HL Deb 04 March 1948 vol 154 cc423-36

4.4 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the Bill which I have the honour of introducing to your Lordships' House represents the results of an agreement which has been reached between the Government, the representatives of the shipowners and Merchant Navy officers and men, on measures to be taken to give effect to a number of the International Labour Conventions which were adopted at a Maritime Session of the International Labour Conference held at Seattle in June, 1946. As your Lordships will be aware, these International Labour Conferences are attended by representatives of the Governments, employers, and the workers of the countries which are members of the International Labour Organisation—familiarly known as the I.L.O. It is the business of these Conferences to prepare Conventions embodying basic requirements and conditions which can be adopted by all countries in the interests of the workers concerned, and to submit these Conventions, when adopted, to the different Governments for ratification. At the Seattle Conference, which was devoted solely to maritime questions, the British Government representatives and those of the British shipowners and officers and men of the British Merchant Navy played a leading part in drawing up a series of Conventions with regard to seafarers' conditions of service and employment.

The action that should be taken in regard to these Conventions has been fully discussed by the Government with the representatives of shipowners, officers and men, and the decisions that have been reached in full agreement with them were announced by the Government in Command Paper 7273. I need not trouble your Lordships with all the details. Briefly, the position is that it has been decided to ratify four Conventions—namely, those relating to food and catering, certification of able seamen, certificates for ships' cooks, and social security, and substantially to apply the provisions of a fifth Convention—that relating to crew accommodation. This Bill, therefore, deals with five Conventions and amends the provisions of the existing Merchant Shipping Acts so far as is necessary to bring their requirements into line with the Conventions. With your Lordships' permission I will deal briefly with each one of them. Let us first look at that on crew accommodation. This Convention lays down rules for the construction, equipment and maintenance of the accommodation on board ships in which our officers and seamen live. New ships will have to comply in full with these rules. Existing ships are to be brought up to standard, so far as is reasonable and practicable, when they undergo major repairs or in certain other circumstances.

Detailed requirements with regard to crew accommodation have already been enacted in the Merchant Shipping Acts of 1894 and 1906; but by voluntary agreement between the Government and both sides of the industry, the standards of crew accommodation adopted have for some years been higher than those set out in the Merchant Shipping Acts. In some respects our British standards go beyond those of the Convention; moreover, they apply to ships not covered by the Convention. This is, however, a convenient time to work out, in agreement with the representatives of the owners, officers and men, a new and up-to-date set of regulations. As I have already stated, it is not proposed to ratify this Convention. The reason for this is that under the terms of the Convention, not more than four deck and engine room ratings may be accommodated in a single room. This restriction on the larger types of passenger ships would not be in the interests of the men concerned. It would deprive many of them of natural ventilation and lighting. Nevertheless, it is intended in due course to embody the other provisions of the Convention in the proposed regulations.

No new legislation is necessary to deal with the Convention dealing with food and catering; but new regulations will be necessary in regard to galleys and other catering department spaces; and these will be included in the regulations on crew accommodation. With regard to the certification of able seamen, I may point out that in the past the rating of able seaman has been granted solely on the basis of service; any man who had served for three years before the mast was entitled to be called "able seaman." It is proposed to adopt the recommendations of the Convention, and the Bill will require seamen to pass a proficiency test in future before they are rated as able seamen. This reform is long overdue. The present position about certificates for ships' cooks is that foreign-going vessels of 1,000 gross tons and over, sailing from this country, and near Continental ports, are required under the Merchant Shipping Acts to carry cooks who hold certificates of competency issued by the Ministry of Transport. The Convention dealing with the certification of cooks leaves it to each country to decide, either by law or by collective agreement, the ships which are to be regarded as sea-going for the purposes of the convention—for instance, ships of less than 1,000 tons. This Bill will enable the existing provision of the Merchant Shipping Act relating to the carriage of certificated cooks to be extended by Order in Council if the two sides of the industry agree that this should be done, and if the Minister considers this expedient.

We now come to an important point of social security. This Convention deals with many aspects of social security, and I am pleased to say that its provisions are in line with those of our own national insurance legislation, which comes into force in July next. This Bill is concerned with only one aspect—namely, the shipowners' legal liability when a seaman is left behind, sick or injured, in a port abroad. It will make the shipowner liable for the seaman's maintenance, not only, as at present, until he is cured, but also until after being cured he obtains employment or is repatriated.

