HC Deb 21 February 1902 vol 103 cc729-32

I think there is general agreement among all those who are interested in the Navy—among naval men as well as civilians—that it is not only desirable, but it is essential to have an adequate reserve by which you can supplement in time of war this valuable nucleus of active long-service ratings. The House knows well that something considerable has already been done to supply this reserve. We have, in the first place, the Royal Naval Reserve. The Royal Navy Reserve has of late years been somewhat of a disappointment. There has been a falling off in the number of entries, and there have been attempts made on the part of the Admiralty to arrest what appeared to be symptoms of the decay of what we believe will be a valuable force in time of war. Changes have been made in the terms which are imposed upon those who serve in the Royal Naval Reserve with the object of making the service more popular and of making its conditions more easy for those who enter it. I am glad to say that there are already signs that these steps are being appreciated by the men in the Royal Naval Reserve, and that not only has the decline been arrested, but during the present year there has been an increase in the ratio of entries for the Royal Naval Reserve. The addition most recently made to the Reserve has been the Fleet Reserve, which, as hon. Members know, is made up from more than one source. In last year's Estimates provision was made for 7,000 men of the Royal Fleet Reserve; but it was not anticipated that all those men would be obtained as new entries into this newly created body. There existed at that time a large body of seamen pensioners who were liable for service in time of war. The conditions under which they served were not as favourable to the men or as convenient to the Navy as those which are prescribed for the Royal Fleet Reserve; and it was hoped and believed that there would be a considerable entry of men from the seamen pensioner class to the Royal Fleet Reserve. This anticipation has proved correct. There has been a considerable passage of men from the Seamen Pensioners Reserve to Class A of the Fleet Reserve. There has also been a bona fide entry of men from the Fleet. Though ultimately it is proposed that the Fleet Reserve should be an obligatory service for all long-service men pensioned from the Navy, it was, of course, impossible to impose on men who had entered the Navy without any obligation of Reserve service the duty of joining the Fleet Reserve. We were therefore compelled to rely on the voluntary passage of men from the active service list to the Fleet Reserve during the period which must elapse between the institution of this Reserve and the date when it will become a condition of the award of a long service pension. The entries in Class B have been 1,639 men; and taking the whole of the entries together, including the seamen pensioners who are still available, and the men of Class B who have entered from the Fleet, we have 7,000 men available under the Royal Fleet Reserve. This will be a steadily growing addition to the Fleet; and every one acquainted with the service will agree that you can hardly draw upon a better source for the reinforcement of the Navy in the time of war. Then there are other sources of supply to which we must look to fill up the complements of our ships in time of war. The last year has been marked by indications of readiness on the part of our great Colonies to assist us in military operations; but a great sea Empire must always desire that this co-operation should extend not only to military operations on shore but to operations on sea.

This year has most happily shown that we may with some confidence look forward to assistance on the sea as well as on land. The experiment has been tried of entering Royal Naval Reserve men in Newfoundland; and I should like to take this opportunity of dissipating a misapprehension which exists in the minds of some persons that there has been any hitch or difficulty between the Admiralty and those who are interested in the promotion of this movement. There is no foundation for that belief. There has, indeed, been a difficulty, but it has not been the creation of the Admiralty. It has been found—and it is one of those errors which are perhaps partly due to want of Imperial organisation and partly perhaps to the way in which legislation is passed through this House—that under the existing Acts the raising of this Royal Naval Reserve in Newfoundland was not within the four corners of the law. The Admiralty, of course, having taking the step, felt themselves bound to all the men who had offered their services; and those men were paid and their services were utilized. But there has been an arrest in the progress of this movement owing to the fact that no real legal sanction exists. I hope that this arrest will be very temporary indeed. The Government propose to introduce a Bill at the earliest opportunity, making it legal to engage the services of Reservists, not only in the Colony of Newfoundland, but in every other colony and dependency which is willing to comply with the terms which we lay down.

There is one other source of supply for the Navy to which I must refer. It has been a condition of the Navy in every time of war in the past to rely on volunteers. It may seem an anomalous way of stating the proposition, but I believe the men secured by the press-gang, who were not volunteers in one sense, did represent an element which it would be desirable to introduce into the Navy by means of volunteering. The press-gang took the best men from our merchant ships and transferred them to the ships of the Royal Navy. The days of the press-gang are happily gone by; but I believe that we can rely on public spirit to do what the press-gang did, not ineffectively, in other days, namely, transfer from the civilian maritime population of these islands a large number of men who with proper training will be fit to serve in the Navy in time of war as volunteers. A Committee has been appointed under the chairman- ship of the hon. Baronet the Member for Berwick, which is now examining this question; and I hope and believe that the Committee's Report will give us the material which will enable us to take some definite step in the direction of reviving the volunteer force under improved conditions.