HC Deb 18 February 1879 vol 243 cc1409-35

in moving that a Select Committee be appointed to consider and report upon the Civil Service Estimates in the order in which they appear, observed that the discussion of the Estimates in Committee of Supply was not such a revision of them as business men would require of their own affairs. It was, in fact, little better than a farce. He admitted that the Estimates were generally brought before the House in a form which left little to be desired; but they took no further steps in their corporate capacity to criticize them and ascertain if they were right and proper, although that was one of the main functions of the House, and a duty which its Members owed to their constituents. He, however, made no charge against any particular Government. The Estimates were not proposed in their regular order; some hon. Gentlemen, perhaps, gave Notice of Amendments in regard to particular items, and Supply was repeatedly put off. As a consequence the Government ran short of money, and once or twice in the Session had to ask for Votes on Account. The discussion, it was said, could not be conveniently taken until the regular Estimate was brought forward, and the Vote on Account was granted. Thus the Session wore on, until about the last week of its existence, when hon. Members were anxious to get to the country and the moors and escape the heat of London; the Estimates were then brought forward in earnest, and hustled through the Committee, because hon. Members were too anxious and impatient to discuss them. The practical result was that private Members interested in the matter could seldom effect any reduction of Expenditure, even where such a reduction was shown to be practicable and right, the Government, by their numbers, being always able to win the day. He had, therefore, to propose, as a tentative measure, that a Committee should be appointed to go through the Estimates in order. They need not make any elaborate Report, but they might make their rough notes and bring up their Report on each Estimate before it was discussed in the House. Then the Estimates should be considered by the House in their regular order, unless some special reason was shown why that order should be departed from. He was not in favour of a large Committee, but the House would decide of what number it should consist. He made that Motion in no Party spirit, nor did he wish the Committee to be a political one in any sense; but upon it there should, he thought, be the Secretary of the Treasury or some other officer of the Government, and also a Member from the front Opposition Bench who had been connected with the Treasury. Without touching the policy of an Estimate, the Committee would see whether it had been sanctioned by the House, whether the money asked for by the Government was excessive, whether the service for which it was intended was required, or whether economy might be effected by a consolidation of offices, and so forth. It was said that such a Committee as he suggested would impair or destroy the responsibility of the Government. He believed that, on the contrary, it would tend to increase their sense of responsibility, because they would be subject to the criticism of an able Committee. Moreover, the Government did not seem to have felt their responsibility very keenly, for the Expenditure of the country was increasing at a fearful rate. In 1857–8 the Civil Service Estimates amounted to £14,340,000; whereas, last year, they reached £23,400,000, showing in the interval an increase of £9,000,000 per annum. The Civil Expenditure was now nearly equal to that for both the Army and Navy—namely, £26,586,000. He could not help thinking that if the Government had attacked those Estimates as they ought to have done, they would have kept them down to a much smaller amount. Another objection was that such a Committee as he asked for would diminish the responsibility of the Committee of Supply. On the contrary, he believed it would strengthen the hands of the Committee of Supply. He asked the Government to do what any Member of the House in his private capacity, or any master of a public establishment would do—namely, take some steps for the purpose of examining the items of expenditure which his manager or agent might present to him. He believed that if a Committee were appointed, the effect would be a reduction of Expenditure; but if that was not the result, then the House and the country would know that no reduction could be made. The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving the Resolution which stood in his name.


said, that since he entered the House he had been asked by his hon. Friend the Member for Swansea to second the Motion, and he at once acceded to the request. He had been 24 years a Member of that House, and during the greater part of that time he had devoted his attention to a criticism of the Civil Service Estimates. He had also filled the Office of Secretary to the Treasury. It was perfectly obvious to every candid mind that the House had entirely lost its control, if it ever had any, over this branch of the Expenditure of the country. It was perfectly true that some paltry sum for a picture or a door-keeper's salary might occasionally be disallowed; but there had been no serious diminution in any particular Vote, or any sensible lessening of the Civil Service Estimates, in consequence of any debate in that House. He was not going so far as to say that discussions in Committee of the Whole House on the Civil Service Estimates were altogether useless, because he thought they had a certain deterrent effect on the official mind; and although they might not get rid of certain Votes which it was proposed to put upon the Estimates, the probability was that some others were not brought forward at all in consequence of the discussions. Still, his experience was that the deterrent effect was of an infinitesimally small nature, and he had been driven with reluctance to the conclusion that the House must adopt some new plan in order to render the present farcical revision of the Estimates by the Representatives of the people something more than a mere sham. What had struck him in the course of these discussions during the last 20 years was this—that hon. Gentlemen assembled in Committee of Supply had no means of finding out where the blot lay in particular Votes. When he was in Office, he used to be amused seeing hon. Gentlemen beating all about the bush. Sometimes they were hot, sometimes cold, sometimes very near the mark, sometimes very far from it. How often did he see them taking a division on a Vote which was perfectly right, when the item above or below it was absolutely indefensible. In such a state of things it often occurred to him that what the House could not by any possibility, except by chance, discover, might be found out without much difficulty by a strong Committee which should have power to take evidence. It had been said that this proposal, if adopted, would diminish the responsibility of the Secretary to the Treasury. But, after all, the Secretary to the Treasury was only a subordinate officer, and sometimes he was sat upon by the other Departments. He often thought that if those hon. Gentlemen who insisted upon expenditure which the Secretary to the Treasury disapproved had the fear of a Select Committee of the House before their eyes, the Treasury would be greatly strength- ened in resisting the demand for increased expenditure. For his own part, he was not ashamed to stand there and say that often when in Office he would have been extremely pleased to know that the expenditure of which he did not approve, but which had been forced upon him by other Departments of the Government, had to undergo revision and to pass through the ordeal of a Select Committee of the House of Commons. The best mode of obtaining economical Estimates, no doubt, was to put on the Treasury Bench men who were themselves advocates of economy and who desired to see the Estimates reduced. But there were practical difficulties in the way of a Minister, however conscientious in his desire to reduce particular Votes. The present system had notoriously failed, and he saw no reason why they should not try another, such as that which was proposed by his hon. Friend the Member for Swansea. As far as the control of the House of Commons over the Civil Service Expenditure was concerned, it could not be in a worse position than it was now. Therefore, he had no hesitation in supporting, as an experiment, the proposal of his hon. Friend. Unlike many hon. Members, he thought the Committee on Public Accounts had done a great deal of good, and probably the Committee proposed by his hon. Friend would have a similar effect.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Select Committee be appointed to consider and report upon the Civil Service Estimates in the order in which they appear."— (Mr. Dillwyn.)


