Private Members' Business. - Estimates Committee—Motion.

I move:—

That the following be adopted as a Standing Order of Dáil Éireann:—

123A. There shall be appointed, as soon as may be after the commencement of every Session, a Select Committee, to be called "The Committee of Public Expenditure", to examine such of the Estimates presented to the Dáil in accordance with Standing Order No. 117 as may seem fit to the Committee and to report what, if any, economies consistent with the policy implied in those Estimates may be effected therein.

The Committee shall consist of 17 members, none of whom shall be a member of the Government or a Parliamentary Secretary and five of whom shall constitute a quorum.

The Committee shall be otherwise constituted according to the provisions of Standing Orders Nos. 67 and 70, and so as to be impartially representative of the Dáil.

The Committee may appoint sub-Committees and may refer to such sub-Committees any of the subjects which are within the purview of the Committee.

The chairman of the Committee shall beex officio a member of each sub-Committee.

The Committee and its sub-Committees shall have power to send for persons, papers and records and to adjourn from place to place. Three shall be a quorum of each sub-Committee.

The Committee shall have power to report from time to time.

In the last Dáil I brought this matter up and at that time it seemed to have a reasonable hope of becoming practical politics. However, circumstances ruled otherwise, and, with the ending of the previous Dáil, the motion lapsed. I find myself in a difficulty in avoiding as far as possible a rehash of previous arguments. My arguments on the previous occasion are on the records of the Dáil and I do not want to waste the time of the House by undue repetition.

This matter of a committee to consider the Estimates is one which I think is, or should be, of interest to every individual member of the House and also to the entire House collectively, because what it seeks to do is to enable the Dáil to function a bit more expressly than it can under present conditions. The Dáil, after all, is responsible to the country for the running of the State's business and I believe that at present there is a gap, and a very wide gap, in the Dáil's knowledge and the Dáil's interest. I think a committee such as this would close that gap.

I do not want to make undue reference to the fact that the system works elsewhere under similar parliamentary institutions. Some of the reports of an Estimates Committee in another place might lead one to think that an estimates committee was not altogether a good thing. Some of them are characterised more by the number of words in them than the amount of effect they are likely to produce, but then that is something that is likely to happen to any parliamentary institution. I do not think we should allow any possible failings to blind us to the possible good that might come.

At present the only check, the only intimate check, the Dáil has on the business of the State is through the Public Accounts Committee. Of necessity, the check that it makes is from one and a half to two years after the event and my feelings on this subject are very much coloured by 11 years' experience of the Public Accounts Committee. It has been borne in on me time and time again that something more was needed to ensure economy. One of my difficulties in presenting a case for this motion is that I can think of quite a number of special items in the business of the State which I think I could develop to prove my point, but obviously that would be very unfair because I should be speaking without full knowledge and it would not be at all fair to pinpoint a particular Department or section of a Department as being open to suspicion.

Any Minister for Finance might like to hear these things.

Possibly, but I do not think this is the place for it, and from that point of view I have more or less to pull my punches. However, I hope to give some general ideas of the type of inquiry which an Estimates Committee might usefully make, without in any way suggesting that Departments are being lax.

The system at present is that the preparation of Estimates is a more or less continuous business in Departments, just as the auditing of the accounts is a more or less continuous business. The Estimates have to come to finality at a certain time of the year and must be presented to the Dáil for its consideration, just as the accounts must come to an end on 31st March each year and be presented to the Public Accounts Committee. What happens to the two sets of figures presents a very marked difference. So far as the accounts are concerned, they come before the Public Accounts Committee and can be examined in detail, with the aid of the accounting officers of the Departments and anyone else whom the Committee wishes to examine. In other words, the Committee has available to it the people who are responsible for the accounts and can query specific items in them.

So far as the Book of Estimates is concerned, the Dáil, in Committee on Finance, of course, discusses the Estimates, but, in plain fact, what the Dáil does discuss is the policy of the Estimates and the administration of the previous year. It is not possible for the Dáil to examine these in any business-like way. There are many things in the Book of Estimates which, from a business point of view, are far from clear. It is not possible for Deputies to discover how it works and why it works in any Department. It is not physically possible to do so. We cannot have in the Dáil officers from the Department to answer particular queries, and it is not possible in a debate on the Estimates to have the give and take that one gets by question and answer in the Public Accounts Committee, a Committee of the Dáil.

