HL Deb 05 April 1897 vol 48 cc488-98

, in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, said: This is a Bill authorising Her Majesty's Government to raise £5,458,000 for the purpose of defraying the expenses of certain important military services. The Bill has been for some time before the public, and has been fully discussed, and there is no occasion for detaining this House with a lengthened explanation of its provisions. Two questions, I think, arise with regard to it—first, whether the services provided for are in themselves necessary for the safety of the Empire and the efficiency of the Army; and, secondly, whether it is proper to provide for them by means of a loan rather than from the annual Estimates. As for the former question, your Lordships will find a short summary of the proposed works in the schedule of the Bill; and fuller information, with regard to that part of it which has reference to barracks was laid before Parliament early in the Session. The works fall under three distinct heads. The first group comprises what are spoken of as defence works; the second includes barracks and the completion of our larger camps; and the third group, which is a composite one, provides for rifle ranges, for the acquisition of round for manœuivring and for certain services connected with the mobilisation of the Army in time of war. The defence works, in which the Navy is largely, indeed primarily, interested, are estimated to cost the sum of £1,120,000. The whole of this expenditure will be incurred at our ports and harbours in the United Kingdom, and at different points throughout the Empire. There are, in the first place, our military ports and naval bases—ports of which Portsmouth, Plymouth, and Cork may be taken as representative. Then there are our defended mercantile harbours, such, for example, as the Mersey and the Clyde, or Dublin and Belfast. Besides these, we propose to complete the defences of four great strategic harbours at Falmouth, Lough Swilly, Berehaven, and the Stilly Islands. Work at these places was commenced six or seven years ago in consequence of strong representations from the Admiralty as to the importance of making use of them for the purpose of facilitating the passing of trade and commerce into the country in time of war. Considering the volume of the trade which converges in the neighbourhood of these islands, there can, I suppose, be no two opinions as to the importance of these harbours from this point of view. They will, moreover, be of great service to our ships of war, which they will, if necessary, support, and for which they will provide convenient coaling stations. In the words of the Joint Naval and Military Committee:— These harbours would not only afford a very considerable safeguard to our commerce, but would enable Her Majesty's fleet and ships to act with greater freedom and activity, confident in the existence of a coal supply at the very points where it would be wanted by vessels covering our trade and acting against hostile squadrons in the Atlantic. Besides these ports and harbours in and around the United Kingdom, there are certain fortresses and coaling stations abroad, at which additional works, considered necessary both by the Naval and Military authorities, are to be undertaken or completed. Amongst the fortresses I may mention Gibraltar and Malta; amongst the coaling stations such places as the Cape of Good Hope, Hong Kong, and the Straits Settlements. A minute description of the works to be undertaken at all these points would be highly technical and very tedious to the House, and more than that, it would be impossible in many cases, without detriment to Imperial interests, to make any public announcement as to the precise steps which were in contemplation. ["Hear, hear!"] I may, however, speaking in general terms, say that the whole, or nearly the whole, of the work which it is proposed to undertake at the coaling stations has become necessary for the purpose of securing them against attacks from cruisers or torpedo-boats. I need not say that there is nothing in proposals of the kind to indicate any relaxation of our determination to maintain the supremacy of this country as a maritime Power, or any intention of ceasing to look to the Navy as primarily responsible for securing the safety of our possessions. But I have not found anyone who is prepared to contend that naval supremacy, however decided, relieves us of the necessity of taking precautions against the kind of attacks to which all these outworks of the Empire might be exposed during the temporary absence of our fleets, and it is in a great measure for the purpose of securing the freedom and mobility of these fleets that we desire to make our coaling stations and naval bases as secure as possible against the risk to which they might be exposed in certain events. ["Hear, hear!"] I must explain that for this purpose we do not rely upon what is commonly spoken of as heavy armament, but upon armament which is described as medium, more especially upon those quick-firing guns in which so marked an improvement has taken place of late, and which appear to be destined to play so conspicuous a part in the warfare of the future. I may also explain that the expenditure which will be covered by this loan is to provide, not the guns themselves, but the permanent works and emplacements for their reception. We do not in this loan borrow a shilling for the purpose of providing the guns themselves. There is so much uncertainty as to the lifetime of a gun—changes are so frequent in the type of our artillery—the weapon which represents at one moment the acme of perfection becomes so suddenly