HC Deb 31 March 1871 vol 205 cc1028-38

SUPPLY—considered in Committee.

(In the Committee.)

(1.) Resolved, That a sum, not exceeding £70,000, be granted to Her Majesty, on account, towards defraying the Charge of the Post Office Telegraph Service, to the 31st day of March 1872.

(2.) £1,786,100, on account of Civil Services.


said, he thought the plan pursued by the Government was not one likely to lead to a fair consideration of the Civil Service Estimates. He would have been better pleased if the Vote on Account had been taken for three months instead of for two months, because at the end of a couple of months the Government would, in all probability, be compelled to ask for another Vote on Account, and thus the consideration of the Estimates would be postponed until late in July.


concurred in what had fallen from his hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, and hoped the Government would so arrange the Business of the House as to afford hon. Members an opportunity of amply and honestly criticizing Votes in Supply. Every year there appeared new items under different heads. Before entering upon any expenditure for new works he thought an opportunity ought to be given of discussing them properly.


said, there were some sums in the Civil Service Estimates he should like to see struck out, and there were others he desired to see considerably reduced. There was an item in these Estimates for Royal Palaces, and he thought that the way in which the Royal Palaces were kept up contrasted unfavourably with the manner in which similar establishments were maintained on the Continent. An extraordinary expense was incurred for Parliamentary Papers, and he believed it would be a good plan if a Member, when he moved for an unopposed Return, was told what it would cost. A great many of these Papers were thrown into the waste paper basket, and during the last fortnight he had received two circulars from dealers, offering to purchase all the Blue Books he did not wish to keep. Now he looked upon all these Papers as public property, and he should no more think of selling them than of stealing a hat. He suggested that after the Blue Books had been used by Members, they should be collected and sold by some officer, and the proceeds put to the credit of the House. There were two items which he considered rather curious. One of them was £45,034 for offices for the House of Lords, and the other £50,000 for offices for the House of Commons. He could not think that anything like these two sums had been expended for the purposes specified.


said, that last year the Prime Minister held out the expectation that an opportunity would be afforded for considering the Civil Service Estimates at an early period. He thought that they ought not to be driven into a corner in discussing these Estimates at a late period of the Session.


was sorry to say that, owing to the enormous amount of talk in which many Members indulged, the real Business of the House was generally left till near the end of the Session, when it was got through in anything but a satisfactory way. He believed the Government did as well as they could; but he had often felt that when a Member got up to oppose an Estimate he appeared to be regarded as a "bore." It was almost impossible under the present system to do one's duty effectually in checking the public expenditure. He suggested that a more satisfactory mode of dealing with the Estimates than that now adopted would be to refer each branch of them to say a Committee of 50 Gentlemen sitting upstairs. At present they knew nothing of what was done, and they were afterwards ashamed to find from the public papers that money had got into the wrong hands. He believed the Government were perfectly honest, and rather than continue the present most unsatisfactory system he would be almost inclined to leave the whole matter to them. He hoped that some better scheme would be suggested.


complained of the charges for the Charity Commission, the Copyhold, Inclosure, and Tithe Commissions and the Inclosure and Drainage Expenses, which he thought ought to be paid by those who derived benefit from them.


said, he thought the present mode of discussing the Estimates utterly ludicrous and futile, and he hoped his hon. Friend the Member for Finsbury (Mr. Alderman Lusk) would lend the weight of his high character and special knowledge to mature a better scheme.


suggested that the Government should always indicate the Votes they intended to take, instead of merely putting Supply in the Notice Paper; and when the reduction of a Vote was proposed it should either be reduced or a Division be taken upon it.


said, it was absolutely necessary, at present, to take Votes on Account. Formerly, balances were allowed to accumulate in the Treasury; but now they were paid into the Exchequer, and therefore the Government had to take Votes on Account. It was in deference to the opinion of the House that the Government had asked for only two months on account. He must take exception to the recommendation of the hon. Member for Finsbury (Mr. Alderman Lusk) that the Estimates should be sent to be examined by a Committee upstairs. He had served on many Select Committees, and his experience was that they were much more likely to add to the expenditure than to diminish it. The only plan was to put the best men on the Treasury Bench, and then to criticize the Estimates when they were produced. The reason why hon. Members who took an interest in the subject were driven into a corner at the end of the Session was that so much time was wasted in long speeches at the beginning of the Session. [A laugh.] Was any real business ever done before Easter? The Government were expected to introduce the more important measures, and even to pass some of them a second time; but they had the greatest difficulty in getting even one or two of the first Votes for the Army and Navy before Easter. The consequence was that the Civil Service Estimates were obliged to be postponed to the dog days. There were no Votes for any new undertakings in the Estimate now before the House, and he would look through the items during the holidays and take care that in the case of new works the House should have an opportunity of considering them. He trusted that the House would weigh what had been said by the hon. Member for Preston (Mr. Hermon) as to the expenditure for printing Returns. Many were moved for by hon. Members on the receipt of a letter from some constituent, and they were voted without any sufficient check. He wished some Member would do what he used to do as an independent Member, and say that, although the Return was not opposed by the Treasury Bench, he, as a private Member, opposed it on the ground of economy. Certain he was that there was an enormous and unnecessary expenditure in the printing and stationery of the Houses of Parliament, and especially in printing Parliamentary Returns.


