HC Deb 27 April 1871 vol 205 cc1810-22

, in rising to call attention to the multifarious duties of the Controller of the Navy, and to move a Resolution on the subject, said, the attention of the public had been drawn to this office of late, in consequence of the melancholy loss of the Captain, of the recent changes in the Admiralty, and of the retirement of two public officers connected with the shipbuilding department of the Navy. It would be generally acknowledged that for a long time past an impression had prevailed that dockyard work was unnecessarily costly. Although he did not share the views of those who thought that the cost of dockyard work was inordinately extravagant, still he thought that such work was more costly by 10 per cent than similar work executed in private yards; and this in spite of the fact that the cost of labour in the public dockyards was cheaper than in private establishments, and of the great advantage which the former had over the latter in having continual employment for the machinery which they possessed. When it was recollected that the Vote for Stores and Wages in the Home Dockyards during the year amounted to upwards of a million and a-half, it would be seen that a saving of only 5 per cent upon that sum would amount to £75,000. They would all admit that to effect this saving to the taxpayers by reducing the cost of dockyard work was an object worthy of considerable effort. It was patent to all who had in any way investigated the subject, that in the administration of those large dockyard establishments there was too much concentration of detail and management at Whitehall; and the fact that the Controller, who was responsible for the management of those establishments, was an over-worked officer, arose to a great extent from that excessive concentration of responsibility in London. At the last inquiry into the management of the dockyards, the Duke of Somerset stated that it was impossible for any person, however able, adequately and efficiently to discharge all the duties at that time imposed on the Controller. Recent changes had, however, materially increased the duties of that officer, the departments of gunnery and stores having been added to the former scope of his functions, already more than sufficiently onerous; and, to add to it, he had been also made a member of the Board of Admiralty. While the Controller himself could not possibly discharge all those duties, the fact that he was nominally held responsible absolved those officers who really had the conduct of the details of dockyard business from the wholesome responsibility which ought properly to rest upon them, and which gave the greatest possible stimulus to individual effort. He would suggest, therefore, that the Controller should be relieved of a portion of his duties by giving a more independent authority to the local officers of the dockyards. He might attach undue importance to that suggestion; but if he represented anything in that House at all, it was the successful application of the principle of decentralization to the largest industrial affairs. He would retain the office of Admiral Superintendent, because it was necessary to have in those establishments a naval officer of high rank to represent the Admiralty, to impose a check on the requisitions sent to the dockyards by the captains of ships, to superintend the steam reserve, and to see that every vessel fitted in those yards was duly equipped for naval service. But his proposition was that the shipbuilding work of the dockyards should be placed in the hands of a professional officer, on whom there should rest an undivided responsibility in respect of those duties; and in order to secure the services of men fully competent to undertake that great responsibility, it would be necessary to improve the social status and increase the salaries of the professional officers of the dockyards. It was the opinion of the most competent judges that a promoted workman was not the fittest person for high administrative functions, involving more or less general knowledge, of a vast variety of trades, and that, in order to have the highest professional office of each dockyard well filled, they required the services of a gentleman who possessed not only a knowledge of workmanship but also an appreciation of finance. The title of master shipwright was not much coveted by the persons employed in that capacity, nor was it quite suitable to the principal officer appointed to undertake the work of shipbuilding in one of Her Majesty's Yards. The title of Deputy Naval Constructor would be more appropriate; and the relative rank of those officers should also be improved, as in France, where the officer at the head of the shipbuilding work in a dockyard held relative naval rank with a captain; and where the highest officer connected with shipbuilding held the rank of a rear admiral. The Companionship of the Bath might likewise, he suggested, be given from time to time, with advantage, for long and meritorious service on the part of those officers. While thinking that their pay was discreditably inadequate—the highest salary given to a master shipwright at the head of one of Her Majesty's Dockyards being only £600 or £650 a-year—he advocated no hasty or ill-considered change; but if the salary were raised to something like £2,000, he felt confident the