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Navy Estimates, 1901–2

Volume 91: debated on Friday 22 March 1901

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That 118,625 men and boys be employed for the Sea and Coast Guard Services for the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1902, including 19,805 Royal Marines."

I think perhaps it would be convenient, after the long discussion we have had, if I were to reply now to the various questions addressed to me yesterday and to-day. My right hon. friend the Member for South Antrim raised one or two matters which I think demand attention. He spoke about the introduction of the armour-piercing shell, and I want to make it clear to the Committee that that was contemporaneous with the introduction of a new class of armour. I had no intention of suggesting that anything that had been lacking in the past was now supplied for the first time. I also wish to say as emphatically as I can what my right hon. friend has stated, that the submarine boat was in fact ordered by Mr. Goschen. There is one point with regard to myself which my right hon. friend has mentioned, and which I should like to qualify. He said that I had stated that in my opinion the arrears of shipbuilding were solely due to causes over which the Admiralty had no control. I do not think I committed myself to that, and if I did, I am quite certain it was not what I intended to convey. What I wished to make clear to the House was that while in my opinion these arrears were in a large measure attributable to causes over which neither the Admiralty nor the contractors had any control, there was a disputable margin of responsibility into which it was our duty to inquire. The very fact that we are now inquiring into the matter, and that I have been appointed to sit on a Committee to consider it, is proof that the Admiralty are willing to admit that there is a possibility of a further margin of responsibility existing, and that we are determined to get to the bottom of the question as to whether there is any responsibility on the part of the Admiralty or not for the delays that have taken place. If we find, as we may find, that there are methods of procedure adopted by the Admiralty which can be altered to the advantage of rapidity in shipbuilding we shall profit by the instruction we shall get. My principal duty now is with reference to the very animated and very interesting speech made by the hon. and learned Member for Dundee, who has held a responsible post in connection with the administration of the Navy, and who was heard, as he was entitled to be heard, with interest and respect. The hon. Member asked me several specific questions, and he is entitled to replies. He asked me why Vote 16 had disappeared from the Naval Estimates. Vote 16 was a Vote connected with the payment in respect of the ships of the Australian Station, and the explanation of its disappearance is very simple. The Admiralty undertook to pay out of the Navy Funds to the Treasury a certain fixed sum during a period of ten years, which represented the capital value of certain ships on the Australian Station. The ten years have now elapsed, and the Vote which gave an account of that expenditure has also passed away from the Naval Estimates. The Agreement between the Admiralty and the Australian colonies had really nothing to do, except remotely, with the appearance of that Vote on the Estimates. That Agreement requires two years notice for its termination, and the notice has not yet been given. Then the hon. and learned Member asked me as to the increase in the number of subsidised cruisers.

On a point of order, and for the information of the Committee, is not this Vote for a certain number of men and boys, and how, therefore, can the hon. Gentleman in Committee on that Vote deal with the other services included in Votes 1, 2, 3?

I thought the hon. Member was aware that on the first Vote of either the Naval or Army Estimates the general discussion takes place. It is a very old rule.

The hon. and learned Member asked me as to the very valuable and important increase in the number of subsidised cruisers, and he pointed out that there was no correspond-ins; addition to the Vote. I confess I am a little surprised that the hon. and learned Member asked me that, because his memory will probably tell him that this particular Vote is not in respect of the same year as the other Votes, and that the money will not become due in the following year, and therefore does not appear in the present Estimates.

Instead of £63,000 in previous years you are only taking £7,000 this year.

