HC Deb 21 April 1868 vol 191 cc1025-33

Resolution [9th February 1858] relative to Proceedings in Committee of Supply read, as followeth:— That when it has been proposed to omit or reduce items in a Vote, the Question shall be afterwards put upon the original Vote or upon the reduced Vote, as the case may be, without amendment.


rose to move the following Resolution:— That the Resolution of the House on the 9th day of February, 1858, That when it has been proposed to omit or reduce items in a Vote the Question shall be afterwards put upon the original Vote or upon the reduced Vote, as the case may be, without amendment, be rescinded; and that, instead thereof, it be resolved— That when it has been proposed to omit or reduce items in a Vote the Question shall be afterwards put upon the original Vote or upon the reduced Vote, as the case may be, unless an Amendment be moved for a reduction of the whole Vote. He had been induced to bring forward this Resolution in consequence of what occurred last night in Committee of Supply with regard to the Vote for Palaces, &c. In former times it was the practice of the Crown to make a general demand upon the House for certain sums which were considered necessary for the public service; and it was the practice of the Committee to express its opinion by granting the whole of the sums so demanded, or by diminishing it, leaving to the Crown the responsibility of applying the money to the necessities of the country. It was found that the Crown, instead of appropriating the public money in the manner suggested when the Supplies were asked, sometimes, by the ill advice of the Ministers of the day, appropriated the money for other and different purposes, and it was found necessary to provide means for more specifically applying them, and then the practice grew up of having the Votes divided under separate heads. But such was the disinclination of the House to any very minute investigation of the details of Supply, that the Government was permitted to apply any savings which might be made under one particular Vote to the purposes of any other Vote. That went on for some years, and it was competent for any Member to move to reduce the amounts. A few of the items of the great services of the country came before the Committee, and the miscellaneous Estimates in larger amounts. When the spirit of reform and retrenchment began to prevail, a new system was introduced—that of having each Vote divided into a number of items. In fact, each Vote came to be accompanied with a Schedule of explanatory statements. In 1857, when that practice had grown to a considerable extent, difficulties arose in Committee of Supply with respect to the expenditure for palaces and public buildings in the occupation of the Crown; and the confusion became so great that he (Mr. Ayrton) ventured to suggest that, when a question was raised as to a particular item, the discussion should for the time be taken on that item, and questions with respect to it should, at the close of such discussion, be put from the Chair. The subject was afterwards brought under the consideration of the House, and a Resolution was moved by Sir Denham Norreys, that if any question was raised in Committee of Supply respecting a particular explanatory item, that the Vote of that item should be debated, and the sense of the Committee taken upon it; but the right hon. Gentle man the present Prime Minister and other experienced Members of the House pointed out the great dangers that might arise from altering a proceeding that had prevailed for upwards of 200 years, and a Select Committee was appointed in consequence to consider what was the best mode of taking Votes in Committee of Supply. That Committee agreed to certain Resolutions, one of which stated that, when the question had been taken on a particular item, no question should subsequently be put on a preceding item; but, when any reduction occurred, the next question to be put was that on the Motion that the Vote should pass. The Committee reported at the end of the Session of 1857, and in 1858 a proposal was made by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer to give effect to the Report. With this object certain Resolutions were moved at two o'clock in the morning, without any serious consideration or discussion. Now, the point to which he had to call the particular attention of the House was that the most important of those Resolutions, instead of being identical with the Resolution to which he had just referred as having been adopted by the Select Committee, was not in ac- cordance with that Resolution. This Resolution was passed by the House— That when it has been proposed to omit or reduce items in a Vote the Question shall afterwards be put on the original Vote or on the reduced Vote, as the case may be, without amendment. He thought the real signification of that Resolution had not been brought under the notice of the House. It amounted to this—that if any Member in Committee of Supply submitted for the consideration of the Committee the omission or reduction of an item, however small, from the explanatory statement of a Vote, after that proposition had been put from the Chair, it should not be competent to any Member to move the reduction of the whole Vote. The practical result was that if, on any great Vote, a Member proposed that an item in it, however trivial, should be considered, every hon. Member would be precluded from canvassing the expediency of the whole Vote and its general effects. In the Navy Estimates the first item was "Payment of Officers and Men." Supposing an hon. Member questioned the policy of maintaining the Navy on its present footing in time of peace, the proper mode of proceeding was to move the reduction of the number of officers and men. His objection was to the general policy of the Government. He objected to the policy of maintaining so large a force; and his mode of getting an expression of the opinion of the House was, to move that the Navy ought to be reduced one-fourth or one-fifth of its present number; but to cast on the Government the duty and the responsibility of determining, if the House decided in favour of the reduction, how the reduction should be carried into effect. His was a question, not of detail, but of policy. The item for wages was £3,036,000. He had a right to propose to reduce the number by 4,000 or 5,000 men. But, according to the decision of the Chairman last evening upon the Resolution inconsiderately adopted by the House, if an hon. Gentleman got up and said he observed that we employed 195 flag officers, which he thought was a monstrous number, and that they cost £49,000, and he desired to take the sense of the House whether there ought to be so many flag officers, and he proposed that the sum of £49,000 for 195 officers should be reduced by £10,000; this was a proper Resolution; but then the discussion must be confined to that item. This was a very reasonable and a very proper proceeding. But, if the Chairman put this Motion to the Committee, the Committee were thereby debarred from afterwards voting on the question of policy. Could it have entered into the contemplation of the House, when it passed that Resolution at two o'clock in the morning, that it had adopted a proper mode for conducting the Business of the House? It had been suggested by the Chancellor of the Exchequer that, if Members were at liberty to move the reduction of a whole Vote after a particular item had been canvassed, the same matter might possibly be discussed twice over. In point of fact, however, the particular and general questions were separate and distinct from each other, although they perhaps might, to a certain extent, go over the same ground; whereas, in order to uphold the Resolution, it must be shown that the two questions would necessarily and invariably go over the same ground. Again, the reason assigned by the right hon. Gentleman did not hold good; because, since these Resolutions were passed, it had actually been ruled by the Chairman, in Committee of Supply, that if an hon. Member moved the general reduction of a Vote, and if that Motion were carried against him, another Member might start up and propose a reduction of the items in detail. It so happened that the Resolutions did not prevent this from being done. But his difficulty was this: the Resolution expressly proclaimed that, if a Member discussed a particular item, it was the duty of the Chairman to put the Vote from the Chair; and then it could not be brought forward again. So that a Member had the power of preventing a general discussion of a question of policy. He (Mr. Ayrton) would amend the Resolution in this way: that, after a particular item had been the subject of discussion, any Member should be at liberty to exercise his constitutional right of moving a general reduction of the whole Vote. Was it desirable to have such a proceeding? He had heard the opinion of many Members of that House, and he believed that hon. Members would agree with him that nothing was more expedient, nothing more desirable, if they wished to enforce retrenchment and economy. He thought it most desirable to uphold that principle, and not endeavour to take out of the hands of the Ministers of the Crown the details of administration, but confine themselves to expressing an opinion that the expenditure was too large, and leave the Govern- ment to go into the details and ascertain in what way the retrenchment could be best carried into effect. He thought that both modes ought to be preserved. They ought not to allow any individual Member to deprive another Member of the opportunity of bringing any business of this kind before the House. The question was one of such grave importance that he had felt it his duty to bring it formally under the notice of the House.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the said Resolution be rescinded."—(Mr. Ayrton.)


