Skip to main content

Merchant Shipping (Safety Convention) Bill

Volume 465: debated on Friday 27 May 1949

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

3.19 p.m.

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

In moving the Third Reading of this Bill, I think the first obligation that rests upon me is to express my appreciation of the support that I have received from all quarters of the House which has enabled this Bill to pass so rapidly through all its stages. Our time is limited and I am confident that if other hon. Members wish to make any final comments on the Bill, I can count on their co-operation to conclude our proceedings before the vital hour of 4 o'clock.

During the Committee stage I undertook to reconsider an Amendment moved by the hon. and gallant Member for Holderness (Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite) to Clause 24. When this matter was under discussion in the Committee, some anxiety was expressed with regard to the protection that it would afford to an owner who had taken all the necessary and reasonable precautions in the loading of his ship. I stated that it was not introducing any innovation, and, on examination, I am quite satisfied that although there was a provision along these lines in the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, there is no reason to assume that a court would not in fact afford to an owner the protection which the Amendments moved in Committee sought to give. Therefore, I did not consider it necessary to promote an Amendment on the Report stage of the Bill. I think that the hon. and gallant Member can rest content with that explanation.

When the present Bill becomes law, the Minister of Transport will have powers to implement the provisions of the Safety at Sea Convention, 1948, and, in certain respects, to go beyond those provisions. I gave an assurance on Second Reading that before attempting to apply to British shipping any rules or regulations which in their scope or extent went beyond the provisions of the 1948 Convention, I would have the fullest consultation with all sections of the shipping industry—owners, officers and men.

I now wish to supplement that assurance by another. The question has been raised, particularly in regard to the construction of passenger ships: what will be the position of foreign ships coming to this country; will they be subject to the same rules and regulations as apply to British shipping? The answer to this question is that ships to which the Convention applies, belonging to countries which have accepted the Convention, will be entitled when in our ports to all the privileges of the Convention's ships, provided, of course, that they produce satisfactory evidence that they comply with the provisions of the Convention. Under the Convention, we are bound to give clearance to foreign Convention ships producing adequate evidence of compliance with the Convention. We cannot require or expect such ships to comply with any higher standards which may be in force for British ships. So far as other foreign ships are concerned, the Bill, read in conjunction with the Merchant Shipping Acts, gives me wide powers for securing their compliance with all reasonable and practical safety standards within our ports, and I certainly intend to avail myself of those powers.

As I said on Second Reading, the Bill can be interpreted as showing a desire on the part of His Majesty's Government to take the lead—as I think all maritime nations expect this country to take the lead—in maintaining and improving the standard of safety rules and regulations applied to the sea. At the same time, I think it pays the debt which the nation owes to our Merchant Fleet for the work they did during the war and for the efforts they are making today in our economic recovery.

It is in that spirit that I feel that I should thank hon. Members in all quarters of the House for their co-operation. In fact, I must include the owners, officers and men as well, because in view of the complexities of this problem, and the size, dimension and far-reaching purposes of this Act, it would have been impossible for me to have got it drafted and submitted to this House in a watertight way so that we should get through the Committee stage with such expedition, unless it had represented the maximum amount of co-operation. In asking the House to give this Bill a Third Reading, I am confident that before long it will be on the Statute Book, and I shall then have the powers to embody the provisions of the Convention in the necessary rules and regulations.

3.26 p.m.

As the right hon. Gentleman has said, this Bill is a shining example of the rapidity with which the House of Commons can function when we have a common objective. I would particularly endorse what he has just said about the manner in which all concerned have been able to co-operate and agree on the wording. It was no small achievement that a Measure of this importance, containing as it does 37 Clauses, was disposed of in a little more than an hour in the Standing Committee upstairs. If I may say so, the conciliatory attitude of the right hon. Gentleman had a good deal to do with that.

As the only disputation which occurred in Committee came from an attempt which I made to insert a new subsection into Clause 24, perhaps I might just say a word about the situation which has developed since then. What I endeavoured to do was to insert in Clause 24, which deals with the carriage of grain, a provision similar to that already contained in Section 452 (2) of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, to which the Minister referred a few minutes ago. This would have the effect of affording the owner of a grain ship protection against offences committed in loading where it could be shown that he was in no way privy to the offence and had taken all reasonable precautions.

