HC Deb 18 June 1860 vol 159 cc580-9

said, he wished to call attention to the proceedings of the Weedon Commission, and to the expense incurred by it; together with the Report of the Auditors of the Treasury on that expenditure. He had obtained a Committee some years ago to inquire into the working of that establishment, and into the mode of taking contracts on behalf of the Government. The Committee was reappointed in the next Session, when he had no longer a seat in the House; but as some defalcations became apparent in the course of the Inquiry, the House interfered, and a Royal Commission was appointed to inquire into the circumstances. But, instead of committing that investigation to military men, or even to officers connected with the Civil Service, gentlemen were chosen, of undoubted respectability, who had, of course, done their best, but who, he ventured to think, were not qualified for conducting the Inquiry. The Commissioners appeared to believe that Mr. Elliot in discontinuing the system of book-keeping enjoined by the orders of the Department to which he belonged had only committed a trivial offence; but if these books had remained in existence it would have been impossible for the disastrous consequences which they all lamented to have occurred. Considerable doubt existed whether the Commissioners had not exceeded their powers, and a lengthened correspondence with the War Office ensued; one of the steps taken by them being to withdraw their accounts from the hands of Mr. Commissary Adams and his staff of military assistants, and to place them in those of Mr. Jay, a professional accountant. The Bill of that gentleman came to a sum exceeding £8,000; to which was to be added the preliminary expenditure by Mr. Adams, and the cost of the inquiry itself. This would raise the cost of the inquiry to something like £12,000. The claim was referred to the auditor, Mr. Arbuthnot, who commented warmly upon it, and maintained that half the amount demanded would be ample compensation. The objections to the claim of Mr. Jay, who was a member of the firm of Quilter, Ball, and Co., were—first, that instead of the accounts being furnished in October, as Commissary Adams had undertaken, they were not delivered till the July following; the expenses, according to the plan of Commissary Adams, would only have been £900, instead of the enormous charge which was now preferred; and, finally, the auditor declared that the accounts as presented by Mr. Jay had no practical value whatever. Some very ludicrous mistakes were pointed out. For instance, in totting up a certain number of thousands of pairs of boots a quantity of bootlaces was included to make up the requisite total— the value of the boots being 8s. 10d. a pair, whereas the bootlaces only cost about 1s. a thousand. It was for the country to say whether this demand, preferred under such circumstances, should be acquiesced in. The Military Estimates, and particularly the civil portion, were becoming so enormous that the country must pay attention to the subject. It was no use talking in the abstract of economy unless the House entered practically into the consideration of the question. Were some 30,000 men, and a condition of defences which might be gathered from the demand of £12,000,000. to render them efficient-results adequate to a war expenditure of £15,000,000? The country could not afford to go on with this rate of expenditure; more attention must be paid to the details of expenditure. It was not by debates on such small subjects as promotions from the ranks, that any improvement would be effected; it was the larger subjects that required investigation. Better organization in the whole system was required. Let them look at the order and economy that pervaded every branch of the French establishments, and take a lesson therefrom.


