HC Deb 26 July 1854 vol 135 cc787-99

House in Committee of Supply.

(1.) 25,000l., Registrar, Court of Admiralty.


said, he must complain of the deficiency of evidence which still existed as to who were really to blame for not having looked after the late defaulting officer. This Vote had been postponed in consequence of his requiring the production of the Report of the three gentlemen who had been appointed by the Treasury to investigate the case of Mr. Swabey's defalcations, and the liability of the Treasury arising therefrom. If the Treasury were liable for the defalcations of this public officer, how was it that they had no control over him? The Commissioners stated that they thought the liabilities might be 19,000l. But so far from there being only that amount, he believed it was nearly 66,000l. There must be monstrous negligence somewhere, when a man could be a defaulter to that amount. If the Vote had been brought forward earlier, he should certainly have moved for a Committee to inquire under what responsibility this officer exercised his duty. He hoped that the example would act as a useful warning hereafter.


said, the circumstances of this case were very peculiar, and certainly ought to convey a salutary warning to the House of Commons. Mr. Swabey, the defaulting registrar, was originally one of the deputies of Lord Arden, when that nobleman held the sinecure office of Registrar of the High Court of Admiralty, and he so demeaned himself in that situation that lie acquired very general confidence. On the abatement of the great sinecure, at the death of Lord Arden, Parliament took on itself, not only to regulate the office prospectively, but also to appoint a successor to Lord Arden. The Parliament appointed Mr. Swabey to the office, as a person entitled to more than usual confidence; and, because he was so trusted by Parliament, he was released from the necessity of providing those ordinary securities required from an officer receiving a public appointment of such a nature. He was not subjected to any control, either on the part of the Admiralty or of the Treasury. Mr. Swabey retained his office for a long time without his credit being shaken, but on one fine morning he was found to be a defaulter to the amount of some 65,000. He (Sir James Graham) believed that, in strict law, the suitors in the Court of Admiralty, to whom the money for which Mr. Swabey was a defaulter was due, were not entitled to relief from the public; but, as it appeared hard that through the laches of Parliament the loss should fall on them, he, on behalf of the Judge of the Court of Admiralty, made a strong appeal to the Treasury, in order that the suitors in the Court might be held harmless. Every endeavour had been made to obtain from Mr. Swabey the repayment of the money, but in consequence of Mr. Swabey's shattered circumstances, 25,000l. out of 65,000l. might be taken as the amount, which there was not the slightest hope of recovering. He trusted that the circumstances of this case would teach the House the danger of encroaching upon the Executive Government, more especially with regard to the question of patronage, and that in future the Registrar of the Court of Admiralty, as well as other public officers, would be placed under the strictest supervision on the part of some public board. He had recently sent up to the House of Lords a Bill for the regulation of the Admiralty Court, and one of the provisions of that measure was, that henceforth the registrar should not receive fees, but should, in lieu of them, receive stamps, which would have the effect of reducing the sum of public money in the hands of the officer at any given time, and of preventing the recurrence of such a case as that of Mr. Swabey.


said, that this was one of those unfortunate circumstances which proved the truth of the saying, "that after the steed was stolen the stable door was closed." He thought the House ought to have further information on the subject, because they were left in ignorance as to the conditions under which this great sinecure held by Lord Arden had been abolished. If, previous to the abolition, the person appointed to the office had been in the habit of giving securities, then it would seem that there had been some negligence on the part of the Court of Admiralty in not requiring securities from Mr. Swabey.


said, he was sorry to say that be had been so long in that House that he remembered many prolonged arguments in defence of sinecures of the description held by Lord Arden. It was urged that, considering the immense sums intrusted to the Registrar, it was most desirable to have in that office Peers of Parliament—men of spotless honour and of large property—because any money security that could be obtained was not half so valuable as the security afforded by persons of exalted character. When Lord Arden held the office nothing could exceed the regularity with which the accounts were kept. Such was the case when the office was held by great sinecurists, who were responsible for their deputies. But the House of Commons, on the abolition of the sinecure, lulled into a false security on account of the regular and admirable conduct of the business of Lord Arden, thought it might transfer to the deputy, when appointed to the office, the same exemption from providing securities. However, experience had taught a wholesome lesson, and, in respect to the new appointment, the Government had made arrangements not only that securities should be taken, but that not so large a balance should again be left in the hands of the registrar.


