HC Deb 24 June 1823 vol 9 cc1139-47
Mr. Denman

said, he rose to present a petition from the hon. Basil Cochrane, complaining of the irregular and oppressive mode of doing business, as pursued by the Victualling Board. The petitioner stated, that he had claims on the board and he complained of cost which he had incurred to have his accounts investigated. Petitioner had written to the board, from India, forty-nine packets, containing one hundred and twenty-four letters, and he had received but one answer from the board. The petitioner stated that he came to England for the purpose of getting rid of all delays, the board having required him to produce not fewer than 9,000 duplicates of papers. Scarcely any of the originals were lost, and petitioner believed this demand to be made solely for the purpose of causing delay. Upon the examination of his accounts, the board claimed a balance of 9,129l., the payment of which they required in a month. Upon a further investigation, they admitted that 5,806l., were not due; thus reducing the balance to the sum of 2,322l., of which they required the peremptory payment in the space of five days. For a part of this sum the petitioner was prosecuted in the court of Exchequer. The charge made against the petitioner was for two items, one for the rate of interest on money lent; the other for the charge of one per cent commission. After a procrastination of the proceedings for four years, and the petitioner being exhausted in mind and body, he offered the board to accept an annuity of 753l., for eleven years, in lieu of the commission, which they agreed to accept. Further investigation then took place, and the final result was, that a balance was struck in favour of the petitioner, to the amount of 902l. 11s.d. more than his claim for commission. Thus was he under prosecution in the court of Exchequer for four years, and demands made against him at one time for 9,129l.; at another for 3,322l.; and he was called on in the most peremptory manner, to pay this latter sum in five days, and finally he was found to be a creditor, and not a debtor. The costs to which he was incidentally exposed in the course of the proceedings, amounted to 3,000l. He had surrendered his claim to 5,000.; for otherwise the board would not pay him the balance which he had mentioned. The hon. and learned gentleman said, that in his opinion, the charge was of a most serious nature, and required immediate investigation. The petitioner could not mislead, for he referred in every step to documents which could not deceive. The circumstances of the case shewed a great irregularity in the board. It was a fair specimen, he presumed, of the manner in which they transacted the public business; and he trusted, that hon. members who paid particular attention to such matters, would have this petition printed, and give to it all that attention which it so well deserved.

Sir Joseph Yorke

said, that he had the honour of a seat at the board of Admiralty, when this transaction was under discussion. Business had been done to the amount of a million and a half; forty-nine packets of letters had been written on the subject, it was not, therefore, singular, that it should be a case of difficulty. The accounts had been often discussed. It appeared to him to be like an amicable suit between the parties. The petitioner had been contractor in India since the year 1794, and he had charged one and a half per cent commission, and twelve per cent interest for money lent to government. These demands could not be complied with; he knew the board to have been most anxious for the adjustment of all the accounts: and he lamented that the settlement had been deferred to the year 1822.

The Solicitor General

expressed his astonish men t, that the hon. and learned member who had presented the petition, did not state why the original balance against the petitioner was reduced from 9,129l. to 3,322l.; the fact was, that 5,806l. were paid for him by his agent, on account of this balance. Of the other items, he had claimed 400l. commission, and 1,800l. interest, and he had also demanded a half per cent for what be called his contingent account. These claims were not allowed He also required twelve per cent interest, which, was refused. The board sued him in the court of Exchequer, and before the cause was brought to trial, it was referred to the arbitration of two counsel one was the lawyer employed by Mr. Cochrane, the other was employed against him. The arbitrators had power to call in an umpire, if they differed. The did not differ they decided against the petitioner: his claim of 12 per cent interest was reduced to five; his demand of one-half commission was still undecided, when he had made a fresh claim of 3,000l. He had also started a new demand of 15,000l. an ultimate arrangement was, however, (made, that the petitioner should receive a sum of 1,200l. as an equivalent for all demands; and this sum had been. Paid him. These are the circumstances, or the case; and the House would perceive, from the documents themselves, the hon. Basil Cochrane had no just cause of complaint against either the Victualling board, or the law officers of the Crown, for the steps which had been taken under their direction and advice.

Mr. T. Wilson

thought, that the charge of delay on the part of the victualling board, remained untouched. The system pursued by the board was at once oppressive to the individual, and prejudicial to the public.

Sir I. Coffin

said, that the passing of the public accounts required much time, and was attended with great difficulty.

Mr. Grey Bennet

thought, that the public was always a loser by the slow passing of accounts. He thought that the public offices had been much stinted with regard to clerks, and hoped that this inconvenience would be remedied next session.

Sir G. Cockburn

wished to remind the House that the delay had not taken place in the office; the accounts having been settled in the year 1811. The delay, down to the year 1819, had been occasioned by the law proceedings.

Mr. Croker

agreed fully with the hon. member for Shrewsbury in his ideas. The accounts even had not been in dispute since the year 1794; they were brought into the office in the year 1808. For his part, he could bear the most unequivocal testimony, not only to the integrity, but also to the celerity and zeal of the Victualling board. He thought, that, for peace sake, a greater degree of indulgence had been shown to the petitioner than was consistent with strict propriety.

