HC Deb 15 April 1929 vol 227 cc39-41

I come to the surplus of 1928. It would seem almost that I ought to apologise to both the Oppositions for the size of that realised surplus. They seem to show almost as little enthusiasm—it is only human nature—when the surplus goes up as they do when the unemployment figures go down. The right hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Snowden) has rebuked me, in his excursions in the Press, for having raided the Sinking Fund. I have not raided the Sinking Fund. I have only carried out the law which Parliament enacted last year. People cannot pretend that they do not understand legislation. If they do not, they ought at this moment to conceal the fact. I have only carried out the law which Parliament passed last year. I have simply fulfilled the statutory requirements of a fixed annual Debt charge of £355,000,000. This was specially augmented last year by £14,000,000 in consequence of the windfall from the currency note account and the total immense sum of £369,000,000 was, as prescribed by Parliament, devoted to the service and extinction of debt. At any rate, the right hon. Member opposite, my predecessor, is in no position to criticise me. I provided last year £57,500,000 for the Sinking Fund out of the fixed Debt charge as against £45,000,000 which he thought necessary when he framed his Budget, and I provided £18,000,000 for the Savings Certificates, as against £7,000,000 which was all he provided—and he had not had a General Strike. The fact is that on these two heads—the extinction of Debt and the prevention of future Debt—I have provided £75,500,000 as against the £52,000,000 which he thought, and which, at the time, I thought proper, or £23,500,000 more money was found last year than he provided. To be quite fair, I ought to make allowance for the concealed Sinking Funds which I mentioned to the House last year, and take off £5,500,000—I am glad the hon. Member for West Leicester (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence) is approving of this—and making allowance for this £5,500,000, I have in fact provided for the extinction of Debt and non-incurring of Debt, £18,000,000 more than the right hon. Gentleman.

I am not using that argument in order to plume or preen myself over the right hon. Gentleman. I am only doing it to protect myself against his future unkind-ness. I am very glad I persuaded Parliament to assent to this arrangement, and I expect anybody who occupies the position I now hold—[An HON. MEMBER: "Not for very long "]—we are to have further information about that—will be very glad that the fixed Debt charge has been established. What could be more absurd than to mix up Supply expenditure, which depends upon the decision of the Government of the day and the House of Commons, with the fluctuations in the world money market? We were all agreed last year that our accounts ought to be simplified so as to-separate the healthy growth of revenue on the Post Office and Road Fund from the ordinary Supply expenditure, and to isolate the expenditure which represents the cost of national administration, and the accounts are now presented in that form. But how much more absurd would it be that any Chancellor of the Exchequer should labour for the best part of the year to claw back £5,000,000 or £6,000,000 from the spending departments, and that the Treasury should fight week after week over £100,000, £50,000 or £10,000 of expenditure, and then when this £5,000,000 or £6,000,000 has been saved, as the result of this harassing and unpopular process, the whole fruits of this conflict should be whisked away because the Bank Rate has had to be put up or because more Savings Certificates have been encashed than was foreseen? I do not hesitate to say that if the House of Commons wishes to keep strict control over expenditure and be continually in a position to curb and check the tendencies to profusion of Governments and bureaucracies, the vital step to take is to isolate controllable expenditure from other elements in the Budget, to set it, as it were, on a pedestal or, if you like, in a pillory, where it is nakedly exposed to the public gaze.

That is what we have tried to do, and that is what we have done in fact. On the one hand, the new system of accounting thrusts away from the ordinary expenses of Government the healthy normal growth of reproductive departments, and, on the other hand, we wall off into a separate water-tight compartment all the fluctuations of finance to which we are subjected by the fact that we remain the central money market of the world, and we think it well worth our while to exert ourselves so to remain. Thus there is left for the criticism, censure or approval of the House of Commons, the direct cost of managing and guarding the State. Instead of all these quite different things being jumbled together and a muddled total presented, I have stripped onerous and controllable expenditure of every cover, so that henceforward it can be accurately and stringently examined and measured by the House of Commons. I do not think that this system will be altered in the future. It may be too much to hope that the £355,000,000 fixed charge will be maintained in force for the next 50 years, in which case the Debt would be extinguished, but it certainly ought to be maintained for longer than anyone in this present Assembly lives-upon the surface of the globe. But, however that may be, I claim to have placed future Chancellors of the Exchequer in a position where the extravagance or economy of the Governments they represent can be clearly and justly judged.