HL Deb 21 March 1854 vol 131 cc1063-8

If my noble Friend (the Duke of Newcastle) will allow me, I wish to call his attention to a statement I have seen in a newspaper with reference to the gross misconduct of a contractor, who had undertaken to furnish pressed hay for the use of the artillery horses about to be despatched on service to the East. With your Lordships' permission, I will read the paragraph. It appears in the Morning Chronicle of Saturday, and purports to be an extract from the letter of an officer on board one of the transports at Woolwich:— Government was giving a contractor 7l. 10s. a ton for hay packed and pressed in trusses. And can you fancy what a scoundrel the fellow turned out? After he had shipped several hundred tons of it, one of his men split on him, and informed that the centre of each truss was made up with all manner of stuff. A board of officers were ordered over to Deptford, had it all unshipped, and, opening the trusses, found the centre of each filled with shavings, straw, and all manner of filth; and in one was a dead lamb! All the hay was very much damped, so as to make it weigh heavy; so, if we had gone to sea with it, the horses would have died, and, more than likely, the ships would have taken fire from spontaneous combustion; and all the punishment this fellow got was taking the contract from him. The question which I wish to put to my noble Friend is, first, whether this statement be correct, or substantially correct; and next, whether he has ascertained that the criminal law will not reach a miscreant like this—who has done all he can to disappoint the expectations of the country, to bring the greatest possible calamity on the horses embarked, and thus preventing the arrival of the artillery in a state of efficiency, to disable it from acting with the troops, and to paralyse the whole expedition?


My Lords, I have seen the paragraph in the newspaper to which my noble Friend has alluded. I am sorry to say—as an Englishman, I am ashamed to say—that the statement he has read is not only substantially correct, but correct in all its parts, with one single exception, namely, that the discovery was not made by one of his men "splitting" on him, but in consequence of the investigation by the officers of the Government which under such circumstances invariably takes place, and which, no doubt, the miscreant, as my noble Friend has rightly termed him, had not anticipated. The circumstances of the case appear to have been understated. They are these. Upon a certain number of horses being ordered for foreign service, and transports having been taken up for their conveyance, advertisements were inserted in the newspapers for the supply of hay. At the end of the time limited, only one tender, and that for only a small quantity, was sent in. Under those circumstances, letters were addressed to seven persons who had been in the habit of supplying hay for army purposes to inquire what amount and at what price they could supply. Letters were received at the time appointed from, I believe, all those parties, stating the quantity and the price; and amongst others, this person's offer was accepted. I am not able to say at present whether more than one of those persons have been guilty of this fraud; but, upon investigation by the officers, though the exterior of the hay supplied by one person seemed excellent, it was found to contain the filth to which my noble Friend has referred. Under these circumstances the hay was returned for rejectment, and great inconvenience and loss of time were the consequences. My noble Friend asks further, whether the criminal law will touch these parties? I am not at the present moment prepared to answer that question; and I dare say those noble Lords who are more competent to form an opinion upon a question of law will admit that the law is not very clear and definite upon that point. But I have seen the Solicitor to the Treasury on the subject, and he will receive instructions to make careful inquiries into all the circumstances of the case. I believe it will probably be found that a case of contract can be established upon those letters to which I have referred. The Solicitor to the Treasury is also instructed to submit a case for the opinion of the law officers of the Crown; and upon their opinion of course the future proceedings of the Government will be guided. In a case of so flagrant a nature, entailing in all probability, if it had not been discovered, the loss of all these horses, and, as everybody is aware, involving the consequent inefficiency of the whole artillery—in a matter of such serious consequence—affecting not merely the lives of the horses, but the lives of Her Majesty's troops—and under such circumstances, I can assure my noble Friend the Government will be prepared to deal with the offender with the utmost severity which the law enables. Whether, if the law should be found inefficacious, some amendment should be made, is a question which I will not answer until inquiry has been made.


I think my noble Friend, Her Majesty's Government, and Parliament will come to the conclusion, if the criminal law does not reach a man who commits an offence of this description, that the law ought to be altered, and without the slightest delay. I speak from recollection of an extremely distant period, but I think when, in the Peninsular war, hay was furnished in large quantities for the use of the troops in Spain, it was pressed at the establishment of the Victualling Office. The operation of pressing is of a very simple nature, and there is no reason why Government should not perform it themselves, and not trust to the respectability of merchants and contractors, if they are liable to be deceived in this manner.


I entirely concur with what my noble Friend behind me has just said, that if the law is found not to reach the case, it becomes the duty of the Government—a duty which I shall be pleased to share in—to make the law applicable to such a case. I understood from my noble Friend opposite (the Duke of Newcastle) that the case has been already investigated, and that it has received the full consideration of the Board—that there is not any question with regard to the guilt or innocence of the party, but merely as to the applicability of the law to the case. If that be the case—if the guilt of the party be not a matter of doubt, there is one punishment, perhaps the most effectual, to which the party can be subjected, and I think it is the duty of the Government to state the name of the party publicly before the House and the country.


I am really not able at this moment to mention the name of the party, or unquestionably I should be perfectly ready to do so. All I can say is, I hope a much more serious punishment than the simple announcement of his name awaits him; but if nothing further can be done, his name shall certainly be made public.


I would fain hope that the law does reach this case. If not, undoubtedly, however strong may be that objection which I have always felt to any alteration of the law to meet particular cases, which generally leads to very great mischief—notwithstanding my general repugnance to such a course, if so monstrous, so grievous a defect is proved to exist in our criminal law, I for one shall be disposed, if possible, to waive that objection. If more than one person was engaged in this transaction, no doubt the criminal law would at once touch them; they would be guilty of conspiracy of a grave nature—conspiracy, mingled with the grossest fraud. I have some doubt if a single individual contractor is amenable to the criminal law as it now stands. If this deceit was for the purpose, or had the effect, of endangering the health of any individual, then it would come under the scope of the criminal law of the country. I have very great reluctance in dealing with subjects of this sort with reference to particular cases, because, though it may be a remote possibility, they might come before us in our judicial capacity, for which reason I gladly abstain from commenting on the particulars of the case. It is enough for me to call the attention of my noble Friends to any defect in the law; but I heartily hope it will be found in this instance that defect of the law does not exist.


There was a very much worse case two or three years since, which affected the health of the Navy. I allude to the preserved meats. As in that instance the contractor escaped and was not punished, no doubt inquiry was then made as to the possibility of prosecuting in cases of this kind, no doubt it was found impossible to punish him.


I think it is to be extremely regretted that the noble Duke has not ascertained the name of this criminal—for I can call him by no other designation—so as to gibbet him to the country as the person who has committed this atrocity. I am quite sure at the present moment that would be about the greatest punishment he can suffer. Considering the important operations about to be undertaken, and the feelings of the country in reference to those operations, it is impossible to conceive greater punishment than the publication of the name in both Houses of Parliament, whilst all the circumstances are fresh in the minds of the public. I believe, if he were known, that man would not dare to go out of his house for the next month.


Since I last replied to the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Derby), I have ascertained from a gentleman of the department whom I knew to be here, the name of the party. I am quite ready to give it. [The noble Duke then mentioned the name which had been given to him. It is thought better to omit it, because the information proved to be erroneous; and it was subsequently stated, on authority, that some of the circumstances which so greatly aggravated the case did not attach to the article supplied by the party whose name was intended to be given.] I should say, in answer to my noble Friend, I sincerely hope he will receive a much more severe punishment than the publication of his name.

House adjourned to Thursday next.