HL Deb 22 June 1949 vol 163 cc140-52

6.20 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, in view of the time and the numbers present, I feel that I ought not to occupy an unduly long period of time in moving the Second Reading of this Bill. I propose to say a few words leading up to the Convention and the preparation of the Bill, only a word or two about the Bill, and then to conclude. The Bill has for its purpose the implementation of the Convention which came out of the International Conference last year. It is particularly pleasing to His Majesty's Government, and I am sure to the House of Commons and the House of Lords, that after a long and honourable career as the initiator of reforms on the sea this country should have taken the lead in convening those International Conferences, of which there have been three. During the nineteenth century, whilst the flow of reform looked at from the present would appear to have been unduly slow Great Britain took upon itself a record of well doing of which other nations of the world would have been proud.

A period of reform culminated, as your Lordships will remember, in the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894, an Act which is a monument of consolidation containing 748 sections and no fewer than 22 schedules. Subsequent to that we had the Merchant Shipping Act of 1906, which had for its purpose the enforcement upon ships flying a foreign flag, when those ships entered the waters of this country, the observation of the conditions which bound the British Mercantile Marine. A great deal had still to be done, because it soon became clear that the period of reform could not be said to have finished. In 1912 there was the disaster to the "Titanic," a ship believed to be unsinkable, but in which, when it struck an iceberg, no fewer than 400 passengers were drowned because there were not enough boats to take them off. That occurrence forced the hand of Great Britain once more. The first International Conference was convened and it decided that in future there should he a sufficient number of boats for all passengers and crew. Unfortunately, owing to the date of its publication co-inciding with the war of 1914, that provision did not become operative.

Great Britain took a stand once more in 1929, with the second International Conference, and there emerged from that Conference the Convention which has been of the utmost value, not only to British shipping but to shipping in general; indeed, so well was the work of the International Conference performed that the Convention which emerged served as the agenda for the last International Conference which took place in 1948. In the 1929 Convention, agreement was reached by the delegates of eighteen nations, and nineteen other nations added their signatures to it afterwards. The International Convention of 1948 was attended by thirty nations. The utmost agreement prevailed on the measures that had to be taken in order to safeguard shipping, but a difficulty arose when it was suggested that the work of the bureau, which had hitherto been carried on in this country, and the future oversight of safety at sea, should be under taken by a specialised organisation of the United Nations. To that there was objection on the part of Russia and Yugoslavia and, so far as I know, that objection is still sustained. The specialised organisation, which will be known as the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation, has not yet been established, but the Government hope that before many months are over the United Nations will be able to establish the necessary machinery so that we can take advantage of its association with the United Nations and with other specialised organisations which have been built up. In the meantime Great Britain continues to be the bureau Power.

The Convention which emerged is confined to a few paragraphs by way of a preliminary statement, and the findings or regulations which are numerous are to be found in six subsequent chapters, which are themselves part and parcel of the Convention. As I have already indicated, I will not say anything about the Convention because I hope all noble Lords present will have read it. I will say nothing about the provisions of the Bill because, here again, I hope noble Lords have looked through them and understand them, at any rate as well as I do myself. Both the Convention and the Bill are detailed in character. They are very technical indeed, and obviously if anybody is to become master of the provisions he must have had some knowledge and experience of the sea.

I want to add one other word. The Bill goes somewhat further than the Convention—that, I think, is in accordance with British custom, namely, that whatever reforms may be decided upon internationally, Great Britain, because of its interest in the sea and because of its immense maritime power, should go further, if that is at all possible; and that has been done in this case. I would remind your Lordships that just as in the agenda of the International Conference, when the British proposals were sent in, there had been complete unity between all sections of the shipping interests and the Government, so in the provisions of this Bill there has been the utmost consultation with those concerned, and the provisions where they extend beyond the Convention have been successfully agreed upon.

It would ill become me to depart from this point without expressing the thanks which the Government feel, and I am sure the House will feel, to the Chairman of the Committee that represented us at this International Conference and who presided over it—namely, Sir John Anderson. We could have had no finer Chairman for this purpose, and the ease with which the Conference worked is a tribute to his powers. We can legitimately take pride in the fact that when questions affecting safety at sea and the British Mercantile Marine arise, all Party differences are forgotten, and the only question on which argument arises is whether enough is being done to increase the safety or our ships and to provide the maximum protection for those who sail in them.

