HC Deb 05 March 1838 vol 41 cc387-97
Lord John Russell

appeared at the bar and said, that her Majesty had taken into consideration the Address which was agreed to by her faithful Commons on the 27th of February last; and was desirous that the best means should be adopted for carrying the wishes of her faithful Commons into effect, with due regard for economy, and for the just claims of all the branches of her naval and military service. The noble Lord said, that in moving the Order of the Day for the House to resolve itself into a Committee of Supply, he thought it proper to state the course which her Majesty's Ministers had judged it fit to adopt with respect to the Address which had been agreed to by that House, and the answer from her Majesty which he had just communicated. Upon the night of the 27th of February, the House had agreed to an Address to her Majesty, with reference to the corps of Royal Marines. That Address was carried by a majority of thirteen, 100 Members voting for, and eighty-seven against the motion. Upon that Address being communicated to the department with which its subject had connexion, her Majesty's Government at the same time intimating their desire that the whole subject should be submitted to the inspection of that department, it appeared that this was not a solitary instance with respect to officers serving in her Majesty's army and navy; that at the end of last year an Address had been carried with respect to the naval officers in her Majesty's service, and that there were several notices besides connected with the subjects of the promotion and rewards of naval officers lying on the table of that House. It was, therefore, not thought fit that this Address should be immediately carried into effect, without calling the attention of the House of Commons to this subject in general, with a view to make some arrangement by which the public service might be carried on in the most satisfactory manner, according, to the usual practice in the constitution; that rewards and promotions should proceed from the Crown, and that the check and control of public expenditure should proceed from the House of Commons. This was a practice which appeared to him (Lord John Russell) to be no less conformable to reason and to a just view of the constitution, than it was conformable to ancient and invariable custom. The officers serving her Majesty in the military, the naval, or any other public service, had a right to look to the Sovereign whom they served for promotion and reward; and, on the other hand, there could be no more grateful duty than that which devolved upon the Sovereign of distributing those rewards and promotions which faithful, meritorious, and lengthened services might seem to require. If, however, any excess of expenditure took place, the people of the country had a right to call on their representatives in the House of Commons to check and control that expenditure, and inquire into all the circumstances by which it was accompanied. But if motion after motion were to be made, and if, as in a recent instance, such a motion were to succeed in that House, the wholesome rule to which he had refer- red must fail. And if an officer or officers of the navy or army, having preferred a claim to the Board of Admiralty, or at the Horse Guards, were refused, they would, probably, be led to expect that they might receive from the House of Commons that promotion, those honours which had been peremptorily refused to them by the executive departments. He could not, in the discharge of his duty, refrain from calling the attention of the House of Commons to this subject, because he should be sorry to see precedents established which might hereafter be most disadvantageously misapplied. Questions of this description might possibly be carried through the House by small majorities, sometimes owing to a thin House, and at other times in consequence of public attention being absorbed by different subjects; and it might not impossibly happen that a great and mischievous change might be introduced insensibly into the constitution of this country, and that the House of Commons might seriously interfere with the prerogative of the Crown, by taking upon itself the rewarding and encouragement of those services which it was the proper province of the Crown to reward and encourage. Considering the subject, therefore, in this view, the advisers of the Crown had thought it proper to advise her Majesty that an answer should be returned to the Address expressive of the willingness of her Majesty to comply with the wishes of the House of Commons, but at the same time recommending that a Commission or Committee should be appointed, composed of persons distinguished by their rank and station, both in the naval and military services, combined with a certain number of civilians, to consider the whole question as regarded promotion and the present system of rewards conferred for naval and military services. With respect to this subject, he was desirous of calling the attention of the House to another circumstance that occurred in the debate which took place the other night with respect to the marines. His hon. Friend who sat near him, the Secretary of the Board of Admiralty, said, that in deference to the expressed wish of the House of Commons, the Board of Admiralty had taken the subject into consideration, with a view to further promotions amongst the marines, but also with a view to public economy. One Gentleman, certainly, who voted with the