HC Deb 10 March 1980 vol 980 cc925-34

Motion made and Question proposed, That, at this day's sitting, upon the first motion in the name of Mr. Secretary Pym being made, Mr. Speaker shall put forthwith the Question upon that motion and upon the remaining Questions which, under Standing Order No. 18 (Business of Supply), he is required to put at Ten o'clock.—[Mr. Cope.]

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

I do not wish to detain the House for many minutes, but it should be made well aware of the nature of the business motion. I understand its purpose to be to enable all outstanding Votes to be taken on the nod at 7 o'clock. As I further understand it, the essential element of the Vote to be taken is the Spring Supplementary Estimate, amounting to no less than £835 million of additional public expenditure, the equivalent of the entire public sector borrowing requirement of only a few years back.

The House should pause for a moment before it approves a business motion that is designed to ensure that there is no opportunity to discuss this massive increase in public expenditure.

I make no criticism of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House because it was the House that decided, in its wisdom or otherwise, that this procedure should be followed and that Votes of this kind should be taken on the nod. It is doubly a matter for concern on this occasion because wrapped up within the total Spring Supplementary Estimate of £835 million is provision for £70 million to be paid to two Departments—the Scottish Office and the Ministry of Defence—to compensate them for overspending their current cash limits.

At a time when cash limits are to play a major part—rightly so—in the control of public expenditure the House should pause before approving, without a moment's discussion or explanation, a motion that is designed to compensate those two Departments for what, on the face of it, would appear to be somewhat lax housekeeping, to put it mildly.

In one case—admittedly, it is not the most important in financial terms—under the Scottish Office Vote for law and order, Class IX, Vote 8, the House approved a cash limit increase less than a month ago. It is now being asked to provide another £2 million because, apparently, the Scottish Office is not even capable of keeping within that cash limit approved a month ago. That seems hard to defend.

The other items which deeply concern me in the matter of cash limits are that under Class I, Vote 1, on the pay of the Armed Forces and civilian employees of the Ministry of Defence, the cash limit is up by £10 million over and above the cash limit approved by the House; the amount under Class I, Vote 2 on defence procurement, is up by £35 million; under Class I, Vote 4, on defence accommodation and services, the sum is up by £19 million; and in respect of the Scottish Office under Class VI, Vote 1, dealing with Scottish roads, the sum is up by £4.5 million. All those sums are over and above the cash limits approved by the House.

There is one other case that I hesitate to mention, and that is the Queen's Remembrancer, who has apparently managed to belie his name by overspending his cash limit by £87,000. However, I think that we may pass that over in a decent silence. The rest of that £70 million should be a matter of real concern to the House if it believes that we have a duty to scrutinise and to try to control public expenditure on behalf of our constituents.

When I raised these matters during questions on the Business Statement last week my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House very fairly pointed out that it was open to the Opposition to make the Votes the subject of a debate today. They have not done so. It would be out of character for a party that, over so many years, has shown almost a contempt for the principles of good housekeeping now to concern itself with the overspending of cash limits. It has not done so, and the House should therefore be alerted to the fact that should we agree to this motion no opportunity will arise to discuss what we are being asked to approve in the name of our constituents.

My right hon. Friend also pointed out quite fairly that it would be in order to debate these matters in the debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill, on Wednesday. However, I believe, although I am open to correction by my right hon. Friend, that it would not be practicable or permissible under the rules of order for an hon. Member to seek to debate on that Bill five separate Votes that are in excess of cash limits and that relates to two different Departments. Furthermore—and this is even more fundamental—if the House approves these Votes at 7 o'clock tonight the expenditure will already have been approved and on Wednesday we should be arguing about the matter after the horse had bolted.

I said at the outset that I made no criticism of my right hon. and hon. Friends on the manner in which these matters are placed before the House, since this was the way in which the House decided that they should be dealt with, but in my view it is high time that the Procedure Committee looked into these matters again. When we are supposed to be observing stringent control of public expenditure it is not good enough for the House to be asked to approve on the nod Supplementary Estimates running into hundreds—and shortly, no doubt, thousands—of millions of pounds.

I shall not myself seek to divide the House against the motion, since I appre- ciate that it is for the convenience of the House today that it be approved so that the debate may proceed between 7 and 11.30 o'clock this evening, but I consider that in these matters we must have regard also to the convenience and interests of those who sent us here, and the procedure that Parliament has here adopted does not seem to me adequately to reflect the concern that we should have for those whom we represent in the House and who pay the taxes to sustain public expenditure.

