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Commander-In-Chief, Portsmouth (Speech)

Volume 437: debated on Wednesday 14 May 1947

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asked the Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty whether his attention has been drawn to the speech of Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth Command, on 8th May, 1947, in which he stated that the Royal Navy does not like conscription, but it is the Government of the day that ordered it; and, as this speech was not in conformity with Subsection (2) of paragraph 17 of King's Regulations for the Naval Forces, what action he proposes to take.

The speech to which the hon. and gallant Member refers was made to the ship's company and to the cadets of H.M.S. "Frobisher." The published version was not a verbatim report, but Admiral Layton does not dispute its general accuracy. He has informed my noble Friend that the main point he desired to make was that a national service system involved the entry into the Royal Navy of a certain number of men who, because of the shortness of their service, have not the same interest in Naval life as the long service men to which the Royal Navy has been accustomed in the past and who do not settle down so well; for that reason special efforts are required on the part of officers and men to fit them into the general scheme. Admiral Layton did not intend to criticise Admiralty and Government policy in the continuance of national service as being essential under present conditions and made it clear that it was incumbent on all concerned to carry out that policy.

My noble Friend has accepted the Admiral's explanation, though he has considered it correct to explain to him that his statement was unfortunate and it would have been better had it not been made. He does not regard the occasion, however, as one calling for disciplinary action under Article 17 (ii) of King's Regulations and Admiralty Instructions.

Will my hon. Friend make it quite clear that, despite the speech of the Commander-in-Chief, all those who are called upon to perform their national service in the Navy will receive the traditional Navy welcome; and will he give an undertaking that announcements in future on naval policy and attitude, which are likely to give rise to controversy, will be made by the Board of Admiralty and not by subordinate commanders?

With regard to the first part of the question, I have the greatest pleasure in giving the guarantee that all national service men will be welcomed into the Navy as they come into it, and that they will receive quite as good treatment as those who are there as regular Service men. With regard to the second part of the question, naturally I cannot give a guarantee that no person other than the Board of Admiralty will make a statement on policy, but I hope that in future no such statement will be made.

Is it not perfectly obvious, from the context of the speech as published in the Press, that all the Commander-in-Chief was doing was expressing the preference of the Navy for long service as against short service? Was he not acting in the best traditions of the Navy when he pointed out that it was the duty of the Service to act implicitly in accordance with the orders of His Majesty's Government?

I cannot accept that altogether. I think a statement which said that a certain section of national service men or conscripts regarded the Navy as their enemy, looked on it as a nuisance, made themselves a nuisance to the officers and chief petty officers, and spent much of their time in detention quarters, is not a statement that ought to have been made. The fact that, following on that, he then said that the orders of the Government would be obeyed implicitly, does not alter the first part of his statement, and it is that to which exception has been taken.

In view of those officers who cannot reply personally—that is officers in the Service and Whips of this House—are not personal attacks rather unfortunate? Should not the matter be left either to the Admiralty or to the Government as the case may be?

If I may reply to what I conceive to be the question put to me, although it was put rather indirectly, the action of my hon. Friend the Junior Lord of the Treasury is not a matter on which I am called upon to comment in an official capacity, but I think that all hon. Members of the House will agree that any hon. Member, whether in the Government or not in the Government, is quite entitled to comment on a speech made publicly in his own constituency.

Can my hon. Friend inform me when Admiral Layton will be retired, and whether he is likely to be re-employed?

Did not the Prime Minister himself say that he did not like conscription? Surely Admiral Layton is entitled to endorse that statement with the qualification that any decision of the Government will have the loyal support of the Royal Navy?

On a point of Order. In view of the constitutional importance of the whole matter raised by this question, and of the supplementaries from the Opposition, I beg to give notice that I shall seek an early opportunity of raising this matter on the Adjournment.