HC Deb 21 February 1919 vol 112 cc1335-40

Considered in Committee.


Motion made, and Question proposed, That it is expedient to authorise the issue of a sum, not exceeding £120,000,000, out of the Consolidated Fund to the Civil Contingencies Fund, and to make further provision in connection therewith.


The Committee is aware that when any Bill is introduced containing a charge upon public funds a Money Resolution of this nature has to be introduced and passed through Committee and Report stage before the Bill can be circulated and introduced. The stage is generally a formal one, but the amount mentioned in this Resolution is very large, and the Bill itself is one of a peculiar and temporary nature, and so it is only fitting that at this stage I should say a few words to explain the necessity for it, leaving further details to be discussed when the Bill is before the House. The Government decided some little time ago that there should be no more Votes of Credit, and I am quite sure that met with general approbation in all quarters of the House. It was felt that the sooner we could return to the usual practice of gross Estimates the sooner the House of Commons would be able to resume that financial control over business which we all feel to be so desirable. But during this coming financial year there will be a large amount of payments which will have to be made, but the exact amount of which and the exact time at which they fall due cannot possibly be foreseen, and on those grounds it has not been practicable to include them in the Estimates. It is therefore necessary, as there is no Vote of Credit to fall back upon, that some arrangement should be made to provide a banking account for the country, so that these accounts can be met, and the way that seemed most convenient was to give such a fund to the Civil Contingencies Fund as would meet every possible obligation which might arise, and to include in the Bill the strictest regulations for the repayment of all the advances by a certain date, the date that is fixed for the last repayment being a date not later than 30th September next year. I shall see that a minute of the expenditure as it goes along is laid before the House of Commons. The class of liabilities for which we have devised this method of making payment falls under several heads. There are payments in regard to food, payments for wheat, for sugar, and for bacon, and there are payments connected with the Ministry of Shipping and the Ministry of Munitions, payments for the hire of ships and payments which may become due in matters of compensation for cancellation of contracts, and payments which may become due in the winding up of contracts where certain amounts of finished goods may still have to be taken. More than that, there will probably be considerable sums to be paid on account of materials purchased in connection with the housing schemes of the Government. It may be that such payments will arise before the Estimates can be got through this House for the Local Government Board in which these charges will appear—payments for the raw materials of houses. It may very well be that nothing like the sum I have put in this Financial Resolution will be needed. In every case there is no final payment by the Civil Contingencies Fund. In each case it is merely a temporary advance, which will be repaid either when the articles paid for are sold and the purchase-money is obtained or when the Government Department whose Estimate we may have anticipated have had their Estimates passed and will be in a position to repay the amount.


I quite agree that this is not to be taken, as has sometimes been, sought, as an opportunity for a long discussion. Sometimes it has been endeavoured to bring it almost up to the level of the Second Reading Debate on the Bill which is to succeed the Resolution upon which it is founded. The Government is asking power to pay £120,000,000 into the Civil Contingencies Fund. My hon. Friend has, with the frankness which always distinguishes him, told us how it is proposed to handle that money, in transactions in connection with wheat, sugar, bacon, shipping, and housing. I should like to know what opportunity will be given to the House to discuss those questions, and the whole question of Government trading and the control of these vital factors in the nation's physical existence. It is obvious that the whole matter is one which has been exciting the very greatest attention in the public Press and in public discussion, and the time, surely, has arrived when this House is entitled to know on what lines the Government is going in this matter! Nothing can be better than publicity and frankness, because I am quite certain, no underhand game is being played, or anything of that kind, and the greatest asset the Government can have is just to let the people know, and I am certain the people will back them if they know what the facts are, and even what the difficulties are, because they know what they have to struggle with. I would ask whether we are going to have on this a fair opportunity of discussing and knowing what the Government is doing and proposes to do?


The point the right hon. Gentleman has raised is perfectly fair. Of course, when you first hear this scheme explained, it seems very novel, but I am sure he understands that this is a temporary substitute for a Vote of Credit. With regard to a full discussion on such subjects as he mentioned, there will be a full opportunity of debating them at length on the ordinary Estimates for the Food Department and the Shipping Department, and so forth. I shall be even more relieved when he can be when the time comes if we can bring to a close all these methods of finance, and we shall be in a position to get into some kind of shape the trading accounts which have been carried on. My right hon. Friend, I am sure, quite understands that all the articles which we have to purchase by the banking system—if I may use such a phrase—are all articles of absolute necessity for this country, and all required in war time with the single exception, I think, of any money that may be required to pay for the raw materials of housing before the Local Government Board Estimates can be got through. It is quite possible that there may be no need to come for any advances, but my right hon. Friend knows the importance of getting on with houses in the country, and it might easily be that the Government were in a position where they might have to pay for a very large quantity of bricks or timber by cash transactions before Parliamentary time had allowed us to get the Estimates in which provision is made for these materials in the ordinary course. But my right hon. Friend will have every opportunity on the Estimates to discuss all these subjects.


Might I make a suggestion?




One knows that these Estimates are going upstairs in the first place, and are to be dealt with, as was pointed out yesterday and the day before, with no publicity at all. That is the first instance of the danger I pointed out. They can only be dealt with in public if they are taken on the floor of the House, either in Committee or on Report. The Report stage must be weeks hence, and the question is urgent and imminent now. This is my suggestion. Will the Bill to which my hon. Friend has referred be drawn in such terms that on Second Reading it will admit of discussion—not fractious, but of a really useful character—on this matter, which is exciting so much public attention at the present time? An early opportunity should be given for this House and the public to know what is being done, so that they may have an opportunity of backing the Government in any measures they are taking for meeting the very difficult situation with which they are faced. Give us and the public an opportunity, not merely of criticising, but of knowing what action, and supporting any action, the Government are taking for the public good.


I think, perhaps, it might hasten discussion if I were allowed to say a word. As I understand my right hon. Friend's point, it is not that he objects to this proposal, but that he wants to be assured that the House will have an opportunity of discussing the matter. Of course, under a Vote of Credit, which would be the alternative, the House would have an opportunity, if it chose, in the same way as on the Second Reading of this Bill, which is drawn very widely. Every one of these subjects can be discussed at length. Whether or not the right hon. Gentleman will take the opportunity is another thing, but the opportunity will be given.


I wish to ask my hon. Friend whether this Contingencies Fund is available for claims for goods supplied to the Admiralty, War Office, and Ministry of Munitions?


What sort of goods do you mean?


Goods that have been used—steel goods and materials for use for the War Office, Admiralty, and Ministry of Munitions.


The Vote is not included in this Fund. It will come on the Estimates.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolution to be reported upon Monday next.

The remaining Orders were read and postponed.

Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 3.

Adjourned at One minute after Two o'clock.