said, that this was a matter of considerable importance, and he was not at all surprised that the hon. and learned Member who took objection to the proceedings of last evening had brought it before the House; but he thought it was not desirable to decide at once a point only just raised upon a Notice given at an early hour that morning, and of which many Members were not aware until breakfast time. It was desirable that hon. Members should have the fullest opportunity of discussing the Estimates in detail, and moving Amendments; but he did not think that practically the Committee were deprived of that privilege. The hon. and learned Member for the Tower Hamlets thought that every Member should have the opportunity of moving, not only the rejection of an item in the Vote, but the general reduction of the Vote itself. He concurred in this; but he reminded the hon. and learned Member that it was still open to a Member to move the general reduction of the Vote, notwithstanding that another Member had previously moved the rejection of a particular item. That being so, a Member must make up his mind in time whether he would move the reduction of an item or the rejection of a Vote, and would wait until he saw whether an objection to a particular item would succeed. If no such rule were adopted, they might have two decisions on a Vote, placing the Government in a position of considerable difficulty; because it might happen that the Committee would not entertain Amendments for the rejection of a particular item, and adopt that for a general reduction of the Vote, the consequence of which would be that the House having affirmed the item to which objection had been taken, the other items which had not been objected to would suffer in consequence of the gene- ral reduction of the Vote. For instance, if in Committee on the Navy Estimates it was affirmed that 195 flag officers were necessary, and the whole Vote was afterwards reduced, the Government would have considerable difficulty in saying how the reduction should be apportioned. He quite agreed that in all cases the better and more constitutional way was to move the general reduction of a Vote; but if the Committee took on itself to discriminate and to affirm an item which had been objected to, it was rather hard on the Government that they were to be called on to reduce others in the Vote. He admitted that there was considerable force in the objection of the hon. and learned Member; but, at the same time, he should be sorry to see the existing rule rescinded.


