HC Deb 23 May 1806 vol 7 cc354-64
Mr. Rose

adverted to the statement made by a noble lord (H. Petty) on a preceding day, which had caused an uncommon sensation in the public mind, as the noble lord had charged his majesty's late government with gross neglect in not calling in balances and arrears of public accounts, to the enormous amount, as it was stated, of 450 millions. From this sum, however, he was at once enabled to strike off a great deduction, by observing, that ninety millions of it were the accounts of the bank, and 250 millions the accounts of the pay-office; and considering that the noble lord, who for twenty years of the late government had the superintendance of that department, was also now at the head of his majesty's government, he could not suppose that any insinuation could be intended in that quarter, notwithstanding the extraordinary tone in which the noble lord dwelt upon these points. The only instance of misconduct in these respects, was that of a gentleman, who had been 52,000l. behind-hand; for which, however, he was called to account, and severely punished. With regard to the pay-office accounts, it would be a sufficient vindication of the late government, for him to say, that they had not even yet been returned to the War-office. And as to the navy balance of 90 millions, the only scrutiny or audit upon that was at the Navy-office. Upon the whole, it would appear, that though the noble lord insisted there were 450 millions unaccounted for, there were of that sum 429 millions which remained in departments which did not admit of the possibility of abuse, though it certainly was right that all the accounts should be audited. Going back, then, to the office of the auditor, he said, that, on having discovered and pointed out to Mr. Pitt some impropriety in that department, he brought in a bill for the purpose of checking it, which was opposed by the gentlemen then in opposition; and, on the third reading, a division took place, in which he had the honour of being a teller with the present first lord of the treasury. In pursuance of that bill, a commission was appointed, for the purpose of checking the accounts every way, and taking the discretion out of the hands of the treasury; and in order to shew that they were person every way qualified for the office to which they were appointed, he would, with the permission of the house, read their names which were, sir Wm. Musgrave, Read, a gentleman of the treasury, Mr. Banks, a gentleman of the law, and the two comptrollers of army accounts. He wished the whole of the accounts in the different departments to be regularly examined into in order to shew which of them was in the wrong. There was no duty of the house more sacred, not even that of impeachment which had so lately occupied their attention, than that of scrutinizing the public accounts; and it was for that purpose that he should first propose the production of the accounts, and afterwards move that they be all referred to a committee, with instructions to report the names of the persons who held balances in their hands, so that regular proceedings might be taken against them. The act he alluded to had been in force for 21 years, and this was the first time he heard that it had been ineffectual. He knew not who the persons were whom the noble lord meant to call before his commissioners; but [...]e knew of several that would not appear to be defaulters; as in some cases, though he believed it was not sanctioned by law, the responsibility was by some means or other transferred from the principal to the sub-accountants. The next point he had to advert to, was that of an immense expenditure, of no less than 10 millions annually, in the War-office, which never was accounted for. Having noticed this, in the course of his enquiries in the last year, he mentioned it to his right hon. friend, now no more, (Mr. Pitt,) who meant to make it the subject of a distinct measure. He had since put the sane statement into the hands of one of the commissioners of military enquiry, who returned it this day; and an examination of it would shew that there were, in the present year, upwards of 9 millions unaccounted for by the secretary at war. The noble lord, amongst other things, had stated, that upwards of 700,000l. had been annually paid to a Mr. Trotter, and was yet unaccounted for. Why the noble lord selected that gentleman, he knew not, unless it was for stage effect, as he happened to be of the same name with a person who was under the displeasure of that house, The noble lord stated, that, besides being the manufacturer and purveyor, he was also his own comptroller and examiner, and had, after all, only charged a modest commercial commission of 10l.. per cent. over and above his other profits. He, for his own part, knew little or nothing of this Mr. Trotter; but, upon enquiry, he found that the house of Trotter had been in the habit of furnishing stores for the army these 50 years back. His charges at first were of a moderate amount, but had of late years swelled to such a magnitude, that a late secretary at war (Mr. Yorke), for the purpose of checking the extent of his mercantile profits, made an order,that he should give in first an accurate statement of the prime cost; and, secondly, of the expence of labour; after which, he was to be allowed 10 per cent. for his mercantile profits. Such was the conduct of the late secretary at war; but he had lately heard, though from a quarter which he would not quote as accurate authority, that the right hon. gent., his successor, (general Fitzpatrick,) had given his full and unqualified approbation to all Mr. Trotter's arrangements. It would be irregular in him to put a question on that subject to the right hon. gent. now; but to ascertain the fact, be meant, after this question should be disposed of, to move for a copy of the letter which he understood was sent by the present secretary at war to the board of treasury, in approbation of all Mr. Trotter's arrangements. He then concluded with moving, "That there be laid before the house a list of the names of all the principal public accountants, to whom money was issued from the exchequer, and transferred to their sub-accountants; as also of those whose accounts were yet outstanding; distinguishing the ordinary from the extraordinary accounts; together with the names of those who did and did not give in their accounts; distinguishing the balances yet outstanding, from those that were accounted for.

