HC Deb 21 February 1826 vol 14 cc678-89

The report of the committee of supply was brought up. On the question, that it be read,

Sir F. Ommaney

complained of the low rate of remuneration which clerks in the Admiralty received, and also of the difficulty which the widows of assistant-surgeons experienced in procuring pensions. He meant on a future day to move for an account of all widows of assistant-surgeons who had applied for pensions between 1805 and 1809, when the new regulations were carried into effect.

On the first resolution, "That 30,000 men be employed for the sea-service, for the year 1826, including 9,000 Royal marines,"

Mr. Hume

said, that he must oppose the naval or any other establishment being formed on so large a scale as ministers seemed inclined to propose at the present moment. They had had an opportunity of examining the whole scale on which it was intended that the military establishment should be kept up, and he was justified in saying, that no such establishment was ever thought of at any former period of peace. He therefore wished to know whether there was any prospect of a return to what might fairly be denominated a real peace establishment? At this awful moment, when distress and difficulty threatened the land in every direction—when no immediate relief appeared in view—and when thousands and tens of thousands were in a state of destitution and want, it would become his majesty's ministers to reflect a little on what they were about. He was quite sure that the estimates, so monstrous did they appear, were agreed on at a time when ministers were not aware of the real state of the country. In former times, this country maintained a very different peace establishment, both with respect to the number of men and the magnitude of the expense; and he was anxious to know what were the circumstances at the present moment which required so disproportionate an establishment, as compared with antecedent pe- riods of our; history. When the late war was terminated, that House had appointed a committee to inquire into the state of the finances generally, and also into the management and expenditure of every particular department; and he regretted to say, that the recommendations contained in the reports agreed upon by that committee, and approved of by ministers, had been, as it appeared to him, uniformly neglected. They were now going on increasing the burthens of the country, without any reason whatever being assigned for their conduct; and he believed if 12,000,000l. instead of 6,000,000l. were demanded for the naval service, it would be at once voted, although 2,000,000l. had been found sufficient at the end of former wars. In 1817, immediately after a long war, when Europe was in an unsettled state, and America was in such a situation with respect to this country, that it was scarcely possible to guess how the scale would turn, only 19,000 seamen were called for. In 1818, there was an addition of 1,000. In 1819, the same number, 20,000, was continued. In 1820, it was raised to 23,000. In 1823, there was a further increase to 25,000. In 1824, the number was 29,000. Last year it was continued at 29,000; and now, without any reason whatever being assigned, parliament was called on to vote 30,000 men, with all the accompanying, expense. An hon. baronet had just alluded to the situation of a number of unfortunate widows, whom he had kindly taken under his protection. Certain it was, that very many persons who had claims on the government were plunged in deep distress and could procure no relief, whilst they saw young men of rank and family, who needed no assistance, amply provided for. Such individuals were too often hoisted over the heads of men of talent and experience; and, while the labours of the latter went unrequited, the former were quartered on the public purse. Not a promotion took place, in which, if, gentlemen examined the list, they would not see that persons who had no claim to rank, were advanced, before those whose services deserved a different recompense. The navy and the army were filled with instances of this kind. It was indeed, nothing more nor less than a mode of pensioning individuals; and he regretted to say that there appeared to be a disposition in the aristocracy of the country to get their friends and relatives thus pensioned on the public. While the great mass of the people had scarcely bread to eat, taxes were imposed on them without number, to keep up this useless expense. The promotion at present going on in the army and navy would be found to be greater than what had taken place at any period of the war; due allowance being made for the difference in the number of men employed now and formerly. Such a system ought no longer to be suffered. He regretted very much that the claims of the meritorious individuals who had been alluded to by the hon. baronet had not been attended to; but he believed the fact to be, that neither they, nor any other set of persons, unless they had interest with the lords of the Admiralty, were likely to receive pensions at their hands. Five officers were kept up, where one would