HC Deb 18 April 1822 vol 6 cc1462-6
The Chancellor of the Exchequer

rose, pursuant to notice, for the purpose of moving for the appointment of a committee, to investigate the manner in which the Public accounts are at present kept, and to suggest such improvements in the system as might appear necessary. The first object he had in moving for this committee, was, to devise some means of simplifying the manner in which the Public Accounts were prepared. He wished that the accounts annually laid before the House should be made up on a mercantile plan, presenting, at one view, as in a balance sheet, the income and expenditure of each year. An attempt had already been made to lay before the House a statement of this kind. If a summary of the debt and expenditure of the country, in one short abstract, were annually laid before parliament, that summary might be considered as a sort of index to each particlar account; so that any gentleman could, without difficulty, refer to the items of which it was composed. Another object which he contemplated was, the making up of the accounts at the earliest possible period. The right hon. Gentleman concluded by moving "That a select committee be appointed, to consider of the best mode of simplifying the Accounts annually laid before the Houses of Lords and Commons in pursuance of several acts of parliament, respecting the Public Income and Expenditure, the National Debt, and the trade and navigation of the United Kingdom and report their observations thereupon to the House."

Mr. Maberly

said, that the errors which were manifest on the face of the public accounts rendered it necessary that a thorough revision of the system should take place. By the adoption of a balance sheet, gentlemen were at once enabled to detect any error which might occur in the detailed accounts; and while such a check existed, it would compel those whose duty it was to superintend the public accounts, to make those accounts consistent with the balance-sheet. When this system was fully carried into effect, the public would reap great benefit from it. Country gentlemen, who did not at present pay much attention to financial subjects, on account of their complexity, would, when the accounts were simplified, very easily understand them, and would at once see the increase or decrease of the Public expenditure, or of the public debt.

Sir H. Parnell

did not mean to oppose the motion, but he would suggest that the proposition did not go far enough. It was not merely a simplification of the annual accounts that was called for; but a simplification of the whole system of keeping accounts in all the public departments. He could refer to various reports which had been presented to that House, complaining of the mode in which the accounts were at present kept. He begged leave to call the attention of the House to an extract from the evidence of the accountant-general, Mr. Stedman, given before a committee in 1810. That gentleman admitted, that the accounts were very much in arrear, the amount to be balanced in each year being about 14,000,000l. But he added, "I have no hesitation in saying, that the accounts in my office might be as speedily and correctly made up, as those of any mercantile house in the kingdom, if a new system was introduced. Here was the evidence of the accountant-general, showing that the existing system was an improper one. There was another point, connected with the motion. He alluded to the estimates; which were at present submitted to the House in a manner which rendered it impossible to understand them thoroughly. No account was given, as to what became of the supply; whether there was a balance in hand, or a debt outstanding. He knew there was a sort of account laid before the House in April, but it was then of no use; and even if it were submitted to the House in good time, it would not give a full idea of the manner in which the supply was disposed of. It would, therefore, make this measure more efficient, if it were extended to the whole system of keeping the public accounts.

Mr. Lushington

said, that the labours of the committee would not be so light as the hon. baronet seemed to imagine. The range of their investigation would be so extensive, that it was doubtful whether they would be able to make a report that session. He hoped, however, that their labours would enable government to lay the annual accounts before the House much earlier than heretofore, and in a different shape from that in which they formerly appeared. If the duties of the committee were extended to the whole system of keeping the public accounts, it would be impossible for them to effect any useful purpose whatever in the present session.

Mr. Ellice

could not concur with his hon. friends in their view of the advantages which the country was likely to derive from this motion. He had hoped, in consequence of what occurred in the last, as well as in the present session that a committee would have been appointed to inquire generally into the public accounts; and although great labour would be thrown on such a committee, he could not see why they should not, like the committee on trade, report from time to time, on particular parts of the public accounts. One object for which he wished that committee to be appointed was, to inquire into the mode of managing the sinking fund. They were at present keeping up two or three useless establishments for the purpose of paying with one hand what was received by the other. Thus, if 18,000,000l. or 19,000,000l. was paid towards the liquidation of the debt, it was received back again in the shape of loans. The right hon. gentleman was going to do away with the great principle which formerly distinguished the sinking fund system by removing its power of multiplication. If this were so, and if the sinking fund were increased to 5,000,000l. without the power of accumulation, why not at once cancel the redeemed debt, and pay the surplus of the revenue to the commissioners. This would simplify the system, and it appeared to him, the only objection which could be urged against it was, the necessity which it would impose upon the right hon. gentleman to reduce one or two useless establishments and to state his accounts in a manner which the public could understand. Another point which it was material the committee should place on some intelligible footing was, the manner in which the accounts relative to our trade and navigation were made up. At present it was perfectly impossible for the House or the country to understand, or to draw any correct inference from them. They had what were called the real, and official values, and according to them the trade of the last year had been stated as greatly exceeding that of the most prosperous preceding year. Was that according to the value affixed to exports and imports during the war, or had that value been reduced according to the real decline in prices since? The right hon. gentleman might as well lay these returns in hieroglyphics on the table, as in their present shape, without some key by which the House could comprehend them. All the machinery of the exchequer accounts called also loudly for examination and reform. As nothing it appeared, could be done without a committee of that House, and as their labours were now to be confined to the specific objects mentioned by the right hon. gentleman, he hoped at least, they would gain so much by the measure, that in proportion as the House obtained information from their present limited inquiries, they would feel disposed to press the renewal of the committee hereafter for more extended objects.

Sir J. Newport

thought the most satisfactory course would be, for the committee to take up particular branches of the subject and report on them from time to time.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

did not think it would be proper to report from time to time, and could not consent to enlarge his motion to the extent which gentlemen opposite desired. If it were so enlarged, it would bring subjects into discussion, the consideration of which properly belonged to other bodies. Some of them were, indeed, under the immediate cognizance of government itself.

The motion was agreed, to, and a committee appointed.