§ MR. O'BEIRNE
said, he begged to ask the Secretary of State for War, Whether he has taken any and what steps to prevent the erection of the Shields sent to Malta and Gibraltar until the result of the inquiry by the Committee of which he announced the appointment on Monday last shall have been submitted to the House; whether he can inform the House when, it is proposed that the experiments with reference to the Plymouth and Bermuda Forts shall take place; whether it is true that, contrary to the custom usually observed on such occasions, the experiments which took place at Shoeburyness on the 25th of October last to test the Malta and Gibraltar Shields was kept strictly private, even the representatives of the Press being excluded from the ground; whether the Shield was not closely covered up in tarpaulins immediately after being shot at, and by whose orders was this strict privacy maintained; if he will inform the House whether the specifications and drawings issued from the 538 War Office for the Target intended to be shot at as a true section of the Plymouth and Bermuda Forts were in fact identical with the specifications and drawings issued for the original contract for that Fort and if they were not identical, by whose orders were the alterations made, and what steps have been taken, if any, to procure a perfectly correct section of the Fort as it is being manufactured; and, if he will inform the House whether it is the intention of the Government to observe the same degree of privacy with reference to the experiments to be made to test the principle upon which the Plymouth and Bermuda Forts are to be constructed?
§ SIR JOHN PAKINGTON
said, he would give the best answer he could to what the hon. and learned Gentleman called a Question, but which was really a long series of inquiries. He would take the Questions in the order they stood. His answer to the first was that he had not taken any steps to prevent the erection of the shield sent to Malta and Gibraltar until the result of the inquiry by the Committee, of which he announced the appointment on Monday, had been submitted to the House—in fact, it had not been in his power to do so. The shields were sent out to Malta and Gibraltar some months ago; with orders that they should be put in their places; but, whether or not they had been completely placed, he was unable to say. He begged to add that if it appeared as the result of trial necessary that they should be made stronger, there would be no difficulty in strengthening them in their places. In answer to the second Question, he was unable to say with precision when it was proposed that the experiments with reference to the Plymouth and Bermuda forts should take place. The target was being constructed under a contract, and from what he heard he apprehended it would be nearly two months from this time before it could be completed. Whenever that target trial took place, it was his intention to be present, and he should be happy if the hon. Member would accompany him. As to the third Question, he could hardly say that the experiments which took place at Shoeburyness on the 25th of October to test the Malta and Gibraltar shields were kept strictly private, and that the representatives of the press were excluded, inasmuch as a day or two afterwards an accurate account appeared in The Standard newspaper; but, certainly, it was intended to 539 exclude the press on that occasion, and its representatives had received no permission to be present. As to the fourth Question, it was quite true that immediately after the experiments the shield was closely covered up in tarpaulins; but he could not say by whose orders the press were excluded and the shield was covered up. No order to that effect proceeded from the War Office, and he believed that such privacy as was maintained was the spontaneous decision of the officer on the spot representing the Ordnance Select Committee. With respect to the fifth Question, the most important part of it, as he understood, consisted in the inquiry whether this target was to be a bonâ fide honest section of the fort as it was intended to be constructed? He (Sir John Pakington) had given the most strict injunctions that the target should be a faithful and correct representation of the Plymouth and Bermuda forts as it was intended to erect them. He did not say that in the erection of the target there might not be some slight deviation, on account of the fact to which he had alluded on a former day—that in erecting a section of this kind, it was difficult to give it anything like the real strength and solidity of a connected building, such as an entire fort. Therefore, some additional strength might be required; but he had given the strictest orders that there should be nothing like unfairness, and that the target when erected should be a bonâ fide section of the fort as it was intended to complete it. The last Question was one of no inconsiderable national importance. It was, whether the Government intended to observe the same degree of privacy as that described with reference to the experiments to be made to test the principle upon which the Plymouth and Bermuda forts were to be constructed? His answer to the Question as it stood was simply that he did not intend the attempt at privacy to be repeated. He would take the opportunity of saying it was a question how far it was desirable for the interests of the country that these experiments should be witnessed by representatives of the press and by foreign military officers. The question had lately received serious consideration at the Admiralty and at the War Office. The Government had consulted officers whom they thought most competent to give sound and judicious advice; and the result was this—In the first place, they were of opinion that if they desired secrecy in such a case it was 540 very difficult to obtain it; but the conclusion at which they had arrived, from the best opinions they could obtain, was, that on the whole the interests of the country were more likely to gain than to lose by permitting these experiments to be public. It was therefore his intention immediately to draw up regulations, which he would reserve the power to alter in the event of any peculiar circumstances rendering alteration necessary. Reserving this right, the rule will be that the representatives of the press and officers from foreign countries might, on application at the proper quarter, obtain tickets which would enable them to witness these experiments.
§ MR. O'BEIRNE
said, the right hon. Gentleman had not answered the fifth Question—whether the specifications and drawings issued from the War Office for the target intended to be shot at as a true section of the Plymouth and Bermuda forts were, in fact, identical with the specifications and drawings issued for the original contract for that fort? The noble Lord the Member for Haddingtonshire (Lord Elcho) had been informed that they were not, and it was very important that they should know if any alterations had been made, and, if so, by whose authority.
§ SIR JOHN PAKINGTON
said, he intended to answer this Question as distinctly as he could, and thought he had done so. He had not himself seen the specifications and drawings, and he was not aware of any alterations; but if there were any, they had been introduced for the purpose already mentioned—namely, in order to impart additional strength and stability to the target. If any alterations, except for that object, had been made—of which he was not aware—they had been made by order of the Engineer officer to whom had been intrusted the preparation of the specifications.