In the nature of things, the trade of the sea can never be absolutely safe, but there can be no doubt that the 1948 Convention marks a further and notable advance along the road which we wish to travel. The services rendered to this country, in peace and war, by our Mercantile Navy are outstanding, and we owe it to our tradition and our conscience to do everything which lies within our power to make conditions at sea as safe as modern skill and ingenuity can make them. By placing this Bill on the Statute Book, Parliament, His Majesty's Government and Opposition alike, will give yet another practical demonstration of their anxiety to ensure that this country keeps the lead in marine safety matters. Therefore it is with the fullest confidence that I commend the Bill to the favourable consideration of your Lordships' House. I beg to move that the Bill be now given a Second Reading.

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

6.30 p.m.


My Lords, I think that everyone in this House will concur in praising the measure which is now before us. As the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, has said, this country has always led the way in making provision for safety of life at sea. We have always led the way amongst the nations in that regard and I, for one, hope that we always shall. The noble Lord, in his interesting speech, said that we should all remember the passing of the Act of 1894. I cannot say that I quite remember that! I was about one year old when that measure was placed upon the Statute Book. But that Act certainly led the way and, just as the 1929 Convention was followed by the 1932 Act, so now—and, if I may say so, with commendable expedition—the 1948 Convention is being followed by this Act (as I hope it will soon become) of 1949. As one who had the honour of serving in the same Government with Sir John Anderson, may I endorse the tribute to him which has been so generously paid by Lord Shepherd? I think that his presidency of this Convention was another example of his outstanding capability and wisdom.

There is a notable feature of the shipping world, as I found out in the period when I had the honour to serve at the Ministry of War Transport during the war. It is an industry where, for a long time now, there have been the happiest relations between shipowners, the officers' associations and the seamen's union. They all seem to take a wide outlook. I think that has something to do with being associated with the sea. There are at sea no little hills, no factory chimneys, to obscure the view, and I think that is a factor which helps to give men the wider outlook which was certainly exemplified in the way in which the three classes which I have mentioned joined with Government officials and all went along harmoniously and unanimously together to represent Britain in this International Convention.

I remember them very well also during the days of the war when I had the honour to be a member of the Shipping Advisory Council of the Ministry of War Transport, over which I sometimes presided. What a pleasant gathering it was, with the shipowners, the late Mr. Jarman representing the seamen's union—he was a man with whom anyone could work—and Captain Coombs who, during those days, represented the officers' associations equally forcefully—perhaps more forcefully, because he happened to be a man of small stature and such men often are more forceful than some of us who are of larger build.

It is unfortunate that we could not get Russia and Jugoslavia to come into this Convention, but I hope that the Governments of those two countries will have second thoughts. Just as the nineteen nations which had not been called at the earlier Convention came in and signed it afterwards, so I hope that on second thoughts Russia and Jugoslavia will both agree to come in. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, when he winds up the debate, will be able to do so, but I should be glad if he could say a word or two in order to tell me how many of the other countries who signed, subject to acceptance, have so far done anything to implement this Convention, or have shown any signs of doing so. We want to see that they all come along before the due date, which is, I believe, January 1, 1951, and that by that time we get in the necessary quorum of nations.

With regard to a large number of matters with which this Convention deals—in fact, I believe in regard to all of them—we are in complete agreement. I think the provisions for structural fire protection in ships are most necessary. If a ship like the "Normandie" had had protection of that sort she would not have been burnt out and become a wreck in New York harbour during the war. Instead, she might well have done equal service for the Allied cause to that which was done by the "Queen Mary" and "Queen Elizabeth" in bringing over troops and supplies to this country. I am glad to see that the provisions for life saving and fire appliances are now going to be made applicable to ships of 500 tons and upwards. I am also extremely pleased to see that we are taking advantage of the great progress which has been made in all radar and radio telegraphy and radio telephony—matters which made such tremendous advances during the war. If we had had radar on the "Titanic"—of course we had not got it then—she would have known of the proximity of the iceberg before she so unfortunately ran into it with such great loss of life.

