§ 3.54 p.m.
§ The Chairman
It may be for the convenience of the Committee if all the Amendments proposed to Clause 1 are considered together.
§ Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)
I am not quite sure, Sir Charles, whether that would be precisely for the convenience of the Committee. If I may, I would submit that it might be convenient if the Amendment in my name, in page 1, line 8, be taken with the Amendments in the name of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury.
The Amendments in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) raise a separate issue. Those Amendments are in page 1, line 17, to leave out "seventy-five" and insert "fifty" and in page 2, line 7, to leave out "seventy-five" and insert "fifty."
§ Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)
With respect, may I say that the Amendments in my name raise a totally different point from the Amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay). In the event of the Amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend being not approved by the Committee, I hope it would be still open for me to move my Amendment and to try to persuade the Committee to consider it.
§ The Chairman
I was under the impression that all these Amendments went together. I will give further consideration to the Amendments in the name of the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) but I cannot give an undertaking whether I shall select them or not.
§ Mr. Jay
I beg to move, in page 1, line 8, to leave out subsection (2) and insert:(2) Paragraph (a) of the proviso to subsection (1) of the said section three shall be amended by the substitution in line four thereof of the word "fifty-eight" for the word "fifty-five" (which was, by the Miscellaneous Financial Provisions Act, 1950, as amended by the Civil Contingencies Fund Act, 1952, and further amended by the Expiring Laws Continuance Act, 1954, substituted for the word "fifty" in the original section).1316 In our view, this is a moderate and reasonable Amendment which I cannot believe the Government will find any substantial reason for resisting. Its purpose is to limit to three years the new ceiling of £75 million for the Civil Contingencies Fund as proposed by the Government. The Amendment would carry out what seems to us a most sensible and constructive suggestion which was put forward on Second Reading by the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington, South (Sir P. Spens). I am sorry that the right hon. and learned Member is not in his place to discuss this important matter this afternoon.
§ Captain Charles Waterhouse (Leicester, South-East)
May I say on behalf of my right hon. and learned Friend that he very much regrets that he cannot be here at present.
§ Mr. Jay
We all very much regret that. The Committee will not doubt the respectability of this Amendment, since the suggestion comes from so eminent a source. We found the speech of the right hon. and learned Member so convincing that we were entirely converted to his proposal. I was only surprised that he did not put down his name in support of this Amendment. No doubt if he were here this afternoon he would support us in the Division Lobby, should we, unhappily, be forced to press our proposals to that length.
In putting the name of a member of the Front Opposition Bench to this Amendment we have shown our customary moderation in not giving full support to any proposal to reduce the ceiling of the Civil Contingencies Fund from £75 million to £50 million. A very good case could be made for doing that, but I hesitate to argue that case at the moment, because my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East has a separate Amendment proposing that course. In spite of that good case, for the purpose of this Amendment we are giving the Government the benefit of the doubt over the £75 million total which they propose. We are merely saying that in the interests of House of Commons control over expenditure we should let the Government come back in three years, or three-and-a-half years, as suggested by the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington, South, and show that in the then circumstances and policies the figure of £75 million is justified.
1317 Surely that would be only a reasonable and prudent safeguard for Parliamentary control of expenditure. There is a strong reason for this proposal. In the Bills of the Labour Government, both in 1946 and in 1950, we made the whole arrangement temporary. By the 1950 Act, against which, incidentally, the then Conservative Opposition raised such a howl of protest, we laid down that the new total—£1261 million as it was then—was to expire on 31st December, 1952. I think the Financial Secretary will agree that that is correct.
That time limit was subsequently extended by the present Government to the end of 1955, and that is why the Bill has been introduced at the present time. If the Committee does not approve this Clause and if the House does not pass the Bill, the Civil Contingencies Fund would not stay at f126½ million, the previous total, but would fall on 31st December this year to the pre-war figure of £l½ million. I think the Financial Secretary will agree that that is correct, and that, if so, it is important for the Committee to realise what it is doing this afternoon. Without the Bill the total would fall not to £126½ million but to £l½ million at the end of the present year.
What the Government propose, although it might not be fully realised from the Financial Secretary's Second Reading speech, is not to reduce the Civil Contingencies Fund but, for the first time since the war, to make it permanent and to make it permanent at a figure which is very high for normal times. I therefore suggest to the Financial Secretary that it would be a reasonable compromise if the Committee were to accept the figure of £75 million for the time being, but to limit its operation to three years. That would be in line with what we did in 1950, although we moderately took two years instead of three.
In our view, anything less than that would not fully safeguard the essential principle of Parliamentary control. I will draw the Financial Secretary's attention to the words of the then right hon. Member for Blackburn, West (Mr. Assheton), who has now left us, in the 1950 debates. He said:Ever since the House of Commons was formed it has been the duty of Members of Parliament to keep a control over finance …" 1318 —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th July, 1950; Vol. 477. c. 1079.]He went on to say that we could not do that if the Government had huge amounts of petty cash in the till.
It is no answer for the Financial Secretary to say that the Government borrow from this fund and subsequently present a Supplementary Estimate to the House. Anybody who has had the misfortune to be the main earner in a family knows that it is one thing for a member of the family to say, "May I spend £1? May I have the money now?"—one can then argue whether it is worth while—and another thing for that member to say, "Six weeks ago I bought a new pair of wicket-keeping gloves and here is the bill for £2 10s." In the second case it is not so easy to argue that the money should not be found.
When Supplementary Estimates are introduced into the House, I do not know how the Financial Secretary thinks the House can refuse to approve them. What would happen if we did? Rather appositely, Supplementary Estimates for £36 million were introduced into the House yesterday and it is a safe bet, whatever the merits of those Estimates, that the Government will ask us to approve them and that the House, whatever it thinks, will be compelled to do so. Any such answer on those lines is, therefore, not a complete answer.
I had hoped that the Financial Secretary would have been equally convinced with us by the very persuasive argument of the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington, South and would have accepted our Amendment. I do not see why he should object to it. It gives him his £75 million and merely says that in three years' time, when, possibly, there will be a new Financial Secretary, the Government will have to make out their case to the House.
Instead of accepting the Amendment, the Financial Secretary has put down other Amendments, and perhaps I am in order in referring to them now. The Financial Secretary's alternatives are quite inadequate. He proposes to give the Treasury the power by Order to reduce the £75 million at any time the Government may wish. I must tell him that in our view that is not good enough. If the Committee accept it, then no discussion of this matter will ever arise unless the 1319 Government want it to arise and come forward and ask for a reduction. I think I have never heard a case of the Opposition or of back benchers on the Government side putting down an Order and moving it in the House. That is always an action taken by the Government.
