§ Mr. WILLIAM YOUNG
I desire to deal with a matter I consider of very great importance which has been discussed to some extent already in this House. I refer to what is now fairly well known as the Meyer timber buying arrangement, an arrangement which we know was entered into by the Office of Works on behalf of the War Office, for the purpose of supplying timber to the War Office. I shall also, if time permits, make some reference to the whole question in a general way of War Office purchases. Before referring to any of the details of the Meyer appointment, which I ventured to characterise in this House as a most unbusiness like proceeding and contrary to the public interest. I should like to take this opportunity of stating—and I do not wish to make any particular complaint—that both I and the others who have thought it our duty to take this matter up have received but scant courtesy from the Government, or from the Financial Secretary to the War Office, who answered most of my questions on the subject, and who also spoke in both Debates on this subject. If I may be permitted to say so, he has not shown the desire which one might have expected to give information to this House, and he seems disposed to forget that even private Members of Parliament have still some rights left in this House, and even, indeed, duties which they are bound to perform, and which they have not yet entirely abrogated.
I do not know that I have yet been able to discover exactly what are the duties of junior Ministers, but I gather from the attitude taken up by the two hon. Gentlemen who have represented the Government in this discussion that it is a case of "My Department, right or wrong." They perhaps think differently from me on this subject, but in my opinion, at least, such a course is not the best they 1047 could have pursued in the circumstances in which we find ourselves at the present time. Surely the defence of the public Department is no doubt very commendable, and a very necessary adjunct to the position those hon. Gentleman occupy, but in some circumstances it may be carried to extremes, and I am inclined to think in regard to the Meyer timber-buying arrangement this has distinctly been the case. I should be the last person to make an attack upon any of our public or permanent officials, because I believe our public service is more honourably conducted than that of any other country I know of. With regard to the terms of the arrangement with Mr. Meyer, as I have already stated in the House, that agreement is of the most extraordinary character, and the remuneration in the shape of commission is admitted on all hands to be exorbitant and much higher than it ought to be. That is one of my main arguments for pressing—as I shall continue to press whenever I get the opportunity if we do not get a satisfactory answer from the Government—that this appointment must be brought to an end and the agreement terminated.
I should like to deal with this matter on what I may call broad and I hope clear terms, and to make my remarks apply generally to War Office purchases. If the War Office has chosen to delegate part of its duties to the Office of Works, my remarks will naturally apply to them also. Let us consider for a moment the Meyer appointment. The main defence of the two hon. Gentlemen who have represented the Government in this matter has been, whilst admitting that the remuneration paid is too high, the arrangement has been to the public advantage. Notwithstanding the argument of these two hon. Gentlemen they have not convinced me, and I feel certain that they have not convinced a single business man either inside or outside of this House. I do not intend to go into the figures of this contract, but I was quite surprised when the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Beck) came down to this House, as he did the other evening, and, if I may so describe it, floundered in figures which mean and prove nothing in regard to this appointment. I remember very long ago the Chancellor of the Exchequer explained to this House the methods of the Bank of England and how the officials of that great institution were able to detect good bills of exchange from 1048 bad bills. He said he had been told in the City that they recognised them by the smell.
I have handled a good many bills of exchange, and I think that was a very good explanation of how one is able to distinguish good bills from bad bills of exchange and good business from bad business. No business man needs to go far into this contract to discover at once that it is a most unbusinesslike proceeding, and that is how I have judged the whole question. One has only to look at the letters upon which the contract or arrangement is based. I am certain that had such a letter as that written by Mr. Meyer been submitted to any great business house or institution it would never have been considered for one moment, and I doubt whether Mr. Meyer would ever have been invited back to the office where he made such a proposal. When I spoke before, it is quite true I made some remarks in regard to the official who had made this arrangement. I was quite ignorant then as to who had signed the letter, and, of course, I meant no personal attack on anyone. I must say that really it is most surprising how Mr. Baines could have signed such a letter. I see that he signs himself as the "Principal Architect in charge of the Royal Palaces." He may be a very capable architect, but surely when he entered into this agreement with Mr. Meyer he must have been thinking of castles in the air and not Royal palaces! I do not intend to go into any figures at all, and perhaps other hon. Members may wish to do so.
The arrangement has been condemned and laughed at by the Press of the whole country, and also by the commercial business world generally. I therefore continue to press that this appointment shall be brought to an end without delay. It must be clear that the proper action to take in this matter is to end this arrangement. I cannot understand the position that has been taken up by these two hon. Gentlemen. It has been my experience, and I am sure it is the general experience, that when one makes a blunder in business, or any other direction, the best thing is to admit it, and to remedy it as soon as possible. I will only say that I took this matter up purely as a public duty, and no suggestion came to me from any member of the timber trade that I should put down questions in regard to this matter. I am not looking for any personal advertisement; but I think the two hon. Gentlemen 1049 in charge of this matter will see that they ought to treat it in a reasonable way. I warn them that if this ridiculous arrangement is not cancelled and brought to an end there will be something like a wave of indignation throughout the whole country. It is not surprising if discontent is manifested amongst the working classes, find this is a question that was referred to by my hon. Friend who spoke in the last Debate, and I think it is a most important point to be taken into consideration.
We were brought down to this House with great solemnity to listen to what we all admit was a most important speech from the Prime Minister, and it was one of those very conclusive and able speeches which we always get from him. We were brought here solemnly to vote unprecedented and gigantic sums of public money, and rightly to assent to those Votes. When we venture to criticise the spending of that money in the Press we are accused by some at any rate, although not by many, of wrangling over trifles and wasting the time of the House. If there has been any waste of the time of this House, I again repeat that it has been entirely due to the attitude taken up by the two hon. Gentlemen who have represented the Government in this discussion. I was very glad to notice that the Noble Lord the Member for Hitchin (Lord Robert Cecil) referred to this very matter in the speech which he made on Monday last, and he also pressed that this matter should be fully examined by the Prime Minister. This question of the expenditure of public money in my opinion is of far more importance in war time than in times of peace. If I wish to justify my action for having brought this matter before the House, I could not find more suitable arguments than could be found in the speech recently made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I have not got his exact words, but the right hon. Gentleman said this is essentially an engineers' war, because equipment is even more needed than men.
Equipment can only be purchased with money, and, therefore, it is of the utmost importance that economy should be practised far more in a great crisis like the present than it is in time of peace. I ventured to put a question to the Prime Minister to-day in regard to War Office purchases generally, and I suggest to the Government, in view of the magnitude of these purchases, that some kind of Committee of business, men from this House, and outside, as the case may be, should be 1050 appointed for the purpose of advising in regard to these gigantic transactions. The right hon. Gentleman replied that Sir Francis Hopwood and Sir George Gibb had been appointed directors to supervise the placing of Admiralty and War Office contracts, respectively. He further went on to say that since the outbreak of War, the War Office had profited by the advice of men of proved standing in all the large branches of trade. With all due respect to the Prime Minister, I venture to think that that statement is not quite accurate, and has certainly not been applied in the case of the Meyer appointment. Of course I do not want to prophesy, but the time may come when the Government, will regret that they did not accept my suggestion for a Committee of business men to assist the War Office. We all know that Sir George Gibb is a very able man, bur I say, and I feel sure I am stating what is true, that were he six, ten, or even a dozen Sir George Gibbs wrapped into one, he could not properly and efficiently attend to the duties which have been placed upon him. I would press on the Government, with all the earnestness I can in the public interest, to look at this matter from a business point of view and to reconsider it with a view of terminating this arrangement which, in my opinion, is quite contrary to the public interest in every way. If, as no doubt is the case, still further large purchases of timber are necessary, they ought to appoint an expert at a reasonable salary. Mr. Meyer, if he is such a wonderful business man, as he is alleged to be, will get his chance along with other timber merchants of securing the contracts of the Government. I again hope that this matter will receive the serious consideration of the two representatives of the Government, and that they will see that the best way of satisfying public opinion and the whole of the commercial world is to cancel this arrangement forthwith.
§ Mr. BOOTH
I do not propose to discuss the merits of the question to-day, because I felt it my duty to accept the invitation of the First Commissioner to visit the Office of Works this morning. I have an appointment there to-morrow, and I do not think it would be consistent with my visits there to discuss the merits of the question to-day. I have risen in order to give the Financial Secretary to the War Office a chance of putting himself right with the House and with the timber trade 1051 generally. There was a meeting yesterday of the Timber Trade Federation, which I attended on the invitation of the president, and a resolution was passed which, at their request, I shall presently read to the House. It is an answer to observations made by the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Baker) on 18th February in this House. A suggestion was made that a Committee of well-known experts in the timber trade might have been consulted by the Government before they plunged into this extensive timber buying with Mr. Meyer. The answer of the hon. Gentleman was this:—I agree that a committee was a possible alternative, but this House and the country is constantly urging us not to put ourselves into the hands of rings, and if we had done that I think very likely this same Debate would have taken place, but the hon. Members who have criticised would have been compelled to put their criticism upon other ground."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th February, 1915, col. 1368.]Another statement made by the hon. Member in the same speech—and I think the two passages must be considered together—was this:—The Office of Works did not at first accept him in that capacity, but, in view of the obvious attempt on the part of a large section of the trade to squeeze them to the utmost they could, they agreed to give Mr. Meyer a trial and to see what be could do."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th February, 1915, col. 1364.]If that means anything, I think it means that the Government, in order to defeat a large section of the trade who were conspiring against the State to squeeze them to the utmost, have appointed Mr. Meyer. I feel sure that the hon. Member will want to put himself right with the House, because no one can assert that there was anything of the kind. I have no doubt that the hon. Member was misled. I do not think anyone connected with the timber trade, whether for this agreement or against it, will venture to say that those words were justified. What does the Timber Trade Federation themselves say? They resolved, at their annual meeting yesterday, as follows:—That the members of this Federation, representing all branches of the timber trade throughout the country, protest and strongly resent, the unfair aspersions cast upon a large section of the trade by a Minister of the Crown in the House of Commons in connection with the question of the supply of timber for Government purposes, and record their regret that although the Director of Army Contracts stated, on December 30th last, that the principle of consulting leading representatives of the various trades on points where expert assistance was useful had been adopted for some time by his Department, it bad not been applied to the case of the timber trade through the Federation or otherwise.I venture to say that resolution, which was carried unanimously, cannot be challenged, and will not be challenged, by anyone 1052 in the trade, whether they approve of this contract of not, and I do appeal to the hon. Member that he should see the seriousness of the position in a time when labour unrest—we hope, of course, that it will be checked largely by the influence of hon. Members below the Gangway—is liable to spread. I hope that the hon. Member will see the seriousness of charging a large section of the trade in this way without, at any rate, bringing some proof. I do not know what defence the hon. Member will make, but he, like myself, is the son of a manufacturer, and I would like to ask him with what feelings a woollen manufacturer would read a statement by a Minister of the Crown that there was a conspiracy on the part of a large section of his trade to squeeze the Government to the utmost in a time of national emergency like this. Those remarks gave a great deal of pain. I have not been able to find the slightest evidence for them. The Government have never produced any. I do appeal to the hon. Member—I hope that he has a long and brilliant career before him in the service of the State—if he has been mistaken, and I think that he has, to frankly say so and to make some utterances satisfactory to a trade which has always been conducted with credit to those concerned.
§ Mr. J. H. THOMAS
I rise to put before the House, very briefly, the view I, as representing labour, take on this question. I listened to the last Debate, and several speakers, several of my hon. Friends on this side, were very careful to point out that they did not in the least blame Mr. Meyer for making the best of his bargain. They said that the Government was responsible for showing in this matter a lack of business ability, and that so far as Mr. Meyer was concerned he was not to blame; the Government was wholly responsible. I submit that is not the correct view to take. If this House is justified in saying that any man, whether Mr. Meyer or anybody else, may take an advantage at this time of the nation's difficulty and make a particular profit for himself it has no right to condemn the whole body of working men for copying that attitude. I dissent wholly and entirely from that view. I do not take that attitude here alone; I take it with the men themselves. I would say to the men I represent just as frankly, even if I were satisfied that I could get a claim that they made and win them an advance by the pressure that we could apply—I would absolutely refuse to be a party to help 1053 them in that transaction if the claim were an unreasonable one, were only made because of the nation's difficulty, and would only succeed because of this particular crisis.
It is necessary at this time for all sections not to approach any dispute from the standpoint of reaping personal or sectional advantage. It is necessary for the worker to say, "Whilst I am entitled to a certain thing, whilst I am hit in a certain direction, and whilst I am suffering at this moment, yet I want to base my claim for reasonable consideration wholly and solely on the justice and merits of my case, and I do not want to make it because of the difficulty either of my employer or of the country." It is equally necessary that no employer should approach the question from any other standpoint. If he is dealing with his workmen he ought not to be rushed into a situation because of the abnormal period, but it is equally for him to reciprocate the spirit I have indicated. That is the only means by which we can go through this crisis with satisfaction to all concerned, and, I hope, with honour to everybody when the trouble is over. Applying that principle to this particular contract, we cannot disabuse our minds of the fact that the workers do believe, and are satisfied, that certain men and certain trades are not only profiting unfairly, but are not dealing fairly by the State. Whatever arguments may be used about coal, the fact remains, they say, that someone is responsible for creating an abnormal situation. They apply the same principle to food-stuffs.
