HL Deb 13 June 1950 vol 167 cc637-43

6.50 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, turning now from the development areas of the country to the sea, I trust that the brevity with which I shall move the Second Reading of this Bill will not be taken as the measure of either my concern or the concern of His Majesty's Government for the welfare of "those who go down to the sea in ships." This is a very simple Bill. Its first object is to give the Minister of Transport power to make regulations concerning crew accommodation in fishing boats. The provisions of the Bill with regard to crew accommodation in fishing boats are the same as those in the Merchant Shipping Act of 1948 relating to crew accommodation in merchant ships. Those provisions were put in that measure because of the arrangements agreed upon at the International Labour Conference. An agree- ment was reached regarding merchant ships, and we think it necessary in our own interests to bring the accommodation in our fishing boats up to as high a standard as possible by utilising the same procedure as is provided for in the Act mentioned. I hope your Lordships will not think that, in saying that, I do not pay full tribute to the great progress that has been made in recent years in the design and fitting up of our fishing boats. Some of the most modern trawlers are masterpieces; they are almost as luxurious as ocean-going yachts. But some are not, and there is a very wide difference between the best and the worst. So Clause 1 of this Bill gives the Minister of Transport power to make regulations as laid down in the First Schedule.

Clause 2 and the Second Schedule enable this Bill to do something that has nothing to do with fishing boats. The purpose is to bring into the Statute Defence Regulation 45AA, which makes provision for the crews of home trade merchant ships of 200 gross tons and over to have their articles signed before a mercantile marine office superintendent. This official acts as the seaman's friend and it is his legal responsibility to see that he explains the meaning of the contract to the seaman and that the seaman when he signs up gets fair wages and fair conditions in every respect. We thought that with the agreement of all concerned we would bring that Defence Regulation into this Bill for the purpose of getting it on the Statute BooK. It makes provision, as I have said, in respect of home trade merchant ships of 200 tons gross or over, and it also provides for changes of crew on such ships and on foreign-going ships to be nodded in every port in the United Kingdom instead of at the last port of call. This is for convenience in keeping track of all seamen signed on and all seamen out of employment, and to facilitate the operation of the central scheme for providing employment for seamen. This clause does not apply to fishing boats.

Clause 3 brings in for permanent enactment Defence Regulation 48B which was introduced during the war to provide for the review by a senior naval officer or a consular officer of punishments imposed by naval courts. It has been found that these naval courts do not operate very often in peace time, but it is convenient and in the true interests of justice that penalties for major acts of indiscipline should be reported to either the senior naval officer or the consular officer for the purpose of review and reduction if necessary. That is the simple purpose of that clause. Clause 4 takes out of the old Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 the anomaly which turned Newfoundland trawlers into merchant ships. In those days a voyage to Newfoundland was an adventurous business but now such a trip is an everyday affair. This clause removes the anomaly. The rest of the Bill is purely formal. With that very brief introduction I hope that your Lordships will allow me to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Lucas of Chilworth.)

6.58 p.m.


My Lords, we on this side of the House, appreciate that this Bill has been introduced with a view to bringing the conditions of life in the fishing fleets more into line with those of the merchant navy, and, of course, we welcome its underlying principle. As the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, has said, accommodation in the old trawlers, of which I have had personal experience, was certainly very cramped. However, one soon gets accustomed to it. None the less, I think that that accommodation could be vastly improved. With the greatly increased size of fishing trawlers there is no reason why the accommodation, as compared with what was provided in the past—which was definitely bad—should not be better. It is true, as the noble Lord has said, that accommodation in our newer trawlers is already really excellent. The nation certainly owes a debt of gratitude to the men of the fishing fleets for their work not only in war but also in peace, and anything we can do to improve their conditions should certainly be considered. On the other hand, we must be careful not to increase the capital cost of trawler operation so that we might be unable to compete with foreign owners. In fact, we should then be doing a disservice to the men of the fishing fleets because we might bring about unemployment. I hope the noble Lord who is going to reply for His Majesty's Government will be able to give us an assurance that this point will be very carefully considered and that no extravagant plans for alteration in accommodation will be proposed. As the Bill is drawn, it appears that an owner has and can have no appeal against any alteration of accommodation which may be proposed by a surveyor and which may put the cost up to a prohibitive figure. Perhaps the Minister will also be able to say whether steps are to be taken through the International Maritime Conventions to ensure some uniformity in fishing vessel accommodation. If that is going to be done it will meet the point which I have raised.

In another place, during the Committee stage, it was proposed to amend Section 376 of the Act of 1894. That section deals with the penalties which may be imposed by courts of summary jurisdiction for offences against discipline, and I understood that the Minister indicated that he would look into the matter again before the Bill reached this House. As some of your Lordships are perhaps aware, the offence of wilful disobedience in fishing vessels is punishable by either four weeks' imprisonment or a fine of twenty shillings. The courts have been in a difficulty in dealing with this matter because of the very small fine which may be imposed. The courts are most unwilling to send these men to prison, whereas a line of twenty shillings is really inadequate, especially after a second offence. As I have already said, the Minister indicated that he was prepared to look at the question again with a view to an increase in the fine which would be payable, and I propose to deal with this matter again at a later stage, unless the noble Lord can give us some substantial reason why the Bill should remain as it is at present. I believe it is true to say that the unions concerned have agreed with the proposed change, which would permit the imposition of a fine instead of imprisonment. I understand that the Minister's argument in another place was that he was reluctant to accept any Amendment of that sort to the Bill because he had secured a large measure of agreement amongst sections of the industry in support of this Bill. I suggest that that was not a convincing argument. In fact, it led me to make further inquiries, and I found that the British Trawlers' Federation were by no means in complete agreement with the Bill as a whole.

