HC Deb 05 February 1959 vol 599 cc544-6
1 and 5. Mr. Ellis Smith

asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer (1) what action has been taken to prevent the misuse of virement in the future; what action was taken after the figures given in the Air Services Appropriation Account as £2,684,000, was subsequently found inaccurate, the true figure being under £1,000,000; and what is the explanation of the misuse of virement and inaccuracies pointed out in paragraphs 4, 6, 9, 10, and 11 of the Second Report of the Committee of Public Accounts, 1957–58;

(2) if he will make a full statement in answer to paragraphs 80, 93 and 94, of the Third Report by the Committee of Public Accounts of Session 1957–58; and what action is to be taken to prevent the occurrence of any further grounds for similar criticism, and to guarantee that no expenditure is made which has not been authorised by Parliament.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. J. E. S. Simon)

A Treasury Minute on the Reports of the Public Accounts Committee, Session 1957–58, has been furnished to the Committee. I expect that the Committee, in accordance with usual practice, will shortly present the Minute to the House as an Appendix to one of its own Reports.

Mr. Ellis Smith

Is the Minister aware that, in the view of some of us who have studied these matters, the Treasury is not working in harmony with the Parliamentary control of expenditure? Will the Minister consult his right hon. Friend with a view to consulting the authorities of this House to see whether the Treasury are responsible for repudiating what are really the Standing Orders of this House? I wish to quote from the Second Report, which is mentioned in my Question, which says— transfers between Votes ought. in the interests of Parliamentary control, to be authorised, not by virement but by Supplementary Estimates"— and to link that with—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that is enough.

Mr. Ellis Smith

I was just going to quote from—

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member cannot make a speech on this topic at Question Time. He will have to think of other hon. Members who have Questions later on the Order Paper.

Mr. Ellis Smith

I am not making a speech. I am asking a supplementary question—only one—on two Questions. I was directing the attention of the Minister to the Treasury repudiation of the Standing Orders of this House, as set out in the Report to which I want to draw attention.

Mr, Simon

We debated some of these matters on the Monk Resolutions last summer. I think it would be better if the hon. Gentleman would wait and see the Treasury Minute which has been sent to the Public Accounts Committee.

Mr. H. Wilson

Is not the hon. and learned Gentleman aware that there is great concern about this virement business, which really is a relic of a bygone day and gives the Service Departments a degree of freedom in spending—some may say wasting—money which is not given to the Civil Departments? In view of the quite monstrous Supplementary Estimates just presented to us, many of which could have been avoided by proper Government control, is the hon. and learned Gentleman aware that there is a wide feeling on both sides of the House—he has only to ask his hon. Friend the Member for Farnham (Sir G. Nicholson) to confirm it—that it is time the whole subject was properly re-examined in the House as a whole in relation to the Reports of the Select Committee, not only on the narrower questions of virement, but of control of public expenditure generally?

Mr. Simon

The Treasury use of virement is done under an express statutory provision of this House in the Appropriation Act. I know that opinions differ on both sides of the House whether virement should still be used, should be relaxed, or used more strictly. There is quite a big division of opinion. We debated it last summer, and I think the House would wish to see the Treasury Minute before forming any further opinion.