HL Deb 28 May 1906 vol 158 cc14-8

My Lords, I rise to ask the Under-Secretary of State for War if it is the intention of His Majesty's Government to discontinue the practice of contributing towards the cost of the construction of Volunteer rifle ranges. I have been prompted to place this Question on the Paper by a case which has been brought to my notice relating to some Volunteers in Essex. There is a Volunteer corps at Maldon who a short time ago possessed a range, the range was closed on account of its being unsafe, and in consequence the members of this corps are now put to great inconvenience. They have, I understand, to make long journeys to perform their target practice, and altogether they are subjected to considerable expense and inconvenience.

Naturally these Volunteers determined to construct a new range, and the estimated cost amounted to between £400 and £500. I understand that about £150 or so was subscribed locally, and thereupon they applied for Government assistance. Under an Act passed a few years ago, I think when Mr. Brodrick was Secretary of State for "War—the Military Works Loans Act—grants of money were occasionally made for the purpose of aiding the establishment of rifle ranges for Volunteers. In view of the ecstatic admiration which is so constantly expressed by members of the present Government for the Volunteers, they applied with confidence for a grant, and they must have been singularly disappointed when they received this letter, the chilly terms of which I will read to your Lordships— In reply to your letter, I am desired to inform you that no provision is made in the Estimates for 1906–7 for Volunteer rifle ranges. A portion of the fund provided under the Military Works Loans Act was allotted for the purpose of grants in aid towards such ranges, but this money is now exhausted. It is quite obvious that this is a question which does not concern solely this particular Volunteer corps in Maldon, but it is one of considerable importance to the Volunteer force generally, and I am particularly anxious to obtain a categorical answer from my noble friend as to what the actual intentions of His Majesty's Government are.

I may explain that I do not bring this question forward out of any particular solicitude for the Volunteer force. I candidly own, and I am not ashamed to admit it, that I hold the opinion that the establishment of the Volunteer force was one of the greatest mistakes that we ever committed; and for this reason, that so long as these patriotic men continue to give their services as Volunteers they will always be made an excuse by whatever Government happens to be in power for not urging upon the country to carry out that one measure which is universally recognised, except in this country, as being necessary for a nation's security. I really bring this case forward as an instance, and not an uncommon instance, of what I may describe as the absolutely contemptible spirit in which we face questions of home defence in this country.

This is not altogether without its humorous side, because I observe that numerous eminent people, from the editor of the Spectatorupwards, when they make, as they frequently do, speeches upon our military weakness, always conclude in the same strain. They end by saying that, whatever happens, we must form ourselves into what they are pleased to call a nation of marksmen, and with this great end in view we are all invited to establish rifle ranges in our cellars or upon our housetops, or in any place that may be convenient; and I am only awaiting the moment, which no doubt will shortly arrive, when Lord Esher's military Duma, if I may be allowed to give it that name, will recommend that provision shall be made for shooting with pop-guns or air-guns in Ministerial anterooms, station waiting rooms, and many other places which no doubt will occur to them before they have concluded their labours. But when, however, a body of serious and patriotic men asked to be allowed to have a rifle range on which they are to shoot with real rifles, what do the Government say? The Government in effect, reply, "Oh you want a rifle range? Well no doubt, that is a very estimable desire on your part, but we are not going to do anything to help you. If you want a range, why don't you get up a bazaar, have a raffle or a jumble sale, or get the neighbouring landlord to let you have his ground rent free, so that you can shoot upon it?" Personally, I hold that this justifies what I venture to term the contemptible attitude of the country with regard to the question of home defence. To my benighted understanding there can be nothing more grotesque and absurd than to hand over what is admitted to be a public and a national necessity to a few public-spirited individuals. Either you believe in the Volunteers or you do not. If you do not believe in thorn, you had better honestly say so at once, and let us create something in their stead; but, if you do believe in them, and you are always saying you do, then I contend that it is your bounden duty to make them as effective as possible, to grant their reasonable demands, and above all, not to try and throw upon private individuals what is a public and national liability.


My Lords, I must thank my noble friend for having also given me private notice of this Question, and I shall endeavour to give him a categorical Answer. I wish to take the earliest possible opportunity of assuring my noble friend that His Majesty's Government, as I believe were the late Government, are very well disposed towards the Volunteers, and I am not aware that this Government any more than the last look upon the Volunteers in the deprecatory light in which my noble friend does. I am afraid, however, that my noble friend will not consider as satisfactory the Answer which I have to give to his Question. I would draw his attention to the statement made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on May 1st †in the course of the discussion on the Budget proposals. His pronouncement on the practice which had grown up of contributing to the cost of Volunteer ranges out of the funds provided under the Military Works Loans Act was very definite, and I fear no financial assistance from this source can be expected for such purposes in future. If my noble friend will refer to that discussion in the House of Commons he will find that the Military Works Loans Act was abused to such an extent that small sums like £and £5were lent for this purpose, to be carried over a term of thirty years. Neither has any money been provided for the purpose in the Army Estimates for the current year. While I can, therefore, hold out no hope that the practice of contributing to the cost of Volunteer ranges out of loan funds will be continued, I can assure him that the Army Council are fully alive to the importance of range accommodation for the Volunteers.


My Lords, we have no right to complain of the frankness of the reply of the noble Earl, but I think people interested in the Volunteers have a right to complain of the decision to which His Majesty's Government have come. We are quite aware that the money allotted under Military Works Loans for this purpose is exhausted, but I am sure the noble Earl opposite will do us on this side of the House the justice of admitting that when we, His Majesty's late Government, announced that we did not intend adhering to the general policy of Military Works Loans, nobody ever imagined for an instant that all the services which had previously been †See (4) Debates, clvi., 469. carried out on Military Works Loans were to be dropped. It has been announced that no more money is to be spent on such services out of Military Works Loans, but that does not prevent His Majesty's Government putting down a sum in the Estimates and giving Volunteer corps on an average about half the cost that they incur in providing themselves with ranges.


I think my noble friend is labouring under a misapprehension. I did not make any statement as regards the future. I only said that there was no provision in the Estimates for the year 1906–7. I said I could not hold out any hope that the practice of contributing to the cost of rifle ranges out of Military Works Loans funds would be continued. That is quite a different thing.


I am obliged to the noble Earl for the correction. I earnestly hope His Majesty's Government will consider very seriously the advisability of continuing this help to the Volunteers in the future, though I admit that it ought to be done out of Estimates.