HC Deb 26 March 1886 vol 304 cc38-50
MR. JOHN WILSON (Edinburgh, Central)

, in rising to move,— That a Select Committee be appointed to consider the Estimates, in conjunction with the Official Heads of Departments, before they are submitted to the House, said, that the Prime Minister, in one of his addresses to his constituents in Mid Lothian, gave expression to these words:— If you return a Parliament of the right kind, finance is one of the first subjects which must receive careful and close attention. Now, he (Mr. J. Wilson) thought they had here a Parliament of the right kind—one specially able to deal with the question of finance, for during the Election Campaign most hon. Members, in addressing their constituents, dealt very minutely with this question of finance; and nearly all of them promised, if elected, to give it their special and careful consideration. It was only 14 or 15 years ago since the Expenditure of the country was something under £70,000,000. A few years later it rose to £80,000,000; and he well remembered what a sensation the mention of that sum created throughout the country. There were Financial Reform Associations formed in nearly every town; and these Associations and the newspapers discussed the question of the growing gravity of our financial Expenditure. Now they had left £80,000,000 behind, and had reached £90,000,000. He was quite prepared to admit that it was extremely difficult to deal with this subject. It was a large, far-reaching, and intricate question; but it must be faced. There was a growing impression throughout the country that, by one means or other, some limit—and that speedily—must be put on the increase- ing financial Expenditure of the nation. This was not a Party question. He was aware that on the hustings it was sometimes made a Party question; but he did not think either Party was identified exclusively with economy in the financial Departments. He was bound to say that, in looking into the history of the administration of the country for some years past, he was satisfied that the Gentlemen who were now represented by hon. Members opposite had on many occasions evinced as much desire for financial reform and administrative economy as Gentlemen who were represented by hon. Members on the Liberal side of the House. He was also bound to to say that perhaps both Parties at times had made financial blunders; but neither of them was entitled to the exclusive privilege or prerogative of being more peculiarly economical in their administration than the other. He had said that this question must be faced; and to-night he desired to raise a discussion on the best method of dealing with their growing Expenditure. Hon. Members of the House would be aware, from Returns recently placed in their hands from the Accountant General, how close and minute was the surveillance of the outgoings of the Expenditure of the country. They had also the Public Accounts Committee—the Standing Committee of the House dealing with the details of the Expenditure; and on looking back into the Report of that Committee for last year he was impressed with the singular minuteness with which the accounts of the country were examined. In the Comptroller General's Report lately issued there was again the same minuteness. In the list of outstanding debts given he noticed an item of 3s. as being due to the country by the Belgian Government. It was not in mere small details of the Estimates that a reduction of the Expenditure of the country could be effected. It was rather in the initiation or inception of Expenditure. Hon. Members had recently had a volume of Estimates put into their hands, comprising Votes varying from £1,000 to over £3,000,000; and he put it to hon. Members, were they satisfied when they came to vote the money that they were able to discharge this great public duty in the satisfactory manner in which they thought it ought to be done? Personally, he did not feel com- petent to analyze the large items of Expenditure which came before them in the off-hand way that was at present expected from a Member of Parliament; and as this must be the feeling of many, he thought some change in the mode of handling the Estimates was absolutely necessary. There were various suggestions as to how this should be done. He had noticed in the newspapers that certain suggestions had been made by the Government to the Procedure Committee, with the view of a portion of the Estimates being remitted to a Special Finance Committee to be afterwards appointed. Therefore, the principle of remitting the Estimates in whole or in part to a Committee for examination had been practically acknowledged.

MR. RAIKES (Cambridge University)

I rise to Order. I wish to ask whether the hon. Member is in Order in referring to what he supposes to have taken place in a Committee upstairs?


