The main purpose of this Bill is to enact as permanent legislation a number of the Emergency Powers Orders which were made in connection with merchant shipping during the war. I think that the House is aware that the general position concerning merchant shipping legislation here is unsatisfactory. The Merchant Shipping Act of 1894, which is the main Act, was framed by the British Parliament as an Imperial Statute intended to cater for the merchant Shipping position in all parts of the British Empire of that year. It does not fit in with our position at the present time or with the concept of an independent Irish shipping service. There are, however, a very large number of problems to be solved before we can produce a comprehensive shipping Act. The actual drafting of a comprehensive shipping Bill has been in progress for some time, but it is by no means completed. There are a number of matters, however, which cannot be conveniently left until the comprehensive Bill can be produced and this Bill is designed to give effect to them. The first matter for which the Bill makes provision is the hoisting of the Irish flag on Irish ships. Until 1939, the law here required that Irish ships should hoist the British Red Ensign.
We had a Bill prepared in 1939 to remedy that situation, but with the outbreak of war it was necessary to act quickly and an Emergency Powers Order was made which is now being established as the permanent law. The Order made in 1939 and the proposals in this Bill require every ship other than a fishing boat to hoist the Irish Tricolour when entering or leaving any port outside the State, and in the case of vessels of 50 tons gross or upwards on entering or leaving any home ports. The hoisting of any other national colours on an Irish ship is prohibited. In other countries there is a practice of permitting the use of a distinctive club flag instead of the merchant flag by yacht clubs, and powers are being taken here to authorise the use by members of such clubs of a variation of the national flag.
During the emergency it was necessary to take power 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 and be entitled to the protection of the Irish flag. There is, however, in Section 8 of the Bill power conferred on 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 have to be used frequently, but occasion may arise when it may be advisable to refuse registration — for example, if the owner of a vessel was seeking registration as a means of evading less favourable conditions elsewhere, or if there were grounds for thinking that he 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 for transfer were refused only where it was proposed to sell or mortgage a vessel to a person outside the State. Even yet licences are not being granted in such cases except where the vessel is a small pleasure craft, or an obselete ship which the owners are proposing to replace with a modern vessel. There are still restrictions of a similar kind in force in all other countries. Irish owners of vessels which are registered at ports elsewhere are still unable to effect the transfer of registry to this country. When the tonnage position improves these restrictions can be materially eased. On that account, Sections 9 and 10 of the Bill are framed so as to allow these matters to be dealt with by regulations made by the Minister for Industry and Commerce, which regulations can be varied from time to time in accordance with changes in the circumstances.
Foreign going ships are required to carry masters and navigating and engineer officers with appropriate certificates of competency. Up to the present such certificates have not been issued in this country. It has been decided to set up an independent system of examination, and to issue Irish certificates of competency as soon as circumstances permit. It is obvious that, for many years to come, officers on Irish ships will be men who have 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. In due course, when the Irish certificates are issued, it is hoped that arrangements will be made with other countries for the recognition of certificates of competency on a reciprocal basis.
The law requires the masters of foreign-going ships or of home trade ships over a certain tonnage to enter into an agreement with their crews 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 could terminate his service on giving 24 hours' notice. In a recent High Court case it was held that the clause was void as it purported to deprive the seaman of his right to compensation if dismissed within a month. The Merchant Shipping Acts provide that no agreement may operate to deprive the seaman of his right to recover the wages to which he would be entitled in the absence of agreement. I am informed that both shipowners and seamen favour a clause in agreements permitting 24 hours' notice on either side. On the master's side, this is provided for in Section 5 of the Bill. It is not necessary to have a similar provision in respect of seamen as such agreement would not be inconsistent with the present provision.
There is another provision dealing with conditions of employment. It is well known that, from time to time, despite the efforts of the representatives of shipowners and the officials of seamen's unions, the sailing of a ship is often 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, apart altogether from the additional expense to which the shipowner is put by it. The penalty under the present law is forfeiture of a sum not exceeding two days' pay from a seaman's wages, but in practice it is found that a seaman who fails to join his ship may have no wages due to him and, consequently, escapes the penalty altogether. It is proposed to amend the law in that regard and substitute for the forfeiture of wages a fine not exceeding £10.
The present law required 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 were made by the local authorities who, however, had no staff to enforce them. It is proposed in Section 11 of the Bill that small craft carrying passengers for reward should be obliged to comply with minimum safety regulations.
Senators will remember that this country was represented at a special Maritime Session of the International Labour Office which was held last year in Seattle. The report of the Government members of the delegation to the conference, and the text of the instruments which were adopted at the conference, were presented to the Oireachtas in June last. The main purpose of the conference was to secure agreement on certain standards in respect to conditions for seamen. I may say that the prevailing conditions for seamen on Irish ships are, in most respects, better than the agreed minimum standards laid down at that international conference. Consultations between the representatives of shipowners and of the seamen's unions and the Department of Industry and Commerce are still in progress in regard to the standards agreed upon, and I hope that this will be one of the first countries to ratify most of the conventions that were adopted at the Seattle conference. Power is given in the Bill to the Minister for Industry and Commerce, under Section 12, 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 conference. These conventions are listed in the First Schedule to the Bill.
Section 13 of the Bill deals with bills of lading. Bills of lading are documents given by shipowners or ship 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 was held in Brussels in 1922 which agreed upon certain standard rules for inclusion in bills of lading with a view to the enactment of uniform legislation by all maritime countries. Legislation to that effect has been passed in a number of countries, including the United States, Britain, France, Canada and Australia. Now that an Irish mercantile marine service is developing, it is desirable that this country should fall into line, and provision is made in the Bill for the adoption of uniform rules with regard to bills of lading which are set out in the Second Schedule of the Bill.
The rules define the responsibilities and liabilities, the rights and immunities of sea carriers, and will, if the Bill becomes law, become part of all contracts for the carriage of goods by sea evidenced by bills of lading in this country. 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 main provisions of the Bill. As will be appreciated, it relates to a variety of matters not necessarily connected one with the other, but all associated with merchant shipping. It is desirable to have the law settled on the lines set out here pending the day when it will be possible to have the whole merchant shipping code brought up to date in a comprehensive measure.