§ Considered in Committee.
§ [Progress 28th March.]
§ [Mr. WHITLEY in the Chair.]
Debate resumed on the Amendment to the Question—
That, for the purposes of any Act of the present Session to establish a Ministry of Ways and Communications, it is expedient—
Which Amendment was, at the end, to insert the words,
Provided that no new transport undertaking shall be established by the Ministry until an estimate of capital expenditure required to complete the undertaking has been approved by the Treasury."—[Colonel Gretton.]
Question again proposed,
That those words be there inserted.
§ Mr. R. McNEILL
On Friday last this matter was under the consideration of the Committee, and those who were present 1096 on that occasion will no doubt recall that there was a very general expression of opinion from all parts of the House that, whether or not this particular Amendment was the best way of putting it, some sort of limitation ought to be placed on the expenditure of the Ministry, and there was a general demand that some sort of estimate should be offered by the Government before this Money Resolution was carried. So general was the expression of opinion that the Minister who was at that time in charge of the Resolution consented to Progress being reported in order that, as he himself put it, the matter might be further considered by all parties, no matter whatever view they might take of the proposal before the Committee. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary has given that further consideration which the reporting of Progress provided an opportunity for. But I am glad to see the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Cambridge (Sir E. Geddes), who is the Minister-designate of this Department, is now in his place, and I suppose we may expect from him some explanation of the very unlimited financial obligations which this Money Resolution will entail unless this Amendment, or something like it, is put in. I do appeal both to the Home Secretary and the right hon. Gentleman that they will now make some concession, at all events, to the very general feeling of the Committee—a feeling which I have great confidence is not less strong than it was on Friday, perhaps in consequence of the fact that there is today a much larger attendance of Members. Any hon. Member of the Committee who has given the most cursory examination to the Bill to which this Resolution refers will have seen that the powers which the Minister will have to exercise are almost unlimited, and there has been in the Press this morning a schedule of some of the powers which, under the various Acts which will be overriden by the Bill now before the House, will be transferred to the right hon. Gentleman. We have only got to examine that summary of the powers conveyed to see the perfectly boundless character of the financial possibilities which this Bill opens up.
It was said by the representative of the Government on Friday, when we were last considering this matter, that it was quite impossible for the Government to give any sort of estimate of the likely expenditure; the only figure mentioned at all by the Home Secretary was £10,000,000 or 1097 £15,000,000 as the possible expenditure, and he said that that was a reductio ad absurdum of the expenditure which would be likely to be incurred. Commenting on that statement on Friday, I said that although that gigantic expenditure might appear a reductio ad absurdum in the eyes of the Home Secretary, I was not at all so confident that it would appear a reductio ad absurdum in the eyes of the right hon. Gentleman who would have the spending of the money. That is really the position which we, who have been taking some exception to the unlimited character of this Resolution, have put before the House, and we are waiting to know what the Government are going to say about it. Several hon. Members expressed with regard to the right hon. Gentleman the Minister-designate in his absence what I am sure they would all be perfectly ready to say in his presence, to the effect that he is a man of the largest possible ideas, in the matter of expenditure and other things. I think the expression I used was that he was a man of very grandiose ideas. He is a Napoleon in administration, and he has been represented to us on all sides as a superman. I have very little doubt that he is, but his expenditure is likely to be superhuman, and it is in order to exercise some sort of control over that expenditure that I and others who have expressed an opinion on this Resolution are anxious to press the Government to put some sort of limit or to give some sort of estimate of the amount of expenditure that we might find ourselves rushed in for in the course of the financial year. The Home Secretary said that to give any estimate was impossible, but I do not think really that that is a proposition that any member of the Government can venture to stand by. During the War it might very well have been said that it was impossible to give an estimate. There, there were certain matters that had to be done as quickly as possible, no matter what they cost, but there are a vast number of matters which the right hon. Gentleman will have in his charge which may be very desirable things to do, which the House and the country would like to see done, but which it may very well be a matter fox discussion whether they should be done this year or next, matters which, however desirable, are in no sense matters of urgency, which ought to depend upon the cost which will be involved, and on the whole financial 1098 position of the country. I am very much inclined to suspect that the right hon. Gentleman will be very impatient of considerations of that sort. I believe him in matters of transportation to be a great idealist. I am perfectly certain that the right hon. Gentleman has visions, visions of what this country might be made by a perfect system of railways, light railways, improved roads and canals, vast systems of interlocked and co-ordinated transportation, by steamers, by motor cars, by rails and so forth, visions which I am perfectly certain the country and the House would be delighted to see realised, and I believe that they are confidently going to place in the hands of the right hon. Gentleman the carrying out of the measures necessary to realise them. But it does not follow from that that we are going to allow the right hon. Gentleman to realise the whole of that vast idea in one financial year, or even to start the necessary measures, at perfectly regardless cost, merely because he sees that vision before him and because he knows that in its proper time and place and according to its proper method he is confident of the support of this House and the country. What I do say is that, that being the character of the right hon. Gentleman, the House and the country ought to exercise some sort of control over the methods which he will employ and the expenditure to be involved from time to time.
