HC Deb 20 April 1909 vol 3 cc1491-501

Order for second reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."


It is provided by an old Act of Parliament of 1826 that the President of the Committee of Council for the consideration of matters relating to trade for the time being should have a salary not exceeding £2,000, and the object of this Bill is to repeal that enactment and to leave it open to the discretion of the Treasury, with the consent of Parliament, to assign a higher salary than £2,000 to the President of the Board of Trade. That is the scope of the Bill. It is not very wide, and in itself probably not a matter which will excite either much contention or argument. I need not remind the House that the Bill is introduced in pursuance of a pledge which, I think, I myself gave a year or a year and a half ago in the debate on an Amendment to the Address that His Majesty's Government would reconsider the status and position of the various Departments of the public service. I have not before me now the exact words which I used, but I remember the substance of them very well, and it was that the matter should be considered by a Committee of the Cabinet, and it has been considered' by a Committee of the Cabinet, which has carefully investigated the relative position and status of the various Departments of the State. The conclusion to which we have come is that as regards the Board of Trade and the Local Government Board they should be placed on substantially the same footing, not in point of title but of status and emolument, with the Secretaryships of State. That is not a new policy. Years ago, in the time of the late Government, a Departmental Committee was appointed under the presidency of Lord Jersey which considered the whole matter, and which made a Report, which was laid on the Table of the House and circulated, with the result that the then Prime Minister, now Leader of the Opposition, in the last Session of that Parliament, brought in a Bill to raise both these Departments, not only as regards status and emolument but as regards title also, to the rank of Secretaryships of State. It may, therefore, be assumed that both parties, when in responsible office came to the conclusion that the circumstances of these Departments justify their being placed in a higher position than that which they at present enjoy. There is no neces- sity for legislation in regard to the Local Government Board, because there is no statutory restriction on the salary of the President. There would be no necessity in the case of the President of the Board of Trade but for the section which I have read in the Act of 1826, which places such restriction on the salary. Otherwise, it could be done by putting a Vote down on the Estimates for the approval of the House. But I think it would be respectful to the House that legislation should be passed. It is only respectful to the House that I should state what are the reasons that have led us to the conclusion that this change should be made in the status of the two offices. In the days of the Act of George IV. which I have cited the Board of Trade was comparatively a small and subordinate Department of the State, and the Local Government Board, even in the older shape of the Poor Law Board, of course, had not then been called into existence. It was the creation of a later date and of subsequent legislation. But as time has gone on these two Departments have collected and aggregated an enormous amount of multifarious functions, not perhaps very scientifically arranged or digested, but which have been cast upon them by successive Parliaments from time to time, and which have made them two of the most important Departments in the State.

The Board of Trade, as everybody knows, is entrusted with very large powers with relation to railways, harbours, and other matters of that kind, the collection of labour statistics, and so on. In particular the Board of Trade has now become—and I am not sure that this is not really its most important function—the organ of conciliation and mediation in industrial and labour matters as between the various interests concerned. If you look either to the number of subjects, or their importance, or their variety, or the cares and responsibility which their proper discharge involves, I do think, even as a past Home Secretary, and therefore with a natural bias in favour of my old Department, that the Board of Trade at the present moment is as important a Department of State even as the Home Office itself. The same is true in a greater or less degree, I think, although not strictly relevant to the subject of the Bill, of the Local Government Board. There again Parliament has by a long series of successive legislative Acts, entrusted to a Department, which at first was confined to a very shadowy supervisory jurisdiction of the Poor Law administration of the country, vast powers in relation to public health and the superintendence of the whole fabric of local taxation, which involves the employment of a very large and very competent and responsible staff, and which requires for the adequate discharge of its duties that there should be at the head of the Department a Minister of the first class. I do not think that anybody in the House will dispute that a full case has been made out for raising the status of these Departments to a higher rank than they have hitherto enjoyed. At present, under the existing system—and this is not a question as primarily affecting the head of the Department, which would be relatively a small matter—everybody in the office is paid on a lower scale, and has from the Civil Service standpoint a lower status than if he had belonged to one of the more favoured offices. I do not think it possible to justify that invidious discrimination between two sets of offices which respectively discharge equally important functions and which deserve equally good treatment from the State.