The contracts have now been altered. A new system has come in, and the payments due in respect of the contracts will not come in for payment for another year. The hon. and learned Member also asked me about the new Admiralty contract, which he said had been a long time in concoction, and he inquired if it would be laid before the House. That is a most reasonable request, and will be complied with. The hon. and learned Member passed from these matters of detail to much more important concerns of general principles, I and he complained—I do not say in any very censorious tones, but in what he considered grounds of national welfare —of the large amount of these Estimates. That is perfectly legitimate, because, without grave necessity, it is not desirable that these enormous sums should be spent, He asked me where we were going to stop. What was to be the limit? I think my hon. friend who has spoken has given an answer to that. The limit is not one which we can place on this expenditure. We are complying with the resolution of this House, often expressed and often confirmed, that we shall maintain a numerical equality with the two next most important naval Powers. I can assure the hon. and learned Member that, large as these Estimates may be, they are framed strictly upon that basis, and they are so calculated that, if the House gives us the Supplies we require, we shall at any rate be able to comply with what I believe to be the general wish of the House—to keep pace with the efforts that are being made by other Powers. The question of limit does not lie with us, but with those who, with interests far inferior to ours, with less responsibilities than ours, think it their duty to pursue a remarkable career of shipbuilding, which this House has already on many occasions signified its opinion we ought to take into consideration in framing our Naval Estimates. I think I remember the hon. and learned Member saying that he was not at all opposed to that view which is largely held inside and outside the House, and that he was not at all reluctant to favourably consider the policy which we propose in accordance with the canon laid down for our guidance. There was one point in the speech of the hon. and learned Member with which. I am specially sympathetic. He spoke, as he has often spoken before in this House, about the desirability, almost the necessity, of sharing the burden of naval defence with those other great members of our Imperial community which get the benefit of that defence. The hon. and learned Member is not one of those who share the unfortunate view expressed in the House last night that the colonists who volunteered for the service of the country can be justly-described as "jail-birds and corner-boys." I can only say that there will be no want of co-operation on our part which may produce such a state of feeling in our colonies as to bring about the most desirable result wished for by my hon. and learned Member. There was, however, a time when the party to which the hon. and learned Member belongs was not as favourably disposed towards that idea as he now is, and I am not quite sure that the shortest and most certain way to obtain the co-operation we desire is to blame the colonies for not having given that which they have not been asked to give. We may take a lesson from the old fable, and believe that the sun will induce a man to take off his cloak sooner than the storm. Several questions were also raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Great Yarmouth in his interesting speech, and he made one or two observations which are specially entitled to attention. He said that more time was needed by the officers of the Admiralty who are responsible for the defence of the country. I have neither the experience nor the position which would entitle me to go into that question, but I believe that the officers engaged in the defence of this country should have more leisure given them to consider the great problems which confront them. I believe that leisure will be more easily and certainly given, not by additions to the central staff', but by a greater decentralisation of the subordinate branches. The Admiralty hold that view, and they not only regard with favour, but desire most earnestly, to effect a decentralisation of some of the work which is now pressing on the office. The hon. and gallant Member spoke, as he has a, full right to speak, for it is a matter to which he has given an enormous amount of attention, about masts-and-yards training for the Navy. He asked me if I could give the view of the Admiralty in regard to mast and yards training, and J wish I could answer the question as categorically as he put it. The Board is however, a new one. There are four new members on it, and this important question must be considered very gravely and very carefully, in view of the great divergence of opinion which has marked the utterances of leading sailors with reference to it. At the present time, the possibilities of war are making such special demands on our cruisers, and our depots for manning the cruisers, that it is practically speaking, impossible to contemplate at this moment a return to a masted squadron, however desirable that may be. I think I have made that proposition clear. At the present moment we have a large number of cruisers all over the globe, cruisers on the South African coast and the Chinese coast, and in order to make up their complements we have had to break up the training squadron for a time. The hon. and gallant Member suggests that a return to mast-and-sail training should be made. That may be a sound view, but I would point out to him that, such has been the increase in the personnel of the Navy, if we were going to give that training to all the seamen it would be necessary to build no less than sixteen sailing ships. That is an important aspect of the question. We have now four sailing ships which I think have gone through a very long and very creditable service, but which can hardly be regarded as now suitable for the training of the Navy. They would be quite incapable of giving the necessary instruction, and instead of four we should have to have sixteen ships, practically all of which should be either built or purchased for the purpose. Therefore I think when we consider the strain imposed upon us by the present situation, and also the very serious question involved in the supply of such large machinery for mast-and-sail training, it is the duty of the present Board to allow