HL Deb 20 May 1974 vol 351 cc1266-79

3.57 p.m.

Second Reading debate resumed.


My Lords, perhaps it is something of a relief, after the two depressing Statements about what is going on on land, if we once again go to sea on the Merchant Shipping Bill. It was described in another place as a "ragbag of a Bill". Perhaps we might call it a scran bag of a Bill, covering some five separate issues. It was six separate issues, but I think that it has now gone back to five. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, for the way in which he presented this Bill to your Lordships' House. It deals with a number of fairly complicated measures. One point I want to develop a little later, because it has slightly wider implications, is the reason why a Section of the Bill, with the old Part IV has been removed.

In the meantime, may I look at one or two questions we would like to raise on the other Parts of the Bill. Dealing with Part I, there was some argument I believe in another place in Committee as to the exact definition of the word, "oil". I hope this point has now been satisfactorily resolved. There was also some question as to how the system of compensation would work in practice. I believe this largely centred on the question of identifying the polluter. If a ship drops oil in the sea, some of the landward-based people may not know who has caused it. One is reminded of the situation which used to obtain with regard to aircraft, where one claimed that one had been disturbed or damaged by a supersonic flight and one was then asked to say which aeroplane had caused it. It was manifestly absurd. I imagine we could have a similar situation regarding a ship some distance out. Maybe the noble Lord can give us some reassurance on that point.

Part III was described by both sides in another place as regrettable but necessary. I have no doubt that my noble friend Lord Runciman of Doxford will be emphasising the importance that the Chamber of Shipping attaches to this section, particularly in the light of the goings-on at the recent convention in Geneva to which the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, has referred.

Part IV deals essentially, as the noble Lord said, with questions which arise as a result of the near-fatal accident to Pisces III, the submersible being operated by Vickers. This incident highlighted the fact that this country is somewhat behind the United States Bureau of Shipping in the regulations concerning this type of operation, although we like to think—and I believe this to be right—that we are in the forefront of the technology of operating these vehicles. Vickers themselves are quite clear that they would welcome regulations, because they feel that these would ensure that other less experienced operators were operating to the same rigid standards as they themselves impose. I notice that they state in the report that they believe there might be 15 or 20 vehicles of this type operating by 1980, and that one can normally expect one accident or incident of this kind per annum. This tends to underline how important it will be to get some measure of agreement upon how to co-ordinate accident rescue operations.

Another very important point which came out at that inquiry was in regard to interference by other ships. I should like to ask the noble Lord whether he he is quite satisfied that Clause 17 really enables the necessary provisions to be made. Again, this falls into two categories: first, keeping away surface vessels which might interfere with the operation of a submersible; and, secondly, the very serious incident. Vickers themselves claim that at one time during the course of the Pisces III rescue there was real danger that the rescue would be made impossible by the presence of other vessels; in particular, of vessels which had been chartered by the Press. There is something rather ghoulish about the possibility that these two men could have lost their lives due to the interference of people who had no practical, useful operational purpose to serve at the scene of the accident. Possibly the noble Lord would like to tell us whether he feels quite satisfied that there are powers in the Bill to deal with this situation.

My Lords, I could not quite follow what the noble Lord said about Part IV. At one time he seemed to be saying that there is agreement. Then I thought he might be saying that there is no agreement, and we shall set up Working Parties to see what degree of agreement can be found. This we must certainly welcome. Another point which struck me as he was talking was that to fine somebody £20, when he is putting at risk a £20 million tanker and its cargo, does not seem a very realistic increase in the penalties which we are talking about. That was purely an immediate reaction to what he said.

May I turn to the old Part IV which has been removed, and to which the noble Lord referred? Part IV of the Bill, as originally produced by our Government, had two purposes. There was an attempt to avoid double-charging due to duplication of surveying, particularly so far as British ships abroad were concerned. My understanding is that people felt that they were being placed at a disadvantage vis-à-vis some of their foreign competitors, by virtue of the fact that this double inspection had to take place. My next point—and here I have to be really careful not to give an enormous "commercial" for Lloyds Register of Shipping —is in regard to that organisation, which is sometimes misunderstood. It has nothing whatever to do with Lloyds Bank, and has no direct relationship with the insurance organisation, although both the insurance organisation and the registration society originated from the same coffee shop in London. The organisation is extremely unclear to me, but it is a non-profit making body and some of the union criticisms which have been directed against Lloyds are possibly misplaced, when that fact is borne in mind.

