HC Deb 17 March 1919 vol 113 cc1867-70

As amended, considered.

CLAUSE 1.—(Power to Issue. Sums from the Consolidated Fund to the Civil Contingencies Fund.)

(2) In cases where advances of working capital are made from the Civil Contingencies Fund for the purposes aforesaid, the Treasury shall from time to time lay before Parliament Minutes specifying the purposes for which the working capital has been provided and the amount advanced in each case.


I beg to move, at the end, to add the words: and if either House of Parliament within twenty days shall resolve that the Minute be not approved it shall cease to have effect. On Friday my right hon. Friend the Member for the City moved a similar Amendment, and my hon. Friend said that on the Report stage the question would be taken into favourable consideration.

Mr. BALDWIN (Joint Financial Secretary to the Treasury)

Into consideration.


Well, into consideration. The point with regard to it was this: The Treasury are taking large sweeping powers under the Bill, and they propose from time to time to lay minutes before the House as to their proceedings. My Amendment is simply directed to this point, that the House should have an opportunity of discussing that Minute, and if it is disapproved it should not have effect. That is, of course, a very limited power of criticism. The rejecting, and in some cases expressing disapproval of something already done, would throw, of course, very great responsibility upon the House, and action of that kind could only be taken in extreme cases, but I have not the slightest doubt that if such a power was in existence it would be a very useful check on the Government in the use of its very wide and sweeping powers. Therefore I hope that my hon. Friend will see his way to accept this Amendment, or draft some subsequent Amendment such as this so as to keep the control of the House of Commons over some particularly extravagant experiment on the part of the Government in dealing with the vast powers which the Bill proposes.


I have had an opportunity of considering the Amendment which has been moved by my right hon. Friend. If it had been the case that there were powers to initiate experiments, as he suggests, there would be no one in this House more willing than the Government to adopt the course suggested. But payments which arise under the first part of Clause 1 are not payments made for the starting of new ventures but payments made in the natural course of carrying on services which have been commenced under the Vote of Credit. Under those circumstances it is quite impossible for me to accept the Amendment. The words proposed by the hon. Member propose to make a change which would not be constitutional. That is to allow a power to either House of Parliament to interfere with a Money Bill. That power is reserved to this House, but apart from that, under the words of the Amendment, that power becomes illusory, because what the right hon. Gentleman asks is to make the Minute of no effect. A Minute is merely the record of a transaction that has already taken place, that transaction being payments that have already been made. Therefore, no allegation that a Minute has no effect could affect payments that have already been made. As regards criticism, on which he lays stress, I am in full sympathy with him. There is plenty of room for criticism. When we put in these words that we were willing to lay a Minute, we did something which, so far as I was aware, had not been done before. Whenever by power of a Treasury Minute a payment is made out of the Consolidated Fund, no Minutes have been laid before the House, and in suggesting to lay a Minute of that before the House, I thought I was making a very proper concession and starting a very proper precedent. I would remind my right hon. Friend that so far as criticism, is concerned, he has plenty of opportunity of criticising, because he can not only raise the question of payments for any given object on the Votes of any Department concerned when they come on, but he can also raise them on any occasion when a Consolidated Fund Bill is before the House, and also on any evening of the week on the Adjournment as soon after the presentation of the Minute as he likes. I think that on consideration my right hon. Friend will see that I have gone a substantial way towards meeting the very just desire of the House on a Bill of this nature. I hope that with the explanation I have given he will not wish to press the matter further.

11.0 P.M.


I am very sorry that my hon. Friend, who is usually very ready to meet any reasonable claim, does not seem to desire on this occasion to make a compromise. I am astonished that with his knowledge of Parliamentary procedure he should advance the reasons which he has just advanced with regard to the occasions on which my right hon. Friend and others who wish to criticise those large expenditures of money can raise those points in this House. He says, for example, that there was plenty of opportunity of criticising the Votes of the Departments concerned. The fact is that the House is parting with its right to criticise many of those Votes. For instance, to-morrow at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, when the House will be proceeding with the Second Reading Debate which we have just adjourned, a large proportion of the Members of this House will be upstairs engaged on the Committee stage of the Ministry of Health Bill and the Air Force Bill. I am making that point to show that in the ordinary way in criticising business it is not possible for those who wish to keep a keen oversight on the expenditure of money, which in my view is the most essential duty of the House today, to have the opportunities which my hon. Friend seems to think we may have. The other alternative which my hon. Friend proposes is the Adjournment of this House each night. My hon. Friend knows perfectly well that in the Adjournment we can only get in half an hour's criticism and in that half-hour there is only an opportunity for a speech by the hon Member who criticises and by the Minister who replies. Under this Bill we are spending millions of money. The Financial Secretary is, I am sure, the last man to suggest that it is possible adequately to discuss those questions on an opportunity like the Adjournment. What is it my right hon. Friend asks to be done? He asks that you should give to the House of Commons, which, after all, is the final appeal so far as the electors are concerned, the power to criticise the expenditure of these vast sums, and, in order to do so, that the Minutes should come before the House. The Financial Secretary says, "We are giving a great boon to the House." What does that amount to? He says, "We are conceding to the House of Commons a privilege when we lay the Minutes upon the Table of the money we have spent." My hon. Friend really cannot support that contention. I can conceive him laughing when he makes as speech of that kind, because, after all, everybody recognises the care and attention and assiduity which he pays to question of finance. It is absurd for him to get up and suggest that a concession is being made to the House by laying on the Table the Minutes which tell us how we have spent the money before there is any opportunity for the House to discuss it. My right hon. Friend makes a perfectly reasonable appeal to give the opportunity for debate. I venture to suggest that in not acceding to the Report my hon. Friend is leaving the House in a position which may on future occasions militate against himself and others in the House who wish, and rightly wish, to criticise all these large financial transactions.

Amendment negatived.

Bill to be read the third time Tomorrow.

The remaining Orders were read and postponed.