Motion made, and Question proposed,
That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £195,500, 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, 1920, for the Expenses of maintaining certain Harbours under the Ministry of Transport and for grants for Harbours.
§ The PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY to the MINISTRY of TRANSPORT (Mr. A. Neal)
I shall have to ask the indulgence of the Committee if I am not able to deal with this Vote as fully as I could wish, or give the whole explanation that might be required, for I have to deal with the matter at comparatively short notice. Of the items in the Vote the first is £1,500, which is an extra Vote in respect of Holyhead Harbour. The original Estimate was £7,076, and the revised Estimate, for £8,576, I am advised, is entirely due to the recent award increasing wages and certain war bonuses. The only sum included in the £1,500, which does not come under that head, is £100 for a small cutter which was required. Holyhead Harbour is a public harbour and is maintained by the State. The next item called for more careful and detailed explanation. The original grant for harbours was £450, and 1206 the Ministry are now asking for a supplementary sum of £194,450. I will endeavour to put before the Committee the causes of this increase and the reasons for it. The sum of £750 is in respect of disbursements made for revenue purposes in connection with the Montrose Harbour.
§ Earl WINTERTON
Will the hon. Member explain what has been done to Montrose Harbour for this expenditure?
§ Mr. NEAL
The substantial item is the sum remaining, amounting to £193,000, which is wholly in respect of payments made and which may have to be paid by way of loan to the River Wear Commission. That is the river which deals with traffic from Sunderland and on which the port of Sunderland, particularly in regard to shipbuilding yards, depends for subsistence. The River Wear Commission is a public body established under Statute for the purpose of maintaining that river as a waterway. They are not established for private profit, and they have suffered severely owing to war conditions. The imports consist largely of timber for pit-props and the like, iron ore, and paper-making materials such as wood pulp, and the revenue from those sources declined most seriously owing to war conditions. The export along that river was mainly coal, and the restrictions on the export of coal most prejudicially affected the revenue of the Wear Commission. In the course of the year the attention of the Government has been drawn to the fact that the Commissioners had been reduced to a state, if not of insolvency, certainly a position in which they were unable to finance themselves and obtain the necessary funds for conducting their undertaking. As it was considered a matter of first importance that all the transport facilities by river should be maintained, and that our shipping should be maintained, it was decided to render substantial assistance to the Commissioners of the port for the purpose of tiding over their difficulties, and this assistance has been rendered by way of loans. There has actually been paid up to the present a sum of £43,000 in respect of Revenue payments, and there is a sum of £50,000 required to replace the short-term loan issued by the Commissioners in respect of which they were able to borrow sums through the ordinary sources. They have applied for a further sum for Revenue purposes of £35,142, and that application is under consideration.
§ Mr. NEAL
Yes; all these figures are within the Vote which I am proposing to the House. It is conceivable that there may be further obligations which have not yet been undertaken in respect to this commission, and which may call for the advancing of a further sum. That is a matter which it is within the full competence of the Committee to deal with now or later on, but for this purpose we have put down a provisional sum of £50,000. There is one other sum which goes to complete the total, and that is £15,000, which was a grant, and not a loan, some considerable time ago in respect of the South Pier, which had to be built. I do not know that I am able to give the House any further information. Strictly speaking, I think this matter could hardly be said to be within the purview of the Ministry of Transport, but the Ministry has been asked by the Government to deal with the matter, and it is therefore my duty to submit to the Committee this Estimate.
§ Earl WINTERTON
This is rather an important matter. This is the first opportunity we have had since the Ministry of Transport Act came into operation in regard to the taking over of harbours to discuss the result. I should like to ask what Department is responsible for the grotesque difference between the original Estimate and the present Estimate?
§ Earl WINTERTON
There appears to me, on the face of it, to be an unbusiness-like difference between the original Estimate and the one now produced. What I want to call attention to is that in the comparatively small increase in the case of Holyhead Harbour no less than £1,500 is the result of increased wages. Do I understand that since the Ministry of Transport became responsible for the labour Gill at Holyhead Harbour there has been an increase of wages to that extent?