money would be well spent for the public interest. He had himself been connected with a private shipbuilding establishment, and also with one of our largest railways; and in each of those establishnents a salary was given of not less than £5,000 for the discharge of duties in no respect exceeding in importance those devolving on the principal responsible officers in Her Majesty's naval Yards. It would be better to employ a few administrative officers possessing the highest skill in those departments, at large salaries, and to introduce further economy—care being taken not to injure the efficiency—from time to time in the clerical staff. Again, a valuable and effective economical reform would be effected if the principal shipwright in each of the naval Yards were, before being allowed to commence building a ship or undertaking any important repairs, to be called upon to furnish an estimate of his own of the probable cost. Independent estimates from subordinate agents had been found of the greatest advantage in the execution of railway works. He would further suggest that the names of the officers by whom the several estimates were made should be mentioned in the tabulated Statement given to the House, so that in the event of any great discrepancy between the cost and the estimate the public would know who was responsible for any such administrative failure. Again, if the dockyards were treated more completely than at present as separate establishments, a most valuable incentive to efficiency and economy would be applied to those charged with their management. Then, the present system of promotion in the dockyards was very unsatisfactory. Even among some of the humblest grades of the artizan class promotions, he believed, were made, not directly by the local officer, but by reference to the central authority in London. That was altogether wrong; because, while the central authority must depend, in such cases, upon the report of the local officer, the local officer, on the other hand, was deprived—which he should not be—of due control over the workmen under him. If that system were more fully adhered to, changes of the Government would be less prejudicial to the efficiency of the dockyards. Sir Baldwin Walker stated in evidence that, during the 13 years he held office, there had been no less than seven changes of Administration. Then the question arose, where were they to look for persons competent to fill the offices he proposed to create, and—in endeavouring to show them in what direction they should look to supply their wants—he had no hesitation in saying that the best school of training for the public service was the public service itself. It had produced such shipwrights as Mr. Lang, Mr. Watts, and, he believed, Mr. Reed. He also ventured to say that if the system of decentralization were fully applied to the Royal Dockyards, and if each dockyard was separated from the others, there would no longer be the great delay which existed at present in presenting to Parliament the audited accounts for shipbuilding. The last accounts for 1867–8 were only submitted to the Accountant General for his approval in November, 1870—two and a-half years after the expenditure had taken place—and, for the purpose of criticism, they were useless; but the accounts might be produced more speedily if they were audited locally. As regarded his late father's great works, the whole of the audits were done in their respective localities on the spot; but if they had been done in London, all the houses in Great George Street would not have furnished room enough for the Staff required to be employed. Passing from this topic, he would make one or two observations with respect to the office of Controller of the Navy; and, in reference to that subject, he must say that a considerable reform seemed to be required at Whitehall. After full consideration, he concurred in the opinion expressed by Sir Frederick Grey, before the Duke of Somerset's Committee, that the office of Controller should be abolished, and that the Second Sea Lord should be put at the head of the dockyards and constructive department. In order to carry that out, it would be advantageous that a professional officer having a knowledge of shipbuilding, rather than a naval man, should be made responsible to the Admiralty for a matter requiring such technical knowledge as shipbuilding. As an instance, proving the value of this suggestion, he would give the name of Sir William Seppings. With regard to the Staff of the Constructor, he would suggest that it must be in all respects efficient and sufficiently numerous to enable the Constructor to make more frequent visits than hitherto to the Royal Dockyards; for no supervision at Whitehall could be so effective as personal inspection; and the master's eye did more, in accelerating the dispatch and improving the quality of the work, than the most voluminous correspondence and the most intricate Returns. His attention had been called to this subject in consequence of the sympathy he felt for the British Navy; and in speaking on these matters, and in suggesting the principle of decentralization, he was doing the best he could to communicate to the House whatever he might have inherited from a very distinguished leader in industrial enterprize. The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving his Resolution.