said, he thought that some blame attached to the Admiralty for having allowed such large sums of public money to remain in the hands of the registrar. The right hon. Baronet had referred to a measure which he had sent to the House of Lords for the regulation of the Admiralty Court in this country; but he had not said how he proposed to deal with the Admiralty Courts in Sierra Leone, Ceylon, and other colonies, where reform was much needed. Loud complaints were made of the extravagant expenses charged in the Colonial Admiralty Courts, and he had heard of malpractices on the part of officers who, unlike Mr. Swabey, were under the control of the Admiralty. He believed that Mr. Swabey would never have been able to make away with 65,000l. of public money had there not been some great omission on the part of one or other of the Government departments.


said, this was an extremely awkward case. Here was a public functionary who had contrived to carry off 65,000l., and nobody could say how. The money seemed to have been got hold of under three heads, and if they analysed the case carefully they would find that the responsibility rested with different parties, but in no respect with the Admiralty. Upon a former occasion the right hon. Baronet gave him complete satisfaction with respect to the fee fund; but he wished to call the attention of the Committee to two other cases—that of the Crown fund, and that of the suitors' fund. With respect to the latter, he maintained that the office of Registrar of the High Court of Admiralty was distinctly regulated by an Act passed in the reign of Geo. III., whose provisions referred to the suitors' fund; and what he complained of was, that that Statute had not been duly carried into effect. In that Act the Judge of the Admiralty Court was required to make such regulations as he might consider necessary for the safe keeping of the suitors' fund, and he found there was to be an account kept in the Bank of England, that schedules were to be made from time to time of all the moneys deposited on behalf of the suitors in the Admiralty Court, and that in no case should the sum in the hands of the registrar amount to more than 10,000l. If the provisions of that Statute had been carried out, the public might have suffered to the extent of 10,000l.; but Mr. Swabey could not have misappropriated the large sum of 65,000l. He did not charge the Admiralty with having anything to do with this part of the case; on the contrary, he thought that the persons responsible, so far as the suitors' fund was concerned, was the Judge of the Admiralty Court, who ought to have obeyed the requisitions of the Act of Geo. III. In the case of the Crown fund the Commissioners of the Treasury were responsible, for it was admitted on all sides that, so far as the Crown fund was concerned, Mr. Swabey was the mere agent of the Commissioners. How came it, then, that they had not looked after that fund, and why had a public account not been kept? His own opinion was that the Committee should not grant the 25,000l. asked for until they had some clear explanation of how the loss had occurred. At all events there should have been a Committee to inquire into the transactions.


said, that when this case was before the House upon a former occasion the hon. Secretary of the Treasury stated that the assets of Mr. Swabey would, in all probability, cover the whole amount of the loss. The First Lord of the Admiralty had since informed the Committee that in his opinion there would be a deficiency of at least 25,000l. He thought the Committee ought not to vote any sum until they ascertained the exact amount of the loss. It was admitted that there was no legal obligation on the part of the public to pay this money; and yet, upon all occasions when such robberies—for that was their proper name—took place, the public was called upon to make up the deficiency. He hoped the House of Commons would set its face against the continuance of such a system.


said, bethought it would answer no useful purpose to advert to the past; it was, however, extremely important to determine what security should be taken in future. The right hon. Baronet the First Lord of the Admiralty had explained that the Lords of the Admiralty had not the appointment of the Registrar of the High Court of Admiralty, nor had they the appointment of the Judge of that Court, by whom the registrar was appointed; nor did it appear that the registrar was in any degree subject to the control of their Lordships. As to the future, it was recommended that with regard to the Crown fund, the moneys should not pass into the hands of the registrar at all, but that they should remain with the Paymaster General, the registrar being informed of the amounts from time to time. With regard to the suitors' fund, the arrangement hitherto had been for the Judge of the Court, who was the officer who ought to have the surveillance of that fund, to take ample security from the gentleman whom he appointed to manage that fund. Regulations were laid down requiring the registrar to render an account every month, which was audited, and the registrar was restrained from holding in his hand any balance exceeding 5,000l. at any one time. The whole defalcation in the accounts of Mr. Swabey was 65,000l.; the sum expected to be recovered was 40,000l., so that the actual defalcation would be 25,000l., This was the amount now proposed to be voted exclusively for the suitors' fund.


said, he did not agree with the hon. Gentleman in saying that it was of no use to revert to the past, for he was of opinion that the very best results might be arrived at if they could find out how these frauds had been committed. The right hon. Baronet the First Lord of the Admiralty had thrown all the responsibility on Parliament; his argument was, that the Registrar of the Court of Admiralty was appointed by Parliament, and therefore the Admiralty had nothing whatever to do with the misconduct of the party so appointed. He (Mr. Otway) could not admit the soundness of that reasoning. It seemed to him that when the First Lord of the Admiralty knew that the registrar had been appointed by Act of Parliament without being required to give securities, it was his bounden duty to have come down to the House and have taken the earliest steps to remedy that defect. He had been informed that the learned Judge of the Admiralty Court had distinctly proposed that security should be taken from the registrar, and that no attention was paid to the suggestion.


