HL Deb 19 June 1958 vol 209 cc1157-75

5.5 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I rise to ask your Lordships to give this modest and, I hope you will agree, useful Bill a Second Reading. During its passage through another place it was usefully amended and its scope increased. As the law stands at the moment the liability for damages of owners and demise charterers of ships is limited to £15 per ton for loss of life, personal injury and damage to property, and to £8 per ton in cases where there is no loss of life or personal injury. The limits were set down by Statute in 1862 and re-enacted in the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894. This Bill replaces the limits of £15 and £8 by limits of 3,100 gold francs and 1,000 gold francs respectively. Where the tonnage of the vessel which was responsible for the accident giving rise to the liability for damage is less than 300 tons and the claim is in respect of loss of life or personal injury, the limit of liability is to be calculated as if the tonnage were 300 tons. The Bill also provides for the conversion of amounts calculated in gold francs into pounds sterling in accordance with a rate to be specified by statutory instrument. International agreement on these limits of liability was reached in the International Convention relating to the limitation of the liability of owners of seagoing ships (Cmnd. 353) which was signed by Her Majesty's Government on behalf of the United Kingdom on October 10, 1957.

The apparently unsatisfactory state of affairs under the present law has prevailed for some 90 years or more and has resulted in great hardship for the relatives of deceased seamen and many others who happen to have been killed in accidents and have come under the limitation clause. However, it is one thing to condemn a state of affairs; it is a very different thing to rectify it. I am no lawyer; I have no legal qualifications at all; but I hope your Lordships will forgive me if I say that the legal complications and complexities in this subject are enormous. I also hope your Lordships will forgive me if I leave it to my noble friend Lord Merriman to enlarge upon the vast amount of work that was necessary before this Bill could be drafted. It would be impertinent for me to congratulate those concerned, but I am sure he would like to say a word on that line; I will not endeavour to do so at all, because I am not qualified in any way to do so.

May I give your Lordships a few illustrations of how the existing law has operated in recent times? Presumably, many cases were settled on limitation figures without ever going to the courts because the limitation clause is well known. I can only assume that, but I believe it to be the case. As to the cases which went to the courts—when people felt that they had such a case that, limitation or no, something might happen—the figures for the period 1950–56 (which to the best of my knowledge are accurate), are as follows: the claims proved and allowed by the Courts total £1,918,000—practically £2 million—but owing to the limitation the amounts actually paid out to the unfortunate people who have suffered were only £396,000.

Totals and averages often hide as much as they disclose, and I will go on to the 1957 figures which are more detailed and are really most startling. Of the 47 proved claims totalling £163,076, the benefit that was handed out had to be cut down to £30,442; nine claims agreed at £42,876 had to be cut to £3,684, and three claims agreed at £11,478 were cut to £723. These figures are taken from the OFFICIAL REPORT (Commons) of March 25, 1958, at column 32. That is my authority, and I believe it to be accurate; the figures have not been challenged.

My Lords, I hope that I have shown by that short statement that cases of great hardship may arise, and indeed have arisen, and also that when a small vessel is concerned the situation can be really desperate; and I hope that the amendment calculating the limit of liability as if the ship was at least 300 tons will go a long way towards putting that aspect right. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Viscount Stonehaven.)

5.12 p.m.


My Lords, this is a Private Member's Bill but it is, as I think your Lordships will agree, an unusually important Private Member's Bill, and the Government reaction to it is also a little unusual. Perhaps I may be allowed to explain briefly the course which I am going to suggest your Lordships may see fit to adopt. As introduced in another place, the Bill sought to give effect to one of the provisions of the International Convention drawn up in Brussels last year on the limitation of shipowners' liability. This particular provision, as my noble friend Lord Stone-haven has explained, raised the monetary sum, based upon the tonnage of the ship, at which shipowners could limit their liability, provided they were not themselves guilty of actual fault or privity.

The Government welcomed this initiative because the sums laid down in the 1894 Merchant Shipping Act had been widely recognised as out of date. But the Government thought it a pity that the legislation which the honourable Member for Mid-Ulster proposed should be confined to this one provision of the Convention when Her Majesty's Government had strongly supported the Convention as a whole. We therefore announced in another place our intention of adding to this Bill so that it would give effect to all the provisions of the Convention. This would not only bring up to date our own law, which is now seriously out of date, but would also enable Her Majesty's Government to ratify the Convention with the minimum of delay. By doing so, we hope to encourage other Governments to ratify this Convention.