I should like to add that the International Labour Conference at Seattle, at which these Conventions were drawn up, was animated by a united desire to pay practical tribute to the men of the Allied Merchant Navies for their incomparable services during the war. As your Lordships know, they gave themselves with all their traditional skill and endurance to face many new hazards of life at sea—and the old hazards were bad enough and hard enough. Especially during the Second World War did these men have to risk dangers from the terrible torpedo, from the bomb above, from the mine below and from shells from enemy ships. They endured all those hazards, made countless sacrifices and carried on until victory was secured. We do indeed owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the officers and men of our Merchant Navy. I am happy to think that, in the introduction of this Bill which will enable the Government to ratify these Conventions, we shall be setting an example to the other maritime Governments which we hope they will follow, so that these Conventions may be brought into operation at an early date throughout the world. I beg to move.

Moved, That this Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Walkden.)

4.12 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to welcome this Bill which has been introduced by His Majesty's Government. I am sure that all your Lordships will agree that anything that can be done to improve the conditions of our seamen should have our fullest support. It has been pointed out by the noble Lord who introduced the Bill that it amends the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Acts in relation to five International Conventions which were adopted at the maritime session of the International Labour Conference at Seattle in 1946. I understand that only four of the Conventions which were adopted are ratified under this Bill, and that the fifth, relating to crew accommodation, is dealt with under Clause 1. Although this clause does not, of course, ratify entirely the Convention adopted at Seattle, it allows of certain regulations to be made concerning crew accommodation which will largely cover the Convention.

I should like to add that Clause 1 deals with the matter of crew accommodation in a way which was in some form objected to by the British shipowners' representative at the Conference. Perhaps it would be as well if I mentioned why the representative of the British shipowners voted against this Convention on crew accommodation. There were two or three reasons, one of which has already been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Walkden—the cutting up of cabin space into small compartments. The second reason was because the Convention, instead of entirely exempting small ships below 500 tons gross, laid down that the Convention should apply to vessels between 200 and 500 tons "where reasonable and practicable." It is thought that those words, "reasonable and practicable" might lead to difficulties in the application of the Convention to small ships. There was a third reason, which was that the British Government agreed to a reduction in the number of countries required to ratify before the Convention comes into force. For instance, in the case of the Convention covering wages, hours and manning, the number of countries required to ratify before the Convention comes into force was nine, whereas in the case of crew accommodation it was only seven. The shipowners felt that this figure was too low. It is no use having outside these Conventions a number of countries with many ships.

I hope that the noble Lord will give an assurance that the regulations, when made under Clause 1 of the Bill, will take into account the one or two objections to the Convention on crew accommodation which I have just mentioned. The British shipowners' representative also voted against the Convention on certification of able seamen, for the technical reason that it did not provide an "escape" clause. The safety manning scale which is laid down by regulations issued by the President of the Board of Trade does not refer to able seamen, but if at some future date the scale is so changed, difficulties may arise if there is a shortage of certificated able seamen. Again, the shipowners voted in favour of the food and catering Convention and the Convention dealing with the certification of ships cooks. They voted against the social security Convention, not on its merits, but because they thought that the number of countries required to ratify before the Convention came into operation was again too small.

In spite of the differences that I have mentioned I am glad to say that the National Maritime Board, which comprises representatives of the owners, officers, and men, welcomes the Bill as a whole. However, I should like to put forward one word of warning. I hope that His Majesty's Government will be careful not to take the lead (as I might put it) too far at International Maritime Conferences which might place onerous conditions upon British shipowners and make things more difficult in a very competitive industry which is doing a great deal at the present time to assist in our national recovery.

4.18 p.m.


My Lords, I have a few observations of an entirely friendly nature to make upon this Bill. First, I want to make it clear that I have been asked to make these observations on behalf of the National Union of Seamen. I rather gather that the noble Lord opposite was putting forward the shipowners' point of view. I am sure that he will not object, therefore, if I put forward the seamen's point of view. I feel certain that his last observation, that we should not take the lead at International Conferences in improving the lot of British seamen in the way of conditions of service, is an entirely new departure from what has been said by the spokesmen of his Party. Certainly, it is the first time I have heard that view put forward. I should have thought that we should take the lead in these matters. There is plenty of sweated labour abroad, and here is a way of preventing it going on, if we can secure sufficient countries to act in accordance with this Convention.

I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Walkden, on the clear explanation he has given of the Bill. I should also like to congratulate the noble Viscount the Leader of the House on having this Bill introduced in the first place in your Lordships' House. I am sure that the seamen will toe most gratified at the well-earned tribute paid to them by the noble Lord, Lord Walkden, for their services in the war. The whole nation owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to the British Mercantile Marine, without whom we should not have won the recent struggle.