a reasonable interval to elapse before coming to a decision on what is undoubtedly a most important question. The hon. and gallant Member spoke, as I knew he would in terms of appreciation of the institution of a school of strategy at Greenwich. I entirely share the view that we have not commenced a moment too soon that important addition to our course of naval instruction, and I am not inclined to differ very largely from the hon. and gallant Member when he said that £200 could not be looked upon as a sum never to be exceeded in the future. The hon. Member for Devonport also delivered a very interesting speech, owe him an explanation, as I believe I led him into a misapprehension in regard to the Royal Fleet Reserve, in which he, is interested. He stated that I had led him to believe that 15,000 men was the total we hoped to obtain in the Royal Fleet Reserve. I certainly may have led him to that conclusion but I may state now that we hope and believe that in Class B alone—the class composed of short-service men—we shall eventually obtain 15,000 men If I misled the hon. Member on the subject I take this opportunity of putting the matter right. He asked me two other questions to which I can give more or less satisfactory replies. He asked me whether, considering that the pension of the widows of soldiers killed in action would be 5s., naval pensions would also be increased to that amount. I am happy to say that the Admiralty will make that very reasonable change. The money will come from the Naval Fund, and not from the Greenwich Hospital Fund. The hon. Member also referred to a matter which he has made particularly his own, namely, the question of the rewards to be granted to warrant officers. I do not propose to discuss at this moment some of the questions affecting warrant officers, but I wish to reply to the question of the hon. Member. He asked me whether any decision had been come to to vary the statutes of the Distinguished Service Order, so that it might be conferred on warrant officers. It is a remarkable fact that warrant officers are at this moment debarred from the honorary distinction which they have earned in the past, and will earn in the future, although it is conferred on soldiers in the Army who may be regarded as of equivalent rank. That anomaly is clearly indefensible and cannot be prolonged, and although I cannot state the precise form and way in which it is to be removed. I can give the hon. Member a most positive assurance that the matter is not only under consideration, but has almost approached a point of decision, and I hope we shall shortly be able to announce a full solution of the question. The hon. Member criticised the determination of the First Lord to appoint a Committee to take into consideration the question of arrears. He said he thought the Admiralty were quite competent to deal with that matter themselves. That is no doubt a very satisfactory view, but I can picture to myself the hon. Member taking a different view, and he—a very competent business man himself—saying, "This a great business question. Why do you not, like other business people, take the opinion of two or three competent business men?" I believe that view would be taken by many hon. Members, and it is a view which has often been expressed in this House. I myself venture to think that the course taken by the First Lord is not in any way incompatible with the maintenance of the responsibility of the Admiralty, and I believe that, on the whole, the course adopted will recommend itself to the House and to the country. We have been charged with remissness in respect to a definite and particular matter. We have been told that we have lessons to learn from business men outside the Admiralty, and we have now appointed a Committee to examnie whether that be so. If I happened, as Secretary to the Admiralty for the moment, to come down to the House and make the same report which I trust this Committee will make in a few months, I should be criticised, and anyone in my place would be criticised, and I should be told that what I said was simply the view of the Admiralty officials, and the whole question would be reopened again. If the Committee report that the delays are not the fault of the Admiralty, that will be a comfort and consolation to the Admiralty; if the Report suggests that the Admiralty had not done something that ought to have been done, that too will be a great advantage. Something of very much the same kind arose in connection with the criticisms of my hon. friend the Member for Gateshead and the hon. Member for Shipley. My hon. friend the Member for Shipley has criticised us somewhat strongly upon this question of boilers, but here again I do ask the House; to look fairly at the question. How does the matter really stand? The House hailed almost unanimously the appointment by the late First Lord of a Committee to inquire into this question. My hon. friend says we ought not to have unprofessional criticism upon Admiralty matters; but I have yet to learn that this House is not an unprofessional body. This matter of boilers was criticised so effectively that the House was all but convinced that it ought to divide on it against a strong Government. This House was practically unanimous in its acceptance, not only of a Committee, but of this Committee. I wish at once to say that no blame can be attached to this Committee for having issued an Interim Report. It has been said that their Report is incomplete. No doubt it is incomplete, but that is not the fault of the Committee. The situation, after all, is simply this. The Admiralty had to come down to this House and ask for a large Vote to commence the new programme for shipbuilding. I put it to any hon. Member whether it would have been possible for the representative of the Admiralty in this House to ask the House to vote that large sum of money without satisfying it that this great question which had been referred to the Committee had been decided in one sense or another? The First Lord put no pressure on this Committee at all, and he did what I respectfully suggest was the common-sense thing. He asked this Committee whether, in view of the meeting of the House of Commons, they were in a position to make an Interim Report to guide the representatives of the Admiralty when asking for Supply for the Navy. The Committee replied that they were in a position to do so, and they accordingly made an Interim Report. I think it is only fair to that Committee to point out that