assured the House that it was with very great reluctance that he intruded himself upon their attention for a few minutes, because he was not one of those who was in the habit by needless talk of hindering the progress of public business. But having been engaged during four months of a recess after a hard Session in the investigation to which the gallant Colonel had alluded, and having given his best attention to the subject, without any prejudice, but with a sincere desire to bend his mind to a difficult subject, he did not expect that he should be spoken of by the gallant Officer as having involved the country in needless expense. He received a request from the then Secretary for War that he would allow himself to be nominated as the mercantile member of the Commission, and he was told that there would be associated with him one of the police magistrates and an officer of the army of nearly fifty years' standing. He consented very reluctantly, but not until he had consulted Sir Benjamin Hawes, one of the Under Secretaries for War, who said he thought the inquiry might be over in a fortnight. He informed Sir Benjamin Hawes that if he supposed he should go through with an inquiry of that sort in a fortnight he had mistaken his man; that he was determined that a searching investigation should be made; that he should enter upon the inquiry with no prejudice for or against the War Office or towards the old Colonels, who were desirous, he believed, of going back to the old system of clothing the army—he did not allude to the gallant Colonel who had brought forward this Question. He added that he had no prejudice either against the army contractors, but he was determined to have a thorough investigation; and he accepted the office. When the Commissioners arrived at Weedon, it found Commissary Ge-General Adams, with eight Commissaries and a staff of clerks, making out an ac- count. But the Commission, at its first meeting at Weedon, informed the authorities at the War Office that they would not be at all satisfied with any examination of the accounts by the officials of the War Office, and that it was their intention to have an independent accountant. The Commissioners were informed that Mr. Commissary Adams with about twenty clerks were investigating the accounts; but he (Mr. Turner) said, notwithstanding that, they would have an independent accountant, and he himself put this question to Mr. Ramsay, a high official in the War Office:— I suppose it will be satisfactory to the authorities at the War Office as it will be to us that there should be a thorough investigation of the account-keeping at Weedon by an independent man, who has no connection with the War Office?" and the answer was, "Quito so. As the evidence was daily reported to the War Office, and not a word was ever said to stop them from having an independent inquiry, he said that from the outset of the inquiry they had the sanction of the War Office for such an investigation. When they went down to Weedon they found things much in the state they were likely to be. There was Mr. Commissary Adams there with his clerks investigating the accounts, and at the close of a statement in writing which he gave to them prior to giving his evidence, he said, It must be observed that even the accounts thus prepared"—he was referring to the accounts he was engaged upon—"cannot be doomed satisfactory public accounts until it has been thoroughly ascertained in the course of the examination at the War Office that all purchases and all transactions with contractors and the army packers in Mark Lane have been properly accounted for. It must also be observed that the present accounts are drawn up from a mass of documents, a very large number of which are defective, one-half of them without any examination whatever, and there is no guarantee that they represent all the transactions at the depôt. Now, how could such an account be deemed satisfactory? When they came to examine him he was asked this question:— You have had considerable experience no doubt in accounts. Did you ever in the course of your experience find anything so disgraceful in the mode of keeping accounts in any stores? And the answer was, There has been no keeping of accounts at all." "Do you not think that if any private establishment acted upon the system of non-bookkeeping, it would in a short time be in the Court of Bankruptcy?" And his answer was, "I think it is very likely they would. Again he was asked, Are the vouchers to which you have alluded not valid vouchers?" And the answer was, "To some of them there are no signatures. There are 700 or 800 objectionable vouchers altogether. When the Commissioners returned to London they made a representation to the War Office that they could not be satisfied with accounts made up of such unsatisfactory materials, and that it would be better that the accountant who had been engaged up to that time on the system of keeping accounts should go into the matter in a mercantile manner; and there was no question about it that they had the consent of the then Secretary for War (General Peel) to have that investigation. Commissary General Adams and all his Staff were dismissed, and the books were placed in the hands of the first accountants in London—Quilter, Ball, and Jay—and they went through the accounts to the time that Captain Gordon took charge of the depôt at Weedon. They had made a very heavy charge—too heavy he thought—but the investigation extended through all the transactions at Weedon since that depôt was established, and they had at all events accomplished this matter: they had shown that after all there was no very great defalcation of stores at Weedon, and that the articles for which the Treasury paid were delivered. The accounts, after all the labour bestowed upon them, were not quite satisfactory, inasmuch as there were some litle discrepancies in the balances; but on the whole he was satisfied there had been a valid accounting for the articles at Weedon. He was one of the Commissioners, and to him the inquiry was satisfactory. No doubt they had been blamed by many parties for the lenient way in which it was said they had dealt with the authorities at Weedon; but it should be remembered that the Commissioners were not appointed to support any system or party in office, but were appointed for the purpose of examining the accounts and books; they had done so diligently and faithfully, and had presented a most faithful Report. In this labour they had sacrificed their time, and two of them at least had suffered in their health. He thought it was now very unfair that the Commissioners should be blamed, and strange that they were not better supported by the authorities. The Commission was issued during a Conservative Government, and possibly there might have been some disposition to look into the bad system of keeping the accounts by their predecessors. But since the present Government had been in power they had not looked upon the Report of the Commissioners very favourably, and recently the hon. Gentleman the Secretary to the Treasury had referred to "that unfortunate Weedon Commission." No doubt it had been unfortunate to many; to colonels, contractors, and the Government officials; it had also been unfortunate to the Commissioners, who, after having devoted a long time to a laborious and troublesome investigation, had not, at least so far as he was concerned, received the slightest thanks for what they had done. He would, however, appeal to the House, if he did not to the Government, to say that they had performed their duty faithfully, honestly, and well.


