§ [Relevant document: First Report from the Select Committee on Procedure (Supply), Session 1980ߝ81, (House of Commons Paper No. 118).]
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Newton.]7.11 pm
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Francis Pym)
The central purpose of tonight's debate is to give hon. Members an opportunity to express their views on this first report of the Select Committee on Supply procedure. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will wish to join me in thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) and his Committee for their hard work and their thoughtful and valuable contribution, which has made this debate possible. I feel sure that it is right that I should tonight take the views of the House fully into account before coming to a final decision on the terms of the motions that I shall bring forward in due course and which are necessary to implement such of the Committee's recommendations and changes as the Government believe appropriate and acceptable to the House.
I hope, nevertheless, that it will be helpful if at the outset I briefly remind the House of the background of the Committee's proposals, and demonstrate—in a provisional way—the Government's initial reactions. In the first place, I believe it to be common ground on both sides of the House that our existing procedures for the control of Supply and, in particular, for dealing with Main and Supplementary Estimates are inadequate in important respects and in need of reform.
That form and substance have long since gone their separate ways is obvious by the fact that Supply days are rarely concerned with matters of Supply, and that debates on Consolidated Fund Bills have generally very little, if anything, to do with those particular Bills. More than that, the House has at present little or no opportunity of debating departmental Estimates in any structured way. This widespread dissatisfaction—both inside and outside the House—with existing Supply procedures was, of course, the reason behind the Government's decision in 1980 to propose the establishment of the Select Committee. The Committee's main recommendations are set out in paragraph 102 of its report. As the House will be aware, they are in summary that there should in future be eight annual Estimates days on the Floor of the House devoted to the consideration of Main and Supplementary Estimates, and that an Estimates Business Committee should be appointed to recommend the particular Estimates to be debated on such days and the allocation of time.
It is also proposed that the present Second Reading debates on Consolidated Fund Bills should be replaced by an appropriate allocation of additional time to private Members, and that the present 29 so-called Supply days should be replaced by 19 Opposition days, and certain business traditionally taken in Supply time transferred to Government time. I refer to debates on the armed services, EEC matters, and so forth. As already in the evidence that Ministers have given to the Committee, the Government support the broad aim of those proposals.
In particular, the Government share the Committee's view that it is desirable that the House should be able to 68 devote more time on the Floor to the debate of Main and Supplementary Estimates; that that additional time should take the form of a number of Estimates days structured in such a way as to give priority to the debate of those Estimates that the House considers to be of especial importance; that the departmental Select Committees have an important advisory role to play in that process of selection; that the presently misleading concept of "Supply days" should be replaced by an appropriate number of Opposition days; and that the real purpose of debates on Second Readings of Consolidated Fund Bills should be acknowledged by substituting for them a compensating addition to private Members' time.
In considering the detailed recommendations made in the report, there are, I believe, certain general considerations and constraints that the House will wish to bear in mind. In the first place, I remind the House that whatever changes are made in our Supply procedures we need, as the Committee recognises, to ensure that they do not obstruct the mechanism whereby essential Supply is regularly granted to a Government, provided it has the support of the House. That is a continuing necessity, with regular financial and practical deadlines. The timing of the new Estimates days would, therefore, need to be flexible. And it would be important to ensure that there was no risk that a debate—which could be subject to last minute rearrangement—could impede the flow of money required for public administration. I would accordingly suggest that the timing of such days would need to be at the discretion of the Government.
Secondly, I suggest that it has to be accepted that, while the use to which Supply days and debates on Consolidated Fund Bills are currently put may have little to do with financial control, they nevertheless fulfil important other parliamentary purposes. Supply days may have little to do with Supply, but they obviously have a great deal to do with Opposition time. And the present debates on the Second Readings of Consolidated Fund Bills are important to the work of the House as a whole in providing opportunities for private Members to raise issues of their choice.
As the Committee recognises, it will, therefore, be necessary that any new arrangements should preserve the present de facto use of these procedures, albeit in a less misleading guise. It will also be necessary to preserve as far as possible the present balance in the allocation of time between Government, Opposition and private Members. I should be extremely reluctant to see any significant reduction in the overall amount of time that Back Benchers have to raise matters of constituency or personal concern. I believe that that is the view of the House.
Thirdly, it is obvious that in so far as more time on the Floor is devoted to the consideration of departmental Estimates, that can, in the nature of things, only be at the expense of other business. What we are considering here is largely a question of priorities between competing claims. If the House were to decide that a substantial number of days should be committed in advance, each Session, to the consideration of departmental Estimates, clearly Government business would have to be planned accordingly. The House would wish to find a way of doing that without increasing sitting hours. Some hon. Members might hope that it could be done with a reduction, but that is a refinement. It would depend to a large extent on the number of such days and the size of the legislative programme in a particular Session.
69 However, as I pointed out to the Committee in evidence, it would be unrealistic to assume, for example, that two or three days at present used for legislation could be used for Estimates debates without a significant increase in the pressures on the parliamentary timetable. Essential Government business would remain essential Government business, and I know that the House understands that. Any new procedure involving a particular number of annual Estimates days would inevitably be experimental. Its success would depend on the importance that individual Members attached to the opportunities for detailed debate of departmental Estimates which these days provided, and on the extent to which it proved possible to structure them in a useful and generally acceptable way.
The Government's provisional view is that the Committee's proposal that there should initially be as many as eight Estimates days would be likely to place unacceptable pressures on other business and on the parliamentary timetable as a whole, and that it would be more appropriate that any change should begin on the basis of three such days annually. I appreciate that that is a big difference, but experience would show whether this reflected the priority that the House attached to these occasions. Whatever number of days is decided upon, time would obviously have to be found for them.
Where any such three extra days, which I have suggested as a beginning, would come from would have to be a matter for further consideration. No doubt hon. Members will express their views on that this evening. Whatever number of days is decided upon as a beginning, time would have to be found for them.
§ Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)
This is a matter not only of the niceties of what the House thinks it should be doing but of our responsibilities to the electorate for scrutinising the way in which its money is being spent. Calculating the number of days that we may be hanging around or that the Government want is one issue. The other is whether we are doing our job for the taxpayers in looking at what the Government are doing with their money.
§ Mr. Pym
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We set up the Committee because we were not satisfied, any more than the House or people outside, with the way that we were dealing with Supply. It will be helpful to the House if at this stage I give an indication of the Government's initial reactions.
§ Mr. Joel Barnett (Heywood and Royton)
I notice that the right hon. Gentleman talked in advance about the possible reaction of the House to future Supply debates; in other words he was making excuses in advance. Will he also recognise that however many days he gives for Supply, the House would be helped if he accepted the strong recommendation of the Public Accounts Committee, endorsed by 300 Members on both sides of the House? Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that recommendation, too?
§ Mr. Pym
That is the subject of consideration by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who will make an announcement in due course. I am talking about the initial reaction to the substantial changes proposed by the Select Committee. It is in that spirit that the House will wish to debate the issue. It is wrong to talk about making excuses 70 in advance. No Leader of the House can make any changes unless the House wants them. The right hon. Gentleman knows that as well as I do.
My initial thought is that, on a basis of three Estimates days, if that were to be agreed, Government, Opposition and private Members might each give up a day of their present time. Those Estimates days would no doubt provide additional opportunities for Back Benchers. It might therefore be appropriate if there were some reduction in the time at present allocated to private Members' motions perhaps, for example, two half days. I put that forward as a proposition to be considered. Besides the question of where the necessary time for Estimates days is to come from, there are other aspects of the report that I should like to mention. Obviously, if the House were to adopt procedures to enable hon. Members to undertake on the Floor a detailed analysis of the entire range of departmental Estimates, the House would he able to undertake little else. The problem, therefore, is to find a method of selection, and of determining priorities in the allocation of the available time, that would be accepted by the House as fair and appropriate.
The Committee proposes that the job of recommending to the House the way in which Estimates days should be structured—and incidentally I think that debates on Supplementary Estimates might sometimes turn out to be more effective—should be given to a new Committee, called the Estimates Business Committee.
I am not sure that this is the best way or that it is necessary to have a new Committee. The Select Committee suggests elsewhere in the report that the departmental Select Committees might play an increasing part in the preliminary scrutiny of departmental Estimates and in drawing the attention of the House to particular Main and Supplementary Estimates which the House might want to debate. Clearly if Estimates days were introduced, there would be a greater incentive for Select Committees to give a higher priority to the scrutiny of those Estimates coming within their terms of reference.
That being so, I would have thought that it might be more appropriate if the present Liaison Committee of Select Committee Chairmen were to be entrusted with this task. After all, the departmental Select Committees are all represented there. That seems to be a simpler way. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), who is Chairman of the Liaison Committee, has a view about that.
As a further detail about the arrangements for those Estimates days, I wonder if it might be for the convenience of hon. Members if all Divisions on such days were to be taken together at, say, 10 o'clock. That would be contrary to the normal practice of the House, but it could be considered and might commend itself to the House.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
Is the right hon. Gentleman proposing that Estimates on one subject be debated for an hour and a half and that the Question be put at 10 o'clock after other questions have been debated? Although I can see the advantage of that to hon. Members, it would be breaking the fundamental rule of taking each question separately.
§ Mr. Pym
I was throwing that out as an idea that hon. Members might like to consider. On an Estimate day there might be a debate on only one Estimate or on two or three Estimates. That would be a matter of negotiation. If there 71 were more than one, it is for consideration whether the votes should be taken at 10 o'clock, notwithstanding that it would be contrary to normal practice.
The proposed replacement of Supply days with 19 so-called Opposition days is another proposal that would need to be considered in the light of other decisions. All the decisions are interrelated. The number of Estimates days finally agreed is relevant. But if as I suggested earlier, there were three such days, a total of 19 Opposition days would seem in line with an Opposition contribution of one day towards them.
Any changes in the arrangements for Opposition time will clearly require more consultation. But I would regard it as entirely reasonable that any such change should be made only on the clear understanding that the present days traditionally provided from Supply time for discussion of the Armed Services, EEC matters, Select Committee reports and Scottish affairs should in future be provided in Government time. Otherwise the Opposition would be giving up a good deal more than a day, and I believe that the House will wish to preserve the broad balance of time at present existing between the two sides of the House.
§ Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester)
The possibility of three Supply day debates on the Armed Forces being shifted to Government time has given me cause for great concern. Those are traditionally Supply day subjects. Is my right hon. Friend giving a guarantee that if those debates are moved to Government time all Governments will find time for a full debate on the White Paper and three separate debates on each Service, or is he hoping that a Government will be able to find time, should the debates be shifted?
§ Mr. Pym
All I am saying is that if we make a change from 29 Supply days to 19 Opposition days, the three days now provided by the Opposition as three of their 29 days in future would have to be provided by the Government. That time must be provided by the Government, not by the Opposition. That is part of the bargain in the reduction from 29 Supply days to 19 Opposition days. That matter would have to be considered in the light of the number of days that are chosen. We want to preserve the right balance between both sides of the House, as we have at present.
I also regard it as reasonable that it should be the aim of such discussions that the respective roles of Government and Opposition in decisions affecting the timing of the new Opposition days, and the days allocated to those items of obligatory House business that are at present traditionally taken in Supply time, should, as far as possible, remain the same as at present.
I also suggest that, from the Government viewpoint, there would need to be provision to permit essential Supply business to be taken, when necessary, on Opposition days; and that there should be a convention, as there is at present and has been for a long time, that the designation "Opposition days" need not preclude their exceptional use for general House business—as in the case, for example, of major debates extending over several days.
