HC Deb 06 May 1887 vol 314 cc1125-7
MR. HANBURY (Preston)

asked the Secretary of State for War, Whether, in view of the fact disclosed before the Committee which recently took evidence on the subject of defective weapons, the Government have come to a decision as to what officials are responsible for the manufacture and issue of defective weapons to the men of Her Majesty's Navy; what action it is proposed to take to punish such officials; and, what steps the Government intend to take to prevent the recurrence of such scandals at the War Office without the responsibility for them being traced home to any particular official? The hon. Member remarked that the Question had been altered at the Table, and he was not responsible for the somewhat illogical form in which it appeared upon the Paper.

THE SECRETARY OF STATE (Mr. E. STANHOPE) (Lincolnshire, Horncastle)

Looking at the very great importance of the questions raised by my hon. Friend, I hope the House will grant me its indulgence if I reply at somewhat greater length than is usual. The conclusion which it seems to me is to be drawn from the Report of the Cutlass Committee is that the conversion of the cutlasses was mainly responsible for their becoming inefficient arms. The pattern was got out, tried on board the Excellent, and approved in 1871, and the responsibility for the pattern must be shared between Sir John Adye, Director General of Artillery; Colonel Dixon, Superintendent at Enfield; Captain Hood, Director of Naval Ordnance; and Captain Boys, captain of the Excellent. But the fault lay also in the mode in which the conversion was carried out in 1874, and the evidence appears to point to the responsibility being shared between Sir John Adye, Director of Artillery; Colonel Fraser and Colonel Close, Superintendents at Enfield; and Mr. Perry, foreman of the works. I do not attempt to apportion the responsibility. The Committee appointed to investigate the matter has not done so. And, looking to the fact that all these transactions occurred 12 or 13 years ago, and all these officers have been changed, I am not inclined to undertake a duty which the Committee, with full knowledge of all the circumstances, has not been able to accomplish. But what is much more important is that the system should be put on a proper footing. Everybody admits that the present Heads of the Ordnance Department cannot be held responsible for blunders made long before their time; and I personally know that they are doing their best to make a recurrence of them impossible. But, although I have the fullest confidence in General Alderson, the present Director of Artillery and Stores—and I am sure that opinion will be largely shared by others—something more is required. It is to give full confidence to the public that weapons and stores issued to the Army and Navy are fit for the service for which they are required, and also to give confidence to contractors that the goods supplied by them will be subjected to an impartial trial. And although it would not be proper on my part to propose a detailed scheme until I have before me the Reports of the Royal Commission and of the Earl of Morley's Committee—both shortly expected—I will state to the House frankly my own conclusion. In my opinion, nothing can adequately restore full public confidence except an examination entirely independent of the Manufacturing Departments of the Government. Independent test appears to me to be the right solution, and I hope I may be supported by the House in establishing it. There is one other point closely connected with this question which the House will, perhaps, allow me to mention. I have been convinced that the financial control at present exercised over one or two of these Departments of the War Office is insufficient, and not continuous. This is an opinion expressed some time ago in this House by my hon. Friend the Surveyor General of the Ordnance, and I think he is quite right. The Departments to which I refer are not, under the constitution of the War Office, subject to the control of the Financial Department; their Heads are appointed for five years; and their Parliamentary Chiefs changed with every Government. Let them work as hard as they can—and to their hard work and efficiency I gladly bear testimony—they cannot make this system satisfactory. And I am prepared, as soon as the inquiries now being conducted are concluded, to make proposals to the Treasury for establishing a permanent financial control. I have only now to thank the House for allowing me to make so long a statement on a matter of grave importance.