HC Deb 15 March 1888 vol 323 cc1352-6

SUPPLY—considered in Committee.

(In the Committee.)

(1) 62,400, Men and Boys.

(2.) Motion made, and Question proposed, That a sum, not exceeding £3,112,700, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the Expense of Wages, &c. to Officers, Seamen, and Boys, Coast Guard, and Royal Marines, and the Half-Pay of Officers, which will come in course of payment during the course of the year ending on the 31st day of March 1889.


said, he wanted to have an explanation from the First Lord as to whether the Committee which sat at the Admiralty when he (Lord Charles Beresford) was there, and to which certain papers of his were submitted embodying a scheme for reducing the number of non-combatants in the Fleet, had reported? That question was one which he considered to be most important, owing to the great change in the character of our ships which had taken place of late years, and which had led to an increase in the number of non-combatants from 17 per cent to 41 per cent in some ships, and he thought some steps should be taken, not only to reduce the number of non-combatants, but to make those who remained more efficient. There were about 3,500 working idlers, as they were called, and about 3,900 excused idlers in the Navy; and when it was borne in mind that the French Fleet had only 7 per cent of non-combatants, as against our average of 22 per cent, and one-fifth more men in the ships, the question appeared to be of such importance that it must be very soon settled in a decisive way. One effect of the system was this—that in n vessel of the Thunderer class, for instance, the bursting of a one-pound shell in the turret might kill a whole gun's crew, and it would not be possible to replace them. The distinction between working idlers and excused idlers was one which existed in old times, and was still preserved in the Navy; the former were men who came on dock when the hands were turned up; the latter were those who did not come on deck. On board a man-of-war the working idlers consisted of the plumber, painter, armourer, cooper, shipwright, blacksmith, torpedo artificer, the crews attached to torpedoes, the lamp trimmer, &c. His view was that every one of these men could be made a fireman, if only their pay was slightly increased for doing fireman's work. The carpenter, who was of no use at all in modern ships, should be done away with; what they wanted was to have in the ships seamen, firemen, and some excused idlers, and to get rid of the working idlers altogether. By this plan there would be increased power of keeping the engines going, because there would be more men to work the fires. Then he would have one mechanical staff in the ship in place of the present two; he would put this part under one mechanical head, who should be under the chief engineer, and instead of the carpenter there should be a mechanician who should also be a warrant officer. There would then be the whole of the six rates exactly as at present in the engine-room department. His theory was that, whereas formerly there were seamen and gunners, there must now, in view of the changes which had taken place, be seamen, gunners, and engineers, and he thought that the time of every cadet who joined the Navy now should be devoted to learning in these three branches. He was aware that some brother officers differed from him, and it was thought that if his suggestions were adopted the engineers would get too much power; but that was exactly what he believed would happen if they were not adopted. Then there was another class of non-combatants that he wanted to see abolished—namely, the third-class domestics. These had crept into the Service since our ship's companies had been reduced, because in old days the second-class boys took this position, and the second-class boy was eventually drafted on to the fighting strength of the Fleet. This domestic class, whose pay was 1s. 1d. a-day, was of no use whatever for fighting; and his opinion was that there were plenty of men in the ships who would do that work if they had half that amount of pay given them in addition to their own. In that way there would be useful men in case the ship went into action in place of lads who, in those circumstances, were of little or of no use for anything. This was his proposal, in which, although there were, no doubt, some points open to be argued against, he thought there was a great deal of good. The point was one which he had brought forward a long time ago, and which had been referred to a Committee. He did not know what had been done in the matter; but it was one that ought to be taken up, because it came into the general question of the fighting organization of the Fleet. He maintained that it was proved to a certainty that we had really no good system of organization for war at the present moment; for if they had, all this detail with which the Committee had been dealing would have been thought out and threshed out. He did not blame his late Colleagues at all; it was the system; but these things were intimately connected with success or failure in action. He hoped the noble Lord would say whether anything was being done in the direction he had indicated, and he now begged to move the reduction of the Vote by £100.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That a sum, not exceeding £3,112,600, be granted for the said Services."—(Lord Charles Beresford.)


My noble Friend has called attention to a most important question, but, at the same time, one which is of a highly technical character. It is not one which I can deal with in the House of Commons, but it is a question which I think my noble Friend is perfectly right in raising. The introduction of machinery of all kinds, which has superseded manual labour, has largely increased the engine-room complements, and thus the number of non-combatants form a larger proportion to the crews of our vessels than was the case in former times. I am aware that my noble Friend has given considerable attention to this question. The last proposal which he made was of a very detailed character, and it was referred to a Committee. My noble Friend thinks that what this Committee was appointed to do could be done within the Admiralty itself, if a certain number of officers had been added to the Civil Staff. I would point out that this would cost a great deal of money, because a number of officers would have to be put on full pay; but how much more would it cost the country if these officers were to be put permanently on full pay?


What I meant was that if we had naval officers instead of civilians, this question could have been turned over to them, and that the naval officers' pay would be less than the civilian pay.


I do not agree with my noble Friend that in any system of organization it is possible to take away so large a portion of the working power in an office as would be required to deal with so large a question as the reduction of the non-combatant class. My noble Friend drew up a Report, and this was submitted to an Arrangement Committee. That Committee have reported, and their Report is now under consideration. I think everyone will agree that the non-combatant class could be reduced to the smallest dimensions possible; but they are two classes, one of which has to be put to small arms drill, and the other cannot be put to any training at all. The latter I think, of course, ought to be reduced to the smallest possible dimensions. But then there will be some work for the non-combatants in time of action, such as looking after ammunition and the wounded, and putting out fire caused by shell. There is a very strong opinion against reducing the number of non-combatants to the extent mentioned by the noble Lord. The executive officers are of opinion that this would diminish their authority, and I am bound to say that I think they are right in their contention. I can only say, in conclusion, that the Report is being considered by the Board of Admiralty; but there are a very large number of points to be dealt with. We shall try to come to a conclusion as soon as possible, and certainly one of the points which will exercise them, would be that of the noble Lord for the reduction of the non-combatants to the lowest possible figure.

MR. R. W. DUFF (Banffshire)

said, that Members on that side of the House made no objection to the Vote being taken, on the understanding that any question relating to the number of men could be raised on Vote 2.


I am perfectly willing to accede to the proposal of the hon. Gentleman.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Original Question put, and agreed to.