majority, said that the wishes of the House of Commons had been mistaken, and that it was not the intention of the House of Commons that economy should be consulted at all with regard to the promotion of deserving officers of marines; that the subject, in fact, was not one upon which it was necessary to look to principles of economy. If these were the sentiments which had been expressed by an hon. Member in that House, and received, as he thought, with approbation, it behoved them well to consider, and ere long the House of Commons would have to consider, on what principle these public services were to be carried on. For many years past—since the year 1821—these services had been carried on by the several departments of the executive government with a careful view to economy in the public expenditure. In 1821, the hon. Member for Kilkenny moved an address to the Crown, expressing, among other matters, that economy should be carried out to the greatest extent in the military and naval departments of the country. To that resolution an amendment was moved by Mr. Bankes. Lord Londonderry, who was then the leader of the House of Commons, declared that the sense of the original motion and of the amendment were the same, but that he preferred the amendment, as the motion implied censure, but that in the general substance of the address he fully concurred. At the end of this address it was stated:— And, further, that his Majesty will be graciously pleased to direct that every possible saving that can be made, without detriment to the public interest, may be effected in those establishments which the country is bound to maintain for the safety of the United Kingdom, more especially in the military expenditure, and by a constant and vigilant superintendence over that and all the other departments connected with the expenditure of the supplies voted by this House. He conceived that every Government since had been bound by the spirit and terms of this address. The Government of that time carried economy to a great extent; the Government of the Duke of Wellington carried economy further than it had been carried under preceding Governments; and the Government of Earl Grey still pressed forward the principles of retrenchment and reduction of the public expenditure. He thought there could be no doubt that, if economy and retrench- ment were not to be their guiding principles, there should surely be no limitation of the powers of the Crown, and that such extension of liberality should proceed from the Crown, and be made to the House by the recommendation of the Crown. If the House was prepared to say, as some votes to which they had already come would seem to imply, that a more liberal rule should be henceforth adopted, that meritorious officers should receive more ample rewards for lengthened services than hitherto, the whole of the subject should be looked into, a comparison of the services of different classes of officers should be made by competent persons, and the result of this inquiry should be laid before the House. The House of Commons would then have before it—first, the question of what promotion or increased allowance should be made to certain officers in the naval and military service; and next, the question, which was not to be lost sight of, that the House of Commons should provide for this increased expenditure. This was, he repeated, a question not to be lost sight of, because he could not but observe, without mentioning any parties in particular, that nothing was more common in the House of Commons, that when the question was one of rewarding deserving officers, or giving encouragement by increased rewards, the House was all generosity; but when the question came to be considered as regarded taxation, the disposition of the House appeared to be, on the other hand, to deprive the Crown of those means by which alone such increased rewards could possibly be given. He had judged it necessary to state this much to the House, because he thought the Government would not be doing its duty if it allowed one motion after another to be carried in relation to one particular service, and did not call the attention of the House to the whole subject. The mode in which the Government proposed to do this was by appointing gentlemen known to the country by their high character and great activity in the service of their country, both naval and military, with whom would be joined some gentlemen connected with the civil service also, who, united, would form a Committee to take the whole of this subject into consideration, and having done so would report to the House. If necessary, there should be a recommendation made to the House, who would then decide upon the question, having the whole of the subject before them, and would not be niggardly in awarding promotion, nor, on the other hand, by an over liberality or laxity of disposition, incur the danger of introducing a most serious and pernicious change into the constitution of this country—one which would naturally make officers engaged in our naval and military service look for nothing but delay, hardship, and denial from the Crown, and liberality only from the House of Commons. He trusted that the course which had been taken by the Government would bring the whole subject before the House in a manner so fair and impartial that it could not meet with the disapprobation of any party. The noble Lord concluded by moving the Order of the Day for the House resolving itself into a Committee of Supply.

