HC Deb 01 July 1935 vol 303 cc1569-76

From the date of the transfer by this Act authorised to the Exchequer from the Road Fund of the sum of four million four hundred and seventy thousand pounds or any part of that sum section eight of the Development and Road Improvement Funds Act, 1909, which, as amended by the Roads Act, 1920, authorises the Minister of Transport to make advances to highway authorities shall have effect as if the words "with the approval of the Treasury" were omitted from the said section eight and section three of the Roads Act, 1920, which authorises the Minister of Transport to apply the moneys standing to the credit of the Road Fund for the purposes of Part II of the Development and Road Improvement Funds Act, 1909, shall be read and have effect accordingly.—[Lieut.-Colonel Moore-Brabazon.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

5.17 p.m.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

I do not ask hon. Members to read this proposed new Clause, because it is entirely unintelligible. That is no reason why the Treasury should not accept it, for it is in the best traditions of Treasury Clauses. I think, however, that a word of explanation is required. I am not asking the Treasury to impose a new charge, for that obviously would be out of order. I am not proposing a diminution in revenue. I am asking in this new Clause that there shall be a re-organisation of departmental procedure. The question involved is the administration of the Road Fund, and I think that it is as well to point out to the House how the new Clause affects past legislation, which is extremely complicated because one Bill harks back to and amends another, and it is difficult to follow them. The Road Fund was set up under the 1909 Act, and there was created a certain Road Board which was controlled by commissioners. It was obvious then that the commissioners of the Road Board, not being Ministers, could not spend any of this money without Treasury consent. Section 8 of the Development and Road Improvement Funds Act says that the Road Board shall have power with the approval of the Treasury to do this and to do that. Later on came the Roads Act of 1920, which set up a new Ministry with a Minister of Transport in charge. Section 3 of that Act starts: There shall be established for the purposes of the Act, in accordance with regulations to be made by the Treasury for the purposes, a fund to be called the Road Fund, and, subject to such regulations as may be made by the Treasury with respect to accounts and investments, the Road Fund shall be subject to the control and management of the Minister. It is my contention that what was passed by Parliament in the Roads Act of 1920, in which the actual administration of the Road Fund was vested in the Minister, over-rides the original Development and Road Improvement Funds Act, 1909, which says that the board shall have power only with the approval of the Treasury. I am not one of those who would be so revolutionary as to take away for a moment from the Treasury the broad control of finance in every Department, including that of the Road Fund. What I am pleading for now is that when the Government have decided, on looking at a particular question, what money shall be administered by the Minister of Transport, the Minister shall have full power to administer it, instead of having to go to the Treasury every time he wants, for instance to cut down a hedge and to spend £5. That is what is happening now by virtue of those two Acts overlapping each other. It is a small point, but it would be of convenience in the administration of the Road Fund that this new Clause should be accepted. It is not, of course, for me to ask what Minister should reply, but I see the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport here, and, rather than have a reply from the Treasury, I would very much like to hear what he has to say.

5.23 p.m.


I beg to second the Motion.

I am not one of those who criticised the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) when he conducted the first raid on the Road Fund, because I have never thought that the amount to be spent on the roads should necessarily be associated with the produce of a particular tax. I consider that each year we ought to allot to the roads such sums as we can afford. It is obvious that there is ahead of us a great continuing expenditure for many years, and when money from the fund has been handed over to the Ministry they ought to be free to allocate it in the way that they think best from the point of view of the purposes for which it is allotted. It is absurd that the Ministry's actions should be checked, possibly by an official of the Treasury, who, however competent he may be, cannot be engaged continually in thinking out the problem of making our roads adequate and safe for the traffic. The Treasury may also check the amount to be spent on the roads because they may desire that such expenditure should not be carried out primarily with the view to improving the roads, but primarily with a view to dealing with the unemployment situation. Such sums, however, as Parliament, on the advice of the Treasury, may place at the disposal of the Ministry of Transport, should be dealt with by the Ministry in the way which seems to them to be best.

5.25 p.m.


I have very much sympathy with the new Clause, and I agree that we do not want to take away entirely the authority of the Treasury. That authority ought to be maintained where large sums are concerned, but in the smaller items which are immediately necessary greater power and latitude ought to be given to the Minister of Transport. We must not forget that a large portion of the money paid into the Road Fund is taken over by the Treasury for general revenue purposes, and we are going too far in that direction. Money put into the Road Fund ought to be handed over quickly when it is required. If the expenditure has to be subject to the closest scrutiny of the Treasury, it is generally a rather prolonged investigation. There are many parts of the country where a quick alteration of a road is required owing to its danger, and the Minister ought to have power in such cases to get a grant and get the work done immediately instead of it being held up by the Treasury. The powers of the Ministry of Transport are rather too circumscribed. They ought to be widened, and the Minister ought to have greater power to carry out without delay any work that requires to be done. The approval of the Treasury ought to apply to the expenditure of all departments, but I would not have much objection if that approval applied only to large sums. The power to spend smaller amounts, however, ought to be given to the Minister of Transport so that he can get on with any work that is immediately necessary.

5.27 p.m.