§ Earl WINTERTON
Since the Ministry has taken over this harbour there has been an increase of wages amounting to £1,500, and this seems rather to confirm the fears expressed when the Bill was 1208 before Parliament, that it would result in an enormously increased wages bill everywhere. After all, this is a large increase in a small harbour. I notice the same thing applies to Montrose Harbour. I think we ought to know what exactly is going to be the policy of the Ministry of Transport with regard to this question of harbours. Here we have an isolated proposal to carry out no doubt certain necessary improvements to a harbour under the control of the River Wear Commissioners. I know, and all hon. Members who have a constituency which borders on the sea know, that there are hundreds and thou-hands of cases where money is required to be spent on harbours, and if it were in order I could very easily make out a strong case for money being spent on a certain harbour in my own Constituency.
I do think we are entitled to get from the Minister a statement as to whether we are going to get an opportunity of considering the question of policy in regard to these harbours as a whole. I think the Ministry of Transport policy towards harbours should be considered as a whole. I do not much like one isolated case of a harbour being dealt with by the Committee, because it always presupposes that the Commission in that part of the country have managed to get the ear of the Government while the Commissioners of other harbours have not been so fortunate. I should like to know whether we are going to have more of these Estimates, and whether we are going to have an opportunity of dealing with the whole question of harbour improvements. I also want to know why this additional expenditure was not foreseen at the time the original Estimates were framed. I must express my great regret that the Minister of Transport is not able to be present.
§ 7.0 P.M.
§ Sir S. HOARE
I agree with what has been said by my Noble Friend, but in my opinion I think the Committee are at liberty to discuss upon this Vote the general question of harbours, for this reason. In the first place, the extension is as regards harbours generally and not any specific harbour. Secondly, the discrepancy between £194,000 and the original Estimate is really so great that it constitutes a new Vote altogether. As the Minister of Transport is not here, I suppose it is no good raising the general question of harbours, but in view of what the Under-Secretary has just said, I take it that the Ministry of Transport is taking the responsibility for this Vote. It has 1209 been asked to undertake it is this House, I should like to know who actually has made this loan. Has the Ministry of Transport funds at its disposal out of which it can make loans to particular harbours? I should have thought, if a Harbour Board or if Harbour Commissioners wanted a loan, they would have gone to some body like the Public Works Loan Commissioners and got it from them. It seems to me highly objectionable that a Ministry like the Ministry of Transport, which is not dealing primarily with finance, should be making loans to particular bodies and to particular commissioners. Before we pass on to the next Vote, I would like, therefore, to hear what is the general policy of the Ministry with regard to these Grants. Is this particular case one of many other cases? Is the Ministry of Transport going to make these loans to particular Harbour Boards? Should it not rather be a matter for the Treasury and not one for the Ministry of Transport at all I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to answer that question.
§ Captain W. BENN
I would like to reinforce what has fallen from the Noble Lord (Earl Winterton) and the hon. and gallant Gentleman (Sir S. Hoare). It would be rather helpful to those of us who represent docks and harbours to know what body advises the Ministry of Transport in this matter. Obviously, the hardships that have been suffered by some have been suffered by many. It is invidious that one person should claim special consideration for one port. On the other hand, those of us who represent ports find ourselves in great difficulty when we see that one port is receiving an enormous sum and that the claims of other ports are not being considered. By the diversion of trade to the West Coast during the War, owing to the system of convoys, other ports have wanted to borrow money, and they have had to go to the public—the port that I represent has had to go to the public—and borrow money at a certain rate of interest. What rate of interest is charged to these River Weir Commissioners for the money that is lent to them? I would like the hon. Gentleman to say what body recommends this treatment as between one port and another, so that we may know that all ports receive consideration.
Lieut.-Colonel A. MURRAY
I think the Committee are very much indebted to the Noble Lord opposite (Earl Winterton) for having raised this point. I do not wish to draw particular attention to the case of a harbour in my constituency, only with reference to the matter of principle. There is a harbour in my constituency which in the past has received assistance from State funds. I should be very interested to know to whom the harbour authorities ought to apply in the future It so happens that that particular harbour has suffered damage owing to one reason or another, and the time will come when it will again have to apply to some authority for assistance. It appears to me that an entirely new departure has been created by the assistance that has been given by the Ministry of Transport to the River Wear authority, and it is the duty of the Minister in charge of this Vote to explain exactly what that new departure means and in what sense the Ministry of Transport are to take over from other governmental authorities the granting of assistance in these particular cases.