A good many years ago I remember there was a story which had great vogue in this country. It was written by the late Dean Farrar and was the story of a very virtuous little boy, and the title and the sub-title of the book were "Eric, or Little by Little." That was a story, as I say, of an extremely virtuous little boy. He had all sorts of virtues, but he had one or two little naughtinesses which had to be eradicated from his character, and if I recollect rightly eventually he became an ideal specimen of British humanity. What I am afraid of is that our hero of to-day will not be so content to go little by little. I am afraid that he will go by leaps and bounds, and it is in order that the House may exercise just that measure of discipline and control which was necessary for the perfect development of the character of Dean Farrar's hero that I think this Resolution ought to be amended in some such way as has been proposed. I am bound to say, so far as the form of this Resolution is concerned, that I am painfully ignorant. I really do not know 1099 exactly what this Resolution means in some respects, and I want to know. In paragraph (b) of the Resolution I see that the Ministry can authorise the payment out of moneys to be provided by Parliament of such sums as may be required to fulfil any guarantee. It is quite well known that the right hon. Gentleman has been rendering most inestimable services in the past to the railway companies of this country, and I think it is very general knowledge—I do not complain of it at all—that the railway company which he has been serving has made a personal grant to him of £50,000 on his parting company with that railway company. I do not myself quite understand the transaction. I should have thought that a grant of that sort would have been in the nature of damages which the right hon. Gentleman would have recovered if he had been expelled by the railway company, but the railway company, I understand, were quite willing and anxious to retain his very great services, but when he severed his connection with the railway company in order to take up a very honourable and important post in the Ministry with a salary which is mentioned in this Resolution, the railway company made him a grant of £50,000. I dare say the railway company knows best what his services were worth, but what I do say is this: the right hon. Gentleman has told us that the railways at the present time are costing the country £100,000,000 a year. Therefore that £50,000 ultimately comes out of the taxpayers' pockets in some form or other, however it may be in the book-keeping of the company. What I want to know, and I am sure my right hon. Friend will be able to tell us, is whether this paragraph (b) in any way covers that payment—whether, in fact, there is a guarantee by the Government of that £50,000 or whether it is covered by the Resolution? I do not know whether that is so or not. I should be glad of an explanation on that point. Apart altogether from that, I do want to impress on the right hon. Gentleman and on the Home Secretary, who spoke on Friday last, that it is quite impossible, as I submit, that the Committee can allow a Resolution of this sort to be carried without any sort of estimate of the cost or any sort of safeguarding of Parliamentary control over the enormous expenditure which this Ministry will mean.
§ Mr. A. SHAW
I rise certainly without the slightest personal animosity against the right hon. Gentleman (Sir E. Geddes), and I am quite sure there is no personal animosity entertained towards him by any Member of this House. I speak as a supporter of this Bill and as one who means to vote for it at every stage, roads and all, even against the wishes of one or two of us who have been engaged in trying to get the Government to take a more moderate view of this Resolution. It was unfortunate I think that the last discussion on this matter was on Friday, and when consequently the great majority of Members here to-day were unable to be present. I listened to the speech of the Home Secretary, and here I may say we very greatly appreciate the fact that the Minister of Ways and Means has seen his way to be present. On the last occasion some of us thought that his absence was accounted for by the fact that the ice was rather too thin, and that the Government were keeping him safely on the bank while we in the House admired the light and graceful gyrations of the Home Secretary. We are glad to see him here to-day prepared, if necessary, to take the plunge. In effect the Government told us on the last occasion: "We cannot form any idea as to how much money we want, because we do not know what we are going to do." That is really a very serious situation, especially at the present time. I really do not know anything of the kind which has occurred since the days of the South Sea Bubble. In those days of the eighteenth century hon. Members will remember that one of the concerns which appealed to the public for subscriptions had in its prospectus this description, "To engage in a secret undertaking which shall be hereafter be made public." That, judging from the very able speech which the Home Secretary made, is an apt description of the present situation. What would be said of any private undertaking which proceeded on the line on which the right hon. Gentleman is asking the House of Commons to proceed at this moment? Suppose they came before the public in their prospectus, and said, "We have no definite plans: we have a general idea and big ideals, but no definite plan and no estimates. We cannot place before Parliament or the Treasury or anyone any estimates, but there is one definite thing we can say, 1101 and that is that the liability of the subscribers will be limitless." That is really the position to-day, and that is the story which was told by the Home Secretary last Friday.
The Minister of Ways and Communications got rid of a great deal of the opposition to this Bill by a very adroit move. He said that he would forego the power to act by Orders in Council, and we were all very pleased. Now we find that certain very important matters are to be carried out without even the minimum of security which Orders in Council offer. We find, for instance, that among other things which the Minister can do without any semblance of Parliamentary control is to establish, maintain, and work transport services by land and water, so that the House will thereby be deprived of any influence whatever on the nature of the administrative action which the right hon. Gentleman takes in this direction. I do not wish to harry the right hon. Gentleman in any way, but I do venture to make this specific proposal. Those hon. Members who were placed on the Standing Committee when the Health Bill was under discussion will remember that some of the points which are becoming very important now were considered then. There the Minister was to take power, and there also there was felt to be a necessity for Parliamentary control. A very excellent Motion was moved by an hon. Member who spoke on this Debate last Friday, and it was accepted by the Government. There are, short of legislation, two methods by which the right hon. Gentleman can carry out his administrative actions, and yet secure a semblance of Parliamentary consent. The first is the method, which I am told he has abandoned, of placing on the Table an Order in Council, when the administrative Act becomes operative unless Parliament intervenes. It is the second method on which I would ask him to be so good as to let us have his opinion. I am quoting from the speech of the President of the Local Government Board in Committee on the 25th of last month. The point which arose there was made in this manner. An Order in Council of a particular kind was invented ad hoc, and I would recommend that to the serious consideration of every Member. I will just quote a passage from the words which were used:An Order shall not take effect until both Houses by Resolution have adopted the same and 1102 shall take effect subject to any modification and adaptations which may be agreed to by both Houses.Here we have a very important Bill which is not going to be considered in Committee by this House, but is going to be considered by a Standing Committee, and therefore this Committee of the Whole House has the right of some sort of guarantee from the right hon. Gentleman, and I