HL Deb 01 February 1900 vol 78 cc237-40

My Lords, on Tuesday evening I, in answer to the noble Earl, expressed some opinions as to the comparative position of ourselves and foreign countries for the purpose of carrying on war, and pointed out some matters in which I thought there was room for I amendment; and among others I mentioned the Treasury. What I said was that "by the exercise of the power of the purse it claims a voice in all decisions of administrative authority and policy," and that I thought "that much delay and many doubtful resolutions had been the result of the peculiar position which through many generations the Treasury has occupied." I was very careful to point out that I was not in the least degree intending any application of these views to the action of the present Chancellor of the Exchequer. It would have been very unjust if I had, because my right hon. friend has been singularly careful and considerate in the exercise of the powers of the Treasury during the crisis of the last few months. I say here, and I said then, that the powers of the Treasury have been administered with the greatest judgment and the greatest consideration, and I exhorted the House not to imagine for a moment that I supported the idiotic attacks made on the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I am sorry to say that in the other House of Parliament an impression was conveyed to the minds of some excellent gentlemen that I was censuring the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the manner in which he had administered his duties. I can only repeat what I said. "Idiotic" is a very strong word. I am afraid that if I used a stronger it would be thought to be uncivil. I can only say that I have expressed myself as clearly as I can, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer exercised his powers in the manner most conducive to the public welfare, and that he never refused anything which the War Office or the Admiralty thought necessary for the public service. But I have not risen merely for the purpose of saying that. I wish to point out that I spoke of the resolutions to which I objected as having been the result of the peculiar position which during many generations the Treasury has occupied. I think it has gradually acquired a position in regard to the defensive Departments very different from that which the Finance Department occupies abroad, and on the whole I think that, for the purposes of national defence, that is not a satisfactory condition. But, as I say, I carefully prevented my remarks from applying to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. There is now conveyed to me a letter from a most excellent public servant, Sir F. Mowatt, who seems to think that because I did not blame the Chancellor of the Exchequer I must have meant to blame him. Nothing was further from my mind. I was blaming a system which has been the result of causes which have lasted for a considerable time, and which affect no individuals whatever, and in speaking of "the action of the Chancellor of the Exchequer," I include the action of those who are acting under him in his own office. The impression of Sir F. Mowatt is entirely unfounded, and although my personal acquaintance with his action is not very great, from everything I have heard, the public service does not contain a more admirable Minister of the public welfare than himself.


My Lords, I very willingly recognise that the noble Marquess in the observations he made most strictly guarded himself against being supposed to make the smallest reflection on the Chancellor of the Exchequer. That was abundantly evident from the remarks he made to the House. With regard to the general question, which is a very large one, I concur so far with the noble Marquess. From the experience I have had I gather it is very often somewhat difficult in the smaller matters to obtain the consent of the Treasury, and sometimes I think from the feeling which is entertained by the other departments things which might judiciously be done are not pressed; but with regard to great matters of national welfare I would submit that the Treasury is by no means supreme. It is the Cabinet which is supreme. It is the Cabinet which is responsible. I never myself happened to be in charge of a large spending department; naturally I would not be as a Member of this House; but I have heard a great deal from my colleagues, both in and out of the Cabinet, on the subject, and there have been, I believe, in most Governments from time to time considerable difference on points of that kind. But the Minister who is responsible for a department which requires a larger expenditure than usual for some great public object, who appeals to the Cabinet, and places his case strongly before the Cabinet, has a reasonable chance of carrying his point. But, in any case, a matter of that kind must come before the Cabinet, and if the Minister is of opinion that the subject is one of great importance it is his duty not to give way to the Treasury without having previously submitted it to the Cabinet, which is supreme. I must say that I have had some dealings with particular Chancellors of the Exchequer, and, while the Treasury is very difficult to deal with, if you have to deal merely through the officials of your department, who, however able, naturally have not the influence of the head of a department, I have found when I have discussed with more than one Chancellor of the Exchequer matters of importance they were discussed in a manner which generally ended in a way which I think was sufficient for the performance of the duties of the public service. I merely make these observations, for though I concur with the view as to the difficulty the departments have with the Treasury, I do not think the mechanism of government is such that if these great questions are submitted to the Cabinet they may not be dealt with satisfactorily, although the Treasury has the duty to place, and is bound to place in the strongest way before the Cabinet any objections which they may have to urge.


If I may explain, I think it is a mistake to assume that it is only large measures which produce large effects. I quite agree that questions of large measures go to the Cabinet, and if the Cabinet think the Treasury wrong the Treasury is overruled. Just as a wall is built of bricks, reforms—salutary reforms—are built up of a long succession of useful changes, but it is in those smaller changes which individually are small, but in the aggregate are large, that I think the exaggerated control of the Treasury has done harm. I think it has had the effect of discouraging and impeding reform, and it has had besides the effect of taking away the freedom and diminishing the initiative of the respective departments. I do not wish to use language of exaggeration, but I think it is an evil, and I fear the great power which the Treasury has acquired in this country, in consequence, no doubt, of its great service in getting rid of corruption and extravagance, has been carried too far, and much of the immobility of the departments of which complaint is made is due to the existence of this undue control.


I know it is out of order for me to speak again, but I should like to make this admission, that I do think that in some cases where the matter is not apparently one of great and supreme importance there have been things omitted to be done which have subsequently had serious consequences. Such things I have known, and especially this, that discussion with the Treasury sometimes causes undue and dangerous delay; and I remember more than one case where things were allowed to tide over because of the long discussions until the moment for action was lost.