§ 7.56 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. R. A. Butler)
I think it was arranged originally that it would be convenient if we had a short debate, for which I think there should now be time, on the subject of Parliamentary control of expenditure. The House will probably remember that after consultation with the usual channels and discussions with the Members on both sides, including the Chairman of the Select Committee on Estimates, I announced shortly before the Summer Recess details of the Government's proposals for meeting the wishes of the House, of which there had been some expression on both sides, for some improvement in the procedure for control of expenditure. Hon. Members raised a number of important points and I indicated that it would obviously be desirable to hold a debate on the subject after resuming in the autumn. We have now that opportunity, and I hope the discussion today will prove useful for expressing considered views and opinions on the proposals now that hon. Members have had some time to digest the rather long statement I made in July. We should be grateful for any constructive suggestions for carrying the arrangements into effect.
Let me shortly remind the House of the details of the Government's proposals. First of all, direct control over Government expenditure by the House is or should be currently exercised first by the House as a whole—it is because we saw the difficulty of that that we made some additional arrangements; secondly, through the Select Committee on Public Accounts; and, thirdly, through the Select Committee on Estimates.
It is, of course, open to the House also, through the various procedural opportunities which exist to bring Government expenditure under review at any time. In practice, however, it is by the use of the 26 allotted Supply days that any discussion on Estimates would be likely to take place. By established custom it is the Opposition who choose both the subjects for debate on those days and the form which our discussion should take. I have never indicated that 2256 I was able in any way to coerce the Opposition, only to influence them, and I hope that in exercising their undoubted constitutional rights they will remember the value of having literally financial debates, too, at least on some Supply days, and not making them all what I would describe as political debates. We have had conversations on those lines, and I must leave this matter now to the Leader of the Opposition.
The Select Committee on Public Accounts makes invaluable contributions to our procedure for control through ex post facto examination of the Government's expenditure which is not without relevance either to the present or the future. I read the very powerful article by the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the right hon. Member for Huyton (Mr. H. Wilson), and I would simply like to say in passing that we cannot forget the work of the Public Accounts Committee, although most of what I shall say is about the Estimates Committee, and I should like to pay tribute to the work done by the Public Accounts Committee and the quality of that Committee in operation.
I should like to answer one point which I read in the public Press. There is no intention that a Treasury minute giving the Government's comments on that Committee's recommendation should be superseded by Ministerial replies in the course of debates in the House. I simply drop that in because perhaps we have not paid sufficient tribute to the work of the Public Accounts Committee.
Nevertheless, it is to the Estimates Committee that the task of more detailed examination of current Estimates falls and it is this Committee which the Government have decided should be the focal point for our new proposals. These proposals amount broadly and shortly as follows: Firstly, we suggest an increase in the membership of the Estimates Committee from 36 to 43 in order primarily to enable the Estimates Committee to set up an additional Sub-Committee. We expect, in the second place, that one of the Sub-Committees of the Estimates Committee will be able to examine and report upon the Spring Supplementary Estimates before they are required to be passed in Committee of Supply. Thirdly, we look forward to a report by the Estimates Committee in the summer on the principal variations between 2257 Estimates before the House and those for the preceding financial year.
Fourthly, we look to the introduction of new opportunities for debates as follows. There should be three days, one out of the Government's time and two allotted Supply days, upon which reports from the Public Accounts Committee and the Estimates Committee would be considered. We expect that one of these days would be taken before Christmas for a financial debate on the Report from the Estimates Committee on the variations in the Estimates to which I have referred.
In addition to that time, which is three days, we also propose a day before Christmas, out of the three days customarily allotted to debates on reports of nationalised industries, for a debate on an autumn White Paper on public investments. This autumn the Government propose that there should be on this occasion a two-day debate on a White Paper on public investment. Opportunity should be taken on the second day for a more general debate to discuss matters of supply expenditure rather on the lines of that envisaged in the Select Committee Report.
I understand that my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be presenting a White Paper to Parliament on the first day of next month which will give current figures for the public investment programme for 1960–61 and 1961–62. This White Paper will contain some discussion of certain general questions concerning public investment in relation to economic policy. In addition, it will discuss investment by the nationalised industries, by Government Departments and by local authorities, much of which is dependent upon the moneys voted by Parliament.
Part of our debate, therefore, will appropriately refer to a large amount of Supply expenditure. We shall be submitting in due course a type of broad Motion upon which we think a two-day debate could be held on these matters which, as hon. Members will see, raise pretty wide financial questions. I hope therefore that hon. Members will agree that publication of this White Paper is evidence of our desire to give early information about this important sector of public expenditure in a form which should prove useful to the House 2258 and provide a background for what should be a really profitable debate.
The nature of the Motion should be broad enough to ensure that the House can use it to advantage. As at present informed—and I can only give a forecast of how this will work out—I think that the debate would take place after the debate on the Address so that if there are references to the economic situation in the debate on the Address there can be a broad debate on investments on the lines which I have outlined on which the House would have ample opportunity for discussion. The Paper would be useful to the House in taking a forward look.
Additional work under this new procedure will fall primarily upon the Estimates Committee, and in due course we shall be proposing an Amendment to the Orders of Reference of that Committee which the House can examine at a later date. I should like to pay tribute to the members of the Committee and to thank the Chairman for his co-operation in discussing these matters with me.
During our brief discussion last July, the Chairman of this Committee expressed his apprehension at the difficulties which were likely to arise on account of the timetable to which the Committee would have to work in its examination of the spring Supplementary Estimates, which hon. Members will realise from their experience will be a very tight programme indeed. I noted the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton). I subsequently consulted my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury on this question since it is he who, as the House will know, is responsible for presenting the Estimates for the Civil and Revenue Departments.
As a result, we have worked out procedure which, in our view, allows the Select Committee a not unreasonable time in which to examine selected Supplementary Estimates, including calling before it such Departmental witnesses as it might wish, and to report briefly upon them to the House shortly before the Supplementary Estimates are accustomed to be taken in Committee of Supply.
In all this, the Financial Secretary has assured me of the fullest co-operation of the Treasury in assisting the Estimates 2259 Committee in the discharge of its difficult and important task within the limits imposed by Parliamentary and Estimates timetables. I am in consultation with my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton on how the arrangements for the coming spring will probably work out on the basis of the provisional Parliamentary programme as we currently see it. I do not think it necessary to trouble the House with details but I hope that the Chairman of the Estimates Committee and his colleagues will feel able to carry out their new responsibilities in relation to the spring Supplementary Estimates on the basis of arrangements which we have proposed. I have had a further conversation with my right hon. Friend in an endeavour to explain to him how we hope to expedite matters and to help him.
An important element of our new procedure is the general debate scheduled to take place in the autumn on the Report by the Estimates Committee on the variations in the Estimates. I ought to make clear that of course there has not been time for this procedure this autumn. Therefore there must be no misunderstanding. The new arrangements are yet to take effect so there will be no such Report available to the House this autumn.
This summarises the various plans that we have in mind, but I ought to make reference to a statement which I made last July on the position of the Committee currently sitting under the Chairmanship of Lord Plowden in relation to Parliamentary control of expenditure. I am informed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the work of this Committee is continuing. It remains the Government's intention to announce to the House in due course their conclusions based on the advice contained in the Plowden Committee's Report. I am not yet, however, in a position to give any indication when this might be or to indicate what bearing the fruits of the Committee's deliberations might have on the subject now before the House.
The House will be aware that we have put forward proposals for including Parliamentary procedure in relation to control of expenditure. When we put them forward I think that they were 2260 widely welcomed. They constitute a pretty considerable step in view of the crowded character of the Parliamentary programme in these modern times, and they get away from the difficulty we all on both sides of the House notice, of the almost impossibility of relying upon the House, sitting as a Committee of the whole House, or as a House, giving detailed examination to Estimates. By this procedure we think that there should be an opportunity for a variety of useful debates on the Reports of the Estimates Committee and on the Reports of the Accounts Committee. There is also the proposal of the spring Estimates Committee and in relation to the variation between Estimates, on which, in so far as the Committee can undertake so difficult a task, the Committee will have an opportunity to put its views before the House. I hope that in taking their place among the more traditional Parliamentary procedures we shall find that in these procedures we have done something and have taken a small step today and on a previous occasion to restore to the House some of its original purpose, namely, the control of public expenditure.
§ 8.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Hugh Gaitskell (Leeds, South)
The desirability of a closer control and scrutiny by the House of Government expenditure is not in question. It is one of those things we all agree about. It is easy, however, to establish, to lay down, the desirability itself, but it is more difficult to see how to do it in practice. I make plain, first, that when I am speaking about the desirability of closer control of Government expenditure I am thinking of it in the sense of getting the best possible value for money. That must be distinguished sharply from questions of policy, which we quite properly debate here a great deal.
