HC Deb 09 March 1910 vol 14 cc1487-92

4.0 P.M.

Moved: That Mr. Arbuthnot, Mr. Ashton, Mr. Robert Balfour, Mr. Rowland Barran, Sir John Brigg, Mr. Carlile, Mr. Courthope, Mr. Hazleton, Sir Clement Hill, and Mr. Hobhouse be Members of the Committee of Public Accounts.—[Master of Elibank.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Earl of Kerry be a Member of the Committee of Public Accounts."


moved that the name of the Earl of Kerry be omitted.

With the indulgence of the House I desire to move the omission of the name of the Earl of Kerry. In doing so it is quite unnecessary to say that the Motion has no personal aspect of any kind, and that no Member of the House is more appreciative than I am of the high qualities of that distinguished nobleman. But whilst the Noble Lord has earned great distinction and has many letters after his name, there are lacking qualifications which, to my mind, represent the only qualification for Membership of this Committee, and which have to do with what in sporting phraseology I may describe as £ s. d. The object of my moving is to endeavour at the proper time to substitute the name of Mr. Gibson Bowles as a Member of the Committee, because I am convinced that it is very necessary if this House is to maintain its claim to be paramount in matters of finance, that we should strengthen as far as possible one of the very few checks which we have on the public expenditure of the country. During my experience of the last Parliament I observed that every year in round figures we voted something like £50,000,000 of public money without any discussion whatever. We had no day ever given us for the discussion of the Reports of the Public Accounts Committee. I have glanced at some of those Reports. In some of them I find allegations of wholesale theft in some of the public Departments, defalcations, breaches of contract, and expenditure exceeding the authorised expenditure to the extent of some £40,000 in one case, and all sorts of irregularities; and on no occasion have we had the opportunity of considering those facts. Therefore, my object is to place upon the Committee a gentleman of special qualifications for this work.

May I be permitted for the benefit of those whom one is proud to refer to as newer Members of this House to say what the functions of this Committee are. They are to examine the accounts, showing the appropriation of the sums granted by Parliament to meet public expenditure. That being so, it is essential that every Member of that Committee should be a gentleman to whom finance is not anathema, and to whom commerce is something to be viewed with respect, and who will not suffer any derogation of his personal position by examining the modest details of the public expenditure of the country. I was referring this morning to a semi-official publication called the Liberal Year Book for 1910, and I find that that book tells us that in practice it has been found that those responsible for the Estimates have not been loth to allow the House to fritter away most of the allotted time in discussing trivialities while many millions are voted in as many minutes towards the end of the Session without the slightest pretence of examination or Debate. That being so, I think I have established my case to justify my suggestion that every Member of this Committee should be a Member with special expert qualifications for the work, and I suggest the name of Mr. Gibson Bowles because he was a distinguished Member of the Committee in a previous Parliament, because his financial qualifications are unique, and because his son was an indefatigable Member of the Committee in the last Parliament. And I therefore respectfully move that the name of the Earl of Kerry be omitted. I was reluctant to make any invidious selection of names, but I had the satisfaction of knowing that this House was of opinion that Peers of the Realm should have no hand whatever in the financial relations of the country, and I selected the Noble Lord as being the victim of a certain hereditary taint for which he is not responsible, and because constitutional reasons disentitle him to interfere in the financial arrangements of the country.


May I explain to the House that this Committee has been set up in accordance with the usual custom of the House? I consulted the Leaders of the parties in the House, who themselves presented the names of those they thought suitable to represent their particular party. It remains for me to suggest five names in addition to the Financial Secretary, and looking to the long and distinguished services of my hon. Friend the Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Gibson Bowles), it seemed to me that there was only one position to which his well-known capacity entitled him; but I was in a difficulty in regard to that particular position, because there again there is the custom of the House that it is always the privilege of the Opposition to nominate the Chairman. So I trust that my hon. Friend will accept this explanation, and not press the Motion, but leave it according to the custom of the House to the Leaders of the parties to nominate their own Members to serve on the Committee to represent all parties.


I desire—


There can be no discussion on this Motion. It is brought on under Standing Order No. 11, and no speeches are allowed on either side.