and so rapidly obsolete that, we do not consider that we should be justified in borrowing money for the purpose of procuring artillery of any kind. ["Hear, hear!"] On former occasions money has been taken for this purpose in loans, but we have thought it undesirable to do so. The only other remark which I will make upon this part of the subject is, that I have not attempted to give more than a general idea of the nature of the works which it is proposed to execute. They will, of course, vary according to the local conditions of the different places which it is desired to defend. For barracks we have provided the sum of £2,989,000, and there is no part of the proposed expenditure which I regard with more unqualified approval than this. There are so many changes, I was on the point of saying of fashion, in the matter of guns and forts, and even in the theory of defence, that a civilian may be excused if he naturally regards with some misgiving the expenditure of large sums of money upon such objects, but we cannot, look forward to a time when this country will be without an Army, and there will, I suppose, never be a time when we shall be indifferent to the housing of our soldiers comfortably and decently. ["Hear, hear!"] Much has been done during the last few years in this direction, but much has also, I feel, been left undone. The Act of 1890 provided for the expenditure of £4,100,000, the whole of which has been virtually exhausted, but the programme covered by that Act, was admittedly an incomplete programme. It was, in fact, the case that the original scheme of barrack construction put forward in 1890 was a scheme which would have cost £9,000,000 to complete, and it was thought better, and I have no doubt for sufficient reasons, to undertake a part only of the task at once. We provide, under our Bill, for an expenditure of £893,000 on barracks at our home stations, and for an expenditure of £1,311,00 for barracks at our fortresses and coaling stations abroad, while £135,000 goes to the improvement of the married soldiers' quarters, a service most necessary in the interests of the Army, and one which I hope may prove to be in the end not uneconomical, as it will, to some extent, reduce the cost at present incurred in providing our married soldiers with lodgings. Besides this there is the sum of £650,000 for the completion of large camps. This will be mainly incurred in replacing by permanent buildings the wooden huts at present in use by the troops, and in getting rid of various makeshift or worn-out structures entirely unfit for their present use. At some of our camps the soldiers are still occupying huts built originally to last only 20 years, but which have already been made to last more than double that time. I own that nothing could, it appears to me, be more creditable to our Army administration than the gradual substitution of sound and sanitary buildings, whether it be for these miserable huts or for some of the older barracks, which have for many years been in a deplorable sanitary condition, and from some of which disease, distinctly attributable to unhealthy surroundings, has been scarcely ever absent. ["Hear, hear!"] The remaining section of the loan provides a substantial sum for the acquisition of rifle ranges, upon the necessity of which Earl Spencer lately spoke with so much force. These will be primarily intended for the use of the Regular forces, but we shall endeavour to construct them at points where they will be also available for the Auxiliary forces, and, where, if possible, camping grounds can be attached to them. I might, perhaps, take this opportunity of saying a word of explanation on a point which I am afraid I did not explain quite clearly when I replied to the noble Earl the other day. I stated in my answer to him that some of the Volunteer ranges were not inspected, and the noble Earl seemed rather surprised at that statement. I have been at pains since to ascertain what the facts are, and I will state them to the House. All new ranges must, according to our rules (which are of long standing), be inspected to the satisfaction of the War Office before being taken into use, and there is no reason to suppose that this rule has been departed from, though it is impossible to be certain that it has been adhered to in the case of some of the old standing local Volunteer ranges. It is in regard to the periodical inspection of ranges in use that the practice has differed. Ranges in constant use by Regulars are, of course, under proper and continual supervision. But in the case of local Volunteer ranges no periodical inspection has hitherto been required; and it is probable that some ranges, which were passed safe when first created, have since, owing to new buildings, etc., become unsafe. The overhauling of all ranges by the General Officers Commanding, now in process, is designed to bring to light and to remedy any such cases. The expedient of reduced charges has been resorted to in the case of certain ranges, which have been reported as unsafe for the full charge, and which cannot without undue expense be made safe for the full charge. This expedient is regarded as a temporary makeshift, preferable to closing altogether a range in a district where no other firing accommodation is for the moment available. It is hoped gradually to provide firing accommodation with the full charge for all Volunteers; but it is impossible to determine how large and difficult a matter this will be till full reports are received form all General Officers Commanding. Then under this division of the loan we propose to acquire a tract including in round figures some 60 square miles, on