HC Deb 24 October 1949 vol 468 cc1082-4

6.45 p.m.

Mr. J. P. L. Thomas (Hereford)

I beg to move, in page 9, line 7, to leave out: "not more than twenty-five thousand men," and to insert: such number of men as the Admiralty may determine. This Amendment is our only Amendment to Part II of the Bill, which deals with naval and marine reserves. But it is an important Amendment because it is clear that in this Clause there has been an infringement of the Royal Prerogative. Parliament has always been content that the Sovereign should have power to raise and maintain naval forces in peace time. The Bill of Rights, 1688, declared that it should be unlawful for the Sovereign, unless by consent of Parliament, to raise and maintain a standing Army in time of peace, but on that occasion there was no reference to the Navy.

It is true that Parliament has control over the Navy from the financial angle in that it grants every year the necessary supply when the Estimates come before us; it is also true that the other function of Parliament at the time of the Navy Estimates is to deal with Vote A, which concerns the personnel of the Navy. But should the Navy wish to increase the number beyond that stated in Vote A it would not be illegal in their case, as it would, I understand, be illegal in the case of the Army.

This is not the first time that this point has been raised in this century. The Navy Reserve Act, 1903, repealed, by Section 5 of that Act, the previous restriction on numbers dating from the Act of 1859, on these very grounds. I quote from the 1903 Act: The Royal Naval Reserve and the Royal Fleet Reserve shall consist of such number of men as the Admiralty may determine.… As it is rather extraordinary that a mistake made in 1859 should be repeated after correction in 1903 I had a few caustic things to say, but I am unwilling to disturb the atmosphere after what my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton) said about this mellow and friendly afternoon. I hope, however, that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to accept the Amendment because it is certain that the imposition of a ceiling in the Bill for the numbers of the Royal Navy is a retrograde step and an infringement of the Royal Prerogative.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

I hope the Government will not accept the Amendment. So far as I could follow the argument of the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. J. P. L. Thomas) he put forward the remarkable claim that Parliament must not limit the number of men called up for a particular Service. In the Army Estimates, in fact in all Estimates, a specific number is put down for the consideration of the House. I indulged in some research and I discovered that in one case you, Major Milner, put down an Amendment to reduce the number. I can hardly follow the argument that it is not right for Parliament to limit the number of men called up by the Admiralty. Clause 9 (1) says: There shall be a special class of the royal fleet reserve, which shall consist of not more than twenty-five thousand men … If the Amendment is carried we shall give power to the Board of Admiralty to fix the number of men so that Parliament will, presumably, be rubbed out altogether. How did the figure of 25,000 get into the Bill? I cannot believe that the Admiralty thought of a number and doubled it; I cannot believe that the First Lord of the Admiralty, who sits in another place and whom I knew as a checkweighman, has experience of naval matters to enable him to fix this number of his own accord. I presume that the figure was arrived at as a result of advice from the Board of Admiralty. If that is so why should he give them a blank cheque to put into the Bill whatever number they like? In discussing Service matters Members seem to forget all their advice about economy. I remember the Leader of the Opposition making a scathing attack on the Board of Admiralty, on the last Navy Estimates but one, when he urged the Government to force large economies upon the Board. He said that the Admiralty were engaged in making jobs for themselves and their descendants. I have great pleasure in supporting the Government, and I hope they will stick to their figure of 25,000.

The Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty (Mr. John Dugdale)

Now that we are passing from a khaki to a blue bosom, no doubt we shall continue in the same mellow atmosphere, and as a contribution to that I propose to accept this Amendment. At the same time I want to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes). This figure was put in the Bill to give Parliament the same method of control as applies to the other Services under Clause 12 (6). Sufficient control is, in fact, exercised by Parliament through the annual Navy Estmates. My hon. Friend need have no fear as to that. Every year the Estimates are made up, and we ask Parliament for a certain number of men at a certain cost. If Parliament does not wish us to have those men at that cost, it can say we are not to have the money. We consider that that is sufficient control, and for that reason we think Parliament does not desire to have this extra control. We are perfectly willing to accept the Amendment, and rely upon the Navy Estimates.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 10 and 11 ordered to stand part of the Bill.