We on this side certainly could not accept the proposition that there is anything necessarily inherently good about a reduction in Government expenditure. Such a reduction might or might not be good, but it might mean starving urgently needed public services, in which case we should not be in favour of it. There is some danger, as many of my right hon. and hon. Friends have pointed out, of our getting into a position of private affluence and public 2261 squalor. I do not think that we want to do that—certainly, we on this side of the House do not.
We are not, however, concerned with that aspect today but solely with the question of trying to get the best possible value for money. Suggestions were made when this subject was aired some months ago that it was the business of the Opposition to arrange that the House could scrutinise Government expenditure more adequately by devoting its Supply days, or more of them, to that subject. We could not accept, as an Opposition, any dictation about how Supply days should be used, and I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House at any time suggested that he would wish to do that.
It is for the Opposition to decide what should be discussed, and they are completely at liberty, if they so desire, to take Supply formally, to put down Motions and to concentrate all their attention for the time being on one particular Government Department, or, again if they so desire, to spread the debates on Supply days among a number of different Departments and to devote each one of those to the kind of detailed scrutiny of Estimates to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. This is the prerogative of the Opposition.
I will, however, agree with the right hon. Gentleman in his statement in saying that certainly the Opposition do normally, and, I am sure, will continue normally to use some of their Supply days for reviewing particular Departments and their work as a whole. Even so, however, I think that we delude ourselves if we think that a debate of that kind—and to my knowledge there have been many such in the last fifteen years—will really achieve the kind of check on expenditure by the Government which, I believe, is in the minds of the right hon. Gentleman and Members opposite.
What almost always happens in a debate on the Vote of a particular Department is not that individual Members solemnly go through the Estimates and ask questions about every item in them. In effect, they make speeches on points which are points of policy or administration rather than financial ones. I do not see how one can possibly prevent them 2262 doing so. The only way, in my opinion, by which one can effectively scrutinise either Estimates or past expenditure, is by process of question and answer in a Committee.
That cannot be done in a debate in a Committee of the whole House. Hence, I think that the right hon. Gentleman has come to the right conclusion—as he says, all this was discussed between us before he made his statement—by putting the emphasis on improving the Estimates Committee's capacity for handling the Estimates on one side and providing more opportunity for this House to discuss the Reports of the three Committees that he mentioned than we have hitherto had. I am not saying for one moment that the House should not discuss these things, but it will discuss them far more effectively if the process of question and answer has taken place hitherto in one of the Select Committees.
I shall make a brief reference to the Plowden Committee. One very useful service can and should be performed by the House—that is, to debate the internal system of control of expenditure. That is a sensible thing for us to discuss. It can be done without question and answer. It can be looked at from the point of view of seeing whether it is efficient or not. From my own experience, I think that it is important because, although I am sure that the Select Committees can do, are doing and will do very valuable work, in the last resort the most powerful check on Government expenditure and getting value for money must come from within Whitehall.
It must be, therefore, with the system of checking expenditure that we ought to be particularly concerned. If we were satisfied about that there would be much less reason for anxiety, though it would remain desirable to have the Estimates Committee, the Public Accounts Committee and the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries.
I hope, therefore, that the Government and, in particular, the Chancellor of the Exchequer—whom I am glad to see in his place—will not merely publish the conclusions of the Plowden Committee, but will consider—as this is not covered by those conclusions—whether we could not have a Report setting out what the present system is as well as 2263 what changes the Committee may recommend, so that we could then have from such a White Paper a useful debate on the internal system of checks and controls.
I have no criticism to offer about the particular proposals in the right hon. Gentleman's statement. They were, as he said, agreed between us. I compliment the Estimates Committee on the hard work that it has put in. I believe that it has published five Reports in the course of the summer, but I have only had time, I must confess, to glance at the conclusions. There is certainly plenty of material there for the House to debate, if it so desires. The idea of a special report on variations in public expenditure from year to year is a good one, though I appreciate that we cannot begin that properly until next year.
The final agreement which we reached on the time to be provided is a reasonable one. The Opposition give up one Supply day, the Government find one day, and we take one, in effect, from Private Members' time. The right hon. Gentleman will recall that my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Mr. H. Wilson), who is Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, specifically asked that that Committee should be consulted about the way in which the time should be divided up. I imagine that the right hon. Gentleman will be conducting these consultations in the near future. It would be as well if, as soon as possible, we were given an idea of how we were to use this time.
The right hon. Gentleman also made reference to the publication of a White Paper on public investment and told us that there was to be a two-day debate quite soon on a White Paper to be published at the beginning of next month. When the right hon. Gentleman made his statement in July some of my hon. Friends asked exactly what would be included under public investment and, in particular, whether public funds made available to private industry were covered by this. The right hon. Gentleman said then, I believe, that anything that was below the line was covered. Perhaps he could now be more specific. Presumably the agricultural subsidies will not be covered by this White Paper, 2264 but, on the other hand, I imagine that loans to iron and steel firms will be. What is the position of the grants made to the cotton industry? Perhaps we could have some clarification of these points.
I confess that I am not entirely satisfied that the effort devoted to public investment alone will necessarily produce a very good debate. I may be wrong, and I am certainly open-minded, but if we are to broaden the debate, as the right hon. Gentleman seemed to suggest, into wide issues of economic policy, I am not sure that it is sensible to have the figures of public investment only. We are almost getting into a position, are we not, in which we ought to have a preliminary Economic Survey, or something of that kind. But we are content to see how this goes before passing any final judgment.
There is another question: who will provide the time for this debate? As I understand our agreement, we said that there would be the three days for the nationalised industries and, that, taken out, or possibly taken out, of those three days, there would be one day for a debate on public investment. I must make it perfectly plain that the Opposition have the right, and, I think, must continue to have the right, to choose what those three days are used for. It is for us to decide, not for the Government, whether they should be used for a particular nationalised industry or for public investment as a whole, and I should like the right hon. Gentleman's assurance that that is how he understands the matter. Perhaps he could also tell us whether the debate which is to take place in the near future will be out of Government time or not.
With him, I think that the proposals which he put forward are reasonable. Probably they will not satisfy everybody, but this is a sphere in which, I think, it would be as well to move fairly cautiously and with a bit of experimenting. I am sure that the right procedure is to strengthen the existing Committees and to find more time to debate their Reports, and I think that the division of the sacrifices between the Government, the Opposition and private Members is fair. Although, no doubt, we shall have to return to this subject again in the near 2265 future, after we have had some experience of the new arrangements. I certainly agree that this is a valuable step forward.
§ 8.23 p.m.
§ Mr. Nigel Birch (Flint, West)
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said that he was seeking to meet our wishes in the matter of control of expenditure, and I for one am grateful for what he has done. For a hungry man even crumbs are an acceptable meal. Bat I would not go as far as to say that they were entirely satisfactory, and some of us would have preferred a little meat and even some blancmange, too.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend was right to pay such a high tribute to the work of the Estimates Committee. It has done extremely well. Some years ago I had the honour to sit on that Committee. I think that the Committee's work has been good and is improving. But I am doubtful as to how far some of its new functions can be effective.
First, there is the question of examining what my right hon. Friend described as the Spring Estimates. The Guillotine normally falls about 15th March. My right hon. Friend is expecting an early Spring if he thinks that those Estimates can be reported on and debated by the House before the end of the financial year. I will tell hon. Members what I think we shall get out of this provision. In the old days, when there was no Guillotine on Supplementary Estimates, Ministers were very anxious not to incur Supplementary Estimates because, if they did, they and their friends could be kept up all night by an active Opposition, or even by their own back benchers, and they became very unpopular as a result. Now, they do not mind very much, because they cannot be kept up. What will happen under this provision is not that the Ministers will mind very much but that the poor officials will once again be hauled over the coals before the Estimates Committee for misdeeds which, technically and rightly, are the responsibility not of themselves but of their Ministers.
This is better than nothing, but there are times when it will not be effective; I suspect that it will have very little effect indeed.
The next question concerns more debates on the Reports of the Public 2266 Accounts Committee and the Estimates Committee. I think that that is probably right, but it would be a mistake if, as suggested in my right hon. Friend's original statement, this resulted in their shortening their Reports. I think that the great thing for both Select Committees to do is to examine the evidence with great care and then pronounce upon it with weight—and when they do examine matters with care and pronounce upon them with weight they receive very good publicity. I have noticed a number of recent Reports which have received excellent publicity. To over-simplify and over-shorten the Reports just for the sake of rushing it forward would be a bad thing.
