HC Deb 27 June 1978 vol 952 cc1225-43
Mr. English

I beg to move Amendment No. 8, in page 2, line 37 leave out 'the service' and insert 'or in connection with the administration'. There has been a great deal of argument about this amendment and those connected with it which have not been selected. Those amendments which have not been selected are Nos. 12 and 18. When they were tabled by my neighbour, the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and myself, we were told by those who advise us on these matters that it was less likely that an amendment would be found to be in order if it included the question of Members' pay, which is concealed under subhead Al in Amendment No. 18.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) is under a misapprehension. He can speak only to Amendment No. 8, which I gather is a probing amendment. All the other amendments dealing with Members' salaries are out of order.

Mr. English

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. Perhaps we can discuss the matter on a point of order.

I understood from the Clerk's Department that it was conceivable that you would be able to find all three amendments in order if they excluded Members' pay, but that it was inconceivable that you would find them in order if they included Members' pay. That seems to have happened.

Members of the House of Commons trust you, Mr. Speaker, and your Commission perhaps more than they trust the Treasury on the question of their pay. The original suggestion that was put to me was that all three of the amendments would be ruled out of order. I was hoping that the compromise was that we could discuss Amendment No. 8 and the issues raised by all three amendments but that it would be impossible to put them all to the vote.

Mr. Speaker

I should have liked to help the hon. Member and the House. I have leant over backwards in an effort to do so.

I must tell the hon. Member that the Clerks do not decide what is in order and what is out of order. Let that be quite clear. The hon. Member must always indicate that he knows who decides what is in order. That trust has been given to me. I do not take it kindly when there is any indication that I am a rubber stamp for anyone. I decide what I believe is in order.

I shall give a ruling to the hon. Member. My view is that Amendment No. 18, which is his main amendment of substance, is not in order since it contains references to Subheads Al and A8 of Class XIII, Vote 2 of the Civil Estimates which refer respectively to Members' salaries and cognate expenses, and contributions to the parliamentary contributory pensions scheme. In my view these matters are entirely outside the scope of the Bill. I have looked at it very carefully. The Bill is concerned solely with the internal administration in this House and with the expenses connected with our affairs. The fixing of the amount of Members' salaries and other emoluments has never formed part of any previous legislation in connection with the administration of the House. Parliamentary contributory pensions, as the hon. Member knows, are dealt with in separate legislation to which this Bill makes no reference.

Mr. English

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. But if you look up Hansard you will see that I was careful not to say that the Clerks of the House determine what is in order and what is not. I was careful not to suggest that that was not your prerogative.

What I said was that before you, Mr. Speaker, had made your decision I was informed by the Clerks that they thought it more likely that you would find in order an amendment which excluded the question of Members' pay than the opposite. I added that that was what seems to have happened. Their advice in this context seems to have been correct.

It would have been impossible for previous legislation on the subject of a Commission of this House to include any question of Members' pay because in 1812 and 1814 Members were not paid. With respect to you, Mr. Speaker, your suggestion that previous legislation on the internal administration of the House did not include Members' pay is because more than a century before Members' pay was instituted it was not possible for such legislation to envisage it.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member is correct. But he will also know that since he has not succeeded in getting the salaries of Members included on the Order Paper he is not able to debate the matter. That is all that I am telling him. He must confine himself to what is before the House.

Mr. English

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. We have had the opportunity of making the relevant point.

The issue surrounding Amendment No. 8 is that the Bill relates to the administration of the House of Commons. In accordance with your ruling, Mr. Speaker, I shall assume that Members of the House of Commons have nothing to do with its administration. But the Bill does not accept in its terminology what is in the Long Title. The object of the amendment is to determine the situation.

