HC Deb 19 March 1866 vol 182 cc554-63

SUPPLY considered in Committee—NAVY ESTIMATES.

(In the Committee.)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a sum, not exceeding £12,656, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the additional Charge for Half-Pay, Reserved Half-Pay, and Retired Pay, consequent upon altering the system of Retirement of Officers of the Royal Navy, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March 1867.


said, that considering the Supplementary Estimate under consideration had only been presented to hon. Members on Saturday, some few words of explanation were required from the Secretary of the Admiralty respecting it. Without such an explanation it was incumbent upon them to read it in their own way. It appeared that the noble lord asked the country to pay £12,000 in order to accelerate promotion in the navy. The House would, in his opinion, be guilty of what might be deemed an absurdity if it recognized the principle of retirement involved in the Motion before the Committee. It was proposed that admirals of seventy years of age, vice admirals of sixty-eight years old, and rear admirals of sixty-five years old, should be placed on the retired list. Why, an admiral with greater responsibility should remain on active service until he was seventy, while a rear admiral with less responsibility should have to retire at sixty-five, he could not understand, and he should like to have some explanation upon that point. There were about 102 admirals altogether; but it appeared that all who had hoisted their flag or been employed in the Admiralty should have a right of exemption, and should not be called on to retire at all, so that out of the 102 about eighty-four would be exempted from this provision, the exemption would, therefore, be the rule instead of the exception. The plan proposed some years ago by the right hon. Baronet who was then First Lord of the Admiralty, that all admirals of seventy should be called on to retire, whether admirals, vice admirals, or rear admirals, was much more reasonable than this complex scheme of three ages of retirement with the further complexity of all these exemptions.


said, he was glad that his hon. Friend approved generally of the scheme, with the exception he had stated. They were all likely to make mistakes sometimes, but he had not often heard errors more egregious than those contained in the figures of his hon. Friend. Instead of amounting to eighty-four the exemptions amounted to three admirals of the fleet, seventeen admirals, eighteen vice admirals, and fifteen rear admirals, making fifty-three in all, a little more than half the number stated by his hon. Friend. The proposition that all admirals should be superannuated or compulsorily retire at the age of seventy had never been put before the House officially, though it had often been discussed, and he had no hesitation in stating that it could never be carried out. The country would not be satisfied to force into retirement the few distinguished officers now surviving who had had the opportunity of serving in our great wars. He need not mention names, but there were gallant and distinguished officers of great age at the head of the list who in the course of nature could not be long among us, and to place them compulsorily in retirement would be a great affront and a most uncalled for and unfair proceeding. The only able officers exempted were those who had served at the Admiralty or discharged duties in connection with the government of the navy, and of these the number affected was very few, for nearly all had hoisted or would hoist their flags. As regarded the Controller of the Navy, nobody could say that the duties which he discharged were not equal in importance to those of any officer with his flag hoisted. What became, therefore, of the objections to this scheme, which at small cost provided a self-acting system for accelerating promotion in the navy? The stagnation, as he had stated on a former evening, was at present so great as to call for the adoption of some such measure. For the last ten years twenty-four commanders on an average had been promoted to be captains; according to the present state of the list not more than half that number could expect promotion during the next few years. There were first lieutenants still on the list who had served faithfully ten to thirteen years in that grade; and everybody acquainted with the navy must know that no officer ought to remain in that station for anything like such a period of time. As a matter of necessity, then, the Admiralty were driven to propose a scheme. Many gallant officers, no doubt, would be retired under its provisions who, given the opportunity, would have distinguished themselves equally with others; but having arrived at a time of life when they had no longer the prospect of becoming active, useful flag officers, they were placed in no worse position by retirement, having their pay and rank secured to them. There was no greater injustice in fixing the limit for rear admirals at sixty five and for full admirals at seventy, than there was at present in putting the limit for captains at sixty and for rear admirals at sixty-five. If rear admirals were continued on the list till seventy, what prospect was there of having useful and energetic vice and full admirals? The matter was a very difficult one, the Admiralty had given it their best consideration, and he implored hon. Members, because they disapproved merely of a certain limit of age, not to reject a scheme calculated greatly to benefit the navy.