they made their Interim Report because they were asked to do so by the Admiralty. I want to make the position of the Admiralty absolutely clear in this matter. I do not object to being here as the whipping-boy of the Admiralty upon this question, though the position is rather an odd one, but I believe that what the country wishes to know is not who is to blame, but what we are going to do now, and I believe I can show that what is proposed by the Board of Admiralty is practically the only course which any sensible body could adopt under the circumstances. I have great respect for the hon. Member for Gateshead and his opinion, and he knows it. But, after all the hon. Member is not Solomon in all his glory, and his is not the last word on this question. He has contributed very valuable information, and he has been the inspiring spirit of this inquiry. But we are nevertheless face to face with the fact that there are other opinions also upon this question. The hon. Member for Cardiff has expressed an opinion almost equally strong in an exactly contrary direction, and the hon. Member for Cardiff is a man of vast experience upon this question. But he is not the only person who takes a view directly contrary to the hon. Member for Gateshead. Let me remind the Committee what the issue is. There are two issues to decide. The hon. Member for Gateshead says we should have no water-tube boilers at all; the Boilers Committee say, "Let us have water-tube boilers, but not this particular type." We have to decide whether the hon. Member for Gateshead or the Committee be right or wrong. It may be that the Member for Gateshead is quite right, and that the cylindrical boiler is the only practical boiler. I do not think this House would be inclined to accept that view, because there is a vast amount of opinion to the contrary which it is not possible to ignore. We have the opinion of every advisory board of nearly every Admiralty in the world—Germany. France, the United States, Japan. Russia, Italy—and all of them take a view directly opposed to that of the hon. Member for Gateshead. We have also the view of this Committee, against the composition of which nobody has spoken a word. Therefore, speaking as a representative of the Admiralty, I am bound to take the view that the water-tube boiler system is the system which should be adopted in the Royal Navy. I now come to the question as to what we are to do in regard to the ships at present fitted with the Belleville boilers. It has been argued by some hon. Members that we ought to take all the water-tube boilers out of the ships in which they have been fitted and replace them by others. But that is not the view of the Admiralty. It is a grave exaggeration to say that the Belleville boiler is destroying our ships. I do not take the view that the Belleville boiler is the best that can be obtained, but it is a boiler which is doing excellent work. The hon. Member opposite asked me if this boiler had ever done more than a thirty hours run. I do not think that there is any real foundation for the kind of criticism which has been passed on this point. The "Ocean." The "Andromeda." and the "Diadem" have all run long courses at sea, and have steamed efficiently with these boilers. The "Diadem" ran 1,123 miles at 19'7 knots; the "Andromeda 891 miles at 19·7 knots: and the Ocean" has just successfully steamed to China, and she has run 790 miles at 10 ·9 knots, or nearly 17 knots per hour. These are occurrences which are taking place every day. Nor should I like to commit myself to the admission that we may not be able to improve the steaming qualities of the Belleville boiler. On the contrary. I agree with the Member for Forest of Dean that an enormous amount depends upon the manipulation of these boilers, and I think it would have been an advantage if the training of the men who work them had been put upon a wider basis. At the present moment no effort is being spared to increase the opportunities of training stokers in regard to the manipulation of water-tube boilers, and every day we are increasing the facilities for training the stokers in relation to Belleville boilers. That being so, what are we to do? The Boilers Committee has not recommended any boiler to take the place of the boilers at present in use, but it has recommended that cylindrical boilers should not take the place of Belleville boilers. Indeed I am assured that that cannot be done without the sacrifice of speed and efficiency. We have given a pledge to the House that we will stop the introduction of Belleville boilers wherever it is possible without causing unnecessary delay in the building of our ships. I think it would be wrong on the part of the Admiralty to give a pledge which would involve any considerable delay in the completion of these ships. Experiments are being made with the greatest possible celerity for testing amply those other boilers which have already been amply tested in the ships of other nations, and we are endeavouring to ascertain whether they can with advantage be substituted for the Belleville boilers. Those trials will he undertaken and completed so soon that the experience to be gained from them will not delay by one single day the completion of the ships for which the new boilers are intended, and by taking this course I believe this House, and the country as well, will think that we are serving it in the most effective way possible. It is not impossible, that some enormous advantage may be shown on behalf of these boilers by this inquiry, and that the experience gained may be applied with advantage to the ships fitted with the Belleville boiler. I do not profess to be an authority on engineering questions, but I do not think it is impossible to replace the Belleville boiler with a water tube boiler of another type. I think I am also justified in saying that it would not be possible to replace the existing Belleville boilers in the ships which possess them by cylindrical boilers without sacrificing something in the way of speed and efficiency. We do not want to add to the weight or diminish either the speed or the coal supply unless there is some absolutely overwhelming necessity for it. My belief is that the example set by Germany and the United States is one which we might follow without very great fear. I should like to read one very short extract from an authority which will command the confidence of this House. This is an extract from the Report made by the chief adviser of the American Navy—