said, that having paid the utmost attention to the labours of the Commission, he was of opinion the hon. Gentleman who had just addressed the House, as well as his Colleagues, had displayed during the inquiry a great deal of patience and industry, and merited the thanks as well of the House of Commons as of the country. His principal object in rising was, however, to call the attention of the Secretary for War to the circumstance that in a paper which had been placed in the hands of Members that morning an item was set down of £105,000 as the Vote for the purchases of cavalry horses. Now, it appeared from the same paper that when, in 1858, two new regiments were added to the cavalry the sum voted for the purchase of horses was only £81,000, and in 1859, which might be considered an ordinary year, £55,000. Why it should be £105,000 for a similar purpose this year, when no augmentation in the number of men was about to be made, he was at a loss to understand.


, adverting to the subject of the Weedon Inquiry, said, he should not detain the House by entering into it at any length, inasmuch as it had on a former occasion been fully discussed, and inasmuch as he—not having been in office at the time of the appointment of the Commission—could speak upon the question with which it had to deal with comparatively little authority. He must, however, assure the hon. Gentleman behind him (Mr. Turner) that he was mistaken in supposing the Government did not entertain a due sense of the services which the Commission had gratuitously rendered to the public, in endeavouring, at a very great cost of time and labour, to elucidate details of a very complicated cha- racter. It was, he believed, the fact that at the time when the great consolidation of some of the public Departments took place the capital mistake was committed of the War Office imposing their system of accounts on the Ordnance, instead of the Ordnance imparting their system to the War Office; for the Ordnance system was much more efficient for purposes of this kind. His predecessor in office had, he might add, in his opinion, made a very good selection of Gentlemen to serve on the Commission, and had very properly left the inquiry in their hands. If a larger expenditure had been incurred than would appear to have been justified, still it must be borne in mind that the question must not be measured by money results, for the sum ascertained to have been lost by the malversations at Weedon amounted, he believed, to little more than £250. Still there had been very great neglect there, and the confusion of accounts had since been rectified.

In answer to the remarks of the hon. Member for Limerick (Mr. Monsell), he might observe that he thought he could show him some documents which went to prove that cavalry horses lasted longer in this country than in foreign services, al though they were more worked. The hon. Gentleman said that no augmentation of the cavalry was in contemplation for the present year; but then there were two regiments from India which must be re-horsed; while it should not be forgotten that there had been an advance in the price of all descriptions of horses.


