HL Deb 03 July 1871 vol 207 cc963-76

rose to call attention to the evidence given before the Select Committee on this subject, and to ask, Whether any steps have been taken to organize a better system of Admiralty administration? He would remind their Lordships that the Committee was appointed at his instance in February last, on the understanding that the inquiry should be strictly confined to the administration of the Admiralty, without diverging into general questions connected with the Navy, which would have taken up a great deal of time. The inquiry was postponed for a time, in the hope that Mr. Childers would be able to attend; but this not being the case, it proceeded without him. After three or four meetings the evidence taken was deemed sufficient. The Committee having thus completed its inquiries presented its Report, which entirely bore out his statement that the Board had been practically abolished, and that the new system did not work satisfactorily. Four months had elapsed since the presentation of the Report, and he had waited until now, in order that the new First Lord might have time to consider the question; but he now thought it desirable, without further delay, to bring the matter before the House, in order that the Government might have the opportunity of offering any explanation they might wish to give on the subject. He was aware, indeed, that they had had many important matters before them, and had encountered difficulties which menaced their stability; but as they had got rid of the lumber, and thrown the deck cargo overboard, they were better able to manage with the rest. Their Lordships were told on a former occasion that there continued to be a Board, and that it met about twice a week; but the Committee elicited from the Permanent Secretary that it seldom met, and when it met did so in such a manner as to show that it was practically abolished, for it seldom sat five minutes. Both the Permanent Secretary and the Parliamentary Secretary agreed in thinking that it was practically useless, and that it might as well be wholly abolished. The Committee found, too, that the Patent required the appointment of five principal officers, three of whom had been done away with — the Solicitor thinking it doubtful whether the appointment of five was imperative, and the Parliamentary Secretary stating that he knew nothing about the Patent. The Admiralty, the Committee were told, was divided into personnel and matériel. Sir Sydney Dacres, the head of the former, spoke of the system as most unsatisfactory to the Navy and to himself. It appeared that when he went to Mr. Childers at the time the Black Sea Question was mooted, Mr. Childers told him "the first thing we must do is to appoint another Lord." Now, what was the use of the Admiralty if it was only fit for a time of peace? A number of officers were examined, who all declared themselves dissatisfied with the present system. With the exception of Lord John Hay, not a single officer among the witnesses called before the Committee was satisfied with the present system. The complaint was that the personnel interfered with the matériel; and the matériel were not satisfied because they could not interfere with the personnel. The Government had dispensed with one of the Lords of the Admiralty on the ground of economy; but on Sir Sydney Dacres being asked what would be done in the event of the First Sea Lord being unable to attend, he said it was not provided for and there would be inextricable confusion; Sir Spencer Robinson could not take his place, and no one else was conversant with the duties, except Captain Wills, the Chief of the Staff under Sir Sydney Dacres. This was a now post, Captain Wills receiving the same pay as if he were a Lord of the Admiralty—so that nothing was saved by the apparently economical measure of doing away with one of the Lords. Not a single witness examined before the Committee approved of the present system of Admiralty administration; and Mr. Childers himself, as he understood, had intended to alter it in some respects. He hoped also to hear from the Government that night some explanation on another point—he should like to know how the scheme of retirement was working; for it, he was told, had caused a dead-lock as regarded promotion, and as something of the kind was to be introduced into the Army it was important to know whether it had succeeded in the Navy. A Member of the Government had remarked in the other House that the especial duty of the Executive was organization. Looking, however, at what had been done, it seemed to him that their special business had been disorganization. They had accomplished disorganization in the Admiralty, and he wished he could say there was no danger of its being introduced into the Army. He hoped, considering the lamentable state of affairs pictured in the Blue Book, that an assurance would be given that something satisfactory would be done.