, in seconding the Motion, said, he considered the speech just delivered to be both instructive and practical, founded upon full reflection, as well as actual knowledge. His political experience in association with the dockyards for many years convinced him that there were numerous defects in their management. One of these had partially, if not altogether, passed away—namely, the injury produced by appointments of officers and artizans through political influence. The main object was to obtain capable and industrious workmen, and to effect that it was desirable to learn whether, when men were wanted at the dockyards, they were selected by any officer who knew their capacity, and whether they were chosen simply for their merits. He did not say they should bribe talent, but they must adequately pay talent; for it had happened more than once that men who had advanced in the Royal Dockyards to considerable eminence had been lured away by private shipbuilders offering them a larger salary, continuous employment, or an improved position. Remarkable instances of this evil had occurred during the Crimean War, when skilled labour of this description was in great demand. Such men should have increased wages, and more extended power, and certain prospects to induce them to remain in the service of the country, and unless we raised the maximum salary in these cases, and were more cautious in suddenly, and even capriciously, discharging large numbers, we might lose some of our ablest men educated in the Royal Dockyards, and deter others from accepting employment, and the public service would suffer. The object should be to make and retain men valuable to us in the conduct of our dockyard business. He therefore pressed on the attention of the Admiralty the necessity of affording due encouragement to the best workmen to raise themselves by talent, industry, honesty, and good conduct to the position of heads of the different departments, for by so doing we should be able to command the services of good men, who had, or had not, been brought up in the Royal Dockyards, by ensuring them remuneration and rewards equal, or nearly equal, to those they could obtain in private establishments. In these scientific days talent, industry, and integrity were highly prized, and if first-rate talent were not highly paid we could not command it, because of the great competition existing for the services of men possessing these qualifications between the Admiralty and private firms. He would give to certain officers in the Royal Dockyards some degree of authority with reference to those employed under them. Superintendents might have the power to hire and promote the men, but over these officers there should be very careful and close observation. If, also, they could establish some system like this—giving the ganger, or leading man of shipwrights for instance, the power of hiring those who assist him, and making him answerable for the excellence and rapidity of the work done, they would insure not only efficiency but economy. He thought the suggestions of his hon. Friend the Member for Hastings well worthy of consideration by the authorities at the Admiralty with respect to the internal management of dockyards. Economical considerations, however, rendered it difficult to acquiesce in the suggestion to appoint in each dockyard two or three superior officers in addition to the Admiral Superintendent; we should rather see whether good workmen could not advance to such a position as would enable them to discharge the duties which the hon. Member contemplated. It could not be denied that, notwithstanding all efforts for reform, this part of our National expenditure was comparatively too high and it was probable that one explanation of the undue cost of the dockyards was the unnecessarily complicated mode of keeping the accounts, which rendered it difficult to audit them at short periods in the same manner as the accounts of private establishments were audited.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "it is expedient that the Controller of the Navy should be relieved of a portion of his responsibilities by giving more independent authority to the local officers of the Dockyards,"—(Mr. Brassey,) —instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


observed, that the matter under debate had been brought forward in an able speech, and with that practical knowledge of detail which was always displayed by the hon. Member who proposed it (Mr. T. Brassey.) He wished, however, that the House should look closely to the terms of the Motion. The hon. Member thought that considerable advantage would be derived from decentralizing the management of our dockyards, and by giving greater responsibility and power of individual action to those who were at the head of the respective dockyards, and relieving the Controller of the Navy of part of his responsibility; but one great difficulty in the way of such a plan—a difficulty to which a Government Department must always be exposed when placed in competition with private enterprize—was the necessity of having a minute control over the expenditure. The desirability of maintaining responsibility in a central department, and thereby procuring that rigid supervision over expenditure which that House in all cases demanded, rendered it necessary that the Control Department should be responsible to the public for every shilling spent, and, therefore, they could not allow the same latitude to subordinates which