This is particularly desirable since the Convention represents, for the first time, international agreement in a difficult and complex field of maritime law which has been in a state of disorder and uncertainty for the best, or worst, part of a century. Furthermore, the agreement is based on the British system of limits which are calculated upon the tonnage of the ship rather than upon the Continental system of limits calculated upon the value of the ship. At the same time we should like to take the opportunity of tidying up one or two additional points in our law on limitation of liability which are not covered by the Convention.

The limitations imposed by the Long Title of Lord Stonehaven's Bill restricted the scope of the Amendments which could be moved in another place, but my honourable friend the Parliamentary Secretary explained during the Second Reading debate there that we hoped to be able to make good those deficiencies during the passage of the Bill through your Lordships' House. The Bill in the form now before your Lordships already incorporates one of the most important amendments needed—namely, the 300-ton minimum tonnage provision to which my noble friend has referred. This ensures that, even with the smallest vessels, an adequate sum will be available out of which death and personal injury claims can be met.

It also contains the safeguard that the ordinary monetary rates per ton of the ship's tonnage are expressed in what are rather charmingly known as notional gold francs of specific weight and fineness. This device was adopted in the Convention, and consequently in the Bill, to give some degree of protection against a decline in the real value of the monetary rates through inflation. Such a decline has been one of the most unfortunate aspects of the existing law, in that the monetary limits, in pounds sterling, have remained unchanged since 1862.

I propose to put down the remaining Amendments needed to give full effect to the Convention before the Bill is considered in Committee. In view of these rather unusual circumstances, may I indicate very briefly some of the more important of the Government's proposals? One will extend the categories of persons entitled to limit their liability so that anyone who is in possession of the ship, and thereby liable to the same risks as the shipowner, should be able to limit his liability in the same way as the shipowner would be able to in the same circumstances. This goes a little way beyond the Convention, but it is, I think, a reasonable extension.

Another provision which I shall ask your Lordships to insert in the Bill will allow limitation of liability in respect of death and personal injury on shore. As your Lordships know, limitation is already allowed for damage to property on shore, and the opportunity is being taken to repair this omission. I think we should also make some provision for the release of a ship, or of bail put up if the ship has already been arrested or satisfactory security has been given elsewhere and is actually available for the benefit of British claimants. The object of this provision is to avoid the great inconvenience attaching to repeated arrest of ships or requirement of security for the same incident.

Finally, my Lords, I shall suggest an Amendment permitting limitation of liability for the costs of wreck removal. At present, if I understand aright, most harbour authorities can recover these costs, in full, from the shipowner concerned. My Amendment will propose that this provision should not come into force until an appointed day, in order to provide time for a scheme to be worked out with the agreement of the harbour authorities and the shipowners by which the harbour authorities may be compensated for any loss sustained because of the prevision.

We have, of course, held consultations with the many outside interests likely to be affected by the amended Bill, including, in particular, with shipowners, covering ocean-going ships, fishing vessels, tugs, barges and other smaller craft; and also with the trade unions, shipbuilders, dock and harbour authorities. These consultations have now been completed, and I should like to express the Government's gratitude to the bodies concerned for their co-operation in this legislation. It is not only highly desirable for its own sake but also marks a further important step towards international agreement in maritime law. I hope, therefore, that your Lordships will support the Bill of my noble friend, Lord Stonehaven, on its Second Reading and, in due course, the important Amendments which I shall ask your Lordships to make to it in Committee.

5.20 p.m.


My Lords, I think I should explain, as a personal matter, that my interest in this Bill arises from the fact that I am President of the Association which looks after the interests of officers of the Merchant Navy. In consequence of that, of course, I have had this matter constantly brought to my notice in the course of the last few years. The Bill has already been much improved by Amendments made during its passage through another place, and the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, indicate that we may expect further improvement while it is passing through your Lordships' House.

