HC Deb 17 August 1835 vol 30 cc603-8
Mr. Warburton

rose to present a Petition from Mr. Silas Pearse, of Plymouth, complaining of the conduct of some members of the late Board of Admiralty. The petitioner stated that a contract for 30,000 cubic feet of limestone for the purposes of the Plymouth Breakwater, having been advertised for by the Board of Admiralty, he tendered the same at the rate of 7d. a cubic foot; but that the tender of another party, Mr. Scott, was accepted, although the latter tender was actually 8¾d. a cubic foot, being not less than 1¾d.. a cubic foot higher than the tender made by the petitioner. The petitioner further stated that this alleged act of public and private injustice did not end here, for that the extent of the contract granted to Mr. Scott was not for less than 60,000 feet of limestone, although no more than 30,000 feet was advertised for. There was this circumstance too, connected with the doubling the contract, which marked the character of the whole affair—namely, that M r. Scott made an application for it before any public notice had been given of the Admiralty's intention to have 60,000 instead of 30,000 feet of stone provided, The source of this early knowledge, the petitioner stated, might be guessed at from the fact that Mr. Scott was frequently seen walking arm-in-arm with Captain Ross, the officer charged with making the contract. The first contract was accepted in January. Seven days after the dissolution of the Ministry, upon its appearing likely that some inquiry would be made on the subject, Mr. Scott wrote to the new Board of Admiralty, to the effect that "Though he had agreed with Captain Ross for 8¾d. a cubic foot, he was willing, lest blame might otherwise be imputed, to to take the whole 60,000 feet at 8d." Under such circumstances as these had a gross injustice been done, not only to a most respectable and responsible individual, but to the public. "What could be the motive of such an extraordinary course of conduct in the parties complained of?" was the next question. The answer to it in no respect improved the character of the affair. The fact was, that Mr. Scott had been an active canvasser, at the last general election, for Sir George Cockburn, who was the brother-in-law of Captain Ross, and for Mr. Dawson the then Secretary of the Admiralty. As the conduct complained of was wholly irreconcileable with public duty, a private motive for the proceedings of Captain Ross must be sought, and here was a very intelligible one. The high respectability and property of Mr. Pearse was put beyond a doubt, by the testimony of the two Members for Plymouth; and in addition to his own responsibility, Mr. Pearse had offered to give unexceptionable security. He must express a hope that the noble Lord opposite, a Member of the late Board of Admiralty, would be able, in the absence of Mr. DawsOn, to explain this affair satisfactorily. His own opinion was, that the case was one which ought to be investigated by a select Committee; and though it was late in the Session, as the documents connected with it were all ready at hand, the inquiry might be gone through in the course of a few hours.

Lord Ashley

had to thank the hon. Member for his courtesy in advertising him of the presentation of the petition, as he had thereby been enabled to communicate on the subject with Mr. Dawson, who was in Ireland. As, however, he had been ignorant of the details of the case, as now brought forward by the hon. Member, his communication with Mr. Dawson was necessarily of a limited nature. As for himself he could only say, that neither had the peculiar department in question been under his control, nor, if it had was he in a condition to judge of the details of every case, beyond what he knew of them from the documents laid before him. One of the petitioner's complaints was, that Mr. Scott had early information of the extended contract, as was stated, from Captain Ross; but, supposing the former portion of his complaint to be correct, it did not by any means follow that the information came from Captain Ross; for it was quite easy for Mr. Scott to have had a communication from Mr. Stewart, the superintendent of the works at the Breakwater, who of course knew what the extent of the contract was to be. In reference to the complaint that Captain Ross had received tenders after the hour appointed for not receiving them, though it was true that Captain Ross had received tenders after that hour, twelve o'clock, he had received none after the opening of the first tender. It was true, also, that the first contract taken was at 8¾d. the cubic foot, but the difference between this and Mr. Pearse's tender was not so great as had been represented. He had been that morning with Mr. Taylor, the civil engineer, upon whose calculation the statement made by the hon. Member was founded; and that gentleman now stated that the calculation by which he had estimated Mr. Pearse's tender, as at 7d. a cubic foot, was a mistake, owing to his having supposed the ton of lime-stone to contain fifteen, instead of the real quantity, thirteen cubic feet. The result of a correction of this error was, that Mr. Pearse's tender, instead of being 7d., was 7¾d. a cubic foot. Throughout the whole affair, however, the full understanding on the part of the Admiralty was that Mr. Scott's contract was for 8d., and this was the understanding on which they had directed Captain Ross to grant Mr. Scott the further contract of 30,000 feet of stone, "on the same terms as before." Mr. Dawson, however, would probably have enabled him (Lord Ashley) to explain the case more circumstantially, but, as he had before said, he had only been in a position to put the simple question to that gentleman, "Why had not Mr. Pearse's contract been accepted?" and to this question Mr. Dawson had returned an answer, which he (Lord Ashley) would presently state to the House. But the difficulties in this case arose out of the circumstance that Mr. Scott had sent two tenders—one to Captain Ross, at 8¾d., and the other to the Admiralty, at 8d.; and it did not appear that Captain Ross had communicated the tender made to him: the Admiralty thought that the contract had been made at the lowest price, viz., at 8d.; and when an additional quantity was wanted, it was not thought necessary to look out for another contractor. Why the contract of Mr. Pearse was not taken, was explained in the following passage of a letter which, as he before stated, he had received from Mr. Dawson:—"When the tenders came from Plymouth, a caution was sent with them, that Mr. Silas Pearse, who had had some previous dealings with Government offices, had not completed his undertakings, and was also represented to have been a bankrupt, was totally incapable of completing the contract, and was not a man to be dealt with. The Government had been so ill-treated and cheated in all its contracts regarding the Breakwater, that it was desirable, if possible, to treat with persons who could perform their engagements." When such a caution as that was received, he (Lord Ashley) did not think that the Government would have been justified in entering into a contract with Mr. Silas Pearse. Surely the hon. Member for Bridport would admit that the Government must have a regard to some other points in making contracts than the mere lowness of the tender. They must look to the punctuality of the contractor—to his character in business—to the quality of the material, and above all to his means of completing what he undertook. Having received the caution from Plymouth, it was impossible for Mr. Dawson to accept the tender of Mr. Pearse. He (Lord Ashley) had no more to say than to regret that the hon. Member had gone go far as to impute to the right hon. Secretary for the Admiralty, improper motives: he was most zealous in the public service, and anxious for the honour of the department to which he had belonged.