Surely the onus of proof should rest with the Government in making a case in three years' time for this high figure of £75 million. That is what we did when we set a time limit in the 1950 Act. If the Financial Secretary's Amendments were accepted, the matter would be taken out of the hands of the House of Commons altogether. If I have not convinced the right hon. Gentleman already, I appeal to him to think over this matter again and to accept our Amendment, for which there is evidently considerable support for it not only on this side of the Committee but also on the other side of the Committee.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Stevens (Portsmouth, Langstone)
Many of us on this side of the Committee were pleased with the suggestion that we should reduce from £126½ million to £75 million the amount of money available without direct Parliamentary control, but, despite our pleasure at that reduction, like the right hon. Member Battersea, North (Mr. Jay), we regretted the remaining lack of Parliamentary control. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington, South (Sir P. Spens), on Second Reading on Friday, suggested a time limit of three, four or five years to this sum of £75 million, and he has been interested and intrigued, as I have been, to see the attempts by the right hon. Member for Battersea, North and his hon. Friends, apparently finding so little thunder on their own benches, to steal my right hon. and learned Friend's thunder by putting down the Amendment.
§ Mr. Stevens
My right hon. and learned Friend has already expressed his regret at his inability to be present this afternoon. I reinforce that regret, but I can speak with his authority, having had discussions with him. I am not sure that the right hon. Member for Battersea, North is tight when he says that to accept 1320 the Financial Secretary's Amendments will not give us Parliamentary control over these large sums unless the Treasury makes an order. I should have thought it would be possible for an hon. Member to raise the question of the desirability of the Treasury making such an Order on the Adjournment at any time, thus bringing from the Government a statement of the existing position.
§ Mr. Stevens
We should have to accept the ruling of the Chair about that, but I believe, and am informed by my right hon. and learned Friend, that that is the interpretation which he places upon the Financial Secretary's Amendments. My right hon. and learned Friend has expressed himself well satisfied with these Amendments, which go practically the whole way to meet the point which he made, and on his and my own behalf I express thanks to the Financial Secretary for having met us in this way.
§ Mr. Hale
I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Langstone (Mr. Stevens) for the observations he made about the lack of constructive comment from this side of the Committee, because, if our diffidence and our efforts to assist the Government to get business through are to be interpreted in such a way, we shall be happy to endeavour to provide him with sufficient constructive criticism and help in the debate to remove from ourselves the reproach that we are not being sufficiently active.
Time after time we have sought to raise these matters on the Adjournment, and time after time the Chair has ruled, and had no option but to rule, that any matter involving legislation cannot be introduced on the Adjournment. Any alteration of the Budget is out of order on the Adjournment and, as I understand it, any matter advocating anything which would require legislative enactment—as against action by Statutory Instrument—would be out of order on the Adjournment.
§ Mr. Stevens
The hon. Gentleman has very great experience of Parliamentary procedure and I have very little. Is it his view that a Treasury Order is the same thing as legislation?
§ Mr. Hale
No. I would certainly not seek to limit our powers on the Adjournment. The hon. Member will know that on one or two occasions we have had the whole Adjournment occupied by arguments as to whether a matter should be done by legislation or by Statutory Instrument, and I have always taken the view that Treasury Orders are Statutory Instruments within the meaning of the Statutory Instruments procedure.
In the main, the matters which we are discussing today can arise only on the discussion of the financial procedure of the House. I venture to say that one of the very serious matters which has happened in the last few years, and one which I think my party was as much responsible for as any other party, is the tendency to allow a detailed discussion on financial procedure to pass from the House. We used to be able on the discussion of Estimates to be able to raise any item on the Estimates before us, but now the usual channels select the matter for discussion under the amended orders, and the opportunity of discussing many controversial Estimates does not arise at all.
I think that is a matter to be deplored. That is why I think that we should take the opportunity today of discussing some of the matters which arise upon the consideration of the existence of this Fund, and of the provisions which we now are called upon to enact with regard to it.
I am glad to see that the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington, South (Sir P. Spens) is now with us. We have deplored his absence in view of the very able expression of opinion which he has given on previous occasions. His absence may perhaps have been due to his having been at the Test Match.
§ Mr. Hale
It was 128 for four the last time I saw it. That is not on the Civil Contingencies List, although it is an unhappy contingency.
The right hon. Gentleman opposite, in opening the discussion on Friday, said that he was going to treat us to a meal of five courses. It was not a very succulent meal or a very helpful one, and there were times when I read the speech through when I thought 1322 that he missed out the pièce de resistance. At the end, he left me wondering whether, in his observations on Clause 4 in relation to transport, he had in mind the alimentary canal instead of the Grand Junction Canal.
A reference to the paper which the right hon. Gentleman issued on this matter, before he had to explain it to us, gives a different view of this Civil Contingencies Fund. The Explanatory Note on the very last White Paper on the subject contains this:The Civil Contingencies Fund, in its present form, dates from 1862. It is used, under the control of the Treasury, primarily to meet payments for urgent services in anticipation of Parliamentary provision for those services becoming available, and to provide the funds required temporarily by any Government Department for necessary working balances or to meet other temporary cash deficiencies.The Fund is also used to meet payments for various miscellaneous items not appropriate to any specific Vote of Parliament. No payment can remain as a final charge on the Fund and Parliamentary authority for these miscellaneous payments is obtained, and the Fund recouped, by means of an annual Vote entitled 'Repayments to the Civil Contingencies Fund'…4.15 p.m.
That annual Vote is one which, so far as I can remember, we have not had an opportunity of discussing for some years. That is unfortunate, because it contains many items of very considerable interest. It touches on almost every aspect of policy from flood relief, as the right hon. Gentleman said, to the cost of the temporary provision of gowns for Her Majesty's judges, to contributions for official visits abroad, and, as I understand it, to grants —a very important matter—for the relief of distressed refugees in the Middle East, and so on.
All these are, unfortunately, comparatively small payments of the total figure. the limit of the Fund is £1½ million. The object of this Fund is to provide petty cash. The Fund was constituted as the petty cash fund of Her Majesty's Government. In the old days when I used to be responsible for the limited accounting in a comparatively small but prosperous office, we used to draw a cheque for £5, which covered items of transport expenses. If I wanted to go home on the bus and had no money, I could help myself to 3d. and travel on one. These items for transport are written out in hundreds of thousands of pounds. One item runs into 1323 £1 million. In the main, however, it is petty cash which we are discussing.
The war provided a wholly different situation. The limit to the Fund is £11 million. When we are discussing finance and the control of finance, we try to get away so far as we possibly can from party considerations. At that time we had a vastly increased expenditure, as we had, too, immediately after the war. We had transport expenses of troops transported by aircraft. We were facing a fantastic financial dilemma in the immediate post-war situation which inevitably arose. We had fought the war for four years. As the right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir Winston Churchill) reminded us, we got precious little time to consider items of £.s.d. The object was to end the war as soon as possible and to end it as successfully as possible. The Committee temporarily surrendered in those days much of its control over finance and the inspection of finance, because it was abundantly obvious that the methods of checking accounts could not be carried out.
We are back in peace-time now, I hope, and a time when we should be thinking in terms of £1½ million. The right hon. Gentleman says that the more recent practice is to have Supplementary Estimates; that for the time being there are advances from the Civil Contingencies Fund which are repaid when the appropriate Parliamentary authority has been obtained; and that this does not, in fact, impose any addition to the original cost, but is merely in a sense, a procedure whereby this is done.
I never pose as one who understands economics, and in my own view I know very little more about economics than those who do. There arises the interesting question of how far we contribute to inflation by having two separate funds as large as this. As I understand, it is largely a matter of an item in a ledger, an entry in some form of bank balance. However, the very creation of two separate funds adds to the difficulties and to the currency which can be issued and so makes an additional contribution to inflation.