might be allowed in private yards. This was illustrated by the question of promotion. The hon. Member suggested that local officers should have the power to promote men who had distinguished themselves in their respective dockyards. But promotion to workmen meant increase of pay; and if they gave this latitude to local officers, they would part with their control over the increase of expenditure. The same principle, moreover, would apply to many other Departments. There was, no doubt, considerable force in the argument that they should give as much latitude as possible to local officers; and his predecessor in office, the right hon. Member for Pontefract (Mr. Childers), had taken several steps in this direction. For instance, formerly the local authorities were not allowed to spend more than £5 without reference to Whitehall, whilst now the limit was £50. This step showed that the views of the hon. Member for Hastings had been partially shared in and acted on by the Admiralty. It was a question however how far they should go in their desire to relieve the Controller of the Navy of his responsibility, for clearly there must be some one person who must be responsible for carrying out a general policy as endorsed by the Board of Admiralty, and individual officers at dockyards, even if they comprised such distinguished men as the hon. Member had suggested, could never be allowed to carry out each their own designs. Two questions had been raised by the hon. Member, which were perfectly distinct—the question of the civil or professional as against the naval management; and that of the subordination of the dockyards to a central authority. If such a professional man as had been proposed were to be appointed the question would arise, what would be his relation to the Admiral Superintendent and Commander-in-Chief? It appeared to him that there was a slight confusion in the mind of his hon. Friend, because the duties which he assigned to the Admiral Superintendent could easily be performed by the Commander-in-Chief, and under his plan there would be two admirals and one professional person besides, who would receive a salary equal to the salaries of the two admirals together. There would be thus three officers in every dockyard, with the professional man almost quite independent of the Admiral Superintendent; and a division of responsibility which would not be for the advantage of the public service. For instance, he could see there would be no duties left for the Admiral Superintendent at all, and it would be necessary to abolish this office—which, he thought, was contrary to his hon. Friend's intention, as he (Mr. Goschen) concluded his hon. Friend wished both officers to be continued—leaving the Commander-in-Chief, who would be responsible for the whole of the discipline, and the professional man responsible for the whole of the shipping. One question had suggested itself to his mind while his hon. Friend was speaking with regard to the dockyards and with regard to Whitehall. The question was—would it be wise or possible at present to confine shipbuilding entirely to professional persons, without giving the naval element any voice in the construction of the ships? The hon. Gentleman spoke of the re-organization of the Department at Whitehall, and suggested that the whole of the shipbuilding should be taken out of the hands of the Naval Lord and placed in the hands of a professional person. His (Mr. Goschen's) experience on that point was of the most recent date; but from what he had read, he should judge that nothing would be more certain to lead to endless conflicts than fixing the rule that naval men should have no voice in determining the ships to be built, which they would have afterwards to navigate, and for which they would be afterwards responsible. It was true that professional persons might be better employed in shipbuilding than naval men, though everyone was aware that there had been naval men of very great experience in shipbuilding, who could distinguish themselves almost as professional shipbuilders; but both in the dockyards and Whitehall his hon. Friend had rather overlooked the difficulty of working the system. No doubt the Controller of the Navy's duties were multifarious. Not that his duties had been increased, as his hon. Friend had erroneously supposed; but the actual labour he had to perform had decreased by the changes made in the Department, which had relieved him of a vast amount of actual writing, though not lessening his responsibility. The evidence of Sir Spencer Robinson before the Committee showed that when he was a member of the Board he was obliged to spend a great deal of his time in drawing up reports and writing minutes. Latterly, the Controller of the Navy had certainly been made responsible for the whole matériel of the fleet—stores, guns, and ships; and it had been said by his right hon. Friend (Mr. Childers)—and he thought his right hon. Friend was right—that the concentration of this responsibility in the hands of one man made it easier to work the system, and to get that unity of action, which was most important and so much more efficient than a division of duties. The difficulty of the case, arising from the vastness of the operations placed under his control, was serious; but the mode of dealing with that would depend on the subsequent organization of the Department. With all respect for the views of his hon. Friend the Member for Hastings, it would not be advisable to relieve those