also supported the Motion, although he was unable to agree with the assertion that the Government had frequently deferred these Estimates intentionally until a late period of the Session. Certainly the struggle of the Government last year was to bring them on earlier than they had ever been submitted before. Looking at what occurred last night, he did not see there was any great hope that the Civil Service Estimates, even if the proposed new Rule were passed, would obtain that full and candid examination to which they ought to be subjected. He thought the Motion which the hon. Gentleman had brought forward tonight was a practical and business-like proposition. If it were adopted, hon. Members would be able to ascertain whether the Estimates were presented in the right form. He had often noticed that when an explanation was asked of a Vote, Ministers retired in order to consult with their officials. If these Estimates were sent to a Committee upstairs, the Members of such Committee would themselves have an opportunity of interrogating the officials who actually prepared the Accounts. The enormous increase of Estimates was, in a great degree, due to the action of the Party opposite. One means of reducing them was to place a check upon expensive legislation, such as that relating to what he might term the educational craze, under which an extravagant expenditure was incurred in the construction of costly establishments and in the teaching of extra subjects. He believed the Ancient Monuments Bill, if passed, would cause more expense than appeared at present to be contemplated. There was a weekly journal in which from time to time had appeared the confessions of financiers and Premiers; but to-night they had the confessions of an ex-Secretary to the Treasury, and his revelations had, indeed, been somewhat startling. The appointment of the proposed Committee would not impair the authority or responsibility of Ministers. On the contrary, he thought it would strengthen the hands of his hon. Friend the Secretary to the Treasury. He supported the proposal, because he believed it would enable the House to fulfil its most important functions with more regularity and more success than heretofore.


said, he differed from all the last speaker had said in support of the proposal. It seemed to him to be a move in the wrong direction. The greater part of the increase of Expenditure in the Civil Service was owing to the policy of the House of Commons, and he did not believe any Committee could give to that House an opinion that would be useful to hon. Members in guiding them as to the mode in which the public money should be expended. A great deal of good had been done by the Public Accounts Committee; but that was a totally different question. The Members of that Committee did not enter at all into a question of policy, but merely satisfied themselves as to whether the money had been expended in the manner contemplated by the House. His hon. Friend the Member for Swansea (Mr. Dillwyn) proposed that a Committee should be appointed to examine into the Estimates and to report to the House their opinion as to whether those Estimates had been properly framed and were proper Estimates of the Expenditure of the country for the year. He believed it was impossible for any Committee to undertake that duty, and if they did they would undertake, on behalf of the House of Commons, a part of the duty which absolutely devolved on the Government. It was the duty of the House of Commons to see that the Government presented full Estimates before they asked for Votes, and to criticize those Votes; but the House would be misled if it appointed a Committee to examine into all these matters of detail. The hon. Member for Swansea said he confined his remarks to the Civil Service Estimates. Well, one large item in those Estimates had, reference to Education, others to the salaries of the Civil Servants, to Public Buildings, and to the three Revenue Departments—namely, the Post Office, the Customs, and the Inland Revenue. Were these subjects which a Select Committee could possibly examine into and on which it could present a Report that would be of the smallest value in guiding the Committee of Supply? He maintained that such a Select Committee would mislead them. Nine-tenths of the increase of expenditure to which the hon. Member had alluded were due to the policy of the House itself, and a Committee would be incompetent to decide whether that policy was right or wrong. If, for example, it was right that money should be expended for Education, the Committee of Council must be left, with the check of the Treasury, to determine what Estimates they would submit. The real fault arose from the fact that the House did not take proper time to examine the Estimates. The Estimates were put down day after day and week after week, and nobody knew when they would be discussed. Such a state of things was, he thought, a discredit to the management of Public Business; but when the remedy for it came to be discussed the House seemed to be all at sea, for there were, he perceived, no less than 15 new Amendments on the Paper to the Resolutions which the Chancellor of the Exchequer had proposed, so that all further discussion of them was rendered almost hopeless. When he first had the honour of a seat in the House the Estimates were discussed. The late Mr. Hume spoke on them at what some hon. Members might regard as foolish length; but, be that as it might, it was evident they were not discussed at present. He trusted, therefore, the Government would exercise their power—and no Government within his recollection possessed greater —to persuade the House to adopt some Rule which would place matters in a more satisfactory position; but the proposal now made would have a very injurious effect by retarding the progress of Public Business, without the smallest chance of any public benefit.