The House always refuses to discuss something which bores it. It is perfectly open to the House now to discuss any Report of either the Public Accounts Committee or the Estimates Committee. Often we do debate them. But if hon. Members had before them a Report which examines only details and not policies, I strongly suspect that it would be difficult to keep a House—and we should be wasting time very often when matters more interesting to the House and intrinsically of far greater importance could be discussed.
I confess that I have some difficulty in understanding the suggestion that the Estimates Committee should make a report for the autumn calling attention to the differences between the Estimates already published for the current year and the Estimates of the year preceding. Surely that is rather otiose. When the Estimates are published in the spring, anyone interested can look at the newspapers and see exactly by how much they exceed, collectively and individually, the Estimates for the previous year. What the Estimates Committee can add to that, I do not know.
This brings me to the crux of the whole matter and to the proposal which I tentatively put to the House. What the House wants if it is to discuss expenditure seriously is not only something of what is going to happen about capital expenditure, presumably in the nationalised industries in the main, but what the prognosis is for current expenditure on existing policies. We have been told that capital expenditure by the nationalised industries this year will be held, 2267 but I ask hon. Members to be extremely careful before they accept an idea that capital expenditure in a nationalised industry has been held. What normally happens when an effort is made to retard an existing plan is that the money does not come into the current year because the investment plan is made to run more inefficiently. The men and materials are generally still there but things are not delivered quite so quickly and events do not happen quite so quickly as they might. Often this does not release any resources, but in any case it is only one aspect of our financial affairs and by no means the largest.
If the House is to express a serious view upon expenditure which might influence Ministers in making up their Estimates—which is the point in the original proposal for a split vote on account—then hon. Members must have before them not only some account of the previous expenditure but a view of what current expenditure will be, based on current policies, and if the current policies are not altered have a fairly clear idea of what they are in for. That is what I should like to see. Once again, I thank my right hon. Friend for the crumbs that he has thrown us, which we will do our best to consume.
§ 8.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Frederick Mulley (Sheffield, Park)
The House always listens to the right hon. Member for Flint, West (Mr. Birch) with great interest, and in view of the fact that his last office was at the Treasury we listened with particular interest to what he had to say tonight. I note that he concluded with the very words with which I intended to conclude, namely, that the Government's proposals are just a few crumbs. I gather that he and some of his hon. Friends—and certainly we on this side of the House—would like to have something rather better.
A great deal of the trouble rests with the Treasury. I have had the privilege of serving on the Estimates Committee for ten years, and I speak particularly from that point of view, although, no doubt, the Chairman of the Estimates Committee will convey to the House the sense of the meeting that we had before the Recess to discuss this statement.
2268 The Estimates Committee does an extremely good job. It is a job not fully recognised either in the House or outside, and I think that very few hon. Members realise the difficulties under which the work is done. We have no officials of any kind, apart from the Clerks of the House, to advise the Committee. We have no expert advice. It places—and I say this as one who has not had the responsibility and privilege of acting as chairman of a sub-committee—an enormous burden on the hon. Member who acts as the chairman of the sub-committee in an investigation.
It may well be that the Government's proposals are putting a great burden on the Committee, but it is a burden which. I think, the Committee will be willing to shoulder, provided it feels that it is going in the direction that the House wants. With the Estimates Committee, and I suspect also with the Public Accounts Committee, about which I know very much less, it is probably more a matter for Government Departments to co-operate with the Committees in making more information available at an earlier time and in a more easily digested form than it is to ask another committee to produce another report. In the nuclear age of the 'sixties, Government accounts are kept in a form which would disgrace a small grocer. They have been described by experts on the subject as being kept on a penny note-book basis. I am quite certain that if Government accounts had to be submitted to the Board of Inland Revenue for scrutiny it would not accept them as being a proper and adequate account of what went on.
We have had the evidence of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Flint, West, a former Treasury Minister, who suggested that one got round the figures a bit by having the bills come in a little bit earlier or a little bit later. It is in the Government itself that things will have to be done, and we shall have to press to see that they are done, to give more information to hon. Members on committees of this kind and through them to the House.
The day has come when Government Departments will have to pay some regard to the difference between expenditure on capital account and expenditure on revenue account. It is absolutely disgraceful that the Government should 2269 come along with this kind of proposal without attempting to get to the fundamentals of the issue, fundamentals which are completely within their control. Three-quarters of the trouble, as is the case in any Government Department when one attempts to go into a problem, rests with the Treasury. With almost any subject, including foreign affairs, we can say what we would like to do and what is Government policy, but we do not know whether we can get it past the Treasury.
That is a matter about which hon. Members of this side of the House can do very little. It is a responsibility which rests with the Government. All hon. Members, especially hon. Members opposite who have been very vocal in demanding an autumn debate on Estimates and so on, should realise exactly what they are being offered. I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman for not having been here to hear his opening speech, but I have had an account of what he has said. I understand that all the Estimates Committee can properly do is to deal with the Estimates for 1960–61, which came out in the March-April season, then reporting to the House in the autumn about significant changes. The reports, however, do not come out for six or nine months. On the long-term Estimates, we cannot have an autumn debate on any information at present available on trends of Government expenditure for the next financial year, 1961–62.
If I am wrong, I hope that the Chairman of the Estimates Committee will correct me, but, as I understand it, all we can hope is to have a look at the Supplementary Estimates in the spring. We cannot attempt to give the House any guidance before the Budget and Finance Bill about Estimates which are produced only in March of next year. To ask even that is to ask a certain number of hon. Members to devote much of their time to a study of this question. That leads to what time is to be provided for debating the reports of the Estimates Committee.
It is true that some Reports have had a great deal of publicity, but in the ten years that I have been a member of the Estimates Committee I have felt that the publicity has been due much more to the choice of subject, to the 2270 choice of Vote, than to the actual value of the report and the thoroughness with which the Committee had dealt with a Department. It is not letting any secret out of the bag to say that some Members of the Committee have understandably sought subjects which would have the possibility of being debated in the House. When one has devoted the major part of one's Parliamentary activity to a subject for nine months of the year, it is a little distressing to find that hardly any-body takes any notice of it. In a number of cases we have had great trouble about getting replies from Ministers and from Departments in reasonable time, but that is the kind of co-operation which we must get from the Government if the Government want the Committee to undertake this additional burden.
It seems that the time is to be provided one-third from the Government, one-third from the Opposition, and one-third from private Members. That is wholly wrong, and I hope that all back bench Members will insist that no private Members' time is given for this purpose. This is essentially an exercise of controlling the Executive. It is a function for which the Government should provide time, as it now has to provide time for certain other matters. The Opposition should also properly find time, but I resent the suggestion that the time of private Members should be devoted to what, in days when we are spending so much money, is essentially a function of the Government and of the Official Opposition.
§ Mr. R. A. Butler
When I spoke on the last occasion, I pointed out that in the coming Session we proposed to give the additional time to private Members which we gave in the last Session. In those circumstances, I think that the arrangement which we reached was not unfair to private Members. It is against the background of increased time for private Members that one day is to be allotted to debating expenditure.
§ Mr. Mulley
That is what is described in some quarters as "an Irishman's rise". It is given with one hand and taken back with the other. Either the right hon. Gentleman is giving more private Members' time, or he is not.
§ Mr. Butler
If the hon. Member does not intend to study or listen to what I 2271 say, I must be allowed to correct him. This will be in the ratio of at least a three-to-one advantage to private Members.
§ Mr. Mulley
As a private Member, I am like Oliver Twist. I should like all private Members' time for private Members' purposes. It is time that the oppressed on both sides had some say in this. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will not take it from me alone but will consult, as he usually does, the feeling of the House.
Echoing the conclusion of the right hon. Member for Flint, West, I say that these proposals are a few crumbs and not nearly the half-loaf which at one time some hon. Members thought that the Government were about to provide.
§ 8.41 p.m.
§ Mr. R. H. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)
I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley) said, but in this debate we are in danger of over-rating the importance of the work of the Committee of which I have the honour to be Chairman at present. The main control of expenditure must lie in the hands of the Government. In his article the right hon. Member for Huyton (Mr. H. Wilson) said exactly the same as Disraeli said ninety-eight years ago—which is a very valuable precedent—"Expenditure depends upon policy".
I always think that the relationship of the Select Committee on Estimates to Government expenditure is rather like our game of village cricket. When we put on the demon bowler not only did the captain look to see that his wicket-keeper was in good form and had his gloves on the right way round, but he also installed a long stop and then put the youngest member of the team as backstop right by the sight screen. What passed through the hands of the wicket-keeper and longstop might be stopped by the small boy in front of the sight screen.
The Select Committee on Estimates is the back stop. The demon bowler is the Government Department, often waste-fully extravagant. It is up to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Treasury to try to restrain that. In the three years during which I have been Chairman of 2272 the Select Committee I have been surprised at the number of balls which have come to the sight screen for us to try to stop.
