HC Deb 03 March 1898 vol 54 cc471-3
MR. S. WOODS (Walthamstow)

I beg to ask the First Lord of the Admiralty if he can state whether the four men who were discharged at Portsmouth in January last were men of good character and of long service; whether he is aware that the meeting of which complaint was made was held outside the gates of the Government works, and on land belonging to the town; that the meeting was conducted in an orderly manner; and that the questions discussed at the meeting were strictly confined to grievances of which the workmen complained; whether he will state to the House the terms of the departmental regulations which they had violated; and whether he will consent to the appointment of a small Committee to make a strict investigation into the grievances of which the men complain—viz., the method of payment by piece, to which the workmen take great objection?


I cannot answer the first question of the hon. Member without some qualification. The character of the four men referred to was generally good, but one of them had been convicted a short time before of making a dishonest return of work to the recording officer of the dockyard, and another had, on one occasion, written an improper letter to his superior officer, for which he had been warned that any similar conduct in future would entail his dismissal. Three of the men had fairly long service, but one of the four had only two years. Secondly, the meeting was held outside the dockyard gates, but the land belonged not to the town but to the Admiralty. However, I am not prepared to deal with the Question on technicalities, either in one direction or the other. Questions four and five are debateable assertions. The reports of the meeting, sent to me by the men themselves, show that the recognised methods of seeking to obtain redress of their grievances were ignored by the men. The hon. Member assumes, in his further Question, that there must have been some particular Departmental regulation which the men had violated. In reply, I may draw his attention to Article 39 of the Dockyard Regulations, whereby conduct in any way to the prejudice of the public service is an offence to which dismissal may be applied. But I had better read to the hon. Gentleman a portion of my reply to a similar Question of the hon. Member for Portsmouth, especially as the same publicity has not been given to the last sentence of that reply as to the remainder of the letter. As regards your second inquiry as to the particular offence which brought upon certain workmen their dismissal from the Service, I should have thought that it would have been plain to you that the part they played in the meeting in question, just outside the Dockyard gates, as reported in the public Press, and in a letter which was addressed to me by one of them, was of a character prejudicial to the public service. Let me remind you that one of the men whose services are now dispensed with had been suspended for what was practically a fraud on the public—viz., having claimed from the recorder pay for the putting in of 16 rivets, when, in point of fact, he had only put in one. That this man, of whose grave fault some of his fellow workmen must have been cognisant, should take a prominent part in the proceedings gave a character to them which, I should have thought, would have rendered it plain, irrespective of the other circumstances, why the Admiralty were called upon to dispense with the services of those who took the lead on this occasion. I understand that the question of the dismissal of these men is to be brought before the House. I reserve, therefore, a full statement of the grounds for their dis missal until that occasion, should it be necessary. In reply to the last Question, I cannot consent to the appointment of such a Committee. The Question of whether any revision of the piecework scale of pay is necessary has been under careful consideration for some time, and I believe it was known to be so in the yards. I am giving the matter my personal attention, and the Board of Admiralty feel perfectly competent to deal with the matter equitably.


May I ask, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the system of piecework which obtains in the dockyards is totally different from the piecework done in any other shipyards throughout the country?


Order, order! That is a general Question which hardly arises out of the answer.


When the proper time comes I shall be prepared to give a full and satisfactory reply.