HC Deb 21 March 1809 vol 13 cc746-59
Sir Charles Pole,

in pursuance of the notice he had given, rose and spoke as follows: Sir, In pursuance of the notice, which I have given, I now rise to cull I he attention of the house to the Tenth Report of the Commissioners of Naval Revision. My purpose in doing so, is to impress on the minds of the house the serious and disastrous state of the Impress at the Victualling Office, and the urgent necessity of guarding against improper appointments in that Office. It hath so happened, that from the period when James Duke of York was lord high admiral, to the present day, complaints have been uniformly made of the management of the civil departments of the Navy, more particularly of that department which it is at this moment my object to notice. The business of the Victualling Office (vide 8th Report of 1788) is to provide, either by contract or otherwise, all provisions, and also certain stores required for the Navy; arranging and distributing the whole to the several ports and places at home and abroad as the service may require: to take care that the different provisions and stores, when so issued, be properly charged to the agents, storekeepers, pursers, masters of transports, or others, to whom they were issued, and to compel the respective parties to pass timely and regular accounts. Also to take cave that all offal arising from articles manufactured be properly disposed of; all old stores sold to the best advantage, and the proceeds duly accounted for; to attend to the various checks, &c. Such is the outline of the business expected from the Commissioners of his Majesty's Victualling Office: of the importance of this subject, I cannot do better than refer the house to the First Report of the Commissioners of Naval Revision, page 6, 7, and 8, where they state from Mr. Pepys' Memoirs, "that the loose dissipation of the king having added to his pecuniary difficulties, he was induced to give up the plan, which he bad formerly pursued with so much zeal, of supporting and increasing the navy, on account of the expence attending it." The comparative ruinous slate of the navy in those few years of relaxation, during the interval of Mr. Pepys' removal and return to office, is there shewn, which draws from the Commissioners of Naval Revision the following important and just observation. The rapid decay of the fleet, and the waste of stores during these few years of supineness, shew from experience how essential it is to the safely of this country, that the most effectual means should be taken to guard against any negligence in the Dock-yards; and the great work of re-establishing the fleet, and restoring order, industry, and discipline in the Dock-yards, accomplished in so short a time by the Commissioners then chosen with so much care, proves in the most convincing manner, how much depends on having the civil affairs of the navy placed under the management of men of real ability, professional knowledge, and uninterrupted industry, and we think it out duty to recommend to government, that in the choice of them no other circumstance but that of their being the fittest that can be found for the execution of the various and important duties they are to undertake may be regarded I have thought it my duty to state this observation at length, as the Resolution which I shall have the honour to offer to the house is founded on this, and the last sentence in the Tenth Report now on the table. By reference to the documents in the reports of the several committees named either by this house or specially appointed by the government, it will be seen that complaints of the arrears of accounts in this department have been most loud; and hitherto, no regulations adopted to cure the increasing evil. And here, Sir, I must be allowed to repeat the observations of the Commissioners appointed in 1786, in their 9th Report. After shewing the many frauds and abuses which require the superintendence of ability, ex- perience, and professional knowledge, they say, "Such circumstances and facts as have come to our knowledge, appear to us to be so replete with fraud and abuse, as to require the adoption of the most decisive measures which can be suggested for their prevention in future." And again in page 729, "When the immense sums which were paid during the last war are considered, and such practices adverted to, it justifies the most alarming apprehensions with respect to the administration and application of the national properly." It is, Sir, these observations, coupled with the little knowledge may have on the subject, which I confess hath induced me to read the Tenth Report now on the table, with much attention; and having done so, it may be only necessary for me to state shortly the state of the imprests outstanding, as well as every other arrear in this office. Having done so, I shall hope to prevail on the house to agree with me in the Resolution which I shall offer to them, in the words of the Commissioners of Naval Revision. The first statement of arrears of accounts is dated firth December 1806. The unsettled Cash Account then amounted to the enormous sum of £ lO,985,lOO I is. 8½ d. Commission Agents in arrear to the amount of £.2,740,883 in May 1806, and four of these accounts with one house, Messrs. Jordaine, Shaw and Co. involving the sum of £.2,003,673. Foreign Agents Cash Accounts in arrear 9th December 1806, to the amount of £.6,554,922 17s. These accounts embrace a period of twenty seven years. Mr. Cuthbert's accounts, ending in March 1785, amounted to £ 1,024,526. Strange to say, but it is too true, and proves the necessity of the resolution I am about to propose, these accounts were not settled until twenty two years after their being closed. The honourable Bazil Cochrane's account, involving the sum of £.1,418,236 not settled accounts, have been eighteen and twenty years ready for the Board's decision, and not yet passed. Between the period of the 9th Dec. 1806, and the 18lh May 1807, six Cash Accounts have been passed, which reduces the imprests to £.9s, 8d. exclusive of about 177 uncleared Imprests or promiscuous Accounts of old date from 1774 to December 1791. Foreign Agents Store Accounts in arrear from 1779. Home Agents and Store Keepers Store Accounts in arrear from 1785. It also appears that Store Accounts have been ready fur the Board's decision from seventeen to twenty years, and not yet passed. Additional arrears of Store Accounts at the places undermentioned.

