§ The house having resolved itself into a committee on the bill for appointing commissioners to enquire into the abuses in the military expenditure of the country,
§ The Chancellor of the Exchequer said, that both in the general plan of the bill, and the names of the persons selected for its execution, be had thought proper to follow the example of the appointment of commissioners of accounts, instituted in the year 1782, and whose report was productive of so much benefit, and afforded suck general. satisfaction. It must be obvious to the house, that in the description of the persons to be appointed on such an important duty, it was necessary to have persons every way qualified for the various branches it would embrace. It would be indispensably necessary to have persons intimately acquainted with all the details of the service of the army, persons equally conversant with civil economy, persons who understood the laws as they apply to them, and lastly, persons eminent in the mercantile line. In this selection, he had studiously avoided the names of any persons who could be liable to any imputation of party, or of political connexions. Some of them were personally altogether unknown to him, and he judged of them solely by what he knew or understood of their characters and qualifications. For the military details, he should mention an officer who served with high character under generals Abercrombie, sir Charles Stuart, and others, with great distinction in that particular department, major-general Oakes, and with him colonel Beckwith, of the Guards, whose qualifications could not be disputed. For the civil economy, he was induced to propose lieutenant - general Drinkwater, who, after a long and meritorious professional life, had now retired from active service. For the legal part, he should mention Mr. Cox, one of the masters in chancery, and Mr. Cumming. For mercantile judgment, Mr. Peters and Mr. Charles Bosanquet. In mentioning these gentlemen, he spoke of them in terms of the highest encomium; and their names were put from the chair, and agreed to unanimously. 15 In reading the bill, when the chairman came to the powers vested in the commissioners appointed to carry it into execution, the words in the bill are, "that they shall enquire into all abuses that do exist within the said departments."
§ Mr. Giles said, he thought these words did not afford sufficient scope to the commissioners, as they only went to prevent abuses existing at this moment, and not to such as have previously existed. He would, therefore, move, that the following words be added as an amendment; that the words "have. existed" be introduced before "do exist," by which it would run thus; "that they shall enquire into all abuses that may have existed, or that do exist." These were the words of the act appointing the naval commissioners; and they had produced so much benefit to the public by their enquiry and reports thereon, that he thought this act could not be worded too nearly like that.
§ Mr. Rose thought if the amendment was adopted, it would oblige the commissioners to go very far back, indeed, and to some circumstances which called for investigation. There was one in particular which stood upon very distinct ground from all the rest, namely, the arrears of balances in the hands of the late lord Holland, by which the public has sustained a very considerable loss. No less a sum than half a million of money remained in his hands unaccounted for, for eight years after he had quitted his office, until he died, and afterwards in the hands of his executors for 14. years; a sum which, had it been laid out in government securities, would, at compound interest, have doubled itself in the time; so that, in fact, although a great part of the arrear of principal had been cleared off, shortly after the expiration of 14 years, yet the public actually lost by that transaction half a million, the interest which might have been gained had the sum in arrear been paid into the treasury upon lord Holland's retirement from office. It had been said on a former night, that in appropriating the interest of this money to their own use, lord Holland, or his executors, had violated no statute; but he really could not conceive how any man could wrap himself up in his integrity; and say, while he was receiving that money, which he knew of right belonged to the public, that he was guilty of no impropriety, because he was not violating a positive law. He really meant nothing personal to the hon. 16 gent. (Mr. Fox) opposite to him; but he thought it right the committee should have in view the subjects to which it was likely the investigation of this commission would be directed; but that hon. gent. was an executor of the late lord Holland, and, together with a gallant officer, his brother, and his nephew, then a minor, the persons who shared the profits arising from the sum in arrear for so many years alter lord Holland's death. He reminded the house of these circumstances merely to shew, that where so considerable a loss as half a million had actually been sustained by the public, no imputation of criminality whatever was allowed to attach to the persons Who shared in the profits of that transaction; while, in the case of lord Melville, lately before the house, though not one shilling of loss was sustained by the public in any of the transactions with which the name of that noble lord was implicated, yet every degree of odium and condemnation was cast upon him.
§ Mr. Fox was very willing to believe the right hon. gent. could mean nothing personal to himself; but he begged to observe, that as the subject alluded to by the right hon. gent. had been laid before, and fully investigated by the former commissioners of accounts, who had reported their opinion to the house thereon, he should have thought the business then finally closed, and that it would be rather odd now to appoint new commissioners again to consider that subject, and to enquire into the conduct of the former commissioners. As to himself, he was free to acknowledge he had been appointed one of the executors to the will of his late father, but so soon as he learned that there was such an arrear, he himself, for motives now not necessary to explain, had declined to act as an executor any longer. He would not pretend to say that the person on whom that office devolved, had not derived any considerable emoluments from the money in hand, or had been guilty of any misconduct, yet lie would assure the right hon. gent. that he had never received one shilling of those profits. He had attended before the former commissioners of accounts, and was ready to do so before the present, if required; nor had he any objection to the fullest enquiry; and he was convinced, time gallant officer, his relation, now lieutenant-governor of Gibraltar, would be ready to give every satisfaction to the same effect, and to show he never received a shilling.17
§ Mr. Rose answered, he most religiously believed what the hon. member now said, but till now he always understood that the hon. member, the gallant officer his relation, and the minor his nephew, were the persons who received the whole of the emoluments arising from the half million, as the legatees of the late lord Holland, and the hon. gent. was himself the acting executor.
