HC Deb 18 April 1918 vol 105 cc618-23

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That a sum, not exceeding £151,100, be granted to His Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1919, for Expenditure in respect of Ministry of Labour, Employment Exchange and Insurance Buildings, Great Britain."—[Note: £220,000 has been voted on account.]


This Vote stands in a somewhat different category from those which we have been discussing. The discussion of this Vote cannot be entered into apart from some knowledge on the part of the committee of administrative policy for which these Employment Exchanges are required. It is a most unfortunate fact in our procedure that we have to discuss to-day a Vote for buildings needed by a particular Department before we have been in a position of having had placed before us the Estimates of the Department itself. What I have to say must depend upon the explanation of this Vote or the administrative policy associated with it with which we may be favoured by the Minister of Labour. I do not at this stage intend to occupy the time of the Committee, but I do press that this particular Estimate should not be put to the Vote until we have had what we have not yet had from the Minister of Labour—some exposition of the important administrative policy connected with the Employment Exchanges for which these buildings are required. I surmise that these buildings are being provided with some regard to post-war reconstruction policy, and inasmuch as the Labour Exchanges and similar agencies must play a very important part in the work of reconstruction, I think the Committee is entitled to some explanation of that policy from the Minister of Labour.

The MINISTER of LABOUR (Mr. Roberts)

I had not anticipated that this matter would be raised, because this is not the occasion for an explanation of Departmental policy. We are simply dealing with sums coming under the purview of the Office of Works. I can appreciate the point raised, and perhaps it would have been better if the Departmental Estimates could have been taken before these Estimates of the Office of Works, but that is a matter for which I am not responsible. I can only assure my hon. Friend that, as far as I am concerned and those associated with me in the Department, we would be very glad to have the opportunity of explaining our policy in regard to this matter. It is quite true that some of the expenditure contemplated under this Vote arises out of our plans for demobilisation and reconstruction. Nevertheless, those plans are regarded in the light of permanent necessities of the Employment Exchange system. It is impossible for me to go at length into this question now, though I would have been very delighted to have done so, but, as I have said, it is not my duty to arrange the business of the House. On some suitable occasion I shall be very glad to explain our policy.


The situation which arises out of the statement of the Minister of Labour is really a very serious one This Committee is asked to vote for buildings for particular purposes a very considerable sum of public money without knowing for what purpose these buildings are to be used, or at least what policy is to be carried out in the administration of those buildings. It is quite conceivable—and anyone who has had experience of this question may easily believe it to be possible—that a policy in reference to Labour Exchanges may be embarked upon which this Committee may at a subsequent occasion decide was at least out of question. Yet this afternoon we are asked to vote a large sum of money for buildings, and if we do so we may find on a later occasion that the policy is adumbrated with which this Committee may not agree. In that event we shall be in the position of having authorised the creation of a large number of costly buildings which would have to be scrapped. We have already had experience in reference to other Departments of large sums of money having been expended during the War upon the erection of buildings, with the result that those buildings have been scrapped immediately afterwards, because they were either not suitable for the purpose for which they were built or the policy of the Department itself had changed. I think it is extremely reprehensible on the part of those entrusted with the arrangement of Government business that this Committee should be asked to consider a Vote of this kind in complete ignorance of the policy which is associated with it. I am not sure that I am not in order, but I would earnestly desire to suggest that the sanction of this Vote should be postponed. At any rate, I think it will be our duty to challenge it on the Report stage, unless before we give official sanction to the expenditure we have some detailed knowledge of the policy which is to be associated with these buildings. The question of the Employment Exchanges is one in which many Members of this House, myself amongst the number, have taken very considerable interest. There are at least two schools of thought, or two attitudes of mind, in regard to Labour Exchanges. I am not disposed to question the policy which my right hon. Friend has in view, because on labour matters of this bind I am inclined to trust to his guidance. I am not sure that I might differ from my right hon. Friend in the policy so disclosed, bat as a Member of the House of Commons I am indisposed to put the cart before the horse and give a vote for expenditure of a very large sum of money before knowing the policy for which the buildings are to be used. I do press upon the Government the necessity for some delay before they ask for the expenditure of this money, and that they should give us some idea of the policy which they have in view.


I agree with the hon. Member in the appeal that there will not be this large expenditure for Employment Exchanges which is foreshadowed in the Vote. We know that at least one right hon. Gentleman who has had control of this Department was in favour of reducing the number of Exchanges, and anyone who has gone into the expenditure of these Exchanges will be satisfied that very few of them give us value for the money expended on them. We find that in some places where buildings have been erected or extended very recently that that building is not satisfactory now, and the site in some instances will be thrown on the hands of the Government and a new site required. In the town in which I live we have had very recently a move from one Exchange to another, and a building taken specially for the women's department of the Employment Exchanges, and now we find that this is the place where they propose to erect a new Labour Exchange. Another point to be considered is that at the present time, with the cost of building materials so high and labour so scarce, every Government Department ought to do all it possibly can to reduce expenditure upon buildings. If you took a plebiscite of the organised Skilled workers in this country, there would be a majority of at least 95 per cent. voting in favour of abolishing the Labour Exchanges. The Labour Ministry over which my right hon. Friend (Mr. Roberts) presides is becoming one of the most extravagant Departments in connection with the Government. For instance, an hotel has been obtained or taken in London for the purpose of establishing a Labour Exchange for one branch of industry at a rent of £1,500 or £l,600 a year. That is for rent only, without the cost of the staff and the other expenditure in connection with the Exchange. I would like to know from the First Commissioner of Works whether his Department has any control over the erection of these buildings, or whether, if the head of a Department gets the sanction of the Treasury to the expenditure of money upon buildings, the Office of Works is compelled to go on with the work? I certainly think that the opinion of the Office of Works ought to be taken in connection with the erection of buildings for any Government Department. The Office of Works manage their Department extremely well, and I would like to see them with more power put into their hands. If the Department concerned cannot see its way to economise, the House of Commons ought to see that the power to expend money extravagantly is taken out of its hands.


The position of the Office of Works in this matter, as in many others, is rather an anomaly. The Office of Works has no decision as to policy but only a decision as to execution. Of course, it is possible for the Office of Works to point out certain things in regard to plans, locality, or alteration, or to make suggestions where it thinks certain recommendations are extravagant or unnecessary, and to negotiate with the Department making the proposal. That is done. On this question of the Labour Exchanges, I have had more than one joint conference with the Department of Labour and the Treasury, and it is only right to say that the programme originally put forward was very much larger, and, owing to the difficulty due to the War conditions as to building, it has been very much reduced. Since the War started it must be remembered that the House passed, among other things, an Act enormously increasing the number of people insured under the Unemployment Insurance Act. All this work has to be done under the Labour Exchanges, and a number of other things have been put on them, with the result that the accommodation required by the Labour Exchanges is largely increased.


The greater number of these people will disappear when the War is over.


But accommodation will be required. I only want to point out that we have been consulted, and the matter has received a good deal of consideration by all the parties concerned. I will ask my hon. Friend not to press opposition to this Vote. A good deal of the work is very urgent, and ought to be carried out as speedily as possible. Reference has been made to one question on which I can express no opinion. I have no doubt that a more suitable occasion for discussing the question will arise, and that my hon. Friend will make a strong case from his point of view. Meantime I hope the Committee will allow the Vote to pass.

Question put, and agreed to.