For the convenience of the House may I ask whether, supposing the Motion is dropped and a discussion is taken on the next name, can my hon. Friend not make his explanation then? Will it be possible that this matter, which is one of some importance to the constitution of the Committee, apart from any individual, can be discussed then?


You can move the omission of the next name or of any other name.


Might I ask permission to make a personal explanation?


No; you cannot be permitted. The rule is very strict. It permits only certain things to be done.


Under Standing Order 11, should I be in order in moving that the discussion on this point be adjourned?


The hon. Member has made a speech, and cannot speak again.


May I ask whether, although my hon. Friend would be out of Order, would it be in order for me to move the adjournment?


We have had two speeches, and only two speeches are permitted.

Question, "That the, Earl of Kerry be a Member of the Public Accounts Committee," put, and agreed to.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That Mr. T. M. Kettle be a Member of the Public Accounts Committee."


I should ask to be allowed to say a word on the successive names in order to ask whether this matter cannot be adjourned with a view to an accommodation. As I understand, the hon. Member for King's Lynn, whose great services on this Committee are, I am sure, recognised by every other Member of this House, was asked to be a Member of the Committee, a fact which has not been stated in this discussion, but which is, I think, material, and he, for natural reasons, declined to allow himself to be nominated. I am quite sure there are many Members of this House who would like to see the Committee strengthened by the addition of my hon. Friend. The Committee has lost a number of very valuable Members. It so happens that Mr. Leif Jones, who was a very active Member of the Committee, lost his seat, and the active services that were performed by Mr. Stewart Bowles, who also lost his seat, were such as to weaken the Committee by their absence from the Committee. Another distinguished and very active Member on this side who has long served on the Committee has now been withdrawn from service, and the Committee will be much weaker in its present form. It is most necessary that the Committee should not be weakened. It is the only body that supports and can support the control of the Auditor-General in his reports on the Estimates of this House, and the Committee has done great service, and no doubt will achieve great service again, with its new membership; but there is an intermediate period in which it will not be able to carry out the policy which the recent Committee carried out so successfully.


I think I owe the House a few words of explanation. As the hon. Baronet has said, I was approached with a view to giving my services on the Committee, but there are two reasons which disable me from serving. I attach the highest importance to the Public Accounts Committee, and I regard it with respect and affection. I hope that the House will believe me when I say that there is nothing of which I was prouder than the opportunity of serving on that Committee in the Parliament before the last, and when I was driven from my seat one of the keenest griefs it cost me was that I was deprived of the opportunity of resuming those services. My only consolation was that I was succeeded by a son whom I had brought up to the honourable pursuits of public life, especially of finance. But he, too, has lost his seat. Then I had to consider the situation this year. I could not but remember that I myself had served on the Committee for ten years, and my son had served upon it for four years, and it did seem to me that the usefulness of me and of mine had thereby been exhausted, and that our names should give place to another. I had a second reason for not serving on the Committee. It was the doubt whether the day for considering the Report of the Committee would still be given. I consider that day essential. In the last speech which I made in the Parliament before the last I asked the House to sanction that day, and the sanction was given, with results which, I believe, will prove to be of far greater constitutional importance than many hon. Members of this House may suppose. Last year, to my sorrow, a day was not afforded. But I fear that the deprivation if continued will again deprive the Committee's Reports of much of their value, and that they will go back to be pigeonholed and disregarded. A third reason why I felt myself disabled was this: It is painful for me to be put into competition with the Noble Lord. I have long had the honour of an acquaintance, and, I hope, of some friendship, with his family and his distinguished father, for whom I have an unfeigned regard and the highest respect, and I should be sorry indeed to be put in competition with his father's son, or to be the innocent cause of the exclusion from the Committee of a useful Member. Apart from that, I can only say that I hold myself entirely at the disposal of this House for any services which it may place upon me. I desire to give this explanation in order to clear up the matter, and, as the House will understand, that I have not in the least lost my sense of the great importance of this Committee, or my interest in and admiration for its work. But I do feel myself disabled from taking part in it, and that others should take up the work which I endeavoured to do.

Question put, and agreed to.

Question,"That Mr. Sidney Robinson, Mr. Walsh, and Colonel Williams be Members of the Committee of Public Accounts," put, and agreed to.

Ordered, "That the Committee have power to send for persons, papers and records, and that five be the quorum."