said, that no one could doubt either the necessity of the inquiry instituted by the Committee of the noble Duke opposite (the Duke of Somerset), or that the present management of the Admiralty was not what it ought to be. He believed that the British Navy was the only one in Europe that was managed entirely by a political and civil Board. There were, indeed, ordinarily professional members on the Board; but the evidence before the Committee showed that the Department was really in the hands of the civilian First Lord, and that it was entirely optional whether he consulted his professional colleagues or not. He had been 55 years in the Navy, and he had never been able to make out why naval matters should not be managed by naval men. It had been said—with some truth perhaps—that sailors on land were as helpless as infants, and required a nurse to look after them; and he supposed that the same idea was applied to the naval officers, and that for that reason they were furnished with four dry nurses to manage their affairs—the First Lord, the Civil Lord, the Political Secretary, and the Permanent Secretary. Politics and finance were the ruin of the Navy. He did not at all object to having a statesman placed at the head of the Navy; but his objection was that as soon as he had got a little used to the work there was a change of Government, and a new man was put into his place who, perhaps, did not know one end of a ship from the other. The present First Lord, for instance, was no doubt an able man, and, perhaps, if he was sent to sea for six years, and then served for six years more at the Admiralty, he might become fit for the position. The same unfitness of the men for their special duties ran through all the principal posts at the Admiralty. A civilian was intrusted with the purchase of provisions and stores; but what could he know of them? A naval man, who had been feeding off them all his life, could judge of the best descriptions—and it must be borne in mind that the health of the Navy depended on the selection of the provisions;—and if any of their Lordships had ever been on a lee-shore, under close-reefed topsails, with their life depending upon a four-inch rope, a topsail sheet, they would find out the value of proper stores compared with articles bought at contract prices. Mr. Childers had gone to the Admiralty pledged to a policy of retrenchment, and he had succeeded in his object; he had fired a political shell into the Admiralty, which had knocked the heads off all the Departments, and completely shaken the service to the very foundation. In a very short time the Superintendent of Stores was sent to the right about, and the Superintendent of Victualling followed. Now, the latter officer was generally an old paymaster who had been eating salt beef and pork all his days—and very likely drinking a little rum as well—and surely he could tell between a good article and a bad one better than a clerk from London. Then the supervision of the Engine Department had been turned over to the Controller of the Shipwrights' Department. He must also complain that we were now suffering from a great deficiency of small vessels suitable for blockade purposes. The Government seemed to rely on a continuance of peace; but he (the Earl of Lauderdale) believed it to be more uncertain than ever with this "peace-at-any-price" system, and he hoped to have some assurance from the Government that night that the constitution of the Board of Admiralty would be so arranged as to fit it for the emergency of sudden war, if we should unfortunately find ourselves engaged in one. Professional experience and continuity of administration were required to make our naval administration equal to the emergency of war, which in these days gave little warning.


said, there could not be a more proper time than the present for this Motion. Large sums of money had been voted upon the second line of the defences of the country; but they would do well to consider the condition of the first line. The country had great reason to complain of the conduct of the Admiralty for years past, as he believed that it had, first of all, thrown away the magnificent inheritance of our naval superiority, and had then spent hundreds of millions in endeavouring to reconquer that naval superiority which we ought never to have forfeited. In 1857 the noble Viscount (Viscount Halifax), being then First Lord of the Admiralty, in moving the Navy Estimates compared the relative strength of the English and French Navies at that time. The noble Viscount said— Gentlemen may, perhaps, like to have a statement of the number of ships possessed by us in former times compared with others. That I am able to supply, at least with regard to our nearest neighbours, the French; and I am sure it will be the wish of the House that we should have at all times a more powerful Navy than any other nation of the world. We may not be able to be superior to them all; but, at any rate, unless we are prepared to descend from the high position we have hitherto held as the first naval Power in the world, we should be superior to any one nation—some would say to any two nations—in regard to the numbers and power of our ships. The following is a comparison of the numbers of English and French ships of the line—In 1793, 115 English, 76 French; in 1817, 131 English, 72 French; in 1840, 89 English, 46 French; in 1857, 42 English (screw); 40 French (screw).…. With regard to frigates the comparison is—In 1817, 192 English, 46 French: in 1840, 110 English, 91 French; in 1857, 42 English (screw); 37 French (screw)."—[3 Hansard, cxlv. 426.] It was evident, therefore, that the French had at that time made great exertions in building steam ships of war, and that our naval superiority had been greatly reduced compared with the Navies of foreign States. We had, no doubt, recently undertaken the enlargement of our dockyards; but they were as yet incomplete and insufficient. It appeared to him that the constitution of our naval Administration demanded inquiry.


