HC Deb 09 June 1871 vol 206 cc1794-806

(Mr. Secretary Cardwell, Sir Henry Knight Storks, Captain Vivian, The Judge Advocate.)

COMMITTEE. [Progress 8th June.]

Bill considered in Committee.

(In the Committee.)

Clause 3 (Compensation to officers holding saleable commissions).

Amendment again proposed, In page 2, line 24, after the word "passed," to insert the words "Provided, That where such officer shall die while serving, his widow or children shall be entitled to receive the regulation price of the Commission which was held by him on the said appointed day." — (Sir Tollemache Sinclair.)

Question again proposed, "That those words be there inserted."


said, that as he was unable to succeed in making himself heard, and in doing justice to his Amendment last night, he asked for permission to say a few words further upon the same subject. He could not refrain from saying that he thought that when hon. Members like himself but rarely trespassed upon the attention of the House, and when they showed a desire not to waste more of its time than was absolutely necessary, they had a right to expect a better reception than he had met with last night. Some time since he had attended an indignation meeting at St. James's Hall, and he had then thought that a more unruly or more noisy meeting could not have been held; but since the occurrences of last night he had changed his opinion, and he now begged to apologize to the gentlemen in St. James's Hall for having formed too low an opinion of them. He believed he was the first Member to give Notice of an Amendment on this subject. The Amendment of the hon. and gallant Baronet the Member for Norwich (Sir William Russell) was only defeated by a majority of 16, and, considering the number of persons who sat on the Treasury bench, that defeat was tantamount to a victory. He (Sir Tollemache Sinclair) hoped he should be able to carry his Amendment with or without the consent of Her Majesty's Government. The widows and children of officers who died from natural causes, he thought, had a right to be paid, not only the regulation, but the over-regulation price, if other officers received the same. He was a strong opponent of over-regulation prices; but if it were decided that other officers should receive the over-regulation price, the widows and children of officers who died from natural causes should receive the same. The objection of the Shylock of the Treasury bench was that it was not so nominated in the bond. The Government by this Bill would violate the contract between them and a British officer in this way—hitherto an officer entered the Army under a system by which promotion was obtained by seniority. If he conducted himself properly it was a matter of certainty that he would eventually reach the highest rank in his regiment; but, under the proposed system of selection, promotion in the Army would be infinitely less rapid than before; and unless the Government brought before the House an adequate system of retirement, that promotion could not be maintained at proper speed. He thought that promotion in the British service should at least be as rapid as in the Prussian service, and that British officers would have reason to be satisfied with that rate of promotion. It was no answer to say if an officer was not satisfied, let him retire; that was a very heartless way of dealing with men who had devoted their lives to the Army. Last night he saw in the Library a Return of the Secretary of State, which showed that the entire difference between paying regulation down and paying over-regulation under the Government plan was £1,100,000. The country, and, he believed, the majority of the House, felt that justice ought to be done in the case of officers who died from natural causes; that justice ought to be done to the widows and children of officers who died from such causes; and when the cost of doing that justice was so paltry, the country would wonder at the obstinacy with which the Government refused to make that small concession. To spend £1,000,000 in that way would be found to be economical in the long run. He most strenuously complained of the regulation by which widows were prevented from obtaining the value of their husband's commission, unless the officer survived for six weeks after sending in his papers, and would state that his sister had, in consequence of the death from small-pox of her husband, a major in the Army, lost £5,000, while she only received a pension of £70 a-year, which was not quite 1½ per cent on the amount. Officers by being thus deprived of their property at death were thus placed upon a footing with the felon. Would the Government continue to insist on this moral suttee by the widow of an officer who died from natural causes? He wished to know why this dead set was made at the widows and children of the officers of the Army. Future officers must be humanely dealt with; public opinion insisted that their widows and children should be pensioned, and why should not something approaching to justice be done in the case of the present officers? There was such a thing as being too clever by half, and the Secretary for War had devised a system of enlistment on short service, which was likely to be a failure. He ventured to prophesy that if the right hon. Gentleman insisted on depriving the widows and orphans of officers of their just rights he would be too successful; in his anxiety to avoid Scylla, he might run into Charybdis; and he might find himself left at last with stripling officers to command raw and unfledged recruits. It was objected that to pay down the regulation price would be equivalent to increasing the pay of the officers; but if the Government thought the pay was sufficient, they were bound logically to reduce the pay of the officer of the future by the amount of the interest on the value of his commission, and the amount of the insurance on his life. In that manner the pay of the captain would be only £60 a-year. He held, however, that the pay of the officers in the British Army was too low. The result of the present system was to inflict another hardship on British officers, many of whom were prevented from marrying until a late period of life, because the families to which they wished to ally themselves were unwilling to run the risk of their widows losing the whole value of the commission. The regulation in question, therefore, was contrary to public policy, to the welfare of the officer, and to the true interest of the nation. The value of the commission and a pension were given to the widow of an officer killed in action; but suppose the officer had been wounded, and lived six months and one day; then he forfeited the whole value of the commission, and his widow and orphans were put off with a paltry pension. What about the officer who might be killed in a riot, or who died of some disease contracted in the service? Was that officer to be punished by the forfeiture of his commission, instead of the price being paid to his widow? In 1867 an officer in bad health sent in his papers, accompanied by a medical certificate that he was in a very critical state. The War Office accepted the papers, and agreed that his commission should be sold; but there was some delay in gazetting him out of the regiment, and in the meantime he died. Upon that the senior non-purchase officer claimed the step gratuitously; the matter was referred to the War Office, and it was decided that as the papers had been accepted the commission should be sold. But it was owing, he believed, to that case that this monstrous six weeks' regulation had been made. He had proved that to confiscate the commission was contrary to justice, expediency, and humanity, and he trusted he should now be supported by every man with a heart in his bosom.