said, he felt somewhat alarmed when lie heard the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Montrose (Mr. Baxter), for he had begun by stating that it must be obvious to every candid mind that the House of Commons had lost its control over the Estimates and that its supervision was a mere sham. The right hon. Gentleman went on to speak of the amusement with which, when in Office, he had watched the discussion of the Estimates from time to time, and stated that it frequently happened that in cases in which the House had passed one Vote after much discussion, which required no defence, they had left unnoticed another which was entirely indefensible. Now, he himself had not long occupied the post which he now had the honour to fill; but he must altogether deny that the present Government regarded the Votes which they laid before the House as being indefensible, either in whole or in part. As to the functions performed by the Committee on Public Accounts to which the right hon. Gentleman had referred, they were entirely different from any which were likely to devolve on such a Committee as that which was now proposed. The Committee on Public Accounts criticized matters after the money had been spent, and dealt with abstract questions of Account. But what would the proposed Committee have to do? They would have to deal with proposals of the Government, many of them involving questions of future policy. Now, a Government responsible for its future policy would, he fancied, look with considerable jealousy on a Committee by which that policy might be picked to pieces, and on which they would be represented, perhaps, by only one Member; whereas their policy ought to be judged by the Whole House. No Government, he ventured to say, would so far abdicate its functions as to intrust to a Committee of the House, composed of Members of different Parties, and not representing the opinion of the House at large, the Estimates which it deemed to be necessary to be discussed. But, to turn from what had been said by the right hon. Gentleman to what had fallen from the hon. Member for Swansea (Mr. Dillwyn), he would point out the real remedy, for the evil of which the hon. Gentleman complained was not that which he proposed, but that which had been suggested by the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Hankey), and which had before been submitted to the consideration of the House — namely, to secure, as far as possible, the certainty of Supply being taken on the evenings for which it was fixed without the danger of it being delayed day after day because of Notices of Motion. He recollected pretty distinctly the discussions on Supply last year, and he might state to the House that the Government had proposed on 34 occasions to consider the Estimates in Supply, and that on 15 occasions the subject was never approached; while there were only three occasions during the whole Session on which no discussion took place before Supply could be obtained. On all the remaining occasions Supply was reached not until after considerable discussion; and he would further observe that the objection which had been urged by the hon. Member for Swansea against the House being so often called upon to take Votes on Account would be greatly obviated if Supply could be fixed with such certainty that it might be taken earlier in the year. The hon. Gentleman had also referred to what he appeared to think the alarming increase in the amount of the Estimates; but he took no account of the increase in the population and the wealth of the country, nor of the fact that the amount of the Estimates depended in a great degree on the legislation for which the House was responsible. The Vote for Education, he would remind him, and one or two other Votes formed so largo a portion of the increases on the Civil Service Estimates as to leave very little room for any substantial reduction under other heads. The hon. Gentleman last year laid great stress upon the interest which he said the permanent officials of the Government must have in increasing the Estimates; but that increase would more properly be ascribed to the causes which he had just mentioned. The real point to consider was whether the proposal would facilitate Business. Now, he had always found that discussions by a Committee, so far from diminishing subsequent discussions in the House, had tended to enlarge them by furnishing new material; and he believed that that would be the result if the hon. Member for Swansea's views were carried out. Besides, the House could never be too careful of delegating its authority over the Estimates to any Committee, however vigilant, or of decreasing in any way the responsibility of the Government. The Secretary to the Treasury would probably be very glad indeed to share his responsibility with a Committee; but it was very doubtful whether the public interest would benefit. The Government, in all probability, would by degrees get to believe that the preparation of the Estimates was not so important a matter as their consideration, and that the responsibility of framing them rested really with the Committee, whose views might not always be economically sound or calculated to promote the efficiency of the Public Service.