The Attorney General

said, that the petitioner did not arrive, as he asserted, from India in the year 1806, but in the year 1807; neither was he sent for He came of his own accord, and he know his accounts were the first investigated.

Mr. Hume

thought, that this was a fair specimen of the manner in which the public accounts were passed.

Mr. Denman

was of opinion, that what had been said by the law officers of the Crown did not satisfactorily account for the delay that had appeared in the transaction. He would therefore move "that the petition be laid on the table and printed."

The Petition was then read; setting forth.

"That the petitioner was contractor and agent for victualling his majesty's squadron in the East Indies for a period of nearly twelve years, namely, from September 1794 to March 1806, during which time the petitioner disbursed public monies to the amount of 1,500,000l., and upwards; that during the whole of the said period, the petitioner kept his accounts with the utmost regularity, and transmitted quarterly statements thereof, accompanied by vouchers and letters explanatory of the same to the victualling board in London; that so great was the negligence of the said victualling board with respect to their accounts, that although the petitioner sent to them forty-nine packets, and one hundred and twenty-four letters, he received only one letter from them; and the said victualling Board made no other acknowledgment, save as aforesaid either' to the petitioner or to his agent in London, to whom the petitioner referred the said victualling board for any explanation that might be wanting in respect of his said accounts; that the said agent of the petitioner having repeatedly requested the said victualling board to enter into the examination of the petitioner's said accounts, at length informed the petitioner, by a I letter dated 5th September, 1805, that the said victualling board had only then begun to examine his account for the year 1794; and the petitioner, conceiving that his presence might materially assist in such examination, did, immediately upon the receipt of the said letter, write to the said victualling board, requesting them to apply to the lords commissioners of the admiralty, to permit the petitioner to return to England, with a view of facilitating a final settlement of his accounts, and also to appoint agents to act for him during his absence from India; that in the correspondence which took place upon the occasion, between the victualling board, and the lords of the admiralty, previous to the petitioner's arrival in England, the said victualling board acknowledged the regularity with which the petitioner had transmitted his accounts, and also that they had received from the petitioner a regular series of vouchers in support of his charges; that while the petitioner was making arrangements with Messrs. Balfour and Baker, the gentlemen who were to act for him during his absence he rieceved a letter from the said victualling board, calling upon him to furnish them with duplicates of all the vouchers he had obtained during his transactions with them; that the said requisition was made solely for the purpose of delay, and to prevent a settlement of his accounts; for the petitioner afterwards discovered, that out of nine thousand vouchers sent by him to the said victualling board, only one hundred and eighty-one were required to be again furnished by the petitioner; that upon receiving the said requisition, the petitioner resolved to resign his contract, and to lose no time in proceeding to England, and having obtained permission from sir Edward Pellew, the commander in chief, to leave India, and to appoint the said Messrs. Balfour and Baker his successors in the contract, instead of being merely his agents, set sail for England, where he arrived in the month of April, 1807: that between the years 1807 and 1809, the petitioner used every endeavour to induce the said victualling board to enter upon the investigation of his said accounts; he attended at the victualling office, and furnished the deficient vouchers, and every paper and document which could throw any light upon his said accounts, or expedite the examination thereof; and further proposed to the said victualling board, that if they would allow him the assistance of two clerks, he would undertake to go through, and explain, the whole of his accounts in a fortnight; that after repented and vexatious delays on the part of the said victualling board, the petitioner's accounts were, in the month of March, 1809, at length taken up for examination by the committee for cash and store accounts, and between that time and the beginning of the year 1811, the greater part of them were examined, approved, and closed; that in the month of April, 1811, the said victualling board sent the petitioner their audit upon his accounts, which was comprised in forty-seven different statements, and on the 31st July following, they wrote to the petitioner, stating that they had formed their final balances, amounting to 9,129l. Os that they would allow him one month to pay it, and if he failed, would institute legal proceedings against him, and thus give him the benefit of a legal decision; that the petitioner having with difficulty obtained a further delay, did satisfy the said victualling board that he was not accountable for they sum of 5,806l. 16s. 9d part of the alleged ba- lance of 9,129l. 0s. 1d., which thus reduced the said sum to an alleged balance against him, amounting to 3,322l. 3s. 4d that the said victualling board did shortly afterwards, by a letter, dated the 6th of November, 1811, acknowledge the correctness of the petitioner's statement, by deducting from their alleged balance of 9,129l. 0s. 1d. the said sum of 5,806. 