HL Deb 08 July 1915 vol 19 cc341-7

LORD ST. DAVIDS rose to ask the Government whether they would consider the advisability of appointing a Departmental Committee which should receive and consider any suggestions for the improvement of the Public Service during the war which might from time to time be sent to it by the general public, and should, if they deem fit, forward any such suggestions to the Departments concerned.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this Question which I have placed on the Paper to-day I regard as a humble sequel to the debate which took place in this House two days ago on the subject of economy in the Public Service. I regard it as a sequel to that because I believe that if such a Committee as I suggest were set up it would have the effect of getting hold of a number of suggestions—perhaps very small suggestions individually, but still suggestions—that would result in a check on extravagant expenditure. There are other advantages that would arise from the appointment of such a Committee. After the debates on the alien question, like many other noble Lords I have no doubt who spoke in those debates, I received from people outside with whom I have no acquaintance a number of letters, some of which were perhaps quite valueless and only fit to be thrown on one side, but others of which contained information which one would have liked to send to some person in authority to be considered. If a Suggestions Committee such as I am proposing were set up, that Committee would get a number of suggestions from the public some of which might quite conceivably be of a useful nature. Since the war began probably because of my business connections in the City, I have received a number of letters from people I did not know asking me to put before the Government some invention or other which they claimed would be of material value to the country in this war. I was no judge of such things. When you get a letter of that sort which on the face of it seems to contain a suggestion that is not a foolish one it is very difficult to know whether you ought to go and bother somebody in authority who is already too hard worked about it or run the risk of turning down something that perhaps might be of value. A Committee of this sort would receive suggestions on those and many other subjects.

But what I think is far more important, the Committee might get a number of suggestions from all over the country with regard to expenditure which to some extent, at any rate, might be avoided or lessened. Anything, however humble, which would lead to economy is worthy of consideration by the Government. There is an enormous expenditure now going on; that we know; and it is commonly asserted that a good deal of that expenditure might be avoided if greater care were taken. I very much doubt whether that was the case at the beginning of the war. Some people say, "Oh, if you had had business men to assist the Secretary of State at the beginning of the war you might have had greater economies." I very much doubt whether at the beginning of the war that would have been true, because at that time it was necessary, before all else, that things should be purchased quickly. In ordinary circumstances, had there been a committee of business men there those men would have tried to buy as cheaply as possible, and would have made it their pride that the price at which they had purchased was as cheap as or cheaper than similar things had ever been bought at before. But at the beginning of the war everybody who had to help the War Office to spend its money had to think of economy last and of speed in getting the required material first. Speed was the first essential, and economy came in a very bad last. But at the period of the war in which we now are, economy is vital if the war is to be carried to a successful conclusion.

I ask your Lordships whether in the nature of things there can be the usual checks upon expenditure. Until the war began the country was spending £200,000,000, and no doubt all the items were duly and properly audited. But a staff of men auditing £200,000,000 a year have, after all, to give their real attention to comparatively few items. Take the case of any member of your Lordships' House. Supposing you went home to-night and were told that unfortunately part of your money had been made away with improperly by some one whom you had trusted. You would know at once that as regards a great many of the items there could be no question. As to things like house rent, taxes, allowances to your family, and so on, you would know exactly what they were, and you would know that if anything was wrong in your finances it was in connection with a very small part, perhaps 10 or 20 per cent., of your total expenditure. It is only as regards a small part that anything wrong could have taken place. In the nature of things it must be the same with Government finance. A staff auditing £200,000,000 of expenditure would know that a great part of it was a fixed sum which went on year by year, such as the interest on debt, Sinking Fund, certain big fixed payments, salaries, and so on, which do not vary from year to year, and it would only be to a comparatively small part of the £200,000,000 that the auditors would have to give their attention, perhaps to £20,000,000 out of the £200,000,000. What is the position today? We are told that we are spending nearly £3,000,000 a day, and it is quite likely to go higher. That means that we are spending £1,100,000,000 a year, and we have to get an audit and check of that sum. Well, last year you had only to audit nominally £200,000,000, and effectively I think you may say only £20,000,000. Is it possible that this extra £900,000,000 can under any system be properly checked and supervised in minute detail?

Now comes my suggestion. You have to-day what you have never had before. Up till now the State has been considered a very wealthy and rich institution, and if anybody did well out of the State by selling it anything at rather a high price, or by getting a pension out of it, or in any way profiting at the expense of the State, I am afraid the public rather sympathised with the individual than with the Government. I believe to-day the position is exactly the reverse. I have been away in the country for some days and have talked with a good many people about what is going on. I mentioned to many that I thought the taxation of the country must inevitably be largely increased at an early date, and in the course of those conversations I was struck with the willingness of everybody, whether poor or comparatively rich, to bear extra taxation; but almost all of them added, "But I want to see the money properly spent." Suggestions were made of this woman or that man getting a larger separation allowance or pension than should be the case, and there was also a good deal of comment on the way in which horses were being bought and the need of a more careful system. None of those cases was strong enough for me to take up and to bother busy men at the War Office with. I believe that if you had some machinery by which the public, whenever they saw anything wrong or which they believed to be wrong, could write to some Committee, that Committee would get an extraordinary number of suggestions within the next few months. Most of them, no doubt, would be worthless, but perhaps one in a hundred would point to some outlay that could be stopped. I think the Committee would find a percentage of the letters worth verifying and worth eventually, after examination, handing over to the Department of State concerned. It is a small plan this of mine. It might not lead to great results, but I believe it would enlist the whole of the country on the side of economy. It is a proposal which has this merit at any rate, that it would cost nothing. You could work it with a voluntary Committee. I think the plan would be a factor, if only a small factor, on the side of economy, and therefore I venture to press it upon the consideration of His Majesty's Government.