hope he will consider very carefully with regard to the great administrative powers which he is taking in this Bill whether there are things which he wants to do which are really of a semi-legislative character, that should be done by Order in Council which shall lie in draft on the Table of the House before being submitted to His Majesty. That would give the House the opportunity of amending and modifying, and would, I think, secure what really we wish to secure by this Amendment—effective Parliamentary control at every stage with a minimum of trouble to the Minister and a minimum of waste of time to the House. I hope my right hon. Friend will consider that. In the situation in which we stand, with this vast Ministry, I think it is a proposal which will commend itself increasingly to the House and Government. I appeal to my friends, especially those on the Labour Benches, to reflect seriously before giving a blank cheque to the Government, and setting up this Ministry without any vestige of Parliamentary control It is really very important that the results of this vast expenditure should justify the expense, and for that reason care and forethought are necessary at every stage, and Parliamentary care is necessary at every stage. It is all very well, and easy to say: "Vast expenditure can be incurred because this is a great and a good measure," but I ask them to consider that every penny of the money which is required to finance this enormous undertaking comes out of the pockets of the taxpayer, and out of that general fund which is available for creating productive industry and employment. Therefore, they in a special degree and every Member of the House ought to keep a stern eye ort the financial position. I think that if some procedure of the kind I suggest had been adopted with regard, for instance, to the case of Loch Doon, if the proper estimate had been placed before the Treasury or if the undertaking first had been subjected to Parliamentary criticism of the kind we desire, the nation would have been saved a colossal monument of public waste. 1103 This House is really the only guarantee the nation has that this vast expenditure will be really productive, and this is the only chance of insisting on its supreme duty, which is to husband the public resources. I go further. I think that in doing so lies the real secret of successful reconstruction, because if the House of Commons does its duty in that respect then every penny which is spent will be productive of public good. But if the House of Commons shirks its duty then we may see in a few years from now the country strewn with skeletons of derelict undertakings, and the country will then sigh in vain for those real reforms which could have been undertaken had the public resources been prudently husbanded now.
The MINISTER (Designate) Of WAYS and COMMUNICATIONS (Sir Eric Geddes)
The hon. Member for one of the Divisions of Kent (Mr. R. McNeill) has elected to bring to this Debate a personal matter connected with myself, and I would ask the permission of the Committee to make a very brief statement, not on the subject. The suggestion which was made, I understand, was that the powers which it was sought to give to the Minister of the new Ministry of Ways and Communications might, inter alia, be used by myself if I was Minister, to cover a payment which the hon. Member said had been made to me by the company which I lately served. He was strictly incorrect in the statement he made that the payment had been made, but I have a written agreement from the North-Eastern Railway Company, one of the terms of which was—it was made before the War—that, in the event of the nationalisation of railways, certain compensation should be paid to me under certain conditions. When I was invited to join the Government, and when the Prime Minister asked me to be the Minister-designate for the new Ministry, it was obviously improper—and I am sure the Committee will see the point—for me to have any personal financial interest in the question as to whether the railways should be nationalised or not. Under that agreement, had they been nationalised, I was advised that the payment that would have been made to me was far greater than the payment I received. Manifestly, for me to have any power to influence or to give an opinion for the Government upon the question of 1104 nationalisation, whilst a considerable financial stake of my own was dependent upon whether or not the railways were nationalised, would have been highly improper. Until I did make that settlement with the North-Eastern Railway Company I never on any single occasion entered the counsels of the Government, or the Cabinet, or any Minister, on the question of railways. As to whether that payment would in any way be affected by the powers I sought in this Resolution, I can only say this: that if by any chance they did come in, I most certainly would have nothing to do in settling the payment. I believe they cannot possibly come in, because it was settled by the North-Eastern Railway Company in their last financial year, and was reported to the shareholders' meeting. The whole question is, therefore, closed.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
Turning back to the Question before the Committee, I think, perhaps, we may as well bear clearly in mind what are the opportunities for judging the finances of the country in connection with the proposed new services. I think, too, that the Leader of the House, from his remarkable knowledge of the House, will not be far off having come to the conclusion that there is a very strong body of opinion here that declines to give these too wide and too sweeping powers to any Ministry. So far, I think, we are all more or less in agreement. I speak as one who is a whole-hearted supporter of the Bill. I have no right to speak for them, but I am quite sure that hon. Members of this House who are members of the Labour party have no idea, in their support of this Bill, any more than I have, of giving a blank cheque to anybody. We are all in agreement that if this thing is to be carried out it ought to be carried out on ordinary, reasonable, business lines. I want to point out to the Committee that the discussion of such a Resolution as this is practically the only opportunity which really exists of exercising the financial control of the House of Commons over great expenditures. There may be other opportunities upstairs. There will be an opportunity upstairs in the course of this Financial Resolution when it comes into the Bill, and an opportunity when it comes down on Report. But now it is, from the start, that as a rule is the opportunity which the House has of controlling the question of financial expenditure on this or on any other Bill. It used to be almost a formal matter. My right hon. Friend 1105 opposite will recollect, long before I came into the House, that the Money Resolution was always passed without any discussion. Of recent years, however, under the pressure of Government business and the use of the Committee upstairs, the Money Resolution has become of real importance. I therefore just want to make that point, that it is of great and growing importance that these Money Resolutions should be most carefully considered by the House of Commons before they part with them.
What is the proposal here? So far as I understand it, it is not necessarily to be settled by this Amendment here at all—though I want to be quite clear upon that. I agree it is extremely difficult, in one sense, on such a matter to show in the Financial Resolution what is proposed. Perhaps in some senses it would do more harm than good. The proper way to amend such a Resolution as this is rather upstairs in Committee than down here. That I agree to. But the importance is that we should get from the Government or the Minister in charge of this measure, or similar measures, some declaration now, and at the regular time, as to what he or they mean to do. So I repeat again: now is the time to get an undertaking from the Government as to what really they are going to do. As the thing at present stands I do not think there is the least doubt at all that they are making the Minister under this Bill a financial dictator for any sum which he may think fit to expend during the next two years on new services. Is the House of Commons willing that that should be done? I do not think it is!
