HC Deb 04 August 1866 vol 184 cc2057-68

I rise for the purpose of moving that the House do now adjourn in order to have the opportunity of appealing to the indulgence of the House while I refer to certain statements made on a previous day by the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. Seely). I am quite aware that I am somewhat trespassing on the rules of the House, but justice to the officers of a public Department impels me to this course, and the House is always indulgent where personal matters are concerned. The statements do not affect myself personally, but men of high character in one of the public Departments are of opinion that they are erroneous and injurious to them. I believe no part of the very interesting statement —for it certainly was interesting—of the hon. Gentleman has so much struck the public mind as the extravagance which he imputed to the dockyards in the repairs of boats; and it is most desirable—and I am sure nobody will more rejoice, if it can be done, than the hon. Member himself—to show that he was misled in the statements he made on the occasion to which I allude. I shall not detain the House, I am happy to say, more than a very brief period in making the explanation. One of the most startling statements was that a thirteen-foot cutter had been repaired at a cost of £110, while such a cutter newly built and fitted would only have cost £42. The only inference to be drawn from this statement was that it set forth a case showing habitual extravagance, as the sum named appeared very excessive. Now, the explanation of the statement was that the boat in question was a barge prepared for the accommodation of his Royal Highness Prince Alfred, and was attached to the Racoon frigate, and used by his Royal Highness when in the Mediterranean. I am not prepared to say that the hon. Gentleman's figures were correct, but assuming they were, it was an exceptional case; when a barge is prepared for a member of the Royal Family, of course more than the ordinary expense is incurred. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not ascertain this fact, or that, if he had done so, he did not at once state it to the House, seeing that the case in question could not be held to be an illustration of the usual expense of repairing boats. The next statement the hon. Member made was that three twenty-feet gigs cost £90 repairing, while new boats could have been obtained at a cost of only £58. I believe these figures were correct. One of these boats I have not been able to trace; but all of them were boats fitted for a purpose similar to that for which the former boat was required. Two of them are attached to the yacht Enchantress, which is sometimes used by the Board of Admiralty and sometimes by members of the Royal Family. These boats were fitted in a manner different from that in which ordinary men-of-war's boats were fitted; and, therefore, again I say this is not a fair illustration of the cost of repairing boats in the dockyards. Another statement of the hon. Member was that in 1864–5 new work with respect to boats cost only £1,033, while the repairs cost £5,685, or more than five-fold. The inference which I suppose the hon. Gentleman intended to be drawn from this statement, and which the public would naturally draw, was, that a most wasteful expenditure was incurred in repairing Her Majesty's boats; but the explanation of the matter is very simple. Excepting barges and launches, all boats for Her Majesty's ships are built by contract, and therefore in the building accounts of the yards no large item of the cost of building boats appears. These boats, however, are repaired in Her Majesty's dockyards, and the cost of repairs would naturally very much exceed any charges for original construction. I have now to refer to a statement of the hon. Gentleman that one cutter had been repaired at a cost of £66, which if newly built and fitted would have cost only £30. If I remember right not one of the statements of the hon. Gentleman caused more astonishment in the House than this did, and I felt at the time convinced that there must be some mistake in regard to it. Believing that it was most desirable that this matter should be clearly understood, I have brought down to the House a portion of manuscript from the dockyard account for any hon. Member to look at who pleases to do so, and he will there see that instead of one cutter having been repaired at a cost of £66, three cutters were repaired for that sum. The hon. Gentleman spoke of having sent his secretary to the office of the Accountant General, and it appeared that either the hon. Member or his secretary, though correct as to the size of the boat, had failed to observe the figure 3, which showed that the amount of £66 was to be distributed over three boats. Another statement struck me with still greater surprise. He said— It appeared that the eighty-three boats repaired at a cost of £5,685 had better have been burnt, for the dockyard people might have bought newly-built eighty-three boats of the same size for about the cost incurred in repairing them. Now, I hold in my hands the published Return laid before Parliament of the Navy dockyards, and if hon. Members will examine it they will see that one line runs— "By boats, building and fitting—83— £764," and underneath, "By boats, repairing, altering, and refitting—282—£5,685." The error, therefore, which the hon. Member has made consists in taking the eighty-three boats from the upper line, and connecting them with £5,685, which appears in the lower line. I cannot in any other way understand the statement of the hon. Gentleman. He has thus fallen into a very serious mistake. But this is not all. The hon. Member represented the repairs of eighty-three boats as costing £5,685; but it is necessary to state that the 282 boats even, which stand opposite the figures £5,685, did not cost the whole of that sum for their repairs. The hon. Gentleman does not appear to have looked at this entry with all the care and accuracy which might have been expected from him before charging a public Department with extravagance; but he had not even looked at it with the eyes of a man of business. The sum of £5,685, as I have before stated, does not represent the cost of repairs of the 282 boats, but denotes their value after having been repaired, and in order to ascertain the real cost of repairs the value of these before they were repaired should be deducted from the total amount. I cannot state exactly the sum to be deducted, but there can be no doubt that it is considerable. The House will, therefore, see that the case which the hon. Gentleman put before it was one of extreme exaggeration, and without imputing anything but right intentions to the hon. Gentleman, I may observe very respectfully that hon. Members, while discharging the most important duty of keeping a cheek upon the public Departments, are bound to be very cautious, and to secure the utmost accuracy in their statements, or there is great danger of doing serious injury. As the hon. Gentleman said a good deal about iron pavement in the dockyards, I will just touch upon that question. He will, no doubt, be very glad to hear that experiments are in course of progress with regard to the real value of that iron. They have not proceeded very far, but as far as they have proceeded the result is to show that the iron varies very greatly in quality. Some of it is of very little value, and some, I am informed, comes up to the highest value stated by the hon. Gentleman. I have only to add that while I have thought it my duty to explain these items, in which the hon. Gentleman has incautiously fallen into extreme exaggeration, I have, of course, not been able as yet to investigate all the numerous statements and comprehensive figures contained in the hon. Gentleman's speech, and although the hon. Member had been incautious in his statements, I am by no means prepared to say that there was not sufficient remaining in his speech to make it desirable that the whole system of our dockyard establishments should be carefully and jealously watched.


