HL Deb 20 June 1922 vol 50 cc979-87

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the Treaties, five in number, with two supplements, which were signed at Washington, have now been published for more than four months, and I think I may assume that their general scope and provisions are familiar to your Lordships. So far as one can ascertain, they have met with universal agreement in this country—at any rate, there has been no note of dissent which I have been able to discover—and I am sure it will not be expected that on this occasion, moving the Second Reading of this Bill, I should attempt anything in the nature of a review of the Treaties as a whole.

Your Lordships might wish, however, to know what is the position with regard to ratification at the present time. It is stipulated in each one of these Treaties that it shall be ratified by the different Powers in accordance with their respective constitutional methods, and that is in process of being done. In the meantime, it is necessary to introduce domestic legislation to implement certain details of the Treaties, which, otherwise, would be in conflict with the existing law or might infringe the rights of individuals. The position with regard to ratification I believe to be as follows. It is, of course, complicated by varying national rules and constitutional requirements.

Taking the signatories to the two particular measures which are dealt with in the present Bill, in the United States the Treaties have already been ratified in the sense that they have been passed with the advice and consent of the Senate, which is of course essential and which has been achieved, if I may say so, with gratifying and somewhat exceptional promptitude. There is, I believe, a necessity for some minor enabling legislation in the United States, but otherwise we may say that the ratification is practically complete. In France a Bill for the ratification of the Treaties has been submitted to Parliament, and has been referred to the Foreign Relations Committee. In that case the assent of Parliament is required before the Treaties can be promulgated by the President. I believe that the position in Italy is practically the same as in France. In Japan, I understand, no Parliamentary authority or legislation is required, but to a certain extent the position there is that the Government is waiting until other Powers have ratified. I think we have every reason to suppose that there will be no question about ratification, more particularly as the principal delegate of the Japanese Government at Washington, Baron Kato, has now become Prime Minister. As we know, he is an ardent and convinced supporter of the provisions of these Treaties.

With regard to the British Empire the procedure varies. In the Dominions Parliamentary approval is required in every case, I believe, and as I was coining to this House I saw on the tape the statement that the Canadian Parliament yesterday unanimously approved the whole of the Treaties. I believe that matters are well advanced in Australia, and that the complete assent of the Dominions will follow very shortly. In any event, ratification, so far as the British Empire is concerned, is a matter of course and will be executed without question.

In the meantime, it is necessary, and I believe this is an appropriate moment, to pass the necessary enabling legislation, and that is the origin of the present Bill which I ask you to read a second time to-day. Only two of the Treaties passed at Washington require any enabling legislation. They are the Treaty for the Limitation of Naval Armament and the Treaty to protect neutrals and non-combatants at sea in time of war, and to prevent use in war of noxious gases and chemicals; and only certain isolated provisions of these require legislation. I understand that some of your Lordships were a little puzzled by the fact that no provisions appear in the Bill with regard to noxious gases and chemicals, but the reason is very simple. No Parliamentary legislation is required to make that part of the Treaty effective. The reason the words appear in the Preamble to the present Bill is that the Preamble is in the nature of an accurate description of the Treaty, which otherwise might be difficult to identify.

Before I come to the actual details of the present Bill I feel bound to say that its provisions and its wording can give no adequate indication of the very heavy burden of responsibility which rested upon the British Delegation at Washington, and, if I may say so, particularly upon the representatives of the Admiralty there present, because under the Treaty for the Limitation of Naval Armament we made undoubtedly a voluntary surrender of our historic supremacy on the seas; we did it in trust and in the interests of world peace and, I might add, of world solvency. It was a free-will offering on our part, as, indeed, on the part of other countries, but particularly on our part, which is certainly unparalleled in our history, if not in the history of the world, and one of profound and epoch-making significance. The basic principle was that we should accept a standard of naval strength which was equality with the United States of America, and, of course, corresponding ratios with regard to the other navies. This was not only a new orientation of naval strength, but a new portent in world politics and the relations existing, and which will exist in the future, between the English-speaking peoples.

After all, there is, I believe, a spiritual as well as a material side to these Treaties, and the fact that the British Empire and the United States of America whole-heartedly and almost spontaneously, agreed that their interests, and the interests of the future peace and solvency of the world, could be safeguarded, and perhaps best safeguarded, by sea power on the basis of equality between the British Empire and America, is, I venture to say, perhaps worth more to our security than a mere numerical margin of superiority in either ships or men. We took this responsibility with our eyes open, fully realising that we ran thereby at any rate a theoretical risk, a risk which is inherent in the fact that we, far more than any other nation in the world, are dependent upon security for our prosperity and, indeed, for our existence. But in the spirit of trust which I have described we accepted the new standards. And we have gone further. We are actually giving effect to them, without waiting for ratification by other signatory Powers. We are doing this because without mutual trust and confidence the Agreements concluded at Washington will inevitably break down, and the world will be thrown back once more into the old welter of suspicion and competitive shipbuilding, bringing us all inevitably to financial ruin.