A suggestion has been thrown out by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock Burghs (Mr. A. Shaw) as to what happened upstairs in connection with the Ministry of Health Bill. It was useful there, and it was important. Perhaps what took place there to some extent might lead to financial control here. But that would not go far enough for this matter—of that I am quite sure. We cannot stand still. The next two years will be years which will decide what this Ministry is to be, and how these powers under this Bill are going to be exercised. You Jay down your ground plan of these things and the country will be committed to it. What has been the real practice of the House in regard to the great spending Departments? We know the Army and the Navy have to have Estimates laid The House insists upon its control over them. Take the Post Office and the matter of Post Office contracts. 1106 Whenever the Post Office wants to buy a new post office, or to add to one already existing, the Department has to promote a Bill which goes to Committee. Until these various safeguards have been applied in the matter of the control of Parliament power is withheld from the spending of money. In view of the unknown financial commitments which the Minister may put forward, we should look carefully into this matter. My right hon. Friend is a most able man. He has a great grasp of the whole situation in its vast comprehensiveness. I am quite certain, however, that, with the best will in the world, we will not be able to discharge our duty as the financial trustees of the country if we did not take care to see that he, or any other Minister, does, in a substantial sense, conform to the principle of the safeguards of the House, that this House has for so long insisted upon, before passing any measure for granting money.
The particular Amendment before the Committee can hardly be reconciled with the development of these schemes, as I previously said. It might in practice be found to be very hampering. But what I do most strongly press on the Minister in charge of the Bill, and upon the de facto head of the Government, the right hon. Gentleman for the time being responsible, is that whether they can or cannot accept Amendments to the Resolution a large number of the Committee—whether a majority or not I do not know—are very anxious that there should be a specific, definite, clean-cut undertaking by the Government that they will submit in Committee upstairs some safeguard which shall give due authority over the Minister so that he shall be compelled, before committing the country to vast and unknown schemes of expenditure, to present estimates. We shall thus know where we are going, and, knowing, we shall go on with determination to carry the thing out. That is the point which I venture, with much respect, and with all my strength to press on my right hon. Friend. It is of immense importance to give these unlimited powers, as sought by the Bill, to realise that it is a blank negation of the whole theory of Parliamentary responsibility. Are we going to do that now? If ever there was a time that there should be the strictest economy and most careful inquiry into expenditure it is now.
An appeal has been made to the Labour Members specially to consider this matter. I do not know why 1107 the appeal should have been made specially to us. We have given no indication whatever that we are unmindful of Parliamentary control over finance. We have never indicated in the least that we were in favour of a blank cheque. I spoke on behalf of the Labour Members on the Second Reading, and made it perfectly clear that, whilst we were in favour of the principle of nationalised services, we certainly were not agreed blindly to accept any figures. On the other hand, it is regrettable that the personal side should have entered into this matter at all. I was well aware of the arrangement with the North-Eastern Railway Company. Seeing that it has been raised I may say quite frankly that I did not intend ever raising it in this House, because I knew perfectly that the right hon. Gentleman's regard for his public duty and his public character was a sufficient safeguard in the matter. Seeing it has been raised in an entirely different way, may I say that what I would have desired to know from the railway company was why they could give the right hon. Gentleman this sum of money and could not give the porters a few shillings a week more. At all events that was my method, as distinct from the Parliamentary method of raising the matter. The right hon. Gentleman must be very flattered after the many compliments paid to him as a superman. I am not going to offer any more compliments because the right hon. Gentleman has a difficult task. If he succeeds we will all be delighted. Till then I want to apply myself to the Motion now before the House. My hon. Friend suggests that the Army and the Navy are in a somewhat analogous situation. With the greatest respect to him I am going to submit it is nothing of the kind. Supposing as an illustration under this Bill it is decided to purchase the railways. Supposing the Government come down to the House and say that we anticipate that the purchase of the railways will amount to a certain, amount of money, and in that way they budget for that amount. I put it to the House that that would be a highly dangerous proceeding, for the simple reason that it would hamper their own bargaining power on behalf of the interests of the country.
If they put an amount which they thought sufficient to make a deal with the railway companies or those negotiating for them, they would know perfectly well what 1108 amount of money Parliament had in mind for the purchase. If it was under-estimated they would be blamed for want of foresight in the matter. I think it is a fair debating point to show that this is not analogous to coming down and saying, "We are going to build eight battleships and they will cost so much money." On the other hand, I do think we can get over the difficulty by a guarantee that before there is any expenditure, either for purchase of the railways, canals or roads, this House ought to have a determining voice in the contract and the amount to be paid. I think that is at least something we are entitled to demand, and something which would not interfere with or hamper the right hon. Gentleman in his work. I feel sure he could give that guarantee. I know it is impossible for him to give any figure for an undertaking that he may not take over, and which experience may show is unnecessary. That is something which we are not entitled to ask, but we are entitled to say that if the railways, canals, or shipping are to be purchased, this House must determine the terms of the contract and have the final voice in the amount to be paid. That is a fair proposition and one which could be met from the other side.