Of course, the pressure of parliamentary time is such, in the financial part of the year anyway, that the examination of the Estimate must necessarily be cursory and restricted entirely to policy. I do not think that is altogether a happy state of affairs. There are people who think these matters are very technical and that Deputies, possibly, are not qualified to make an examination into the efficiency of a Department or even into inter-departmental work. I do not think that the Dáil should go on record as suggesting that it is not capable of doing work like that. My own view on this sort of high pressure business which goes on in the case of business audits is that the type of work they do can be related to State work or Government work in Departments. Politicians who get elected to the Dáil have their weaknesses but they are a fair cross-section of the public and I think that it is only right that they should have an opportunity to make an examination of the Estimates on behalf of the public. I think that such an examination would prove to be quite useful. No one would suggest that where £108,000,000 is asked to run the public services for the year, a very useful examination could not be made to discover possible economies. I do not want to suggest that necessarily one must view the Civil Service with the eye of suspicion, but it must be remembered after all that as compared with an ordinary private enterprise, one particular motive is lacking in the Civil Service and that is the profit motive. That is the motive which operates most to keep a business run efficiently and that motive does not apply to the public service. Something else must replace it.

There is also the danger that a Minister in dealing with his Department may unduly allow himself to be persuaded that certain steps are necessary to carry out his policy. His job is to get policy carried out. I do not see how any Minister could possibly have time to ensure that in fact his policy was being carried out in the cheapest possible way; yet it is obviously in the public interest, the taxpayers' interest, that the business should be carried out in the cheapest possible way. On the question whether a committee of the House would help to ensure the best possible way, some doubts might be expressed. The same doubts could be expressed as to the efficiency of the Public Accounts Committee in dealing with the Appropriation Accounts. After all, the Public Accounts Committee consists of members of this House, none of them expert in finance or accountancy. They have, of course, only to finish off the job that has been started by such experts. Still there is always a certain amount of business brought before the committee with which they have to deal in a common-sense way and, though I believe doubts have been expressed from time to time, my own opinion is that normally they do carry out their functions reasonably well.

There is also a doubt as to whether, even if an Estimates Committee discovered there were things which might be done better, whether, in fact, any improvement would result. Again, the Public Accounts Committee has no real power, yet we know that its recommendations are quite frequently followed. As to the type of work which an Estimates Committee might usefully do, as I have already said, without going into particular details or pointing to any Department or sections of a Department, it is not very easy to make a clear case, but there are certain lines of inquiry which anyone, who was on the Public Accounts Committee is bound to have in mind. There is, for instance, the difficulty in discussing the Accounts or the Estimate of any Department—the fact that the Committee on Finance dealing with it is limited to the affairs of that particular Department, in other words what is called a vertical inquiry. A horizontal inquiry is not possible and yet there are many things in the Civil Service which are common to the several Departments into which some inquiry should be made.

For instance there are technical staffs, engineering staffs, in several Departments. I do not want to go too far but I think it would be fair to suggest that occasionally one might have some sort of suspicion that there may be a certain amount of overlapping. At the moment, it is not at all certain whether that is true or false and it is essential to discover whether it is true or false. An Estimates Committee could inquire into it.

There is then the question or the use of office machinery in Departments. There are such things as contract forms. There must be a multiplicity of them in the different Departments and the different offices. There are several other things of a similar kind—the use of staff and whether or not there is redundancy. I know that internally there are certain checks. The Department of Finance itself checks the Estimates of all Departments. There is within the Department of Finance and in the Civil Service, a section known as "Organisation and Methods". So far it is fairly restricted in its use. I think that in the Department of Finance there are three officers engaged on O. and M. but in any other Department the most there is is a fairly junior officer. I think there should be a parliamentary inquiry through the Estimates Committee, which would see if something further could not be done in regard to O. and M.

