HC Deb 16 May 1862 vol 166 cc1839-49

said, he rose to call the attention of the House to the manner in which the Charges for the Civil Services are increased, and to ask Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer whether it is expedient to make any change in the mode of conducting business to enable the House to exercise a more effectual supervision over the progress of measures which tend to that increase. In consequence of a communication which he had received from the right hon. Gentleman, it would not be necessary for him to trouble the House at any great length, but merely to explain, the object and purport of his question. There was a growing feeling in the country, and even in that House, that the amount of the public expenditure was a question of the greatest importance, and the notice-book of the House had during the Session contained notices of an unusual number of Motions tending in the direction of retrenchment. If any proof were wanted of the growing importance of the subject, it might be found in a debate which took place not long since, and one striking feature of which was a disposition to make the House of Commons responsible for the great increase of the public expenditure of the country. It was not his object at that time to discuss the causes which had led to the increase in the civil expenditure, which had been both of long duration and of large amount. During the fifteen years which succeeded the peace the civil charges of the country were, under the persistent economy of a Conservative Government, reduced from £4,500,000 to £3,900,000. Since the passing of the Reform Bill, such had been the unceasing activity of the House of Commons in effecting charges of one kind or another, that they had increased from the last-named sum to £9,800,000, exclusive of the cost of collection, and the charges for protecting the revenue. To inquire into the measures which had occasioned that increase would be to discuss all the measures which had been passed for the last thirty years, but it was important to notice the manner in which that increase had taken place. The civil charges might be divided into three general heads; first, the increase resulting from the action of the Government; next, from great public works; and thirdly, from Bills passed through the House. No sufficient opportunity was afforded of considering the acts of the Government which led to the increase of public expenditure. It might be said there can be no increase without an estimate being first placed upon the table and a vote being taken in Committee of Supply; but he denied that the practice of voting money in supply afforded to the House of Commons a sufficient opportunity of expressing its opinion upon acts of the Government which lead to increase of public expenditure. That was illustrated in a remarkable degree by what had occurred in the present Session with regard to the expenditure on education. A sum of money was voted year after year for education, but in truth it was only giving money to pay the bill for proceedings which the Government undertook. No Resolution was put before the House on which it could express any decided opinion; the only alternative open to it was to refuse or to grant the money. Let them take another illustration. An hon. and learned Friend of his endeavoured to obtain the opinion of the House on a project relating to military expenditure, but he found himself completely baffled in his at tempts to take the sense of the House on that question, and was ultimately obliged to assent to the vote demanded. In the case of great contracts leading to large expenditure, the House was never asked whether it wished to embark in those undertakings; its opinion was only asked when matters had reached the second or third stage, and when it had become impossible or exceedingly difficult to arrive at an impartial decision. Two years ago an hon. Friend of his, no longer a Member of the House, obtained the appointment of a Committee to consider whether it was possible to reduce the public expenditure. That Committee examined the First Commissioner of Works as to the mode in which the business of his department was conducted, and came to the remarkable conclusion that it was desirable to have a permanent Commissioner of Works, who should undertake all the responsible duties of the office, and a political Commissioner, who should sit in the House and enjoy all the honour and dignity connected with the office. That partnership scheme, however, was not received with much favour by the House, and he was glad to think that it had not since been carried out by the Government. The Committee in that case did not touch the source of the evil; in fact, their recommendation would rather have had the effect of withdrawing the department more completely from the cognizance and deliberate judgment of the House. Many of their subordinate recommendations on the subject of audit and account were important, but precautions in that direction only fulfilled the old maxim of locking the door when the steed had been stolen. Nobody supposed that the money was embezzled by the Ministers of the Crown; the real point for consideration was, how had the House been originally drawn into expenditure greater than they ever foresaw, and led to vote such enormous sums? That subject of inquiry was about to be illustrated that night in a remarkable manner. An idea existed in the public departments of the necessity of what was rather vulgarly called "doing the House of Commons." That process consisted in beginning large enterprises as if they were very small ones, in getting the House of Commons to commit