I want to say, as far as our party is concerned, we resent the suggestion that we are unmindful of expenditure. During the War I took the opportunity of pointing out how dangerous it was to go on living on borrowed capital. I have repeatedly pointed out to the workers that one essential is to get the trades of this country started and our exports developed. That is the view I hold, and I am not unmindful of my responsibility, and whilst I am whole-heartedly in favour of the general principle of this Bill, and being, anxious to help in every way we can, we recognise the difficulty of giving any fixed estimate, but I believe the suggestion I have made would help us out of the difficulty and at the same time ensure Parliamentary control.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW (Leader of the House)
I am sorry and surprised at the remark made by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. R. McNeill). I am sure he did not make that remark from any sense of personal feeling toward my right hon. Friend. As a matter of fact, I knew of this arrangement, and I would like to tell the House how it strikes me. It was a compromise made by the North Eastern Railway Company, in consequence 1109 of a contract entered into by my right hon. Friend when he accepted the position. As I understand the position it is this, that if under these circumstances he had left the railway company without becoming a member of the Government, he would still have received the money, or at any rate he would have received compensation. I put this to my right hon. Friend opposite, and I do it seriously as something which we ought to keep in mind, that it is not very easy to get competent men to carry on the business of this country, and I think it is absolutely monstrous to suggest that because a man agrees to serve the Government he is to be deprived of perpetual contractual obligations.
§ Mr. R. MCNEILL
My right hon Friend has absolutely mistaken the purport of my remark. I never suggested that there was anything improper, but as this Resolution deals with the right hon. Gentleman's salary in terms, it seems nonsense to talk about bringing in the personal equation. What I asked was, whether this Resolution covered that particular transaction?
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I am very glad to hear what my hon. Friend has just said. I have already stated that I thought he did not do it from any feeling of personal animosity, but I cannot help feeling that a statement of that kind might give the impression outside that my right hon. Friend, in consequence of becoming a member of the Government, was receiving the large sum of money which otherwise he might not have got if he had not taken up that position. There has been a great deal of talk about a superman. The right hon. Gentleman has undertaken to fill the position created under this Bill. It was with the greatest possible pleasure to the Prime Minister, in which I joined, that my right hon. Friend did agree to take this position, and whether he succeeds or fails I wish the House perfectly to realise that it is not his doing that he is in that position, but it is because we, who are responsible for the Government, believe it would be in the highest degree in the interests of the country that we should persuade him to take this position.
As regards the subject of our discussion, I am not at all surprised that the House desires to get some greater certainty than they have got up to now that there should be proper control over the expenditure of this money. There are, however, some considerations which the House ought to take into account at the outset. Undoubtedly 1110 this whole Bill is something which in ordinary times no Government would be justified in asking the House to pass. The whole justification for it, and I think it is sufficient, is what I said on the Second Reading, that, owing to the arrears due to the War, and because of the War, our whole transportation system has been left utterly neglected, and the problem with which we have now to deal is precisely the same as we have been dealing with during the War, and, if it is to be dealt with without delay, we must take a rough-and-ready method. That is the justification for this Bill. That does not mean that my right hon. Friend is to have a perfectly blank cheque in the expenditure of the money. I would like to say that to some people there seems to be no connection between economy and the expenditure of large sums of money for certain purposes. I do not agree. Very often a large expenditure may be the truest economy. In my belief, if we were to allow our transportation system to go on by the ordinary methods of peace, it would in the end be found to be the most wasteful method you could conceive of dealing with such a subject.
The financial obligations of this House have been referred to, and I do not think anyone realises that more strongly than I do. I think they are the greatest danger in front of us at this moment. I have already said that I do not think the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer was an easy one during the War, and I am sure it will be far more difficult now, in view of the problems which have to be faced. Nevertheless, I have faith in the common sense of my countrymen in a case like this. We all see the difficulty of getting money to carry on the Government of the country, and some people would be inclined to say, under these circumstances, the first thing you have to do is not to spend a single penny upon anything you are not forced to spend it upon. I believe this country might be brought to bankruptcy by extravagance, but I am equally certain that if we took that view and said that we are going to neglect altogether these reconstruction problems, and not spend a penny on them, we should be brought to ruin by that policy. That is the standpoint from which we approach this Bill.
The Bill has two distinct parts. The first part enables this new Ministry to prepare schemes after adequate examination and with outside knowledge of the facts for a permanent system of trans- 1111 portation, and as regards part of the policy my right hon. Friend realises that so far as the permanent system of transportation is concerned this question does not arise at all, because every permanent scheme must be submitted in a Bill and receive the approval of this House before it can be carried into effect. The other section of this Bill, and I think it is not less important, deals with the more immediate problems and methods of improving transport that can be done at once and which should be undertaken without delay in order to remove all those impediments which would prevent them being done quickly. It is only in regard to that part in two years' time that the question of this Resolution arises.
I would like to tell the House exactly what is the position. When I was Chancellor of the Exchequer I expressed the opinion more than once in this House that when a Money Resolution was brought in there ought to be a statement made as to the amount involved, and I have always taken that view. I have said that not as a formality, but as a reality. The object of that was not to have a figure as a mere formality, but to compel the Department introducing the Bill to make estimates and calculations as to what they would cost, so that the Department, the Government and the House as a whole should know exactly what financial obligations the Bill involved. That is one thing, but our view is that it is absolutely impossible to put any limit which is the result of anything but guesswork in this case. I can convince the House of that in a moment. What is the kind of statement which my right hon. Friend will give? In the first place, the Board of Agriculture have a number of schemes for rural transport, but until the Department is set up they cannot be accepted. My right hon. Friend could not tell how many he is going to adopt of those schemes or how many will be turned down, or what the amount of money involved would be, and yet I am sure the House would agree that if this Ministry is to be set up at all one of its chief functions would be to try and improve rural transportation.