who were already responsible to Parliament, from responsibility for the ships which were being built, and for their cost, and it would be impossible, unless the Admiralty system was changed, to give the dockyards power to increase expenditure, without leave from the central Board. It was impossible to give latitude to any subordinate officers, if, at the same time, it was wished to keep a control over the expenditure; and though they might be economical, the right could not be given them to make contracts, to raise prices of labour, or take any steps by which the liabilities of the public would be increased. For this reason, it appeared to him to be necessary to keep the principle well in mind that, while endeavouring to localize, so far as they could localize, they should keep the purse strings tightly in hand. The hon. Member for Hastings had alluded to the advantages of a local audit. He agreed with the hon. Gentleman that the more an audit was made on the spot the more efficient it would be, and he assured his hon. Friend that his efforts should not be wanting to clear up the question of audit, and to see if any improvements could be made. The hon. Member had likewise referred to the dockyard accounts being some years in arrears. That was being reviewed. This was partly due to the fact that the system of keeping the accounts of the different dockyards separately had only been lately introduced. By the month of June, however, the accounts for another year would be placed on the Table, and he trusted that by the end of this year the accounts for a third year would be presented; so that, by that time, the accounts would be brought closely up to the present time. He deprecated any measure being taken by the House which would relieve those from the responsibility to whom really the House and the country must look for successfully carrying on the business of the dockyards. The more correspondence could be avoided, and the more encouragement could be given to the authorities in each dockyard to make reductions, and to be as efficient and economical as possible, the better, and such inducements and such latitude would be given. In conclusion, he hoped the hon. Member would not press his Motion to a Division; and he would assure him that everything that could be done would be done by the Admiralty to attain the end desired.


said, he was very ill-qualified to make even a single remark on this occasion, as he was unfortunately absent from his place during what he had been told was the very able speech of the hon. Member for Hastings, and he had heard only the concluding remarks of the hon. Member for Devonport (Mr. M. Chambers.) He understood him to have proposed that persons who, by dint of ability and perseverance, had risen to the rank of master shipwright might be ultimately appointed Superintendent of the Dockyard. The proposal had often been brought forward in this House; but he had always entertained the greatest possible objection to it, and he was certain it would be a great mistake to abolish the naval Superintendents. It should be remembered that in dockyards, vessels were not only built, but also masted, armed, and fitted out as fighting ships of war, and on all these matters the most valuable suggestions were constantly made by the naval Superintendents, on points of which a civil Superintendent would be entirely ignorant. It would prove fatal to the best interests of the service to appoint anyone except a naval man to the office of Superintendent.


said, he could not listen to the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Admiralty without feeling a desire to appeal to him on a subject to which he had often previously drawn the attention of the House. He thought the authorities might avail themselves of the English tendency to yachting enterprize in order to extend the system of a naval Reserve. Persons who contrived vessels for purposes of sport and enjoyment, might be offered such admission within the pale of the service as would be an encouragement to them; and a plan might also be devised for registering those yachts which might be suitable, as part of the Navy. It was said that the naval strength of this country mainly depended upon the construction of gunboats and other small vessels, and that being the case he thought it would be greatly to the advantage of the service, if the Admiralty would recognize and encourage the spirit which induced English gentlemen to expend money and time and talent upon the building and management of yachts, for they would thus lay the foundation of a most efficient naval Reserve. Gunboats were exactly the kind of vessel which many gentlemen affected, and in which they would embark their money if such an inducement were held out to them. With regard to the safety at sea of large, and particularly of iron-clad ships, as compared with smaller vessels, he would simply mention that it was only owing to his own conviction of her unseaworthiness that his son was prevented from going to sea in the unfortunate Captain by having his appointment cancelled. Before she went on her fatal voyage, he had given Notice of his intention to call the attention of the House to what he considered her faulty construction, but was induced to forego his intention by the late First Lord of the Admiralty.


said, that after the assurance he had received from the First Lord of the Admiralty, he should not press his Motion to a Division.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.