§ Mr. BOTTOMLEY
I desire to direct the attention of the House to a subject which was dealt with somewhat briefly at Question Time yesterday, and to which an incidental reference was made during questions to-day. The subject is the circumstances under which one of His Majesty's ships, a "Dreadnought," is now being constructed, or is about to be constructed by the Thames Ironworks Company. Quite recently, in response to a good deal of pressure from questions in the House and outside it, the Admiralty placed a contract for one of these "Dreadnoughts" with the Thames Ironworks Company. Until to-day I was not a naval expert, and I do not profess to know the special considerations which led to the placing of the contract with that particular firm. I only know that in shipbuilding circles and in the City the colloquial name of that vessel is H.M.S. "Polling Day." But, the order having been placed, and all difficulties of a financial character incidental to guarantees and so on having been got over, the Thames Ironworks Company proceeded to make the necessary arrangements for carrying out this contract, and yesterday I addressed to the First Lord various questions as to the condition under which that work was being done. I have one complaint only to make in regard to the First Lord. I did think that after my question had been on the Notice Paper twenty-four hours the First Lord might have thought the matter of sufficient importance to induce him to make some inquiry, not simply from his own Department but from the shipbuilding company itself, as to whether or not there was any foundation for the suggestions in my question. The right hon. Gentleman said he had not done so yesterday. He tells us to-day that, to use the phrase of the Colonial Secretary just now, a glimmering has dawned upon him of the wisdom and necessity of inquiring of the people really concerned as to whether or not there is any ground for the suggestion I am about to make. According to my information, this is the position. The Thames Ironworks Company, having secured this contract—the first contract it has ever had for building a "Dreadnought"—found that it did not possess a certain portion of the plant known as a floating crane. A floating crane is something requiring a great deal of expenditure and very considerable time for its erection. I confess that up to yes- 1108 terday I do not think I could have passed an examination upon the difference between a "Dreadnought" and a Thames steamboat, but I have had the advantage of a conference with experts since then, and, leaving out, perhaps, the right hon. Gentleman, I believe I am as good an authority on the subject now as the Civil Lord. I understand that a "Dreadnought" is the name of a certain type of battleship, and that a battleship is one of those wonderful developments of modern civilisation designed to send a maximum of people into eternity in the shortest possible time. It is essential for our security that everything in the nature of secrets or of private methods of construction should be safely carried out, and it is because it has been suggested that that condition is going to be violated that I brought the matter before the House yesterday. When the Thames Ironworks Company knew that they would require this crane to be built one would have thought that they would seek tenders, estimates, and plans from British firms not only of great experience in this kind of work, but firms some of whom have actually constructed floating cranes, and some of whose floating cranes, in all respects similar to the one now to be erected, are being used for the building of our "Dreadnoughts." Let me say at once that there is no fiscal aspect in this matter. It is not a question whether or not we can get some article at a cheaper price, or a better article at the same price, in another country, and that therefore we ought to take it. I give a rough and ready illustration of that argument, for it is suggested by my hon. Friends around me that from the fiscal point of view if the German Government proposed to present us with a floating crane we ought to accept it. I should myself be sorry to walk under a crane obtained in that way. This is a question entirely of national defence, a question of insisting upon the conditions necessary to our safety in the carrying out of the work. The Thames Ironworks Company having sought estimates and specifications from British firms, and having got almost to the point of signing the contract, suddenly decides to place the contract in Germany. Dismissing altogether the fiscal aspect of the question, I would point out that the crane will take nine months to erect. We were told yesterday by the right hon. Gentleman that until the crane is actually erected and complete no special progress will have been 1109 made with the building of the "Dreadnought." He used one extraordinary phrase. He said that until the crane commenced its work certainly nothing in the nature of disclosing secrets could happen. My information is to the opposite effect. My information is that contemporaneously with the erection of the crane the "Dreadnought" will be on the slips or on the land in some form, and that it will be very near the place where the crane is being erected. The "Dreadnought" will be undergoing some process of erection while the crane is being erected. The right hon. Gentleman says that during these nine months nothing of much consequence will happen. I would remind him that there will be foreign workmen in the neighbourhood whose work will be supervised by foreign foremen, or secret service agents, who will make observations of what is going on. I want to know how this nation can rely upon getting the "Dreadnought" in two years' time according to contract if for nine or ten months nothing important is to be done in the construction of the battleship? Even in Government dockyards a period of two years is the quickest on record for the erection of a "Dreadnought." My suggestion is that for nine months foreign workmen will be employed erecting the crane in close proximity to the "Dreadnought" works. T have in my possession, in case that statement should be challenged, one of the plans accepted by the Thames Ironworks Company, showing the relative position of the crane works and the "Dreadnought" works. From that plan it appears that there will be only a few yards between the two. The foreign workmen employed in the erection of the crane will have to pass through the "Dreadnought" works when going to and from the crane works, and they will have the fullest opportunities for observing what is going on in connection with the building of the ship.