I want to say something now about the question of any allocation of Opposition time between the official Opposition and the other Opposition parties. This is obviously an important and controversial issue. The Select Committee considered it, and its conclusions are in paragraphs 98 and 99 of the report. Basically, it 72 recommended no alteration. The present practice has lasted a long time, and the House will no doubt wish to consider very carefully whether change is needed. It is the Government's intention today to give the House an opportunity to express views—before any motions are framed—about this and all other aspects of the report, and I have no doubt that Opposition Members will wish to do so.
As Leader of the House, I have a responsibility in these matters, as I have for almost all matters affecting the arrangements of the House, and I shall of course listen with particular interest to what is said by right hon. and hon. Members of all parties.
§ Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)
Does the Leader of the House agree that paragraph 98 of the Committee's report sets out a possible way of dividing the allocation of Opposition time between the official Opposition and what I shall call the unofficial Opposition? In paragraph 99 we are faced with no counter argument to what the Committee says in paragraph 98, with the conclusion that there should be no change in the present system. I hope, therefore, that the right hon. Gentleman will not be led astray, as he was last Thursday by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)—an unlikely alliance, if ever there were one—into standing firm on the basis that unofficial Opposition time must continue indefinitely to be a sort of grace and favour of the official Opposition. Will he accept that parliamentary arithmetic is such that that is ceasing to be a tenable proposition?
§ Mr. Pym
Clearly, the right hon. Gentleman will make that case later. I have a responsibility in these matters, as in all matters affecting the House. It is a controversial issue that clearly has to be decided one way or the other. The right hon. Gentleman and his party and other right hon. and hon. Gentlemen will make their views clear.
I should like to make one final detailed comment. This concerns the recommendations in the report dealing with proceedings on Consolidated Fund Bills and recess motions. These are pre-eminently matters for the House rather than for Ministers. While noting the Committee's view that any more general change in the present two-tier structure for granting money should wait until the completion of the full-scale review of the financial procedures of the House, the Government support the proposal that proceedings on Consolidated Fund Bills should be made formal. For my part, and bearing in mind the additional opportunities for private Members which other recommendations made in the report would provide, I would also have thought that it would be sufficient if, as proposed by he Committee, recess adjournment debates were in future limited to one-and-a-half hours.
§ Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)
The Leader of the House said that, of the three days that he was prepared to concede, one should come out of Back-Bench time, but if he agrees to this recommendation, more than one day of Back-Bench time will have then been lost.
§ Mr. Pym
I doubt whether that is correct although statistics for recent Sessions might lead one to suppose that it is. This debate, or this series of debates, has progressed over the years from a few minutes to rather a long time. The House must decide. The Committee made a recommendation, and I simply expressed a view that I thought that it had some merit.
73 As regards the proposed arrangements for the allocation of time to Back-Bench Members in lieu of Second Readings on Consolidated Fund Bills, I have already said that I would hope that any changes should not significantly lessen the total time available. I see some advantage in avoiding all-night sittings on at least some of these occasions, but, as I have said earlier, these are all very much matters for the general convenience of the House. I look forward with particular interest to hearing the views of hon. Members on these aspects of the report.
Finally, Mr. Speaker, I would point out to the House that this report is only part of the general programme of work that the Select Committee has set itself.
The Committee has decided—rightly in my view—that its particular proposals relating to Supply procedure contained in the report before us tonight can be considered in their own right and separately. It has also indicated its intention to examine a number of more general aspects of our financial procedures. In doing so, it will no doubt take into account the inquiry being undertaken by the Treasury and Civil Service Committee into the Armstrong report on the integration of tax and expenditure proposals.
The Government welcome these intentions. As proposed in this report, the Committee has now been reestablished with wider terms of reference. Ministers will continue to give the Committee all possible help in its inquiries.
It remains only for me to express again, on behalf of the House, the traditional but nevertheless genuine appreciation of the great amount of valuable work which has been done by my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing and his Committee in tackling this complex but crucial issue. All its members have served the House well, and I look forward with interest to hearing what right hon. and hon. Members say this evening, whether or not they were members of the Committee. I hope that in due course we can make further progress with these changes at a later stage.
§ Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)
The best way to begin is by reminding the House of something that I was told by an elderly Member when I first came here. He said "Always remember, Michael, that you are speaking for the next debate". That must be true of this debate.
The Leader of the House has said that he will introduce the necessary changes in Standing Orders in the light of our discussions here. I appreciate that, as I am sure does every member of the Committee.
However, there is a further debate. Our main recommendation was that a Procedure Committee should be set up again. That has happened, and we are grateful to the Government for it. The task of revising our financial procedures is too vast to be done in a single Session, and we did not feel that we could attempt it.
Most, if not all, of us thought that we could do certain things and do them fairly quickly. I shall not go into any details here, because I am sure that the right hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) will do so far better than I can. However, there is one matter that I wish to mention, and it is the one to which I referred in my intervention. The Committee, by a majority, suggested eight Estimates days. I think we would all accept that that was a first bid.
74 We might not have said eight. The right hon. and learned Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Thomas) suggested six, and many of us supported that.
There were alternative numbers of days. Nevertheless, three days, as proposed by Her Majesty's Government, as their response to eight, is, in my view, the smallest possible response. Three per cent. is a familiar figure these days, but in this case it is three days. What is peculiar is that the right hon. Gentleman suggested that that time should be taken in the following manner: one day from the Government, one day from the Opposition—this also effects the minority parties, as though the Government and Opposition were automatically regarded as equal—and from Back-Bench time a single day. That cannot be right. The right hon. Gentleman could have said four days possibly: two Government days, one official Opposition day and one Back-Bench day.
The Committee proposed—it is an open secret that not all of us were completely happy with this—that we should, in effect, curtail the debates on the Consolidated Fond Bill, which are in Back-Bench time. We arrived at a compromise that they should be contracted in time without being abolished. The right hon. Gentleman is agreeing with all that on three separate Consolidated Fund Bills, but one is much bigger than the other two. It relates to the main Estimates and the others to Supplementary Estimates. That is far more in totality, as the right hon. Gentleman admitted in response to my intervention, than a single day for Back-Benchers.
The right hon. Gentleman is saying that most of it should come from Back-Bench time. Perhaps he is making a bid and wants us to respond, so I do so. I do not believe that Back Benchers will accept those three Estimate days in response for more from them than from either the Government or the Official Opposition. Speaking, I believe, for hon. Members on the Opposition Benches of various parties, we do not regard ourselves—in totality a minority in the House—as being obliged to provide an equal share in comparison with the Government. The present 29 Supply days, some of which are used for governing, though not necessarily governmental, purposes, are by no means equal to all the time available to the Government.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman was putting in his bid as others have put in their bids. I am sure that he knew what he was doing and expected objections to the precise details of his proposals. Because they are proposals, and because time is short and many hon. Members wish to speak, I repeat only that the main importance of the report is in the matters that it sketches out for this Session's work.
The importance of those matters is in the earlier section, where we make the case for setting up a new Committee. We made a case on several grounds. We mentioned the audit referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Royton (Mr. Barnett). We mentioned the timing of the financial year and the Armstrong report.
We also mentioned the Contingencies Fund, in which I have a particular interest. Once it was a small fund of £100,000. It remained at that figure for the whole of the nineteenth century. It is now 2 per cent. of Supply. I am not sure exactly of the current figure, but it is over £2,000 million. Furthermore, it is not a maximum. It is a rolling figure. As soon as one replaces something by putting it in 75 the Estimates proper, the fund can be topped up. On occasion, more has been spent than was the theoretical maximum under the law.
The Contingencies Fund has been used for all sorts of interesting purposes. Originally it was to be used for urgent matters—a sudden disaster such as a tidal wave or something of that character. It has been used to replace the Lord Chancellor's robes. That is not a matter that greatly concerns me, but I cannot see the urgency of it. It has also been used without the authority or even the knowledge of the House to create an atomic bomb. That disturbs me. Since the fund has come to be used on a vast scale, almost anything can be done with it without the authority of Parliament.
It is doubtful whether that is legal. The fund can be replenished from the Estimates—the law is clear on that—but nobody explains how it can be spent. In the previous Parliament the Expenditure Committee commissioned a group of lawyers to consider the matter. Half of them said that is was illegal to spend money in that way, whilst the other half said that is was legal. The matter is in doubt. The adviser to our Committee took the view that it was unlawful. We must go further into the matter.
All that goes to the centre of the issue. The basic power of the House is to approve the appropriation of money to the purposes of the Government, which is in the title of the Appropriation Act. I believe that that provision is embodied in all the Commonwealth constitutions. It is written into the American constitution. They all derived it from us.
The power that we gained in the seventeenth century was to approve the main heads of Government expenditure. We have lost that power. We are never allowed to discuss the Appropriation Act when it is a Bill, because we are supposed to have discussed Supply resolutions. We are not allowed to discuss Supply resolutions, because the topics on the days when they are put forward are chosen by the official Opposition. Not only the minority parties, but hon. Members, apart from the Shadow Cabinet, are not allowed to choose the subjects on those days. That is what the Procedure Committee wishes to put right. We wish to provide some days—we shall not argue in detail about the number—when the majority of hon. Members—every hon. Member who is not in the Government, including Government Back Benchers—can discuss whatever they believe to be the detailed topics of interest in public expenditure.
It is only the first small step, but it will restore some control over expenditure to the overwhelming majority of hon. Members. That control has been taken away from us by whoever happens to be the minority in charge of the United Kingdom's Executive.
§ Mr. Terence Higgins (Worthing)
I thank my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for his kind remarks about me and the work of the Select Committee on Procedure (Supply).
The task of parliamentary reform is never easy. The late Richard Crossman's attempts, for example, over morning sittings were abortive. Recently we have had successful innovations, particularly those introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. JohnStevas) in the system of departmental Select Committees.
76 That reform gives us a springboard from which to tackle the most difficult area of all parliamentary reform—financial control and procedure.
We were fortunate in having a Select Committee appointed last Session whose members covered a wide political spectrum, ranging from the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) to the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), by way of such experts as the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English), my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) and my hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. Bruce-Gardyne) who is now the Economic Secretary to the Treasury. Therefore, it was perhaps remarkable that we produced a unanimous report, but I hope, for the same reason, that it will be relatively uncontroversial. Whether that is so will be more apparent by the end of the debate.
I begin by stressing that outside the House there is a widespread belief that Parliament controls the Executive through control of the purse strings. Although it is said that the supply of money shall not be granted until grievances have been heard and redressed, in reality it is virtually impossible for a Back Bencher to debate and vote on a particular item of public expenditure.
The principle of parliamentary control of the Executive in that way is largely a myth. That fact comes out clearly in paragraph 22 of the report. My right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) said:the way in which we fail to examine expenditure in my opinion is a disgrace in a modern Parliament".The right hon. Member for Heywood and Royton agreed, and said thatthe present position, whereby huge sums of money are granted to the Government virtually without debate, is quite intolerable in a democratically elected Parliament".We further comment:Government Ministers express similar views in rather more cautious terms".As my right hon. Friend said in opening the debate, there is widespread recognition of the fact that the present situation is intolerable and that changes are needed.
How can we establish reasonable scrutiny and control? Our first recommendation is that a new Select Committee should be established to consider the broader questions of financial procedures. It was fortunate in some ways that last year the Select Committee was set up for just one Session. That gave us a deadline and enabled us to advance specific proposals. However, there are many other issues that still need to be examined.
We recommended—I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to this—that the new Select Committee should be established in the new parliamentary Session without delay. I know that it is not my right hon. Friend's fault, but, unfortunately about three or four months of this Session passed before the new Committee was set up. It is therefore questionable whether the Committee that has now been established should be on a sessional basis rather than for the whole Parliament. Otherwise, there is some danger, for one reason or another, we shall again lose three or four months at the beginning of the next Session. I hope that my right hon. Friend is prepared to consider that point.