Deptford dry stores since 1790
Brewhouse 1788
Cutting House 1790
cooperage 1788
King's Mills 1788
Portsmouth since since 1790
Plymouth 1791
Cliatham 1790
Dover 1791
Cork 1795
yarmouth 1796

Having stated the arrears of accounts in the Victualling Office with as much correctness as in my power from the documents on the table, I shall net trouble the house with any further observations, but submit to them the following Resolution, "That this house is of opinion, that neither of the plans recommended by the Commissioners of Naval Revision in their Tenth Report, nor any other, will be attended with any material good, unless all the members of the Victualling Board be men of real ability, professional knowledge, and uninterrupted industry; and unless, as recommended in their First Report, repealed in their Second, and again enforced in the Tenth, in the choice of them no other circumstance but that of their being the fittest men that can be found for the execution of, the various duties they are to undertake, be regarded."

Mr. R. Ward

spoke at considerable length, in answer to the hon. baronet. He said that he should be totally at a loss to understand the real object of the honourable baronet's motion from his speech this night, if he had not heard the conversations both within and without those walls which had their origin in the suggestions of the hon. baronet, and were calculated to throw blame on the present Board of Admiralty. This, he conceived to be the true motive of the hon. baronet for wishing now to enter upon the Journals of the house the Resolution which he proposed; the truth of which no man could deny, and which was the very ground laid for what the present Board of Admiralty had done, towards the very system of Reform in the Naval Department, now urged by the hon. baronet. He must, therefore, be excused from imputing the motion of the hon. ba- ronet merely to the motives he avowed. He must call things by their right names, and freely avow his own conviction, that the true object of the hon. baronet's motion was to cast an indirect censure on the Board of Admiralty; and, therefore,; without dissenting from the truth of the Resolution, he would oppose it by the previous question. It would have been more honourable and manly to name the persons to whose appointments He had objected, and thereby give to the friends of those gentlemen the opportunity of defending them fairly and openly. The hon. member then named severally the different members of the Victualling Board, to whose characters he paid high encomiums, and wished the hon. baronet to state to which, if to any of them, he could personally object. The persons at shut Board against whom he conceited the honourable baronet's motion chiefly directed, were col. Welsh and eapt. Stuart, and this for no other cause than that they were military men, and therefore in (he hon. baronet's estimation unfit to sit at the Victualling Board. He (Mr. Ward) however conceived that military experience was us necessary as naval experience to the efficiency of that Board; inasmuch as ever since the year 1793, by a new arrangement of the Board, with increased salaries, additional clerks, and the appointment of a Military Inspector of Provisions, the duty of purchasing victualling stores for the army in foreign stations, as well as for the navy, devolved upon them, although the victualling of both branches no the public force was carried on under distinct departments, was different in Kind, and distributed differently on shipboard, and in garrison. The Commissioners of Revision had said there should be some military and some civilians. There could be no objection, nor was there any, to col. Welsh, other than his being appointed by lord Mulgrave, and every one but the hon. baronet allowed his merits. All he had said of colonel Welsh was equally, applicable to capt. Stuart, and in point of justice, the hon. baronet ought to get up and state, that they have no abilities and no integrity, if he wished to throw blame on the Admiralty for these appointments. The motion went to charge the Admiralty with blame without a single argument in support of it. He was, therefore, compelled to move the previous question.

