HC Deb 22 May 1865 vol 179 cc637-9

said, he would beg to ask Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, If the reasons which have led to the opinion he expressed (after stating that the Clerk of the Patents and the Clerk to the Commissioners of Patents may hold just as much public money as they think fit, and pay it if they think fit, and if they pay nothing at all there are no means of calling on them to account for such non-payment), that "it would not surprise him at all to find there were a great number of other officers in a similar condition," have led him to make any inquiry into such matters generally, or into any such case in particular; and whether any and what check Her Majesty's Government propose to make with regard to those other officers, if any, who may be in a similar condition with the Clerk of the Patents as regards the power of paying nothing, or holding public money in his hands just as he pleases?


Sir, as the first part of my hon. Friend's question is rather long, perhaps I may as well state what has taken place. In a document in the possession of the House I am truly stated to have given evidence before a Committee of the House of Lords on the accountability of a certain public official—the Clerk of the Patent Office. The words here ascribed to me were used in point of fact by the noble Earl (the Earl of Derby) in putting a question to me, and I replied to it in the affirmative. I stated that it was unquestionably the fact that in the case of the Patent Office there was no security for the safe custody of the public money nor for its transmission to its destination in the Exchequer. I stated that to be a true description, and that I should not he surprised if other public moneys were found to he in the same condition. My hon. Friend asks me whether, holding these opinions, I have been led to make any inquiries into such cases, and I may as well state what I understand these cases to be. They have no reference to any great branch of the public revenue, but they are various funds or sums of money which are either moneys belonging to the public on their way to the Exchequer in a multitude of miscellaneous forms, or else they are moneys held upon deposit or in trust for various parties by a variety of public bodies or officers. It is with respect to these two descriptions of moneys that I gave the opinion that I was not satisfied that there was any general body of rules applicable to their safe custody. The Government have had the matter under their consideration, and I am given to understand also that it has been under the consideration of the Committee on Public Accounts. I am not aware what measure that Committee is likely to adopt. It is not a matter on which any good can be done by attempts at great expedition or despatch, and I do not think the Government will determine on their course until they learn the course of action at which the Committee on Public Accounts would arrive. Our opinion as at present advised, is that some form of inquiry sufficiently complete to insure the collection of the whole facts ought to be instituted with a view to the introduction of a better system to prevent the recurrence of cases which in some instances are those of pure public embezzlement, and in others defalcation of trust moneys for which the public is ultimately liable. The matter is at present under examination, so far as examination lies within the means of the Treasury, and as soon as our information is complete, and we know what the Committee on Public Accounts will advise, we shall take such decision as may seem advisable to us under the circumstances.


How long has the right hon. Gentleman been aware of the existence of such cases as those to which he has referred?


That is very difficult to say. I have been aware of it for many years, and have made efforts to get a better system established with respect to the particular offices, amid, I am sorry to say, great difficulties and considerable delays. I shall be glad if the effect of the recent exposures will be to direct the attention of the public with increased earnestness to the subject, and strengthen the hands of the Government in effecting the necessary improvements. The hon. Gentleman would do well to understand that the subject embraces a miscellaneous collection of cases, some founded upon Statute and others on usage, in many cases of great antiquity.