HL Deb 29 July 1930 vol 78 cc974-9

My Lords, gave Notice yesterday of a Motion to advance the consideration of the Second Reading of the London Naval Treaty Bill from to-morrow to this day. That is for the sake of the convenience of the Ministers concerned and the order in which our business is sent down to the other House. I should propose, if this leave is given me, to move at once the Second Reading of the Bill. I beg to move.

Moved, That leave be given to advance the Motion for the Second Beading of the Bill from to-morrow to this day.(Lord Parmoor.)

On Question, Motion agreed to, and leave given accordingly.


My Lords, I now rise to move the Second Reading of the London Naval Treaty Bill. I do not apprehend that it can lead to much discussion, and certainly not to any difference of opinion, although I know one of your Lordships on the Front Bench opposite is going to help us in the passing of the Bill. The Treaties of Washington Act, 1922, provided that no person shall, without a licence from the Admiralty, build or despatch vessels of war which do not comply with the restrictions as to size and armament prescribed in the Washington Naval Treaties. The London Naval Treaty now prescribes restrictions as to the displacement and armament of submarines and aircraft carriers, and we have been advised that, before ratifying the Treaty, legislation is required extending the restrictions on the building of war vessels in the Treaties of Washington Act, 1922, to cover certain vessels—namely, submarines and aircraft carriers, included in the Schedule to this Bill. I think there can be no doubt about that proposition. I am not, of course, discussing the London Naval Treaty to-day, but we are bringing the provisions of the Act of 1922 up to date, so that we can comply with the undertaking which we have come under as regards the more recent Naval Treaty.

Clause 2 repeals Section 4 of the Treaties of Washington Act, 1922, in which power was taken to implement the Washington Treaty very commonly known as the Root Treaty, to protect neutrals and non-combatants at sea in time of war in so far as power was then taken to try and punish for an act of piracy any person in the service of any Power who violated the rules which were set out in Article I of the Root Treaty. That Treaty, as a matter of fact, never came into force, and it is generally recognised that it is not desirable that this clause, which would affect the officers both of this country and of other countries, should be left unrepealed, particularly as it may create misunderstanding between the areas of international and municipal law. Those are the two clauses in the Bill, and I move that the Bill be now read 2ª.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2ª.—(Lord Parmoor.)


My Lords, I venture to think the noble and learned Lord was perhaps a little rash in thinking I was going to assist him in the passage of this Bill. I admit that I do not propose to oppose the passage of the Bill, but I think there are certain criticisms and perhaps additions that ought to be made to the statement made by the noble and learned Lord. This Bill only consists of two clauses, and they are very simple, but they are not quite so simple as he told the House. Clause 1 extends the prohibition in regard to the building of ships which already existed after the Washington Naval Agreement, and it extends that prohibition to aircraft carriers of 10,000 tons and under and to submarines of over 2,000 tons. Parts 1 and 2 of the London Naval Treaty only enforce that prohibition on the five Powers that signed it, and therefore any other Power in the world is at liberty to build any kind of ship it pleases, with the one exception of Germany. Germany is forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles to build any submarines at all, but she will be permitted, in spite of the Bill which is being considered by your Lordships, and in spite of the London Naval Treaty, to build aircraft carriers of any size she pleases; and of course any other Power which has facilities for building warships will be able to build submarines and other ships as well. Therefore, it means that this country and the four other signatories of the Treaty will alone be prohibited from building those ships.

Clause 2 is a much more serious clause. It is quite true that the Washington Naval Agreement was not ratified by all the Powers which attended that Conference, and therefore I understand that legally it was not binding on any of those Powers. As regards this Treaty, I am not sure—and the discussion in another place did not make it very clear either—whether this Treaty would be binding on all the Powers, supposing that one Power refused to ratify it. I think that is a point of some importance, and I hope the noble and learned Lord will be able to make it clear.

