HL Deb 21 July 1903 vol 125 cc1249-56


Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this is a short Bill, and its object is to amend the Military Lands Acts, 1892 to 1900, with respect to the acquisition of lands for military purposes As your Lordships are no doubt aware, those Acts gave County and Borough Councils power to acquire land for military purposes. The power given was a compulsory power, and it has proved very useful. County Councils have found that it would be a great convenience to also have the right of leasing land where they have not felt inclined to buy it, and in this short Bill they ask that they shall be allowed the power to lease land for a period of not less than twenty-one years for rifle ranges and other military purposes. As regards the principle of the Bill, that was discussed on a former occasion when power to purchase was given to County and Borough Councils under the Military Lands Act. Therefore, I think I may assume that the principle has been already passed by your Lordships' House. I beg to move the Second Reading of the Bill.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."—(Lord Ludlow.)


My Lords, I have been asked to move the rejection of this Bill by my noble friend Lord Newton, who is absent to day; but on looking into the Bill I find that it is a mere extension of a principle that has already been accepted by your Lordships' House, and therefore I think it would be futile to ask for its rejection. But when Lord Ludlow says that it has been found useful that County Councils should have the power of compulsorily obtaining land for the making of ranges, I should like to ask the noble Earl who represents the War Office in this House whether that has really been found a useful power. In the other House I understand great dislike was entertained towards this Bill because it relieves the War Office of a very considerable portion of its responsibility in the matter of finding adequate ranges throughout the country. It must be remembered that at the time the original Act was passed there had not been the same attention paid to the necessity of rifle practice, but since the war the importance of it has been realised by the War Office, and a large sum of money is being allocated for ranges. I think that unless it has been established that this is a useful principle, it is one more calculated to relieve the War Office of its proper responsibility and to throw that responsibility on to the ratepayers. Where you get a range for one branch of the service only, it is very difficult for other branches to obtain leave to practise on it. I feel that all ranges ought to be under one authority, and the responsibility of providing and maintaining them should not be left to a double system. I therefore ask the noble Earl whether he can say anything respecting the value of the principle that was adopted in the 1892 Act.


I do not wish to raise any objection whatever to the Bill, because it leaves it entirely optional to County Councils whether they will accede to the request of the Volunteer corps or not. But there is one point to which I should like to call the attention of the noble Lord who moved the Second Reading. It is rather a point for Committee, but as I have no opportunity of speaking in Committee, perhaps he will allow me to call attention to it now. The first clause allows a County Council to hire land by agreement. It also gives them power to contribute towards the expenses of another Council in purchasing or hiring. The Bill provides that— The expenses of so hiring or contributing may be defrayed in the same manner as expenses of purchasing, and the payment of those expenses shall accordingly be a purpose for which the Council may borrow money. Surely the Council ought not to be allowed to borrow money for the purpose of hiring. I think there must be some mistake in that, and I would ask the noble Lord to kindly look into it before the Committee stage.


I should like to ask whether this is a compulsory Bill or an optional Bill.


The power to purchase, given in the previous Act, is a compulsory power. All we ask in this Bill is that the authorities should have power to lease land by agreement.


Perhaps I may be allowed to express the view of the War Office with regard to this Bill. In 1900, the noble Marquess the Foreign Minister, when Under Secretary of State for War, introduced a Military Lands Bill, and in that Bill there was a clause which gave County Councils compulsory powers to hire land. Some exception was, however, taken to this clause in another place, and it was dropped. The Bill when it passed merely gave, in conjunction with the Act of 1892, powers to County Councils to acquire land compulsorily for military purposes, and for providing Volunteer corps with rifle ranges. Lord Newton, who asked the noble Lord behind me to move the rejection of this Bill—a course which Lord Lamington had some hesitation in doing—imagines, no doubt, that the Bill repeats what was in the Act of 1900, and confers upon local authorities compulsory powers in the matter of hiring land. But the Bill does nothing of the kind. It merely allows a County Council to make an arrangement with a landlord to hire land for the purpose of a rifle range for the use of Volunteers in the county, and, inasmuch as the local authority has the power at the present moment to purchase land, I can hardly believe that your Lordships will take exception to this very modest proposal, which cannot but be of great assistance to Volunteer corps, who are from time to time placed in great difficulty with regard to range accommodation, which is absolutely necessary to their efficiency. My noble friend Lord Lamington suggested that a great deal of opposition had been taken to this Bill in another place. I can only say that I have in my hand the Report of the debate that took place on the Third Reading, the preceding stages having passed without debate, and I find that the two speakers who took exception to the Bill did not press their objections. I think I may say that the Bill passed the House of Commons practically without dissent. In these circumstances I hope your Lordships will allow the Bill to be read a second time. With regard to the point raised by the noble Earl the Chairman of Committees I will state the view of the military authorities upon it during the Committee stage.


Can the noble Earl state whether the power given in the previous Act has been taken advantage of?