Sir Edward Codrington

had received many letters from his constituents on the subject, and was desirous of saying a few words. He was surprised at what the noble Lord had ventured to say of Mr. Pearse's character without having any documents to support his assertion, and he appealed to the present Secretary to the Admiralty whether any such existed in that department. [Mr. Charles Wood was not aware of any.] On the contrary he had received from his constituents the highest character of Mr. Pearse. The noble Lord had striven, not very effectually to be sure, to show that one contract ought to have been taken instead of the other, and he had not been able to show that Mr. Pearse's offer was not the lowest; in the papers before the House it was stated that Mr. Scott's was the lowest offer, but the fact was otherwise. [Lord Ashley: It was the lowest received from any body whose offer ought to have been accepted.] That must depend upon the character of Mr. Pearse, of which some unfair representations seemed to have been made, in order to get him out of the competition. Could the noble Lord prove that Mr. Pearse's character was bad? He (Sir E. Codrington) believed that it was as good as that of Mr. Scott; and it was an additional reason for inquiry, that justice might be done to Mr. Pearse. It could not occupy much time, as the merits and demerits of the whole case could be seen at once. He begged to ask the present Secretary to the Admiralty who had put their initials to the two Nota benes in one of the papers; they were those of Mr. Taylor, the architect, but he believed they were not in fact affixed by him; they came in the middle of Mr. Taylor's calculations, but they were not his, and one of them purported to state that Mr. Scott, in his letter of the 18th of Feb., had made the lowest offer, viz., 8d. per foot. This, as was evident, was not the fact; and it was but justice to Mr. Taylor that it should be understood that the initials were not his, or at least that he had not placed them against the Nota bene. There was something extraordinary, if not suspicious in this circumstance, that although the tender for the first 30,000 feet of limestone was by advertisement, the second 30,000 feet was agreed for privately. If the proceeding had been public, he (Sir E. Codrington) had reason to know that the offer of Mr. Pearse would have been the same as for the first 30,000 feet; perhaps had he agreed to supply the whole 60,000 feet at once, his offer would have been as much lower as Mr. Scott's had been. He (Sir E. Codrington) also wished that a Committee should have an opportunity of seeing the letter from Mr. Scott to Mr. Dawson, as he supposed that such a communication existed. The whole case required close investigation, and minute sifting.

Mr. Charles Wood

did not believe that the initials alluded to were those of Mr. Taylor, and agreed with the noble Lord that it was quite clear that the intention of the Admiralty was, that the contract should be for 30,000 feet of lime-stone, at 8d.; Captain Ross did not so understand it, and he made the contract at 8¾d. Mr. Scott's offer was not sent to the Admiralty in the regular form of a tender, but in a letter to Mr. Dawson, at the Admiralty.

Mr. Warburton

said that the explanation of the noble Lord was most unsatisfactory, and he would move for a Committee on the subject to-morrow.

Lord John Russell

observed, that all seemed to turn upon the credit and character of Mr. Pearse, because he entirely agreed with the noble Lord that it might be extremely wrong in a Government office to take the lowest tender. It might be made by a person who had no means of fulfilling it, and injury would thus be done to the public service. If there were sufficient facts to establish that he was a person with whom no engagement should be made, the Admiralty would be justified in taking Mr. Scott'soffer. Therefore, the whole question was a matter of character, and it might be fit to institute an inquiry.

Lord Ebrington

bore a favourable testimony to Mr. Pearse's character.

Petition laid on the Table.