Our report considers some fundamental reforms of financial precedures. In part II, under that heading, we bring out two very important issues. The first is that there is no parliamentary control over Government borrowing or, indeed, over the creation of money. That is very important. That position may always have existed. When Henry V went to Agincourt, perhaps he did so on borrowed 77 money to avoid parliamentary control. None the less, that issue is so important today in terms of economic management that we must consider it.
Similarly, the report brings out the important point that, on the expenditure side of the equation, taking public expenditure as 100 per cent., Government expenditure is only 72.4 per cent. However, Supply expenditure is barely half of total Government expenditure. It is, therefore, outside the control of the House of Commons, even in theory. In reality, even that Supply expenditure is not under the control of the House. We need to consider the broader issues of financial control, which the recently established new Select Committee will consider in considerable detail. In other words, this is largely a first step in the right direction of reasserting parliamentary control.
I shall try to outline how the new system might operate. It would be necessary for the Estimates to be considered, and while we in no way rule out their examination by hon. Members individually—that may in practice turn out to be important—we none the less recommend that the system should be examined by the Select Committees concerned with the Departments.
That aspect raised many issues which we thought it right to consider carefully. The first was whether the Select Committee should be empowered to amend the Estimates. We described that aspect during our discussions as "amendability". However, we concluded that that would not be a satisfactory situation and that the Select Committee's role should be advisory rather than functional. Amending the Estimates would be similar to the Government being defeated in Standing Committee on a Bill. Instead of that, the Committee should have the power to recommend. Having done that, the matter would return to the Floor of the House on the Estimate days which we believe the Government ought to make available.
§ Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)
Before my right hon. Friend leaves that point, did we not also have in mind the important consideration that if Select Committees were given the power to amend the temptation for the Government and Opposition Front Benches to pack the Committees with amenable Members might prove irresistible in practice.?
§ Mr. Higgins
Without being cynical, that consideration was drawn to our attention by those concerned about such a development.
I take up the point made in my right hon. Friend's opening remarks about our proposals for an Estimates Business Committee. We believed that if the Select Committee considered the Estimates and recommended that some should be amended and debated on the Floor of the House, many such recommendations might come before us, and time to consider them would be comparatively limited. Therefore, some process of selection would be needed to determine which should be debated and voted on, although it would be possible for some to be voted on without being debated.
We gave considerable attention to that aspect. My right hon. Friend said this evening that one might perhaps use the Liaison Committee as a means of such selection. With great respect, that is not as satisfactory a solution as the institution that we recommend. There is no reason why members of the Liaison Committee should be particularly expert in deciding what priority should be given to the 78 debating of Estimates. We gave much thought to that aspect. We envisaged not some grand Committee, hut some modest affair that would merely have the task of selecting which Estimates ought to be debated on the Floor of the House.
The other major issue that concerned us—we deal with it in paragraph 67—was whether amendments or recommendations should be allowed—rather as recommendations are made on the salaries of Members of Parliament—for an increase in the Estimates, as against a decrease. Again our view was not shared by everyone in Committee. We generally believed that it ought not be changed and that the initiative for proposing expenditure, or increases in it, should continue to rest with the Government. On both those points, as a first step, we made a comparatively modest suggestion.
The crucial point, of course, is debating and voting on these matters on the Floor of the House. The hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) suggested that hon. Members in Committee considered that the eight Estimates days ought to be advanced. With great respect, we did not take the view that that was somehow an opening bid which would then be negotiated. If I recall correctly, although it may not be in the published record, our general view was that we ought not to do that, but should quote a figure which we thought was genuine and sensible for the House to bear in mind. It was not simply an opening bid.
§ Mr. English
The right hon. Gentleman will recollect that an amendment was moved by the right hon. and learned Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Thomas). If there was not a formal Division on that, the eight days were carried by the voices, as it were.
§ Mr. Higgins
The fewer numbers game is obviously something on which a great deal of attention will need to be focused. We advanced the figure of eight, not as an opening bid, but as a reasonable figure. My right hon. Friend has come back this evening with a figure of three—one from each of the interested parties, so to speak, although the total number now available to each of the different parties differs greatly. Therefore, it is a somewhat dubious arithmetical calculation to take an equal number from each of them.
It is clearly not desirable that we should begin with a large number of days and find that the House simply does not use them. That would be an undesirable situation, and therefore I should not necessarily want to say that eight is essential. None the less, it seems that three is a little too low, because much attention will need to be focused on Supplementary Estimates—as many hon. Members said—as well as the Main Estimates. Therefore, we ought to consider this matter further.
When the motions are eventually put down implementing my right hon. Friend's proposals in the light of discussions in the House and elsewhere, no doubt they will be amendable. Since they are matters for the House and not for the Government, they will presumably be on a free vote. We will need to give careful thought to those aspects, because this is obviously a question of quantity rather than something of a qualitative nature.
§ Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that Expenditure Committees in the past discussed these matters very lightheartedly. A big problem that we faced was to 79 concentrate the minds of hon. Members attending those debates on discussing these matters in the sort of detail expected from them. The subsequent Expenditure Committee, departmental Committees and others never devoted their attention to considering these matters. That was the great criticism made of them. One can only hope that the situation will change. However, to go for eight is rather ambitious in view of the history that we have observed over previous attempts of this sort.
§ Mr. Higgins
I understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes. I was intending to return to it. It is a matter of opinion. The last thing that we want is to have far too many days and to find that the whole idea is a flop. That would not be in anyone's interest. At the same time, one has to consider—I take the point about timing—that there are Supplementary Estimates and a large number of Main Estimates. This is not a matter of principle. It is a matter of negotiation and further consideration.
As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has said, we have suggested that the main Supply day that has become meaningless over the years should be replaced by Opposition days and that specific proposals should be made with regard to Government time. The point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) about the Armed Forces debate will need to be covered. We have also suggested various changes in private Members' time, which, on balance, will be advantageous. We are left therefore with the proposal that will enable the House of Commons, for the first time in many years, perhaps almost centuries, to examine public expenditure in a reasonable manner and to take specific decisions about it.
There is obviously the real danger, to which the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) has referred, that the House does not wish to take this opportunity. That is something that we can discover only by trying. I believe that the atmosphere in a number of Select Committees is favourable to the idea of examining Estimates. This would provide hon. Members with the chance to advance their views on general policy, but focused on a specific financial decision on the Floor of the House.
One of the problems connected with Select Committees is that the opportunities for debating the many excellent reports that they produce are small in number. There are, of course, dangers. It is possible that the debates that we would like to devote to the Estimates would become general debates of a Supply day kind. This matter will have to be carefully considered. If, however, the proposals are considered as a whole they will, I hope, be seen as modest. At the same time, I believe that they are fairly radical. They are a first step. They are self-contained. I hope that the House will agree to the proposals and so enable the House to make progress in an area which for too long, has remained unreformed.
§ 8.2 pm
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
I endorse the remarks of the Leader of the House about the work of the Committee and its Chairman, whom I am pleased to follow in this debate. Hon. Members are grateful for the work that has been done. We are also pleased that it is continuing in the form of the Select Committee 80 considering financial procedures although, as the right hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) has stated, it got off to a delayed start.
It is difficult to come to a judgment on some of the issues raised in the main report without the benefit of the advice that will eventually be received from the Select Committee that is now considering financial procedures. There is much more to the issue than appears on the surface in the form of the parliamentary procedures within which it is handled. Hon. Members will want to discuss that matter in much more detail. I intend to devote most of my short speech to one issue, the position of minority parties in relation to Supply time, and I regret that this report should have become involved in the issue.
I wish to refer first, however, to some of the wider questions. The procedures that appear to the world as the means of financial control in this House are used for completely different purposes. They are used to provide time for Opposition parties. They are used to provide time for hon. Members to ventilate grievances. These are legitimate objects. They are not objects, however, for which the procedures, which occupy a great deal of the time of the House, appear to be designed. On the other hand, the House has no alternative procedures for replacing what I might call its lost opportunities to deal with the control of public finance. The House also has no means—it seems never to have had any—of scrutinising some other aspects that are important to financial policy, such as borrowing. As the right hon. Member for Worthing has shown, the House has no mechanism for regulating or scrutinising Government borrowing. Hon. Members must examine carefully our procedures and structure and the manner in which the Civil Service is locked into our procedures.
It is a paradox that real significance is attached to our complicated Supply procedures within every Government Department. The possession of the appropriate bit of paper based on the appropriate Vote in the House is a matter of considerable consequence in Government Departments. The seriousness with which the price of paper is viewed is not related to any serious discussion in this House of the issue to which the paper gives rise and the policies that flow from it. We have an elaborate apparatus that clearly controls how the Civil Service operates but which is not covered on our side by any serious policy discussions on the economic matters involved. This illustrates my belief that the whole process is interlocked: that is why the report of the Select Committee dealing with financial procedures will be so important.
A number of matters within the present report are interesting and worth exploring. The concept of the Estimates Business Committee did not meet with an enthusiastic response from the Leader of the House. It contains, I believe, the seeds of something more promising. It is reasonable that many aspects of our business, including our financial business, should be handled by some kind of business committee. This could go wider than the initial purpose put forward. I am surprised that Back Benchers do not join forces with minority parties to demand procedures for the regulating of business in which they are directly involved.
I do not think that there is a legislative assembly in Europe that does not have some kind of business committee taking the ultimate responsibility for the allocation of time and the arrangement of business. Within the Liaison Committee hon. Members have seen the 81 growth of a new kind of body that speaks, in certain respects, on behalf of Back Benchers. I do not see it taking the role that the Leader of the House wanted to pass to it in this instance. It illustrates, however, that there are responsibilities that should be exercised by representatives of Back Benchers that do not find a proper place in the usual channels and the more discreet procedures in which we have hitherto engaged.
I was disappointed by the fifth recommendation on increases in expenditure, not because I want to change the basic principle that the Government initiate expenditure but because I believe that debate can be distorted if Opposition parties and Back Benchers cannot be seen to be putting propositions on the table when they are arguing with the Government of the day on a particular matter of expenditure. It is often the case, I have found, in arguments on matters of this kind and in Finance Bill debates that an Opposition party or a Back Bencher want to put forward serious alternatives that involve some reduction in expenditure, some release from present commitments and some increase in other areas. The hon. Member involved is challenged constantly by Ministers who say that he is keen to say that more money should be spent but not prepared to commit himself or that he is always ready to attack the Government's expenditure priorities but not to present his own alternatives.
It is right that Opposition parties and Back Bench Members should be challenged to put their cards on the table if they wish to put forward an alternative strategy for the economy as a whole or some part of it. But the House denies them the opportunity if it does not allow propositions for greater expenditure to be placed on the Order Paper. I do not challenge the general principle that the Government initiate expenditure and come to the House to seek Supply for it. Our debates and procedures should, however, allow alternatives to what the Government propose to he placed upon the table.
§ Mr. Robert Sheldon
The hon. Gentleman puts forward an attractive idea that has been suggested a number of times in the past. As he will know, when these matters come before the House, the party of which I am proud to be a member looks generally for savings in defence while Conservative Back Benchers look for savings in waste. The alternatives are not so difficult as the hon. Gentleman may think.