Lord Shepherd has referred to the fact that this Bill gives powers to the Minister to go beyond the actual terms of the Convention, but I notice that the Minister has given full assurance in another place that before attempting to apply any additional rules or regulations to British shipping, he will consult fully with the shipowners, the officers' associations and the seamen's union. That is how it should be and how it has always been. That is why the old shipping section of the Board of Trade and, latterly, the shipping side of the Ministry of War Transport have always kept in such harmony with all shipping interests—they have always taken them into full consultation.

As Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of War Transport I spent much time trying to push ahead with the supply of new appliances to help to save life at sea during that difficult time for the officers and men of the Merchant Navy. We helped to save a large number of lives but it is true, as the Minister said in, another place, that during the war the Merchant Navy had a higher casualty rate than any other branch of any Service. Out of its 180,000 officers and men, no fewer than 32,000 lost their lives. The wonderful thing was the number of men who had their ships sunk under them, not once but twice, and sometimes three times and more, but who yet went back to sea to bring the necessary supplies to this country. We owe something to these men who helped us in those dark days, and who help us equally in peace time both in bringing vital goods to our shores and in our export trade. May these gallant officers and men have many happy and successful voyages over the high seas as they help, in a way in which only they can help, to keep prosperity in this country! For their sake I wish this Bill a speedy and successful voyage through this House.

6.42 p.m.


My Lords, this is a Bill of the greatest importance. As the two noble Lords who have spoken have reminded your Lordships, we are still the greatest of maritime nations, and anything which affects the safety of our ships is of importance to the country and to Parliament. I wish only to say that, as usual, I have consulted the National Union of Seamen about this Bill. They are a party to the Convention and they have asked me to say that it has their complete support. There is little to add after the informative speeches from my noble friend and the noble Lord opposite, but I should like to draw attention to one matter to which I have often referred in both Houses—namely, the training and practice of men who have to handle the ship's boats. I do not like the expression "lifeboats," but I suppose we have to use it. Toe ship's boats are the last resort in case of disaster. As we saw in the papers this morning, the ship's boats saved most of the passengers in the disaster off Dunkirk. I am sure we all sympathise with our Belgian comrades in that completely unforeseen catastrophe, brought about by an overlooked mine.

It is essential that a considerable proportion of sea-going personnel should have practice in handling lifeboats. In theory this is supposed to be done, but everyone who knows this subject is aware that it is usually much neglected. It is all very well to have lifeboat drills when a ship is not actually under way. But it is the men who would have to handle the ship's boats in an emergency who require practice in handling them, if possible, in some kind of seaway. This is allowed for in paragraph (h) of Section 427 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894. In the present Bill, Clause 8 provides that one of the matters on which the Minister must satisfy himself is the manning of lifeboats and the qualifications and certification of lifeboat men. I suggest that it is incumbent on the Board of Trade inspectors responsible for issuing certificates to see that this practice takes place, and that there is at least a minimum of work to be done by the men before they qualify as able seamen or quartermasters. And I hope that officers of the Merchant Marine and owners will give every encouragement to this practice. I know that the National Union of Seamen are anxious to see this done and will give every support on behalf of their members. With these few remarks, I too would add my blessing to this Bill and hope it will have a speedy passage.

6.46 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, on the interesting way in which he moved the Second Reading of this very important Bill. I am sure it is a measure which will receive the support of all members of the House. Anything we can do to repay the debt of gratitude which the nation owes to the Merchant Marine for its self-sacrificing devotion to duty during the war, and for the work on which it is now engaged towards our economic recovery, is something which is well worth while. The Bill has received well-deserved support in another place from all Parties, and it demonstrates what can be done by reasonable discussion at home and, what is more important, in the international field. As the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, said, the Bill goes further than the Convention itself.

I hope the noble Lord will accept my next remarks in the spirit in which they are made; they are meant to be entirely constructive. I should like to draw attention to a subject which has not been mentioned so far in debate, either in this House or in another place, but which I feel should be given much consideration in future. For that reason, even at this late hour, I have to trespass on your Lordships' time. Many of the clauses of the Bill deal with life-saving appliances, and radio and radar, designed to prevent accident and, in the case of accident, to help the saving of life. But the constructional rules which come in Clause 1, and which may be of primary importance for the safety of a ship, are dealt with in only two short subsections. No doubt this is an indication of the great complexity of this subject, but in spite of that, I am emboldened to make some broad remarks upon the construction of merchant ships as a whole, and particularly on the construction of watertight sub-divisions, because of its great importance.