However, the really important underlying point is that this organisation, which fathered all the other similar surveying and registering organisations throughout the world, is one which is not recognised by its own Government at home. It is not empowered to carry out work for the Government, particularly in regard to surveys overseas. The same situation crops up when you are making Defence sales. The first thing anybody wants to know is: Why is it that your Government does not use this organisation? My information is that foreign governments have sometimes said, "Either we will use some little, hole-in-the-corner registration society which has no standing whatever and which cannot be relied upon; or, alternatively, we will go to one of the other big and wholly reputable ones, such as the Norwegian Veritas organisation or the United States Bureau of Shipping". That is why the seven delegation provisions were put into the old Part IV.

My Lords, it is here that I become a little concerned about the underlying reasons for taking out these provisions. First of all, I understand that the unions deployed two attacks. They said that they had not been consulted, and it then transpired in the debate in another place that it had taken them four months to reply to the invitation to be consulted. I do not think they have much to complain about, if that is the speed with which they react. Secondly, there was a claim that issues affecting the safety of merchant seamen were being delegated to a profit-making organisation. I dealt with the question of profit-making a moment ago.

The other point to be made is that for many years the standards of construction have been laid down by Lloyds, and it is absurd to argue that they do not concern the safety of the seamen who go to sea in ships. I should be very worried, in a month which has seen the Con-Mech case and the Chilean engines episode—although I should like to take this opportunity of welcoming the stand taken by Mr. Len Murray in connection with the Northern Ireland case which we have just been hearing about—if we were being told that this part had been removed solely in order to satisfy union pressures for purely political purposes, which is my reading of both of those episodes.

But I do not at all wish to make tremendously heavy weather of a Bill which we regard as extremely desirable. We want to be the first to get on and get these various conventions ratified. Furthermore, the noble Lord has told us that it is possible by Statutory Instrument to introduce a great many of the devolutionary proposals which were included in the original Part IV. In particular there is the tonnage measurement issue, which I understand constitutes something like 70 per cent. of the work that is being done. Therefore, while I want to register the principle, I believe we are very well satisfied that this Bill is going in very much the right direction.

4.10 p.m.


My Lords, my first duty as a working shipowner is to declare a very obvious interest in this Bill. Having done that I should like in the same capacity to say that I think this Bill is very nearly non-controversial, that large parts of it are extremely welcome and that I hope it will have a good passage.

After the extremely lucid exposition of the Minister, and indeed what has also fallen from the lips of my noble friend, I do not want to cover the same ground too often. I will say nothing about Parts I and II of the Bill, but I should like to emphasise what has been said about Part III. For a very long time it has been the view of British shipping—and the Minister has endorsed it this afternoon—and indeed of the shipping interests of most other maritime countries, that international shipping services are most efficiently and economically provided on the basis of a fair field and no favour. In general terms, this means equal treatment for ships of all flags in all countries and, what is just about as important, the widest freedom for those who have cargoes to be carried to consign them to the ships of their choice. We are therefore, obviously and on principle, opposed to what is called "flag discrimination", which is in fact just the opposite of what I have been saying we favour.

As has already been said, it is the practice of certain Governments to favour the ships of their own flag or to make it difficult for ships of other flags to offer their services as freely as they otherwise could. Hitherto when such practices have been adopted to the detriment of British shipping, of the shipping of other countries as well, and of British overseas trade, British Governments have lacked—I was going to say completely, but certainly very nearly completely—any powers to protect British interest. Since the purpose of this Part of the Bill is to give Her Majesty's Government just such powers I need hardly say that it has the wholehearted support of the British shipping industry. As the Minister said, in a brief reference, the need for such powers has been made even more apparent by the adoption by a number of countries in Geneva last month of a Convention on the Code of Conduct for Liner Conferences which contained many restrictive and discriminatory provisions. If I may properly do so, I should like to say how very much I welcome what fell both from the lips of the Minister, and indeed from the lips of the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell. Last week he asked a Question on this very subject.

When this Bill becomes law it will provide measures which, as the Minister said, should be used sparingly and only as a last resort, but they will protect our shipping and trading interests should any country attempt by unilateral legislation to implement the provisions of the Code. As I have said already, and do not mind saying several times, we very much welcome that facility.