With that foreword I will come to the detailed provisions of the Bill. I want to make clear to your Lordships, in the first place, that it is, of course, the duty of the Governments concerned and, in connection with the Naval Treaty, mainly of one Department, the Admiralty, to give effective force to the main Articles of the Treaties—that is to say, the Articles dealing with the limitation of total tonnage of capital ships which we shall be permitted to retain, the reduction of superfluous tonnage by scrapping under certain very clearly defined rules, restriction of the size and armament of future capital ships, aircraft carriers, and cruisers—not, I regret to say, of submarines, but to that subject I will come in a moment—and the prohibition of development of naval bases in certain areas of the Pacific. All those are matters of governmental responsibility, and require no legislation. But legislation is required in order to restrain private individuals and private firms from doing things which the Government would not be permitted to do under the terms of the Treaties. The necessity for this is obvious, and as it involves a certain restriction of the liberty of the subject the assent of Parliament is essential.

Clause 1 of the Bill provides, as a safeguard against any infraction of the Treaty by an individual, that before a warship can in future be built by a private firm a licence must be granted by the Admiralty. This licence not only covers building but sale. As will be seen in Clause 1 (1) (b), there is a provision protecting individuals from any arbitrary or bureaucratic exercise of this right of licence so long as the actual provisions of the Treaty are not being infringed. The granting of a licence without which warships cannot be constructed in future, involves, of course, in addition, the granting of full information by the builder to the Admiralty, and the right of inspection in yards where such ships are being built. I will at once relieve your Lordships of any anxiety with regard to the expense by stating that no extra staff will be required for this purpose, as the existing staff of the Naval Construction Department will be sufficient to deal with these cases, which, after all, will be very rare.

Clause 2 deals with the penalties which will be incurred if individuals break any of these provisions, or take action which will be in conflict with the Treaty. It will be observed that the penalties are of three kinds. There is, first of all, a fine, which perhaps would not be very effective; secondly, there is imprisonment; and thirdly—which I think will be the most effective part of the penalty—there is power to compel forfeit to His Majesty of the ship which is under construction. Clause 3 is necessary to deal with the position where this country is a neutral in any future war, and where it is essential that the existing conditions of the Foreign Enlistment Act shall not be infringed, although the Admiralty might previously have granted a licence before such a war broke out to a company or firm to construct a ship. This clause ensures that that licence is not final, and that the existing provisions of the Foreign Enlistment Act will continue to apply in order to safeguard our neutrality.

I now come to Clause 4, which is a very important portion of the Bill. That clause implements what were known as the Root Resolutions, which arose out of, and had their origin in, the submarine controversy. As your Lordships know, the British Delegation in Washington made a proposal, and did their utmost, to abolish submarines altogether for all purposes in war. They were not successful in carrying the Conference with them, but so much sympathy was excited in the United States of America by our proposal that, as soon as it was rejected, the United States Government itself came forward and took the initiative in limiting the use of submarines in war against commerce by Resolutions which would force submarines to conform in every respect to the laws of war which at present are applicable to surface craft. That was a most important and significant reform, because, if accepted and carried out, it practically rendered the submarine useless as a weapon of war against commerce.

Perhaps the best way to indicate what was the real scope of the Resolutions, and the Treaty based upon them, is to quote the words of their author, Mr. Root, used by him when presenting the Treaty to the Conference. He said— You will observe that this Treaty does not undertake to codify International Law in respect of a visit, search, or seizure of merchant vessels. What it does undertake is to state the most important and effective provisions of the law of nations in regard to the treatment of merchant vessels by belligerent warships, and to declare that submarines are under no circumstances exempt from those humane rules for the protection of the lives of innocent non-combatants. It undertakes further to stigmatise violation of these rules and the doing to death of women and children and non-combatants by the wanton destruction of merchant vessels upon which they are passengers as a violation of the laws of war, which, as between these five great Powers and all other civilised nations who shall give their adherence, shall be henceforth punished as an act of piracy. It undertakes, further, to prevent temptation to the violation of these rules by the use of submarines for the capture of merchant vessels, and to prohibit that use altogether. It undertakes, further, to denounce the use of poisonous gases and chemicals in war as they were used, to the horror of all civilisation, in the war of 1914–18. The Treaty carries out that aspiration of Mr. Root, and the signatory Powers are bound as between themselves to observe those restrictions and to invite all other civilised Powers to adhere to them.

What Clause 4 of this Bill does is to give the necessary legislative sanction for the trial and punishment of offenders, including neutrals, against the existing rules of warfare as declared in the first part of the Treaty; incidentally, it goes further in one notable respect in that it deprives possible offenders of the old excuse that they were acting under orders. The further prohibition of the use of submarines altogether against commerce, which is contained in Article IV of the Treaty, whilst binding on the signatory Powers from that moment—at least, from the moment of ratification—is not yet part of International Law and cannot be until other Powers have adhered to it. Therefore, it does not come within the penalties in Clause 4 of the present Bill. But that is comparatively unimportant, because if the prohibition of the use of submarines for these purposes is effective, there is no need for the penalties which would be involved by a breach of the rules of war in their conduct of those operations.