Clause 3(1) reads For the year 1979–80 and each subsequent financial year the Commission shall prepare and lay before the House of Commons an estimate for that year of the expenses of the House Departments and, to such extent as the Commission may determine, of any other expenses incurred for the service of the House of Commons. The words "expenses" and "service" are part of the cause of the difficulty. The Title of the Bill reads: To make further provision for the administration of the House of Commons. It says that it is for its "administration" not its "service". The Chair has just ruled that Members of the House of Commons should have nothing to do with its administration which apparently exists to serve itself. The Bill does not even admit the administration of the House of Commons. It merely refers to the "service" of the House of Commons.

During Committee I asked the Parliamentary Secretary what this meant. For example, did it mean that when a Select Committee recruited from outside a professor at Cambridge, a senior partner of a firm of actuaries or accountants or advisers of the type that Select Committees now recruit, we are to be forced to pay them only the travelling expenses which the Treasury allows to consultants, or will the House of Commons Commission be able to say "No, you will be able to pay these men what they are worth. They are not permanent staff of the House of Commons, but as long as they are assisting the House of Commons they may be paid what they are undoubtedly worth to it."? Will it be possible for that to be done?

4.0 p.m.

My hon. Friend the Minister gave a fair answer when he said that he did not know what the clause meant in effect but that he would send me a letter. He fulfilled his assurance to the full. From his letter it appears that the Estimates of the House of Commons, as they have always been envisaged in the past, will now be split into two. One set of Estimates will be the responsibility of yourself and your colleagues on the new Commission, Mr. Speaker. The other set of Estimates will remain with the Treasury as its responsibility.

As recently as last September the Expenditure Committee produced a report on the Civil Service, but it suggested that parliamentary surveillance over the Civil Service was a matter of some importance. In the course of its report it suggested that the Bottomley Committee's recommendation, or what it thought was the Bottomley Committee's recommendation, was a matter of some importance. That was that control over the Estimates of the House of Commons should be transferred from the Treasury to the new House of Commons Commission under the Bill.

We therefore suggested that the Bill was a highly desirable one and that we hoped it would be brought forward shortly. It was brought forward shortly, but, strangely, someone somewhere had been playing about with the simple straightforward recommendation that those Estimates should be transferred to the control of the new Commission. By a mysterious coincidence it would seem—and I stress the word "seem", because there is a great deal of uncertainty, which my amendment is aimed at clarifying—that the House of Commons Commission will have undoubted control over the Estimates for the permanent staff of the House of Commons except that it must keep that staff in line, under another clause, with the regulations of the Treasury and the Civil Service Department.

It is not clear what expenses…for the service of the House of Commons may mean. I do not know what it means. I understand that when this general subject was discussed in the Shadow Commission and in the appropriate group of the Labour Party—and I was present on the latter occasion—this point was not observed. I fully accept my personal responsibility for that fact on the latter occasion. It is by no means clear what has been transferred to the House of Commons. I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will be telling us in due course.

Mr. William Price

I wish to be helpful if I can and I therefore quote, as my hon. Friend has quoted, from Clause 3(1) which goes very wide, if that is what the Commission chooses to do, and refers to "or any other expenses". If the Commission so chooses, that could include accommodation, printing and a number of other matters. We are not specifying those matters in the Bill, however, because we believe that that would be premature. This is a matter for the Commission.

Mr. English

My hon. Friend has revealed another slight lacuna in this whole problem. My earlier amendment suggested that the Commission should have upon it a majority belonging at least to the Government party, if not to the Government. My hon. Friend the Minister proposed, and the House accepted, that it should have a majority belonging to the Opposition. I shall be grateful if my hon. Friend will confirm, as is probably the case, that this Act in effect amends the Standing Orders of the House. I presume that an Act does that since it is obviously superior to the Standing Orders of the House. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Act therefore allows the Commission to propose increases in expenditure without the consent of the Treasury?