said, that just before his retirement from office he had drawn up a plan based on the principle of retirement by age, and he had never changed his opinion that the good of the service required the adoption of that principle. Extremely unwilling, therefore, to offer opposition to any plan brought forward with that end in view, he yet saw serious objections to the scheme proposed by the Government. He felt it was open to serious objection on account of its requiring vice and rear admirals to retire at an earlier age than seventy, which was the lowest he had proposed. How was it to be ascertained, and who was to be the judge, whether an admiral was physically unfit for service? By his plan all flag-officers were to retire at seventy, and he could not understand why a rear admiral should retire at sixty-five and a full admiral at seventy. He would refer to a case with which the noble Lord must be familiar—that of Rear Admiral Hall, of the Nemesis, who had served his country in all parts of the world, and had been wounded twice. That gallant officer was now a rear admiral, and if be did not hoist his flag before he was sixty-five years of age, he would have to retire at that early age. If the system was to be carried out, it should be carried out fairly and impartially; there should be no exemptions of any kind. Approving generally the principle of retirement by age, he therefore disapproved the proposal to retire vice admirals at sixty, and rear admirals at sixty-five years of age. He had no wish to enter into a comparison of the plan which he himself had proposed, and that which was now introduced by his noble Friend; but he thought if hon. Members referred to the former they would find that the noble Lord had not accurately represented its provisions. He did not propose that these gallant gentlemen should go on the retired list, but that there should be two lists, on to one of which they should go, the other being for retired officers. He could not understand on what principle his noble Friend proposed an exception in favour of the officers who had had the good fortune to be in the Admiralty and connected with the Government. The rule of retirement ought to be carried out with impartiality, and he objected to its being complicated with fifty-three exceptions.


said, that the first question to be considered before discussing the propriety of spending £12,600, was whether the principle of compulsory retirement by age should be first applied to officers in the navy. In the navy the physical powers of the officers were less taxed than in the other branch of the war service. If this principle was to be introduced into one branch, it ought to be carried out in the army also. Again, why was an exception to be made in favour of officers who had held positions in the Admiralty? If a man was to be taken as incapacitated for the public service because he had reached a certain age, why should the rule not be applied even to the First Lord of the Admiralty? He presumed, however, that, notwithstanding a very long tenure of office, a First Lord, on retiring with a Government, would look forward to again serving his country in the same capacity, The fact was a man aged seventy, with a good constitution and moderate habits, was a younger man than one aged fifty with a bad constitution and of indifferent habits. He objected to the plan as merely a deception, by which the country got nothing. If an officer was merely to be transferred from one list to another, while he still received honours and emoluments as if he had not been changed, nothing would be saved to the nation. The notion of reducing the flag list to eighty-five, as proposed, was the merest delusion, because the old officers removed were only placed upon another list, and went to swell the numbers of the navy before the public.


remarked that he would in the first instance place himself in a fair position on the attention of the House, by saying that he was not personally concerned, nor could be benefited by the present vote; in fact, every successive Board of Admiralty having for long years past precluded him from following up his profession. He could not, therefore, be misunderstood when rising on the present occasion to raise his voice against any compulsory retirement of officers proposed. He denounced the proposal as being in character most unfair and unjust, discreditable to the Admiralty in proposition, and one which it would be in his opinion unworthy of the House of Commons to sanction, inasmuch as it was to the prejudice of men who had risen to high distinction by meritorious and gallant exploits, and who would have their hearts broken by being placed on a compulsory retired list. On the other hand, the country would gain nothing by the measure— their seniority in rank and pay being to remain the same as it would have been had they remained on the active list; consequently, he felt compelled thus most decidedly to object to the naval service being made an exception by the application to it of an invidious rule which it was not proposed to apply to the army or to the Civil Service. He, however, should be glad to support, and that with all his heart, a scheme which would have the effect of promoting lieutenants who had been long in active service to the rank of commander, and, similarly, commanders to the rank of captain.