said, the hon. Baronet the Member for Caithness (Sir Tollemache Sinclair) had done him the favour to compare him to Shylock. He feared the hon. Baronet would suspect him of being ironical if he were to return the compliment, and therefore he would not compare the hon. Baronet to Portia. Seriously, they had really had a great abuse of that liberty of speech which was the privilege and ornament of the House of Commons. He had been a good while in that House; but he had never before heard there what in other edifices gentlemen were accustomed to listen to, a discourse lasting about the same period — namely, half-an-hour, every word of which they had heard from the same performer on the last occasion. [Sir TOLLEMACHE SINCLAIR: No, no!] Now, he must really appeal to the Committee whether it was conducive to the credit of Parliament and the conduct of Public Business that they should occupy their time in that way. That speech of the hon. Baronet's they had just heard was not only listened to by a fuller House—[An hon. MEMBER: It was not listened to.] All he could say was, he had listened to every word, and recognized it all over again. His right hon. and gallant Friend (Sir Henry Storks) having last night given the answer to the Motion of the hon. Baronet, he should be taking a great liberty with the Committee if he went at any length into the matter. The hon. Baronet had said that what caused him to bring the question forward was a case with which he was well acquainted many years ago, and then he referred to another which occurred in the time of his predecessor, the right hon. Baronet the Member for Droitwich (Sir John Pakington), and was brought under his predecessor's notice in 1867. The object of the Bill was not to go back and remedy all the abuses of the purchase system; and he would freely admit that that was one among the many evils of that system that had made him desirous of abolishing it. What they were going to do now was to indemnify those whom this Bill might injure, and it would be against the object of the Bill, as explained by his right hon. and gallant Friend last night, to accept the Amendment.