said, he hoped the House would extend to him its indulgence while he made a few observations with regard to the statement of the right hon. Baronet opposite. He had stated that he (Mr. Seely) had extremely exaggerated the state of the case in the dockyards. If he had fallen into any errors, he must charge those errors, in a great degree, upon the right hon. Baronet himself, for he offered, before he made any statement in that House, to place before the right hon. Baronet the statement he was about to make, accompanied with the proposal that the facts which he was about to submit to the House should be investigated before they were brought forward; but the right hon. Baronet declined the offer. He could not help expressing a very humble but decided opinion, that if the rule were observed, not only with regard to Admiralty matters, but Government matters generally, of ascertaining the facts of the case before any statement was made in the House respecting them, the time of the heads of Government Departments, and much of the valuable time of that House, would be saved, many errors would be avoided, and the public would be enabled to come to a correct conclusion as to what the facts of the case were, and they would draw such deductions as common sense would suggest. But the position in which he stood at the present moment was that he had made a statement as to facts; and the right hon. Gentleman, on a subsequent occasion, had come down to the House, and said that he had extremely exaggerated the case. He thought he should be able to show that he had not exaggerated the case, and that he was correct in stating that the Admiralty had done work at a cost nearly double what it was worth. Moreover, the right hon. Baronet refused only the other night to allow the errors which he charged him with having fallen into to be investigated before any statement was made in that House, and it appeared to him (Mr. Seely) to be a rule— perhaps to some extent a good one—that, while the subordinates in public Departments made out as good a case as possible, the various Departments joined together to defend each other; past and expectant as well as present officials joining but too often in putting down, if they could, an independent Member. The first statement which the right hon. Baronet objected to was that which he made to the effect that a 13-feet cutter cost £110 to repair, when a new one would only cost £42, his explanation being that it was a boat required for Prince Alfred. He (Mr. Seely) was utterly ignorant of that fact; he had no means of knowing it, and he could only say that he would not have commented on the fact had he been aware that the boat was intended for any member of the Royal Family. Then the right hon. Baronet stated that he (Mr. Seely) by inference wished the public to believe that because there was only £1,033 expended in the building of new boats, and £5,685 in repairs, the cost of repairs was excessive, whereas the fact was that the greater number of the boats were bought, and that, therefore, the repairs bore no relation to the cost of the boats when built. But he wished to call the attention of the right hon. Baronet to the fact that the repairs had been swelled up from year to year. In the year 1862–3 the cost of repairs in all Her Majesty's dockyards was only £8,713, while in 1863–4 the amount swelled to £13,026. Therefore the argument with regard to boats being bought did not at all meet his objection that the repairs in one year had risen from £8,713 to £13,026. That was a matter which required investigation on the part of the officials of the Admiralty. The right hon. Baronet had commented next on his statement that a cutter cost £66 to repair, when it could have been bought new for £30. The right hon. Baronet had said that that was the charge for three cutters. With regard to that point, he (Mr. Seely) found, upon looking at the papers which his secretary brought from the Admiralty, that the account stood thus. There was not any error in copying. [Sir JOHN PARINGTON: He left out the figure "3."] No, that was not it. The three cutters to which the right hon. Baronet referred were not what he alluded to. There was a 25-feet cutter, No. 2,999, which stood in the accounts of the Admiralty at a cost of £58 for repairs. This was rather a complicated question, and he was not certain whether he could make it clear to the House; but all this difficulty would have been avoided if the right hon. Baronet had accepted his offer of letting the facts be ascertained. It appeared that in 1864–5 the Admiralty made a change in the system of keeping their accounts. On the debit side it was stated that the boats issued for repairs were of a certain value, and on the creditor side it was stated that the repairs (which included in this year the value of the boats issued) amounted to £5,685. He admitted, as a matter of course, that the value of the boats before they went to have repairs done to them, ought to be deducted. It should be on the other side