be sufficient; and that, it seemed, was the mode in which the people were to be relieved from their taxes. From the estimate now before the House, they learned, that a sum of 6,135,000l. was to be expended on the navy for the current year. This was more than the estimate for the last two or three years; and surely it was monstrous that they should thus proceed, year after year, in thus burthening the people, without making an effort to correct the system. This extravagance was not confined to the navy. It was still more glaring in the army; and he must say, that he would willingly reduce the army one half, to keep the navy on an efficient, but not a uselessly extravagant footing. This was a naval nation, and that arm of our strength ought to be kept pre-eminently powerful. The system of wasteful expenditure which was now adopted could not be carried on, unless ministers made up their minds, ere long, to rob the public creditor. It was shameful, in times of public distress, to extract from fifty-five, to sixty millions a year from the pockets of an impoverished people. He was sorry he did not see a minister in his place, because he wished to impress on the minds of those who were at the head of affairs, the necessity of their giving these estimates a reconsideration. They ought to look to the situation of the country, and extend some substantial relief to the people. He would not, on his own authority, state any thing against the mode in which any particular department was conducted: but he felt himself borne out in this instance, with respect to his charge of wanton extravagance, by the reports to which he had alluded. He was anxious, if he stood alone, to record his opinion as to what the House ought to do in this period of suffering; and what, he would add, if they had a reformed parliament, that House would do; namely, compel ministers to reduce those estimates, and to revise the expenditure of all those departments which weighed heavily on the people, and of which they most justly complained. Was it not dreadful to see 27,000,000l. annually wrung from the people to keep up our military and civil establishments—exclusive of the charges connected with the national debt? They would, in a few days, hear from ministers a statement of the financial situation of the country. He wished they would announce their intention of reducing the burthens of the people; but he feared there was no hope of such a communication being made; for, had it been intended, the House would before this have heard some intimation of the matter. The motion with which he should con-elude appeared to him to be so reasonable, that he should hope for its success under almost any circumstances, but more particularly when the accounts from every part of the country must have directed the attention of gentlemen to the extreme distress which existed in all quarters, and which imperatively called on them to reflect on the result that before long might take place, if they did not adopt a change of system. The hon. gentleman concluded by moving as an amendment,—"That this House cannot take into consideration the reports of the naval estimates of this, the eleventh year of peace, amounting to 6,135,004l., without expressing their concurrence in opinion with the committee of Finance of 1818, expressed in their eighth report in the following words:—'This, although a head of very large expenditure, is one on which your committee do not consider themselves competent to judge. They conceive that the amount and preparation of ships of war must be left to the sound discretion of the government generally, and of the board whose duty it is, more particularly, to manage this most important department of the state. Always bearing in mind that not ships and stores and military arrangements are alone necessary for the safety, or for the glory of the country, in the event of war; but that finances recruited during peace, and wealth, and industry generally diffused through the nation by all practicable savings of expense, and consequent diminution of burthens, are, at least, of equal importance; while they mainly contribute towards the happiness and comfort of all classes of society at the present time.' And this House recommends to the ministers of the Crown their reconsideration of the estimates, with the view of reducing their amount, consonant to the opinion of the Finance Committee, and the better to suit the present circumstances of the country." He did not mean to cavil at particular parts of the estimates. He had already done that in the committee; but, seeing the aggregate amount, and seeing how little suitable they were to the present state of the country, he made his present motion to call on the House to stop the extravagance of his majesty's ministers. If they were determined to persist in their career, he, at least, should have done his duty.

Lord John Russell

seconded the amendment. The navy estimates were, he said, framed on a most inordinate scale, and he believed that the army estimates would be found still more extravagant. He would therefore divide the House with his hon. friend.