§ Mr. Beith
I am not sure what the right hon. Gentleman means by his intervention. It does not challenge the point I was arguing. The extraordinary belief of the dwindling band of hon. Members who belong to the Parliamentary Labour Party that one can raid the defence budget to finance everything under the sun is not a belief that I share. It is not an option. I do believe that the Government have their defence priorities wrong. They should not be buying Trident: there should be greater spending on conventional defence to meet the real threat facing this country and its allies. However, any attempt to advance such arguments in certain of our financial procedures would result in half the argument being allowed but not the other half.
I turn to the recommendation that particularly concerns the Liberal Party. Unfortunately, this important report was marred by an unhelpful excursion into the more controversial area of Opposition time and minority parties. The present system is highly unsatisfactory. The report's 82 recommendation would impose the same system, backed by all the authority of the Select Committee, on a more limited number of Supply days.
I have dealt with both Labour and Conservative Opposition Chief Whips, and in what I shall say 1 intend no personal attack on any of them. I simply draw attention to some of the difficulties that arise if it is assumed that the right of any other Opposition party to propose a subject for debate is at the discretion of the largest Opposition party. The report seeks to retain and reinforce that assumption in our procedures.
First, if it is accepted that the rights of other Opposition parties are at the discretion of the largest party, it becomes extremely difficult for the smaller parties to obtain time at all. When the Select Committee reported, over a period that extended for more than one Session, only half a day had been granted to any minority Opposition party al all. Furthermore, in the 1980–81 Session, one-half of the one day that the Liberal Party eventually managed to squeeze out of the official Opposition was secured in the two-week spillover period after the Summer Recess, and the other half was not obtained until the 1981–2 Session, so we are in fact running about a whole Session behind in the allocation of Supply time.
§ Mr. English
The hon. Gentleman will recollect, as I said earlier, that if Estimate days are available to non-ministerial Members of the House that will include members of the hon. Gentleman's party and arty other minority party. If the system is fair, they will thus acquire some rights that they do not at present have.
§ Mr. Beith
That may be an attractive argument. but we are talking about two different things. One is the important right of Back Benchers to have access to the time of the House, a principle to which the House has not always given sufficient attention and which I support. Secondly, however, there is the right of parties other than the largest Opposition party to put propositions before the House. That is assumed by the Select Committee report not to be a right at all but a matter for the choice and discretion of the largest Opposition party.
Experience shows how difficult it is to have that discretion exercised in favour of a smaller party, even when it has significant representation in the House. Moreover, because the matter is assumed to be at the discretion of the largest Opposition party, the minority party is plainly open to pressure. Any representative of a minority party who goes to the largest Opposition party and suggests that it is time that his party had some tiny element of the Supply time at the larger party's disposal may find himself being told that it depends upon the issue that his party wishes to raise.
At any given time, there may be issues which the largest Opposition party does not wish to be debated at all. It is a fallacy to suppose that the official Opposition always wish to have everything on the table and every possible issue raised. There may be some issues on which they are not at all keen. To take a hypothetical example, there was a long period when the Labour Party did not wish to debate Polaris or the Chevaline project through which the Labour Government modernised Polaris. One understands Labour Members' feelings, but the fact remains that, for reasons of their own, they did not wish certain subjects to be debated at that time.
§ Mr. Hooley
The hon. Gentleman's example is very peculiar. As he well knows, defence is debated year after year, so it was open to anybody at that time to raise the matter of Polaris, Chevaline or anything else.
§ Mr. Beith
The hon. Gentleman should know that there was no debate on Trident and the replacement of Polaris until, interestingly enough, the Liberal Party secured a Consolidated Fund debate in the early hours of the morning, having attempted to secure such a debate for about 18 months. Nevertheless, I said that my example was hypothetical. No doubt hon. Members can think of other subjects which the largest Opposition party at any particular time may not have wished to be discussed in a debate led by a particular minority party or indeed at all, or subjects that it did not wish to be debated until it was ready to agree on its own policy.
I make that point to emphasise that it is not a happy position for a minority party to have to ask for some of a larger party's time for a debate that the larger party may not necessarily welcome.
§ Mr. Charles R. Morris (Manchester, Openshaw)
I have tried to follow the hon. Gentleman's argument closely. He gives the impression that the Labour Opposition have somehow coerced the Liberal minority party in the selection of subjects for debate. I have investigated the way in which the Liberals actually used the time made available to them. On 26 November 1981, they chose law and order and interest rates. On 1 July 1980, they chose prices and incomes policy. I cannot imagine any Labour Opposition taking exception to a debate on issues of that nature.
§ Mr. Beith
It is quite clear that the right hon. Gentleman was not listening to what I said. Incidentally, the interval between the two dates he quoted is significant and I hope that the House will take note of it. We have it on the authority of the Labour Front Bench that no Supply day debate was given to the Liberal Party between July 1980 and November 1981.
As I have said, I have dealt with both Labour and Conservative Chief Whips. I wish neither to break any confidences of the exchanges that I had with them nor to criticise individuals to develop the argument—which I am sure that in their quieter moments they would accept as reasonable—that minority parties can be put under unreasonable pressure if they are dependent on another party for debating time. I put the argument another way. Can anyone imagine the official Opposition going to the Government to ask for Supply days on the basis that the Government could ask what they proposed to debate, and decide their response according to whether or not they approved the subject?
We want the same relationship with the Government as the official Opposition already have. We want a free choice of a reasonable amount of time relative to our strength in the House, or whatever other criterion is recognised as relevant, and to have free use of that time within the same limitations as any other party.
By what right is the allocation of time left entirely to the discretion of the largest of the Opposition parties? The official Opposition may be less and less willing to exercise that discretion in our favour if under these proposals they have to part with a larger fraction of a smaller total. Technically, the Opposition are not intended to lose as a result of the proposals, because what is removed from 84 Supply time, which becomes Opposition time, is time that is already allocated in various ways. Nevertheless I anticipate that an Opposition Chief Whip, from whatever party, will argue that he would have only 19 days in which to raise debates, and that he will therefore allocate to the minority party a still smaller fraction than he did on previous occasions when the minority party Whip spoke to him. That is not a satisfactory way of ensuring that the rights of minority parties are dealt with. It is not a satisfactory basis on which minority parties can have the freedom to put forward their proposals and arguments. That position will look increasingly unrealistic if the debate in the country is a three-way debate rather than the two-way debate that some hon. Members seek to preserve, despite what is happening outside. It will be an unrealistic House of Commons that approaches the next general election if it preserves the present arrangement of Government and Opposition, which does not reflect the three or more choices that the public are exercising.
The Leader of the House recognised that this was a controversial issue, on which there are strong feelings, and a matter of interest and legitimate concern to him as Leader of the House and to many parties. I do not wish to detract in any way from the arguments advancing the other purposes served by the report. The report serves the important purpose of gaining more financial scrutiny in the House. Nevertheless, the minority parties will not surrender the fundamental point that we should have the right to exercise our freedoms in the House.
No doubt the official Opposition, the largest of the Opposition groups, will argue later that they must examine carefully what happens to Opposition time. That time is not Labour Party time, but time available to all who wish to challenge the Government's view. Parties other than the Labour Party challenge that view. They are entitled to freedoms in the House as much as anybody else.
§ Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)
This is an important debate and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is right to give right hon. and hon. Members the opportunity to express a view upon Supply. He made a specific suggestion about the Liaison Committee of which I have the honour, for the time being, to be chairman. Of course, I shall ensure that his view is considered.
I was interested in what the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said about the work of the Liaison Committee in general and the need for somebody in the House to have the responsibility of expressing the view of Back Benchers. Many of us have seen that need and for that reason we thought it appropriate to have conversations between the Parliamentary Labour Party and the 1922 Committee. I should like to believe that the discussions have made real advances in the conditions of Members over a long period.
I refer to the suggestion by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on the part that the Liaison Committee might play in procedure. Perhaps what the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) said is right and perhaps the suggestion in the report is a better suggestion. We shall see.
I wish to speak about only one matter. There is and should be only one matter of importance in the debate. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed talked about the time that minority parties might have for debate. The 85 position of the parties has changed since the report was published. The numbers in the SDP have changed and perhaps these matters should be reconsidered. That which unites Back Benchers is perhaps more important than what is to the SDP and the Liberal Party a crucial matter in relation to time allowed for debates and more important than petty sectional party interests. We are all party men and proud of it, but we are parliamentarians first.
§ Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)
The right hon. Member for Tauntom (Mr. du Cann) has done great service to the House in his work on Estimates, expenditure and the conditions of Members. He might wish to reflect a little on what he said about pettiness. Surely the House must be the forum for the whole nation. It must be able to reflect the debate taking place in the country. As the right hon. Gentleman said earlier, it must be right to look again at the issue. It is not a minor issue but a major issue for many millions of people outside the House.
§ Mr. du Cann
The right hon. Gentleman should not allow his new-found ambition for his new-found party to mislead his judgment. He will have plenty of opportunities to make that point and others. Nothing matters more to us, as the trustees of the nation that we are privileged to serve, than to see that Supply is better handled. We are parliamentarians first, whatever our party. It is no bad thing to recall that duty in the debate and to resolve to fulfil it better.
The report started well. It contains some excellent material. Its sentiments are fine. In its conclusions it states:We have stressed the need for fundamental reform of the financial procedures of the House of Commons.That is impeccable. It goes on:We have drawn particular attention to the lack of effective control, a lack of relationship between the expenditure and taxation proposals put before the House.Perhaps, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing and the Leader of the House know, that latter complaint is something that the Treasury Select Committee's inquiries into Armstrong may resolve. The report refers tothe inadequacy of the present form of the estimates as a means of proper control.The following paragraph puts forward recommendations to providea real opportunity for the House to begin to re-assert its historic function of scrutinising and controlling public expenditure.Do the proposals of hon. Members and the Leader of the House measure up to those impeccable sentiments? Do they measure up to the challenge that the House set when it established the Committee and which members of the Committee acknowledged in their report?
The mood of the House in recent years has been decisively in favour of tipping the balance towards Parliament and away from the Executive. That is necessary and right. It is our historic duty. Over the years power has moved seemingly inexorably towards the Executive and away from the people's representatives in the House. The right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) was polite about my services in the House. Many hon. Members are determined to restore the balance in favour of Parliament. We have made some improvements. Perhaps the new Select Committee system is one such improvement. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) deserves credit for ensuring that motions were tabled for decision so early in the life of this Parliament.
86 Perhaps a change in the Comptroller and Auditor General's status will be another improvement. I wonder why that change has to be forced upon Government. The debate in the House a few months ago did not bring the matter to the attention of the House for the first time. Successive Public Accounts Committees reported on the matter. I hope that we shall hear views from the chancellor of the Exchequer within the next week or two rather than within the next month or two.
We all agree that the heart of the matter is in the control of public finance. We can talk about springboards, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing and the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) who has such an honourable history in such matters. Perhaps there is a springboard. I am anxious that there should be.
The Committee was set up to meet the discontent about Supply. All of us, almost without exception, thought that it was too easy — and has been habitually — for the Government to get their estimates. My right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing was kind enough to quote me as saying that the way in which we failed to examine expenditure was, in my opinion, a disgrace in modern Parliament. He also quoted the right hon. Member for Heywood and Royton (Mr. Barnett) who stated thatthe present position, whereby huge sums of money are granted to the Government virtually without debate, is quite intolerable in a democratically elected Parliament.He did not quote the Clerk Assistant who said:For practical purposes the scrutiny of particular estimates has been abandoned.That is the truth and it is a scandal and a shame. It must be changed. The only question that we are discussing is how that is to be achieved.