said, the attention of the Admiralty had been seriously directed to the proceedings of the Committee—presided over, as it had been, by one so conversant with naval matters as the noble Duke (the Duke of Somerset). But before he proceeded to answer the Question that had been put to him, he thought he might not unfairly call their Lordships' attention to the assumption which seemed to have pervaded both this discussion and the proceedings of the Committee—namely, that the former administration of the Admiralty was a Utopian one, subject to no mistakes or imperfections. Now, it could not be supposed that any new scheme would in the first instance be found to work perfectly; but while no opportunity had been lost of throwing blame on the changes that had been made and of asserting that they had produced chaos and disorder, he certainly could not admit that the system which preceded was so Utopian as had been represented. At any rate, the generally received reports concerning the former administration of the Admiralty did not entirely concur with what had been heard in the Committee. But he did not admit that what the Committee met to consider was whether past systems were better than the present, but whether the present administration was or was not the best for the nation. As to the meetings of the Board being few, he admitted that the meetings had been fewer than formerly; but he denied that those meetings were valueless. As he had previously explained, the business was done in the several rooms, and the proceedings of the Board were purely formal, though any member was at liberty to raise a question at them; and he remembered a very important matter being once raised. Even in past times the business was not always transacted at the Board meetings, as shown by the evidence taken by the Committee, important business having frequently been done in the room of the First Lord, who, notwithstanding the terms of the patent, had an undoubted pre-eminence. Moreover, there was no reason why the different members should not be perfectly acquainted with the business of the Navy, even if there was no formal Board. As to shipbuilding a naval officer super-intended the construction of ships, consulting the First Lord, who in turn consulted the first Naval Lord. The noble Duke (the Duke of Somerset) had urged that the Patent rendered the appointment of five officers imperative; but the Patent itself and the evidence of the Solicitor to the Admiralty showed that the question was a very doubtful one. As to the observation that when the first Naval Lord was away there was no one to take his place, he must say it was never thought in former times, nor did he see any reason why it should be thought now, that when the first Naval Lord was away the second Naval Lord was not fit to take his place. The criticism on the Board of Admiralty was based on the evidence of some of the witnesses who appeared before the Committee; but the evidence of Lord John Hay had been entirely passed over, although it was by no means the least able evidence given before the Committee. In one of the draught Reports no notice was taken of that evidence; but that in a draught presented by a noble Earl attention was called to the fact that Lord John Hay did not agree in many of the opinions that had been expressed. As to whether an Order in Council was necessary or not to legalize the changes in the constitution of the Board of Admiralty, he was hardly able to pronounce an opinion; but the first Naval Lord was told by his legal advisers that it was most desirable that changes in the constitution of the Board should be made by an Order in Council. As so much had been said about the stagnation of promotion, and the consequent discontent among naval officers which had been caused by the retirement scheme of the 1st of April, 1870, he (the Earl of Camperdown) might be allowed to observe that if that retirement scheme had not been adopted no officer would have been promoted to the post of admiral of the fleet, or of admiral, or of vice-admiral; only two would have been promoted to be rear-admirals, five to be captains, and nine lieutenants to the post of commanders; whereas under the recent retirement scheme 40 sub-lieutenants had been promoted to be lieutenants, 28 lieutenants to be commanders, 18 commanders to be captains, 10 captains to be rear-admirals, four rear-admirals to be vice-admirals, and five vice-admirals to be admirals. Under these circumstances, it was rather hard to say that the working of the recent Order in Council had been stagnation in promotion. There never had been an Order in Council reducing the established number of officers which did not temporarily retard promotion. If the recent Order in Council had not been passed the outcries against stagnation of promotion would have been tenfold what they were now. In reply to the Question whether any, and if so, what change would be made in the Board of Admiralty, he believed it was not impossible that some modification might be made. But he was sure their Lordships would feel that it would be far more convenient to the public service, and far more natural that any change in the administration of the Board should be announced by the head of the Board himself in his place in Parliament. He (the Earl of Camperdown) did not feel himself at liberty to make any further statement to the House. On the next occasion when the Navy Estimates were taken, Mr. Goschen would announce to the House of Commons the plan according to which he intended that in future the administration of the Board of Admiralty should be conducted.