said, the hon. Gentleman, in defending the Government, had practically pronounced their condemnation, by admitting that the Estimates could not be brought on before Easter because the Government were anxious to get some of their Bills read a second time. It was on that very ground that he (Mr. Bentinck) condemned their conduct. The first duty of the Government was to pass the Estimates, and when they had done that they could proceed with their other business. The result of the present practice was that the Estimates were deferred to the dog days. How was it that hon. Gentlemen below the Gangway, who were constantly making magnificent speeches on economy when before their constituents, turned all their out-of-door speeches into a farce when they got into the House of Commons by their connivance at this mode of conducting the business of the country? No doubt the Government were quite right in the course they adopted, if they could humbug the House into submitting to it. If he were in the Government he should do very much the same thing. But why was it that the House did submit to it? Why did hon. Gentlemen below the Gangway allow the Estimates to be passed sub silentio in the dog days? Those hon. Gentlemen had no control over the Estimates, and their whole position was a false one. Indeed, he ventured to regard them in this matter as imposters. This way of doing business was a great injustice to the taxpayers. And why was this Vote of £1,786,100, with all its five hundred details, asked for in one lump sum without any time being afforded for inquiry into it? It really seemed that the professions of the economists below the Gangway were mere hustings "buncombe," and that those Gentlemen were perfectly indifferent to the expenditure. It was proposed to Vote Estimates in a Committee of 30 Members, not one of whom was prepared to resist any item. Was that creditable? Was it not humbugging the country and making a joke of the whole thing? It was the duty of the Government to deal with the resources of the country, and to submit their intentions with respect to them, and all other measures ought to be deferred until the Estimates had been disposed of. If the House meant to have any control over the Estimates, it ought to insist upon their being submitted at the beginning of the Session, and it ought to prevent the Government introducing other measures until the Estimates were either accepted or rejected. He objected to the practice of asking for Votes on Account, and he wished to know from the Chairman when would be the proper time for commenting on any item in the enormous Vote before the House?


said, that when a particular Vote was submitted to the Committee from the Chair, that was the time to object to any item in the Vote.


said, the matter was not so entirely in the hands of the Government as the hon. Member seemed to think. When Estimates were put upon the Paper early in the Session, the privilege of interposing Motions was one which hon. Members availed themselves of very liberally. The Government had only a certain number of nights before Easter on which they could put Estimates down, and it was always problematical whether they could get a Vote. If they did not get Votes on such a night, the night was lost for Government Business; and, under these circumstances, to charge them with not making progress with the Estimates was like expecting them to make bricks without straw. What was wanted was an arrangement by which the Government should have the power of going into Committee of Supply at once. If the power were given, hon. Gentlemen might then abuse the Government as much as they pleased if the Estimates were not proceeded with. He did not think that the hon. Member could have devoted much time to the consideration of the practice of taking Votes on Account, or he would have remembered that this was the last day of the financial year, and as all the unexpended balances must be paid back to the Exchequer unless this Vote was passed the Departments would have no money to go on with. An alteration in the law to this effect was made in 1866; and previous to that time Departments were at liberty to avail themselves of the unexpended sums in their hands until Parliament voted Supplies. Business would not be expedited by discussing items when a Vote was taken on account, seeing that they must be discussed when each Vote was passed, so that to discuss them now would be to do the work twice over. To strike anything off the Vote on Account would leave the Government with so much less to spend, and perhaps compel them to come for another. He left hon. Members below the Gangway to defend themselves. It was not the fault of the Government, but the consequence of the practice of the House, that these matters could not be brought forward at an earlier period.


