HC Deb 19 March 1877 vol 233 cc120-8

in rising to move— That, in the opinion of this House, it is essential to the due discharge of the duties of this House in controlling and revising the Estimates of the public expenditure, that the Estimates for the year for the Service of the Army and Navy, and more especially the Civil Service Estimates, should be taken into consideration at a period of the Session such as to afford ample time and opportunity, for discussing them—That any practice that tends to deprive this House of such opportunity, either by taking votes on account or by deferring the Estimates to a late period of the Session, is calculated to impair the efficiency of the control of this House over the public expenditure, and to interfere with the due exercise of the rights and privileges of this House, said, that he thought no apology was needed in calling the attention of hon. Members to the subject. The importance of it was apparent. He wished to show that in practice the House did not exercise the same amount of supervision as was exorcised some years ago, when by discussion and consideration of items a great saving in expenditure had been made. Another marked change in practice for the last few years was the late period of the Session at which the Estimates were introduced. If hon. Members would look back to past Journals of the proceedings in that House they would find that invariably the House of Commons had the Estimates before them at an early period of the year. He would take one or two recent instances to show how desirable and even necessary it was that some such Resolution as that which he had put down on the Paper should be moved. In saying so he did not wish to impute any blame to the present Government; on the contrary, he admitted they had shown every disposition to bring on the Estimates as early in the Session as they could. He would also direct the attention of the House to the custom of taking Votes on Account. In effect the taking of Votes on Account was to withdraw the Estimates from supervision, because that one Vote being passed, it was assumed that the House had assented to the Estimates. He would refer to the Estimates for the two years 1875 and 1871. In 1875 the House was prorogued on the 13th August; on the 4th of that month, the day before the Appropriation Bill was introduced, 4,500,000 were voted on the Navy Estimates, and that included all the Dockyard charges, and, indeed, almost all the items upon which the supervision of the House would have been necessary; in that year on the 9th of April £3,000,000 were voted on account, and the Vote on Account enabled the Government to postpone the remainder until the last of the Session. On the 2nd of August £1,500,000 was voted for the Civil Service and £500,000 for the Army. On August 4th, 38 Votes were taken, amounting in all to no less a sum than £6,500,000, so that during the last 10 days before the rising of Parliament for the autumn Recess the House had voted something like £12,500,000. He need not remind the House how little disposition there was on the part of hon. Members to enter into discussions upon the Estimates at that time of the Session. Any hon. Members who endeavoured to do so would be met with the rebuke—"But you will prevent the passing of the Appropriation Bill—you will prolong the Session over another day," and hon. Members knew that it was regarded almost as an awful crime to raise a discussion and prolong the Session for one more day. Well, there was the fact that in 1875 a sum of £12,500,000 was actually voted within two or three days of the passing of the Appropriation Bill. Then, again, in 1871, when the House was prorogued on the 21st of August, a Vote on Account was taken early in the year. On the 14th of August £4,000,000 was voted for the Army, on the 9th and up to the 15th, £6,000,000 for the Navy, and on those two days £1,500,000 for the Civil Service; and the Appropriation Bill was passed on the 19th August. In that year, nearly £16,000,000 was voted in the two or three days preceding the passing of the Appropriation Bill. Under circumstances such as those it was impossible the House could exercise any real, effectual control whatever, and he hoped it might not be necessary to press his Resolution to a division, but that they should have a declaration from the right hon. Gentleman opposite (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) that the Government had resolutely set their face against the practice of deferring such important Votes to August. It was, in his opinion, a most serious thing for the House, by voting in such a manner, to give up their control over public expenditure. He could not agree with what he had heard remarked in relation to this subject — that it was not for the House to consider items, but only to discuss and decide upon principles. Surely it was by a discussion of the items that any alteration in the Estimates, which were made up of items, could be brought about. The different items were based upon the estimate of Departmental authorities, and the criticism and discussion of the House were checks, and had their influence on subordinate officers. If there was any item which to an hon. Member appeared exaggerated in amount, it was right that before he gave his vote he should ask for some explanation in regard to the exaggerated item. Very useful this influence was over the Civil Service Estimates and the Miscellaneous Estimates. There had been a considerable increase in the amount of the Miscellaneous Estimates, and a great deal of this increase was caused by this application of the surplus public money to good purposes; for instance, there was the Institution of Science and Art—a great institution of this character had grown up at South Kensington, which was now extending its power over the whole of the United Kingdom. This might or might not be the best object to apply money to; but it was most important to observe that this charge and many other charges of a similar character had been really introduced into the Estimates without their opinion being directly or indirectly taken upon it. He thought, therefore, that some principle should be laid down which would give the House a fair opportunity for discussion upon these matters. The House would find that a great many of these questionable things were at first called on at a late period of the Session, at which time full discussion was impossible; and having been once passed, they became precedents for the next and following years, and ultimately remained as fixtures. He therefore maintained that any Vote for public money to be applied to any public interest ought to receive first of all the assent or dissent of the House; and this could never be obtained by fair discussion if the Government allowed the Estimates to be postponed. Control over the administration of the funds of the country tended greatly to direct their attention closely to the Estimates. Under existing circumstances control was taken from them with reference to minute matters of administration, and consequently brought about every day a Vote which might otherwise have been discussed had a proper opportunity been afforded for doing so. The short statement which had been made he thought was sufficient to justify him in asking the assent of the House to the Resolution he had placed upon the Paper. He thought it his duty, having turned his attention to this point, to call the attention of the House to what he considered to be a very evil practice, which with the exception of last Session, was steadily on the increase. The hon. and learned Gentleman concluded by moving the Resolution.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "in the opinion of this House, it is essential to the due discharge of the duties of this House in controlling and revising the Estimates of the public expenditure, that the Estimates for the year for the Service of the Army and Navy, and more especially the Civil Service Estimates, should be taken into consideration at a period of the Session such as to afford ample time and opportunity for discussing them:—That any practice which tends to deprive this House of such opportunity, either by taking votes on account or by deferring the Estimates to a late period of the Session, is calculated to impair the efficiency of the control of this House over the public expenditure, and to interfere with the due exercise of the rights and privileges of this House,"—(Mr. Butt,)

—instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


said, he had no fault to find with the Motion of the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite (Mr. Butt); on the contrary, he so far approved of the doctrines laid down by him, that if he were to force them to a division, he was not at all sure whether he should not vote for it himself. The objection he really felt to the course the hon. and learned Gentleman had taken was something like that which a man might be imagined to have if, when starting in a great hurry to catch a railway train, one of his friends stopped him and delivered to him a lecture on punctuality. He was very sensible of the importance of getting into Supply, and he hoped to get into Committee as early as possible that evening; therefore, although the few words uttered by the hon. and learned Gentleman were very much to the point, and the Government received them with gratitude and sympathy, he hoped the House would allow him to appeal to them not to raise a general discussion now upon the course of Public Business, or upon the control which the House ought to exercise over the expenditure of the country. It was much better that they should go to work and do it than to talk about it. The hon. and learned Member had very handsomely and truly stated that, at all events, for both the last and the present year the Government had done what they could to enable the House to get the Estimates early before them and have time for fair discussion. He (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) might say that this was only the tenth Government night of the Session since they had set up the Committee of Supply, and the fifth on which they had taken the Estimates. He thought in the face of these facts the Government could not be charged with slackness. They had also laid down the Rule that they would always endeavour to have Supply on Mondays, and they had induced the House to come to a Resolution which would prevent an undue waste of time, in getting to Business on that day, in restricting the subjects on which discussion should be raised to those immediately relevant to the Estimates which were to come on. Discussions on such subjects might be very conveniently and profitably taken as Amendments to the Motion that the Speaker leave the Chair, but general discussions interfered very much with their getting to Business. Of course, they would not desire to interfere with the traditional privilege of discussing grievances before Supply; but it was necessary to fix some limit, and the House had come to the Resolution that when Estimates were taken, the discussion must be relevant to Supply. He wished to make one remark on a particular point to which the hon. and learned Gentleman and some others had adverted—he meant taking Votes on account. It sounded very plausible—indeed, there was nothing more so—to say they ought not to take Votes on Account; but if the hon. and learned Gentleman really wished to put an end to the practice, he must alter what ought to,be considered a very beneficial and economical arrangement—the practice of surrendering at the end of the year the unexpended balances. This made Votes on Account essentially necessary, to a certain extent, unless they could get all the Estimates passed at an unusually early period. The Government desired to have as little to do as possible with Votes on Account; but the practice did so far relieve the Government from the necessity of pressing forward the Business, and when Votes on Account were taken, the Estimates were thrown somewhat later in the Session than they would otherwise be. He could assure the House that, so far as he had anything to do with the conduct of the matter, he should use every exertion in his power, and he thought he could say the same for his hon. Friend the Secretary to the Treasury, to bring the Estimates as early as possible before the House, and to get on with them as quickly as possible; but one thing which threw them back was the Resolution which had been come to, on the suggestion of an hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Goldsmid)—that before the Civil Service Estimates were taken, a general Statement respecting them should be made by a Member of the Government. That was undoubtedly an improvement, but it was one which cost the Government time, as did also the improvements that had been made in the preparation of the Estimates and the embodiment of details that had not been given previously. All these considerations must be taken into account. The Government were as anxious to get on with the Business as was the hon. and learned Gentleman, who touched on an evil without suggesting a remedy, which indeed it was difficult to do; and what must be relied on was reasonable moderation and good sense on the part of hon. Members themselves, who could do much if they cordially desired to assist the Government in getting their Estimates fairly before the House, which they were anxious to do, not for their own sakes merely, but to enable the House to criticize and discuss them. Hon. Members would do good service if they would sometimes remember that Motions in which they were interested might interfere with important Business, and, indeed, the primary Business of Parliament. The greatest disappointment was often occasioned to private Members who made themselves masters of facts relating to a Vote in Supply when it was the First Order, and when it was reached at too late an hour to justify the House going into Committee. It was in this way that Motions sometimes prevented discussions that might be of great public advantage. He thought after what he had said he might appeal to the hon. and learned Gentleman now to allow them to go into Committee, and to use his influence with those over whom he had so much influence to assist them on all occasions in going on with the practical Business of Parliament.