What I had in mind then, as had my hon. Friends, were circumstances where a ship can be loaded thousands of miles away on the opposite side of the globe, whereas the owner in London or Liverpool would have no knowledge of those circumstances. However, the subsequent discussion revealed some anxiety among hon. Members, Government supporters as well as my hon. Friends, lest this Amendment would have had the effect of relieving the shipowner of his responsibility. It was also suggested that if it were desirable to afford protection of that kind, the present right of the owner of the grain ship contained in that Statute of 1894 to be absolved from blame should similarly operate in the case of the master and the agent.

It was upon those considerations that I withdrew the Amendment, and the right hon. Gentleman gave an undertaking that he would consult the various interests affected and give the matter consideration before the Bill came to the Floor of the House. We understand now from the right hon. Gentleman that those consultations have taken place, with the result that the Amendment is regarded as unnecessary, and if we leave Clause 24 in its original form, the object which I and my hon. Friends had in mind will in fact be met. That, I think, is a very satisfactory way in which to leave the matter.

May I say in conclusion that I think this is a remarkable Bill, being as it is an instrument of ratification of an international convention on which 30 nations, I think, sat for seven weeks and achieved agreement. In the year 1949, that is something.

To have a Bill before us in the year 1949 representing agreement about anything between 30 nations is something, and I think it is an event at least worthy of comment.

I very much hope that when the Bill is on the Statute Book no difficulties will arise here and there in its operation. It depends on the good will of very large numbers of people. The fact that the various shipping interests in this country are united upon it is a good omen, I think, because as the right hon. Gentleman rightly said, people ail over the world look to this country and to our conduct of our mercantile marine for a lead. I am indeed glad that this Bill goes forward as an agreed Measure. I think it counts for something that there was no Division called at all during the whole of its passage, and that it is a House of Commons Measure in every sense of the word. With the right hon. Gentleman, I hope that it will reach the Statute Book without delay. I think we can be proud on all sides of the House that we have been able to participate in this important Measure on improving the arrangements for safety at sea.

3.32 p.m.

I join with the hon. and gallant Member for Holderness (Lieut. - Commander Braithwaite) in congratulating the Minister not only on the excellence of this Bill but also upon the rapidity with which it has passed through this House. It was printed on 12th May and within about a fortnight we find ourselves at the Third Reading stage. That is as it should be, because this Bill is part of the struggle which will never end between the hazards of the sea, on the one hand, and the work of science on the other hand, in its efforts to give to seamen some of the securities which have been long enjoyed by workers ashore. Seamen can never wholly have that security by the very nature of things, because the sea is unpredictable; her moods are ever changing and her dangers are unconquerable.

Great men and great organisations have contributed to diminishing those dangers, and I think this is an occasion when we should remember those who have taken their part in diminishing the dangers of the sea. Notably, there is the National Union of Seamen, but there is also the Merchant Officers' Federation and the Navigator and Engineer Officers' Union. They played their part and they have produced great and steadfast public servants, notably the late Mr. Charles Jarman, who took a prominent part in the conference from which this Convention resulted, and his successor today, Mr. Tom Yates, the Secretary of the National Union of Seamen, who is continuing the good work.

I think it is appropriate that their names should be remembered today, because, although this Bill may not be the end, it is perhaps the terminal point for the moment of a series of Bills which have been designed to improve the conditions of seamen. Although a small Bill, it is a most useful Bill. It is sad to reflect that the progress of the merchant seamen has been so slow, but it is not surprising because they are scattered and they do not combine easily. Here again, the National Union of Seamen played its part in acting for them ashore while they were scattered abroad on the seven seas of the world.

A period of 100 years has seen a series of statutes which are but stepping stones in the progress of these men, and the large number of these statutes shows how small were the stepping stones and how great was the struggle to bring to these men some of the amenities of life which workers ashore have enjoyed. This Bill is the latest but I hope not the last, because science will keep marching ahead. Science will continue to offer new benefits and amenities to the men afloat, and science, as it marches forward, will make Bills of this kind continue to be necessary. This is a most beneficent Bill, and while I welcome it, with its rules for life-saving appliances and radio, and rules for direction finders, and so on, I hope this country will continue, not only to lead in science of this kind but in legislation of this kind, which will make the conditions afloat even better than they were in preceding years. I welcome this Bill.