In view of what the Leader of the Opposition said, it is a pity that, although the Select Committee on Estimates made a Report on Treasury control of expenditure three years ago, there has been no debate. I reinforce the appeal made by the right hon. Gentleman for such a debate. I know that the Government can advance a very good reason for not having put the debate on, namely, that, in view of our recommendations, the Plowden Committee was appointed. However, it is important that our internal system of control of expenditure, on which we commented adversely in many cases, should be justified by the Government in public debate, even before the Plowden Committee has reported to the Government. This is especially so because I understand that there will be no publication of any Report of the Plowden Committee. In view of that, I press the Government to try to afford an opportunity for the Report of the Select Committee to be debated.
As I see the rôle of the Select Committee, we have at the moment two functions. One is to go through the Estimate and try to discover the detailed cases of extravagance which have passed unscathed through the scrutiny of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Treasury. Secondly, I have always regarded it to be a valuable function of a Select Committee to look at the machinery of Government, to see whether, by its structure, it is giving the taxpayer full value for money and is, in fact, as efficient as possible.
It is in that aspect of our work that in the last three years we have had to criticise, first, the system of Treasury control; secondly, the system of administration of Service lands; thirdly, the whole organisation of the medical services of the Service Departments and, more recently, the division of work at Admiralty headquarters, and its location; and the question whether those two separate Departments, the Colonial Office and the Commonwealth Relations Office, provide an economical way of looking after affairs in the Commonwealth.
2273 Two of the Reports that I have mentioned; have come only in the last Session, but to me it is a very sad reflection on our work that, unlike what my right hon. Friend the Member for Flint, West (Mr. Birch) said, I think I am right in saying that, in the three years that I have been Chairman, we have had only two hours' debate on one Report—that was on the Police Report—and on a Friday; and in all these major matters on which we have reported, where Departments have frequently given replies belatedly but still in contradiction of some of our arguments, we have never had the opportunity of bringing the controversy to the Floor of this House.
I therefore welcome the attitude of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and of the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition in promising opportunities for these debates. Although great and kind tributes have been paid in this House to the work of the Select Committee, I have read in the columns and correspondence columns of such organs as The Times a number of criticisms of its work. Before I address myself to the new duties that the House wishes us to undertake, I want to put on record some of the difficulties we face.
The Times regards us as a "lumbering watchdog"—[An HON. MEMBER: "Slumbering."] No, lumbering, unless the printers of The Times forgot the first letter. It is quite true that it takes time, but what has worried me in recent years—and I should like to bring the problem to the House—is the time taken, not only to obtain replies from Government Departments, but to get the Reports we present to the House printed and published and in the hands of hon. Members. This year we have presented five Reports to the House. They were presented in the first week of July and in the last week of July. The shortest period that elapsed between the presentation of a Report to the House and to the Stationery Office and its eventual publication was eight weeks, and the longest period was twelve weeks.
When we are talking in terms of trying to achieve, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Flint, West mentioned, a quick scrutiny and early Report into the bands of Members, I feel that it is quite 2274 impracticable to suggest that it will turn out well if the Stationery Office needs so protracted a period for printing and publication. That is the problem. There is far too much delay, which means that when we appear to The Times to be a lumbering watchdog it is not our fault. We are barking in July, but the bark is not received until, in one case, I think, 14th October—a very long period.
Another criticism we have had by a distinguished correspondent in The Times, Mr. Paul Einzig, is not that we are a lumbering watchdog, but that we are barking up the wrong tree. The suggestion is that we ought merely to be looking at each item and not at these wider questions such as the efficiency of the Government machine.
I should like the House to address itself to this problem. I believe that it is important that Members of all parties in the Committee should look at the efficiency of the machine. We have the advantage of being able to compare Department with Department rather better than the Treasury can. It may well be that some of our recommendations do not please the Government or some of the Government Departments, but I think that we are serving a useful purpose in testing the machinery of government by this method. I personally believe that this is a tree which we are quite rightly barking up.
Let me come to the two additional burdens which are being put upon us. I think that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Park has rather confused them by putting them together. They are two quite separate problems. First, the problem of the examination of the Supplementary Estimates which are normally received by the Treasury at the end of the current year and have to be passed by the House of Commons before the end of the financial year. That has obviously cut down the time of our consideration, but I am happy to hear from my right hon. Friend that he thinks that he can allow us probably the six weeks that I regard as essential for the whole process of our receiving the Estimate before our Report is published and put in the hands of Members. We must have at least six weeks; as long as we can have that period we can do a good job.
It will be experimental. We shall, no doubt, have to select certain Supplementary Estimates and call evidence on 2275 those Supplementary Estimates, but I think that it is an experiment well worth trying, for it will enable the House to learn more about the Supplementary Estimates than it does under the present procedure.
The other function which the hon. Member for Sheffield, Park mentioned and which was criticised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Flint, West is the comparison of the variation of one Estimate from another. Notes on that already appear in the Financial Secretary's Memorandum presented at the time of the Estimates. All that the House is asking us to do is to look further into the Financial Secretary's Memorandum and to bring out before the House the broad picture of the change in the Estimates to enable a good debate to hang on that in the autumn.
I cannot see that we can make very valuable recommendations on that examination, but I think it is an experiment well worth trying because it can enable a valuable debate to be held on it. We are always looking not only at the current Estimates but at the Estimates of the previous year because we are working in a Parliamentary year, whereas the Estimates are bound to a financial year. Comment upon that amount of variation is in all our Reports at the present time. I hope that these experiments will be attempted, and I shall do my best, if I still remain as Chairman, to see that they are carried out to the satisfaction of the House. That was the message that I was given by the Select Committee on Estimates.
§ Mr. Mulley
Will the right hon. Gentleman give the House his view on the autumn debate, which is very vital to our consideration? As I understand him, there is nothing of substance between us, and he has put the matter, as usual, rather more clearly than I did. The examination of Supplementary Estimates is mainly the consideration of how badly the Government estimated in the previous year, and in the autumn debate all that we shall have will be a much clearer and fuller account of the variations in the Estimates published in the previous April from those of the April 12 months before that.
There is nothing in this procedure at all to help us with the information so 2276 far before the House or to give a forward look, which, I understand, was the demand of both sides of the House. There will be no forward look in the autumn as to the shape of the Estimates for the next year, or the shape of the financial problem facing the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Will the right hon. Gentleman agree that I have got it right in this rather rough way?
§ Mr. Turton
I agree that we will have no evidence of a forward look, but it is hoped that by making our comments on the variations between the two Estimates we may prompt the Government in their reply to give us something in the nature of a forward look. We cannot do it, because they would never give evidence of a forward look to the Estimates Committee, and that is one of the difficulties which we face.
I do not want to say more than this. On behalf of the members of the Select Committee from both sides of the House, I would like to thank especially the Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition for their kind commendation of our work. I think that the most important aspect of our work is that we are Members of all parties who oppose each other on the Floor of the House, but who, when we get into the Select Committee, forget our party differences and work solely on our remit to try to control expenditure.
I hope that nothing we are doing tonight will in any way harm that very valuable co-operation. I believe that the value of the Estimates Committee lies in the fact that it is a completely non-partisan body, and I realise that it is because of that fact that, until now, it has been difficult for an Opposition to select one of our Reports for debate. We might well destroy that non-partisan character. I hope that we can find ways by which that can be avoided, so that we may continue in this work to the satisfaction of hon. Members on both sides of the House.
§ 8.58 p.m.
§ Mr. F. Blackburn (Stalybridge and Hyde)
I am sure the whole House would agree that in the earlier part of his speech the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) was far too modest about the work of his Committee. I have no criticism of the 2277 work of the Estimates Committee, but I have criticism of the use which the House makes of its Reports, and I shall have something more to say about that later on.
The suggestions which have been put forward by the Leader of the House do not solve all the problems and are not the last words on the control of expenditure, but they do mark a great step forward. Naturally, I cannot quarrel with the main recommendations which the Leader of the House put forward about referring these matters to the Estimates Committee, because what he has suggested follows very closely an Amendment which I moved in the Select Committee on Procedure, an Amendment which unfortunately was defeated, after great tribute had been paid to the work of the Estimates Committee. I hope that those people who voted against it on that occasion, now that the Leader of the House has taken it in hand, will support him tonight, and I sincerely hope that the Leader of the House will have more success than I had.
What I am not clear about is whether the Leader of the House thinks that this enlarged Committee, the additional Committee, will do all the additional work put upon the Estimates Committee. I am not quite certain, from what the Chairman of the Committee has said, whether he envisages that to be the position or not. For my part, I do not think that an additional small sub-committee can do all that would be expected of the additional work of the Estimates Committee. I think that for a time the other sub-committees will have to do, perhaps, what they are doing and take it over.
