HC Deb 17 March 1964 vol 691 cc1326-31

[Queen's Recommendation signified]

Considered in Committee.


Motion made, and Question proposed, That the rate of the salary which may be granted to he Comptroller and Auditor General under Section 1 of the Exchequer and Audit Departments Act 1957 be increased from seven thousand pounds to eight thousand two hundred and eighty-five pounds per annum, and the date from which, under subsection (3) of that section, the person now holding that Office is entitled to a salary at the said increased rate be the first day of August, nineteen hundred and sixty-three.—[Mr. Green.]

9.43 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

I was hoping that we should have a word of explanation of this Motion. This is not an unimportant matter. In no sense would I wish to oppose the recommendation. In fact, I am entirely in favour of it. But this is a matter of vital interest to the House of Commons and it is very appropriate that there should be a Motion o a the Order Paper dealing with the salary of the Comptroller and Auditor General. It is appropriate that this salary, unlike the salaries of all other civil servants, should require an express vote of approval by a Committee of the House, because the Comptroller and Auditor General stands in a position of special responsibility to the House of Commons quite different from that of any other civil servant. It is therefore of great interest to a Committee of the House of Commons to deal with his salary and to ensure that it is adequate for the very special responsibilities which he has to bear.

The proposal is that the salary should be increased from the present figure of £7,000 to £8,285 per annum. I have no doubt that there is a good reason for that figure, and I do not want it to be any less. When I think of the salaries paid to Dr. Beeching and others it does not seem at all an unreasonable figure, but I think that we are entitled to know whether it is the right figure and how it compares with the salaries paid to other people in Her Majesty's service of comparative status.

I hope that we may have some indication whether the Government are completely satisfied that this figure should operate from 1st August, 1963. I do not quarrel with that date, but I think that we should be assured that the figure is appropriate and will ensure that the House of Commons secures the services as Comptroller and Auditor General of someone on whom we can rely with implicit confidence, as we do on the present incumbent of that office, bearing in mind the great responsibility which he must discharge.

As has been pointed out, this Motion will have the effect of antedating this increased rate to 1st August, 1963. In ordinary circumstances we do not favour retrospective operations of that kind, but I have no doubt that in this case there are good reasons for it. However, I think that we require a word of explanation, from the Government spokesman.

Mr. E. G. Willis (Edinburgh, East)

Like my hon Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher), I do not wish to raise any serious objection to this increase or to the amount which it is proposed shall be paid to the Comptroller and Auditor General. The job which he does is exceedingly important, much more so than those jobs which are done by people who are paid much higher salaries. One appreciates the importance of his work when one realises the enormous sums of money which are checked by the Comptroller and Auditor General and which he audits on our behalf. This amount is moderate when compared with the salaries which we discussed earlier and which are paid to people who do little more than act as propagandists for the Tory Central Office. Nevertheless, I should like to ask how this figure comes to be placed before us.

I am not questioning it but I am interested to note that the figure represents an increase of 20 per cent. I do not know when last the salary was raised. It might have been four or five years ago and, if so, the figure works out roughly at about 4 per cent. which has been recognised as the increase which should be granted. In order to put what appears to be a large increase in proper perspective we ought to be told when the salary was last raised and the period during which it is expected that this figure will last. I presume that it will be for another year or two, by which time the increase will be quite moderate.

When we look at some of the salaries, such as those paid to Cabinet Ministers, we ought to consider whether we pay sufficient to our public servants. There is no doubt that this is an exceedingly responsible job. The Comptroller and Auditor General acts on behalf of the taxpayers and he does a very good job, as can be appreciated from the reports which he sends to the Public Accounts Committee and the manner in which he draws attention to various irregularities in the accounts which he has to audit. Depending on the manner in which it is carried out, this job can either save or waste millions of pounds of the taxpayers' money. It is an exceedingly important post and its position resembles, I believe, that of Ministers, about whose pay many of us are also concerned at present.

Mr. James H. Hoy (Edinburgh, Leith)

This is one salary that the House has to fix and, just like our own salary, it is open to public debate. The Comptroller and Auditor General is a servant of the House and not of the Treasury and we have to decide whether he is to receive a salary not less than that of other people. That is the mistake. I think that this should be considered as if he were doing a job similar to that of a Permanent Secretary to a Department.