Mr. H. Martin

said he had never heard more warmth more less argument than in the speech just delivered by the hon. gent. The fact was, the Admiralty had dismissed, or allowed to retire, Mr. Marsh, who presided at the Victualling Board, under pretence of his age and infirmities, because the accounts were in arrear, and had appointed a person much the senior of him they had removed; and the person so appointed had been longer in the Victualling Office than any other, so that if bad habits were an objection, they applied in full force to him. Mr. Budge had also been removed, without any application on his part; and Mr. Moody, who was allowed to be one of the best accountants in the country; and if it were true that the accounts of the office were so tremendously in arrear as had been represented, it was very extraordinary they should get rid of such a man, who was in all respects so capable of forwarding them.

Mr. Bastard

said he could not but feel indignant at the manner in which the hon. gentleman (Mr. Ward) had treated the motion of the hon. baronet, to whom he thought the house and the country were highly indebted for bringing it forward, as well as for many other services he had done to the public. Public Boards were not the masters of that house, but ought to be their servants, and liable to their controul; and the hon. gentleman would have done well to have recollected the benefits the country had received from a Board, of which the hon. baronet had been an active member. The Commissioners of Naval Inquiry had said, many reports had been made as to the conduct of the Victualling Board, but not one had been acted on.

Mr. Wellesley Pole

said, he was supposed to have stated, on a former night, that the former Commissioners of the Victualling Board were so vicious as to render it necessary they should be removed; he denied making use of any such words: what he said was, that the former mode of conducting the business in that department, was found to be such as to require the removal of some of the members of the Board, and also to amend the system upon which they had proceeded. He admitted the motion of the honourable baronet was not such as to call for all the warmth expressed by his hon. friend, (Mr. Ward), in a parliamentary point of view, and he was glad to find him open his statement by confining himself merely to the substance of the Tenth Report, agreeing as he did with it, and with the necessity of amending the evils therein stated; he was, however, sorry the honourable baronet did not, at the same time, read two oilier Reports, which were also before the house; he meant the Eleventh and Twelfth Reports, as the Tenth was merely confined to the Victual-in Board in the metropolis. The Eleventh Report went to mismanagement at the various out ports, and was so connected with the former, that in order to come to a just conclusion, they must necessarily go together. If he had read that Report, he would have found various instances of mismanagement; at Plymouth for instance; and that the former system was so imperfect, that an officer at that port had actually passed four thousand casks more than he was called to account for. He would also have found in the Twelfth Report similar instances of mismanagement in the accounts of the several foreign stations. By these Reports he would also have perceived, that appropriate remedies were very distinctly pointed out for all those evils. Of the general merits of the Reports themselves, he did not mean to speak slightly, but yet there were some contradictions he could not wholly pass by unnoticed. They would find it stated in the Eighth Report, that the issuing of provisions and stores at the Victualling-office, in 1804, appeared to be conducted with great regularity and order; and yet it appeared, in one instance, there was a surplus of casks to no less an amount than 4,000 tons, while in another instance there was a deficiency to the amount of 3,000 tons. It appeared also by the Tenth Number of the Appendix, that there was the same variation in several articles of provision, to a very considerable degree, as in the article of bread. In that of rum there was a surplus, while in that of brandy there was a deficiency; and this was supposed to have been occasioned by the issuing of the latter, through mistake, for the former. This was certainly a very curious specimen of the Regularity boasted of in the Report. In the article of pork likewise, there had been found a deficiency in the four-pound pieces, and a surplus in the six-pound pieces; and yet of this irregularity the commissioners had not thought fit to make any complaint, as they believed, according to their statement, that the mistake was occasioned by the issuing of four-pound for six-pound pieces; now, he would ask, did ever any one hear of such excuse being admitted? In the article of flour there was also a de- ficiency of no less than 7,682 pounds, and this mistake was said to have been occasioned through the hurry caused by the pressure of business; this was certainly a very curious way of excusing such an error. The Report likewise contained a long history on the subject of the casks, some of which had been found at a neighbouring brewer's; and vet, although a prosecution had been commenced, but which had failed, no investigation into the business had ever taken place. The true cause of the irregularity, however, as he had