I think the necessity for the Bill can be illustrated if I make a comment upon the last figures mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Stonehaven, when he was introducing the Bill—the three cases where compensation amounting to over £11,000 was granted but was scaled down to £723. The effect of that was that the innocent parties got 6 per cent. while the wrongdoers got away with 94 per cent. I think those figures alone indicate the necessity for this Bill. The old figures of compensation which have prevailed for 100 years were most unjust. That is an injustice which is now being remedied by this Bill which, in my opinion, marks a milestone in the affairs of the Merchant Navy. It will help the crews of both large and small ships. It is the first time that the minimum tonnage has been laid down in a Bill regarding owners' liability to compensation. I am very glad to say that the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, is to speak later on, and I feel sure that we shall hear from him that shipowners welcome the Bill. That is my information, and I hope that I am not putting too wide an interpretation into the mouths of shipowners.

When compensation is limited on a basis of tonnage, it is of course very difficult for the crews of trawlers and fishing vessels to receive just compensation after accidents. Under this Bill the financial limits for personal and property claims are raised. Of the unions concerned, I can answer for the association that looks after officers, but my information is that the National Union of Seamen—which is the Union that looks after the interests of the seamen—is also quite satisfied with the Bill. I should perhaps have reminded your Lordships of a fact of which probably most of you are well aware: that physical damage caused by collision is covered by insurance by one set of underwriters or another, but loss of life or personal injury is not so covered at present. A member of the crew is not so covered, and hardship to his widow or children may, of course, result. This Bill will help such dependants at a very cruel time in their lives, and the provisions regarding liabilities in respect of death or injury to merchant seamen have undoubtedly long been out of date.

This legislation, as has been stated, stems from the Brussels Convention, which was adopted in October, 1957, some provisions of which were most important. It states (and these are the actual words) that the provisions of the Convention should apply: To the Master, members of the crew and other servants of the owner, charterer, manager or operator acting in the course of their employment. The Convention adds: … such persons may limit their liability even if the occurrence which gives rise to the claims resulted from the actual fault or privity of one or more of such persons. Those are two most important provisions. The Convention also provides that the limit of liability of shipowners in respect of personal claims is raised to the equivalent, in our currency, of £74 (for the 3,100 gold francs mentioned may be taken as the equivalent of f74) per ton of the ship's tonnage.

Another important point in the Convention is that limitation of liability shall not apply—and here again I am reading the actual words—to: claims by the master, by members of the crew, by any servants of the owners on board the ship or by servants of the owner whose duties are connected with the ship, including the claims of their heirs, personal representatives or dependants, if under the law governing the contract of service between the owner and such servants the owner is not entitled to limit his liability in respect of such claims or if he is by such law only permitted to limit his liability to an amount greater than that provided for in Article 3 of this Convention. If those words are studied, it will be seen that, as I have said, that is a very important point in the Convention.

The improvements in the legislation were undoubtedly overdue as, under the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act, owners could limit their liability to £15 per net registered ton—an absurd sum. That legislation dated back to 1894, and had long ago become outmoded owing to the change in value of money. Another very important change is the insertion of a tonnage limit of 300 tons. It follows that owners of ships of less than 300 tons can now limit their liability only on that minimum tonnage based on the new financial provisions. It may well have been that our Government would have preferred, and would probably have received support from the shipping industry for, a higher tonnage limit of 500 tons, instead of 300 tons, but I gather that the Government could not obtain sufficient support for this at the time when the Convention was adopted, and so had to remain satisfied with the 300 tons.

I should also like to point out that neither the officers' union nor the seamen's union has ever been adversely affected by owners claiming limitation of liability. That is probably due to the excellent industrial relations which, in the main, prevail between the seafarers' organisations and the shipowners—a matter to which I have paid tribute before, when dealing with Merchant Navy matters, and to which I am happy to pay tribute again in connection with this legislation.

My Lords, the new provisions may not give all that seafarers think desirable—of course, people in every walk of life would always have more—but they represent a distinct improvement on what previously obtained. It has been represented to the Ministry by those speaking on behalf of the officers and men of the Merchant Navy that in principle we are opposed to limitation of liability as applied to crew members. The Convention, however, is silent on that point, and I should not want to raise the point at any stage in the proceedings on the Bill, because I want the Bill to have a smooth passage. The seafarers' representatives can press that point on other appropriate occasions, and if this were done successfully amending legislation could be introduced to cover the question without in any way conflicting with the Brussels Convention or the obligations imposed by Britain's acceptance of that Convention. But in fact the disability of not limiting legislation so far as seafarers are concerned can be dealt with through the National Maritime Board, and if agreement can be reached there it will obviate the need for any amending legislation.