Sir, the brilliant imagination of my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea (Mr. Dillwyn) has made out a state of things which, I apprehend, has little counterpart in reality. He represents to us a Treasury anxious above all things to increase Expenditure, and a House of Commons anxious above all things to diminish it. Starting from that point, my hon. Friend naturally wishes that the good principle in matters of economy, represented by himself and other hon. Members, should have the upper hand, and that the evil principle, represented by the Treasury, should be trampled under foot. But, alas! these things are not to be decided by the hallucinations of even the most brilliant imagination. We have to deal with matters of hard fact, which stand, it seems to me, in the most diametrical opposition to the hon. Member's theories. If there is a man in the world anxious for economy, depend upon it that man is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and that not from any superior virtue he may happen to possess, but because his character, his position, his very existence is involved in his being able to keep the Expenditure of the country within bounds. Others may be sincere in their professions of economy; you may always thoroughly believe him. On the other hand, as to the House of Commons, can any hon. Gentleman who has had experience in this House really believe that the Business of this House is mainly, or, indeed, in any perceptible degree, the promotion of economy in any way whatever? The Chancellor of the Exchequer is exposed to the most urgent importunities. What for? Does my hon. Friend suppose that people go to Downing Street and say to the Chancellor of the Exchequer—"For Heaven's sake, retrench this expenditure, do away with that job, alter or cut down this office!" Nothing of the kind. I venture to say that in the course of the five years I held the Office no such application was made to me. I had frequently 50, 60, or 100 gentlemen calling upon me to urge their views—gentlemen whose support was most valuable to the Government, and who knew it and felt it, and desired that I should feel it too; but who went away little less than furious, because the things they wanted done— things very good and proper, perhaps, in themselves—could not be done by the Government simply because the expense would have been too much for the public purse. If it were once understood that the Treasury was facile in these matters, and that you had only to make a good case in order to have it dealt with, the Government would be overwhelmed with projects, not one-hundredth part of the expense of which it could bear. That being the case, what is the remedy my hon. Friend proposes? That this man, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who above all others is bound to practise economy, shall be, in fact, placed under the control of a Committee of this House. Now, let hon. Members just think how the arrangement would work. At present a number of Gentlemen holding the destiny of the Government in their hands come to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and ask for a particular thing. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, if he knows his duty and is fit for his Office, and does not think the Revenue will bear the expenditure demanded, says "No." But in the case my hon. Friend proposes, what would he do? He would say—"Well, this sort of thing ought not to be done; but, after all, there is the Committee. If the Committee passes it nobody can blame me." And so you would have a quantity of things done which no Chancellor of the Exchequer would have dared to sanction had they not been brought forward by the Committee. Then there comes the question of responsibility. At present the Treasury exercises a control over the whole Departments of the Administration; but to appoint such a Committee as my hon. Friend proposes would be to place the Treasury in an inferior position, and the Committee in a superior position; and the officials of that Department, instead of attending to their proper duties, would have a great deal of their time taken up during the Session in appearing before the Committee. In a word, it appears to me that if you wanted the greatest possible facility for increased Public Expenditure, coupled with the least possibility of retrenchment, you could not do better than appoint this Committee. I will not trouble the House by going into details. I have never myself been accused of being too anxious to spend public money. Of all the charges brought against me that was not one; and if there was the least probability of economy resulting from it I would not hesitate to advise the adoption of this proposal. But I am quite certain that, well meant as it no doubt is, it would break down the responsibility of the only safeguard which you have, which is the Treasury, and would inevitably tend to increase the Expenditure.


said, he believed the admirable speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for London University (Mr. Lowe) was one which could not be answered. He would not attempt, therefore, to follow the right hon. Gentleman in again demonstrating the weakness of the proposal before the House in that direction which the right hon. Gentleman had taken; but there were one or two points connected with the question on which the right hon. Gentleman had not touched, and which seemed to call for remark. One was economy of time. As things were, hon. Members complained of the Estimates being late; but if the Committee had to examine them before they were presented to the House, they would not be in the hands of hon. Members till close upon the end of the Session. The officials of the Treasury would be so much worried by having to attend before the Committee that they would be unable to do their work properly, and the multitude of questions suggested by the investigations of the Committee would give rise to endless discussions in the House when the Estimates were at length presented. The result would be that Public Business would be much delayed, and that the Government would be obliged to ask for Votes of Credit, as to the objectionable character of which all parties were agreed. With regard to the question of responsibility, the hon. Gentleman the Secretary to the Treasury seemed to speak of the House of Commons as being responsible for the Estimates. Now that was a mistake. [Sir HENRY SELWIN-IBBERSON said, he certainly did not mean that.] He was glad to hear the hon. Baronet's explanation, for it would be a bad day for this country if the Government wished to shift its responsibility for the Estimates upon the shoulders of the House of Commons. He would never vote for relieving the Government of any responsibility; and the Government would be utterly irresponsible if the House handed the Army and Navy Estimates and the Civil Service Estimates over to a Committee. It was the Members of the House, individually and collectively, who were responsible for the great increase of Expenditure under the Civil Service Estimates; and it was only by resisting the proposals that were made by Members that the Estimates could be curtailed. He was surprised to hear the remarks of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Montrose (Mr. Baxter), who had been a Member of a Liberal Government professing economy, because if indefensible proposals were made when he was Secretary to the Treasury it was his bounden duty to have resisted them. It was all very well, when he was out of Office, to come down and tell the House what he had done; but what they wanted to know was what he did when he was in Office, and he admitted that the Liberal Government placed before the House indefensible items. If so, it was his bounden duty to have warned the House, which would have taken care that they were expunged from the Estimates. If the Motion had done nothing else, it had elicited a reply from the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the University of London, and also from the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Hankey), who had always expressed himself frankly and plainly, and he thoroughly understood this question. He believed no greater mistake could be made than to place these Estimates in the hands of a Committee, and therefore he should vote against the proposal.


