HC Deb 20 March 1917 vol 92 cc741-4

Order for Second Reading read.


I bog to move, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

10.0 P.M.

I have to submit an extremely small and very definite administrative change in existing naval law. Prior to June of last year, under Section 58, Sub-section (10), of the Naval Discipline Act, 1866, the only person authorised, he being the senior naval officer present, to convene a court-martial on any person serving in the Grand Fleet was the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet. Of course, he had with him officers under his command who held the Royal Warrant authorising them to order and convene courts-martial, and in their time no doubt they had ordered and convened courts-martial, and in all human probability in due course they would do so again when once more in independent command. Nevertheless, there was only one senior naval officer present with the Grand Fleet and there- fore all their functions in this respect were vested in him. Of course, that law never contemplated such an aggregation of ships as is to be found in the Grand Fleet. Therefore, Section 58, Sub-section (10), of the Naval Discipline Act, 1S66, sound as it was, imposed an unnecessarily heavy and unforeseen amount of administrative work on the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet. In May of last year Parliament amended this by passing a small Act, the Naval Discipline (Delegation of Powers) Act, 1916. That Act made it lawful for the Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet to delegate his powers in this respect during the present War to the several Vice-Admirals in command of squadrons forming part of his Fleet. That was simply an act of administrative devolution, designed to relieve the Commander-in-Chief. I made it quite clear in asking for that devolution that it was the aggregation of the ships in one Fleet that made it necessary, an aggregation by no means foreseen or forecasted when the original Section 58 was passed. I made it quite clear that it was not an increase of crime that rendered it necessary. It would be most ungracious and ungrateful to suggest that. I say the same as regards the further devolution I am now proposing in this little Bill. When the devolution which the House gave us to the Vice-Admirals last year was before the House my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Maidstone (Commander Bellairs) put this to me, "Why not devolve upon all Flag officers? This will give power to convene courts-martial not only to Vice-Admirals but to Rear-Admirals." That was the proposition he put. Of course, such officers have held Admiralty warrants, have ordered and convened courts-martial, and would do so again, no doubt, when in independent commands I put the suggestion he made to the proper authorities, but it was thought desirable to restrict the devolution to the extent then proposed, namely, to the Vice-Admirals, and it was so approved by Parliament. I now come to ask leave to make this simple addition— to alter the words in last year's Act "Vice-Admirals" and "Vice-Admirals" "as the case may be to" Flag Officers "and" Flag Officer"' as the case may be. That is, we adopt the original suggestion of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Maidstone. The effect will be that we shall extend the process of devolution not only to the Vice-Admirals, as we did last year, but to the Rear-Admirals, as he then suggested I am sorry he is not here, because he put it to me then and we did not see our way at the time to adopt it. We might have done it, then we should not have had to make two bites at a cherry. That is the sole purpose of the Bill, to extend the process of devolution from Vice-Admirals to Rear-Admirals. I would ask the House, as it is desired to get this Bill passed, to follow the practice we have just adopted and agree to its remaining stages being taken to-night.


In proposing a Bill of this kind, I know that the right hon. Gentleman does not mean to propose any increase of punishment.


Oh, no!


When Bills of this kind are brought forward, it is well that the sailor should know that. There is a sort of mysterious sound in the Naval Discipline Bill. It covers so many things that it would be well for the right hon. Gentleman to let it be known through the House in what sense there is an advantage for the men in this Bill. I take it that it is meant to allow the multiplication of courts in order to get quicker administration, by extending the powers to others than those who already exercise them. I am not opposing the Bill in any sense, but I desire to give the right hon. Gentleman an opportunity of assuring the men of the mercantile marine and other portions and units which are added to the Navy as we once knew it, that it means no increased punishment of any kind.


Perhaps, as I have read this Bill, and the hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Wing) does not appear to have done so, he will allow me to give him the assurance for which he asks. The Bill only amends a Bill we passed last year by changing two words. In that Bill the words "Vice-Admiral" and "Vice-Admirals" occur. Where those words occur you may now read, if you like, "Flag Officer" or "Flag Officers."


Not if you like.


Well, we have got to read those words in. I tried to put it in the gentlest form. This is a very small matter, and very easily done, but I think it shows that the Admiralty, though they are capable and wise cannot foresee twelve months ahead, not even when it is a very little Bill like this.

It only shows that if it consulted capable men like the hon. and gallant Member for Maidstone and took his advice or the advice of other sensible men they would save themselves and the House a good deal of trouble and the country a lot of paper. Why, at least, 670 copies of this had to be printed for circulation to hon. Members alone, in addition to those distributed for the Vote Office. Let the Admiralty show a little more forethought and take the advice of people who have more time to look into these matters than the right hon. Gentleman has.

Resolved, "That this House will immediately resolve itself into the Committee on the Bill."— [Mr. J. Hope.]

Bill accordingly considered in Committee, and reported, without Amendment.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third Time."


I think it right to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Wing) that the Bill has nothing whatever to do with increasing punishments. Its object is simply to give rear-admirals the power of holding courts-martial now possessed by vice-admirals and the Commander-in-Chief.

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.

Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order of the House of the 12th February, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."

Adjourned accordingly at Eight minutes after Ten o'clock till to-morrow (Friday), pursuant to the Resolution of the House this day.