With regard to the defunct Part IV I confess that I cannot help sharing the regret expressed by my noble friend about the powers of delegation, but perhaps as a member of the General Committee of Lloyds Register I personally should not pursue that matter further, at any rate at this time.

Clause 19 is designed, as the Minister said, to amend the Merchant Shipping Act of 1970 in respect of offences by seamen. Here one is conscious, as with all disciplinary matters, of being on rather delicate ground, and I do not want to say anything very strong one way or another about it. I only hope that it is generally recognised—and I think what the Minister has said entitles one to hope with confidence—that the conditions of living and working on board ship are necessarily very different from those of living and working ashore, and that special provisions are needed to maintain good order and discipline on shipboard; and that not only for the safety of the ship alone but because without good order and acceptable discipline not only will the efficiency of the ship suffer but so also will the happiness of those in her. We all know that a happy ship is a good ship; we know even more, to our cost (literally at times) that an unhappy ship is not and never can be. So it follows that if the disciplinary provisions are to be effective and a source, as they should be, of harmony and not discord, it is essential that they be acceptable both to those responsible for maintaining discipline (which is, I think inevitably, in the first place the master of the vessel at any one time) and those who are subject to it. This calls for the careful consultation which the Minister has assured us is going to be given. I hope therefore that before they become the law of the land, whatever disciplinary provisions are suggested for incorporation in a future Act of Parliament will, so far as ever possible, be the result of general agreement and will be regarded by all the interested parties as just and necessary. On that account I sincerely welcome the Minister's reference to a proposed Working Party to deal with these matters.

May I conclude by again welcoming the Bill and expressing the hope that it may have fair winds, easy seas and a swift passage.

4.18 p.m.


My Lords, I have no wish to arrest the progress of business but I should like to make a few observations on certain aspects of the Bill now before your Lordships' House. I am honoured to follow the noble Viscount, Lord Runciman of Doxford. I had the honour and pleasure of making the acquaintance of some of his forebears who were members of the other place for many years, as I was myself. Moreover, like the noble Viscount I have to declare an interest. He declared his interest as a shipowner; I can only declare as my interest—and indeed it is my only qualification for intervening in the debate—an honorary life membership of the National Union of Seamen. I hope your Lordships will note the reference to "honorary": it means that I do not need to pay the subscriptions, which is a great advantage. But although I am naturally interested in the conditions of work and the welfare of ships' crews in the British Merchant Navy, for many years I have displayed an interest in the progress—and sometimes the lack of progress—of the British Merchant Navy.

It is a remarkable and significant fact that sometimes it is said that legislation is too hurried, too hasty; yet to-day we are debating flag discrimination, one of the most significant features of this proposed legislation, which was on the cards even before the First World War and on frequent occasions was debated in the other place. At long last we have come to the conclusion that the British Merchant Navy must seek protection in one form or another, and although I am bound to say that the clause of the Bill which deals with this aspect is somewhat nebulous and may be difficult to implement, at any rate it is there and we must make the very best use of it.

But, of course, there is another omission from the Bill which has a bearing on this matter of discrimination. It was referred to by my noble friend who outlined the purpose of the Bill, and it concerns flags of convenience. Flags of convenience have done as much harm to the British Merchant Navy and the development of international trade as indeed has flag discrimination. They present many complications, and would require many international conferences of those concerned with international shipping before a definite conclusion and a solution could be arrived at.

My Lords, I wish to refer to Clause 19 very briefly indeed, because the matter was debated in the other place some years ago. It is interesting to note that in respect of the amendments of the Merchant Shipping Act, it was only after the Pearson Inquiry, subsequent to the seamen's dispute some years ago, that it was decided by the Government to seek an amendment of the Merchant Shipping Act in respect of the conditions of crews in disciplinary matters. To the best of my recollection, the Merchant Shipping Act had not been amended at that date since almost the early part of the century. The Amendment that was introduced I think by the Liberal Government, over which Mr. Lloyd George presided, dealt with the matter only in part. In fact, until seven years ago the Merchant Shipping Act (and, indeed, even the Merchant Shipping Bill now before your Lordships' House) was deficient in some respects because of the demands that were made to amend the original Bill passed in 1874. I think I am right in saying that out of that arose the controversy on the Plimsoll Line.

