HC Deb 20 March 1919 vol 113 cc2247-51

By leave of the House I will make a statement which I promised with regard to the motor repair depot at Slough. I have now had an opportunity of considering a special report which I told the House I had asked Sir James Stevenson, the new Surveyor General of Supplies, to make for me on the present position of the Motor Depot at Slough. I have also studied to the best of my ability the official papers connected with this subject, including a recent report by Sir Benjamin Johnson. During the War the Mechanical Transport Department of the War Office were providing spare parts not only for the Army but for all the large Government Departments using motor vehicles. This service necessitated us using a large storage accommodation for the very large quantities of spare parts and components, which I am advised are at present of a value, excluding motor vehicles, of over £15,000,000. These are housed at present in a large number of separate and most unsuitable depots in London, which in manycases have been commandeered under the Defence of the Realm Regulations. For the use of these premises we are paying nearly £50,000 a year, and the owners in every case are protesting against their Continuous compulsory detention The need of a central establishment for the storage of spares in addition to motor vehicles therefore did not disappear when the Armistice was signed. On the contrary, in some respects it became even more acute. Existing depots in London are being required by their owners, and the large depots in France are, of course, being evacuated and their contents brought home.

For these reasons, my predecessor, Lord Milner, in the middle of December last, on the advice of Lord Inverforth, who then occupied the position at the War Office now filled by Sir James Stevenson, sanctioned a new contract transferring the work from the Works Department of the War Office to Messrs. McAIpine, in order that the construction of the Slough depot should be pushed forward with the greatest speed and with improved methods. There is no doubt that a marked improvement has been effected and that progress has become rapid. Shortly before this decision was taken, it had been found possible materially to reduce the scope of the original scheme by eliminatingsome of the buildings at a saving of £136,000. Lord Milner's policy in December was to reduce the extent of the demands and accommodation and to accelerate the completion of these operations, which were not less but, indeed, more necessary in the best interest of the country. I am further informed that the estimate for the complete scheme prior to the reduction, excluding land, was £1,750,000, since reduced to about £1,600,000. The total liability incurred up to 6th March, 1919, which is the latest date up to which I have been able to obtain a report, is approximately £1,100,000, of which rather more than £600,000 has been actually spent, leaving an outstanding liability of nearly £500,000. If the whole scheme were abandoned now, I am advised that about half of this outstanding liability might be saved. Thus a total probable dead loss of about £900,000 would be incurred and a further payment of £700,000, plus the cost of the land, would be avoided. The choice which is therefore presented to me is to throw away nearly £1,000,000 without any result at all and to remain burdened with a heavy rental of the present inconvenient storage accommodation for the £15,000,000 worth of spare parts and components, or, on the other hand, to carry the modified scheme to its proper conclusion and secure for the Government an invaluable and indispensable central establishment for the storage and handling of spare parts and motor vehicles.

I do not believe there can be any doubt whatever as to whichof the two courses is the right one. Both Sir James Stevenson and Sir Benjamin Johnson, after quite separate investigation, are of opinion that it would be folly not to complete the work. Lord Inverforth, who is himself an expert, who was Lord Milner's responsible adviser and who has been closely connected with this undertaking, most strongly endorses this view. In his opinion, and in that of his advisers at the Ministry of Munitions, the functions hitherto discharged by the War Office of controlling the pool from which other Government Departments using motor vehicles have drawn their supplies of spare parts and components should, now that the War is over and military interests are no longer paramount, be transferred to the Ministry of Supplies. The Ministry of Supplies ought in this as in other directions to become the common service Department from which not only the War Office, but the Post Office, the Board of Agriculture and other Departments will draw their motor supplies. Slough Depot, when completed, will be adequate, but not more than adequate, for this purpose, and will be incomparably better adapted for the purpose.

These conclusions have been accepted by the Cabinet and embody the policy which the Government intend to carry out. The Ministry of Supplies will therefore take over the charge and superintendence of the work, and the work will be pressed forward to its conclusion with all possible speed on commercial lines. The Leader of the House further authorises me to add that if the House desires to debate this matter, an opportunity will be provided at an early date, and, further, if after the Debate the House is still generally desirous that a Select Committee should be appointed to inquire intothis subject, the Government will agree and will take the necessary steps to set it up. It must be understood, however, that no interruption of work will be permitted, as the completion of this depot is an important matter.


Of course now is not the opportunity for any comments at all upon the statement which the right hon. Gentleman has made, but I would suggest that the reports to which he has alluded should be accessible to Members of the House, and that the subject should be one of those which we might debate next Thursday. The Leader of the House has asked us to intimate what subjects we consider sufficiently important for discussion on that day, and I therefore suggest that we should have next Thursday for this subject, and meanwhile the reports to which my right hon. Friend has alluded should be accessible to hon. Members.


Can the right hon. Gentleman state what the cost of the land is?


The land is to be taken over under the Defence of the Realm Regulations, and it is a matter for regular procedure.


How much, if anything, has been included in the figures mentioned for the sums allowed to the contractors for their services?


I do not think that is material. The general scope and merits of the argument I have submitted to the House, but I will find out exactly what the position is, andit is certainly a matter which could be referred to in the Debate if the Debate takes place. I do not think I am prepared to lay these reports. They are very brief reports for my own personal information and for the information of Lord Inverforth. They are not in the nature of a report of a Committee; they are simply advice as to what is best to be done. I do not think it will facilitate the transaction of Government business if such reports wore to be called for. I am perfectly prepared to defend this matter and debate it if it is raised in the ordinary course.


If we do not have the reports we shall be fighting in the air again. We shall only be making statements on outside information which we pick up from the Press. The only way out of it is an inquiry held in public.


As regards the question put to me about time, it is obvious that if there is to be a Debate and the work must clearly go on while the subject is under discussion, the earlier the Debate takes place the better. Therefore I shall be quite ready to have the Debate take place on Thursday.


Before Sir James Stevenson and Sir Benjamin Johnson made their reports, did they have their attention drawn to the last Report of the Select Committee on National Expenditure?




In putting down the Vote on which the question of the Slough Depot can be discussed, can the Vote be put down so as to include the national shipyards at Chepstow?


I think that one subject of that kind ought to be enough for one day. In any case, I think it would be better to arrange it in that form. All I wish to do is to give a day as early as possible. It must be one of the allotted days I have undertaken to give to the House.