of the account. But that was not the mode in which the accounts were presented to the House in 1863–4. In the accounts for that year there was nothing charged for the value of the boats when they were sent for repairs, so that in 1863–4 whatever sum was charged for repairs, was for repairs done on those particular boats. The repairs of the one 25-feet cutter in question, which the First Lord erroneously supposes to be three 25-feet cutters, are put down in the dockyard printed accounts at £58, and he would now deduct £10 as being in all probability the value of that boat, leaving £48 for the repairs. He added to that £48, however, 35 per cent, which the Admiralty now admitted ought to be added to get the correct cost of ships (though the amount really added in the Return of cost of ships for 1864–5 was 42½ per cent), and, of course, must be added to the cost of boats, and the total was £65 as the cost of repairing that boat. The right hon. Baronet had then referred to the eighty-three boats which he (Mr. Seely) stated had been repaired at a cost of £5,685. Here there was an error, for instead of eighty-three boats being repaired, only seventy-nine were repaired. This was no great error after all, inasmuch as what he wished to point out to the House was that the boats repaired in that year were repaired at a cost at which new ones could be bought, and he thought he should be able to show that he was not far out. If the right. hon. Baronet referred to his written and unpublished account he would find that the 282 boats repaired and refitted at Portsmouth at the given cost of £5,685, were seventy-nine boats repaired in that year at a cost of £4,475; and 203 refitted at a cost of £1,210, making 282 boats repaired and refitted at a cost of £5,685. Those seventy-nine boats included two steam launches, the cost of which when new he could not ascertain, and he therefore deducted the cost of their repairs, £452, leaving seventy-seven boats repaired at a cost of £4,023. The value of the boats being given as £1,965 17s. 8d., he would deduct the proportion of the seventy-nine repaired— namely, £553, and there was then left £3,470 as the cost of repairs for these seventy-seven boats. Adding to that, 35 per cent (omitted in dockyard accounts), which came to £1,214, the total was £4,684. But if the repairs of the two steam launches were included, and if 42½ per cent (the amount actually added by the Admiralty to get the correct cost of ships) were added, the repairs of these seventy-nine boats would be found to cost about the sum he had originally named, that is, £5,685. Of course, he could not pledge himself to the complete accuracy of the figures, but he believed that these seventy-seven boats might have been built for £4,596. He supposed, from what the right hon. Baronet had said, that he might take for granted that his other statements were correct. He (Mr. Seely) had stated that £110 had been paid for repairing a 30-feet cutter which could have been newly built and fitted for £42. In the same way £21 would have built a new 22-feet gig upon which £58 had been expended for repairs, and three 20-feet gigs could have been constructed and fitted for £58, whereas £90 had been expended upon them for repairs. But by adding 35 per cent Admiralty data to the amount of the repairs as had been added in 1864£5, the cost of the repairs to the 30-feet cutter would be increased to £148, of the 22-feet gig to £78. and of the three 20-feet gigs to £121. He was in error in this respect to some extent, inasmuch as he had not made out the strongest case against the Admiralty. He had not added to these amounts of £58 and £90 the 35 per cent that ought to have been added. If any professional Accountant, appointed by the right hon. Baronet himself, would go carefully into the figures, he could vouch for it that he would find that the cost of the 22-feet gig, instead of being £58 was £78. He made some statements with regard to the cost of ships, and as the right hon. Baronet had disputed some of his figures, perhaps the House would allow him to mention one or two more instances of excessive cost in the construction of ships. The Irresistible was built at a cost including the proper percentages of £183,970, whereas she ought only to have cost £109,186, being an excess of cost of £74,784. The Victoria cost £329,858, and she ought only to have cost £191,199, being an excess of cost of £138,659. He also mentioned that the Achilles cost more than the Warrior by £244,910, and more than the Black Prince by £242,093. There was no explanation, or any attempt at explanation, of these and various other matters to which he alluded, and he presumed that he might take for granted that they were correct. He had called the attention of the House to extravagance which, in his opinion, was represented by upwards of a million sterling; and he had only to say, in conclusion, that he trusted the House would do him the justice to believe that if he had fallen into any error it was unintentional.


