HC Deb 07 April 1873 vol 215 cc639-43

asked the President of the Board of Trade, Whether it is by his authority or knowledge that a person calling himself an official member of the Board of Trade has visited both Cardiff and Swansea immediately after A. Hooker, esquire, solicitor, London; and, in consequence of instructions given by this person, the Government officials have declined to give the information which they were previously willing and anxious to tender; and, if he would state to the House, by what authority a letter was written to Mr. Miller, collector of customs, Cardiff, forbidding him to give any information to Mr. Hooker, without an order from Government?


in reply, said, he was glad the Question had been asked, because he perceived that the hon. Member had made a statement at Liverpool which the Question was likely to clear up. That statement was that the Board of Trade had made some special objections to giving information at Cardiff. It was by his (Mr. Chichester Fortescue's) authority that a proper officer of the Board of Trade—Captain Digby Murray—visited Cardiff and Swansea and other ports about the time mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. He had some difficulty in at first discovering whether this was before or immediately after the visit of Mr. A. Hooker, solicitor, London; but he had since cleared up that chronological doubt. What happened was this—Captain Digby Murray, as was usual with the Marine Department of the Board of Trade, was visiting the out-ports, and was at Liverpool on official business. It happened that he was instructed to place himself in communication with the owners of the Eleanor at Cardiff, which had been prevented from going to sea. The owners had addressed an indignant letter to the Board of Trade complaining of this. These owners, a highly respectable firm at Liverpool, had a few days previously bought the ship without knowing what adventures she had gone through; they were not aware that in the hands of her former owners she had been condemned by the Board of Trade surveyors, and prohibited from proceeding to sea. Captain Murray was sent to Cardiff to re-survey the ship, with the view to seeing whether she could be safely sent to Liverpool for repairs, and the result was that he reported his opinion that she should not be allowed to leave Cardiff. It was this visit of Captain Murray to Cardiff and Swansea, from the 28th to the 31st of March, which the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Plimsoll) imagined had some connection with the visit of his agent, Mr. Hooker; but Captain Murray did not see the Collector of Customs nor give him any instructions. On the 24th of March, four days before the arrival of Captain Murray, the Collector of Customs informed the Board that extensive information had been asked for which was to be derived from a search in the Custom House Books, and the Collector asked for instructions before giving it. The Board replied on the 26th that the Collector was to acquaint Mr. Hooker that it was not usual to allow persons unconnected with the Department to inspect official books and documents; but, if the Government or the Royal Commission asked for information, it would be given immediately. This answer, after it had been given, was communicated to himself by the Customs, and he did not reverse it, because he thought it a proper one. It was not possible to authorize subordinate and local officers to give unlimited information to anyone who applied for it. Before the appointment of the Royal Commission he had told the hon. Member that if he wished for any information in addition to that he had already obtained, he should be most willing to do his best to obtain and furnish it. Now that the Royal Commission was appointed, any information the Board of Trade could obtain was absolutely at its disposal. So much for this Cardiff case. But he could not sit down without answering that which lay behind all the Questions of the hon. Member. They all seemed to be inspired by an idea that there was something wrong—some favouritism or want of integrity upon these matters at the Board of Trade. If there were to be whispers and insinuations of this kind he invited the fullest and most searching investigation. For himself, he wished to say that he had the most entire confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the permanent officials of the Board of Trade, and in the gentleman at the head of the Marine Department there, the Assistant Secretary, Mr. Gray, a man who knew more about ships and sailors than, perhaps, any other landsman in this country. ["Order!"] Mr. Gray had the sailors' interests as deeply at heart as any man in England, and had laboured zealously for years in a hundred ways for their benefit. Before sitting down he wished to put to the hon. Member for Derby a Question of which he had given him private Notice.


rose to Order. He wished to ask, whether some of the questions which had been stated in reply to the hon. Member were debateable; and, whether the right hon. Gentleman was in Order?


The hon. Member for Derby asked a Question having reference to the conduct of the officers of the Board of Trade. Undoubtedly the House will be of opinion that the Pre- sident of the Board of Trade, in answering a Question of this kind, is entitled to considerable indulgence. I am not prepared to say that the Question which the right hon. Gentleman proposes to ask is irregular before I hear what it is.


said, he had confidence in the indulgence of the House in answering the Question, as the conduct of the permanent officials of the Board of Trade had been seriously called in question; and it was with the same motive and desire in order to protect the character of those gentlemen that he wished to ask the hon. Member for Derby a Question of which he had given him private Notice a few days previously. A report had appeared in a Liverpool paper which purported to give the hon. Member's exact words in a speech delivered in Exeter Hall. In the first paragraph were these words— There are people who represent us, or who ought to represent us, on the Board of Trade, who are wholly unsuspected, who would give half their fortune to promote wrecks. There is one man who has busied himself considerably in this way, but I will not mention names. He hoped the hon. Member would say whether these were or were not the exact words which he had used. It was impossible to allow them to go forth to the country without asking the hon. Member to say publicly whether these were his words, because if such words, or anything resembling them, were to be used, he was prepared to ask—nay, to demand—the most rigorous investigation of such charges.


There is much wasted indignation on the question. The right hon. Gentleman asked me the question, and showed me the report a week ago, and I distinctly and immediately disavowed having used any such words, and called as my witnesses 20 or 25 Members of Parliament who heard me speak. All the papers which reported me on that occasion reported me accurately, except this one, and to this I wrote immediately the right hon. Gentleman spoke to me upon the subject, telling them of the error, and requesting that a correction should be made, which was at once done. It appears to me that was amply sufficient for all purposes of explanation; because, if every error which appears in a provincial newspaper is to be mode a reason for putting an hon. Member in loco pentitentiœ to explain, we shall have nothing else to attend to, and no time for any other business.