HC Deb 26 February 1920 vol 125 cc1892-4

asked the Prime Minister whether the Government has considered the recommendations contained in the Ninth Report (1918) of the Select Committee on National Expenditure; and, if so, whether they are prepared to give effect to them, and, in particular, to set up forthwith one or more Committees on Estimates, as recommended in that Report?


With the hon. Gentleman's permission, I will publish a detailed statement in the OFFICIAL REPORT.


May I ask whether the answer is in the affirmative?


The Ninth Report contains sixteen recommendations. The answer to some is in the affirmative, and to some in the negative.

The following is the statement referred to:—

(1)-(5) The first live recommendations deal with the proposed Estimates Committees.

This proposal has received the most careful consideration of His Majesty's Government. In their view its adoption would lessen the responsibility of Ministers of Parliament and would tend to weaken the control of the Treasury over expenditure. The criticism of policy (which is admitted to be beyond the scope of any Estimates Committee) must be made by the House of Commons and met by Ministers, not by a Committee on the examination of officials. But it is policy which governs expenditure and a Committee from whose province policy was strictly excluded would find itself in practice impotent to effect economy.

The proposal to appoint an Examiner of Estimates would merely reduplicate work already done by the Treasury. It is difficult to see how such an officer, even if assisted by a large and highly-trained staff, could conduct an adequate independent investigation of Estimates in the brief time between the presentation of the Estimates in February or March and their examination by the House in the immediately ensuing months. His relation to Departments would be wholly anomalous, presenting no real parallel to the position of the Comptroller and Auditor-General, whose staff conducts from day to day throughout the year in the Departments themselves the examination of the departmental accounts on which the final Annual Appropriation Account and the Comptroller and Auditor-General's own reports thereon are based.

The staff required for this work costs about £150,000 per annum.

(6) This is a matter for the House, but in the majority of cases it would obviously be difficult for any Government to accept an adverse Vote in Committee of Supply as a matter of indifference.

(7) The new form has been adopted for the Army Estimates. Its extension to other Departments of the Public Service has been under the consideration of an expert Committee. It has not been found possible to adopt the new form for 1920/21 and certain points, including the question of the cost of the new proposals, are receiving further examination.

(8) As the fifteen Army Votes have now been amalgamated into one Vote, it is necessary to take a Vote on Account before 31st March in order to furnish the Army with authority to incur expenditure in the early months of the financial year. The adoption of this plan for Navy and Air Votes depends on the adoption of the new form of Estimates.

(9) Consideration will be given to this recommendation, so far as may be practicable, in the memoranda prefixed to Estimates.

(10) This recommendation has been adopted.

(11) The adoption of this recommendation would result in great delay in the passing of legislation and is not in the opinion of His Majesty's Government practicable or necessary, particularly in view of the present practice of giving White Paper Estimates in connection with Money Resolutions.

(12) Effect will be given to this recommendation in due course.

(13) The Comptroller and Auditor-General Reports on the annual accounts is directed by Statute to the House of Commons and not to any Committee of the House. Legislation involving far-reaching technical and constitutional difficulties would be required to make a formal change in this respect; but in practice the Comptroller and Auditor-General is already in a position to bring to the notice of the Treasury and the Public Accounts Committee any urgent matter.

(14) This Return has not been asked for since 1909. In present abnormal circumstances and pending a settlement of the final form of peace estimates its preparation would involve a considerable extra staff and an expenditure of time and money which would in my opinion be disproportionate to its usefulness.

(15) The responsibility for decisions on matters of public policy rests with the Cabinet as a whole.

(16) I am in general agreement with this recommendation which indeed represents substantially the present position of affairs. The fact that the Old Age Pensions Vote is accounted for by the Customs and Excise Department, is not, in my opinion, an exception in anything more than name.