In any case, however, I regard this Bill, much as I welcome it. as a temporary measure which will one day be repealed and incorporated in a comprehensive measure. With those remarks, it only remains for me to say that I congratulate Her Majesty's Government on a Bill which, to my mind, is entirely in keeping with our tradition as a leading maritime nation and in harmony with the good treatment of the employees in the shipping industry which now prevails.

5.31 p.m.


My Lords, I should like briefly to welcome this Bill and commend it to your Lordships. I do that the more readily after hearing what my noble friend Lord Mancroft had to say about the attitude of Her Majesty's Government towards the Bill and what they propose to do. I am afraid I am not in a position to do as the noble Lord, Lord Winster, suggested—to tell your Lordships that this Bill has the approval of the shipping industry. Though I am not authorised to say that, believe, as a matter of fact, that it has. I believe we shall all be agreed that if the limits fixed in 1862 were right then, they must be wrong now, and that it is high time that they were raised. It is worth remembering that the movement to get these limits raised started very much in the shipping industry itself, among people who are concerned with it. I know, as a fact, that the shipping industry played a great part in getting these new limits agreed in the Convention, primarily at the Conference in Madrid and finally at the Diplomatic Conference in Brussels last year.

I believe it is important that we should endeavour to make this a matter of international understanding, and that is why I am so pleased to know that these Amendments are to be moved, to bring the Bill in line with the Brussels Convention and so enable Her Majesty's Government to ratify it without delay. I say that not just because in these days it is always nice to get international agreement on one of the few matters on which we seem to get international agreement, but because there is real value to the people concerned in having the law on these matters brought into line in the principal maritime countries.

Looking at this from the point of view of the claimant or the defendant, we want to avoid the position which I believe has arisen in the past where a claimant is busily trying to find if he can bring a suit in a court where the limits are as high as possible, and the defendant is doing his best to get himself out of the jurisdiction of that court and place himself solely in the jurisdiction of one which provides for lower limits. That is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs; but, quite apart from that, people like to know where they are and what they are about, and I am sure it will be of immense value if we can get international agreement and implement it.

As my noble friend Lord Mancroft pointed out, we believe that one of the great advantages of the Brussels Convention is that, as a result of the efforts of the British delegation, some of our friends were persuaded to abandon their principle of limitation by relation to the value of the ship and to adopt the British system of limitation by reference to tonnage. It is easy for your Lordships to see that if we have a limitation by reference to the value of the ship, then the owner of an old "tub" which is very badly maintained and which, one might think, was more likely to be the cause of an accident than an up-to-date and well-found ship, will have a lower limit of liability than the owner of the new, up-to-date ship. I am sure that that is a very bad arrangement.

I feel we can congratulate ourselves that in the Brussels Convention the British system of measuring the limitation by the tonnage of the ship was adopted. The addition of this special provision, incorporated in the Bill, by which the minimum limitation is related to a tonnage of 300 tons is again very valuable. I believe I am right in saying that in the Convention today the 300-ton platform applies both to personal injury and death claims, and to claims for damage; whereas in the Bill it has been applied only to personal injury and death claims. I imagine that among the Amendments which will be brought forward on the Committee stage there will be one to bring the Bill into line with the Convention in that respect.

The advantages of the Bill have been very well expressed already by the noble Viscount, Lord Stonehaven, when he introduced it, and by other speakers, and I do not want to say any more except that I hope your Lordships will give it a Second Reading and, when it comes to Committee, will agree to those Amendments which will bring it into line with the Convention. That will enable Her Majesty's Government to implement the Convention; and seeing that we are still, I am happy to say, the leading maritime nation of the world I am quite sure that our lead will encourage others to do the same, so that we may hope to get the Convention widely ratified. The Convention was in fact approved by twenty-two nations, including half a dozen of the most important maritime nations, and although I have to admit that the United States of America, for one, felt unable to vote for it, they did not vote against it. If there is general agreement we might even get the United States of America to join. I beg to support the proposal that we give this Bill a Second Reading.

5.37 p.m.


