HL Deb 16 March 1899 vol 68 cc934-8

My Lords, I rise to call attention to the Report of the Select Committee of the House of Commons on the Museums of the Science and Art Department, with reference to the termination of the engagement of Mr. Weale, late Keeper of the Art Library. I have no intention of calling attention generally to that Report, which is, in some respects, a somewhat remarkable document. I have taken steps to challenge the accuracy of some of its statements by causing a Minute of Council to be laid on the Table of both Houses. That Minute calls in question the accuracy of a good many of the statements found in the Report of the Select Committee. I have not yet observed that any Member of this or the other House has taken up the challenge of the Department, but, of course, there is ample time within the limits of the present Session in which some reference may be made to the contradiction which has thus been given. The only paragraph in the Report to which I desire to call your Lordships' attention to-day is a very short one. The Committee state, on page 36 of their Report— Your Committee desire to record their opinion that the termination of the engagement of Mr. Weale, late Keeper of the Art Library, immediately after the rising of the House in 1897, and subsequent to the giving of evidence by Mr. Weale, in which errors and abuses of administration in the Museum were freely exposed, very much resembles a breach of privilege and an infringement of the immunity usually enjoyed by witnesses before Committees of the House of Commons. I think your Lordships will agree that that is a charge of a character which it is impossible for those who are responsible for the termination of Mr. Weale's engagement to leave unnoticed. The first complaint I have to make is that such a charge should have been made without giving me an opportunity of stating the facts of the case, kuowing, as the Committee did, or as they might or ought to have known, that I was myself personally responsible for the decision which put an end to the tenure of office of Mr. Weale. This paragraph, I find on reference to the proceedings, was inserted on the Motion of Lord Balcarres by a majority of four to two in a Committee of seven, the original number of which had been 15, and it was inserted in the unavoidable absence of the Vice-President of the Council, who was occupied at the time in a Grand Committee of the House of Commons on the discussion of the London University Bill. This throws an additional light on the fairness or unfairness of the proceeding, and the charge becomes still more serious on reference to the draft Report submitted to the Committee by Lord Bal-carres. In that draft Report this matter is referred to at great length, but I will only quote the first paragraph— It is now our duty to refer to a grave public scandal—namely, the dismissal of Mr. Weale, Keeper of the Art Library. Mr. Weale is a man of the highest distinction, being, in fact, the only living man out of the large staff of the Science and Art Department who had international reputation. He gave evidence on several occasions. We admit that this evidence must have been distasteful to the authorities, because he ruthlessly exposed the folly and abuses of the present system; in fact, when asked a question, he answered it fully and without reserve. At the same time, his work in the Library has been of the utmost value, having reduced it from chaos to order. He has had official recognition of the diligence and fidelity with which the work has been carried out. In fact, the determination of Mr. Weale's engagement is repeatedly referred to as his dismissal. The Committee have not endorsed the whole of the statement of Lord Balcarres, but they have endorsed substantially the charge which he made against the Department in the paragraph I have read to your Lordships. It is, therefore, my duty to give to your Lordships the account of the facts of the case which I should have given to the Committee if they had thought fit to call me before them, and which I think would very shortly have disposed of the imputations which have been made. The case of Mr. Weale came before me in February 1897. Mr. Weale's term of office would have expired on 7th March the next month, under the operation of the 65 years' rule, and as the exact terms of that rule are important with reference to this case, I will read them to your Lordships. The terms of the rule are— Retirement is compulsory for every officer on attaining 65 years of age. But in special cases, the Commissioners may, at the instance of a Department, extend the officer's employment for a further period, in no case exceeding five years, on being satisfied that such officer's retirement at 65 would be detrimental to the interests of the public service. The retention of Mr. Weale beyond the age of 65 was not recommended by his Departmental superiors, and his case came before me in the ordinary manner. I was aware, however, at the time that a Select Committee of the House of Commons was going to be appointed to inquire into the administration of the museums of the Department, and as I knew that some friction had taken place between Mr. Weale and the other officials, I therefore put a question to the Vice-President to this effect— Do you think that there might be any advantage in retaining Mr. Weale until the