I may be told to-day that the crane is going to be erected in some other part, or that in the case of the "Dreadnought" the engines and boilers are going to be put in at some other place. But, according to the plans propounded by the shipbuilding company, the two classes of work are to go on contemporaneously and in proximity. That being so, I do not think there is much harm in suggesting to the House that pressure should be brought to bear on the shipbuilding company to sacrifice in the interest of secrecy in the building of the ship the advantage which they 1110 may secure under the proposed plan. The crane is going admittedly to be built by German workmen and according to German designs. The more the right hon. Gentleman establishes the fact that the crane is of some special character which British firms could not build the more hopelessly that gives away the case, because if anything goes wrong no one but the German contractors and workmen can go into the yard to rectify it. The right hon. Gentleman may treat the matter lightly, but it seems to me to be an important matter requiring attention. I am told that German workmanship sometimes goes wrong. If that is so, admittedly the construction of the "Dreadnought" must stop, and we must resort to all sort of devices to cover up the secrets of the ship until German workmen are brought to rectify the mischief. The whole object of giving this "Dreadnought" contract to the Thames Ironworks Company was to give London, and labour in the London district, some advantage. On the other hand, the essence of building for naval battle purposes is secrecy. I think it is stipulated that everything in the ship will be of British workmanship. When the right hon. Gentleman tells me that everything is to be secret, what does that mean? Is there any clause in the contract which says that no foreign workmen are to be engaged in erecting any of the plant or equipment of the company incidental to the building of the ship? I tell him there is not. I tell him there is nothing to prevent the shipbuilding company bringing 200 or 300 German workmen to supervise it and placing them in control of the crane; yes, and leaving some of them in control of it to see if it would work satisfactorily at the very time that observations would be most valuable to anyone who wishes improperly to make them.
Yesterday, when the right hon. Gentleman was answering me—I have the OFFICIAL REPORT here—he said, in answer to one question, that the contract contained a clause securing all necessary secrecy; and then later on, when I pressed the right hon. Gentleman as to some such conditions as I have just mentioned, he said, "I do not know whether a German firm has got the contract, but every precaution will be taken to ensure secrecy." I think the right hon. Gentleman, if I might say so, with respect, might have treated the whole matter a little more seriously yesterday. I think, instead of suggesting that it was impertinent on the part of a private 1111 Member, however independent, to question the infallibility of the Admiralty, he might have even suggested that he was glad to have the information conveyed to him, and regretted he had not made an investigation from the shipbuilding firm, and promised to do so, thereby relieving us of some anxiety. Those are the facts The crane must be erected contemporaneously with the vessel. If not, nine months must elapse before the "Dreadnought" makes any tangible progress, and then it cannot be finished under two years, if, indeed, it is ever finished under such conditions by this shipbuilding company. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the explanation which he gave yesterday that this was a matter of no consequence, that no secrets would be divulged at any stage during the time when the "Dreadnought" must be built contemporaneously with the crane, has rather convulsed expert workmen. I have received several telegrams on the subject to-day, and they may be all summarised in the colloquial phrase, "Loud laughter." I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will treat the matter more seriously than he has done, and that I shall not be accused of fiscal heresy or feelings of Jingoism, or any other such motive, when I call attention to what I consider to be a grave dereliction of business competence in making the necessary arrangements when this great departure was made of giving an order to a firm which never built such a ship before and which had not the equipment—a fact which ought to have been known to the Admiralty before giving the contract—and generally when I call the attention of the Admiralty to a matter which is deserving of serious inquiry.
§ Sir FORTESCUE FLANNERY
I would not refer to the matter which has been dealt with by the hon. Member for South Hackney were it not that I am impressed by the serious gravity of the question to which he has called attention. I hold in my hand the Naval Estimate, which this House has already partly discussed, and at pages 206, 207, and 208 I find a description of the new "Dreadnoughts" "Superb" and "Vanguard," two battleships. Those descriptions give the length, breadth, displacement, the number and size of the guns, and a great number of other details, which are very clearly and very specifically set forth. But when we come to look at the other vessels that are to be constructed, such as the "Hercules," the 1112 "Colossus," the "Conjuror," the "Conqueror," the "Monarch." and the "Princess Royal," I find there are no dimensions, not even the length or breadth or the width. The leading feature of the design of the "Hercules" and the "Colossus" must be known to the Admiralty, because both of these ships were laid down in July of last year. Therefore I presume that the policy of the right hon. Gentleman has been to conceal entirely from this House and from the country the details of the design and even the leading features of the designs of these vessels, which have been laid down as long ago as last July. And, if I may say so, with very great respect, that is a policy which both sides of the House, I believe, will regard as wise, because perhaps we have made too much publication hitherto of the details of our ships. I believe that in the country it will be considered that the fewer particulars of our designs, especially of our new "Dreadnoughts." that are made public the better it will be for the interests of the Navy. I now turn to the First Lord's statement which accompanies these Estimates, and on page 15 I find that the "Neptune" was launched at Portsmouth eight and a half months after being laid down, and that the "Indefatigable" was launched from Devonport within eight months of being laid down. What was the reason of that short time with those ships? Here I am going to make a comparison between the light that is thrown upon this question by the rapid progress in the Government yards as shown by the right hon. Gentleman, in his own statement, and the answers to questions put by the hon. Member for Hackney and myself, and what were given yesterday.