said, the conviction of almost everyone who took the trouble to read the evidence given before the Committee must be that the recent changes in the constitution of the Board of Admiralty, and in the mode of transacting their business, were most injudicious, and had not tended in the direction of improvement. They had effected no real saving of any sort, and they had completely disorganized an existing system. Under our system of Government it was obviously impossible that we could always insist on having a naval officer at the head of the Admiralty, nor did he believe it desirable if an arrangement of that kind could be made. One of the most distinguished of our naval officers did not acquit himself as head of the Admiralty with the same success which he achieved in the Navy. It seemed to him (Earl Grey) to be absolutely essential to the administration of this great Department that a system should be in operation by which the civilian head of the Department should always act upon proper consultation and communication with the Naval Lords. He was afraid that the present system was no system at all. The Committee of their Lordships' House which had sat to consider the matter had investigated the subject with great care, and in the very able Report which had been proposed by the noble Duke who presided over that Committee, it was pointed out in a most temperate manner that the changes which had been introduced by Mr. Childers and their effects were of a grave character; and he thought it a very significant fact that those who advocated the cause of the Government did not venture to meet the Report upon its merits, but merely urged the Committee to abstain from pronouncing any opinion upon it in the absence of Mr. Childers. Unfortunately, the Committee had yielded to the request. It appeared to him at the time, and still more upon reflection, that in refusing in this manner to discuss the effect of the changes that Mr. Childers had introduced the Government were really allowing judgment to go against them by default. It was impossible to believe that changes of this magnitude, affecting one of the most important Departments of the State, could have been introduced on the sole authority of the head of the Department. Nor could he suppose for a moment that the other Members of the Government were guilty of so great a dereliction of duty as that of assenting to a change of this importance, without being satisfied of its propriety and of its advantages. It was clear that they must have been considered and sanctioned by the other Members of the Government before they were adopted by Mr. Childers, and therefore his unfortunate absence afforded no ground for a refusal on the part of the Committee to enter into them, inasmuch as the other Members of the Government could have given the Committee any information with regard to them that might have been desired. Seeing, however, that hopes were held out that the subject might yet undergo further consideration, he thought it would be as well if the noble Duke were not to press the matter further at present.


, said, he could not suffer the speech which had just been made by the noble Earl (Earl Grey) to pass unnoticed. He must state, in the first place, that he was in no way responsible for the changes that had been so much complained of, he not having been a Member of Her Majesty's Government at the time they were made. It was, however, a great disadvantage to the success of the inquiry in question that the one person who, after some experience in the Admiralty, had made the changes referred to, and who could have given evidence upon the subject far more valuable than that of any other two or three persons, was, in consequence of indisposition, unable to state his views upon the matter to the Committee. He might be wrong in his opinion as to the duty of a Commitee; but his belief was that the Committee were bound to frame their Report with reference to the evidence that had been laid before them; and if they had given an opinion upon the question of these changes in their Report, they would have been pronouncing an opinion upon a matter without having heard the evidence of the most important witness who could have been called in reference to it. Therefore, he had felt it to be the duty of the Committee to abstain from giving an opinion in the absence of the evidence of Mr. Childers. The only question raised in the Committee was the constitution of the Board of Admiralty. Very strong opinions were expressed on the subject; but he need not refer to them now, as they had already been referred to by his noble Friend. It was unnecessary to follow the observation of the noble Duke as to the question of the state of the Navy some 15 years ago further than to remark that since that time our dockyards had been increased and a Naval Reserve had been created which had given us the means of placing a considerable number of additional men on board of the fleet at a moment's warning. With regard to the Board of Admiralty, he thought it was quite right that the First Lord should have the assistance and advice of officers of high rank in the Navy. He did not think the present First Lord of the Admiralty had been unduly slow in making up his mind with reference to what changes should be made, because nothing could be more unwise than that changes of any kind should be hurriedly or prematurely introduced into the service. Doubtless, in a short time the right hon. Gentleman would see his way to introduce all the modifications in the existing system which it would be useful to adopt.


said, that the absence of Mr. Childers might have been a good ground for opposing the appointment of a Committee, but that it afforded no ground for restricting the limits of the inquiry when that Committee was once appointed. He was inclined to think there was some truth in the alleged deficiency of the naval element in the Board, and that something might be added to that element in the future constitution of the Board. It was absolutely necessary, in his opinion, that the First Lord should have advice at hand in reference to sea matters, and that this advice would be best given by a board of naval officers. These, however, were matters which it had been said were under the consideration of the First Lord of the Admiralty, and it would therefore be unfair to ask the House for an opinion upon them. But their Lordships were much indebted to the noble Duke for his perseverance on that question, and for not allowing it to sleep.