The Bill reads: to such extent as the Commission may determine, of any other expenses incurred for the service of the House of Commons. That is not very specific, and it is not a good means of financial control either. For example, in a given year, at a given time of year, the Treasury prepares Estimates under the heading Vote 2, Class XIII/A7. That is concerned with the Refreshment Department, if my hon. Friend wants it spelled out. At that stage the Treasury may prepare that, because the Commission may not have decided that it is an expense of the House of Commons. Then, suddenly, in the middle of the year the Commission may decide, if my hon. Friend is right, that this is an expense of the House of Commons. The Treasury's control ceases even before the question has been approved by the House. All responsibility for it, if my hon. Friend is right, vanishes from the Treasury and moves to the Commission. That seems to be the implication of the Bill which reads, "the Commission may determine". But that is not a good means of financial control over any institution. I would have thought that it was better to spell out in the Bill exactly which Estimates will come under the control of the Commission and which will remain with the Treasury.

There is a vagueness about just how far the Commission can go. If the Commission lasts for as long as the previous Commission, it will last at least 150 years. In the course of that time it may increase its scope or find its scope reduced by the Treasury. But would it not be better to put in the Bill that it has power over the Estimates of the House of Commons full stop, instead of providing that it has power over some of the Estimates and that it may determine for itself which others it may have power over provided that the Treasury, presumably, does not disagree with it?

What will happen if there is an ultimate conflict? I suppose that someone on your behalf, Mr. Speaker, as Chairman of the Commission, will have to go to court and say that the Treasury is wrong, that the Commission has decided what are expenses of the House of Commons, that the Treasury disagrees and that the High Court must make a declaration as to which of them is right. I do not think that most hon. Members would wish the High Court to determine what are and what are not our expenses. We would prefer that all the Estimates of the House of Commons on all reasonable issues—everything from Members' pay to the lavatory paper—should be the responsibility of the House of Commons Commission. Perhaps one would say that if the House went totally mad and wanted to build a new building, that would not be an appropriate matter for the Commission to decide without the Treasury being consulted, but that on all the normal running expenses of the House we clearly should be consulted through our new institution, the Commission. I see that a Treasury Minister, my right hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, is anxious to bring this debate to a halt. He presumably does not like this discussion of the powers of the Treasury.

Mr. Mellish

He does not understand what my hon. Friend is talking about, that is why.

Mr. English

Ex-Treasury Ministers tend to have the same attitude.

Mr. Mellish

It is all gobbledegook.

Mr. English

They all believe that the Treasury should have these powers. Most legislatures throughout the world, including Congress and the European assemblies, determine their own Estimates for their own future expenditure. The question is not decided by the Government for which that legislature is theoretically responsible. That is, in effect, what is being proposed in this amendment.

Mr. Terence Higgins (Worthing)

The amendment might help to clarify the wording of the clause which to me appears remarkably obscure. I have one or two specific points to raise.

The first point at issue is whether the expression "House of Commons" is defined anywhere in the Bill, or is defined elsewhere and is applicable to the Bill. My impression is that that is not so. No doubt if I am wrong the Minister will seek to clarify the point.

The clause is concerned with the expenses incurred for, in the present wording, the service of the House of Commons. It is not clear from the wording whether that means the House of Commons as a building or the Members of the House of Commons. I myself would presume that the expression "the House of Commons" means the Members of the House of Commons as a group. If that is so, I should have thought that it would be reasonable to interpret this clause as covering, for example, the salaries of Members and certainly the salaries of Members' secretaries.

Mr. Mellish

I do not understand what this debate is all about. Clause2—

Mr. English

We are not on Clause 2. We are on Clause 3.

Mr. Mellish

I know—but listen, thickhead. Clause 2 relates to what are the functions of the Commission. Clause 1 sets up the Commission. Clause 2 is concerned with the functions of the Commission, and Clause 3 contains the financial provisions to enable it to carry out its functions. With great respect to the hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins)—I think that I understand what he is trying to say—the first part of Clause 2 says: The Commission shall appoint all staff in the House Departments, and shall determine their numbers and their remuneration and other terms and conditions of service. That is what the Commission's job is. It is the administration of the House. That is what the Bill is all about. I do not know how we have got into this other tangle about the pay of Members of Parliament and everything else.