In the same way with housing. How can he give any figure as to what may be needed for transport in connection with the new houses that are to be set up? He said in his Second Reading speech that one of the economies, the biggest economy, which he hoped to bring into effect at 1112 once would be secured by making general use of private wagons. That means, of course, in some way or other getting control of these private wagons. Of course, they are of enormous value. Very likely it will be that in this period of two years there will be no purchase of them at all and that they will be leased or used in some such way, but it may be found that the most economical method is to buy them, not the whole lot but some of them. How can my right hon. Friend to-day make any estimate of the amount of money that will be required? He knows the total value, or approximately the total value, but he cannot possibly know how many of them he is going to buy or how many will be required for the purpose.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I think the Committee follows my argument. It is impossible to make the calculation. Then take another uncertainty. For four years the railways have done nothing to improve their lines. For two years longer they are to be under Government control and receive the same rate as in 1913. Is it not quite obvious that while uncertainty exists as to what is to be the ultimate fate of the railways it will be very difficult for them to get the capital necessary to do the absolutely essential things if they are to be brought up to a proper standard? It is part of the scheme of this Bill that during the two years this kind of thing should be done. That does not mean that the State is going to spend money, but it may mean that the State will have to guarantee the interest on the loans for this purpose or something of that kind. I am sure that I have said enough to convince the Committee that whatever other method there may be of getting control it is absolutely useless and futile to try to get it by putting in a maximum figure which would have to be entirely guesswork, which would probably be far greater than that which we should spend, and which would give no guidance to the House in the matter. It does not end there. There must be control even during these two years, and the Bill of course provides for Treasury control. It has nothing to do with the point which is interesting the Committee at the moment, and which is of vital importance, namely, that whatever control the Government may have the House of Commons will be left help- 1113 less in the matter—I do not think that would be right for such large sums of money as might conceivably be involved —but I think it would be right to state what is our idea as to the method in which the Treasury control could be exercised. I sympathise with the desire of the Committee to have something put in the Bill, and I have discussed it both with my right hon. Friend and with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. We came to the conclusion, for the reasons which I have given, that it is impossible to give any figures, but as regards the control by the Government, Treasury control, which at any time is not negligible—it is very real when it is not superseded as it was largely during the War, by special arrangements, and I confess that if I were my right hon. Friend I should be afraid of Treasury control unduly hampering me in carrying out my operations—it is obvious that if schemes such as I have outlined are sent to the Treasury to be dealt with by their ordinary officials it will be extremely difficult to have the work properly done. Some special arrangement will have to be made, and what is contemplated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer is that he should secure a Treasury representative competent to deal with these questions, a man of real capacity, who would be put into this Department, who would watch every phase of the financial aspect of it, who would be in no sense under my right hon. Friend the Minister of Ways and Communications, but who would be absolutely a Treasury official, I hope a big official, whose duty it would be to advise the Chancellor of the Exchequer on these matters. At all events, I can assure the Committee that in one way or the other the Government will take care that the Treasury control is a real control, and will absolutely supervise all the expenditure.
I admit that is not enough to satisfy the Committee. It was pointed out in the Second Reading Debate that, taking the Bill as it stands, my right hon. Friend would have power during these two years to initiate schemes, perhaps as big as another Great Eastern Railway. Speaking literally, I suppose that is true. It is obvious that is a power which should not be left to my right hon. Friend or any Government Department. The Government are quite agreed about that. The sole problem, therefore, is what is the best way of retaining the control of the House of Commons in cases of that kind without unduly hampering the work which this 1114 Ministry has undertaken to do. I have discussed it with my right hon. Friend. It is a question which, as the right hon. Gentleman opposite said, can be best discussed in Committee upstairs. The Government really attach the greatest value to this Bill. We think that it is an essential part of the whole of the scheme of reconstruction on which we are acting. We could not accept any alteration which in our view took away the comprehensive nature of the transportation problem or imposed restrictions which prevented the work being done. Within those limits, we are as anxious as any Member of the House to get the Ministry on a proper basis. Perhaps it may be found, when the thing is discussed upstairs, that some other arrangement may be better, but we contemplate in every case of expenditure of a large sum of money on any particular scheme—I put it, say, at £1,000,000, not in any particular year, but upon the whole scheme, submitting the matter to the House of Commons. If one were trying to get away from this obligation, he might divide it into a lot of smaller amounts. That is not what we mean. Wherever there is a scheme which involves as much as £1,000,000 we will, before it is undertaken, submit it to the House of Commons either in an Estimate or in some other way. I can assure the House that it is a mistake to assume that it only applies to Members who are interested in economy. We are very much interested in it, too. We do not desire, and certainly no Chancellor of the Exchequer would desire, to see the control of the House diminished. We wish anything that can be done without impairing the objects which this Bill has before it to be done, and I hope that what I have just said will show that we do desire to meet the House of Commons, and that we are determined to prevent such extravagant possibilities as have been talked of. I hope the House will accept that explanation and allow us now to have the Resolution.
§ Sir E. CARSON
I think the Members of the Committee will agree that the discussion on Friday and the discussion today have been very useful. I suppose I have become an old-fashioned Member, but for myself I do feel the greatest anxiety as to the way in which we are loosely dealing with finance in all these great reconstruction problems. I quite agree with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that on reconstruc- 1115 tion we must spend money, and there does not seem to be any doubt that it will come to a good total; but this Bill, to put it in plain language, means that the Ministry you are setting up can establish, maintain, and work transport services by land or water without any interference whatsoever by this House. That is the way the Bill stood, and you might just as well enact that the Board of Admiralty shall take all steps necessary for the naval defence of this country, and tell them to go ahead, because they must not be hampered as regards finance. It seems to me to be of great importance that the House should maintain its control over finance, for this reason: While a great deal of expenditure may be necessary for the purposes of this Bill, it is impossible that you can incur that expenditure without considering the expenditure of the country as a whole for the year. You cannot say, "This is necessary expenditure, and therefore it must be done." You have to say, "How much can we afford, having regard to necessary expenditure in other quarters?" Therefore, I am extremely glad that my right hon. Friend has taken this matter seriously, and has made what I consider are certain concessions which the Committee may very well consider. The Leader of the House emphasised some of the smaller matters with which my right hon. Friend the Minister will have to deal when the Ministry is set up. We, however, are afraid of those undertakings which come in under the words that I have quoted. There is no question, on the Bill as it now stands, or as it is proposed to stand, that the Minister can run a railway wherever he likes, and that ho can set up such places as Richborough, which has cost a great many millions during the War, and where he or somebody has made permanent provision for some 18,000 men in the magnificent houses which have been erected. I do not know what the future of such a place is going to be. He could, under this Bill, as I understand it, set up shipyards, or he could start a fleet of steamers round the coast. Those are all very good things in their way, but they are gigantic ventures which the House has a right on every occasion to examine.
