HC Deb 31 July 1879 vol 248 cc1747-55

, in rising to call attention to the responsibilities, rank, and emoluments of the professional officers in Her Majesty's Naval Yards, said, the position of the Constructive Departments in our Dockyards was by no means an unimportant question, for if the constructors of the Navy were inefficient our dockyard management would be a failure. Our ships would be too costly, or they would be badly built. On these two cardinal points of cost and workmanship the Constructors were solely responsible. It was laid down in the well-known Memorandum of Sir Spencer Robinson, which was prepared for the Duke of Somerset's Committee on the Board of Admiralty, that the Superintendent was in no sense responsible for the quality or the cost of the work done in the Dockyards. He was the vehicle through which orders passed from the Admiralty to the heads of Departments; but if a work which ought to have been done for £10,000 cost £16,000, he was not called upon to account for this excess. When a question was asked he directed the master shipwright to reply. All the Naval Superintendents who were examined by the Dockyard Commissioners in 1860 took a similar view of their position. The inquiry into the loss of the Megœra brought out distinctly the sole responsibility of the professional officers for advising the Captain Superintendent and, through him, the Board of Admiralty, as to the seaworthiness of a ship for any voyage or service that she was to undertake. He wished distinctly to disclaim any desire to see the Naval Superintendents of Dockyards superseded by civilians. But it was obviously most important that the Constructors should be qualified to bear the weight of responsibility thrown upon them. They should be men of education, technical knowledge, and experience, and with ability to direct the labours of large bodies of men; and he asked the House seriously to consider whether the rank and emoluments of these officers were sufficient to command in all cases men of the necessary qualifications for the Public Service. The unsatisfactory position of the Constructors was described by Mr. Oliver Lang, the able Master Shipwright at Chatham, in his evidence before the Dockyard Commission in 1860, who said— I do not object to a considerable infusion of the working class, and their being allowed to rise to the highest offices in the branch. I complain that the sons of gentlemen are shut out entirely. No substantial change had been made in the system of recruiting officers for the Constructor's Department since Mr. Lang's evidence was given. It was stated by Mr. Barnes, the Surveyor of Dockyards, in his evidence before the Stores Committee, that the present master shipwrights, in almost all cases, had been originally entered as apprentices in the Dockyards. The position of the professional officers of the Dockyards was the subject of very serious consideration on the part of the Committee on Dockyard Economy, of which Admiral Smart was the Chairman. That Committee had recommended that the status of the civil officers in Dockyards should be raised. The line between the employers and the employed had been very indistinctly drawn, and there had been a tendency to class the chief professional officers among the employed. The master shipwrights and chief engineers should thenceforward be looked upon as commissioned officers, and be considered as identified with the Admiralty as the directors or employers of the labour, and not with those who executed the actual manual labour. A superior position in society and a superior education would always have their weight when placed in a proper position. The Commissioners who conducted the inquiry into the loss of the Megœra made some strong observations on this point. They said— We feel compelled to remark that we have formed, however unwillingly, an unfavourable opinion as to the mode in which the administration of Her Majesty's Dockyards is generally conducted. The officers appear to us too often to have done no more than each of them thought it was absolutely necessary to do, following a blind routine in the discharge of their duties, and acting almost as if it was their main object to avoid responsibility. What had been done since these Reports were presented to stimulate the zeal of the professional officers in the Dockyards? The Master Shipwright was now called Chief Constructor, but was still subordinate to the Master Attendant. The head of the Shipbuilding Department, who, at Portsmouth, for example, had from 4,000 to 5,000 men under him, ranked below the head of the Rigging Department, who had only 440 men under his orders. Sir Houston Stewart had very justly called attention to this anomaly. While their relative rank remained unchanged, only a trifling addition had been made to the salary of the professional officers. He would take Portsmouth as an example. In 1868–9 the salary of the Chief Constructor was £700 a-year, and that of the Chief Engineer £650; together, £1,350. At that time 3,460 men were employed in the Dockyards, their wages amounting to £210,258. In 1879–80 the salary of the Chief Constructor was increased to £850, but that of the Chief Engineer was reduced to £534 a-year, the joint salaries of the responsible heads of the two great departments of the Dockyard being £1,384, or an increase of £34 only on the total amount paid 10 years before. In the meanwhile, the number of men had been raised to 4,961—an increase of 1,500 in number, their wages amounting to £326,000, or an increase of £116,000 a-year. He had referred to the case of the Megœra as an example of the disasters that might occur from neglect of duty; but neglect of duty, in the form of omission to do a thing which ought to have been