itself to something from which it could not recede, on financial grounds or from a natural feeling of self-respect, and then year by year presenting to the House something more and something more again, until at last the House found itself involved in an undertaking of enormous magnitude, and attention was arrested and the matter became the subject of discussion or perhaps of division. Every effort of independent Members was frustrated by the stereotyped answer, "The work has been begun, and you must go on, or what has been already expended will be lost, and you will incur the censure of never knowing your own minds from Session to Session, and of having no consistent course of action." If the House of Commons wished to improve its position, and fully to undertake the responsibility now cast upon it of that expenditure of £9,800,000, it must examine the question—how was the House to have full satisfaction regarding the nature, extent, and ultimate result of any project when it was originated? The question was painfully pressed on their attention by the proceeding of the present Session. In no former Session bad works of such magnitude been presented; it was difficult to say how many millions they would cost before they were accomplished. He was within the mark when he said that the works proposed to be paid for out of the public resources would involve an expenditure exceeding £5,000,000. If hon. Members were to ask themselves what steps they had taken to satisfy their own minds of the nature and extent of that expenditure, they would be compelled to answer that they had taken no sufficient steps at all. They accepted the measures which were proposed, but they did not challenge any expenditure in the first instance. The third head of increase was from Bills passed in that House. By way of illustration, he might refer to the measure for the establishment of County Courts. It was begun in the other House of Parliament, not as a Bill of expenditure, but as one to improve the administration of justice. The House of Commons was asked to consider it carefully, with the view of securing that the income from those courts should not produce large profits to be devoted to the payment of enormous salaries. Those institutions were to he sources of profit rather than of expense to the country. However, after sixteen years of experience, during which there had been various changes, what had been the result in reference to the County Courts? Why, that this measure alone had added £260,000 a year to the civil charges of the country. That was the sum which they had to pay annually to make up for the deficit between the income of the County Courts and their expenditure. He believed it was quite possible to make any County Court pay its own expenses; but the County Courts were used as a collecting machinery, and, as a consequence of these operations, they had to support persons in gaol while their wives and children were maintained at the expense of the parish. Then there was the Bill to set up industrial schools or reformatories. That had been introduced as a benevolent measure, which was to create no charge; but, in consequence of changes made in the Act as originally passed, it had created heavy expenses which the people were obliged to pay; and if justices could be got to go the lengths to which benevolent persons would wish to see that measure earned out, £100,000 a year might easily be added to the public expenditure in giving further effect to its provisions. The House was drawn into those things because they had not before them a financial statement of the probable results—because they had not a Minister of the Crown who made himself responsible for the financial effects of the Bills which Parliament was asked to sanction. A plan for accomplishing some object was laid before the House, and they directed one thing or another to be done; but the Bill containing the plan also contained a clause providing that the charges should be borne out of any sums which Parliament might hereafter think fit to vote. There was at that moment on the table a Bill framed on that basis which he believed would involve an expenditure of £1,500,000. Under the reformed Parliament they had brought up to £9,800,000 charges which under the unrefonned had amounted to only £3,900,000annually. Formerly, when a Bill was sanctioned, the tax which it created was also sanctioned—the expenditure was estimated and provided for in the first instance; but, under an improved system of finance, they had separated the raising of money from its expenditure. It was not for him to say how the evil should be remedied, but he would suggest for the consideration of the House whether by shortening their proceedings on Bills they had not also limited their opportunities of examining into financial results. Formerly a Bill was read a second time in Committee; and he was not sure that second reading in Committee would not be a convenient stage for going into financial explanations. Another mode might be, that a Minister of the Crown should be charged with the duty of laying before the House an estimate of the expenditure to be incurred in reference to the measure brought forward. The question as to the best mode of altering the existing state of things was a complex one; and rather than make any proposition himself he preferred to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who had paid so much attention to that and every cognate subject, whether he could suggest any means by which the House could discharge the duty of pronouncing a deliberate judgment on every act that tended to increase the public expenditure of the country.


