HC Deb 21 July 1903 vol 125 cc1379-89

Considered in Committee.

(In the Committee.)

[Mr. JEFFREYS (Hampshire, N.) in the Chair.]


said the Committee would recollect that for many years past it had been a principle accepted by both parties that defence works on a large scale and permanent buildings should be erected by loan, and should not be made a charge on the annual Votes. That was a decision due to the deliberations of a special Committee appointed by this House in 1887, of which Lord Randolph Churchill was chairman. The Committee was appointed solely for economical reasons, and, after a careful review of the whole situation, it came to the conclusion that the barracks required under schemes of reconstruction, and our coaling stations abroad could not be kept in a proper state if the sums expended were made dependent on the sums voted to the 31st March each year. For that reason it had been customary to vote sums by loan, so that a definite programme should be placed before Parliament. Bills for this purpose had been introduced in 1897, 1899, and 1901, and the Government were forced to bring in one this year. Two principles had been adopted in regard to them. The first was that no buildings and no works should be commenced in excess of the money voted by Parliament under the loan—that was to say, they were not justified in beginning large works and spending £20,000 if they were to cost £100,000 simply because they had £20,000 in hand. They had not to undertake anything beyond the exact sum of money given to them in the Bill. The second principle was that no more money should be asked in any one Bill than it was believed could be expended, or contracted to be expended, in the next two years. They were well aware that the sums asked in 1897, 1899, and 1901 could not possibly complete the housing of the troops in barracks. The object of the second principle was that, instead of coming forward and asking for one large sum, which, once voted, would enable them to escape entirely from the purview of Parliament, they should come every two or three years, so that Parliament, if it wished, could go into questions and consider whether any change had occurred which rendered it desirable to alter the programme formerly submitted. Under the Bill of 1897 the sum asked was £5,458,000; in 1899 £4,000,000 was asked; and in 1901 £6,352,000 was asked. The sum asked at present was £5,000,000. There was no change of principle in any direction in asking for this money. In the first place it was to be devoted to the completion of defence works, the principle of which had already been agreed to by Parliament; secondly, to the completion of the housing of troops voted by Parliament, but for whom barracks did not at present exist; and thirdly, to the providing of a sum for the hutting of the force in South Africa, which had to be commenced at the beginning of this year and which would require to be completed, as the troops had been under canvas for over three years.

*SIR CHARLES DILKE (Gloucestershire, Forest of Dean)

How many men?


For 25,000 men in all, less the barrack accommodation already existing. They would find it desirable to get rid of some of the existing barracks, and to erect huts for the troops in more healthy situations. In that way any balance which might arise from the sale of the barracks would be taken as an appropriation in aid.

MR. WHITLEY (Halifax)

Will the huts last thirty years?


