HC Deb 04 May 1888 vol 325 cc1370-3

asked the First Lord of the Treasury, Whether his attention has been called to the forcible statements recently made by distinguished officers of the Navy and Army regarding the dangerous weakness and inefficiency of both Services to carry out their duties of national defence; and, whether, in view of these statements, he will assure Parliament that the Royal Commission which was promised by the Government to inquire into the system of administration will be appointed before Whitsuntide; and, if not, at what date?

THE FIRST LORD (Mr. W. H. SMITH) (Strand, Westminster)

Sir, I am not prepared to enter into any argument with my noble and gallant Friend as to the preamble of his Question; but I may say that the Government are by no means willing to admit the dangerous weakness of the Army and Navy, nor the inefficiency of either of those Services. I am, however, glad to be able to announce that the noble Marquess the Member for Rossendale (the Marquess of Hartington) has consented to preside over the Royal Commission which is to inquire into the most important question which has been raised in the course of these discussions—namely, that of the administration of the defensive services of the country; but I may say that the reference of the question to that Commission is not quite so wide as was contemplated in the first instances. It has, however, been deemed advisable to frame it in such a manner that it will be possible for the Commission to report in the course of the present year, if not before the end of the present Session of Parliament. The Government have felt that it would be most undesirable, after full consideration, to ask the Commission to undertake a duty so wide as to render it impossible for us to obtain early advice on that which the Government and the country regard as the most important part of the question which has been raised in recent discussions. The Reference to the Commission has made in these words— To inquire into the civil and professional administration of the Naval and Military Departments, and the relation of those Departments to each other and to the Treasury; and to report what changes in the existing system would tend to the efficiency and economy of the Public Service.


How soon may the House expect to know the names of the Members of the Commission?


It is our desire to form the Commission as rapidly as we can, consistently with the object which we have in view—to secure the service of the most able and experienced men in the discharge of the duties which will be assigned to them. The noble and gallant Lord must be aware that the selection of Members is a matter of exceeding difficulty. I hope, however, that we may be able to announce the names to the House in the course of the next week or 10 days; but I cannot enter into an engagement to do so, having regard to the importance of the decision with which we have to deal.


Will the terms of the Reference enable the Commission to pronounce any opinion as to the efficiency of the Navy to carry out its duty of national defence?


No. I distinctly exclude that from the Reference to any Commission whatever. In the debate which took place in March last it was stated that it was the duty of the Government of the day to determine what measure and quantity of force shall be employed in the Public Service, and we cannot devolve that upon a Commission.


I am bound to say that I have listened with great regret to the statement of the right hon. Gentleman. As one of those who originated the debate which has resulted in the appointment of this Commission, I think it is necessary to express my extreme regret—["Order, order!"]


The hon. and gallant Gentleman is not entitled to interfere, except by putting a Question.


I was going to give Notice of a Motion.


The hon. and gallant Member may do so at a later stage.


The First Lord of the Treasury will see that this is a totally different Reference to the one which was proposed before—namely, to inquire whether our means of defence were efficient, or whether they were not; and, as far as I am concerned, I think that Reference will hardly meet the agreement which was then come to.


I have preserved the terms of the Reference which I read out in March last. It was in these words:— The extent to which our naval and military systems, as at present organized and administered, are adapted to the national wants. I have stated to-night that it has been found on examination that this Reference would be so wide as to render it impossible for any Commission to report within a reasonable period upon any one of the points about which the House and the country want advice and guidance. We have, therefore, taken the question of the organization and administration of the Departments as being in itself the question on which at present there is the greatest desire for guidance and direction. The Commission that will be appointed will, therefore, have to consider the existing administration and the relations of naval and military officers with the First Lord of the Admiralty and with the Secretary of State for War, and to ascertain for themselves whether or not that system of administration is best calculated to secure the efficiency of the Services and economy in administration.


In consequence of the—to my mind—somewhat unsatisfactory answer now given by the right hon. Gentleman, I beg to give Notice that at the earliest opportunity that the Rules of the House permit I shall call attention to the undertaking of the Government with regard to this Commission given by the Government at the instance of the hon. and gallant Member for North-West Sussex (Sir Walter B. Barttelot) and also to the narrowed terms of the Reference announced to-night; and I shall take the opinion of the House as to whether this is for the benefit of the Public Service.

MR. LAWSON (St. Pancras, W.)

asked, how far the inquiry of the new Commission would differ from that of the Commission that investigated the Civil Service Establishments?


The inquiry is altogether different. It refers to the principles on which these Departments are administered. I may specially refer to the position of naval and military officers attached to the Departments as indicating the very grave questions that will be raised and investigated by the Commission to be presided over by the noble Marquess (the Marquess of Hartington.)