HC Deb 16 May 1843 vol 69 cc480-90
Sir C. Napier

rose to bring the state of the Navy List under the consideration of the House, and said, that as this was not a party question, he hoped hon. Members would judge for themselves and not be guided by their leaders on either side of the House It would be remembered that last Session he had brought forward three resolutions on this subject, the first of which stated the opinion of the House that it would be advantageous to have the Admiralty Board composed exclusively of naval officers, and to have one naval officer at the Board of Ordnance. The House had not agreed to those resolutions, but his opinion of the desirableness of the changes they were calculated to effect remained as before. The British navy had won triumphs in every part of the world, both in time of war against the enemy, and in time of peace in putting down the execrable slave-trade, and in other duties, and naval officers had been employed in many parts of the world where there was hardly any Government subsisting, where there were no British consuls or officers of any kind to aid them with their advice, and yet he had the authority of the noble Lord, the late Secretary for Foreign Affairs, for asserting that during ten years not one British naval officer in any one of those difficult situations had ever compromised by his conduct the Government at home. It was felt as a great grievance by naval officers that a naval officer was not at the head of the navy. The right hon. Baronet had asked last Session, was it wise to restrict the choice of the Crown within the narrow limits of the navy? Why he found the navy list contained 190 admirals, consequently it was a less restricted field to choose a head of the Admiralty from than the class of hon. Gentlemen and noble Lords who made extremely long speeches in Parliament, which was the qualification at present. During the period that Lord St. Vincent had been First Lord of the Admiralty, he had found out more abuses in the navy than any of his predecessors. He wished to see a commander-in-chief at the head of the navy who should be wholly responsible for its conduct, and that officers should be appointed by warrant at the head of the dockyards and marines, who should be solely responsible for the conduct of these branches to the Commander-in-Chief. He would then wish the Government to go back to the example set in the time of Queen Anne, and to appoint a Lord High Admiral in the person of Prince Albert, with a board to assist him, and this would give the greatest satisfaction to the navy. He complained also of the manner in which the minor situations in the navy were filled by civilians; even in the case of the appointment of a signal-man to a semaphore a civilian had been chosen, and that system had been followed out in every department of the navy. Why should these appointments be given to civilians who had never struck a blow for the country, instead of placing sailors in them whose pensions would be saved, and who would be available at any moment for service? Another evil was the total irresponsibility of the Navy Board, which had been productive of the greatest evil to the service. It was also a great evil that the board should be moveable, as the members of it were in consequence seldom efficient. Under the present system vessels of war had been built which were totally unfit to go into action without running the risk of being blown up. The war steamer which had been launched the other day approached the nearest to a man-of-war of any vessel which he had seen; but the way in which she was fitted with machinery totally unfitted her for service. Being fitted with cast iron instead of wrought iron machinery, if a shot came into her it would knock all her machinery to pieces. The resolution which he intended to propose was,— That a humble Address be presented to her Majesty, praying her Majesty to give directions that a certain number of old officers shall be allowed to retire on a separate list, with increase of pay, with the view of bringing forward young and active officers. The opinion of Lord Keith had been in favour of such a system. Lord Keith was of opinion that when a captain arrived at fifty years of age he ought to be allowed to retire if he thought proper. He did not mean to say that captains at that age would retire, but it was an opening for them to do so if they thought themselves unfitted to do their duty with proper energy. Instead of asking this, he only asked the right hon. Baronet to allow post-captains of sixty years of age to retire with the additional pay of 100l. a year when they were within 100 of the top of the list. He did not ask this for the benefit of the officers, but of the service. If a war should break out at this moment, he asked whether the Admiralty could refuse employment to these old officers unfitted for service by age, and pass them over? Lord Howe had attempted to do this, and had lost his place in consequence. When a man had been thirty years a captain he had lost the energy which was requisite to carry on his duties. He stated this from his own experience. Some time ago, when he had been appointed to command the Galatea, he had thought himself as fitted for the duties of his station as when in the vigour of youth, and had entered on the command with that feeling, and that he should be as able as ever to look into every hole and corner of the ship. But he soon found that every day's work was too much, and put off this duty to twice a week; it then dwindled down to be Sunday's occupation, and at last Sunday was a bore, and he was convinced that he was no more fit now to command such a man-of-war than if he had never been on board afore in his life. It was impossible for any but young men efficiently to perform this duty, and when an old captain commanded, it fell to the first lieutenant of the ship to do it; the officers of the ship then became dissatisfied, and said, "Mr. So-and-So commands the ship, and our captain is an old woman." Under the present system we should never have a rear-admiral under sixty years of age. Was that the manner in which the navy of the country ought to be commanded? It was not, and the right hon. Baronet would incur great responsibility if he kept the navy in such a state. If something were not done, and that speedily, some disaster would befal the fleet of this country. It was absolutely necessary, so far as the country was concerned, that there should be a retired list of captains. The rule was, that one in three should be promoted, which was equal to the mortality. There was a large promotion on the birth of the Prince of Wales in 1841,—a very large promotion indeed. In 1842, after that large promotion, no fewer than twenty-five commanders were made from post-captains, so that according to the rule of promotion seventy-five must have died. What he would recommend was. that the old officers should be rewarded and suffered to retire, and that young officers should be brought forward. His opinion was that for 20,000l. a year for pay and retiring allowances to old officers, the service might be rendered much more efficient than it was at present. He concluded by moving his resolution as before given.