Yes. The huts which were erected in the Crimea lasted for twelve or fourteen years, and some nearly twenty years. They were of a very different character from the huts now being erected in South Africa, which were superior, and which there was no doubt would last considerably longer than the Crimean barracks. There was a third head on which they had to ask for money. The Committee would recollect that three years ago a Committee sat under Sir Francis Mowatt which recommended a very large addition to stores in reserve. That addition would practically be accomplished at the end of the present year. With the exception of about £250,000, the whole sum of £9,000,000 or £10,000,000 would have been spent. It was obvious, therefore, that a certain increase in store house accommodation would be required. Then there was the question of training grounds and rifle ranges. The Committee had never grudged money for either rifle ranges or training grounds, and the sum of £700,000 was included in the loan for these purposes. He had no doubt that the great anxiety of members of the Committee would be to know to what extent there might be any finality to these demands. The demand must be biennial or triennial until the construction of barracks was completed. They asked on this occasion for sufficient to complete what was necessary for the combatant unit, allowing, of course, for the fact that whatever was spent on hutments in South Africa would have had to be spent in permanent barracks in this country. There would remain, and must remain, the question of housing certain departmental troops and accessories which could not be completed by any contract now made. They were taking a sum which they believed could be fairly allotted during the period of the Bill, and they were only taking what would suffice to house the cavalry and artillery actually in existence. The loan did not provide for any fresh infantry barracks beyond those for which provision was now made as having been allotted to the South African force. The same principle obtained and would obtain under this Bill as obtained under previous Bills. The whole sum was repayable by annuities over thirty years, so that already the annual Estimates were bearing a heavy charge, and would bear a heavier charge for the interest and repayment of this loan. Thus they would not be putting on posterity the charge for erecting these barracks, which he hoped would last four or five times the period occupied in the repayment of the loan. It was clearly stated by his noble friend in 1901 that the amount then taken for barrack accommodation was less than half the amount that would be needed, which it was felt the House would gladly grant for those new barracks required solely to house the troops which had already been voted by Parliament. He did not know that he need go in to detail at this stage. The only question before them was whether by Resolution the Government should be empowered out of the Consolidated Fund to issue the sum necessary to continue the work to which they were already committed by Parliamentary sanction, and to complete the housing of troops whose raising they had already been allowed to carry out and who were on the Estimates for the current year. He begged to move.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That it is expedient to make further provisions for defraying the expenses of certain military works and other military services, and to authorise the issue out of the Consolidated Fund of such sums, not exceeding £5,000,000, as may be required for those purposes, and to make provision for raising, in the manner provided by Section 2 of the Military Works Act, 1897, the sums so issued by terminable annuities for a period not exceeding thirty years from the date of borrowing."—(Mr. Secretary Brodrick.)


said that the Secretary of State for War had stated that there was no change of principle in this Bill. That in a particular sense was true, but in reality there was a new departure in respect of the sanction which would be given by it to the South African scheme, because power was taken in the Bill to hut a far larger number of troops than was thought necessary in February, half of whom were intended for other than South African needs. While he thought he should not be in order in discussing the difficulties which some of them had in regard to the recruiting and reserves of the force, he thought he should be in order in considering the principle, which some of them thought a heresy, of tying up a portion of the British Army to a particular need as regards war. He submitted that he should be in order in discussing the localisation of troops provided for under the Resolution.


said that the right hon. Gentleman would be in order in discussing the localisation of troops on the Second Reading of the Bill; but, technically, localisation was not before them in the Resolution now being considered by the Committee.


said he would only make one remark, and that was, if there was any possibility or probability in a sudden strain or pinch of the Empire of these troops being required in South Africa they would not be available for India.


said he believed it would be in order on the Resolution to discuss the localisation of troops involved in the expenditure for the erection of huts in South Africa. He would point out that unless the Committee took that opportunity of discussing the matter they might find it closured on the Second Reading of the Bill. He rose mainly, however, in order to deal with the financial aspects of the proposal before the Committee. For some reason which he could not under- stand the Secretary of State for War had shown himself less liberal than the First Lord of the Admiralty in telling the Committee what he wanted to take this money for. He submitted that the right hon. Gentleman had treated the House unfairly in bringing forward a demand for £5,000,000, which might have been £10,000,000, without giving them an opportunity of adequately considering the matter before they were called upon to discuss it. The right hon. Gentleman talked of £5,000,000 as if it were twopence-halfpenny. It was an immense sum, and the Committee should remember that it was in addition to other immense sums which had been already asked for in the same way, which he believed to be unconstitutional. This was part of the £20,800,000 which had been asked for in the course of six years, not one halfpenny of which had been properly put, as it should have been put, on the yearly Estimates. The demands of the right hon. Gentleman in respect of this £5,000,000 ought to be put into the yearly Estimates, and he should come to the House not every two or three years but every year for what he wanted. There was one item the right hon. Gentleman had mentioned as forming part of the objects for expenditure for which he sought the authorisation of the Committee—viz., the reserve of stores. Would the right hon. Gentleman say what portion of the £5,000,000 that would stand for?


said it was not for stores, but for storehouses.