Mr. Goulburn

said, that he did not rise for the purpose of entering into any lengthened discussion on the topics which had been adverted to by the noble Lord; but he was anxious not to lose this opportunity of expressing his concurrence in the principles which had been laid down by the noble Lord, and of tendering to the noble Lord his feeble authority, with a view to inculcate on the House the propriety of not interfering by votes of that description with the discretion of a Government as to the distribution of promotion and emoluments in the different branches of the public service. He held this to be above all the paramount duty of the Government, and he held it to be equally the paramount duty of the Government to bring into operation whatever influence they could exert within the walls of that House to carry into effect the principles which the noble Lord professed. The noble Lord must also give him leave to say, that if the Government, in the discussions which took place on questions of this nature, exhibited to the public symptoms of vacillation and uncertainty with regard to the course to be pursued, it was in vain for the noble Lord to call upon hon. Gentlemen, either on one side of the House or on the other, to support those principles which he advocated. When hon. Gentlemen saw in that House individuals closely connected with the Government voting against the Government upon questions of this description, the noble Lord might look in vain for that support which he and others on his side of the House would be always ready to afford him upon a question of this nature; he might look in vain for the consistent support of those who sat at the noble Lord's own side of the House, because instances of this description—instances such as that which occurred on a previous evening, did more to overturn his arguments, and defeat his effective power, than all the opposition which he might be fated to meet with in a fair and regular way. He merely thought it his duty, in furtherance of the noble Lord's object, to state thus much, the more particularly because he well remembered, that in the debate of the previous evening hon. Gentlemen on that (the Opsition) side of the House, who felt disposed to oppose what he considered to be the just view of the question, had been taunted by hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the House with having been actuated by the consideration, that they represented a marine constituency. Many of them had, and justly had, repelled that imputation; but if there was an individual in the House who had been so influenced, it was that very Member connected with the Government whose vote had been given in a majority against the Government. He did not wish to pursue this question any further. He felt the justice of the principle laid down by the noble Lord; but he could tell the noble Lord, that if the public saw, that on questions materially affecting the public service, the interest of the Government was not enforced to produce the result which in their opinion was that most to be desired, their appeal would be in vain, and their practice on the one side would quite outweigh their principle on the other.

Lord J. Russell

hoped the House would allow him to explain the circumstance alluded to by the right hon. Gentleman, of a Member of that House connected with the Government having voted against it. Most undoubtedly if that right hon. Gentleman had spoken to him (Lord J. Russell) on the subject previous to the debate, he would have frankly told him his opinion—namely, that it was impossible for him while holding a situation under Government to act contrary to that Government. He knew nothing of that right hon. Gentleman's vote until after the division, when he (Lord John Russell) had been informed by him, that he had felt himself bound by something which had passed on a former occasion between him and certain officers of the marines—that he felt himself in honour bound to vote as he had done. It always appeared to him, that where there was any difficulty respecting an individual vote, the better course to pursue was to enforce as far as possible the authority of the Government; but if a question arose upon which an hon. Member conceived himself in honour bound to adopt a line of conduct different from that of the Government, then did he conceive, that the exercise of that authority might be construed into an unnecessary degree of strictness towards that individual. The right hon. Gentleman opposite had stated, and justly stated, that the course which had been pursusd by the right hon. Gentleman alluded to, afforded an encouragement to others in connexion with the Government to act similarly, and that no blame could be imputed to them for doing so. He having stated the reason why he thought, that Government ought not to take any further notice of the matter in this instance, would merely observe, that he regretted the example of the right hon. Gentleman opposite, in defending the prerogative of the Crown, had not been followed by more of his political friends, of whom he believed somewhere about seventy or eighty had taken an opposite view of the question, although they generally expressed themselves favourable to the prerogative of the Crown.