Reference has been made, particularly by the Chairman of the Estimates Committee, to the Reports of the Committee not being debated. In the Select Committee on Procedure, we were very anxious that additional time should be found so that all the Reports of the Estimates Committee and of the Public Accounts Committee could be debated. I do not want to take away Government time. I do not want to take away Opposition time. We were faced with the problem that the only way in which we could find additional time for the Reports to be debated, time not dependent 2278 upon the whim of the Government or the whim of the Opposition—I take it that that is what the Chairman of the Committee would like—would be by sending more Bills to Committee upstairs.
That suggestion met with some approval, but there seemed to be a certain amount of opposition to sending the Finance Bill, either in part or in whole, upstairs. Those who were present during much of the debate upon the last Finance Bill will, I think, feel that it was the best argument for sending part of the Bill upstairs. If part of the Finance Bill could be sent upstairs, much additional time could be found for these other debates which, in my judgment, are very important.
The Chairman of the Estimates Committee is quite right to say that the Government may not want to debate some of the Reports. Other reports the Opposition may not want to debate. Again, as the right hon. Gentleman says, if either side selects them, this might destroy the non-partisan approach which one finds in the Estimates Committee. Therefore, if additional time could be found so that they would be taken automatically, that would, I am sure, be to the advantage of the House and there would be a greater opportunity to scrutinise the expenditure of public money.
The present position is not very satisfactory. I have served for a number of years on the Estimates Committee, and I know that, after we have submitted our Reports, we receive replies from Government Departments. But, of course, no Government Department is very happy to admit that it is in the wrong and that it should improve. On at least one occasion, we were so dissatisfied with the reply from the Ministry that we issued a second report criticising its reply. But nothing of that came to the House and nothing further was done about it. As the Chairman of the Committee said, during the past few years several very valuable Reports have been published by the Estimates Committee. A Report will receive a short reference in the daily Press, which is the last that is heard of it. It is quite wrong that all this valuable work should go for nothing. The House owes it to the Estimates 2279 Committee and to the Public Accounts Committee to take more cognisance of the excellent work that is done.
I come now to the provision of two Supply days before Christmas, which, I take it, is still part of the Government's plan. This will be a great advantage to the House. It will give an opportunity at that time of the year to discuss finance without concentrating it all in a very short time. However, on the whole subject of the Supply days and of the debates which the Leader of the House has in mind, I am not quite clear about how many Reports from the Select Committee he intends to bring before the House and how he will select them.
It is true that we are to have the Report of the scrutiny of the Supplementary Estimates. In the autumn, we are to have the Report showing the difference between the current year's Estimates and the previous year's Estimates, with the forward look which the Chairman of the Committee seemed able to deduce from that. But what other Reports are to be debated? Unless we follow the suggestion of the Select Committee on Procedure and send the Committee stage of practically every Bill upstairs, how are we to find the necessary time?
I will not keep the House any longer, because a number of other hon. Members wish to speak. I welcome the fact that the Leader of the House has taken this initiative, and I welcome it all the more since he has taken the suggestion which I put forward in the Committee on Procedure.
§ 9.7 p.m.
§ Mr. John Eden (Bournemouth, West)
Although the debate has taken place somewhat quietly and at a later hour than I would have wished, it is indicative of the change of attitude on the part of the House as a whole that it has taken place at all. We are discussing ways of trying to strengthen the procedure by which this House controls Supply, and, so far as I have been able to read and study, all the tradition that we have acquired and the procedure which we have built up to this date has been based largely on this one question of how we control Supply.
Disraeli has already been referred to once in this short debate. He said in Manchester in 1872, slightly later than 2280 the time quoted by the right hon. Member for Huyton (Mr. H. Wilson), thatThe main power of the House of Commons depends upon its command of the public purse and its control of public expenditure.He linked the two things together, and I think that, in viewing the proposals of my right hon. Friend, we should still keep this before us as the main purpose, as our principal aim, and that we should judge such alterations in our procedure as are now proposed by how successfully they maintain those twin objectives. I can best summarise these by saying that, first, it is our aim, by exercising control over policy, to keep commitments to the absolute minimum necessary for the security of the people, and secondly, to ensure that by effective scrutiny of the administration and the spending of money we get the best possible value for it.
The Times, in a leader commenting on Sir Edmund Compton's speech to the Municipal Treasurers, summed it up in two ways by saying that public money must be correctly spent and public money must be efficiently spent. However, I do not think the Treasury can do this alone. It cannot ensure that these two desirable objectives are achieved solely as a result of its own efforts, and obviously nor do other hon. and right hon. Members, otherwise we would not have these proposals for strengthening the procedure by which we hope to assist it in achieving this.
I welcome the proposals of my right hon. Friend. I am not so certain that the strictures of my right hon. Friend the Member for Flint, West (Mr. Birch) are accurate. I do not think that they will be shown to be just crumbs. To a great extent, it depends on the use that this House makes of them. They can be regarded as crumbs if we ignore the opportunities presented to us through the measures my right hon. Friend has suggested. After all, we have had for a long time the Committee of Supply and an opportunity to make the best possible use of that Committee. Initially, one could have regarded the proposals for establishing the Committee of Supply as crumbs. They will certainly become crumbs by the way in which they have been misused. However, generally speaking, I think that the proposals of my right hon. Friend are good.
2281 I particularly like the fact that we are to try to get from the Select Committee on Estimates a short report on the Supplementary Estimates in the spring. I hope that this will not in any way detract from the responsibilities of the Committee of Supply itself and will not mean that because the Select Committee comments upon details of the Supplementary Estimates, hon. Members of this House will be debarred from themselves commenting on those same Supplementary Estimates when they come before the Committee of the House.
I listened with great interest to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) had to say in his capacity as Chairman of the Select Committee on Estimates. I well understand the views which have been echoed by hon. Members on both sides of the House who serve on that Committee that they feel frustrated, aggrieved, hurt and angry that all their work and the valuable toil which they have put in to producing these Reports should so consistently have been ignored by the House as a whole. I hope, however, that my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton, as Chairman of the Committee, and his Committee as a whole will not think of themselves as in any way taking the part of a Royal Commission and trying to produce a great, ponderous tome thoroughly exploring a subject which they have decided is worthy of detailed scrutiny and coming forward with recommendations for increasing expenditure rather than for reducing it, but will concentrate on what I certainly regard as the principal rôle of the Select Committee on Estimates, namely, to recommend economies to this House. If we can keep to that point, it will certainly be advantageous.
I am grateful at least, as I am sure the Members of the Select Committee on Estimates and every Member of the House must be, that these Reports, or certain selected Reports of the Committee, are to be debated by the House and that an opportunity is to be given for this to be done and that this applies equally to the Reports of the Public Accounts Committee. The Reports of the Public Accounts Committee will be particularly valuable if they continue to concentrate on the recurring items of expenditure which come before us—the 2282 sort of things which are likely all too easily to be ignored by us here because we have voted them in a blaze of publicity when the policy was initiated and subsequently they become forgotten When, over the years, they develop and increase and inevitably cost more and more. It is this of which we in this House should be reminded.
It is hard enough to remind oneself about these things, and it would be helpful if the Reports of the Public Accounts Committee, or of any of the other Committees, were to concentrate on What the right hon. Member for Huyton referred to as a built-in escalator of expenditure, which is an alarming side of the overall picture of Government expenditure with which we are confronted.
I suggest at this point that Ministers, when introducing new legislation and when making Second Reading speeches on Bills, should give some indication of where expenditure is likely to take place as a result of the passing of that piece of legislation, as to how much is likely to be involved and, if possible, to go further than that and relate it to some extent to the overall picture with which the Government are confronted. If each Departmental Minister could be made himself to tell the House how much a piece of legislation which he is advocating and introducing to the House will affect the overall expenditure position of the Government and relate that, if possible, to the taxation picture as a whole, it would be a salutary exercise for some of the principal spending Departments.
At any rate, I regard this as one of the principal duties of Departmental Ministers when introducing legislation, that before they present details of legislation in the form of a Parliamentary Bill, at any rate before they get excited about it, however valid and suitable and worthy and desirable it may be, they should themselves ascertain as far as possible what it will cost the country not in that year only but also in the years to come—the forward look which hon. Members have been talking about.
Whilst I am generally in favour of what my right hon. Friend has proposed, and I know he has done this after a great deal of thought and study and after giving consideration to the views not 2283 only of the usual channels but also of some of us he might regard as unusual channels and has heard all sorts of opinions on this subject before making his proposals to the House, I do wonder why he has found it necessary to give two Supply days to the Opposition before Christmas. I noticed that an hon. Friend of mine, when asking him a Question on this subject when he made his original statement, asked him how it was possible that the Opposition could decide what to discuss on Supply days when no Estimates were before the House for them to select. I do not see, either, how it is possible.
