HC Deb 26 July 1960 vol 627 cc1292-302
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. R. A. Butler)

The various suggestions made for the improvement of our procedure in relation to the control of expenditure, have been carefully considered, and I have had the opportunity of discussing the problem through the usual channels and with hon. Members on both sides of the House. I am now in a position to inform the House of certain proposals which should be put into effect next Session. They are as follows: The Select Committee on Estimates will be increased in membership from 36 to 43 Members in order that the Committee may set up an additional sub-Committee. It is hoped that it will be found practicable for one of the sub-Committees to examine and report briefly upon the spring Supplementary Estimates.

This will become an early and urgent task for the Committee each Session because, as the House is aware, spring Supplementary Estimates cannot be presented many weeks before they are required to be passed by the Committee of Supply at the end of the financial year.

It is also proposed that the Committee, in addition to its detailed examination of selected Estimates, should be asked to examine the principal variations between the Estimates before the House and those of the preceding year. Its Report would provide the House with a basis upon which to debate Government expenditure in the autumn.

New opportunities during the Session for debate on Reports from the Estimates Committee and from the Public Accounts Committee will be provided on three days on the Floor of the House. One of these days will be in Government time; two will be allotted Supply days—one which the Opposition have agreed to allocate, and the other to take the place of the day upon which you, Mr. Speaker, are moved out of the Chair on Civil Estimates.

This particular day is, in effect, a private Members' day on a subject decided by ballot. In view of the purpose to which this day will be put, the Government hope that hon. Members will accept this change and agree that this day has been successfully superseded by the additional four half-days for private Members which were allotted this Session as an experiment, and which I will now say, we propose to continue next Session.

If the House is to debate the Reports of this Committee more regularly, it will be important that they should be made as early as possible in the Session and be somewhat shorter than at present.

The Estimates Committee already performs an important task and the Government, as well as the House generally, are grateful to right hon. and hon. Members who serve on the Committee. My right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton), the Chairman, tells me that he and his Committee will do their utmost to meet the wishes of the House.

There will be published in the autumn a White Paper on the investment programmes in the public sector including, of course, the nationalised industries.

In the Government's view, this White Paper and any Reports which may be received from the Select Committee on the nationalised industries would provide suitable subjects for debate on the three days which are customarily allocated out of Government time for debates on the Reports from the various boards themselves.

One day will definitely be allocated before Christmas, when it would presumably be the wish of the House to debate the investment programmes set out in the autumn White Paper.

There has been a demand for a financial debate to take place in the autumn apart from any day set aside for that purpose in the debate on the Address. It may well be that this could take place on a Report from the Estimates Committee, such as I have already suggested, or by some other suitable procedure.

As the House is aware, a Committee under Lord Plowden's chairmanship is engaged upon a review of the methods of control of public expenditure. The Government will from time to time report to the House the conclusions that they have reached as a result of advice given by Lord Plowden's Committee. It is too early yet to say whether these are likely to bear upon the procedures for control of expenditure by this House.

The recent Select Committee on Procedure referred to the uneven distribution of allotted Supply days during the Session. The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition has suggested that it would be an advantage to the Opposition if they could be given certain days before Christmas to initiate debates. It is, therefore, proposed to make the necessary arrangements to take two or more allotted Supply days before Christmas.

There have also been suggestions made that the Opposition, who, by custom, choose subjects for debate on the allotted Supply days, should debate the broad field of a particular Estimate rather than specific subjects. The Opposition have never denied that on some occasions debates should arise on selected Estimates in Committee of Supply without specifying any particular subject and they are prepared to continue to divide their time between the various methods. But they reserve their right to arrange these matters at their discretion, having regard to the custom of the House.

I hope that the House will feel that these proposals make a distinct improvement in our procedure. Hon. Members will wish to study my statement and for that reason I suggest that it would be generally convenient to defer any debate on the proposals until we resume in the autumn, when I shall hope to provide an opportunity for a short debate.

Mr. Gaitskell

I think that the House generally will agree that it is desirable to give hon. Members an opportunity to study this rather long and somewhat complicated statement. I am glad to learn that we are to have an opportunity of debating it when we return in the autumn. Meanwhile, perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can clear up one or two points.

First, may I take it that the allocation of debates on the Reports of the Estimates Committee and the Public Accounts Committee will be agreed between the two sides of the House—for instance, whether it should be a Report from one Committee or the other—and not settled simply by the Government? Secondly, can the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether, when we return in the autumn, he expects that there will be available a Report, either from the Estimates Committee or from the Public Accounts Committee, which can be debated before Christmas, as, I think, was implied in the statement? Thirdly, may we take it from what the right hon. Gentleman has said about Lord Plowden's Committee that a report will be published as a result of its efforts?

Mr. Butler

I do not think that we can guarantee that the Plowden Committee's report necessarily will be published. What I said was that the Government would make a report upon it. I will discuss that matter with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The allocation of the debates on Reports from the Estimates Committee or from the Public Accounts Committee obviously should be done in the most catholic way and to the general satisfaction of the House. Naturally, I would wish to discuss that matter through the usual channels. I would also wish to satisfy hon. Members outside the usual channels in choosing reports which were suitable for a proper debate. I hope that we may discuss that matter.

