Financial Provisions

Part of House of Commons (Administration) Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th June 1978.

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Photo of Mr Michael English Mr Michael English , Nottingham West 12:00 am, 27th June 1978

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. We have had the opportunity of making the relevant point.

The issue surrounding Amendment No. 8 is that the Bill relates to the administration of the House of Commons. In accordance with your ruling, Mr. Speaker, I shall assume that Members of the House of Commons have nothing to do with its administration. But the Bill does not accept in its terminology what is in the Long Title. The object of the amendment is to determine the situation.

Clause 3(1) reads For the year 1979–80 and each subsequent financial year the Commission shall prepare and lay before the House of Commons an estimate for that year of the expenses of the House Departments and, to such extent as the Commission may determine, of any other expenses incurred for the service of the House of Commons. The words "expenses" and "service" are part of the cause of the difficulty. The Title of the Bill reads: To make further provision for the administration of the House of Commons. It says that it is for its "administration" not its "service". The Chair has just ruled that Members of the House of Commons should have nothing to do with its administration which apparently exists to serve itself. The Bill does not even admit the administration of the House of Commons. It merely refers to the "service" of the House of Commons.

During Committee I asked the Parliamentary Secretary what this meant. For example, did it mean that when a Select Committee recruited from outside a professor at Cambridge, a senior partner of a firm of actuaries or accountants or advisers of the type that Select Committees now recruit, we are to be forced to pay them only the travelling expenses which the Treasury allows to consultants, or will the House of Commons Commission be able to say "No, you will be able to pay these men what they are worth. They are not permanent staff of the House of Commons, but as long as they are assisting the House of Commons they may be paid what they are undoubtedly worth to it."? Will it be possible for that to be done?

4.0 p.m.

My hon. Friend the Minister gave a fair answer when he said that he did not know what the clause meant in effect but that he would send me a letter. He fulfilled his assurance to the full. From his letter it appears that the Estimates of the House of Commons, as they have always been envisaged in the past, will now be split into two. One set of Estimates will be the responsibility of yourself and your colleagues on the new Commission, Mr. Speaker. The other set of Estimates will remain with the Treasury as its responsibility.

As recently as last September the Expenditure Committee produced a report on the Civil Service, but it suggested that parliamentary surveillance over the Civil Service was a matter of some importance. In the course of its report it suggested that the Bottomley Committee's recommendation, or what it thought was the Bottomley Committee's recommendation, was a matter of some importance. That was that control over the Estimates of the House of Commons should be transferred from the Treasury to the new House of Commons Commission under the Bill.

We therefore suggested that the Bill was a highly desirable one and that we hoped it would be brought forward shortly. It was brought forward shortly, but, strangely, someone somewhere had been playing about with the simple straightforward recommendation that those Estimates should be transferred to the control of the new Commission. By a mysterious coincidence it would seem—and I stress the word "seem", because there is a great deal of uncertainty, which my amendment is aimed at clarifying—that the House of Commons Commission will have undoubted control over the Estimates for the permanent staff of the House of Commons except that it must keep that staff in line, under another clause, with the regulations of the Treasury and the Civil Service Department.

It is not clear what expenses…for the service of the House of Commons may mean. I do not know what it means. I understand that when this general subject was discussed in the Shadow Commission and in the appropriate group of the Labour Party—and I was present on the latter occasion—this point was not observed. I fully accept my personal responsibility for that fact on the latter occasion. It is by no means clear what has been transferred to the House of Commons. I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will be telling us in due course.