done, was, happily, a rare occurrence in Her Majesty's Dockyards. Extravagance and waste in going beyond the necessity of the case in the matter of alterations and repairs were far more common, and we had done nothing to encourage thrift and economy. The results that necessarily followed had been pointed out, not only by Committees and Commissions, but by independent critics of great authority. Admiral Smart's Committee had referred to this question in their Report. They thought that too little regard had been paid to cost, as distinguished from workmanship, and they recommended that some tangible mode should be provided by which any officer could be able to claim the credit of public approbation for any economy to the Public Service which had been obtained by his good management. Persons accustomed to administrative business would readily concur in the observation of Lord Clarence Paget, that— Where one Dockyard is found to conduct its business more economically than another it should be an understood thing that the officers of that Yard, who had, by their attention to these important matters, caused a saving of public money, should be advanced—that encouragement should be given to economy. Nothing, however, had been done to carry out that suggestion. No instance had occurred of an officer having been dismissed or suffering a loss of salary for extravagance, nor had any officer been promoted or pecuniarily rewarded for economical administration. There was no equitable principle in the amounts of the salaries awarded to the Chief Constructors at the several Yards. The Chief Constructor at Portsmouth received £850 for supervision over an annual expenditure of £326,191 on wages, and probably an equal amount on stores. The Chief Constructor at Pembroke had £700 a-year for supervision over a body of men whose aggregate wages amounted to £97,000. In connection with this subject, he would call attention to the strong representations which had been made by Admirals Hall, Chamberlain, Fellowes, and Sir Cooper Key, to the Committee on Stores as to the great importance of constant personal supervision of the work in progress on the parts of the Chief Constructors in the several Dockyards. The success attained in Pembroke Dockyard in building ships within the estimates had been exemplified in several remarkable cases which were quoted by Admiral Hall. These results he attributed to the great care which the professional officers at Pembroke were able to bestow on their work, from having time enough at their disposal to give the requisite attention to the details of construction. Admiral Fellowes made a strong representation on the same subject. He said it was imperative that the constructive duties of the Yard should receive more attention. There were at Chatham 3,800 men at work—men who were working night and day—and there was only one Chief Constructor and one constructor; whereas, under the old system, the work would have received the supervision of a Chief Constructor, two Constructors, and other officers; and this, at a time when a smaller number of men were employed and the Dockyard covered only 90 acres, instead of, as at present, 500 acres. According to the present practice, the officers of the Yards had but a small share in the preparation of the estimates. He would propose that whenever it was contemplated to build a ship in a particular Dockyard the Chief Constructor should be called upon to prepare an estimate of the cost. That estimate should be revised, and when an agreement had been finally established between the Admiralty and their local officer as to the amount, the figures should be bracketed in the Navy Estimates with the name of the responsible Dockyard officer. A spirit of emulation would thus be encouraged between the different Yards, while bad workmanship might be prevented by the frequent supervision of an Admiralty Surveyor. The organization of the French Constructive Department had been referred to by the hon. Member for Nottingham in his speech of last Session on our shipbuilding policy. It was equally worthy of examination in connection with the points to which he now called attention. The French professional officers held a higher relative rank than we had accorded to our Constructors. The Ingénieurs de la Marine were selected from the Ecole Polytechnique, and their promotion was secured by an appropriate gradation of ranks, corresponding with those established in the executive branch of the Navy. The staff included an Inspector General, who ranked with, but after, a Vice Admiral. He resided in Paris and made periodical visits to the ports. Under him were 11 directors of naval construction, all ranking immediately after a Rear Admiral in the French Navy, but before a captain. At the ports the Constructive Department was represented by an Inspector-in-Chief of the Naval Administrative Services, who was charged, in the name of the Minister of Marine, with the supervision of all the professional work in the Dockyards. The Inspector was subordinate in rank to the Préfet Maritime, who was a Vice Admiral; but in the discharge of his duties he acted under the orders received from the Minister of Marine and corresponded directly with him. The constructive staff for the English Navy should be selected from the Academy at Woolwich. They would receive their special training at Greenwich and at the Dockyards. They should have an honorary relative rank, like that which was given to the Corps of Naval Architects in the French Navy, and be entitled to the privilege of wearing a civil uniform. The criticisms of foreigners were often most suggestive. M. Xavier Raymond, formerly a frequent contributor on naval subjects to the pages of the Revue des deux Mondes, made the following