Clauses 5 and 6 are purely formal, and I do not think any point arises upon them; but if any of your Lordships wish to ask questions of detail, I shall he glad to deal with them on the Committee or subsequent stages. Meanwhile, and in order to obviate any possible misunderstandings in America or elsewhere with regard to these apparent delays in ratifying the Treaties, which have been practically ratified in America already, I desire to point out and to repeat that the Government and the Admiralty, as the Navy Estimates of this year conclusively show, are already going ahead with the reductions both in ships and in men which are entailed in the Treaty, and are doing it precisely as if the Treaties had already been ratified. In this process the importance is recognised of carrying out scrupulously, not only in the letter but in the spirit, the provisions of the Treaty. I wish to emphasise that any attempt now to alter or vary the agreements come to and the details of the Treaty would, I feel sure, have a very unfortunate effect in arousing suspicions and delaying the general agreement with which we hope these Treaties will be received by all the signatory countries.

We are sometimes criticised for proceeding as rapidly as we are doing with regard to the implementing of these Treaties. There are some who suggest that we ought to show more caution; that we should wait and see; and I have received advice more than once to delay before proceeding any further. But we feel that it is unthinkable that any civilised nation should now go back upon the agreements which were come to so solemnly at Washington after three months of discussion, or that they should not honour the signatures of their plenipotentiaries. This being so, we think that it is only right and proper that the greatest naval Power should set the example and lead the way, as we are doing, and I trust that your Lordships' House and, indeed, Parliament as a whole, will approve and associate itself with the course which the Government are taking. I need not, I think, detain your Lordships any longer at this stage, repeating, however, that the Bill deals with many complicated matters and that many questions may arise which I shall be glad to elucidate if I have the opportunity. I ask your Lordships to give a Second Reading to the Bill.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Lee of Fareham.)


My Lords, I do not think my noble friend the First Lord of the Admiralty was guilty of any exaggeration when he said that the British representatives at Washington had made a great sacrifice and had taken upon themselves a very heavy responsibility. That is absolutely true; but in my opinion they were absolutely right in the policy they pursued and in their willingness to take on their shoulders that grave responsibility. They must feel that they have been rewarded by the almost unanimous approval of their fellow countrymen, and, if they will allow me to say so in their presence, I think this is the most brilliant piece of diplomacy which England has had to its credit for a very long time; it stands out in very startling contrast from other efforts, not equally successful, which have been made elsewhere.

What are the reasons which so abundantly justify, at any rate in my judgment, the policy pursued at Washington by our representatives? There is, as my noble friend has said, the imperative necessity for economy, which is our first and greatest need to-day, as it was after the Napoleonic Wars. There is also this consideration to-day which did not then exist—the immense advantage, not only to the British Empire but to the world, of a clear understanding between the British Empire and the United States and our other Allies (France, Italy, and Japan) on this subject of the hitherto mad rush in armaments. Further, the example should be set, for the first time I think, of an attempt to put out of the way of nations a question so rife and so pregnant with the future seeds of war as the Pacific question. All these questions had to be considered together by our representatives at Washington, and the result clearly formed one whole.

I greatly regret that their efforts to deal with the question of the submarine have failed, though through no fault of their own. I have the greatest respect for the patriotism and intelligence of Frenchmen when they are dealing with the affairs of France, but I confess to your Lordships that I have been wholly unable to, understand the train of thought which led the representatives of that country to take the line which they took on the subject of submarines. To pursue that subject in detail would be impertinent and unnecessary, but I have made an effort to understand their point of view and I find that I cannot do so. It is, I think, a very great misfortune for us, and not only for us but for the world at large, that the policy which my noble friend suggested and pressed could not be adopted.

There is one result of what has taken place which no one who has had the honour of being connected with the Navy, as I have, can regard without sorrow, and that is the loss to the Navy of such a very large number of officers and men of priceless value and of proved worth. It is a horrible but necessary concomitant of a period of retrenchment succeeding a period of war inflation. The only consolation one has is that the naval training is so good that I think a naval man, whether officer or seaman, or marine, or stoker, stands a better chance of good employment elsewhere than almost any other class of man.

There is one further subject on which I should like to touch. I can do so by the elastic Rules of your Lordships' House, though it is not strictly germane to the matter of my noble friend's speech. I am delighted that he, and the Admiralty, have withstood the insidious suggestions of those who asked them to believe that the days of the capital ship are numbered. The case, to say the least, is not proven. I should have said that all the lessons of the war proved the exact contrary. I should not, indeed, have thought that this country would have been safe under this Treaty if it had ended in the abolition of the capital ship. The day may come when that may be possible, but I am sure it has not come yet, and the Admiralty have done a great service by standing fast on the experience of the war.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.


My Lords, I should like to ask what would be the wish of your Lordships with regard to the subsequent stages of this Bill—whether you would wish to have time for reflection before proceeding with the further stages, or whether you would be willing that we should proceed without delay. I am prepared to put the Committee stage down for to-morrow, or for the first sitting next week, whichever your Lordships desire.


My Lords, the Bill, of course, is quite non-controversial, but there are one or two questions upon which one would like to have an explanation, and if the Bill could be put off till next week I think it would be better.