The reason that the building slips have been occupied for so short a time as eight and eight and a half months has been owing to a new system of construction with which the right hon. Gentleman is thoroughly familiar; that the various parts of the hull of the vessel shall be prepared beforehand to the fullest possible extent before the keel is laid and the building slip occupied by the actual assembly or bringing together of the parts which form the hull. But whilst those parts are being shaped, and whilst the frames are being turned and the beams and other parts of the structure of the vessel are being prepared for assembling and erection, they will disclose to the eyes not merely of the naval architect, but of an ordinary intelligent mechanic, understanding generally 1113 the construction of such vessels what are to be the features of the design, the sizes, and practically the whole of the general arrangements of the ship. The answer has been given by the right hon. Gentleman to-day, that for nine months the construction of this crane by foreign contractors will go on, and he cannot possibly be unaware that during those nine months the salient parts of the structure of the hull to which I have referred must be progressing in the yard in such a way that the observer must see them, and that they could not be concealed from him. That being so, the manufacture in the Thames Ironworks must go on in such a way concurrently with the crane, that, if the facts are as stated by the hon. Member for Hackney, the foreign workmen and their supervisors must become acquainted, and cannot avoid becoming acquainted, with the designs of the vessel in her general and her particular features. It is useless to conceal the dimensions of this vessel from this House, and to omit them from the Estimates if the opportunity is given to foreign workers to ascertain these particulars to the disadvantage of this country. I agree with the hon. Member for Hackney in deprecating, with great respect, the manner in which the right hon. Gentleman dealt with this question yesterday. My principal object in rising now is to express the hope that he may be able to deal with the matter in a different spirit to-day. I can believe perfectly well that the Thames Ironworks Company, having got this contract, proceeded for reasons of their own to sublet this portion of it, or at all events to obtain plans for carrying out the contract in a manner suited to themselves, and without consulting the Admiralty. What I hope is now the whole of the facts are before him, that the right hon. Gentleman will see his way to bring pressure to bear on the Thames Ironwork Company so as to induce them to take a very different attitude with regard to this matter. The hon. Member for Hackney said there was nothing fiscal in this question. I do not know whether there is anything fiscal in it or not, but I do know that the hon. Member for the Ramford Division gave great publicity as to the influence he was bringing to bear in order to relieve unemployment in the East End of London. The great object he had—and I think some Members on the Labour Benches opposite associated themselves with him in the pressure which was put on the Admiralty—was 1114 to relieve the distress by getting some work for the East End, and so relieve unemployment. But what do the Labour Members say to this matter now? I do not want to introduce any party or fiscal aspect into this question, but I cannot avoid saying that the Thames Ironworks Company from their experience—and I know what their experience is—could have made this crane themselves. They have the plant, the knowledge and the workpeople, and they could have given greater employment in the East End if they had made the crane for themselves rather than alienate the work to the foreigner. I hope in this aspect of it, that it may still be possible to deal with the case. This is not a fiscal question, I agree, but it is a question of spending the taxpayers' money and employing foreign workmen, who, while they are being employed are enabled to obtain secret knowledge which is kept from this House. I sincerely hope that as the result of this matter having been brought forward the right hon. Gentleman will find a way out of the difficulty, and that it will elicit from him the declaration that he will take such steps as lie in his power to remove the danger which has arisen, and which I think was admitted by the hon. Member for Hackney before this Debate began.
§ Mr. G. N. BARNES
My hon. Friend who has just sat down has referred to the Labour Members, and he expressed some wonder as to what our attitude would be on this question. The Labour Members have not discussed it, but I would venture to put forward the view, at all events, of one Labour Member in regard to it. I am glad the question has been put before the House in such a temperate manner by both hon. Members, and that they do not regard it as a fiscal question. That simplifies matters. I was very careful to listen to the speeches that have been made, with a view to making up my mind on the matter. Let me say that, for my part, I am extremely sorry that this subject has been introduced in what I may call a piecemeal manner. I say frankly I am interested in the placing of this particular contract, and, I hope, other contracts with the Thames Ironworks Company. As a trades unionist I know the conditions of labour at the Thames Ironworks, and that they are infinitely better than those of any other works in which Government contracts are placed. Therefore, I am glad that the contract went there, and I hope that others will go there. But why should the 1115 Thames Ironworks be singled out in this way in regard to a matter which is common to every place where Government work is done? I have been in nearly all the yards where Government contracts are executed. What do I find? I find foreign machines of all sorts in pretty nearly every yard that I have visited. A year or two ago I happened to be in one of the workshops of a yard on the Clyde—much larger than this one, two or three times as large, a place where they can produce a battleship right from the pig-iron up to the guns and mountings, and there I found machinery of all descriptions from Germany and France.
§ Mr. BARNES
I could not say. They were not "Dreadnoughts" that were being built, but some craft were being built of a much more secret character, and I say I found there a travelling crane of the same character as the one in question, only to traverse the land instead of the water, which came from a foreign country. Craft were being built—submarines, as a matter of fact—and I should say that it is much more important to keep them secret than in the case of "Dreadnoughts."
