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Government Expenditure

Volume 82: debated on Monday 8 July 1985

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20.

asked the Paymaster-General how many staff in his Department have the responsibility for providing the Treasury with up-to-date information on central Government expenditure; and if he will make a statement.

One member of my Department's staff, a senior executive officer, is responsible for providing the Treasury with details of the amounts being paid out to meet the claims arising against central Government accounts during the course of the day's banking operations. In addition, three times each month computer tapes containing detailed analyses of voted expenditure authorised by Government Departments during the previous month are sent to the Treasury. These are produced by a computer system maintained by 13 clerical and technical staff.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information. In view of the deserved reputation that his Department has in its efficient role in acting as the Government's banker, will he tell us whether he has received any representations or complaints about his role? Does he accept that it would be a good idea if the responsibilities of his Department were extended so that the Department acted as the banker for local authorities, bearing in mind the continual overshoot of local councils, which are responsible for about a quarter of all public expenditure?

I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that my staff in the Paymaster General's office have a deserved reputation for carrying out the Department's role as the Government's banker extremely efficiently. If that role were to be extended, that would be a matter for the Treasury. There is no doubt that the staff do an extremely good job.

Would it not be useful if the hon. Gentleman, as Paymaster General and chairman of the Conservative party, informed the Cabinet that there is no enthusiasm throughout the country for further public spending cuts? Surely that is the No. 1 lesson from the result of the Brecon and Radnor by-election. Why do Ministers go on about the presentation of policy when what is at issue is the policy itself?

If the hon. Gentleman had bothered to examine the facts he would have learnt that Government expenditure cuts in the National Health Service, for example, amounted to considerable increases in spending in real terms. The Government are now spending more per child in school than at any time in our history, again in real terms. The hon. Gentleman would do better to check his facts before speaking in the House. If he did that, he would never speak.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the way in which he has some say in looking after the nation's finances with such a minute staff. Does he realise that not everyone shares the desire of the Opposition for greater public expenditure? Does he further realise that if public expenditure is to be reduced, even his small staff could become smaller still?

We should boast about the expansion of public expenditure where that is a good thing, and provide better services and boast, too, about the cutting of public expenditure when that reduces the waste that was so much a mark of the Labour Government.

Is it the Government's policy to make cuts and represent them as increases, or to make increases and represent them as cuts?

It is the Government's policy not to find themselves going to the International Monetary Fund as a debtor nation, but to continue to be a nation respected throughout the world for financial probity, which was not the mark of the Government when the right hon. Gentleman was Prime Minister.

Will my hon. Friend ensure that none of the civil servants at present concerned with the administration of pensions will be transferred to providing other statistics for the Treasury?

That certainly would not be a good thing, because since 1984 there have been only two complaints from Members of Parliament about the administration of pensions, although we provide 1·1 million pensioners with their pensions every year. That is a very good comment about my staff, in this, their 150th anniversary year.

As chairman of the Conservative party, does the hon. Gentleman support the view that the disastrous decline of the Conservative vote in Brecon and Radnor is due entirely to presentation, not policies?

The question asked by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) has little to do with my responsibilities as Paymaster General, but I am willing to answer it in my role as chairman of the Conservative party. The answer is simply this—

Order. Two wrongs will not make it right. We should stick to the Paymaster General's responsibilities.

I shall answer as Paymaster General. We monitor Government expenditure, and we see clearly that the Government are spending more money in the areas that matter and less where it would be wasted.

Bearing in mind that my hon. Friend acts as the Government's banker, is he satisfied that his 840 members of staff are monitoring properly and most carefully the payment of all cheques coming out of the Crawley offices? Will my hon. Friend confirm that it is his aim not only to reduce the number of cheques being paid but to reduce public expenditure, something of which the Conservative party should be proud?

I adhere to the principle that this nation should reduce the proportion of its wealth that is spent by the Government and continue to increase the proportion of its wealth that is spent by the people who make it. That must be the principle of government. It is also the principle of government to ensure that those in need are effectively helped. For that reason we have increased Government expenditure in the areas where it provides decent homes, schools, Health Service facilities and pensions. I am proud of our record in all those areas.

On the principle of spending more money where it matters and less where it goes to waste, is the Paymaster General proud of the fact that since 1979 expenditure on overseas aid has decreased by 18 per cent. and is now at the lowest level ever?

I am proud of the fact that in a period of extreme difficulty we have a better record on overseas aid than almost any other country in the world.

Is the Paymaster General aware that, in spite of the hard work of the staff in his Department, Ministers, including the Chancellor, who does not seem to know whether he has found a "middle way" or, public spending, have made confused and conflicting statements about the role of public spending? How many staff in his Department will be transferred from providing information to providing public relations, in a belated effort, following the Brecon disaster, to soften the Government's hard-nosed image on public spending? Will not that PR in itself be a substitute for any effort to restore public spending cuts?

The hon. Lady seems to have failed to remember that the disaster of Brecon and Radnor was the fact that her leader placed his own personal reputation on the line — [Interruption.] — and three quarters of her right hon. and hon. Friends went down to show that he did. The fact of Brecon and Radnor was this: once the people there feared that they might have a Labour Member of Parliament they did everything in their power to make sure that Labour's candidate did not win.