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at the royal arsenals, upon the desks of Chief Constructors. The duty of Parliament is to see what story those places have to tell about the sums entrusted to them; the account of past, not of future expenditure best discloses ministerial economy, or the reverse. And the surest way of using that information to good purpose, and of getting at that story, is the examination of our Departmental accountants by a Parliamentary inquisition, composed of a carefully selected group of statesmen. A Committee of this description, since the year 1861, has been engrafted upon our method of Parliamentary Government; and thorough efficiency attends its actions. It is this most admirable addition to our political fabric, which justifies the assertion made at the opening of this essay, that the House of Commons exercises a satisfactory and vigilant control over the public expenditure.
Abject terror would not, for a moment, be aroused in the mind of any of the present denizens at Whitehall by the appointment of such a tribunal. To exhibit fully the inward working it might cause in the breast of a civil servant, we must turn to the pages of Pepys's 'Diary.' Dire is the consternation reflected on those pages, during the autumn of 1666, by the mere whisper of a Committee to inquire, perhaps sharply,' into the affairs of the Admiralty, and prompt its effect. When 'young Captain Beckford, the slopseller,' comes to offer Mr. Pepys a little purse, with gold in it,' he is warned off, with an ejaculation,This is not an age to make presents in.' Then the diarist is horrified by finding his name 'second' in the office book, against an entry of 5001. and odd;' for 'flags I had bought for the Navy, of calico.' And although by scraping out my name, and putting in Mr. Tooker's, which eased me,' Mr. Pepys was for a moment comforted; soon he is driven mad, 'stark mad,' by finding that his own journal, 'revealing all the nakedness of the office,' had been left with a doorkeeper of the House of Commons; and finally, the chairman's summons before the Committee, sent him into a mighty fear and trouble,—as true a trouble that I ever was in my life.'
'The whirligig of time' shall now transport us from the reign of Charles II., to the reigns of George III. and of Queen Victoria, that we may give two further illustrations of the necessity,obvious as it may seem,-of a constant supervision by Parliament over the actual disbursement of the national expenditure. During January 1782, the Commons were asked to grant 149,000l. to pay for stores of saltpetre, in quantity sufficient to pickle the atmosphere from England to the West Indies.' The absurdity and wastefulness of the purchase attracted notice; the grant
was questioned; and this was its defence. The head of the Ordnance Department joined in the outcry, declaring that the transaction was quite indefensible, that his Board had sought to keep from him all cognisance of that contract, and that, for his part, he had tried to stop it. But that, as the Board had been too much for their chief, and as the saltpetre had been bought, the vote for 149,000l. appeared upon the estimates.* The second case comes nearer home. The House, during the Session of 1861, was informed that Sir C. Barry, 'acting, as he was accustomed to do, on his own responsibility,' had spent 21,2867. on the New Palace at Westminster, in alterations, additions, and repairs,' wholly unsanctioned by anybody except himself. It followed, as an inevitable consequence, as the money had been paid away, that the Commons were obliged to settle the account. †
The necessity of an independent scrutiny into the national expenditure, and of an authoritative check upon our public servants was submitted to Parliament in 1845 by a Departmental Treasury Committee, but in vain. That advice was repeated by the Committee on Public Moneys of 1857. At last, during the Session of 1861, the Public Accounts' Committee was first appointed; and next Session, it was established by Standing Order, as a permanent feature in the financial system of the Realm. Not only was this a step in the right direction; but a temptation to swerve into the wrong path was thereby removed. That temptation was the constant appeal of economic reformers to subject the yearly estimates to the revision of select Committees. The idea is specious, and has an attractive character; but the action of those Committees must clash with the executive responsibility of the Government; and even their most zealous advocates could only urge the periodical appointment of such Committees at decennial intervals of time. The Public Accounts' Committee, on the contrary, operates without intermission, with the constant, uniform vigilance of experienced minds, and without infringing upon the functions of responsible ministers.' The institution of this Committee is justly described, as the crowning act, whereby the House of Commons has been enabled to exercise a constitutional control over the public expenditure.'t
Appreciation of patient labour cannot be procured without the devotion of much labour and patience; the large exercise of these rare qualities, and of tact and judgment by the Committee of
+ Civil Service Estimates,' 1861, p. 22. Hans. Deb.,' 164, 165.
Todd, 'Parliamentary Government,' i. 588.