Mr. Hume

said, that having voted for the address on the 27th ult., he felt himself called upon, after the speech of the noble Lord, to offer some explanation to the House, the more particularly as the noble Lord had referred to the motion upon this subject of 1821. He was not disposed to challenge the rule which had been laid down on that side of the House, and supported by the other, respecting the necessity of hon. Gentlemen holding official situations under the Government giving to that Government their support; but he was disposed to challenge the right of the Government to recommend to her Majesty a course of manifest injustice. He referred the noble Lord to his speech of 1822. The noble Lord would there find that he (Mr. Hume) had on that occasion called the attention of the House to the services of the Royal Marines, as contrasted with those of the army. He then alleged that great partiality existed on the part of the Government respecting certain branches of the public service; that some corps received very great emoluments for very trifling services, while others, and the marines in particular, whose services were more valuable to the country, were very much neglected, or altogether passed by. That he considered unjust, and he had brought the question forward at the period referred to with a view to have it remedied. On more than one occasion since, he had noticed the very rapid promotion and large emoluments that were conferred on some corps without service, while scarcely any attention had been paid to those whose services had been very great and important. In pursuing this course he did not conceive, that he was in any degree infringing upon the royal prerogative. He appealed to the noble Lord who had brought forward the motion the other night for an Address to the Crown, to say if he had not recommended him to withdraw the latter part of it, because it related to salaries and other details which he did not think it would be proper for the House to interfere with. But he held it to be perfectly within the province of that House, when fully satisfied, that injustice had been done to a large portion of her Majesty's servants, to take steps for the redress of that grievance. He did not mean to say, that the, House should dictate the precise promotions which ought to be made, because he admitted with the noble Lord, that such a course might lead to precedents which would be extremely inconvenient. The power of the house should, no doubt, be very carefully and judiciously exercised in reference to this subject, but he entered his protest against the opinion of the noble Lord and right hon. Gentleman opposite, that the House, in coming to the vote it had come to the other evening, had at all interfered with the prerogative of the Crown.

Captain Wood

wished to state why he had not voted on this question the other night. He was of opinion, that the Secretary of the Admiralty had fully made out his case, and he had risen on that occasion to say so, but was not fortunate enough to attract the Speaker's notice. He did not, however, vote for the amendment of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, because he did not think it a constitutional mode of meeting the question. He might have been in error, but he understood that the orders in council had frequently before been laid on the table.

Sir E. Codrington

fully approved of the plan proposed by the noble Lord, and only regretted it had been postponed so long. He had frequently instanced cases in which certain officers had received for less than half the servitude more than double the remuneration given to much more distinguished and meritorious officers in her Majesty's navy. The proposed investigation, however, he was sure would lead to the desired result, that of doing equal justice to all. Before he sat down, he would take the liberty of correcting a misrepresentation contained in a weekly newspaper of what he said a few nights since, with reference to "head money." The paper had put these words into his mouth—"How dared the noble Lord utter such a falsehood!" He had never said one word of the sort. He believed no such words were imputed to him in any one of the daily newspapers, and it was rather gratuitous in a paper which had an opportunity of seeing all the others to publish so gross a misrepresentation.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

would not have risen but from what had been stated by the gallant Officer opposite, who well knew that the majority was not acting on that occasion in pursuance of the same opinion that had influenced him in abstaining from voting. He appealed to the right hon. Gentleman, the Member for Cambridge University, if it were possible for any individual to place the issue of a vote more distinctly upon an interference with the prerogative of the Crown, than he had done. He followed his hon. Friend, the Secretary for the Admiralty, in stating that it would establish a most fatal precedent of direct interference with the Royal prerogative in reference to naval and military affairs. He had asked the House to ascertain what had been done before they proceeded to vote upon the question, and it was in that sense only he had moved his amendment. The whole of the arguments of right hon. Gentlemen opposite, were founded on the principle that it was an undue interference with the prerogative of the Crown. If the House of Commons brought itself in contact with naval and military affairs, and happened to interfere improperly with the administration, depend upon it the time would come when they would be obliged to act upon the defensive. The hon. and gallant Officer was aware, that the majority had not been occasioned by his statement, but by a resolute determination on the part of the gallant Officer's own friends to support the orginal motion.

Subject dropped.

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