The power of purchasing ground for the use of Volunteers corps has answered, and I do not think there can be any doubt that the power of hiring will answer also.


So far as I gather, the County Councils and municipal authorities are to make arrangements for hiring ranges. But who is to pay for them? I presume the ratepayers, and I do not think the ratepayers are the persons who ought to pay. I think this should be a national charge, and should not be placed on the local authorities. I object to it very strongly. There is a mania existing for long ranges. I admit that you must have long range shooting, but for teaching it is not necessary to have the actual long range. I speak from experience. In the village near my home there is a company of Volunteers, and, on my suggestion, the sergeant in charge took two men on joining, neither of whom had ever had a gun in his hands before, and trained them in the drill hall, which is about the size of your Lordships' Chamber and is fitted with a Morris tube. Having trained them to the full on the Morris tube range they were taken straight to the butts, and they shot better than those who had been trained altogether at the butts. Therefore, I strongly object to County Councils having to find these long ranges because they are not necessary.

Amendment moved— To leave out the word 'now' and add at the end of the Motion, the words 'this day three months.'"—(The Earl of Wemyss.)


I approve so strongly of the terms in which my noble friend has addressed the House on this question, that I hope he will press his Amendment to a division. The provision of rifle ranges for the Auxiliary Forces is absolutely necessary, and as the Government themselves admit the necessity, from a national point of view, I hope they will recognise that it is a duty incumbent on the nation to pay the cost, and not throw it upon the ratepayers. My own experience shows that the ratepayers are already becoming very incensed at the increased rates which are being imposed upon them.


It appears to be in the minds of the two noble Lords who have just spoken that the War Office have done nothing in the way of providing rifle ranges for Volunteer corps.


They have done nothing in my part of the country.


Then I am very sorry. But I am about to lay a Paper on the Table showing how the War Office have spent a very large amount which was given by the Treasury for the provision of rifle ranges. That Paper will show that, so far as it has been possible, we have recognised that assistance should be given from military funds for the purpose in question. I think it would be most regrettable if your Lordships refused to give a Second Reading to this Bill, which apparently has the full approval of all concerned in another place, and has received very careful consideration both from the War Office and the Treasury before giving approval to the principle contained in it.


Can the Government find no means of charging the cost of these ranges on the revenues of India?


I do not think any one but the noble Earl would have suggested it.


I think it would be a great pity if this Bill were rejected. There is no compulsion on County Councils to assist local corps by hiring land. It is impossible for the Government to find money for all corps that want ranges in all parts of the country at once. I suppose they are doing their best to find the money to increase the number of ranges as rapidly as possible, but why should not they enlist local sympathy and enthusiasm to assist local corps? Assistance is rendered, not only in regard to rifle ranges, but also in regard to town halls, and I think that as long as this is a permissive power, and not a compulsory power, no serious objection can be taken to it on behalf of the ratepayers. I think it would be a great pity to throw the Bill out.


My Lords, I cannot help thinking that there is some slight misapprehension in the minds of some noble Lords who have spoken as to the scope of this measure. As I understand the case, it stands thus: Under the existing law—the Military Lands Act, 1892—the Council of a County or Borough may, at the request of one or more Volunteer corps, purchase land for rifle ranges under the Act. That procedure has not been found applicable and convenient in all cases, and this Bill provides that in certain cases, by agreement, County Councils may lease land for the purpose of providing rifle ranges. The arrangement is a purely optional one for the general convenience, and I cannot help thinking that it would be a great pity if your Lordships did not accept the Bill.


My Lords, I should be exceedingly sorry if this Bill were lost. I cannot agree with my noble friend on the Cross Benches, with whom I have had so much to do in the matter of rifle shooting in old days, that Morris Tube practice is quite sufficient for Volunteers. Though I advocate Morris Tube practice, I feel that it is absolutely necessary that there should also be practice at longer ranges. That is one reason why I desire that this Bill should pass. I confess that I have some sympathy with those who say that the Government, and not the ratepayers, should be put to the charge of finding these very necessary ranges, and, even if this Bill passes, I think those who are in favour of that might, if possible, obtain some further assistance from the Government. The noble Marquess the Foreign Minister has pointed out that this Bill is merely the outcome of the Act already passed, which enabled the purchase of land, and, therefore, the throwing of a much heavier charge upon the ratepayers than would be involved in the hire of land under this Bill. I should be sorry if any impediment were placed in the way of carrying this measure, which I feel sure will be of great advantage to the country. I admit that the War Office has given assistance in this matter, but we may hope for greater assistance in the future, and especially that those counties which have received no assistance at all will be considered.


I ought to have explained that of course Volunteer corps pay a rental to the local authorities for the use of these ranges, and, therefore, though the obligation is on the local authority to pay the rent for the hire to the landlord, they get the money back from the Volunteer corps who use the ranges.

Amendment, by leave of the House, withdrawn.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House on Thursday next.