HC Deb 15 September 1915 vol 74 cc43-51
The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Asquith)

The Vote which will be proposed in Committee when you, Mr. Speaker, have left the Chair, will be the fourth Vote of Credit for the present financial year, and it will raise the total so voted for 1915–16 to £900,000,000. It will be the seventh Vote of Credit that has been proposed in the House since the outbreak of War, as there were three Votes in the financial year which ended 31st March, 1915. Those Votes amounted to £362,000,000, and the result is that, if the present Vote be accepted by the House, the total sum included in the seven Votes since 6th August last year, that is thirteen months, will be £1,262,000,000. When I proposed the last Vote of Credit, on the 20th July, I pointed out that the expenditure from 1st April to 13th June, under the previous Vote, had been approximately £246,720,000, or just over £2,700,000 a day. At the beginning of July the rate had risen to just over £3,000,000 a day. The total expenditure to 17th July, the Saturday immediately preceding the date on which my statement was made, was, in round figures, £301,000,000. I pointed out to the House at the same time that in estimating the rate of future expenditure it would not be safe to suppose that the daily rate would not rise further above £3,000,000 a day. There were certain factors, I stated to the House, of a conjectural nature, and I particularly instanced two—first, repayments which it was proposed to make to the Bank of England, and next, the general tendency of the war expenditure to increase, more particularly in the matter of assistance to the Allies. We, therefore, thought it prudent to propose to the House, in view of the uncertainty of these more or less hypothetical factors, a Vote for £150,000,000 which we thought would carry us on to the end of September, and at any rate make the situation up to that date absolutely secure. That was the state of things at the time when I moved the last Vote of Credit.

Let me next enquire how the expenditure for the period ending 11th September, that is last Saturday, compares with the forecast which I then offered to the House. Before I give the actual figures, I must offer one or two words of explanation. The first is that, for this purpose, when we are dealing with gross expenditure, we naturally and necessarily include unspent balances which are in the hands, although not expended, of the Army and Navy accounting officers. But further, in regard to this particular period which has elapsed since the last Vote of Credit, there is an additional adjustment to be made of certain abnormal items. I am obliged to speak with a certain amount of reserve in regard to these items. It would not be in the public interest at this moment to furnish any detailed particulars of them. The House may take it from me that the expenditure incurred is for the purpose of financing necessary operations. I do not know whether that elucidates the matter very much, but the important point is this, that part of the amount which I have so characterised will be repaid, I hope, within the course of the next two months, and the remainder represents advances to provide funds for expenditure which will not come in charge until after now. The House may be assured that sooner or later not only will the details of these transactions be revealed, but that the advances will either have been repaid or that they will represent anticipatory payments in respect of charges which will hereafter accrue. With those precautionary observations, to arrive at a true estimate of the progress of expenditure since the last Vote of Credit, and eliminating therefore those exceptional items, the total deduction on their account to be made from the gross expenditure is, in round figures, £50,800,000.

I will give the figures so as to make the matter more clear. The gross issue from 1st April to 17th July is £314,200,000; the unspent balances up to that date were £13,200,000, so that the net expenditure was £301,000,000. That is up to the 20th July. If I take the gross issues from 1st April to the present day—that will be 11th September—they are £550,300,000. If you deduct from them the unspent balance, and the other special advances to which I referred, the £50,800,000, the net expenditure is £499,500,000, or, in round figures, £500,000,000. We hope that these balances will carry us on to the end of the present month, if no longer. The House will be interested to know what are the average daily rates of expenditure based on those figures—from the 1st April to the 17th July—108 days—£2,900,000; from the 18th July to 11th September—fifty-six days—£4,200,000. That is gross. Now I will give the net. After making the necessary deductions under the various categories of which I have spoken, the net average daily expenditure is as follows: 1st April to the end of June, £2,700,000 a day; from 1st July to 17th July, a very short period, £3,000,000 a day; from 18th July to 11th September, that is practically up to the present day, rather over £3,500,000 a day. That may be taken as being at this moment the average daily net expenditure of the country for the War.

The House will be glad to know, I am sure, under what items, under what categories, this daily expenditure, amounting to this enormous sum in the aggregate, is being made. First, and by far the most important item, is the Army and Navy. From 1st April to 11th September the expenditure upon the Army and Navy was £371,700,000. The next item, which I described in general terms when I was introducing the last Vote of Credit as probably likely to fall within the period for which the House was then voting money, was payments to the Bank of England. I do not think it would be expedient that I should go into details upon this matter, but the House may take it that the repayments to the Bank of England since the last Vote of Credit, up to 11th September, amounted in the aggregate to £50,000,000. As I say, it is not desirable that I should go into details in respect of the advances made to other Powers. I have given now two items—the Army and Navy £371,700,000, and the Bank of England £50,000,000. The next item is loans to foreign Governments, apart from the amounts initially advanced by the Bank of England, roughly speaking £30,000,000, and to the Dominions £28,000,000—in round figures £58,000,000. Finally there are certain miscellaneous items—food supplies, £16,500,000; railways, £1,100,000; and others, which I need not particularise, amounting to £2,300,000, making a total of about £20,000,000. These four added together, the House will see, make up the total which I indicated a short time ago, £499,900,000; or, if you like to put it in round terms, £500,000,000.

