HC Deb 19 November 1908 vol 196 cc1555-68

LORD R. CECIL (Marylebone, E.) moved: "That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying him to annul so much of the Old-Age Pensions Regulations, 1908, as provides that the pension officers shall, in investigating the claims of applicants, be subject to any further instructions issued for the guidance of pension officers by the Board of Inland Revenue." He apologised for having to bring the matter before the House at a very inconvenient hour, but that was the only time available for the discussion of the matter. The question arose under Regulation 9 and Regulation 34. Regulation 9 was— Subject to compliance with instructions set out in the Second Schedule of these regulations and to any further instructions issued for the guidance of pension officers, the pension officer shall investigate a claim in such manner as he thinks best for the purpose. Regulation 34 was— Subject to the provisions of the Act and these regulations every person appointed as a pension officer shall, in the execution of his office, observe and follow the instructions and directions of the Commissioners of Inland Revenue. The House would see that the pension officer was subject, in addition to the statutory rules and regulations, to instructions to be issued by the Commissioners of Inland Revenue; in other words, the Commissioners of Inland Revenue, so far as the pension officers were concerned, determined the manner in which the Old-Age Pension Act was to be administered, and how the vast sums under that Act were to be paid away. Practically, the pension officer was the person who determined the greater part of the matters arising under the Act. There were, he thought, only thirteen pension committees to deal with the whole of London. It was quite impossible for them to give any real consideration to the question of granting or withholding a pension. The reports of the pension officers were presented to these committees, and in a vast number of cases they were passed practically without any discusson. He could give the House an instance of a particular pension committee. In two hours they dealt with over 250 separate applications. It was quite plain, however able the gentlemen forming the committee might be, that they could give no real attention to the matter in two hours, and, as a matter of fact, all the cases in which the pension officers reported in favour of a 5s. pension were passed without any consideration at all. They were not even examined by the pension committee. That accounted for 200 cases. The other fifty in which smaller pensions were recommended were given some consideration, but it was physically impossible for the committee to examine with any care any more than six or eight; and in only one case did they make any serious criticism of what the pension officer had done. All the cases in which the pension officers did not think it desirable to report in favour of a pension never came before the Committee at all. He did not say a word against the pension officer; generally speaking and as far as his experience went, he was an admirable officer, but he and he alone was the administrative judge under the Act. The officers might do their best; but they were working at the very highest pressure now, many of them working fifteen and more hours a day, and their consideration of the matter was, he would not say perfunctory, but necessarily brief. Their guide in the whole matter was the instructions issued by the Commissioners of Inland Revenue. They were bound to obey those instructions, and it was upon instructions which were absolutely secret from the House that £6,000,000 or £8,000,000 of public money a year were being expended. The Government had been asked and had refused to lay those instructions before tie House. If the financial control of the House was to be anything more than a mere name, it ought, to know what instructions the Commissioners of Inland Revenue — that was to say the Chancellor of the Exchequer—were giving to the pension officers, who practically had the whole administration of this vast sum of £6,000,000 or £8,000,000 a year. He did not propose to detain the House at any length at that hour, but he ventured to think it was a matter which deserved the attention of the House of Commons. It was quite obvious that the gravest abuses might easily arise under a system of expenditure of public money of that description. He did not propose to go at any length into the case mentioned by the hon. Member for Preston at an earlier period of the session, but it illustrated in a comparatively minor degree the thing which had happened on one side of the administration and which might happen on the other. The case which was probably well-known, was under one of the instructions published in the newspapers. The pension officers had been directed not to take into consideration the furniture of the applicant up to £30 in estimating a man's means. He did not wish to say that that was not a perfectly proper provision. He thought it was a perfectly reasonable thing in itself, but it was not part of the Act of Parliament. Anyone who looked at Section 4 of the Act would see that everything the applicant had had to be taken into consideration in estimating his means. Under subsection (d) everything which the applicant personally used or enjoyed had to be taken into consideration. So strict was the Act of Parliament that every advantage which an applicant got for living in a house below its full rack rent had to be taken into consideration, although the fact that he possessed £30 worth of furniture would not be taken into account under the instruction which had been given. If an applicant had any gifts of clothing, or food, however small or minute, they would be taken into consideration, but the question of the possession of this furniture would not be taken into account. Some hon. Members might imagine they were objecting to this instruction, but that was not so. What they were objecting to was the Chancellor of the Exchequer taking upon himself the making of Amendments in a statute which had received the assent of both Houses of Parliament. He would illustrate what a tremendous constitutional innovation such a procedure as that was. Supposing after this Bill had passed the House of Commons and had gone up to the House of Lords their Lordships bad inserted an Amendment to the effect that in estimating the means of the applicant no account should be taken of furniture up to the value of £30. He had no doubt Mr. Speaker would have considered that an infringement of the privileges of the House of Commons, because it would have involved an additional payment by the taxpayers; and yet that could be done by the Chancellor of the Exchequer without any infringement of their privileges at all. If that was to be allowed an immense power was being placed in the hands of the Government, because that was by no means the only blot upon the Old-Age Pensions Act. There were many other things which the Chancellor of the Exchequer might, with much greater fairness, have taken upon himself to amend in the Act. There was, for example, the ridiculous provision that if a man was taken into an infirmary for a few days—it might be in consequence of an accident in the street or a sudden attack of illness—he was absolutely disqualified for a pension. That was a gross injustice which the Chancellor of the Exchequer had not amended, although if he had done so he would not have infringed the law any more than he had already done by the issuing of this instruction. It [...] clear that the right hon. Gentleman could amend it in other ways by imposing new conditions directing pension officers to make most elaborate inquiries into a man's character. Hon. Members would remember the provision dealing with the test of character. It was of the utmost importance how that was considered, and it entirely depended upon the instruction sent to the pension officer. They might be told by the Chancellor of the Exchequer that their objections were ridiculous, and that the question of the furniture was not worth while considering, but he did not agree with that argument. This was a very important constitutional question, for if the House of Commons was to allow a Minister of the day to make Amendments and alterations in Acts of Parliament, another blow would be struck at the prestige and constitutional position of the House. The fact that the actual change had been made was in itself a small matter, but they had to consider the principle. First of all, there was the principle at stake that no change should be made in an Act of Parliament by the executive Government except by another Act of Parliament, and in the second place there was the more serious principle involved that the administration of a vast sum of money, amounting to something between £6,000,000 and £8,000,000, ought not to depend upon secret instructions given by the Minister of the day. It was for that reason that he ventured to move his Motion, and he desired to ascertain the feeling of the House upon this very serious constitutional principle.