The other point concerned the Report which may be made by the Estimates Committee on the comparison of the projected Estimates as between one year and another which should form the basis of a debate in the autumn. I have already discussed that with the Chairman of the Estimates Committee, and, while reserving his position absolutely, I would hope that such work would be done in the interval by the Estimates Committee so that in the autumn it may be possible to use that type of report as the basis for a debate.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

May I ask whether my right hon. Friend's announcement about the Select Committee on Estimates and public expenditure will involve an increased demand upon the number of Clerks required? If so, will he bear in mind that that staff is already considerably overstrained and that it would be tragic if, to strengthen the Estimates Committee and Public Accounts Committee, there were to be any falling off in the very high standard set by the Clerks of the Select Committees?

Mr. Butler

I think that a good deal will turn on the servicing of the Estimates Committee. I have informed the Clerk of the House of the interest taken in this matter by hon. Members on both sides. We are already very much indebted to the Clerks, but I think that anybody will agree that, if they are overstretched, they cannot be expected to give the service which the Estimates Committee would desire. I am sure, therefore, that it is the wish of the House as a whole that the already excellent record of the Clerks should be carried further into the future in a satisfactory way.

Mr. Turton

First, on behalf of the Estimates Committee, may I thank my right hon. Friend for his reference to the Committee? The work, not only of the staff, but of the five chairmen of subcommittees, who are drawn from both sides of the House and whose excellent work carries the Estimates Committee at present, will he very much harder. If the Committee is to look at the Supplementary Estimates, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he can give an assurance that they will be in the hands of the Select Committee before the House resumes in January? If not, it will be impossible for us to report to the House before the end of the financial year.

In answer to the question put, I think, by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, may I say that the Estimates Committee has made five Reports to the House since June. These will be published by the Stationery Office during the Summer Recess. It will be quite impossible for the Estimates Committee to review the present variation in expenditure before we resume in October. I hope that when it meets the Select Committee will agree to do that next year so that in October, 1961, the House will have material for a report.

Mr. Butler

I am obliged to my right hon. Friend. I am sure that the House will have noted his latter remark. I will note what he has in mind about the provision of the Supplementary Estimates in time.

Mr. H. Wilson

I am sure that both sides of the House regard what the Leader of the House has said as being on the right lines, because, while the House cannot go into major questions of policy when discussing finance, what we must be concerned with is getting value for money, which is the real duty both of the Select Committee of which the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Mahon (Mr. Turton) is Chairman, and the Public Accounts Committee.

Since all of us, I am sure, will welcome the decision that time should be given to debating the Reports of these Committees, and since the right hon. Gentleman mentioned possible changes in the timetable of the Estimates Committee, may I ask him whether he will say why he has not had any discussion with the Public Accounts Committee? I cannot speak for the members of that Committee and say whether they would have any views about the possibility of staggering Reports so that it would be for the greater convenience of the House, but is he aware that many of the subjects inevitably dealt with by the Public Accounts Committee are con-trilling items of expenditure—they are not just post-mortems on a past year—which would be reflected in next year's Estimates and the Estimates thereafter?

Therefore, before coming to any final conclusion, will the right hon. Gentleman give members of the Public Acounts Committee an opportunity to consider what adjustments they might want to make in their proceedings and what part they can play in a joint venture which, I am sure, will be highly successful as a result of the work of the two Committees?

Mr. Butler

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for saying that what we propose is on the right lines. What is important is that we should get not only a Select body in two places, Estimates and Public Accounts, examining the figures, but also, for the first time, a relationship with the Floor of the House. I therefore think that what we propose is an improvement.

The right hon. Gentleman's request about the Public Accounts Committee is entirely reasonable. We want to take a little more time, and perhaps have a discussion on resumption in the autumn. I will certainly take the right hon. Gentleman's advice.

Sir J. Duncan

May I ask my right hon. Friend a question on something which was not quite clear to me? I understand that the Leader of the Opposition has asked for two Supply days before Christmas. Will the Estimates be published before Christmas? If not, haw can we have Supply days?

Mr. Butler

There is apt to be confusion owing to the complexity of the statement, but the reference to advancing Supply days before Christmas is separate from the three days allocated in which we consider the Estimates and Public Accounts. This is simply an advance of the Supply procedure. In so far as the Opposition might wish one of those Supply days to be devoted to considering Estimates, that would refer to my hon. Friend's point, but, otherwise, they would be ordinary Supply days at the discretion of the Opposition, simply advanced before Christmas. The other arrangements for Christmas would follow the rest of the lines of my statement.

Mr. Gaitskell

Would I be right in assuming that the debate will take place on the Motion, "That Mr. Speaker do leave the Chair"?

Mr. Butler

Yes, it could well do so.

Mr. Grimond

First, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that if he can arrange for his right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) to present the Reports earlier to allow time for consideration it would be greatly appreciated by the House? Secondly, on the question of Supply days, when we debate these proposals in the autumn, as I hope we shall, will the right hon. Gentleman consider whether he can make a more definite statement about examination of particular expenditure on those days, because one of the complaints has been that the House tends to pass very large sums of money with no examination at all? Whatever the Estimates Committee or other Committees may do, there are some of us in the House who feel that from time to time, at any rate, on Supply days particular Estimates should be examined by the House.

