HC Deb 03 June 1872 vol 211 cc1049-54

SUPPLY—considered in Committee.

(In the Committee.)

(1.) Motion made, and Question proposed, That a further sum, not exceeding £846,100, be granted to Her Majesty, on account, for or towards defraying the Charge for the following Civil Services, to the 31st day of March 1873:" viz.—

[Then the several Services are set forth.]


, in asking for a further Vote on Account, said, he was not surprised at the indisposition on the part of the House to permit these frequent Votes on Account, instead of going on with the consideration of the Votes in detail. There was a natural feeling that the new system to some extent committed the House to the principle involved in the various Votes, and that it might have a tendency to delay the consideration of the Civil Service Estimates to the close of the Session. The explanation was, that up to the time of the passing of the Exchequer and Audit Act, the balances upon the various Votes were applicable to the current expenses of the year, and consequently it was within the power of the Government to go on till a late period of the Session without going into Committee of Supply. All that, however, had been changed. The provisions of the statute he had cited were of the most rigorous character. On the 31st of March, or the day after, every shilling of surplus upon the Votes had to be surrendered into the Exchequer, and consequently the House of Commons must take one of three courses, either pass the whole of the Civil Service Estimates on the 1st of April, or vote money on account, or repeal the Exchequer and Audit Act. The Government were urged very strongly last year, by several hon. Gentlemen opposite, to bring in the Estimates at the commencement of the Session, and to pass them on without delay. That would, however, be, in his opinion, an extremely unwise as well as unconstitutional course. Arbitrary and despotic Governments in former times were anxious to have recourse to that mode of proceeding, and when Supply was obtained Parliament was prorogued. Things had, however, greatly changed, and the principal part of the Session was now devoted to legislative business. That being so, the best course, he contended, to pursue was, to pass Votes on Account, and thus furnish the time which would enable the House to make progress with the legislative business before it. The Government, in adopting that course, were simply following the recommendation of the Select Committee, and he begged hon. Members distinctly to understand that it was the intention of the Government to avail themselves of every available opportunity which might present itself to go on with the consideration of the Estimates in detail. They intended to have proceeded with them last Friday, and would probably have succeeded in obtaining a good many Votes had it not been for the unexpected length of one of the discussions which preceded Supply. Under these circumstances the House would, he hoped, have no difficulty in assenting to the Vote for which he now asked.


said, he would not trouble the Committee with any observations on the Audit Act, but he must protest against the growing practice of the Government in taking Votes on Account and not giving the House proper time for the discussion of the Votes in Supply. It certainly was not the intention of the Legislature when the Act to which he had just referred had been passed, that Supply should be stifled. Let hon. Members look at the position in which matters now stood. It was now the 3rd of June, and the House had sat in Committee of Supply eight days since the commencement of the Session. There were still four most important Votes connected with the Navy to be passed which would take some time to discuss. Only one Vote for the Army had been agreed to, seven for the Civil Service, and not one at all in the Miscellaneous Estimates. That, he was sure, the House could not regard as a very satisfactory state of things; and if the answer of the Prime Minister with respect to the course of Business the other evening were taken into account, hon. Members would, he thought, be of opinion that it was quite time some remonstrance should be made against the mode in which Supply was treated. The Scotch Education Bill and the Mines Regulation Bill were no doubt very important measures; but the tax-payers of the country ought to have some assurance that the House of Commons, who held the purse-strings of the country, would not neglect their interests. Entertaining those views, he begged to give Notice, that if a further Vote on Account were asked for, at all events until much greater progress was made with the Estimates, he should oppose it.


said, he must express his regret that his hon. Friend had not carried out on the present occasion the resolution which he announced last year, to oppose Votes on Account at so late a period of the Session. Last year there might have been some slight excuse for the Government taking a Vote on Account on the eve of the Whitsuntide holidays, but they had no such excuse to offer that evening. He should be glad, he might add, to see Monday nights taken by the Government for Supply, and they might do so the more easily now that they were about to have Tuesday and Friday mornings at their disposal, for the purpose of making progress with legislative measures. To ask for a Vote on Account for four weeks from the present time, meant simply that Supply was to be postponed until the heat of July arrived, and many hon. Members would be leaving London. As to taking Supply at odd scraps of time, he entirely objected to it; for when it was fixed for Friday evenings, for instance, when other Business was before the House, it was impossible for hon. Members to know whether it was to come on or not. There seemed to be an opinion growing up that no practical good resulted from discussion in Supply; for the result was that when Votes were discussed hon. Members were told that they were only wasting time, and that if they wanted to effect a reduction in expenditure they must propose a Motion in general terms with that object. But when such a Motion was proposed, the Chancellor of the Exchequer immediately got up and said that it was all very well to raise grand discussions of that kind, but what the Government required was the assistance of hon. Members in Committee of Supply. Well, he, for one, wished to render that assistance, and he was reluctant to believe that the House of Commons would willingly relinquish one of its most important functions. The Civil Service Estimates, he found, were gradually increasing, for they now exceeded by £1,000,000 the amount for 1869, an increase which he did not think was at all satisfactory to the country.