said, that as it appeared likely that this matter would go back for re-consideration, he might be permitted to suggest a further point. The Motion of his hon. and learned Friend was on a very important and very valuable subject, and formed part of the largest questions. The rules which, in the course of centuries, had been elaborated in this House for the conduct of the Business had been most deservedly admired. But difficulties might arise when the House could only have one Amendment on the same point; because, as soon as one Amendment had been rejected, it had resolved that the original Motion should be put unamended. It might be well for the House to examine this point. According to the rule of the French Chamber, whatever number of Amendments there might be moved, the question of precedency was decided in this way:—The Amendment which was farthest from the original Motion was put first, and if this were lost, the others were put in succession. Might it not be as well to adopt the plan here?


said, his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer had concluded his speech without making any recommendation to the House. In fact, the matter ought to be referred to a Select Committee, and he wished to know if his right hon. Friend had any objection to the adoption of that course; or did he merely propose the adjournment of the subject to a future day? He understood his right hon. Friend to say that if a particular item was objected to and discussed, the decision on that item must be conclusive as to the judgment of the Committee on the whole Vote.


The rule laid down by the Chairman last night was, that after the decision of the Committee had been taken on a particular item in the Vote, it was not competent to an hon. Member to move the rejection of the whole Vote.


was quite aware of the fact, but he also understood the right hon. Gentleman to contend that that rule was quite right; because if it was afterwards competent to the Committee to reduce the whole Vote, the Government would be in a difficulty with respect to its distribution among items unobjected to; but he thought this hardly a conclusive objection. It often happened that while some hon. Member who objected to the whole Vote on general grounds of economy, not possessing the necessary information, which was in possession of the Government, to enable him to point out objections to particular items, adopted the plan of moving the general reduction of the Vote, there were others who, from having filled official positions, or having devoted themselves very sedulously to the study of successive Estimates, were enabled to point out the objectionable increase of particular items, and who therefore moved their rejection or reduction. He certainly did not think that those who wished to move a general reduction, ought to be precluded from doing so by the rejection of an Amendment reducing an item; and he suspected his right hon. Friend was in error in supposing that after an hon. Member had moved the general reduction of a Vote, a particular item could be discussed. The form of the Amendment to the whole Vote precluded such a course. But he would take higher ground. It was for the interest of the Government, and every Member of the House, to whatever party they might belong, to give the fullest and freest discussion to any criticism of the Estimates. The present process did preclude the House from criticising the Votes in the way which they wished. The present course might be convenient to the Government at the time; but he ventured to say that it would be more to their interest, and that of the public service if a fuller and better criticism of the Estimates could be obtained. If the adoption of the present rule precluded hon. Members from dealing with the Votes in the way which they desired, there would be always complaints till it was altered. The new arrangement might involve more time than was at present occupied; but he was sure the extra discussion would be for the benefit of the public service.


said, he could not understand how the ruling of the Chairman last night interfered in any way with the privileges or powers of hon. Members in criticizing the Votes. He believed he was right in saying that the effect of the present rules was this, that when the Vote was read from the Chair, any hon. Member might move that it be reduced. If that opportunity were not taken advantage of, and the items of which the Vote consisted had been gone through and discussed and passed, it was not then in the power of any Member to move the reduction of the Vote by any particular sum, though he could still divide the House on the question that the whole Vote be rejected. This seemed to him to be a common-sense and practical method of conducting Supply. It could give rise to no actual inconvenience if hon. Members clearly understood the effect of the rule, and he saw no ground for assenting to refer the point to the consideration of a Committee.


said, he could see no good cause of complaint against the course pursued. He did not see that the hon. and learned Member (Mr. Ayrton) had made out the slightest case; but if the House thought differently, he suggested that the question should be referred to the Standing Orders Committee.


said, he was a Member of the Committee of 1858, and very much approved of the Resolutions then arrived at. With regard to the point now under discussion, his impression was not in favour of the course suggested by the hon. and learned Member (Mr. Ayrton); but he admitted the gravity of the point, and should like a longer time for its consideration. After what occurred last night, he had no idea that they would be called on to decide the point to-day. It did not appear to him to be a point which should be submitted to a Select Committee. It was a question which would be best discussed in open Chamber, and he thought they would be most likely to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion in that way. He would therefore suggest the adjournment of the debate, so that they might come to some decision after due consideration. He wished it to be understood that he was not pledged to anything, and should be ready to listen to any suggestion that should be made. If, however, the hon. and learned Member for the Tower Hamlets did not object, he should now move the adjournment of the debate till this day week.

Motion agreed to.

Debate adjourned till Tuesday next.