3.36 p.m.

I do not wish to detain the House long at this stage, but I should like to join in the general welcome given to this Bill from all sides of the House. I was not, unfortunately, able to take part in the Debate on Second Reading as I returned only that very morning from a rather long journey with my right hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Eden), I was, however, a Member of the Committee which considered this Bill, and, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Holderness (Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite) has just said, it was very good to see the general agreement there was on the points that were considered, and, the way the Minister received all suggestions with the assurance that all points would be gone into most fully. We are all very glad to see the long list of important matters that are brought into this Bill. For example, certain life-saving appliances and fire appliances are made compulsory, and there are rules with regard to equipment—radio telegraphy and radio telephony, and direction finding, and other navigational aids.

However, I think for one moment we should look at the other side of the picture and remember that a great deal does depend on two things. First there is the material. We make it compulsory for this equipment to be fitted, and, therefore, a great deal does depend on the equipment that is fitted, and on its use and maintenance. The second is the men who are to use that equipment. They have to be highly skilled in its use and maintenance, otherwise there is not really very much good in insisting that this equipment should be carried. I should like to quote a short extract from a poem by Admiral Hopwood, whose works are probably well known to hon. Members of this House. It runs:
"In this age of swift invention it is frequently believed,
That the pressing of a button is as good as work achieved,
But the optimistic inventor should remember, if he can,
Though the instrument be perfect there are limits to the man."
Of course, as he says in the last line, we all hope that what he called the instruments will be perfect, but let us remember that if anything should go wrong with the instruments, the older methods of doing things have to be relied upon. Let us not forget that the elements and the dangers of the sea have not changed at all, even it some of the ways of dealing with them have. I think we have had a rather notable example of that recently. I am sure we are all very glad that this Bill makes things easier and safer not only for those who work at sea but for those who travel by sea, and I am glad to wish this Bill good luck on its voyage.

3.39 p.m.

I wish to add my welcome to this Bill, which has had unanimous support from both sides of the House, and I am glad that additional power is given to the Minister in respect of safety in ships at sea. This legislation will reduce the number of coffin ships that go to sea and never return. The Bill deals not only with the safety of ships but the safety of crews and passengers. What is all-important is, that it also includes for the first time ships between 1,600 tons and 5,000 tons, which hitherto have not come within this legislation.

Opposition speakers on Second Reading argued that we should not go too far ahead too fast because the increased expense would reduce shipowners' profits, and so prevent them from competing in the world markets. On the other hand, they argued the contrary, that in these matters British ships are ahead of foreign ships. I do not deny that that is so with certain ships; but, as they all know, it is not so in other cases. Where our ships are ahead there will be no question of large increases in expenditure, so the Opposition cannot have the argument both ways in the case of those ships. Where our ships do not come up to the standard of the higher standard ships steps should be taken to bring them, as far as possible, up to that high standard. Profits should not be made at the expense of human lives.

We look forward in due course to a new Merchant Shipping Act, to which this Bill is but another step. I conclude by saying that I hope the Minister will make full use of his powers to ensure that every possible precaution is taken, not only for the safety of the ships but also for the safety of the gallant officers and men, to whom tribute has been paid on both sides of the House, who are second to none in the world, by whatever standard they may be judged

3.42 p.m.

I shall withdraw that part of my remarks, but I shall not withdraw what I shall say next. The hon. and gallant Member for East Hull (Commander Pursey) has succeeded, even on this Bill, in importing a slightly unpleasant element into the discussion. I shall not put it stronger than that. If he will look at the Second Reading Debate he will see that hon. Members on this side of the House made out no such case as he has attempted to impute to them, about profits being the determining motive. It may have been pointed out that there were dangers to the British merchant marine as a whole, and to the men who work in and for the British merchant marine, if we try to push ahead our standard of practice so far in advance of other nations that we put ourselves clean out of the market by doing so. But that is a very different thing from talking about profits in relation to safety.