This importance arises from the existence to-day of large submarine fleet, which is likely to become more modern and more efficient, whose main purpose in the event of war would be to attack and sink our merchant fleet. Therefore it seems to me of great national importance, from every point of view, that every British merchant ship should be given the best chance of surviving and remaining afloat after receiving any substantial damage. This would not only help to save valuable lives, but also to save valuable cargoes which are to us, as an island nation, extremely important to our economy. Published information shows that, in the last war, of all the merchant ships torpedoed at sea, excluding tankers and fishing vessels, only 6 per cent. survived. Of the tankers, with their higher water-tight sub-division, 25 per cent. survived. This brings to mind the Russian convoy in July, 1942, in which twenty-five ships were sunk out of the thirty-five that made up that convoy. All those ships were heavily loaded with war stores, at a vitally important time of the war. Those of us who have served in convoy escorts understand vividly what those figures mean in terms of men, ships and cargoes, and appreciate with what gallantry and tenacity the Merchant Navy served us in time of war.

I suggest that the best way of improving the safety of merchant ships is to improve one of the most fundamental characteristics in their construction, which is a water-tight sub-division. Such improvement must clearly be related to the ships' earning capacity. I believe that much more could be done in that direction. As the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, said, the loss of the "Titanic" in 1912 focussed world attention upon the safety of passenger ships, and in consequence an agreement was reached whereby the sub-division of passenger ships was regulated by international law. But the efficient sub-division of general cargo ships is still not covered by any such regulation. I should have thought that, with the experience of the last war fresh in our minds, this was a ripe moment for us, of all nations, to give a lead and to try to reach an agreement for the greater safety of cargoes. There is little doubt that by an improved sub-division general merchant vessels could be given an improved chance of survival against under-water damage. I think many owners will agree that such an improvement could be made in ships without affecting their earning capacity.

The majority of existing general cargo ships fail to be efficiently sub-divided because of one main compartment which, if opened up to the sea, would cause the loss of the ship. That so many British merchant ships to-day are so constructed is a matter which all of us interested in national defence must view with concern. I do not want to detain your Lordships at this hour, but I must take an example, or I may be liable to misinterpretation in what I say. A typical 450 ft. cargo vessel is usully fitted with seven vertical water-tight bulkheads. By extending these bulkheads one deck higher—that is, to the shelter deck—it would give a great improvement in the ship's safety. Indeed, if the higher bulkheads were reduced to a total of six, there would be a general improvement in the ship's safety. Alternatively, if they were maintained at the usual height, but the water-tight bulkheads were re-spaced, an improvement in safety could also be achieved. It might be necessary to add a bulkhead in other vessels. The first building costs of achieving substantial improvement in ship safety would thus be small, and in some cases I am informed might actually represent a saving in their building cost. But such ships must not be penalised in their tonnage, as they would be under existing regulations, if the bulkheads were taken up to the shelter deck, or an additional one fitted.

The principal stumbling block to this better type of water sub-division in cargo ships is, of course, the alteration of the tonnage laws. The net tonnage is the basis for reckoning maritime dues, but they are computed in a manner which developed in the old sailing ship days. The regulations are so framed that the building of ships with a narrower margin of speed than necessary is unwittingly encouraged. It is time, in the light of our war experience, that these regulations, and the load line regulations, were overhauled. The Minister of Transport has power to do this, and I earnestly suggest that he should consult with the Admiralty, the shipping industry and the registration societies with the object of examining jointly the question of a merchant ship sub-division, and the tonnage and load line regulations. There must be a lot of information available from our war experience on the effect of underwater explosions. I believe that if they were given a lead on construction requirements, with particular reference to improving their sub-division, many ship-owners would of then- own accord take the necessary steps to see that their ships possessed the highest degree of safety, in war and peace—consistent, of course, with sound earning capacity, and provided that they were not called upon to pay higher dues in port and when passing through the Panama and Suez Canals. That, of course, would be a question of international agreement to amend the tonnage laws.