§ Mr. BARNES
It had been in course of erection by foreign workmen while these craft were under construction, but not at the particular time I was there. The crane had been built, I suppose, by foreign workmen. Therefore I deprecate the matter being dealt with in this piecemeal fashion and in regard to one particular firm. As to the possibility of secrets being revealed as a result of foreign workmen being there, I cannot help thinking that it is all bogus. I was a British workman —though I may not be earning my living so honestly now—for a number of years, and I have worked in shipyards and engineer shops in England and Scotland for over twenty years, therefore I may be said to be the sort of person corresponding to the person who is sent over from Germany to construct this crane— that is to say, if such a person has come, I do not know. I know, as my hon. Friend opposite knows, how difficult it is for anybody, let alone a workman, to make out the whole construction of a ship or the designs of a ship, or more especially the 1116 designs of a craft, who happened to be on a crane, even alongside the ship or craft. The hon. Member for South Hackney said that the construction of the ship and the crane would be contemporaneous. I cannot think that should take place because the crane must be built before the ship if it is to be used in the construction of the ship.
My hon. Friend also said- and this was one of his strongest points—if it could be made out, that after the crane was finished German workmen will come along and make anything right that happens to go wrong with the crane. Is not that again a rather large assumption? Are we so helpless in this country that we have not got engineers to rectify any defect about a crane after it has been constructed by German workmen? If this particular firm are going to construct the crane, and if German workmen are to come after it has been constructed and used in connection with the later processes of the ship, then I can imagine there is something in the argument, and if that were so I would have some sympathy with the hon. Member in the point, and I think it would be a matter for fair consideration by the Admiralty as to making arrangements with the firm by which that could be prevented since it seems to me that would be the only time when it would be possible for anyone to get any secrets out of the construction of this particular ship. I do not think that is going to be very likely.
After all, I read in the newspapers sometimes about certain arrays of "Dreadnoughts," and of ships of the Navy at Portsmouth or elsewhere, and on those occasions I frequently read also that Prince So-and-so from Germany, or Prince So-and-so from Japan, or France, or somewhere else, has been on our ships, received in a royal manner, and shown everything I suppose it is possible to show. I should say probably some of those men, with engineering knowledge much superior to any knowledge any German workman is likely to have in the construction of a crane, with knowledge appertaining to naval warfare and gunnery and everything of that kind, I think if there is any fear of secrets being divulged that it will be ten times more likely in the case of those foreign people of high rank, on the ships finished and in actual use, than it would be in the other circumstances mentioned.
I think that we ought to be the last people to talk about placing obstacles in the way of workmen constructing cranes or anything else, because, after all, there 1117 is such a thing as retaliation, which is so much talked about by the other side. I happen to know that there are from this country working in other countries large numbers of operative engineers, constructing cranes and various other things. I have been in some of the shops, and some of the yards, where some of the ships of the German Navy have been built, and what did I find there? I. found British machinery; I found machinery from Manchester, lots of it. I could take you to Blöehm and Voss, of Hamburg, where I know there is machinery from Manchester. I made no inquiry as to whether Manchester workmen placed the machinery in position, but I think it is very likely that they did. At all events, I do know there are hundreds— nay, I think I should be within the mark to say there are some thousands —of British engineers who work in Germany, in France, and in other Continental countries. Therefore, if you are going to deal with this matter at all, do not let us forget there is the other side of the question, and that if we begin to put any obstacles in the way of the Thames Ironworks buying their goods from the cheapest market, and I do not believe in buying them in the cheapest market, as I think we ought to have regard to the conditions under which they are produced, but if we are going to impose some conditions on those people who get Government work, that they must have some regard to the conditions under which the things are built, or if we are going to impose any condition at all, do not let us do it, I say again, in a piecemeal way, but in the way of a general policy to apply to the Thames Ironworks and any other ironworks.
§ 4.0 P.M.
§ Lord CHARLES BERESFORD
What the hon. Gentleman has stated is perfectly true, that we have British workmen, and I hope we always shall have them, all over the world working. But this question is a question of a quite different nature. It is the building of a great floating structure to mount a crane that is to build a ship of the most secret character, or supposed to be of the most secret character, at a time when, without saying anything in the least irritating, a neighbouring country is building ships of the same character, and that they might possibly get at the secrets of our ships. I think the hon. Member for Hackney (Mr. Bottomley) deserves the greatest credit for bringing this matter forward and having it thrashed out on both 1118 sides. It is not a party thing; it is not a fiscal thing; it is what is best for the State, in which probably we shall all agree. The point I want to bring forward is this, it is one of those little cases by which you might create very great irritation between the two countries in the near future unless this thing was properly settled now. Supposing there was such a thing as spying and disagreeableness of that sort of men about a yard, I would say it would make matters very disagreeable between the two countries, and it would be much better not to have it at all. With regard to the right hon. Gentleman's remarks, I am not quite clear how he can build a ship in two years when he says it will take nine months to build a crane, and when the ship is not going to be commenced before the crane. That rather puzzled me in his remarks yesterday, and I would like to know very much how he is going to manage that.