Are we not in danger of getting away from the whole purpose of Supply days in the first place? Why in any case should so much be left to the Opposition? The Opposition have shown by their use of Supply days in the recent past, in the last few years, that they are more concerned to have general debates on general topics of policy, that they are more concerned than not that the debates should be on recommendations, on which at the end the House or Committee votes on clear party lines, and which, if they were carried out, would result in an increase in expenditure. Why should the Opposition always be considered in these matters?
And who, in any case, is the opposition? With due respect to hon. Members opposite, wherever they may happen to sit, who is the opposition? Where is it defined, in Erskine May or anywhere else, that in this case the opposition necessarily sits, on the benches opposite? The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, making his speech earlier tonight in reply to the speech of my right hon. Friend, was extraordinarily arrogant and dictatorial, I thought, in the manner in which he took it to himself to choose and to decide on behalf of the House what should be discussed on these occasions. Why is it that this is just due to the Opposition?
It has been, I believe, the custom and practice for the last sixty years or so that the Opposition have the right, not to choose what debates shall be discussed, but the right to choose what Votes shall be scrutinised. There is no scrutiny of Votes which takes place when the Opposition choose a general debate for discussion. It is that point I wanted 2284 to make. After all, my relations with my right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary, I am glad to say, are at the moment extraordinarily cordial and friendly, and I hope that they will long so remain, but is it not just possible, is it not conceivable, that my right hon. Friend would one day regard me as his opposition? Could it not happen? Why should I, in any case, be denied the right, which I regard myself as having as a private Member of this House, myself to call for a particular Vote to be scrutinised?
In spite of the assurances which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has given on behalf of the Opposition that they are going to adjust their attitude, that they will play ball, I am not so convinced. I am not so convinced that we shall get a sudden change of approach from the Opposition. They may change from supporting one person to supporting another, but whether they will change as suddenly from advocating items which will result in increased expenditure to advocating something which will result in a reduction in expenditure, I have my doubts.
§ Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)
The hon. Member has not looked enough at his Erskine May. On page 307, he will find a reference to… the process (which has been in operation for a long period) whereby the consideration of votes in Committee of Supply has lost its literal and acquired a symbolic meaning—in other words has ceased to be a consideration of the financial reasons for the Crown's demands and become an occasion for criticising administrative policy.
§ Mr. Eden
Because an abuse has been in operation for a long time, it does not mean to say that it should continue indefinitely. Because this practice has fallen into abeyance, it does not mean that we should allow it to continue to fall into abeyance. Particularly when Government expenditure is such a high figure as it is today and is likely, as far as one can judge, to increase in the years to come, it is more incumbent than ever on hon. and right hon. Members opposite to exercise their constitutional right to scrutinise Government expenditure and not to shelter behind extracts from Erskine May.
If the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Michison) will recall the quotation which I gave at the beginning 2285 of my speech from Disraeli, he will remember that Disraeli did not speak of the Opposition. He said that the main power of the House of Commons depends upon its command of the public purse, not the power of the Opposition. We speak of the House of Commons as a whole on this matter of Parliamentary control of expenditure. The Select Committee on Estimates sits as representing the House as a whole. Likewise, we in the House in examining Estimates put before us in Committee of Supply sit as a House and not as a Government or an Opposition party.
It is because I am anxious that we should do more than pay lip-service to this and do more than recall memories of past debates and speeches in the House and elsewhere on this subject and because I am anxious to preserve the right of Members of Parliament to scrutinise these matters that I ask that one additional crumb should fall to hon. Members who sit on the back benches, either behind or facing my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. That request is that in each debate in Committee of Supply, regardless of who selects the Vote, there should be devoted a short time, perhaps of about two hours, for the purpose of allowing hon. Members from whatever quarter of the House to ask questions and to have short, sharp debates on certain specific Votes which they themselves would like to have examined. It should be a sort of "quicky" debate which the procedure of the House could well allow and for which room could be made.
I appreciate that it might well not be possible to take this at the end of a debate for procedural reasons, but could not this short debate take place in the first two hours of the debate on the Votes selected by the Opposition? This is not getting away from the so-called rights of the so-called Opposition at all. The Opposition can still choose the Votes that it wants to discuss generally, but let hon. Members on the back benches, if they so wish, put down selected subheads of the general Vote for close scrutiny by themselves and for questioning on individual items of expenditure the Ministers responsible for presenting those Votes to the House.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Flint, West said that such an effort by a private Member is, generally speaking, 2286 boring. It may be boring, but I believe that it is absolutely necessary to preserve and keep alive this feature of our Committee of Supply procedure, and that it is the right and duty of an individual Member to scrutinise these things and question the Ministers responsible for presenting them.
I would not mind if this resulted in any one case in the defeat of the Government on a particular vote. That would be a good thing. I do not think that my right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary should take too grievous a view about that. It is time that we got away from the tragedy of low votes and of the Government being defeated on one or two occasions. It does not matter. It matters only if the issue is one of confidence and if the Government lose the confidence of the country.
Let us get away from the idea that because we have a majority of twelve or six, or even if we lose by three votes, it is a great crisis and that the world will collapse overnight. It is of little significance. Let us keep a sense of proportion. One result might be to stop a Minister from so readily presenting a Vote which he would not be certain would be acceptable as a whole. If it resulted in a cut in Government expenditure in any way then I would be glad, because I am certain that a cut in Government expenditure is still the first requisite for securing a reduction in taxation—and it is that which we so urgently need in this country.
§ 9.26 p.m.
§ Mr. Donald Wade (Huddersfield, West)
I do not propose to enter into discussion about who is the Opposition, but I join the Leader of the House and other right hon. and hon. Members in paying tribute to the Public Accounts and Estimates Committees. I am not at present a member of either of these Committees and therefore have no inhibitions in commending their work. I do not think that the general public appreciates the number of hours spent on Committees upstairs.
These Committees perform very valuable work, but unfortunately they are primarily concerned with the past rather than with the present and the future. I did not entirely follow the simile put by the right hon. Member for Thirsk and 2287 Malton (Mr. Turton) when he referred to the cricket field because, in his illustration, the fieldsman did stop the ball. In the case of circumstances under consideration by the Estimates Committee, the ball has reached the boundary a year or more before that Committee comes on the scene.
§ Mr. Turton
I do not think that the hon. Member has ever served on the Estimates Committee. Unfortunately, we have no Liberal member. We are examining current Estimates. We are examining this year's Estimates. If we find extravagance we put our hands to the ball, but, unless the House helps us, of course the ball trickles through to the boundary.
§ Mr. Wade
I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman and I are greatly at issue. I have served on the Estimates Committee. I do not think that I am being unfair in saying that what so often happens is that when a Report is published there is a considerable amount of publicity, especially if there is some item intriguing to the Press, but it lasts only twenty-four hours. After one day it is stale news and one hears little more about it and there may be no debate in the House.
I fully sympathise with members of these Committees who feel that they have gone to a great deal of trouble, but that their work is not sufficiently regarded in this House. I should like to see the custom grow up whereby each of these Reports was debated on the Floor of the House. It may not be practicable to have a rule that every Report should be so debated, but I should like to see if a normal custom to discuss a Report produced by the Estimates Committee or the Public Accounts Committee.
I have not served on the Public Accounts Committee, but it has been put to me that it should be assisted by more expert advice. If I am incorrect in that statement, no doubt I shall be told so.
We must see how the new procedure for the Select Committee on Estimates works. I do not believe that it will entirely overcome the difficulties of debates on Supplementary Estimates which take place too late. We are generally faced with a fait accompli. Very often the House is called upon to 2288 vote large sums with little or no discussion. That is a very serious aspect of our modern Parliamentary life.
I am not satisfied that this new procedure will deal with the problem of the relationship between expenditure and taxation. It is extremely difficult for the ordinary Member of Parliament to relate expenditure and taxation. He is handicapped by the Chancellor's close season, which seems to get longer every year, and also by the fact that there is no clear distinction between capital expenditure and expenditure which does not come into that category. I think that we ought to have some way of considering grants to the private sector of industry as well as investments in the public sector, because to get a true picture we must take into account the growing practice of making grants to the private sector of industry.
I have touched on these points only briefly and I have not intended to be destructive in my criticism. Economic life is becoming more and more complex, and I think that these reforms are necessary and overdue. In my opinion this subject will have to be reviewed every year in the light of experience. We cannot today reach a final opinion on the proposals which the Leader of the House has put forward. I think they will help, but it will be essential to review the subject annually if Parliament is to maintain adequate control over public expenditure.
