Clause 5. — (Powers of Dominion Parliaments in relation to merchant shipping.)

– in the House of Commons on 24th November 1931.

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Mr. HOPKIN MORRIS:

I beg to move, in page 3, line 16, at the end, to add the words: Provided that this Section shall not come into operation until a convention as to merchant shipping in the British Empire has been ratified by the Parliaments of the United Kingdom and of each Dominion. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Sparkbrook (Mr. Amery) has to-day altered his argument in favour of the Bill. As I understand it, the basis of his argument is that this Bill provides, in substitution for the old uniformity which bound the Empire together, a new form of uniformity based upon the consent of all the Dominions and all the parts of the Empire. If, however, it is to be based on such consent, the new uniformity should be brought into force. It is well realised upon what the present uniformity is based. The effect of my Amendment would be as follows. Clause 5 of the Bill provides that: Without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing provisions of this Act, Sections seven hundred and thirty-five and seven hundred and thirty-six of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, shall be construed as though reference therein to the Legislature of a British possession did not include reference to the Parliament of a Dominion. Sections 735 and 736 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, restrict the power of British possessions to do certain things. At the moment, uniformity with regard to merchant shipping is obtained by this Parliament legislating for the whole Empire, subject to certain reservations, which are safeguarded in Sections 735 and 736, to the Legislatures of British possessions. British possessions can now do certain things. For instance, Section 35 says: The Legislature of any British possession may by any Act or Ordinance, confirmed by Her Majesty in Conned, repeal, wholly or in part, any provision of this Act (other than those of the Third Part thereof which relate to emigrant ships), relating to ships registered in that possession; but any such Act or Ordinance shall not take effect until the approval of Her Majesty has been proclaimed in the possession… Therefore, there is the check of an Order in Council and the approval of Her Majesty upon any Legislature repealing any Section of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894. Section 736 of the Act provides that: The Legislature of a British possession may, by any Act or Ordinance, regulate the coasting trade of that British possession, subject in every case to the following conditions. The Section then states the conditions under which the Legislature of a British possession can modify the Act of 1894. Clause 5 of this Bill would remove all these safeguards. By removing the word "Dominion" from the definition of a British possession, it would enable a Dominion as defined in this Statute of Westminster Bill to legislate irrespective of legislation in this House, and without the check given by the Royal Proclamation in the case of British possessions under the Act of 1894. So that, as far as the Dominions are concerned, after the passing of the Statute of Westminster, there would be probably no uniformity with regard to the merchant shipping services. The desirability of that uniformity has been set out in the report of the Conference of 1929. One of its recommendations was: As shipping is a world-wide interest in which uniformity, from the nature of the case, is desirable, there is a strong presumption in favour of concerted action between members of the British Commonwealth in shipping matters. That uniformity is now secured under the Act of 1894 by the Royal Proclamation. Assuming it to be desirable that one system of uniformity should be substituted for another—I do not think this Bill does it, but that is beside the point for the moment—the first thing you have to do is to have the form of uniformity to substitute for the existing one. That form is suggested by the Amendment. It will avoid all the clash of legislation which you may easily get with the position created under the Clause.

Photo of Sir Arthur Benn Sir Arthur Benn , Sheffield Park

I understand that this agreement has been drafted and sent out to the various Dominions and has been virtually approved by them. Knowing, as I do, something about shipping, and having handled a good many vessels in foreign ports, I think it would be a most disastrous thing if this Clause was passed without having an agreement between various portions of the Empire as to what is to be done in the case of vessels that are registered outside Great Britain. I cannot see why, when a draft agreement of such importance as this was being sent out to govern our dealing with shipping in the years to come, it was not first of all submitted to Parliament. It was drawn up here and sent out to the Dominions and the Colonies and, if they agree to it and it comes back here, we shall be told we cannot possibly alter it but that we have to agree to it. I hope that the Committee will approve of the Amendment.

Photo of Mr Cyril Atkinson Mr Cyril Atkinson , Altrincham

One of the Sections of the Merchant Shipping Act referred to in this Clause provides that all British ships shall receive the same treatment as ships of other possessions. It does not seem unreasonable that we should do something to retain that right until it has been secured by a Convention. To pass an Act depriving us of the right of equal treatment before we have secured the Convention does not seem a very reasonable thing, and I suggest that the Amendment is so reasonable that it ought to be accepted.