Therefore, I repeat that it cannot be too strongly emphasised that if Mr. Meyer is reaping an unfair advantage he is equally as much to blame as anyone else. I do not agree that in this trouble any Member of this House should approach any question from the standpoint of a trade, or an individual, or a particular interest. I do not believe at all in carping, petty, spiteful criticism at this stage. I know some of the difficulties with which I am faced, and how strongly I should resent the little intrigues and jealousies that take place, and I conceive that Ministers, being specially pressed, will resent them as well. But I do say this, that a mistake has been made. It is clearly evident on the face of it that no business man would agree to the conditions that surround this particular contract. The contract may have been made, as many are, hurriedly and without full consideration of all the facts of the case. But it is not a climb down, it is not giving 1054 anything away on the part of the occupants of the Front Bench, to say that a mistake has been made and that it will now be rectified.
After all, no one will pretend that there have not been mistakes in this War. No one will claim that we are infallible, or will suggest that we never make mistakes. A man who never made a mistake never made anything. That being so, I submit, the only way to give satisfaction is to say, clearly and definitely, that this contract is not fair to the nation. People are making sacrifices such as they never made before. That does not apply to any one section of the people. I do not claim, on behalf of the workers, that our sacrifices are greater than those of anybody else. I know rich men are making sacrifices at home, and abroad. It is that spirit which is going to carry us through successfully, and it is a spirit which I hope will find its reflection when this War is over. If there is to be any consolation apart from military value, it will be a better appreciation on the part of all sections of the people of each other's difficulties.
In short, just as the rich man will feel appreciation of the humble man leaving his cot and incurring suffering and misery through placing his national responsibility before anything else, so will the poor man appreciate the action of the rich man in leaving a life of ease, luxury, and comfort, and risking his life on the battlefield. Just as I believe that the tendency between employer and employed is better to-day because they approach questions not from their sectional or individual interests but in the broader and better spirit of national responsibility, so I repeat I believe that that spirit is going to do good at the end of this War. I will conclude by saying that the workers do view with suspicion any man who is making a profit out of these terrible sacrifices. In my opinion a mistake has been made, and the only way to rectify it, the only way to secure public confidence is not to say, "No, we are going to stick to what we have said," but to say that in the pressure that was applied to us at the moment, a mistake has been made, we are going to rectify it, and, above all, we are going to take steps that will prevent a recurrence of such mistakes.
I do not propose to take up very much time with regard to the case of Mr. Meyer, but I should like to say a few words upon the broader aspects of the 1055 question of dealings with contractors generally in connection with the supply of war material. I have no great personal knowledge of the case of Mr. Meyer. It seems to me there is rather a tendency to discuss it on the wrong plane. We are all agreed that had this contract been made with proper business care, there would have been a sliding scale, so that when the turnover exceeded a certain amount the commission would be limited. I do not suppose anyone will refuse his assent to that proposal. But it must be borne in mind that this contract was made at a time of great pressure, and nobody assumed that the turnover would attain the proportions it did. What we have to ask is, has the work been well done, and has the State really got value in regard to the timber secured? Anybody who has had to deal with these questions of providing timber for camps, will know the enormous difficulty there was at the outset in getting timber. I am one of those who have been honoured with the responsibility of raising two local battalions, and we are now in the midst of raising a third. I have had the privilege of carrying out that work in association with the committee including the mayor and others. When we came to build huts for the men, we were faced with very great difficulties, and one soon learned that, in dealing with contracts, the essential thing was to see that in return for the money that was spent—and I do not suggest it should be lavishly spent—we got good service for the State.
With regard to contractors generally, there are serious evils which I will mention presently, and it does seem unfortunate that this discussion should turn on a case such as has been raised, where, although the remuneration has been too high, the return in work for that remuneration has been good. Mr. Meyer was responsible not only for purchasing, but also for distributing the timber, and he had, I am informed, to employ a large staff. Therefore, while he was paid the ordinary purchasing commission, he was responsible for a good deal more work. I would like, if I may, to refer to one or two evils which arise in connection with contracting generally. One or two serious cases have come under my notice, and they have made me feel there ought to be some better machinery for dealing with difficulties that arise with contractors who, to put it mildly, do not render quite that service which they ought to.
1056 Take, for instance, that camp which I had the privilege of establishing at Conway. A certain portion of the work was of a technical character, and I asked the War Office to supply me with some of the names of the contractors on their list. Eventually the work was put up to tender amongst certain selected firms, some on the War Office list and some not. Those who were on the War Office list, by some very curious coincidence tendered at a price which was within £2 of one another. Those off the War Office list put in perfectly proper tenders, which differed largely in amount, and I was enabled in get the work done at between 30 per cent. and 10 per cent. below the amount asked by the contractors on the War Office list. The coincidence was a curious one. I am not putting it any higher than that or any lower, but incidents of that sort do arise, and it is only by persistent examination of every avenue of spending money, and by the most careful employment of experts—and these are not always above suspicion—as well as by the checking of every portion of material used that one can make certain that the money is being made the best use of.
In regard to the provision of boots, most serious troubles have arisen, in my view more serious than in any other respect. For a man to try to make money out of providing defective or unsatisfactory boots for the troops is, to my mind, one of the cruellest things possible. It is not only that the man is corrupt and defrauding the State. It means that many a good fellow's life may be sacrificed in consequence. Many a man on a long march, especially if it be a question of retreating under fire, may have to lag behind if his boots are defective, and that may mean the loss of his life. A much worse and stronger case could be made out with regard to the supply of improper boots than anything else. May I just quote one instance which came under my own personal observation? Boots were supplied to a battalion of which I have cognisance. They appeared to be excellent, they were passed by the local expert, and for them a high price was demanded.
In appearance they were admirable boots. They were made of leather and looked charming. The only defect was that when they were put on the men's feet they would not hold together. The soles had a curious way of departing from the uppers—a practice which is not considered right in the best boot circles. After a 1057 good deal of struggle the contractor was forced to take the boots back. I cannot give their subsequent history, but a month or two later a further supply of boots was required for the battalion, and they were ordered according to sample. The new contractor said he could not supply the whole 2,000 pairs according to sample, but 1,500 were coming along just as good as the sample, and the regiment would, he was sure, be quite satisfied. The 1,500 pairs were supplied in due course, and they turned out to be a portion of the boots which had been rejected in the same warehouse for the same battalion. They were identical in every respect, except that the price in the interval had risen by 1s. 9d. That kind of performance to my mind is utterly discreditable and disgraceful.
§ The FINANCIAL SECRETARY to the WAR OFFICE (Mr. Harold Baker)
These boots, I understand, were purchased by the raisers of the local battalion under contract made by them?
Certainly, I was not suggesting is was a War Office contract. I was rather wanting to broaden the discussion, and to introduce the supply of boots by contractors as one of the matters which require watching. I am not making any case against the War Office. I only want to ventilate in this House the difficulty which has arisen with regard to boots, and to suggest to those who sit on the Front Bench opposite whether it is not possible to set up some machinery for stopping this kind of thing. In the particular case to which I am referring those who were responsible for raising the battalion did stop the mischief. But what I fear is that these very same boots may still find a home in some other battalion.
§ Mr. LEIF JONES
Why did the raisers of the battalion buy from a manufacturer who had cheated them in the first instance? Why did they go to him for more boots?
The raisers of the battalion did not buy from the same man. They bought from another man. In the interval the boots originally rejected apparently had passed through several hands, and had eventually come into the possession of a contractor who, by some curious mischance of fate, tried to palm them off on the original purchaser.
I am unable to say. But I think it is unfortunate there is not some 1058 better machinery for seeing that people of this kind do not play these games too long. I am quite sure that the difficulties of this kind, or, if you like, scandals of this kind, do affect recruiting, and for two reasons. When you ask a man to take the most serious responsibility in this life that a man can take, namely, to risk his life in the cause of his country—those who know the conditions under which this War is being waged know what the risk is—you must at least guarantee to him that he shall fight this battle under the safest and surest conditions you can ensure to him. The last speaker suggested, in a speech of most of which I cordially approve, that the men who enlist are apt to be getting very high wages now, and if they feel that contractors are out to make money and to take every possible advantage, that they would ask, "Why do you consider it unreasonable for us to put the monetary argument rather strongly when you appeal to us to recruit?" That is an argument which, unless we are careful to stop scandals of this kind in connection with Army contracts, it is very difficult to answer. The only practical suggestion I can make is this: Whether it would not be possible for some machinery to be adopted for getting complete lists, or something of that kind, for checking and, so far as possible, preventing an improper supply of boots or timber, or whatever it may be, from contractors all over the country. There is not enough co-ordination or tabulation of the people who supply articles of various kinds. If there were, and if the experience of all those who have been raising battalions as well as of the regular War Office authorities were brought together, a good deal might be done to prevent trouble of this kind arising in the future.
§ Mr. BECK (Lord of the Treasury)
The position in which the House finds itself and in which I find myself is not quite a usual one. A very strong attack is being made upon a Department and the Department has no official or responsible representative in this House. As hon. and right hon. Gentlemen know, I merely speak as the mouthpiece of the Office of Works and have no responsibility for the management of the Office of Works, either now or in the past. Therefore my Noble Friend the First Commissioner hopes the House will allow me to read to them a statement which he has prepared on the Meyer case. This course may be a little unusual, but I hope the House will 1059 be indulgent, remembering that very grave charges have been made against the Office of Works, although I am glad to say that most of them have vanished in the course of our Debates. My Noble Friend and his Department feel that it is particularly desirable that an authoritative statement should be made on their behalf. Before dealing with the few points that have been raised, I will, if I may, read this statement of my Noble Friend:—In October the War Office found itself faced with the necessity of providing with the utmost possible speed a large number of huts for the housing of the 4th New Army. The War Office consulted the Office of Works as to the best method of buying the timber required, and it was eventually arranged that one of the principal architects, who had had considerable experience in connection with timber, should undertake this work for the War Office. The original proposal was that the timber should be bought under contract by the Department in the ordinary course, but, in view of the large demand, it was thought necessary, in the first place, to make inquiry as to the stocks held in the country and as to prices. When answers to these inquiries were received, the conclusion arrived at was that it was doubtful whether a sufficient quantity of timber of the sizes required could be obtained in the country at all, the level of tendering was extremely high, and in the course of the inquiries it was apprehended that, if contracts for the amount of timber of this size to be obtained as quickly as possible were placed on the market, the result would be an appreciation of prices, the extent of which it was impossible to forecast.The firm of Mr. M. L. Meyer was asked, among others, to quote, and the head of this firm came to the Office of Works and represented that if the amount of timber required was ordered in the ordinary course, the result on the market would be extremely serious, and the interests of the taxpayer must suffer. He accordingly suggested that the proper method was for the Government to purchase its timber abroad direct, and in the course of discussion the plan was evolved of combining into one operation—purchase, transport by sea and land, and preparation of timber for the huts on the actual sites of the camps and elsewhere as convenient. It is necessary to emphasise the fact that all the steps of the transaction, with the exception of purchase, are outside the purview of an ordinary agent buying on commission. In the course of bargaining he offered to perform these services on the basis of a commission of 2½ per cent. The matter was then carefully considered and the War Office were consulted and gave cordial approval. It was eventually decided that, as the timber had to be obtained as quickly as possible, and as there was no reason why it should not be got as cheaply as possible, the best method was to use Mr. Meyer as buying agent, his position in the trade having been found to be satisfactory, and the deliberate judgment being formed that, from his personality, he was a man who could be relied on to do the business cheaply, quickly, and well. Time being the essence of the business, it was thought better not to incur the delay of preparing a formal contract with him, but to put the terms in a letter, power being taken to terminate the arrangement at one day's notice. It was also arranged that his operations should be checked by an official staff (the chief of which is a qualified accountant), which should work in his office and have access to all his records. The business contemplated under this arrangement was approximately equivalent to 14,500 standards, estimated at that time to be worth £250,000, but 1060 which, I believe, has cost not more than £200,000 The question has been asked whether the First Commissioner was fully aware of what was going on. I may say, as I said in reply to a question yesterday, that the matter was mentioned to him and that he told his Department to render all the assistance they could to the War Office, and gave general approval to make such arrangements as they thought best. He was not informed of all the details at the time, but he has since made inquiry about the matter, and he has not the least doubt that a very great saving of public money was effected by the course adopted. There is no question that in an emergency such as the War Office was placed in, a clever agent (not merely to buy, but to perform the whole of the services connected with conveying the timber to the place where it was required) could obtain the wood at a far less price than it would have beer obtained at had the Office contented itself with simply picking out the lowest tenders for the quantity which they were asked to buy. As has already been said, it is quite uncertain whether there was in the country at the time enough wood of the scantlings and qualities required; but, even if the stock had been found to be sufficient, the market would have been left bare, and prices would have been raised against us for the further purchases that we have since been called upon to make on behalf of the War Office. I shall deal with the question of commission shortly, but so far from apologising for the actual net effect of the business transaction as a whole, we feel that the nation has been well served and has effected a great saving. I now turn to the question of the commission which was arranged with Mr. Meyer. It must be remembered, in the first place, that the Office of Works had no idea at the time when the purchases began what a large volume they would attain in the following months. The fact is that the War Office, in hutting the whole of new Armies, had a business of unprecedented size to handle. They found that the timber purchased through Mr. Meyer turned up quickly, in excellent quality, in the right sizes at the widely scattered places where it was required, and that it was to the public advantage to expand the transaction. In the second place, the 2½ per cent. commission included a great deal more than is covered by the ordinary buying commission in the home market. Mr. Meyer had to arrange through the trade shipping agents who do all foreign ordering, for purchases abroad, for sea freight, for insurance, for landing charges and dock dues, for conveying the timber by rail, and for converting it where necessary to the sizes required. He frequently had to send men about the country to look into special local difficulties and get through railway and harbour blocks. All this is outside the ordinary duties of the mere buying broker. The First Commissioner readily admits that a brokerage which is fully justified for a business emergency and for purchases of a comparatively moderate amount, may be deemed to be excessive when the total purchases reach very large figures. He feels that it would be a great detriment to the public interest, as well as a great injustice, after Mr. Meyer has served those interests so well that he should be contemptuously cashiered as some hon. Members seem to desire. The transaction has grown with great and unexpected rapidity. The First Commissioner therefore feels that after the amount of £600,000 is reached some new arrangement should be made. Mr. Meyer very fully and freely accepts that position and puts himself unreservedly in the hands of the First Commissioner. The matter is under consideration and an intimation of the terms arranged will be made at an early date.The real question, I must remind the House, is whether the transactions so far have been profitable to the public and are likely to be so in future. The First Commissioner cannot for a moment agree that the Office of Works would have been 1061 justified in taking the easy course of accepting simply the lowest tenders, when they believed they could buy much more cheaply by altering their methods. They felt they were trustees for the public and bound to do the best they could for their clients. Had they adopted the course of accepting the lowest tenders first presented, no hon. Member would have objected, and the nation would have been the poorer at the end. Because they had the courage to adopt other and, as the First Commissioner maintains, better methods, they are denounced by men who have not the material facts before them.That is the statement which my Noble Friend desires me to make. The House will, perhaps, admit that it is a frank and open statement, only possible during a political truce. The Office of Works, from the beginning, has not attempted in any way to treat this matter as a controversial one. They have taken it for granted that in the grave times in which we live, hon. Members are actuated solely by a desire for the public good. They cannot believe that any hon. Member would raise this question for the mere sake of personal advertisement, or of personal annoyance to the Government.