§ Mr. Stevens
That would not be so. Provided the money has to be found and spent it does not matter out of which fund it comes; the effect on the economy is exactly the same.
§ Mr. Hale
Yes. The effect on the economy will be the same, I agree, I said so a sentence or two ago. However the process of paying into one fund and drawing out of another, and of transferring from the second fund to the first, does add to the gross quantity of capital and affects the amount of currency at issue. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman tells me that I am wrong. I accept his assurance, as I always accept what anyone says about economics, because it is one of those sciences about which it is impossible to make an assertion or contradiction with confidence or accuracy.
When the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington, South, who speaks with such authority, puts forward a view, we accept it. We say, "Here is a profound and statesmanlike statement made by a former member of the judiciary who speaks with feelings of modesty and restraint," and when he says something like this with all the force he can, we say, "Here we will stop and this we will accept as a reasonable view." What he said was this. He said that there was something to be said for the Government. One wants to say what good one can of the Government because one rarely has any chance of being able to say any such thing. There is this much to be said for the Government, that they have introduced a Measure which reduces the amount of the Fund. It is, therefore, fair to say that this Measure is an improvement on the existing situation. It is to that extent exempt from more serious criticism.
However, the right hon. and learned Gentleman said then, "Let us have this limit for three years." That is a rather surprising attitude to take, because the Financial Secretary himself said that they did not want £75 million last year. "Things were going on all right," he said, "and we used a total of only £37 million out of £75 million." So it would not be unreasonable to press for a smaller sum, especially as this new Government were elected after many promises were made to the electors and assurances given. The Government were elected very largely because they claimed a reputation for financial probity, in support of which they gave very few convincing instances.
Now, about one of the first Measures which they bring to Parliament, they say, "Things may get worse than they were 1325 last year. Last year we did not want £75 million or anything like it, but we should like you to give us £75 million for ever because we cannot say that certain adverse contingencies may not increase."
I do not want to press that argument too much, but it did seem a somewhat surprising and alarming suggestion for the right hon. Gentleman to make. Perhaps it was because of the right hon. Gentleman's modesty, but it hardly bears out the claims the Government make for their good housekeeping and sound economy, which were the basis of many statements issued by the noble Lord who was in charge of Conservative propaganda.
There are some astonishing items listed in the Fund. I know how difficult it is to keep these accounts and to present them within a reasonable ambit and yet in a way the Committee can understand, but the way in which figures are presented to Parliament now is really a disgrace. There are advances from the Fund recoverable by sundry Votes of Parliament. Here is an item:Class I. Silver £3,510,000.And that is the only explanation of it. Here is another:Class II. Foreign Office £2,501,000.The right hon. Gentleman may say, "That is all very well, but if you will look at the proper Votes, you will find the information you want." It is not true. Votes are not presented now in such a way. Only this morning there have come out Supplementary Civil Estimates, and token Estimates for the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. On some of the main questions there is a very vague explanation providing no possibility of computing what the final figures will be. In the main, many figures, very big figures, are given without any explanation at all, and we have reached the stage in which the Committee is continually called upon to consider figures in gross. Ministers take a sort of pride in them and in their magnitude, calling them "global sums." They are presented without any details or any explanation to afford us any opportunity for debate.
That is why I think my right hon. Friend was right to move his Amendment. Perhaps, it is not so stringent an Amendment as it ought to have been. We must, by every means, ensure that Parliament 1326 keeps control of expenditure, and considers every item so far as the rules permit. and is not led into parting bit by bit with the control of the expenditure of the Government, so that control of the Government's expenditure passes out of the hands of the Committee wholly into the hands of the Civil Service.
§ Captain Waterhouse
I would add my voice to the thanks which have been expressed to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury for the concession, notice of which he has put on the Paper. I should have liked to have seen it go a good deal further. I make no disguise of that, and I hope that this is not the last word in this Parliament on this subject, and it is to that that I want to bend a few remarks.
If this debate has had no other effect, it has induced the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Battersea. North (Mr. Jay) to read mark, learn and inwardly digest the remarks of my now noble Friend Lord Clitheroe, who used to represent Blackburn in this Committee. I commend his works to the right hon. Gentleman. He could find no better mentor in his political or financial studies.
There are two main aspects of this very serious issue. The first is the basic argument that always goes on between administrative convenience and financial control. Parliament must have close control over expenditure, even though it is inconvenient to the Treasury and inconvenient to the other Departments. The second is the amount which is at issue in this Clause.
I think that in 1913 the figure was £120,000 out of an expenditure of some £150 million, about 0.1 per cent. of the expenditure. That grew to about ½ per cent, after the First World War. It is now about 2 per cent. Of course, if we take the figures the growth is more alarming still. The figure now is about 600 times what it was in the period when the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Battersea, North started his interesting little history.
The Financial Secretary said that that did not matter very much. He said:I think there are people who imagine that the Government can, as it were, get away with payments not duly authorised by Parliament through using the Civil Contingencies Fund for that purpose. That is not the case."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st July, 1955; Vol. 543, c. 663.]1327 I submit that my right hon. Friend is wrong in those last few words. The first part of his remark is absolutely correct. The second part is certainly not true. I am going to give an example of how not only was a payment got away with Departmentally but also got away with politically.
It is especially interesting that it should be the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Battersea, North who should make this protest today, because I think he was the Financial Secretary to the Treasury at the very time to which I am about to refer. I refer to the Report of the Public Accounts Committee. The facts are these. The National Health Services had an estimated expenditure of £259 million.
The Vote on Account for England and Wales proved to be inadequate"——
§ Mr. E. Fletcher
Would the right hon. and gallant Gentleman say from what volume he is quoting, so that we may follow?
§ Captain Waterhouse
The Fourth Report from the Committee of Public Accounts, Session 1950–51. This is important, and I feel I shall not weary the Committee by going into it in some detail.
The Report says:The Vote on Account for England and Wales proved to be inadequate and £5,000,000 was advanced from the Civil Contingencies Fund to the Ministry of Health in July, 1949.I ask the Committee to note these dates with great care.
Before the end of October, 1949, it was clear that Supplementary Estimates would be needed for both Votes, but they were not presented until March, 1950.… The total provided from the Fund was over £100,000,000.I would remind the Committee that between those two dates the House which should have been informed ceased to exist. There was a General Election. A new House was elected. I also remind the Committee that during that period the late Government were resting in the happy hope that they would be going to get away with an expenditure of about £250 million on health. In fact, when they got the bill for that year they found that it was going to cost something like £350 million. Let it not lie in the mouths of hon. Members opposite——
§ Mr. Fletcher
Is the right hon. and gallant Gentleman saying that that was right or that it was wrong?
§ 4.30 p.m.
§ Captain Waterhouse
I am saying that it is a very happy event that the right hon. Member for Battersea, North, who was Financial Secretary at he time, has now so changed his view on the rectitude of public finance that he is condemning now the possibility of doing the very thing which he did on such a tremendous scale four years ago.
§ Mr. Fletcher
I take it, then, that the right hon. and gallant Gentleman will be supporting the Amendment.
