§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 3.31 p.m.
§ The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. J. Enoch Powell)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Ever since the Exchequer and Audit Department was organised on its present basis in 1866, the salary of the Comptroller and Auditor General has always been equal to that of the permanent head of any Government Department other than the Treasury. About a year ago, the salaries of the permanent heads of Departments were, with effect from 1st April last year, raised from £4,500 to £6,000 and it is, therefore, the appropriate consequence of that change that the salary of the Comptroller and Auditor General should be brought into line. His salary, however, is fixed by Letters Patent under the authority of statute and can at present be altered only by legislation.
Accordingly, this Bill is brought forward with the main purpose of making it possible to adjust his salary in that way. It makes it possible for Letters Patent to be issued prescribing a salary of £6,000 for future incumbents and also for the present occupant of the office. It may be felt, however, that where the question is an increase in the Comptroller and Auditor General's salary, in circumstances such as I have described, it is inconvenient and may, indeed, cause hardship to the incumbent that the change can be made only by legislation.
The Bill, therefore, proposes that in future it should be possible to increase the salary by Letters Patent in consequence of a Resolution of this House. It will be observed that that change applies only to an increase, for to safeguard the independent position of the Comptroller and Auditor General it is clearly right that a reduction in his salary should only be brought about, if at all, by Act of Parliament. That is the main purpose of the Bill.
The opportunity has been taken in Clause 2 to remove certain difficulties which arise under the present law in regard to deputising for the Comptroller 205 and Auditor General. At present, his deputies may act for him in all his functions under the Exchequer and Audit Departments Acts except his function of certifying and reporting accounts to both Houses of Parliament. Further, his deputies may act for him in the counter signature of warrants for the issue of Treasury bills or Exchequer bonds during his illness or absence, hut not during a vacancy of the office.
From the two limitations upon his deputies, which I have mentioned, two inconveniences can flow. In the first place, it might mean that during the incapacity of the Comptroller and Auditor General the business of the Public Accounts Committee of this House was impeded by the fact that he alone could certify and report accounts to the House. Secondly, during a vacancy of the office, however brief, it might well happen that warrants for the issue of Treasury bills would require to be counter-signed and there would be no lawful authority for that to be done by the deputies of the Comptroller and Auditor General. The Bill therefore removes those two exceptions to the power of his deputies to act for him.
It does so, however, subject, in the case of the certifying and reporting of accounts, to two very important limitations. The first, Mr. Speaker, is that you will have to certify to this House, or the Lord Chancellor to another place, that the Comptroller and Auditor General is, in fact, unable to certify and report. There will be that safeguard and there will be the second safeguard that this power cannot be used in the case of a vacancy of the office, as opposed to the inability of the incumbent to act. I hope that the House will regard these two minor improvements of the present procedure as conveniences and as properly safeguarded by the terms of the Clause.
§ 3.36 p.m.
§ Mr. Harold Wilson (Huyton)
I think that the Financial Secretary has amply and adequately commended this important little Bill to the House. As the whole House is aware, the Comptroller and Auditor General is the pivot of the whole system of Parliamentary control over expenditure and finance of which we in this country are rightly proud. Where other countries have sought to follow our procedure in this matter their success has been measured by the extent to which 206 they have been able to find someone to occupy this position and to give him the authority and independence which, ever since the days of Gladstone's reform in the 1860s we have given to the Comptroller and Auditor General in this country.
The Financial Secretary explained that the first purpose of the Bill is to put the Comptroller and Auditor General's remuneration on the same basis as that of Permanent Secretaries, which was always the understanding. I do not think that anyone will want to quarrel with that. It is, of course, a Bill which relates not to any particular individual, but to the office, but I am sure that the whole House, and especially those hon. Members who are members of the Public Accounts Committee, will feel that in the present incumbent of the office this House and, indeed, the taxpayers are unusually fortunate.
I had the pleasure of working with him in the Civil Service during the war and I think that all of us know that, in addition to his traditional independence and impartiality and fearlessness in criticism which must be among the duties of his office, the present Comptroller and Auditor General brings a very long record of public administration, particularly on the human side of administration, which is particularly valuable in the discharge of his functions.
I think, also, that the Financial Secretary was right to ask the House to agree to his proposition that should there be any future changes in salaries of Permanent Secretaries it is right that the necessary consequential action can be taken without having to go through all the trouble of introducing a Bill in the House though, clearly, since the Comptroller and Auditor General is uniquely the servant of the Government and in other respects has a tenure comparable to that of a High Court judge, it is right that it should not be done merely by administrative acts but must require a Resolution of this House as provided for in the Bill.
Turning to Clause 2, it is said that a recent experience has brought this point to a head. Perhaps this is more of a Committee point, but the Financial Secretary referred to the special authority given under Clause 2 by you, Mr. Speaker, and I take it that when he said that this ceases on a vacancy 207 arising he means first, that if there is no Comptroller and Auditor General none of his deputies can act as though there were, and, secondly, that the authority will have to be given anew after the appointment of a new Comptroller and Auditor General to any of his deputies.
§ Mr. Wilson
That is what I mean. I am referring to the latter part of Clause 2.
I am sure that no hon. Member in any part of the House will find anything to quarrel about in the Bill and I am sure that we desire to give it an unopposed Second Reading.
§ 3.41 p.m.
§ Sir Patrick Spens (Kensington, South)
I rise with a good deal of anxiety merely on the provision that a Resolution of this House alone should be sufficient to increase the salary of the Comptroller and Auditor General. The Comptroller and Auditor General is an official whose duties extend to the whole of Parliament and he, with the High Court judges, is put in a unique position. I do not believe for a moment that the House would agree that the salaries of High Court judges should be increased merely by a Resolution of this House or, if the House took such a view, I am sure that another place would very much resent the assumption by this House of that power.