Sir G. Cockburn

said, he was surprised that the hon. member for Aberdeen should have asserted, that no reason had been assigned for the increase in the navy estimates. He begged the hon. member to recollect, that his hon. friend, in bringing those estimates forward, had stated, that the increase this year was owing to the war in India, and to the necessity which existed for keeping up a naval force in various parts of the world. The general state of the commerce of the country was such, that ministers could not withhold this force, without creating general discontent amongst the merchants. There was no part of the world in which the commerce of Great Britain was not going on at that moment; and armed ships had been sent for abroad for the purpose of protecting that commerce. It was the duty of the Admiralty to see that those vessels were properly distributed. They were obliged to send ships up the Mediterranean, where the British were likely to be attacked by the belligerents on both sides. Again, it was necessary to station vessels of war in the West-Indies; and they were likewise called for on the coast of Africa. There was no part of the world in which a British naval force was not looked up to for protection; and they had acquitted themselves wonderfully well wherever they had been employed. Their naval officers, he admitted, were no great diplomatists; but in their intercourse with the newly recognized states they had acted wisely. They had insured peace and quiet wherever they appeared; and they had maintained the honour and reputation of the British flag. If that House were filled with merchants, he was convinced they would all rise with one accord, and bear testimony to the benefits they had derived from the system pursued by the Admiralty. The money now called for would be most advantageously laid out; since it would enable this country in spite of the wars of other powers, to carry on a flourishing commerce with every part of the world. The hon. member for Aberdeen had advanced one assertion, which he would meet with a direct contradiction. The hon. member had stated, that the claim of no man was listened to at the Admiralty, unless he possessed family interest. He denied the charge altogether. He attended himself at the Admiralty in rotation; and he would say, that no person, from the highest to the lowest, ever asked to see him, whom he did not see, and whose business he did not hear. And he would tell the hon. member in the face of the House and of the country, that he paid less attention to a man who had family interest than to one who was without it. He would say more. He would tell the hon. member—and many officers could bear witness to the fact—that when men without interest had stated their cases to him, he had done his utmost to bring them forward. The charge, therefore, of the hon. member was most unjust and unfair. He could assert, without fear of contradiction, that in proportion as the Admiralty brought forward persons of rank, they, with equal readiness, assisted others, who had no recommendation of that kind. Length of service, and a knowledge of the profession, were never overlooked, let the situation of the individual be what it might. The services of the father were very frequently considered in the promotion of his sons; and it could not be denied that this was a fair and proper course of proceeding for the Admiralty to observe.

Mr. Robertson

complained, that on so important a vote there was not a minister of the Crown in his place. The apology for keeping up a large naval force made by the hon. lord of the Admiralty was totally inadequate; namely, the war in India. Now, the war in India no more required an increase of the navy than would a war in the middle of Germany. It was totally impossible that a naval force could act in the Burmese war. Such a reason could only have been offered on the presumption of the utmost ignorance among members of the seat of war in India. There was no warlike navigation among those nations. True it was that in the mouths of rivers there were occasionally forts which were accessible by boats; but the weakest vessel that could swim, if she could only hold out the voyage and the landing of the troops, would be powerful enough for any maritime purposes of that war.

Mr. Croker

said, that the hon. member for Grampound attributed to the Admiralty the most perfect ignorance of the geographical situation of India.

Mr. Robertson

said, "No:" his expression was, that the Admiralty presumed on the ignorance of the House.

Mr. Croker.

—Well, then, it was not the Admiralty who were ignorant, they were well enough acquainted with the business; but they came down to impose upon parliament with a falsehood ["No, no," from various quarters]. Well then, a fallacy; which was, that some part of the naval force was to be employed in India. Now, he had one short fact to state, in answer to the representation of the hon. gentleman. That very morning it had fallen to his lot as secretary to the Admiralty, to receive despatches from a commander in India. That officer mentioned, that he had collected a naval force to act on the rivers of Rangoon, which he expected would be of the greatest use; and that it consisted of a greater number of men than the total increase of sailors demanded by the present vote.

