HL Deb 30 March 1886 vol 304 cc243-8

, in rising to ask the noble Marquess the First Lord of the Admiralty, Whether it is his intention, at an early period of the Session, to state to the House the number of vessels of war which the Government may propose to have constructed; together with any other additions or changes in the Naval Service that may be in contemplation? said, the condition of the Navy was one of paramount importance to the country, and it was in the highest degree necessary that questions relating to it should be discussed early in the Session. In spite of what had been stated in "another place," their Lordships were very much in the dark as to the intentions of the Government; and he understood that with regard to two of the most powerful ships in the Navy there was considerable doubt as to their future. It was only right that the First Lord of the Admiralty, who concentrated within himself all the chief powers of the Board, should avail himself of the enforced leisure of that House in the early part of the Session to make a statement of the intentions of his Department, which the House, from its constitution, would be well qualified to criticize. There was a precedent in this matter, as the Earl of Northbrook made such a statement in 1884.


said, that he saw no good reason for departing from the old practice in this matter, under which it was customary for the general statement relating to the naval policy of the Government to be made in the other House of Parliament. If any statement on the subject were to be made in the House of Lords it would have to be made either before or after that which was made in the House of Commons. If it were made before it would, it seemed to him, be a very undesirable thing, and he could not think it would be acceptable to the other House of Parliament or fair to the Representative of the Admiralty in that House that the speech to be made in moving the Navy Estimates should be anticipated by a speech made in their Lordships' House. On the other hand, he must say he thought that many of their Lordships would take comparatively little interest in a statement made after the statement had been made in "another place," because it could only be a réchauffé of what had been stated elsewhere; and he was not at all desirous, after the very able statement made in the House of Commons a short time ago by his right hon. Friend Mr. Hibbert, of following him in probably a less able manner, and, at all events, in a manner much less interesting to the public. On those grounds he had come to the conclusion that it was undesirable to set an entirely new precedent in that matter. The noble Viscount had quoted the course taken in 1884 by the Earl of Northbrook when First Lord of the Admiralty; but that was a very special occasion. Public attention had been very greatly called to the state of the Navy. Her Majesty's Government had come to very important decisions as to the course to be pursued beyond those which had been announced at the time when the Estimates were moved; and his noble Friend (the Earl of Northbrook) then felt, and no doubt felt rightly, that it was desirable that a statement in regard to those intentions should be made in both Houses of Parliament. But he did not conceive that that would afford any real precedent for producing a sort of pale copy of the Navy Estimates that had been moved in the other House. He wished to give every information in his power that could properly be afforded to the House. He freely admitted to his noble Friend opposite (Viscount Sidmouth) that there were in that House many noble Lords who were very competent to discuss questions of naval policy, and who could do so with great advantage. If the noble Viscount, or any other noble Lord, gave him Notice of any Question in reference to the naval policy of Her Majesty's Government, he would be happy to supply him with all the information in his power. But he did not think it would be a good precedent to make a statement in that House in regard either to the Navy or the Army Estimates similar to that made in the other House when those Estimates were introduced.


said, he thought there were good reasons why the House should receive the information desired by the noble Viscount. The most important announcement of naval policy that he had ever heard was made in their Lordships' House on the 2nd of December, 1884, and their Lordships might fairly wish to know whether, and in what way, the programme of the then Government was being carried out. There had been to Departmental Committees of Inquiry into two important branches of Naval Administration. The first of them was the Accountant General's Committee, and the second was the Committee so ably presided over by the present Controller of the Navy. He had never seen so sweeping a condemnation of the system of administration in the Dockyards as was contained in the Report of that Committee. What possible reason was there why their Lordships should not go into those matters and seek to find out from the best authority in that House—namely, the First Lord of the Admiralty—how it had occurred that that maladministration had remained so long undiscovered, and why it was left for the last year to bring to light so very lamentable a state of things? It was not from the want of hints and indications, because there had been the warnings of successive Reports of Committees and Commissions, which had left the conviction that a waste of public money was going on, which, however, they were debarred by the terms of Reference from entering into. There was not a single Member of the Commission over which he himself had the honour to preside who did not leave the room, knowing that there was much more to learn and much more to correct. Admiral Graham's Committee had brought those matters to light, and that House, in his own opinion, was in some respects more qualified than the other House to discuss questions of Naval Administration, because their Lordships had not popularity to seek; they could discuss matters in a calm, judicial spirit, and with only one object in view—namely, what was best for the Public Service. He could not, therefore, accept the answer just given by the noble Marquess as anything like satisfactory. He hoped, however, that he might congratulate the Government on their determination to pursue what he might call a continuous, consistent, and steady policy of preparation, because without such a policy the country could not be protected from those occasional scares which had led to a form of voting public money that he thought was the very worst that could be adopted—namelyr, by Votes of Credit—and which had also led to haste in taking up or purchasing at enormous cost ships that really were not worth the money that was paid for them. He likewise congratulated the Government on another most important point—the improved form in which the Estimates were presented. They were now able to know the amount of the cost of material and labour for individual ships from year to year; they could see what was the liability of the nation in regard to ships, and also watch that liability from year to year up to their completion. He further congratulated the Government that in securing the services of the present Director of Naval Construction and the present Director of Dockyards they had obtained two public servants as able as any whom the county could desire to possess.


said, his noble Friend opposite (the Earl of Ravensworth), in his otherwise fail speech, complained of the answer of the noble Marquess (the Marquess of Ripon) being of an unsatisfactory character. He could not help thinking that his noble Friend must have misunderstood the answer. The noble Marquess laid down the principle which he should have thought would have recommended itself to so good a Conservative as his noble Friend—namely, that he wished to adhere to precedents in this matter. On the one hand, he desired not to introduce as a new practice a réchauffé of the statement of the whole condition of the Navy, such as was made in introducing the Vote in the other House; and, on the other hand, he expressed his great willingness to welcome to any amount discussion which their Lordships might like to bring forward. That appeared to him a perfectly legitimate and fair statement to make, and in no way unsatisfactory. Their Lordships would remark some differences between the two Houses. In the House of Commons there were not so many opportunities of discussing these questions of naval policy; but in their Lordships' House the Business was not so great, and hardly a week passed without the noble Viscount (Viscount Sidmouth) asking a Question about naval affairs; and he never observed any reluctance displayed by the noble Marquess as to giving all the information in his power. So far from the noble Marquess discouraging discussion on such an important matter as the Navy, he actually invited it.


said, he would urge upon the Government that they should from time to time present Papers containing full information regarding the condition of the Navy, and more especially the progress of ship-building and naval architecture, without noble Lords having to move for them from time to time.