MR. BOWLES (Lambeth, Norwood)

said that in a very few words he would second the Amendment of his noble friend. The case for this Motion had been put so clearly that the point at issue must be apparent to the minds of hon. Gentlemen opposite. There could be no doubt that this was a matter of grave and serious importance to the House of Commons. The question was whether the House of Commons was prepared to allow the administration of one of its own Acts of Parliament to lie in the hands of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or any other Minister acting outside the control of the House of Commons, behind its back, secretly, in the dark, in a way that neither the House of Commons nor the country could understand. [MINISTERIAL laughter.] He was not astonished that some hon. Members opposite, by their laughter, seemed to doubt the exact accuracy of the description he had given. He did not know whether any of them were aware that in this case they were dealing with instructions having the force of a statute, and those instructions affected the administration of vast sums of public money. Those instructions were absolutely secret, and nobody outside the Treasury bench had any means of knowing what they were. Under those circumstances he submitted that this was a matter which vitally concerned the House as a whole, and he should await with great interest the answer made on behalf of the Government. He confessed that he thought it would be a little difficult, unless there was something which had entirely escaped his notice, for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to satisfy the House. They might be told that, under this regulation, the pension officer had to act under the secret instructions of the right hon. Gentleman, and that he was subject to the provisions of the Act. That was true, but what was the result of it? It was that they were putting every pension officer in the country in what he conceived to be a cruel and impossible position. They were putting pension officers under two direct authorities, namely, the authority of the Act of Parliament and the authority of the regulations issued by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Every pension officer would have to choose whether he would obey the direct instructions of both Houses of Parliament contained in the Act, or the contradictory instructions given in secret by the light hon. Gentleman. That was a position in which the House ought not to place any public officer, and it was a position which the House of Commons, not the Chancellor of the Exchequer or any other Minister on the Treasury bench, ought to take up. He regarded this as a matter of very great seriousness, and he thought they were under a debt of gratitude to his noble friend for having raised the question, even at such a late hour. He begged to second the Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty praying him to annul so much of the Old-Age Pensions Regulations, 1908, as provides that the pension officers shall, in investigating the claims of applicants, be subject to any further instructions issued for the guidance of pension officers by the Board of Inland Revenue."—(Lord R. Cecil.)