I wish to point out to hon. Gentlemen below the Gangway opposite that there is-no objection to having foreign workmen working at our tools, but there is great objection, I think, to this proposal with regard to the floating crane. I want to ask any hon. Member below the Gangway, do they suppose for one moment that if Germany was building a "Dreadnought," and if she wanted a British floating crane, that she would allow the British to be in the same position as the Germans are going to be, or said to be, in this crane? I think that is a fair proposal. My great point is do not let us say or do anything, and a little small event of this sort has a great effect, that may make irritation between these two nations, more particularly in the state of affairs we are in now when we are at war, as far as competition goes, in regard to shipbuilding. Another point is that, as far as I understand, this "Dreadnought" that is to be built has gone to a firm with no plant. I do not think that is a very wise proceeding. It has been said it was done for political motives, but I will not agree to that, because I think that London ought to have a big battleship, and I have said so for a long time. But if the firm has not got the plant necessary I do not think that that is a wise or businesslike proceeding. I should like the right hon. Gentleman to answer me as to that, and also how it is if the ship is not to be begun for nine months, until the floating crane is finished, it is to be built in two years.
§ Mr. BERTRAM FALLE
I venture to make a protest against the introduction of 1119 any foreign material into British dockyards, and I still more strongly protest against the introduction of aliens in connection with the building of British battle-ships.
§ Mr. CHARLES GOLDMAN
As this is the first occasion on which I have addressed the House, I hope hon. Members will extend to me the consideration which they always show to new Members. I rise to call attention to the serious position of the granite industry, which is closely associated with our naval policy. I submit that the decline of this industry is largely due to a departure on the part of the Government from the settled policy and practice of the past. I regard this as a burning question not only because I have the honour to represent a granite constituency, the members of which regard the serious condition of the industry with the gravest alarm, but also because I contend that under no conceivable circumstances should the materials for the construction of our docks be under the control of any foreign Power. For upwards of forty years the Government have been in the habit of drawing their supplies exclusively from our home sources. They have subjected our granite to the severest tests the ingenuity of man could devise, with the result that to-day our granite stands unchallenged before the whole world.
§ Mr. GOLDMAN
In discoursing upon granite I wish to show the extraordinarily important bearing which granite has on our whole naval policy. The very fact that we have these quarries open, and that we could rely upon skilled labour to develop the material, gave a sense of security to the nation which cannot be expressed in the mere difference of prices between English and foreign tenders. By the policy which the Government have inaugurated we have subjected our dockyard construction to the greatest possible danger, relying as we are now doing almost exclusively upon foreign material. It stands to reason that, seeing how many quarries have already closed down, and how few still remain, we are reducing the defensive powers of our own granite quarry owners, and strengthening the power of attack of our foreign rivals. The 1120 moment will inevitably arrive, if this policy continues, when our quarries must close down. Suppose the industry comes to the point of extinction, so that we have to rely for our supplies entirely upon Norwegian or Scandinavian granite, and that those countries were involved in war, what would happen to our dock construction?
Let me take another point. Supposing this country was engaged in a war with a foreign Power, and Scandinavia decided to observe strict neutrality, what would be our position in regard to contraband? I was under some apprehension on this subject, and addressed a straightforward question to the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. That question was:—Whether in the event of war in which this country was engaged, granite imported from abroad for the purpose of Admiralty dock construction would be contraband of war.The reply was that:—Stone, according to the Treaty of London, was not contraband of war.I must admit that that answer for the moment quieted my apprehensions, until in a somewhat venturesome moment, perhaps, I dipped further into the hallowed pages of a blue book. There I found an answer in Article 24, which says:—The following articles arc susceptible to be treated as contraband of war ‥‥ vessels, crafts, and boats of all kinds, floating clocks, parts of docks, and their component parts.I would like to know whether the Admiralty was aware of this fact when they gave the contract for Rosyth and Haulbowline. I should also like to know whether this discovery of the circumstances will alter the character of the reply that the right hon. Gentleman the Foreign Secretary gave me?
There is still another aspect of this question which arose out of the remarks of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Hackney. There is the question of secrecy. I understood that secrecy was a very important point of our naval policy. I should like to ask the First Lord of the Admiralty whether it is not a fact that in the matter of our dock construction, the handing over contracts to foreigners, that sub-contractors are supplied with full drawings and designs, and that they have plans of our docks? If that be the case, what is the need of the precautions we are taking in this matter of naval secrecy? I need only ask hon. Members of the House to glance at any Ordnance map and there they will find the whole plan of the docks carefully blocked out. It must be 1121 done with the object to conceal from the eye of the ordinary public the complete character of our docks. These are a few points I should like to raise on the question of national security. There is another very important point—a commercial question. I should like to draw the attention of the First Lord to it, and to anticipate the argument that may come from the Government to the effect that after all the present Government are only following on the lines of the late Government. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Let me tell, or remind, hon. Gentlemen opposite what was the condition when the late Government for the first time admitted or sanctioned the use of foreign granite for our dock construction. Up to 1896, as I have tried to point out, British granite was exclusively used. At that time the production of our quarries amounted to 156,000 cubic feet per annum. Then, for reasons which are not material to my argument, the Government decided on a vigorous naval policy and on a vigorous policy in "respect to dock construction. The result was that they decided to build Dover docks, Gibraltar docks, Malta docks, and Simonstown docks. All this meant a great congestion of work, and the quarries were not able to meet the demand at the particular time. They were limited to a period of time.