Mr. English

I support the hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Bruce-Gardyne) in the basis of what he has said, although he perhaps forgets that some of us who are now on the Opposition Benches opposed the way in which these Estimates went through on the nod when our own party was in government. I think that he forgot that I, at least, could claim to be more consistent than he in that respect. However, I support him in the sense that he has a point. We must oppose the motion, because our procedures are quite archaic in this respect.

The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House has said that later this week we shall have an opportunity to debate this issue on the Consolidated Fund Bill. He was, of course, quite correct. What he did not say was that we should have no opportunity to vote on it. In other words, he was giving the classic Government answer—"So long as you let us overspend, we do not mind how much you talk about it. We do not mind what you say, but you must never vote against it".

We are not allowed to propose expenditure—under the traditions of the British constitution only the Government may propose an increase in expenditure—but under the basic traditions of our constitution we are, in theory, allowed to vote against it.

What will happen in practice? The Consolidated Fund Bill, as it is called, will be debated all night on various issues, raised by various hon. Members, but not one of them will be allowed to come to a vote. The Committee stage will follow, and the only legitimate amendment that may be moved is one to delete the word "may"—that the Government may spend the money. In no circumstances may one move an amendment relating even to a matter discussed, or enabling the House to vote upon a single pound of expenditure.

The supposed reason for that is that Supply resolutions such as those on the Order Paper today will have already passed the House, but by a tradition now over a century old Supply days are days when the Opposition Front Bench chooses the subject of debate. The hon. Gentleman did not say that. He said "the Opposition", but it is the Opposition Front Bench—his former Front Bench, or my present Front Bench—that chooses the subject of debate, and not the Opposition as such.

Since we give press conferences about these things, I see no reason for not saying that this matter was raised in the private meeting of my party. The Opposition Front Bench chooses the subject for debate. The subjects chosen are very reasonable ones, but the result is that hardly ever does the Opposition Front Bench choose such a subject as deleting £10 million, or whatever it may be. The subjects chosen by every Front Bench, of whichever party, are much more politically sexy, much more newsworthy and more headline-raising.

The result is that under our present procedure no Supply resolution is ever debated. It can be voted upon, under the procedure initiated by the hon. Member for Knutsford, but it cannot be discussed. Someone has to put down an objection even in order to have a vote, and that is on the Order Paper today as a result of what has been done by the hon. Gentleman. Whether the hon. Gentleman is here or not is irrelevant. He knows that it can be done by others on his behalf if he initiates the procedure.

There appears on the Order Paper notice of objection by the hon. Member for Knutsford. That enables us to vote later this day. But the business motion precludes us from having any discussion on these Estimates. What is needed, as the hon. Member said, is the setting up of the Procedure Committee again to consider these matters. Last Session the Procedure Committee dealt with the non-financial aspects of House procedure. It intended to go on to the financial aspects, and, among other things, the last one suggested that the Select Committees that we have now set up should consider the Estimates.

How can the Select Committees consider these Estimates? They were put to the Committees only about 10 days ago. What a fine length of time for Committees of the House to consider them. I doubt that the Estimates have yet been circulated to some of the Committees. I think that they have been circulated to a few, but there has hardly been time for anyone to consider these matters.

Plainly, we must initiate a proper procedure in Committee and on the Floor of the House for consideration of these matters. We cannot go to our constituents and say "You will lose your old-age pension, your unemployment benefit, your Health Service facilities, or this, that, or the other"—whatever it may be—"because of cash limits" and at the same time say that some Departments are exempt. I do not mind whether it is the Conservative Party allowing the Ministry of Defence to be exempt or people on my side who might say that social security should be exempt. If we are to have a principle, we cannot allow one Department of State to get away with it while all the other recipients of State beneficence suffer. We cannot say that some will suffer but others will get away with it.

Above all, we ought not to say, as this Government are now saying, that cash limits apply to everybody except the Ministry of Defence and a few others and that no one will ever be allowed to discuss that exception.

Mr. Speaker

May I make just one correction? It is possible for the House to vote on every one of these motions without anyone putting his name to a notice of objection.

Mr. Kenneth Baker

I support the views just expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. Bruce-Gardyne) and the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English). The business motion tabled by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is entirely in order, and it happens to conform with the procedures used in recent years for dealing with the Spring Supplementary Estimates, but I hope that that does not confer upon those procedures any measure of acceptability, since I believe an issue of principle to be involved, that issue of principle being the method by which the legislature may more effectively control the spending power of the Executive.