§ Mr. BECK
I maintain that the transaction is defensible in every way, though I, personally, am only able to speak with a very little more knowledge than hon. Members who are critics of this case. I would point out to the House that though we have had speeches from two or three very able hon. Members, so far as I can gather there has been no real criticism levelled at the case my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the War Office and I have put before the House on two separate occasions. We have been spared a strong attack by my hon. Friend (Mr. Booth). By our offer to him we have luckily secured, for the moment at any rate, his neutrality. But as regards the speech of the hon. Member (Mr. Thomas) he is known to all of us as one of the fairest controversialists in the House, but the only criticism he made is one which I think we shall all agree to, that certain men and certain traders are unduly profiting. But he said one thing which I cannot accept and which I believe, after he has examined the facts, he will not be satisfied with, and that is that a mistake has been made and is now to be rectified. He says this contract is not fair to the nation.
I should like to say a word or two on the point about the contract being fair to the nation. I repeat that the case that has been made against this contract has 1062 been destroyed by the defence that has been put up. I do not want to go through the thing again. I think we all feel that quite enough has been said about the case—perhaps too much. But one of the fundamental facts which has been hurled at us has been that 1 per cent. is a usual commission for the sort of work that Mr. Meyer does. That is absolutely an untrue statement. I do not mean that it is deliberately untrue, but it is not justified by facts. I have had a number of letters. Of course, I do not propose to quote them, because they were written by private persons who had no idea that they would be quoted in this House. But I should like to take the gist of one or two of them.
I have a letter from Liverpool, dated 27th February, in which the writer, a gentleman who has been fifteen years in the timber trade, says that the statement which my hon. Friend (Mr. William Young) read out the other day about the buyer for the Mersey Dock and Harbour Board is really not at all a fair presentation of the case against Mr. Meyer. He says the requirements of the Mersey Dock and Harbour Board are more or less uniform—that is to say, that for a period of years they require very much the same sort of wood and of very much the same sort of quality. All this man, who earns 1 per cent. does, is to simply go round to people within a few yards of his office. My informant tells me that a few years ago they were all within a few yards of the offices, though now some of them may be ten minutes away since the dispersal of the trade. My informant goes on to say that this man is really picking up money by receiving 1 per cent. for the trifling service he performs in this way, whereas Mr. Meyer was in an entirely different position. He had to deal with almost unknown specifications and grades, and deliveries were called for in all parts of the country. He had to face widely fluctuating markets—jumping from £11 to £18 per standard. Then he points out that so far from 1 per cent. being a normal figure for buyers, they frequently receive 4 per cent., 5 per cent. or more for performing their duties.
In certain branches of the trade, 4 per cent. and 5 per cent. is quite a usual amount to pay the buyers. As respected a Member of this House, as the hon. Baronet (Sir R. Balfour) permits me to say, also without quoting names, that in his vast business, dealing regularly, as his firm does, with three or four timber brokers in three or four different parts of 1063 the country, they always pay 2½ per cent., although they have striven for years to get the rate down without the least success. I have another very interesting letter from one of the oldest London firms. I can pledge my personal honour to the House that all these letters have come absolutely spontaneously without any seeking on my part, or on the part of my Noble Friend. This letter points out that the Government, by employing Mr. Meyer, have done away with the profits earned by selling agents. We have still another very interesting letter from a gentleman who frankly said he was very disappointed he did not get Mr. Meyer's job, and his computation—and he is also a very experienced man—is that the country has been saved at least £80,000 so far by this transaction. Then we had the unpleasant insinuation about Mr. Meyer's own dealings. I do not want to go into that again, but this is the point.
Mr. Meyer gave no pledge at all, and was never asked to give a pledge, that he would give up his own business. But the fact is that Mr. Meyer's business has for the time being practically been brought to an end by the fact that he is engaged almost exclusively in doing Government business. Further than that, in a newspaper it was stated on 11th February that Mr. Meyer indulged in certain timber transactions, and this was a sign that he was dishonourably betraying the Government. Those timber transactions were fully known to the Office of Works, were actually undertaken on behalf of the Government, and the wood was secured on behalf of the very huts which are being built. The fact, which is testified by our accountants, is that the business at present being done by Mr. Meyer is 90 per cent. Government business and somewhat under 10 per cent. his own business, and on several small quantities of timber requiring different sorts of wood it has been extremely convenient for the Government to be able to buy a portion of the timber from Mr. Meyer. Another great charge was brought forward in the Press, and I am sorry to say repeated in this House, that Mr. Meyer had defrauded the Government, for it comes to nothing less, by selling them his own stock, making his profit on it and charging them 2½ per cent. on top of that as their buyer.
§ Mr. BECK
I am not going to quote papers. We all know the papers. A question was asked in this House about it, and as respected a Member as the hon. Baronet opposite, having seen the statement in the Press, asked a question on that very point. As I was able to assure the House, Mr. Meyer's stock, which was extremely valuable to the Government for the moment because timber was urgently needed, was actually bought by the Office of Works at the actual price Mr. Meyer paid for it, and the only profit that he got out of the transaction was his 2½ per cent., and the fact has to be remembered that at that time prices were over 20 per cent. beyond the prices which Mr. Meyer paid when he purchased this timber, and that on that transaction alone he failed to get a profit of £2,000.
There is only one other small point to deal with. It is stated, and I do not deny stated on very good faith, and I think the fact is due to a misunderstanding, that firms which should have been asked to participate in this work were not invited, and that although the Office of Works tells us that they have made over 200 inquiries and have received over 1,500 tenders, many great firms never heard anything of this. The Office of Works informs me that they do not entirely plead that there may not be some justification for this complaint, but they think there is a misunderstanding because some hon. Members seem to have thought that when I said there had been inquiries made, it meant that letters had been sent out to these firms formally asking for tenders. That is not so. What happened was this. An urgent demand, and I ask the House to remember how urgent it was, in the middle of October from the War Office for wood to hut the men who were under canvas was received at the Office of Works. They set all their local agents in every part of the country to work. They sent them a circular letter, and begged them to make every possible inquiry from every firm they knew of as to prices and as to stock.
Further than that, they set their telephone and telegraph wires to work and their own personal staff in the Office of Works, and sent round to as many firms as could be reached asking for prices, and it is on these inquiries, which are on record and which cannot be disputed, that they came to the decision that that method of buying such vast quantities of wood in this country would have been fatal, not 1065 only to the public purse, but what is more important, though of course that is very important, to the welfare of the troops. I was very glad the hon. Member (Mr. Montague Barlow) put in that plea for judging contracts by results. I have been able to assure the House that the wood delivered to Mr. Meyer has been satisfactory, and that I believe less than one per cent. of it has been rejected. It has been perfectly delivered under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, and it will be the universal opinion of this House that, after the very full explanation which the Office of Works has given of this transaction, and bearing in mind the fact that any hon. Member is at liberty to go and examine their documents for himself, it is time we ceased talking, at any rate at such length, of what has become known as the "Meyer case." The Office of Works might very easily have pleaded that we were engaged in a great War, and it was not fair to burden officials with this additional work. They have not made such a plea, and they do not authorise me to make it now. But I say, from my own observation and knowledge, that these officials are working night and day, and that the public interest will suffer if these investigations are pursued beyond their legitimate extent.
§ 8.0 P.M.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I hope the hon. Gentleman will not think I am disobeying his commands in saying a few words in regard to this subject. If these were ordinary times, I should have been very unwilling to intervene in a dispute which has been carried on entirely on those benches; but I could not listen to a discussion on the purely business side of the War without feeling inclined to say what I think of this transaction and of the general position which has just been taken up. The hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend behind me said that the sole question is whether or not the country is getting good value for its money. With all deference, I do not think that it is. But I think there is another question, and that is whether the transaction was entered into from the point of view of those who represent the Government with the ordinary care and circumspection which one has a right to expect in regard to a transaction of this kind. I do not agree—and I happen to have read most that has been said about this contract in the House—with a great deal of the criticism that has been directed against the Government. On the whole, I am inclined to 1066 think that the method taken was the best method under the circumstances. I am inclined to think that the right thing to do was not to send out broadcast at a time like this, but to employ someone who was trusted by the Government to use his judgment and to act as if he were acting for himself. I think that is the right method, and I agree also with what the hon. Member has said that it is far easier for the Government to adopt a stereotyped rule if they would avoid criticism. There is great temptation to do it. I think it is right that ordinary business men should be alarmed at what was done. I am sure that many business firms at the time knew that prices were likely to rise, they would have let as small a number of people as possible know that they were going to buy, and they would have kept the work as far as possible in the hands of one man. To that extent I quite agree with what the Government has done. But that has to be followed up, for at the same time as they employ this man to buy wood they sent out inquiries all over the trade, and therefore they had the worst of both arrangements. By sending out inquiries their action would tend to raise prices. I am bound to say that, looking at it from the other point of view whether this was an ordinary reasonable kind of transaction, it is impossible that anyone can defend what was done by the Government, and I do think that the hon. Gentleman has practically admitted that it was done too hastily and without proper care. That, I think, is all the House has the right to ask the Government to say. Surely no one will deny that.
I do not know whether this gentleman's remuneration from the point of view of the commission is too high, but I was under the impression from what the hon. Gentleman said about the work that it was too high. It is clerical work. He sends instructions, I presume, to the people from whom he buys as to where they are to send the wood. That is clerical work, and surely any ordinary business man who had to make a transaction of this kind would have said, "What is he going to make out of this?" He would have said also, "What is the usual commission in a case of this kind?" It is quite true that the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board had an easier task for their 1 per cent., but never probably was a commission given of so large an amount without the assurance that there was no timber broker willing to do 1067 the work on better terms. There is not a timber dealer in the whole of London who would not have jumped at that rate, and who would not have done it for a lower scale of commission. The hon. Gentleman says he did not know how much they were going to buy. That is a condemnation of the transaction. There is no reason why they should have known the amount, but they should have put some limit from the beginning on the amount Mr. Meyer was going to make out of this. I say that this order was given on these terms, and that ordinary business methods were not adopted. But there is another part which I think is worse. The hon. Gentleman said that Mr. Meyer gave no undertaking, and was not asked to give an undertaking that he would not carry on his own business. But as a matter of fact he has not done it.
I ask the House to consider what that means. I presume that Mr. Meyer has acted honourably by the Government, and that he has done good service. I have no reason to take any other view. But just think what the Office of Works allowed him the opportunity of doing had he chosen to do it. They put him in possession of the knowledge that this immense quantity of timber was to be bought, and they left him, if he chose, to speculate on his account without check, and to make any amount of money. I say that is not a businesslike way to deal with these things, and the whole trouble arises—it is the old complaint—from the fact that the Government as a whole do not realise that special training is required to deal in a businesslike way with immense transactions of this kind. They have not realised the business ability which would have been available to help them in a case of this kind. I do not entirely agree with the methods which are suggested by some of those who have spoken. I think this is a pretty hopeless business to get Government work done on ordinary business lines. Every attempt you make you will be up against obstacles just now, and I am quite sure that what is going to happen is that we will go on in the old way until the War is over, when there will be an inquiry which will show that there has been an amount of extravagance which will make all our other experience in other wars become absolutely insignificant.
