HC Deb 26 June 1924 vol 175 cc749-57

Amendment proposed, to leave out the Clause.—[Captain Viscount Curzon.]

Question again proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out, to the word 'placed,' in line 26, stand part of the Bill."


When the House adjourned the discussion on this Bill we had under consideration the Amendment of the Noble Lord the Member for South Battersea (Viscount Curzon), which proposed to omit the Clause providing for the expenses of this Bill, as I think the Noble Lord himself appreciates, it is impossible at this point to reconsider the financial basis of the Bill, and we cannot meet him by removing the charge altogether from the Road Fund, but, if I understand his position, he also desires some undertaking that this House will have a proper opportunity of criticising proposed expenditure and reviewing expenditure which has been made. This also is the purpose of the Amendment standing in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bethnal Green (Mr. P. Harris), and I think that so long as the object is secured, the hon. Member would not press the exact words of his Amendment. The right hon. Member for North-West Camberwell (Dr. Macnamara) said: I am not so much concerned whether this money conies from the Treasury or the Road Fund, but I am Concerned about the control of Parliament over this expenditure, and I shall certainly vote for this proposal if I do not get some assurance from the Minister of Transport on this point. I would like to say that I entirely agree with my right hon. friend. It was always my intention to show the staff and expenses used in connection with this Committee on my estimates, and to get approval of the House for theirs. I have examined the matter fully since the House discussed the question, and I find that, without any Amendment, the practice would be to submit an Estimate, I will be quite specific on the point. The position is as follows: If the Clause passes in its present form, the procedure in connection with the expenditure will be as follows: The estimates of the Ministry will include all expenses which are to be borne by the Road Fund under the Clause, including any expenses incurred by the Advisory Committee on holding inquiries or otherwise, and the salaries and other expenses of the Ministry's officers who are placed at the disposal of the Committee. So far as staff is exclusively engaged on work in connection with this Clause the estimates will provide separately for them. As regards staff which is partly employed, in this connection the estimates will indicate approximately the proportion chargeable to the Road Fund in this connection. These amounts will be shown again in the Appropriation-in-Aid Subhead as recoveries from the Road Fund, and could be shown as a separate item in that Subhead. The result, therefore, will be that all the expenditure in question will be open to Parliamentary criticism and will require Parliamentary sanction just in the same way as the estimates of any public Department of expenditure which is not recoverable from outside I think it would be very difficult—I am not sure that it would not be impossible—to devise words which would be inserted in this Clause at this stage of the Bill, but I hope that the House will accept my assurance and the undertaking I have just given.

Viscount WOLMER

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman if we are to understand that it would be possible to move the reduction of the vote in respect of any particular item, and get that reduction against the Government?

Viscount CURZON

The undertaking that the Minister has given is, I think, satisfactory. I object to the Road Fund, which is found by one form of traffic having to bear all the expenditure. I realise it would be impossible, as the Minister has said, to draft any Amendment which would be in order, in order to carry out my intention. I feel that the undertaking that the Minister has given should be satisfactory, inasmuch as it will re-establish Parliamentary control in this particular matter. It may be that he will not be able to give an assurance that will be binding on the Government, but I ask that he should give the House an assurance that the procedure adopted under this Bill will not be taken as a precedent for future legislation of a similar character. I do not want to press my Amendment, because it would only have the effect, if carried, of wrecking the Bill.


I am not at all satisfied with the assurance given by the Minister. I trust that my hon. Friend will not withdraw his Amendment. The The Road Fund—[HON. MEMBERS: "Speak up"!]—originally was for the purpose of finding the money for the improvement of the roads. Subsequently it was devoted partly to their maintenance. It is very unfair to saddle motorists with the cost of the local administration of the traffic. I understand that at the present time Advisory Committees are being formed at Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow; and if the Road Fund had to bear the cost of maintenance of the traffic in London the centres also will ask for their ad- ministrative expenses out of the Road Fund. I want to be quite clear on this: that if the Amendment be withdrawn that the Road Fund shall not be saddled with these additional expenses. I should also like to put this point: that there should be no attempt made to prevent motor omnibuses competing successfully with the tramcars. It is quite clear from the Bill that that may be the result. In certain circumstances tramcars will be given preference over omnibuses, and I should like an additional assurance that the money of the Fund will not be used as against the omnibuses.