Mr. Higgins

Perhaps I may seek to clarify the point about which I am concerned. I understand very well that Clause 3 must be related to Clause 2 but, none the less, that is precisely what the amendment is about, as I understand it. Clause 3 says for the service of the House of Commons. I do not see that it necessarily follows that Clause 2 overrides Clause 3. However, I shall be very happy if the Minister will state his view and if, in particular, he will state categorically that he has not the slightest doubt that the wording of the Bill is adequate to carry out what he believes the intention of the Bill to be. But I am not immediately convinced about that point.

The second matter I wish to raise is that Clause 3 says the Commission shall prepare and lay before the House of Commons an estimate for that year. I am somewhat concerned not only about the expression "prepare", which the Commission might do like any other Government Department, but about the expression "lay before the House". This is a matter which was touched upon a moment or two ago.

I think that the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) is quite right in saying that an Act of this House would overrule a Standing Order, but I think that the particular Standing Order about which he is concerned is one which, in effect, gives the Government of the day a monopoly of the right to propose expenditure. It would not, therefore, be possible for us to carry an Act which did that unless that Act or, rather, the Bill before the House had received the Royal Assent agreeing that the Royal Prerogative should be given up in that respect. I agree that this is not a simple matter, but that is my understanding of it.

None the less, as the clause is now drafted it says that the Estimate shall be laid before the House. It should, as I understand it, be laid before the House by the Commission, and not, as would normally be the case, by someone who was moving it on behalf of the Government.

This is obviously a very important matter, because if that is what it did—and I think it is arguable that that is what the wording would do—we should not only be in conflict with the Standing Order, which the hon. Member for Nottingham, West rightly said could be overridden by an Act, but we should be out of order ourselves, because we should be passing an Act, now represented by the Bill, which would override the monopoly of the Government, or the Queen, to propose expenditure.

I have grave doubts on both of these points with regard to the wording, but naturally I should appreciate the Minister's comments on them.

Mr. William Price

I do not think that anybody has ever tried to conceal the fact that as far as the financial independence of the House of Commons is concerned the changes are quite modest. There is a certain vagueness about the present situation, and I readily concede that. How does one define an expense? How does one define what might be capital expenditure? Where does the Treasury fit into the new arrangements?

I think that the matter can be handled only on the basis of talks between people and a good deal of common sense. However, I would not have thought that it would be necessary for the Commission to ask the Treasury for a sum of money to improve the plumbing in this House. I would have thought, however, that if it were suddenly decided that we needed to spend a substantial sum of money on a new parliamentary building, that would be a matter which clearly the Treasury would have to look at carefully.

What I am saying is that the effect of this amendment would be to amend the cope of the proposed new Commission Estimate under Clause 3(1) to include expenses in connection with the administration of the House of Commons instead of expenses incurred for the service of the House of Commons, on the presumption that the administration is wider than the service, and I do not believe that that is so. If my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) believes that a situation could arise in which it would be so, I would seek to give him the assurance, as far as I am concerned—and I have taken all the advice that is available to me on this matter —that that is not the case.

4.15 p.m.

Mr. English

I am sure that my hon. Friend may be right. He also may be wrong. Will he answer a simple question? Does he agree with me that the courts will have to determine the matter, and will he say that the House of Commons Commission would need legal personality in order to secure a declaration from the courts that the Commission is right and the Treasury is wrong, if the Treasury and the Commission happened to disagree?

Mr. Price

I suppose that, ultimately, everything could be discussed and decided in the courts, but I do not envisage that situation ever arising. I should have thought that we had made it fairly clear in Clause 3(1) that the Commission had considerable powers over presenting its Estimates on any expense that it considered justifiable and legitimate. I believe that that is as far as we should go today.

Mr. English

But in 150 years—that is how long the last Commission lasted—it is just possible that the Commission at some time might disagree with the Treasury over what its powers were. I put it no higher than that. It is just possible that in 150 years it might disagree with the Treasury. If it did, my hon. Friend says that he does not think that the matter would be taken to court. He may, again, be right about that. How does he suggest that this vague set of words would be adjudicated upon?

