HL Deb 12 May 1902 vol 107 cc1321-3

My Lords, I beg to ask the First Lord of the Admiralty whether he will state the approximate date of the decision of His Majesty's Government to construct a breakwater at Malta. My attention has been called to a suggestion that the undertaking of these works, as well as other large measures, was due to outside pressure, which I can scarcely believe to be the case. I know of my own knowledge that as far back as early in the year 1900 Mr. Matthews, a member of a firm of eminent engineers, was despatched by the Board of Admiralty to Malta, that he made an admirable report on the technical side of the question, that that report was carefully considered by the experts at the Admiralty, and that in September, 1900, the matter was ripe for Cabinet decision. At that time a general election took place, and I was not able to bring it before the Cabinet. I should be surprised if my noble friend and successor Lord Selborne, as soon as he had settled down to his work, had not taken an early opportunity of bringing the undertaking before the Cabinet, and of getting their authority to include the necessary expenditure either in the Estimates or in the Naval Works Bill. I should like to know what the facts are.


It is no part of the ordinary duty of the First Lord to correct every mis-statement that may appear in the public prints as to the action of the Board of Admiralty; but as the noble Viscount has drawn attention to a very remarkable statement, I should be in great danger of allowing the public and the service to be misled if I did not, by a plain statement of fact, give an absolute contradiction to three serious and extraordinary misapprehensions contained in that statement. That statement was to the effect that it was due to a letter written by Lord Charles Beresford—about which I need say nothing, because its author has recently characterised it himself—that to this letter was due the sending to the Mediterranean of heavy reinforcements last summer, that a sudden Vote was taken at the; end of last session for a breakwater at Malta, and that stores and munitions of all kinds were hurried out to the Mediterranean. Now, when I came into office in November, 1900, I found the question of the Malta breakwater brought to such a point that nothing further was necessary than to obtain formal assent to the proposal from the Cabinet. The Cabinet decided that this breakwater should be built, subject, of course, to the approval of the House of Commons, at the end of November, or beginning of December, 1900. No secret was made at the Admiralty of this decision, and all preparations were pushed forward; and when I myself went to Malta in April, 1901, I finally decided the line on which the plans of the breakwater should be made, and I informed every responsible official in Malta that, subject to the approval of the House of Commons, this breakwater would be built. This was in April. The letter to which reference has been made was written in June. The only reason why the Vote for the Malta breakwater was not taken till the end of the session was that it was the subject not of estimate, but of loan, and the Naval Works Loan Bill was not taken until the end of the session. That break water formed an item in the schedule of the Bill for months previously—indeed, from November in the previous year.

As regards the sending of heavy reinforcements to the Mediterranean, I must entirely demur to any such description. Last year was rather a peculiar year. The pressure which had necessitated the assembling of a special number of ships on the China and Cape stations was passing away, and many new ships also were approaching completion. It became necessary, therefore, for the Admiralty to decide carefully the principle on which the Fleet should be redistributed. I came to the con-elusion that much correspondence would be saved if I and the First Sea Lord went to Malta to discuss that part of the programme, which affected the Mediterranean with the Commander-in-Chief. This we did in April; and the principles on which distribution has since proceeded were the direct issue of that conference, and nothing else. As regards the supposed sudden despatch to the Mediterranean of stores and munitions, there is not the slightest foundation for the suggestion that there was any abnormal despatch of stores or munitions The principles on which the stores have been supplied to the Mediterranean are exactly the same as those on which they have been supplied to every other station and to the great depots and ports at home. The principles on which those stores were forwarded were, as a matter of fact, all laid down and decided during the term of office of Lord Goschen. The only conceivable foundation for the suggestion lies in the fact that in June or July, 1900, the House of Commons passed a special Supplementary Estimate for increasing the reserve of ammunition, not only in the Mediterranean, but at home, and in all the naval magazines throughout the world. The orders given as a consequence of that Vote necessarily took some months to complete, and it naturally followed that it was in 1901 that these reserves were finally distributed to the different magazines at home and abroad, and not in any sense particularly to the Mediterranean.

House adjourned at five minutes before Six o'clock, till Tomorrow, half-past Ten o'clock.