HC Deb 13 February 1917 vol 90 cc561-6

Motion made, and Question proposed,

"That a sum, not exceeding £25,000, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of. March, 1917, for a Grant-in-Aid of the Government Hospitality Fund."


As this comes within the Department of the First Commissioner of Works, perhaps the right hon. Gentleman (Sir A. Mond) will say something about Government hospitality in the last nine months. I do not wish to go into details about banquets and small matters, but I think the House is entitled to know considerably more about this £25,000 and about the big occasions on which money has been expended. These details reach the Comptroller and Auditor-General and the Public Accounts Committee, but their Report is issued so very long a time after that any criticism which is oxered is looked upon as criticism on matters long gone by and too long ago to have any debate. Will the right hon. Gentleman also explain the very unusual practice resorted to in this instance, that any balance that may remain unexpended on the 31st March, 1917, will not be liable to surrender? My impression is that any Government Department with an unexpended balance at the end of the financial year sends it back to the Treasury, and that is a proper regulation. I do not know why the gracious and generous hospitality of the Government, dispensed by the right hon. Gentleman, is to be excepted from this regulation, unless it is wished to pile up a large sum of money to spend on some gigantic celebration on the conclusion of peace.


The hon. Gentleman has raised one or two questions and I will deal with the last one first. I find that the practice has always been that money saved on this Vote is not surrendered at the end of the financial year. As a matter of fact, it is not an annual Vote. No money has been taken on this Vote since the financial year of 1912–13, and we have not in that time come to the House of Commons to ask for a Grant of this character. The reason this arrangement was made, I imagine, was that it is an expenditure very difficult to estimate, and, as the matter is of rather a peculiar character, it has been treated fn this way. The hon. Gentleman very rightly asked me whether I could give him any particulars as to expenditure in the past. I have had a very careful analysis made of the expenditure, but of course it is impossible to put the details before the House. It must be very obvious that a large number of distinguished foreign guests have been received during the War from our Allies, and missions have come here. I think my hon. Friend and the House will agree that we ought to entertain to the best of our ability distinguished visitors to this country, though it increases expenditure from the fund. We had to entertain on the occasion of the visit of the Overseas Parliamentary Association, with whose objects the hon. Member, I am sure, sympathises; and undoubtedly considerable expenditure will be incurred in the current year in view of the Imperial Conference which is to take place, which, of course, is one reason why a larger sum is taken on the Estimate. Personally, I have given a good deal of time and attention to this matter, and my hon. Friend may be assured that, while our hospitality is exercised in a proper and becoming manner, no undue expenditure will be incurred.


I submit that the advisability of making this an annual Vote and surrendering any balance at the end of the financial year should be considered. The retention of this balance is not very satisfactory from the House of Commons point of view. We are here asked to vote the sum of £25,000, most of it to be spent in the next financial year, and perhaps in the two succeeding years. That is not a very satisfactory thing. It would be much better to give a sum of money each year, and. if there be any balance, hand it back to the Treasury. If the sum should not prove enough, then a Supplementary Estimate could be brought before the House in the ordinary way. This is another, though a small, instance of the very slipshod financial methods we have got into in this House. It is not this Government, but all Governments, under which it has been occurring.


I was listening to the Minister who defended the Vote in order to learn whether it included all the money which has been expended on Government hospitality, or whteher other items are to be found in the subsequent Votes. Are we to understand that this sum really does represent all the Government hospitality? An impression prevails that the Munitions Department spends money in entertaining foreign representatives who come over here, and I. should like to know if any hospitality thus expended is accounted for under this Vote. If it be the fact that Grants for this purpose are scattered over the Supplementary Estimates of the different Departments, then it is no comfort to us to be told that this particular item is being carefully watched. I therefore think we are entitled to ask if this is the whole item for that class of expenditure. As regards the question of surrendering the unexpected balance. I would add my voice to that of the hon. Member for Blackpool (Mr. Ashley). I am not sure that it would be wise in the case of some Departments to always insist upon the money unspent being given back to the Exchequer, because such a course might tempt some Departments to spend the money, lest they should not be able to get it voted again. Of course, that cannot apply here; it is quite clear the Government would not invite people to come over simply because they had money available; still I think it is better that if the money is not spent in a particular year it should be handed back, and I am sure Parliament would vote it even more willingly if they found Departments acting straightforwardly in returning unexpected balances.


