HC Deb 30 July 1912 vol 41 cc1860-2

4.0 P.M.


I desire to ask you, Sir, a question which I raised last night at the close of the proceedings: Whether the Government has been guilty of a breach of the Privileges of this House in the course they pursued in reference to a Supplementary Estimate presented to the House last night. The Supplementary Estimate was an Estimate under Clause 2, Vote 8, Board of Trade, of the amount required in the year ending 31st March, 1913, to pay the salaries and expenses of the office of the Committee of Privy Council for Trade and subordinate Departments. The sum was £3,750, and it arose in reference to fees and expenses under the Coal Mines (Minimum Wage) Act, 1912. Accordingly, the question was submitted last night: "That the Supplementary sum in question be granted to His Majesty to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending 31st March, 1913." In the course of the Debate it transpired, from a statement made by the Parliamentary Secretary, that the great bulk of the sum has already been spent. The words used were:— I can only say the bulk has been spent. I have no figures here but I can get them."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th July, 1912, col. 1724.] I submit that under these circumstances it is quite plain that this money has been spent without any authority from Parliament, and that that is a breach of the rules which govern our proceedings, and of some of the privileges of this House which have been most strenuously-asserted in times past. The general statement as to breach of privilege is to be found on page 71 of "May's Parliamentary Practice," and I propose to read but one sentence from that:— Wilful disobedience to orders, within its jurisdiction, is a contempt of any Court, and disobedience to the orders and rules of Parliament in the exercise of its constitutional functions is treated as a breach of privilege. I do not know that the statement as to the privileges that this House asserts could be better expressed than in the celebrated Resolutions of July, 1670, which ran:— That all Aids and Supply and Aids to His Majesty in Parliament are the sole gift of the Commons; and all Bills for the granting of such Aids and Supplies ought to begin with the Commons, and that it is the undoubted and sole rights of the Commons to direct, limit and appoint in such Bills the ends, purposes, considerations, conditions, limitations, and qualifications of such Grants. That was the Resolution which the House of Commons, at any rate, laid down for the government of its own procedure, and, therefore, if any Members of the House of Commons have transgressed that rule, I submit that they have been guilty of a breach of privilege. I do not know if it is right for me to enter upon any possible defence that may be made by the Government in this matter. But last evening it was stated by the Government, unless I misapprehended the words used by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that the amount that has been spent was covered by a previous Vote—by general words, at any rate, on a previous Vote of Parliament for the Board of Trade, and that, therefore, they could apply any savings under that Vote to the payment in question. I have looked carefully through the Vote for the Board of Trade. It is quite true that under one sub-head there is a reference to the Coal Mines (Minimum Wage) Act, which authorises the Board of Trade to spend money in reference to the Conciliation Act of 1896. But I have looked at that Act, and find that it only gives authority to spend money for the purposes of the Act, and, therefore, money spent for the purposes of another Act is not authorised by a Vote under that head, and, in point of fact, it is quite impossible for the Government to apply savings under any head of the Board of Trade, because savings cannot exist until it is known what the expenditure under the Act will be. Under the circumstances, I submit that a serious breach of privilege has been committed, and that the House, which has always treated any interference, and even any apprehended interference, with its financial power as a breach of privilege, has a right to act in a like manner in this case. It always has so treated it, rightly or wrongly—sometimes some of us think wrongly—but it has always treated it, not as a mere breach of the order of procedure, but as a breach of the privileges of this House. Since we have the statement of the Minister that the Estimate which he has presented for money to come in course of payment during this year has already been expended, that is, I submit, a breach of privilege which this House ought to take this opportunity of passing its judgment upon.


The Noble Lord is stretching the question of breach of privilege a little too far. I understand his contention to be this, that the Government have spent upon a service a certain amount of money for which they had no Parliamentary sanction. Whether they have done so or not I cannot undertake to say. There is an officer of the House appointed specially for the purpose of considering cases of this sort, namely, the Comptroller and Auditor-General, who will consider when the proper time conies whether it is the case that the money was spent without any authority from the House, and if he finds that it is so he will report accordingly, and then will be the proper time to take action against the offender, whoever he may be. But to ask the House now to say that this is a breach of privilege seems to prejudge the question altogether. As I understand it, the contention of the Government is that under the general powers of the Board of Trade they have power to expend a moderate sum of money in carrying out the work of the Board of Trade in this or that particular. That is their contention. Whether it is right or not it is not for me to say. It is for the Comptroller and Auditor-General to say. I am unable, therefore, to accept the Motion.