said, the grant asked for was required to meet the honourable engagements of the country. A day or two hence the money would be absolutely wanted, and if any question could arise upon the matter, it was a question affecting the conduct of the Government. The Government time was but a fixed quantity, and he regretted that that debate had arisen, for it tended to delay the Scotch Education Bill longer than was necessary. He hoped, however, within the course of the next four weeks to make considerable progress in Supply. The hon. Member for Warrington should remember as regards the employment of Mondays, that the Ballot had hitherto occupied the attention of the House on that day.


said, a postponement of Supply for the purpose of passing some great political measure was an unconstitutional mode of proceeding, for the primary object for which they had been sent to Parliament was to check expenditure; and, probably, if Supply had been taken earlier last Session there would have been a discussion on the American Treaty, which would have had the effect of preventing England from being placed in her present humiliating position. He thought the Committee would be perfectly justified, under the circumstances, in refusing to give the Government more than half the amount now asked for.


said, he could well understand hon. Members opposite objecting to the postponement of Supply, because it had been postponed in favour of a measure which was unpalatable to them; but he could not understand the motives of the hon. Member for Warrington, because the time had been employed in furthering a measure which he was anxious to see passed. Would he have had the Ballot Bill postponed for a single night? ["No!"] Well, that was the main measure of the Session, and they had been engaged on it night after night.


said, it had been a leading argument of the Prime Minister with regard to Supply, that important Votes should be discussed on their merits; but, instead of that, the House were asked to take a Vote on Account. The position of the right hon. Gentleman—that it was the primary business of the Government to conclude its legislative programme before asking for Votes in Supply, was a startling and novel doctrine; and he hoped the House would never tolerate anything so mischievous as that political measures were to be allowed to occupy the time of the House almost exclusively until the close of the Session, and that then the Estimates were to be hurriedly pushed through Committee without criticism or comment.


said, he must agree that the way in which the Estimates were "shunted" till the fag-end of the Session made the control of the House over them a perfect farce. He had a Motion on the Paper to strike off altogether the Vote for the office of the Privy Seal—an office not of the slightest use, and one, therefore, which ought to be abolished. Now, however, the Government were taking a sum for that sinecure office, thus forestalling by their Votes on Account the Motions of private Members. If this Vote on Account were granted, he was afraid at the end of a month they would be told the same story and be asked for another Vote on Account. Instead of giving a whole month's Supply, he would suggest that the House should only give half that amount, which would be quite enough. He would, therefore, move to reduce the Vote by the sum of £423,050.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a further sum, not exceeding £423,050, be granted to Her Majesty, on account, for or towards defraying the Charge for the above-mentioned Civil Services, to the 31st day of March 1873."—(Mr. Dillwyn.)


said, he understood the Prime Minister to say that the Scotch Education Bill was to be carried on de diein diem at Morning and Evening Sittings. Did he know then there were no less than 30 pages of Amendments in that Bill; and did he not think it would be better to withdraw a Bill which uprooted the established system of education in Scotland, and which was very unpopular, than to postpone Supply?


said, he had not stated that, as against Supply, he would go on with the Scotch Education Bill de die in diem. He hoped that the House would be able to get through that Bill in the present week.


said, they had the prospect before them of being again asked late in July at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning to vote away millions of the public money when discussion was out of the question. Instead of doing that, it would be better to vote the Estimates en bloc in one evening, and not trouble themselves any further about the matter. The plea as to the Scotch Education Bill might equally apply to a dozen other Government Bills, and they might go on indefinitely giving Votes on Account. He should support the proposal of the hon. Member for Swansea.


asked the Secretary of the Treasury, whether the House, by agreeing to that Vote on Account, would be precluded from striking out of the Estimates at a later period any particular item which might be deemed objectionable?


said, hon. Members would not be bound to agree to any particular item; but were now merely asked to vote a sum on account of the whole Vote.

Question put.

The Committee divided:—Ayes 127; Noes 202: Majority 75.

Original Question put, and agreed to. (2.) Resolved, That a further sum, not exceeding £42,000, be granted to Her Majesty, on account, for or towards defraying the Charge for the Post Office Telegraph Service, to the 31st day of March 1873.

House resumed.

Resolutions to be reported To-morrow, at Two of the clock;

Committee to sit again upon Wednesday.