We should be grateful that the present Comptroller and Auditor General is a man of such standing, because he has to keep an eye on public expenditure. One of the things that I am sure must be worrying him at present is that, in the changes in Government administration, a considerable amount of expenditure footed by the public does not come within his purview. I am sure it worries him as it worries members of the Public Accounts Committee. Over the years we have seen, by his reports, how efficient the Comptroller and Auditor General is. There is no doubt that, as a result of his work and that of those who serve with him, many millions of pounds of taxpayers' money have been saved.

I think, therefore, that we should consider whether we could not devise some other method of dealing with his salary. It it always a little invidious that, every time his salary has to be made up to match administrative arrangements in Government Departments, the House has to vote for or against the increase. I hope that we shall devise a system allowing his salary to be treated in a way similar to those of Permanent Secretaries.

An example of the invidious position in which he is placed is that he will now be due for back pay to August last year, when the salaries of his counterparts were increased. This is a distasteful situation for a great public servant to be in. He has done a wonderful job for the country and the taxpayers and I hope that, in the review of salaries of Ministers and hon. Members, consideration is given to the position of the Comptroller and Auditor General.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Alan Green)

I am happy to respond to the invitation to say something about the Motion. I join hon. Members opposite in paying tribute to the work of the Comptroller and Auditor General. This House is vastly, deeply and continuously indebted to him not only for the expert way in which he does his work but for the deep conscience he shows in carrying out his duties. We are all extremely grateful to him.

The salary of the Comptroller and Auditor General, going as far back as 1866—quite a respectable precedent—has been equal to that of the head of a major Government Department. The Motion applies to him increases which have already been applied to those comparable heads of major Government Departments. It is, therefore, very properly made retro- spective to the same date on which those individuals had increases.

There has been a small delay for a reason which I hope will be acceptable to the Committee and which, I am sure, does not worry the Comptroller and Auditor General himself. It is because of the rather abstruse question of settling the London weighting, as it is known, which is a method of a particular increase applicable to those who in certain circumstances have to work in London. It did not seem right—it seemed slightly derogatory of the Comptroller and Auditor General's special position—to bring forward one increase and then a quite trifling increase on a second occasion. I am sure that it is will' his agreement that on this one occasion the two elements of the increase are put together in the single Motion and made retrospective to 1st August, last year.

His position is unique. He is appointed by the Crown by Letters Patent and is removable only on an Address to the Crown by both Houses of Parliament, thus ensuring his independence of the Executive. This is what hon. and right hon. Members most cherish about his position and his ability to discharge his functions. He is genuinely and completely independent of the Executive and in a true sense the servant of all Members of the House of Commons. His salary is paid out of the Consolidated Fund and it is therefore very proper that it is only by Resolution of this House that his salary can he increased. Personally. I believe it to be a very happy occasion to be able to move the Motion and to join in the tributes already expressed.

Mr. F. Blackburn (Stalybridge and Hyde)

As the hon. Gentleman says that the salary of the Comptroller and Auditor General is approximate to that of heads of Government Departments, could not the Committee pass a Resolution so that whenever there is an increase in the salaries of those heads of Departments, the salary of he Comptroller and Auditor General would automatically be increased by the same figure? I agree that it is invidious that the salary of one man should be brought before us every time there is to be an increase. We know how invidious it is in the case of Members of Parliament when we have to decide our own salary, hut we should not continue tie present practice of having this salary brought before the Committee on each occasion it is increased. I am sure that it would be possible to pass a Resolution on the lines I have suggested, and I should like to hear the hon. Gentleman's reaction to that suggestion.

Mr. Green

Speaking without taking advice on the matter, I am certain that we could pass a Resolution to make the movements in the salary of the Comptroller and Auditor General automatic. I am sure that that would be within the power of the Committee. However, my own private thought on the matter, which could not be binding on any hon. or right hon. Member as a proposition—it is not made in that spirit—is that while I see the point of making the increase automatic, because it is not automatic we have the chance when these Motions come before us to say what from time to time we all wish to say—our public thanks to the Comptroller and Auditor General.

These occasions give us the opportunity to do that and they also serve to remind us not only of the history of his post, but of the special independent status attached to it. I for one feel that from time to time it is worth reminding ourselves, even if it involves passing a special Motion, of the underlying facts in this institution of ours.

Mr. Fletcher

Would not the Minister agree that there may well be another reason why it is desirable that this Motion should come before us every time an increase is required, namely, that this House may one day decide that it is not sufficient that the salary of the Comptroller and Auditor General—

It being Ten o'clock, The CHAIRMAN left the Chair to report Progress and ask leave to sit again.

Committee report Progress.