Merchant Shipping Bill, 1947—Second Stage.

I move that the Bill be now read a Second Time. It has been clear for a long time that the law relating to merchant shipping contained in the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 and some 20 other related enactments was only partially adaptable to the circumstances of this country. The main Act, which is an Imperial statute in the widest sense, was intended to cater for the merchant shipping position of all parts of the British Empire in 1894 and it does not fit in with the concept of an independent Irish service. There are, however, many problems involved in the revision of the merchant shipping code. It is a very big task. A beginning has been made, but some considerable time must elapse before a comprehensive measure can be introduced. I think it is desirable that we should have a comprehensive measure and I hope that the new Dáil will have such a Bill before it during its life-time. The Bill which I am introducing is an interim measure designed to deal with certain matters which cannot conveniently be held over pending the completion and introduction of a comprehensive Bill. In fact, Sections 2 to 4 and 8 to 10, inclusive, of this Bill are required to give permanent effect to the provisions of certain Orders which were made under the Emergency Powers Act and which it is desired to continue in permanent form.

Up to 1939, the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Acts required Irish ships to hoist the British red ensign. A Bill which was designed to remedy that anomaly was ready for introduction at the outbreak of the war, but the need for a distinctive Irish flag for our merchant fleet then became a matter of such urgency that, in September, 1939, shortly after the war began, the Government made an Order requiring every Irish ship, other than a fishing boat, to hoist the national tricolour on entering or leaving a port outside the State and, in the case of a vessel of 50 tons gross, or upwards, on entering or leaving any home port. The hoisting of any other national colours on an Irish ship was prohibited. These provisions, now in force under Emergency Powers Orders, are incorporated in Sections 2 and 3 of the Bill, so as to make them permanent legislation.

It is the practice in other countries for yacht clubs to have a distinctive club flag instead of the merchant flag and power is being taken in the Bill to authorise the use by members of such clubs of a variation of the national flag. Before deciding that the tricolour should be the flag for the merchant fleet, the Government considered the practice prevailing in other countries. In some countries, including Great Britain, there is a distinctive flag for the merchant fleet. In other countries such as the United States, France and Portugal the national colours are used. The Government thought it best to prescribe the tricolour as the Irish merchant flag. The tricolour is now flown on Irish ships and has become well-known in many ports throughout the world.

During the emergency, power was taken by an Order under the Emergency Powers Act to enable a foreign ship taken on charter by an approved Irish charterer to be registered as an Irish ship. It is proposed to continue that power so that a ship taken on charter may be registered temporarily as an Irish ship, thus becoming entitled to the protection of the Irish flag. Registration as an Irish ship is an entitlement to the protection of the Irish flag.

Section 8 of the Bill empowers the Minister for Industry and Commerce at his discretion to refuse registration to any ship or any class of ships. It is not anticipated that this power will be frequently invoked but occasion may arise on which it would be advisable to refuse registration—for instance if a ship owner is seeking Irish registration merely as a means of evading less favourable conditions elsewhere or if there are grounds for suspecting that an owner might use the Irish flag as a cover for illegal or undesirable activities.

In 1939 it also became necessary to control the transfer of registry and the sale or mortgage of Irish ships. In practice, licences were refused only in cases where it was proposed to sell or mortgage a ship to a person outside the State. Licences are not at present being granted where it is proposed to sell or mortgage a ship outside the State, except where the vessel concerned is a small pleasure craft or an obsolete ship which the owners have replaced by a more modern vessel. Restrictions of a similar nature are at present enforced in other countries. Irish owners of vessels which are registered at ports outside this State are still unable to effect the transfer of registry to this country. When the tonnage position improves, I hope these restrictions can be materially eased. On that account, Sections 9 and 10 are framed so as to allow these matters to be dealt with by regulations made by the Minister for Industry and Commerce from time to time.

Foreign going ships are required by law to carry masters and navigating and engineer officers with appropriate certificates of competency. Up to the present, such certificates are not being issued here. The Government have decided to set up an independent system of examination and to issue Irish certificates of competency as soon as circumstances permit. For some years to come, however, most of the officers of Irish ships will be men who have already obtained their certificates as a result of examinations conducted by other States. Section 7 of the Bill provides that the Government may recognise for service on Irish ships, certificates of competency issued by other Governments where the Minister for Industry and Commerce is satisfied that they represent adequate qualifications. When Irish certificates are issued it is hoped that arrangements can be made with other countries for the recognition of certificates of competency on a reciprocal basis.

The Merchant Shipping Acts require the master of a foreign going ship or a home trade ship over a certain tonnage to enter into agreement with members of their crew in an approved form. It became a common practice to include in such agreements a clause permitting the master to dispense with the services of a member of the crew at a home port without notice. A member of the crew on his part could give 24 hours' notice. In a recent High Court case, it was held that this clause in agreements was void as it purported to deprive the seaman of his right to compensation if dismissed within a month. The Merchant Shipping Act provides that no agreement may operate to deprive a seaman of any remedy for the recovery of wages to which he would be entitled in the absence of the agreement. I understand that both the ship owners and the Seamen's Trade Union favour a clause in agreements permitting 24 hours' notice on either side. On the masters' side this is provided for in Section 5 of the Bill. It is not necessary to have a similar provision on the workers' side as such a provision in the agreement in respect of a seaman is not inconsistent with the provisions of the Act.