Salisbury Plain, for use as a manœuvring ground. The necessity of providing an area of this sort has been pressed upon us most urgently by the military authorities, particularly by those who are responsible for the efficiency of our Cavalry. We have been continually urged during recent years to add to the extent already in our possession at Aldershot, but the House is aware that that part of this country has become every year more popular for residential purposes, with the result that an acre of land which a few years ago could be purchased for from £10 to £20, now costs £50 or £60, and is not always to be got even at that price. We consider ourselves fortunate in having secured, on what we believe to be very favourable terms, this large tract of country in a part of England which, from its configuration and the character of its surface, is particularly suitable for manœuvring purposes. I should, however, perhaps explain that its acquisition does not in our opinion in any way relieve us from the necessity of obtaining powers by legislation to hold manœuvres on a larger scale than any which could be carried out either at Aldershot or on Salisburv Plain. It is essential to manœuvres of this kind that they should take place over an area considerably more extended that anything we should be likely to acquire at Salisbury Plain, and upon ground with which the troops are not familiar, a condition which is certainly not complied with by Aldershot, and which a few years hence will not be complied with by Salisbury Plain. It is in this section of the loan that we have provided a small sum for what was described not very accurately or felicitously as the fortification of London. The suspicion with which this proposal was first regarded has, I am glad to say, almost completely disappeared. The smallness of the sum taken ought, I think, of itself to be sufficient to show that we are not meditating the circumvallation of London or the erection of a number of huge and expensive fortresses in its vicinity. The Duke of Devonshire, in a speech delivered in this House, stated with great clearness the principles by which we have been determined in providing for the defence of the colonial fortresses and naval bases outworks of the Empire. The same principles, mutatis mutandis, apply to the home defence. You may be never so convinced of the necessity of maintaining our supremacy at sea; you may be thoroughly convinced that you are, as a matter of fact, supreme at sea; but public opinion, which in this case seems to me to be another expression for the common sense of the country, will not allow you to effect all your insurances in one office, or to disregard the precautions necessary for the land defence of these islands. Our Army is, in point of fact, organised with reference to its mobilisation for home defence, a precaution which would be entirely uncalled for if it were true that our naval superiority was the only matter with which, we need concern ourselves. In our mobilisation schemes a place has been given to our Volunteer force, and we desire that if they are to fight they should light under the most advantageous conditions. With this object in view we propose in the event of mobilisation to resist invasion, that they should be employed at certain strategical points, which are clearly indicated for us by the configuration of the country, and at those points we have purchased sites on which in an emergency light earthworks might be rapidly thrown up. At certain of the more important of these positions it is considered desirable to select a central spot where tools and equipments and reserve ammunition shall be stored in buildings of suitable strength. These works form an essential feature in the decentralisation of our military stores so indispensable to rapid mobilisation. The idea is not a new one, for the policy was first accepted by Mr. Stanhope in 1889, and it was accepted and given effect to by a succession of high military authorities ever since. It remains for me to say one word as to the propriety of defraying the cost of these services by means of a loan. Precedent is in our favour, for during the last 30 years there have been a series of such loans. Principle is in our favour, for it seems obviously just that the cost of works which will be durable, and which will add to the security of this country for many years to come, should not fall entirely upon the five years during which the works will be in progress. But, besides that, there can be no doubt that a large programme of this sort can be far better carried out under loan than from moneys which Parliament may vote from time to time. Steady, regular progress with large constructions of this kind is most desirable, and such progress is much more likely to be made when those who are responsible for the execution of the work know for certain that the necessary funds will be at their disposal, and that they will not be at the mercy of a chance vote or of the delays and uncertainties which may be occasioned owing to the condition of public business in another place. Finally, in defence of borrowing, I think it is fair to say that Parliament and the people of this country have a much better opportunity of considering a scheme of national defence as a whole when it is embodied as this scheme is in a single Measure than when it is presented to them in a series of fragmentary proposals spread over a number of years. I do not know that it is necessary for me to go more fully into the contents of the Bill; but if any of your Lordships desire any further information on any point I shall be glad to give it. I move that the Bill be now Read a Second time.