Lord Henry Petty

said, the right hon. gent., in the long speech he had just made, had not denied or combated any one of the statements he had made on a former night, only with the exception of Mr. Trotter. The right hon. gent. had stated that the greatest part of the unsettled and unaudited accounts which he had mentioned as forming a vast mass of arrears of accounts, were from the Pay-office; that the gentlemen of that office were respectable men, of the most unblemished and honourable characters; and that one of the paymasters-general of that period, was the noble lord now at the head of the treasury. Certainly, said the noble lord, from the political situation and connection in which I stand with the noble personage now at the head of the treasury, and the individual friendship and esteem I have long entertained for him, it is impossible I could mean to cast the slightest insinuation or imputation on the honour, integrity, or attention to business, of that noble lord, whose character has always stood as high as any man's in the kingdom; but, I am sure I can, with great truth and justice, appeal to the house on that point, if I did not expressly state, that I did not mean to cast the smallest imputation on any public accountant; and, as a proof of this, I particularly mentioned the case of lord Macar[...]ney, a nobleman of as high character and honour as ever lived, and who was universally allowed to be so, and the peculiar hardship he laboured under, in not being able to get his accounts settled. It unfortunately happened, however, that when I have stated nothing of which the right non. gent. can directly complain, there is nothing that can deserve his animadversion, but the tone in which I spoke; this, I own, is a difficut thing to answer; an expres- sion may be explained, a mistake may be corrected, but, as to a tone, I really am at a loss what to say on the subject. If, in speaking of measures in which the right hon. gent. himself was concerned, I adopted a tone not pleasing to him, I may be sorry, though I do not feel disposed to apologize to him personally for it; but if, on that, on that other occasion, I had adopted a tone which was disagreeable to the house, I should hot only be sorry for it, but would be ready to make the most ample apology for having done so. The right hon. gent. had said that no very considerable part of any arrears would be lost to the public. He himself had stated that he hoped that would be the case. But would the right hon. gent. venture to say, that it was no loss to the public that the accounts of the barrack department, of the public stores to an immense amount, of the expedition to the Helder, of the expedition to Egypt, and of our whole foreign subsidiary system during the last war, had never been audited; all of which had taken place while the right hon. gent. himself was at the treasury board? This being the fact, the house must agree with him in thinking that, though great part of the sums granted for these services might be properly laid out, there was every possibility of great frauds having been committed. The right hon. gent. had accused him of not dealing fairly by Mr. Trotter. He had only stated the circumstances in which that gentleman stood. But did he impute any blame to him? No. If, however, he had omitted it on the former day, he should now ask, if the right hon. gent. thought it proper, that the same person should be the purveyor, manufacturer, and store-keeper for government, and at the same time the auditor of his own accounts? Did the right hon. gent. mean to say that 10 per cent. was all that Mr. Trotter had on these furnishings? He had, besides, an additional 5 per cent. for credit, and another 5 per cent. for incidental charges, making a total of 20 per cent. He had not said, however, that Mr. Trotter was to blame in this; probably he might have been right to have got 50 per cent. if he could. In 1801, suspicions being entertained as to the correctness of his charge, a charge at prime cost was demanded, when it was found that these were his additional charges. He then reduced the 10 per cent. charges to 5 per cent.; the extra charge from 5 to 2½ per cent.; and the other 5 per cent. for interest he gave up entirely; so that he then began to find the same articles for 7½ per cent., which, during the whole of the war, he had charged at no less than 20 per cent. The noble lord had no hesitation in doing Mr. Trotter the justice to declare, that, from every thing he had been able to discover, the articles were of the very best quality. But in so complete an absence of all check on the extent and nature of the charge, it became his duty to advert to the above circumstances. He had so stated it on a former day, and now he could not contradict what he then stated. If he did not find credit for his statement before proceeding to prove it, he knew he should do so when the documents were laid before the house. He felt much obliged to the right hon. gent. for moving for these papers, or any others which could throw additional light on the subject, and should certainly second his motion. He must state, that it would take a very considerable time before the papers could be produced; a delay winch would principally arise from the state of the accounts themselves. He had therefore made the necessary enquiry as to what a papers could be produced this session; and, after the hon. gent.'s motion should be assented to, he should move for the production of such papers. Part of his plan he might thus be obliged to postpone till next Session, keeping in view, however, the necessity of the immediate adoption of that part of it which regarded the balancing of the accounts every year, in the same manner with mercantile houses. Any delay, however, he assured the house, should preceded, not from an idea of abandoning the plan, but from a wish and expectation of being able to bring it to greater perfection.