said, he would remark that the hon. Baronet the Member for Caithness (Sir Tollemache Sinclair), who came very far North, had no doubt given the Committee a doubly-distilled speech; but he had good reason and was justified in doing so, because in consequence of the Committee exhibiting signs of weariness on the previous night, at a time when Progress ought to have been moved, he was unable to command the necessary attention. The subject which he had brought forward was very important, and it ought to be thoroughly discussed. It seemed to be rather inconsistent with the declarations of the Government, who professed that complete indemnity should be given to the officers of the Army upon the abolition of purchase, that there should be the slightest sting left in the tail of the new system when the old one was abolished. The small proportion of officers' deaths while serving was not worth the preservation of so cruel and unnecessary and unjust a regulation; and now that a great measure for Army reform was before Parliament, it was a proper time to remove the greatest blot in the administration of the Army. If the regulation price of commissions were to be paid down at once, of course the question would be at an end; but as the Government had set its face against any officer being repaid until he retired, it would be only right to the Army, and especially to the widow and orphans of an officer who had died whilst serving in time of peace, that a concession of some sort should be made. And as he apprehended it was not the wish or intention of Her Majesty's Government to make any money out of what was the rightful property of the family of a deceased officer, it was undoubtedly a fitting opportunity for considering the Amendment of the hon. Baronet the Member for Caithness. He should like to be informed upon what he considered an important point, and that was, what would be the destination, or to what fund or purpose would the money so forfeited on the death of an officer be consigned? Under existing circumstances the steps went for nothing upon death vacancies, which was cruel indeed, because the family lost it. But now when purchase was to be abolished, the circumstances were different; and as the money would have had to be paid to the officer had he lived and retired, he wanted to know where it went to? It must be somewhere, for by taxation the money to meet the abolition of purchase was being raised. Was the State or the Reserve Fund to be the gainer, and credited with it because it had not got to pay it? He wished to press that question on the Government now, as it involved a point entailing a very great cruelty to the family of a deceased officer, and a blot on the administration of the Army.


said, he wished to know whether the commissions of those officers had ever been sold to the officers who succeeded them?


said, that the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War had stated that he rose in sober earnestness; certainly sobriety always distinguished his remarks to the House. But he had drawn a little upon his imagination when he referred to the similarity of the hon. Baronet's remarks to those made by him last night, because if ever there had been a noisy House in the world it was the House which the hon. Baronet addressed yesterday evening. That was some justification, therefore, for the hon. Baronet repeating some of his remarks. There was a point in favour of the Amendment which had been entirely shut out of view, and that was, that it was a very impolitic thing for Government to have a pecuniary interest in the death of their servants. During the Crimean War the regulations had been relaxed, and it was arranged that the regulation price should be paid to the representatives of an officer. But in the case of an officer dying in an unhealthy station, like the West Indies or Hong Kong, and other stations, where they were exposed to epidemics, and where many officers were cut off from their regiments in a very short space of time, the same liberal arrangement did not exist. In such a case the Government gained nothing, and whatever gain there was went to another officer by the step of promotion he obtained. He did not, of course, believe that the right hon. Gentleman the present Secretary for War, or anyone occupying his position, would keep any officer in an unhealthy station for any such reason as that he would get a sum of money by his death; but many things might be done in perfect good faith, which were calculated, nevertheless, to create a discontent which it was desirable, as far as possible, to remove. It was not well, therefore, in his opinion, to run the risk of giving rise to any such feeling on account of the paltry sum of money which the Government might make by the death of an officer.


said, he would urge the Secretary of State for War to accept the Amendment. He thought the right hon. Gentleman would be the first man to admit that the state of the present pension warrants was in the highest degree unsatisfactory. Many cases proved that. For example, the term within which it was supposed that a man would die after he was wounded required revision, and nothing could be more unsatisfactory than the way in which they pared down a man's allowances and insisted on his dying within six months. Nothing could be more unworthy of a great country like this. Again, nothing could be more unfair than compelling a man to prove that he was in a certain state of health before he could be permitted to sell; and he would refer to the case of a young officer who had sent in his papers for the sale of his commission in consequence of his bad health, but who had been advised by his medical attendants to withdraw them, and who a fortnight after he had withdrawn them died, whereby the whole of his money had been lost to his widow and family. It would be a very graceful concession on the part of Government to accept an Amendment which would remedy cases of hardship like that. If it was impossible to put such an Amendment in the Bill, the Secretary of State should give an undertaking that the pension warrants, especially 84 and 1069, would be considered, with the view of removing those difficulties which were considered by the general feeling of the House to be objectionable.