The National Union of Seamen ask me to say the following words: It is the earnest hope of all seafarers organised in trade unions, who attended the Seattle Conference, that ratification shall take place simultaneously in all maritime countries, and that the Conventions can be brought into operation as speedily as possible. One fact that has disturbed seafarers hitherto is the non-ratification of various Conventions notwithstanding their adoption at international conferences. Even now, although Great Britain may ratify some of the Conventions, these cannot come into operation until a number of maritime countries possessing a certain gross tonnage also ratify. It is also true that the majority of other maritime nations will not move in the matter until they have ascertained what action Great Britain is to take. Therein lies the importance of this Bill. We are giving the lead. We are the principal maritime Power—we always have been and I hope that we always shall be—and it is for us to take the lead in these matters and not hang back, as I thought was suggested by Lord Teynham. The letter goes on: It is our hope, therefore, that with a Labour Government in power, every step will be taken to secure early ratification of as many Conventions as possible, in order that a lead may be given to other maritime nations to also ratify. Seafarers then will be able to obtain the benefits of these Conventions. That is very solid support for the Bill from the Union catering for sailors, firemen and stewards, and, I am sure my noble friend is considerably fortified by that approbation.

But I am also asked to explain that this Bill, useful as it is, must not be taken by His Majesty's present Government as the last word in legislation in regard to conditions at sea. The actual wording I have here is that we must not regard this Bill as having any relation whatsoever to the Bill which has been prepared by the National Union of Seamen and submitted to the Government in draft. I have had some conversation with my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport, through the medium of the Shipping Advisory Committee on which I represent, most inadequately, my noble friends on these Benches, the Labour Peers; and my right honourable friend has given an entirely satisfactory reply about this matter. I understand that that Bill, which is recognised to be long overdue, is in course of examination and preparation and all the interests concerned will be consulted. That will take time, and it will, of course, have to find a place in the always congested legislative programme. That is perfectly satisfactory; we all understand that, and our only hope is that the Bill will be produced during the full lifetime of the present Government.

I would venture to say a word or two about the need for this Bill. The great Act which reformed the whole of life at sea in the Mercantile Marine was that of 1894. I do not know whether any of your Lordships here present took part in passing that legislation, but it was a momentous piece of work. I have the Act here and I have been refreshing my memory from it. It contains 290 pages, 348 sections and 22 schedules, and it regulates every aspect of conditions in ships, such as pay, manning and other things, and even prevents lodging-house keepers, by imposing a penalty, from engaging in the horrible practice of crimping. That Act was brought out in 1894 and it needs to be brought up to date, in spite of the various amending Acts, the principal one of which was the Merchant Shipping Act of 1906, which I think my noble friend Lord Addison helped to pass through the other place.

When the 1894 Bill became an Act of Parliament it created a tremendous improvement, and it abolished many longstanding abuses at sea. The conditions of catering, and so on, laid down were such that seamen in the Mercantile Marine of the day were better fed than seamen in the Royal Navy of the day. In fact, there was a song at that time which used to be sung by merchant seamen, to the great annoyance of the more old-fashioned second mates, which contained in verse after verse all the things which had been laid down in the Act, and every verse ended with these two lines: God bless the Navy, But a merchant ship for me. That was the effect of the Act. It was really a charter for merchant seamen, but it wants bringing up to date as conditions have changed very much. Therefore I hope that my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport will be associated with another great measure of reform and modernisation, in the same way as the great name of Plimsoll was associated with service to the Mercantile Marine culminating in that great Act. I have been asked to make this statement, and to say that the National Union of Seamen, for whom I speak, feel that they can rely on His Majesty's Government in due course dealing with this highly important matter.

4.25 p.m.


My Lords, in welcoming this Bill, the first thing that naturally comes to mind is the great debt of gratitude that the nation owes to the Merchant Navy, both officers and seamen. In two great wars their courage and devotion to duty at the most critical stages turned the balance in our favour, and enabled us to march on towards victory at a later day. I would remind your Lordships that on neither occasion did the seamen exploit the importance of their position as did some other groups, which is, I think, a remarkable tribute to their patriotism. What is more, I believe I am right in saying that there has not been an official Seamen's Union strike since 1911, which is also a remarkable tribute to the understanding between shipowners and seamen; and that statement, I think, was supported by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, on behalf of the Seamen's Union this afternoon. I hope that noble Lords opposite will reflect on those facts should they ever cast an envious eye towards this great industry and think of nationalising it. It is, therefore, only appropriate that any measure to improve the lot or the conditions of seamen at sea, and to assist towards their security when discharged through sickness, is the best and most just reward that we can extend to them; and I am sure that it will receive the wholehearted support of your Lordships' House.