The hon. Member is not in Order in referring to what has taken place in a Committee until the Committee has reported.


said, he might put the matter in another way. Instead of adopting his method of dealing with the question, it might be suggested that the Estimates ought to be brought, in the first place, before the House, and then sent to a Committee; but he thought the mode he proposed was preferable to that. The Committee he proposed for the consideration of the Estimates could call the officials and heads of Departments before it, and examine them to see whether the Estimates were properly and economically framed. Hon. Members who by their training could bring the special knowledge of details to bear would be able to subject the officials to a much more thorough examination than the mere head of a Department could possibly do. On the Navy Estimates, the other evening, for instance, the hon. Member for Leith (Mr. Jacks) pointed out several matters of detail which only a practical shipbuilder could have done. In the same way, if his suggestion were adopted, other hon. Members could bring minute knowledge of details to bear upon the investigation of the Estimates before they were submitted to the House. During the discussion on the Naval Estimates, the House was told it was not so much a question of expense as efficiency that was desired; and yet three eminent naval authorities variously estimated the additional sum necessary to put the Navy into a satisfactory condition at £2,000,000, £5,500,000, and £11,000,000. How could hon. Members decide the question of efficiency when naval authorities differed so widely? During the past five years the country had spent £60,000,000 on the Navy; and yet we were told we had not a line-of-battle ship which could face a foe, and we had not a single gunboat which could be relied upon. Had that £60,000,000 been spent under the supervision of such a Committee as he had suggested he was satisfied such complaints would not have been made. Another reason in favour of his Motion was that the House would have the assurance that the Estimates would come before it under the examination of a large number of hon. Members. Members did not attend the discussion on the Estimates, not from want of interest, but through incompetency to deal with the large sums involved in the wholesale way in which the Estimates now came before the House. It was that feeling of inability which deterred so many hon. Members from taking part in the discussions on the Estimates. The Government, of course, were responsible for the Estimates; but he did not think that if his plan were adopted there would be any infringement of Government responsibility. They could still draft the Estimates. They would have the suggestions of this Committee, which they could adopt or not as they pleased; and by-and-bye they would come before the House with the Report of the Finance Committee, and the House would then deal with the Estimates in the usual way, so that neither would the responsibility of the Government be lessened, nor the independence of the House forestalled. As to the composition of the proposed Committee, he would make it large and representative. It would, of course, require to be large, because it would be necessary, no doubt, to appoint sub-Committees. The majority would require to be in sympathy with the Government of the day; but at the same time there would be a large proportion of hon. Gentlemen from the Opposition. He had brought his Motion forward with the simple desire to draw the attention of the House to the matter of our Expenditure. He thought the time was most opportune. They had the Estimates before the House, and this question was also before the Committee on Procedure; and he thought a discussion on the best method of dealing with the Estimates would be instructive, not only to the House, but to the country at large.

MR. MASON (Lanark, Mid)