said there was another point. The right hon. Gentleman had stated, in effect, that not only would this £5,000,000 be applied to hutting soldiers in South Africa, but that in case he sold these barracks for money, he would apply the money as an appropriation-in-aid to the diminution of sums already expended. If so, he thought that would require a special clause in the Bill. There was no general power in the Treasury to use these sums raised by loan as appropriations-in-aid. The point was very important, because, in addition to the £5,000,000 which the right hon. Gentleman was going to spend, he might get another £1,000,000 from the sale of the barracks, which would make £6,000,000 in all. Returning to the general financial considerations that applied to these matters, he objected that both the Act of last year authorising the issue of £8,500,000, and the present Bill authorising the issue of another £5,000,000, were improper measures. They were most disastrous to sound finance, because both the £8,500,000 and the £5,000,000 disappeared from the Estimates, and were not subject to examination and cross-examination on the merits of the expenditure, it was not the same thing as having the items in an Estimate before the House, and being able to move the omission of any one of them. Once the House had passed this Bill the matter had gone out of their hands, and the items had passed entirely away from them. In his opinion it was a most improper way for any Government to obtain money, to come down and ask the House in advance to vote sums like this. It was a modern and inconvenient practice. When it was first introduced, the House was told it was for once, and once only, but it had continued from year to year, and he certainly was not surprised to hear his right hon. friend say that he would come again next year to the House with another Loan Bill.


If I am at the War Office.


said he would not suggest for a moment that his right hon. friend would be at the War Office, but either he or some other right hon. Gentleman would come down to the House with another Loan Bill. Among all the liabilities placed upon this country, properly or improperly, this seemed to him to be the most irregular and inconvenient, but when they had regard to the way in which millions were flung about and liabilities were assumed, he could only say that he should be sorry for the person who held the position of Chancellor of the Exchequer three or four years hence. He was exceedingly doubtful whether he ought to vote in favour of the demand for another £5,000,000. What proportion of that £5,000,000 was represented by hutments he did not know, but it looked to him as if a most important new departure was being made, and he could only protest against such a dangerous departure.

MR. BLACK (Banffshire)

said in the matter arising in regard to the hutments in South Afrca it was important to know to whom these hutments were to belong—whether they were to belong to the War Office and the Imperial Office, or to the Colonial Government of the country in which they were situated. If to the Colonial Government, it was quite clear it was out of the question to ask this country to borrow money to pay for them. They should form a charge on the Government to whom they belonged; but assuming that the War Office took them, surely they must be part of the expense of the Army of occupation in South Africa. Therefore in this Loan Bill they had a most important principle and one which deeply affected all South African questions. Were the South African colonies, or were they not, to bear the cost of the Army of occupation, and, if not, what reason was there for their not doing so? India paid the whole cost of the troops in India, and why should this distinction be drawn?


thought the Committee would not wish to prolong the discussion unduly on the details of the Resolution which the right hon. Gentleman had introduced but he would point out that if this discussion were to be allowed to terminate within a reasonable time it must be on the understanding that a good opportunity of discussing, in all its bearings, the measure to be founded on this Resolution would be given. They had not merely to consider financial methods, but the methods of building the hutments. Were they to be built by the Royal Engineers or by civilian contractors? He had no confidence in barracks built by Royal Engineers; they were very good, perhaps, to build pontoon bridges when required, or patch up anything in the field, but there was no one less qualified to put up permanent buildings. A large part of the manoœuvring area of Salisbury Plain had been covered with acres of brickwork three or four courses high until it looked more like the ruins of an ancient city than the foundations of a new town.


interrupted to say that the opportunity for discussion for which he was asked would be given on Friday, when it was proposed to take the Second Reading of the Bill as the first Order.