From time to time despite the best efforts of the representatives of both the shipping owners and the men, the sailing of a ship will be delayed by the failure of one or two members of the crew to join before the time fixed for sailing. With the shortage of shipping such delays should be avoided, quite apart from the additional expense to which ship owners are put. The delays may be protracted if a tide is missed. The penalty for absence without leave is forfeiture of a sum not exceeding two days' pay from a seaman's wages. A seaman who fails to join his ship may have no wages due to him and he may escape penalty altogether. The proposal in this Bill is to change the existing provision to a fine not exceeding £10.

The Merchant Shipping Acts require safety precautions to be taken in the case of the larger type of passenger vessel. Small boats plying for hire between the mainland and islands off the coast in coastal waters and in rivers and lakes have been exempt from control except in a few cases where by-laws have been made by local authorities who have no expert staff to enforce them. It is proposed in Section 11 that small craft carrying passengers for reward be obliged to comply with minimum safety requirements. The Government took the decision to legislate in this matter following a disaster off the west coast of Ireland.

This country was represented by a delegation at the Maritime Session of the International Labour Office held last year in Seattle. The report of the Government members of the delegation and the text of the instruments which were adopted there were presented to the Oireachtas last June. The main purpose of the conference was to secure agreement on certain standards in respect of the conditions for seafarers. The conditions for seamen on Irish ships are in most respects better than the agreed minimum international standards. There have been consultations between my Department and representatives of shipowners and seamen's trade unions in regard to the standards agreed upon and I hope that Ireland will be one of the first countries to ratify most of the conventions which were adopted at that conference. One of the reasons why I am anxious to get this Bill passed this Session is to enable us to be one of the first States to ratify some of these conventions.

Power is given under Section 12 to the Minister for Industry and Commerce to make regulations for promoting the welfare of seamen on Irish ships or at Irish ports. This provision will enable effect to be given to the conventions adopted at the International Labour Office conference. The conventions adopted at that conference are listed in the First Schedule of the Bill.

Section 13 of the Bill deals with bills of lading. Bills of lading are documents given by shipowners or charterers to consignors acknowledging the receipt of goods and setting out the terms upon which they are to be shipped and delivered. An International Maritime Conference, held in Brussels, in 1922, agreed on certain standard rules for inclusion in bills of lading with a view to the enactment of uniform legislation by all maritime countries. Such legislation has been passed by many important maritime countries, including the United States of America, Britain, France, Canada and Australia. The development of an Irish mercantile marine renders it desirable for this country to fall into line, and provision is being made in the Bill for the adoption of the uniform rules relating to bills of lading which are set out in the Second Schedule of the Bill.

The rules define the responsibilities and liabilities, as well as the rights and immunities, of sea carriers and will, if this Bill is enacted, become part of all contracts for the carriage of goods by sea evidenced by bills of lading issued in this country.

Parties to whom bills of lading are transferred for value in the course of business will be assured that they impose legal irreducible obligations on shipowners. The bills will, therefore, become a better security and in that way international commerce will be facilitated. In the absence of these provisions, shipowners are free to limit their liabilities by special conditions in the bill of lading and shippers and endorsees of bills of lading may find that they have no legal remedy in the event of loss or damage to the goods.

Bills of lading are not ordinarily used in the coastal trade, which is accordingly excluded from the scope of these provisions. Trade with Britain is also excluded, as a reciprocal provision is contained in the British Carriage of Goods by Sea Act, 1924, in regard to trade with this country.

These are the provisions of the Bill. They relate to a number of matters affecting merchant shipping, all of which it is desirable to enact in legislation in advance of the preparation, introduction and enactment of a comprehensive Merchant Shipping Act.

With the principle that we should have our own merchant shipping code, I think all Deputies will be in complete agreement. The idea of a Merchant Shipping Act of our own originated at a very early stage in the history of this State and, during the Imperial Conference, discussions proceeded in an endeavour to square up our notions of an independent merchant shipping code with the system that existed under the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894.

The only doubt I have about this Bill, which we have no objection to give to the Government, is as to whether it will not result in practice in a further postponement of a comprehensive Merchant Shipping Bill. We all know the practice of Departments. It has been the aim for many years to have a Merchant Shipping Act. There are hundreds of sections in the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 and some amending statutes. It is a most complicated code, not merely complicated in law, but complicated by reason of the interaction between the ideas in connection with principles that should guide matters relating to loading, load lines and safety provisions for preventing collisions at sea, and a host of other matters and difficulties in connection with reconciling the views of various nations in connection with their merchant fleets.

If this Bill is passed—and we have no objection to it—I fear it will lead to putting on the long finger the enactment of a comprehensive merchant shipping code. It will give the breathing space necessary and it is to be hoped, whatever Minister for Industry and Commerce will be in existence after Christmas, he will tackle that problem energetically and will also take account of the fact that we in this country, whatever our constitutional status may be, have certain associations with the other members of the British Commonwealth of Nations, and while we are all in agreement that there ought to be a Merchant Shipping Act, nevertheless that ought to be so framed as to be in principle and practice as far as possible in accord with the views that have been found to be desirable in practice and from experience in connection with the principles embodied in the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894.

While I think every Deputy realises there must be a code governing the management of merchant ships, I would like the Minister to introduce some measure that will put on a solid footing at least some start towards having a mercantile fleet of our own.

That is covered in the next Bill.

I gathered from what the Minister said that this Bill offered an opportunity to deal with a mercantile marine.

He referred to the conditions under which men work in ships. The Deputy will have every opportunity to deal with his point on the next Bill.

Very well.

Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage fixed for Wednesday, 26th November, 1947.