, in rising to second the Motion, said, every economist in the country who had watched the alarming increase of the Expenditure during the last 10 years felt that the time had come when a stand must be made to put a check upon the extravagance of the Public Services. The method proposed by this Motion of his hon. Friend (Mr. John Wilson), he believed, commended itself to those hon. Members having a practical knowledge of commercial undertakings on a large scale, and, indeed, of daily business life. It had long appeared to him, and to many gentlemen outside the House of Commons, that it was almost a hopeless task for any individual Member to succeed in cutting down an Estimate after it had been adopted by the Government of the day; and he feared that Ministers, who were responsible to the Government for the Estimates, were very much guided, if not controlled, by I the official heads of the various Departments, whose sole object would appear to be to swell the Estimates year by year. Governments came and Governments passed away; but the official heads went on for ever, and proved to be too strong for the transitory Ministers. This year's Estimates were, in the opinion of many hon. Members, disgracefully too high, more particularly those for the Army. £18,250,000 sterling for the Army in a period of peace, when the country was suffering acutely from trade depression, was calculated to arouse a just and bitter feeling of hostility against the governing classes. By comparing the Estimates of the present year with those of 10 years ago they found a very striking contrast indeed. In 1875 the Civil Service, the Army, and the Navy Estimates were £40,000,000 sterling. The amount asked for in the Estimates lately issued I to the House were, in the aggregate, the enormous sum of £50,000,000 sterling. Now, what was there to justify this great increase over the Estimates of 1875? He (Mr. Mason) knew they would be told that the Education Vote was so much more; and no one, he believed, grudged that. Then it was said our weapons of war are so much superior now, and that scientific discoveries travel so rapidly we are constantly requiring to renew them. There were also many other stock arguments made to do duty which he need not allude to. But all these did not explain the real cause. Sheer waste, gross mismanagement, and extravagance would be much nearer the actual truth. Of course, many of the new hon. Members, of which he was one, composing a majority of the House, had not yet been initiated into all the mysteries of knowing "how not to do it;" but they were at a loss to understand why a Lieutenant in the Army must retire at 40 years of age, and a Captain at the same age, a Major at 48, and a Lieutenant-Colonel at 55, all on half-pay. Others must take their places on full pay. The country had by this stupid system to pay one and a-half times for its officers in the Army, and these gentlemen who were forced to retire were burdened with a miserable life of idleness and half-starved into the bargain, and the country was burdened by finding the money to keep them in a state of misery. But what struck him and others as business men was this—why there should be an enormous increase when, in the ordinary course and natural order of things, there should have been a large decrease? Everyone was fully aware of the great fall in the value of all commodities except gold which has taken place during the last decade. Prices of all the supplies which Her Majesty's Government required must have fallen not less than from 30 to 50 per cent. As an illustration, ships could now be built on the Clyde 30 to 40 per cent less than they could have been built for 10 years ago. Whether such was the case in Her Majesty's Dockyards he could not say. But if not, why not? Probably some Member of the Government would be able to explain. These Estimates are most unsatisfactory, and very disappointing to many hon. Members who were hopefully looking for reduced Estimates. But they were told the Government—that is the present Government—were not to blame for these bloated Estimates; they were the work of their Predecessors in Office. The country would learn, then, the penalty it had had to pay for a few months of Tory rule. What might it not have been if years had elapsed instead of months? But if they must submit to pay for their folly for this year, he very much misapprehended the temper of this new Parliament and the feeling of the country if it did not demand that at least £10,000,000 should be struck off the Estimates next year, which he believed could be done without endangering the defence of the country or interfering with the proper efficiency of the Services. Many hon. Members had come there pledged to economy, and they meant to act up to their pledges, because they believed it to be a just and a wise policy, and that this Finance Committee would help the Government of the day to carry it into effect. The new Members were amazed with the minute details given in the Estimates of several of the items, especially when they compared these with the manner of passing the Supplementary Estimates in connection with Sir Drummond Wolff's Mission to Egypt. There were £12,500 for expenses, and a like sum for telegrams, which, added together, gave £25,000. He (Mr. Mason) believed