The real point I want to bring before the House is this. This really is a step backward, and not a step forward. The Government tried, as previous Governments have tried, to abolish the use of submarines altogether. I think they were very rash in taking the line that a submarine was necessarily an offensive, and not a defensive weapon. I think the facts of the last Great War showed quite clearly that that was a position that one could not really sustain. However that may be, the point is that under the Washington Agreement Articles were signed by which the Powers agreed that certain rules of war should apply to both surface ships and to submarines. Now, when we turn to the London Naval Treaty we find that surface ships are omitted altogether, and we find that the rules in regard to submarines are somewhat modified. If your Lordships will turn to Article 22 you will find it reads in part as follows: In their action with regard to merchant ships, submarines must conform to the rules of International Law to which surface vessels are subject. I wonder if the noble and learned Lord will tell us what the rules of International Law in regard to surface ships are? My impression is that there is nobody at this moment who could tell us what the rules of International Law in regard to sea war are. The whole of the rules of International Law at sea were set aside completely by one of the Powers engaged in the Great War, and nobody, I believe, knows at this moment whether those rules, which everybody thought would be put into operation at the time of the Great War, are in operation or not. This Treaty says nothing about that, and that is a very serious omission. What is perhaps an even more serious omission is this. We have here an agreement to which five Powers have set their names. They agree that submarines shall not sink ships until they have put their passengers and crews into what they consider a "place of safety" —a rather indefinite phrase, but I admit hat it is very difficult to phrase anything which will really cover every conceivable case.

In the Treaty of Washington there was a penalty clause, by which anybody who broke the rules set down in the Schedules to that Treaty was liable to be tried as a pirate by a Court of Law. In this Treaty that penalty clause is omitted, and therefore it appears that if the subjects, even of the Powers who have signed this Treaty, violated the clause, they are not in the least bound to take any action against those individuals. I hope the noble and learned Lord will be able to tell us why that clause has been omitted, because I cannot understand that any great nation agreeing to Article 22 in the London Naval. Treaty could possibly object to having a penalty imposed on its nationals who broke those rules.

There is one point further. Here, again, as in Clause 1, this Article 22 only applies to the five Powers who signed the Treaty. We all know that many other Powers have now got submarines, and I hope that His Majesty's Government will take every possible chance they can of seeing that every nation which is a member of the League of Nations will agree to a similar provision, and I hope at the same time they will press very strongly for a penalty clause being added to the agreement which has been signed by the Five Powers in this Treaty. I venture to bring these matters before your Lordships only because I feel that this is really a step in the wrong, and not in the right, direction. Everybody agrees that submarine warfare has to be very carefully regulated indeed to prevent atrocities such as we were accustomed to fifteen years ago. Therefore, I think we are unwise, to put it mildly, in not having a penalty clause to see that the rules agreed to by the five Powers are enforced on their nationals and on anybody else where possible.


My Lords, I will certainly endeavour to answer the questions put to me in a perfectly courteous and straight manner by the noble Earl opposite. I agree with him that they are very important questions. The first question he asked me was as to the countries—I think he took the illustration of Germany—who were not parties in any way to the London Naval Treaty. They are left exactly as they were, undoubtedly outside the Treaty. It would be impossible in a Bill such as we are now considering, which has to be passed in reference to a Treaty, to attempt to bring in all the other nations of the world, including Germany, who are not parties to the Treaty at all. I think the noble Earl will realise that, whatever our desires may be.

Secondly, the noble Earl asked me a question about International Law in reference to sea matters. I think I should be obliged to agree with him that at the present time there is great indefiniteness as to what the true law is between countries upon points with regard to what is sometimes called the freedom of the seas and with regard to the powers of belligerent countries against a neutral country. There are considerable difficulties in the matter. If he wants to define very accurately what the powers are he would have to have agreement, and that, of course, would be going quite outside the clauses of this Bill, which has reference only to the Agreement to which the five Powers are parties. It would be impossible to attempt to deal with a wider question of that kind in a limited Bill of this character. I think the noble Earl realises that you would want much wider agreement. I hope that such wider agreement may be attained in order that there may be a common International Law upon those matters to which all Powers have agreed to be subject.


My Lords, I only brought the matter up because the phrase is used in the Bill and, therefore, I really asked for a definition.


Yes, I am afraid I cannot do more. If I did I should probably get into trouble and I think the noble Earl would be the first to criticise me.


Hear, hear.


I want to be quite courteous in my answer. With regard to a matter which was really in connection with the Washington Treaty, I think it is advisable that a particular regulation, if I might so call it, of this kind should be out of the way if a wider international agreement is wanted between the Powers. Undoubtedly it is a difficult matter, prima facie at any rate, to allow the officers of one country to be treated as pirates by the Court of another country which might have a different view of questions of this kind. It is a very difficult subject matter. Personally, I would only say that I think it is a wise course to repeal this section if we want, as I do and as the noble Earl has said he wants, a wider definition including International Law generally, including regulations to which all countries will be or ought to be subject in future. I hope I have answered the questions which the noble Earl asked.

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

Then (Standing Order No. XXXIX having been suspended), House in Committee: Bill reported without amendment.

Bill read 3ª, and passed.