said, that on a former occasion he did not hear the figures quoted by the hon. Gentleman, and therefore it was impossible for him to give the required information. He confined his statement to what had been done since 1864 to put the accounts on a satisfactory commercial basis, and he did not in the slightest degree attempt to answer the hon. Gentleman. He quite agreed with the hon. Gentleman that much of what he had complained required to be probed to the bottom; and no doubt it would be. In many cases it appeared the hon. Gentleman had misquoted the figures, and in other cases the figures did not justify the inferences he had drawn, and to-day he had in his defence taken fresh ground and drawn new inferences from the corrected figures; and as the Admiralty had promised a full investigation into the hon. Gentleman's complaint, he (Mr. Childers) hoped he would pause before he proceeded further. With regard, however, to the iron ballast laid upon the roads to which the hon. Member referred as an instance of extravagant management, he might state that the iron was bought as ballast during the French war at the beginning of the century, and was purchased by weight and quantity without the slightest reference to quality. The Government paid the price demanded for the worst kind of iron— iron worthless for purposes of manufacture. And if a large quantity of good iron was delivered by those who professed to sell to the Government at a time when the Government desired to purchase a large quantity of bad iron as ballast for their ships, it was a very fortunate circumstance for the Government, who had better dispose of the iron at the best price they could obtain. It was within his own personal knowledge that the Admiralty had on several occasions endeavoured to do two things— one was to get rid of their iron at the best price, and the other to see whether it could be used in any way. There were in the three principal dockyards, three of the best mechanical engineers in this country, and any one who would state that they were not acquainted with the quality of iron would be contradicted by the whole of the profession, and their opinion was that the iron was utterly worthless for manufacturing purposes. They were directed to institute an inquiry whether that iron could be used, and their report was that it could not be used in any of the establishments of Her Majesty's Government.