§ 9.33 p.m.
§ Sir Harry Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)
I entirely agree with the last remark made by the hon. Member for Hudders-field, West (Mr. Wade). This is an experiment. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition made it clear that this is an experiment. It is, therefore, very important that we should have an assurance, before we accept these proposals, that we shall have a periodic review. I am not quite sure whether we shall be able to form an opinion after only one year, but the review ought not to be more than every three years and might well be every two years. Every two years we should have a further review of this system.
My main criticism of the proposals is concentrated rather on the omissions than on what is included in them. I 2289 see nothing very obnoxious about anything which has been proposed, save perhaps the attempt to continue to separate expenditure from estimation. I am inclined to the view that in these days it is almost impossible, especially on some major items of Government expenditure, to separate the two.
There is no better example of this than that which is to be found in Vote 7 of the Air Estimates this year. It deals with supplies and services provided by way of airframes, aero engines, guided weapons and their electronic and associated equipment, vehicles, armament and ammunition. The total bill for this item was £238 million, and it may therefore be regarded as a major item of expenditure.
I will quote from the Explanatory Memorandum, which states that most of the supplies and services come either from the Ministry of Aviation or from the War Office. It continues:Payments to the Ministry of Aviation and the War Office are, with certain exceptions, made under the bulk settlement arrangement.I ask the House to consider this bulk settlement arrangement. It continues:Under this arrangement, payment to each department in 1960–61 will be based on a forecast made towards the end of the financial year of the value of deliveries for the whole of the year, and will take into account any adjustment necessary in respect of the value of deliveries through each department during 1959–60 determined after the close of that financial year as compared with the forecast of value on which payment in 1959–60 was based.The value of deliveries in 1960–61"—that is, the current year—will be determined after the close of the financial year and any adjustment necessary with either Department will be taken into account in the 1961–62 statement.In other words, we have an overlap from the year before, based on a somewhat hazardous estimation of what it was likely to be, and then subtracted from what it was or added to what it was—or whatever it was, in fact, was subtracted from it; and that is then carried into a year in which another forecast is made, without any security that the forecast will be right, on the understanding that an adjustment will be made in the subsequent year if that forecast is proved to be wrong.
With that sort of arrangement running on a major item involving over £200 million, how can we possibly hope to separate expenditure from estimation? 2290 My own view is that probably the experience of the war years is more relevant in this context. I think that those hon. Members who were in the House during the war years—I was not—will remember that there was a Committee on National Expenditure which took the place of both the Estimates Committee and the Public Accounts Committee. I am inclined to think that that may be the right answer in the end, in view of the enormous complexity of public expenditure today.
I was a little concerned at the remarks of the Leader of the Opposition about Whitehall being the best controller of expenditure. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) will remember that we had a debate some time ago on the question of the machinery of Government vis-à-vis defence and that we both came to the conclusion that there were times between the wars when the Treasury had perhaps too much control over expenditure, certainly in defence.
I am inclined to think that there are times when we have to prevent the Treasury from being too stringent. While, naturally, we want to keep a proper control from a Parliamentary point of view in the interest of the tax-payer over the expenditure of certain Departments, it is very important that the Treasury should never be given so much power that it can distort policy and prevent happening what the Defence Committee of the Cabinet, for instance, agree should happen. We know of occasions in the past when that did happen. We do not want to see it happen again.
I believe that Parliament ultimately has the best control over expenditure and that Parliament is about the only master that we can possibly expect to preserve the interest of the taxpayer over the Treasury. I do not believe that any other Department can. I do not think that Whitehall, as a whole, can. I think that it is Parliament that can. If Parliament fails, then heaven help the tax-payer. For that reason, we hope that we shall not regard these proposals tonight as final. We have to keep a review on this and I should like to see such a review every two years or so.
Finally, I believe that the work of the Select Committees ranks as perhaps 2291 among the most important work of Parliament. When the Leader of the House first raised this question, in July, I asked whether we could have an assurance that the staff of Clerks serving these Committees would not be overloaded as the result of the proposals which have been put forward. The Leader of the House gave me a somewhat equivocal reply in that he said that a great deal would depend on the work of the additional sub-committee of the Select Committee on Estimates.
I would like to have an assurance that the whole question of the staffing of these Committees by the Clerks and so forth has been properly examined and that we can be sure that we will not find that other Select Committees of a different nature will suffer as a result of the setting up of this additional subcommittee of the Select Committee on Estimates. We all agree that the work of the Select Committees is done very largely on a non-party basis, some of the Select Committees being quasi-judicial anyway. It would be absolutely disastrous from the point of view of Parliament, especially in its capacity as the High Court of Parliament, if the work of the Select Committees was undermined by the staff being overloaded.
If it be necessary, Parliament should willingly ensure that adequate finance is available to bring in additional Clerks. Can I have an assurance on that matter?
§ 9.41 p.m.
§ The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Sir Edward Boyle)
I rise to speak, not to bring the debate to an end but to answer several questions which have been raised. I promise hon. Members who have been seeking to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that I shall not speak for more than ten minutes at the most.
I assure my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) that we are well aware that the work of all Select Committees, not merely those whose work we are considering this evening, is very greatly dependent on the skilled assistance which they receive from the Clerks. Certainly that will be borne in mind. I think that I should also assure my hon. and gallant Friend that, whatever may have been the case fifty or sixty years ago, I do not believe that today there can be 2292 any danger of the Treasury circumventing the will of Parliament or circumventing the collective will of Ministers. I do not think that that is a real possibility, considering the way in which we attend to our affairs today.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) asked a very pertinent question which was whether there would be time for the scrutiny of spring Supplementary Estimates. We have considered this matter and the best answer I can give is to say that, so far as I have anything to do with this as Financial Secretary, we will certainly see to it that Supplementary Estimates are made available to the House not later than approximately 7th February next year.
It would be possible, of course, to make that date a little earlier if the Select Committee had Estimates in proof form, but, subject to what the House may think, I believe that that might be a somewhat undesirable constitutional innovation. Personally, I believe that it is an innovation about which we should be very cautious. However, the Select Committee should have at any rate a good three weeks to examine the Estimates between, approximately, 7th February and the end of the month. So long as the House has the report of the Select Committee by approximately 7th March, we should have time for a debate before the Guillotine falls on 15th March.
I can assure my right hon. Friend of two things. The first is that I will exercise all my influence with the Stationery Office to see that the report of the Select Committee is given the highest possible priority and printed as soon as it is ready. Secondly, at the same time as the Supplementary Estimates are published, it will be quite possible for the Treasury to submit to the Estimates Committee a paper giving a sort of factual account of the Supplementary Estimates, rather on the lines of the commentary which the Financial Secretary gives in his Memorandum on the main Estimates for the Civil and Revenue Departments. Also, the Chief Treasury Liaison Officer with the Estimates Committee would be available to give further factual information in advance to the Committee. We will have to see how that works out, but I hope that the timetable is possible.
§ Mr. Turton
I said that in my view six weeks was the minimum necessary, but my hon. Friend has now suggested three weeks and quoted 7th February as the date. I remind him that that is one day later than the last day on which Supplementary Estimates have been presented to the House in the last six years. Indeed, there have been occasions when the Supplementary Estimates have been presented on 30th January and I think that one instance of that was in 1959. It would be quite impossible for the Estimates Committee to work under its system of sub-committees and a main committee in the short time that my hon. Friend has suggested. If we are not to see the Estimates until 7th February, the whole of the operation will be quite useless.
§ Sir E. Boyle
I see the difficulties, but I make two points in reply to my right hon. Friend. First, if the Supplementary Estimates are presented to the House too soon, they run the danger of not being absolutely accurate. There may be perfectly good reasons beyond anybody's control why what I might describe as a last minute Supplementary Estimate of some size may be required. The example which occurs to me, which occurred only last year, is a sudden outbreak of fowl pest which involved quite a large Supplementary Estimate relative to the Estimate which had been originally made.
Secondly, the number of Supplementary Estimates on which the Committee would be likely to wish to call for evidence is likely to be fairly small, because most Supplementary Estimates result either from sudden emergencies which no one could possibly foresee or from direct changes of policy completely outside the Department's control. Last year one Supplementary Estimate resulted from the increase in National Assistance scales. That is the sort of subject about which I do not believe that a great deal of expert evidence can take one very much further.
We must see how we get on. If necessary, we shall have to consider giving the Select Committee proof copies of the Supplementary Estimates before they are presented to the House. Obviously, the House must be the judge of that. It would be an important constitutional innovation, and we should at any rate think carefully before doing it.