Mr. Perceval

said, that as no objection had been, or was to be made to his right hon. friend's motion, there were but two points on which he would trouble the house with a very few observations. From the manner in Which this business had been stated by the noble lord in that house, an idea, had gone abroad, that the sum of 450 millions, which the noble lord had mentioned, was, for the greatest part, arrears which were recoverable, and it had, caused a great sensation in the mind of the public. The noble lord had raised a great expectation in the public mind, that there were great balances due, which might give relief to the public burthens; whereas, those vast sums were no more than arrears of ac- counts not settled; and the mistake was owing to the noble lord's talking of arrears; and arrears to be recovered. The noble lord had found fault with his right hon. friend, for having complained, of the tone in which he had delivered himself; he had said, "an expression might be explained, a mistake corrected; but as to a tone, he could not answer for it." He (Mr. Perceval) thought, on the contrary, a tone might be explained; for, when a person was speaking either sarcastically or ironically of another, a great deal of force and energy might be given in addition to the words used, by the tone in which they were uttered. The second point was, he thought Mr. Trotter had reason to complain of the noble lord, who had described him as the manufacturer, purveyor, store-keeper, comptroller, and auditor of his own accounts; and that after all this accumulation of relations, he had the modesty to charge 10 per cent; [Here lord H. Petty said, across the table, "No; I deny the modesty."] He had, how ever, at this time, no profits on these several heads; for, from 1801, these profits had been cut down by the member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Yorke), then secretary at war, to 10 per cent. only. The noble lord had since explained, that what he meant by "auditor of his own accounts" was, that there was nobody to audit them; he submitted to the house, that there was a great difference between the statement and the explanation. He wished the noble lord to give a more correct statement, in order to give satisfaction to the public mind on so important a subject.

Lord H. Petty

was surprised, that any such mistake should have occurred, as that of taking arrears of accounts for arrears of balances; and, in a speech of considerable length, when talking of arrears, which word frequently occurred, that the instant arrears were mentioned, without the addition of accounts, it should immediately be taken to mean arrears of balances. It was, he thought, that kind of mistake which no one could well make, who did not wish to fall into it.

Mr. Perceval ,

in explanation, said, that a certain morning paper had stated the arrears to be arrears of balances to a vast amount.

Dr. Laurence

reprobated the misinterpretation of the arrears of accounts into arrears of money; and explained the mention of Mr. Trotter, as applicable only to the complex situation in which he stood. It was a gross and absurd error, that any person could suppose a sum equal to the national debt was outstanding in balances.

Mr. Huskisson

adverted to a statement in a morning paper, supposed to be in the interest of government, in which the noble lord was described as representing the amount of the accounts unaudited as recoverable to the public.

Mr. Wilberforce

thought his right hon. friend under him (Mr. Rose) a little too tender, as to persons supposed to hold balances in their hands; and his learned friend (Mr. Perceval) had distinguished between arrears of balances and arrears of accounts unsettled, as if the latter were not a great evil. He thought accounts long outstanding might create numerous abuses, and produce the worst consequences. He gave the noble lord, therefore, great credit for the attention he had paid to the subject, and the plan by which it was proposed to check abuses of this kind in future.

Mr. Paull

differed with those gentleman who thought these arrears of accounts. He thought, on the contrary, there were arrears of balances also; he believed the noble lord was of the same opinion; and he had but little doubt, that large sums would be recovered. In the barrack department alone, an arrear of balances had been lately discovered, by the commission appointed for investigating military accounts; and that no less a sum than 93,000l. of the public money was in the hands of general Delancey. There were, unquestionably, many more, when the accounts came to be fully enquired into; and therefore, he thought there was no such great mistake as had been imputed. He hoped the noble lord would never lose sight of that part of his plan for making the auditors account every year.

Lord Henry Petty

said, he had expressly stated that to be his intention, and be should not depart from it.