Public Accounts can be recognised only by a study of their long array of Reports. The re-arrangement of the Empire's financial system upon the most approved method, and the subjection of that whole system to a complete and independent audit, together with many other salutary modifications of our financial machinery, is a brief description of the Committee's principal achievements. And it reaps the fruit of those achievements; each session's task is rendered easier; each year, however, brings its own difficulty; so wide is the area included within our Imperial expenditure, and so complex, of necessity, is its
It may not seem a great matter, but the charge of prescribing that the supplies are not only rightly spent, but spent by the right person, is a problem requiring constant solution. Does a torpedo, for instance, belong to land or water warfare? the instrument is of a fish-like nature, yet from unknown reasons, its preparation is held not to appertain to the service which rules the waves, but is assigned, after mature thought, to the military service.† The dwelling-places occupied by the Inland Revenue Department afford another example of the kind. That all Governmental buildings should be controlled by one authority is obviously desirable; the structural charge of the Inland Revenue offices was, accordingly, taken from that Department, and consigned to the Board of Works. When this was arranged, immediately a new source of perplexity asserted itself, demanding the consideration of the Committee. The London revenue offices were easily cared for by agents from Whitehall: not so the offices spread over Scotland and Ireland. Was then an inspector to be sent from London to Aberdeen to superintend the erection of a cupboard, or the restoration of a broken lock! Such a course seems an absurdity, however desirable may be the maintenance, in its integrity, of the dogma of concentration.‡
These are, however, but petty difficulties compared with the matters which arrears of neglect imposed upon the deliberative faculties of the Committee at the outset of its career. Most painful tasks, also, have been from time to time assigned to it, the investigation, namely, of that class of transaction involving questions of pecuniary morality, or official trust, in the language of the day termed 'scandals.' Such disturbances in our social atmosphere have unfortunately occurred since the year 1861; events which may be left to the memory, or forgetfulness of our
* Public Accounts' Committee-Five Reports, 1861; First Report, 1862; Report, 1864; Special Report on the Exchequer and Audit Bill, 1866, &c.
Public Accounts' Committee, First Report,' 1875, p. 12.
readers. On the responsibility and exertion which these variousduties have charged upon the Accounts' Committee stress need not be laid; yet, with some slight emphasis, it may be mentioned, that this praiseworthy and novel member of the body politic has never received, either within or outside Parliament, any recognition of that appreciation which is its just desert. Few of our statesmen enjoy much leisure; none certainly of those who have served on the Accounts' Committee; time and labour was, tothem, no slight sacrifice; yet they have made that sacrifice freely and effectively, and most assuredly not so as to be seen of men.
By way of introduction to the most troublesome question of financial policy,—a question which will vex to the end of time, not Finance Committees only, but Chancellors of the Exchequer also, as well as tax-payers-our readers must recall that circumstance which attended the construction of the palace at West-minster. An architect, acting for the Government, habitually executed extensive and costly alterations upon a building under his charge without his employer's leave. That employer, moreover, was not his own master, but was responsible to Parliament; and the money so spent, was apparently fenced about by the strictest provisions of the law. The Appropriation Acts specify to the last shilling the destination of every vote of supply; and punishments are prescribed for the breach of those Acts. And were not those provisions broken when Sir C. Barry spent, 'acting as he was accustomed,' 21,2867. of public money, without the slightest sanction from Parliament?
This trait in Sir C. Barry's distinguished career is mentioned with regret. Our answer to that question shall turn, as far as possible, from the individual case, to a wider application of that incident. An irregular disappearance of 21,2867. of public moneys proves decisively that the Exchequer was but loosely guarded in 1861, and it proves apparently that the time-honoured security afforded by the Appropriation Acts is most undeservedly admired. Yet the admiration which that safeguard attracts is not unmerited; it accomplishes the end which Lord Somers intended. Parliamentary appropriation of the supplies to defined purposes, prevents waste on the part of Kings, but not of clerks. That provision keeps the royal finger out of the nation's cash-box, but cannot control hands busy over the actual distribution of its contents. For instance, Lord Somers knew that the clause he penned would prevent a Monarch from taking money from the Board of Works to feed his seraglio, or his standing army; but Somers knew equally, that no statute could follow that money when in possession of the Board. As an illustration of this fact, it may be mentioned that,
in times gone by, Chief Commissioners acting, like their architect, on their own responsibility, constructed a bulky and costly sewer across St. James's Park, and amplified the display of fireworks which celebrated the close of the Russian War by a donation of 20007. out of the official till.* No law, however, can prevent such irregularities, except the law of necessity. Such misappropriation of public money cannot be punished by fines or impeachments, but it may be reported upon and exposed: above all, it may be prevented by withdrawing all loose cash from the grasp of a First Commissioner. This last, best check is now in force; so we may return in tranquillity to explain how the architect got hold of the 21,2861. He only acted as his .employer, the Board of Works, acted; he received money for one purpose, and employed it on another. The official usage which permitted such a mode of dealing with public money is as follows.
If a State Department could reserve a portion of the annual supplies which Parliament allotted to its use either by economy, or by the postponement of an outlay; the Department called that reserved fund a saving,' and assumed the right of spending that saving, either immediately, or in any future year, and either upon objects about which Parliament was absolutely ignorant, or upon objects which it had, in a measure, sanctioned by a grant of money.
In the presence of a permanent Committee of Public Accounts, such a system could not endure for a moment. It was formally condemned, first, forty-four years ago, then thirty years ago, and again twenty years ago; but those condemning authorities had no power of obtaining, by reiteration, attention to their advice. Parliament has many things to think about: reiteration alone compels attention there. The power of persistency is enjoyed by our Committee; that power was obeyed; and for the first time in our financial history, upon the 31st of March, 1863, each State Department surrendered back to the Exchequer, all that remained unspent of the Parliamentary supplies voted for its use during the year 1862.† And, as an additional precaution, every sessional grant is, by express wording, strictly limited to services, which will come in course of payment, during the year' for which the grant is made.‡ Still, whatever mitigation legislative forms may afford to that disease, the consumption of the purse,' the surest cure, is an empty Departmental cashbox on every succeeding 31st of March;
* Public Accounts' Committee, 'Second Report,' 1861, p. 10.
Public Accounts' Committee, 'First Report,' 1862, p. 4.