It was out of the stringency of the moment that the Government of the time said they should meet the situation by allowing some foreign granite to be imported, and the Government of the day gave their sanction to that in view of the great overlapping in these years. I would like to remind any hon. Member in this House who knows anything at all about mining that you cannot increase your supply from 130 cubic feet to 7,500,000 cubic feet, which the Government demanded, in that space of time, and for that reason the Norwegian granite was allowed to come in. That was an occasion of emergency, but if it was wrong on the part of the Government of the day to initiate that policy, how much greater is the wrong on the part of the Government that sees the evil effect and will not raise a finger to meet and to mitigate such a situation, but are deliberately aggravating it. I have known great distress created by the great disturbances in this industry, driving thousands of men out of employment, and I think I have a right to claim the support of hon. Members below the Gangway opposite, who are so anxious to 1122 proclaim themselves the friends of labour. I hope I did not offend them when I was not able to join them the other day when they voted against their own Amendment. I should feel I was failing in fulfilling my duty if I did not endeavour in the strongest and most emphatic terms to express my views upon this subject, living as I do in the midst of this great granite industry, which in ordinary circumstances should have afforded a means of prosperity, but which, owing to this policy, has suffered a great reverse, which has brought disappointment and misery and desolation to many an honest home of British quarrymen.
§ The FIRST LORD of the ADMIRALTY (Mr. McKenna)
Before I come to reply to the observations of the hon. Member opposite on the subject of granite, I think the House will expect me, in the first instance, to make such reply as I can to the observations of my hon. Friend the Member for South Hackney (Mr. Bottomley). He complained that yesterday I did not answer his question on the subject of a floating crane of German construction with the seriousness which the matter required. If in any answer I gave him I offended him personally, I need hardly assure him it was far from my intention. He presented a case to me yesterday, and I told him, in reply to his first question, that my information on the subject was extremely limited, but that he might rest confidently assured that no secrets would be divulged, as there was a term in the contract which prevented the divulgence of any secret matter, and that the Admiralty took constant precautions to ensure that that particular term of the contract should be kept. I should have thought that that in itself would have been accepted as a sufficient answer. Of course, if we start with the assumption that the Admiralty are unable to carry out their business and take no precaution to enforce their contracts, and that they are careless or indifferent as to the preservation of the necessary secrecy—if we start with that assumption, I admit to the hon. Gentleman there is need for inquiry. But primá facie, I should have thought it was a sufficient answer that we had secured secrecy under the terms of our contract, and that we take means to enforce it. Now when I tell the House, before I come to the facts—and they will have an entirely different colour from that in which they were presented by my hon. Friend—that we always have an Admiralty overseer and several assistant overseers at the works, and that every precau- 1123 tion is taken by them to secure the fulfilment of the contract in other respects, I hope the House will assume that we should not allow any of these alarming incidents to happen, such as suggested by my hon. Friend and by the hon. Member for Essex. Before I leave the treatment of the question may I call my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that he opened the discussion to-day by informing the House that the "Thunderer" is colloquially known in shipping circles and in the City as His Majesty's ship "Polling Day."
Hon. Members have always disclaimed any desire to say anything disagreeable to the Admiralty, but they deeply deplore the unfortunate manner of the Admiralty in replying to questions. It is also suggested that the First Lord of the Admiralty has been animated by unworthy motives in giving the contract to this firm, and it is said that the contract was given in view of an election, and that under the circumstances considerable excuse must be made for the difficult position in which the Admiralty found themselves in consequence of their misconduct. I would inform the House that it is not always possible to inform the public of all the facts, but it so happens that the tender of the Thames Ironworks was the lowest tender, and I hope that is a sufficient answer to all the aspersions which have been made against the Admiralty in this respect. I will come to the facts. The Thames Ironworks Company, in order to secure for themselves what they hope and believe an absolute certainty of completing their contract in very good time, and in order to give satisfaction to the Admiralty, so that they may stand a good chance of getting further contracts in the future, determined to put down the best plant available. The Noble Lord has suggested that we gave this contract to a firm which had not built ships before, and which had no suitable plant. May I point out that the Thames Ironworks is well known as a shipbuilding firm, and may I inform the House that they built the "Black Prince," a cruiser with which the Noble Lord opposite is well acquainted? I think hon. Members will agree with me when I say that a firm capable of turning out a "Black Prince is, primá facie, a capable firm. It is true that they were having for the first time a "Dreadnought" contract to fulfil, and as they have taken a "Dreadnought" for the first time, naturally they desired to obtain the best possible plant. Consequently 1124 they issued tenders to various firms for certain parts of a floating crane, namely, the jib, the boiler, and the machinery The pontoon, which I suppose represents a good half of the whole upon which the jib was to be erected, is being built by the Thames Ironworks themselves. They issued tenders to various British firms and two German firms. As my hon. Friend, with that dialectical skill we always expect from him, has poisoned the well by his statement before I start by saying that I only had my information from the contractors, and that of course they must not be believed, it is difficult for me in these circumstances to impress the House with the truth of my statement. I must necessarily rely upon the contractors, but. personally, I believe what they told me to be true. They informed me that they received but one tender from a British firm, and that the price was about the same— they would not say whether it was lower or higher—as the price of the German firm, but when they came to examine the designs there was no comparison between them. The design of the German firm was greatly superior. I have been compelled by hon. Members like the hon. Gentleman opposite to advertise Norwegian granite to be good in quality, and I am extremely sorry to have to advertise the fact that the Thames Ironworks Company came to the conclusion that the German design was better than the British design. I am consoled, however, by the fact that, as my hon. Friend has reminded the House, there is not a shipbuilding yard in Germany where British plant is not used. We may well concede to them, therefore, the right of supplying certain kinds of plant of a superior quality to that which we we can supply at the present time.