said, he must remark that these cases of hardship were greatly increased by the decision come to the other evening, that no officer in bad health, and ordered to go to a foreign station with his regiment, could exchange into a regiment remaining in this country. He hoped the right hon. Gentleman would reverse that decision of the House, and consent to its being cancelled.


said, he held that it was perfectly clear that there could be no justice in engaging to pay money to the widows and families of officers, as a condition of abolishing purchase, in cases to which the purchase system would not have applied if it had been allowed to continue to exist.


said, the greatest slur and blot in our military regulations was that which deprived the widow and children of a deceased officer of the value of his commission. He should support the Amendment, and trusted the Government would consider well before they rejected it.


said, he would also support the Amendment as a matter of real humanity and policy. He could not believe that the Government desired to make money out of the deaths of British officers.


, who had an Amendment on the Paper in nearly the same terms said, he would support the Amendment. He took the same view of the subject as his hon. Friend the Member for Oxfordshire (Colonel North), who had spoken on exchanges. The plea of Government, in opposing the Amendment, was that they did not wish to create vested rights which did not exist at the present moment. But that was not a just argument. If they were remedying the abuses and evils of the British Army, they had no right to remedy evils bearing against themselves, and to refuse to remedy evils acknowledged to exist against the interests of the persons with whom they were dealing. Why should the family of an officer not receive compensation because it happened that his death, which was consequent upon a wound, did not occur until more than six months after the wound was received? He should vote for the Amendment.


said, that no one was more ready than he was to admit that it was a very hard rule; but what they had now to deal with were simply the provisions of that Bill. The question did not arise upon the Bill, but upon the pensions warrant. He had been constantly reproached with the large burdens which this Bill would impose upon the people, and it would be culpable for him to introduce into it anything as to compensation for a state of things which was not caused by the Bill. The Amendment sought to put upon the abolition of purchase something which had nothing to do with it, but rested entirely upon the pensions warrant, when the proper course would be to bring forward the pensions warrant and raise a discussion upon it.


said, he thought that if the Government gave no promise to bring forward the pensions warrant, so as to remedy the injustice that existed, then hon. Members were justified in endeavouring to introduce a proposal like that now made into that Bill.

Question put.

The Committee divided:—Ayes 130; Noes 186: Majority 56.


said, that as the Bill was originally drawn, it contained a limitation of the number of officers who were to be permitted to sell out in any year. That limitation was very much objected to, and before they went into Committee he gave Notice that when the proper time arrived he would withdraw it. That time had now come, and he begged to move an Amendment in the clause in accordance with his Notice.