Lieut-Colonel Sir F. HALL

In relation to Clause 14 I should like to follow up the suggestion of my noble Friend that the Minister should undertake between now and when the Bill is introduced into another place that an alteration should be made so as to carry out the suggestions put forward. The House will appreciate the fact that the Road Fund is money contributed by a certain part of the community, namely, out of motor taxation; and if motorists fad that they are bearing a larger, or considerable, portion of the expenditure of the Ministry of Transport, I cannot help thinking that the House as a whole will not think that it is fair or reasonable. Anyone who has taken the trouble to attend the Committee upstairs will know that the efforts of my noble Friend were directed to improving the Bill so far as possible. That is what he is desirous of doing now. I am only suggesting to the Minister that if any cases have to be taken to the Courts, it will be that Bill or Act, and not statements made in this House that will be taken as a guide. It would be a great deal better, more advisable, and more in consonance with the general carrying through of the Measures in this House if the Minister would say here and now that he is prepared to insert the words necessary to carry out the suggestions that have been made. If that could be done, I feel satisfied all parties would agree to it. I see no difficulty about a Clause being drafted to carry out the suggestions which have been made by the Minister of Transport.


I cannot add anything to the statement which I have just made.

Viscount CURZON

Does the undertaking given mean that, in the case of other cities and other legislation, this precedent will not be followed, and that the Government will not take advantage of other funds raised for specific purposes to defray the cost of administration under this scheme?


I must ask the noble Lord to be satisfied with what I have stated.

Question, "That the words proposed to be left out, to the word 'placed' in line 26, stand part of the Bill," put, and agreed to.

Amendment made: in page 17, line 26, after the word "servants" insert the words "of the Ministry of Transport"—[Mr. Gosling.]

The following Amendment stood on the Order Paper in the name of Mr. P. Harris:—"In page 17, line 28, after the word "to insert the words "be approved by Parliament and."


I am satisfied that the undertaking which has been given will be binding not only on the present Ministry of Transport but also on future Ministries. These undertakings are generally regarded as binding on the Departments concerned and once an Estimate is prepared by any Department, the Public Accounts Committee would challenge the absence of a similar Estimate. Personally I would prefer it if the funds were provided out of the Consolidated Fund in the ordinary way. We have, however, had a very long struggle over this Bill. I do not like it, but I think it is rather late to send the Bill back to go through all the process again. I agree with the Noble Lord that it is very undesirable to have the Road Fund diverted to a purpose for which it was never intended. I go further, and think that it provides a very unsatisfactory precedent—


We have now passed that point.


I am prepared not to move my Amendment on the assurance of the Minister.

Captain BENN

May I ask—


There is no Question before the House.

Captain BENN

I beg to move, in page 17, line 28 after the word "shall," to in- sert the words "be approved by Parliament and."

I want to ask what exactly is the objection to the insertion of these words. I am perfectly satisfied with the Minister's assurance, and am perfectly certain that so long as he is in his position it will be fulfilled to the letter, but it may be that he will not be in that position, and I should like him to tell us exactly what is the objection to these words "be approved by Parliament." If there is a valid objection, I, of course, go no further, but I should like to have an answer to that question, and therefore, pro forma, I have moved the Amendment.


The words are redundant and unnecessary. I have given an undertaking, and that undertaking will be carried out as far as I am concerned, but, of course, I cannot bind others.

Viscount WOLMER

I understood the Minister to say that the course to be followed is not a special arrangement, but is the normal course,, and that it is sufficient for our purpose.