while concurring generally in what the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer had said, feared that, if they were to be asked on all occasions not to discuss certain questions which were not pertinent to the Estimates till a convenient time arrived, he did not know when that convenient time would come. He, for one, was extremely obliged to the hon. and learned Member for Limerick (Mr. Butt) for the manner in which he had brought the subject under discussion, and he would appeal to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to give them an opportunity on some future occasion to discuss this important question. Public Business was much protracted by placing on the Notice Paper more Business than could be got through. There were 17 Orders on the Paper for that evening, and it was impossible that all of them could be reached. By pursuing that course, it was likely that the same block of Business would occur as last year.


said, the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer had met the Motion in the spirit he anticipated, and he believed the right hon. Gentleman was as anxious as any of them that the Estimates should be discussed in the House. What he (Mr. Rylands) complained of against the Government was, as on last Friday, they sometimes took Votes in Supply on Fridays. Fridays ought to be private Members' nights, to discuss Motions on going into Supply, and the Government ought not to take advantage of the conclusion of those Motions to snatch Votes in Supply. He thought that if the Government put down Estimates for Monday evenings only, lion. Members would respond to an appeal not to press Motions unduly on those evenings, if it were understood that Votes would not be put down for Friday evenings, except in cases of urgency, and that the Motion for Supply would be rehabilitated as often as necessary.


thought that greater progress would be made with the Estimates if they were accompanied by a printed memorandum giving fuller explanations. It was impossible to compare the Estimates of one year with those of another; and he suggested that the Secretary to the Treasury should renew the comparative statement which was issued at his instance when he was in Opposition.


said, that the variations between the last and present year's Estimates were shown in a Memorandum which had been sent round to hon. Members. This Memorandum pointed out every change that had been made. There was every desire on the part of the Government to make the Estimates as complete as possible, and he had taken care in one Paper to show the grants made in aid of local taxation. So long as he had the honour to be Secretary to the Treasury he should do everything in his power to give the House the fullest information on the subject.


said, he was quite satisfied with what had fallen from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and he would either withdraw his Amendment, or allow it to be negatived. It was true that he had not brought this subject forward on a former occasion, when he gave Notice of his intention to do so, because that was the evening appointed by the First Lord of the Admiralty to make his Statement in explanation of the Naval Estimates. Knowing as he did, that the House was anxious to hear the right hon. Gentleman; and thinking, moreover, that it was not desirable that he should be prevented from making his Statement at an early hour in the evening, he (Mr. Butt) had given way. He only regretted that on that occasion some hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the House were not so forbearing, but had pressed Motions of which they had given Notice, and the consequence was that the right hon. Gentleman could not make his statement till a late hour.


begged the hon. and learned Member to believe that he had not meant to make the slightest reference to him in the remarks to which he had alluded.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.