HC Deb 28 July 1871 vol 208 cc413-6

Her Majesty's Government having entered into an agreement with the House that the first Committee of Supply should be taken on the Navy Estimates, I cannot refrain from saying that I am much surprised at the Order of Business which is now proposed to be followed.


The right hon. Gentleman, I think, was not in the House when the statement was made by my right hon. Friend the First Lord of the Admiralty, in answer to a Question addressed to him, that it would be necessary to lay before the House the Education Vote, and that great inconvenience would result if this course were not adopted at once, inasmuch as Monday next is the very last day for taking the Vote. My right hon. Friend accompanied his statement as to the time when the Navy Estimates would probably be taken with a hope that no unforeseen circumstances would arise. This certainly is an unforeseen circumstance, because we were not aware then that the last day for taking the Vote would arrive so soon.


That is an apology, not an explanation; and apologies only account for that which they do not alter.


said, the course now proposed to be taken was only a corollary of the extraordinary condition into which Public Business had fallen. So far as he had been able to make certain, there never had been a period, from the year 1834 onwards, when Public Business had fallen into such a state of inextricable confusion, and the incapacity of the leaders on the Ministerial side of the House was such as to call for the reprobation of the country. He hoped that every Member of the House when he visited his constituents would take an early opportunity of stating plainly the real manner in which Public Business in the House was conducted. Hon. Gentlemen opposite would, of course, endeavour to justify themselves, but if they only told the truth to their constituents they would find this a most uphill task.


said, the First Lord of the Admiralty had twice assured the House that, saving unforeseen contingencies, the Navy Estimates should be taken that evening. Now, it appeared that the reason they were not taken was because the Government had not a shilling left to carry on the Civil Service of the country, so far at least as the Education Estimates were concerned. The House had already voted on account of Navy Estimates a sum of £3,900,000, but there were upwards of £6,000,000 still to be voted; and he was informed that at the present moment contracts were being entered into and dockyard works carried on out of money voted exclusively for the pay of the men and the victualling of the Fleet. The First Minister of the Crown must long ago have convinced himself of the inaccuracy of the statements made by him in answer to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Tyrone (Mr. Corry), for he (Sir John Hay) ventured to say that on no previous occasion had the national expenditure been so conducted that for five months of the financial year only two Votes were taken for the Navy and only 16 Votes for the Army. A distinct pledge had been given by the First Lord of the Admiralty that the Navy Estimates would be taken that day. [Mr. GLADSTONE dissented.] Well, the statement made was that "as far as the Government could at present see the Navy Estimates would be taken the first time that the House went into Committee of Supply." Now the excuse made was that the Government could not see so far into the future as to anticipate that they would be short of money for the Civil Service Estimates. This confusion and contradiction, and application of money voted for one purpose to a purpose totally distinct, was only too characteristic of the fashion in which the Government was carried on at present.


The question of the conduct of the Government with regard to the Navy Estimates is a very fair question for discussion. I do not doubt that; but I doubt whether it is a convenient subject for discussion on the present occasion. The hon. Baronet (Sir John Hay) is perfectly justified in challenging the Government as to the nature of the pledge which he thinks they gave; but he is entirely mistaken as to the nature of that pledge. For, first, he recited it without any qualification; but when he came to repeat the words of my right hon. Friend it appeared that these contained a most important qualification. We knew perfectly well when making the statement that they were not masters of the situation with regard to certain Votes under the present Audit and Exchequer Act, and that there might come at any moment a notice to the proper Department that for some particular Vote it would be necessary almost immediately to obtain the sanction of Parliament. Consequently, in speaking of the Army Estimates, we carefully limited ourselves to saying, "as far as we were then informed." The information at that moment in our possession was to the effect that it was not likely that any vote of the Civil Service Estimates would require us to come to the House for money at an early period. It is since then that the intimation has been made to us that by the close of this month it will be necessary to obtain money for the purpose of feeding the Education Vote, and also, I believe, the South Kensington Vote; and therefore I think the right hon. Gentleman himself will see that the Government have acted in precise conformity with the declaration which they themselves have made. I may add that the Government, had circumstances permitted, were willing to give the hon. Gentleman opposite an opportunity of bringing on one of his Motions relating to the Admiralty last Tuesday night. I do not blame the hon. Gentleman for not going on then; but that was an indication of the views of the Government. I trust that the House will reserve that subject for discussion till the pledge of the Government becomes really applicable—for applicable it will become, as far as we can see, when these two Votes of the Civil Service have been taken—and that the hon. Gentleman, with a view of enabling us to reach the Navy Estimates as quickly as possible, will enable us now to dispose of these Votes without delay.


said, the impression which had been created in the House generally was that the Navy Estimates would have precedence of all other Votes in Supply, and that impression rested not merely on the statements of the First Lord of the Admiralty, but upon expressions which the right hon. Gentleman himself had used in reply to Questions put to him. [Mr. GLADSTONE: The words—what were the words?] He did not speak of words, but of the impression which they produced. He protested in the strongest manner against the postponement of the Navy Estimates to so late a period of the Session. The right hon. Gentleman, in one of his recent communications to the House, seemed to be of opinion that there was a precedent for the delay. But the information which the right hon. Gentleman had obtained at the Admiralty was entirely erroneous, as he himself (Mr. Corry) had ascertained by a search of the Journals, that there was no instance on record of any original Vote being taken so late as August, with the single exception of the year 1848, when the Navy Estimates were referred to a Select Committee on Naval Expenditure, and their consideration was deferred by consent until after it had reported. The manner in which the Navy was being treated had caused much dissatisfaction in the service, and he was not surprised at it. One-third of the financial year had passed; money was being daily expended without Parliamentary sanction in an altogether unconstitutional manner, and he strongly urged the Government to fix as early a day as possible for the discussion of the important questions arising out of the Navy Estimates.