said, he agreed with the gallant Admiral who had just sat down that this scheme would inflict great hardships upon many brave and excellent officers, who had not only the will but the ability to continue their services to the country—men who were fully capable of active service, and who, therefore, naturally disliked to be placed on a retired list. The measure would bear very hard upon many old admirals who naturally looked forward to hoisting their flag, or obtaining a seat at the Admiralty Board. The noble Lord had stated that there would be fifty-three exceptions to the general rule, but he had forgotten to mention that there were other admirals, some of whom had served their country well, but who would be compelled to retire if this scheme were adopted. He sincerely hoped that the noble Lord would either omit the seventh clause, which made the exceptions, or give some satisfactory explanation on the subject.


said, that the proposal to place rear admirals on the retired list at the age of sixty-five was a most monstrous proposition. It was simply ridiculous to say that an active, able, clever officer, who was sixty-five years of age, should be turned out of the navy (for that was the real meaning of the retired list) because he arrived at the rank of rear admiral. The past history of the achievements of the navy showed that men had commanded fleets with the most consummate ability, and with the greatest success, at seventy-five and eighty years of age. The 12th of April was approaching, and that was the anniversary of a great naval battle, which was fought by an admiral aged eighty-two. And yet they were told that a rear admiral must be compelled to retire from the service at sixty-five. This was a question, not of sentiment and sympathy, but of common sense. How lately was it that a statesman had passed from among them who had, at eighty years of age, directed the affairs of the country with unrivalled genius, who possessed the regard and esteem of the House, and the confidence of the country? And why should a rule be applied to the navy which was not applied to the House of Commons? This, too, was a most cruel proposition, because it was retrospective. If it were passed it would commit the country to conduct neither just nor generous, and which he was sure the people neither desired nor approved.


said, he wished to call attention to the Select Committee in 1863, on which he and several other Members of the House sat, and which pursued its inquiries during the whole of the Session. The Report of the Committee was discussed word by word, and on almost every paragraph a division took place. The conclusion arrived at was a very satisfactory one, but it was entirely adverse to the scheme now submitted for the consideration of the Committee of Supply. The Committee upstairs had had the advice of several First Lords of the Admiralty, and other officers of distinction. They had examined a large number of the most competent professional witnesses, and had discussed the question in all its bearings. It was, therefore, necessary before the conclusion come to by that Committee was departed from, that the Committee of Supply should have a very clear explanation from his noble Friend of the grounds which induced him to bring forward the present scheme. His noble Friend ought to dispose seriatim of the reasons assigned by the Select Committee for the conclusion at which they arrived. The Committee of Supply ought not to deal hurriedly with this question, which involved the system of promotion and retirement in the navy and would give rise to a great many considerations. It was an extraordinary thing that the navy was organized in a manner calculated to startle the mind of any person of ordinary intelligence. In the first place, promotion in all the lower grades of the navy was largely influenced by favour, and any person who had good connections and friends, rapidly attained the rank of captain. When any one had attained that rank he was further promoted according to seniority till he attained the rank of admiral. It had happened that persons having great connections were brought upon the list of captains at an early age, and they then got the benefit of seniority, while other persons who had not the advantage of family connections were not advanced to the rank of captain, and consequently did not get the benefit of seniority till much later in life. The first effect, therefore, of a system of compulsory retirement by age, would be that those who had family connections would be quite secure from its operation, while those who, having no family connections, had come on the list of captains later in life, would be forced out of the service to make room for the others. The present state of things was greatly to be deplored. He, and a late Member of that House, Sir John Hay, were the only Members of the Select Committee who brought forward or supported any scheme by which merit should be recognized in the higher ranks of the navy, but they had found themselves in the most humble majority. In his opinion, the Committee of Supply ought not to enter upon the particular proposal now before it without going fully into the whole system of promotion and retirement, which was a scandal and a disgrace to the country. He believed that the system in the French navy was exactly the reverse of ours, no opportunity being given for promotion in the junior ranks by favour. Indeed, as the officers of subordinate rank were withdrawn from public notice, it was thought right in the French navy that they should be promoted according to merit. What, again, would be the general effect of the scheme just submitted to the Committee? He did not think it was at all satisfactory to have the estimate framed for one year only, for it was important to know what would be the accruing and accumulative effect of the scheme during a series of years. The noble Lord ought to have appended such a calculation to the Vote itself, as merely verbal explanations were far from satisfactory. Any scheme of the kind would not be practically useful. They all knew that, whenever an emergency arose, the First Lord of the Admiralty must take the list and go down it until he came to an efficient man, and what the service required was, when they had got him, to give him the rank necessary for the discharge of his duty. He protested against this hurried mode of dealing with so large a question. The Select Committee held that it was undesirable, in the interest alike of the service and the public, that a scheme of compulsory retirement like this should be carried out, but their opinion had been overruled by the Admiralty.