Over the years, the weapons in the hands of the legislature to deal with the overspending of the Executive have grown very rusty. The motion today emphasises that, because, as my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman said, the House is being asked to vote on the nod or to have Divisions at 7 o'clock on a total of about £900 million of extra expenditure. In my view, before the House is asked to make a decision of that sort the Ministers responsible for the necessary extra expenditure should in some way be called to account by the House. I said this in the last Parliament as well.

A large sum of money is involved. What are the ways open to us to proceed? The last Procedure Committee discussed various methods. As the hon. Member for Nottingham, West said, we were about to examine the procedure for financial Bills and legislation when the election intervened and we could not proceed further.

I submit that the time is now right for us to look again at our procedures for dealing with financial legislation concerning Estimates. This sort of thing should not happen. We are being asked to vote tonight on principle and then, two days later, on Wednesday, we are to be given the priceless opportunity to debate the details of this expenditure. If that procedure had been put to the House in that way at any time I am certain that it would not have been approved by the House.

The debates on the Consolidated Fund Bill, while not valueless—they have some value, in that hon. Members may raise various matters—are not valuable, in that they cannot lead to any conclusion or decision. To have 18 hours of debate on decisions that have been taken tonight by the House at 7 o'clock is really like throwing a bone to a dog to stop it barking.

I hope that the House will develop a different way of dealing with such matters. There are now Select Committees shadowing each Department. There is no reason why those Committees should not be encouraged, or invited, to take evidence on the Estimates. I am referring not only to this year but to future years, when the matter will arise again.

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

I am sympathetic to the notion that these matters should be considered by the Select Committees. However, that does not invalidate my point that those Select Committees would usually examine these matters after the money had been voted by Parliament, and that is what concerns me.

Mr. Baker

I agree with my hon. Friend. The Select Committee should consider the Estimates before they return to the House. We could move towards a system in which a Select Committee reports back to the House before a decision is taken. That would be a fundamental change in our procedure, which could not come about without further examination by the Procedure Committee, which as not yet been established. There has not been a Procedure Committee for the past nine months.

As this Parliament develops there will be several matters arising, week by week, that involve procedural matters, of which this is by far the most important. I add my voice to that of the hon. Member for Nottingham, West, who said that another Procedure Committee should be established to which matters such as this could be referred, especially matters dealing with the handling of financial legislation.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. Bruce-Gardyne) on raising this matter, very properly, in the House today. I congratulate also the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) and my hon. Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Baker). I hope that my hon. Friend will take that as a sincere tribute and not as a bone cast to him to encourage him not to bark. It is quite right that Back Benchers should bark in the House and raise these matters. But it is not only Back Benchers who can debate these matters. As I pointed out last Thursday, had the Opposition chosen, on this Supply day—

Mr. English

The Opposition Front Bench.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am grateful for that footnote; I have often thought that on procedural matters the hon. Gentleman should sit on the Opposition Front Bench. Perhaps things would be different if he were to do so.

The Opposition Front Bench—to avoid another interruption—could have chosen to debate the matter today. I pointed out also that there was an opportunity to raise the matter next Wednesday on the debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill.

I agree that the present procedures are not entirely satisfactory. It is the prerogative of the House to grant or withold Supply. That is the foundation of the whole power of the House. At some point in the future that might be examined. I do not think that I can go further than that today.

Mr. Costain

Is it true to say that these matters are examined by the Public Accounts Committee at the present time?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

My hon. Friend makes a perfectly valid point. However, the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford was that the House should examine these matters before they were voted.

I shall consider establishing a new Procedure Committee, but we have already an extremely important series of proposals from the last Procedure Committee, which we have not yet disposed of, although we have made good progress in the matter. The Select Com- mittees that have been established are throwing up problems from day to day. A large amount of my time is spent in trying to sort out the difficulties raised and to help hon. Members in that respect. No doubt the request can be acceded to in due course.

I do not wish to delay the House any longer, as important matters have been set down by the Opposition for debate. The hon. Member for Nottingham, West referred to a previous event when he claimed some credit for having raised these matters on an Opposition Supply day. On that occasion the discussion on the points that he raised continued for so long that the Supply day was effectively lost and another had to be provided.

Mr. English


Mr. St. John-Stevas

I shall not give way. I expressed my appreciation to my hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford not only for the effective way in which he raised these matters but for the economical way in which he put them. As the House wishes to debate housing and immigration, I shall sit down.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered, That, at this day's sitting, upon the first motion in the name of Mr. Secretary Pym being made, Mr. Speaker shall put forthwith the Question upon that motion and upon the remaining Questions which, under Standing Order No. 18 (Business of Supply), he is required to put at Ten o'clock.