HC Deb 06 March 1905 vol 142 cc517-27

Order read, for resuming adjourned debate on Main Question (March 6th), "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair (for Committee on Navy Estimates)."—(Mr. Pretyman.)

Question again proposed.


resuming his speech, said he hoped the Secretary to the Admiralty would answer some of the questions put to him in the course of the debate. Up to the present he had given a very imperfect description of the Estimates. He wished to know first of all what sum they were actually going to spend. How much money was estimated to be spent under the Naval Works Bill? In former years they were always told the amount estimated under the Bill, and it was only in the last two or three years that the figure had not been given when the Estimates were introduced. For the reasonable consideration of the Estimates it was necessary that they should know the full proposed naval expenditure for the year. They wanted to know also in connection with the Works Vote what had become of the large item which had hitherto been in the Vote, and now for the first time omitted, for coaling depots, Wei-hai-Wei hospital, and Bermuda. Were these put under the Loans Act or not? What was the policy of the Government in regard to them? He wished also to know the policy of the Government in regard to Rosyth.


said he desired to emphasise what had been stated by the hon. Gentleman opposite as to the great distress which was caused owing to the uncertainty of employment in the dockyards. He asked the Secretary to the Admiralty to remember that this was a most urgent matter in the constituency which he represented, and expressed the hope that he would, as far as possible, endeavour to avoid the great inconvenience which I arose in this way. One remedy would be to employ, as far as practicable, fewer hired men and more establishment men. He agreed with his hon. friend the Member for Devonport that it was never a satisfactory system that the men should make appeals to their representatives in Parliament in order that their case might be brought forward there. A few years ago the Admiralty undertook to allow the men to state their case themselves. That was what the men desired, and it would be more satisfactory from the point of view of the Admiralty. They were not able to see the men last year, but he hoped that this year the men would be allowed to state their case in a straightforward manner. He raised the question of the sighting of guns last year. It was a matter about which there was then a good deal of public discussion. He did not lay much stress on statements which had been made as to the defective sighting of the guns. They all admitted that there had been a remarkable improvement in shooting in the Navy of late years. But it was a question of importance that the doubt which existed in the public mind should be dissipated. Information should be given as to what was being done to improve the sighting of the Navy guns. If there was anything wrong, they wanted to know what was being done to remedy it. The matter of target practice was one that interested the public very much. Referring to Admiral Scott's recent appointment, the hon. Member said there was no man who had done more for gunnery in the Navy than that officer. Admiral Scott was popular in the service, and no man had better deserved popularity. It was well that the Government should acknowledge the debt of gratitude they owed to him. He noticed from the Memorandum that care had been exercised in the selection of fans for our ships. He was on board a battleship some while ago and found that the ventilation was as bad as it could be. On the same day he went on board an American ship, and there the ventilation was perfect. It was done by electricity on the American ship, while on ours it was not. It was a matter of satisfaction that this matter was being attended to. He could have wished that they had in their hands the Report as to the ships which were to be eliminated from the active list of the Navy. He hoped the Admiralty would be able to give the House some information as to what foreign countries were doing in the same direction. He further wished to know what position in the defensive system was allotted to the Naval Volunteers.

MR. CATHCART WASON (Orkney and Shetland)

said his hon. friend the Member for East Perthshire had asked for information in regard to Wei-hai-Wei. That place was once supposed to be a most important station, and a large sum of money had been expended in making it suitable for defence purposes, but he understood that no guns had been provided. Who was proprietor of the place now? Was it still in our possession, or had it reverted to China? If it had reverted to China were we to receive any compensation for the large sums we had spent in making it suitable as a haven of refuge? The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Dover stated a few years ago in admirable language that a naval base was as necessary for carrying on a successful naval war as a base was for an army engaged on land. The Government seemed to have reversed the whole of that policy, and from the scant information which had been given they seemed to have the idea that by means of wireless telegraphy they would be able to dispense almost entirely with this important feature in any naval war. He was sure hon. Members would agree with him when he said that if certain European Powers had impregnable naval bases they would be of infinitely great importance to them. He thought these bases were of the utmost importance in the defence of the Empire. In this connection he wished to say that Admiral Tryon laid down an excellent scheme for the defence of the Australian Colonies, his opinion being that it was of importance to have a practically impregnable naval base, where ships could go for repairs and await orders in times of stress. He wanted more information also in regard to the abandonment of St. Lucia, where money got out of the British taxpayer had been spent. He thought the hon. Gentleman ought to have said something in regard to the handing over of such important stations as Halifax and Esquimalt to the Canadian Government. He was not at all sure that the Government should have acceded to the request of the Canadian Government in this matter. It was this country which was responsible for the defence of the Empire, and it seemed to him a little premature to hand over these places to a semi-independent State without retaining to the British Admiralty absolute controlling power in the matter. He desired to call attention to a matter of local interest. Last year in July or August the German fleet visited the harbour of Lerwick, and lay there for the best part of a week. They spent the whole time in examining into the position of the town and surroundings, and the different points that might be advantageous in the future. Shortly afterwards a portion of the British Fleet came there. Why was it that the German fleet could lie there a week and only a small portion of the British Fleet could be sent there at all? They were entitled also to receive more information in regard to Rosyth, where land had been purchased at a fabulous price, seventy years purchase being paid for it because the view from a nobleman's residence was to be interfered with.