My own view is this—and as a matter of fact I put it to Members of the Government without any offence—I think that to buy properly requires training and experience 1068 almost as great as is required in any kind of work. What happens is that those who transact Government business have no experience at all corresponding to what they have to do. They have certainly to do work which they do not understand, and it is quite impossible to avoid making mistakes. What I myself should have done if I had had the power—as a matter of fact I put this forward fifteen years ago, after the Boer War—I would have hunted out the best business man I could find in the House of Commons, and if he was not available here I would have tried to find him outside, and I would have put him at the War Office and said to him, "Now I am going to trust you to superintend and to be responsible for everything bought and sold." That could not be done except by some Minister who believed in the man who was chosen, and who had faith that the work would be done. But to have committees to inquire after the thing is done will have no effect. The business has to be done more or less on the lines of personal responsibility, and it ought to be done by people who understand it.
Certainly from what I have heard of him I am not going to join in any condemnation of Mr. Meyer. I have no reason to suppose that he has done his work otherwise than well, and I am quite certain that the method adopted by the Government of putting the work in the hands of one man is right. I am much more afraid of other kinds of transactions which are occasionally heard mentioned in Questions and Answers in the House. I happened to hear a question the other day as to the amount sold by a particular firm to the War Office, and later I found from an answer to another question that they were buying from other people. That is far mere dangerous. At a time like this, if the War Office are buying from one contractor who is placing his sub-contracts all over the country, it is not a question of the amount of the commission. We have no knowledge, of the amount of profit they make, and in my opinion there is only one way of curing that kind of thing, and that is to strengthen the staff of the Government Departments by putting in business men who will give their services for the purpose of saving unnecessary cost to the country.
Sir H. DALZIEL
There are one or two things I would like to say before the Debate closes. We are living in days of innovations. We have had a Parliamentary innovation to-night in the manner in 1069 which the representative of the Office of Works has replied to the criticisms made. It is somewhat unusual—indeed, I think it is unprecedented—for a Member of one House to read statements such as we have had to-night from a Member of another House. I would not complain of it in the slightest had the Member of the other House not presumed to lecture the Members of this House with regard to the matter before us. I think myself it was a very extraordinary act on the part of Lord Emmott to do that when not here to hear the reply. This Debate to-night is necessary principally because of the want of candour on the part of Lord Emmott and his Department. We have asked questions time after time, and we have had shuffling, evasive, and misleading replies, and, in my opinion, an intentional want of candour to this House. I say that somethig more important than the contract is the manner in which the Office of Works—I have no doubt under the direction of the President—has tried to kill questions and criticism by denying to this House information it has a right to have. I will not make that statement without trying to prove it. Take one or two questions which we have asked. In passing, let me say Lord Emmott ought to have had more respect for the House of Commons. He was here a good many years, and he had the chairmanship of Committees and an Under-Secretary-ship before he could be persuaded to leave it. The best way to settle this question in the House of Commons is by putting the cards on the table, and not attempting to shelve the question by denying information we have legitimate right to ask for. Take the question. I asked yesterday. I asked—whether Lord Emmott, as First Commissioner of Works, was consulted as to the terms of the contract with Mr. Meyer in regard to the buying of timber before the contract was made; and did he give his authority for the same to be carried into effect?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd March, 1915, vol. 782.]That is a simple question which could have been answered "Yes" or "No." The hon. Member (Mr. Beck) gave this reply:—The Matter was mentioned to the First Commissioner and he told his Department to render all the assistance they could to the War Office, and gave general approval to make such arrangements as they thought best. He was not informed of all the details at the time, but he has since made inquiry about the matter, and he has not the least doubt that a very great saving of public money was effected by the course adopted."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd March, 1915, col. 782.]Lord Emmott has not the frankness to say that he knew nothing about it until he 1070 saw the criticism in the papers. I believe that to be the truth of the matter. He shoves it on to his subordinate. Could he do anything else but take the responsibility for his subordinate? He acknowledged that in this matter he was responsible. He knew nothing about it, but after he looked into the details he said that was an excellent arrangement. He was not treating the House fairly, because he should have told us that he did not know anything about it, and then we would have known where we stood. That was one point upon which we did not get the candour which we were entitled to get. Another point. When this contract was first brought before the House of Commons undoubtedly the impression conveyed to the House and accepted was that Mr. Meyer was not going to do any private business of his own. It is known now that there was absolutely nothing in the contract to prevent him doing so. Therefore, Mr. Meyer has been doing his own business all the time. Since the contract was made, he is taking pages, I believe, in all the timber papers, advertising that he is selling exactly the same goods as he is buying for the Government. At the same time that he is buying goods for the Government at 2½ per cent., he is selling goods himself, and, of course, dealing in goods himself. I observe another advertisement in which he advertises himself as "importer of all kinds of soft woods." Therefore you have the extraordinary position that he is absolutely master of the situation. If a deal goes bad, he can pass it on to the Government. If it is good, he can keep it himself. There is no use in the hon. Gentleman shaking his head. That is the fact!
Mr. Meyer, in his double capacity, can give what he likes to the Government, and can keep whatever he likes for himself. He is a monopolist. Imagine the position of a man who has a monopoly to buy shares in a £2,000,000 company, and who has the credit behind him to buy the lot if he likes. Do you not suppose that there is not an immense temptation to a man to give hints to his friends? Perhaps not intentionally, but he is bound to be in close co-operation with very many merchants and people around his office, and if you give a man the right to buy monopoly in that particular company, the shares are bound to rise. Therefore, it is very easy for friends or anyone who gets the knowledge to buy or 1071 sell. The temptation is one to which no man should be exposed by the Government of the day. Not only that, but there is no limit to Mr. Meyer's power in another direction. He can go to any broker—and it is from the broker that he is buying the stuff that he is delivering—and say: "Have you so and so to sell?" and if the answer is "Yes," he can say: "I can give you 2 per cent. on it if you like, or 3, or 4, or 5 per cent." There is absolutely no limit to the amount of money which he may pay a broker for the goods which he delivers to him. That is a most extraordinary power to place in the hands of a comparative stranger, because he was in effect a comparative stranger to the Office of Works. Then there was a want of candour with regard to inquiries. We were told in the first place that 500 enquiries were made. Now we get it that enquiries were only made of 200 firms. It is easy to bring in the patriotic spirit. That appeals to a lot of people, but it does not cover what I believe to be a very unsavoury job.
Out of sixty of the leading timber firms in this country, some of them with millions of pounds' worth of stock, who were represented at a meeting yesterday, I understand that only four of them had any inquiries at all, though most of them were engaged in Government business and are doing thousands of pounds' worth of work for the Government at the present time. Who was it cooked the list? Who made the selected list of people of whom inquiries were to be made? That would be a very interesting question, because it is monstrous to say that you can ignore all the leading firms of the country who are engaged in this business. Mr. Meyer was not in this business to any extent at all before this. He had to deal with packing-cases, which are not required in this connection at all. How was it that all the leading firms in the country, men with acres of storage, while Mr. Meyer has nothing of the kind but simply an office, had no inquiries made of them, while the men from whom inquiries were made were unable to supply them?
Now, as to the nature of the inquiries which were made. In the first place we thought that an ordinary communication had been sent, and that the result, of course, determined the policy of the Government. It was nothing of the kind. All that happened was that they sent certain 1072 young men connected with the office, or in touch with it in the country, to various places to inquire whether they had any timber, and what is described as "an elongated youth" went to a large contractor and said: "Have you got timber to sell?" The contractor said: "What kind of timber?" The answer was, "I do not know. Have you not got any timber to sell?" He was told "Yes," and he asked, "At what price?" The contractor replied: "It all depends on what kind you want." That man went away, and I suppose that he reported that conversation to the Government. That is the kind of inquiry that was made all over the place. I am not surprised, because the hon. Member has been good enough to hand to me within the last few weeks a copy of the inquiry that was made. It is a most extraordinary document. After stating what was required, it says:As it will be impossible to purchase the whole of this from one merchant"—though a few hours afterwards they did put it into the hands of one merchant.
§ The FINANCIAL SECRETARY to the TREASURY (Mr. Acland)
That is your comment on the case.
§ Mr. ACLAND
The right hon. Gentleman said that they put it in the hands of one merchant. That is his own comment.
Sir H. DALZIEL
That is obviously an understood thing. There is extraordinary sensitiveness on the part of some of the young men on the Treasury Bench, because of the fact that I called him a merchant instead of a buyer.
§ Mr. ACLAND
The right hon. Gentleman must not bully quite so much. The right hon. Gentleman said that he was reading the letter, and we were explaining that certain words were a comment of his own.
Sir H. DALZIEL
I think that the hon. Gentleman will find quite enough to do to attend to his own Department. We have had already two Under-Secretaries at this matter. It is very difficult for us to know where to get information from. First we ask the hon. Member for Saffron Walden 1073 (Mr. Beck). Then it is handed on to the Under-Secretary to the War Office. It is almost a case of "Pull devil: pull baker." The result is that when we make a comment, still one further Under-Secretary has got to be brought in! I would suggest that the hon. Gentleman has quite enough to do to look after his own Department.
Sir H. DALZIEL
I am not going to be put down by the interruption of half-a-dozen Under-Secretaries or would-be Under-Secretaries I will bring the House back to the importance of this matter. The letter goes on: "I am making inquiries through the Clerk of the Works," and later on, the writer says, "We were asked whether we would be willing to grant an option upon it, the whole or a portion, until next Wednesday." The important part of this contract business is the question of dates. From the first the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Beck) knew who Mr. Meyer was after he had been asked to quote. The date on which the Office of Works sent out this inquiry was 15th October, 1914, and it is rather interesting, when we hear this plea of patriotism and so forth of the rush and worry of the War Office, to realise that once they had settled this contract, they must surely have known before that date the extraordinary amount of timber that would be required. On the 15th October they sent out an inquiry which was received on the 16th in the country by these agents. It was on the 16th that Mr. Meyer's arrangement was made.
Sir H. DALZIEL
That does not alter what I am saying. I am referring to the inquiries they were making, upon which, mark you, they based the reason for their new policy, as has been stated in this House, of going to a single buyer, because the timber firms were going to squeeze them, and prices were to be held up. It was on the morning of the 16th that these correspondents in the country were requested to make inquiries at the timber yards. On the afternoon of that day—I presume it would be in the afternoon— 1074 Mr. Meyer had an interview with Mr. Baines at the Office of Works, and that night the letter was written which is the basis of the contract. It was not until the 19th that the letter from Mr. Baines was sent confirming Mr. Meyer's letter. It was on the Thursday that the contract was discussed, and the letter was posted that night; it was a Friday's letter, and Sunday intervened. On the Monday Mr. Baines wrote in reply accepting Mr. Meyer. There is no reason to suppose that there was any time whatever to make adequate inquiries between those two dates. It was absolutely impossible.
As a plain matter of fact, and to all intents and purposes, the deal was completed on the very day the inquiries were sent out from the Office of Works; the whole thing was settled on that day before the official letter was sent out for inquiries. I say that there is reason for a very full inquiry into this matter. No conditions whatever were made with Mr. Meyer, no limitation as to the amount of brokerage, no suggestion as to who was to look after insurance and freight, and no limit as to the amount of overdraft the State might have to pay interest upon. I say that it is most unbusinesslike throughout, it is absolutely indefensible, and no reasonable precautions were taken to make a business arrangement. It would have been respectful to await the replies of the 200 firms. The whole thing was rushed, and no attempt was made to get the information which they said they required.
It seems to me that that part of the business was probably the most unsavoury of the whole thing. I am very sorry that the Government have not to-night given us the slightest indication as to what their policy is to be with regard to this matter. I presume they are hoping that this matter will die out, that the House will adjourn shortly, and that probably we will not be here to criticise. Our criticism has been justified up to the present, because there is no doubt whatever that had we not criticised the 2½ per cent. it would have run on right to the end. As a result of our criticism we have already got a promise that they are to approach Mr. Meyer to see whether he will modify the 2½ per cent. Therefore, I presume there is going to be some modification of it. I have heard hints that it is proposed to persuade Mr. Meyer to be content with £15,000. But I tell them in advance that would not meet the case. Any man who 1075 has got a huge monopoly of this kind, a man comparatively a complete stranger to the Office of Works, has, as a matter of fact, placed in his hands a power which ought not to be given to one man. Mr. Meyer himself says, in his letter which is the basis of the agreement, that should it become known that he was the Government buyer it would be fatal to good prices. It is known pretty well now that Mr. Meyer is the buyer, and therefore on Mr. Meyer's own showing, he cannot be a good buyer. As a matter of fact, it was known within a few hours that Mr. Meyer was the buyer.