My constituency is all harbours, all calling for assistance, and I should like to add my appeal to the hon. Gentleman to tell us to whom we can apply.
§ Earl WINTERTON
I beg to move to reduce the Vote by £100.
I regret that I must move to reduce the Vote in order to obtain, if possible, the assistance of the Minister of Transport in dealing with this matter. It is really of great importance, and, as my hon. and gallant Friend has stated, there is another point to which I did not refer in my speech, namely, the policy of the Government in lending money to these Wear Harbour Commissioners, not by way of an ordinary loan, or by means of the ordinary procedure through the Public Works Commissioners, or by a grant from the Treasury, but out of money granted to this Department. I can see no reason for giving this money to the River Wear Commissioners any more than giving it to any other river or harbour commissioners. If I wished to be what is sometimes called nasty, I might draw attention to the fact that a member of the Government is member for Sunderland. I think he might be present to give us a rather fuller statement than we have obtained 1211 from the Parliamentary Secretary on the subject. My real reason for moving to reduce the Vote arises from the attitude which I have always consistently taken, whatever Government may be in power, when there is a question of this kind, that where there seems to be an important point of policy involved the Minister in charge of the Department should be present. The fact that the right hon. Gentleman in question is attending a deputation upstairs is really no reason why he should not be present, or rather it is a reason for not discussing the Vote now, and for taking some other Vote and waiting for the advantage of his presence. It is easy enough on an afternoon like this to treat all these Votes in a light fashion, but the Committee will agree that one of the points most strongly made by public opinion outside in all sections of the Press is that it is the duty of this Committee to scrutinise very closely proposals for increased expenditure put forward on behalf of Government Departments. Although the sum may not be large, there is a great discrepancy between the original Vote and the money now asked to be voted, and there is the peculiar fact that it applies only to one harbour, although, as has been pointed out, there are many other harbours which are equally entitled to look for assistance. These circumstances, I submit, entitle us to demand the presence of the Minister.
§ Sir S. HOARE
The Committee find themselves in some difficulty. Nobody wishes to blame the Parliamentary Secretary for not being in a position to give an answer to these questions. We all know that he has only quite recently been called to his office, and we are quite certain from the ability that he has already shown that if he had been there longer he would have been ready with an answer at once. This is really a question of some importance. My Noble Friend has not raised it in the least with any desire to delay for one moment the progress of these Supplementary Estimates. It does seem to me to be a matter of extreme danger that any big Government Department should be in a position to make grants of this kind to particular localities. It is something that has happened time and time again, particularly in countries like France and Italy, where particular constituencies through their deputies have throughout the whole of a session lobbied in order to get grants. 1212 It would be calamitous if that kind of thing were allowed to happen in the United Kingdom. This really seems to me to be a case in point, a case where a particular locality, for some reason which we do not yet understand, is going to receive preferential treatment. If it gets about that that is the way that the Ministry of Transport are going to carry out their policy, the life of the Minister of Transport and the life of every Member of Parliament will be made a perfect burden. Every Member day after day will receive demands from his constituents to get a loan of this kind from the Ministry of Transport. It is because of that I am most grateful to my Noble Friend for having raised this question. We ought quite clearly to know what is the policy of the Ministry of Transport, and we ought upon this, the first occasion that we have had an opportunity of discussing the question, to protest against this kind of hole and corner loan to a particular locality.