§ Mr. Jay
I was not Financial Secretary at the time, and, while I speak from memory, I think that the right hon. and gallant Member for Leicester, South-East (Captain Waterhouse) will find that in the autumn of 1949 Sir Stafford Cripps made a statement to the House of Commons to the effect that large Supplementary Estimates would be necessary. Therefore, the House and the country were fully informed, which is the proper procedure in these cases. But I think that we all agree that, although they are sometimes necessary, large Supplementary Estimates are undesirable and should be limited if possible.
§ Captain Waterhouse
I think that we all agree on that point. My object in speaking was to draw an inference and to express a hope and to say that I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary for having made the concession which enables the House at least to raise this matter, because we can raise a point on an order when we cannot on legislation.
That is valuable and is appreciated, but I express a real hope that between now and the end of this Parliament—which will be a good many years ahead—things will have so developed that the Financial Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in reviewing the national needs, will be able to say with confidence that they can do with a materially smaller amount than the large sum which we are now asked to supply.
§ Mr. E. Fletcher
I apologise for the fact that unavoidably I could not be here on Friday when the Bill had a Second Reading, but since then I have had the advantage of reading the OFFICIAL REPORT. I am appalled at the situation which I find as a result of the introduction of this Bill. I do not regard 1329 the concession to which the right hon. and gallant Member for Leicester, South-East (Captain Waterhouse) referred as any concession at all.
I am in a slight procedural difficulty, because I was hoping to move and argue the Amendment which is on the Notice Paper in my name, in Clause 1, page 1, line 17, to leave out "seventy-five" and to insert "fifty," which, I think, raises an entirely separate point from the question which is raised on the Amendment now before the Committee. I believe that there is a totally different issue between us, both in relation to the amount and in relation to the time limit. But, as always, I am quite prepared to accept your Ruling, Sir Charles, and to say what I have to say on the Amendments which we are now considering, provided that I can reserve my right to move my Amendment formally when the time comes and ask the Committee to divide on it. I propose, therefore, to say what I have to say on the Amendments now.
I preface my remarks by saying that I am not inhibited by what happened between 1945 and 1950. I am really getting tired of hon. Members opposite, for example, the right hon. and gallant Member for Leicester, South-East, trying to defend what the present Government are doing by saying that between 1945 and 1950 the Labour Government did the same kind of thing. I do not regard that as any excuse at all.
§ Captain Waterhouse
I was not defending what we are doing now by reference to what was done then, but congratulating the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) upon having changed his mind.
§ Mr. Fletcher
That really will not do. If any congratulations are to be paid to my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay), I will join with any hon. Member opposite. I shall be second to none in wishing to do that, but in his speech on Second Reading my right hon. Friend adduced a series of arguments which were put forward by the Minister of Education, the Minister of Works, the Lord Privy Seal and I do not know who else, though I do not think that the Patronage Secretary was included. They, when they were in opposition, pointed out how monstrous it was to have this Civil Contingencies Fund at an inflated figure.
1330 I am not arguing in the slightest whether that was or was not justified between 1945 and 1950. I was not a Member of the Labour Government then and the circumstances were completely different. In those days there was a very inefficient Opposition, and it may well be the case that the Government of those days got away with it qua Government vis-à-vis the House of Commons.
This is a matter between the House of Commons and the present Government, and we are not considering the possible successes or failures or misdemeanours or anything else of a previous Government. We are considering what should be done now and in the future to ensure that this House of Commons has complete financial sovereignty over the acts of the Government. I am sure that you, Sir Charles, in your capacity as Chairman of Ways and Means, would agree that this is the essential prerogative of the House of Commons and we should be failing completely in our duty if we did not take every step to ensure that the Government do not, by any kind of device or chicanery, get away with some method which enables them to incur some expenditure and pay for some service without Parliamentary provision.
I regard a Civil Contingencies Fund of anything like £75 million as not merely unnecessary but quite grotesque. In the old days it was £l½ million. The Minister of Education and the Minister of Works think that £5 million would be adequate. My Amendment would reduce the figure which is proposed in the Bill to £50 million. I have suggested a reduction because that is the appropriate way for the Committee to, express its disapproval of what the Government are doing.
Let us examine the whole machinery whereby the House of Commons is able to consider the financial acts of the Government. It would be quite wrong for this Civil Contingencies Fund to be used as a device to enable the Government to incur or meet some expenditure for which there was no express Parliamentary approval. As my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) said, in origin and in essence the Fund is intended as a form of petty cash, a mere £1 million or so, to cover some quite unforeseen contingency which might arise such as a national flood disaster, and 1331 similar circumstances in which the Government cannot ask the House of Commons for an express sum.
In other financial spheres every item of expenditure has to come before the House. Only a short time ago, the Patronage Secretary stood at the Dispatch Box, at about a quarter to four, and gave notice that he would propose a Motion on Tuesday next that the House should resolve itself into Committee to consider some Supplementary Estimates for the Services —£70 for the Army, £60 for the Air Services and £80 for the Navy.
It is very proper that that should be done, because these sums should not be voted until this House has, in accordance with the recommendation of the Patronage Secretary, resolved itself into Committee of Supply in order to have the opportunity, not merely of deciding whether we should vote £70 for the Army, £60 for the Air Services or £80 for the Royal Navy, but of considering why these Supplementary Estimates are required and what is the policy on which they are based.
I ask the Committee to consider the scale of the matter. That is the old historic method by which the House controls and supervises expenditure on the Armed Forces, which cannot spend another £60, £70 or £80 without coming to this House. Per contra, what is the Financial Secretary now asking us to do? He is asking us to give him £75 million a year—[Interruption.] Oh, yes; £75 million a year, year by year and year in and year out, without limit of time. Previously, the House used to have to approve the proposal every year. We had an opportunity of considering file matter year by year, and of deciding whether it was reasonable to give the Government £75 million or any other figure for contingencies.
In wartime, it may have been necessary, and in the immediate postwar period it may have been desirable, but in this Bill, as I understand it, the Financial Secretary is now asking for it indefinitely, without the annual review provided by the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill. Indeed, it is really worse than that.
It seemed to me on reading the Second Reading debate that the Financial Secretary did not really understand what he 1332 was doing. When he was reading from his prepared brief, he made a speech which, though I do not want to flatter him, was really an intelligible contribution to the debate. As soon as the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington, South (Sir P. Spens) interrupted him to ask what I think was the only sensible question put from those benches, the Financial Secretary gave a very flippant and casual reply. I do not know whether it was correct or not, and the Financial Secretary himself did not know whether it was correct or not, because when he came to speak later he said he did not know whether it was right or wrong. Even now we do not know, and I hope that before the debate finishes we shall know and have the matter made clear. It is most important.
Is the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington, South satisfied? I am not. What did the right hon. and learned Gentleman say on Second Reading? In effect, he said that if we agree to the Government having £50 million, £75 million or any other figure for contingencies, the House would want to know whether that sum could be spent in the financial year in question, or ought the Government to introduce a Supplementary Estimate in order that the money might be repaid in the same financial year? The Financial Secretary replied:No, that is not necessarily 50.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st July, 1955; Vol. 543, c 663.]When he came to address the House later, he said he was not sure whether what he had said was right or wrong, and he very much hoped that he had not misled the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I am not particularly concerned about that. It is for the right hon. and learned Gentleman to decide whether he is satisfied or not. I am only concerned to know whether the Committee as a whole is satisfied, because I am not satisfied.
