HC Deb 25 March 1831 vol 3 cc951-7

On the question that the Chairman leave the Chair,

Sir Byam Martin

said, he wished to call the attention of the Committee to a matter involving the credit of the King's Service. He did not intend to trouble the House for a long time on the subject, but he thought the matter was of sufficient importance to call on him to bring it under consideration. It had been publicly asserted, and the assertion had been studiously put abroad, that the late Board of Admiralty, and himself among the number, had made an improper use of the public money. A more scandalous and slanderous falsehood had never been uttered. He now called on the right hon. Baronet, the First Lord of the Admiralty, to state, whether, in the late Board of Admiralty, the Navy Pay-office or the Victualling Board, one shilling, or even one farthing, had ever been applied otherwise than for the public service? He called upon the right hon. Baronet to state, with that frankness and candour which always distinguished him, his opinion on this subject, formed as that opinion was upon an examination made by the right hon. Baronet himself. He was sure that a feeling of regard for the credit of the King's Service, and for the honour of the individuals concerned, some of whom now served under the right hon. Baronet, would induce him to give an explicit answer to the question, and to say whether they had ever improperly expended the public money. It was a matter of importance to all the parties concerned, and he asked not only for himself, but for the late First Lord of the Admiralty, and for all the persons connected with all the Navy departments, from the highest officer down to the meanest messenger or servant in them, whether by any one of these persons, any one single farthing of public money had ever been expended except in the public service?

Sir J. Graham

did not hesitate at once to answer the question. The hon. Baronet asked whether he (Sir J. Graham) was of opinion, after the investigation of the subject that had been carried on under his direction, whether in the Admiralty, the Navy Board, of which the hon. Baronet was at the head, and the Victualling Office, any portion of the money voted by that House for the public service had been applied to other uses? He answered at once, that decidedly no money had been so appropriated by the members of the different departments referred to. The hon. Baronet then went a step further, and asked him whether he thought any of the public money had been improperly expended by these Boards? With that frankness and candour for which the hon. Baronet had the kindness to give him credit, he would state—he was bound to state—his real opinion, which was, that he did think an improper use had been made of the money, inasmuch as some of the sums voted by that House, to be applied to particular purposes, had been applied to purposes of an entirely different kind. He thought that such an application of the public money opened a door to great abuses, and that if great abuses had not been committed, at least, the system was liable to produce them. He, having discovered this practice, had thought it his duty to bring the matter under the notice of that House. He did not mean to inculpate any one. He repeated, that these monies had not been applied to the use of any one individual, that he had not accused any one of malversation, but of misappropriation of these monies, proceeding from an error of judgment; and from the usages of ancient practices, which had long continued unchecked, but which became daily more and more dangerous, from the excess to which these applications might be carried. Certainly, without any pretence for saying there had been any malversation, there had been an extensive misappropriation of the public money; he had, therefore, thought it his duty to put a check upon the practice at present, and to take ample precautions against its future recurrence. If he had not decidedly entertained the opinion he had just expressed, it would have been hardly possible that he, in his situation, could have had to answer the hon. Baronet in his situation, who was still one of his colleagues in the Navy Department, and who was at this moment still holding the office of Comptroller of the Navy.

Sir B. Martin

admitted fully the truth of what had been stated by the right hon. Baronet, as to the expenditure of the public money on objects for which it had not been specifically voted; but he wished to observe, that that had been the practice of the service for a long time past, and that the custom had always been to keep up a greater number of men than had been voted. It had also been the practice to take the sums stated in the Estimate as the gross sum that would be applicable to all the purposes of the Navy Department. That practice had received the sanction and support of Grenville, of Fox, of North, and of Welbore Ellis; and he would venture to say, that, do what they might, the practice must still continue, unless that House voted such ample sums as would be sufficient to meet all exigencies. He had proofs in his possession to establish the truth of his opinion on that point, but he would not trouble the House with them at that moment. He repeated, that though a different practice might be now adopted, it could not long continue. The House might make the Appropriation Act one day, and a gale the next might blow it into atoms. He would only add, that what had been done by the late First Lord of the Admiralty, had been done by all preceding First Lords of the Admiralty, whether Whig or Tory.

Sir J. Graham

thought this was not a convenient opportunity for discussion upon measures he had adopted with reference to this subject; and it was hardly decorous for him to enter into the discussion with the gallant Admiral, who certainly had produced the authority of great names, but who in his statement had omitted one most important feature of the case, namely, that with respect to this subject there had been a complete change of the law in the year 1798, when a new form of the Appropriation Act was adopted, so that all the practice and all the authorities of previous Lords of the Admiralty went for nothing. He did admit, that with respect to the repair of ships, an estimate was still but an estimate, and might fail in being correct; but he contended, that when through particular circumstances, it did fail in correctness, it was due to the Commons of England, that there should be no concealment; that nothing should be kept back, but that, foreseeing the necessity of making a heavier charge than before, that necessity should be frankly and truly stated. They might make the best of the matter, but he repeated, that it was due to the Commons of England to let them know the exact appropriation of the money they had voted, and that had not been the practice for the last four or five years. He had before mentioned the unauthorised expenditure of public money at Weovel, and at other places, and he would now refer to two other cases of the same sort that he had recently discovered. The first of these was the erection of the mills at Deptford, which were connected with the manufactures going on in the Victualing Yards there. The erection of these mills was commenced in the year 1826, and was finished in 1827, and the cost was 76,237l. The whole sum voted by Parliament for these buildings was 8,000l. The other case was that of the Naval Hospital at Chatham, which was likewise commenced in 1826, and finished in 1827. That erection cost 61,659l., and only 7,000l. had been voted for it. He was prepared at the proper time to go into the discussion of this subject upon all the grounds connected with it; and when he did so—he was sure if that House was -not lost to all sense of what was due to its own dignity—he was sure that they would take care that such practices as those to which he had referred should not be repeated.