16s. 9d.; and the said letter further informed the petitioner, that "if the said sum of 3,322l. 3s. 4d., now the final balance against him, were not paid in five days from the date of their said letter, instructions would immediately be given to their solicitor, to proceed against him, as their patience was perfectly exhausted;" that the said victualling board did accordingly commence a prosecution in the Court of Exchequer against the petitioner, the said prosecution being for the recovery of two items, part of the said balance of 3,322l. 3s. 4d., namely, one item on account of 1 per cent commission charged by the petitioner on certain disbursements, and amounting to the sum of 1,889l. 10s. 9¾ and the other item on account of 12l. per cent interest per annum (the legal interest in India) on money advanced by the petitioner to government, and amounting to the sum of 994l. 5s. 10¾ and the petitioner submits, that the said victualling board acted with no less irregularity than injustice, in prosecuting him for a part only of a final balance and holding over his head a second prosecution in respect of the remainder of that balance; that the said victualling board did, by every species of delay, procrastinate the said suit in the Exchequer for a period of four years, during which time, the petitioner was harassed and exhausted in mind and body, besides being put to very considerable expense, as hereinafter-mentioned, arid, at length, seeing no hope of the said prosecution being brought to a hearing and issue, the petitioner proposed to the said victualling board, to accept an annuity of 753l. 15s., during the eleven years that his said agency had subsisted, in lieu of his claim to the Said item of 1,889l. 10s.d. and of a charge of 5 per cent commission upon certain purchases made by him; and with respect to the other item of 994l. 5s. 10¾, the petitioner proposed to submit the same to the award of arbitrators, to be mutually chosen; that the said victualling hoard agreed to accept the proposal of the petitioner, and thereupon an account was stated between them, in respect of the petitioner's said claims for commission, and the said sum which the petitioner had agreed to accept in lieu thereof, and the balance upon that account was found to amount to the sum of 902l. 11s. 3½ in favour of the petitioner, which said sum was afterwards paid to the petitioner by the said victualling board; and thus, after being prosecuted for four years, and harassed and exhausted in mind and body, the petitioner actually received the said sum of 902l. 11s. 3½ from the said victualling board, instead of paying them the sum of 1,889l. 10s. 9¾ for which he had been so unjustly exchequered; that the other item of 994l. 5s. 10¾d on account of interest, for the recovery of which the petitioner had also been prosecuted as aforesaid, was, by an order of the Court of Exchequer, dated the 17th of December 1819, referred to arbitration, although the said victualling board were well aware that the same charge had been allowed by the navy board in the accounts of Mr. Henry Sewell, formerly naval agent at Madras, and who had advanced his own funds at the same time, and under the like predicament, as the petitioner; that the arbitrators admitted of the principle upon which the petitioner had made the charge of interest, but reduced the rate from twelve to five per cent, contrary to the order of reference from the Court of Exchequer, which confined them to the question of whether interest should be allowed or not, and took no notice of the rate to be allowed; but the petitioner being desirous to obtain a settlement of his accounts, which, up to this time (May 1820), had been kept open for a period of thirteen years since his return to England, he did not object to the award: the petitioner was accordingly, on the 11th day of July, 1820, paid the sum so declared de to him, and which said sum amounted to 353l. l1s. 6d.; that the expenses to which the petitioner has been put, in defending the said suit in the Exchequer, amounted to the sum of 287l. 14s. 3d., and the expense during the progress of the said arbitration amounted to the further sum of 289l. 15s. 6d., making, in all, the sum of 577l. 9s 9d. besides other expenses consequent upon the said suit in the Exchequer, and incident to the audit of his accounts, to an amount not less than 3,000l.; and the petitioner submits that, in instituting the said proceedings against him, the said victualling board had not a shadow of pretence; that the gross injustice of their proceedings has been manifested by their immediately consenting to reduce their arbitrary balance of 9,129l. Os. 1d., to 3,322l. 3s. 4d.; by their afterwards picking out two particular items, and prosecuting the petitioner upon them, and not upon the whole balance which they alleged was due from him; by their consenting not only to waive the claim which they made to the sum of 1,889l. 10s.d. but actually to pay the petitioner the sum of 902l. 11s.d.; by their submitting their remaining claim to arbitration, and thereupon paying the petitioner the sum of 353l. 11s. 6d. instead of being paid the sum of 994l. 5s. 10¾d.; and, in fine, by their having paid to the petitioner the sum of 1,282l. 7s. upon the final close and settlement of his accounts, instead of receiving from him the sum of 3,322l. 3s. 4d. which they alleged to be due from him as aforesaid; and the petitioner begs further to state, that to bring the said victualling board to this settlement, he has been obliged to sacrifice claims to the extent of upwards of 5,000l., to which he considers he had a well-founded right, and which the petitioner is enabled to prove, the said victualling board having refused to pay to the petitioner the balance which, according to their own showing, was due to him, unless he relinquished those claims; the petitioner therefore humbly prays, That the House would direct an inquiry to be forthwith instituted into the conduct and proceedings of the said victualling board, and allow him to be heard, by his counsel and agents, in respect of the matters aforesaid: and that the House would be pleased further to institute an inquiry into the hardships sustained by public accountants, from Exchequer process and otherwise, in order to afford the petitioner such relief in the premises, as to their wisdom may seem meet, and to prevent others from suffering the like injustice in time to come.

Ordered to lie on the table, and to be printed.