With regard to floating cranes, it must be remembered that, owing to the natural conditions of German shipping yards as compared with ours, they have made far more use of floating cranes than we have in the past. Consequently, they have had much greater experience in building them. The Thames Ironworks Company, for the sake of the design and for the sake of the merits of the plant, and not on the ground of the price, determined to accept the German tender. Now we come to the question whether German workmen will be engaged in erecting the jib, and whether they will for months have the run of the dockyard, and be able to unearth our secrets. The Thames Ironworks Company will for six 1125 months be engaged in building the pontoon. During the same time the jib, boiler, and machinery will be in course of construction. At the end of, perhaps, five, or, perhaps, six months the jib and machinery will be sent over in parts, and the parts will be put together, and will foe erected on the British pontoon by British workmen under the, supervision of one German, so that all this possible army of spies resolves Itself into one German supervisor, who will be greatly occupied in attending to his own business. That is not the whole story. It must be observed that this crane is a floating crane.
§ Mr. BOTTOMLEY
Has the right hon. Gentleman seen the contract between the Thames Ironworks Company and the German crane builders?
§ Mr. McKENNA
I have not seen the contract, but I have seen a responsible representative of the firm, who gave me his assurance as late as last night that the facts I am now stating to the House are the correct facts, and I hope the House will accept them.
§ Mr. McKENNA
If my hon. Friend will allow me to finish the whole of the story lit will find before I have completed that his present interruption is irrelevant. This crane is a floating crane, and consequently it is not on land or in the dockyard at all, but in the river. The pontoon upon which the crane will be erected some six months hence will be situated at a point some 100 yards from the slip. The approach to the pontoon will, of course, be through the dockyard gate. The road from the dockyard gate to the edge of the water lies behind a building, which completely obscures the view of the ship, so that the German supervisor when he has to make his way to the pontoon will simply pass through the dockyard gate, make his way to the edge of the water, and step on to the pontoon where he will be engaged. It must be remembered, too, that there Is an Admiralty overseer, with several assistant overseers, always at the dockyard supervising the execution of the contract, and this one German engineer, needless to say, will no doubt be the subject of observation. That is not all. This dockyard, like nearly every other dockyard in the world, is adjacent to open water. If this German engineer or anybody else—if the 1126 hon. Member himself—wished to get a view of this ship he could do so by hiring a skiff for a shilling and getting a waterman to row him up Bow Creek. He will then be able to get a great deal nearer the slip and have a far better view than can be obtained from the pontoon where the German engineer will be employed. Yet out of all these simple facts this myth of a scare has been raised, and my hon. Friend considered it so urgent yesterday that he asked leave to move the adjournment of the House. Although the crane will not reach this country for another six months, he could not wait till to-day to discuss the question.
We have had an opportunity of answering this case on the spot. I hope the House and the country will take similar stories cum grano salis, to use the expression of the hon. Member. The Admiralty will, of course, exercise every precaution to see that secrets are not divulged. Even if more German workmen were coming over —as my hon. Friend suggests—they will be confined to the pontoon, and will not be near where the "Dreadnought" is being built. Then there is the question of the repair of the crane. Suppose some repairs should prove necessary. The crane is a floating crane, and can be moved from place to place, therefore, if repairs become necessary, it can be towed away to a spot where there will be no danger from spying eyes. The crane is to be used for lifting heavy weights, and as Boon as it has done its work it will be removed from the dockyard and transferred to the place where the ship will be taken after being launched. The people employed on the crane will be purely British. To sum up, during the two months that the parts of the crane are being put together, there will be a single German engineer employed, and he will have no access to the dockyard. Afterwards the crane will be removed from the dockyard to Dagenham, and there is not the smallest ground for anticipating that any Admiralty secrets will be divulged.
§ Mr. BOTTOMLEY
May I ask whether the contract which he now tells us is to be carried out "with the assistance of one German workman only, contains a clause that the contractors are to supply, deliver, complete the erection of and hand over in good working order after all trials have been carried out, the crane to the satisfaction of the Thames Shipbuilding Company?