Mr. W. Dundas

vindicated the conduct of the clerks in the War-office. Since 1793, 898 regimental accounts had been settled; 208 were under examination. The bankruptcy of the great agency house of Ross and Ogilvie had produced great delay. The institution of monthly for half-yearly payments had also retarded the accounts; but he hoped great facility would be given by the quarterly payments now adopted. I was only the account of the 74th regiment that was in arrear so long.

The Secretary at War

wished every means to be used for facilitating the examination of the public accounts, and particulary those in the War-Office; but was by no means so sanguine as to imagine, that the arrangement proposed by the right hon. gent. (Mr. Rose) would be so effectual as he appeared to suppose. He observed, that in the whole course of the conversation which this motion had produced, there had been no opposition to the motion itself; and therefore, the right hon. gent. who made it had no reason to complain, if his object should not be ultimately attained. He must, however, be allowed to observe, that he wished the house not to separate without affording to him an opportunity of saying, that there was no idea of intending to defame Mr. Trotter. No such intention was entertained by his noble friend. He had stated, very fairly, the different characters in which Mr. Trotter had been employed by government, ever since the American war; during which time, said the right hon. secretary, I believe he has discharged his duty to the public with very great and distinguished ability; but the very capacity in which Mr. Trotter acted, rendered it almost impossible that there should not be great confidence in that officer; and the security, for his discharge of the duties of his office, must rest entirely on his integrity. That his accounts are not audited, is not strictly true, for they do undergo an audit; but that cannot be so strictly done, as to prevent the possibility of frauds, and even enormous frauds.

Mr. Rose

observed, that the noble lord (Henry Petty) had said, he should not alter his tone, on any occasion of the investigation of public affairs; he did not desire that he should; but his feelings and sensations were excited by what fell from the noble lord by way of observations, not upon him. but upon a right hon. friend of his, now no more. These observations were not favourable to the ministerial memory of that great and departed statesmen (Mr. Pitt). Very different conduct had been observed by a right hon. gent. on the other side, for which he had a claim on his gratitude. He then proceeded it defend his own conduct in administration under Mr. Pitt. The noble lord had complained, that there was no account of the expeditions to the Helder or to Egypt. Good God! had the noble lord forgotten the pains which were taken by Mr. Pitt to accelerate all public accounts of this nature; and that it was not his fault, that they had not been all forth-coming without delay? By his direction, 35 or 36 clerks had been added to a public office for that purpose; nor was Mr. Pitt contented with that; but he followed it up with various directions for a better mode of investigation of those accounts. But the noble lord had asked him, if he thought there was no evil in the arrears of public accounts. He admitted there was an evil in it; but it was fitting the house should know to whom the delay was owing; it was neither to himself, nor to the late Mr. Pitt. As to the different relations in which Mr. Trotter stood towards government, he had said, and he must repeat it, that he did not know, nor had he any means of knowing, Mr. Trotter's mode of supplying articles for the army until he became paymaster-general, and in that character he was only a mere banker, and had no discretion; he was astonished at the payments which were made to the amount of 10 millions; but if there was any blame imputable to Mr. Trotter, in any part of these accounts, he was sorry that the noble lord's friend (Mr. Windham) was not present, to defend himself for having continued Mr. Trotter in so many different characters under government; however, the noble lord should not put these matters to him (Mr. Rose), for he was not responsible for, nor even apprised of them; the noble lord should direct his observations to those who were concerned, and not to those who knew nothing of the matter. He could not help observing, however, that the noble lord had talked of 450 millions unaccounted for, as if that sum had been lost to the public; whereas, he (Mr. Rose) had stated, that different heads of those very services to the amount of 429 millions were unaccounted for, in which it was impossible for the public to have lost 100l. He disclaimed any intention to say any thing disrespectful of the manner in which the numerous clerks in the War-office performed the various duties allotted to them: all he meant to say was, that some considerable regulations ought to take place in that department. He concluded with assuring the noble lord, he should have his utmost support in making all possible disclosure of public accounts. —The motion was then put and carried.

Lord H. Petty ,

on rising to move for additional accounts on the subject, observed, that he was not conscious of having spoken disrespectfully of his late predecessor; but at the same time, he would never be prevented, by any feelings of false delicacy, from performing his duty to the public, in stating abuses which had existed during the administration of that right hon. gent.; and he was certain, that were that great man now alive, he would not have wished him to abstain from any of the statements which he had made. He then moved for a variety of lists of accounts not yet delivered by accountants, nor proceeded upon in the office of the commissioners of audit; which were ordered accordingly.