To turn to the measures proposed in the Bill, I am glad to note that Clause I (which my noble friend Lord Teynham has referred to in rather doubting terms in regard to the advisability of accepting this particular Convention without other nations also accepting it) does state that the Government have agreed to consult both owners and seamen before making any regulations with respect to crew accommodation. I can see that there might be some danger in ratifying this Convention on crew accommodation if a number of other nations did not agree to it also, and I believe in this instance it is laid down that there are only seven nations that need ratify this particular Convention. With Lord Teynham, I think that is rather unfortunate, and that at least nine nations should be required to ratify, as is the case with two other Conventions. Certainly if we were to ratify this particular Convention alone it might well prove to be a great handicap to trade in our having structurally to alter a large number of vessels internally without really improving the conditions of the men serving in them.

I think that we all welcome the certification of able seamen which, as Lord Walkden said, was long overdue, but I see a possible danger in the future, in that some day someone may come along from the Ministry of Transport and lay down that various classes of ships must carry a certain percentage of certificated able seamen. Should this ever happen and we were involved in another war, for the purposes of which a quick expansion of the shipping industry would naturally become necessary, it might well prove to be a handicap. I hope, therefore, that in future the Government will never be tempted to alter the present Board of Trade safety manning clause, which does not lay down that there should be any specified number of able seamen carried on a vessel.

Anyone who has ever travelled in any of our smaller merchant vessels will be delighted to know that some improvement is to be made in the matter of cooking. I hope that a sufficient number of nations will ratify this Convention, so that His Majesty's Government can introduce the certification of cooks very soon. At the same time I hope they will look into the question of raising the standard of this competency certificate of cooks. As I have said, anyone who has ever had the misfortune to travel on some of our smaller merchant vessels knows well that cooking in many of them leaves much to be desired. The question of increasing the social security of seafarers discharged away from their country or their return port is important, and I hope that what is being done will be of substantial benefit to those who have to take advantage of the new provision. With these few words, may I say what a pleasure it is for me to be able to support the noble Lords opposite on this occasion? I would only add that a breath of sea air appears to have a beneficial effect upon His Majesty's Government, for the two best Bills which they have introduced in recent weeks have undoubtedly been the Royal Marines Bill and this.

4.33 p.m.


My Lords, I felt that I could not allow the occasion to pass without a few words—and I promise that they will be few—on this subject, because among the quite considerable number of Ministries in which I served during the course of the war was the Ministry of War Transport, where I spent nine months as Parliamentary Secretary. During that time it fell to my lot largely to deal with the conditions of service of officers and men of our Merchant Navy, and I would like, now, to pay a tribute to the wonderful service which those officers and men gave to this country through all the days of difficulty and danger in the war. Whether facing and surmounting the perils of the Atlantic crossing, taking succour to hard-pressed Malta (and many sailors on that run were torpedoed quite a number of times) or making the perilous voyage to carry supplies to Russia, they gave magnificent service. On those Arctic runs we sometimes lost as many as eight or nine vessels out of a single convoy. It was a most arduous passage and, if I may say so, it has always seemed to me that the people of the country to whom aid was taken by that route have never been quite grateful enough. But our Merchant Navy, officers and men, did the work uncomplainingly. Many of them suffered from frostbite, in addition to what befell them in attacks by the enemy.

I am delighted to know that this agreement has now been reached. I like to think that we have led the way in establishing better conditions for officers and men of our Merchant Navy; and that, if I may say so to my noble friend Lord Strabolgi, has been the case whatever Government we have had. Great Britain has always been in the lead in promoting better conditions for seafarers. The present is a good time for these Conventions. We lost a considerable part of our Merchant Navy during the war. That, of course, was a matter of deep regret to all of us; and no one could have regretted it more than the Minister of Food, who found that a lot of his supplies were going down at the same time. But the very fact that these losses have occurred has given us an opportunity of providing better ships. We are rebuilding our shipping with great energy. I am glad to think that new ships are being turned out with such rapidity in this country, that we have to-day made up for nearly all our war-time losses. Moreover, the ships are being built with this better accommodation. We decided upon these improvements after complete agreement on the National Maritime Board, without waiting for ratification of the Convention. In my view the Board is one of the most successful institutions that we have in this country. It has always been interesting to meet members of that Board and to find how well they have worked together. The representatives of the shipowners and of the National Union of Seamen have worked most harmoniously, and I should like to say here that a great deal of very good work was done for our Merchant Navy by the late Mr. Jarman who was for many years a representative of the Union. I had many pleasant dealings with him during the time that I was at the Ministry of War Transport.