Mr. Price

I would suggest that the only way in which this could work would be for discussions to take place in the normal way. This goes on all the time between Departments and the Treasury over demands for money. I should have thought that there was no other way in which one could do this and that there would be a Treasury involvement in public expenditure. There is a Treasury involvement.

What I am saying is that whilst these changes are relatively modest, they are, nevertheless, important in the sense that they give the Commission greater powers over spending money on services than we have had in the past, and that is a step in the right direction. However, I do not seek to conceal the fact—I began by saying this—that it is a relatively modest change, and I understand that that is what was envisaged all along.

Perhaps I may add a comment. The Bill as it now stands would make it possible for the Commission to consider with Ministers, for example, House printing or accommodation, in the Commission's Estimates. I know that the main argument against any provision to do so in the Bill is that any such decision would be entirely premature until the Commission has had an opportunity of considering whether such steps would be desirable or practical.

I come back to the point that I tried to make a moment ago. This is one of the reasons why there is a certain vagueness about what exactly is meant, because it is not at all clear at this stage which role the Commission will seek to take upon itself and which responsibilities it will wish to assume. That is something that will be clear in due course.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

Is not the answer that in fact as the Bill is drafted the Commission will have power to do virtually whatever it believes right in the interests of the House, but, nevertheless, it would be prudent, as the Minister said, for the Commission to consult the Treasury? As the Bill is drawn, the Commission has the absolute right to do as it pleases.

Mr. Price

The hon. Gentleman has put it far better than I had done. That is exactly the situation as I understand it and I think that the House could take the view that this is as far as we could go.

Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth (Thornaby)

On the broad point, my hon. Friend has used the arguments that he used in Standing Committee, saying that this was premature because the Commission had not considered it. Surely this is an argument, is it not, which could be used against almost any change. For instance, was it not an argument which could have been used in relation to some other changes in the Bill in Standing Committee? Clearly, the House must make up its mind how it wants this place administered.

Mr. Price

I gave assurances upstairs that we would be requesting the Commission—and I can put it no stronger—to take a very early look at some of the matters to which my hon. Friend has referred. Printing is one of them, and others think that the Catering Department and its future should be another. We gave that assurance. I cannot, and nor would my hon. Friend, I suspect, wish, to give any direction to the Commission. That does, not arise. But we can certainly ask the Commission to look at these matters urgently and to come back to the House if necessary. I would say to my hon. Friend that this Bill gives to the House of Commons independence in the presentation of Estimates within the scope of Clause 3 (1), but as I understand it, it was never intended to take the House of Commons completely outside the general framework of the control of public expenditure. Under the Bill as it stands the Commission has power to include within the scope of its Estimates any expenses related to the service of the House of Commons and we do not see this being any narrower than is proposed in the amendment. On that basis I ask the House to reject it.

Mr. Higgins

I do not consider that a very satisfactory reply. The hon. Gentle man has not answered my second point. It is not good enough to say that this will be a matter of common sense, for if it were all a matter of common sense we would not need the Bill at all.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

I have only just taken over the Chair but I understand that the hon. Member has already spoken on this amendment.

Mr. Higgins

I was intervening.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman may speak if he asks leave of the House, and if it is granted I shall allow him to continue.

Mr. Higgins

May I ask leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I feel it right that one should have an answer on the highly technical point I have raised? This is not a matter of partisan debate in any way. I am most grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to press that point.

If I understand the Minister correctly, he is saying that in some matters with regard to the actual provision of services of the House the Commission would be able, in effect, to put matters forward whether or not the Treasury objected, and that in other respects the Commission would not be able to do so. That is what I understood the Minister to say. It seems to me to be an extraordinarily unusual proposition. I hope he will reply to my other point—whether in the clause we are debating, and in the context of the amendment we are debating, the expression shall prepare and lay an estimate before the House means that the Commission will in fact present and lay the Estimate and that that will not be done by a Government Minister. This is a crucial and very important point.

