have had a conversation with my noble friend Lord Essendon, and I found him not unreceptive and not unsympathetic. If the noble Viscount, Lord Runciman, and the noble Lord, Lord Craigmyle, will make common cause here perhaps something will be done. A sum of£2,000,000 has been provided to save the British tramp shipping industry. Owing to the fortunate rise in freights—fortunate for the shipowners—that subsidy has not been earned or attracted. Therefore there is a sum of£2,000,000 which I suppose will go to the reduction of the National Debt or to the relief of the taxpayers. I would like to see it applied for the benefit of the Mercantile Marine by using it as the nucleus of a welfare fund for seamen, partly to provide old age pensions and partly to finance a scheme of holidays with pay, provided the seaman or fireman as the case may be does his naval reserve training. Let him do his fortnight's training and then get a week's holiday.

That, I think, would help the defences of the country. It would certainly make service in the Mercantile Marine much more attractive for the right type of man. It would do a great deal to attract back to the industry many seamen who left during the period of depression. Some of the best men left during those long years of bad times in the Mercantile Marine and went into other industries. There may be a shortage presently and it is desirable that those men should come back. If you make conditions attractive not only will you bring back those men but you will bring in the right type of British lad, the boy from a good home, with good education and good stamina. The service, with its hardships and risks and inevitable discomforts, is in many cases not very attractive now to such boys. I hope my suggestion will meet with some support. If this£2,000,000 is not needed for the tramp shipping subsidy then use it for what I christen the Seamen's Welfare Fund, and provide decent penions on retirement and one or two other benefits such as holidays with pay. I am afraid the suggestion will shock the Chancellor of the Exchequer on first hearing it, but when he properly understands it perhaps he will see it has great advantages. I hope it will receive support in your Lordships' House. Otherwise this Bill, which really repeals anti-crimping legislation, is welcome. The old crimping days are practically over, and therefore the old provisions against the practice are no longer necessary. That is a good thing in itself. The Bill serves a good purpose and I want to help its passage in every way I can.


My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Lord opposite for the way in which he has received this Bill. He has asked me a question and made a suggestion. His question was about the application of this Bill to various funds which already exist in connection with seamen, and in regard to that I must tell him that the Bill is drafted so as to allow contributions to a pension scheme to be covered by the measure if the representatives of the employers and the employed so desire. But I think that some of the benefits to which the noble Lord referred are benefits other than pensions, and these, of course, are not covered by the present Bill. As regards his suggestion—a somewhat novel suggestion, I think—that the£2,000,000 voted for the tramp shipping subsidy last year should be employed as a pension fund—


Would the noble Lord forgive me for interrupting? Has he left that point about the scope of the first part of the Bill? If not, would he say whether he will look into the matter and see if any Amendment can be framed?


Yes; I meant to say that I will certainly look into the matter very carefully before Thursday, as the noble Lord said, to see if any Amendment is necessary.


Thank you.


As regards the noble Lord's suggestion about the£2,000,000: as he rightly says, owing to freights having improved, that sum has not been spent. I have never been at the Exchequer and do not quite know what happens to sums that are not spent. I imagine that they go back into the Exchequer for the benefit of the taxpayer. Anyhow, I should like to point out that officers' pensions, the arrangements for which give rise to this Bill, are provided by the industry and not by the taxpayer. Although any suggestion that the noble Lord may make will, of course, receive the consideration of the Board of Trade, I would not be so bold as to go to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and recommend the suggestion which he has just made. It would set an entirely new precedent, and I am afraid I cannot hold out much hope that it will be favourably entertained. However, as I said, it will be considered, as any suggestion made by the noble Lord or by any other member of your Lordships' House always is. I think I have answered to the best of my ability the points which the noble Lord has raised, and I hope that the Bill may now be read a second time.

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