My Lords, I am conscious that I have been intervening rather frequently lately in your Lordships' debates, but mostly—in fact entirely—with reference to the matrimonial aspect of the jurisdiction of the Division over which I have the honour to preside. But, as its name implies, we in that Division have to be versatile and accustomed to deal with the vagaries of the unpredictable "she"—whether the female concerned happens to be a wife or a ship; and we are now dealing with the Admiralty branch of my jurisdiction.

I do not propose to accept the invitation of the noble Viscount, Lord Stonehaven, to speak about the Amendments on which the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, has spoken and with which I am familiar, having been to some extent consulted about them. I propose to speak solely on the main purpose of the Bill, and from two points of view: one, the hardship, about which I will say something in a moment, and the other a point which has not been mentioned—that is, the prestige of the Admiralty Court in foreign countries. There is no disguising the fact, which is perfectly well known, that the work in the Admiralty Court has been steadily decreasing for years. To a very large extent that is due to the transfer of the salvage work from that Court to arbitration. That is entirely irrelevant to our present purpose, and I want to eliminate that altogether from my remarks.

But doing the best I can, I have ascertained that some twenty-five years ago the collision cases, with which we are really dealing, took about ninety court days a year, whereas now they do not take as many as sixty court days a year. That is a very serious diminution in the business. Many causes have been suggested for this drop in the work, but there is one thing on which everybody I have consulted—Judges, members of the Admiralty Bar and my own officers—are agreed; and that is that this out-of-date limitation is at any rate one of the most serious causes of the drop in the work. I am going to suggest that the irresistible inference is that it is having the effect of depriving us of the pride which the Admiralty Court at one time enjoyed, in that it was quite commonly the resort not merely of an Englishman and a foreigner but of two foreigners. I have ascertained that it is becoming, and during the last year has increasingly become, the habit of foreign shipowners, when there is any suggestion of litigation in the Admiralty Court, to insist upon the substitution of their own limitation (which, as Lord Mancroft has pointed out, is, generally speaking, in many foreign countries based on the value of the ship) for our out-of-date limitation of so much per ton. I suggest that the irresistible inference is that unless, in some way or another, we are prepared to get rid, for a particular case, of our own limitation laws, the foreign shippers will not come to our courts. Therefore, I put the prestige of the Admiralty Court in the forefront of my reasons for supporting this Bill.

A great deal has been said on the subject of hardship. I expected hardly to add anything to the figures that have already been given, but, after all, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I have recently, within the last year, tried a limitation action, and I think it may be of interest to your Lordships to know something about the way that that has worked out, because it is, as I think your Lordships will agree, a perfect illustration of the wrongness of the present system and also a perfect illustration of what this Bill will do to remedy it. The noble Lord, Lord Winster, mentioned particularly the question of trawlers. This action concerned a most lamentable casualty to a trawler. I am not going into the detail, of course, but what happened was that the ordinary, common, everyday accident occurred, and the trawler caught fast on the bottom of the sea. In the process of adopting the usual remedy of trying to get her head round and going to pick up the trawl from where it was held fast on the bed of the sea, unfortunately, owing to a mistake, for which liability was accepted by the owners, the ship was held with the winches jammed, and the warps out to the trawl bar tight, in such a way that she was shipping sea after sea. In less than ten minutes she went under on her beam end, with the loss, unhappily, of five valuable lives on board, while another one of the crew who was rescued died in hospital.

I had to try the limitation action. The liability to the widows and infants had been accepted, because it was admitted that there had been negligence. But as the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, pointed out, in a limitation action it is, of course, necessary for the owners to prove—the burden is on them to prove—no actual fault or privity. That means that they have to prove they sent out a vessel which was seaworthy in every sense; that she was properly equipped. If she was not properly equipped she was not seaworthy; but she might be fully equipped yet nevertheless unseaworthy if sufficient instruction had not been given to those in charge of her about the equipment which had lately been put into her. In this limitation action both points were taken against the owners.

I am not going to bore your Lordships with the details, but after an investigation lasting several days I held that the owners had abundantly proved that there was no fault or privity on their part. There was no appeal, and I have not in fact heard any criticism of that particular decision. Therefore the matter came to the practical result of the limitation. The tonnage of the trawler was 227. There was no complication about any other claimants than the dependants for the £15. It all went to them. There were three widows, one of whom had five infant children, and there were two other infants: ten in all. Their claims were allowed at the sum of £23,350. I will give your Lordships just one instance. The claims of the woman who had five children and of the children themselves together come to £10,000; the amount they actually received was £1,693. The total fund was just £5 under £4,000, as against the £23,000-odd for which the claims were allowed. And may I just say, in parenthesis, that it is a very distressing thing for the Registrar in a case like that to have to assess claims on what he knows to be the just basis, with the absolute certainty that some pittance like that which I have mentioned will in fact be the result.

