HC Deb 01 March 1904 vol 130 cc1363-7

I beg to ask Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer whether His Majesty's Government will adopt the recommendations of the Select Committee on National Expenditure which reported in July last.


May I also ask the First Lord of the Treasury can he now say what decision His Majesty's Government have arrived at with reference to the recommendations of the Select Committee on National Expenditure that an Estimates Committee should be appointed at the beginning of each session for examination of and report on one class of the Estimates precedent to their discussion in Committee of Supply, and that a day should be provided for the consideration by this House of the Reports of the Public Accounts Committee, and an opportunity be given of taking a decision upon the recommendations embodied therein.


The Government have always felt, and I have constantly expressed the feeling, that under our present system, debates in Committee of Supply, useful as they are, indeed, absolutely of the first importance as they are, are important only from the point of view of the discussion of general principles of policy. I think the whole House is of one mind on the point that, whatever excellent effects may come from our debates in Committee of Supply, they do not conduce to ecomony. Whether a direct House of Commons machinery for dealing with the details of the Estimates, if such a machinery existed, would greatly reduce the bulk of annual Estimates I confess I doubt. I think the great incrasce that has taken place in them has been due to policy—policy which may be good or may be bad, but which is, at all events, based on general considerations, which affect chiefly the Navy, the Army, and education; and no amount of analysis of details would produce any great or sensible diminution of the very heavy burdens which are annually cast upon the taxpayer. But at the same time the Government feel that it has to be admitted that no machinery for examining the details exists; and as there has been this great and continuous growth in the Estimates it is quite impossible for us, and would be most undesirable, to resist any well-thought-out scheme for supplying a want which my hon. friend and others feel to be urgent. At the same time I frankly admit that I have some difficulty as to how we ought to proceed. The recommendations of the Committee to which my hon. friend refers are, I think, very ingenious, and contain a great many suggestions which would probably prove of value; but I am not at all sure that in their present form they are of a kind which the House would be prepared to accept. For example, the Committee evidently contemplate that it is the Estimates of the year, or one class of the Estimates of the year, that should be examined by the proposed Committee. I do not think that that is really practicable. I am sure, in fact, that it is not practicable as regards either the Army or the Navy, because they are not, and cannot be, completed, I think, very much before the meeting of Parliament; and, as the House knows, the very first financial business we have to take is Vote A and Vote I for the Navy, and Vote A and Vote I for the Army; and it would be quite impossible that an examination of such vast Estimates as those for the Navy and Army could be examined before they are taken in the House.

Another difficulty that I feel in the suggestion of the Committee is that they contemplate that there should be a Committee of a fixed constitution, as it were, which in each successive year, should examine one branch of the Estimates. I am not sure whether the Irish or the Scottish Members would think it a convenient plan that a Committee of this fixed constitution should examine their Estimates; but I fully concur in this proposition, that it is desirable that only one branch of the Estimates should be examined in each year, partly because there is not time for more, partly because I do not think the Departments should in every year be subjected to examination by a Parliamentary Committee. I think we shall have to add to that suggestion a distinct provision that this Committee shall not in any circumstances recommend or suggest an increase of expenditure. Otherwise you will find that your Committee is as greatly anxious to increase the burden of the whole Estimates as the Committee of the whole House. I think another suggestion which is excellent is the suggestion that policy shall be wholly excluded from the purview of the Committee, and that secret documents shall not be called for. But that, again, raises a great difficulty, because if we were to follow the example of the Public Accounts Committee, the chairman of this new Committee would be chosen from the Opposition, and I think he would be put in a very invidious position if he were obliged to be constantly over-ruling his friends as to what was a question of policy and what was not. Naturally the Oppostition are the critics of the Government, and naturally proposals to include policy as well as details of expenditure would come from them. I think, therefore, it would be rather difficult to draw the chairman from the other side of the House, and that, again, is a point on which, I think, the Committee have no advice or instruction to offer.


The Committee would not have any effective power?


No; if the Committee stretched the functions give to them by this House and dragged in questions of policy they might, no doubt, embarrass the Government of the day, but they would ultimately destroy themselves and their policy, and the whole plan of my hon. friends would fall into discredit. I am at present puzzled as to what form the procedure of the Government should take. I do not think the plan of the Committee will do as it stands, and if I gave a day for discussion we should have an interesting and important debate, but we should not arrive at any conclusion. Am I then to put down for discussion a Resolution embodying a Report with which I do not wholly agree; I think it would be convenient if some Gentlemen of the Opposition, who are the natural and legitimate critics of the Government, would consult with me as to what form the Resolution should take. If they would do so I should be very glad to do anything I can to help the House to furnish machinery which would fill up the gap which at present exists. More than that I do not think I can promise. I think my hon. friends will see that the criticisms I raise are genuine and are not prompted by any dilatory motives.


asked whether the right hon. Gentleman could reply to the second part of the Question.


I apologise for not answering that part of the Question. I see no objection, on the contrary I see some advantages, in employing one of the twenty-three days now given to Supply, to a discussion of the Report of the Public Accounts Committee; but as to whether that would be possible under the existing Standing Orders I shall have to consult the authorities of the House. I am afraid that it would require an alteration of the Standing Orders, and therefore, although I quite accept the the principle of my hon. friend's suggestion, I cannot promise that it will be immediately carried into effect.


But would not the right hon. Gentleman consider whether he could give us the twenty-fourth day?


Well, if my hon. friend will consider how little prospect there is of our getting any legislation before Easter this year he will feel that we have not many days to throw about; and, as I may have to give him a day, indeed I hope I shall give him a day, for the discussion of his other proposals in connection with finance, I could not make him a promise as to the twenty-fourth day.


Do I understand from my right hon. friend that he is going to consult with some of the right hon. Gentlemen opposite as to a convenient form in which the Resolution could be put down to serve as a basis for discussion?


I should greatly desire to consult, but the consultation involves two parties.


I shall be ready to consult, but I will not go further than that.