said, he concurred very much in what had fallen from his hon. Friend, but he wished to say in reference to the Public Works Committee, of which he was a member, that evidence was given before that Committee of Works contemplated, and almost begun, by one Commissioner, and then that the whole arrangement had been reversed, on a change of Government taking place. The Committee were, consequently, of opinion that the Public Works should be placed under some responsible Commissioner, who should not necessarily go out of office on a change of Government. The Committee, also, thought that it would be well if the Commission had a political representative in the House; and the idea was that one of the Junior Lords of the Treasury, who had very little to do, might undertake that office. Another point which was raised was in reference to the audit of the accounts. The Committee thought that there should be a bonâ, fide audit, but that the audit conducted as at present was in reality no audit at all.


said, he did not wish to commit himself to the particular opinions of the hon. and learned Member for the Tower Hamlets, but at the same time he would confess that the hon. and learned Gentleman's speech showed that he was amply justified in calling attention to that important subject, and that Parliament would do well to consider whether some practical measures of improvement could not be adopted. The hon. and learned Gentleman had contrasted the period before the Reform Bill with the period since the Reform Bill, describing the former as a period of economy, and the latter as a period of activity and extravagance. [Mr. AYRTON: Not of extravagance.] At all events, of undue augmentation of the public expenditure. He did not think it liable to that charge, while he admitted that the Government and Parliament of the period just before the Reform Bill deserved great credit for the exertions they had made to obtain economy. But the thrift and good husbandry applied to the administrative system under the Duke of Wellington were, he thought, confirmed and extended by the Administrations which held power after the Reform Bill. New purposes of civil government had, however, come into view, which it was impossible to meet without increased expenditure, and thus the progress of economy had been arrested. If they took the period from the passing of the Reform Bill down to the Russian war, he did not believe there would be found in any portion of our history a more honest and judicious economy. During those twenty-three years the increase of civil charges was exceedingly small, although the wealth and population of the country had largely augmented, and although new views had been recognised in respect to education, civil establishments, prison discipline, and the amusement and comfort of the people, which had led to increased expense. He doubted, however, whether, since the period of the Russian war, there had been an equally good and judicious stewardship of the public revenue. The two principal modes in which public expenditure was introduced to the notice of the House were by Estimates and Bills. He was not sanguine in his belief that much remained to be done by any mere rules to be laid down relative to Estimates; and he demurred to the hon. and learned Gentleman's proposition that the great and rapid increase in the Education Vote supplied a proof that the control exercised by Parliament over the Estimates was not effectual. That increase had taken place with the entire concurrence of Par- liament and in conformity with its views: and when, at the commencement of the present Session, the Vice President of the Committee of Council proposed certain changes, which in their basis and spirit were, he thought, beneficial, yet, inasmuch as they raised great doubt and scruple in the minds of persons in the country, no difficulty was found in insuring a full discussion of the subject in that House. If Parliament had been to blame, it was not for want of good rules. It was well understood that when any novel undertaking was submitted to Parliament, and when a Vote, however small, was taken, it was always accompanied by a full statement of the ultimate charge. There was not so much to be gained, therefore, by new rules as by a more vigilant spirit prevailing among private Members and the Government. The Estimates, however, were in some cases connected with Bills, because if Bills passed clandestinely through the House, it was absolutely necessary that the charges they imposed should appear on the Estimates. With respect to Bills, there were various modes in which they entailed charges on the public, by the appointment of public functionaries, with a train of clerks and subordinate officers. That was, however, one of the easiest branches of the question, because he could not see why some definite estimate of these charges should not be submitted, either when the Bills which imposed them were introduced, or upon the second reading. There were also other modes in which Bills affected the Estimates, as, for example, in the construction of public works and the adoption of various social and reformatory regulations, such as those affecting children of a certain class, &c. That description of expenditure was of a character that ought to be the subject of precise Estimates, and a careful consideration of what could be done for the improvement of the present practice was therefore desirable. The House