said, that last Session he gave Notice of his intention this Session to call attention to the practice of taking Votes on Account, which had sprung up and grown largely since the passing of the Act which prohibited the use of unexpended balances. The practice had been resorted to week after week and month after month, until the Civil Service Estimates were voted without being considered at all; and this was what he objected to rather than to the necessary taking of a Vote on Account before the Easter holidays. Formerly, the consideration of the Civil Service Estimates formed part of the practical work of the Session, and there were no Estimates that required more carefully watching on the part of a nation that could not afford luxuries. It was one thing to discuss the Civil Service Estimates soon after they were presented, and quite another to discuss them when all the money had been voted on account, which was as useless as the debate by which Thursday night was wasted. It was a growing practice to put off these Estimates to the end of the Session, in the meantime taking Votes on Account; he hoped the House would set its face against the practice; and indeed the next time they were asked for a Vote on Account he should propose that they discuss the Estimates. The Civil Service Estimates were laid on the Table two days ago. In 1868 they were on the Table by the 20th of February; and in 1867, by the 13th of February; and in 1863, by the 23rd of February. He hoped they would in future be produced in time to allow of their discussion.


said, it was true that prior to 1867–8 the Civil Service Estimates were delivered earlier in the Session; but since then there had been a re-organization of the Estimates, whereby fuller information was given to the House. This, of course, increased the amount of labour and care necessary to be bestowed on their preparation, and consequently there was some delay in presenting them to Parliament. A gradual improvement was being effected in this respect. In 1868–9, the first year after the passing of the Exchequer and Audit Act, the delivery of the Estimates was on the 2nd of April; in 1869–70, it was on the 12th of April; in 1870–1, it was on the 7th of April; and in the present year it was on the 29th of March. The Government had done all they could to get the Civil Service Estimates presented to Parliament at the earliest possible period. It was no doubt true that the Estimates could not be discussed in July, when the majority of hon. Members had left for the country; but if the interval between Easter and Whitsuntide was to be devoted entirely to long discussions on important measures, what could the Government do? If they introduced the Estimates in April or May, neither Estimates nor measures would be considered, but the time of the House would be wasted in discussions on abstract propositions brought forward on the Motion that the Speaker leave the Chair. The doctrine advanced by the hon. Member for West Norfolk (Mr. G. Bentinck) was totally subversive of constitutional law, because, as was well known, it was in the discretion of Her Majesty's Government to prorogue Parliament as soon as the Estimates had been voted.


objected to the system of passing Votes on Account, and remarked that these Civil Service Estimates could not be practically discussed till the month of July. In reference to the difficulty pointed out by the Secretary to the Treasury, he would call attention to the fact that the Report of the Select Committee on Public Business—of which he was a member—which had just been laid upon the Table, recom- mended that Parliament should be called together in the month of November, thus enabling the Estimates to be discussed at a more seasonable period. He trusted that when the proper time arrived, that recommendation would receive the careful consideration of the House.


admired the ingenuity of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who had entirely lost sight of his suggestion that the Estimates should take precedence of all other Government measures. Until the House knew what the income of the country was, and what the Government proposed to expend, they were working in the dark. How it could be unconstitutional to submit the Estimates to the House early in the Session he was at a loss to understand. He should certainly join with the hon. Member for South-west Lancashire (Mr. Cross) in voting against any Votes on Account which might be proposed later in the Session.


said, he was surprised the hon. Member for West Norfolk (Mr. G. Bentinck) had not concluded with a Motion. The hon. Member for Preston (Mr. Hermon) had complained of the number of needless Returns moved for, and of the increase of the Estimates resulting therefrom. In 1869, a Return was moved for of the cost of all the Returns presented in 1867–8. It appeared that in that year 256 Returns were granted. One Return cost between £600 and £700; another between £400 and £500; and the whole cost of printing and stationery was £4,786. Now, considering that our annual expenditure was £70,000,000, no portion of it, in his judgment, was laid out to better purpose than this.


said, that one Return alone, in reference to the Irish Land Bill, cost £5,000.


replied that that was not included in the Return he had just referred to. He trusted there would never be an unwillingness on the part of Members of that House to procure trustworthy information.