As a result of reading the Second Reading debate, I am left in complete confusion, and nothing has been said today to clear it up. It is quite obvious, whatever the Financial Secretary may say, shorn of all technicalities, it would be quite idle for any Government spokesman to try to pretend that this device of asking for a petty cash figure of £75 million a year in continuity is not a device to enable the Government to avoid 1333 proper financial control and proper Parliamentary supervision of what they are doing. I do not like it at all.
It is all very well for the Financial Secretary to sit there with a certain amount of smug complacency. I know that the Conservative Party has just returned from the polls with a certain majority, but that does not entitle it to ride roughshod over the House of Commons, and does not entitle it to ignore the cherished traditional rights of the Parliamentary Opposition. It is the duty of those who sit on these benches, more than ever before, in my belief, to look with the greatest vigilance and the greatest scrutiny at every item of legislation which this Government introduces. The more technical and the more complicated it is, the more necessary is it for my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West, myself and various others to do everything we possibly can to make sure that the public are properly informed, advised and warned against the machinations of the Government in trying to do these things and get away with them.
I want to be fair to the Government. They did try to put up some semblance of a case to justify the increase of the Civil Contingencies Fund from £1½ million to £75 million. What did they say? The only reason given by the Financial Secretary was that in these days the Government have decided, as a matter of policy, with the approval of the House, to pay to farmers certain sums of money in respect of agricultural price guarantees. They said they could not tell from one month to another what the amount of these agricultural price guarantees would be, because they could not tell what the weather would be like. That is what the Financial Secretary said, but that argument will not wash.
It is possible to forecast from month to month, and, if necessary, we could be informed from month to month what the amount of the agricultural price guarantees would be, in precisely the same way in which, if the Army, Air Force or Navy wanted another £60, £70 or £80, the Patronage Secretary would move that the House should go into Committee of Supply in order that it could be considered. The House ought to have some opportunity, if necessary month by month, of considering whether these agricultural 1334 price guarantees are being properly or wisely administered.
I do not agree with this sum of £75 million for this year, let alone in continuity. The Financial Secretary himself said that last year £37 million was all that was wanted. He did not give a single reason for suggesting that he would want more than £37 million this year, and, in fact, and this is the real wickedness of this proposal, he is not asking for a sum which he might say is reasonable or might be reasonably forecast, but for the absolute maximum ceiling which he might want in any conceivable circumstances, in order to deprive the House of Commons of the opportunity of criticising what the Government propose to do. In my opinion, this is a vicious piece of Government legislation, and I do not think that the House of Commons ought to tolerate it.
I hope that both these Amendments will be supported by my hon. Friends on these benches. I think we should do two things. During the present year, we should limit this amount to something far below £75 million, though I had quite considerable difficulty when putting down the Amendments in suggesting an alternative figure, and in deciding whether it should be £50 million, £40 million or £25 million, or even the figure of £5 million which was suggested by the Minister of Education. I put down £50 million out of consideration for the obvious difficulties in which a newcomer to the Treasury finds himself.
I understand the difficulties of the Financial Secretary, and I sympathise with him. He is not entirely master in his own house, but has to take orders from the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Government, and he may not fully understand his brief. He cannot answer questions, whether they come from his own hon. Friends or from hon. Members on these benches. But I do not wish to embarrass the right hon. Gentleman more than is necessary; I want to be kind to him.
The function of the Opposition in this Parliament is to provide constructive and critical opposition. That is our duty. We do not intend to harass the Government for the sake of harassing them, but we intend in the interest of the public generally to criticise the Government when they are doing things of this kind. 1335 We shall pull them up and see that they do not get away with it.
Speaking for myself, I am prepared to give the Financial Secretary the benefit of the doubt. I know he cannot tell what the weather is going to be next week or the week after, or whether it is going to rain for the Test Match or whether the farmers will want more money or less. I suggest the figure of £50 million for the reason that on the arguments put forward by the Financial Secretary the sum of £50 million is the maximum he could want. I can understand him putting the case for giving the Government some margin, but I cannot accept there is any possible case for giving the Government a figure far and above the total which they may conceivably want in order that during the whole of that time they will be kept free and immune front Parliamentary criticism. I would add this. We do not know very much about this Government's legislative proposals.
§ Mr. Fletcher
They do not seem to know themselves. There were a lot of pious expressions in the Gracious Speech, but it is obvious that in this Parliament there is going to be an abundance of Parliamentary time within which Members of Parliament on both sides, including the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Kensington, South and the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Leicester, South-East can help the House to revert to its traditional and ancient function of criticising the administrative actions of the Government.
I was interested in what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said. He quite rightly says there is a conflict between administratative convenience and financial control. But where is the divide? The divide ought not to be between the Government benches and the Opposition benches, but between all Members of Parliament interested in financial control and the Government in charge of administrative convenience. It is the duty of all Members of Parliament, including Conservative back benchers, to criticise the Executive and the Government of the day.
I beg leave to be allowed to pursue this subject because it is vitally important. In the last Parliament the Government had a 1336 very slender majority, and because of that it was perhaps excusable for them to neglect the ordinary, time-honoured functions of all back benchers, one of which is to be particularly critical about financial expenditure by the Government of the day. In this Parliament there will be no such excuse.
Hon. Members have spoken of inflation and the high level of Government expenditure. I could say a great deal about it. One reason Government expenditure has steadily gone up and up and become less and less controlled is that hon. Members opposite have failed in their duty to support us on these benches in being critical on every possible occasion and in seeing that Parliamentary control over Government expenditure is fully and faithfully observed.
§ Captain Waterhouse
I do not know why we are getting this lecture from the hon. Gentleman, because my hon. and right hon. Friends have constantly raised points with the Government and we have had satisfactory responses, very different from the responses we had when we raised similar problems at the time hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite were in power. The hon. Gentleman should not lecture us.
§ Mr. Fletcher
I make no apology whatever for lecturing hon. Gentlemen opposite. In fact, it is my duty to do so, and as I feel very strongly about it I intend to pursue it.
I was very conscious of this subject during the last Parliament, in which the Government had a slender majority, just as there was a small Government majority in the Parliament of 1950–51. It was partly due to this state of affairs in those successive Parliaments that there was a very considerable falling away from the primary historic duty of the House of Commons as a whole to criticise as effectively as it possibly could on every occasion the financial expenditure of Her Majesty's Government.
I think I am entitled to make that criticism, because in the 1945–50 Parliament, when the Labour Party had a considerable majorty, there were numerous occasions on which Labour back benchers did not hesitate to criticise the Government of the day about matters of financial control. This is precisely the kind of Parliamentary occasion on which I 1337 should have thought we were entitled on these benches to expect, nay to demand, support from hon. Members opposite.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Kensington, South, on Second Reading, had the courage to get up and say what he thought. I admired him for his courage, and I hope that before we have finished with this debate —I do not know how long it will go on, but I hope a number of Members from both sides of the Committee will take part because this is a matter of first-class Parliamentary importance—as a result of pressure from both sides of the Committee, the Government will give way.