Of course, the House will remember, in dealing with the expenditure on the Army and Navy, which is much the largest of the items which make up the accounts, that it includes not only the exceptional and additional expenditure necessitated by the War, but the provision which we should have had to make in any case for the normal military and naval expenditure of the country on a peace footing, which, at £220,000 a day for the period in question, may be taken at £36,000,000. As I have already indicated, the general tendency of the expenditure is upwards. It is very difficult, and I think hazardous, to generalise about the rates of expenditure over comparatively short periods of time; but, roughly speaking, it is true that whereas in the beginning of July we were spending just over £3,000,000 a day, we have during the last fifty-six days been spending, allowing for adjustments, an average rate of over £3,500,000. What are the causes of that advance from £3,000,000 to £3,500,000 a day? The most potent cause is the growth in our advances to our Allies. The next is the expenditure upon the Army, of which the principal factor of increase is the expenditure on munitions. The total Army expenditure for September, including munitions, is estimated at £60,000,000, or £2,000,000 a day. In the case of the Navy, the expenditure rose steadily to the end of June. Since then it has shown a decline, and on the whole we are not disposed to think that the expenditure of the last six months on our Navy will exceed that of the first six months of the year. The estimated Army expenditure for September is £2,000,000 per day, while that of the Navy for September is estimated at £600,000 per day. I am sorry to weary the House with these figures, but it is necessary that they should be in people's minds, and I think that completes the account as far as the past is concerned.

With regard to the Vote of Credit, to which I am now asking the assent of the House, it may be, and, naturally, will be asked, what will be the rate of future expenditure? I do not like to commit myself to anything in the nature even of an approximate estimate, but I think we are justified in assuming that the weekly average, when everything is taken into account, will not exceed £35,000,000 gross. On that basis this Vote of Credit will carry us on, or ought to carry us on, till the third week in November. These are huge figures, which it is difficult to grasp at a moment's notice, and certainly figures the significance of which will not become less upon deliberate and mature consideration. They throw some light on the contribution, measured in terms of money, which we in this country are making to the prosecution of the War. I do not make and I do not invite any comparison. I do not say even now we are doing all that we might, or even all that we ought; but, as attempts are constantly being made to belittle and disparage our efforts, attempts which, whatever may be their intention, have most mischievous effects, it may, I think, be worth while to compare what has been and what is being done first of all in comparison with what I may call our pre-war standing. Before the War our naval and military arrangements were based on these lines, that in the event of war our naval preponderance, clear and undisputed, would secure us the command of the seas, while we should have an Army which, after making adequate provision for home defence and defence of the Empire, as far as it lay upon us here, and for necessary reserves, would be able to supply, on mobilisation, an Expeditionary Force of about 150,000 men.

What is the state of things to-day, after thirteen months of war? If we add to the men who were serving or called up to serve in the Navy and the Army on the outbreak of war those who have since enlisted in both Services you will find an aggregate—I purposely use round figures, and I ask, for the moment, not to be pressed for details—of not far short of three millions of men from first to last who have offered themselves to the country. Recruiting, on the whole, has kept up during the thirteen months to a fairly steady figure, though the last few weeks, I regret to say, show signs of falling off. The total casualties to our fighting forces, as was stated here yesterday, are already over 380,000, but happily the rate of recovery from wounds is such that the net wastage is very considerably less. Further, we have made ourselves liable for advances to other countries which cannot now be much less than £250,000,000 sterling, and which have by no means reached their ultimate limit.

I must add a brief statement—and probably the House will think it an interesting statement—of the work which is being done, and in which already rapid progress has been made, in the Ministry of Munitions. In addition to the ordnance factories which have been taken over by my right hon. Friend (Mr. Lloyd George) he has already established, and there are at work, national shell factories to the number of twenty, and others in course of construction or in process of construction—and I hope the process of construction will not be unduly long—to the number of eighteen. Side by side with those ordnance and national shell factories, there are now what are called co-operative areas, eighteen in number, in which, under boards of management of thoroughly competent and experienced men, lighter kinds of shells are being made in existing establishments. And, lastly, there are no fewer than 715 controlled establishments already under the Ministry of Munitions, and with this result. Adding those controlled establishments to those already owned by the Government there are now more than 800,000 workpeople employed in the manufacture of those vitally necessary commodities under conditions where no private profits are made, or where there is such a limitation of profits for private employers as is prescribed by rules which have been submitted to the Labour Advisory Committee, as well as to the employers, and which have been substantially agreed to. That, I think, is a very remarkable record, upon which my right hon. Friend is to be most heartily congratulated. I have spoken of controlled establishments. "Control," I need hardly say, involves not only a limitation of profits to the employers, but a temporary suspension on the part of the workmen of rules and practices restrictive of production

