§ THE EARL OF DERBY
My Lords, seeing my noble Friend the Secretary of State for the War Department in his place, I will put the question to him of which I have given notice, hoping that it may be for the convenience of the public service that I should have an answer. And I hope I may be forgiven if, in putting the question, I should be guilty of a slight irregularity in referring to what is reported to have taken place "in another place" upon the subject to which I wish to direct attention. My Lords, it is said, that on Friday last the Clerk of the Ordnance, in his place in Parliament, when assigning reasons why the Government had taken upon itself the manufacture of arms, stated, amongst other things, with regard to the supply of ordnance and artillery, that the Government had great reason to complain of some of the contractors to whom they had been compelled to resort for the supply of artillery; and that more especially there was one firm—whose name the right hon. Gentleman did not disclose—which had supplied for Her Majesty's service no less than five mortars, in which there had been inserted pieces of iron for the purpose of concealing flaws that had occurred in the casting of them. Now, I am quite sure your Lordships will be of opinion that charges of this kind should not be made unless they are capable of being fully and entirely substantiated; especially when they have a double importance from being made in Parliament by an officer of the Government in charge of the department having the supervision of the articles referred to. On the other hand, I am sure you will equally agree that if such charges can be substantiated, there is no punishment too great for those who have trifled in such a manner with most sacred duties, by exposing the lives of 2203 Her Majesty's troops to the most serious consequences. Your Lordships will, no doubt, recollect the excitement caused some few years ago by the charges brought in this House by the noble Duke then Secretary of State (the Duke of Newcastle), in connection with certain contracts for hay intended for the troops on foreign service. It appeared, indeed, afterwards, that the acts referred to had been somewhat exaggerated. Serious, however, as such frauds were, they are comparatively innocuous when put in comparison with frauds practised in reference to the heavy artillery and mortars, upon which the whole operations of war might be dependent for success. If the frauds which have been described have been actually perpetrated, not only do they render the particular implements of war entirely unfit for the public requirements, but they actually render their service a task of imminent danger to Her Majesty's troops. My Lords, all I can say is this, that the parties guilty of such frauds are guilty of a crime little short, if at all short, of high treason. I think, this accusation having been publicly made, I am justified in asking my noble Friend the Secretary for the War Department—first, whether he is prepared in his place in Parliament to reaffirm and substantiate the charge; and, secondly, whether, if the charge can be substantiated, he has any objection to mention the name of the firm guilty of so gross a violation of duty? I say that is due in justice not only in respect to the firm that is inculpated, but in respect to all other firms who may otherwise be exposed to suspicion. I will ask, then, is it true that mortars have been supplied to Her Majesty's Government by a contractor, in which pieces of iron have been let in for the purpose of concealing flaws in the casting of them, which flaws must, of course, have been known to the parties? And, next, what is the name of the firm guilty of so criminal a dereliction of duty? But, my Lords, I must go a little further—I must say that whatever may be the countervailing advantages of the contract system, it is clearly more open than any other to fraud and abuse. You may very often find that, while you think you are applying to the cheapest market, you are in reality buying in the dearest market, on account of the inferiority of the article that is supplied. Take care, then, to remember that there is no system which requires so much careful and accurate su- 2204 pervision as the system of Government contracts. For my own part, I think that frauds of such a character as this could not for a moment escape detection. The whole thing appears to be so bungling an operation, that it is beyond possibility to expect it would pass without detection. But, if any fraud of the sort has been perpetrated, I wish to know, in the next place, when the discovery of the fraud was made, and by whom it was made? Whether it was before any of such mortars were sent out for the use of the troops in the field? And, lastly, I will ask what steps Her Majesty's Government have taken to bring the guilty parties to condign punishment?