I, myself, have never seen what is the real difficulty of submitting these questions to the House. Of course, there is a difficulty in making estimates, and knowing at the moment how much you will have to expend, but an hon. Member opposite on 1116 Friday made a very good suggestion, when he said that all we asked was that from time to time the Minister should come to the House and get authority for such expenditure as up to that time he had estimated. I cannot see where the difficulty comes in. There is a difficulty in estimating, but the moment you have framed your Estimate there is no difficulty in coming to this House and asking for a Vote on Account. I am sure the House would at once grant it, and, although I am quite prepared to admit the suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman takes away a good deal of our hostility, I do still hope that in Committee upstairs some even better method of obtaining control by this House may be meted out than is foreshadowed by the speech of my right hon. Friend. What I understand my right hon. Friend to promise is this. There is to be a special Treasury Department within this Ministry, that is, a special representative of the Treasury of high authority, unconnected with the Ministry, in no wise under the orders and commands of the right hon. Gentleman, whoever he may be in charge of the Department, that that representative of the Treasury will be entitled to go in and see all these Estimates and all the proposed expenditure, and to take the matter over and discuss it with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and, of course, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, if necessary, will consult the Government, having regard to the necessary expenditure for the year. So far so good. [An HON. MEMBER: "Will he have power to veto it?"] I understand, of course, that the Treasury official will have full powers; otherwise he will be of no use. If he were merely to be there as a figure head, and had no powers, of course he would be of no use. Before he authorises any expenditure, he will have to go before the Chancellor of the Exchequer and acquaint him, for I assume the Chancellor of the Exchequer will have to budget for it.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I am sure my right hon. Friend understands it. The official will not have the right of veto, but the Chancellor of the Exchequer will.
§ Sir E. CARSON
Exactly what I thought, and what I thought I was expressing. Then, as I understand, any estimated expenditure of £1,000,000 and 1117 upwards will be submitted specifically to this House. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will be open to argument as to whether a £1,000,000 is not too high. Of course, I am not going now to discuss whether it should be £1,000,000 or £500,000, but when this matter comes before the Committee upstairs, I think it will be well worth while for the Committee to consider whether £1,000,000 is not too high. However, for my part I am very glad we have had this discussion. I believe that, according as the Bill receives more and more consideration, and is more and more thoroughly understood, the Committee will find that they will require far more safeguards than have been outlined up to the present moment. But, at all events, so far as this Resolution is concerned, we have received some consideration at the hands of the Leader of the House, and I am very glad the Debate has taken place.
§ Mr. MARSHALL STEVENS
The statement of the Leader of the House has relieved anxiety to a very great extent, and, as regards any further relief, I am quite prepared to leave the matter to the Committee upstairs. I am quite sure the House has no idea as to the extent of the responsibility which they are placing upon the Ministry. The Minister, with a stroke of the pen, might take the whole of the wool trade away from London. The Continental trade could all be brought to railway ports on the East Coast under this Bill. Although on the Second Reading the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Belfast put the question as to the control of shipping, the Minister in embryo stated that there was no intention at all of controlling ships. Under this Bill the whole of the Continental shipping could be brought to one railway port. Then take the Irish trade.
§ The CHAIRMAN
This is not the occasion for a general discussion upon the Bill or the powers given under the Bill. We are dealing solely to-day with the financial aspect.
§ Mr. STEVENS
I was trying to keep myself to that. In each of these cases there will be an expenditure necessary on behalf of the Minister, and I am sorry that you, Sir, should have thought I was trying to get beyond that. The expenditure must be, and will be, made by the Minister. I have only named two or three matters, because I do not wish to delay the House; 1118 but the trade of this country could be upset, the coast-wise trade taken away altogether, if the Minister so desired, by expenditure under this Bill, without this House being cognisant of it. One million pounds is not sufficient. I am prepared to leave the matter now to the Committee upstairs, but I do not want it to be thought that I have reason to be satisfied altogether with what the Leader of the House has proffered.
§ Mr. DEVLIN
The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. R. McNeill), who opened this Debate to-day, seemed to me to have only one purpose in his mind, and that was to attack the right hon. Gentleman the Minister-designate of the Department, because, as he stated, the right hon. Gentleman possessed certain intellectual qualities. He charged the right hon. Gentleman with having too much imagination. I would respectfully point out that if there is one thing wanted to-day in statesmanship it is imagination. He charged him with being a visionary. I should think that if the British Empire wants to get out of many of its difficulties it wants men of vision. The right hon. Gentleman has the imagination to think and the vision to conceive great plans, and, in my judgment, any man in this House, whether he is dealing with big, wide Imperial questions, or whether he is dealing with economic and industrial plans for the transformation of society, if he has these qualities the House of Commons has a right to recognise and appreciate them. I am not here for the purpose of expressing an opinion upon the merits of this Bill. I venture to say there is not a reactionary in this House who is not opposed to this Bill. If it were not for the constituencies everyone of them would have attacked the Bill. My hon. and gallant Friend opposite (Captain Guest), the most amiable' man in the whole House, looked at them in a very terrorising way, and they immediately walked into the Lobby to support this Bill. If I thought this Bill a bad Bill, I would vote against it. If I thought this Bill a good Bill, I would vote for it. The right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Duncairn (Sir E. Carson) and the hon. Member for Canterbury do not want this Bill at all. They did not vote against it, and they come here, and by a Parliamentary subterfuge, and upon a question no doubt important but comparatively subsidiary, I they make an attack upon the right hon. Gentleman.