We can welcome some of the realistic ideas and remedies in the report. No doubt the report will take an honoured place among the many previous reports on financial procedures, and so on. What bothers me—I state my view very plainly to the House—is that I suspect and am afraid that like them it may lead us into the sands. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House does not mind my saying plainly to his face—although I happen to be standing beside him—that overall the report is not as exciting as I had hoped. It is something of a disappointment. If hon. Members sincerely want to change the balance between the Government and the House—that is the point at which the Committee started and on which, we are all agreed—they must not be over-excited by the report.
Like so many previous exercises of this kind, the report bases itself fairly and squarely on the fallacy that the Government can be forced to change their detailed spending plans by amendments moved by Back Benchers on the Floor of the House. hi our heart of hearts we all know that that is not the case. All our experience over the years is that no Estimate will be cut by a Back Bench amendment moved on the Floor of the House. In Committee, it is different. Hon. Members can be persuaded by their colleagues; they have the evidence and they see civil servants. We have had masses of evidence—especially over the last few years—of the way in which Committees with Government majorities are willing to criticise the Government of the day on the evidence before them. But when the matter is debated on the Floor of the House wholly different considerations apply. A Government defeat on the Floor of the House affects their credibility on all issues, not just the one under 87 debate. A Government debate becomes a platform matter; there are votes on it. Governments do not like publicity of that sort; nor do their ordinary supporters like it. Party disciplines and loyalties are inevitably strong in a debate on the Floor of the House. It is a cardinal fact of parliamentary life that Governments can be criticised in Committee and can be beaten there in debate. Back Benchers rarely win a Division against them on the Floor of the House.
The proposal that I put to the Procedure Committee, which is printed in the evidence—I will not go through it in detail—was founded on that fact of life. I do not say that it was a perfect proposal, but I was pleased that the right hon. Member for Heywood and Royton thought along the same lines. My proposal was that we should leave it to Select Committees to amend the Estimates but downwards only. No one wants to suggest that we should amend the Estimates upwards. If that were done, it would be for the Government to move amendments on the Floor of the House to restore those cuts if they wanted. By those means, the Government of the day would be put on the defensive.
§ Mr. John Garrett (Norwich, South)
It is quite true that in theory the hon. Gentleman's proposals make a great deal of sense. However, is it not also true that the Estimates are not organised in a form that would make any sense of debate in Committee. Since the Estimates are not in the form of individual services or programmes, how could a Committee alter individual services or programmes? His reform therefore requires a substantial change in the form of the Estimates before we can make any progress.
§ Mr. du Cann
The hon. Gentleman's interruption gives me an opportunity to pay, not for the first time, a tribute to him for all his constructive work over a long period.
What the hon. Gentleman says is entirely right. The Estimates need a dramatic recasting. They may be convenient from the point of view of the Comptroller and Auditor General and from a number of other points of view, but as meaningful exercises in the production of proposals for expenditure that would enable the House to appreciate exactly what money is being spent on, and to set up machinery for examining them and controlling them, they are nothing more nor less than a farce.
It is perfectly true that over the years various Committees, and hon. Members have been able to effect some improvements in the presentation of Estimates. There are more to come as a result of the work of the Treasury Select Committee. In truth, they are only a beginning. They need a complete recasting. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that, sooner or later, that is what we must have.
If my proposals are accepted, Governments would be placed upon the defensive. Ministers would have to defend publicly their proposed Estimates in the House. They would have to persuade hon. Members publicly to support them at the precise points at which the proposals are most questionable. That would be a thoroughly healthy process and would be welcome.
I suggested that we should make the Estimates negotiable. As a result, our Estimates days would consist of a series of debates in which the Government would have 88 to persuade us that they were right and that the Committee that had wanted to reduce the Estimates or change the emphasis on the various subheads was wrong. That proposal should not alarm Ministers. In nine cases out of 10—perhaps more—the cuts would duly be restored on the Floor of the House. However, next year, the Department concerned might be a little more cautious in the Estimate. On the tenth occasion, it might not win. The balance would tilt slightly away from it.
That should not alarm the Government, as it would not be a resigning matter. On current form, The Times—if it lasts much longer—might support the Government with the headline "Government hold together in crucial test—defeated by only a few votes". The House would have a better opportunity to question what is being done in detail and the public would see that the trustees—in whom they have such faith and whom they believe to pace out the parameters of public expenditure—carry out their duties honourably.
The debate is short, and I shall not go into great detail, because hon. Members can see the report. Of course, there would be difficulties in implementing such an idea. The Committee gave too much weight to the difficulties and did not do enough to resolve them. It saw the trees beautifully, but was not quite so clear about the wood. I am constantly disappointed because there always seem to be a thousand reasons for not doing anything and for not reforming our procedures as radically as I should like.
The House should give the Committee two cheers for the report. There will be better opportunities for debate. In addition, it is urged that the Estimates should be formally submitted to each Committee. I am not sure what that means. As has been said, in the past, in the days of the old Estimates and Expenditure Committees, reports were often made on Estimates, and then placed on the shelves in the Library. However, it is no good having mere reports unless some action follows. Without action, Select Committees will quickly lose their enthusiasm for considering the Estimates. Before we know where we are, we shall return to the old system under which hundreds of millions of pounds were voted on the nod without any proper examination.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said that the Government must get their money. Of course they must. However, they must not be allowed to do so before the House has had a proper opportunity to examine the proposals and before it has been able to express its view on them.
§ Mr. English
I agree with every word that the right hon. Gentleman has spoken. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is a difference between the Government getting their money or Budget judgment in totality, and the Government getting a sum for a particular purpose? The Americans make that distinction clearly, by separating the two decisions.
§ Mr. du Cann
I very much agree with that. We must have the power, authority and opportunity to scrutinise what is being done.
I have listened to the admirable speeches that have been made but I cannot help thinking that my reservations are exacerbated because the Government appear to be accepting the report. That makes me nervous.
We began as a reforming Parliament. I end as I began by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for 89 Chelmsford. We started in that mood. We are now half way through its life, and I want to see this Parliament remembered as a reforming Parliament. I hope my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing and his Committee—now happily re-established, I hope, for the lifetime of this Parliament—will take the view that we must take this process considerably further. Having begun, it would be tragic not now to be totally and unanimously resolved to make further and better progress. Let us grasp the nettle. That is what we want to do and what the nation expects us to do.
§ Mr. John Garrett (Norwich, South)
As many Members have said already, this is a useful report. It is really a useful introduction or preface to a report. As the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) said, a much more important report has yet to be written.
I pay tribute to the effectiveness and good sense of the Chairman of the Committee who, I am glad to see, cannot hear these praises. Although he would not say so himself, he had a difficult job. If we consider what happened, we realise that this Committee was crippled from the start by some of the decisions of the Leader of the House.
If we ask ourselves why it was set up, we find that it was as a result of a recommendation of the Procedure Committee of 1977–78, on which I had the honour to serve. That Committee criticised the totality of financial control and scrutiny by the House and called for a review. In paragraph 2 of its report it said:This review should be a wide-ranging one"—and that a Committee, that is this one—which was later set up should examine Supply days, opportunities for considering detailed expenditure programmes, procedure for authorising expenditure in connection with Bills, procedure for considering Consolidated Fund Bills, revenue raising and expenditure proposals and the conventions relating to the initiative on proposing expenditure and taxation increases.That Procedure Committee had in mind a thorough examination of the financial procedures of the House. What we got was a Committee on Supply. The terms of reference covered only Supply. It was called the Procedure (Supply) Committee, but Supply covers only half of public expenditure. Moreover, it is the half about which we know most, as the report says. None of the non-Supply expenditure comes before the House. That is 50 per cent. of public expenditure—local authority expenditure, capital expenditure of certain public corporations and net debt interest, for example. That Committee had the wrong terms of reference for a start. That may have been an unfortunate accident, but such accidents have a habit of multiplying.
The next thing was that the Committee was set up for a Session. It could never consider all of Supply in one Session. It did not meet until January, and it had to get a report out in July. It had six months in which to consider Supply, so it was able to consider only some strictly procedural aspects. It never considered the form of the accounts—a crucial matter. The form of the accounts bears no relationship to policy decisions in Departments and therefore cannot be properly examined.
That Committee finished its work and we are discussing its report today. As we have all seen, the Committee said that the important work was yet to be done. The Leader of the House then set up as a Sessional Committee a Committee to consider financial procedures. It did not 90 meet until the first week of February, and it has to produce a report by July. Therefore, it has to get all its work done by June. There is no way in which a Select Committee can in six months consider financial control of the House. Therefore, the current Procedure Committee is crippled from the start unless it is allowed to run over more than one Session.
The Committee will start to consider financial control, it will realise that it has only six months in which to produce an interim report and it will have to wait from about July 1982 to about February 1983 before it can resume its work. Therefore, it will not be possible for the Committee to meet its terms of reference. I understand that the subject and the period during which the Committee will sit are discretionary matters for the Leader of the House.
I considered what had happened to parliamentary reform and I felt obliged during Business Questions last week to observe that the Leader of the House had refused to use the new Public Bill procedure to allow Standing Committees to sit in Select Committee form to hear evidence. That was a useful procedure and everybody liked it. It was going quite well, but we knew that Ministers did not like it.
The Leader of the House has refused to reintroduce that procedure and he has refused also to allow the House to have control of the Comptroller and Auditor General, a proposition that had the support of both sides of the House. It would be a crucial reform. We shall not be able properly to examine public expenditure until the House takes control of the Comptroller and Auditor General and he becomes a Servant of the House, as he was intended to be in the first instance. That is what was intended in 1861 in Gladstone's time.
The Leader of the House has again set up the Committee on a Sessional basis, and again it will be unable to meet its terms of reference. When I put this to the right hon. Gentleman he replied:That is not an appropriate question from the Opposition. We have made more changes and advances in our procedures than the Labour Government."—[Official Report, 11 February 1982; Vol. 17, c. 1120.]That was a churlish answer, but I admit that it was true. The Conservative Government under the right hon.Gentleman's predecessor made some great advances. They are advances of which we shall be proud when we consider parliamentary control of the Executive.
When I say that to my colleagues some of them become annoyed, but I repeat it. The right hon. Gentleman's predecessor, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas), was the most significant reformer of our procedures since the late Richard Crossman. Many of Richard Crossman's efforts came to nought, but it seems that many of the efforts of the rght hon. Member for Chelmsford will stick with us, and I pay credit to him.
It is true that the Labour Government were not interested in parliamentary reform. It is to their credit that the present Government have made some great and substantial changes. These were made when the right hon. Member for Chelmsford was Leader of the House, but since then the changes have come to a sudden stop. That is regrettable.
The Committee was hamstrung by its terms of reference and because it was set up on a Sessional basis. I sensed the work of the Treasury in the hamstringing. It reflected the Treasury's attitude to investigatory committees.
91 It is asking the Select Committees to do rather too much when it is recommended that they should on their own discretion study the Estimates. The new departmental Select Committee would need many more staff if they were to do so. I think that they should have more staff, because at present we get parliamentary scrutiny on the cheap.
One of the most peculiar features about the way in which we run our financial procedures is that the departmentally related Select Committees that study policy have about 30 staff, and the Public Accounts Committee, which considers the result of past expenditures, has 700 staff. That is the order of priorities that has grown up over the years. I do not think that the departmentally related Select Committees should have staff on the PAC or American scales, but as matters stand they need a dozen staff each, and they would need two dozen or more if they started to consider the Estimates. That would be money well spent, but it would also be the inevitable consequence of submitting the Estimates to the Select Committees.
Estimates have a different incidence between the Committees. The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, for example, would have relatively few Estimates to consider, whereas the Select Committee on Social Services would have about 100 programme categories of Estimates to consider and would have to spend much more time considering them.