Already in this Parliament we have found concessions being made on other Bills. Numerous concessions were given during the Committee stage of the Rating and Valuation (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, and also by the Law Officers of the Crown in the County Courts Bill.
§ The Deputy-Chairman (Sir Rhys Hopkin Morris)
It seems to me that the hon. Gentleman is going far from the Amendment we are discussing.
§ Mr. Fletcher
I appreciate I might be travelling too far even by way of analogy, but I was intending to use these analogies for the purpose of reinforcing the argument I am attempting to stress. I am not endeavouring to lecture on the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Leicester, South-East. It would be presumptuous of me to do so. I would not dare to attempt anything of the kind. All I am trying to do in all humility is to say that in this Parliament we are in a new atmosphere because, as a result of the verdict of the electorate, the Government has a good working majority.
I do not want to get out of order, but I want to try to secure the support of such of those hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite who are present in this Committee. This is the first occasion in this Parliament on which this issue of the duties of Members of Parliament on whatever side they sit to control the financial expenditure of Her Majesty's Government has arisen. It is for that purpose that these Amendments are put down. I said something about the merits of the precise argument when your predecessor was in the Chair, Sir Rhys, but I am now trying to argue that the merits of these 1338 Amendments are such as I would have thought would have commanded the support of hon. Members on both sides of the Committee.
§ The Deputy-Chairman
If the hon. Member discusses the merits, he will be in order, but the further extension of the argument has nothing to do with the Amendment.
§ 5.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Fletcher
I do not want to extend the argument and I do not want to traverse what I have said, Sir Rhys. I was dealing with the observations of the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Leicester, South-East, in which he pointed out the conflict between administrative convenience and financial control.
I was saying that this is not a matter which divides Government from Opposition but one which divides Members of Parliament as a whole from the Treasury. I would have hoped that for that reason the Financial Secretary would not have taken an inflexible, rigid, non-possumus attitude. Neither of these Amendments is frivolous. Each is inspired by Government supporters in the interests of preserving proper Parliamentary supervision over Government expenditure. I should have thought that was a matter which would have commanded some response and some respect even in the breast of a Financial Secretary. However, I do not want to labour the point any further. I hope I have made it sufficiently clear, and I hope that the arguments will find favour even with the Treasury Bench.
§ The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Henry Brooke)
I am certainly not taking a non-possumus attitude—"possum" is written all over the Amendments I have put down on the Order Paper. The hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) was good enough to say that he did not wish to embarrass me. Let me assure him that he did not embarrass me when he said that I had not put up the semblance of a case for increasing the Civil Contingencies Fund from £1½ milion to £75 million. That is not what I am doing. I am proposing to diminish it from £126½ million, at which it was left by the previous Government, to £75 million. I am proposing to knock off about 40 per cent.
1339 The Amendments under discussion deal with two separate points: the amount which it is right to fix as the ceiling for the Fund and the time for which we should fix that ceiling. Some of the arguments used from the other side of the Committee have been contradictory. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) said that it was reasonable to accept £75 million for the time being. Some of his hon. Friends devoted the greater part of their speeches to arguing that it was not reasonable to accept that.
§ Mr. Brooke
I will direct my remarks to the two different aspects of the Opposition Amendments. First, may I say, in passing, that the Amendment now before the Committee in the name of the right hon. Member for Battersea, North is defective in its wording and would not bite unless further Amendments were made. However, I will not rest on that as the only reason for advising the Committee not to accept it.
§ Mr. Hale
As I drafted this Amendment may I point out that it is copied precisely from the various other Acts in which the date was extended. One was 1950, another was 1952. Exactly the same method was used in both those Acts to extend the period from the existing date to the new date. Therefore, I would be grateful to know what alteration has taken place in the laws of construction of Acts of Parliament?
§ Mr. Brooke
I think the hon. Gentleman will find that those previous Acts did not include any of the repeals which stand in the Second Schedule to this Bill.
As I have said, the Amendment was borrowed from the suggestions thrown out last Friday on Second Reading by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington, South (Sir P. Spens). In replying to that debate, I said that I would readily give consideration to it. The point was not raised in the main Opposition speech delivered by the right hon. Member for Battersea, North, but he evidently picked up from our side of the House what he thought 1340 was a better idea than any he had at the time, and he has incorporated it in this Amendment.
I have given the matter careful consideration because I appreciate what is in the minds of many hon. and right hon. Gentlemen. That is, that it is doubtful whether Parliament should fix for an indefinite period any given ceiling for this Fund. What I would find difficult to accept in this Amendment, and what I had to criticise when my right hon. and learned Friend threw out the suggestion, was that there is no special reason to suppose that 1958 will be the precisely right moment to look at this again. Indeed, some of the speeches from the other side of the Committee today have indicated that this matter ought to be under continuous review and not simply brought up every three years.
So far as I can judge, therefore, there is no special reason to suppose that 1958 would be the right moment to review it, any more than 1957, 1959 or 1962. That is how I came to seek whether there was some way which would give Parliament a more continuous and more flexible power of control.
I must say, in all seriousness, that if we were to write into this Bill today a three-year limit, it might be taken to suggest that there was some reason for Parliament to think that in three years' time the position will have changed.
§ Mr. Brooke
I said on Friday that so far as could be judged now—and most of the wartime arrangements have now vanished—the figure of £75 million will remain a proper ceiling for this Fund as long as the general level of Government civil expenditure remains of its present order of magnitude, and so long as Parliament continues the present system of agricultural support.
As I have said, however, I think there was force in the argument that it would be wrong to put on to the Statute Book an Act which seemed to suggest that the £75 million was permanent and immutable. Indeed, I used in my speech the other day words which I intended as a firm pledge that the Government would 1341 keep this under review, and would be prepared to bring forward new legislation if experience showed, or some change in circumstances proved, that this figure ought to be revised. The purpose of my Amendments, which I hope the Committee will prefer to the one in the name of the right hon. Gentleman, is to ensure that this can genuinely be kept under review and that action can be taken at any moment when it seems desirable to do so.
The right hon. Gentleman criticised the course of action which I was advocating by saying that no discussion will arise unless the Government want it to do so. With respect, that is not the case. The essence of my proposal is that there shall be power by Order to reduce the ceiling below £75 million at any time. Perhaps we got into some confusion about this earlier in the debate. Surely I am right in saying that it would be out of order for any hon. Member to raise on the Adjournment the suitability of the present level of the Fund under existing legislation, because that could not be altered without legislation, but if we write into the Bill a provision that changes can be made by Order, it will surely be quite proper for any hon. Member to raise on the Adjournment the proposition that the Government should use their power to make an Order and effect a change.
Another important point which seems to have been overlooked in a number of speeches which have been made is that the body which Parliament specifically charges with a special responsibility for watching matters like these is the Public Accounts Committee. Indeed, it was in June last year that the Public Accounts Committee took evidence about the Civil Contingencies Fund. So far as I am aware, the Committee made no comment, in its Report to the House, which indicates that, at any rate up to that date, the Committee had been satisfied with the conduct of the Fund during the lifetime of the present Government.
