HC Deb 07 December 1911 vol 32 cc1659-67

A Prize Court, on proof of any offence against the law of nations, or against this Act, or any Act relating to naval discipline, or against any Order in Council or Royal proclamation, or of any breach of His Majesty's instructions relating to prize, or of any act of disobedience to the order of the Admiralty, or to the com- mand of a superior officer, committed by the captors in relation to any ship or goods taken as a prize, or in relation to any person on board any such ship, may, on condemnation, reserve the prize to His Majesty's disposal, notwithstanding any grant that may have been made by His Majesty in favour of captors.


I beg to move, to leave out the Clause.

8.0 P.M.

I wish to draw attention to the question of prize money as distinct from prize salvage. I am afraid the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Peel) may perhaps consider I am unduly rash in challenging the practice of prize money, because, if prize salvage is ancient, prize money is undoubtedly more so. Prize money at least goes back to the time of King John, and I think even earlier than that, because its apologist, Captain Hand, says it is the direct descendant of piracy. I am sure with that ancient origin it will have the fervent support of the hon. Member for Taunton. I think we are right on this Bill to raise the question of the continued existence of this practice in the Navy. It would, in fact, have been singularly foolish of us to have missed a chance of doing so. I entirely repudiate the idea that we are actuated in raising this question by any ungenerous spirit towards the Navy. There is no niggardliness in our attitude in the least. As a matter of fact, under this Bill in reference to prize bounty, we are giving the Navy more than it has at present. Under the Act of 1864 prize bounty was limited in a way which, I think, was objectionable. This Bill has taken occasion to remove the limit on prize bounty which can be given. Under Clause 32, in cases where an actual action has taken place, the money is given to the men for the capture of armed ships of the enemy in action. There we are taking powers under this Bill to give the Navy more than it is getting at the present time. If that is the case they are getting more in the one case, and I think we may fairly in the other case ask them to take less than, they are getting at the present time. I would like to briefly indicate the reasons why I venture to dissent from the existing system. I believe it is really bound up with an ancient system of naval warfare, the time for which has passed away. There was something to be said for it in the days of privateering. You can trace its history through the Armada, through the wars against the Dutch, and up to the time of the Napoleonic wars. In those days we encouraged small privateers to prey on the commerce of the enemy, and to drive their trade off the sea; and we allowed them to recoup themselves for their exertions at the expense of the enemy. But we do not require to do that in these days, and I believe there is really no defence for the present system except Admiralty conservatism and the traditions of Captain Marryats and others.

I object to the system altogether. I am in favour of the abolition of the right of capture altogether. I believe it would too a great advantage to Great Britain to get rid of the right of capture of private property, and it would be a great gain to the peace of the world if, in addition to abolishing the right of capture, we could also abolish the right to prize money. There is a strong case for getting rid of this ancient custom of the payment of prize money and prize salvage. Two great maritime nations have already taken steps in this direction. The first case to which I draw attention is that of Japan, which has abolished the system of prize money. It did so at the beginning of the Chinese War. It offered to China to abolish the right of capture altogether. But China did not seem to understand the proposition and Japan did not press it. But at the same time Japan did give up the custom of prize money, and they gave it up because they said that property was captured at sea for the sake of the country and not for the sake of private gain. Our point is that in naval war we do not wish to combine a system of naval operations with a system of commercial profit. We do not expect naval admirals engaged in the service of their country to take the opportunity to amass riches for themselves. I should regard it as an outrage and a reflection on the spirit of the Navy to suggest that it is necessary to keep up the system of prize money in order to induce the men to do their duty. I hope that they would do that in any case whether they got prize money or not. The experience of the Japanese Navy is that it does not require the retention of the custom of prize money to keep up the highest traditions of patriotism in the Navy.

