HC Deb 10 May 1809 vol 14 cc482-6
Mr. Wardle,

pursuant to notice, rose to move for the production of certain Accounts from the War-office. His object in moving for them was to put the house in possession of the state of accounts in the war-office. Since 1797, when the establishment was enlarged, with a view to bringing up the arrears, the number of clerks had been greatly increased, and yet the accounts were in greater confusion than ever. If the papers should be granted him, he would show, that this increase, instead of expe- diting, had retarded the settlement of the accounts. The establishment of the war-office cost 54,000l. annually, and yet the accounts might be made up without suffering any arrear to accumulate for 30,000l. a year. Thus there would have been a saving of expenditure since 1797, in that department, if even the average expence were taken at 40,000l. annually, of above 140,000l. Many regimental accounts were in arrear more than twelve years, and the confusion was increased by the different changes that had been made in the manner of conducting the business of the office, whereby monthly and quarterly accounts were intermixed with annual accounts. A radical change of system was absolutely necessary; because any modification of the present system would only be for the worse. Other advisers should be consulted than those on whose opinion the present system had been adopted. He knew an accomptant, who would undertake to make up the whole of the accounts of the office for the sum he had mentioned, and pledge himself not to suffer any arrear to accrue. After noticing the establishment of a second war-office in George-street, at an expence of five or six thousand pounds a year, the Volunteer Pay Office, which he stated not to be necessary, the honourable member concluded by moving, "That there be laid before the house a return of all the Annual Regimental Accounts now in the War-office, specifying such as are settled, and such as are not; also a return of all the annual regimental accounts which have been carried into warrant; specifying how many in each year, and whether for cavalry, infantry, or militia regiments."

The Secretary at War

did not mean to give any effectual opposition to this motion, at the same time that he trusted he should be able to persuade the hon. member to withdraw his motion. A commission had been appointed to examine and report upon this subject, and had already produced three reports; the one of which, that related to the Accounts, had been drawn up with great ability and precision. The subject had been seriously taken up by his majesty's ministers, who had frequent communications with the war-office, relative to some new arrangement. He could assure the hon. member, that his majesty's ministers were equally with himself impressed with the necessity of a comprehensive and radical reform in the business of the office. The Secretary at War then went into a detailed account of the steps which had been taken to remedy the grievance since his coming into office; and concluded by observing, that as there could be no utility in pressing for the accounts at this moment, he hoped the honourable gentleman would give up his motion.

Mr. Long

agreed in the necessity of adopting some new system for the simplification of army accounts, for the excellent system introduced by Mr. Burke would be wholly ineffectual at this time; for instance, a number of differences in the pay of the soldiery had been introduced depending on the local, or temporary prices of bread, or meat, at their respective quarters. Hence, it was not possible to go into a minute inquiry of the accounts, with any hope of an accurate result.

Mr. Windham

said, that the only practicable mode for attaining accuracy in the accounts, was to simplify the mode of paying the soldiery. In investigating the cause of the arrears which had accrued, much would depend on considering the degree of zeal, integrity, diligence, and intelligence employed by the persons to whom the investigation was referred. During his own continuance in office, he was conscious that much of each was exerted; and still the desirable result of bringing up those arrears could not be accomplished. The real cause of accumulation in those years was the great increase of the public force. Gentlemen who complained of these arrears seemed to forget not only the great increase of the regular army, but the addition of the Army of Reserve, the Supplemental Militia, the Volunteers, and Foreign Corps. The grist had exceeded the powers of the mill; and to remedy that defect, there must be more mills and more millers. However, if the hon. gentleman who made the motion, could produce any effectual plan to remove the defect of which he complained, he would render a great public benefit. But he must allow him to doubt the practicability of such a plan, from what he himself had already experienced.

Mr. Whitbread

thought that if the business of the army accounts was the private concern of an individual, there would be no more difficulty in avoiding arrears, and producing regular balances, than in any mercantile house. With respect to the foreign corps, the hon. gent. took occa- sion decidedly to censure the system adopted by government, under M. Charmilly, of enlisting into the British service French prisoners of war—men who, whatever might have been their principles, would not fail to profess any opinion or feeling that would procure for them not only liberation from imprisonment, but bounty, pay, and clothing in the British service, from which service, however, it was judged prudent to exchange them for British prisoners of war in France, while col. Charmilly was continued in full pay in the British service.

Mr. H. Thornton

said, that it had fallen to his lot as a member of the Finance Committee, to examine many items of those accounts, both printed and written, without being able to arrive at any clear or comprehensive idea upon the subject. It was one of much complication and difficulty, and the committee of which he had the honour to be a member, finding that the Commissioners of Military Inquiry were occupied upon the same subject, deemed it advisable to await their report before they proceeded further on the topic.

Mr. Bathurst

also bore testimony to the great difficulty of bringing up arrears, and producing regular accounts with minute detail. He denied that the system of those accounts was at all to be compared with the business of a merchant's counting-house. It was a mere business of audit at the war office, the minuter details being collected from a vast variety of other departments. The production of regular and minute accounts in the way proposed would cost the country infinitely more, in the addition of officers, than any real advantage to be attained was worth. It was therefore necessary either to increase the establishment, or diminish investigation. He should be happy to see the golden remedy promised by the hon. gent. who made the motion; but until it was explained and proved to him, he must be allowed to question its practicability.

Mr. Huskisson,

respecting the money advanced to M. Charmilly, for the enlistment of foreign soldiers, said, that he rendered a fair and satisfactory account; but he himself fully coincided in condemning the enlisting such soldiers into our service.

General Tarleton

said, it was an established maxim in all French books upon military affairs, never to enlist into the army prisoners of war, the subjects of a hostile state.

Mr. Peter Moore

thought it rather hard that his hon. friend who moved for those accounts, should be called on to produce and explain his plan, without first giving him the accounts which he required, as the data whereon to found that plan. When he received them, he had no doubt of his producing such a plan as the house would deem worthy of its consideration. The mode taken to remove the evil in the war office was utterly erroneous, and must continue rather to increase than diminish it. It was not by adding ten or twenty clerks to the office in this year or that, which could produce the desired effect, without due regard to the abilities and competence of those clerks. The men wanted were persons of real talent, and regular bred accountants, who were competent to investigate and detect mistakes, and not men who might be themselves peculators, and interested in passing fraudulent accounts. Of this class of persons he would state a case that came before the committee. One man produced an account on which he claimed a balance of 102,000l due to him by government, and expressed his surprize that the money was not paid him. Another was called, and interrogated as to the accuracy of this account, and stated that the claimant, so far from having a just demand against government for 102,000l. was himself a debtor to government of 143,000l. making only a difference of 215,000l.; and in the counter statement to shew this error, there was an item in one line, for mistakes, 31,000l.

The motion was then put and carried.