My Lords, I had half hoped that some other noble Lord might have desired to make a comment upon the proposal of my noble friend, which is one clearly of great interest to us all quite apart from the fact of my noble friend's experience of affairs and the keen interest which he has shown in this and in kindred subjects, which naturally impels us all to pay close attention to any suggestion that he offers. This proposal for the appointment of a Committee therefore deserves the best examination that we can give to it. Of itself the appointment of a fresh Committee is not a matter to be altogether lightly undertaken. There are already some thirty of these special War Committees, all dealing with weighty subjects though, of course, varying in their importance, and one is not at first disposed to look favourably upon a proposal to add to their number.

The proposition which my noble friend has set forward seems to divide itself under two heads. In the first place, I gather that he desired that this Committee—because he intended, I believe, that all the functions should be carried out by one body—should concern itself with the various schemes and inventions which individuals believe might be adapted for the purposes of the war; that the Committee should sift these schemes and inventions, throwing as he frankly admitted a large number of them into the waste paper basket; and that it should then forward those for which prima facie there seemed to be something to say to the particular Department concerned. I am not quite certain whether the operations of such a body would sensibly relieve the public Departments of the work which is thrown upon them by a large number of well-meaning, and in some cases well-informed, persons from outside. Unless the schemes were subjected to some kind of technical and expert examination the sifting of them by such a Committee as my noble friend suggests would not be easy and might not be of great value and I fear that it might end by the Department in the long run having to give much of the same attention to most of the schemes that they have to give at present. I do not know that it is altogether desirable to encourage the production of every species of suggestion made completely in vacuo, or to encourage the public to believe that if a Committee of this kind is set up such suggestions are likely to receive a degree of attention and examination which they do not receive at present. It would, I think, be very difficult to contend that any suggestion of value has not as a matter of fact received from the particular Department for whose benefit it was designed all the attention that it needs and deserves. It is very hard to suppose that any suggestion of value has been overlooked by a particular Department. Any inventor or deviser of a scheme who does not feel quite certain as to what Department he ought to apply to would only have to send it to the Prime Minister or to the Treasury, the Treasury being the general guardian of our public affairs, and by them it would undoubtedly be handed on to some other Department—for instance the War Office, the Admiralty, or the Board of Trade—who would be in a position to examine it critically.

The second proposition of my noble friend was devoted to a somewhat different field, in fact the field which was covered by the noble Viscount opposite (Lord Midleton) in the Motion which he made on Tuesday last and which led, as I understand, to an exceedingly interesting debate, from which I was unfortunately obliged to absent myself. My noble friend behind me (Lord St. Davids) thinks that in this matter of general economy the appointment of a Committee of this kind might prove to be exceedingly useful. There I by no means dispute what my noble friend says. I think we shall find—and I can assure both my noble friend behind me and my noble friend opposite that this matter is having the careful consideration of His Majesty's Government—that some kind of outside supervision of the action of the public Departments may be required if we are to make a long stride on the path towards a system of national economy. We should all agree that the difficulties in devising any such scheme are very great. It is not only not likely to be altogether acceptable to public Departments, but it may very easily be altogether unfair to subject their doings to outside scrutiny, particularly if that scrutiny does not possess the kind of responsibility to Parliament and the country to which we are accustomed. The matter, therefore, is one of great complication, but I do not think it is altogether impossible that some such form of general supervision might be devised. More than that it is quite impossible for me to say at present.

We cannot, of course, dispute, as my noble friend behind me stated, that at the earlier stages of the war there was some expenditure of a lavish character, some may think of an unduly lavish character. But I was very glad to hear from him—and he is able to speak with great authority—that what at one time appeared to be a mere parrot cry of employing business men instead of officials for all manner of official purposes was liable to carry with it its own dangers, and that in the matter of effecting positive savings in large expenditure such an enterprise might have entirely defeated its own object. There I entirely agree with my noble friend. Every effort has been made to utilise and to introduce into the conduct of public affairs both business and scientific knowledge and capacity. As the House well knows, the appointment of the Committee dealing with scientific inventions, over which so distinguished a man as Lord Fisher agreed to preside, is merely a continuation—as I hope a very effective continuation—of efforts that have been made to enlist scientific knowledge since the beginning of the war. In the same way, the Committee which is presided over by Lord Emmott possesses in its clearing house branch the means of getting the benefit of large commercial knowledge and experience. On the general question, therefore, although the scale of national expenditure and the methods of national disbursement may, as I hope, receive definite consideration in some such manner as has been described, I do not feel certain that the appointment of such a committee with very wide and almost miscellaneous functions such as my noble friend has suggested is a practicable method to be adopted at this moment. But I can assure him that we will further consider his suggestion in the light of the arguments which he has produced in favour of it.

With some observations which my noble friend made towards the close of his remarks I am sure we are all in sympathy—namely, that one of the benefits for which we may look from this war, which has brought in its train so many troubles and disadvantages as well as sorrows, is that the people of this country will be disposed to look with altogether different eyes upon the claims of the State, as such, for their consideration. It is quite true that in the past it has been the temptation of all sorts of people, both among the rich and among the poor, to regard the expenditure of public money with complete carelessness, and to look upon any share of that public money which might come their way as a windfall which might he picked up with both hands without any compunction or any uneasy conscience that the public interest as well as the public purse was adversely affected. I believe that as the war goes on, and after it has closed, the general attitude in this matter will be altered in the sense which my noble friend has described. That change in our national temper, if it comes about, is bound to be a most solid advantage from every point of view, both in itself and in the reaction which it ought and which it is likely to produce upon the habits of personal economy of the people of all classes.