The example of Japan was followed by the United States in 1899, and the Congressional record of the statement of the American Minister of Marine is to this effect: that he was able to abolish the custom, because the naval officers considered prize money a mere bagatelle. It amounted to so little that the naval officers were quite content it should be abolished. I think the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Peel) was entirely wrong when he said that naval opinion was in favour of maintaining these customs. When this matter was discussed at The Hague Conference there was an expression of willingness to give the custom up if we would do so. But when we raised this point in Committee upstairs we were met by an ingenious argument: we were told that it should be done, if at all, by international agreement. I have looked up what occurred at the time of The Hague Conference in 1897. There was a very friendly expression of opinion in favour of the abolition of prize money, but then the Admiralty took the view it should not be done by international agreement, but that it was a matter entirely of domestic arrangement. I venture to think that their attitude in the Committee upstairs was not very consistent. In our discussion there we were met by the Government with the suggestion that there should be at least a pooling arrangement in regard to the prize money. Amendments are down to a later Clause which suggest that that should be carried out. I am glad to say that the Government, in standing up for the abolition of prize money, and in suggesting a pooling arrangement has absolutely carried out the promise made to us upstairs. I am grateful for the fact that the Government has gone some way towards meeting us. I think the suggestions for pooling are a decided advantage. We may get rid of the absurdity of some third-class cruiser at no very great risk to itself picking up a liner by the mere accident of being in the path of that liner shortly after the declaration of war, and thereby securing for the officers and crew a prize worth probably a million of money.

A further point occurs to me, and that is that this enrichment of officers and crew would be at the expense of British underwriters. I repeat, I think that this suggestion for pooling private money is an advantage. After all, it is really undesirable that you should leave naval officers to obtain funds in this way, haphazard, by the mere chance that they are on some stations where prizes are to be got. In the past this system worked uncommonly badly, and naval records are full of con-plaints as to its working. The hon. Member for Stoke this evening suggested the kind of complaint which formerly arose—the complaint on the part of men engaged in actual fighting, who argued that they were not fairly treated as compared with the cruisers which were merely out for commercial profit. Biographies of great naval commanders are disfigured by sordid squabbles over the distributions of prize money. Complaints are to be found of the distributions being grossly unfair. There were frequent and constant complaints of this nature, and I think it would be well if the cause for them were to be got rid of for the future. There were complaints that commanders were not put on stations favourable to prize getting. These are the real grounds on which we object to this system. We do not think that naval commanders in a great national war ought to be allowed to conduct a pecuniary campaign on their own account. The system is thoroughy vicious, and we might well follow the spirit of Japanese patriotism and ask our officers and men to work for the sake of their country at large instead of looking to their own profit. I understand the attitude of the Government is going to be unfavourable to this Amendment, but, at all events, I think this Committee ought to put it on record that we do not accept this system of prize money at the present time. We acquiesce in it because this Bill contains many provisions which are of a valuable character. This is a long controversy. Sir Robert Walpole made his objections to the system in the eighteenth century, and there may come another time in the future when someone else will be able to get the House of Commons to abolish in its entirety this system against which we wish to put our protest on record to-night.


I beg to second the Amendment. I shall do so in a very few words, because the ground has been very efficiently covered by the Mover. The only justification of any sort or kind why prize money should be given at all, would be if there were an efficient pooling arrangement. Personally I think the pre- sent or the past system is utterly detestable. It is very much the same as the question of looting in a land war. My great objection to it is that it is so utterly unjust. That was pointed out quite truly with regard to the seamen. The people who in the past got the prize money were not those who fought energetically, but simply those who had the good luck to come across a prize. It was exactly the same in a land war. The advance troops who took a fort or a small town, and ran all the risks and suffered all the losses, they in the natural order of things had to push further on, while the troops who followed them were the troops who got the chance of looting. Unless you try to get some general pooling system as I have seen tried rather ineffectually, there is absolutely no justice at all in the arrangement. The only chance of anything like justice is in having a pooling arrangement, and even that almost invariably has failed in the small frontier wars in which I have taken part. The advanced troops do the fighting and go on. The troops that come afterwards do the looting and the concealing of the looting, and it is very hard indeed to get it out of them. Practically it cannot be done. I have a very strong feeling on this subject, indeed, if the matter goes to a Division I shall most certainly support the Amendment.


This Amendment raises the question of prize money, which I hold to be a very much more serious matter than that of prize salvage. The hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. C. Roberts) pointed out that prize money is a very ancient institution. I should say that it is as old as the Navy itself. Indeed, it received statutory sanction so far back as 1692, and there have been a great many other enactments since that time. The Act of 1864 contained a Clause providing for prize money, and it is that Clause we are now re-enacting in this consolidating Bill. Here again, I have to say that it has really no part in the giving of statutory effect to the Declaration of London. We are simply re-enacting and renewing the Clause of the Act of 1864. With regard to the merits of the case, which have been discussed to-night, and which were discussed in the Committee upstairs, it appears to be the fact that prize money was originally what I may call an alternative to the Press Gang. It was undoubtedly an inducement to recruiting in its early days. I could not stand here tonight and say that it is any longer an inducement to recruiting. That would not be true. But what I have to say to the House, and I hope the House will allow me to say it, is that it is certainly regarded to-day as one of the sailors' ancient and traditional rights and privileges, and unquestionably its abolition would be extremely unpopular in the Service. From my acquaintance with the facts I am bound to resist its abolition for all I am worth.