That is a particular case that has occurred within the last few months. How would it have worked out if this Bill had been in force at the time? As the noble Lord, Lord Winster, has pointed out, the liability limitation would have been raised from 227 tons to the minimum of 300 tons; the £15 would be raised, roughly speaking, to £74—speaking in round figures, five times as much; and these people, against their claim for £23,000-odd, would have received £22,200, instead of the miserable pittance which in fact they received. I think I have said enough to make clear that the Court would welcome this Bill as a belated step in the right direction.

5.48 p.m.


My Lords, my interest in this Bill, which I warmly welcome and which I have long been hoping for, is more of an inland interest. But I think I should make it clear to your Lordships that my interest occurred in that I married a lady who happens to own a property on the bank of the River Thames at Twickenham. The property is built on a hill fifty or sixty yards from the water—an ancient monument of which one portion is a kind of summerhouse or river room on the edge of the Thames, and there is a concrete block which extends down some five or six feet behind a strong concrete river wall about fifteen inches in thickness.

One night I happened to be sitting in this house when the whole house shook as if it had been bombed. I rushed out, but it was dark and there was a heavy fog and I saw nothing. But when I came to make an examination, I found that this river room had been completely wrecked, and it was extremely fortunate that the house did not fall also. By good fortune I was able to find out the tug that had done the damage and asked the owner for damages. Of course, he limited his claim under the Merchant Shipping Act to £8 a ton. We got £100 to £200 for damage which took the best part of £1,000 to repair No sooner had the repairs been done when, a year later, in another fog, there was another crash and the same thing happened. This time I was able to get out, and I discovered that the boat that had done the damage was stranded on the other side of the Thames. It was in heavy fog, however, and I never found it.

If a collision occurs at sea, even providing the boats separate, it is possible to trace the offending boat, which has to come into port somewhere; but on a river it is much more difficult because a boat can get back to port without being spotted. As the house in question is just below the upper limit of the Port of London Authority, I applied to the police to help me trace the boat. This is a rather important point. The police said that they had no duty to find the boat and would not help. They said they were concerned only when a duty was laid on them by Statute. I believe it is the case that if I live in a house by the side of the road and a lorry comes and knocks it down, the police will help me to find the lorry; but if I live on the side of a river and a ship comes and knocks my house down, the police will not help me to find the ship. I should be grateful to my noble friend Lord Mancroft if he would see whether this Bill cannot be amended a little to give some protection to riparian owners.

My excuse for bringing this matter before your Lordships at this length and in such detail is that though, fortunately, the house I live in is a strong one, built in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, the houses farther up the river are modern ones, of extremely flimsy construction; and if they had been subjected to the shock to which my house was subjected they would have collapsed completely on the owners. Yet if they had succeeded in tracing the offending ship, they would have been limited to £8 a ton damages. I do not know how far the operation of this Bill extends, whether it extends to the City of Oxford on the River Thames, but it appears to me that there is a question here that deserves consideration now that the Bill is going through your Lordships' House. I hope that when the Committee stage comes, we shall find on the Marshalled List not only the Amendment mentioned by my noble friend Lord Simon, which applies the limit of 300 tons to property damage as well as to personal injuries, but also one which will help people who may be injured in the way that riparian owners can be injured to obtain adequate compensation for any damage done. I very much welcome the Bill.

5.55 p.m.


My Lords, as one interested in maritime law for a large number of years, I should like to make a few observations on the Bill of a more general character than those made so far in the interesting discussion which we have had. This system of the limitation of liability according to the value or the tonnage of a ship is a unique institution, not only in our law but in other systems of law, and its history is interesting. It goes back to the Hanseatic League and was adopted by our own country some hundreds of years after it had been applied among the Hansa ports and in Holland, and even in France. The object, of course, was to protect the maritime marine, because in the days when ships were small it often happened that a shipowner was ruined if his ship sustained a serious collision and the claims made against him were large. No doubt it was part of the public policy of the maritime countries in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to strengthen their mercantile marine by cutting down the liability which might be placed upon shipowners and in that way prevent their being made bankrupt and driven out of business altogether.