§ Mr. HOGGE
There is another point which should be mentioned. I am in favour of the reduction of this Vote for the reasons given by my hon. Friends opposite. At the moment I fail to remember—perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary can tell us—upon which railway line Sunderland is situated. One seems to have a distinct recollection that it is on the North-Eastern system, and, if that be so, there is another affinity between the Grant for Sunderland and the fact that we have an Under-Secretary coming down this afternoon and supporting a Grant for the constituency of another Under-Secretary. The real weight of the argument advanced by my Noble Friend is that everything that has been said by the Government itself, to leave alone outside criticism, on the ground of economy entitles us to the presence of the Ministers concerned. This is the fourth Estimate that we have had this afternoon and only one of the Ministers concerned, the Minister of Pensions, has been on the Treasury Bench. The other Votes have been in the hands of subordinate Ministers. In the last case the Minister in charge quite frankly said that he knew nothing about the Vote when ne got up to explain it. In this case my hon. Friend only got his material a short time ago, but he has made very good use of his time. Let us consider the three reasons why Sunderland is to get this particular Grant. If I remember rightly, 1213 my hon. Friend opposite said that there were three things which used to be imported into the estuary of the Wear, namely, pit-props, iron ore, and wood pulp for the manufacture of paper. On account of the War the revenue from these three articles has very materially reduced. There are several ports in the North-East of England with accommodations for ships carrying every one of these materials, and the distance by railway, say, from Newcastle to any other portion of the country where those goods are particularly required is quite as short, and in many cases shorter, than the railway distance from Sunderland. If, therefore, this Grant is being made because of three particular articles of import this particular estuary has lost in revenue, then obviously the same argument applies to every port, North, East, South, and West, that has lost revenue because things that used to come in have not come in during the War. If that be so, there is great weight in the argument that it is a hopeless way of dealing with this class of expenditure to deal with it by Supplementary Estimate instead of bringing it forward for review in one Estimate, so that a whole day can be devoted to it and the question of policy taken in hand. I think the protest made by the Noble Lord is important enough to carry it into the Division Lobby. First of all there is the question of the absence of Ministers; secondly, there is the important point that this is new expenditure; and, thirdly, it is an attempt to do something without the policy which should govern these things being considered. If the Noble Lord goes to a Division I intend to vote with him.
§ Mr. NEAL
I make no complaint whatever, indeed, I rather welcome the request of hon. Gentlemen that, in accordance with custom and practice, the proper Ministers should be in charge of the Estimates under consideration. I desire, too, to thank my hon. Friends for the courtesy they have extended to me personally. But the fact is that neither the Minister nor myself knew that these Estimates were coming before the Committee to-day.
§ Mr. NEAL
May I be permitted to proceed? My task is sufficiently difficult without it being made more so by these interruptions. I repeat the fact is that neither the Minister nor myself knew that these Votes were on the Order Paper for to-day until quite late, and my right hon. Friend was unable to arrange to be present. I trust that that explanation will satisfy the Noble Lord, and I hope be will accept it and not press the Motion for the reduction of the Vote. May I add there is no question of general policy involved in this Vote? Certainly my right hon. Friend would desire to take the House fully into his confidence and ask for its support and submit to its judgment on any question of general policy dealing with any part of the work of the Ministry of Transport. In this particular case a public body found itself in financial difficulty, and the Government bad to consider what line it was to take. Since this Debate has been proceeding I have been able to go a little further in the papers at my disposal, and I find that this question arose so far back as the year 1915 as a Board of Trade question, and certain advances were made and were carried, as I understand, on a Vote of Credit. It is therefore not a question of the policy of the Minister of Transport, who has only quite recently been installed in office under the Transport. Act. I hope hon. Gentlemen will accept this as being a really exceptional case in which it was necessary to give financial support to an undertaking which very urgently needed it. My hon. Friend opposite (Captain Wedgwood Benn) asked as to the rate of interest charged. It is 1 per cent. above the bank rate. I do not know that there is any further point that has been raised in the course of the discussion. At any rate, I hope I have omitted none, and trust the Committee will allow us now to take this Vote.
I accept unreservedly, of course, what my hon. Friend says about the difficulty in which he finds himself personally. But I think that is hardly a sufficient reason for asking this House to accept this Vote now. As far as I can understand from the explanations which have been given—explanations much more satisfactory from the point of view of personal character than of policy—in the course of some past years advances have 1215 from time to time been made to a particular port authority. My hon. Friend said that the Minister of Transport was not responsible for the policy of making the advances, but that they were made by the Board of Trade. Apparently these advances began as far back as 1915.