We are now deciding what ought to be done in matters of discipline. Without any hesitation at all, I agree with both my noble friend Lord Beswick, and with the noble Viscount, Lord Runciman of Doxford, that there must be discipline aboard ship. But sometimes discipline has been somewhat harsh; discipline of a harsh character has been imposed by ships' masters when there was really no occasion for it. Take the example mentioned by my noble friend Lord Beswick, about the repeal of one part of the old Bill; namely, the right of the ships' master when the crews are discharged. The matter might come before the Superintendent of the Board of Trade in any particular port when a man fails to join his ship which, of course, presents many difficulties.

I remember many years ago, when I was associated with seafarers on the Clyde, when we had many ocean liners of the Allan Line, the Anchor Line, the Donaldson Line, the Clan Line and so on, and when ships were not oil-burning but coal-burning, which meant that although not many men were employed on deck, a vast number were employed in the engine room and stokehole, it often happened that men did not join ship. I remember having a conversation with a famous Commodore, Captain Bone, of the old Anchor Line, who also became Commodore of the Cunard Line, who wrote a famous book called The Beachcomber. Captain Bone was a member of the famous Bone family who were intellectuals, artists and the like. On one occasion when a large number of men had failed to join ship—I think it was the Caledonia—Captain Bone said to me something that is worth repeating. He said: "I never can understand how any sober man can join a ship". There was something to be said for that, having regard to the conditions which prevailed at the time.

My Lords, of course there must be discipline; but there must be safeguards against the imposing of discipline which is unwarrantable. So it seems to me that even the proposals contained in the Bill for Working Parties may not be entirely satisfactory. When the Bill was before the other place some years ago, I remember debates in which I took part. Incidentally, my noble friend Lord Goronwy-Roberts, who now deals with foreign affairs, was the Minister who dealt with the subject in the other place at the time. We had great difficulty, I remember, because the Government of the day, the Wilson Government, the Labour Government, I regret to say, refused to disclose the kind of regulations that were necessary in order to supplement in a satisfactory fashion the provisions of the Bill.

Now the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, has told us there are to be Working Parties. This is an excellent idea. It will certainly foster most satisfactory and beneficial industrial relations among those who go to sea, and that is desirable. It is perhaps more necessary for those who go to sea than for those who work ashore, so to that extent I support it. But I should like some kind of assurance that if a seaman commits an offence and the master of the vessel imposes a fine which is regarded as somewhat harsh in the circumstances, and for which perhaps there is no warrant at all, at any rate the seaman should have the right to appeal, even after he is discharged from the vessel. He should be able to go not only to his own union to ask for their assistance and possible redress, but also to the superintendent of the Department of Trade at the port where he is discharged in order to ask for the right of appeal. Something of that kind is required if we are to have satisfactory industrial relations aboard ship, even when discipline is essential, which I accept at once. While I am particularly anxious, as I am sure are all Members of your Lordships' House, to promote the wellbeing of the British Merchant Navy and our shipping interests which make a very beneficial contribution to our balance of payments in what are called invisible exports, at the same time, we are all most anxious to promote the best interests of those who go to sea.

4.28 p.m.


My Lords, I wish to speak for only two or three minutes. Some seven years ago, when the Merchant Shipping Act was before this House, I moved the Amendments to the penal clauses on behalf of the National Union of Seamen. I went to sea myself, and all my family are seafarers. Because I had a particular interest in the sea at that time, I was asked to do the job in Parliament on behalf of the National Union of Seamen, because they had no one else to do it for them. We worked to repeal the penal clauses. The position of the National Union of Seamen was quite clear at that time. If a man refused to obey orders and hazarded the ship or caused danger to persons, so far as the Union were concerned they did not want to interfere with that power. But they took the view that where an order was given by a skipper and was not detrimental to the organisation of the ship, while it may have come within the discipline of the ship, it did not necessarily attract the harsh punishments that had been meted out in years past.

The union suggested that where a skipper, or the mate, or whoever was in charge of the ship, found anybody guilty of a misdemeanour, there ought to be a ship's committee and that case should be determined by them. If the ship's committeee made a determination, then a man had the right to appeal to a shore committee, of which the decision was final and binding. They thought by that method men would not be driven off the sea for trivial misdemeanours that may have happened aboard the ship. Therefore, as I read Clause 19, the Government have gone not all the way but only some of the way to meet the objections that the Seamen's Union put to me when I put that case some years ago. While I know this does not satisfy the Seamen's Union entirely, I think that the Government have gone some way to meet their requests and I compliment them upon that.