Sir, when, in the year 1861, I submitted to the House a Motion for the appointment of a Committee of Public Accounts, the terms of the Motion, as they first stood, contained a clause to the effect that the Estimates also should be investigated by the Committee. In consequence, however, of what the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Gladstone), and others, said to me in private, I struck out that clause before submitting the Motion to the House. It was, therefore, with a peculiar interest that I listened to the speech of the hon. Member for Swansea (Mr. Dillwyn), to see if it contained any arguments to cause mo to revert to my original view, which he now advances. His speech has, however, failed to convince me. He has said that "at least his proposal can do no harm." If I thought so, I would certainly vote for it, and give his "experiment," as he termed it, a fair trial; but I feel sure that it will be productive of the greatest harm, and that, too, in both the ways in which he pointed out his aims in making the proposal. The first of these two principles of the hon. Member was this—"We must bear in mind that this House is responsible for the Expenditure, and yet makes no provision for a consideration of the Estimates." It seems to me, in passing, a very droll thing to propose, if it is the House which is responsible, to shift that responsibility on to a Committee of the House—or, rather, as I will show, to get rid of it altogether—while laying it down as the fundamental principle of the plan, that the House alone is responsible, and stating the aim of that plan to be the perfecting of that responsibility. The second aim of the hon. Member is the economy of time. "The Estimates are now," he said, "unduly delayed in the first place, and then they are hustled through without consideration." His two aims are, then, responsibility and saving of time. What would be the effect of his Motion in regard to time? When the Session opened, there would first be the debates on the Address, and then the hon. Member's Committee would be appointed. After a time it would meet, and taking the Army Estimates, it would send for the officials of the War Office and cross-examine them on every item and on the general policy. All this while the hands of the Government would be tied. They could not proceed with Supply until the Committee's Report on the Army Estimates had been for a due time in the hands of hon. Members. The same may be said of the Navy Estimates, the Revenue Estimates, and each class of the Civil Service. This Committee will therefore commence by causing a great delay. But a greater delay will be occasioned when each Report has been made, unless he intends to preclude the House altogether from a consideration of the Estimates; for each Report will be a perfect arsenal of arms and ammunition for hon. Members to fire off at the Government, night after night, on each Vote. Certainly, the effect of this Committee would be to prevent "the Estimates being hustled through at the end of the Session," for the end of the Session would never come. We should have to sit en permanence. So much in regard to time. Now let us consider how it will affect the responsibility of the House. Whenever an item should have been objected to, and all the ammunition had been fired off, the Secretary to the Treasury would rise and say—"You have appointed a Committee to consider the Estimates, and the Committee have had the advantage of examining all the officials on the subject; surely the Committee must know more about it than the rest of the House; why cannot you trust to your own Committee?" Thus the responsibility of the House would be undermined. At the same time, the respon- sibility of the Government would be obliterated, for the Government is now responsible for every item of Expenditure which they ask the House to grant. The plea of the Secretary would shift that responsibility from the Government on to the shoulders of the Committee. There is another evil which would not be long in showing itself—an evil which the Secretary to the Treasury did not see, when he said—"The Government will be represented on the Committee by only one Member." For, consider what is the Government, under our present system of Party Government? It consists of those persons who are pleasing to the majority of the House—persons who represent that majority. The Committee would be appointed by the Government, in that it would be appointed by the majority at their beck and call. The Government would, therefore, take care not only to have a clear majority on the Committee, but, also, it would see that all the other Members of the Committee should be "safe men"—that is, men who would not be inconvenient to the Government; pliable men or ignoramusses; at all events, persons who had not too much independence. Thus the Committee would be a mere creature of the Government, and a screen for the Government to ward off attacks and to shield it from being called to account. The country would then say that the Committee was packed, and would put no faith in it; while both the Government and the House would have got rid of their responsibilities, without any responsibility being incurred by the Committee, as the House would not call its own Committee to account. Thus all responsibility for Expenditure would be destroyed. The late Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Baxter) said—"It is always useless to try to reduce any Vote, as the Government will always beat you." He meant that the Government have a phalanx, which is the majority of the House, to support them; and that when this ceases to be so they cease to be the Government. That is Party Government. That is an evil of the Representative system. In former days our forefathers devised a tripartite check on Expenditure. First, the Treasury check. Everyone who has been in Office knows that his own Department aims at perfection and extension of power, and this cannot be done without expenditure. Yet not an item of Expenditure can be incurred without the leave of the Treasury; and it is ruthless in its economical cruelty, as every head of a Department has bitterly experienced. The second check is the House of Commons; and the third is the Appropriation Audit, the object of which is to see that no money is expended except in the way, and within the measure, indicated by Resolution of the House of Commons. The Treasury check and the Audit are nearly as perfect as they can be. If there is too great an Expenditure, the House of Commons alone is to blame. It is in that part of the State machine that the screw is loose. The late Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Baxter) told us that when he was in Office he observed that the House would take two divisions against some Vote which was quite right and necessary, while it would leave unnoticed some indefensible or profligate expenditure. This means that the House of Commons is not informed, not intelligent, and ignorant of its chief duty— its chief duty, I say—for the House is certainly not a good legislative machine. No one would look to a meeting of 600 men to make laws. In effect, the House of Commons, as Mr. Thring has remarked in his evidence, makes cumbrous, unintelligible, or contradictory laws, and throws the Statute Book into confusion. Legislation is not the proper duty of a Representative Assembly. Its functions are the control of the purse; and, subsidiary to that, the representation of grievances. By the latter, the wishes and opinions of the country are made known. These opinions are not made known by newspapers; but are, to a very great extent, manufactured by newspapers. But newspapers are under an editor, and subject to his prejudices, and idiosyncracies, and interests, and private aims; and they are carried on partly as a commercial speculation, and partly— as in the case of newspapers belonging to hon. Members and to Ministers—as a stepping-stone to power. Well then, the result of this debate is this—The House of Commons does not exercise its proper functions, while it busies itself about that which it cannot do. In other words, the House has made itself useless, and worse than useless. The late Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Lowe) has said that it is the Chancellor of the Exchequer who is always the most eager and anxious to restrain expenditure and promote economy. Economy, Sir, is a good thing, when it is the effect of wisdom. But there is such a thing as economy without wisdom or knowledge. As the House of Commons fails to perform its functions, so a Chancellor of the Exchequer may fail in the duties of a statesman. We have a Zulu War, which might have been avoided if a telegraphic wire had extended from Ceylon or St. Vincent to the Cape. The expenditure of that war will be enormous; that waste would have been saved if we had telegraphic communication with the Capo. Yet I believe that a Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Lowe) refused a comparatively small sum to promote or assist such an enterprize. That was economy without wisdom, and there was a Chancellor of the Exchequer without statesmanlike intelligence and prudence.


