HC Deb 10 February 1970 vol 795 cc1098-100

4.25 p.m.

Mr. Charles Fletcher-Cooke (Darwen)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law with respect to the carriage of goods by sea. I have here a non-controversial little Bill which seeks to modernise the law of the carriage of goods by sea and to bring it into the spirit of the container age. It may, therefore, be considered a modest ember in the white hot technological revolution.

The Carriage of Goods by Sea Act, 1924, is nearly half a century old, and although it has stood the test of time and ratifies a previous convention known as The Hague Rules, which have a wide measure of international acceptance and support, it is, inevitably, out of date in some particulars; and I particularise especially the limitation of liability for loss or damage—and I speak in general terms—of individual packages or parcels which are carried by sea.

There is at present an international agreement that this should be limited, roughly speaking, to £100 per packet, and one can imagine that if, as is so often the case, containers are considered as individual packages or parcels the law is, in financial terms, ludicrously out of date. Changing conditions of international commerce have called for many modifications, and this is certainly the view of carriers and of traders.

History repeats itself, in that whereas the 1924 Act was the result of an international conference at Brussels in 1924, in 1968 there was another international conference on maritime law in Brussels which resulted in a protocol to amend The Hague Rules in the manner that the Bill seeks to do. The lead was taken by the noble Lord, Lord Diplock, who persuaded all the nations represented at Brussels in 1968 to renegotiate the rules, and the protocol was the result.

Two years have elapsed, but no nation has so far ratified that protocol, and the Bill seeks to perform, as far as the United Kingdom is concerned, the task of ratification and to give a lead to the other nations in the way that Lord Diplock gave a lead to the confence. That is what our shipowners who carry the goods would like. That is what our traders whose goods they carry would like. I believe that that is what both sides of the House would like, and that is why I am asking the leave of the House to bring in the Bill.

In conformity with the Brussels protocol, the Bill will raise the limit of liability per package from £100 to about £270 per package. It will also make provision to enable higher limits to be agreed between the parties. A further provision, and one of the most important alterations, will remove doubts as to whether a container of cargo is to be treated as a single package, or whether the articles it contains are to be treated as separate packages for the purposes of the rules.

The Bill will provide, in effect, that a container will count as one package unless the individual packages it contains are listed on the bill of lading. In that case, each package will count separately for the purpose of liability. This clarification is of immense importance in removing one uncertainty in the way of the full exploitation of this modern innovation.

A number of other small but important changes in The Hague Rules have been made. In United Kingdom law, probably the most significant is that the defences and limits of liability in the convention will be available to servants or agents of the carrier although they are not parties to the contract of carriage.

The Bill will also make it clear that a bill of lading shall be conclusive evidence of the receipt by the carrier of the goods described in it. There will be a limiting period of one year from which suits can be brought against carriers in respect of liability, though this may be extended by agreement between the parties after the cause of action has arisen.

I shall also provide that, in circumstances in which damage is done with intent, or recklessly, the carrier's liability shall be unlimited. This will be in line with similar provisions in other international transport conventions.

Furthermore, the application of the rules under Section 1 of the 1924 Act has proved unduly limiting in its scope in that our courts have decided that they are not obliged to apply them to a bill of lading issued outside the United Kingdom even when the law of the place of issue requires their application.

I freely admit that this will be a technical Bill, but our shippers and shipowners, who play such a vital role in our economy, think it important and are united in their wish to see it enacted. So, I think, are the shippers and shipowners of all other maritime nations, and, indeed, all those who use their services.

For these reasons, I commend the Motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Charles Fletcher-Cooke, Mr. Simon Wingfield Digby, and Mr. James Dunn.