A point I want to make is that a committee such as this would have to act in harmony with the Department. Inevitably there will be points of disagreement but as long as the committee transacts its business in such a way as to be reasonable, no difficulty should arise. In fact, I think there is no reason to suspect that anything would happen other than a reasonable way of doing business. If the committee attempted to do anything else, it would first of all fall foul of the Government and the fact that it would be falling foul of Departments would probably stultify any work the committee tried to do, so that I do not think any difficulty would really arise in that respect. One of the great difficulties of the present moment is the growth of public business. The business of the State and the business of this House have grown enormously. There has been continual pressure in the financial part of the year in the discussion of Estimates, so that there should be plenty of scope for a committee dealing specially with the subject. There is also the fact that, with the growth of public services, it must become increasingly difficult for Ministers to exercise complete control of their Departments.

That, again, leaves some useful fields for Deputies but, unless they have a committee to work through, the ordinary Deputy is stultified in any such approach. The ordinary approach to discovering how a Department works is through the medium of parliamentary question. That suffers from two defects; one is that the Deputy asking the question has to take a leap in the dark, more or less, because he hears something and puts down a question to the Minister to elicit what the true position is. It does not really constitute an inquiry at all. He is also limited as to how far he can pursue the matter once he receives an answer. A debate on the Adjournment is the ultimate limit and, even there, there is no way of having a proper examination.

It will be observed that I have reverted in this motion to calling this suggested committee a Committee of Public Expenditure. That was my original proposal. The general idea was adopted by the former Minister for Finance but he changed the title to Committee of Estimates. Now I personally do not care what it is called. My only reason for preferring "public expenditure" to "estimates" is that I think a clearer picture is given as to what the real function of such a committee would be: to call it purely a Committee of Estimates is a rather slavish copy of something that happened elsewhere and is, I think, inclined to give people the impression that the only concern of such a committee is to look at the Book of Estimates, as presented to the Dáil, and make such inquiries as are obvious on the face of that.

I do not think a committee could work in that way at all. To my mind, the name does not matter. For one thing, the proposal sets the limit on the committee: "to examine such of the Estimates presented to the Dáil in accordance with Standing Order No. 117 as may seem fit to the committee and to report what, if any, economies consistent with the policy implied in those Estimates may be effected therein." That confines such a committee to direct public business. I think that possibly to change from "public expenditure" to "estimates" which was suggested by the former Minister for Finance was due to a sort of fear that this committee might tend to start inquiring into certain State-sponsored companies because it could be argued that they represented in a way "public expenditure" but, in fact, the terms of reference of the committee are quite clear. Its inquiries are limited to the Estimates as presented.

As I have already said, I have no particular feelings on the subject of the name. Indeed, if that were the only difficulty it would be easily overcome. I think, however, that "Committee of Public Expenditure" gives a clearer idea of the intention of the committee; that is, to inquire into public expenditure and ensure that for every 20/-spent value is received for every £1 spent and that no more pounds are spent than are absolutely necessary. It must frequently happen in public business that certain desirable objects have to be obtained and expenditure is not necessarily the first consideration. What I wonder is how far that principle prevails because no private Deputy has any evidence of any kind on that particular matter. No private Deputy has any evidence as to how the Civil Service works and I think it would be useful to have a committee to inquire into that.

I have no idea as to whether or not I am, as it were, pushing an open door. The Minister has been very discreet in any conversations I have had with him in this matter. I have not pressed him for an opinion. It was not that I hoped to sway his mind; indeed, I thought it would be better if I did not, but I appeal to him to consider the fact that this is possibly worth a trial. I do not see how it can do any harm. The amount of good it may do is naturally conjectural; it will depend on who is on the Committee and how they go about their work. But I do not think that the fact that the good it may do is conjectural should deter us from trying something which has proved useful elsewhere and which, I think, could prove even more useful here.

This House, after all, is the only thing that stands between the country and bureaucracy. There is a set tendency all the time towards having things done in a swift, direct way. Bills that are introduced and Acts that are passed repeatedly have provisions in them under which the Minister does most of the work by Order. The details are not in the Act at all. Doubts have been expressed here time and time again as to the wisdom of that procedure and the taking away of control from the public direct. The Dáil does not know how far things will go because Ministers can do so much by Order.

