HC Deb 07 March 1833 vol 16 cc379-85
Mr. Hume

rose to ask the House for some information on a subject of considerable importance, in relation to a question that would come before them in a few days. He wished to know how the troops were distributed before voting the Estimates. Such a Return was laid before the House last year, and he did not know why there should now be an objection to his Motion. The hon. Member moved for an account of the distribution of the military force in Great Britain and Ireland, and in each of the Colonies in the year 1833.

Lord Althorp

hoped that the House would give him credit for being always ready to give every species of information required, whenever it could be done with propriety. With respect to the Motion of the hon. member for Middlesex, he wished to remark that a similar one had been made in 1819, and agreed to. A similar Motion was also made and agreed to last year; but in the interval between these two Motions, no such information was ever asked for, or laid on the Table of the House. He believed, too, that the Motion in 1819 was the first of the kind ever assented to. He admitted, therefore, that he should feel it his duty to give the information granted at these two periods, if there were no objections, as he supposed there were none then, on the score of the public service. But he appealed to the House whether it might not he very inconvenient if it should settle into a custom of laying this information on the Table of the House. There must be many occasions when it must he very injurious to make the public acquainted with the exact amount and distribution of the military force of the empire. If such a return were to be habitually laid on the Table, it would be extremely difficult for the Government to refuse it, when it might be inconvenient to grant it. That made him object to granting it this Session. That, however, was his smallest objection to the Motion. He objected strongly to making this the constant system of the House. On the present occasion he felt very strongly that there were many circumstances which rendered it extremely inconvenient to lay such a statement before the House as was demanded by the Motion of the hon. Member He was the less scrupulous, indeed, in now opposing it, because the information, in consequence of its having been supplied last year, was not required. On the two grounds then, of its being at present inconvenient, and of its being wrong to make such a return habitually, he should oppose the Motion.

Colonel Davies

could not understand the objections of his noble friend. The country, it should be remembered, was in a state of profound peace. Did his noble friend apprehend the danger of a foreign attack or a domestic insurrection? Certainly, the apprehension of danger from abroad was a poor reason for refusing the Motion, because there was no foreign Power interested in knowing it which could not, in spite of all precautions, ascertain at any time the strength of any one of our garrisons. In his opinion, the information should be granted, or the House could not be prepared to vote the Army Estimates.

Sir John Hobhouse

said, the information required was in great part before the House. The Estimates themselves stated what force was in Great Britain, what in Ireland, and what force was in the colonies. But the hon. member for Middlesex wished to know exactly what amount of force was in each colony. Such a return had only been made twice before, and it was curious enough that the return of 18I9 was made in detail by the Adjutant General, when he was not required to do so. It appeared to him that no House of Commons, at the commencement of every Session, could fairly call upon the Government to state the manner in which the army of the country was disposed of—at home or abroad. That was certainly a matter which should be left to the discretion of the Crown, and the existing Government, according to the emergencies of the times; for there might be circumstances with which the Government alone could be acquainted, to render it of the utmost importance that the mode in which the military force was disposed of should be concealed. With the vast interests of our great empire—with colonies spread over the whole surface of the globe—it was apparent, looking to England, Ireland, and the West Indies, and, indeed, to all parts of the world—that no man could have a right to call upon the Government to proclaim how many troops were stationed in this place—and how many regiments in that? It would not only be the grossest imprudence; it would be usurping the power delegated to the Government; and it would be exposing to those who might take advantage of such exposition, what force was to be stationed, in disciplined array, in different parts of the empire. It was no doubt true, as the hon. member for Middlesex and the hon. and gallant member for Worcester had said, that a similar return was presented last year; and that return he begged leave to explain. The right hon. Gentleman who preceded him in office had certain tables before him, in order that he might draw up certain schemes (well worthy of consideration, no doubt.) with respect to the effect of every estab- lishment for a certain number of years; and when he entered the War-office, these tables were filled up, and only waited for the signature of the Secretary-at-War. Sir Henry Parnell shortly afterwards moved for these returns, but they were not for the purpose of giving an account of the disposable force; for they showed the amount of the military establishment from 1817 up to 1832, in each year inclusive. It was for the sake of drawing a comparison between these years, that the right hon. Gentleman had these returns prepared; and from time to time there certainly could be no objection to give such a return. For example, next year his noble friend would have he, supposed, no objection to give that return for the past year; because, the evil effects of now granting it would be obviated. He put it to the good sense of hon. Gentlemen opposite whether it was good as a precedent—he would not say to allow the Parliament, for he would trust the Parliament—he would not say the hon. member for Middlesex, for he would trust him, and he might almost say the people, also—hut whether it was good as a precedent, to trust the matter to the whole world, and to have it universally known, in what portion of the globe every part of the disposable force of this country might be stationed? It was from no wish of concealment that he made these observations. He could say, as his noble friend had said—that, so far as he was concerned, he should be most happy to give every information which the House or the country could require.