Mr. William Price

I can deal with the second point raised by the hon. Gentleman more easily than with the first. It is my understanding that it will come from and be presented by the Commission.

On the first point, we are in a grey area. There is a degree of vagueness here. But if the hon. Gentleman is asking for a technical answer, I suspect that it is a fundamental rule of our procedures that a charge cannot be taken into consideration unless it is demanded by the Crown or recommended from the Crown and no public charge can be incurred except on the initiative of the Crown. That is what my note says, and it is certainly my understanding.

Mr. Higgins

It is very difficult on Report to make this kind of point. I am not unaware of the point that has been made by the hon. Gentleman but the first part of his reply is quite inconsistent with the second part. If the Commission is to lay the Estimate before the House, that overrides the long-standing tradition, going back I believe to the year 1500 if not to 1300, that it can be done only by the Government. We should know whether the Commission is to be allowed to present Estimates to the House or whether only the Government may do so.

Mr. Price

The Commission may do so.

Mr. Wrigglesworth

When I intervened I was concerned about the general position of the Refreshment Department and I am glad that my hon. Friend gave us the assurance he gave that he and the Government want the Commission to look at this Department. The House should bear in mind that we have already had a full inquiry into this Department under my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo), which recommended, after considerable investigation, that it should be a separate Department. Unless considerable action has been taken since that report was produced there is a need for a tremendous amount of change in that Department, as recommended in the report. There is a need for an improvement in the terms and conditions of service of the staff there.

One of the ways of bringing that about, and doing so rapidly, is for the Commission to establish it as a separate Department of the House so that it can have the correct status and so that its staff are employed by the Commission and there is no doubt about their status here or about the terms and conditions under which they serve the House. I would reinforce the point made by the Minister and would hope that the Commission will get on and give consideration to this very important Department of the House which on some occasions in the past has received very shabby treatment from hon. Members—not as individuals, but from the House as a whole.

Mr. Arthur Bottomley (Middlesbrough)

If hon. Gentlemen who have raised queries about the Commission and its responsibility will take it from me, my opinion is that the Commission will be in charge, like a Government Department preparing its Estimates, but it will not be able to authorise them. The Government will have control over that. That is my impression.

Dr. Glyn

Let us be clear that under the wording in the Bill it will have to be the Commission and not a Treasury officer who comes to present Estimates. I do not see anything abnormal in that. It still has to go through Parliament. It may he said that 700 years a Treasury Minister has had to do it, but I have no objection to the Commission doing it, for it would probably do it better than a Treasury Minister.

Mr. English


Mr. Mellish

My hon. Friend has already spoken.

Mr. English

My right hon. Friend was only Chief Whip. He forgets Standing Order No. 55. You do not, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

What do I not forget?

Mr. English

Unlike my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish), you do not forget Standing Order No. 55, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary made a rather strange statement in answer to the hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins). He said he was advised that whatever the Commission presented to Parliament would need the Treasury's consent. He was advised that that was some kind of fundamental rule of the constitution. I do not believe that there are many fundamental rules of the British constitution. They are laid down mainly by this House or by the courts of law. But it has certainly been held by the courts that an Act of Parliament which has been passed by both Houses and given Royal Assent overrules a mere Resolution of this House of Commons. I believe the case is Boles v. Bank of England earlier in this century.

The situation, therefore, is that my hon. Friend must be wrong for the simple reason that the rule about not imposing a charge on the people unless it is proposed by a Treasury Minister is merely a Standing Order of this House. I believe that it is a Standing Order which was passed shortly after the Restoration in 1660. It is not a basic rule going back to the Middle Ages. It is a very simple Standing Order of the House which could be altered or amended by the House, and my hon. Friend is proposing that it probably should be, but it would certainly be amended by Act of Parliament anyway.

4.30 p.m.