had also to consider the modes in which legislative measures imposing new charges were brought before the House. Some of these Bills came down from the House of Lords, some were brought in by private Members, and the rest were introduced by the Government. Measures from the other House imposing new charges upon the public and those originated by private Members were under the especial guardianship of the Speaker. With the most important of the hon. Gentleman's proposals he entirely agreed. The practice which had grown up of introducing particular provisions by which Estimates were created and the faith of Parliament pledged to the payment of "monies to be provided by Parliament," amounted to an entire evasion and nullification of those excellent and honourable securities which the House had provided against itself. On the other hand, the mode of preventing the abuse, or of checking the danger, was a very serious matter. It was very difficult to do so, except by calling in the aid of the executive Government; and that certainly ought not to be done under pressure brought to bear by the Government itself, but ought to be the free and spontaneous offspring of the deliberate will and judgment of the House. Then, with respect to the charge imposed by Bills brought in by the Government, the hon. Gentleman said that a rule might be established to make some one Minister responsible. That sounded very well, and, as far as it went, it might be held in theory that at present the Finance Minister was responsible. But, after all, responsibility of that kind was very vague and indefinite, nor could it form a sufficient guarantee to the House, unless Parliament armed the department of the Finance Minister with powers which would enable it to make that responsibility efficient. He did not wish to press any opinion of his own upon the House, but his opinion, in general terms, was this—that the controlling functions of the Treasury were eminently useful, and that there was very little danger to be apprehended from any extension of those functions, but that as regarded the direct expenditure of public money by the Treasury, the Treasury had quite as much need to be controlled and watched as any other department of the Government. There was one important feature in the constitution of the executive Government of this country which was deserving of notice, and it was this—there was no department that was supreme over all the other departments. It was quite true the First Lord of the Treasury was the head of the Cabinet, and the Cabinet could give any order, which it would be the duty of the departments to obey; but it was not at all true that that order would become part of our executive or administrative system. On the contrary, it died with the Cabinet which gave it birth, and it would be for the Government which followed to revive it or not as they might think fit. There were two classes of charge with respect to which the Treasury stood in a very different kind of relation. It was in the power of the Board of Treasury to issue instructions to the Office of Works, for instance, or to the Post Office, and it was the duty of those departments to conform to the instructions. But most of the departments, and particularly those of the Secretaries of State, were not under any control of the Treasury whatever, excepting in regard to certain charges in their administrative capacity. In regard to the introduction of charges in Bills submitted to Parliament, there was nothing in our administrative system to prevent a Secretary of State from presenting any charge to the House without control on the part of the Treasury. And though the discretion of the Secretary of State might prevent the frequent recurrence of such a state of things, yet it had happened from time to time that charges of the kind he had referred to had been introduced in Bills, the department having particular objects in view, and the financial consideration being to them a secondary matter. Now, it was not in the power of Government to afford an effectual security against that practice. That security must be obtained by some rule to be laid down by the House itself, and that very point was the upshot of the speech of the hon. Gentleman. That was a matter which evidently required great consideration, and that consideration should be given by the House itself. An authority appointed by the House, assisted, of course, by the Government, ought to review the whole matter, and consider what recommendations should be given to Parliament. Her Majesty's Government, having had an opportunity of considering the subject, were of opinion that it would be very desirable—if it could be done at present, but, at all events, as soon as a sufficient number of the most experienced Members of the two Houses were free for the purpose—to go over the various points, and to take into view the various considerations which bore upon the matter. He had great hopes that the Report of such a Committee would be creditable to the House and conducive to the public advantage. It was therefore his intention, on the part of the Government, to propose to the House on a convenient opportunity that a Select Committee should be appointed for the purpose of investigating those matters to which the hon. and learned Member, with very great judgment and propriety, as well as with great ability, had directed the attention of the House.

Main Question put, and agreed to.