The situation is similar in relation to the financial business. Deputies meet here and, after discussion, they pass Estimates for the public service; but they know very little of the background behind those Estimates. I consider it is their duty to know. At the present time we are debarred from giving assistance in relation to economy except in the loosest possible way and I cannot see that that kind of assistance in a debate on Estimates is of any practical value.

If there is any way in which the functioning of such a Committee could be limited to a certain length of time in order to discover whether useful work is or is not being done I would be very happy to incorporate that limitation, but I do not see how that would work. If it does not work and if the Committee fails to produce any worthwhile results the Dáil has a very easy remedy, namely, to reverse the proposition I am putting before the House to-night. I think myself that eventually a committee system may grow up entirely in relation to parliamentary control and I think this would be a useful step in the right direction because it would provide Deputies with something to do, something which would prove of a real value.

One very important point is that it would give Deputies an insight into the running of the State. That is something they find it very difficult to achieve at present. It would not astonish me to find that Governments might resent that: there is naturally a tendency to produce a rabbit out of a hat, though that does not necessarily mean that that particular rabbit is a better rabbit. I think the general idea is reasonably clear from the terms of the motion. Of course one Committee could not deal with all the various facets likely to be presented to it and, therefore, I propose that the original Committee be given the power to set up sub-Committees to deal with specific lines of inquiry. What has been found useful in another place is the fact that the chairmen of the various sub-Committees form a committee of their own to suggest lines of inquiry. Probably that would work here quite well. If, however, some other method can be suggested, a method which is parliamentary, I will be happy to hear of it. I hope the Minister will not start talking about efficiency and bringing in experts from outside to advise because, for that, I would not give tuppence. My concern is not only to ensure increased efficiency in the Civil Service, if it is necessary, but to ensure also parliamentary control. Parliamentary control is the proper thing. It is the really important point. As it is, parliamentary control suffers because of one very wide gap; that is, that Dáil Deputies have no immediate concern with or knowledge of how the Estimates are framed or how efficient Departments are within themselves.

There is, too, the relationship between the various local authorities throughout the country and the central Government through the Department of Local Government. As a member of a local authority I have frequently had doubts raised in my mind as to just how well the various local authorities and the central Government get on together, whether it is not possible that a more streamlined machinery could be found, whether there is not overlapping there with too many checks and re-checks as between the two sets of bodies. A parliamentary inquiry into that would be very illuminating and very helpful, not only to the Government as a whole but to the Minister for Local Government It would certainly be very interesting to members of local authorities.

I am seriously tempted, of course, to go into a few more precise details of things that I think it might be useful to inquire into but, as I have said, I do not think it is quite fair. In what I have said about the Department of Local Government I am not suggesting in any way that it has a deliberate policy of hampering local authorities, but there is a certain amount of delay and friction between the two and I think an inquiry by a body of sensible men in this House might lead to smoothing out the difficulties that are there. Very much the same thing applies to other Departments.

I have already referred to one or two things that I would be glad to see inquired into in a general way. I am far from satisfied that Organisation and Method is being operated as far as it should. I am not at all happy about the use of experts in various Departments. Further than that I do not wish to go. I think I have said enough there to raise questions in Deputies' minds as to just how efficiently the Service is being run, and whether we can be satisfied with it or whether we can as private Deputies through a committee help the State to be more efficient. Of this I am very sure, that it is certainly the desire of the Civil Service to be efficient and to run well. That is one thing I do want to say.

I am very glad that my 11 years' experience on the Public Accounts Committee has continually favourably impressed me with the devotion to duty, to put it that way, of the Civil Service, but that does not say that the Civil Service is perfect. It does tend to be a closed body with a special point of view and, I think, a bit of the ordinary common sense point of view of the man in the street, and the man from down the country blowing through it might do a great deal of good, and that this is a good parliamentary way to do it. I heartily recommend it to the Minister and to the House.

I second the motion.