§ Mr. McKENNA
Yes, that is so, and the German firm naturally, in order to executs 1127 that part of the work, send a German engineer who is to supervise the work. That is so. They are quite right to insist that a German engineer should come and supervise the work of the British workmen in order to ensure the satisfaction of the contract. With regard to the matter of granite. I hope the hon. Member will forgive me for reminding him that this subject is not new in this House. We have examined and re-examined it. debated and redebated it several times, and therefore I can only give him the very briefest answer in reply to the new case he has brought before us now. As to the quality of the Norwegian granite we have, thanks to the action of the late Conservative Government, had enormous experience of Norwegian granite. The facts are not quite as the hon. Member stated them. The late Conservative Government, from 1896 onwards, continually used it in all their big works. I quite admit that in the first instance it was because they were unable to obtain a sufficient supply of British granite but in subsequent contracts it was continuously used, with the result that we were quite satisfied that Norwegian granite is suitable for dockyard purposes. With regard to the Rosyth contract there was a difference in price, roughly speaking, of £30,000—that is to say, the contractors offered to tender at £30,000 less if they were allowed to buy their granite where they pleased than if they were limited to buying their granite in Great Britain only. We accepted the lower tender, and I have never repented of I having done it. Why should we call upon the taxpayers to pay £30,000 more to the contractor for limiting his power of purchase, when we should not dream of paying £30,000 in our own case? If the hon Gentleman were engaged on a great contract, and could save £30,000 by buying Norwegian granite, he would buy Norwegian granite; and why should I, who have to safeguard other people's pockets, do for them differently from what I would do for myself?
§ Mr. GOLDMAN
I have found that the contract is no cheaper, because when you are dealing with a matter of this character, knowing that the competition of this country is coming to an end, while there is large competition in Norway, you have to take an average of your cost. You need more granite in the future, and once you destroy the opportunity of competition between this country and that country 1128 you are going to make that article dearer, and in that case, when you average the cost, you will find that article dearer.
§ Mr. McKENNA
We have had this argument over and over again—that once the British granite industry is ruined the Norwegians will have a monopoly, and will put up their price. We have gone into that, and there is no sign of the ruin of the British industry. We are still providing vast quantities of granite. Further, it is mainly British capital that is engaged in Norway; it is British ships that carry the stone, and it is British workmen, to a large extent, who are working the stone. Are we to suppose that these Britons all have merely in prospect to ruin the British home industry in order that they may make more? I have had deputations oil the subject again and again, and statements of this kind have been made again and again, but no proof has ever been brought forward, and we were perfectly satisfied at the Admiralty that there was no concerted desire or any conspiracy amongst the Norwegian producers to ruin the British trade with the object of raising their prices afterwards. I can assure the hon. Member that it is a mare's-nest. The contract having been given to the contractor upon the terms that he could buy his granite where he pleased, I understand he exercised the liberty by buying the granite in Norway, I and, so far as the Admiralty is concerned, we have nothing more to say in the matter.
§ Lord CHARLES BERESFORD
Can the right hon. Gentleman answer my question how he reconciles the two statements?
§ Mr. McKENNA
I did so. I stated, what I did not know yesterday, that this is a floating crane to lift large weights into the ships, and it will only be used after the ship is launched. It will be completed in the river after the launching, when it is wanted.
§ Mr. WILLIAM THORNE
I want to enter my emphatic protest against the way in which this firm's name has been brought before the House. I live in the division in which the Thames Ironworks is situated, and have taken a keen and lively interest in the work given to this yard. It is a well-known fact that all the Northern firms when building boats of this description have been absolutely opposed to the Thames Ironworks Company, chiefly because it is the only shipbuilding firm in the country which has given an eight-hour day. From that day to this the Northern 1129 firms have absolutely refused to allow this particular firm to become part and parcel of what is known as the Shipping Federation. It has been stated that there was a great deal of pressure brought to bear upon the First Lord with reference to giving the contract to this firm. I deny that absolutely, as far as I am concerned. It is true that a deputation waited upon the First Lord some time ago, but it was for the purpose only of giving the firm a chance of tendering. It has been denied the right of tendering for a "Dreadnought," or any other boat, for a long time, and I believe, as long as this country will insist upon building "Dreadnoughts," the Thames Ironworks ought to have the same chance of tendering as any firm in the North. The Noble Lord opposite made a charge against the firm, and said the Government were giving the contract to a firm which had no plant. The First Lord has stated that they built the "Black Prince," and I think they have built one of the finest boats that ever floated on the water for the Japanese Government —one of the boats which did the greatest amount of destruction in that unfortunate war between Japan and Russia. I enter my emphatic protest against the way in which this matter has been brought before the House. I am not aware where the hon. Member (Mr. Bottomley) got his information from, though I know he is a man who knocks about the City a great deal. I am not sure whether some of the Northern firms have not prompted him to bring the question before the House. It is absolutely unfair.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Adjournment.—Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Master of Elibank.]