said, that nothing was more evident from the proceedings of the previous night—and, indeed, from those of that night also—than that that House was devoted to discussion rather than to Business. In the proposal that was made by the hon. Member for Swansea (Mr. Dillwyn), they had a practical illustration of a system that had been suggested before Committees of the House on Public Business over and over again. This system had been recommended by an authority whose knowledge of the House was inferior to that of no man living. The system was that the House should appoint grand Committees upon subjects of great importance; and he (Mr. Newdegate) could conceive no circumstance upon which the appointment of a Select Committee—selected with the greatest care by the House—would be more useful than one appointed upon the production of the Civil Service Estimates, to consider and report upon them. One reason for the negligence shown in the consideration of these Estimates was, in his opinion, that under the recent centralizing legislation these Estimates had increased in volume, had been enlarged page by page, and chapter upon chapter, until the Members of the House became appalled at their extent and volume—in fact, felt individually unable to deal with them. The hon. and gallant Member for West Sussex (Sir Walter B. Barttelot) had urged the House not to appoint the Committee now proposed, because the House generally would get thereby an "inkling" of the detail of these Estimates upon which it might be disposed to take action. It was this very "inkling," as the hon. Member described it, which was so much needed. The volume of these Civil Service Estimates had been enlarged until, if an individual Member took up one point, he was treated as if he was dealing with something either insignificant, or with a subject of which he did not understand the bearings; and, indeed, it was almost impossible, at all events very difficult, for an individual Member to compass the relation of any one item to the vast £mass of items among which it was involved. This must be patent to every Member of the House. In former years, when the Legislature was content that county expenditure should be managed by the county authorities, and municipal expenditure by municipalities, the Estimates submitted to the House were comparatively simple. It was quite possible that, aided by knowledge acquired in local administration, the Members of the House should be individually competent to deal with those Estimates. The Civil Service Estimates in former days were limited to the expenditure, salaries, and conduct of a limited number of officers; but the Civil Service had grown up to such vast dimensions under recent legislation that it had become a great trading corporation—it had become an army—with which the House was almost unable to cope. He could not see the force, or rather the value, of the argument that the House would diminish the responsibility of Her Majesty's Ministers by the appointment of this Committee; while it was admitted that, as matters now stood, the House itself was incompetent to exact that responsibility. In answer to that observation, he need only appeal to the recollection of the Members of that House in saying that when the Estimates were considered, instead of the House having of late years been very decently full, it was always disgracefully empty. The real fact was that those who opposed the Motion did not make allowance for the change of circumstances. He had heard it argued that Her Majesty's Ministers formed for financial purposes a delegation, if not a Committee, of that House; while some seemed to imagine that Her Majesty's Ministers were solely responsible for the Public Expenditure. Who was to exact the responsibility of the Administration? The truth was that the House itself was responsible for the aggregate Public Expenditure, and if the House intended to discharge its responsibility, it would adopt some such method as that which had been suggested—to furnish it with those inklings which were necessary for its understanding the aggregate details of, and thus the aggregate Estimates. That applied particularly to the Civil Service Estimates, because the Civil Service had become so powerful that they were capable of refusing information to the House, and practically did so. Under the changed circumstances and form of the Government of this country, if the House intended to discharge its duty by enforcing a wise economy, after having deprived the local authorities to a great extent of their control over a large part of the Public Expenditure, this House would replace that control by some organization within itself, which should furnish it with information, without which the House, when it went into Committee of Supply, felt itself incompetent. He had considered the matter for some time, and he was convinced that the House ought to accommodate its action to the new position it had itself shared in creating. The House ought to abandon old-fashioned notions as to dealing with the Estimates in their new and enlarged volume and form. His belief was that if the House meant to discharge its primary duty of controlling the Expenditure of the country, it would act in the sense of, and support the Motion of, the hon. Member for Swansea.