was glad to hear this, for the whole question of barrack building in South Africa would be discussed with great interest. The size of the barracks was involved in the size of the Army, and the position of the new barracks was involved in the system of Army organisation. They shrank from embodying in bricks and mortar proposals which had not hitherto escaped from criticism. He hoped his right hon. friend would be able to tell the House how he had modified the barrack scheme, which this money was asked for to carry out, in view of the change of policy at the War Office. It was quite certain if larger garrisons were sent to South Africa so much barrack accommodation would not be wanted in England, and there would be economy there which would to a large extent pay for the barracks in South Africa. With regard to recruiting, the recruits for the Army this year were 6,000 less than last. Recruiting at present was below the requirements of the Secretary for War. If we were not going to have the men, was it worth while to build for them? Specific pledges had been given as to a reduction of the Army when the Reserve was completed. The bearing of these pledges on the barrack accommodation to be provided in South Africa had to be considered. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had promised a reduction in military expenditure. That could only be effected by reducing the size of the Army; and there was a general consensus of opinion in favour of such a step. He should also like to point out it was quite possible that military questions might be reconsidered from a totally different standpoint by another Government in the near future; and he objected to the nation being committed to an expensive policy of bricks and mortar, which in a few years might not square with the views of the Government of the time.

MR. COURTENAY WARNER (Staffordshire, Lichfield)

said there were two or three points to which the House should have an answer before going further. He quite agreed with the hon. Member for Oldham in what he had said, and felt quite certain the country would not stand the enormous military expenditure that was now going on, and would demand that it should be reduced. There was one point in connection with South African huts. As he understood, no new infantry barracks in England were to be built, that battalions would be sent out to South Africa, and that there would be large depôts in England for the battalions that were being sent abroad. Where were those large depôts to be? If it was the case that some of the depôts were too large already, that would be a partial answer to his question. But there were very few such depôts, and he thought it would be found that a considerable outlay would have to be made under this scheme. He was extremely surprised to see the storehouses crop up again, because he thought that two years ago not only were the storehouses there, but all the stores were collected ready for the mobilisation of any regiment. He hoped there would not be a large expenditure on storehouses. Then with regard to rifle ranges and training grounds, he complained that these two items were lumped together in such a way that no one could see how much was spent on rifle ranges and how much on training grounds. He urged that these items should be separated, and there should be a distinct understanding as to what was being spent on rifle ranges as distinct from training grounds.

MAJOR SEELY (Isle of Wight)

said that as the Secretary for War had given a pledge that there would be an opportunity afforded on Friday for fully discussing the Bill, he would content himself with asking how much money was to be spent on the hutments in South Africa; how many men and what arms of the service would be accommodated, and where were the hutments to be placed. If the right hon. Gentleman could answer these questions, which were of great interest to military men, now, a great many of the Committee would be grateful and the discussion on Friday would be much expedited.

MR. LOUGH (Islington, W.)

said his experience was that if they did not take the opportunity to raise questions at once when Bills of this kind were brought in, the opportunity was never afterwards afforded. It had been stated that the Bill involved no new principle, but the constant coming to the House for loans was in itself a new principle. The situation was becoming very serious. The meaning of the Bill was that £2,500,000 was to be added to the year's Army expenditure of £34,000,000. Of that money a great deal would be used for buildings of a temporary character, which would not last for the thirty years in which the money was to be repaid. That in itself was a new departure in our system. When were these Loan Bills to end? During the past six years four of these Bills had been introduced, involving an expenditure of £20,000,000. What was the total amount required? Was it to be £50,000,000 or £100,000,000? Surely the War Office ought to be able to say—"Give us so many millions and we will be done with it." What was the use of going on with these building programmes with money so freely voted by this House? He thought now was a good time to say "We will not sanction the present demand of the Government without we are told what the total amount of that expenditure will be."


interposed to say that unless the Resolution were agreed to it would be difficult to carry out his promise to put down the Bill on Friday.


said a Resolution of this importance should not be rushed through in that fashion. Besides, the Prime Minister had stated that the South African Loan Bill would be the first order on Friday.

And, it being half-past Seven of the clock, the Chairman left the Chair to make his Report to the House.

Committee report Progress; to sit again his evening.