Sir C. Cole

defended the Admiralty from the charge of an unfair use of favour and affection in promotions. He would mention a proof of the contrary, within his own knowledge. He had taken two deserving youths by the hand, who had done themselves honour in the service; they were the sons of an officer of distinguished merit, but they were for a time over-looked. He no sooner made their case known to the Admiralty than their promotion was secured to them. From all that he had seen, this was the usual character of their proceedings. As to the necessity of a naval force in India, he had been for many years on that station, and it had astonished him that we could hold so vast a dominion with a naval force so small as was kept there. The House would recollect the limits taken in by that station. It was a full quarter of the earth's surface, reaching, in direct longitude, from the coast of Arabia to the Pacific Ocean. True it was, that there were no powerful fleets in those seas; but, there were many forts upon the mouths of rivers which gave occasion for the employment of vessels of war and boats. But, there were reasons for keeping up a considerable force in other quarters. The Mediterranean station evidently required a considerable force to protect our commerce; especially while a piratical war was raging between the Greeks and Turks. He thought the service could not be properly maintained with a less number of men.

Mr. Wyvill

would vote for the amendment, in order to compel ministers to observe the strictest economy.

Mr. Herries

said, that the object of the amendment was not so much to negative the vote for the navy, as to put a stop to the grant of supplies generally; which, of course, the House had the power to do, though it was a power rarely exercised, and not without the statement of more cogent reasons than those urged by the hon. member for Aberdeen. So far from its being true that ministers had no regard for economy, they had evinced, from year to year, the utmost anxiety to promote it; and the time chosen by the hon. gentleman for bringing forward his amendment was not a little extraordinary, recollecting that it was upon bringing up the report of the committee whose resolutions had been agreed to unanimously. With regard to the absence of ministers, he denied that it was necessary that they should attend to listen to the often repeated recommendations of the hon. member. They had observed the most rigid economy in every department, and had carried reductions to the utmost extent. Year after year, and item by item, the navy estimates had been scrutinized with the utmost patience, and the increase of the present vote above that of 1817 had been frequently justified; so that nothing could be more absurd than to treat it as if the augmentation were en- tirely new, and required arguments in support of it.

Colonel Davies

thought, that this was a fit opportunity for the exercise of that great economical check which lay in parliament. No good reason had been given for keeping up so enormous an establishment. Were they, in a time of peace and in a season of universal distress to go on voting away large and unnecessary quantities of the public money? Ought they not rather, as guardians of the public purse, when that distress was likely to be aggravated by the measure now in progress, to restore the currency, to force upon government the most rigid economy? He would vote for the amendment, and when the report of the army estimates should come up, he would oppose the reception of it, unless it was accompanied with some pledge of serious reduction on the part of ministers.

Captain Gordon

adverted to the charge, that branches of families of rank and influence were placed in the navy, in order that they might receive pensions out of the pocket of the public. How stood the fact? Any person entering the army must serve six years before he would be entitled to half-pay at all. He knew of several officers of acknowledged gallantry and merit, who, after serving thirty years or more, received a pension of about 1801. Surely these allowances were not burthen-some pensions, but limited rewards for services performed to the country.

Mr. Tremayne

conceived that the strictest economy was necessary in all the departments of the state, and therefore he should vote for the amendment.