, in reply to some observations of the hon. Member for Manchester (Mr. Turner), stated that having been a Member of the Contract Committee, he did not think there was a particle of evidence to show that the Colonels were desirous of returning to the old system, and having observed that one advantage of that system was that the loss, if the clothing were rejected, fell upon the Colonels and the contractors instead of on the public, as at present, bore testimony to the admirable quality of the clothing supplied this year.


drew attention to the difficulty which lay in the way of ascertaining the exact mode in which the sums voted under the head of Army Estimates were expended. The House had not the slightest assurance that the Estimates as voted, corresponded with the expenditure. Comparing the present Estimates with the expenditure for the army for the year ending the 31st of March, 1859, he found that the latter furnished no sufficient guide in dealing with the subject. Last year, for instance, the money which was expended for the army was £12,527,000; the money voted £12,011,000; the expenditure being £516,000 in excess of that amount. This was a most important fact; but there was something still more formidable that required attention. Under the Appropriation Act the War Office might, with the consent of the Treasury, apply the surplus in the case of one grant, to a different purpose from that which had been originally contemplated. The consequence was, that when once a sum of money exceeding the wants of the country under the particular head under which it was voted, was granted by the House of Commons, the Government were in a position to do as they pleased with any surplus that might remain by applying it under any other head; and he found that last year no less than £1,281,000 had thus been spent without any authority from Parliament in connection with various items. The Vote for the Militia was a striking example of this evil. In 1859 the sum voted for the Militia was £159,000, but the sum expended was £881,000. If the House was to exercise any control over the public expenditure, they must insist on Estimates prepared with the greatest care and accuracy, and alter that clause in the Appropriation Act which authorized deviations in the application of sums voted for one purpose to another without distinct sanction to each departare. If Estimates were loosely framed, the time they spent in discussing them must be entirely thrown away. He could not sit down without expressing his belief that the Member for Manchester and his colleagues, who had acted as Commissioners on the Weedon inquiry, had met with very scant justice. A more laborious Commission, or one which had performed its duty more faithfully, never sat. It was extremely unfortunate that so much exertion should have ended in a question as to who should pay an accountant's bill, although he must say that the account was a most extravagant one. But that in no way could derogate from the honourable and patriotic manner in which the Member for Manchester and his colleagues had discharged a very odious duty.


quite agreed with the hon. Baronet that the mode of getting up the Army Estimates was most unsatisfactory. He had known instances in which hundreds of thousands of pounds had been taken from one Vote and applied to anther without Parliamentary sanction. A Vote that was unpopular might be put down at £100,000 less than was known to be required, while another Vote that was popular was estimated at so much more, the balance being afterwards applied as the War Office thought proper. [Mr. SIDNEY HERBERT: With the consent of the Treasury.] No doubt that was so; but the principle was indefensible. Three or four years ago the then Chancellor of the Exchequer (Sir George Lewis) promised that the system should be altered; but no change whatever had yet taken place. He hoped the time was not far distant when the House would take the power from every Department to apply the amount of one Vote to the discharge of another; and he should be glad if the hon. Baronet the Member for Evesham would bring in a Bill to do away with the very objectionable practice. As to the consent of the Treasury that was a mere matter of form, and it was given without investigation.


thought the hon. Baronet and the Member for Lambeth complained of the Army Estimates without reason. They were given in great detail; they occupied 152 pages, and it was impossible that Estimates could be drawn up with more accuracy. As to the appropriation of the balance of one Vote to make up a deficiency in another, that was a matter for which the Treasury was responsible, not the Secretary for War. With regard to the rate of cost of cavalry horses in this and foreign countries, his conclusion did not entirely accord with that of the right hon. Gentleman, and he hoped the Secretary for War would endeavour to curb this expense as much as possible. He might add that the sale of horses from regiments was not in all cases conducted with a due regard to economy.


said, he must also complain of the manner in which the surplus of one Vote was applied to another without the authority of the House. It had the effect of inducing the House to grant the money without much discussion, and Estimates were prepared in order to meet the views of the House; for instance, an Estimate not likely to be relished by the House was made as light as possible, while on the other hand an Estimate not likely to be questioned was made high, thus the Estimates did not represent the sums truly required for the objects mentioned. This question was discussed three Sessions ago in a very animated manner, and it was then understood that the course should not be pursued any longer. He thought the House ought to exercise some control over the matter.

Main Question put, and agreed to.