What I do not understand is whether we are now asked to sanction advances which were made in 1915, 1916, 1917, and 1918. We have already bad a debate on another question in connection with the Foreign Office Vote, of which, unfortunately, all the Foreign Office knew was that it was authorised expenditure which should have come in in the last financial year. As far as I can see we are now asked to sanction an Estimate which should not only have come up last year, but should have formed part of the Estimate for the last four years. If that is so, I think we are entitled to some explanation from the hon. Gentleman. Naturally he is unable to give it. But we certainly ought to hear from somebody on what policy these advances have been made. We have had a good many debates lately in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer has appealed to the House to assist him in scrutinising most carefully every item of expenditure and in securing economical and efficient administration. Here is a typical case in which such close scrutiny should take place, and the amount involved is a fairly substantial sum even in these days. As has been pointed out by one of my hon. Friends, the original Estimate was only £450, whereas the revised Estimate is £194,450. I would submit that the reasonable course for the Government to pursue—and I will say nothing as to that piece of staff work which sent the wrong Minister to deal with the Estimates—is to withdraw this Estimate at the present moment and to put it on the Paper at a time when Ministers are able to give more explanations than they can apparently at present.
§ Mr. R. RICHARDSON
It is with some reluctance I speak on this matter. I do not in any way wish to condone the delinquencies of Ministers. I do not represent the port of Sunderland, but I know a good deal about it, and I am sure that the money which has been advanced was absolutely essential for the development of 1216 Sunderland. Up to the present that has been a shipbuilding port, but when there is any slump with regard to shipbuilding then Sunderland is absolutely in poverty. I remember in the year 1906 practically the whole of the workers of Sunderland were in receipt of allowances from the rates, and if by granting this money it was possible to prevent a repetition of that and to assist the development of Sunderland, I believe the policy was well adopted. In my opinion Sunderland can be developed on proper lines, and I trust the Minister will help it in that way. There are many industries that would be of immense importance to vast numbers of people who are living in the country immediately adjoining the port, if only assistance can be given for the development of the place, and I have, therefore, risen to express the hope that the Committee will allow this Vote to go through, because of the absolute necessity for something to be done in the interests of that part of the coast.
§ Mr. HOHLER
I have listened with interest to this Debate. I do not agree with what my hon. Friend has said in regard to this Grant. I do not think it is a Grant to a harbour at all. It is really a Grant or a Loan made to the Commissioners of the River Wear. I do not know the circumstances of the case, but from my experience the duty of Commissioners in regard to rivers when they are navigable is to dredge, cleanse, and scour them. I cannot gather from what has occurred in this Debate that we are really asked to make a Grant for the harbour. It is quite true it is so described in the Estimate, but from all I can gather it is simply a Grant to the Commissioners of the river, and that is a totally different thing. I do not understand, either, that these Commissioners have any powers with regard to any harbours but in connection with their dredging and scouring of the river and maintaining locks they have a right to levy certain tolls upon traffic passing up the river. I want to know what is the real nature of this Grant, and I will put this further question. Why on earth does it appear in an Estimate presented by the Minister of Transport? What has it to do with that Minister, and what right has he to make Grants to River Commissioners? No doubt a navigable river is a highway, but I know of no power in the Transport Act to make Grants to River Commissioners. I can recall no Section which gives any power to do any such thing, and 1217 I would like my hon. Friend to explain under what provision of the Act this money has been granted.
§ Mr. NEAL
I think, perhaps, I shall do what evidently the Committee desire if I say at once that I am advised there is no necessity for this Vote to be proceeded with to-night, and, in view of the demand for greater information than I can give with certainty or accuracy, I ask leave to withdraw the Vote.
§ The CHAIRMAN
In order to do that it will be necessary for the Noble Lord to withdraw his Motion for the reduction of the Vote.
§ Earl WINTERTON
The whole object I had in view when I moved this Amendment has now been obtained. I moved it in order that we might have an opportunity of discussing the Vote with a Minister present who would have the necessary information at his disposal. As I and those who agree with me have won hands down, I have great pleasure in asking leave to withdraw my Amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Original Question again proposed.
Motion, by leave, withdrawn.