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

My hon. Friend has revealed another slight lacuna in this whole problem. My earlier amendment suggested that the Commission should have upon it a majority belonging at least to the Government party, if not to the Government. My hon. Friend the Minister proposed, and the House accepted, that it should have a majority belonging to the Opposition. I shall be grateful if my hon. Friend will confirm, as is probably the case, that this Act in effect amends the Standing Orders of the House. I presume that an Act does that since it is obviously superior to the Standing Orders of the House. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Act therefore allows the Commission to propose increases in expenditure without the consent of the Treasury?

The Bill reads: to such extent as the Commission may determine, of any other expenses incurred for the service of the House of Commons. That is not very specific, and it is not a good means of financial control either. For example, in a given year, at a given time of year, the Treasury prepares Estimates under the heading Vote 2, Class XIII/A7. That is concerned with the Refreshment Department, if my hon. Friend wants it spelled out. At that stage the Treasury may prepare that, because the Commission may not have decided that it is an expense of the House of Commons. Then, suddenly, in the middle of the year the Commission may decide, if my hon. Friend is right, that this is an expense of the House of Commons. The Treasury's control ceases even before the question has been approved by the House. All responsibility for it, if my hon. Friend is right, vanishes from the Treasury and moves to the Commission. That seems to be the implication of the Bill which reads, "the Commission may determine". But that is not a good means of financial control over any institution. I would have thought that it was better to spell out in the Bill exactly which Estimates will come under the control of the Commission and which will remain with the Treasury.

There is a vagueness about just how far the Commission can go. If the Commission lasts for as long as the previous Commission, it will last at least 150 years. In the course of that time it may increase its scope or find its scope reduced by the Treasury. But would it not be better to put in the Bill that it has power over the Estimates of the House of Commons full stop, instead of providing that it has power over some of the Estimates and that it may determine for itself which others it may have power over provided that the Treasury, presumably, does not disagree with it?

What will happen if there is an ultimate conflict? I suppose that someone on your behalf, Mr. Speaker, as Chairman of the Commission, will have to go to court and say that the Treasury is wrong, that the Commission has decided what are expenses of the House of Commons, that the Treasury disagrees and that the High Court must make a declaration as to which of them is right. I do not think that most hon. Members would wish the High Court to determine what are and what are not our expenses. We would prefer that all the Estimates of the House of Commons on all reasonable issues—everything from Members' pay to the lavatory paper—should be the responsibility of the House of Commons Commission. Perhaps one would say that if the House went totally mad and wanted to build a new building, that would not be an appropriate matter for the Commission to decide without the Treasury being consulted, but that on all the normal running expenses of the House we clearly should be consulted through our new institution, the Commission. I see that a Treasury Minister, my right hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, is anxious to bring this debate to a halt. He presumably does not like this discussion of the powers of the Treasury.