HL Deb 03 August 1857 vol 147 cc896-901

My Lords, I rise to present a Bill to enable Her Majesty's Government to embody the militia between this and the 25th of March, without calling Parliament together on that embodiment taking place. It would not have been necessary to bring forward such a measure if it had not been that the law requires that on the occasion of the embodiment of the militia Parliament, if not sitting, should be summoned to meet within a period of fourteen days. In the present state of affairs it does not appear to Her Majesty's Government that it would be desirable to compel Parliament to meet during the time of the usual recess. They have it always in their power to call Parliament together if the necessity for such a measure should arise; and if it were proposed to embody the militia in consequence of a war with a foreign country, it would be absolutely necessary that they should appeal to Parliament upon the subject. An impression seems to prevail that the Government require a special power to enable them to embody the militia; but they require no such power provided they are prepared to meet Parliament within a certain time after the embodiment has taken place. I shall now proceed to state the circumstances under which Her Majesty's Government introduces this Bill. Your Lordships are well aware that previously to the year 1854 the militia of this country could only be embodied in the expectation of an insurrection or of a foreign invasion of this country. But in the year 1854 Parliament passed a Bill enabling the Government to embody the militia in the event of a war with a foreign country. Neither of those exigencies exists at the present moment; but a state of things does exist in our Eastern possessions which causes as great a drain on the Queen's forces in this country as if we were at this time carrying on a foreign war. Under these circumstances it has become necessary to supply the vacuum created here by the demand which has arisen in India for regiments of the line. In order to meet that drain Her Majesty's Government have determined, in the first place, to raise ten new battalions, to supply the place of those which have already left our shores, and to increase the battalions of regiments at home from 840 rank and file to 1000 rank and file, and the battalions in India from 1000 to 1200 rank and file. All this can be done without going beyond the powers of the present Mutiny Act, or the Votes to which Parliament has already agreed. I dare say your Lordships are aware that the charge for the regiments going out to India falls on the Indian revenue, and not on the revenue of this country. But it will take time—and more especially at this season of the year—to raise these new battalions, and to collect these additional men; and during a period when the country must be, to a certain extent, drained of its troops, while garrison duty must be performed, and the national establishments must be maintained in the face of foreign nations, it may be necessary to call out and embody certain regiments of militia, from which, I am quite prepared to contend that it will be no exaggeration to state that we may expect the same good service which would be rendered by a similar number of regiments of the line. It is unnecessary for me to recall to your Lordships' recollection the services which the country has already received from various militia regiments at home and abroad; and I am quite certain that we might now embody militia regiments which would perform the garrison duty and other duties of the country quite as efficiently as the regiments of the line, and which would be perfectly prepared to take their place in case of any national emergency. I do not wish your Lordships should understand that it will as a matter of course be absolutely necessary that we should exercise the powers to be given by this Bill: but if we should think that necessity shall have arisen we shall be prepared to avail ourselves of those powers; and my noble Friend at the head of the Government has this night presented to the House of Commons an estimate for £200,000 to meet the expense that may be incurred in embodying any militia regiments between this time and the 25th of March next. With these observations I beg leave to introduce the Bill, to which I am sure your Lordships will have no hesitation in giving your assent.

Bill to authorize the Embodying of the Militia presented.


I wish to say a very few words upon this occasion, because I think that the Government have again exhibited that remarkable faculty of being a little late in their announcements with respect to warlike operations, which we on this side of the House have so frequently felt ourselves called upon to criticise. Precisely the same thing took place throughout the last war; they were always a little too late. Of course, we judge very much of the energy of the Government by the promptitude which they display in carrying out operations of magnitude and importance; and it will, no doubt, be remembered that immediately upon the arrival of the first disastrous news from India, we, who sit upon the Opposition side of the House recommended that the militia should be embodied, and that all the disposable troops at our command should be sent to India. But it was said, "Oh, no. This is a matter of small importance; we want nothing of the sort;" but it was a very remarkable fact that the very day after that occurrence I received a circular letter from the Secretary at War, stating that the militia would not be wanted for drill or exercise during the present year. I must say, then, that if we are to judge of your foresight and knowledge and power to wield the arms of this country, from what has already occurred we have a right to say that you are tardy in your operations, that you rejected altogether advice in the first instance which we were beforehand with you in recommending, and that you have been compelled to act at last, as you ought to have done at first, with an amount of vigour and energy which a crisis unparalleled in the history of the country appears to me to call for. I venture to make these remarks in vindication of what has been said upon this side of the House, and of the prompt and energetic measures which we, from the commencement, thought it to be our duty to urge upon you.