said he did not rise to criticise the policy the noble Marquess had enunciated. He was, when in office, responsible for some large works for the Navy which were to be carried out on the same principle, and it was, therefore, not for him to question the policy of carrying out large military works which were to be of service for a lengthened time by means of loan. He was glad to find it was not proposed to deal with the armaments by means of loan. Some years ago our guns were provided under a loan, an entirely faulty principle, for as the noble Marquess had pointed out, guns had not long lives, and they were often and rapidly changed in character, and should not therefore be put on the same footing as permanent works. The noble Marquess had referred to the policy of these works with reference to the Navy, but it was not necessary to enlarge upon this subject. On a recent occasion the Duke of Devonshire set forth in the clearest way the principle on which this country was to regard the Army and the Navy, and a debt of gratitude was due to him for his clear exposition of a policy for a, considerable number of years adopted by both parties at the Admiralty and at the War Office. The noble Marquess had referred to this again, and he cordially agreed with his statement in regard to the Navy. It was a necessity that this country should be supreme at sea, and one of the conditions of this supremacy was that the Navy should not be hampered by having to take care of and to protect certain naval bases and coaling stations. He therefore heartily approved and indorsed the views of the noble Marquess as to the importance of making sufficiently strong to resist cruisers not only certain ports in Great Britain and Ireland, but ports in our colonies and in other parts of the world. Berehaven, Falmouth, and the Scilly Islands had been alluded to, and at the two first-mentioned it was of the greatest possible importance to have strong defences, for they were important bases for the Navy in case of war and as coaling stations. He was glad to hear the reference to Hong Kong, undoubtedly one of the most important posts abroad for our Navy. He had an opportunity of visiting that port last year, and was surprised at the magnificence of the harbour, and greatly impressed with the importance of the place to British interests in the East, and for Her Majesty's Fleet in that part of the world. He took some pains to go into the matter, and though perhaps it would not be right or desirable to enter upon it now, and state publicly what was required, he felt strongly the great necessity for improving some of the defensive works at that place. He was glad to hear of the intention to improve the accommodation for troops in some of the great camps of the country. In former years, when in Ireland, he often visited the Curragh, and well he knew—though perhaps something had since been done to improve the barracks there—how deplorable was the accommodation for troops. With regard to rifle ranges, it was not necessary for him to say much, having recently addressed their Lordships on the subject. His impression was that all ranges of Volunteer rifle corps had been inspected in the first instance, but they had not been periodically inspected subsequently; therefore, as the range of the arms in the hands of Volunteers increased, difficulties arose as to the safety of these ranges, and these difficulties would, with periodical inspection, have been made known before. He attached the greatest importance for the maintenance of the Volunteer force to ranges being available as close as possible to their headquarters. He trusted the opportunity given by the loans under this Bill to establish ranges might be used by Volunteers, so as effectually to provide adequate and suitable ranges, which were necessary for their efficiency and their very existence. He thought their Lordships would be glad to have heard again from the noble Marquess that there was no intention, as some people thought, on the part, of the Government to erect fortifications all round London. The majority of people would say that that would be a very unnecessary and a very wasteful expenditure of money, but few would deny that the proposal which the noble Marquess now made—the continuation of those centres of defence and arms for Volunteers and others—would be very desirable and beneficial for the country. He had thought it well to express the views of those who sat with him on that Bench and of himself on this subject. They did not, of course, intend in any way to criticise or to impede the progress of the Measure, which no doubt their Lordships would readily accept and pass. [Cheers.]

Read 2a (according to Order). Committee negatived; and Bill to be Read 3a To-morrow.