Lord Ingestre

seconded the motion. He entirely concurred in the views of the gallant Mover. He suggested also that young officers should have every opportunity of exercising themselves in naval evolutions and the art of gunnery.

Sir R. Peel

had no wish to revive the discussion which had taken place last year on the motion of the hon. and gallant Member opposite, with reference to a restriction upon the Crown as to the employment of naval officers in the station of First Lord of the Admiralty. He should be very sorry to imply that any naval officer was disqualified to discharge the important functions, or to lay down a rule for the selection of the First Lord of the Admiralty; but what he objected to was, that the Crown should be restricted in the exercise of its pleasure with reference to that appointment. Indeed, when it was stated that wherever naval officers were called upon to perform civil duties they distinguished themselves for their good conduct and discretion—when he heard these compliments paid he could not think the constitution of the Board of Admiralty so very defective. He thought there were many great advantages from the bringing into the head of the Admiralty an unprofessional man. With respect to the motion, of which the hon. and gallant Officer opposite had given no notice, it was neither more nor less than to ask, according to his own showing, a grant of public money to the amount of 20,000l. per annum. [Sir C. Napier: I gave notice of a motion for taking the naval list into consideration.] Such were certainly the terms of the notice given by the hon, and gallant Member, and when he had inquired last night what motion the hon. and gallant Member intended to make, the reply he received was, that the hon. and gallant Member was not then prepared to make a speech, which he did not ask the gallant officer to make; but, on the contrary, he had inquired what vote the hon. and gallant Member intended to ask the House to come to to-night However, no notice whatever had been given of the motion just now proposed — a motion in which he was of opinion a great principle was involved. It was a motion upon which the House ought to support the Government in the exercise of its discretion as to whether or not this amount of money ought to be granted. At all events, it should not be done without full notice. In this case, two gallant Officers, of different politics, wanted to force the Government to concur in a grant of 20,000l. per annum. He did not mean to pursue that course, and he trusted the House would support him in resisting a proposition of this kind. If the House consented to the grant of 20,000l. a year to be distributed by the First Lord of the Admiralty among the captains of the naval service of a certain standing, it would, in his judgment, abandon its duty. The hon. and gallant Officer proposed that 100 captains now receiving 14s. 6d. per diem, should have the option of retiring on the receipt of 1/. per diem. Now, he had himself given the subject much consideration, and besides this, he had the highest authority for believing, that unless he gave this option to not less than 150 captains, he would do nothing at all. This would entail an expense not of 20,000l., but of 26,000l. per annum. Such was the estimate furnished to him. Now, what was the proposition made by the hon. and gallant Member? He said, three or four years must elapse before any extensive promotion could take place, and he called upon the Government to offer to captains of a certain standing, 100l. a-year additional in order to induce them to wave their contingent claims to the honour of a flag. How was he to ascertain who would take the offer when it was made? Might it not happen, that the oldest man, desirous of attaining the honour of a flag would not take the offer, and that the option might be accepted by young officers in the receipt of 12s. 6d. a day, who had no immediate prospect of receiving promotion. But now as to the policy of a retired list at all. Three or four years ago, it had been done away with, and abolished. A naval and military commission had been appointed, and, besides professional men on that commission, there had been Lord Melville and Lord Minto. In addition, there were Sir George Cockburn and Sir Charles Adam; and although Sir Thomas Hardy did not sign the recommendations of the commission, he assented to them. This commission found a retired list of Admirals called Yellow Admirals, and upon that list these authorities said this: Upon full consideration, we confess that the impression on our minds is, that the distinction between the active and retired list of officers is productive of little, if any, real ail-vantage to the public; whilst it operates most disastrously, in some instances, on the feelings of gallant officers; and, in our opinion, the retired list may, with propriety, be abolished. The commission also considered the proposition which has been submitted by the hon. and gallant Officer. The report said:— It does not occur to us to suggest to your Majesty the adoption of any other changes in regard to captains' pay on allowances. Various propositions were made to us to recommend the establishment of a retired list for officers of this rank, as well as other ranks in the navy, the particulars of which will be found in the evidence given in the appendix. The whole of those propositions had reference rather to claims arising out of seniority on the prospective list than on service performed, and do not appear to us calculated to advance the public interest to an extent commensurate with the change which they would entail on the public revenue. We, therefore, in full consideration of those suggestions, have refrained from offering a recommendation to your Majesty to extend the principle of the retired list beyond the present practice, except in the cases of mates and commanders, for the reasons explained in the observations on those classes. This was their decision scarcely three years ago, and with such a decision before them, he hoped the House would support the Government in resisting a proposition which they had reason to consider of such questionable utility.