While I criticise the whole arrangement, and think it was most unbusinesslike, it may be said that I should of course suggest what I think ought to have been done. I think they ought to have called in six or eight timber merchants, and appointed them a committee to deal with this matter—a business committee to advise them; but, instead of that, they go to a man, not dealing in this class of timber at all, not known at all among the larger timber merchants in the country, and hand the whole thing over to him, without any competition from men who had been buying for the War Office to the amount of hundreds and thousands of pounds, and who, I believe, compete in the same market. I say that all those things show that there was a want of business common sense in regard to the whole matter. The hon. Gentleman to-night has tried to defend his case by reading a lot of anonymous letters. He did not give the name of a single writer. One timber merchant wrote that he was very pleased with the deal, and was sorry he had not had it. I wonder if this gentleman wrote spontaneously, or whether it had been suggested that a letter might be useful. I think the hon. Gentleman should give the name and address of the firm from whom that letter came. Will the hon. Gentleman do that?
Sir H. DALZIEL
I am not referring to the hon. Member for Partick; I am dealing with a number of letters which the hon. Gentleman read from people who said that this was an excellent arrangement.
Sir H. DALZIEL
My point is this. That here was a timber firm spontaneously writing and saying that this was an excellent arrangement—2½ per cent., £13,000 in three months, £60,000 a year. A big timber firm who voluntarily says that this is an excellent arrangement is one of which I would like to know whether they are doing any business with Mr. Meyer. After a quotation from a document we are entitled to have it, and, although I do not press that point, I think we ought to have it. In my opinion, the Government have not made out their case to-night. They have held out little hope that any modification is going to be made. This is not the only case in connection with the Office of Works which they will have to defend in a very short time, and I advise them to reconsider their position in regard to this matter. We are as anxious as they are that nothing should be put in the way, but that can be overdone. As Members of this House, we have still got some rights left, although from the manner in which Cabinet Ministers keep away from the Front Bench when matters of importance are being discussed one would think that there was no House of Commons at all. When legitimate criticism is made not a single Cabinet Minister is present at any of our Debates. How different from the days of Mr. Gladstone. Mr. Gladstone used to insist that three or four Cabinet Ministers should be here every night, and he used to come in every half-hour to see that they were here. I have seen him myself, scores of times, look in, count them, and go back again. He was anxious that the dignity of the House of Commons should be kept up, and that the Cabinet should be represented at every important Debate. Throughout these Debates we have not had a Cabinet Minister at all but perhaps we ought not to press that point too far.
I express my extreme regret that the Government have practically refused to recognise the force of the criticism made by the Leader of the Opposition on behalf of the Opposition. There is no political question in this matter. I venture to say that ninety-nine out of a hundred commercial men throughout the country regard this as a bad arrangement. The Government 1077 refuse to listen to any suggestion that is put forward. How can you be surprised if you have labour troubles over a farthing an hour, considering that some of the fiery leaders are able to tell the men that the Government have given a job to Mr. Meyer which is worth £60,000 per year, and which may be worth very much more if it goes on at 2½ per cent., because the more disasters we have the more recruits we will require, and that all means money for Mr. Meyer at 2½ per cent.! The longer the War goes on, the more money goes into Mr. Meyer's banking account. Therefore, you cannot be surprised, when working men in the country are asking for more money, that the extreme agitator is able to hold out an example of this kind. I say that the Government have not realised, in my opinion, up to this moment the importance of this question. It is an unbusinesslike proposal from the start. It was rushed through between two men, and two men alone, namely Mr. Baines of the Office of Works and Mr. Meyer of the City. I venture to say that no responsible official in the Office of Works knew anything about it. It was rushed through with disrespect to the firms who were asked and who were treated with complete contempt. In my opinion the Government in this matter will lose a great deal of the credit which belongs to them owing to the manner in which they have dealt with this contract. Even now I again repeat we shall continue to press this matter on them unless it is placed on an absolutely businesslike basis.
§ Sir ROBERT BALFOUR
I had not the opportunity of hearing the previous Debates on this question, so that I am not entirely familiar with all that has passed, although I have read to a large extent the reports of those Debates. My name has been mentioned by some hon. Members, and my object in saying these few words is to state what has been within my own experience, extending over the best part of fifty years. My firm has been engaged in importing timber, among other things, during the past twenty or thirty years. We have sold that timber to various agents in London, in Liverpool, and in Glasgow, and in every case the commission we have paid for that service has been 2½ per cent. We have striven many times to get a reduction of that charge, but without success. I am not free to give the names as I have not been authorised to do so by the agents, but I am perfectly willing to give 1078 them to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kirkcaldy (Sir H. Dalziel) if he so desires, or to any other Member of this House.
§ Sir R. BALFOUR
There was no question of guarantee of payment because the timber was sold by exchange of documents. I should mention as well that there were considerable parcels, and to one buyer in practically every case, so that there was no excessive amount of trouble to the agent. But I have no reason to doubt that he did everything he could to obtain it at the best price possible. It may be argued that there is more difficulty in selling than in buying, but I do not admit that that is so. In our experience it is quite as difficult to buy as to sell, and in many cases more so. We all know that soon after War broke out there were difficulties in the extreme I am not a timber merchant and do not know all its details, but after the War broke out the stock of timber in this country was very small. It is a bulky article and has to come very long distances, and, under the circumstances which arose, some of the markets were closed. Moreover, if I am correctly informed, it was essential that the Government should obtain a supply of certain descriptions of timber which were necessary for their purpose.
The Leader of the Opposition expressed the view, with which I entirely agree, that the proper course to take was to employ an agent to buy supplies, and that he should proceed about it in the most secret manner. As to the commission, it was stated that the buyer for the Mersey Docks and Harbour Trust charged 1 per cent. but bear in mind that that is an office which spreads over a number of years, and a merchant can afford to do business on more favourable terms when he has got a permanent engagement. In the case of the War Office, an order for War purposes, which may last only a short time, as I hope will be the case, or which, no doubt, may last a long time, is, at any rate, adventitious business and accidental employment, and I am certainly very strongly of the opinion that the commission which has been paid is a reasonable commission in all the circumstances.
§ Sir R. BALFOUR
I have been engaged in business as clerk and as principal for fifty-two years and I never yet heard in a commercial undertaking of the commission being based upon volume, although, if people know it is going to be a lengthy employment, they may under certain circumstances reduce their regular charges. I have no doubt that if the gentleman had been told that he would have this agency for three or five years he would have been quite willing to accept commission on a smaller scale; but that obviously could not be done. It has already been stated that the amount involved in this transaction might not have been so large as it has turned out to be. I have no knowledge of Mr. Meyer at all. I think some unworthy suggestions have been made about his nationality and so on.
As far as I know, he seems to be qualified to carry out the business entrusted to him, and the principle of what has been done is, in my judgment, a businesslike one. Attacks have been made upon my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Beck) and the Financial Secretary to the War Office. It seems to me that I could, with full justification, use a stronger term, but I simply say that those attacks have been absolutely unjustifiable. The House should bear in mind that the circumstances were extremely difficult and that if any mistake was made it was one which, under the circumstances, ought to be excused. Every official in the War Office was working at high pressure; they had far more work in hand than they could accomplish. They may have been somewhat forgetful of some points in this contract, but apparently Mr. Meyer has met any difficulty of that kind in a fair and reasonable way by agreeing to modify the contract in order to meet the views of Lord Emmott. As far as I can judge, there is no ground whatever for the complaints which have been made. The contract was a fair and reasonable one, and, on the whole, under all the circumstances, a favourable one.
§ Mr. WING
If I may ask the House to proceed from wood to human beings, I would call the attention of the Government to what I think ought to be done in regard to the administration of the allowances and allotments to the dependants of soldiers. The Royal Warrant just issued, whilst making several beneficial allowances and extensions, does not in any way touch one great difficulty—that is in relation to homes where several members of a 1080 family have joined the Army There is one case where eight sons in one family have enlisted, and the net income of that house is now some twenty shillings. There is a great amount of dissatisfaction, because the impression had been created on the minds of such as might enlist that if they made an allotment of 3s. 6d. the Government would make it up to 12s. 6d.
The Government may not have intended to make this impression, but it widely exists. Moreover, even the intentions of the Government are being largely frustrated by the fact that, when an allotment is made in favour of a mother or father, where two or more sons enlist, you have a visit of the pension officer, who seems to have a great faculty for exact book-keeping—a little too exact. In my view the country wants the Government to be generous in regard to these allowances. I have a case here where the pension officer went to a house to ascertain how much the son paid. The mother told him that he paid £1 a week, whereupon the pension officer endeavoured to calculate the various expenses, and, reckoning 14s. for food, left the mother 6s. to draw. These calculations have been made so exactly that in the case where eight sons from one family have joined there is a final allowance of 4s. 11d. made by the Government. I am quite certain that the public expect a home of that sort to be far better treated than that. The War Office has caused a splendid defence to be made for a man receiving thousands of pounds. Here is a case where eight sons have enlisted and 4s. 11d. per week is being paid over and above the sons' allotments of 3s. 6d.
I do not necessarily desire the Government to take the matter away from the pensions committee; there is a good deal to be said for their having the matter in hand, as they have local knowledge. But some instructions to cut the amount down as fine as possible must have been given to the pension officers, and I would ask the Government to tell us what they are. There is a feeling in some quarters in regard to families in agricultural districts that a comparatively large sum is going into those homes; but that does not apply in the mining districts in Durham and Northumberland where wages are high. I know a case where the usual income was £6 per week; it is now 19s. 6d. The argument of the pensions committee is that they have no longer to maintain the men who have enlisted. That is quite true, but the house remains, and the working expenses are running on.
1081 Therefore I ask that the War Office should instruct the pension officers to deal with these people generously, not to be too exact as to the amount of tea the people may drink, or the food that they may eat, but to put the homes, as the Royal Warrant itself suggests, in a position similar to that in which they were before the sons or husbands enlisted. I am not here to nag the Government; I think they have done great things; that it is eating into the hearts of a large number of fellows at the front to feel that their parents are suffering by their having given their services to the country. They do not begrudge giving their services; they are willing to do their very best, and the people of the country desire that they should be generously treated. Mothers have given their sons, and wives their husbands. I have here the case of a widow whose only two sons have joined the Army, and her income, instead of being, as it was before, £3 a week, is the beggarly sum of 13s. 7d. It seems to me out of all consonance with the sentiment of the country at a time of great crisis like this, when men are desirous of doing their best for their country.
§ Mr. RAFFAN
The subject introduced by the hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring is much less exciting than that which his been getting the considerable attention of the House, but it is equally important—
§ Mr. RAFFAN
As my hon. Friend says, "More important." Since last August men have been encouraged to enlist by being told that their homes will be preserved until they came back, and that they need have no anxiety as to those who remain behind. In some particulars at least there has been a considerable gulf between promise and performance in this matter. Like my hon. Friend, I welcome the improvement which has been indicated in the Royal Warrant. I gratefully acknowledge what has been done by the Committee, and by the hon. Gentleman the Financial Secretary to the War Office to bridge that gulf. I think it is not yet completely bridged, and I should like to direct attention more particularly to one aspect of the question. In my own Constituency I find complaints that there is a great lack of uniformity throughout the country in regard to the treatment of dependants by the different paymasters. It is particularly realised in a Constituency like my 1082 own where men do not join one particular regiment, as they do in some districts, but join various regiments throughout the country.
The Secretary of the Old Age Pensions Committee informed me that in connection with some of these cases he had communicated with no fewer than fifteen different paymasters, and he had found, more particularly with regard to the matter of which I am speaking, a great variety of practice. The inevitable result is that there has been discontent amongst dependants similarly circumstanced who found that they had not received the same consideration as their next door neighbour merely because their male relative belonged to a different regiment. That discrepancy has been shown more particularly in regard to the case of refusal to make separation allowances to mothers on the ground that the family income was sufficient for the needs of the household without the addition of separation allowance. In some cases generous views have been taken, and separation allowances have been granted. In other cases they have been absolutely refused. Here is a case—it is quite true it is somewhat old, as it took place in November—where the Paymaster at Woolwich sent this, as it appears to me, somewhat curt note:—Please note that as yon have a husband to support yon, you are not included in the regulations relating to dependants.In another case, not in my own constituency, the secretary of a Territorial Association wrote:—I beg to state that separation allowance cannot be issued in your case as you have apparently other means of support.9.0 P.M.
As recently as last week the secretary of a Territorial Association gave the information that cases of this nature were being "held-up" at the request of the War Office pending a decision in regard to them. Quite recently, too, the secretary of one of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Families Associations wrote to say, that "one of our cases has been refused allowance on account of her son, because the income of the family was high. The War Office is dealing strictly with the matter, and her claim was disallowed. When the pension officer visited her he estimated her income at 12s. 6d. per week." The fact that I have been able to quote so many cases shows that this practice of refusing separation allowance to mothers because they have husbands to support them, or because, it was alleged, the family income was sufficiently high for the 1083 maintenance of the home without the addition of the separation allowance, is an extremely widespread practice. I put a question to the hon. Gentleman to-day. I cheerfully admit that he gave me what on the face of it is a very satisfactory answer. He informed me that—an instruction has been issued stating that a dependant otherwise eligible is not in any sense barred by the possession of an income from other sources.I presume that that instruction has been issued during the present week, or at any rate quite recently. If it was issued even as recently as a fortnight ago it is quite evident it has not been acted upon in a number of cases. Obviously if the instruction is an old instruction, it is clear that it has not been acted upon. I should like to press upon the hon. Gentleman that paymasters and secretaries of Territorial Associations should have their special attention drawn to it, for they have been acting in a contrary sense. I take it, also, that, in the cases which have been "held up," separation allowance should at once become payable.