thought an unfair attack had been made on his right hon. Friend the Member for Montrose (Mr. Baxter), because he said that, as Secretary to the Treasury, he had passed Votes in which he saw blots, but could not avoid passing them. When the House considered that a Secretary of the Treasury was a very subordinate official, that there were more than 200 Votes in the Civil Service Estimates, and that it was not a remarkable thing that out of such a number the opinion of the Secretary to the Treasury might be overruled by the Cabinet, they would see that it would be nonsense to expect the Secretary to the Treasury to think of resignation every time such divergence of view occurred, or to set him down as a pattern of insincerity in Liberal Governments. In the case of Alderney Harbour, for instance, when he (Mr. Laing) was Secretary to the Treasury, a great deal of money had been expended, or rather thrown away; but Lord Palmerston took a strong political view of the importance of Alderney to watch the French Establishment of Cherbourg, and it would have been of no use for him to oppose such an item against the opinion of the Prime Minister, backed by the dictum of the Duke of Wellington. He perfectly agreed that at present the House exercised no efficient control over the Estimates. That arose, not from the fault of the House, but from the nature of the case. The time had been when the Estimates had been criticized with much thoroughness. Mr. Hume, when in the House, devoted nearly his entire time to the object; but there were not then a fifth of the Votes there were now. It would be perfectly impossible for the House now to go over all the details of the Estimates. They had not the time. He could not, however, think that the appointment of a Select Committee on the Estimates generally would be sufficient to meet the evil complained of. It was true that a week-kneed Chancellor of the Exchequer might be able, by referring the matter to a Select Committee, to say "no" where he would otherwise have said "yes;" but this argument might also tell the other way, for the Chancellor of the Exchequer might say "yes" to a proposed increase of expenditure, trusting to the Committee to throw it out. Practically, the Estimates in these cases were very much the result of a compromise between the Treasury, fighting the battle of economy, and the other Departments which gained the popularity of expenditure. The control possessed by the House was very much what had been referred to by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the University of London—namely this, that if the Expenditure got ahead, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and eventually the whole Government, lost popularity. This was in itself a great security. He thought the House of Commons might exercise a more efficient control over the Expenditure if it would abstain from looking too much into mere matters of detail, and look broadly at the whole Estimates. By taking upon themselves the work of subordinates, and criticizing details in a meddling, petty way, they lost sight of the broad facts on the face of the Estimates. They might take up the Civil Service Estimates, for instance, and if they found there had been in any one head an undue increase, and found large Votes for which they could see no sufficient reason, and of which Ministers could give no satisfactory explanation, they might properly send these to a Select Committee for investigation. In this way they would exercise a more efficient control than by appointing a Select Committee to go over the wages of all the post-runners throughout the Kingdom, or other such matters of detail. Special items of large amount might be with advantage referred to a Select Committee, but not the examination of the entire Estimates.


I shall only occupy a few minutes with reference to the points that I wish to bring under the notice of the House. My principal reason in rising is in consequence of the speech made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the University of London (Mr. Lowe). That speech has been received with evident approval on the other side of the House; but I venture to say that the arguments of the right hon. Gentleman proceeded from an entire misapprehension of the objects of having the Committee. It is a fundamental principle, in reference to this House, that we shall have no power of proposing increases in the Estimates. I think it is a most valuable regulation, and clearly, if a Committee were appointed, it would have no power or authority to represent to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that Estimates should be further increased. There is no question, on the part of the opponents to the Committee, or on the part of those in favour of it, that the Government is responsible for laying on the Table of the House those Estimates for the Public Business which they think necessary; and they are bound, on their own responsibility, to keep down the expenses as much as possible. The hon. Gentleman the Secretary to the Treasury admits that that is the duty of the Government, and that it is also the duty of the House of Commons to reduce, as far as possible, the Estimates. He said that the House cannot be too careful in sifting the Estimates. Well, the point we are now urging upon the House is this—we believe that, under the present system of Committee of Supply, there is not an opportunity of sifting the Estimates put before the House by the Government. We see— we may be mistaken, but I do not think we are—a strong reason for believing that if these Estimates prepared on the responsibility of the Government are subjected, before they are laid before a Committee of the Whole House, to a careful investigation by the Select Committee, we should be putting a very great check indeed on the expenditure of the different Departments, and be strengthening the hands of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in resisting the pressure put on the Treasury by the different Departments of State. We are in the presence of a very large army —the permanent officials—whose influence is continually brought to bear on the Members of this House, on the public Press, and upon others, to induce a large expenditure. The Chancellor of the Exchequer knows better than I do the influence which is constantly brought to bear on the Treasury to justify large expenditure in various directions. All we say is, this is an experiment. We ask for a Committee as an experiment, and if it will not act you may dismiss it in another year. But let me remind the House that we are not asking for an untried experiment. There have been cases where certain expenditure has been referred to Select Committees, and the Estimates so referred have come out with considerable reductions. That has been the experience on previous occasions. But I will not, at this moment, trouble the House with information which I think is important, and may, perhaps, be new to some of the hon. Members, though I may remind them that most of the civilized countries of the world have got Committees to which the Estimates are referred previous to being brought before the Legislature. France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Holland, and the United States have got them; and now, when we ask to have an experiment of this kind, which is adopted by nearly all foreign Legislatures, we are driven from it by what is very much in the nature of bugbears. I hope, however, that the House will support the experiment which has been proposed by the hon. Member for Swansea.


pointed out that the Committee would have to be a large one, and expressed a belief that if it were appointed the time of the House would be very much more wasted than it was at present.


