HC Deb 28 May 1902 vol 108 cc793-7


Order for Second Reading read.


In moving the Second Reading of this Bill, I have to explain that its object is to remedy a patent detect in the present law. Under the statute of 1859 the Admiralty were given powers to raise Naval Volunteers, now known as the Royal Naval Reserve. These Volunteers were compelled by the terms of the statute to be men resident in the United Kingdom, the Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands. In 1896 it was desired to employ in the Royal Naval Reserve men serving in the Canadian Pacific Line of steamers, and an Act was passed permitting the enlistment of these men. But it contained the limitation that such men must be serving in a vessel registered in the British Isles, which, as a matter of fact, the vessels of the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company were. Since that time Volunteers have been enlisted into the Royal Naval Reserve in the colony of Newfoundland, and there is no statutory warrant for their enlistment. The object of the Bill, therefore, is to remedy that state of things, and permit British subjects serving in ships registered elsewhere than in the United Kingdom, and residing outside it, to enter the Royal Naval Reserve. The Bill is merely intended to legitimate the entry of the men who have already entered, and permit the entry of other men in similar circumstances in the future.

Motion made and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."


said he thought that any discussion on the Bill might be deferred till the Committee stage, and he did not propose to offer any opposition to the Second Reading, but he would point out that the Bill was retrospective, and amounted really to an act of indemnity. He would like to ask for an explanation as to the effect of the proposal in the Bill to omit the words "serving on a vessel registered in the British Islands." That would make it possible to include vessels which were not registered in any part of the British dominions at all, and would enable men to be retained in the Royal Naval Reserve who were serving on board ships under a foreign flag. Was that really intended to be its effect? He did not know that anything was to be gained by retaining these words, even if their omission entailed the consequence to which he had referred, because the registration of ships in this country appeared to him no longer to afford any guarantee whatever that the ships so registered were in any proper sense of the word British ships. There was no reason whatever why the majority of shares in a British company should not be held by foreigners. He thought that at this stage of the Bill they might have an explanation from the Government whether it was really intended to retain in the Royal Naval Reserve men who were serving in foreign ships.


said the hon. Gentleman had declared that the Bill was to remedy a patent defect in the law, but in his opinion it was not a remedial Bill at all. It was a measure to give indemnity to the Admiralty for having committed acts the illegality of which had been pointed out by the Public Accounts Committee, of which he had the honour to be a member. The Government chose, without a proper examination of the law on the subject, to do a tiling which they had no legal power to do, and, although the enlistment of Newfoundlanders was most proper and desirable, the Government certainly ought not to have sanctioned it without first making themselves acquainted with the legal position. Their powers were really limited to enrolling British subjects serving on board ships registered in the British Islands, and the Newfoundland men, as a fact, were not so serving. The Comptroller and Auditor General found out the mistake which had been made, and had it not been for him the illegality might still be continued. The hon. Gentleman opposite had said that it was possible, as the law stood, for a ship to be practically owned by a foreign corporation and yet to be registered as a British ship. He disagreed with the hon. Member on that point. He believed that when a ship had fallen wholly under the dominion of a foreign corporation it ceased to be, in the words of the Merchant Shipping Act, "a ship owned by British subjects or corporation." In view of the large transfer of British shipping to take place on 31st December next, the question arose whether His Majesty's Government were prepared to go on enrolling in the Naval Reserve British subjects sailing under a foreign flag. He thought it would be an entirely improper thing to do. He objected further to the method by which it was proposed to amend what the hon. Gentleman called a patent defect in the law. In his opinion, it was most improper. It was proposed to omit certain words from the Act of 1896; he would rather leave the words in, and add at the end the words "or in British possessions." That would be a desirable amplification of existing powers, and in Committee he hoped the Government would see their way to adopting his suggestion. He did not think there were any grounds for opposing the Second Reading of the Bill.


said that if the Bill gave power to register in the Royal Naval Reserve sailors who were serving under a foreign flag, it would do away with the only safeguard we had that the Reserve should consist of British sailors serving in British ships.


The Bill provides that only British subjects shall be enrolled.


But can they be enrolled if they are serving under a foreign flag? That is the point.


It is not our intention to employ men of any other nationality who may be serving in British ships. As to whether British subjects serving in foreign ships shall be enrolled, I understand it is intended to move an Amendment on that point in Committee, and I will reserve till then any remarks I may have to make.


said he should like to draw attention to the case of the Chinese in Australia. They were considered British subjects. Could they be enrolled in the Royal Naval Reserve?

* MR. BLAKE (Longford, S.)

thought the Member for King's Lynn was under a misapprehension. It was true the Bill was partly designed to indemnify the Admiralty in regard to certain acts, but it was mainly designed to remedy a defect in the law. In justice to the Admiralty, he must say that they themselves and not the Comptroller and Auditor General, who, indeed, had not the opportunity, discovered the irregularity which had been committed in the enrolment of the Newfoundland fishermen. This Bill would simply make the law what it ought to be, subject to amendment as to service under the flag, which he rather favoured.

MR. MACDONA (Southwark, Rotherhithe)

Will the Admiralty be willing to accept the services of the watermen and lightermen of London if they volunteer for the Naval Reserve?

* SIR CHARLES DILKE (Gloucestershire, Forest of Dean)

thought the hon. Member was misled by the title of the Bill. It had nothing to do with what were commonly called the naval volunteers, it dealt solely with reserve men, and therefore the question raised by the hon. Member did not come in. He thought they ought to have some indication as to the principles which would guide the Government in the debates in Committee. He should like to point out that since 1870 a double allegiance was possible, and British subjects could also be American citizens without losing the allegiance to the Crown. There were many offices in the United States which could only be held by citizens of the United States, and which had been filled by gentlemen who had continued to be British subjects. Accordingly, the Government would not guard entirely against the danger which his hon. friend had pointed out by merely using the phrase British subjects, for many American citizens were British subjects.


said he thought the question whether a British subject who was not a native of these islands could join the Naval Reserve scarcely arose under this Bill, as the power existed already.


The power at present is limited by registration in the British Isles.


said his point was that the limitation of the kind of British subject who should be enabled to join the Naval Reserve did not exist now. There were two separate questions—as to the ship, and as to the man. The Government wanted to remove the limitation as to ships, but they were not asking for any change with regard to the men. Under this Bill the Admiralty took the power to enlist a British subject in any ship, even if flying a foreign flag. It was distinctly a question for Committee whether it was wise that the Government should take this power. The mere possession of the power did not, of course, necessarily entail its exercise. Referring to an interruption by the hon. Member for Dundee, he said it was a fact that a limited power already existed by which the Admiralty could allow Naval Reserve men to serve in ships flying foreign flags. If it was not thought wise to extend that power, the Committee could deal with the point. The Bill embraced within its scope all ships registered in any British possession, and even went beyond that, so as to include any ship.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for Monday next.