I understand a copy of the Draft Supplementary Instructions for Fishing Vessels, prepared by the Minister's Department, was forwarded to the Federation for their remarks The Federation, after carefully considering the draft, informed the Minister that the draft leads the Federation to suggest that they are unnecessary and that the current instructions contained in Instructions as to the Survey of Masters and Crews Spaces, 1937, still remain satisfactory for fishing vessels. I understand that when this matter was put before the British Trawlers' Federation, it was indicated that a Conference was to be held in the very near future when the whole matter was to be threshed out, but, so 'far as I am aware, that Conference never took place, and the Bill was produced without any further reference to the British Trawlers' Federation. This can hardly be described as "a large measure of agreement" with the interests concerned. We realise, of course, that the Bill provides for consultation, but I think it is a pity that the Minister did not follow up his earlier intention of obtaining a measure of agreement with the British Trawlers' Federation and all the other interests concerned.

I should like to deal for a moment with two or three other points. As the noble Lord has said, Clause 2 of the Bill deals with the engagement and the discharge of crews and applies only to vessels of the home trade of over 200 tons gross. I should like to take this opportunity of pointing out that ':here is considerable feeling amongst fishermen that all signing on of crews of fishing vessels should be carried out at branch offices of the Ministry of Transport. In fact, that is carried out now at one port—Aberdeen—and I see no reason why it should not be instituted in other ports. I am not sure whether that point could be dealt with in this Bill, but I would ask the noble Lord to look at the matter. There is also a feeling that the manning of trawlers does not meet with present-day conditions. I think it is true to say that, except for the engine room staff, a trawler carries the same complement of skipper and second hand, with one or two more deck hands, as the old sailing smacks of many years ago. However large a trawler may be, the skipper and second hand are the only two certificated men available for watch-keeping duties. When on the fishing grounds it is fre- quently necessary for both those certificated men to be on duty at the same time, for a period of anything from twenty to twenty-four hours at a stretch; and then when the vessel goes off to a new ground they have to continue their watch-keeping duties It is interesting to notice that at least seventeen trawlers have been lost in fishing operations since the war, and this does not take into account the many standings which have taken place in which the vessels have been salvaged.

I should like to make it clear that the suggestions that that there should be an additional watchkeeping officer in these trawlers would not necessarily mean an increase in complement, because an efficient deck hand could well be promoted to that position provided he had the necessary qualifications. I would ask the noble Lord to look at that point and see what can be done to relieve the great strain which is thrown upon the skipper and second hand under present conditions in big trawlers which draw a great deal of water and go far afield. On the whole, we welcome this Bill but feel that as it is drawn it is not sufficiently comprehensive and that it would have been far better if the Minister and his Department had carried out further discussions with the interested parties and the trade before producing it. Then I think we should have seen embodied in it many of the points I have raised to-day.

7.7 p.m.


My Lords, in replying to the noble Lord I can deal with only some of the points which the noble Lord has put forward, because the rest of them are outside the scope of this Bill.


But they need not have been.


At the moment I am concerned only with what is in the Bill. It has a simple purpose: to regulate crew accommodation. I will, however, undertake to look into the matters extraneous to the Bill which the noble Lord has mentioned, and see whether and when anything can be done. In regard to the expense involved, the Bill provides for consultation between the Ministry and the owner or owners' association or representatives and the representatives of the crews, so that there will be the fullest consultation in the making of these regulations and in their interpretation after they have been made. The Minister will always be guided by a surveyor, and I do not think that the noble Lord need have any fear regarding the reasonableness of their requirements. The noble Lord will remember that in connection with passenger certificates a higher authority was given this task and it has not had a job for thirty years—a proof of the reasonableness of the surveyor and the Minister of Transport. In regard to the promise of my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport to look into the question of the fine for wilful disobedience, my right honourable friend has looked into the matter and consulted the Union. My information is slightly different from that of the noble Lord. I am informed that the alterations suggested by the noble Lord would be highly controversial and would also involve the alteration of corresponding penalties throughout the Merchant Shipping Act.


That might depend on how the Amendments were drawn.


If the noble Lord feels strongly on this point, perhaps he would put an Amendment down on Committee stage and then we can discuss it in detail and go into the pros and cons. The other points which the noble Lord made also do not come within the scope of this Bill, but we are always willing to be helpful to the noble Lord and I will look into these and see whether they can be incorporated in some other place in the not too distant future. I assure the noble Lord that we are hoping to have an international convention regarding the fishing fleets of all countries as we have had in regard to merchant ships. I hope that your Lordships will now give the Bill a Second Reading.

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