The noble Lord who moved this Motion has made a very ingenious speech, but my complaint is that it has nothing to do with this Motion. He has challenged certain secret instructions issued by the Department and complains that they have not been published, but that is not the Motion. The hon. Member who seconded this Motion complained that some of those instructions were ultra vires. That is not the Motion submitted to the House. Will the House just look for a moment at the Motion, to which the noble Lord never referred, and which he never supported by a single argument in his speech. The Motion is "That an bumble Address be presented to His Majesty praying him to annul so much of the Old-Age Pensions Regulations, 1908, as provides that the pension officers shall, in investigating the claims of applicants, be subject to any further instructions issued for the guidance of pension officers by the Board of Inland Revenue." Really, what is the complaint of the noble Lord? He submits to the House of Commons the statement that one instruction out of 150 or 160, which very improperly has appeared in the newspapers, is, according to his notion, ultra vires, and because of that the Department is never to give any instructions at all to any officer under any conditions, and a humble Address is to be presented to His Majesty, and the House is invited to say that these officers for ever shall act without any instructions at all. Whom are they to obey?


The statute.


The officers have to be under the direction of somebody even in administering the statute. They are officers of the Inland Revenue, and if this Motion is adopted the Inland Revenue cannot give them instructions.


Not Secret instructions.


Really I think the hon. Member who has taken the trouble to second the Motion cannot have read it. There is not a word in this Motion about secret instructions. The House is invited to appeal to His Majesty to declare that these officers should not be instructed at all as to the way they are to administer the Act. I think it is one of the most preposterous Motions ever submitted to the House of Commons. If the noble Lord wants to carry out that instruction there is a way of doing it, but if this Motion is carried the Chancellor of the Exchequer will not be responsible, nobody can give any instructions, and these officers will act on their own responsibility and will not be responsible to Parliament in the ordinary constitutional way. The noble Lord says he wants to preserve the Constitution, but he is absolutely destroying it by this Motion. The Constitution says that a Minister shall be responsible for an officer who is carrying out an Act of Parliament under his general control. If that Minister is directed not to give any instructions at all, and if the officer is to act upon his own initiative without any reference to the Minister, how is the Minister to be responsible to Parliament for the administration of the Act? I do not think the noble Lord can have thought out this Motion when he put it down, because he is simply trying by a very indirect and irrelevant method to raise a matter which is not within the four corners of the Motion. The noble Lord wishes to challenge the interpretation placed by the Inland Revenue upon an Act of Parliament, but that is not his Motion. I may remind him that there is a method by which he can do this, and that is upon the Estimates. The noble Lord asks me to follow constitutional methods, but I have pointed out to him the time-honoured constitutional method of challenging the act of a Minister. It is the only way you can do it.


I can challenge it upon this Motion.


The noble Lord cannot challenge my interpretation of an Act of Parliament by a Motion that has absolutely nothing to do with it. His Motion is that no further instructions be issued at all to any officer under that Act of Parliament. I am quite willing to defend the instruction complained of, because I think it is a proper, reasonable, and sensible instruction, and the only practical interpretation to place upon the Act of Parliament. It would have been perfectly absurd to place an interpretation upon the Act which would have involved the pension officer valuing not merely the furniture in a man's house but also the clothes which he wears.


But he has to do that.


I beg the noble Lord's pardon; that is not so, and he cannot have read the instructions. This, however, is not the time to discuss the instructions. I wish to save the Excise officers the very unnecessary trouble of going through the form of valuing every little article of clothing and furniture in a poor household—and to save them, too, at the present moment, when they are strained up to breaking point by the labours cast upon them. We wish also to save the people themselves from this very unnecessary annoyance of having to submit an account of every yard of clothing they have got and place a valuation upon it. To give a general instruction against that kind of thing is a sensible and national course to follow. That is my defence. I am prepared to defend my action at the proper moment when the noble Lord has devoted a little more time to studying the Constitution. Until the noble Lord takes the real constitutional method of challenging my action, I ask the House to reject this really very foolish and preposterous Motion.