said, he must explain that the appointment of registrar was by special Act of Parliament, and that Mr. Swabey's appointment took place in 1840. It had been supposed that this officer was placed under the control of the Board of Admiralty, but, in point of fact, he was placed exclusively under the control of the Judge of the High Court of Admiralty. If Dr. Lushington did not take any security from the registrar, it might be supposed that it was because he placed great confidence in the man who had been specially appointed by Act of Parliament, and that misplaced confidence might have given rise to the fraud which had been committed. It was supposed that he (Sir J. Graham) had been guilty of negligence in not asking for a security, especially in a time of war; but what was the fact? The defalcation of Mr. Swabey took place at the end of December last year; war was declared in the month of March of this year.


said, that by the Report of the Committee on this subject, it appeared that several of the clerks in the office of the registrar were aware of the irregularities in the accounts. He wished to know whether those clerks were continued in their situations, and if so whether they had been reprimanded?


said, that it was impossible to suppose that by the Act of the 3 & 4 Vict., under which the registrar was appointed, any responsibility attached to the First Lord of the Admiralty, and he considered that the same observation applied to the learned Judge of the High Court of Admiralty. It would have been impossible for him to have exacted any security from a person so appointed by the Legislature itself. The hon. and gallant Member for Brighton (Sir G. Pechell) took an active part in passing that measure, which was the Bill by which Dr. Lushington was excluded from the House of Commons. Whatever blame, therefore, existed, attached to the Legislature, and to the Legislature alone. With respect to Mr. Swabey, the unfortunate person who had been guilty of this robbery was nevertheless a man who had the highest possible character, and whose connections were such as would induce any one to place confidence in him, and he (Mr. Phillimore) believed that, with this exception, nothing had ever been said against Isis character. He had, however, committed a grave offence, the blame of which attached quite as much to Parliament as to any individual whatever.


said, the Committee would make a great mistake in endeavouring to attach any responsibility to the First Lord of the Admiralty; but he differed from the hon. and learned Gentleman who had last addressed them in throwing the blame on Parliament. If the Judge of the Court of Admiralty had carried out the provisions of the Act of the 53rd of Geo. III. c. 151, by which the registrar was originally appointed, and which prescribed what were his duties, this fraud would not have been committed.

In reply to a question from Mr. HENLEY,


said, he could not undertake to say whether the Judge of the Admiralty Court had power to take security from Mr. Swabey when he was not empowered to do so by the Act of Parliament making the appointment. That was a legal question, which it was not for him to decide.


said, he would not divide the Committee upon the Vote, believing that it was the intention of an hon. Member, upon the bringing up of the report, to move for a Committee of Inquiry.

Vote agreed to.

(2.) 45,000l., Orange River Territory.


said, that the Vote was intended to facilitate the carrying out of the mission intrusted to Sir George Clerk in connection with the abandonment of the Orange River Sovereignty. A portion of the Vote—about 7,000—was required to pay the salary and travelling expenses of Sir George Clerk himself. Another and a very large portion was required to compensate the Dutch farmers who assisted the British authorities during their quarrel with the natives. Another item was required to compensate the Boers, whose property had been taken possession of while they themselves were acting against Government in 1848 under their leader Prætorius. Sir George Clerk thought it better to make an arrangement with these tribes—the Trans-Vaal Boers—by offering them a compensation for the loss of their property, which had been seized by other tribes during their absence when fighting against us, than to allow them to return and enter into conflict with those who had become possessed of that property. That was the way in which this money was to be spent. He did not know whether 45,000l. would be sufficient. It might amount to 50,000l. But if it amounted even to 60,000l., it would be a very economical disbursement, because the maintenance of troops in time of peace would cost 6,000l. a year, with now and then the probability of a war requiring the presence of an army and an enormous expenditure. On the whole he thought the abandonment of this territory, even if it cost 60,000l., would be a very economical arrangement.


said, he must complain of the public money being appropriated to all sorts of claims of this sort. He wished to know whether the territory was now in the possession of these Dutch Boers, and whether they stood between the British colonists and the black population.


said, he wanted to know why they had not an estimate of the entire amount required, and how much more it was supposed would be wanting to pay off these claims?


said, about 15,000l. more would, he thought, settle all the claims; but it was impossible as yet to state the amount with accuracy. In answer to the hon. Member for Lambeth he begged to say that these Boers stood between them and the Kafir population.


said, he could not understand why it was because the loyal part of the population was compensated, they must also compensate the disloyal portion?