Although just now I said I did not think there was a very great deal in prize salvage, and I was therefore prepared to let that go, and I met my hon. Friend who was successful in Committee on that point, yet I cannot for a moment agree to the proposition that prize money should be abolished. Not only would it be unpopular in the Service, but it would be met—I know some of my hon. Friends do not mind that—by a demand for some equivalent in its place. My hon. Friends would say, very well, make a charge upon the public funds. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I recognise that. You have to face the fact that that at any rate would be a new charge upon the Treasury. Upstairs, in Grand Committee, it was proposed, as has been proposed to-night, that prize money should be abolished outright. I think if I interpreted rightly the opinion of the Committee—and I tried to do so on this and other matters, although I resisted this abolition as I am doing here—the great volume of opinion was then directed, as it has been directed to-night, rather against the method of distribution than the thing itself. I may say incidentally that it is not quite the fact that only the ship's company capturing the prize get the prize money. For a very long time there has been the principle of joint capture. The last Proclamation of 17th September, 1900, has a reference to ships or vessels being in sight of a prize and of the captor, under circumstances that cause intimidation to the prize and encouragement to the captor, being eligible to share as joint captors.

Therefore, it is not quite true to say that only those who capture the prize share in the prize money. The ship's company of those in sight of and who are in a position and under circumstances to cause intimidation to a prize also share in the money. Upstairs, in Grand Committee, there was a very strongly expressed opinion in favour of a more general distribution amongst the whole of those who might be taking part in the campaign, and it was pointed out, very forcibly I think, that the enormous growth in the value of a liner compared to the number of the ship's company of the possible captor made the present system of distribution an anachronism and an anomaly. If my memory serves me, we had the picture drawn of a small cruiser holding up a very valuable liner, the cruiser having a company of two or three hundred, and all more or less being made for life under these modern conditions. It is possible of course that a small cruiser detached for special service might do that, and the change in the value of a prize might make this method of distribution, in some circumstances, rather an anachronism. The view was expressed upstairs very strongly, and has been expressed to-night, that it could only be upon the condition that distribution must be more general and that all those participating in the campaign might possibly have a share in it, that prize money could be continued. And it was very strongly put upstairs that the men who had the hard knocks of the campaign should have a chance of getting some of the prizes as well as those who were perhaps more fortunate to be out on detached duty on the trade routes. I repeat, it is impossible not to sympathise with the proposition. I stated there, as I state now, that, in my opinion, for what it is worth, and after the Debate which has taken place amongst so many learned lawyers, I speak with great humility, I do not think the Act of 1864 would prevent by its terms the Admiralty if it thought fit to distribute prize money upon a more general scale, but there appeared to be some doubt about that.

The pledge I gave upstairs was that I would secure such emendation of the Clause as would leave, beyond all possibility of doubt, the right of the Admiralty in its discretion, if it thought desirable, to distribute the prize money if it were practicable on a pooling plan. I consulted the late Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, who was associated with the Bill upstairs, and the Solicitor-General, and as the result I put down a number of Amendments which will leave the matter in this way, and I hope that, having done that, and having carried out, as I think, fully and entirely to pledge I gave, my hon. Friend will not desire to push the Amendment to a Division, and will leave it in the new form, that is to say, leave the discretion of the Admiralty unfettered. If the Admiralty consider a particular capture meritorious, it could, if it thought expedient, distribute the prize money as in the past. If, however, it thought that equity and expediency demanded the distribution of the pooled proceeds of prize money for all those engaged in a particular campaign, that course would be still open if it were practicable. I shall move immediately a series of Amendments which will bring that about. I do not think the discretion of the Board of Admiralty is fettered at present. I think, under the Act of 1864, they could, if they desired, provide for dispensation upon a pooled plan. However, I have made it quite certain that discretion shall not be fettered in that direction, and, as the matter will stand if the Amendments are adopted, the Admiralty's discretion would be entirely unfettered, either in a particular and meritorious case to make the distribution as at present, or if the other course were deemed to be most just and expedient, its hands would be entirely unfettered in the direction of a pooling arrangement.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: Leave out the words "in favour of captors."—[Sir J. Simon.]