§ Mr. Fox explained, that his father, after some legacies to his brother and himself, had appointed his mother residuary legatee to his personal estate; that his mother, who died in a few weeks after, had made him her executor, and bequeathed her part of his father's legacy to the gallant officer, to himself, and to his nephew. But as no part of the legacy could accrue to his mother's right, nor to his own, until all the debts of his father, and more especially this arrear, was cleared off, the whole of lord Holland's personal effects had been paid over to the new executors for the purpose, and not one sixpence had been received by himself or the other legatees to this hour.
§ Mr. George Ponsonby said, he was quite sure the right hon. gent. was perfectly sincere when he professed to mean nothing personal to his hon. friend, in revising the subject of lord Holland's arrears. From the tenor of the right hon. gent.'s speech, the committee must he perfectly convinced he could not mean any thing personal to his hon. friend. It must be equally obvious that the right hon. member had not introduced the subject with any view whatever to vindicate the character of lord Melville from those censures which parliament had unfortunately thought proper to cast upon his conduct. No such thing! And so convinced was he of the perfect purity and disinterestedness of the right hon. gent.'s intentions in both cases, that he relied upon it just as implicitly in the one instance as in the other. He believed the one statement exactly as much as he did the other!
§ The Chancellor of the Exchequer felt himself called upon to repeat, that as far as he had been able to discover, the public had not suffered the smallest loss from the conduct of lord Melville. With regard to the transaction which had been alluded to (lord Holland's accounts) it would certainly be unfair to try it now by rules which had been established since that time. There was at that time a prevailing custom which 18 in some measure justified the conduct of that nobleman, and if he was unwilling to reflect severely on the living, much less was he disposed to reflect on the memory of those who are no more. The proceedings which he now wished to institute were for remedial, and not vindictive purposes. He himself conceived the only true and fair object of the enquiry to be, the detection of any abuses that really do exist, with a view to the adoption of remedial measures, and the prevention in future of such abuses; but he appealed to the candour of the committee, whether such a bill as the amendment proposed by the hon. gent. would render the present bill, namely, a bill to enquire retrospectively into the whole expenditure of the army for a series of years past, without any charge of criminality, any allegations against any individual in any department, or any allegation that any proof whatever existed of criminality or misconduct any where, but merely with a view to seek out for causes of complaint, or trifling charges of irregularity. He would not pretend to say no irregularity had occurred, no defalcations or frauds had taken place, in the enormous expenditure of a great nation like this, during the course of a very expensive and wide-extended war. The utmost stretch of the most consummate talents, occupied in the management of public affairs, could not, by any exertion of vigilance of which man is capable, prevent the occurrence of some irregularities. But what men of character and talents, with any feelings of sensibility or honour, could be tempted by any emoluments, however high, attached to any situation, to undertake important departments, if they are to apprehend that at the end of ten, fifteen, or twenty years, the whole of their accounts and official proceedings are to be ransacked, in order to search for causes of complaint for misconduct or irregularity; after numberless circumstances, material to their vindication, are effaced from memory, and many of the most material witnesses no longer in existence? He thought, therefore, enquiry into the past, to any remote period, was wholly Useless in any remedial point of view; and that it was only to existing abuses that enquiry should be directed, in order to present remedy and future prevention.
§ Mr. Whitbread said, it was well known to the right hon. gent. that the powers of the commissioners of naval enquiry were retrospective; if they had not been so, they 19 would not have produced that report, which was undoubtedly of the first importance to the public. It could not be supposed that the commissioners, who were gentlemen of high character, and named by the minister himself, would be persons to represent with harshness those abuses and irregularities which really proceeded from the pressure of business, and not from corrupt motives. Those persons who had acted with honest motives, had nothing to fear from an enquiry, and those who had not, were in his opinion objects for censure and punishment. The right hon. gent. was mistaken when he said there was no allegation or surmise that could warrant such an enquiry. There were strong surmises and suspicions, that in many of the military departments, and particularly in the barrack department, gross abuses had existed.
§ Mr. Grey thought the course which was most remedial of existing abuses, was the punishment of corrupt delinquents, in order that their example might serve as a warning to prevent others from committing the like offences. He wondered that the hon. gent. (Mr. Rose) who had been so long in office, and who now professed himself such an enemy to abuses, had not sooner brought forward the consideration of the transaction to which he had alluded.