said, he had voted with the noble Viscount (Viscount Halifax) because he felt that the absence of Mr. Childers seriously affected the decision of the Committee. No one could read the interesting Report of the noble Duke (the Duke of Somerset) without seeing that it dealt with a personal question on which it would have been impossible for the Committee to come to any conclusion that could be considered a legitimate one without the presence and the examination of Mr. Childers. If the Report of the noble Duke had simply referred to public matters, and been confined to the constitution of the Board of Admiralty, it might have been properly discussed paragraph by paragraph; but it embraced a very delicate personal question, involving the loss to the public service of a man of great genius and ability, and whose genius and ability no one more appreciated than Mr. Childers himself; and this circumstance rendered that course undesirable. Mr. Childers had not treated the naval portion of the Board with any less regard than they had received from any previous Minister; but he had simply determined on adopting a mode of communication and consultation with them which should place the actual responsibility where it ought to rest. He must acknowledge that the noble Duke had conducted the inquiry in a spirit of perfect impartiality and dignity; but no fair-minded man could read the Report or examine into the matter without believing that Mr. Childers, although he might possibly have made some mistakes or committed some errors of judgment, had been a most useful and most valuable servant, and one who had sacrificed his health by his devotion to his public duty.


said, if there was one thing which they had a right to demand it was that Boards nominated on the authority of the Government should not only be held responsible to the public, but should be held to answer for their acts, and should not be—as was declared in the evidence contained in the Report before the House—"a sham and a delusion." He would submit that to say a Board of that kind was responsible was to beg the whole question now brought before them by the noble Duke, and was to say, in point of fact, that the system which had been criticized that night was much more perfect than the one it superseded. On that point he did not pretend to offer an opinion; but there was a point which had not been alluded to in that discussion, and which, according to what he had been able to note in that Report, had not been brought forward sufficiently in the evidence. It was this: that wherever they had a Board or a Council nominated by a responsible Government for the purpose of doing most important Executive business, they should make it a certainty that the opinions of that Board could be called for individually, if required, and placed before the public. Now, if they had what he might call the "private room system," by which a First Lord of the Admiralty might consult one individual or two individuals, or none at all, and then put forward a Minute to the public as if it had been signed by the Board itself, then he said there was no responsibility to which the public could appeal, no responsibility which that House could question, no responsibility which might give a security to the public. He had the honour of serving under his noble Friend on his right (Lord Lawrence) for five years, on an administrative body which answered in every important particular to the conditions of the Board they were now discussing. If a very important matter was laid before his Council by the Governor General of India, and if a great difference of opinion arose, the question might be first discussed orally in Council, and afterwards, if a decision could not be arrived at, the members of the Council, including the Governor General himself, recorded their opinions and the reasons for their difference, and these opinions and reasons were submitted to the Secretary of State for India, and also to Parliament if it were required. Well, it might easily have happened—though he did not think such a case ever really happened while he served under his noble Friend—that such a painful discussion should have arisen as that of which they had lately heard between the late First Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. Childers) and Sir Spencer Robinson. Had it arisen, the course would have been very obvious. The points of difference between the Governor General and that member of his Council would have been discussed orally between them before all the other members of the Council. If they could not have come to any decision—if it were impossible for the Council to agree with the Governor General—the Governor General, in the plenitude of his power, could have set aside the decision of the Council, and would have recorded his reasons, and the Council would have recorded theirs, for doing so, and forwarded them to the Secretary of State, who would have supported him in the manner in which he always supported the Governor General. Now, if the Board of Admiralty had been constituted as that Council of the Governor General of India was, when a matter arose whether of a personal nature or of such extreme importance as the order for the building of the Captain against the recorded opinions of the Constructor of the Navy and the Controller, when it was decided to coincide with what was called public opinion in the face of science and of the responsible advisers of the Admiralty, in that case the country would have been spared the fatal errors which had been referred to that evening. He apologized for interposing, not being a naval man, in that debate; yet that question was, he thought, not altogether a naval matter, but one of organization and of administration; and he believed it would be allowed by all noble Lords that there was no single question which presented a problem more difficult of solution, or one which it was more important should be solved satisfactorily.


said, the Government were considering the arrangements made by Mr. Childers in the Board of Admiralty, with a view to certain modifications. The noble and gallant Lord (Lord Sandhurst) had said there was no use in a Board of Admiralty not responsible to Parliament; but the Board of Admiralty never had been responsible to Parliament under the old system. The Board had always been the advisers of the First Lord, and no analogy could be drawn between the constitution of the Admiralty and the constitution of the Government of India. He agreed that they should have complete responsibility of the Board of Admiralty to Parliament; but the responsibility should rest in the hands of that Member of the Government who presided over it. Although the Government was ready to consider any suggestion on the subject in the course of their review of the arrangements made by the late First Lord, it was most improbable that a suggestion to adopt the constitution of the Indian Council—which was, in fact, the sole Legislature of an immense Empire which had no representative institutions—as a model for the constitution of a Department of State in this country, would lead to any practical result.


said, the Council to which the noble Duke alluded had Executive duties to discharge also.