§ Mr. Mulley
Is there any reason why the Supplementary Estimates known at the end of December should not be published early in January? If an emergency arose involving an additional Estimate, it could then be put up to the Committee as a separate item. The Committee cannot accept from the Financial Secretary or the Treasury witnesses what are the things it should look at and what it cannot look at. If the members of the Committee do that, they are not exercising their function as members of a Committee of the House. It is a question of time. We have other things to do than sitting on the Committee.
§ Sir E. Boyle
I did not suggest that the expert evidence of the Treasury would be a kind of conducted tour, as in a totalitarian country. My suggestion was purely meant to be helpful. On all these matters we shall certainly consider very carefully whether we can produce the Estimates any earlier. I will certainly take note of the hon. Member's point.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley) mentioned the form in which the Government accounts are presented. I am well aware that our Government accounting system—the way in which the Estimates are presented—dates back nearly 100 years. We should certainly consider all the time whether we can make any improvement.
§ Mr. Mulley
The hon. Gentleman has not understood me correctly. I am not worried so much about the form of the Estimates. What I am worried about are two fundamental points. Firstly, the accounts are conducted on a receipts and payments basis and not on an income and expenditure basis. Secondly, there is no differentiation in the accounts between capital expenditure and revenue. Very often, revenue can be reduced by capital expenditure in the form of a new hospital or a new school, but we cannot tell from looking at the Estimates which is capital and which is revenue. Nor can we see the reduction in revenue which might arise from intelligent capital provision.
§ Sir E. Boyle
I assure the hon. Member that before the Estimates are next published I shall be very glad to discuss these matters with him.
The Leader of the Opposition raised a number of points. First, he made a 2295 suggestion about the Plowden Committee. He said that, when the Government consider what conclusions they publish to the House, they should consider showing the difference between the present system and the changes proposed. I will certainly take note of that suggestion.
The right hon. Gentleman also referred to the forthcoming debate on public investment. The Report which will be considered on that occasion will be purely on the public sector. It will not include grants to the private sector. I must leave the right hon. Gentleman to discuss through the usual channels the precise question of out of whose time the days are taken for the debate.
On just one point the right hon. Gentleman was not absolutely accurate and fair. The three days for the debates on the nationalised industries are not at the call of the Opposition exclusively, because the reports to be debated are discussed through the usual channels, having regard also to the general wishes of the House. That has been the accepted arrangement ever since the days when Lord Morrison was Leader of the House.
§ Mr. Gaitskell
On that point, I think that the Financial Secretary will find that ever since this system was introduced it has been the custom for the Opposition to choose what should be taken on each one of those three days. The other point that I should like to put to him is this about grants for private industry not being included. I do not think that is very satisfactory, but can he tell us whether loans to private industry will be included?
§ Sir E. Boyle
I think that the right hon. Gentleman will find that loans to the private sector are not included, but no doubt he will have an opportunity to make that point when we debate the White Paper.
§ Mr. Gaitskell
I am sorry to interrupt again, but in his statement the Home Secretary said that all items below the 2296 line would be included. Is it not the case that all loans are below the line?
§ Sir E. Boyle
I think that we must wait until the White Paper is published.
I will come now to what I think has been the most important question raised tonight: the question of Whether the House should have more opportunity—and how it could get more opportunity—to discuss reports on matters which involve public expenditure. I agree, in general, I think, with the Leader of the Opposition, that the only way in which the House can effectually scrutinise public expenditure is through question and answer in Committee.
There is a very great deal of truth in that. Indeed, I think that we should remember how much we owe both to the Estimates Committee—its work has been rightly praised this evening—and to the Public Accounts Committee. It is worth remembering that the propriety of Government expenditure—the question of whether public money is being spent in accordance with the will of Parliament—is really just as important as the question of whether public money is being spent efficiently.
There is one real difficulty in debating Select Committee Reports in this House, and that is the point very correctly made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Flint, West; that the House does not normally want to discuss what it finds boring and difficult. To be quite frank, we have to recognise that if we are to have a good debate on any Select Committee Report, it will involve much hard work on the part of many hon. Members. The difficulty of discussing in this House a very large number of Reports is that they can be discussed well only if hon. Members have taken a good deal of time and trouble to inform themselves, and if there are a good number on each side with some degree of expert knowledge.
It is significant, I think, that two Reports of the Estimates Committee which, while I have been a Member, attracted a good deal of attention in this Chamber were both Reports which, in a sense, did not involve a great deal of expert knowledge and did, in fact, lead to increased Government expenditure. One was the Report on School Buildings, about which all of us may feel qualified to speak from the experience of our own 2297 constituencies, and the other was the Report on the Youth Service, which led to the appointment of the Albemarle Committee.
A real difficulty about discussing Select Committee Reports in this House is that many hon. Members in all parts of the House are extremely busy and, frankly, do not find it as easy as they would probably like to give the close attention to these issues that would be involved. Nevertheless, I myself think it a pity that we do spend quite so little time in discussing these valuable Reports from Committees. And without suggesting in any way that the Government should invade private Members' time, I do suggest that one possibility might be, rather more often, to spend two hours on a private Members' Friday in discussing the Reports from the Select Committees.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton said that it takes too long to get comments from Departments. suggest that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Flint. West said, it is important for the Reports themselves to be weighty. They should not be too short. And the same considerations might well he applied to the replies as well. I must say that I do not think that the interests of the House would be really served by what I would call ill-considered replies from Departments. I do not think that most delays are unreasonable, and it is better to have a delay than an ill-considered reply from a Department—
§ Mr. Mulley rose—
§ Sir E. Boyle
The other point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton related to the time it takes to get Reports published. There, I must say that we are in a difficulty, because the printing services of the Stationery Office are under pressure at present. But in view of what my right hon. Friend has said, I will certainly do my best to see that reasonable priority is given to the Reports of Select Committees because I appreciate that it is important to the House to have them as soon as possible.
2298 My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Eden) made the interesting suggestion that not only should we have more discussion of expenditure in Committee of Supply but that the Government should not treat defeats in Committee of Supply too tragically. That would be a very big change in our constitutional practice.
The hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) read out a passage from Erskine May. I thought he might have read out the next sentence which would have made his point even better—for it is true that for a long time there has been Government responsibility for the Estimates, which has been taken to cover every detail of every vote. For example, in 1895 a Motion for the reduction of an Estimate by £100 on a cordite vote brought down Lord Rosebery's Government.
I say this to my hon. Friend. On the whole, I think it is a good convention that the Government regards all issues of Supply as in a sense issues of confidence. We make a difference between issues of Supply and what one might call minor legislative issues. While I take note of his point, I think there is possibly some good sense in the traditions of Parliament in this respect.
I hope that these new arrangements will prove of value; I believe they will. I certainly think that the idea of a special debate before Christmas on variations between the Estimates of one year with the Estimates of the year before may be of value. People will want to find out why there has been any sudden variation.
We are concerned with the question of value for money. We are also concerned with the very important question that arises when a service of any kind is discontinued, namely, of ensuring that the discontinuance of that service is reflected in the Estimate. This is partly work for the House as a whole. It is to a great extent work for the Select Committees of this House. But perhaps, most of all, it is a continuing task for the Executive.
Important as it may be to ensure proper Parliamentary arrangements for the scrutiny of expenditure, it is surely more important for the Executive, day in and day out, to see that the large proportion of the national income taken today by 2299 the central Government is really justified. All I can say is that it is a responsibility which the Executive takes very seriously, and which the Treasury shares with all the other major Departments of State.
§ 9.58 p.m.
§ Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)
I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Eden) struck a note which echoed in the minds of many people when he expressed grave fears about the control that Parliament has over expenditure. Although the Financial Secretary tried to throw some cold water on my hon. Friend's ideas, I would not like to see them douched altogether.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said that control of expenditure was exercised in three traditional ways—by the House, by the Select Committee on Estimates and by the Public Accounts Committee. But I would suggest that there is no control at all of expenditure by Parliament sitting in this Chamber. We are more generous today towards Governments than we ever were to any king in our past history. We put the Executive on a much higher pedestal than we ever put any king in the matter of Supply. Indeed, I think that Charles I, if he were alive today, would laugh when we pass thousands of millions of pounds of expenditure in a few minutes, when one thinks of the struggles that he had with Parliament.
I have tried to find when the House, sitting in Supply, last altered any Estimates or Supplementary Estimates of the Government. I believe that the last occasion when this was done was about forty years ago, when the Government's proposal for installing a second bath in the Lord Chancellor's residence was defeated by private Members. Lord Birkenhead, as Lord Chancellor, did not get his second bath. So successful was that control that no second bath, I understand, was installed in the Lord Chancellor's residence—
§ It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment lapsed, without Question put.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Sharples.]