My hon. and gallant Friend, in moving his new Clause, made no attempt whatever to justify the Clause itself. In fact, he rather deprecated any attempt on the part of hon. Members to read it on the ground that it was unintelligible. I cannot help thinking that he was rather under-estimating the intelligence of hon. Members, because his new Clause is quite intelligible, and it does not mean what he said was his object in putting it on the Paper. My hon. and gallant Friend went a little further than that. He said that he did not desire to do what the Clause said. He did not desire that the necessity for Treasury approval of the expenditure of the Ministry of Transport should be abolished. He said that all Departments which spent money should submit to the examination of the Treasury. But he then went on to say that what he really objected to was the meticulous control by the Treasury of every act and deed of the Minister of Transport, so that when, for the sake of the safety of the people who use the roads, he wanted to make a slight alteration, cut down a hedge, or make a widening here or there, he was liable to be held up by some official at the Treasury. That vivid picture so much impressed my hon. Friend the Member for South Croydon (Mr. H. Williams) that he was induced to support the proposed Clause, and the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Parkinson) also thought that the proposed method would lead to swiftness and even efficiency. I am inclined to agree with them, for this is not what happens at all. My hon. and gallant Friend is entirely mistaken there, and, as I know he has some personal experience of the Ministry of Transport, I am not going to contradict him by saying that that did not happen when he was there, but now he is not there we do not find it necessary.

We confine ourselves to those larger questions of policy which he recognises as proper for the exercise of Treasury advice, examination and control. My hon. Friend the Member for South Croydon thinks all we ought to do is to decide upon the amount of money to be spent by the Minister of Transport, hand it over to him and have no further say in the matter. That is going a good deal further, as I am sure he will agree if he considers the position. Really big schemes, I think he will agree, ought to be submitted to the Treasury for their approval. Again, rates of grant on the different classes of roads must surely come under the purview of the Treasury, because, if the Minister of Transport were to depart from the general rule and give a larger grant than had been the custom in respect of any particular road, every other local authority which was making a similar road would, of course, ask for a similar increase in the rate of grant, and we might very soon get a very considerable increase in the responsibilities of the Exchequer in relieving local authorities, if the Treasury were not there to call attention at least to any implications that might be expected to follow from a decision in a particular case. But I would assure the House that, whatever may have been the case when my hon. and gallant Friend was at the Ministry of Transport, it is not the case now that every little detail of road expenditure comes before the Treasury officials. We direct our attention to the broader questions, the big questions of policy, the question of the classification of road grants, and larger schemes; and as my hon. and gallant Friend does not really wish to take away our responsibilities in that respect, I submit that there is no case for his Clause.

5.33 p.m.


Like the hon. Members who have already spoken, I desire to make it clear that we on this side do not argue that the Road Fund should necessarily be mortgaged solely for roads. At the same time I think we ought to take the view that so long as there is a case for extension of roads in the country there remains a claim upon the Road Fund—that they have a claim upon the Road Fund which comes before any claim of the Chancellor. But as to the merits of this Clause I cannot quite agree with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I should regard it as a sound general proposition that it is the business of a Ministry to determine its plan of work for the year ahead. I think he will agree that we should derive considerable advantage from a much greater application of the principle of planning in Government Departments than is even now the case. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, as I understood him, seemed to go further than I gather is implied by the Clause of the hon. and gallant Gentleman. The right hon. Gentleman not only says that, broadly, it is the business of the Treasury to grant x sum of money for a purpose of the Ministry of Transport but seems to suggest that the Treasury ought to keep an eye, and a very watchful eye, upon the commitments of the Ministry of Transport in respect of various schemes. He says, for example, there is the question of the rates of grant. Of course, if the rates of grant to various schemes vary substantially it would naturally follow that Treasury interests would be involved, by reason of the consequent problem of the degree of relief the Treasury must make in respect of local authorities.

I venture to put the opposing proposition. I should say that it is the prime duty of the Minister of Transport, or any other Minister, for that matter, to be answerable to this House for his work and his activities. Before the Ministry of Transport embarks upon work it presents to this House its Estimates and it seems to me that, within the limit of those Estimates, the Ministry ought to have very general freedom of action. I am sure that if there were a rather greater measure of freedom of action allowed to a Minister we should get benefit rather than otherwise from that procedure. Surely the respective claims of Grade A and Grade B roads are not a Treasury problem but a Ministry of Transport problem. I cannot conceive that it is primarily, or even finally, a Treasury problem. It is the business of the Minister of Transport to determine what are the claims of an area in relation to Grade A or Grade B or Grade C type of roads, and so long as the Minister operates within the ambit of the amount of money which he has succeeded in getting Parliament to agree to I do not see why there should be this constant—to use the phrase of the hon. and gallant Member opposite—this meticulous inspection by the Treasury. Of course, within the limits of that general proposition it is right that the Treasury should see that each Department is properly, but not unduly, fed financially. My hon. Friends and I on this side of the House have rejoiced in the indications of some measure of relaxation by the Treasury in relation to Post Office development. I think experience has shown that the scheme evolved by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the then Postmaster-General was a good scheme. It has enabled the Post Office to go ahead with its developments in the knowledge that it had a certain amount of money, and that within the ambit of that sum it was free to take action.


The Postmaster-General is not free to spend even his own surplus without the approval of the Treasury.


I speak subject to correction, but I am under the impression that the Postmaster-General is much freer than before the new scheme came into operation, by reason of a certain surplus being more available to him than was previously the case. That is the desirable line of development in relation to the Ministry of Transport, and all these developmental, if I may use that word, services of the State. Therefore, we tend to be in accord with the principle embodied in the Clause of the hon. and gallant Member opposite, and if he proposes to take it to a Division we shall support him, in order to assert our recognition of the principle.


In view of the amelioration in personnel at the Treasury, if not at the Ministry of Transport, since my day, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Clause.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.