Lord J. Russell

did not rise to address himself to any of the professional arguments, but he thought it might not be ill-timed to consider whether in such cases as these the House of Commons ought to agree to prescribe any course of action to the Crown? When he held office, he had frequently found that officers of the navy, army, and marines made propositions to the House, which, being supported by much professional knowledge, found favour with Members, and in more than one instance were adopted in opposition to the wishes of the Government. It was clear to him, that such occurrences as these could not but be prejudicial to the public service. The House, by pursuing such a course, was putting itself in the position of the Executive, was taking on itself to advise the Crown, and was very frequently causing great inconvenience to the Government of the day. It was in consequence of his experience of such inconvenience that the commission was appointed, to whose report the right hon. Gentleman had referred. The Duke of Wellington, with that public spirit which, without re- ference to the party in power, uniformly marked his conduct, consented to act as the head of that commission. The noble Duke was not only able to judge of all that related to the profession of which he was the great ornament, but from his long experience and extensive knowledge, he was able to judge of the evidence respecting the other branches of her Majesty's service. Associated with him in the commission were several other officers of great ability. The commission sat a considerable period, they heard a mass of evidence, and then made their report; and he must say this, that he could not but regard that report as of much higher authority than the opinion of any individual Member, even though that opinion might be supported by such able statements as those they had heard from the gallant officer behind him. He should say, therefore, that even if such a proposition as this was desirable in itself, yet that they should be adopting a most inconvenient practice and setting a very bad precedent were they to affirm it. Regarding that proposition, as it appeared that the commission had carefully reviewed it, it only remained to be inquired whether by its adoption they would obtain greater efficiency in the service. If from such a sum as 20,000l. they could make all grades of officers more fit to perform their respective duties, he should say that there might be good reason to adopt the proposal; but if, on the other hand, no such good results were to be obtained, they would be only establishing a precedent which they might be required to act on perhaps every four or five years. Why, then, he should say that it would not be desirable to adopt any such proposal. He stated these as the grounds on which he thought their opinion should be founded. He should rather say, however, that the Prime Minister, consulting with his colleagues, was the better judge of the desirability of carrying such a proposition into effect. But, above all, as he said before, he thought it would be highly unadvisable to call on the House to affirm any such proposition, and on that ground, if on no other, he hoped that this motion would be withdrawn.

Captain Berkeley

was obliged to the hon. and gallant Member who had brought forward this motion, and thought he had done good service to his profession. After what had passed, however, he could not but think that the motion had better be withdrawn.

Captain Pechell

was surprised that no reply had been made to the charges against the Government as to the distribution of patronage. It was now said throughout the service that the hustings were the best sort of quarter-deck for promotion. All the appointments of the Government, indeed, were made on political grounds. [" No, no."] Would they dare him to come to book? Well, then, what did they say to the unappoinment of Sir Thomas Cochrane, or to that of the hon. Member for Stafford (Captain Carnegie)? This Government was congratulated on their system of manning the navy, but who had unmanned it? Why, their Tory predecessor, Lord Melville. They might depend that they would do much better to promote officers according to merit, and until that was done they could never expect to give satisfaction to the service.

Captain Plumridge

said, with reference to the expense complained of, that officers of twenty years' standing on the list of service received a mere pittance of 10s. 6d. a day. He was of opinion, there fore, that this slight increase of advantage proposed by his gallant Friend might with propriety be granted, and while the navy would be benefitted the national finances would not be injured.

Mr. Sidney Herbert

vindicated the conduct of the noble Lord who so efficiently performed his duties at the head of the Admiralty, and denied that appointments were guided by political considerations. As to the charge of employment not being given to naval men and sailors, he begged to call attention to the number of employments connected with the navy and the public establishments, such as masons, shipwrights, armourers, shoe makers, labourers, &c, which could not be filled by sailors. The appointments in China and the other cases referred to, had been made without reference to political considerations. With respect to the noble Lord the First Lord of the Admiralty he should quote a very good authority, namely, that of the hon. and gallant Officer (Sir C. Napier) himself, who, when he made a motion for placing a naval instead of a civil officer at the head of the Board, said— Least of all could his motion be construed into an expression of disrespect to the noble Lord at the head of the Board, for the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government would find no civilian that would act with greater justice and impartiality. This was a just tribute to the conduct of that nobleman, who directed all his energies to fulfilling the duties of his department, and, disregarding every thing like undue influence, made it his study to decide on such appointments as should be most advantageous to the public service.

Sir C. Napier

in reply contended, that notwithstanding what had been said on the opposite side, the adoption of his suggestion would effect a great improvement.

Motion withdrawn.

The House adjourned at a quarter past twelve.