My Lords, I rise to ask His Majesty's Government whether they have considered the desirability of altering the regulations and conditions that govern the entry of the officers and men of the Royal Naval and Royal Naval Volunteer Reserves, so as to be able to enter a new class for coastal service such as mine-sweeping, which would be drawn from officers and men in the short sea trade, and from fishermen and others engaged in coastal work, so as to release for other duties a large proportion of the officers and men of the Royal Navy who would otherwise be employed on this service; and also whether they have made or are making arrangements to put on an Admiralty List for mine-sweeping purposes a sufficient number of steamers locally employed, such vessels to be available within twenty-four hours of an emergency.
During war the entrances to our harbours and certain channels round our coasts will have to be constantly swept as a matter of daily routine. The enemy will sow tares by night and in foggy weather, and we must sweep them up by day. As we are short of seamen, any arrangement by which the number of officers and men of the Royal Navy employed in mine-sweeping can be reduced must be advantageous, as it would leave more of the personnel of the regular service available for other duties. There are many seafaring men around 70 our coasts, such as pilots, fishermen, and short sea traders, some of whom have never been on long sea voyages. Many of these men are married, and might be disinclined to remain away from home for a lengthened period, but they would probably be ready to enter a service in which they might expect to return to their homes at short intervals. Such men would not be much use amidst the complicated machinery of a modern man-of-war, but would be perfectly competent to act as helmsmen, leadsmen, look-out men, or boatmen, or as part of the engine-room complement of small steamers. Of course, a few experts would be required when mines were actually being encountered. Such experts should not be constantly employed on deck or at stoke-hole duties, but should be kept fresh and unfatigued ready for the performance of their more scientific mechanical work.
The Admiralty have recently made experiments with trawlers as mine-sweepers. The results are, I understand, confidential, so that I shall not touch further on the subject except to say that there are numbers of vessels of larger size and greater speed than our trawlers to be found among passenger and other steamers engaged in local traffic. Some of these boats and a considerable number of trawlers should be surveyed and contracts made for taking them over in case of emergency, either by hire or purchase. Whenever an enemy's ship was sighted, speed would be an advantage. Arrangements should also be made for taking over the whole or part of the crews of such vessels. During the Spanish-American war the United States took over large mail steamers and their crews as going concerns, giving temporary commissions to their officers. Agreements of this kind ought to be made in time of peace, so that we should not find ourselves unprepared during the first fortnight of a war—the time when this country will run most risks.
§ THE EARL OF GRANARD
My Lords, the answer which I have to give to the noble Lord is a very short one. It is simply this, that the question which my noble friend has raised to-day is under the discussion of the Admiralty, and the First Lord hopes to be able on the 10th of this month, when his Estimates are circulated, to make a pronouncement on the subject.