I can hardly anticipate anything in the nature of opposition to the general principle of this Bill. There is a provision in the Bill that the Act shall not apply to any person who at the time of the passing of the Act holds the office of President of the Board of Trade so long as he holds that office under his present appointment. A similar provision, if my memory serves me right, was to be found in the Bill introduced by the late Government in regard to the same matter; and it is, I may say, a natural and proper thing, and certainly in accordance with the best traditions of our public life, that the occupants of offices of this kind should not take advantage of the Parliamentary raising of the general status of their Departments, including the Balary of the chief, so long as they hold the office which they at present do. The right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade, with whom I have discussed the matter, is anxious that this provision should be inserted, although at the time he was appointed to the office it was already practically known, after the statements which had been made in the House, that there was at least a strong probability that there would be an alteration of the status in the manner in which it is now proposed. My right hon. Friend, with natural and becoming delicacy, has urged, and indeed insisted, that this provision should be inserted in the Bill, and following all pre- vious precedents, we have put it therein. Let me add, in order to complete my account of the matter, that we did not confine our investigations to these two Departments. We inquired also into the position of the Board of Agriculture and the Post Office, and upon the Order Paper, following the Bill now under consideration, there will be found, if we are allowed to reach them, proposals dealing with both those Departments, which I hope on the proper occasion to be able to explain and justify to the House. I only mention the point—it is not strictly relevant to the Bill under consideration—in order to show that this is part of a comprehensive survey of the whole field. We have not dealt with the matter piecemeal; we have considered each case on its merits, and with regard to the relative position of the different Departments in the general hierarchy of the State. I have said enough, I hope, to justify me in asking the House to read the Bill a second time.

Motion made and Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a second time."—[The Prime Minister.]


The Prime Minister has left out what we thought would be the main portion of his statement. He has told us the history of previous Bills of this description, but he has not told the House why we stopped them. These Bills have always been stopped because of a very general feeling of the House, unanimously expressed and accepted on two occasions, that there should be a complete survey, with a view not to increasing the salaries or positions, but to a reallocation of business between Government Departments. There has been no reallocation of business; nothing but an increase of salaries and offices—an increase which is always followed by further increases. In the case of the proposal to create a Secretary of the Board of Agriculture, there is a Motion on the Paper to create a similar office in regard to Scotland. In the case of the Local Government Board, the functions of which are limited to England and Wales for most purposes, there again you involve yourselves in similar demands with regard to other portions of the United Kingdom. On the occasion of the two debates to which the Prime Minister called attention, when pledges were given, the point on which the House insisted—in words which were put on the Paper by myself on one occasion, and by the Labour party on another, and accepted by the Government as expressing their intention—was the re-allocation of business between the various Government Departments. We have had proposals for increase on three occasions. This country already has four times as many Ministerial offices in Parliament as any other Empire in the world, and five or six times as many as most of the leading countries. The enormous number of Ministerial offices occupied in this House is not, I think, an advantage. A smaller number of powerful ministers could carry on the business of the country more effectively, and organise their Departments better, than an enormous horde of ministers, for whom accommodation on the Treasury Bench can hardly be found. But leaving that question aside, this House is extraordinarily peculiar both in the number of Ministerial offices and also in the total absence of payment of Members. This House is almost alone among all the democratic assemblies of the world in refusing to grant payment of Members, but the Ministerial salaries are so large and numerous that the total cost of the House is not very far inferior to that of those assemblies in which the members are paid by the State. I shall not detain the House by developing any of these points, as the subject is familiar to the minds of hon. Members, but no one will oppose the provision with regard to the position of the clerks in the various Departments. I think there will be no difference on that point, and that nothing could be more preposterous than that the fact whether an office is that of a Secretary of Stale or not should affect the salaries or positions of the clerks in those offices. No one, I feel sure, would stand by such a principle.

The Prime Minister has just told us, speaking of the Board of Trade, of its enormous variety of multifarious functions. We all know that if you go on dealing with this matter piecemeal, by increasing salaries and increasing offices, meeting each case as it arises by the creation of one, or ultimately two or three new offices, you will never get that redistribution of work, or never get that scientific re-allocation of business which the Prime Minister himself stated to the House as essential to the efficiency of the public service. Those are his words. I do not know that there is anything to prove that is not perfectly plain. The House accepted a proposal unanimously on 3rd March, 1903, and in the debate the words of the Prime Minister were these:— That the time had come for a general allocation of the functions and a redistribution of the duties more scientifically between the various departments. And that that Would tend to the efficiency of the public service. That was the whole ground accepted by the House unanimously on that occasion. We have had an inquiry, but the inquiry has failed and broken down. Very likely these facts did not come to the knowledge of the Prime Minister, but, at any rate, the inquiry broke down and failed. Amongst the staffs there is very bitter jealousy of any redistribution of duties between the various Departments. There are three Bills before the House on which this qustion arises. Those three Bills are being opposed on the grounds I have stated. As regards the Board of Trade, the particular Department now most before us, confusion of duties is, of course, admitted, and allusion has been made to-the creation of separate departments, costly departments, out of what were formerly in the Board of Trade, still leaving in the Board of Trade an accumulation of functions.

