By Basil Chubb, University of Dublin
Lecturer in Political Science 1969
I wish to thank the Comptroller and Auditor General Sir Frank Tribe, K.C.B, K.B.E, for his willingness to answer many questions of fact.
To view the House of Commons only as “the grand forum of debate”, or as a legislative production line, is to miss important aspects of its work.
The examination of the Public Accounts is a case in point. Vital though it is if Government is to be really responsible, the floor of the House is no place to perform this task. Other procedures and techniques are necessary and exist. Since they work well and do not take up the time of the House, we hear little about them, the less so since the job is many, In Gladstone’s words, “work of a dry and repulsive kind.” It is intended to describe in two articles, the system, machinery and techniques by which the vast public accounts are examined and revived for Parliament and the Nation.
From medieval times Parliament insisted with varying success, on the principle that things and government must account for the funds granted to them. It is customary to point out to the insistence with pride, yet such admiration of the principle has tended to obscure the important facts that the practice of accounting and control was, at first, negligible and, at best inefficient, fragmentary and spasmodic until the 19th Century. It was not until the decade 1857-67 that a complete system and adequate machinery were evolved. This system and machinery have lasted, with no major alteration until the present, though the day to day techniques of audit.
There is a clear tilt variation between connotations of Public and Private Law. Gladstone emulgated after the Lords Select Committee on Migration bent on dealing with the issue of immigrants from the West Indies into the British Isles. The Committee vowed to stablish a Pullout Fund or what is known as a Trust Fund for the facility of dealing with the issue. This was abhorred by Lord Carrington, Sir Bradfield and Dicey who noted that, “A Parliamentary Select Committee cannot allow its resources to be administered through a trust fund as it would cross the bounds of Public into Private Law which deems uncompetitive of such a body. Such act should be administered through means spelt out by statutory enactments.
While ministers and their immediate Civil Service subordinates should be permitted to expend public funds on day to day running of the country, introducing such as this is more than routine expenditure and should be submitted to Parliament for approval BEFORE expenditure.
To the Civil Service, expenditure means jobs for civil servants regardless of the state of the country's economy and ability to fund such follies, especially when the opposition who will almost certainly rule in the not too distant future plan to scrap ID cards.
It is time for Parliament to regain it's eroded power and impose it's will on the Government, both political and civil service.