HC Deb 05 July 1869 vol 197 cc1190-4

said, he rose to call attention to the difficuties which had attended the carrying out the provisions of the Exchequer and Audit Act of 1866. He did so in consequence of some observations reflecting on the late Government which were made in his unavoidable absence by the hon. Member for Sunderland (Mr. Candlish). That hon. Member charged the late Government with gross negligence in the matter—an accusation which, he thought, he should be able in a very few moments to show was wholly unfounded. That Act was passed in 1866, before the change of Government, and the Government of Lord Russell was responsible for it. The name of the present First Minister was on the back of the Bill; but it was principally attended to by the present First Lord of the Admirality. The Government who then had charge of the Bill had under-estimated the time it would require to bring the Act into working order. The present First Lord of the Admiralty—a man of great zeal and great energy, as well as of rather sanguine disposition, had rather hastily come to the conclusion that that Act could be brought into operation within the time limited by it—namely, April, 1867. When he (Mr. Hunt) first came into the Treasury he had hoped to take up that Act and carry it into effect within the time laid down. The difficulties of doing so, however, were so great that it was a very serious question whether a Bill should not be brought in to postpone the operation of the Act; but that proposal had been rejected, as it was thought that by adopting it they would be removing the stimulus to exertion among those appointed to carry the Act into effect. Before 1868 sums to be expended by different Departments were voted in a lump; and, in order to carry out the provisions of the Act, it was necessary that those sums should be separated and placed under the head of the respective Departments to which they were appropriated. Finding it was utterly impossible that the necessary investigation and arrangements could be completed within the stipulated period unless some extraordinary means were adopted, he had appointed a Commission for Public Accounts, under the control of Mr. Vine and Mr. Anderson, who was succeeded by Mr. Foster. The investigation proved very laborious, the accounts of Irish and Scotch Departments having to be examined, and it was only in consequence of extraordinary exertions that he was enabled to get the Estimates framed, so that the provisions of the Act could be complied with in the year 1868–9. When the Estimates for that year were brought forward they presented a very different appearance from those of previous years, a large number of the Votes having been separated and re-classified under sub-heads in a new shape, and on a uniform prin- ciple. This was a necessary step, because it was desirable that the Estimates and the accounts should correspond. This, which entailed labour of no slight magnitude, was performed under his personal superintendence, although such superintendence did not come within his ordinary duties as Secretary to the Treasury, and although he had not the assistance of a Third Lord. Therefore, the task imposed upon him by that Act had entailed no ordinary addition to his duties. He had further to superintend the preparation of a new form of accounts, under which the new audit system was to be carried out. It had required considerable time to effect all these changes, and he quite admitted that the Act had not yet been fully complied with; but he believed that that was owing to no lack of exertion or of zeal, but to the labour entailed by the Act being greater than those who had originally drawn up its provisions had conceived. He thanked the House for having permitted him to make this statement, and the hon. Member for Brighton (Mr. Fawcett) for giving him the opportunity of making it. He had thought these few words necessary to justify the conduct of the late Government and of himself personally.


said, he found some difficulty in following the explanation which had been given by the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Hunt), which would doubtless be more satisfactory to the official mind than it was to his. There was an interval of eight or nine months between the passing of the Act and the time when it was to become operative, and it seemed to him that that interval, if it had been properly used, was long enough to make all the necessary arrangements. It was far from his intention to do injustice to the right hon. Gentleman or to any other Member of the House; but he could not dismiss from his recollection the fact that, in the Civil Service Estimates of last year, out of a total of 168 Votes only twenty-two had been subjected to the operation of the Act of 1866. He should be glad if the effect of this discussion should be a more strict application of the Act. He did not cast any imputation upon the Audit Office, because they could not audit accounts that never were submitted to them. With the exception of the Board of Trade, the Office of Works, the Woods and Forests, and one other, none of the Government Departments had submitted their accounts to the Audit Office—not even the Treasury—and the Treasury accounts were still unaudited. Although the work of the Audit Office was not done, the cost of the establishment to the public had not failed to increase. Either the Act should be abolished, and the whole thing voted a sham, or the office and its work should be made a reality. The accounts of the various Departments should be audited by an independent Audit Department, which should be under the direct control of Parliament, and not connected in any way with the Departments whose accounts it had to audit.


said, he feared that his hon. Friend (Mr. Candlish) was labouring under a misapprehension as to the position and duty of the Auditor General. His hon. Friend said that the Auditor General was nominated by the Crown, and could not, therefore, be independent in the performance of his duty, but must be the servant of the Treasury. True, the Auditor General was appointed by the Crown; but so were the Judges, and no one would assert that they were not independent. There could be no better evidence of the independence of the Auditor General than the language of his Reports, which were made for the purpose of being laid before the House; and in which he canvassed the proceedings of the Treasury and every other Department of the Government in the most independent manner, and with the consciousness of responsibility to that House and the country; and it was to those Reports that his hon. Friend was indebted for the strictures he had made on the audit of public accounts. No doubt the audit to which reference had been made took much more time than had been anticipated. The matter had been referred to a Select Committee, who had endeavoured, but in vain, to make their Report in time for the present discussion. It would, however, be before the House in a few days. He quite agreed with his hon. Friend that it was for the interest of the public that the provisions of the Act should be carried out to its fullest extent; but it was better, while there was a Committee of Accounts investigating the matter, to wait until the Report was presented. He should be quite prepared to enter into a full discussion of the subject when it was properly before the House.


said, that there was this difference between the Judges and the Auditor General, that the former appointed their own officers, and were subject to no interference on the part of the Executive, while the Act gave the Treasury the power of appointing the officers and clerks of the Auditor General, and of fixing their salaries. The Treasury were also to prescribe the forms of the accounts to be adopted, and even had the power of dispensing with vouchers when they thought proper. The Accountant General could also appeal in certain cases to the Treasury against the Auditor General. He had always been of opinion that the Auditor-General would never be independent until he was appointed by the House, and made his Reports to a Standing Committee of hon. Members. The Auditor General was even dependent on the Treasury to be placed on the superannuation list.