We have a practical example now before us in the proposals of last year with regard to the Wages Boards. They were supposed to be dealt with by the Home Office up to last year, but now they have been banded over to the Board of Trade. Speeches which have been made in the course of the present Session have disclosed a variation of view based on the very ground stated here to-night by the Prime Minister that the Board of Trade is a conciliation Department. The Home Office, as the President of the Board of Trade stated the other day, has to deal with the penal side of labour legislation. There you have at once one of those difficult points of overlapping of duties, and one of the grounds why the House refused over and over again to interfere with those two Departments. You have the necessity for the re-allocation of duties to which the Prime Minister gave such unhesitating assent.


(who was indistinctly heard) was understood to say: The Prime Minister in his speech has made the statement that the increase of the emoluments will not apply to the present holder of the office. When the Bill gets into Committee I shall move to omit the sub-section limiting the increase of salary to the successors-of the present holder of the office.


I desire in a very few words to express my dissent from the second reading of this Bill, for I think that the House has not been treated quite fairly as to the issue which this measure raises. We had a discussion, which I remember quite well, on this subject in the early days of last Session. The Prime Minister during that discussion made some definite statements to the House, and if he will pardon me for saying so, I do not think he has quite stated the position which he then took up in the speech which he has made this evening. No doubt it was quite unintentional. But he made, I think, a very definite promise that the inquiry which was going to be instituted would be something more than a Cabinet inquiry.


What did I say?


I think I have it here; it was in the debate on 6th February. One of the Members for Sheffield asked if it was proposed to appoint a Committee of the House, and the right hon. Gentleman replied:— It is obviously desirable that it should be in the first instance a Departmental Committee. I think that is something more than an inquiry by the Cabinet, and any proposal a Departmental Committee may make will have to be sanctioned by the House. Having regard to that promised inquiry at the hands of a Departmental Committee, I think it did certainly create the impression upon the minds of those who heard the Prime Minister make the statement that the inquiry would be full and complete, and that the result of the inquiry would be brought before the House previous to any other step being taken. No statement as to the result of that investigation has yet been submitted to the House, except in the few words which the Prime Minister has addressed to the House this evening. Having regard to the admitted importance of a searching inquiry into the whole of the Departments, and having regard to the promise which was held out that there should be, shall I say, a reshuffling of the duties to be undertaken by the various Departments, perhaps the House may like to hear the statement of the Prime Minister, who, I think, put the matter plainly before the House. He said:— Is not the general inference to be drawn—an inference which I think the House with almost unanimous consent will draw from the considerations which I have ventured to lay before them—that the time has come— And I should like to call the right hon. Gentleman's attention to this:— That the time has come when an inquiry ought to be made into the whole matter of the allocation of functions, the relative status and emoluments, of one Department of the Board with the others, with a view to seeing whether we cannot arrive, as I. think we can, at a general agreement, at a change which will redistribute the duties of the Department more scientifically, which would remove invidious distinctions, and which would tend to the advantage and the efficiency of the public service. Now, the impression, I make bold to say, that was created in the minds of the House when these statements were made, followed by the reply that was given to the Member who submitted the question from above the Gangway, was that the inquiry should be conducted by a Departmental Committee. I cannot say that either the impression created upon the House or the promise of a Departmental Committee have really been fulfilled. I think, having regard to the importance of the whole question, that we are justified in asking the Government not to press for the second reading of this Bill until that inquiry, in all its completeness, has not only been made, but reported to the House.

When I came to examine into the measure—it may be the right way for the Government to proceed, I am rather doubtful about it—but I do notice in the section of the Act quoted by the Prime Minister, there was this to be said for its credit, that it did lay down the salary that the President was to receive. In the Bill that this House is now asked to give a second reading to there is no mention made as to the amount of the salary that the President is going to receive in the future. Now, surely, that is not exactly the way that we should proceed. The very best case may be made out. I do not doubt it, having regard to the additional duties which have been imposed upon the Department in recent years. But surely this House should always retain within its own right the definite fixing, yes, the definite fixing, of the salary of an official, when we undertake the responsibility of increasing it. I think the Government ought to have laid down in the Bill the amount that the Government propose to increase the salary by.