Of course safety is the only thing that matters in relation to ships going to sea, and that has always been the proud tradition of British shipowners and British shipping throughout the centuries. I was sorry that the hon. and gallant Gentleman introduced that element, because I do not think it was necessary; nor do I think that he will find a word in the Second Reading Debate to justify what he has just said.

We will sit down together with a copy of HANSARD and go through it. Perhaps then, if he finds he is quite wrong, he will take some means of withdrawing his remarks.

Well, I hope he will at any rate follow me in that; he must surely at least agree to do that. I do not think we ought to continue further on this note on a Bill throughout the proceedings on which we have had another of those surprising demonstrations of harmony which, as my hon. and gallant Friend has said, do not come too often in these days.

The hon. and learned Member for North Aberdeen (Mr. Hector Hughes) quite rightly referred to certain names which should be remembered on an occasion such as this—the great leaders of the seamen's unions, who have worked throughout in the closest co-operation with the British owners, during latter years chiefly through the aegis of the National Maritime Board. I think it was right that their names should have been mentioned. It has been one of the great things about British shipping that for a great many years, there has always been close co-operation between all sides of the industry to try to achieve the best results for the British merchant marine and to put it in the forefront of maritime practice throughout the world. I hope that the example in this House of Commons of the rapid passage of this Bill, will be reflected in equally rapid action in the legislatures of various other nations who are signatories to the Convention, because if they will only follow our example, it will be to the benefit of everybody concerned.

I welcome particularly the declaration of the Minister on non-Convention passenger ships. I am certain that declaration will be appreciated by all those concerned in British shipping. When we have a very wide Convention such as this, with 30 nations in it, it is obviously extremely important that there should not be one or two nations running quite contrary to the general standards of safety set up by this very wide Convention, and we welcome what the Minister said in that respect.

I have only one other point to mention. During the Committee stage, one or two minor alterations were made in the Bill to avoid any risk of setting up a monopoly in improvements such as radio stations and direction finders. Those alterations made it clear that no special type of equipment should be specified which would set up a monopoly. I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary to give an assurance that when it comes to making orders under the Bill which might possibly produce a similar danger of setting up a monoply in one particular type of appliance, in lifeboats or whatever it might be, great care will be taken in the drafting of those orders to see that that danger is avoided. I am sure that it is the intention of the Minister to make certain when any order is made that it is carefully checked in case the wording is such that it produces a monopoly which would not be in the interests of the service. I would finish by observing that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Holderness (Lieut. - Commander Braithwaite) put our position very clearly and well and that I join with him in welcoming the Bill.

3.47 p.m.

As I have followed the Bill from its beginning, I should like to say a word of appreciation and approval. I thought that the hon. and learned Member for North Aberdeen (Mr. Hector Hughes) was a little bit off the proper track in his remarks about it, much as I admired and agreed with them. This is not a Bill for the amenities of the merchant shipping service or for better conditions in merchant ships, but for the safety of life. That may be a very nice amenity indeed but it is not an amenity that concerns life on board a ship. The Bill concerns regulations internationally agreed upon for safety of life.

It is interesting to note that in practically every case the shipowners of this country are far ahead of all the conventions laid down and agreed upon. It is one of the advantages of private enterprise that owners can go ahead without any legal restrictions, while there is a legal minimum below which they cannot go. Indeed, the whole arrangement at present illustrates the right attitude that the Government should take towards any enterprise undertaken by individuals.

I shall not go into the details of the Bill. I am glad that the Minister has great power to give orders for equipment and for arrangements in a ship, especially as regards boats. I would draw his attention to one point. I should like him to try to develop some form of apparatus for condensing sea water into fresh water. When crews are turned away from a sinking ship and have to exist in boats, water is the most important thing for them. We can live on water for a long while and food does not matter quite so much. If there is any invention which is absolutely up to date and foolproof, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will concentrate upon encouraging it and improving it in order to save the lives of those who are cast adrift in boats.