"Some years ago this Department (the Bureau of Steam Engineering) was urged, with no little pressure, to adopt the Belleville water-tube boiler as a standard for the new ships. This Bureau opposed the innovation wholly upon a close examination of the designs, criticising the very defective features which in later years have made conspicuous the comparative inefficiency of this type over the purely straight-tube non-screw-joint type, for which I have given continuous and urgent preference. The Department is to be congratulated upon escape from this 'pressure,' and upon the conservative approval it has given to the change in the boilers of naval ships. Instead of having been encumbered during the last war with ships powered with type of boiler necessitating a specially trained force even for its safe operation, the most effective vessels had either retained the Scotch boiler or possessed the simple straight-tube Babcock and Wilcox boiler, and remained free from any real danger."
After their experience during the blockade of Cuba the United States Navy Department decided to abandon the Scotch boiler and to put in its place the water-tube boiler manufactured by Babcock and Wilcox, which is the boiler now being experimented with by our own Admiralty. I believe that I have now said enough to persuade all reasonable men that the Admiralty are taking the proper course in regard to this question of boilers. We refuse to delay the completion of any ship, and we are going to put a water-tube boiler into every ship in which they can be put so as to secure efficiency and speed. We are, going to reserve any alteration in existing ships until we have some further evidence to guide us, and I may say that we are not going to go in advance of our information. We are not going to destroy the efficiency of any of His Majesty's ships until it has been made perfectly clear that it is absolutely essential in the interests of the Navy that we should do so. If it is necessary to alter any of those ships it will not be in the interests of the Navy that such alterations should take place on a great scale, but it will be necessary to withdraw the ships one by one and place them in the hands of the dockyard officials. That is all I have to say upon this important matter, and if I have spoken too long about it, it is because I know that by the evidence I have received in this House and outside that it is a matter which is receiving and deserves to receive very careful attention. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Forest of Dean has spoken upon the question of the new powder. I will repeat the statement which I made on another occasion, namely, that we are, sanguine that the work of the Explosives Committee will have a favourable result, and we do not anticipate the difficulty which very naturally suggests itself to the right hon. Baronet with regard to the guns. It is a fact that in all probability the now powder will be of larger bulk than that now used, but there is no reason to believe that that will prove a practical difficulty in adapting it to the chambers of our existing guns. I trust that I have now dealt with all the principal matters that have been mentioned. There are other matters which are not unimportant, such as those raised by the hon. Member for Portsmouth, which have a great bearing upon the welfare of the sailors and those who serve on the lower deck. I do not set them aside to-night because they are unimportant, but because I venture to say that they might be more advantageously dealt with at another stage of our proceedings. I have confined myself to the important matters which legitimately come within the scope of general discussion, and I, think I have given answers, as far as I can remember, to all the questions which have been raised.

Committee report Progress; to sit again to-morrow.

Adjourned at half-past Twelve of the clock.