said, that very few men would consent voluntarily to be placed on the shelf, and he, for one, was opposed to the scheme of compulsory retirement, particularly when the principle was not applied to other professions. It was not applied to generals in the army, or bishops in the church, or Judges in the law, nor did he see why the naval profession should be singled out by being retired at a certain age. If, however, it were thought necessary that compulsory retirement should take place the proposal of the Government was, he thought, far better than that of the right hon. Baronet (Sir John Pakington).


said, that one would think from the remarks of hon. Members that this was the first time compulsory retirement had been heard of for the navy. The fact was, however, that there were a great number of other officers who were subject to retirement, and all the Government proposed was to extend the principle of age retirement to flag officers. If it were lair for one it was fair for all. The difference between the scheme of the present Government and that of the right hon. Baronet (Sir John Pakington) was that the latter was extremely distasteful to those officers who had served in the great wars, and the present Government came to the conclusion that it was not necessary to make such a proposition then. Objections had been taken to one detail of the present scheme and another, but the question was whether the House was prepared to go to a very large expense for the purpose of keeping up the flow of promotion in the navy. The hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets (Mr. Ayrton) knew nothing about the navy. Of course he said this in a friendly sense, but it was difficult to get non-professional men to enter into the details of these questions. They must promote officers while they were young if they wanted an effective service. No doubt in former days men of family were too much preferred, but there was no one who knew anything of the navy who would not admit that the present system of promotion was exceedingly fair, or who would assert that officers were promoted now merely because they belonged to influential families. During the last ten years the Admiralty had promoted on an average twenty-four commanders a year to be captains, and the state of the list was that there was a prospect of only having eleven instead of twenty-four. Of lieutenants they had promoted thirty-seven a year, and the prospect now was of being able to promote seventeen a year. If the Committee wished to know how incompatible this state of things was with the welfare of the service let them turn to the Navy List, where they would find lieutenants often, twelve, fourteen, and fifteen years' constant service, and yet the Admiralty were unable to promote them to be commanders. The Admiralty had an opportunity of doing something now and at a small cost. What they proposed was simply to extend the scheme of compulsory retirement now existing in other branches of the service to flag officers. They proposed certain exemptions, which had been objected to, but he was certain that, if he had proposed to include officers like Admirals Sir William Parker, Sir George Seymour, Sir Thomas Cochrane, and Lord Fitzhardinge, and other old and distinguished officers, the House would not have been satisfied with the scheme. That was the reason why the right hon. Gentleman (Sir John Pakington) had not carried his plan. The present Government had steered clear of this rock, and proposed to exempt those who had hoisted their flags, while all future flag officers would be put on this retired list when they came to the specified age. Let the enforced retirement be for those who had not served in the great wars, but while these great men were alive do not let them be forced into retirement.


said, he wished to know whether the practice of selecting officers below the rank of captain for promotion still existed; and whether admirals, on hoisting their flags, had still the right of appointing an officer?


Yes. The practice was to promote by selection until they came to the rank of captain. That was the converse of the French system. The French admirals were selected by choice, and the juniors partly by chance and partly by seniority. He did not say that if we had to form the navy afresh the present practice would be established.

Question put.

The Committee divided:—Ayes 88; Noes 70: Majority 18.

House resumed.

Resolution to be reported To-morrow;

Committee to sit again upon Wednesday.