As my name is attached to this Amendment, I think I may be allowed to explain why it was not moved by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bethnal Green (Mr. P. Harris). The Amendment was put down, not because it was the best way of achieving the purpose we had in view, but for the purpose of raising the question of Parliamentary control. My own view is that it is a bad way of doing it. If this were inserted in the Clause, a great many awkward questions would arise as to how approval was to be given, and it would also give a certain amount of authority to another place, which we never do in matters of finance. Consequently, when the Minister indicated that he would place the Estimate for the administration of this new Department on the Ministry of Transport Vote, giving all details and including an Appropriation-in-Aid from the Road Fund, we felt that Parliamentary control was being maintained. There are precedents, as the Noble Lord has just said. When the Roads Bill was going through the House in 1920, some question arose with regard to the Road Fund, and a similar arrangement was made by Sir Eric Geddes on that occasion, as a result of which the administration of the Road Fund is borne on the [Mr. Pringle.] Ministry of Transport Vote, and any Member of the House can raise a question in regard to the administration of the Road Fund.

It rests purely on a Parliamentary undertaking, and that is not the only case in which a Parliamentary undertaking given by a Minister whose official life has not been long, is honoured by his successor. There was another example in the present Session. A question arose as to Parliamentary control over the commutation of the Rodney pension. When the question of these perpetual pensions was before Parliament in 1889, the issue was raised whether the House of Commons would be able to discuss and reject any proposal for commutation in regard to perpetual pensions, and an undertaking was given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer of that date: and, because that undertaking was given, the present Chancellor of the Exchequer is willing to have a discussion in the House of the terms of commutation of the Rodney pension. My hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin (Mr. Foot) decided, after considering the whole matter, that he would not trouble the House with it, but he had the right to obtain a discussion, and the House would be able to reject the proposal if it thought it desirable to do so. There we have examples of the value of undertakings. A great part of our financial procedure rests on customs and undertakings of that kind, and I think it is well that we should adhere to this valuable tradition of the House and maintain its financial control on that basis.


I entirely agree that in the object we all have in view the particular words of the Amendment are not the best method of meeting it. The Minister has made a very clear statement but the most important thing he has said was his reference to what was the practice, and that in the ordinary custom these things would come before Parliament as one of the ordinary methods of procedure. The Minister, I think, was a little taken by surprise. He did not give a definite answer to my noble Friend's question asking for an assurance that this should not be used as a precedent in case of a similar traffic Bill for Manchester, Leeds or other big towns. I am anxious to get the Bill through but my point is one of control over expenditure. I am not satisfied that in larger matters than this the control of this House over expenditure should rest simply upon established practice, which apparently may be departed from if some Minister in future chooses so to do. In any case the expenditure in regard to this Bill is probably a very small matter, therefore I do not want to press it unduly, but even if I should not perhaps go so far as to ask the Minister for a definite undertaking on the subject I ask the House generally to see to it that the precedents which we are adopting for the purpose of getting the Bill through to-night shall never be followed in future. It is an unconstitutional method of doing it. There is one way only in which, according to our constitutional practice, the expenses ought to be provided for in a Bill of this kind. That is that they should be provided for out of monies provided by Parliament under a Clause based upon a financial Resolution, and even if the Minister is not prepared to say mole about it now I hope he will take the opportunity if he is asked, as I shall hope to be able to ask him on the Third Reading, to give an assurance that he accepts the arrangement which we are making to-night as one made under exceptional circumstances to get the Bill through and one which shall never be made use of as a precedent even if it is in an absolutely similar Bill for such a place as Manchester or Liverpool.

Colonel ASHLEY

May I answer my hon. Friend's point, I think he need be under no fear that this will form a precedent in the case of Manchester or Liverpool or any City. That would be a private Bill.

Viscount CURZON

I want the Minister to give us an assurance not only in the case of any other City. I want to be quite clear that the arrangement arrived at tonight, as I hope it will be accepted, will not be accepted as forming a precedent in the case of any other analogous legislation. There may be other Bills before the House embodying provisions of a very similar character where, say, an insurance fund can be raided in order to provide for the cost of a Department and thereby enable the matter to pass behind the back of Parliament. I want to he quite clear that this precedent will not be followed in the ease of other legislation. I should like him also to give an assurance on the Third Reading that he will not make further inroads upon the Road Fund for purposes for which it never was set up. I shall be quite satisfied if he will tell me he will consider the point and deal with it on the Third Reading.


I can give an undertaking that I will not make such inroads.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.