found upon inquiry, was owing to the mode of charging a certain quantity of tonnage by the number of staves, but which had proved erroneous, as the same number had been found in some instances to produce a surplus, and in others a deficiency in the amount of the tonnage. In order to shew the utter impossibility of the present Victualling Board, in times of such pressure of business as the present, to do every thing that might be expected from them, at once, he read a letter from the Victualling Board to the Commissioners, in answer to one from them, and which was written about a month after the hon. bait. had gone out of office, stating, that none of the Reports of the Commissioners had been transmitted to them officially, nor had any requisition whatever been made to them, to act on such Reports. This sufficiently shewed the Commissioners had not themselves done all that had been required or expected from them by the country; and therefore some allowance should be made for the Victualling Board, if at this time every thing was not done which might be expected, when it was considered the great press of public business that existed. With respect to the resignations spoken of by the honourable gentleman, he must premise he was not at all personally acquainted with them; but when he looked to the then slate of the Victualling Board, he did certainly think there could no effectual reform take place, without the removal of some at least of the members from their situations. This was sufficiently proved by the circumstance, stated in the Tenth Report, of the arrears amounting to no less than eleven millions and a half, and which was owing to the accounts of twenty-five years standing not having been looked into by the Victualling Board. The confusion arising from this was such as to make it idle to hope for reformation by any other means than removal. The hon. baronet, in his statement, had certainly avoided alluding to any individuals in particular; and yet the hon. gent. had made his attack by entering into a defence of those who had been removed; but upon this occasion his information had not been so correct as it might have been, and he would set him right in some particulars. He had stated that Mr. Moody was the best accountant that could be found. Of that gent. he was ready to admit, that the public had no more able servant, but like all other servants, his powers had, by this time, suffered a physical decline. This appeared by his own statement, in a letter addressed to lord Mulgrave, stating his public services since the year 1759; that after a service of 49 years, his sight and health were impaired, and soliciting his superannuation upon his full salary. This request he had himself backed with the noble lord: but who, to his very great regret, found it impossible upon inquiry to accede to it, consistently with the regular practice, which was, to retire upon three-fourths of the salary. That gentleman, however, upon understanding this determination, had in a subsequent letter, requested to withdraw his resignation. It was, notwithstanding, found necessary to remove him. With respect to Mr. Marsh, he had retired upon three-fourths of his salary. He had himself been called on to make inquiries into the powers of this gentleman to execute the duties of his office, and he had found him to be a gentleman of most excellent character, but not capable of executing those reforms which were considered as indispensably necessary. Mr. Budge, in like manner, was, by gout, or some such complaint, incapacitated from attending to the duties of his office, and was therefore removed.— He now came to the consideration of the successors of those gentlemen, of whom it was insinuated, as if the removals were made solely for the purpose of making room for them. And here he could state, that the noble lord at the head of the Admiralty, having in view the very paragraph in the Report now under consideration, had actually called for his naval advisers, for the express purpose of recommending the fittest persons to fill those stations, and they had done so accordingly, under the very terms of the Report. Two of them, Messrs. Browne and Hobin, who had been pursers, his lordship had never seen before their appointment. As to colonel Walsh, who, by the bye, was no more a colonel than be was, and capt. Stuart, who, likewise, was no captain, they had been appointed long before the Report had been made. On the subject of extravagance, as charged upon administration, they were so far from being guilty of it in the formation of the Board, that whereas it had been recommended to constitute the Victualling Board of three committees, for the conducting the business, yet it had been resolved, for the purpose of saving, if possible, the expenses, to try if two might not be found adequate, and accordingly two only were appointed. These appointments took place in December last, The old arrear had amounted to upwards of £.11,000,00O,and a million and a half had accumulated since the Tenth Report; notwithstanding which, no accumulation whatever had been suffered since the appointment, and in addition, no less a sum than £.6,900,000 had been investigated and settled since the new appointment. This at least was a proof of the manner in which the business was transacted under the present order of things. Under all these circumstances, he should vote for the previous question.