I should also like to have the point quite clear as to the cases where applications have been definitely refused. Are those applications now to be renewed? If so, what is the machinery for the purpose? If there is easily accessible machinery—as I hope the hon. Member will be able to assure us there is—is it now possible that this woman, who was curtly told she was entitled to nothing because she had a husband, shall in future receive her separation allowance? As to the matter of arrears. The application to which I have just referred was made in November. The woman's neighbours in the same town, under similar circumstances, have been drawing separation allowance all along. Is this applicant to be paid separation allowance from November, or, if she puts in a fresh application now, is she to be treated as a fresh applicant, with the payment only to commence now? Another point I regard as extremely important. What is the position of the paymasters when they are asked for forms by applicants who are willing to make allotments any desire to make separation allowances? Can the paymasters, of their own volition, refuse these forms? Can they adjudicate upon the claim? I myself have endeavoured to obtain information, and I find that the Army Order says that, "if the claim appears to be 1084 good the paymaster shall forward the declaration to the pension officer for report." I am sure a great many people interested would be very glad to have some definition as to what is meant by the phrase "if the claim appears to be good." Does it mean that the paymaster has to supply the necessary form, and is to send the declaration to the pension officer in every case where the claim is not an obviously bad or absurd claim, or is he to adjudicate upon the claim?
That leads me to my last question, with reference to the machinery which we are informed has now been set up for the purpose of enabling appeals to be made. I have endeavoured so far as I could to understand that machinery. I am bound to say that it appears to me on the surface—and I shall be glad to have further information to correct me if wrong—that no provision really has been made for hearing appeals, but merely machinery for rehearing cases by the same people as have already decided them. For instance, this statement says that anybody who is dissatisfied with the present amount can go to the post office, get a form and send it to the paymaster, and if the question raised be a question of regulation the paymaster is to decide. But is he not the person who has already decided? And, if so, what reason is there to suppose he will revise his decision, and, in any case, if he refuses to reconsider, the applicant has absolutely no appeal. If this proposed machinery is set up the paymaster is to be the judge in his own case—the judge in the Appeal Court. Is there no opportunity for the applicant to get behind the paymaster if the applicant believes he or she has a perfectly valid claim? As to the question of amount, we are informed it has to be sent back by the paymaster to the pension officer, and if there is agreement the decision will stand. But what happens if they disagree? If the pension officer takes the view that the amount ought not to be increased, does the matter go to the old age pensions committee at all? and, if it does go to the old age pensions committee, have they any right to overrule the decision of the pension officer? And if they have not, does it not amount to this, that the pension officer who originally came to a conclusion with regard to the amount is merely given an opportunity of going over the matter again, and from the decision there is no appeal in the real sense of the word, and no opportunity of taking the matter to a higher tribunal?
1085 I would be greatly obliged if the hon. Gentleman would clear these matters up, because they are naturally attracting attention of members of old age pension committees all over the country, and naturally they are of great interest to a very great number of applicants. No doubt it will be admitted readily that the allowances fixed in the early stages are nearly all, or, at any rate, a very large number of them allowances which ought to be revised. They were fixed under somewhat different conditions, and, no doubt, if there is any machinery for reconsideration, that will be useful. I do not complain of that, but we were led to believe that there would not only be machinery set up for purposes of reconsideration, but machinery set up for purposes of appeal, and I should like to be assured that there is some real machinery for purposes of appeal. I would be very greatly obliged if the hon. Gentleman would set us right with regard to that matter. I should like some assurance as to what is to happen to mothers under the circumstances I have described who have been refused allowances to which under the rule, if I may put it in that way, they are obviously entitled, and what action is to be taken with regard to arrears? I should also like some information with regard to this subject of appeal.
§ Mr. J. SAMUEL
I should like to support the appeals which have been made by the hon. Member for Houghton-le-Spring (Mr. Wing) and the last speaker with regard to this matter, and I want to call attention to one or two points in connection with this new Army Order. There is no doubt as to the first instruction issued with regard to dependants that a very large number of speakers at recruiting meetings did give the public to understand that, if a man contributed 1s. 9d. towards the maintenance of his mother or anyone dependent upon him, the State would contribute 5s. 9d., making 7s. 6d. per week, and also that, if he contributed 3s. 6d. the State would contribute 9s., making 12s. 6d. That, I think, was a genuine statement made by all speakers. I know I made it myself and was taken to task afterwards, and I did it in all good faith that there was no revision with regard to this.
The mistake that has been made is this: I believe that instructions were given to the old age pension officers to inquire into the amount of money the man paid the 1086 mother, and also as to the cost of his keep out of that money. Those instructions were given, and in a very large number of cases the pension officer never attended a meeting of the old age pensions committee. There was no appeal from his recommendation so far as the old age pensions committee was concerned and, therefore, there was conflict. I am given to understand from the statement of the hon. Member for the Blackfriars Division of Glasgow (Mr. Barnes)—who I am glad to see present, because he has been a very active member of the Pensions Committee, and we are all very much indebted to him for what he has done—that, under the new order of the Pensions Committee, which is sitting under the chairmanship of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in future the old age pensions committee will have some power in this matter of revising—that is to say, if an appeal is made to them, they will have the final word in the matter. I was given to understand that that was the new order.
§ Mr. SAMUEL
Perhaps the hon. Member will tell us. But what I was surprised to find was this: If that was the new recommendation of the Pensions Committee, although we have seen nothing about it apart from what the hon. Member has himself stated, there is nothing in this Army Order with regard to it. I want to call the attention of the Financial Secretary to the fact that there is nothing in this Army Order giving any instruction to the Old Age Pensions Committee as to their power in the matter. That is a very serious matter, and further—I have only just seen this Army Order—I should like to call the attention of the hon. Member for the Blackfriars Division to this fact, because I understand, so far as the Committee upstairs is concerned, they have not really dealt with the new administrative part. I find in this Army Order, in Article 13, that instructions are given with regard to dependants, and that if they want to make any inquiries they must make them of the pension officers or the Soldiers and Sailors Families' Association or other local committee.
I want to ask my hon. Friend why he brings the Soldiers and Sailors Families Association into this. He knows that the War Office had practically decided before 1087 this Committee sat to inquire into the administrative part with the War Office, and he had decided, along with the permanent officials, to alter the whole system, so that you could have one committee in every district to deal with these matters. Now I am sorry to find that you have practically here three committees to whom the persons may have to make application for information. There is no instruction in this Order as to where they must apply for the form to fill up. That is a very important matter. It is, I think, a very defective part of this Order, and one which should be rectified. I suggested to-day at Question time that, if any instructions are given to the Old Age Pension Officer with regard to payments to dependants, those instructions ought also to be sent to the members of the Old Age Pensions Committee. That committee would be able to see exactly the instructions sent either from the War Office or the Treasury to their officer, and, in my opinion, it would obviate any conflict between them.
What the Old Age Pensions Committee complains about is that they are kept in absolute ignorance of what is being done. These recommendations are made to them, and very often the officer does not attend, and I think the whole thing should be put upon a more permanent and a better basis, that is to say, that the officer should attend the committees, make his recommendations, and the men and women who sit upon that committee, knowing the circumstances, should have the right to supervise and alter, if necessary, his recommendations and make a final report to the War Office. That would be a much better plan that the existing system. I should like to call attention to the Army Order which has been issued. We are delighted with the important changes made as regards separation allowances, which are very much more generous than they were before. If the Financial Secretary to the War Office will look on page nine, I think he will agree that we have a right to strongly object to the terms of reference. It says that the Army Orders 441 and 440 of 1914 will be amended accordingly. How can any person in the localities look at those Orders to see what they mean? I think this Army Order should be self-contained. I am sorry these references are made, because it is important that the members of the Old Age Pensions Committee should have a thorough knowledge of what the War Office proposes to do, and, therefore, these Orders should be 1088 self-contained, and then with these alterations much smoother working would be carried out in the future.
§ Mr. BAKER
The hon. Members who have addressed the House on the subject of separation allowance have had such great experience of its actual administration that any suggestion coming from them deserves very careful attention from the Government Department. My hon. Friend who has just sat down regretted that a suggestion which he made some months ago has not been adopted, namely, that there should be an information bureau set up in districts to which those concerned might go and get their questions answered.
§ Mr. BAKER
That suggestion was sympathetically considered. It is true it has not been carried into effect, but my hon. Friend must remember that the whole activities and initiative of the War Office in these matters have been temporarily suspended since the reference to the Select Committee. With regard to the points raised in connection with the Army Order, I will certainly consider them most carefully, but I would point out that an Army Order is a formal official document, and it will be issued in the form of a leaflet. The hon. Member for one of the Divisions of Durham drew a picture which I am sure touched the House, of a family from which eight sons had been sent to the front, and yet those who are left behind were receiving what in comparison with the enormous services rendered to the country and the sacrifices made by the household, appeared a very inadequate sum, and he asked what instructions had been given to pension officers in such cases
With regard to the basis of payment, that has been carefully considered by the Select Committee, and much as we admire the sacrifice of those who send a large number to the front, at the same time the basis decided upon is not that of the number sent, but actual dependence. That recommendation comes with the signature of the Select Committee, and we are bound to proceed on those lines. The pension officers have received two instructions. One given to them some time ago was that they were to be very careful indeed not to strain cases against the applicant, and that instruction has been reinforced in forms with which the House is 1089 familiar, to the effect that within the assigned limits they are to do their best to bring to the household the same standard of comfort enjoyed before the soldier went away. These instructions are explicit and clear, and should be interpreted by pension officers in the spirit in which they are sent.
§ Mr. BAKER
I cannot say whether they do or do not. I imagine they do, and at any rate they are public property. They have appeared in the Report and in answers to questions as well as in the Interim Report of the Select Committee. The hon. Member for the Leigh Division of Lancashire (Mr. Raffan) raised a question about the want of uniformity in dealing with dependants. I told the hon. Member, in answer to a question, that there had been a change of policy in this matter, that originally dependence was interpreted in a different sense to that in which it is now interpreted. There are two perfectly different meanings to the term "dependence." In the first place, there is the obvious and popular meaning that someone is relying on somebody else for their support.
There is also a technical and legal definition which was established by a decision of the House of Lords under the Workmen's Compensation Act. That decision was to the effect that where any member of the family contributed to the common fund of the home, each other member was partially dependent upon him. That carries the thing very much further, and we have from the Select Committee an expression of their opinion that we should take the technical and the legal sense of "dependence," and we are now doing so. I do not know the exact date but, at any rate, instructions have been issued and I hope that within a very short time my hon. Friend will be able to see from his own observation complete uniformity in this matter. I was asked a question as to what would happen to those who had had their applications refused. I think they would have no difficulty in making a fresh application after finding that their first application has been rejected. They can avail themselves of the new machinery for making an appeal.
§ Mr. BAKER
I mean the machinery of appeal set up by the Select Committee which was outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackfriars (Mr. Barnes). My hon. Friend behind me asked one or two questions on that subject, and in reply I may say that no mention is made of the appeal in the Army Order, because so far as possible Army Orders are made to deal with only one subject at a time, but the procedure is settled. It has been announced, and I hope that it will soon be in working order. There is a final tribunal in the shape of the War Office in case of disagreement in what I may call the inferior Courts below.
§ Mr. J. SAMUEL
Are the local committees or the people in the district to understand that the appeal is to be made in the first instance to the local pensions committee when they are dissatisfied with the recommendations of the pensions officer, and will the local committee then have the power to make recommendations to the War Office?
§ Mr. BAKER
I did not know that this subject was going to be raised, and I am afraid it is very difficult to deal with all the points which my hon. Friend puts to me, but if he will communicate to me the precise difficulty in which he is about this matter, I will see that he gets a definite and a certain answer upon it.
§ Mr. BRIDGEMAN
I understood the hon. Gentleman to say just now that the composition of this first tribunal had been announced to the House. If so, could he not repeat it to-night, and say what people are to assist?
§ Mr. BAKER
I should be very unwilling to do so for fear I made a misstatement. I have no documents here from which I could get the facts, and I cannot pretend to have them with any certainty in my head at this moment. It was the hon. Member for the Blackfriars Division (Mr. Barnes) who gave them on a former occasion, and, if I had been given notice, I should have been only too glad to have obtained the information. I hope that I may now be allowed to pass from those matters and turn to the subject which my hon. Friends who have just spoken consider, I think possibly with some reason, is of less importance than the question of allowances to the wives and dependants of our soldiers who are fighting or are going to fight in the field. I hope that I shall not be accused of any want of 1091 courtesy if I deal with some brevity with the case of Mr. Meyer. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] On the last occasion on which this subject was debated in the House I spoke with great brevity, and I did so not from any want of courtesy, but simply and solely because I knew, and I thought that hon. Members knew, that my hon. Friend representing the Office of Works (Mr. Beck) was about to follow me and would deal in full detail with the case. I certainly had no intention of showing any discourtesy to the House in general, or to any hon. Member in particular. I say that I will deal very briefly with the matter, and I am glad to observe that it would be to the taste of many hon. Members that I should deal briefly with it. A very different complexion has been put upon it this afternoon, first by the statement of the First Commissioner himself, and secondly, by the very remarkable testimony borne by the hon. Baronet the Member for Lanarkshire. There you have someone who is a real business man, and in this particular branch of trade, and I think the few and decisive words that he spoke should be allowed to weigh against a vast quantity of journalistic and misconceived criticism.