MR. HAROLD COX (Preston)

said the right hon. Gentleman must have known that the remedy which he suggested was a purely futile remedy, because there would be no Estimates before the House for another three or four months. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer said his instruction was a right instruction, why was it not put into the Statutory Regulations? There were many points in those regulations as minute as this, and there was no reason why it should not have been put in. There was a great deal to be said for this limitation but it ought to have been in the Act. His right hon. friend was a lawyer and had distinguished himself in so many ways lately that they sometimes forgot that fact. Would the right hon. Gentleman stand up and say that this was a legal interpretation of the Act of Parliament? The pension officer in making the valuation was to ignore furniture and certain other things, but really if he was to make a proper valuation he must take these things into account. But that was not the point at issue. He was not prepared to argue whether it was a wise or a foolish rule. He thought there was a good deal to be said for it. Might he point out that no limitation was made with regard to food and clothing? He thought the Chancellor of the Exchequer was a little out of the facts in regard to his own instruction. It applied to furniture, but not to clothing. Clothing was to be valued to the last stitch. Food was also to be valued. His point was that when the Old-Age Pensions Act was passing through the House they ought to have had an opportunity of discussing these questions, and they ought to have been allowed to decide under what conditions pensions should be given. They were not allowed to do so, but after the Bill had become an Act the Chancellor of the Exchequer on his own authority took upon himself to alter the words of the Act, and what was more, he took upon himself as a Minister of the Crown to do what the House of Commons had always resented being done by the Crowr, namely, to impose a charge on the taxpayer. He thought the noble Lord was perfectly justified in using any form which the rules of the House permitted to bring to the notice of the House this gross breach of the English Constitution.

SIR WILLIAM ANSON (Oxford University)

said the Chancellor of the Exchequer had made a verbal excuse rather than an answer worthy of the occasion. What the Chancellor of the Exchequer suggested was that if this Resolution were carried, no instructions would be available for the guidance of the pension officers. The Regulations were there. What his noble friend said was that further secret instructions, in addition to the Regulations, should not be issued. These instructions they had every reason to suppose—in fact they knew—were ultra vires, inasmuch as they imposed an additional charge on the people. That was the real issue. What they asked was whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer would defend his instructions, which he had assured the House were good and sensible and proper, by laying them on the Table of the House, and whether he was prepared to defend himself against the allegation that he had made a charge upon the people.

MR. JOHN WARD (Stoke-on-Trent)

said he understood from the reply to a Question that before the Regulations became operative the House would be afforded an opportunity to discuss them. He should like to know from the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether there would be an opportunity to discuss the printed Regulations. He was not referring to the secret instructions to officers. He did not think it was fair to say that this matter could be discussed on the Estimates, because that would practically mean arraigning the right hon. Gentleman on a vote of censure.


said the disposition of the time of the House was a matter for the Prime Minister, and the hon. Member must address a Question to his right hon. friend on the subject.

MR. HICKS BEACH (Gloucestershire, Tewkesbury)

, in supporting the Motion, asked whether the right hon. Gentleman would lay the instructions on the Table. What they complained of was that the right hon. Gentleman had issued certain instructions privately to the Inland Revenue officers in addition to the regulations which had been published. A summary of these instructions had appeared in one of the newspapers, and some of them undoubtedly did impose a charge on the taxpayers If the charge had been imposed by the other House, Mr. Speaker would have ruled that it was a breach of privilege, and he would have been supported.