According to published information, a few of the shipowners before the war, having in mind the danger of enemy attack and the possible loss of their ships, adopted improved bulkhead standards, and in consequence reaped benefit for their foresight during the war years. This is clearly a most important international question. When merchant ships of any nationality are lost it does a great deal of damage to the life of the people of the world. So long as there exists a large submarine fleet whose main purpose in the event of war is to destroy merchant ships, it is surely unwise for the great seafaring nations of the world not to take timely steps, consistent with trade requirements, to make their ships as safe as possible against this risk. This Bill, in so far as it covers the 1948 Safety Convention, does not do that, because it deals mainly with peace-time problems, and the hazards of war are not seriously considered, The Minister has presented us in the Bill with a logical deduction from the premise that no dangers exist to shipping except in peace, but let us get it clearly in our minds that the real danger to world shipping is in war-time. I therefore suggest that we set up an authoritative body, consisting of those bodies which I have mentioned, to examine the safety of ships, both in war and in peace, and to find out how much can be done to improve them consistent with their earning capacity. I know that it is a very big subject and that it will take time, but surely any time spent in making it more difficult to sink merchant ships of the great merchant navies of the world will be time well spent.

7.2 p.m.


My Lords, I will be very brief in replying on certain items which have been raised. The noble Lord, Lord Llewellin, asked a question as to the number of nations who took part in the Conference and who have ratified the Convention and informed the Bureau of that fact. The answer is: None at present. His Majesty's Government are rather anxious to proceed quickly with the ratification of the Convention by this Bill, so that Great Britain can have the honour of being No. 1. I hope that will satisfy the noble Lord on that point.


I also asked which nations are showing any signs of doing so. I would like us to be first, but I would like to see the others coming along.


I understand there are a number of nations, including the United States. The noble Lord mentioned one point which indicated to me that in Trty remarks I shad missed mentioning something additional to the unanimity which had been achieved, both in the Agenda for the International Conference and for the provisions of this Bill. I therefore hasten to re-echo what the noble Lord has expressed—namely, that in future His Majesty's Government will take no step relating to these subjects without first having full consultation with all the shipping interests involved.

I was gratified to hear the noble Lord speak of the relationship between the National Union of Seamen and the shipowners. That has been a matter not merely of pleasure to noble Lords on this side of the House but of pride, and pride because it is an indication that, despite the many differences which must exist from time to time between employers and employed, the field of co-operation is so large and so important that we should do everything we possibly can to combine with one another for the good of our country and of mankind in general. I was very glad also to hear what my noble friend Lord Strabolgi said about the relationship of the Union to the shipowners. My noble friend emphasised the importance of boat drill, and indicated his desire that a good deal of stress should be laid upon it. I am happy to say that this Convention pays particular regard to that important question. It is the practice at present for many companies to train lifeboat men in port, and all passenger ships have specified crews to be trained as lifeboat men. Every cargo ship will be required in future to carry members of the crew who are also experienced in lifeboat work, and the Ministry of Transport will make quite sure that they participate in actual lifeboat work when the examination is being made.

I would like to conclude with a reference to the noble Earl, Lord Beatty, who, if I may say so, made an important speech but a speech to which, for obvious reasons, I cannot reply fully. He will understand why. However, he was good enough to give me a note of that part of his speech which emphasised the necessity of improving the construction of cargo ships so that they will be much safer, both for their crews and for their country, than they have been in the past. I am, therefore, able to reply to him in the following terms. The primary purpose of the Bill which is before the House is to enable the Government to implement the International Convention on the Safety of Life at Sea which was drawn up in 1948 by an International Conference at which all the principal maritime nations of the world were represented. The emphasis is on the word "all." The Conference decided that the Convention should not deal with the construction of cargo vessels, but, so far as these ships are concerned, to confine the Convention to such matters as life-saving appliances, fire appliances, wireless telegraphy, direction finders, musters and drills.

His Majesty's Government are in agreement with this decision of the Conference, but they fully appreciate the importance of the question of sub-division of cargo ships and are already in consultation with the shipping industry and other interests concerned in order to see what measures can be taken to secure it without impairing their commercial efficiency. I hope that what I have been able to convey to the noble Lord will be acceptable to him. I would like to thank noble Lords for the kind support which they have given to this Bill.

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