Sir H. DALZIEL
Does the hon. Member realise that the hon. Baronet was speaking of selling timber, and the agent paying his expenses and taking the risk of the debt? This is a case of buying timber, which is a very different matter.
§ Mr. BAKER
The right hon. Gentleman may put his experience in this matter against that of the hon. Baronet, but for the moment, at any rate, I prefer to take the hon. Baronet as an authority. There was another point raised by the hon. Member for Pontefract (Mr. Booth). He made a very courteous and personal appeal to me which I find it very difficult to resist. It was an appeal to deal with certain statements with regard to the timber trade made by me on a former occasion. He referred to the remarks which I then made, and he quoted them in terms. The inference to be drawn from the first passage to which he referred I thought was quite obvious, but he proceeded to draw quite a different inference. The only reference I made to a ring was to say that if we had put ourselves into the hands of a Committee we should have been accused of having fallen victims to a ring. The hon. Member then went on to refer to a conspiracy.
1092 I do not think that I ever used the word "conspiracy" in that connection the whole way through my speech. He ended by quoting a passage in which I spoke of an attempt to squeeze the Government on the part of a large number of firms in the timber trade. I did use those words. Perhaps they were rather more forcible than the occasion warranted, and I certainly am quite willing to withdraw them in so far as they are taken as a collective accusation against the trade as a whole; but I do think the suggestion that very high prices, excessive prices, were being asked of the Government by a great number of firms is fully justified by the facts which were then within my knowledge, and which I assume will be, if they are not yet within the knowledge of the hon. Member. I certainly meet with sympathy the appeal which he made to me so far as to say that I have not the slightest intention of suggesting that there was anything in the nature of an unpatriotic conspiracy on the part of the timber trade.
The Leader of the Opposition, in the course of a very interesting criticism, part favourable and part unfavourable, which he made, said, and I confess it surprised me rather, that he thought an inquiry after this War would reveal a greater degree of extravagance than appeared in any other war. It will be a very astonishing thing if it exceeds the extravagance in the South African War. With the opportunities and knowledge which I have, I venture to think that the right hon. Gentleman is taking a rather pessimistic view of the results of any such investigations if they take place. Of course, it is impossible to dogmatise about such a thing, and it is not wise to prophesy, but any inquiry after the event might lead to some discovery of a way in which small savings could have been made. I certainly do not say on behalf of the War Office that no mistakes have been made. Many things have had to be done in a great hurry, and in some cases at any rate it has been so important that the troops should have the particular things needed at the moment that we have been compelled to submit to prices which otherwise would not have been acceptable or indeed accepted. But for hon. Members, and even the Leader of the Opposition, to continue to suppose, as he appears to suppose, that the War Office is still acting without considerable and valuable advice from business men drawn from outside is a great mistake.
1093 I think that a good deal of the criticism directed at the War Office arises out of contracts which have nothing whatever to do with the War Office at all. The hon. Member for Salford (Mr. Barlow), in the extremely interesting speech which he made, showed how much Army local contracts lend themselves to this construction. He told a story about boots, and I was compelled to ask him under what contract those boots were obtained. He replied, without any desire to conceal the facts, that it was under a local contract made by persons who had undertaken to raise a battalion, and was a contract with which the War Office had absolutely nothing to do. I believe if I had not made that interruption hon. Members would have seen the passage in the hon. Member's speech in a great number of newspapers, and would have inferred that the War Office is providing troops at the front with bad boots. As a matter of fact, Army boots are subjected to the most rigorous inspection. I do not think there has been a single case at the front, with the exception of the remarkable one about abnormal sizes, as to which I answered a question the other day—there has not been a single case in which bad boots have been served out. Of course, the conditions there are such that the best boots in the world can only have a very short life. But the House must rest assured that, so far as boots are concerned, the troops are being supplied with the kind and quality which is necessary for them in the very difficult circumstances in which they find themselves.
I wish, finally, to add one sentence on the question of business advice. We have, almost from the beginning of the War, been continually helped by people with a full knowledge of the particular branch of trade as to which their advice has been asked. We have not widely advertised the fact, but we have taken great care to choose men whose advice we knew we could trust, who we know to be disinterested, and who had a single mind and patriotic purpose in coming to our aid. That has been going on continually, and the only change I think it is desirable should be made—and I hope it will be made soon—is that that advice should be systematised a little more, and that those who, in an individual form, have been giving advice should be combined together and be able to render it perhaps through a committee. I venture once again to assure the House, when complaints 1094 are made, as they have been made by the hon. Member for Perthshire, that business men are put on one side and that their advice is not taken, that that is not the actual way in which the contract work of the War Office is carried on. Whatever mistakes may have been made have arisen from other causes, and among those causes will not be found any failure on our part to get the best possible civilian advice on problems which arise, whatever branch of trade may be concerned.
I want to say a word regarding the recent advance which has been promulgated by the Financial Secretary to the Admiralty in respect of certain men employed in dockyard towns. I desire to deal with the men who are termed "skilled labourers." The advance which has been promulgated has been an advance of 1s. per week to men who receive the minimum rate. That minimum rate is 24s., and it is now raised to 25s. The men are very dissatisfied indeed with the very scanty advance that has been given to them. Many employers up and down the country are giving advances infinitely greater than those which have been sanctioned by the Admiralty. Not only is it so, but by the use of a particular term covering a certain section of men, men are termed "skilled labourers," who, in private employ, would receive infinitely higher wages than are paid in the dockyards of the Admiralty. The wage these men are paid varies now from 25s. to 30s. per week. We recently had a case of a man employed at Chatham who answered an advertisement put in the newspapers by a particular firm for machinists. This man was in receipt at Chatham dockyard of about 26s. or 27s. a week, and he got a reply from Messrs. Brotherhood, of Peterborough, offering him not less than 36s. per week, and 2s. as a war bonus on top of that. But because this man was employed on Government work, and the firm in question were Government contractors, they would not engage him. There can be very little doubt, as far as this particular workman is concerned—and I believe this would apply to a very considerable number employed in Government dockyards—that this man to-day is losing at least 10s. per week, that being the difference between the wage private employers are prepared to give to men of his particular ability and skill and the rate of payment in the Admiralty dockyard.
This, undoubtedly, is creating a very great deal of dissatisfaction among the 1095 men. They know, of course, the rates that are being paid by Government contractors. Those contractors are compelled to pay these high rates under the Fair-Wages Clause. The rates have been negotiated between the unions, on the one hand, and the Engineering Employers' Federation on the other. After much negotiation and many conferences, these are the rates that to-day are recognised as fair between the men's union, on the one hand, and the employers' federation on the other. Many of the men in the Government employ who are covered by this term "skilled labour," after a considerable period of service in the dockyard, acquire a skill and ability which in a private contractor's yard would enable them to receive the same wage as a skilled mechanic. There are men in Government employ today in dockyard towns who are receiving the wages of skilled mechanics and are working on exactly the same, machine and doing the same kind of work as the skilled labourer, and in some cases I venture to say the skilled labourer may be turning out more work than the skilled mechanic; yet the latter will be receiving no less than 38s. per week, while the average wage of skilled labourers is 25s. 6d. A condition of things like that is very difficult indeed to defend, and the first thing the Admiralty ought to do is to put their own house in order. They should take the ordinary private employer as a pattern in these matters, because I am convinced that the private employer who is a Government contractor has in hundreds of cases, and possibly in even more, to pay far higher wages to men who are classed as skilled labourers than is paid to-day in the Government dockyards.
Let me give an illustration of what is happening to-day. It may be argued, of course, that there is a great shortage of labour of this particular kind. With that I agree. On 12th February this year the Admiralty advertised for men of this kind—for skilled labourers—and the wages they offered in their advertisement ranged from 26s. to 28s. per week, while men of a very high order of skill were to be given the magnificent sum of 31s. per week. Mark what they are prepared to offer in addition to these wages! If a man comes from a town far away from a dockyard town, he is to receive 20s. a week as a subsistence allowance. I agree that there should be some subsistence allowance in a case like this, and I am not quarrelling 1096 with the amount, but what an eye-opener it is to men who are living in dockyard towns, that men can be brought from a distance who are comparatively new to the work in the great dockyard towns, and who to that extent cannot be expected to be equal to the men who for many years have been employed in the dockyard, and yet are offered wages higher than the average wage and 20s. a week as a subsistence allowance as well. I have a number of cases here of men who are skilled labourers working slotting machines at Chatham in the machine fitting shop; two of them have 24s. a week, one 25s., one 26s., three 28s., and one 31s. per week, while mechanics in the same shop working the same machines are receiving 38s. a week. This is strange enough to those who are not conversant with the engineering trade.
My own experience has taught me that many of the men classed as "skilled labourers" in the machinery shops in the dockyard towns are to-day, in many of the engineering shops up and down the country, receiving the same rate of wages as men who are termed "skilled mechanics"—that is to say, that men who have probably been there for a considerable, number of years, and have become thoroughly efficient in the manipulation of their machines, are able to command the same rate of wages as the ordinary skilled mechanic. That was at a period when I was a young man—indeed, when I was serving my time at the trade—a matter of considerably over twenty years ago. Men who were then working the ordinary type of slotting or planing machines in the machinery shops were receiving exactly the same wages as the skilled mechanics, yet we find that in the dockyard towns to-day the average in the Chatham works is 25s. 6d., and the highest wages these men can receive is only 31s. per week. I want to suggest that this condition of things is not fair to the people who are employed by the Admiralty. The method of classifying these men is wrong, and the men themselves think it is wrong.
When the War is over—we are all praying that it may be soon—there is not the slightest doubt in the minds of many in this House that the services of a large number of these men will be dispensed with. They will leave the dockyard and engineering shops as skilled labourers. The ordinary term employed in the engineering industry of this country is a "machine man." If a man adopts the 1097 name of the machine which he works, a slotting, planing or milling machine, he is a machinist, but the man who has work in the dockyard towns will leave as a skilled labourer. It would be infinitely fairer to the man if he were given the same title that is applied to the man employed by the ordinary employer and contractor and was not prejudiced because at one time of his life he may have been a labourer. The man who works in the general engineering shop may only have been a labourer at one time of his life, but he becomes a machinist, and the fact that he has been a labourer is not definitely labelled to him for the rest of his life to his detriment in competition for employment with the outside market.
The same argument applies to men who work milling machines. The advance of wages given to these men has been 1s. on the minimum This means that a very large number of these men, who have put in many years of service, are passed over without any advance at all. There is no Member of this House, and there is nobody outside it, who can justify such a condition of things as exists in the dockyard towns to-day. It is commonly accepted on both sides of the House that the cost of living has bean increasing for a considerable number of years. I have had cases given to me of men working in the dockyard towns who for nine years have received no advance of wages whatever. There is no hon. Member listening to me who is not prepared to admit that the cost of living has increased. Altogether, outside house rent and other things, there has been a considerable increase in the cost of living during the last few years, and since the outbreak of War there has been a further increase in the cost of food stuffs, admitted by the Prime Minister in his speech in this House on the 11th February to amount to between 20 and 24 per cent.
The advance of wages granted to skilled labourers and others in the Government employment in the dockyard towns was promulgated only a few days ago. I do not know whether the recent increases in the cost of living have been taken into consideration; on that point we are given no information whatever. So far as these men are concerned it would indeed be a very difficult thing to keep them working. We have had some evidence of what has taken place at Glasgow recently, where the men revolted, even against the officers of their own unions, and took action on their own responsibility against the advice 1098 of the leaders of the unions of which they are members. I can assure the House that it is going to be a matter of great difficulty to keep these men, who are undoubtedly labouring under the idea that they are not receiving anything like the same fair reasonable consideration which the ordinary private employer is giving to men in similar circumstances in his employ. So far as the work turned out by these men and their skill are concerned, they will compare favourably in every way with the men employed by outside employers, therefore I hope that some real consideration will be given to them. The shilling that has been given is given to the newcomers, that is to say, the men who for a short period of time have been employed at these particular shops, whilst the men who had been there for the greatest period of time, acquiring great experience in following their ordinary occupations, have received no direct advance whatever. I hope some notice will be taken of this matter. A very strong case indeed can be made out on behalf of these men, and I hope those here who represent the Admiralty will give some consideration to the matter, and let these men have some peace of mind and know that they will have treatment similar to that meted out by the private employer, and thus get the best out of them, and let them go to work and feel that they are getting fair consideration for the labour and the energy they are putting in. They say it is no use to praise them for the manner in which they have diligently applied the whole of their force to the production of war material. These men have been working seven days a week ever since the War broke out. They have had very little, if any, time away from their work, and it is no use praising them for the diligence and perseverance with which they have done their duty. Praise does not pay any grocers' bills, and that is what they have to meet, and putting it in that way I hope the case will be received in a favourable manner, and that some real consideration will be given to them.
Mr. TYSON WILSON
In reply to a question by the hon. Member (Mr. Crooks) this afternoon, the Prime Minister promised certain increases of wages to the men employed in the Arsenal. I want to know whether the increase will apply to the men in the Works Department, or whether it will not?