§ LORD PANMURE
My Lords, I quite agree with my noble Friend that a fraud of this description is one which cannot be passed over without, in the first place, the strictest investigation; and without, in the next place, if brought home to the guilty parties, having the names of those guilty parties published to the world. I am sorry to say there is too good ground for the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Clerk of the Ordnance on Friday night. That statement was to the effect that some mortars which had been ordered under contract from a certain firm had been delivered in an imperfect state, and were found to have been tampered with in order that they might pass the supervision of the authorities of the department. My Lords, the history of the case is as follows. But first I would mention that happily no injury has accrued to any of Her Majesty's troops in consequence of the fraud which has been practised. So far as can be I found, no single mortar that has been approved of on, examination by the authorities has afterwards been discovered to be in any way incomplete. Now, with respect to the five mortars to which my right hon. Friend alluded on Friday night, I may state that on Thursday last experiments with regard to them took place; and it was the result of those experiments that induced my right hon. Friend to make public mention of the matter. These five mortars formed part of a contract entered into by Her Majesty's Government with the house of Messrs. Grissell, of the Regent's Canal Ironworks. One of them went so far as to be able to stand the proof to which it was subjected at the Woolwich Arsenal. And after undergoing that trial, it and another were sent down 2205 to Shoeburyness—there to be submitted to further proof before being put into store for the public use. After ten rounds had been fired one of them burst; it did not go to pieces, but it opened out, and that led to the detection of the insertion of a piece of iron behind the breach of the gun—a piece of metal introduced in the most skilful manner to cover a flaw. The noble Earl says that a fraud of this kind could scarcely be committed without risk of certain detection; but I can assure him that the piece was let in with so much skill that the most vigilant eye might well have failed to detect it. The result of this experiment led to the immediate examination of the other mortar, and there also it was found that a piece had been inserted very nearly at the same part. A third out of the five had been already rejected by the authorities at Woolwich Arsenal, whilst as regards the fourth frauds of the same nature were detected by the authorities. As to the fifth and last, it burst altogether in an experiment, not because of any flaw proved to have existed in it, but because it was made of metal unfit for its purpose. My Lords, such are the facts of the case, and the result is this: in the first place, as a matter of course, these mortars are rejected; and in the second place, as a matter of course, the firm inculpated has been erased from the list of contractors to whom future Government contracts may be open. But whether it will be in the power of the Government to proceed legally against the parties is a point which I have not as yet been able to ascertain. I may add, I believe my right hon. Friend mentioned this circumstance not as a reason why the Government should establish a foundry of its own, but rather in justification of their having taken that step. I think it is a plan which it would be well to adopt even if no frauds had been perpetrated. I am not prepared to go so far as to say that either in the manufacture of great guns or small arms the Government should entirely trust to its own efforts. To a certain extent certainly it should be independent of the trade, but to a certain extent also it should be in a condition to employ the trade, so as to keep pace with the trade, and become acquainted with all the improvements going on outside their factory, as well as to discover improvements within it. The intention of the Government is to establish at Woolwich a foundry in which they may cast their own mortars and 2206 their own heavy armaments, and to be able, from the mode in which those armaments are there tested, to feel assured the guns and mortars issued thence will be fit for the service marked out for them, without having to go through the very hard trial to which they are now submitted under the contract system. There is now no better method of testing mortars than that of firing them a great many times. We hope so to test the metal of which the mortars may be made—we hope so to secure the mode in which they are cast—that by taking one mortar in twenty and testing it until it bursts, we can rest assured as to the trustworthiness of the remaining nineteen. And it cannot be denied that this matter of testing is accompanied with great difficulty in the case of other articles besides artillery. My noble Friend opposite (the Earl of Hardwicke) knows very well that it may be the last feather that will break an anchor. An anchor may go to sea thoroughly tested, and after all prove so unreliable that it may snap on the first strain. I have, however, no hesitation in saying that, under the circumstances, I think my noble Friend is quite justified in demanding that the name of the contractors who have committed this fraud should be given up, and likewise in requiring an assurance that those contractors shall not be employed again. But I am not prepared to say, not being sufficiently informed, whether the violation of good faith which has been perpetrated amounts to infringement of the law. Having made this statement, I feel it my duty not to forbear from saying, that, with reference to two other firms with whom we have dealt largely, no ground of complaint can be alleged—I refer to Messrs. Hood, of Lowmoor Ironworks, and Messrs. Walker, of Gospel Oak Foundry. Both of these firms have executed contracts for heavy armaments with perfect success, and their guns and mortars have withstood the severest trials to which they have been submitted. I will only say in conclusion that I hope greater security than at present exists will before long be attained with regard to the material from which mortars are manufactured.
§ THE EARL OF DERBY
I regret, my Lords, to hear that the statement made by the Clerk of the Ordnance can be substantiated. The noble Lord's statement is satisfactory as far as it goes; but I confess it would have been more satisfactory to me if he had gone further, and told us what 2207 had been done with a view to proceeding against the contractor implicated; and that, if it should turn out, upon inquiry into the state of the law, that the law allowed of proceedings being instituted, we might rest assured that that step would be taken.