We have had an interesting Debate, mostly from the accustomed quarters. We are agreed upon a common object. In international affairs we shall find that seamen of all countries agree among themselves. It is not surprising that in a seafaring nation matters of this sort should be agreed upon by all sides. I hope that the Bill be soon be law for the benefit of the seafaring community.

3.50 p.m.

This is becoming like the last night of a very successful play. The Minister of Transport has taken many curtain calls and is weighed down by bouquets. I hope that a final one from me will not obliterate him. As I was unable to take part in the Committee stage—I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedford (Mr. Lennox-Boyd) for taking my place—I should like to seize this opportunity of giving a final blessing from these benches to this very useful and very necessary Bill. I read the Committee stage proceedings with great interest, and, like my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Holderness (Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite), I accept the Minister's assurances and I echo the tributes he paid for the help given to him and the co-operation he received from the very many interests concerned. As the Parliamentary Secretary will want to wind up now, I can do no more than wish the Bill good luck. As my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Holderness said, it is a remarkable example of international agreement in this year of grace, and we send the Bill forth to become an Act in the full assurance that it will be of the greatest benefit to this most gallant service.

3.51 p.m.

I assure the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. J. P. L. Thomas) that we missed him on the Committee stage, but his deputies, the hon. Member for Mid-Bedford (Mr. Lennox-Boyd) and the hon. and gallant Member for Holderness (Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite), served in very good stead. We agree with what was said by the hon. and gallant Member for Holderness about the carriage of grain. I believe that owners are adequately covered by the provisions of the Bill and it was probably right not to press for the inclusion of the Amendment any further than was done. It was a good idea to have it discussed in Committee.

The hon. and gallant Member for Chelsea (Commander Noble) and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Hull (Commander Pursey) both referred to the need for the quality of the men to be high. I have had the opportunity recently of inspecting some of the training schools of the Shipping Federation and also other training facilities which exist. I want to express my personal view, for what it is worth, that the quality of the men now entering the Merchant Navy is as high as, if not higher than, it has ever been. It is a splendid sign of the health of the Merchant Navy that there is such keen competition for entry. Anyone who knows how difficult it is to get a boy into one of the training schools will realise that competition of that sort means that our Merchant Navy still has a good name. We all desire to see that.

I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman, but I hope that he did not think that I suggested in any way that the entry was not as it had been in the past. I was only emphasising the point that one must not put too much trust always in machines.

I know the hon. and gallant Gentleman's background. He was an executive officer in the Royal Navy, and executive officers in the Royal Navy always have something to say about the specialist. I agree entirely with what he says about the need for having the highest quality of personnel and I know he intended it in that way. The specialists in the Royal Navy who were formerly his colleagues may have some marginal comments on what he had to say, but I will not give them at this stage.

The hon. Member for Montrose Burghs (Mr. Maclay) referred to the necessity for early acceptance by other countries. We certainly hope that that will be the case. We have given the lead to other nations by passing this legislation at this early stage. It can come into force on 1st January, 1951, if we get sufficient acceptances by the other nations who have merchant fleets, provided that we get 15, including seven of the countries which have at least one million tons gross of shipping. I can reassure the hon. Gentle man that it would not be the intention of the Minister in relation to orders made about the manufacture of life-saving appliances in any way to seem to favour one firm or plant. The only purpose we seek to serve is to get the best type of appliance for the use for which it is needed.

I want to express my right hon. Friend's appreciation of the services which have been rendered to this cause by both sides of the industry, by the owners on the one side and the unions on the other, the National Union of Seamen and the Merchant Navy Officers' Federation. Clause 2 (1, p), which deals with rope ladders, can almost be described as the Coombs' Clause. Captain Coombs did a good deal of work in connection with that. Other sections of the Bill owe their origin to the interest of certain people on both sides of the industry.

It has been an agreed Measure and now the voyage has come to an end. My right hon. Friend on the bridge has lifted the flag on the fo'c'sle. It remains only for me to let go the anchor. It has been such a calm voyage, and we have come up to our moorings so well, that we have not even to send a man overboard on the buoy. In the result I think we can congratulate ourselves on having taken another step forward which will add to the good name of our Merchant Navy, and will provide for the greater safety of our ships and of those who sail them.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.