Photo of Mr Leslie Hore-Belisha Mr Leslie Hore-Belisha , Plymouth, Devonport

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardigan (Mr. Morris) has presented an involved legal argument, and I think it is his desire that uniformity should be maintained in merchant shipping legislation throughout the British Empire. That is precisely the intention of the Clause. If he had followed the proceedings of the Conference on the Operation of Dominion Legislation which took place in 1929 he would appreciate that at present the law is in confusion. We have not legislated for the Dominions since 1906, and, therefore, such uniformity as he desires cannot be secured except by agreement. The heads of such agreement have been drawn up and have been published and been on record for a very considerable time. My hon. Friend quoted from the proceedings of the Conference of 1929. In the proceedings of the Conference of 1930 he will find the agreement set out in full. All the Dominions have agreed to this Convention as he prefers to calf it. There is no difference of opinion whatever except in the case of New Zealand, and it is hoped that such small difference of opinion as exists between that Dominion and the rest will be rapidly adjusted. In these circumstances, I hope my hon. Friend will appreciate that this is the best way to secure uniformity, for it is uniformity by agreement and it removes the present anomalies, not only of status but also the present anomalies in connection with discrepant legislation which may now be passed in relation to identical subject matter in the Dominions on the one hand and in this country on the other. Having given my hon. Friend that assurance, coupled with this further assurance, that shipping interests are entirely in favour of this agreement, I hope he will not press the Amendment.

Mr. MORRIS:

Since my hon. Friend admits the desire for uniformity, and he has the uniformity now in the draft agreement, there can he no difficulty about putting this proviso into the Clause, because it gives statutory embodiment to what is already obtained. With this proviso in the Bill, it will not be necessary on future occasions to obtain the agreement which he has now been fortunate enough to obtain.

Photo of Mr Leslie Hore-Belisha Mr Leslie Hore-Belisha , Plymouth, Devonport

Either you are prepared to trust the Dominions now and in the future and to believe them when they say they will put this agreement into operation or you are going to try and maintain an antiquated—

Mr. MORRIS:

My hon. Friend does not appreciate the point. We are not going to ask that this shall be given legislative effect unless there is agreement. On this occasion he has been fortunate enough to secure agreement and, therefore, no difficulty arises. Where there is no agreement there shall be no effective legislation in the future. That is all we are asking. We want to secure that there shall be agreement in the future before there is legislation.

Photo of Mr Leslie Hore-Belisha Mr Leslie Hore-Belisha , Plymouth, Devonport

This Clause only secures in the letter what has long been the position in spirit. There is no sanction which my hon. Friend will be able to apply now or in the future to carry out the present theory of our superiority in matters of legislation and, if the Dominions are willing to sign, why should my hon. Friend hold a big stick over them?

Mr. MORRIS:

My hon. Friend is misrepresenting what I said. This proviso seeks to obtain agreement first. He may say that the proclamation under the Act of 1903 was holding a big stick. All that this secures is that there shall be a Convention to ratify, provided there is agreement. There is no big stick about that.

Photo of Mr Leslie Hore-Belisha Mr Leslie Hore-Belisha , Plymouth, Devonport

My hon. Friend is also under a misapprehension. There is complete agreement.

Mr. MORRIS:

This time.

Photo of Mr Leslie Hore-Belisha Mr Leslie Hore-Belisha , Plymouth, Devonport

Yes, and the agreement will be signed within a very few days. It is not necessary for Parliaments to ratify as suggested in the Amendment but, in so far as Parliaments can, this Parliament is ratifying now. The Dominions will sign, and are authorised by their Governments to sign within the course of the next few days, and that is the only occasion to which his Amendment relates. I really think it is a very small difference. We do not want to hold up an Act of Parliament by accepting an Amendment of this kind when there is no difference of opinion whatever between us and the Dominion.

Photo of Mr George Balfour Mr George Balfour , Hampstead

What happens if these draft agreements are not signed? I think that is a substantial point, and the only point, on which we require some security.

Photo of Mr Leslie Hore-Belisha Mr Leslie Hore-Belisha , Plymouth, Devonport

It is only a question of the spirit in which you are going to treat the Dominions. One cannot say more than that. The Dominions have agreed to sign, there is no reason to doubt their word in the matter, and I do not see any necessity to accept an Amendment which in itself would be an aspersion upon the Dominions. We never hesitated for a moment to believe that they will append their signatures where they promised to append them. They are desirous of so doing.

Photo of Mr George Balfour Mr George Balfour , Hampstead

I cannot agree that there is any aspersion on the Dominions on the matter. The fact is that at present it rests upon a draft agreement, and the sole point under discussion is to have words added that until the agreement is signed, the present position shall continue. I think we are entitled to have some such assurance.

Photo of Mr Leslie Hore-Belisha Mr Leslie Hore-Belisha , Plymouth, Devonport

The Dominions at present enjoy, or suffer under, an inferiority of status. Surely my hon. Friend, who is such an Imperialist, will not wish to continue that inferiority of status any longer. There is no sanction by which we can preserve our present position. As the Dominions have consented to sign, and as there will be complete equality for British shipping throughout the Empire as the result of passing this Clause, I cannot appreciate the very narrow point, if he will allow me courteously to say so, raised by my hon. Friend.

Amendment negatived.