No doubt, my Lords, the noble Earl who has just sat down has a perfect right to criticise the measures of the Government, and no doubt also it is much easier to criticise than to act. At the same time, I do not think that the Government are open in the slightest degree to the attack which has been made upon them by the noble Earl. The suggestion which was made on the other side of the House upon the receipt of the first news from India was that the militia should be immediately embodied; but I still adhere to the opinion that that would have been bad advice to have adopted in the middle of the hay harvest, and of course before the beginning of the corn harvest. There would have been great difficulty experienced in embodying the militia at that time; it would have taken men away from most useful and profitable employments, and it would have given an unpopular character to the proceeding, which it was most desirable to avoid. The Government never stated that they would not embody the militia if they should consider the step necessary, but they reserved to themselves the power of judging of the importance of the news as it arrived, and of devising such measures from time to time as they might deem essential. I can see no disadvantage which has resulted from the delay which has taken place in proposing this measure, but I can see great advantage in having taken our own time to mature our plans instead of acting suddenly upon the advice of any noble Lord who jumps up on the spur of the moment, and who offers suggestions without having the responsibility of carrying them into execution.


My noble Friend does not complain that Her Majesty's Government did not follow any particular advice, by calling out the militia in the month of July. But what he stated—and what I think he was justified in stating—is, that Her Majesty's Government arrived very lately at a conclusion very different from that at which they had arrived a short time before, although there had in the meantime been no apparent change in the circumstances with which they had to deal. If I am not much mistaken, there was adopted at the end of June an Order in Council for the purpose of informing all Lords Lieutenants of Counties that the militia would not be called out in the course of the present year; and that Order, which was passed in June, was not made public until late in July, at which period circumstances had taken such a turn that it became manifest to nearly every person in the kingdom, except the Members of Her Majesty's Government, that there existed a great probability that a most urgent necessity would arise in the course of the year for calling out the militia. But now, at the last moment, the Government, after having given that public intimation to the Lords Lieutenant of Counties and to all other parties concerned, that their services would not be required in the course of the year, find themselves compelled to adopt the course they had not before the energy or the prudence to pursue, by taking to themselves the power of embodying the militia during the present year; and it is only reasonable to suppose that the services of the force will be required during the year, as the Government themselves have this evening submitted to the House of Commons an estimate of the expense, which would be incurred by such a measure. I do not complain of the course they have taken; I only think that they should have seen somewhat sooner the necessity of adopting it, and that they have very suddenly changed their views upon the subject.


The noble Earl has altogether misapprehended the object of the present Bill. But let me observe, in the first place, that the Government have not changed any views which they ever had on the subject; and in the second place, that this Bill does not in the slightest degree counteract or interfere with the Order in Council to which he has referred. It was the opinion of the Government, and it is still their opinion, that those regiments of militia which were only disembodied last year were sufficiently well trained not to require additional training this year, and in consequence they dispensed with further training in the case of those regiments, but they propose to call out for training all regiments not embodied last year. The Bill which I have presented to the House this evening does not at all refer to the present time. It is simply intended to give power to the Government to do that when Parliament is not sitting which they have full power to do at this moment. It does not provide that they shall call out the militia; but, contemplating that the time may come when that may be necessary, it is to meet such an emergency, and to save the necessity of Parliament meeting again within a fortnight, if, after the prorogation, the militia were to be called out. It is merely to give to the Government the power of doing that after Parliament rises which they could do now that Parliament is sitting. I think that the Government might be permitted to take steps for enabling them to embody the militia when Parliament is not sitting, if they should see fit, without being exposed to the charge that all their measures are taken after the proper time.


I am quite aware that the object of the Bill is to enable the Government to do that which a fortnight ago they stated that they had no intention of doing.


No; that is not so.

Bill read 1a.