Mr. O'Connell

hoped the House would insist, as was its duty, on having the Returns. They should not proceed on guesses, cither as to the number or expenses of the army.

Sir John Hobhouse

said, that the expense was specified in the papers on the Table.

Mr. O'Connell

Granting that, there were no Returns to show whether the aggregate amount of expense was a proper one or not. The noble Lord, in refusing the Returns, relied upon his character.

Lord Althorp

observed, that he resisted the Returns because, if furnished, they would do injury to the public service, otherwise it was the bounden duty of Ministers to grant them, but he had not, he believed, relied upon his character.

Mr. O'Connell

But the noble Lord added, that he was not in the habit of withholding proper information. The right hon. Secretary at War maintained that it was the prerogative of the Crown to dispose of the armed force as it pleased, but it was equally the privilege and duty of the House not to vote money for the payment of the forces, if any information it deemed necessary was withheld from it. The times required that a rigid inquiry should be instituted into the number of troops, in order, that if there were one drummer or lifer too many, they should be dismissed. Before a single shilling was voted, they should have a clear account of the number and distribution of the troops.

An Hon. Member

said, that the matter ought to be left in the hands of the Government, and quoted the expedition to Portugal, under Mr. Canning's Administration, as justifying his opinion. At that time there was great doubt whether the force should be drawn from Gibraltar or other parts of the Mediterranean.

Mr. C. W. Wynn

never knew any Member insist on such Returns, after it had been declared by Ministers, on their own responsibility, that the Returns would be injurious. It was interfering with the undisputed rights of the Executive Power. But the most singular circumstance was, that a military man, upon being told that they would be inconvenient to the public service, should ask "why?" That was the most extraordinary question he had ever heard from a military man.

Mr. Sheil

thought it hard, that while information of this nature had been granted in 1819 and 1832, it should be now withheld.

Colonel Torrens

thought the Motion ought not to be persevered in. The Return would make all the world acquainted with those points which were open to attack.

Mr. Hume

begged to remind the gallant Colonel that his Motion did not press for Returns later than the 1st of January last. The apprehensions of the Secretary at War astonished him; it seemed that this country was to be attacked the very next day. But why had there been no allusion to this perilous condition in the King's Speech? he (Mr. Hume) thought the country was in a state of peace, and that the King's Speech might have contained a recommendation to reduce the military establishment. That was what the people looked for. Still, notwithstanding the warlike character of the House he did not think it could consent to maintaining a standing army of 90,000 men. It was perfectly useless to talk of repealing taxes, unless the establishments were reduced. In his opinion the army might be reduced 10,000 or 15,000 men, or at least a great part of that number. His object was merely to ascertain the total number of troops in England, in Ireland, and in Scotland. In Canada, there were 5,000 men, not one of whom was necessary to that State. When he should hereafter propose reductions of the army, the universal cry would be: "Where will you credue them?" How could he tell, when he was now refused the details of their distribution? In the Ionian Islands, for instance, he did not know whether there were three, four, or five thousand men, nor whether the troops might not be entirely withdrawn from them. [a laugh from Mr. William Brougham.] Perhaps the hon. Gentleman the member for Southwark who laughed, thought that the islands belonged to this country. In Southwark they didn't know it. [Question] There would be questions in plenty, but it was hard that he could not ask a reasonable question without being laughed at.

Viscount Palmerston

said, that no longer ago than last year there was laid before the House a detailed account of the distribution of the Army for each of the fifteen years, and down to the commencement of 1832; then, if all that were wanted, was the means of investigating the propriety of the Army Estimates, of keeping up the present force, there would be the requisite aid. But, why not give it down to the present time, it was said. That was the question certainly; and his colleagues had replied, and on there responsibility, that it would be inconvenient to the public service. He hoped that the House would not be led away by the hon. Member: he would have them reflect on the character of the Motion. Its tendency went to invest that House with the command of the Army. If he had no other objection to it, that with him would be sufficient. On one day the hon. Member held, that the House would be the best judge of rewards to meritorious officers; on another, he considered, that the House was to judge the propriety of continuing small or large forces in particular stations, garrisons, or colonies. The fact was, that the object of hon. Gentlemen opposite was to vest the command of the Army and Navy in that House. This he resisted, as most dangerous and unconstitutional.

The House divided: Aves 23; Noes 201—Majority 178.

List of the AYES.
ENGLAND. O'Connell, Morgan
Cobbett, W. O'Connell, J.
Faithful, W. O'Connor, Fergus
Fielden, J. O'Dwyer, A. C.
Ingilby Sir W. Roche, D.
Morton, Hon. H. Ronayne, D.
SCOTLAND. Ruthven, E.
Gillon, W. D. Ruthven, E. S.
IRELAND. Sheil, R. L.
Baldwin, H. Vigors, N. A.
Daunt, W. J.
Fitzsimon, C. TELLERS.
O'Connell, D. Davies, Colonel
O'Connell, Maurice Hume, J.
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