The Commissions of Public Accounts, 1691-1714
During the reigns of William III and Queen Anne backbench concerns about the vast sums of money spent on war led to a series of parliamentary commissions to investigate government expenditure. Essentially, these were small committees of MPs, established by statute for limited periods and with powers to examine ministers, officials, accounts and papers. The commissioners’ reports often exposed examples of waste and irregularity in the government’s management of public money. On a number of occasions ministers and senior officials were called to account, and in some cases condemned for corruption. This method of parliamentary scrutiny had been briefly experimented with during Charles II’s reign. But in the 1690s the commission assumed a new importance to the House of Commons as it strove to fulfill the enhanced control it had acquired in 1689 over state finance.
The first of these commissions was established by an Act passed in January 1691 for appointing nine commissioners to be chosen by a ballot of the House of Commons. The commission was then renewed annually by subsequent legislation up until 1697. Over the next few years attempts in the Commons to renew the commission were unsuccessful chiefly owing to the political contentiousness of the commission’s investigatory work. Other parliamentary commissions were appointed to look specifically into the Irish forfeitures issue (1699), and to assess the debts of the army and navy (1700-5), but since most of their members were not Westminster MPs, they lacked the political clout of the former accounts commission.
The commission was revived by legislation in the first session of Queen Anne’s reign, and was renewed a year later until March 1704. At this point, however, renewal legislation was unsuccessful and the commission lapsed. It was not revived again until an Act of 1711, and was retained by subsequent Acts until lapsing in March 1714. A bill to renew the commission was rejected by the Lords in June 1714.
With its wide-ranging remit as an inquest to examine the state of the public finances, the commission appointed in 1690 was regarded by the court as a threat. Initially it was expected that party-edged disputes between its Whig and Tory members would soon force it to break up. However, as the commission got down to work from March 1691, a strong rapport grew between its country Whig members, Robert Harley and Paul Foley, and their Tory colleagues Sir Thomas Clarges and Sir Benjamin Newland, based on their common concern to expose government deficiency wherever they found it.
Although commissionerships were ‘offices of profit’, they were quite distinct from placemen in the service of the crown and were responsible to Parliament rather than to monarch or ministers. The commissioners’ princely salary of £500 was justified by the constitutional importance attached to their role. Shortly after their election to the nine-strong commission in 1690, two MPs – Sir Robert Rich, 2nd Bt. and Robert Austen I – were appointed to places in the Admiralty, but as this was felt to compromise the commission’s status as an independent body they were removed under the renewal legislation of 1693. This reduced the commission’s size to seven, at which it remained. Not until the commissions of Queen Anne’s reign, however, were placemen expressly excluded.
The manuscript diary of one commissioner, Sir Peter Colleton, 2nd Bt., gives a uniquely detailed picture of proceedings in the early 1690s and illustrates the immense thoroughness of the commission’s inquiries. On its very first day of business, 5 Mar. 1691, the commissioners interviewed William Blathwayt, the secretary at war. Meetings took place daily throughout the year, with a rota system operating during the summer months which allowed commissioners to get away from London for a few weeks. Much of their work was undertaken in the face of endless obstruction by Court officials who withheld papers and accounts, or simply evaded detailed questioning. In consequence, many of the commission’s reports were never properly completed, and it was therefore difficult to make wide-ranging suggestions for administrative improvement. But the reports did not hesitate to indicate where ministers and officials had prevaricated and were mismanagement was suspected.
The commission of 1690-7 helped greatly to instill effective and conscientious attitudes of scrutiny among MPs, and of accountability on the part of ministers. Committees appointed to consider financial estimates adopted similar practices of summoning officials to account to Parliament for the way money had been, or would be, spent.
The commission’s familiarity with government administration enabled its members to function as effective critics of the government in the Commons. It thus served as an obvious base for the developing ‘Country opposition’ with Robert Harley as its leading figure. However, by the mid-1690s its value as an instrument of parliamentary scrutiny had became overshadowed by its growing usefulness as a weapon of political attack against front-rank politicians. As a result of its investigations in 1694-5 Lord Sunderland’s henchman, the Treasury secretary Henry Guy, was arraigned for financial malpractice; and in the same session none other than the Speaker, Sir John Trevor, was expelled from the House for accepting bribes.
The commissions established during 1702-4 and 1711-14 were used blatantly as party devices by the Tory governments of these years to find evidence to incriminate former Whig ministers. Although charges against the long-serving paymaster-general of the army Lord Ranelagh (Richard Jones) resulted in his expulsion from the Commons in 1703, the commission’s efforts to construct charges against the Junto Lords Halifax (Charles Montagu) and Orford (Edward Russell) resulted in failure. However, the commission appointed in 1711 led, notoriously, to severe censures on Robert Walpole, the former secretary at war, and the Duke of Marlborough for their alleged misappropriations of army money.
After its demise in 1714, however, no further commissions were appointed by the Commons to provide vigorous investigation of accounts until 1780 during the campaign for ‘economical reform’.