The Public Accounts Committee can call for evidence on this matter at any time and can report to the House at any time, and if something has been going wrong, if there has been any misuse, surely the Public Accounts Committee is the mostly likely body of all to detect 1342 it. Certainly, no Government would treat lightly a report from the Public Accounts Committee either that there had been abuse of the Fund or that the Fund appeared to be of such magnitude as to give too large a margin of manoeuvre to the Government.
The right hon Member for Battersea, North is quite wrong when he says that under my proposals the whole matter would be taken out of the hands of the House. I am trying to put it right into the hands of the House; that is what I am most of all desirous of securing. I am extremely grateful for the words which were used by my hon. Friend the Member for Langstone (Mr. Stevens) and my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Leicester, South-East (Captain Waterhouse). in expressing their appreciation. I endorse all that they said about the value of real Parliamentary control.
I would say, in passing, that despite all the words that have been used from the other side this afternoon, when I took this matter through towards the end of last year in the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill, not one right hon. or hon. Member opposite rose to question the continuance of the Fund for a further year at £126½ million.
§ Mr. Brooke
The hon. Gentleman is active and conscientious in his attendance at the House, and he does not miss much no matter what time of the night or morning it is.
The one thought that really troubles me when I hear it expressed in the House is the suggestion that there may be some conflict of interest between Parliament and the Treasury in the matter of control of finance. I wholly agree that Parliament must have the closest control over finance, and it is entirely in the interests of the Treasury that that should be so. The Treasury makes mistakes from to time to time—nobody will deny that—but if expenditure by Government Departments generally is to be effectively supervised and controlled, surely the House of Commons and the Treasury must be working together in this and neither should treat the other as an enemy.
1343 5.15 p.m.
The hon. Member for Islington, East desires to move that the ceiling should be reduced from its present figure of £126½ million to £50 million. I argued the case last Friday for putting it at £75 million, and I have gone further to meet him today by suggesting that, instead of leaving it at £75 million as a permanency, we should take powers by which it can be further reduced, though not increased, by Order.
I remember that when presenting the figures to the House on Friday I pointed out that last year the peak demand on the Fund was about £37 million, but we were helped by the fact that on agricultural Votes there was an unexpected saving of £13 million through the cereals guarantee not requiring so much money as had been allowed for. If the difference of £13 million had gone the other way, as it might well have done through some unexpected turn in cereal prices, then the demand on the Fund might have been not £37 million but £37 million plus £26 million, a total of £63 million.
It is not, of course, only for the reason of agricultural price guarantees that we require the Fund. If the hon. Gentleman will again read my speech of last Friday he will notice that I drew attention to the fact that there were four or five separate purposes for which the Fund was needed. I would mention a further one which has been reported to the House and is known to the Public Accounts Committee. It has never been adversely reported on, so I take it that it commends itself to the House.
It is the use of the Fund at the end of the year to enable Departments to maintain working balances. That is particularly important where a Department has to maintain accounts in a number of different places. In former days the custom was that over the turn of the year when, ex-hypothesi, Votes would be virtually exhausted, the balances were replenished by drawing more than was really needed from Votes which were going to be underspent during the year. The effect of that is artifically to swell the amount that appears to have been spent during the year.
The new method, which has been made possible since 1946, and is now in operation, is this. If it is necessary to re- 1344 plenish working balances over the turn of the year, instead of drawing the money from underspent Votes, the money is advanced from the Fund and then repaid after the turn of the year. The value of that is that it keeps the amount issued from the Exchequer very much closer to the actual amounts needed by the Departments during the financial year than would otherwise be the case. If it were not for this practice it would not be possible to treat the Exchequer issues as a reasonably exact record of what has actually been spent during the year.
That is a new use for the Fund which did not exist in the days when it was fixed at £1½ million, and that is a further reason why it is impossible now to revert to anything comparable with the former figures. The House is also well aware of the use of the Fund—I do not think it has ever been challenged—in the case of natural disasters and the like where it is desirable to make money available immediately.
For all these reasons, I submit to the Committee that we should not now fix a ceiling lower than £75 million. I say, frankly, that the £75 million is not, as has been suggested, a swollen figure, designed to look after every possible contingency. If there was unexpected expenditure in a great many directions during the year, the call might exceed £75 million, and we, or any other Government, might have to come to the House of Commons with an extra Consolidated Fund Bill. But for the moment I believe that £75 million is the right figure.
If the Committee will reject the Amendment of the right hon. Gentleman, and accept the Amendments in my name, it will ensure both that the Government may at any time reduce the £75 million by Order, and also, that any right hon. or hon. Gentleman may, as the months and years go on, raise on the Motion for the Adjournment of the House a case for altering in some way our arrangements about these things.
§ Mr. Jay
I must say that I find the reply of the Financial Secretary quite inadequate, and I am sure that the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington, South (Sir P. Spens) and the right hon. and gallant Member for Leicester, South-East (Captain Waterhouse) would say the same, if they expressed their candid opinion.
1345 The Financial Secretary falls back on the extraordinary argument that this is a point which anyone can raise on the Adjournment. I suppose it might be argued that one could table Questions to a Minister on any matter or raise any matter on the Adjournment. Under my proposal, it would be necessary for the Government to come forward with a Bill which would have to be fully debated, to which Amendments could be made and on which a vote could be taken. Then the Government would have to make out their case. Surely, that is the reality of Parliamentary control. To say that someone might be able to raise it on the Motion for the Adjournment is the shadow of Parliamentary control.
One might attempt to raise a subject on the Motion for the Adjournment, but it does not necessarily follow that one would succeed, because it depends on the selection of subjects by Mr. Speaker, and upon a ballot, and so forth. One might not be successful, and then the matter would be entirely out of the control of the House. Even were one successful, all that would happen would be that a brief debate woud take place, without an opportunity for Amendments to be moved, and the Government spokesman would have a few minutes in which to make his case. That does not seem to us to be the reality of Parliamentary control over expenditure, and I am sorry that the Financial Secretary should think it is.
§ Sir P. Spens
I apologise to my right hon. Friend and the Committee for not having been able to get to the Chamber in time to hear the beginning of the discussion.
When I saw the Amendment in the name of the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) I was reminded of that well-worn Latin tagTimeo Danaos et dona ferentes.I thought that, on the whole, it was ill-founded and I rejoiced at the views expressed by hon. Members opposite, with all the fervency of converts, whom I welcome as having adopted the attitude which we on this side of the Committee have long taken up. I am glad that my speech last Friday has resulted in this debate. Nothing could be better than that the House of Commons should criticise very strictly any proposal relating to the Civil Contingencies Fund.
1346 The actual question before the Committee at the moment is whether or not the suggestion which I put out, or which was intended to be embodied in the Amendment of the Opposition, that there should be a three-year period and a Bill brought up, is better than the more flexible procedure proposed by my right hon. Friend. I would say, frankly, that my right hon. Friend has convinced me, both that £75 million is at present the right figure and that the more flexible procedure is that the Treasury should be a watchdog on the demands. I entirely endorse what he said about that, and of there being little or no conflict between this House and the Treasury when the Treasury acts in such a way.