Vote agreed to,

Motion made, and Question proposed— That a sum, not exceeding 2,000l., be granted to Her Majesty, in the year ending the 31st day of March, 1855, in aid of the subscriptions raised for the erection of a building at Nottingham, in which to deposit the valuable astronomical, &c., instruments presented to the country by Mr. Lawson.


said, this was a Vote which required sonic explanation. As far as he was at present informed, he thought it very doubtful whether the Committee ought to agree to it. He had received some information respecting it, and he had seen the subscription-list which was referred to in the Vote, and he saw the name of no man of science who vouched for the value of the instruments presented by Mr. Lawson. It was stated that the instruments cost 10,000l., 8,000l. of which (including 1,000l. given by Mr. Lawson) was raised by subscription; but he had been told that their real value was not anything equal to that sum. How was it that Mr. Hyde, the well-known astronomer, who was a native of Nottingham, did not lend his name to support this proposal? And, he would ask, who was to appoint the astronomer at this observatory? If this had been an application for a Vote in aid of the instruction of the people or for the promotion of science, he would not have objected to it; but he believed that, under the pretext of aiding science, the money would be appropriated to the private advantage of certain individuals. Should the Vote pass, it would be taken as a precedent; and if the House were to give money on these pretences, there would be no end to the claims that would be made upon them from the various towns in the kingdom. He, therefore, wished to know on what ground it was they were called upon to make this grant, and whether there was any real feeling in favour of it on the part of the people of the county of Nottingham?


said, he felt himself hound, having some local connection with the district to which the Vote referred, to give the Committee all the information he possessed on the subject. Something less than two years ago the gentlemen of the town and county of Nottingham were invited to assemble for the purpose of raising a subscription in aid of a proposal which had been made—namely, that a set of astronomical instruments of the value of 10,000l. would be presented to Nottingham by Mr. Lawson, if the gentlemen of the county would raise a sum equal to that amount to build and maintain a public institution. A meeting was held to see what could be done, and it appearing that the whole of the money could not be obtained from Nottingham, the assistance of the surrounding localities was sought. In the first place, it was considered necessary to ascertain whether any public advantage would be obtained by the purchase of the collection, and he (Mr. E. Denison) wrote to Sir John Herschel and Professor Airy, the Astronomer Royal, to ask their opinion whether astronomy and science in general would be advanced by the formation of such an institution. The answer of these gentlemen was in the negative. Since then two incidents had occurred, one favourable and the other unfavourable to the undertaking. The favourable incident was the intelligence that Government were going to be so good as to assist the local subscription by a grant of 2,000l. The unfavourable circumstance was the discovery that the astronomical instruments were worth many thousands of pounds less than had been represented. It was thought, however, Government would make inquiry before they proposed any grant from the public money to assist in the purchase, and the local inquiries which had been commenced were consequently suspended. It was considered the instruments might be useful for meteorological researches, but it should not be forgotten that they were astronomical and not meteorological instruments. This was the state of the case, and he was bound to say that if the question came over again he did not think there would be the same disposition on the part of the gentlemen of the locality to come forward with subscriptions. But the collection of private subscriptions was one thing, while the voting of public money was another, and he could not feel justified in voting the money of his constituents without a much stronger case being shown than could, as far as he was aware, be advanced in favour of this Vote, especially as there were such great doubts as to the value of the instruments.


said, he must explain to the Committee that the Government had understood that the value of the instruments had been ascertained by those locally interested. The proposition was, that as these instruments, which were said to be exceedingly valuable in a national point of view, had been offered for 10,000l., and that as the locality had already subscribed 8,000l. towards it, the Government ought to come forward to assist with the remaining 2,000l. Not being prepared to make such a grant on local grounds, the Government endeavoured to ascertain whether there were any public grounds for making such a proposition. To determine that point they referred to the Astronomer Royal and Sir John Herschel, who said that no public advantage would be gained by establishing an astronomical observatory on the site indicated, but that considerable public benefit would result from the establishment there of a meteorological observatory. This being the case, and assurance having been given that, in addition to instruments worth 10,000l., private subscriptions to the amount of nearly 8,000l. had been raised, the Government resolved on recommending the Committee to grant 2,000l. to carry out the object. It now appeared, however, that the instruments, which were the basis of the whole arrangement, were worth much less than had been represented; and under these circumstances he begged leave to withdraw the Vote.