MR. GUMMING MACDONA (Southwark, Rotherhithe)

drew the attention of the House to the fact that excellent material for aid in the naval defence of the country was to be found in the watermen and lightermen of the Thames. There was an occasion when London was in danger of being invaded, the enemy coming as far up as Greenwich. If it had not been for the watermen and lightermen London would have been captured. These men had had no recognition from the Admiralty, although their training on the river would render their services of great value in time of need. Within the last three years, 10,000, or nearly three-fifths of them, had volunteered to form a reserve for time of emergency, and offered to go for a month's training if the Government would provide during that time for their wives and children. He hoped the Admiralty would consider whether anything could be done to take advantage of that offer.


said that the position in which they found themselves illustrated the disadvantage of the Secretary making his statement at the commencement of the sitting instead of allowing the Member who had succeeded in the ballot to move his Amendment, and he was in the position of not being able to answer any of the questions that had been asked. The hon. Member who represented the Admiralty had made a very interesting statement on submarines, and on the internal administration of the Admiralty, but had given no explanation on the points on which the House really wanted information. The present Naval Estimates were the most important presented to the House for the last ten years. With the exception of 1897–8, when there was a reduction of £500,000 on account of the strike at Devonport, when work could not be done, there had been no reduction in naval expenditure for twenty years. On August 4th last, he appealed to the representative of the Admiralty to promise some abatement in the heavy charges of the Navy and moved a reduction of £l60,000 which was supported by fifty Members in the division lobby Well, fifty was not bad to vote for righteousness. But many Gentlemen who sat on this side of the House did not support him. Those hon. Members who would not vote for a reduction of £160,000 were now going to vote for a reduction of £3,500,000. It was remarkable that the little band of economists who had been fighting for years under the most distressing circumstances should at last have been vindicated. They had been told to-night that efficiency could only be secured by economy; if so, why not more economy and still greater efficiency? One hundred and sixty ships had been taken out of the fighting line, on many of which money had been lavished in recent years in repairs. He was not at all happy in his mind about the eighty-four ships which had been thrown aside as scrap iron within three years, upon which the taxpayers had contributed also good money. He regretted these sweeping changes, and did not think it reflected credit on the management of the Navy. If the Government wished to preserve continuity of policy, they should not have advanced the Estimates so fast in recent years. He did not differ from the general opinion of the House in regard to maintaining a strong Navy. Every sensible person held that. But, that mere statement of opinion carried them no further. They ought to have some idea of what the cost was to be. In 1895 when the Liberals left office the then First Lord of the Admiralty said that it was desirable to make provision for more expenditure on the Navy, and raised it from £14,000,000 to £18,000,000. That was for the Spencer programme, and it was declared that that made due provision for the requirements of the country. Ten years had passed, and after gigantic efforts the expenditure had advanced from £18,000,000 to £36,000 000. The country would have been spared the present sudden check to expenditure, which the Government were now obliged to make, if there had been a continuity of policy.