§ Mr. ACLAND
In intervening, I think I do not risk being told for the second time 1099 to mind my own business, because, although this is not my Department—one is an Admiralty and the other a War Office question—yet, at the moment, there are no representatives of those offices here, and I think, with regard to the speech we have just heard, the hon. Member does not say that he has given any notice to the Secretary to the Admiralty so that he might have been able to deal with it. The position of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury is really rather difficult from one point of view. His name is on the back of the Bill which is under discussion, and I am certain if in these Debates he were absent the House would very soon say, why is not the representative of the Treasury here, and if he takes any part he is liable to the accusation that he is interfering with things which are no concern of his. As I understand the matter, the answer to the question which has just been asked is that the increase in the rate for unskilled labour is 2s. The minimum which is now, in the London district, 25s., is in the future to be 27s. This is to apply all through the London district. It is not confined to one part of the Arsenal or anything of that kind.
With regard to the points raised during the speech we have just listened to, it is not claimed that the increases which have recently been announced were in any sense war advances. They were the advances due to the annual review which the Secretary to the Admiralty makes after hearing a very great number of petitions from workmen, which he generally hears in the spring and the summer. The decisions upon them were postponed because of the hard work falling upon him and everyone else owing to the War. The increases have been dated back to about the time when they would have come into operation if the decisions had been given at the usual times of the year. They have been dated back to the end of October. They are meant to cover such increases as were considered to be fair and right before the War period, and are not meant to have anything to do with any modification which it is certainly our view ought to be made on account of the War. It is no doubt true that many men have not had increases of wages for a long time, but all the same these annual increases do cost the taxpayers considerable sums of money. If I remember the figures rightly, the annual increase made in the dockyards this year, as recently announced, will come to 1100 something like £120,000, and that has been a steady increase, because the figures, again if I remember rightly, were £80,000 last year, and £40,000 the year before that.
§ 10.0 P.M.
§ Mr. ACLAND
Not this year. Since 1906 or something of that kind the annual increases in wages have been something like £500,000. I want to make one point which the hon. Member did not make. I do not suggest that he left it out purposely, but it is rather an interesting point to be borne in mind, and one not generally borne in mind. He admits that now a great deal of overtime is being worked, and it is being fairly steadily worked, by a very large percentage of those employed both in Admiralty and in War Office establishments. The effect of that is very curious, in view of the fact that the normal War Office and Admiralty week is a week of forty-eight hours, whereas a very common week still outside is a week of fifty-four hours. When you come to work it out, that means, of course, that persons working inside the Government establishments begin to get overtime paid six hours sooner than persons working outside the Government establishments.
§ Mr. ACLAND
Yes, they pay the same, but, whereas a man has to work only forty-eight hours inside the Government yard for his week's wages, very often a man working for an outside employer has to work fifty-four hours.
§ Mr. ACLAND
And, of course, in some cases forty-eight; but no one would claim that forty-eight was the generally established outside hours of work. On the contrary, I was talking it over with Sir George Askwith the other day, and he says that fifty-three and fifty-four are still very common indeed and could not be taken as anything but the ruling hours of labour outside. I am very sorry that, although the Government week of forty-eight hours was set up so long ago as 1892, it has not been followed in a greater proportion of cases by outside firms than it 1101 is, but where everybody is working inside and outside, not a week of forty-eight, not a week of fifty-three or fifty-four, but, perhaps, six twelve-hour shifts—that is seventy-two, perhaps even more—the fact that overtime begins earlier in the Government works than in very many cases outside, the fact that you arrive at the hourly rate by dividing the weekly rate by forty-eight in the case of Government work, and very often by fifty-four in the case of the outside workmen, results in the workmen actually taking home—and, alter all, you ought to have some regard to that—although his rates may be lower, a larger amount at the end of the week than he would do in the same number of hours, and, therefore, presumably the same amount of work, in an outside job.
My right hon. Friend is not aware that the first two hours that these men work overtime in the dockyards is not paid the overtime rate at all. It is only paid ordinary time.
§ Mr. ACLAND
I know. But whereas it is paid at ordinary time for men in the yard, it is not paid at all, because it would be included in the fifty-three or fifty-four, outside I am quite aware of that. The actual rates, whether it is time or time and a quarter or time and a half, vary, and that has to be taken into account. But if I may, just to clinch the matter, I would give one little instance which I have been trying to work out. Take a man now at Woolwich on the, minimum Government rate for unskilled labour—27s. Take an unskilled workman earning, for the sake of argument, also 27s. for his week's work outside. Owing to the fact that the payment for overtime begins earlier inside than outside a man on a weekly rate of 27s. who is actually working six twelve-hour shifts—seventy-two hours—will, I believe, be taking home, if he is working, say, at Woolwich, something like 46s. 6d., and if he is working on the same weekly rate outside, working the same hours, 40s. 3d. It is within 2d. or 3d. of that, giving an advantage of something like 6s., owing to the Government week being shorter than the outside week, and therefore the rate on which overtime payment is based, being higher because it has to be divided by a smaller number of hours. I do not say that that is in any way conclusive, or that it ought to weigh very much in considering this question of wages, and particularly the question of 1102 increases. But I do think that it is not unnatural to have some regard to the actual amount taken home. Where a large amount of overtime is worked, the amount taken home must be larger by persons working a short week than by persons working a longer week. I know that there is something to be considered in regard to the question of skilled labour. That is a very old case. The point of view of the Admiralty is just as well known to the hon. Member as the hon. Member's point of view is known to the Admiralty.
The defence of the Admiralty is that, although these men are sometimes employed on work which outside is paid at a rate a good deal higher than the rates they actually receive, yet at other times they are engaged on different work. The Admiralty cannot allow the most skilled rate to apply over all the work the men do at different times, whether unskilled or not. The Admiralty claim that these man by being given inside real continuity of employment in good times and bad times, in times of unemployment, and being paid for overtime, are on the whole as well treated as men of similar skill outside. That is a very difficult question which I wish my hon. Friend had been here to argue out. There is a case which I think might well be considered, for we recognise the force of what has been said. I had some remarks to make on the Meyer case, but as the hon. Baronet, who is chiefly concerned, is absent, I think it would be a little bit unfair to him to reply to some of the things which have been said.
§ Mr. BARNES
I shall not go into any technicalities. I should like to say one thing. I think it is rather unfair to be reminded, as we are so often reminded from the Front Bench, about forty-eight hours being given in Government workshops while longer hours are worked elsewhere. I will tell you why. As a matter of fact, as much work is done in forty-eight hours as in other places where longer hours are worked.
§ Mr. BARNES
That emphasises my point. The Government have no right to speak as if they were the only persons giving the forty-eight hours, for many of the largest, best, and most prosperous firms in this country do work forty-eight hours, and they start overtime from the forty-eighth hour. I see the predecessor of the hon. Gentleman on the Front 1103 Bench, and I would like to say a word or two to him. I want to speak of the lower-paid workman in the Government employ, and to suggest that the time is ripe when the Government should do something for them. I will take one class of workmen as an instance, not because they are the most numerous, for they are rather small, but because their case is stronger, and because the hon. Gentleman who has recently been translated to a higher position committed himself to give to that particular class of men a higher rate of pay. I refer to the pensioned messengers. In November last I had a question on the Paper about these men. I think it was about the twentieth time I had the question on the Paper during the last few years.
I was induced to take the question off the Paper by the right hon. Gentleman, who gave me to understand that there was no need to put the question because these men were going to get a rise of wages. A few weeks afterwards I met him at the Treasury, when he told me that there had been some delay, that he thought the delay had then disappeared, and that the matter would be all right in a week or two. Nothing happened until the House met, and I put a question again on the Paper. I was told by the Secretary to the Treasury that the matter was under consideration. I think I have had the question down since then, and I was told that the matter was still under consideration. When I took the question off the Paper I understood that the matter would be settled satisfactorily. To-day, when the Prime Minister made the announcement, which we all welcomed, about the men at Woolwich Arsenal getting a 2s. or 3s. addition to their wages, I asked the right hon. Gentleman if other men paid even lower than those at Woolwich Arsenal were to have like consideration. He told me to put a question on the Paper. He knew nothing about the question on the Paper. I suggest that the matter should be settled. I have also been asking questions about port watchers and ship inspectors around our coasts who are getting a wage similar to the pensioned messengers, £1 or a guinea. The Pensions Committee have decided that old messengers are to have 25s. It is not a halfpenny too much. In fact, it is not enough. But here you have a man in your employment, devoting all his time to it, and you give him only £1 1s., or 4s. less than the old soldier.
1104 These men are taken on in the prime of life, at about forty years of age. After a certain number of years they may rise to a higher wage, but the men who are old soldiers and have very small pensions of about 7s. a week cannot put in the time necessary to qualify for the higher wage. So it amounts to this: You are giving the old soldier a few shillings a week, and then you take a paltry advantage of that fact to pay him a wage of £1 or £1 1s. a week, knowing very well that he cannot possibly live on that wage. I want attention given to that particular class of man. Another class who require some attention are the clerks to Labour Exchanges. You select men from those making applications. You put them through their facings. They have got to pass a doctor and have a certain amount of technical knowledge of bookkeeping and shorthand, and so on; and then you give them £60 a year, a great deal less than what is given to the unskilled labourer in Woolwich Arsenal.
I do not say that the unskilled labourer is getting too much, but the other man is getting far too little. These men deserve some consideration. It seems to me a lamentable fact that these questions of human interest should be left over to the last hour of the day. The day has been very largely taken up with matters of comparative unimportance in my estimation. I believe that if these men had done long ago what the Clyde men have done just recently, they would have received a more sympathetic consideration. I do not say that they would be justified. I say, on the contrary, that they would not be justified in doing as the Clyde men have done; but all that has happened in regard to these low-paid workmen employed by the Government during the last few years convinces me that it is only in proportion as men can make their influence felt, or at all events only in proportion as they are organised, and in a position to strike oven if they do not strike, that they will get attention from that Front Bench.
§ Mr. HOGGE
Perhaps it is too bad at this hour to open up a new subject, but it is a subject of some importance. I will content myself by simply asking a question or two. The House will recollect that the Select Committee which dealt with separation allowances and pensions has submitted a Report to this House. The first portion of that Report is already in operation, 1105 and presumably so far as date is concerned, the second portion of that Report dealing with pensions is also in operation. I understand that the Select Committee has bean considering the nature of the body to be set up to administer those pensions, and that the body which they have in contemplation is a body which will be absolutely cutside Parliamentary control, just like the Road Board and Development Committee. That is to say, a Select Committee of the House of Commons is now proceeding to erect the machinery of an executive administrative body which will spend public money which we vote in this House, and that as soon as that is set up we shall have no opportunity at all of discussing what takes place. If one looks at an actuarial estimate dealing with separation allowances and pensions, one sees that it runs into millions. It is a much larger figure than that which was required to deal with old age pensions. My hon. Friend above the Gangway states that it is taking at any rate £31,000,000, and the whole of the scheme, I believe, will cost something like £250,000,000. We are to rise on Wednesday next if we get through our business in time, and according to the Prime Minister we are to reassemble on the 13th April. The Committee may be set up during the Easter recess, and may be at work before we return. Are we not to have any opportunity at all, as Members of this House, dealing with public money, in deciding what is to be the nature of the body which is to be responsible for these pensions so long as these people require them? If you look at the Report which has been submitted to the House it is perfectly obvious that not only the wives and children of soldiers, but also those of officers killed, will require, at the public expense, to be maintained, probably for very many years. Can anybody on the Front Beach give us an undertaking that we shall be allowed to discuss this particular organisation before it is actually Settled. I think that is fair to the House, and not asking too much. The Under-Secretary for War (Mr. Tennant), who is probably responsible for this part of the question, knows that an arrangement has been made whereby the widow of a soldier who is killed will have her separation allowance continued for at least twenty-six weeks, or until she is provided for during the remainder of her life. The matter, therefore, involves a large amount of public money, and a body 1106 might be set up outside Parliament something like the Road Board or the Development Commissioners. If we wanted to raise questions in regard to the subject, we might be told that we could not do so, as the body was outside the control of the House, spending public money, and we had no more influence with them than we have at this moment with the Kaiser. I do not want a Committee of that kind. I want that the House should have some opportunity of reviewing the proceedings of the body from year to year; and, as I see the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on the Front Bench, perhaps, having heard what I have said, he will bring the matter to the attention of his colleagues in the Cabinet.
§ The CHANCELLOR of the DUCHY of LANCASTER (Mr. Montagu)
In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Black-friars (Mr. Barnes), to whom I have listened with great attention in reference to obtaining better terms for pensioned messengers, I may point out that it is a matter with which I have nothing to do now. When I left the Treasury a scheme had been submitted in which increases of pay were recommended for those people, and the only question that remains to be settled is as to certain conditions of service, and that question must necessarily take a certain amount of time, because of the different Departments which are concerned. I agree with the hon. Member. I hope his efforts may be rewarded with success in a very short period, and the patience is very much to be commended on the subject.
§ Mr. BARNES
Would the right hon. Gentleman be disposed to recommend that the increase shall date back to the time he gave me the assurance?
§ Mr. MONTAGU
I believe the proper reply is that all relevant considerations will be taken into account. I can promise my hon. Friend who has just spoken (Mr. Hogge) that I will convey his question to those responsible.
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House for Monday next (8th March).