Sir R. Horne's Statement.

National Expenditure. – in the House of Commons on 1st March 1922.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Colonel Leslie Wilson.]

The CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER (Sir Robert Home):

I learn from the various organs of the Press that I am expected to-day to make some announcement with regard to taxation, and to deal in general with a position with which I shall naturally deal when I come to introduce the Budget. I need scarcely assure the House that such is in no wise my intention. I can scarcely imagine anything more imprudent than for a Chancellor of the Exchequer to announce, a month before we come to the end of the financial year, what the results are to be, or to make any statement with regard to the taxes which will be imposed in the course of the following year. I think that the House will agree that I ought not to be expected to make anything more than a very general statement in dealing with the recommendations which have been made to the Chancellor of the Exchequer by the Committee on National Expenditure. They have dealt with a very large variety of topics, and it will be obviously impossible to survey in the course of a single speech all the multifarous items on which they have made recommendations. It seems to me to be clear that the proper time for detailed discussion of what is suggested by the Geddes Committee would be the time when the Estimates are presented, and to-day I do not intend anything more than a very broad survey of the proposals which have been made to me by that Committee.

I think that the Government is entitled to look with great gratification upon the reception which the Report of the Geddes Committee has obtained. When we suggested the setting up of this Committee, we were denounced in all quarters in the most unmeasured terms. The Committee was set up, it was said, merely to provide a shelter behind which we might hide our extravagant heads. A notorious prodigal, it was said, had been deliberately selected as Chairman of the Committee in order to cover up our prodigality. Indeed, I think I recollect a public speech by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Paisley (Mr. Asquith) in which, in a phrase which I may be permitted to describe as somewhat extravagant, he described the Chairman of the Committee as a Landru among Bluebeards. To-day this Committee, which was so uniformly traduced, is hailed by the very organs which vilified it as having performed a service to the country such as has been accomplished by no other Committee within living memory, and the Chairman, who has suffered from the abuse of these journals now for a long period of time, is hailed as the finest example this country has yet produced of the high aptitude of a business man applied to the service of the State. I recollect the leader of the Anti-Waste party in this House—perhaps that description requires definition—I was thinking for the moment of our most vocal economist, the hon. Member for Thanet (Mr. E. Harmsworth). He complained very bitterly of this Committee as being composed largely of men over 70, yet I think his youthful attendances at this House have been entirely eclipsed by these men over 70, not a single one of whom has ever missed a single meeting of this Committee. I should like for my part to join whole-heartedly in the praise which has been given to the Committee. They have deserved the gratitude of the whole country. They have surveyed a wide field of problems of great complexity. They have brought to bear upon these problems the trained observation of business men, and as a result they have produced a Report which—I do not think I exaggerate—presents in a clearer, more connected, more comprehensive way the whole system of our national expenditure than exists in any other document to-day. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, I feel that I cannot adequately express my indebtedness to them. They were performing a task which, I quite agree, in ordinary circumstances would be the task of the Treasury. They were performing it for the benefit of the country in a very critical time, and they not only have given us very wise suggestions, but they did more. They created an atmosphere of a desire for economy which has affected all of the Departments of State, and it had the effect that these Departments responded to the spirit in which the Committee met them, and, as you will find when you read the Report, a very large number of the economies which are now embodied in that Report were the spontaneous suggestions of the Departments themselves.

It has been said that we were seeking to devolve the responsibility of the Government upon an irresponsible Committee. What a foolish criticism that is. How could any Government devolve upon any outside body the duty of saying what sized Navy was sufficient for our Empire, what were our needs in respect of military forces, what is the type of education, and the extent of it, which should be given to the children of our citizens? What is it that the House is awaiting to-day? It is the decision of the Government, and this matter is easier, no doubt, for us to decide now that these investigations have been made. The indications where economies can be effected are of the very greatest possible weight, and the advice which is given is most valuable and most useful, but the decision and the responsibility remain with the Government. It is for us to inform the House as to what we suggest should be done in the direction of carrying out the recommendations of this Committee. It is said by some that we must adopt the whole of these recommendations, that we set up the Committee, and as it has reported there is nothing left for us to do but to put their recommendations into force. That is an entirely novel doctrine, and it would be a most dangerous doctrine to adopt. If it ever became operative it would be an end either to Committees or to Government. Who will say in this House that all the recommendations of this Committee ought to be adopted here and now? The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Paisley has already openly declared that he is not prepared to accept the proposals which have been made with regard to reductions in the Education Vote, and I gather that hon. Members opposite agree with that point of view. Again, there are bodies of people in this House who equally take the view that we cannot afford to make the reductions in the Navy which were suggested by that Report. Probably, if you take the Members of this House individually, you would not get more than three or four who would agree together as to precisely what recommendations they would wish to see adopted. Under these circumstances, it is for us to take into consideration the position in which we find ourselves at present, to weigh on the one side and the other our financial burdens and our obligations for the security and efficiency of this country, and to arrive at the wisest decision in our power to put before this House for its acceptance.

As Chancellor of the Exchequer I asked the Geddes Committee to suggest reductions in public expenditure to the amount of £100,000,000. It has been said that that was a confession that waste to the-extent of £100,000,000 was going on in the Government services. That is a complete travesty of the facts. We have found ourselves in the most acute trade depression which has ever been known in this country. We were confronted with a falling revenue. There are many things which in normal times we should regard as necessary objects of expenditure in a great country like ours which under these conditions we might not be able to afford, and the prime object of the inquiry was to discover, through the means of the Committee, those services in which with the least detriment to the efficiency of the country, we could afford to economise. The figure of £100,000,000 was a round figure. It was a large one. I need scarcely say that in proposing it I had some margin in view. It did not occur to me that they would be able to provide the whole sum, and on the other hand it was equally certain to my mind that even if they made recommendations which would cover the whole of that amount, it was impossible to expect that every one of these recommendations could be adopted, and therefore I named a figure which was well outside the actual sum of money which I expected to save. There was another point of view from which I named this sum. It was that the Supplementary Estimates of the year had not yet come within my purview. They altered to some extent the account which was in, my mind. Now that we have the Report, I think that everyone who reads it fairly will agree that the recommendations have much more the effect of curtailing activities which in normal times we should keep alive than of discovering actual objects of waste. I am prepared to argue, that when the time comes upon the Estimates, and I will not go into detail now, but in most cases where you find a parti- cular item of expenditure criticised on the ground that it is of no service to the country at all and is of the nature of wasteful expenditure, it is just the kind of expenditure which has lasted through Government after Government and for which previous Governments are as much responsible as we are.

I turn to the details of the Report in so far as I can deal with them, and I hope the House will forgive me the recital of a good many figures. Obviously, I cannot deal with a subject of this kind without enlarging to some extent upon the figures with which the Geddes Committee themselves have dealt. The first thing I should like to say is this, that out of the reductions recommended by the Committee, totalling £86,000,000, some £66,000,000 are concerned with the three fighting services and education, leaving only £20,000,000 spread over the other Departments. Even of the £20,000,000 which are spread over the other Departments, £6,000,000 is concerned with the administration of the War Pensions Department. Therefore, when you deduct out of the reductions recommended in five Departments of the State there is only left £14,000,000 to be saved, according to the recommendations of the Geddes Committee, in regard to all the other Departments put together.