What was the cause of the reduced Estimates? In the first place Admiral Sir John Fisher had been put in charge of the Admiralty. He had never seen the gallant admiral, but everything he had heard of him was to his credit. The great merit of Admiral Fisher was that he had done what he personally would have wished him to do; it spoke very well for his sound common sense. It would be better if the Government would simply admit that there had been a total change from wanton, wicked waste, and that they had embarked on a steady conservative policy animated with the spirit of economy, due regard being paid to the requirements of the country. The second cause was the by-elections. Wherever they went through the country it was found that the successful candidate at these by-elections was the man who went for economy. A light was striking upon the Government from those by-elections, and they would be willing to reduce any number of Estimates, and cast aside any number of ships from the active list, if they could only see their way to recovering their lost power in the country. There was, however, not much chance of that. Once bitten, twice shy. Why was the number of men reduced by 2,100 from last year? It was because the Government found they had been outrunning the constable. Some effects of their policy, however, would not be so easily got rid of as they imagined. They had got to repay the money borrowed for naval works. They had a splendid time of it so long as they were borrowing; but now came the time for paying back. Four years ago there was only £220,000 on the Estimates for repayment; this year it was £1,000,000; next year it would be £1,250,00; two or three years hence it would be £2,000,000. They should have avoided this wretched system of borrowing. The Government were not completing the works which they had commenced. [MINISTERIAL cries of "Where?"] Well, they had spent £20,000 on works at Rosyth, and had paid £120,000 to a member of the Ministry for land. Everybody thought that the Government were going to establish a great naval base at Rosyth to terrify Germany; but now nothing was being done except to meet the huge cheque for land payable to the member of the Ministry. Some consideration ought to have been given before these works were started, and they should not have begun if they did not intend to finish. The waste which had taken place in every part of the world in connection with these works was positively shameful. They hardly grew wiser as they grew older. He spoke with great regret and sympathy for the Government. On the whole he congratulated the Government on the immense reductions made, and if they continued these reductions on the Navy Estimates of £3,000,000 each year for the next three or four years, the country would far more readily bear its huge burden of taxation.


said he wished to reply on the points raised with reference to his own department. The hon. Member for East Perthshire had said it was difficult for the House to take any part in the debate on the Naval Estimates unless they knew how much money was to be provided by the Loan Bill. This was a somewhat strong statement but it was strictly in accordance with precedents not to tell the House beforehand what was to be in the Loan Bills, or how much money was to be asked in them. That information would be given when the Loan Bill was introduced. As a matter of fact, it was impossible to do so until then, because the details of the Bill of 1905 had not yet been settled. They were still under consideration, and it must be evident to the House that the changes in naval policy recently announced had far-reaching consequences which must affect items of works as well as other matters, and these could not all be worked out in a moment. In regard to Vote 10, the hon. Member seemed to find it a suspicious circumstance that certain items, connected with coaling services, which appeared in last year's Vote had disappeared from this year's Vote, and he feared that they had been transferred to loan. Their disappearance was due to the simple fact that the works in question had been completed.


What about Wei-hai-Wei?


said that that was in a different category. There was no change in policy in regard to Wei-hai-Wei; but in view of the unsettled state of affairs in the Far East, the Board of Admiralty had decided to hold their hand, and not to press on expenditure at Wei-hai-Wei until the future requirements there were more clearly seen. The question of Rosyth would be dealt with in the Loan Bill.

MR. COURTENAY WARNER (Staffordshire, Lichfield)

said it was understood at the end of last session that no more Works Bills would be introduced, and that the House would have a complete statement of the financial expenditure from each Department. Now, however, a new Loan Bill was promised, but they were given no idea of how much money was to be inserted into it, or on what the money was to be spent. He protested against this system of finance, which was quite a recent innovation, and a flaw in our financial system. He should vote against the Estimates until the Committee were informed what the amount of the money was which was to be spent.


said it was not possible for him at that stage to reply to the many qucstions which had been raised, but he would do go at a later stage.


said he intended to take every means in his power to draw attention to the question of flogging in the Navy, which he considered was a scandal. No one in the House imagined six months ago that flogging in the Navy was an established practice. Twenty-five years ago flogging was abolished in the Army; but on board every ship in His Majesty's Navy there was a cat-o'-nine-tails as part and parcel of its equipment. It had been said that there had been a reduction in flogging in the Navy; that might be so in regard to adults, but it had greatly increased in the case of boys. On huge placards boys were asked to enlist in the Navy without the consent of their parents. That was because parents would not consent to their boys entering the Navy to be birched. At 12 o'clock every day on board His Majesty's ships birching or caning of boys was inflicted for the slightest offence. The police birch was only four-and-a-half ounces in weight, but the birch to which the boys in the Navy were subject was nine-and-a-half ounces in weight and was previously steeped in brine.

And, it being Midnight, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed To-morrow.