said, he had understood the Secretary to the Treasury to say that the Estimates could not be brought forward in the early part of the Session on account of the long speeches which were made by the independent Members. Now, he held that the independence of the House was irre- spective of party. Though it was stated last night that there were no independent Members on his side of the House, the statement was made by a young Member, who, with greater experience, would find that independence of character had not ceased to exist, even on the Opposition Benches. He was glad to see the Prime Minister in his place, because a supporter of the Government, who wrote under the signature of "A Silent Member," had stated that the right hon. Gentleman's speeches, last Session, compressed into the smallest space, would reach from the bottom of the Monument to the top, and back again. He (Mr. Bentinck) did not think, therefore, the Secretary to the Treasury was justified in attributing long speeches to the Members below either Gangway. The real cause of the long speeches during the last two Sessions was that the Government had never been decided in its policy. Last year, after the Irish question, the Government found it necessary to bring in a Coercion Bill, and before Easter a number of nights were occupied with the discussion. This Session, not only did the same Irish question disturb the House again, but a second Coercion Bill was brought in under another name. Some right hon. Gentlemen who sat on the Treasury Bench had also discovered it to be necessary to reverse the whole policy of this country with respect to the Army and Navy, and to propose the largest Estimates that had been submitted since the Battle of Waterloo. When, therefore, so much time was consumed with Government Business had the Secretary to the Treasury, who was a party to the vacillating policy of the Government, any right to make a charge against the independent Members, when the fact was that he and his Colleagues had been at fault? [Mr. GLADSTONE: Hear, hear!] He was glad to find that the light of reason could come home to one right hon. Gentleman. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had said that the Estimates were not brought forward at an earlier period owing to the business of the House being encumbered by the Motions which were made in going into Committee of Supply; but he (Mr. Bentinck) hoped to show to the right hon. Gentleman and the House, from the Returns for which he had moved, that, during the last two Sessions, more time had been taken from the indepen- dent Members, owing to the early date at which the Government commenced the Morning Sittings, than had been occupied by all such Motions of independent Members. On that point the right hon. Gentleman was subject to serious and painful delusions, and the sooner he got rid of such a bugbear the better. Having thus vindicated the independent Members against the complaints from the Government benches, he hoped there would be no repetition of the remark which was made by an hon. Member last night.


, notwithstanding what had been said, regarded the present system of going through the Estimates as a sham, for hon. Members had no opportunity at midnight in the summer time, when Estimates are usually on for discussion, of offering such remarks as they would otherwise be disposed to make. Before Easter much time was consumed by hon. Members making speeches about foreign affairs and other matters with which they had little or nothing to do. He had previously suggested that the Estimates should be referred to a Committee for audit.


said, he had a question to put to the First Commissioner of Works. He was at a loss to understand, and should like to know, why the benches above the gangway were fitted up better than, and differently from, those below the gangway? There had been some discussion about the merits of hon. Members who occupied the various parts of the House; but he could not admit that the hon. and right hon. Gentlemen who sat above the gangway had such transcendent merits as to justify the practice.


said, that perhaps the difference between the seats arose originally from the fact that the Members of the Government were obliged to stay in the House a much longer time than private Members. He could not, at that moment, say as much for the front Opposition bench; but what they claimed for themselves they naturally conceded to their opponents. In regard, to the rest of the House, he must say, judging from the numerous speeches they had heard that night from the hon. Gentleman, that he thought their getting into Supply would be greatly facilitated by making all the seats so comfortable that no one would desire to leave them.


said, he was not satisfied with the answer of the right hon. Gentleman. Those who sat on the Treasury bench were well paid for sitting there; whereas private Members sat on the other benches at their own expense, and for their country's good, and were, therefore, entitled to at least equal accommodation. The case was one of sheer necessity.


observed, that the hon. Gentleman was not anxious for the comfort of the Members at large, but confined his sympathy to those Members who sat on the two front benches below the gangway, one of which he himself graced and adorned. The argument he had used in favour of those two benches was applicable to the other 16 benches which he had completely forgotten. He attributed to the hon. Gentleman the intention of gradually assimilating the condition of the incorrupt front benches below the gangway to that of the corrupt Treasury bench, and observed that the hon. Gentleman should throw aside his Sybaritish vices, and cultivate simplicity of manners and hardship in the discharge of his public duties.


asked whether the Committee did not think that it would be well now to apply itself to the business before them?


again insisted that the indulgence enjoyed by the occupants of the two front benches above the gangway should be extended to the two front benches below the gangway.

(2.) Resolved, That a sum, not exceeding £1,786,100, be granted to Her Majesty, on account, for or towards defraying the Charge for the following Civil Services, to the 31st day of March 1872: viz.

Class I.
Great Britain:— £
Royal Palaces 8,000
Royal Parks 16,000
Public Buildings 22,000
Furniture of Public Offices 2,500
Westminster Palace, Acquisition of Land 13,000
Houses of Parliament 5,000
New Home and Colonial Offices 13,000
Chapter House, Westminster 250
Sheriff Court Houses, Scotland 2,500
National Gallery Enlargement 4,500
Glasgow University 3,000
Industrial Museum, Edinburgh 2,000
Burlington House 6,500
Post Office and Inland Revenue Buildings 15,000
British Museum Buildings 800
County Courts 8,000

Resolutions to be reported upon Monday next;

Committee to sit again upon Monday next.