Mr. William Price

We should get this point absolutely clear if we can. If I have muddied the water, I apologise to all concerned. I take my guidance from subsection (1), which says clearly: the Commission shall prepare and lay before the House of Commons an estimate for that year of the expenses of the House Departments and, to such extent as the Commission may determine, of any other expenses incurred for the service of the House

Mr. English

It does not say that that Estimate may be an increase on the preceding year. That is the point that is being made by the hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins).

Mr. Price

I do not think that I suggested—if I did, I was wrong—that the Commission had the power to authorise that increase. What I am saying is that it has the power to prepare and to present the Estimate and that the matter will be subject to the usual discussions.

Mr. English

The confusion is worse confounded. Not even the Treasury has the power to authorise it. Only this House has that power. The real question is, can it come before the House without the Treasury's consent? My hon. Friend is conspicuously evading answering that question. It may be that he does not know the answer. If that is so, why is he not honest enough to say so? He has been asked the question from both sides of the House. It is a very simple one. The Bill says: the Commission shall prepare and lay before the House of Commons an estimate for that year of the expenses of the House"—

Mr. Mellish

That is obvious. It is so obvious that I do not know why we are talking about it.

Mr. English

My right hon. Friend seems to think that it is obvious. I am grateful to him. I take it that he thinks that the subsection means that the Treasury's power over the Estimates of the House ceases once the Bill receives the Royal Assent, to the extent that Clause 3 (1) says. It is somewhat vague as to what that extent is.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary seems to be trying to evade the issue. He seems to be saying at one point that the Treasury's power continues and at another point that it ceases. Which is the case? That is all he has been asked by the hon. Member for Worthing and myself.

The object of the amendment is very simple. We, the majority of Members, wish to have the same power over the expenditure of the House as other legislatures in other countries have. We assumed that Clause 3 (1) gave that power to the Commission which would represent the House. My hon. Friend is not saying that that is so, nor, clearly, is he saying that it is not.

Will my hon. Friend clearly and specifically say whether the Treasury's former power over the Estimates of the House is transferred by the Bill, when it becomes an Act, to the Commission? It is a very clear question. It is a matter of great importance to every hon. Member, every Committee of the House and every officer of the House. Will my hon. Friend kindly answer it, clearly and simply?

Mr. Francis Pym (Cambridgeshire)

It seems to me that, arising out of the debate on the amendment, and not absolutely directly related to its wording, a substantial issue has arisen. The House would like a substantive explanation of the Government's view on the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) and the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English).

We are on Report, and there is no motion for Third Reading. I suggest that the Government should make in another place a substantive statement on what is a very fundamental issue.

The question is, how do we authorise expenditure? Until now, it has always been done by the Treasury, by the Government, moving a motion from the Government Dispatch Box. We are now making what is recognised on all sides to be a departure, in that the Commission will lay before the House an estimate of expenditure for the House.

There seems to be a conflict there with previous practice. The point had not occurred to me before I listened to the debate, but I think that it is very important. The most appropriate way to handle it may be for the Government to make a substantive statement in another place when the Bill is considered there.

Mr. William Price

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that suggestion, which I think is helpful.

I began by saying that I thought we were in a greyish area and that there was a degree of vagueness. I have made the position as clear as I can, but if what I have said does not satisfy the House, I undertake to do what the hon. Gentleman asks so that there shall be no misunderstandings.

Mr. Higgins

I am grateful for the suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym), but I am a little doubtful whether it is possible to make a statement on this issue in another place. Perhaps I may take the Parliamentary Secretary's reply to mean that if it is not possible the statement will be made here, which I think would in any case be more appropriate.

What worries me fundamentally is that if the hon. Gentleman is correct in his answer—that the Commission will prepare and lay an Estimate before this House, contrary to all precedent, which is what only the Government can do that—the Bill might well be proceeding through the House without the Royal Assent having been given to its being debated when it should have been given. If that is so, we shall be committing a very unusual act.

I hope that in making a response on the lines suggested by my right hon. Friend the Minister will take that point into account.

Mr. English

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Lord President can be formally conceived to have nodded assent.

Amendment negatived.

Back to
Forward to