Another point is this: Surely the House is entitled to know— [An HON MEMBER: "These charges are upon the Estimates."] Yes, we are well aware that all these things come upon the Estimates, but it is not always easy to get them discussed on the Estimates. We have got to remember that. Another point ought to be kept in mind: The Prime Minister admitted that one of the effects of his proposal will be that the whole of the staff, or, at any rate, a good proportion of the staff, will have to have their salaries increased, probably in order to bring them into harmony with the salaries received in some other Departments. That may be right. We are not disputing it. But surely this House is entitled to know what all this is going to come to. Surely we are entitled to have put before us in proper shape what the increased payments to the President and to the President's staff will cost. Surely it is only right that this House should be put in possession of this information before it takes the very first step towards the consequent increase that will take place if this measure be passed into law. Therefore I sincerely hope that before the Bill is passed we shall be supplied with much fuller information than that which has been vouchsafed to the House by the Prime Minister this evening.


I can only speak again by the leave of the House, but as the hon. Member has made an appeal to me perhaps the House will allow me to say a few words in reply. As regards what I said, I doubt very much whether I used the expression "Departmental Committee" which appears in the Report. If I did use it I used it foolishly, because a Departmental Committee would be the last kind of Committee that would be suitable. I fulfilled in the spirit the promise which I made to the House, because a Committee of the Cabinet is much more competent to deal with the matter. That Committee included the heads of all Departments. Therefore, in the spirit, if not in the letter, I completely carried out the pledge. That Committee did inquire into the re-allocation of the duties, and they came to the conclusion which I confess I had myself come to that the time really had come when it was almost impossible and impracticable to conduct what is called a scientific allocation of business between the two Departments. I have always thought that as between the Board of Trade and the Home Office it might be possible to do a good deal in the way of transfer, levelling up, and levelling down; but when we came to deal with it practically we found it a much more difficult matter than we thought it was. All I want to say is to assure the hon. Mem- ber that these matters were not lost sight of; they were most carefully considered, and the pledge I gave was fulfilled in the spirit. I quite agree that before this Bill goes into Committee the House should be furnished with an estimate of the increased cost which the Bill will involve, and also, I think, what the application of the same principle to the Local Government Board will involve. I think that is perfectly fair and reasonable. I am only sorry such an estimate was not presented before the Bill was brought forward. Upon the merits I do not think anyone disputed, in the course of this short discussion, that the Board of Trade is well entitled to be placed upon the same level as other Departments, and I hope the House will now grant the second reading of this Bill.


It does seem to me to be a very curious circumstance that at the moment when practically everybody else's income in business is decreasing, we should proceed to increase the salaries of the members of the Government generally. What I suggested before was that we should consider the whole, question of salaries, reduce some of them and increase others. There is no reason why one man should get £5,000 for doing practically the same work as a man who gets £2,000, and the proper way to proceed is to reduce the £5,000 salary. When I raised this question before I suggested to the late Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman that I would exempt the Prime Minister on the ground that he -has to spend a great deal of money, and does not make much out of his office. The right hon. Baronet the Member for the Forest of Dean spoke about the expenses of Government in this country. May I point out to the House that the present Government get about £180,000 per annum, and surely that is enough. I am not including the permanent staff in that total, but merely the members of the Government. I think that sum is quite enough for one Government, more especially when we are told that this is more than is paid to any other Government in the world. If you compare this country with the United States the cost of our Government is double and treble for doing less work, because in America they have a much bigger country to look after. It is highly probable that this proposal will add another £20,000, making the total cost of the Government £200,000, and I think that is a great deal too much. Before you settle this question you ought to settle the question of the payment of Members, because if you spend all your money on the Cabinet you will have nothing left for the payment of Members. I am not quite satisfied with this Committee of the Cabinet, because it is about the worst body you could call together to consider what they will do with their own salaries. What we expected was that there would be an inquiry by a Committee of this House, who would look fairly into the question, and say what sum ought to be paid to Ministers generally. There is no proposal of that sort before the House, and we have no estimate before us as to what this is going to cost. Before we commit ourselves to spend all this money in these hard times we ought to have the whole case before us, so that we can judge as to how much it is going to cost the country. We have been told that this will be put upon the Estimates. [Cries of "Agreed, agreed."] There are many occasions when we never get an opportunity of considering the Estimates, and at least one-fourth of them are guillotined without being discussed at all. The Government by not putting the Votes down can, and do, prevent discussion, as they did last year in the case of the War Minister. In that case we wanted to discuss questions which could only come up on the Minister for War's salary, but the Vote was never allowed to come before the House at all, and consequently we missed the opportunity of discussing the question in any shape or form. [Cries of "Divide, divide."]

And it being Eleven of the clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Monday next.

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