As far as I know this-Vote does represent all the money spent by the Government in entertaining the guests of this country.


I see that the heading of this is "Class VI., Vote 10." I have taken the trouble to look and find that in Class VI. of the original Civil Service Estimate there were only seven Votes, and I am anxious to know if there is a Supplementary Estimate for Votes 8 and 9. There is another important point, apart from this mere technicality. It has been raised by the last two speakers, and it is whether the Vote includes all Government hospitality. I hold that we ought to have an inclusive Vote for hospitality extended not only to strangers within our gates, but also to our own people. We know there have been a great number of organised demonstrations on the part of the Government to which large numbers of British subjects have been invited. We have had conferences addressed by both the late Prime Minister and the present Prime Minister, conferences to which many people have been invited and to attend which they have received first-class railway passes.


They never invited me.

10.0 P.M.


Those attending the conferences have also received hospitality when they have visited London. I do not say that they have been put up at any of the first-class West End hotels, but there have been miners' conferences and other trade union conferences, not only in London but in other centres, and, in all these cases, liberal allowances have been made to the favoured individuals who, by some process or another, have been selected to attend. Obviously that is Government hospitality. I do not understand how it could be deemed to be otherwise; it does seem to be a strange thing we should have a Vote for Government hospitality, headed "No. 10," for £25,000, if all these items are not included under the heading. Are we to understand that these numerous gatherings are paid for in some way out of the Vote of Credit, and that there is no head in the Civil Service Estimate under which all this expenditure is accounted for? We are entitled to know under what head the expenditure is placed and whether ultimately it will come before the Controller and Auditor-General, so that the public and the House of Commons may be enabled to check it. If it appears under the miscellaneous expenditure, then I fear we shall never have any real accounting in regard to it. If there is to be a special heading for Government hospitality, let it be an inclusive heading; let it cover all the entertaining by Departments whether it be the entertainment of visitors from Russia, France or Italy, or whether the guests be carpenters, like my hon. Friend the Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Tyson Wilson), who sometimes meet Ministers in deputation. All these things ought equally to be brought within the purview of this House, and should be accounted for in the usual way by the Controller and Auditor-General.


There is another item which we might get an explanation upon, and that is what money has been spent by being given to Mrs. Pankhurst. I think it was the Prime Minister who arranged that several hundreds of pounds—I forget the exact amount—should be handed over to Mrs. Pankhurst in connection with one of those demonstrations in which she brought many delightful ladies to London for the occasion. I hope we shall have an explanation on that point.


I am not quite certain, whether my hon. Friend the Member for Lanarkshire (Mr. Pringle) is quite justified in suggesting that all the items he referred to should come under the head of hospitality; it may be advisable, and perhaps wise, on the part of the Government to give details of its expenditure in connection with these matters. I am very much inclined to think that the outlay in connection with deputations from trade unions and labour generally will be found to be expenditure accounted for by the Ministry of Munitions or the Board of Trade, and it very justifiably comes under those headings, because really it is not hospitality; it is business. I have attended a number of meetings at the Munitions Department and the Board of Trade, and I have always had to pay my own railway fares and hotel expenses. I do not suggest that this applies to all those who have met the Minister of Munitions, the Labour Adviser, or the Board of Trade. I do not suggest that everyone has paid his expenses. It is common knowledge, in fact, that the railway fares of many deputations have been provided by the Departments themselves, and no one would say that they should come under the head of Government hospitality. As a matter of fact, I do not think that the people who have met Ministers in connection with the question of supplying labour ought to have the expenses incurred in connection with their visit classed as Government hospitality.

Question put, and agreed to.