HC Deb 15 December 1919 vol 123 cc155-200

Before I put to the Committee any of the Votes in the Army Estimates, I think I ought to draw the attention of the Committee to the new form in which those Estimates are presented. I understand from the Treasury that the new form results from a recommendation said to have been made in the 7th Report of the National Expenditure Committee, 1918. I express no opinion, of course; on the advantages or disadvantages on the point of finance of the new form, but I have a little concern as to the question which am Chairman will have to put to the Committee. It does not much matter this year on these Votes, but I do suggest that before the Votes are brought before the Committee next year, perhaps the Public Accounts Committee, or some special Committee of the House, might consider this form from the point of view in which I am interested, namely, that of protecting the rights of every Member of the House of drawing attention to, and, it may be, moving a reduction of, any single item in the Votes. It seems to me that there is a possibility, if we are not careful, of putting the whole estimated sum in one item. only subdivided as it is under heads and not Votes, it may diminish the control of the Committee whose rights I am charged with the duty of protecting. I say this in order that it may be looked into before we reach next year's Votes.


I am sure the Committee as a whole is much indebted to you for the remarks you have made on this matter. The importance of what you have said, I suggest with respect, cannot be over-estimated as, according to the tradition and usage of toe House, the real control of the House over the Executive depends very much on how the question is put from the Chair. That we all know from experience on the Government side and in Opposition. The form in which the Estimates appear are, I think, speaking generally, an improvement, so far as their mere presentation in the matter of figures is concerned, on the old form, and to some extent they follow the suggestion made in the Seventh Report of the Select Committee on National Expenditure, and, partial as the experiment is, I would not like anything I say to discourage His Majesty's Government from any effort, however feeble it may be, in the right direction for control over expenditure. The only comment I make about it is that on page 2 the right hon. Gentleman states that "The Army Estimates for 1919–20 have been prepared as far as practicable on the lines laid down in the Seventh Report of the National Expenditure Committee." I am sure the suggestion which you have made from the Chair that, in the future, if these Estimates are prepared in accordance with the suggestion of the National Expenditure Committee, the advice and assistance of the Public Accounts Committee—I go further than that; I am sure it is a duty, and that you particularly, and Mr. Speaker also gladly render any assistance—should be asked by the Government as to the preparation of the Accounts so that the questions put from the Chair should safeguard the rights and privileges of His Majesty's Commons in control of His Majesty's expenditure.


I am sure there will be every disposition on the part of the two Departments for which I am responsible to agree to any arrangement on the Votes which will effectively safeguard the rights of the House of Commons in regard to Supply, and secure to Members the opportunity of challenging the expenditure of the year on every point, as they have been in the past. I will not attempt to go into details which are very technical when you come to discuss them. There are very few Members of the House like the right hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury) and the right hon. Gentleman opposite who are capable of pursuing the argument in its intricacies, but in principle there is absolutely no difference between us. Whatever may be found the best way of presenting the Estimates so as to safeguard the rights of the House of Commons will be adopted, and I will take great pains to see that the observations which have fallen from you, Mr. Whitley, are studied in the Finance Department both of the War Office and the Air Force, and I hope to be able to present the new Estimates in a manner which will give entire satisfaction.

Lieut.-Colonel SPENDER CLAY

Cannot the Estimates be put from the Chair under each head?


I am afraid not; that is the trouble. Although I should certainly accept a Motion to reduce the total, in respect of Head 5 or Head 6, for instance, still I doubt whether that would give the Committee the same control as separate Votes. These Estimates have been so short a time before us that there has really not been time for us to consider them from that point of view, and that is the reason why I venture to suggest that before the next Estimates this side of the matter should be looked into. With regard to the Votes to-night, there are only two—one with regard to the Supplementary Vote of 100,000 men, and the other the Vote of £5,000,000—covering the balances on all the various Services. I suggest that we might take pro forma the 100,000 men, and then take such general discussion as is desired on the £5,000,000, covering any point in the Estimates as a whole.