HC Deb 24 April 1928 vol 216 cc833-6

In order to present a clearer picture I have this year adopted a new form in the presentation of our accounts. In the first place, I have presented them net instead of gross. Following a suggestion of the Estimates Committee of the House of Commons, I have given directions that in future the sums received from the sale of fee stamps shall be appropriated in aid of the respective Votes instead of being brought into the Exchequer. The contributions received towards the cost of teachers' pensions will be shown as an appropriation in aid of the Education Votes. By the Unemployment Insurance Act of last Session I obtained the power to direct that the interest on the outstanding debt of the Unemployment Fund should in future he paid direct by the fund to the National Debt Commissioners without passing through the Budget. In certain cases where the cash outstanding on Government funds is temporarily borrowed for the use of the Exchequer, and where any interest paid merely accrues as revenue to the benefit of the Exchequer after having first appeared as an expense on the other side of the account, it has been decided not to raise any formal charge for interest future. These are all minor, but not unimportant accounting changes, which affect about £7,000,000 of revenue and expenditure, the object in each case being the same, which is to remove from both sides of the account items which exactly balance and cancel each other. According to the doctrines of Sir Robert Peel and Mr. Gladstone, the presentation of gross estimates was to he encouraged, and respectable reasons can be found for it. But as the consequent meaningless inflation of the total figure has proved a stumbling block to a numerous tribe of political quadrupeds, I have thought it desirable on this occasion and for the future to make a change.

The total estimated expenditure for 1927 was, as I have said, £833,390,C00 But had the changes just mentioned been in force in that year, the figure would have been £826,326,000 net. The corresponding total for 1928 is the figure that I have already given, namely, £806,195,000. Therefore the reduction, comparing like with like, is £20,000,000, and that is due to economy on the Supply Services and to the revision of the debt arrangements. I do not intend the reform in the manner of presenting our accounts to stop at this point. It is a matter of common agreement between the financial authorities of all parties, I think, that the growth in the self-balancing expenditure of the Post Office and the Road Fund grants ought not to appear in our accounts en precisely the same footing as an increase in ordinary burdensome expenditure. That is the general view; it has appeared in the Liberal Yellow Book. Even more absurd is it to present as if they were extravagances increases made in the sums allotted to the Sinking Fund.

The changes which I propose are of the simplest character. In the statement of ordinary revenue and expenditure I leave only the surplus of the Post Office and the excess of the Motor Vehicle Duties over the Road Fund grants. The Post Office expenditure and the Road Fund Grants are shown quite separately as self-balancing items. The amount of the Sinking Fund provision will also be kept outside the total expenditure and shown in its proper place, namely, beside the prospective surplus of the year. Re-stated in its altered form, the expenditure of 1928 is as follows: Supply Services, exclusive of Post Office, £350,000,000. Consolidated Fund Services, excluding Road Fund Grants and Sinking Fund, £326,500,000. Total expenditure, £676,500,000.

There is no difficulty in casting former Budget results in the new form, and I will give the Committee the figures. In 1923, the total was £691,000,00; in 1924, £682,000,000; in 1925, £701,000,000; in 1926, £698,000,000; in 1927, £681,000,000; and in 1928, £076,500,000. The totals for 1927 and 1928 are Estimates; for earlier years they relate to Audited Expenditure. These figures, which are all calculated fir the same basis, excluding what I have said—the Sinking Fund, the Road Fund, and the Post Office—represent more accurately and reasonably the actual cost of government and the increase or decrease in the real burden on the country in our accounts. Whatever arguments we may have, it is much better to get on a sound and sensible basis. But the accusations of extravagance, which have been so freely made against His Majesty's Government, force me into another comparison with the finances of our predecessors in 1924. I do not make the comparison in any mood of reproach, certainly in no mood of reproach against the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Collie Valley (Mr. Snowden). On the contrary, I choose 1924, not because it was a bad year but because it was a good year, because it was a year in which, by general admission, the National finances were well and strictly administered. Therefore, it is quite legitimate to make the comparison.

For this purpose of comparing 1928 with 1924, it is necessary not only to exclude the increases of the Road Fund and Post Office expenditures and the increases in the New Sinking Fund, but also the provision for the Savings Certificates which are, as I have shown, intimately connected with the Sinking Fund. Making these deductions, and these deductions only, the audited expenditure in 1924 becomes £675,000,000, and the estimated expenditure of 1928 is £663,000,000. If this estimate is sustained—and after the experience of last year I have no doubt it will be, for apart from the Savings Certificates we spent less than our original estimate—if this estimate is sustained, 1923 will show a reduction of £12,000,000 on 1924. A reduction of £12,000,000 effected in four years is not all that I aimed at, but nevertheless it is a substantial fact and it ought not to be under-rated. It is certainly a good deal better than the increase of £30,000,000 or £40,000,000 of expenditure for which we are usually blamed, sometimes by highly competent critics, and I am entitled to use this argument to show what the true facts of the position are.

Not only have we reduced the expenditure of the Labour Government by £12,000,000, of which £5,500,000 is a reduction of expenditure upon Imperial defence—I say this to those who are so eagerly endeavouring to cut still further that provision—but at the same time we have provided very much larger stuns for the social services. Nearly £13,000,000 more has been required to pay for widows' and old age pensions, for over £5,000,000 of which we ourselves are, no doubt, responsible. Some £4,000,000 extra has been provided for sugar beet and over £7,000,000 extra has been supplied in grants to local authorities for education, housing and health services. Against this there are, of course, to be set the very large but lesser automatic savings, resulting from the decline in war pensions and the Debt interest. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the additional £24,000,000 of increase for beneficial services has been provided not only without increasing the total expenditure but actually while reducing it by £12,000,000.

We are to-day beginning the financial discussions of the year. We have six or eight weeks of financial business before us. I shall place in the Vote Office tonight a special Paper comparing item by item the expenditure of 1924 with the expenditure of 1928, showing the reductions which have been effected on the strictest comparison of like with like. I ask that these figures should be examined. I ask that they may be subjected to a meticulous scrutiny. If they can be upset in those six or eight weeks I will admit my error, but if they cannot be upset then I submit that they should be adopted as the basis of future arguments upon the question of economy by all those who wish to avoid what Hazlitt called The ugly trick of writing things that are not true about people you do not like.