Basically, the anxiety is that under no no circumstances should a High Court judge or a Comptroller and Auditor General be put in a position in which he might fear to take any action because his own personal fortunes might be involved. The protection for High Court judges and for the Comptroller and Auditor General has always been that an Act of Parliament was necessary to deal with their salaries and that their salaries were chargeable on the Consolidated Fund.
I hope that the House appreciates that I fully endorse the financial control of this House, but I think this is the first occasion on which any suggestion has been made that a Resolution of this House alone should be sufficient in this matter and that an official in this or a similar position should be dependent on the good will of this House alone. I 208 suggest that this is an innovation which ought to be very carefully considered before we put this entirely independent officer in the position of being dependent solely on a Resolution of this House. I think, with great respect, that another place might resent the assumption of that power by this House.
§ Mr. H. Wilson
The right hon. and learned Member clearly wishes to continue the existing principle whereby legislation is necessary. Is it not clear from the printing of the Bill that any provision of this kind would be regarded as a financial Measure and uniquely within the control of this House?
§ 3.43 p.m.
§ Mr. George Benson (Chesterfield)
The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington, South (Sir P. Spens) has overlooked the fact that a Resolution of the House can only increase the salary of the Comptroller and Auditor General and cannot decrease it. In fact, it makes it easier for us to reward him.
I cannot allow the Bill to go through merely with a formal speech, for the Comptroller and Auditor General is essentially the servant of this House.
§ Sir P. Spensindicated dissent.
§ Mr. Benson
Yes, that is so, because it is this House which is responsible for finance in this country. He is not the servant of the Government. He is the servant of this House and of the back bencher.
I do not think that anyone can realise how important are the functions of the Comptroller and Auditor General unless he has spent some time in the Public Accounts Committee. As a member of that Committee, I realise how helpless the Committee would be without the immense knowledge which the Comptroller and Auditor General can put at its disposal as a result of his audit, which is not merely an audit in the ordinary commercial sense but is a searching and extremely intrusive investigation into the affairs of every Department. It is a most effective discipline.
When I hear sneers at Government Departments and civil servants, I often wonder how private industry or any great industrial concern would face up to an investigation of the same searching and 209 intrusive character as that which Departments undergo from the Comptroller and Auditor General. I fancy that they would come out of it rather badly. The fact that year by year we in the Public Accounts Committee, with the help of the Comptroller and Auditor General, go through very large areas of expenditure and find, on the whole, comparatively little to criticise is, I think, one of the strongest commendations of the efficiency of our civil servants and of our Government Departments which could be found.
The Comptroller and Auditor General's salary is paid out of the Consolidated Fund. That is to protect him against the machinations of the Government. It is a protection which is shared by you, Mr. Speaker, by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, the judiciary and the Royal Family. As well as such important people, it is also shared by people of lesser importance. On reference to the Finance Accounts, I find, for instance, that a preacher at the University of Cambridge draws £8 3s. 6d. a year under that protection. A preacher at the University of Oxford, slightly inferior, I gather, receives protection for his salary of £7 19s. 6d. a year, 4s. less than the Cambridge preacher.
Joking apart, the Exchequer and Audit Department is the aegis of this House against the Government. I am glad that steps have been taken, somewhat tardily, to bring the salary of the Comptroller and Auditor General up to the level of the heads of Government Departments.
In passing, I should like to mention that the Comptroller and Auditor General is not merely the auditor of Government accounts. He is the auditor of U.N.E.S.C.O., he is the auditor to the International Meteorological Office, he is the auditor to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, and he is Chairman of the joint chairmen's organisation of U.N.O.
§ Mr. Benson
He does not. They are voluntary. I would not mind if he did, for I have never felt that it was economy to try to buy brains cheaply. I was glad to see that civil servants have received an increase in remuneration and I am glad that the Comptroller and Auditor General is now to share it.
§ 3.50 p.m.
§ Mr. John Arbuthnot (Dover)
It would be a pity if the Second Reading of the Bill were to pass without a word of tribute being added from the back benches on this side, also, to the present Comptroller and Auditor General. We feel that the passing of the Bill will put right something that is overdue. We all greatly welcome it and we hope that the present incumbent of the office will remain for many years to serve the Public Accounts Committee.
Anyone who has served on that Committee, as I have, knows what hard work the Comptroller and Auditor General puts into his office and how impartial he is in his examination. We recognise what a great servant of this House we have in the present holder of the office.
§ 3.51 p.m.
§ Mr. James H. Hoy (Leith)
As one who has been a member of the Public Accounts Committee for some years, I wish to add my tribute to the present Comptroller and Auditor General. It is not necessary for me to add much, in view of what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benson), who, it should be remembered, has been a member of the Public Accounts Committee for twenty-four years—one-quarter of the total life of that Committee—and during the past five years has been its distinguished Chairman, rendering great service to every Member of the House. My hon. Friend was well fitted to pay his tribute to the Comptroller and Auditor General.
I have been associated with the Comptroller and Auditor General for some years and I am sure that every right hon. and hon. Member would like to pay this tribute to him for the great service he renders to the Committee and to the House as a whole.
§ 3.52 p.m.
§ Mr. Kenneth Pickthorn (Carlton)
I have been only slightly a member of the Public Accounts Committee, but enough to wish to add my appreciation to the words which have been uttered by others. I would not have bothered the House had I not wanted also to ask a question, which perhaps displays more ignorance than I ought to be guilty of. I rose mainly to express my appreciation.
211 Is it quite certain, as has been said, that it is on the Resolution alone that the payment of this money will be authorised, or must it appear also in the Appropriation Bill? I am not quite sure of the answer, although, I have no doubt, I ought to be.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Oakshott.]
§ Committee Tomorrow.