Sir G. Clerk

said, it had always been the wish of the Lords of the Admiralty so to frame the Estimates that they should not be likely to exceed the sums that might be wanted. It was impossible to check the expenditure in the manner supposed by the right hon. Baronet, for, after it had been ordered, the details of that expenditure never came again under the notice of the Board of Admiralty, nor had they till very lately the means of knowing how the money had been expended. Ships were generally three years on a foreign station; they were then ordered home, and others were sent out to relieve them. Between the time of the home ships getting out and the ships on the foreign station coming home, a double expense of wages arose, and as the number of ships thus relieved was not the same in every year, it became impossible always to be aware of the exact amount that would be required for that branch of the service. He was not a little astonished when he heard the hon. members for Middlesex and the Queen's County express their surprise at the discovery that the money voted for the purchase of timber should have been applied in the payment of wages. That application took place in 1827, and under peculiar circumstances. The expenses of that year were greater than had been anticipated. A number of men were sent in ships to the Tagus; and as it was impossible to leave the coasts of Kent and Sussex unprotected, a greater number of men was employed, and the amount of money required for wages was greater than had been anticipated. Up to the year 1829, the rate of wages had been fixed at 2l. 9s. per month. The amount too was increased by the length of time our squadron was obliged to remain abroad. That was not the amount of wages of particular men, but it was the average. In the year 1829, however, on account of the deficiency of the sum voted for wages in the preceding "years, the Government were compelled to apply to the House for a Vote, calculated at 2l. 12s. per month. He (Sir G. Clerk) then stated that on a former occasion the deficiency of wages was made up from the surplus arising from the sale of stores. The recent surprise of the hon. Members was therefore not easily to be accounted for. What was the result of the increase of the estimate of the wages for 1829? Why, this; that in that year the difference between the estimate and the expenditure only amounted to 25l. In 1827 there was 33,000 men employed, and the wages amounted to 191,000l. more than the sum voted for them. The aggregate of the excess of the expenditure over the estimate in that and the two following-years, owing to the peculiar circumstances he had stated, amounted to 404,000l.; but, during the same period, the money expended in timber was nearly 1,000,000l. less than had been voted. So that in the end the country lost nothing through the system to which the right hon. Baronet objected. Besides this, the Admiralty had nothing to do with the payment of wages, which was under the immediate control of the Navy Board. With respect to the direction of expenditure upon public works connected with the Victualling Board, he believed it would be found that, having surplus money in their hands, they expended that money on works which the Admiralty and that House had successively sanctioned. After any works had received the sanction of the Admiralty and of Parliament, it was left to the particular department to which they related to carry them into execution, and on that department depended the question of how soon the works were to be finished, or how long they were to be delayed. The Government, anxious as much as possible to keep down the annual expenditure, desired that no works which were not absolutely necessary might be pressed forward; and some public works had therefore gone on slowly, in order that the expenditure for the particular year might be kept down. It would frequently be consistent with good economy to proceed more rapidly with these works; but the wish of the Government, he had before stated, restrained the particular department from proceeding with them very rapidly. With respect to the works at Weovel, he would just mention one circumstance. When it was stated to the Treasury that the new buildings required at that place might be erected by the money that would be obtained from the sale of the materials of the old and useless buildings there, authority was given for the department to go on with those works. The whole of the expenditure stated to be necessary was 50,000l.; and the old buildings when sold produced nearly that sum. He found that a sum of 80,000l. had been paid for the wharf wall, and other works and repairs, since the right hon. Baronet had come into office. Surely, if the right hon. Baronet wished to claim the merit of consistency, he ought to have refused to pay the money which had been expended on works undertaken without authority of Parliament. He was prepared to admit, that that caution, which the right hon. Baronet wished to introduce into the department with which he was connected, might in, some instances, be beneficial. As far as the late Board of Admiralty was concerned, he could assure the House that the members of that Board desired nothing more than that the strictest scrutiny should be instituted into the manner in which the public money had been expended. He should consider it a personal obligation to any hon. Member who would move for papers that would lead to a full inquiry.

Lord Althorp

suggested that the hour was passed which had been fixed for entering upon the subject of the Civil List. As the hon. Baronet had had the opportunity of making his explanation, perhaps the House would consider that sufficient.

The House resumed.