Mr. Hobhouse

begged it to be understood that he did not object to the navy estimates generally; but he could not, in the present condition of the country, approve of money being voted without the strictest necessity for it. In thus expressing himself, he trusted he should not be charged with a wish to embarrass ministers. The measures which they had brought forward this session, with the exception of the one last night, had met with his approbation; but, on that occasion, certainly, he thought it to be his duty to vote against them, inasmuch as he conceived they had departed from their own principles. With respect to the necessity of a reduction in the expenditure, he was satisfied, that throughout the country there was but one opinion, that such establishments could not be kept up, especially if ministers persevered in that measure, which he must deem an eminently wise one, of returning to a metallic currency. It was every man's settled conviction, that with the contraction of the circulating medium which that measure would occasion, it would not be possible to keep up those establishments; unless, indeed, ministers had made up their minds to the desperate alternative of breaking faith with the public creditor. The speech from the throne assured the House, that no rupture of the peace of Europe was expected; and the tranquillity of Ireland rendered any additional force in that quarter unnecessary; therefore it would be absurd for ministers to come to parliament this year and demand the same amount of supplies for the army year after year. He imputed no blame to the lords of the Admiralty. He made no charge of partiality or undue influence personally against them. He objected to the system—to the representative system—to maintain which, ministers found it necessary to court the support of the great, by providing for their dependants. One gallant officer, to disprove the charge of improper influence, had told the House of his taking two deserving youths by the hand down to the Admiralty, and introducing them there with success. Why, this was the very case of his hon. friend, the member for Aberdeen. Their merits might have claimed and acquired for them promotion without the recommendation of the gallant officer. But, then, what was the effect of his introduction? Surely he ought to recollect how the public would view this transaction. They would not forget that the gallant officer was a member of parliament, and that by some accident or other, he always found himself at liberty. In short, it was clear, that his recommendation was strong, because he was a member of parliament. He knew a captain in the navy, who had frequently declared that it was ridiculous to suppose that any claim made by individuals would be listened to, unless there was parliamentary interest to support them. There were exceptions, he knew, to this; for many gallant officers had risen to the head of the profession without such aid. However, it was a fact well known, that the current of favour generally set the way of parliamentary interest. This was the general impression, not only in the naval service but among the people at large.

The House divided; for the Amendment 15, Against it 43.

List of the Minority.
Allen, J. A. Russell, lord J.
Cavendish, H. Taylor, M. A.
Denman, T. Tremayne, J. H.
Evans, W. Wyvell, M.
Grattan, J. Whitbread, S,
Hobhouse, J. C. Wood, Alderman
Monck, J. B. TELLERS.
Palmer, F. Hume, J.
Robertson, Alex. Davies, Col.

On the resolution, that 896,000l. be granted for defraying the expense of the half-pay of the unemployed officers of his majesty's fleet,

Sir C. Cole

expressed his regret at the hardships which half-pay officers of the navy underwent, in consequence of their being obliged to employ themselves in other professions, owing to the inadequate provision afforded to them by government. Many of those officers had adopted other professions; some had gone into holy orders; and he could not but consider it as a great hardship that their half-pay, which they had so well earned in the service of their country, should in consequence be taken from them.

Mr. Hume

being the first person who had introduced the subject of officers going into the church, could not help offering a few words. He was anxious to learn what steps government would take with respect to officers entering the church. They did not seem to know how to act on the subject; for an order in council had passed taking off the half-pay of officers in holy orders, and a subsequent order had restored it to them again. He could not but consider it a hardship that in this latter order, an exception had been made with respect to marine officers. It was certainly not fair to give half-pay to one class of officers, and to take it from another. On what principle of justice or policy were officers who had served in the marines to be exempted from the benefits enjoyed by others? From all he could learn, there were but four retired marine officers who were in a situation to claim it.

Sir G. Cockburn

said, that the system which had always been adopted by the Admiralty was this—that no person in the naval department should be allowed to enjoy half-pay, unless he consented to join the navy again, should his services be required. It was impossible always to act upon this system, government had been attempted to be imposed upon in more than one instance. A person who came in turn to be employed, had written to the Admiralty, requesting to be allowed to go upon the reserve half-pay list; but it being discovered that he was in holy orders, his request was at once dismissed. Another person had been struck off the half-pay list, when it was found that he bad taken holy orders. Not very long since, it had been the practice in the army to suffer half-pay officers who had gone into the church to retain their half-pay; but when the principle came to be considered, the army saw the necessity of the measure adopted by the Admiralty, and it was now an established rule, that every person so situated should forthwith dispose of his commission.

The several resolutions were then agreed to.