Mr. Windham

declared he had formed his opinion on the subject now under discussion, only by what he had heard since he came into the house, a great portion of which, however, he considered as wholly irrelevant, as he considered the attack on the worthy baronet who had made the motion, as well as that on the Commissioners of Naval Revision, as having nothing whatever to do with the merits of the question. The simple point, as he conceived, before them, was, how far it was necessary to remove certain Commissioners from the Victualling Board, and with what propriety their places had been supplied? And this could only be decided by an examination into their merits respectively. Now, from any thing he had heard, the arrear complained of in the time of the former commissioners, might as well be owing to the great increase of business in that office; as he from experience knew it to be the case in the War Office. How, then, would they bring about the reform sought after? Not by a change of system, but merely that of persons! A very concise mode this, and certainly no less agreeable to those who were practicing it, and no less ready in the practice. Then comes an examination in detail, and as it were nomination of the persons who had been put out, and of those who were appointed in their places. Now, it happened, that of all of them he knew only Mr. March; when, therefore, he heard what was said, he could not but think it somewhat suspicious, because at the time he knew him, he certainly was, physically speaking, fully competent to the duties of his office, and had the character of being a very well informed and intelligent man: but these were questions in which the house was perfectly helpless, and left to decide merely on the opinions which might be stated on the one side or the other. In Mr. Moody's case, he was stated to have expressed a wish to resign, from infirmity: and in that of Mr. Budge, his resignation was imputed to the gout. It these cases were made out to their satisfaction, there was an end to that part of the case; then came that of their successors. If age were considered as a ground for removal, he would wish to know how captain Towrey was retained? The hon. gentleman had reproached the worthy baronet for the negligence with which the former Board of Admiralty had conducted themselves; but surely he at the same time furnished an excuse, in the pressure of business upon which he had dwelt. As to those minute inquiries, of whether it was brandy instead of rum, whether 48 casks, instead of another number, he thought there were points of infinitely more consequence to the public, that might he necessarily neglected in the pursuit of such minute details; upon such business as the fitting out of expeditions and fleets, that great extent of rigour was productive of the worst consequences. He did not think that they should be detained by the slow proceedings of office to wait for such vouchers as might be customary. Upon the whole, he concluded, that the proposition of the worthy baronet ought to be adopted by the house, and therefore it should have his support.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that the right hon. gent. appeared to him to have mistaken the field, and evinced an ignorance of the whole substratum upon which the Victualling Board rested. He had come down to the house in the middle of the debate, which accounted for the unprepared manner in which he appeared to have met the question. The worthy bait, had made a proposition which implied that something had been done improperly by the Board of Admiralty, and it was only upon that ground, and from a conviction that such a reflection was not deserved, that he Opposed the proposition. The hon. gent. seemed to think that the present Board of Admiralty was acting upon a system introduced by them, in consequence of the former Board, but nothing could be farther from the fact. The Commissioners of Naval Revision did think that there was something incorrect in the system of the Victualling Board, which they proposed to remedy by dividing it into three committees. These three committees would require three commissioners; but it was resolved by the Admiralty to try an experiment less burdensome to the public, and forbear the appointment of the three new commissioners. For acting upon such a system, they were entitled to praise. To a Board so constituted, it became necessary that two officers, experienced in the Navy, should be attached: that they might be attached without increasing the expense to the public, it was necessary that two should be removed to make way for them; and then the question was, whom it would be advisable to remove I Mr. Birch, the chairman, had been a long while prevented from discharging his duty in consequence of his infirmities; and when they considered that a chairman, accustomed to act upon the old system, was not the person most likely to carry a new one into effect, a new one, the very adoption of which might be considered as in some degree reflecting upon himself, they would see the propriety of that removal; the other gentleman was also far advanced in years. They were not removed merely to make way for new appointments, but because the appointment of two was necessary for the reason already stated, and they were removed, to make the vacancies necessary to admit them. The right hon. gentleman had gone on for some time, coolly and calmly talking against an arrangement which he did not seem to understand. When gentlemen did come forward with imputations against individuals, or bodies of men, they ought to consider, before they made their charges; the fact was, that Mr. Moody had himself made application to be discharged, upon the ground of old age and infirmity; The hon. bait. had not insinuated in the debate any thing as to the demerit of particular persons, but he wished the house to adopt a general proposition, which, if nothing had been done in the Admiralty, might be necessary, but which, if they had done their duty, was a stigma that should not be passed upon them. There was, in his opinion, no occasion for asserting it at the present moment.