It is not our parlimentary style, although it is changing, to look closely at the details of expenditure. The history of the Select Committees so far, with the exception of the Select Committee on the Treasury, shows that they go for events and issues of the day. Therefore, the Home Affairs Committee, as it is now constituted, would never look at the spending programme of the prison department and the Home Office, but it will look at the sus law. It did look at the sus law. There was an interesting report, which was sexy and received publicity, and there were press conferences and everthing was right up to date, which was important. However, the hard work of going through spending programmes for the prison department, with so much on rehabilitation, so much on education, so much on construction, so much on new ways of dealing with recidivism and young offenders, is such a slow grinding task that politicians in our parliamentary position do not like it.
§ Mr. Hooley
The Overseas Development Sub-Committee of the Foreign Affairs Committee spent a long time examining in considerable detail the waste of £4 million on the building of a hotel in a holiday village in Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos Islands. It spent much time looking in great detail at the financial structure of the Commonwealth Development Corporation. Thus, my hon. Friend's strictures are not correct right across the board.
§ Mr. Garrett
They are in a way, because that is not quite what I meant. If the Committee was looking at the mis-spending of money, that is much more a matter for the Public Accounts Committee, and the Committee should have been looking at expenditure implications of a particular policy programme of aid. However, I agree with my hon. Friend that that is closer attention to detail than is shown by most Committees.
92 If Estimates are to be given to the new Select Committees, it is obvious that there must be Sub-Committees, with one half of the Committee doing policy issues and the other half trudging through the Estimates. The Committees that have been set up have limitations with regard to Sub-Committees. That is a mistake. They should be bigger and have more staff, and they should be able to form Sub-Committees if they are to go into the details of Estimates.
The decision to have eight Estimate days for debates is a useful innovation, at least as an attempt to draw the attention of the House to the detail of the Estimates. However, they will be general debates. The results will be a foregone conclusion and the debates will not be well informed, because Estimates tell us nothing. It is difficult to pick out of the volume of Estimates a subject for debate in which alternatives can be proposed. Accounts are not done in that way. They are not organised so that it can be said that here is a piece of spending aimed at a policy objective, or, at a client group in a community, and one can decide to change it by reducing it or altering it, because the money should be aimed in another direction. Our Estimates are not capable of analysis in that form and it is only when their form is changed will we be able to have sensible debates on them on the Floor of the House.
The format of the Estimates has hardly changed since 1861, while public expenditure has risen a thousandfold. There has been an enormous increase in expenditure, but not that increase in the improvement of the powers of the House to scrutinise it. That was referred to by the right hon. Member for Taunton.
An example of Estimates on which there can be sensible debates is to be found in the Library with a copy of the Federal Estimates of the United States. In those Estimates there is for example, under "Health", spending by region, spending on class of mortality and on disease control.
§ Mr. Garrett
I do not agree with the American form of Government, but I like their Estimates. I do not have to buy the separation of powers or the corruption in American Government and other apects of the American political system if I like their Estimates. In the American Estimates financial information comes in a form that enables one to establish objectives and criticise the results. Great Britain does not have that.
I am glad that a Select Committee is to be set up to inquire into procedures of the House. It will have a massive and important job to do. It ought to go back to square one, or even to square one minus one, and ask itself what is the role of a modern legislature in respect of Government spending. It should ask itself what issues should be examined, what information should be provided and then start to look at what it has compared with what it ought to have to do the job properly. Why do we consider taxes in detail and public expenditure in general? Why do we consider Estimates fleetingly and borrowing not at all? Why is public expenditure in the three- and four-year programmes in one form and the Estimates in an incompatible form? Admittedly, the compatibility is closer now that they will both be in cash, but in general they are in different forms. One cannot examine the consequences of this year's expenditure in advance.
Why have we lost our grip on audit? We have debated the issue before and I hope that the Government will have 93 more progressive ideas, but they will not. They will produce some Treasury weasel words to give us the impression that we have a hold on the Comptroller and Auditor General, but when we come to read the fine print we shall find that we have nothing of the sort and that he has slipped out of our hands like a bar of soap. The Treasury is opposed to giving back to the House the control of the Comptroller and Auditor General. There is no doubt that the great reformers of the 1860s intended the Comptroller to be a servant of the House. That is clear from the records of the House.
Perhaps the biggest question of all is about Supply, which used to be granted to kings on the redress of grievance. Kings used to come to the House and ask for money to fight a battle and Parliament used to say "Yes, when you have redressed our grievances." Now the matter goes through on the nod or, if there is any trouble, the Government wheel in their majority and crash the matter through.
The first step is to make our financial information meaningful. I know that one can take the information that exists in Departments and illustrate it in programme terms with objectives, saying "This is what our policies are trying to do. Here are the expenditures that we attach to those policies and here are our objectives." We can organise our Estimates in programme and service terms so that we can see on what we are spending our money and what we are trying to achieve with it.
The first analysis of which I spoke shows the effectiveness of expenditure. It asks: what are the results on the community of spending so much money? One can produce a subsidiary analysis—some Governments do—to show the efficiency of expenditure. That asks: what is the relationship between input and output in Government Departments? With modern data processing methods one can take the sum of information inside a Department and do both analyses for scrutiny by the House or its Committees. I know that the data exist, because I have seen them in Departments from time to time, but they never see the light of day. That is the information that we need.
There is much work to do. I believe that the issue is fundamental. It is boring and technical, and most hon. Members are not interested in it, but it is crucial, because one never has proper scrutiny of Government unless one carries out those major reforms of our financial procedure. As the right hon. Member for Taunton rightly said, Labour Governments have been as guilty as Conservative Governments. We must now redress the balance.
The Legislature has, during the years, become less and less able to scrutinise effectively more and more public expenditure. We shall divide on the big issues down the centre of the Chamber. The Labour Party will vote for more public expenditure and, invariably, except on defence, the Conservative Party will vote for less. However, that is not the point. The point is that we should have procedure opportunities, the machinery, the support and the information so that we can ask ourselves "What is the purpose of the expenditure? What results has similar expenditure achieved in the past?" It is only when we can answer that sort of question that we can meet the duty upon us properly to scrutinise the Executive.
§ Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)
I shall make what I hope will be a fairly brief speech, because I 94 set out my views in full in the memorandum that I submitted to the Select Committee and in the evidence that it was kind enough to take from me.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) on an extremely spirited and deeply felt speech. It was an important contribution to the debate. However, I part company from the hon. Gentleman on one point. Although I was grateful for his references to me, his censures on my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council were not justified. I naturally regretted leaving in my job as Leader of the House. However, had I been consulted on my successor—which I was not—my right hon. Friend the Lord President would have been my first choice because he has a record of support for procedural reform, which is extremely important. His work as Shadow Leader of the House was the foundation on which I was able to build. I know that he continues to hold those views.
Of course, it is my right hon. Friend's job to put the Government's view to the House. The Government's view is not always the same as that of the Leader of the House. I assure hon. Members of that. However, it is fair to adopt the approach taken by my right hon. Friend and to say, as he has done, that it is up to hon. Members on both sides of the House to express their views and that he will take them fully into account.
There is nothing more important in the House than procedure. We have no constitution; we have only procedure. However, our procedure must be continually renewed and brought up to date if we are effectively to discharge our function of checking the Executive.
I support every word said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann). I thank him for his kind references to me. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins). I am overwhelmed by those unsolicited tributes.
What was impressive about the speech of my right lion Friend the Member for Taunton was the passion that he brought to the subject of procedure. One would have thought that procedure was naturally a passion-killing subject, but not so. My right hon. Friend felt so strongly about it because he feels strongly about parliamentary government. Unless we reform our procedures continually, we shall have the shadow of parliamentary government, without its substance.
The reforms that I was able to introduce, which have been referred to, fell into four parts. There was the setting up of the 14 Select Committees and of the Liaison. Committee. It was essential to do that quickly within two months of the general election before the forces of opposition gathered. The ministerial forces initially were in some disarray because the Ministers were so occupied with their own briefs. One had to seize the opportunity for reform while it lasted. The Ministers have reformed ranks and my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council is doubtless having the benefit of their attentions.
Then came the second of the reforms—the minor series of reforms that included the time limit on speeches—the first time limit ever imposed—at the discretion of Mr. Speaker on speeches in Second Reading debates. There was the important reform giving back to the Opposition the right to vote on their motions, which had been inadvertently taken away by Mr. Richard Crossman.
Then there was the third major reform in October 1980, introducing the Public Bill procedure to which the hon. Member for Norwich, South referred. He was right to do so. In spite of the criticisms and doubts expressed, that 95 procedure has proved its worth. I hope that, when he replies, the Lord President will say that that procedure will be used again in this Session and that it will not be allowed to become a dead letter and cease to be a parliamentary means of enforcing the will of the House.
The last thing that I did—here I must take some of the blame that the hon. Member for Norwich, South heaped so generously on the head of my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council—was to set up the Committee to consider the manner in which the Government grant Supply. The nub of the problem is well known: 29 Supply days no longer for discussion of Supply, at the disposal of the Opposition for raising general topics. That may suit the Government; it may suit the Opposition; I am afraid that it does not suit hon. Members and the House as a whole.
The same kind of development has taken place with the Consolidated Fund Bill. Of course, Back Bench Members have the opportunity to raise matters on the Consolidated Fund, but again there is no detailed discussion on the actual financial procedures. Thus, what was originally a real and effective means of control has become purely formal. These means of granting Supply and controlling the grant of Supply have moved from Bagehot's efficient institution into the second category of dignified institution. I knew that the House would be disappointed if I did not refer to Bagehot sooner or later.
§ Mr. English
We were wondering whether the right hon. Gentleman had moved from efficient to dignified.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have always been both.
I accept that the task of reforming Supply procedures is great. The Committee has been wise to have a division: the interim report that is before us, and then consideration of the long-term issues, for which I am delighted that it has been reappointed. In considering the long-term issues, I hope that it will consider what is going on in other parts of the Commonwealth. Australia and Canada are considering exactly the same sort of situations that we are considering here. If I may say so, I prefer Australia, because I recently went there at the invitation of the Institute of Public Administration and gave a lecture on our reforms here, for which I was awarded a gold medal. I thought that they must be discriminating people for giving me a gold medal for saying things that earned me the sack here.
I want to refer briefly to some of the recommendations contained in the interim report. First, there is the vexed question of time. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing said, it is not absolutely crucial to our discussions. One can argue about whether eight days is the right number or—as I suggested to the Committee—seven to 14, or a figure in between. However, three is really too little, is positively niggardly. I hope that that figure is put forward as a bargaining counter, not as a final view. It is important that there should be adequate discussion on the Floor of the House if these procedures are changed.
On the other hand, my right hon. Friend is right to suggest that anything that is introduced should be on an experimental basis. That is perfectly reasonable, but if the experiment proves a success I hope that it will be continued on a permanent basis.
§ Mr. Spearing
When the right hon. Gentleman advocates more than three days, what sort of motion and 96 debate does he suggest on any one of the three days? Would the motion be to "take note of the Estimates of the Department of the Environment"? How would it be focused? My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) took the view that it would be diffuse and possibly ineffective unless it were focused more accurately.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
There would be a number of different motions on those days. One could have a substantive or a take-note motion. It would be a matter to be decided in the light of the prevailing circumstances.
§ Mr. Higgins
There may be confusion. My right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) may also have been confused. We rejected the idea that Select Committees might amend the Estimates. We suggested as an alternative that they would put down a recommendation, for debate on the Floor of the House, that there should be a change—a reduction—in the Estimates. We envisaged a substantive motion—instead of, say, £20 million being spent on this or that, it should be only £10 million. That is not vastly different from amendment, except that the onus of proof is the other way round. The Select Committee would put down a specific motion that we should debate.