it was considered on his side of the House that the Mission was not worth 25 pence. But no explanation was given of the large lump sum for telegrams; and what amazed him and others was that in the Civil Service Estimates he found an item of £10 for a rat-catcher at Windsor Castle. Surely if they got details in the one case there ought to be more in the other. They listened to a very interesting debate the other night on the Army Estimates; and shortly after midnight the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War (Mr. Campbell-Bannerman) announced to a thin House—in fact a handful of hon. Members—that he wanted £18,250,000 sterling—a stupendous sum—£4,000,000 or £5,000,000 being voted there and then. Now, it was an easy matter to pass trippingly over the tongue these vast sums, or even to vote them. But it was not such an easy matter to get the money from the industrial classes in these trying times. Trade was bad, manufacturers' profits had reached the vanishing point, depressed agriculture, the labourers and artizans of the United Kingdom—those who really produced the wealth of the country—had a difficulty in securing employment; the Revenue no longer went forward with leaps and bounds; but rather it showed unmistakable signs of going back. Was this, therefore, a time to go on increasing our Expenditure? A few weeks hence the Chancellor of the Exchequer would have to provide the Ways and Means. Either he must continue to suspend the Sinking Fund for the redemption of the Debt or impose fresh taxation. If the latter course were adopted, where was the money to come from? Was it to be an increase of the Income Tax, or what? That, then, was the practical outcome of these swollen Estimates, by no means a pleasant one for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but far more unpleasant to the poor unfortunate taxpayers. The foreign policy of this country had been greatly changed for the better during the last 40 years; imperceptibly, gradually, but yet surely, caused by the commercial policy inaugurated by the late lamented Mr. Cobden and the pure and noble-minded Sir Robert Peel, and carried forward by the right hon. Gentleman the senior Member for Birmingham (Mr. John Bright), and last, though not least, the present Prime Minister. These great statesmen had set in motion principles which were silently revolutionizing the world. They had altered and diverted the old aggressive policy of this country, which was promoted by the art of war into one not less aggressive, but much more beneficial, by the arts of peace. Why, then again, he asked, in the face of such a condition of things, should we be called upon to vote Estimates which had no parallel since the Crimean War? Instead of preparing constantly for war, wasting our national resources, our first duty should be to prepare for work. Unquestionably our industrial power was now the chief pillar of our strength. Let that by any means be partially struck with paralysis, and the foremost place we now occupy amongst the nations would be gone. Foreign competition of the fiercest kind was already running us hard in the neutral markets of the world; and not only so—the home market was being evaded by the foreigner. Every manufacturer felt it keenly. But he was not so foolish as to believe that Fair Trade nostrums would give either one or any fellow-manufacturers relief. He looked for the remedy in quite another direction, and that direction was economy. It followed that whatever helped to lighten the springs of industry should earnestly engage our attention; and, therefore, the future taxation of the country must not only be reduced, but made to fall more heavily on realized wealth. This proposed Finance Committee might consider the sources of the National Income, and help by suggestions to guide the Government of the day as to the sources of income, and the best method of raising the Revenue. It would not, as some people supposed, relieve the Government of any responsibility; neither would it hamper the action of the House. Doubtless, if the Government went against the finding of the Committee the House would know the reason why; but individual Members would then be ably assisted, cutting down the Estimates if the Committee so decided, and the Government would in that case have to fight the Committee in the House. On the other hand, if the Government and the Committee were agreed a vast deal of time wasted now in fruitless discussion would be saved. There were three things essentially necessary to enable this country to maintain its position as a first-class agricultural, commercial, and manufacturing nation in Europe; and these were—economical government, just taxation, and perfect freedom of trade. The last we had, in a large measure, already obtained; the second only to a very partial extent indeed. The first, he feared, was in the dim and distant future. But if the House established this Committee it might help them to realize it, although only to a limited extent, during the present generation.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "a Select Committee be appointed to consider the Estimates, in conjunction with the Official Heads of Departments, before they are submitted to the House,"—(Mr. John Wilson (Edinburgh,) —instead thereof.