1119 I am not at all satisfied with the compromise which has been suggested by the Leader of the House. The proposal here, so far as I understood it, was that Parliament should have control over the cost of the schemes which would be conceived out of the large vision and great imagination of the right hon. Gentleman. Instead of pressing for Parliamentary control, you have thought right that there should be a Treasury watch-dog, and the right hon. Gentleman is not to be hampered or encouraged, as the case may be, by the application of informed and intelligent criticism to the schemes which he adumbrates, but some clerk from the British Treasury is to be constantly barking at his heels and preventing him from giving free play to that experience and enlightened judgment which inspires him to bring forward such schemes as he may bring forward in the public interest. I do not think that is a solution of the question. I think it is an insult to Parliament. The right hon. Gentleman first of all stated that this Treasury official would have a veto, and then said, "No: he will not have a veto, but the Chancellor of the Exchequer will have a veto." But, surely, if the Chancellor of the Exchequer sends him there, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be bound to act upon the advice which is given by his representative, who will be continually in the train of the right hon. Gentleman! My opinion is that if you are going to deal with this great reconstruction policy, there ought to have been sufficient trust in the Minister. I do not see why the traditional revolt of Englishmen against imagination, or the application of one's imagination to great conceptions, ought to be a reason why these great conceptions ought not to have a chance. Therefore, because I believe, as an Irishman, in vision, because I believe in imagination as an essential part of our statesmanship equipment—never more needed than it is now, not only in our industrial and economic concerns, but in our great international and Imperial concerns—so far from thinking that the right hon. Gentleman should be assailed because he has imagination, and because he has vision, I am here, the one and only figure in this House, to plead for their recognition.
§ Colonel GRETTON
I much regret that there should have been any personal element introduced into this Debate at any stage. I desire entirely to dissociate 1120 myself from anything that has been said on that point. The reasons for putting forward my Amendments were entirely financial, and there was no other motive behind my action. As a matter of fact, I am supporting the Bill, and am prepared to back up the Government in carrying their proposals through with adequate financial provision. The hon. Member who has just spoken has put his finger on the weak spot in the undertaking given by the Government. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is in charge of the Treasury, proposes Treasury control of one Department by a Minister who is in another Department. The Government may override that control, or enforce control over the Minister in the other Department, but under the circumstances I am prepared to accept the offer of the Government. As regards the second proviso, which I do not propose to move, I am glad that the Government have indicated their intention to deal with it as a Committee point upstairs, and I am satisfied to leave it at that. I quite understand it is the intention of the Government that there should be adequate financial control over large capital expenditure, and that large expenditure on new undertakings should be submitted to the House of Commons. I think the Government concession is a substantial one, and ask leave therefore to withdraw the Amendment standing in my name.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Original Question again proposed.
§ Sir WATSON RUTHERFORD
I have been seventeen years a Member of this House, and every year I have endeavoured to take an intelligent part in connection with the estimates of expenditure. I have always been an advocate of the principle that the elected Members of the House of Commons should have a voice in controlling the expenditure of the country, and, although that was impossible during the War, I still adhere to the principle, and I am entirely unable to see why, even in this new venture, the same policy should not have been adopted. What was there to prevent this new Department from bringing up an estimate of what it was going to spend during the next twelve months, and what is there to prevent it bringing up a supplementary estimate if it finds it has not asked for sufficient money? In past years there has never 1121 been anything to prevent that being done; indeed, Governments have been able to get large sums of money voted for one purpose, and to use them for another, and then get the matter put straight after a full explanation to the House on the Consolidated Fund Bill or the Appropriation Bill. Here we have an entirely new Department, and in inaugurating this new Ministry we are asked for two years, as I understand it, to allow the Minister to spend as much as £999,999 on any scheme whatever, without the sanction of the House. I understood the Leader of the House just now to give a pledge that if the expenditure was going to amount to £1,000,000 or more we should be given an opportunity of expressing our opinion on the proposal, but if the proposed expenditure did not reach £1,000,000 on any one scheme then we should not be given that opportunity.
The Leader of the House referred just now to the question of wagons. I would like to ask a simple question, the answer to which might go a long way towards solving my doubts on this matter, and I will take for the purposes of illustration the subject of wagons. I want to know, if we pass this Resolution in the form it stands on the Paper, will the Ministry in charge of the Department have power to buy £999,999 worth of wagons without coming to this House for sanction? There are thousands of people who own wagons, and I should like to know if the Minister will be able to pick and choose the wagons and to purchase them of whomsoever he pleases. Let it be remembered that it might be a serious matter for some owners of wagons to be deprived of the use of them, and an enormous advantage for other people to be allowed to retain their wagons. There is, in fact, any amount of room for most appalling transactions to take place in this way, and I want to know, if we pass this Resolution, and accept the promise of the Leader of the House, will it give the Minister at the head of the Department power to buy wagons to this extent, to pick and choose some people's wagons and to leave other people in the lurch. Can I have a straight answer to that question?
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
May I ask the Home Secretary, who, I take it, has charge of the legal side of this Bill, whether he will table Amendments for Committee which will carry out the undertaking of the 1122 Leader of the House, so that in Committee we shall have something definite to work upon?
§ Question put, and agreed to.
§ Sir W. RUTHERFORD
May I ask to be allowed to have it placed on record that I am against the Resolution?
It will appear in the OFFICIAL REPORT. Surely the Reporter will take notice of your request.
§ Resolution to be reported To-morrow (Wednesday).