I believe that the more flexible procedure provides the better solution at present, and I hope that long before the three-year period is up we shall have at least one Order, if not more, reducing the £75 million to a much lower figure.
§ Mr. Hale
I was shocked at the speech of the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington, South (Sir P. Spens). I thought that we were about to hear from the right hon. and learned Gentleman a demonstration of courage and determination in the interests of pure finance which would electrify the Committee and give confidence to the nation. But he came in late, and even expressed his apology partly in Latin.
I wish to say a word or two arising out of what has been said by the Financial Secretary. The right hon. Gentleman said that the Amendment was out of order. He was asked to say why, in view of the fact that it was framed in precisely the same terms as an Act which was produced a couple of years ago. Had the right hon. Gentleman said that the Amendment was poor, or rather dubious in its terms, I should have accepted that. It was with great reluctance that I drafted it in precisely the same terms as the Parliamentary draftsman had used in precisely the same difficulty on two or three previous occasions when the date was extended from 1946 to 1950, from 1950 to 1952, and from 1952 to 1954.
In each case the method was used of referring to the previous Act referring to the previous Act having altered the previous Act, and so on, thus creating a great nuisance for anyone who wished to find out what is the law at present. I 1347 have never understood why we have to use this method—in which we are always referring to sixteen Statutes one by one—to find out what is the law. But this method having been used for so long, I felt that I should not alter it.
I gather that the right hon. Gentleman suggests that this Amendment is out of order because he has some proposal, relating to the Second Schedule, for amending the same Clause. No one would dispute that if the Committee carried one Amendment, it would be unwise to carry the other. But at the moment we are discussing only one Amendment, which is in unexceptionable terms, and if we carry it the Committee would not seek to make a conflicting Amendment in some other part of the Bill.
We must clarify what has been said by the right hon. Gentleman. He argued that it is no use saying that the House of Commons has no power and control over these items. He said that we have the Public Accounts Committee and the Estimates Committee. When points of difficulties arise, obviously the House could exercise its duty as a watchdog. Collectively, hon. Members could watch and bark——
§ Mr. Hale
Yes, or bite. I am obliged to my right hon. Friend.
The point which we are attempting to make, and which the right hon. Gentleman consistently ignores, relates to the method of presenting accounts today. It may be that it has gone on for some time, but I have always found it difficult to follow. Recently, the procedure has been altered and we have less opportunity of discussing the matter in detail. The method is now so fantastic that it is impossible for anyone to find out what the figures mean—unless he employs a chartered accountant, a couple of clerks, and a ferret.
I have here a White Paper, published today, in which specific reference is made to charges on the Civil Contingencies Fund. Under the heading, "K.1.—National Milk Scheme" the original estimate is "nil." The revised estimate is £3,450,000, and the additional sum required is £3,450,000. Under the heading, "K.2.—Welfare Foods" the original estimate is "nil," the revised estimate is 1348 £923,000 and the additional sum required is £923,000.
Against both those items is an asterisk directing attention to a footnote, which states:A sum of £15,000 as been advanced"—that is, £15,000 against the total of £4,373,000—from the Civil Contingencies Fund in respect of these services, and a corresponding amount of this Vote is required to enable repayment to be made to that Fund.I shall be surprised if anyone in the Committee—except, of course, the right hon. Gentleman himself. who, no doubt, has these matters at his fingertips—can tell us what it means and whose fantastic idea it is.
It may be something to do with the mystery that there was once a Ministry of Food and a Ministry of Agriculture, and that now we have a Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Or it may be that the appropriate bills have not yet been passed. But we are reaching a stage when it is a matter of extraordinary difficulty for anyone to know what is happening. I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman is a man of the utmost financial probity. I do not suggest anything against his character, but it makes the whole thing more suspicious. I am sure that anyone who found himself at the Old Bailey on a financial charge, and who gave as many different explanations as have been given about this matter, would have precious little chance with a jury.
Of course, having delivered a speech in which he talked about the five-course meal which he was going to have, he shoved in an additional course right at the end. He said that the most important thing about this Fund is the fact that we can issue balances at the end of the year to try to keep the general expenditure of all Departments more in conformity with the actual amount and not force them to make premature assessments.
I can find no specific reference to that at all in the foreword which the right hon. Gentleman drafted to the Civil Contingencies Fund Accounts, 1953–54. It is quite true that he said that the Fund was also to beused to meet payments for various miscellaneous items not appropriate to any specific Vote of Parliament.1349 What does that mean? When the right hon. Gentleman said that we must have money available for flood damage schemes, one can understand that.
The fact is that we are getting to a situation in which I do not think that anyone knows what we are voting today, except that we are giving the Government £75 million a year to put in the petty cash box. That money is to provide for the various blunders, miscalculations, faulty assessments and any excesses they may make. Even then, they are not in a position of the average man. They are entitled to take credit for the mistakes they have made on the other side.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, they already have balances in their favour. He said that the Government had a profit of £13 million last year on subsidies for farmers because the weather was good. But it might have been the other way round. Who would know when they conduct their affairs like this? In my view, it is eminently unsatisfactory. The position is really one of increasing gravity.
The right hon. Gentleman made the point, and he keeps on making it—it is a point which it is being made ad nauseam—that of course, in the very complicated financial circumstances immediately following the war, substantial sums were needed for contingencies. Of course, when we had to wait to hear what the President of the United States was going to do about Lend-Lease, we had to have funds available to meet quite extraordinary and unusual difficulties. That is true, and I concede it. But when the right hon. Gentleman goes on further and says that some of us did not take up this specific attitude five years ago—I do not know whether that is true; I have not turned up my observations, but I believe that they have been consistent—I would point out that in those days there were people on the Government Front Bench whom we could trust with the nation's money. That is the difference.
Surely there is a profound psychological difference between having people in whom one has confidence handling the nation's purse and in having people whom one would not have handling the nation's purse if one could prevent it. That is why I regard it as serious. I had hoped that my right hon. Friend would press this matter to a Division, but in view of the betrayal of his principles by the right hon. 1350 and learned Member for Kensington, South and the fact that hon. Members opposite have announced their desire to act as watchdogs and to keep a most experienced eye on our public affairs, and in view of the fact that, again, we can count on no support in the matter from hon. Members opposite, it may be a waste of time to challenge the matter further.
§ Amendment negatived.
§ Amendment made: In page 1, line 16, leave out "at any time."—[Mr. H. Brooke.]
§ Amendment proposed: in page 1, line 17, leave out "seventy-five" and insert "fifty."—[Mr. E. Fletcher.]
§ Question, that "fifty" be there inserted. put and negatived.
Amendments made: in page 1, line 17, after "pounds" insert:
or such lower amount as the Treasury may by order direct.
§ In line 17, leave out "for."
In page 2, line 3, leave out from "pounds)" to end of line 7 and insert:
shall have effect as if the reference to that sum there were substituted a reference to a sum which, when added to the said permanent capital of one million, five hundred thousand pounds, equals the limit for the time being imposed by this subsection.
An order of the Treasury under this subsection may be varied by a subsequent order and any such order shall be contained in a statutory instrument which shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of the Commons House of Parliament."—[Mr. H. Brooke.]
§ Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
§ Clauses 2 and 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.