Mr. Whitbread

said, that he differed from the right hon gent. opposite on many points, and in whatever way the worthy bart. might have introduced his motion, the hon. gentleman who followed him had treated it in a manner, he might almost say, unparliamentary; for his speech was not a reply to the speech of the worthy hart., but to some speech supposed to have been made by him upon a former occasion; if he disapproved of the public conduct, he did not think it fair to conclude that he was guilty of aspersion towards an individual. He declined offering any opinion upon the conduct of the present Admiralty; he had only their own word for their merit. His hon. friend had proposed a Resolution, in which he entirely concurred; he (Mr. W) had been for two years of his life engaged in an inquiry into public abuses, and he could pronounce that they were many, and difficult to be removed. The hon. gent. had asked, why did the Commissioners of Naval Revision, being members of parliament, why did they not reform the abuses they had detected? But, then, the hon. gent. had assumed what was not the case; for there was but one member of parliament, who was his hon. friend, attached to that committee; and it was a misfortune that their suggestions were not acted on. The hon. gent. himself had admitted, that the Victualling Board, was found to be so vicious, that it was almost a question with them whether it should be broken up or not. (Here the hon. member signified his dissent from the statement.) He so understood him, and was sorry if he had misconceived. It had been said, that those who were dismissed were too ill, and too old, &c. He wished to know what were the tit etcœteras? The Commissioners of Naval Revision had said, that improper persons were employed, and it was asked, why did not his hon. friend, the whole time he was in office, amend what was wrong? It should be considered how long he really was in office, before that question was put and it would be easy to account for it upon the shortness of the period. He could not agree with his right hon. friend near him in his opinion of the accuracy that he accounted so trivial; he did not see what there was to prevent the accounts of government from being kept as accurately as the accounts of merchants. He did not know whether it was the intention to follow up the Resolution by any subseqsent proceeding; but whether or not, he thought that if the house gave that Resolution the go-by, it would do away all the advantage which the committee was intended and calculated to produce, and the government might go on appointing persons to situations upon the same system as before; that is, only with a view to their interest. For these reasons he would support the motion of his hon. friend.

Mr. Peter Moore

defended the course pursued by his hon. friend (Sir C. Pole). It was consistent with the general tenor of his public exertions— ever anxious, as he had shewed himself, in bringing before that house abuses which, if suffered to continue, must prove detrimental to the best interests of the country. It was not as a dead letter that he wished the laborious investigation of the Commissioners to lie upon the table. No; he desired to carry them into effect, to let the people enjoy the benefit of such labours, by the operation of the different remedies which were recommended. By such conduct, parliament would obtain, as it would merit, the confidence of the constituent body; seeing as it would in such circumstances, the important trust delegated to that house honourably and honestly exercised. With respect to the appointment of one respectable gentleman (col. Walsh), he had only to say, without deciding upon his peculiar eligibility to that distinct situation, that from the respectability and amiableness of his former life, and his services in India, there were few situations which he would not fill with credit. As to Mr. Marsh, who had been dismissed, he would take upon himself to say, that that officer was fully competent to the duties of his official situation; and that, in his view, the treatment which Mr. Marsh had received held him out to the public as a much injured man. Beside, the house should recollect, that to this department the utmost parliamentary vigilance ought to be directed, when it was recollected that there was in the public returns of this Board an arrear of 11,600,000l. unaccounted for.

Admiral Markham

agreed in the proposition of his hon. friend, which he thought should be inserted upon the journals.

Sir Charles Pole

said, that he had no other object in proposing that measure, than the public service, he had aimed it at no individual; he did not wish to cast the slightest censure upon any one, but thought that that was a proper measure by which the house might shew the country its intention of acting upon the reformations propo- sed. He thought he was right in his object. However, if the house were inclined to negative it, he would not push it to the vote.

The previous question being then put, it was carried without a division.