Are we to understand that the Chancellor of the Exchequer declines to lay those instructions on the Table?


said the instructions had been published in a newspaper. What he was informed was, and other Government Departments took the same view, that it was extremely undesirable that instructions of that kind should be published. He would ask the hon. and learned Member whether he would accept the responsibility of advising any Government Department to start as a precedent the publication of instructions, given to its own officers. It would, he thought, be almost impossible to stop at that. Instructions given to Revenue officers with regard to the method of collecting the revenue, instructions with regard to breweries, distilleries, and income-tax, instructions given by the Home Office to the police,

or to its own officers by the Board of Trade, would all have to be published if once the precedent were established. That would be most inadvisable, and he must ask the hon. and learned Member to consider very seriously the stand he had taken in that matter. It was not a matter which affected the present Government only, but one which would affect all Governments once the precedent was established, and he must appeal to the House not to establish that precedent.


said he desired to call the attention of the right hon. Gentleman to the fact that the instructions were so important that they ought to have been laid on the Table of the House.


said there appeared to be some confusion as to the instructions. Those which the noble Lord had referred to had been confused with others. Instructions 92 had legal authority, but Instructions 34 were purely ordinary instructions given by the Department.


said the right hon. Gentleman seemed to think that there was great danger in establishing a precedent, but the right hon. Gentleman had himself established a precedent in those regulations, for he had issued instructions which were a schedule addition to an Act of Parliament, and which had been issued in an unconstitutional manner. That was the charge they had to make against the right hon. Gentleman, and that charge was not to be got rid of by the most improper levity with which the right hon. Gentleman had answered it. The right hon. Gentleman's answer had been a long string of words in which the word preposterous had been used at least three times, but he would remind the right hon. Gentleman that the use of language such as that had at times recoiled on those who used it with most damaging effect.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes, 54; Noes, 141. (Division List No. 410.)

