UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The relations between the British treasury and the departments of the central government in the nineteenth century. Boys-Smith, Stephen Wynn


The object of the thesis is to look at some of the main factors governing the relations between the Treasury and the Departments of the central Government in the nineteenth century. It seeks to show how nineteenth century Treasury control, in both financial and Civil Service affairs, was the product of a unique period in the development of British administration. This period lies between the reforms of the administration at the end of the eighteenth century, which ended the surviving obsolete practices and political patronage, and the changes of the late nineteenth century which saw a new appreciation of the potential of administration and a weakening of the hold of the idea of public economy. The introductory chapter shows how the control of administration by a single Department was made possible by the gradual disappearance of political patronage and medieval administrative practices, which dates from the 1780's. Though the Treasury had long been the most important of the Departments, and though the legal powers it exercised dated back to the 1660's, it was only the reforms of the late eighteenth century which created an administration amenable to control, and deprived the Treasury of its political role. The work of the various Treasury officers was changing well into the nineteenth century, which emphasizes this late development of the Department's effective administrative powers. The Treasury's control of the Revenue Departments reflects its long existent legal powers to supervise the money voted to the Crown. They were absolute and well defined by the eighteenth century, and thus did not influence the Treasury's relations with other central Government Departments in the nineteenth century. The second chapter discusses the Treasury's role in curtailing public expenditure, which was the basis of all its activities in the nineteenth century. It seeks to show that, because public economy was an integral part of current thinking on economics and on government, the Treasury was in a position of great prestige. The remarks of Chancellors of the Exchequer and Treasury civil servants emphasize this point, and show how the Treasury was a Department with a high sense of responsibility. The chapter points out the various weaknesses of the Treasury in this field, and shows how in matters of high policy the relative political prestige of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the departmental ministers was very important. In small matters however the Treasury was able to exercise something approaching autocratic authority. The Treasury felt it was not its business to interfere in departmental policy, but various examples show how the mere curtailing of expenditure could constitute interference. In conclusion the chapter looks at the way in which expenditure did in fact rise in the nineteenth century, despite the emphasis on economy. This indicates the Treasury was not able effectively to curtail the expenditure increases on commitments once they had been entered into, and that it became weaker towards the end of the century as the idea of retrenchment came to have less force. The third chapter discusses the reforms of routine financial administration, which at the end of the eighteenth century were instituted partly as a result of attempts to reduce the power of the Crown, and in the period from the 1830's to 1860’s largely to establish the constitutional principle of the Parliamentary control over grants. These reforms, which culminated in the Exchequer and Audit Act of 1866, radically changed the way in which money was supervised once it had been granted by Parliament to the Crown. At one and the same time they created a system which was far more open to control from the centre and one which required the enforcement of a large number of regulations. The reforms increased the duties of the Treasury, and greatly enhanced its effective power, although they were not introduced with that object in mind. The fourth chapter looks at the Treasury's control of the Civil Service, and shows how in personnel affairs the Department took an excessively financial approach. In supervising establishments and the growth of Government Departments it failed to look objectively at the problems involved, or to take up the initiatives which this period of unprecedented administrative expansion offered. The fifth chapter looks at the co-ordination of decisions involving several Departments, which constituted a more routine aspect of the Treasury's work. A study is made of the Zanzibar mail contract affair of 1873, and the way in which it demonstrates the confusion over how the Treasury might best co-ordinate interdepartmental decisions. In this instance the Treasury, under Robert Lowe, failed to take account of the knowledge available in some sections of the Government, with the result that important decisions had to be reversed. From this the conclusion is drawn that this side of the Treasury's work as the central Department was best conducted by closely following an efficient procedure rather than by exercising initiative.

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