said, he thought it would be admitted the question under discussion was one of the greatest importance. The difficulty of getting on with the Estimates, so as to make fair progress, had been increasing every Session. A variety of plans had been proposed from time to time to remedy that difficulty; but none of them had succeeded. Almost every foreign Legislature had adopted this system of referring to a Select Committee the task of going over the Estimates either before the commencement of the Session or during the Session. The reason was that those bodies had found it difficult to devote that amount of attention and consideration to the Estimates which they required. They had been told that there would be ample time for the consideration of the Estimates during the present Session; but he wished to tell the House what he thought about that. He believed if any set of Members in the House were to attempt the consideration and discussion of these Estimates fairly and profitably, that before the Session was over the Chancellor of Exchequer would bring forward a Motion for their imprisonment or expulsion. He did not see how the right hon. Gentleman would have any other resource, because if these Civil Service Estimates and the Army and Navy Estimates were fairly considered in the House, it would be quite impossible to obtain Votes for the supply of the nation during the period of six months which the House sat. This was a conclusion to which he had been forced to come after a most careful examination of the whole question. It had been said by some people, including the Secretary to the Treasury, who had let the cat out of the bag when he said—"Oh! if you submit these Estimates to a Select Committee you will have discussion in Committee of the Whole House increased. No doubt it would have that effect, and why? Because, by the labours of the Select Committee, the attention of the Committee of the Whole House would be directed to the necessary points of discussion, and in that way discussion would be increased. But after the first Session all that would disappear and these inequalities would be removed, and the recommendations of the Select Committee which were of value would be acceded to, and the necessity for discussing the Estimates would gradually disappear. Now, at present, they were in this position. Last Session the Estimates were brought forward at a very early period by the Government, and they were kept on the Notice Paper with very sufficient steadiness during the whole Session; in fact, he believed they had Estimates on the Paper once a week during nearly the whole of the Session. But before three months had elapsed, notwithstanding that the Notices of Motion did not prove a bar to the discussion of the Estimates in Committee, notwithstanding that in very nearly every instance when Supply was the first Order of the Day that the House got into Committee early—notwithstanding all this, before two or three months had elapsed the Chancellor of the Exchequer recognized his utter inability to get the Supplies for the nation voted, and the whole of the Parliamentary system broke down; and that was what he believed would occur again this Session, in spite of the proposals which had been made by the Government for the purpose of facilitating Public Business. They would have the attention of hon. Members directed in an exceptional way to the discussion of Estimates, especially on Monday, and Parliament would undertake what it was a physical impossibility for it to perform, and they would have continually occurring all that ill-temper and many of those unseemly exhibitions which they all so much regretted last Session; so that he would impress upon the Government that they ought to submit the Civil Service Estimates to the consideration of a Select Committee, the experience of foreign countries before them. Even if the Government believed their Estimates were as clear as the Secretary to the Treasury said they were, why should they not submit them to the examination of a Select Committee? It was all very well for the hon. Baronet (Sir Henry Solwin-Ibbetson), with that lofty demeanour which so became him, to contrast his position under the late Government; but he had frequently heard the hon. Baronet during last year say he could not defend certain Votes because he knew nothing about them. That was, of course, a necessary consequence of the system. It was impossible that one man could understand all the multifarious branches of those Estimates. They might depend upon it that either this year, next year, or, it might be, a good many years yet, the views of the hon. Member for Swansea (Mr. Dillwyn) would impress themselves upon the House; and that, however unpalatable they might be at present to Her Majesty's Ministers, and the majority of those who would follow them into the Lobby, they would ultimately be recognized and acted upon, if this House was to continue its functions as supervisor of the Expenditure of the nation. Of course, they knew that Ministers and ex-Ministers would be opposed to any change, because they were well enough aware that the system of patronage was a most important portion of the Government of this country. What was it that made such a vast number of Members obedient to the Government and follow them? It was more or less the system of patronage which, either directly or indirectly, had permeated every branch of the Government, whether Army, Navy, or Civil Service, and, in fact, its influence extended to the Church. It further extended itself to the policy of the Government. Whether at home or abroad there was no Department, how-over minute, upon which patronage had not its effect. It was not reasonable to suppose, therefore, that Ministers would lightly give up a weapon which was of so much importance to them, and which they knew so well how to use.


said, he hoped that one result of this discussion would be that hon. Members would see that it was their duty to attend more scrupulously than they had hitherto been in the habit of doing on the occasions when the Civil Service Estimates were being discussed in Committee of Supply. Havlistened to this debate with attention, he had come to the good resolution of intending to give the right hon. Gentleman opposite as much trouble as he could whenever those Estimates were under consideration. As he understood the matter, what hon. Members really-wanted was more definite information with regard to the vast mass of details relating to the Estimates than was afforded them by the statement of the Secretary to the Treasury. The difficulty would be largely met if a Report were formulated by the Treasury giving the information required and setting forth the reasons why hon. Members were called upon to vote the different items in the Estimates. At present, unless some hon. Member in pursuit of his particular hobby put questions to the Secretary to the Treasury, the House obtained no information whatever with regard to these items. They were asked to vote some £23,000,000 in respect of these Estimates, and of that sum probably about £20,000,000 would have to be voted without reduction; but he felt satisfied that a considerable reduction might be effected upon the remaining £3,000,000. To take one instance, a vast sum was wasted annually upon the printing of unnecessary Blue Books, some of which, two or three inches in thickness, and costing hundreds of pounds to print, contained nothing but a mass of undigested tabular matter. It was certain that £20,000 or £30,000 might be saved under this head alone every year, without any detriment to the service of the country; and no doubt similar savings might be effected under many other heads if the question were carefully examined into by a Select Committee. Whether or not it was advisable to interpose a permanent body between the Government and the House in reference to the Estimates might be a moot point; but he intended, on this occasion, to vote in favour of the hon. Member's Motion, in the hope that some improvement on the present system might result from the experiment he suggested being tried.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 95; Noes 158: Majority 63.—(Div. List, No. 14.)