As the Merchant Navy is one of our greatest earners of foreign exchange, I think we may rely on the Government's not doing anything calculated to put our fleets of merchant shipping out of competition with their rivals overseas. And I am sure that the seamen will not press for anything which might have that effect I do not suppose for a moment that new regulations will lay down that ships must carry a specified proportion of certificated able-bodied seamen which would, in fact, be greater than the number available. Nor do I suppose that regulations will be brought in without some escape clause, so that a ship may not be prevented from sailing simply because some of her certificated able seamen happen to fall sick at the port just before she is due to leave. I do not think there is any danger of our shipping being made to suffer by any happening of that sort.

So, as I say, I welcome these Conventions and this Bill. I hope that the National Union of Seamen and His Majesty's Government will do their best to influence other countries to ratify the Conventions as soon as possible, and that they will use every endeavour to bring in these regulations at the earliest moment. It would be a great mistake to let a time lag occur between agreement on a Convention of this sort and the bringing of it into operation. That is the sort of thing that annoys the men concerned more than anything else. We shall not be put under any handicap by adopting these Conventions. The handicaps under which the Merchant Navy still suffers in the matter of competitive power are quite different, and I think only the Chancellor of the Exchequer can provide the remedy. In Sweden at the present time, a Swedish ship owner is allowed to write off 100 per cent. of his capital costs of a ship every year, free of Income Tax. In Norway, the shipowner can write off 50 per cent. In this country, by reason of the alteration made in a Budget brought in during the war by Sir John Anderson, the shipowner can write off 20 per cent. Of course, in a short time, the Swedes, who were neutral in the war and who were able to maintain and build up their own fleet, will be in a strong competitive position when they have written off the complete capital costs of the ships which they are using.

The other great handicap under which we shall always suffer (this has happened with United States ships in the past, and it may still be happening to-day) is that so long as a few letters can be carried a substantial mail contract is available to them. And this provides a substantial subsidy for the Fleet concerned. In this country we are in course of rebuilding our Merchant Navy. Despite the losses of the war we are now back to second place, and I believe that we shall soon be once more the leading merchant shipping nation in the world. This position will be reached not only by good ships and good management, but also by the contentment of those who sail in the ships. Because the Bill is useful in that last respect, it should receive the unanimous assent of your Lordships to-day.

4.41 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure the Government are grateful for the generous welcome which your Lordships have given this Bill. My right honourable friend the Minister will certainly give attention to every point that has been raised during the debate. I was a little surprised that anything in the nature of objection should have been suggested on behalf of the shipowners. It seemed to me, from my study of the position, that they had agreed with the Government and the officers and men of the Service to the conditions contained in this Bill. The Bill represents that agreement. If, however, there are any serious flaws, we shall be most anxious to consider them. Possibly the noble Lord, Lord Teynham, was at some little disadvantage. I noticed from the papers this morning that he has been in Paris up to yesterday assisting in good democratic work over there at the International Parliamentary meetings, so perhaps he has not had time to study the Bill carefully. If he will be good enough to do that I think he will discover there are reasonable elements of flexibility in the Bill which will make it not so hard and tight as he seemed to imagine. The noble Earl, Lord Beatty, will also find it a little easier.

On the matter of the certification of able seamen I would point out that there is no quota laid down in the Bill as to how many there should be on any ship. Perhaps we might have specified a quota for the future, but in such a relatively minor matter, we should not worry too much about what may happen in the future. If we again find ourselves at war, we may have to relax even some of the good provisions of this Bill. But that also is a matter for the future, and I hope that it will never arise. I was pleased to hear the tribute paid by the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, to the measure and also his tribute to the men of the Service. Indeed, your Lordships have all given generous tribute to the men who have served us so well. In regard to the point which Lord Strabolgi made, about wanting a bigger measure than this, I may say that we have had to hurry and work hard to get this one, to secure agreement with the parties concerned, and to get so far as we have. The Merchant Navy Act of 1894, which I have here, is a massive piece of work. It is fifty years old and there have been many additions to it, and while it may be that we need a consolidating measure, I cannot give any promise as to when that may be introduced. We shall go on progressively as well as we can. I am grateful for the encouragement which has been given to us on this Bill from all sides of the House, and I look forward to your further help in carrying it through to the Statute Book to assist the people who are waiting to put it into operation.

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

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