Mr. Butler

In answer to the hon. Member's last question, certainly we have in mind a particular day, probably on a Motion, in the autumn. This year, it will not have particular reference to the important Report which we want to get from the Estimates Committee in another year on the varying trends of the accounts. This year, it might well be on a general Motion, which would not inhibit the House from considering the type of detail which the hon. Member has in mind. We want to do that in any case. While this year may not be as successful as the year after, I hope that by a process of trial and error we will get this right. We do not want to avoid the type of debate which the hon. Member has in mind. It will be possible to examine earlier Reports from the Committee on Estimates. This year, we must simply take the Reports which have already been published.

Mr. Nabarro

My right hon. Friend will recall that in dealing with Clause 72 of the Finance Bill, concerning Exchequer advances to nationalised industries, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer promised the Committee that a full statement would be made in the autumn about Parliamentary facilities for examining individually the capital allocations of nationalised industries and voting the sums concerned before the money is spent. Does my right hon. Friend's reference to a White Paper on public expenditure, which is a sort of compendium of all public expenditure, give those precise facilities to my hon. Friends and myself to examine the individual capital allocations of nationalised industries and not in a single comprehensive form on a sort of innocuous Motion to take note of a White Paper, which would be useless to my hon. Friends and myself?

Mr. Butler

My hon. Friend must not be too ungallant.

Mr. Nabarro

I did not mean to be ungallant.

Mr. Butler

This is a generous suggestion by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The original suggestion, which I read in the debate on the Finance Bill, was that the investment programmes of the nationalised industries should be published. To make the scope wider, my right hon. Friend has since suggested that the publication should be about investment programmes in the public sector, including the nationalised industries. That should give an opportunity to hon. and right hon. Members to examine these matters in the autumn.

My right hon. Friend also told the House that he would publish another White Paper in February or March on the estimated figures of borrowings to meet the programmes of the nationalised industries during the ensuing financial year. In these two respects, therefore, there will be a considerable advance, of which, I hope, my hon. and right hon. Friends will take full opportunity.

Mr. Woodburn

Is there any reason why public investment or public advances should be examined only in so far as they are concerned with nationalised industries? Since so much money is now being invested in the other leg of the mixed economy, is it not proper that the whole question of public money advanced for industry, whether nationalised or private, should be examined?

Mr. Butler

That is why my right hon. Friend suggested the enlargement of the White Paper which he has offered to cover investment programmes in the public sector.

Mr. H. Wilson

Will the Leader of the House be a little more specific about this? If he read the debate to which his hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) referred, which took place at about two o'clock in the morning—

Mr. Nabarro

That was not my fault. It was the right hon. Gentleman's fault.

Mr. Wilson

That was why the Leader of the House was not present; that is why I referred to it.

If the right hon. Gentleman had read the account of that debate, be would find that on that occasion we from this bench pressed that if there was to be a change of this kind pit should apply, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn) suggested, to any capital assistance in any shape or form to private industry as well as a public industry. We pressed that at the time.

Since the right hon. Gentleman now says that it is being extended from nationalised industries to all investment in the public sector, which one understands to mean local authorities and the Government sector generally, will the right hon. Gentleman tell us plainly whether 'the White Paper will cover, for each year ahead, the expenditure Which is expected to be provided in the form of financial assistance, loans or subsidies to private enterprise as well as to nationalised industry?

Mr. Butler

The intention of my right hon. Friend in making his statement, of which I took full cognisance, although it took place at two o'clock in the morning, was that this Should apply to expenditure below the line. It does not apply to grant expenditure, but to expenditure below the line. That is a distinct advance upon what my right hon. Friend said in the early hours of the morning. This is still early days before the White Paper is published. We will certainly pay attention to all the requests which are made. I am sure that it is the wish of my right hon. Friend to be as helpful as he can.

Mr. Peyton

Will the financial debate in the autumn afford the House a full opportunity of discussing both expenditure and taxation on the same day?

Mr. Butler

What we are trying to do is to discover a system under which the procedure of the House allows us to dis- cuss precisely those points which my hon. Friend has mentioned. Lord Campion's memorandum originally suggested that the Motion, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair" should be freed from the rule restricting it to matters which do not involve legislation. We are following up Lord Campion's memorandum and trying to find a form of Motion which will not inhibit my hon. Friend from putting forward his views on matters such as those to which he pays attention.

Mr. Albu

I Should like to ask a question concerning the proposal that the Select Committee should report on the differences in the Estimates between one year and the next. Will not this involve the Select Committee in a change in its terms of reference to consider policy, whereas in the past it has considered only administration?

Mr. Butler

It does not involve a complete alteration of the terms. I have, however, discussed the matter with my right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee. It is too detailed a matter to go into at Question Time. If the hon. Member wishes to discuss it with me, we might, 'before our debate in the autumn, find a more satisfactory wording to cover the situation.