My Lords, I am grateful for the welcome given to this Bill, and especially for the speeches from my noble friends Lord Shinwell and Lord Blyton about Clause 19, about which there are quite strong feelings. The noble Lord, Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, asked me what is "oil". I think he will probably find the definition of oil in Clause 1(3) and Clause 2(9). In Clause 1(3) the definition is a wide one; it covers all mineral oils which can cause pollution damage. In Clause 2(9) there is a definition of contributing oil, which is a narrower definition and covers only the two types, crude oil and fuel oil, which are carried in bulk quantities sufficient to justify the cost of accounting for the contributions to the Fund.

The noble Lord also asked me about identification of ships. Article 4, paragraph 2 of the Convention to which I referred states that, the Fund shall incur no obligation under the preceding paragraph if; …. (b) the claimant cannot prove that the damage results from an incident involving one or more of the ships". The reason for that point is that the Fund is not designed to pay for pollution damage arising from what one might call natural causes, from oil seepage or from fractured oil pipelines, either on the ship or under the sea. It is designed to cover major incidents, and in any major incident involving ships at sea the facts, I think he would agree, would be known.

The noble Lord said that he was concerned to give a "commercial" to the Lloyds Register. I think if he reads what I said he will see that I gave them a "mini-commercial" myself. I paid tribute to the high regard in which this organisation is held all over the world. I made it clear that after proper consultation it was proposed to delegate certain survey work to the Lloyds Register; for example, stability and grain-loading surveys, questions of tonnage measurement; these are matters which might be delegated to them by administrative means or as a result of statutory powers. If it is possible to do this, of course, we shall be very happy to do so, because Lloyds Register holds a very high position in the regard of the Government. I should also add, however, since he did seem to think there had been discrimination in this country, that for many years, so I am told, there has been delegation of load line and cargo ship safety surveys to classification societies including Lloyds Register. So I think possibly he will acquit us of any kind of political prejudice. I am a little sorry that he introduced this business of Con-Mech, which was an extraordinary argument. Towards the end he came to the conclusion that it was not a good argument and discarded it himself.

The noble Lord, Lord Strathcona, made the valid point about keeping away in a disaster or accident area other shipping which might interfere with the rescue work in the event of a submerged-apparatus accident. The difficulty here is in the Government taking unilateral action to deny rights of passage in international waters. There is a fear, not entirely unfounded, that ships in the vicinity of a rescue operation which have no part to play in it might hinder or endanger its success. But to the extent possible, one must rely upon the voluntary co-operation of ships at sea. It seems difficult in this Bill to take powers over international waters.

The noble Lord also had some fears that the fine able to be imposed by the Master for smoking on tankers was inadequate; from £10 to £20 is the increase we propose. Of course, that is for an offence which the Master considers could be dealt with in this summary way. If there was a more serious offence, or if it was thought that there was a more serious danger, then it could be dealt with under Section 27 of the 1970 Act, or indeed, as I have indicated before, under the general criminal law. I emphasise again, as I did in my opening speech, that the provisions of the criminal law are always available to buttress any of the powers in the Bill.

My noble friend Lord Shinwell asked for some assurance that there would be a right of appeal. While, on the one hand, the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona, thought the fine was probably not sufficient, my noble friend took the view—and I appreciated what he said—that it is conceivable that the Master might fine too heavily or in a way that is considered unreasonable or unjustified. In such a case, I would say to my noble friend that there is a possibility for the seaman so fined to appeal to the Department's Mercantile Marine Superintendent, if he thinks an injustice has been committed.

The noble Viscount, Lord Runciman, gave support to the Bill as I expected and hoped that he would. I thank him for that support. I thought the approach he had to this controversial Clause 19 was the right one. It was the one which was supported by my noble friends Lord Shinwell and Lord Blyton. If we have the spirit which was displayed by my noble friends on this side, and by the noble Viscount, Lord Runciman, and indeed by the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona, with that kind of approach it ought to be possible within the two Working Parties to evolve an appropriate scale of punishments and enable the necessary discipline to be enforced aboard ships.

I think I have answered the specific questions that were asked of me. If I have not done so, I will certainly see whether I can do so before the next stage of the Bill is reached. If Amendments are thought necessary we shall have another opportunity to discuss the Bill later on. In the meantime, I say again that I appreciate what has been said, and I hope it will not be long before we see this Bill going to another place.

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