Deputy Sheldon, in putting down this motion, has made it quite clear that he has put it down and has spoken in the House on it with the view, in his mind, that it will assist in economy, and by "economy" I mean economy in its true sense, that is to say, getting the best value for one's money. With that aim everyone will be in entire agreement. It is particularly essential at the present time that we should do everything in our power to ensure that whatever moneys are voted by this House for any particular service or for any particular aim or for any particular policy should be so spent and so utilised as to get the best possible value. Where the Deputy and I, however, may possibly differ is on whether this is going to achieve, because I pay him the compliment of accepting that he does in fact believe that it would achieve what he has in his mind.

In expressing the views that I will express on this motion to the House I want to make just this reservation: I have not had the experience that Deputy Sheldon has had of serving as a private Deputy on the Committee of Public Accounts. Perhaps more is the pity. Certainly, the Deputy's service on that committee has been long and he has given it a very great deal of attention and, for that reason, his views must be given due weight. I have only had, as the occupant of this seat for the moment, some four or five months of viewing the Civil Service machine from the inside, not a very long time and a time which has been, as the House will accept and appreciate, somewhat full of other conceptions as well as that of standing back and looking at the picture of the machine as such. I am, therefore, in this position that, while I have views certainly on this motion at the present moment I shall not say that those views are as crystallised as they might be after perhaps another 12 months or two years, when I have had an even better opportunity of judging the machine from the inside.

A Deputy

Five years.

It will take me only two years to judge this particular aspect of it. I believe that what is at the back of Deputy Sheldon's mind in putting down this motion or in suggesting that there should be this committee is that he wants, as he says himself, to inquire how the Civil Service works. However laudable may be the Deputy's anxiety to learn how the Civil Service works, I do not think that that is in itself a good reason for the establishment of this committee. I think the Deputy is making one very big mistake and that the House would be making one very big mistake if they accepted this motion on the basis that such an Estimates Committee has been in use for some time across the water. It is not unfair to say to Deputy Sheldon that the real reason why this thought occurred to him was that he has read or seen of an Estimates Committee that has been in operation in Great Britain since 1912. In fact, everybody admits on the other side, according to all the information available to me, that, certainly up to the end of the last war, that Estimates Committee was a complete failure. I think that is admitted on all sides.

I am glad the Deputy does accept that. What is the prime difference now since 1946, say, and the previous time? The prime difference is the very thing that Deputy Sheldon stressed several times during his speech, that the public business is tending to become more and more great and the reason this Estimates Committee has been kept in Britain after some 30 years of failure was that in Britain they do not discuss the Estimates in detail in their House in the same way as we discuss them in detail in this House. Their method is that they will take one or two groups of Estimates in any year and they will discuss only certain limited and picked groups of Estimates and you will find quite often there that there will be years in which Estimates of a particular Department do not come before the House as a whole. I believe that if this motion were adopted here it would be the thin end of the wedge and that the next step would be a suggestion in the future that there was not any necessity for this House to discuss the Estimate for every Department because the Estimates Committee would go into that discussion and Deputies would gradually find in this House that there were arguments being put forward that the detailed discussion of the Estimates for the various Departments that is carried on here year after year would not be necessary.

The Minister is on the wrong line altogether.

The Minister is on the right line. I know that is not Deputy Sheldon's view but I think it is the inevitable and logical result of this committee.

But it is not what happens in England.

With respect, I have as much and perhaps a little more information as the Deputy has in that respect.

The reports are in our own Library.

Quite, and if the Deputy looks he will find that they do not take every Estimate every year in the way we do here.

There is no suggestion in England that the Committee on Estimates deals with Estimates which do not come before the House of Commons. There is no separation as to what comes before the House of Commons and what comes before the committee. Most of the useful work of the Estimates Committee is done by using it for inquiries which have no relation to one particular Department at all.

Certainly. That is exactly what I am saying. What I am saying is that in the British House of Commons they do not consider it necessary to discuss in the House as a whole the Estimates for each Department——

They have not time.

——because perhaps they will be discussed in Committee. I do not want to permit in this House any step to be taken that could be utilised in future as a suggestion that it is not necessary to discuss Estimates as such in relation to each particular Department and I think that would be ultimately the logical outcome of this motion if the committee that it is proposed to be set up here was in fact to have any reason at all.