remarks in his volume entitled Les Marines de la France et de l' Angleterre:— By an anomaly most remarkable, the administration of the Navy is conducted by a Board, and that Board is selected almost exclusively from one only of the numerous specialities which must be combined in order to constitute a naval establishment. Of the six individuals who form the Board two are Members of Parliament and do not belong to the Navy. The four others are naval officers. The administrative branches, works, and buildings, naval construction, gunnery, health, are all rigorously excluded. As for the Constructors in the ports, if their salaries were not inadequate, they occupied a position of inferiority in relation to the executive branches, unworthy of the talent and services of several of their number. The result was that certain individuals, and those, perhaps, the most distinguished, had left the Service. The name of the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. E. J. Reed) was quoted as a prominent example. He would venture to urge that the Constructors of the Navy should be con- stituted as a distinct corps, like the Ingè.nieurs de la Marine in France, and that we ought to have one or more Naval Architects in every Dockyard capable of preparing competitive designs for new ships. In the French Service, the work of the central office was limited to the specification of the qualities and the general features of the new ships which it was proposed to build. The programme having been prepared at headquarters, the Dockyards were invited to furnish competitive designs, and the most successful was selected. That plan insured a wide development of ideas, and prevented the shipbuilding of the Navy falling into a groove under the direction of a single mind. Turning from the Dockyards to the Council of Construction, he found that the highest shipbuilding officer in the Navy had a salary of £1,200 a-year. The responsibility for the design and construction of new ships, and for supplying those ships with proper machinery, rested exclusively with the civil members of the staff of the Controller of the Navy. The Controllers themselves had on all occasions most fully acknowledged their dependence on the aid of professional men. He put it to the House to consider whether the present salary of £1,200 should or should not be regarded as a maximum, and whether it might not be expedient to hold out to the Chief Constructor of the Navy some further prospect of honorary or pecuniary advancement. Was the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. E. J. Reed) altogether wrong when he said, in his evidence before the Duke of Devonshire's Committee on Scientific Instruction, that it seemed to him to be quite out of the question that the Chief Constructor of the Navy—a man who had been admitted in Parliament by the First Lord of the Admiralty to have been capable of saving or losing £1,000,000 in a short period—should be receiving a salary of £900 a-year, as he was when he first entered the Admiralty, or £1,500 a-year, as he was when he left. It was well known that managers of private establishments were receiving very much greater incomes. The Engineer-in-Chief of the Navy held an office second only in importance to that of the Director of Naval Construction. He was the adviser of the Controller and of the Admiralty generally on all that related to the steam branch of the Service. He held a highly responsible position in relation to contracts for the supply of machinery. The Estimates for the present year provided for the purchase of machinery at a cost of £396,000. It was not enough that the Chief Engineer of the Navy should possess a competent technical knowledge. He must be capable of defending his opinions before the Board of Admiralty and the Council of Construction. Was it quite consistent to give £1,000 a-year to the Chief Engineer of the Navy, while the Directors of Transport and of Works, who were executive officers, and were rewarded with the Order of the Bath and the other distinctions awarded to the executive line, were respectively receiving £1,550 and £1,300 a-year? By a Return of all civilians employed by the Crown, which was moved for by his right hon. Friend below him (Mr. Childers), and which had recently been presented to Parliament, it appeared that 1,040 persons were employed in the Civil, Judicial, and Revenue Departments, at a total annual charge of £1,437,000 a-year, giving an average salary of £1,400 a-year. In that long list of 1,040 favoured officials no civil officer employed under the Admiralty had been fortunate enough to be included. That exclusion was hardly consistent when they came to consider that the greatest Navy in the world was built, equipped, and repaired under their supervision. He had no desire to see changes suddenly introduced, without regard to the individual merits of the officers employed. He fully appreciated the difficulties of the political heads of the Admiralty in the matter. They might be excused if they hesitated to give a very rapid advancement to officers of whose capacity they could have but scanty personal knowledge. They would all agree, however, that talent could only be attracted to the Public Service, and retained in it, by offering positions worthy of acceptance. The Admiralty might begin, as opportunity offered, by improving the position of heads of Departments at Whitehall. He did not intend to bring this question forward time after time; but, having stated the case, he would leave it with confidence to the experienced judgment and mature consideration of the First Lord of the Admiralty and his Colleagues, knowing that the right hon. Gentleman was anxious to do all in his power to promote the efficiency of the Naval Service.