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


Sir, I can assure my hon. Friends the Mover and Seconder of this Resolution that they will always find, at least in the individual who happens to fill the Office which I have the honour to hold, a strong sympathy with the objects which, they have at heart. There was never a time, I think, when it was more essential that this country should consider, and consider most carefully, the extent of its Expenditure. It has grown to a point which it has hardly ever reached before. I am speaking now of the normal Expenditure, not of the extraordinary Expenditure upon particular occasions. But I am not going to enter upon that great question now at any length—it will be my duty to bring that before the House at a later period; still less am I going to follow my hon. Friend who seconded this Motion—the discussion on taxation and the incidence of taxation. That, again, will belong to another occasion. But I agree myself very much in the opinion of the Mover and the Seconder that this House does not, and under existing circumstances cannot, give that examination to the Estimates proposed by the Government in anything like the measure which the House ought to give. So far I entirely agree with the Mover of this Motion. It would be out of Order, as the right hon. Member for Cambridge University (Mr. Raikes) has pointed out, that I should refer to any particulars of what is going on in the Committee of Procedure upstairs; but I think it would not be out of Order for me to say that the question of how the Estimates should be dealt with is one of the subjects which is under the consideration of that Committee, and I hope my hon. Friend will be content, at least, to wait until that Committee—which is a very competent Committee, with great experience both in financial affairs and also in the Business of this House—will have an opportunity of fully discussing and sifting this question, and reporting to the House on it. If I were to make any criticism on this Motion—which I hope it may not be necessary for me at present to do at any length—I would say that I cannot concur in the form, though I do in the substance, of the Motion. As I understand the proposal, it is that the Estimates shall not be examined by the House, but that they shall be examined beforehand by a Committee of the House. Well, that would make the Committee of the House partners in the responsibility of the Government, which, I think, would be a most dangerous and mischievous thing, and I am not at all sure that the result would be economy. I think it is just as likely, by relaxing the responsibility of the Government, to lead to extravagant expenditure. How can you be sure that all the Members of that Committee would be economists? I do not find that economy is recommended on one side of the House much more than on the other, because I have heard demands of all kinds from both sides of the House—demands which I have had to resist upon one side as well as on the other, though they may be all for admirable objects. I have been perfectly appalled at the demands made in discussion of such a Bill, for instance, as the Crofters Bill and upon other subjects. Then you may have a Committee which would propose expenditure. [Sir JOSEPH M'KENNA: Hear, hear!] I do not know if the hon. Baronet desires that such should be the case. [Sir JOSEPH M'KENNA: No.] You may depend upon it that you had much better keep the Government well in hand, well under control of the House, and to hold them responsible for the Estimates. If the Government does not act as the House desires, the House can deal with them. And I am sorry to say that I believe that the increased Expenditure has been quite as much the doing of this House in recent years as of the Government; and you may depend upon it that, as soon as ever Governments discover that the House of Commons desires economy, you will have economical Governments But as long as you have demands made—it may be one day for increased pay for the Civil Service, one day for one thing and another day for another—all for most admirable objects, but which, all combined, lead to the growth of immense expenditure—so long will you have expenditure growing. I do not think, therefore, it could possibly be of any advantage to make this examination beforehand; because what would be the Estimates then when presented to this House? The Government could not be held to be responsible for them. You could not call the Government to account, or censure them on account of the Estimates. The Government would say—"It is your Committee's fault; they are partners with us." It would be a sort of Adam and Eve transaction between the Government and the Committee with reference to any transgression in the Estimates. Therefore I do not think that particular form of proceeding advocated by my hon. Friends the Mover and Seconder of this Resolution would conduce to the object they have at heart. There is another objection. The objection which I have spoken of is a Constitutional revolution. It is a sin against the fundamental principle laid down by the Prime Minister the other night, because it amounts to the overthrow of the doctrine of Ministerial responsibility in recommending expenditure. There is another objection of a minor character. The proposal of my hon. Friends would require a complete alteration in the whole framework of the Business of the House, because the Estimates, by our Standing Orders, must be laid on the Table 10 days after the opening of the Committee of Supply, and an investigation of this character must last over many weeks; and, therefore, the House itself would not get the Estimates till a later period in the Session. It would alter the whole character of our proceedings; and I, therefore, do not think that this antecedent examination is one which we could accept. As to the subsequent examination of the Estimates by a body set apart for the purpose, I very much myself concur in that idea. I do think there ought to be a much more careful examination than we are able to give now to the Estimates. They should be examined both in the whole and in detail. The examination in the whole—that is, the principle of our Expenditure—ought to take place in this House; but the examination as to details might with advantage be dealt with in Committee. I do not think you can part with the jurisdiction of the House in determining the great Votes for the Services; but, as to the particulars and details of the Estimates, I should be very glad to see a more effective machinery for their examination. I hope my hon. Friends will be satisfied with this assurance, and will allow the matter to be worked out by the Committee upstairs. I am sure, from the interest which the House takes in this question, the discussion which has taken place upon it will be of a solid advantage.


I wish to explain that I gave Notice of this Motion four weeks ago, before there was any intimation of what the Government proposed——


Does the hon. Member withdraw the Motion?


Under the assurance given I wish to withdraw the Motion. ["No, no!"]

Question put, and agreed to.

Main Question proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."