§ Mr. Rose said, the account of the late lord Holland was still open, and the balance as not yet paid. He never wished to screen delinquents, and when he voted for a committee to enquire into the coed net of lord Melville before they pronounced him guilty, he had voted for that winch would have thrown the greatest light upon the transaction, and which would have given the house the benefit of lord Melville's examination, which they had hot at present.
§ Mr. Fox said that although it was unpleasant for him to be obliged to speak upon the subject, it was but fair to state that lord Holland's account was nearly closed, and the balance, which was now but small, bore an interest. It might be trusted to the discretion of the commissioners to report on past abuses, only as far as it appeared to them material. In the late report on the conduct of the treasurer of the navy, it had appeared that a retrospective view was necessary, even for remedial purposes; and if it had not been for this retrospective view, the tenth report would never have made its appearance.
§ The Chancellor of the Exchequer had no 20 objection to a retrospective view of those abuses which it appeared to the commissioners material to investigate. His objection was to the obliging them by the imperative words of the clause, to spend their time in investigations that would appear to them immaterial. He was therefore disposed to acquiesce with the gentlemen on the other side of the house, in leaving this to the discretion of the commissioners. But in order to do this, he thought it necessary to alter the wording of the clause proposed, and instead of saying "they shall enquire into the abuses which now exist and have existed," to introduce express words that should give them this discretionary power. He therefore moved as an amendment, that these words should be added, "as far as they shall deem it necessary."
§ Mr. Serjeant Best considered the amendment to explain sonic reasonable limitation in point of time; and such must he the construction put upon it by any court of law, or by the commissioners.
§ The Attorney-General said, that his learned friend had mentioned no precise limitation.
§ Mr. Smith preferred using the words of the act appointing the naval commissioners, which had already been acted upon.
§ The Chancellor of the Exchequer observed, that the words "as now exist," had been proposed to be amended by the addition of "or have existed;" and proposed to amend this farther by saying "such as have existed, or shall seem proper to them to be enquired into."
§ Mr. Whitbread objected to it, as the commissioners of naval enquiry had acted with discretion under the act appointing them.
§ Mr. Fox thought experience on such subjects better than argument, and particularly in the choice of words in an act of parliament, where there was any matter of doubt. He, therefore, preferred taking the words that had been used before. He thought the act should be imperative in the first instance, to enquire into abuses where they do exist.
§ Sir W. Burroughs contended, that the words ought to be express and particular, great inquisitorial powers are entrusted to the commission; and there were not strong official grounds laid for this commission, as there was in the case of the navy.
§ Mr. Hiley Addington said, that he was not at all satisfied by the arguments he had heard from the hon. gent. who spoke last(Mr. Fox). According to him, the experience of the conduct of the naval commissioners, of which no one could expect him speak but in the most favourable terms, was enough to prove, that no other commissioners could possibly go beyond what discretion would warrant, under an imperative clause of an act of parliament. He entirely approved of the alteration proposed by his right hon. friend, and thought it a great improvement on the former act, and that it would completely answer all the same purpose. Perhaps, in giving this opinion, he might be charged with meaning to give protection to those who might be suspected of public delinquency; a charge which had been most unjustly and unwarrantably made against him, and those with whom he acted, in consequence of a vote given on a former occasion. Of that vote he had not repented; and was satisfied, with great deference to the opinion of a majority of the house, that it was a correct and a just one. The debate on that occasion had not been on the merits of the case; if it had, he should not have shrunk from giving an unreserved and explicit opinion: it was merely, whether the whole of the charges ought, or ought not, to be referred to a committee. It had appeared to him most becoming the moderation, the liberality, and the justice of the house, so to have decided; and no possible inconvenience could have resulted from it. It would have been analogous to all criminal proceedings in courts of justice, where no decision was ever taken before all the charges had been gone through, even though part of the charges had been admitted to be true by the defendant. He could not help adverting to this subject, on which he thought there had been much misrepresentation, for which there was no pretence or foundation.
§ Admiral Markham supported the amendment of Mr. Giles, and thought 1792, a reasonable period to go back to.—On division the numbers appeared for Mr. Ciles's amedments, 42; against it 90. Majority 56.
§ Mr. Giles wished to have inserted in the Obligation to answer questions, the word "lawful" in order to omit the specific pro- 22 vision against self-crimination, which he considered as a libel on the common law. The Chancellor of the Exchequer preferred retaining the specific provision, after the example of the act of naval enquiry. The original words were allowed to stand. Mr. Giles wished some provision to compel persons in the situation of Mr. Sprat to answer. The Chancellor said every person was obliged to answer who was concerned with the public money. Mr. Grey supported Mr. Giles's proposition. Mr. Bragge Batharst thought some provision necessary in this case. The original words were allowed to stand, and after some further conversation, the report was ordered to be received to-morrow.—Adjourned.