Mr. St. John Stevas
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for clarifying that extremely important point. I wish to refer to the question of amendment when I come to consider the Committee's long-term work.
I believe that the suggestion that the House should not have power to propose the increase of a particular Vote is absolutely right and in accordance with constitutional precedent over at least the past 300 years. Perhaps the best established principle in the whole subject is that the Crown initiates, the Commons grants, and the Lords concurs in financial matters with the Commons.
I would say "Yes" to recommendation No. 7 that the proceedings on Consolidated Fund Bills should be formal, but without prejudice to whatever may be the recommendations arising from the long-term considerations of the Committee. One does not want to foreclose the possibility of the Consolidated Fund being used much more effectiveley to provide an instrument of review and control.
I support recommendation No. 8 to provide Opposition days, but I disagree with the Committee that the decision on the use of the 19 days should remain with the official Opposition. I have been round the course several times. If one trusts in the magnanimity of the official Opposition in these matters it is a great act of faith, hope and charity, but one may end by being disgruntled and disappointed.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council will have the same experience, if he has not had it already. One of the greatest troubles that I had was being ground between the millstones of the various Opposition parties fighting over who should have what days. It would be much better to recognise the fact that there is more than one Opposition party and that there should be a formal allotment of days to the other parties. I speak entirely without prejudice, as that unholy alliance is doing its best to remove me from my seat in Chelmsford. I am absolutely impartial in the advice that I give.
I put in one plea for examination by the Committee when it considers its long-term measures. It is a suggestion that I put forward to the Committee. The Consolidated 97 Fund Bill should be divided after Second Reading and the relevant parts sent to the appropriate departmental Committees. It should then come back to the House on Report. I do not wish to go into the details of the proposal. I know that technical objections have been put forward. However, I hope that the Committee will reconsider this when debating the long-term proposals it wishes to make.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing on his work. I noted the reservations expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton. A very good beginning has been made, but a great deal of work is still to be done. The Lord President will lend a sympathetic ear to the Committee's proposals and, with his powers of persuasion, he may even get them through the Cabinet. That would be no mean achievement.
§ Mr. John Roper (Farnworth)
I am glad to follow the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) and I certainly add my voice to those who have already paid tribute to what he did in this Parliament's earlier years on improving our procedure. We are all the beneficiaries of those efforts and are grateful for his remarks tonight.
I also agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said about the contribution now being made on procedure by the present Leader of the House. I further agree, with one exception, about the Government's extremely helpful attitude in bringing forward standing orders in the near future which will enable us to debate the details of this report.
However, as has been said, this House and those hon. Members who served on the Committee were considerably helped by the Chairman who did not always have the easiest of tasks; it was not the most peaceful of Select Committees I had served on. The Chairman's equanimity was never disturbed. I have only known it to disturbed once in my life; on Friday, when I was obliged to tell him that there might be some debate earlier this evening on other matters which might delay the reaching of this important report. For the sake of his equanimity and our friendship, I am glad that that was not necessary.
The Chairman steered the Committee extremely well, and he now has an even more difficult task on the work the new Select Committee on Financial Procedures is considering. As was said by the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett), this Committee has an even greater task in getting down to some of the fundamental questions of financial procedures, without which this Parliament cannot claim to be in any way effective.
The right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) was most vivid in his remarks about the inefficiencies of our procedures on dealing with the growth of the Executive. The hon. Member for Norwich, South gave the example of an increase in the scale of Estimates over the past century which suggested how irrelevant many of our procedures were. I am sure that many hon. Members, when asked by colleagues from other parliaments in Europe and the Commonwealth how we conduct financial control in Britain and when trying to explain what we do, are at first not believed because it appears so ludicrous that we should do so little, and then met with a degree of horror that a Parliament, which claims to call itself the "Mother of Parliaments", should be allowed to fall into such a degree of decrepitude in its effective control of Britain's finances.
98 It is a great pity, even on the departmentally related Select Committees, which could and should do much of the preliminary work of considering Estimates—even alter the important initiatives which the right hon. Member for Chelmsford introduced—that we are using only about: one in three of the non-ministerial Members of the House. In almost every other parliament, almost all Members are involved in Committees which do much work of this sort. This will need to be examined if Parliament is to have more effective control of the Executive.
I have already said that I am not satisfied with the suggestion of the right hon. Member the Leader of the House that three days would be appropriate as a starting point for these procedures. I hope very much that the right hon. Gentleman will reconsider his decision. My recollection coincides with that of the right hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) rather than that of the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) in relation to the Committee's proceedings. The setting of a number of days that we would be prepared to see reduced in subsequent haggling was rejected during informal discussions. We studied the work that needed to be done and a number of Estimates and Supplementary Estimates that had to be considered. We felt that eight days was a reasonable allocation of the time of the House in a parliamentary year in order to achieve effective control.
A minority of hon. Members on the Committee, of whom the right hon. and learned Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Thomas) was one, took the view that the initial allocation should be six days and that if this proved successful the number should be increased to eight. The right hon. and learned Gentleman moved an amendment to that effect. The difference between hon. Members over the number of days needed for the task to be performed properly varied between six and eight. Every member of the Committee, I think I am right in saying, would be horrified by the suggestion that the task could be completed in three days. I hope, therefore, that the Leader of the House will examine the matter again.
It would be wrong, if we are to try to make a success of the proposal, to try to carry it out with one hand tied behind our backs. This, I suspect, would be the case if only three days were allowed. I recognise that the Leader of the House is sympathetic to the spirit that lies behind the report. I hope that he will think again. I recognise the pressures that he has to face in terms of the allocation of Government time. On this issue, however, there is a case for further consideration to see whether a number nearer to that proposed by the Committee following serious study—it was not in any way frivolous—cannot be achieved.
There is concern on the Social Democratic Bench, as on the Liberal Bench, about the allocation of Opposition days if these are created by Standing Orders. I appreciated the remarks of the right hon. Member for Chelmsford, a member of one of the larger parties, who has practical experience of the allocation of Supply days to other Opposition parties. It is necessary, in the new situation in the House and the country, to examine this matter carefully. It is important, as the report recognises, that: eve: should make clear—the Standing Orders do not make it clear—that in the 19 days are Opposition days. The House must face up to the question of the allocation of Opposition time among all the Opposition parties. Paragraph 94 of the report recommends the creation of a specific number of Opposition days which would be laid down in the Standing 99 Orders of the House, for the first time, as Opposition days in the same manner that Private Members' days are now laid down under the Standing Orders. I believe that that will be the right way for us to deal with the matter. The logic follows naturally and paragraph 95 mentions a "number of practical issues," the number of days that there should be, and theproblem of the rights of the smaller parties.Paragraph 97 then states:If there are to be Opposition days created by Standing Order the House must consider whether time should be set aside specifically for the smaller parties or whether such days should be entirely at the disposal of the official Opposition.It points out that the right hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin), who appeared before the Committee, no doubt seeing things from his own point of view, believed that the present grace and favour arrangement was probably as good a way of doing it as any. I suppose that that is not surprising in view of his experience in these matters.
In paragraph 98, the Committee explored sympathetically the possibility of doing for these Opposition days what the House already does by Standing Order for the allocation of places on Standing Committees. Under Standing Order 62(2) the Selection Committee is obliged to take account of the composition of the House. A formula was submitted whereby the Opposition days could be divided up proportionately among Opposition parties in the House. The paragraph is absolutely right. The mathematical aspect is not the only part of the problem. As the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said, there would also be a problem of timing—not just how many days, but when. That also should be regulated by some form of convention in the House.
Of the 297 hon. Members who are not on the Government side, 58 come from parties other than the official Opposition. That is 20 per cent. of those hon. Members not on the Government side. That situation must be dealt with. On the basis of 19 or 20 days, that means that the minority Opposition parties would have four days a year on which to raise debates. Having agreed that that is appropriate, the timing must then be worked out.
I have one criticism of the Select Committee—I do not suppose that the right hon. Member for Worthing will be surprised at that. Having worked through paragraphs 94 to 98 on the logic of the matter, unfortunately, when the Select Committee came to its recommendations in paragraph 99 it failed to fulfil or follow the logic of its own argument. Paragraph 99 suggests that the method of allocation should remain as at present, giving all 19 days to the official Opposition subject to any arrangement that they choose to make with the smaller parties. Those are patronising words indeed. I was grateful to the two Conservative Members who voted with me for an amendment which sought to achieve a more rational basis.
§ Mr. Peter Thomas (Hendon, South)
As a member of the Committee, the hon. Gentleman will remember that there was great sympathy for a formula to be found if possible. Everyone wishes minority parties to have, as of right, an opportunity to take part in Opposition days. However, the mathematical formula would mean the Plaid Cymru, for example, would hardly have any time at all. There were difficulties. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the mathematical formula is an answer? Much more is needed if one is thinking in terms of how to allocate time 100 and dates. There must, therefore, be discussion of some sort. If the hon. Gentleman has any suggestion to put forward, it will be received with some sympathy.
§ Mr. Roper
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Member for Hendon, South who, with characteristic fairness, has pointed out that the Committtee did take some time on this matter. It is also fair to say that some of the problems which were raised in this subject were outside the general sphere of interest of the Select Commitee. Therefore, as Leader of the House said, it is a matter on which there ought to be further and fuller consultations, whether in the form of some new Select Committee to deal with the particular problems that the growth of minority parties have created for the House, or in some other informal consultations. There is a need for that to be done in order to deal with the specific points.
There are different problems between the various minority parties representing different lands in the United Kingdom. On Scottish days the SNP has an opportunity which is not as easily available to Plaid Cymru. That party does not have the same opportunity for debate on Welsh matters. Similarly, Northern Ireland Members have specific opportunities for debate which are not available to others. Therefore, the right hon. Gentleman has a case when he suggests that a strict mathematical formula is not the only way to deal with the problems. As the Leader of the House acknowledged, the issue requires further discussions and consultations.
§ Mr. Beith
The hon. Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper) prayed in aid the Committee of Selection. Although individual minority parties may have had to take issue with the Committee of Selection from time to time, it has proved possible through the agency of that Committee for a band of Committee places to be available to minority parties and for reasonable arrangements to be made between the parties to fill those places. Surely that principle can be followed when dealing with time, as it is when dealing with Committee places.
§ Mr. Roper
As the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed said, there are ways in which this can be done. Perhaps it was expecting too much of the Select Committee, chaired by the right hon. Member for Worthing and primarily concerned with Supply matters, to resolve other difficult and growing problems. Therefore, although I criticise the decision of the report, I understand that it goes to some extent beyond the immediate responsibilities of the Committee.
It is surely necessary for us to ensure that we have procedures that recognise that in the country and in the House we are moving away from the domination of politics by two parties. The allocation of Opposition time or Supply time is one aspect. I trust that the House will come to a more rational conclusion than the Committee in dealing with this problem. I was glad that in his opening remarks the Leader of the House said that he would bring in orders in the not-too-distant future to implement the report's recommendations. I hope that on recommendation 8 on the allocation of Opposition time, and on the number of days which are to be made available for the consideration of Supply matters, he will think again and bring forward better proposals.
§ Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)
I have listened throughout the debate because I regard myself these days as a "non-select" Member. Most of the contributions in the debate have come from very "select" Members, and in particular members of the Committee headed in such a distinguished way by my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins).