said, he was glad that the right hon. Gentleman had taken that course; but the reasons that had been given were not sound. He had always viewed this limitation as useless and unnecessarily vexatious; first, because he did not believe that the officers would hurriedly give up their profession; and, secondly, because Her Majesty had power to decline to accept resignations inconvenient to the interests of the service and the country. The alleged reason which the Government said justified them in withdrawing the limitation, was that the Bill was not so unpopular as represented, and in proof of that some high prices were cited that had lately been given for some of the higher commissions. Of course, when a commodity became scarce the price rose. When the sale of commissions is to cease after a certain day, and their disposal hereafter uncertain, it was only natural that in some cases large prices should be given. In the case in point, one of the youngest majors in the service gave a high price for the command of his regiment, because he knew that under this Bill he would not obtain command of a regiment at once, and certainly not of the regiment in which he had served. It was no proof of confidence in the Bill—quite the reverse. It was not often he had the honour of agreeing with the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Cardwell); but he would take this opportunity of thanking him for his remarks the other night, in reply to something very like a threat in the name of the officers. No one could believe, however damaging to their interests the measures passed by this House might be, that it would make one iota of difference in their conduct in the field; but he went further, and asserted that even in the monotonous times of peace no consideration of that kind would interfere with the conscientious discharge of their duties. With regard to the warrant requiring a medical certificate that the officer wishing to leave the service was not in a dangerous state of health, he appealed to the right hon. Gentleman to give way. It was always a hard mea- sure; but in future, where the money invested by the officer was lost to him or to his family, and went to the credit of the nation instead of as a benefit to a brother officer, it would be intensified. The measure was fairly just and liberal to those officers about to leave the service, but unjust and illiberal to those who remained in it; and particularly in this case, where the officers had stuck to their profession as long as their strength permitted. He asked why those officers—the most meritorious—were alone of all in the Army not to receive the price of their commissions? Although he had felt strongly upon many points in the Bill, this was the first time he had troubled the Committee, and he appealed to the right hon. Gentleman to undertake that the warrant should be cancelled.


said, he hoped that the liberty of retiring would be made dependent upon the interest of the service.


asked whether any limitation upon retirement was to be continued for the future. He would oppose the idea that officers of the British Army were to be made slaves of, as the hon. Member for Berwick would seem to infer.


said, that at present no officer was allowed to sell or exchange except with the permission of the Horse Guards; and if the interests of the public service would not permit of officers leaving their regiments, leave to sell or exchange was refused then. No other restriction than that which now existed would be imposed by that Bill.


said, he was glad to have an admission at last from the Treasury bench that exchanges had never been allowed which were detrimental to the public service. He was glad that the clause was struck out, and was only astonished that the right hon. Gentleman, as a Member of a Liberal Government, and one opposed to compulsory service in the Army, should have wished to impose it upon the officers.

Amendment agreed to.


said, that after the decision of last night, he should withdraw all the Amendments that stood in his name.

LORD EUSTACE CECIL moved to insert words to make the clause apply to officers who were, after the passing of the Bill, promoted to unattached rank. This, he said, would be a very small boon to grant to a meritorious class of officers, and the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for War would, on consideration, see good reasons why he should concede it.


said, that no notice had been given of this Amendment, which seemed to be unnecessary, as such cases came within the clause that gave the over-regulation money to officers "on promotion."

Amendment negatived.

COLONEL JERVIS moved to omit, in line 35, the words "according to the custom of his regiment," which he thought would tie the hands of the Commissioners, and would prevent their ascertaining the real value of the commission of the retiring officer.


said, he would suggest that, if the Government objected to the omission of the words altogether, the words "according to the custom of the service" might be substituted for them.


said, that the words of the clause had been carefully considered by the eminent authorities who had drawn up the clause, and, therefore, he could not consent to any alteration being made in them.

After further discussion,


said, he must explain that the Commissioners would be empowered, under the words of the clause, to ascertain the real value of the commission of the retiring officer, without any limitation as to how far back they were to go in point of time.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


said, he proposed to insert an Amendment, the object of which was to entitle subaltern officers to be paid down the regulation price which they had paid. A Return presented by the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War showed that the regulation price of the Infantry, Cavalry, and Guards amounted to £7,600,000. His Amendment would take about £2,000,000 out of that amount; therefore, so far as the subalterns were concerned, the sum of £2,000,000 would absolutely wipe out purchase. He proposed his Amendment by way of a compromise, and hoped it would be adopted. It involved less cost that any other Amendment that had been proposed with reference to subalterns.

And it being now ten minutes to Seven of the clock,

House resumed.

Committee report Progress; to sit again upon Monday next.

And at Seven of the clock the House suspended its Sitting.

The House resumed its Sitting at Nine of the clock.

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