said, the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Childers) seemed to believe that nothing ever went wrong in the management of the Admiralty; but somehow or other the public had got possessed of an idea that it was about the worst administered Department of the public service. Instead, therefore, of speaking in the manner he had done, it would have been much better to have lent the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Seely) all the assistance in his power, in order to expose the wasteful expenditure of the Department with which he had been so lately connected. The hon. Gentleman (Mr. Seely) was a person admirably versed in such matters as these; and in endeavouring to ascertain the real facts of dockyard management, he had been utterly foiled in consequence of the mystification which surrounded the accounts. Was not this fact most condemnatory of the Admiralty? It must be evident to everyone that if the accounts had been kept in a proper manner, and as it was right they should be kept, it would have been impossible for a Gentleman like the hon. Member (Mr. Seely) to have made the mistakes and miscalculations which he was to-day represented to have done. It would be much better if, instead of becoming the apologist of Admiralty administration, the hon. Member for Pontefract would indicate new fields of research to his hon. Friend (Mr. Seely), for he believed that if he remained in the House of Commons for the rest of his life he would never exhaust the abuses of the Admiralty.


thought there was a very substantial reason why Gentlemen who were great departmental reformers before coming into office, should cease to be so after they had held office—namely, that official experience and information taught them that things were not so bad as they had imagined, and even that a great deal was right and proper which they had thought to be the reverse before. As an instance of this, he might refer to a noble Lord (Lord Clarence Paget), who afterwards succeeded to the Secretaryship of the Admiralty, who asserted in this House that £5,000,000 had been spent on building and refitting ships, which could not be accounted for; but, nevertheless, after the noble Lord's long tenure of office, he was not aware that he had left things much better than he found them, or that he had been able to substantiate his charge. He (Mr. Corry) did not deny that there was room for amendment in the management of the dockyards; but he did deny that there was any foundation for the charge of gross extravagance which had been brought against them, and it was his belief that if dockyard charges were higher than those in private yards, the public had their money's worth in the superiority of the work. He could show, by instance after instance, that contract-built ships were in the end dearer than those built in the dockyards, which lasted much longer, and did not require such frequent repairs. That observation, however, applied only to wooden ships, and there was no doubt that iron ships could be built as advantageously by contractors as in the dockyards; but it was necessary that a certain number of iron ships should be built in the dockyards in order to give the workmen the necessary knowledge and experience for effecting extensive repairs.


thought the conclusion to be drawn from this discussion was, that a great improvement had been attempted in the mode of conducting public business, but that, as is often the case with first attempts, it had not proved very successful. Every one must feel the great advantage it would be to this House and the public if the facts in any matter relating to public expenditure could be authenticated and agreed upon on both sides before the question founded on those facts was brought before the House. His hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. Seely), with great credit to himself, applied to be allowed to ascertain his facts in the best possible way, and with the assistance of those best qualified to help him: and the Admiralty consented to that arrangement, though they did not appear to have persevered in that laudable intention to the end. The misunderstanding which appeared to have arisen was to be regretted, as they all knew how much more information could be obtained on a complicated matter across a table than across this House, and how much more complete and intelligible that information was likely to be when asked for in a friendly than in a hostile manner.


inquired if the cost of the fittings were included in the estimated outlay? They generally cost as much as the hull.


said, the rule at the Admiralty was to estimate the cost of fittings at one-third the entire outlay.


said, it would not be necessary for the House to meet before the usual hour on Monday.