What is the position in regard to expenditure? We all know that, by and large, it is on matters of policy that savings may be effected on the one hand or increased expenditure may be necessary on the other hand. By and large, that is the main reason for less expenditure or more expenditure. I have not any idea what exactly the Deputy has in his mind as regards this committee. I understand from him that he says it will not discuss policy. Very well. I will accept that because, of course, if he tried to make the point that it would discuss policy I would at once join issue with him on it. I will assume that it will not be for any question of policy and that it will be able to avoid the pitfalls of taking the dividing line between what is policy and what is pure administration. It is a very, very difficult line in many cases to take, but I am assuming that such committee would be able to take that line.

How will it operate? Is it intended that it would operate before the money was spent? Is it intended that it would operate before the Estimates came into this House? If the Deputy concedes that the debates will be taken in this House as well, is it intended that it would operate before the Department of Finance has concluded its scrutiny of the Estimate or would it merely operate after the Estimate has been taken in the House and has been approved? For the very good reason that the Deputy, even with his 11 years' experience on the Public Accounts Committee, is still in the same position as I was in five months ago of not having seen things from the inside, I do not think that he really has a clear mind as to what he is looking for in this committee. I say that with all due respect to the Deputy's own view, accepting, as I said a second ago, that he is clearly looking for something that he believes will bring economy and sincerely believes will bring economy.

How does the machine work? It is necessary to look at it for a minute. The ordinary departmental method is quite simple in essence. The spending Department makes its proposal. The Department of Finance puts in its criticism, its limitation, its restriction on that proposal. After considerable adjustment, perhaps even adjustment on policy level in the Government, the amount that is to be included in the Estimate for the next year is agreed. That having been done, the detailed way in which that money will be spent is again put forward by the spending Department to the Department of Finance and is sanctioned if it is within the limits of the Vote and if it is within the limits of the administrative direction at the particular time.

I think the Deputy has in mind that this committee would operate only after the sanction has been given. The effect of it in that respect would be that you would tend on the one hand to take the line that the Department of Finance need not exercise its critical function because the critical function would be exercised by the committee or else that the committee would be merely working as anexpost facto quicker intermediary on public accounts, a quicker survey than the Public Accounts Committee.

In passing I might say on that that the Deputy is also well aware that on the other side there was a suggestion at one time that there would be a general Public Expenditure Committee to cover the Estimates Committee they have and the Public Accounts Committee and that that was rejected out of hand because it would invalidate and harm the non-Party line that is always taken on the Public Accounts Committee. I think that was the main reason why they rejected that.

I cannot see for the life of me where the Deputy thinks this committee will have a useful function. If it will take up its stand between the time the Estimate is framed and the time the work will be done it will add yet another cog to the administrative machine. It if is to do its work after the work has been sanctioned and when the work is being carried through it will operate only in the same way but in a slightly quicker way perhaps than the Public Accounts Committee. If the latter is the case, it could be met much easier by another system of dealing with the Public Accounts Committee to ensure that it in its turn is far more a constant thing as it is ordered rather than that the Public Accounts Committee should wait until the whole accounts for any particular year are completely audited and completely published.

Many Deputies from time to time have become exasperated with the Department of Finance and with the Minister for Finance of the day but, until they have had experience in ministerial office, I do not think they really appreciate that the Department of Finance is not the same as other Departments. It is because the Deputy regards the entire Civil Service as being exactly the same that he considers that this committee would have a function.

There are spending Departments and non-spending Departments and the non—spending Department consists of the Department of Finance, as the Deputy is aware. As one of my colleagues in this House on one of the benches opposite said to me when I was appointed last June, the essential thing for a Minister for Finance is to know how to say "no" in every single language under the sun, parliamentary and unparliamentary. I visualise that, if this committee had any function, Deputy Sheldon wants to interpose it as another basis like that. I do not think that would have any use. I move the adjournment.

Debate adjourned.
The Dáil adjourned at 10.30 p.m. until 3 p.m. on Wednesday, 10th November.