In this country we have had a number of Merchant Shipping Acts over the years. The first one dealing with this matter was in the time of George II, but, as noble Lords have pointed out, commencing with the noble Viscount who moved the Motion, so far as the monetary side goes our system has been out of date for a very long time. Another interesting aspect, which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, is that we are now at the point of establishing a uniform system among maritime States in regard to this matter. One of the most fascinating aspects of maritime law is that it has led the way in the unification of private law, starting with the York-Antwerp Rules, in which this country took the lead in the middle years of last century, followed by The Hague Rules, in which this country again took the lead in the early 1920's. The Hague Rules have been adopted by all the maritime countries and the York-Antwerp Rules apply to 99 out of every 100 contracts of affreightment. During the years between the wars there were a number of important international conventions relating to the safety of crews on ships and their passengers and to many other questions. It is particularly happy that Her Majesty's Government are proposing to take the action which the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, indicated, so that again this country may lead the way in what is obviously an important reform.

I entirely agree with everything that was said by the noble Lord, Lord Winster. The harrowing case which the noble and learned Lord the President of the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division told us about and the figures which the noble Viscount produced show that this has been a serious business over a number of years. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Winster, indicated, the largest proportion of these cases are of property damage, and property damage is almost always covered by insurance. Incidentally, I can advise the noble Lord who has just sat down that an insurance on his Thames-side property would probably be a more satisfactory way of guarding himself against further fogs on the Thames than reliance upon this Bill.


My Lords, after the first accident, we did insure. The point is, however, that it is not covered by a comprehensive insurance; it has to be a special insurance.


I appreciate that; and what I was saying was only by the way. So far as property is concerned, all these matters can be covered by insurance. I am wondering whether it would not be more satisfactory, if the international aspect could be got over (I appreciate that that makes it complicated) to introduce a system of compulsory insurance in respect of loss of life and personal injury of the kind which is operating in this country now—and not only in this country, but in a number of other countries—in respect of the other types of collision with which we are more familiar, namely, those that occur on the roads, and in regard to which, since the Road Traffic Act of the early 30's, all drivers have to be insured. If damage is caused to some unfortunate pedestrian or a passenger in another car, then that is covered by an insurance policy and the matter is almost always (in 999 cases out of 1,000, I think) satisfactorily dealt with in that way.

As the noble Lord, Lord Winster, said, even with this Bill the position will not be altogether satisfactory in regard to many cases where serious loss of life and personal injury result from a collision in which a ship, and sometimes two ships, founders with all hands, or with a large number of the crew, and sometimes with passengers as well. In that type of case, I think it would be much more satisfactory to have a compulsory insurance system, parallel with the sort of system which exists at the present time in connection with motor vehicles. I do not want to delay this measure—I think it is a good one—but I should like the Government to have this alternative method of handling the problem in mind, because it seems to me that it should be possible to get some kind of International Convention on these lines. So many other countries now have compulsory motor insurance that it would not be strange to them if the same proposal were made in respect of insurance in regard to loss of life and personal injury in the case of collisions between ships. With those observations, I strongly support the Second Reading of the Bill.

6.4 p.m.


My Lords, I should like, first of all, to thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate for the interesting and informed speeches they have made. In particular, I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Mancroft for the Government's welcome to the Bill, and also for the foretaste he has given us of how it will be largely improved and expanded to serve, as I am sure we all agree, a most useful purpose. It is getting late, and as there has been no disagreement and everyone has welcomed the Bill, I am sure your Lordships would not wish me to give a detailed reply. I should, however, like to refer to the last two speeches. I have great sympathy with my noble friend Lord Saltoun. The great difficulty is that this Bill is one dealing only with limitations, and you cannot bring the actions of the police under such a Bill. That is my own view, but I will take advice from those who are advising me. To deal with Lord Saltoun's point you would need to amend a Bill dealing with the police. I do not see that we could have a hybrid Bill of that sort. I think much the same applies to the interesting suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Chorley. This Bill deals solely with limitations, and it would be inappropriate—I would say it is impossible, although I should have to take advice on it—to include in it what he suggests.


I agree. I was not suggesting that it could be put into this Bill.


Then there are no other points with which I need deal.

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