Committee of the House of Commons, which is to be appointed, has inquired into this part of the subject? On that question of mine a letter was sent to the Treasury, the terms of which I did not see until it had been sent, and which did not exactly follow the terms of my question. The letter was as follows— I am directed to request that you will be so good as to inform the Lords Commissioners of Her Majesty's Treasury that the Lords of the Committee of Council on Education are of opinion that the services of Mr. Weale, one of the Keepers of the South Kensington Museum, in charge of the Art Library, who would, under the 65 years of age rule, be retired on 8th March next, should be retained until after the Committee of the House of Commons, which it is proposed to appoint in regard to the South. Kensington Museum, has reported. This letter was answered by the Treasury in almost the same terms, sanctioning the extension of Mr. Weale's services to such period, not exceeding one year from 8th March 1897, as might elapse before the Report of the Committee. As I have said, the letter was written and replied to without my having seen its exact terms. If I had seen them, I do not know that I should have taken any notice of the alteration which was made in my suggestion that the services of Mr. Weale should be retained until the Committee had inquired into that part of the case; but it is on the terms of these letters that all this controversy has taken place, and that the Committee thought it necessary to go into an elaborate consideration of the question whether our request referred to the final Report of the Committee or any previous Report which might be made by them. However, from the terms of the letter of the Treasury, it became necessary that at the conclusion of the Sitting of the Committee in 1897, when they made a Report recommending their reappointment in the following Session, the case of Mr. Weale should again be brought under my consideration. I then found that Mr. Weale had given his evidence, and that the extension of his services was not considered necessary by the heads of his Department, and, therefore, without the smallest hesitation, I expressed my opinion that there was no reason why his services should be longer extended. I did not know, and I did not make any inquiry, as to what was the nature of the evidence given by Mr. Weale. If I had known that it was adverse to the administration of the Department, certainly it would never have occurred to me that the fact that he had given such evidence would have brought his case under the terms of the Order in Council, and that his retirement on that account would have been detrimental to the public service. A good deal has been made by the Committee in the Draft Report of Lord Balcarres of a further letter which was written by the Treasury in November, 1897, after Mr. Weale had ceased to be a member of the Service. Some correspondence has been going on about the gratuity to be granted to Mr. Weale, and in one of his letters the Secretary to the Treasury wrote— With reference to the date fixed for Mr. Weale's retirement, I am to point out that, in compliance with the request of the Lords of the Committee, my Lords had sanctioned the continuance of his services for such period, not later than the 8th of March next, as may elapse before the Report of the Committee, on the South Kensington Museum. It is, of course, for the Lords of the Committee to decide as to the date at which Mr. Weale's services should be dispensed with, but, having reference to the fact that the Committee, after making a first Report, have recommended that they should be reappointed, their Lordships desire me to state that they will be ready to consider favourably any recommendation of their Lordships of the Committee for the further continuation of Mr. Weale's services if they shall think that course will be for the convenience of the Committee and the Public Department of Science and Art. That letter has been referred to by Lord Balcarres as showing that the Treasury were ready to review the case; but the fact is, that this letter was written under a complete misapprehension on the part of the Treasury. The Treasury had been led to believe by the terms of the first letter that there was some connection between Mr. Weale's retirement and the date of the Committee's Report, and this letter was written apparently in entire forgetful-ness that the question had been already decided, and that they had been informed that Mr. Weale's services had been already dispensed with. I quite admit that it was within the competence of the Committee to differ from the officials of the Department and myself as to the question whether the extension of Mr. Weale's services was in the public interests or not; but I do deny that it was within the competence of the Committee either to suggest that something in the nature of a grave scandal had taken place, or that anything like a breach of the privileges of the House of Commons had been committed through what they choose to term the dismissal of Mr. Weale. I cannot think but that the making of such charges, without giving the person chiefly implicated in them—namely, myself, any opportunity of defending himself, manifests a degree of reckless prejudice which I find it extremely difficult to understand.

House adjourned at Half-past Five of the clock.