said, he could not help observing that this Vote afforded a pretty fair instance of the careless way in which the public money was wasted. Had it not been for the exposé made by the hon. Member for Melton (Mr. E. Denison), this job would doubtless have been perpetrated.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

(3.) Motion made, and Question proposed, That a sum, not exceeding 140,000l., be granted to Her Majesty, for the purchase of Burlington House, Piccadilly.


said, with regard to this Vote, the Committee must be aware of the great difficulty experienced of late years in regard to the increasing demand for buildings for public purposes. A suns of not less than 11,000l. or 12,000l. was paid annually for the accommodation of public offices of various descriptions. The sale of the Excise Office in Old Broad Street, for which 120,000l. was realised, had tended to increase the difficulty of providing accommodation. The object in getting rid of that building was to concentrate the Excise department and other departments now combined with it in Somerset House. In Somerset House space was afforded to various learned societies, and the obtaining that space for the greater concentration of the public offices would be attended with great economy. It seemed to be the general opinion that these learned societies should depend for the most part on voluntary subscriptions, but that the provision of rooms in which to carry on their business was a fair and suitable contribution on the part of the State, and ought to be extended to certain bodies which had not hitherto enjoyed it. A small Vote had this year, he believed, been taken to provide rooms for the Geographical Society, but it was understood that was only an interim arrangement until the Government had space at their disposal. It was very possible in that event that accommodation would be extended to one or more bodies of the same description as the Geographical Society. There were, therefore, these two demands—first, a considerable and likely to be a growing demand from the multiplication of all the public departments; and secondly, a demand on the part of these learned societies. It might be supposed that the great purchase at Kensington would stand in the place of this Vote, but that view was more plausible than solid. The truth was, distance was all-important, and all these societies had recently expressed their unanimous conviction that, if accommodation for their meetings and ordinary business were offered at so great a distance as Kensington, they would be compelled to reject it. Under these circumstances, Her Majesty's Government thought it a fortunate event when they had the power to secure so large a site, amounting to nearly three acres and a half, in so admirable and convenient a situation as Burlington House. They thought it an opportunity that might not readily recur, while the necessity was pressing. He would also remind the Committee that at present Marlborough House was occupied by leave of the Crown for the advantage of the public, but the time would shortly come when it must be devoted to its proper purpose. Having, therefore, examined into the value of the site of Burlington House, they determined to offer a suns of 140,000l. That sum was at first refused. The Government stated that they would not deviate from terms which they thought just, and it was finally accepted. When the offer was first made, the Government were not involved so deeply in other demands of an extraordinary character; but a portion of the site, if thought fit, might be applied in a manner directly remunerative, being adapted for the frontage of shops. It would be impossible to retain the mansion as it stood; but the great bulk of the building erected on its site would be applicable to either one of the two great objects—the concentration of public offices, or the affording learned societies accommodation of which they were in need, and which it was clear should be given from the public resources.


said, he believed that, at such a distance from Downing Street, Burlington House would not be very well adapted for public offices. With regard to these learned societies, he hoped his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer would be very careful how he admitted these bodies, and let it be dis- tinctly understood that the accommodation was only temporary, and revocable at the pleasure of the Crown. They all knew what inconvenience had been experienced in the building of the National Gallery in consequence of a portion of it having been devoted to the Royal Academy, and they having thought proper to consider the occupation permanent. Before proceeding to destroy the beautiful mansion, he hoped some estimate would be submitted, and some plan of the structure to be raised in its place would be laid before the House.


said, the building would be very applicable to the various public commissions scattered about the metropolis, as well as those societies which possessed rooms at the expense of the Government. With regard to pulling down Burlington House, plans were in preparation in the office of the Board of Works, which would be submitted to the Government, and when approved by the Government, would be brought under the consideration of Parliament to obtain a Vote upon them. The right hon. Gentleman might rest perfectly assured nothing would be done until those plans had been carefully prepared and submitted to the Government.


said, that already Parliament had granted 200,000l. for the purchase of ground at Kensington, and the strongest argument for that grant was, that the building would be applicable to these very learned societies, who now thought it too distant. That Vote was proposed by Lord Derby's Government, and objected to by him as strongly as he now objected to this Vote.

And it being a quarter before Six of the clock, the Chairman reported progress, and Mr. Speaker resumed the Chair:—Committee to sit again To-morrow.

The House adjourned at twelve minutes before Six o'clock.