I have always recognised the advance that we made two years ago with the establishment of 14 new departmentally oriented Select Committees, but it is necessary for the ordinary Back Bencher's voice to be heard—not upstairs but on the Floor of the House. He needs to be given the opportunity and the time. That is why I want to catch the ear of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House before he responds and before he enacts such orders as will make this further advance possible.
I agree with everything that has been said. In particular I agree with the points made so well by my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann). He spoke about this very important measure whereby individual Members of Parliament can scrutinise Supply and expenditure, and make representations.
I am most concerned about paragraph 51 of the report which deals with the role of the House. It says:Prior scrutiny of expenditure is necessary before effective debates can be held in the House.I agree. We therefore propose to refer these matters to existing Committees to carry out prior scrutiny. The report continues:However, no amount of work by Select Committees and no amount of recommendations will serve any purpose unless there is an adequate procedure to enable the spending proposals to be debated, voted on and amended if necessary.I am concerned that the individual hon. Member should have the chance to make representations and, if necessary, to move an amendment and force a vote. On occasions, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton said, it may be easier to make in Committee representations that might be distasteful to one's own side—particularly when one is on the Government side—aimed at opposing a particular measure than it is in this place. It is not impossible to take up such a position in this place, to move an amendment, or to force a vote and to win. I remember an occasion, on the Finance Bill some years ago in Committee of the whole House, when a number of hon. Members, including myself, moved an amendment, spoke to it and were heard. We did not have to force it to a Division because the Chancellor recognised that he would not have carried the day. That is Parliament at work. Admittedly, it is Parliament at work on the Finance Bill, which deals with taxation. We have such opportunities, as the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) admitted, and we play our part on those occasions when hon. Members respond.
It is the question of response that worries me. I have not been on a Select Committee for two years. I am not complaining about that. In some ways, I am having a sabbatical, because I served on Select Committees for 13 years. In some ways, my two years' sabbatical enables me to think about the whole work of Parliament rather than the minutiae of the work that service on a Committee forces one into. Suddenly, one becomes an expert on home affairs, or on the audit in a Public Accounts Committee or on expenditure, or foreign affairs. One tends to regard oneself in my position as being very select and, very 102 important, spending most of one's time upstairs and being very busy. In that position one is seen by hon. Members as different. Clearly, a Member who is on the Sub-Committee of the Foreign Affairs Committee, looking into overseas aid, will be concentrating his mind on the minutiae.
Many other hon. Members may have the opportunity to debate a Select Committee report on the Floor of the House but they may not make expert contributions because they have not had the benefit of such expertise, all of the paper work that membership involves and they may not be so well briefed. That is true unless an hon. Member who is not an expert has equipped himself to meet the hour and to match up to the occasion.
We all recognise that the Chair will never show preference to any hon. Members. Those who are not members of Select Committees will always be heard if the House is given the time when the Select Committee reports. I recognise the value of the scrutiny undertaken by Select Committees, but we must guard against the fact that there will be 14 different parcels, or groups of specialists. That is not the whole House or the whole of Parliament. Therefore, it is vital to allow time. Parliament, the Government and the Executive must not assume that we have adopted an even greater extension of parliamentary democracy when we allow departmental Select Committees to scrutinise expenditure proposals. That is only good in part. That scrutiny is undertaken only by a certain number of expert hon. Members, who are assisted by their advisers.
The test comes when the report returns to the House and concerns the way in which the House responds. However, the report must return to the House and must not sit for too long on the shelves, gathering dust. It must come to the House when it is still alive in our minds and when we have only recently read about it in the national press and heard it discussed on the radio and television. Hon. Members may then realise that that debate is being discussed in Committee and that they are interested and wish to take part in the debate. Constitutents will contact their Members of Parliament and will ask them to take part. However, if weeks and months pass—as already happens—before the reports is debated, our memories will dim. Other matters will crop up and the scutiny of those expenditure proposals by the whole of Parliament will be less thorough on the Floor of the House, despite the excellent report that has been produced. We shall all be indebted to those hon. Members who pursue the Executive and its proposals. However, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House must ensure that there is enough time to debate the issue on the Floor of the House so that we can all be involved and all be new-type democrats.
§ Mr. Charles R. Morris (Manchester, Openshaw)
It is a hazard of parliamentary life to comment on the quality of the debate while the debate as such is still proceeding. However, I have rarely listened to a debate in which there have been so many good contributions from both sides of the House. So far, the debate has been well informed. I shall preface my contribution by joining with those who have once again acknowledged the contribution made by the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) to the reform of our parliamentary procedures. I also pay tribute to the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, the right hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. 103 Higgins). As the report shows, the subject is crucial. It deals with the fundamental financial mechanisms that govern our proceedings in the House. I was particularly encouraged by the sense of urgency, indicated in the report, for example in paragraph 101, where it suggests that the recommendations could be implemented without much delay. In regard to the urgent implementation of reform of our Supply procedures as far as the Opposition are concerned this is a hope shared. Conscious that we are embarked on changing procedure which goes back to the time of the Plantagenet kings, the House is concerned that we get any restructuring of our procedures right.
I have been fascinated in the report and in the minutes of evidence by what I might describe as the rhetorical wringing of hands at a situation in which 29 parliamentary days each Session are allocated for the consideration of Government finance Estimates but in which few are used for that purpose. I would not seek to justify public money being voted through on the nod nor the erosion of parliamentary time used for the scrutiny of Estimates which has taken place over recent years, but we should at least try to understand why this has happened.
Given a free choice between debating a currently controversial political issue or spending parliamentary time on what many might regard as the arid world of Government financial statistics, is it any wonder that parliamentarians have behaved like politicians by opting for the politically contentious and by implication demonstrating a seeming reluctance to take on the role of accountant or auditor? That is a fact of life and part of a parliamentarian's behaviour pattern.
Perhaps of greater significance is the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) in the knowledgeable memorandum on reforming the Supply procedure that he presented to the Committee. I was delighted that in his contribution to the debate he referred again to the salient points. In paragraph 2 of his memorandum he expressed the view that the enforcement of public accountability depends not only upon procedural arrangements but on the quality of information presented to Parliament. How right he is. Equally I share his view that we could learn a great deal from the Canadians about the format and presentation of Estimates. If the effectiveness of parliamentary scrutiny and control is to be improved, and I accept that this is essential, then the manner in which Estimates are presented to Parliament should also be examined.
I was encouraged when the right hon. Member for Worthing again drew attention to the fact that borrowing and the contingencies fund form no part of submissions to the House in terms of parliamentary scrutiny. Because the right hon. Gentleman has raised the two issues, I am confident that his Committee, when it returns to its task, will pick up those points for further consideration.
Turning to the individual recommendations, I endorse the view expressed in paragraph 37 of the Committee's report thatthe House's financial procedures of the House are antiquated and defective and need a thorough overhaul,Consequently we support the first recommendation in paragraph 37, which proposes the appointment of a Select Committeeto examine the House's financial procedures and to make recommendations.104 In other words, the suggestion is that the Select Committee on Procedure returns to the job that it has now started in such a splendid way and gets ahead with completely examining the financial procedures of the House.
Turning to paragraph 50 of the report, we approve the recommendation that the role of the departmentally related Select Committees should be advisory rather than functional and that the relevant Estimates should be submitted to each departmentally related Select Committee. As for the role of the Select Committee being advisory rather than functional, if we were to accept the argument that it should be functional, inevitably the consequence would be that the composition of the Committees would be critically examined by the Government and the main Opposition parties. There would then be a demand for proportional representation. This is the basis of my anxiety that the Committees would be better to carry on their advisory role than take on a functional role.
We agree with the opening words of paragraph 55 where it says:It is difficult to assess in advance the right number of days to spend on the estimates.This is the issue that has caused concern during our deliberations about the number of days that we should allocate for the considertion of Estimates. I noted the comments made by the right hon. Member for Worthing, the Chairman of the Committee, when he was arguing for eight days. But the report itself accepts that much depends on the Estimates themselves and it proposes eight days.
I am more inclined to the view that initally we should go forward on the basis of three or four days and that if that allocation proves inadequate the whole issue could be looked at again. Quite naturally, if it were three days we would be proposing that one day should come from Government's time, one from the Opposition's time and one from Back Benchers' time.
The next recommendation in the report to which I wish to turn is in paragraph 66, in which the establishment of an Estimates Business Committee is proposed. I notice that the Leader of the House had reservations about this proposal. Quite frankly, I must confess that I sympathise with the view that he expressed when he appeared to be erring on the side of giving this responsibility to the existing Liaison Committee. The Liaison Committee as it is presently constituted represents a wealth of parliamentary experience, and quite frankly I accept the suggestion that this Committee might very well fulfil the function envisaged in paragraph 66.
I turn now to paragraph 70. We agree with the recommendation that when the Estimates are discussed, amendments to increase those Estimates should not be in order. I do not want to rehearse again the arguments in the report, which we accept. Equally, we concur with the recommendation in paragraph 84 that change in the present two-tier structure for granting moneys should await the completion of the full-scale review of the financial procedures of the House.
Paragraph 92 deals with the question of the Consolidated Fund Bill. Quite frankly, while we give it our support, we do not question the suggestion in paragraph 92 that debates on the Consolidated Fund Bill should be limited to one and a half hours for each topic. As far as the Consolidated Fund Bill is concerned, it is essentially a Back Benchers' opportunity. Nobody is present who does not personally opt to be present. A 105 handful of Ministers take it in rotation to respond to the debates, but virtually everybody who is present during the course of the Consolidated Fund debate has opted to be present. That is why I have a minor reservation about curtailing the open-ended nature of the debates. We lose nothing by leaving them open-ended, and affording the Back Benchers the opportunity to deploy their parliamentary skills.
I accept the suggestion that the recess motion should be limited, but I question whether one and a half hours is adequate, having sat through, and contributed to, so many debates on recess motions myself.
§ Mr. English
I would like to be fair to the Leader of the House by asking him the same question that I will ask my right hon. Friend. Does he realise that when we proposed these limitations of Back Bench time it was in relation to the eight days? The suggestion that one day should be taken from Back Bench time and given to an Estimates day, but that, in addition, all the proposals for removals from Back Bench time should be accepted is one that I can well understand my right hon. Friend and the right hon. Gentleman on the Government Front Bench readily accepting. Does my right hon. Friend realise that Back Benchers might not be so ready to give up all their Back Bench time in return for only one day?
§ Mr. Morris
I am conscious that my Back Bench colleagues will be critically examining any positive proposals and recommendations which emerge at a later date.
The recommendation in paragraph 99 is perhaps more contentious. It was understandable that the minority parties represented in the House should question the allocation of parliamentary time and the manner in which it is allocated to the party which provides the Leader of the Opposition. However, I find it a little much to listen to hon. Gentlemen representing the SDP demanding to be considered as a minority party when it comes to allocation of time.
As for the allocation generally, I would suggest, and I doubt whether it would be disputed on any side of the House, that my right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary is the most reasonable of men. He certainly proved himself reasonable when, in the past, he has come to discuss the allocation of parliamentary time with representatives from the Parliamentary Labour Party. I believe he would agree with me that we have to look again at the question of allocation of parliamentary time. But it should be allocated to elected hon. Members.
It was a bit much when the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) and the hon. Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper) during the questions on business last Thursday questioned the allocation of time to the SDP. I was looking at the election address of the right hon. Member for Devonport, which said that the Labour way was the better way. He was elected on that manifesto. I have a host of manifestos and they all say the same thing. The hon. Member for Islington, Central (Mr. Grant) also said there is a better way with Labour, not once but five times, in the manifesto on which he was elected to the House. I accept that people can go through political conversions but they cannot expect Parliament to share their enthusiasm for their new political causes to quite the same extent.
§ It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.