All that is now needed—I am sure I am speaking the mind of my right hon. Friend as well as my own when I say this—in order to develop and complete this great and necessary work is an adequate supply of labour—of unskilled labour in even larger numbers than skilled labour. And let me say that there is no field of what is called "national service" in which at this moment women can do more to help. There are thousands and tens of thousands of men who would be willing to undertake the work, but who cannot in the national interest leave their present jobs. But if the women will step in, and if, as I hope and believe will be the case, no hindrance is put in their way, either by the employers or by the men, we ought to make, and I believe we shall make, a gigantic and at the same time rapid stride in the solution of one of our most pressing problems. It is in no spirit of complacency, but with a sense of fair justice to our fellow country- men, that I have called attention to these matters. We have vastly exceeded any standard that was dreamed of before the War; but as the War proceeds, it is constantly raising the standard, making new requirements, demanding new sacrifices in men, in munitions, in finance. We have not only to raise and equip armies and ships: we have, as the months go rolling on, to repair wastage, to make good losses, to secure the influx into the decisive theatres of war of a steady stream of trained men, and of an ever-growing supply of the varied implements and new apparatus—to a large extent it is new—of modern warfare, both by sea and by land.

I am not going to say more than two or three general sentences about the military situation. It is, I know, being reviewed in detail this afternoon by Lord Kitchener in another place, and to-morrow the country will be in possession of his appreciation of its aspects in all the various theatres in which the War is being waged. As regards our troops in the West—in France and in Flanders—since the House last met, positions everywhere have been strengthened, large reinforcements have been dispatched, substantial additions are being and have been made to artillery and the most needed forms of ammunition, and there has been a considerable extension of the lines which we have taken over from our Allies, the French. In the Dardanelles, the landing on the 6th August at Suvla Bay, and the combined attack on the Turkish positions which it was intended to support, as well as the later attempt made on the 21st August, have not succeeded in dislodging the Turks from the crests of the mils, though there has been a very substantial gain of ground, and we have now a connected front of more than 12 miles. No words of admiration can be too strong, I am sure the House will agree, for the gallantry and resource displayed by the whole of our Army, and, if I may give one conspicuous illustration, by the Australian and New Zealand troops, throughout these hazardous and arduous operations.

In the Eastern theatre of war the Germans ever since June have been engaged in a determined and costly attempt to crush the armies of Russia, and through an immense superiority, not in the fighting quality of their troops—all the evidence points the other way—but in the quantity and power of their guns and ammunition, they have succeeded for the time being in forcing back the fighting line of our gallant Ally, and in taking several fortresses. But, by all the accounts that come to us, the Russian retreat has been conducted in a masterly fashion. The Russian Army is still unbroken, and, while autumn is rapidly advancing, the German objective is yet far out of reach. The assumption of the supreme command by His Imperial Majesty the Czar is the most significant proof that could be given of the unalterable determination, from the lowest to the highest, of the Russian people. All the recent evidence tends, I think, to confirm the view, as has been said more than once, that this War, illuminated as it has been by splendid acts of personal heroism and of regimental prowess, is to a large extent a war of mechanism, a war of organisation, and a war of endurance. Victory, as far as material calculations go—and material calculations by no means exhaust the field—seems likely to incline to the side which arms itself the best and can stay the longest, and that is what we mean to do.

The situation is a testing one. It calls, in my opinion—if we survey the conditions and opportunities of the past year—both for satisfaction at unforeseeable effort and sacrifice, and for regret at some mistakes and miscalculations. At this moment, at any rate, it does not call for recrimination, which is of all forms of moral self-indulgence at once the cheapest and the least fruitful. No, Sir, our business here and now is to deal with the present—to forecast and to provide for the future. We have to satisfy, as far as we can, the legitimate requirements and hopes of our Allies. What is even more important, we have to discharge the unique burden imposed upon a free people—I would rather say a family of free peoples—by our own traditions, by our own sense of responsibility, by our own standard of duty and of sacrifice. We see to-day more clearly even than we did a year ago, through the mists of sophistry and mendacity with which Berlin has sought to becloud and befoul the international atmosphere. We realise —and when I say "we" I mean the people of this country, of this Empire, without distinction of party or place—we realise with ever-growing clearness the sincerity of our own diplomacy, the persistent, and even passionate, love of peace with which we sought to avert the catastrophe of a world-wide conflict, the imperious call to an inevitable duty which forced us, in the face of every selfish interest, to vindicate our national honour, and to enlist our whole strength in the sacred cause of freedom. It was, and is, a worthy issue. We have staked and shall continue to stake upon it everything we have—our wealth, our industry, our intelligence, the lives of our children, the existence of our Empire. I have never doubted for a single instant —which of us has?—either the wisdom of our choice or its ultimate triumph in the stricken field.

Great issues such as this demand from a great people not only great resolves, but a wise selection of means and methods, a large perspective, the abandonment—it may be—of cherished pre-conceptions, and of personal and party ties—a readiness in every class and section of the community for a sustained and corporate effort of supreme self-sacrifice. One thing which I would deprecate and ban is the sinister spectre of domestic strife. We must all be ready in the common cause to give and take, to take and give. Do not let it be said by our children and our children's children that, at the greatest moment in our history, our arm was shorn of its strength by any failure, on the part either of rulers or ruled, to concentrate upon an unexampled task the consentient counsels, the undivided energy, the unbroken and indomitable will of the British people.