Anson, Sir William Reynell Beach, Hn. Michael Hugh Hicks Carlile, E. Hildred
Balcarres, Lord Bignold, Sir Arthur Castlereagh, Viscount
Banbury, Sir Frederick George Bridgeman, W. Clive Cave, George
Banner, John S. Harmood- Byles, William Pollard Cecil, Evelyn (Aston Manor)
Cecil, Lord John P. Joicey- Hay, Hon. Claude George Rutherford, W. W. (Liverpool)
Courthope, G. Loyd Helmsley, Viscount Scott, Sir S. (Marylebone, W.)
Cox, Harold Hill, Sir Clement Seddon, J.
Craik, Sir Henry Hills, J. W. Smeaton, Donald Mackenzie
Doughty, Sir George Hunt, Rowland Stanier, Beville
Du Cros, Arthur Philip Joynson-Hicks, William Starkey, John R.
Duncan, Robert (Lanark, Govan) Keswick, William Staveley-Hill, Henry (Staff'sh.)
Fell, Arthur Lambton, Hon. Frederick Wm. Thomson, W. Mitchell-(Lanark)
Fetherstonhaugh, Godfrey Meysey-Thompson, E. C. Valentia, Viscount
Forster, Henry William Pease, Herbert Pike (Darlingto) Willoughby de Eresby, Lord
Gibbs, G. A. (Bristol, West) Ratcliff, Major R. F. Wortley, Rt. Hon. C. B. Stuart-
Gretton, John Rawlinson, John Frederick Pee Younger, George
Hamilton, Marquess of Remnant, James Farquharson
Hardy, Laurence (Kent, Ashf'rd) Renton, Leslie TELLERS FOR THE AYES—Lord Robert Cecil and Mr. Bowles.
Harrison-Broadley, H. B. Rutherford, John (Lancashire)
Ainsworth, John Stirling Haworth, Arthur A. Richards, T. F. (Wolverh'mpt'n)
Balfour, Robert (Lanark) Helme, Norval Watson Ridsdale, E. A.
Baring, Godfrey (Isle of Wight Henderson, Arthur (Durham) Roberts, G. H. (Norwich)
Barran, Rowland Hirst Henry, Charles S. Roberts, Sir J. H. (Denbighs.)
Beale, W. P. Higham, John Sharp Robinson, S.
Beauchamp, E. Hobart, Sir Robert Robson, Sir William Snowdon
Beaumont, Hon. Hubert Hobhouse, Charles E. H. Roch, Walter F. (Pembroke)
Beck, A Cecil. Holland, Sir William Henry Russell, Rt. Hon. T. W.
Bennet, E. N. Horniman, Emslie John Shackleton, David James
Berridge, T. H. D. Howard, Hon. Geoffrey Shaw, Sir Charles Edw. (Stafford)
Black, Arthur W. Hudson, Walter Shaw, Rt. Hon. T. (Hawick B.)
Bowerman, C. W. Illingworth, Percy H. Silcock, Thomas Ball
Brooke, Stopford Johnson, John (Gateshead) Simon, John Allsebrook
Brunner, J. F. L. (Lancs., Leigh) Johnson, W. (Nuneaton) Sinclair, Rt. Hon. John
Bryce, J. Annan Jones, Leif (Appleby) Strachey, Sir Edward
Buxton, Rt. Hn. Sydney Charles Jones, William (Carnarvonshire) Straus, B. S. (Mile End)
Carr-Gomm, W. H. Laidlaw, Robert Strauss, E. A. (Abingdon)
Causton, Rt. Hn. Richard Knight Lambert, George Summerbell, T.
Cawley, Sir Frderick Layland-Barratt, Sir Francis Taylor, John W. (Durham)
Chance, Frederick William Lehmann, R. C. Thomas, Sir A. (Glamorgan, E.)
Channing, Sir Francis Allston Levy, Sir Maurice Thomas, David Alfred (Merthyr)
Cherry, Rt. Hon. R. R. Lloyd-George, Rt. Hon. David Thorne, G. R. (Wolverhampton)
Clough, William Lyell, Charles Henry Trevelyan, Charles Philips
Cobbold, Felix Thornley Macdonald, J. R. (Leicester) Verney, F. W.
Corbett, C. H. (Sussex, E. Grinst'd MacVeagh, Jeremiah (Down, S.) Villiers, Ernest Amherst
Craig, Herbert J. (Tynemouth) M'Crae, Sir George Walters, John Tudor
Crosfield, A. H. Maddison, Frederick Ward, W. Dudley (Southampt'n)
Crossley, William J. Mansfield, H. Rendall (Lincoln) Waring, Walter
Davies, David (Montgomery Co. Massie, J. Wason, Rt. Hn. E. (Clackmannan)
Davies, Timothy (Fulham) Masterman, C. F. G. White, Sir George (Norfolk)
Duckworth, Sir James Middlebrook, William White, J. Dundas (Dumbart'nsh.)
Duncan, C. (Barrow-in-Furness) Mond, A. White, Sir Luke (York, E. R.)
Edwards, Sir Francis (Radnor) Montagu, Hon. E. S. Whitehead, Rowland
Everett, R. Lacey Montgomery, H. G. Whitley, John Henry (Halifax)
Fenwick, Charles Morrell, Philip Wiles, Thomas
Ferens, T. R. Morse, L. L. Williams, J. (Glamorgan)
Fuller, John Michael F. Murray, Capt. Hn. A. C. (Kincard. Williams, Llewelyn (Carmarthen)
Fullerton, Hugh Newnes, F. (Notts, Bassetlaw) Williamson, A.
Gill, A. H. Nicholls, George Wilson, Hon. G. G. (Hull, W.)
Gladstone, Rt. Hn. Herbert John Norton, Capt. Cecil William Wilson, John (Durham, Mid)
Glendinning, R. G. Parker, James (Halifax) Wilson, J. W. (Worcestersh, N.)
Goddard, Sir Daniel Ford Pearce, Robert (Staffs, Leek) Wilson, W. T. (Westhoughton)
Gulland, John W. Philipps, Col. Ivor (S'thampton) Wood, T. M'Kinnon
Gurdon, Rt. Hn. Sir W. Brampton Ponsonby, Arthur A. W. H.
Harcourt, Robert V. (Montrose) Price, C. E. (Edinb'gh, Central) TELLERS FOR THE NOES—Mr. Joseph Pease and Mr. Herbert Lewis.
Hardie, J. Keir (Merthyr Tydvil) Radford, G. H.
Harvey, A. G. C. (Rochdale) Rainy, A. Rolland
Harvey, W. E. (Derbyshire, N. E. Rendall, Athelstan
Haslam, Lewis (Monmouth) Richards, Thomas (W. Monm'th)

Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER, in pursuance of the Order of the House of 31st

July, adjourned the House without Question put.

Adjourned at twenty-two minutes after Twelve o'clock.